What’s Your Walk Score?

Maybe this post should be titled “how I inadvertently became one of those Austin hippies that I love to mock.”

I am taking a class in the Community and Regional Planning Department of the Architecture school this semester. Urban planners, on the whole, are anti-sprawl and pro-mixed, dense developments. Sometimes, though, the zealousness for these good intentions can come across as anti-car and anti-suburb. Well, for the millions of Americans who have chosen the low crime rates, more square footage, and long commutes of their suburban lifestyle, this idea of new urbanism comes across as offensive. How can cars be evil? Is there anything more American than having the freedom to go anywhere I want anytime I want in my own automobile?

Urban form is fascinating, the way it influences more things than I ever imagined. I can see both sides of the argument that I just presented above. I’ve been a suburbanite and now a semi-urbanite, both lifestyles by choice. When I made the decisions on the residential locations, I considered it merely a logical choice of where to live, close to school/work and within my housing budget. I am who I am no matter where I live.  But both choices heavily influenced my lifestyle, to the point where I now have to admit that where I live influences who I am.

I’m an engineer so I need to quantify this whole suburban and semi-urban story of contrast with some numbers. Our suburban house in the DFW Metroplex has a Walk Score of 26 out of 100, rated as car-dependent. Our urban bungalow in Austin has a Walk Score of 63 out of 100, rated as somewhat walkable. Perhaps what’s more striking is the contrast between transit scores: suburb house had no access to transit, urban house has transit score of 54, or good access to transit.

For starters, my school/work trip is now accessed by bus whereas I used to commute by car, not because I’m a die-hard pro-transit hippie but simply because parking is difficult on campus. I walk about 1/3 of a mile to my bus stop, that’s 2/3 of a mile round trip daily. It’s built-in physical activity I do each day. I don’t burn that many calories walking 2/3 of a mile, but it guarantees I move my legs a little, even just a little, every day. For someone who was used to starting the commute by going to the garage to get directly in her car (never actually being outside), I hated this walk access time at the beginning.  I barely had enough patience for the 5 minute walk, always checking email on my phone or something else to make “better use” of the time. I know, it’s 10 minutes a day, but at the time my mind would always race with what else I could be doing that was more useful. Walking seems so slow and inefficient when you’re used to the mobility of a car.

Slowly and surely though, I became a product of my environment, and my impatience started to dissipate. It’s easy to enjoy a few minutes outside when the weather is gorgeous (like when spring first arrives or when the flowers are in full bloom). It’s easy to enjoy a few minutes outside when you are not the only person outside, when other people also walking, jogging, pushing strollers, and leading their dogs. It’s easy to enjoy a few minutes outside when you say hi to the friendly neighbors planting flowers in their front yard. It’s easy to enjoy a few minutes outside when your neighbors recognize you and sometimes stop in their cars, roll down the window, and say “hi.” I am not walking just to get to and from a bus stop, when I walk I feel like an active part of my community. I notice when someone has a new plant in their front yard or a new chair on their front porch, it becomes a conversation starter, I get to know the people around me. I also notice when someone unfamiliar is hanging around, and if their activity seems suspicious, I would probably send out an email on the neighborhood listserv alerting people to keep an eye on it.

What does this have to do with anything? If you drive to work (like my husband does because he works out in a suburb where there is no transit access), who cares about living in a walkable community?

In our DFW suburban house, we knew a couple of the neighbors, but not very well. We had sidewalks, and occasionally saw people walking and jogging in the evenings. But there were no walkable destinations, just people jogging to jog or walking their dog to walk their dog. We would occasionally bike or walk to the grocery store about a mile away (which was very unusual as we never saw anyone else do this), but you could hardly call it an enjoyable experience when you have to walk on a noisy arterial street jam packed with 6 lanes of traffic, even less enjoyable at night when you’re worried about getting hit by a car going 45 miles per hour.

