NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Living within a quick drive of work, the store, school or public transportation is nice, but only having all of those items a few blocks away makes your neighborhood "walkable."
The people behind Walk Score, a Seattle-based service that rates the convenience and transit access of 10,000 neighborhoods in 2,500 cities, have spent the past four years judging the distance between residents and amenities and ranking places based on the results. That "walkability" led to the first set of rankings in 2008 and the use of those rankings by more than 10,000 cities, civic organizations and real estate groups in the years that followed.
It also helped increase emphasis on the elements that make a city walkable. Walk Score's ideal neighborhoods have either a main street or public space at the center, enough people to keep public transit running frequently and a good mix of housing and businesses. Parks and other public spaces make up a large part of the equation, as do amenities designed around pedestrians, nearby schools and workplaces and "complete streets" designed for pedestrians, cyclists and transit. Children don't shoot hoops in cul de sacs in walkable cities.
"Very often, you'll see a good pedestrian design with sidewalks and crosswalks that make a city more accessible and walkable," says Josh Herst, chief executive of Walk Score. "Even in cities that on the whole aren't that walkable, there are neighborhoods that are great places to walk."It's an idea that's already caught on in U.S. cities, where public transportation systems have grown from little more than 1,000 in 1980 to 7,700 in 2009, when the American Public Transportation Association public transit advocacy group last took stock. From 1995 to 2008, the APTA says public transportation ridership increased by 38% as the highways system grew 21% and the U.S. population 14% during the same period. Even Walk Score had to catch up and didn't start tracking the proximity and value of transit service in more than 120 cities with its Transit Score system until August. "In quite a few cities for quite a few reasons, including a desire to promote sustainability and public health and a number of economic benefits, we've seen interest in walkability continue to grow," Herst says. "We know that some communities are looking at Transit Score and doing some what-if analysis like 'If you added light rail service down this corridor, how much would that change the transit score for how many people?'" The convenience is lovely, but U.S. homebuyers are going to need the pot sweetened a bit more if they're going to be convinced to give up cars and yard space for noise and density. A CEOs For Cities study based on Walk Score data insists that a walkable neighborhood adds an average $3,000 to a home's selling price. The APTA raises the stakes by noting that households more likely to use public transportation save more than $8,400, while households that use public transportation and live with one less car save an average of $9,000 annually. If bribery doesn't work, threats just might. University of British Columbia professor Lawrence Frank found that residents of walkable neighborhoods tend to be at least seven pounds lighter than their counterparts in more sprawling areas. For a glimpse of what life is like in walkable America, TheStreet offers a look at Walk Score's Top 10 most walkable cities of 2011 and the amenity-packed neighborhoods that made the difference: