Suburban development is inevitably going to be automobile-centric….However, being automobile-centric and being designed in a way which almost entirely excludes the potential for other modes transportation are very different things. The car and the light rail can coexist. Sidewalks can run to areas with retail. One could even allow a corner store and a pub within a residential neighborhood! Maybe, just maybe, there can be small corridors of street level retail without giant parking lots, small town style. Places like this do exist, mostly but not just in older suburbs.
And Kevin Drum responds with a description (and map!) of his neighborhood:
I live in a subdivision of Irvine, California, called Woodbridge. It’s actually fairly famous as one of the original master planned communities of the 60s, and believe you me, it’s master planned to within an inch of its life. This has its drawbacks (lots and lots of beige houses), but there are also benefits. The main one is that it really was planned as an integrated community of sorts.
To get an idea of what I mean, here’s a Google Earth picture of Woodbridge. It’s the piece inside the yellow oval loop plus the strip just outside it, and the total population is about 30,000. There are houses and apartments on the north and south, with the central section reserved mostly for shopping, churches, schools, medical offices, parks, and so forth. There are sidewalks everywhere, of course, and also bike lanes.
The central section is actually pretty handy. There are six separate areas designed for shopping (outlined in red), and those areas include four supermarkets, a couple dozen restaurants, three department stores (though one is shutting down), a bookstore, two movie theaters, two drugstores (with one more about to open), several banks, a hardware store, two Blockbusters, and lots of other miscellaneous shops. Every single one of these places is safe, easily accessible, brightly lit, and a maximum of 1.5 miles from every single point within Woodbridge. Short of being downtown, this is about as walkable as it gets.
And walk it I do. All the time. (This isn’t out of environmental altruism, it’s because I shop for food daily as a way of forcing myself to get out of the house and get some minimal exercise.) And here’s the thing: aside from occasional dog walkers, I have the place to myself. Despite the fact that it’s about as pedestrian friendly as a suburb can be, nobody walks anywhere. They don’t bike either â€” the only cyclists I see are biking for exercise. Woodbridge is, as near as I can tell, about 99.9% car-centric despite having a design that’s about as pedestrian friendly as you’ll find in a suburb.
Like I said, I don’t have any big axe to grind here â€” except to say that as important as pedestrian-friendly design is, it’s also possible to overstate that importance. Something more has to happen to reduce our dependence on cars. Maybe the price of gas just needs to double a couple more times. Maybe better mass transit is the key. Maybe something else. But here in Woodbridge, anyway, we built it and they did not come. Not on foot, anyway.
Let’s start with a few basic points. One, driving is easy. If you’re watching television and a commercial comes on and you want a bag of chips from the store, and the store is a half mile away with a big parking lot, you’re going to get in the car and drive. Distance+parking lot=drive, even if the sidewalks are studded with diamonds.
Two, Woodbridge, as described by Drum, packs about 30,000 people. Based on Googlemap distances, that works out to a population density of somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 13,000 people per mile. Compare that to walkable neighborhoods in the District like Georgetown and Adams Morgan, where population densities are a bit over 20,000 people per square mile. And those places are built at nothing like the density of downtown, or of a place like Manhattan (where pop. densities are something like 80,000 people per square mile).
Even so, Brookland (my hood) is fairly walkable in places (and is used as such) despite having a population density considerably lower than Drum’s Woodbridge. The difference is mixed-uses. It’s common to have retail directly abutting the residential properties in Brookland. The farther you get from the main drag the less this is true (and the fewer pedestrians you see), but there are parts of the neighborhood which are pretty well designed. Of course, Brookland is an old streetcar suburb.
The point is this–walkability isn’t just about ample sidewalks, it’s about design. If you build a lowish density neighborhood, separate the homes from the retail, and surround the retail by roads and parking lots, well, you’re not going to get walkers. If you try to make the development more like a small town, however, with residences over retail on the main strips, distributed retail throughout the neighborhood, and a fairly compact design, then you can get real walkability, to a certain extent, even with single-family homes and yards. And you can also follow the model in New England (and old England, actually) and drop that development onto a commuter rail line or transit connection, and then you’ve reduced driving still more, even as most or all residents of the neighborhood own and frequently use cars.
It is possible.