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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Ray’s Professional Growth From 1st Full-Time, Permanent Job

As I update my resume and cover letter and prepare for job interviews, I have been reflecting on my professional growth from my 1st full-time, permanent job as the Bikeshare Planner at MetroBike, LLC. This job was an amazing experience. It helped prepare me for my next job because I now have more hands-on experience coordinating and leading office and site meetings with clients and public and private stakeholders. I was effectively able to listen to client and stakeholder concerns and find feasible ways to resolve their concerns.

I have seven years of experience learning and using ArcGIS. Since ArcGIS is expensive, I was asked to learn QGIS, which is free and open-source. I quickly self-taught QGIS and was able to provide my clients with professional maps, which they appreciated. My clients also thanked me for quickly incorporating their requested map edits. None of the maps have been publicly released yet, so I can’t share them with you.

QGIS wasn’t the only free and open-source software that I self-taught during my last job. Even though I learned Photoshop during graduate school at Portland State University, I was asked to learn Paint.NET so I could create bikeshare station footprint photos and aerials. Since I shared the below footprint photo of a planned Capital Bikeshare station at Gravelly Point to get public feedback, I can share it with you.

Gravelly Point Footprint3

Footprint photo of planned Capital Bikeshare station at Gravelly Point

Public speaking was a crucial component of my job. While I still get nervous when presenting, I was pleasantly surprised how much my public speaking skills improved during this job. I was able to remain calm and focused during presentations. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the public when presenting to civic associations in Arlington. In addition, my former boss and I presented at the 2017 North American Bikeshare Association Conference in Montreal. As the below photo shows, I also presented the Fiscal Year 2017 Capital Bikeshare update to the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee.

I could share many other ways that I experienced professional growth, but I’m trying to write more concisely. I’m excited to see what my next job is and my continued professional growth.

Montreal at Eye Level

“Montreal at Eye Level” is a reference to “The City at Eye Level”. While I don’t usually wait a few weeks to write a travel post, I’m glad I waited this time because I learned something disappointing about Montreal after I returned to the US. This disappointment totally changed my perspective on Montreal and how I was planning to write this post. I was originally planning to express my excitement for all the cool placemaking projects and car-free streets.

While the projects and car-free streets are still cool, I wish they were all permanent. Many of the innovative placemaking and car-free streets that I was excited to see in Montreal are closing for the winter. Neighborhoods will temporarily lose placemaking projects that make their neighborhood unique and automobiles will return to what I thought were permanent pedestrian malls. Yes, I realize Montreal has long and harsh winters. However, people in Montreal still go outside during the winter so why can’t the placemaking projects and car-free streets continue through the winter?

Rue Sainte-Catherine

Since Rue Sainte-Catherine is likely Montreal’s most famous pedestrian mall, I’ll start with this example. Why can’t the below street be car-free all year?

Saint-Catherine St E April 2016

April 2016

Saint-Catherine St E August 2016

August 2016

Saint-Catherine St W April 2016

April 2016

Saint-Catherine St W August 2016

August 2016

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Pedestrian Mall on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Placemaking on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Musical bikes on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Giant Chess Boards on Rue Sainte-Catherine O in Montreal

Place Shamrock

While Avenue Shamrock remains a one-lane street during the winter, all the placemaking in the below photos close during the winter. I haven’t lived in an environment where placemaking closes during the winter. What do families in Montreal do during the winter to have fun when the chess board and carousel are no longer there?

Shamrock Avenue May 2015

May 2015

Shamrock Avenue August 2016

August 2016

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Chess on Avenue Shamrock in Montreal

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Carousel with bikes at Place Shamrock

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Parklet at Place Shamrock

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Parklet at Place Shamrock

Jean-Talon Market (Marché Jean-Talon)

While Place Shamrock closes during the winter, Jean-Talon Market remains open during the winter. Jean-Talon Market is adjacent to Place Shamrock. I’m curious whether the outdoor pianos remain during the winter. I found people playing outdoor pianos throughout Montreal. I’ve never seen so many outdoor pianos anywhere!

