March 9, 2007

Walkable cities. Is Madison really #1?

Just yesterday, in my other life as off-blog Althouse, I was having a conversation about walkable cities. Walkability is the first thing I want from a city. It's what I want from the city I choose to live in and any city I travel to. I like a beautiful, drivable landscape around that city, but inside the city, I want to have great walks, from home to work and from the office to caf├ęs and restaurants, with things to see along the way — shops, people, parks, posters.

I was saying how much I loved living in New York City and Boston. I loved living in the West Village -- on Jane Street -- and walking to NYU every day circa 1980, and I loved living on Hereford Street, near Newbury, in Boston, in the fall of 1990, when I taught for a semester at BU and left my car back home. I'd walk back and forth to work and wander around Back Bay in my spare time. By comparison, in Madison, I have a good walk from home to work, and I love the walk from Bascom Mall down State Street and around the Capitol, but it can't compare to the much grander and more variable walks in New York and Boston -- and, traveling, in Paris and London and Rome.

The other city we were talking about was Austin. I haven't been to Austin in 15 years, but I remembered it as seeming more urban than Madison. Still, if I was moving out of Madison, I didn't think I'd pick Austin. I'd want more of a change from Madison. And, besides, isn't Austin more car-oriented? And how can you walk when it's so hot? Which, of course, provoked the usual reminder that in Madison, it's so cold, followed by the usual rejoinder that at least you can breathe in the cold and you just put on some extra layers of clothing, but when it's hot, you have to hole up inside in the air-conditioning.

Later in the evening, we see this. Prevention Magazine has come up with a list of the top 10 most walkable cities in the United States and Madison is #1. Incredibly, Austin is #2!
Factors contributing to the ranking were air quality, the percentage of people who walk to work, access to parks, number of athletic shoes sold, and (believe it or not) weather....

Madison was the only city in the walking top 10 in a state that's not in the South or the West...

Madison is no stranger to No. 1 rankings. People still talk about Money Magazine naming it the best place to live in 1998, although that ranking dropped to 53rd last year. Outside Magazine named it the best road biking city in August, and other high rankings have come for its being vegetarian-friendly, gay-friendly, environmentally friendly, and, well, according to Midwest Living in 2003, the overall friendliest city in the Midwest.
Friendly, friendly, friendly. Don't forget! In case I've been reminding you of the downside of things around here too much lately.

Anyway, Prevention Magazine's idea of walkability is not going to align perfectly with mine. I don't care so much about maximizing the wearing of the sneakers. I'd give points to a place with more fashion variety. I care more about seeing interesting things -- including unusual shoes -- than in whether people are getting a lot of exercise. But if they get a lot of exercise, they may get into better shape -- I'm always trying to get back to what I think of as my "Boston weight" -- and that improves the aesthetic experience of people-watching.


KCFleming said...

Re: "Factors contributing to the ranking were air quality, the percentage of people who walk to work, access to parks, number of athletic shoes sold..."

So, the greater number of tennies sold means a better walking city. A strange data point, but seems plausible.

We must sell fewer Reeboks in my town. Here, it's always open season on pedestrians, especially the old ones.

I wonder where it's best to engage in somnambulism? I mean, without being arrested.

Fitz said...

Yep...except its freaking freezing out.

I mean cold as he**

milwaukee39 said...

It's annoying that whenever an article describes Madison as finishing at the top of a national ranking, it seems to always take a shot at the rest of the state. In only the secongd paragraph, the article gets into the cheese and beer stereotype. There always seems to be an inference that while Madison may be walkable, healthy, educated, and progressive, the rest of the state is a bunch of fat, drunk, rednecks.

Kirby Olson said...

I love walking, too. Paris is the best for this probably, but in America sidewalks are sometimes neglected.

I lived in Beaverton Oregon for a year. It's a town about ten minutes to the west of Portland, Oregon. It went from a town of 6000 in 1980 to a town of 140,000 today and what they did is build roads to accomodate all the new traffic but there were grandfather clauses where people with older houses didn't have to accept sidewalks in front of the house, so as you walk you go nicely for three or four blocks then have to walk in the culvert for a house or two and then you're back on a good sidewalk.

I am going to nominate Beaverton Oregon therefore as the least walkable city in America.

I tried to get a sidewalk built so that the students could walk to Portland Community College in Rock Creek (presently you have to drive and there isn't enough parking), but it was impossible to do this after the fact. So many agencies and companies had to ok every ten feet that it was a logistical nightmare.

Thanks for this post.

Kirby Olson said...

