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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The search for a walkable neighborhood

Many of you have probably discovered Walkscore, a website where you can put in any address in the country and it will tell you a score based on its walkability to businesses, parks, and schools, with 0 being the most car-dependent and 100 being a "walker's paradise." (And just because your favorite neighborhood has sidewalks doesn't mean it has a high score.) Huntsville doesn't fare well on this site, with a citywide average of 38; if Huntsville were one of the nation's 40 largest cities, we would be the 39th most walkable, behind Nashville and in front of bottom-ranked Jacksonville. Other cities in the area don't fare much better; Decatur is the best in the region with a 40 average, Athens and Madison came in at 37 and 28 respectively.

I decided out of curiosity to take the "walkscores" a step further. I divided Huntsville up into 14 sections/neighborhoods of various sizes and put them against 16 other communities in the region, everywhere from Mooresville (population 65) to Decatur (population 56,000). I selected up to twelve addresses in each neighborhood at random and took the average. The result: unscientific lists of the ten most and least walkable communities in the region.


 A signalized crosswalk at Big Spring Park, Downtown. This location has a walkscore of 82.


Most Walkable
  1. Downtown Huntsville-- No surprises here; most of the CBD and Historic District are very walkable. However, the most walkable address I found in the region was in #2. Most walkable: Lincoln Street. Least walkable: Searcy Homes, which still had a fairly high score of 69; coming redevelopment will probably raise this. Average score: 74.7
  2. Fayetteville-- a fine Courthouse Square and downtown make this Southern Tennessee city the place to beat. Most walkable: the large historic district, which is where I found the only "walker's paradise" (score of 95) in the region. Least walkable: its suburban fringes, which will only grow as Huntsville continues its march northward across the state line. Average score: 72.6
  3. North Downtown-- surprisingly, this largely industrial area (which includes up-and-coming Lincoln Mill) beat out established urban neighborhoods such as Five Points and Merrimack (#11). Most walkable: Lincoln Mill. Least walkable: the University/Parkway interchange, the convergence of Huntsville's two "Berlin Walls" (as said by a local bicyclist). Average score: 71
  4. West Downtown/Lowe Mill
  5. Terry Heights
  6. Athens
  7. Ardmore
  8. Arab
  9. Medical District/Blossomwood
  10. Five Points
Least Walkable

   10.  New Hope
     9.  Southeast Huntsville
     8.  Meridianville
     7.  Monrovia
     6.  Northeast Madison County
     5.  Harvest
     4.  Hazel Green
     3.  Mooresville-- this cool 6-block historic town would seem like the perfect walkable community. But being sandwiched between 565, the Tennessee River, and farmland, there really isn't much to walk to. Average score: 9
     2.  Zierdt Road/Triana-- this sprawlicious area eked out of the bottom spot because I decided to include the town of Triana in the average. Most walkable: Triana. Least walkable: Beadle Lane. Average score: 8.5

     1.  The Coves (Hampton, Big)-- Hampton Cove is the only place where I found a walkscore of 0-- actually, half of the addresses I used had the lowest score possible. Most walkable: the closest you live to 431 and Sutton, the better (but not by much). Least walkable: Everywhere else. Average score: 5.6

I know these rankings and "walkscores" are somewhat flawed. I noticed that especially when addresses closer to major commercial corridors such as the Parkway and University got better scores. But it goes to show that if these major roads were made more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, the surrounding neighborhoods would be much more walkable in reality.

You're also probably wondering how places like Ardmore and Athens got such high scores. These towns have compact, relatively lively downtowns that are surrounded by "pre-car" neighborhoods, where the streets are laid out in a grid. Businesses such as grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries, schools, etc. are much less spread out in these towns than they are in Huntsville, making them more accessible by foot and bike.

Just in case you're wondering, Providence got an average score of 35, putting it right in the middle of the rankings.

Walkscore: http://www.walkscore.com/

9 comments:

Dennis said...

I live in Hampton Cove and chose to live here because of the miles of sidewalks and the bike paths. Great (and beautiful) place to walk.

James said...

Ah, but is there anything to walk to? The point of this is: while your subdivision might have lots of great sidewalks, can you use them to walk to the grocery store, pharmacy, school, etc? That's what "walkability" is all about.

Anonymous said...

Walkability is very overrated. How many people actually live their lives in such a way that they walk from their home to stores to work, etc? Also, is there a relationship between median income and tendency to walk or use public transportation? Even if you lived a block from the grocery store, how beneficial is that if you have to lug ten bags of groceries back to your home? Most people (like 99%) are going to be in their cars anyway to perform various errands at places not within walking distance; so with the car in the equation, they can (and do) simply stop at those mythicly desired "shops and coffee and bookstores, etc" that they would walk to if they actually did live a block away from these shopping places. How many people factor the ability to walk to a store when making a $300,000+ purchasing decision? Finally living within walking distance to shopping and such also means living close to lots of vehicle traffic, 4AM delivery trucks, people waiting for buses, parking lot lights, and ugly signs.

