What’s your Walkscore?

walk_signWhile cruising through my Blogroll one day, I ended up on One Green Generation, which had a link to a fascinating site called Walkscore.com.

Basically, it uses Google Maps to calculate your distance from important amenities like grocery stores, libraries, parks, restaurants, cinemas, etc. to give your neighbourhood a certain score based on proximity.  The higher the score, the less need you have for a car.

Our score in Centretown Ottawa? 93/100 (woo hoo!)

Our two old places in Toronto: 83 and 77 respectively

My parents’ place in Sudbury: 53

The house I grew up in: 10 out of 100

Interestingly, every move I’ve ever made has brought me to a more walkable location! (Well, except for my year in Montreal but we won’t count that.) Though I often dream about farm life, walkability is something I really value and would find it a major adjustment to live without. In fact, I think it’s a key component of my being frugal and urban!

So, what’s the deal with walkability?  The website gives a few points:

Walkable neighborhoods offer surprising benefits to our health, the environment, and our communities.

Better health: A study in Washington State found that the average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.1 Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less and suffer fewer car accidents, a leading cause of death between the ages of 15–45.

Reduction in greenhouse gas: Cars are a leading cause of global warming. Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines.

More transportation options: Compact neighborhoods tend to have higher population density, which leads to more public transportation options and bicycle infrastructure. Not only is taking the bus cheaper than driving, but riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car!2

Increased social capital: Walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors. Studies have shown that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10%.3

Stronger local businesses: Dense, walkable neighborhoods provide local businesses with the foot traffic they need to thrive. It’s easier for pedestrians to shop at many stores on one trip, since they don’t need to drive between destinations.

I would agree with all these points, and would also add that being able to walk to work (something possible in Centretown Ottawa) means having more time to spend at home with the kids. My “commute” is less than 5 minutes door-to-door, which means I maximize the time I can spend with my daughter instead of sitting in traffic. Same goes for my husband, whose “commute” is about double mine.

Another thing I’ve noticed in my years living in walkable neighbourhoods is that where people can walk, they do, and the fact that there are people out walking around, usually at all hours of the day & night, greatly increases the safety of neighbourhoods. Jane Jacobs calls this “eyes on the street”. The more mixed use and pedestrian traffic a neighbourhood has, the less crime tends to exist in a place. In fact, many parks in dense urban neighbourhoods are actually safer than suburban parks at night, simply because there are more people strolling around.

Finally, having a car would mean greatly increasing our cost of living since we would not only have to worry about the car (and most likely a car loan), but also the insurance, gas, maintenence and repairs that go along with car ownership. Not to mention an automatic $100/month just to park the thing!

I found this website really fun, and as you can see, used it to check out all the places I’ve ever lived. I would definitely use this when choosing our next apartment or house.

Car-free living

I originally titled this post “Life without car” but thought a more up-beat title was better.  However, that all depends on how I’m feeling on a daily basis.

Living in centretown Ottawa I certainly don’t NEED a car.  My husband and I both walk to work (my office is just 2 blocks away).  Everything I could possibly need is right here in the downtown core: groceries, health food, recreation, entertainment (not that we ever go out) . . .  Centretown’s got it all.  And what it doesn’t have, I can certainly take a bus to a place that does have it.

So why do I long for a car?

There are a few reasons:

– access to the wilderness, or as we used to call it back home in Sudbury, “the Bush”.  It’s hard to get outside the city without a car, and sometimes I long for more nature in my life and my kid’s life.

– cheap groceries.  Hartmann’s is sooooooooo overpriced.  Less central grocery stores have much much better prices, but it’s pretty hard to wrangle a 2-year-old and a week’s worth of groceries onto a bus.

– farm visits.  Pick-your-own berries, fruits and vegetables.   Meet your meat.  Introducing my girl (not to mention myself!) to where our food actually comes from.

– other interesting entertainment.  Yes Centretown has everything, but there’s even MORE in the ‘burbs.  A wave pool or two, water parks, a giant indoor jungle gym . . .

So what’s holding me back?  

Partly it’s finances.  We are concentrating on paying off debt, and until that is done, it would be backwards to take on more debt.  

But more importantly it is because getting a car is much more of a want than a need.  Yes, some of my car ownership dreams involve super-great grocery deals, cost-free healthy hours spent hiking in the Gatineau and hauling home crates of berries to turn into jam.  But water parks and wave pools?  It’s the thin edge of the wedge.

Overall the costs  involved in owning a car (including gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking) would certainly outweigh the grocery savings.  By a long shot.  And as a new-car-owner friend said to me, “Once you can get out to all those big box stores, you go shopping a lot more often.”  Everything’s cheaper and more accessible . . . and isn’t that what drives our consumer economy?

So I’m sticking with my car-free centretown lifestyle.  I walk 90% of the places I have to go, cycle to another 7%, take the bus to maybe 2%, and for the other 1%, I have a generous brother with a car who is willing to drive me around in exchange for dinner once in awhile.

And comparing Hartmann’s mark-up to the costs of car ownership makes their over-inflated prices look reasonable in comparison.