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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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There are many tools throughout the region to help people go car-free or car-lite. Here in Arlington we're encouraging people who live, work or play in the County to go on Arlington's Car-Free Diet. And car-lite is great too. Whether you plan to do it every single day or just once or twice a week, you can see some great results. Go to, click on the calculator and answer a few questions to get personalized estimates of how much money you'll save, calories you'll burn and CO2 emissions you'll reduce. Anyone in the region can use the service. And visit for a wide range of tools available to help all Washingtonians go car-free and car-lite.

Posted by: Chris Hamilton | September 30, 2008 9:35 AM

I've been in DC since 1988 and I've never owned a car. I walk to work, the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and I wouldn't have it any other way!!

Posted by: No Car Here | September 30, 2008 11:21 AM

I am a proponent of more people cycling in the city, but there needs to be a concerted effort by the city and cycling advocacy groups to educate cyclists on the rules of the road. I don't understand why when ordinary people get on a bike, they suddently feel they can run stop signs or red lights, drive down the wrong side of the street, or ride on sidewalks meant for pedestrians. They need to understand they are just like any other vehicle and need to follow the same rules. Cyclists who break the law are doing themselves a disservice because they aggravate everyone around them and put themselves and others in serious danger.

Posted by: DC Dude | September 30, 2008 11:27 AM

I lived in DC for eight months without a car back in 2006. I took Metro to work, used a car sharing program (like Flexcar or Zipcar) when I actually needed a vehicle within the city, and rented cars at the airport when I needed to travel long distances. It worked just fine and I saved quite a bit of money!

Posted by: Paladin | September 30, 2008 11:33 AM

I live a car-less life in D.C., and encounter nothing worse than the occasional inconvenience of having to take two subway lines to get to the Kennedy Center shuttle bus that comes to Foggy Bottom Metro Station, or two buses to get to Georgetown. A combination of Metro and express buses gets me to Reston in Fairfax County pretty smoothly. If I do need a car, I rent a Zipcar online and walk three blocks to pick it up, with no paperwork then or when I return.

Posted by: Tom Grubisich | September 30, 2008 11:36 AM

I would love to bicycle to work downtown--from where I live it's not even two miles. But even walking can be dangerous and I'm concerned about being sideswiped or run over when I'm on a bike. I often wish there was some sort of police enforcement so that cars didn't always rule. But that would mean the police would actually have to get out of their own cars to monitor this... I feel comfortable biking on Capitol Hill, but leaving the safety of the Hill for downtown isn't something I'm likely to do any time soon.

Posted by: Capitol Hill Resident | September 30, 2008 11:37 AM

"Cyclists who break the law are doing themselves a disservice because they aggravate everyone around them and put themselves and others in serious danger."

You sound like the abusive husband saying to his wife, "Why did you make me do this??" as he hits her.

Aggressive drivers don't need a *reason* to get aggravated by by cyclists. The fact that bikes are on "their" road is enough.

Any cyclists don't break the law any more than drivers do. The just break different laws.

When you can find a single driver on the streets of DC that goes under the posted speed limit (usually 25 mph), then we can talk about scofflawism. Till then you just sound ridiculously hypocritical.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 11:48 AM

This article is a great attempt to highlight an important issue, but the attitudes displayed in some of the quotes infuriate me. As much as some people would like it to, Metro/Metrobus/biking will not work for a certain portion of the population: people like me with young kids that have to get to daycare or school. Cars are a necessary evil for lots of people and talking about 'suburbanites' with such condescension doesn't help. And yes I know, there are lots of people who take babies on the bus because they have no option. Let the flamewar begin, I guess.

Posted by: arrogant assumptions | September 30, 2008 11:48 AM

The bike valet at Nationals Park is WONDERFUL! It definitely caught on--at the beginning of the season, there might only be a handful of bikes there, but by September it was super busy. It was by far the fastest mode for me to get to games, and free to boot! Awesome. Props to Tommy Wells for pushing for it.

Posted by: rallycap | September 30, 2008 11:51 AM

I live in DC. I gave up my car Jan 08. After I left CARMAX, I went into mourning. My car and I went through a lot together. That mourning process ended in 2 days. I never really needed to own a car, it was a mill-stone around my neck. I'm surviving just fine.
DC's public transportation is superb, reliable and on schedule. I have ZipCar and SmartBike at my disposal when I want them. I use SmartBike everyday. I've taken METRO to National to points West; METRO to Dulles to Madrid, Paris, Rome. No parking hassels, no worries.
I don't need to own a car.

