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Today's read: Is D.C. anti-car?

D.C. transportation chief profiled: At 39, Gabe Klein is 15 years younger than some of his top deputies at the District Department of Transportation. But that might make the high-metabolism transportation director a good fit in a city trying to attract people like him. He assembled a new team devoted to "policy, planning and sustainability," a nod to transit projects he hopes will reduce pollution and cars. (Lisa Rein)

In the story, Lon Anderson of AAA says: "There's an overly antagonistic attitude toward motorists right now."

I've never met a transportation chief who was anti-car, and I've met Gabe Klein. Wanting city residents to have more choices for getting around, wanting to reduce the number of solo drivers and wanting to make the streets safer isn't anti-car. If the District's approach to the snow cleanup was anti-car than so was that of the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Maryland State Highway Administration, because they were all basically the same.

In a meeting with bloggers on Wednesday at DDOT headquarters, Klein marked his first year on the job by distributing an action agenda. It includes a "vision statement" that expresses a worthy, if very ambitious, goal: "DDOT is committed to achieving an exceptional quality of life in the nation's capital through more sustainable travel practices, safer streets and outstanding access to goods and services.

"Central to this vision is improving energy efficiency and modern mobility by providing next generation alternatives to single occupancy driving in the city."

Bring it on. Commuting isn't an ideology. The more options travelers have, the better for all of us. (Perhaps a reasonable number of them won't pick the option we prefer.)

There are some goals in the DDOT plan that are bound to raise arguments as travelers divide themselves into categories -- drivers, transit users, walkers, cyclists. For the sake of having such a debate, here are a few of those DDOT goals:
-- Expand the enforcement powers of traffic control officers and school crossing guards.
-- Consider lowering speed limits on local roads.
-- Reduce speeding on local and collector streets. Ensure appropriate traffic speeds on all roads. Pilot lowering speeds below 25 mph on select local streets.
-- Implement traffic calming studies citywide.
-- Continue and build upon regional campaigns such as Smooth Operator, the annual effort to curb aggressive driving.
-- Increase the use of rapid flashing beacon signs for safer pedestrian crossings.
-- Improve safety at the top 50 high-crash intersections.
-- Pursue legislation requiring that new drivers receive bicycle and pedestrian education before obtaining a driver's license.
-- Expand mobile photo enforcement to work zones.

I don't see any such effort to make all travel safer as "anti-car."

Nor are any of these goals, also listed in the new plan, "anti-car":
-- Create a backup battery power supply to maintain all traffic signals in the event of power failures.
-- Improve management of traffic incidents through enhanced communications and more aggressive deployment of safety personnel.
-- Better manage traffic flow by expanding the use of intelligent transportation systems.
-- Develop new technology applications that can provide personal alerts to travelers so they can avoid problem areas.

By Robert Thomson  |  February 25, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Today's read  
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Next: Snow leaves twisted landscape


how about building monorail? It's clean technology, doesn't require the digging up of streets, flows over traffic as opposed to in traffic, and is much more practical than streetcars. It will give people another option to get around the city whether for work or play. I think the city should seriously look into it.

Posted by: poeticfire | February 25, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

The impression I get of Lon Anderson is that anything short of "Cars can mow down pedestrians at will" is anti-car to him.

Posted by: EricS2 | February 25, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Why does every WaPo transportation policy story have to include an obligatory Lon Anderson quote? He adds nothing to a policy debate, he's just a gasbag K-street mouthpiece. Just punt him to voicemail next time he calls, WaPo.

And why not balance it with a quote from one of the many DC organizations advocating for a more complete transportation system? I'll bet Transportation for America would provide a nice counterbalance to Lon.

Posted by: TheBoreaucrat | February 25, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I think some things that DC does are things that may not seem, on the surface, to be anti-car in principle but that in reality turn out to operate in an anti-car fashion. Consider, for example, the "bus only" lane on 9th Street NW from the new convention center down to the FBI building. The idea of having a lane to expedite bus traffic to move more people doesn't sound "anti-car." But when you realize that (1) they took away a lane of traffic to put it there and (2) they refuse to do anything about the double-parking and the obnoxious restaurant valet stands that obstruct the left lane of 9th Street, in practice the bus lane becomes "anti-car" because, if drivers obey the bus lane restriction, effectively the street (a major route out of DC, mind you) becomes a single lane where it used to have three. That's anti-car in practice. Of course most drivers ignore the "bus-only" restriction because in practice it's unacceptable.

