More Bad News — and Bad Advice — from the 2011 Urban Mobility Report

by James A. Bacon

The recession may have provided a temporary respite in traffic congestion — people tend to drive less when they’re not working, and trucks move less freight — but the picture will worsen rapidly when economic recovery takes hold. So say the authors of the 2011 Urban Mobility Report published by the Texas Transportation Institute.

The national picture will play out in Virginia’s three metropolitan areas included in the study. The congestion relief provided by the recession for the Washington, Hampton Roads and Richmond regions has largely evaporated already. The picture is especially bleak for Richmond, once one of the least congested of the nation’s largest metro areas, whose ranking in the national congestion standings continues to rise.

The Urban Mobility Report is simultaneously a highly useful exercise in documenting the cost of traffic congestion in the United States and a disturbing part of the problem. On the one hand, the range of data it collects is the most extensive and authoritative anywhere and, for all of its limitations, it remains the best gauge we have for measuring congestion and its costs. On the other hand, the authors persist in the belief that a Texas-styled approach of building more roads will get us out of the mess we have created.

To be sure, the authors advocate a “balanced” approach that includes investing in mass transit, traffic management strategies such as signal coordination and rapid crash removal, and demand management strategies like telecommuting and flexible work hours. And they add, “Land use and development patterns can play a positive role, as well.” But the report perpetuates the belief that regions can build their way out of their congestion woes. “If you invest in roads and transit, you get better service and access to more jobs,” says co-author Tim Lomax. “Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate.”

Lomax offers no evidence to justify that last statement. The truth is, many projects are driven by political considerations in the total absence of Return on Investment analysis. Moreover, the complex interplay between transportation and human settlement patterns means that the rate of return is exceedingly difficult to ascertain even if some one tried to perform an analysis. Yes, Virgina does need to invest more in transportation. The trick is figuring out which investments to make. Dumping billions of dollars into “doing something” on the grounds that it’s better than doing nothing could, in fact, be worse than doing nothing if we put money into the wrong projects.

With those caveats, let’s look at the picture in Virginia’s largest metro regions…

Washington metro area: 68% of the region’s arterial and interstate lane-miles and 84% of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are congested during periods of peak travel. (“Rush hour” lasts seven hours each day.) The cumulative delay per person is 74 hours yearly and the cost per commuter in time and fuel is $1,495.

Virginia Beach metro area: 44% of the region’s arterial and interstate lane-miles and 50% of VMT are congested during periods of peak travel. (Rush hour lasts four hours each day.) The cumulative delay per person is 34 hours yearly and the cost per commuter in time and fuel is $654.

Richmond metro area: 36% of the region’s arterial and interstate lane-miles and 33% of VMT are congested during periods of peak travel. (Rush hour lasts 2.5 hours each day.) The cumulative delay per person is 20 hours yearly and the cost per commuter in time and fuel is $375.

To me, the big story is the continually worsening situation in the Richmond region. No one needs to tell Northern Virginians and Hampton Roadsters that they have huge traffic problems but, except in spot locations, congestion has yet to become a major concern of Richmonders. Accordingly, Richmond political and civic leaders perpetuate dysfunctional human settlement patterns. But congestion is steadily worsening and will become a major problem in the foreseeable future. In 2005, Richmond was ranked 88th among 101 metro areas by the cost of congestion per commuter. In 2010, it ranked 68th. The number of congested lane-miles has increased from 30% five years ago to 36% in 2010. The percentage of vehicle miles driven increased from 28% to 33%.

And why is that? The Richmond region is sprawling faster than almost any other region in Virginia, opening up more land for development, building at lower densities and perpetuating the pod form of development with disconnected and segregated cul de sacs, office parks and shopping centers. While our civic leaders focus on panaceas like high-speed passenger links to Raleigh and Washington, they remain blissfully unaware as builders and developers, working within the parameters set by government, pour billions of dollars into outmoded human settlement patterns. Will we be the last region in America to wake up and see how we are suffocating our future?

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23 responses to “More Bad News — and Bad Advice — from the 2011 Urban Mobility Report”

  1. Each of these areas has it’s own MPO – a federally-mandated entity that is tasked with coordinating all transportation activities – including those affected by land-use.

