Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Move Reveals Walk Score Flaws

by Drew Hanson

We moved recently. The new house provides us a higher quantity and quality of nearby walks. But rates it 32 points less walkable than our former home. That’s not right.

A couple years ago an article appeared here which bemoaned a decrease in daily walks. Posted at, it ended with the goal of a life with walking recast in a central role. We now have that. But in the process of finding our new home, flaws in the “walk score” used by many real estate web sites were uncovered.

According to Walk Score’s website, “Walk Score measures walkability on a scale from 0 - 100 based on walking routes to destinations such as grocery stores, schools, parks, restaurants, and retail.” The web tool “measures the walkability of any address using a patented system. For each address, Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5 minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points. A decay function is used to give points to more distant amenities, with no points given after a 30 minute walk. Walk Score also measures pedestrian friendliness by analyzing population density and road metrics such as block length and intersection density. Data sources include Google,, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community.”

Sounds good. So how could my old address receive a walk score of 77, or “very walkable”, while my new address scores only 45?

My old address was on a busy, commuter street through a traditional neighborhood with houses close to each other and the street. Weekday traffic counts averaged over 10,000 cars per day. Its two lanes of traffic were narrow and book-ended by on-street parking on both sides. Traffic tended to include a fair number of aggressive drivers who sometimes unsafely passed slower or turning traffic on the right or left. Getting in and out of a car’s driver’s side while it was parked on-street was scary thanks to unruly drivers—especially when trying to get a child in or out of a car seat.

Because of the preponderance of disrespectful, unsafe and unlawful driving habits on our former street, about half of bicyclists rode on the sidewalk instead of in the street which further diminished its walkability. There were four automobile-related deaths on the street within three blocks of the former house in the past ten years. For these and other safety reasons, we rarely let our children play in the front yard or walk unchaperoned to neighbors’.

From the former house, walking our kids the half-mile to elementary school involved crossing our own busy street plus a street that carried 14,000 cars per weekday. There were no signalized crossings of our street and drivers rarely stopped for pedestrians entering a crosswalk.

Our new home is in a less densely populated neighborhood even though houses on our block are as close or closer together as they were at our previous address. Fewer than 1500 cars pass our new home on an average weekday. Our children are now free to play in the front yard and walk alone to neighbors’ as far as five houses away.

Whereas a walk to the library from the former house took 3 minutes, it now takes 20. Whereas a walk to the pharmacy from the former house took 4 minutes, it now takes 24. Within 5 minutes of the former house were two restaurants we liked and within 20 minutes were several more. We have to walk 12 minutes from the current home to arrive at a restaurant we like, 24 minutes to a second one we like and more than 30 minutes for any others.

For a hardware store, however, it is a 13 minute walk from the new house. A walk to a hardware store from the former house was more than 30 minutes. The former house was closer to most commercial amenities but the walk to many of them meant the unpleasant hassle of crossing and/or walking along our street.

Walking our children to school is where things get more interesting. Like the walk to their former school, the new one is about a half-mile away. But instead of crossing a street with 10,000 cars/day with aggressive drivers who rarely yield to pedestrians and a second busy street with 14,000 cars/day, we now have to cross a boulevard with 22,000 cars/day. This would be six in one, a half-dozen in the other were it not for the fact that drivers on the boulevard very often yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in a non-signalized crosswalk. Accounting for such driving habits is missed by Walk Score.

The most significant difference in walks between old and new is the presence of more nature near our new address. There are more and larger parks, trails and native trees. Our former street terrace was dominated by less interesting young-to-mid-aged locust and ash trees while our new street and neighborhood have many inspiring mature oak and maple. Our former address had parks nearby but they were mostly small or with more developed areas like baseball fields. Our new address is near a large nature park and a walking/biking commuter greenway that are both great for walking. As discussed at sites like and, walks in nature are good for our physical and mental health. An accurate walk score would account for these factors.

In general, Walk Score apparently omits several positive and negative attributes of good walking. The score seems to be based overwhelmingly on simple distance measurements.
Walking/Biking Path and Greenway Behind Our New Home
As an aside, also provides bike scores. But this rating can be inaccurate too. Riding a bike on our former street was unpleasant at best. Amazingly our former address received a bike score of 99 for “biker’s paradise”. That’s just wrong. By comparison, our new street is nice for biking and our backyard is along a walking/biking path that extends for tens of miles in each direction including to the downtown of our city of a quarter-million residents. Our new address garners a probably accurate bike score of 89.

