The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Two Steps Backward


Tim Kaine has made two decisions that will aggravate Virginia's dysfunctional human settlement patterns: He nixed the tunnel for the Tysons METRO extension and he picked a traditional highway guy to run VDOT.


We returned from the Northern Rocky Mountain Urban Support Region to find that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has thrown in the towel on mobility and access.  Kaine seems set on condemning Virginians to a future of immobility, economic stagnation, social conflict and ecological dysfunction. 


We had held out hope for a brighter future as recently as two weeks ago. Kaine’s recent actions quashed the optimism expressed on the Bacon’s Rebellion Blog (“Learning from the EU,” Aug. 2, 2006) that perhaps “Tim was listening three years ago.” (See End Note One.)


The First Shoe


Kaine dropped the first shoe when he decided to withdraw his support for a tunnel under Tysons Corner to carry METRO Rail to Dulles.  This decision represents a tragic failure to understand the reality of “Rail To Dulles.” METRO to Dulles is not a transportation-facility issue.  The core importance of Rail to Dulles is using a new mobility option to reduce the total demand for vehicle transport.  That goal is achieved by catalyzing functional human settlement patterns in the form of Balanced Communities in Greater Tysons Corner and in Greater Reston.

As we documented in “Rail-to-Dulles Realities” (Jan. 4, 2004), “Rail to Dulles is a land-use (settlement pattern) issue, not a transportation infrastructure issue.”

The more obvious problems with an elevated track through Tysons Corner are well covered in WaPo and in Bacon’s Rebellion.  (See “This Thing ... You can See from Pittsburgh,” Sept. 8, 2006.) Just hope the fundamental flaw in this decision can be seen not just from Pittsburgh but also from Boise, more on that later.


The overarching problem with Kaine’s Tysons Tunnel decision is that it demonstrates a failure by Kaine and his advisors to understand the importance of balancing transport system capacity with the trip-generation demand of alternative settlement patterns. It illuminates a glaring void in grasping the importance of evolving Balanced Communities throughout the Commonwealth.


Silver Linings


There are several potential silver linings in this cloud, although the way in the decision was announced gives no indication that the decision was anything more than Business As Usual.


One potential benefit is that everyone can now stop wasting time trying to revitalize/transform Tysons Corner. There is far more land already developed than there is a foreseeable need for in the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion, even if Tysons Corner becomes one of Joel Garreau’s Edge City Ghost Towns.

The elevated track scheme will end the dream of a walkable Greater Tysons Corner with a balance of Jobs/Housing/ Services/Recreation/Amenity for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever.  We say “forever” because the window is closing on proliferation of scattered, autonomobility-dominated settlement patterns as noted in our last column “The Whale On the Beach,” Aug. 28, 2006.)

If Tysons Corner faded away and the current functions were replaced in other locations, the result might be much better and much more efficient.  (See “Five Critical Realities That Shape the Future,” Dec. 15, 2003.)


Everyone who owns land that they want to redevelop outside of Greater Tysons Corner in the Virginia portion of the National Capital New Urban Region will breathe a sigh of relief. “Revitalizing” Tysons Corner to a place for 500,000 people to live, work and play would have adsorbed the market for Class A Office/Employment and for non-single family detached housing for the next 20 years.


A much better bet now is to encourage Reston land owners and the Dulles Airports Authority to build over the Dulles Toll Road (DAAR) right-of-way to create the northern part of Virginia’s urbane Core in Reston, not Tysons Corner.  The current Reston Town Center can evolve into a functional Alpha Village Center, as can an expanded Lake Anne Village Center.  Given a new governance structure, Greater Reston could evolve into a “Great, Good Place,” a truly Balanced Alpha Community as originally envisioned – albeit for 200,000 citizens rather than a population of 75,000 as planned by Bob Simon. The introduction of a subregion-serving shared vehicle system makes that change in scale a possibility and a necessity and demonstrates the power of transport facilities to shape settlement pattern.


Another possibility is for Fairfax Center to evolve to be the urbane Core of the northern part of Virginia.  The options are endless...


If there is a need to save more money on the METRO to Dulles project, we suggest one more change – run the METRO “Silver Line” in toll road median and reduce the number of Tysons Corner stations to one or two at the maximum.  Every future Dulles air traveler using the system to and from the Core of the National Capital Subregion will be grateful. Not running METRO on stilts through Greater Tysons generates another potential silver lining.  It might energize the Tysons Corner land owners to take the provision of mobility and access into their own hands instead of looking for a handout from the public in line with observations by Jim Bacon over the years.


The DAAR alignment would create an opportunity to build a new mobility system that tied together the Core of the Greater McLean Village and a revitalized Core for the Greater Vienna Village, with three or four new Village Cores in the 1,500 acre Less-Than-Greater Tysons Corner.  The new shared vehicle system could have stops to interchange with the METRO Rail to Dulles and with the METRO Orange Line at Virginia Center (aka, the Vienna/Fairfax/GMU METRO station. (See End Note Two.)


Other mobility alternatives are spelled out in “Rail-to-Dulles Realities,” Jan. 4, 2004, in “It Is Time To Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” Oct. 18, 2004, and in “The Problem with 'Mass' Transit,” May 15, 2005. The shape of the Commonwealth’s mobility future is outlined in “Regional Rigor Mortis,” June 6, 2005.  They all involve provision of fundamentally different and functional human settlement patterns made up of Balanced Communities.

