Post #228: Maple Avenue Corridor Multimodal Transportation and Land Use Study

Posted on April 6, 2019

For those of you who are already confused, merely by the title, I’m talking about the Maple Avenue traffic study.  That official title is why I keep referring to it as the (thing formerly known as the) Maple Avenue traffic study.  For the official title, I literally cannot remember all the buzzwords in the correct order.

I’m eventually going to have a lot to say about this, but here I’m just going to say two things.  First, the study, as scoped, is fundamentally inconsistent.  Briefly, if taken at face value 1) it’s impossible to predict traffic 10 years ahead, so we’re not going to do that and instead 2) we’re going to talk about “multi-modal strategies” that could only have significant impact decades into the future.  Second, I’m going to do my own analysis of these issues.  That part will take a while.

Part 1:  Inconsistent timeframe

On the one hand, the Town and consultants have already put put a marker down for “it’s impossible to forecast traffic accurately beyond ten years”.  This is their rationale for only looking five or maybe ten years down the road.  So, under the current plan, the Town will determine how much development they think will occur by (say) 2024, and the consultants will model traffic under that scenario.  And then they’ll both say, hey, we don’t see any problems with MAC zoning.

On the other hand, all this multi-modal stuff can realistically have a significant impact on traffic only if we are looking several decades into the future. If ever.  (Multi-modal just means using more than one method of transportation.  If you walk to the Metro, that’s multi- modal.)  So if we are talking about materially reducing congestion on Maple, via “multi-modal” strategies, we are talking about something our children would benefit from, a few decades from now.

On that second point, let me be clear.  Right now, in the Town of Vienna, nothing stops people from (e.g.) taking Metro, riding the bus, walking, biking, or using some more esoteric transport mode.  As I have documented on this website, this is objectively a very walkable town.  I bike it all the time.  And we have very nice local bus service (Post #225).

We’re at an equilibrium now, with respect to multi-modal commuting.  Two days ago — beautiful spring day — I took the bus out to the Fairfax Lowes.  There were plenty of empty seats on the Fairfax Connector and Fairfax City Cue buses feeding the Metro.  There were plenty of empty bike slots at the Vienna Metro bike racks.  We have a real-world market test, so to speak.  We already have the capacity in place.  It’s the ridership that’s lacking.

Anyone who thinks they can materially alter that equilibrium, with a five- or ten-year time period, with the tools available to the Town of Vienna, has far more ego than I have.

So that’s the fundamental inconsistency with this study.  The traffic portion will look, at most, ten years down the road.  And within that timeframe, the multi-modal portion will almost certainly have no material impact.  So the Town will simultaneously have to sell the benefits of multi-modal transport that may-or-may-not occur at some point in the far future.  While simultaneously being unwilling to make any prediction of traffic in the far future.

For example, I bet there will be absolutely no integration of the two parts of the study.  There will be absolutely no numerical estimates of the extent to which their proposed multi-modal changes will change the projected “level of service” at the Maple Avenue traffic lights.

Why do I think that any multi-modal efforts will have a marginal impact on traffic in the near term? Just take a look at commuting patterns. The fact is, we commute every-which-way.  And so, most people like the point-to-point convenience that cars provide.

The last time I looked up the numbers, about 9 percent of Vienna commuters used public transport, and I would bet (without having looked up the data) that 95% of that is people near Metro using Metro.  That’s a nice, stable share of the commuter population, and that is unlikely to change in response to any policies that Town might try to enact.

If you look at commuting destinations of Fairfax County residents (and, separately, City of Fairfax and City of Falls Church), you can see that we commute in all directions.  For those three populations, their commuting destinations look like this (2011 – 2015 American Community Survey Commuting Flows, Table 3, my summary):

This table has more detail than it needs, but the point is, we commute every-which-way.  Maybe one-in-six Fairfax Count commuters is headed into DC every day.  The other five-sixths head out in every direction imaginable. My guess is, for that five-sixths, there isn’t much that a “multi-modal” approach can effectively do for them.  Particularly as anything the Town might do would only affect the “last mile” commuting here in Vienna, and not at the other end of their commute.

And to me, that’s entirely consistent with what we observe, here in town.  Right now, the only significant “multi-modal” transport we have is people using Metro. And, plausibly, a few may take buses, such as the express bus to the Pentagon or to some other high-density destination.

Otherwise, what we’re talking about with “multi-modal” and Vienna is “everything else”.  Everything else, other than driving to the Metro. And a relative handful taking the bus.

And the problem is, nothing else but that much matters.

Right now, pedestrian and bicycle traffic is negligible, along Maple, during peak rush hour periods.  The Town’s own 2017 traffic study shows that, as I hope to document some time next week.  In addition, my observation is that it’s very close to negligible at most other times.

From what I can tell, from riding the Fairfax Connector and Fairfax City CUE buses this past week, ditto for locally-generated bus traffic.  I’ve already done the analysis to dismiss Capital Bikeshare — if we eventually have seven people a day using Bikeshare, we’ll beat Tysons.  All the evidence suggests that various “dockless” alternatives (dockless scooters and bikes) are either unprofitable or only marginally profitable in low-density suburban locations like Vienna.

So, in real terms, regarding Maple Avenue congestion:  A) We’re already slated to get a new system for timing the traffic lights.  And B), for everything else, we already have capacity in place, what we lack is ridership.

And by that I mean, ridership in the Town of Vienna that already exists here.  Town government has this annoying habit of talking about these new mixed-use high-density housing buildings as if they were the sole consideration.  But, in fact, we are layering that new population on top of the population (and traffic) that already exists.  Any claim that some new multi-modal approach will reduce traffic needs to address, first and foremost, how it will increase ridership of these new modes among our existing commuter population.

At present, I’m just not seeing that happening.  Not to the extent that it would make a material difference in traffic congestion.