Virginia is for Lovers…and Amazon HQ2: How DC Metro Communities and Commuters are Preparing

JBG Smith

In September 2017, major metropolitan areas began their battle to win Amazon’s bid as the next headquarters (HQ2) location. The Seattle-based online retailer that shaped the way people shop presented an opportunity for cities to rebrand themselves, and 238 US and Canadian cities, from Boston to Anchorage, responded with bids of all shapes and sizes. Applicants got creative, pulling stunts like sending a 21-foot cactus gift to the Seattle Amazon headquarters (Tucson, Arizona) and renaming their town “Amazon” (formerly known as Stonecrest, Georgia) to win the what Curbed dubbed “an urbanist’s Super Bowl”.

The yearlong public contest came to an end in November 2018, when Amazon announced its decision to develop Amazon HQ2 in three new locations: one Amazon HQ2 in Long Island City, Queens and another in Northern Virginia, plus a 5,000-employee office in Nashville, Tennessee. The decision was met with fierce local opposition from politicians, government officials and residents concerned over housing prices, public transit systems and the already overburdened interstate highways. Amazon ultimately settled on one location: the newly branded National Landing in Northern Virginia (NoVa). Within National Landing, there will be three “connected urban districts”: two in Arlington (Pentagon City and Crystal City) and one in Alexandria (Potomac Yard).

Over 500 community stakeholders and elected officials collaborated for 14 months to win the battle for HQ2. Now, those groups are tackling a new to-do list that addresses frequent and reliable local transportation, affordable housing availability and environmentally-sustainable infrastructure to accommodate the immense growth that the tech giant will bring. Team Openbay is focused on getting drivers from point A to B safely, comfortably and economically, so we investigated how metro communities and commuters are preparing for the change.

The District’s Transportation Woes

DC drivers are no strangers to gridlock and bottlenecks, especially during rush-hour. Every year, more than 45 billion miles of vehicle travel occur in the region. The inner loop of the Beltway, George Washington Parkway, I-395 and Fairfax County Parkway are some of the biggest culprits of deadlock traffic. According to the INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, Washington, DC is the 19th most congested city in the world and the 2nd most congested in the US. DC drivers spend an average of 155 hours per year stuck in congestion, almost a full day longer than New York City commuters. This time lost in traffic costs the region’s economy $4.6 billion, which equates to nearly $2,000 per local driver. The District has over 1,100 miles of roadways, with less than 15 miles of freeways. Therefore, the efficiency of the transportation system is largely dictated by how effectively the arterial roadways operate.

The Good News for DC Commuters

Commuters can rest assured that Virginia is taking the right measures to prepare for an influx of new HQ2 workers. In exchange for Amazon’s promise of creating at least 25,000 jobs in coming years, the Commonwealth of Virginia plans to invest up to $295 million in upgrading roadways, pedestrian thoroughfares and Metro stations to accommodate growth. Arlington County and the City of Alexandria are budgeting an additional $570 million for new streets, rail connections, and transit facilities. The Commonwealth’s list of transportation infrastructure priorities includes:

  • New entrances to the Metro stations at Crystal City and Potomac Yard
  • Improvements to Route 1
  • A connector pedestrian bridge from National Landing to Reagan National Airport
  • A transitway expansion supporting Pentagon City, Crystal City and Potomac Yard
  • An expansion of the Metroway bus system

Amazon’s upcoming arrival sheds new life and urgency into several long-awaited projects. While all eyes are on the HQ2-focused initiatives, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority assured the public that Amazon HQ2 will not impede progress with projects elsewhere in the state. Monica Backmon, Executive Director, explained that “we don’t focus on any one particular area in Northern Virginia because the needs are everywhere.”

In fact, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) recently announced a new public-private collaboration to create smart regional growth in Greater Washington and become the nation’s leading digitally enabled region. The group, consisting of governments, companies, investors, nonprofits, and academic institutions, will explore a wide range of smart applications, such as smart traffic lights to better manage traffic flow and make the region’s streets safer. A McKinsey Global Institute study found that by 2025, cities that implement smart-mobility applications have the potential to cut commuting times by 15 to 20 percent on average. With all eyes on DC, we may even see it become one of the first smart cities in the US, using digital solutions to pave the path for a more livable future.

Even Better News

Mobility investment is a gradual process, and over the past decade, Crystal City officials followed specific plans to sustainably accommodate future growth long before the city was selected for HQ2. The Crystal City Sector Plan 2010 multimodal transportation study modeled how an additional 35,000 employees would get to Crystal City, which led to the 2014 debut of Metroway, the region’s first bus rapid transit. The Sector Plan also proposes turning Route 1 into an “urban boulevard” directing traffic “primarily to arterial streets to minimize adverse impacts of cut through traffic into surrounding neighborhoods.” Route 1 as an urban boulevard will also make it more pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly, tearing down overpasses and making wide, welcoming sidewalks. Citizen-approved growth plans for the areas that comprise National Landing call for transit-oriented, walkable, mixed-use urban environments, and they envision considerably more growth than HQ2 represents.

