On 3 February, WaPo published Eric M. Weiss’s story: “A Dubious Distinction: The Longest Ride in U.S. – Prince William Enclave Has Longest Commute In Nation; Three Others in Area [the National Capital Subregion] Make Top 12.”

If you have not read the story, it is a classic. This story is a poster child for why citizens have debilitating Geographic Illiteracy and why far too many struggle with long commutes and sub-optimum lifestyles that spell financial disaster for Agencies, Enterprises, Institutions and Households.

At first glance this is a story about earnest, well-intended citizens doing what they believe to be in their best interest. There are also concerned governance practitioners and sage transport experts facing an intractable problem laid out in award winning journalistic form. But look under the hood, and there is a different story.

The featured citizens are trapped in terrible Jobs / Housing / Services juxtapositions but they believe they have done the best they can. These citizens are in this position because they inhabit dysfunctional settlement patterns but they do not yet know what those words mean.

What citizens in these enclaves DO know, (although it is not reported) that they have rapidly deteriorating home equity but they do not yet know how their location decisions contributed to this condition.

And the “journalism”: The primary source of information is very badly informed citizens. “Human Condition” reporting (which IS much better than “He said / She said” reporting) provides no historical context, there is no reference to an overarching strategy to achieve functional settlement patterns or less onerous living conditions. Even worse, the “experts” avoid reality and toss up their hands. The politicians spin away with what they hope will get them elected one more time.

This review focuses on the two low-density urban enclaves that are located in the Virginia part of the National Capital Subregion. These enclaves are the “Census Designated Places” of Bristow and Dale City, Virginia. A similar story could be told about the two enclaves in Maryland noted in the story.


Decades ago there were adopted Agency polices and plans that incorporated excellent strategies to guide the evolution of human settlement patterns and to match transport facility capacity with the travel demand generated by the settlement patterns.

Decades ago there were good examples of far better settlement patterns that were actually built in the Subregion.

There could have been better reporting had WaPo not Lancastered those who were starting to understand human settlement patterns out of the Region.

There could have been well informed, prosperous happy citizens living in functional human settlement patterns, but NO…


Here are just a few of the critical historical mile posts avoided by the story and by the experts:

1. In the mid-50s the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan called for four Balanced Communities with Clear Edges in the R=10 to R=20 Radius Band and Compact urban fabric supported by a shared-vehicle system inside a Clear Edge (near R=10) around the Core of the National Capital Subregion. (Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia would be the villains in this story if naming villains was a productive approach to evolving a sustainable future.)

2. “The Year 2000 Plan for the National Capital Area” published in 1960 laid out in detail the basics of functional settlement pattern on the Alpha Neighborhood-, Alpha Village- and Alpha Community-scales. This plan also introduced a famous sketch that outlined the distribution of Alpha Community-scale components in what has evolve to be the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region.

3. In the mid-60s a composite of municipal comprehensive plans for the northern Part of Virginia – as well as a similar one for much of the National Capital Subregion – presented a functional settlement pattern for the Subregion.

Had these plans been followed and had Balanced Communities evolved following these plans, policies, programs and strategies, then less than half the area now devoted to urban development would have been cleared and subdivided. Much of the vacant and underutilized land within 100 miles of the Centroids of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region would be in active nonUrban production and serve as a the green lungs of the Region. The Chesapeake Bay would not be on life support.

4. In the late 60s the federal government committed to fund 90 percent of METRO, and over the next three decades built, a world class “heavy rail” shared-vehicle system serving the Core of the National Capital Subregion. Contrary to a written agreement with the federal Agency, municipal Agencies did not uphold their end of the bargain. They did not plan and encourage station-area development with land uses that would support the METRO system.

To this day – over 40 years after construction on METRO started – the majority of the land in METRO station-areas is vacant and / or underutilized. There is no Balance between the METRO system capacity and the station-area travel demand. This is why most of the METRO trains leave most of the METRO stations essentially empty most of the time.

4. In the 70s full-scale, examples of much more functional settlement patterns were planed at the Alpha Community- and Alpha Village-scales. Several of these projects were built and while there were glitches, they were and ARE far more successful from economic social and physical perspectives than the vast majority of the land developed for urban land uses since 1973 in the National Capital Subregion.

