Here at SYNERGY/Planning we are a little weary of “new” as well as used ideas to solve the mobility and access crisis. We suggest all must be wary of those proposing “solutions” that do not include Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and Fundamental Change in governance structure.

First let us outline some of the background for our position on access and mobility innovation:

We have advocated village and community scale applications of telework to eliminate vehicular trip demand since 1969. All we have seen so far are pork barrel “telework centers” and individual / small scale, scattered-site applications which do little to address core mobility and access dysfunction. The number of “telecommuters” seem impressive to those who do not take into account the impact of the scattered location of the users.

In the early 70s we supervised and coordinated the development of a sketch plan for a 150,000 population energy self-sufficient Planned New Community for our client Weyerhaeuser Corp which owned the 26,000 acre site. Food, fiber and employment would be based on the resources of the site and adjacent land owned by Weyerhaeuser. Energy was to come from a combination of solar applications and waste recycling. Mobility and access was to be provided by a hybrid private / shared vehicle system designed by project-partner Ford Motor Co. Ironically, Ford’s reaction to the October 1973 Arab Oil Embargo killed that project.

One of our efforts to articulate region-wide settlement pattern and mobility / access solutions was outlined in “Down Memory Lane with Katrina,” 5 September 2005″ at .

Since the 80s we have advocated weight-distance fees to pay for the maintenance of roadways. In 1984 we outlined, with others, a proposal to use the reversible lanes on Shirley Highway / I-395 as variable-fee HOV lanes (aka, Hot Lanes). That was over 20 years ago and these are now among the “new” ideas on the table.

We have advanced these “new” ideas not just as a consultant, a professor and an author but also as a board member, committee chair and committee member of some of the largest business organizations in the Commonwealth and as a representative of one of the most influential enterprises in the northern part of Virginia.

Now there is a fresh generation of advocates of “new” ideas like public-private partnerships and private sector funding of transport facilities. These acolytes seem to be driven as much by ideology as by the desire to improve mobility and access. But are they “new” ideas and will they improve mobility and access?

The advocates of “new” ideas were well represented at the recent conference on public-private partnerships. As we note in the End Note Two of “The Devil’s Dance,” (3 January 2006 at ), this conference addressed a number of topics that need to be considered if we are to solve mobility and access dysfunction. The ideas put on the table were summarized in three columns in the 3 January issue of Bacons Rebellion.

Here are some thoughts on the “new” ideas that were raised at the conference:

First it is not the 19th century where we find the most widespread application of private sector construction of roadways in the Commonwealth. Between 1965 and 2005 far more lane miles of roadway in Virginia were designed, paid-for and built by the private sector than by public funds.
Prof. Gary Johnson provides data on the extent of some of these roadways in his guest column “A Modest Plan” in the 16 June issue of Bacons Rebellion.

Most of those miles of new roadways were turned over to VDOT to maintain. Others were turned over to quasi governments created to own and maintain common roadways, parking lots and openspace for which existing municipalities and the state were unwilling to assume responsibility. Some of the roadways are still owned and maintained by private enterprises.

In summary, far more lane-miles of roadway and acres of asphalt to support autonomobility were designed and paid for by the private sector that the public sector. We believe that a good argument can be made that, had the public been required to pay for these roadways (much less understood the settlement pattern impact of these facilities), there may well have been far more public scrutiny and a greater understanding that this “private” contribution was building the wrong system in wrong place.

This is why understanding the big picture is important: Over the past 85 years the governance structure has failed to evolve. Elected and appointed governance practitioners have ducked their responsibility to create new governance structures at regional level and at neighborhood, village and community scales. They have left it to the private sector to do what the private sector does best: Lobbying for and establishing land use and transport processes that make the most money possible in the shortest period of time for those in control.

Citizens have been hoodwinked because governance practitioners have left it to private sector to create quasi governments (aka, Homes Associations) to be responsible for many small scale governance responsibilities. These same governance practitioners have completely failed to evolve village, community, subregional and regional governance structure. One major aspect of this failure is that the majority of a transport system that does not work. See “From Myth to Law,” 29 November 2004 and “Regional Rigor Mortis,” 6 June 2005.

