The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Self Delusion and Fraud


Megaprojects like the Springfield interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge are monuments to futility. They cannot improve mobility in the face of dysfunctional human settlement patterns.


There has been a plethora of recent media coverage about the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange at Springfield. It is comforting that some things are getting built rather than blown up. But the reporters, and the delighted politicians and engineers they quote, are overlooking the most important question: Will these expanded facilities reduce traffic congestion in the National Capital Subregion?


Are these facilities milestones on the way to improving the mobility of the millions of Virginians who will use the bridge and the interchange, or are they building blocks of self-delusion and fraud?

The answer depends on an understanding of human settlement patterns and the characteristics of the transportation systems needed to provide mobility and access in urban areas. This is the first of three columns that address the dysfunction of current attempts to provide mobility and access.


Pictures of soaring fly-over ramps are impressive to the National Capital Subregion’s editors, producers, viewers and readers because they are not often seen here. Long fly-over ramps are common in many places such as Texas where, in spite of the graceful engineering and large construction budgets, urban area traffic congestion is among the worse in the United States.   


Research shows conclusively that these soaring new ramps and bridge spans are not fail-safe solutions to traffic congestion. It is, therefore, important to ask: Will any amount of new expressway and bridge construction improve mobility and access? This question is answered in two parts:


o        Will these or other similar projects improve regional and subregional mobility?


o        Will these or other similar projects improve mobility in the corridors where they are being constructed?


Reducing the Level of Regional and Subregional Congestion


What does research conclude about the long-term regional and subregional impact of major projects like reconstructing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange? It turns out that careful scientific evaluation comes to exactly the same conclusion that thoughtful citizens do. Consider these three situations:


o        Does anyone think that when these improvements are completed it will be smart to work in Arlington or the Federal District and live in Loudoun County, much less in Frederick, Clark, Rappahannock, Fauquier or Culpeper Counties?


o        Does anyone really think that reconstructing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange will make it easier to commute from a house in Annapolis to a job in Silver Spring or Tysons Corner?


o        With these new facilities in place, does anyone think it will it be intelligent to live on an acre lot, much less a five or ten acre lot, where almost every need of the family requires that someone get in a private vehicle, a delivery truck or a school bus?


In the three examples above and similar scenarios, the citizens live in the National Capital Subregion but may not often use the reconstructed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or the I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange in their journey to and from work, services or recreation. Upon thoughtful reflection, few citizens would suggest any of these scenarios as a choice to live would be good strategies because of these two major reconstruction projects. 


Common sense is supported by the best science available. According to the annual Texas Transportation Institute survey of traffic congestion in the urbanized areas of the largest Metropolitan areas in the United States, traffic and congestion are getting worse regardless of the number of new projects being built.


In spite of this reality, many citizens and organizations are making location decisions that appear to be based on a belief that these (or similar big “we must build this” projects for which there is no funding) will improve mobility and access region-wide. They are acting as if “improved” transportation facilities will make location decisions a matter of personal preference unfettered by spacial reality. This is a case of self-delusion with significant economic, social and physical consequences for the families and organizations that make location decisions based on myth.


In this region and across the United States, citizens and organizations are betting on the wrong horse. They are betting their savings, the future of their children and in some cases their lives on belief in the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth. In this case the myth might be stated like this:


If “they” build enough facilities, then I can go wherever I want, whenever I want to go there and arrive in a timely manner relying on automobility and the improved roadways.

In “No Context,” ( February 2, 2004 ) this column profiled the press coverage of the multi-billion dollar Big Dig in the core of the Boston New Urban Region. Since that time, we have searched for any major roadway improvement –- any bypass, new or expanded circumferential or radial in a large urban region –- that would improve access and mobility across the region or major subregion without a complementary Fundamental Change in settlement patterns.


We have found no example where increasing the capacity of one roadway, several roadways or even a new shared-vehicle system has or would have the long-term impact of improving mobility for the region unless there is or would be a Fundamental Change in the settlement patterns.

It may be possible that a theoretical case could be constructed. It is hard to imagine a scenario evolving in the real world where the circumstances could exist, although some very strange things happen vis a vis mobility at national and state borders. The reason for the region-wide growth of congestion in spite of new facilities is based on simple physics. (See “The Physics of Gridlock,” SYNERGY/Planning, Inc. 2003.)


Congestion and Immobility in Corridors Where New Projects are Located


Again, it is expeditious to start with a specific example that is easy to understand. Start with someone who lives in Stafford or Spotsylvania Counties and wants to drive their private vehicle to work at the Internal Revenue Service in New Carrollton. This worker would drive through both the reconstruction of the I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange at Springfield and the reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge


Does anyone believe they will get there any faster or with less stress three years after the bridge is completed in 2011 than they did three years before construction started during the late 90s? How about the congestion during the 15-plus years of construction?


