The Shape of the Future

E M Risse



All Aboard!


An above-ground version of METRO rail can work in Tysons Corner. But it will take two things: Public Way Rights and a Pyramid development strategy.


It is time for everyone to get on board the train for Dulles. By this we mean:

Unless all the stakeholders who want to see METRO extended to the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner and on to Dulles International Airport get on the same train very soon, there will be there will be no METRO extension to Dulles. (See End Note One.)

There may be future options to connect the Centroid of the National Capital Subregion with Dulles International Airport via a shared-vehicle system, but not with a METRO extension. Further, we predict that any new system – a sketch outline of such a system can be found in “Rail-to-Dulles Realities” (Jan. 5, 2004) – will be a long, long time in coming.


Those who follow The Shape of the Future columns may jump to the conclusion we have written all we could about “Rail To Dulles.” (See End Note Two.) That is not the case. In the light of recent events and further analysis, this column rearticulates, expands and amends what we wrote about METRO to Dulles in September 2006 (“Two Steps Backward”) and in recent posts on the Bacon's Rebellion Blog.


The Headlines


The 30 March Dulles Transit Partners, LLC, press release and the 31 March WaPo coverage seems to close the door on a tunnel for a METRO line through Greater Tysons Corner. (See “Contract Set for Rail Line To Dulles: Prospects Look Dim For Plan to Tunnel Beneath Tysons Corner” by Bill Turque, and End Note Three.)

The new contract may not end the tunnel vs overhead debate. However, further arguments over tunnel vs overhead will compound the already substantial hurdles to be overcome if there is to be METRO compatible  Rail-to-Dulles in our lifetimes.

This was the message of Doug Koelemay’s column in the 21 March edition of Bacons Rebellion (“Tunnel Vision”). Koelemay expressed well the “do not let the perfect chase out the good” argument that is a mantra of Business As Usual. In this case, Koelemay is probably right. There are so many other barriers that a prolonged tunnel vs overhead conflict may kill the project as now envisioned. METRO is a 50-year-old technology, and few citizens favor the high-density settlement pattern that METRO-like systems best support.


There is another important reality:

If METRO through the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner consists of an elevated track that in any way resembles the graphics that the WaPo has published, it will be the kiss of death for any evolution of Greater Tysons Corner into a functional, urbane, much less Balanced, Community.

If the “photo simulation” of the proposed rail is representative of what is actually built, there is no way to put lipstick on this pig. The overhead photo simulation is not merely ugly: A METRO line on stilts in a roadway median will not provide mobility and access for Greater Tysons Corner. This configuration will leave the Autonomobile as the preferred way to get to, from and around-in the Centre of Tysons Corner. Roger Lewis articulates this view well in “Why Going Underground Makes Sense in Tysons Corner” in the 17 February 2007 WaPo.


Upon Further Review


Back in September we castigated Governor Kaine for withdrawing his support for tunneling under all of Tysons Corner (“Two Steps Backward,” 17 September 2006). Conventional wisdom holds that the only civilized way to locate a high-capacity, shared-vehicle system in an urbanized area is to put it underground. Many also argue that tunneling is the only strategy that makes economic sense in the long-term. Based on past experience, elevated lines are often equated with blight. See the Roger Lewis column cited above.


This preference for underground Metro is based, in large part, on the fact that almost all good examples of high-capacity, shared-vehicle-system-served urban fabric have the transport system underground. The Underground (aka, Tube) in London, Metro in Paris, U-Bahn in Berlin, Tunnelbanan in Stockholm, Subway in Toronto, BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta – almost every high-capacity system in the First World (except Miami) runs primarily in tunnels within the Centre (aka, “downtown”). Closer to home, tunnel advocates point to the Centre of the Federal District and to the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor.


Upon further review the absolute necessity for a tunnel is not as clear cut as I suggested it was in September:

  • In all of the examples cited above, the pattern of land ownership (and buildings) as well as the streets and roadways to serve urban land uses were in place before the shared-vehicle system was installed under the already-urban streetscapes. For reasons we will explore in some detail below, this is a critical issue. This condition is unrelated to the broad arterial rights-of-way that the METRO line extension is planned to follow through Greater Tysons Corner.

  • In the “Two Steps Backward” column we spelled out several possible silver linings from the Kaine decision. One was the potential to abandon all efforts to “save Tysons Corner” and to shift the focus of urban activities in the Radius = 5 Miles to Radius = 25 Miles Radius Band from Greater Tysons Corner to Greater Reston, Greater Fairfax Center, Greater Springfield, etc. This “silver lining” assumes that there will be the public and private resources necessary to cover the cost of abandonment and rebuilding elsewhere the urban fabric capacity that is now present in the Centre of the largest Beta Community in the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion. That well-spring of resources may not exist in the future.

  • At this time there is significant support for Rail-to- Tysons and Rail-to-Dulles. It makes sense to find a way to marshal this positive momentum into a successful drive. To paraphrase the Michelin ad: “There must be a better way forward.”

  • Finally, and most importantly, the National Capital Subregion is facing a major Mobility and Access Crisis (as well as an Accessible and Affordable Housing Crisis and a Disaggregation of Settlement Pattern Crisis) that is already impacting every citizen of the Subregion and of the Washington- Baltimore New Urban Region.

As we have been arguing since 1982 and have been writing for the last 20 years, METRO is the only mobility and access system that has excess capacity. Most METRO trains still leave most of the METRO stations most of the time essentially empty. (See “It Is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO.”)


A key to solving the crises facing the National Capital Subregion is to rationally use METRO station areas and the METRO system capacity. Intelligent design, and implementation of METRO in creating Rail-to-Dulles and Rail-to-Tysons Corner, could be an important first step.


The next Rail-to-Dulles milestone is May, when the Federal Transit Administration is scheduled to conclude a “risk assessment.” The biggest “risk” is that someone in the administration will see federal money spent for Rail-to-Dulles as a threat to some other administration program. The more parties that are on the same train, the less likely any individual obstacle will kill the prospect of Rail-to-Dulles for the foreseeable future.


