Virginians are so inured to the dysfunctional layout of their physical environment — the separation of land uses; the physical disconnect between houses, offices and stores built in pods; the stringing of those pods along feeder and arterial roads — that they take it forgranted. Like the air they breathe, they cannot see it. If they cannot see it, they cannot question the absurdity of it.

I’ve written about the “disconnected” nature of contemporary development patterns in the abstract, but I’m not sure if readers understood what I was driving at. Therefore, I’ve devoted my latest e-zine column to rendering the abstract in concrete terms, illustrating with words, maps and photos how pod-style development contributes to traffic congestion in western Henrico County. Read “Pod People.”

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17 responses to “Pod People”

  1. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    Would you consider that we Virginians see unplanned growth as passive resistance to eminent domain under the guise of planned growth?

    Here in Central VA, I believe my assertion has legs. I see it a very common thread. The government basically has little influence in overall enforcement of strategic growth planning past the planning stage. In order for the government to move a community forward, property owners will have to lose development rights as part of the package. I don’t see that happening anytime soon in today’s “get your hands off my property” milieu.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Hi, Chris, I’m not certain I understand your point. If I’m off-base in my reply, please correct me.

    Yes, a “get your hands off my property” sentiment does restrict the ability of local government to exercise new controls over growth. But I don’t think that explains the phenomenon I outlined in my column.

    Here’s the way I visualize things evolving: Counties abandoned city-style grid patterns for streets long ago. What they (or VDOT) have been doing is expand the capacity of winding country roads as development occurs and traffic increases. It’s a very icremental, very passive process. Country roads grow into suburban thoroughfares step by step, adding a turning lane here, a shoulder there, a road-widening for a two-mile stretch here, a traffic intersection there. As road capacity expands, developers come along and build pods off those country roads, generating more demand for future improvements.

    I see the problem as more of a lack of attention to the problem on the part of local planners, not some misguided resistance on the part of property owners. Some home owners prefer cul de sacs — they like the dead-end streets because they have so little traffic. But many people don’t care. If they thought about it, many would prefer the improved accessibility that goes with grid streets and/or better connected communities.

    Developers don’t care. They just want to sell houses. Tell them the rules, don’t change the rules in the middle of the game, and let them do their thing. If the rules contain requirements for connectivity, I don’t think you’d get too many objections.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    If the rules contain requirements for connectivity, I don’t think you’d get too many objections.

    It only takes one or two, “get your hands off my property” landowners to ruin a well thought out, well meaning plan.

    I am not faulting the “get your hands off my property” landowners – it’s their land. It’s just that the “plans” local governments develop easily become null and void if there is a landowner unwilling to cooperate.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think Jim’s article is excellent and raises a point that I’m sure has vexed all of us at one time or another.

    But he is suggesting that some other lanowners allow a cut through for the convenience of him and his son. There is nothing to prevent he and his neighbors from appraoching those that own the cut through point and buying the access they want.

    Those that use, pay.

    But the owners of the property in question may decide their peace, tranquility and safety is too valuable to sell.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Somehow, American cities managed to accommodate loads of growth by planning and building grid street systems that were well connected with sidewalks and alleyways. They managed to do this 100 years or more — before the rise of zoning and subdivision ordinances, and before the backlash of property owners over the usurpation of their rights. I don’t know how cities managed to do it, but they did, and people didn’t raise hell about it.

    Grid streets aren’t the only way to provide connectivity, but they are one proven way. All we have to do is resurrect the mechanisms that allowed American cities to replicate patterns of development that they implemented a century ago.

  6. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    Let me try another way of getting at the issue:

    Some un-Godly numbers of us live in homeowner association developments. A great number of them have infrastructure aside from the government. The roads are private and indeed as is the case in my own community, the water system is as well. This creates the crux of the problem. Let me offer Fluvanna County as an example of why the POD problem exists.

    I live in Fluvanna, one of the top three fastest growth counties. Developers are virtually free to plunk down a 200-home development and connect it to the nearest 2 lane country road almost at will. They essentially put down homes where the ground will perk! The roads that are built don’t have to meet VDOT guidelines whatsoever. Not until they connect to a VDOT owned and maintained road.

    Unless counties like Fluvanna insist VDOT put in the suitable infrastructure for them to be able to say to a developer: “This is our growth area. We’ve provided expanded access to the interstate. You must develop your property to meet these guidelines or you won’t be building it in [insert your county here].

