Although I have spent many posts detailing the Planning Board’s and the Council’s extreme failure to conduct proper and inclusive consultation, the central problem with Thrive 2050 is that it is backward rather than forward thinking. Why is this?
Telecommuting was a trend even before COVID-19 but the pandemic has accelerated it on steroids. The 2022 Council of Governments survey of nearly 8400 employed area residents revealed that telework is way up. Since 2019, 60% have started or increased telework and 32% have shifted to full-time telework.
It is not just the number of people who telework that has skyrocketed. People who telework now go to the office much less frequently than in the past with the average number of telework days increasing from 1.2 in 2019 to 3.4 in 2022. The percentage of all workers who telework on a typical workday has jumped from 9% to 44%.
Much of this shift is permanent. The survey reveals that workers like telework and want to do it more, not less. But Thrive barely touches on the subject except to say generically that we should encourage it and that we need digital infrastructure to support it.
Will people who work from home desire more space and prioritize access to green space? Will businesses leverage increased telework by renting less commercial space? This “forward thinking” document that is supposed to guide zoning and building patterns has literally nothing to say about this major sea change in work and living patterns that is going to shape either residential or commercial preferences.
Thrive calls for ever more public transit but completely ignores that public transit use has plummeted. Even before the pandemic, it was down and recovery in terms of the number of people riding has remained very weak. Yet Thrive sees building more public transit (oddly referred to as “transitways”) as the future even as we are having the trouble finding money to sustain the existing Metrorail and Metrobus systems with the last round of major increases in dedicated funding proving insufficient.
Even before the pandemic Metro ridership had declined. In 2019, Metro ridership at Bethesda, Medical Center, White Flint and Silver Spring was down 14%, 13%, 16% and 13%, respectively, from the peak over ten years ago. By 2019, Ride-On bus ridership declined 21% from 2010 levels. These numbers underestimate the pre-pandemic slide as the region’s population has continued to grow muscularly so we would expect ridership to increase.
The statistics from 2022 indicate that people are not rushing back even as the world returns to a new post-pandemic new normal. Based on numbers through August, Metrorail daily boardings remain roughly two-thirds below even anemic 2019 levels.
It’s reasonable to hope that these numbers continue to improve, as many are still put off from riding due to the pandemic, but telework is here to stay. At the same time, the Council of Governments survey indicates that people who ride public transit like their commutes the least. Satisfaction rates for people who ride Metrorail have fallen to 46% from 56% in 2019. People who ride the bus are even less happy with satisfaction dropping to 44% from 62% in 2019. In contrast, people who drive are more satisfied with their commutes.
My point is not that we should abandon public transit. But for Thrive to completely ignore these fundamental changes in transportation patterns while it continues to promote options that an ever-smaller share of our population elect to use is foolhardy.
When I spoke before the pandemic with former Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, who essentially wrote Thrive, he was well aware of the rise in telework and decline of transit. Yet Thrive gives no consideration to either. Anderson’s argument was that we need new transit to encourage developers to build even though people are riding it less and plenty of existing stations lack significant development. Yet last year, Anderson argued for subsidies to persuade developers to build this same housing near Metro.
Much of Thrive sensibly proposes more density near existing public transit centers to maximize our use of this heavy investment. The Council made a step in the right direction by voting to remove River Road outside the Beltway from being designated a growth corridor because it lacks public transit. Yet they also voted to keep the section inside the Beltway a growth corridor because “public transit could be built there.”
Except we could theoretically build public transit anywhere. It’s just dotty to designate an area with no planned new public transit a growth corridor when there are plenty of existing underutilized public transit centers. It contravenes every intelligent smart growth principle to promote density away from transit. The Council should continue to focus density in existing transit nodes.
Trickle-Down Affordable Housing
Thrive advocates a trickle-down economics approach to affordable housing. First, there continues to be an almost touching belief that “if we zone it, they will come” even though much land already zoned for high density development remains unbuilt. Second, if we increase the supply, the people at the lower end will automatically benefit through lower prices.
There is little evidence to support either premise. Hans Riemer expressed not too long ago that he didn’t know why there was so much opposition to Thrive because it just extended our existing policies in these areas. This candor inadvertently made clear that Thrive proposes to continue a strategy that isn’t working to produce affordable housing. Thrive increasingly refers to “missing middle” and even “attainable housing” in tacit recognition of this fact.
Even worse, Thrive actively encourages the displacement of lower income residents from already existing affordable housing. It promotes the replacement of naturally existing affordable units with higher density that will include MPDUs. Except MPDUs are “moderately priced” which is more expensive than “affordable.” And where exactly are the displaced residents supposed to go? Yet this zombie parody of social justice is trumpeted as progress.
Yes to allowing more units. But we need to protect existing affordable units even as we build more.
Thrive is supposed to plan for our future. Instead, it is a backward looking document that doesn’t take into key changes that are already dramatically altering how we live. My own view is that this is the result of insider-driven overly ideological process that systematically excluded meaningful public consultation or input.
This is a pity because, with some significant modifications, Thrive would likely be on the right track and gain real public buy-in instead of remaining an illegitimate, poorly thought out document that reflects ideological fervor rather than what our future really looks like or what residents want to see in Montgomery County.