IMG_4118

Protected Bike Lanes

While I’m disappointed by how many placemaking projects and car-free streets in Montreal are temporary, I’m confident that at least one project is permanent. Some of Montreal’s protected bike lanes are permanent because they are built using concrete barriers instead of temporary posts. Most protected bike lanes in the DC region and throughout the US are temporary because they use posts.

IMAG1340

Boulevard de Maisonneuve O and Rue University

Montreal still has protected bike lanes that were built using posts and a parking lane. Unlike many post-protected bike lanes in the US, Montreal drivers don’t appear to park in the bike lane. Surprisingly, this was accomplished with only a few posts and signs. I only see one post and no parking-related signs in the below photo. How many posts and parking-related signs would be in this photo if this bike lane was installed in the US? I realize US cities are trying to use many posts and parking signs to educate the public about where to park and protect cyclists. But how many posts and signs are really needed to accomplish these goals?

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Looking northwest on Rue Clark at Avenue Laurier O

Future Blog Post

My one year work anniversary is quickly approaching! While I interned part-time at Oregon Metro for a year during grad school, this is my first full-time work anniversary! My first day at MetroBike was October 25. I plan to reflect on my first year and what I look forward to doing in my second year. Since I can’t publicly share the exact station locations that I have been working on, I plan to share a general overview of how much fun I have had during my first year.

Transportation and Land Use in Ray’s Housing Decisions

As you may have noticed, it has been a few months since my last post. I’ve had a burning desire to write, but kept telling myself that the topics are work sensitive or too personal to share publicly. After reading this GGWash post and discovering that I haven’t written a post about my current and previous housing decisions, I finally found a topic that I feel comfortable writing about publicly. Since I have lived in Arlington for almost a year, which means my year lease ends on October 31, this is a good time for me to start reflecting on whether I want to stay put or move nearby. I enjoy my job so I plan to stay in Arlington. My year lease states that I must give my landlord 60 days notice, so I need to make a decision before the end of August.

Through this process, I keep comparing my current housing decision with my previous housing decisions in Charlotte, Silver Spring, and Portland. The below post compares and contrasts these decisions. Since I didn’t choose to live in Kannapolis, which is where my parents raised me after I was born in Charlotte, I didn’t include Kannapolis. As this post discusses, the Kannapolis home I was raised in has a Walk Score of zero!

Kannapolis Walk Score (zip code)

Arlington, VA

Even though I was rushed to find housing in a competitive market before starting my new job, I may have found the cheapest housing within a walkable distance of a light rail station, frequent service bus lines, and several regional trails. I’m paying less than $900 per month (plus $50 for water and $35 for my portion of WiFi) for a room in a 10-room house. I earn enough through my job that I could spend more on housing, but I don’t see the need to spend more when I’m already close enough to my destinations to continue living car-free. Plus, good housemates aren’t guaranteed when renting so I treasure this at my current home. I can use the savings to go on more expensive vacations and prepare for owning a condo or house.

1117 N Taylor St, Arlington, VA Walk Score

Arlington, VA Home

While many of my NC family and friends have been shocked by how much I pay for housing, I think they find it challenging to understand how much I save by living car-free. As the below table shows, which I found in this article, walkable places reduce combined housing and transportation costs. Most people don’t calculate all the costs involved with owning, maintaining, and driving an automobile. For example, I think most people don’t calculate parking costs (could be hidden if their employer takes parking out of their paycheck or doesn’t pay them more because their employer is paying for expensive parking), poor mental health from being stuck in daily traffic congestion and not spending much time with their family, poor physical health from not exercising enough and becoming obese, etc.

traditional city vs sprawling city costs

My boss covers most of my transportation costs, so I pay almost zero on transportation each month. He provides me with a free Capital Bikeshare maintenance key that I can use for all my trips, including personal trips. He also provides me with a SmarTrip card for all my work-related transit trips. The largest transportation purchase I have made so far is for this $800 bike that I mostly use for shopping and trips where Capital Bikeshare isn’t located yet.

My housing decision makes using these transportation options much easier because I can easily walk to the Ballston Metro Station to ride transit throughout the DC region and bike throughout the DC region on regional trails or low-stress neighborhood streets. While I rarely use it for personal trips, the DC region also has great carsharing and car renting options and Uber/Lyft.

