McDonnell's Victory and Virginia's Traffic 1

Some problems are too fouled up to be fixed.

Republican governance is returning to Virginia in the form of newly-elected Bob McDonnell.  A landslide defeat of Democrat Creigh Deeds surely gives him enough political capital to try to put his policies in place.

From the national point of view, McDonnell's victory is seen as a repudiation of Mr. Obama's statist views and a call for smaller government and lower taxes.  On the ground in Virginia, however, Barack Obama was a very distant influence for most voters, far less important than their number one concern of unemployment.

In the battleground area of Northern Virginia, where I live, there was an even more urgent and pressing concern: the Bangkok-esque traffic gridlock conditions throughout the region.  Governor after governor has promised to fix the problem; governor after governor has failed utterly.

To the left, the solution is obvious: raise taxes, of course, so that people can't afford to drive cars and have to use motorcycles, bicycles, or best of all, slow and unreliable public transit.  The Washington Post ridiculed McDonnell for putting forward a detailed plan to attack traffic congestion that didn't include that essential element of increased taxation.  The liberal Post far preferred Deeds' plan - which did not, in fact, even exist - simply because he'd expressed a willingness to jack up taxes as high as needed.

The voters of Virginia felt otherwise.  Clearly, they believe that the problem can be solved without stealing even more of their hard-earned money.

They're right; but do they or Governor-elect McDonnell truly understand what caused the problem?  You can't solve a problem without understanding why it happened in the first place, and if the only answer proffered is "Build more roads!" then the only result will be a lot of money spent to little effect.

There are three major underlying causes of Northern Virginia's nightmarish road conditions that ought to be examined before countless millions are dumped down unionized ratholes.

The Wrong Way.

Stupid Governance

It's easy to say that more money needs to be spent on something.  What's the point of spending more, though, if the money will be wasted?  We see exactly that throughout America's public schools, where those jurisdictions that spend the most per student are also those with the worst results.  Money is not the problem; leadership is.

In Fairfax County, at least, that's a major part of the problem with the roads.  Consider this map, which is an area southeast of Dulles airport.  You'll note that there are two straight roads on the whole map (I-66 and Rt. 50); a couple of major roads that twist and turn like Michael Jackson; and a whole lot of little roads that don't connect to anything.

If you wanted to get from one side of the map to the other, you have basically two ways to do it - that's all.  Is it any wonder that gridlock is so endemic?

The major roads, of course, were built by the government.  The minor roads were built primarily by developers to serve housing developments and the occasional office park.

No homeowner wants his street to become a drag-racing strip.  The developers naturally built all their streets as dead ends, so nobody other than those who lived in the community would ever have reason to go in there.  As a result, it's not uncommon to have an entire development consisting of hundreds of homes hanging off of one single connection to the outside world, like grapes in a bunch that connect to the vine via one easily broken stalk.

Once the first developers started out this way, it made sense for all the rest to do the same thing.  Imagine what would happen if one civic-minded developer had connected their streets at both ends.  Instead of only two ways to get from left to right, there'd now be three - and, sure enough, that third connection would instantly become a raceway nobody would want to live on.  Either the developer would have to pay twice as much to make a much bigger road, at no benefit to him, or he would have created homes nobody would ever want to buy.

The Right Way.

There is another way to do it, and it illustrates one of those areas which is the proper place of government: to enforce laws that benefit everyone when everyone has to obey them, but which only work when they are common to all.

Our second map shows a part of Los Angeles, CA.  Now, LA is famous for heavy traffic - and deservedly so, I've driven there many times.  Actual gridlock in LA is rare, however.  Why?  Because there are literally hundreds of ways to get from one place to another.

Compare the the road networks.  Like Fairfax County, this map of a portion of northern Los Angeles county has a major freeway, and some secondary roads.  Unlike Virginia, though, California's town planners made sure to connect all the roads at both ends - secondary, tertiary, even alleys, a dead end is uncommon and short.

Most roads are straight and continuous.  That way, if one road is blocked, there are plenty of other choices.  Sure, the freeway has no stoplights and the other roads do, but at least you aren't trapped.  In Virginia, there literally is no other way but the major roads, unless you own a helicopter or can persuade the taxpayers to buy you one.

No one developer could have put together a road network like LA has across an entire region; only government has the necessary authority.  California's government, back in the 1930s-1950s, had the wisdom and foresight to think things through and plan accordingly.  Virginia's didn't bother.