These places proved that:

• A far higher percentage of the residents could live “on or near the water” and / or “in or near the woods,”
• Have better schools,
• Have far stronger identity and social cohesiveness,
• Serve a far wider range of housing needs,
• Achieve a far greater Balance of J / H / S / R / A,
• Have far more useable Openspace,
• Achieve higher and more stable home values per square foot
• And still take up less than one quarter of the total land at the Alpha Community-scale when compared to the land devoted to scattered subdivisions such as those in the enclaves (Census Designated Places) noted in the WaPo story

5. In the mid 80s a 54 member citizen task force drafted a plan that took the best of the 60s and 70s ideas for evolving Balanced Communities and created a plan for Fairfax Center. Fairfax Center was planned to be 5,500 acres where 55,000 citizen could work, live and seek services. Almost immediately the plan was nickled and dimed (least common denominatored) but today it is still far more functional than the other places of similar scale and intensity of use.

6. In the late 80s and into the 90s Wash COG carried out a process that could have guided the location of new jobs and dwellings to evolve Balanced Communities from the then existing “Activity Centers.”

While this was going on, in October 1973 OPEC, issued a wake up call that should have gotten every citizen and every governance practitioner on the board strategies to evolve functional and sustainable settlement patterns that did not rely on importing foreign oil and did not depend on Large, Private Vehicles for Mobility and Access.

Based on the strategies that existed from the mid 50s Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions could have leveraged the booming SubRegional economic activity that lasted from the late 50s until mid-2007 to build and rebuild functional and sustainable human settlement patterns.

The 3 February WaPo story did not refer to any of this context. It is as if the current result was inev
itable and no one had ever given thought to a different outcome. In fact, clear, concise arguments in favor of alternatives to the current result have been published in every decade since 1920.


The 3 February WaPo story also did not establish the Subregional Context of the featured enclaves.

These enclaves are NOT in the middle of nowhere. These enclaves are outside the location for the Clear Edges shown on the 50s and 60s plans. However, they are INSIDE the logical location for the Clear Edge around the Core of the Subregion based on the late 90 and early 00s work of Wash COG, the employer of one of the experts quoted.

It would have been very useful to point out that each of the enclaves are served by major limited access radial roadway corridors paid for by federal government – I-66 and I-95.

Both these corridors have HOV lanes and both have public AND private bus and van service using the HOV lanes.

Further, both of these corridors are also served by commuter rail – the Virginia Railway Express.

In addition both corridors are served by radial lines of the METRO system.

And there is icing on the cake: For over four decades the I-95 corridor has had the Shirley Express Lanes. By many measures these are the most effective applications of asphalt used by Autonomobiles on the planet.

It would have been informative for the experts cited in the story to point out that these two enclaves have access to every type of facility that federal, state and municipal jurisdictions have relied on to provide Mobility and Access to low-density, monocultures of auto-dominated settlement patterns.

Would it have been too much to ask these experts why all these billions of dollars in public facilities obviously do not work? It turns out relying of these facilities to support dysfunctional settlement patterns will never work for reasons spelled out in THE PROBLEM WITH CARS. But that is getting ahead of the story.


Of course the CAPACITY of the radial and circumferential roadways could be increased and more vans, busses and trains could be added to the shared-vehicle services.

However if the COST of these facilities were allocated to those who would use them in the target enclaves, most of these citizens could not afford the fares / tolls / taxes to pay for the new facilities.

It is also clear that the bottom line result adding very expensive new capacity would be to shave a few minutes off of the record setting AVERAGE commute times but it would not “solve” the problem.


If all the current costs of the location decisions that resulted in putting these dwellings in these enclaves were fairly allocated many, if not most, of the present residents could not afford the FULL cost of living there.

What drives up the cost? The mix of dwelling types and the Regional and Subregional location of Jobs and Services result in settlement patterns that do not function. These patterns violate the basic laws of economics and physics. It is not a matter of policy or preference.


In addition to not mentioning – or not mentioning forcefully enough to make it into the story – any of the history or context of the enclaves, the experts did not provide any insight on a path to sustainability.

They did not point out the necessity of evolving Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions – using what ever Vocabulary they might choose.

They did not point out that the Beta Communities in the municipal jurisdictions inside R=5 (primarily Alexandria and Arlington) have job to dwelling ratios on the order of 5 to 1. They did not point out that while one of the largest municipalities in the US of A occupies most of the territory within the R=5 to R=20 Radius Band (Fairfax County) has a ratio closer to 1 to 1, there is a gigantic imBalance of housing affordability to wages for the jobs in the jurisdiction due to exclusionary zoning.

Only two of the nine Beta Communities that fall all or part in Fairfax County have achieved anything like a Balance of Jobs / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity.

In explaining the difference between Fairfax County and Prince William County where the two enclaves are located, one of the experts demonstrated a complete lack of knowledge of the physical relationships that control human settlement patterns. By suggesting that Fairfax County once had “the same situation” he demonstrated ignorance of A= pi R sq. He further implied that Fairfax County is OK because there are now more jobs in the municipality than in past decades without regard to location or Balance.

