DC Near a Tipping Point

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When it comes to urban transportation, path dependency issues are everywhere. The more car-dependent people are the more political support there’ll be for car-promoting policies. Conversely, the more there retail and job opportunities are already accessible through non-automotive means, the more realistic it is for new residents to get by without a car, or for a family to get by with only one. And one interesting thing about the District of Columbia is that according to the Census Bureau we’re nearly fifty-fifty in terms of commuting patterns.

The city is also poised for further development and population growth in the years to come. So a crucial question is what form will that development take? If an outdated zoning code and short-sighted neighborhood groups force all new development to include vast swathes of parking, the city stands a good chance of “tipping” into a car-dependent pattern over time. Alternatively, if we create a situation in which new residents own cars if and only if they’re inclined to pay the true cost of owning and storing a vehicle, the city could achieve a clear majority for people who commute through non-automotive means. If that happens, the political context will exist for policies that clearly prioritize moving people over moving automobiles—things like dedicated bus lanes, separated bike paths, and traffic light timing schemes that take into account pedestrian safety and convenience. If that happens, it’s likely to be self-reinforcing.

With policy tilted more in favor of ease of transit, walking, and cycling more people will decide against relying on a car for day-to-day use. And that will create a bigger market for things like Zipcar and walking-accessible neighborhood retail. Most American cities are so firmly in the car-dependency camp that it’s a bit hard to know how you might get from here to there. But DC is right in the middle, and stands a good chance of evolving over the next couple of decades into a solid urbanist model, though it could also turn into a major missed opportunity.