Housing Complex

Green Light

More Traffic in D.C.: No Problem

It was an hour and a half into the Zoning Commission’s tenth hearing on American University’s campus plan this fall, and chairman Anthony Hood was asking how the school planned to respond to days of testimony from neighbors, mostly complaining the plan would bring a crush of new cars to their residential streets. Hood leaned onto the dais towards the school’s traffic consultant and said something unusually frank.

“I think you said that traffic impacts will be minimal. That’s what I got out of your presentation, that we won’t even notice it,” Hood told Dan VanPelt, a principal with Gorove/Slade Associates, which handles the lion’s share of traffic engineering for developments in D.C. Anything that needs wholesale zoning changes has to come with a traffic study, which describes how a project might affect pedestrians and cars, and what can be done to mitigate its impact. “I’m going to tell you the truth: I like you, I know you got your job to do, but I don’t believe it…Come on, man. Let’s be realistic. I understand, make it sound good. But let me tell you, this is one commissioner that does not believe it.”

Another commissioner, Michael Turnbull, followed up the good-natured castigation.

“You remember Snow White? Smoke? Mirrors?” he asked. “I think we all think there’s smoke and mirrors involved. You traffic engineers do your job well, but it does get a little confusing. A lot of the things seem to almost be contradictory…If you’re looking at it from a layman’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense.”

VanPelt knew the criticism wasn’t personal—the commissioners’ mistrust ran deeper. “It’s kind of an attack on a profession,” he told Turnbull.

These days, the traffic study is the piece of any zoning discussion that is both most difficult to understand—all those digits!—and easiest to fret over, making it the most politicized document in the application. This is a city, after all, in which citizens picketed to protest anticipated gridlock at Ward Circle if expansions of American University and the Department of Homeland Security went forward as planned. Anyone who’s ever been on a road feels entitled to an opinion, and drivers are particularly sensitive.

“When you in traffic, you guys are the first person I think about,” Hood told VanPelt. “All the book jargon is great, and the studies—this city studies to death. But at the end of the day, it looks to me like transportation’s moving to the point where it pushes all of us onto public transportation. Is that in the manual?”

The short answer: Yes. That helps developers, of course, since it lets them built more without new roads.

And just like land use lawyers and architects, traffic consultants work for developers. That means their job isn’t just to study how buildings will change traffic patterns. They’re also charged with defending projects they work on; as a result, consultants rarely tell communities that new development will cause any problems. The proof: Out of the 17 applications for campus plans and other projects that require big zoning changes filed over the past two years, every single analysis projected that the proposal would have only “slight,” “minimal,” “negligible,” or “no impact” on existing traffic conditions, sometimes provided that minor improvements were made.

Those optimistic projections, though, can help push the District to a less car-dominated future. So maybe we should listen to the traffic experts, anyway.

* * *

Most of the work traffic engineers do to come up with their numbers isn’t that mysterious.

First, they’ll observe the existing conditions, standing outside to count the number of cars, pedestrians, and bikes at every intersection. Then, they’ll take a look at the development proposal, and plug the numbers for the proposed uses—whether it’s a grocery store, dry cleaner, or fitness center—into formulas developed by the Institute of Transportation Engineers to come up with the number of new trips the project is expected to generate.

That’s where the art comes in. Although the formulas are adjusted yearly, a lot of the data is based on suburban developments that don’t have much in the way of transit, pedestrians, or bikes. That gives consultants who do work in cities plenty of leeway to talk about how buses, Metro, bike lanes, Capital Bikeshare, and even future streetcar service will take enough cars off the road to make the impact almost negligible.

But that’s only half the transportation review process. The District has some responsibility, too. Since 2002, when the city’s Department of Transportation became an independent agency, developers have had to meet with staff reviewers long before finalizing their proposal. Before then, consultants would sometimes just write their own reports for the Zoning Commission, since the city was so short-staffed.

