The overall finding: Residents in densely developed communities with homes above or near stores, restaurants and offices are more likely to forgo driving to walk, ride a bike or take public transit.
Area developers and community planners have seen signs of such a trend for years, particularly among young adults and empty nesters who are moving to such places as Tysons Corner and the White Flint area of North Bethesda, which are morphing from sprawling suburbs into high-rise mini-cities focused around Metrorail stations.
But planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments say their recent household survey in 10 communities provides the first real-world, neighborhood-level data that show how people travel in different kinds of communities: sprawling vs. dense, urban vs. suburban, near mass transit vs. far from bus and rail. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t gather that data at such a detailed neighborhood level, planners said.
“It’s a real window into these communities,” said Ronald Kirby, COG’s transportation planning director. “We’ve never had this information before.”
The communities surveyed this fall were Logan Circle, White Flint, Largo, the city of Frederick, Reston, Woodbridge, and parts of Takoma Park and Langley Park. The report also includes data that Arlington County planners collected in 2010 for Shirlington, the Columbia Pike corridor and Pentagon City/Crystal City.
In Logan Circle, where 85 percent of people live in an apartment or condominium, residents on average walked 56 percent of the time, rode bikes for 7 percent of their trips and took public transit for 15 percent. Just 13 percent of trips were taken alone in cars. About four in 10 residents said they didn’t own a vehicle. Car-sharing programs such as Zipcar have been popular among residents of Logan Circle and similar neighborhoods.
In the suburbs, residents in the Langley Park area along the proposed Purple Line light-rail route walked for 23 percent of all trips and rode bikes for more than 2 percent. Planners say driving is not an option for many residents in lower-income areas, such as Langley Park.
Farther out, more sprawling suburbs such as Woodbridge and Frederick had about 10 percent of trips taken by foot, with about four out of 10 made alone by car.
Robert Griffiths, who directed the survey of 2,200 households, said the findings support the theory that densely developed communities can accommodate growing populations without severely worsening traffic congestion.
“It confirmed what many [local planners] thought was true but didn’t know for sure,” Griffiths said.
COG plans to collect the data every three years, he said, to measure the pace at which redevelopment changes travel behavior, particularly after major rezoning decisions take effect or transit expands. For example, he said, the survey will reexamine how residents in parts of Falls Church travel after stations open along the Silver Line Metrorail extension.
Planners say they’ve seen a strong market for transit-based communities from young adults and empty nesters looking to downsize. But the longer-term COG surveys will examine whether people remain in densely developed areas once they start families and particularly once their children reach school age.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, called the detailed information powerful.
“It shows the investment in high-quality transit and creative mixed uses in walkable communities — both in urban and suburban areas — is a critical regional traffic solution,” Schwartz said.
The findings for White Flint, where one in five residents reported commuting by public transit and 6 percent said they walked to work, resonated with Shamica Walker, 35. Walker said she and her husband, Jacqwan, moved to a White Flint condominium from Gaithersburg about six years ago so they could walk to work at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Shamica Walker, who is now home with their 13-month-old daughter, said her husband commutes five minutes on foot.
They share one car, and Shamica Walker said she walks at least half the time — to Harris Teeter for groceries, to White Flint Mall, even to the pediatrician.
“Accessibility was the key thing,” she said as she pushed a stroller home from the grocery store Tuesday. “I wanted convenience. After the fact, I realized exercise was an added benefit.”
Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance questioned how much appetite there is for dense, transit-oriented living when many people prefer a house with a yard or find that driving is faster or more convenient than transit.
“You can’t replicate [Logan Circle] all over the region,” Chase said. “It’s not the real world. You’re not going to get everyone to leave their homes and yards and all move into apartments and condos. We have a diverse region, and we need a diverse transportation system.”