“War Against D.C. Drivers” is Much Ado About Nothing

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Paul is Mobility Lab's urban-affairs reporter. He specializes in infrastructure planning and writes articles and case studies about Arlington's storied transit-oriented development.
March 12, 2013

A recent D.C. Examiner front-page feature

A recent headline in Washington D.C.’s Examiner newspaper raged, “D.C. Waging War Against Drivers.” It cited the District’s Sustainable DC plan, released February 20 by Mayor Vincent Gray, as an example of how this “war” starts at the top.

While the Examiner’s headline was full of sound and fury, the article’s content was, in the end, to paraphrase Shakespeare, much ado about nothing.

To be fair, the Examiner isn’t alone in using this kind of incendiary rhetoric when it comes to cities enhancing streets to make them more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. NPR weighed in on the issue in a radio segment, noting how the term “war on cars” has been used in places such as Seattle to describe implementation of even the most benign pedestrian-safety measures such as reductions in speed limits.

It is true that urban-design philosophies currently favor walkable places over those designed around the automobile. It is true also that traffic is a zero-sum game (if you’re winning, someone else must be losing), so some amount of fervor from D.C. drivers over the reapportioning of the District’s streets is to be expected.

But the move towards walkability is not an agenda being pushed by policy makers down the throats of an unwilling populace, as the Examiner seems to suggest, but is in fact a response to market demand. Chris Leinberger of the George Washington University School of Business has described in his report The WalkUP Wake-Up Call that consumer demand for walkability was a trend that began 20 years ago, and is only gaining momentum today.

Yes, the market demands walkability, and the market, in case it is unclear, refers to you and me. Consumers prefer walkable urban places, and display this preference in the willingness to pay higher rents to live in them (in some places, enormous amounts more). For instance, in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood (pictured below), residential rents average $3.03 per square foot per month, twice that paid in comparable automobile-dependent locations.

Not all of us are so lucky to be able to afford to live in the Clarendons, Bethesdas, or Dupont Circles of the D.C. region. Unaffordable prices, absent regulation, are the natural consequence of any supply-demand disparity, and Leinberger has stated that the best way to tackle unaffordable housing in walkable urban places is to address the supply side of the equation – to create more walkable urban places.

Given this free market-based lens through which to view our region, the District’s street enhancements and Sustainable DC initiative can be viewed as an environmental or health-based program in its attempt to reduce the number of cars on D.C. streets. But it can also be viewed as an attempt to give the market what it demands: more livable, walkable neighborhoods that are not simply designed as places to drive through.

So what do you think? Should D.C. continue to pursue a more walkable livable strategy of building lots of active neighborhoods or should the priority be to maximize vehicle throughput on the city’s major automobile traffic arteries?

Photos from the Washington D.C. Examiner and by M.V. Jantzen

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Oldscool March 19, 2013 at 6:16 PM

Your article makes it sound like drivers are against crosswalks. Maybe “War” is overstating it but removing the parking requirement will adversely effect drivers, in a city already thought of as diffucult place to drive. Yes, prices increase around Metro stations but they add a transportation choice, Removing parking spaces does not. Developers can already get an exception to the current rule if they can show parking is not a premium as happened near Tenley Circle. So why eliminate it?

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avatar Paul Goddin March 23, 2013 at 7:28 PM

It is my understanding that the DC zoning law change eliminates the requirement of ground-level (surface) parking and encourages underground parking structures, and furthermore only applies to areas in close proximity to transit. This is a positive change in my opinion, and is considered a best practice. Surface parking brings with it a host of problems (aesthetic, environmental, and economic), and we should eliminate as much of it as we can. Some people will always be averse to change, and we still live in a car culture in the majority of our country, so I get where you’re coming from, OldSchool. DC will probably always have cars clogging its roads, but the real joys of living in this city are found on its sidewalks, and I’d encourage you to try to do that if you can. You might find out your car is less important to you than you thought. Finally, remember that the proposed zoning changes are not trying to force a car-free DC. Rather these changes are addressing market forces that currently favor more options for getting around the city, including biking, walking and public transportation. They are, in Harriet Tregoning’s words, pro-choice, not anti-car.

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