Boston Metro Rail

With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed in 2011. In Boston, new stations have been constructed along the upgraded commuter rail-becoming-regional rail Fairmount Corridor. And Chicago has had success with the opening of two infill stations in 2012, the Morgan Station in the city’s West Loop and the Oakton-Skokie Station in the northern suburbs.

Yet those expansions are exceptions to the rule. Two infill stations are currently planned in Northern Virginia, at Potomac Yard along the Metro in Alexandria and at Potomac Shores along the VRE commuter line, and one new station is under construction along the Green Line in Chicago.

But few other cities or transit systems are even considering the possibility of investing in infill stops, even as line extensions are proliferating around the country. That’s a big disappointment.

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Assembly Station was made possible in part thanks to a $15 million contribution from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building a $1.5 billion mixed-use community adjacent to the station. This Assembly Row project will eventually include 2,100 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 1.75 million square feet of office space, in effect creating a transit-oriented mini-city in an area that was once home to an automobile plant and, after that, a strip mall.

The ingenious decision to combine the creation of a dense new development with a new transit station encourages the production of a virtuous cycle of more people living near transit who thus are more likely to use transit.

There are many other places throughout the country where there are similar opportunities for new infill stations. San Francisco’s BART studied a new subway station at 30th Street and the Mission years ago but has done little to act on the idea. Other cities have the physical conditions that are right for infill stations but little momentum to implement them. Portland’s light rail system, for example, has several long inter-station gaps: The distance between Lloyd Center and Hollywood/NE 42nd (east of downtown) is 1.7 miles, certainly long enough to justify a new station in between. In Atlanta, similarly, the gap between Arts Center and Lindbergh Center on the Red and Gold Marta lines is 2.7 miles, passing through a zone of potential redevelopment.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of similar situations around the country.

Transit agencies looking for ways to maximize the use of their existing lines should look to literally fill the gaps between their existing stations. In doing so, they offer the opportunity to build additional ridership and spur redevelopment.

Image at top from MBTA.

Finance Salt Lake Social Justice

A Call for Minimum Service Standards

» All across the country, transit agencies are opening new rail lines with inadequate service.

At $37 million for two miles of track, Salt Lake City’s new S-Line, sometimes referred to as the Sugar House Streetcar, was one of the cheapest rail transit projects recently completed in the United States, with per-mile costs equivalent to the typical bus rapid transit project. From a capital cost perspective, it’s a great success.

Too bad the S-Line is such a dud when it comes to ridership. According to recent data from the local transit system, the project is serving fewer than 1,000 riders a day, far fewer than the 3,000 expected for the project. One explanation is that the short route doesn’t attract many people. Another is that the line’s frequency is simply too low to convince people to orient their lives around it.

The thing is, providing new rail lines isn’t enough — service standards really matter when it comes to attracting people to use transit. And on that front, too many transit agencies around the country are failing to offer the services people can rely on. The problem extends far beyond New Orleans and encompasses a large share of the cities that are investing in new rail lines today, ultimately limiting their effectiveness and cutting down on ridership.

We must commit our transit agencies to providing a minimum level of transit service on their lines, particularly those in which it has been deemed necessary to invest millions of dollars in capital upgrades.

Certainly part of the answer should be speeding transit up. In an urban environment where automobiles dominate, making sure that buses and trains can move as quickly as possible reduces commute times and, ultimately, reduces the appeal of driving by providing a time-competitive alternative. At an average of 10 mph, the S-Line is certainly no stunner.

But the streetcar’s bigger problem is that trains only make the 2-mile, 12-minute trip every 20 minutes, or 3 times an hour.* If you miss a trip, you might as well walk, because you’ll save virtually no time waiting for the train. As Jarrett Walker has noted many times, frequency of service can be just as important as speed, since the frequency at which a vehicle on a line arrives determines how long most people have to wait — especially when they’re transferring between services, an essential element of any big-city transit network and one that cannot be significantly improved with real-time data.

An examination of the operations of 49 new or extended light rail or streetcar lines built in the U.S. after 2000, summarized in the table at the end of this article, suggests that the situation experienced in Salt Lake is hardly unique, particularly at off-peak hours. While the large majority of these services offer at least four trains per hour (one vehicle every 15 minutes in each direction) at peak hours, 35% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour at midday and 73% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour in the evening (indeed, 33% offer 2 or fewer trains per hour, or a train every half hour, in the evening).

