Can Tysons be Fixed?

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote about planning issues in Northern Virginia on Marginal Revolution.  He compares Tysons Corner to Clarendon, demonstrating the importance of street layout in urban development. While the two areas are geographically close DC suburbs, they have very different atmospheres because Clarendon has successfully fostered pedestrian-friendly mixed use development, while Tysons has a lower residential density, fewer public transportation options, and roads that are much more difficult to traverse on foot.

Fairfax County planners are in the process of creating a redevelopment plan, promoted as a way to make the area more urban and less car-dependent. Cowen points out that simply providing incentives for higher residential density will not necessarily give Tyson’s the vibrant street life experienced in Clarendon:

The whole area is carved up by major roads, including three significant highways, one of which could be called massive.  Try crossing Rt. 123 at Tysons Corner or try crossing Rt.7. Even some of the “small” roads on this map are harder to cross than is the main Clarendon/Wilson thruway in Arlington.  It’s not just the roads and the overpasses; crossing or circumventing either major shopping center is a daunting experience.  Furthermore very little is laid out in a line and thus the presence of Metro stops (right now there aren’t any) would not cover the area nearly as well as they do in central Arlington.

Even for those not familiar with these Northern Virginia suburbs, Cowen’s description of Tysons probably conjures images of urban sprawl problems across the country. On his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent responded to Cowen:

At any rate, it does seem odd that once again, we have a libertarian-ish figure cheering on the planners’ decision to artificially reduce density.

It has been widely asserted by writers such as Will Wilkinson that libertarians tend to support government incentives that favor roads and driving as opposed to public transit, even though both require taxing, spending, and distortions of the free market.  This larger issue may be a relevant point for debate in future developments. In existing suburbs, it remains true that existing traffic patterns that are not navigable on foot are difficult, or at any rate very costly, to redesign into bustling city neighborhoods.

For creating blocks that support high residential density and mixed use, Jane Jacobs recommends short blocks and small streets, similar to those witnessed in Clarendon, although it is easy to imagine that she would like to see much wider sidewalks even there. However, it is worth considering whether her policy recommendations would be feasible in a place like Tysons where land value is very high and the urban geography is already completely designed for transit by car.

Cowen recommends focusing on new, more urbanist developments in other parts of Northern Virginia that are currently less built up than Tysons, which may make more sense. Working within the municipal government confines that currently rule streets and zoning, cost benefit analysis must be relied upon instead of market signals.