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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Grading walkability: Q&A with Matt Lerner of Walk Score


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matt-lerner-walkscoreMatt Lerner is chief technology officer at Walk Score. Founded in 2007, Walk Score is an online, public access “walkability” index that provides rankings of communities across the globe based on how convenient it is for people living in neighbourhoods to meet their daily needs by walking. Lerner and his team have also branched out to create transit and cycling indices (Transit Score and Bike Score). Spacing spoke to Lerner about Walk Score and its associated enterprises.

Spacing: How do describe Walk Score to people you meet?
LernerWalk Score helps people find walkable places to live. Our apartment search site allows you to search for apartments by commute time, access to public transit, and proximity to the people and places you love by calculating a “walkability score” between zero and 100 for any address. A score above 90 is considered a “Walker’s Paradise” where you don’t need a car for your daily errands. Further, Transit Score measures access to public transit, and the more recently launched Bike Score measures “bike-ability.”

Spacing: What other useful tools does Walk Score possess?
Lerner: We’re the first real estate site to offer searches by commute time, where you locate an apartment within 20 minutes by public transit from your job. We have other search functions such as, “Find me a home within a ten minute walk of a subway stop” or with “a coffee shop within a five minute walk.” We provide a Walk Score for both residential and commercial addresses.

Spacing: How do Walk Score researchers gather information to determine a community’s walkability?
Lerner: We use a variety of different data sources to calculate a Walk Score, and have worked with an advisory board and a number of researchers to fine tune the Walk Score algorithm. Generally, we look at the distance between your house and a wide variety of places (e.g. grocery stores, coffee shops, parks, schools, restaurants) as well as the quality of the road network near the address, which is a good proxy for pedestrian friendliness. We’re now working on incorporating first person accounts.

Spacing: Do you think Walk Score adequately takes account for all factors affecting walkability, including sidewalks, topography, and climate?
Lerner: Our new Street Smart Walk Score takes barriers into account as well as the quality of the underlying road network, including things like intersection density and block length, among others. Walkability is a complex thing so there are many things we look forward to incorporating in the future, including people’s opinions about aesthetics and other things that are hard to measure with an algorithm.

Spacing: For half a century, the overall trend was towards more car-oriented planning and development. But more recently, walkability has become very desirable. Do you have any insight into why have people’s preferences have shifted?
LernerWalk Score measures the old real estate cliché that the three most important things about a home are location, location, and location. There has been a huge cultural shift away from car-dependent suburbs and towards walkable, vibrant neighbourhoods. Most young people today are more interested in a city full of things to do than a mansion full of things they have to make payments on.

Spacing: How does Bike Score operate compared to Walk Score? What factors affect a community’s biking score?
Lerner: Bike Score takes into account hills, bike lanes, access to destinations, and the number of bike commuters — so the methodology is quite different than Walk Score.

Spacing: Do you have plans to expand Walk Score’s coverage to the rest of Canada and other countries besides the United States?
Lerner: Walk Score is currently supported in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but our apartment search function is for U.S. addresses only, though we hope to expand to more countries in the future.

Interview by Luca De Franco; illustration by Chantel Declerk

This feature appeared in Spacing’s Fall 2012 issue