Virginia’s Lee Highway Alliance experiments with State of Place’s walkability analysis tool

Today is the National Day on Writing, which asks people to share why they write using #WhyIWrite. I started this blog in 2014 and wrote the following post because I’m passionate about opening people’s eyes to transportation issues that I also used to be blind to. Since Greater Greater Washington‘s staff helped me write this post so it could be posted on their blog, the structure is different from what I usually write on my blog.

The Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in Arlington, Virginia is working to make the Lee Highway corridor more economically vibrant, walkable, and attractive. State of Place is helping them achieve their walkability goals. Walkability is simply a measure of how friendly a given place is to walking. People who live in highly walkable places see a slew of health, environmental, and financial benefits.

The Lee Highway corridor is located in north Arlington just north of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Unlike the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which helped Arlington win the Gold 2017 National Planning Achievement Award for Implementation, the Lee Highway corridor remains a primarily automobile-dependent, suburban-style place.

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor Past-Present

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, past and present. Images by Arlington.

As is typical of most of the commercial corridors built throughout the country during the mid-to-late 20th century, the general development pattern of the Lee Highway corridor is low-rise commercial development with prominent surface parking lots and limited pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure.

It is a major automobile commuter corridor. In order to create the place that the LHA envisions, the Lee Highway corridor needs to become a place that prioritizes people and community over automobiles.

Since the LHA wants to provide people with healthy transportation choices and attract vibrant economic development, it hopes to improve the Lee Highway corridor through a new vision that includes distinct, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood centers.

Lee Highway Corridor Future Intensity

Proposed neighborhood centers showing a spectrum of density. Image by Arlington.

One of the proposed neighborhood centers, Lee Heights shopping center, is shown below:

Lee Heights Shopping Center Illustration

Illustrative concept for Lee Heights shopping center, existing and proposed. Image by Arlington.

There are many tools that cities or other planners use to determine how pedestrian-friendly an area is and how they can improve “walkability.”

So how do planners determine how walkable an area is?

You can see a walkability analysis in action in Virginia

Recently, LHA was one of six organizations across the US to win a five-block walkability analysis from State of Place, a software company that uses predictive analytics to quantify what people love about a given place.

State of Place uses ten urban design categories, such as density, connectivity, and traffic safety, to assess how walkable a block, a group of blocks, or an entire neighborhood is. During the past several months, they assessed the walkability of Lee Highway. Results will be presented to the public on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208.

There are pros and cons to all walkability assessment tools

State of Place’s approach isn’t the only walkability assessment tool available. Another tool is called Walk Score, which provides a number on the 100-point scale that measures the walkability of any address.

Most cities use Walk Score, but State of Place walkability researcher Dr. Mariela Alfonzo says this tool tends to overestimate the walkability of high-access, low-income communities, among other problems.

Joe Cortright at City Observatory rebuked Alfonzo’s criticisms, saying State of Place’s metrics are highly complex, extremely labor intensive to gather, and consequently very expensive. Plus, they have not been implemented enough to let an objective third party assess their accuracy and utility.

While there is no perfect way to assess how walkable an area or city is, both tools are a great start to understanding how to improve the accessibility and livability of a given area.

Here’s how walkability scores are created

I’ve had the opportunity to personally use the State of Place tool to conduct a similar analysis in Tigard, Oregon last year. With help from three of my Master of Urban and Regional Planning classmates from Portland State University, we created neighborhood walkability assessments for the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard.

Delta Planning Team with Client 2-10-16

Team of Master of Urban and Regional Planning students from Portland State University with client, Lloyd Purdy of Tigard, OR (left to right: Ray Atkinson, Curtis Fisher, Lloyd Purdy, Linn Davis, Wala Abuhejleh)

My team used the inventory tool to capture data on more than 280 built environment features, in ten urban design categories, that contribute to the walkability on every street segment in this area.

We underwent a rigorous training process where we practiced using the inventory tool in four different sample settings. Individual results from the four sample settings weren’t exact matches, so we understand our data collection in the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Triangle isn’t completely accurate. For example, one person could have felt safe walking on a street segment while another person didn’t feel safe walking on the same street segment.

We walked 74 street segments in the Tigard Triangle and 15 street segments in Downtown Tigard. The data was submitted to State of Place, who used their proprietary algorithm to generate an Index score for each segment on a 100-point scale. The results are shown below:

Downtown & Triangle SoP Index

State of Place Index for Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard

The index for the Tigard Triangle is 33 out of 100, a low walkability score meaning most trips require an automobile. For comparison, Downtown Tigard scored 66.

The profile breaks the index down into ten urban design categories that contribute to the walkability of the place, so cities can know where to prioritize walkability improvements. As the profile shows, the weakest category for the Tigard Triangle is lack of parks and public spaces.

State of Place Index & Profile Tigard Triangle

State of Place Index and Profile for Tigard Triangle

However, increasing parks and public spaces don’t do as much for walkability as adding density, pedestrian amenities, and traffic safety.

Since most cities have scarce resources, State of Place also provided the “Weighted by Impact and Feasibility (Walkability)” chart, shown below. Constructing a building is expensive and often depends on the private sector, so density isn’t the most feasible way to improve walkability.

Since the public sector has more control over adding pedestrian amenities and improving traffic safety, and the non-weighted profile shows these are weak in the Tigard Triangle, they are the most feasible ways to improve walkability in this place.

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle2

State of Place charts for Tigard Triangle

The city used this data and my team’s recommendations to help create the Tigard Triangle Lean Code, which was adopted in August 2017. The lean code promotes building and site designs that improve walkability.

Tigard Triangle Lean Code

Tigard Triangle Lean Code. Image by Tigard.

If this analysis interests you, results from the Arlington walkability analysis will be presented to the public by State of Place on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208. I plan to write a post with public reaction to the results.

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