I like to ride the San Diego Trolley when I visit family there, but the mile walk from the station to their house is so, so awful that it always makes me think twice about riding the train. Here at home, my walk to the Metro is the same distance, and I do it happily all the time.


The walk along Jackson Drive in La Mesa isn’t very inviting. Image by the author.




The 1.1-mile walk from the Grossmont Trolley station in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to my family’s house takes you through a strip mall parking lot, along the six-lane major arterial Fletcher Parkway and then up the overly wide four-lane Jackson Drive before you turn into their neighborhood. It’s not pleasant, as the picture above shows.


The route of my walk in La Mesa. Image by Google Maps.


As a result, my family only drives to the station when they ride the Trolley, and I — someone who likes to ride transit — think twice about making the walk when I’m there.

The crazy thing is that this is a comparable distance to what I walk a couple of times a week from the Shaw-Howard U Metro station to my house in Eckington.

What’s the difference?  The walk in DC is along leafy streets lined with rowhouses in the Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods. Yes, I cross three major roads — Florida Avenue, and North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue where they meet — but it is just two intersections, and I do not walk along either street for very long.


I use T Street NW when walking from the Shaw Metro station to Eckington. Image by Google Maps.


Street design and development patterns matter

Much of the residential development surrounding the Grossmont Trolley station, including where my family lives, was built during the post-war suburbanisation of the 1950s and 1960s. Miles and miles of single family ranch houses built for people that get around in a car.

Retrofitting this suburban, auto-oriented built environment for pedestrians is difficult. The basic infrastructure, including sidewalks and crosswalks, exists in La Mesa.

However, there are also a number of missed opportunities when it comes to changing the built environment to make the walk more pleasant. These include wider sidewalks, barriers between passing cars and the sidewalk that increase pedestrians’ perception of safety, and streetside land use that is inviting to pedestrians, like store or home fronts, instead of strip mall parking lots and driveways.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, talked about turning major arterials into tree-lined “boulevards” as one example of a suburban retrofit in a 2010 TED talk. Transit access can be a catalyst to such retrofits, she noted.

La Mesa is trying. The 527-unit Alterra and Pravada apartment complex is immediately adjacent to the Grossmont station, built atop its parking lot.

But even the Alterra and Pravada building is not the most inviting pedestrian environment. The ground level lacks retail and is instead dominated by entrances to the parking lot.

DC, at least in its older neighborhoods, benefits from having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape already in place. However, the region faces many of the same issues at some of Metro’s more suburban stations, for example in Tysons and White Flint.

Better walkability means more transit riders

PlanItMetro has found that a larger “walkshed” — the area around a station that is easily walkable — to a Metro station directly correlates to higher ridership. Shaw, which has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, saw an average of 5,087 Metro riders on weekdays in 2015 compared to Grossmont, which has a Walk Score of 76 out of 100, that saw an average of 5,707 Trolley riders on weekdays during its 2016 fiscal year that ended in June.

However, Grossmont is a transfer station between the Trolley’s Green and Orange lines, which boosts ridership numbers. San Diego measures ridership by the number of people who get on or off a train, versus the number of entries and exits to a station as DC’s Metro does.

The Metro system handled an average of 712,843 weekday riders and the Trolley system an average of 122,157 weekday riders in 2015, data from the respective transit agencies shows.

La Mesa is a reminder that simply building transit is not all that it takes to make a suburban neighborhood walkable and generate new transit ridership. A fact that is applicable in many city’s around the country, including in the DC suburbs, as they build out their own light rail systems to previously auto-oriented suburbs.