Sprawl in Motion: Richmond’s Rt. 288

If skeptics are looking for examples of how building roads and highways “induces” more traffic, they need look no farther than Rt. 288, the four-lane circumferential highway serving the southwest quadrant of metropolitan Richmond. As luck (or politics) would have it, the highway runs through the property of Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan. According to Style magazine, Watkins and four partners are planning a 655-acre, mixed use development complex at the highway’s intersection with Rt. 60 in Chesterfield County.

On the positive side, reading between the lines of Style’s description, the Watkins project appears to be inspired by Neourbanism design principles, creating a mix of office, residential and retail uses in a pedestrian friendly environment–a development pattern that generates fewer and shorter car trips than conventional “sprawl” style development. Though traffic inducing from a regional perspective, this project is less deliterious than typical development. Sayeth Style:

All of the development groups … are working together to ensure that the architectural design and development of each portion of Watkins Centre is consistent. Apartments and condos would be built on top of retail shops and offices, mimicking an urban streetscape. The office development would meld architecturally with the new lifestyle center, and vice versa.

Still, the regional impact cannot be ignored. Right now, there are relatively few cars using Rt. 288 because the highway doesn’t serve existing development. The highway was built to accommodate commercial development anticipated in the West Creek office park north of the James River in Goochland County. By giving rise to the Watkins project, which would not be developed at this time were it not for the existence of the highway, 288 promises to pull a significant amount of development to the metropolitan fringe.

Thanks to the mixed-use nature of the project, some homeowners may work and shop locally. But it’s a good bet that many of them will commute very long distances to West Creek. Others will commute long distances back toward the metropolitan core. Others will drive long distances to the newest shopping malls in Short Pump and Stony Point. In sum, from a regional perspective, 288 and the Watkins project may well induce Chesterfield County residents, in the aggregate, to drive greater distances than ever before.

To a large extent, 288 will be creating its own demand. Meanwhile, because it was so expensive to build, the funding has been exhausted for congestion-mitigation projects closer to the urban core.

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  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Well, there you have it. We have not the foggiest idea of what kind of development will induce people to drive less, whether that results in an economic benefit, or how long it will last.

    Artificially promoting some particular kind of development for a particular area violates the idea that economic incentives for one place can only come at the expense of some other place.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs


    I live near the new 288 in Chesterfield County. It’s a beautiful road.

    This road has drained sales tax money from Chesterfield as shoppers have a convenient route to the new upscale malls in Richmond and Henrico.

    The road has made commuting to parts of Henrico much easier than before–no more toll lane back-ups. Rt. 288 is free! With commuting easier, huge new developments are wiping away green space in Chesterfield along former country roads. Young families with kids are flocking to expensive new McMansions. Resale housing is booming, too. The commuters’ kids will got to overcrowded Chesterfield schools, but not to worry–at least three new schools are on the drawing board with all the attendant protest about boundries and location.

    For those desiring more property, big country lots are available in Powhatan County, also convenient to 288, at least comparatively. It’s amazing to watch all the predawn traffic leaving Powhatan and western Chesterfield for the river crossing on 288 or the Powite Parkway.

    Thank goodness for “cheaper” Kroger and WaWa gas.

  3. Terry M. Avatar
    Terry M.

    Have you not driven 288 at rush hour? From 360 to 64 there is plenty of traffic on it.

    Or is your assessment based on the belief it should be heavily traeled all hours of the day? What is the standard of use? What would you recommend one to be to justify a new road project?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    What kind of congestion mitigation projects closer to the urban core do you have in mind? Isn’t any project in the Urban core going to be far more expensive than elsewhere. Isn’t the reason we have an urban core is to promote congestion?

    But it does raise an idea. If we try to plan a project, we probably have no idea what the eventual result will be. On the other hand, if we look at areas that are already congested, it should be fairly straightforward to analyze the situation and decide where it is that people are going that is causing all the trouble.

    If we decide for example that Tyson’s Corner Mall is the cause of massive traffic congestion, then we could just buy it and tear it down for open space. By using the same arguments advanced to prevent any new project, we could easily justify the costs involved in condemning the place, you know, all those externalites costs.

    All we have to do is figure out how to actually pay for condemning the place with all the money we saved from externalities.

