Photo by Joe Calhoun on Flickr.

On a typical weekday, 400,000 commuters enter downtown DC. On Tuesday, 1.8 million people did. Yet there’s heavy traffic every rush hour in and out of DC, just to move a small fraction of the people we moved on Tuesday.

The difference? On Tuesday, people didn’t come in private vehicles, with just one person in a car. They came in public and private buses, Metro trains, commuter rail, carpooled, walked and bicycled. With almost all bridges closed to traffic, we actually accommodated four and a half times the typical traffic. On the typical weekday, 40% of commuters — 160,000 people — drive alone.

Even AAA admits (in a way) that commuters in single-passenger cars are holding us back. A Washington Times article yesterday pointed out that roads returned to gridlock Wednesday. “There were few traffic problems Tuesday because there was one element eliminated — vehicles,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. Those are the vehicles whose exclusion another AAA spokesman stridently criticized last week.

If our region is to grow, we need to help more people reach their jobs. One approach is to add traffic lanes and parking garages at enormous cost, both financial and in lost urban vitality. The other solution is to move people as we did on Tuesday. More people rode the trains. Each vehicle coming into the downtown core carried far more people. Over 2,000 people used WABA’s bike valet. And many more people started their days within walking distance of downtown. Those houseguests raised our population density enormously, enriching our neighborhood businesses besides.

WAMU played an editorial this morning from Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “The inauguration showed us how we can grow our economy without growing traffic,” she said. Yet our federal and local policies keep moving us in the wrong direction.

Many of [the 160,000 daily auto] commuters could be coaxed onto trains, buses and even bicycles if we make smooth, convenient, and safe trips a priority. But we don’t. Instead, we are cutting transit service while letting bicycle improvements languish.

In the afterglow of accomplishment, Metro is cutting 900 positions to cope with a looming budget deficit. Public officials acknowledge the importance of transit, but our region’s governments continue to find billions of local and federal dollars to expand or build new highways. Maryland is starting construction of the nearly $3 billion Intercounty Connector highway, shortchanging other state priorities. Virginia is bent on widening the Beltway from 8 to 12 lanes. At the federal level, public transit spending is being cut back in the stimulus bill while three times as much money is funneled to roads.

Our priorities are stuck in the 1950s. As President Obama ushers in a season of change, we must focus on what will work for our economy, environment, and communities in the 21st Century. Expanded Metro capacity, better walking and bicycling conditions, and rapid bus corridors should be immediate priorities for improving transportation choices and supporting an economic recovery for our region.

Listen to Cheryl’s editorial on RealAudio or Windows Media.

Bloomberg’s architecture critic says we need a better approach. “The six rail tracks that tunnel into New York’s Penn Station haul as many people as 45 freeway lanes. … Road projects do little more than rearrange the traffic jams, like the 23-lane extravaganza touted for Atlanta’s suburbs.”

What if our city saw even a third of Tuesday’s activity every day, but with none of the security barricades? Imagine how many more fares Metro would collect, and how much more frequent bus and subway service we could support. Imagine how many more neighborhood hardware stores and restaurants our communities could support, and how much safer our streets would be with more eyes.

If we could get 1.8 million people in and out of downtown DC without any traffic, we can get 500, 600, or 700,000 people in and out every day smoothly with better transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. All that’s holding us back is our elected leadership and our ability to envision a better region.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.