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December 05, 2007

Richard Florida

Walkability Index

« Stairway to ... | Main | More Music »

The University of Michigan's Chris Leinberger has a new study out from Brookings on Walkable Cities.  The full report, here, is well worth reading.  The top 10 after the jump.

Lucky fellow that I am, virtually every US city I've lived in made the top 10 - DC, Boston, New York, and the 'burgh. Someday, I hope to get a place in Miami - maybe when the bottom drops out. And I know the others well. I have no disagreements with the rankings.

But having lived now in Toronto for the past several months, with the exception of New York (and by that I mean mid-town to lower Manahattan), these cities pale in comparision to Toronto's walkability.  In DC, we lived in Cleveland Park/ Forest Hills. We were tied to our cars (note the plural) - for everything. The bagel shop was a mile a way, as was the coffee shop. The grocery stores were a couple of miles. My denist and doctor 3 or 4.  Shopping for goods 5 or 6 or more. To get your car service was a good 10-12 mile drive.  Good luck if you have kids, as most people choose to move out of the city and live in Maryland or northern Virginia. Then you are in car-land.  My wife commuted to a job in Tyson's Corner for a while: It was her worst nightmare.

In Toronto, we can walk to everything. The grocery store is two blocks away. Coffee shops and restaurants and more specialty groceries maybe a ten minute walk. The university maybe a 10 minute bike ride.  Everyone walks, rides their bikes (yes in the cold) or takes public transit.  My wife wants to sell her car, she says we can get along easily with one. My colleague Kevin Stolarick got rid of his. If you need to take a "car", cabs come in a matter of minutes and are super-efficient.  And our neighborhood is filled with families with kids. The same can be said of many, many European cities.  More on this in Who's Your City.

Some American cities are more walkable than others, but US cities pale in comparison to their foreign competitors on this score. Why might this matter?

Well, if Jane Jacobs and Robert Lucas are right, the creative-knowledge-driven economy gets its greatest productivity boost from clustering and agglomeration. The more clustered, the more dense, the more face-to-face interactions and random collisions the greater the rate of innovation, the greater productivity growth. 

I have said many times that America's stretched-out spatial structure, which was such a boon to Fordism, isl be a dead-weight competitive disadvantage in the creative economy.

Top Ten Walkable Cities

1. Washington

2. Boston

3. San Francisco

4. Denver

5. Portland, Ore.

6. Seattle

7. Chicago

8. Miami

9. Pittsburgh

10. New York


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Felix Salmon

Richard, please revisit this post after you've spent your first full winter in Toronto...


Felix, that's what the PATH is for!

As for the report, it's well-written and has lots of interesting insights, especially on the role of rail transit in supporting walkability.

But the exact ranking -- which seems to be # of walkable places per capita -- leaves a little to be desired. I've lived in Seattle so I'll use it as an example: yes, downtown and some other neighbourhoods are walkable places. But most people don't live there and have to drive to get to these walkable places. I'd expect the amount of walking per capita to be dramatically lower than, say, New York.

Your description applies to so many Toronto neighbourhoods, which is great. Sadly, we have our suburban swaths too -- one might make for an interesting visit for your G&M series.


Felix - It is freezing ALREADY. We walked in the ravine on Sunday in the snow which was fantastic. But I get your point. Rich


Rich - Depends on where you live in Washington, DC; I haven't driven in over 2 years. I walk to my bagel shop, dry cleaners, coffee shop, etc.


I saw Jan Gehl's presentation at Mississauga Conversation 21 Speaker Series


and he was brilliant in this regard, where he talked about human scale and the difference between living at 5km per hour and 60km per hour and how this view urban design affects the public space.

If we lose sight of the fact that human beings do have a pioneering spirit and replace that with a worldview based on the weather channel, then IMHO we've lost something, some kind of awareness that makes what Jan Gehl speaks out extremely intelligent. Many "walking" decisions are designed for us, but today urban planners such as those in Mississauga are asking us for our opinion, our ideas and that is a good thing.

So if the urban planners can make this attitude adjustment then I am sure I am able to do so also. I don't want to dictate to others what their life experiences should be, but I sometimes look at how mankind has managed to conquer the most inhospitable places on earth and made them livable and how much more difficult would it be for me to be typing thoughts away on my computer and contemplate what it is I can appreciate about living in liveable cities.

Gehl in his presentation showed examples of A"reconquered cities" as in this PDF link


and so I don't take this as simply about where my feet go for walks, but where my mind becomes more open minded about how human life and urban design are gradually beginning to come together. According to Jan Gehl, walkability is something for all us to think about.