We also have a personal reason to look for a basis for consensus. We have traveled to Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta to ride the shared-vehicle system to the airport. We have gone out of our way to do the same in Paris, Roma, Munchen and London. We hope to do the same in Dulles, having been professionally involved in Rail to Dulles since the early 80s.


Some will recall that we suggested repeatedly, from the mid 80s onward, selling the National Airport site and using the funds to extend METRO to Dulles Airport. Given the...

  • current expansion of Dulles capacity

  • flat air travel demand since 11 September 2001

  • growing concern for noise generated by flights to and from National Airport, and

  • many good economic and ecological reasons that air travel numbers should not grow

...the sale of the National site might have been a very good idea.


The “Sale of National” idea’s time may come again. Think how much better it would have been to have the Air and Space Annex at a METRO stop and a historic airport. But that is another story.


Broad-Based Support


Right now it is hard to find anyone who thinks it is not a good idea to extend METRO to Tysons Corner. Support for extending METRO to Dulles via Greater Reston is almost as strong. That has not always been the case. (See End Note Four.)


Right now it is hard to find anyone, except a few who live very close a specific rail station, who does not think it is a good idea to put intensive development in METRO station-areas. In March, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted a new policy on this issue. The 13 March 2007 WaPo article, “Dense Development Sought Near Transit: Fairfax County Policy Will Promote Pedestrian-Friendly Areas Near Stations,” by Amy Gardner and Bill Turque is a generally factual report of what went on when the Board of Supervisors adopted new, and very intelligent, .25- and .50-mile radii policy criteria for METRO and VRE station areas. The story is, however, woefully weak with respect to the history of METRO station-area policy and action in the County.


This level of citizen and political “leader” support has not always been present. Support for specific station-area, METRO-related development was written into the Comprehensive Plan in the 70s but removed in the 80s.  (See End Note Five.)


Even many of those who live near a METRO station and do not want “transit-oriented development” at their station agree that, in general, METRO-supportive station-area development is a good idea. Many think that station-area development should be a monoculture but that is also another story.


A Different Vision


Given the fact that the existing development in the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner is nothing like what existed when METRO came to the Centre of the Federal District or to the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the “Four Billion Dollar Question” is:

What could be done in the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner so that METRO on stilts does not look like the current “photo simulation?

Let us wipe the slate clean and consider a real alternative to a tunnel or a naked track on stilts in the median of a busy arterial.


The first image of a real station-area alternative that I recall seeing was a low oblique perspective of a multi-use, shared-vehicle station-area termed “The Urban Village.”  It was drawn by Richard L. Thornton in the early 1970s.  Rich was a recent Georgia Tech graduate in architecture who worked with me at RBA (nee, Richard Browne Assoc.)  As I recall, Rich’s sketch was drawn to illustrate what a station area might look like in connection with RBA’s bid to do design work on the East Line of MARTA in the Atlanta New Urban Region. (For background of this and related drawings by Thornton See End Note Six.)


Other illustrations may have predated Thornton’s drawing but his is the one that sticks in my memory. The image was more complex – more buildings, more architectural interest and larger in scale – but had some of the flavor of the Disney World Contemporary Hotel, which had a monorail station in the lobby.


Thornton’s drawing represented a fundamental shift from the schematics that influenced the design of the above- ground METRO stations in the National Capital Subregion, the BART stations in the San Francisco New Urban Region and later the MARTA stations.


Rich’s graphic was also dramatically different than the recent renditions of “transit oriented development” by New Urbanist designers. New Urbanist drawings almost always have the station located at the edge of a meadow or facing a large plaza. (That is, if the station is not underground along a boulevard that looks like Champs Elysees.) The “town square” station-area is a pleasing visual element and it allows the transit operator to see their pride and joy – the station and the train – front and center across a greensward or plaza.


Architects of all persuasions (and their clients) prefer to show off their buildings fronting on a plaza or other open space. Most of the graphics depicting shared-vehicle stations (and the design of the stations) are paid for by the shared-vehicle system operator or by those who want to please or impress the system operator.


On the other hand, what shared-vehicle system riders do not want when they step from the car onto the platform is the prospect of a long escalator to ride, a wide street to cross or a long pedestrian bridge to navigate. They especially do not look forward to a big plaza or greensward to slog across – especially in hot, cold or wet weather.


Most riders got onto the system to travel to a destination and that destination is not often a park. If a park is the destination, then the park should be a main use in the station area such as the Montreal Zoo at the Angrignon station. In most cases the open space should be accessible but not take up the space between the car door and the destinations of the majority of the riders.


Marriott has for several years advertised the redesigned of Courtyard by Marriot hotels as being “designed by business travelers, for business travelers.” Shared-vehicle systems need to be designed by system riders for system riders. If they were, they would look more like Rich Thornton’s drawing and less like a station in a park.


Pyramid Strategy, Not a Pyramid Scheme


From a distance a station-area should look like an attractive, well-articulated “pyramid” with the highest intensity of land use (and thus the centroid of origins and destinations of travel) close to the center where the platform is located and with lower-intensity uses feathering out from the center.


In fact this is exactly what a shared-vehicle system does under market conditions unless governance land-use controls interfere. The Montreal Metro was developed as a part of the EXPO 67 (1967 Worlds Fair) initiative. We recall looking out across the Centre of Montreal from the roof of a downtown hotel just a few years after the Metro system opened. By 1968, one could already identify the locations of the stations by the clusters of new buildings at the Metro station sites. Now a visitor does not need a map to follow the Metro lines when the Core of the New Urban Region is viewed from Parc du Mount-Royal. The same is true for the Subway in Toronto when viewed from the CN Tower.


Both Montreal and Toronto New Urban Regions have made far better use of shared-vehicle systems in shaping the urban fabric than have New Urban Regions in US of A. For example a more disaggregated pyramid form can be observed in the aerial views of the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor found in Blueprint. A close examination of a the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor air photo with .25 and .50 mile radii circles shows that much of the prime access (aka, “front hook”) area is taken up by streets. That is one reason we have created the sketch plan process that follows.


But, first, an overarching station-area concept is important to bear in mind: The METRO station must be integrated into the surrounding urban fabric. (For a survey of examples from Europe and the US of A, see End Note Seven.)


