Traffic on several Arlington roads is lower today than decades ago, despite huge increases in density and activity.

The Orange Line corridor, where new high-rises lower traffic counts. Photo by Arlington.

Since 1996, Arlington has boomed. It’s added millions of square feet of new development, some of the tallest high-rises in Virginia, and about 50,000 new residents. And in that time, traffic counts have declined.

The explanation: Virtually all the growth has happened in Arlington’s Metrorail corridors, where using transit, biking, and walking are the norm. As mixed-use high-rises have replaced the previous generation’s car-oriented retail, the new residents don’t have to drive as much.

Traffic goes down

Street Segment Street Type 1996 2011/2012 % Change


Lee Hwy - Rosslyn EW 6-lane arterial 37,770 31,951 -15.4%
Wash. Blvd. - VA Square EW 4-lane arterial 20,469 17,500 -14.5%
Clarendon Blvd. EW 2-lane 1-way arterial 13,980 13,292 -5.0%
Wilson Blvd. - Clarendon EW 2-lane 1-way arterial 16,368 12,603 -23.0%
Arlington Blvd. EW 6-lane arterial 55,865 65,259 16.8%
Glebe Road - Ballston NS 6-lane arterial 35,230 31,000 -12.0%
Glebe Road - S. of Col. Pike NS 4-lane arterial 29,000 27,000 -6.0%
George Mason Drive NS 4-lane arterial 20,002 20,518 2.3%
Jefferson Davis Hwy - N. of Glebe NS 6-lane arterial 52,000 44,000 -15.4%

Traffic declined most dramatically on the most urban and high-density streets. Wilson Boulevard, the main street through the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, saw the steepest reduction, 23%.

The next steepest drops were on Route 1 through Crystal City, and on Lee Highway in Rosslyn, which each fell 15.4%.

Why these streets? They’ve got the best transit, but that’s only part of the story. Thanks to high density and mixed-use, many trips that once required a car now happen on foot. Why drive to the store and fight parking when it’s only a block away, and walking there only takes 2 minutes?

Other roads that don’t mirror Metro lines saw reductions as well. For example the north-south Glebe Road, which saw 6-12% less traffic.

Traffic did rise on some roads. George Mason Drive traffic increased 2% over the period, and Arlington Boulevard (Route 50) went up 16%.

But George Mason is in the western, more suburban part of Arlington, where there’s been less growth and less of a shift to the car-free diet. And Route 50 is a major commuting route for traffic from the outer suburbs, where smart growth is less prevalent, and more growth still means more cars.

Transit ridership goes up

During the same time period, Arlington’s transit ridership is way up.

FY1996 Actual FY2013 Actual % Growth
Metrorail Arlington Stations 45,335,000 59,528,744 31.3%
Metrobus Arlington Routes 12,049,000 14,848,036 23.2%
VRE — Crystal City 567,000 1,102,076 94.4%
Arlington Transit (ART) 105,000 2,644,000 2,518%
Total Annual Ridership 58,076,000 78,122,856 34.5%

Arlington’s local bus operation, ART, went from a very small system to a major countywide network. The Crystal City VRE stop saw its ridership double (VRE service began in 1992). Metrorail and Metrobus grew by 31% and 23%, respectively.

Put it all together and you get one staggering statistic: Fully 40% of all Virginia statewide transit trips either begin or end in Arlington.

It almost didn’t happen this way

Arlington has embraced transit-oriented development and walkability for a long time, but in the 1970s and ‘80s when the county was originally debating its plans, some of Arlington’s choices seemed like risky moves.

Building the Metro through the heart of Arlington’s business districts rather than in highway medians added huge expense to the project. But it also made possible places like Clarendon and Ballston as we know them today. Without that big initial investment, they’d likely look more like Seven Corners or Bailey’s Crossroads.

For the next generation, Arlington hopes to add to its transit-oriented successes with the Columbia Pike Streetcar, the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway, and new Metrorail station entrances, confident that these will put more people on transit and take more cars off the streets.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.