Can You Plan Your Way Our of a Traffic Nightmare?

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(Washington, DC - David Schultz, WAMU) -- Homeowners and developers, environmentalists and big businesses, motorists and pedestrians - everyone agrees.  Something must be done about Tysons Corner, the massive office park in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County.

Tysons Corner is one of the largest business districts in the country. Several Fortune 500 companies are headquartered there.

I don't have a terribly high opinion of Tysons Corner. For a little more than two years, I worked at an office located right in the heart of Tysons, less than a mile from its massive shopping mall.

Nearly every morning and every afternoon, I battled its soul-crushing traffic jams. Since Tysons is comprised almost entirely of retail and office buildings, few people actually live there. So when the working day ends, everyone gets in their cars all at the same time.

At the peak of rush hour - and especially during the dreaded holiday shopping season - it usually took four or five traffic light cycles to just to pass through an intersection. There were times when, if I didn't leave the office by 4:30, I had to wait until 7:30 to avoid the congestion.

Making matters worse, there were few other options for getting around. Public transit in Tysons Corner was paltry at best. And the area has wide roads with no sidewalks. That created a third rush hour during lunchtime, when workers would get in their cars and drive a quarter mile to the local sandwich shop.

It was a nightmare. Every time I found myself trapped in stop-and-go traffic - which was often - I cursed the regional transportation planners who, with their lassiez-faire land use policies, allowed this to happen.

Now, those regional planners have a chance to make things right.

In a few years, the D.C. subway system will expand out to Tysons Corner. To prepare for the expected boom that will accompany this, Fairfax County is undergoing a total makeover of its zoning laws.  County planners hope this will transform the area into a livable, walkable community that's not entirely dependent on the automobile.

There's a lot at stake here. Depending on how this zoning revamp shakes out, local developers could stand to lose - or gain - tens of millions of dollars.

But while the details of the new Tysons Corner are still very much up in the air, everyone agrees the status quo is unacceptable. Even Stu Mendelson, head of the usually-conservative Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, is calling for change.

"The question isn't whether we transform Tysons," he said at a recent planning commission meeting. "It's how."