Unlike places like Arlington, the regional golden child of transportation management, the District has both height limits and relatively loose zoning restrictions. That means the usual tradeoffs between government and developers—you make the project nicer, we’ll give you an exemption from the code—don’t apply here. All DDOT can do, in most situations, is ask developers to offer more “stuff”: better signals, sidewalk improvements, new bike lanes, less parking, more transit subsidies, anything that will nudge the building’s new occupants to do something other than drive. Consultants will sometimes tell developers this as well, but even transit-savvy builders have to deal with out-of-town tenants and financiers who say the project won’t be worth much unless it has ample room for cars. If developers shrug off DDOT’s advice, there’s not much the agency can do.

“At the end of the day, we are in favor of development,” says Karina Ricks, who headed DDOT’s planning department from 2005 until last year and is now a consultant herself. “If the city stops growing, it starts dying again.”

* * *

No wonder, then, that when neighborhoods think a project will worsen their commutes, they sometimes take matters into their own hands.

For example, worried about the impact of new residential facilities at the University of the District of Columbia—and concerned that a study by Gorove/Slade wasn’t taking into account other studies that had been done over the years—Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F spent $15,000 to have another firm, Nelson/Nygaard, review UDC’s analysis and make its own recommendations. The outside analysts found a number of flaws, but didn’t have much impact on the final order.

“I don’t think it was worth the cost except to the extent it allowed us to discuss traffic and parking issues with the Zoning Commission,” says ANC 3F chairman Adam Tope. “If we didn’t have this expert, the Zoning Commission would have dismissed all points we brought up to it on traffic and zoning.”

Then there’s McMillan Sand Filtration Plant, where development plans have engendered distrust for decades. A citizen group commissioned an outside expert to review the developer’s traffic study, asking for more information; local ANC officials are sure that adding hundreds more residences and large office buildings will make it impossible for people in surrounding neighborhoods to get to work.

But there are two problems with that.

One: Projects of a certain scale start to develop their own gravity. More residences and office workers are the only thing that justify large transportation investments like streetcars and bus rapid transit. And if there’s a mix of housing, commerce, and offices—which McMillan is supposed to have—people will be able to get to work, buy groceries, and take their kids to a playground without getting in a car. That way, even the largest of new developments won’t have the impact residents fear.

Two: Sometimes traffic is good. Urban places are congested. And well-managed congestion—with a robust array of alternatives—encourages people to do something different, like move closer to where they work, telecommute, or bike instead of drive. All take the pressure off a traffic study as something that people seize on to contain a new development.

Ricks points to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor through Arlington, which has seen exponential growth over the past few decades and comparatively tiny increases in car trips, due to enlightened planning that placed density close to Metro stations. If regulators had heeded traffic consultants 30 years ago, she says, all those high-rises might never have been built.

“We rely too much on numbers, and we think the numbers are going to give us the secrets to the universe or something,” says Ricks. “What you want to do is change behavior. It’s not about the traffic study.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • ACG

    Great article. Thanks.

  • DC Guy

    Agreed, a terrific piece.

  • Tom M.

    Traffic impact assessment is an inexact art. Most is paid for by developers. Developers have a financial interest in assessments that minimize the assessment of impacts. Because this bias will eventually force more people in to cars (the author's pre-existing bias), maybe all is fine in the end. This passes for logic? Reporting? Or an opinion piece? Is there NO EDITOR looking over this author's shoulder????

  • Mike Madden

    @ Tom M. --

    I think you mean force more people out of cars, not in to cars.

  • good!

    Great article! - totally correct traffic studies are modified all the time to show "no serious impact" obviously that is not necessarily true (it seems the consultants never walk or drive around the city to see it) but by providing free flow for cars all the time we are only making sure the car drivers have access all the time in addition to providing ample parking. This of course does not do any good for transit. it is funny most residents demand higher parking ratios to park more cars inside and forgetting that by doing that you are only encouraging the animal.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    The assumption that the car is the highest and best transportation mode is the problem here.

    It's also the most spatially inefficient and has the lowest capacity.

