Saturday, August 13, 2005

Fairfax Metro: How Greater Density Can Reduce Traffic Counts

Foes of Business-As-Usual transportation policy argue that developers should be allowed to build at greater densities in areas served by existing transportation infrastructure as an alternative to building at low densities in areas that require expensive road improvements. Skeptics respond that higher density -- packing more houses, offices and stores into a smaller space -- means more localized congestion.

The arguments of both sides are on display at the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station, where Pulte Homes wants to develop 2,250 residences, 100,000 square feet of retail space and 300,000 square feet of office space. Fairfax supervisors approved the request subject to Pulte being able to demonstrate that it could reduce the number of expected "trips" generated by the development by 47 percent.

A Pulte study contends that it is possible to meet that goal, with a little to spare. Local foes of the project question the methodology. See The Connection newspaper's account of the controversy here.

What the Not-In-My-Back-Yard types overlook, of course, is that people have to live, work and shop somewhere. If they don't do it in a compact space connected to Metro rail and designed to encourage foot traffic, they will most likely do it in scattered, disconnected, low-density places that will generate far more trips and create greater congestion on someone else's roads.


At 3:32 PM, Blogger Overtaxed in Fairfax said...

The battle over Tysons Corner is truly about whether Fairfax County elected officials are willing to sell out the public interest for the benefit of a few large landowners. Fairfax County's public infrastructure cannot support its population today, especially in the Tysons Corner area. Yet, the Board of Supervisors stands ready to approve massive rezoning that would permit 150,000 residents into Tysons, along with a multitude of new workers, despite the fact that the rail study shows no overall improvement in traffic congestion with the extension of Metrorail.
The problems aren't limited to traffic. Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin wrote a memorandum to the Board of Supervisors warning that the County's wastewater treatment system cannot handle any growth beyond what is already in the Comprehensive Plan. In other words, if the Tysons Corner rezoning were to be approved, we need to build a new wastewater treatment system for the County. Who is going to pay for that? Certainly not the developers and land speculators who will receive a windfall from redeveloping Tysons Corner. This is probably the reason why the County has tried to bury Mr. Griffin's memo. Fairfax's Supervisors regularly kowtow to big developers. For example, Fairfax County seeks the lowest target proffer for public schools ($7000 per house) of any nearby jurisdiction. In fact, the County's formula provides a discount in the target fee because the schools use trailers for classrooms. Middle school students in Fairfax County eat lunch as early as 9:45 am because of overcrowded schools due to development. In a response to a data request from the McLean Citizens Association, Fairfax County officials admitted that, for fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2006, taxpayers will have subsidized real estate development and rezoning services by almost $33 million. All of this in a local government that prides itself in openness and quality.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

More localized congestion is only part of the argument, Jim.

The other part of the argument is that packing more houses, offices and stores into a smaller place is more expensive than less dense development, even if road costs are considered, because complexity is a major cost driver. Another major cost drivers is education and public safety which are more closely related to number of people than to density.

What "overtaxed in fairfax" is saying is that people should pay the price for their locational choices. If the argument that congested spaces cost more is true, then the market will support living patterns that are different from your ideology.

It's true that people have to live, work and shop somewhere (well, at least the alternative is unnattractive). It also appears that no matter where you build, some idiot who lives someplace else will object to paying part of the infrastructure costs, and that at least some distributed costs are unavoidable. My argument on paying for locational chices is primarily that it cuts both ways, and this seems to be the argument of "overtaxed in fairfax" as well.

I could care less one way or the other how the argument falls out ideologically. There are other factors to consider, aesthetics, safety, and environmental issues among them. In the final analysis environmental issues come down to cost issues, and they will be included in the idea that people pay the costs for their locational choices.

What I care about is not so much that I pay for someone else's distributed costs, but the payment for those costs are somehow distributed fairly, which means they are going to pay for my costs, too.

At present, we have not the foggiest idea of what the costs are or should be. We have even less of an idea on how to organize the issues, set priorities, and plan a method for agreeing on what the costs are, hence the argument over methodology of the traffic study.

After we finally figure out and agree on methods for measuring costs, and including costs for ALL the stakeholders in the equation, then we have to find a way to not only establish fairness, but to re-establish it as patterns of living change over time.

Since those patterns will change over time, I don't see that arguing over one pattern vs another has much merit.

At 8:22 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I haven't read the trffic study, just the article about it. Just because a study starts out with the idea to meet a certain target does not mean the study is faulty. It only means that the assumptions in the study must be clearly stated and open to scrutiny.

In this case, the study is apparently based on trips not miles traveled, so even if the number of trips are reduced, miles traveled, and local congestion may not be.

If I stop someplace on my way to another destination it is not clear that adds much to congestion. However, if I hopscotch all over town to multiple locations, then that might be different.

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Tysons study also shows that Metro will be forced to reduce the number of Orange Line trains by half because of the physical limitations of the Potomac River tunnel. That doesn't seem to be in the public interest. Overtaxed is correct; the expansion of rail in Fairfax County is designed only to benefit a few large landowners, while leaving the costs and burdens to everyone else.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Charles Hall said...

Hi, Jim.

People also need roads for the cars, parks and schools for their children, and a place for their sewage to flow.

Fairfax wants to build, build, build without even considering the answer to those needs, and seemingly so do you. Before you call anyone a NIMBY again, maybe you should think about how this growth is going to be handled.

Because Pulte and our supervisors sure aren't.


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