Michael R. Bernstein

Richard, have you seen the Walk Score site?:


Great points. I lived in Cleveland Park/ Forset Hills - a in-city residential neighborhood, similar to the neighborhood where we live in Toronto. Even if we lived in Georgetown or Adams Morgan or some such we STILL would have been more car dependent. Heck, I lived in an apartment when I first moved to DC and still needed a car to get groceries and provisions. Sure, there was a little market a couple blocks away but they didn't even have fresh meat, fish, bread - sort of a convenience store, though I could my dry cleaning done at FIVE different places or get Thai takeout from several places.

Toronto is just more walkable period. Not just in core neighborhoods. Most residential neighborhoods are served by small scale commercial districts with pubs, restaurants, groceries, shops, hardware stores, hair salons and what not. And most are quite close to subway lines. Far fewer people depend on cars that in virtually any US city.

But it is COLD!


Walkscore = sweet. Thanks for the cool link.

Bert Sperling

Wait a minute - are Matt and I the only ones mystified by the methodology here? As I understand it, the study totals the number of something they define as "walkable urban places" for each metro area, and divides the total by the metro population. This provides a ratio of WUP's per capita.

Well, that's certainly neat and simple.

First, I have concerns regarding the inclusion of a entire metro area, since much of every metro is suburban in nature. It seems a city geography would be better suited for a walkability analysis. Also, the study specifically excludes walkable places which would seem to serve these suburban areas - "Local-serving places are primarily bedroom neighborhoods. They are residential in nature with limited commercial venues and instead serve everyday needs (grocery, drug store, etc.). Regional-serving places provide uses that have regional significance, such as employment, retail, medical, entertainment, cultural, higher education, etc., and generally integrates residential as well. This survey focuses only on regional-serving walkable urban places." So why use the entire metro area as a basis for the study?

Second, let's see what formula they used to determine a WUP...
"The walkable urban places identified in this field survey are based on the experience and observations of the author, who has been active as a real estate consultant, researcher, and developer for the past 30 years. He has worked in every one of these metropolitan areas. Those observations have been supplemented by the managing directors of Robert Charles Lesser & Co, an international consulting firm, Brookings Institution scholars, public officials, real estate developers, architectural critics, downtown business improvement managers, public officials, and academics, among others. This experience has been further complemented by web-based searches."

It seems to me that a walkability ranking should be based more than a gut feeling as to which communities are walkable and which aren't.


I have been a resident of Philadelphia for almost seven years. It should have made the list for most walkable cities. The city was designed by William Penn and is laid out in a grid that is very easy to navigate. Philadelphia claims to have the most people that walk to work than any other American city. By the way, doesn’t Pittsburgh have a lot of hills?


Bert - Touche. I did not dig into the rankings, so thank you for the critique. It amazes me how little urban research is based on ... well .. actual research. BTW, I give a big shout out to your location finder tool in Who's Your City. It is the only one that gives me reasonable representations of places I would actually live in. Keep doing the great work, Bert, and keep contributing to this blog. Your comments are stellar and incredibly helpful.


Richard, I don't think a little snow, or even a lot of it, should be allowed to limit walkable urban places. Your post and the cold-averse comments reminded me of my own experience walking as a blind flaneur across Queen Street East after Toronto's snow emergency in 1999. Thanks for the trigger. You can read more at:

Gary Dee

I'm with Bert Sperling ... even America's most bikable city of Portland, Oregon has limits on getting around without a car. The key to a carless lifestyle is to have your life mostly centered on an accessible area ... which was easy to do in Toronto, Montreal and New York City where I spent a decade without a car save for one or two daily rentals a year.

In Chicago, it's possible if your entire life is centered on the city plus maybe Oak Park and Evanston. Metra extends you beyond to the sprawl suburbs that were once standalone towns, but there's still the matter of getting around if you're from the city going to the suburbs rather than coming in for a city job.

Chris Leinberger

Professor Florida,

I enjoyed reading your comments and the thoughts of others on your blog. The US is finally joining Canada and Europe in valuing walkable urban places (though many examples of drivable sub-urbanism exist in Canada and on the continent; check out the third beltway outside Paris). It appears to me that there is a structural shift in how we build the US built environment that is as profound as the last structural shift, which began after the second world war. My anology has been a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other and we are 10-15 years into a return swing toward building more walkable places.

