Post #1377: COVID-19 and the Town of Vienna, VA


Edit:  The Town has since relented, which I believe is thanks to the efforts of Councilmembers Patel and Springsteen.  The testing center will remain open another month.  Which should get us past the peak of the Omicron wave.  Apparently, what was stated as flatly impossible two days ago turns out to have been a judgement call.  And reasonable judgement has prevailed.

Original post follows:

The facts are these.  There’s a drive-through COVID-19 testing site that operates in a church parking lot in the western part of Vienna, VA.  It has been operating since March 2021.  It appears to be one of the few drive-through testing sites in the nearby area.

Lately, as you might imagine with the rapid spread of Omicron, this site has been quite busy, with cars lining up to be served.  Reportedly, the operators of this site provide about 100 COVID-19 tests per day.  They offer both antigen (rapid) and PCR tests.

And now, as Omicron cases continue to ramp up, and access to testing becomes an increasingly important public health issue, the Town of Vienna is shutting down that drive-through testing station.  Today, last I heard. Continue reading Post #1377: COVID-19 and the Town of Vienna, VA

Post #1322: Changing Town of Vienna elections: Avoiding high voter turnout?


There’s a public hearing tomorrow (Monday 11/15/2021) regarding proposals to change Town of Vienna elections.  This is in response to legislation that requires all Virginia towns to hold elections on the standard first-Tuesday-in-November election day, instead of in May.   According to the sponsors of that legislation, the point is to boost voter participation in those local elections.

I foolishly thought that the transition from May to November elections was cut-and-dried, because Virginia statute lays out a simple process for doing that.  As you move the election date back six month (from May to November), you give each incumbent roughly an additional six months in office.  After that transition, no other change is needed.

Then I took a look at the complex wording of the options the Town is considering.  And I could not for the life of me figure out why they’ve opted to make the proposed changes.  Why take something as potential simple as this, all laid out neatly in statute, and complicate it?

I had to put all the options in a table to realize that the only thing NOT up for discussion in the officially-sanctioned options is even-versus-odd-year elections.  It looks like the citizens of Vienna can have any November election schedule they want — as long as all elections are held in the off-years. 

This choice runs  contrary to what the overwhelming majority of November-voting Virginia Towns have chosen.  Choosing the odd years means not just being in the minority on this issue, it means minimizing voter turnout for Town of Vienna elections into the foreseeable future.  I think that’s a bad choice.

Background:  This could be straightforward.

If you need some background on the general issue of the switch to November Town elections in Virginia, you can read through these prior posts:

  • Start with Post #340, which introduces the benefits of moving Town elections to the standard first-Tuesday-in-November election day.  That’s where I first learned that Herndon’s election turnout tripled when they did that.
  • Post #1095 introduces recently passed legislation in Virginia that moves all Town elections to the standard first-Tuesday-in-November date.
  • Post #1135 was about our more recent town election, which, barring new legislation, will have been the last May election in Vienna.

Throughout my discussion of the change, I assumed that the Town would follow the transition to November elections as laid out in Virginia statute.  The transition from May to November elections is laid out in “§ 24.2-222.1. Alternative election of mayor and council at November general election in cities and towns“.

C. ... Mayors and members of council who were elected at a May general election and whose terms are to expire as of June 30 shall continue in office until their successors have been elected at the November general election and have been qualified to serve.

In effect, you give the incumbents another half-year in office, for the transition from May to November, and you’re done.

And so, this transition could easily be handled by holding elections in November and making no other changes, other than lengthening the terms of the incumbents as specified in Virginia statute.  Right now, Town Council has staggered two-year terms, with three seats up every year, and the Mayorship in every even year.  All they have to do is extend terms as outlined in the law, and they’d be done.  Elections would occur every November, and that would be the only change.

If you want to see the likely impact on voter participation, just look at nearby Herndon (above).  They switched to November voting in (the even year of ) 2016.  And voter participation in their Town elections roughly tripled.

But for some reason, that’s not what’s on the table in the Town of Vienna.

I had (foolishly) assumed the Town would do just that.  Keep it simple, and change the elections as outlined in statute.  But I was wrong.  As with much of what the Town does, it’s all but impossible to take the written documents and understand what’s being proposed.

Aside:  It shouldn’t be this hard.

You can find some limited popular-press reporting of this issueThat reporting is the only place where it is clearly stated that you, as a citizen, may suggest your own alternative to the Town’s proposed changes, at this hearing.  But when you try to find out what the actual language of the proposals is, that’s when it gets difficult.

Let me put aside just how hard it is to know that this is in play.  Chrome on a PC won’t even open up the Town’s website due to a misconfigured security certificate message.   Firefox on a PC or Chrome on a phone will open it, but the splash page is so misconfigured that you can’t actually read what the public hearing is supposed to be about.  The text bleeds off the page.  And if you click on the public hearing link, you are informed that there is, in fact, a public hearing on Monday.   But with no clue as to what the hearing is about.  As pictured below:

Long story short, if you already know that this is happening and you already know where to look, you can find that out.  You have to look at the Town’s Legistar page, find the link to the meeting, and find the particular agenda item.  (And realize there are, I think, at least two separate public hearings scheduled for Monday).

If you read the Town’s official notice, and you’ve read the popular press reporting, then you might be able to infer that this phrase ” The Town Council will consider the listed options, options as modified, as well as additional options suggested at the Public Hearing.” means that you have been invited to suggest alternatives.  But, honestly, I read that and I didn’t grasp the fact that “additional options suggested at the Public Hearing” was an invitation for the public to suggest alternatives. 

Maybe I’m just slow, but I had a hard time grasping what all the complication was about.  Particularly because, as noted above, Commonwealth statute lays out a simple and obvious transition.

Instead, the Town is considering the following options: Changing to staggered four-year terms (three Town Council seats up for re-election every two years), or to un-staggered two year terms (all Town Council seats up for re-election every two years).  They’re considering some combination of giving some incumbents an additional year-and-a-half on their existing term, skipping one year’s election, and inserting some three-year terms, in order to make that all work out.

Once again, the complexity of that struck me as odd.  It’s almost as if they’ll consider anything but the system we’ve used for decades (half of Town Council is up for re-election every other year).  I would have assumed that the baseline was to do the simple thing (each existing term is about six months longer, no other changes.)  But that’s not even on the table.

It wasn’t until I put the three options in a table that I finally figured it out:  You can have any voting you like, as long as the vote is held in the off years (odd years) only.  Based on some earlier reporting on this issue, this apparently is what the majority of current Town Council wants.  That seems to be based on the fear that holding Town elections in the even years will somehow taint them with partisanship, or reduce attention on Town issues.  (N.B., as is true in almost all states, local elections of this type are non-partisan.  Since 1870, Virginia has barred the listing of party affiliation on ballots for local elections.)

Let me put the table of options here, because without that, based solely on the text descriptions, you may have a hard time seeing this plainly.

The key point is circled in red.  Much of the rest of the complexity, highlighted in the notes section, is a consequence of moving the current even-year elections to an odd year.  By simple arithmetic, doing that is going to require one term with an odd number of years.  By law, you are not allowed to shorten anybody’s existing term to make this transition.  So, practically speaking (barring having a transition election for a one-year term of office), moving the current even-year election to an odd year is going to involve a three-year something for the incumbents up for election in 2022.  Either give them a three-year term when they are re-elected in 2022 (Options 1 and 3), or convert the existing terms to three years by skipping an election (Option 2)..

I’ll make the obvious point that you could just as easily configure this so that elections are held in the even (high-turnout) years.  Or just leave it as it is, do the simplest possible transition, and have half the elections in the even years, and half in the odd years.

The data

Source:  Virginia Department of Elections

It’s no secret that election turnout is higher when there’s a high-stakes national election.  Above you see Virginia’s turnout (as percent of registered voters) for the past 45 years.  Turnout is highest in the (even) presidential election years, and lowest in the (odd) year just prior to a presidential election.

Let me formalize that by actually calculating the averages instead of just eyeballing it.


Source:  Virginia Department of Elections, and, separately, calculated from Fairfax County Office of Elections data for the Town of Vienna (TOV).

Above, first two bars, in Virginia, you get about one-third more voters (about 16 percentage points higher turnout) in even years.  Above, second set of bars shows that participation runs coincident with the U.S. Presidential elections.  Above, third set of bars shows the dismal turnout for a typical Town of Vienna election, and the mediocre turnout even in a hotly-contested election.  (It isn’t unusual for all seats in the Town elections to go uncontested, so low average turnout isn’t unexpected.  For those elections, there’s no practical point to voting.  For the uncontested elections, my wife votes, I don’t.  But even for a contested election, less than one-quarter of the electorate votes.)  I documented Town of Vienna election turnout in Post #266.

The obvious implications here are that, in terms of maximizing voter turnout, any November election is better than the May Town election.  And that November elections in even years are superior to November elections in odd years.

