By Fionnuala Quinn
In a way that Irish families readily understand, my siblings and I live all over – Fairfax, Edinburgh, Dublin, Kobe – four countries and three continents. Having been raised with a full complement of independent travel options but not getting car keys until after entering the workforce, we remain keen walkers, bicyclists and public transit users and no matter where we now live, the available transportation choices impact our quality of life. Like most people, we are each just trying to move ourselves, our loved ones and our stuff from one place to another safely, easily and in comfort. Bonus points if we accrue some health benefit and we are not looking to add stress or spend lots of money in the process. Even here in almost-entirely suburban Fairfax County, approximately one-third of daily trips are less than three miles in length so my busy household also mixes in walking, bicycling and transit to get around. We may have to work a little harder than my siblings to leave the car home but after several decades of life here, it’s clear that local travel choices have appreciably increased in recent years and it’s for the better for all of us.
Depending on how streets, sidewalks, trails and rail lines connect for a particular community, people can choose walking, bicycling or motorized travel. The U.S. travel network has been put together to serve all sorts of needs and is incredibly complicated in design and operation. Transportation itself is in a time of great change and we can expect challenges and burdens to increase in volume and complexity over coming decades. As with the legacy of post-war subdivisions, we are making decisions now that will influence our range of choices for getting around in the future. The more flexibility and connectivity we design or retrofit in, the more options there will be to avoid congestion and reap social and health benefits. By clearly expressing how we would like to live and with thoughtful attention to putting the built world together, we can add choices like walking that one-mile trip to the library while also preparing for the transformational mobility possibilities.
Modern U.S. suburbs were made possible by new means of transportation that allowed living further from employment, services and activities. While early suburbs developed around streetcar lines, later expansion focused around automobile travel. Reston was a noted national exception and developed in a fashion that included connected walking and bicycling options. This was all thanks to the visionary ideas of Robert E. Simon, Reston’s original founder. Decades later, the resulting community offers increased choices for getting to shopping, social events and employment and those who do walk, bike or use transit represent a wide range. While my husband’s eight-mile bike commute to Reston is a key aspect of integrating health into his busy work life, there are many living locally unable to drive or with no access to a vehicle who benefit more profoundly from having these options.
Always generous with his time, Mr. Simon visited the before-school engineering program at Hunters Woods Elementary School annually. He would invariably ask for a show of hands on how many walked and biked to school. He told the students that he had them in mind when he came up with the trails and that he wanted them to be able get to the pools and tennis courts independently also. Five decades later his ideas about having those trails go over or under the streets so as not to have to deal with speeding cars seems even more relevant. You could see the students excitedly light up when he added that the only thing better than biking to school was riding a horse. No one ever accused Mr. Simon of failure of imagination in terms of the possibilities for getting around and it was pretty inspiring to see a 99-year old surrounded by 11-year olds lining up for his autograph after listening to his thoughts on these matters.
Reston’s layout has created a robust framework that can readily reorient towards 21st century transportation and land use changes. The neighborhoods and destinations of Reston are served in a way that already make this one of the most livable areas in Fairfax County but the addition of the rail service and upgraded bus service adds further layers of options and trip combinations. Notably, the 45-mile W&OD Trail runs through the heart of Reston and passes within feet of the Metrorail system creating a key regional travel interconnection. When I go into D.C., I can now combine my folding bike with local buses to access the Metrorail as rules allow carrying these types of bikes on at any time. Upon my later return, the folding bike allows me to catch any of several buses that get me to within a short biking distance of my house. Meanwhile my grown children use their smartphones to catch Uber or Lyft from the Wiehle-Reston station without a thought of it being novel. Every morning, the numerous young professionals pouring out of the station as they head to employment in Reston are a testament to the new choices. High-quality bike parking is available at the station so many are biking the last mile of their rail trip. Meanwhile many are awaiting the planned local bikeshare system, currently under design.
With work well underway on new land uses and transit expansion, how we travel locally already supports a range of choices and combinations beyond private automobile trips. Transportation culture
is always changing and the signs are visible that there are many open to the new travel choices. The future is a foreign country…they may do things differently there…but we can play important roles in shaping that future for ourselves.