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Report: D.C. ranks among the most walkable U.S. metros, now and likely in the future

The D.C. area comes in fourth for walkable urbanism

Pedestrians in NoMa (2019)
The Washington Post/Getty Images

“Washington, DC is a model for walkable urban development, particularly due to its balanced development of center city and urbanizing suburbs,” argues a new report from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University’s business school. Released Monday, the report ranks current and projected levels of walkable urbanism in the 30 largest U.S. metro areas based on land-use data and other development metrics, like rent premiums.

Walkable urban places feature high development density, lenient zoning rules, mixed uses, and multiple forms of transportation, according to the authors. A helpful rule of thumb for thinking about walkable areas is whether “destinations such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants” are within a half-mile or so of a specific point. The report describes “761 regionally significant walkable urban places,” or “WalkUPs,” in the 30 metro areas studied.

“These WalkUPs occupy a minute portion of the total land mass of [those] areas (less than one percent), but deliver outsized economic performance,” write authors Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher B. Leinberger, and Jordan Chafetz. The report, titled “Foot Traffic Ahead,” was produced in partnership with real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, nonprofit organization Smart Growth America/LOCUS, and research and data company Yardi Matrix, per a release.

The D.C. region ranked fourth for walkable urbanism as of today, behind New York, Denver, and Boston. In both the Boston and D.C. metros, more than 40 percent of occupied WalkUP space is located in suburbs seeing development, the report says. Northern Virginia’s Reston Town Center and Maryland’s downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring are cited as examples of this pattern. “Even Tysons in Northern Virginia, the prototypical ‘Edge City’ of the late 20th century, is urbanizing about 40 percent of its 2,400 acres, evolving into 4 to 5 WalkUPs, as a result of four new Metrorail stations opening in 2014”—for the Silver Line—the report notes.

The authors make a key distinction between walkable urban and “drivable sub-urban” areas:

“Many readers may be used to thinking of the land in metropolitan areas in the U.S. as divided into three categories: ‘central city,’ ‘suburban,’ and ‘exurban.’ However, emerging 21st century development patterns suggest that the exurban typology is less meaningful for where the economy focuses its location, and we need categories driven by measures of urban form and economic activity, rather than absolute or relative spatial location, to examine and understand contemporary and future metropolitan development in the United States. The more useful dichotomy to understand metropolitan America is ‘walkable urban’ and ‘drivable sub-urban’ development. Both types of development can occur in either a metro’s central city or in a metro’s suburban area.”

Drivable sub-urban areas are characterized by low density, homogenous building types, heavy motor-vehicle activity, and separated land uses. As for the D.C. area, it also ranked fourth for what the report refers to as “future growth momentum,” a measure of changes in market share and rent premiums for office, retail, and multifamily space from 2010 to 2018.

You can dig into the report’s numeric findings for the most walkable U.S. metro areas below.

Current walkable urbanism rankings
George Washington University/Smart Growth America
Projected walkable urbanism rankings
George Washington University/Smart Growth America