Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.

Are changes to parking policy a “war on cars” or a scheme to “force people out of their cars”? That’s about as preposterous as saying President Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, but both claims grow from some real underlying angst in parts of the populace.

In national politics, the 2008 election created a lot of trepidation among some segments of the American populace, about a black president, expanding the role of government, or secularism. Some people capitalized on the fear not by debating the policies but by escalating silly conspiracy theories that advanced some groups’ side agenda.

Our local analogue is the “war on cars” meme. The District is experiencing a tectonic demographic shift, especially in age, as many millennials and generation Xers want to live in walkable, urban neighborhoods, buy houses and often raise families in a way relatively rare the generation before.

Newcomers are also more likely to be white than the longtime resident populace, though many of the newer black residents I’ve talked to have very similar visions and desires for the city and their communities as a lot of white residents.

This shift means that we have different groups of residents who have different ideas about how and whether the District should grow, or what our policies should be on transportation and economic development.

A healthy civic discourse includes debates over this. But it’s not constructive when the conversation focuses on conspiracy theories about people’s motivations, like the recurrent theme that a new policy is an effort to “force people out of cars.” It’s especially damaging when people pin this motivation on a policy that sustainable transportation advocates don’t even like.

Tim Craig’s Washington Post article this weekend, about parking and bike lanes, fanned these flames. The headline said new parking rules are intended to “discourage driving,” and led off with a quote from Councilmember Jim Graham: “That is the sign of the future, that discourages car ownership.”

It’s not clear in what context Graham said this, but the article mainly talks about a program, which Graham pushed, to reserve parking on one side of every street for residents. It makes it sound like this program is part of the so-called “war on cars,” and paired with Graham’s quote, some bike lane discussion, and other talk about the growing numbers of residents, certainly gave the impression that this was another one of those ideas from the bike lane and coffee shop set.

It wasn’t. This one side of the street thing is very simple: it’s a political play. Graham’s base is residents, not visitors and not employees of businesses. He saw an opportunity to give something to his voters, and he did. That would have been a far better frame for the story, especially from one of the Post’s political reporters.

I didn’t like this policy when it came up 2½ years ago, and you’d be hard pressed to find any kind of transit or bicycling advocate who was pushing this. It’s not necessarily all bad; it basically reallocates limited street space from one group of drivers to another, and that has pros and cons.

But Craig’s article certainly pressed on a nerve for the Post’s suburban readers, a lot like his 2009 article that made our “10 worst mainstream articles of 2009” list. That, too, played to suburban commuters’ fears of a District less deferential to their needs but in a way that likewise really misrepresented the situation; there, a Bethesda resident was complaining about getting a ticket for parking in rush hour lanes, but the people who benefit from those rush hour lanes are primarily the suburban drivers.



Gary Imhoff sees Craig’s article as more proof the hipsters are trying to run everyone else out of the city. In a piece entitled “one size fits all,” He wrote,

These are people who see their lifestyle, their current lifestyle, as the normal, natural way that everyone should live, and are scornful of anyone who would actually buy provisions for an entire family.


The first commenter, “DC,” on the City Paper’s bit about it pointed out that it’s Imhoff, not any young residents, who seem to want a “one size fits all solution.”

Few newer residents care how people from a different generation in a different neighborhood live. Honestly, most hardly give it a second thought. They just want to have some places to live that fit their budgets and are near jobs or transit, and want neighborhood amenities like shops, restaurants, and parks.

The only reason this would be at all threatening to anyone else is because when there weren’t so many people in DC, and when a lot of people didn’t walk and bicycle from place to place, drivers could have lots of spaces to park and the roads to themselves to drive more quickly.

To sum up, we have a scenario where new people are coming in, don’t actually want to remove any amenities from any existing residents, but the very fact of their existence threatens some people economically. Some people respond by latching onto conspiracy theories and forming extreme groups that claim to be for freedom but actually want government rules that maintain the status quo.

Hm, this sounds eerily familiar to some patterns in our national politics over the last 4 years. A letter writer to the Current back in April even said that her dislike of the zoning update (which is actually mostly suggesting loosening some regulations) made her feel kinship with the Tea Party.

It’s worth noting who, in Craig’s article, most steadfastly refused to pander to any anti-bicycle, anti-transit, or anti-walking sentiment: Pedro Rebeiro, Mayor Gray’s spokesperson. No matter how much tumult there’s been over bike lanes, the administration has never given it credence.

Commentators would do well to listen to the mayor and stop tolerating transportation birtherism. I have absolutely no objection to everyone who uses a car today continuing to use it just as much as before. New residents are free to make their own choices as well about their transportation modes. Almost nobody wants to force anyone out of any cars.

This is about giving people more choices, strengthening the quality and availability of non-auto modes which our society neglected for many decades, and finding ways to welcome new people in our city, in a way that respects and includes existing residents of all colors and incomes, instead of trying to fight newcomers off or distract from the real issue with silly conspiracy theories.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.