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Walkscore and the 5-, 10-, 20-minute Neighborhood

December 3, 2009

Not to brag, but I live in Walker’s Paradise.

That’s the name that walkscore.com gives to the 98 score (out of 100) for my home in NW Portland.

To be fair, Walkscore is not perfect. For example, I get credit for living close to the New Renaissance bookstore. It’s a nice little store, but it wouldn’t stack up against Powells as a general bookstore (or even against the departed 23rd Avenue Books – which still shows up in Walkscore, as does a corner market that’s been out of business for years).

Nonetheless, Walkscore is having an impact. It shows up on Zillow.com and local economist Joe Cortright has estimated that a point of walkscore is worth anywhere from $500 to $3000 to the value of your home, depending on the market the house is in.

How is this relevant to the Portland Plan? One of the key ideas being floated for the Portland Plan is to create more “20-minute Neighborhoods”, neighborhoods in which many of your daily needs can be met within a 20-minute walk of your home. The idea is to reduce how auto-dependent we are. And my 98 score is the exception, not the rule in Portland. Our overall score is 66 and only seven of Portland’s neighborhoods are in Walker’s Paradise with scores of 90 or more.

But some have debated whether 20 minutes is really the right radius. The suggestion has been made that 10 minutes might be a more important benchmark. People who cycle would tell us that their radius expands to two or three miles. So I thought I might look at what’s in my 20-minute circle (and some other circles) to see what really matters.

My 5-minute Neighborhood

Let’s start with a relatively small circle. And it’s not actually a circle, because as you see below, my 5-minute neighborhood has some chunks cut out of it, either because topography limits it, or because there simply aren’t destinations that are meaningful to me on a regular basis.

My 5-minute neighborhood extends from about Lovejoy St. to Thurman St., mostly within a block of NW 23rd Avenue (although going two blocks either east or west picks up access to two more transit lines). In that area, I have access to:

  • 3 coffee shops (priorities!)
  • My bank/ATM
  • The Food Front cooperative grocery
  • A neighborhood “corner store” (significant because it’s on my way home via most of my usual transit lines)
  • Our favorite greasy spoon breakfast place and at least a dozen other restaurants including Indian, Mexican, Italian, Sushi, Thai and an east-coast style sandwich stop
  • Two brew pubs
  • Two wine shops
  • A bakery
  • A number of salons, including my hair stylist
  • The pet store where we buy our specialty brand of dog food
  • A video store
  • My dry cleaner
  • The neighborhood branch library
  • A Post Office
  • A park
  • A major medical center, which because of our perverse health care system is pretty much useless to me as it’s out of network, while it is in-network for my partner under her employer’s plan. A rational health case policy would put primary care providers in every neighborhood!
  • 4 transit lines
  • 3 bikeways (two east-west, one north-south)
  • The Willamette Week offices and a head shop (not everything can add value)

My 20-minute Neighborhood

Expanding the circle to 20 minutes – again  not nearly a circle due to hills and where the clusters of destinations are adds a lot more stuff:

  • 3 full service grocery stores
  • 2 specialty groceries
  • Our weekly CSA pickup location
  • 2 Portland Public Schools and several day care facilities
  • A second park
  • A butcher (can you tell I’m a foodie?)
  • A lumberyard (yes, I have walked home with a 2×4 on my shoulder)
  • A hardware store
  • A Kinkos
  • A kitchenwares store
  • Lots of boutique retail
  • More restaurants than I care to count
  • My dentist
  • Many houses of worship (the congregation I affiliate with is about 22 minutes, just outside the boundary)
  • 2 more transit lines (MAX is about 25 minutes away)

I have not attempted to map out my 10-minute neighborhood. In my case it seems like the significant break is at the 5-minute radius. Most of the other significant destinations are in the 15-20 minute band. But that’s probably just my unique situation.

A Sidebar: The Impact of Density

Even in one of the densest neighborhoods in Portland, things change. In the 15 years we’ve lived in our house, the 5-minute neighborhood has gotten a lot more useful, particularly as the commercial cluster on NW Thurman has blossomed. When we moved in it consisted of Food Front and a couple of restaurants. Now it boasts a bakery, video store, wine shop and several more restaurants. What happened? In my opinion, primarily a boost in residential density as several row-house projects went up on or near Thurman and two warehouses on 24th Ave north of Quimby were demolished and significant numbers of residential units (townhouses at one site, condos on the other) were added. The decision by the County to locate the library at 23rd and Thurman certainly also helped. The lesson: residential density attracts services which make it easier to get things done without a car.

I also believe the Streetcar may have been a factor in attracting some of that residential development and in helping spawn more restaurants on 23rd north of Lovejoy!

What about bikes?

