What Your Town Can Learn From America's Most Walkable Suburb

It's got great transit, plenty of sidewalks, and values people more than cars.

Photo by Shutterstock.

Suburban life has always been synonymous with long hours in the car—going to work, school, the grocery store, the mall, soccer practice, and friends’ homes. Some people even drive to take a walk.

Most streets were designed to move cars as quickly as possible with little regard for the impact on pedestrians.

That’s changing now, along with the stereotype that suburbs are places where everyone is white, married with children, and plays golf at the country club. From Bethesda, Maryland, to Kirkland, Washington, citizens are reinventing their towns to better accommodate walkers. Traffic is being tamed on busy streets. New sidewalks and trails are being constructed. Business districts are coming to life thanks to growing foot traffic.

Paving the way are suburban leaders who see their communities’ continuing prosperity and quality of life dependent on creating lively, walkable places that attract young people, families, and businesses wanting to get close to the action. Walking is gaining popularity across the United States for both transportation and recreation because it improves health, fosters community, and saves money.

The best place to experience the future of suburban living is Arlington County, Virginia, home of the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, right across the Potomoc River from the District of Columbia. Built up during the late-1930s through the 1950s—after autos started to dominate American life—it’s a classic suburb full of freestanding homes with driveways and green lawns. Nonetheless, it’s been named one of the 14 best “ Walk Friendly”communities in America by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina and one of the 25 Best Cities for Walking by Prevention magazine.

A day in the life of America’s most walkable suburb

 In Arlington’s Courthouse/Clarendon district, even on an unseasonably frigid Friday evening, you’ll find folks walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, toting home groceries, or just out strolling around. One young man clutches a bouquet of flowers as he hurries down the street. Sidewalk traffic is brisk with people heading from office buildings, transit stops, parking lots, and nearby residences to health clubs, shops, restaurants, and movie theaters.

The next morning is windy with snow flurries, but the wide sidewalks of Arlington’s Virginia Square/Ballston district hums with people running errands at the bank, the cleaners, the mall, the tailors, the print shop, and the pharmacy before stopping off at the hair salon, coffee shop, or deli counter. You even see a few intrepid folks on bike.

A lot of shoppers popped over from nearby apartment buildings and townhomes that were once a struggling commercial strip, while others strolled from nearby single-family homes. Walking a couple of blocks in any direction from this town center, you’re transported from the bustling urban milieu of TV shows like How I Met Your Mother to the leafy bucolic setting of The Brady Brunch.

Clarendon/Courthouse and Ballston/Virginia Square are both served by a regional train system, a boost for walkable communities that most American suburbs won’t replicate anytime soon. But pedestrians flourish in Arlington neighborhoods that are distant from train lines too.

Arlington is becoming a place where people matter more than cars.

The Westover neighborhood sports a typically midcentury design, with parking lots in front of many businesses, but it still offers friendly street life. A trio of middle-schoolers walks home from the grocery with lunch fixings, while neighbors stop for a chat on their way to the hardware store, library, or Lost Dog Café (or Stray Cat café, for that matter).

Arlington is becoming a place where people matter more than cars.

These neighborhoods stretch over 6 miles in the heart of Arlington (which is both a city and a county at the same time), but you can reach them all on foot via pedestrian-friendly city streets or Arlington’s 50-mile trail network. Meanwhile, the brand-new Shirlington community, rising from the ashes of a failed shopping center, feels like a suburban village. A main street that was paved over an old parking lot invites you to take an afternoon stroll browsing a wide selection of shops, ethnic restaurants, a library, a theater company, and a brewpub. Around the corner stand a full-service grocery and Bus Boys & Poets, a popular bookstore and café named after African-American writer Langston Hughes, who worked as a bus boy in Washington during the 1930s. A few steps away are movie theaters, service businesses like hair salons and yoga studios, office buildings, townhomes, apartments, a bus station, and parking garages.

Arlington’s path to transformation

Arlington did not become a pedestrian success story overnight. The sidewalks are lively today thanks to a series of smart decisions carried out over several decades. The story of this suburb’s rise to become one of America’s most walk-friendly communities offers lessons for towns everywhere wanting to thrive in the years to come.

