The point that highways are built speculatively all the time while transit is not is a very good one, and one which never fails to get my goat. But I think it’s worth emphasizing that speculative transit isn’t really about building lines into the wilderness. It’s about building lines into places people already live in order to take better advantage of valuable land there.
For instance, if we imagine a sunbelt boomtown, it’s easy to see an exurban ring road being built to accommodate “future development.” At the same time, a rail transit system through the downtown area would be nixed in a heartbeat because that area lacked an appropriate density for transit. But transportation linkages shape development whether they’re road or rail. When you fail to use the same speculative criteria for one mode that you do for another, you are making a judgment about what kind of development is appropriate. For decades, government has essentially said that in the overwhelming majority of cases, auto-oriented development is appropriate and nothing else. Considering the effects of that decision, it must be one of the most momentous government interventions of all time.
This is an excellent point, and one that ought to be further explored within the DC metropolitan region. We can build roads to support future development, but rails? Forget it. Furthering this point, Richard Layman had a good post on the sort of fundamental paradigm shifts we will to need to undergo in order to take the economic and environmental burden out of transit provision.
But if we could build rails anticipating future developments, I believe areas such as incorporated, close-in, traditionally-built suburban towns ought to be among the to speculate transit expansions. Incorporated towns because the local government may have a shorter route to approving smarter development around transit, close in so that they are relevant to the heart of the transit system, and traditionally-built neighborhoods because the open connectivity is conducive to residents reaching the transit station. Places like Hyattsville, Takoma Park, Kensington, Falls Church, and Forest Heights ought to be considered for such speculation.
I have been toying around in Google Earth trying to imagine a transit system for the DC area that would make it easy to live anywhere in the region without a car, much like Manhattan. It is probably not a very feasible system, with 14 lines and 550+ miles of heavy and light rail track, plus the fact that my quasi-scientific formulas for designing my system have no way of predicting ridership or optimal routes. But I'm kind of curious as to why the DC metropolitan area and other cities aren't advocating for such a system that takes cars off the roads.
The extremely ambitious highway plan of half a century ago makes such a system of passenger trains seem rather small. Freeway revolts nixed much of the more detrimental inner city freeways, however much of the freeway infrastructure in our region has come to fruition. Remember, freeways don't necessarily have to be interstates (much like Metro doesn't necessarily have to be heavy rail, it can be light rail)
Below, I've listed the limited access divided freeways of our region (DC, plus Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax and northeastern Prince William County and Alexandria City) Lengths approximate:
Mostly or completely pure freeway:
I-95 Maryland (College Park to Howard County) 8 miles
MD/DC-295, Balt-Wash Parkway (Anacostia to Fort Meade) 21 miles
I-495, Capital Beltway (loop around the city) 66 miles
I-270 (Bethesda to Frederick) 33 miles
I-95/395, Shirley Highway (Dale City to Downtown) 26 miles
I-295, Anacostia/Southeast Freeway (Oxon Hill to Downtown) 8 miles
Suitland Parkway (Anacostia to Andrews AFB) 10 miles
US-50, John Hanson Highway (Cheverly to Annapolis) 25 miles
US-50, Arlington Boulevard (Merrifield to The Mall) 11 miles
I-66 Custis Memorial Freeway (Gainesville to The Mall) 32 miles
Clara Barton Parkway (Georgetown to Potomac, MD) 10 miles
I-370/MD-200, Intercounty Connector (Gaithersburg to Laurel, under construction) 18 miles
George Washington Memorial Parkway (Alexandria to Great Falls) 15 miles
Dulles Toll Road/Greenway (Arlington to Loudon County) 16 miles
Key Br/Whitehurst Fwy/Potomac River Fwy (Rosslyn to The Mall) 2 miles
US-29, Columbia Pike (Silver Spring to Howard County) 11 miles
MD-4 Pennsylvania Avenue (Suitland to Anne Arundel County) 11 miles
MD-5 Branch Avenue (Suitland to Brandywine) 12 miles
VA-28 Sully Road (Manassas to Dulles International Airport) 21 miles
Montrose Parkway (Rockville) 4 Miles
Rock Creek Parkway (Woodley Park to The Mall) 3 miles
Rapidly becoming pure freeways:
US-301, Blue Star Memorial Highway (Bowie to Waldorf) 26 miles
MD-210, Indian Head Highway (Forest Heights to Accokeek) 11 miles
VA-7100, Fairfax County Parkway (Herndon to Springfield) 35 miles
VA-3000, Prince William Parkway (Woodbridge to Manassas) 16 miles
451 miles of freeway in Washington DC and adjacent counties. Sure makes the downtown sections that didn't get built seem like small apples. This doesn't include "mini freeways" embedded into the traffic system. It does not include the express tunnels on North Capitol, South Capitol, Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, or K Street. Nor do they include spur freeways like the Cabin John Parkway, 270 spur, Spout Run Parkway, or the E Street Expressway. Nor does it include roads that become freeways for short stretches, like Central Avenue in Largo, Military Road west of 14th Street, North Capitol Street north of the Hospitals, or Franconia Road in Springfield. Nor does it include interchanges at non-freeways, like Tyson's Corner, Glenmont, University Boulevard at Route 1, or Kingle Road. Nor does it take into account express lanes, HOV lanes, or exit ramps. I figure all of this combined ought to add up to at least 100 miles.
I'm curious about the percentage of area residents that live within walking distance to fixed transit versus the percentage of area residents that live within walking distance to a freeway or an interchange. I'd be willing to bet that the latter is the larger number. If highways can have their 550 miles of coverage, why not rails?
Perhaps highway advocates threw a bunch of ideas at the wall to see what stuck. Perhaps it was the relentless lobbying. But whatever it is, it is the highway lobby had more ambition than our current transit advocacy currently exudes. If we can emulate one thing from the freeway lobby of the mid-20th Century, it is the ambitious fortitude with which they lobbied for what ultimately became the largest public works project in world history.
I'm not going to settle for a transit system that doesn't allow most of the metropolitan area to survive without an automobile. I'm going to keep pushing for my 550 miles of fixed rail.