by James A. Bacon
Back in October the McDonnell administration announced what seemed to be a positive step forward in thinking about transportation. The Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT) launched a “Super NoVa” study of commuting patterns to help determine transit and transportation demand management (TDM) enhancements for Northern Virginia. While generally positive, I did express the concern that the study might project past growth and development trends far into the future and endeavor to fashion transportation policies to serve populations that will not exist.
Now, it appears, my fears are being realized. DRPT is building its plan on a rickety foundation that assumes, in effect, that land use patterns will continue to develop over the next 30 years as they did in the last 30.
As I have blogged repeatedly, the 2007-2008 recession marked a tipping point in the political economy of the United States, marking the transition from the 60-year era of Mass OverConsumption to what will prove to be a multi-decadal era of austerity. That sea-change will be seen in an abrupt halt, if not reversal, to growth in the size and scope of the federal budget. And it will be seen in a reversal of six decades of scattered, disconnected, increasingly low-density human settlement patterns in metropolitan regions across the country.
We are not experiencing “just another recession” after which things return to Business As Usual. The federal government and the banking system have stopped bankrolling sprawl because the federal government must cut spending or risk triggering a catastrophic fiscal crisis. With constrained finances of their own, state and local governments can no longer afford to maintain land use patterns that intensify traffic congestion and create unbearable fiscal strain.
The new economic realities have yet to be reflected in city and county comprehensive plans, which are still predicated upon the assumption that growth will resume as before — just as soon as the economy gets moving again. DRPT’s projections are based to some degree upon those outdated local projections. “We are using the latest growth projections and we have confirmed those projections with local county stakeholders,” stated Amy Inman, DRPT manager of transit planning in an email to E M Risse, a land use planner, author and former contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion, who tipped me off to the issue. (DRPT also has conducted a “growth and land-use sensitivity analysis,” she added, but it won’t release those findings until September.)
Growth and development are shifting from the periphery of the Washington MSA back toward the core. That trend is being driven by several mega-trends, all of which have been illuminated on this blog and elsewhere: (1) a new, higher plateau of gasoline prices as well as the continually rising cost of owning and operating an automobile; (2) a marked preference among members of the Millennial Generation, already experiencing massive indebtedness for college, to live in walkable communities with access to mass transit; (3) a return of many empty nesters from the suburbs to the urban core, with its superior cultural amenities; (4) a spreading green consciousness that recognizes the fact that per-capita energy consumption is lower in higher-density urban areas than lower-density rural areas; and (5) the superior economic returns, from a local government perspective, on infrastructure invested in higher-density, mixed-use projects than in scattered, low-density projects.
In Risse’s view, the most effective possible transportation policy is not extending mass transit or TDM to low-density locations where they cannot possibly be effective but to help commuters to become “former commuters” in locations where transportation options can be supported. That entails fostering development of communities with a balance of housing, jobs, shopping and amenities all in close proximity and easily accessible to one another not only in cars but by walking, biking and mass transit.
Despite Inman’s assurances to Risse that “we absolutely welcome your input and look forward to your continued interest and participation,” his thinking (which largely coincides with mine on this issue) cannot possibly be incorporated into the study, no matter how sincere, well-meaning and open-minded the DRPT staff. The problem is intrinsic to the design of the project, as seen in the chart below.
The process starts with data collection. The data, as I have explained, is inherently outdated and flawed. Therefore, any analysis, needs assessment, travel demand models and recommendations that flow from that data also will be outdated and flawed. The best outcome will be one in which the study is published and then collects dust on a shelf, doing no harm. The worst outcome is if people use it as the basis for channeling the investment of hundreds of millions of state and regional transportation dollars into actual projects.
I know that sounds harsh. I have no doubt that the DRPT staffers working on this study are sincere, well-meaning people. They are probably even very bright people and good at what they do. But they are working from flawed premises that will render their labors a waste of time and money.