How to Walk More, Drive Less in Your 'Hood

Using less gas is on everyone's minds these days -- and one way to do it is to ditch your car, or to at least go from being a multi-car to a single-car family.

Sprawling suburbs and exurbs don't make this very easy. Infill communities, which develop underutilized urban space, gentrified city neighborhoods and contrived suburban town centers, which had already been on the ascendancy in cities from Houston to Phoenix to Denver, are attracting new interest from people who want to be less dependent on their cars.

Search engines and online databases available are making it easier to find dense, mixed-use communities, live in them, and get away from them when you need to, while decreasing your dependence on your automobile.

A Web site called Walk Score rates how easy it is to get by on foot in 2,508 neighborhoods in the country's 40 biggest cities.

It's not a perfect formula. It considers population density, proximity to schools, jobs, parks, a town center and shops and services. It doesn't consider things like access to public transit, crime, topography (how hilly a city is), climate or the degree of pedestrian-friendly design.

It has a list of 138 neighborhoods it deems paradisiacal for walkers.

Nine of the top 10 are in New York or San Francisco. But Old Westport in Kansas City slips in right at number 10. Neighborhoods in Portland, Ore. (Pearl District), Washington, D.C. (Dupont Circle), Seattle (Pioneer Square), Philadelphia (City Center East) and Chicago (the Loop) round out the top 25.

The Web site wants to make the point that even cities that have low overall walkability can have a handful of neighborhoods that are oases for foot-powered living.

For example, Los Angeles, the city where nobody walks, has 31 areas (out of 84) that score a 70 or better out of 100, which means they are considered very walkable -- you can get by locally without a car.

Even Jacksonville, Fla., which landed in the number 40 spot with an overall score of 36, has six neighborhoods (out of 188 -- ouch!) that are very walkable.

The site also lets you type in an address, then generates a walkability score along with a map showing nearby amenities from gyms and restaurants to schools and libraries. My Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood scores a 94, making it a walker's paradise.

Of course, a person does have to leave the neighborhood from time to time, but that doesn't mean you need to have a car all the time.

Zipcar, a membership service that lets customers rent cars by the hour or the day, is available in some 40 cities around the country, including eight out of Walk Score's top ten.

If most of your driving is for the work-day commute, Green Your..., a website that generates green solutions for everyday situations, provides a list of carpool matching services, as well as a guide to "instant carpooling," where people looking for a lift and people needing to fill their cars so they can drive in the HOV lanes meet at designated spots around certain cities.

And, of course, there's biking. For commuting, errand running and exercise, it's a mode of transport that is due for a major comeback. Many cities are encouraging it with new and refurbished greenways and bike lanes.

New York, once an incredibly dangerous town for cyclists, has become friendlier to the two-wheeled (though it is still New York and only so friendly). It even has a Web site, Ride the City, that will show you the safest bike route between two points.

Other cities around the country offer similar information, such as lists of suggested routes or local bike maps, even if they don't have a cool interactive map.

The best way to find out what's available locally is to type "safe bike routes" and your city name into Google ( GOOG).

You can also check out Bikely, a sort of Chowhound for cyclists, where people post best routes in their vicinity in a searchable database. For example, a search for Seattle turned up 676 rides, including one from West Seattle to Expedia's ( EXPE) headquarters in Bellevue.

Cars aren't going to completely disappear from our roads, garages and cities anytime soon, but it seems that turning to the tools available in the virtual world are making it easier than ever to get by without a motor in the real one.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.

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