Photo by Cliff Nordman on Flickr.
The DC Council vote to strip Tommy Wells of his chairmanship of the Transportation Committee and his seat on the WMATA Board of Directors is a reality check for urbanists and smart growth advocates.
While it’s true that council chairman Kwame Brown was exacting revenge for Wells’ report on the SUV scandal, simply blaming Brown misses the deeper point.
The sad truth is that smart growth ideas were so dispensable to every other council member that they unanimously supported Brown in removing Wells, by far the most articulate smart growth advocate on the council, from the position in which he could most effectively champion the concept.
Unfortunately, transportation is viewed by every council member except Tommy Wells as either a constituent service or a special interest. It’s not viewed as an indispensable part of the solution to any of DC’s problems.
Jack Evans summed up the council’s view of transportation best in his explanation of support for the appointment of new DDOT Director Terry Bellamy.
“Given our constituent services, it’s so important to have someone at the helm of DDOT who is responsive. Bellamy has always answered the phone when I call. That allows us to go work on the really big stuff.”
Urbanists in DC have yet to convince their civic leaders that transportation is itself “really big stuff,” and that it is a means to solving the city’s big problems. Until our leaders make that connection, we will never have the broad-based coalition that could have prevented Wells’ removal from key positions.
For transportation to be taken seriously, urbanists in DC must start talking about it in terms of how it provides solutions to joblessness, crime, education and gentrification, which are the real sources of anxiety for most DC residents.
For example, Mayor Gray has made job creation a centerpiece of his agenda, but since only 28% of DC jobs are held by DC residents, it’s likely Gray’s initiative will have to create 4 jobs for every 1 that benefits a District resident. That’s not very efficient.
Instead of spending taxpayer money to lure companies that provide jobs mostly to Virginians and Marylanders, the city could be investing money to improve access to jobs for existing DC residents. Economic integration, enabled by transit, can be a bulwark against underemployment and gentrification.
Urbanists may enjoy the minutiae of transportation infrastructure on its own terms, but if we are to convince others of our ideas then we will need to show how transportation is a means to greater ends. It’s time to start talking in terms to which the rest of the city can relate.
Until that happens, urbanists will lack the broad-based consensus that would enable politicians like Tommy Wells to champion our ideas.