Metro Rail Urbanism Washington DC

The Interdependence of Land Use and Transportation

» Northern Virginia’s growth patterns demonstrate the degree to which transit can play an essential role in spurring inner-city growth.

There is little need for data to demonstrate just how important the Washington Metrorail system has been for Arlington, Virginia’s growth over the past few decades. Visit anywhere along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor or in Crystal City — the two areas best served by Metro — and you’ll see dozens of new residential and office buildings lining the street.

But new information from Census 2010 provides empirical confirmation of the significance of land use planning around Metro stations in influencing the growth of Arlington and other places in Northern Virginia. Over the last ten years, Arlington County’s growth has been overwhelmingly concentrated along the Metro corridors, as has growth in Alexandria and some parts of Fairfax County. The densification of these areas is effectively extending the inner-city core of the Washington, D.C. region and substituting sprawling development in the exurbs with dense construction. This represents a change in trends compared to the period between 1990 and 2000.

As the map above shows, the areas of Northern Virginia that saw the greatest percentage growth between 2000 and 2010 were all clustered around Metro stations — in Arlington along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor (Orange Line) and in Crystal City (Yellow and Blue Lines); in Alexandria near Van Dorn Street Station (Blue Line) and Eisenhower Avenue (Yellow Line); and in Fairfax County near Vienna/Fairfax Station (Orange Line). As other areas of close-in Virginia have been fully developed, these station area zones have densified through the coordinated planning decisions of city officials, the availability of rail rapid transit, funds from developers, and a clear interest of a large portion of the population to inhabit the new buildings.

In the case of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the Census Blocks within closest proximity of the five Metro stations along the Orange Line absorbed more than 70% of Arlington County’s growth, increasing by 12,816 people compared to Arlington’s expansion by 18,174 people towards a total population of 207,627. These 1.47 square miles arrayed linearly — a small percentage of Arlington’s 26 square miles — now represent more than 17% of the county’s population, compared to about 12% in 2000.

What effect has this localized growth had on the face of the region in general? Let’s compare Arlington to an exurban locale that has been recently developed.

The Broadlands neighborhood, about 30 miles from Downtown Washington in Loudoun County, has been mostly built up over the past ten years, its population exploding from about 3,500 to 12,800 on a 3.22 square mile site (this includes some areas which were developed as part of another neighborhood). It is just to the northwest of the planned Route 772 station at the terminus of the now under construction Dulles Metrorail Extension (Silver Line), which will connect Arlington to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport.

As is made evident in the drawing above, the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor absorbed a new population equal to the total population now living in the Broadlands area (the scale of each community is the same). In essence, this means that the the population increase that was made possible through the densification of this area of Arlington via infill development was equivalent to the construction of a greenfield exurban development almost three times its total size. If the Corridor had seen no population increase at all over the past few years, the region would have needed to find housing for almost 13,000 more people. In all likelihood, that would have been in more places like the Broadlands.

Moreover, Arlington’s growth was done in a way that includes a diversity of building types and uses and integrated rapid transit, limiting the need for individuals there to rely on private automobiles. It was a result of projects like this that gave the Washington region the third-highest transit mode share in the nation, after New York and San Francisco; more than 40% of people in the Census Blocks around the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor use public transportation to get to work. Traffic along the corridor has not increased despite the large increase in population.

In the Broadlands, the dominant building type of single-family homes and a lack of retail and service options mean that most people will need to drive to get anywhere. Even when the new Metro station is completed, most people will not walk to it because of a lack of a friendly walking environment. And congestion along area roads will undoubtedly increase substantially.

For growing cities and metropolitan areas, this comparison illustrates a stark choice: Do we want to find ways to encourage people to live in walkable, transit-accessible inner cities, saving transportation costs and reducing land consumption? Or are we willing to continue the sprawling development of the region into the exurbs, encouraging car use and wasteful land consumption?

