Photo by Roger Wollstadt on Flickr.

Should the design of major roads and our big transit projects favor moving large numbers of people in and out of downtown? Or should DC focus on making streets feel more like neighborhood streets, and transportation investments that help people travel within and between neighborhoods?

This is the major tradeoff that residents considered in a series of public meetings that concluded last week for MoveDC, a project which aims to create a citywide transportation plan.

Planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented participants with 3 scenarios which keep things as they are, prioritize transportation to and from the downtown core, or focus on neighborhoods.

Scenarios set different priorities

All of the scenarios include finishing 22 miles of streetcars, the bridge megaprojects like the South Capitol Street racetrack, putting performance parking in busy commercial areas, expanding CaBi and bike trails and lanes, and more.

Stay the Course, the first scenario, sticks with these and keeps allocating resources and space to a balance of long-distance and short-distance travel.

Get To the Center focuses on the downtown areas, still the main engines of DC’s economy. This option makes it easier to get to downtown by car and transit, such as by timing signals to maximize traffic flow to and from the core.

DC would invest in transit to and from Maryland and Virginia, like new Metro lines across the Potomac, or commuter rail capacity. Bike trails and cycle tracks that travel to or from downtown would get the highest priority.

Travel would not necessarily be free; this scenario includes a proposal for a congestion charge for private vehicle trips downtown to help pay for infrastructure that gets people downtown.

Connect the Neighborhoods instead focuses on helping people get around within and between neighborhoods. Most capital would go to facilities that help people cross geographic barriers like Rock Creek Park or the Anacostia River. Local streets would put walking, biking, and short-distance local traffic first, such as with medians that make it easier to cross.

New transit would also serve neighborhood needs more than commuters in and out of the city, such as the full proposed 37-mile streetcar system, or buses like the Circulator that connect “activity centers.”

This scenario posits that DC needs to decentralize its jobs and retail. As the city grows, a single downtown can’t serve all of the needs, and therefore this scenario assumes that more mixed-use zoning will let people work all over the city instead of all cramming the main downtown routes to jobs in the center, which is almost entirely built out.

Georgia Avenue. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In reality, any actual plan will combine elements of all of these and not go 100% in the direction of core-oriented or neighborhood-oriented transportation. Still, it’s a useful discussion, as it helps us think through our priorities. Financial constraints mean we can’t build every transportation project anyone has suggested. How do we prioritize investments?

Plus, roadways have finite space. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights, for instance, there have been dueling proposals to build a median, which would make the road safer to cross, or a dedicated bus lane, which would help buses get through the area. Off-peak parking on major arterials creates significant congestion at the edges of rush hour. Bike lanes, dedicated transit lanes, and parking all vie for roadway space.

Land use matters, too

It’s mostly outside DDOT’s purview, but any discussion of downtown versus neighbor­hoods can’t be complete without thinking about land use. Transportation is about getting people to places they need to be: housing, jobs, stores, schools, and so on.

Where will DC grow? Any proposal to grow anywhere meets with some opposition. Can the city develop a consensus to grow in particular places rather than others?

The city could grow mostly in the center. That would protect neighborhood character, something resident activists often speak about. On the other hand, it would probably not mean a lot more neighborhood retail. Most of all, though, there isn’t actually much room to grow in the center without changes to the height limit.

Do we want to relax the height limit downtown and create a much busier and denser central business district? That land use scenario fits well with the Get To the Center transportation scenario.

Or, does DC want to decentralize? Put more growth around Metro stations, frequent bus lines, and future streetcar lines in all neighborhoods? That would bring more jobs, residents, and retail to many neighborhoods. However, it requires making sure there’s room for this growth.

If every new building meets opposition and the Historic Preservation Review Board wants to shave a floor or two off every proposal in one of the myriad historic districts, neighborhoods won’t be able to grow enough to decentralize the city.

But if we do want to help each neighborhood become more self-sufficient and reduce the need to travel long distances for basic necessities like groceries or recreation, the Connect the Neighborhoods scenario makes sense.

We have to do something

By 2040, projections say DC will around 800,000 residents one-third more than today. The region as a whole will add 2 million new residents, also about a third increase.

Projected population growth (left) and job growth (right). Images from DDOT.

The roads, rails, and bike paths will all need to accommodate more people safely, without relying on more physical space, and that’s one of the central challenges this plan seeks to address. How will we move ourselves around, with a third more people everywhere?

The District is the 7th most walkable city, according to Walk Score, yet also has the most pedestrian fatalities per capita among major cities, and 46% of respondents in a 2009 DDOT survey complained that unsafe street crossings made it difficult from them to walk to places they want to go.

DDOT is committed to expanding transit, bicycling, and walking options. Mayor Gray’s sustainability plan sets goals for 75% of trips to use these modes, which fit in more people per lane mile. At the same time, some people will continue to need to drive. Performance parking, car sharing, and possibly a future driverless car can reduce parking pressures as the number of people grows.

How should the District focus its transportation to meet the needs of the future? How should it balance getting people in and out of the core versus connecting neighborhoods? What do you think?

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.

Rahul Sinha was born in DC and grew up nearby in Bethesda. He now lives in Kalorama Triangle. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and moonlights as a macroeconomist.