Taking Cities in Stride

Last post, I let you know about Walk Score, the website that tallies a district’s commercial, recreational, and cultural opportunities, then assigns it a numerical score based on its pedestrian-friendliness.

Walk Score also ranks the 40 largest cities and provides neat walkability maps of them. Here are the 10 most pedestrian-oriented:

INSERT DESCRIPTIONLos Angeles, from Walk Score.

1. San Francisco
2. New York
3. Boston
4. Chicago
5. Philadelphia
6. Seattle
7. Washington, D.C.
8. Long Beach, Calif.
9. Los Angeles
10. Portland

Few surprises here, except perhaps the high rankings of Los Angeles and satellite city Long Beach. Here are the 10 least-walkable, most auto-dependent cities:

INSERT DESCRIPTIONNashville, from Walk Score.

31. El Paso
32. San Antonio
33. Fort Worth
34. Kansas City
35. Memphis
36. Oklahoma City
37. Indianapolis
38. Charlotte
39. Nashville
40. Jacksonville

Any patterns here? First, note that seven of the 10 most walkable cities sit on large bodies of water. With a coastline checking expansion, available land had to be used more intensively. (As the map makes clear, there were considerable natural limits on San Francisco’s physical growth.) Intensive land use means density, and density generally means walkability.

On the other hand, nine of the 10 least walkable cities are inland. In most of them, largely unfettered expansion and low densities were possible from the get-go. Boston’s growth was restricted by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean, and San Francisco’s growth was restricted by the Pacific Ocean; Oklahoma City’s growth was restricted by, well, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

Second, the walkable list is dominated by Northeastern and West Coast cities that are comparatively old, at least by American standards. Six of the 10 most walkable cities were among the 20 largest urban places in 1900. By the 1950′s, these cities were largely mature; collectively, they grew only 1.5 percent in population between 1960 and 2000.

On the other hand, the least walkable cities are relative newcomers on the urban scene. Eight of 10 are in the South, the site of much of America’s most explosive urban growth in the postwar period. None of the least walkable cities were among the 20 largest urban places in 1900, and five were not even in the top 100. The postwar period has seen rapid growth for these cities: 81 percent between 1960 and 2000.

Why do city age and maturity matter? I’ll give you a hint: my answer will have something to do with the fact that I have transportation on the brain.

As Peter O. Muller ably chronicles, most of the pedestrian-friendly cities are products of the era of the foot and the hoof, with the steel wheel (i.e. the streetcar) coming along a bit later. Getting around cities in the age of muscle power was a difficult and slow proposition, so activities clung together in space to make travel to, from, and between them feasible. Dense districts were literally built for walking.

The streetcars partially reinforced this trend. Networks were generally radial, which funneled traffic into downtowns, promoting growth there. Having reached a critical mass, these urban cores continue to thrive to this day.

With the transition to the rubber tire, the rules of the game changed. High-speed, omnidirectional auto travel meant businesses were no longer tethered to the center or to each other; they had the freedom to disperse in search of cheap land while still being accessible to their suppliers and customers. In places that grew up in the era of the auto, central districts were often stillborn and sterile. Walkability was a casualty.

But don’t start feeling smug, Washingtonians and Bostonians; auto-oriented development is alive and well in your cities too. Yes, you have some great walking neighborhoods and on occasion one of your urban areas might even gentrify and sprout opportunities for travel by foot. But for many decades, the vast majority of your new development has been in auto-oriented suburban areas that resemble Charlotte more than Chicago. Even in a walker’s paradise like New York, new development has tended to look a lot more like East Brunswick than the East Village. For the most part, these suburban areas are not particularly amenable to walking, unless you count the stroll from the parking lot to the front door of Denny’s.

In short, with some admittedly notable exceptions (such as the interesting case of Portland), they just don’t seem to be building walkable cities any more. The tricky part is figuring out how, and whether, we can take steps to remedy this.

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  1. christine mika says:

    I like the idea of just driving my car everywhere. No streetcars and no trains for me! So what if the parking is bad. I still love my car!

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  2. Michael says:

    Another factor that the walk-score site doesn’t acknowledge is the coincidental placement of city limits. My own city of Atlanta scores fairly low. While the suburbs are admittedly sprawl-y, the urban core likely scores fairly well. We just have the misfortune of effectively including a large suburb (Buckhead) in our city limits, dragging down the average. San Francisco’s city limits basically only include the dense urban core, allowing them to score so high on average.

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  3. Terry says:

    You should read some Jane Jacobs and Howard Kuntsler this summer – you will find most of your points echoed and expanded upon.

    For the counterpoint though, follow some discussions in Houston which, while not having much of a downtown has the most robust urban economy and one of the lowest costs of living and arguably the best opportunities for class mobility: http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/

    (note I live in walkable Philadelphia and prefer it to auto-suburbs)

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  4. Colin McFaul says:

    May I ask what you consider to be a “large body of water”? If I wanted to be pedantic, I would say it’s controversial that ANY of the ten most walkable are not on a large body of water. More to the point, Memphis is most definitely on a large body of water. I say this confidently because I live in New Orleans, which is on two large bodies of water, neither of which is the Gulf of Mexico.

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  5. Michael says:

    i don’t like the exception

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  6. Edwavrd says:

    Yeah, Portland’s the sort of place where people made tough decisions and decided we’d rather have a livable city than a highway-dominated mess.

    Over the past forty years, from reinvesting in downtown to discouraging wasteful suburban sprawl through our land use planning laws, we’ve gone a different direction.

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  7. Nate says:

    The first things that struck me about the two lists were heat and humidity. I wouldn’t be suprised if the decision to walk is based more on sweating in some of these hot, humid, southern cities, compared with showing up at work dry and ready to go (if a little chilled) in the northern cities. Even though there are hot “walkable” cities (e.g., LA, Long Beach), they lack the humidity of the others. Maybe it’s not the whole story, but it’s possibly a part of it.

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  8. kevin says:

    Cul-de-sacs.

    I think it is probably the newness of the growht… and that might be correlated better to cul-de-sacs per road mile.

    building neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs makes everyone depend on cars.

    having lived in some of the “best” and one of the “worst” cities on the list, that is my non-scientific analysis.

    @ michael – i live in an ATL suburb that scores poorly when I plug in my address… there seemed to be a lot of walkable sites missing, so i’ve added them. need to check to see if that has improved the score. we walk everywhere, though our neighbors often ask us if our car is broken or something.

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