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Walkability in your ‘hood

There are a number of indexes around that measure how easy it is to walk in your neighbourhood. Each seems to have a different focus: pedestrian safety, urban design characteristics that encourage walking, accessibility to shops and services. However, the main agenda is the same: to increase walking in North American cities.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Barry Wellar (University of Ottawa) developed a Walking Safety Index that has been used by several municipalities in evaluating their intersections. Municipalities are encouraged to give signal light priority to pedestrians at intersections, design them to achieve safety, comfort, convenience, and well-being of pedestrians, and apply the WSI to transportation projects, official plan amendments, rezoning applications and site plans. Further, transit vehicles should be able to change signal lights, should be given priority right-of-way to enter traffic lanes, surface parking lots should be removed from areas served by transit, a moratorium imposed on road and street expenditures, and road maintenance budgets reduced to accelerate the shift from car to walking, cycling, and transit.

The World Bank developed a Walkability Index for its clients in the Far East. It aims to correct some of the walkability issues in developing cities by developing awareness in city planners and city officials, which will lead to better pedestrian infrastructure and safety measures.

Larry Frank, James Sallis, Brian Saelens, et al. have generated a Walkability Index to be used in planning and health research. This is based on extensive research involving the urban design qualities that encourage walking, including lighting, walking surface, intersection design, accessibility to services, pedestrian safety measures, and surrounding land uses.

A quick online version of this is Walk Score, which ranks your neighbourhood walkability in terms of distances to services, schools, retail amenities, etc. You type in your address (n.b., it works for Canadian addresses as well) and it uses Google Maps to calculate the distances to these services and amenities. UBC campus got 52 out of 100, “somewhat walkable”, not surprising since there is no grocery store within walking distance (yet: the Save-On is due to open in a few months). Walk Score also pegged the nearest library as 2.6 km away, because it only picked up the closest Vancouver Public Library branch and not the many UBC libraries within walking distance. It missed a couple of local restaurants and the green grocers. And while Walk Score lists parks and fitness centers, it doesn’t list bike paths. So there are clearly some limitations here, like Google Maps doesn’t have all small local business listings. Interesting, since WalkScore’s objective is to “help homebuyers and renters find houses and apartments in great neighbourhoods.”

Yellow Pages has a search function that lets you see how many businesses are within a specified radius of your house. On yellowpages.ca, go to “By Proximity” and enter an address and type of business you’d like to find. For UBC this search picked up 11 restaurants within 1km, 3 more within 2km, and 20 more within 3.5km (the main street closest to campus). Just as a comparison, I typed in Yonge and Bloor (a main intersection in downtown Toronto) and there were 242 restaurants within a 1km radius!

These various walkability indexes can be used by both planners and the general public to get a rough estimate of accessibility in local neighbourhoods. The last two could be particularly useful when relocating to a new neighbourhood or while on vacation, but it should be noted that they concentrate on retail or commercial amenities and not parks, bike trails, scenic or natural attractions.


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