What is walkability?

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on Walkability. Tell us what walkability means to you using our comment function on the bottom of this page. Read Part 2, “Walkability 201: An Expanded Look” by clicking here.

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” ― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Humans are creatures of intention. We use our language to communicate thoughts and ideas in a deliberate way. But our language is imperfect, and sometimes the intention of our communication is muddied by the words we use. Confusion can result when we use a single word that is a stand-in for a larger set of ideas. Here, nuance and caveat become increasingly important if one hopes to convey precisely what they are meaning. Take, for example, the word “sustainability” – a term often used in the world of development and planning, but rarely, we would argue, given the space, meaning and understanding to properly convey an intended set of ideas. And so it is with a new term: Walkability. You’ve probably heard this term before. Recent national preference studies have shown that home buyers are willing to make tradeoffs in house size and price to live in homes that are in walkable neighborhoods.  Our very own study, Reset: Assessing Future Housing Markets in the Rocky Mountain West, referred to these neighborhoods as “compact, walkable developments.” We address the term briefly in our study, but it deserves a clearer treatment – it deserves the caveat and nuance that will shade its deeper meanings and more properly convey an intended set of ideas. We are not the only ones talking about walkability. Nor are we the only ones to ponder the deeper meaning of the term. From fellow bloggers to several academic papers, there is much to draw from when one wishes to put a finer point on this modern term (For more on walkability, we encourage you to read through the resources at the end of this article for more information). So, let’s talk walkability.

Three Key Principles

Walkability is much more than just providing citizens with “the ability to walk”. In our work with communities throughout the country, our team has observed several characteristics that result in optimal walkability. We are also alert to academic conversations that still carry on about quantifying, measuring and defining walkability. From these two viewpoints we propose a practical way to think about walkability. By and large, successful walkable developments incorporate three key principles, call them “The Three P’s”:

1)    Physical Access 2)    Places 3)    Proximity

That’s pretty straightforward, so let’s examine each principle individually.

Physical Access & Infrastructure

We’ve all been there – you really want to go to that shop that is only a little ways away, but to get there… *sigh* … there aren’t any sidewalks, or the sidewalks are cracked, narrow and exposed to speeding traffic, making the journey uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst. If walkability is a desired component of a new development or a redevelopment project, people will need to be able to physically get from one place to the next. Physical infrastructure literally marks the path from place to place, indicating where pedestrians are allowed and providing some degree of safe harbor from competing modes of transportation like transit and automobiles. In their effort to put some definition to the term, the U.S. Department of Transportation and partners published a checklist – “How Walkable is Your Community” – that focuses on the physical and safety aspects of neighborhoods. This is a useful tool to evaluate the physical conditions necessary to a walkable environment. There is no “one-size-fits-all” here. So while it’s important to provide the physical means to get around, there’s no one prescription for the surface-treatment, width or amenities that accompany the infrastructure. A soft surface trail may suffice to connect two different nodes of a neighborhood, but won’t likely serve very well as a walkable route to a corner store.  It would be hard for a person in a wheelchair to get to the store and back on a gravel pathway. Accessibility is crucial, and not just for the able-bodied. Universal design and incorporation of safety elements are key to the physical aspect of walkability. To help people audit the walkability and accessibility of their community, the AARP has developed a “Sidewalks and Streets Survey” tool. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Walkability examples

Places to Go

Now that we’re able to physically move ourselves around, where are we headed? It’s not enough to simply provide a means of getting around, because walkability demands that you’ve got an end to that means. There is no “perfect” combination of destinations and amenities that result in an optimally walkable area. What is important is that there is a sensible mix of destinations providing enough diversity so that people have the opportunity to fulfil at least some of their daily and weekly needs. Generally, a combination of the following amenities enhances an area’s walkability:

