Thursday, November 03, 2005

Traffic Buster

Bob Burke has filed a story about the MetroWest project near the Vienna metro station in Fairfax County. Local residents are worried that cramming 6,000 residents, plus offices and retail, on a mere 56 acres will make local traffic conditions unbearable. He describes how developer Pulte Homes, as a condition of getting the rezoning approval it needs, has committed itself to curtail car ridership of the MetroWest residents.

This may be one of the most significant development projects in Virginia. Pulte Homes is going where no Virginia developer has gone before: It is designing its community from the ground up with the goal of reducing the number of automobile trips generated by its residents and businesses. The MetroWest project is a crucial test case to prove or disprove the notion that better urban design can have a significant impact on ameliorating traffic congestion.

You can read Burke's story here.


At 9:35 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

This is a crucial test case, and we need to make sure the measurements are taken by an unbiased outside authority. We can be sure that if Pulte takes the measurements the plan will succeed. We don't know what Pulte is on the hook for if he fails.

In any case, the results will support or not support the theory, but they won't prove or disprove it. In any case, we will be stuck with the results, whatever they are.

This blog has already posted comments questioning the validity (and usefulness) of hoe the concept of trip is being measured. As it stands now, if a traveler leaves vor the office, dorps of the drycleaning and stops for coffee, that counts as three trips. If Metrowest has a coffeshop and dry cleaner then the trip to the office will count as one trip. This does not mean that we will magically have fewer cars on the road or that they will travel less distance.

Some Metro West travellers will ride Metro. But if it turns out that building and operating Metro is costing us more in capital, operating costs, and time than driving, then what have we gained?

If Metro West means that current Metro users have to drive because Metro or Metro parking is too crowded, then what have we gained?

There is little doubt that Pulte will gain, but what about the rest of us?

I'm not sure we know enough to ask the right questions, let alone collect the right data. If we can agree on the questions to ask and the data to collect, the results we get may not hold true over time. Even if we agree on the approach, the various factions will spin the results all out of relation to their true meaning.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

Good piece, and I think Fairfax needs to push forward with this. I can understand some of the angst of the neighbors, but they couldn't really believe that the land around a Metro stop was going to remain parking lots and single family homes forever. My main concern is, if its wildly successful in getting people off the highways, can Metro handle it and another twenty projects like it? What is Metro's max capacity, assuming optimal track usage and train length?

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

" Won’t a project this big make local traffic even worse?".....

“It’s pretty clear to those of us living around here that [the project] would just make the area dysfunctional,”

" supporters of the project say its mixed-use, transit-oriented design is going to have less impact than a traditional development ....."

"the right kind of growth can make traffic congestion better, not worse."

Opponents say this project will make traffic worse. Consultants say proposed trip cuts will be "a challenge". Even supporters say this will be less worse than some other alternatives.

Less worse is a lot different from better. I can't see that any kind of new development located anywhere can make congestion better. Are we now going to magically have new homes and businesses that absorb more traffic than they create?

If we create new developments that create 5 to 20% less new traffic than other forms of development, we will still have worse traffic congestion in the future than now. This is even more true if we put those developments where traffic is already bad.

But the real agenda may be in the first question "Wont it make LOCAL (my emphasis) traffic even worse? There are some groups who think that congestion is our friend. They could care less if congestion gets worse at Metro West, as long as it results is saving open space in Middleburg. In that respect, Metro West will cause less traffic: less traffic in Middleburg. People who think this way are what inspired Atkison to coin the phrase "conspiracy against mobility".

As far as I can see it is voodoo congeston management and fuzzy thinking, at best. Here are some more examples:

"Limit condo purchasers to one parking space and charging for a second space. " Don't condo purchasers pay for their parking space(s) anyway? Who is going to control and manage these limits? Will there be a black market in parking spaces?