    Then of course the owner would probably take the money and put up a new project someplace else, but we would at least be one step closer to a balanced community.

  5. Ok. Here’s where you’re all wrong:

    That development was coming anyway, whether 288 was built or not. Developers grab land and they develop, whether they have big highways or just suburban arteries. They develop.

    The genius of 288 is that it was way ahead of its time. If NOVA had planned like this (for example, if they had connected the Fairfax County parkway, send 95 ALL THE WAY through DC instead of just halfway, and completed the two bridge crossings to the east and west) then they’d be in better shape. Because as we learned in NOVA: even if you don’t build roads, the development still comes – but it’s sort of a scatter shot instead of focused (see: northern Virginia)

    That’s right people. Roads FOCUS development, but they don’t BRING it. Developers don’t say, “Gee, the I95 has 8 lanes instead of 6 now. I think I’ll put a neighborhood in Lorton!” It just doesn’t work like that.

  6. I really need to reread these things for grammar errors before I post them. But you see what I’m saying.

  7. Ken Lammers Avatar
    Ken Lammers

    I live in the Village of Midlothian and have for several years. The charm of the place has always been its kind of small town atmosphere while being just down the street from any serious conveniences you needed on Midlothian Blvd.

    As 288 was being built all the wooded land around the Village sprung signs stating that something commercial was going to be built there. In one wooded area off Charter Colony everything was cleared and the most obnoxious subdivision I’ve ever seen has been built. Every lot has a monsterously huge house which looks cheaply built and all of them are on plots of land about the size of a postage stamp. It’s basically row housing for people stupid enough to pay $200-400K. It’s ghastly and totally out of character with any of the other subdivisions around here.

    In ten years 288 will be a major center, starting at Short Pump and going down through the heart of Chesterfield. It is already the way to keep from having to go anywhere near the city. Some places are trying to control the sprawl (Powhatan) while others just seem to have given in; the area around 288 in Chesterfield looks as though it’s going to become a total urban sprawl disaster.

    All of this is good for business but a shame to see happening.

  8. But that doesn’t have to be!!! We can control the way we develop. But you’re blaming the wrong people.

    Don’t blame the roads. The roads get us places. Roads good.

    Blame the idiots who allowed the ugly out of character development.

    We can control development. It doesnt’ have to be sprawl and it doesn’t have to be ugly. We can have balanced communities or smart growth that has adequate roads as well.

    It’s SOOOO easy to blame the road. But the development was coming either way. If it didn’t come in mass with 288, it would have crept towards you from developed parts of Chesterfield until it reached you and you realized that you didn’t have the roads to support it (again, NOVA).

    This sort of “creeping” suburbanization with no road building is stupid beyond belief.

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Paul is right. We have created the monster developers with the zoning laws we have. Only they can play the game. I would like to build one hous on land I own, a house I actually wouldn’t mind living next to.

    I am prohibited from doing that. The way it works out in practice is that my only option is to subdivide the entire farm into 50 acre lots. This is incredibly stupid, it isn’t what I want, and it would result in more imposing looking mansions wrecking more land than necessary.

    Probably, I can’t afford to do that because constructing such homes is out of my capacity. Instead, I sell out to Centex, and with their lawyers, and money, and engineers, etc. what you see is what you get.

    One developer was complaining in the paper over the weekend that the cost and time involved in the permitting process had doubled in the last five years. Take that with a grain of salt based on the source, but still, one result is that DC area housing starts lag the national figures.

    That cannot continue without causing even more unseemly house appreciation and the ensuing higher taxes.

    At the same time, developers have to sell those homes, and people can only afford so much. The costs of the permitting process then show up as lousy design and cheap construction.

    I live in a 110 year old house that is falling down around me. It would never meet code today, but it is going to be reassessed as if it had all the costs of the new permitting processes included, because of new homes in the area.

    I saw a local case where an existing business was in the permitting process for two years to re-design his parking lot. This is insane.

    Just because we are going to be stuck with growth and sprawl, doesn’t mean it has to be ugly.

  10. Ken Lammers Avatar
    Ken Lammers

    No, actually, it wasn’t coming (or at least not for a long time). Without 288 and Powhite this area was too far out to become heavily populated. There’s just too much available space along I95, I64, and I295 for the pressure to force people out here.

