Walk Score issues faulty rating to cities near international borders

St. Clair, Michigan — Walk Score, a web-based tool that ranks the pedestrian-friendliness of communities around the globe, has gotten something wrong. Located in Michigan's Thumb, this small town of just over 5,000 is exactly the sort of place we might expect to receive the highest marks when it comes to walkability. One of only three municipalities in Michigan to receive a 2012 gold-level award (the highest granted) from the state's Promoting Active Communities program for "making it easy for people to be active," the city offers a number of pedestrian amenities including Main Street shopping, reliable Blue Water Transit service, public art, and even "the world's longest freshwater boardwalk."

port huron heat map

The city's Walk Score rating, however, comes in at a mere 9 out of 100, a rating that classifies the area as "car-dependent."

A dozen miles up the St. Clair River lies the much larger town of Port Huron. Despite its thriving downtown business district and dense, walkable street grid, Port Huron scores a 34 — still in the "car-dependent" category, and the same score given to such genuinely auto-centered locales as Farmington Hills and Commerce Township). Clearly, something is wrong here.

Aleisha Jacobson, Walk Score's customer service specialist, provided Mode Shift with some insight into what she describes as "a known bug that affects some addresses."

The software, apparently, gets utterly confused whenever it sees an international border.

According to Jacobson, Walk Score's methodology works by identifying the nearest amenities (grocery stores, libraries, etc.) to a given location, and then figuring out how a pedestrian might get there. For many of southeast Michigan's communities, however, the methodology is broken.

detroit heat map

"You can see [the bug] very clearly if you look at the Walk Score heat map for Detroit," Jacobson says, referring to maps, produced for larger cities, which represent scores visually: green for most walkable, red for least walkable. "Our request for data returns no results, or rather, the results that are returned are across the border [with Canada], which is not walkable."

Wyandotte and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., as well as other cities like Buffalo, N.Y., and El Paso, Texas, get the same treatment.

In a statement ("How It Doesn't Work: Known Issues with Walk Score") Walk Score admits it is far from perfect, citing the difficulty of measuring features such as safety, topography, and sidewalk design. Certainly, the site deserves credit for its ambitious attempt to quantify an attribute which, previously, had been nearly impossible to measure.

Walk Score, however, has become much more than just a cartographic curiosity. According to the service’s own vision statement, Walk Score wants its walkability index to be prominently displayed — alongside the number of bedrooms and bathrooms — on every real estate listing in the world. According to the company’s own estimations, “over 15,000 sites use Walk Score services.” A high Walk Score rating can add several thousand dollars to the value of a home, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine employers using Walk Score to help determine where to locate a new office.

The slight Walk Score deals to southeast Michigan, therefore, may have very real consequences.

Unfortunately, Jacobson was not able to give an estimate for when the issue would be resolved. "There are no simple solutions," she said. "It's a complex process [in which] we are scoring literally thousands of points in the city and weighing them."

The slight Walk Score deals to southeast Michigan, therefore, may have very real consequences.

A revised algorithm, however, is in the works. This new "Street Smart" Walk Score improves on the present methodology and promises to provide more accurate ratings for our border cities. A release date for Street Smart has not been determined, but a beta version can be previewed in the Walk Score blog.

In the meantime, Walk Score should place a high priority on recalculating scores, and redrawing heat maps, for border communities such as St. Clair, Port Huron, and Detroit. At the very least, we deserve transparency: Disclose the bug on the "Known Issues" page, as well as whenever a query is made for an address it impacts.

An earlier version of this story appears on the author's personal blog, Locus Pocus.


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