Greater Greater Washington

Pedestrians


What if we ranked schools based on their walkability?

Parents often choose schools for their kids based on test scores. But as more families seek out an urban lifestyle, what if we ranked schools on a kid's ability to walk there as well?


Locations of the region's most walkable high schools. Blue are schools in a "Walker's Paradise," red are "Very Walkable" schools, and green are "Somewhat Walkable." Click for an interactive map.

Studies show that kids who live in walkable neighborhoods get more exercise and are at reduced risk for obesity. Being able to walk to school teaches kids independence and a stronger sense of community as well.

So where are students most likely to be able to walk to and from school? One indicator is a school's Walk Score, a measure of its walkability. To find the region's most walkable schools, I looked at the Walk Score of 95 public high schools (both neighborhood and magnet) in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, and the city of Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia. Here's a spreadsheet of all of the schools.

There were 22 schools in the "top 20," which I've mapped above. (Three schools tied for 20th place.) Not surprisingly, nine of them are in the District. But there are also six in Montgomery County, two each in Prince George's and Arlington, and one each in Alexandria and Fairfax. Seven of them are outside the Beltway.

Four schools were in the "Walker's Paradise" category, Walk Score's highest ranking. School Without Walls in downtown DC, came in first with a Walkscore of 97, followed by Columbia Heights Education Campus (94), and Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown (92). Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County made fourth place, with a score of 91.

Of course, Walk Score isn't a perfect measure of walkability. It only measures an address's proximity to commercial and institutional destinations, not the homes where students might be walking from. And it doesn't consider the actual pedestrian experience. Seneca Valley High in Germantown, where a student died crossing the highway outside the school last year, placed 13th on the list with a score of 72.


Rockville Town Square is the de facto cafeteria of Richard Montgomery High School (Walk Score 65), located a few blocks away. All images by the author.

Some of these schools also have high academic ratings, like Richard Montgomery and B-CC in Montgomery, McLean in Fairfax, and Banneker in DC, all of which top the regional rankings in the Washington Post's Challenge Index. But there aren't a lot of them, and they're in expensive neighborhoods. Many of the schools on this list are low performers; forced to choose, parents will usually always pick high test scores over a kid's ability to walk to school.

My parents were no different. As a student at Wilson in the 1970s, my mother walked to lunch at Steak 'N Egg Kitchen or to catch the 30 bus to her job at a clothing store in Georgetown. But I went to James Hubert Blake High School near Olney (Walk Score 11, or "car-dependent"), where nearly everyone drove, and gruesome car accidents were a fact of life. I once begged my principal for open lunch, but it wouldn't ever happen: the nearest place to eat was over a mile away on a 40mph road with no sidewalks.

What else do you see in these rankings? And did you walk to school?

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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One thing I notice is that some schools are pretty walkable within their neighborhood but tracking that to Walkscores collection may not reflect that if it's far from a commercial core. But that's not as important for an elementary or middle school where kids really won't be leaving the campus totally unsupervised.

I'm thinking of many elementary schools in arlington and fairfax which can sort of "anchor" a particular subdivision. It's probably the only thing that is decently walkable in many of those neighborhoods.

Also, I didn't see you list Falls Church City. The elementary school is very walkable. But the middle and highschools are hemmed in next to 66 and that part of 7 is very busy even if it's a close distance to West Falls Church Metro station.

by drumz on Dec 31, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

But walkscore is probably a good determination of the "best" schools for walkability and what works in the lack of any sort of collected data on how many students walk to a particular school.

by drumz on Dec 31, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

This is useless. Blair is rated as highly walkable. It's wedged in between the Beltway on one side and two major arterials on the others. Students have to cross these only at the infrequent crosswalks, and may have to wait quite a while for a green light. Whitman is rated as virtually unwalkable. It's in the middle of admittedly a low-density neighborhood, but it's easy to walk to it, as dozens of kids do every day.

by Crickey7 on Dec 31, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

I think the biggest travesty of suburban, car-oriented sprawl is that most kids are no longer able to walk to school or even to their friends' houses. I was fortunate to grow up in an older suburb of St. Louis, where I could walk to my elementary school and to most of my friends' houses. I was responsible for getting myself to school on time, and if I wanted to stop at a friend's house on the way home, I could.

I also experienced the flip side of the coin - my parents moved us to a completely car-dependent subdivision in Indiana before I started middle school. Even though we lived less than a mile from both the middle and high schools, I had to ride a school bus or have my parents drop me off. When I turned 16 I remember begging my parents for a car, because EVERYONE else had one and only LOSERS rode the bus! In retrospect it's horrifying that so many 16-year-olds are given cars just because they have no other way to get to school. I wasn't a particularly reckless teenage driver, but even I had a number of near-misses due simply to inexperience and poor judgment. And that was before the age of texting and driving.

