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Becca Bullard commutes every day from Arlington, Va., via Metro's Virginia Square station to her work in downtown Washington, D.C. Her commute to work begins around 9 a.m. (left), and she arrives home around 6:30 p.m. (right). (Courtesy of Becca Bullard)

How One D.C. Suburb Set A Gold Standard For Commuting

Oct 24, 2013 (Morning Edition)

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Becca Bullard commutes every day from Arlington, Va., via Metro's Virginia Square station to her work in downtown Washington, D.C.

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It may come as a surprise to riders on Metro's Orange Line in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C., but the area sets the bar for suburban transit.

That's because a risky, expensive decision by local planners in the 1960s as the Washington subway system was about to be built helped this once-sleepy community come alive. It led to an increase in residents and decrease in traffic. Instead of having a line bypass these nearby Virginia suburbs aboveground, next to a highway, planners decided to run it underground and redevelop the neighborhoods above.

"I think we were bold at the time, and it has paid off. I can't imagine what this area would be like without it," says Jay Ricks, a former board member in Arlington County.

In itself, communities built around a subway line that people use to commute into a city is not unique. What's different here is the metamorphosis, from a downtrodden suburb where everyone drives to a place where people live, walk, bike, eat, play and commute, all without ever getting behind the wheel.

Arlington resident Becca Bullard does this every day. She works for an events planning firm in downtown Washington. If she plays it perfectly, Bullard can make it by bus — or bike — to the subway, into downtown Washington and to her office, door-to-door in less than 40 minutes.

"It's really easy to get to work, and I really do enjoy hanging out in Arlington and enjoying all that it has to offer. It's a lot of fun," she says.

And that's the point of what's been created in Arlington: a community with the benefits of a suburb — more space, cleaner neighborhoods, but with restaurants and shopping easy to reach on foot, like in a city.

This trend is growing in other cities, but the risk is that these communities can become victims of their own success. Lynn Richards, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency — which gave Arlington a Smart Growth award — lives in Arlington and says that as people have flocked there, housing prices have skyrocketed. That could eventually undermine one of the main purposes there — to change a community without increasing traffic.

Another problem: The Metro system is not self-sustaining. It depends partly on public funding, and when you base a community around a subway stop, when Metro has a bad day, everybody has a bad day.

Bullard has her own horror story.

"I would say my worst experience was getting caught under the river for two hours" going into work, she says. "It was fine. They ended up getting us off that train and onto another one. You just have to know that that's part of it."

People in Arlington are well aware of the potential pitfalls — including Robert Brosnan, the county planning chief. He knows there are people who love urban living, or love rural living, who'd never feel at home there. But he's proud of what's been done.

So, is this area — one that attracts visitors from other countries who want to know how to copy its model for their own communities — as good as it gets?

"I'll never say it's as good as it gets. I think this is pretty good. We can continue to work on it," he says. He gestures at a 1980s-era building starting to show its age. "Look at this building. We were ecstatic about that at the time, but you look at it now, you say, 'Oh boy, this is a new city.' It's been developed over the past 35 years. So I think it's a matter of refinement and maturing."

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In coming weeks, NPR will visit communities around the country that are tackling their own commuting challenges. Among our stories: Tram commuting. How do you get up a twisty hill in Portland, Ore., to a major hospital? Build an aerial tram! Jane Greenhalgh reports on this unusual solution to a commuting problem. Primates who commute. Look up! Richard Harris reports on how the National Zoo's O-Line, overhead ropes that orangutans use to get around, reveals principles that could work for human commuters. The last mile. One of the most annoying problems in transportation: How do you get from your home to your main mode of transit? Richard Gonzales looks at a Bay Area shuttle bus, provided by local businesses and free to anyone who wants to ride it. New streetcars. Kathy Lohr reports that Atlanta is among a growing number of cities that are working on new streetcar lines to encourage local business and ease traffic congestion.

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