I never get tired of calling the folks over at Walk Score geniuses. The nation’s most widely used walkability measurement tool just updated its neighborhood rankings, using a new and improved algorithm. The news for the Northwest: Seattle clocks in as the 8th most walkable city in the US, while Vancouver ranks as the 4th most walkable city in all of North America, trailing only New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Yay!

As a reminder, Walk Score generates a walkability rating for practically any address in North America, and many parts of the rest of the world as well, by measuring the distance to grocery stores, restaurants, bars, parks and other common walking destinations. The more amenities within easy walking distance, the higher your Walk Score.

The system has always been pretty darn good, but an earlier version suffered from a persistent flaw: it measured distances as the crow flies, not as a real human being would actually walk. In most cases the old system worked fine; but in a few places you’d have to learn to walk on water to actually make use of “nearby” amenities: “crow fly” distances can rate a store that’s completely inaccessible as convenient and nearby.

The new rankings fix that flaw: they calculate actual walking distances, while also factoring characteristics of the street network to help gauge how easy it is to get around on foot. In some places, the new method changes rankings pretty substantially. Consider Roosevelt Island, outside Manhattan—the image on the left shows neighborhood rankings under the old system, in which “nearby” stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn made the entire island look like a bustling hive of walkability. The new ranking system gives a more realistic (and more modest) score:

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  • There don’t seem to be many surprises in the new list of most walkable cities. The cities known for having an active street scene, and where lots of residents get by without owning a car, are generally the ones with high Walk Scores.  The spread-out cities—places where strip malls are the dominant form of commercial development—have low walk scores.


    The resulting geographic pattern looks like quite a few maps that you may run across in other disciplines—say, the study of the obesity epidemic. And not too surprisingly, it’s the places that developed long before the post-World War II driving boom—the Boston-to-Washington corridor, San Francisco, Chicago, the industrial upper-midwest—that are generally the most walkable, which is a clear reminder that when we design cities around the car, we make it much harder for people to use their feet for anything but the gas pedal.

    Update: I swear my brain is getting fuzzy in my old age: in an earlier version I wrote that Seattle ranked 7th in America. It’s actually 8th. Duh.