Northern Virginia Locked In to Congested Roads

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Suburbanites in northern Virginia are finding their streets more clogged with traffic than ever, and, as the Washington Post reported earlier this week, they aren’t about to get bailed out by road-widening projects. Here’s the crux of the problem, told from the Post reporter’s decidedly windshield perspective:

Thoroughfares like Rolling Road are the blood vessels that connect suburbia, the secondary roads that carry commuters to interstates, residents to supermarkets and children to school. They include Braddock Road in Fairfax County, Colesville Road in Montgomery, and even such larger highways as routes 7 and 50. They are the roads that Washington area residents traverse every day, sometimes several times a day.

Just months ago, Northern Virginia residents and elected officials were expecting hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to such roads. Now, because of budget cuts and state lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on regional transportation funding, drivers can expect only more misery.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently announced a 51 percent cut in the region’s road-building program. Dozens of projects have been eliminated or postponed indefinitely. And rising maintenance costs are eating away at what little remains.

The Post assumes that expanding road capacity is the only answer, and casts the problem as purely a budgetary shortfall. It neglects to mention the role of land use in bringing about this state of affairs. The pattern described in the article is similar to what regions all over the country are facing, as past decisions to separate housing from other land uses come back to haunt them in the form of ever-mounting traffic.

"Councils of Governments and local jurisdictions spread out and segregate the various forms of land use, rebel against mixed-use, put all of their non-residential uses on the arterials, and then sit there and scratch their heads and wonder where all of the traffic came from," says Gary Toth, who heads up transportation initiatives at Project for Public Spaces and formerly served as director of project planning and development at NJDOT. "Then, they demand that the state DOT fix it. It is like a middle aged man who eats donuts and smokes all day, never exercises, and then wonders why he has chest pains."

The Post, while doing nothing to counter this mentality, at least captures it perfectly with its driver-on-the-street interviews:

"My youngest child is going to celebrate his fifth birthday sitting at a traffic light," said McLean resident Julie Hyams, who frequently uses Route 123, which had a key interchange cut from the state transportation budget. "Now the money that was allotted for improvement has gone ‘poof,’ and the roads are only going to get worse."

When the default assumption is that road widening will solve the problem, suburban residents fail to see the benefit of smart growth initiatives to their daily lives. "What is missing," says Toth, "is an organized and comprehensive PR campaign designed to educate people that they are opposing and crippling the only solutions to their problems."

"In the immortal words of Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’"

With higher gas prices and more budget-constrained DOTs becoming the norm, will suburbanites be open to a different perspective? There’s little reason for optimism in the Post story, but at least one northern Virginia resident grasped the concept of induced demand:

Leesburg resident William Bethke drives the bypass every day to get to
a park-and-ride lot in Herndon, where he catches a Fairfax Connector
bus for the 20-minute ride to the West Falls Church Metro station and
on to his job in Crystal City. In the 3 1/2 years Bethke has been
traveling the bypass bottleneck, the trip has gone from 10 or 15
minutes to 20 or 30 minutes.

But he doesn’t think widening the road will solve its long-term problems.

"Those who now avoid it would then use it, and in three years we’ll be back to where we are," he said.

Photo: AlbinoFlea / Flickr

  • Clarence

    Here’s another video contest no one is entering. This one is for Northern Virginia:

    http://www.thenovaauthority.org/congestionRelief.html

  • Mark Walker

    The first spot shortages of gasoline (triggered by hurricane or terrorist event) will send a shudder through this obsolete landscape and the people who live in it. Their first response will be to demand that the government provide them with gas rationing coupons — and subsidies, because the price of gas is not going down, tied as it is to the depletion of the world’s crude oil resources. When they finally take a hard look at their car dependency, which may take several more years of misery, they may finally start demanding bus rapid transit, light rail, and other solutions. Whether they can afford to build them is a separate question. In the long term, over the next several decades, parts of this car-oriented landscape will be either retrofitted for transit or abandoned, creating winners and losers. Beware of the losers.

