Monday, January 16, 2012

Road to the future: Bike-friendly communities

To some people, bicycling is a fringe activity in which only a few, dedicated people participate. That may have been true in the past but it's no longer the case, especially in vibrant, urban communities. Most of our major cities are trying to transform their streets into more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly places. And most of the growth that is now occurring is in urban and inner suburban areas with access to transit and stores and workplaces that are within biking and walking distance.

In the article Road to growth is out of the exurbs Post columnist Steven Pearlstein discusses this trend. When discussing the future of suburban office parks he notes that
Workers no longer prefer to work in them, companies no longer want to occupy them, banks no l onger will finance them, real estate trusts no longer want to own them band planning boards have become reluctant to approve them. In the future, developers say, offices will be part of mixed-use developments, with shops, restaurants, schools, day-care centers, and doctors' offices, preferably within walking or biking distance of condos, townhouses and Metro stops.

Across the region, a generation of baby boomers is getting ready to sell three-bedroom suburban colonials to Gen Xers who either don’t want them or can’t afford them. Add to that a wave of foreclosures and excess inventory left over from a speculative housing boom that has driven home prices in many submarkets to levels below the cost of new construction.

For exurban developers, the implication is pretty clear: The raw land they’re holding isn’t worth much and in any case, and there’s not much point trying to build on it until the excess inventory is worked off. Perhaps that is why developments that were started during the boom but were never finished are selling at 35 cents on every dollar invested in land, roads, street lights, sewer and water lines and half-finished golf courses. Even when the market clears, exurban development is likely to focus on low-cost starter homes.

All that contrasts sharply with what is going on in the District and inner suburbs, where prices have held steady and a construction boom is under way for new and remodeled townhouses and apartments. Despite the absence of bank lending, speculative condo developments have even begun to spring up in the hotter neighborhoods, almost all of them equity financed. This market is driven by singles, young-marrieds and empty-nesters, plus a growing number of families with children, all looking for a more urban, less car-dependent lifestyle.
This has major implications for Fairfax. Those areas that are more dense, with a mix of land uses near transit and that are more bike and pedestrian-friendly will thrive. Unfortunately, after years of catering to our car culture, we have few of these areas. Reston, Herndon, Vienna, Burke, and Alexandria have some of these characteristics. Many of our other more densely populated areas like Tysons, Springfield, and Annandale have not developed with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind and are in a transition period.

Bicycling has become part of the mainstream and the sooner our leaders recognize the need to accommodate them the better off we will all be.

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