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Development


Prince George's new general plan places too much emphasis on sprawl

Last year, Prince George's County planners kicked off a bold effort to revise its general plan and direct most future growth to transit stations inside the Beltway. But a continuing focus on sprawling suburban development on the county's fringes could thwart those worthy goals.


Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

The Planning Department has been working on "Plan Prince George's 2035," an update of the county's blueprint for long-term growth and development. It proposes directing most growth to a few "downtown" areas at major Metro stations inside the Beltway. Planners stressed the need to revitalize older communities and preserve natural resources.

Throughout the process, planners urged the county to be "bold and forward thinking" and to reject the "business as usual" approach of supporting sprawl development. But the County Executive's and County Council's continuing enthusiasm for big greenfield developments like Westphalia and Konterra, will only continue this pattern by directing growth away from downtowns.

Preliminary draft plan reflects council's desire for more "business as usual"

The preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, released in September, is graphically impressive and chock-full of data. Planners have spent the past several weeks reviewing, digesting, and responding to public comments received in November and December.

In many ways, the preliminary draft plan lays out the right overall vision and framework for how the county should "live, work, and sustain" over the next 20 years. It says that 50% of the county's growth should go to one of eight "Regional Transit Centers": Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, College Park, Greenbelt, Suitland, and National Harbor. Of these, only National Harbor is not Metro-accessible, and all of these areas are either inside or adjacent to the Beltway.

In many other ways, however, Plan Prince George's 2035 is at odds with the planners' stated vision. It's too permissive of allowing growth to continue in the sprawling areas of the county that lie outside the Beltway and away from transit. Inside the Beltway, the preliminary plan misses the mark in identifying existing neighborhoods most in need of capital investments to catalyze revitalization and redevelopment.


Photo by Magnus D on Flickr.

New "Suburban Centers" and sprawling subdivisions away from transit encourage growth in the wrong places

The plan identifies five "suburban centers," all located outside the Beltway and away from transit: Bowie, Brandywine, Landover Gateway, Westphalia, and Konterra. Planners envision that these centers will be "larger in size" than development around Metro stations and will "rely more on vehicular transportation."

According to the plan, 6,300 new homes should be built in these areas, representing 10% of the county's growth over the next 20 years. But Konterra and Westphalia alone are already approved for 9,500 homes, or 15% of the county's projected growth. Add the approved and planned development at Woodmore Towne Centre and the old Landover Mall (both at Landover Gateway), as well as Bowie and Brandwine, and Suburban Centers could easily be responsible for more than 20% of Prince George's projected future growth.

County planners may have felt they had to include the suburban centers because they're already reflected in existing master plans. Additionally, County Executive Rushern Baker and many County Council members continue to vigorously support growth and development in these areas. But the point of the General Plan is to provide a blueprint for the county's future growth, not to ratify the bad growth decisions of the past.

The preliminary plan also recommends directing another 20% of the county's growth to so-called "Established Communities," which refers to every place in the county that's eligible for public water and sewer connections. But such an overarching designation, which includes many areas that are currently undeveloped, turns the whole concept of "established" on its head and does virtually nothing to control sprawl.

Last fall, the County Council extended the validity periods for several previously approved but still-unbuilt projects dating to before the housing bust. Eighty percent of those projects are for single-family subdivisions in undeveloped areas outside the Beltway.

With the "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," as contemplated in the preliminary plan, over 40% of the county's projected growth will occur in outer-Beltway suburbia, away from transit. This can hardly be the "bold" direction that planners originally envisioned.

Plan doesn't direct enough resources for inside-the-Beltway communities

In contrast to the massive growth planned for "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," the draft plan only anticipates 15% of the county's growth going to the 20 Metro, MARC, Purple Line, and other transit stations inside the Beltway that are designated as local transit, neighborhood, or campus centers. There's little mention in the plan of public funds for capital improvements, like new streets or public facilities, and other catalytic investment in these areas, meaning even that tiny amount of growth is not likely to materialize.

The draft plan focuses its "Neighborhood Reinvestment Area" priorities solely on the six neighborhoods that County Executive Baker designated in his 2012 Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) program, which provides educational, public health and safety resources to communities particularly plagued by crime.

In her public testimony, Lillie Thompson-Martin, mayor of the town of Fairmount Heights, rightly criticized the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 for "starving the older established communities," refusing them any meaningful revitalization assistance.


