Walking the Walk — A Shifting Landscape in Suburban Mobility

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

We often hear about developments in urban mobility and how cities are changing their infrastructure to make mass transit more efficient while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Big changes arehappening in the suburbs as well, namely in reducing dependence on cars and making areas more convenient for walking and biking.

The traditional vision of a suburb is one in which having a car is essential. That has been true for the most part, especially coming off the car boom of the 1970s and ’80s. According to the New York Times, from 1977 through 1995, the number of walking trips taken by adults dropped by 40 percent.

However, since last decade, the ‘burbs have started following the lead from urban areas to help people move with their feet.

“The demographics are shifting. People are driving less, so the physical environment needs to change to respond to that,” says Joe Minicozzi, principle at Urban3, an urban planning consulting company.

One reason for the shift is that fewer young people are moving to the suburbs. Suburban planners are trying to lure those folks back while also appealing to long-time residents in what Christopher Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University and fellow at the Brookings Institute, calls the “urbanization of the suburbs”.

“Some baby boomers want to sell their large suburban houses and move to a walkable urban place but stay close to friends and family,” Leinberger wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2012. “Young families want the advantages of walkable urban life but also high-quality suburban schools.”

The issue has been that many suburbs were built with the car front of mind, so there are no sidewalks and bike lanes for people to travel safely.

“There are neighborhoods that are less than a mile away from downtown and people could actually walk to their jobs — they just take their life in their hands trying to do it,” says Minicozzi.

“People on a bicycle are as entitled to the infrastructure, and even more so on foot — we were born with feet, not born with wheels attached to us — so at the very least [we must] have the mobility option to just walk someplace safely.”

A lot of suburban communities are now placing an emphasis on changing their infrastructures. Resources such as Walk Score, which grade neighborhoods on their walkability, are tied to real estate prices. Organizations such as Chicago’s Transit Future are working to improve commuter rails that connect suburbs to cities.

Despite these moves, cars won’t be totally phased out of the suburbs. In fact, the ‘burbs are the perfect environment for electric cars. Since many people have garages in their homes, the issue of charging e-cars is minimized — they can fully charge overnight, so owners won’t have to worry about finding a public spot to charge.

As suburban transportation evolves, we’ll see that it maintains some of its prior qualities while also complementing the changes that we’re seeing in cities.

“It does not say that everything turns off,” Leinberger told City Lab. “There will still be new drivable suburban development. It’s just that the majority will be walkable urban, and it will be not just in the redevelopment of our downtowns, but in the urbanization of the suburbs.”

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