Walkability Rankings: Oklahoma City #35

July 20th, 2008

Walkscore.com has released their rankings of America’s Most Walkable Cities. My expectations for OKC on something like this are never very high, but I always hope we at least finish somewhere respectable and not in the bottom five (as the top and bottom five it seems is always what gets published). Unfortunately, by tying Memphis for 35th we barely missed escaping the bottom five and the resulting terrible publicity. I mean, can you believe we get beat by cities like Houston and Detroit?

MOST AND LEAST WALKABLE CITIES (with walkability score)
Top 5
1. San Francisco: 86
2. New York: 83
3. Boston: 79
4. Chicago: 76
5. Philadelphia: 74

Bottom 5
35. TIE – Oklahoma City and Memphis: 43
37. Indianapolis: 42
38. Charlotte: 39
39. Nashville: 39
40. Jacksonville: 36

To make matters worse, the San Francisco Chronicle let Memphis off the hook – by listing Oklahoma City alone in the bottom five with an asterisk – and then displayed the information in such an unintuitive order that Oklahoma City actually looks like it finished dead last. Check out the article and see what I mean.


ABOUT THE METHOD OF ANALYSIS

In reality, Walkscore’s method of analysis has a number of flaws – many of which I find to be fatal. To their credit, they are the first to admit these weaknesses. Here is what they have to say.

There are a number of factors that contribute to walkability that are not part of our algorithm:

  • Public transit: Good public transit is important for walkable neighborhoods.
  • Street width and block length: Narrow streets slow down traffic. Short blocks provide more routes to the same destination and make it easier to take a direct route.
  • Street design: Sidewalks and safe crossings are essential to walkability. Appropriate automobile speeds, trees, and other features also help.
  • Safety from crime and crashes: How much crime is in the neighborhood? How many traffic accidents are there? Are streets well-lit?
  • Pedestrian-friendly community design: Are buildings close to the sidewalk with parking in back? Are destinations clustered together?
  • Topography: Hills can make walking difficult, especially if you’re carrying groceries.
  • Freeways and bodies of water: Freeways can divide neighborhoods. Swimming is harder than walking
  • Weather: In some places it’s just too hot or cold to walk regularly

I bet San Francisco is glad they didn’t include topography…ehh? What all this means is that their “algorithm” simply measure’s the proximity of amenities from a given point. So anything within 1/4-mile of a mall would receive the highest rating and while it is true that malls are incredibly walkable (when you are inside), it is not true that malls create walkable neighborhoods – in fact, it is quite the opposite when surrounded by parking. This is also true of densely lined retail arterials like May Avenue. While they certainly provide access to a number of retailers and amenities within a short range of distance, very few people would actually walk from shopping center to shopping center and consider the experience enjoyable. A few better ways to measure walkability in my opinion would either attempt to include measures for the elements listed above or would simply count the number of people actually walking. Afterall, what good is “walkability” if no one walks? But what do you do if it is “bad walkability” and everyone walks? Either way, it gets very complicated very quickly for a range of issues that we can tackle at a later date.


OKLAHOMA CITY WALKABILITY

Walkscore had these interesting facts to share about walkability in Oklahoma City:

  • 8% of Oklahoma City residents have a Walk Score of 70 or above.
  • 40% have a Walk Score of at least 50
  • and 60% live in Car-Dependent neighborhoods

Despite the flaws of the analysis, the map produced by their rating system is still interesting to study.

It might be helpful if we wanted to select areas of the city that would benefit most from pedestrian improvements, more residential density, and/or strategies for creating viable urban environments. It also might make sense for the greenest areas to serve as primary nodes in a transportation system as access to these nodes would theoretically provide access to a wide range of amenities.


MY CURRENT NEIGHBORHOOD

As some of you know, I am currently living in Boston studying planning and urban design. My wife and I sold our cars before moving into a small apartment in Boston’s Back Bay. My school is 1.5 miles from our place and I can get to school in one of three ways: walking, biking, or riding public-transit. I pretty much make this decision based on weather (often terrible here) and how much time I have (biking is fastest by far). We also regularly walk to stores, walk to dinner, or walk to church. And walking here is great, it is literally a textbook example of pedestrian-friendly using Gehl’s criteria. It has historic buildings, a variety of stores and restaurant, sidewalk dining, lots of people, etc…

Still, I am not going to say that life without a car is easy – its not. That is not the point. The point is that life with walking is great!

Of course people will continue to have cars in Oklahoma City – as do most of the people in Greater Boston – but we should not let all of our decisions be so skewed towards an auto-centric city that it ruins any prospect of a walking lifestyle – whether it is out of necessity or by choice.

So where does my current residence stack up on the walkability score? Very Good. It is actually the #1 most walkable neighborhood in the #3 most walkable city.

At some point in the future I will talk more about the Back Bay and what I have learned about urbanity from the time I have spent here. But that will have to wait, because over the next few weeks I am going to be working on a five part series focused on an upcoming development in Downtown Oklahoma City and the incredible opportunity it provides for the city – but only if we decide to do it right! I still have to do some more research and a lot more work. But hopefully it will be worth the wait.

For now, I just want everyone to know that I really appreciate you reading. If you have any ideas of stuff that you would like to discuss in the future, please let me know. I will try to get a little discussion going by asking a simple question:

When was the last time you walked from your house to purchase something from a store?

…and an ice-cream truck does not count.

11 responses

  1. Jeff comments:

    Blair, how much of a role does climate play in the walkability of a community? I mean in the sense of how it effects the average person’s desire to walk, and thus how planners approach design, taking that into account?