Anyway, I'd also be interested to see how many high schools are easily accessible by public transit (which of course also begs the question, how accessible is the public transit to the school's students?). Two high schools near me, Northwood and Montgomery Blair, aren't in ideal pedestrian conditions but seem like they'd be easy to get to via Metrobus.

by Rebecca on Dec 31, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

Just like you effectively nullified the walkscore,
Of course, Walk Score isn't a perfect measure of walkability. It only measures an address's proximity to commercial and institutional destinations, not the homes where students might be walking from. And it doesn't consider the actual pedestrian experience.

Furthermore the walk score is just proprietary mumbo jumbo. I've becoming less and less a believer in that measure, as I went from living in a WalkScore 100 to walkscore 49. Without being an WalkScore© insider, I can only surmise that walking to a restaurant, coffee shop, bars, groceries, recognized parks(NOT just random greenspace), schools, shopping, entertainment(whatever that means????)(further it doesn't even list churches), and errands(you know all the shops you visited pre-Web 2.0), raises the score considerably. Well.....if you think about what's important in your child's life, it certainly isn't "walking" to a school, not to mention the child could probably get a better education at home. The most important thing is being in your child's life. This obsession with urban living is crazy, it's a fad that will play itself out given a few decades.

by Bill the Wanderer on Dec 31, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

I think the missing piece of the puzzle is what the catchment area is and what's between students and the school. It would be a good 5 mile drive from my house to my high school growing up and I'd guess that less than 10% of the school lived within a mile, lack of sidewalks to get there aside. So then if we apply that to say Bethesda Chevy Chase I'm guessing it's closer to 15-20% or so within a mile but still density is going to make it hard to be that walkable.

by BTA on Dec 31, 2013 11:32 am • linkreport

@drumz

You're right! I remembered that Fairfax City doesn't have its own schools, but forgot that Falls Church does. As you pointed out, George Mason High School has a Walk Score of 66, placing it in 18th place. I've updated the spreadsheet and the map.

@Rebecca

Walk Score also has "Transit Score" and "Bike Score" rankings, but they weren't available for every school, so I decided not to include them. The trends are pretty similar, though. Most of the high-scoring transit and bike schools are in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, and Bethesda.

by dan reed! on Dec 31, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

Walkability IS important to me as a parent (as is bike infrastructure, drop off procedures for cars, and other ways to get my kids to school).

But I could care less about ranking schools on walkability. A school is either convenient to get to from my house, or it isn't. Some sort of objective standard doesn't do me any good as a parent.

For example, Wilson scored very high in this index, but it's in upper NW. Eastern is three blocks from my house. I don't think Walk Score tells me anything I can't figure out already.

by Tim Krepp on Dec 31, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

I hate to be the one to bring this up, but it is relevant: true walkability can be greatly hampered by the reality, or perception of, danger along the way. There are, unfortunately, many schools that parents would never let their kids walk or bike to for fear of them straying onto the wrong crew's turf and getting bludgeoned. Chicago's Safe Passage program, though billed as being an all-hazards abatement initiative to get kids safely to/from school, is largely driven by fears of turf wars and other 'non-vehicular' dangers along the way.

by Dizzy on Dec 31, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

Good point. It's not an irrational fear, Dizzy. Eastern HS, Eliot-Hine MS and some charters all empty into Stadium-Armory Metro near my house. The bus plaza there is the scene of near weekly fights, assaults, etc. Just this month, I had a kid jumped in front of my house by about 20-30 other kids and stopped of his jacket and valuables.

I notice that many parents drive to pick up their kids because they don't want to mix with that.

by Tim Krepp on Dec 31, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

Interesting stat, but I'm not sure how useful it is. Students and teachers have to travel from home to school and back every day. A school like Walls, which brings kids from all over the city probably has the lowest number of students walking to a public high school in the city, by a pretty big margin, but it has a fantastic walk score.

A more meaningful stat for parents considering where to send their kids to school would be the percentage of students who actually live "walking distance" from their school. I'm not sure what "walking distance" actually is, but it probably should be based in part on a student's age and increased as kids grow.

Living within walking distance doesn't mean everyone actually walks, but if a lot of students live close to a school the kids don't have to travel far to visit friends and the kids and their families run into each other in the neighborhood all the time. It helps build a cohesive community. There is a HUGE value to this that's hard to measure. I see this almost every day with my own kids and their friends and families.