Recall that the design of the “compromise” Woodrow Wilson Bridge reconstruction:


  • Has a draw span in the middle

  • There is no shared-vehicle system that is part of the project

  • Prince Georges County has approved a major recreation-focused urban development at the Maryland end of the Bridge

Most important there has been no municipal, state or federal commitment to create settlement patterns to match the capacity of the bridge or the interchange, much less to use these facilities as a catalyst to build Balanced Communities in a sustainable New Urban Region.


When completed, more people will be able to drive from Fredericksburg to New Carrollton at the same time, but will any of them get there faster or with less stress? The corridor capacity will be increased by removing some current bottlenecks. However, the intraregional traveler (and the interregional traveler for whom the “Interstate” expressway was built) will still face growing congestion without a Fundamental Change in the settlement patterns in the corridor and throughout the region.


The reason for the reemergence of congestion in the corridor after facility expansion is explained by the “Triple Convergence” axiom. This axiom was articulated by Tony Downs of the Brookings Institution 12 years ago in a book called Stuck in Traffic. Brookings recently has announced a revision titled Still Stuck in Traffic. In a nutshell the axiom notes that those who have avoided the corridor because of congestion will return and establish a new equilibrium. Congestion may have caused many drivers to (1) change their route, (2) time  or (3) mode of travel but they will come back to absorb the new capacity. Since VDOT and others have instituted special programs to reduce private vehicle trips during construction and these programs will be discontinued upon completion, it may be “Quadruple Convergence” but Triple is enough to make the point.  Tony is a gifted writer, and his rendition of Triple Convergence is a pleasure to read. 


The Triple Convergence axiom explains why the traffic dramatically grows to fill the new capacity. It does not directly deal with the cumulative impact of misguided location decisions that increase the total miles traveled in the corridor by far more than can be accommodated by the added capacity. This growth is because citizens and their organizations, under the delusion that new or hoped for capacity is just for them, make unwise locations decisions.


The problem is that while roadway “improvements” increase the capacity of the corridor, they do not make the transportation system “better.”

To make transport systems better, all the facilities –- new and old –- must be balanced with the human settlement patterns that the systems are intended to serve. As has been stated frequently in this column:


Without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns, just building new transport facilities makes congestion and immobility worse, not better. 

There is a good example across the Potomac River in Montgomery Count, Md. The widening of I-270 from four lanes to 12 lanes in several stages over the past few decades has vastly increased the capacity of this radial arterial. The increased capacity from all this construction has been overwashed by an even greater increase in the vehicles miles traveled in the corridor. At some stages, there was a temporary increase in the speed and convenience of drivers. Now more people drive this corridor with about as much congestion as drivers faced before the widening started. The increase in the expanse and complexity of the roadway also makes driving more stressful and less safe.  


The pattern and density of land use in the I-270 Corridor has changed dramatically. It is not, however, the positive Fundamental Change which is advocated in this column. Many of the new users of I-270 are going to and from thousands of urban dwellings that have been scattered across and thus eroded the Countryside from Montgomery County to the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders and beyond. In Montgomery County, along with the dispersed single dwellings there are still scattered urban enclaves that have less balance and/or a lower density than they must have to be transportable. These places do not add up to any Balanced Communities. (See “Scatteration”, September 25, 2003 .)


The I-270 Corridor is an especially striking example of the futility of project construction to reduce congestion because there is a METRO line that runs roughly parallel to the I-270 Corridor. There has not been significant agglomeration of supportive land uses in the METRO station areas. A different station-area settlement pattern would be needed to balance METRO system capacity, especially for the off-peak capacity. Is the lack of intelligent METRO station area development caused by the widening of I-270 which has diverted the market to quicker profit projects instead of projects with long term value that create functional human settlement patterns? See “Wild Abandonment”, Sept 8, 2003 .)


An understanding of the futility of facility construction must be applied to the entire list of “we must build” projects:  Widening I-66 inside the Beltway, the “TechWay” crossing of the Potomac, the Western Transportation Corridor, Hot Lanes on the Beltway, widening I-81 and other “improvements” impacting the northern part of Virginia.


The failure of “improvements” to improve mobility is not just a problem in the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region (NUR). The reality that “improvements” fail to improve mobility and access undermines the rationale for every “must build project” in the Tidewater NUR, the Greater Richmond NUR and in small urban agglomerations as well.