There is no formula that can describe the tools Arlington has successfully used to encourage dense development around Metro stations over the past ten years. The existence of Metro itself is not enough to guarantee greater growth in transit-oriented development. Indeed, consider the growth patterns in Northern Virginia between 1990 and 2000 (via The Washington Post):

During that period, as is demonstrated by making a comparison to the map at the top of this article, population increased systematically throughout the region, not just along Metro corridors (though they too saw growth). What was different between the 1990-2000 decade and the 2000-2010 one?

For one, these areas of Northern Virginia — Arlington County, Alexandria, Falls Church, and close-in parts of Fairfax County — were not fully developed in 1990: There were still plenty of building plots open along freeways. That situation largely disappeared over the past ten years, so the only way to build in the close-in suburbs of Washington is now to build up, such as in Arlington.

Perhaps just as important, the financial and political climate in favor of infill development around transit was not as strong during the 1990s as it was during the 2000s. This limited developer interest in investing in new construction around Metro stations. Meanwhile, public agencies did not do enough to increase allowed construction heights and encourage a mix of uses.

Fortunately, on both counts, feelings have changed over the past ten years: There is now a clear public interest in supporting the growth of denser areas and transit has grown in popularity where it has been provided effectively.

In some regions suffering from down economies, good transit and effective planning will not be enough to encourage development such as has occurred in Northern Virginia.

But in places like the Washington region where population growth continues, the data from Census 2010 present compelling evidence for the ability of cities to make decisions about how to grow and alter the regional equation. Arlington’s decision to allow for dense development around Metro stations, developer interest, and a clear demand for the product have provided a strong case for the importance of understanding and taking advantage of the connection between transportation and land use.

43 replies on “The Interdependence of Land Use and Transportation”

Great post!

An interesting (but likely impossible to calculate) additional metric to measure the success of the corridor would be the incremental property tax revenue generated from the densification along the line. IMO this revenue should be included in the amortized capital cost of new transit construction — this more appropriate accounting would reduce the misleading transit subsidy numbers we hear so much about.

This should be required reading for all transit neighsayers…. (ahh to dream)

Actually, many transit systems are funded partially through TIFs and other taxes from the resulting development.
I’ve actually heard some people say that transit systems in car-free cities will be paid entirely with local taxes from the W/TDD (Walking/Transit Dependent Development). No fares on riding the local system. In addition, there’d be a bunch of measures made that would reduce O/M costs and extend the life of the system… to where the existing system is very low maintenance. (And a savings account to accumulate capitol for when the system needs to be reconstructed).
And transit isn’t alone in factoring in the taxes from resulting development. The Father of the Frontage Roads in Texas (I forgot his name) advocated for them because 1)In most cases, it would be cheaper to build the frontage roads than make an alternative frontage (Reducing construction costs) 2) The frontage roads would attract commercial development that would generate tax revenue that would help pay off the freeway quicker and reduce overall subsidies on the highway system.

You would need a much better metric for success if you actual transit neighsayers. If you told them that it increased tax revenues, they would have one more reason to hate it.

Just phrase it differently. It increases property values. Increased tax revenues, from the higher property values, is a side effect.

Yeah but the low tax crowd likes capital appreciation more than low taxes. Just neglect to mention that increased property taxes result in higher tax bills.

As a conservative and a Republican, I can tell you that not all of the low tax crowd likes capital appreciation.

People that own capital like capital like capital appreciation. People that don’t own capital like capital depreciation.

Why is it that we couldn’t go for a better definition of success: Raising tax collections without raising prices. All it would require is the ability for developers to develop to be able to accommodate the new demand.

But of course doing that would require rethinking our land use policies, which would require an even bigger dogma breakdown from the left than any current dogmatic barrier on the right.

If you want to find people advocating for higher densities most of them are on the left.

Actually no…you must have misinterpreted. It isn’t density that is needed, it is the ability to build to accommodate demand. Upzoning is just one more way of restricting development…instead of a maximum density, they now have to deal with a minimum density.

But sometimes what is demanded isn’t density. Sometimes it is a hardware store, sometimes it is a bakery, sometimes it is offices, sometimes it is a community center. When you attach a residential density minimum to development, you are raising prices for people.

