Read: Urban Land Institute’s “Shifting Suburbs” and What It Means for Fairfax County

Fairfax's Mosaic District is a dense, walkable development, but is best accessed by highways.

Fairfax’s Mosaic District is a dense, walkable development, but is most easily accessed by highways.

The Urban Land Institute recently published a new report, Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development, that examines the challenges of transforming low-density suburban areas into more compact, transit-oriented, mixed-use developments.

The ULI report looks at rebuilding existing suburban infrastructure (primarily transportation infrastructure) in order to support more compact development. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. is expected to grow by 90 million people. The majority of that growth is expected to occur outside urban cores. Many young workers are choosing to live in more urban places with multiple transportation options, like walking, biking, and transit. In order to become competitive, some suburban communities want to be less car-dominated and more walkable and bikeable.

Different types of suburban development lend themselves to different redevelopment strategies. Included in the ULI report are models of suburban mall retrofits, suburban transit-oriented development, suburban arterials or commercial corridors, wholesale or large-scale suburban transformation, and suburban town centers. All are present in Fairfax County—respectively, Springfield MallMerrifield; Routes 1, 7, and 50; Tysons; and Reston Town Center and Merrifield.

Retrofitting suburban arterials such as Routes 1, 7, 50, and 123 is a major challenge. Such roads are often traffic-clogged and serviced only by infrequent and slow-moving bus service. Because of outdated zoning regulations, the only development that can occur is located low-density retail and commercial businesses immediately adjacent to the road. High-capacity highways like the Beltway, I-66, I-95, and the Dulles Toll Road also create barriers to dense development.

Redevelopment needs to occur while being sensitive to the concerns of residents in nearby residential neighborhoods, or it won’t happen. The Ballston corridor is an example of high-density development existing near low-density residential development. Fortunately, there are considerable transit connections to these neighborhoods.

But there are no easy solutions to reorganizing inner-ring suburbs for an expanding population. Changing a culture and landscape dependant on cars for mobility is a tremendous challenge. There is also a risk of creating islands of mixed-use communities in a sea of sprawl, which can only be accessed by wide, dangerous roads.

Eight examples of suburban redevelopment are documented in the ULI report, including White Flint/Rockville Pike in Montgomery County. Here are some takeaways from reading about it and other case studies:

  • There is a significant last mile problem in trying to connect low-density suburban sprawl with mixed-use development centers. Unless walkable and bikeable transit-oriented suburban developments are connected to surrounding low-density areas by transit and safe, convenient, non-motor options, people will continue to drive for most local trips.
  • The importance of bicycling as a way to overcome the last mile problem is not discussed in the report. Bicycles can be a viable solution for accessing new developments from areas within 2-3 miles. ULI’s report treats cycling as an afterthought, such as when it describes a development as bike-friendly there are 35 bike racks. In sum, bicycling is briefly mentioned as a way to connect to transit but not as a viable mode in and of itself.
  • One advantage to wide, suburban arterials is that there is room to add options other than moving cars, like dedicated bus and bike lanes, physically separated cycletracks, bus rapid transit lanes, and streetcars.

Fairfax has focused new development around Metrorail stations, which have become active nodes. The massive redevelopment of Tysons along the new Silver Line is unprecedented, and the long-term vision for Tysons includes changes that will make walking, biking, and transit much more attractive options for itsmany future residents.

Reading ULI’s case studies is encouraging—and depressing. Islands of smart growth are almost always surrounded by vast areas of suburban sprawl and bordered by wide multi-lane roads, forcing most people to drive for most trips. Even when transit (mostly bus) is available, it can be slow and infrequent, and there is a stigma amongst many suburbanites against using it; transit is for those who can’t afford a car.

One of the biggest challenges to suburban transformation is opposition from existing residents who fear or otherwise resist change. Residents may want to be able to walk or bike to nearby destinations, but oppose nearby mixed use developments, fearing more car traffic. But our population is and will continue to grow regardless of how we feel. We need to figure out smart ways to accommodate more people, even in established, low-density suburban areas and especially in established, low-density suburban areas near transit. Bicycling can be a crucial way for people to get around these retrofitted suburbs.

The first-ring suburbs in Fairfax present a great opportunity. In the D.C. area, such suburbs are largely located inside the Beltway. Their population density is higher the outer suburbs’, and there are more transit options available. There is also often an existing grid of streets that fosters biking and walking. Aging developments can be replaced with more compact, mixed-use projects. Examples in Fairfax include Seven Corners, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Annandale.

With a growing population and limited resources, we need to find smarter ways to grow in the future. Dense, transit-oriented development that provides places to live, work, and play are one solution, and it requires us to transform our existing, mostly residential suburban areas into more livable, walkable, and bikeable places. This transformation won’t be easy, but it has already begun—and bicycling should play a key role in it.

Bruce Wright is chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling and a WABA board member. This post will be cross-posted on the FABB blog.

