Walkability, In Theory and Reality

I noticed the website for walkable cities, Walk Score, has a map. Here is a version of the map from a Redfin article:

Looking at the most top ranked walkable cities (within the green range), three fifths of them are found in the North, what Colin Woodard calls the Midlands and Yankeedom. That immediately brings to mind cultural factors, as Woodard discusses regions specifically in terms of culture. When I lived in other parts of the country such as South Carolina, North Carolina and Arizona, I don’t recall there being much of a walking culture (or bicycling culture).

Then again, I’d be careful about taking too much from that map. The map doesn’t include most of the residential areas they’ve analyzed and I doubt they are looking at every residential area in the country. So it might not be a fair representation. Towns like this one, Iowa City, aren’t on the map. They do have a ranking for Iowa City, though. It only does moderately well on walkability, according to how they measure it. It makes me wonder about what they are measuring and how. There methodology page isn’t all that clear about the specifics. I live at the edge of downtown. Within a short walk from my house, there is:

Most of the local government buildings, a senior center with senior housing, a homeless shelter and services, public mental health center, offices for doctors and dentists, two hospitals, a youth center, a city recreation center, a University of Iowa recreation center, a public library, multiple university libraries, new and used bookstores, several theaters for movies and plays, a university auditorium for large stage performances…

A farmers market, dozens of restaurants and bars, four grocery stores, lots of random stores including several used stores, a pedestrian mall, an indoor mall, a drug store, several convenience stores, university campus, a walkway and green area by the river, some small parks and two larger parks, multi-use trails leading to other parks, three neighborhood public schools along with two private schools, multiple daycare centers, four churches, some banks and a credit union, etc.

Also, a short distance from where I live, there is a Greyhound bus station and the main public bus depot, not to mention the university bus service. Public transit goes about everywhere in the city and the neighboring city of Coralville. The buses have bike racks for transporting your bike and, along with the multi-use trails, there are bike lanes. Drivers in this town are used to both pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s a fairly safe town for non-vehicular modes of travel. It’s the kind of town that you can randomly walk out into the middle of the street without looking, as distracted students do all the time, and it is highly unlikely anyone will run you over. Pedestrians and bicyclists dominate this town.

Most of the population lives in or around the downtown area. It is a growing town, but more of the housing is being built downtown with highrises. If you wanted to, you could live your entire life without leaving a square mile area.

Yet the website only gives Iowa City a 44 walk score, stating that “Iowa City is a Car-Dependent city” because “Most errands require a car.” I’m not sure what errands they are talking about. I’ve lived here for two decades without a car and I pretty much walk everywhere I go. If I wanted to go to Walmart or to one of the really big malls, I’d need a car or bus to get there. But I don’t consider Walmart and big malls to be a necessity of life.

What is also odd is that the website gives it a 77 bike score. What is different between biking and walking? There is no where you can go in Iowa City by bike that you can’t also get to by walking. I can walk, going at a face pace, from my house to the furthest reaches of the city in an hour. How many people can claim to get anywhere in their town in an hour’s walk? Probably not many. How much more walkable can a city get?

I will admit that Iowa City used to be even a nicer walkable city. When I was a kid, there were more small neighborhood grocery stores and some of them had butchers and deli counters. And when I came back as an adult, I could still inexpensively do all my Christmas shopping downtown. I will admit that the downtown isn’t as nice as it once was, at least for the average resident, ever since it became gentrified. It’s harder to find cheap fast food, besides the Subway.

What I really miss are the movie theaters. There used to be more movie theaters, three of them when I was a kid and I’ve been told there was seven at mid century. The closest to a normal movie theater left downtown is one that shows independent movies. But there are other venues downtown that do show movies as well, such as offered by the University of Iowa.

That said, none of my complaints are exactly relevant to walkability, in any basic sense. In Iowa City, there are wide sidewalks downtown, safe pedestrian intersections, easy to negotiate traffic, low speed limits, nice neighborhoods and parks to walk in, plenty of green spaces to enjoy, and much else. If you live close to downtown, it might be easier to not own a car.

