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The Washington Scene

Suburban Goals Bring on Traffic Woes

November 22, 1987|JOHN BETZ WILLMANN | Special to The Times

Outstanding economic growth and development, accompanied by mounting traffic problems, proved to be the downfall of a two-term suburban Northern Virginia county board chairman. He literally was buried by an avalanche of votes cast for a female opponent who had been labeled as anti-growth and anti-roads.

The male incumbent lost despite financial support (much of it from business interests) that enabled him to almost double the election spending of his opponent.

Economic growth and concomitant traffic are major issues in booming Fairfax County, Va., and other suburban areas near the nation's capital. Some real estate and political observers are now ready to reassess an article on traffic congestion and growth limitation policies in a recent edition of Urban Land magazine.

Real estate student-author-practitioner Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution said problems arose because people fled our cities and moved to suburban areas to enjoy "peace, quiet and freedom from high densities and congestion."

Downs also pointed out that the result, as might be adduced from Fairfax County election, is that residents are now demanding limits on the size and speed of future growth. He notes also that "most suburbanites believe the recent surge in outlying commercial and other non-residential development has been the main cause of rising traffic congestion."

Not so, Downs insists. The former chairman of Real Estate Research Corp., a national consulting firm, puts the blame on "behavior patterns of the same households that are now complaining about traffic congestion."

Northern Virginia resident and real estate generalist Justin Hinders, agreed that Downs is on target in citing three suburban "goals" as major causes of traffic problems:

1--The desire to live at relatively low residential densities, noting that suburbanites usually oppose higher densities that, in the long run, would mean less travel while also making public transit more attractive.

2--Enjoyment of a wide combination of choices of where to live and where to work. Instead of choosing locations to minimize commuting time, too many residents of the Washington, D.C. and Southern California apparently give priority to the quality of their jobs and their homes.

3--Commuters too often regard the ultimate trip to and from their jobs as being made in a private car, usually alone. "Public transportation is something most Americans want other people to use" so the commuting highways have less traffic, wrote Downs.

Hinders knows first-hand the problems of commuting from the traffic-enwrapped Tyson's Corner area of Northern Virginia to downtown Washington. He switched to the Metro subway to get to his D.C. office, leaving his car at a Metro parking lot near his high-rise apartment home.

In assessing the problems of traffic and development, Downs points out that from 1970 to 1985, the U.S. population grew by 18%, but the number of cars and trucks grew by 63%. During that same period the number of miles of roads and streets increased by less than 5%.

The Brookings Institution senior fellow sees some short-term value in building more roads, staggering office hours, encouraging van pools, creating more lanes for buses and high-occupancy vehicles and managing traffic with electronic controls. But he also fears that increased and more efficient highway transportation would encourage even more people to use their own vehicles for commuting.

Downs also maintains that even if all future growth were eliminated, existing traffic congestion would not improve but become only marginally worse. He insists that restricting future growth only to residential construction would not solve the traffic problem because more long-distance commuting would be encouraged.

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