The Power of Transit-Oriented Development

Back in the late 1970s, when Washington’s Metrorail system first
began operating in Arlington County, Virginia, the future of Arlington
and other old, inner suburbs was far from certain. Across the Potomac,
the District of Columbia was suffering from depopulation, rapidly
rising crime rates, and serious fiscal difficulties.

3760052394_3a4a1356a0.jpgBallston Metro station, Arlington Co. Photo: Point Images/Flickr

Meanwhile,
on the other side of Arlington, Fairfax County was enjoying a stunning
period of growth. People were flocking by the hundreds of thousands to
Fairfax’s sprawling residential subdivisions, and employment centers
popped up and grew rapidly around freeway interchanges.

The future looked as though it belonged to Fairfax County, and
Arlington’s decision to target development around its new Metro
stations seemed quixotic and anachronistic.

But now, with
the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, Arlington seems to have been
extraordinarily foresighted in its decision to grow around Metro. From
2000 to 2008, Arlington’s population grew by 10 percent — all of it
infill development, and a remarkable achievement for an inner suburb.

Even more remarkably, this growth has led to a negligible impact on local traffic. Daniel Malouff, author of the BeyondDC blog, reported
this week on a meeting with Arlington’s Department of Transportation,
at which officials recounted some numbers that had emerged from
research on the effects of county development choices.

Among the remarkable statistics:

1.
Auto traffic counts in the Pentagon City area are level today compared
with counts from 1975. Despite all the development that has occurred
there in that time frame, including construction of one of the region’s
largest and busiest shopping malls, there has been no measurable
increase in traffic congestion.

2. [One thousand] units of urban-format TOD housing generates fewer
auto trips per day than a single suburban-format McDonalds or 7-11. You
can build 1,000,000 square feet of residential TOD and generate less
congestion than 2,000 square feet of auto-oriented retail.

Arlington
has very nearly maximized the development potential of available land
around Metro stations, but it’s looking to create new transit access
for its communities by building a streetcar line
along one of the county’s busier thoroughfares (and running along its
busiest bus routes). Already, denser, walkable, and mixed-used
developments are replacing older strip malls on the planned line.

And
of course, Fairfax County has been busily working to reverse its
approach to transit and development, its streets and highways having
bogged down under the weight of constant congestion.

Back
when Metro was originally built, Fairfax did not attempt to lobby for
routing through population centers, opting instead for a cheaper
alignment along the median of I-66 (for the Orange Line), and along
existing rail right of way (for the Blue Line). Stations were almost
exclusively surrounding by parking; riders would nearly all arrive by
car.

These decisions have proven difficult to reverse
engineer, but Fairfax County has been trying. Along the I-66 corridor,
the county is encouraging such transit-oriented development as can be
accommodated. In Springfield (on the Blue Line), a large, walkable
redevelopment plan has been slowly making its way forward despite the
difficult economic situation.

But the biggest shift is occurring elsewhere. Fairfax County and the state of Virginia recently
won federal funding for a new extension of the Metrorail system, to be
run through the densest portion of the county at Tysons Corner.

The
Silver Line will be used as a framework around which to completely
remake Tysons into a dense, walkable downtown. The area may ultimately
be home to over 100,000 people, and an employment center to rival
downtown Washington.

The rest of the country will be
watching. Tysons represents one of the most ambitious attempts to
reengineer a suburban employment and retail center into a pedestrian
friendly mini-city, fit for residents as well as workers.

Of
course, the opportunities to make these kinds of changes are extremely
limited. Very few heavy rail systems have been built in the past half
century. Commuter rail and light rail systems are increasingly common
in growing cities, but federal funding has simply not been made
available for new lines on the necessary scale, and the federal
government has not made transit-oriented development a priority in
choosing where and how to allocate transportation dollars.

This
is an inexcusable missed opportunity given transit-oriented
development’s record of accommodating population growth without
contributing to new congestion. Hopefully it is one Congress will
address when it gets around to crafting a new transportation bill.

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