If George Fitch Speaks the Truth, But There’s No One There to Listen, Is It Still the Truth?

George Fitch understands the connection between transportation and land use, and he’s the only one willing to talk about it. Unfortunately, he’s addressing small audiences and getting coverage only from the suburban weeklies, so there’ s no one to hear him. This comes from the Fauquier Times-Democrat:

Traffic congestion could best be eased, Fitch said, using political restraint and common-sense development.”First, we need to lock up the transportation trust fund and stop raiding it,” he said. “Then, we need to stop the bleeding once and for all that is causing a lot of traffic gridlock. We need to coordinate land-use with developments.”

That means, he explained in more detail, that construction plans should be tied at the hip to transportation improvements or developments, and that without the latter, the former should not commence. It also means, he added a few minutes later, demanding more accountability and cooperation from existing transportation officials.”I have a plan,” Fitch said, “(that says) VDOT, you’re going to be evaluated on how well you relive traffic congestion. Nothing else.”

No, Ray Hyde, reforming land use won’t cure all of our transportation woes. But building a bunch of roads and extending METRO rail without reforming the prevailing scattered, low-density pattern of development won’t cure any of our transportation woes. And it’ll cost us a lot in taxes to boot.

Too bad we’re not reading Fitch’s analysis in the Washington Post or Richmond Times-Dispatch. Until the Mainstream Media stop conducting he-said, she-said journalism, there’s no hope that voters will develop a more profound understanding of the issues.

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  1. “That means, he explained in more detail, that construction plans should be tied at the hip to transportation improvements or developments, and that without the latter, the former should not commence.”

    I read this to mean that without adequate connectors or suburban highways, we shouldn’t commence suburban development.

    It seems to me that this is exactly how our transportation planning has failed in the past. The environmentalists hold up any road building while the developers continue to develop where ever they are able, with no logical pattern.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Just how does Fitch propose to ensure this tying at the hip? Can a Governor just mandate this? Is this the same kind of interference in local affairs (zoning) that gets blasted in other contexts?

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I can see the sense in this approach. But Paul is right, there is no sign that transportation funds will be available, and the result will be that suburban construction will stop.

    That is going to result in higher home prices. Therefore, what this amounts to is not necessarily a lower cost solution, but one which transfers the costs to new homeowners. Those higher costs will be reflected in everyone’a assessments, so in the end we all pay anyway, but the improvements will be placed in a way that primarily benefits the newcomers.

    On that basis, demographics suggest that NOVA will be getting the lion’s share of improvements for a long time to come.

    Higher home prices will mean that developers can then afford to build denser development patterns and closer to the center. As options like driving from Front Royal become more untenable, people will have no option but to choose to move closer in.

    But it is still no answer.

    Pi*r^2 says that far more land is available at each increment of radius. No matter what mix of density, radius, and transport mix you select, you eventually get to a point where it is not cost effective to try to get to the center, and other options are required. Beijing is presently planning to substantially reduce the population of it’s central city and create five new ring cities – outside the present ring cities, so it is apparent that density is not a total soluton either. http://www.china.org.cn/english/2005/Apr/124652.htm

    At any chosen level of density, growth eventually means you need more space, and you have to spread the jobs around.

    You can solve the Bohr atom exactly, but beyond that (Helium) you are in a many-body problem that cannot be solved exactly. Compare that to the many-body problem of an entire city. Until someone comes up with an algorithm that can even remotely approximate the variables involved in the time-distance-energy-land-requirements-infrastructure-taxes-commerce-freight-crime-planning-government-energy problem that represents a city, we are just kidding ourselves with the idea that one solution is more workable, less expensive, or more desireable than another.

    The maximum brainpower we can devote to this problem results in dividing the problem up so that each person can work on his own part of the puzzle.

    When considering denser development, realize that it depends on rural development to support it, and accept it’s garbage.