You CAN walk to the community college but you do most of it in culverts along single lane roads that are now buzzing both ways with traffic. A number of times I had to drive my bicycle into the culvert to avoid getting hit by busses. It was annoying.

I'm wondering if there is any city in America that has a worse pedestrian and bicycle situation than Beaverton.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations. I think walkability is one of the top attributes I seek in places I live.

Berkeley is very walkable too. Quasi-urban and sub-urban mix.

I used to regularly walk from the flats near the N. Berkeley Bart up to the Gourmet Ghetto for groceries, coffee, or shopping, or over to downtown to the school or theatres or even more shopping.

Right now I live in a town where the only way to get around town is in a car, and where there is nothing for kids without cars to do but hangout in the mall. Suprisingly, this town has a very bad meth problem.

Richie D said...

You didn't mention Chicago. Great neighborhoods, beautiful landscape. You can walk from downtown or Michigan Avenue all the way to Northwestern University and beyond.

bill said...

There always seems to be an inference that while Madison may be walkable, healthy, educated, and progressive, the rest of the state is a bunch of fat, drunk, rednecks.

You say that like it's a bad thing. Anyway, from my experience most of the "fat, drunk, rednecks" were Minnesotans hanging out at their lake cabins.

Richard Dolan said...

Ann: Amen. Walking is the only way to get a feel for the texture, the urbanity, the architectural conversation of a city. I walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to my office (at Bowling Green) every morning, weather permitting. There's always something I didn't notice before. And a walk across Brooklyn is an easy way to see -- and taste -- most of the world. I've lived in Boston and Philly as well -- both are wonderful walking cities. Chicago can be fun too.

It's odd that the magazine you cite suggests that the great walking cities are in the South and West. When I've travelled for business to those parts of the country, I've yet to find a really good walking city. I've tried to take walks from hotels in Phoenix, Tucson, LA, San Jose, Las Vegas. Doesn't work at all, and the locals (hotel staff, anyway) think your nuts for trying. Miami, SF, San Diego, Portland and Seattle had some parts that were good for walking, but those cities didn't grow up with pedestrians foremost in mind. It shows. The memorable walks I've had in the West were all away form urban settings -- it's the landscape, not the city scape that you want to look at.

So, even though I've never been to Madison, I'd be skeptical of the judgment your magazine writer is bringing to bear here.

MadisonMan said...

I think the fat drunks are from Illinois.

The problem with shoe variety and Madison is that 4 months out of the year you have to wear boots, and there's enough salt around that you can't in good faith wear footwear that the salt will damage.

I walk everywhere, though, and so do my kids. My least favorite intersection: Regent and Monroe.

Laura Reynolds said...

I tend to agree with Richard, walking in the west is not the same as back east (absent places like the Bay Area where space is at a premium). College towns (e.g. Austin) can be exceptions but only for a small fraction of the city. You walk on trails away from civilization.

paul a'barge said...

Oh dear ... shoes! We need pictures of the shoes, soon please.

paul a'barge said...

Regarding Austin (TX), the only place where folks walk is along 6th street, careening from bar to bar.

There really is virtually no urban walking at all, if you discount the t.u. students who walk on their campus, or folks who walk their dogs in their own neighborhoods.

How do these magazine people come up with this stuff?

By the way, I found Milwaukee a fun place to walk.

PeterP said...

and other high rankings have come for its being vegetarian-friendly...

..."Great sprouts Cecilia." "That's a fine parsnip you're packing Michael." "Good morning Mrs Aubergine."


Sorry, you lose me at that point. I am not and never shall be under any obligation to be friendly to vegetarians, nor would I rate a city's good quality by its desire so to do.

American Liberal Elite said...

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demiglace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold.”
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Anonymous said...

Re Austin

Completely agree with paul a'barge. Austin is NOT a walking place. People drive to work, to the parks, to jogging tracks (hence all the shoes), to the market, to restaurants, etc. The air quality is not great (between auto exhaust and mountain juniper pollen, the cause of notorious "cedar fever"). And humidity never let's up in the hot months.

Manhattan gets my vote. For sheer concentration of world class everything in a relatively small area, it can't be beat.

Jennifer said...

Kirby - I'd have to disagree with you. I've lived in Beaverton (as well as Portland and Tigard) and am now in North Carolina. I'm nominating the South as the least walkable region and Fayetteville, NC as the least walkable city. There are NO sidewalks here. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. Our entire neighborhood (they call them subdivisions here) has not one single sidewalk. Not ONE.

It's one thing to walk on the side of the road in a town notorious for red light runners, speeders and generally reckless drivers. But, it's another thing to try to do it with a 4 year old and 1 1/2 year old in tow.

