I’m looking at a map of Pittsburgh that looks like someone dropped rainbow sherbet all over it. Lime is covering downtown and the flat areas of the South Side and the North Side, and then is strung up the Strip District and into various globs around the East End. Most neighborhoods with the word “Heights” in them are covered in raspberry, like Stanton Heights and Crafton Heights.
As much as I love sherbet, I don’t want to see my city covered in it. What I want to see all over Pittsburgh are coffee shops, grocery stores, book stores, banks, bus stops–all of the amenities that, when close together, make urban living exciting, convenient, and less polluting. And that’s what the sherbet is showing. The new version of Walk Score attempts to rate the walkability of an address, a neighborhood, or even the average of a whole city. The color-coded map it provides is a quick way to look at a region. (Note: Lime sherbet is good; raspberry is bad.) It takes all of the amenities I mentioned and more, combines them with data like intersection density and average block length, then pinches and pulls the whole mess with weighted counting and algorithms to finally say, “The South Side Slopes are very walkable.”
Well…yeah. That’s why I moved there, in part–to be in walking distance to the glory of East Carson Street, while not too close that I have to bar my ground-floor windows. Walk Score is an OK way to think about what you already know about walking around your area.
What’s more interesting than the simple Walk Score is arguing over the Score’s weak methodology. Walk Score is extremely open about their process, which makes criticizing it easy. Walk Score says “Convenience Stores are filtered out of grocery store results.” Why? The point of a convenience store is convenience. Sometimes, all I need is a jug of milk. I’ll pay an extra quarter if it saves me five minutes. Walk Score gives high marks for a grocery store, but only counts one grocery in an area. From Market District, to Whole Foods, and on to Trader Joe’s in the East End is only .8 miles. Am I the only one that loves that trifecta?
Walk Score combines bars and restaurants together. That’s just dumb. I go into a bar maybe once a year but eat at a restaurant a few times a month. And Walk Score gives dramatically less weight to an amenity the further it is from your location, so that something one mile away gets only 12% of its full points. Hey Walk Score–sometimes I want to walk more than a few steps. That’s the point–walking. One mile away is the idea.
In all, Walk Score is a great idea that needs years of work. Users should be able to change all of the data to suit their desires. Not allowing complete flexibility means one is at the mercy of the programmer’s morality and vision of a great neighborhood. One glaring error is not including topographical data. I live only a 10-minute walk from bustling East Carson Street–if I’m going downhill. Coming home, it might take twice as long to clamber up the 300-odd steps to get to my house. That’s a huge walkability factor for most people. For now, Walk Score will give you the most cursory idea of density of amenities, but it won’t come close to actually–you know, walking around and checking a place out.