It turns out that Triple Convergence and delusion-driven location decisions happens in regions that spend a lot on road construction per capita and those that spend much less. As noted in “No Context” (February 2, 2004.), the added capacity of building the Big Dig “improvement” will fill up soon, but this is not just an issue involving multi-billion dollar projects. It impacts every dollar spent on transportation infrastructure. It is just easier to see the futility in big projects. Even in relatively small regions like Greater Richmond, these decisions exacerbate and compound regional and subregional immobility and congestion. (See “The Shape of Richmond’s Future”, Feb 16, 2004 .)


Understanding Triple Convergence in a single corridor and unintelligent location decisions such as those in the I-270 corridor is a way to come to grips with what happens to the settlement patterns and travel behavior throughout the region unless there is a balance between the travel demand generated by the land-use pattern and the carrying capacity of the transportation system created to provide mobility and access.


Regional congestion is the cumulative impact of many corridor scenarios when there is no balanced regional land-use and transportation plan and no commitment to creating Balanced Communities.

Tony Downs’ answer to improving mobility in the face of Triple Convergence is congestion. He has said for years that “congestion is the solution.” When congestion gets bad enough, citizens and their organizations will make more intelligent location decisions. That assumes that someone whom citizens trust will tell them why their location decisions need to be more intelligent and how to make these decisions support their long-term self-interest. 


This is where the issue of fraud reinforcing self-delusion comes into play.


The position of the current transportation professionals and governance practitioners on the impact of transport “improvements” perpetuates the self-delusion. Stating or implying the myth that widening and “improving” roads results in improved mobility reinforces the companion myth that citizens who make unintelligent location decisions have no negative mobility consequences. Citizens want to hear that they have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. They want to go wherever they want, whenever they want to go there and arrive in a timely manner relying on automobility. This is a physical impossibility.


Self Delusion or Fraud


It is clear that “improvements” in one place or in many places in a region will not reduce the level of regional or corridor congestion without a Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. This brings us to the question: Is the statement “let’s widen some roads to reduce congestion” self-delusion or is it fraud? It depends on who says it.


“Self-delusion” is being deluded by one’s false belief.  “Fraud” is a deception deliberately practiced to secure unfair or unlawful gain.  Who is deluded, and who is perpetrating a fraud?

Citizens could understand the causes of congestion and immobility if they considered the facts. It is a human proclivity to rely on myth and self-delusion in situations involving the cumulative result of individual actions. These delusion-driven actions will continue until the myth is refuted by someone whom citizens trust. Under current conditions, it is easier to blame “others” for the lack of mobility when, in fact, immobility results from their own location decisions.


If governance practitioners were less concerned with the views and contributions of those who profit from delusion and myth, they would demand to have the full story told. Among those to whom they listen are land owners who profit from land speculation and those who make their money from converting land to urban land uses: Developers, builders, engineers, contractors and agents–lawyers, real estate, insurance, the list goes on. This is not to say that they understand the transportation consequences of dysfunctional distribution of land uses. They do, however, profit from the current processes that are known as Business as Usual. 


These interests have loud voices and deep pockets for lobbying and campaign contributions but are a tiny minority of the population. Even they and their families are negatively impacted by the dysfunctional settlement patterns and lack of mobility. 


Governance practitioners fail to tell citizens the truth about access and mobility. They get reelected, reappointed and promoted, but is it fraud or the lack of understanding of the myths? Is theirs an unlawful gain? It is clearly unfair. Perhaps we should let citizens decide in the next election.


Most transportation planners know the truth. Instead of telling the whole truth they tell only the part of the story –- the part about increasing corridor capacity. Telling only part of the story benefits those who pay their salary or consulting fee. Improving capacity without matching travel demand with system capacity results in congestion. Transportation professionals suggesting that congestion will decrease in the long term even though there is a disconnect between land-use trip generation and transportation system capacity perpetuate a fraud.


Reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that much of transportation planning and much of transportation research as currently practiced is at best misleading and at worst, fraud. As you might guess, it is a difficult decision because some of our best friends were transportation planners.


Perhaps the way to make the relationship between transportation and land use clear is to use a simple analogy:


Building any transportation facility that is not designed to create and serve functional human settlement patterns made up of Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions is as intelligent as loading the transportation facility funds onto an aircraft carrier and taking it out to the edge of the Continental Shelf and shoveling all the money off into the deep blue sea.

Where to from Here?


This is the first of three columns that focus on the tragedy that is the current dysfunctional relationship between land-use and transportation systems in contemporary society. The next column will address two timeless topics:  Death and Taxes. In the third column, the focus will be on the response one hears from public officials who are responsible for transportation. A good example was Ray Pethtel’s letter to Jim Bacon that was in the last issue (May 24, 2004 ) of Bacons Rebellion.


Stay tuned.

-- June 7, 2004








































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.