Commuting Suicide -- the District of Columbia wants to be a residential suburb


The Washington Post’s recent article about how the District government is making plans to make the city “less-welcoming to suburban cars” is one more example of suicidal behavior that the city is known for.

Unfortunately, other cities are thinking similarly. In the plan, “City officials say that the moves are part of a policy of putting the needs of its residents and businesses before those of suburban commuters and that they are trying to create a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented metropolis.” Apparently Washington has decided to become a bedroom suburb. Newsflash: even those don’t exist anymore – much less in the center of a metropolitan region of over five million.

It is hard to believe that the District could consciously make the city less welcoming to vehicles than it already is – with potholes on every block and roads like I-295 right out of the 1930s with design features for the tin lizzie, or New York Avenue that says “Welcome to your Nation’s Capitol” with neglect apparent on every block. Maybe because they cannot fix those things they decided to turn it into a virtue at least among some segments of the society.

You would think the District would have noticed that more of their own citizens get to work by car than by transit and about 45 percent of those riding transit are on the roads they want to make worse. This is just an extension of the District’s perennial search for revenue with a tortured way to get to a commuter tax that has been around for decades.

All it would take is a few minutes on the back of an envelope to recognize how important commuters are to the city. First answer would be a simple thought experiment – would the city be better off with no suburban commuters or with what they have now? Someone in the District government could do a small calculation of the amount of office building space, with the attendant real estate taxes they generate, the restaurants, shops and services, the parking garages and the revenue they earn, the taxes they pay, and the District workers they support, to recognize that the benefits to the City per thousand commuters far exceeds the costs. Without the suburbs even its beloved Metro wouldn’t exist.

More importantly, it shows that the District once again has failed to recognize its responsibility as the nation’s capitol. Those responsibilities are really not that terribly different from other center cities. This is part of a looming public policy conflict of national proportions. As cities adopt the new mantra of “metro mobility” – which is code for an attack on autos and an assumption that transit needs can be met by walking, biking and mass transit – they only address trips under five miles. This completely neglects the responsibility that every city and metropolitan region in the country has, much less the nation’s capitol, to meet the needs of interstate commerce – whether through access to ports or to major rail or highway routes.

This is not optional. An area cannot opt out of that obligation. If all areas of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area operated that way, rather than a great region comprised of dozens of counties it would be a series of hamlets adjacent to each other with the obvious decline in market power and productivity that entails.

The great challenge to the nation in the next few years will be providing access to those workers needed to replace the aging baby boom generation. We will need to expand the commuter market-sheds around our cities not contract them. Congressman Moran got it right, providing a sense of scale when he told reporter Eric M. Weiss, “U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said … the city should be careful not to chase people away. Like the District, Old Town Alexandria would be a nicer place without all the cars, he said. But there is an economic component to be considered, he said, and people in cars represent customers for restaurants and shops.”

He also said be careful what you wish for... For a city that lost 180,000 people over the last 30 years the District should listen to wiser heads.

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Commuters will still come to DC

I think the article is terribly simplistic. The real question is not whether car commuters are important to the District's economic well-being -- of course they are -- the question is whether the proposed measures described in the WaPo article will actually lower the number of commuters. I think it's highly doubtful they will. With a few exceptions (e.g. XM Satellite Radio) almost all of the folks driving in to the District work at government agencies or companies (such as law firms) that will be staying in the District regardless of commuting difficulties. As the WaPo article notes, the Department of Commerce isn't going anywhere. And the federal government never seems to _shrink_ in size. Traffic calming measures get rid of infrastructure costs (mainly repairing streets) that the District shouldn't be bearing. I live a half block south of Constitution Ave. NE, and the change to two-lane traffic at all times has both reduced the amount of traffic coming through at any particular time and has significantly reduced the number of accidents that the daily switch used to cause. Folks commuting in to the District from PG County have either switched to Metro, or more likely, simply adjusted their route or the time that they come in to work. Absent empirical evidence I don't think that Pisarski can argue that this particular traffic calming measure has actually reduced the number of commuters into DC. And I think it is indisputable that it has lowered infrastructure costs to the District.

Similarly, I think the proposal to end the 395 tunnel before reaching NY Ave is a good one. Many people going up and down the East Coast cut through DC rather than taking the Beltway (I certainly did when I was driving up to school in Boston from Texas). Closing the connection with NY Ave would almost certainly force through drivers, who spend nothing in the District, onto the Beltway. That in turn would make NY Ave back into a normal commercial avenue, since businesses could count on local custom to return once the terrible traffic jams were gone. I'd be interested to know what the "obligation" to allow interstate traffic to transit the District that Pisarski describes could possibly be. I'd argue that if the District is acting like a business, it will try to eliminate through drivers and allow only those folks who are going to spend money in the District.

Finally, I think it is ridiculous to claim that the District's loss in population results from traffic regulations. The 1968 riots led to massive white flight that the city has not yet recovered from. Nor is it likely to reach its peak population again, because as Joel Kotkin has pointed out, people don't want to live that densely. Blaming that population trend on traffic measures is just silly.

Why should city policies favor driving surburbanites

so when you come into town - do you drive or take the Metro. Are you also against similar traffic calming measures that are enacted in Alexandria and Arlington - or is this something that only DC residents should have to bear? The article sure sounds like it was written by the surbanite that you are.