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Watch Where You're Walkin'

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Picking a place to live can be a huge environmental decision. Some people argue that if you can walk to everything you need, you'll stay out of your car, and that will cut air pollution. But how do you compare one place to another in deciding how "walkable" these places really are? For the Environment Report, Shawn Allee looks at a Web site that aims to make that a breeze, then gives it a spin in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.

When urban planners want to know exactly how 'walkable' a neighborhood is, they commission a study, and get results in weeks or months.

One computer programmer says this approach is poky.

“And so we built a piece of software that would let anyone look up to what they could walk to from their address.”

Matt Lerner helped build a Web site called WalkScore.com.

You don't have to be an urban planner to use it.

Anyone can just type in an address, and ...

“We tell you all the closest schools, parks, retail stores, so you can see exactly what that neighborhood looks like.”

Walk Score dot com also spits out a number between zero and a hundred.

If a place scores above ninety, the site calls that a ‘walker's paradise'.

Lerner says the computer ignores stuff like weather and hills, but there's a reason behind that.

“Research on why people walk has shown the number one predictor of whether people will walk is whether there's something good to walk to.”

This is all well and good, but does Walk Score dot com work?

I want to test it out - so I ask Lerner to score a Chicago neighborhood close to me.

“If you look at Logan Square, you can see it has a walk score of 86. So if you're living near Logan Square, you can get by without driving very often, or even owning a car perhaps.”

Really?

I head to Logan Square and ask people, does the neighborhood deserve the high score?

Resident: “Yeah, we've got a movie theater, a grocery store, restaraunts and bars.”

Resident: “Yes, you can really minimize your use of a car.”

Resident: “Everything's close - even jewelry stores, furniture stores, grocery stores. It's pretty easy to get around walking.”

Most of the people I speak to say the Web site's pretty much got it right. This is a very walkable neighborhood. But there's an activist who works on making the neighborhood more walkable. He's not convinced the web site's got it 100% right. He says it leaves out some things, for example, this:

(sound of dog barking)

“You're talking about kids walking to school? That house, that's a barrier.”

And, Ben Helphand says the Web site doesn't just miss dogs. It misses other things that intimidate walkers.

“They should factor in these things that are known to decrease the walkability of the neighborhood, a big gas station complex, a drive-through bank which is right behind us.”

Shawn Allee: “Only because they're hard to walk by, because cars are coming in and out?”

Ben Helphand: “And because they disincentive people getting out of their cars, because they're designed to keep people in their cars.”

The programmers admit the Walk Score site leaves out a lot. Helphand says he's a fan of the site, it's just that it's tailored to one purpose.

“Their real target audience is people who are moving or relocating and they want walkability to be a factor in that choice.”

Helphand says the site gives the impression that people interested in walkability have only one choice to make - where to live.

He wants them to make lots of choices over time.

He wants them to fix bad sidewalks, tame scary dogs, and support zoning laws that favor walking over driving.

Helphand says if that happens enough, we can make new walkable neighborhoods - not just rank ones that already exist.

For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.

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