The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The Commuting Problem

Mass transit is just one more "solution" that won't work in the absence of Balanced Communities. Money spent on helping commuters is money squandered.


There is a lot of talk about extending commuter rail and METRO, widening existing roadways, building new roadway corridors and building/improving other transport facilities to “solve” the problems of “commuters.” There is no doubt that commuters would like a solution, and their plight will be widely cited and lamented in the coming weeks in Richmond and in the months between now and the November elections. The problems commuters face have already been cited by Gov. Mark R. Warner, Speaker William J. Howell, Senate Finance Chair John H. Chichester and others. (1)


Let’s start with bottom-line advice for commuters:

Unless there is something simple you and your neighbors can do--such as building a gate in your back fence or going to a hearing to help your employer expand its business down the street--there are three current “solutions” to “commuting” problems:


Move your home close to your job;


Move your job close to your home;


Move your home and your job.

No “solution” being put forward by any elected official or transport facility lobby groups is in fact a “solution.” That is because none of the ideas put on the table by Business As Usual or Government As Usual involve Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. Other than the solutions by individual commuters above, the change in the location of land uses and thus change in the pattern of travel demand is the only realistic cure to the problems of commuting. Discussion of possible “solutions” (which are not solutions at all) only encourages citizens to hope that “someone” will make commuting easier.

A core problem is that the prospect of an easier commute will encourage citizens to make bad location decisions than can be accommodated by any facility improvement.

The validity of this statement can be demonstrated by careful examination of:

  • Improving an intersection or widen a bridge that is now a bottleneck

  • Coordination of a corridor’s traffic signal system

  • Adding new lanes including HOV and/or HOT lanes on existing roadways

  • Creating new roadway corridors

  • Extending an existing commuter rail line into the Countryside

  • Extending METRO beyond the Clear Edge

  • Building “telework” centers

  • Any other idea that has surfaced to date including “Skycars” (See “The Skycar Myth,” Nov 15, 2004. 

The reality is that there is no facility solution for commuters. That will not change until discussions, plans and construction of all transport facilities are directly and inextricable linked to Fundamental Changes in human settlement pattern, period.


Commuter Rail


Perhaps “commuter rail” offers the best example of the futility of building facilities for commuters. Here is a specific example.


First, recall two key facts about the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion laid out in “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future” (Dec 15, 2003):


Within 1/4 mile of existing METRO stations, there is more than enough space for all jobs, housing, services and other urban development projected for next 20 years if the station-area land is developed and redeveloped at Rosslyn/Ballston Corridor station-area densities.


In addition, and even without any METRO station-area development, if vacant and underutilized land were developed and redeveloped at minimum urban densities (10 persons per acre at community scale which includes 40 percent community-scale open space) and there were 50 percent subregional-scale open space, then all the jobs, housing and services projected for the next two decades could be accommodated in Balanced Communities within 20 miles of the National Capital Subregion’s centroid.

In other words, there is no need, based on the myth of “space demand” often stated as “all the closer-in places are built out”, to put any jobs or housing outside Radius=20 miles in Virginia. In fact, there is more than twice as much land necessary for new land uses to accommodate projected job, housing and service growth without “development” of a single acre of Countryside.

That means there is no imperative based on demand for space to accommodate any new jobs or housing in eastern Loudoun or Prince William Counties, much less in western Loudoun, Stafford, Fauquier, Spotsylvania Counties and beyond. If you are not conversant with the facts behind these realities, please review “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future.” 


Also recall where jobs are now located in the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion and where the vast majority of jobs are projected to be in 20 years. To reduce the demand for commutes, jobs need to be close to housing. This is the first step in creating a jobs/housing balance on the community scale and a core strategy to create Balanced Communities. If you are unfamiliar with job location reality, please review that issue in “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future” and “Where the Jobs Are,” May 24, 2004. To date, no one has disputed the facts upon which these location realities are based.


Next, look at a map of the northern part of Virginia. Existing commuter rail (Virginia Railway Express or VRE) lines extend to Fredericksburg and to Manassas Airport. At or near the end of these lines, VRE serves the urban areas of Fredericksburg-Stafford-Spotsylvania (aka, Greater Fredericksburg) and Manassas-West Prince William (aka, Greater Manassas). There is discussion of extending the Greater Manassas VRE line 15 +/- miles to Bealton in Fauquier County. To understand the impact of this extension and the futility of trying to solve the commuting problem by facility extension, one must come to grips with the issue of scale.


