Arlington: Transit-Oriented Development

Arlington County, VA, is one of the most successful examples of transit- oriented development (TOD) in the United States. In a case study prepared for the Transit Cooperative Research Board, the authors zeroed in on successful TOD tactics employed by Arlington County officials. One of the county’s first steps was to create a general land use plan (GLUP) that set the broad policy framework for guiding development decisions along the Metrorail corridor. The county then introduced sector plans for individual sector plans that specified land- use and zoning ordinances, as well as urban design, transportation, and open-space guidelines for each station area. These plans included density bonuses, as-of-right zoning overlays, and supportive infrastructure investments to help achieve transit-oriented development within a quarter-mile radius around each Metrorail station. Arlington County officials regularly reviewed and revised the GLUP and sector plans to make sure provision were up to date, market-responsive, and aligned with community goals. Subsequent revisions added mixed-use designations, emphasized urban design, and promoted higher-density development along the Metrorail corridors while maintaining lower residential density elsewhere in the county. The report also highlighted other factors believed to have contributed to the success of TOD in Arlington County, including a politically progressive residential base and the structure of the county’s political system. In Arlington, county board members are elected at-large on staggered terms.

In addition, the county manager is appointed by the board rather than elected, which eliminates the usual tension that exists between legislative and executive officials at the local level. Since members serve at-large, the authors argue, they feel less pressure to respond to particular constituent demands and gripes about spot-traffic congestion.  The Metrorail corridor also ran the length of Wilson Boulevard, which at the time was declining into a suburban slum lined by motels and dated strip malls. The county officials recognized the opportunity for redevelopment and tax-base benefits that TOD could provide for local schools and services.

The results of these policies are impressive: Since 1980, total office space in the county has doubled to more than 50 million square feet, with 70% of the office space located within the county’s two Metrorail corridors. Additionally, the number of housing units in Metrorail corridors increased from 5,700 to more than 35,000 over the past 40 years. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has also emerged as one of Northern Virginia’s primary retail addresses.

This material is the product of a partnership between America Walks and Sam Schwartz Engineering. Visit here for more information on the partnership.