The radio broadcast can be found at http://wvtf.org/post/finding-remedies-suburban-sprawl.
Tysons Corner is a model for what urban planners call an Edge City – located outside Washington, D.C., it’s the commercial center for Fairfax County, with two major shopping malls and countless corporate headquarters. This year, the Metro arrived there, sparking new residential development and the prospect of much more pedestrian traffic – people walking to and from the train. That prompted a team from the University of Virginia to launch a walking study of the place – hoping to document just how hard it is to get around Tysons on foot or bicycle, and to explore possible solutions. Sandy Hausman tagged along and filed this report.
It’s just before 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I have been sitting in traffic for a good ten minutes to go about a mile. There’s just traffic everywhere, and nobody out and about walking.
Nobody except UVA Professor Andrew Mondschein and four urban planning students armed with special gear to document the experience of walking in Tysons Corner.
“All of our volunteers are wearing different kinds of devices,” Mondschein says, gesturing to four smiling student volunteers. “They’ve got wearable cameras, a particulate matter sensor, something called a Sensordrone that measures carbon monoxide, air temperature, humidity, light levels.”
Of course anyone can see that getting around this concrete obstacle course is a challenge, but Mondschein says it’s important to create a baseline, so planners can measure their progress improving the landscape.
“Today, data is the currency of decision making , and in order to say something needs fixing, you want to be able to compare between one place and another and make an argument to decision makers,” he explains. “One of the big goals here is to be able to measure a baseline today and see whether the plan to transform Tysons Corner into a live-able, walkable place is happening.”
The pressure is on to fix this car-centric community of 21,000, because its population is expected to quadruple. On one corner of the intersection between Chain Bridge Road and Leesburg Pike, a colorful billboard promises two new, 31-story apartment buildings will rise, and the Metro has already arrived.
“The Silver Line just opened last year, which is the harbinger of, potentially, a more walkable, bike-able, transit friendly place,” Mondschein says.
So the group sets out to walk from one shopping center to another – taking four escalators and two pedestrian bridges to cross Chain Bridge and Leesburg Pike. Mondschein looks down and offers this assessment: “That’s five lanes in either direction — not something that’s going to be friendly to cross.”
From above, he and the students can see pedestrians trying to save time or catch buses just across the way. They survive and tell their stories from the sidewalk below.
“There is no easy way to go around which is why I decided to cross,” says one man who pulled a suitcase across 8 lanes of traffic.
“As you can see, there are no crosswalks, so it’s hard,” says another. “I usually just look left and right, and if no one is coming, I run for it.”
And the prospects for people on bikes are even worse.
“Only the most adventurous cyclists would want to bike on Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road,” Mondschein says. “I think bike lanes, protected bike paths are a whole other level of investment, and a decision sometimes to take away lanes from the car. That’s going to be another thing to confront.”
So far, the research team has found that when it’s 80 degrees out, temperatures on the sidewalk can reach 95, and it’s noisy. Commuters might not realize how bad the situation is, but for some, blood pressure will rise in response. Student Hannah Chako hails from Virginia Beach, where things aren’t much better.
“When I’m home I can’t walk anywhere,” she admits. ” If I want to go anywhere, I have to get in my car.”
Still, she says, Tysons Corner needs to track the construction and maintenance of sidewalks leading to its shopping malls.
“We started out a block in that direction. The sidewalk was really cracked, and there was no landscaping really to speak of. We had trouble getting across the street a few times, because there was no crosswalks, and then you come over here and they’ve built this nice pedestrian walkway connecting the mall to the Metro station, and there’s just a way, way more apparent focus on people than there is a block in that direction.”
Ellen McAlexander is from Raleigh, which has its share of shopping centers and office parks, but after three years at UVA, the car-centric design here is a bit of a shock.
“I know being in Charlottesville in a university setting you are kind of in a bubble, and you’re so used to pedestrians ruling the road and being able to walk anywhere and everywhere,” she says. “I have been surprised by the disconnect between certain parts of this area.”
And Mary Kathryn Fisher, who comes from Cincinnati, thinks the shopping mall itself could improve on its central plaza, with small metal birds stationed on tiny plots of grass.
“It’s really interesting to see that they have deliberately placed fake birds and greenery around here, and it’s kind of unwelcoming. It doesn’t even feel like you can walk on the grass.”
Only their classmate, Mingwei Chen, finds Tysons a pleasant place. He’s from a city of five million in China.
“It’s a really interesting public space, and it’s a good place to hang out,” he says.
One problem, Professor Mondschein adds, is that this area was designed to promote convenient trips by car – to offices, shopping and restaurants, but with more than a dozen high-rise buildings planned, more people will be coming here to live, and he thinks that will bring new priorities to the place.
“On some level, people now demand walkable, more livable and attractive places to live and do business, even if it is dense, and the developers in Tysons Corner are aware of this, so it’s about making a place that people will want to invest in as well.”
Whatever happens here could serve as an example for other suburban cities around the world.
“Tysons Corner is a unique place in some ways,” Mondschein says, ” but it’s just a reflection of the same suburban edge city environment that we see in Hampton Roads, in Richmond. Really, the whole world is watching – especially the world of planners, because it if can work here, it can work anywhere.”
Ironically, Tysons Corner is just a short drive from another Northern Virginia community. It was one of this country’s first planned developments, and it’s got a whole different vibe. In our next report, we’ll stop by to see what lessons urban designers have learned as Reston turns 50.