The Washington Post ran an article on Sunday that rekindled old and lingering divisions in the debate about what the future holds for metropolitan transportation, as can be seen in Alan Pisarski’s response. The article points to some of the strategies the District of Columbia is considering for improving transportation safety and increasing revenues. These include their successful bid to change Constitution Avenue NE from a one-way street to two ways, as well as proposals to remove a reversible lane on 16th St. NW, closing the I-395 tunnel, expanding the use of speed cameras, increasing parking fees, and increasing fines for crosswalk encroachment.
The merits of these proposals are debatable, but instead of having a reasoned debate on the subject, those involved seem to have fallen into the trap of the typical cars versus transit, suburbs versus city dispute that has paralyzed transportation policy for decades. Pisarski argues that these types of proposals are “suicidal” for DC because they attempt to consciously make the city less welcoming to vehicles. The city admitted as much, saying that they want to put the needs of their residents and businesses before those of suburban commuters.
This argument misses the point that both the city and the suburbs are part of one large economic engine for the region and the nation. The flow of people and goods through and throughout the region is essential for both the local and national economy. Attempts to separate the economies are pointless. Inner city, inner suburb, outer suburb, and exurb – these are all components that work together to create a vital economic unit of labor and jobs.
The real question that needs to be asked of each of these proposals is “would this proposal benefit the metropolitan area?” (and by extension, the region and the nation). Unfortunately, there is no one to ask or answer this question effectively because there is little impetus for comprehensive regional planning in this country. Neither the federal nor state government effectively encourages the type of regional cooperation necessary to make good decisions about these types of proposals. The end result is a counterproductive clash between city and suburb for resources.
So what would a regional planning body do if it had the power to do it? We actually know the answer to that question because Ron Kirby of the local Council of Governments is quoted in the article as essentially agreeing with the regional policy of trying to get more people living in the District and downtown. This is not at all surprising. When overarching goals such as energy and climate change are considered, of course it makes sense to encourage more people to live and work downtown rather than commute from the suburbs. It is economically and environmentally more efficient to redevelop downtown areas than to build more and more suburban developments dependent on non-existent cheap gas. Moreover, the true cost of driving and parking in cities has been vastly underpriced for decades.
That said, closing roads and raising prices for commuters without making corresponding improvements in mass transit and affordable housing within the city is not a good economic strategy for metro areas. But this is the type of incomplete planning that will continue to occur in the absence of regional planning bodies with the power of the purse. With real power, these bodies could provide comprehensive solutions that, instead of pitting us against each other, could unite us around common goals.