    Here’s the rub…generally speaking, there isn’t a suitable infrastructure to plunk new development down on except for the spider’s web of country roads. VDOT/Fluvanna County doesn’t want to create build that road…it will only lead to more growth! So instead, we let the developers build away and then when things reach crisis mode, we have to try to widen and expand these country roads to meet the demand. Psst…it never will. You cannot un-ring the bell.

    Without it that infrastructure, Fluvanna County simply cannot limit the growth because access to large arteries is essentially the same throughout the county. What difference does it make where you put your next development? They all have to connect to the same bucolic roads as every other development does.

    Fluvanna tapped the Zion’s Crossroads and Lake Monticello areas for growth. That was grand except for the Lake Monticello area. Short of the Scottsville region of Fluvanna, it is the farthest point away from access to the Interstate. Every access point to the Interstate has to transverse another county! So even if Fluvanna wanted to build greater access, they would have to have Albemarle or Louisa County to go along. You guessed it; they won’t and why should they!

    I think this is very typical amongst all our problem growth areas.

    Hopefully, that’s clearer. Again…you can’t un-ring the bell.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Chris, I see your point. Fluvanna doesn’t have any easy answers. I suspect that you’re dealing with a different set of issues in a county like Fluvanna. The “get your hands off my property” sentiment probably runs higher than in Henrico. Remedies that might work in Henrico might not apply in Fluvanna.

    Given the fact that growth is probably inevitable, Fluvanna needs to create a vision for what form that growth should take and utilize whatever tools it has available to encourage developers to abide by it. I’m a big believer in village-style, mixed-use clusters in rural areas — much preferable to smearing growth over the countryside.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Maybe, Jim, Maybe not. Cities a hundred years ago were often foul congested places, polluted with waht was euphemistically called mud rather than ozone.

    This link describes Raleigh a hundred years ago and shows a picture of a gridlike city plan. looking at the plan you can easily see the congested center area and the suburbs a few blocks beyond. The city was divided according to land use:

    The commercial section emerged along Fayetteville Street, just south of the State Capitol. Foundries, factories and warehouses were located near the tracks on the north and west sides of town. The remaining spaces inside the city limits were occupied with boarding houses, private residences and three hotels inhabited by poor and wealthy, black and white, young and old. .

    And Raleigh politicians receognized the value of transportation:

    Proximity to surface transportation spelled success for merchants in the form of shops and warehouses, stables and hotels. City alderman established streetcar lines and community leaders enlarged churches.

    And they even had their own rudimentary beltway and suburbs:

    Traversing and skirting the central business district, the tracks opened up a suburban ring and enabled the electric trains to travel fast, about four times faster than the horse-drawn systems they replaced.

  9. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    I also think that grid like, high density housing died when the automobile became preeminent.

    We like our cars way too much and in fact, I can’t help but believe that most of us would nary walk a block to the store than drive it.

    Jim,, while I agree that there is a certain allure to the neighborhood concept, I think that we’ve moved off that. Extend that one further…our cars have become our pods! They move us from one pod to another.

    Kill all the cars? Not a chance! LOL.


  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Jim, Before your article I never really understood what you meant by disconected development. Isn’t some of this due to the fact tht developers build the strets for “their” subdivion? At the time, there may be no place to connct to, the adjacents subdivsion still being a farm or whateer. Later a new subdivsion is built and of course the new developer has neither the requirement, not the permission to access someon else’s land to make the cut through. Then there is the issus that the adjacent Podmembers may not want the cut through.

    In the case of adjacent commercial pods, the owner would rather have you drive back out on the street than give up 2 parking spaces, and there is the question of liability.

    Here is a case where traffic models could be put to good use. They could be used to show what cut throughs really will save time and energy, and where they are not cost effective. they could also be used as ammunition by those opposed to cut throughs, or as evidence the cut throughs are not highly detrimental.

    Then there is the opposite issue: as conditions change a cut through may become more of a nuisance than it was originally. The case of closing route 17 to trucks between route 50 and route 66 comes to mind. At one time, it wasn’t much of a problem. later truck traffic increased and more trucks began to use that route in order to avoid the weigh scales on I-81. After a number of serious truck crashes, and the continuous howl of jake brakes, the citizens revolted.

    Most everyone dislikes change because they see it as an affront to what TMT calls intangible property rights. At some level freedom and change go hand in hand, and we have seen in East Germany that excess regulation and stagnation also go hand in hand.

    Enforced disconnectedness is a classic case of private vs public benefits, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out as travel gets more and more expensive.

  11. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    Enforced disconnectedness is a classic case of private vs public benefits, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out as travel gets more and more expensive.

