Two Brothers, Two Radically Different Walk Scores

What do the extremes look like?

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I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My brother lives in a suburb of Charleston, SC. We have normal size homes in normal communities, with normal American lifestyles. Normal in every way but one: my Walk Score is 100 and my brother’s is 1.

If you know anything about this metric, you know this is close to impossible.

First, only a handful of whole neighborhoods in America have a Walk Score of 100, and they’re all in lower Manhattan. That should tell you something about the definition of the term. It’s the measure of the distance from your dwelling to everything you need and want to be near – from grocery stores and restaurants to schools and banks to churches, hairdressers and entertainment venues. Even though there are no full neighborhoods with a score of 100 in this or any other U.S. city outside of Manhattan, there are individual addresses that achieve the perfect score. Urban neighborhoods in cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle are full of such addresses. And at least one place in Ann Arbor, our downtown condo in the Armory on E. Ann St., scores 100. It may be one of the few places in Michigan if not the Midwest that hits this level of walkability.

My wife and I love it. We get more done in a day than our car-dependent friends who live further out. We can walk to all the places listed above, as well as amble off to a farmers market, major University, library, concert halls or promenade along Main St. or limp off to a hospital. If we yearn to go much further afield, there are nearby intercity bus and train stations. Our one car is driven about 5000 miles a year, unless there’s a lengthy summer trip. The walking distances are not only short but the sidewalk routes are safe, interesting and pleasant. Importantly, there are many, many destinations worth walking to, and enough population density to support the rich mix of venues and establishments. If we want to go farther, bike lanes and a bus system can take us there.

My brother and his wife, on the other hand, live by their two cars. Every single trip is by car (except when my brother rides his bike recreationally). They live in conventional suburbia in a freestanding house on a quiet street, but the more remote location of their suburban neighborhood and it’s disconnected street layout makes for more frequent and longer car trips than our downtown gridiron of small blocks (with 2 and a half times as many intersections per sq. mile).

So what?  Well, I would contend our walkable lifestyle is healthier, safer, cheaper, more convenient, efficient, and pleasant. But that’s a relatively subjective comparison. What’s a more objective claim is our smaller ecological footprint. The energy needed for mobility and for heating and cooling our dwelling unit embedded in a multi-family building is considerably less, not to mention less land and water consumption or less storm water runoff and solid waste. This will redound to the climatic benefit of coming generations, including our son, who just happens to live without a car in one of those lower Manhattan neighborhoods that has a Walk Score of 100.

You too can get your Walk Score by simply typing in your address at walkscore.com. Spend the extra minute and scroll down the new StreetSmart version, which are the scores I cite above.

In the meantime, we need more housing built in our downtowns and commercial centers, so that others can enjoy high Walk Scores while making our cities and regions more sustainable. It’s a delightful and healthy path to environmental, economic and social resilience.

If you think this is altogether too environmental, you might consult with your investment advisor, who will tell you that Wall Street now sizes up REITs and their real estate holdings by their Walk Score.

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Doug Kelbaugh FAIA is a Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan and serves on the CNU Board of Directors.