From the outset METRO has been about “building a railroad” and not about creating functional urban fabric. There are thousands of examples from Wien to Vancouver and from Oslo to Madrid where below-grade, at-grade and above-grade stations could have been improved and still could. It took a third of century to finally start to cover the escalators.


With all these shortcomings, the worst mistake has been the failure to accommodate the interest and need of METRO passengers to access the places they are going to into the design of the facilities.


Why "Transit" Works


It is important at this point to make it very clear how and why high-capacity, shared-vehicle systems support functional settlement patterns in a METRO station area.

Shared-vehicle systems do not provide access and mobility because all those who live, work or seek services and recreation in the station-area jump on the train to meet their every travel need.

Shared-vehicle systems "work" because they support some high-value trips for many who live, work or seek services and recreation in the station-area. By doing this, the shared-vehicle system facilitates and serves patterns and densities of land use that allows most workers, residents and visitors to meet many of their needs without resorting to any vehicle.


Many “mode split” calculations intended to show that transit only serves a small percentage of the travel demand are bogus because they do not address the ability of many in well functioning station-areas to assemble a quality life without using any vehicle.


Many residents can prosper with an occasional vehicle rental, a shared private vehicle (formal – zip car, etc,. or informal) or at most one car per household. Further, the autonomobile trips they do take are often in off peak times and directions. Beyond that, the vehicle storage (parking) can be at the fringe of the station area and does not disaggregate the critical, synergistic elements of the station-area settlement pattern.

In summary: The flux of activity (aka, land use density / intensity) supported by high-capacity, shared-vehicle systems such as METRO allow many “trips” that would otherwise be vehicle trips to become “stops on a pleasant walk.” The key here is “pleasant.” More on that below.

The requirement to meet a range of needs is why station-area land use mix and “Balance” is so important and why system-wide Balance of all station-areas is required to maximize the functionality of any shared-vehicle system. These are the reasons a station area Pyramid Strategy is so important.


A Do-It-Yourself Sketch Plan Process for Readers


The design and function of shared-vehicle system station-areas are critically important because:

  • The enormous cost of shared-vehicle systems demand that they function as well as possible;

  • There are major economic, social and physical benefits from a well-functioning access and mobility system.

Functional station areas are critically important because Autonomobile- dominated settlement patterns are dysfunctional and cannot provide mobility and access for large New Urban Regions.

How does one lay out a shared-vehicle system-serviced Centre for Tysons Corner?


The following is what every citizen should have learned in grade school along with why it is important to get enough exercise and sleep, eat the right foods and avoid excess television and video games. (The prerequisites of enough sleep, good food and avoiding the illusion of escape via television and games were laid out in Jim Bacon’s column, "Brain Games," on 2 April, 2007.)


Patrick Kane has shown by his “Boom Town” interactive game that fourth graders have the experience and knowledge to intelligently lay out Planned New Community components (and thus shared-vehicle station-areas).  They are better equipped for this task than adults. In fact, they are far more adept at creating Balanced sketch plans than teams of “professionals.”


Until there is a revised public school system and a well-informed staff in the Main-Stream Media you are going to have to do the job yourself. Here is the first of two sketch exercises:


The 18 February 2007 WaPo lead Metro Section story headline reads: “Next Stop, Tysons: Fairfax County Planners See Ballston Neighborhood as Model for Transit-Oriented Overhaul of Sprawling Business Center.” The story by Alec MacGillis compares Tysons Corner to the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor. (See End Note Eight.) For now the important thing is that the story includes a somewhat out-of-date air photo of the Centre of Tysons Corner via Google with the four proposed METRO stations located.


The following is a step by step walk-through of the process that allows readers to create a quantified sketch plan for the four Greater Tysons Corner METRO stations. We could just provide a graphic and go on but it is much more effective if the reader does the drawing and the calculations. We provide metrics to help guide the process and our version of the exercise as Graphic One in the Gallery at the back of the End Notes.


Step One: Go to the print edition of the 18 Feb WaPo story about Greater Tysons Corner and the Rosslyn Ballston Corridor. Take the photo of Greater Tysons Corner to the copy machine and blow it up 200 percent. (In the alternative, use the air photo at the current scale with a magnifying glass.) You can use any current air photo of Tysons Corner and then locate the stations from the WaPo story or other sources. Using a map rather than an air photo will distort the results due to factors explored in Chapter 16 of the Shape of the Future.


Step Two: This is the important part: Draw Circles with .25 (1,320 feet) and .50 (2640 feet) radii around the four stations. The R=.25 circle contains 125 acres, the R=.50 circle contains 500 acres.


The first thing you will notice is that much of the land within .25 miles (1,320 ft.) of the station platform is within public right-of-way. This should set off alarm bells. Building a Four Billion dollar METRO extension and then reserving the land accessible to the most important stations for roadway makes absolutely no sense -- regardless of whether the train is in a tunnel or on stilts.


The second thing to note is that the existing concentrations of buildings, e.g. those along the Dulles Access Road, are some distance from the stations. Many of the largest existing buildings fall in the R= .50 mile circle and many are more than .50 miles from any station. This provides a glimpse of how much vacant and underutilized land there is if the existing right-of-way determines the METRO alignment. The distance of the stations from concentrations of trip ends is a result of letting roadway alignments determine the track layout.


The next step is to quantify the air photo with the four bulls-eye station areas:

  • How much land is there in the right-of-way?

  • How much building area would this land support using the Pyramid Strategy?

  • How much is this land worth given good access to a METRO station?

Get out a calculator, a ruler and a blank sheet of paper.    To answer the question, “How much land is in the public right-of-way,” one needs a ruler and one metric: There are 43,560 square feet in an acre of land. Use a ruler and the scale of the map to figure up how many square feet are in the right-of-way. One can also figure up how much private land outside the right-of-way is within .25 miles and is vacant or underutilized.


To answer the question, “How much building area would this land support,” one needs an additional metric: The Floor Area Ratio (FAR) over the entire area within .25 miles of the METRO platform (125 acres as noted above) might rationally be pegged at 8.0 for a system with METRO’s capacity.


