Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Could a bigger security zone around the US Capitol enhance downtown and protect Congress? Most of our commenters say such an idea would instead deaden a large area for little actual security benefit.

The recently-retired head of security for the US Senate thinks there should be a big security zone, closed to motor vehicles, all the way to Union Station and east to 2nd Street. Washington Post columnist Bob McCartney recently wrote about this and said, “I support Gainer’s vision, for the sake of both security and expanding green space downtown.”

While some might think that an urbanist site would support more green space (and, perhaps, cheer removing space for cars), our community did not agree with McCartney. And we’re not anti-car; a grid of streets is a good element of cities.

Thayer-D wrote,

The recommendation to turn the Capitol building into a multi-block secured campus is a horrible idea. Obviously some buffer and enhanced security is necessary, but the threats to all our cities are unbounded. No amount of buffer will truly keep us safe if someone is determined enough to cause havoc. Plus,the security state atmosphere that will result would be a shame.

RDHD added:

When I first read the headline I thought ‘Ooh, a car free zone would be really nice.’ Then I read the article and got the scary feeling that this guy would turn the city into a police state if he had his druthers. The city could quickly become nearly unlivable given the number of things that could be protected to the degree he thinks they should.

And Birdie pointed out,

The Capitol Police already prohibit large trucks from the streets immediately surrounding the Capitol. They have officers posted at key locations to divert truck traffic, along with signs announcing where trucks have to turn. Is it perfect? No. But I’d much rather put up with that system than further indulge Gainer ‘s love of security theater and cutting off the Capitol complex from the rest of the city.

McCartney noted that closing Constitution and Independence would be terrible for traffic. Commenter KingmanPark echoed this.

Blocking such a huge section would force crosstown traffic to the North and South, where east-west connections are already congested. Traffic would become a nightmare, and you’d also slow down crosstown buses such as the X2 and eventually the streetcar.

Could there be a silver lining for urbanism?

Others wanted to consider how, if such a proposal were to happen, it could work well, or at least better. AWalkerInTheCity said,

This is a place where we get to think radically about transportation options. Though I am often a moderate [with respect] to auto usage, I too sometimes like to engage in such radical thinking. I know many folks here hate security theater, but I can imagine some HUGE upsides to the proposal. Can we at least think how, if this were adopted for security reasons, it could be connected to bike infra in order to become a regional asset? ...

A no car zone to union station would solve the MBT to the Mall/PA Ave gap in the bike network. It would also absolutely require improved transit access to Union Station. Transit vehicles could be expempt - much as buses are (I think) allowed closer to the Pentagon than private vehicles.

But others disagree that such a change could ever be positive. Neil Flanagan wrote,

You can’t turn Gainer’s plan into urbanism. It’s not just closing streets, it’s about eliminating mixed use and enclosing what should be open spaces. There’s not much left of urbanism without those.

It violates the fundamental part of walkability and vibrancy: having something to go to. No matter how “green” and carfree a space is, it’s dead without a reason to be there.

The mall doesn’t need to become an even larger isolated monoculture, no matter how much “park” space that returns.

The outer grounds of the Capitol are a dead zone. When was the last time you went to the Taft Carillon? Or those parks Dan Malouff pointed out?

Would it be like Pennsylvania Avenue?

Some commenters pointed to Pennsylvania Avenue as a fairly successful car-free space, though Kingman Park noted that Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House isn’t open to transit vehicles, either. And Falls Church said

It took many years of debate and lobbying for the park service to redesign PA Ave in front of the WH into the nice space it is today. For a decade after PA Ave was closed, it looked like the uninviting, inhospitable areas that are closed around the Capitol. Only because the national spotlight gazes on “1600 Penn Ave” was pressure to make it into a nice space successful. I doubt the proposal for closing down additional areas around the Capitol would result in anything different than the areas that are already closed.

Also, the feds didn’t pay for any additional transit that was needed to replace the lost vehicular capacity after PA Ave was shut down. Unlikely they would do it for shutting down more of the area around the Capitol.

Jasper predicted that any such plan woudn’t create real pedestrian-oriented zones or green space, but rather just mean more fenced-off parking for people who work at the Capitol (like the White House has done with the E Street area, for example).

He said, “This plan would, of course, immediately start with a massive list of vehicles that would be excepted to the rules. Police vehicles, politicians vehicles, security vehicles, emergency vehicles… You know, pretty much all vehicles Congress would need, except those of ‘We the People’ that Congress serves.”

Alex B. agreed:

The existing track record for security closures becoming good public spaces is very poor. The closed streets around the capitol are hardly car-free, they are just closed to public traffic. They instead get used for staff parking. There is little to no benefit from improved bike access, since the gates are not bike friendly and the police direct bikes onto sidewalks. Transit routes are forced into costly detours around the cordons.

Is this really necessary for security?

Gainer said it’s important to act because “Action after something happens is fighting the last war.” But commenter Falls Church begs to differ:

Gainer is the one trying to fight the last war. The next attack isn’t likely to come from some obvious source like the truck bomb that was used in the 1993 WTC bombing. It will be from some absurdly weak link that no one is thinking about. Probably something having to do with cybersecurity. If the US can control Iran’s nuclear centrifuges using an embedded virus, surely a hacker terrorist could control some critical electronic component in or near the Capitol building to wreak havoc.

Gainer reminds me of the French in WWII who heavily fortified their border with Germany. Then Hitler invaded France via Belgium, totally bypassing the fortified Maginot Line.

AWalkerInTheCity wouldn’t dismiss the concern so quickly:

Not sure how much Gainer is thinking in a knee jerk way, and how much is serious concern about truck bombs. Truck bombs are quite real, are a problem overseas, and prior to 9/11, they were the instrument IIUC of the biggest terrorist attack on American soil (at Oklahoma City.) Now that aircraft have their cockpits locked, trucks are likely the biggest non-cyber physical terrorist threat. I am not sure I am qualified to dismiss that because TSA makes old ladies take their shoes off or because we have too many ugly bollards.

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.