Money had nothing to do with it.  Fairfax County is one of America's wealthiest and most intrusive zoning authorities.  We've previously complained at how zoning controls destroy private property rights, but given that they've been around longer than most Americans have been alive, that may be a lost cause.

Can't zoning be used for good?  How much would it have cost for the Fairfax County fathers to buy a wall-sized map thirty years ago and a box of Sharpies, then mark out where the roads "should" go?  No need to build them; just require the developers to do it as each community was built one at a time.

Eventually, they'd all connect, nice and neatly.  With as many different routes as in California, no one neighborhood would be overwhelmed by traffic.

How does Bob McDonnell plan to fix this problem?  He can't; it's too late.  To connect all the minor roads through existing housing developments would not only be insanely expensive, it would cause a frightful backlash as each and every voter would see themselves as being harmed.  It would take a salesman of far more than Obamian skill to persuade them that the plan would actually benefit them when it was finished.

Would they even believe him if they understood the idea?  Probably not, and rightly so.  We'll explore why in the next article in this series.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
I live in the same area, and you're dead wrong on this issue.

The roads you're talking about are privately-funded, privately-developed housing or "subdivion" neighborhoods. It is perfectly right and proper for builders to do exactly what they do - construct dead end, twisting driveways to avoid through-traffic.

First, neighborhoods are build and maintained for one primary purpose - to preserve as much as much value for the owners of that neighborhood as possible. Straight roads and lots of through-traffic lead to excessive noise, dirtier streets and a decline in house values. Look at the example you cited - LA. Anyone who has ever driven through LA, as I have, understands my point instantly. Streets are wider, dirtier and noisier.

Second, the LA area is a series of "exurbias" that does not contain a uniform business center. Northern VA sends traffic primarily in and out of Washington DC. Area like Reston and Tyson's Corner get a lot of traffic but those are barely 10 miles from DC. LA's traffic is a much wider expanse, dumping into several dozen major business centers.

It's important to remember the history of Northern VA and DC. DC is not a large city. In fact, it's tiny as most major cities go. The tallest building is 15 to 20 stories high - a requirement based on the height of the Capital Dome. The zoning of Northern VA over the past 100 years has always been based on the fact that the city does not service that many people, and, in fact, it still doesn't. The problem is that in recent decades, Northern VA itself became a massive tech/business hub. Unfortunately, that was too late since hundreds of neighborhoods were already zoned and built for single family homes. As you implied, once you zone-and-build, it's virtually impossible to change it later.

Square roads are valuable for business areas. They are NOT valuable for housing areas because "value" changes meaning. Value isn't about "how much traffic you can move through" when it comes to where you live. All roads are not created equal.

Where would rather live: noisy, dirty LA streets or quiet, secluded Fairfax neighborhoods? To ask the question is to answer it.

There was no way of knowing 50-70 years ago, when most of the Fairfax neighborhoods were zoned/built, what would happen now.

And the problem CAN be fixed, but that's too much to get into here.
November 30, 2009 9:14 AM
Neither type of development is wrong or right. Both have advantages and disadvantages. But Petrarch is right: we have the wrong kind of zoning.

Zoning should be forward thinking. It should be relatively flexible and it should not be based on arbitrary rules that are created by a small group of vocal citizens.

Zoning laws are much like unions: There was an abuse of power and laws were created to curb those abuses. Now those laws are used as a club by those they were designed to protect.

The other really difficult issue to deal with is the future: Some parts flourish, others die, over time expensive areas become cheap areas only to be redeveloped and become expensive again. Cities change over time.

The fix for zoning: Flexibility. Create laws that are based on principles not rules. Allow for mixed uses. Require developers to deal with the success of their project up front (this would include escrowing money for future infrastructure upgrades, setting aside land for future infrastructure upgrades), but above all, let development occur more organically. We've cut up our cities into too many zones.

I'm not a "new urbanist". But I can say too much government, in the form of zoning, is the cause of much of the problem. Zoning laws have horrible unintended consequences.
November 30, 2009 9:56 AM
If peter J can solve the problem, I would like to see his solution. I've been hearing nothing but doom and gloom about it for years. The only solutions proposed seem to be to bulldoze interstates through the neighborhoods. Does anyone think that will happen?