To answer the question, “How much is the building area over public right-of-way worth,” one needs an additional metric. An average value of $300 per square foot of built space would be a conservative benchmark.


The totals may vary from reader to reader in this sketch plan process depending on the assumed location of the edge of the right-of-way. The way we figure it, within .25 miles of the platform at FAR 8, the potential exists to build about 14 million square feet of space per station, and with a pyramid configuration, about six million square feet over the right-of-way at each station. Most important is that all of the most valuable space – the tallest part of the pyramid – is located over public right-of-way.


That should be seen as a very good thing. The public already owns land that will be much more valuable when the public invests in a METRO platform in the right of way. More on that later.


To answer the last question, readers need to decide how much a square foot of building is worth. Today’s prices ($300 per finished square foot) implies a value of $1.9 billion worth of Class A space for each of the four stations. How much would a knowledgeable developer pay for a 99-year lease to build six million square feet over a public right of way adjacent to a METRO platform? That will depend on what conditions are put on the sale but it is a good guess that it would be enough to pay for an extended platform and for enhancements plus a contribution to cover other capital costs of extending METRO.


Before we start counting the public revenue chickens, there is one big constraint. The development over public land for the four stations at FAR 8 totals over 24 million square feet, and within .25 miles the total is more than 56 million square feet. It will take years for the market to adsorb that much space. All of Greater Tysons Corner now totals in the neighborhood of 35 million square feet of non-residential space.


From our first sketch exercise we can conclude that if we run METRO under or over VA Route 123 and VA Route 7, there is a huge difference between using or not using the land over the public right-of-way.


So, let us stop for a moment and consider what it means for the public to own this land.


Public Way Rights


The term “air rights” carries unfortunate connotations, as if the right to build over public rights of way was something airy, or lacking in substance. The expression also stirs up Business-As-Usual forces, who go to great lengths to discredit it. Accordingly, it seems wise to coin a word that puts the focus on the public interest. Henceforth, we call the right to build over public rights-of-way “Public Way Rights.”


Building the area around METRO stations to optimum density generates hostility from adjacent landowners. While they are keenly aware development over the public land would make their own land more valuable eventually, they would have to wait until a market materializes, and the interest clock is running on their own investment. One way to sweeten the pot for adjacent owners is to give them a right of first refusal and/or a density bonus if the public and private land in any quadrant of a station-area is developed as a single, phased project.


This incentive was built into the 70s-era Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan for the Vienna / Fairfax / GMU station-area – and wiped out by the actions of Del. Scott and Supervisor Hanley, as noted in End Note Five.


The reason readers have not heard much about Public Way Rights in the discussion of rail-to-Dulles is that Greater Tysons Corner land owners would not benefit as quickly from METRO if the most important station-area land was developed first. These propertied interests have paid for studies, made political contributions to officials at the municipal and state levels, funded much of the earlier “tax district” phase of the Rail to Dulles effort as noted in “Rail-To-Dulles Realities,” and they funded They want pay-off sooner rather than later.

One cannot blame these parties for wanting to build on their own vacant and underutilized land. But this is where those elected to represent the public need to step in to create a balance of public and private interests.

Readers also will not hear about Public Way Rights from those who want to get the contract to build the rail system because they would not make more money from such a strategy. Indeed, under a Public Way Rights arrangement, station-area developers would play a key role at each station, which might reduce the role of, and the payoff to, the system builder.


Readers will not hear about Public Way Rights from governance practitioners because it is the land owners and those who want to build the railroad who make the political donations.


The only constituency that would really benefit from extensive use of Public Way Rights would be the system riders and the general public, and they do not yet understand why they should be interested. That is why education and general public understanding is so important. WaPo has spilled a trainload of ink on Rail to Dulles and, still, most citizens have no clue what their stake is in either Rail-to-Dulles or Rail-to-Tysons.

The bottom line is that Public Way Rights are a key to access and mobility in Greater Tysons Corner -- whether METRO is in a tunnel or on stilts.

Development over public rights of way provides far greater “connectivity” between METRO and the places the METRO riders want to go. “Connectivity” is the term Patrick Kane has used in his teaching, consulting and writing on Rail to Dulles.


In fact, Public Way Rights are not just a good idea in Tysons Corner but in many other places as well. We have noted elsewhere that the 45 acres of potential Public Way Rights in the Vienna/Fairfax/GMU station area would accommodate all of the AOL and WorldCom campus jobs as well as places where many workers could live and seek weekly services. And that was when their buildings were fully occupied.


Across the US of A, some of the land best located for urban uses is now devoted to over-designed 1950s “cloverleaves” at 150 acres at a pop. (See End Note Nine.)


To Tunnel or Not to Tunnel


Now, let us explore the question of a tunnel vs an overhead METRO line: Take a look at photo in 13 March or the 31 March WaPo stories. It looks bad, but if we hire an Italian engineer, paint the stilts sky blue, plant a lot of trees...  No, cosmetics will not help.


The first thing to do is look at the air photo and the bulls-eyes in the first sketch exercise. It is clear that with...

  • a 2,100 foot tunnel under the highest part of Tysons Corner

  • a Pyramid Strategy applied over and around each station

  • development following the new Fairfax County .25-mile and .50-mile criteria

...there would be very little naked elevated track visible. This fact weakens the “eye-sore” argument. (See End Note Ten.)


Now, let us turn to the real reason citizens will ride the METRO extension to, from and between stations in Greater Tysons Corner, and the reason that a tunnel may not be as good as an elevated line.


It is time for more sketches: We provide our own version of these sketches in Graphic 2, Graphic 3 and Graphic 4 in the Gallery at the end of the End Notes but it is much more effective if readers do the sketches themselves.


Step One:

Take out three pieces of lined tablet paper.  A legal pad works well for this exercise. On the first sheet draw a vertical line down the middle of the page, then turn the paper to the “landscape” orientation and label this line “ground.” 