State-designated revitalization opportunity areas like this, across from the Addison Road Metro Station, get little attention in Plan Prince George's 2035. Image from Google Earth.

A better approach would have the plan focus on those areas that county and state economic development officials have already identified as most in need of revitalization. Maryland has designated several Prince George's communities as either a Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone. This would encompass most of the inner-Beltway Metro station areas designated as Local Transit Centers or Neighborhood Centers, like West Hyattsville and Addison Road, and many other older communities, like Brentwood, Mount Rainier, and Capitol Heights.

Tell Prince George's it's time to change directions

Although the public comment period has passed, the final draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 has not yet been adopted. The Planning Board and the County Council still have to meet and vote to adopt the final plan.

If you believe that Prince George's needs to make developing our Metro stations and revitalizing inside-the-Beltway communities a priority, you should write to them and urge them to hold another public hearing. For the Planning Board, send your emails to the Public Affairs Department, with copies to Planning Director Fern Piret and Deputy Planning Director Al Dobbins.

For the County Council, send your emails to Council Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to the Clerk of the Council and Ingrid Turner, chair of the council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development committee.

Cross-posted on Prince George's Urbanist.

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To:Public Affairs Department, Prince George's Planning Board
Mel Franklin, Chair, Prince George's County Council
Cc:Firn Piret, Planning Director, Prince George's Planning Board
Al Dobbins, Deputy Planning Director, Prince George's Planning Board
Ingrid Turner, Prince George's County Council
Clerk of the Council, Prince George's County Council

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Government


Harriet Tregoning looks back on her time as planning director

Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director since 2007, is leaving to take a job with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. During her years at the helm of the Office of Planning, she has pushed DC to adopt smart-growth policies touching nearly every aspect of the city: land use, transportation, the economy, and more.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Her influence has been felt. If nothing else, what other planning directors can you name? We sat down with her for an exit interview.

RK: I can't believe you're leaving.

HT: Me either. It's breaking my heart a little bit to leave. I love this job.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as planning director?

Nothing I'm going to tell you was the work of me alone by any means. I really feel like I was fortunate to be in the city with a set of colleagues at a particular time where some significant change was possible.

I think we fully became a multimodal city during my time here. And the transportation choices have just multiplied enormously in DC, and I'm really proud of that whether it's bikeshare, additional carsharing options, whether it's the many coming miles of streetcar lines.

Those are all things I didn't have a singular hand in, but I certainly did my part to encourage those things and push them along and make sure we had supportive land use that really makes that possible. I think having convenient, walkable neighborhoods where you can meet a lot of your daily needs is a huge part of the transportation solution. And that's something that transportation officials throughout the region now routinely say, that yes, land use is an important part of transportation.

What about your biggest regret?

I have some unfinished business, I won't call it a regret. The change we've seen in transportation is an example of the kind of pace of change coming to cities all across America, and one of the biggest changes is really what's happening in our economy.

I think cities have a lot to say about that, whether it's with their land use, whether it's about how to fund infrastructure. A great example is the Clean Rivers Project that DC Water is working on. We've been very supportive of the idea that instead of using these big pipes to deal with our combined sewer overflow issuesone solution is to build, the technical term is to build ginormous pipes underground that will allow that stormwater to be stored and treated later.

Those pipes are fantastic. We've committed in our city to spend $4 billion on this, but the pipes, all the labor, all the materials, all the equipment comes from outside our economy and when they're done, the 80-plus days of the year when it rains more than a quarter of an inch those pipes will be of some use.

But if we build green infrastructure instead, we'll have a cooler city, a shadier, more pleasant city. We'll have more habitat for birds and wildlife. We'll have more parks, we'll have more green space. We'll also have the jobs that come with that that aren't high barrier to entry. We'll have the ongoing need to maintain these things, which also provides employment.

That seems to me like a better kind of solution, especially when that type of job is the thing that's disappearing from our economy. If we get the jump on this, every other place in the country is headed in this direction so we also create an export economy in services. That idea, that urban places can really take the lead in creating jobs and restructuring economies to benefit existing residents, I think that's a major challenge that's facing all cities and that's something I hope to work on in my new job.

I thought you were going to say something about the zoning rewrite, or the height act.

No! I'm so happy that I was the one who got to begin the dialogue aboutthis isn't the end of the conversation, this is just the beginning. I think it's fantastic that we had this unexpected opportunity to talk to residents about it and raise the specter for the first time since the 1960s where growth is an issue in the city, where we're going to have to figure out how to accommodate this growth.

