Photo by Jenn Farr on Flickr.

“I’m not anti-car,” said DC planning director Harriet Tregoning last night at a meeting of the Federation of Citizens’ Associations. “I’m pro-choice.”

Tregoning and Washington Post reporter Jonathan O’Connell were speaking to the group about development and the zoning update. Many members of the audience were incredulous that any appreciable percentage of residents would choose to live without cars, even when O’Connell described many of his Petworth neighbors who do just that, or when Tregoning cited statistics from the Census.

"35% of DC households have no vehicle,” Tregoning said. “Who are these people?” one woman shouted out.

Who are those people, by the way? The federation’s members come from citizens’ associations across the District, but those who spoke yesterday hailed from upper Northwest neighborhoods like Tenleytown, Glover Park, and Friendship Heights, as well as a few from Adams Morgan.

Everyone at the meeting was white (in a relic from a more segregated bygone era, predominantly black associations are part of a separate Federation of Civic Associations), and almost all belong to the baby boom generation or older.

The meeting. Tregoning and O’Connell are at the far right. Photo by the author.

The discussion primarily revolved around the chronic flashpoint, parking. The Office of Planning has been encouraging developers not to build more parking than their residents need, and provisions of the zoning update reduce or eliminate many parking minimum requirements, especially around transit.

Tregoning said that when she talks to developers, she often asks them what percentage of residents in their target market own cars. She’s yet to have a conversation where the developer knew the answer, but she comes armed with these statistics. She doesn’t want to forbid them from building parking, but wants to help them align their project with the actual demand.

O’Connell noted that many buildings along Georgia Avenue in his neighborhood now have little or no underground parking, while earlier buildings had a lot of parking. He speculated that the older buildings built more than necessary, and developers have learned what residents want. Tregoning added that, while the data is not public, she has spoken to several developers who acknowledge that some of their past projects built parking which now goes unused.

O’Connell also wondered about the O Street Market project, which DC is supporting with over $35 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and grant funds. O’Connell said that the last economic development project of this magnitude was DC USA, which ended up with a taxpayer-funded garage which goes largely empty. Will the same happen at O?

The Rhode Island Avenue Home Depot is atop a Metro station, but has an overly car-centric design that isn’t what residents wish they had at the site. Since these projects spend many years going through approvals, O’Connell said, what the city needs at the start of the process can often be very different from conditions by the time it gets built.

Audience members, however, mainly wanted planning to anticipate more car-owning households and not really expect any car-free ones. Judy Chesser of the Tenleytown Neighbors Association criticized car2go. She said that the residential permit parking (RPP) system is supposed to “protect residents,” but yet car2go cars are able to park on those blocks as well as at meters.

Tregoning noted that they pay high fees for these privileges, not to mention that car2go vehicles do serve the area’s residents. Some, she said, do give up cars, either going car-free entirely or reducing the number of cars they own, which makes more room for everyone else and saves money.

Tregoning emphasized the issue of choice. She asked the audience members to raise their hands if they own vinyl records, and then if they own CDs. Members of younger generations, by contrast, rarely own physical media for their music. Instead, they buy songs a la carte on iTunes or, increasingly, subscribe to services which let them listen to music on demand without actually owning the song.

Car ownership is similar, she said. Many residents do not feel the need to own a vehicle which they use only infrequently and which constantly depreciates. Instead, Zipcar, car2go, taxis and other services let them have access to cars when they need them, and they walk, bike, and take transit for many trips where possible.

While this is less common for families with small children, Tregoning pointed out that only 20% of DC households have school-age children. It’s very important to serve their needs as well, but the city has a large amount of single-family housing stock, while it had far fewer apartments and condos compared to market demand. More recent development is mainly catching up to the balance we need for the future.

Facing some hostile reactions from the audience to the idea that many people would go car-free, Tregoning asked rhetorically, “do you really want me to plan for a city where 100% of people own cars?” Peter Espenschied of Cleveland Park retorted, “that would be safe.”

Another questioner talked about how Georgetown residents kept a Metro station out of their neighborhood (actually, an urban legend). Tenleytown’s Chesser piped up to say, “Smart move, in retrospect.”

Some participants had more nuanced views. One man, who I didn’t identify, preceded a serious and non-confrontational question by saying, “I generally favor higher density.” Denis James of the Kalorama Citizens’ Association said the group is worried that Jim Graham’s move to expand visitor passes to all of Ward 1 has granted about 3,000 7,000 new parking privileges in the neighborhood, and that could bring a lot of new cars.

Most agreed that they wish the Washington Post would cover this issue more thoroughly. While Greater Greater Washington, the Washington City Paper, and others have indeed been writing about this subject, I agree that it’s important enough to warrant more attention from the paper of record (as is the Montgomery County zoning rewrite also underway).

Seeing the tweets on the topic, Post reporter Mike DeBonis stopped by the meeting to say that he is working on articles about this issue. Any stories will run after the election which currently occupies all of his and others’ time.

To assuage any fears that he might hate cars, bikes, feet or any other conveyance, DeBonis noted that he owns a car and an RPP sticker, bikes to work most days, took the bus that day, rode the Red Line to the meeting, and planned to walk home. Channeling Gilbert and Sullivan, he concluded, “I am the very model of a modern multimodal individual.”

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.