Updated Neighborhood Walkability Values Available for All Cities

May 28, 2020

Ben Spoer and Taylor Lampe

The City Health Dashboard is committed to providing accurate and up-to-date measures of health and drivers of health. We recently updated our walkability metric, Walk Score, to reflect improved calculation methods which better capture how people interact with their walking environments. As communities around the country continue to shelter close to home in response to COVID-19, the walkability of local neighborhoods is especially meaningful.

Want to learn more about walkability and understand why we made this change? Read on.

What is Walkability?

Walkability measures how easy or difficult it is to walk around in a given place. A neighborhood without sidewalks would be less walkable, while a neighborhood with well-maintained sidewalks and many destinations to walk to, for example the main street area in many towns, would be more walkable. There are many ways to measure walkability, and most include similar features such as:

  • The number of intersections and length of city blocks; shorter blocks with more intersections make it easier to navigate to destinations by foot

  • A measure of density, be it population density or density of housing units

  • The presence of different types of destinations within walking distance (like libraries or grocery stores); many such destinations nearby increases the likelihood that people will choose to walk somewhere

The Dashboard’s walkability measure is provided by Walk Score. Walk Score calculates walkability for the entire country using a combination of real estate and city planning data. The metric is widely regarded in the built environment research world as a valid, accurate measure of walkability. WalkScore values range from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most walkable. The average city walkability on the Dashboard is 41.3.

Higher Walk Score values are associated with more walking, lower BMI, and better health outcomes. This metric has guided some of our city partners in improving walkability in their communities, including, for example, with traffic calming measures in Providence, RI.

What are we changing and why?

Walk Score recently released new data using an improved method to calculate Walk Score. This method removes from the calculation places where people do not actually live. It also incorporates walkability across the entire census tract, instead of basing its calculation on a single address in each tract (census tracts are often used as a proxy for neighborhoods - find more information here).

This is where this blog gets technical. Below is a picture of your census tract, which contains a park and four homes. We want to know how walkable the entire census tract is for people who live there.

Let’s say that you live next to the park. Nice! Because the park is a great walking destination, it increases the Walk Score for your home. However, as you can see, there are no home addresses within the park and no one lives inside the park itself.

Since the new Walk Score tract-level calculation is only interested in Walk Score values for places where people live, the census tract value only ”factors in” values for the four houses (where people live!) and does not include the value for the park (no one lives there!). Previous Walk Score methods for the census-tract would have included walkability values from inside the park itself.

The updated values you see on the Dashboard more accurately capture how people think about and interact with the walking environment near their homes. This also means Walk Score data from previous years are not directly comparable to the new data. As such, we have removed previous years’ Walk Score data from the Dashboard and our downloadable data.

Did walkability actually change?

These technical details are all well and good, but does this change make a difference in tract-level Walk Score values? We checked it out, and the short answer is yes. Average tract-level Walk Score increased by about nine points (on a scale of 0-100) when compared to the old Walk Score values. More interesting was that Walk Score increases were larger in the Southeast and South than in the Northeast. This makes sense - the Northeast is densely populated with fewer places in which people do not live, and so fewer places that are affected by this change in Walk Score‘s methodology. The South and Southeast are less dense, and so have more places where people don’t live. 

What does it all mean?

This change means you should take a fresh look at Walk Score values in your city and neighborhood. Values may have changed, and the new values will be more accurate. You can use tract-level values to determine areas that could benefit from more amenities or pedestrian friendly street design. Also, if you have reached the end of this blog, you know more about Walkability than nearly everyone else on earth. Good for you!

Want to keep up with our ever-evolving metrics? Subscribe to City Health Dashboard’s newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or just drop us a line at [email protected].

Explore More