Sustainability Meets Covid in Washington, DC: Will Good Come Of It?

The Covid 19 crisis has spurred a rethinking of sustainability issues, particularly regarding equity. In our nation’s capital, this means building upon, and changing the trajectory of, the Sustainable DC 2.0 plan that DC passed in early 2018, which sets out to make “the District of Columbia the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the country.”  The crisis has altered the way the city, and its people, handle critical issues, including sustainability goals, and DC government has scrambled and innovated to respond.

The Sustainable DC 2.0 plan includes 167 actions across 13 topics, including equity, climate, food, water, health, transportation, and nature.  Of these, equity looms large since the pandemic has revealed great disparities, with Black and Latinx people dying at disproportionate rates due to underlying health and environmental issues.  The crisis has revealed that the District was heading in the right direction with its sustainability goals, but needs to accomplish them faster and more comprehensively.

The Most Vulnerable Suffer

Even in 2018, Sustainability 2.0 explains, “Black residents in the District [were} six times more likely than white residents to die from diabetes-related health problems” and “twice as likely to suffer from high blood pressure than other racial groups.”  Furthermore, a Harvard study has revealed a significant link between air pollution and Covid-19 fatalities.  Nationwide, a July 2020 study in Annals of Epidemiology revealed that 20% of counties are disproportionately black, but these “accounted for 52% of COVID-19 diagnoses and 58% of COVID-19 deaths nationally.” Increased air pollution in vulnerable neighborhoods helped set the stage for brutal, inequitable Covid 19 outcomes.

Covid 19 was further spread because vulnerable communities tend to work in, for instance, food service, which has meant contact with diverse people throughout the day.  And low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods tend to have less access to health care and fresh groceries and have lower air quality, both outdoors and indoors.  As Caroline Howe, Sustainable DC Program Analyst, told me, “Covid has really shined a light on the inequities in our world—around food access, around access to health, around preexisting conditions, many of which come from environmental factors.”

The DC government has responded, in part, by working to improve air quality.  Plans to increase clean energy generation, decrease car use, and plant trees will help.  Howe also pointed to anti-idling measures that will nudge vulnerable neighborhoods toward fresher, healthier air.

Indoor air quality is also a huge problem. Sustainable DC 2.0 calls for green buildings that protect human health, but admits that there is not currently enough affordable housing and healthy housing.  The plan includes “goals for retrofitting, particularly . . . in public housing,” ensuring “regular audits for mold, as well as lead, and making sure all buildings are safe,” said Howe.

Still another issue that has plagued vulnerable communities is access to fresh, affordable food.  Sustainability 2.0 already includes a plan for more urban farms and community gardens, including school gardens. However, Covid has spurred an immediate crisis. Many kids depended on schools for at least one meal a day, and as many as three, and Howe pointed to electronic benefit programs that took up the slack when these programs disappeared.  These programs might otherwise have taken years to go online, but Covid forced the change.

One “success is really seeing the DC business community come together around food access,” said Howe. She lauded emergency measures that saved “thousands of pounds of food” that would otherwise have gone to waste.  Healthier food also helps prevent conditions such as diabetes and obesity that make health outcomes worse, a particular concern during a pandemic.

Public Transit Plummets, Walking and Biking Surge

The Covid crisis has brought both good news and bad news to transportation.  Although car use initially dropped by about half, it has rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels.  Meanwhile, public transit use has plummeted. In DC, Metrorail ridership is down some 85% and buses over 50%.   With fear permeating the air, along with viruses, ridership numbers seem doomed to remain critically low much longer than auto traffic, harming efforts to lower climate emissions.

On the other hand, walking and bicycling have greatly increased during the pandemic, and the city has responded by creating “slow streets” that restrict traffic to 15 mph while increasing walkability and outdoor dining and widening sidewalks.  DC is evolving toward a city that caters less to cars and more to diverse street life.

Some of this is an extension of what the city was already undertaking under Sustainability 2.0, alongside the Vision Zero program meant to eliminate pedestrian and other fatalities.  DC had begun an ambitious program of expanding bike lanes and reduced much traffic to 20 mph.  Now, the need for such measures is evident, and the city has taken advantage of reduced traffic to intensify them.  Howe lauded a program in which an electric cargo bike carries and installs bike racks around the city, one small step to put biking on a par with cars.

Sustainability 2.0 had also begun to get at least a small slice of nature to as many as possible with its parks program. This has put 97% of residents within a ten minute walk of a park, with a goal of 100%.  Local parks have proved invaluable during the pandemic, offering relief from an otherwise claustrophobic indoor life.  Plans to increase tree canopy will also help reduce the urban heat island effect that harms so many residents—and will protect urban wildlife at the same time.

Telecommuting has also reduced traffic, probably permanently. Few companies will demand a return to employees’ physical appearances five days a week on a set schedule.  Rush-hour traffic could be greatly lessened well beyond the pandemic.  The District has moved to virtual meetings, as well as paper reduction through electronic innovation.  Teleworking and alternative work schedules further reduce congestion.  The “vast majority” of DC government staff “will be teleworking,” at least part-time, “for years for come,” said Howe.

Less traffic hasn’t necessarily meant fewer deaths, however, as cars tend to drive faster on emptier roads, which has increased the fatality rate—the number of deaths per mile driven—during the pandemic. Emptier roads did allow the city to accelerate antidotes to traffic mayhem, already planned as part of Vision Zero. “Construction of” infrastructure such as “speed bumps and bike lanes has been easier when traffic is down,” said Howe.

On the other hand, DC is a city that runs largely on public transit, so to keep traffic flowing it is critical that employees do return to buses and trains.  And workers who need to be on-site, from restaurants to janitors—many living in the communities most pummeled by Covid—absolutely depend on a public transit system that works late into the night and on weekends.  It is therefore essential that the city find ways to convince riders to return to transit. Otherwise, traffic will likely return to gridlock levels.

Bridging the Equity Gap in Energy and Communication

Besides transportation, Sustainability 2.0 addresses energy in depth, calling for a 50% reduction in per capita climate emissions by 2032. Renewable energy, building retrofits, efficient lighting, and a smart grid are some major targets on the way to achieving this.    To bridge the equity gap, DC has instituted a Solar for All program, which provides free solar installation to low-income people.

However, the program has faced a communications problem during the pandemic, since outreach is mostly through in-person events, explained Howe.  The Department of Energy and Environment has tried to make up the difference with virtual outreach, but of course this depends on internet access.  The team “creatively shifted to virtual and digital audits,” said Howe, accelerating a much-needed transition. The importance of bridging the digital divide has become starker than ever during the pandemic.

Internet access, already important to young people struggling to get an education, has become essential during the pandemic. Indeed, education has long been inequitable across DC neighborhoods, and has only worsened in the crisis.  In response, District government has worked to get tablets to those who need them, said Howe.  Currently, internet access has often meant going to local hot spots, with many kids, for instance, doing their homework in cars parked near the local library.

Washington, DC is thus working in a variety of ways to achieve a sustainable city, from energy, to public health, to transportation, to food, with social equity woven into all aspects of the plan.  Covid 19, by revealing the depth of social inequity, and other problems with infrastructure, may be providing a catalyst for faster, deeper change.  On the other hand, some changes, such as reduced car traffic, have gone into reverse.  Should a vaccine prove the magic bullet to ending the pandemic, the public may grow complacent once again.  Converting the pandemic crisis to a sustainability opportunity will require dedication and persistence, from the grass roots to the highest levels of government.

This is the first part of a four-part series on DC’s Sustainability 2.0 in the age of Covid.