Greater Greater Washington

Posts about MWCOG


By 2040, DC's population could be close to 900,000

The latest future population projections forecast that by 2040 the District of Columbia will have a population of 883,600. That would far eclipse the historic high of 802,178, from the 1950 census.

Projected population increase from 2010 to 2040, in thousands. Image by COG.

Despite that growth, DC would still rank as only the 4th most populous jurisdiction in the region, behind Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. But the next 26 years could narrow that gap considerably. Demographers project that only Fairfax will add more people than DC. Prince George's will add fewer than half as many.

The forecasts come from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), which is sort of a United Nations for local governments in the DC region.

COG's forecast report has a treasure trove of fascinating demographic info, not only about population, but also jobs and households. For example, by 2040 COG's demographers expect DC to have over 1 million jobs.

Of course, these are only projections. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. COG's forecasts often fail to predict the biggest peaks during booms and lowest dips during busts. But all in all they've historically been reasonably accurate.

So get ready for more neighbors.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


DC-area transportation is not on track to meet climate change goals

The region's governments area currently reviewing new transportation projects to add to their long-range plan. But the list of projects in the queue, if built, will increase carbon emissions rather than lower them.

Analysis of 2013 Constrained Long Range Plan by TPB staff.

Right now, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) is conducting its annual review of new projects for the Constrained Long Range Plan (CLRP). The CLRP is a comprehensive list of the "regionally significant" transportation projects that TPB member governments realistically believe could be funded over the next few decades.

Projects that Maryland, Virginia, and DC wish to build must go through the CLRP both to be eligible for federal funding, and to go through the federally required air quality conformity process.

While federal air quality rules require the region's transportation projects to meet goals for pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act (Nitrogen Oxide and Volatile Organic Compounds that form ozone, along with particulates (PM2.5)), the TPB does not yet have to regulate carbon dioxide. The transportation projects in the pipeline, if built, would send us far pastthat is, in the opposite direction ofour climate change goals.

In 2008, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) set a goal of reducing CO2 emissions 80% by 2050 below 2005 levels. Several initiatives since then have studied ways the transportation sector, which emits 30% of the region's CO2, could meet the goal. There is the 2010 Region Forward plan, the 2010 "What Would it Take?" report, and the 2014 Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

Yet so far, the TPB has been reluctant to apply these regional goals to the CLRP because it might mean telling Virginia, Maryland or DC to remove or modify some projects. To what end is MWCOG continuing to develop and adopt these reports and plans, if actually implementing them is apparently off the table?

The 2010 "What Would It Take?" report looked at possible approaches to bridge the emissions reduction gap, and identified several important strategies to meet the region's climate goals for transportation including expanding telecommuting, providing monetary incentives for carpooling, increased transit use through bus priority treatments, expanding bicycle and pedestrian trips, and parking cash-out subsidies for employees who do not drive to work but receive free parking at their workplace.

Graph from MWCOG's 2010 What Would It Take report identifies gap in emissions reductions needed above and beyond federal CAFE standards.

The report relied heavily on the hope that the federal government would push harder for cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, but recognized that we need to move forward in the meantime to reduce vehicle miles traveled and to dramatically increase trips by walking, cycling, and transit.

Other cities and regions around the world are setting and implementing ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and we can too. Copenhagen, which has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2025, expects new fuel types to account for just 18% of its cuts in transportation emissions.

It plans for most of its reductions to come from boosting cycling to account for 50% of all trips, increasing transit ridership by 20%, and optimizing the flow of buses, cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians using improved signalization. Copenhagen also plans to switch its entire public transit fleet to electric vehicles running on clean energy.

Seattle implemented its Climate Action Plan in 2008, which sets a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. In order to tackle its transportation emissions, which comprise 40% of the city's footprint, Seattle has set a goal to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles by 82% by 2030, and to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20% by 2030. It plans on tripling bicycling trips from 2007 levels by 2017, as well as expanding transit capacity.

