Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Walkability

Roads


Why is Tysons walkability and bikeability so bad?

Virginia officials have known for years that Metro was coming to Tysons. Yet when the four stations opened, commuters found dreadful and dangerous walking and biking conditions. Why?


The south side of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. Photo by Ken Archer.

The Fairfax County DOT has been making some progress. There are two crosswalks at the intersection of Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard, which FCDOT recently installed. But at the opposite corner, there are no crosswalks. This is where Ken Archer described pedestrians running across nine lanes of traffic without any crosswalk.


The intersection of Tysons Boulevard and Galleria Drive. The Tysons Corner Metro station is now on the southwest corner. Image from Google Maps.

According to FCDOT director Tom Besiadny, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will not allow a crosswalk across what is now a double right turn lane. FCDOT has been discussing shrinking it to only a single lane, but that requires negotiating with VDOT, which takes a general stance of suspicion if not outright opposition to any change which slows cars.

(Update: Martin Di Caro reports that VDOT has specifically refused to let Fairfax shrink the double right lane until it conducts a six-month study about the traffic impact of the change.)

In a press release, the Coalition for Smarter Growth said these "show the challenges of retrofitting auto-dominated suburbs." It goes beyond just adding a crosswalk; even if FCDOT had one at every corner, there are still curving "slip lanes" for cars to take the turns at high speed. A more urban design would have just a basic square intersection, and with fewer lanes.

Fairfax plans a more comprehensive grid of streets to take some of the traffic volume off of the existing streets, but it will always be a struggle to make intersections smaller or slower versus continuing to design them for maximum car throughput. Even now, VDOT is continuing to widen part of Route 123 further.


Around Tysons Corner station. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to Navid Roshan of The Tysons Corner blog, VDOT also refused a request to lower the 45 mile per hour speed limit on Westpark Drive in a residential neighborhood.

It's not just VDOT, however. Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, pointed out in a comment that many fixes for cyclists were in the Tysons Bicycle Master Plan created in 2011, but which Fairfax County has still not adopted. The plan will go to the county planning commission in October and then the Board of Supervisors.

The original plan called for a first phase of improvements by 2013, most of which are still not done. Those projects were all small, short-term items like adding sharrows and signed bicycle routes, adding enough bike racks at Silver Line stations (which are already almost out of space), and setting up Transportation Demand Management programs with nearby employers.

Roshan created a petition to ask Fairfax and the state of Virginia to prioritize fixing these problems. He points out that all of the improvements together cost less than some of the studies Virginia is doing around adding new ramps to and from the Toll Roadto move cars faster.

They shouldn't ignore traffic, but if Tysons is going to become an urban place, that means building roads that work for all users instead of maybe squeezing in a poor accommodation for pedestrians and/or cyclists as long as it doesn't get in the way of car flow.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission's Tysons Committee will meet tonight from 7-9:30 at the county's (not very transit-accessible) Government Center, 12000 Government Center Drive, Fairfax. The committee will discuss amendments to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan.

As Wright said, the county has been pushing developers to include better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations as they develop or redevelop parcels, but people riding the Silver Line now can't wait for development years down the road. Fairfax and VDOT missed chances to make the roads walkable and bikeable before the Silver Line opened, so there is no time to waste to fix these problems urgently.

Transit


Which Metro stations are physically "walkable"?

Anyone who's seen the area around a variety of Metro stations knows that some are very walkable and some are not. Is there a scientific measure of that? Metro planners crunched the numbers to find out.

Metro rider surveys have shown that most people are willing to walk up to about a half mile to get to a Metro station. Research in other cities also has settled on the half-mile zone.

But the land within a half mile of a station is not the same all across the system. You can't walk in any direction; there are things in the way, whether buildings, rivers, or highways. Where there is a good grid of streets near the station, it's possible to reach a lot by walking up to half a mile. Elsewhere, most of that half-mile radius circle actually requires a longer walk.

Landover, for instance, is right next to a highway. There is only one road leading to the station's parking lot, and no connection over the highway to the nearest residential neighborhood. At Takoma, on the other hand, the street grid lets riders reach many commercial streets and neighborhoods with a half-mile walk.

Metro planners calculated the percentage of land within a half mile you can reach by walking a half mile. It's little surprise that the worst stations are mostly in Fairfax and Prince George's, two jurisdictions that did not try to locate their stations in walkable areas or, during Metro's first few decades, work very hard to plan transit-oriented development around them.


Images from WMATA.

Which stations and jurisdictions fare best and worst?

The worst stations in DC appear to be Fort Totten, a station in the middle of a federal park, and Rhode Island Avenue, a station hemmed in by strip mall development and lacking a good street grid on most sides. (The pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks to the Metropolitan Branch Trail may improve that station's score once it opens.)