Walk Score may know something about New Urbanism. But people who know walking know there is more to walkability than proximity. For families with young children shopping for a different home or anyone attuned to walk quality, beware of potentially misleading Walk Score (and Bike Score) numbers.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In Search Of…Chamberlin Springs

by Drew Hanson

When the opportunity to spend a summer in Beloit, Wisconsin came along a few years ago I jumped at the chance. Beloit is, after all, home to the keystone figure in Ice Age Trail pre-history, Thomas Chamberlin. Learn the back story in An Unwitting Ice Age Trail Pioneer.

The loss of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs and Balkanization by neighboring Town of Beloit and Beloit Turner School District put the City of Beloit on a path of decline. If you are looking for fixer-upper real estate, the City of Beloit is your market. But this is not classic rustbelt. Wisconsin’s oldest college continues to breathe life into this proud city.

Beloit College is where Chamberlin earned his undergraduate degree and later worked as a professor. My summer included cherished walks around the charming college and stately nearby homes, truly outstanding city parks like Leeson, Horace White and Big Hill and an old cemetery called Oakwood.

Chamberlin family plot at Oakwood Cemetery
Around mid-summer I chanced across a booklet describing walks in and around Beloit. It included a plug for a place called Chamberlin Springs. I was intrigued. But we failed to find it on our one attempt. On my mental list of mysteries to unravel and outdoor nooks to explore it remained.

So I was thrilled when friend and writer John Morgan emailed recently about an article he was finishing on none other than Chamberlin Springs. He was unraveling the mystery!

Enjoy the fascinating story, Chamberlin Springs Stages a Comeback.

Has restoration made a pilgrimage to Chamberlin Springs a real possibility? My feet are itching to find out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

America’s Most Popular Winter Hike is an Economic Beacon

With Lake Superior beginning to melt, the most popular winter hike in the United States is closing. The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that during the two months of safe ice conditions over 135,000 people walked the frozen 5 miles required to view the ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

On the busiest Saturdays, over 10,000 people made the trek. Some had to park their cars 2 miles from the trailhead, which extended their hike to 9 miles plus whatever hiking they did at the caves.

National Park Service photo
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, famous for its natural beauty and lighthouses, is located at the northern end of Wisconsin. It is comprised of a 12-mile section of mainland and 21 islands in the largest expanse of freshwater in the world.

Lake Superior is the coldest, deepest, and highest in elevation of any of the Great Lakes. Part of a billion year old mid-continent rift, the bottom of Lake Superior is actually the lowest point in North America (yes, lower than California’s Death Valley). To walk on its frozen surface is a sublime pedestrian experience protected by the prohibition on snowmobiles, ATVs and fat-tire bicycles within a quarter-mile of the ice caves.

National Park Service photo

It just goes to show that lots of people will walk miles for a high quality experience, even in winter.

Bayfield Regional Conservancy photo
Hotels and restaurants within 40 miles of the ice caves are enjoying an economic boost thanks to throngs of tourists. According to NPS estimates, in just two months visitors to the ice caves pumped $10 million to $12 million into the local economy.

Whoever said hikers don't spend money?!

For more information, check out what the smart people at the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau have put together at

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zillmer Begins to Map the Southern Cariboos

by Drew Hanson

This is the second in a series of articles about Ray Zillmer’s pioneer mountaineering exploits in the Canadian Rockies. Ice Age Trail fans know Zillmer as the Milwaukee attorney who in 1958 founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation which became the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Each article in the series enlarges our picture of his rugged approach to wilderness travel by summarizing one of his papers that were published in the Canadian Alpine Journal. This one is based on Exploration of the Southern Cariboos which appeared in 1939.

