Image by Ted licensed under Creative Commons.

What kind of transportation changes will give people shorter commutes, less time in traffic, and better access to jobs and airports? Which are the worst?

A study by the regional Transportation Planning Board, which is made up of governments from across the region, says... well, I'm going to keep you in a bit of suspense, but the answer, as they say, may surprise you.

That's because the one that won in the most categories is not even really a transportation improvement. (Mind. Blown.)

Ten contenders vied for the title of "best transportation improvement"

The analysis considered 10 packages, from express toll lanes on major roads to Metrorail in the core to getting more jobs and housing on the east side of the region. They were:

  1. Express Travel Network: Express toll lanes (free for HOV, toll for non-HOV) on almost all of the limited-access highways, express buses every 10-20 minutes on those highways and other arterials, and two more express lanes on the American Legion Bridge
  2. Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief: Technology like overhead signs and variable speed limits to manage traffic, some spot widenings and ramps at congested spots, and reversible lanes on more roads
  3. Additional Northern Bridge: A new bridge and three-lane highway from I-370 in Maryland to VA-28 at Dulles, with some buses every 20-30 minutes on the highway
  4. BRT & Transitways: Bus Rapid Transit and other dedicated lane transitways all around the region

New toll lanes from Express Travel Network (left) and transit corridors from BRT & Transitways (right). All images by TPB unless otherwise noted.

  1. Commuter Rail: More frequent MARC and VRE service (every 20-60 minutes), including service both directions and off-peak, and through-running MARC to Alexandria
  2. Metrorail Core Capacity: A new Metro loop line in the core between Rosslyn, Union Station, and Pentagon, along with 100 percent eight-car trains and some improvements at congested stations
  3. Transit Rail Extensions: Extending all Metro lines except Silver farther out, the Purple Line to Tysons on the west and around to Alexandria on the east end, and light rail to Waldorf

Metrorail Core Capacity (left) and Transit Rail Extensions (right)

  1. Regional Land Use Balance: Steering more of the jobs and housing growth (especially jobs) to the east side of the region (like east of the Anacostia River, eastern Montgomery, Prince George's, Alexandria, and Route 1 in Fairfax) and putting more of that growth near transit
  2. Transit Fare Policy Changes: Cutting off-peak Metro fares and fares for people with low incomes
  3. Travel Demand Management: Employers encourage more teleworking, provide transit and vanpool benefits, and charge for parking or offer a parking cash-out

All of these were compared to a baseline, where the region builds the projects already planned between now and 2040, and growth patterns continue as they are.

Image by kalhh licensed under Creative Commons.

And the Oscar goes to...

Here were the winners.

In the category of Best Way To Reduce Traffic, the winner is...

  • Travel Demand Management, cutting "daily vehicle hours of delay" by a whopping 24 percent! Runners-up are:
  • Regional Land Use Balance, at 18 percent
  • Express Travel Network, 11 percent

The Oscar for Putting The Fewest Vehicles On The Road (or as planners say, "lowest vehicle miles traveled per capita" goes to...

  • Regional Land Use Balance, reducing by six percent, and tied with
  • Travel Demand Management

The highway projects—Express Travel Network, Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief, and Additional Northern Bridge—all increased the amount of driving. Other options decreased it by 1 percent or less.

What about Average Car Commute Time, which after all is what most people really care about: how fast they get where they're going. The winner is...

  • Regional Land Use Balance, cutting average single-passenger car commutes by three minutes and HOV trips by four. Honorable mentions to:
  • Travel Demand Management
  • Express Travel Network
  • Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief

Others saved just one minute or had no effect.

A related category, Average Transit Commute Time:

  • Metrorail Core Capacity was tied with...
  • Regional Land Use Balance, both saving three minutes.

The Jobs Accessible In 45 Minutes By Transit award goes to Metrorail Core Capacity (19 percent of jobs). Tied for second at 10 percent is Transit Rail Extensions and ... you guessed it ... Regional Land Use Balance. 

The related Jobs Accessible in 45 Minutes By Car is a tie between Regional Land Use Balance and Travel Demand Management, both at 10 percent; runners-up are Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief at eight percent and Express Travel Network at five percent.

