Seattle-based Walk Score today released a list of the most walkable cities in the United States, with New York City stealing top honors from previous walkability champion San Francisco, which dropped to No. 2.
Rounding out the top 10 were Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Miami, Minneapolis, and Oakland. In conjunction with the walkability index, the firm also announced that more than 10,000 real estate websites are using its neighborhood mapping and data services to help make their properties over—a 250 percent increase in the past year.
Last issued in 2008, Walk Score’s walkability index grades cities and their neighborhoods on adjacency to parks, transportation hubs, grocery stores, restaurants, cultural and entertainment outlets, and other retail and neighborhood-based amenities. According to Walk Score CEO Josh Herst, interest in neighborhood amenities has exploded as American consumers—particularly younger, tech-savvy ones—look to downtown household creation, instead of the single-family, commute-defined lifestyles of their parents. Herst stopped by Multifamily Executive earlier this week for an exclusive interview on the growth at Walk Score and why marketing neighborhood amenities to apartment prospects is more important than ever.
MFE: Congratulations on your growth momentum and also on the update to the Walkability index. What does this tell you about the future of multifamily?
Herst: Thanks! Yes, I think Multifamily Executive covered the Walkability index back in 2008, and since then, we’ve seen some tremendous growth. We’re also excited about the rankings: It’s a big update from our perspective. We’re now ranking 2,500 cities and 10,000 neighborhoods. But we’re seeing growth across all of our categories: Large companies and small individual brokerage firms, realtors, and small and large apartment property owners and managers. On the consumer side, we’ve seen a lot of research coming out pointing towards urbanization trends: For example, 75 percent of people deciding where to live rate having a 30 minute or less commute as important to them. Another two-third says being within a short walk of groceries is a key factor in deciding where to live. In the apartment world, those trends are even more pronounced, particularly among Millennials, a third of whom will pay more for the ability to easily walk to shops and entertainment.
MFE: What are some of the more popular featuers of Walk Score that your clients don't seem to be using to help sell their neighborhoods as an amenity to their communities?
Herst: We’re trying to create more interactive tools for customers to look at, including which cities have different levels of Walk Scores and the ability to refine searches by population and other factors. You can also look by region: If you love the Midwest, you can select only the Midwest region and look at cities between certain levels of population. Within each city you can go straight to the heat maps that show neighborhood and street levels of data for walkability. We offer commuting calculations that show users how long it will take to drive, bike, or walk to work that includes elevation changes, and we also have a transportation score that locates and ranks how well a property is served by transit.
MFE: Do you see a lot of apartment companies putting Walk Score maps and tools onto their community portals to help existing residents gauge what’s in their neighborhood?
Herst: Yes. We are beginning to see more integration of Walk Score with rental portals, in addition to the sort of marketing to prospects on the demand-creation side to showcase their neighborhoods for all the reasons we talked about. The majority of consumers want to be in neighborhoods with a mixture of residences, stores, businesses, and entertainment all within an easy walk. But most people coming to Walk Score are still making decisions about where they want to live and the walkability of those locations: Are they convenient to stores? Is it convenient to public transit? What would my commute look like? It is a way for property owners to offer the answers to customers and prospective customers to the questions we all know they want to know.
MFE: Coffee shops and restaurants and beauty salons open and close all the time. How often are the data feeds into Walk Score updated?
Herst: We use a variety of data sources to get access to local information and those data sets are constantly in update. That includes Google-generated data, and we also get some data from Yelp!, which has been a great partner for us. Our data sets are typically updated in real time. Also, last year we launched the UGC (user-generated content) functionality for our customers to provide updated information when a restaurant changes its name or menu, when a new coffee shop goes in, or when a florist goes out of business. Our customers are very good about helping us to keep that information updated and accurate via a wiki-style editing process. If one person removes it, it will be crossed out, another person can restore it, and meanwhile we compare it to incoming data all to keep changes verified and accurate as possible.
MFE: In real estate, location is everything, and looking at Walk Score, it seems to offer apartment investors the ability to fine that perfect sub-market location in a secondary market. How much can walkability vary within a specific MSA?
Herst: All of our cities are broken down by neighborhood, so even in one of the lesser walkable cities like Jacksonville, Fla., you can drill down and discover more walkable neighborhoods like, say, San Marco. One of the things we are trying to show people is that even in cities that are perceived as unwalkable, there are bright spots in terms of walkability that offer consumer choices in the type of lifestyle that they want to live. Even within a particular neighborhood, you’ll find that there are more and less walkable parts of it. What we are doing here in a lot of ways is redefining the neighborhood by providing a personalized view from a particular property or location as opposed to what is just within the neighborhood boundaries. We are interested in providing really easy ways for customers to get to all of our data and to customize it to a way that fits the way their site works.