D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced in May that restaurants could apply to put tables on public streets, parking spaces and sidewalks. She also said the District would close some streets to through traffic for safer walking and cycling. Cities in Virginia and Maryland have also closed some streets and allowed for dining in public spaces.
Of course, our cities and towns have some existing recreational trails. But those are typically too narrow for safe spacing, especially with at-home restrictions pushing interest in walking, biking and otherwise getting exercise.
Our car-oriented roadways have become the obvious solution, as they are far wider, clearer, better-maintained and more numerous than those few pathways available for motor-free travel.
Certainly, there’s been some complaining about the extended repurposing of spaces such as the Rock Creek and Sligo Creek parkways, and conversion of some traditional car lanes into sidewalks and bikeways.
But overall, at least for now, most people seem to understand.
Soon, however, we need to consider which of our coronavirus-era adjustments make sense only during crises and which ones provide longer-term value.
That assessment is coming at a major moment of reflection on societal equity, when people have chosen to respect past precedents only to the degree that they continue to treat us all fairly, both now and into the future.
By that clear measure, the truth becomes inescapable: We absolutely need a fundamental reallocation of our publicly financed roadways to a healthier mix of motorized and nonmotorized options.
That no doubt will strike many motorists as heresy. Many already are asserting that automobile drivers paid for our roads, that they’re paying too much for them and that they don’t have enough room.
The problem with those assumptions is that the last two confuse causes and cures, and the first is demonstrably false.
The reality, shown in a growing number of analyses, is that taxpayers as a whole — and not the individual motorists who use them — pay the bulk of the cost of our roadways. In fact, it’s not even close.
One recent study from Harvard shows that motorists perhaps pay as much as 45 percent of the costs of the roads. Another from the University of California at Berkeley which considered a wider range of motoring-related costs, put the figure at 5 percent. Other estimates land somewhere in between.
The common misconception on that point is likely due to at least two main factors. One is that car use feels expensive. And it is. Buying, registering, insuring, fueling and maintaining vehicles are major personal investments.
The second area of confusion surrounds ideas of necessity and benefit. We’ve built our communities in ways that make it feel almost impossible to live without a car. Many of our neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks. Just a quick walk of a few blocks — to say nothing of letting a child play just a few feet outside his front door — becomes a risky proposition.
The result is a schizophrenic society in which we simultaneously treasure cars and abhor them — loving the freedom our own vehicles may give us while fleeing everyone else’s. We pay top dollar for long driveways, cul-de-sacs and country retreats to escape them. We get sickened and killed by the millions each year from their crashes, ill health effects and environmental destruction. The people with the least financial protections — often racial minorities — suffer the most.
Balancing such massive trade-offs will never be simple. But we’ve let the imbalance get dangerously out of hand because we’ve asked all taxpayers to fund our roadways, then let only those with motor vehicles safely use them.
Taxpayer financing does meet important needs. Think subways, schools, parks. But individual motor vehicles are individual benefits, not public ones. And it’s simple economics that when something of individual benefit is artificially made to look less expensive, it will be overused and abused, distorting free choice.
The coronavirus has been ravaging humanity. In many aspects of our lives, however, its devastation could be lessened if we listened to some of the lessons it’s pointing out.
In the realm of transportation, that means reconsidering the practice of handing our primary network of community connection to private parties who do not fully pay for it. Setting aside even a single lane of our roadways for safe nonmotorized use would still leave individual motorists with far more space than they paid for as motorists.
It’s a matter of welcoming everyone, regardless of the mode of transit they prefer, or can afford. It’s also an essential part of ensuring human equity and long-term survival.