Hinkle Strikes Again

Barton Hinkle has demonstrated once again that he has a keener grasp of the issues than any other newspaper pundit commenting on Virginia transportation. Rather than recycling the same worn-out dogmas, he brings new perspectives to the debate. In yesterday’s edition, he turned outright wonkish: delving into the methodology of how one properly calculates the cost of operating the cost of automobile travel.

At dispute was the question: Which costs more, traveling one mile by car or by train? In a previous column, Hinkle had quoted the Heritage Foundation to the effect that it costs an average of $.21 per mile to operate a car — including the cost of road construction and maintenance. Rail advocates objected, citing AAA figures of $.62 per mile.

I have no idea whose estimate is better, although, I’ll admit, the Heritage number sounds low to me. The point is that Hinkle is asking the right questions. What are the average costs, both private and public, of transporting a person by car and by rail? Currently, lawmakers in Virginia favor pumping billions of state transportation dollars into mass transit without any evidence whatsoever (at least none that has been proffered to the public) that mass transit can move more people for less cost than building roads.

I’m not against mass transit — I’m just against investing in mass transit blindly. The Commonwealth needs to establish objective yardsticks for measuring the cost effectiveness of road vs. rail. Those costs, as Hinkle rightly points out, need to include “externalities” such as pollution and energy security. And they need to recognize, in the context of analyzing specific project alternatives, that average numbers are meaningless. What matters is the cost effectiveness of a specific project under specific circumstances. Finally, I would add, any evaluation needs to consider the extent to which any project is capable of paying its own way, whether through tolls, fares or tax-increment bond financing.

Virginia needs a rigorous methodology grounded in economics and finance to guide its investments in transportation capacity. Without one, the money we spend is steered by politics and power. Hinkle is steering the discussion in a useful direction.

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31 responses to “Hinkle Strikes Again”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ahhh yes.. those pesky numbers…. where they come from and what they really mean…. ๐Ÿ™‚

    but one small example: let’s presume that there is irrefutable proof that cars are by far and away cheaper than the cheapest transit system….

    Then, let’s look at say.. NYC .. or Tokoyo and ask “why in the world would they use transit rather than autos – when clearly the data shows that they’ve made a wrong choice”?

    Are all the large urban areas that have invested in transit so totally off base that those areas would end up with budget suprluses and once transit removed vastly improved mobility?

    Closer to home… is METRO a massive failure.. that we should abandon.. and build more roads instead to move all of those current Metro Riders?

    I ask this simple question because that is essentially the argument against transit in NoVa and other urbanizing areas.

    I don’t pretend to know the answer even if I had all the data and could sort it out but something in the back of my head says that where you have skyscrapers (remember that word DENSITY) … that trying to build wide enough roads to move all those folks in those skyscrapers to/from their homes and jobs… would prove a serious financial and logistical challenge. (but perhaps I’m totally wrong about this – someone enlighten me).

    If I remember correctly.. Robert Moses tried to go that route in NYC… basically advocated tearing down entire portions of the center.. to build roads of the future (sic).

    Then I hear the argument.. “yeah.. transit “works” for places as dense as NYC but it will never work for NoVa”.

    Hmmm.. at some point.. was NYC at the stage of NYC in it’s evolution? I’m not a creationist person so I do believe that NYC did not begin it’s existence in one fell swoop.

    My point is that… urbanizing areas.. such as NoVa… may reach a point.. where density… compels mobility solutions other than just roads.

    It would be nice.. if someone.. perhaps the Heritage or Brookings folks.. or for that matter.. any old Environmental Impact statement for a proposed road) would actually produce a table that showed where that “tipping point” would be.

    I’m betting that MOST folks WILL AGREE that at some point – transit is indicated… and what the lack of agreement is about is WHEN the point is reached that transit is “better”.

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I think that there’s a difference between maintaining versus abandoning a transit system and extending it. The capital costs for building Metro are spent. What sort of return do we get on the investment versus what would it cost to walk away from it and put its passengers someplace else?

    On the other hand, expansion is something else. What are the capital costs for expanding Metro in a particular location and what is the return on that investment? I find it very telling that no one has proposed to expand Metro in Virginia under the Public Private Partnership Act. We’ve seen a number of proposals to use that law to construct other transportation facilities, but not heavy rail. Even with the possibility of huge gains from rezoning Tysons and other areas along the Dulles Corridor, none of the landowners or contractors have indicated a willingness to build the rail line. Recall that the proposal was to take over the Toll Road. Doesn’t that say a lot about the economics of transportation?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Thanks for posting this article Jim, it’s a pretty interesting debate. I’d just like to post my ideas on what should be included in a proper calculation of per mile vehicle costs.

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that both numbers are incorrect especially if we’re focusing on a locality such as northern virginia. I say this because the actual passenger mile cost of a road project increases as more people use a stretch of road whereas they decrease with use of a public project.

