Mini-City Plan Discourages Use of Cars

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Fairfax County planners last night offered a vision for a mini-city at their westernmost Metro station that would begin to transform how people live and commute in Washington's largest suburb.

In a place where cars and growth have always gone together, the county wants to offer incentives to the residents and workers in the planned MetroWest development at the Vienna station to not even own a car -- let alone drive one.

From high-priced parking spaces to cash rewards for riding Metro, a consultant laid out a series of carrots and sticks for developer Pulte Homes to reduce by almost half the number of car trips that otherwise would be generated by 13 residential and office towers planned next to the Metro station.

If the county approves the strategies, Fairfax's controversial experiment with dense, transit-oriented development would become a laboratory for a movement in the fight against sprawl and traffic as well as a blueprint for the county's future of urban-style growth that rises up rather than out.

"We're saying to Pulte, 'Here are some things we expect you to do,' " said Katherine Ichter, the county's acting transportation chief. " 'If you don't, we'll come after you and make you take more steps.' "

If Pulte cannot reduce the possible car trips generated by the 2,250 townhouses and condominiums, stores and offices planned on 56 acres, the developer could even risk fines, transportation officials said, although any possible penalties are still under negotiation.

Many critics of MetroWest have focused on the traffic such a project would bring, even though trains will roll by its doorstep. Still, county officials acknowledge that getting people onto trains and buses will require drastic changes in behavior in a suburban car culture.

UrbanTrans, a District-based transportation management firm and the county's consultant, offered several options at a public meeting last night, including showers in offices for bike riders, personalized traffic troubleshooters for residents, handy Zipcars on the site for planned or unplanned errands, cash rewards for employees who show that they are using transit, free Smartcards and even company cars for workers to do errands at lunch.

The consultant assumes that if a project the size of MetroWest were built far from a Metro station, it would generate 1,356 new trips during the typical rush hour. According to the plan, Pulte must reduce the residential trips by 47 percent and the business trips by 25 percent.

Moreover, if the goal looks out of reach, the Board of Supervisors could require Pulte to reduce the number of homes and offices when it hears the developer's rezoning application this fall. But the consultant said that car use can be reduced dramatically at MetroWest through creativity and vigilance.

"What we're talking about is creating a financial incentive structure to attract households with fewer numbers of cars," said Kevin Luten, planning director for UrbanTrans, which was paid by Pulte through the county.

The incentives would go both ways. A condominium owner, for example, would get one parking space free but pay dearly for a second -- a big change from the county's current code, which calls for 1.6 parking spaces for each new condo.

County officials would return regularly to monitor whether the car-trip numbers are where they should be. If they aren't, Pulte could be required to pay out of a fund it negotiates with the county, a technique used in Montgomery County.

Pulte would pay for the incentives and other strategies. Eventually, they would be passed on to MetroWest's homeowners' association, which would assess fees for owners and renters.

Skeptics say no amount of cajoling will change the reality that as many as 6,000 more people will be living and working in a neighborhood that began developing decades ago. And they question whether the carrots and sticks will be enforced once Pulte builds its last condo and moves on.

"Flex hours and Metro vouchers won't stop 6,000 new people from increasing traffic congestion," said Mark Tipton, a member of Fairfax Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group pushing for fewer homes at MetroWest.

Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes the Vienna Metro area, predicted a natural self-selection of transit users who will buy into MetroWest exactly because of the access to Metro.

But Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant who lives in Falls Church, questioned whether it is possible to force people who cherish the convenience of their cars to stop using them.

"Anytime you put in a system that requires somebody to permanently change their behavior means the government has to monitor people to make sure they behave properly," Pisarski said. The idea is well-intentioned, but over the years it will fall apart, he added.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company