Don’t Break Our Transit Heart: A Fragmented DC Region Struggles to Move Forward

Ethan Goffman Uncategorized

The Washington DC Metrorail is a “living, breathing entity,” the beating heart of a great metropolitan area, pumping people, goods, and services through the region, keeping it alive and thriving. So said Shyam Kannan, Managing Director of Planning at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), discussing a region often thought of as divided by two rivers—the Potomac and Anacostia—and even more so by multiple jurisdictions and authorities. Kannan was speaking at the Crossing Boundaries Transportation Forum in Arlington, Virginia, itself the heart of a smart growth and transit movement that provides the United States with a different vision than the car culture that has been dominant for almost 100 years. Nationally, vehicle miles travelled (VMT) went up 1,000% from 1945 to 2005 while population increased only by 100%, explained Rich Kuzmyak of Renaissance Planning. Yet, this trend has been leveling off, as it needs to. With population surging in the DC region, there is “no way we can build out,” said Kulmyak. Another way has been coming into being, partly through evolution and partly through willed change and political activism. That way is transit and smart growth in dense, walkable neighborhoods, embodied in DC’s Metro system.

Arlington is one place that has succeeded in cutting VMT per capita drastically. With walkable neighborhoods based around underground Metrorail stations, Arlington’s overall car use has flattened, or even declined slightly, while the population has surged, explained Tom Fairchild of City Version 3. It seems that we can have economic growth without increased environmental harm, at least from transportation. Fairchild described himself as not anti-car, but favoring choice in a variety of modes. He added that the DC region is already a success story in multimodal transportation, with 66% driving alone on the commute to work, 13% taking the train, and the rest choosing other modes such as carpooling, bus, or bike. By the standards of the United States, this is indeed a success story. Alas, by the standards of what is needed to attain a sustainable planet, it is woefully inadequate. The deeper problem is how to dramatically lessen environmental impacts while providing for the world’s poor amid a growing population. For the purposes of the transportation forum, however, working on how to lessen excessive car use and sprawl in the DC region is a tough enough problem.

Casting light on this situation, Fairchild discussed what he termed the ongoing “street turf wars,” the conflict over whether streets are for cars alone or also for buses, bicycles, pedestrians, and perhaps other uses. When DC was first built, he explained, there was a market in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Furthermore, the Columbia Turnpike, constructed in 1810, originally had tolls for sheep, hogs, and sleighs. (Personally, I would love to see a flock of sheep meandering down the Beltway, but it is not going to happen—I will have to Photoshop it.) The contemporary version of this image is the “complete streets” program, which includes ample sidewalks and crossing areas, separated bike lanes and, ideally, a dedicated lane for buses so that they will no longer get caught in traffic. The idea is that public space should be allocated to serve the maximum number of people, not of cars. However DC, although adding a wonderful bicycle network in the past ten years, has been far less forward-thinking (or is that backward-thinking, to the pre-car era?) when it comes to buses. The city has endlessly studied adding bus lanes without acting. By ironic contrast, Los Angeles—long considered the car center of the universe—has been far more aggressive than DC about giving buses their own lanes, as a recent NPR story highlights.

The problem is partly due to fragmentation of political boundaries—DC, Maryland, Virginia, and within these such jurisdictions as Fairfax County, Prince George’s County, Alexandria, Chevy Chase, and many others, at times acting as little fiefdoms. To attain the transit system we need, no longer “can the regional transportation plan be a stapling exercise,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Also crucial is fragmentation of political and economic interests pursuing their own agendas. Thus, while the smart growth and transit paradigm has, over the last twenty years, become dominant in speeches and documents, in reality its precepts are not always followed. In just the last few months, progress appears to have stalled, with much of DC’s proposed streetcar network cancelled as well as a streetcar in Arlington, while the Purple Line light rail has been delayed in Maryland. Alas, the region is growing so fast that there is little time for delays and uncertainty. Indeed, previous delays in basic upkeep have already led to great frustration. An ongoing plan to make up for past mistakes is causing weekend delays, in turn lowering ridership and revenues. Even when the work is completed, “we’ll be right where we should have been” five to ten years earlier, said Kannan. “We’ll have already outgrown” the current infrastructure and will need to move forward quickly with expanded service. DC’s beating transit heart has an artery-plaque buildup.