That said, we can ask one final empirical question:  What do other Virginia Towns do?  In particular, what do the Towns that already have a November election date do?  As I noted in Post #340, almost half of Virginia Towns have already opted for November elections.  So it’s not as if we lack for data on the typical choice.

Source:  Tediously calculated from the .pdf supplied at this page, by the Virginia Department of Elections.

Virginia Towns with local elections in November have opted to hold those elections in the higher-turnout even years, by a 4.5 to 1 margin.  Town Council seems to be suffering from some free-floating fear of partisan taint of local elections held in even years.  The clear point of this table is that a) a lot of Towns manage to survive, and b) if you want to base the decision on facts, there are seventy-odd Virginia towns that should be able to answer the question “are local elections tainted if held in November of even years”.

In any case, that vague and un-documented fear aside, the whole point of moving the elections to November is to increase voter participation in local elections.  If that’s the goal,  then to me — along with the clear majority of Virginia Towns so far — even years are clearly superior to odd years.

Vienna could leave things much as they are, and have half of the local elections in even years, half in odd years.  They could follow the example of the vast majority of Virginia Towns with current November elections and go for the higher-turnout even years.  Or they could go out of their way to pick the years with lower voter turnout, based on the un-documented fear of partisanship in local elections.

Seems like if you’re going to do that, minimum due diligence would be to call up a few of the Towns with November elections and try to benefit from their experience.  Heck, take a field trip:  Herndon, Dumfries, and Leesburg are nearby towns with even-year November elections.  (Per the Virginia Department of Elections).  Why not ask them?  In short, do anything but lock in lower voter participation, for all eternity, based on what amounts to an undocumented fear, when you could easily put that fear to rest (or find out that it’s real!) with a few phone calls.

Post #G21-056: First frost date trend and an outdated farmers’ market law in Vienna VA


Over the past two-and-a-half decades, our fall first-frost date has been getting later.

That’s not really a surprise.  Global warming and all that.  Temperatures are rising slightly in most of North America.  Among other things, the USDA hardiness zones have been shifting consistently northward.

The surprise here is the rate at which our first-frost date is changing.  In Fairfax County, it’s been getting later at the rate of about one day per year.  That may not not sound like much, but it means that our typical first-frost date is more than three weeks later than it was back in the 1990s.

I found that to be a surprisingly rapid change, so I thought I’d post it.

And then, maybe if I’m still feeling the math, I’ll work up the likelihood that this year will have the latest first-frost data on record for Fairfax County, VA.  But muse of math seems to have abandoned me, so that will have to be a separate Part II of this post. Continue reading Post #G21-056: First frost date trend and an outdated farmers’ market law in Vienna VA

Post #1262: Rezoning to allow even larger houses in the Town of Vienna

Context in brief

As everyone in the Town of Vienna should know, the Town is redoing all the zoning.  This includes not just the commercial districts, but the residential areas as well.

You’re probably not reading this just to hear me describe how the Town of Vienna got to this point.  And why you need to start paying attention now.  If you want that, read the “Background” section at the end.

Here’s what you need to know.  The Town government, including our elected and appointed officials have, together, determined that the Town of Vienna needs More.  More residents, more medium-density housing, more duplexes, more building.  The Town is considering many substantive changes to the zoning, all of them in the direction of More.

Those zoning changes are going to be voted on soon. 

If you just glance at what they say they are doing, you’ll will be given the impression that it’s all routine, and there’s not much happening.  Just “an effort to clarify, simplify, reorganize, and update” the zoning, per the Town’s websiteYou’ll be told, in effect, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it. 

So you’d best start paying attention to what’s going on.

Today’s topic is the proposed change in lot coverage rules, for the residential areas of Vienna.  And, consistent with what I just said, it’s all about More.  In this case, this boils down to the potential to allow bigger houses, on the same lots, in Vienna.  This, despite the fact that you will not find any written materials from the Town of Vienna that just plainly say that.

Bigger houses in Vienna?  Background.

I went though the background on this more than half a year ago, in Post #1087 and two earlier pieces referenced in that post.  This is really an update of my prior post, and you might want to start there.

In a nutshell, houses can only cover 25% of the lot in Vienna.  Of the buildable area, only 25% can be covered by house, driveway, porches, sheds, garages, and the like.  That’s been the rule for about 70 years.

In that distant past, that typically wasn’t a binding constraint.  Even on a modest quarter-acre lot, the rule allowed the footprint to be about 2700 square feet.  In the 1950’s-era neighborhoods (such as the one I first moved to), typical house footprint was around 1200 square feet.  The lot coverage rule was rarely an issue.

Only in the past 20 years or so have builders routinely built every new house to cover that entire 25%.  And that — the fact that every new house built in Vienna is now built to be absolutely as large as it can be  — that’s that’s what set this whole thing off.

In the pandemic, some Vienna homeowners wanted to expand their houses to include a screened porch or similar living space, and found out that they couldn’t.  They’d bought a new house, in Vienna that had been built sometime in the past couple of decades.  And so, it was as large as it could possibly be.  (That’s the unwritten rule, here in Vienna:  All new buildings must be absolutely as big as they can possibly be.)

Separately, in the current context, the lack of such an “outdoor amenity” handicaps the resale value of the home.  So it’s not just about comfort during the pandemic, it’s about materially depressing resale value due to the lack of “outdoor living space”.  Moreover, even if you don’t build that amenity, if the right to build that exists, that adds to the resale value of the home.  And, conversely, the known lack of that right detracts from resale value.

Let me put aside how I feel about people who would invest $2M in a house without knowing the rules.  I mean, stuff happens, but that connotes a level of wealth well beyond my personal experience.  Let me just treat this as a significant number of folks who were completely unaware that the very large houses they bought were as large as could legally be built on those lots.  And are now agitating for the rules to be changed to accommodate their mistake.

Councilwoman Patel heard their plea, and championed this issue in front of Town Council.  Expand the lot coverage rules to allow more “outdoor living spaces”.  You can read some contemporary reporting here.

At the time, Councilwoman Patel said that her interest was in allowing these people to build porches, and not in allowing larger houses in Vienna.  But, as I see it (below), that was to a large degree, wishful thinking.  In reality, the only options for change that Town Council are being given are for larger houses, and for even larger houses.

Why not just do this with zoning variances?

A variance is a one-off exception to the zoning rules.  Per the Commonwealth of Virginia Code, emphasis mine:

"Variance" means, in the application of a zoning ordinance, a reasonable deviation from those provisions regulating the size or area of a lot or parcel of land, or the size, area, bulk or location of a building or structure when the strict application of the ordinance would result in unnecessary or unreasonable hardship to the property owner, and such need fora variance would not be shared generally by other properties, and provided such variance is not contrary to the intended spirit and purpose of the ordinance, and would result in substantial justice being done. It shall not include a change in use which change shall be accomplished by a rezoning or by a conditional zoning.

I think the answer is that a homeowner is free to ask for a variance, to be able to put up a porch in excess of the 25% limit, in response to the pandemic.  So you’d think that the Town could finagle this by inserting a clause in the current code to say just that.  The pandemic shall be deemed a sufficient justification for allowing these porches.  Then, let anybody who wants to exceed the 25% limit, to build a porch, apply for a variance, and be granted one.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think the clause in boldface trips that up.  And probably should.  If you expect a large class of people to take advantage of it, it’s a back-door rezoning, not a variance.  A variance should be, by definition, a unique one-off exception.

By contrast, if there’s a house with an oddly-shaped lot, where (e.g.) setback requirements prevent building a porch, the Town can O.K. that through the normal variance process.  (Here’s an example of one that was granted in Vienna (.pdf)).  That one case is not indicative of a broad class of houses that would then qualify, so that porch can be allowed as a variance.

But letting people on rectangular lot add a porch that exceeds that 25% limit wouldn’t be allowable, because there’s a broad class of people to whom that exact variance would be potentially applicable.

Bigger houses in Vienna?  Analysis

Source:  Town of Vienna website.

Vienna Town Council and Planning Commission are now looking at three options for increasing lot coverage in Vienna.  I will call these, in order, from left to right:

  • Option 1:  No change
  • Option 2:  Targeted expansion.
  • Option 3:  Untargeted expansion.

Before we start, recall that the original goal of this was to allow people to add a screened porch or similar, even when their house already uses the full 25% allowable lot coverage.  Let me assume that we are bound and determined to do that.  (Which is, by the way, far from a settled matter.)  My goal, in evaluating Option 2 and Option 3 is to see which will create the smallest expansion of the total volume of the house.  In effect, I’m looking for the options that results in accommodating the people who didn’t realize their house maxed out the lot coverage rules, while making the smallest practical change in those rules.

Point 1:  Under current law, the house has to be considerably smaller than 25% of the buildable lot.