Perhaps because my 5-minute neighborhood is so rich, my bicycle is not essential to meeting my daily needs. But it is a large factor in my daily life, as it’s often how I get to meetings. I can reach the whole Central City within 30 minutes on my bike (and I’m not that fast) including the centers of government for the City, County and Metro – including Planning Commission meetings. It’s also the gateway to long distance transit when I do go to the office in Wilsonville (for the last decade, I’ve primarily been a telecommuter, only going to the office 1 or 2 days a week).

But I know many other people who very successfully use their bikes to meet the same needs that I’m covering in a 5-minute walk.

So what does it mean?

My lifestyle is much less auto-dependent than the average City resident. Our household does have one car – and my partner is quite clear that it’s hers! I certainly haven’t sworn off using cars, but a very high percentage of my trips occur without a car. If I had to rate the things that made this possible, I think the following would be the order of impact:

  • Destinations in a 5-minute walking distance
  • Good transit access
  • Good bicycling facilities
  • Destinations in a 20-minute walking distance

So at least in my personal situation, I’m putting a lot more weight on the 5-minute neighborhood than the 20-minute neighborhood. Let’s take grocery shopping as an example. While I regularly walk to Food Front for daily grocery shopping (often in conjunction with getting away from my computer and going out for a lunch break), when I need to go to one of the full-service grocery stories that are 15-20 minutes away, it’s more likely that I will either take transit at least one way (I can time my departure from home to catch a bus or Streetcar by tracking the arrival time online) or trip-chain a stop at the new Pearl Safeway on a bicycle trip returning home, since it’s very near a bikeway I often use to access the Central City.

Finally, Today’s Question

So if my personal situation is at all indicative, reducing auto-dependence is actually a multi-faceted combination of nearby services and good transit and bicycle access. Let’s focus on the first element for now and try to answer two questions:

  1. What services and destinations would need to be near your home to reduce your auto use?
  2. How close would they need to be (in walking time) to have that effect?
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14 comments

  1. I’m assuming you just overlooked pharmacy/drug store? I can’t remember one near 23rd off the top of my head but I bet it’s there.

    Another thing you need if you’re a heavy bike user is a bike shop.


  2. Yes, I forgot a few things:

    5-minute:

    Specialty pharmacy

    20-minute:

    Veterinary clinic
    Bike Shops (3)
    Movie theater
    Full-service pharmacy (2 + the one at Fred Meyer)

    Probably forgot some other things too … it is paradise after all (wink)


  3. Nice exercise in psychogeography. I completely respect eliminating the portions of the map where one just doesn’t go. But, if I did that – well, my map would be pretty spotty.

    Where I’m at – it’s more of a 10 and 20 minute break between the two areas:

    10 minutes (my walkscore is 88 “very walkable” and I think this list illustrates the importance of diversity and quality of amenities that isn’t accounted for in a walkscore):

    a 38 acre park
    Max Stop
    the 17 bus line
    Marshall High School
    A pioneer cemetery
    Walmart (don’t really go there)
    Century 16 movie theatre
    Walgreens
    Jo-ann Fabric
    Every kind of military recruiter imaginable
    Radio Shack
    2 Dental Clinics
    2 nail salons
    3 convenience stores
    Bank
    Starbucks
    Quiznos
    Subway
    L&L Hawaiian
    Happy Terriyaki
    Jack-in-the Box
    Taco Bell
    Izzy’s
    An awesome taco truck
    Good Neighbor Store (eastern European market)
    Liquor Store
    a “gentlemens'” club
    A plasma donation center

    – and after all that you can go to LA Fitness!

    20 minutes:

    a seasonal farmer’s market
    sandwich/coffee shop
    taqueria/mexican restaurant
    another eastern European market/bakery with bonus disco!
    a dive bar
    2 hair/nail salons
    the New Copper Penny (‘nuf said)
    Tidee Didee
    2 martial arts studios
    a small antiques/ 2nd hand shop
    2 convenience stores
    2 auto repair shops
    one computer repair shop
    one used appliance yard
    one Koi/pond store

    Google maps/walkscore shows a bookstore – but it’s one of *those* bookstores.

    After all that – you can see that a real grocery store is missing from the equation. There’s a Fred Meyer about 25 minutes away, and the horrible horrible Food 4 Less where the stuff that doesn’t sell at Fred Meyer goes to die- in the opposite direction toward Powell. But any sort of specialty grocery – particularly one with high quality fresh produce and meats – requires a drive. It’s not even bike-able.

    Also, a European style bakery with croissant and artisan breads would be nice. And, I would love to have a coffee shop within 5 minutes that didn’t make me feel terrible about myself every time I patronized the place. I hate having to go through the mental exercise of justifying my Starbucks purchase with a carbon offset. Actually, the only places I feel good about that are within 10 minutes of my house are the taco truck, the park and the MAX. I guess the movie theatre is okay too.


