'Walk Score' Is Great, But it Still Doesn't Capture 'Walk Appeal'

We need other ways of quantifying walkability on our nation’s streets.

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Solana Beach, California, is one of a string of communities trailing north up the coast from San Diego, each one more ridiculously scenic and attractive than the last: Del Mar, Encinitas, Leucadia, and so one. These are towns with bougainvillea spilling onto the sidewalks, high-end boutiques along the shopping streets, and the Pacific breeze wafting in off the bluffs. Surfers trot down the stairways leading to the ocean carrying their boards, ready to catch waves for a few hours. At the farmers’ market, you’ll find baskets of heirloom tomatoes and jewel-like raspberries. It’s a beautiful cliché of the California good life.

Solana Beach is also a great example of just how miserable walking for transportation can be in America.

When I booked a recent hotel stay there, I looked up the Walk Score and was happy to see it came in at 82, or “very walkable.” This mattered to me because part of the time I would be there without access to a car.

In a lot of ways, the place did turn out to be "very walkable," at least technically. Most important to the vacationing me, the beach was three blocks away, down very pleasant residential streets with great sidewalks. There was a strip mall with a couple of decent chain restaurants about a ten-minute walk up Highway 101, and a CVS a little farther along – a walking experience that was pretty grim, even though it was short. A train station with connections to San Diego and Los Angeles was just under a mile away along the same road, and at about a mile and a quarter was an excellent roadside Mexican joint. A running and biking path, nicely paved and landscaped, ran parallel to the train tracks for 1.7 miles. All of which should have meant that I wouldn’t even have want of a car.

But over the four days I spent in Solana Beach, I found myself bumping up against the limits of Walk Score’s calculations again and again. For starters: The first place listed under "groceries" was indeed just across a parking lot from the hotel, but it turned out to be a dingy market that sold mostly booze. I picked up a half-gallon of milk and some Corn Flakes, but there wasn’t much else there I wanted to touch -- certainly not the very sad-looking boiled eggs and plastic-wrapped bagels in the cooler by the register.

The guy behind the counter told me the nearest real supermarket was about a 25-minute walk away, which corresponded with Walk Score’s data.

That wouldn’t seem undoable in my hometown of New York, but in Solana Beach, where sidewalks sometimes begin and end randomly and a lot of the walking is along four- or six-lane arterials, it didn’t seem worth it. Even a walk of half a mile alongside strip malls and parking lots can seem interminable, and it’s easy to see why people choose to make trips like this by car, thereby creating an even more unpleasant atmosphere for those who do choose to walk. Or, like the homeless guys I found myself sharing the Solana Beach sidewalks with, those who have to walk.

Walk Score is a terrific tool, as far as it goes. But we need other ways of quantifying walkability on our nation’s streets. The architect and urbanist Steve Mouzon is working on just such a measurement. He calls it Walk Appeal, and the idea behind it is something that we all know but don’t often acknowledge: A mile in an American suburb is a lot longer than a mile in Rome.

Walk Appeal promises to be a major new tool for understanding and building walkable places, and it explains several things that were heretofore either contradictory or mysterious. It begins with the assertion that the quarter-mile radius (or 5-minute walk,) which has been held up for a century as the distance Americans will walk before driving, is actually a myth….

As we all know, if you're at Best Buy and need to pick something up at Old Navy, there's no way you're walking from one store to another. Instead, you get in your car and drive as close as possible to the Old Navy front door. You'll even wait for a parking space to open up instead of driving to an open space just a few spaces away… not because you're lazy, but because it's such a terrible walking experience.

In a blog post introducing Walk Appeal, Mouzon does a good job of explaining why you can walk a mile effortlessly in one kind of streetscape and labor through a half-mile or less in another. And he says the kind of walking I had to do on Highway 101 in Solana Beach is about as bad as it gets:

The worst sidewalk you could possibly choose to walk on is one with an arterial thoroughfare on one side and a parking lot on the other. I use a Walk Appeal distance of 25 feet, but in reality, you're unlikely to ever walk in a place like this unless your car breaks down. Not only does it terminally bore you and leave you constantly awash in a sea of car exhaust fumes and sweating uncontrollably from the heat in summer, but it also is an incredibly dangerous place to walk. So people don't.

That’s the hard truth about walking in America. It’s not just about the miles you need to cover, or even about the sidewalks or the length of the blocks. What Walk Score can’t capture, and doesn’t pretend to, is the on-the-ground texture of the pedestrian experience and the resulting pedestrian culture of a place.

In Solana Beach and the surrounding communities, there are a few commercial pockets where walking is pleasant and socially acceptable – around a couple of bars near the ocean and on the few shop-lined blocks of South Cedros Avenue demarcated as a "design district." People drive to get to these havens. The residential side streets are nice, but those sidewalks are usually empty.

As a result, pedestrians are automatically stigmatized, although being on foot is more acceptable if it looks like you are doing it for fitness rather than transportation. Runners are obviously out there for the exercise, but if you’re walking it helps to wear the technical clothes to prove it. Walking the mile-plus back from the Del Mar beach to my hotel one day, I was passed by another woman power-walking, clad head to toe in wicking fabrics and topped with a sweat-absorbing visor. She remarked, as she blew past me, that I was "setting a nice pace." I was amused not only by her one-upmanship, but by the idea that I was "setting a pace" at all. I was walking to get from one place to another, not for "exercise." And that set me apart as something of a weirdo.

Which is really what it comes down to in much of the country. You may well find yourself within walking distance of a store, or a movie theater, or some other amenity that is accounted for by Walk Score’s algorithms. There might even be a sidewalk that provides safe passage, and a button to push at the intersection to make the light change in your favor. But you usually will be walking alongside a river of cars, and the people in those cars will be thinking that you are strange. They will pity you. You will know this.

And that sense of being a social outlier, along with the hot tedium of walking past parking lot after parking lot, strip mall after strip mall, none of which are designed for your use, is enough to make you want to get in a car.

Walking for transportation shouldn’t be so unpleasant that people who do it are considered strange. But that’s kind of what we’ve come to in much of the country. The popularity of the Walk Score tool, despite its limitations, suggests that we might be changing direction at last. But it’s going to be a long slog to get where we need to go.

Top image: renkshot/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.