About 15 minutes from my home is a major intersection in Fairfax, Virginia. There’s a Korean supermarket on one corner, a bank and 7-11 on the other side, and another bank and a gas station on the other two corners. This is an intersection between U.S. 50, the original east-west access route into Washington, D.C. and a major commercial strip in Fairfax, and a smaller road along which there’s a Lowe’s and a Walmart further down (at the next intersection with another U.S. highway.)
It’s a pretty ordinary looking suburban intersection, but for some reason it happens to be one of the area’s most consistently crowded ones. (The next traffic light on U.S. 50 is quite rough as well—it’s not unusual to sit through two or three traffic light cycles before you’re able to turn.)
Here’s that intersection, where cars are backed up in every direction around 3 in the afternoon:
And here’s the first intersection. See how far away the traffic lights are in this first photo. And the line of cars waiting to turn right stretched quite a bit behind where I was standing.
Here’s the view behind me, with a little gap on the left for the entrance to the Korean supermarket. They cars are basically backed up to the previous traffic light, in the distance here:
Now, this is all so you can answer this question: what is going on here? Too many people? Or too many cars? Too much density, or too much distance?
You likely know my answer: not exactly “too many cars” per se, but rather a land-use pattern that virtually requires car trips for nearly everything: school drop-off and pick-up, grocery runs, doctor visits, basic shopping, etc. Ordinary, everyday errands that can in theory be done efficiently on foot or by transit instead require a trip, often alone, in a car.
The spreading out of development, and the separation of residential and commercial uses—with the latter usually located along car-oriented commercial strips that are unpleasant to walk or bike—multiply the amount of travel done and distance traversed, which in turn artificially increases the sense of overcrowding.
My take is that what we’re seeing at this is really the opposite of overcrowding. It’s a little like one of those noisemaker toys with a couple of marbles inside a sphere. If you shake it, the marbles are everywhere and it feels like it’s full of them. But there are still just two. They’re going nowhere fast.
Just down the road from this traffic-choked intersection is a huge new housing complex, still under construction. Will it make traffic worse? It might. Many people no doubt did and do oppose it based partly on that expectation. But it also represents an important filling in. Its proximity to a lot of retail, including some planned for the complex itself, may make a one-car arrangement possible for some households.
I think a lot of ordinary people, who never really think about any of this stuff, don’t distinguish between “too many cars” and “too many people.” It’s so natural to simply view traffic as a proxy for people/population/density, that it doesn’t even occur to many that they are separable.
But the fact is, total people and total car trips are not directly related, and it’s largely poor land use that makes them appear to be. This is the kind of thinking I’ve learned from diving into these issues, or what’s broadly called urbanism. A lot of it is stuff I would have dismissed myself five years ago. So I say this with no derision whatsoever to anyone who doesn’t see it the way I do now.
I like to think that with more raw density, slow improvements to trip habits and land use will occur, so that we can have more people and more commercial energy—and less traffic, too.
Spread Out or Smashed Together?
A Little More on Rockville Pike
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As both a former Northern Virginian and a passionate YIMBY, I'm naturally a huge fan of your work! If you're ever feeling courageous, I recommend driving a few hours south to Richmond, where you'll find one of the longest, ugliest, most perilous stroads I've ever seen - Broad Street. NoVa's busiest intersections feel absolutely serene by comparison.
Here's the challenge, though, and it's not one that can be solved by trying to build cities in the United States that look like they're in Europe, since the U.S. has some challenges Europe doesn't have or at least didn't have until choosing to import them. In any American city with the density to allow someone to do their regular shopping on foot, (i) the property values will either be too high to support things like ethnic supermarkets, or (ii) the property values will be low enough to support them only on account of the neighborhood being too crime-riddled for anyone to safely wander out on foot in the first place. When I lived in Manhattan I still had to get the car out of the garage to go to the Asian market... in New Jersey. Even a trip for any groceries more exotic than milk and eggs required a subway ride, limiting purchases to what one can comfortably carry for a half-hour return trip that requires a free hand to access your wallet in the middle. I am much, much happier now that I do all my food shopping by car (or by delivery in Fed Ex's trucks). Unfortunately, that tends to lead to ugly environments like the intersection of parking lots and gas stations photographed in your post.
But I don't see a path to getting this fixed that involves people giving up on driving. We can start by taking advantage of the opportunities electrification presents to remedy some of this ugliness: the gas stations can steadily be eliminated, for starters. Replace just a couple of those with medium-to-high density mixed-use residential and commercial buildings, maybe like the housing complex you mention, and you are at least 50% of the way towards turning an ugly intersection into an actual neighborhood.
Unrelatedly, I'm convinced that a good deal of the congestion one observes around traffic lights is actually caused by the traffic lights themselves rather than merely managed by them. Roads that have continuous flow at 35mph tend to be more efficient than roads that encourage driving at 55mph but stopping for a 60 second traffic light every quarter of a mile.