  • Workplace. If there’s one place most of us go every day, it’s to work. Being able to walk to work saves gas money and saves time spent in the car.
  • The Roosevelt Market in Boise, Idaho. Corner store/market. The Roosevelt Market – at the corner of Elm and Jefferson in Boise, Idaho – serves as a good example here. Tucked in a mix of residential and institutional uses, the market has served as an iconic and accessible locale for Boise’s east end since 1900. Here, residents can buy many of their grocery needs and hang out at the sidewalk tables.
  • Schools.  Across the street from the Roosevelt Market is Roosevelt Elementary School. The school has served Boise’s east end since 1920, and is located central to the neighborhood.
  • Restaurants. From the coffee shop to the sit-in diner, restaurants offer nearby residents places to go for a quick meal on the go or place to hang out.
  • Retail. This is somewhat of a catch-all category, and can include a wide-range of options: clothing, music stores, gifts, crafts and the like.
  • Public spaces and parks. Recreational spaces offer places to play, exercise and relax. These places often provide an important connection to the natural world.
  • Transit stops. Access to alternative modes of transportation like bus and rail can enhance walkability.
  • Culture. Museums, music venues, theatres and places for people to view art and history can enhance walkability.  

The more places to go, the more opportunity residents will have to fulfill their needs on foot, rather than driving.

Proximity to Home

OK, so we have a place to go, and we have a way to get there, now on to the next challenge: How far away is it? You might have the best protected sidewalks this side of the Mississippi, and the best public schools in the country, but you may be so far from them that non-motorized travel is not just practical. A rule of thumb here is that a mix of destinations within one-half mile from the doorstep – with sensible means to get there – is an accepted measure of walkability. We’re not talking as the crow flies, so to be more specific, a 10 to 15 minute walk is a reasonable metric, and represents the outside limits of what we consider walkable. Beyond a half-mile, or 10 minute stroll, and an area’s walkability will decrease significantly.

Not walkable

Walkability map


A brief note on creating walkable developments: It can be challenging. Since WWII, most new neighborhoods were fashioned in a suburban form, prioritizing the automobile over the pedestrian. As a result, the distance between home and services increased. For over 60 years, suburban development has been the primary form of development in America, to the point where its creation is institutionalized at the federal level and in most state and local governments. However, walkable communities are not necessarily downtown and given the low density of suburban development, infill opportunities abound and mixed-use redevelopment projects smattered in these neighborhoods could be a very positive influence on walkability in suburban neighborhoods.

Tying it all Together

Walkable areas will incorporate a sensible mix of physical infrastructure and places to go, all within a reasonable proximity from home. Several studies have shown benefits to living in a walkable environment: Increased physical health and increased social capital are correlated to people living in walkable neighborhoods. We also know that the more one walks to take care of business and pleasure, the more they’ll end up saving is gas. Beyond these practical benefits, there is new information suggesting that home buyers are increasingly interested in walkable developments. Now that consumers have voiced their preference for these types of neighborhoods, we can pay closer attention as we build new housing stock, or retrofit old, to provide more walkable amenities.  When we create communities that are physically connected, have places to go, and are in close proximity to home, we will create a healthier, more socially connected population, and who doesn’t want that? Our social nature means that we use words to communicate, convey ideas and deliver meaning. Its true that a word is just a word, but sometimes words take on a life of their own. Giving true life to our role as social beings means sometimes going beyond using our language and treating it as if all who listen intuitively understand our meaning. We must define, and we must repeat. Walkability is just such a term, a term that holds great meaning and conveys more than one idea. These are our thoughts. What are yours? Join the conversation by using the comment function at the bottom of this page.

Additional Resources

Blogs and Essays: –        National Association of Realtors: “Walkability: A Key Metro Metric” –        Project for Public Spaces: “What is Walkability” –        WalkScore: “What Makes a Neighborhood Walkable” –        Jane’s Walk: “Walkability: Making cities welcoming, liveable and safe” –        Veteran’s United Realty: “Walkability: A Step in the Right Direction for Your Listing” Academic: –       Gehrke, Steven. “A Review of Walkability Measures and the Proposal of a Standardized Classification Scheme” –        Leslie, Eva, et. al. “Walkability of local communities: Using geographic information systems to objectively assess relevant environmental attributes” Health & Place, Volume 13, Issue 1, Pages 111-122 Eva Leslie, Neil Coffee, Lawrence Frank, Neville Owen, Adrian Bauman, Graeme Hugo –        Moudon, Anne and Chanam Lee: “Walking and Bicycling: An Evaluation of Environmental Audit Instruments” –        Fairfax County, VA: “Walking Distance Abstracts”…/walking_distance_abstracts.pdf Brown, B., Werner, C., Amburgey, J., and Szalay, C. (2007). Walkable route perceptions and physical features: Converging evidence for en route walking experiences. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 34-61. Scroll down to view comments

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