Step Two:

Select a scale for your sketch – 30 feet to the inch works well because the distance between the lines on a legal pad are about 10 feet at 30 feet-to-the-inch. This is also the nominal distance from one floor to another. Do not have a scale? Make one by marking off the tablet lines widths on a 3X5 card to create a 30-scale ruler in 10-foot increments.


Step Three:

On your first sheet, scale off 150 or 250 feet – the right of way for VA Route 123 and VA Route 7 varies through the Centre of Tysons Corner. Now, in the middle of the street go down 30 feet and draw an archway representing the METRO tunnel at a station with platforms.


Step Four:

Next, assume the same station design criteria for underground stations as the existing stations in the Rosslyn – Ballston Corridor. (The streets in the R-B Corridor are far narrower but we will get to that in a moment.) Because most folks want to exit the station on a sidewalk, not in the median, draw tunnels to within 10 or 15 feet of the edge of the right-of-way and then add escalators. Pause to envision the fun one has walking in the pedestrian tunnel under the street. (Hint, it is similar to the walk from the station platform to the plaza at the Courthouse station.)


Step Five:

Finally, on this first sketch, go outside the right of way five or 10 feet and sketch in the buildings at 10 or 20 stories. Now, set sketch aside for a moment.


Step Six:

On the second sheet draw in the vertical line, turn the paper to landscape orientation and put in the roadway right-of-way. Next locate the track level 30 feet in the air. Now sketch in the track and station platform based on the photo simulation that WaPo has published. Next, add the stairs/ escalators over or under the tracks to get from one platform to the other and the cross-walks or pedestrian bridges to get to the sidewalks. Next, add the buildings. If you want to be fancy, put in both ground and elevated level entrances to the buildings. 


Step Seven:

We are almost done. Take the third sheet of paper and follow the same steps as in Step Six up to the track and station platform. Next, draw horizontal lines every 10 feet to represent the floors of a structure built on air-rights over the right of way. The lines can go all the way to the edge of the paper. Now take an eraser and create atria, walkways and plazas where ever they will work well. The level between the street and the platform can be a service level for deliveries, storage, and utilities.


(Parking for the buildings, greatly reduced thanks to METRO access, would be located off the drawing in locations convenient to surrounding streets, not from the arterial that conflicts with the pedestrian movements.)

                                                                              Now, let us assume you have a 10 a.m. meeting in the building closest to the “Tysons 123" station platform. Which sketch works best for you? When citizens get on a shared-vehicle system, it is not to joy ride but to get to where they want or need to be. We know that the closer to the car door the destination is, the more likely citizens are to ride a shared-vehicle system.


In your diagrams, which scheme has the greatest access to origins and destinations for shared-vehicle system riders in the buildings closest to the station platform?


If one assumes a station-area pyramid of land-use flux, which of the station area cross section sketches serves the most riders and eliminates the most need for Autonomobiles?


The Magic One Quarter Mile


When discussing station-area planning, one frequently hears that .25 miles is a magic number and the limit of shared-vehicle system impacts. Others say some will walk farther but that “no-one” will walk more than .50 miles. These arbitrary numbers are silly. Distance and other barriers of pedestrian travel in the station-area are psychological as well as physical.


The key to pedestrian travel is interest and ability. Most will cross a street to be in contact with their love interest. A few look forward to a walk from Springer Mt., Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, Me.


How far a person is willing to walk depends on interest, time, resources, and health/mobility. The key for most walkers is to make the station-area travel diverse, complex, stimulating, but above all interesting/satisfying and safe. For some that requires higher levels a security/ safety, for others higher levels of diversity, interest and excitement. That is why a functional station area must have a network of pathways that provide a variety of alternative experiences and a minimum of obstacles like wide streets, long tunnels, long empty bridges, abrupt changes in level, etc.


The word “willing” in the phrase “willing to walk” is also critical. In our years living and working on small Caribbean islands, we seldom found workers who would rather walk to town, regardless of the spectacular scenery. When they did, there was always someone or something they hoped to encounter along the way.


The same parameters, as we will see in Exercise Two, apply to above or below ground. As with other parameters we call The Natural Laws of Human Settlement Pattern, the exact radial distance from the station platform is not the issue. The design of the station area should rely on three factors. Functional station-area strategy is a matter of:

  • Scale

  • Intensity and Flux

  • Balance

Scale. With respect to scale, if one uses a .50-mile radii, then the Village Scale station-area is a mile from edge to edge. It is not the station platform alone that should be accessible but the entire station area.


Intensity. If there are 500 acres in the station-area (.50 mile radii) then one spreads out the uses and there is a loss of connectivity, adjacency and synergy. In terms of form for a large station-area, think “mesa” rather than a “pyramid.” A station-area of 500 acres at higher intensity (2.5 vehicle trip ends per square foot of ground) requires three system stations with METRO capacity (or two stations serving different systems) such as the Centre of Paris served by Metro and RER.


Balance. The big issue is Balance. The station area needs to be large enough to have Alpha Village scale diversity and small enough to have functional access to the destinations needed to assemble a quality life.


Mystique of the Grid


Yes, pedestrian spaces for strolling and sitting along urbane “boulevards” can be attractive in good weather. These amenities can be accommodated in the Pyramid Strategy but they would be on streets running perpendicular to the METRO line. Before going whole hog for sidewalk cafes, however, consider how many people really like to sit along a boulevard carrying as much traffic as VA Route 7, especially when it is cold, hot or wet?


When planning to introduce a new shared-vehicle system, a grid is fine if the grid already exists. The street and ownership pattern provides an historical and psychological orientation to the redevelopment that will result from added access and mobility provided by the public investment in a shared-vehicle system as happened in the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor.

A grid of streets is not a cure-all to solve Tysons Corner access and mobility dysfunction.  What is important is a web of pedestrian access, not streets to accommodate Autonomobiles or roadways that are dominated by Autonomobiles. (See comments in the Bacon's Rebellion Blog “Ballston on the Half Shell.”)

Public Way Rights and Pyramid Strategy development can create a grid of pedestrian access but it will not be simple to design or cheap to build. Yes, there can be tree-lined boulevards with sidewalk cafes in some locations and, yes, ventilation and sound deadening will be more expensive, and, yes, views can be provided... (For further exploration of the shortcomings of the grid, See “Myth of the Grid” Sec X, # 5 in Handbook, First Edition.)