Bold goals need not be unrealistic. Already today, 50% of all trips in DC happen by walking, bicycling and transit, and while adding 83,000 residents over the past decade, the city saw vehicle registrations decline. The Sustainable DC plan goal for 75% of all trips in the District to be by walking, cycling, or transit by 2032 seems very achievable.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of square feet of development in Arlington's two Metro corridors have helped to shift a majority of trips in those corridors to walking, bicycling, and transit, while not increasing traffic on surrounding local roads. Across the region, 84% of new office construction is within ¼ mile of a Metrorail station, and suburban leaders are embracing transit-oriented development and proposing new transit lines. Not only do these approaches reduce emissions, they offer an alternative to driving in congestion and have been shown to have health and economic benefits.

That's why it's particularly frustrating that the Council of Governments isn't acting to reevaluate the many legacy projects in the region's long-range transportation plan to address climate change. To do so, we need to shift funding to new transit projects, to meet Metro's capacity needs identified in the Momentum Plan, and to support the region's plans for walkable, transit-oriented development.

The state DOTs, which have the most control over the CLRP, also need to start proposing better projects, while many local cities and counties need to better plan their own patterns of growth.

As the forecasted impacts of climate change continue to worsen, our only option is to act. With the EPA moving to regulate carbon dioxide from power plants under the Clean Air Act, it's only a matter of time before it begins to regulate mobile sources.

We should lead, not wait. We should take fully to heart the reports we have prepared together as a region and implement those plans. Take a second to send in a public comment if you want our region's leaders to take the steps needed to cut our transportation emissions.


Fix it first, then upgrade, says new regional transportation plan

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board approved the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan two weeks ago. It advocates a "fix it first" approach that directs resources towards keeping the transportation assets we have in good shape, rather than building massive new facilities that may be costly to maintain.

Image from MWCOG.

The plan is a significant victory for smart growth advocates because it doesn't call for building any new highways. Maintaining Metro is the highest-scoring strategy overall. The plan calls for new transit facilities including both streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, potentially using new express toll lanes on existing highways.

It also recommends capacity improvements like expanding Metro capacity in downtown DC, and focusing growth around existing transportation hubs and employment centers, offering more alternatives to driving. However, it relies on elected officials in local jurisdictions to make it happen.

The plan's supposed to inform future updates to the region's Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP), a more specific list of recommended capital investments, including this year's update. The CLRP's existing baseline includes the Silver and Purple lines, the planned DC streetcar network, and Arlington's Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

But first, local governments need to invest in the transportation infrastructure we already have. "The success of all other strategies to improve transportation in our region relies on an existing system that functions properly and is safe," the plan states. That includes Metro trains that run reliably and aren't overcrowded, bus stops that are easy to get to, roads and sidewalks that are smooth, structurally sound bridges, and efficient traffic signals.

Another key aspect of the plan is its focus on the region's activity centers, places like downtown DC or Bethesda that are walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit. Simply directing more growth to these places can reduce car trips across the region. More people would have the opportunity to live or work there, while those who still chose to live elsewhere would have more options for getting to activity centers.

As MWCOG Principal Transportation Planner John Swanson put it, "We don't just focus on supply-side additions to the system, but also on managing demand."

Creating more activity centers is one of five central long-term strategies of the plan. The others are adding more capacity on the existing transit system, enhancing circulation within activity centers, encouraging BRT and other cost-effective transit services, and more express toll lanes.

At a press event January 15, Swanson emphasized that the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is part of on ongoing planning process. It "shows why land use matters and why a lot of little decisions like [building better] bus stops matter," Swanson added. "If they aren't accessible and attractive, other work is for naught."

The TPB recommends focusing on "modes that can move more people at lower cost." The plan generally avoids citing specific projects or locations of concern. Rather, it's intended as a guide for state, county, and municipal officials as they determine which transportation projects deserve a share of their limited budgets.

Whether the vision comes true or not will depend on the elected leaders of the member jurisdictions. It will also require restoring citizens' trust in their government, meaning government must demonstrate that it is taking citizen input seriously and is getting the most bang for taxpayers' buck.

