We don’t want to be like Houston. From Blueprint for a Better Region.

Washington Post Shaping the City columnist and UMD architecture professor emeritus Roger Lewis usually makes a valuable contribution to debates about our region. He supports less sprawling development patterns, plans to make Tysons a “real city”, and the Purple Line. That’s why I was shocked to hear him recommend not just completing the ICC, but three Beltways for the Washington area during today’s Kojo Nnamdi show:

The ICC is intended to create part of a larger network. I mean we’ve talked about how we really want a lattice system. Ideally what we should have in the metro Washington region is something that looks like a cobweb. We have the radials, we’ve got one of the circumferentials, we probably need three of them.

My hometown of Houston, they already built the second beltway. There’s an inner loop and now there’s an outer loop. The ICC is envisioned, I think, as a fragment, as a beginning of what might be in 100 years be a completed network where you can move circumferentially, or east-west, north-south as easily as you can move radially along the roads that vector out from the city. I think the Purple Line is also part of this. [Emphasis added]

You can hear it for yourself at 35:33 here.

Does Lewis really mean what he said today? Houston’s beltways have created and cemented the sprawl that Lewis criticizes in his own columns. It’s generated stifling commutes, destroyed millions of acres of open space, damaged the environment, and made us completely dependent on petroleum. Plus, we’ve learned over the last 50 years that building new freeways doesn’t relieve traffic, it just induces more. More beltways would make our current problems ten times worse.

Left: developed areas in 2000. 74% of the region remained farm and forest. Right: projected development in 2030 if current trends continue. 800,000 acres, mostly in rural areas, would become developed. Images in Blueprint for a Better Region from Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Purple Line advocates often talk about the value of making our transit system a network, lattice, or cobweb, instead of just a hub-and-spoke system, the phrases Lewis was repeating. Today, it’s impossible to go from Silver Spring to Bethesda to Tysons by rail, depriving many of a real transit alternative to driving. Lewis has himself explained this wisdom on past shows using those terms. But highways aren’t the same. We already have the lattice or cobweb in the form of our streets. In fact, really building a good cobweb involves providing many parallel roads instead of just one.

Lewis talked about completing a system. Not all systems are created equal. Earlier in the show, they discussed the last century’s “freeway revolts”, where citizens rose up against completing the freeway system because they’d realized that having that system was not the right direction for our metropolitan areas. The ICC is indeed part of a system, but an extremely dangerous, destructive, and foolhardy system.

Does Lewis really believe “we probably need three [beltways]”? Say it ain’t so, Roger!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.