In fact, there is only one situation where zoning restrictions don’t raise prices: when the market wanted exactly the same thing that the zoning restrictions happened to allow for the property. Unfortunately that is far too often the exception rather than the rule.

If I am understanding your most recent post you are suggesting that landowners should be able to build anything they want on whatever piece of property that they have in their possession.

For example: if I owned a house in a residential neighbourhood but I perceived that their was demand for a small office building in my neighbourhood, I should be free to either convert the existing structure or build a new one to meet this perceived demand?

I’m curious as to how far you would take this: are you suggesting complete freedom of action on land use? That if I owned that house I could turn it into a small apartment building, a shop, a factory? How far would that go? Could I convert my house to any industrial use I chose?

Or if I own a skyscraper downtown but I believe that land would be better used by turning it into a small agricultural plot (and I have the money and I am eccentric enough to do so) that I should be able to do so?

If this is what you are suggesting, a total abolishment of land ordinance (and any exceptions would invalidate the whole principle) then I think you will find that most of the political spectrum will be arrayed against you. While many may agree with you in principle on the “free market” aspects of your suggestion, the practical realities will swamp any attempt to make a general repeal of zoning laws. Zoning and land use ordinances are frequently used to encourage greater density or other preferred land uses, however, the ultimate raison d’etre of any zoning law is to preserve land values from sudden and precipitous changes caused by the actions of any given landowner.

For most people their home is their primary (or only) asset and most will be extremely resistant to a system which could expose them to sudden drop in land values. Under your such a scheme, a developer could purchase one property in an area and convert it to some undesired use (or simply abandoning , causing a massive drop in the property values of the surrounding properties. The potential for developers and big business to exploit ordinary homeowners in such a scenario would be enormous and opposition to a total abolishment of land abolishment. If that’s not what your suggesting, perhaps you could outline what your proposed regime would be?


You are confusing two separate issues though. One is the issue of land-use restrictions, and the other is the issue of externalities. If my neighbor wants to demolish his house and build a factory, that is his prerogative. But his ability to contaminate the air I breath and pollute the landscape with noise and debris is not his prerogative.

The reason for the existence of land-use laws has nothing to do with preserving land values from precipitous drops. Its reason for existence is a bias toward the status quo. At one point in time,(when regulatory systems were not sophisticated enough to account for externalities) factories located as close to their workers as they could (good!) but they destroyed the environment that those workers lived in (bad!). So they just forced the factories to locate somewhere else…solving one problem and creating another. We have held on to these systems for absolutely no other reason than to think that things would descend into deep chaos if we got rid of them.

And to be sure, we actually have proof of some places that have gotten rid of them, and guess what? They don’t descend into deep chaos. Thats what.

Sure. The most major example is Houston, which doesn’t have zoning laws…and coincidentally they have the second highest ridership per mile on any light rail system in the US…with a TOD densification that happened much faster than the Washington DC Metro area (albeit with system sizes that aren’t very comparable).

But apart from that, there are several cities that have experimented with selective dezoning, where there is technically still a zoning code but next to zero restrictions on development. Take for example New York City, with the Chelsea, Williamsburg-Greenpoint, the southwest Bronx, Long Island City and DUMBO districts which have eliminated their M1, M2, and M3 districts and reclassified almost everything as mixed use. And despite the fact that factories are now allowed to coexist with apartment complexes, people don’t seem to mind and property values aren’t destroyed.

Of course, this assumes that there is some Platonic ideal of “demand” existing independent of choices made by governments and other powerful actors.

Houston still has “you must provide insane amounts of parking” laws, so it’s not the best argument here. Its lack of zoning is somewhat fictional.

I think we’re all going to agree here on the value of “mixed use” districts.

Only activities which are a public nuisance should be restricted in a given zone. In my locality, despite “traditional” zoning laws, the number of allowed businesses in residential districts has been steadily increased because people kept saying “But that doesn’t harm the residential character!”