The difference for a passenger using a transit service offering robust frequencies — 6 trains per hour, or one train every ten minutes — versus mediocre ones — 3 trains per hour, like the S-Line — can be dramatic. A hypothetical rider in the robust city who has to take two 15-minute train trips that involve one transfer between them will spend an average of 40 minutes commuting in each direction (30 minutes on both trains and 5 minutes waiting for each individual train). In the mediocre city, on the other hand, average waiting times of 10 minutes for each train would increase commute times to 50 minutes, or a 25 percent increase. In the worst circumstances, where a rider just misses each train, the rider in the robust city would require 50 minutes to commute while her peer in the mediocre one would need 1h10, a full 20 minutes more.

To create a transit system that is attractive enough to pull people out of their cars, high frequencies of service at all times of the day are essential.

Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as the table demonstrates, have chosen to outfit their new rail lines with a robust level of service that befits the major investment that has been put into them and recognizes the time constraints of their riders. Others, from San Jose to Sacramento to San Diego and even to Portland, have simply chosen to give up on their passengers at night. What they’ve effectively decided is that only people who truly have no other choice should rely on transit outside of peak hours.

The poor service offered on these lines produces infrastructure that is massively underused. One of the frequent arguments made by proponents of investment in rail is that “people know” that the trains will come because of the fixed track and supposedly high quality of service. But inadequate operations make this benefit disappear.

The federal government, which has funded the majority of these projects, has failed to enforce any sort of minimum level of service that these lines must provide. Rather than mandate that new services funded through grants offer service at least every 15 minutes, for example, the Federal Transit Administration simply requires agencies to “develop quantitative standards for all fixed route modes of operation” for issues like vehicle headway. In other words, if a transit agency provides service every three hours on a just-built rail line, that’s fine — as long as that information has been submitted in triplicate to Washington in advance.

The federal government is throwing money at these projects with little supervision over how they are operated. The results are underperformance and relatively low ridership.

Certainly many transit agencies will suggest that the reason they do not offer better service is that they cannot afford to do so; as I wrote last week, the way that transit funding is allocated results in perverse incentives that encourage transit expansion over transit service. But local governments that commit to new projects should be required to identify adequate funding to cover operations if they are awarded federal money for construction.

Other agencies might argue that the service they provide simply matches the demand; there is no need to offer more than three trains an hour on the S-Line because only 1,000 people a day will even ride the thing. This fact raises questions about whether it made sense to build the project in the first place — if it’s not serving many people, is it needed? Or it represents a self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course the line serves few people because the service it provides is so poor.

Choosing to invest in better services comes at a cost. But it’s one that our political leaders and local transit activists should be fighting for. Now that we have some rail lines constructed, let’s start running more trains on them before we rush out to build more track!

Service levels for new or expanded light rail or streetcar lines in the U.S. since 2000
CityExtension Project or New LineYearPeak trains per hour (8-9 AM)Midday trains per hour (12-1 PM)Evening trains per hour (9-10 PM)
CharlotteBlue Line2007643
DallasStreetcar Extension2013442
DallasBlue to Rowlett2012433
DallasRed to Plano2002433
HoustonRed Line200410103
Jersey CityTonelle Ave20061074
Jersey City8th St2011532
Little RockStreetcar2004223
Los AngelesGold to Pasadena2003956
Los AngelesExpo 12012556
MemphisMadison Line2004440
MinneapolisBlue Line2004664
MinneapolisGreen Line2014666
New OrleansCanal2004334
New OrleansLoyola-UPT2013332
NewarkLRT Penn to Broad2006422
NorfolkLight Rail2011644
PhoenixLight Rail2008553
PittsburghBlue Line2004222
PittsburghNorth Shore20121586
PortlandRed to Airport2001443
PortlandInitial Streetcar2001353
SacramentoSouth to Meadow View2003442
SacramentoGreen to Richards2012220
Salt LakeRed Line2003444
Salt LakeBlue to Draper2013444
Salt LakeGreen/Airport2013444
Salt LakeStreetcar2013331
San DiegoGreen: Mission to Santee2005442
San FranciscoT Line2007663
San Joseto Alum Rock2004442
San JoseSacramento to Winchester2005422
SeattleCentral Link2009766
St LouisCross County to I-442006533
St Louisto Scott AFB2003433

* This is the level of service provided all day. In its submission to the federal government in 2010, Salt Lake claimed it would provide service every 15 minutes at peak and every 30 minutes in off-peak periods.

