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Development moratoriums make traffic headaches worse

When traffic moves too slowly in any section of Montgomery County, a local law halts new development in the area until there are more roads. This is a failed remedy, no more effective than bloodletting with leeches to cure a headache.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Prince George's, Alexandria, and many other suburbs around the country have such a law, known as a "concurrency" or "adequate public facilities" ordinance (APFO). These rules all rest on a false premise, that building new roads alleviates congestion.

New roads create more traffic, not less. Development moratoriums actually make the problem worse; they shift development to outlying areas, pushing new buildings away from centers of activity and forcing people to drive longer distances.

After 25 years, Montgomery's APFO has not delivered the traffic relief it promised. Over the years, it has been revised again and again to fix the most obvious defects. But because the underlying error is never corrected, it keeps getting more complicatedto the point that now almost no one can understand it.

The law is now up for renewal once again, and the Planning Board will hold a hearing today. A 179-page staff report proposes dropping the development moratoriums. Instead, staff recommend taxing developers to build more roads in high-traffic areas and run buses more frequently.

Band-aids don't cure the disease

Such tinkering does not fix the fundamental flaw in the concept of APFOs. It's like keeping the leeches and putting band-aids on the bite marks.

The Montgomery planners started out, the first page of their report tells us, by asking how more "needed transportation infrastructure" can be built. In the back is a long list of "needed" roads, copied out of plans drawn up years ago. That puts the cart before the horse—what is a transportation planner's job, if not to figure out what transportation infrastructure is really needed?

That's also not the question concurrency promised to answer. The concept was sold to the public as an answer to "How do we get rid of traffic jams?" That is surely a better question than "how can we build more roads," though still not the right question to ask.

There's only one way to actually reduce congestion: price it, with a congestion charge. Cities like London and Stockholm charge a daily fee to each car that drives into the congested district during times of heavy traffic. (People who live inside the congested zone are usually exempt.) Montgomery could ensure its roads flow smoothly by assessing a fee on drivers who enter any of its 33 "policy areas" which fail the annual traffic test.

But this is not the cure for what ails Montgomery County. Congestion charges make sense in places where the fee is voluntary, because you don't need a car to get around. That's not the case in the cul-de-sac subdivisions of American suburbs, where you are stuck at home if you can't afford to drive.

Smooth flowing traffic is not the goal; mobility and livability is

Instead of asking how to get rid of traffic, we should really be asking, "How can we make it easier to get where we need to go to live our lives?" After a century of sprawl, it is clear that this question has no answer in suburbs that were designed for automobile-dependence. Only where people can accomplish their everyday needs without being forced to drive can people be free of traffic. That requires mixed land uses, closely spaced grid streets, rail transit, and roadways shared by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Today's suburbanites are trapped in a vicious circle. Development requires more roads and the roads create more sprawl. Each time around, the highways get more expensive to build and the traffic is worse. Transit requires ever larger subsidies to compete with subsidized car trips to low-density destinations. And APFOs only dig us in deeper.

There is no way out of this morass until we recognize that the old suburban model has failed. Montgomery County understood the need for a new direction when it adopted the visionary White Flint master plan two years ago. To make that plan work, planners had to junk their old APFO mindset in one section of the county. All leaders should take that lesson to heart, not just in Montgomery, but in suburbs everywhere.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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Absolutely, though congestion pricing in 33 (!) different areas is politically untenable in the extreme.

It seems to me that taking on the European village model, rather than the European city model, would work better for our suburbs. The idea is to focus on walking and biking as our primary modes, with transit as a secondary and commuting mode. Get developers to pay for sidewalks, streets through superblocks, bike infrastructure, and bus hubs.

In essence, if you're going to do suburbia, make it a 21st-century streetcar suburb.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 19, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

What is a realistic way to create bike-ped connectivity in the cul-de-sac suburbs? (The one's that will not redevelop into mixed-use during this century.)

I'm tempted to say: Create a map of needed easements, and then condemn an option to buy the easement 20 years hence every time property is sold. A bit messy. But how else?

by Jim T on Apr 19, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

The unfulfilled promises [that sounds better than 'lies'] made to promote construction of I-270 is the classic case in point. Instead of "solving" congestion problems, it spurred more suburban sprawl and traffic.

by Capt. Hilts on Apr 20, 2012 8:15 am • linkreport

The economic clock cannot go backwards; large retail stores, that have an price advantage over smaller stores, and that depend on the vehicle travel for both deliveries and customers, are here for the foreseeable future. The European model depends on a completely different landscape, and is not realistic. And congestion pricing will occur after that first snowball forms in hell.

