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Washington Commute: Interview With Director of Transportation Planning Ronald Kirby
Our traffic is among the nation's worst. Here's what the future holds and what may make your commute easier. By Ken Adelman
Comments () | Published December 1, 2004

If you think Washington traffic is worse than ever, you're right. "Our Beltway and main freeways now get choked with commuter traffic," says Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the area's Council of Governments. "They weren't designed for that. They were designed to get outsiders around this region, not for insiders getting to work."

The good news is that our air quality has improved. "It's getting better all the time," Kirby says.

Kirby, 60, was born in Adelaide, South Australia. His father was a butcher, electrician, and movie-theater projectionist. "That was a fun job," Kirby says. "I was his assistant, so I could see all the new movies for free."

Kirby graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1963 with a degree in applied mathematics and received his doctorate there in 1969; his dissertation was on computer models for transportation planning.

He came to the United States to take a job with Planning Research Corporation. "Its stationery had Los Angeles as its headquarters," he says. "I thought, 'Great.' " The next letter told him to report to its Washington office. "I thought, 'Washington? I was planning on living in California!' "

But he came to love it here: "Washington had such a rich culture compared to the meat-and-potatoes life I had in Australia."

After two years at Planning Research, he moved to the Urban Institute. From 1971 to 1987, he was a researcher and then head of transportation studies, specializing in urban transportation systems.

He then joined the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), an organization of the area's 19 local governments. He heads long-range planning for Washington's transportation systems and air-quality assessment and also takes part in airport planning.

Kirby, who is divorced, lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has two children adopted from the Philippines. Marilyn, 25, works for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and takes classes in design and computer graphics. Joe, 24, is, his father says, "finding himself" while working as a bartender.

At the COG offices on Capitol Hill, Kirby talked about what he's learned.

How does Washington traffic compare to that of other cities?

We're the third most congested metropolitan area in the country, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There's a strange phenomenon here. On the Beltway is a tidal wave of east-to-west traffic in the morning and back in the afternoon. You see it on Woodrow Wilson and American Legion bridges. This isn't supposed to happen. Why does it?

Because we've had such rapid job growth in Northern Virginia. During the 1990s, job growth was 20 to 1 on the area's western side compared to its eastern side. If we had more balanced job growth, we wouldn't have this tidal flow back and forth.

Is Metro the answer?

You do relieve traffic with mass transit, but only if conditions are right. They're right for the central DC area, with its walkable access from Metro stations to jobs and easy access to stations from homes. Expensive in-city parking and employer subsidies for mass transit also help. But such favorable conditions don't apply in many of our suburban office centers.

Why did traffic get so bad?

Because this region has grown rapidly--more in suburban areas than downtown. In Northern Virginia especially, growth has been exceeding the system's capacity.

After a big investment in highways, including the Beltway, in the '60s and '70s came a huge growth in the suburbs. We stopped adding highways, but the growth kept coming. We added many more vehicle miles of travel than highway capacity.

The number of cars has grown as well. You can't find many one-car families anymore. In this region, we now have more cars than licensed drivers. People have a car for each driver, and then a sports car or spare. When they buy a new car, they often keep the old one. I've done that in my family--three drivers, four cars.

So we should build more highways?

Some, yes, but never enough to accommodate high peaks at rush hour. It's too costly and too intrusive on neighborhoods to add enough capacity to eliminate that congestion. Peak-hour congestion is to be expected.

Can high-occupancy toll--or HOT--lanes help?

Absolutely. We need new lanes tolled with variable rates. These roads won't get congested. Such HOT lanes will likely be built on the Beltway near Springfield going around to Tysons Corner. A contract between Virginia and an engineering firm is being worked out.

Some of these new toll facilities could be operating within five years. They'll give people a choice--to stay in congested lanes for free or to get an uncongested trip at a price. During congested hours, the toll might be $5. At 1 in the morning, it might be 50 cents.

It's working in California--in Los Angeles, for example, on State Route 91. San Diego turned a high-occupancy-vehicle--or HOV--lane on I-15 into a HOT lane, varying the tolls according to congestion. The toll can change every eight minutes. A sign tells you before entering what the toll will be, and that amount sticks during your trip. If you come 15 minutes later, it might be different.

When they first proposed that scheme, experts predicted that the public would turn it down. But it passed and has worked like a charm.

Maryland has a proposal underway for the Intercounty Connector. It would be a managed facility, with variable tolls, on a new 18-mile roadway--from I-270 near the Shady Grove Metro to I-95 and possibly to Route 1, just south of Laurel.

Building a new road costs a lot, and the road can have little traffic at first. The Dulles Greenway, from the airport out to Leesburg, had little traffic initially, so they had a tough time paying off the bonds. Traffic is growing now.

On an already-congested roadway like the Beltway, demand exists instantly for new lanes. Even then, it may not be possible to pay all the costs with new tolls. A mix of these tolls with public money and other sources may be needed.

The Beltway was built to bypass Washington. How did it become a commuter route?

By becoming a magnet for our suburban office-park and housing development. New development grew up around the Beltway.

Tysons Corner is the classic case. It's very automobile-oriented, filled with office parks, shopping malls, and big parking lots. Originally, that was fine--you'd drive to work at 65 miles an hour and park easily and free. But as more development occurred and everyone was driving in peak periods, it got very congested.