Posted by: Paul Leddy | September 30, 2008 11:54 AM

As usual, Fisher, Cheh and the rest blame the "the residents of Ward 3 who lobby loudly and strongly against development" for the lack of bike-friendly streets and the lack of "five-minute living". I would like Fisher, Cheh and Tregoning to explain to me how putting condos above a library that has been languishing for years now and selling off much needed green space from an elemetary school is going to help the "five-minute living" dilemma that so plagues many neighbors in the parts of DC that desperately need it. We have a Whole Foods, Safeway, Starbucks and myriald retail at Friendship Heights that is five minutes from hundreds of households. Maybe these people need to get out of their cars and walk or ride their bikes to these places instead of insisting on putting inappropriate development in areas that already have much too offer.

Posted by: Andra Tamburro | September 30, 2008 11:58 AM

I agree with DC Dude. It would be very helpful if cyclists would obey traffic laws. When driving and walking, I am constantly on guard not to collide with cyclists who run red lights, stop signs and yield signs; who turn without giving signals, and who weave in and out of traffic or ride on the sidewalks. They need to realize that they have to follow the rules of the road as do all other vehicles. They are making driving, walking, and cycling all very stressful.

Posted by: Paula | September 30, 2008 11:59 AM

"Cars are a necessary evil for lots of people and talking about 'suburbanites' with such condescension doesn't help. "

Umm. It would help if you were to actually quote the "Big Meanies" who are being mean to you. Otherwise, you just sound like you have an irrational persecution complex.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:04 PM

It's impossible to commute from Ward 7 to downtown on anything but a car. How about pushing for some of these "progressive" options across the river?

Posted by: DC | September 30, 2008 12:05 PM

ibc, did you actually read the article? Fisher himself notes the tone from the DC Councilmembers -

" 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.

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."

Posted by: ? | September 30, 2008 12:09 PM

I have been bike commuting for 5 years between Cap Hill and DuPont, even in the winter and have yet to have an accident.

I bike on the road, not the sidewalks and never go against traffic but I will confess to running red lights. Not to say running red lights is ok on a bike but I find it comical that any drivers or pedestrians are critical of bikes for running a red light when I have yet to have a commute to or from work in which I haven’t seen a pedestrian jaywalking or a car run a red light.

Maybe it would be beneficial to all if DC police enforced traffic laws besides illegal parking.

Posted by: Southeasterner | September 30, 2008 12:15 PM

"ibc, did you actually read the article? Fisher himself notes the tone from the DC Councilmembers"

Sure I read it, how about you?

Cheh/Wells: "The problem is...suburban drivers who are accustomed to having the roads for themselves..."

This seems pretty uncontroversial to me. Most drivers *are* used to having the roads to themselves. And most of the drivers I see on DC roads are from the suburbs.

Wells: "To get the suburbanites to understand this aspect of urban living is a challenge..."

Also true: there is a much greater political acceptance for walking/cycling among DC residents than MD/VA commuters.

Fisher: "The council members' sense of urban superiority is to be expected..."

And this is a quote from Fisher, and seems like the most controversial.

I'm not sure if your argument is that Fisher is an arrogant anti-car bastard. Overall, though, I'd say folks are being--how shall I put this in the most diplomatic manner possible--hypersensitive.

Bottom line is: If they want to driver on urban streets, suburban drivers need to get used to the presence of pedestrians and cyclists, and stop making excuses for speeding and aggressive driving.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:18 PM

"I have been bike commuting for 5 years between Cap Hill and DuPont, even in the winter and have yet to have an accident."

This has been my experience as well. I find it comical that whenever this topic raises it's head, you hear countless commenters talking about how they "nearly run over a cyclist every time I drive my car."

Believe me, you're either overestimating the risk to the cyclist, or you need to turn in your driver's license at the soonest opportunity.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:22 PM

ibc, I wasn't bashing on cyclists in any way, I'm supportive of cycling. Share The Road and all that...I'm trying to make the point that some people have to drive, even if they want to use alternate methods of transportation, and that the tone used by the Councilmembers - which Fisher acknowledged - isn't helpful. It's an oversimplification to imply that suburbanites are just in love with their cars and cause all the problems. Some people have to have cars is all I'm saying. Your response to the previous poster misunderstood what I was trying to say in the first place: cycling/metro/whatever is great - just not an option for some people.

Posted by: arrogant assumptions | September 30, 2008 12:25 PM

It would be an incredible leap forward if the police would enforce the traffic laws. I hope I live to see it.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 30, 2008 12:27 PM

I completely agree with DC Dude. I don't have a problem with more cyclists - as long as they obey traffic laws. As a pedestrian observer, I often find it's the cyclist that don't think that either the traffic laws apply to them or that they're immune to causing/being involved in traffic accidents.

Posted by: DC walker | September 30, 2008 12:29 PM

"I'm trying to make the point that some people have to drive, even if they want to use alternate methods of transportation"

Hey, I'm with you. I've got a two-year-old daughter; for complicated reasons, I need to take her out to Rockville three times a week.

But I also live in DC, and I ride often. And when I read comments like Wells', I think, "Yes, he gets it."

