By Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org
Suburban life has always been synonymous with long hours in the car—going to work, school, the grocery store, the mall, soccer practice and friends’ homes. Some people even drive to take a walk.
That’s changing now. From Bethesda, Maryland to Edina, Minnesota to Kirkland, Washington, citizens are reinventing their towns to better accommodate walkers. Traffic is being tamed on busy streets. New sidewalks and trails are being constructed. Business districts are coming to life thanks to growing foot traffic.
Leading the charge are suburban leaders who see their communities’ continuing prosperity and quality-of-life dependent on creating lively walkable places that attract young people, families and businesses wanting to locate where the action is. Walking is gaining popularity across the US for both transportation and recreation because it improves health, fosters community and saves money.
The best place to experience the future of suburban living is Arlington County, Virginia, right across the Potomoc River from Washington, DC. Built up during the 1950s, ‘40s and late ‘30s, after autos already dominated American life, it’s a classic suburb full of freestanding homes with driveways and green lawns. Nonetheless it’s been named one of the 14 best “Walk Friendly” communities in America by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina and one of the 25 Best Cities for Walking by Prevention magazine.
Arlington’s Path to Transformation
Arlington did not become a pedestrian success story overnight. The sidewalks are lively today thanks to a series of smart decisions carried out over several decades. The story of this community’s rise to become America’s most walkable suburb offers lessons for towns everywhere wanting to thrive in the years to come.
As an early model for the auto-oriented development that popped up all over the country after World War II, Arlington also become one of the first suburbs to experience the inevitable side effects of aging. The county population dropped from 174,000 in 1970 to 152,500 in 1980 as new land to develop became scarce and kids who grew up there moved away.
“In the 1970s this was a declining inner ring suburb,” notes Chris Zimmerman, who served on the county board for 18 years. “I moved here in 1979 because of the cheap rent. Arlington was a stopover for a lot of people until they could afford to move somewhere else”– a familiar scene today in thousands of suburban communities.
The first step in Arlington’s revival was improved transit service, including a number of stops on the Washington Metro subway system. But most of the streets were still designed to move cars as quickly as possible with little regard for the impact on pedestrians and surrounding neighborhoods. “When I took office in 1996, traffic was the biggest issue in every neighborhood. People were worried about their kids walking to school,” notes Zimmerman, who left the county board in 2013 to become Vice-president of Economic Development for Smart Growth America.
The county board, spurred on by neighborhood leaders, adopted an “urban village” approach to planning, which Zimmerman says, “really resonated with people– the idea of comfort and community while still being cosmopolitan. Being both suburban and urban at the same time.”
One strong focus of this plan was to make walking more safe and convenient. A task force on traffic calming was launched and the outdated policy of charging homeowners for the cost of building new sidewalks–still common throughout the US–was eliminated.
Ninety percent of all residential streets now have sidewalks (up from 73 percent in 1997), and traffic on seven of the county’s nine busiest roads has declined between 5 and 23 percent since 1996. As a result, walking and biking now account for 16.6 percent of all trips around town.
The county’s population has now climbed to 220,000, and it’s attracting many young professionals and families who could afford to live in wealthier suburbs but prefer Arlington’s walkability and sense of community.
“This could be done anywhere,” Zimmerman counsels. “It doesn’t depend on big-scale transit, it depends on good urban design.”
Key actions that make Arlington’s streets more walkable include:
—Crosswalks, which are clearly defined so motorists know where to look for walkers;
—Bulb outs, which extend the sidewalk a few feet into an intersection to shorten pedestrians’ crossing distance;
—Median islands, which offer pedestrians a mid-point refuge while crossing wide, busy streets;
—Bike lanes, which not only encourage people to bike instead of drive, but also increase the distance between sidewalks and rushing traffic;
—Pro-pedestrian zoning, which enhances the walking experience through measures like requiring first-floor retail shops or windows on buildings along pedestrian routes;
—Road Diets, a new step for Arlington, in which moderately traveled four lane road are reduced to two through-lanes with an alternating left-turn lane in the middle, creating space for bike lanes or wider sidewalks;
—Complete Streets, a county policy that all modes of transportation must be considered in street reconstruction projects;
—Transportation Demand Management, a sophisticated strategic plan that looks at traffic issues involved in all development decisions, and offers incentives for businesses to locate in walkable places served by transit.
Of course, it takes more than crosswalks and sidewalks to get people walking. That’s why nearly everyone I spoke with in Arlington pointed to the work of WalkArlington, a county-sponsored initiative to encourage people to get back on their feet.
WalkArlington developed 25 walking routes known as Walkabouts around the county, highlighting neighborhoods’ history, community resources and attractions. The WalkArlington Works program helps employers and staff to boost walking in the workplace, both for commuting and breaks during the workday. The organization is part the county’s Car-Free Diet program, an innovative approach that helps families figure how living without a car or car lite (using just one private car) would work for them. WalkArlington also excites kids about getting around on foot with programs such as Walk to School Day and walking school buses (in which parents become bus drivers on foot, picking up kids at their doors and walking them to school) .
Arlington is taking steps toward fulfilling the dream of many residents, best articulated by the county’s former Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Charlie Denney who grew up here: “Our goal would be to build a community where every 8-year-old can go all by themselves to buy an ice cream cone.”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to create more healthy, happy, enjoyable communities. He is the author of the Great Neighborhood Book. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com
Feature photo by Graham Coreil-Allen under a Creative Commons license from flickr.com