Should We Crowdsource Walkability Rankings?

Walk Score will now let users "review" a neighborhood's walkability.

Image
Courtesy of the NRDC

If the wildly and justly popular internet app Walk Score hooked up with the crowdsourced travel site Trip Advisor and produced offspring, it might turn out something like the new-generation Walk Score launched this week: location-based walkability ratings calculated from objective data, augmented with user reviews, photos and input.

I’ve praised Walk Score before as pure genius, enabling anyone to obtain an instant approximation of how rich a neighborhood is in shops, services and amenities within walking distance. The more things one can reasonably walk to, the higher the score (and, research shows, the more one will walk, on average, and the less one will drive). I use it all the time and so do most people I know. But, a simple idea based on very complex GIS-based data and algorithms, the traditional Walk Score only gave a highly educated guess about the actual human experience. That’s where the new version, which invites and displays user comments, comes in.

click to pull up user-generated photos & comments (courtesy of Walk Score)
new Walk Score app interface showing user photos (courtesy of Walk Score) 

According to the company’s press release, the new function - available as a free iPhone app as well as on the Walk Score website, invites users to do the following:

  • Share neighborhood gems including the local businesses, public art, architecture and green spaces you love, and comment on other people’s pictures and reviews.
  • Identify and report walkability problem spots such as dangerous intersections and high-crime areas that you’d like fixed and share lists of these places with neighbors and public officials.
  • View crowd-sourced neighborhood tours including maps, pictures and comments about nearby dining, coffee, groceries, schools, parks and more.
  • Discover new places and experiences by browsing recently added places, pictures and comments by neighborhood or by individual contributor.

You can get a sense of how it works from the images shown here. According to the company, it "is now combining the power of its quantitative scores, maps and lists of nearby amenities with crowd-sourced photos and comments to empower people to explore neighborhoods through the eyes of the people who know them best." If you contribute ten or more items within a neighborhood, you can be identified as a "local expert."

two scales matter most:  the metro region, where high-level decisions must be made to be meaningful, and the neighborhood, where we experience our environment as individuals and where increments of change actually take place. We care immensely about the neighborhoods we inhabit and visit and have a responsibility, I think, to preserve what is best about each while improving the aspects that could be better. Information-sharing is critical to both tasks, and Walk Score just made it easier - while making it more fun, too.

neighborhood gems feature (courtesy of Walk Score)I believe that, when it comes to healthy, sustainable communities,

Since the service just launched, it may have some kinks to work out. I entered my home address, for example, and clicked on the link for "neighborhood gems." Several were listed, but none are within actual walking distance of my house; presumably, if the function takes off, the site’s problem will become too many rather than too few user entries, but for right now there may not be much entered for your neighborhood. Also, there is no obvious way to navigate back to the menu once you are within a category if, like me, you were done with "gems" and then wanted to see "groceries" or "restaurants." (I miss the old format that did not force the user to choose a category to see the neighborhood features.) In general, I get the impression that the new function is favorably tweaked for iPhone users, so perhaps there is some loss of functionality if you access it on the web and almost certainly (at least for now) if your phone has a different operating system. 

There was also the perennial problem of missing restaurants and such from Walk Score’s data base. The new function may improve that as users are able to correct missing or outdated information. Finally, the photos of the "gems," presumably posted by users, looked uncomfortably like advertising to me; I have no reason to think that they are but, having seen Google Earth already seriously cluttered by advertising-posing-as-reference-points, I would hate to see any drift by Walk Score in that direction, intentionally or not. It will certainly be in the interest of business owners to post "user" photos and comments. 

Congrats to the Walk Score team for continually improving their product. By the way, I believe this is the first time I have used the neo-word "crowdsourcing" in my writing. It doesn’t feel good.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.