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Walk this way

It's healthy, green, and in fashion. Just how walkable is your neighborhood?

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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If you live on one of the short streets that loop around Lexington Center, you can easily walk to nearly everything you might desire: food (Super Stop & Shop), a drug store (Theatre Pharmacy), caffeine (Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts), a movie theater, a gym, a shoe store, a library, and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Lexington, with a population of more than 30,000, is one of the most walkable of Boston's suburbs, a rare town where, if you live near the center, you can avoid driving much of the time. Walkscore.com, a website that calculates the "walkability" of neighborhoods, deems Lexington Center just short of a "walker's paradise," awarding it 88 points on a scale of 1 to 100.

But if you live in Carlisle, just a few towns away, the picture is very different. Even the center of town is solidly car-dependent, and rates just 23 on Walkscore.com's walkability scale.

The closest food store in Carlisle, which has a population of under 5,000,

is a small country store. For a grocery store, you need to drive 4 miles

into Bedford. The nearest restaurant, Vincenzo's Ristorante, is nearly 3 miles away in Chelmsford. For a pharmacy, head 4 miles west to the CVS in Acton. A movie theater? Try Lowell.

Walkability has become a buzzword in real estate, as environmentalists and "green" planners advocate compact residential neighborhoods near businesses and public transportation. And some realtors say in this difficult market, houses with high walkability scores are easier to sell: Owners can save money by walking to mass transit, and by using less gas when running errands.

Although the idea of a compact town center is not new, walkability has become easier to quantify, thanks to Walkscore.com. The website's algorithm takes a previously subjective idea - being able to step out your door and walk to places you need to go - and boils it down to a single number. Now online real estate sites, including Zillow and ZipRealty, are beginning to add walkability ratings to their home listings.

"When people live in a walkable neighborhood, they are able to save a lot of time and money that they would otherwise be pouring in their gas tanks," said David Goldberg, communications director for Smart Growth America, a Washington-based coalition of organizations promoting smart planning and building, and an advisory board member of Walkscore.com. Goldberg notes that some of Boston's early suburbs, such as Watertown and Belmont, are very walkable.

On a grander scale, people who walk more and drive less have a smaller carbon footprint. And the exercise tends to keep them in better shape.

Walkscore.com calculates walkability by awarding points for amenities - such as a restaurant, store, park, school, or library - within 1 mile of an address. The number of points depends on the closeness of the amenity, with the most points awarded for those within a quarter-mile.

One weakness of the system, which relies on Google maps for its calculations, is that it is just beginning to factor in public transit, and no information about train stations and bus stops exists for the suburbs of Boston. The website also measures distances as the crow flies, and doesn't consider obstacles - say a highway, or a lake - in the way. And it doesn't consider how walkable streets may be; for instance, whether they are bordered by sidewalks.

Millis, with a population of just under 8,000, is another highly walkable town. Walkscore gives it a rating of 78, a score similar to some Boston neighborhoods, such as South Boston and north Dorchester.

In the hub of this town, where the Fire Department advertises its upcoming Chilifest, sits a barbershop, several chiropractors, a large grocery store, restaurants, dentists, insurance agents, a pet salon, two gyms, and several churches. The walking recently got easier, as the town has added sidewalks along Route 109.

Sheila Coleman, who walks her golden retriever around town each day, moved to Millis from Arlington with her husband 24 years ago. They fell in love with Millis for its small-town feel, and the less tangible benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood - they feel more connected to a community, they see their neighbors more often.

"We do walk to the stores when my husband comes with me," Coleman said. "If we have little errands to do, we'll walk instead of taking the car."

The town of Wayland, population 13,000, falls somewhere between Lexington and Carlisle. Walkscore.com gives Wayland Center a score of 58 - "somewhat walkable."

A business district has sprung up around the town center, not far from the imposing white meetinghouse, built in 1814, that is now First Parish in Wayland. A small Whole Foods grocery store opened in a shopping center, near a CVS. Smaller independent businesses - a gym, a women's clothing boutique, a few pizza parlors - are also clustered along Boston Post Road, also known as Route 20.

Neighborhoods that are easy to walk aren't universally desirable. Some homeowners seek privacy, a quiet road far from traffic and pedestrians. And families with children often value yards and larger houses over the convenience of a neighborhood close to businesses and offices, said Norma Currie, a real estate agent at Hammond Residential in Lexington.

"It's important to some people, but not to everybody," she said. "Some people like to be more private. They like to be in an area where there's more land, more space. You don't get that in the centers."

But Currie herself knows the allure of a walkable neighborhood. She lives in the Lexington neighborhood of Monroe Hill, close enough to walk to the center of town. Her office, too, is within walking distance; she drives only because she needs her car to ferry potential clients around town. Walkability doesn't necessarily correlate to desirability, and sales prices, in real estate.

Among the communities with the highest median home prices in the region, Concord and Wellesley are fairly walkable, but Sherborn and Dover are not.

Nationwide, Boston ranks third in Walkscore.com's ranking of most walkable cities, after San Francisco and New York.

Even towns that are deemed very walkable have plenty of neighborhoods where there are no coffee shops or pharmacies or grocery stores within walking range.

Saddle Club Road lies a mile northeast of Lexington Center, but it's far enough away that the neighborhood of expansive houses has a walk score that plummets to 29 points - heavily car-dependent.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in the April 5 Globe West on walkable communities gave the wrong location for a country store in Carlisle. It is in the center of town.

What makes them walkable

THE BEST

Neighborhoods with the highest walk scores are near restaurants, stores, schools, parks, and other amenities. Residents can run many errands by foot and may not need a car.

THE WORST

It's difficult to get by without a car (or even walk to a nearby restaurant) in these sprawling communities. More time in the car means more money at the pump, less exercise, and more air pollution.