Magazine article The World and I

Measuring the Sprawl - Washington, D.C., as a Case Study

Magazine article The World and I

Measuring the Sprawl - Washington, D.C., as a Case Study

Article excerpt

The greater Washington, D.C., area offers a typical example of both the phenomenon of sprawl and the trade-offs and limitations of various proposed solutions. Growth in the greater Washington metro area (which includes the Virginia and Maryland suburbs) during the 1990s has actually slowed to about half the pace of the 1960s and '70s, but the controversy over sprawl in the suburbs is at fever pitch. And contrary to popular perception, population density has remained fairly constant at about 3,400 people per square mile, which is close to the national median for all metro areas with greater than 100,000 population.

One of the factors driving the reshaping of the American metropolis over the last generation has been the predominance of new business activity in the suburbs instead of the old downtown central business district. Since 1970, some 80 percent of new jobs and office space have been generated in the suburbs.

Although downtown Washington has added jobs (even as it has steadily lost residents), far more jobs have been created in the suburban areas of Tyson's Corner and the Dulles corridor in Virginia and along the I-- 270 corridor in Maryland. This means that most commuting is no longer suburb-to-downtown but rather suburb-to-suburb.

With a couple minor exceptions, however, Washington hasn't built any major new freeways in the last 15 years. While vehicle miles traveled on Washington-area freeways have increased by more than 100 percent since 1982, the lane miles of new freeway have increased only about 40 percent. That is a recipe for congestion. According to Federal Highway Administration figures, 70 percent of the freeways in the area are rated as either "severely" or "extremely" congested, making Washington the second-worst congested city in the nation after Los Angeles.

Old model rail system

Instead of building new expressways, Washington poured billions into its rail transit system, which is organized like rail transit systems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that is, radially from the central city, intended to serve suburb-to-city-center commuters. …

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