What will DC look like in five or ten years?

I think we're definitely going to continue to grow. We're going to see more diversity in our economy. In ten years we might see the first driverless cars on the street. I think the sharing economy that has really taken hold is going to become a lot more ubiquitous.

For people in the middle class who are feeling pretty secure in their jobs, I keep thinking about the federal government having essentially eliminated 40,000 positions in the past few years. Those kind of changes are going to be happening throughout the economy. Even driverless cars, does that displace the need for taxis? For bus drivers?

My goodness, more examples of decent paying jobs going out of the economy. I think we're going to find that the sharing economy is going to be a way to maintain a quality of life that isn't as expensive.

Huh. Is the sharing economy something you'll tackle in your new position?

Certainly from a broad perspective on sustainability, it's less wasteful of resources but it's also a real community builder.

What lessons from DC are you bringing back to federal government?

Hopefully I'm bringing a lot from DCI learned so much in this job, it's overwhelming. It makes me very excited to go back to the federal workforce. I started my career at EPA, and then I went on to state government [before her job in DC]. And I didn't know a thing about how states and local governments worked, but now I have at least some inkling.

Also, I think I'll make people sick by talking about the example that DC is setting. There are so many things DC is doing well, and so many problems that are similar to issues faced by cities everywhere. It's an example and an inspiration.

Are you still going to bike to work?

(laughing} It's just transportation! It's not a statement. I don't think my time will be less valuable to me in the future. That's the reason I bike. It's the fastest way to get where I need to go.

Any rumblings about who will replace you at OP?

I don't know, but the mayor announced last week that they were looking inside the agency for an interim director, which is something I think is a brilliant idea.

This post originally appeared on Elevation DC.

Events


Events roundup: Streetcars and parks and buses and zoning

This week, help plan a streetcar line along DC's north-south axis and a park in the heart of downtown. Next week, learn about rapid transit in Silver Spring and weigh in at the last zoning update meeting.


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

Planning a new streetcar route: The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding a series of meetings about the north-south streetcar line. Where should "premium transit" go? Should it be a streetcar or bus? How many stops? Dedicated lanes? There are 4 public meetings:

  • Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
  • Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.

Redesigning Franklin Park: The National Park Service, DC government, and Downtown Business Improvement District have teamed up to design the future of Franklin Park. The park currently offers little usable space for area residents and workers, so the agencies devised three alternatives that add a playground, move walking paths, and add various amounts of plaza space.

The meeting is Wednesday, February 19 from 6-8 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 815 14th Street, NW. You can RSVP here.

Rapid transit in Silver Spring: Montgomery County is planning a Bus Rapid Transit system across the county, and Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are holding an open house about the plan in Silver Spring on February 26 from 6:30-8 pm. It's at the Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place. You can learn more and RSVP here.

The last zoning update meeting: If you live in DC wards 1 or 2 (Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant south to the Mall, west to Georgetown and east to Logan Circle and Penn Quarter) the DC Zoning Commission wants to hear your opinion on the zoning update. This final meeting (hopefully) was rescheduled due to the snow and is now on Wednesday, February 26 at the DC Housing Finance Authority, 815 Florida Avenue, NW.

A lot of Ward 1 residents heard a one-sided pitch against the zoning update at a forum sponsored by Councilmember Jim Graham, so it's important for residents who are well-informed to attend and speak up. Sign up here to get on the list.

As always, if you have any events for future roundups, email us at events@ggwash.org!

Roads


Valentine's cards for that special person who completes the street in your heart

Valentine's Day is coming up, but what do you do if your love for urban planning is eclipsed only by the love for your spouse or significant other? Reader Nick showed us how to combine the two with these cards from from the appropriately-named Planning Love blog.


All images from Planning Love.

Mixed use is better for our neighborhoods, but it's important to communicate that there is only one person for you.

Still, true love has no speed limit (unlike our city streets, which definitely do have speed limits and you should obey them).

And I know Valentine's Day can be tough for single people. Take heart and know there is someone out there for you though. Start by asking people if they'd like to know how DC's streets are organized and if they say yes, immediately ask them out.

Then, just imagine how you'll feel when you offer to pay for a cab after your first date, and he or she will look at you and say, "why don't we just take CaBi instead?" That's when you know you've found the one.

