Comparing the Fates of Two Exurbs

Reporter Ben Adler travels to Leesburg, VA without a car and reports on the difficulties he experiences getting around. In comparison, Ben walks with ease around Kentlands, a New Urbanist development in Maryland.
May 6, 2009, 1pm PDT | Tim Halbur
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"In October, I did the unthinkable and went to stay in Leesburg, where my grandmother lives, without a car. After taking the commuter bus to Leesburg from Washington, D.C., I arrived in a massive gravel parking lot. Everyone jumped into a car and drove home, except for one or two bicyclists and a few people waiting to be picked up. For the car-less, these commuter buses are the only way into or out of Leesburg, save for one "reverse commuter" bus that goes to the nearest Metro station, roughly 40 minutes away. No trains stop here, no Greyhound station is in sight, and no buses come on the weekends. A cab to the Metro costs at least $60. Walking? Forget about it. The sidewalks are narrow and poorly lit, and cars whiz by without a buffer lane of parked cars to slow them down. It's enough to make pedestrians feel downright unsafe.

Even as Leesburg notionally committed to a more responsible land-use pattern in its 2005 town plan, it continues to zone undeveloped land at low densities. The standard in Leesburg is four units to the acre, although it is sometimes lower -- in contrast with a typical city block, which would have approximately 25 buildings per acre and possibly far more units if they were subdivided into apartments. Yet Leesburg actively discourages developers from building more sensibly. That is because the Town Council fears that dense plans will bring costly infrastructure needs, such as sewers, and that great suburban boogeyman, traffic. In 2007, one developer bought the right to build a mix of town homes and detached houses on an undeveloped property by paying to expand the arterial road that will serve it from two lanes to four. So to build denser in Leesburg, you need to give the town exactly more of what it does not need: wider roads."

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Published on Monday, April 27, 2009 in The American Prospect
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