Town Square

What America's Most Walkable Suburb Can Teach Towns Everywhere

Walking tour

Walking tours offer residents and visitors the opportunity to explore the city at a slower pace, and lively walkable suburbs are beneficial for communities' continuing prosperity.

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, just like the stereotype of suburbs as places where everyone’s white, married with children and plays golf at the country club. 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 Potomac 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.

A Day in the Life of America’s Most Walkable Suburb

In Arlington’s Courthouse/Clarendon district, even on an unseasonably frigid Friday evening, you’ll find folks walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, toting home groceries, out strolling or heading to health clubs, shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

The next morning is windy with snow flurries, but the wide sidewalks of Arlington’s Virginia Square/Ballston district hums with people running errands at the bank, the cleaners, the mall, the tailors, the print shop, the pharmacy, the hair salon and the phone store. A lot of shoppers popped over from nearby apartment buildings and townhomes that have grown up recently what once was a struggling commercial strip, while others strolled from nearby single family homes.

Clarendon/Courthouse and Ballston/Virginia Square are both served by a regional train system, a boost for walkable communities that most American suburbs won’t have access to anytime soon. But pedestrians flourish in Arlington neighborhoods distant from train lines too.

The Westover neighborhood sports a typically Mid-Century design with parking lots in front of many businesses but still offers friendly streetlife. A trio of middle schoolers walk home from the grocery with lunch fixings, while neighbors stop for a chat on their way to the hardware store, library, pharmacy, barbershop, bus stop, the Lost Dog Café or the Stray Cat café.

Meanwhile the brand new Shirlington community, rising out of the ashes of a failed shopping center, feels like a suburban village. A Main Street built in what was a parking lot invites you to take an afternoon stroll browsing a wide selection of shops, ethnic restaurants, a library, a full-service grocery and Bus Boys & Poets, a popular bookstore. A few steps away are movie theaters, service businesses like hair salons and yoga studios, office buildings, townhomes, apartments, a bus station and parking garages.

These neighborhoods stretch over six miles in the heart of Arlington (which is both a city and a county at the same time), but you can reach them all on foot via pedestrian-friendly city streets or Arlington’s 50-mile trail network.

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 for16.6 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.”

Walking As a Way of Life

Peter Owen, a lawyer who grew up in nearby McLean, Virginia, chose to live in Arlington after studying at University of Virginia, William & Mary and Harvard because he wanted to be close to his family but still enjoy opportunities to walk.

Still old habits die hard, he admits. “It took me about four months of living here to stop driving in my car to the grocery store, even though I lived just a few blocks away.” Owen still owns a car, but says it stays in the garage most of the time.

When asked why walking is so important to him, Owen has plenty to say: “I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place. You notice lots more things, like kids playing, when you’re living at five miles per hour.”

“It’s dramatically different walking here than in the 1990s,” says Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Director of Transportation, who lived here for years before joining the county staff. “You see all these people in places that used to be nowhere. It shows that if you do the infrastructure and land use right, you can provide people more viable transportation options and good places to walk, which has benefits for social equity, health and a sense of community.”

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 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.”

10 More Suburbs Making Great Strides in Walking

Walking is gaining ground in many post-World War II suburban communities, including:

Edina, Minnesota — In 1956 this town just outside Minneapolis inaugurated the modern suburban era by opening the first enclosed shopping mall surrounded by vast acres of parking. Now Edina is working hard to evolve into a 21st century suburb, where there’s a place for walking and biking too. 

Lakewood, Colorado This Denver suburb traded a failed shopping mall for a built-from-scratch downtown offering shops, homes, offices, restaurants, Whole Foods, Target, a town common, a bowling alley and an Irish pub, all within close and pleasurable walking distance.

Bethesda, Silver Spring & White Flint, Maryland — Real estate developer and business professor Christopher Leinberger calls the DC region the most walkable metropolitan area in the US, edging out New York City on the strength of its suburban areas. Indeed, Silver Spring, White Flint and Bethesda may someday challenge Arlington for the title of America’s most walkable suburb.

