Posts about Greater Washington 2050
Here's what I submitted:
The Greater 2050 report is a huge positive step for COG and the Washington Region. This policy will meaningfully connect our growth policies to the region we want, where people can easy travel from close-knit communities to good quality jobs and education amid clean air and water.Whether you agree or disagree, I encourage you to submit a comment. You can also email them directly; according to NVTA, comments form the Web form will be posted publicly while emailed comments will not. Your comment can be just a few sentences; short comments are very helpful.
While this is a good first step, COG should find ways to add "teeth" to this plan, tying future TPB approval of transportation projects to their contribution to these goals. The plan should also further promote growth in a smaller number of more significant activity centers instead of spreading it out to every one, some of which are very far-flung and cover a large area with few people and jobs.
I was shocked to see Lon Anderson of AAA call "community connectivity and walkability and minimizing ecological harm" "gibberish." People travel using all modes in our region, and the only crazy policy has been COG's past practice of making those modes distant stepchildren to car-dependent planning. We should not stop making roads a part of our region's transportation network, but it's telling how outraged some people have gotten at the mere thought of making other modes a core part of the planning paradigm as well.
We can address congestion in two ways. We can build ever-larger rings of freeways, which past experience here and elsewhere has proven will simply generate even more crushing traffic burdens. Or, we can design around a mix of driving, transit, walking and bicycling, and expand the great success of our Metro system and the low-traffic, walkable and bikeable growth in DC, Arlington, and Bethesda to all jurisdictions throughout the region.
Would it bring doomsday to weigh sustainability in the region's growth and promote wider choice in transportation? If you listen to Virginia road booster Bob Chase or AAA Mid-Atlantic, thinking broadly would be the greatest disaster since the extinction of dinosaurs.
Please submit comments on the Greater Washington 2050 report. It recommends shaping the region's growth around environmental sustainability, healthy businesses, good jobs, quality education, and a choice of transportation modes including roads, rails, bicycling and walking.
It seems hard to find fault in that. If anything, as I wrote before, the report probably doesn't go far enough, continuing to promote growth in small, scattered "activity centers" far from existing jobs and residents. It sets valuable overall goals and recommends measuring jurisdictions' success, but has no penalties for jurisdictions that fall short or push for infrastructure projects contrary to the criteria. And there's certainly no mention in the report of banning road construction or anything of the sort.
But that's not enough for the region's primary roads-everywhere, roads-only boosters, Bob Chase of NVTA and AAA's Lon Anderson, who were driven to apoplectic rage by even the suggestion that one day, in the future, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) might weigh more factors beyond just "build a freeway anywhere anyone wants to drive." Even a report that will have little immediate effect triggered angry rebuttals because of just the possibility that the region could look beyond their myopic worldview.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson says that "community connectivity and walkability and minimizing ecological harm" are "gibberish." Other AAA chapters around the country are starting to offer bicycle roadside assistance, ask drivers to respect bicyclists, or drop the word "accident". Meanwhile, AAA Mid-Atlantic seems to believe that there's no value whatsoever to minimizing ecological harm and a regional planning body shouldn't even make it one of its many goals.
Bob Chase heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (not to be confused with the governmental Northern Virginia Transportation Authority). Chase wants to be the Robert Moses of the DC region. He wants to turn Greater Washington into Houston. He's the 1950s planning ideal that never died. For him, the more single-family cul-de-sac subdivisions and the more freeways crisscrossing Northern Virginia, the better.
NVTA pooh-poohs Transit-Oriented Development and the Metro, saying that because more trips happen by car today and most people don't live near transit, our region should invest exclusively in new expressways. That ignores the fundamental chicken-and-egg issue: more trips happen by car because we haven't built more housing around Metro stations and don't have streetcars or quality bus service to most neighborhoods. It's like saying that nobody will ever use the Internet because only 25% of the people in the world have Internet access. Clearly, we should pour governmental resources into the Pony Express.and so on, and Loudoun, Prince William, and Frederick Counties are filled edge-to-edge with cul-de-sacs and strip malls, do we really think that traffic will be better? Really?
Chase and Anderson are the snake oil salesmen arguing that even though all the other vats of snake oil just made you sick, your real problem is that you didn't buy enough snake oil. They want you to keep buying it and ignore all the doctors saying otherwise. Our region's leaders know better than to keep buying what they're peddling. It hasn't worked in the past and won't now.
These comments, like calling minimizing ecological harm "gibberish," should prove to our leaders that it's time to stop treating Chase as a respected voice of the business community or giving AAA any credibility beyond just another special interest lobby.
