Creating – and Using – a Rating System for Neighbourhood Walkability (1993)
Creating – and Using – a Rating System for Neighbourhood Walkability: Towards an Agenda for “Local Heroes”, by Chris Bradshaw, Ottawa, Canada
October 1, 1993 (presented to the 14th International Pedestrian Conference, Boulder CO)
“Walkability” is a quality of place, one that is being eroded by
the day throughout the world. Although the term has been
appearing in literature for some time, the author, a pedestrian
rights activist and public consultation practitioner, knows of no
attempt to measure it. This paper attempts to do that, as well
as give three practical purposes for using the “walkability
index”. One such use is to provide a motivation to induce more
people to become “local heroes”, by re-establishing their links
with their streets and neighbourhoods and committing personal
resources to rebuild their local physical and social
infrastructure, so necessary to human life and the ecology of
I. WHY MEASURE WALKABILITY?
I believe that I live in one of North America’s most walkable
neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, its housing is also among the
highest priced in the city. Last year, its homeowners and
business owners faced steep increases in property taxes which are
based on market values. Many of my neighbours challenged the
market-value-based property taxes with the argument that market
value of one’s property does not necessarily reflect one’s
ability to pay taxes. Others argued differently: that the average
person in our neighbourhood is more likely to walk and therefore
has less need for the municipal-level infrastructure paid for by
This got me thinking. I had always liked the idea of being able
to measure this quality called walkability. But now there might
be a very important use for it. What if a collection of such
measurements – in the form of a rating system or index – could be
used in calculating property taxes and, for new buildings, the
initial development fee? This may seem unfair, since it comes
close to being an example of user-pay, but would be applied not
to the individual or the household, but to the basic unit of
walkability, the street block and the neighbourhood.
The index could also be useful to homebuyers who could use the
index to settle matters such as: Are the streets safe? Is
transit service good? Will we need one car, two cars, or even no
Finally, there is the use of the index’s indicators as an agenda
for collective action. Since the index would apply to an entire
neighbourhood, the action would naturally be collective. A
neighbourhood could improve its rating through changing itself:
its physical form and amenities, its range of businesses, its
local services, and collective programs. Therein lies the
reference to the “local hero”, the person who enjoys the local
scale, has affection for his/her particular surroundings, and
commits time and resources to doing something to improve it by
working with and through others to improve the conditions for a
sense of community: economic, social, and cultural commerce.
II. WHAT IS WALKABILITY?
Walkability has four basic characteristics:
1. A “foot-friendly” man-made, physical micro-environment: wide.
level sidewalks, small intersections, narrow streets, lots of
litter containers, good lighting, and an absence of obstructions.
2. A full range of useful, active destinations within walking
distance: shops, services, employment, professional offices,
recreation, libraries, etc.
3. A natural environment that moderates the extremes of weather-
wind, rain, sunlight – while providing the refreshment of the
absence of man’s overuse. It has no excessive noise, air
pollution, or the dirt, stains, and grime of motor traffic.
4. A local culture that is social and diverse. This increases contact
between people and the conditions for social — and economic
III. PROPOSAL FOR CREATING THE WALKABILITY INDEX
[Note: Like in golf, the lowest score is best. Each question
gives the “demerits,” from 1 to 4, to features or qualities that work
1. Density (persons per acre, up to centre-line of bordering
1 – over 15
2 – 10-15
3 – 5-10
4 – fewer than 5
2. Parking places off-street per household (unrestricted street
1 – less than 1
2 – 1-2
3 – 2-3
4 – more than 3
3. Number of sitting spots on benches per household (include
seating in front yards)
1 – more than .75
2 – .5 to .75
3 – .25 to .5
4 – .25 or fewer
4. Chances of meeting someone you know while walking (survey)
1 – 10 or more per mile
2 – 3-10 per mile
3 – fewer than 3 per mi.
4 – “Are you kidding?!”
5. Age at which a child is allowed to walk alone (survey)
1 – Age 6 or younger
2 – Ages 7-9
3 – Ages 10-13
4 – Age 12 or older
6. Women’s rating of neighbourhood safety (survey)
1 – “I walk alone anywhere anytime”
2 – “I walk alone, but am careful of routes”
3 – “I must walk with someone at night”
4 – “I never walk, except to car visible from entrance”
