The popsicle test

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Charles G. Hill reports that the American Podiatric Medical Association has ranked 200 American cities for walkability and issued its findings. Tulsa was ranked the 78th of America's Best Walking Cities; Oklahoma City was 123rd, both higher than the eminently walkable Savannah, Georgia (ranked 131st). Charles was surprised that Oklahoma City did as well as that, and I'm amazed at Tulsa's finish in the top half. With the exception of a few neighborhoods that were built before the Model T and have somehow avoided being urban-renewed to death, Oklahoma's two big cities are notably pedestrian-unfriendly.

The 14 factors used to rank walkability include percentage of dog owners, the percentage of athletic show buyers, the percentage who visit beaches, and something called a "Golf Index." Percentage walking to work and percentage using public transportation are factors, too, but the focus is clearly on walking for exercise or leisure, rather than walking integrated into everyday life. (Dog ownership and walking aren't going to correlate strongly in a city of big fenced yards.)

Here's another strange thing: San Antonio plummeted from 9th in 2004 to 132nd this year. And New York City slipped from 2nd last year to 7th this year. The explanation is in a change of criteria. Last year's criteria included Body Mass Index, Urban Sprawl Index, air quality, days of precipitation, and number of podiatrists. Clyde Haberman of the New York Times, in a piece about the new rankings, finds out how the changes affected New York City:

Greater emphasis, for example, is now put on how active people are. One obvious question is whether they walk to work. In New York, 12 percent do, the survey finds. And 51 percent use public transportation - a higher number, it should not shock you, than for any other city in the Top 10.

But do people also walk for exercise, buy athletic shoes, backpack, go to beaches? When those questions are also asked, New York apparently lags behind.

"This was an attempt to look at the phenomenon of walking in terms of the activity being done, rather than the attractiveness of the facilities or impediments like crime," Mr. Fisher said. And so, when all the factors were weighed and allowances made for cities' varying sizes, Arlington, not even on the list last year, found itself No. 1.

The constant shifting of APMA's criteria shows how difficult it is to quantify walkability. The best measure would reflect the degree to which you can integrate walking into everyday, necessary activities. The inverse of that measurement is whether you have to drive yourself to a special place and set aside time to go for a walk. Both measures have to do with city design, and much of Tulsa is designed so that however nice the sidewalks are in your neighborhood, they won't take you anywhere you need to go. The sidewalk may lead you to the main road, but the nearest store is half a mile away along a precarious path between the road and the bar ditch. It's no wonder that there's a link between urban sprawl and obesity.

A friend recently mentioned a simple test for the walkability of a neighborhood -- the popsicle test: Can a child safely walk from his home to the store to buy a popsicle? The absence of this kind of walkability means a loss of independence for children, the disabled, and the elderly who no longer feel confident behind the wheel of a car. It also gives us less flexibility to cope with rising fuel costs -- we can't choose to walk to the corner store rather than drive to the supermarket.

At the very least, Tulsa needs to be sure that we protect the few neighborhoods that still possess this kind of walkability and encourage new development that's made for walking.

Sorry that comments weren't open on this entry. It was inadvertent, and now it's fixed.

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Michael Bates, riffing on this item, passes on the ultimate test of whether a neighborhood has good "walkability": Can a child safely walk from his home to the store to... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 31, 2005 12:45 PM.

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