Few (if any) residents of Washington, D.C. would say the city’s 50-years old, car-centric, zoning regulations are “fine as-is”; however, proposed changes to zoning regulations have stirred up conflict. The Zoning Commission of Washington, D.C. is planning to eliminate the mandated minimum number of parking spaces built with new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington. To AAA Mid Atlantic, this is tantamount to a “War on cars”.
AAA Mid Atlantic has been fighting back, though, saying thou shalt not pass these freedom-crushing regulations! “Such a change should not be left to bureaucrats (The Office of Planning) or an unelected five-member zoning board. (The Zoning Commission)” The zoning commissioners, AAA alludes, are renegades who've just gone wrong, like teddy bears who've lost their fluff and have resorted to stealing kids’ socks for one last sniff of good cotton. It’s sad, folks, but it’s true. The road to hell is paved with the good intentions of publicly elected officials. Note, said proverb does not mention parking spaces. That’s what the road to heaven is paved with-beautiful, white-bracket parking spaces. Without them, how will we all park our God-given cars right outside the pearly gates?
The debate has not been quite as ridiculous as we jest, but there has been ample opposition. On one side is the Zoning Commission and groups like the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), an affluent northwest community in Ward 3. The Zoning Commission expects the proposed zoning changes to make the district less car-dependent, which is also expected to reduce housing cost, decrease congestion, increase incentive for mass transit use, and improve the walkability of new and historic neighborhoods.
On the other end stands AAA Mid Atlantic and associations, like the Foxhall Community Citizens' Association, who believe, as Atlantic’s chief spokesperson London Anderson has expressed, a “This is a very dangerous proposal. We think it threatens the future of Washington, D.C.” OK, that quote makes AAA look like “those guys” on a high school debate team, always fishing into the back pocket of their faded blue jeans for that old stand-by, world-will-end card.
Some have called the changes a push against car ownership
even as city planning director Harriet Tregoning assures that, in a city where thirty-nine
percent of people are car-free, the Office of Planning is “looking for more
balance in our transportation system.” Tregoning says that increasingly
people in D.C. want transportation choices and doesn’t “understand why that would be considered a war on cars to try to give people
choices, the very choices that actually take automobiles off the road to make
it easier to park, to make it easier to drive with less congestion.”
Still, AAA wants the zoning commission to “accommodate cars in ways that preserve a walkable urban fabric while minimizing the hassle, congestion and emissions associated with finding parking.” In short, AAA proposes that underground parking be built to for new development projects. And to be fair, the folks who agree with AAA fear landlords will pocket any decrease in development costs instead of passing those savings on to renters, parking prices will rise and availability decline, and the demographics of DC wards will take a turn for the worse (which can include those pesky college kids, singles, and, to some, the growing majority known as the lower-middle class).
What is the cost of always accommodating cars in a major city? In a study by Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Washington, D.C. residents are estimated to have lost 556 million dollars to health costs related to traffic congestion (exposure to pollutants). This figure doesn’t include fuel waste and time lost in traffic - an average of 67 hours per driver/year in DC and, as a nation, 1.9 billion in fuel waste per year. While pushing more cars below buildings will free up space for more development of housing and businesses (which residents and D.C. hopefuls may like), the problem D.C. has with congestion and emissions from too many cars will not be fixed by cramming more cars into the city.
The decision on zoning matters is expected as early as sometime in April, and our final word on the matter is this: We would submit that the real contribution to this debate by our friends at AAA Mid Atlantic is not, as AAA would like it to be believed, about parking spaces or even about all the other effects of zoning changes. The implicit heart of this debate, (behind the other important questions: What do residents want their city to be in the future? What standards should the city have for health and environment? Walkability? Density? Traffic congestion? Ease of mobility? Access to businesses and services? And what are we willing to build, change, or sacrifice, to have the best city?), the central fear that has not quite been declared outright, is whether car ownership (like home ownership) should still be sold to us as essential part of the American Dream.
This shift in American ideology is a threat to AAA’s business model. What would we say if DC’s zoning regulations moved away from car-centric toward more citizen-centric regulations? We’d say welcome home.