Walkability, updated 7/19/2018

Posted on July 19, 2018

Updated 7/24/2018 to add reference to Town of Vienna 2016 Community Survey.

One of the arguments that the Town makes regarding MAC zoning is that it will make Maple Avenue more “walkable”.  I find that puzzling, as I walk on Maple all the time.  On this page, I want to take the “walkability” issue apart and analyze what I think the Town means by that.  My conclusion is that the “walkability” they are aiming for will not reduce car traffic on Maple.

First, 81 percent of Vienna residents are satisfied or very satisfied with the “Safety/ease of walking in Town of Vienna”, according to the Town’s 2016 Community Survey.  That certainly matches my impression:  Once on Maple, there are no barriers to walking anywhere on Maple.

Beyond opinion, there are several different quantitative measures of walkability, but they all measure the ease and safety with which a person can do routine tasks on foot.  Essentially, they measure how easy or difficult it is to walk from your home to various common destinations such as shops and restaurants.

Vienna already scores very well on objective scores of “walkability”.  You can see a series of maps centering on the middle of town here.  On a scale of 100, Vienna scores an 83 on average, which means the typical Town resident can accomplish most errands on foot.  Here is a “heat map” of Vienna, in terms of walkability, taken from www.walkscore.com.  As you can see, Maple Avenue itself is about as walkable as it gets.

Go here to type in your own address and see how your neighborhood compares to the Vienna average.  If you live in a less-walkable neighborhood in Vienna (as I used to), that has nothing to do with Maple. That has to do with how far you live from Maple, and whether or not there are sidewalks on your street.

To show how Vienna compares with its neighbors, here’s a set of comparisons, again drawn from www.walkscore.com.  While the Town as a whole is not the most walkable in the area, you can see from the map above that’s not due to Maple Avenue.

So, on the face of it, the idea that we need to make Maple Avenue more walkable seems odd.  Based on the objective data, Vienna as a whole, and Maple Avenue in particular, are about as good as it gets.

My point is, for the existing Town of Vienna population, there’s not much you can do to Maple Avenue to make it more walkable.  And that should be obvious to anyone who has ever run errands on foot along Maple.  Once you are on Maple, you can easily and safely walk to every location along Maple.

The clear implication of that is that, for current Town residents, more “walkability” on Maple isn’t going to reduce car trips to and from Maple.   Anyone who already lives here and wants to walk to shops and restaurants can do so.  And if they find it difficult to do so, it’s not due to problems with walkability along Maple, it’s due issues unrelated to Maple (e.g., distance or lack of sidewalks).

What is the Town talking about, with “walkability”?  They must mean that new Town residents living on Maple Avenue will be able to walk to shops and restaurants on Maple Avenue.   And that makes sense.  By locating people literally on top of the retail space, it certainly will be easy to walk to the shops and restaurants near them.  And that certainly has some value, and suggests that the average resident of this new housing on Maple will probably make fewer car trips to visit in-town retail locations than the average current resident will.

So let’s be clear about what this new “walkability” does and does not mean for Maple Avenue traffic.  Maple is already completely walkable, so these changes will not reduce car trips by current Vienna residents.  There is a good case, though, that the new residents living on Maple will be less likely to drive to retail locations in Town.  The link between walkability and traffic boils down to this:    The number of car trips on Maple will increase, but somewhat less than you might expect from travel patterns of current Town of Vienna residents.

MAC zoning also makes much of having common parking areas for several different stores, so that people will not have to drive from store to store.  Which sounds really forward looking, and environmentally sound and all  … until you realize that’s exactly what a traditional shopping center does.  If common parking facilities for multiple business is the rage, Vienna is way ahead of its time.

One final oddity of the Town’s discussion of walkability is the broad sidewalks mandated by MAC zoning, far broader than in the rest of the town.   The Town argues that the larger sidewalks are needed to improve “walkability”.   I disagree.

Vienna certainly does not need broad sidewalks merely to allow people to get from A to B along Maple.  Anyone who walks on Maple will tell you that the sidewalks just aren’t that crowded.  Barring some special event, I rarely have to break step to accommodate some other walker or biker.

So if broad sidewalks mandated by MAC are not required to allow people to walk along Maple, then what is their purpose?  Here are my three best guesses.  One, they are for looks.  These big new buildings would look absurd next to standard 5′ concrete ribbon sidewalk.  Two, they account for the bulk of the public “open space” that the Town is getting.  So, in theory,  they are large so that people will sit in that space and enjoy the Maple Avenue ambience.  (Which strikes me as unlikely.)  Three, the broad sidewalks are for window-shopping.  They are part of the Town’s “destination retail” strategy of building nothing but upscale retail space.  If the Town does attract top-end retailers, then you need a place for people to window-shop.