Development


The Silver Line could mean a big expansion for Reston Town Center

As the Silver Line arrives in Reston, Fairfax County is working on an update to the area's master plan, looking at ways to accommodate new growth while encouraging transit use.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

A planned community that began construction in the 1960's, Reston's urban vision has evolved over each successive phase. The original concept was for a suburban community that retained some walkability and had a mix of housing types. Starting in the 1990's, Reston Town Center sought to give the area a more urban character, if one with lots of parking, and became a de facto downtown for the area.

Fairfax County began working on a new master plan in 2009 as a way to plan for expected growth from the Silver Line, which will have two stops in Reston, at Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway. The plan represents a new phase for Reston that doesn't assume that everyone will want to get around by car.

The plan would address Reston's transportation challenges by making it easier to walk, bike, and use transit around the area's two future Metro stations, while minimizing the need to drive. It also calls for "aggressive transportation demand management programs to reduce vehicle trips."

Notably, the plan doesn't call for more and bigger roads to accommodate this growth, though it does recommend widening a short section of Reston Parkway to 6 lanes. Instead, county planners want to connect streets with a grid to disperse traffic, reducing the need for big, wide roads and providing an opportunity to build complete streets from the ground up.

Extending Reston Town Center to the north and south

Part of Reston's popularity is the easy access to the Dulles Toll Road, but the road also bisects the community. There are only a few crossings, and all of them are designed primarily for cars. The plan calls for 5 more crossings for all transportation modes, which could facilitate better movement between Reston's two halves.

It could also let the urban fabric of Reston Town Center continue further south towards the Metro stations, which will sit in the median of the Dulles Toll Road, and across the highway to the other side. Today, the areas next to the Toll Road consist of a strip of spread-out office parks about a 1/2-mile wide, which serve as a buffer to the residential neighborhoods beyond.


How Reston Town Center could grow to the north and south. (The image is rotated; north is to the right.) Image from Fairfax County.

The plan proposes redeveloping these office parks into urban neighborhoods similar to Reston Town Center. But there isn't a lot of room to build around the future Metro stations. In order for this to be successful, the county needs to zone for enough density and commit to good urban design so there are enough people and activity to encourage the use of alternatives to driving.

It may also be a challenge to convince multiple landowners and commercial tenants of office space to change their property to fit into this vision or give some up land for a new street. The CIA's Open Source Center sits directly between Reston Town Center and the future Reston Parkway Metro station, and the agency may resist changes that would make that campus more open and closer to development.


INOVA's proposal for redeveloping land north of Reston Town Center.

But while there is a space crunch between Reston Town Center and the Dulles Toll Road, there is a lot more room to grow to the north, as well as more committed landowners. This area consists of strip malls and a large, suburban-style medical center, which are ripe for redevelopment and sprawl repair. INOVA Hospital has expressed interest in redeveloping the medical facility as an extension of Reston Town Center and submitted this plan to Fairfax County.

This area is at least 3/4-mile from the nearest Metro station, but good development with a commitment to a complete streets policy could greatly extend the walkable range of the Metro station. There is also a call for a new urban park, community center, and library to help anchor this area and provide new open space for residents.

Parking maximums and the end of free parking

The report is pretty adamant that parking will be treated differently than it has before. There will be fewer subsidies that artificially lower the cost of parking, and the expectation is that most parking will be paid for by the users themselves. The plan also calls for the implementation of parking maximums in areas and a reduction or elimination of surface lots.

When it opens later this year, Wiehle Avenue will be the terminus of the Silver Line until Phase 2 is up and running. At that time, some of the parking being built now for transit riders could eventually be turned over to nearby developments, reducing the need to build new parking.

This plan is just the beginning

This is an ambitious plan, especially when you consider that the county is trying to do many of the same things in Tysons Corner as well. But Reston has the advantage of an existing, well-defined urban center and it has fewer traffic problems than in Tysons. This may make stakeholders more willing to devote resources to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit.

However, this plan is still a draft and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors needs to approve it. Once that happens, the real work of actually implementing the plan begins.

Funding concerns are always an issue, and there will be lots of discussion on what strategies are best. Another concern is about being able to coordinate with a wide variety of landowners; the report mentions this problem, but doesn't offer potential solutions. But Reston already has a long history of working within established plans over the past 50 years, suggesting it will pull through.

