Arlington County Car Counts Revisited

Comments at Arlington County Board Meeting, January 21, 2023.

At the December 12 Planning Commission meeting, I disputed Katie Cristol’s claim that “the number of cars on the road has actually declined in real terms not even per capita terms” by quoting VDOT numbers showing that the number of vehicle miles traveled on Arlington’s secondary roads almost doubled from 2002 to 2019. I also quoted Census numbers indicating that per capita vehicle ownership has remained constant as the population of the County has increased, meaning 25 percent more cars. Two Missing Middle advocates challenged my numbers, arguing that daily vehicle miles traveled (DMVT) on all county roads actually declined from 2003 to 2021.

So whose numbers are right?

According to VDOT reports, DVMT increased substantially between 2002 and 2004, then plateaued at the 2004 level through 2019—going up or down by small amounts every year. In 2020 DVMT cratered to levels not seen since 2002, obviously due to the pandemic. In 2021 DVMT was only slightly larger than the year before.

These numbers are consistent with the advent of remote work, which means fewer cars on county roads. Remote work also means a lot less demand for housing near DC. The typical government worker can report to work from Ashburn as easily as he/she can from Arlington. If there is a need to travel into DC for work or pleasure, 6 new Metrorail stations have recently opened in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties.

Before embarking on a plan to densify the County, decision makers should determine whether the demand for Missing Middle housing actually exists. The County needs to forecast future housing demand, taking recent changes in work habits into account.