Under current law, a house, driveway, and any outbuildings (e.g., detached garage) and other paved areas can cover no more than 25% of the lot.  (Decks don’t count toward that 25%, but instead are limited to an additional 5%.)

The key here is that the sum total area of all of those has to fit within the 25% limit.  The practical result of that is that the footprint of new houses in Vienna is currently limited to significantly less than 25 percent of the lot.  That’s because you have to fit the house, driveway, and every other paved or roofed surface into that 25% limit.

Point 2:  Driveways are key.  Remove the driveway from that 25% limit, do nothing else, and new houses will be about 25% larger than they are now.

In particular, I’ll point to the driveway as a key element there.  You might not need a patio and so on.  But you have to have a driveway.  The setback rules keep the front of your house quite a ways from the road.  Which means that in most cases, under current rules, you have to reduce the size of the house substantially, just to accommodate the required driveway.

In Post #1087, I used my neighbor’s house to estimate just how large the driveway effect is.  That’s what I would call typical new construction.  It’s on a rectangular lot, it runs right up to the 25% coverage limit, and the only significant feature other than the house is the driveway.  You can see that post for the full calculation.

The upshot is that the driveway takes up about 5% of the buildable lot.  If the driveway were taken out of the 25% limit, and no other changes were made, builders could (and would) increase the size of the house to fill the complete 25% lot coverage limit.  And that, by itself, would increase the size of the house by 25%.  (That is, 25% / 20% = 1.25 =25% increase).

And that’s easy enough to visualize.  Look at any new house with a front driveway.  Fill that driveway with a full-height addition to the house.  That’s how big the house would be, if the driveway were removed from the existing 25% lot coverage limit.

Point 3:  Under that analysis, Option 2 is  the least-harmful way to accommodate a large screened porch.

If you are bound and determined to increase lot coverage to allow for “outdoor living space”, then under the analysis above, Option 2 should result in the least expansion of the house-proper (i.e., excluding the screened porches, etc.)

Under Option 2, you still have to count the driveway in with the house itself.  In my “typical new construction” example, that then continues to limit the house-proper.  You have to have a driveway, I think.  In what I believe to be the typical rectangular-lot case in Vienna, the house still couldn’t exceed about 20% of the buildable lot.

In addition, Option 2 specifically identifies an intent to include true “outdoor” living space.  That’s a screened porch (not an enclosed porch).  A covered deck (so, presumably, the floor has to be open deck-style boards).  Or a patio.  Those are obviously hard to enforce in the long run.  But that seems to be the intent.

Finally, that is clearly and explicitly written as single-story structures.  Given how the world works, you can bet that somebody will try to game that.  Is a 25′ cathedral ceiling still a single-story structure, and so on.  There’s scope for somebody to do something obnoxious, without a clearly specified total height limit.  But at least the intent is clear.

So with this one, again, looking at my neighbor’s house, I think I know exactly what I would get.  He’d have the right to add a single-story screened porch, roughly the size of the driveway, onto the back of the house.  Or, if that was built new, it’d have come with that already built.

I’m across the street from him, not adjoining his back yard.  But, honestly, I don’t think that would be terrible.  For me.  There are issues of runoff, and the potential for further creep.  But, honestly, I don’t think I’d be picketing Town Hall over that one.  That seems to be in the spirit of a reasonable accommodation.

Now, you might say, wait a minute.  That reasoning is fine in your neighborhood, where the only thing sticking out from the big new houses is the driveway.  But in a neighborhood with (say) much larger lots, where the builders routinely added a back porch to the house, won’t this allow for much larger houses there?  Or ditto, for a large patio?

And the answer to that is yes, it would, to the extent that builders routinely built a large screened porch onto new houses.  I’m not at all sure how common that is, but my impression is that most existing outdoor amenities of this type, on new houses, would not fit my notion of what a screened porch is.  Most are sunrooms, three-season rooms, and similar.  They are glass-walled extensions of the home.  But this is something that you’d have to give some consideration to.  I’m not sure I have a clear answer to it.

You might want to regulate it as to shape, to avoid encroachment on the neighbors.  I immediately envisioned a screened porch that ran along the back wall of the house.  Tucked up against the back of the house, it would blend in with the house.  But there’s nothing to prevent a screened porch constructed as a a long extension running perpendicular to the house, as long it didn’t encroach on setbacks.  The first would have minimal impact on the neighbors and the look of the neighborhood. The second, not so much.

I’d like to see somebody take a hard look at this in terms of ways to game it.   In particular, I’d point to the lack of a clear definition of “screened porch” as a potential for creep.  (Or “covered deck”, for that matter).  We all know what a screened porch is, but what matters is the legal definition of a screened porch.  And I have yet to find one.

For example, my screened porch has brick kneewalls, then screening from there to the roof.  Would that be allowed?  Is a sun room a screened porch, as long as the windows can be opened to allow it to function as a screened room?  Is it a screened porch if the walls can be opened up to allow air in, but can also be closed to make it a “three season porch”?  In other words, absent a clear legal definition, try to figure out all the different things that might be claimed as a “screened porch”, and figure out how to rule out the ones you don’t want.

Otherwise, my claim is that for typical new construction in Vienna, at least on the small-to-mid-sized lots, where I don’t see much in terms of large patios or screened porches or covered decks now, the impact of this would be fairly clear.  The need for a driveway would continue to pin the house size down at somewhere around 20% lot coverage.  And then you’d get one-story screened porches (or covered decks, or patios) amounting to 5% of lot coverage,on top of that.

Point 4:   Moving the driveway in Option 3 is asking for an increase in house size.  It neither achieves the goal nor keeps the size of the house-proper constant.  It flunks.

Option 3 has a lot of moving parts.  The percentages change, the location of the driveway changes, covered decks are now somehow separate from screened porches, and so on.  To my eye, it’s a jumbled mess.

Let me just point out the obvious, using my “typical new construction” example.  Under this option, a builder can simply come in and build houses that are 15% larger than they are now.  Full stop.  (That’s 23/20 = 1.15 = 15% larger).

In other words, people can now take advantage of Option 3 without having to provide any outdoor living space.

For that reason, this one flunks, straight-up.  If you are going to change the law specifically to accommodate outdoor living space, you can’t write it so that you can take advantage of the new limits without providing new outdoor living space.  That’s pretty much the definition of a loophole.


Those of you who have ever worked in a supporting role in a government agency may recognize this set of choices as a classic “Sears Strategy”.  This is named after the retailer Sears Roebuck, renown for their retailing approach of offering a set of options as “good, better, best”.  This allowed Sears to steer consumers’ choices, as roughly 90% of middle-class consumers will take the “better” option, more-or-less no matter what it is.

In a policy choice context, the iron rule of a Sears Strategy is never to give decision-makers more than three options.  Executives get confused if you have more than that.  And always make Option 2 the one you want.  Do that, and 90% of the time, the choice will be the middle option.

Deeper Background

Finally, for those who care (most don’t), here’s some deeper background on how Vienna got to this Town-wide rezoning.

As everyone in the Town of Vienna should know, the Town is redoing all the zoning.  This includes not just the commercial districts, but the residential areas as well.

If you boil it down, virtually everything about the proposed zoning changes is about more.  More people — setting the stage for a substantial increase in the Town’s resident population.  More apartments, condos, and other medium-density housing.  More duplexes, to the point of creating incentives to build duplexes.  And more building — allowing and encouraging larger buildings, while minimizing things that might restrict building size, such as parking requirements.

Nobody ever actually asked existing Town residents if they want this.  In particular, whether they want many more people living here.  My guess is, parents of school-aged children might object to that, at least those who attend the relatively crowded public schools.

The only true random-sample survey of residents that the Town did on this topic was years ago, where they asked a super-sweet mom-and-apply pie question as part of the National Citizen Survey (,pdf).  Something like, is it important for Vienna to maintain a vibrant downtown?  Unsurprisingly, most respondents answered that it was.

To the contrary, Town staff vehemently reject any notion of doing a proper random-sample survey of the residents.  See, e.g, Post #462.  (This, after two different Town Council members suggested going that route).  In my experience, if you fight against using the obvious, accurate, cheap, and industry-standard approach, that’s because you won’t like the answer.

Instead, as I posted some time ago, the Town is absolutely committed to making decisions about $5,000,000,000 worth of property informed by a $400 self-selected internet survey (Post #1090).  Which this Ph.D. economist humbly suggests is not a very smart way to do business.  Once upon a time, we had Town Council members who were independent enough to say the same thing.  But no longer.  So now I’m the only one left who is willing to keep saying that.  Despite how obvious it is.

Because, to state the obvious, you use that sort of survey not to gather opinion, but to validate what the vested interests want to see.  Those who have close and professional interest in the results will answer, because they have money on the line.   They’ll organize to make sure all their friends give the “right” answers.  In our case, we had a local real estate agent use her role as moderator of a (the largest?) Vienna Facebook group instruct people on how they should respond to the Town’s survey.