    This fact is due to congestion. Roads have a certain, set capacity that cannot change as the volume of traffic increases. As volume increases to around 80% of capacity speeds drop below the posted limit. In areas such as Northern Virginia, roads can have volumes up to 3 times their capacity which slows traffic to a crawl. Gridlocked traffic increases all costs associated with operating a vehicle, it increases the rate at which gas, oil, tires, etc are consumed as well as increasing the depreciation rate on the vehicles, causing added operating stress, and increasing the likelihood of accidents. If externalities are included, the associated costs are even higher due to productivity losses, premature deaths from ozone exposure, other air pollution related health problems, and environmental damage.
    In contrast operating a vehicle under ideal conditions, say in a low traffic rural area will be much less expensive due to decreased congestion.

    The numbers given by both the heritage foundation and AAA are probably too low to accurately assess the situation in NoVa or Hampton Roads. As always politics and the debates surrounding it are decidedly local.
    For more information on congestion related costs please visit:
    Or send me an email and I’ll forward you the latest part of our report.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Myth vs. Reality on Highway “User Taxes” and Subsidies

    November 2003


    Highways are an example of the free market system in action. Unlike public transportation, they receive no government subsidy, but rather are funded by user fees paid only by users.


    The notion that road users “pay their own way” in a “free market” process has a number of major faults. First, the evidence is clear that highway and motor vehicle-related taxes cover only part of the total costs of motor vehicle facilities.

    One of the most competent analytical discussions of this issue is provided by Dr. Vukan R. Vuchic in his book Transportation for Livable Cities (Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ, 1999, pp. 67ff). Vuchic notes that the claim that highway users “pay their way” stems from the concept of the Highway Trust Fund, whose revenues are derived from taxes on motor fuels and other motor vehicle products. However, noted Vuchic, this fund fails to cover many important motor vehicle system costs, “such as highway maintenance, traffic regulation, and parking.”

    Vuchic cites a wide range of analyses substantiating this, particularly those compiled and summarized by the following studies:

    * John Holtzclaw, “America’s autos and trucks on welfare: A summary of subsidies”, Mobilizing the Region, 15, 3 Feb. 1995.

    * John Pucher, “Budget cutters looking at wrong subsidies”, Passenger Transport (APTA), 13 March 1995.

    These researchers cite studies performed by a variety of individuals and organizations, including the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provide estimates of “pure” subsidies to automobile and truck users in the USA ranging from as low as $300 billion to as high as $935 billion annually โ€“ nearly a trillion dollars a year (and that was in 1994)!

    “Thus,” writes Vuchic, “the claim that car users pay their costs is overly simplistic and inaccurate. Actually, highway user taxes defray only part of the country’s total highway transportation costs. Most car trips are subsidized.” Vuchic further notes that a vast amount of heavy, hidden private subsidies actually exceed the total combined government and private subsidies “to all other modes … combined.”

    Vuchic summarizes the situation by observing that the 1994 OTA analysis (noted above)

    … estimates that car drivers pay about 60 percent of the total cost of their travel. The remaining 40 percent consists of costs of highway construction, maintenance and control (traditionally subsidized by all three levels of government), “free” parking (subsidized by employers, store owners, schools, federal tax laws, and so on), and various social and environmental costs absorbed by society.

    Another major fault of the motor vehicle “user taxes” concept is that, except for direct tolls (i.e., user fees) assessed on tollway, tunnel, and bridge users, these taxes are themselves subsidies. Basically, using the term “user taxes” to apply to the special allocation of a sales tax to highway construction and maintenance, or to any other special function, is simply a smokescreen for dedicating taxes of a particular product/service to the exclusive benefits of that particular product or service industry. It certainly is a subsidy, since public tax revenues are being applied to fund production of the product or service.

    Allocating special tax privileges to a particular industry is itself a form of governmental subsidy, since this method of revenue generation and funding cannot possibly be applied to all industries and companies throughout a given economy. Dedicating taxes on products (services) solely to the advantage of every individual product (service) would be disastrous for society as a whole.

    To single out a specific industry for this special treatment is thus an enormous subsidy to that industry. Basically, this is the legacy of a gigantic swindling of the American public in the mid-20th century by a working coalition of highway and motor vehicle industry interests. In essence, it amounts to a form of socialism for the rich.

    While this started with a relatively small number of service users (highway travellers), by distorting the market and eliminating or marginalizing other transport choices, this government promotion of highway travel has forced more and more users into this (monopolistic) system โ€“ all under the aegis of the state. The system thus feeds itself, in a vicious cycle of expansion (rather like a cancerous growth process).

    Furthermore, far from an example of a supposedly fair, “free market” process in action, it’s a distortion of markets. Special revenue dedication and virtually unrestrained funding of highways also fail to account for external costs generated and incurred by the highway system (such as air pollution, accidents, etc.).

    Certainly, dedicating the taxes on a service or product to the support of that same service/product is a tremendously efficient way of fostering and aggrandizing the industry which provides it. How beneficial it would be for all tax revenue from shoes, boots, stockings, hosiery, canes, crutches, wheelchairs, foot-care products, shoe-repair products and services, etc. to be dedicated exclusively to the provision of pedestrian infrastructure โ€“ better sidewalks, lots of crossing lights, etc.!

