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Washington Is Nation’s Most Walkable Metropolitan Area, Researchers Say

But not for long if the local economy slows down.
Photograph by Flickr user Justin Swan.

Washington is the nation’s most walkable metropolitan area, according to the results of a new report by researchers at George Washington University and Smart Growth America.

While the study is good news for the local multimodal set, it’s a bit surprising to find out that Washington is more pedestrian friendly than, say, New York City or Boston. But the report’s metrics take into account far more than just city centers. The study grades metropolitan areas according to their walkable urban places—“WalkUPs,” in the researchers’ lingo—including downtowns and suburban settlements, and how much of a metro’s non-residential space is located in those areas.

Washington has 43 percent of its office and retail space in its “WalkUPs,” researchers say, with its 45 walkable areas split almost evenly between the District and the suburbs. By comparison, 88 percent of second-place New York’s walkable zones are in Manhattan.

But there’s an important catch in this report: While Washington gets credit for having an even distribution of its “WalkUPs,” many of those zones are suburban pockets that most locals would not necessarily call pedestrian-friendly. While places such as downtown Bethesda, Old Town Alexandria, and Reston are easy to navigate on foot, places like Tysons and Montgomery County’s White Flint district get credit for their planned urban walkability. Tysons, for instance, is banking on the Silver Line to make it less car-dependent; in the present day, it can be rather forbidding.

The researchers also do not expect Washington to stay on top for long, writing that sustained cuts to the federal spending that drives the region’s economy will lead to a slowdown in urbanization. The report suggests Boston, where suburbs are also rapidly urbanizing, will shoot to the top of the list in the future.

“Walkable urban growth depends on the overall economic health of the region, not just capturing demand from increasingly obsolete office parks, strip malls, and ‘drive-until-you-qualify’ subdivisions,” they write.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.