The Washington Post

Q&A with D.C. regional transportation planner


Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, participated in an online discussion Monday in which readers joined me in asking what the local governments can do to improve the commute.

Kirby and the council’s Transportation Planning Board are developing a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan. The document, still in draft form, could help us figure out what we want out of the transportation system and how to get it.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Here are some excerpts from the discussion. The full transcript is available at

Q. Robert Thomson: The Transportation Planning Board plays an important role in decision making about our traffic and transit systems, but it’s not necessarily one that many readers are familiar with. Can you give us the basic idea of what the TPB and the transportation staff do?

A. Ronald Kirby: The Transportation Planning Board has representation from all of the local jurisdictions in the Washington region, the state legislatures, the three state transportation agencies and Metro, and is responsible for coordinating regional transportation planning.

Q. Thomson: What’s the idea behind creating a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan?

A. Kirby: To identify key challenges that the region faces in meeting its transportation goals and a set of priority strategies for addressing those challenges that the public can support.

Q. Transportation: What immediate plans are there to increase the connectivity and safety for cycling as transportation in, out and around D.C.?

A. Kirby: The Washington region has an extensive and expanding system of bike trails and bike lanes. The region has been a leader in the development of Capital Bikeshare, a bike-sharing system that began in the District, has expanded to Arlington and Alexandria, and is now expanding into several other jurisdictions. The TPB also manages the twice-annual “Street Smart” campaign focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety.

Q. Thomson: Most of our transportation plans don’t include the traveling public’s point of view, but the priorities plan does. Is the public focused on “what can you do for me today” vs. “what can you do for my children”?

A. Kirby: The survey we conducted showed that the public is aware of regional transportation issues and interested in strategies that will address them, in both the short term and in the long term. In fact, they identified highway and Metro maintenance as the top regional priorities, both of which are major ongoing requirements for our region, not just short-term ones.

Q. Thomson: At the federal and state levels, there’s a great deal of interest in developing transportation plans that focus on congestion relief. Can transportation plans actually ease congestion 10 or 20 years from now?

A. Kirby: A number of strategies in the plan aim to relieve congestion on both highways and the region’s transit system. The strategies involve both managing demand on these systems — by concentrating land use and encouraging alternatives to driving alone — and expanding the capacity of highways (more express toll lanes with bus rapid transit), transit systems (all eight-car trains on Metro and station enhancements), as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. All of these components work together to ease congestion and improve mobility and accessibility.

Q. Metrorail planning: I’m not a frequent Metrorail rider. My wife is, however, and thus I get a regular dose of early-evening rants when a train gets off-loaded or single-tracking causes delays. I keep seeing proposals for continued outward expansion of the Metrorail system. At what point do we have to draw the line and say “No more” with respect to funneling ever more people into the system’s core without making improvements there?

A. Kirby: The focus of the strategies in our plan is on improving the operation of the existing system and adding capacity to the core of the system before entertaining any new proposals for further extensions of the Metrorail system.

Q. E-commerce, not just telecommuting: Many studies show vehicle-miles-traveled per capita has peaked. This is not just because of telecommuting, but tele-shopping, tele-banking, tele-chatting-with-friends, tele-bill paying, tele-rechecking-my-books-from-the-library. While mobility is important, how can we better encourage, and account, for the many ways our economy is changing due to the overwhelming role of the Internet and smartphones?

A. Kirby: The landscape is definitely changing. Our data show that total vehicle miles of travel in the region has not grown over the past few years, even though the population has continued to increase. Teleworking and other changes related to electronic communications have played a significant role. How this will play out in the long term is still uncertain, but we continue to monitor these trends and adjust our forecasts.

Q. Transportation planning vs. public behavior: I tend to watch other people when I’m stopped at red lights or when I walk or bike somewhere. So much of what I see causing congestion seems to come from bad or just plain dumb behavior.

A. Kirby: The priorities plan addresses the need to review and revise traffic laws to reflect changing travel trends such as the increased use of bicycles. The plan emphasizes the use of public education campaigns (like “Street Smart”) to promote better and more considerate behavior by drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists alike.



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