There are other things DC has done that contribute to the perception. Remember when they put the red-light camera on the downhill at the flashing yellow light on H Street NE that wasn't synchronized with the traffic light half a block away? Drivers rightly complained that it was a "gotcha"-type camera put there solely to write sucker tickets. The 50-mph speed limit on I-295 from South Capitol Street south to the Beltway is absurdly low, and the District gives drivers the finger by frequently putting a mobile speed camera there.

The reversible streets (Canal Road; 15th Street north of K) are a very good idea for moving traffic, but the signage really isn't well-posted for anyone who's not a routine commuter.

Turn lanes are poorly-designed. For example, consider eastbound Constitution at 18th Street. The left lane is left-turn only. The second lane from the left is "left or straight." But the left-turn arrow only comes on at the END of the cycle, so anyone going straight can get stuck. (What bonehead designs a "left-or-straight" lane and times the green arrow differently from the thru light on a major artery?) Plus the light isn't synchronized with the one at 17th Street, so the traffic backs up and people then go straight out of the left lane.

(More in a minute)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse


Certain other well-intentioned things DC does become anti-car in practice. For example, the well-publicized "Yield to Pedestrians" campaign. The intent is noble--improve pedestrian safety. But the District, and many uppity pedestrians, fail to recognize that it's a two-way obligation. Yes, the driver must yield to a pedestrian who's crossing legally. But the pedestrian must cross legally. If you walk out at midblock, or you cross against the light in front of a car that has a green light, why should the driver yield to you other than the desire not to get arrested for mowing you down? A REAL transportation plan would recognize that enforcing the obligations of BOTH drivers and pedestrians would keep the traffic moving better.

I mentioned the photo enforcement before. Advocates of the cameras say it's easy to avoid problems by obeying the law. Fair point. But I think many people feel, justifiably, that DC puts a number of them on commuter routes to try to snare non-DC residents. It comes across as giving the finger to people who dare to drive into the city.

Finally, I think there is a sound perception based on past comments from DC officials. DC's "Take Metro" attitude has been well-documented. I remember when they said that "People need to get used to the idea that you must take Metro to the courthouse." "Nationals Park is not a destination to which you should drive." (Why not? I get home in half the time when I drive to games than I do if I take the Metro.) Plus the city is well-known for hyper-aggressive parking enforcement and for running a kangaroo court where people who have legitimate challenges to parking tickets get the brush-off.

What's that old saying, perception is 90% of reality (or something like that)? DC may be taking actions that they intend as steps to build a more balanced transportation network, and that's a noble goal. But their years of displaying a public persona (for lack of a better word) of being hostile to non-DC residents who drive into the city justifiably makes non-DC residents suspicious.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

BTW, I forgot to note one thing about one of the things Dr. Gridlock mentioned. "Traffic calming" is a slogan that expresses an idea that sounds positive in theory but is often used for more insidious ends. That is, the expressed goal of "traffic calming" is to force drivers to slow down and drive in a reasonable manner in residential areas that have been plagued by people speeding through them as a cut-through alternative to busy arterial streets.

In principle, that sounds fine. But in practice it seldom works out that way because neighborhoods instead seek to use so-called "traffic calming" as a way of saying "Get the [censored] out of my neighborhood." The Mantua subdivision in Fairfax County is a good example in that speed bumps were put in to force traffic to slow to 10 mph on 25-mph streets and stop signs were put up where they weren't needed for safety reasons simply to cause drivers to have to stop. The idea was amply expressed by community leaders--they didn't like people driving through their neighborhood and they wanted to make the experience miserable so people would go elsewhere. That's a misuse of "traffic calming." A speed hump that forces traffic to drive at the speed limit is unobjectionable from a principled point of view. A chicane can be fine (although American drivers may not understand what to do). But stop signs erected in violation of MUTCD standards, and sharply pitched speed humps that damage cars' suspensions, are counter-productive.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

