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 walkscore.com 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 http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/2012/04/walk-each-day.html, 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, Education.com, 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 http://wellnessiis.com/2011/05/30/forestbathing/ and http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/27/easing-brain-fatigue-with-a-walk-in-the-park/?_r=0, 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, walkscore.com 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 I only recently found John Morgan's article on none other than Chamberlin Springs. He had unraveled 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 http://bayfield.org/bayfield-activities/ice-caves/.