The head of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission defends driving as a valid transportation choice, despite concerns from area environmental groups that the nation relies too much on automobiles.
“People do not drive because they want to,” said Steven Williams, executive director of the TJPDC. “They have needs and to meet those needs they have to move from one place to another in some fashion.”
The group Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population invited Williams to speak Thursday as part of a forum to discuss if an increase in the region’s population is responsible for traffic congestion.
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“Managing the local population should be considered an essential part of managing transportation in this part of Central Virginia,” said David Shreve, an economic historian who serves on ASAP’s board.
“We think [it] is an essential tool to manage existing bottlenecks or [prevent] potential bottlenecks,” Shreve added.
According to the U.S. Census, the combined population of Albemarle and Charlottesville increased from 124,285 in 2000 to 142,445 in 2010. That translates into an average annual growth rate of 1.37 percent, a figure Williams said was slow compared to other areas of the United States.
Williams acknowledged that traffic is a problem on U.S. 29, but said projects such as the extension of Hillsdale Drive would help alleviate problems by offering motorists more choices.
“I would challenge the assertion that we are either growing or moving towards gridlock,” Williams said. “Gridlock is a function of capacity and if we don’t build roads, we are inevitably going to end up in gridlock simply because we’re not keeping up.”
Other panelists and audience members did not see it that way.
Transportation activist Randy Salzman said some cities in Australia have reduced automobile trips by using a special program called TravelSmart that advises motorists on how to use other forms of transportation.
“All they literally do is build a community around the fact that you can get around other ways besides your personal vehicle,” Salzman said. “We can change behavior.”
Williams, whose organization offers car-ride matching services, said most Americans choose to drive because it is cheaper and more convenient. He said many people are willing to make long commutes if it means their housing is more affordable.
“Before you can influence future policy, you have to face up to that fact,” Williams said.
The American Community Survey, conducted from 2005 to 2009, shows that 59 percent of Charlottesville residents drive by themselves to work, as well as 77 percent of Albemarle workers.
Charlottesville resident Scott Beyer said one solution would be to increase residential densities within city limits so more homes would be close to the University of Virginia and other employers.
“If we upzone existing neighborhoods, it takes away a lot of the density that gets pushed out into the suburbs,” Beyer said.
Shreve said he felt cities were efficient ways of organizing people, but not every area should become a city.
“There have to be places in this world that are different,” Shreve said. “If the people in this community decide that this place is just a little bit different than New York … then we can’t be on that same track and there’s a limit to what you can do.”
Cynthia Neff, an ASAP board member who ran against Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, in 2009, said the community needed to find a way to get developers to build more infrastructure. She said relying on developers to pay for transportation improvements through voluntary proffers has not been effective.
“The truth is there is no developer that is going to widen U.S. 29,” Neff said. “If we don’t have the money to do infrastructure … we shouldn’t approve the development.”
John Cruickshank of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club said non-motorists risk their lives to get around, especially on the U.S. 29 corridor.
“I see families with strollers running across U.S. 29 because there are no crosswalks,” Cruickshank said.
Williams said the Metropolitan Planning Organization has done much to ensure that bike lanes and sidewalks are included in plans for new roads, but transportation funding is a challenge.
“Even just building sidewalks, which seems like a relatively low-cost [project], is extremely difficult in today’s fiscal climate,” Williams said.