Arlington Focuses on Moving People, Not Cars, in the Nation’s Worst Traffic Metro Area

An aerial view of the traffic-reducing Rossyln-Ballston corridor of Arlington’s mixed-use activity centers.

The Washington D.C. region’s traffic is the worst in the nation — even worse than Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York — according to a new report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute called the Urban Mobility Report.

And in a news article about the findings by NBC Washington, one D.C. commuter says the reason is “too many people driving and not enough highway bandwidth.”

However, there is an area of the D.C. Region — Arlington County, Virginia, just south of downtown D.C. right across the Potomac River — that is surprisingly unclogged. It’s because the county’s leaders built a vision of ultimate mobility 30-plus years ago that encourages people to leave their drive-alone car trips in the garage and board the bus, Metro subway, rideshare, and even bike or walk to their destinations.

A big part of Arlington’s philosophy is that moving people is a lot easier than moving automobiles. Despite huge growth over the last 20 years, Arlington traffic counts on major arterials have amazingly – but not unexpectedly, in Arlington transportation planners’ eyes – gone down.

This has been accomplished by effectively layering transportation options and by implementing mobility management programs.

Perhaps nowhere is this success illustrated more dramatically than in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Between 1996 and 2009, this part of Arlington experienced new development of more than seven million square feet of commercial space and nearly 11,000 new residences. Yet annual vehicle counts (as shown on the chart below) have seen a reduction of traffic on the major traffic arterials in the area.

How is this possible? Arlington has actively sought developers to fulfill the transit-oriented development plan for dense development around the Metro corridor, which allows easy accessibility and walking.

Arlington has implemented transportation options such as ART bus routes and Capital Bikeshare that overlay and complement Metrorail and Metrobus. Arlington has also implemented a Complete Streets program.

And very importantly, Arlington has a robust mobility-management program that engages residents, workers, and visitors to utilize these options. Arlington’s mobility-management programs including Arlington Transportation Partners, BikeArlington, WalkArlingtonThe Commuter Stores®, Arlington’s Car-Free Diet, a Transportation Demand Management Site Plans Enforcement Program, and Mobility Lab.

Our research shows that 45,000 car trips are removed from the streets of Arlington each day through the efforts of these mobility-management programs. This is the equivalent of the morning rush hour on I-66 and I-395 combined.

Promoting non-drive-alone car trips is crucial, especially in a place where adding highways or roads is simply not possible. And even where it is possible, more roads is usually a very bad idea.

As quoted on WTOP radio, Arlington County Board Chairman and Transportation Planning Board member Chris Zimmerman says, “All the experience and history tells us, (if you widen a road) you’ll just wind up with a bigger traffic jam. You’ll be right where you were at eight lanes as you were at six lanes.”

Zimmerman notes that some of the worst traffic jams on I-66 happen where the road is wider. “And there are reasons for that. If you are going to relieve congestion in that corridor, you are going to have to create alternatives that move people more efficiently.” For instance, he adds, “When you put people in buses, every bus that’s full is taking 40 cars off the street.”

D.C.’s regional, knowledge economy runs on people – not automobiles. Luckily, Arlington has found that moving people can be accomplished to a large degree without use of their cars.


More key data from the report is nicely compiled by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. It notes that factors contributing to the D.C. region’s earning the #1 distinction (again) included:

  • #1 – Delay Per Auto Commuter (67 hours/yr)
  • #1 – Increase in average annual delay 1982 – 2012 (49 hours)
  • #1 – Congestion Cost per Auto Commuter ($1398/yr)
  • #1 – Excess Fuel Wasted per Auto Commuter (32 gallons/yr)
  • #1 – Least reliable travel freeway times
  • #1 – Pounds of CO2 Per Auto Commuter (631)


  • #2 – Delay per non-peak traveler (17 hrs.)
  • #3 – Commuter Stress Index
  • #4 – Total Travel Delay (179 million hours/yr)
  • #4 – Total Congestion Cost ($3.7 billion/yr)

Photo by RACTOD. Graphic by Arlington County DOT Traffic Engineering & Operations

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