Zillmer's own words is the best place to begin. “This was my seventh back-pack trip in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. On two previous trips I went alone, and on the others I was accompanied by another amateur who was inexperienced in mountain backpack trips. This year Lorin Tiefenthaler, my companion on the Mackenzie trail, was again with me, and he has put an end, once and for all, to the comment of my friends that ‘no one goes with Zillmer a second time.’ We planned to carry everything ourselves, without help or re-provisioning. The food was measured in the exact amounts required for the thirteen days. We carried only that which was absolutely necessary—2-pound sleeping bags, a very small tent, no firearms, no camp axe, no change of clothing except socks and underwear. But as we planned to make a plane table survey and to cross the icefields, we carried, in addition to our normal load, the equipment for the survey together with a primus stove, a gallon of gasoline, and climbing equipment. We planned to go up the valley of the Thompson from the point where it leaves the Canadian National Railways at the flag stop, Gosnell. The vicinity is unsurveyed and the only maps are based on sketches made by prospectors or trappers”.

Ray Zillmer on the Azure-Thompson Divide
“I had given thought to this trip for two years, studied plane table surveying, read all the material on the country that I could find, and carried on a considerable correspondence relative to it. I learned little about this part of the Cariboos, being quite surprised to hear from the trapper of the Canoe valley that he ‘had not been to the extreme head of the Canoe,’ and from others that they had never been at the head of the Thompson. I surmised that there must be a good reason for this.”

The first documented trek through the southern Cariboo Mountains was in 1871. Seven other expeditions explored the area in the intervening years, two of which included geologist R. T. Chamberlin—another man with Wisconsin ties. R. T. Chamberlin was the son of famed geologist Thomas Chamberlin who was an unwitting Ice Age Trail pioneer.

As had been arranged for Zillmer and Tiefenthaler, upon disembarking the train they met “Miss Ella Frye”, the licensed trapper of the upper Thompson River. They spent a night at her cabin of which Zillmer wrote, “On the wall of her cabin was the hide of a grizzly which she had shot a few miles up the trail we were to take in the morning. We plied her with questions for several hours, and her knowledge of the valley was of great help to us. She helped us even more, however, by insisting that we take the only mosquito netting she had. That was the one thing we needed most, yet we had forgotten it. She gave us a gasoline can, for ours was leaking. And she offered us a rifle which we declined. An old friend could not have been kinder to us.”

The next morning was July 3, 1939. Zillmer’s description of the next few days needs no editorializing. “For thirty and a half miles we followed the rough and heavily overgrown trail up the north and east side of the Thompson, to a point where it crossed to the other side of the stream. It took us four and a quarter days of strenuous travel to reach the crossing. It rained a lot and we were always wet, either from the rain or from the dripping willows, alders, and parsnip, through which we forced our way, or from the tall nettle and Devil’s club growth, through which we walked with hands raised high. Only when we crawled into our sleeping bags were we dry. It was wasted effort to dry our shoes or clothing, for we would only be thoroughly soaked again shortly after we started walking. I had trouble seeing, for my glasses were covered with the water or the debris from the bushes we pushed through.”

“At times the trail was so overgrown that we could not even see it, although we were on it. On such occasions we kept on it only by feeling for and following the trail’s depression of several inches. But this frequently resulted in our stumbling or falling when we stepped into holes or against small stones or logs we could not see. We forded the many branches of the Thompson and crossed many mud holes, and marshes often covered with water.”

“A day was lost through an injury to my left leg. Late on the first day of our trip the trail led to an area 150 to 200 yards in diameter, which was cluttered with several large and many small fallen trees. With my attention focused on looking for the trail while I was walking on a fallen tree seven or eight feet above the ground, I suddenly lost my balance and was compelled to jump. I was carrying my heavy sixty-pound pack and I crashed through the debris and undergrowth a foot or so. Only the next day did I realize that I had injured the tendons in my left leg. I suffered the next few days, not because of the very painful leg, but because of the mental anguish over the thought that I might have to give up the trip. But my leg improved on the fifth day, and I could again travel at a faster gait.”

“I had trouble opening my eyes on the morning of the second day, and when Lorin looked at me he said: ‘No wonder. Your eyes are almost closed from the mosquito bites. And you look as though you had small pox.’”

“On the morning of the fifth day we arrived at the crossing of the Thompson. For the first time, the weather had begun to clear.”

