Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Imagining Washington, D.C.'s unified, smart-growth transit future

October 20, 2011 - 08:55 AM
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(Photo: flickr/s.diddy/miss-britt/dylanpassmore)

Could Jane Jacobs have envisioned such a gathering of officials, policy wonks, bloggers, and simple transit enthusiasts as the hundreds of folks at the Rail~Volution conference, these people who talk for hours, for days, about mixed-use housing and how to build community through better transit? The 16-year-old national transportation conference lasted from Sunday to Wednesday, all this discussion unfolding in the Woodley Park Marriott. At the heart of countless discussions is the future — how will D.C.'s transportation (and the nation's) transform and integrate different forms of commuting over the next 10, 15, 30, and 50 years ... and beyond.

"I find it so 20th-century to talk about drivers versus Metro riders versus bicycle riders," remarked Harriet Tregoning, director of D.C.'s Office of Planning at the conference's final panels, a Wednesday afternoon locally focused session on the balance of jobs, housing, and transportation in the metro D.C. area. "Transportation isn't an end," she continued, "it's a means."

To what? Access, service, jobs, recreation, community events. No one in the crowd of nearly one hundred was inclined to disagree with the sharp, dark-haired director. Her audience had absorbed the lessons of transportation studies, planning, and focus that prior generations have slowly learned as cities have expanded. The audience included people from all over the country as well as the District's keen minds, from a member of Transportation for America to a member of the Montgomery County Council to Greater Greater Washington bloggers (both Matt Johnson and Veronica Davis posed questions to the panel Wednesday afternoon session — the transportation blog's founder David Alpert was busy moderating a Rail~Volution panel of his own at the time).

What this Wednesday session did, more than anything, was illustrate how D.C.'s transportation will expand in coming decades as well as how economic potential is intrinsically tied to these centers of transit. The panel's members stressed the correct, smart planning that needs to take place, from Metro crowds to streetcar lines to bicycling, as our city grows in every respect. Consider these projections from WMATA's assistant general manager of planning and joint development Nat Bottigheimer: D.C. will, from 2010 to 2040, grow by 25%, to the tune of 1.5 million people. In a quarter century, Metro faces a future in which every day would be as busy as President Obama's presidential Inauguration Day, the busiest the system has ever known in history with more than a million and a half trips.

Such a crush of people has a consequence. How can a city plan, wisely, for how to move us all around?

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Rail~Volution)

That question manifested in different ways for this panel, which included Tregoning, Bottigheimer, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development Aubrey Thagard of Prince George's County's Office of the County Executive, and Stewart Schwartz, founder and executive director of the Coalition of Smarter Growth. What unified all their talk, from my perspective, was the need for a willful, active approach to designing our communities.

"We're starting to get a regional growth vision that emphasizes transit-oriented development," WMATA's Bottigheimer told the crowd. He said that Metro is the first transit agency to "salute the Region Forward plan."

WMATA is struggling to figure out its identity these days, according to Bottigheimer — should Metro be "an advocate of growth or a custodian" of its system? Should the transit agency behave with its own recommendations and agenda and perspective on how to expand and integrate into the D.C. metro region?

"We're not used to sending letters to local jurisdictions," Bottigheimer said, referring to moments when WMATA disagrees with officials on policy.

As far as Prince George's County, Thagard spoke of the challenge of uniting housing, jobs, and transit in a way that made sense for its 800,000 residents. The county has 15 Metro stations, MARC lines, Amtrak, and a Purple Line to Montgomery County on the way that promises another 11 Metro steps. More than a quarter of the federal workforce lives in PG County, he said, and many commute to jobs away from where they live. His desire is "reducing automobile trips and locating workers closer to home" and the county "needs to be strategic with our Metro stations here." These Maryland stations are underutilized, according to the administrator, and would benefit from agencies relocating closer to where they work. The bus system needs to allow for more community activity on nights, as Greater Greater Washington's Matt Johnson emphasized in a question to the panel. The communities around all these transit centers have potential to grow, and certain signs are already quite encouraging. Just last month, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley moved the state's Department of Housing and Community Development from Crownsville to New Carrollton.

Yet two other critical components, moving forward, are necessary: First, citizen activism and engagement as well as, second, a creativity and foresight to navigate these projects in an economy that still struggles in deeply apparent ways.

What does Tregoning ask for as a D.C. planner? "As a local government official," she told the Rail~Volution audience, "I'd appreciate a little pressure sometimes." She praised the metrics that let us plan transit and community growth through 2050 but emphasized that officials need to be pressed, to be held accountable, to be pushed forward with these costly and difficult projects, repairs, and innovation, and she had a message for these transportation folks: "You have another job called citizen."

Others talked of how these projects might stay financially feasible. To add another 40,000 parking spaces near the Metro stations would, Bottigheimer said, cost a billion dollars, yet about 45% of Park and Ride Metro commuters lived under three miles from their nearest Metro station. Would biking or other transit options alleviate the need for so much parking (if they could manage to find the land for it)?

"We have to be bold, we have to move out there," Thagard said. "The problem, of course, comes in with the economy."

In future decades, more and more commuting will be from suburb to suburb, which Bottigheimer calls more "difficult," but something he hopes Metro and the District's other transportation options can accommodate. Already the WMATA system has evolved beyond the commuting device people first saw it as. More and more residents rely on the trains during nights and weekends. More and more use it for outbound commuting from the District to the suburbs. The discussion briefly considered whether Metro might be able to capitalize on the fact that its stations enrich the surrounding blocks by considering a tax of some sort. But despite the intimidatingly serious scale of these future projects and realities, these D.C. planners seemed up to the challenge of focusing on them. They had their metrics, their ideas, and their outreach to the audience and community members for help. "Do we want to have a patchwork of systems that don't work together or a regional transit system?" Bottigheimer asked the crowd.

Don't wait for the future to see how D.C. transportation will evolve — an active vision for its shape is developing right now in the minds and discussion of these very people, their audience, and others like them. Rail~Volution provided an encouraging glimpse into the process.

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