Are Suburbs The Secret to Walkability in D.C.?

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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Washington D.C. is the most walkable metropolitan area in the U.S., according to a report by George Washington University and Smart Growth America.

The District’s number-one ranking has surprised some, prompting them to ask how D.C. was able to surpass places such as New York City, which not only contains one of the best subway systems in the world but also that epitome of walkability known as Manhattan. (See the full rankings below.)

The secret to Washington’s walkability – according to the report entitled Foot Traffic Ahead – is its suburbs.

The term “walkable suburb” may sound like a misnomer, but Chris Leinberger, the report’s author, contends that it is not. Many of America’s traditionally car-dominated suburbs are being transformed into walkable urban places (or WalkUPs), says Leinberger.

While the Washington metropolitan area contains many walkable places already (think Old Town Alexandria in Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland), it’s the transformation of D.C.’s suburbs into WalkUPs that’s particularly striking. Tysons is but one example.

Walkability is indeed a regional goal. This is the entire point of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (COG) regional activity centers project, intended to guide growth in the Washington area.

Sophie Mintier, a regional planner on the COG project, told Mobility Lab, “The activity centers are compact, mixed-used neighborhoods – or emerging communities that are planned for compact development – that place an emphasis on walkability. Focusing development in these locations is a way to accommodate growth more efficiently and create livable places.”

New York’s number-two ranking, according to Leinberger, is because pedestrian friendliness in that area is mostly relegated to the central city. Leinberger told Mobility Lab, “Ninety-two percent of New York’s walkability is confined to the island of Manhattan. And Manhattan, at 23 square miles, is just .3 percent of the land area of the New York metropolitan area.”

Some New Yorkers have taken umbrage with yet another ranking placing the city behind conservative Washington. Even the Washington Post has questioned whether D.C.’s suburbs are all that walkable.

One person unsurprised by the report is Lauren Hassel, promotions manager of WalkArlington. Hassel points out that Arlington achieved a Gold-Level Walk Friendly Community rating a year before the District.

Walkable urban places, according to Leingerger, are the new frontier. “If you don’t understand [places such as] Arlington, then you don’t understand where the suburbs are going in this country,” Leinberger said.

Regarding the transformation of the D.C. suburbs into walkable urban places, Mintier said, “There are certainly challenges to achieving this kind of development, especially in more auto-oriented places, but we are seeing an increasing shift toward walkability and complete-streets approaches in the local planning of COG’s member jurisdictions.”

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Miniature Times Square photo by Jason Kong.

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