    Unfortunately, the segmentation of tax revenue in this fashion would wreak disaster on governmental revenue and budgeting systems. Governments would find themselves boxed in, hands tied, in terms of their revenue allocation decisions. If this won’t work for the society as a whole, why does a single industry (i.e., transportation system) deserve this special treatment and provision of these subsidies?

    Answer: it doesn’t. At the time it was enacted (an era of muddy dirt roads and two-lane highways), special dedication of motor vehicle-related taxes to highways was seen as a fast emergency way to funnel lots of revenue into what was perceived as an essential public service. But the greedy Godzillas that had rapidly emerged within the highway and motor vehicle industries found this bountiful public largesse far too lucrative to lose. So they mobilized to preserve it โ€“ forming various Good Roads Associations and other political mechanisms that now make up Highways, Inc. โ€“ the government-corporate partnership which has eaten and assassinated its way to supremacy (carrying out the Transit Holocaust in the process) … and supposedly locking in the “user fee” flim-flam forever.

    But one of these days โ€“ particularly as planners, decisionmakers, and the public at large become more savvy about the fallacies and adverse implications of this distortion of both markets and public policy โ€“ “forever” may come to an end.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    11:32 Anonymous, I’ve heard those arguments many times before, and find them, frankly, grossly unconvincing.

    Most taxpayers WANT a good road system. Business and the economy benefit from a good road system. If you’re going to charge the “hidden costs”, you’d darn well better count up the “hidden benefits” – which I strongly suspect outweigh the costs by many orders of magnitude.

    It would be difficult for highway users NOT to pay their way, given that most citizens are highway users. Even the ones who aren’t are getting hidden benefits from the existence of those road systems. Road systems aren’t subsidized if those same users are paying for them – and benefitting from them.

    Most ordinary citizens consider a good and workable road system one of the most important functions of government. May not be what you want to believe, but it is what it is.

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “It would be difficult for highway users NOT to pay their way, given that most citizens are highway users.”

    It would seem that if that were true – we’d not have a funding “crisis” and instead plenty of money to pay for roads – and not even having discussions about how to increase funding and whose pockets it should come from.


    It’s important to understand why we have the funding issue – because continuing to advocate for the same method (gasoline taxes) is no longer a viable option. Highway users no longer pay anywhere near the actual costs and just to maintain a status quo will require significant increases since the gas tax is not adjusted for inflation and hasn’t been increased for more than 20 years.

    I’m not a proponent nor an opponent of highways per se (with the exception of roads that destroy significant natural, historic or cultural resources) – only that if we SAY we need more roads – that WE recognize realities and approach the funding issue pragmatically and not with wishful thinking or thinking in terms of 50 years from now.

    We’re here right now and we have this problem right now.

    What is the realistic realm of solutions – politically and otherwise – for this September when the Va GA will meet?

    Raising the gas tax is simply not a realistic choice. Even if politicians would support it – the analysts make clear that for every penny you raise the tax – you will reduce the number of gallons sold – and thus will not end up with a net increase in revenues and likely a net decrease is gasoline goes even higher than it is now.

    VDOT knows this. Our legislators know this. Everyone but apparently those who want more roads know this.

    Similarily – putting new taxes on all fuels – even those that are not for motor vehicles – is simply not going to fly in my view. What would we do – tax natural gas, propane, electricity, etc and devote those taxes to roads?

    I see 3 possibilities (I’m sure there are others):

    1. – local referenda for raising real estate taxes for roads

    2. – local/regional referenda for sales taxes increases for transportation projects.

    3. – Private Investor Toll Roads

    Prince William, Spotsylvania and other counties have done exactly that with local voters approving local roads.

    Ditto for sales taxes – most polls seem to show public support for this – as long as the taxes are spent locally and NOT sent to Richmond – for re-allocation by VDOT.

    At the same time the NoVa referenda went down to defeat in 2002 .. Prince William successfully approved road referenda.

    Private investor TOLL roads ARE a reality and Virginia has enabling legislation that invites such investments and companies are interested.

    other ideas that likely will find currency in the September VA GA?

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Each of you has made partially correct comments. I’ve forgottent the name of it but there is an auto related website that calculates the true cost of ownership for various models of cars, including insurance depreciation, repairs, fuel etc. That information is pretty well known and I find it hard to believe that Heritage Foundation came out with a low ball number like 21 cents. However Winston and Shirley reported average operating costs of $0.21 sents per passeneger mile, based on 1990 figures. Even the AAA figure is low, today. In 1990 dollars Winston and Shirley reported average operating cost per passenger mile for rail at $0.37 per mile and for bus at $0.44 cents per passenger mile.

    But that doesn’t include the costs of the system that it takes to operate cars or the nonmarket costs that accrue to us all through pollution, oil wars and whatever else you think we should throw on the heap.

    By the same token other modes of transit should be valued according to the entire system cost. When you do that you find that rail incurs substantial energy costs up front, due to the costs of grading, tunneling, and steel. By the time youget the system built, the supposed efficiency of transporting people by rail pales into insignificance. And it turns out that the optimum efficiency and the realized efficiency are a lot different.