The only walkable place here is the downtown area, which is short enough that my 1 1/2 year old can walk the distance and back without complaint.

I miss walking.

Unknown said...

Pasadena, CA is a great, great walking city. When I lived there I never used my car, and that's unheard of in SoCal. All sorts of surprising bits of personality and things to do, as well as amazingly green.

yetanotherjohn said...

This is a subject that I can speak to, having lived in Austin for more than a quarter century. The UT campus area is very "walkable". Even in August, you can easily walk to and from class, on the drag, etc. While living near campus, the only time I had to get out the car was to go grocery or mall shopping. Lots of little shops, restaurants, etc. but they just didn't have the uncooked foods in large quantities down.

I know someone who has an apartment on 6th street, walks to work down town, etc. Same issue as far as groceries, though less of an issue for the other shopping. I don't know of anyone doing it, but I suspect you could do the same thing working at the capital or the core state government buildings just north of downtown.

We moved the airport about 10 years ago (and are just now getting close to finishing the improvements to the road out to the airport) from a in-town location. They are building a live-work-play area on the old site. The concept is that literally everything you need would be there in the walkable campus. Most buildings would have shops on the ground floor and living spaces above them. I haven't followed it to closely, but I think they were going as far as to essentially ban vehicles off the main thuroughfares (deliveries in the rear thank you). I wouldn't want to walk to the UT campus from the site every day, but if you were a jogger, it would be a doable morning/afternoon run.

As far as sneakers sold, I suspect that is RunTex. They might respond if you asked the demographics of their customers. I know somepeople from out of town specifically go by RunTex to get their sneakers, though obviously they could have bought in their home town. If mail order was included in the RunTex order, that would clinch it.

But for the majority of Austin, its suburbs and that means using a car to get to work or shopping.

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SGT Ted said...

San Francisco is a very walkable city. I used to go there from East Bay just to walk around. You just have to know where to walk.

Anthony said...

I suppose it kind of depends on what you mean by "walkable". Walkable as in, you can walk from home to a lot of places you need/want to go to, or walkable as in, you can go for a nice walk for exercise? The downtown/UW core of Madison is great for the former and the latter; especially the former case because the UW is configured for student walkers (plus it's on a spatially contracted isthmus). But much of the city is walkable for fun and exercise because it has lots of sidewalks.

Much of Seattle is pretty good for walking because it's an older city. I have several grocery stores and restaurants and what-not within walking distance. Out in the newer suburbs, it's all developed around cars.

Any place I move to has to have places to go for a walk in the evening. You get to know the neighbors better, and not just the ones on your street.

I also like front porches.

Howard said...

Walking? Like in just plain walking? Nothing beats LA. One street (Figuroa) is forty miles long and goes through every imaginable income and life style. But that is excercise. Walking for just plain casual interest and excitement is what New York without muggers is all about. I've been everywhere and nothing beats Manhattan for sheer variety and excitement.

Randy said...

This must be some kind of joke. San Jose is one of the 10 best walking cities?

Factors contributing to the ranking were air quality, the percentage of people who walk to work, access to parks, number of athletic shoes sold, and (believe it or not) weather.

Air quality in San Jose is abysmal. The percentage of people who actually walk to work there cannot be all that high, unless they are in the habit of departing for work about 4am to arrive by 9am and getting home at 10pm. (All those cars bumper-to-bumper on all thsoe freeways must be a mirage.) And the weather in San Jose is nothing to write home about.

I see San Diego is listed - the weather is great, the air quality pretty good. I'll bet not 1% of San Diegans walk to work. About half couldn't GET to work in less than a full day's march.

And Portland, Oregon doesn't rank? What's with that? I live in PDX for 5 years and walked everywhere. It was easy. City blocks are on average 200' square, the buildings diverse. You can actually walk through parks and just about circle the entire city never leaving one. There are genuine neighborhoods there, unlike San Diego, San Jose, and {shudder} Henderson, Nevada.

And the weather? Wonderful walking weather. (It rains less in Portland than most people think - less, in fact, than New York City.)

Prevention needs a pound of cure, IMHO.

Palladian said...

"I love walking, too. Paris is the best for this probably, but in America sidewalks are sometimes neglected."

Unlike the dog shit minefields that are the well-kept Parisian sidewalks. Or did they change that? I haven't been there for years.

Balfegor said...

Manhattan gets my vote. For sheer concentration of world class everything in a relatively small area, it can't be beat.