The fact that he's not stroking the ego of folks who drive--in fact is essentially saying, "commuters need to adjust their attitude when they drive in a crowded, urban environment"--is not a liability in my view.

There's been roughly 40 years of DC municipal policy that has been heavily tailored towards the needs of suburban commuters. What's happening in DC now is not a form of punishment--it's a re-balancing of priorities.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:35 PM

"As a pedestrian observer..."

Do you stand for minutes at a time on a deserted street corner, waiting patiently for the light to change? Or--when you make a determination that it's safe--do you jaywalk like 99.9% of the rest of humanity?

Because, I'm willing to allow people getting around my city on foot--so long as all pedestrians obey all traffic laws.

People use minor infractions to rationalize their own prejudices.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:41 PM

Its well and good to focus on the Council member's use of bicycles but how about giving some space to WABA, a local organization that has been advocating for cyclists for decades? WABA deserves more inches than Council members.

Opportunity lost!

Posted by: TV | September 30, 2008 12:42 PM

I laugh at the admonitions from drivers that bikers should strictly obey the traffic laws. Most drivers don't. I've been biking to work from Capitol Hill for a few months -- 1.5 miles each way. Bikes infuriate me when I'm driving and drivers scare the heck out of me when I'm biking. The streets just aren't big enough -- bike lanes are scarce -- and even scarier than being run over by a car behind you is running into a parked car's door that opens in front of you. Because the Capitol's parks sidewalks are very wide I ride most of the way on them instead of the streets, taking car not to startle or endanger pedestrians. Drivers should appreciate that a bike on the road is one less car in their way and bikers should not impede traffic and surely out of self-interest ought to be more careful. Meanwhile, a new peril to biking has exploded on the scene this fall: squirrels zooming across streets and sidewalks for acorns. It's treachorous out there. :-)

Posted by: Gidgmom | September 30, 2008 12:46 PM

Upon reflection, let's outlaw taxi cabs.

They are a public menace -- to drivers and bikers.

Obey the traffic laws? Ha!

Posted by: Gidgmom | September 30, 2008 12:56 PM

"It's treacherous out there."

Not according to the statistics. Cycling is the safest mode of transportation per vehicle mile traveled.

Timidity will get you in trouble, though, whether it's hugging the "door-zone" while riding, or being overly deferential to cars, or riding on the sidewalk.

The "dangerousness" of cycling on urban streets is another one of those "common-sense" things that simply isn't true.

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 12:56 PM

Whoever did those studies never got between a Capitol Hill squirrel and an acorn.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 30, 2008 12:58 PM

As someone who actually lives a car-free lifestyle and who sees Cheh's station wagon parked in front of the Wilson Building whenever I go there, I'm getting really tired of my CM turning events such as car-free *day* into a grandstand from which to bash community activists and shill for deterimental development projects like the public-private project that would deprive Janney elementary school of its soccer field while delaying the reconstruction of our library an additional 2.5 years (until 2013).

If Cheh would start listening to her constituents' concerns and stop treating everyone who disagrees with her as a mindless nay-sayer, she might become a better policy maker. It's mind-boggling to hear her refer to critics of the LCOR deal as "short-sighted" when they raised the same exact concerns she's citing as her qualms now over a year ago -- at which point she dismissed them out of hand.

As for the notion that Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle is a "dead zone," that's insane. There are 700 kids on that block every school day, 1000 parishioners each weekend, 209 apartments and a couple of major retailers across Albemarle, and dozens of stores and restaurants across Wisconsin. Not to mention lots of people using Metrorail and buses as well as the AU shuttle.

What's dead is the library site. And the reason it's dead is that whenever DCPL gets ready to rebuild the Tenley-Friendship branch some idiot Councilmember decides we should investigate the possibility of a mixed-use project instead and stops the library system dead in its tracks. And then, after a year or more of dithering, the mixed-use project doesn't work out (because the physical and economic constraints of the site don't make it worthwhile unless you serious compromise the public facilities), by which time the library system has moved on to other projects or other crises.

This approach helped cost Harold Brazil (its previous champion) his Council seat. Hopefully it'll do the same for Cheh. I look forward to seeing her campaign in front of the black hole that would have been our library in 2010. The choice is hers -- do what she can to pull the plug on this project now and there's the prospect that she'll be cutting a ribbon come election season. Wait and see whether the project dies a natural death (as if DC government inevitably pulls the plug on a development deal because it turns out to benefit the developer at the expense of the city!), and she may find herself cleaning out her desk and dusting off her lecture notes.

Posted by: Sue Hemberger | September 30, 2008 1:03 PM

"Whoever did those studies never got between a Capitol Hill squirrel and an acorn."

Bah, squirrels? I dread the coming of spring and the return of Perfidious Canadian Goose...

