Washington Should Plan for People, Not Cars

Sunday, August 3, 2008

High gas prices and the threat of climate change have sparked debate in the District over how to make transportation easier and cleaner ["D.C. May Choke Driving Options," front page, July 6]. The District's Office of Planning has joined the debate, with a proposal to revise zoning regulations that have shaped how the city looks, feels and works for more than 50 years. This provides a fine opportunity to correct the errors of the past and put the city on a sustainable path to the future.

The zoning regulations in force today were adopted in 1958. Eisenhower was president, the interstate system was under construction and the price of oil was less than $20 a barrel in today's dollars. Believing that automobile ownership would soon be "universal," Washington's city planners devised a way to adapt the "physical structure of the city to new forms of living" dominated by the automobile.

To realize their vision, planners and traffic engineers required almost every new building in the city to provide ample off-street parking. They came up with numbers of parking spaces so precise that they almost looked scientific. For example, every boat club had to have at least one space per four berths, and each food delivery service had to include at least one space per 500 square feet of floor area -- regardless of the cost. This precision may sound scientific, but the typical process used to divine these requirements was closer to astrology than astronomy. Among other flaws, planners and traffic engineers assumed that most parking would be free and that in the future almost everyone would drive everywhere. According to the 2000 Census, 37 percent of D.C. households do not own a car.

Building all the required parking is expensive because parking structures typically cost $20,000 to $50,000 per space. When forced to build garages for cars, developers build less housing for people. Several studies have shown that minimum parking requirements reduce the supply of housing and increase its cost by about 20 percent. Even people who are too poor to own a car have to pay for the this parking. Minimum parking requirements also make it illegal to reproduce such walkable neighborhoods as Capitol Hill, Georgetown and historic Anacostia. Housing or anything else without a driveway does not fit into the automobile-first vision of the 1958 plan for the District.

Washington's zoning code should not remain stuck in the 1950s. Cars jam the streets with some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, and the air is so polluted on some days that the government tells people to stay inside. Global temperatures are also rising, thanks in part to carbon-dioxide emissions from cars. Abraham Lincoln advised: "As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew."

The District's Office of Planning should be commended for its proposal to reduce the city's off-street parking requirements. Trying to create a future where everyone can find a parking space at the end of every trip is folly. After 50 years of planning for cars, it is time to start planning for people.

-- Donald Shoup

Los Angeles

The writer is a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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