Fundamental Gaps in National Capital Area Transportation Policy


J. Kieffer, Transportation Policy and Service Analyst

July 12, 2000

The following material was originally prepared as   testimony to be presented to the Citizen's Advisory Committee on Transportation for the National Capital Region. Its major ideas also apply to transportation problems in most of the metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Some road expansions are needed to deal with the National Capital area’s worsening road congestion. Realistically, however, our area cannot expect to gain funds to build enough roads to cope with the huge traffic build-ups projected over the next 20 years and to cover growing costs of maintaining roads built. Also, with open land increasingly scarce, gaining land for road expansions will cost more and be more environmentally troublesome and politically hazardous-. Then too, gains in traffic flow efficiency from better management of traffic flows still would be swamped by projected traffic increases.

Buses have low capital costs, and if liberally provided, can be an alternative to autos for some trips. However, they are road-bound and must compete for space on increasingly jammed roads. If guideways for bus use only had to be installed, they would be both costly and controversial-. If built alongside current roads, they need more land. If they replaced auto lanes, auto users would protest. If built above roads, the large guideways would be very visible and costly, especially if lanes for two-way bus movement were side by side. Also, numerous, costly ramps would be needed to let buses get on/off guideways. Even if more buses were used, road-use efficiency gains would likely be overwhelmed by projected traffic increases.

Transportation Policy Unresponsive to Clearly Visible Needs

The metropolitan area is made up mostly of widely separated, medium/lower density job/-activity centers and growing strip corridors, most active of which are the Dulles and Wisconsin Avenue corridors. The Tysons and Bethesda areas are becoming higher density, but the spread out of people and job sites across the area is continuing. With effective transit ranging from piecemeal to not at all for most of the metropolitan area, road congestion will get much worse. Yet, strangely, no systematic effort is being made to find ways to shift a meaningful amount of the area’s auto trips to widely diffused, off-the-road transit. Instead, transit policy is focused on expanding Metrorail’s heavy rail technology to serve a few corridors, despite the fact that its very high construction and operating costs make it too expensive for diffusing service more widely. Therefore, planned heavy rail expansions will not and could not reduce road congestion- in the area’s many other busy centers and corridors. Moreover, they would require nearly all transit funding the area could hope to gain for decades, with little left to introduce new transit modes that could give people more effective alternatives to driving autos.

Much more widely-diffused transit service also is critically needed to enable the area’s rapidly expanding older population and persons with disabilities to meet their needs for access to pub-public services, jobs, recreation, and shopping. Today, one out of five of area residents is over age 55; nearly one out of four will be in 2015. People over age 70 are the fastest growing senior group. Most of them want to stay involved in community activities and to meet ordinary needs without depending upon others. However, increasing numbers of them no longer drive. Therefore, with most of the area lacking effective transit, many in this rapidly expanding, longer living population, along with persons with disabilities, will be increasingly isolated. Making trips only when others can take them limits their freedom of action, discourages- them from going to social and other events, and causes needless dependency. Adding road lanes, expanding Metrorail in a few corridors and building a few light rail lines would be the least useful actions to take in meeting the transportation needs of most of these people.

Transportation Policy in Disarray

Metrorail’s high cost heavy rail system arose from a view of suburban development already outmoded when its first stations opened. Yet, transit policy failed to respond to this plainly visible fact. Consequently, today, the vast majority of daily trips people make are by auto and in directions not served by Metrorail lines. Lengthening them and putting light rail lines in several corridors can’t change that. This is a no-win policy and focus.

Transportation planning is muddled. Some business leaders who, last year, pushed for very expensive extensions of Metrorail in several growing corridors now recognize both the lack of rail funding and density in these corridors. Now, they favor a priority for road expansion. However, road building is opposed strongly by "Smart Growth" advocates, who urge greater density development in these corridors to justify extensions of high cost Metrorail to serve them. Both strategies have vastly inflated transportation funding needs and have badly divided advocates of improved area transportation. Yet, neither group has a clue to gaining the many billions their schemes would require over the next ten years. Worse, they are clashing over strategies, neither of which could: (1) reduce traffic congestion in the metropolitan area; (2) roll back existing developmental sprawl or curb new sprawl; (3) improve transportation options in the rest of the area’s busy corridors; and (4) address the needs of the rapidly growing older population and of people with disabilities.

New Policy Guidance Needed

Area transportation planners badly need new policy guidance that recognizes that the area’s spread out character requires patron-friendly transit modes, low enough in cost to be (1) be diffused widely over time to link the area’s job and other activity centers; (2) meet the needs of the area’s rapidly growing senior population and persons with disabilities; (3) improve the service capabilities of Metrorail by feeding to it people from areas it cannot serve; (4) meet the capacity needs of the growing business corridors; and (5) provide low cost, internal circulation systems to help reduce auto use in large activity centers such as Tysons Corner.

We shouldn’t waste more time and money on transit modes that cannot meet these needs. Also, the public needs to know that extending very expensive heavy rail in a few corridors, even building it around the Beltway, and adding several light rail lines and more road lanes cannot reduce the area’s traffic congestion. Instead, policymakers should promote: (1) an objective analysis of promising very low cost transit concepts that could better meet the area’s needs, and (2) the early testing and operational demonstration of the best of these. The lack of serious attention to such actions is a fundamental gap in area transportation policy and priorities.

Transit modes that meet these needs are being developed. These should be actively and objectively explored. One successfully tested system, called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), uses small, single vehicles with four seats to carry passengers traveling together only by choice. With small stations located off the main line, PRT would provide quick, nonstop, origin-to-destination trips. Fully automated, it would travel on small guideways 16 feet above road traffic. PRT requires very little land, offers great flexibility in where and how stations can be located, and has no need for divisive fenced "Chinese Walls" to provide security for the tracks of surface-running systems.

Could PRT, using small vehicles for on-demand service, carry large enough passenger loads? Determining capacity needs often is a game of mirrors. Metrorail, with few service corridors and widely-spaced stations, compels patrons to aggregate in few places of access. That, in turn, requires large vehicles in long trains to carry off crowds, long station platforms to hold people getting off/on, and large stations to accommodate arriving/departing crowds. These needs make heavy rail very high cost. PRT’s low cost allows service to be diffused more widely. With more places to access PRT, big crowds don’t have to collect, except at a few places where large events take place. Also, crowds don’t have to build up, because, in the manner of using an escalator, travelers are constantly boarding PRT’s small vehicles and leaving- at once rather than waiting in crowds to board or leave trains at one time. This dynamic would change the whole basis of determining demand and reckoning capacity to meet it.

"Go transit!" is a hollow slogan when transit can’t get folks where they want to go. Rather than lengthen heavy rail lines, Fairfax should join with other jurisdictions in encouraging actions leading to demonstration of new, low cost, off-the-road transit concepts specifically designed to meet current and future needs of widespread medium/lower density metropolitan areas such as ours. Venture capital needs to hear that message. If it did, that would help quicken further investment in such concepts and make them a practical reality before 2010.

Jerry Kieffer is a Transportation Policy and Service Analyst, located at 9019 Hamilton Drive, Fairfax, VA 22031-3075

Phone (703) 591-8328; FAX 703 359-4244; E-mail:


Last modified: July 12, 2000