Posted by: ibc | September 30, 2008 1:04 PM

Bicycles don't kill people like car drivers do. That is why they don't need to obey the same laws. Get real people. Duh.

We need to find ways to discourage people from driving cars. We need to stop pretending that streets only belong to the car-people. They belong primarily to pedestrians and they always have. Check the history books. The car-people are a recent, deadly addition to the streets. Why we even tolerate them boggles my mind. Just think of the millions of Americans who have been murdered by car drivers in so called "accidents". It is absurd. Who reading this sentence does not know at least one person murdered by a car driver? Why, even the first lady, Laura Bush, has killed somebody with her car.

Pray for higher gas prices. We need to get as many of these haters as possible off of the road.

Posted by: David | September 30, 2008 1:52 PM

"Metro/Metrobus/biking will not work for a certain portion of the population: people like me with young kids that have to get to daycare or school."

While it's not exactly the same, I have no problem getting my daughter to daycare on Chicago's barely-functional public transit system. We walk to the bus and, after I drop her off, I turn around and take the commuter train downtown. Do the opposite in the evening. Easy-peasy.

I was also car free for the 6 years I lived in DC and PG county.

Posted by: mrm0to | September 30, 2008 2:14 PM

Traffic discourages people from driving cars. Care are why I'm now commuting by bike. I hope the car haters can get more cars off the road. Then driving will make sense again.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 30, 2008 2:23 PM

What I find interesting (and a bit sad) is that the Councilmember (that would be Graham) for the most densley populated ward in the city, with the highest rates of bike/walk to work in the city and who sits ont he WMATA board, drives and illegally parks his car everywhere. He's even been known to drive 1.5 blocks from his house to the grocery store.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | September 30, 2008 2:25 PM

Riding a bicycle in DC ? Only if they make concealed handguns legal.

Posted by: Tank Johnson | September 30, 2008 2:38 PM

Hmm. In my experience (here and in other parts of the US) 'burbs are often bike-friendlier than cities.

One reason suburban drivers may not be used to sharing the road with cyclists is that they are more likely live in areas where there are dedicated bike trails or lanes. And wider roads. So when they encounter heavy traffic on a relatively narrow road in a city with onstreet parking, it's a scary/challenging environment when both cyclists and cars are in the mix. It's not just rudeness or entitlement or progressivism -- it's a matter of engineering.

Posted by: Just sayin' | September 30, 2008 6:42 PM

Great post, Marc.

Posted by: Mark | September 30, 2008 9:58 PM

Having been hit by a car while riding my bike [twice], having been hit by a bike while walking on the sidewalk downtown [twice], I agree with an oft-repeated refrain here: we need the DC cops to enforce all traffic laws. The DC cops sit in their air-conditioned cars & will not budge unless they need to write a ticket to meet the quota.
There are worse police in the world, but none I've seen in the G 8 nations who are worse than the police here. DC cops are here to protect the VIPs - nothing else.
Good luck.

Posted by: Freddie Mick | September 30, 2008 10:14 PM

DC cops aren't protecting anyone(seems all the ones I've met live in Maryland). The U.S. Capitol Police are supposed to protect the Capitol campus and everyone there -- members, staff, tourists. If the USCP become primarily traffic cops, that would be outrageous. There should be plenty of DC Metro cops to do the job they are paid to do. You are right, Friddie, about them never budging from their cars. Seems their behinds are superglued to their seats and their cell phones to their ears.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 30, 2008 10:43 PM

I have lived in this city for 20 years and I have NEVER seen a bicyclist wait for a red light if there was no traffic coming on the cross street. Never. I support a more cycling-friendly city, but the verbiage cyclists are throwing about obeying the rules is just not supported by my observations.

Posted by: D.C. | October 1, 2008 9:20 AM

Have any bicyclists here claimed to obey all the traffic laws?

What's amusing is the car drivers preaching about obeying traffic laws.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 1, 2008 10:11 AM

"I have lived in this city for 20 years and I have NEVER seen a bicyclist wait for a red light if there was no traffic coming on the cross street."

And my response would what?

Have you ever seen a pedestrian wait for a red light if there was no traffic coming? Of course not, because there's little point in doing so.

Better question: Ever seen a driver driving the speed limit when they're not forced to by congestion? I certainly haven't. And in doing so, they endanger everyone in an urban/suburban setting.

So please get off the high horse. Also, perhaps you could quote a single cyclist "throwing verbiage" about how cyclists never disobey the rules. Because I certainly haven't seen that here.

Posted by: ibc | October 1, 2008 10:14 AM

I am a cyclist that will, at times, and when no traffic is coming, run a red light. The reason? Momentum. A stop and start commute by bike is much different than one by car.

Also, a great guide to cycling laws is available from WABA - it's informative for both drivers and cyclists, and I highly recommend it.

Posted by: anng | October 1, 2008 12:35 PM

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