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The Beltway to Easter Island

The fourth week of April provided some of the most delightful weather of 2008. On two of those days we had reason to drive the Capital Beltway in Virginia and Maryland. After over a week of off-and-on rain, the April sunshine turned the trees along the Capitol Beltway a luminous lime / chartreuse green. Still emerging, the leaves did not obscure the view of the understory dogwoods, redbud and holly which added white, purple and dark green to the forest pallet. Nor did they mask the depth and topography of the forested area along the Capital Beltway.


One can learn a lot by applying Regional Metrics to what is visible from the Beltway. Further, and to our surprise, if you know where to look, the Beltway takes one all the way to Easter Island – that isolated volcanic blip in the Southeastern Pacific where giant big-eared busts (moai) sit on impressive platforms (ahu) sporting fancy red headdresses.


Trip One
On the first trip around the Outer Loop, we were struck by the large amount of well forested land that exists immediately adjacent to the Capital Beltway asphalt. In many places the second growth Tulip Poplar and Oak are over 100 feet in height with a varied understory. There is also splendid tree cover in many of the interchange clover leaves. Besides the mature forest areas, there are also large tacks in various stages of reforestation. In addition there are areas that have been recently cleared of obsolete urban uses as well as an abundance of “underutilized” land. The land is “underutilized” because of its prime location and the level of urban support services available to the site.


Our Outer Loop trip was a delightful ride. We flew through the multi-billion dollar Springfield Interchange with its soaring ramps and bounced through the Wilson Bridge construction zone with no delays.


We were seeing the margins of the Beltway at this time of year for the first time in several years and were impressed with how much treed, open and reusable land there was visible from the Outer Loop. All this land is far inside the Clear Edge around the Core of the National Capital Subregion and all this land — thousands of acres in total — is immediately adjacent to one of the Subregion’s most heavily traveled roadways.


Our first thought was that this land resource could – in conjunction with a new METRO line and a Platform / Pyramid Station-Area Strategy — provide space for Jobs / Housing / Services / Recreation / Amenity with great Mobility and Access. (See End Note One.)


The land adjacent to the Capital Beltway in conjunction with a METRO line would support even the most “optimistic” jobs / housing “growth and development” projected for the next 40 years in the National Capital Subregion with no other land development needed.


Trip Two, a Different View
Our second trip around the Capital Beltway took place four days later on the Inner Loop. There we found just as much clearly visible forest, scrub growth and vacant / underutilized land just inside the Capitol Beltway as there was visible from the Outer Loop.


The forested and reforesting areas were just as luminous but the trip was not as smooth. Four lanes of traffic slowed thru interchange after interchange and then came to a crawl when the roadway narrowed from four lanes to three as Inner Loop traffic approached the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction zone.

What a difference between a trip using the Autonomobile “as advertised on TV,” on trip one, and one that reflects the reality of the contemporary Mobility and Access Crisis, on trip two.

More and more Autonomobile trips, especially at peak hour in the peak direction, are like our second tour of the Beltway. We had planned the travel to avoid the Beltway peaks but could not avoid the construction crunch during daylight hours on the Inner Loop.


Creeping along while burning $3.79 cent a gallon gasoline gives one a different perspective than floating along with the flow at 75 miles per hour. What were we thinking on that last trip? Why cut down all these trees and build a multi-Billion dollar METRO line?

There is more than enough land area for all the potential future development – if some or all of the projected future development ever happens – at existing METRO station-areas if only the Platform / Ziggurat Station-Area Strategy were applied. (Again, see End Note One.)

There is more than enough shared-vehicle capacity in the existing METRO system without expansion if an intelligent strategy is implemented to Balance of J / H / S / R / A at every station.


At some point citizens must abandon the tragically flawed “AM Pump In, PM Pump Out” idea around which the METRO system was originally designed. Why not make the change now and avoid the need to abandon even more dysfunctional development in the future? (For further details see the resources cited in End Note One.)
After the second trip around the Beltway we returned to our urban enclave in the Piedmont Countryside and ran the numbers. Radial Analysis documents that there was no reason to cut down those luminous trees. The intensity of use in the station-areas could be every bit as amenable at that of the new Washington Harbor project visible from the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.


Citizens just need to insist that Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions make intelligent use of the land already developed. We plan to include these observations in the upcoming Backgrounder “The Use and Management of Land.”


Mainstream Media’s Spin
On Tuesday 29 April WaPo published a story by Eric Weiss “Toll Road Project Will Bulldoze Hundreds of Trees.” It turns out the reported activity would be alarming only for the uninformed. However, the reality of tree clearing would be much more alarming if the reporter grasped the larger context of the plans for “widening” the Capital Beltway.
The 29 April story notes that the “hundreds of trees” are in two staging areas that are outside the “foot print” of the existing Beltway and these two areas are planned to be turned into Open Space uses when the Toll Road / HOT lane construction is completed.


