Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.
The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?
The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a “significant” problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I’m surprised 32% don’t think it’s a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are “very important” in making decisions about where to locate businesses.
99% want a more modern signal system “to ease the flow of traffic,” which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see “active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk.”
This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.
On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.
Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?
It’s easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There’s a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.
But there’s an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide “traffic sewers” that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.
Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.
And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it’s a great place.
Congestion pricing, anyone?
There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.
DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.
The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It’s good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It’s good for the poorer residents who don’t have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.
But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don’t want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.
Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It’s not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.