As an early model for the auto-oriented development that popped up all over the country after World War II, Arlington also become one of the first suburbs to experience the inevitable side effects of aging. The county population dropped from 174,000 in 1970 to 152,500 in 1980 as new land to develop became scarce and kids who grew up there moved away.

“In the 1970s, this was a declining inner ring suburb,” notes Chris Zimmerman, who served on the county board for 18 years. “I moved here in 1979 because of the cheap rent. Arlington was a stopover for a lot of people until they could afford to move somewhere else”—a familiar scene today in thousands of suburban communities.

“I walked in those days because I didn’t have a car, but I saw very few other people walking,” he remembers, who left the county board in 2013 to become vice president of economic development for Smart Growth America, which promotes walking as part of its mission to create healthy, economically vital communities.

The first step in Arlington’s revival was improved transit service, including a number of stops on the Washington Metro subway system. That reversed the county’s population decline, as new apartment buildings and shopping rose around the stations. Walking picked up a bit in the immediate vicinity of Metro stops, but not in other parts of town. That’s because most of the streets were still designed to move cars as quickly as possible with little regard for the impact on pedestrians or surrounding neighborhoods. “When I took office in 1996, traffic was the biggest issue in every neighborhood. People were worried about their kids walking to school,” says Zimmerman.

The county board, spurred on by neighborhood leaders, adopted an “urban village” approach to planning, which, Zimmerman says, “really resonated with people—the idea of comfort and community while still being cosmopolitan. Being both suburban and urban at the same time.”

One strong focus of this plan was to make walking more safe and convenient.

One strong focus of this plan was to make walking more safe and convenient. Sidewalks were widened while the pedestrian crossing distances at intersections were narrowed. A task force on traffic calming was launched, and the outdated policy of charging homeowners for the cost of building new sidewalks—still common throughout the U.S.—was eliminated. (“Homeowners are not expected to pay for the street in front of their house; why should they be responsible for the pedestrian infrastructure?” Zimmerman asks in a case study about Arlington done by America Walks.)

“When I moved here in the 1990s, I would walk to the grocery store or go running, and if you ever saw anyone else, you always said hi because there were so few people on the streets,” remembers Lauren Hassel, outreach and promotions manager for WalkArlington. “Now if you stopped to say hi to everyone you met on the sidewalk, it would take hours to get where you’re going.”Ninety percent of all residential streets now have sidewalks (up from 73 percent in 1997), and traffic on seven of the county’s nine busiest roads has declined between 5 and 23 percent since 1996. As a result, walking and biking now account for 16.6 percent of all trips around town.

The county’s population has now climbed to 220,000, and it’s attracting many young professionals and families who could afford to live in wealthier suburbs but prefer Arlington’s walkability and sense of community. It is also growing as a regional job center with more than 215,000 people working in the county.

“This could be done anywhere,” says Zimmerman. “It doesn’t depend on big-scale transit—it depends on good urban design.”

Walking as a way of life

Peter Owen, a lawyer who grew up in nearby McLean, Virginia, chose to live in Arlington after college because he wanted to be close to his family but still enjoy opportunities to walk.

But old habits die hard, he admits. “It took me about four months of living here to stop driving in my car to the grocery store, even though I lived just a few blocks away.” The shift to walking has even improved his eating habits. “I buy a lot less frozen food because it’s easy to just stop at the store on my walk home every day and get fresh food.” Owen still owns a car, but says it stays in the garage most of the time.

When asked why walking is so important to him, Owen has plenty to say: “I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place. You notice lots more things, like kids playing, when you’re living at 5 miles per hour.”

He adds, “Arlington is becoming a place where people matter more than cars. It’s not just possible to walk here; it’s safe and comfortable to walk. There are crosswalks on the corners and shop windows to look at as you pass by—it’s more fun to walk with those kinds of things.”

How to make any town good for walking

Arlington’s emergence as America’s most walkable suburb grew out of a wide range of community improvements promoted by residents like Peter Owen, who served on the Citizen Transportation Commission for six years, and carried out by elected officials and county staff.