The inner 23-ku (wards?) of Tokyo are great for walking around. Even the roads, apart from the major thoroughfares (like Shinjuku-doori, or Meiji-doori), are mostly so narrow and winding that cars can't go very fast even if they want to, so it feels much safer and more pedestrian-friendly than, say, New York. Loads of underpasses and overpasses too.

There's also more visual interest, walking about, even if the buildings are, on average, far uglier than the decaying Gilded Age constructions that give New York its charm.

Free Lunch said...

Madison may be better than the average small city for walking, but I really can't see number one. Even cities that are generally terrible for walking, for example Louisville, have huge areas that are quite walkable. Madison may have sidewalks on most of hteir major streets, but it is a long walk between destinations in large parts of the city.

MadisonMan said...

Part of what makes Madison so walkable, I think, is that no Interstate Highway transects it -- I-90/94 is waaay out on the east side of town. Thus, the barriers that such highways impose on walking -- especially in towns of a similar size -- do not exist.

Chicago and Milwaukee are very walkable -- I'm surprised they are not on the list. Given the parameters used to make the list, I'll have to think crime is too high there.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

There are too many unexplained variables to make this 'poll' worthwhile.

First would be the reason for the walk. The biggest city I am familiar with (Cincinnati)is excellent for walking to get somewhere, or once was. They had a Skywalk system that was mostly covered or indoor and went form one end of downtown to the other. sadly, it has been extensively dismantled in the last few years. It wasn't the most attractive walk, but if you had a destination downtown it was convenient.

I prefer the smaller, older surrounding neighborhoods for a fun walk- old buildings to examine, friendly people to meet, but fun walks require decent weather and NO destination.

I am also curious how many of the top ten or twenty walkable cities are major college towns?

One of the most fun walks I ever had was in London. A friend and I took the tube to London Bridge and walked up teh bank of the Thames to the Tower of London. An unplanned excursion, and loads of fun.

Unknown said...

How silly. It's not even debatable. Of course it's New York. And I've lived in Boston. Want to know why? Because the vast majority of New Yorkers (at least Manhattanites) don't own a car. Or even desire to. No other city in this country can say that.

In any other city in the country, if you don't own a car- you're probably poor.

Kirby Olson said...

In Paris I walked all day and night up and down Montmartre all the way to Buttes Chaumont and down following canals to some restaurant, and on and on, for a year. They did finally enact a pooper scooper law but the Parisians defied it to some extent as they defied the injunction to stop smoking cigarettes.

Interesting to hear Jennifer about Fayetteville. There must be SOME college towns in the south that have decent walking -- Charlotteville perhaps.

Someone should write a thick book about this topic -- a guide to cities purely from the viewpoint of walking. But somehow the aesthetic viewpoint should matter a lot more.

Manhattan is excellent. Parts of Brooklyn are also excellent (around Court St.). Portland is charming for walking but as soon as you get out to the exploded suburbs the zoning rules no longer apply in places like Beaverton. Not only are the sidewalks a mess but they've paved a lot of the forest so that now when it rains there are floods and it's killed a lot of trees. They did try to put in some walks along clearcuts where the massive electrical cables run through town to light up all the new condominiums which sit in bizarrely orderly rows on every hillside.

I think Madison won because more of the writers have been there. Like the movies that win Oscars win because more of the voters have seen the film. I doubt if the judges went out and walked for two days in every American city to experiment. How can you compare these things unless you've spent months and months walking in every American town and city?

Still, it's nice to see the question addressed.

The politics of sidewalks -- it may be possible for some cities to upgrade and become excellent walking cities. But in Beaverton you couldn't build sidewalks in one area because it was a flood plain and the specifications were so precise that it was prohibitive. Then if you did build the darned sidewalk you had to also put in stoplights which I was told would cost about another $200,000 per, which sent the budget into the never-never.

Justin said...

I'm wondering if there is any city in America that has a worse pedestrian and bicycle situation than Beaverton.

Clearly you've never been to Houston. You can walk wherever you want. But there are no sidewalks, so the traffic will kill you. And if it doesn't, heatstroke will. If you survive the heat and the traffic, it will take you all day to get where you're going because the city is so spread out. And then, of course, you have to get back. By the time you make the round trip, you will have sweated out half your body weight and replaced it with smog in your lungs.

We do have the occasional bicycle lane. But I've never seen a bicycle in one.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Please don't get me started on bicyclist!

I live out in the country, but close enough to town for the townies to load up the bikes on the SUV and drive out to the country to ride. They seem to think every country road is a freakin' bike path- they forget this is my highway to where ever I need to go.

They will ride two and three abreast; dawdle at 10 MPH and in general have no courtesy for the locals.


Kirby Olson said...