By contrast, what you’ll probably find, if you make the effort to get a true cross-section of opinion of Town of Vienna residents, is that, overwhelmingly, Vienna residents would like any re-do of the downtown area to generate more green space and more open space.  That seems fairly plausible, doesn’t it?  But how do I know that?  I asked them, in a straightforward, random-cross-section manner, as summarized in Post #379.  Something the Town will not do.

In any case, that “more green and open space” thing ain’t gonna happen. Never was.  See my prior post on Town of Vienna rezoning.  Hence, no survey can be conducted that might show that.  Because disagreement does not exist in the Town of Vienna any more (Post #1132).  And we’re all supposed to pretend that will lead to good decisions.

I need to say one more thing, which is that you can’t rely on the Town’s bland description of what they are doing.  Not if you want a clear idea of what’s actually at stake.  You need to look at the details.  Let me walk you through that, in case you don’t quite believe me.

From the outset, Town government has downplayed the scope of what is happening.  When this process was first introduced to the public at the  1/7/2019 Town Council meeting, the Mayor at the time unambiguously stated that this “cleanup” of Town zoning was going to change nothing about the zoning itself.  Again, clearly stated, there was not even any intent to change the zoning. 

From the posting cited above, just after the 1/7/2019 Town Council meeting:

Despite the fact that we are “selling it” to Fairfax Count as an economic development measure, the Mayor flatly said “We are not changing any of our zoning.” Again, “Our intent is not to change anything.” So that Mayor characterized this as a purely technical “clean up” of an existing set of somewhat messy regulations.

If you read the staff description of this, in the meeting materials for that kickoff Town Council discussion, the rezoning sounded completely innocuous.  Let me just copy that in here:

The goal of this proposed project is to reorganize the subdivision and zoning ordinances so that regulations are logically organized and easy to understand through use of plain language, charts, tables, and illustrations. In addition, the subdivision and zoning ordinances should be updated so they are in compliance with state statutes and recent Supreme Court decisions with regard to sign regulations. The updated ordinance should be consistent with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and address areas where the Code has been silent and zoning determinations have been made over the years by the Town’s zoning administrators or where regulations are currently lacking, e.g., parking requirements for all uses.

Reorganize, make it comply with the law, maybe tweak the parking requirements.  Dull stuff, right?  Ho-hum.

But if you were to dig around, and obtain the actual scope of work for this task (which was not actually posted with that Town Council meeting, you just had to have somebody clue you in on where to find this .pdf draft copy), you would find that, to the contrary, absolutely every aspect of zoning in the Town of Vienna is up for grabs.   I went over that, with references, in my last post on this topic (Post #1257).

But here’s a weird one.  Last week, I mentioned that the Town’s official description of this process, on their website, referred to it as “a tune-up” of the existing code.  That language is consistent with all the prior rhetoric minimizing the seriousness of the proposed changes.  But that language appears to be gone, no longer in the Code Create section of the Town’s new cartoon-based website.  (Or, at least, I can no longer find it.)  That’s my mistake for not taking a screenshot.  Instead, let me quote the current description of the rezoning, from this TOV web page:

The Town of Vienna is leading an effort to clarify, simplify, reorganize, and update the Town’s subdivision and zoning ordinances, Chapters 17 and 18 of the Town Code.

Seriously, who could object to clarifying and simplifying the code?  And that’s exactly why that bland description is there.  If they’d said something more accurate, such as “rewriting the commercial zoning to encourage construction of mixed-used apartments, condos, and similar medium-density housing along Maple Avenue”, that might have caught somebody’s attention.  Maybe “allow and encourage creation of duplex housing”, that might have caught your eye.  And so, clarify and simplify it is.

Be that as it may.

Here’s what you need to know.  The Town government, including our elected and appointed officials have, together, determined that this is what the Town of Vienna is going to get:  More.  More people, more medium-density housing, more duplexes, more building.  The only thing to be decided, from the government perspective, is just how much more will be allowed.

Those zoning changes are going to be voted on soon.  If you just glance at what they say they are doing, you’ll will be given the impression that it’s all routine, and there’s not much happening.  Just an effort to clarify and simplify the zoning.

You’ll be told, in effect, don’t worry your pretty little head about it. 

So you’d best start paying attention to what’s going on.

Post #1257: Town of Vienna revised zoning 1, building height along Maple


An odd thing happened yesterday.  I started to look at the draft of the new zoning regulations for Vienna Virginia, and I wasn’t horrified.  Yet.

The materials I’m looking at were provided for the September 1 2021 Vienna Town Council work session, at this link on the Town’s Granicus website.  I’m starting with those, and I’ll work my way to more recent materials as time allows.

There’s some turbulent history behind this rezoning, which I’ll recap below.  For now, all that Town of Vienna residents need to know is that the Town is redoing all the zoning, for the entire town.  And whatever the end result, it’s pretty much a certainty to be passed unanimously by Town Council.  (Because, despite it being illegal to take votes outside of Town Council meetings, somehow, Town Council votes seem to be determined ahead of time, and voting “no” in a Town Council meeting no longer seems to be allowed (Post #1132).

I’ve been putting off looking at the new zoning because I fully expected to be horrified.  I just couldn’t stomach looking at it.  Not after the rhetoric that was flying last year, at the start of this rezoning process.  The scope of work gave town staff carte blanche to change any and every aspect of zoning in the town (Post #481, Post #487).  Town staff were aiming for building sizes and housing densities that far exceeded anything permissible under prior zoning (Post #1123).  There was, as I recall, a completely goofy contractor’s report telling Vienna that, in effect, people who work in Vienna have to live in Vienna, and vice-versa, so that’s why they needed to zone for at least 100 dwelling units per acre, all up and down Maple Avenue (Post #1138).

With that as context, the Town website characterizes this town-wide zoning revision as “a tune-up” of the old zoning laws.   As well as stating that the zoning hadn’t changed in 50 years (conveniently tossing the now-rescinded (Post #706) Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning down the memory hole).  Meanwhile, everything else on the Town website regarding zoning is the usual peppy, upbeat, agitprop that was the hallmark of their presentation of MAC zoning to the public.

Against this backdrop, there was what I interpreted as some modest push-back from Town Council.  Here’s what I wrote at the time (Post #413):

Councilmember Potter said, in so many words, the voters gave us a mandate, and it wasn’t for larger buildings. I believe Councilman Springsteen used the phrase “mission creep”.

Given all that, I expected the worst.  I figured it was deja vu all over again.  I expected the Town to ignore the prior citizen unrest over the rescinded MAC zoning, and just plow ahead with MAC-on-steroids.

But that hasn’t happened.  At least, not based on the code contractor’s initial report (in the materials cited above).  It’s not the MAC-on-steroids that town staff were so adamant about a year ago.  It’s not the minimum 100-dwelling-units-per acre that their hired experts insisted on.

To the contrary, my impression is that Town Council and town staff seem to be aiming for some level of moderation in the new zoning.  I’m floored, because if you read the scope of work for this task, and what was said at the outset, that clearly is not where Town staff were coming from a year ago.

There are still things that run contrary to what I believe the town’s citizens would like to see.  And things that are objectionable from the standpoint of the taxpayer.  There are some ambiguities, which in the past meant deliberate ambiguities designed to provide loopholes.  And the Town remains completely, nuttily inconsistent with regard to automobiles, parking, and alternative forms of transport.  But that’s all to be expected.

For now, I’m going to put those caveats aside, take the proposed rezoning at face value, and assume this is being written and presented in pure good faith.  Nothing up their collective sleeve.  I hope.

Let me start with what I believe to be the two key issues to keeping the Maple Avenue area livable:  Building height and number of allowable floors.


Proposed commercial building height along Maple: Background

The most objectionable aspect of the now-rescinded MAC zoning is that the building were big.  At least, big in the context of what’s here now.  They were objectively different from the existing “small town Vienna”, as I showed in a survey of 100 disinterested U.S. adults (Post July 14, 2018).

For example, the roughly 150-apartment MAC building being constructed up the street from me (444 Maple West/Tequila Grande) will be, by far, the single largest commercial structure on Maple Avenue. 

Source:  444 Maple West MAC proposal to the Town of Vienna.

That building — approved under MAC zoning — will enclose more than twice as much volume as the entire Giant Food shopping center, from Giant down to Advance Auto, currently the largest commercial structure on Maple.


Yet it sits on a property that’s about one-fourth the size of the Giant Food Shopping Center.  As a result, it’s going to place a whole lot of people, into a very compact space, compared to the adjacent neighborhoods.  (With no southbound egress to Nutley, so it’s a sure bet those new commuters will be coming down my quiet, narrow, sidewalk-less residential street, where the Town has made it crystal clear they will do nothing to moderate that additional traffic.)

