How walkable is your neighborhood?

Starbucks customers leave a Starbucks store in San Francisco, Calif.

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Steve Chiotakis: So yeah, those transportation costs can really add up to some buyer's remorse. So it's no wonder why some people want to stay in the city and not commute anywhere. And that brings up another question: What's a good way of rating an urban neighborhood? Here's one: It's called a "Walk Score."

From station KALW in San Francisco, Nathanael Johnson explains.


Nathanael Johnson: To find out how Walk Scores work, I asked Matt Lerner, to pull up the website, and punch in his home address. He's the chief technology at Front Seat, the company that created the Walk Score.

Matt Lerner: I see a map appear, and I see all of the nearby public transit, I see the grocery stores, the coffee shops, the restaurants, the things I might want to walk to.

The program adds up these things and spits out a score.

Lerner: And my home, has a Walk Score of 89 out of 100, which means that for almost everything I need to do, say, on a weekend, I rarely get in the car.

Lerner says the point is to make walkability visible to the market.

Lerner: There are hundreds of people who study the benefits of walkable neighborhoods. But there was nothing that a consumer could use when they're looking for a place to live to say, "Aha! I found a walkable house."

And that brings us to 221 Noe Street in San Francisco. It's a big yellow building offering 12 condominiums, each fixed up with new wood floors and copper plumbing. But the entire building has just two parking spots. On the other hand, the building happens to be in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood, where you can walk to everything. That can make all the difference in the world, says Realtor Scott Whelan, when buyers start to do the math.

Scott Whelan: Yeah, so someone that may be on the edge of being able to afford something, where they may say, "I'll never buy without parking and my budget is $500,000," might look at this at $450,000 and say, "You know what, it's transit friendly, I don't need the car, I can save 50-grand. I would do it."

Whelan prominently advertises that the condos at 221 Noe have a near perfect Walk Score, 98 out of 100.

To get a sense of what this means, I take a walk around the block with Elizabeth Macdonald, who teaches city planning at UC Berkeley.

Johnson: This is just a little corner store.

Elizabeth Macdonald: There are corner stores, there are cafes, there are bistros on a number of the individual corners.

Not to mention grocery stores, banks, cleaners, a sunny little park and a pair of street car lines. The Duboce Triangle is right in the center of the city, but it feels like a small town. Living in this kind of environment, she says, makes for a better quality of life.

Macdonald: There's an association between higher levels of walking and lower levels of obesity.

And Realtor Scott Whelan hopes all that will draw bids.

Potential buyer Kate Isenberg is wandering through Whelan's open house. She wants something with character and lots of light, but because she doesn't have a car...

Kate IsenbergI wouldn't even consider a place in a neighborhood that didn't have a really good public transit link nearby, preferably more than one, actually. That's why I like this neighborhood.

After looking around Isenberg says the condo's pretty nice, but it's also pretty small. She's a musician, and she'd love to have an extra room to record in. But Isenberg says if she has to choose between an extra room and a walkable neighborhood, she's going with the walkable neighborhood.

There are enough people like Isenberg in San Francisco that each one-point increase in Walk Score can boost the value of a home by $3,000. That's according to the policy group CEOs for Cities. They found other cities show a similar, although lower, premium.

But Walk Scores do have their limitations, says Berkeley Professor Elizabeth Macdonald.

Macdonald: What it's not going to tell you is anything about the actual physical quality of the spaces that you are walking though.

And Matt Lerner of Walk Score agrees: The score doesn't tell you if it's a nice neighborhood or a slum. But he is working on the algorithm, so one day, Walk Score may ask: Is there crime? Are there are trees? Sidewalks? Then, there really would be just one number that could tell you everything you needed to know about location, location and... location.

In San Francisco, I'm Nathanael Johnson for Marketplace Money.

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