Walkability might be the secret to D.C.’s success

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14th Street NW is a particularly walkable section of D.C. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

The District’s compact size means that many leafy residential pockets sit a mere stone’s throw from thriving commercial areas. Unlike in many sprawling areas across the U.S., many District residents can walk to grocery stores, restaurants and public transportation service.

To George Washington University urban analysis professor Christopher Leinberger, D.C.’s walkability is the secret to its growth.

Leinberger moved to the District 12 years ago specifically for its walkability, he told The Current. He chose Massachusetts Avenue NW for its close proximity to his workplaces, including the Brookings Institution in Dupont Circle, as well as the abundance of local commercial activity. Leinberger recently sold his car because he so rarely used it, logging only 29,000 miles during his 12 years in the city. “In many ways, D.C. is the model region,” he said.

Chris Leinberger is an urban analysis professor at George Washington University. (photo courtesy of Chris Leinberger)

Walkability isn’t a new concept. Similar to the organic food movement, society is simply returning to old habits. Georgetown, the District’s oldest neighborhood, is a case in point — shops and community spaces operating steps from residential streets.

The area’s walkability has a “several-hundred-year legacy,” according to Georgetown Business Improvement District transportation director Will Handsfield. “One of the great benefits of Georgetown is that it never lost it. It’s always been a great walkable community,” he said.

Georgetown’s business group prioritizes pedestrians, which Handsfield conceded can sometimes come at the expense of cars. Along K Street/Water Street NW in particular, his team is working with the D.C. Department of Transportation to reduce crosswalk widths from 50 feet to between 20 and 30 feet.

Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner Joe Gibbons relocated to the neighborhood from the suburbs of Chicago when he and his wife became empty-nesters. He said that while he appreciated the large backyard that the Chicago suburbs afforded him, he enjoys walking to his appointments and various errands, both for the health and social benefits.

“In the suburbs, it’s a pretty far hike,” Gibbons said. In Georgetown, “there’s nothing you can’t walk to.”

18th Street NW in Adams Morgan is home to many nightlife establishments. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/July 2017)

There’s a similar appeal in Adams Morgan, where leafy streets lined with colorful row houses are only steps from 18th Street NW, its main drag. For many residents, cars are virtually obsolete, Brian Barrie of the neighborhood’s business improvement district said. He moved to Adams Morgan about a decade ago, and no longer owns a car himself.

“There are bars, restaurants, a grocery store … there’s everything you need,” Barrie said. A 2012 streetscape project widened 18th Street’s sidewalks at the expense of parking, and increased foot traffic in the flourishing commercial district, he said.

After World War II, the rise of the car caused cities to spread, and residents began to trade walkable convenience for square footage. “The 1950s urban dweller was promised a little piece of the country where you can live and raise your kids; that was the overt message,” Leinberger said.

But in his view, what really propelled residents to disperse, and cities to spread, was an effort to avoid urban black populations. “The underlying message was racism. People wanted to move away from ‘them,’” he said.

In Leinberger’s view, walkability is hampered by several obstacles, including stringent zoning laws seen in the United States. “We have a shortage of urban land because we’ve made it difficult to build [dense apartment buildings],” Leinberger said.

However, he said he’s observed neighborhood opposition sometimes subside as residents begin to appreciate the ability to walk to local restaurants and shops. Other local issues include a lack of investment in public transportation and the District’s bicycle system, which he hopes can be tackled by additional funding.

Preserving and enhancing walkability has numerous benefits, Leinberger said. In his view, walkable neighborhoods are more diverse, entertaining and environmentally friendly. “There is definitely a pent-up demand for walkable urbanism,” Leinberger said.