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Thu October 24, 2013

How One D.C. Suburb Set A Gold Standard For Commuting

Originally published on Fri October 25, 2013 10:33 am

It may come as a surprise to riders on Metro's Orange Line in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C., but the area sets the bar for suburban transit.

That's because a risky, expensive decision by local planners in the 1960s as the Washington subway system was about to be built helped this once-sleepy community come alive. It led to an increase in residents and decrease in traffic. Instead of having a line bypass these nearby Virginia suburbs aboveground, next to a highway, planners decided to run it underground and redevelop the neighborhoods above.

"I think we were bold at the time, and it has paid off. I can't imagine what this area would be like without it," says Jay Ricks, a former board member in Arlington County.

In itself, communities built around a subway line that people use to commute into a city is not unique. What's different here is the metamorphosis, from a downtrodden suburb where everyone drives to a place where people live, walk, bike, eat, play and commute, all without ever getting behind the wheel.

Arlington resident Becca Bullard does this every day. She works for an events planning firm in downtown Washington. If she plays it perfectly, Bullard can make it by bus — or bike — to the subway, into downtown Washington and to her office, door-to-door in less than 40 minutes.

"It's really easy to get to work, and I really do enjoy hanging out in Arlington and enjoying all that it has to offer. It's a lot of fun," she says.

And that's the point of what's been created in Arlington: a community with the benefits of a suburb — more space, cleaner neighborhoods, but with restaurants and shopping easy to reach on foot, like in a city.

This trend is growing in other cities, but the risk is that these communities can become victims of their own success. Lynn Richards, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency — which gave Arlington a Smart Growth award — lives in Arlington and says that as people have flocked there, housing prices have skyrocketed. That could eventually undermine one of the main purposes there — to change a community without increasing traffic.

Another problem: The Metro system is not self-sustaining. It depends partly on public funding, and when you base a community around a subway stop, when Metro has a bad day, everybody has a bad day.

Bullard has her own horror story.

"I would say my worst experience was getting caught under the river for two hours" going into work, she says. "It was fine. They ended up getting us off that train and onto another one. You just have to know that that's part of it."

People in Arlington are well aware of the potential pitfalls — including Robert Brosnan, the county planning chief. He knows there are people who love urban living, or love rural living, who'd never feel at home there. But he's proud of what's been done.

So, is this area — one that attracts visitors from other countries who want to know how to copy its model for their own communities — as good as it gets?

"I'll never say it's as good as it gets. I think this is pretty good. We can continue to work on it," he says. He gestures at a 1980s-era building starting to show its age. "Look at this building. We were ecstatic about that at the time, but you look at it now, you say, 'Oh boy, this is a new city.' It's been developed over the past 35 years. So I think it's a matter of refinement and maturing."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

For most of us, commuting is like death and taxes: It's inescapable and hated. I drive to work in the middle of the night, so I can at least avoid one of the country's most-congested commutes here in Los Angeles. But over the next few weeks, we're going to bring you stories about how some communities are trying to improve people's commutes, even how people are making their own commutes more bearable, even, dare I say, enjoyable.

And for a preview, we'll turn first now to NPR transportation reporter David Schaper. David, you're at one of the country's oldest transit systems. That's Chicago's famous L.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: That's right, Renee. And I'm watching trains that are rumbling by me here on the L platform that I'm sitting on, that are just packed with passengers heading towards downtown. But I'm also seeing an interesting trend in that there are an increasing number of commuters riding the rails in the reverse direction. There are more young professionals who want to live in the city and enjoy city life, but have jobs in the suburbs.

And for years, the only way to get to those jobs was to drive. And that's made traffic congestion of the reverse commute aimed from suburb to suburb often worse than the traffic commuting into the city.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, one of the stories you'll be doing, David Schaper. Thanks very much.

And we turn now to our correspondent Kathy Lohr, who is in Atlanta. And, Kathy, you will be reporting on something known as the Last Mile. Tell us what that is.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Hi, Renee. That is something that's referred to when you off of your public transportation: How you make it to your final destination? So, and in this case, in Atlanta, they're building a streetcar line that they think will help people take them to restaurants, shops, historic sites, their jobs.

So I'm standing on Auburn Avenue, which is not far from the Martin Luther King National Historic site. And this is where the steel tracks are being laid right now on this line. And it's a very noisy and dusty place, basically a place that people are trying to avoid until this gets finished next spring.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Kathy.

Today's story is coming from my colleague, David Greene. And David, you're at the Ballston Metro station. That's in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington. Why Arlington?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, it's a good question, Renee. And it's really because what they've done in Arlington is pull off a true transformation. Post-World War II, this became a car-dependent place. Lots of people were driving. Over the last 20 years, they've brought in more people, new housing. They've brought in a ton of economic development, a lot of restaurants, a lot of bars and shopping. But they've actually been able to get traffic to go down, because they have designed this whole system of getting people efficiently from here and into the city of Washington.

And I want to bring in a voice, here. His name is Jay Ricks.

JAY RICKS: There was very little reason to come here.

