The Democratization of Data

Map showing green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Map showing density of green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, is studying how the redevelopment of Tysons affects the pedestrian experience. The first step is collecting data. Accordingly, he is dispatching students equipped with sensors, wearable cameras and smartphone apps to monitor temperature, light levels, green cover, noise pollution and carbon monoxide emissions in ever nook and cranny of the what he calls the “archetypal American edge city.”

The goal of Fairfax County planners is to transform the autocentric mix of offices, shopping malls and plate-of-spaghetti road network from the epitome of suburban sprawl into a smart-growth poster of mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streets.


Map showing intensity of illumination.

“Tysons Corner is on the forefront of transforming suburban places into more urban places and all that entails,” says Mondscheinin an article published in UVa Today. “For city and urban planners, it is exciting, because if we densify suburbs we could reduce driving and emissions, provide more housing and make transit, walking and biking easier and more pleasant – hopefully improving public and environmental health. The Tysons Corner project embodies all of these wonderful goals.”

The data collected by students will provide on-the-ground measures of the pedestrian experience as Tysons evolves.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Mondschein says other communities can do the same thing. “With devices like these, communities could self-organize and self-initiate studies that can show what they need in an objective manner, with hard data. That can be arguably more persuasive when speaking to policymakers, fundraisers and politicians.”

(Hat tip: John Blair)


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0 responses to “The Democratization of Data

  1. This is both a good development and a silly one at the same time. No one anywhere has attempted to do what is being done in Tysons – over 40 years, turn an economically successful suburban area of 1700 acres (excludes roads) into an urban area surrounding four rail stations. For that reason alone, it’s good “outsiders” are studying Tysons. And the approach being taken is creative and could result in useful data.

    But, at the same time, the new project is full of itself. The idea that an urban Tysons will result in less traffic is beyond foolish. No one, except for the self-serving Tysons Land Use Task Force (TLUTF), ever said that with a straight face. And the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors took planning away from the TLUTF and gave it to the Planning Commission, which, in turn, by working with all stakeholders developed a reasonably good plan for Tysons to change and grown. Bottom line, the BoS refused to allow those claiming density will reduce traffic congestion to bring their plan to the approval stage.

    Moreover, the first fruits of re-zoning and construction look good. We are seeing attractive buildings being constructed around the four rail stations, with heavy emphasis on residential buildings. The workforce housing being provided has been quickly snapped up. Market-scale rental figures are respectable. Amenities are being delivered. (I attended the ribbon cutting for two soccer fields in the middle of Tysons last May and Governor McAuliffe’s bill signing ceremony to allow food trucks with permits to park on VDOT streets.) VDOT and Fairfax County are working with developers to make the area more walkable and bikeable. While most of the commercial real estate leases are companies consolidating operations for no net gain, Tysons captured the headquarters for Intelsat. A number of major hotels and retailers are coming to the redeveloping Tysons. All, including government officials, landowners, employers, developers, residents and representatives of nearby communities, must be commended for reaching consensus on a plan that is starting to work.

    But the idea beyond the academic study that Tysons will reduce traffic is absurd. Fairfax County was obligated by state law to restudy traffic impacts because the BoS approved more density than was modeled for the Tysons’ 527 TIA that was filed with VDOT in December 2009. The County, VDOT, consultants, developers and other stakeholders conducted three cutting edge studies that examined the impact of growth on transportation, not just on a building-by-building or project-by-project basis, but rather, on what happens over time if everything permitted is built. And those studies showed even more road projects are necessary. They are listed in so-called Table 7B.

    The reduction in SOV trip goals necessary to the plan are, in the views of VDOT and many others, extremely aggressive and optimistic. In out years, properties near rail stations must reduce SOV trips from what would otherwise be expected by as much as 65%. That’s taking 65 of every 100 cars going to major office buildings off the road. Think about that one. More in a separate post.

  2. The adopted plan front-loads office over residential. Despite the good start for residential development, Tysons will gain more commuters than residents for the first part of the 40-year development cycle. To lessen than impact, the County adopted an Initial Development Level for constructed and approved office of 46 MSF. An examination of approved re-zonings shows the IDL is already breached. Moreover, County Staff is proposing to remove the IDL from the Comp Plan. That suggest more, not less, traffic will occur.

    Moreover, the County Staff and some other stakeholders would like to weaken or even eliminate the 84 MSF total development trigger. Studies show, that despite rail, expanded bus service, paid parking, two new rail lines (including the expansion of the Orange Line to at least Centreville), all the road and transit projects contained in Table 7 to the Plan (now Table 7B too) that includes a grid of streets with expanded bike and pedestrian facilities, and high-quality mixed use development, and one more lane on the Beltway between Route 5 and I-66 and of, course achievement of the extremely aggressive TDMs – See Table 5 in the Comp Plan), development to 84 MSF (all types) will cause complete failure for the Beltway, the Dulles Toll Road (which is scheduled to be widened by 3 to 5 lanes), Route 7 and Route 123. Stated alternatively, once the development reaches 84 MSF, every new SOV trip to Tysons must be canceled by a new non-SOV trip. So if I’m still working in Tysons and Larry decides to unretired and drives to work in Tysons, I need to get out of my car and take the bus, rail, bike, walk or car/van pool. As a developer and former head of Tytran said “it will be many, many years, if ever before we see less auto traffic into Tysons.) The 84 MSF is a reality that needs to be on the radar screen.

    The real shame is that University of Virginia School of Architecture is treating Tysons like a pretend magic project instead of the reality it is. Unlike academics, the rest of us need to learn to manage traffic, rather than pretend urban density prevents it. Tysons can and likely will be a greater place, but it’s not Fantasyland. That’s in Orlando.

  3. Thanks for the report TMT!

    My first thought in reading this was that if you’re gonna do this then how about a control group or groups.. perhaps a suburban sprawl area and an established urban area?

    Then my second thought was about the recent comments about govt and the purpose of govt and then I was wondering if this study is essentially financed with tax dollars…

    and perhaps people would prefer to spend tax dollars on this rather than more regulation, eh?

    ugly thought, I know…


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