Growing up off of Kelly Drive in North Stockton, I lived in a “somewhat walkable” neighborhood, according to Walkscore, the website that calculates the walkability of neighborhoods and cities. This rating makes sense on paper as I grew up fairly close to the Becks Colonial shopping centers—just .2 miles away, to be exact. A grocery store, gym, veterinarian, restaurants and various other shops and services all operated under a quarter mile from my house. I spent a lot of time there as a child, buying groceries, taking swim lessons, and playing basketball at the In Shape Health Club, but oddly enough, these trips were almost always made by car, not by foot. In an area designated by Walkscore as “somewhat walkable,” I almost never walked.
This is the problem with the Walkscore algorithm: it does not take into account the factors that make walking practical and enticing, nor does it consider what amenities are worth walking to. In the .2 miles it took me to reach these stores as a child, I had to travel on narrow sidewalks to cross two busy streets. Even upon arrival, dodging cars entering the parking lot was not uncommon. To a child, these characteristics make walking unsafe and unpleasant. It’s no wonder I preferred to be shuttled back and forth.
In Stockton, this contradiction is evident in a number of favorable Walkscore ratings for areas most would not consider walkable. Consider the neighborhoods surrounding Weberstown and Sherwood Malls. These neighborhoods are in the top seven most walkable in the city according to Walkscore, with ratings in the mid-60s, or “somewhat walkable.” However, these score are misleadingly inflated by the department stores and quick service eateries in the mall. Most people living near the mall probably didn’t choose to reside there based on its proximity to the Cinnabon. Moreover, the malls are designed to accommodate automobiles while pedestrians must brave busy streets and vast parking lots to simply enter the building.
Walkscore does a good job of identifying proximity to amenities, but fails to account for whether or not people actually walk to these places or if the area is conducive to walking in the first place. So how can we measure how far people will actually walk? Instead of measuring distance to amenities, we need to consider how the design of streets, shops and roads affect the behavior of pedestrians.
Luckily, author and urbanist Steve Mouzon has given this issue some thought, detailing how the built environment effects the amount people are willing to walk to reach their destination. Instead of proximity of amenities, Mouzon argues that it’s the route to get to those amenities that determine if the area is walkable or not.
“As we all know, if you’re at Best Buy and need to pick something up at Old Navy, there’s no way you’re walking from one store to another. Instead, you get in your car and drive as close as possible to the Old Navy front door. You’ll even wait for a parking space to open up instead of driving to an open space just a few spaces away… not because you’re lazy, but because it’s such a terrible walking experience.”
Mouzon makes a great point. If a place is designed for cars, proximity to amenities is inconsequential. According to Mouzon, people are willing to walk much farther if the environment around them is pleasant, safe and attractive. For example, Mouzon argues that in a typical suburban neighborhood featuring wide streets, speeding cars and little foliage, most are only willing to walk about 250 feet. This reality is exemplified by folks who will drive to the shared street mailbox a few houses away rather than walk to it—a behavior I have noticed in more than one occasion in Stockton. Compare that to what Mouzon calls the “Main Street standard”—with mixed use development and storefronts abutting the street— where pedestrians are willing to walk up to three quarters of a mile to reach their destination because the area is much more inviting.
Clearly, a higher Walkscore doesn’t guarantee higher pedestrian activity. Instead, encouraging walking through better design of public space is the way to go. Living close to a big shopping center is not enticing to pedestrians if they must first cross a parking lot or dangerous intersection.