Walk Score is a great example of using big data to understand cities better. Long before projects like Urban Observatory or PlaceILive.com even existed, Walk Score was out there, using open data to measure certain aspects of our cities. Walk Score is doing something people seem to like: they put a number on an address. For every address you enter in the website, Walk Score will offer you a walkability score. And while measuring walkability is hard, Walk Score is actually grasping pretty impressively the walkability quality of places, even though it doesn’t take into account many parameters that affect walkability, such as sidewalks’ quality or crime rates.
Without going too much into details, walkable neighborhoods normally feature mixed-used schemes, relatively efficient connectivity between origins and destinations, and high housing density. These are just the built environment characteristics, let’s not forget social norms, crime rates, weather, land topography, etc. (you can read more about the scientific evidence). The biggest problem with measuring walkability is that grasping it is not easy, due to the countless of parameters influencing people's choice of transportation and their subjective rating of these parameters.
Walk Score, as explained on its website, analyzes walking routes from a specific location to nearby amenities, divided into categories such as grocery stores, restaurants and bars. “Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5 minute walk are given maximum points. A decay function is used to give points to more distant amenities, with no points given after a 30 minute walk”. So while Walk Score doesn’t directly measure all parameters influencing walkability, and focuses mainly on nearby amenities and how to reach them, their scores seem to be consistent, at least when I compare them to my personal impressions of neighborhoods.
Now, let's go back to the question in the headline: is Walk Score relevant in the Netherlands, a country with arguably the highest cycling rates in the western world? The first, immediate answer is no, merely due to the fact that the Netherlands is not supported on the Walk Score website. The website uses sources like Google Maps’ and Open Street Map when it comes to location of stores and other services, and they claim on their website that they “do not have enough data to ensure an accurate score” in the Netherlands.
However, the data in Google Maps is pretty accurate in the Netherlands, so when I’m using Walk Score I get pretty decent results. In Groningen, some places receive a nearly perfect score on the website, since they’re surrounded by countless of shops, cafés and other amenities. Neighborhoods outside the city center receive lower scores, and some of them are so low that they are considered “Car Dependent”.
Car dependent? In Groningen? We are talking about a city that can be cycled in 40 minutes, end to end. Within 20 minutes, almost everybody can reach the vibrant and walkable city center. In Groningen (and in most other Dutch cities) it is completely fine to live in a neighborhood without many attractions, because it usually just takes a few minutes cycling to reach an attractive walkable area.
Despite the website’s relatively new tool, the Bike Score, it still does not understand how life on a bike works. The Bike Score basically does the same shtick as its older brother: it calculates the variety of amenities that can be reached within an acceptable cycling time. But this is not how Dutch cities, and residents, work. Cyclists are not just cyclists, they are also pedestrians, and neighborhoods shouldn't be measured for either walkability or bikeability, but how both work well together.
Some people would say that Walk Score is purely about walkability, and that bikes should be left out of the equation. But that’s not the way Walk Score went by adding the Bike Score and Transit Score a couple years back. The real way to measure cities’ active transportation strength is to measure all the means together. Until then, I’m going to cycle five minutes from my “unwalkable” neighborhood to the city center.