Posts about Walkability
Are you getting priced out of being able to live in the kind of neighborhood you want? Do you wish your neighborhood had more local stores and other amenities in walking distance? Please tell your story below.
At recent hearings on planning and zoning issues, we've been hearing from a lot of activists who say that everything is just perfect now, so nothing should ever change.
Next week, DC's Zoning Commission will hear testimony on parts of the zoning update including accessory apartments (which would let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage) and corner stores. There will be a lot of people testifying there, too, that their neighborhoods are perfect just the way they are, and zoning needs to block any new people or stores.
But everything is not perfect and we can't simply ignore the skyrocketing costs of housing for people across the income spectrum.
Either DC plans a way to keep up with its housing demand (which still outstrips the new units getting built), or it sees the city become out of reach for many people, from young professionals starting their careers to fixed-income retirees and legions of lower-income residents.
Adding housing doesn't have to mean skyscrapers or 6-story density everywhere or anything in particular, but it does mean finding places to put the 122,000 new units DC needs (and the same for walkable places in other inner jurisdictions like Montgomery and Arlington) somewhere, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that if we don't change a thing, then our current housing problems won't get any worse.
What about you? Are you finding that housing prices keep you from being able to live where you would like to? Or do you wish that you could have more corner stores or other retail walking distance from your home?
I'd like to collect stories about what residents and prospective residents want, beyond just the same voices that show up at hearing after hearing. A lot of you can't go to all of these hearings because you have day jobs, families, and/or things to do. But your experiences matter as well.
Please fill out the form below. I will forward your stories to NCPC and the Zoning Commission. It asks for your real name and address, because these decision-makers want to know the real people sending the opinions. In addition, the text you write will get posted to this article as a comment, but it won't include your real name or your address.
In many communities around Greater Washington, attempts to improve transit, accommodate walkers and bicyclists or do infill development are often controversial. But a new survey suggests that public support for these and other measures is high in both urban and suburban areas.
Most people support better transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. All images from the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.
Over the past 2 years, the Transportation Planning Board, which coordinates road and transit planning efforts across the DC area, has identified ways to improve the region's transportation network to support future growth. As part of the process for creating the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan, TPB surveyed area residents on what transportation issues mattered to them.
TPB mailed out 10,000 inquiries to randomly selected addresses across their planning area, which includes 13 cities and counties in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The agency received 660 responses, and the results are surprising.
First, TPB gave survey respondents a list of 14 transportation challenges in the region and asked them to rate each one's significance on a scale of 1 to 5. The top four responses were transit crowding, repairing Metro, roadway congestion, and road repair needs. Respondents gave each of those issues an average score of 4 or higher.
Survey takers also ranked as major challenges the distances between housing and jobs, pressure to develop open space, and inadequate bus service. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety and building around Metro were at the bottom of the list, but with average scores of 3.27 and 3.26, people still considered them significant issues.
No matter where people live or how they get around, they agree that transit, bike and pedestrian access are major transportation challenges.
Planners broke out the scores by where people lived and how they commuted to work. Surprisingly, people's responses were similar whether they lived in the urban core or the inner and outer suburbs, or whether they drove, carpooled, took transit, walked, or biked to work.
While this is a small sample, it suggests that people across Greater Washington want more options in how they get around and what kind of communities to live in. This survey lines up with findings from other studies that there's a lot of demand for compact, walkable, transit-served neighborhoods.
The DC area is a national leader in creating and sustaining places like this, whether traditional urban neighborhoods in DC or in newer suburban downtowns. But there's still a small supply of these places relative to demand, especially the ones that are safe and have high-quality public services. As a result, prices for these places can be prohibitively expensive, and people who might otherwise choose a walkable, transit-served community may opt instead for one where they have to drive everywhere, putting further strain on our transportation network.
Yet many neighbors and sometimes even community leaders fight attempts to make TPB's proposals a reality, whether it's building homes near a Metro station, giving cyclists a safe route across downtown DC, or extending transit to underserved areas. While the opposition may be vocal, this survey shows that in reality, most people are fine with these changes, provided they're done in a sensitive manner.
Public input is an important part of any planning process, but planners and community leaders often hear only from a very small segment of the public that's opposed to any change, good or bad. Surveys like this can help them understand what people actually want and care about.
