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.

christine mika

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!


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.


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)

Colin McFaul

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.


i don't like the exception


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.


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.



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.

Mike B

The reason LA and Long Beach are counted as walkable is that they both make up only a small portion of what any layperson would consider LA. The ENTIRE BASIN should count as LA, not just the small subset that is Municipal LA. Notice that as soon as you get away from the small LA downtown everything turns bright red. In New York almost the entire 5 boroughs are dark green. That's walkability.


For Portland, we artificially created growth limits. Where San Francisco's growth was limited by the bay and the ocean, Portland created a "Metro" boundary that severely limits suburban sprawl. Portland was so effective in it's implementation of Metro that I am surprised that it is languishing at number 10. This is all the more remarkable considering that Portland is generally considered the nation's most "bikable" city.


Note: the reason that San Francisco is above New York City is because of places like Staten Island and eastern Queens dragging down the rest of the city.


Can't stop a guy determined to create a proof, at all costs, that you can walk in LA.


While I believe the above comment (Nate's) shows an impressive amount of insight, humidity tells only a part of the story. To illuminate the entire hidden side of walkability, one must consider another factor: obesity. This distinctly American trait, like humidty, is far more proliferative in the swealtering barbeue joints of Fort Worth than the yuppified coffee houses of Seattle. And while one may take a trolley to a San Franciscan sushi bar, only most mud flap-laden of Dodge Rams will suffice to be parked in the lot of a Kansas City steak house. The roots of walkability may lie in the history of these cities, but recent divergence (look at Portland vs. Indianapolis) is surely due to the cultural underpinnings of the cities' residents. Our active and imminently exuberant Portlanders or Bostonians will continue to reward centrally-located attractions with their business, while the rotund citizens of Memphis or San Antonio will continue to roll to their destinations in air-conditioned serenity.



if you want to go into further analysis on walkable cities, you should look outside of the US. Compared to the rest of the world, we're actually pretty bad at making walkable cities (maybe due to some sort of cultural isolationism issue). I would prefer wandering around on foot in Taipei, Taiwan any day compared to S.F., it's just not walking friendly enough.


here's a shout out for philly- very walk-friendly indeed- i would vote atlantic city for honorable mention- not only do they have an integrated (board) walk, but they have an excellent jitney system- i've heard jitneys work well in some 3rd world cities- i reeeally wish that a jitney system would take hold in philly (ie, a formal 'hack' system)

Don S

I applaud your sentiments and as a former Angeleno I agree that Los Angeles is much more walkable than it is generally perceived to be. I wouldn't put absolute faith in the numbers that WalkScore generates, however. I actually do walk most everywhere for routine errands and I take long recreational walks as well but when I plugged in my current address it was classified as only somewhat walkable. Furthermore, I was surprised to discover that I live next door to a lumber yard which, when I looked it up, is actually located 300 miles away. The web site is apparently a work in progress.


This is more proof that there are problems inherent in any algorithm. As jpmeyer pointed out, New York City is brought down by a county that, for these purposes, is not part of the city. (Staten Island, while one of the boroughs of New York, is not a place any person living in Manhattan/Brooklyn/Queens/The Bronx would want to 'walk' to on a whim.

New York is the only city in the country where more than 50% of the residents do not even own a car. No other city even comes close. I think that in itself is a huge testament to its walkability.

'New Development' - if by this, you are talking about developments in eastern Queens, then sure, but this region of the city is really more comparable to the suburbs just outside LA (a part which you conveniently do not include in your calculation for LA). Queens is within the city limits, but it should not factor into the walkability for, say, Manhattan. The two regions are too far apart geographically, and people who live in Manhattan have few reasons (other than perhaps work or visiting friends) to venture out to Queens anyway, mostly for the reason that - surprise! - almost everything is available within walking distance in Manhattan.



With respect to Atlanta, if you look at the map, Buckahead actually fares relatively well. It is the large Western and Southern parts of the city that really bring down the score. The city of Atlanta is already relatively small. The "urban core" with respect to both the city limits and especially to the entire metro area is very small.


Be Aware: Walkscore.com needs major improvements: it listed a quack medical website (elixa.com) as my nearest grocery store and a corporate office as my nearest restaurant when I used my home address.

Steve R

An interesting yet flawed statistic. The walkability scores are flawed due to the influence of local topology - relates to post 7's basic point out comfort level of walking. I tested my two most recent residences. Both had very walkable scores which did not match with the reality. One residence was in fact very walkable, amenities close and a relatively easy walk. The other residence, while amenities were close in an absolute sense was not in reality. The tool did not account for the 500 ft deep canyon that actually separated my residence from those amenities and made the real path of travel much longer.

How much do factors like this effect the real walkability of cities? I suspect significantly - just because you could, in theory, walk somewhere does not mean you can or will.