Image at top: S-Line Streetcar in Salt Lake City, from Flickr user Paul Kimo McGregor (cc)

Bus Finance New Orleans Streetcar

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

Metro Rail Washington DC

What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?

» Washington’s Silver Line opened to acclaim. It is already being hailed as the pedestrian-oriented transformer for the suburban Tysons business district, but the project may not create walkable, urban neighborhoods.

After years of talk, the Washington Metro was expanded by more than 11 miles last month, finally connecting it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-oriented business district in the heart of Fairfax County, Virginia. The new Silver Line that will make the connection via the existing Orange and Blue Line trunk through downtown Washington is expected to serve 25,000 daily boardings at five new stations, providing service every six minutes at rush hours and 12 to 15 minutes off peak. A second phase of the more than $5 billion project will add another 11.5 miles and extend into Loudoun County, via Dulles Airport, in 2018.

This first phase is very significant from the perspective of expanded rapid transit service; it is the second-lengthiest single line opening in the history of the Washington Metro, and it will dramatically speed the commute of people using transit to travel to and through the western suburbs.

It is also, in theory, going to produce a revolution in the physical environment of Tysons, turning it into a new, walkable “downtown.” As Robert Puentes has said, the line “is the catalyst for the transformation of Tysons from an exclusively auto-oriented ‘edge city’ to [a] modern and vibrant live/work community.” That’s certainly the vision to which the local business partnership and Fairfax County itself have committed. The goal is to quintuple the area’s population to 100,000.

What is true is that the project is producing major new real estate projects near the four stations planned for the business district. The availability of excellent transit service will undoubtedly increase the number of people taking the train to and from work. Yet the manner in which the rail line was constructed — elevated, in the median of large roads — and the existing built environment should put into question whether Tysons will ever become the sort of “livable” downtown for which new urbanists articulate the need.

The difficulty of making Tysons look like a traditional urban environment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! With careful thinking, the neighborhood could become a model for a different kind of urbanism, one that recognizes the monumental scale of the existing roadways and the new transit system, which has added an infrastructure of significant proportions to the neighborhood (just take in the scale of the station and associated track structure pictured at the top of this article). Combined with pedestrian-focused islands pulled away from the road and transit system, Tysons could adapt to its new transit accessibility not by becoming another downtown in style but by adapting its existing suburban environment into a unique new place. If successful, it could provide a model for suburban business districts across the country.

Current plans for the district’s renovation

Like many suburban, car-dominated business districts, Tysons is reliant on few, widely interspersed arterials that are overwhelmed by traffic at peak hours and incredibly hostile to pedestrians. These are roads that are simply inconducive to the livability principles that have become the standard lexicon of the planning profession because they make small-scale retail, mixes of uses, and walking nearly impossible. Unfortunately, these arterials are also the roadways chosen for the placement of the Silver Line and its stations; Metro trains enter Tysons from the east along the eight-lane Virginia Route 123, run southwest before turning northwest along the eight-lane Virginia Route 7.*

Fairfax County planners have prioritized the radical reconstruction of the district’s road network, moving it from a neighborhood of a few arterials (on the left in the image below) to a hierarchy of streets on a much more complex grid (on the right below). This hierarchy would incorporate the major arterials (now referred to as “boulevards”) but also bring in smaller streets identified as “avenues,” “local streets,” and “service streets.”

The smaller streets would provide the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that is at the core of the idea of transforming Tysons into a “downtown.” By “downtown,” we’re clearly meant to envision a tight, walkable grid of mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and either apartments or offices above.

Certain major projects underway in the district will include new, small streets, but it will take decades of transformations to make the neighborhood into a full grid. What we’re likely to get in the meantime, given the fact that Tysons is huge and development is hardly coordinated, are tiny areas of gridded streets, surrounded by auto-oriented parking lots and the same old arterials the area is known for.

Downtowns rely on a grid of streets that connects to the broader city’s grid of streets, creating walkable districts that allow people to live and work in places without a car. Where the gridded areas are created in Tysons, most people will continue to rely on their automobiles to get elsewhere in the area.

More problematically, the Metro entrances themselves will all be located on the “boulevards,” which sound nicer than they actually are. The state’s Department of Transportation, like many similar agencies around the country, tends to favor cars in its designs, and it will continue to run the boulevards. Certain of them have actually been widened in association with the construction of the Metro extension. It’s no wonder that the right side of the diagram above shows such as much space devoted to “boulevards” in the future (those big white voids) as the existing situation on the left.