  4. One destination I would love to see more of in downtown, especially Old Town / Chinatown, is market-price housing. Options for living downtown seem severely restricted unless either you make a lot of money or make no money. Hence, downtown is kind of a ghost town. On a recent Monday night a friend and I walked 18 blocks in the middle of the street, from the Pearl to Goose Hollow. This is especially awful because downtown is gorgeous. Not to mention being the most efficient, sustainable, and environmentally responsible place to live.


  5. I agree that the 20-minute walk radius is probably not a practical measure, and that five or ten minutes makes more sense. Even as an avid walker, I’m likely to consider the car if I’m going to have to spend 40 minutes in transit for a cup of coffee.

    I don’t know how Walkscore comes up with its numbers, but surely some destinations have a higher inherent walkscore value than others.

    For instance, a video store no longer has any value to me (at any distance) whereas a good grocery store is very heavily weighted. My inner Northeast neighborhood improved exponentially when we got a Nature’s and a coffee place, but the marginal value of a take-and-bake pizza place was, for me, nil.

    Of course, it’s different for everyone. But the grocery store and the coffee place alone turned my little corner of Sabin from feeling like a suburb to feeling like the city.


  6. The walk score is a neat concept but is fundamentlly flawed in that it can’t weigh the quality of the walking environment. Many very unwalkable places get high scores because they are in close proximity to many services but nobody would ever walk there.

    Consider any residential subdivision that backs up to a major strip shopping center. There are lots of services but in order to walk there you have to exit the subdivision, most likely on the opposite side you want to be on, probably cross one or two high speed 4-6 lane arterials (ugly and unpleasant, if not dangerous to walk along), then walk through the enormous parking lot. You’re looking at an unpleasant 10-30 minute walk even though you might live a quarter mile away.


  7. As a follow up, although I think it’s pretty obvious from my previous post, that even if you can walk a relatively short distance to services, say five minutes, but it’s a miserable experience, most people with choice are not likely to do so.


  8. “… the conception of neighborhoods in cities is meaningless — so long as we think of neighborhoods as being self-contained units to any significant degree, modeled upon town neighborhoods.” –Jane Jacobs, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities

    By focusing on building 20-minute neighborhoods, we are creating a quasi-provincial cluster of inefficiently linked mini-burbs, and not on creating a sustainable, efficient, and humane city. That I don’t see the appeal of 20-minute neighborhoods is mostly a matter of preference, but neither do I see the logic, if our goal is to create a city that’s green, clean, and whatever else.


  9. I think what Jacob’s is trying to say in that quote is that how we think about geographies needs to be adjusted – to remove cognitive boundaries – we need to be allowed to look at what is – what is needed and the actual preferred movements of people and their cultural affinities, in order to create a sense of place.

    I don’t think she would argue that providing basic amenities (food access, health care access, transportation access, access to quality education, recreation and cultural *as defined by the population* activities etc.) within a distance that is easily accessible by “foot”, for any individual household, contradicts or negatively influences the natural evolution of a sense of place. The cultural and sub-cultural affinities that help differentiate places are a relativistic overlay on the structural basics – each area will react to and develop that basic amenity into something different, because they (the neighborhood/marketshed/affinity grouping …whatever) react to that introduction with different starting assumptions that are based on their shared values.


  10. Can I have some details about this butcher you mention?


  11. There are actually two. The one I was referring to is Phil’s Uptown Meat in the Uptown Shopping Center (Burnside/Westover).

    There is also Chop, which is part of City Market at NW21st and Johnson. I classed City Market as a ‘specialty grocery’.


  12. I agree with Isaac. Before Portland, I used to live down in Menlo Park in the Bay Area, and worked in Sunnyvale. My little corner of Menlo Park was pretty suburban, but the town center was a pleasant 10-15 minute walk through the park (to 2 grocery stores, hardware store, restaurants, laundromat, library, train station, post office, etc). My office in Sunnyvale got the same walkscore (around 88 as I recall) and most of the same amenities (no hardware store) but it was an unpleasant experience of missing sidewalks and 4 and 6 lane arterials (all side streets were unconnected) to get to any of it, so people didn’t really walk much around there if they had any choice. The walking experience is a huge factor in whether people will walk, not just what they can walk to.


  13. […] neighbourhoods has focused on these dynamics. Chris Smith, for instance, cleverly describes his 5-, 10- and 20- minute neighbourhood in Portland Oregon. Green Changemakers offers tips regularly on “living responsibly.” […]


  14. […] to carry more fresh and nutritious food in under-served areas. If Allentown got serious about a 10-Minute Neighborhood plan, with the goal of enabling people to access all their basic needs within a 10 minute walk from […]



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