In his column on the public-private partnership conference (“Roads and Reason,” 3 January 2006), Jim Bacon articulated the core principle with which most participants agree:

“From the standpoint of economic efficiency, transportation should be a ‘user pay’ system.”

Who could disagree with that?

Well, before we figure out how to pay, we need to figure out what to pay for. Any transport system in which there is public or private investment should provide mobility and access for a desired human settlement pattern.

Let us get first things first. Lets answer first order questions before we answer fourth, fifth and sixth order questions. Before we come up with slick ways to raise money, there must be a plan for what will be done with the money. The National Capital Subregion is marching toward the implementation of a system of Hot Lanes build by public-private partnerships before anyone has considered how these new facilities will impact the existing human settlement patterns much less whether HOT lanes will contribute to the evolution of functional and sustainable patterns and densities of land use.

As noted in our last post ( “The Short Term Fix For Kaine” ) we must understand the impact and functionality of all VDOT programs before we spend public or private funds on them.

So much for the “new” ideas. Now what about the “used” ideas? The 16 January issue of Bacons Rebellion offers three columns on mobility and access that are a dictionary of “used” ideas:

Guest Columnist William Vincent offers three: Improved “buses”, “transit” as part of HOT lanes and telecommuting. Setting aside the problems with language, the three ideas are an absolute sink-hole for public money without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.

Stalwart Columnist Patrick McSweeney is still mired in vocabulary issues. See “Babble Postscript,” 3 January 2006 at For this reason it is not as clear as it could be that, as noted above, the next step is not to “tap the creativity of the private sector” but to understand what settlement pattern is desired on a regional scale and then what system of transport will provide mobility and access to that configuration of human activity. Finally society must allocated the costs of that system fairly and equitably.

Guest Columnist Prof. Gary Johnson offers a “Modest Proposal.” His ten points are not as radical as those of Jonathan Swift, in fact they are downright reasonable. Most of his points are well taken and his historical perspective is sound.

It is not until one gets to Johnson’s last point about the transportation problems in “rural” Virginia that it is clear that “new” or “used” ideas have no chance of solving the problems of mobility and access unless there is an understanding of the need for Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and Fundamental Change in governance structure. So long as persons of good will believe that “rural” still exists in 2006, society will never solve the mobility and access crisis or the equally critical shelter crisis. That is the challenge of PROPERTY DYNAMICS.

In the meantime, more money or ways to raise money will make both mobility / access and shelter worse until there is a rational basis for spending the money. As the “private” investment in “suburban” / subdivision roadways shows, money paves the road to nowhere.


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  1. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Well said.

    We still have a lot of places to disagree, but your characterization of some (most) transit ideas, especially the current ones, as a sinkhole for public money are correct.

    The best, most functional pattern of development is still going to have a heavy dependence on individual vehicles. It is still going to have glaring example of waste and inefficiency, which we accept as trade-offs for other goods and benefits we desire more.

    We ought to accept that, and plan accordingly.

    If we spend a few hundred years building a perfectly functional pattern and discover it is not what we want, it will make transit look like a bargain.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ed, I’m interested in your characterization of Bus Rapid Transit along the Dulles corridor as a sinkhole for public money. Two questions. First, would you agree that BRT would be less of a sinkhole than an extension of Metro would be? Second, could BRT be a viable transportation mode if embedded in a less dysfunctional settlement pattern?

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Ed, regarding the matter of HOT lanes on the major corridors of the Washington New Urban Region. understand your concern with expanding capacity without regard to the impact on settlement patterns. What is your thinking about the congestion pricing mechanism to pay for that capacity? Does congestion pricing mitigate any of the negative impact by increasing the cost to the motorist of commuting greater distances?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    It depends on whether your passenger forecasts and your construction forecasts are correct. Either way you lose money hand over fist.

    It is dubious whether you can get enough passengers, Winston and Shirley say that transit should be restricted to the top one percent in travel density routes, otherwise you are better off driving.