  • Dave

    @Alex B.:

    For many people, the car remains the most convenient form of transportation. Gas prices, gridlock and parking charges are going to have to increase substantially before "efficency" and "capacity" begins trumping "convenience."

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Dave

    You're looking at it through the lens of a user, or a driver. Look at it through the lens of a city-wide or system-wide perspective - if everyone does what's most convenient, the system breaks down because in this case the most convenient mode (the car) is the least efficient.

    The end result has to be making the higher capacity modes more convenient. That means providing more transit and developing more density around those transit links.

    Karina Ricks is right to point out the case of Arlington's transit corridors, where they've added a massive amount of density without increasing traffic much or at all over the last few decades. It works because they focused on making other modes the most convenient.

    And that's what I was saying is the flawed thinking - that just because the car might be the most convenient now means that it always must be so. In fact, picking that particular horse is almost certainly going to result in a loss, since the car is indeed incredibly inefficient.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    IF DC had a transportation plan comparable to Arlington's then the situation would be different. Arlington's plan prioritizes sustainable transportation at the expense of single occupant vehicle trips based on the point that Alex B. made, that the car is spatially and capacity inefficient.

    - http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/environmentalservices/dot/planning/mplan/mtp/mtp_draft.aspx

    Each plan element, and Arlington's land use plan as well, prioritizes sustainable transportation choices, is internally consistent for the most part within each element, and each element is consistent with the goals section.

    So the goals section prioritizes sustainable transpo choices, therefore so does each element, including "parking and curbside management" so that space in this part of the right of way is focused on biking, walking, transit, and car sharing more than car parking for individually owned automobiles.

    That being said, the road network is capable of delivering more vehicles than typical resident groups believe, and in areas with high quality transit, a grid street network, tight connections between origin and destination, much more of the traffic is captured by sustainable modes.

    One general problem is that in areas where there aren't these conditions, DC needs to do more to promote optimal mobility than it typically does.

    The Rhode Island Metro area is a perfect example. The area should have been planned to intensify and urbanize rather than to maintain the disconnected street network over large tracts of land.

    As you point out indirectly, DC's elected officials haven't been willing to promote a more serious set of requirements promoting sustainable transportation as it concerns zoning and building regulations. The Rhode Island Metro area is an example. And so is the fact that most of the city's elected officials don't see transit expansion as the city's most important economic development strategy.

    But for the most part, in many parts of the city, except for major commuter corridors, there isn't that much traffic at most times of the day, even rush hour.

    I base that statement on my ability to run red lights without there being oncoming traffic, while biking.

    That is an indicator that the current transportation paradigm, focused on promoting transit, walking, and biking, is having significant positive impact.

    It works.

  • tresluxe

    @alex

    There's a limit to how much more convenient you can make public transit with the options available to us today. Adding more buses to a route doesn't significantly reduce travel time vs. driving for commuting trips. A bike will never be weather-safe (think rain, cold, and the need to shower after arriving at work due to heat). Metro -- which has served Arlington so well -- won't be added to the McMillan site.

    We have to be realistic when having these discussions -- not so enamored of what might be that we ignore what is. For example, (contrary to the piece's assertions) we can't assume mortgage holding adults would move to follow work every couple years. We can't assume biking is a realistic option for families.

    Until families have good, in bound schools and in-school daycare, they will continue to *need* cars to ferry their kids around. The families of Bloomingdale near McMillan are certainly in this boat. If you want to ease traffic woes, the most important amenity we can develop is an improved school system. If Billy can catch the school bus or walk to school, Bill Sr. doesn't have to own a car. If Bill Sr. has to own a car, however, he's likely to use it for everything, since the marginal cost per trip is so low.

  • Tom M.

    The main factor influencing transit convenience is pre-existing land use and development patterns. These play out and change only evolutionary and through long time spans. It also reflects relative power relationships as they've played out over time within our region. The poorest neighborhoods have relatively poorer quality/access transit. That is partly determined by "use projections" that are biased against marginalized communities. But it also reflects that over time convenience/access to transit is valued in the market place. It is a development magnet and the factor is reflected in the relative change in the price to own or the value of selling any particular property in our region.