Among its other specific suggestions:

  • Local governments should help Metro reach its state of good repair goals outlined in Metro Forward.
  • Give Metro the resources needed to add capacity, including by adding more eight-car trains and increasing pedestrian flow capacity at constrained stations like Union Station.
  • Enhance and expand commuter rail service, primarily by addressing its two biggest constraints: limited capacity at Union Station and over the decrepit Long Bridge, the region's only crossing of the Potomac for commuter, intercity passenger, and freight trains.
  • Make major investments in relatively inexpensive pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It cites the District's success with new bike lanes and expanding Capital Bikeshare, and says adequate sidewalks and crossing signals are still lacking in much of the region.
  • Alleviate bottlenecks in the highway network by building new on- and off-ramps, extra turn lanes, and adding lanes in limited cases.
  • Grow the network of electric car charging stations to incentivize their use.
  • Make the road network safer and more efficient by such often-overlooked strategies as providing more real-time information to drivers, and by updating existing traffic laws, particularly to offer more protection to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The plan reflects and builds upon the work of the late Ron Kirby, the former MWCOG transportation planning director whose shocking murder in his home two months ago remains unsolved. The document is dedicated in his memory. Kirby chose not to pick sides in the more roads vs. more transit tug-of-war, but he was willing to say we should fix things first.

The TPB's next step is to disseminate the plan to both elected and administrative officials in all member jurisdictions and explain how it works. The plan highlights broad agreement at the regional level, and gives jurisdictions a framework for decision-making.

If it agrees, for example, that maintaining the existing system is the top priority, then its practices should reflect that. Thanks to language in a resolution the TPB adopted on January 15, the RTPP will guide DC, Maryland, and Virginia when they propose projects for inclusion in the CLRP.

"This work fits into a broader picture of what people are asking for," said Todd Turner, TPB member and Bowie city councilmember. "[Once people] see the impact of funding decisions on them, they become more supportive."

Read together with MWCOG's Region Forward plan, its Climate Change Report, and its Activity Centers map, the RTPP should guide the region to a better-managed, more transit-oriented, and more sustainable transportation future.


As the region's core grows, Metro is forced to plan for the edges

Why isn't Metro planning more rail lines inside the Beltway? One big reason is that political pressure and federal regulations require it and other transit agencies to look only at current zoning and master plans. These predict lots of growth on the suburban fringe, not inside the core where it's actually happening.

Map of Metro expansion from WMATA.

WMATA's new plan for "core capacity" shows this dynamic at work. A new loop through downtown would connect Rosslyn and the Yellow Line bridge, and express tracks would parallel the Orange Line in Arlington.

Critics object that this only solves the problems of suburbanites who travel into the District, like the current bottleneck in the Rosslyn tunnel and the future need to get more train commuters in and out of Union Station. It does little for the District's growing population and nothing at all to support the ongoing urbanization of the inner suburbs.

As the plan's authors point out, they are required to base their plans on an official forecast of future land use prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This forecast, in practice, is prepared by cobbling together the master plans adopted by local governments, which are not anyone's best guess of the future, but mostly reflect the desires of locally dominant political forces. COG staff makes some adjustments, but they can't eliminate the biases inherent in this process.

The official forecast expects lots of growth in outer suburbs, where plans make room for decades of growth. Closer in, it predicts little change. In built-up areas, land doesn't get rezoned until its owners are thinking about building, because politicians see no advantage in angering anti-growth neighbors without pleasing a developer.

Thus COG foresees that Stafford County's population will grow 95% by 2040, and the District only 28%. In reality, the District is growing faster than Stafford.

COG recognizes this problem, and a few years ago they tried to correct it with an "aspirations" scenario that was supposed to describe a "smart growth" future. That's what WMATA planners are using in their work. But the study did not fix the underlying problem. Fearing that the mere suggestion of massive rezonings would disturb local politics, COG retained the fundamental defect of its other forecaststhe supposed smart growth scenario "maintains the existing or planned neighborhood character."

Portland offers a way to link transit and land use

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Portland, Oregon, found one 20 years ago. The state's environmental laws told regional planners to curb sprawl and reduce auto use. This, the planners knew, couldn't be done without changing the zoning to allow much more building near transit stations.

For local government, this scenario was too hot to handle. Instead, the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon obtained a federal grant and used the money to hire the same consulting firm that was working for the planning agency. In effect, another scenario was added to the study, but government officials couldn't be accused of plotting zoning changes.