Photo by Flicker user Payton Chung

FABB’s Reston Bike/Car/Bus Challenge

–This entry cross-posted with the FABB Blog at fabb-bikes.blogspot.com–

Most of us who travel by bike know that for short trips riding a bike is often faster than driving, especially when you consider the time it takes to park and walk to your destination. We also know that our travel time is fairly consistent. Motorists usually have to allow extra time to account for possible congestion, wrecks, parking problems, etc.

To prove that bicycling is a good option for short trips we’ve challenged some local officials to compare travel time for bike/car/bus for a 3 mile trip to the Reston Town Center. Starting near South Lakes HS I will be bicycling on roads and trails. Delegate Ken Plum will drive his hybrid car, and Kathleen Driscoll McKee will take the bus. We’ll compare travel times and we’ll compare the cost of the trips, including the direct cost of the trip (breakfast for me, gas for Del. Plum, and bus fare for Ms. McKee), the cost of annual maintenance (bike/car), and other indirect costs such as “free” parking and air pollution. See our news release, below, for more info:

Bike/Car/Bus Challenge to be held on Monday, May 2, 2011

Reston, VA, April 26, 2011 – Bike to Work Day is Friday, May 20 at the Reston Town Center Pavilion. To promote traveling by bicycle, on Monday, May 2, several residents of Reston are holding a bike/car/bus commute challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to compare the cost and travel time of the three modes during a typical short commute within Reston. For short trips, bicycle travel time compares favorably to car and bus travel times, and the cost of the trip is much less. National surveys indicate that nearly 50 percent of all trips are 3 miles or less.

The event will begin at 8:15 a.m. on May 2 and will last approximately an hour. The participants will leave from Cobblestone Lane in south Reston and travel to the Reston Town Center Pavilion, slightly more than 3 miles away. Each participant will be timed. The motorist must park in long term parking, as if he is going to be working at the Town Center for the day, and walk to the Pavilion. The bicyclist must also park and lock his bike and walk to the Pavilion. The bus rider’s time includes walking to and from the bus stop. People can choose their own route and must obey traffic rules.

Bruce Wright, Chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, will ride his bicycle, Del. Ken Plum will drive his hybrid car, and Reston Association President Kathleen Driscoll McKee will ride the bus. “I’m confident I can get to the Town Center before Ken and Kathleen. On a bicycle I’m not affected as much by congestion on the road,” said Bruce. “Plus, I’ll have fun, save money, and get a workout at the same time.” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins has been invited to meet everyone at the Town Center.

The cost of maintaining a bike is around $200/year. By comparison AAA estimates that the cost of maintaining a car is about $8,000/year, more than most people spend on clothing, health care and entertainment combined. Driving also has many indirect costs as well. Nationwide, motorist user fees pay for about half the cost of building and maintaining roads. All of us pay for the rest of the cost. Most of us also pay for “free” parking by paying higher prices for goods and services. The cost of one structured car parking space is around $15,000. The cost of a bicycle rack is approximately $300 installed. Transit costs are more difficult to quantify, varying by type and usage.

Bruce Wright is a member of the WABA Board of Directors and Chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB), a sponsored project of WABA advocating for improved cycling in Fairfax County, VA.

FABB Publishes Bicycle Advocacy Guide

Andy Clarke, Executive Director of League of American Bicyclist

Today FABB celebrated the publication of the Guide for Reviewing Public Road Design and Bicycling Accommodations for Virginia Bicycling Advocates. The guide was published earlier this year and this was an opportunity to thank many of the people who helped FABB produce it.

The Alliance for Biking & Walking provided the funds for the guide and Carolyn Szczepanski of the Alliance was there to say a few words about the Advocacy Advance Grants and the work of the Alliance. Other speakers included Andy Clarke of the League of American Bicyclists , Shane Farthing of WABA, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Doug Miller of VDOT. VDOT staff provided invaluable help to FABB during production of the guide by describing in detail how VDOT projects are planned and constructed. Several staff attended the launch. Others present included Mark Blacknell of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, Angela Koch, Events and Advocacy Coordinator at Revolution Cycles, Zack Fields of Congressman Connolly’s office, Edythe Frankel,  Vienna Town Council, Susan Stillman of the Vienna Bicycle Advisory Committee, and several FABB members.

Shane Farthing, Executive Director of WABA

Linda Rapp designed the guide layout and color scheme, making an attractive and more easily understood publication. Kerie Hitt did a great job of editing. Fionnuala Quinn had the initial idea for the guide, initiated the grant application, and was the primary author. Bruce Wright, co-author, noted that Fairfax County has begun the bicycle master planning process that will provide a blueprint for future bicycle facilities in the county.

Good things are happening in Fairfax and the Guide should help area cyclists get involved in the process of transforming Fairfax into a more bike-friendly place.

Ironically, some of us had to drive to the event. It’s a sobering experience for those of us who usually get around by bike to experience a rainy rush hour. It took longer to get there by car (in some cases much longer) than by bike. Traffic on Maple Ave was backed for miles as were  many of the feeder streets. According to one of the VDOT folks present, maybe we’re on to something.

Doug Miller, VDOT

Cross posted on the FABB Blog