Getting around Tysons by foot, bike, or scooter may seem daunting for most of us. But if you’re a walkability researcher, its layers of highway lanes and lack of sidewalks and crosswalks make for an interesting study.
Walkability—how friendly an area is to walking—is a big topic in Tysons, a census-designated place that was built around cars. The area has lofty goals in its comprehensive plan to transform from an “edge city” into an urban center, to employ an additional 200,000 people, and to add about 100,000 residents—while simultaneously decreasing the number of single-vehicle trips. Local leaders are trying a variety of ways to make Tysons more friendly for people bicycling and walking to get cars off the road and to make the area more inviting.
So how are their efforts going? Andrew Mondschein, a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, has been studying walkability in Tysons since 2015. When he offered me the opportunity to walk around Tysons and record what I encountered, I jumped at the chance.
The science of walkability
On a bright and clear Thursday afternoon, I met Mondschein at the Greensboro Metro station, which is right along Leesburg Pike. The professor and a group of student volunteers frequently spend hours traversing Tysons with their equipment.
“My goal is really to describe Tysons better than it’s being described right now,” Mondschein said. He looks at air quality, temperatures, noise pollution, the number of people on the street, humidity, and tree cover, and aligns that information with Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) traffic data to get a robust sense of what walking around an area is like.
“We selected a range of areas where new development has either happened or was planned to happen or, isn’t going to happen and kind of strung [them] together,” Mondschein said. The total area his team covers is between six to eight miles. For years, they have retreaded through the same area. “It’s really laborious and slow. But it also kind of tells us what we need to know about the walking environment in these parts of Tysons.”
We walked around a condensed version of the study area known as “Tysons Central 7,” nicknamed “The Boro.” Mondschein brought along a small canvas bag of scientific goodies.
First was the Airbeam, a machine built by an environmental justice organization HabitatMap to measure air quality. The box resembles one of the ghosts in a Ms. Pac-man video game, and connects with a smartphone to give a measuring of the fine particulate matter (aka PM2.5) in the air. The Environmental Protection Agency lists PM2.5 as a pollutant that has been linked to lung and heart disease.
Mondschein also had a microphone to test noise levels, plus a machine that lets you know how many other smartphones are in the area, which translates to how many people are nearby. He even has a machine to measure light, though he didn’t bring it the day we walked around. When his research is ready, we’ll write about it.
Your experience walking in Tysons may vary
We started our walk along Leesburg Pike. Unsurprisingly, the noise level there was high due to the large volume of traffic, which made the experience rather unpleasant. In general, areas around newer developments prioritize walkability and are less stressful to navigate on foot, while walking near Tysons’ freeways feels treacherous at times.
Then we turned back up towards the Boro apartment buildings, where we encountered new developments mostly made up of mixed-use buildings, including the site of a new Whole Foods. The only the vehicles on the road were delivery trucks. It was much quieter here, and the experience overall was more enjoyable.
“This doesn’t look that different than the Navy Yard in DC. So when we want to compare Tysons to DC, there will be instances where you are like ‘yeah, this is exactly the same thing, right?’” Mondschein continued, “It looks to be a very pleasant street. Lots of super wide sidewalks, very little automobile traffic—just enough to kind of drop people off, all of those good things.”
Mondschein concedes that walkability in Tysons will most likely never look like it does in areas that were built on a human scale, rather than around cars. He says that’s ok, and improvements can still be made.
“Looking at what’s possible, it’ll never be like central DC,” Mondschein said. “Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, if we know what our goal is, which is retrofitting a suburban area into an urban area.”
But Mondschein added that over time, in a few decades from now perhaps, what’s possible in Tysons may shift with technology. For now, Mondschein and his team will keep on walking and recording.