Traffic is an issue that everybody in Northern Virginia can relate to. Economic growth has made NoVA a desirable place to live, challenging a road network that didn’t anticipate the boom. The knee jerk reaction to unforgiving traffic can often be to jump to solutions that are centered on cars and roads. However, experts agree that approaches like widening roads often fall short or even make traffic worse. Instead, solutions that focus on housing are in many situations a better way forward for addressing traffic in a comprehensive way.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a regional shortage of available and affordable housing has coincided with traffic issues. These intertwine most when housing shortages in job-rich, fast-growing areas push out residents and contribute to suburban sprawl. As the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy writes: “There is considerable evidence that conventional dispersed, auto-centric development patterns (aka “sprawl”) are inefficient, wasteful of land and natural resources, and difficult to sustain. In contrast, community designs that emphasize higher-density/more compact forms...have been shown to reduce auto reliance, cut average trip lengths, and reduce vehicle miles of travel.” In 2015, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated that sprawl costs Americans more than $1 trillion per year.
To curb sprawl, I introduced HB152 and HB151 in Virginia’s General Assembly. These bills would legalize modest forms of higher-density housing in places that are already zoned for single-family, low-density housing only. At first, it may be easy to assume that adding housing to the area would make traffic worse . But traffic isn’t a question of more vs. less growth. Rather, traffic comes down to smart vs. wasteful growth.
If housing isn’t available in job-centers because zoning doesn’t permit it, the only place left for many to go is into new subdivisions farther out into the suburbs, increasing their drive time to work. And driving is often the only option because low-density development does not yield itself to valuable alternatives like biking, walking, or taking the bus. Plus, when housing is sprawled out rather than clustered together, it makes it harder and less efficient to utilize Metro and develop new rail systems that can connect the region and reduce car-reliance.
It’s clear that by legalizing more high-density housing in the neighborhoods that people want to live in, we can help tackle the dual problems of affordable housing and frustrating traffic. It’s time to listen to the experts and be innovative with how we leverage land use to make life better for Virginians.