Some of the District's neighborhood streets are conveyor belts for cars. Kenyon and Monroe streets, Reno Road, Blair Road, Foxhall Road and Fort Totten Drive carry commuter traffic that almost no suburban neighborhood would tolerate. But it doesn't have to be that way. Across the river in Alexandria, planners have a new tool for neighborhood preservation: High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.
Alexandria and its planners deserve an award for seeing that HOV lanes are not just for interstates. To reduce traffic on streets that were laid out before anyone imagined the impact of private cars, Alexandria installed HOV lanes downtown on Washington Street in 1978 and on Route 1 in 1986.
The effect of these lanes on city traffic has not been immediately apparent, primarily because they are adjacent to heavily traveled conventional lanes. Nonetheless, the HOV lanes are a major contribution to thinking about the quality of life on city streets.
HOV lanes on neighborhood streets in the District would, in most cases, not just reduce traffic but increase the number of commuters a street could serve. Streets would carry fewer cars but more people; they would become better means of transportation as well as better places to live.
Historically, getting approval for HOV lanes has been difficult. Often, the lanes must be created by taking away lanes from conventional traffic, which can frustrate those whose choice of homes and jobs makes it difficult for them to take the bus or car pool. Typically, HOV opponents are a small but vocal minority.
Alexandria once again showed the way. Its elected officials understood that through-traffic doesn't vote.
That is not to say that the Alexandria HOV lanes might not have increased travel times slightly for some Alexandria residents who do not car pool. However, Alexandria could have eliminated even this political problem if it could have given out stickers exempting residents from HOV restrictions.
In the District, stickers would not even be necessary -- D.C. plates could be used to exempt residents from HOV restrictions on neighborhood streets.
Some might argue that the time savings from HOV lanes on D.C. neighborhood streets would not be enough to justify the problems car pools usually entail -- longer commutes because of pickups and drop-offs and inflexible departure times.
But time savings are not the whole story; gradual and relatively painless reduction in auto dependency requires the cumulative effect of time savings and other factors such as the District's expensive parking and the higher gas prices and gas taxes we all face. Furthermore, it is increasingly evident that we need to reduce auto dependency and congestion because it restricts local economic growth, degrades the environment and dominates foreign policy and foreign trade.
Alexandria has shown that HOV lanes are one way to reduce auto dependency and cut commuter traffic through our residential areas. HOV lanes would also create streets that carry more people in fewer cars. They would make D.C. neighborhoods better places to live. They would be a win-win option for Washington.
-- Patrick H. Hare is a land use planner who lives in the District's Brookland neighborhood.