Arlington is Booming, And Traffic Fantastically Remains at 1970s Levels

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Stephen is research director for Mobility Lab. He specializes in the latest research, best practices for urban planning, and analysis of current events in transportation.
March 14, 2013

Science fiction fans will recognize this plot line. A woman travels into the past, telling her ancestors about her reality in the future, only to be called a lunatic because of the incredible nature of what she is saying.

Anyone who lives and works in 2013 Arlington, Virginia might be met with the same reaction if she were to go back to 1979 and tell someone about the county’s population, employment, and transportation trends.

Arlington’s population and employment have jumped nearly 40 percent over the past three decades. Meanwhile, traffic on major arterials like Wilson and Arlington Boulevards has increased at a much lower rate or even declined.

Nevertheless, according to our latest research (also embedded below), most executives and business managers based in Arlington County think it’s a fantastical notion that the county will meet its goal of capping rush-hour traffic at 2005 levels over the next two decades.

Of course, first these leaders had to learn that Arlington even has this target. Only 11 percent surveyed knew that the county actually intends to keep rush-hour trips and rush-hour vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) at or below 5 percent growth of their respective 2005 levels by 2030 (PDF; 1 MB). This goal is in place even though Arlington County planners expect that the population will rise by 19 percent and jobs will increase by 42 percent over that same period.

Once business leaders heard about the cap, a majority (61 percent) agreed that keeping traffic near 2005 levels is important to achieve. However, given the growth projections, it’s not surprising that so many in our business community do not think that we can get to our goal. It may be worth reminding them that other jurisdictions have more aggressive targets. San José, California, for one, wants to reduce the VMT within its borders by 40 percent from its 2009 level by 2040.

Arlington County Commuter Services continues to refine the way in which the county government keeps a lid on traffic with the infrastructure already in place. In 2012, ACCS’s outreach work throughout the county shifted 45,000 car trips each work day from a solo-driven car to some other form of transportation. The Silver Line’s opening at the end of the year will give new options for the large numbers of Fairfax County residents who travel into Arlington or through it to Washington D.C.

Yet now is also a time in which many of our region’s transportation visionaries and transit providers are thinking big about the future. The Coalition for Smarter Growth just released a report that catalogues the many existing plans to improve transit across the region in order to get us Thinking Big, Planning Smart, and Metro’s Momentum plan for improvements by 2040 is a expression of what the heart of our region’s transportation success could look like for the next generation.

Clearly, the billions of dollars needed to make these and other investments possible will not appear out of thin air and, as a community, the D.C. region will need to make bold decisions (just as Arlington has by strictly following its transportation vision set out in the 1970s).

Luckily, Arlington’s business community seems to be on board. Seventy-nine percent think that improving the transit system is important. And Arlington’s track record of success and the attitudes found in our survey of business leaders indicate that meeting the county’s traffic goal is realistic after all.

Does your community have an explicit goal to cap traffic? If so, we would like to hear about it, because seeing the state of practice helps us all make the case that taming traffic is, in fact, possible. Just like in science fiction, it only seems crazy because we have not done it yet.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Paul Showalter March 15, 2013 at 9:55 AM

I have no idea how you reached the decisions you expressed. Having lived in Clarendon for more than 20 years, I can tell you the traffic on the streets is significantly worse today than it was just five years ago. Traffic on Washington Blvd., Wilson Blvd, etc. are greater and slower moving than they used to be.

Amazing the fantasy world some people live in. Just walk outside and look. You can see we have more cars and more traffic. Driving from Clarendon to Falls Church takes longer today than it did five years ago. Driving to Ballston takes longer. Getting on to I-66 takes longer.

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avatar Arlingtonian March 15, 2013 at 12:28 PM

Paul,

It didn’t say that traffic – the total number of cars – stayed the same. It said they didn’t grow as fast as population.

The point is that without Arlington’s efforts to keep traffic growth down, we’d have much WORSE traffic – as much of the rest of the region has. Compared to other areas of DC, and other cities, it’s really not too hard to get around Arlington. And of course, it’s easier for everyone, not just those in cars, for the same reason.

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avatar Rob March 18, 2013 at 1:42 PM

If this is Stephen Crim, you said “traffic on major arterials like Wilson and Arlington Boulevards has increased at a much lower rate or even declined.” It would be good to present some actual numbers, because there seems to be some skepticism.

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avatar Stephen Crim March 18, 2013 at 5:25 PM

Rob, to answer your question, I was not writing back as Arlingtonian. However, you bring up a good point that citations are always a good idea.

Take a look at one study from 2004 (http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/commissions/tc/study/images/4%20Traffic%20Analysis.pdf). On page 45, you will see the authors conclude that county traffic growth has been small from 1980 to 2000 based on traffic counts at various arterials and their intersection with the county line.

Another, more recent report from the county (https://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/Commissions/CrystalCityCRC/Documents/Presentations/file81922.pdf), describes the evolution of traffic volumes from 1996 through 2009 along 7 arterials and makes the conclusion that there is “[n]o dicernable pattern of growth on the local road system over the 13 year period.”

Clearly, there have been large increases in traffic in some parts of the county, but I believe that, overall, the narrative in the article is correct.

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avatar Life-long Arlingtonian March 15, 2013 at 3:24 PM

Yeah, I have to say this is “iffy” math at best. One of those situations where you present the problem in such a way that the statistics support your supposition. Has Arlington’s population been on a steady increase? My goodness yes. I like to say that the County Board has never met a high-density project they didn’t (eventually) approve. In my little stretch of Columbia Pike, it’s a good guess that residency has jumped some 400% due to new construction. Has traffic increased as much as residency? No. But that’s a simple statistic. Many young people are moving in who don’t have cars. But *over time* they end up buying a car — as their income becomes more solid and they discover that bikes/rideshare/flex cars aren’t always up to the task of supporting their world-expanding lives. Also, the overall commute time has grown considerably. It is this commute time, added to significantly by multiple major road construction projects happening at the same time, which is leaving many local commuters, like me, on the very edge of road rage. The fact that my 3.5 mile south Arlington to north Arlington job commute takes me, on average, 20 minutes (sometimes 25) is pretty much nuts. Yes, I have tried bussing (1.25 hours and have to change busses). Walking and biking are occasional, at best (weather issues, not to mention big hills that are tough to go up at 7am) and it takes significantly longer than driving (and puts me at risk of being run over by sleepy drivers around Ballston … yup, I’ve tried it). Ride-sharing was a bust (no one from my job location lives near me and no ability to run errands after work). So, I’m sticking to my little hybrid. Despite the ever-increasing time it takes to get from point A to point B. Keep announcing your successes, Arlington County “Mobility” — those of us who use the roads know the truth. We live it every day.

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avatar none March 19, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Arlington’s experience suggests that the defetists who say that all publlic transit is good for is providing a poor second choice for those who can’t affort to drive, are wrong. Unbearable and ever-growing traffic congestion should never be accepted as inevitable.

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