Within 15 miles of the end of the proposed VRE extension to Bealton, there are 500,000 +/- acres. In this area, there are now several urban enclaves (e.g. Warrenton, Remington, Culpeper), as well as many hamlets, crossroads and scattered urban dwellings in addition to the nonurban land uses that are characteristic of the Virginia Countryside.


An area of 500,000 acres is a lot of land. Let’s look at the prospect of only 10 percent of this area being developed at minimum urban densities (10 persons per acre at the community scale) and the rest of the land being devoted to uses that preserve the character of the Countryside. Maximum nonurban densities are one person per 30 acres +/- with the household economic activity primarily devoted to nonurban land uses. Under these conditions, 500,000 acres would accommodate 185,000 households and 270,000 workers within 15 miles of the terminal station.


The current VRE lines each carry between 7,500 and 8,000 commuters per day. There is a need for more rail cars to relieve existing and projected crowding from traffic growth at the existing stations. If the capacity of the extended VRE line were doubled to serve the new extension, there would be room for 8,000 more commuters, and there would be 270,000 new workers under the conditions outlined above. The vast majority of these workers would commute based on development in this subregion since 1992. This means that at the same time under the same conditions, there also would be 250,000 +/- additional automobile commuters, most of them driving alone. These capacity calculations provide a context for consideration of what might happen if there were a commuter rail extension.


These calculations are not unrealistic based on the approval rate of development proposals, the amount of land in this area held for urban land-uses and the refusal of core jurisdictions to change their land-use controls to facilitate creation of Balanced Communities.


To calibrate these numbers, S/PI examined the urban dwellings developed over the past 12 ½ years within 15 miles of the three end-of-the-line stations on the two existing VRE lines.

In round numbers, for every current rider of VRE boarding at these six stations, there are 12 to 15 workers who live in houses built over the past 12 ½ years within 15 miles of these stations that were advertised and sold at least in part because of the existence of VRE. (2) 

Commuter rail is a good idea to connect substantial urban enclaves (e.g. Greater Fredericksburg and Greater Manassas) with select activity nodes (directly or via METRO) within the contiguously urbanized area of the National Capital Subregion. It makes no sense at all to extend commuter rail into the Countryside and surround the station platform with parking lots. These extensions and parking lots would serve only a small fraction of the new workers that they would induce. The existence of the commuter rail station will result in more bad location decisions and subsidize the small percentage of new home owners that use the service. Some who now drive 25 miles to get to a station will drive 10 miles, but with all the others on the road, it may take them as long to get to the new station.


Same Story, Second and Third Verses


Although it may be easier to see the futility of transport facility extension with commuter rail, the same metric applies to expansion of the METRO in the Dulles Corridor. The pluses and minuses of extending METRO to Tysons Corner-Fairfax (aka, Greater Tysons Corner), Reston-Fairfax (aka, Greater Reston), Washington Dulles International Airport and especially beyond Dulles into eastern Loudoun County were discussed in “Rail-to-Dulles Realities,” Jan. 5, 2004. (3)

The extension of METRO to Dulles and beyond has the same impact as the extension of VRE: It will induce more “potential commuters” to buy homes within 15 miles of the stations than the system can support especially in the peak hour/peak direction. This underscores the absolute necessity of creating as much balance in the stations areas as possible and in creating Balanced Communities at Reston-Fairfax and Tysons Corner-Fairfax.

Building Bus Rapid Transit in the Dulles corridor instead of extending METRO has been championed by those who have land and project investments that are in the corridor tax district but not within the METRO station-areas. Bus Rapid Transit would be cheaper than METRO and thus the burden on the tax district would be less.


On Jan. 10, 2005, one of the “do not tax me because METRO will not help me” developers floated the idea of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in the Dulles corridor as a substitute for METRO in a letter to VDOT and in a widely-circulated press release.


Our old friend Chris Walker who is leading this effort is right that extending METRO is a waste of money–unless there is Fundamental Change in station-area settlement patterns. His proposal for HOT lanes will not waste public money, but it will cause public inconvenience and will not improve mobility and access in the Dulles Corridor. No facility construction can do that. The HOT lane proposal has attracted support from true believers who support the “miracle solution” for better mobility–private investment in public transport facilities.


S/PI has previously addressed the problem of distorting the responsibility of the public to provide mobility and access by skewing projects to create attractive private investments in the context of I-81 “improvements” and the extension of METRO. (See “The Perfect Storm,”  July 12, 2004.) We consider the impact of belief that “new money” (public or private) will help below.