"Give vanpools free preferential parking at desirable locations; provide vanpool subsidies for residents. " Who is going to "Give" this free parking? Won't they have had to pay for it sometime somewhere? Won't that show up in the price of condo's, or Metro fares or someplace? If it is "free" parking, why do we have to give it away?

"Make sure the right retail mix emerges – including a small grocery store, child care, banks and ATMs, dry cleaning, cafes and restaurants, that are readily accessible on foot." Who is going to decide what the "right" retail mix is? Is it the mix that makes the most money, or the mix that creates the least increase in traffic? If there is a difference, does the loss in sales get counted as a cost of reducing traffic? Who is taking the measurements? Who benefits from the results? Who pays the costs?

"Improve walking and biking pathways between Metro and the surrounding neighborhoods, and providing bike racks in convenient spots next to the condos and apartment buildings and the retail areas." Isn't this outside the area of development? Who is going to pay for these improvements?

"Create free retail space for a bike shop where bikes can be purchased or repaired, and make ‘loaner’ bikes available to residents." There is that "free" word again, this time amplified by "loaner". Why not solve congestion by creating free raodways and giving loaner cars? Are we creating this free retail space in order to improve the possibility that Pulte will make a killing on this project, or are we taking this "free" space out of their pocket?

"Market the project and its transit-oriented lifestyle to current Metro riders; and encourage employers there to offer transit benefits to their employees." We don't know yet if the people who live there will in fact have a transit oriented lifestyle. Transit augmented seems more likely. What Metro rider will we market to, those that already live in Metro communities closer in, or do we think someone will give up his home farther out? Assuming someone then buys that home, how have we reduced traffic?

"Create ‘SchoolPool’ program to help families with children attending the same school share transportation; encourage students at nearby Oakton High School to carpool, walk or bike." I'm in favor of ride sharing. But most people now guard their children in the front yard while witing for the bus. Do we really think those parents will let their children walk to school?

"Work with shared-car providers such as FlexCar and ZipCar to provide discounted memberships. " I doubt these organizations are profitable yet, so discounts are unlikely. Isn't discount another way to say "free"?

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm with Steve, but we should study this "experiment" with cold heartless eyes. And we should similarly study several other developments until we get a consensus as to what is really happening in the short and long term.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Steve Haner: Read the 11/4 article in the Metro section of the Post discussing the fact that Metro is running at capacity such that seats must be taken out of cars to accommodate riders. One of the changes, eliminating the poles, makes good sense in any event. The rest of the trial changes is about jamming more people into the "cattle cars."

Be ever so thankful that you do not live in Fairfax County. If you did, you would appreciate why people do not want more growth when the infrastructure cannot handle today's population. In addition, real estate taxes have increased by double-digit rates for the last five years. Pay more, get less.

The rebellion is growing. It's not just tree-hugging liberals who are angry. Many moderates and conservatives are jumping on board. Things are getting so bad that a couple of my developer friends have stated privately that the out-of-control building in Fairfax County must stop or the entire community will collapse.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Bob Burke said...

I would think that frugal taxpayers would consider an at-capacity Metro to be a good thing. It means they're getting a lot of bang for their buck, right? So if adding capacity to this transit system is what is needed, then make the plans.

Suggesting that Fairfax stop developing or whatever is just not credible. Selfishness isn't much of a strategy.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Bob Burke: Sorry, but expanding Metro's capacity won't work easily because of the single tunnel under the Potomac River shared by the Orange and Blue Lines. It can only handle 30 trains per hour (each direction). It is now running at 29 trains per hour during peak periods.

Moreover, WMATA plans to run the new Wiehle Avenue to Stadium Armory (Silver Line) trains through the same tunnel. Its solution to the capacity problem is to remove five or six Blue Line trains to the Green Line route. Of course, that screws up the commute for many Virginians, but that is of little concern to elected officials in Fairfax County.

Also, while the maximum capacity of Metrorail trains is eight cars per train (it largest trains have six cars now), there are electric power capacity issues associated with the operation of eight car trains.

