The Urban Land Institute recently published a new report, Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development, that examines the challenges of transforming low-density suburban areas into more compact, transit-oriented, mixed-use developments.
The ULI report looks at rebuilding existing suburban infrastructure (primarily transportation infrastructure) in order to support more compact development. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. is expected to grow by 90 million people. The majority of that growth is expected to occur outside urban cores. Many young workers are choosing to live in more urban places with multiple transportation options, like walking, biking, and transit. In order to become competitive, some suburban communities want to be less car-dominated and more walkable and bikeable.
Different types of suburban development lend themselves to different redevelopment strategies. Included in the ULI report are models of suburban mall retrofits, suburban transit-oriented development, suburban arterials or commercial corridors, wholesale or large-scale suburban transformation, and suburban town centers. All are present in Fairfax County—respectively, Springfield Mall; Merrifield; Routes 1, 7, and 50; Tysons; and Reston Town Center and Merrifield.
Retrofitting suburban arterials such as Routes 1, 7, 50, and 123 is a major challenge. Such roads are often traffic-clogged and serviced only by infrequent and slow-moving bus service. Because of outdated zoning regulations, the only development that can occur is located low-density retail and commercial businesses immediately adjacent to the road. High-capacity highways like the Beltway, I-66, I-95, and the Dulles Toll Road also create barriers to dense development.
Redevelopment needs to occur while being sensitive to the concerns of residents in nearby residential neighborhoods, or it won’t happen. The Ballston corridor is an example of high-density development existing near low-density residential development. Fortunately, there are considerable transit connections to these neighborhoods.
But there are no easy solutions to reorganizing inner-ring suburbs for an expanding population. Changing a culture and landscape dependant on cars for mobility is a tremendous challenge. There is also a risk of creating islands of mixed-use communities in a sea of sprawl, which can only be accessed by wide, dangerous roads.
Eight examples of suburban redevelopment are documented in the ULI report, including White Flint/Rockville Pike in Montgomery County. Here are some takeaways from reading about it and other case studies:
- There is a significant last mile problem in trying to connect low-density suburban sprawl with mixed-use development centers. Unless walkable and bikeable transit-oriented suburban developments are connected to surrounding low-density areas by transit and safe, convenient, non-motor options, people will continue to drive for most local trips.
- The importance of bicycling as a way to overcome the last mile problem is not discussed in the report. Bicycles can be a viable solution for accessing new developments from areas within 2-3 miles. ULI’s report treats cycling as an afterthought, such as when it describes a development as bike-friendly there are 35 bike racks. In sum, bicycling is briefly mentioned as a way to connect to transit but not as a viable mode in and of itself.
- One advantage to wide, suburban arterials is that there is room to add options other than moving cars, like dedicated bus and bike lanes, physically separated cycletracks, bus rapid transit lanes, and streetcars.
Fairfax has focused new development around Metrorail stations, which have become active nodes. The massive redevelopment of Tysons along the new Silver Line is unprecedented, and the long-term vision for Tysons includes changes that will make walking, biking, and transit much more attractive options for itsmany future residents.
Reading ULI’s case studies is encouraging—and depressing. Islands of smart growth are almost always surrounded by vast areas of suburban sprawl and bordered by wide multi-lane roads, forcing most people to drive for most trips. Even when transit (mostly bus) is available, it can be slow and infrequent, and there is a stigma amongst many suburbanites against using it; transit is for those who can’t afford a car.
One of the biggest challenges to suburban transformation is opposition from existing residents who fear or otherwise resist change. Residents may want to be able to walk or bike to nearby destinations, but oppose nearby mixed use developments, fearing more car traffic. But our population is and will continue to grow regardless of how we feel. We need to figure out smart ways to accommodate more people, even in established, low-density suburban areas and especially in established, low-density suburban areas near transit. Bicycling can be a crucial way for people to get around these retrofitted suburbs.
The first-ring suburbs in Fairfax present a great opportunity. In the D.C. area, such suburbs are largely located inside the Beltway. Their population density is higher the outer suburbs’, and there are more transit options available. There is also often an existing grid of streets that fosters biking and walking. Aging developments can be replaced with more compact, mixed-use projects. Examples in Fairfax include Seven Corners, Bailey’s Crossroads, and Annandale.
With a growing population and limited resources, we need to find smarter ways to grow in the future. Dense, transit-oriented development that provides places to live, work, and play are one solution, and it requires us to transform our existing, mostly residential suburban areas into more livable, walkable, and bikeable places. This transformation won’t be easy, but it has already begun—and bicycling should play a key role in it.
Bruce Wright is chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling and a WABA board member. This post will be cross-posted on the FABB blog.
Photo by Flicker user Payton Chung