Photo by carfreedc on Flickr.

If you missed the moveDC “Idea Exchange,” an all-day workshop about the future of transportation in the District and the first step in a year-long project to build a transportation master plan for DC, there were three themes you can take away from the session:

  • Those who want to continue designing the city around more and more driving get no quarter from the top echelons of the Gray administration.
  • Transportation is really mostly not about transportation.
  • For anyone who thought a government-run public involvement meeting has to be boring, DDOT and its contractors just proved otherwise.

Gray is unequivocal: More cars are not the future

Mayor Vincent Gray opened his remarks with a clear message: There might be a lot of traffic, but more cars are not the answer. Instead, the District will invest in streetcars, buses, biking, and walking.

Gray touts his sustainability plan. Photo by carfreedc.

Gray cited his sustainability plan which aims to have 75% of trips in the District happen by a mode other than driving. Cars still have a place, surely, but the District has to grow other modes more than driving.

Oh, and he promised the H Street streetcar will be rolling by the end of 2013, and taxis will have credit card readers by summer.

DDOT director Terry Bellamy, DC Councilmember and transportation chair Mary Cheh, and her colleague Tommy Wells all echoed Gray’s fundamental theme of multimodalism. Bellamy pointed out that everyone walks for part of their trip, even when they drive, take Metro, or another mode. Wells emphasized equity: the District needs to help all groups of residents reach jobs safely and on time.

When is transportation not really about transportation?

A panel discussion brought together author Christopher Leinberger, Slate economics blogger Matthew Yglesias, and equitable transportation advocate Anita Hairston of PolicyLink.

Leinberger, Hairston, Yglesias, and moderator Veronica Davis. Photo by Crystal Bae on Twitter.

The panel’s title was the “future of transportation” in DC, but the panelists ended up talking quite a lot about broader urban planning issues. Perhaps this is partly because DDOT put two authors of books about buildings rather than transportation on the panel, but also because transportation is often not really about transportation.

Christopher Leinberger said, “a transportation system’s goal isn’t to move people. It’s economic development. The means is by moving people.” He argued that many departments of transportation have their mission backwards. They focus on moving vehicles and freight as much as possible. That’s wrong; instead, transportation is a means to an end.

The means also directs the end. Build highways, and you fuel “drivable sub-urbanism,” to use his term from The Option of Urbanism; build transit, and enable walkable urbanism. In our region and around the country, the market demand now is for more walkable urbanism.

By not having enough walkable urbanism, Yglesias added, what does exist has become very expensive. That fuels a perception that walkable urban places are just for the affluent, but that only arises because we aren’t building more walkable urban places fast enough.

DC could fund this transit and associated economic development if it set up a “value capture” system, said Leinberger, to get some of the value the streetcar creates and plow it back into transportation. The right system could even make the streetcar profitable, he said. But there’s no time to waste. It’s like in Back to the Future, Part 2 where Biff has the sports book listing what will happen in the future. Well, we have the book now, said Leinberger, and yet we aren’t preparing.

Meanwhile, he said, DC needs a comprehensive strategy for affordable housing, and lacks one today. Hairston, too, emphasized how important it is to remember equity when making these investments. What about the public health for those who live near new transportation infrastructure, or the unbanked who can’t as easily take advantage of programs like Capital Bikeshare?

Hairston noted that today, it’s not possible to get to 60% jobs by bus in one hour from east of the Anacostia River. She hopes the District can at least reverse that and make 6 of 10 accessible within an hour.

A public meeting was genuinely fun

I’ve been to a lot of boring public meetings. The moveDC Ideas Exchange might have been the most entertaining and interesting. It certainly didn’t lack for manpower (and womanpower), as almost every DDOT employee was working one of many stations.

At one, people could nominate the street they think is DC’s worst. Another let you place color-coded string on a map showing your commute, with the color telling whether it’s by bike, bus, Metro, driving, walking, etc. There was even a photo booth.

Photos by carfreedc on Flickr.

One table let you design your ideal street cross-section, with sidewalks, medians, bike lanes, bus lanes, or whatever, then take a picture, print it, and post it on a wall. You could draw on a map of proposed CaBi stations or write parking ideas on sticky notes to go on a wall.

Greater Greater Washington contributor Veronica Davis moderated the panel and got some major praise from DDOT director Bellamy as well as plaudits on Twitter for a very interesting session.

Tough customer Alex Baca even tweeted, “I am THE BIGGEST whiner about the utility of the public-input process, but @wemovedc made today’s #IdeasMoveDC a really fun time.”

Photo by Erik Weber on Twitpic.

Of course, it might be a little easier to make a session fun when there’s no proposal half the participants have shown up specifically to fight against, as in the Office of Planning’s recent zoning update sessions. It’s worth watching to see, first, what kind of plan DDOT devises out of all these stickies and photos and yarn, and second, if all these interactive booths give any kind of serious plan a better shot at becoming reality.

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.