VDOT Displays Positive Shift in Thinking About Urbanism

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The Virginia Department of Transportation  (VDOT) is beginning to think about urbanism as an asset rather than a threat.

This was apparent last week when the agency held a conference on the campus of John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia on the relationship between transportation and land use, indicating a positive shift in thinking how the built environment and transportation interact and influence one another.

The event started out with a provocative question: “What’s the difference between transportation and mobility?”

Much of the VDOT conference was focused on the ramifications of “Appendix B” of the 2005 Road Design Manual (PDF), a document still concerned with right-of-way, which is under VDOT’s jurisdiction. It is perfectly reasonable for VDOT to focus on right-of-way, but this was also a narrow perspective at a conference focused more broadly on land use and transportation.

Standout presentations at the April 2 conference included:

1. “Transportation Efficient Land Use and Design.” This presentation recapped New Urbanist and Traditional Neighborhood Development’s virtues as they relate to transportation performance.

2. “Scenario Planning in the George Washington Region.” This case study showed that one of the obstacles to good planning can be community reluctance to provide land-use input. Both VDOT, within its rights of way, and the communities in control of land use, have played their part in the mismatch between transportation and land use, by defending their turf too jealously.

3. “Multimodal System Design Guidelines,” by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), was the basis for a presentation that detailed the plan review and approval process for modes like walking, biking, and transit, including finding a place for these modes in the right-of-way.

4. “Urban Street Standards for Mixed-Use Centers” in Fairfax County. Though focused on Tyson’s Corner, this presentation applies to 30 commercial centers the county is converting from parking and traffic hubs to walkable centers.

One insightful point made by an audience member concerned VDOT’s money-saving prohibition of storm-water management and street trees from the immediate vicinity of its roadways. Storm-water retention, infiltration, or management has generally been the business of parcels well away from the road. And since tree roots are a danger to the uniform drainable surface of the trafficway, they too have been prohibited along streets. These policies result in a sterile environment and ruined waterways near every road built in the last 80 years.

VDOT is addressing this issue, however, in its new allowance of private maintenance of brick pavements and street trees within the right of way, so long as a third party contracts to maintain these facilities in coordination with VDOT. The good repair of these facilities would be enforced by a performance bond, payable by the contractor if maintenance lapses. Ideally, these contractors would be local governments, business improvement districts, or adjacent property owners.

VRPT slideshowAnother thoughtful point was raised about the way VDOT doles out money for road maintenance based on Average Annual Daily Traffic. Essentially, VDOT punishes communities that design their roads well, with “road diets,” “complete street” programs, or segregated cycle lanes. All of these programs reduce vehicular traffic and congestion, and therefore funding received by VDOT. VDOT also withholds funds from communities implementing successful bike advocacy, design, and constriction campaigns, based on this rule. It is a policy worth changing.

The final speech, by Nick Donohue, the Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation, was the most encouraging. He finally answered the beginning question regarding the difference between transportation and mobility. He presented examples from around the country of the benefits of mobility versus proximity. Donohue showed the benefits of building jobs, housing, shopping, and leisure within walking and biking distance of each other, and how these benefits outweigh an extensive and expensive network for mobility’s sake.

Transportation, according to Donohue, means getting where we need to go, on time, even if it’s only a couple of blocks away on foot. Mobility, on the other hand, means moving as far as possible, especially if what we need is miles away and can’t be found closer. VDOT’s outlook on the difference between these two concepts show that the agency is finally getting there.

Video by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)

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