    I use 288 daily and it makes my life a lot easier. I just look at it with open eyes. It is shunting higher end shopping out of Chesterfield county north into Henrico. It’s causing a building glut which, at least in Chesterfield, doesn’t seem to have yielded one decent building. It is bringing a NoVa situation not anticipating one. The question is whether they’ll be able to fill all the buildinsg they plan to build. If they do VDOT needs to start widening that road to 4 lanes right now because it’s not adequate if growth occurs as the construction companies hope it will.

  11. Ken:

    I grew up on Robious road in Chesterfield down about 6 miles from where 288 crosses. Development has been slowly creeping into Powhattan all my life. The developers were using 2 lane Robious road (route 711) as their main artery for development. How long could that be sustained? I saw horrible rush hours…on ROBIOUS! 30 minute waits just to get 2 miles down a stupid neighborhood artery. All because of creeping development downstream.

    Now, thanks to the widening of Robious and the creation of 288, that traffic is moving.

    In a few years, this process might occur again. And we’ll need another road, I suppose. Or more lanes.

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ah, yes, Ray, the beginning of wisdom! Our zoning codes, subdivision ordinances and VDOT street-construction regulations define the way we build our communities. If the results stink, it’s because the rules stink, not because we aren’t taxing our citizens enough or because developers are greedy profit mongers.

    This massive overhang of rules and regulations separates land uses, and mandates a form of urban design that makes pedestrian activity almost impossible, forcing people into their cars for every trip. The spread of this dysfunctional development may not be the only reason people are driving so much more often and so much farther than they were 25 years ago–the entry of women into the workforce, the increasing mobility required by the changing nature of work in the service economy also are factors–but dysfunctional development is indisputable one major reason.

    Can we solve all our congestion problems by creating balanced, alpha communities and replacing our current planning codes with codes inspired by New Urbanism design principles? No, I don’t think so. But we can solve a lot of congestion that way. And in so doing, we create more efficient patterns of development that make it possible to provide utilities and other government services more cost effectively. In other words, moving to more compact, less scattered, better designed patterns of development, can solve a significant portion of our congestion problems without raising taxes. All it takes is reforming our codes. That may be painful for the political class and the business interests who benefit from Business As Usual, but it sure beats raising taxes by $1-$2 billion a year.

    Once we’ve reformed our planning codes, congestion still may persist and still may be perceived as intolerable. In that case, we may have to raise taxes and build more roads. But if we raise taxes first, we will never muster the political will to reform our dysfunctional development patterns, and region-wide traffic congestion will never, never improve.

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think we disagree mostly on the extent of congestion that planning can control, and the amount of time it will take, not to mention the costs.

    I believe we might achieve a 20% reduction in the otherwise baseline increase over 40 years, if we could agree on what to do and start today. Ed Risse might get his 200% decrease in a hundred years. But if the end of oil happens by then, all bets are off, and most of us won’t care any longer.

    We can’t agree on what to do because “dysfunctional development” and “better land use” are just code words for what boil down to value judgements.

    When I first came upon this BLOG I was researching metrics in these areas, and the metrics key word led me to Ed Risse’s writing and this BLOG. Unfortunately that turned aout to be a dead end as far as usable metrics go.

    Until we can say “This area is 15% dysfunctional, and that one is 40% dysfunctional.” or until we can say with authority that “this land use represents a 25% higher cost/benefit ratio than that one does with respect to both the public and private accounts” and understand and agree on the meaning and effects they represent, we have no conversation: it is just what you want vs. what I want.

    While we are waiting for that to happen, we need to build some roads, and get out of peoples hair.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Here is a simple metric. Say I walk four miles an hour, and I’m worth $50/hour. At the present population density of the US An hours walk will allow me the possibility of interacting with one of about 4000 people and the cost per opportunity is around $0.012.

    If I throw a car in the equation with it’s additional cost at $1.50 per mile to throw something in for externalities, then I have the option of interacting with 396,000 additional people and the marginal cost of each additional opportunity is $0.00015.

    In other words, compared to walking, a highway system that allows me to average 40 mph for a forty mile radius, gives me 100,000 times the opportunity at one hundredth of the cost.

