Arlington shapes residents’ travel habits

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 12, 2011

A few years ago, as planners and community leaders puzzled out ways to convert Tysons Corner from a giant garage into a livable community, they invited Robert Cervero, a well-known expert on transit-oriented development from the University of California, to show them how such transitions have worked.

Speaking in Tysons, near the site of a future Metrorail station, Cervero talked about combining physical elements like transit and land use policies that concentrate growth. He showed illustrations of transit-oriented development in Pleasant Hill, Calif., and Sao Paolo, Brazil. But, he said, the group didn’t really need to look around the world to find a model. There was one a few miles away in Arlington County.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

The Arlington way

The Arlington planners of today are building — literally, in some cases — on the choices made by a previous generation that placed Metro stations like “a string of pearls,” to use Cervero’s phrase.

But how do you create an appropriate ensemble around the jewelry? Over the years, Arlington coordinated the physical element, its transit, with policies that concentrated development at transit stations to create a variety of residential, office and entertainment attractions.


More residents walk and use mass transit in the Ballston area of Arlington than any other part of the region. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Did that come off as the planners intended, and if so, can it be duplicated wherever people want a similar environment? Within Arlington’s boundaries, can the county government and community leaders preserve their successes and take them to another level?

They look to one new planning tool to provide some guidance. It’s a survey of the D.C. region’s households and their travel habits developed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and enhanced with further research to deepen the findings within Arlington.

Lori Diggins, an independent consultant whose firm, LDA Consulting, analyzed the data for Arlington, said the survey is an unusually deep look at one jurisdiction. It looks at travel patterns in ways that get beyond the basics of the commute by examining how people get from one place to another throughout the day, and why they’re moving around.

“We need to care about all those other trips,” said Dennis Leach, the county’s transportation director. “We need to capture everything.”

Leach, who’s been in that job for seven years, thinks the county has used the transit and land use strategy developed decades ago to create communities that work pretty well, but “we’re never done.” He foresees at least four decades of retrofitting and refining.

This view treats the Orange Line and the Blue Line as a great start, then adds sidewalks, bus hubs, bike routes and enhanced travel information to the getting-around strategy. It looks at how people move, not just vehicles.

Leach also knows that the county government needs to have the data when its own communities look over new development and transportation plans: “We need to be able to tell the story of how these neighborhoods perform, how do people travel, in addressing people’s concerns about change.”

Often, the transportation and land use plans increase density. Is that going to create a better place, or just add traffic?

The Arlington County Household Survey is the story so far. Here are some of its findings.

Today’s Arlingtonians

The county shaped by the transportation and land use plans has more single-person households than the region at large and a smaller household size.

Age: A quarter of county residents are 19 to 34, versus 16 percent for the region.

Housing: 51 percent of Arlington residents live in multi-family housing, more than double the regional rate, and slightly lower than the District and Alexandria.

Income: 47 percent have annual household incomes of $100,000 or more, making Arlington more affluent than other parts of the urban core.

Vehicles: 92 percent of households own vehicles, a rate similar to the region’s. But Arlington is — as the county government likes to say — “car lite”: Only 78 percent of households have one or more vehicles per driver, versus 84 percent for the region.

Bikes: 50 percent of households own one or more, a rate slightly lower than the region’s but higher than that for the District or Alexandria.

How they travel

The county’s physical environment and its transportation policies encourage residents to leave their cars at home.

Driving: Arlington residents make 40 percent of daily trips by driving solo, a rate lower than that for any part of the region except the District. When they drive alone, it’s most often for work, commuting or shopping. They drive alone for 33 percent of trips made within the county.

Alternatives: They make a larger share of daily trips by transit and walking than do residents in any part of the region other than the District: 16 percent of trips are on foot, 11 percent are by train or bus, about three in 10 trips are by driving or riding with others.

They use transit primarily for commuting, work-related travel and socializing. They use transit for few shopping trips, probably because of the packages.

Walking: They walk 23 percent of trips made within the county. The do it for all purposes, but most often for recreation, meals, socializing and entertainment. They walk for 17 percent of work trips and an equal share of school trips. They are more likely to walk to transit than residents regionwide.

Transit corridors: Residents of the Rosslyn-Ballston (Orange Line) and Jefferson Davis Highway (Blue Line) corridors drive alone less and walk or use transit more than than other county residents. Just over a third of trips to those two corridors are made by solo drivers.

Active travelers: Arlington residents make more total trips per day than the regional average – 3.9 versus 3.5 — but they travel fewer miles per day than the regional average, because their trips are shorter: 15.8 miles versus 25.6 miles. They also travel fewer miles in vehicles than the regional average, because they are more likely to use transit or walk.

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