The urban environment in US grew differently from the way it did in Europe, and I sometimes wonder if our admiration for the latter is based on pleasant, short visits and vacations that are divorced from what is like to work and raise a family there, with its sacrifices. In any case there is no reason for those of the US to mimic urban life in Europe, although we can learn from it. To improve the quality of life in the US, policies and ideas must recognize that the car is here to stay. And simple is better: how about putting the parking lots behind the stores, so people can move from one place to another without having to cross an enormous parking lot? Etc.

by goldfish on Apr 20, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport

After living in a mid-sized British city for almost 3-years, I can confidently say that Ben is "spot-on" with his analysis (sory couldn't resist). I almost never used my car to travel anywhere around my local city except when I was going more than about 5 miles away, since there are excellent bike lanes. And I was able to walk to the train station that took me to an international airport and connected with the Tube in London, which is categorically nuts to drive in if you are so inclined to do so.

The US needs an entire redesign of its mindset towards livable communities. There's nothing quite like being able to walk to handle almost any errand you can imagine including grocery trips. While I can walk to many places in DTSS, it's fraught with terrible pedestrian access, huge rodaways, and zero biking infrastructure. Boy do I miss England ...

by TC on Apr 20, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

I agree, goldfish. That's why I find these urbanist blogs so amusing. Americans are NOT going to give up their cars so we can walk 5 miles to the store or hike 10 miles to take our kids to school. The type of environment that Europe has now is due to 1). Far less available land in relation to their population. 2). Less wealth to develop said land. 3). Therefore, they developed a dense urban-type model of living.

America is locked into the auto model, for better or worse. Rather than trying to coerce people out of their cars, we should find ways to make the car-centered model work better. That's what progressivism used to mean. Allow people to make their lives better, and that means mobility and freedom, via driving. We need cheaper gas, more roads, faster roads from of impediments like pedestrians and bikers, etc.

Where we're at now is the anti-transportation choices ideologues from organizations like the rapidly radicalizing (and shrinking) Sierra Club are working to make driving—people's preferred method of transportation—so inconvenient for the middle class and expensive for the working class and the poor that they begrudgingly get on transit or bikes. Unfortunately for cities like DC, with their transportation policy being run by these fools, is we live in a country and a time with the most mobile population in the history of the world. People with marketable skills and employers looking to expand aren't going to get on that chronically late, over priced cesspool of a bus. They're not going to climb on a bike and peddle over 20 miles of hills, hoping an errand requiring a car doesn't pop up. The working poor with little to no disposable income aren't going to give up their car, most likely their most marketable labor asset.

Well, what I'd like to know is where we can locate this car-free utopia where everyone can walk to work, shopping, the doctor, etc. Transit in DC is only reasonable for going into and out of downtown. So, are we going to bulldoze everything for miles around downtown, force all the businesses in other areas to relocate in downtown, and then somehow intersperse the miles of skyscrapers with homes, grocery stores, medical offices, and everything else a person or family needs and somehow make that all within walking distance? How tall would the buildings have to be, and how small the living spaces within them? What happens to the already-built suburbs? Do we bulldoze them and leave them for open space? I don't think anyone is really considering these questions in a realistic way while touting the car free utopia. And for the rail fans who want people to live around train stations and shop only the local malls, what are you going to do about people that actually want to visit other neighborhoods, or their friends or family who may live in, gasp!, Richmond, for example? Transit as the only option for travel cannot work for any but a very narrow life—one I don't want to live, thanks.

The fixed-rail fetish is based on an observable lie, which is the rail buffs' insistence that the city of the 21st Century looks and works like it did in the middle of the 20th Century, when far more activity was centered downtown. In fact, work, commerce, and leisure are much more geographically dispersed than they were 50 or 60 years ago. The rail wastrels refuse to acknowledge it, and in doing so they have convinced people to allocate huge sums to networks that do not and cannot fit the way we live.

Oh, and Europe sucks as a place to raise kids, which is why the continent is going to empty out over the next 100 years as their population nosedives. People think it's cure and quaint until they realize all of the convenience, comfort, and choice they have to give up for living in a crowded, socialized, anti-freedom environment.

by Bertrand C. on Apr 24, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

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