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Global and Commercial Articles

New Transportation Alternatives Impact Commercial Development

Jul 8, 2019, 11:54 AM
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From Horses to Cars to...Bikes? 

REALTORS® HAVE MORE transportation issues to consider for commercial properties than just “How far is it to the nearest Metro station?” or “How many parking spaces come with it?” Local government planners are increasingly adopting transportation plans to address problems of traffic congestion and adequate parking, while providing residents with alternatives to their traditional use of automobiles.

These changes are not happening in some galaxy far, far away. They can be seen right here in Northern Virginia. Their impact may be as profound as the transition from horses to cars that took place more than 100 years ago.

In an area that loved horses, it must have been difficult for residents to envision a future where their horses would be replaced by automobiles, as began happening in 1909 when Henry Ford introduced his popular Model T. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” Ford was famously (and probably incorrectly) reported to have commented at the time, but the quote lives on because there is an element of truth to it. What people really wanted was to get around faster. They couldn’t imagine anything working as well as a faster horse. Horses also provided a livelihood for farmers who bred and fed them, the veterinarians and horseshoers who cared for them and the saddlers and harness-makers who equipped them.

Automobiles ultimately replaced horses. The new owners began spending vast amounts of money to buy and maintain their cars, build roads on which to drive them and garages in which to park them. With this new mobility, drivers moved their families out of Washington, D.C. and into Northern Virginia. Typically, they drove their cars alone into D.C. in the mornings to work, left them parked all day and then drove them back home that evening. Commercial developers soon followed the drivers to their suburban neighborhoods, constructing nearby office buildings and retail centers. Urban boundaries began stretching across the Potomac past Arlington and Fairfax Counties into areas that not long before had been pastures and farm land.

Just as it was hard for yesterday’s horse owners to envision a world dominated by cars, it is difficult for today’s car owners to envision a world without them. Yet in urban areas, residents are increasingly not looking at improving their automobiles, but rather at transportation services they can use when they need it, without the cost of ownership, such as ride sharing, more f lexible bus schedules, or new “micro-mobility” offerings of bicycles or electric scooters. These alternatives are especially useful for short distances, where it is a less costly way of traveling the “first” or “last” mile to their destinations.

For example, according to a front- page report by Matt Delaney in the Falls Church News Press this past May, the City of Falls Church joined D.C., Arlington and Alexandria in opening Capital Bikeshare stations just in time for “Bike to Work Day” on May 17. City officials placed bike stations in higher density commercial and residential areas where they are most likely to be used, Delaney noted. As part of the implementation, the city also repurposed two parking spaces on Park Avenue near City Hall to accommodate 12 bicycles.

In a broader effort to promote non-car transportation throughout the city, Falls Church is also looking to update and reduce its residential parking standards for multifamily residential projects. More scarce land can be devoted to more profitable uses, or even designated as parks or green spaces, as the need for parking automobiles is reduced.

In its recent IPO prospectus, Uber, the pioneering ride sharing company, predicted that future transportation will be “shared on demand services” where a person can “call a ride, hop on a bike or rent a scooter.” Such alternatives encourage denser commercial development where the increasingly popular mantra of “live, work and play” is easier to achieve. This development trend is also attracting increased commercial investment in Northern Virginia’s emerging “urbanized suburbs” clustered along the extended Metro service lines. Reviewing these trends, real estate futurist Elie Finegold recently boldly predicted “density is destiny” in his essay “Our Frictionless Future” published online by Propmodo.

Amazon’s new National Landing headquarters site is a clear example of a commercial investment based on nearby high-rise multifamily residential living spaces, surrounded by an abundance of retailing, with multiple ways to travel to or from the area. In its initial construction plans announced in May, Amazon revealed that it will be adding nearly 6 million square feet of office space with underground parking for cars, improved access to mass transit and an onsite bike facility for 600 bicycles to be connected to Arlington’s existing bike trails. The city council in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle recently announced they are considering eliminating “single-family residential” zoning in order to encourage lower cost multifamily housing construction throughout the city.

Just as commercial developers are already doing, Realtors®, too, may want to revise their business plans to reflect this new urban transportation reality.
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