  • Dave

    @ Alex:

    I'll just second what tresluxe said. And add this: nearly everyone looks at this situation from the lens of a user, be it a car user, transit user, bike user or sidewalk user. Much as we may like to think otherwise, most of us are only willing to voluntarily sacrifice convenience for ourselves for the greater good. It sounds nice to say that that the region should focus on being more transit-oriented, and I would agree with you. I support more transit options, high-density at Metro stations and other transit hubs, fostering alternative transit methods like biking and walking, and so forth. There's nothign wrong with any of that.

    But as tresluxe pointed out, there are very real limits to what is available given current transit options. Very few families are goign to ferry their kids around town on a bike. Few people will willingly take an hour + bus commute that could be accomplished in 20 minutes by car. Many lack the financial ability to move within walking distance of a Metro station (at least, in a neighborhood where they would feel safe routinely walking around).

    You keep saying that the car is inefficient--which from the perspective of an entire region may be true. but for most individual users--and that's really what this discussion comes down to--a car is not inefficient at all, or remains the least inefficient option available. So by all means, work to make more transit options more accesible to more people. But don't make the mistake of projecting your wants and desires for an entire city and region onto individuals. That just doesn't work.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @tresluxe

    There's a limit to how much more convenient you can make public transit with the options available to us today

    Of course, we're talking about development that will be with us for decades, so we are by definition talking about much more than what's available today. We should be planning more Metro lines - but that's not the requirement. Adding buses might not make them faster, but adding well-designed dedicated bus lanes will. So would off-board fare payment, multi-door boarding, limited stop service, etc.

    Instead of opposing development (as many seem to try to use these studies to do), we should welcome it. It makes transit more useful - transit and density go hand in hand. For example, adding more people to an area will do a great deal towards providing a market for that daycare center within walking distance. Walkable development makes this possible, density makes this possible. That's Arlington's lesson. It's not really a new lesson, it's the backbone of what cities have been for centuries.

    @Dave

    . Much as we may like to think otherwise, most of us are only willing to voluntarily sacrifice convenience for ourselves for the greater good.

    It's not about sacrifice for the greater good. People who ride Metro today aren't doing so out of the goodness of their hearts to ease congestion for the rest of the poor saps, they're doing it because it's the easiest option, all things considered.

    This isn't rocket science, we need to provide better service for more people - that means both expanding services to new areas, improving services in existing areas, and adding more people (i.e. more development) in the areas that already have good infrastructure.

    The larger point is that NIMBY neighbors arguing over traffic studies isn't going to accomplish what you say you want.

    You keep saying that the car is inefficient--which from the perspective of an entire region may be true. but for most individual users--and that's really what this discussion comes down to--a car is not inefficient at all, or remains the least inefficient option available. So by all means, work to make more transit options more accesible to more people. But don't make the mistake of projecting your wants and desires for an entire city and region onto individuals. That just doesn't work.

    Again, the moral angle here isn't the right one to take. I'm not projecting my wants on anyone - rather, I'm interested in altering the system so it can accommodate and attract more people.

    The basic point is that the roadway system as it exists today is a giant tragedy of the commons. Each driver does what's best for them individually, but the aggregate total of their combined, self-interested decisions is disastrous. That's the inherent inefficiency of the car.

    So, we add more density to make trips shorter (the dry cleaners and the daycare are now within a very short walk!) and we add more transit capacity to speed up commutes (competitive with the drive), and then people will change their behavior because they are rational actors, not because of some moral sensibility about doing the right thing. The tragedy of the commons problem is greatly reduced because of the much greater capacity of a city sidewalk to handle new users and of a transit system to handle new riders.

    This has nothing to do with projecting my desires on anyone - but the anti-development stance from some folks does exactly that - projects their individual choices on the city's population at large.