In our current urban house? Let’s see, on Monday nights we usually walk 0.9 miles (almost 2 miles round trip) to a nearby community-owned brewpub for glass night. No drinking and driving involved, no worries about a DUI. On Thursday nights I walk to community yoga at the neighborhood park, about 0.75 miles each way (1.5 miles round trip). Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, there’s a farmer’s market about 1.25 miles away that we sometimes go to (2.5 miles round trip). On weekend mornings, we enjoy breakfast tacos from a little family owned Mexican restaurant 0.5 miles away (1 mile round trip) or a cafe au lait from the coffee shop across the street from the restaurant. On weeknights when I don’t feel like cooking, there’s a neighborhood deli and pizzeria 0.75 miles away (1.5 miles round trip). In the same shopping center as the deli, there’s a small neighborhood grocery store. I don’t do my primary grocery shopping here, but it is a nice choice when I just need a couple of things. I really started taking advantage of these walkable (and dog-friendly) destinations when we got our puppy. I have to walk my dog anyway, and it’s nice to do it while running an errand or with a destination in mind (see I still enjoy that efficiency thing). If I include destinations within biking distance (since we have bike lanes running down the main thoroughfare in the middle of the neighborhood), then there are simply too many destinations to begin to list here.

Living in an accessible, walkable community has made me patient. For one, all those little bits of walking I do adds up, and soon enough I realize I don’t have to hit the gym every day because I actually get quite a lot of physical activity. That’s something that lightens that “to-do” list. I can take care of little errands within walking distance (like the dry cleaner’s or the pharmacy just a couple of items from the neighborhood grocer), other things to cross off that “to-do” list while getting a little exercise. Walking with my husband in the evening also lets us spend time together that’s uninterrupted.  Let’s face it, when I hold a conversation while I’m driving (not that this is recommended because it’s unsafe), I don’t focus 100% on the conversation because I need to pay attention to the road. When we’re home, there’s the distraction of the TV or the laptop or whatever else, but that evening walk time, it really is quality time (now also featuring our dog). On weekends, we hop on our bikes and go a little further, and make our exercise time enjoyable by including a destination at the end (maybe something food related as a reward). We owned our bikes when we lived in the suburbs as well. But since the main roads didn’t have bike lanes, the only safe way to bike was to put the bikes into the SUV, drive to a place with bike trails, and then bike, and then put the bikes back into the SUV.  Now it seems downright silly that I used to drive just to bike…

I find that I don’t care about cars as much now. I have a teeny bit of car enthusiast in me and enjoy reading Insideline (Edmunds.com enthusiast website) from time to time. I used to constantly contemplate what will replace our current family fleet. But now it’s hard to care about something that I just don’t use that often. I think the American obsession with the car was fueled by our increasing time spent in the car. When you spend 10 hours a week in your car, then it suddenly becomes really important that it’s comfortable, has nifty gadgets, or is a status symbol. When you spend that much time in a car, it becomes part of who you are and you care about the  image you project from your car (luxury car or hybrid hippie?) But if you hardly drive, then it doesn’t matter what’s sitting in the garage/driveway as long as it gets you to your destinations for those few trips a week because you’re perceived most of the time without that steel casing. Maybe I should start paying more attention to my footwear and what kind of image my shoes are projecting.

Am I a total convert to this new urbanism propaganda? No. I still chose a detached, single family home. By definition, a single family home with the privacy of a decent sized yard is not dense, and won’t ever have the level of walkability achievable in condo type developments. I have no real justification for this preference, other than that it’s the stereotypical image of the American dream in my impression, and I do like having yard space for my dog. I am also fully aware that in most cases, you get a lot less house close-in to town than out in the suburbs and that this math makes it tough on large families who need more square footage at a lower price. There is one thing I am certain of, and it’s that walkability promotes a lot more than just physical activity. Walkability builds community, makes you feel more involved, and builds trust. Gated neighborhoods (or just walled-in subdivisions) and cul-de-sacs break up street connectivity, creating longer travel distances between points A and B (think about cul-de-sacs that are physically backed up to each other but require going around to another street to access), making neighborhoods less walkable. This in turn creates more car traffic, which makes the streets more unsafe for walking, biking, and kids at play (which ironically is what started the idea of a cul-de-sac to begin with, a safe place for the kids with low traffic). When you are isolated in your car, you have less interaction with the environment than when you walk or bike, thus you build fewer relationships with the people around you, which in turn makes you trust less (which ironically is the reason why gated neighborhoods and walled neighborhoods exist). And if you just don’t buy any of this neighborhood community touchy feely rainbow unicorn stuff, consider this: when we are old and gray and don’t have the vision/reaction skills to drive safely, wouldn’t it be nice to have some places to walk to? Especially a transit option that will take us to places we need to go (doctor’s, pharmacy, Bingo?)

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