But that is only part of the “deforestation-for-the-HOT- lanes” story — the rest was not reported in WaPo.  What is termed “the existing footprint” is the current Capital Beltway right-of-way and the out-of-right-of-way grading easements. Some of the right-of-way was never cleared, some has reforested in the 40-plus years since the Beltway was built or since more recent widenings and interchange reconfigurations took place.


There are tree buffers on the margins of the right-of-way. The area inside of many clover leaves were not cleared.


In other words there are a lot of trees in the “existing footprint.” That is especially true in existing interchanges which will all be extensively expanded and rebuilt to accommodate the HOT lanes.


When you look out from the Tower Club the largest forested areas one sees are in the Beltway-VA Route 7 Interchange.


The Bigger Picture
But there is a far more important story that also is not covered:

In the long run citizens do not need to increase the capacity of the Capitol Beltway, they need to find way to be happy and safe with less consumption of imported energy. That means less travel and more shared vehicle travel, not more cars. (See THE PROBLEM WITH CARS.)

The HOT lanes / Toll Road Project assumes that facilities need to be added to accommodate more Autonomobiles. (Yes, “assumes” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”)
As noted above there is no “need” for a fancy new Purple Line with a Platform / Ziggurat Station Area Strategy, there is no “need” to cut down any trees to provide for future “growth and development,” there is no “need” to widen the Capital Beltway.

What is needed are rational and sustainable human settlement patterns and a balance between the vehicle trip demand of the settlement patterns and the capacity of the transport system.

Why cannot MainStream Media connect the dots, even between the dots in the stories they run? Is it not clear that the end of Autonomobiles — Large, Private Vehicles as we have known them — is near?


Cannot anyone who reads the week long WaPo coverage of the world food crisis understand what is happening? Here are just a few highlights:

  • Brazilians and others are clearing carbon sequestering forest to grow sugar cane to turn into ethanol to propel Autonomobiles.
  • In the US of A farmers are re-clearing second growth from marginal lands to grow wheat, because the best wheat land is used to grow corn to turn into subsidized ethanol.
  • Most bio-strategies using crops to create Autonomobile fuel consume more energy than they produce.
  • Rising food prices due to the cost of fuel and the diversion of food to fuel are impacting every nation-state in the world.
  • There are food shortages and rationing impacting most nation-states and Wal*Mart.
  • Forests in Southeast Asia are being cleared to ship timber to China to make things to fill the wrong sized houses that have been built in the wrong locations.
  • The pre-election “solutions” by pandering politicians are to drill oil wells in very expensive locations so that there is more gasoline to burn – for a while – and to provide a gas tax “holiday” so citizens can burn more gasoline and diesel this summer.
  • Air quality is deteriorating while scattered settlement patterns generates more demand for fuel and energy.
  • The only discussion of real conservation of energy is in connection with products and services that citizens can buy to increase Mass OverConsumption.

We do not even need to get to Global Climate Change, the balance of payments, and… Is it not clear that humans must shrink their ecological footprint?
The best and fastest ways to shrink the ecological footprint are:

  • Better use the land – functional human settlement patterns, regional food production, reduction of vehicle trips, etc.
  • On the land no longer needed, let nature take its course – reforestation, especially in areas where “normal” rainfall creates verdant second and third generation forests like those along the Capital Beltway.

The View of Easter Island
But there is even more. We have included a brief summary of contextual issues so it is clear what we mean when we say one can see Easter Island from the Capital Beltway.
The view from the Capital Beltway provides a compelling way to come to grips with the Collapse of functional society on Easter Island and thus the future of the National Capital Subregion if there is not Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and Fundamental Change in governance structure.


What is this “Easter Island” reference? Jared Diamond in the best-seller “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” provides a detailed profile of Easter Island. (For a review of Diamond’s book see “Collapse,” An Appreciation,” 8 August 2005. For those who have not yet read “Collapse,” we provide below a brief summary of the sections of the book that make the Capitol Beltway / Easter Island connection clear.)


Diamond explores the question summarized in the subtitle, “how societies choose to fail or succeed,” with the same intensity he employed in his landmark book “Guns, Germs and Steel.” He devotes Part One of the book to a survey of present day Montana. We know something about Montana and concur with Diamond’s observations and conclusions about past, current and future settlement pattern and resource conservation dysfunction in Montana and the rest of the Northern Rocky Mountain Urban Support Region. (See End Note Two.)