Kirkland, University Place, Smamamish, Redmond & Bellevue Washington — Seattle is neck-and-neck with DC for pioneering walkable suburbs. Dan Burden, one of America’s leading experts on pedestrian friendly communities who works with Blue Zones, lists these five towns as taking big steps: Kirkland, Bellevue, University Place, Redmond and Sammamish.

And it’s worth keeping an eye on Tigard, Oregon, a Portland suburb, whose city council passed a resolution last November to make the community “the most walkable city in the Pacific Northwest.”

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: JayWalljasper.

Photo courtesy Graham Coreil-Allen, licensed under Creative Commons.

Solutions for a More Walkable America

Walking Movement

Research shows that exercising outdoors, especially in nature, can improve our health and concentration and might expedite our natural healing processes.

A diverse coalition that links fields as varied as business, education, health care, transportation, recreation, social justice, community revitalization and grassroots organizing, the walking movement is advancing on many fronts to encourage Americans to walk more and remove the barriers that keep us off our feet. “Every profession is now starting to see the importance of walkability in our communities — real estate, health care, traffic engineering, economic development, urban planning, sustainability,” reports Dan Burden, Walkability Expert for the Blue Zones project who has traveled to more 3,500 communities over the past four decades to promote walking.

A lot of energy is being generated by organizations involved with the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks, but the loosely organized movement includes other players too, some of whom have been working on these issues for years and others who were fired up recently about the potential of walking to strengthen our health, our lives, our communities, our economy, our nation and the world.

Here are some of the promising developments, strategies, messages and tools that are now emerging to promote walking:

Vision Zero for Safe Streets: 4,500 Americans are killed crossing the street every year — a tragedy that very few people acknowledge. But there’s hope that will change now that New York City, San Francisco, Oregon and other places are implementing Vision Zero campaigns to reduce traffic deaths through street improvements, law enforcement and public education. Similar policies in Sweden cut pedestrian deaths in half over the past five years — and reduced overall traffic fatalities at the same rate. “Vision Zero is the next big thinking for walking,” says Alliance for Biking & Walking President Jeff Miller.

Federal Action Plan on Pedestrian Safety: New US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently announced an all-out effort to apply the department’s resources to boost bike and pedestrian safety the same as they do auto and airline safety. Secretary Foxx — former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina — notes that pedestrian deaths rose 6 percent since 2009. One thrust of his Action Plan on Bike and Pedestrian Safety will be design changes to streets that discourage speeding and other dangerous driving. “For years the message that bicyclists and pedestrians have been given is: You are responsible for your own safety. Walk at your own risk. Bike at your risk,” Foxx told a cheering crowd at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference. But it’s a new era now, he promised. “Bicycling and walking is as important as any other form of transportation.”

Safe Routes to Schools: Half of kids under 14 walked or biked to school in 1969. Now it’s less than 15 percent. Safe Routes to School campaigns work with families, schools and community officials to identify and eliminate barriers that block kids from getting to school under their own power. “We’re finding that the best interventions include both infrastructure improvements and programming. You put the sidewalks in but also get parents involved,” explains Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership. A five-year study of 800 schools in Texas, Florida, Oregon and DC found a 43 percent rise in walking and biking by using this strategy.

Walking as a Basic Human Right: Walking has been shown to optimize our health and strengthen our communities, which means everyone should have equal opportunity to do it. But low-income people often find it difficult or dangerous to take a walk in their neighborhoods, which often lack sidewalks and other basic infrastructure. Studies show that pedestrians in poor neighborhoods are up to four times more likely to be injured in traffic accidents. Fear of crime is another factor that keeps people from walking. “Is everybody welcome to walk?” is a question we need to ask, said the NAACP’s Director of Health Programs Shavon Arline-Bradley at the Walking Summit last year.

Communities for People of All Ages: The mark of a great community is whether you’d feel calm about letting your 80-year-old grandmother or 8-year-old son walk to a nearby park or business district, says Gil Penalosa, former park director of Bogota, explaining why he founded 8-80 Cities. Too many young and old people today live under virtual house arrest, unable to get anywhere on their own because driving is the only way to go. This is a major theme for AARP too, which partnered with Walkable and Livable Communities Institute (WALC) to create a series of 11 Livability Fact Sheets showing how to make your community safer and more comfortable for people of all ages. “Most of us are going to outlive our ability to drive by 10-12 years,” notes Kelly Morphy, executive director of WALC.

