One of the biggest differences between the city and the suburbs is sidewalks that go somewhere.
That’s not to say that most developments don’t come with sidewalks. It’s just that they tend to end just as they get to the public road, and, if you need to walk further, you are at the mercy of the car traffic whizzing past you.
Developing pedestrian-friendly communities that promote walking and biking as a substitute for driving presents formidable but surmountable challenges. That was the conclusion of a land-use forum sponsored in late April in Washington by the Urban Land Institute.
With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ULI is attempting to document and raise awareness of the value to real estate developers in creating communities that de-emphasize auto use as the primary means of transportation.
The forum aimed to clarify the specifics of pedestrian-friendly development, including “connectivity” features and appealing public spaces that encourage physical activity. The forum also explored how to build interest for such projects among the development community.
There are a growing number of communities nationwide that cluster housing, recreational amenities, shopping, and, in some cases, office space in close proximity to each other. Few of these developments are connected to other neighborhoods and do little to curb driving within the surrounding community, however.
“A big challenge for this [walkable communities] movement is figuring out how to connect with the rest of the community," said Gary Fenchuk, president of East West Partners of Virginia, Inc., in Midlothian, Va.
“What we are talking about is choice," said Nancy Graham, president of Urban Properties LLC in West Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “In so many places, there are no choices besides driving."
Although Florida contains a high number of mixed-use communities, several cities in the state have been ranked by the Surface Transportation Policy Project's "Mean Streets" study as being among the least conducive to safe walking, she said. With obesity rates reaching epidemic levels, traffic congestion paralyzing entire regions and social interaction in communities severely limited by automobile-dependent development, there is little question that more pedestrian-friendly development is needed.
However, an analysis of walkable communities should distinguish between those designed to permit walking or bicycling for just for exercise, and those that encourage "destination" walking or cycling to school, offices or shopping.
As development has become increasingly spread out, people have become accustomed to driving to complete even short-distance errands. Even in development projects with exercise trails, developers have traditionally considered trail systems solely recreational, rather than having a transportation purpose.
As a result, such trails are seldom connected to outside destinations. Moreover, while there are health benefits achieved by walking purely for exercise, a large percentage of people do not make time for regular fitness activities. More people would be apt to reap the benefits of exercise if they were provided more opportunities to integrate walking or biking into daily tasks, participants said.
The high number of individuals driving from one dispersed location to another is reflected in transportation data showing a national average of 230 million solo-driver trips daily.
By comparison, there are 98 million multiple-passenger car trips daily; 20 million trips involving walking; seven million public transit trips, and three million bicycle trips.
Walking is "the most common alternative to driving," said ULI Senior Resident Fellow Robert Dunphy, who specializes in transportation issues. "To promote walking, you need an attractive destination, attractive paths for connection, and a layout that promotes compact, multi-use development.”
Pedestrian-oriented development also can cost less to build, said Harrison Rue, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization in Charlottesville, Va.
"Walkable communities supported by efficient transportation networks are viable, sustainable, and less expensive than building freeways to accommodate dispersed growth. If all we care about is going through places, soon there will be nothing left to go to."
One of the pedestrian-oriented projects highlighted during the forum was Market Commons in the Clarendon area of Arlington County, Va.
The development, which combines residential and retail uses, is fully leased and is financially successful. It is mixed-use in nature, have wide sidewalks and narrow streets, ample landscaping, and gathering areas around plazas and fountains.
Juan Cameron, vice president of development at McCaffery Interests in Arlington, which developed Market Commons, said that more than one-third of the shoppers in the development's grocery store arrive on foot, he said.