How Arlington Is Avoiding D.C.’s Traffic Nightmare
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By Martin Di Caro; March 26, 2013
While the District of Columbia grapples with proposed changes to its parking and zoning policies, last updated in 1958, Arlington County seems to have triumphed in its effort to minimize traffic congestion, especially in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor.
Traffic volume has decreased on several major arterial roads in the county over the last two decades, despite significant job and population growth, according to data compiled by researchers at Mobility Lab, a project of Arlington County Commuter Services.
Multifaceted effort to curb car-dependence
Researchers and transportation officials credit three initiatives for making the county less car-dependent: offering multiple alternatives to the automobile in the form of rail, bus, bicycling, and walking; following smart land-use policies that encourage densely built, mixed-use development; and relentlessly marketing the transportation alternatives through programs that include five ‘commuter stores’ throughout the county where transit tickets, bus maps, and other information are available.
“Those three combined have brought down the percentage of people driving alone and increased the amount of transit and carpooling,” said Howard Jennings, Mobility Lab’s director of research and development.
Jennings’ research team estimates alternatives to driving alone take nearly 45,000 car trips off the county’s roads every weekday. Among those shifting modes from the automobile, 69 percent use transit, 14 percent carpool, 10 percent walk, 4 percent telework and 3 percent bike.
“Reducing traffic on key routes does make it easier for those who really need to drive. Not everybody can take an alternative,” Jennings said.
Arlington’s success in reducing car dependency is more remarkable considering it has happened as the region’s population and employment base has grown.
Since 1996, Arlington has added more than 6 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, nearly 11,000 housing units and 1,100 hotel rooms in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor. Yet traffic counts on Lee Highway (-10 percent), Washington Boulevard (-14 percent), Clarendon Boulevard (-6 percent), Wilson Boulevard (-25 percent), and Glebe Road (-6 percent) have dropped, according to county figures. Traffic counts have increased on Arlington Boulevard (11 percent) and George Mason Drive (14 percent).
“Arlington zoning hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 15 years or so. It’s been much more of a result of the services and the programs and the transportation options than it has been the zoning,” said Jennings.
Arlington serving as a regional model
Across the Potomac, the D.C. Office of Planning is considering the controversial proposal of eliminating mandatory parking space minimums in new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington to reduce traffic congestion. In Arlington, transportation officials say parking minimums have not been a focus.
“When developers come to Arlington we are finding they are building the right amount of parking,” said Chris Hamilton, the bureau chief at Arlington County Commuter Services. “Developers know they need a certain amount of parking for their tenants, but they don’t want to build too much because that’s a waste.”
Hamilton says parking is available at relatively cheap rates in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor because demand for spots has been held down by mode shifting.
“In Arlington there are these great options. People can get here by bus, by rail, by Capital Bikeshare, and walking, and most people do that. That’s why Arlington is doing so well,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton credited a partnership with the county’s 700 employers for keeping their workers, 80 percent of whom live outside the county, from driving to work by themselves.
“Arlington Transportation Partners gives every one of those employers assistance in setting up commute benefit programs, parking programs, carpool programs, and bike incentives. Sixty-five percent of those 700 employers provide a transit benefit. That’s the highest in the region,” Hamilton said.
“There’s been a compact with the citizens since the 1960s and when Metro came to Arlington that when all the high-density development would occur in the rail corridors, we would protect the single family neighborhoods that hugged the rail corridors,” he added.