    In the end, the actual costs per mile of person moved is not very different between the modes. But cars offer greater speed, accessibility and convenience. The average speed of travel (while in the vehicle) during peak periods for cars is 2.92 minutes per mile. For bus it is 4.49 minutes per mile and for train it is 3.81.

    But here again it is the total system of traveel that counts. If you measure door to door then the numbers are 2.58, 8.95, and 5.74 minutes per mile, and it turns out that part of the reason the train value is as low as it is, is because people drive to the station! The train system depends on the car system.

    The bottom line is that after you consider everything, travel time infrastructure costs, maintenance, private costs, public costs, non market costs, accidents, the whole shebang, then you come down to a concept of net benefit maximization.

    As it stands under current practice the net benefit of our total transportation system is 6.6 billion dollars, but if we priced and operated them efficiently it woould be 10.8 billion of net benefit after all costs. Of that toal amount the net benefit for trains is 0.3 billion dollars.

    So, when you ar looking at the whole system, total costs, including everything you can think of, cars come out around $0.82 to $0.89 cents per passenger mile, depending on hose figures you believe. The figures for bus and and rail are even higher, but the surprising fact is that even with all their non-market costs auto users still pay a higher percentage of their costs than other users.

    If we institute toll charges and congestion charges, autos will be the hands down winner in terms of what they give us for what we pay, and who pays.

    As far as I can tell, that is the bottom laine for those pesky numbers. As for NY, even there transit accounts for only 10% of trips and new yorkers have the slowest trip speeds and longest trvel times.

    That doesn’t mean that transit is a toal failure, but it should only be evaluated on the marginal benifits it provides over and above auto transit, which rail transit critically depends on. Transi only “works” in the very best markets, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

    Clearly, we are not going to abandon Metro any time soon, then again, the Egyptians abandoned the pyramids, yet they are still Egypt’s defining symbol. I’ll leav it to you to fill out the simile to Metro.

    the actual passenger mile cost of a road project increases as more people use a stretch of road whereas they decrease with use of a public project.

    This fact is due to congestion. Roads have a certain, set capacity that cannot change as the volume of traffic increases. As volume increases to around 80% of capacity speeds drop below the posted limit.

    Huh? Isn’t the exact same argument true for rail? Isn’t that exactly what is happening on the Orange line? Anyway, it turns out that the optimum throughput speed for roads is at around 35 mph. At speeds higher than that cars require more road per vehicle and thoughput falls even though speed are higher. Whether the speed is at the posted limit is immaterial to how many people get through. I’m not sure I agree gridlocked traffic consumes tires faster.

    I can’t put much credence in Ben’s argument, and anyway all those factors are allegedly considered in the numbers above. And as soon as you start quoting from a source like “Transportation for Livable Cities” I start looking premises looking for supporting facts rather than the other way around.

    The best information I can find suggests that trucks and autos are not on welfare. Even if you try on the most inflammatory figures against autos, you pretty soon find out that if you apply the same premises to trains and busses then their figures don’t look so hot either.

    But this is my favorite. “Actually, highway user taxes defray only part of the country’s total highway transportation costs. Most car trips are subsidized.”

    Absolutely true, but they are far less subsidized that rail or bus. And how are those subsidies paid? Mostly they are paid out of real estate taxes. And here the argument against cars really goes askew. Cars are subsidized by real estate taxes. We shouldn’t build more roads because they only increas the value to land speculators in the area. But we should build more TOD because TOD is largely paid for by the huge increase in property values around the station.


  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Interesting article in WaPo this morning:

    “Rail Tunnel Debate Raises Larger Issue”

    … and the larger issue is:

    “Is Fairfax County’s hope of turning Tysons from a car-clogged, outsize office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia achievable?”

    The article goes on to ask:
    “More broadly, the tunnel’s critics express doubts that Tysons is capable of the metamorphosis Fairfax leaders seek. Skeptics say Tysons might be too far from the District and too well-established as a suburban commercial center to duplicate Arlington’s success.”

    It appears to me that the vision is not for something unique even though words like “walkable” are used but unless mistaken – what they’re doing is trying to replicate Arlington or for that matter any dense, mixed-use urban core area of which there are dozens, perhaps hundred throughout the country.

    The difference is that all of the others were not created by Master Plan but evolved over time through redevelopment of low density structures on large (relatively) lots to higher density structures – multistory buildings connected by sidewalks with street grids.

    The argument advanced as to why this won’t/can’t happen is interesting also:

    “To be more urban, the area would need thousands more residents to support more after-hours activity (about 17,000 people live there, compared with about 100,000 who work there).”

    But isn’t that what the rail expansion is all about to start with?

    Isn’t the idea that the Tysons area can be redeveloped into a dense urban-scape if it has the rail infrastructure?

    I find all of this exceptionally interesting as it appears that opponents/skeptics are all over the map with the reasons why they’re opposed.

    No less than Til Hazel doubt that Tysons can become more dense even if the rail is there and the land is rezoned for more dense development – because it “might be too far from the District”

    Okay.. so someone needs to educate me about the “too far from the district” issue.