    Rail could cost from 10 to forty times as much as BRT, but the investment is somewhat more durable. We are now seeing rail cracks etc after 30 years of Metro, but there has been maintenance all along.

    BRT is cheaper to construct but you need to repave it every ten years, and the buses have to be replaced. Operating costs are higher and it is not as clean. The ride is not as nice as on rail, and buses have a negative image for middle class whites.

    The optimum congestion pricing is to set the price as high as you can AND STILL HAVE CONGESTION ON THE OTHER LANE. Without congestion there is no reason to pay. If the price is too high people won’t pay and you lose money.

    Despite what EMR and others say, the evidence is that pattern makes little or no difference on travel.

  5. E M Risse Avatar


    I will try to answer you questions in the order presented.

    As we note in “Rail-to-Dulles Realities” from 5 Jan 2004, the issue of a shared-vehicle system to Dulles via Tysons Corner and Reston is a station-area land use question, not a hardware choice question. Choose the settlement pattern you want and then select the shared-vehicle system that best serves that pattern.

    At the dooryard, cluster and nighborhood and village scale those patterns have remained reletiviely constant over the last 300 years based on value per square foot of built space.

    The key is matching the capacity of the shared-vehicle system with the travel demand of the land use in the station area and — this is very important — the easy with which one can step from the shared vehicle’s door directly to the places the passenger wants to go.

    Any BRT system that is just a bus in the median (the way you save money) would be of little value. It would cost nearly as much to get a BRT staion into the core of a real station area as it would METRO — as long as METRO is not in control of the contract process.

    BRT technology has a finite capacity and relitively low “native” station-area land use intensity. It is somewhere between a “light” rail and a “heavy” rail. In Curitiba BRT has been so “sucessful” on some routes that it is now being replaced by “heavy” rail. In other words the station-area land uses are too intensive to be served by the BRT.

    I recall reading recently, in the National Capital Region of Canada, the extensions of the Ottawa-Carlton regional system originally concieved of as routes for extensions of the decades old BRT are now being built out with new light rail lins for what reasons, I do not recall.

    BRT has its applications (a “yes” to one of your questions) but BRT is not a fundamentally different way of moving people. PRT is a fundamentally different approach to shared vehicles and if you want to pay the premium, you do not have to share — more congestion pricing. The Miller Line to serve Dulles, Reston, Tysons, Bethesda and Capitol Hill would work best if it were a PRT system.

    Is BRT less of a sinkhole? Is it better to waste 1 $Billion than 3 or 4 $Billion? Maybe not if the real alternative is to create fundctional settlement patterns in the station areas and waste none.

    The core stumbling block if that to build the sort of intensity over the DAAR (air rights) and on the adjacent land to crate a balance of jobs / housing /services / recration / amenity that matches the capacity of BRT or METRO in six or seven station-areas would use up all the development potential for the entire National Capital Subregion for the next 30 years. That is why the Tysons developers were happy with an extension just to Tysons Corner — only three stations to adsorb the development. See “Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO,” the Backgrounder from 18 October 2004.

    Regarding HOT lanes and your 4:07 questions: HOT lanes have a role and we thought that when we proposed them 22 years ago.

    Congestion pricing is a great idea but first lets get everyone to understand the need for Balanced Communities if we are to have sustainable New Urban Regions.

    Society must give citizens the opportunity to make rational choices about where they live, where they work, how many in a household work, etc. based on a realistic understanding of the potential and limits of the choices.

    Right now citizens do not understand the real choices and so they view every proposed transport imporvement as a potential “solution” that will allow them to live wherever they want, work wherever they want and then “the government” will provide them with mobility and access.

    “Does congestion pricing mitigate any of the negative impact by increasing the cost to the motorist of commuting greater distances?” It only helps those at the top of the economic food chain who can afford to pay the tab unless it is part of a system to evolve Balanced Communities so only those who have a choice and choose to drive long distances pay the price.

    Right now those below the 90th percentile have no choice. That is why we have to also solve the Shelter Crisis, not just the Mobility and Access Crisis.