In Arlington, it's National Airport (no surprise there; you can't walk on most of an airport) and East Falls Church (but the county has a plan for that area). The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, most of DC (especially in the L'Enfant city) and Montgomery County (particularly inside the Beltway) fare well.

Alexandria is very mixed, with two stations hemmed in by the Beltway and in areas with weaker grids. Prince George's stations are generally more unwalkable than walkable, with College Park the biggest exception. In Fairfax, only Huntington gets anywhere close to a good score. It will be interesting to see how the Tysons stations rank once they open, now and in the future.

The planners also found that the walkability rank correlates very strongly with a station's morning peak ridership. This makes sense, because at the vast majority of stations, even when there is parking there is not that much compared to all the capacity of the trains that pass through. The stations which get a lot of use are those with many people living or working nearby.

There's more to walkability

It's important to note that this is one of several measures of walkability. This analysis computes the size of a station's "walk shed," or how far you can physically get by walking. That is a necessary first step to making a place walkable.

While the Metro planners excluded highways, this analysis still treats roads the same, even though some have no sidewalks, or are multi-lane high-speed roads that are intimidating and unsafe to walk on. But since most of the time good street grids go hand in hand with safer streets to walk on, that shouldn't affect the results much.

More significantly, when people talk about walkable neighborhoods, they are generally thinking beyond just the literal ability to walk. Walkability also includes whether there are amenities such as stores, parks, and more that you can reach by walking. The WalkScore tool computes these in its scores for an area.

Some Metro stations are in places which are physically walkable, but where there isn't much to walk to except for the houses immediately nearby. Glenmont or Forest Glen might be good examples. On the other end of the scale, Prince George's Plaza has a terrible walk shed, but there are lots of stores right near the station.

Regardless, this analysis says something important, and something that's most directly under government planners' control. If jurisdictions want their Metro stations to thrive, a critical first step is making sure people can get to them from the immediate area without having to drive and take up a scarce (and expensive) parking spot.

Development


Fairfax Circle takes a step toward urbanism, but it's still an island for now

On Tuesday, Fairfax City approved the city's first major redevelopment project on Fairfax Boulevard. This will bring new residences, a grocery, and pedestrian-oriented spaces to an area that's strip malls and parking lots today. But since the city has no larger plan, the project isn't poised to connect well with future projects or bring all the amenities the city needs.


Fairfax Circle Plaza. Image from Combined Properties.

Seven years ago the city completedbut did not adoptthe Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan, which envisioned denser, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the three main nodes of the city's main commercial corridor. Fairfax Circle is the eastern node, located within walking distance of the Vienna Metro station and in the midst of a rapidly urbanizing area.


Fairfax Circle. The development is at the top (north side). Image from Bing Maps.

More than 16,000 residents live within one mile of Fairfax Circle Plaza, and many more will be moving into the new apartments and condominiums at MetroWest.

Combined Properties will build two apartment buildings with 400 units, ground-floor retail, and a 54,000 square foot grocery store. In place of a sea of surface parking and a nondescript service drive, the project will provide a pedestrian-friendly frontage road with parallel parking and bulb-outs, a 10-foot path, and a landscaped buffer. The proposal also provides expanded sidewalks and buffers along Pickett Road and Lee Highway.

The project is far from perfect. Because Combined could not consolidate smaller properties on its sides, trucks and other service vehicles will use the main entrance and the pedestrian-friendly streetscape will stop before connecting to Fairfax Circle. The proposal lacks an adequate gathering space, and the amount of permeable, landscaped surface only marginally exceeds what's on the current site.

The lack of affordable housing is a major weakness. During the past year the city has incorporated affordable housing goals in its comprehensive plan, and the mayor has stated strong support for setting aside 5-10% of new development for affordable units.

Combined is providing some below-market units, but refused to provide truly affordable apartments. Instead, it calculated maximum monthly rental rates assuming residents spend 33% of their income on housing rather than the standard 25%, and did not exempt ancillary fees or utilities from the affordability calculations.

As a result, the rent for these apartments approaches that for market-rate units. While many of the councilmembers recognized Combined's proposal isn't adequate, none seriously pushed back from the dais.

Many of the project's shortcomings stem from the fact that Fairfax City still does not have a clear plan for Fairfax Boulevard. An adopted plan that sets forth clear guidelines for street connectivity, green infrastructure, affordable housing and other elements would make the process easier for applicants and more beneficial for the city.

As the city looks to tackle more complex projects elsewhere on the Boulevard, it will need better planning tools. Meanwhile, though, Fairfax Circle will at least take a significant step forward, even if it's a smaller step than it could be.

Bicycling


DC bike commuting more than doubled since 2000

It's pretty clear from looking around DC that many people are bicycling. The Census has published new numbers that show how many are.


