Photo by neoporcupine on Flickr.

To hear some people talk, the only way to “solve” traffic issues in the Washington region is to go big or go home. But smaller local projects could have a much bigger impact on making the region a better place to live, and an easier place to navigate.

Individuals like Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton or organizations like the 2030 Group prey on the frustrations of Washington area drivers by proposing gargantuan projects like the Outer Beltway and multiple additional Potomac River crossings.

They promise that these projects from the 1950’s can solve, in one fell swoop, traffic problems that have developed because of our reliance on specific forms of development and transportation in the years since World War II. 

Leave aside for the moment whether, in this era of limited public funding, the money even exists for these projects.  You still run into a simple problem with these “solutions” — a focus on highway capacity expansion hasn’t been effective at solving our traffic problems.

Fortunately, we don’t think the situation is hopeless. It just requires a different way of thinking about the problem to get at those different results.

While we’re not going to go into every possibility in this particular post, we do want to focus on the idea that smaller, localized projects taken as a whole can be better than the larger, flashier projects. Smaller projects can offer more travel options, improved livability, and better regional transportation performance for a fraction of the cost of a megaproject.

Focusing on simple projects like making it easier to walk or bike to school in a given locality, adding housing close to jobs and in commercial shopping corridors, connecting local streets, or incentivizing development at an underutilized Metro station can have a ripple effect on transportation in our region. 

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for major infrastructure projects. But we can sometimes can get much better dividends by instituting common sense, smart growth solutions that give people real choices on neighborhood scale and transportation options. And we can often use our existing infrastructure instead of an over-reliance on creating something new. 

To help demonstrate that, we’re starting an occasional series on localized projects and themes that, when looked at as a whole, could provide real options in transportation and living arrangements. This piece-by-piece approach can improve the performance of our transportation system in the Washington region at the same time it strengthens our communities.

Our first posts will focus on smart growth in the Rockville Pike corridor in Montgomery County, creating Safe Routes to School in Fairfax County, and citizen involvement in Gaithersburg.

In the coming weeks we hope to present similar pieces from different areas throughout the DC area to highlight a range of solutions that together will offer regional benefits.  Do you have some ideas of your own for your particular part or sector of the metropolitan region?  We’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us hear your suggestion by submitting it as a post and we may include it as part of this series.

Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University.