So, how can pleasant small college town like Iowa City get a lower walk score than many of the crowded, traffic heavy big cities? Methinks their rankings are a bit skewed. From what I can tell, when they measure the walkability of big cities, they aren’t including the entire metropolitan area nor are they including the fact that much of the population lives in suburbs and bedroom communities. So, a big city might be walkable after your long commute to get there. Is that really walkable when few people are actually living within walking distance of what is being measured and ranked? That is a misleading and unhelpful ranking system.

In a fair analysis, the most walkable places would be the remaining small towns that still have functioning downtowns, which used to be a common feature in every county of Iowa. Some places like this continue to exist where everything a person needs is concentrated in one small area, although such places are becoming rare. But they can be still be found in any farm state. If you live in a town that is the county seat with a moderately well off local economy (maybe because of a factory or slaughter house), all of your basic amenities (grocery store, bank, public school, church, etc) likely would be closer than is possible for the average person in the most walkable big city.

I’d be curious to know how many of those small towns ever get measured for their walkability. Near to Iowa City is West Branch. They actually do have a walk score for it. Many people who live in West Branch commute to work in Iowa City and come here for other reasons. The funny thing is that they mention the commute time to downtown Iowa City from West Branch and yet they give it a higher walkability rating than Iowa City. One of my brothers lives there. Both he and his wife work in Iowa City. And neither does much walking in West Branch.

I’ve spent plenty of time in that town. I know for a fact that few people walk in West Branch because there is little to walk to. So few people walk that they didn’t bother to repair the sidewalks for decades. Besides, many of the people who use West Branch amenities don’t actually reside in West Branch, instead living in rural parts of the county. And most of the people who have houses in West Branch would rather use the amenities in Iowa City or other nearby towns such as Coraville and Cedar Rapids. Why is it’s walkability higher? Just because it is a dinky town and so you could theoretically walk from one side of it to the other in ten minutes, really?

I like the idea of rating places according to their walkability. But I’m having doubts about the methodology being used.

2 thoughts on “Walkability, In Theory and Reality

  1. It is an interesting site. I just wish they did smaller towns and cities too. Having said that, my haunts would not fare well in the scores. While Southern NJ does have a couple of very nice bike paths and several of the barrier islands have great boardwalks, on the whole, this area is neither walker or bicyclist compatible.

    I have a 10 mile commute to work. I could easily ride my bicycle there in not much time, I would actually prefer to in nicer weather (not winter) but I can’t. The While three of the five roads into town allow bicycles, all but one would rapidly leave me a statistic. The road that would be the nicest for riding on, and the closest to where I live, is a private toll road and does not allow bicycles at all. The next most safest would add ten miles to my short commute.

    Bicycling to work would do wonders for my health, my bank account, and my general outlook on life, but continuing to live keeps me (mostly) safe in my car.

    • Many people have similar problems. I don’t think people are inherently lazy. Where walking and bicycling are easy, safe and pleasant, more people would walk and bicycle.

      That is true just to save money. But also many people would rather not own a car. The younger generations have low rates of car ownership and increasingly prefer urban areas that don’t require owning a car.

      Bicycling is very popular in Iowa. It is a lot safer to ride to work by bike compared to where you live. Even so, the local news regularly reports about bicyclists in Iowa getting run over, typically while out on county roads.

      As I said, my brother lives in West Branch and works in Iowa City. He used to live in Iowa City and loved to ride his bike to work. He theoretically still could. But it is a lot more dangerous. Besides the interstate, the only roads between these two places are county roads which are narrow, often winding, and low visibility.

      My brother has mostly stopped bicycling, despite his love of doing so. It’s no longer practical. It is irrelevant that the bedroom community he lives in gets a moderately decent walk score. The commute to Iowa City is not exactly easily and safely walkable or bikeable.

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