Out here, the biggest issue is actually agricultural land preservation. Once you convert land into “developed” land, it can be very very hard to clean it up sufficiently to restore it to agricultural use (there’s a negative externality for you) so I support agricultural-land-preservation regulations.

I think most other purposes of zoning are better addressed by things like building codes (thick walls to keep unwanted sound out) and perhaps zone-based behavior restrictions (no loud outdoor drunken parties in quiet residential neighborhoods)

Great article and awesome graphics as well. I wish our politicians would read and learn from this post. Thank you very much.

Let me add a few points to this excellent analysis. The use of census population figures overstates the degree of acceleration in transit-oriented development in the Washington suburbs between the 1990-2000 and 2000-2010 decades. Somewhere around 2000 or maybe a little later, there was a shift in demand and prices for development near Metro stations. Earlier, office uses were more lucrative than residential; after the shift, residential uses gave a higher return then office. Because transit-oriented development opportunities (in the more upscale sectors of the Metropolis such as Arlington) are severely constrained by availability of land and regulatory approvals, the result was a sharp shift from predominantly office to predominantly residential development in these locations.

The downside of this shift is that jobs tended to migrate away from the Metro, and in particular there was a vast expansion of jobs in the corridor from Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport. Given the increased popularity of living near Metro, much of the new housing in the Orange Line corridor was occupied by reverse commuters who traveled to work by auto but used the Metro for non-work trips.

Metrorail ridership data show this trend. Total weekday am peak boardings for the stations between Courthouse and Ballston were 9939 in May 1999 and 11567 in May 2007, an increase of 16% which is much less than the population growth. (Note these stations have no parking – there is some bus access but most feeder buses in NoVa go elsewhere.) Exits from these stations on Saturday after 7 pm went from 1460 to 4797 over the same time span – an increase of 228%. (The Saturday night riders are predominantly residents, not visitors – Ballston, which has far fewer new restaurants than Clarendon and Courthouse, shows a 6.3% growth in weekday am peak and a 172% growth in Saturday evening ridership.)

These factors show the importance of expanding the transit network so that the demand for housing does not crowd out job growth near stations. The Dulles rail project addresses this issue for the Ballston corridor.

I moved a year ago from the DC area to Los Angeles. Its kind of soul-crushing to see how the majority of the people here don’t “get” transit yet the way they do in DC/MD/VA. I wish they could all visit Arlington to see firsthand the value of complete Metro system; not just for transportation but as a means to concentrate intense land uses in one place, reducing sprawl.

Chris, vapid cluelessness in Los Angeles isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. You didn’t have to come here. :>

The way things operate in California — the Bay Area is just as bad as the Southland — is that we like to create several entities at the smallest possible level and then set up solipsistic goals.

In the event that these mini-entities stop fighting and come together on a mutual goal, consensus is reached by giving everybody everything they want. (Yes, even when goals are mutually exclusive.)

To iron out contradictory goals, one entity is assigned to juggle complaints of a solipsistic constituency, fix their problem, then move on to the next solipsist.

You don’t have to make sense of it all, but if you know how to juggle, you can make a ton of money here. :>

Sure, Measure R passed with 2/3 of the vote, but I don’t think that translates into 2/3 of people “getting it”. As the local debate over the Purple Line and the Wilshire Bus lane has shown, a lot of people here suffer from “windshield perspective”, and primarily view transit as a way to reduce automobile traffic, and not as a viable alternative to driving that they could take advantage of themselves.

I think they’re nuts…I wouldn’t dream of driving here. The Rapid bus lines are fantastic and blanket the entire city, and the subway lines are great- where they exist so far. And you never, ever, ever have to worry about the kind of crowds you get on the “Orange Crush” in Virginia, or having to push past hundreds of people in Gallery Place or Metro Center. :)

The crowds that come close to those in DC are at 7th Street/Metro Center at A.M. rush hour.