Above:  Typical pre-pandemic AM rush hour at 444 Maple West.

Within that overall bigness, the allowable 62′ overall building height under MAC zoning was a focal point.  The neighbors objected in part for the visual aspects of that.  But in addition, with height comes density.  Taller buildings mean more floors, and mean that you can pack more people onto an acre of ground.  The denser the population, the more problems the neighbors will have with (e.g.) more cut through traffic, and more light/noise pollution associated with the building, its occupants, and their movement to and from the building.

With the stroke of pen, Town Council doubled the population density of my little corner of Town.  Left is a (slightly outdated) count of dwelling units from that one new building, compared to the entire adjacent neighborhood.  Imagine zoning the entirety of Maple for that level of housing density or higher?

Let there be no revisionist history regarding the unpopularity of this with the average citizen of Vienna.  Here were the results of dueling on-line petitions at that time.  Even though voluntary internet surveys and petitions are not a legitimate means to assess the true cross-section of public opinion, the difference in the response in this case is fairly stark.

And in the following Town Council election, it seemed as if the citizens of the Town spoke pretty clearly (Post May 8, 2019).  It was the largest turnout for a Town election up to that point. Among other things, an incumbent lost a seat, which is all-but-unheard of in Vienna, and a candidate strongly endorsed by an incumbent lost a seat.  Three strongly anti-MAC candidates are at the top of the list.  It was nothing short of a referendum on MAC zoning.

And, eventually, more than a year later, the MAC statute was eventually rescinded, with what struck me as a truly unnecessary bit of flirting with deadlines (Post June 2, 2020).  But, duly noted, I was a businessman, not a politician.

Proposed commercial building height along Maple:

It’s 20′ shorter than MAC zoning,

It’s arguably 7′ taller than existing commercial zoning.

With that as background, how does the proposed zoning compare to existing commercial zoning along Maple, and to the now-rescinded MAC zoning, in terms of allowable building height? 

Obviously, that’s going to be a key determinant of dwelling unit density, and all the spillover problems that brings.  If limit buildings to three floors, with no housing on the first floor, you get two floors of dwellings.  With four floors, you get three floors of dwellings.  That seemingly innocuous difference results in a 50 percent increase in dwelling-unit density.

But as importantly, to an economist, it’s not just the physical limit that lower building height implies, its the economic limit.  Shorter buildings reduce the economic incentive to tear down the existing Vienna downtown.  It allows more existing buildings to stand, based on their profitability relative to conversion to housing.  And so it slows down the pace of development.  The right way to think of it is that it gives more current property owners the choice to hold onto what they’ve got.  A choice that would not be economically viable if there were larger profits to be made in converting the existing retail establishments to “mixed use”, that is, medium-density housing developments with some retail.

The current commercial zoning on Maple has a height limit of 35 feet.  But there’s a catch.  That’s just to the flat roof of the building.  You can have projections above that.  Some of those projections above the roof are designed to be seen (generically termed “architectural elements”, I guess).  Other projections are just ugly equipment, that you can still see.

Using the altitude function of Google Earth, you find the height by paying attention to the altitude reading (lower right corner) as you mouse over a building and the adjacent parking lot.  Using that approach, you can easily find buildings on Maple whose actual ground-to-highest-point height exceeds 35′.

As an example of architectural elements well over 35 feet, the former Rite Aid (now Dollar General) is just about 48′ to the top of its signature tower.  The flat white roof sits at 35′ above ground level.  But the surrounding brown parapet and the tower go far above that.



As an example of HVAC equipment, the former office building at 380 Maple Avenue West (Wade Hampton and Maple) that was recently torn down was 35′ to the flat roof, but 44′ to the top of the HVAC equipment that sat on that roof.

The point is that, under current zoning, the interior space — the living space, more or less — is limited to 35 feet in height.  But the exterior of the building, including either architectural elements or visible roof-mounted equipment, can be considerably higher than that.

(And yet, neither building looked exceptionally large from any angle.  That’s because they sit far back from the road and adjacent neighborhoods.)

The new zoning will allow 42′.  But unlike the current zoning, that’s to the top of the building, not to the flat roof.  The current wording appears to say that any projections that are part of the building’s architecture have to fit under that 42′ limit.

(But, to be clear, these new buildings will appear much larger than what they replace.  That’s because, unlike the older buildings, they are going to cover the lot, and sit right up next to the road.  You’ll lose the buffering of the surrounding parking lots.)

My reading is that the proposed zoning ignores the height of HVAC or other equipment on top of the building.  (There is no mention of it, and in the industry in which I used to work, such items would be classed as fixtures, not building).  If I have that right, builders could place a flat roof at 42′, and put their unshielded HVAC equipment on top of that.  From any perspective where that is visible (as it was at 380 Maple West), such a building could appear significantly taller than 42′.

The proposed zoning has an exception to the height limit that applies in the very center of town, where the commercial lots do not abut residential areas.  There, they would allow another 12′ of height for “rooftop uses”.  (The example given is a rooftop dining area).  That section of the proposed zoning seems loosely written at present.  But, a) I don’t live next to that area, and b) the plain reading seems to rule out using that 12′ for another floor of housing.  So that’s not a huge concern for me, and maybe I’ll look at that some other time.

Under the rescinded MAC zoning, the equivalent maximum building height was just over 62′.  It was 54′ to the flat roof, plus an allowance for parapets and such.  I am not sure whether everything — including HVAC equipment — had to fit under that height.  (For example, the HVAC equipment on the MAC-built Chick-fil-A/Car Wash is plainly visible from the road as you enter town.)  But, for sure, all of the building’s architectural elements did.

In summary, the proposed 42′ building height limit along Maple …

  • Is 20 feet shorter than the now-rescinded MAC zoning, as measured to the top of the building itself, including parapets, projections, and so on.
  • Is an unknown amount shorter, to the highest visible point, if HVAC equipment is allowed to project up above a 42′ roof and be visible.
  • Is arguably 7 feet taller than existing commercial zoning.  That’s arguable because the existing zoning doesn’t include parapets and other architectural elements within that limit, but the new zoning does.
  • Is an unknown amount shorter, to the highest visible point, if HVAC equipment is allowed to project up above a 42′ roof and be visible.
  • Can be increased to 54′ for “rooftop uses” in the very center of town, where the commercial lots are not adjacent to residential areas.
  • May allow for buildings with about 20% larger interior volume than are possible under current zoning.  The regulation appears to leave open the possibility of having the flat roof of the building at 42′, with HVAC equipment allowed to project an undetermined amount above that.  If so, that’s a 20% increase in above-ground interior volume for the same building footprint.

Proposed number of stories allowed:  Not specified?

Another aspect of MAC zoning that left a bad taste in many people’s mouths is the issue of floors or stories.  This issue is key for housing density, but it also has to do with promises made and broken under MAC zoning.

Obviously, the more floors in the building, all other things equal, the higher the housing density.  And once you realize that the zoning won’t allow housing on the first floor, you realize that adding a fourth floor increases housing density by 50 percent, relative to a three-floor building.  You go from two floors of housing, to three.

Near as I can tell, the draft zoning discusses this as if three story buildings are a given.  But, again, near as I can tell, they don’t explicitly say that.  I don’t see an explicit statement that buildings along Maple, under the new zoning, can have no more than three floors at ground level or higher.

If that’s left ambiguous, I think that’s an easily-remedied mistake.  Just specify a three-floor limit, in addition to specifying height.

There’s a historical reason for that.

MAC zoning was sold with the promise that the buildings would only be four stories tall.  That was literally written into the code.

And, each in their own special way, developers, town staff, and (by rumor) at least one Town Council member did their best to gut that promise.  The rule doesn’t apply because of this-and-so.  So long as there is the appearance of four floors, that’s fine.  Oh, this thing that looks like a floor, that’s not really a floor, you are mistaken, because the rules applying to commercial floors don’t apply to residential floors.

In other words, there were flagrant attempts to game the four-floor limit under MAC.  Even though the plain language of it appeared quite clear.

That experience with MAC zoning made it perfectly clear that if you don’t have an airtight rule regarding the number of floors, somebody will take advantage of that.  Or, at least, try.

And so, to all the people who will say, oh, that’s not necessary, it’s not possible to fit four floors in 42 feet, builders wouldn’t do it because it wouldn’t be commercially viable, and on and on.

To all those people, I say:

“Great.  If that’s true, then there’s no harm in making a three-floor limit explicit in the zoning rules.”

Because, if they could squeeze five floors into the MAC 54-foot height limit, I really can’t see how much more difficult it would be to squeeze four into the proposed 42 foot height limit.  In particular, I have not yet seen anything equivalent to the MAC rule that all first-floor retail had to have minimum 15 foot ceiling height.  Absent that, it would seem perfectly possible to squeeze four floors into 42′.

