Snowstorm That Stranded Thousands Prompts Questions About Auto-Centric Development

After thousands of motorists spent over a day on a snowbound Virginia highway, experts are warning that auto-centric sprawl will worsen the impacts of extreme weather events.

January 6, 2022, 11:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Cars in the snow

Juanan Barros Moreno / Shutterstock

The snowstorm that stranded thousands of drivers in Virginia for over a day has prompted a reevaluation of the auto-centric policies that led so many to become trapped on Interstate 95. "Local advocates say the region’s failure to invest even more broadly in multimodal options than it already has may have set up the area for its current disaster — especially in the most far-flung suburbs, where many of D.C.’s workers live," writes Kea Wilson.

Dan Malouff, a transportation planner based in northern Virginia, points to the potential for breakdown when suburban commuter traffic gets funneled into just one major corridor. According to Malouff, "multimodal networks with multiple modes and paths to choose from are inherently more resilient than putting all of civilization’s eggs in one basket."

Experts warn that a lack of walkability and access to reliable public transit will exacerbate the effects of extreme weather in other ways, too, writes Wilson. "In so much of the DMV suburbs right now, people are finding that they can’t even get groceries the moment that vehicular infrastructure starts to break down, to say nothing of commuting into work," says M. Nolan Gray, author of the forthcoming book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. Gray recommends promoting more "resilient, mixed-use neighborhoods" that will be better equipped to deal with extreme weather events.

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