The bottom line is citizens are spending $4 billion to build a system to get as many citizens as possible from where they are to where they want or need to go. It is clear that Public Way Rights and Pyramid Strategy are the way to go, be the rail line tunneled or elevated.

Unfortunately, despite many examples of this sort of development, these ideas will never see the light of day in MainStream media because none of those who have staff, hire consultants and public relations spinners and write press releases are interested in “solutions” that are anything beyond Business As Usual.


Prize-Winning Illustration


Exploration of a fundamentally different station-area design strategy brings out the dissenters just like air rights and Henry George. (See End Note Eleven.)


The discussion of the Fundamental Changes to the tunnel and the grid raises many questions, among them are:


“Given what you have learned from these two exercises, how does one illustrate the wisdom of using the land that citizens already own to support evolution of functional settlement patterns supported by the extended METRO system?"


“How does one illustrate the shortsightedness of insisting that a tunnel and a grid of streets is the ‘only’ solution?”


The recent award of the coveted Pritzker Prize in Architecture to British architect Richard Rogers inspired a possible way to put these questions in context. The series of three sketches outlined above were a first step.


Those who have been to London (Lloyds of London Building) or Paris (Georges Pompidou Centre) and have seen Richard Rogers’ most highly regarded buildings may guess where we are going. The Lloyds of London Building which was designed to fit an irregular lot in the heart of the financial district in “The City” is the best example for this illustration. In this structure, Rogers pulled the elevators and the stairwells out to the corners of the building footprint. Pulling the elevators, stairs and services to the corners rather than putting them in core (center) of the floor plates, leaves the entire floor open for an atrium and for maximum flexibility of floor planning.


To illustrate the silliness of a METRO of stilts but with no Public Way Rights development, assume that the Lloyds of London building was located on a typical Tysons Corner building pad and that Rogers had put the elevators, stairs and other core functions not at the building corners but in the middle of the surrounding roadways. That is exactly what putting METRO in a tunnel or on stilts without Public Way Rights would do.

Think of METRO as a express horizontal elevator. It needs to have its stops near where the riders want to be.

The alternative is to put the station platform where it looks best to the shared-vehicle system architects and the system operators and serves best the private land owners but leaves out those who use and pay for the system, the METRO riders and the general public. The current trajectory will waste the $4 billion it will cost to build the METRO extension because it will leave the Autonomobile as the preferred way to access buildings, goods and service in the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner.


The "Fixed Price" Is a Mirage


Other issues need to be mentioned briefly in context of Rail to Dulles.


The idea that the “negotiating fixed price” is a real “fixed price” is frightening. The facts of the Dulles Transit Partners LLC “fixed price” discussion reminds us of a conversation we had in an airport lounge with a well-to-do, 30-something from Hollywood a few years ago. This is a paraphrase of a 10 minute conversation about a new house he was having built:


“We have a fixed price with our builder. He will charge us $1,273.95 for the front doors. We are working with the builder and others as we go along to tie down the other costs of our 5,900-square-foot-house on an adobe hillside covered with manzanita overlooking the ocean.”


The Public Needs Help


There is a long ways to go to get rail to Tysons and then on to Dulles.  Everyone must get on the same train if there is to be any train, any time soon. There is every reason for all to agree. With Pyramid/Public Way Rights strategy, even the adjacent land owners who will not make quite as much money in the short run, will be much better off in the long run. Bickering will result in the demise of the Rail-to-Tysons and Rail-to-Dulles efforts.


By laying out the two sketch exercises, we hope to have outlined a prototype tool for citizen understanding and participation in the evolution of human settlement pattern. Creation of these tools requires time and effort that does not forward the specific short-term interest of any existing enterprise, agency or institution. Preparation of such tools and carrying forward a participatory public process is an important role for a public architect / urban designer.


Most regional and large municipal governance entities in Europe have staffs to do this work. Most of the large municipal governments in the US of A do not have a public architect or an urban design staff that focuses on the public interest issues. “Planners” push paper and words. They rely on private architects and designers who are working for private or public clients to do the design work. Both have similar “I want my structure or facility to be seen, or better yet, to dominate the urbanscape” perspectives. (See “The Role of Municipal Planning in Creating Dysfunctional Human Settlement Patterns.”)


Where to From Here?


Politics is broken and there is a critical need for Fundamentally Change in governance structure. This will happen only by getting politics and governance out of the grasp of special interests and political contributions, and by freeing governance from the influence of widely held Myths.


There is also a critical need for Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. This will happen only by getting the evolution of these patterns out of the grasp of special interests and political contributions, and by freeing settlement patterns from the influence of widely held Myths.


Freedom of movement is not free, it comes at a cost.


Travel takes interest and health for the short haul.


Travel takes time and resources for longer destinations. The farther you go and the faster you want to travel the more resources it takes. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.


In large New Urban Regions reliance on private vehicles (Autonomobility) for more than a small percentage of the trips is an economic and ecological dead end.  Autonomobility as expressed by The Private Vehicle Mobility Myth violates the laws of physics and economics and is the obverse of reality.


The word “Balance” in “Balanced human settlement patterns” means a configuration that suits the largest number of citizens with the least expenditure of time and resources.


Those who live in a fantasy land and/or make money from dysfunction hope citizens will not come to understand reality before that make as much as they can.


Citizens are running out of time to make changes. An intelligent strategy for Rail to Tysons and Rail to Dulles would be a good place to start.




As always, special thanks to all those who reviewed and commented on the draft of this column.


-- April 16, 2007



End Notes


(1). The current proposal is for METRO to be extended in Phase 1 from east of West Falls Church to the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner and on to Wiehle Avenue in Greater Reston.  In Phase 2, METRO is to be extended from Wiehle Avenue to Dulles International Airport and on to Greater Ashburn / Broadlands in eastern Loudoun County. 


(2). In June 2004 we wrote “Rail-to-Dulles Realities” concerning the inappropriate boundaries of the then-proposed tax district to support construction. We also examined the interests of property owners, the benefits of Public-Way-Rights and alternative shared-vehicle systems. 