It would have been useful to point out that the two Virginia enclaves (Bristow /Linton Hall in Greater West Prince William and Dale City in East Greater Prince William) were low-density, imbalanced enclaves in badly unbalanced Beta Communities.

Road scholar and congestion guru, Tony Downs famously pointed out that congestion is not the problem, it is the solution. Tony correctly noted that when congestion gets bad enough, citizens, Households, Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions make different location and settlement pattern decisions.

Tony correctly identified the political (SMALL “p”) and the unenlightened citizen self-interest that has prevented intelligent changes that have been advocated for 90 years.

Downs had two solutions:

First: Buy a big comfortable car (Large, Private Vehicle) with a great sound system to enjoy the ride. Addiction to this formula is EXACTLY why the Autonomobile Enterprises, supported by Agencies and “freedom” oriented Institutions have driven to the brink of Collapse.

Second: Drive to work with someone you REALLY like (wink, wink). According to domestic and divorce court records that “solution” is a major cause of divorce and social instability in the Household and at all other scales of human settlement.

Tragically, Tony did not take into consideration was that at some point, the total cost of Regional-scale settlement pattern dysfunction would leave citizens and their Organizations without the resources necessary to change the settlement patterns to more functional and less congestion generating configurations.

To his credit, Tony was first an economist and had no way to know that the incredible BOOM of the 80s, 90s and 00s would exterminate “rational man” / “wisdom of the crowd” / invisible hand economics and replace it with “behavioral economics.” See Column # 124 “Riding the Tiger,” 2 June 2008 and the two recent post on the Tragedy of Trickle Down.


For reasons spelled out in THE ESTATES MATRIX, MainStream Media has abandoned its responsibility to create informed citizens. Sadly, citizens are left to sort out advertisements for Autonomobiles and Wrong Size Houses in the Wrong locations that promise the American Dream without the facts or an overarching conceptual framework with which to organize their thinking. They believe the decisions they make are in their best interest and once made they defend them in the face of 46.3 minute AVERAGE commutes.

To his credit, WaPo reporter, Weiss only used one Core Confusing Word (suburban / suburb) and only used it three times. The use of “enclave” is very effective in this context and is a good choice. However, he used interchangeably two generic settlement pattern descriptors (neighborhood and community with no capital) seven times. Of course, it would have been helpful to point out that “political subdivisions” of the Commonwealth and “Census Designated Places” do not reflect the organic components of human settlement patterns.


Now, with a deepening recession,
citizens and their elected representatives will support throwing more money at ‘infrastructure’ to remove fundamental drivers of dysfunction that cannot be solved except by evolving Balanced Communities.

There is no way to help commuters except to help them become noncommuters by building Balanced Communities.

See Column # 41“The Commuting Problem,” 17 January 2005, Column # 65 “Balanced Communities,” 23 August 2005 and Column # 92 “Solving the Commuter Problem,” 5 February 2007.


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18 responses to “ANATOMY OF A BAD COMMUTE”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Meanwhile, we are adding 3000 more slots in the park and riide lots as far away as Spotsylvania and Stfford in order to support the new HOT lanes.

    And what is it you keep saying abut those that filibuster?


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I googled “The Year 2000 Plan for the National Capital Area” and got zero references.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “However if the COST of these facilities were allocated to those who would use them in the target enclaves, most of these citizens could not afford the fares / tolls / taxes to pay for the new facilities.”

    Yeah, and how much of the cost of METRO are the users paying? How much of the cost of METRO is payed by those people driving vehicles, shared or otherwise?

    How about making a fair argument on this topic, for once? The fact is that autop drivers not only pay a higher percentage of thaeir own full cost (even if you count externalities) than other modes, but they pay for the other modes as well.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    “There is no way to help commuters except to help them become noncommuters by building Balanced Communities. “

    That only helps them if th ebalanced communities cost less than the commute plus the cost of their current communities.

    And, after you build these new communities, you still have to recycle the old ones, somehow. That probably means providing them with jobs. And if you do that, you don;t need to build the new communities to begin with.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    blah blah blah EMR is great blah blah.

    Look dude the free market is at work. People make decisions and face consequences.

    Here is my perspective. Pardon me for not having as much context. I’m a bit younger than you folks :-p.

    Its 2003 and I am one of the young people powering the new economy of Northern Virginia.

    Some people want to get married and have kids. In 2003-2006 there were only a couple choices. Finding a place under 500k in a good school district with low crime. The only choices were the two places mentioned in the article and outer Loudoun.

    This was insane. There needed to be a housing correction. Now you can find a place for under 500k in many places.