GREENE: Ricks is a former board member in Arlington County. He's remembering this area outside the nation's capital back in the 1960s.

RICKS: The community was pretty much frozen in time. It had an old movie theater, a little tavern hamburger stand, a pawn shop or two. People just went through it on their way to Washington.

GREENE: At the time, the Washington area subway system was about to be built. It was going to bypass these Virginia suburbs above ground, running next to an interstate. But local planners came up with an ambitious alternative. They pushed to have the subway line run under a handful of Arlington neighborhoods, creating these mini-downtowns around the stations above. And that decision in the '60s was risky and expensive, but it led to the vibrant neighborhoods that exist today.

RICKS: And I think we were bold at the time, and it has paid off. I can't imagine what this area would be like without it.

GREENE: And now, many people see good reason to come to Arlington, including this group.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: City planners from across China, who came to Arlington to learn about what they've pulled off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: So, what have they pulled off? Well, in itself, communities built around a subway line that people use to commute into a city, not unique. What's different here is the metamorphosis from a downtrodden suburb where everyone drives, to a place where people live, walk, bike, eat, play and commute without having to use their cars.

Becca Bullard does this every day. She works for an events planning firm in downtown Washington. She lives in Arlington on a quiet, leafy street. And each morning, after breakfast, she checks her smartphone for the next bus.

BECCA BULLARD: So, seven minutes.

GREENE: Let's try to make it.

BULLARD: You want to do it?

GREENE: Let's try to make it.

BULLARD: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

GREENE: We are rushing to make a bus that will take Becca to the subway station.

BULLARD: So we're starting our full-court press. We're going to cut through back here (unintelligible).

GREENE: Through the bushes. I like this. Now, if she plays this perfectly, Becca can make it by bus or by bicycle to the subway, then into downtown Washington and to her office, door to door, in less than 40 minutes.

BULLARD: It's really easy to get to work, and I really do enjoy hanging out in Arlington and enjoying all that it has to offer. It's a lot of fun.

GREENE: And that's the point of what they've created in Arlington, a community with the benefits of a suburb, more space, cleaner neighborhoods, but with restaurants and shopping easy to reach on foot, like in a city. Now, maybe you live in a place that's trying its own version of this, if not with a subway line, maybe with street cars or light rail. Dena Belzer and economic consultant to communities around the country says this concept known as transit-oriented development a trend that's growing.

DENA BELZER: Portland is an example that a lot of people have looked to more recently, but now, people are also looking a lot at the Denver region. They're starting to look at St. Paul and Minneapolis.

GREENE: But the risk is these communities can become victims of their own success. Lynn Richards works for the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave Arlington a Smart Growth award. Richards lives in Arlington and says that as people have flocked there, housing prices have skyrocketed and that could eventually undermine one of the main purposes, to change a community without increasing traffic.

LYNN RICHARDS: If we can't provide housing for the people who work in the county at all different levels, folks are going to start driving in. And now we're going to have a parking problem, now we're going to have more congestion, we're going to have more traffic because they're going to go farther out.

GREENE: And it can also be a problem if a community relies too heavily on a subway, because when Metro has a bad day, everybody has a bad day. Our commuter Becca Bullard told me a horror story.

BULLARD: I would say my worst experience was getting caught under the river for two hours.

GREENE: That was coming home?

BULLARD: That was coming in to work.

GREENE: Coming in to work so you were under the Potomac River in a Metro Tunnel.

BULLARD: Two hours, yeah, no cell phone service.

GREENE: What happened?

BULLARD: My car started smoking.

GREENE: The subway car.

BULLARD: Yeah. So I mean, it was fine. They ended up getting us off that train and onto another one. You just have to know that that's part of it sometimes.

GREENE: Now, people in Arlington are well aware of the potential pitfalls, including Robert Brosnan, the county planning chief. We met near one of the subway stations. It's across the street from a perfectly manicured park and underneath an '80s-looking building that is showing its age. He knows there are people who love urban living, or love rural living, who might never feel at home there. But he's proud of what's been done.

ROBERT BROSNAN: A lot of people who watch this kind of stuff look at where we're standing right now and say, this is the model. You have people coming from China to try to study this.

GREENE: I mean, is this as good as it gets?

BROSNAN: I'll never say it's as good as it gets. I think this is pretty good. We can continue to work on it. I think we could've gotten architecture better. We don't have direct control over the architecture. But I think...

GREENE: It's a little too bland or...

BROSNAN: Yeah, well, I mean, look at this building, not to be - I don't remember who the architect is so I'm not going to embarrass him, but that's a pretty bad building.

GREENE: This is the '80s one, right about the Metro.

BROSNAN: Yeah. And now we were just ecstatic over that at the time, but you look at it now, you say, oh boy, you know, this is a new city. And so I think it's a matter of refinement and maturing.

MONTAGNE: And that was the voice of Robert Brosnan, director of planning in Arlington County, Virginia. He met up with our colleague David Greene and in the coming weeks, we'll be visiting more communities around the country that are tackling their own commuting challenges. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.