Development


Harriet Tregoning is leaving the DC Office of Planning

Harriet Tregoning, head of DC's Office of Planning, will step down from her post on February 23 to work for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, DCist reported.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tregoning has been one of the region's leaders around smart growth. She pushed for helping the city grow and locating new housing, jobs, stores, and other amenities where people can easily get to them on foot, bike, and transit.

That she was ready to move on from DC is not much of a surprise. She had been planning director across two administrations, and there had been news reports she was on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's short list to head that city's planning department.

Tregoning made the most headlines for things like pushing to give DC more autonomy around the height limit, but her biggest influence for DC was more behind the scenes. As the mayor's representative on the federal National Capital Planning Commission, the regional Transportation Planning Board, and other bodies, she did a masterful job of working with officials who often don't have the center city's health at heart.

At one of the first NCPC meetings I ever attended, for instance, Tregoning was trying to convince members like Herbert Ames, a George W. Bush appointee who lived in South Carolina, as well as the representatives of the Department of Defense and other agencies, that it really was not a matter of the federal interest whether mechanical penthouses had to be set back from interior courtyards of buildings, a minor point of zoning where NCPC was considering overruling the city's Zoning Administrator.

Tregoning looked to the future, not the past

Tregoning is at her most comfortable when talking about the future, and in fact some described her as "DC's futurist-in-chief." She can cite statistics about the city's demographics, growth, and change to paint a vivid picture of where we are and where we might go. Rather than manage around conditions as they are today, Tregoning would envision where they would be tomorrow, or quoting the famous Wayne Gretzky adage in testimony, "skating to where the puck will be."

Under her leadership, the Office of Planning truly tried to anticipate our future growth and demand, and find ways to match plans and zoning to the city's actual needs. OP promoted aligning parking requirements with not the guesses of 1958 or even the patterns of today but how people will get around in a world of choices such as Zipcar, car2go, Capital Bikeshare, Uber, and more. It supported helping seniors to age in place and potentially repurpose large yet mostly empty single family houses to hold more residents of many generations, as they once did.

Patience meant success but also missed opportunities

Tregoning has an uncommon combination of drive and patience, which is necessary to be effective in government. Some people with a lot of good ideas run up against brick walls and grow frustrated (and, perhaps, even she eventually did.) Others simply content themselves with punching a clock and not rocking the boat, maybe trying to achieve a small amount from time to time but rarely sticking their necks out.

That patience sometimes meant that OP would not take on more difficult tasks. You wouldn't know it from some of the vitriol, but by and large, she worked with many of DC's most affluent and politically powerful neighborhoods to shape changes in a way that would avoid a big fight. When working on the Georgetown campus plan, for instance, OP acceded to many of the requests from neighborhood leaders, sometimes finding a win-win for all, sometimes to reach a suboptimal result like endorsing neighborhood demands to move all undergraduates onto the campus.

The Williams Administration, and former Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, had formulated a plan to make upper Wisconsin Avenue a thriving and walkable commercial corridor like many others around the city instead of a disjointed set of low-slung and dumpy buildings and parking lots. But the blowback from some neighbors was very strong, and many called for removing McCarthy for it.

Tregoning's OP mostly left Wisconsin Avenue alone and focused on areas where the city is going to change much more. That may have been politically wise, but it also meant that the need to house more residents fell disproportionately on changing neighborhoods while established ones got to erect barriers to new people coming in. Likewise, she didn't invest much effort into fixing weaknesses in the city's historic preservation system, which fulfills many important roles but also sometimes becomes a vehicle for lopping a floor off every building regardless of historic merit.

A one-two punch for smart growth in local government

Tregoning is stepping down around the same time as Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. The two are probably the region's greatest voices within government for smart growth. Others will have to step up, or regional decisions like plans from the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board could become a lot less forward-thinking.

The good news is that both Tregoning and Zimmerman are staying in DC while they work on national issues. This certainly means they will remain aware of local developments while at HUD and Smart Growth America (the nonprofit Tregoning's husband Geoff Anderson runs), respectively.

The Gray Administration will have big shoes to fill

Quite a few of Mayor Gray's most meaningful achievements involved Tregoning. Most notably, his ambitious Sustainable DC plan came from a multi-agency process Tregoning led. Without her, it seems very unlikely the District Department of Transportation would have committed to bold targets, like having 50% of trips by transit and 25% by walking and biking by 2032.