Justin, in one of Philip Lopate's essay books he writes about being a walker in Houston and how it was just impossible to do but he did it anyhoo.

It's a hoot.

I wish there was a good collection of essays on the subject of walking in American cities by different authors.

I think that would be excellent.

I hated Houston when I was there although I liked the Menil and the other big art collection. The place was billboards for ten miles in a row mostly advertising salacious services.

What a hellhole. Bush should send in the army, and make it into a better civilization.

Sofa King said...

I live in downtown Milwaukee and find it to be surprisingly walkable with lots of bridges - even a pedestrian-only bridge across the river - cultural attractions, shops, a public market, a shopping mall, and various small city parks (thanks, socialist mayors!) The lakefront is beautiful year-round, while the riverwalk is spectacular in the summer. The only real sore spot is the sorry state of transit to and from the area.

Titus said...

Well as someone who is from Madison and lives in Boston I would have to say there is no comparison between the two in terms of "walkable cities".

In Madison you can walk around campus/state street and the immediately surrounding area-and that is about it. You are not going to walk from State Street to the west side of Madison. Also, I am fairly confident to say that more people in Madison have cars than in Boston. Most people in my immediate neighborhood don't own cars-also there is no where to park them-unless you want to pay $200,000 for a parking spot in an alley.

I live in the South End of Boston and from this neighborhood I walk to every neighborhood in the city (or take the subway). Boston is very compact and we live on top of each other. Madison is quite spread out. Boston doesn't have many parks it is mainly concrete. The parks we do have are "squares" and probably the size of most people's backyards. I don't recall that many parks in Madison though.

Also, I like to judge a city by it's sidewalk traffic. Madison definitely has quite a bit of walkers around the university but that's where it stops. In Boston the sidewalks are teaming with people walking everywhere.

I didn't know you lived in Boston in 1990?? Come back, you would love it here year round. I could see you living in Boston. For all the nasty comments Massachusetts and Boston gets from many on the conservative side it is really an amazing place.

MadisonMan said...

Ironic headline in today's Wisconsin State Journal: No charges planned in death of pedestrian, 19

He was run over by a car.

Anonymous said...

Support a carbon tax and you'll get more walkable cities.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Well, I think I'll weigh in here and agree that NYNY and Chicago are the best walking cities (London perhaps even more than either)and that Madison really is a much better walking city than Austin. I used to walk all over town in Madison, and not just in the areas surrounding campus as boston70 said. I used to walk 11 miles around Lake Monona, or east from downtown past the Atwood neighborhood, or in winter I'd walk out past the end of Picnic Point and across the ice to the terrace. Madison, and Wisconsin in general, also has a wonderful system of bike trails. The commenters who put down Austin as a walking city are unfortunately right. Walking in the heat is much more draining than in the cold, and there aren't enough sidewalks, and the scenery isn't as pretty as in Madison. What we do have is the Hike and Bike trail downtown by the river, an excellent resource, but it's not as interesting as walking through neighborhoods.

Dave said...

Two points:

1) NYC is the best city for walking, period. But then it's the best city, period.

2) True story. I was in a strip mall in Tucson. Had to walk down the road a mile to another strip mall to meet my friend. So I start walking along the side of the road. It was May, 105 degrees, and I had two very large bottles of water in my backpack. No way I would dehydrate over 5,280 feet with the amount of water I was carrying. Lo and behold about five minutes into my slog, a cop car pulls alongside me, lights spinning. "Sir, you know it's very dangerous to be walking around in this heat"? "Yes officer, I'm just walking down the road to the next strip mall." "Sir, would you like a lift there? I'd feel better if you were not walking in this heat." So I said sure, hopped in the back of the (air-conditioned) cop car and arrived in style.

I should also mention that I saw more obese people in Tucson than I have seen anywhere, bar Milwaukee.

Kris said...

I think some people are discounting Madison's walkability because you can't walk to that many places outside of downtown. But why should walking just be about the destination?

I think Madison ranks so high because you can do different kinds of walking here. You can walk to your destination downtown. You can people watch on State St., the Monroe St. area and Regent St. on football Saturdays. You can walk and enjoy nature in the Arboretum, Lakeshore Path or along Lake Monona on the near east side.

Omaha1 said...

I like to walk and see my lovely shoes.
At my favorite store, I can buy the day's news.
In the cafe I can watch through the glass.
People and trees they don't see as they pass.
Reflections and colors, the morning goes by,
So alone yet a part of the scenery, am I.

Walking in the city is no fun if there is not a great variety of scenery. I think the focus of this article is on the livability of a city for those who don't drive, not on the pleasure of walking.