Is Arlington ‘the suburb of the future?’


View of Rosslyn from Georgetown University. (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan)

Innumerable disagreements over real estate developments center around the concern that when new buildings are constructed and new residents and workers arrive to fill them, traffic will worsen.

Which is usually the case. But not in Arlington.

Arlington has become something of a poster child for the “smart growth” movement thanks to its early efforts to promote walkable neighborhoods and take advantage of its public transit to reduce traffic congestion.

Twelve years ago, the county won a national award from the EPA for planning and policies put in place around the Metro stations from Rosslyn to Ballston.

Last year, Arlington won a national award from the American Planning Association for its Crystal City Sector Plan.

Other projects and plans in Arlington have won accolades in recent years from the National Academy of Sciences and the Urban Land Institute, among other groups.

Given that success, it should have been of little surprise when Chris Zimmerman, 17-year veteran of the Arlington County Board, left to become a vice president of the national advocacy group Smart Growth America last year.

In a post over the weekend, Salon.com says that with Arlington, “The suburb of the future is here.” Author Henry Grabar points out some of the traffic reductions Arlington has achieved even as its population grew from 153,000 in 1980 to 227,000 today. An excerpt:

Despite the influx of tens of thousands of workers and residents, despite the transformation of this sleepy suburb into a mid-size city, traffic has thinned. Nearly 20,000 cars traveled along Wilson Boulevard, a major east-west route here, each day in 1980. Today, that number is down to 13,000. Other arterials have shown similar declines: On the six-lane Jefferson Davis Highway (yes, Virginia has one of those), traffic dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2011/12. During that same period, the Lee Highway and Washington Boulevard also recorded 15 percent reductions in traffic.

As research from Smart Growth America and George Washington University recently argued, the Washington area has some of the most walkable suburbs in the country.

Some local suburban neighborhoods won’t become dense, walkable places, and they need not. But for places like Tysons and White Flint, where planners and developers are trying to create urban, walkable neighborhoods out of strip malls and highways, Arlington is the model. As Grabar writes: “In essence, Arlington has shown that the mistakes of American suburban development can be corrected within a few decades.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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