    Each of these MPOs is REQUIRE to produce a transportation plan for their region… a list of projects that are “fiscally constrained”… i.e. the plans are supposed to have an identified source of funding for each project if it is to be include the long range and short range plans (25 years and 5 years).

    the average person is totally clueless as to what an MPO is much less it’s mission… and that includes candidates for office… though once they become elected and receive a briefing ..they know but almost all of them still expect “the state” and “the feds” to pay for their projects…

    in fact, you’ll hear them complain bitterly that they’re”

    1. not getting their share and

    2. the state “refuses” to provide funding (like the State has money squirreled away in a vault in Richmond).

    local officials dare not raise taxes… so they want the clown show in Richmond to raise taxes instead…

    local officials ALWAYS have the ability to propose to citizens – transportation referenda… and let the citizens have the final say but then that means they have to provide citizens with a list of projects and that’s when things start to come undone… because the projects often end up being what developers want… not what citizens want.

  2. Jim, the hole in your logic is the assumption that more dense development means less traffic congestion. Development means more traffic. It is possible for transit and mixed use development to reduce the the level of increase in traffic congestion, but the idea that sprawl means more traffic congestion and higher density does not is simply wrong. Tysons Corner’s studies have demonstrated this.

  3. True, poorly planned, high-density development can create problems. Tysons is a perfect example of higher density (higher than most of Fairfax County) that does not work well. Arlington County is an example of a place that works far better…. at even higher densities. So, it matters how you assemble the different pieces. But without minimum densities, walking, biking and transit become impractical modes of transportation. Without minimum densities, cars must travel farther to reach their destinations. Density matters. It does not solve problems in and of itself, but it matters.

  4. TNT is pointing out that density means people and people mean mobility and if you don’t have or want automobile infrastructure then you need rail or wheeled bus infrastructure.

    it’s true that without density transit is not feasible – it needs at least 16du but transit does not magically appear and it’s a long, long way from “free”.

    Transit has significant costs – also.

    and what we don’t often see – for instance – is a Tysons that is designed as transit-only – and what those costs would be.

    it’s not impossible.

    Parts of NYC are primary transit-dominated but again – it’s not free by a long shot.

    and with Tysons – it appears to an outsider that a Tysons that did not provide significant accommodation for autos and was transit-only – would fail.

    so how you going to build a Tysons that is truly transit-only?

  5. Tysons cannot grow beyond 84 million square feet unless all new residents and workers travel to and from Tysons exclusively by transit. There are no additional road improvements beyond Table 7.

  6. TMT – when they studied Tysons – did they look at different mixtures of transit/auto?

    did anyone like the Dept of Rail and Transit weigh in on Tysons?

    finally – on a scale of 1 – 10… how good was the public process for Tysons?

    thanks! 🙂

  7. VDOT’s comments on Fairfax County’s 527 TIA included comments on transit. I would guess that, without knowing for sure, someone from DRPT looked at the submission and its attachments in preparation of VDOT’s comments. Then click on document
    The public process was both unacceptable and a model for other jurisdictions. When the Tysons Land Use Task Force was running the show, it cut the public out from virtually everything. The audience was not even allowed to ask questions at TLUTF meetings, and it ignored comments from the public obtained at public meetings.
    However, once the Planning Commission took charge of the issue, things changed completely. The PC’s TC (Tysons Committee) or the PCTC held sessions to hear from the public. It’s members met with members of the public. The PCTC fashioned its compromise solution, which essentially became the adopted Comp Plan amendment, with strong consideration of public input. Indeed, Fairfax County won the Daniel Burnham Award for the Tysons Plan. A number of citizens groups supported the county for that award, largely because of the efforts of the PCTC.

  8. thanks TMT.. but it sounds like what they did not do was to show various scenarios with different percentage shares of transit verses auto … costs and impacts….

    I found the situation with the planning commission…interesting…. because in many localities the planning commission is an appointed group who normally represent the views of the BOS who appointed them…. and not really an independent, take-charge type of group.

  9. Larry, what the modeling did was to look at the George Mason growth projections. add in various assumptions about driving, transit use, walking, biking, TDM, etc., and then estimate impacts on traffic and the need for more road capacity. The assumptions are rather aggressive, in the view of VDOT, so actual traffic congestion could be worse.

  10. TMT – right – but it appears they did not perform different scenarios with different mixtures of auto and transit but rather just a fixed assumption about the mixture of the two.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well..

    but from a hypothetical…

    let’s assume that they assumed that 80% of the mobility would be auto-based and 20% transit based..

    did they, for instance look at 70% vs 30% or 50% vs 50%?

    in terms of what kinds of infrastructure needed – and the cost….

    it appears to me that they just assumed a fixed amount of auto and transit.

  11. But the report perpetuates the belief that regions can build their way out of their congestion woes. “If you invest in roads and transit, you get better service and access to more jobs,” says co-author Tim Lomax. “Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate.”


