College and Gridlock

I knew during high school that I wanted to make a living in radio or television but I was undecided what education path to take, so I changed majors several times in college. One of my choices was Urban Studies. I was and still am interested in how cities develop and what can be done to make intelligent planning choices. However it does not take a college degree to see that most urban areas developed haphazardly and overall regional planning nearly always takes a back seat to individual jurisdictional considerations.

All it really takes to come to that conclusion is to experience traffic gridlock in the afternoon commute between a work place ten miles northwest of Washington DC and a home 42 more miles northwest. The specific gridlock I refer to is my 2-hour drive home today. That’s how long it took using an alternate route because the main route, I-270, was completely shut down due to a gas main break at a construction site.

The reason I bring up planning issues is because that stretch of Interstate Highway is the 2nd or 3rd busiest commuter route in the DC region and there is only one parallel alternate route. It too was gridlocked. There are limited mass transit options along that corridor, many towns have sprung up along those highways during the past 15 years and there is no apparent plan to alleviate the congestion other than to eventually add more lanes to the main road.

My alternate route home involved some other more rural routes, but those were also jammed. A severe thunderstorm or two complicated matters further.

Urban planners can’t always predict how areas will grow, but it has been clear for a long time that growth was inevitable and each of these towns in these adjacent counties could have communicated with each other and formulated a better plan. But mostly competing factions moved forward with little consideration of the overall needs of the area. Different towns and counties compete for businesses that will bring jobs, approve the projects and start construction. Build it and they will come. Meanwhile the infrastructure isn’t there to support that growth … inadequate roads, utilities, etc. Other developers buy up former farm land and build housing for the people who will work at these new businesses … one subdivision here, another there, no plan for connecting to the major transportation arteries, no mass transit option. Yet another group, the long-time residents of the area, go into “not in my backyard” mode, resisting development. All of these factions have merit. You can’t stop growth. But you can plan it. And they don’t.

And those of us who move further away from work to get further away from the sprawl end up contributing to it instead. And we’re stuck with insanely long commutes when any one thing goes wrong.

One solution is to live closer to where you work. That is one option I’m working on for me. I’ll keep you posted.

I wonder if I had chosen to continue with Urban Studies if I would be any better at planning than the people who mismanaged planning in this region.