We can build a better transit network, serving city cores, connecting suburbs, and encouraging dense growth that combats sprawl and preserves the environment. This was a key theme emerging out of Railvolution 2011, a yearly conference that began in Portland in 1989 dedicated to transit and the communities it serves. The know-how is there for a revitalized, transit- oriented society, the thinking in planning circles is there, changing demographics and social expectations are ripe for it. One element, though, is too often lacking: governance. Part of this is political will, part a conflict of interests; yet a large part of the problem is simply the cumbersome machinery of local, state, and federal government. (Indeed, this could be said to mirror international response to environmental issues, which is hindered by individual countries and powerful interests and a weak, dysfunctional system of global governance.)
The Washington, DC region—where this year’s Railvolution took place—could serve as a paradigm for how fragmented governance undercuts transit and growth policy. (Full disclosure: I am Transit Chair of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Sierra Club, and therefore an extremely interested party.) A forum titled “The Jobs-Housing Balance in Metropolitan DC: Undividing a Region” revealed the area’s dysfunctionality. Home to an array of experts, the DC region would seem ideal for effective planning. The region introduced one of America’s premier metro rail systems in the 1970s and began to lay the groundwork for compact, environmentally friendly development. It has also been the site of some of the most innovative plans to promote dense growth around transit networks and prevent sprawl, notably in Arlington, Virginia and in Montgomery County, Maryland (for further discussion, see the recently published SSPP article, “A functional integrated land use-transportation model for analyzing transportation impacts in the Maryland-Washington, DC Region“ part of the forthcoming Forum on Transportation and Land Use in the Maryland Suburbs of Washington, DC (Fall 2011)).
Yet sprawl has tumbled outward to the far suburbs and the region is home to some of the country’s worst traffic. Why? My provisional answer is poor and fragmented governance. The region is home to one of the most dysfunctional governance systems imaginable, divided between two states, Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia. No strong central authority is available to make or carry out plans. The closest is the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), which acts as a planning forum for the region. Unfortunately, it has no actually governing power, relying on the good faith of the states and localities to implement its plans.
In DC, then, as much as anywhere on the planet, local, corporate, state, and national authorities make decisions based on their own perceived needs. At the forum, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth spelled out some recent bad decisions. The giant corporation Northrop Grumman chose a beltway location—transit hell—for its new headquarters when it could easily have picked far friendlier Arlington County—transit heaven. Montgomery County, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, is developing a giant science complex away from the Metro, on the already overcrowded I-270 corridor in the west, rather than picking a an underdeveloped Metro station to the east, where jobs are needed. The region is also subject to the whims of the federal government: the Department of Defense is in the process of moving bases and hospitals away from transit-friendly core-city locations into sprawling parts of Virginia and Maryland, a process Schwartz characterizes as “the worst land-use decision our government has ever made.”
Besides sprawling outward, the region is also divided economically, with the majority of jobs in Fairfax County and western Montgomery County and housing, especially affordable housing, to the east, in Prince George’s County, and in DC itself south of the Anacostia River. The division creates long, congested commutes. Yet little has been done to alleviate the situation despite its documentation as far back as 1999 by the Brookings Institution in a report entitled “A Region Divided: The State of Growth in Greater Washington, D.C.” Aubrey Thagard, a development official for Prince George’s County, describes the area as “abundant in transit resources,” including fifteen Metro stations and two commuter rail lines which remain severely underdeveloped. Dense development around these transit centers is an obvious way to combat sprawl and make way for the influx of people that continue to arrive in the region. It hasn’t happened, due to a combination of racial and economic fears regarding the primarily African-American county, as well as corruption at the county level. Fortunately, Prince George’s has just elected new officials who seem to promise far cleaner governance and better decision making. Thagard describes the development of New Carrollton, a key intersection of transit options including a Metro and commuter rail line, as “probably one of the largest transit-oriented developments on the eastern seaboard.”
In addition, the entire region has developed a plan to integrate growth, as explained by long-time smart growth advocate Harriet Tregoning of the Washington, DC Office of Planning. Called Region Forward, the plan provides goals and targets for land use, housing, energy, the environment, health, education, and, of course, transportation. Tregoning describes the paradigm of drivers versus bikes versus transit as “so twentieth century”; the twenty-first-century region needs to do it all, with frequent modal shifts for most citizens. Unfortunately, she explains, “not everyone has a choice,” since growth hasn’t accommodated these different modes, adding that land-use planning in the region ranges from “excellent to awful.” In other words, planning has occurred too often on a local basis, resulting in an unwieldy patchwork, a situation that Region Forward aims to change.
One key element of Region Forward is the numerous metrics that provide for monitoring, measurement, and feedback to local and regional governments. The need for metrics, and the amazing ability of twenty-first century technology to provide them, was a recurring theme of Railvolution 2011. Countering these new technologies, however, is the lack of enforcement mechanisms for Region Forward. Although all 21 county and municipal governments signed on to these plans, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually follow through. The metaphor of herding cats springs to mind, although that metaphor assumes an actual cat herder, which is lacking here. Still, given the stated regional commitment, the recent dominance of at least the rhetoric of smart growth, and (perhaps most important) the lack of money to provide the roads and infrastructure that characterize sprawl, there is reason for hope.
Zooming back to a more global perspective (something that should be easy for users of Google Earth), the DC region might be a test case for international coordination. We need better governance and integrated planning. Regarding the environmental crisis, the know-how and technology exist for a true international response, but the governance is insufficient, to be generous. Instead, numerous actors—both countries and multinational corporations—look out for their own interests. Of course, in the long run the common interest trumps the individual interest, but it’s hard to get the actors to realize this unfortunate outcome. Still, some governments of some countries, many nongovernmental organizations, and even some individuals and departments within big corporations do keep an eye on the larger picture, on the common good. We will see if, in its haphazard, zig-zagging manner and spurred by an ongoing economic and environmental crisis, the DC region actually follows the Region Forward map to create a better future. If so, perhaps there is hope that the planet can do so?