    The studies perpetuate that belief because THAT IS WHAT THE MEASURED FACTS TELL US.

    Once you have measurements it is no longer a “belief”


    Period, end of story.

  12. Larry, I think that what happened was the engineers were unable to accept certain more extreme assumptions about mixed use development and transit usage. They tried to model what was more likely from experiences elsewhere. So they did not move to assumptions such as 70-30 or 50-50. Some on the Task Force argued no more roads should be built such that Tysons becomes totally gridlocked, which, in turn, forces people out of their cars. Sort a Smart Growth Coalition approach. Needless to say, neither the surrounding communities or county officials would accept that type of insanity. I hope this helps.

  13. walking, biking and transit become impractical modes of transportation.

    They are impractical for transporting anything except people, for the most part.

  14. Ray, If state and local governments had limitless dollars to spend, then they could build their way out of congestion. But they don’t have limitless dollars, and they never will. It is possible that some investments in “mobility” may offer positive Return on Investment, but some are boondoggles. To make blanket statements such as, “Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate,” is ridiculous. I’m surprised Lomax made it.

  15. the engineers were unable to accept certain more extreme assumptions about mixed use development and transit usage.

    I would imagine that to be the case. Consider that even in New York, transit only accounts for 10% of trips.

  16. “Generally speaking, mobility investments in congested areas have a high return rate,” is ridiculous.

    I don’t think so. Where wlse would you expect better return? I have not seen this years report, but in years past there were graphs that clearly showed the relationship between improvements made and delay times.

    There is a difference between financial costs and economic costs. Special interests and contractors are interested in financial costs, but government has to be concerned with both. If government decides that it cnnot find the financial resources it needs, then it needs to confront the fact that it may very well be accepting virtually limitless (in the sense of unending) economic costs.

    Wherever the ROI is positive, it costs more not to spend the money than it does to complete the project. You don’t avoid the costs by deciding you don’t have the financing, so you had better understand what the costs are before you just claim outright “we don;t have any money”.

    Once you understand how much it costs to not have any money, you may be motivated to work harder to find it.

  17. TMT – part of my question was prompted by what Jim Bacon said about Arlington… and their mixed-use density.

    how does the Tysons configuration compare to the Arlington model?


    I’d love to see the data…. it seems like such an obvious thing to prove, eh?

  19. Tysons would be built more densely than Arlington.

  20. let me make sure… are you saying that as currently approved – Tysons, at build-out will be more dense than Arlington?

  21. Yes, Larry. If Tysons becomes fully built to the June 2010 Comp Plan, Tysons would be more dense than the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

  22. thanks TMT.. sorry if I am the only one who did not “get” that.

    I’m still reading through VDOT’s analysis… it’s pretty complex..

  23. Tysons Corner is extremely complex. It is a very successful place that produces significant income and tax revenues. It has very good highway access to the Beltway, the DTR, Route 7 and Route 123. Traffic is horrible. The effort to reform Tysons from a suburban office park to an urban area is unique and extremely challenging. Urban development requires not just rail and other transit, but also a grid of streets to disperse and gather auto traffic, many other public facilities and amenities, and substantial private investment. Outside the landowners/developers and some government employees and officials, very few people understand Tysons.
    The situation was compounded by the superficial treatment given to its complexities. The leadership of the Task Force was bound and determined to create wealth out of the air. Density would fix everything. The Smart Growth crowd chimed in. Dealing with density is extremely hard and its more fun to play pretend.
    Clearly, some people will take Dulles Rail to and from Tysons. Some will take other transit, such as express bus service on the HOT Lanes. Some people will elect to live in Tysons, close to where they work. Tysons should be able to develop with fewer auto trips than if there were no rail, other transit, or high-quality mixed use development within the TOD areas. It will also create huge increases in motor vehicle traffic.
    And all development requires adequate public facilities. One-quarter of the borough of Manhattan is open space, parks and recreational facilities. Would Manhattan work without this? Development at Tysons requires parks, a police station, a new fire station, a library, athletic fields, and one huge basket of road improvements. Why would people want to live in a place that lacks these necessities? Why would anyone want to open or relocate a business to a place without the necessary infrastructure? But who is going to pay for all of this?
    VDOT has said NoVA has had major funding for the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange and other parts of the state have pressing needs now. Also, would the typical RoVA resident be willing to pay higher taxes to fund Tysons transportation infrastructure? Would the typical NoVA resident be similarly willing to pay higher taxes? A very tough sell. Fairfax County is in a pickle.

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