Disruptive urban planning for Tyson’s corner

I am pretty excited that finally Tyson’s corner area has Metrorail service with the new Silver Line providing four stops to serve an area of about 4 square miles.

Although normal planning considers a 1/4 mile to be a reasonable walking distance, I don’t complain about a one mile walk for a commute.   I’m sure there will be buses serving to reduce the need for walking but I’ve worked two different jobs were about 2-3 miles from my home and I often found I could beat the bus.  I knew I would beat it because I followed the same route and I would not see the bus would never passed me.

The problem with buses is that they are at the mercy of the street traffic.  In my last mass-transit accessible jobs, the buses were either tied up in jams in trying to cross the river or trying to cross the Shirley Highway interchange.   The bus is faster than walking if you are the bus, the trouble is that it could be an hour before getting on the bus.

Earlier in my career I had a job in the Tyson’s area and the only mass transit option was a bus.   At this point I hadn’t owned a car and I was still of the mind of trying to go a lifetime without owning one.

I was car-free despite being able to afford one.   Prior to the Tyson’s area job I had a job that was in Rosslyn that had three options for getting home, the metro orange line, the 38B bus, and walking.   Each was comparable in terms of door-to-door transit times for my apartment in Ballston.   There were several attempts to eliminate the 38B bus because it was so redundant with the train, but it was kept in part because that stretch of metro was overcrowded during rush hours.

The job in Tyson’s was a very good job, but I quit primarily because of the bus commute.   In all of my mas-transit accessed jobs, the worst part is waiting for a bus to take me home.   The morning stops were very predictable because my home was near a bus hub where the bus typically had a luxury of waiting for the start time.   The job sites were far from the hub and in the evening the arrival time of the bus was very unpredictable.  To catch a bus, you had to be at the stop before the scheduled arrival just in case the traffic is moving especially smoothly and expect to wait up to a half hour when two buses may arrive back-to-back because the first was delayed so much.

I don’t have much trouble waiting.  A good portion of time in the Metrorail system is spent waiting for the next train that could take nearly as long.   The difference is that waiting for a bus requires waiting at the very edge of a busy street as thousands of vehicles zipped by.   You need to be at the stop far in advance of the bus’s arrival so the bus driver will see you.   I learned that stepping out from a few feet back would result in the bus flying right past the stop, especially if he were late.

There is something very uninviting about bus commute that requires waiting for a scheduled bus at the curb of a busy street.   The traffic itself is very distracting for trying to use the time productively such as reading a book.   But more than that there is that message that if I had simply got a car, even the cheapest used car, I’d be on my way instead of watching other’s on their way to wherever they are going.   It doesn’t surprise me that buses are not used more frequently for commuting to work in places like Tyson’s.

The announcement of the opening of four Metrorail stops to serve about 4 square miles gave me hope that maybe work in Tyson’s would finally be pleasantly accessible for mass transit.   I don’t mind walking a few blocks to get a metro station.   Having a train serve one square mile at least mathematically suggests a reasonable walking distance to the train.

For a handful of office buildings, the metro access appears to be a big win because the overhead walkway goes directly to their blocks.    Other than those few, the rest of Tyson’s is inaccessible from a practical perspective.

Theoretically, there are sidewalks and crosswalks with pedestrian signals.   But the roads are very wide with multiple turn lanes.   It is possible to walk the distance, but it is not a first choice like it would be in other urban areas.   Also, the locations of Metrorail stops with respect to the irregular shape of the area makes most of the locations very long walks requiring crossing many major streets with very heavy traffic.   Fairfax county is working on a plan that envisions a more pedestrian friendly downtown by about the year 2050.    Since the plan requires moving buildings to match the metro stations, this is going to take a while.

Already this plan is in progress with various improvement projects that align with their goals of connecting buses and pedestrians with the trains.  This is basically following a plan that follows ideas from at least a decade ago.   I have no doubt they’ll stick with this plan for decades to come.   It is like the Arlington way described in my last post: the plan represents wisdom that will pay off if only it were followed strictly for the long haul.

