Using Software to Find Walkable Neighborhoods and Live Car Free

Transit_Tree.jpgThe Bay Area's public transportation circulatory system.  Click for larger view
Though David Brooks might argue in his New York Times column that Americans want to live in small towns and suburban dreamscapes, the fact is more and more of us live in metropolitan areas, and discussions about what we want should have to do more with the context of those metropolitan areas.  Brooks should be looking at the quality of the public spaces where people live, and the walkability and ease of transit in those neighborhoods.

Front Seat, a civic software company based in Seattle, developed Walk Score to help people identify neighborhoods that range from totally car-dependent to walkers' paradises.  Not content to rest on the substantial press accolades they received on their launch, the company has been coupling their tools with real estate websites to pair a home with a walk score so that prospective home buyers can see how walkable a neighborhood is at the point of sale.  When the real estate site Zillow added Walk Scores to every house listing three days ago, 7.5 million monthly visitors got a clearer vision of the quality of their prospective neighborhoods.

Matt Learner, Front Seat's head of technology, said that their goal was to encourage a potential home buyer to consider neighborhoods that are mixed-use, transit oriented, and dense.  "We're trying to get it in front of people when they're looking for a place to live and give them tools to help them choose more walkable neighborhoods."

Building on the walkability concept, the next generation of Walk Score software will seek to provide more sophisticated tools for analyzing neighborhoods.  "What's exciting is the convergence of transit data and software geeks," said Lerner.  "At Front Seat we're trying to make the interface much easier for people who aren't transit geeks like us."

What if, he mused, you are moving to a new city, or moving from one neighborhood to another in a city, and you not only want to see a map of how walkable each neighborhood is but how close you are by transit to important destinations, or how far you could live from your work and still get there by bus in under 30 minutes?

Gmap_Transit_Shed.jpgA thirty minute transit shed from Civic Center
Working with Brandon Martin-Anderson, an administrator and principal coder at Graphserver, Front Seat is developing software that graphically demonstrates a Transit Shed, or the range of how far a user can travel by transit in a given period of time.  Using the Google Maps platform, a user can click on a map to pinpoint a location, set the travel time parameter, and then get a visual depiction of the transit travel range within the time limit.

Numerous transit operators in cities around the country have made their schedules available in GTFS format, including Muni, Caltrain, and BART.  When Martin-Anderson got word of Muni's recent release of schedules in GTFS last week, he worked up the template website seen above.  Together with Martin-Anderson, Front Seat aims to produce an open-source transit trip planner that will be competitive with existing platforms, such as 511.org.

Lerner said the company has received numerous stories from users saying that Walk Score convinced them to forgo sprawling communities and to try living without a car.  In one instance, a British woman moving from London to White Plains, NY, saw that her neighborhood had a Walk Score of 91 and decided she would try living there without buying a vehicle.

"As we're looking at climate change, rising gas prices, increasing sprawl and VMT," said Lerner, "We want to increase the massive investment we hope to see made in transit in this country.  We know software like this can be important for doing that."

Citing AAA's data that owning a car costs more than $8,000 annually, the second largest household expense behind a home itself, Lerner suggested their tools could lead to car-free living.  "If you translate that into a mortgage, that's a $125,000 mortgage.  I have tons of friends here in Seattle who tell me they can almost afford a small condo, but what they don't realize is that if they got rid of their car they could."

Transit Tree Image: Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr