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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Transportation systems need to evolve to accommodate urbanization

Rush hour on Route 50 in Falls Church.
Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon Bulova’s “Evolution of Transportation” forum June 12 covered trends from way back—when Route 7 was an Indian trail—to the future, when we might be able to watch TV or nap while our cars drive themselves.

The present state of transportation is a mess, as anyone who’s tried to traverse Tysons during rush hour or gotten stuck on Route 66 at any hour knows.

Fairfax County was developed with the automobile in mind, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, at the session, which was held in the Angelika Film Center in the new Mosaic District in Merrifield. Subdivisions were built without sidewalks, because everyone wanted to drive, rather than walk to shops or schools. “So now we have to go back into the existing infrastructure and retrofit it” to provide the kind of walkable, transit-oriented communities people want today, he said.

Major infrastructure projects take a long time but are well worth the investment, Connolly said, noting that planning for Metro started 50 years ago. What’s needed are political leaders “willing to invest the time and energy in projects they will not see,” he said.  

While we need to invest in huge projects, like the Silver Line extending Metro to Dulles Airport and beyond, the nation also needs to spend big money on taking care of the existing infrastructure, said Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

There’s a backlog of $50 billion to repair the nation’s seven biggest transit systems, he said, while the nation’s highway system needs $100 billion worth of work.

The Silver Line is scheduled to open in 2018, with the first phase through Tysons to open in early 2014, said Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. Other major ongoing projects in the county include the I-395 express lanes project, with a terminal ramp to open in 2015; improvements to relieve congestion on I-66; and the Columbia Pike streetcar line.

David Alpert, founder and editor of the Greater Greater Washington website, called the Silver Line a “transformative element of Fairfax County that will turn Tysons into an actual city on its own.”

“The purpose of transportation is not just motion,” to move people the longest distance at the fastest possible speed, said Alpert. “The real purpose is access,” to get people to their jobs, stores, schools, and wherever they want to go.

The attempt to pursue motion actually limited access, he said. Highways are barriers. Children used to play over a wide area in their communities but now are restricted to their block. And adults who used to walk half a mile to shop can’t do it safely anymore because they don’t feel comfortable walking across multi-lane roads.

Alpert called for Fairfax County to create more walkable communities to respond to demographic trends, including increasing numbers of older people who can no longer drive and millennials who are more interested in living close to shops and transit than having a large backyard.

The Mosaic project is a great example of the type of mixed-use development people want, he said. But even though it’s within walking distance of Metro, crossing busy streets is an obstacle, and there are “dead zones” on the way that make the walk less pleasant.  

Alpert also urged the county to implement technological solutions, such as smart phone apps for carpooling and large electronic signs at bus stops letting people know how long they have to wait.

Increased use of teleworking could relieve rush hour traffic, suggested transportation consultant Josh Sawislak, the infrastructure lead on President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. “It’s not a silver bullet,” it but could make sense for “knowledge workers,” at least part of the time, he said. Also getting more people to work remotely would give local governments some breathing space as they struggle to come up with money to fix the region’s infrastructure.

New automobile technologies coming down the pike can offer additional solutions, added Frank Weith, general manager for connected services at Volkswagen Group of America. “Autonomous driving” is the ultimate goal, he said. We already have cars programmed to drive themselves, but implementing those systems on a large-scale basis will be challenging.

Meanwhile cars are being developed with all sorts of active safety improvements, he said, such as cameras that measure the distance to the car in front, alerts that warn drivers of a potential collision, and systems that automatically call emergency services when there’s an accident.

Of particular interest to parents are systems that can set geographic boundaries and speed limits for teen drivers.

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