Plans work only if they are followed over a long time.   The problem with their current 35 year plan is that it is going to take 35 years to get there.   This is not merely a complaint of impatience.   It is a mostly a complaint that the world is going to look at lot different in 35 years than it does today.    In my last post, I noted that Arlington is boasting of its stellar success of its 50 year old master plan by pointing out the good things that were not imagined to happen.   In particular, Arlington’s planner did not expect that that region would be a magnate for the very young people at the start of their careers.   Their plan was to improve the quality of life the long-time established residents.    Arlington is successful and Arlington had a master plan, but the present success was not really planned.   I should point out that one of the mistakes in the plan was the fact that influx of new residents need to get to jobs in Tyson’s corner with the master-plan’s intentionally narrowed I-66 as the one of the practical way to get there.   The master plan did not anticipate this result.    Arlington hosts many employers whose staff must commute in from outside areas.  Arlington is home to a huge influx of newcomers who’s jobs are outside of Arlington.   The master plan assumed people would live close to work.

The same assumption is in the Tyson’s plan.   People would be able to walk to work because their homes would be conveniently located near employers who want to hire them.   It is very rare for that to happen especially in a job change.    Alternatively, the residents will be close enough walk to a Metrorail stop.  That’s going to take a couple decades of rebuilding.

On the more immediate time scale there is are some big changes that have occurred just in the past 10 years.  In particular the increasing viability of autonomous vehicles (driverless or remotely driven) and the widespread access to personal smart phones.   Already the latter has been exploited for transit with the rise of ride-sharing applications such as Uber where the smart-phone owner hails a ride from where he is standing and gets a list of options to choose from.

In terms of autonomous vehicles, there have been demonstrations of vehicles navigating challenging and novel routes.   Today’s autonomous vehicle technology may easily be adapted to the limited area of Tyson’s corners with very well known streets and office-building locations.    A Tyson’s corner range for autonomous vehicle operation to pick up and drop off passengers at the curb could be very practical in the very near future (perhaps measured in months, not years, and certainly not decades).

The two concepts could be combined especially in the unique geography of Tyson’s corner.   The autonomous vehicles can operate by roaming (circulating) in all parts of the small 4-square mile area so that there would always be one nearby when a smart-phone owner hails one.    The car would arrive and drop the passenger off at the desired location with no addition time to pay fare or collect a receipt: that’s automated in the smart phone application.

An additional recent innovation is the availability of big data analytics that could predict the traffic needs of all of the real users of the system.   This system can pre-position the cars in the area where they will be needed at the time they will be needed.   There may even be a line of waiting cars for predicted burst of demand.

The Uber-like approach for hailing an autonomous car to get from one part of town to another (range restricted to the the Tyson’s corner area) could present a very attractive near term transportation solution that could obviate the master plan.   There may be no need for any rebuilding of buildings or building of new urban green spaces.   We may be very satisfied with the near term curb-to-curb transportation solution.

The very modern adoption of smart-phone ride hailing of autonomous vehicles may be a bigger attraction than the idyllic notion of a pedestrian friendly downtown with adjacent office and residential buildings and abundant open public spaces.   The concept has a similar appeal as the highly successful adoption of smart phones.

Long range plans can blind us to the new opportunities that come up after the plan was conceived.   To make the plan work, there is a lot of long-range management required to assure scheduling and financing of very large scale projects.   Those projects need scheduling and financing today in order to see the benefits decades in the future.    The plan will not succeed in its vision if we allow ourselves to be distracted to take up a new concept such as the above smart-phone hailed autonomous vehicle.

Worse, such innovations can completely obviate the need for the plan.   Once people are satisfied with curb-to-curb transit options available today, there will be less political support for tearing down old buildings and building new ones to conform to a new downtown vision.

There is an opportunity to employ an innovative modern transit option that makes the current landscape livable without the need for a long term plan.   Shelving the master plan is a risk to accept in order to consider such a beneficial alternative only recently available and that may offer both near- and far-term benefits that the population will appreciate.

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2 thoughts on “Disruptive urban planning for Tyson’s corner

  1. Recent Wired article has just one sentence to discuss this possibility:

    Kaas also predicts you could see the rise of private commuting services, shuttling customers around for a fee.

    Commuter shuttle services may be the earliest adopters of autonomous vehicles serving the “last mile” from home or office to a mass transit station or stop without a need for commuter parking lots.

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