Portland Walking MapWay back in April, Sightline launched the quest for a walkshed map that would tally and locate all the businesses within one mile of your front door (plus, ideally, things like public restrooms). It would be a Rosetta stone for the newly car-less–a digital Fodors for the pedestrian set. (With its instant quantification of the walkability of each home, it could also be a real-estate game changer. Imagine if realtors, while showing off homes, bragged as much about their walkshed score as the quality of their local schools!)

The quest for the map has proceeded ever since, valiantly surmounting one obstacle after another (more on that, in a moment). But then, just as victory seemed within our grasp, the quest suddenly faltered. Our fearless band of heroes was surrounded and outnumbered, abandoned by a presumed friend.

Now, our only hope is you: that’s right, you and your social network. Sightline is in search of an inside man or woman: a software engineer with a pedestrian heart and a mapping mind; an engineer, specifically, at the Kirkland development office of Google (or perhaps on Microsoft’s Live Local team in Redmond). Do you know that cubicle knight? Can you get him or her to rescue us? Hurry!

Here is our epic tale.

  • When first I dreamed of walkshed maps on this blog, tech-savvy readers and volunteers conspired with Sightline’s research team to begin planning one: a web service that, when prompted with a North American street address, would produce a map of the surrounding walkshed—everything within a one mile walk—and count all the businesses held therein. The tally would constitute the walkshed score, a rough gauge of each address’s convenience to pedestrians, a gauge of whether it sits in a complete, compact community. And the map would chart the neighborhood’s offerings. Need a mouse trap or an estate lawyer, a nail salon or a tailor? Buying local would never be so easy.

    Enthusiasm was high: you can read some of the early discussion in comments here and here. One reader even set up the beginning of a communal website called Walkshed.com for storing business location data gathered by thousands of pedestrian mappers.

    These heady days with their dreams of rapid victory soon gave way to a more sober and disciplined phase: Sightline assembled a crack team from its own staff and allies to create a walkshed mapping tool that assembles data from the Qwest Walkability tool businessesonline yellow pages, Google Maps, and Google’s database of businesses. The result was an online walkshed map that pinpointed businesses, so you could roll your mouse over them and see what they were. (Here’s a static image from one sample.)

    But just when we were about to launch a rudimentary but promising “mash up,” Google—whom we’d trusted as a reliable source of almost limitless information—changed its rules. It pulled up the data drawbridge, and our walkshed chart was left outside. The tool we’d devised still gave a count of businesses within a mile (based on Qwest’s data) but it no longer mapped their whereabouts: it was a score, not a map.

    That limited tool (shown in this thumbnail) may be ready for prime time before long andWalkability tool count may be interesting to many. But our quest for real walkshed maps seemed doomed. Then came the announcement of Google Transit, a transit trip planning service for (initially) six cities including Eugene, Portland, and Seattle. Google Transit doesn’t provide walkshed maps, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencernews article that announced it mentioned an intriguing fact.

    Google Transit originally grew out of Google’s practice of letting its engineers spend 20 percent of their time working on projects of their choosing. An engineer in Google’s Kirkland office, Peng Zhao, expanded on the project, spending his “20 percent time” working on the Seattle-area route data for Google Transit.

    So: Google has all the business data needed for walkshed maps—the data Sightline can’t get on its own. And Google gives its engineers time to do projects that interest them. And Google is committed to making a massive contribution to the fight against climate change, as the New York Times reported last month (subscription required). It didn’t take long after reading that for the music in our besieged hearts to swell in anticipation of a white knight with a Google employment badge. (Oh, to be able to google Google itself—to search the hearts of Google’s employees until we find our hidden hero!)

    Peng Zhao, if you’re listening, why not make Google WalkingTM your next “20 percent time” project? Other Google engineers: maybe this project is meant for you? Google executives, why not make Google WalkingTM your next big product?

    Microsoft, you’ve invested massively in Live Local, why not beat Google to the punch and do walkshed maps first? Hmm, MSNeighborhoodTM? Maybe you’ll sweep in as Sightline’s rescue party?

    And you, dear non-software-ish reader, do you know someone to whom you might send this plea? According to the six degrees principle, with your help, we should be able to find our map-making hero almost as fast as, well, Google googles.

    P.S. The Northwest does boast an impressive collection of regular, old paper Walking Maps. They’re not walkshed maps, but they’re neat. (In fact, if you search google for “Walking Maps,” a surprising share of the hits are in Cascadia.) The City of Portland’s are especially nice (indexed here). Also see the trusty Powell’s Books downtown walking map (from which the first illustration above is taken) and the newer map of the trendy, compact Pearl District. In Washington, the best collection is done by King County (indexed here). My personal favorites cover downtown Bellevue and my own neighborhood of Ballard. I imagine there are good ones in British Columbia, too, but I have yet to find them.