Since I started this blog with the intention of following my life’s journey from living in Kannapolis to where life takes me, I want to share how my current housing decision relates to my housing decisions in Charlotte, Silver Spring, and Portland.

Charlotte, NC

My car-light lifestyle started when I moved to Charlotte in 2009 to start undergrad at UNC Charlotte. While I lived car-free when I was in Charlotte, I needed a car to go home to Kannapolis so I barely lived car-light. Even though I sometimes think about how I used to pay about $400 per month for housing in Charlotte, which is less than half of what I currently pay in Arlington, the location of my housing in Charlotte lacks the transportation access that I currently enjoy in Arlington. While I was within easy biking distance of a regional trail that started at UNC Charlotte, the trail didn’t provide me with much transportation access so it was mostly a recreational trail. In addition, I couldn’t walk to any transit stations and the local bus was unreliable. I found it faster to bike on unsafe roads throughout Charlotte than wait for transit to arrive.

The Edge Charlotte Walk Score

The Edge at UNC Charlotte

Silver Spring, MD

My fully car-free lifestyle started when I moved to Silver Spring in 2014 to become a Transportation Planning Intern at Toole Design Group. While I didn’t have many choices where to live in Silver Spring because I was seeking short-term housing for just the summer, I was lucky to have a Charlotte friend that had a connection to someone who owns a home in Silver Spring. Thankfully, the home was located in a prime location to live car-free.

I was a block from the Sligo Creek Trail, which provided some transportation access in addition to recreation usage. Since I wanted to explore the entire DC region, I enjoyed having access to the car-free (just on the weekend) Beech Drive in Rock Creek Park and Capital Crescent Trail. While the Silver Spring Metro Station was further from home than the Ballston Metro Station is to my current home, I enjoyed having better transit access than I had in Charlotte.

8410 Galveston Rd, Silver Spring, MD Walk Score

Silver Spring, MD Home

Portland, OR

The last place I lived before moving to Arlington was Portland. My apartment was next to the SE Salmon/Taylor neighborhood greenway, so I had easy access to a low-volume, low-speed walking and biking route. Sunday Parkways went along this route both years I was in Portland, so this route is prime for walking and biking. While I miss Portland’s neighborhood greenways because Arlington has nothing similar yet, I don’t miss Portland’s hills. Since I have an extreme fear of heights, I didn’t enjoy biking downhill to cross the Willamette River. Yes, Arlington also has hills but I rarely have to bike down them because I work from home and usually do field work in locations with few steep hills.

I also miss being within easy (two Portland blocks, which are 200 feet) walking distance of a grocery store in Portland. I enjoyed having the flexibility to walk to the grocery store to get one or two items instead of waiting until I’m almost out of groceries. Since the nearest grocery store to my Arlington home is .6 mile away, I wait until I need enough groceries to fill both bike panniers.

While walking and biking from my Portland home to my destinations was easy, transit wasn’t easy. The Hawthorne and Belmont buses came about every 15 minutes and most of my bike trips only took 15 minutes, so I rarely took the bus. I wasn’t near a MAX station so I couldn’t ride light rail from home.

1117 SE 27th Ave, Portland, OR Walk Score

Portland, OR Home

Future Blog Post

My boss and I were selected to present at the North American Bikeshare Association Conference in Montreal on August 31. We will be presenting during the session titled The “Perfect” Site. My only conference presentation occurred when I presented my high school senior exit project during a poster session at the Southeastern Division of the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in 2008. This means the presentation in Montreal will be my first time presenting as a speaker. It will also be my first time attending a conference outside the US. My boss asked me to create our presentation, so I plan to use this presentation to write a blog post.

Ray’s Crash Course in Respectability Politics

The power of social media, especially Facebook, helped me learn about respectability politics. I had never heard of respectability politics before today. As my below Facebook post shows, I thought I was helping to improve bike advocacy efforts by policing badly behaved cyclists.