Image from the US Census.

3.1% of commuters in the District bike to work, according to the American Community Survey. That puts DC seventh among cities over 200,000 people. In 2000, that number was only 1.2%, for an enormous jump.

Plus, the survey doesn't even capture all of the bicycling. It just asks about commute to work trips. Many people bike for other trips even if they drive, take transit, or walk to work. And if you bike a short distance to a longer Metro ride, the Census would capture your commute as being by Metro, not by bike.

DC also has the second-highest rate of people walking to work, 12.1%, behind Boston's 15.1%.

The District is very different than the whole region (which includes the inner suburban counties and the far exurban ones). For the larger metro region, 3.2% of people walk to work, says the Census report; it doesn't say how many people bike to work region-wide.

Public Spaces


A rural village plan will breathe new life into Sandy Spring

Sandy Spring could one day be a small, walkable community at the center of rural life in northeast Montgomery County, if all goes according to plan.


Rendering of the Sandy Spring rural village core by John Carter.

For 15 years, Sandy Spring residents asked for a plan to revitalize their rural village, which has gotten passed over as suburbanization swept the area. Montgomery County planners say a new open space, walkable main street, and some new housing and retail could turn things around.

Residents want new commercial establishments, coffee shops, and retail in the village center. As redevelopment takes place in the small community on Route 108 near New Hampshire Avenue, the changes will allow new mixed-use buildings located closer to the street to activate public space.


3D rendering of MD 108 and Brooke Road looking east. Rendering by MNCPPC.

The preliminary concepts encourage quality open space for public gatherings and community activities at the intersection of MD 108 and Brooke Road. As the historic center of Sandy Spring, the intersection is home to one of Maryland's oldest post offices. More public gathering space will strengthen civic engagement, create a sense of place, and generate opportunities for special events and festivals.


Sandy Spring streetscape rendering by John Carter.

Changes can also make the area more walkable. Today, the north side of MD 108 has no sidewalk and 90-degree parking in the right-of-way, requiring vehicles to back out into the road. Not only is the design dangerous, it creates traffic when village center activity increases.

Following the "Complete Streets" standard, there will be a wide, pedestrian-focused sidewalk and parallel parking. Bike lanes and improved pedestrian movements at intersections will give all users safe and equal access to the public space. These modifications are timely because Pepco is relocating its utilities underground in the area, further enhancing the corridor.

Over the last 10 years, many newer residents of varied income levels have also settled into the rural village. While these recent changes have increased competing interests and viewpoints, it is still a community founded on togetherness and communication.


Sandy Spring planning area and conceptual layout. Rendering by Roberto Duke.

Quakers established Sandy Spring in the early 18th century as a rural village based on communal exchange of ideas on social and political concerns, agriculture, and family. Today, many descendants of those Quaker families remain as their trademark brand of gentility still influences the town.

A high percentage of high-income residents own houses in the area. One quarter of households have incomes over $200,000, proving the town's potential for upscale business, specialty retail, and restaurants within the rural village.


Sandy Spring in the beginning.

Due to the uniqueness of Sandy Spring and the limited size of the planning area, Montgomery planners staff took a different approach to the planning process. In February, they held a four-day planning workshop in Sandy Spring focused on specific land use topics and time devoted to interacting with residents on their vision for the future of their village.

In other words, the heavily lifting of planning work was essentially done in four days. With the collaborative community vision of residents firmly in hand, staff developed illustrations and renderings in advance of recent community outreach meetings. The renderings are currently on display at the Sandy Spring Museum through April 2014.

Planners will develop a draft plan over the coming months with continued community follow-up and intend to have an adopted plan by April 2015.

If the Planning Board and then the Montgomery County Council adopt it, planners will quickly follow up with a sectional zoning amendment to rezone the property within the planning area. This will trigger the development and land use standards to implement the plan's vision.

Pedestrians


When a Maryland middle schooler walks on snowy paths, one teacher is not sympathetic

Recently, we posted contributor stories about times they'd walked in places where most people don't. A reader who is in middle school, Leo from Maryland, posted this comment which we think is worth highlighting:


Students (not Leo) walk to school. Photo by Dan Slee on Flickr.
I am an urbanist, stuck in suburbia. (I'm in Middle School, so "stuck" isn't exactly the right word.) Anywayyy...... I am an urbanist, right? And I also like walking, biking, public transit, etc.

So, I bike or walk to school almost every day. I live about a mile from my school. People are SHOCKED when they hear I bike or walk to school. The school doesn't bother salting the ped. walkways to school, so they are covered in ice the day school reopens after a snowstorm.

I was walking to school, and I fell and slipped twice due the the ice. My HW was soaked, b/c my backpack fell in snow. 1st period teacher wouldn't take my HW even though I did the work correctly, and you could still see my answers. I tried to explain the situation, he wouldn't listen.