Please submit your own comments on the plan. You can submit them through the end of the Thanksgiving holiday, so it's best to comment now. The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which served on the GW2050 task force along with leaders in business, government, foundations, and other non-profits, has posted its letter of support for GW2050. Chase is trying to rally people to oppose any goals that look beyond roads alone, and to criticize any spending on bikes, pedestrians, and transit as totally wasteful.
We need to remind regional leaders that our many residents use many different modes of transportation, and a wise regional policy would combine them all instead of focusing on one alone. Urge them to support this report, which doesn't abandon roads but simply seeks to broaden the analysis and set performance targets for building livable communities. Only a narrow-minded road lobbying mindset would oppose that.
Regional leaders have released their Greater Washington 2050 report, "Region Forward," a vision for the Washington region 40 years from now.
The report predicts an ongoing evolution of the region from a "hub and spoke" model to a "lattice" of interconnected "regional activity centers," each with its own walkable, mixed-use core, with transit and roads within and between centers. The Coalition for Smarter Growth is holding a forum on the plan tomorrow evening.
If the urban planning model of the 18th century was the grid and the 20th century the hub and spoke, the report's authors say, the model of the 21st century is a web or lattice. Largely, this is a consequence of the politics of land use. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cities grew outward incrementally. The low-density housing adjacent to the downtown area became denser housing; the farms beyond that turned into low-density housing; and forests or meadows beyond that turned into farms.
But now, it's just about impossible for an existing neighborhood to evolve into a denser one. Residents of row house neighborhoods fight high-rises; residents of detached house neighborhoods fight row houses. Even turning parking lots or strip malls right next to Metro stations is a big fight. The only development pattern that doesn't generate political resistance is building more sprawl, and that's not sustainable.
Therefore, regional leaders have decided it's more realistic to essentially put new dense centers in less-developed outer areas where there's more political support. This had the added benefit of giving each county some development; instead of telling Loudoun County that all the development should go in Fairfax or Arlington, they can have their own center. And hopefully, they'll avoid just filling up the rest of the county with sprawl.
It's a reasonable plan, if not the ideal development pattern, and the plan lays out a series of goals necessary to bring it about. Build transit in and among the nodes. Provide a diverse range of housing types and affordability levels. Ensure energy efficiency and good stormwater management in new development. Ensure good education and job training, access to health care and safe communities.
The challenge is for the region's many governments to actually put their money where their mouth is. A stated commitment to dense centers and transit is good, but is a hollow promise if leaders then just go and approve new subdivisions in areas designated rural, as Prince George's recently did, or decide to build auto interchanges instead of transit access at a growing place like the Medical Center Metro, as the Montgomery executive did. The COG map of planned roadway improvements somewhat resembles the activity center map, but has plenty of facilities that don't connect or strengthen activity centers.
It's also important to build fewer, larger centers instead of more, smaller ones. Montgomery's set of centers is not bad: They're almost all along the existing Metro lines, the I-270/Corridor Cities Transitway corridor, and near I-95. Prince George's has grouped their centers into a smaller part of the county for the most part. But Northern Virginia's centers are much more scattershot, and larger in area while in many cases being lower in density.
A "net" is fine, but a bigger net is much weaker than a smaller net. It's harder to connect a very large number of smaller activity centers across a wide area. To support walkable development and transit, the bigger the better, to build critical mass for transit and help more of the residents live near their jobs. Likewise, if the "center" is really several square miles of low- and moderate-density development without much of a center, it's not really walkable and not really transit-oriented even if there's a Metro station in the middle with a couple of tall buildings.
Too many centers, and we just get a regional version of the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, which defines a large number of "transit-oriented" nodes that require winding transit lines to reach, none of which is really big enough to be much of anything on its own, and which are too far apart to interact. The only way to make dense centers not create traffic is for most people to be able to live near their jobs or near a small number of transit lines to those jobs. That worked best in the 18th century model where there was just a single node. Get to 50 activity center, and it becomes tougher.
There's no way to avoid becoming a "net," given the politics of infill and regional jurisdictions' appetite for getting their piece of the growth pie. But jurisdictions can make the choice to focus on fewer, larger activity centers. Fairfax should put most of its growth in Tysons and the Route 1 area. Loudoun should put it around Dulles. Prince George's needs to pick where they want it instead of wherever a developer has some land they want to build on. Then, each jurisdiction should take the plunge, as Arlington did, and really let its centers become small cities in their own right, not just little bundles of office buildings with some housing.
Just getting regional leaders to agree to focus on activity centers at all would be a big start. But it's easier to wimp out and scale back each plan, as Fairfax is doing with Tysons, and just kick some of the development out to the next new activity center. We need to focus on activity centers, and then push for fewer, more walkable, and better activity centers.
Some important regional leaders will be at tomorrow's forum. Come and voice your thoughts. It's at 6 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, 5th Floor.
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