And not a moment too late. The current and even more troubling future energy crunch is being felt by consumers. US foreign policy has been significantly influenced by the need to secure foreign oil production. But the big issue, climate change, is finally being accepted in the US as real and as human-made. It is a nice coincidence that there is pent up market demand for the very solution that will make a substantial contribution to lessening our societal green house gas emissions, given that over 70% of GHGs come from the US built environment and transportation needed to get around the built environment.

I want to address some common issues that have ben raised about the survey that might advance the conversation. First, it is not a "walkability survey", it is a survey of the number of regionally significant (not local-serving places like Cleveland Heights), walkable urban places in a metropolitan area, ranked on a per capita basis. As I mention in the methodology section, no attempt was made at this time to quantify the boundaries or size of these places. Reston Town Center (DC metro) is weighed equal to Midtown Manhattan, even though I would guess Midtown is something like 30 times larger in square footage terms. As this is the first survey of its kind, the next step is to define the geography of each of these 157 places and then determine the total square footage within those boundaries, which I plan to do.

A number of commentators have wondered why NY metro was so much lower than places like metropolitan Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Obviously the sizing issue mentioned above, once accounted for, will bring the ranking of NY metro up. However, most visitors to NY metro only experience Manhattan (and many Manhattanites infamously distain ever leaving Manhattan as the cartoonist Steinberg best captured). Manhattan does not a metro make. It only represents 8.5% of the population of the metro area. The rest of the population is spread over four states (NY, Conn, NJ and PA) in an average density less than the average density of metro LA.

A related issue about the metros with the oldest rail transit systems, which includes NY; today they have outstanding downtowns, downtown adjacent walkable urban places (e.g., Chelsea) and a few revived suburban town centers. However, they have few if any redeveloped strip/regional malls (e.g., Belmar in the Denver metro) or green field places like Plano Town Center in Dallas metro. There tends to be great resistance to densifying where density needs to go in the suburbs of these metros. One example, there is a suburban Philadelphia Main Line township with a major commuter rail station which a developer has proposed a major redevelopment plan that is being strongly opposed by the residents. The developer of this mixed-use walkable plan has been getting death threats; not a way to encourage a civilized debate or enlighted public policy.

You and respondents appear to engage in just such civilized debate, which in these polarized times, is quite refreshing.

I personally believe there is a moral imperative, brought on by climate change in particular though there are many other factors, to encourage the pendulum to swing as quickly as we can toward building more walkable urban places.

Thank you for the important contributions you have made over the years. You have also selected one of the globally great walkable urban metros. We here in the US have learned so much from Canada.

Chris Leinberger
University of Michigan, Brookings Institution and Arcadia Land Company (the survey can be obtained from www.brookings.edu/metro/walkable-urbanism.aspx and my book, The Option of Urbanism, Investing in a New American Dream, has a web site at www.optionofurbanism.com)

PS: Other folks have mentioned that it was no coincidence that DC metro was ranked #1 and that is where Brookings and my home happens to be. They are correct at one level. I moved to DC a couple years ago from very walkable urban Santa Fe, NM. I had concluded from observation over the past decade that DC had become a model for American development trends. I wanted to experience that model first hand. I gave myself a 4 block radius from Brookings in selecting a house.

Erica S.

DC may be quite walkable if you are wealthy and can afford to live in the city itself. However, those of us with lower incomes are being driven out to the suburbs (no pun intended). I think it would be interesting to see a variation of this study that looked at walkability in median-income neighborhoods only. Would the rankings be different? Is walkability becoming just another class privilege or are there still some cities where everyone can afford not to have a car?

Chris Leinberger

I agree with Erica S. completely...due to the huge pent up demand and limited supply, which will take at least a generation to correct, it is available mainly for the well to do. Adam Smith and economic theory can not be repealed because we do not like the outcome. That is why I think we need to take a conscious policy approach to affordable housing, something different than the "drive until you qualify" policy of today.

Chris Leinberger


Erica... Cincinnati is one city that is still affordable to ALL and is also VERY walkable. Major positive changes are happening to downtown, including condo development and new entertainment options. The nationally registered historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which was at one point the most crime-ridden in the city, is now officially the safest part of the city, thanks in part to an increase in foot traffic from new condo owners and recently opened shops and restaurants. A new streetcar plan was just passed that will further help.

I live in a neighborhood called Clifton Gaslight. I can walk to the grocery, several restaurants, two coffee shops, a bakery, several banks, a pharmacy, a branch of the library, and an art house movie theater in under 5 minutes. My job is 10 minutes away.

Cincinnati = walkable and inexpensive

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