    I disregard entirely the logic that Tyson has become too well established as a suburban area – as most urban areas in our country – started out as suburban areas .. and over time, redeveloped more densely and became urban.

    … but the part about being “too far” from the urban core… what does that mean? Does it mean that “new” urban areas can ONLY develop as extensions to existing urban areas?

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    I wrote “It would be difficult for highway users NOT to pay their way, given that most citizens are highway users.”

    And Larry responded “It would seem that if that were true – we’d not have a funding “crisis” and instead plenty of money to pay for roads – and not even having discussions about how to increase funding and whose pockets it should come from.
    right? “


    Highway beneficiaries ARE paying their way. The question now is how best to improve the system, and how those beneficiaries should pay for those improvements.

    Paying your own way means the beneficiaries pay for what is spent.

    Having enough means that enough is spent.

    They are not the same question and one does not imply the other.

    It should be inherently obvious that highway beneficiaries are not being subsidized by dollars that HAVE NOT BEEN SPENT.

    The shortfall IMHO is largely due to elimination of the car tax, but that’s just my opinion. I’m happy not to pay it (we never have less than 3 cars), but I think eliminating it was a gimmick and a bad idea.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    I don’t think most urban areas in our country started out as suburban areas – most that I can think of started as definable cities.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “The shortfall IMHO is largely due to elimination of the car tax”

    I’m really confused now. I was under the impression that the revenues from the car tax were used by localities for purposes OTHER than transportation.

    Is this an implication that if the car tax would, once again, be implemented, that the revenues would no longer be used by localities but rather captured at the state level for VDOT?

    … tongue in cheek – but let’s be clear about WHERE the shortfall is…and where it is not.


  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “started as definable cities”

    … okay… did NYC start out with skyscrapers… or how about Richmond.. did Richmond begin life with multi-story buildings?

    so.. there maybe are a couple of issues –

    how urban cores become urban cores in the first place

    second – define urban core

    third – how to urban cores expand beyond their initial “boundaries”?

    and a concluding question:

    what legally prevents Fairfax or Tyson (or name your place) from changing their comp plan to explicitly allow for dense multi-story mixed-use rezones?

    … not talking about a subsequent voter revolt … but rather if the city fathers.. deemed it in the best interests … and unanimously agreed… would that be any different than say.. Loudoun supervisors deciding to rezone 1/2 the county to allow for say 1 house per acre… as opposed to 1 house per 50 acres?

    Isn’t the process.. the same – and well within the province of elected officials?

  13. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    8:07 I don’t see the relationship between repeal of the car tax and transportation issue, but your argument does point out the weakness of, and inconsistencies in, the Governor and Senator Chichester’s argument in favor of tax increases to support transportation.

    The revenues to reimburse counties and cities for car tax relief comes from the General Fund and not from the Transportation Trust Fund. Therefore, car tax relief does not diminish funds that are available for transportation projects.

    Moreover, both the Governor and Senator Chichester have strongly opposed the House’s plan for transferring revenue surpluses from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund. Yet, they both have criticized car tax relief as being inconsistent with solving Virginia’s transporation problems. But, of course, spending the money going for car tax relief on transportation would necessitate a raid on the General Fund for transportation purposes — something that both the Senator and the Governor say is wrong. Their position is logically inconsistent and symptomatic of two politicians whose only goals are to spend and tax more just to spend and tax more.

    While I think Tim Kaine is a pretty smart guy, he’s also a typical “spend and tax” Democrat who was able to buffalo the voters last November because he sensibly proposed to postpone development where our roads are inadequate to handle the added traffic. But, as we all know, for whatever reasons, Tim Kaine abandoned that pledge once he got into office, returning to typical “spend and tax” behavior.

    On the other hand, the Virginia Senate simply lacks the intellectual firepower found in the House. I’d surely stack Vince Callahan’s problem-solving capacity against that of the entire Senate.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Anonymous 8:07:

    Nice comment, except for the part about the car tax. I think it is a mistake to tax goods on which tax has already been paid twice: once as income and once as sales. Taxes should come out cash flow, not cash that is sitting somewhere, whether it is cars or houses or investments, they should be treated the same.

    I don’t understand the too far from the core issue either. Right now the core is bi-angular and it runs from Dulles to the District to Frederick. It might even be more diffuse than that, depending on how you define it.

    And wasn’t the District largely derided as a swamp in the middle of nowhere when it was founded? Wasn’t New York vacant land bought from the indians for a handful of beads?

    And finally

    “if the city fathers.. deemed it in the best interests … and unanimously agreed… would that be any different than say.. Loudoun supervisors deciding to rezone 1/2 the county to allow for say 1 house per acre… as opposed to 1 house per 50 acres?

    Isn’t the process.. the same – and well within the province of elected officials?”

    Exactly. Only I wonder why this is in the province of officials to decide what is in the best interests. It seems to me that is a decision best made by the people putting up the money.

    Even if Loudoun did zone half the county for one house per acre, only some owners would avail themselves, and only some buyers would avail themselves, and the rest would decide it wasn’t in their best interests. One thing is certain though, it would lower the cost of housing, and maybe dramatically.

