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Vancouver's West End as "Walkable" as Obama's Neighbourhood

Screenshot of walkscore.com website.

I live in a walker’s paradise.

Well, I already knew that, but it was nice of walkscore.com to confirm it for me.

Our West End abode scores 91 out of 100 on walkscore.com’s “walk score”. The nearest grocery store is 0.18 kilometres away, there’s a restaurant a mere 0.31 kilometres distant, coffee shop 0.33k, and a park 0.22k away. Paradise indeed!

But I shouldn’t brag. Barack Obama’s pad, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, scores 97 out of 100! The DCSnacks grocery store is only 0.25 miles away, and the Off the Record Bar is a tenth of a mile distant. Barack could sneak out of the cabinet meeting, buy a bag of chips, duck in for a beer, and be back before the Secretary of the Interior had finished giving his weekly update. I’m jealous. Especially since Stephen Harper’s digs, at 24 Sussex Drive, rates a measly 29 out of 100 - “Car-Dependent”. Nearest grocery store -- Arthuro’s Market, is almost a mile away, and poor Steve would have to walk more than a mile to return his overdue library books -- the Rideau Branch of the Ottawa Public Library is 1.13 miles away. So much for Canadian superiority.

walkscore.com even has a scroll-down list of “Celebrity Locations”, where you can find the walkability of Bill Gates’ house (9 out of 100) Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas (0 out of 100), Times Square (100) and even the Six Feet Under House in Los Angeles (68).

My parents, I’m sorry to say, live in an unwalkable house -- at 3 out of 100 it’s better than the Bush ranch, but not by much.

Walk Score started in 2007 and has been accessed more than 6 million times since then. Their mission is “to promote walkable neighborhoods. We believe walkable neighborhoods are one of the simplest and most effective solutions to halt climate change, improve our health, and strengthen our communities.” Their algorithm calculates a location’s walk score  by awarding points based on the closest amenities in each category, which include coffee shops, bars, movie theatres, libraries, and schools. The site sorts the amenities by distance and also displays their location on a Google map. There’s even a free iPhone app with the same features as the web-based version.

Useful as it is, the index has a major limitation. It’s based solely on the location of the above-mentioned categories. The closer these are, the more “walkable” the address is. Very handy for buying real estate, but it leaves out street design, topography, safety, weather, transit and community design.

Walk Score’s creators are refreshingly candid about this drawback. As it says on the site, “You should use the Web 3.0 app called going outside and investigating the world for yourself before deciding whether a neighborhood is walkable!” They also admit that distances are “as the crow flies... This means if you live across the lake from a destination, we are assuming you will swim. And if you live in a subdivision with long curving streets with few intersections, we hope your neighbors don't mind you walking through their back yard.” (I like websites that have a self-deprecating sense of humour.)

There are other quirks. Schools aren’t listed as nearby amenities for my neighbourhood, though they are for Stephen Harper and Barack Obama. And for some reason, walkscore.com thinks Ottawa is in the United States (no obvious jokes, please), which is why the distances that Harper has to schlep above are given in miles, rather in patriotic Canadian kilometres. The iPhone app gives my apartment a score of 95, rather than the 91 given by the website. But these are niggling details. walkscore.com is a great concept and a good example of how to use Google Maps to provide a valuable service. Walk on!

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