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.

Advertisements

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.

Great Falls Park Transportation History

I wasn’t planning to write a post about my trip to Great Falls Park today because I assumed all that I would see and learn about was Great Falls.

I quickly realized how Great Falls Park’s transportation history directly impacted my transportation options to reach Great Falls Park from Arlington, VA. The visitor center at Great Falls Park has an exhibit devoted to the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad, which used to operate a trolley from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Great Falls Park, so I enjoyed learning more about the railroad and trolley. The trolley, which is shown in the below map, was in operation from 1906 to 1932.

dc_streetcar_diagram

Map shows trolley route from DC to Great Falls. Source: Wikipedia

While I was frustrated because I felt forced to drive to Great Falls Park today, I’m hopeful a new trolley system to Great Falls Park is built someday. Since the Great Falls Park parking lot was packed even in winter and many people in the DC region likely would prefer to leave their car at home, I assume a new trolley system would be successful. Surprisingly, the DC to Great Falls Park trolley line wasn’t originally built to take people from DC to Great Falls Park. Instead, the trolley line was built for people commuting from Fairfax County, VA, which is where Great Falls Park is located, to Washington, DC.

Since the trolley line wasn’t attracting enough customers on the weekend, the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad built the Great Falls Amusement Park, which had more amenities than the current park, to attract people to use the trolley line on the weekend. According to the visitor center exhibit, the Great Falls Amusement Park was a huge success and most people arrived by trolley. Since the trolley took 45 minutes and horse and buggy took 2 hours, I can see why the trolley was so popular. As is common with trolley systems throughout the US, automobiles proved to be faster and became more popular than trolleys so the DC to Great Falls trolley closed.

I realize a new trolley line isn’t coming anytime soon so I looked for other options to get to Great Falls Park. While I saw a group of training cyclists risking their lives on Old Dominion Drive, which is a curvy, two-lane rural road where they were biking, I wasn’t willing to risk my life biking on Old Dominion Drive so I’m thankful I chose to rent a car through Turo and drive to Great Falls Church. Since I used Getaround one time in Oregon to go hiking with Gerald and my dad used Turo to rent a car when he visited me in Portland for my graduation, I compared Getaround and Turo. I found more cars available in Arlington and cheaper cars through Turo so I rented a car through Turo. Yes, I drove a car for the first time today since driving from Kannapolis, NC to Charlotte during winter break in December 2015. I get very anxious when driving and feel more comfortable walking, biking, and riding transit so I’ve been trying to avoid driving.

Even though the rental car turned out to be useful, I didn’t originally get the rental car to go to Great Falls Park. I was originally planning to use the rental car to drive to Columbia, MD to meet Belita, who is a Nigerian (born and raised in Nigeria) woman I met through OkCupid. While normally I wouldn’t drive 80 miles round-trip to meet a woman, Belita lives in a famous planned community called Columbia, MD so I was already planning to visit Columbia someday. Having the opportunity to meet someone new, especially an attractive woman, is an added bonus. Plus, Belita offered to give me a personalized tour of her hometown and invited me to experience mass with her. If she gives me permission, I plan to interview her for a blog post about growing up in Nigeria, moving to the US, and her experience living in the planned community of Columbia. I’m looking forward to meeting Belita and visiting Columbia!