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Are the Washington suburbs really that walkable?

The Vienna, VA shopping area. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Good news for the Washington area: according to a new report, the region is more walkable than Boston, San Francisco and even New York City.  

The researchers, from George Washington University and the advocacy group Smart Growth America, ranked the regions according to how many walkable urban places (or “WalkUps”) are located in each region and how much of the regions’ office space and retail is located within those places.

Washington was ranked best out of 30 major urban areas. Orlando was last:

Courtesy GWU/Smart Growth America

The ranking comes with a caveat, in that Washington’s ranking is boosted in part because some of its suburban neighborhoods are given credit for walkability, even if hardly anyone walks in those places.

Researchers wrote that the Washington area “not only has the most office and retail in WalkUPs, but also has the most balanced distribution of walkable urban space between the central city (51 percent) and suburbs (49 percent).”

Other areas, like New York and Chicago, have more walkable downtowns but less walkable suburbs. Boston has Cambridge, but struggles beyond that.

Are the Washington suburbs as walkable as the researchers report?

It’s true that there are some extremely walkable local neighborhoods, including Clarendon, Silver Spring, Old Town Alexandria, Reston Town Center and others. Many of them have the density, sidewalks and coordinated planning that is the envy of parts of D.C. 

But the report also gives places like Tysons Corner, White Flint and New Carrollton credit for being walkable, based in part on the groups’ previous research specifically on local growth. Here’s a map of the 43 areas it gave Washington credit for in 2012. 

Courtesy GWU/Smart Growth America

Developers in Tysons, White Flint and even New Carrollton area — often using updated zoning rules — are aggressively turning their strip center and office park properties into more walkable, urban nodes. Tysons is adding the Silver Line, White Flint may get bus rapid transit and New Carrollton already has Metro, Amtrak and MARC trains and will be home to a major mixed-use development anchored by the state housing department offices. 

All of this is likely to increase foot traffic. But anyone who has been to these places recently probably wasn’t walking.

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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Jonathan O'Connell · June 17, 2014

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