The most crowded special events were for the Gold Line opening to Pasadena in 2003 (4 hour wait) and last year’s Lakers victory parade (45 minute wait to get on either a subway or Blue Line train at 7th Street Metro Center).

If a majority of L.A. people don’t get transit, then why did 2/3 of them vote for a half-cent sales tax to build a better metro system? As for development, let’s remember that all of these metro lines in L.A. are less than 21 years old, and most of them are less than 11 years old. Development isn’t going to happen instantly in L.A. while we’re in a recession.

You won’t see the kind of transit-oriented development in D.C. in L.A. It’s not because we don’t know how to make it work. It’s because we won’t let it work.

You know how I said California loves to break up policies and functions among small parts? Here are the problems.

The transit agency, Los Angeles County Metro, is really a state entity that was given no plenary powers. It can plan and operate transit service, but it cannot dictate land use and changes must be done at the consent of the cities where Metro operates.

You have many large and small California cities, plus Los Angeles County, each with its own patchwork of policies and regulations.

So when you have, say a rail line, Metro can only control the plane of space where it can check for fares. It cannot mandate any land use outside of the station. For any station-related TOD, all Metro can do is turn over real estate for the developer to comply with the city’s specific land use plans.

Alas, most cities still take the approach of modeling traffic as all automobile-created, and still assumes trips will be made with 100% automobile share. Then you’ll get suburban strip malls next to TODs.

Example: Look at this Ralphs supermarket, located less than a block from a Gold Line station. Ralphs has used the excuse that only markets in this suburban format will work, but when it opened in downtown L.A., it’s one of the best-performing in all of Southern California. (The parking is beneath the market and the entrances are on the north-south streets.)

I doubt the WMATA has planning powers. Not only does the WMATA spread over multiple municipalities it spreads over multiple counties in two states and the District of Columbia.

No. WMATA doesn’t have planning powers but entities that do are represented on the WMATA board in Virginia and DC. Local elected officials from Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax — mostly council members — are the Virginia reps. Members of the DC council are the DC reps. So that provides a link. Chris Zimmerman of Arlington was on the WMATA board, chaired the NVTA (which has some input into VRE) and sat on the Arlington council. Individuals in strategic positions matter.

The Maryland reps to the WMATA board are state-level, appointed by the Governor. The Maryland counties, therefore, don’t have a direct link to WMATA. It’s notorious that land-use decisions in Prince George’s County have been made without reference to WMATA. Hell, county transit decisions are made in PG without reference to WMATA.

Reading this post, I was wondering why the same pattern hasn’t happened at WMATA stations in Maryland yet. The governance distinction between Maryland and Virginia is an interesting point. What else is likely contributing to the lack of development at MD’s stations?

Of course, the power of municipalities to zone ultimately derives from the state power to zone, so it seems as if the state could grant an automatic TOD easement in a quarter mile radius around a Metro station.

Of course, the TIF would be on the incremental value of development over that allowed without the easement, and as an incremental value on a newly granted easement, that would be a new valuation, not tied by the bizarre tax revolt property tax system to long outdated valuations.

LA City and County are each individually huge and *do* have land use powers. I would expect good results in some of the municipalities and bad results in others. But what do I know?

Excellent post and great maps! Yonah, I’d love to know which tools and base sources you use to build your maps. This topic of transit plus land use is very important since one doesn’t exist without the other and we, and our decision makers, need to understand the systemic impacts and holistic solutions. It is important to try to quantify the costs and savings both in terms of more easily calculated monetary impacts as well as softer costs like pollution, climate change and quality of life. What did it cost to build/increase housing capacity in the Broadlands vs. Rosslyn/Ballston? Who paid or is paying those costs? Can monetary costs alone steer people toward denser living?

Can somebody reading this thread point to a display of the trends in mode splits in the census tracts of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and Crystal City? It would be nice to understand changes in travel behavior from the TOD pattern emerging.