The 1000 Friends report, known as LUTRAQ (for Land Use, Transportation, and Air Quality), won public acclaim and was a key to setting Portland on its current urban course. Perhaps a similar approach could give Metro a vision for the future to match the boldness of the system's first planners.

Public Safety

Ron Kirby, DC region's top transportation planner, murdered

Ron Kirby, the head of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, is tragically dead. Alexandria police found him in his home, apparently murdered.

Ron Kirby. Photo by US DOT.

According to news reports, police found him yesterday in his home in Alexandria at 12:30 pm, shot multiple times. They are investigating.

Kirby was the top local official coordinating planning and funding efforts across the Washington region. Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said his death is "a tragic loss for the region," and called Kirby "a supremely dedicated public servant."

Jaime Fearer writes,

I appreciated his commitment to opening the regional transportation planning process to the public, which is no small task. The TPB created the Community Leadership Institute, which I, and a number of Greater Greater Washington contributors, have taken part in. His latest regional plan, the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan (RTPP), is framed in a much more digestible and understandable manner than previous regional plans, as were the resources and tools for public feedback.
In a statement, the Council of Governments says:
He guided the work of the Transportation Planning Board for more than 26 years. His deep knowledge and wise counsel assisted local, state and national officials in reaching consensus on the major transportation issues over the years.

More importantly, he was a trusted colleague and a dear friend to all of us at the Council and his associates around the region. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family at this difficult time.

To better understand the work Kirby did, check out this chat with the Washington Post and a 2004 profile in Washingtonian.

Ron's death leaves our community without one of its most influential and respected figures. I will miss him terribly.


Survey shows most people want more transit, walkable places

In many communities around Greater Washington, attempts to improve transit, accommodate walkers and bicyclists or do infill development are often controversial. But a new survey suggests that public support for these and other measures is high in both urban and suburban areas.

Most people support better transit and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. All images from the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

Over the past 2 years, the Transportation Planning Board, which coordinates road and transit planning efforts across the DC area, has identified ways to improve the region's transportation network to support future growth. As part of the process for creating the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan, TPB surveyed area residents on what transportation issues mattered to them.

TPB mailed out 10,000 inquiries to randomly selected addresses across their planning area, which includes 13 cities and counties in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The agency received 660 responses, and the results are surprising.

First, TPB gave survey respondents a list of 14 transportation challenges in the region and asked them to rate each one's significance on a scale of 1 to 5. The top four responses were transit crowding, repairing Metro, roadway congestion, and road repair needs. Respondents gave each of those issues an average score of 4 or higher.

Survey takers also ranked as major challenges the distances between housing and jobs, pressure to develop open space, and inadequate bus service. Pedestrian and bicyclist safety and building around Metro were at the bottom of the list, but with average scores of 3.27 and 3.26, people still considered them significant issues.

No matter where people live or how they get around, they agree that transit, bike and pedestrian access are major transportation challenges.

Planners broke out the scores by where people lived and how they commuted to work. Surprisingly, people's responses were similar whether they lived in the urban core or the inner and outer suburbs, or whether they drove, carpooled, took transit, walked, or biked to work.

While this is a small sample, it suggests that people across Greater Washington want more options in how they get around and what kind of communities to live in. This survey lines up with findings from other studies that there's a lot of demand for compact, walkable, transit-served neighborhoods.

People want more places like downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

The DC area is a national leader in creating and sustaining places like this, whether traditional urban neighborhoods in DC or in newer suburban downtowns. But there's still a small supply of these places relative to demand, especially the ones that are safe and have high-quality public services. As a result, prices for these places can be prohibitively expensive, and people who might otherwise choose a walkable, transit-served community may opt instead for one where they have to drive everywhere, putting further strain on our transportation network.

Yet many neighbors and sometimes even community leaders fight attempts to make TPB's proposals a reality, whether it's building homes near a Metro station, giving cyclists a safe route across downtown DC, or extending transit to underserved areas. While the opposition may be vocal, this survey shows that in reality, most people are fine with these changes, provided they're done in a sensitive manner.

