Speakers’ Series Begins with Arlington and the Pike

Speakers’ Series Begins with Arlington and the Pike

The Friends of White Flint co-sponsored a presentation this morning on “New Urbanism” and “smart growth.” The speakers were Chris Zimmerman, a dynamic speaker who is on the Arlington County (Va.) Board, had been on their planning board, and is on the Metro Board (he just stepped down as Chairman of Metro), and Ian Lockwood, a principal in the walkability and transportation planning firm of Glatting-Jackson of Orlando, Florida. The auditorium at Dave & Buster’s at White Flint Mall (I didn’t even know they had an auditorium, but they do, behind the restaurant and away from the games) was pretty much full, with almost 100 attendees. The presentations will be shown on Montgomery County Cable next week. www.accessmontgomery.tv.

Don Briggs, from Federal Realty and the White Flint Partnership which sponsored the session, moderated, opening with a discussion of White Flint. Then Chris Zimmerman took the stage. He pointed out that his kids are never impressed when he goes out to speak, but that they will be when they heard he spoke at Dave & Buster’s.

Zimmerman’s presentation focussed on Arlington and its development of two Metrorail-oriented corridors and two non-Metro-connected areas. He pointed out that, as a result of its smart growth policies, Arlington has quadrupled its density but traffic congestion has decreased. Arlington has much lower car ownership and higher transit useage rates than comparable areas around Washington, D.C., even though the income levels are quite high. Arlington, he was quite proud to say, also has the lowest tax rate in the D.C. area, since the high-density areas (1/10 of the county) provide 1/2 of the county’s revenue. Outside the county limits, about 58% of Metro riders take cars to the stations, but within Arlington County 73% get to Metro on foot. Even off-peak Metro ridership is high within Arlington.

Yet despite boosting density substantially within the planned corridors, just outside the corridors, the “density is the same as 50 years ago, with single-family houses and older neighborhoods. It was the deal we made: preserve the neighborhoods a quarter-mile away from Metro.”

Zimmerman stressed three principles for smart growth:

1) The “vital 1/4 mile.” 75% of transit riders will come from that 1/4 mile. Others might say they will walk further, but the reality is that 90% comes from 1/2 mile. Going from 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile results in a much bigger area but only a few more riders. “1/4 mile is a reality. Don’t waste it.”

2) Mixed use. The neighborhoods only work if they are mixed-use, so you get an “18-hour day, which makes better use of your investment in transit.” Mixed-use involves commercial, retail, and residential in the same 1/4 mile radius.

3) Designed for pedestrians. “If it isn’t walkable, it isn’t workable.” Arlington replaced a focus on the automobile with a focus on pedestrians, and new communities bloomed.

Zimmerman closed with an answer to a question about how to pay for all these changes, by pointing out that Arlington made deals with developers: “We’re not ‘exacting’ anything. We’re making you an offer. You can take it, and end up with a beautiful place, or you can leave it, and end up with what you have now.”

Ian Lockwood then spoke, discussing the changes in transit planning over the years and how that could be translated to the White Flint area. “As traffic engineers, we’ve had to broaden our perspectives to include pedestrians, greenhouse gasses, and other things. It’s all about urban design now, not just highways.” Lockwood compared “efficient” and “inefficient” cities around the word: “Houston uses more energy and land than any other city in the history of the world.” It is the most inefficient cities which are expanding highways instead of using smart growth palnning. The efficient cities are going “multi-modal.”

The change carries over into transportation planning. “It’s the use that determines whether a street is good for a neighborhood. Even if you have only five cars on a street, you won’t let your kids play there if the cars are going 55 miles an hour.” Slow streets, where the key mode in urban design is pedestrian, is the efficient, smart growth.  Good design removes blockages to improve traffic; a robust street network is essential to moving traffic, instead of the older pattern of cul-de-sacs and single entries to major highways. You need to bring stores back to the street, instead of hiding them behind parking lots. “You get what you buy. If you’re buying mixed-use, then that’s what you’ll get.”

Barnaby Zall

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