If Gray does not win the April 1 primary, then anyone he picks will be a caretaker and most likely very few high-level projects will get done at the Office of Planning. (Certainly the numerous good planners at the department will keep doing their jobs on the many important smaller initiatives, of course.) If Gray does win the renomination, even though he may face a general election fight, it would be reasonable to be thinking about a permanent replacement if he can attract one.

While Gray has hired some excellent people (mostly after his first year in office) and holds a good vision for the future of DC, his administration's record has been lackluster on bringing in dynamic agency heads from outside the city government. More often, he promoted deputies, some of whom were ready for the top job while others seemed lost without strong guidance.

On the other hand, the mayor corrected some early hiring mistakes in his own staff quite effectively. Would he ensure that the next planning director maintains DC's momentum instead of simply giving in to the inevitable opposition to every change?

Update: Tregoning will be Director of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD. She said the job

deals with a lot of the issues I've been really passionate about in Washington: transportation and working clsoely with US DOT; sustainability; urban job creation. I'm getting more and more terrified about what's happening to middle wage jobs, with the income disparities. ... Cities have reflexively squeezed the labor out of transportation and municipal operations for decades without thinking about it, and we have to think about that.

We are having a great conversation about that here in DC around green infrastructure and the Green Rivers plan, or looking at some of the things we've touched on in Sustainable DC. Retrofit of buildings, urban agriculture, sustainable transportation and waste management are all things that could have huge implications for jobs and are things cities need to be investing in.

It sounds like a great fit for her most recent work in DC and her current interests. Best of luck!

Roads


Self-driving cars are coming, and they could change everything we know about cities

Autonomous, self-driving vehicles are getting more attention from the media, but little from transportation planners. Given the technology's potential impacts on our transportation network, it's time for planners to start thinking about it.


Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr.

As the technology advances, mainstream media now treat self-driving cars with seriousness and respect, as do business advisors like KPMG. Developers are designing self-driving car use into future retirement communities, while carmakers like Mercedes advertise passive "self-driving" safety features. Analysts predict that completely autonomous cars will be on sale by 2020.

Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce both car crashes and traffic congestion, and to use wasted time driving for work or entertainment. These are benefits usually attributed to transit; as a result, autonomous vehicles could strengthen arguments for designing for more cars in our cities and suburbs, instead of more pedestrians, cyclists, and placemaking.

Transportation planners aren't talking publicly about driverless cars

By contrast, online searches for "transportation planning" and "self-driving cars" turn up thoughtful, if skeptical reviews by urbanists Todd Litman and Jarrett Walker; a sober, academic summary of key issues by the Eno Center for Transportation; and a thorough debate from 2011 on the issue here on GGW; and an article from Governing Magazine that exemplifies the public preoccupation with regulating driverless cars rather than planning and policy issues.

There isn't a lot of evidence of transportation planners at public agencies giving serious attention to the matter, at least not publicly. A recent blog entry from Bacon's Rebellion also concludes that transportation planners are not paying attention. Though, to be fair, the topic was covered at a recent Florida Department of Transportation conference and the Transportation Research Board a few weeks ago.

Self-driving cars address many of the safety and travel efficiency objections that Smart Growth advocates often make about road expansion, or the use of limited street space. As a result, planners and placemaking advocates will need to step up their game.

They need to better define in what environments bike- and pedestrian-oriented designs are still appropriate even when we can solve our congestion problems with self-driving cars. They need to promote street and intersection that can work for bikes and pedestrians as well as for self-driving cars; and to make a strong cases for Smart Growth and TOD that are based on diverse benefits, not just on the ability to move people.

Capital planning decisions last for thirty years and beyond. The officials responsible for parking lot and garage building, transit system growth, bike lane construction, intersection expansions, sidewalk improvements, and road widenings need to analyze quantitatively how self-driving cars could affect their plans, and to prepare alternatives in case things change.

How could self-driving cars disrupt the planning process?

Here are two examples of situations where planners may need to adapt to self-driving cars:

Self-driving cars coupled with "smart intersections" that communicate with vehicles to let them pass without traditional stoplight timing could result in less congestion, but may speed up cars in places where cyclists and pedestrians are competing for space. The cars will be faster, but also safer to be around. The question is whether a more efficient auto network outweighs the negative impacts to other parts of the urban environment.

They may also make car use more competitive with bus transit in low-density settings and may erode the demand and need for transit (and paratransit). On the other hand, changed transit economics resulting from driverless buses could mean that extending transit into new areas will make more economic sense in the future than it makes today.