Walk Audits: A deceptively simple idea, walk audits bring citizens and public officials together to assess the safety and convenience of walking in a particular locale. “They can really change how people look at a place,” says Dan Burden of Blue Zones who hit upon the idea in 1984 when a group of traffic engineers in Florida laughed at his question about how it would feel to cross the street at a harrowing intersection. “We’d never walk here,” they replied. But when they did, Burden remembers, “the street was immediately torn up and they started over.” This is a key tool to create what Burden calls community-driven planning, where the people living in a neighborhood have a big say in what happens there.

Complete Streets: The simple idea that all streets should offer safe, convenient and comfortable travel for everyone — those on foot, on bike, on transit, in wheelchairs, young, old or disabled. Twenty seven states and 625 local communities across the US have adopted Complete Streets policies in some form. There is no one uniform design. Bike lanes, sidewalks, traffic calming, special bus lanes, median islands, enhanced crosswalks, improved crossing signals, curb extensions, more narrow auto lanes, roundabouts and road diets are among the innovations that have been adopted many places. The goals of Complete Streets are to provide protection for people on foot and bike, to make other modes of travel more visible to motorists, to encourage shared use of the road and to reduce motor vehicle speeds.

Health Impact Assessments: Evidence is piling up that walking improves our health and saves big money in health care costs, but how do we make sure this is factored into public decision making about new projects? The World Health Organization has developed a tool for that, says public health and transportation consultant Mark Fenton. The Health Economic Analysis Tool allows planners and engineers to gauge how an increase in walking or bicycling trips will extend people’s lives, and then places a dollar value on that outcome similar to those used to decide whether other transportation safety measures are worth the extra expense.

The Healing Properties of Nature and the Outdoors: Not all exercise offers the same health benefits, according to a growing body of research showing that outdoor physical activity, especially in nature, boosts our health, improves our concentration and may speed up our natural healing process. A walk in the park is not only more interesting than a work-out at the gym, it may be more healthy too. The Wingspread Declaration — recently signed by 30 of America’s leading health officials, researchers and non-profit leaders — calls for business, government and the health care sector to step up efforts to reconnect people with nature.

Walking as a Medical Vital Sign: There’s an initiative afoot to encourage health care professionals to chart patients’ physical activity the same as they do weight, blood pressure, smoking and family health. Ascension Health (with 1,900 facilities in 23 states) Kaiser Permanente (648 facilities in 9 states), Group Health (25 clinics in Washington state), Greenville Health System (7 facilities in South Carolina) are among the health providers already doing it.

Walk With a Doc: Walking has the lowest drop-out rate of any physical activity, which is why Ohio cardiologist David Sabgir started Walk With a Doc: to sponsor events where people can talk to health care professional while outwalking. Walk With a Doc now operates in 38 states.

Signs of the Times: Many people are so out of practice on walking, they don’t realize how convenient it is.  That’s why architecture student Matt Tamasulo posted signs in Raleigh, North Carolina explaining that key destinations were only a few minutes away by foot. The city soon embraced his guerrilla campaign, and official walk wayfinding signs are found around town. Tamasulo has launched Walk [Your City] to help other communities show how easy it is to get around on your own power.

Walking Marathons and Half-Marathons: By nature, Americans are full of aspirations, always pushing themselves to do bigger things. So walking, for all its social and health benefits, can seem pedestrian to some people. That’s why certified fitness and walking coach Michele Stanten promotes the idea of walking marathons: to give walkers something big to aim and train for. Right now there are only a handful of walking marathons, and walkers are often tolerated more than welcomed at running marathons. But as America’s population ages and more folks discover the pleasures of walking, this is an idea whose time is coming.

Walking is Fun: “Walking is still not seen to be as sexy as biking,” says Robert Ping, Program Manager for Walking and Livable Communities Institute. “We could focus more on walking as recreation — the stroll through the neighborhood after dinner, going around the block, walking down to the park, meeting your neighbors. Something that’s not only utilitarian and good for the environment, but that’s fun!”

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Visit his website.

Photo by Fotolia/Jacek Chabraszewski