On the other hand, when a school has very high percentage of kids who live in a neighborhood close to a school there's probably less chance that the school has a mix of students from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups.

by turtleshell on Dec 31, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

Living within walking distance doesn't mean everyone actually walks, but if a lot of students live close to a school the kids don't have to travel far to visit friends and the kids and their families run into each other in the neighborhood all the time. It helps build a cohesive community. There is a HUGE value to this that's hard to measure. I see this almost every day with my own kids and their friends and families.

On the other hand, when a school has very high percentage of kids who live in a neighborhood close to a school there's probably less chance that the school has a mix of students from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups.

The paradox of public education in America, in a nutshell

by Dizzy on Dec 31, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

I graduated from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville in 2012.
I couldn't walk to school because I live in Silver Spring, but the area around DeMatha is one of the most walkable in the region. The school is surrounded by houses and townhomes on three sides, and it is adjacent to the new Hyattsville Arts District.
The Hyattsville and Riverdale commercial districts are both within a 5-10 minute walk from DeMatha. When the new restaurants opened along Route 1 my junior year (Chipotle, Elevation Burger, etc), my classmates and I would walk there for lunch almost every day.
I also knew at least two dozen guys who walked to school because of the walkability of the neighborhood and the proximity of their homes. Hundreds of my classmates also took MetroBus (Routes 81, 83, or F4) to their homes along the Route 1 corridor or to the PG Plaza Metro Station.
Being in a walkable area and having so many nearby places to eat and hangout really contributed to my positive experience there.

by Sean on Dec 31, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

So Wilson in DC had be to dead last than since its the neighborhood school for most of NW west of the creek and SW ?

by kk on Dec 31, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

Now if only elementary schools were analyzed, we could have something parents looking for homes would be interested in.

by Andy on Dec 31, 2013 3:50 pm • linkreport

The neighborhood around Walter Johnson HS isn't exactly urban - one regional shopping center, a large office park and two strip malls - but there is a lot to do within walking distance.

by Frank IBC on Dec 31, 2013 10:48 pm • linkreport

I went to Walter Johnson c/o '06. When I was in school the younger kids without cars or friends with cars would stay walking distance from school at Georgetown Square or Wildwood Shopping Center. Those with auto access drove 5 minutes to Montgomery Mall or anything around White Flint. A reliable streetcar on Old Georgetown Rd would enable those without cars to get to those places without a car.

by WJ Alum on Jan 1, 2014 2:10 am • linkreport

The land across the street from WJ has been under development for over 10 years, without any progress. If developed that would be a very large mixed use project that would make WJ considerable more walkable.

http://www.montgomeryplanningboard.org/agenda/2011/documents/20110217_Rock_Spring_Center.pdf

by WJ Alum on Jan 1, 2014 2:16 am • linkreport

I think the transit score is pretty important. It has been critical issue for us to decide to go down to one car & then to decide to let our oldest child take public transit in middle school. That said you are right that test scores are still more important.

by DC Parent on Jan 1, 2014 11:33 am • linkreport

My husband and I specifically chose the neighborhood that we live in to be within walking distance of the elementary, middle and high schools before our kids were born. It has been a terrific decision, as they are very self-sufficient and can get themselves to school, after-school activities, sports and friends' houses on foot or bike. The sense of independence that they have developed, and the liberation for me and my husband from having to drive them everywhere has been well worth the financial sacrifice of buying a home in an expensive, convenient, highly-rated school district (B-CC). Re diversity, at their elementary school with enrollment of approximately 500 kids, 33 languages are currently spoken. The major reason for this is due to all of the World Bank and diplomatic families who come to DC for a stint and want to get their kids into one of the best school districts. They will rent a modest home or apartment in one of these areas in order to accomplish this, and everyone benefits as a result of the melting pot of ethnicities the kids encounter. Also, the B-CC district draws not only from Bethesda and Chevy Chase, but also into Silver Spring, making it more economically diverse as well.

by MBV on Jan 1, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

You forgot Einstein HS in Kensington. It's walkscore is 54 (Somewhat Walkable), although its location very near to downtown Wheaton (accessed at the back of the school), but not noted on the walkscore maps, probably should bring the score up

by Eric on Jan 2, 2014 1:40 am • linkreport

Yorktown High School in Arlington, which did not make the list, is one of the most "walkable" schools in the region. Surrounded by residential neighborhoods with sidewalks, most students walk to school. Also walkable are the nearby elementary and middle schools. There are Metrobus and ART bus lines adjacent to the school, and the commercial strips along Lee Highway (Harris Teeter, Starbucks, etc.) are a short walk from the school. 5-10 minutes max. Walk Score is really not a good tool to measure school walkability.

by John P on Jan 2, 2014 7:51 pm • linkreport

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