And if you allow that, then we’re right back to a MAC-level housing density along Maple.  Which is, I think, something this new zoning is attempting to avoid.  So, I, for one, would like to see an explicit, no-exceptions, air-tight three floor limit.  If that’s redundant, then I’m happy to wear belt and suspenders.

Above all, we can’t rely on the descriptions and the drawings, all of which refer to three-floor buildings.  All the illustrations for MAC showed cute little three floor buildings as well.  Those drawings have no force of law.

Write it explicitly into the code, please.  Some of us still have trust issues after MAC zoning.

My final word here is that the height isn’t everything.  I don’t want to give the false impression that there’s no real change here.  The main change is opening up Maple as a medium-density housing area.  That’s the money that will drive the change, result in replacement of smaller older buildings with new buildings that have much larger interior volume.  So we are going to get bigger buildings, and that is going to be driven by the zoning change.  They are going to appear much taller, due to the loss of the buffering parking lots.  But, purely as a matter of fact, they aren’t going to be much taller than the tallest commercial buildings already on Maple.

Once you’ve bought into using Maple Avenue as a housing district — as the Town of Vienna appears to have — you’ve got to take your victories where you can.  And conditional on that, lower building height (versus MAC zoning) should moderate the persons-per-acre density of the new housing that will be built.

A few other things to note.

The new zoning along Maple is specified as zoning for the core of the downtown, and then, separately, zoning for the east and west ends of Maple.  Near as I can tell, the east and west ends are identical.  The core of the town, however, has provisions for additional height and additional by-right uses.

Of particular interest to me, medium density housing is a conditional use on the ends of Maple, not straight-up by-right.  In the middle of town — mostly but not entirely away from the residential neighborhoods — using the upper floors of a building for apartments or condos is given as a right.  Any building meeting the zoning requirements and the building code can do that.

But it looks like apartments and condos are a conditional use on either end of Maple.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t going to happen.  It just means that there will be some public discussion of them before they happen, because the Town has to issue a “use permit” to allow them to proceed, and that requires a public hearing.  So you’ll at least be apprised if one of those is going up near you, on either end of Maple.

Source:  Town of Vienna code.

Otherwise, if you step back from it, the proposed revisions of the existing zoning actually look like revisions of the existing zoning.  By that I mean, not wholesale replacement, as was the case with MAC zoning.  It looks like the Town will modestly expand the height of allowable buildings somewhat. Allow more uses.  Probably skimp on the parking requirements, relative to what’s required now.

By far the most profound change is the one you’re not allowed to question:  Medium density housing.  The current commercial zoning is just that — you have to use the majority of the building for commercial (non-residential) use.  That’s going to be tossed.  And that decision apparently cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.  The voracious demand for housing in Northern Virginia is what will drive the construction of the new, large, “mixed-use” buildings — apartments and condos, with first-floor shops — on Maple.

Of the additional rules they are imposing, the one I like the least is that they’re still writing the zoning in a way that will eventually create a “commercial canyon” on Maple, assuming enough redevelopment.  That is, they are banning front-of-the-store parking, and effectively requiring that the facades of new buildings be located 15′ from the curb.  This will eventually give a much more “urbanized” look to Maple, compared to the visually empty parking-lots-with-offset buildings that we have now.  Currently, the view on Maple is mostly open sky, and you can see the trees in the neighborhoods behind buildings offset from the road.  In the future, with this plan, you’ll see building facades.

Otherwise, it looks like the “open space” rule along Maple will  be as ineffective as it was under MAC (Post 7/12/2018).  So you should expect to see buildings that cover the lot, or come close, as is true with the two MAC buildings in my neighborhood.  Assuming they calculate it as before, for most of the lots, the sidewalks, walkways, and little bits of standard greenery will more than satisfy the “open space” requirement.

Source:  See this post for full writeup of methodology.

That is, I think, where the proposed revision falls most short of what the people of Vienna wanted out of a rezoning of the commercial district.  When I did my small random-sample survey of Vienna residents (still the only one that has ever been done on this topic), overwhelmingly, what they wanted to see out of MAC zoning was more open space and more green space.  As shown above.

But open space costs money, for the foregone profits you could have had from building on it.  In the end, rather than trying to obtain that via more-or-less a taking of private property, maybe the Town would be better served in finding more land for open space, at lower total cost, near Maple and across Vienna.  Near as I can tell, that seems to be the plan at present.

Post #1169, Capital Bikeshare, final post for this round


Capital Bikeshare is a short-term bike rental system, currently in the process of expanding in Northern Virginia.  In particular, the Town of Vienna is deciding where to place four (?) Capital Bikeshare stations.  The cost of the stations and bikes will be paid from toll revenues from I-66, so they are “free” in the sense of the capital cost being paid by somebody else.

In theory, the location of the bike racks matters greatly.  Capital Bikeshare is a “docked” bike rental system focusing on short rack-to-rack trips.  Bikes must be picked up and returned to one of Capital Bikeshare’s “docks” (slots in their locking electronic bike racks).  Users may rent a bike via annual membership, one- or multi-day pass, or credit card at time of rental.  Stiff financial penalties apply for failure to return a bike to a rack in a timely fashion.  For the casual user, the first half-hour costs $2, the next costs $2, the third costs $4, and the fourth and higher half-hour increments cost $8 each.  If you (e.g.) use your credit card and accidentally keep a bike outside of a rack/dock for an entire eight-hour day, that will cost you $112.

In other words, this is a bike rental system strongly oriented toward going from A to B, where A and B are Capital Bikeshare racks less than a half-hour bike ride apart.  That makes the location of A and B crucial to the use of the bikes.  To be clear, Capital Bikeshare is NOT a bike rental system for people who just want to ride around for a while and aren’t quite sure of their destination.  Based on their member surveys, their members overwhelmingly use Capital Bikeshare because it’s the quickest way for them to get from A to B, typically a very short work commute.

In practice, however, Capital Bikeshare typically gets so little use out here in the suburbs that it may not much matter where Vienna places its Bikeshare racks.  That was the main finding of my analysis two years ago.  If you have an interest in Capital Bikeshare in Fairfax County or Vienna, VA, you should start by reading my original analysis, in this unnumbered post from 2019.  Two years later, that still stands up as a pretty good piece of analysis.  Among the highlights are the following, all of which are documented in that post:

Each bike rack costs around $45,000

Each bike costs about $1000 (2011 data) or maybe $1200 (2015 data).

In addition to those capital costs, the annual operating cost per bike is somewhere around $2000 (2011 data, Wikipedia) to $2800 (2019, calculated from Arlington, VA fiscal report).

Best guess, on any given weekday, in the peak month, the entire Tyson’s Bikeshare network serves about six people/12 trips (2018 data).  That’s with a fleet of almost 100 bikes deployed across 15 racks.

In Tysons, three-quarters of the Bikeshare racks are used for less than one trip per day, on average.  In Reston, 69% of the racks are used for less than one trip per day (2018 data).

The “use rate” (bike trips per bike-parking slot) of Tyson’s Bikeshare racks is just 6% of the all-metro-area average Bikeshare use rate.

That low use rate was not expected. The 2018 Reston use rate is less than 20% of the level projected for the second year of operation in the Reston bikeshare feasibility study (.pdf).  With this most recent analysis, we know the use rate is not increasing.

The low use rate in Tysons generates an absurdly high cost per trip. My estimate from my prior analysis worked out to an average cost of $25 per bike trip.  That compares to a calculated all-metro-area average cost of just over $3/trip.  Data for Arlington County (.pdf) works out to around $7/trip

Capital Bikeshare is owned by our local governments, but it’s operated by a private for-profit enterprise.  It’s not clear that any entity involved with this has any incentives other than to expand the network regardless of value.

Despite having hundreds of racks placed in this area, there is no standardized process to guide the choice of rack locations.  Every locality gets to decide it on-the-fly.

Current data analysis:  Merrifield.

In my last post, I did enough analysis of more recent Capital Bikeshare trip data to show that nothing had changed materially since my earlier work summarized above.  For the Reston area, the number of trips was stable through 2019, then declined in the pandemic.  For the Tysons area, they increased the number of bike racks by 50%, and and the number of trips increased by about 50% in 2019.  In both cases, the value proposition remains the same or worse than it was.

Let me quickly reiterate the (lack of) value proposition at the low Tysons use rate.  Arlington County’s 2019 financial report (cited above) shows an annual operating cost of $2800 per bicycle.  That’s not hugely different from the roughly-$2000-per-bike 2011 figure cited by Wikipedia.  It’s hard to say what it would be for Fairfax County, but I believe the for-profit company that manages the system gets a fixed per-bike fee.  Let’s assume Fairfax’s average cost could be at the lower $2000 figure.  Tyson’s Bikeshare racks were reported to have almost 100 bikes available on July 4 (see just-prior post).  For all of 2019, there were about 5700 trips that used those racks.  When I do the math, that comes out to an average operating cost of $35 per half-mile bicycle trip.  And that’s assuming that all the capital equipment (racks, bikes, kiosks) is free.

