“Retrofitting the Suburbs to Increase Walking
by Marlon G. Boarnet, Kenneth Joh, Walter Siembab, William Fulton, and Mai Thi Nguyen
During the last half of the 20th century, cities and towns across America were built primarily for one transportation mode: the automobile. Much of this development occurred on the urban periphery, creating the suburbs that are now home to more Americans than either traditional central cities or small towns. Today, while federal transportation policies and urban planners have shifted toward promoting a more multimodal form of development, the legacy of the postwar era remains: thousands of suburban neighborhoods poorly served by any mode of transportation other than the automobile.
Researchers have spilled much ink debating the feasibility of alternatives to car travel, but have focused less on how suburbs built for the car might be transformed to accommodate other modes. Seven years ago, communities in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County decided to focus on this question. They found that walking is the gateway mode for alternative transportation. The 2009 National Household Travel Survey shows that 10 percent of all trips in the US are taken on foot. Relatedly, an American Public Transportation Association analysis of over 150 on-board transit surveys from 2000 to 2005 showed that walking is the access mode for about 60 percent of all transit trips.
Walking travel and land use patterns vary substantially within the South Bay. Analyzing the correlates of walking in that area provides insight into ways to retrofit auto-oriented suburbs for more pedestrian travel.
The California Context
The opportunities for retrofitting suburbs to increase transit use and walking are especially golden in the Golden State. While the proliferation of auto-oriented suburbs has continued largely unabated in sprawling metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix, in California there are several reasons why suburbs will be retrofitting to increase walking. The first is geography: the major coastal metro areas (Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco) are hemmed in by mountain ranges or desert, with little room for new development. While population density has declined in most US cities for over a century, Western cities, including greater Los Angeles, saw densities increase in recent decades. The second reason is economics: the collapse of the recent housing bubble dampened the market for new single-family residential units, particularly on the exurban fringe of California’s metropolitan areas. The past few years have seen marked shifts in building from inland to coastal counties and from single-family to multi-family units. The state’s planning and policy context is the third, and perhaps most important, reason why suburbs will be retrofitted to increase walking. The place that popularized car culture is now at the forefront of linking transportation planning, land use policy, and climate change concerns. California Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, requires metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to develop “sustainable communities strategies” including infill development.
This combination of geography, market forces, and public policy will limit the expansion of California’s urban areas, providing consistent pressure for infill development in the coastal counties. Adding more people to already congested places such as San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles will increase the political pressure to reduce the resulting car traffic on arterial streets. Communities will look for relief valves—ways to move some of the traffic from infill development to alternate modes of travel. This context prompted the South Bay Cities Council of Governments to study how to accommodate growth in an area built for the car a half century ago.”
Via: ACCESS Magazine
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