In summary, Kaine has closed a door on Tysons Corner but opened two or more other doors.  The problem is that the Tysons Tunnel decision was not based on an intelligent long-term strategy. It was based on short term expediency and the failure to understand the role of transport infrastructure in evolving a functional, sustainable future.

The Second Shoe


The second shoe that Kaine dropped in the last few days shows another aspect of the failure to understand the role of transportation facilities in providing mobility and access for large urban agglomerations.

A new VDOT Commissioner appears to be a pro forma state highway department executive with some unpleasant experiences during his three years in Idaho. I have found no indication that he understands the relationship between transport infrastructure and settlement patterns.

I would not know Dave Ekern if I ran into him on the sidewalk in Wallace, where, by the way, I have never been.  (See End Note Three.)


Most of what we know about Ekern is what those who hired and those who interviewed him have said on the record plus what we can find through Google and Ask searches. (What did we do before Google?)


None of what we have seen bodes well.  Do we need someone who persuaded “state leaders to spend more on roads?”  Is this 1980? Does the Commonwealth need a leader who thinks innovation is selling bonds instead of raising taxes?  Are toll roads an innovation today or was that 1806?

How many times must it be said, more money is not the answer. More money is not even part of the answer without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.  More money for more roads makes congestion worse, not better.

More money and more roads applying the same criteria used in the past makes congestion, immobility and lack of access worse, not better.  (See “Regional Rigor Mortis,” June 5, 2004.)


There are almost no transportation facility solutions to mobility and access problems in large New Urban Regions.


As luck would have it, the only places in the Commonwealth with are mobility and access problems are in the New Urban Regions – the bigger the region, the worse the problem – and where there is now over-reliance on the wrong mobility system (e.g. trucks rather than rail in the Shenandoah/West-of-the-Blue Ridge Corridor).


Google and Ask searches suggest that Ekern, who previously worked in Minnesota, is an AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials)/TRB (Transportation Research Board) denizen. AASHTO and TRB are wholly owned subsidiaries of federal and state transportation (mainly highway) bureaucracies and the Autonomobility Lobbies. Ekern has exhibited interest in a range of traditional highway issues but demonstrated no specific understanding of settlement patterns and their impact on mobility and access.


The best hope the Commonwealth has for a good outcome is that during Mr. Ekern’s years in Idaho, and in the years before, that he did a lot of traveling.  It is 170 miles from the border of Idaho to nearest settlement patterns (Puget Sound New Urban Region) that bear any resemblance to the challenges faced in the Commonwealth.


The biggest metropolitan area in Idaho is half the size of Fairfax County.  The entire state has about 1.4 million people.  That is far less than in the Virginia Portion of the National Capital Subregion and far less than the population of the Hampton Roads New Urban Region.


The 1.4 million people in Idaho are spread across 53-plus million acres about twice the size of Virginia.


Why is scale and density important?  The difficulty of providing mobility and access to urban settlement patterns increases with the square of the urban agglomeration’s population.  The bigger, the harder. When mobility and access have been neglected for 40 years and the New Urban Regions are prosperous, as is the case in Virginia for the time being, the problems demand innovative solutions.


There are mobility and access problems in Idaho but they bear little resemblance to those in the Commonwealth. The mobility and access issues in Idaho (and my home territory of Montana) are fundamentally different than those in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

It would seem that someone who would be well qualified for a highway job in Idaho in 2003 would not be well qualified for a transportation job in Virginia in 2006. (See End Note Four.)

Granted, it would be hard to find well qualified candidates for the job that needs to be done at VDOT -- especially when those who hired Ekern describe talents that are largely irrelevant to Virginia’s pressing needs. What is needed is a person who understands human settlement patterns, not “a recognized leader in transportation operations, management, context sensitive design and innovative programs delivery.”

Mr. Ekern is cited for his potential to foster smarter integration of transportation and land use planning. “Integration” is not the issue.  The issue is Balance.  A balance must evolve between transport system capacity and the travel demand generated by the settlement pattern.

The issue is not “land use planning,” the issue is settlement patterns and the facilities needed to create a balance between demand and capacity. Most of that capacity will not be provided by highways because more highways, especially where they are easy and cheap to build, just make congestion worse.  It is a matter of physics not policy or politics.  Large urban agglomerations cannot be served efficiently with autonomobiles and trucks, and it is impossible to serve them at all without major strides toward creation of Balanced Communities within sustainable New Urban Regions.

Virginia needs a VDOT leader with the fortitude to state plainly that some settlement patterns cannot be provided with the level of mobility and access that meets citizen expectations, and that all new transport facilities must be used to help evolve settlement patterns that can be provided with mobility and access.

(See “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb. 16, 2003, and “Balanced Communities,” Aug. 12 2005.


We don't know if anyone is well suited but Ekern definitely is not, based on what those who hired him describe as his strong suits.  His appointment (nomination) also raises the question of who will be appointed to the Commonwealth Transportation Board which Ekern will chair.  Does Tim Kaine have more shoes to drop?


-- September 11, 2006



End Notes


1. Actually “three years ago” was four years and four days ago when S/PI was invited to give Kaine and others a briefing at Arlie House on the transportation / settlement pattern reality.


2. It is hard for some to give up on that Virginia Center place name.


3. Wallace, Idaho, is a place no one in the Northern Rocky Mountain Urban Support Region ever admits having visited.  


4. Do not come with that weak “Rail and Public Transportation handles the non-highway issues” argument. VDOT is the 500-pound gorilla and VDOT dominates mobility and access funding and decision making.




-- August 28, 2006















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


Read his profile here.