Reader Nacim B. sent along his frustrating experience trying to visit UPS' Landover warehouse as a car-free resident.
I came home one day to find a final delivery notice from UPS (I swear I never saw the other two!) and then was instructed by their website that my only option is to pick it up from their Landover warehouse.
I checked Google Maps, and while I saw that it was a ways out from where I live in Columbia Heights, I also noticed that it was pretty close to the New Carrollton Metro (I don't have a car) and I don't mind walking. I didn't find out until I got there that portions of the walk have no sidewalks, and one portion in particular is literally only passable if you run through car lanes.
The entire trip one-way took me about an hour and a half, and Google tells me it takes about 25 minutes by car.
The intersection of Ardwick Ardmore Road and Pennsy Drive is the real problem. There is no sidewalk on the approach from the east, just a desire path. There's also no crosswalk despite the slip lane.
The northern southbound lane of Pennsy Drive. is now widened so the western shoulder is now nowhere near the intersection. The eastern shoulder narrows down into nothingness and faces a very dangerous blind corner behind a tree from motorists turning from Ardwick.
There is literally no way to cross this intersection either legally or safely. I had to run across the northern portion and tried to be as visible as possible to turning traffic.
This is what the intersection looks like coming in from Pennsy Drive:
Photos by the author.
And here's what that blind corner looks like:
Looking more closely on Google Maps afterward, I could've improved my walk a bit by going on the sidewalk on Garden City Drive, but that would've only avoided me the shoulder on Pennsy Drive. The real issue is how impassable the above intersection is to pedestrians.
I'm not sure what UPS expects from people without a vehicle. FedEx's warehouse is at the intersection of Florida and New York Avenues in DC, a destination that's very transit-accessible and easily bikeable and walkable. Given how remote the UPS warehouse is, a reasonable solution would allow package recipients the option of picking up their missed packages from their nearby UPS location. That would've saved me about 3 hours today along with some serious risk from automotive traffic.
The last picture isn't as bad in the scheme of things, but it's illustrative. It's the entrance to the UPS warehouse that has the sidewalk completely fenced off.
Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road in Silver Spring's Montgomery Hills neighborhood is currently a dangerous mess of a suburban arterial. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is looking at ways to transform it into an urban boulevard.
At a meeting last week at Woodlin Elementary School, SHA planners presented 7 alternatives to improve pedestrian, bike and transit access on Georgia Avenue. This stretch of road has the most vehicle collisions of any state highway in Maryland, as the reversible lanes make drivers confused. There's no median and the lanes are all at least 12 feet wide, making Georgia incredibly dangerous to cross on foot.
But this stretch of Georgia Avenue also has a number of notable small businesses in early 20th-century buildings close to the street. The popular Y and Q route Metrobuses stop here, and it's also within walking distance of the Forest Glen Metro, though few make that walk due to safety concerns. This area is ripe to convert to an urban boulevard.
SHA has produced 7 alternatives for this portion of Georgia Avenue, including not doing anything at all or using Transportation Systems Management, basically reworking the traffic lights but not actually building anything.
Alternative 3 is based on the North and West Silver Spring Master Plan. It includes 13.5 foot wide sidewalks but no specific bike facilities. A 16 foot grass median would replace the existing reversible lane. SHA also proposes narrowing each intersection to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street.
Alternatives 4 and 5 build on the Master Plan option by including a 14 to 16 foot curb lane that could accommodate a striped bicycle lane. It would also close the off-ramp from southbound Georgia Avenue to southbound 16th Street, which encourages motorists to drive as if they were on an interstate highway. It has no place in a dense residential area that's in walking distance of two Metro stations.
Alternative 6 would place 2 Bus Rapid Transit lanes in the median and room for a station at Seminary Road. The Planning Board is currently considering a countywide BRT network which would include a route on Georgia Avenue.
Alternative 7 would build a tunnel underneath Georgia Avenue between the Beltway and 16th Street. Not only would it be the most expensive choice, but it would move Montgomery Hills in the wrong direction in the Whirlpool of Induced Demand.
All 5 of the alternatives that involve building things would require widening the road, meaning that businesses may lose some property or even their entire building. Everyone I talked to at the meeting preferred Alternatives 4 and 5, with its median and bike lanes.