The need to solve this problem is obvious. With 85% of new businesses opening within a quarter mile of a transit station, business has become one of the primary drivers (perhaps the wrong word to use in a transit context) around the continuing push for better transit. The CEO of Marriot, for instance, pushed by demand from his employees, is asking to move the company’s headquarters closer to a Metro station, explained Schwartz. Ironically, this is occurring in a context of scarcity of government resources due largely to an anti-tax philosophy that government is the problem. Compare this to London, currently spending some $24 billion on its Crossrail project, a 73-mile railroad line beneath the city. The city’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has even said that transit is the key to London’s future.

The United States no longer seems capable of major, integrated projects involving aggressive government action for the public good. As urban planner Dan Reed said, “fifty years ago”—when DC first planned its Metrorail system despite a dominant car culture—there was “a sense of idealism, that we’re all in this together.” Today, Metrorail, with its steep prices, is often filled with affluent passengers, while those with low incomes are relegated to packed buses running on congested thoroughfares. This is largely due to “a political decision, whether the consumer pays or the district pays,” said Kannan, who noted that Los Angeles has funded its transit system in a more equitable way due to a retail tax passed by its voters.

Nevertheless, the DC region has managed to piece together new plans that will help relieve the situation. Maryland’s Purple Line is notable—if it is built, it will connect four major employment areas that together constitute the dominant economic engines of the state, explained Gerrit Knaap of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. Thus, Maryland’s new governor—elected on an anti-tax, anti-transit platform in an off year with remarkably low turnout—has been hedging, and might very well approve the project. The situation points to a contradiction in the conservative philosophy of being anti-tax but pro-business, since business depends on services that only government can provide. Still, many such services, including the Purple Line, are now being built as public-private partnerships, which should alleviate conservative anxieties. (The long-term results for serving the public remain to be seen.)

Beyond the economic rationale, transit also serves a community function. Knaap explained that light rail stitches together an area’s social fabric in a way that underground rail cannot do. Transit stations must be planned carefully in sync with land use to get the maximum impact. So, Kannan pointed out, ridership at the Bethesda Metro Station—a mecca of walkability and good planning—is 11,500 people per day, while at the poorly planned Suitland station it is only 6,200 riders. The main difference is that ridership continues all day at Bethesda, for shopping and residential uses, while in Suitland, Metro is primarily used to deliver workers to jobs. Community and economic uses are thus interdependent. Regrettably, these lessons are not always learned. The newly built Greensboro Station on the Silver Line includes “4,000 jobs cut off from the station,” said Kannan, underscoring how requirements for integrated planning are often unmet.

Transit thus serves economic and social needs, yet it is the economic that often justifies a given project. Yet, we humans are social creatures first and foremost, and our economic growth, even in an environmentally friendly way, cannot be considered sustainable if it goes on forever. The many slow growth and sustainable consumption activists who read this blog have likely been questioning the premise that the region has to grow. For the time being, however, the DC region has no choice, as expansion of federal jobs, as well as a burgeoning biotech industry, is unlikely to slacken in the near to medium term. On a macro level, we should not forget that we are on a planet with a growing population—whether we want this to be true or not—and all of the people being born have to live somewhere. A smart-growth oriented, economically buoyant DC region is one of the best places for balancing income needs and environmental sustainability.

The fight now, therefore, has to be for smart growth and transit, rather than a steady-state economy, along with addressing equity issues, such as affordable housing. Still, officials and planners around the DC region should also be asking tough, long-range questions about how to taper off the drive for incessant growth, and they seem to be failing at this challenge. For instance, Kuzmyak explained that it was always thought that growth in VMT “was a necessary evil,” since it tracks with growth in gross domestic product (GDP), but we now are “finding another way to do it.” In a sense, this is a remarkably progressive, thoughtful statement, suggesting as it does that car use can and should shrink. Yet it assumes the need for continuing economic growth, while a sustainable planet will need to reduce GDP, certainly in the affluent countries. This is unlikely to happen when all public officials assume that growth is always everywhere good and desirable.

The participants at the Crossing Boundaries forum largely fell into this belief, while neglecting the global environmental crisis. This may very well be for strategic reasons, since it is easier to achieve transit through economic arguments. Unfortunately, this does not encourage the paradigm shift we need. Only Schwartz mentioned climate change, along with air and water pollution, explaining that “failure is not an option.” This begins to point us in the right direction. I would like to see, though, the idea that we are destroying the ecosystems on which we all depend addressed as a primary driver of the need for radically improved land use and public transit. At Crossing Boundaries, despite the considerable knowledge and insight of the participants, the environment remained an afterthought.

About the author

Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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