People walking in Shaw by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

The DC Policy Center published a longer version of this article.

Every shiny new building erected in DC is proof of a successful bargain. For a project to be approved, it has to meet regulations that aim to make sure it will be a good thing for its community. Construction and fire codes ensure that a new building won’t be the seed of a 19th-century-style urban conflagration. Inclusionary zoning ensures that at least some space will be set aside for economically-excluded residents. And now, a new suite of requirements will ensure that new buildings improve the walkability of the neighborhoods that surround them.

Walkability is good for our sense of civic community, it’s good for racial and economic justice, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for the planet. Walkability improves physical and mental health, affordability, and financial performance. It’s a good thing.

The Washington region is among the most walkable in the country, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. Drivers killed 92 pedestrians last year in the Washington region, where more than two-thirds of commuters drive to work.

It isn’t easy for a place to be walkable. Academic researchers and city planners agree that comfort, safety, visual interest, connectivity, and directness are all necessary. Sidewalks alone aren’t enough.

Whenever a developer proposes a new building, they’re required to send the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) a report: A transportation study in which a technical consultant evaluates the impact the new building’s users might have on the city’s transportation system. For decades, this review has been more of a traffic study than a transportation study, and consultants have learned to predict, with fraction-of-a-second precision, the effects of a new development on the waiting times of nearby intersections. But these studies have rarely measured, much less addressed, a development’s impact on people walking.

Two months ago, that changed. DDOT issued a new set of guidelines that require transportation studies to include in-depth evaluation of a project’s impacts on pedestrians. The guidelines also dictate what kinds of impacts will be considered acceptable—and standards are high.

The biggest improvements have to do with parking. Residential buildings within a quarter mile of Metro, for example, are expected to have no more than three parking spots for every ten units. Even buildings over a mile away from Metro are expected to have no more than six spots per 10 units.

If you’re a developer going above that, DDOT will consider the parking to be a negative impact in need of mitigation. They will require you to take additional measures to support public transit, like buying SmarTrip cards for residents or paying DC to improve Circulator service. What’s more, developers must now unbundle the cost of parking from building rents. That way renters realize just how much they’re spending to store their cars, and those without cars get a discount.

There are also many, many improvements in dealing with urban design. Here are just a few:

  • Garages and loading docks must now be accessed through alleyways, rather than directly from the street, minimizing the number of curb-cut driveways where vehicles can dangerously cross the sidewalk.
  • Developers must now construct mid-block crosswalks whenever possible to help create a more comprehensive network of connections for people on foot.
  • Street trees are required, making the area much more comfortable for people walking (especially in the DC summer).
  • Sidewalks must be straight, rather than curving around signs or bus stops.
  • Bicycle parking is mandatory, and in many cases developers will be required to fund new Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • Curbs must be extended at intersections to help people cross the street more safely.

Although these new regulations are wide-reaching, they’re far from complete. DDOT is still working to improve, and is hoping to issue an even better version of the requirements in the next 12-18 months. If you have any thoughts about how else developers can contribute to better mobility for everybody, you’re encouraged to reach out to aaron.zimmerman@dc.gov and share your thoughts—Aaron is very friendly!

For more information, particularly on how the new guidelines require developers to measure impacts on pedestrians and how those measurements could be further improved, take a look at my full-length article for the DC Policy Center—or, even better, dive into the document yourself.