    Just fixing the storm drain system alone in DC is expected to cost over a billion dollars, and I don’t imagine the system in Arlington/Alexandria/Fairfax is any bettter or needs less work. In the face of know facts, the idea that cities are somehow more efficient, more desirable, and less costly, strikes me as preposterous.

    With regard to commuting to work, autos transport 75% of the population, more if you count vanpools and carpools. That is the easy, predictable part of the problem. When you consider shopping, entertainment, social issues etc. the auto’s dominance is clear, but the auto requires space and energy.

    A walkable community is probably not more than a mile in diameter, less as the population ages. Figure the maximum density such a community can attractively accomodate, then figure out how many of them you need to support the population. Connect them with a network of roads, or invent a new system and construct it from scratch if you like.

    Maybe you wind up with a bunch of rings, with these little communities dangling off them like charms. Add some radial roads to get from ring to ring. Throw in limitations due to geography, existing structures, drainage, open space requirements, and utilities. When you run out of space, add a new charm, and a new connecting road/guideway.

    When you do this, remember that “the tragedy of the commons” problem applies to shared vehicles. Then figure that all this is going to have to be done by something that resembles a free market.

    Sounds pretty much like what we are doing now, doesn’t it?

  4. Leaving interest rates aside, it seems to me that the main cause of the housing price bubble (if you want to call it a bubble) in NOVA is a glut of jobs. We have a ridiculously abundant supply of jobs in NOVA and an umemployment rate approaching 1%. So you have tons of people moving into the area and demanding housing faster than they can build it. Higher demand + inadequate supply = higher prices.

    This troubles me…especially when I hear the Smart Growth/NIMBY community FREAK OUT when they hear that BRAC will move jobs into the area. It seems like the Smart Growth/No Growth people are trying to scare jobs away. “We have enough jobs!” they say. “Jobs create sprawl!”

    So they try to get the goverment intervene to prevent job growth. They fight against development in ring cities like Tysons or Springfield. They fight infrastructure improvements (roads) that might allow job growth in outer areas.

    These are troubling trends. Citizens working with the government to prevent job growth.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    A glut of jobs is the flip side of a shortage of houses, either way the result is more expensive homes, which we have seen leads to higher taxes. More homes lead to higher taxes, too. A glut of jobs in one location leads to traffic congestion as well as higher housing prices.

    I suspect that housing construction would keep up, if building permits were available.

    So the two things that lead to higher taxes we don’t want are density and sprawl. Of the two, either one is apparently preferable, as long as it is NIMBY.

    The roads, Metro, VRE, and Bike trails are crowded in one direction. We could almost double our capacity by moving jobs away from the center and using both halves of the road. We wouldn’t really double the capacity because of new local problems that would pop up – the concert traffic jams in Gainesville pop to mind, but I can think of others.

    We could triple our capacity by moving them farther from the center, and closer to smaller, walkable agglomerations. This would require some connection between the walkable areas. Until we invent something else, that means more roads.

    My impression is that a walkable community is under 6000 people, preferably far under. Given that cars exist, reasonable traffic congestion needs moderate population density and averall population under 700,000.

    Given that we WILL have 2 million additional in population, we need over 300 new walkable communities gathered in such a way to represent 3 new good size cities. The walkable areas will need substantial parking, just as Metro does.

    Those people will want to get out of town on weekends, so you will need more roads.

    For an interesting and balanced perspective, see http://www.acroscape.com/thoughts.html.

    Look at the chart on the adjusted costs of various forms of travel if your time is valued at $15.00 per hour. (it makes cars look cheap at $15/hour, how much is yur time worth?) I don’t know if the chart is correct or not (If congestion increases the values will change), but it makes me believe that we don’t know enough about costs to make rational decisions.

    Reforming all of land use strikes me as like rebuilding the Titanic to accommodate another row of deck chairs: it is the most expensive possible solution to solve the wrong problem.

    I could be wrong, we don’t have enough information to know.

