“Turning Suburban Tysons [Corner] Into a Walkable City Will Take Time”

Eric Jaffe discusses the slow transformation of Tysons Corner, Virgina from car-dominated edge city to walkable city:

Last week marked the Silver Line’s first birthday, and with so much riding on it, so to speak, attention naturally turned to the lower-than-expected ridership numbers. The Washington Post reported that the Silver Line is serving about 17,000 daily riders during the work week, well off the pace of 25,000 riders that planners had set by this time. The “bulk” of this ridership aren’t even new users, according to the Post, but rather people who used to take the Orange Line instead…

But while it’s far, far too soon to declare the great Tysons shift a failure, it’s not too early to point out some of the little failings that still need to be addressed.

Poor walkability is one. Citing an internal analysis, Martin Di Caro at WAMU reports that Metro officials believe a lack of “sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes” is a key reason behind the low ridership numbers…

But the neuroscience of driving habits clearly shows that mode choice is most susceptible to change in the early stages of a major life event, such as moving homes or starting a new job. Insofar as Tysons developers have been slow out of the gate when it comes to encouraging transit, walking, and biking, they might be missing a critical opportunity to change commuter behavior…

A third setback might fall more on Metro itself. The Post’s Dr. Gridlock reports that the biggest problem facing Silver Line ridership isn’t the stations—it’s the service. A delay on new rail cars forced Metro to stretch the existing fleet thin. The proposed fix involves running fewer eight-car trains during rush-hour twice a week so the older cars can get maintenance; given the strong ties between transit service and transit ridership, that’s not an encouraging proposition.

Transforming an exemplar of suburban sprawl is not easy: the community has to respond with corresponding infrastructure (improving walkability), changed mindsets (getting people into new patterns and perhaps this requires newer residents), and adequate service to make it viable alternative.

However, we might ask how much time is needed before we could properly evaluate the impact of the Silver Line. Five years? Twenty years? A couple of generations? And it matters who is doing the evaluating and for what reasons. Is this about seeing a financial impact (paying for the construction of the new line plus measuring new development prompted by the new line)? Assessing the decisions of politicians? Trying to reach a magic number of daily users? It will be interesting to watch the ongoing analysis and who gets to take the credit or blame.

Why the Washington Metro doesn’t yet reach Tysons Corner

As part of an argument that seems to really be about the difficulties of large-scale bureaucracies in responding to change, Michael Barone explore why the Washington Metro has had difficulty in reaching suburban destinations like Tysons Corner, the prototypical edge city.

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Tysons Corner: is the protoypical edge city evolving into a “real city”?

One commentator argues that Tysons Corner, the prototypical edge city located west of Washington D.C., is changing into a “real city”:

The expansion of Metro through Tysons Corner to Dulles airport on a new Silver Line will be key to making Tysons much more accessible to DC residents. Currently there is no real downtown and few pedestrians. In a cover story for the Washington Post Sunday business section, staff writer Jonathan O’Connell detailed how Tysons is changing…

Almost under the public radar, Tysons has quietly become a major destination for corporate offices and has 26.7 million square feet of office space, which is why tens of thousands of people drive into Tysons every morning for work. Five Fortune 500 companies have headquarters there.

One major question facing developers and urban planners is how to properly create walkable streets out of what currently exists in Tysons…

Visiting Tysons this spring was for me an odd experience as I felt the place didn’t have much character and seemed rather sterile. As I headed from one mall to the next, I was one of the few people walking along the highway as a never-ending stream of cars whizzed by. If all goes well, hopefully in a few years, Tysons will be more inviting to visitors looking to wander around a new downtown.

So sidewalks will transform this into a real city? I wonder if there is a lot more that would be needed included more housing spread out between the shopping centers and corporate offices. Sidewalks may help in the creation of a downtown but without many mixed-use developments, people will still have to drive from home to these places.

Additionally, simply adding places for pedestrians to walk doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be pedestrian-friendly – the commentator suggests the sidewalks now are sterile and located along highways. As the post suggests, there needs to be a shift toward a “walkable community,” a New Urbanist principle where shops, restaurants, and housing would line these streets and sidewalks so that there becomes a streetscape rather than simply a sidewalk. Plus, “authenticity” doesn’t simply come from a pleasant streetscape – you can find these at “lifestyle centers.” It requires a dedicated population of people, a shared history, and a municipal character that can pull these pieces of infrastructure into a cohesive community.

How much demand is there for such changes in Tysons Corner? On one hand, I could see envision that if things are going well (business is thriving, people are moving in, etc.), most people would say why both messing with the formula. On the other hand, if the shiny facade of the community is showing some cracks, changes might be desirable.

This highlights one issue I have with suburban types like edge cities: the suburbs themselves don’t necessarily stay within one category. Does Garreau’s criteria allow for a walkable edge city or would a transformed Tysons Corner have to be slotted into a different category?

Comprehending the office and retail space in an edge city

After explaining the concept of an edge city to my American Suburbanization class, a discussion arose about how much space these places really have. When defining the edge city, Joel Garreau had these as two criteria (out of five total): “has five million square feet or more of leasable office space” and “has 600,000 square feet or more of leasable retail space.” This is a lot of space, as much as a smaller big city, but can still be hard to understand.

For example, there is much more commercial and retail space in the exemplar of the edge city: Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Around 2007 Tysons Corner had 25,599,065 square feet (2,378,231.0 m2) of office space, 1,072,874 square feet (99,673.3 m2) of industrial/flex space, 4,054,096 square feet (376,637.8 m2) of retail space, and 2,551,579 square feet (237,049.4 m2) of hotel space. Therefore Tysons Corner has a grand total of 33,278,014 square feet (3,091,628.7 m2) of commercial space.

How do we put this in more manageable terms?

1. Garreau compares this suburban space to the office and retail space in existing cities. The 5 million square feet of office space “is more than downtown Memphis.” While we may have traditionally associated this much office and retail space only with the downtowns of big cities, now concentrations of this space can be found right in the middle of the suburbs. This is unusual because suburbs are often portrayed as bedroom suburbs, places like people live and sleep but have to work elsewhere.

2. Compare this space to large buildings. The Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago has 4.56 million square feet of space, 3.81 million rentable. So an edge city would have at least slightly more space this notable office building though perhaps it is difficult to visualize this space since it is a skyscraper and each floor seems smaller. An ever bigger building, The Pentagon, has 6.5 million square feet, more than the lower threshold for an edge city. Therefore, Tysons Corner has nearly 4 Pentagons of office space. Comparing this edge city space to shopping malls, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois (an edge city itself) has 2.7 million square feet while the Mall of America has a total of 4.2 million square feet.

3. We could measure edge cities in terms of square miles or acres and then compare to bigger cities. Square miles make some sense: Tysons Corner is 4.9 square miles while Memphis, a city Garreau says has downtown space similar to that of an edge city, is 302.3 square miles (on land). Acres are a little harder to interpret: a common suburban house lot is an eighth of an acre, a square mile has 640 acres (hence the dividing of the American frontier into 160 and 640 acre plots), and an acre has roughly 43,500 square feet. Then, an edge city with 5 million square feet of office space has about 115 acres of office space. Perhaps acres are best left to farmers.

In the end, I think Garreau made the right comparison to demonstrate the office and retail space within an edge city: we have some ideas about the size of downtowns of smaller big cities and the image of this amount of space existing in the suburbs is jarring.