Colin Browne is communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Back-to-school week is always a reminder of just how unpleasant traveling in our city can be. In late August each year, the street next to my neighborhood school fills with honking and yelling in the morning as a few hundred anxious parents and students converge on the same block at exactly the same time. This chaos is stressful, it’s dangerous, and it makes our city less livable.
It’s easy to see this as a behavior problem (Everyone chill out! Don’t honk and yell at people!), and it is. But it’s really a symptom of a bigger problem: Our streets are designed to make us hate each other.
We have these big swaths of space in between the buildings in our city dedicated to moving people. We give most of that space to expensive, heavy things that usually move only one person at a time, and spend most of their time not moving at all.
Thirty-eight percent of D.C. households don’t own cars. About 40 percent of D.C. residents drive to work. But all of that space between buildings? We devote 85 percent of it to moving and storing cars. Sidewalks account for 12 percent of transportation space, bike lanes about 1.2 percent, and the city’s four blocks of dedicated bus lanes amount to less than 0.02 percent.
We’ve given nearly nine-tenths of our transportation space to an expensive, dangerous, inefficient way to get around. That space serves less than half our population on a daily basis, and everyone else gets to argue over the leftover slivers. No wonder everyone’s grumpy.
If you’re part of the 55 percent of folks taking transit, walking or biking, you’re squeezed into the margins. A scooter blocking the sidewalk or a FedEx truck in the bike lane really is a big deal because it’s infringing on the tiny remaining scrap of space where you feel safe.
The crazy thing about the automobile is that despite claiming a wildly disproportionate amount of public space, it’s still a slow and frustrating way to get across town. This is not because of all the buses, pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s not because the speed limit is too low or the traffic lights aren’t timed properly. It’s a feature of the machine itself. Cars take an enormous amount of space to safely move the one person inside and another enormous amount of space to store when they’re not being used, which is 95 percent of the time. If you live in Nebraska, you can maybe make that work. In a major world city such as ours, the acreage simply isn’t there.
We’ve built an unsustainable transportation network that makes all of us feel isolated, vulnerable and embattled, no matter how we’re getting around.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. We can think bigger. We don’t have to sacrifice the safety and livability of our neighborhoods to prop up a wasteful and dangerous transportation system.
What does a low-stress street network look like? We need wider sidewalks. Everywhere. Walking to the store with a grocery cart or pushing a stroller to day care or getting to the bus stop in a wheelchair should be smooth and easy for everyone, no matter where you live.
We need protected space on every single street for a variety of active transportation modes. Every child in the District should be able to ride a skateboard or a bike or a scooter to school safely. Not just once a year for a photo op — every child, every day.
We need dedicated space for affordable transit in every neighborhood. According to AAA, the average cost of owning a car in the District is about $8,000 per year. No one should have to pay that kind of money just because he or she can’t afford to live near a Metro station or a reliable bus line.
Low-stress transportation is a big change, but it’s not a complicated one. If we stop operating under the inaccurate assumption that everybody drives, it becomes a lot easier to build roads that prioritize moving people safely instead of moving cars quickly.
Many folks will still drive cars, and that’s fine — there are all sorts of good reasons to drive. But if we keep building streets that make driving the only practical option for so many people, we’re going to keep making each other unhappy.