The commuter rail and METRO expansion scenario can be retold with respect to the expansion of any limited-access radial roadway corridor, including the addition of HOV or HOT lanes. Unless there is a lack of space in the region’s core, any of these radial expansions turn out to do more harm than good. (See “Five Critical Realities that Shape the Future”, Dec. 15, 2003.) A useful case study is I-270 in Maryland or I-66 in the northern part of Virginia. In fact, the same dynamics apply to all the possible non-solutions to the problems of “commuting.”

“Living here and working there” does not work when more than a small percentage in any community commute. A very good indicator of imbalance in a community is the number of workers who commute.

Fighting Over Money


Money will not solve commuters’ problems. Public (or private) money dumped on the existing system will not improve commuting without a Fundamental Change in human settlement pattern. Throwing money on the table, especially private money, will only make matters worse. Who, then, does dumping money onto the existing system help? Dumping money onto the existing system helps Business As Usual: The speculator who wants to sell land, the developer who wants to sell lots, the builder who wants to sell houses to “commuters” and, of course, it helps road builders, engineers, Realtors and related development interests. Most of all, it helps politicians so long as the citizens do not understand the dynamics of the impact of the Private-Vehicle Mobility Myth (aka, autonomobility). (See “From Myth to Law,” Nov. 29, 2004.)

If citizens, including commuters, understood the futility of spending to help commuters, New Urban Regions would be different and much more pleasant places. There are several realms of debilitating conflict that would disappear.

This is a partial list of the money conflicts:


Come Heres vs. Been Heres. Everyone has seen examples of this conflict within unbalanced communities. New folks move in and find it hard to commute so they say everyone should pay to upgrade the mobility system. The Old Timers (including those who moved in last year before traffic got really bad) ask why they should be pay for the new residents’ bad location decisions. This conflict is toxic to building community. But it can get worse.


When there are more “come heres” than “been heres,” the “come heres” toss out the old politicians and replace them with new ones who will listen to their complaints and promise solutions. This can deepen the conflict. The “come heres” must be very careful because if they vote in a new slate to solve commuters problems these new politicians may open the floodgates for their speculator/developer/builder sponsors. This is what happened in Loudoun County in 1999. Then there is a whole new generation of “come heres” and a settlement pattern that is even more dysfunctional, more degraded and more costly to service.


Core vs. Fringe. The next conflict is based on location within the New Urban Region. Those who live in communities near the core of New Urban Regions have different priorities for spending transport resources than those who camp out in unbalanced communities on the fringe. This conflict is sometimes framed in terms of “central city” vs. “sub”urban interests. With the failure to understand or define “sub”urban and the growth in the number of so called “sub”urban voters as a percentage of population, this conflict has come to play a central role in both state and federal politics and negatively impacts every citizen of large urban systems.


Metropolitans vs. Countryside Denizens. It is impossible to conserve and enhance the Countryside and also build facilities in outlining locations for commuters. This conflict is often framed in terms of “Northern Virginia” vs. Horse Country or “Northern Virginia” vs. The Valley/Southside/Far Southwest, etc. There is also Urbanside vs. Countryside conflict in the Tidewater and Richmond New Urban Regions. With respect to Greater Richmond, a growing number of citizens now realize that too many roadways are their problem, not their “solution.” (See “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb. 16, 2004.)


No More Taxes vs. Public Obligation to Provide for Mobility and Access. Providing mobility and access is expensive. Citizens who believe there is no personal benefit from spending their tax dollars jump on the no-new-taxes bandwagon. This position is in conflict with those who believe there is a fundamental government responsibility to provide access and mobility. This conflict opens the door to those who see a way to make money by investing private money in the construction of transport facilities that turn out not to serve the public interest. (See “The Perfect Storm,” July 21, 2004.)


The smoke and fog caused by the rhetorical storms emanating from all these conflicts provide a convenient place to hide for governance practitioners because they do not have to step up and address the need for Fundamental Change.

These conflicts over money would go away, or be dramatically diminished, if the majority of citizens realized that more money is not the solution to commuters’ problems or to achieving mobility and access in New Urban Regions.

More importantly, if there were broad citizen recognition of this reality, then more citizens would voluntarily make locational decisions that were in their enlightened self interest, which would go a long way toward creating Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions.