His solution to my problem? Tomorrow, have your parents drive you to school. Lol, my mom's left for work already when I leave, and my dad works till midnight, and is asleep when I leave.
Perhaps Leo and his school could work with an organization like the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which focuses on providing students and parents with options to get to school on foot or by bike. (Update: Locally, there's also the Safe Routes to School Regional Network.) It may be too late for Leo's homework assignment, but it's never too late to improve walking conditions in all of our communities.

Pedestrians


Topic of the week: Walking in unexpected places

Even the most hardened pedestrians can find themselves in areas where driving is the default way to get around. In those places, going for a walk can be a provocative act, met with stares and questions.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Still, some of us make the conscious choice to walk or bike somewhere even in places where it's not obvious to others. Our contributors share some of their funnier stories of when people didn't understand why they just didn't drive.

David Versel: I typically walk up to the Metrobus stop for my morning commute, which is about 0.5 miles from my house in Springfield. I am ALWAYS the only adult pedestrian about, but there are usually middle school kids walking to or waiting at their school bus stop. I have gotten scared looks from these kids many times who probably think I'm a pedophile cruising school bus stops.

It's just another casualty of car culture that suburban kids automatically assume that adults should always be in cars, and that those who aren't are probably sex offenders.

Dan Reed: In high school, I usually walked to my friend's house for a study group. One day we had an argument, as 15-year-olds often do, and I stormed out. As I unlocked the front door, her mother ran into the room in a frenzy.

"Where are you going!?" she asked, and I said I was walking home. (This is how far apart our houses were.)

"Don't worry, I'll give you a ride," she said. I said it was okay, but she relented, and went back to get her keys. She came back and said, "Alright, let's go." I felt terrible asking her to go through the trouble, so I said "Um, I changed my mind and I'll stay here," and returned to sulk in the basement with my friends.

David Alpert: When I was in Los Angeles once, I was staying with family friends in Brentwood and was at an event on Wilshire Boulevard just south of Brentwood. When I was ready to leave, I realized that the cross street we were right near was also one of the main cross streets near their house, so I walked the approximately 1.2 miles to their house instead of calling for a ride.

When I got there they were flabbergasted that I had walked.

Matt Johnson: I can do ya one better. And this conversation did happen. Word for word.

The first time I was ever in LA, Ryan and I stayed at a hotel one block from the Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. We got in fairly late, and we really just wanted to go to bed, but we hadn't eaten. On the one block walk from the station, we'd seen a few storefronts, but hadn't really been paying a lot of attention.

So after we got situated in our room, we went down to the front desk, and I asked the receptionist...

Me: "Can you tell me are there any restaurants nearby?"
Receptionist: "Oh, sure. Let me call you a cab."
Me: "Oh, no, no. We don't want to go anyplace far away. Just something close by."
Receptionist: "Yeah, there are lots of places. Let me call you a cab." [picks up phone]
Me: "No, please don't. We really just want someplace close. Is there any place within walking distance?"
[She looks puzzled]
Receptionist: "It's really no trouble for me to call you a cab."
Me: "We don't want a cab. We just want to know if there are any restaurants nearby. Are there any restaurants within a block or two?"
Receptionist: "Yeah. There are a few places at the corner of Vermont and Santa Monica. Are you sure you don't want me to call you a cab?"
Me: "Vermont and Santa Monica is a block away, right?"
Receptionist: "Yes."
Me: "We'll just walk. Thanks for your help."
Receptionist: "Really, it's no trouble to call a cab. Are you sure you don't want one?"

The ironic thing is that LA (the LA Basin at least) is actually very walkable. The problem is that Angelenos don't seem to know that.

I've ridden the 4/704 all the way from Union Station to the Santa Monica pier. And the density/urban form never drops below what you'd find in the Woodley Park commercial strip. That's about the same distance as going from Metro Center to Rockville. There are a few places were the walkability isn't great (Century City), but for the most part, the sidewalks are wide and complete, the street is buffered with parking, and buildings are built right to the street.

Dan Malouff: My example isn't quite so bad. It's a 0.4 mile walk from Fairfax City Hall to Fairfax Main Street. Who wants to guess how many people other than me walked to lunch, back when I worked in Fairfax?

Canaan Merchant: I used to walk to Fairfax City from GMU. It really freaked my roommates out. Thinking back, I have lots of examples of me having to explain that sometimes I preferred to walk for 20 minutes than drive 10 to get to places in Fairfax.

David Edmondson: In fairness to the drive-everywhere crowd, I definitely took the Metro from Mt. Vernon Square to Chinatown a number of times when I first moved to DC before I realized how close it actually is.

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