    That is not the same as saying I should be allowed a radius of 150 miles as some people use.

    But, multiply that by the number of people in the state, and I submit that a billion dollars is peanuts.

  15. One thing that confuses me about the anti-road crowd is that they claim that all roads induce sprawl. I know SOME roads induce sprawl. Roads through rural areas, for example. But do ALL roads? Aren’t there varying degrees? Aren’t there some roads that just make sense?

    What about widening roads? Let’s say we widened Route 1 so that people in Ft. Belvoir could get to work in less than 5 hours after they add 18k employees to the base. Is that dumb? Will the Smart Growth people come to the planning meeting and picket outside because “roads lead to sprawl”?

    Will people from Ft. Belvoir want to beat them over the head with baseball bats?

    The same goes with Metro projects. I’m not against all of them. Some make sense. For example, extending to Ft. Belvoir now makes sense.

    Extending into the netherland of suburban 4 houses per acre Fairfax County? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Expensive, expensive, expensive.

  16. Jim:

    I understand your point that we shouldn’t let the “roads solve everything!” crowd (largely financed by the construction industry) close off the debate about growth and planning. But right now both sides (roads and anti-roads) are just screaming at the top of their lungs and we’ve seen 20 years of pretty much nothing.

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Paul, You are quite correct: Not all roads lead to sprawl. Only those roads that it easier to travel to the metropolitan periphery, while leaping past large tracts of un-developed and under-developed land, lead to sprawl. Improving connections between well developed places with the metropolitan area does not lead to sprawl. Improving connections to places with the aim of re-developing them does not not lead to sprawl.

    I’m amazed every time I drive through Chesterfield County — there is so much vacant land everywhere, even along major roads. From a development perspective, Chesterfield is a piece of Swiss cheese. But the county has to supply roads, utilities and public services for a vast region. It’s incredibly inefficient.

    But where does the vast majority of our road building dollars go? It goes to extending the urban periphery, leaving entire county districts to wither on the vine. You’re no fan of urban/suburban blight. You know that’s just crazy!

  18. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, Yes, I agree, we do need to develop some metrics to guide our land use/transportation decision making. I have a huge problem with the fact that we’re spending billions of dollars on transportation and other infrastructure without such metrics. In effect, we’re flying blind. The fact that you see the need for such metrics puts you ahead of 95 percent of the people who pontificate on the subject.

    You are free to disagree with Ed Risse’s metrics, but he’s one of the very few people in Virginia who’s even tried to develop a vocabulary that accurately describes land use phenomena and the metrics by which they can be measured. If you want to have a serious discussion on the topic, you really have to start with what Ed has done, because no one else in Virginia has even tried. Rather than responding piece-meal to his thinking, without the benefit of how all the pieces fit together, you should read his Shape of the Future. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to disagree with, but you’ll come away with a respect for how deeply and comprehensively he has been thinking about these issues.

  19. Jim: Brandermill is the best example. One word: Why?

    Why build a planned community so far away from the city? I guess there’s a lake out there and that attracted people…

    Why would anyone want to live out there? Before they widened Courthouse road, rush hour was a nightmare.

  20. Ha ha…sorry if anybody lives out there…but what are you thinking?!?!? Shrink swell soil, middle of no where, tiny lots…

  21. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Jim, I think your description to Paul is one of the best qualitative discussions of sprawl I’ve seen. I’m discouraged on what I’ve been able to find on metrics. Ed seems to talk metrics but not produe any that are concrete.

    I expect he will take my metric example above and point out that if you put 400,000 people in a four mile radius, then my metric reverses, and he would be right, so far as it goes.

    Probably Reston and Columbia were classic examples of sprawl when they were built, but now they are infill. There is temporal issue with land use that people seem to ignore. We knew we needed to fix Rte 29 and 66 20 years ago, but we didn’t do it. So we wait until the maxixmum possible congestion is caused by the construction before we start a fix, which is only half what is obviously necessary.

    The situation is so bad that if everyone who waited 20 minutes to get through that construction zone got out and moved two shovels full of dirt, the job would be done by now.

    We deny homes based on the “metric” that any home valued at less than $750,000 doesn’t pay it’s own way in taxes. But that metric is a snapshot in time; taken over a longer view the home building “value to the community” might look a lot different (depending on where it is built, of course).