Public input is an important part of any planning process, but planners and community leaders often hear only from a very small segment of the public that's opposed to any change, good or bad. Surveys like this can help them understand what people actually want and care about.


WMATA plan: Not $26 billion, not mostly about tunnels

New Metro tunnels in downtown DC sound really cool (and expensive), but they're not what's most important about the "Momentum" strategic plan WMATA planners showed their board on Thursday. Rather, the crux of the plan is the smaller, yet very important, projects Metro needs for 2025.

Photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

The capital improvements in "Metro 2025" come to about $6 billion, and include these 7 items:

  • 100% 8-car trains ($2 billion)
  • More capacity at core stations, including pedestrian tunnels ($2 1 billion)
  • Fixing the bottleneck at Rosslyn ($1 billion)
  • More places to turn trains ($500 million)
  • Next generation communications infrastructure ($400 million)
  • Speed up buses on priority corridors ($600 million)
  • More buses and new garage to grow bus system ($500 million)

The Momemtum plan also talks about some downtown tunnels in a future phase, "Metro 2040," but Tom Harrington, Director of Long-Range Planning for WMATA, emphasized in an interview that WMATA has not made any decisions about where specifically such tunnels would go, or which they want to build.

Rather, those sections are more general placeholders than anything else. While it's likely Metro needs at least one new tunnel to add capacity, WMATA can't even begin to plan for those tunnels until the elements of the 2025 plan get funding.

Given how long it takes to design, build, and fund transit in the United States, it's not too early to start talking about and building support around the elements of the 2040 plan. But what's more important now is laying the groundwork to enable those plans to go forward. That's the 2025 plan.

Harrington added that the $26 billion figure in the Washington Post's headline, which most other reporters subsequently focused on, isn't really the price tag for WMATA's plans. Rather, that covers the total cost of all transit projects the region's governments hope to build as well as future projects for WMATA.

As we discussed on Thursday, the plan also contains a lot of priorities for WMATA to improve its own operations. They include finishing repairs on the system, ensuring it's safe, devising better plans for communicating disruptions, making the system more "self-service," lowering costs and increasing efficiency, environmentally sustainable practices, and more.

The plan is not very detailed about these, and we look forward to hearing and discussing them more when there's more to understand.

Meanwhile, let's look more at the 7 capital items:

Photo by erin_johnson on Flickr.
100% 8-car trains: The original system's designers anticipated having trains of 8 cars, the full length of each platform. However, the system didn't need such long trains at the start, since the designers knew demand would grow over time.

They didn't build enough power stations and yard space to house all of those cars, anticipating that as the system grew, the local, state, and federal governments would fund the system's growth. That investment didn't continue much after the initial system was built, however. Today, Metro is overcrowded in many places, and needs the longer trains.

Core station capacity: The main transfer stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place, and L'Enfant Plaza), plus Union Station which is a transfer point between Metro and commuter rail or Amtrak, are jammed during rush hour. Metro needs to expand key spaces inside the stations and increase the numbers of escalators, elevators, and/or stairways between the different levels of the stations.

Image from WMATA.
WMATA's proposal includes pedestrian tunnels between Farragut North and West, and Metro Center and Gallery Place. The Farragut tunnel would reduce loading on the Red and Orange Lines where people have to currently ride to Metro Center to transfer, and the Metro Center-Gallery Place tunnel would let people avoid riding the Red Line one stop to transfer there.

Fix Rosslyn: This is the system's biggest bottleneck. We'll talk about this in part 2.

Turnbacks: Many subway systems have places where "gap trains" can wait to enter service in a busy section if trains get delayed, or places to push a disabled train out of the way. The Momentum plan isn't clear on where these would be, and Shyam Kannan, Managing Director for Planning, said WMATA is finishing up a study on this now.

In the past, WMATA planners have talked about adding pocket tracks north of Fort Totten and east of Eastern Market. A pocket track north of Fort Totten would also make it possible to run Yellow Line trains to Fort Totten during rush. Here's an explanation of why it's not possible to do that today; basically, they turn around on the main tracks, which takes too long to avoid delaying other trains at rush frequencies.

