By Dom Nozzi
In my career, I’ve often thought about whether it is possible to objectively quantify walkability. It seems to me that the question will always be subjective in many important ways.
This does not mean – I would hasten to add — that we should give up on creating plans or land development regs that strive to get us walkable design.
In looking to buy a walkable home in Boulder CO, Asheville NC, and now Greenville SC in recent years, I’ve decided it is essential for me to walk or bicycle the street where the home is located. I need to get subjective “feelings” for the vicinity. Does it FEEL walkable? Will the home offer me a “front-porch” lifestyle?
For me, only by walking down the street will I be able to evaluate how neighborly or convivial or human-scaled a neighborhood happens to be.
I ask myself the following questions when I walk.
How many homes have a well-designed front porch (and a porch that is a conversational distance from the sidewalk)? How many friendly people do I tend to encounter on my walk? Are there any gap-toothed dead zones (vacant lots)? Is the architecture interesting and pleasantly ornamental? How old are the homes? (for me, housing stock newer than about 1940 tends to fail to provide the walkable, charming character I seek) Is the street designed for low-speed car travel? Is there well-used on-street parking? Is the street one-way or two-way? How long is the street block? Is there a tree canopy? How tall are the street lights? Are signal lights mast-arm or post-mounted? What is the ambient noise level? Are there sidewalks on both sides of the street? Are the buildings five stories or less?
Regarding the very important proximity question (distance to regular destinations), the 100-year old cottage we renovated in Asheville NC had a crazy high walkscore (80). But it is debatable whether this home was “walkable.” For example, I have a 15-minute walk to the center of downtown, but I must walk over a large and loud interstate highway to do so. We are just a few steps away from a huge number of cafes, restaurants, bus stops, and large grocery stores, but that is because we are very close to a very noisy, high-speed, dangerous arterial road. And before we bought the house, a number of historic homes across the street from us were demolished and replaced by a large, conventional, ELEVATED shopping center that looms over us when we sit on the front porch.
I believe it is also the case that a “walkable distance” (15 minutes for regular “utilitarian” walks is the conventional rule of thumb for maximum distance) varies depending on the quality of the walk. If I find a lot of quality elements I mention above on my walk, I’m happy to regularly walk for 20-30 minutes. If the nearby elements are unpleasant or dangerous, I’m not going to enjoy regularly walking, say, a 5-minute distance.
Walter Kulash made this point about strip commercial “stroads” (the Chuck Marohn term): Driving down one mile of stroad FEELS like it takes longer than driving down one mile of a convivial, low-speed, tree-canopied street.
The same is true with walking.