D.C. anti-car? Have you tried to walk in this town? Should it be? Yes. It's a small, compact town, that with the proper combination of bus, rail and trolly systems could absolutly do away with commuter traffic. D.C. residents obviously need to be able to use thier cars, but non-residents need more options. These options need to provide a way for commuters to not rely on driving into the city. It would take a ton of political will, money and SMART traffic design and management.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 25, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

jeez 1995hoo. so you don't like the policies of the jurisidiction to which you pay $0 dollars in taxes, apart from parking your stupid car in downtown or when you drive to the boondoggle stadium that i paid for? well gee, move into the city, and then you can complain to jack evans about the bus lane in his ward. perhaps if there was an occupation tax, we wouldn't need "hyper aggressive parking enforcement," but even with that, I can't feel bad if you get caught when you break the law. oh, and as for traffic calming trying to keep people out of neighborhoods, what gives you the right to rip through a residential area on the way to somewhere else? you want to drive into the city, then sit in traffic on an arterial route - it's your choice to live in NoVa. perhaps you should have spent the hour-plus it took you to write the above comments looking for a job in McLean.

Posted by: natepf | February 25, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

The decision to change parking meter restrictions late at night and on Saturdays is decidedly anti-car.

The goal here is to increase revenue for the District or force people into outrageously expensive pay garages. The end result is fewer people coming downtown on weeknights and Saturdays, because parking adds $10-20 to a trip.

DC has used the excuse that higher parking fees and longer hours will create turnover. But turnover is a limited problem in most of the affected areas - or isn't likely to change just because of these regulations. People will simply move their cars more often, which is bad for the environment and puts more cars on the road. Or they will line the pockets of private parking garage owners. Or they will stay home.

Decidedly anti-car and anti-consumer.

Posted by: DCMike1 | February 25, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

"natepf," who said anything about "ripping through a residential area"? You clearly didn't read anything I said, because I acknowledged the legitimate interest in taking steps to cause traffic to flow AT the posted speed limit in residential areas. Those are public streets. The people who live there have no right to say that people who don't live on those streets should not be allowed to drive on them. But they do have a right to push for measures that would SLOW the traffic.

BTW, what makes you assume I've ever been ticketed for "breaking the law" in DC? What makes you think that people who routinely head into DC to go to a game and to have dinner somewhere pay no taxes to the city? There's a 10% meals tax, for starters.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Forgot to mention--given the amount of federal dollars DC receives, I think any taxpayer has the right to comment about DC's operations.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Enforcing parking restrictions later at night and on weekends, and raising meter rates, actually makes me (and people like me) MORE likely to drive into the city at those times. Why? Because maybe now there will actually be a parking space available near where I'm going (and if there isn't, then they should raise the meter rates more).

Posted by: robwilli | February 25, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Let's see...DC's cleanup took all the snow out of the way of the drivers and dumped it into the path of pedestrians. I don't think that's anti-car. DC also (contrary to statutes giving pedestrians right of way) permits drivers to park in unmarked crosswalks throughout the city. That's not anti-car, either. DC also designed the only road (Military) that connects the upper northwest part of DC from one side of the park to the other so that it can't be walked. Not anti-car. DC also "fixes" some traffic signals so that the "walk" portion of the signal is shorter than it should be, to allow drivers to turn right on red. Still not anti-car. And, worst of all, although failing to stop and give right of way to a pedestrian is a CRIME in DC, it is almost always treated as a civil matter; police officers aren't permitted to arrest unless the driver has committed a second crime. Not anti-car. I AM anti-car and I wish DC were more so, but it's not. Not yet, anyway.

Posted by: myrna38717 | February 25, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

1995, that goes for ANY state, county, city or neighborhood watch association. Just like everywhere else the people/government of DC can and should be able to make their own rules.

Posted by: EricS2 | February 25, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

EricS2, I don't disagree with what you say. But surely you'll also agree that other people are entitled to criticize those rules. Dr. Gridlock asked whether people think that DC is anti-car, and I said that I think that many things that DC has done over the years have a definite anti-car vibe to them.

BTW, I should mention that I don't know much about Gabe Klein and it may well be that he has a different outlook than others in the District. I've said many times that it's a mistake for any jurisdiction to focus solely on cars, or solely on mass transit, or solely on walking, to the exclusion of other modes--the proper path is to try to find the correct balance. Any driver who thinks the Metrorail system is a waste of money is a fool--imagine how bad the traffic would be if all the subway users were out driving each day. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that you can ride the Metrorail everywhere you'd ever want to go must live a far more confined life than most of us are willing to live.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 25, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Free speech does not apply to criticism.