Communications infrastructure: The current "PIDS" screens in rail stations use very old technology dating back to Metro's early years. According to Kannan, during a service disruption, someone has to manually modify the information in the computer system to get the PIDS to work properly. They want to replace this whole system with a more modern one that doesn't have the flaws of the old.

This project also will involve systems to help riders get real-time bus and train predictions, Kannan said. Metro would like to place large screens, perhaps 4 by 6 feet, in many rail stations and busy bus stops to tell riders about the locations of trains and buses, as well as information about other modes like commuter rail and commuter buses. Better apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as open data to help other developers make their own tools, are also part of this piece of the strategic plan.

Bus priority corridors: Let's not forget buses. As we've talked about many, many times, making the buses more efficient, with features like "queue jumpers" to bypass congested areas, is an inexpensive way to improve transit and could even save money. If a bus can travel its route more quickly, you can have the same bus frequency with fewer buses and drivers, or more frequent service with the same numbers.

WMATA has identified a set of corridors ripe for optimizing bus service, but it needs more cooperation from local jurisdictions, which control the roads, signals, and bus stops, to make it happen. Some early elements are in the works; DC is planning bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House, for instance.

More buses and a bus garage: A lot of bus riders wait longer than they should have to. We should beef up service on busy lines and in key places, like east of the Anacostia, which need better connectivity.

Also, WMATA needs to replace its aging garages in DC with a new one somewhere; Walter Reed was a promising spot, but Muriel Bowser and Vincent Gray blocked the idea; most recently, they have apparently been eying the Armed Forces Retirement Home, at North Capitol and Irving.

These are not in the region's plans today

These 7 items are extremely important for mobility in our region. They aren't just things that would be nice to have, but necessities if we don't want terrible overcrowding and delays.

However, these items are still not in the Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), the list of transportation projects each jurisdiction gives to the Transportation Planning Board to staple together into a regional plan. (DC just proposed adding the I Street bus lane, and already had H Street in there).

As the TPB explains:

The CLRP (Financially Constrained Long-Range Plan) includes all "regionally significant" highway, transit and High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV), bicycle and pedestrian projects, and studies that the TPB realistically anticipates can be implemented by 2040. Some of these projects are scheduled for completion in the next few years, while others will be completed much later.
That means without action by regional leaders, we could get to 2040 and still have no more 8-car trains, the same and even worse Rush Plus crowding problems, terrible jams at transfer stations, buses stuck in even more traffic, and no room to park buses to expand service.

These improvements are basically necessary to keep Metro running efficiently over the next decade and to set the stage for future expansion. But it will not be easy to build these projects unless regional leaders are able to work together to secure funding for Metro's future.


Why can't we build enough housing?

This is the fourth in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Almost everyone would agree that we have an affordability problem here in the Washington region. We have argued that localities are neither planning for, nor facilitating, a sufficient supply of housing at all price or rent levels. What are the obstacles keeping us from getting enough affordable housing built?

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Demand for housing in the region continues to grow. More than 80,000 households moved into the region last year. Home prices continue to escalate; they are up 8% regionwide in October. We need to build nearly 40,000 new units each year until 2030 simply to keep up with job growth, yet we're only on pace for about 15,000 new units in 2012.

Why? There are dozensif not hundredsof factors that complicate housing development in the region.

We suggest 5 here, and look forward to reading your discussion of these and others:

Burdensome local processes: The local process for getting residential projects approved and built is complex, costly, time-consuming, and uncertain. Fees and proffers can add between $30,000 and $50,000 to the cost of a housing unit.

The developer also is required to provide many "extras" that may not specifically have been among the items demanded by the buyer. The most recent buyer ends up paying for amenities that the entire neighborhood enjoysparks, bike racks, benches, and walking trails, among other benefits.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily the developer who pays; the extra costs usually are incorporated in the final sales price or rent amounts. If the cost is more than what the market will bear, the project simply won't get built.

Neighborhood opposition: As the nature of housing demand changes to favor more urbanized areas served by transit, development of new units often is confronted by massive opposition from existing residents. Understandably, they are concerned about a change to their way of life and are not eager to invite potentially more traffic to their neighborhood. They haven't always received enough information to understand that new development, when designed properly, may actually lead to less traffic and more community-serving amenities.