Ways to prepare for self-driving cars

So, what could the region's planners do now to anticipate the potentially sweeping changes that self-driving cars will cause? How can planners today insure that scarce infrastructure dollars are spent on things that might be less needed in the near future?

For example, if intersections can handle more vehicles per hour with self-driving cars than with human-driven cars, they may not need to be widened. Or if transit commuters can get to the station in a self-driving car, park-and-rides may not be necessary, because the car will just drive itself back home.

First, land use, highway, and transit planners should simply acknowledge the issue. They should begin to define how large different impacts may be, when those impacts are likely to occur, what the range of public responses will need to include, and when those public responses may have to start occurring.

Self-driving cars will change patterns of car ownership and travel. Planners need to examine how travel forecasting tools that are based on current patterns of car ownership and use will need to change to adapt to new statistical relationships between population, car ownership, trip-making, car-sharing, and travel patterns.

Because cars that can drive themselves won't stay parked all day, builders and regulators should think about how new parking structures should be designed for adaptive reuse if future parking demand declines.

State and local DOTs should measure how smart intersections could increase the number of vehicles that can use an intersection per hour, and how to design roads and intersections that work for self-driving cars, as well as pedestrians, bicyclists, and the creation of public spaces.

Finally, the region's transit agencies should study how driverless operations could affect operating costs for bus, rail, and paratransit services, and should update their long-range capital and operating needs forecasts to reflect what they learn.

Many aspects of the self-driving car world remain in doubt. That is not, however, a reason to avoid thinking about how to benefit from the capabilities that self-driving vehicles offer. Even if planners are only able to do general studies rather than detailed forecasts, that would still be a useful exercise. Understanding how to adapt our communities for the benefits and challenges of self-driving cars would be a huge step forward.

Transit


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.

Transit


Who rides (and will ride) transit in Greater Washington?

About one in seven workers in the DC area commutes to work via public transportation, higher than any other large American metropolitan area outside of New York. But where and how we take transit to work will make increasing ridership a challenge.


Photo by techne on Flickr.

A new study by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) reveals many surprising insights about the region's transit commuters. Naturally, transit ridership is highest in the region's core and near Metro stations. But there are also many well-heeled, outer-suburban commuters who use transit by choice, and low-income suburban workers for whom transit is a lifeline.

These two populations will present a challenge to the region as it continues to grow. With limited resources making a massive transit expansion unlikely, we'll have to focus on smaller improvements in service, as well as encouraging transit-oriented development in suburban communities to encourage "reverse commutes," taking advantage of excess capacity on Metro.

The percentage of transit users will stay the same

According to new data from the American Community Survey, 14.3% of Washington-area residents commuted to work via public transportation during the three-year period covering 2010-2012. We're in second place among the 10 largest US metro areas, though first-place New York is far higher at 31%. Our transit use is higher than "older" areas that are often thought of as more transit-friendly, such as Boston (12%), Chicago (12%), and Philadelphia (9%).

But the overall share of Washington-area commuters who travel to work via public transit has changed little since 1990, and it is not expected to increase much in the future. In 1990, about 13% of all commuters in the area used transit. Looking ahead, a 2012 CRA study projected it will only be about 15% in 2040. While more people are now riding the bus and train to work, there are also more drivers, as well as more teleworkers and more people who walk or bike to work.

Where you live and where you work determines whether you use transit

Not surprisingly, more commuters use transit in some areas than others. DC residents are the most likely to commute via public transit, at 38.7%, followed by Arlington (27.2%), Alexandria (20.2%), Prince George's (17.6%), and Montgomery (15.6%). Fairfax (9.2%), Charles (7.0%), and Prince William (5.7%) are the only other major jurisdictions where more than 5% of commuters use transit.


The percentage of transit users by county and CDP (Census-Designated Places). All images by the author.

The above map shows the transit commuter shares for the region's major Census-Designated Places (CDPs), which include both incorporated and unincorporated cities, along with the shares in the balance of each county. There are nine CDPs in the region in which at least 20 percent of residents commute to work by transit: Chillum, Silver Spring, Suitland, Landover, North Bethesda, Wheaton, Rockville, Langley Park, and Bailey's Crossroads.