Mass transit takes forever, and even if they run it out to Dulles, that won't take much traffic because people are too spread out.
November 30, 2009 11:34 AM
I lived there (Bailey's CrossRoads) in the 60s, and recall only the Shirley Highway (I-95 then) ever got congested; around Lake Barcroft wee many avenues of egress, not always evident.
if ppl want to live tens of miles from where they work, and expect not to pay the price in their time, they can either move to somewhere less dense, live in the city, or be self-employed or work from home, all do-able options for intelligent, motivated and enterprising individuals- a government solution only benefits politicians.
Here in Colorado many ppl want to live on a cul-de-sac, and then cry when the fire department cannot get to their neighbourhood owing to lack of inter-connecting roads: these are the result of not just developers, but county/city planners who approve such sub-divisions, and property owners who aggravate fires by leaving debris on the ground or using flammable materials in the construction of their homes. It is the nature of western living to expect serious fires given droughts and available biomass; it is the nature of some to complain wherever feasible, and blame others for their own problems.

Do what I did- move~!!

November 30, 2009 4:24 PM
This artical is based on the fallacy that an increased amount of possible routes always means increased throughput. I suggest the author read some studies on the subject.

In addition, it can be convenient to take a random area of virginia and a compare it to a random area of LA, but it is also meaningless. The two places have a different history, different surroundings, different population (number and type), different traffic levels, etc. The one may look neater than the other, but I am not convinced that that makes it desirable, or that you are even correct in your premise that the LA example is more efficient. Perhaps with a much more balanced comparison based on more than anecdotal evidence...?
December 1, 2009 1:24 AM
Of course an increased number of possible routes doesn't necessarily increase throughput, for any number of potential reasons. However, assuming the additional intersections are efficiently designed, and all else being equal, up to a certain point additional routes will indeed help.

In NoVa's case, there are indeed other factors involved which should be addressed, such as the idiotic fact that the stoplights on major through-routes aren't synchronized. Fixing this alone would significantly increase capacity, without even laying down any more pavement. Then there are other relatively minor improvements which could be made if anyone cared enough to notice, but we'll get to that in the next article.

And OF COURSE people like cul-de-sacs rather than living off of a main highway, that's the whole point. But it's easy to have roads which connect at both ends that still aren't main highways, AS LONG AS you have enough of them that you don't get swamped.

LA's street grid is probably a little more dense than NoVa needs, but it fit nicely on the map so you could get the point. The layout of suburban Detroit might be more appropriate - same idea, but a bit more widely spaced so the houses have much more room. Traffic there flows excellently and always has, without excessive traffic on individual residential streets.

irvn, you're probably right that it's too late to fix properly. But to just shrug and say, oh well, the government ruined it, no choice but to move - well, that's a little too fatalistic for my taste, even if it may be more practical.
December 1, 2009 8:47 AM
It is local government's job to ensure that street layout in a city is beneficial to all people.

While it is true in a simulation that only one route through an area can be effective in practice accidents happen. A single accident and the entire system is broken, at least for a few minutes. Studies in Kansas City have shown that a single car hitting the breaks hard can cause an hour of grid lock in the Grand View Triangle, the worst highway area in Kansas City.

The best option, in my opinion, for residential roads is to have them connected but not straight so that it is not in the best interest for people who do not live there to go through them. However the people that do live in the area can get in and out in multiple ways. There must be options when something happens to slow or stop traffic. There must be frontage roads for people to use when the highway gets slowed down.

Generally people will not use the side or back roads but when the high way doesn't get you where you want to go there must be alternatives.

In Kansas City when one highway gets backed up the people avoid that highway, take back roads to another highway, there are a lot of highways in the area that can get you where you want to go and ways to get between them.
December 1, 2009 9:33 AM
Here only in Denver are the lights synced, and then on one-way streets; I visited Anaheim for many yrs in the winter- all the major streets are some 6-10 lanes, no synced lights necessarily but the major innovation was that no one tried to go 40+ mph; the drivers were calm, collected, and no apparent road rage like here in Colorado with its obscenities and finger pointing. Of course it does take time to go from Fullerton to Newport Beach, but the point is one adapts toot his pace: it is almost like living in a non-motorised country with its sedate pace.
I'm thinking maybe existing conditions may prove unfixable unless the safety agencies get into the picture, especially the Fire Department; here are probably barricaded roads which can be unblocked and paved, but some education may be in order.

December 1, 2009 9:35 AM
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