Sustaining DC, Restraining Cars

How Washington, DC is vying to be one of nation’s greenest cities and teach other urban areas a lesson in sustainable development and planning
Cities may be the new environmental hubs. Chicago and New York have been vying for the title of greenest city in America, and for 2013 Washington, DC has joined them, with a new plan, Sustainable DC. The idea, according to Mayor Vincent Gray, is to “make the District of Columbia the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.”

To do so, Washington, DC is focusing on seven areas: the built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, and water. Of these, transportation has been drawing attention, particularly the goal of getting automobile use down to 25% of local trips. This has led critics to charge that DC is waging a “war on cars,” but city officials describe the plan as putting other means of transportation on an equal footing with automobiles.

Everything Is Connected

Transportation is part of the Sustainable, DC plan because it’s integral to so many aspects of the environment: land development, parks, energy use, climate change, air pollution, water quality, habitat fragmentation, and human well being. “Cars make up about a third of greenhouse gas emissions,” explained Chris McCahill, Project Manager at the Congress for New Urbanism. “They’re also tied to a great deal of our energy use, most of which is due to fossil fuels.”

Public transit is also socially sustainable. “We see providing sustainable, multi-modal transportation as central to equity,” said Sam Zimbabwe, Associate Director for Policy Planning and Sustainability in DC’s Department of Transportation. “It lowers the cost of living when people don’t need a car.” He also pointed to the high rate of asthma in DC, due in part to automobile emissions.

Reducing car use in cities even seems to help the economy, according to a recent study co-authored by McCahill. “Cities that have tried to copy the suburbs by becoming friendlier to cars have not done nearly as well as cities that have embraced the advantages that urban places have,” he said. Introducing automobiles makes it “very difficult to achieve the right density,” McCahill added.

Lon Anderson, Managing Director, Public and Government Affairs, AAA MidAtlantic, however, believes that cars have a crucial place in American cities. He argues that “cars and automobility will continue to be an important part of the fabric of a vibrant downtown.”

Contrarily, David Alpert, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the popular blog Greater Greater Washington, views an excessive dependence on cars as harmful to both city and suburb. Car-oriented development “gobbles up hundreds of acres, thousands of acres,” leading to “the gray field type of sprawl,” he said.

By contrast, dense development that encourages transit, walking, and biking means “access to parks nearby, reducing air quality alert days, access to local food, more urban agriculture, reducing asthma rates, and more local jobs,” said Alpert. Cars mean less green space, less walking and interacting, and, often, a less business-friendly environment.

Putting Car Use on a Diet

Sustainable DC builds on the city’s earlier success in transit and walkability, beginning with the construction of a Metro Rail system in the 1970s. This provided the core infrastructure, but more was needed. In the past decade the city has added dense, walkable areas mixing shops and residential to take advantage of public transit. Five years ago, DC launched the United States’ premier bike sharing system, which was greatly expanded in 2010 and has since been widely copied. DC is also working on a streetcar network, set to launch by the end of this year and eventually planned to cover 37 miles.

All of this means slightly less space for cars. “We are in certain places reallocating space,” said Zimbabwe, “taking away some car lanes in some key arteries to provide space for bikes” and streetcars. However, “traffic counts are fairly flat, in some places even declining over the past five years,” largely due to limited access from nearby suburbs. In a city that’s been growing by 1,100 people a month for the past two years, ways must be found other than cars to move them. “Now, we have close-in neighborhoods where people do have choices,” said Zimbabwe. Pedestrian comfort and accessibility is also being improved.

One controversial method of reducing car use is congestion charges, making individual drivers pay for the inconvenience they cause during peak driving hours. “Putting a price on driving gives people incentive for alternatives,” said Alpert. DC is only beginning to study this question, which must be approached in conjunction with nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It’s a long process, with “many ways to do congestion charges,” said Zimbabwe. “It’s a political question as well as a policy question.”

A key element to reducing car use is reducing parking. Government has long required commercial and residential buildings to provide a certain amount of parking. “Historically zoning codes in the mid 20th century had the expectation that everyone would drive everywhere, so every building must have enough space,” said Alpert. In DC this has resulted in unused parking spaces, which can cost upwards of $50,000 each to build, a large cost to developers, which is passed on to city residents.

Exemptions on parking minimums have already occurred, and the Sustainable DC plan will accelerate this process. “District government proposed to remove parking minimums in transit rich areas downtown, to allow the market to decide how much parking,” said Zimbabwe.

Another way to reduce car use is simply to charge more for street parking, currently undervalued. Again, the market will decide, a change that Alpert described as “essentially congestion pricing for parking.” Currently, with artificially low prices, cars circle around looking for spaces, increasing congestion and hurting air quality.

Anderson, not surprisingly, disagrees. “Limiting parking further will ultimately damage the city, its businesses and quality of life in its neighborhoods as homeowners are unable to find parking near their homes, and visitors are unable to find convenient parking in the city,” he said.

The War on Cars?

DC’s effort to reduce automobile trips has led to charges, from the AAA mid-Atlantic, that DC is waging a “war on cars.” Explained Anderson, “Whether you call it a war on motorists or a campaign against cars, there no question that DC has developed a real hostility and abusive attitude towards drivers, seeking to take extreme advantage of them.”

To this charge, Zimbabwe replied that reallocating space “isn’t borne out of hostility but out of serving the diversity of demand in the district. Over half of the commute trips in the district are bike, walk, or transit today, but the space allocated on our streets isn’t consistent with this.”

Anderson further cited the proposal to eliminate parking minimums, aggressive ticketing and automated enforcement, and the arrest of motorists for driving on expired tags as parts of the campaign against cars. He also suggests that such actions are about “keeping the $100 million revenue stream flowing,” more than about safety.

Zimbabwe answered that “On enforcement, all of our activities are predicated on safety,” adding that “we had one of the safest years on record last year.” He also pointed out that two thirds of the cars on DC’s streets are not from the city. Most come from nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

Indeed, said Zimbabwe, over 38% of DC residents own no cars, while in many neighborhoods “people own more bikes than cars.” He added that “we can’t continue to grow and be successful as a city and have everyone’s only choice be to drive. We then would be choked.”

Still, it will be difficult to implement the Sustainable DC plan of adding transit and bike lanes while charging more for amenities car users have come to expect. A long, contentious struggle lies ahead. “Politically, yes it’s a challenge,” said Zimabwe. “A lot of people won’t like it. Parking is cheap, they don’t want it to change. Any change, you can talk all you want about options, somebody’s not going to like it.”