While income levels vary greatly in these areas, they all have frequent, high-capacity transit service. All of them but Langley Park and Bailey's Crossroads are located immediately adjacent to Metro stations, while those two areas both have frequent bus service and high shares of residents who do not have access to vehicles and are thus considered "transit dependent."


Median earnings and transit commuter shares by CDP in metro area.

Conversely, CDPs in the region with the lowest rates of transit use are far from Metro stations. This group includes some of the most affluent parts of the region, like McLean, Potomac, Franklin Farm, and South Riding, as well as places with moderate earning levels such as Sterling, Chantilly, and Ashburn.


Transit share by place of work.

However, where you work is a stronger determinant of whether you commute by transit than where you live. Among those with jobs in the District of Columbia, 36.9% take a train or bus to work, compared with 22.0% in Arlington and just 12.0% in Alexandria. The transit shares are considerably lower for those with jobs in the inner suburbs, particularly in Fairfax County, where just 3.2% of workers take transit to work. For those who work in areas beyond the reach of Metrorail, just 1.1% of commuters use transit.

Transit commuters vary depending on where they live and work

For the whole region, transit commuters have almost the exact same median income ($50,203) as for all commuters ($50,288). For residents of DC, Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, and Alexandria, those who commute by transit have either similar or lower incomes than do all commuters. But some transit commuters have higher incomes, like in Fairfax ($11,000 difference), Loudoun ($22,000 difference), and Prince William ($23,000 difference). Transit commuters living in these areas are clearly using buses and trains to access higher paying jobs in closer-in locations.


Median earnings summary for area commuters.

Meanwhile, those who take transit to jobs in suburban locations earn far less, while commuters working in either DC or Arlington earn about the same as all commuters. In Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince George's, and Prince William counties, the median earnings for transit commuters is less than half those of all commuters. This disparity is largely due to the fact that many people who take transit to jobs in these outlying locations are lower-income, transit dependent workers.

Just 4% of residents living in the region's outer suburbs (all areas outside of DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery, Prince George's, and Fairfax) commute via transit. But they stand out from closer-in transit commuters in three key ways:

1. More than half (52%) of outer-suburban transit commuters work for a local, state, or federal government agency. By comparison, just 26% of all outer ring residents work for the government. In the inner ring, 32% of all transit commuters are government employees.

2. Outer-ring transit commuters have very long commute times, at a mean of 76 minutes. That's almost twice as much as the mean travel time for all outer-ring residents of 39 minutes. Transit commuters in Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's have an average travel time of 52 minutes, while it's just 37 minutes in DC, Alexandria, and Arlington.

3. Transit commuters from the outer suburbs use transit by choice, not by necessity. While 24% of the region's transit commuters do not have access to a vehicle, fewer than 3% of outer-ring transit commuters have no vehicles.

What does this mean for future transit?

It's clear that more people will commute via public transit where transit is readily available. As a result, it's tempting to argue that the region can overcome congestion simply by aggressively expanding its transit network.

This approach ignores two critical points. First, while some expansions are likely to occur, financial and political realities will prevent many large projects from being built. Second, the current profile of transit riders offers many opportunities to increase ridership simply by increasing service or developing near existing transit.

There are three things the region's already doing that will likely boost transit ridership:

  • Increasing the number of seats and frequency of service on existing suburb-to-core transit routes. To their credit, WMATA, MARC, VRE, and regional bus operators are all already working to expand the capacity on their existing routes, but more can be done.
  • Increasing commercial development around outlying transit stations. This will allow more people living in the region's core to "reverse commute," making use of excess capacity in the transit system. Proposals to relocate the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt or Springfield, along with Prince George's County's plans for the southern Green Line are excellent models for this approach.
  • Encourage transit-oriented development (TOD) around future rail transit. There are already a number of examples of TODs in the region that were planned around future transit lines, most notably King Farm and Crown along the planned Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County. Even if proposed high-capacity transit lines do not materialize, these types of developments can encourage expanded commuter bus service and can limit non-commuting vehicle trips by locating shopping and dining closer to where people live.
While these approaches are helping the region battle its legendary traffic congestion, it's impossible to ignore the prediction that more than 75% of the region's commuters will still drive to work in 2040. And the region will have several hundred thousand more residents by then.

If the Washington metro area continues to grow in the same way it has before, it's reasonable to expect that congestion and its related problems will cause residents and businesses to leave. In order to remain competitive, our region clearly must do more to expand the appeal of transit.

Transit


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.

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