Transportation issues deserve more attention in mayoral campaign


Mayor Gray, with D.C. Transportation Department Director Terry Bellamy behind him, used the first streetcar as a backdrop last year. (Robert Thomson / The Washington Post)

Candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for D.C. mayor have not made a major issue of the District’s transportation needs. If they tried, they would find plenty to work with, because the District is fully involved in many of today’s core debates about urban travel.

Driving. Accommodating drivers is sometimes portrayed as a city vs. suburbs issue, but there are plenty of D.C. residents who fear that planning trends are against them. Last year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray unveiled a vision for the future called Sustainable D.C. Among its goals is to reduce trips by car or taxi to 25 percent of all commuter travel. To advocates, this is a simple acknowledgement of urban reality. “We’re looking at adding 250,000 people over 20 years,” Gray said. “If everyone drives, that’s unsustainable.”

D.C. streetcar
In December, a streetcar arrived for testing on H Street NE, but it has yet to pick up a passenger. (Eva Russo/For The Washington Post)

But many city residents are car commuters. They fear they will be squeezed out of the travel lanes by plans to expand the street space available to transit users and bike riders. Look for a renewal of this cars vs. everything else debate a few weeks after the primary when the District Department of Transportation unveils a draft of moveDC, a long-range program incorporating many of the strategies to encourage transit use, biking and walking.

Parking. Richard Layman, who writes the blog Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, points out that many D.C. neighborhoods have more in common with suburban neighborhoods than they do with the more densely populated parts of the District. They want to be able to park their cars on their streets. On the other hand, newer residents flocking to the more built-up parts of the city think going car free is a great way to save money. And their apartments could be a lot more affordable if developers weren’t required to provide as much parking as current rules require.

Metro. The Metro board could vote Thursday on a set of fare increases affecting rail and bus riders and people who use the MetroAccess paratransit service. The one mayoral candidate in the thick of this is Muriel Bowser, but that’s because she’s a voting member of the Metro board and will participate in the decision. Her comments during board discussions on fares reflect an interest in protecting bus riders. Bowser also has sought to make it easier for D.C. residents returning from prison to get jobs at Metro.

Buses. Two issues have gotten the public’s attention but have not been developed during the campaign. One is whether the District should reserve some street space for bus-only lanes, to ease congestion and speed up travel. Here again, D.C. residents are divided. Many bus riders who endure long waits and then can’t board crowded buses love the concept of bus-only lanes that could make service more reliable. But other residents worry the lanes would eliminate some precious street parking and make it more difficult for drivers to navigate major streets and avenues.

The other topic that could be prominent in the campaign is the future of the District’s own bus system, the Circulator. City transportation officials are looking at adding routes and extending others. To make the routes match up better with ridership patterns, they might alter one of the Circulator’s signature services: the schedule that puts the buses 10 minutes apart. Like the transit authority, the District Department of Transportation is considering a fare increase. If approved by the mayoral administration and the D.C. Council, this would be the first increase in the $1 fare, another signature item in the Circulator service.

Bikes. One of the big success stories in city transportation is the rapid expansion of the Capital Bikeshare program. There’s not much for challengers to say on that one, other than that they’d like to see it expand into more neighborhoods. Expansion of the city’s bike lanes is far more contentious. Advocates see the lanes as a way of safely increasing the mobility of city residents, as well as saving them the expense of buying and maintaining cars. While Gray has supported the expansion of bike lanes, opponents could make a good case that the city has been too slow in developing the network as a commuting option.

Opponents, on the other hand, think the city is turning over far too much of its street space to a relatively small proportion of its travelers.

Walking. Gray’s administration has made pedestrian safety a priority in its transportation plans. The expanded use of speed cameras, red light cameras and enhanced pedestrian crossings are signs of that. There has been some debate about the camera program, but it focused mainly on the size of the fines. No one in his right mind would argue against protecting vulnerable pedestrians from traffic. Rather, residents call for better sidewalks, more safety improvements at intersections and at bus stops, streetscape planning that enhances neighborhood walkability and — after this winter — better enforcement or rules on clearing snow from sidewalks.

Streetcars. Despite the fears of some streetcar advocates that Gray would abandon the program begun by his predecessors, the mayor has embraced the return of streetcar service. But the new streetcars have yet to pick up their first passenger. The District Department of Transportation is testing vehicles on the H Street-Benning Road Line, but has not announced a target date for opening. Meanwhile, the Gray administration is advancing plans to build a connecting route between Union Station and Georgetown.

DDOT. The District Department of Transportation has advanced many progressive programs for transit and bike use. It did well in its ambitious program to rebuild the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River. Plans are advancing this year to rebuild the Douglass Bridge and South Capitol Street near Nationals Park.

A challenger might say, “We like it so far, but where’s the rest of it?” DDOT is building a track record of partially fulfilled promises on bike lanes, bus lanes, street parking, streetcar service and pedestrian safety enhancements. A candidate might pose for a campaign picture next to one of the city’s red top meters. The meters were installed as part of a program to improve parking access for people with disabilities and prevent cheating by others. Turned out people with disabilities thought they weren’t so accessible after all, and the city government temporarily suspended the program. That was two years ago.

The District has plenty of important priorities vying for attention from candidates. But transportation issues affect everyone and are worthy of a spotlight in the campaign.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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