 In October 2004 in “Rethinking METRO” we provided a new “foreword” to round out a decade of analysis contained in “It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” which was republished as a Backgrounder at the same time.


In January 2005 we examined the use of METRO and Commuter Rail as ways to solve “The Commuting Problem” and suggested that there is no solution for “commuting.”


In May of 2006 we considered the alternatives to traditional “heavy rail” and why alternatives are not being seriously considered in “The Problem with ‘Mass’ Transit.


Finally, in September 2006 we castigated Governor Kaine (“Two Steps Backward”) for abandoning support for the tunnel and what we believed at that time to be the “only” way to ensure a functional future of Greater Tysons Corner. We have now reconsidered this position.


(3). The press release (but not the WaPo coverage) notes a “2,100 foot tunnel.”  In all likelihood this tunnel goes under the highest point in the Centre of Greater Tysons Corner where VA Route 123 and VA Route 7 interchange and this “tunnel” is not associated with any station. A full Tysons Corner tunnel would be about 3.5 miles (18,480 feet) long.


An earlier 9 March 2007 WaPo Metro Section lead story set the stage.  The headline reads: “Tunnel at Tysons Would be Costly Risk, Study Says: State-ordered Analysis a Setback to Fairfax County Group Opposed to an Aboveground Line.”  This story, by Bill Turque and Lena Sun, includes a rendering of an elevated track in Greater Tysons Corner , which will be the subject of the second phase of the self-help design process outlined in this column.


(4). The original plan for METRO in the 1960s considered ending the Orange Line at Tysons Corner rather than at Vienna / Fairfax / GMU.  After review, Tysons Corner was considered to be so auto-dominated that it had no potential to become a supportive context for a shared-vehicle system terminal. On the other hand, at the Vienna / Fairfax / GMU site there were 800 acres of vacant and underutilized land that could evolve into a supportive Orange Line terminal station-area.  This decision was reconsidered and reaffirmed in the 70s before the Orange line extension from Ballston to Vienna / Fairfax / GMU was started. 


(5). Former Fairfax Board member and current Virginia Delegate Jim Scott as well as former Fairfax Board member and later Chairperson and now Secretary of the Commonwealth Kate Hanley derailed METRO-supportive development in the Vienna / Fairfax / GMU station area in the mid 80s.  See End Note Nine in “The Problem with ‘Mass’ Transit,” and “METRO West – 22 Years too Late” at the Bacons Rebellion Blog.


(6). Richard L. Thornton, AIA’s drawing is included as Graphic 5 in the Gallery at the end of the End Notes. Rich called his drawing “The Urban Village.” (See Graphic 5.) The term Urban Village became a frequently used word in the late 1970s and early 80s, at the time we were planning the Fair Lakes and participating in the 50 / 66 Fairfax Center planning process. Richard is now practicing in Talking Rock, Ga., and he was kind enough to send along copy of the drawing that I recalled from the early 70s.


When I saw it again last week for the first time in three decades, I was surprised that I had recalled the perspective as being from a greater distance. In the full-scale drawing, at the far left edge one can see the “pyramid” of the next station-area. Many similar drawings zoom in too close to show overall massing of the pyramid form we discuss later.  Designers like to space out buildings for “light and air” because clients want visibility.  Light and air is good but there needs to be a balance with connectivity when station-area planning is the issue.


I am not the only person to recall Rich’s drawings. In 1976, I left RBA to establish my own firm and Rich left soon afterwards.  He went to work for the City of Atlanta on contract while he earned a masters in city planning.  A primary focus of his work was to prepare the urban design plans for the Midtown section of Atlanta.  His designs had the flavor of The Urban Village drawing.  The main building in Midtown was the Bell South building over a MARTA station, perhaps Atlanta’s best early example of pyramid station area design.  The surrounding area was low-rise and seedy, as we recall.  Now, almost 30 years later Midtown is part of Downtown Atlanta.


Rich left the Atlanta area for 18 years and on return was surprised to see development had followed his early urban design sketches.  Most of the buildings shown on the urban design sketches were hypothetical footprints. The architects who designed the high-rise offices and apartments in Midtown designed the real buildings to match Rich’s footprints. 


Rich received an even greater surprise about two years ago. There was a tract of land on the west side of the Downtown Expressway just north of Georgia Tech, which in the 1970s was occupied by Atlantic Steel.  The City of Atlanta wanted the plant out of the Downtown area since it produced a lot of toxic fumes. Officials asked Rich to illustrate a mixed use - mid-rise development in its place.  Since his contract was about to expire when they made the request, he slightly modified The Urban Village conceptual drawing to fit the Atlantic Steel property.  During the time he was away from Atlanta, Atlantic Steel moved to Cartersville, Ga., and the site sat empty for many years. In the early part of this century, a consortium of Atlanta interests redeveloped the Atlantic Steel site and named it Atlantic Station. The finished project is easily recognized from the drawing Rich did for RBA down to the townhouses in the foreground with 1970s-style architecture.


(7). There are many station areas on high-capacity shared vehicle systems such as Tunnelbanan, Underground, Metro, U-Bahn and METRO that meet some, but not all of the criteria for well conceived Pyramid Strategy station-area design.  Here are a few which we recall off the top of our head from 30 years of riding the rails: 


The Tunnelbanan stations serving the Centres of Planned New Communities in the Stockholm New Urban Region such as Farstra, Vallingby and Kiska exhibit many useful attributes.


The Post WWII Planned New Communities in Great Britain are beyond London Underground service area but the 19th Century “suburban  village" Hampstead is a good example of the timeless potential for urban-fabric regeneration in shared-vehicle station areas.


The Kaisermuhlen Station on the Wien U-Bahn serves a pyramid of international agencies in the Vienna International Centre but the station platform itself is off set from the pyramid.


The RER stations serving the planned expansion of Paris in Marne La Valle are pyramid examples that are visible from Tour Eiffel.


Scale is an issue at both ends of the spectrum.  There are numerous examples of lower-capacity systems (“commuter-rail,” trolleys, “light-rail,” strassenbahns, etc.) serving lower intensity areas that do not create critical a mass of activity to result in Balance.