The upshot is that by any plausible estimate, the Tyson’s area cost per trip is ghastly.  For example, you can buy a Schwinn comfort bike for $300.  For the estimated annual operating cost of the Tysons portion of Capital Bikeshare, you could give away about 650 of those bikes, per year.  I’d bet that’s far more than the number of people who used those Tysons bike racks in 2019.  You could literally give every user a new bike, every year, for what it costs to supply those rental bikes.

The only thing that’s really new in this whole picture is Bikeshare at Merrifield.   The three racks in that area seem to have an above-average use rate, at least during the peak months of use.  During the peak month, each bike dock sees about one bike trip every four days (0.27 trips per day).  And while that’s a pitifully low rate compared to the racks in the DC urban core, it’s the best of the four Fairfax County areas.

So, the question is, why?  Why does Merrifield appear to outperform the other three regions of Fairfax County?

My answer is that it combines enough apartments and shopping, near metro, that you get a few people to use those bikes every day.   Although there is no personal identifying information on the trip data, you can use some clues to infer what a typical trip was for.  A short trip, during rush hour, involving the Metro station, by somebody who has an annual membership, is probably a Metro commuter.  By contrast, a long round-trip around a Bikeshare station, mostly by non-members, mostly not during rush hour, is probably somebody out running an errand of some type.

That logic is what I’m trying to show in the table below.  This takes all the trips involving Merrifield stations during the peak months of June to September 2019, and tabulates them by start and end points.

Probably, an average of three commuters used those bikes steadily to get to and from Metro.  That yielded an average of six trips a day.

But on top of that, there’s another 3.4 trips per day that look like shopping/dining trips to me.  These were either long round-trip excursions from a single location, or people going to and from the Mosaic shopping district.  These were typically not during M-F rush hour, and typically involved a lot of casual (non-annual-membership) users.

The upshot is that the entire Merrifield Capital Bikeshare system served a handful of people a day during the peak summer months of 2020.  Six, maybe?  That was three or so commuters to and from Metro from nearby apartments.  And maybe another three or so shoppers/diners, mostly taking round trips from the Metro or the other two destinations.

And that was enough to make the Merrifield area — with 37 functional bike docks, in three racks — by far the busiest in Fairfax County.

Just to beat that dead horse one more time, if Fairfax really does see a $2000+ per year operating cost per bike, as Arlington does, then for the first full year of operation, Merrifield Capital Bikeshare rides had an average operating cost of $9 per trip.

It’s still cheaper to use Uber.

To my eye, the Town of Vienna has none of the advantages that Merrifield does in this situation.  It doesn’t have a lot of purpose-built Millenial-friendly apartments under a mile from Metro.  In fact, there’s nowhere to build apartments within a mile of Metro.  It doesn’t have a hip Millenial-oriented shopping district with a mile of Metro either.  And ditto on the ability to build one.  All of the synergy that yields that outstanding nine or ten bike trips a day in Merrifield will be missing here.

I would therefore expect to see less use of those racks in Vienna — no matter where they are put — than is currently the case in Merrifield.

So, where should Vienna put those Bikeshare racks?  It just doesn’t matter.  But it would be good to be clear about who is paying for the operating costs of keeping them running.  It’s one thing to waste some other taxpayers’ money.  It’s a different thing entirely to waste our own.


Post #1168: Capital Bikeshare again, part 2


More than two years ago, I looked at Capital Bikeshare use in suburban Fairfax County and concluded that Bikeshare was largely a waste of the taxpayers’ money.   The use of those docked rental bikes was far below what is seen in (e.g.) central D.C., and as a result, the average cost per trip was exceptionally high.  My estimate was that Tysons area Capital Bikeshare trips had an average cost of about $25 each, and an average length of less than a mile.

In this post, I refresh that analysis and see whether or not use of those bikes has changed markedly in the subsequent two years.

To cut to the chase, it appears that the only truly successful Bikeshare stations in this area are the three stations serving Merrifield.  (Successful in the sense of getting a lot of use).  As the Town of Vienna contemplates where to put their its own racks, there may be some lesson there. Or maybe the Vienna racks these will end up just as nearly-useless as they appear to be in Tyson’s, just up the road.

You should look at the just-prior post to see all the links to my original analysis of this issue.

Continue reading Post #1168: Capital Bikeshare again, part 2

Post #1167: Capital Bikeshare, again, part 1.

I see from a recent article in the Tyson’s Reporter that we’re still in the process of bringing Capital Bikeshare to Vienna.

Aside 1:  Capital Bikeshare is a “docked” bike rental system, where bikes must be returned to some Capital Bikeshare rack. The system is set up for short rides, as additional charges typically accrue after the first half-hour. Essentially, you plan your ride to go from one rack to another. The bike itself is a three-speed fat-tired bike weighing nearly 50 pounds. It has been quite successful in the DC urban core, and not very successful at all in the lower-density suburbs.

Aside 2:  I am not a bike hater.  To the contrary, I am lifelong avid bicyclist and have supported the Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association by taking out a lifetime membership.  Locally, I bought (and still ride!) the first bike ever sold by Bikes of Vienna (then Bikes@Vienna), a Bike E semi-recumbent, pictured above.  Back in the days when the internet was new.

To me, knowing what I know, that article seemed ridiculously upbeat about the current and future prospects for Capital Bikeshare in this area.   I say that because, as of two years ago, installing those Capital Bikeshare racks in this area looked like a complete and total waste of money.

And, as is typical for this website, that statement was based on detailed analysis of data.  In this case, public-use data provided by Capital BikeShare.  As of two years ago, the Capital Bikeshare racks at the Tysons and Reston Metro stations were virtually unused.  They might have six riders using them on any given day.  With the high fixed (capital and maintenance) costs, that generated an average cost of $25 per bike trip for the Capital BikeShare bikes at the Tysons Metro.  It would have been vastly cheaper literally to pay for daily Ubers for half-dozen individuals who used the Tysons Capital Bikeshare racks on a typical day.

The upshot is that Capital Bikeshare works well in the dense urban core of Washington DC.  It works to some degree in the densely-built inner suburban areas.  It doesn’t work at all way out in the distant, low-density suburbs.  Not in Virginia, not in Maryland.  Both states saw the same patter of extremely low use (and so extremely high average cost per trip).

This post is just a listing and summary of my prior work.  It’s all pre-pandemic, and uses data slightly more than two years old.  At the time, there was no significant upward trend in use, but clearly I’ll have to revisit it to check that.  A subsequent post will refresh those analyses with more current data, assuming Capital Bikeshare still provides those public-use datasets.

Maybe the world has changed, and it’s all sunshine and roses in the market for 50-pound fat-tired rental bikes, out here in the low-density, no-bike-lane suburbs.  But I suspect that little has changed, and this is just another case of a government entity that has more money than it knows what to do with.  In this case, with a budget force-fed by I-66 tolls.

Prior work

  1.  Maps showing the flow of trips at Tysons and Reston metro (in this unnumbered post).  Those maps are still there.  On a computer, click the gear icon in the lower left corner and turn on animation to see the full visualization of the trips.  The text of the post characterizes the number and direction of trips.  There’s a map for the entire Capital Bikeshare system toward the end of the post.
  2. Detailed analysis of cost and ridership for the Tysons’ Capital Bikeshare racks (in this unnumbered post).  That’s the analysis where I derived the estimate of $25 per trip, average cost, for the Tyson’s racks.  This post also goes through the obscure and muddled economic incentives of this public-private partnership.  (The racks are owned by local government, but the company that runs and services the system is a private entity.)
  3. The huge government per-trip subsidy probably explains why Capital Bikeshare is coming, but private providers of dockless rental bikes and scooters won’t touch Vienna.  You can see the dockless bike alternative laid out in this unnumbered post.
  4. Finally, FWIW, this unnumbered post has a summary of a February 2019 Transportation Safety Commission meeting in which Capital Bikeshare was first discussed.  My take on it is that they were ask skeptical of the success of Capital Bikeshare here as I am.  But we’re still getting Capital Bikeshare, because it’s “free”.

Post #1159: Robinson estate sidewalks


In this post, I’m just trying to get my bookkeeping straight on the Robinson estate  sidewalks in the Town of Vienna, VA. This will be of no interest to anyone outside of Vienna, and of questionable interest to those who live here.

I think we just saw the first one of those completed, on Pleasant Street.  And if that’s true, that’s worth noting.

But before I can say that, I need to get my head straight about where this now stands.  The following is a timeline for this process, centering around my prior posts on this issue.

April, 2019, starting the clock.  I believe this is when information of the Robinson bequest was formally delivered to the Town of Vienna, so this is the date when clock starts for the five-year period in which the Town must spend the money.