    As we point out in “Wild Abandonment” citizens have gotten themselves into this mess by consistantly making the wrong location decisions. They think they are doing what is best for themselves and thier families and organizations but they are not.


    Hope that helps, Jim.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Creating a community in a certain way, just so you cn have the economics that make mass transit work is just another subsidy to mass transit and the employers it serves.

    EMR is right when he says that the “government” does not pay for transporttion – we all do.

    As such we all make our choices, including the cost of transportation. The pattern we live in is a result of those choices. That those choices are rationally made by the market is not in doubt: it has been studied many times. It might be true that the marginal pricing needs to be improved, but it is unlike to change the overall pattern much. I seriously doubt anyone will choose to live in the air space over the tracks.

    The other 90% are not about to change the entire city for the benefit of the bottom 90%. In fact, after studying the dispersion of jobs, the economics of transit, accessibilty, etc. several economists have come to the conclusion that the best way to help those people is to subsidize their cars – it is a lot cheaper and more effective than transit.

    The BRT in Curitiba ws not built for mass transit. It was built to provide any transit in what was otherwise a vast sprawling pedestrian neighborhood. It is enormously slow, but it beats walking.

    Congestion pricing will make transportation somewhat easier for those who don’t choose to use pay the toll, just as HOV does today. How much somewhat easier amounts to may not be all that much. Same goes for Metro.

    EMR is correct when he says that Metro will benefit the Tysons Developers. However we will all pay for it whether we use it or not. Of course the same argument is used vehemently against new roads: it benefits the adjacent landowners. However, just about everyone uses the roads, and there is a far greater likelihood that the next new opportunity you find will be accessible by road than by metro.

    Some people choose to play the Mega Millions lotto and some choose to pay the dollar scratch off. The Tysons developers just won the mega millions lotto, in a game the rest of us can’t afford to play.

    EMR makes a big deal out of choice. Given the choice, most people will not pay the highest cost per square foot. You don’t want to be in the highest price home on the block, and you don’t want to be in the highest price neighborhood in the region. You want to be where ther is the greatest likeliehood of the most appreciation.

  7. Bill Vincent Avatar
    Bill Vincent

    Mr. Risse:

    I agree with your premise that we must change basic human settlement patterns to have the maximum impact on mobility. But this is a lofty and elusive goal that will take generations to achieve, if indeed it is achievable at all on a large scale in this country.

    My guest column was intended to offer some ideas for cost-effective solutions that we can implement in the short term. Are these ideas perfect? Of course not. But I have seen little evidence that there are better alternatives available.

    I also am troubled by apparent factual inaccuracies in your critique. First, you state that my ideas would be an absolute sink hole of public money, yet you offer no support for this assertion. The Los Angeles rapid bus service shows that mobility options can be provided for large numbers of people at relatively low cost. Telecommuting requires little or no dedication of public resources. The current proposal for BRT in the I-95 corridor includes $65 million in private sector financing for capital costs and the promise of significant excess toll revenues to cover operating expenses. Compared to extending Metrorail into the Dulles Corridor, these proposals require very modest amounts of public resources and can hardly be characterized as sink holes.

    Second, you seem to have little understanding of BRT. For example, you state that “Any BRT system that is just a bus in the median (the way you save money) would be of little value.” The fact is that many of the best BRT systems in the world use a median station design. This substantially increases travel times and adds great utility to the overall system.

    Next, you state that: “BRT technology has a finite capacity and relitively low “native” station-area land use intensity.” In fact, ALL transportation systems have finite capacity — this is not unique to BRT.

    Moreover, there are substantial examples of significant land use intensities around BRT stations. Brisbane’s Southeast busway, Ottawa, Boston’s Silver line, and Curitiba are some examples.

    Next, you state that “In Curitiba BRT has been so “sucessful” on some routes that it is now being replaced by “heavy” rail.” To the best of my knowledge, this is categorically false. I recently spent ten days in Curitiba, where I met with the mayor, URBS (their rough equivalent to WMATA), and the former mayor and governor of Parana. All of them told me that they have REJECTED building rail because they realize that they can accomplish more with BRT, for less money. In fact, when I was there, they were in the process of planning a 6th BRT corridor and had ruled out rail for that corridor.