When demand is already being felt in an area, but the locality's comprehensive plan and zoning haven't been updated, an individual development proposal encounters the strongest headwinds. It may take 18 to 24 months for a new neighborhood or sector plan to be prepared, and to overcome opposition.

When zoning has not been recently reviewed or updated, it effectively prevents newer housing designs by requiring obsolete lot sizes, unit sizes, and configuration of parking spaces; and mandates too much parking, doesn't allow enough height, doesn't allow retail under residential units, and a multitude of other "don'ts." Often densities are too low in areas where local leaders and staff agree that mixed use development or mid- to high-rise housing development is desirable.

All this means a good project can be prevented or delayed until the appropriate zoning framework is in place. By then, time has passed, costs have increased, and the market window may have closed. The needed housing units are not built.

Demand: Strong job growth and high wage earners push housing prices up across the region. Proximity to jobs, access to transit and other transportation, high-quality housing construction, and diverse neighborhood amenities are all associated with relatively higher housing costs.

We know that income growth has not kept up with the increase in housing costs; however, we live in an area where many households have very high incomes. Higher income households that can afford to pay more put upward pressure on rents (and home prices) in high-demand neighborhoods.

As a result, lower income householdsfor example, the half a million households in the region making less than $50,000 per yearface two options: 1) spending more than 30% of their incomes on housing to be close to jobs and amenities or 2) moving further out and enduring longer and more expensive commutes.

Household income and affordable rent: DC metro area, 2009-2011
Household incomeEstimated # householdsMaximum monthly rent*
Less than $50,000546,000$1,250
$100,000 or more896,000n/a
Median household income of $87,653$2,191
Source: 2009-2011 American Community Survey, GMU Center for Regional Analysis
* Assumes a maximum of 30% of gross income spent on rent.

Federal and state regulations: In addition to local regulations, a variety of state and federal regulations relate to new home construction. States have transportation and environmental regulations that apply to new projects. for example, a requirement to conduct traffic impact analyses when traffic is expected to be over a certain threshold, and the power to deny curb cuts or access to state roads.

At the federal level, water quality regulations are controlling runoff to local watersheds, pre-empting local decision-making on the right location for new housing units. The developer has to work not only with local planning staff, but often also with a range of state and federal agencies and reviewers during each development application.

As there is no one who can coordinate agencies at different levels of government or unify their comments on a development application, there is the potential for prolonged back and forth on certain requirements where different governmental levels have regulations that conflict with those of other levels.

Regional non-coordination: A lack of regional coordination has exacerbated the housing supply problem in the Washington region and has contributed to an inefficient geographic allocation of housing. Each local jurisdiction employs its own process for approving new housing developments. Not only are the processes complex, they vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In all cases, local elected officials focus assiduously on the desires of their constituents and the impacts of new development on their current residents.

Jurisdictions across the region constantly compete with each otherto attract jobs, to build better amenities, to have lower taxesand it is in their self-interest to focus very narrowly on their own priorities, rather than the regional good, when approving new housing.

The problem of a lack of coordination is heightened in the DC metro area, where we have three state regionsDC, Maryland and Virginia, or four, if we count the one county in West Virginia that is part of the metropolitan area.

There is no regional governing body with the authority to coordinate efforts to plan for and get constructed a sufficient supply of housing, of the right types and in the right places. Virginia and Maryland have some combined coordinating bodies, for example the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, but these don't cover all the jurisdictions in the metropolitan area.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and other organizations convene groups of local leaders to discuss regional issues, but without legal or regulatory authority. The regional discussion tends to culminate in the signature of "compacts" which are broad philosophical agreements, but true coordinating action in housing or transportation is hard to come by.

All this adds up to big problems

These, as well as other issues not highlighted here, are obstacles to providing a sufficient amount of housing and the appropriate types of housing this region will need to support population and job growth.