  • Dave

    Alex, you seem to be arguing things I've not advocated against. I don't need a lecture on the benefits of smart-growth, dense, transit-oriented mixed-use developments. I get all that. I live in a dense, urban, walkable neighborhood in central DC, so I'm quite familiar with what you're advocating for.

    But your original comment was that the assumption that the car is the highest and best transportation mode is faulty. And I responded that, for many in the region, the car is, in fact, the best transportation mode. I'm not saying the neighbors are right in pushing back so vehemently against AU's campus plan--in light of the Cleveland Park Giant debacle, I'm skeptical of anything residents in that part of the city shirek about regarding the horrors of increased density and traffic. But Tenleytown isn't Logan Circle, and AU Park isn't Dupont. Upper NW remains very much a car-dependent part of DC, in spite of the fact that Metro and Metrobus run there. There are only so many people who are goign to rely, for instance, on the 30 buses to ferry them around.

    No doubt, you envision DC as a grand urban area where everyone is clustered around transit nodes and walking to the daycare center and dry cleaners. And, who knows, perhaps 50 years down the line DC will actually resemble that. But that's not where we are now, and concerns about traffic, roadway congestion and capacity remain very much real. You may not feel that you're projecting your wants onto anyone, but the not-so-subtle implications that people who drive do so against their own best interests as well as those of the community belie that statement.

    It seems that you are able to live a non-car dependent lifestyle, which is good for you. I do as well. But there are many who cannot, or for whom attempting to do so would result in a significant impact on their day-to-day quality of life. Transit options will remain inconvenient for a large portion of the people here for the forseeable future. In these arguments about smart growth and improving transit options, it's important not to forget that.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Dave

    But your original comment was that the assumption that the car is the highest and best transportation mode is faulty. And I responded that, for many in the region, the car is, in fact, the best transportation mode.

    There's a key difference between people using the car because it's the path of least resistance (which is what I'm saying) and people then assuming that because it's commonly the path of least resistance that it's also the highest and best mode.

    The bias is inherent in the attacks of new development for causing an impact on parking, or on traffic congestion.

    Their concerns are no doubt real, but that doesn't mean those concerns are accurate or should necessarily be heeded.

    You may not feel that you're projecting your wants onto anyone, but the not-so-subtle implications that people who drive do so against their own best interests as well as those of the community belie that statement.

    I think you've missed what a 'tragedy of the commons' is. It's not that people are acting against their own best interests, but rather than everyone acting selfishly and in their own interest produces a sub-optimal outcome for the group as a whole. The wiki definition phrases it better: "The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen."

    That's the thing - it's an irrational result from entirely rational decision-making on the basis of those individuals.

    This isn't really a value-laden statement, it's more just a geometrical fact. Which gets back to my earlier point about cars being inherently spatially inefficient.

    Think about it - one parking space is about the size of my office. If you assume that everyone drives to work, and that they drive alone, then they need a parking space. And the implication is that you then need as much area devoted to parking as you do to actual stuff. This is what Tysons Corner looks like - they have something like 45m SF of development of all kinds, and 60m SF of parking. It's absurd, and above even a modest level of density that auto-centric scheme simply breaks down under the geometric realities and inherent spatial inefficiency (saying nothing about energy inefficiency) of the car.

    Transit options will remain inconvenient for a large portion of the people here for the forseeable future. In these arguments about smart growth and improving transit options, it's important not to forget that.

    Of course it's important not to forget that. I haven't. I'm interested in fixing it.

    So, I disagree with your fatalism that transit will remain inconvenient. I don't think that's true, nor is that an assumption to base future planning on - because if you make that assumption, the constraints it puts on your options (such as those who use these traffic studies to try and block good development projects) will actually prevent you from ever solving the problem.

    In fact, making those options better is the only real way to address this particular tragedy of the commons.

  • Some Ideas

    I am sure the Institute of Transportation Engineers would welcome trip generation data from urban developments to improve the breadth and depth of their database. So if we have it, let's send it to them!!!

    Otherwise, we're just complaining...not doing.

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