Gas prices pique interest in Walk Score

Web site rates 'walkability' of homes, neighborhoods

With gas prices surging over $4 a gallon, a Web site that scores the walkability of a neighborhood is enjoying what its developers hope will be more than just 15 minutes of fame.

The Web site, Walk Score, sizes up the stores, restaurants, schools, parks and other destinations within walking distance of a given property and uses that information to calculate a walkability score between zero and 100.

The site was dreamed up by Seattle-based, environmentally and socially conscious "civic software" developer Front Seat, which hopes people will use the site to find homes and apartments in walkable neighborhoods.

Front Seat is making a Walk Score tile available to real estate professionals — or anybody else who wants to embed the tool in their Web sites — that’s been embraced by sites like postlets.com and is now generating 100,000 views a month.

Someday, the company hopes Walk Scores will become a standard feature of property listings, and is currently developing an API (application programming interface) that would simplify the process, said Front Seat’s chief technology officer, Matt Lerner.

Walk Score looks at the distance to walkable locations near an address, calculates a score for each location, and combines all of the scores into a single measurement. Lerner said research shows that the average person is willing to walk less than a quarter mile to destinations they visit frequently, such as a grocery store.

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A Walk Score of 25 or less means you’ll probably need to get in the car to take care of the smallest errand, while a Walk Score in the 90 to 100 range indicates a "walker’s paradise" where just about everything is in walking distance and many residents get by without owning a car. Front Seat employees can practice what they preach — the company’s office on Seattle’s Northeast 45th Street boasts a "very walkable" Walk Score of 80.

Although Walk Score doesn’t know whether you’ll have to walk along a busy thoroughfare to get to your destination — or even if there’s a sidewalk for you to use — it turns out that the mere presence of destinations like coffee shops are good predictors of pedestrian friendliness, Lerner said.

"We’re actually software guys, so we were sort of nervous whether urban planners would like Walk Score or think it was too overly simplified," Lerner said. "We thought they might say, well, you don’t measure how wide the roads are or whether there are sidewalks, but it turns out that the number one factor is if there is something worth walking to."

Front Seat recently created Walk Scores for 77 Seattle neighborhoods using Zillow’s neighborhood boundaries, and plans to roll out rankings for the 40 biggest U.S. cities soon, Lerner said. The neighborhood scores will help anyone hunting for a house or apartment identify walkable areas before starting their search.

"I just gave a friend who was moving to Seattle a sneak preview" of the newly created neighborhood scores for the city, Lerner said. "A couple of neighborhoods were less walkable than she thought. She ended up narrowing it down to two or three neighborhoods. Then, when she found a house she was interested in, she looked up its Walk Score."

Walk Score made a splash when it launched last year, after it was featured in digg and saw 200,000 visitors in one day. The new site evaluated 1 million properties in a month, an indication that it was "meeting an untapped need" Lerner said. Recently, skyrocketing gas prices have generated renewed interest in Walk Score in the news media and blogosphere.

While Front Seat sees walkable communities as good for the environment, other benefits include the health benefits of exercise, increased social interaction between neighbors, and more traffic for local businesses.

Walk Score advisory board member Chris Leinberger — director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan and a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution — is something of an evangelist for "walkable urban" places.

In a recent opinion column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, Leinberger said the "Ozzie and Harriett" suburban vision of the American Dream is giving way to the "’Seinfeld’ vision of ‘walkable urbanism.’" Leinberger sees ominous implications for suburban communities that are not walkable — they are tomorrow’s slums, he wrote in a recent Atlantic Monthly article.

With the "pendulum swinging back toward urban living," Leinberger warned, many low-density suburbs and "McMansion subdivisions" may become "what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s — slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay."

In the article, Leinberger provides some anecdotal examples of subdivisions with poor walkability that have been hit hard by the housing downturn and foreclosure crisis.

Lerner said Front Seat has heard from real estate investors who are interested in using Walk Score to analyze whether there’s a correlation between walkable communities and property values.

"We’re going to do a study, maybe using data from Zillow, comparing what’s happening to home prices in walkable and unwalkable communities," Lerner said.

The company is aware of a condo development that had banner advertisements printed up to boast of the location’s perfect Walk Score. Real estate agents have also contacted Front Seat, saying they would like to be able to print out maps that show walkable destinations near properties they are marketing.

Front Seat intends to keep its Walk Score tile and API free, but may charge for other services, such as creating fliers for real estate professionals or market analytics that utilize Walk Scores, Lerner said.

He characterized Front Seat as a "low profit" venture, relying on seed money from founder and chairman Mike Mathieu, a former Microsoft executive who went on to found a successful startup company — an online publisher of career and school directories — that he later sold.

Other Front Seat projects include Kathy’s Climate Kit, a collection of tools intended to help people reduce their carbon footprint, and the Predatory Lending Association, "a satirical industry association of payday lenders."

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