    Problem solved all through market forces with no planning or nanny stateisims.

    And I still say show me the demand for eoconoboxes right on top of each other with no cars. Right…. Its not what the public wants

    P.S. the people who live in the inner areas don’t want what your development plan is anyway. Unless you can provide adequate infrastructure first and show the quality of life for existing residents wont be negatively impacted.


  6. Groveton Avatar

    The good people in Prince William County play plenty of money in taxes. The pay state income tax, sales tax, real estate tax, sales tax surcharge, gas tax, etc etc etc.

    The problem is that all of this money goes to Richmond and too little comes back to Prince William County. So, the schools and roads are crowded to the point of being almost inoperable. And the local political elite, like Corey Stewart, sit back with their thumbs in their mouths yapping on and on about things like illegal immigration. Delegates like Jeff Fredrick are no better (although as part of the institutionalized theft you can understand his interest in silence). Presumably yapping about illegal immigration helps distract the voters from the large scale theft occurring. Just once (once!) I’d like to see either a local politician or a NoVA state politician calculate the level of taxes paid in their jurisdiction vs the amount of money the criminal class in Richmond spends in their jurisdiction. Then, perhaps, provide this same calculation for a county like Henrico which has essentially the same income level (and much lower costs of living) as Prince William. Why isn’t Corey Stewart doing this? Why isn’t Jeff Frederick doing this? Why aren’t they insisting that more of Prince William’s money be spent in Prince William – on roads, on schools on economic development funding to attract employers? Until people like Corey Stewart and Jeff Frederick take up this issue the Commonwealth of Virginia will continue to rob the citizens of Prince William County while driving their quality of life into the ground.

    Fundamental transformation may be the long term answer. But the short and mis term answer is to keep more of PWC’s money in PWC and build more roads and schools.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton – sorry to tweak you, but you dropped the ball big time on Prince William County. Unlike Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun Counties, the state aid formula for K-12 education works quite well for Prince William County.

    For school year 2007-08, Prince William County, despite being much smaller than Fairfax, received $347,981,374 from the Commonwealth for its 69,693 students. $4993.06 per student. Fairfax County received $457,248,993 for its 161,165 students. $2,837.15 per student. Henrico County received $214,580,567 for its 47,138 students. $4,552.18 per student.

    So I’d say old Corey Stewart and Jeff Frederick are doing a bit better then Henrico and a helluva lot better than Gerry Connolly/Sharon Bulova and Margi Vanderhye and the rest of the Fairfax County clowns.

    One of the major reasons why the state aid formula has not been reformed is the refusal of Prince William County Senators and Delegates — Democrats and Republicans alike — to work with Fairfax County’s delegation. But then, why should they. PW County does much better than Fairfax County.

    Just one more reason to keep the Dillon Rule — Fairfax County politicians are generally incompetent and the voters get what they deserve.


  8. E M Risse Avatar


    While I like to agree with you about the quality of governance practitioners…

    It does not make any difference how much money PW got, there is no way to create functional settlement patterns by throwing money at them.


  9. the school funding policy in Virginia and most other states is to “spread the resources” so that each kid – no matter where they live – has access to an equivalent education…

    …based on the premise…that it is not the kids fault where they were born or other circumstances that they had no choice in…

    … my view is that:

    1. – the basic policy is correct

    2. – if one thinks the formula is wrong – be clear about what you disagree with…

    .. and argue on those merits

    in other words, is the argument –

    that the basic policy intent is wrong … therefore the entire concept of the formula – wrong

    or is the problem that the policy is correct but the formula itself is flawed..??

    be clear on what you oppose and why.

    as usual EMR is off in the ozone. School “equalization” has nothing to do with “throwing money at a problem” – any more or any less than any other formula for ALLOCATING funds for other purposes – like Medicaid.

  10. Groveton Avatar


    Great statistics. I really don’t feel that I dropped the ball by asking for the very statistics you provide. Now, let’s add transportation funding, state law enforcement, economic development, etc and we’ll have the whole picture. Maybe Prince William County will still end up ahead. Maybe Henrico has cause to complain. My bottom line remains the same – this level of jurisdictional reporting should be a mandatory bit of government transparancy. It should not be a set of facts that can only be partially pieced together by highly motivated people like you digging through mountains of bizarre data.

    And TMT – sorry to tweak you but you don’t calculate what the people of Prince William (or Fairfax or Henrico) pay in taxes. The amount the state spends in a jurisdiction can only be seen as fair or unfair in light of the amountthe states takes from that jurisdiction (and the overall income level in the jurisdiction). This, of course, would need to include real estate taxes – which vary a lot from area to area. If I had to guess (and, thanks to the GA and its members, that’s all I can do) I’d guess that Arlington County is taking the worst bath on funds collected vs. funds received. As for Fairfax – I don’t see the Republicans saying anything about this either. Was Herrity all over this issue?