  6. John K. Avatar
    John K.

    This is a dense and difficult topic since the the deeper supply-and-demand concept affecting the “housing bubble” is that putting developable land off-limits to building or otherwise restricting use causes the price of the remaining land (and improvements thereto) to rise to prohibitive levels. Inevitably, I’d guess that this would result in development further from population centers and the need for more and larger roads….

    Anyway, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s excellent op-ed related to this topic in today’s Washington Times. Sowell makes a persuasive point regarding the effect that decision makers and voters who are already vested in the current housing market have on choices and options for “newcomers” in search of affordable homes.

  7. Ray – I like the idea of encouraging reverse commutes. But those jobs need to be WAY out there. Right now, the reverse commute on I66 from Arlington to Tysons is horrible. It’s no better from Crystal City to Springfield.

    John K: Good article, thanks for it. Best quote:

    “That fact has much to do with skyrocketing home prices. The people who vote on the laws that severely restrict building, create costly bureaucratic delays, and impose arbitrary planning commission notions need not pay a dime toward the huge costs imposed on anyone trying to build anything in the San Francisco Bay area. Newcomers get stuck with those costs.”

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Sowell is exactly right, as far as it goes. But, he doesn’t feel the hit as we do here because he is partially protected from the tax effect of rising prices by Proposition 13. As far as those with a vested interest in this system goes, developers are at the top of the list.

    EMR makes the point that the housing bubble is dangerous to homeowners. It is not dangerous if the price increases represent real value driven by things that are unlikely to change (San Francisco and Annapolis are attractive places to live.) It is dangerous if the price increases are phony and based only on land use restrictions (or job availability or some other factor) that can change at any minute.

    Fitch is parroting the elitist group-think that passes for reasoning in Warrenton-Fauquier. I’d like to think that Bacon and others are right: the concept of all living in moderate sized communities within walking distance of our jobs and most of what we need at competitive prices is attractive.

    If it is such a great idea, why hasn’t it happened? Anywhere.

    I’m sorry, I can’t buy it. Changing land use patterns, takes generations to effect and therefore requires long-term political will that we don’t have and can’t control. The idea that land use controls can solve transportation problems that have already a 20 year backlog, caused by this kind of thinking, is ludicrous on its face and unproven besides. The idea that it can additionally provide for known future transportation and housing needs, provide affordable housing, and do it without using more land and raising taxes, is preposterous. I’d like to buy it, but I can’t.

    If building a bunch of roads and Metro won’t solve any of our transportation woes, what does not building them do? Can we solve our transportation woes by creating land use that declares transportation to be unneccessary?

    I have no doubt that Fitch is politically correct by appealing to those who share his views, but I don’t see a solution to current or future problems here.

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Paul, It is not even any better from Merrifield to Fair Lakes, and increasingly from Fair Lakes to Manassas. A workable reverse commute now is Manassas to points west, of which there are none except Front Royal, maybe Vint Hill, if it ever gets built.

    The next charms on that bracelet are Thoroughfare, which was once an employment center, The Plains, Marshall, Delaplane, Markham and Linden. It sounds like Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a linear city.

    All those hamlets are actively planning against growth, so that they can be unprepared when it comes and meanwhile keep the utility of 66 to themselves.

    OK, its a lousy idea. So instead of going west, we build the tri-county connector and go North/South. Good Luck.

    We can go to Tyson’s and go straight up, double deck the roads and build Metro. That should be plenty cheap, but it will take care of one of the three new cities we need.

    “Way Out There” might be West Virginia. Or maybe Iowa, where they are actively seeking growth.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    “First, we need to lock up the transportation trust fund and stop raiding it,” he said. “Then, we need to stop the bleeding once and for all that is causing a lot of traffic gridlock. We need to coordinate land-use with developments.”

    Hunh. Sounds basically exactly like Kaine’s talking points on transportation. Is Fitch running in the D primary or the R primary now?

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