Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Research shows biking, walking can thrive in suburbia

Posted by on April 26th, 2011 at 8:47 am

As long as connections exist, riding
in suburbia can happen.
(Photo © J. Maus)

It’s a somewhat generally accepted concept in urban planning circles that there’s no hope for suburbia. Cinder block walls, cul-de-sacs, and wide arterials all make for a car-centric lifestyle. But new reseach shows that among suburban multifamily housing — the fastest growing housing type in the U.S. — biking and walking can thrive.

In Overlooked Density: Re-Thinking Transportation Options in Suburbia, Nico Larco, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, focuses on suburban multifamily housing, which he calls a “widespread and overlooked example of density.”

“Dispelling commonly held beliefs about the amount of walking and biking occurring in suburbia, our study shows that more than a third of all trips to the LCA [local commercial area]… are active travel trips.”

His findings show that, not surprisingly, site design and connectivity to commercial areas are major factors in whether or not residents choose to walk or bike. Among developments in the study that were well-connected to commercial areas, more than 44% of residents choose to walk or bike to them — a rate that’s nearly twice as high as multifamily developments that lack connectivity.

But what is surprising is that, contrary to our popular perception of suburbia, “Across all studied developments, more than a third of all trips to nearby commercial strips are taken on foot, with a total of 38.7 percent taken on foot or by bicycle.”

Nico Larco, AIA

Larco writes that there may be, “additional latent active transport in suburbia,” but it will only be realized if developers and planners make connectivity and “pass through” between their units and commercial areas a top priority. For those that get it right, here’s what they have to look forward to (taken from chapter 2 of the study):

“The latent potential in proximity of residences and commercial areas can reduce residents’ reliance on automobiles and increase active modes of travel such as walking and biking, especially for short trips under a half mile. Increasing active travel might reduce vehicle miles traveled, which has positive impacts on the environment as it reduces carbon emissions. In addition, walking and biking can have a positive effect on residents’ physical and mental health and can provide economic savings.”

Especially significant in Larco’s field of study are the health, economics, and equity implications. As he notes in the study, the typical demographic of suburban multifamily housing includes the elderly and lower-income individuals. “Increasing active travel for these populations,” Larco writes, “can have an economic effect as residents do not need to have access to automobiles or pay for additional fuel for these short trips.”

Larco’s study was funded by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC). Learn more and download the final report at the OTREC website.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

20
Leave a Reply

avatar
8 Comment threads
12 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
13 Comment authors
Brian E.Paul in the 'couveRandywsbobbeelnite Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Sheesh. Finally. Kudos to Larco for bringing this well-kept secret to light. The caption under your photo says it all, Jonathan: “As long as connections exist…”

As a suburban bike commuter who lives AND works in Beaverton, I see so many examples of, as Maxwell Smart might say, “missed it by that much!” bike lanes only on a few high-speed arterials like Murray Blvd. Routes through neighborhoods that take you a mile out of your way just following the winding maze of Avenues, Lanes, Courts, Terraces, Circles, Loops–how many names for “Street” are there? Then there are the lovely paved Mixed-use paths that are three feet wide and just end when they get to a “wetland”, only to continue on the other side, but not before you have to ride far out of the way along labyrinthine neighborhood streets and bike-lane-free arterials to pick them up again. Other “trails” are interrupted by ridiculous mid-block crossings that force either a dash across a 40 mph, 5-lane road, or a quarter-mile detour to the nearest pedestrian signal (when the mid-block is fenced off for “safety”). Many paths also cross quiet neighborhood streets mid-block, but have no curb cuts, making it just that much more inconvenient.

If suburban planners could have this collective epiphany and put non-motorized connecting paths between cul-de-sacs, complete connections along existing trails (and widen those trails), there could potentially be a huge boom in suburban cycling. After all, who needs to cut their gasoline expenses the most?

Now if we could only get suburban businesses to understand how parking a bike is actually done. “Wheel-breakers” haven’t cut it since 1978. A “wavy” rack 8″ from the wall of a building is practically useless. If you surround your bike rack with the latest seasonal plant display and make it difficult to find, let alone get to…etc.

Thanks again for publishing this story, Jonathan. There is huge potential in the suburbs; connectivity for “active” transport can be had for relative pennies (when compared to projects like widening Bethany Blvd, widening Hwy 26, etc.). If only those with control of the funds could see the possibilities…

Dude
Guest
Dude

Believing in this “popular perception of suburbia” kinda makes one seem like one fits the “popular perception” of the urban elitist.

Jack
Guest
Jack

It seems like this all breaks down to terminology. People often talk in terms of Urban/Suburban/Rural which are all just simplified ways to talk about the metric which actually matters: density.

If a majority of houses in a suburb are within walking distance of most necessities, is it really suburban?

PorterStout
Guest
PorterStout

Jack raises a good question, but I think the answer is that while the impact of suburbs can be lessened by adding more local resources, such as a “village center” if you like, these are still suburbs if a large portion of the population has to travel outside of them on a daily basis to derive their principal income. Would certainly be nice if planners/developers included alternative modes of transportation as a matter of course, without simply assuming everyone’s going to drive and then making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course the people that move into those locations tend to be a self-selecting bunch too, folks to whom bicycle options are less of a priority than to most of us visiting this website.

Justin
Guest

Jack:
That’s a good observation. Larco calls the report “Overlooked Density” for that reason. He’s looking at multifamily areas that are built between strip malls and single-family housing (the stereotypical suburbia). Many people do overlook the fact that a lot of people live in a very small area because of their perceptions of suburbia. His point is that better design can really tap into this density as a resource.

Lynne
Guest
Lynne

Beaverton Bicycle Advisory Committee. Be there.
The Getting to Work in Washington County panel in Hillsboro Wed evening. Be there.
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=167593773293693
Represent. Speak UP.

beelnite
Guest
beelnite

I’m in East Portland… it’s the arterial streets – they cut us off like rivers with few bridges and safe crossings. The roar of 40-45 mph traffic between 122nd-108th on SE Stark for example… cuts off several churches, a store, a medical clinic, several apartment buildings, a park, the middle school and East Portland COMMUNITY Center. Oh we do OK – dashing across 5 lanes with strollers, praying drivers obey the ridiculously over marked yet INVISIBLE cross walk… the only crosswalk… A middle schooler gets hit every few years in the crosswalk and the CoP puts out a school zone for awhile – but last time they took it down from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. because “compliance was low.” Nice. Now it lasts from 7 a.m. – 7:15 a.m. and again for 15 minutes in the afternoon.

I dunno it’s the little things… connectivity, sure… how about liveability too – oh I guess it’s all part of the puzzle.

Randy
Guest
Randy

Good article. Traffic jams are increasing on 205 morning and night…Traffic “congestion” jams are a major cause of Portland’s polluted air. We need a car diet strategy just as much as bike boulevards. Cyclists need clean air to thrive…