Also, keep in mind that WMATA and the rest of the government officials want to spend $1.6 billion to expand Metrorail to Wiehle Avenue, even though it will not reduce traffic congestion according to the Commonwealth. That does not leave much money to spend digging a second Potomac River tunnel or rebuilding the power systems to handle eight car trains.

Again, it's Pay More, Get Less in NoVA.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

At capacity is one thing, but who wants to pay $6.00 to stand hanging on a strap, nose to armpit, or nose to nose for 45 minutes?

That is not service, it is torture.

When people extoll the virtues of transit,they need to take into consideration not just the travel but the quality of service. Not just the energy expended, but the value attained. Not just the costs, but the availability of service.

We don't dare suggest that Fairfax stop developing, but we do exactly that in Fauquier County. How is that any less selfish?

TMT is right. The Orange line is screwed until it is double tracked, the stations are built with sidings to allow express trains, and a new river crossing is available. VRE is standing room only and the trains are already longer than the platforms, and VRE faces scheduling conflicts as well. I think VRE just canceled its mid-day train (to save fuel), so now if you take the train, you are stuck for the day.

I think the expression, "This is a train wreck" applies exactly. After thirty five years of Metro our congestion is worse than ever, and it will never get better. The only thing to do is to ask if there is ANYTHING in Washington DC that makes the daily struggle of moving 3.5 million people worth it.

The solutions are going to be enormously expensive. It will make the present VDOT budget look puny. Metro cost 10 or 12 billion in the 1070's. It needs to be tripled today, which could easily take another 100 billion.

All of these issues were no doubt considered when DOD elected to move to Fort Belvoir. It is hard to get much accomplished when the first twnety minutes of the day is spent telling commuter war stories.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

TMT: I loved that article. The title for a story about more standees on metro cars is "Metro Considers New Seating Plan for Railcars".

That is not a seating plan, it's a standing plan.

Is there no end to the spin invovlving transit?

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Bob Burke said...

I think it's revealing that even with a transit system that clear has a customer base, and that clearly has future demand that it will need to serve, there are some who still find fault.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Metro is fine, it is a national monument. But anyone that thinks it is about transportation, or about solving future tansportation problems, needs to think again.

Metro has a customer base that it cannot adequately serve, and a future demand it cannot fill, it is grossly underfunded, there are no adequate plans to resolve its problems. It is congested and it faces increasing maintenance costs. In every respect it is exactly like the highway system.

Bad as it is, it's the best we've got, but there is plenty of room for criticism. This thing needs a plan that we think will work, and the Metro West project is equivalent to a first item validiation test. We need to understand exactly what is going on and not be fooled onto making policy based on platitudes.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Ray Hyde is correct; decisions cannot be made on platitudes. the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors pretends that mouthing phrases such as "smart growth," "transit oriented development," etc. justify making decisions without facts or analysis.

The BoS caters to the County Chamber of Commerce in exchange for campaign contributions, even though the leaders of that organization are totally inept. The Chamber endorsed Warner's tax reform, with a net tax increase to Fairfax County residents and businesses of $c.$108 M (2005), with Fairfax County Public Schools receiving c. $13 million in new money and transportation receiving $0.00.

Doesn't look like a very good return on tax dollars! Yet, the BoS is placing heavy reliance on these very same group of self-anointed business leaders for advice on rezoning and transportation. Fairfax County is a very scary place now days.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Why is metro filled to capacity a good thing and roads filled to capacity a bad thing?

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Some people are suggesting that we limit congestion by limiting growth and development, some are proposing that congestion can be improved by putting more people in less space. Some people propose that open space be closed to further development.

How do we decide how much is too much? A recent article in the Times stated that many planners believe that New Jersey is nearly built out and it will be the first state to be closed to further development.

Are there local areas that should be closed to further development because they are already too built up?


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