    The only guy making any noise about reducing the power of Richmond is Terry McAuliffe. Could it be that the champion of shrinking the runaway government in Richmond is a liberal Democrat? Moran, McDonnel and Deeds are part of the established problem group in Virginia. Maybe we need a real outsider who has not been stained by holding elected office in the state to make things right.

    As for Vanderhye and Bulova – the Republicans could have won both of those elections. All they had to do was publicly put forth the crimional theft occurring in Richmond. Of course, they would have needed to persuade their party to do that. Including, presumably, the Republican Party pf Virginia – headed by Jeff Frederick. And that would require that the beneficiaries of Virginia’s “county welfare system” – largely Republican strongholds – admit that they are doing what they curse poor, inner city families for doing – namely, being on welfare for life.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “However if the COST of these facilities were allocated to those who would use them in the target enclaves, most of these citizens could not afford the fares / tolls / taxes to pay for the new facilities.”


    This is the wrong allocation of costs. The costs should be allocated to all who benfit, and that means it should include the businesses and shareholders of the businesses that these people commute TO.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    “It is also clear that the bottom line result adding very expensive new capacity would be to shave a few minutes off of the record setting AVERAGE commute times but it would not “solve” the problem.”

    Correct, and neither will moving all those homes closer to the (already overconcentrated) jobs. And it would be even more expensive than building new capacity.

    Rationally, congestion WILL mean that people ill make different deccsions about where to locate their companies and where their employees would like to live.

    Take a ride through Clifton, and then take a ride through SE, or even most parts of NW.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “….there is no way to create functional settlement patterns by throwing money at them.”

    You got a way to do it without money?

    Let’s hear it.

    Oh, that’s right: sweat equity.

    Cool, now show me the equity.


  14. Groveton Avatar

    “the school funding policy in Virginia and most other states is to “spread the resources” so that each kid – no matter where they live – has access to an equivalent education…”.

    Years and years of robbery and mis-management by the GA has gotten us nowhere near that goal. In fact, I’d bet that the spread of educational quality in Virginia is worse now than it was 10 years ago. The system isn’t working.

    In addition, nobody should get anything unless the people are sharing in the burden of providing it. The endless chatter on this blog about education spending without considering the amount paid in taxes is absurd. You think the state should guarantee an equivalent education? Regardless of the level of jurisdictional taxation? Fine. I think the residents of the Fredricksburg area should start paying 50% per year real estate taxes. The money should all go to Richmond for re-distribution. Everybody in every jurisdiction in the state should have their public education improved thanks to the residents of Fredricksburg paying a 50% per annum real estate tax.

    Oh … that wouldn’t be fair? Equivalent education is fair only as long as people are paying equivalent taxes (even if graduated by income)? Hmmmm….

  15. The school funding policy of equalization is pretty much standard across the country.

    And it’s done in a variety of ways.

    For instance, about 5 states including Texas do not have a State level income tax but they still have statewide standards for equity access to education and yes.. it’s convoluted and problematical.

    In Texas, multiple approaches have been overturned by the courts and they’ve had to keep going back to try it a different way.

    Again – I would ask you Groveton – are you opposed to the POLICY or the implementation of the policy?

    I would posit that most folks would agree with the INTENT of the policy – that no child should be a victim of circumstances that he did not cause.

    That is the basic concept of public education in this country and if the foundation of all of the industrialized countries in the world.

    I just think you should disclose whether it’s this policy you oppose or do you opposed the way it is done in Virginia (which, by the way is not that different from many other states – INCLUDING Home Rule States).

    Let’s be clear about what it is that we disagree about.

    If Virginia does it wrong – let’s talk about what needs to happen to do it right.

    If you oppose the policy itself, then we’ll probably agree to disagree.

    but at the least – we should both understand what it is that we do not agree on.

  16. E M Risse Avatar


    “as usual EMR is off in the ozone. School “equalization” has nothing to do with “throwing money at a problem”

    Try to keep a civil tongue.

    This is a post about Commuting and the reference to throwing money had to do with just building more transport facilities.


  17. I’m glad you cleared that up EMR.

    One of the biggest complaints I have with your tomes (besides the ungodly blather factor – the length) is the use of such a broad-brush – without even a scintilla of supporting info, is a lack of specificity…

    so.. kudos for clarifying that you were talking about “throwing money at more transport facilities”.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    “Try to keep a civil tongue.”

    Pot calling the kettle black.


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