    The other temporal part is that people are mortal and government is not. Fairfax nearly ruined me by causing a completely unneceesary two year delay in getting a building permit – and that was for a site with frontage water and sewer in place! What were they thinking?

    We don’t have those metrics, and by the time we get them and educate the people, we’ll be in worse shape than now. Meanwhile we have work to do.

    We do have metrics that show when a certain intersection has become a death trap: if it takes grisly metrics to get government to spend a buck, then we need to fire those guys, and get som analysis and recommendations in advance, istead of after it is too late and costs twice as much.

  22. Scott Kozel Avatar
    Scott Kozel

    Route 288 has been on Richmond area master plans since 1968, and was originally planned for completion in 1985. The planned route for the western section of Route 288, was moved to a more westerly route in 1988, due to opposition to the route which had been planned through Midlothian and Henrico County.

    Like I-295, Route 288 is far enough from the city of Richmond so that it will be a true outer freeway bypass of the area, with minimal induced development close to the highway occuring after the highway is built.

    “Sprawl” is the urban planners N-word, designed to demagogue development patterns that some people don’t like.

  23. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Scott, you said, “Like I-295, Route 288 is far enough from the city of Richmond so that it will be a true outer freeway bypass of the area, with minimal induced development close to the highway occuring after the highway is built.”

    How can you possibly say that when the Watkins project is concrete evidence to the contrary. Route 288 is attracting development.

  24. Scott Kozel Avatar
    Scott Kozel

    At 7:07 AM, Jim Bacon said…

    <<< Scott, you said, "Like I-295, Route 288 is far enough from the city of Richmond so that it will be a true outer freeway bypass of the area, with minimal induced development close to the highway occuring after the highway is built." >>>

    <<< How can you possibly say that when the Watkins project is concrete evidence to the contrary. Route 288 is attracting development. >>>

    SMK: I didn’t say that there would be NO development, I said that there would be “minimal induced development”.

    A certain amount of planned development is needed to provide for the population and job growth in the area.

    There are some developments that are close to I-295, but given that the whole section of I-295 that is north of I-64, was completed in 1981, and that the whole southern extension of I-295 to I-95 south of Petersburg was completed in 1992, the amount of development along I-295 is still very modest, even after all those years.

    The West Creek Business Park in Goochland County is a master-planned development that well-predates Route 288, even though Route 288 now serves that business park.

    The southern section of Route 288 was completed in 1990, but development along that highway is still very modest, even after all those years.

    Like another posters said, the new section of Route 288 is a beautiful highway. It was certainly needed to relieve traffic congestion on Parham Road, the Huguenot Bridge; and it was needed to provide a new western James River crossing.

    Here is my website article that tracks the history of Route 288, along with over 500 photos showing stages of construction of the western section of Route 288 —

    Route VA-288 Construction – Western Section

    Or – http://tinyurl.com/cbx98

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    I can think of lots of ways development can make us drive less. If there’s sidewalks, I walk, not drive. But most suburban developments don’t provide sidewalks, so I’m forced to drive. I used to work in Innsbrook a short walk from the post office, but I only walked there once. Without sidewalks, I was forced to walk in the gutter and dodge speeding SUVs. So I was forced to drive for my own safety. Had there been a sidewalk I would have walked.

  26. Anonymous Avatar

    I think that western Henrico and eastern Goochland have done a FANTASTIC job marketing West Creek, and even Innsbrook, now that 288 is complete. Funny how I never even heard of West Creek until 288 was built. Umm, where has Chesterfield been? It’s now August 2007 and how far along has Watkins Centre gotten? Meanwhile, further south, 360 West (Hull Street west of 288) is eight, yes, EIGHT lanes wide all the way to Winterpock Road. Sounds like we’ve marketed traffic-inducing residential development long enough to me. Funny how the slightest hint at a POSSIBLE Powhite Parkway extension has made residential development, and all kinds of new traffic, EXPLODE west of there. Unbelievable. And how has Chesterfield used its access to 288 to its advantage? Well within the past few years, a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, and Best Buy have gotten tossed up at its intersection with Hull Street. How come nobody has thought of getting some higher-end retail in Chesterfield? There’s plenty of money out there to support it, that’s for sure.

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