San Francisco is the second most walkable large city in America. Flickr user Bikoy, licensed under Creative Commons

Factors like bad weather and long commutes don't make a place less walkable

Walk Score released its most recent walkability rankings for America's 2,500 largest cities and towns this past summer. The ratings are based on a scale of 1-100, and include factors like accessibility to services and amenities like grocery stores, parks, schools, hospitals, and mass transit. Neighborhoods ranked 0-49 are “Car Dependent”; 50-69 are “Somewhat Walkable”; 70-89 are “Very Walkable” and 90-100 are “Walkers Paradises.” The average Walk Score for America’s communities was 43; we remain a car-dependent nation. But many communities are quite walkable.

It may have lots of traffic and highways and be the butt of bad jokes, but communities in my home state of New Jersey top Walk Score’s list. Union City takes top place with a walkscore of 92.2, followed by nearby Hoboken (92.2) and West New York (90). West Hollywood, California (89.4) ranked fourth and Cambridge, Massachusetts (88.8) fifth. Of the 50 biggest cities, New York topped the list with a score of 85.3, followed by San Francisco (84.9), Boston (79.2), Chicago, (74.3), Philadelphia (74.1), Seattle (73.7), Washington, D.C. (73.2), Miami (72.5), Minneapolis (69.3), and Oakland (68.2). The map above shows Walk Score’s top ten cities overall as well as the top ten biggest cities.

With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, we updated my previous analysis of the relationships between walkability and key economic and demographic characteristics of U.S. metropolitan areas. Then we matched the new Walk Score data for these 50 largest cities to statistics for the broader metro areas of which they are a part. As before, we found significant associations. Walkable metros had higher levels of highly educated people (a correlation of .36), higher wages (.61), higher housing values (.50), more high-tech companies (.58), greater levels of innovation (.45), and more artistic creatives (.57).

Interestingly, walkability was not more prevalent in warmer places. Walkability was less common in places with very hot summers (with a correlation of -.52 to mean July temperature) but had no statistical association to places with milder winters (measured as mean January temperature). While this may seem counter-intuitive at first, it actually makes sense. Most of the U.S.’s warmer cities are located in the south or the Sunbelt; they developed later than their older and denser counterparts in the Frostbelt, when the highway and the car were already ascendant. Walkability is more common in denser (.56) and larger metropolitan areas (.56), whether the weather encourages it or not. Walkability is also more common in metros where commutes are longer on average (.50). This may also seem counter-intuitive until you realize that places with longer commutes are likely to be both larger and denser than others.

Walkability is a magnet that attracts and retains highly educated and skilled people and the innovative businesses that employ them. Much more than a faddish amenity, walkability is an ecological imperative, and to an increasing extent, as fuel and time costs continue to climb, a financial one as well.

All of this is leading to something of a convergence across America’s best neighborhoods, a morphing of what we used to think of as suburban versus city life. More and more of our most desirable suburban communities look more like cities, with bustling town centers alive with pedestrian life, while our best city neighborhoods have taken on many of the characteristics we used to see as the province of suburbs: good schools, green spaces, safe streets, and family life.

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