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Walkability: How Does It Work?

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If you're searching for a new home, odds are you've come across the term "walkability" as a desireable property feature. An important concept in sustainable urban design, walkability is measure of how walking-friendly an area is to a resident.

More and more studies are revealing the ways walkability results in important benefits to our health, the environment, the economy, and our communities. It makes sense — before cars and bicycles came around, walking was the only way to get from place to place over land without help from animals like horses or sled dogs. Humans have evolved to walk over thousands of years, and it's a natural activity.

But how do developers create walkability, and how is it scored? Let's take a look.

What Is Walkability?

Walkability is defined as "the extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area". Cities in the early 1900s were often walkable by default, but cars soared in popularity during the post-war economic boom, resulting in "car-first" city planning. It wasn't until decades later that residents and city planners started to see the serious consequences of high vehicle use: pollution, accidents, noise, and other concerns. Multi-unit "middle" housing (duplexes, large apartments, courts and other "in-between" strata), which had been prevalent through the 1940s, also declined with the rise of the car and suburban sprawl.

As concerns grow and research has improved, demand has increased for urban neighbourhoods with "walkable" features that enable residents to carry out necessary daily tasks without the use of a car. Some of these features include (but aren't limited to):

  • Densely connected streets
  • Building accessibility and safety
  • Residential density (residential units per area of residential use)
  • Presence and quality of footpaths, sidewalks, and other pedestrian rights-of-way
  • Safe traffic and road conditions, including buffers like bike lanes and planter strips
  • Frequency and variety of buildings near the majority of homes
  • Spaces and signage that prioritize people over cars, such as playgrounds
  • Easy access to quality public transit
  • Minimal traffic noise and air pollution
  • Transparency (which includes amount of glass in windows and doors, orientation and proximity of homes, and buildings to watch over the street)
  • Wind and sun conditions

City planning professors Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero condensed most of these features into the "5 D's" of human-built environments: Density, Diversity, Design, Destination accessibility, and Distance to transit. The 5 D's heavily influence a neighbourhood's walkability and the residents' decision to walk or not (although other factors like income, age, ethnicity, education, and having children can also influence a household's decision to walk vs drive).

Why Is Walkability So Important?

Recent studies have shown that walkable areas have health, environmental, and economic benefits for the people who live there:

  • High walkability scores correlate with more physical activity and lower BMI — the average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 6-10 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood, reducing the risk for obesity, heart attacks, and other health concerns.
  • The use of less cars drastically decreases carbon emissions, improving local resident and environmental health and limiting contributions to climate change. Waiting in rush hour traffic jams and searching for parking spots becomes a non-issue.
  • Residents can save money by not having to pay for the purchase and upkeep of a car, including repairs, gas, parking, and other expenses. This eliminates the second-largest expense for many households.
  • Cities also save money, and see economic growth as well when walkability is increased. Land use is more efficient, public health improves, city services and transit become more profitable, residents spend more money locally, crime decreases, and new jobs are created.
  • Community and social interaction is higher in walkable cities: Populations are more diverse, people have more friends and associates, neighbourhood watches are more common, volunteerism and civic engagement increases, and residents are more proud of where they live.

Walkability is also becoming one of the main draws for new homeowners. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, 63% of millennials and 42% of boomers in 2018 wanted to live in a neighbourhood where owning a car isn't necessary. This leads to more chances for cities to grow and diversify their population.

How Is Walkability Calculated?

A number of different ways to calculate walkability have developed over the years, and the methods continue to change as we improve our understanding of city health and urban planning. In the UK, the Pedestrian Environment Review System is widely used. Clean Air Asia allows residents to rate street walkability through their app Walkability Mobile. City planners and engineers may use more complex industry services such as State of Place, or their own internal systems.

For North Americans, probably the most popular walkability calculator is Walk Score. Walk Score is governed by an advisory board that includes environmental, technical, and planning experts from (mostly American) institutions such as the Sightline Institute and the Brookings Institution. They provide walkability scores for any individual address in the United States, Canada, or Australia, using data from Google, Education.com, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community.

