S.F. a step ahead as most 'walkable' U.S. city

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Chinatown is among the neighborhoods in San Francisco, Calif., that caused www. walkscore.com to rate the city highest of all U.S. cities in "walkability." Chronicle photo by Kim Komenich

(07-16) 19:30 PDT -- If you or your loved one is struggling to break the cycle of fossil fuel addiction, San Francisco may just be your Betty Ford Center.

The city by the bay is the most "walkable" in the nation, according to rankings set for release today by WalkScore.com, a service designed to help those seeking a less automobile-dependent life. The distinction encompasses a host of environmental, health and economic advantages.

WalkScore, a division of Seattle software company Front Seat, evaluated the 40 largest U.S. cities based on residents' proximity to grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters and other amenities. Hills were not taken into account in the rankings, just distance and concentration.

San Francisco scored an 86 out of 100, besting New York's 83 and Boston's 79. Seventeen of San Francisco's neighborhoods ranked 90 or above - considered a "walker's paradise" - including Chinatown, the Mission, Nob Hill and Haight-Ashbury.

"That says that San Francisco isn't just isolated pockets of walkability, but broad swaths," said Mike Mathieu, chairman and founder of Front Seat. "If you live and work in San Francisco, you know this. It means it's easier to get around, even with the hills."

The ability to conveniently travel by foot to services and jobs matters for a number of reasons. Studies show it means people get more exercise, drive fewer miles and consequently spend less on gas and produce fewer greenhouse emissions. Walkability also means there are people on the sidewalks, in stores and at restaurants, making neighborhoods livelier and, for many, more attractive.

"It's both healthy for the Earth and for humans to be able to walk to most of the places they need," said Kate White, executive director of the San Francisco office of the Urban Land Institute, a planning group. "Your carbon footprint is significantly lower than someone who has to drive everywhere ... and you're able to have real neighborhoods where you're not totally separated from your neighbors."

That in part explains why growing numbers of people are willing to pay more for smaller homes in dense neighborhoods than big ones in sprawling suburbs. Developers have taken notice of such trends, with many increasingly focusing on so-called urban infill projects.

A recent report by home price site Zillow.com found that, generally, the farther from San Francisco that homes are located in the region, the further values have dropped amid the real estate downturn. Within a 10-mile radius, prices fell 7 percent from a year ago in the first quarter. Values declined 14.1 percent and 16.2 percent in the 10- to 20-mile radius and 20- to 30-mile radius, respectively.

Providing what market wants

The attractiveness of dense neighborhoods with plenty to do is also a key reason young professionals are flocking to cities, a trend that businesses are keeping in mind when choosing locations, said Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C., who sits on WalkScore's advisory board.

"You are providing more of what the market wants than most other metro markets in the country," he said. "I personally think it explains why San Francisco for the last 20 years has been as successful as it has been as a metro economy."

Still, he said regional leaders and planners should resist the urge to pat themselves on the back.

In his own study on the walkability of 30 metropolitan areas, as opposed to cities, the Bay Area came out third, scoring well below the greater Washington, D.C., and Boston regions on key criteria. Leinberger, author of "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream," specifically criticized the region's lack of concentrated construction near many of the public transportation hubs.


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