As readers of Dermot Cole’s column may have heard, Prevention Magazine, in association with the American Podiatric Medical Association, named Fairbanks the best city in Alaska for walkers. The APMA developed the Best Walking Cities Competition in part “to educate the public on the health benefits of walking.” However, as an educational tool, their ranking leaves something to be desired.
While there are criteria, the end product is merely a ranked listing of 501 “cities” (more on that in a moment) – the ten most populous from each state, plus the District of Columbia. There seems to be no way to view a city’s score for any individual criterion, so a city wishing to improve its walkability has nothing to work with.
How would the end-user of the list use the rankings? If I were moving and weren’t tied to a job in a particular place, I would make walkability a strong criterion in my choice. But, if I were an Outsider choosing to move to Fairbanks on the basis of its ranking in Alaska, I might be disappointed. I don’t know where in Fairbanks you can live and have easy walking access to your work and to retail, commercial, civic, and recreational activities. It’s quite possible that the walkability within the City of Fairbanks exceeds that of the Municipality of Anchorage as a whole — but at least in Anchorage, as I remember from growing up there, you can find a neighborhood in which people reside, work, play, and shop. That’s awfully hard in Fairbanks. (Though I shouldn’t imply that such neighborhoods are common or cheap in Anchorage.)
So there are at least two ways of looking at walkability: (1) How is the walkability of the city or town overall? or, (2) Can a person who wishes not to own a car find a place in the city or town to live comfortably — where his or her time for leisure or civic life is not eaten up by over-long walks or circuitous bus rides? I have a feeling that the criteria favor walkability in the first sense.
Here is a list of the ten most populous “cities” from Alaska used in the competition, with their rankings:
- 110 Fairbanks city
- 118 Juneau city and borough
- 208 Sitka city and borough
- 306 College CDP [Census-designated place, I believe]
- 426 Meadow Lakes CDP
- 427 Madison city
- 429 Anchorage municipality
- 469 Knik-Fairview CDP
- 470 Lakes CDP
- 471 Tanaina CDP
I notice a few things about the list: First, the types of jurisdictions vary: city, city and borough, CDP, and municipality. This makes comparison difficult.
Second, some of the place names are unfamiliar to me. For example, where is the city Madison? The U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn’t recognize it. And wouldn’t the cities of Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, Soldotna, or Kodiak have greater populations, and make for better comparisons, than some of the CDPs selected? This lowers the credibility and the utility of the ranking.
Third — and most relevant to our topping the Alaska list — the part of Fairbanks surveyed seems to have been the city, not the greater Borough. A person might move to “Fairbanks” on the basis of its walkability, then find that the only affordable property was in University West or on Badger Road. Where would the walkability be then?
Fourth, the criteria could use a little scrutiny. The most heavily-weighted criterion is a “Walking Expert Panel”. I do not know who is on the panel or what their expertise is in. Have any of them ever been to Fairbanks (or the 500 other “cities”)? I wrote Friday (five days ago) to the contact people but have not heard back from them yet.
Another criterion is the Walkscore.com Index — which lost a bit of credibility with me when it listed eight grocery stores within a mile of my house and claimed the George C. Thomas library as one of the assets in my neighborhood.
Had I set the criteria, I might have included multi-use zoning as a criterion: does the city actually allow neighborhoods where people can work, play, shop, and gather without getting in a car? Rather than Total Cars Per Household, I might have used Total Annual Miles Driven Per Household.
But, no matter what statistical measures you use, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: as you move between home and work, between school and shopping, between public meetings and private parties — how many people do you see walking? how many driving? and which are you?
Addendum: The expert panel of seven people is listed, not on the APMA’s Best Walking Cities Competition pages, but on the website of Prevention magazine. Between the seven people, could they have visited all 500 cities? It’s a stretch, but I suppose it’s possible.