Thursday, July 17, 2008

Walkable Memphis, A Contradiction In Terms

Well, it looks like Midtown deserves its bragging rights.

It's the most walkable neighborhood in Memphis , according to Walk Score, winning the designation over the expected winner, downtown.

However, at this point, we're putting an asterick by the winner, but we'll get back to that shortly. We've written previously about Walk Score and the ability to score your home or business or favorite place's walkability, but today, it added a feature that ranks neighborhoods.

Midtown finished at the top of the list by Walk Score with a score of 53, compared to 52 for downtown.

East Memphis/Colonial/Yorkshire was third at 48, River Oaks/Kirby/Balmoral was fourth with 44.

A neighborhood had to score more than 49 just to get out of the "car-dependent" category and into the "somewhat walkable" group. A score of more than 70 was judged to be very walkable.

By way of comparison, Nashville had 25 neighborhoods that scored higher than Memphis Midtown's 53; however, we can take some pride in the fact that as a city, we still finished ahead of Nashville in the rankings of 40 cities. Memphis was #35 and Nashville was next to last at #39.

According to Walk Score, our city's overall walkable score is 43, reflecting our umbilical relationship with our vehicles.

The city with the highest score was San Francisco with an 86, and adding insult to injury, somehow, Houston (#26) and Atlanta (#22) finished ahead of us.

If you want to know what the perfect walkable neighborhood looks like, think New York's Tribeca (100), Dupont Circle (99) or Chicago's Loop (98). As far as we're concerned, there's no argument that they are the standards that our city should be pursuing.

But here's the thing. The boundaries for our neighborhoods are based on no definitions that we've ever seen before.

Our complaint isn't about the conclusion that 7% of Memphians have a Walk Score of more than 70 (our firm's score downtown at Union and Front is a highly respectable 90, by the way), or that 29% have a score of more than 50 or that 71% of Memphians are car-dependent; however, in looking at Memphis neighborhoods, East Memphis stretches from Overton Park to I-240, taking in more than 100,000 people, and Midtown runs from Kilowatt Lake in North Memphis to the Defense Depot. Other cities have dozens of neighborhoods on the list, so we think that while the overall city ranking wouldn't change, by better identifying Memphis neighborhoods, we can show that some Memphis neighborhoods – real neighborhoods - are highly walkable.

All in all, Walk Score looked at more than 2,500 neighborhoods, meaning that the average city had about 60 neighborhoods. Memphis has only 12.

Despite this, it's still a revealing portrait of Memphis, and completes the image of a city that is neither walkable nor bikable (more about this in coming days). More and more each day, it's clear that in our love affair with the car, it's our city's quality of life that is getting screwed.


Cliff Heegel, Ph.D. said...

Well, gee, my neighborhood only scored 48, so I guess I am car dependent-- Oh, wait, I haven't owned a car for 7 years! My wife has one, though-- she puts 11 gallons of gas in her car every 6 weeks.

We are both white collar professionals. I bike 12 miles daily round trip to work everyday, in all kinds of weather, year round. She walks to work. I go to the grocery on my bike, now and then she takes her car for a major shopping run.

It isn't hard, it isn't more dangerous than driving, we are not olympic athletes- I am 55.

I used to live in Germantown- I can ride a bicycle from there to the Mississippi river and never have any non-bikeable crazy dangerous roads, even at rush hour.

Most of the talk about Memphis being unbikeable is written by folks who do not know what they are doing on bicycles and don't know what they are talking about.

Get trained, do the research, ride your bike.

I have been commuting via bike for 24 years, mostly accident free, never had any serious car-bike problems commuting.

Try getting some training in cycling from someone who knows what they are doing. Don't listen to the fear mongers. Cycling is safer than it looks or feels.

Memphis Real Estate Broker-Joe Spake said...

After being introduced to Walk Score and posting their widget on my website and blog, I have come to the conclusion that the value of Walk Score is at the micro level.
Go to the site and put in your home address, rather than trying to score at the neighborhood or city level.

Anonymous said...

You make a great observation about neighborhood identification. Most cities have small, well-defined neighborhoods that have their own competive advantages and unique offerings. Memphis does not; although, Downtown is trying to do so as are areas like Cooper-Young and High Point. Memphis needs to stop trying to fix the city and start trying to fix the neighborhoods within our city. Diversity has proven to be a great tool because it allows for different ideas and cultural events. Memphis is so worried about the past world of segregation that we as a city a scared to make tough decisions to benefit one neighborhood over another. Yet, that is exactly what we need. Most projects and plans that work are small scale in nature because it allows local residents to get involved where they live. We need neighborhoods to become more defined and walkable new urbanism is a great way to do just that.

Zippy the giver said...

What's clear to me is the results aren't so accurate.
My old neighborhood got a 39, I could walk it but it was dangerous, crackheads, meth labs, tons of gangs, all of them very angry all the time and acting up.
My new neighborhood got a 49. None of the previous problems.
The old "neighb" could've been a better deal if it were "livable".
The new one is much better than it looks or scored.
Bothe depend on this: IF YOU WORK AT HOME.
I Usually do.
Two car house, we usually drive one, 99% of the time and don't drive much, the car we drive is a 2002 with only 30k miles on it.
Oh, we're green alright and we don't own bikes yet.
So, it goes like this;
I get upin this "walkable neighborhood" to drive my kids to a decent school or home school them because the "very desirable public school" 1 block away hasn't got competent math teachers (lack of accountability), and I could walk to the 1/10th mile away grocery store if it didn't smell like an open sewer pipe inside (lack of inspections), tried every restaurant around it and got food poisoning (inspector must be paid off), so walkability seems to be a big problem but other problems make it a nonviable option anyway.

Smart City Consulting said...

memphis real estate broker joe spake:

Thanks for reminding us. It is more useful at the individual address level. For example, our downtown office gets a highly respectable 90 score.

We've written before about that feature of Walk Score, but it was yesterday that the site turned on its neighborhood ratings.

gatesofmemphis said...

To make a more walkable, bikable city and neighborhood, I think we have to not only advocate a positive vision of that, but also advocate against the many actions that continue to privilege the car and isolate the walker, even by those who should know better. Actions that make this an unwalkable city.

For instance, the speculative demolitions that are creating a no-man's land on Union near Danny Thomas, isolating the developments going up in the Edge. Or the Tom Lee surface parking lot planned for Beale Street Landing.

2 relatively small examples, but if you can destroy/pave so close to the heart of downtown, walkability is fragile everywhere.

jccvi said...

Interestingly, 201 Poplar gets an 88.

jccvi said...

I wonder how realistic this system is. By ranking by mere proximity to services, it doesn't seem to account for whether anyone actually does or would ever want to walk to some of these places. There are certainly houses within walking distance of the East Memphis Target, for instance, but to do so would involve long treks across parking lots and across busy streets few protected walkways. You could walk, but it's hardly walkable.

gatesofmemphis said...

I noticed the same thing that jccvi noticed. Try anywhere on Union in Midtown. While proximity to services alone might be misleading as I think of walkability, it shows possibilities for places like Colonial and Union, if we could make the walker/biker at least an equal.

Michael Roy Hollihan said...

83 out of 100 for my Midtown neighborhood? That sounds low, to be honest.

I haven't owned a car in more than fifteen years and rarely feel the pinch in the day-to-day. If MATA weren't a joke, it'd be no pain at all.

Ah well, my tiny little neighborhood -- Ingleside (three square blocks) -- rules!!

Ken said...

any thoughts on memphis' ranking over at

we're looking for thoughts about the urban experience from people who actually live in memphis.

will post our submit page here next week.


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