At this point the tandem faced several options. Zillmer described each choice within the historical context of their predecessors’ expeditions. They ended up choosing the option which involved fording an ice-cold stream back and forth. Eventually they reached a ford which was deeper and swifter than the rest. Zillmer wrote, “Lorin crossed rather easily, but he was six inches taller than I.” On Zillmer’s second attempt, “after standing a few seconds, though they seemed hours, I was thrown over, pack and all, on my back into the fast water. But the very strong current fortunately threw me quickly across to the other side of the stream, with no injury except a slightly skinned finger, in spite of the many rocks in the river.” They soon set camp.
Click on Zillmer's sketch map to see enlarged image
In the morning they began their exploration of the Thompson River headwaters and adjacent basins. For the next week they enjoyed good weather while they mapped this previously uncharted area and documented the sources of several rivers. They were afforded commanding views from the hand-full of peaks they summitted. They reveled in floral alpine meadows, described mountain goat, caribou and marmot and surveyed several glaciers.

Their time drawing to a close, it took three days to hike out. Of reaching the trailhead, Zillmer wrote, “We now weighed thirty pounds less. In spite of bushwacking, mosquitoes, rain, mud, and marshes, we are ‘rarin’ to go back to the Cariboos.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

Farewell, Prejudiced NPCA

by Drew Hanson

Areas of the National Park System are outstanding places to enjoy on foot. One organization gets a lot of attention for its efforts on behalf of the National Park Service but this writer’s 17-year experience exposes a prejudice. Following up on Mountain Majesty Bias, below is most of my October 11, 2006 letter to National Parks Conservation Association.

Dear National Parks Conservation Association,

Since 1990 I have been a devoted member of National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). I have read, usually cover to cover, every edition of National Parks magazine and saved every one of them. Since 1990 my life list of visited units of the National Park System has grown from three to 71.

But your article “The Fourth Coast” is trying my patience and testing my allegiance. Although the article represents a long-overdue treatment by NPCA of Great Lakes and more broadly freshwater issues, NPCA’s bias against the Heartland portion of the United States still shows.

The map that appeared on page 25 was by far most upsetting. It shows Mississippi River and Recreation Area and St. Croix National Scenic River even though both are entirely outside the Great Lakes watershed, places the label for the North Country National Scenic Trail a hundred miles out of place and omits the Ice Age National Scenic Trail entirely. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is partly within the Great Lakes watershed, the St. Croix and Mississippi parks are not.

A dozen times over these 16+ years I have written letters or emails to NPCA describing one facet or another of the national park in my backyard, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, but not once has NPCA mentioned the Ice Age Trail (IAT) in National Parks. Here was your chance to provide some glimmer of hope for the thousands of IAT volunteers (whose VIP hours total rank in the top ten of the entire National Park System each of the past several years) that NPCA is on our side. Here was your chance to show that you pay attention to your members. But you blew this chance to provide even token recognition.

The sting inflicted by your latest anti-Heartland bias might have been less severe had you not labeled the North Country Trail (NCT) at all because the IAT and NCT are both “non-units” of the National Park System. I am perplexed as to why instead of labeling both or neither you would choose to label only one. Both the IAT and NCT are great trails and could be great units of the National Park System if treated reasonably.

Why has NPCA been so insulting to those of us who labor on this non-traditional park, who pour our hearts into the Ice Age National Scenic Trail?

Given NPCA’s record of taking my money but ignoring my pleas, I cannot help but note that my NPCA membership is set to expire 6/30/07. That gives NPCA eight more months to say something constructive about the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in National Parks magazine. Anything short of that will lead to a very disappointed member redirecting his annual donation to some other deserving cause.

Best regards…

I never received a response from NPCA. So as promised, my membership with them ended on June 30, 2007. The 17-year stack of National Parks magazines went into the recycling bin. No sweat. My life list of National Park Service areas continues to grow without NPCA—the most recent addition being Keweenaw National Historical Park.

You don’t need to support NPCA to learn about and support the conservation of national park areas. If you want to support an organization that does fantastic conservation work in the Heartland region of the country, give to the Ice Age Trail Alliance. If you want to support an effective national or international conservation organization, I recommend The Nature Conservancy or The Conservation Fund. If you enjoy reading news about the National Park Service, a great website and list serve is National Parks Traveler, which runs balanced and informed stories about places in the Heartland and beyond.