Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

When traffic moves too slowly in any section of Montgomery County, a local law halts new development in the area until there are more roads. This is a failed remedy, no more effective than bloodletting with leeches to cure a headache.

Prince George’s, Alexandria, and many other suburbs around the country have such a law, known as a “concurrency” or “adequate public facilities” ordinance (APFO). These rules all rest on a false premise, that building new roads alleviates congestion. 

New roads create more traffic, not less. Development moratoriums actually make the problem worse; they shift development to outlying areas, pushing new buildings away from centers of activity and forcing people to drive longer distances.

After 25 years,  Montgomery’s APFO has not delivered the traffic relief it promised.  Over the years, it has been revised again and again to fix the most obvious defects.  But because the underlying error is never corrected, it keeps getting more complicated — to the point that now almost no one can understand it.

The law is now up for renewal once again, and the Planning Board will hold a hearing today. A 179-page staff report proposes dropping the development moratoriums.  Instead, staff recommend taxing developers to build more roads in high-traffic areas and run buses more frequently.

Band-aids don’t cure the disease

Such tinkering does not fix the fundamental flaw in the concept of APFOs. It’s like keeping the leeches and putting band-aids on the bite marks.

The Montgomery planners started out, the first page of their report tells us, by asking how more “needed transportation infrastructure” can be built.  In the back is a long list of “needed” roads, copied out of plans drawn up years ago.  That puts the cart before the horse — what is a transportation planner’s job, if not to figure out what transportation infrastructure is really needed? 

That’s also not the question concurrency promised to answer.  The concept was sold to the public as an answer to “How do we get rid of traffic jams?”  That is surely a better question than “how can we build more roads,” though still not the right question to ask.

There’s only one way to actually reduce congestion: price it, with a congestion charge. Cities like London and Stockholm charge a daily fee to each car that drives into the congested district during times of heavy traffic.  (People who live inside the congested zone are usually exempt.) Montgomery could ensure its roads flow smoothly by assessing a fee on drivers who enter any of its 33 “policy areas” which fail the annual traffic test.

But this is not the cure for what ails Montgomery County.  Congestion charges make sense in places where the fee is voluntary, because you don’t need a car to get around.  That’s not the case in the cul-de-sac subdivisions of American suburbs, where you are stuck at home if you can’t afford to drive.

Smooth flowing traffic is not the goal; mobility and livability is

Instead of asking how to get rid of traffic, we should really be asking, “How can we make it easier to get where we need to go to live our lives?”  After a century of sprawl, it is clear that this question has no answer in suburbs that were designed for automobile-dependence. Only where people can accomplish their everyday needs without being forced to drive can people be free of traffic. That requires mixed land uses, closely spaced grid streets, rail transit, and roadways shared by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Today’s suburbanites are trapped in a vicious circle.  Development requires more roads and the roads create more sprawl.  Each time around, the highways get more expensive to build and the traffic is worse.  Transit requires ever larger subsidies to compete with subsidized car trips to low-density destinations.  And APFOs only dig us in deeper. 

There is no way out of this morass until we recognize that the old suburban model has failed.  Montgomery County understood the need for a new direction when it adopted the visionary White Flint master plan two years ago.  To make that plan work, planners had to junk their old APFO mindset in one section of the county. All leaders should take that lesson to heart, not just in Montgomery, but in suburbs everywhere.