Not all of the top strategies for addressing the Washington region's most significant transportation challenges will require traditional infrastructure expansions, things like road widening, adding more transit service, or installing new bike lanes or sidewalks.
Earlier this month, when it approved the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan, the Transportation Planning Board reiterated the important role that changes in land-use can play in alleviating roadway congestion and transit crowding, two of the challenges the public identified in a TPB survey as being the region's most significant.
In particular, the Priorities Plan calls for concentrating a greater share of future residential and commercial development in mixed-use Activity Centers, preferably near current or planned high-capacity transit lines. The plan says that doing so will help shorten daily commutes by moving housing and jobs closer together and allow more people to bike, walk, or take transit to meet more of their daily needs.
In 2013, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments designated 141 existing urban centers, priority development areas, transit hubs, suburban town centers, and traditional towns throughout the region as Activity Centers. Seven in ten of the 141 centers are currently served by Metrorail, commuter rail, light rail, or streetcar, or will be by 2040 under current plans.
Taking advantage of high-capacity transportation connections between centers, especially connections that are already in place, helps move more people and goods more efficiently, which the Priorities Plan says is necessary in an era of limited financial resources and a lack of political will to raise significant amounts of new revenue for major infrastructure expansions.
The Priorities Plan also calls for enhancing local circulation in Activity Centers -- by expanding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, providing more local bus services, and promoting better street connectivity -- in order to allow more people who live or work in them to make fewer and shorter trips by automobile.
With these local improvements, and if development happens where planners expect it will, a recent TPB analysis says that the greatest increases in regional travel by transit, walking, and biking between now and 2040 will occur in travel to, from, and within Activity Centers. By 2040, the analysis says, half of all trips on foot or by bicycle will occur in Activity Centers, which represent just 9% of the region's land area.
In calling for greater concentration of growth in Activity Centers and enhanced local circulation, the Priorities Plan recognizes that not all Activity Centers will look, feel, and operate alike. "An Activity Center in Loudoun County will not look like one in the District of Columbia, but both places can be less auto-dependent, and more walkable and economically vibrant,” the plan says.
Focusing on Activity Centers holds other opportunities to improve quality of life and take greater advantage of existing infrastructure. According to the Priorities Plan, "paying particular attention to transit-oriented Activity Centers on the eastern side of the region can improve socioeconomic balance by supporting job growth and commercial activity in areas that currently lack it." And focusing development in these suburban areas can also help take advantage of unused capacity in the transit system by filling seats on trains currently operating below capacity in reverse-commute directions.
The Regional Transportation Priorities Plan reiterates the important role that land-use can play in addressing the region's most significant transportation challenges. Concentrating more of the region's future growth in mixed-use Activity Centers and enhancing circulation within those centers, the plan says, will help alleviate roadway congestion and transit crowding in the region, support economic opportunity, and promote a higher quality of life for more people.