7. Responsiveness of transit service.
1 – Within ten minutes
2 – 10-20 minutes
3 – more than 20 minutes
4 – no service
8. Number of neighbourhood “places of significance” (significant
to the respondent) named by average respondent. (survey)
1 – 10 or more
2 – 5-10
3 – 3-5
4 – fewer than 3
9. Parkland (measurement)
1 – >50 acres/square mile and average residence and
2 – >50 acres/square mile and average residence and
3 – <50 acres/square mile and average residence and
4 – <50 acres/square mile and average residence and
10. Sidewalks (single point each)
– Not on both sides of 90% of streets
– Dips at each driveway
– Widths less than 5 feet on residential streets;
8 feet on shopping streets
– More than one discontinuity (1″ or more) per block
FINAL SCORE DIVIDED BY 20 WILL PRODUCE INDEX BETWEEN 0.45 AND 2.00
IV. SCALE IN HUMAN ACTIVITY
We live life a different scales:
Until recent times, few people lived their lives at scales above
the city/region level. In fact, although many people have jobs
that operate in the loftier orbits, or favour international news
to local news, or buy few locally produced goods, life is still
Think of the seven scales as a hierarchy inside a thermometer.
As energy and cognitive capacity increases, the mercury expands
up the scale as the individual has the ability to operate at
larger scale. Over the normal course of a person’s life, the
scale starts low, climbs into adulthood, then drops slowly until
death. If plotted against time, it would be like a bell curve.
But no matter how large a domain we can master, we continue to
need to function comfortably at lower scales.
The problem is this. we are losing the “infrastructure” for the
street and neighbourhood scales. The streets have become
automobile feeders for the city-scale roads. City agencies have
replaced neighbourhood and street-level visiting of the sick and
elderly. The child, who needs to have ever-widening contiguous
spaces to freely explore as he/she grows, is not allowed
independent access to the street until after he or she is old
enough not to have much use for it. How many of us in our work
produce for a local market or purchase local goods or services?
The result is cities designed only for AAAs: active, affluent
adults. If you are young, old, or disabled, you stay inside or
go out only with a guardian in tow, usually ferried about in a
car or bus. If you are poor, transit and long walks under
inhospitable conditions is your lot. These people not only are
denied the human scale and lively streets they need, but they now
need more income to buy the “solutions”: a car and a “better”
Why has this happened?
1. The automobile – a vehicle more suited to freeways and rural roads
– has taken over all streets. As a society we now accept that
streets are dangerous and dirty. Drivers are not held responsible
for pedestrian deaths and injuries; the pedestrians or their
guardians are. The streets reflect “might makes right”, rather
than, “the more you wield, the more you yield” that exists between
boats on waterways.
2. Women, the traditional nurturers of the local scale, including the
household, have joined the workforce and are adopting men’s love
of the large scale, which they believe equals power.
Unfortunately, street & neighbourhood relations have suffered.
(The solution, of course, is not for men and women to go back to
their own separate “domains”, but for all adults to reestablish
3. We are moving towards globalism: economy, government, and even
environmentalism. There is little in-between that is not owned or
controlled by global interests: no “sinew”, no connecting tissue.
Why? The large-scale interests want it that way: local interests,
loyalties, goods, values, etc. are redundant in the “modern”
Urban life, too, is disdained. Life is to be lived only after
leaving the city job far behind each day and driving as far away
to a non-urban home as money and time will afford.
The result is an imbalanced infrastructure: People buying private
solutions to public problems. There is no civic life occurring in
civic places anymore. We are told to expect only negative
experiences in these places. They are replaced by larger private
yards, membership in health clubs, and exotic vacations in places
where safe civic spaces and human-scale streets still exist.
When they must be used, one takes along “protection”. We buy
ever-more sophisticated home and car alarms, rather than spend
time rebuilding common, local space. The self-regulating civic
culture of the Commons is fast disappearing. In those spaces we
now see the “weeds” of crime, litter, unkempt buildings and
grounds, noise and grime, and abandoned people.
V. HOW BROADLY DOES WALKABILITY IMPACT ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT COSTS?
Applying the walkability index to taxes and development charges
raises the question, “Shouldn’t it be limited only to the portion
that applies to transportation infrastructure?” No. The effects
of walkability are beneficial over a far broader area.
The walkable neighbourhood makes less demand on several
* roads and parking facilities: Because of shorter trips and
smaller modes (space and weights), they make lower use of roads
and parking, and the real estate and maintenance costs they
* transit: Transit subsidies are lower (or perhaps non-existent) for
those living in walkable neighbourhoods: 1) more riders per mile;
2) shorter trips and therefore more fares per mile; 3) more
transit use in off-peak; and 4) more bi-directional travel during
* police protection: The walkable neighbourhood provides a great
deal more of its own surveillance, provides more jobs and
activities for youths, has fewer new, expensive cars to be stolen;
and fewer off-street parking lots where assaults are most often
* density-sensitive services: Garbage collection, underground pipes,
fire protection, and general administration are services that cost
more where development is less dense.
