Last week, the Gray administration unveiled its sustainability plan, which sets some very ambitious, yet very important objectives for 2032, like attracting 250,000 new residents and making 75% of trips happen by walking, biking, and transit, along with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, more access to healthy food, cleaner water, and much more.

This plan is perhaps the boldest statement yet by a mayor about the city’s future. Some plans equivocate and promise everyone what they want. The sustainability plan does not. Our future is more walking, biking, and transit, and many new residents who aren’t driving, says the mayor. Period.

To achieve these goals, agencies will have to push forward not just on their existing laudable initiatives, but go beyond. To shift the numbers of transit, walking, and bicycle trips, DC must do more than just build the streetcar and incrementally grow bicycle infrastructure. The administration also should set intermediate goals to push agencies to make significant progress each and every year.

Many specific actions are important steps forward

Strong policy statements like this make a big impact. When agency heads and employees look at a potential action, they’ll know they should consider it through the lens of these policies. That doesn’t mean people won’t keep doing other things that confound the goals at times, but one group inside one agency can use these statements as ammunition to argue for policies that support the goals.

The plan also lists a number of specific actions agencies can take in a number of areas, from waste to building energy efficiency to parks and trees. The land use section includes the most significant (and controversial) parts of the zoning update, reducing parking minimums and allowing more accessory dwellings.

In the transportation section, there are a few promising new steps. Most are things DC already plans, such as streetcars, more bike lanes, and expanding performance parking.

Notably, the plan also suggests exploring a regional congestion pricing system. That’s entirely speculative at this point, and the plan says that unless Maryland and Virginia agree, it’d be almost impossible to set up any sort of congestion pricing system. But just putting it in the plan is a meaningful step.

Another significant policy statement calls on DC to “Program crosswalks and traffic lights for improved safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists.” That’s right, it says that pedestrian and cyclist safety should take precedence over vehicle speed. It also suggests timing lights along major corridors for traffic, as groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade repeatedly ask, but notably recommends timing such lights for motor vehicles and bicycles, not just the former.

To reach goals, agencies will have to do even more

Many of these statements commit DC agencies to go beyond what they have done to date. But is it enough to achieve the even more ambitious goals, like 75% of trips by transit, walk or biking, 250,00 new residents, and cutting in half citywide unemployment, obesity, and energy use?

Transportation goals from the plan (page 12). Click for full plan (PDF).

On land use, the zoning update takes a significant step, but still an incremental one. There are many conditions that will limit accessory dwellings. Reducing parking minimums may make some housing cheaper and make some buildings feasible around the margin, but it does not add to the total amount of potential housing.

According to Planning director Harriet Tregoning, DC could add enough housing for 250,000 more residents just under existing zoning, but that assumes building up to the zoning limit across most of the city. Wholesale redevelopment of neighborhoods is not what anyone really wants. 

Rather, it would be better to focus more new housing near Metro stations, streetcars, and high-frequency bus corridors. To do that, though, some administration will have to modify the Comprehensive Plan and zoning to create denser areas somewhere, or even revisit the height limit in some parts of the city.

The Office of Planning also backed away from earlier proposals to also set thresholds where a new development has to set up a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan. That now only applies to parking lots over 100,000 square feet, not large garages in many buildings which will contribute to more traffic and inhibit reaching some of the mode share goals.

Can DC reach 75% non-auto mode share?

The transportation section aims to increase public transit’s share of trips (“mode share”) to 50%, and walking and biking to 25%. There isn’t actually data on total trips today, but the plan shows a breakdown of commute trips (which the Census asks about). There, transit had 38% share in 2010, walking 12%, and “other means” (since bicycling isn’t a specific category) 4%.

Image from the plan, page 80. Click for full plan (PDF).

That means if we use commute data and count all “other” in the walking and bicycling group (since it’s probably fine to also count rollerbladers and Razor scooter riders), transit has to gain 12 percentage points and walking plus biking 9.

Implementation steps include DDOT’s current plans to add some more bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare stations, build out the streetcar system, plus recommendations to improve transit connections such as better service for low-income riders and later hours, set up a dedicated source of funding for transit, and make transit systems “resilient” to intense heat and storms that we’ll see more often thanks to climate change.

Will this get 12% of commuters to switch to transit, though? Especially while the vast bulk of DDOT spending is still going to projects like big racetracks on South Capitol Street, which will add more car capacity to Saint Elizabeths rather than boosting transit connectivity.

If congestion pricing actually comes about, that could drive the mode shift, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, though, DDOT could meaningfully improve transit by building a network of dedicated bus lanes that make the bus truly an appealing alternative for residents from Glover Park to Fairfax Village to Woodridge.

DC won TIGER grants for bus priority projects from 2009, but those still haven’t yielded anything on the ground. Last year, Mary Cheh set up a fund for DDOT to pay for bus projects, but it hasn’t done any. H and I street bus lanes are on the long-term regional transportation plan, but if DDOT is making any concrete progress, it’s pretty covert, and most of all isn’t anywhere in the plan.

DDOT also needs to step it up on bicycle infrastructure. The plan laudably calls for 200 more Capital Bikeshare stations (so far, DC has committed to 87, and 100 miles of “connected” bicycle lanes, compared to about 50 (and not all connected) today, “prioritizing” ones east of the Anacostia.

But as WABA noted in its action alert at the end of 2011 about anemic progress in bike lanes, DC had installed 4-8 lanes per year from 2006-2010, which if continued should put the District at 130-210 by 2032 rather than just 100. Gabe Klein’s Action Agenda set a target of 80 miles by 2012, so only 25% more than that 20 years later seems a bit underwhelming.

MoveDC is key

Tregoning, who spearheaded the overall plan while working with individual agencies on the specific proposals, said that these sets of actions aren’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of everything to do in the next 20 years. Among other reasons, they wanted to actually publish the plan, not spend endless years tinkering with the lists — a worthy impulse indeed.

On transportation, in particular, the MoveDC citywide transportation plan is the opportunity to create a more detailed list of everything DC has to do. Gray’s 50%-25%-25% targets provide a perfect frame for that plan. If a proposed piece of MoveDC moves us toward the targets, it should go in; if it pushes the other way, it should come out.

The 50%-25%-25% also gives MoveDC a high bar to hit. We’ll all need to ensure MoveDC is more like the sustainability plan, with clear and aggressive goals, and less like some other plans which try to give everybody what they want and end up meaning little.

Intermediate goals are also necessary

How can we avoid getting to 2032, looking back on this plan, and seeing these great targets but having only moved imperceptibly toward them? The administration could set intermediate goals and really hold agency heads’ feet to the fire to reach them.

What can we do to boost transit at least 0.6 percentage points in 2013 (1/20th of the way to the 12 point growth in the plan) and walking and bicycling 0.45 (1/20th of 6 points)? What can we do to get recycling up, obesity down, more buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency, and more parks not just by 2032, but by 2014 and then 2018?

To really hit these goals or at least come close, a next step needs to be a set of intermediate targets, perhaps one for the end of Mayor Gray’s current term, and for every 4-year mayoral term thereafter. We should also ask mayoral candidates, in the 2014 race and future races, if they are willing to commit to these targets, both the long-term and intermediate ones, and ask their agency heads to do the same.

At the press conference, Gray noted that this plan’s 20-year horizon certainly extends beyond his administration, whether or not he runs for or wins reelection. But, he said, this is a product not just from him but from his agency employees, many of whom still may be around that long. They can reach these targets as long as this and future mayors continue to send clear messages that the objectives in the plan are not just nice words on a paper but a real vision for the future of DC.

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.