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Opinion D.C. doesn’t have to become more car-centric after the pandemic

Traffic was very light traffic on Seventh Street NW in April.
Traffic was very light traffic on Seventh Street NW in April. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Stephanie Damassa lives in Ward 4.

The novel coronavirus has changed the nature of transportation in the District, and choices made now may reshape mobility in our city permanently. Unless the District prioritizes safe alternatives, it may become even more car-centric than before.

The past two months have shown that the way people move around can change dramatically in a short time. Ridership has fallen by 95 percent on Metrorail and by more than 70 percent on Metrobus as teleworking for nonessential employees and distance learning for students have become the norm.

As much as we yearn for a return to normal, a vaccine could be years off. Meanwhile, as the District begins to reopen, residents will figure out how to return to work and school.

The coronavirus’s particularly infectious nature will force people to make hard choices. Many will feel uncomfortable riding public transit and will seek alternatives. For elderly and health-compromised residents, doctors may recommend against public transit entirely. As a result, many may find cars to be their safest option.

But returning to a car-centric city is dangerous on several levels, and it may even exacerbate inequality.

For those who have to drive, congestion will be worse. More cars also means more pollution, which contributes to covid-19 health complications.

Asthma is linked to traffic-related pollution. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with moderate to severe asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from covid-19. One in 6 D.C. residents has asthma already, including 14 percent of children.

Furthermore, increasing car dependence will threaten the city’s ability to meet its climate goals. The mayor’s pledge of carbon neutrality by 2050 can’t be met without ramping up our use of emissions-free transportation. Like many other issues, the District’s vulnerability assessment shows that its poorest residents will suffer the worst impacts of climate change.

The school system is another aspect of mobility that requires careful attention. Because of the lottery system that incentivizes choice, 43 percent of D.C. Public Schools students already travel to school by car, a number likely to only go up unless parents and children have other alternatives.

But we don’t have to accept cars and public transit as the only options for getting around the District. Cities around the world are recognizing that the pandemic doesn’t have to mean a return to a car-centric lifestyle; in fact it could mean exactly the opposite.

In Paris, where car ownership dropped from 60 percent of households in 2001 to 35 percent in 2019, 31 miles of roads will now be designated for bikes. Seattle decided to close 20 streets permanently. Oakland, Calif.; Indianapolis; Tampa; Minneapolis and many other cities have closed streets to make room for walking and pedaling. The demand for moving around differently is clear — compared with last year at this time, for instance, sales of bicycles have nearly doubled. On Memorial Day, activists from Arm in Arm D.C. and the D.C. Department of Transformation took matters into their own hands, closing 30 streets with traffic cones and tape.

D.C.’s transportation response to this crisis, on the other hand, has been lackluster at best and dangerous at worst. Until recently, according to Street Justice, the mayor has supported only limited street closings on remote roadways and a small number of temporarily protected sidewalks. Meanwhile, speeding is on the rise, and, so far this year, 10 people have died in traffic-related crashes.

But there are reasons for hope. The ReOpen DC recommendations, created with input from D.C. residents, suggest spurring economic activity by identifying “select streets to close off to cars and convert to outdoor seating and retail space.” D.C. Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) have pushed for more aggressive action to open streets and build protected bike lanes and safe pedestrian infrastructure, both now and before the pandemic. And, on Wednesday, the mayor said she is “launching a process” to look at opening streets. With strong and swift action from the mayor, the full council and residents, the city can build on its previous successes in moving to a healthier, safer, more sustainable future.

We can use this unprecedented moment to close streets, build protected bike lanes and expand sidewalks. We can support workers and families by investing in safer biking and pedestrian infrastructure around the city that in turn will usher in health improvements.

We can create a safer D.C. for those who must drive by making it clear which spaces are for cars and which are for bicycles — and for those who rely on public transit, helping ensure buses and trains aren’t as crowded, protecting transit employees and riders. And we can ensure equity factors into transportation decisions by making the voices of marginalized communities and essential workers central to the discussion.

We can reimagine how our city moves and protect our residents.

The writer lives in Ward 4.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Too many people died in D.C. traffic crashes in 2018. We can do better in 2019.

Fred Hiatt: Why do we put up with a transit system that kills, maims and wastes hours of our time?

Claudia Burke: I blocked a bike lane. So what?

Guy Edwards: Drivers, help us cyclists get home alive

Adele Robey: Nothing will change until bad drivers have to pay