    I could see where our extreme weather patterns here might make it less desirable to adopt a pedestrian lifestyle. Granted, several of the Top 5 walkable cities fall under these conditions, as well, but with the exception of Chicago, we’re generally windier than the others, too…

  2. Blair comments:

    It certainly plays a role, but it is not near as important as you might think. Proper urban design creates environments that pedestrians enjoy, even if the weather is not contributing to the enjoyment. Plus, appropriate design, such as: streets that aren’t too wide, plenty of street trees, and buildings designed for local wind conditions can actually serve to make the wind conditions experienced by pedestrians much less severe.

    As far as the windiness of cities in this ranking. Surprisingly, OKC is actually windier than Chicago and by a significant margin according to Bestplaces.net . BUT, OKC is not windier than Boston, which I can attest is both windier and yet much more walkable.

    Avg. Wind Speed in knots
    Boston (12.17 knots)
    OKC (11.67 knots)
    Chicago (8.75 knots)

    With everything there is give and take. Why do people pay to park in Bricktown when they can go park on Memorial and Penn for free? Because they feel like the experience is worth whatever cost or inconvenience they have to put up with. I think it is the same thing with weather.

    This is a good question though and something I am interested in. I will try to get some more information and post it up at some point in the future.

  3. Jenni Duncan comments:

    We have been talking (complaining) with our neighbors lately about this issue, and what we are finding most frustrating is the lack of sidewalks and/or bike paths around our neighborhoods. We live on 12th and Villa and you would think that we would have an easier time walking places, but the fact is it isn’t safe. There are few sidewalks and although 12th is on the bike route there is not a painted lane on our street. We would love to walk and take more leisurely rides but its not worth the risk; OKC drivers aren’t exactly the most observant. We have been told that the Mayor doesn’t want to spend money on putting in new sidewalks or maintaining them. There are areas of Bricktown that don’t even have sidewalks yet!

  4. Michael comments:

    Hey Jenni. Thats not true. The recent bond passed in December had a proposition in it to build 250-350 miles of sidewalk. I can’t remember the exact total. I’m certain that in future bond measures, there will be more sidewalk propositions. They’re trying to fill in all those places where OKC doesn’t have sidewalks…which is pretty much everywhere. Bike routes in this city are horrible, but I think they’ll only get better. Hopefully that is.

    I’m also noticing that all new buildings being built, whether suburbia or inner city, have sidewalks included but then they’ll end as soon as it reaches the property line. So, like I said, it seems the city is pushing to fill in empty spots.

  5. CGHill comments:

    WalkScore gave my Oklahoma City neighborhood a 78 (!); we don’t have much in the way of sidewalks yet, but it looks like we’re on the list from the 2007 GO bonds. (Yes, I live in one of those little patches of green.)

  6. dustbury.com tracks back:

    Doing the stroll…

    Last year, I noted that my little corner of the city rated a not-too-shabby 78 on Walk Score. The city as a whole rates a 43, which would immediately suggest that walkability is not evenly distributed. (Given the sheer physical……

  7. Shane comments:

    New developments along arterial streets in OKC are required to have sidewalks and they are building 300 miles of sidewalk in already developed areas. So things are improving for sidewalks.

    And the walkability map shows the incredible advantage OKC has with its walkable nodes already laid out in a north-south line… Many of them pretty dang close to the alignment of BNSF. Shooting commuter rail up and down that line would do well, or sending streetcar up Classen.

  8. Blair comments:

    When it comes to walkability, the conversation always tends to turn to sidewalks. In reality, this is such a small part of the equation for creating streets and places where people have both the ability and desire to walk. Our pedestrian-friendliness criteria is more likely to predict places people actually walk, yet in cities across the country – including our own – you find policies that require sidewalks and pay little attention to the other factors involved.

    Crown Heights is a good example. You have interesting architecture, trees that provide shade, and retail destinations within five minutes and yet no sign of sidewalks. Even without the sidewalks it is more walkable than many neighborhoods simply because of the form and close proximity of a mixture of uses.

    Perhaps that is where walkscore.com really gets it right. They realize that all of the other things don’t matter if there is no where worth walking to! For now, lets look to construct and improve sidewalks where they make sense, and work on more comprehensive strategies for improving walkability in places where lack of sidewalks is but a small part of the problem.

  9. BatesLine tracks back:

    More Tulsa and Oklahoma blogs…

    Some recent finds worth telling you about: Here are two fairly new “news around town” blogs devoted to Tulsa: Tulsa Loop and This Tulsa. This Tulsa has a very cool logo (featuring the BOK Tower, the Mid-Continent Tower, and University Club Tower), an…

  10. dustbury.com » Doing the stroll pings back:

    [...] Blair Humphreys finds the methodology a bit too simplistic: [T]heir “algorithm” simply measures the proximity of amenities from a given point. So anything within ¼ mile of a mall would receive the highest rating and while it is true that malls are incredibly walkable (when you are inside), it is not true that malls create walkable neighborhoods — in fact, it is quite the opposite when surrounded by parking. This is also true of densely lined retail arterials like May Avenue. While they certainly provide access to a number of retailers and amenities within a short range of distance, very few people would actually walk from shopping center to shopping center and consider the experience enjoyable. A few better ways to measure walkability in my opinion would either attempt to include measures for the elements listed above or would simply count the number of people actually walking. After all, what good is “walkability” if no one walks? But what do you do if it is “bad walkability” and everyone walks? [...]

  11. Basil tracks back:

    Basil…

    imagiNATIVEamerica.com ยป Walkability Rankings: Oklahoma City #35…

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