Anonymous said...

Do people who live in the most walkable places actually walk more? Probably not. Maybe on a nice weather Saturday morning to have a Starbucks or something. But for the majority of need based self based transportation needs (shopping, doctor, library, soccer practice, haircut, etc), walking takes too long and is too much of a hassle. Sure, if the point of walking is just to walk then these places (and Hampton Cove) are very walkable. But "Is there anything to walk to?" is pretty much irrelevant.

NicoleC said...

Anonymous, you may WANT to drive places, but being able to walk isn't overrated. As they say, don't know it until you've tried it.

Before I moved to Huntsville, I lived in a walkable neighborhood, and I loved it. You don't need to lug home 10 bags of groceries when the grocery store is 2 blocks away, and yes, it's faster to walk than it is to get in the car, navigate the streets, find a place to park...

I never drove on the weekends. (I had to drive to work, unfortunately.) We never had any issues with noise or crime -- and frankly I don't find acres of cookie cutter red brick houses with tiny yards and windows that look into each others' bedrooms any prettier than a well-maintained street, but that's a personal choice.

My condo complex had many handicapped and older people who couldn't drive. In a place like Hampton Cove, they'd have been trapped in their homes and dependent on others. For the rest of us, it WAS a change of mindset to walk two blocks to the pharmacy, but almost everyone who lived there made the change and stayed with it, because it has many rewards.

And incidentally, this was not a low income area. One of the reasons the area was highly valued was it's walkability.

Anonymous said...

I believe walkability is extremely underrated. It seems to me that a lot of people have never had the opportunity to walk on a daily basis to take care of errands because of distance or their roads are dangerous. These people typically do not truly understand the benefits of walking: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/walking/HQ01612.

Maybe if people walked more we could reverse the obesity trend: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html#State

I live in Five Points and bought a house here because of the walkability of the area. I try to walk everywhere I can. I walk to buy groceries, when I want to eat out downtown, to go to the library, to buy Christmas presents, etc. Unfortunately my commute is not walkable (around 8 miles). However, I try to take the Shuttle or bike whenever possible. I could just as easily drive if I wanted to, but I don't because walking is very enjoyable. I know it improves the quality of my life.

Anonymous said...

As environmental awareness increases, and the cost of gas increases, walkability is only going to become a bigger issue - so I say we'd better get used to it and make our city more walker/biker/pedestrian friendly.

Anonymous said...

I think it is rather sad and hilarious that most people (I'd say 95+%) DON'T think about walkability when making a $300,000 purchase decision. There is only 40 years left of oil, and pretty much no alternatives except for $40,000+ electric cars coming to the market that the vast majority of Americans won't be able to afford. Walking, biking, and public transportation are coming if you like it or not. The value of your home will depend on it. The Hampton Cove area is screwed unless they get a bus route set up pronto (ha!). It is amazing to spend a week in Portland, Oregon and watch so many already biking, walking, or taking the light rail... then come back to Huntsville and it's like landing on Planet Stubborn. We've always done it this way (drive all over the place in personal autos), so by golly I don't care if gas is $30/gallon... I'm gonna keep doing it!

With that said, I have spent a good amount of time playing with Walkscore.com and pounding the pavement to find the best walkable areas in the region, and I pretty much agree with James. My pick hands down is Fayetteville... you could probably live quite comfortably in that town with nothing but a bicycle and your own two feet. The town is now 200 years old, and hasn't really changed in a 100... which is a GOOD thing. Pretty much everything is within a half mile. My second pick would be Five Points/Old Town (problem is affordability since a lot of SOMEBODYS are now putting their $$$ toward walkable neighborhoods). A quick comment on Madison.... most of Madison is completely car-dependent, but the area around the Kroger on Hughes Road is not too bad for walkability/bikeability and is the best you'll find in the area (62/100 on Walkscore). There are a few good walkable spots in Huntsville, but they are starting to be recognized for that.... and becoming more expensive (or the houses sell FAST)... while the rest of Huntsville is downright depressing for the amazing short sidedness that the planners and builders had post World War II. We'll pay for it big time in the long run.

Dennis said...

Walkability is not just walking to something. It is also about walking for the joy of walking. That's why I chose Hampton Cove.

I work downtown and love walking there too but it is not because I am walking to anything usually (unless it is the bank or for a snack).

Walking is important and I am for anything that improves a citizen's ability to walk in safety.