* social and health services: besides being sensitive to density,
these services are also sensitive to the presence or lack of
informally provided community services, best illustrated by
neighbours visiting sick neighbours or providing babysitting or
even a ride for a neighbour having a doctor or job appointment.
* economic development – the higher-density, the mixed land use, the
availability of a larger and more diverse work force, and the
availability of marginal, “incubator” spaces and services makes
these neighbourhoods more powerful generators of economic
VI. ENTER “LOCAL HEROES”:
I have started to invest more of my time into my local
communities: my street and my neighbourhood. I am starting to
see the need – and the opportunities – for this involvement, and
am trying to find a way to support myself doing it. Here are my
ideas and initiatives. I predict that, due to the downturn in the
economy (and the poor expectations for early recovery) and the
arrival of the baby boomers in the empty-nester stage of life,
many more people will find their local interests growing.
What are “local heroes”?
The term local heroes comes from a movie of the same name in
which the main character successfully resists the moves of Burt
Lancaster working for a multinational company to convert the
local economy and resources to a “higher use”. In my mind, a
local hero is and is simply loyal to that scale and to the
specific people and places within his/hers, the same way a mother
is loyal to the family and to her family.
VII. AN AGENDA FOR LOCAL HEROES:
Local heroes need to spend time and mental energy getting to know
their community and street better and sympathetically. And that
takes time. Our employer pays us to spend 40 hours a week
focusing on his/her scale, and if we have a family, we will tend
to spend most of the remainder on the household and ourselves.
Our personal time will tend to be spend with larger-scale
information and entertainment sources available in print and
The first local heroes will need to be real leaders. They will
need to conceive and create new institutions and infrastructure
for these scales. Here are some ideas that I am working on:
1. Start a “co-transportation” club. This is the way to provide
“fractional” access to a car and break the need to use a car a lot
in order to justify the high fixed costs.
2. Local stories and maps. Get local people to record/share local
knowledge, develop local maps, design neighbourhood walks for
newcomers & visitors. Then hold a walking festival with all the
walks offered as part of a multi-day blitz.
3. Visions. Organize street and neighbourhood visions/plans and
bring together resources to coordinate future changes to conform.
Try a Visual Preference Survey (developed by A. Nelessen) to
focus people on their communities as place. It gets people
mentally out on foot in the settings they usually only drive
4. “Be a PESt!” (Pedestrian Environment Steward) and animate and care
for – the streets and parks.
5. Start a “DePoT” (corner store, recycling centre, laundry/photo
drop-off, and postal station, and delivery point for larger stores
and catalogue shopping). Hire teenagers to help with pickup and
delivery; supply them with cargo-carrying “bringhy”.
6. Be a “johnny greenseed” and restore your neighbourhood’s ecology
7. Get local merchants to “localize”: 1) cater to local customers
(the ones who don’t use parking spots and don’t expect you to sit
on busy road and advertise city-wide, 2) encourage locals to
produce for your store, 3) hire locally and help current employees
to move into neighbourhood, 4) reduce outbound wastes
8. Start a neighbourhood BBS (computer bulletin board system) for
local information and commerce.
9. Determine your community’s walkability.
I hope I have related a context for recreating the missing links
in the continuity of urban life, the scales that are closest to
the commons, the economic incubators, the cultural breeding
ground, the feedback systems necessary for reducing humankind’s
“footprint” on the earth and on each other. Walkability is
pretty close to livability, to healthy communities, to
sustainability, but it’s not as abstract. We can all relate to
it. And it relates to so much to quality of life: health,
community, social equity, enjoyment, attachment to place,
environment, fitness, low stress.
Let’s look at walkability as a positive indicator of what we all
want – to replace pollution, crime, traffic accidents as
indicators of what we don’t want – and thus become a focus for
action, the collective action, action and involvement that re-
creates community and caring for each other and the places we
Let me close with the words of Wendell Berry in his essay, “Words
The favourite adjective of [the environment] movement now seems to
be ‘planetary’. This word is used, properly enough, to refer to
the interdependence of places, and to the recognition, which is
desirable and growing, that no place on earth can be completely
healthy until all places are. But the word “planetary” also
refers to an abstract anxiety or an abstract passion that is
desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract.
How, after all, can anybody – any particular body, do anything to
heal a planet? The suggestion that anybody could do so is
preposterous. The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on
their white horses to save the planet – and they keep falling off
in front of the grandstand.
We cannot save the world by riding white horses, heroically or
otherwise, or by duplicating global marketing. It will be done
locally in the places we know and love, where we live and work
and walk and play. It will occur within the dynamics of
community and immediate, useful feedback on our own actions.
Berry, Wendell _What are People For?_, San Francisco: Northpoint
Jacobs, Jane, _The Death and Life of Great American Cities_