Diamond opens Part Two with an extensive discussion of Easter Island. We have never been to Easter Island but Diamond supplies the data and references needed to understand what happened between 900 A.D. when the Easter Island was settled by Polynesians and the early Eighteenth Century (1722) when Easter Island was “discovered” by a Dutch expedition. (See End Note Three.)


For Diamond the bottom line on the Collapse of any society is:

  • Failure to make intelligent long term plans, and
  • Failure to reconsider traditional practices when conditions change.

The long and short of Diamonds’s thesis is that the Easter Island society Collapsed because of unsustainable agricultural and political / social / religious practices.

The original Polynesian settlers found Easter Island tree-covered with abundant terrestrial and marine resource in ecological Balance. Just as other Polynesian societies did (and these societies did not Collapse from internal causes), Easter Islanders cut down trees to clear land for agriculture and fuel. They also cut down trees for cremations and other ceremonies.


An additional a major use of timber was scaffolding for carving the 887 big-eared bust / statues (moai) and for rollers to move the mori and the large stones used to build over 300 platforms (ahu) upon which the moai were set. The stones weighing from 10 to over 80 tons were moved from quarries in the interior of the island to seaside locations. Scaffolding and lifting apparatus made of of timber were also needed to build the platforms and erect the moai and to place the separate red headdress on big-eared moai.
The moai carving and ahu building took place primarily between 1000 AD and 1600 AD. The society had collapsed by the time there is a record of Easter Island’s “discovery.” There may have been pre-“discovery” visits from Europeans that resulted in Small Pox or other epidemics but ecological devastation of Easter Island had already resulted in the island being unable to support anything like the peak population of up to 20,000 humans prior to the Collapse.


What happened? The Easter Islanders over-harvested their natural capital (trees) to construct political / social / religious infrastructure. Unlike other islands settled by Polynesians, Easter Island has little rainfall and a more “Mediterranean” climate. Vegetation does not grow as fast on Easter as it does on other South Pacific Islands. Lack of rainfall and low humidity resulted in less vigorous root growth which preserved and made accessible the easy-to-carve volcanic stone that was used to create the political / social / religious artifacts. Overpopulation, pandering political / zealous religious traditions resulted in burning through Easter Islands most important natural capital, the forest.


How does this relate to the Capital Beltway? Even if all the trees within a mile of the Capital Beltway were taken down, it would have little impact on the overall Washington-Baltimore New Urban Regions environment. The lesson is, however, still clear:

Over consumption of resources — in this case petroleum for fuel and asphalt and to create cement — in the context of the global trends noted above put the future of society in jeopardy and raise the prospect of a Collapse not unlike Easter Island.

What about the multi-Billion Dollar Springfield Interchange and the multi-Billion Dollar Wilson bridge widening? They are the big-eared moai. The Capital Beltway Toll Road and HOT lane widening is presumed to be needed to connect and use the capacity of these two new facilities.


A sustainable future is more complex in 2008 than creating a sustainable island culture on Easter Island in 1400 but you can see Easter Island from the Beltway if you know which you are looking at. Think about it — perhaps on a walk, though, not another ride on on the Capital Beltway.
— May 5, 2008


End Notes
(1). The Platform Strategy for a “Purple Line” around the Beltway is outlined in the Backgrounder “It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion,” 18 October 2004. The use of “Platform Station-Areas” is further articulated in “All Aboard,” 16 April 2007. The later column introduces and illustrates a “Pyramid Station-Area Strategy.” Recently it has come to our attentions that the ‘Pyramid Station-Area Strategy’ might be better called the “Ziggurat Station-Area Strategy.” The ziggurat urban form is championed by “Ecocities” advocates based on archaeological precedents from across the Globe. The ecological benefits of the stepped pyramid configuration for Cluster- and Neighborhood-scale components of urban places are impressive.
We were surprised to find that the idea for the METRO Purple Line with over-the-Beltway Platforms was first published in the mid-’80s. This strategy was articulated in the early renditions of the documents that became “It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion” most recently up dated in 2004.
(2). We grew up in Montana, went to high school there, worked five summers for the National Park Service to support undergraduate education and graduated from the University of Montana. Our uncle Gordon Thomas farmed in the Bitterroot Valley upon which Diamond focuses considerable attention in Part One. Since moving to Hawaii in 1960 we have returned to Montana often. When we were there in 2006, we paid special attention to the points Diamond raises in Collapse and believe he is on target. (See “Big (Gray, Brown) Sky Country,” 23 October 2006.)
(3). While some are uncomfortable with some of Diamond’s sweeping conclusions in his two most popular books, few question his field observations and his even handed reporting of the science-based work of others.

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