    If we elect to postpone development where the roads are inadequate, wouldn’t the first place that should happen be the areas that are most congested now rather than out in Jepip? And wouldn’t it apply mainly to businesses that create the traffic rather than homes?

  15. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry: Let me take a shot at your question. Urban centers generally developed because of their location near harbors, rivers, coal fields, oil, etc. that were conducive to growth and transportation to and from other areas. They also started development with narrower (than Tysons anyway) streets in a grid-like pattern. It is the street pattern that facilitates the more efficient use of mass transit and pedestrian traffic.

    In order to replicate that type of development at Tysons Corner, the wide, winding streets would need to be replaced with narrow streets in a grid pattern. IMHO, the costs for removing what’s already there and building narrow streets in a grid pattern is way beyond the means of the developers. Moreover, as greedy as this crowd is, even they have not proposed taxpayers fund this program.

    Note the push by the Tysons Corner landowners to have taxpayers fund construction of the Silver Line. It would be relatively easy for the landowners to propose building it themselves under the Public Private Partnership Act. But there’s been no such proposal because it would be too expensive for them to build. Hint: Strong evidence that the Silver Line is too expensive for taxpayers to build as well. If they cannot afford to build the Silver Line, could they be expected to build the streets and associated infrastructure that are necessary for sound urban development? Not likely. How many existing buildings would need to purchases and razed for the narrow streets?

    If the Silver Line is built and the added density is granted, we will only have a very dense suburban zone on wide streets with twice as much new traffic as would be generated by the Dulles South developments in Loudoun County. Individuals in who live on the other side of Tysons from me have looked at all of the parcels subject to rezoning (expect for the Tysons I parcels), recalculated the square footage at a 3.0 FAR, which is conservative, and used the traffic data submitted by the landowner for the McLean Commons upzoning case to extrapolate the added automobile trips for all of urban Tysons. The result, even assuming a high use of the Silver Line, is twice that of the Loudoun County proposal for 28,000 new homes.

    Pretty scary stuff.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Without going into too much detail…

    1. Transportation has always shaped land use. Elevators, a critical transportation innovation, allowed for skyscapers to be built. Canals and then railroad allowed western expansion. Cars allowed cul-de-sac development.

    2. The reason that grids were used in early development was to maximize return on investment of public infrastructure. A cul-de-sac only serves the residents on the street. A nice urban grid serves all vehicles and land uses, through and local. (Of course until the cul-de-sac-ers move in and restrict through traffic.) A good grid full of one way streets can easily move and distribute more traffic safely then any dendritic development of the last 50 years.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “A good grid full of one way streets can easily move and distribute more traffic safely then any dendritic development of the last 50 years.”

    That might be true, but I’d like to see the proof. My experience with grid systems is that you have to wait for a light at every intersection and you spend more time sitting than traveling.

    If you look at ants or other colony creatures their burrows are dendritic, not grids. Or look at Fez or Marrakech.

    Our early cities were laid out before mass transit or autos and the narrow grid systems were built for pedestrians, equestrians, and carts. Even if a grid is more efficient for those purposes, those purposes are no longer efficient.

    We moved away for grids for a reason, and if we move back to that, then we will remember what the reason was. Don’t developers lay out those dendritic systems to get the most houses and least streets in a given area?

    And grids are limited anyway by parks and water features and drainage considerations. There is a big watershed that angles through vienna which creates a number of dead end situations. It seems to me that there are places for both, and this new ideology in favor of grids is an oversimplification of the problem.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    Yeah that Thomas Jefferson sure was a crazy fellow and his Northwest Ordinance sure was a crazy idea…


    It is also widely accepted by traffic engineers that one way pairs have double the capacity of two two-way pairs. And any traffic engineer knows that time-space diagrams lend themselves to move efficient traffic flow with one ways then bi-directional. That’s why Manhattan works at all…


    You’ll have you case study in the City of Fairfax soon enough my friend!

    And what about the honeybee? Dendritic I’m sure!

    We moved away from grids to create an autocentric society… Unsustainable in an oil constrained market.

  19. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “We moved away from grids to create an autocentric society… Unsustainable in an oil constrained market.”

    Here, at least, we agree. What I’m not so sure about is that any of the alternatives are the least bit more sustainable. Cities are the biggest energy sink we have, before long we will be blogging here about toll elevators: should people who live on the top floor and travel farthest pay more?

    What is unsustainable in an oil constrained market is 350 hp automobiles. We can shrink, depower, and do a lot of other things with cars, but they are not going away any more than nuclear weapons are going away.

    To simply declare them as unsustainable is ignoring the facts. They may become more expensive and rare, but they aren’t going away.

    If they do go away, then think of the Grapes of Wrath, only with the Okies replaced with millions of displaced townhouse and apartment dwellers, freezing in the dark and without even a jalopy to flee in.

    As for the bees, the comb structure is hexagonal but passageways within the hive to reach the combs are dendritic, except in man made hives.