Local officials are well aware of these issues, but in the daily travail of meeting their budgets, maintaining their bond ratings, and satisfying their constituents, they are hard-pressed to focus on long-term regional goals, instead meeting challenges as they arise, one at a time. This is exhausting for all concernedelected officials, local staff, developers and home builders, and the citizens who try to keep an eye on each new proposal.

Is it possible to step back, and take concrete steps that would help us achieve our regional housing goals? In our next post, we will present some initial solutions.


Safe Routes to School benefits kids and the community

On a recent Thursday, Vienna Elementary School had only 25 cars in the kiss-and-ride when there are usually 70. This dramatic decrease reduced congestion around the school and improved the morning commute for the entire community. The students attended class but did not arrive in cars.

Photo by Trailnet on Flickr.

Today is International Walk and Bike to School Day, and more than 100 schools throughout the region are hosting events to encourage students to walk and bike to school.

Parents driving their kids to school account for 10-14 percent of morning traffic. This one day event makes a big splash and hopes that the school, students and parents will learn how easy it is to change transportation mode even a few days a week.

Reduced congestion is not the only benefit. Reports like F as in Fat have raised alarm about the growing obesity rate. Students who walk or bike to school are more physically active and have lower obesity than students who are bused or driven. Students who are physically active also enjoy better academic performance.

Vienna Elementary finds success with Safe Routes to School

Safe Routes to School programs encourage students to increase their physical activity through walking and bicycling to school. In October of 2011, Vienna Elementary School started Walking Wednesdays. 3 parent coordinators send home flyers with the students encouraging them to walk or bike to school every Wednesday. The parent coordinators give students who walk or bike a foot token or special reflector for key chains that attach to their backpacks. Parents who walk or bike with their students drink free coffee.

With to this once-a-week commitment, Vienna Elementary School has gotten results. Scott McCall, volunteer Safe Routes to School Coordinator, says the principal is reporting students are more focused in class and more students are walking and bicycling every day of the week, not just Wednesday.

Vienna Elementary has achieved half of their student population walking or bicycling in one day and regularly has 20 bikes in their racks compared to 3-4 last year.

This example contrasts with another local school. In a letter in the Washington Post, a parent at Bailey's Elementary reported she could more easily leave Nationals ballpark on opening day than pick her child up from school.

While her family lives within a mile of the school, the streets are busy and there are no sidewalks. This makes it unsafe and infeasible for this family to walk or bike to school. The consequences are an hour-long wait to pick up her children, congested roads, and a missed opportunity for physical activity.

The difference between the schools is that Vienna Elementary not only has adequate sidewalk infrastructure and is directly adjacent to the W&OD trail, but the Safe Routes to School program makes it fun to for students to walk and bicycle to school.

Infrastructure is a big hurdle for walking and bicycling to school and in communities. Retrofitting existing communities is expensive and built out communities sometimes have little room in the right-of-way for sidewalks and bike lanes. It is not only about how communities spend their money but also about the policies in place that make our transportation system inclusive of pedestrians and cyclists.

Complete Streets policies make streets work for all users

One policy that can prevent further disregard for pedestrians and bicyclists is Complete Streets. Complete Streets policies ensure that streets are designed, maintained and operated for all users of the roadpedestrians, bicyclists, persons using wheelchairs, older adults and children. Infrastructure improvements will still take time, but the policy ensures the local transportation agency works to accommodate all users within a network throughout the community.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) adopted a regional Complete Streets policy in May. The TPB policy encourages all local jurisdictions to adopt their own policies and commit to multi-modal transportation planning. This is an opportunity for local jurisdictions to commit to easier morning commutes and happy children safely walking and bicycling to school.

Vienna Elementary School shows the huge benefits from the right infrastructure and a little effort. The transportation culture of a school changes. Most likely, now that the trip to school has changed, families are changing their mode of travel for other trips such as to the library or grocery store.

The Greater Washington Region Safe Routes to School Network is posting photos and stories from International Walk and Bike to School Day on their website. It will feature an award ceremony for the Takoma Park Safe Routes to School program, which recently won national recognition.

If you are still not convinced that Safe Routes to School is a solution, look at the kids' faces. They do not know they are reducing congestion or receiving health benefits. They are just really happy to be outside with their friends on their way to school.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City