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Web site rates neighborhoods according to 'walkability'

It's not exactly news that walking is good for you. But can it also be good for a place• And are pedestrian-friendly places better for you•

Matt Lerner, chief technology officer for Front Seat Software, based in Seattle, thinks so. His Web site, WalkScore.com , calculates the exact walkability from any specified place. All you have to do is type in an address, and it gives you a Walk Score for that place, ranking it from 1 to 100.

To do this, Walk Score uses a special algorithm that assigns a score for stores, libraries, parks, restaurants, schools and other amenities up to a mile from the given address, giving more higher scores to places that are closer.

"Urban planners have used the phrase 'walkable neighborhoods' for a long time to mean a vibrant, well-designed neighborhood where you have a variety of transportation options," Lerner says. "However, prior to Walk Score, there was no national measure of walkability and no way for people to compare the walkability of homes as they were looking for a place to live."

The neighborhoods with the highest Walk Scores in the country -- like Tribeca in New York City (100), Pearl District in Portland (99) and Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. (99) -- all have some things in common:

• They're densely populated, with a wide mix of incomes.

• They are distinctive centers with lots of nearby parks, schools and workplaces.

• Their buildings tend to be close to the street, instead of separated by parking lots, and usually are "mixed-use" -- combining housing, offices and/or retail -- which keeps people circulating at all hours.

According to WalkScore.com, there are 138 "Walker's Paradises" in America -- neighborhoods that score 90 or above. So far, the site collects that information for only the 40 biggest cities in the country, which doesn't include Pittsburgh. But if you type in Pittsburgh addresses, there are quite a few neighborhoods that qualify as a Walker's Paradise, or close to it.

For example, Squirrel Hill gets a 94, if you just enter the name of the neighborhood. Locations along the Forbes and Murray Avenue axis score as high as 98.

Local business owners agree that pedestrian traffic is a big part of the neighborhood's appeal.

"It's the best location -- where you get a lot of foot traffic," says Frank Abraham, owner of Taza 21, a Middle Eastern cafe along Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. "If you come anytime -- during the day, after midnight -- you always see motion and people going back and forth."

The neighborhood's walkability compensates somewhat for the lack of parking, says Margaret Harris, owner of Margaret's Fine Imports, a tea and gift shop along Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. She gets lots of passersby who look in the window, and drop in on a whim.

"They are probably going to a restaurant," Harris says. "Probably about 70 percent of them are local people, going to the bus stop or headed from the bus stop, running their errands. Or people with strollers and small children. Probably 20 percent to 25 percent are people from outside of the area -- most come here for Little's, the shoe store. Once they find a parking spot, they walk around the block. Or it takes them a block to get here."

Other high-scoring Pittsburgh neighborhoods include the South Side, at 98, and Downtown Pittsburgh, 97. Shadyside gets an 89, from most locations along Walnut Street. Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and the Strip District also do very well. All vary quite a bit depending on the address, but hover at or near the classification for Walker's Paradise.

Of course, plenty of places don't score as well. Suburbs with few amenities in walking distance are labeled "Car Dependent." However, many older "streetcar suburbs" like Mt. Lebanon, Aspinwall and Bellevue, with intact central business districts and a wide mix of incomes and building types, tend to score better.

Walking has a number of benefits, Lerner says.

"There are three reasons -- economic, environment and health," he says. "Walkable neighborhoods are better investments. We've seen unwalkable home prices decline much faster than walkable neighborhoods. Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less, so they have less greenhouse gas emissions -- and they weigh on average seven pounds less than residents of less-walkable neighborhoods."

Walk Score isn't perfect. Data for nearby amenities is updated whenever Google updates its database, or when a user submits a new location to the site -- so sometimes, they're out of date. Topography is another thing that doesn't always show up on a map -- like massive hills or impassable cliffs, in Pittsburgh's case.

A number of real estate companies, like Zillow.com and ZipRealty.com, have added WalkScore to their online listings, to give customers another measure to help find the right house. Future additions to the site will address mass transit accessibility and ease of commuting.

To improve your neighborhood's Walk Score, Lerner says, "Open a coffee shop!"

"Seriously, though, increasing residential density, building more mixed-use buildings and creating complete streets -- streets for bikes, people and cars -- are the best ways to make a neighborhood walkable," he says.

So far, the top five cities for walkability are San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. WalkScore.com soon will be expanding its rankings to include the 100 largest cities, which will include Pittsburgh. Lerner, for one, is curious to see how the city stacks up.

"My brother lives in Pittsburgh, and I always enjoy visiting him there," Lerner says. "Last time I was there, he took me to the (inclines) that go up the hill. They are really fantastic!"

Additional Information:

Walk scores

Chosen from a randomly selected, somewhat-central location in each neighborhood. Results may vary with different addresses.

Walkers' Paradises

• Downtown (from 3 PNC Place): 9 7100

• South Side (from South Side Steaks): 98

• Squirrel Hill (from Carnegie Library-Squirrel Hill): 98

• Bloomfield (from Bloomfield Bridge Tavern): 94

• Aspinwall (from Luma restaurant): 91

Very Walkable

• North Side (from D.L. Clark Building): 85

• Shadyside (from Prantl's Bakery): 89

• Mt. Lebanon (from Mineo's Pizza): 85

Somewhat Walkable

• Hill District (from Centre Avenue YMCA): 66

Car-dependent

• Upper St. Clair (from Upper St. Clair High School): 48

• Gibsonia (from Poff Elementary School): 28

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