    A better example might be a spider web, with axial and circular passageways, although this might be construed as a distorted grid. One of our city problems is that we have built the axials, but as the city grew and new city centers developed we failed to increase the number of radials.

    I won’t argue that two way pairs don’t have more capacity than one way pairs: that is the way our intrstates are built, but they are more dendritic than gridlike.

    Grids are fine in some places. I have yet to be convinced that grids are universally a better solution. Think of a tree leaf. It is designed to transmit the maximum absorbed energy to the trunk and distribute the water and minerals from the trunk to the extremities efficiently and it is dendritic. Same for the vascular system.

    Grid systems are orderly, and therefore mentally satisfying. But highly ordered systems always require more energy. As much as we hate to admit it, there is an element of efficiency in chaos. Driving in Italy is much more chaotic than in the US, but somehow the traffic there seems to move.

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: cores, grids, where cities, towns, urban cores came from and how they grew.

    cores: I’m trying to understand why some folks think places like Tyson are “too far” from the urban core with respect to higher densities and/or metro expansion

    grids: very few urban areas that I am familiar with were “master planned” with grids per se nor are there laws that say Tyson can or cannot have a grid system or more realistically a modified grid that adaptive to geography and some of the already built environment.

    translation – fundamentally – higher density in Tyson is not determined by the presence or absence of grid streets.

    towns/cities – how they came to be, etc
    yes.. these places came into existence for a variety of reasons – most due to concentrations of people who sought to benefit from economic activity – and I suspect few of them – master planned from the get-go as urban cores.

    But my main point is that most cities did not get born with fixed boundaries that never changed.

    They grew. They expanded. They added new roads… they expanded out AND they expanded UP.

    What I hearing about the Tyson’s and growth in general is that the same type of evolutional growth that took place in most of our existing urban areas – is “not possible” with Tyson’s (and other places) because .. of a litany of reasons but mostly because of:

    1. – increased automobile traffic
    2. – subway/light, heavy rail are too expensive
    3. – no room for new schools, parks, etc

    Most cities HAD places like Tyson’s in their early history.. places outside of the core… that the core expanded to and absorbed….

    but then we have folks saying that “cores” are artifacts… that no longer really exist… or that they shouldn’t exist or … 180% in the same sentence – do exist but are “too far” from places like Tyson for it to function like a core.

    My premise is simple – urban cores exist, seem to expand on their own, AND will do so if allowed regardless of transportation impacts.

    Many of the arguments against dense urban development.. would seem to suggest that places like NYC, Chicago… etc simply should not exist… but they do.

    I’m quite sure that NYC… and Chicago and Boston.. at some point in their past had places like Fairfax, Tysons, even Prince William/Loudoun that had homes on 1/4 acre lots… that now are multi-story buildings – so again I’m puzzled with respect to arguments that the NoVa cannot undergo similar transformations.

    I’m not arguing the right or wrong or good or bad of it… only that the arguments against it seem to be unique with respect to NoVa.. and, in fact, 180 degress from other urban areas that expand.

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    real quick… i think i’ve got it…

    The dendritic versus grid…

    It does not matter until there is congestion or a blocked artery (think heart attack)

    What a grid offers over dendritic are bypasses (Dutch Elm’s disease and fatty foods both clog the arteries) What we need are multiple ways to get to the same place (ie redundancy creates reliable transportation systems) I’ll also carry the analogy to other modes… Right now I could walk, bike, take transit, drive my car, carpool or take a taxi to get to work. All with their benefits and costs… And I have three different bridges to get to my downtown employment from my 1920s streetcar suburb… redundancy creates reliability. That’s why a grid is superior.

  22. Anonymous Avatar

    Bypasses are important. Seven Corners in Arlington was once a major headache because there was no bypass. The route 15/29/66 situation in PW is the same currently: there is no bypass.

    I think there are times and places for both, I just don’t promote one over the other blindly.

    Your multiple ways to get to the same place assume they are close enough to walk or ride, for the other options, you are talking very expensive redundancy. If you can’t afford to do one properly, how can you afford multiple modes?

    Part of the problem with the orange line is that it goes to the same place as 66 does. Better to have such an expensive sytem go to places that are not served by freeways.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    It is much easier to coordinate traffic lights to reduce stops when intersections are evenly-spaced, as they are in a grid system.

    I’ll also point out that a grid system in many states is a function of the way land was subdivided–even in rural Nebraska you can see the 1 mile by 1 mile grid pattern on a map.

    I prefer the grid pattern, myself.

  24. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The grand state of Iowa goes even further. Section 306.9 of the Iowa Code sets forth state policy that when “feasible and prudent alternatives consistent with efficient movement of traffic exist,” diagonal roads “shall be avoided.” I cannot even imagine what the Iowa General Assembly would think about the old trails and cowpaths we still follow today as our road system.

  25. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I imagine Iowa did that as a concession to or to protect their agriculture, and not as traffic management. If you ever tried to work a triangular field you would know why. And Nebraska probably the same. How old is that section of the Iowa code?

    The one mile by one mile pattern was mostly a function of how the land was sold – in sections or quarter sections. Again the roads were run around the fields to keep from disrupting them.

