Conversation with the VDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator About Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

December 10, 2008

In late 2008, I had an email conversation with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator about which comes first: transportation or land use.

VDOT Coordinator: “This particular issue raised quite a storm on the [Bicycle/Pedestrian professionals email] list and it then continued when I raised the issue here at VDOT.  But the bottom line is this (and it reflects what I mentioned in my previous posts), we at VDOT react to what localities do in terms of land use and planning.   …”

“… Another issue that was raised,” noted the Coordinator, “was that of suburban environments that urbanize over time and become areas with greater need for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle travel.  My response then … was that the shortfall is with local planning, both for having created these environments in the first place, and also for not revisiting these environments when the roadway is no longer compatible with the context of land use that has developed.  Under the new [regulations], localities have the option, and are being encouraged to develop corridor plans which will then be submitted to VDOT with exceptions to the standards.  …”

I responded by pointing out that I enjoyed, agreed with, and often learned from what he posted on the email list.

However, I said, speaking as a 20-year senior city planner, I need to point out here that “we in city planning” react to what private landowners and developers propose to us with regard to development along a roadway. Public sector planners have very little control as to densities or mixed uses or types of businesses that are proposed along a roadway. Yes, publicRichmond Cary St downtown Jun06 planners can write development regulations or corridor plans that call for walkable, mixed use, higher density design, but if the roadway is 5 lanes and designed for 45 mph (inattentive, talking-on-the-cellphone) speeds, such regulations will be a moot point, as property owners and developers tend to build to what the market seeks. And when you have a multi-lane, high-speed roadway, the market tends to seek low-density, drivable, single-use suburbia.

In other words, transportation determines (drives) land use.huge turn radius for road

Yes, such suburban areas can incrementally transform themselves to be more urban, compact, walkable, dense environments. But public planners and their regulations and plans will be almost entirely powerless to catalyze such a transformation. The effective catalyst in the case of a suburban environment fed by high-speed, high-volume roadways is for the DOT to make amends for its earlier decision to build an oversized roadway (usually justified on the grounds that the 5 lanes are needed to reduce or avoid congestion — even though we should all know by now that we cannot build our way out of congestion).

Often, the DOT will claim that the proposed large, suburban road is needed because of the land uses allowed by local government in the area. “DOT is just meeting the demand created by the land uses on the ground.”

Again, however, such suburban markets (and subsequent development) would not have occurred had larger, higher-speed roads not been built elsewhere in the community (not to mention all the underpriced parking provided).

So yes, public planners can play a role in developing regulations or plans that call for walkable, urban, mixed use environments. But the road must first be redesigned to accommodate it and create the market for it (usually by removing travel lanes and introducing other slow-speed design tactics).

I don’t pretend to believe that we can do this in the near future. It took us over 80 years to build this car-friendly mess we are in. We are therefore unlikely to find our way out of this for quite a while.

Here is a December 2008 article by Christopher Leinberger on the transportation/land use “chicken & egg” issue:

Transportation drives development

Dear President-elect Obama:

There is a “chicken and egg” question many people ask about building the built environment; which comes first, the transportation system or the buildings. This is asked about rail transit in particular. I can now definitively give you an answer to that question: transportation drives development. The transportation system a society selects dictates the form of the built environment. The current car/truck transportation system means most US metropolitan areas only have one development option, the familiar drivable sub-urbanism.

Much research has shown that there is now pent up demand for the opposite of drivable sub-urbanism; walkable urbanism, where most of daily needs can be met on floor, bike or by transit. The extra-ordinary price premiums per square foot being achieved for walkable urban development, whether in high density Manhattan, lower density Bethesda in DC or the newly developed Pike Market area in Seattle, shows that people are voting with their feet and pocketbooks for the ability to live and work in mixed-use, walkable places.

However, the bulk of the country is stuck with only a 20th century transportation system, completely car and truck dependent for all residential and commercial transportation. The majority of Americans are stuck with only the drivable sub-urban option for how to live and work.

For the US to become competitive with the market, economic and environmental demands of the 21st century knowledge-based economy, a more balanced transportation system with vastly increased options is crucial…that means more rail, bike and walking options. It also means a national high speed rail system connecting out major metropolitan areas to complement the Interstate Highway system and the national air system.

The 2009 reauthorization of the federal transportation bill is the country’s opportunity to put in the 21st century infrastructure we so desperately need. Funding a balanced system, rather than a highway-biased system, will do more than give the people what we want. It will also allow for the development of a way of living and working that is far more energy efficient and far less green house gas emitting. An upcoming Brookings study will show what is intuitively obvious; walkable urban households use about ¼ of the energy and emit ¼ the green house gases of drivable sub-urban households. Encouraging walkable urban development will also make the US far more energy secure, reduce the hundreds of billions of dollars we send to hostile countries abroad and will spark a huge boom in real estate development which will help drive the economy out of our current economic crisis.

The new Obama administration has the opportunity to fundamentally alter how we built the built environment; which accounts for over 35% of our country’s assets. The 2009 transportation bill will be the most important domestic legislation of the new century and will put the country on the road to development that is sustainable in so many ways. It is as important to the country from economic, environmental and social perspectives in the 21st Century as the highway and air systems in the 20th Century were. President Obama could preside over transportation legislation as important to the country’s future as President Eisenhower’s with the building of the Interstate Highway system.

Christopher B. Leinberger

Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, director and professor of the graduate real estate program at the University of Michigan, partner in Arcadia Land Company and president of LOCUS, a national real estate organization.

This article is available in the December 2008 issue of New Urban News, along with images and many more articles not available online. Subscribe or order the individual issue.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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