For example, I saw a cyclist go through every stoplight on Fairfax Drive in Arlington, VA last Wednesday during afternoon rush hour. Since I’m tired of hearing well behaved cyclists and motorists tell me how badly behaved cyclists are ruining the image of all cyclists, I tried to chase down the badly behaved cyclist and tell him to stop breaking the law.

While I wasn’t able to catch up with the badly behaved cyclist, I’m thankful I posted this experience on social media. My friends were able to educate me about respectability politics and why it doesn’t work. Even though I was convinced I was doing the right thing by policing badly behaved cyclists, I’m thankful my friends stuck to their reasoning and waited patiently for me to show them that I understood their viewpoint. It took a few days for me to stop arguing my viewpoint and finally understand their viewpoint. Now I can share their reasoning with others that may not fully understand respectability politics.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, respectability politics “refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference.” Instead of policing cyclists, my friends suggested I encourage people to do the right thing. As Zvi Leve, who is an experienced cyclist living in Montreal, wrote, “I find that positive reinforcement is a far more effective strategy to encourage people to ‘do the right thing’.” Zvi also shared the following CityLab article, which discusses Sweden’s Vision Zero approach to education and enforcement.

Vision Zero Enforcement

Source: CityLab

Speaking of Vision Zero, I’m currently working with GGWash‘s staff to publish my next blog post about why Sustainable Safety, which is the Dutch alternative to Vision Zero, is more effective than Vision Zero.

Cheapest Way to Bring Dutch Bike Infrastructure to the US

I usually write factual posts and not opinion posts so I want to add a disclaimer that this post is an opinion post. I’m open to criticism so feel free to share your criticism. I’d especially enjoy reading criticism if you feel there is a cheaper way to bring Dutch bike infrastructure to the US.

The idea for this post came about when I got my new 2017 Breezer Uptown 8 LS (LS stands for low step) on April 1. Before getting my new bike, I was riding Capital Bikeshare for all bike trips except shopping and bike touring (long-distance) trips. As the below photo shows, I was riding my road bike to shop and for bike touring. While I always find it stressful to mount and dismount my road bike, the two stuff panniers made it even more challenging to swing my leg around the back of my seat when mounting and dismounting my bike.

Due to this mounting and dismounting challenge, I’m loving the step thru design of my new bike. I no longer have to stress about swinging my leg around the back of the seat so I feel much more relaxed when biking!

The relaxed feeling is why I think my step thru bike, which is similar to a Dutch bike, is the cheapest way to bring Dutch bike infrastructure to the US. My step thru bike feels like I’m riding in the Netherlands, which I have done through two study abroad trips, without spending millions on building protected bike lanes. I still support protected bike lanes, but realize they are expensive to build. I wanted to share a cheap way to feel relaxed when biking without waiting for protected bike lanes to be built. I never felt comfortable on my road bike so I’m thankful I decided to buy my step thru bike. While Capital Bikeshare feels comfortable, it doesn’t go everyone I want to go yet. I wanted a new bike that felt as comfortable as a Capital Bikeshare bike so I got my new step thru bike.

As an added bonus, several women, who I have never met before, told me that my step thru bike looks cute and they wanted to find a similar bike. I’m not sure whether this is because they think step thru bikes are supposed to be only for women or because they think my bike is actually cute. I believe few Americans know that Dutch bikes are unisex and step thru so I want to point out that I see my step thru bike as a unisex bike and not as a women’s bike. Yes, the American manufacturer labels my bike as a women’s bike, but the bike would likely be labeled as unisex in the Netherlands.

Since I’m single, have been dating, and would love to go on a bike ride with my girlfriend, it would be cool if I can use my step thru bike to attract women who find my bike cute. The only men that have said anything about my bike are the bike shop mechanics that built my bike. I want to clarify that the main reason why I purchased my new step thru bike is because I can easily step thru the bike. I wasn’t thinking about attracting women with my bike before I purchased it, so this is an added bonus. Since American women bike less than American men, I’d love if my bike can encourage more women to bike because they find my bike cute and they end up buying a similar bike.

Tim Kelley shared this video with me and it relates to the road bike mounting challenges I have experience. I found the video to be useful and funny.