Posted by: member5 | February 25, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I don't think DC is any more anti-car than other major cities, or other jurisdictions in this area. Allow me to point out some things:

1) Arlington refuses to consider widening I-66. While part of an agreement that was made in the 1970's, it is still an anti-car stance.

2) DC started charging for parking on Saturdays. Arlington has for as long as I can remember.

3) DC allows people to park in residential zones for 2 hours before you must either get a guest permit or get ticketed. Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery County do not give a 2 hour grace period...the moment they see your car, you get a ticket.

4) DC charges for parking until 10 PM. So does MoCo in Bethesda.

5) The Village of Chevy Chase sets up multiple speed cameras in a row. In otherwords, they try to trick you by putting a fixed camera and just when you think its safe to speed up, there is a mobile camera. No, they don't (or at least they aren't supposed to) issue multiple tickets to the same vehicle, but if that doesn't reek of "gotcha", I don't know what does.

6) Maryland participated equally in killing the freeways inside the Beltway. Some of the loudest protests came from Takoma Park, in Montgomery County.

7) DC is actually going the extra mile to connect the SE Freeway to DC 295 as part of the 11th Street Bridge rehab.

Posted by: thetan | February 25, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

(continued from above):

I'll readily admit that DC has done a lot to make their anti-car stance "in your face" at suburbanites. That is part of the victim mentality of DC and the whole voting rights issue. I don't agree with that. But when push comes to shove, I think other jurisdictions are also quite car un-friendly as well. If anything, I would argue that DC is somewhat more justified in encouraging people not to drive...its older, most buildings do not have parking, and the street grid layout is a traffic engineer's nightmare in terms of trying to time signals.

Other jurisdictions tend to have less need for street parking. Look at all those buildings in Arlington or Bethesda...most of them have parking garages underneath them. And unlike those other jurisdictions, DC is much more metro accessible, in terms of every single line passes through downtown.

One thing I don't get is the entitlement mentality of many in this area. Some people think they have some form of a protected Constitutional right to drive everywhere they want, park right next to where they are going, and have wide open roads wherever they go. That is not reality in a big city. City streets are more congested, and require the driver to adapt his driving mentality to look out for non-car roadway users. Sometimes shared parking that you have to pay for is a reality in a big city. Sometimes it might be best for you as an individual to drive, but it might be best for the population as a whole if you don't drive. If you don't like it, than by all means work, play, and shop in the outer suburbs instead. If you do come to DC, and you have to pay to park, just keep in mind that if you go to other cities, you'd be paying an awful lot more. Try finding a place to park in downtown Boston for $16 a day. You're lucky if you can find a place to park for $16 an hour there. Their city is the same population as DC (roughly) and their mass transit isn't nearly as convenient, user friendly, or efficient as Metro.

Posted by: thetan | February 25, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

"Finally, I think there is a sound perception based on past comments from DC officials. DC's "Take Metro" attitude has been well-documented. I remember when they said that "People need to get used to the idea that you must take Metro to the courthouse." "Nationals Park is not a destination to which you should drive"

Not to mention DC's well-documentated practice of building large venues like the Verizon Arena, the Convention Center, and Nationals Stadium next to a Metro station building no general-use parking, not improving nearby streets and roads, then crowing that the venue is "convenient to Metro". The message: don't drive.

The Irony is the "leaders" responsible for this have drivers and reserved parking.

Posted by: ceefer66 | February 26, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Good article and discussion.

Sometimes DC Transportation is balanced, sometimes they dump snow on the sidewalks, and yes they project an attitude that you should not drive downtown or to the ballpark. Given the costs they bear to fix those roads, the costs we bear in breathing the air, and such, I think this is quite reasonable. You might disagree.

What is much clearer is that Lon Anderson does not represent anyone well, including drivers in this region. I am quitting my AAA membership because of his worn-out statements in the press. We need to move forward Lon, not back to 1966 priorities. I am quite annoyed by this, as I've found AAA insurance to be a competitive and useful option, but no more. I will no longer be represented with that nonsense. Too bad.

Posted by: DavidDuck1 | February 28, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

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