News & Politics

Why Washington Needs Traffic

To accommodate the coming crush of commuters, Washingtonians will have to adopt newfangled modes of transportation—and continue to drive—just to keep pace with growth.

Photograph by William Randall/Getty Images.

For the past seven years, as Washington began to burst its seams, DC’s former planning director Harriet Tregoning encouraged Washingtonians to use Metrorail, buses, bicycles, and their feet to navigate the city’s crowded streets. An early force in the smart-growth movement who was hired by then mayor Adrian Fenty, Tregoning pushed for streetcars and bike lanes and for changes to the Height Act to accommodate more space for a rapidly expanding populace. Her tactics unsettled drivers and other proponents of the status quo as she shoved residents toward a more crowded, less automobile-centric future.

Tregoning has departed for the federal government, but the problems she tried to solve didn’t leave with her. At the current pace, the District will add 170,000 residents and 200,000 jobs in the next 25 years, according to MoveDC, a city study of the region’s coming transportation needs that was released in June.

Washington’s best hope is not a car-free city but one that is “cars and.”

“There will be the same number of car trips as now,” says Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of planning for DC’s transportation department. “But as we add these new residents and jobs, maybe everybody who’s new will not drive as much.”

As DC Council member Tommy Wells says, “The new car is your smartphone.”

Will the passion for new modes of moving people that the city has shown under its past three administrations continue under the mayor who replaces Vincent Gray? Many of the innovations, such as the return of streetcars, that became realities under Tregoning were actually proposed when Ellen McCarthy ran the planning office from 2004 to 2007. With Tregoning’s departure, McCarthy has taken over as director. “A lot of the things that are in the process of being implemented came from plans we made a decade ago,” McCarthy says.

The question is whether the city’s rising political class and Congress have the will to adopt the most forward-thinking ideas—and pay for them. (The total cost of the recommendations laid out in the MoveDC report is $54 billion.) The leading mayoral candidates, Muriel Bowser and David Catania, both favor investment in transportation. “It’s critical to the health and welfare of the city,” Catania says.

DC planners suggest funding improvements and reducing traffic by charging a toll to drive downtown, as another major capital has done: Since 2003, British drivers have paid a “congestion charge” (currently about $19.75) to bring their cars into London’s city center on weekdays. Can the District expect drivers to pay a toll to cross into DC?

The question is cultural as much as it is practical. “We can’t forget we are the nation’s capital,” Catania says. “We can’t charge people for driving in.”

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe. This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.