Before we leave the money issue, it must to be made very clear: There are major transport needs: Deferred maintenance, replacement, repair, new facilities, etc. These needs must be addressed if prosperity and quality of life are to be preserved in the New Urban Regions and the Urban Support Regions where all the citizens of Virginia live and work.


Transport improvements will cost a lot of money. It is a fact that building a First World urban society is a very expensive undertaking. Efficient and effective transportation and other infrastructure does not come cheap. This is especially true since much of what has been built in the past 50 years is the wrong infrastructure in the wrong location as documented in The Shape of the Future.


However, as long as citizens believe that more money alone is a “solution,” the citizens and governance practitioners will never get to the question of what pattern of settlement is desired by citizens and what transport system is needed to provide mobility and access within that pattern of land use.


There are tactics that can have immediate beneficial impact such as the four laid out by Jim Bacon in “The Road to Righteousness” (January 4, 2005). There are long-term strategies that can be effective such as Property Dynamics outlined by Professor Joseph Freeman in “Rain Dance” (Jan. 5, 2005). It is clear that no one will bother to listen to short-term tactics or to long-term strategies as long as they believe they can persuade someone else to hand them a free lunch.


The Whale on the Beach


As clear and simple as the path to functional settlements and mobility is, no one in public office, no one who is paid by public agencies to study, plan, design or build transport facilities and no one in the Business As Usual crowd who benefits from belief in the Private-Vehicle Mobility Myth will breath a word of the truth. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004, “The Perfect Storm,” July 12, 2004, “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,” September 20, 2004.”


Those who directly benefit from citizens' faith in facility solutions are not the only ones who are mum. So are, for the most part, the media especially the “regional” and “national” media.


There may be light at the end of the tunnel. The Fauquier Citizen, a weekly community newspaper that serves Warrenton-Fauquier, last week concluded a six-part series on “living here-working there.” The publisher and staff examined the history of traffic congestion in the community and the causes of the growing woes of commuter. They pointed out that some believe there are two basic causes of the current commuter crisis: citizens making bad location decisions and governance practitioners failing to balance land use and transportation.


Through in-depth interviews, they documented the impact of commutation on the lives of commuters, their families and on community institutions and economics. Last week, in the final installment titled “Seeking ‘Balance,’” they laid it on the line:

There is no solution to the commuting problem so long as citizens in large numbers believe that “living here and working there” is a rational choice. (4) 

It is hard to believe that many of the citizens who were interviewed and had commuted for decades still thought that a decision to "live here and work there" was an intelligent one. There was one question which was not asked: “Would you have made the same decision if you had known that year by year and decade by decade the conditions would get worse?”

It is not clear what citizens would do if they knew that there is no alternative to the conditions getting worse as long as so many others make location decisions like theirs? Would they make better choices without further incentive, or must there also be a fair allocation of the full costs of the current settlement patterns before there is movement toward Fundamental Change?

If those citizens who have chosen to live in functional settlement pattern come to fully realize that they are subsidizing, through what they pay for goods and services, those who have made the decision to locate in expensive-to-service locations, it may speed up the process.


Additional efforts are needed to follow this important first step. Citizens will need to be told over and over in many ways and from many perspectives that commuter rail, wider roads, more money, or any other "solution" will only make matters worse unless citizens make different location decisions. More intelligent location decisions will shift the market and the public policy. Developers, builders and governance practitioners will be forced to provide functional development components that can become Balanced Communities.

The challenge for the media is to get through to thoughtful citizens who are not already committed to bad thinking and bad practice and can see beyond the big house and sleek car advertising and other forces that drive location decisions not in their own best interest.

That will not be easy. The battle lines are drawn in the Warrenton-Fauquier community. Letters to the editor that were written in response to the first five weeks of coverage on commuting illustrated elements of the money conflicts spelled out above.


The root causes of commuter dysfunction are exacerbated by failure to understand The Physics of Gridlock (S/PI, April 2003). Citizens take even the discussion of a new facility "fix" as a sign that things will get better. Thus, individually they continue to make decisions that are not in their own longer-term best interest. If citizens do not understand The Physics of Gridlock, they will not put pressure on governance practitioners for Fundamental Change. The collective response to the need for mobility and access will be the continuing Business As Usual failure to balance land use and transportation. Governance As Usual practitioners will continue to follow the least-common-denominator approaches of Business As Usual and Government As Usual.