I expect to see that the transit mode share for home-to-work trips in that corridor has dropped. What the census doesn’t capture is the mode share for non-work trips, which is going up. In broad strokes, in the 90s you lived in Ballston because it was a convenient Metro commute to a job in D.C., Rosslyn, or Crystal City. Now you live in Ballston because you’re want to live in the city but are stuck with a job in Tysons Corner or Reston.

See the Metro ridership data in my earlier comment.

Very interesting maps and article. I had not realized that the population on the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor had increased that much in comparison to the much of the rest of the inside the Beltway Northern VA areas.

I live in Sterling, VA and it will be interesting in the next decade to see the impact of the DC Metro Silver Line as it opens for the 2 phases. Wish phase 1 was already operating because the stop at Wiehle Avenue in Reston will make it convenient to travel into DC by Metro.

But the growth clusters show the effect of the big gap between the Orange and Blue/Yellow lines for rail transit coverage for inner Northern VA. The stretch along Rt. 7 from Tysons Corner to 7 Corners to Bailey’s Crossroads & Columbia Pike to the northern half Alexandria is ripe for higher density development if there were better transit options. I gather the planning for the street car along Columbia Pike to Bailey’s Crossroad is on hold. If we can’t afford to build a heavy rail Metro line, the local planners should be looking at building a light rail line running from one of the under construction Silver Line stations in Tysons Corner along the Rt. 7 corridor to near the West Falls Church station to Bailey’s Crossroads and from there to a Blue/Yellow station, either Pentagon City or maybe to the long discussed infill station at Potomac Yards. Or connect to the Metro via the reported stub tracks near the Pentagon station.

A light or heavy rail line along that route – with close to full grade separation (ok, expensive) – would result in new development and probably see a lot of additional “reverse” commuters going to work in Tysons or in the Alexandria area.

This sort of thing takes a lot of planning time. In the case of the Potomac Yards infill station, it has taken several years of negotiations between the landowners, the City and WMATA (with the neighbors pushing their noses into it as well) to decide on an appropriate cost/location for the station, how the money would be raised (special tax district), what the upzoning on the surrounding land would be. Now they have to push the EIR through on time (they’re hoping for a two year process) to keep costs and funding both on track. The station is planned to open in 2016.

If there is one thing we can pretty much count on for a major transit project in the US these days is that it will take a very long time to happen. Look at the decades spent debating and studying whether or if to build a Metro line or bus line out to Dulles Airport. And most of the route is down the median strip of a highway that was built way back with a wide median with the idea of someday running a train line on it. Then there was the tunnel debate for the route through Tysons Corner that put the entire project at risk.

How long has the Purple Line in Maryland been studied? As far I know there has not even been a seriously proposed transit line along the Rt 7 corridor between Tysons to Alexandria by WMATA or VA government agency. If they did, then it would be studied and argued over for 10 years before it got anywhere.

Yonah, quick question: you say (refering to the Ballston corridor), “Traffic along the corridor has not increased despite the large increase in population.” What measurement is that based on?

For the life of me, I cannot find the relevant study. But I did find a reference to the data in a Nelson/Nygaard study for Pasadena, CA, here.

Between 1997 and 2004, office and residential development grew by 17.5% and 21.5%, respectively, but traffic grew only by 2.3%. (So there was a small increase in total, but a decrease relative to growth.)

See page 2.

Traffic counts went down along most routes from 2000–2006. There’s virtually no stop-and-go traffic in Arlington (except short periods on the interstates, which are mostly filled with commuters from outside the Beltway, and small stretches of neighborhood streets near the Key Bridge), so the reduced counts aren’t the result of congestion tying the system into deadlock.

As a resident of Loudoun County, I would like to point out one inaccuracy in the post, which states “[I]n the Broadlands, the dominant building type of single-family homes and lack of retail and service options…” Broadlands was designed as a typical planned community with residential (including attached and multi-family housing), retail and service options. The numbers of attached and multi-family units is roughly equal to the number of detached units, and there are retail and service opportunities in the community. The office market continues to lag, although land is set aside for such uses. The point about needing to drive most places is valid, however, since it has not been built on a pedestrian scale.

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