HOT lanes will give commuters the option to pay and get to Tysons without congestion. These lanes will also help buses by providing a congestion-free trip for mass-transit commuters.

Won't HOT lanes become rich drivers' lanes?

We've learned from California that drivers on HOT lanes are like those on free lanes. People hop on them when they must be somewhere on time.

At a cost of $3 to $5, a plumber may pay for the HOT lane to get to his job quickly--he doesn't start getting paid until he gets there.

Meanwhile, a well-heeled executive, in a vehicle equipped with all kinds of technology, may not be in such a hurry. He or she is able to work in the car and may not bother to use the HOT lanes.

Weren't HOV lanes supposed to work that way?

They work well for encouraging commuters to use buses, since buses are faster in HOV lanes. For cars, the problem with HOVs is enforcement. High fines help, but even then you get lots of violations. You can't afford to have troopers out there all the time.

HOT lanes eliminate this problem by controlling usage at entry and exit points, where tolls are collected. Automatic toll collection using electronic transponders eliminates toll booths and toll collectors. No driver needs to slow down to pay tolls.

And HOT lanes have a physical barrier from the regular lanes. It may be only pylons--regardless, drivers can't drift in and out, as they can on many HOV lanes.

Do car navigation systems help drivers cope with traffic?

Only if they get timely information on the system. Now that's done by radio traffic reporters. They do a very good job, as they have eyes and ears all over the place. They're looking at cameras placed at critical junctions, hearing people call on their cell phones, and getting information out to drivers.

Someday we'll have real-time navigation systems. Drivers will learn of congestion points from the navigation devices and cruise around them.

Why not fix a traffic-choked area like Tysons Corner with Metro?

Metrobuses do service that area, and a Metrorail extension is planned, but it's going to be harder to make Metrorail work there than it was in downtown DC.

Remember that Washington grew up around a transit system of buses and light rail. It has walkable access to a concentration of office buildings and parking garages that charge a lot. Such conditions make rapid transit attractive.

Buildings in Tysons Corner have large surface parking lots, mostly free or inexpensive. The office buildings are separated widely, not too accessible by walking from any Metro station. Plus Tysons isn't in the center, like DC, where a radial rail system can bring people in from all directions.

The Metro extension planned for Tysons--going out to Dulles--will help those who come to Tysons from the east, such as Arlington or downtown DC, and from the west along the Dulles corridor. It doesn't help those coming from the north or south.

To relieve congestion around Tysons, we'll need these HOT lanes on the Beltway and perhaps I-66. They'll help commuters willing to pay a toll as well as public-transit riders, who will have fast bus service.

Has air pollution been rising?

No, even though the Washington area still doesn't meet federal standards. Under the new designation, we're a "moderate, nonattainment area." We're not as bad as Los Angeles or New York.

Transportation causes between one-third and one-half of total emissions. And these emissions are declining steadily--even though overall travel is growing--due to technology improvements in fuels and vehicle emissions controls.

We've made huge progress over the past 15 to 20 years in reducing pollution from automobile gasoline engines. SUVs and diesel vehicles are now being hit with new regulations. The first round of controls gives off a terrific benefit.

With automobiles, we're at the point of diminishing returns. The good news there is in hybrid vehicles, which produce very few emissions.

Power plants are still a major problem. We have lots of pollution blowing in from outside our region, especially the Ohio Valley. No controls were put on many old power plants in Ohio. There's a big Environmental Protection Agency effort to stop the transport of these emissions.

What have you learned about traffic and land use?

That it's a complex situation where the experts got a lot of things wrong. For instance, they were off on estimating household size. Forecasts in the 1960s, out to 2000, got the number of households about right. But since household size was much smaller than anticipated, they were wrong on total population. Plus they missed the rapid growth of women in the labor force.

The area's rapid job growth and smaller household size led to much faster growth in travel. We now have far more work trips than were forecast.

Unanticipated job expansion meant that too little housing was available in close-in areas. Hence the outward march in housing development--to get cheaper land and more housing. And more congestion.

I've also learned that in planning for new highways or transit capacity, we've often done a poor job of public outreach. We don't explain well the implications to the affected public.

So many times, a proposed highway widening or transit line hasn't happened. The public thought the project intrusive, and bad for the environment, and new highway lanes would just fill up with traffic anyway, so what's the point?

When I got to COG in 1987, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was still a six-lane bridge in our long-range plans. We got this big study done recommending widening the bridge to 12 lanes. After very limited public input, we came out with the plans.

Well, the public went ballistic. One Alexandria elected official said, "Where did this come from? You're going to do what?"

The whole thing came to a crashing halt. The Federal Highway Administrator told us, "Sometimes process is as important as product. Your product may be all right, but your process was terrible. You never got people involved in this thing."

So we started over. We did another three- or four-year study, costing millions of dollars. But we held a slew of public meetings, answered every question. We ended up with a product that wasn't all that different, but this one got through, and the new bridge is under construction.

What have you learned as an Australian in America?

It's fascinating to watch policy being made. I come from the British system, with the prime minister and his majority party in the Parliament able to get fairly much of what they want. Here there are all these checks and balances. Initially, I thought this would be a recipe for constant gridlock. Over time, I've undergone a political conversion. The Founders apparently felt there were no absolutely right people, hence nobody should get too much power. It was an extraordinary insight and accomplishment.

And somehow this system does work. Things get done. It's amazing that they do, as it's such a torturous process. The system makes it hard to make really big mistakes.

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