November 9, 2012

The early analysis of the presidential election suggests that President Obama can credit much of his victory to a changing American electorate, which is more diverse, better educated and more urban than it was 20 years ago when Bill Clinton became president.

The Washington region is changing as well. It, too, is growing more diverse, and it is now majority-minority. Like the nation, it is also becoming more urban. Neighborhoods in the District, Arlington, Alexandria and Silver Spring are on the national forefront of the trend toward young people and empty-nesters choosing to live in urban communities. And spread-out commercial areas with (or soon to have) good access to transit, such as White Flint and Tysons Corner, are evolving into walkable communities.

These changes bring new types of diversity to our region: a diversity of housing choices and transportation options. We can be a region with many ways to live. Some people will live in car-oriented communities. Others will live without cars. Some want large, detached houses or rowhouses, while others might choose to live in new “microunits” that have been popping up in some apartment buildings.

For some reason, the concept that we don’t all have to live the same way has been a difficult one for some to accept. At a recent citizens association meeting in the District, longtime residents expressed bafflement that anyone would or could voluntarily live without a car. Meanwhile, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning rattled off statistics to the audience, such as the fact that 35 percent of District households (about 88,000) own no vehicle, and that as the District added 2,142 households from 2006 to 2010, the number of registered vehicles declined by 426.

I was tweeting about the meeting as it was going on, and most of the responses came from people amazed that the meeting participants were baffled. They gave personal testimonials about how they don’t own cars and are doing just fine without them.

A week later, at a D.C. zoning hearing about a proposed project that would market itself entirely to car-free residents, one zoning commissioner expressed some disbelief that many people would visit a grocery store by bicycle. One of his colleagues immediately offered to take him along on his next trip to buy groceries, which he accomplishes on his own bicycle.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who seems most comfortable talking about the way the city was back in 1992, critiqued the proposed project, calling it wishful thinking that any building could cater primarily to residents who don’t own cars.

It’s not 1992 any longer. Our region has many more people living in walkable urban areas, with grocery stores and other shops nearby. Zipcar, car2go, Taxi Magic, Uber, Capital Bikeshare and many more services give people transportation choices.

My wife and I own a car, and we use it from time to time, but more and more people we know do not own cars. Cars are a part of many people’s lives, but their lives do not revolve around cars any more than they revolve around bread just because people eat sandwiches at times.

Certainly many people in our region live in places without a variety of transportation options, and frequently they drive out of necessity. To extol the virtues of having choices is not to shame those without those choices. Nobody wants to ban cars or force people out of cars — accusations that have been falsely flung at advocates of transportation diversity. In fact, it’s good for drivers if more new residents aren’t driving and thus aren’t competing for limited space on roads.

In making public policy, our leaders must recognize that others might live in very different types of communities, in different sizes and shapes of housing, with different transportation options, and that they do so happily. Nationally, our two major political parties find themselves in a much more diverse and urban America. Locally, our policies must also adapt to greater diversity in ethnicity, age, and types of communities and modes of travel.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.