Most agreed that Alternative 7 was not a good choice. Not only would make the pedestrian experience even worse, it would cause more driver collisions due to its confusing nature. Where the tunnel ended at the Beltway, drivers would have to merge across three lanes to get to the on-ramps.
It's surprising how different SHA's work in Montgomery Hills is compared to what the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed redesign of Old Georgetown Road in White Flint, which encourages speeding and has few accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists. While Montgomery County transportation planners have chosen to ignore the county's vision to turn White Flint into an urban area, SHA planners have embraced an urban future for Montgomery Hills.
SHA's urban boulevard alternatives for Georgia Avenue are a step in the right direction. Hopefully, they'll find a solution that can make this street a place worth spending time in, not just a traffic sewer.
The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?
The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a "significant" problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I'm surprised 32% don't think it's a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are "very important" in making decisions about where to locate businesses.
99% want a more modern signal system "to ease the flow of traffic," which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see "active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk."
This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.
On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.
Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?
It's easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There's a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.
But there's an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide "traffic sewers" that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.
Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.
And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it's a great place.
Congestion pricing, anyone?
There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.
DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.
The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It's good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It's good for the poorer residents who don't have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.
But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don't want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.
Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It's not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.
38 percent. That's the growing percentage of District households that are car-free. Countless others are car-lite, relying mostly on transit, walking, and biking.
Too often we lose sight of this fact in local debates on issues like parking, transit improvements, redevelopment, and so on.
Basic lifestyle and mobility decisions are fundamentally changing for large segments of DC's population. Nonetheless, a significant number of District policies and discussions still assume that most residents will own a car and use it for many, if not all, of their daily needs.
The consequences of this misunderstanding impact all of us, ranging from higher housing costs, increased traffic thanks to unintentional subsidy of car ownership, and diverting resources from improving other transportation options.
In the end, what all of that means is a less walkable, less inclusive District.
To raise awareness of this misunderstanding, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has collected first-hand accounts from neighbors across DC, examining the various modes of transportation they use in their everyday lives.
We hope this project will help policy makers and skeptical (but open-minded) residents understand that the District won't face parking and driving Armageddon if we respond to changing lifestyle choices by getting rid of unnecessary parking mandates for new buildings, or by giving buses more priority on roads to make transit more reliable and convenient.
The District won't face that Armageddon because so many existing residents and new residents simply don't drive very much. Tastes and lifestyle choices are in the midst of a dramatic change, and despite what some hyperbolic opponents of transportation have said, a majority of our new residents are very likely to be car-free or car-lite and looking to stay that way.
Abstract statistics and shouting matches about who is right aren't what walkable living is all about. Instead, it's just regular people throughout the city who are leading this quiet but growing sea-change, that's making much of our 20th century transportation formulas less relevant to how we get around today:
- Longtime resident Wanda in Hillbrook notes how many of her neighbors walk to the stores along Minnesota Avenue, and pleads for more investment in pedestrian and bike infrastructure in her neighborhood.
- Rebecca in Petworth happily relies on Metro to drop her toddler off at daycare in L'Enfant Plaza, and walks to the grocery store to do her family's shopping.
- In Mt. Vernon Square, Keith says that on the rare occasions when he can't walk to where he's going, Car2Go, Bikeshare, or transit is there to fill the gap.
If you have other ideas to help explain this changing lifestyle preference to policy makers, neighbors, or the press, leave them for us in the comments section, or share them with the Coalition for Smarter Growth directly at email@example.com.
More and more young adults in their 20's and early 30's are choosing to live in urban areas. Unlike their parents, however, they don't want to leave when they have kids. While families seeking the urban lifestyle may face some challenges, there are huge opportunities for places that can convince them to stick around.
Three panelists from the real estate and education worlds discussed this issue with former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy at the ULI Real Estate Trends conference on Wednesday. AJ Jackson, partner at local builder EYA, noted that many young adults who spent their twenties in the District or Arlington are no longer moving to the suburbs when they have kids.
Revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods have made them safer and more attractive to young professionals. Meanwhile, rising congestion and farmland-consuming sprawl have removed much of the allure of suburban living. "They're not moving to the suburbs because ... the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn't exist anymore," said Jackson.
Instead, young parents are looking at closer-in areas that offer a little more space without having to maintain a large yard or endure a long commute. EYA mostly builds rowhouses in walkable, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods; as a result, 30% of their buyers are young families with kids, Jackson said.