    Jim, I think this sums up my orginial poorly expressed thought.


  12. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    Also Jim, You wrote: Remedies that might work in Henrico might not apply in Fluvanna.

    I think this is exactly why a “one size, fits all” transportation bill will never work. Each and every part of the state has unique problems to solve which begs the question: Do you put today’s money toward prevention of future problems or do you put it toward half-a$$ed fixes to flawed planning and development?

  13. Jeremy Hinton Avatar
    Jeremy Hinton

    Great article Jim! Speaking of grid like layouts, i used to live in a charming neighboorhood in Hampton, VA called Olde Wythe. It was bounded by a major road to the north (Kecoughtan), the James River and Chesapeake Ave to the south, with more minor roads east and west:

    Olde Wythe area

    As you can see, it was predominantly a grid. Kecoughtan road to the north had some commercial zones in the area (a small supermarket, some restaurants), but not a lot. I could (and often did) walk to the supermarket and to grab some to-go chinese, but that was about it. We did have some issues with cut-through traffic (chesapeake was viewed sometimes an alternative to the busier and stop-lighted kecoughtan), but as a neighboorhood we got together put forward some traffic slowing measures.

    The neighboorhood elementary school and pool were all accessable without have to cross any major roads (but kecoughtan for those on the other side).

    At any rate, i think its interesting that many cities are looking at areas like this and realizing they are prime for the redevelopment of the “small town center”. The grid layout already in place makes this extremely effective and helps encourage the desired pedestrian usage. Olde Wythe itself is targetted for such redevelopment:

    Kecoughtan corridor Master Plan

    I personally laud cities for retracing their roots. Many of these mini centers were gobbled up years ago as towns were annexed by growing cities, and i think it quite encouraging to see the effort made to restore that pattern of land use. If it worked before, it can work again.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    If it worked before, why did we stop using it?

    I’m sure there were forces at work: was it the newest fad in planning, decline of transit, changed economic conditions?

    Jeremy, based on yoour comments would you say that the conditions you spoke of actually reduced your auto usage substantially?

    What traffic slowing measures were used to cut down on the cut through?

  15. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, I’m glad that I’ve finally clarified what I mean by “disconnected” in my ramblings on land use. Unfortunately, while the absurdity of existing practice seems manifest enough, I am not enough of an expert to say why we have the system we have. All I can note is that the United States moved from a system of urban design in the 1920s/30s — an era that New Urbanism guru Andres Duany referred to as the “golden age” of U.S. urban planning — to the system that we have now.

    I don’t know for a fact, but I suspect that current practice arose in response to the requirements found in zoning codes, subdivision ordinances and comprehensive plans, plus the willingness of transportation departments in every state to passively spend money upgrading those country roads where development occurred and traffic conditions worsened.

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Chris, I agree with you: There is no turning back from our auto-centric culture. That’s where I part ways with many in the conservation community, who believe that we can get significant numbers of people onto trains and buses. With lifestyles and workstyles the way they are, Americans demand flexibility in travel options that only automobiles can provide. Does that mean there’s no role for carpooling and mass transit? Au contraire, I think there is. We just have to acknowledge the limits to which people will be willing to switch back, and we must weigh the costs of mass transit solutions like the $4 billion Dulles-to-Rail extension against the cost of alternate solutions.

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Douglas Stewart, of Fairfax, has sent this correspondence by e-mail, which I thought worth appending to this thread:

    You hit the nail squarely on the head with yesterday’s article. I have a similar experience in my Fairfax City neighborhood. It is situated within walking and biking distance of just about every amenity one could imagine, yet I would estimate that about 95% of the trips from within the neighborhood are by car. Like peeling back the bark on a tree, one can trace the neighborhood’s devolution since its beginnings in the 1920s by its structure of streets. The grid-like streets just off Route 236 were built between the 20s and World War II. My neighborhood of split levels and circuitous streets was built in the 50s and 60s. Walking my son to his day care provider, we navigate a series of turns at all sorts of obtuse and oblique angles while watching for drivers who are trying — as I would, and do — to execute their turns as quickly as possible, like animals trying to rush out of a cage.

    You are right that our local site planning and zoning codes bear much of the blame. But there also seems to be a market demand for these kinds of neighborhoods. I read a NY Times article last year that cited families’ common association of grid patterns with crime. But if people want to do something about traffic, they must as you point out recognize the trade off for buying a house in a cul de sac.

    In any case, we have some good opportunities to redevelop better and learn from past mistakes in Fairfax, and environmental and pedestrian/bicycle advocates are trying to convey the same message as you.

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