You might be noticing something: Regional Land Use Balance is cleaning up here, coming in first or second in about every category. It's third in the contest for Access to High-Capacity Transit, or how many households are near Metro, BRT, etc. And it's tied with Operational Improvements & Hotspot Relief and Travel Demand Management in the category of Average Best Travel Time To Intercity Hubs, which is how long it takes to get to Union Station or one of the three airports. 

Comparison of the options among various factors. Click to enlarge.

What's the best?

The TPB did not pick a Best Picture, aka "What We Will Actually Do" yet, but they agreed to pick one or more winners later in the process. "Winning" here doesn't mean that suddenly the region's policy transforms to implement the plan, but it will make that a significant part of ongoing discussions about regional transportation that can steer future decisions in a certain directions.

Just as we get a sense for the Academy's views on Oscar night not just by who wins Best Picture, but who gets the most awards, that seems to clearly be the oddball picture here, the one transportation project among the ten which is not a transportation project at all: Regional Land Use Balance!

(And the crowd goes wild!)

The east-west divide and Metrorail crowding. Image by WMATA.

Yup, basically, the best solution to transportation problems is not building transportation, but rather, adding new residents and jobs in areas that already have the transportation. This scenario didn't force anyone to move their existing house office from Tysons to New Carrollton, but rather, just allocated more NEW jobs and housing in places like eastern Fairfax, eastern Montgomery, Prince George's, and east of the Anacostia in DC, and near Metro stations in those areas.

This also does well in a number of less quantitative factors, like:

  • Cost: It's really cheap to solve transportation problems without building big transportation infrastructure.
  • Affordability: It costs less to travel when you don't travel so far.
  • Equity: A more balanced east-west land use pattern is far more equitable.
  • Placemaking: Growth around transit stations helps create good places.
  • Environment: Wetlands and farms are not destroyed. There is less sprawl.

This doesn't mean that is the only one we should do. The region can do more than one, like Travel Demand Management which had a hefty haul of Oscars as well. 

Among the truly transportation improvements, BRT & Transitways had the most positive effects, the fewest negative ones, and isn't that expensive. So how about a combo of BRT & Transitways, Regional Land Use Balance, and Travel Demand Management for the low-cost big win? 

Who predicted this?

WMATA planners came to the same conclusion in a study called ConnectGreaterWashington, which looked at a number of projects to improve Metrorail, including some of the options in this analysis. They discovered that rebalancing the region between west and east would also make Metro profitable or even run a surplus of $270 million a year.

That would wipe out all the costs local and state governments incur for Metro today. It turns out, basically, they're paying not for Metro so much, but an unbalanced Metro system in an unbalanced region. That study looked at somewhat more aggressive rebalancing than I think the TPB one did, but still — even some is good enough to beat out all of these transportation projects.

Image by WMATA.

This report was also little surprise to Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who has been saying exactly this for over 20 years. He said, "This report once again confirms the case CSG and our predecessors have made since 1991 that better land use and transportation demand management will make the biggest difference for improving our transportation network for all users including drivers."

Schwartz is hoping that this time, the TPB will actually follow through on this idea. He said:

Previous scenarios by the TPB and by CSG founders showed transit and transit-oriented development perform very well but we’ve been frustrated again and again that the TPB officials keep stapling together project lists instead of making a fundamental shift to put land use (TOD, fixing the east-west jobs-housing balance) that would reduce vehicle miles traveled, improve access to jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

CSG has engaged with [the Council of Governments] and TPB now for 21 years. With the findings of this report in hand, the urgency of climate change, and the demonstrated competitive advantage of TOD (Marriott, Amazon) it’s time the region adopted a long range plan that puts transit and TOD first.

Will it happen?

Doing Regional Land Use Balance will require making some decisions. More than that, it'll require not putting all the new housing and jobs in the same places on the west side of the region which have been already winning such things for years. (Site near Dulles for Amazon HQ2: Very bad for transportation. Within Virginia, Crystal City is much better.)

So perhaps in the competition for the forthcoming Golden Globe for What Transportation Improvement Isn't Politically Difficult, Regional Land Use Balance will be an underdog. But if you really want to make transportation better, it seems we know what to do. Or already did.

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.