Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mass Transit Gains in DC

NEW YORK, New York -- In what may be a sign of things to come on a national level, Washington, D.C., appears set to gain two ambitious new mass-transit projects, weeks before an expected federal infrastructure spending bill is to be drawn up.

As the WaPo reports, the capital's two new projects include a Metro extension to Dulles International Airport and a light-rail line through DC's Maryland suburbs.

For those of us in cities like New York, luxuries such as public transit to the airport and light-rail have whiffs of, say, Rome. But the projects seem to represent a DC that appears increasingly forward-thinking in its conception of transport, mass transit, and development.

NPR last month reported on efforts to build out Tyson's Corner, a Virginia suburb currently dominated by exurban big boxes, vast parking lots, and lots of traffic -- fairly standard fare, really, for most of our exurbs (and most of our consumer spending, the linchpin of the economy).

How Tysons 7 looks now.
Tyson's Corner: I swear, it's not an Iranian munitions site

Like most postwar American development, the town was built for a society that wanted wide open spaces and the cars that alone can traverse them. Thus, it's virtually impossible to go anywhere in the town on foot, there's lots of cars, few public spaces, and -- in my opinion -- very few things of interest (not counting Dave and Buster's or Ruby Tuesday's or Red Lobster) outside one's home.

That was then. DC's regional officials and businesses, however, now appear eager to sign on to the city planning movement broadly called New Urbanism. The movement (like most, if not all, architecture movements, it has quasi-philosophical overtones) seeks to replace the energy-inefficient, sprawling suburban development patterns we embraced in the GM Age after WWII with denser, infill-based projects. Central to New Urbanism is the tenet that neighborhoods should be not purely residential but contain a mixture of stores, offices, cultural/recreational institutions and homes. The result is meant to be walkable, compact neighborhoods where you can get to the grocer's or to school on foot or use easily accessed mass transit to get to your job -- with smaller homes one of the the likely upshots.

Stated goals include reducing fossil fuels and fostering closer interpersonal bonds among a community's residents (through an emphasis on localized, more economically self-sufficient neighborhoods where in theory you actually walk to the grocery and see your neighbors on the street). But the movement, should it take off, could give the country a chance to refresh its crumbling infrastructure and housing stock and generally mull over its priorities: Do we want to live in every-man-is-an-island haciendas in the Imperial Valley, or are the denser neighborhoods that characterized American cities in the 1850-1950 period worth revisiting? (Retiring "empty nesters," appropriately enough given the huge impact they'll have on our politics and productivity in coming years, are deciding for the latter for us already, as this Atlantic article argues -- though it's early to write the suburbs off yet, as the Economist has noted.)

If there really is a trend in some places toward New Urbanism, then DC is among the US cities most readily embracing it. Tyson's, the Virginia suburb mentioned above, could look like this after its makeover:

How Tysons 7 could look in the future.
The Tyson's of the future? My, we're filling out nicely

But that's the tip of the iceberg for DC -- ironically, given the quickness with which New Yorkers diss the oft-maligned capital for the anti-urban, generic sprawl that characterizes its metro area.

A number of proposals would remake DC's suburban stretches into more urban environments through infill and brownfield development; among them are plans to roll out streetcars this year; create a "city environment" where the old Convention Center stood downtown; build four new dense neighborhoods in the city center near the Potomac and Anacostia rivers (see here as well); for a walkable new town center for the Columbia area (though developer General Growth is going to pieces right now); and a new transit-oriented high-density development in Arlington. Maryland is working on a statewide development plan to encourage denser development at the expense of sprawl. And former Clinton money man Terry McAuliffe is promising high-speed rail between the Old Dominion's cities, should he win his gubernatorial bid.

An architect's rendering of a street near the Nationals' stadium is meant to evoke a vibrant big-city feel, but the faces in the crowd are too monochromatic and the signage is too familiar.
Enter Bladerunner

Economic conditions are already having an adverse impact, however, including with the Convention Center plan. Yet the DC market is likely to hold up better than other cities', given the recession-shielded government sector, which will probably increase under Obama anyway.

But even if the plans are put on hold, the vision, at least, is there. Meanwhile, the nation's densest, most urban city -- New York -- has in the past year rejected congestion fees for cars entering Midtown Manhattan. And, amid decaying MTA finances, the Big Apple is considering massive service cuts to the subway -- and that while simultaneously raising subway fares 25% rather than do the politically unthinkable and establish tolls on the East River bridges due to fear that outer-borough drivers will vote out the pols who support this measure. (Rant: This is incredibly stupid thinking; and I have no idea what Brooklyners can afford to have a car in New York, buy NYC's expensive gas, and park in Manhattan every day, yet find tolls to be the straw that breaks their back. Beyond that, I can't believe more than a few thousand people drive to Manhattan for work regularly from Brooklyn -- there's nowhere to park. Meanwhile, the returns that tourists and residents alike would reap from improved subway service are inestimable.)

Another big concern is President-elect Obama's understanding of the trend toward urban, mass-transit-oriented development. I'm sure he realizes it's economically and environmentally healthy, but I don't know that he realizes this is where the nation is already trending. His Dept of Transportation pick seems to be one of the least consequential Cabinet picks. And Obama's talked a lot about "shovel-ready" projects, usually his code word for re-tarring Iowa backroads. But he's been scarily silent on mass transit and re-orienting our development priorities, which could benefit hugely from the stimulus package. After all, mass-transit-oriented development needs government-backed mass transit a priori.

Mass-transit's frenemy? Say it ain't so

David Brooks did a fantastic job last month discussing this (and also did back in October). And speaking of New Urbanism, one of its champions has a New Deal plan worked out for Obama. There is an unprecedented chorus of Democratic congressmen and regular folk who gave Obama his huge victory pushing for a stimulus that will have the long-term effect of creating jobs and reinvigorating the nation. Creating huge, lasting demand for high-speed trains, light rail, smart traffic systems that IBM and Cisco make, and energy-efficient dense pockets of new construction are a good start. Giving us $500 to buy new TVs is not. After all, the shopping mall is dying and the heady days of big-box suburban consumer shopping -- and the economic growth it created for so long -- will need to be replaced now that the easy credit underlying it has dried up.


  1. Man, I could've used both of those DC improvements when I lived there, I tell you what. Dulles was a pain in the ass to get to, every time.

  2. I always end up seeing new urbanist projects and being disappointed though. New Urbanism has some good ideas, but how these projects unfold on the ground has serious limits to their goal of building community. Most of the New Urbanist projects I've seen (Kentlands, Maryland and Blue Back Square, West Hartford, CT most recently) are basically shopping malls flipped inside out with some high-end lofts stuck to the top. The developers building them seek out larger corporate chain stores to fill their spaces, mostly to minimize risk. And while there are usually good-looking public spaces in the design, there is little or no room for civic institutions (churches, community centers, non-profits, etc.). While there is an integration of housing and commerce, there is a lack of community glue. In the case of Blue Back Square, the biggest issue has been parking, since everyone drives there. It would be interesting to see a new urbanist project that fulfills the ideals of the movement.

  3. I would have to agree with KirbyFur about the reality of a lot of New Urbanism projects. Atlanta's Atlantic Station is also worth investigating - while they may somewhat encourage making communities more walkable, integrating them into the surrounding environment can be difficult, as they often become a sort of gated community. Worth checking out is Doug Rae's "City," which uses the history of New Haven to unpack much of the mythology that New Urbanism is based on. And while walking to the grocery store may have been great, let's not forget that many people living in large cities before WWII walked from their cramped and dangerous tenement.