    I’ve never found that coordinating traffic lights was very effective. What I observe is that when the lights are set for 35 mph, one or two idiots will rush down the street at 45, only to get halted by the light. Then when you cruise up behind them at the posted speed and the light turns green for you, you have to stop anyway while they accelerate from a halt.

    Then at the next light the same idiots pull the same stunt again.

    Coordinating the lights has little to do with how the streets are laid out, because the traffic flow is what counts. Good street light coordination means you have to have a good network of sensors to control the lights. It doesn’t mean you wont have to stop, it just means you move the most traffic possible.

    There is nothing wrong with grids, and nothing wrong with dendritic systems, and each has a place. What’s wrong is to set a dogmatic choice instead of looking at the facts on the ground.

    Of course, the problem is that once you pick one, you are stuck with it for a long time.

    Iowa, by the way has the same problems we have, declining agriculture and rings of new development around each town or city.

  26. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Ray, you are correct. The Iowa statute was passed a long time ago because of the farmers’ understandable ire over what is now a combination of US 65 and Iowa 330 between Des Moines and Marshalltown. The diagonal route makes a much quicker trip for drivers, but it does wreck havoc with farmers. I presume that they determined that one such route was enough and used their clout in the Iowa General Assembly to discourage any more.

    I’ve not been back to Iowa in quite a few years, although I still follow developments to some degree. There has been considerable development around some larger cities that eats farm land. But Iowa’s bigger problem is a lack of growth. The native population is aging; many college graduates move elsewhere; and most in-migration has been Hispanics looking for work in packing plants and other agricultural businesses. I suspect that the large manufacturing centers in the eastern part of the state have declined.

    I lived there for five years & enjoyed everything except for a couple of very hard winters.

  27. Anonymous Avatar

    A good network of sensors? Typically most traffic lights have sensors for “dilemma zone” detection for the main street and detection for the side street, to allow phase-skipping.

    Years ago, the traffic lights on 28 between Manassas Drive and Route 7 were non-coordinated during the day. This meant that if the sensors detected no traffic flow in the “dilemma zone”, the light would change to red for 28 and allow cross-street traffic to go. This was known as a “gap out”. If a “gap out” doesn’t happen in a certain amount of time, the light is programmed to change anyway–this is known as a “time out”.

    This ceased to be a viable strategy as traffic flow on 28 increased–more and more the lights would “time out” instead of “gapping out”, and now the traffic lights on 28 are on a timed, coordinated cycle during the day.

    It remains a fact that it is easier to coordinate traffic signals for two-way traffic when signals are evenly spaced. If all you are concerned about is coordinating the lights to favor traffic in one direction, then intersection spacing does not really matter. Sensors or the lack thereof really has little to do with unless you’re talking about adaptive traffic systems (SCATS, SCOOT, and others), and the jury is still out on those.

    Another annoying thing about dendritic system is the large number of left turns they force drivers to make. Left turns are THE most time consuming, inefficient, unsafe maneuver that can be made at an intersection. VDOT knows this–this is why they’re installing those wonderful protected left-turn-only arrows everywhere. Doesn’t help the efficiency any, but at least it reduces accidents–or so they claim.

    Maybe you can explain to me why it is that I never saw a triple left-turn lane till I moved to Virginia, and I’ve never seen one anywhere else. Yet there it is, on 128 to turn left onto Old Bridge Road.

  28. Anonymous Avatar

    As far as the effectiveness of coordinating traffic signals, it is very effective. Yes, those at the beginning of the “green wave” are likely to come upon lights that are still red, but those towards the middle and the end will arrive at those lights as the are still green.

    I have actually driven all the way from McLearen Road to Manassas Drive on 28 without hitting a single red light, thanks to good traffic signal coordination. That’s about nine traffic signals, and 15 miles.

  29. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    12:16 AM – I’ve experienced the same situation when I lived in another state. This result requires timed lights and driver discipline. Frank Wolf obtained federal funds for VDOT to begin work timing and coordinating lights on Route 7 in Fairfax County. VDOT failed to produce anything.

    But even if this were to occur, I question whether there aren’t too many drivers for any discipline to work.

  30. Anonymous Avatar

    I think the drivers will figure it out, if they’re getting to a red light seconds before it turns green. I think putting signs up telling drivers that the lights are coordinated for a certain speed might help, too.

  31. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Anonymous 12:10, thanks for the clarifications. Still, my experience is that a) drivers don’t figure it out, and b) a few screwups can jinx the whole system.

    That said, I have not had to endure the problem for a long time: when there is only one traffic light, or none, it isn’t an issue.

    I think the only real hope is for adaptive systems, and I’m not sure about them. FAA has been throwing billions at that problem for years.

    That will work when we take control away from the drivers. Get in, punch in your destination, and relax. 100% zipper merges, evenly spaced alternating traffic at every intersection, and no unplanned stops.

    Yeaqh, right. That will happen when the Jetson’s arrive here to prove Darwin’s theory. And the power that computer will take will bankrupt us all. You think roads are expensive?

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