Going Car-less in D.C.: Still No Picnic
Tommy Wells, the Ward 6 D.C. Council member, had to deal with Marion Barry moving Wells' bicycle out of a parking space in front of the Council's offices so Barry could park his car there.
Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh, who didn't own a car back when she lived in San Francisco, manages to bike to work in the District once a week, but says the city is still a ways from becoming an easy place to go car-free.
When it comes to ease of travel without owning a car, Washington is not quite New York, but it is the closest you'll find among big cities in this country. More than 90 percent of American households own at least one car, but in the District, that figure drops to 63 percent, and in some close-in neighborhoods, the number is under 50 percent. (The District actually ranks #1 in the U.S. in percentage of population who travel to work by public transit, at 36 percent, but the comparison is to entire states, not to cities, so it's not exactly apples to apples.)
"A lot of people coming to the city say the first thing they do is give up their car," says D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, who does bike to work every day from her Adams Morgan home. When Tregoning started her job, she gave up the parking space that came with the position and converted it to parking for 12 bikes.
(As this chart shows, Washington is actually the one U.S. city in which transit use shoots up way higher than the level at which the population density would justify.)
As I sat with Tregoning, Cheh and Wells the other day on a blocked-off chunk of G Street NW, where they were celebrating D.C. Car-Free Day, Segways and pedicabs whizzed by, bicycle activists handed out maps and information and Zipcar hawked its car-sharing service, which now offers its 32,000 Washington members a choice of 700 vehicles in 26 city neighborhoods.
Which is all dandy, except for one big caveat: "It still feels dangerous downtown," Wells is the first to admit. "We get honked at still. We're absolutely not yet at the point where people expect to share the road with bikes."
Wells, an evangelist for biking in the city, managed to persuade the Washington Nationals to provide bike valet parking at the new ballpark. To the team management's surprise, Well says, the service picked up a corporate sponsor and has had a strong and steady clientele. "The team's objection was that nobody would use it," Wells says, "but it's been really popular."
Were it left entirely to District residents, the city would be a strongly bike-friendly city, Wells and Cheh argue. "But most of the car traffic in the city is not from the District," Cheh says. "So this is like most of the things the District does: We can be as progressive as we want, but if we can't get the region to go along, it's largely wasted effort."
The problem is not suburban governments, several of which have been aggressively pushing for alternatives to dependence on cars, but suburban drivers who are accustomed to having the roads for themselves, Cheh and Wells say.
"To get the suburbanites to understand this aspect of urban living is a challenge," Wells says.
He tools around his ward on two wheels in good part to be able to take a closer look at neighborhood problems--a dead tree, an overrun yard, an abandoned property. Similarly, when she was touring the schools in her ward to check on their readiness to open last month, Cheh made the rounds by bicycle.
The council members' sense of urban superiority is to be expected, of course, but the truth is that many city dwellers are as car-centric as their suburban neighbors. And the relative paucity of retail in the District means that many residents still must travel--generally by car--to the suburbs for basic needs.
The goal, Wells says, is "five-minute living," in which all D.C. residents can find basic amenities within five minutes travel time from their home.
But reaching that goal will mean beating back the vociferous opposition to development in many residential neighborhoods, especially in more affluent parts of town.
"In Ward 3," Cheh says, "we're pushing in the wrong direction," a reference to residents who lobby loudly and strongly against development in areas such as Cleveland Park, Tenleytown and Friendship Heights.
As an example, Cheh cites the planned Commerce Bank branch on Wisconsin Avenue on the former site of the Outer Circle movie theaters. The bank is designed with a drive-thru--a suburban model that is exactly the opposite of the kind of retail that the District wants to encourage. "I opposed it because it's inappropriate development," Cheh says. That was a rare case in which the council member found herself on the same side as neighborhood activists who fight against what they see as moves toward unacceptably high density. "They opposed it because they oppose things."
A few blocks south, at the controversial corner of Wisconsin and Albemarle Street, where Mayor Adrian Fenty has been pushing for a public-private partnership to build a public library and apartments across the street from the Tenleytown Metro station, Cheh says the opportunity to create the density needed to support more retail and a more walkable community appears to be dissipating.
"It's a shame," she says, but the proposal from the developer Fenty chose, LCOR, involves too long a delay in rebuilding the library that was torn down four years ago. "It gets a little unrealistic. By all accounts, the deal is falling apart. And that's too bad, because the area is a dead zone and it doesn't have to be."
TOMORROW: Build less parking--and they will come.
By Marc Fisher |
September 30, 2008; 8:42 AM ET
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