  • Asa

    The missing perspective here, that Toth could likely have identified, is that state government needs to create a framework that can lead municipal governments to do the right thing, or less of the wrong thing. Step 1 is for the state DOT to publicly disown the congestion and point the finger back at the towns that are doing such insane things. Step 2, which seems to be coming first in VA, is to stop facilitating the sprawl by chasing the congestion around with new roadway lanes.

  • Shemp

    C’mon Mark, play out your darkest hopes – Mad Max fuel piracy in Fairfax County! Suburbs gone wild!

  • bystander

    Gas tax holiday anyone?

  • You can’t read about peak oil without adopting some of its cataclysmic rhetoric, which is very fun to employ. And you can’t read any sober analysis of our energy situation that isn’t at least partly in the “peak oil” universe. But so what? I don’t think it’s any crazier to talk about oil disaster scenarios than it is to treat a dwindling resource as if it were infinite. And yes you can even sanely look forward to a massive failure of suburban expansion, thereby containing a mode of development that (even ignoring tailpipe emissions) is an ecological nightmare. We don’t need ANY new suburbs, we need to reinvest and reorganize the older ones (and abandon a few of the stupidest, newest expansions). Join us on the peak oil crazy train! You won’t look back.

    Anyway, even regular people (and politicians) are invoking Mad Max if you take common statements to their logical conclusion:

    In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin says “you drive to survive” and the gas price spike has hit particularly hard. “It’s hard to drive from here to Huntington when gas is $4 a gallon and you’re getting paid minimum wage,” says Wayne Mayor Junior Ramey.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-05-08-westvirginia_N.htm

    A. These people “drive to survive” (cute). B. They can’t afford current prices. C. It is overwhelmingly likely that prices will continue to rise in the long term. Ergo? DEATH. We are all peak oil crazies.

  • Henry Berg

    I can’t say that I have a shred of sympathy for them. I grew up in Northern Va and watched for years as horse country and Civil War battlefields were paved over for more malls/parking lots, etc. Frankly, I find the depth of the problem in the area stupifying. The state continues to elect Republicans to Richmond that won’t stand for a bit of taxation — which was fine when it was a state of tobacco farmers, but makes it impossible to tackle huge infrastructure problems like this one. But even if that ended and they decided to build a transit network, there’s no clear pattern for where it should go. People live in suburbs or apartment buildings surrounded by massive parking lots, shop at malls surrounded by massive parking lots, and work in small office parks surrounded by more of same. Even if one were to pick a spot on the map and say “ok, put a train station here,” by the time you surround it with it’s own obligatory parking lot, there’s nothing to walk to. Sure, the people living/working in the closest one or two office parks could walk from the station, but the rest would have to hike accross several parking lots to get to and from the station. And in VA heat? Forget it. I think they would have to start with a master plan of where to place transit projects, then begin rezoning and systemically dismantling the suburban fabric in favor of high-density clusters near the stations. All that while getting the Fed, State, District, several Counties, and any number of municipalities to agree on a plan?? Forget it. Not doable. Not ever.

    I hope they can telecommute, they’re going to need it…

  • Eric

    Instead of road widening, they could take that money and replace one or two lanes with rail.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Is there any ghetto real estate still available in DC?

  • Maybe they can move back to all the walkable Northern mill towns they came from and rebuild the trolleys their parents tore up.

  • “Is there any ghetto real estate still available in DC?”

    That’s where this is going, I think – it’s already happening in Chicago, at least. The inner city is going to be taken over by rich folks and former suburb-dwellers, and the poor will be pushed into the suburbs. These suburbs will see their own round of white flight and disinvestment, but now poor people will be even more isolated since they’ll be cut off from transit.

    This is a big challenge for the livable streets movement – how to desuburbanize without making social inequality worse.

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