“It’s dramatically different walking here than in the 1990s,” says Dennis Leach, Arlington’s director of transportation, who lived here for years before joining the county staff. “You see all these people in places that used to be nowhere. It shows that if you do the infrastructure and land use right, you can provide people more viable transportation options and good places to walk, which has benefits for social equity, health, and a sense of community.”

Leach calculates that 350,000 pedestrian and bike trips are made by residents, workers, and visitors every workday. Key actions that make Arlington’s streets more walkable include:

  • Crosswalks, which are clearly defined so motorists know where to look for walkers
  • Bulb-outs, which extend the sidewalk a few feet into an intersection to shorten pedestrians’ crossing distance
  • Median islands, which offer pedestrians a midpoint refuge while crossing wide, busy streets
  • Landscaping along streets, which inspires motorists to drive slower
  • Bike lanes, which not only encourage people to bike instead of drive, but also increase the distance between sidewalks and rushing traffic
  • Buffered bike lanes and cycle tracks, modern bike lanes that separate sidewalks even farther from traffic by adding wide swaths of paint on the road or physical barriers from moving auto traffic
  • Wider sidewalks, which make people feel more safe and comfortable on foot
  • Narrower streets, which slow traffic speeds and free up more space for pedestrians and bicyclists
  • Traffic calming, a whole toolkit of additional road innovations, ranging from roundabouts to speed bumps, which remind motorists to look out for walkers and heed the speed limit
  • Pro-pedestrian zoning, which enhances the walking experience by requiring buildings along pedestrian routes to have first-floor retail shops or windows, but making sure they don’t crowd out people on foot
  • Road diets , a new step for Arlington, in which moderately traveled four-lane roads are reduced to two through-lanes with an alternating left-turn lane in the middle, creating space for bike lanes or wider sidewalks
  • Complete Streets, a county policy that all modes of transportation must be considered in street reconstruction projects
  • Transportation demand management, a sophisticated strategic plan that looks at traffic issues involved in all development decisions and offers incentives for businesses to locate in walkable places served by transit

On-the-ground efforts to promote walking

Of course, it takes more than crosswalks and sidewalks to get people walking. That’s why nearly everyone I spoke with in Arlington pointed to the work of WalkArlington, a county-sponsored initiative to encourage people to get back on their feet. “We help make people aware of what great opportunities for walking we already have here,” says Outreach and Promotions Manager Lauren Hassel.

WalkArlington developed 25 walking routes known as Walkabouts around the county, highlighting neighborhoods’ history, community resources, and attractions. They also publish a calendar of events, walking tip sheets (with special editions for winter and summer), and a monthly e-newsletter covering walking-related topics.

I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place.

The WalkArlington Works program helps employers and staff to boost walking in the workplace, both for commuting and breaks during the workday. WalkArlington is part the county’s Car-Free Diet program, an innovative approach that helps families figure how living without a car or going “car-lite” (using just one private car) would work for them. Arlington’s walk-friendly environment—plus extensive train and bus service, trails, bike lanes, bikeshare, and carshare—make this a viable option for a surprising number of households.

WalkArlington also excites kids about getting around on foot with programs at schools, from coordinating Walk to School Day to promoting “walking school buses” (parents picking up kids at their doors and walking them to school). In the summer, WalkArlington offers walking scavenger hunts at the county fair and collaborates with county-run camps to promote walking.

Arlington’s 22 elementary schools and five middle schools all run Safe Routes to Schools programs, which seek ways for more children to walk and bike to school. “We let families know the advantages of walking to school,” says the school district’s Safe Routes coordinator Tom Norton. “It’s great for fitness, and it improves academic performance.”

These pedestrian education efforts, on top of major improvements to streets and sidewalks, advance Arlington toward fulfilling the dream of many residents, best articulated by longtime resident Charlie Denney, the county’s former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator: “Our goal would be to build a community where every 8-year-old can go all by themselves to buy an ice cream cone.”

See a recent video about Arlington’s success in creating neighborhoods for people all ages here.