Anyone who’s seen the area around a variety of Metro stations knows that some are very walkable and some are not. Is there a scientific measure of that? Metro planners crunched the numbers to find out.
Metro rider surveys have shown that most people are willing to walk up to about a half mile to get to a Metro station. Research in other cities also has settled on the half-mile zone.
But the land within a half mile of a station is not the same all across the system. You can’t walk in any direction; there are things in the way, whether buildings, rivers, or highways. Where there is a good grid of streets near the station, it’s possible to reach a lot by walking up to half a mile. Elsewhere, most of that half-mile radius circle actually requires a longer walk.
Landover, for instance, is right next to a highway. There is only one road leading to the station’s parking lot, and no connection over the highway to the nearest residential neighborhood. At Takoma, on the other hand, the street grid lets riders reach many commercial streets and neighborhoods with a half-mile walk.
Metro planners calculated the percentage of land within a half mile you can reach by walking a half mile. It’s little surprise that the worst stations are mostly in Fairfax and Prince George’s, two jurisdictions that did not try to locate their stations in walkable areas or, during Metro’s first few decades, work very hard to plan transit-oriented development around them.
Which stations and jurisdictions fare best and worst?
The worst stations in DC appear to be Fort Totten, a station in the middle of a federal park, and Rhode Island Avenue, a station hemmed in by strip mall development and lacking a good street grid on most sides. (The pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks to the Metropolitan Branch Trail may improve that station’s score once it opens.)
In Arlington, it’s National Airport (no surprise there; you can’t walk on most of an airport) and East Falls Church (but the county has a plan for that area). The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, most of DC (especially in the L’Enfant city) and Montgomery County (particularly inside the Beltway) fare well.
Alexandria is very mixed, with two stations hemmed in by the Beltway and in areas with weaker grids. Prince George’s stations are generally more unwalkable than walkable, with College Park the biggest exception. In Fairfax, only Huntington gets anywhere close to a good score. It will be interesting to see how the Tysons stations rank once they open, now and in the future.
The planners also found that the walkability rank correlates very strongly with a station’s morning peak ridership. This makes sense, because at the vast majority of stations, even when there is parking there is not that much compared to all the capacity of the trains that pass through. The stations which get a lot of use are those with many people living or working nearby.
There’s more to walkability
It’s important to note that this is one of several measures of walkability. This analysis computes the size of a station’s “walk shed,” or how far you can physically get by walking. That is a necessary first step to making a place walkable.
While the Metro planners excluded highways, this analysis still treats roads the same, even though some have no sidewalks, or are multi-lane high-speed roads that are intimidating and unsafe to walk on. But since most of the time good street grids go hand in hand with safer streets to walk on, that shouldn’t affect the results much.
More significantly, when people talk about walkable neighborhoods, they are generally thinking beyond just the literal ability to walk. Walkability also includes whether there are amenities such as stores, parks, and more that you can reach by walking. The WalkScore tool computes these in its scores for an area.
Some Metro stations are in places which are physically walkable, but where there isn’t much to walk to except for the houses immediately nearby. Glenmont or Forest Glen might be good examples. On the other end of the scale, Prince George’s Plaza has a terrible walk shed, but there are lots of stores right near the station.
Regardless, this analysis says something important, and something that’s most directly under government planners’ control. If jurisdictions want their Metro stations to thrive, a critical first step is making sure people can get to them from the immediate area without having to drive and take up a scarce (and expensive) parking spot.