Where to From Here


The facts about widespread commuting do not support a position that there should never be any commuters. There have been commuters since the second urban enclave was established 10,000 +/- years ago. There will always be commuters, and if there are only a few, there would be no problem. The idea of “commuting” (“living here, working there”), however, is a perfect example of the fallacy of composition. What is good for some is definitely not good for all.


The threshold problem is that even “talk of helping commuters” increases bad location decisions, and it ends up with many more commuters than can be served by new facilities. Even if the facility is never built, the scatteration of urban land uses is already a reality. This is an example of the power of the first of the five Natural Laws of Human Settlement Patterns outlined in The Shape of the Future: A=PR2.

The creation of Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions is an imperative. Citizens must start by recognizing the need to live and work in places that have a balance of jobs/housing/services/recreation/


The inability to improve commuting and the importance of Balanced Communities is not just an interesting issue: It is critical, and it impacts every aspect of a citizen’s life. Just last week, the current administration floated a proposal to help offset tax cuts, pay for the war in Iraq and reduce the ballooning federal deficit. It proposed to eliminate many of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “community” programs.


Changing the current “community” programs is a fine idea since they now primarily provide walking-around-money for large urban jurisdictions. They do little to create settlement patterns composed of Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions and do nothing to conserve the Countryside. That said, there must be strategies at all levels of government to create Balanced Communities where commuting is vastly reduced, not the accepted way to get to work.


-- January 18, 2005



End Notes


1. The dictionary defines a “commuter” as one who travels back in forth between two places on a regular basis. It is not limited to a person who drives back and forth to work alone in a car over a considerable distance. The discussion in this column, while focusing on the latter, is equally applicable to anyone who must resort to an automobile to get from where they are to where they want or need to be regardless of whether the commute is to work or elsewhere.


In common parlance, the meaning of “commuter” has morphed over the past 60 years. In the '40s and '50s, it was one who rode to his office in Manhattan or The Loop from his leafy urban enclave in a plush rail car. Then it was the “suburbanite” stuck in a Los Angeles “Freeway” traffic jam. Now it is a voter who is in need of money to improve his journey to work or services.


The image of mass commuting being a perfectly rational decision is perpetuated by those who benefit from citizens deciding to be commuters. It started after WW I with the auto, oil and rubber interests. After WWII, road builders, land developers and house builders became advocates of commuting. In the last 30 years, land speculators and municipal officials have played a key role.


2. These numbers are approximate, but they pass the sniff test of relevance. Prince William, Stafford, Fauquier and Spotsylvania Counties have grown by 60,000 +/- households and 85,000 +/- workers in the past 12 years. Most of the new units in these jurisdictions are within 15 miles of an existing VRE station. Most of the new workers in these jurisdictions commute outside the jurisdiction to work. Almost all advertising for new dwellings and image advertising by the jurisdictions notes the existence of VRE.


VRE data and testimony by those favoring VRE extension indicate that many riders now travel by car even farther than 15 miles to ride VRE. The station impact areas fall in eight counties not counting Fairfax County that has five stations to serve its residents. The impact areas also fall in three “regional” council (nee, planning district commission) jurisdictions. No public agency has been interested in a comprehensive study of the VRE impact.


3. Since the “Rail-to-Dulles Realities” column (Jan.5, 2005) was published, the proposal for a tax district that had been killed in late 2003 by the Town of Herndon has been revived. A truncated proposal for METRO extension in the Dulles Corridor to an interim terminal station at Wiehle Avenue in the eastern part of Reston has been created. The new proposal still has the downsides of the original one that are noted in the column and especially in the column’s End Notes.


4. The trend of better human settlement pattern reporting by community newspapers is worth noting. This column has often noted the irresponsibility of the major regional media outlets in reporting on human settlement pattern and mobility issues. (“Smoke and Shadows,” Jan. 13, 2003, “Clueless,” Jan. 19, 2004, and “No Context,” Feb 2, 2004.


In mid-December, two reporters–one from a chain of community weekly newspapers and one from the dominate regional daily–called S/PI about the plan amendment for Fairlee in the Vienna-Fairfax METRO station-area of Fairfax County. Both had access to the same information.


The Post story was more of the same “he said, she said” with no depth or context. S/PI now refers to this as the “Media-as-Usual” approach. However, in material dated 15 December 2004 on the web and carried in various editions of The Connection that week, an article and sidebar by reporter David Harrison started to put station-area development in historical perspective. He did not portray the big picture, but he started in that direction.


























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.