However, this presents many unique challenges to young parents, as the Post's Jonathan O'Connell noted last year. Many parents worry about finding homes that meet their needs, unsure if they can comfortably live in a rowhouse or apartment. The quality of services in urban neighborhoods, like trash pickup, crime prevention and schools, is another issue.
Parents considering inner-city schools often ask, "am I going to be subjecting my children to inferior teaching and an inferior academic experience?" said Sharicca Boldon, vice-chairman of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.
Boldon finds that the best way to combat these perceptions is by exposing parents to the benefits of city living. She holds non-education-related community events at schools so parents can get familiar with them before enrolling their kids. Boldon also organizes tours of rowhouses to show how families like her own can live in one comfortably.
"I find that housing configuration to be very efficient for a family. I can be on the third floor and my kids can be loud on the bottom," she said. "I think it changes family needs that I need to be in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage."
Even as they become more attractive to young families, inner-city neighborhoods can't take them for granted. McCarthy said that the District's population growth comes mainly from out-of-area migration, and that the city continues to lose more residents to Maryland and Virginia then it gains. "There aren't a lot of things that tie [young families] here if the District doesn't gain a reputation for being family-friendly," she said.
Increasingly, urban living is no longer synonymous with being in DC or Baltimore. The growth of job centers outside both cities are drawing young families to places like White Flint and Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Merrifield in Fairfax County, which offer both walkable neighborhoods and transit access alongside larger homes and higher-quality public services. In Montgomery County, young families are clustering in areas where they don't have to drive as much.
Jackson pointed out that the Mosaic District in Merrifield, where EYA is building new homes in a neighborhood with shops, schools and Metro close by, has drawn the firm's youngest homebuyers. "It's the experience and the overall atmosphere more than the specific location," he said, adding that newer suburban neighborhoods may have trouble competing with their inner-city counterparts to provide the same feel or history.
It's unclear whether this trend is limited to young parents. While there are many highly-rated elementary schools in the District and Baltimore, issues remain with many middle and high schools, which may discourage parents from sticking around. Even in good school districts, families may simply want more space and leave their rowhouses for single-family homes.
Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, raised three kids in Adams Morgan and says it gave her teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. She wonders what would happen to DC if more parents chose to do the same. "It'll be interesting if they stick around as their kids age," she said.
As singles, Millennials have led the ongoing revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods and encouraged the creation of urban places in the suburbs. However, it's what they do as parents that could have a lasting effect on the urban realm.
One of the best effects of open data is when people correlate data sets from very different places to generate interesting information. This graph cleverly combines DC's school quality tiers (known as "accountability categories") with Walk Score:
Sandra Moscoso wrote yesterday about how Code for DC's School Decisions Project has been gathering coders who want to use open data to help parents, students, and policymakers. This is one of the graphs they created at the recent Open Data Day using data from the Office of State Superintendent of Eduaction (OSSE).
I've asked to get access to the raw spreadsheet for this graph so we can look at, for example, which schools each dot represents. Here are the accountability categories by school. I will add the spreadsheet with WalkScore matched up with category when it's available. Update: here's the data as a CSV file.
A few things immediately jump out. The most successful DCPS schools have high Walk Scores, while the least successful ones mostly (but not entirely) cluster in the lower range. This may reflect the fact that a public school's success has a lot to do with the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and the local retail that is a big part of Walk Score locates in areas with higher incomes.
That income effect is also very pronounced in the graph Sandra posted yesterday:
That's not the case with charter schools. 3 of the 5 "reward" charters are in low-Walk Score areas (which could mean something, or just be a consequence of little data), while the "Rising" charters are basically all over the place. This may have a lot to do with the simple fact that since charters have to find and pay for their own space, they're in all manner of locations.
An interesting future step might be to correlate the school tiers with some data set about land prices or rents, or resident incomes. That could help illuminate whether charters end up locating in less-expensive areas, because they want to serve poorer residents and/or because they need cheaper land.
What do you see from looking at this data?
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Arlington considers using fees to reduce parking
- Rural Virginia leads eastern US in cars per household
- Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"
- Good design, lots of parking at Wheaton's tallest building
- DC mulls new affordable housing rules in public land deals