At the other extreme, a good example of over-sized station area development is La Defense on the Paris Metro system.  From a distance, say the Arc de Triomphe, it seems to be a pyramid but upon arrival one finds a huge plaza and “ground level” that looks like a set from a Start Wars movie not yet released.


The Docklands in London is another bigger than one station example. There is just one station on the new Jubilee Line of the Underground but there is also a horizontal elevator (Docklands Light Railway) that connects Greenwich on the south side of the Thames with four Docklands stations and continues on to tie in with the Underground near the Tower of London and St Mary Stratford Bow church.


There are examples in the US of A from which ideas could be gleaned: The park in public-way-rights over I-5 in Seattle. The elevated monorail station attached to the multi-story Seattle Center shopping and eating emporium built by the Rouse Company.


Public Way Rights are used over Mass Pike in Boston.  All of Park Avenue in New York is over rail lines and rail yards.  There is a monorail station in the lobby of the Contemporary Hotel at Disney World.  The list goes on and on and includes examples of public-way-rights development in Bethesda and plans for development in the Rail-to-Dulles corridor.


Because of the enormous width of the Dulles Airport Access Road (DAAR) right-of-way and the fact that Reston was conceived of, designed and viewed by residents as a single community on two sides of an already existing limited access highway, Reston has attracted a plethora of public-way-rights schemes.  We have collected these over the years and two stand out.  One is by Patrick Kane, Guy Rando and others and one by the architectural firm of Davis and Carter.  Both have strong points but neither is a good example of a station-area pyramid.


The Kane / Rando scheme has buildings along the DAAR from end to end, not concentrated at the stations.  The station platforms are in an atrium and, in cross-section, the rail line is in the bottom of a canyon with buildings terraced up some distance away on both sides.  One drawing shows a parking garage with parked cars having the best view of the atrium.  The drawings illustrate 20 or more buildings with from 4 to 6 million square feet of built space but not focused on the station platform.


The Davis and Carter drawing depicts a cluster of buildings at the Reston Avenue station area directly over the rail line and the public rights of way but to show off the buildings has the project surrounded by looping ramps and access roads that would isolate the mesa of buildings from the surrounding land uses.


In Tysons Corner itself, drawings by Davis and Carter for the Tytran- sponsored exploration of shared-vehicle oriented development by Patrick Kane and others provides insight.  Here the intent is to show how infill could enhance a site that is already among the most intensely developed sections of Tysons Corner just west of the Tysons II Mall.  The drawings illustrate an elevated elevator people mover, perhaps assuming that METRO would be located in the median of the DAAR.


The best example off the top of our head is the Nordwestzentrum station-area on the U-Bahn in the Frankfurt Am Main New Urban Region (NUR).  Nordwestzentrum is on an extension of the NUR’s U-Bahn.  But this is an extension with a twist.  Instead of expanding mindlessly into the periphery of the urban area, this line takes a U turn and heads back toward the Centroid to serve an area in a gore between diverging radial U-Bahn lines.  Nordwestzentrum is an island of more intensive urban land uses serving an already existing area of lower intensity.  The U-Bahn extension runs in the median of a limited access roadway but swings off the right-of-way to place a station under a large superstructure that forms the base of a pyramid of more intensive use.


Conceptually Nordwestzentrum is first rate.  In the early execution it was not.  When we were working on the plans for Virginia Center, a multi-use station-area development at what is now the Vienna / Fairfax / GMU terminal station of the METRO Orange Line, the Fairfax County Planning Director, Sid Steele suggested that our field work include a visit to Nordwestzentrum.


We have slides from two visits in November 1984 and December 1985. The combination of gray, New Brutalist architecture, gray skies and dirty snow recall frigid, uninspiring experiences.  When we were later in Frankfurt Am Main we did not bother to visit.  Through the wonders of the Internet, you can Google “Nordwestzentrum” and see what 20-plus years of prosperity, new structures and sunny weather can do to enhance the reality of a great idea.


(8). When readers have completed reading this column and the two-step sketch processes, they will be able to critique the WaPo story of 18 February and identify why comparing Tysons Corner and the Rosslyn– Ballston Corridor is a red herring. 


(9). Public Way Rights are a good idea in many places. Over the past five decades Autonomobility advocates and their facilitators have rammed over-designed limited access highways and wide primary arterials through thousands of Neighborhoods.  (See "Interstate Crimes," 28 February, 2005.) These roadways have shattered Beta Neighborhoods into dysfunctional Beta Clusters and Beta Dooryards instead of uniting them into Alpha Neighborhoods and Alpha Villages.  These disaggregated Beta Neighborhoods are home to millions of citizens in Beta Communities with 100s of millions of citizens. Instead of wasting $Billions “rebuilding” Iraq, why not use a carbon tax to build strategically located air-rights platforms to reconnect the urban fabric of the US of A in locations where access and existing fabric create the market and support for revitalization and reaggregation of the settlement pattern?


(10). Some have suggested that a “benefit” of the elevated line would be the “view from a train.” However, not many shared-vehicle riders are thrilled by views from a car window on an elevated line. Shared- vehicle system riders are, in general, in a hurry to get somewhere. Occasionally, there exceptional views, such as those from the bridges on Stockholm’s Tunnelbanan.  To the extent views are desirable, even with Pyramid Strategy development, views could be incorporated. But “the view from the train” should not be used as makeup for the porker.


(11). During a recent multi-party mass email exchange on the deplorable state of the “recovery” efforts following hurricane Katrina, we witnessed the rejection of mild support for Fundamental Change offered by Paul Spreigegen the author of the landmark 1965 book, “Urban Design: The Architecture of Towns and Cities.”  See "Down Memory Lane With Katrina.




Graphic 1: WaPo Air photo of the Centre of Tysons Corner showing the four METRO stations with .25 and .50 radii around each station superimposed.



Graphic 2: Underground rail scenario



Graphic 3: Above ground scenario




Graphic 4: Pyramid Strategy with Public Way Rights scenario.



Graphic 5:  Richard L. Thornton rendering
















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.