Plus, hiring will be more gradual than skeptics might expect. According to a 25-page agreement with the state of Virginia, Amazon plans to hire 400 people in 2019, 1,180 in 2020 and create a minimum of 25,000 jobs by 2030. The DC Metro is a leader in multimodal travel and officials are assuring communities that the transit system is fully capable of accommodating the gradual influx of Amazon workers. At the moment, there is plenty of parking available for Crystal City residents and commuters alike and the neighborhood is accessible via all forms of transportation: Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines, a VRE station, and ten bus routes to points in Arlington, DC, Fairfax, and Prince William counties —including Metroway. The above improvements will only make this “transit-rich” hub even better.

Virginia: The Birthplace of Ridesharing

Virginia’s Fairfax County also happens to be the birthplace of ridesharing, better known as “slugging”, “instant carpooling” or “casual carpooling” in DC and NoVa. Slugging was created by commuters for commuters in 1975. National Landing explains, “Each morning, commuters line up in 21 parking lots across the region, where an estimated 6,570 ‘slugs’— drivers with seats to spare — pick up fellow commuters for the daily drive. Defined by a highly organized system of rules and etiquette, slugging remains popular with commuters across NOVA — and totally free!” It’s mutually beneficial since “slugs” get to and from work faster than taking a bus, metro or train and drivers can avoid traffic by using the 3-person minimum HOV lane.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Up until about 2010, housing production kept pace with metro Washington population growth. Then, between 2010 and 2016, the DC area outpaced the 10 largest US metropolitan areas, with the population growing 9.1 percent, compared with 5.8 percent in other big cities. During this time, the area’s economy shifted away from their previous dependencies on federal government spending to drive their growth. Amazon’s presence with continue to shift this balance even further. With that said, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) estimates that the metro Washington region needs 235,000 more housing units by 2025 to keep up with expected job and population growth. Currently, within a five mile radius of the future HQ2 location in National Landing, there are nearly 400,000 apartments, condos, houses and townhouses, with 40,000 more in the pipeline. With the incremental influx of Amazon employees, housing preferences and locations will differ, which means that the housing impacts will be geographically dispersed and gradual. Plus, the average HQ2 employee wage will be about $150,000, which means that these households can afford new construction.

The DC metro region population is expected to reach nearly 6.9 million by 2045, a 26 percent increase over a 30-year period (2015 to 2045). Population growth will spark changes in transportation preferences over time. Visualize 2045 suggests that in 2045, automobiles will continue to be the primary mode of travel in the region. Today, solo driving is the most common choice, but that will shift in 2045, with HOV trips becoming the more popular option. For work trips, commuters are more likely to drive alone than to use any other mode, both today and in 2045.

Greater Washington Gentrification Concerns

San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle are all prosperous, tech-centered cities. They also hold the top three spots in a Bloomberg News census analysis of the cities with the widest income gap between the richest 20 percent of households and the poorest 20 percent. Desirable economic growth can also create an undesirable gap between affluent and low-income residents. An article in The Hill says, “[Amazon] employees stationed in Virginia will make an average salary of $150,000 — almost 50 percent more than the median household income for Arlington ($108,706 in 2016) and close to 100 percent more than the median household income in D.C. ($75,506).” With the advent of a specialized workforce, increased economic development and higher real estate prices, poorer residents are expressing concerns over getting priced out of their neighborhood and replaced by wealthier residents. The demand for affordable housing is not a new concept to the DC region. Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University and expert on housing explains that Amazon’s presence has  “given some impetus to efforts already underway regionwide to increase the supply and protect existing units.” Similarly to the transportation projects explained earlier, Amazon’s presence will draw attention and urgency for affordable housing.

Happily Ever After Ending

The greater Washington, DC area is consistently ranked as one of the country’s “most livable” communities for people of all ages, particularly Arlington, Alexandria and Silver Spring. The digital tech workforce in the Capital Region, which spans from Baltimore to Richmond, is the third largest in the country and students within the region earn more digital tech bachelor’s degrees than in any other region in the United States. Amazon’s strategic decision was based on many factors, with liveability, education/workforce, housing and transportation infrastructure at the forefront of decision-making.

With all things considered, Amazon’s HQ2 will breath new life and shed a new light onto long-awaited transportation and housing projects in the metro DC area. Federal, local and state governments have been preparing for a steady population growth long before HQ2 came into the mix. Leaders are expressing confidence in the region’s ability to handle the influx of workers. In fact, the new public-private partnership to make DC a “smart city” will take the region’s transportation system to the next level.

Whether you’re driving DC’s Beltway, slugging on the Fairfax County Parkway, or simply exploring your options for auto service in your neighborhood, Openbay is here to make it easier than ever. Get started with a special offer for DC, VA and MD residents: $20 off EVERY auto service booked, now until May 31st.

16 comments

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