Post #518, the 1/18/2020 meeting of the Transportation Safety Committee.  This is where first learned of the Robinson bequest for the construction of sidewalks in Vienna, and the restrictions on the use of the money.  Apparently this discussion took place almost a full year after the bequest was made and the clock begain ticking on the five-year period in which the Town must use the money.

Post #532, the 2/24/2020 Town Council meeting.  This is the meeting where Town Council authorized sidewalks on three streets literally chosen by the executor of the Robinson estate.  This is also the first time that Town Council clearly stated that the estate’s executor would literally only pay for the sidewalk (not curb and gutter).  This was also the first time that I calculated what a ludicrously small fraction of the Robinson estate money could be spent under the rules imposed by the estate’s executor.

The meeting materials for that meeting listed five candidates, of which Town Council approved three (in boldface below).  I vaguely recall that the other two were rejected by residents on those streets but I may be imagining that.

* Even side of DeSale Street SW from Moore Street to Tapawingo Road
* Odd side of DeSale Street SW from Tapawingo Road to end
* Even side of Holmes Drive NW from John Marshall Drive to Upham Place
* Odd side of Cabin Road SE from Branch Road to Glyndon Street
* Even side of Plum Street SW from Cottage Street to Tapawingo Road

Post #1056, March 14, 20201, I revisited Plum Street (above), more than year after the Town appeared to approve a sidewalk there.  I had something of a senior moment based on the complete and total absence of a sidewalk.  Near as I can recall, the Town had done nothing about spending the Robinson sidewalk money since that 2/24/2020 meeting, but I can’t claim to have been tracking that closely.  For sure, there was no sidewalk on Plum, nor on Cabin, so if they’d been working on it, they were taking their time.  Particularly given the five-year limit on spending the Robinson funds.

By April 5, 2021, the Town had a new list of sidewalks to be considered, but it included some pretty bad candidates.  That’s the gist of Post #1096.  My guess is that with the restrictions imposed by the executor of the Robinson estate, the Town was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find candidates for sidewalks.  At that point, one Town Council candidate (David Patariu) openly suggested that the Town take the Robinson estate to court to clarify that the actual language of the will did not contain those restrictions, and to get the court to remove those restrictions so that the Town could build sidewalks where they were needed, not where curb and gutter happened to have been put into place decades ago.

By April 23, 2021, the Town clearly had a list of 11 proposed projects that, in theory, constituted the Town’s proposed plan for spending the Robinson sidewalk money.  They were going to have a public hearing on those the following Monday (4/26/2021), and by report, that public hearing did not go well.  In Post #1120, I again took the time to show how little of the available money this was likely to use.  I have since been told that my costs — based on VDOT data — are too low.  To which my response is, then double my estimate, it’ll still be a tiny fraction of the total available funds.

In Post #1133 (May 3, 2021), I talked about the five projects that the Town approved after that 4/26/2021 public hearing and Town Council meeting.  At this point, there appear to be no rules whatsoever as to what can and cannot be built using the Robinson estate money.  Some streets have curb and gutter, others don’t, some are fill-in sections, some are entirely new street segments to have sidewalk, and so on.  If there is some rule behind any of that, I was not apparent to me.

And, this was not some sort of make-believe.  The Town’s meeting materials had contractors and firm contract prices listed.  So approval of those seemed to indicate a pretty solid intent to build that hodgepodge of sidewalk sections.

Do I even need to say this?  Again, any plausible total spending for the five approved projects would be dwarfed by the overall size of the Robinson bequest, which by this time had grown to a reported $9M.

Those five projects, approved in the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting, are the focus on the rest of this post.  To cut to the chase, I thought that all five of those contracts were superseded by what happened next.  But in fact, one of the five projects was built.  The other four were either canceled, or waiting.

Finally (Post #1139), at a Town Council work session scheduled for 5/10/2021, the Town had a brand-new, much larger list of sidewalk candidates.  This, along with a brand new story as to what could and could not be done with Robinson estate money (curb and gutter?  who said anything about curb and gutter)?  This now included a thorough rewriting of history, as if this had been the plan all along, along with a document that listed a new, much-higher cost for a project that had already had contract bids, along with an astounding $450 per foot average cost estimate for the construction of plain-vanilla sidewalks in Vienna.

But, by gum, the Town finally had a document — no matter its oddities — by which it could claim that it had a plan for spending the Robinson estate sidewalk funds.  I think that, with the $450/foot, the new higher costs listed for already-bid project, and the inclusion of all the roads that they thought fit (including some clearly bad candidates, see Post #1096), they were able to claim with a straight face that they had more than $10M worth of potential sidewalk projects.  And thus had a plan that would, on paper at least, spend that money.

Yeah.  OK.  Sure.  That’s good, I guess.

Five projects.

Now that I’m back up to speed, my sole goal for this post is to see what the Town actually has done for the five projects that it appeared to approve on 4/26/2021.  Because, near as I can recall, one of those re-appeared in the final plan at a vastly different cost, and the other four just disappeared entirely, and are not listed at all in the master plan for the use of the Robinson sidewalk funds.

And so, after all that to-ing and fro-ing, two years and two months into the five-year period during which that money must be spent, I just want a straight answer to a simple question:  Have they started working on those five projects or haven’t they? 

And as I now have come to realize is the norm for this topic, the answer is far stranger than I would have guessed.

The list of five projects is laid out in Post #1133.  I rode past all five of them this afternoon, and the status is:

124 Courthouse Road SW.  Not started. The missing sidewalk is actually along the back of the property, where Cottage Street dead-ends at the shopping center.  It’s about 100′ of sidewalk.

503 Ware Street SW (~$17K).  Not started. This is right across from Meadow Lane park.  This is also about 100′ of sidewalk


1002 Hillcrest Drive SW (~$22K).  Not started. This is about a 200′ long stretch.



Cabin Road SE – Branch Road to Glyndon Street.  Not started.  The entire stretch is just over 800′ long and pretty much dead flat.


Pleasant Street SW – Courthouse Road to Maple Avenue.  Finished and road repaved.  This is a several-hundred-foot stretch of road with sidewalk on one side, and no sidewalk on the other.


Here’s a before and after of Pleasant Street, courtesy of Google Street view and some photos taken today:


Source:  Google Street View.



By eye, and by feel, it seems as if the Town widened the road a bit as it put in the sidewalk, but objectively, near as I can tell, that’s not true to any material degree.  It’s just a lot easier to drive at the edge of the road when there actually is a well-defined edge (curb), instead of just pavement that stops.

At any rate, I find the outcome here quite odd.  Three of those projects are no longer listed anywhere, and there’s no evidence of sidewalk construction.  One of them — Pine — remains listed in the Town’s current plan, but now at a much higher price than the actual bid.  And one of them — Pleasant — no longer remains listed as a Robinson estate project, but is now completely done, six weeks after the Town approved it.  This, in a Town where it was reputed to take two years to get a sidewalk done.

In any case, I think I count this as the first sidewalk completed from the Robinson estate funds.  I don’t think it would be asking too much for the Town to put up a little marker or something to commemorate.  People get their names on a little plaque when they donate the cost of a bench to one of the local parks.  Seems like every one of these new sidewalks ought to have something similar.

Maybe just a stamp, C&MR, to be stamped into the wet concrete at the completion of every project paid out of those funds.  Fifty years from now, people might notice that and wonder what it’s all about.  Maybe somebody will bother to look it up.  Or if you don’t like that simple approach, find some alternative.  The physical concrete in those sidewalks is no different from any other.  Seems like all the more reason to provide a permanent reminder of the gift behind it.  In any case, it seems a bit cold to finish a sidewalk, paid for from that bequest, and just move along to the next job.


Still, I keep wondering, why this street?  Why so fast?  Did they or didn’t they widen the road a bit as they did this?

This section of road met none of the criteria that were once presented as governing the use of those Robinson funds.  Most of the section where sidewalks were placed had no curb or gutter.  And this street already has sidewalk own the full length of it, on one side.  And so on.

But there it sits, right across the street from 44 new dwelling units shoehorned into roughly two acres, constructed under MAC zoning.  (I guess it’s rude to say “shoehorned” about townhouses that will cost more than my house.)

And so you might reasonably ask, is this just another part of the Town’s plan for the densification of Maple Avenue?  And that’s why this, uniquely among all potential projects, got priority?  Or was it the case that they needed to do it while the road paving crews were still here, owing to the nature of the roadway prior to the installation of sidewalks?  And so the proximity to Maple and MAC development is just a coincidence?

Or yet some other explanation of why this street, and why so promptly.

As a member of the peasantry, I’ll never know.  But in a Town where the standard spiel is that sidewalks take at best a couple of years, this one, completed about six weeks from the time the Town Council authorized it, certainly stands out.  I just wish I understood why.