Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shifting from a car-dominated culture

Disconnected street network
Note that Groves Ln doesn't connect to Braddock Rd
Fairfax County was built with the premise that most people would get around using cars on major roads. Neighborhoods are accessed using cars but most of those neighborhood streets are not connected and the only way to get anywhere is by using a major arterial. This was done to reduce "cut through" traffic, keeping outsiders from cutting through quiet residential streets. Well they are certainly quiet, since they can only be used to get from ones home to the nearby fast-moving and usually congested major connecting street.

Virginia has seen the light and is now requiring neighborhood streets to connect to each other if VDOT is going to maintain them. Unfortunately this new guidance isn't going to help most of us for many years; we're stuck with what we've got.

Richard Layman, who writes about urban revitalization and transportation issues, recently wrote about the challenges of getting more people walking and biking in existing, disconnected suburban areas like Fairfax:
First, spatial patterns of land use and transportation infrastructure are destiny, setting the stage for whether or not walking, biking, and/or transit are more efficient or less efficient than the automobile for the conduct of most trips.

Trying to promote walking, biking, and transit on places that are designed to support automobility is a losing proposition. Or at least, a proposition with a longer term payoff.

But at the same time, the more enlightened communities, such as Arlington, and now Montgomery County Maryland and Fairfax County, Virginia (face it, who could ever have answered "Fairfax County, Virginia" in a discussion about enlightened transportation and land use policies and planning?) are demonstrating that they need to change their predominate spatial patterns, so that their communities transcend their automobile and highway era development patterns, and become more like those communities developed during the period of the walking and streetcar city eras. That's what's behind new master plans for areas like Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, and for White Flint in Montgomery County.

Second, myriad subsidies of automobile-oriented land use and automobile-use itself exist throughout the "market system" but are not acknowledged and identified but taken for granted by so-called market proponents.

For example, roads are subsidized to the tune of 50% from general funds, from funds other than those generated by automobile registration fees, federal and local gasoline excise taxes, and tolls.

Gasoline is subsidized to the tune of $4-$5/per gallon in terms of the development, environmental, and military costs that a separated use, automobile-centric transportation and land use paradigm imposes on the system.

Third, not paying for these subsidies is increasingly bankrupting government, and supports the rise of China and other countries at the expense of the U.S. As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, in "If Not Now, When?":
No one is rooting harder for the democracy movements in the Arab world to succeed than I am. But even if things go well, this will be a long and rocky road. The smart thing for us to do right now is to impose a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax, to be phased in at 5 cents a month beginning in 2012, with all the money going to pay down the deficit.

Legislating a higher energy price today that takes effect in the future, notes the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, would trigger a shift in buying and investment well before the tax kicks in. With one little gasoline tax, we can make ourselves more economically and strategically secure, help sell more Chevy Volts and free ourselves to openly push for democratic values in the Middle East without worrying anymore that it will harm our oil interests. Yes, it will mean higher gas prices, but prices are going up anyway, folks. Let's capture some it for ourselves.
One way to overcome this disconnected system of streets, at least for bicyclists and pedestrians, is to make a major effort to create connections. In many areas all that is needed is an easement from two or three property owners to created a short trail connection. At the Bike Summit we talked to a cyclist whose community is doing just that using grant funds.

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