Progressive planning suggests that the area that must be pedestrian-oriented, more than anywhere else, should be the areas right next to the rapid transit stations. These are the areas that need road diets, because they’re the areas where people do not need to be driving. But in Tysons, those areas are handicapped by wide roads that are unlikely to be shrunk anytime soon. The hostility of those roads is clear enough to Metro planners, who have built pedestrian overpasses on both sides of most stations to ensure that riders do not have to make the mistake of actually trying to cross the “boulevard,” as shown below.

There is little chance that this kind of environment can ever be at the heart of a future “downtown,” because it simply isn’t designed for street-level walkability. What kind of message does it send that the areas closest to the stations are the most hostile to pedestrians who want to be at ground level?

Fairfax County, however, addresses this problem not by recognizing the inherent deficiencies of retaining the automobile orientation of the “boulevards,” but rather by optimistically hoping that street-level retail and pedestrians will line up along the edge of these almost-highways, as shown in the following rendering.

Suffice it to say that given the current condition of the “boulevards,” pedestrians won’t exactly be swarming to enjoy the atmosphere along these streets — particularly when there continue to be gaps in the area’s sidewalk and crosswalk networks. The big buildings are likely, since the county has zoned for significantly larger structures, particularly for areas within a quarter mile of stations, and the demand for living in areas near the region’s Metro system are strong.

But a “walkable downtown,” in the traditional sense, this will not be. Even if the sidewalks are improved over time, the large “boulevards” throughout the district will continue to be enough of an obstacle to make the transformation of this area into a place like Ballston, Virginia difficult to imagine.

Potential for an interconnected series of “island” neighborhoods

The fact that Tysons is unlikely to become a “downtown” doesn’t mean that dense development won’t occur. It just means that the type of development around stations will be different. As Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott noted last week:

“The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.”

What Kennicott is describing approximates the modernist urban idea, whose premise was that it was necessary to separate people from automobiles by either placing them on different levels or by dedicating areas for pedestrians only or automobiles only.

On the other hand, much of the premise of the more recent new urbanist and livable streets movements has been that the idea of separating people and automobiles has failed, resulting in urban environments that are unsafe, uninteresting, and generally designed without normal people in mind. Those movements have articulated the importance of mixed-use environments with tightly spaced streets designed for pedestrians but that still accommodate automobiles. This is the type of environment Fairfax County planners hope Tysons will become.

But, as Kennicott notes, the physical facts of the Silver Line’s stations through the area suggest the area’s future will be far more like the the modernist vision of a city than that of the new urbanists. Indeed, some of the major new developments planned for the area, such as Tysons Central 7, propose a series of structures connected to the Metro station pedestrian bridge but also turned inward, away from the “boulevards.” The result is something close to a pedestrian-focused “island” refuge that attempts to ignore the automobility of the surrounding area.

Note that in the following illustration of Tysons Cenral 7, pedestrian life is shown to be almost entirely concentrated around the Metro pedestrian bridge or in the interior of the scheme. On the outside of the project are curb cuts, automobile entrances, and parking.

For Tysons as a whole, this model could produce a new district made up of “island” neighborhoods disconnected from one another by the “boulevards” and the Metro stations but nonetheless quite walkable in their interiors. A more advanced version of this concept would make the interior of this type of development entirely pedestrian-only.

The general approach taught in contemporary planning suggests that the modernist movement “failed” and that replicating its elements — such as pedestrian-only spaces surrounded by car-only spaces — will not function. Yet the design of Tysons’ roadways and Metro stations mean that the primary streets of the district will continue to be principally oriented towards automobiles for decades to come; that’s half your modernist ideal there. The complement to those spaces should not be semi-automobile oriented, as the current Tysons plans envision. Rather, planners and developers should take advantage of this unique transformation to create viable, interesting and pedestrian-only areas in the interior of the “islands.” This approach would truly differentiate the district.

For suburban business districts examining the possibility of retrofitting themselves for transit or for more walkability, Tysons may well become a model. Certain areas may decide to eliminate their big roads entirely, a decision Tysons may have been wise to make many years ago. But others, like Tysons concerned about maintaining the ability of large numbers of drivers to get around, may choose that the alternative — islands of pedestrian orientation surrounded by highways — holds the most promise.

* The name Tysons is a shortening of the former name Tysons Corner, which is the intersection of Route 123 and Route 7.

Top image and site plan from Fairfax County (cc); walksheds from the Tysons Corner; pedestrian bridge from Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).