Addresses on Walk Score are given three main scores: a Walk Score, a Transit Score, and a Bike Score. Each score is a number on a scale of 0 - 100, with 0 being the worst and 100 being the best. The categories break down as follows according to their website:

Score Walking Transit Biking
90–100 Walker’s Paradise
Daily errands do not require a car.
Rider's Paradise
World-class public transportation.
Biker's Paradise
Daily errands can be accomplished on a bike.
70–89 Very Walkable
Most errands can be accomplished on foot.
Excellent Transit
Transit is convenient for most trips.
Very Bikeable
Biking is convenient for most trips.
50–69 Somewhat Walkable
Some errands can be accomplished on foot.
Good Transit
Many nearby public transportation options.
Some bike infrastructure.
25–49 Car-Dependent
Most errands require a car.
Some Transit
A few nearby public transportation options.
Somewhat Bikeable
Minimal bike infrastructure.
0–24 Car-Dependent
Almost all errands require a car.
Minimal Transit
It is possible to get on a bus.

The Walk Score measures the walkability of any address using an algorithm that analyzes population density, road metrics, block length, and hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Amenities within a 5 minute walk are given full points, while amenities more than a 30 minute walk away don't contribute to the score. Neighbourhood and city scores are calculated by combining the score of roughly every city block, then weighting them for population density.

The Transit Score is based on data released in a standard format by public transit agencies, with routes assigned a "usefulness" score according to stop frequency, type of route (rail, bus, etc.), and distance to the nearest stop on the route.

The Bike Score measures whether an area is good for biking by measuring local bike infrastructure (lanes, trails, etc.), hills, destinations and road connectivity, and (when available) the number of bike commuters.

How Does Victoria Score On Walkability?

According to Walk Score, the 5 most walkable Canadian cities of 2017 with a population of more than 200,000 were Vancouver (78), Toronto (71.4), Montréal (70.4), Mississauga (58.6), and Ottawa (53.9). With a population of about 80,000, Victoria isn't populous enough to make the list. It does have a Walk Score, which I touched on in our previous article on Victoria neighbourhoods.

As of the time of this article, the Victoria downtown core has an average Walk Score of 78, with individual neighbourhoods scoring even higher:

Neighbourhood Walk Score Transit Score Population
Victoria 78 62 80,017
Harris Green 98 76 2,051
Downtown 97 77 2,488
North Park 91 74 3,422
Fairfield 83 65 11,737
South Jubilee 81 59 2,174
Hillside-Quadra 80 65 7,223
Fernwood 78 64 9,441
James Bay 78 64 11,230
Burnside 77 63 5,871
North Jubilee 74 60 3,017

With its dense residential construction, low-speed streets, and mixed-use zoning, the City of Victoria scores pretty high on walkability. But the numbers shift when you include the districts of the Greater Victoria Area:

Municipality Walk Score # Restaurants,
Bars, Coffee Shops
Avg. Restaurants
within 5 min. walk
Victoria 78 646 6 80,017
Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.
Esquimalt & Vic West 65 63 3 16,209
Somewhat Walkable. Some errands can be accomplished on foot.
Sidney 64 62 3 11,178
Somewhat Walkable. Some errands can be accomplished on foot.
Oak Bay 61 89 2 18,015
Somewhat Walkable. Some errands can be accomplished on foot.
Saanich 51 299 0.3 109,752
Somewhat Walkable. Some errands can be accomplished on foot.
Langford 48 126 0.6 29,228
Car-Dependent. Most errands require a car.
View Royal 47 48 0.9 9,381
Car-Dependent. Most errands require a car.
Colwood 42 84 0.5 16,093
Car-Dependent. Most errands require a car.
Central Saanich 35 35 0.1 15,936
Car-Dependent. Most errands require a car.
Sooke 23 27 0 11,435
Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.
North Saanich 15 20 0 11,089
Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.

If you average all of the districts (excluding Sooke and Sidney), the walk score of the GVA drops to just 49, or "car-dependent". Municipalities close to the downtown core have managed to maintain and even improve their score, but more distant areas like the West Shore still have a ways to go to be functionally walkable. For middle-class families who own one or two (or three) cars and are looking for single family detached homes, this may not be an issue. Single homeowners with more limited income may find it more beneficial to live in an area where it's practical to commute and run errands by foot or by bike, rather than by car.

Of course, it's important to keep in mind that Walk Score's score for Greater Victoria currently doesn't consider levels of crime, street quality, or any features that can't be measured by population, location, or distance. Newer municipalities that were built for cars also face challenges in giving their walking infrastructure a makeover. But investing in walkable cities has almost always proven to be worth it — from repainting pedestrian walkways to adopting regulations for multi-use land zoning.

Whether you're looking to move to a more walkable neighbourhood, or want to petition your current district to improve its walkability, it's safe to say that the benefits of public transit, better commutes, and easy access to the people and places you love can lead to a happier, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyle.

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