    Finally, I would like to address a couple of statements by Mr. Hyde. First, he says that BRT in Curitiba is “enormously slow.” I disagree. I rode the system daily in both peak and non-peak hours. It is actually quite fast with good average bus speeds on the median lanes. It also enabled me to get almost anywhere in the metro region (3 million people) for a single fare (65 cents) with few transfers. That kind of service is not possible with our current transit system.

    Second, Mr. Hyde states that: BRT is cheaper to construct but you need to repave it every ten years, and the buses have to be replaced. Operating costs are higher and it is not as clean.” This statement is not supported by recent studies issued by various organizations, including the Transportation Research Board and the General Accounting Office.

    Operating costs are actually comparable with rail systems and, in some cases, significantly lower. Sure, buses need to be replaced, but so do rail cars. Sure, the guideway needs to be repaved, but it is a lot less expensive than replacing track and electrical components. You also don’t need a team of inspectors checking the rails and third rail every night.

    Finally, the statement that BRT is “not as clean” as rail is unsupported. In the US, over 50 percent of our electricity is generated by coal. We did a study in 2003 that compared the emissions associated with electricity generation for rail with the tail pipe emissions from buses in BRT mode. BRT actually performed quite a bit better on PM and CO2 and was comparable on NOx. The notion that rail is much cleaner simply ignores that the electricity is coming from dirty coal power plants, many of which blow their pollution into our region. In fact, the Council of Governments blames much of our air quality problem on these power plants — the very same power plants that supply Metrorail.

    Thank you.

    Bill Vincent

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar

    This is an area where there is a lot of assymmetrical information., Wendell Cox, The Heritage Institute, SP/I and many others disseminate information and “studies” that, while suspect, at least elucidate the extremes of opposing views. The truth is probably somewhwere between.

    My comments were intended to show that the cost differences are not clear. Rail has higher capital costs, and, as you point out, more oversight and inspections, in order to get the most out of the investment. BRT is easier and faster to get up and running, but has more maintenance. You can reallocate the investment more easily if conditions change. I think the trade off between capital costs and operating costs makes the argument unclear. Buses need more drivers, but as you point out, rail has a lot of hidden personnel and expenses. The safety issue is also unclear.

    Considering the mess we are in getting into operation sooner is a big benefit.

    Your point about overall cleanliness is well taken. It has been made before, and I neglected to make the point. Hybrid technology could make buses much more efficient.


    The following study attempts to cover all the costs of transportation: User costs, Government costs, and Societal costs.

    Source: Full-Cost Analysis of Urban Passenger Transportation, University of Texas at Austin, 1996.

    The study identifies the following total cost ranges, per passenger mile of travel (PMT), for each mode studied. The costs represent national averages.

    Auto: $0.38 to $0.52 per PMT
    Bus: $0.35 to $0.40 per PMT
    Rail: $0.48 to $0.52 per PMT

    Even here the answer is not clear. As much as 40% of the cost of new roads is absorbed in environmental impact statements, environmental mitigation, studies and lawsuits. If some of these are unnecessary, or are a deliberate strategy to cause a strategic stalemate, then those costs are unfairly attributed to road transport.

    The Bus and Rail PMT figures are artificially high because these modes are required to be used, and subsidized to be used, in areas where the passenger volume does not justify them. In turn, this low usage leads to calls for more transit oriented development in order that transit can be more cost effective. This may be a de-facto subsidy to transit, especially if that housing is not where people would freely choose to live.

    Based on the facts as they are actually used, the differences in cost are not as large as some would have us believe, and these costs do not consider the quality of service.

    I’m unable to locate my reference on the average speed of buses in Curitiba: I defer to Mr. Vincent’s personal experience.

    Thank you for your comments.

  9. E M Risse Avatar

    Bill Vincent raises important points that deserve more than just a quick response.

    More in a future post.


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