Gridlocked: Fixing DC With the Help of the World

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 2:05 am

Rush hour in DC begins around 4 am and is politely described as "drivers' hell".

Last week, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the traffic debacle that is Washington DC. I woke up late, missed my bus to work, and had my dad drop me off at work after calling in late to his own job. What I saw en-route convinced me that if DC is anything like other American cities, we as a country absolutely NEED to transition to an efficient means of transportation and become less dependent on cars. So here is my effort to make sense of WHY DC has such a bad traffic situation, and what we can do to make it somewhat tolerable and efficient.

A little background about this area first. The current area called the District of Columbia, formerly known as Washington County, has been in existence since the mid-late 1700s.  DC was designed to be a partially planned city—the area bordered by the Potomac river, Western, Eastern and Southern avenue was designed to hold all the baroque-style federal buildings and the seat of the three branches of government. The architectural plan was put together by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French architect, and Benjamin Banneker, an African-American mathematician.  The location made commercial and political sense—it combined the port towns of Georgetown, Maryland and Alexandria for wheat and tobacco shipping; it also was a resulting compromise between Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the northern states to pay for the Revolutionary War, and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the capital to favor southern agricultural interests. Since then Washington has expanded steadily outwards, with the wide streets growing steadily narrower due to inventions like streetcars, railways and automobiles.  What we ended up with, thus, were elaborate buildings designed for much fewer government employees, a vast intersecting street system (that expanded into states and double-letter alphabets as the city expanded: for a detailed explanation of DC’s confusing street system click here) and a historically influential African American population that has shaped the city’s cultural evolution.

This pre-existing system received a new boost in the late 1940s under President Eisenhower. After surveying

A look at major highways around Washington DC.

Germany’s carpet-bombed cities after WWII, he was impressed with the durability of the Autobahn, the German highway system, and proposed a similar plan in the USA to “protect and defend the country”. On June 29, 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act (FAHA) was passed, creating 42,000 miles of interstate highways funded 90% by the federal government. This created the I-66, I-495, I-270 and I-95 highways, which brings in most of the traffic to DC every morning. With the development of these highways, we’ve actually expanded farther and farther into the suburbs, leaving DC as strictly a “workplace” and choosing to have larger cheaper homes in faraway areas like Loudoun than

The situation today is one that even Pierre L’Enfant could not have envisioned. With over 800,000 working people in the area (not including seasonal tourists), DC gets overcrowded quickly to say the least. But cities like Shanghai and Mumbai have been able to deal with dense populations without 1.5-hour long commutes. So what are we doing wrong? We as Americans are more willing to put up with inefficiency than almost any other country. Here’s a list of some of the commuting problems I see around me everyday, and some simple solutions that I think will help cure this mess.

  1. We’re taking our cars to work!
    Problem: If public transit is not an option, then cars are definitely the way to go. But what I find

    Spotsylvania?! Seriously?!

    appalling is that even people from as far away as Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Loudoun counties are deciding to bring their cars to work rather than take a bus or two. Bringing your cars into the district means paying twice the price for parking, which is a drag, and also choking up not only YOUR 5 pm exit, but also EVERYONE else’s. No one likes a long drive home, including yourself.

    Solution: There is seriously no shortage of buses going into DC—leave that SUV at home for a change. Take the bus. Not only is it more eco-friendly, you meet all kinds of people on the bus. Take a look at this page or here to get an idea of some of the bus services available in the city. So break out of your steel shell and interact with the world. Some of the simplest networking occurs not in bars and fancy restaurants, but on the way home FROM work.

  2. Even when we DO take our cars to work, we’re the only ones in them!
    Problem: Carpooling is a huge problem in the Washington DC Metro area. Even though it is highly encouraged, it is rarely enforced—especially in rush hour traffic. As a result, there are thousands of cars on the roads everyday with only the driver in them! I find this to be ridiculous.Solution: Do a little bit of background research and find people around you that are going to the same place. Knock on a few doors, make a few friends in the process. If not neighbors, then several websites offer the opportunity to carpool with others as well. Some such websites are, SlugLines, Craigslist or Commuter Connections. This will make your life infinitely easier, and you’ll finally be able to take the HOV lanes, which are MUCH faster. And hopefully you’ll make a few friends/colleagues/lunch buddies along the way.
  3. When we DO take the Metro or other public transit, we’re waiting/travelling too long!
    Problem: I’m not holding just the workers accountable for the long commutes—if we had more efficient options, trust me, we would use them. The Metro bus and rail systems deserve to be blamed just as much for DC’s gridlocks as we are. The Metro was a 103-mile system built in the 1960s (which is relatively recent) to connect areas of DC to the surrounding VA/MD areas. But again, a lot has changed since then. But places and human living patterns have changed since then, and the Metro has no means of accommodating for these changes. The Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project has been in the works since 2002, with no visible progress being done towards completion.  The routes that we currently have in place for both the metrorail and bus were developed in the 1960s and 70s, where the focus of the workers from around the region were in the Pentagon (Cold War ongoing and all). Things have changed now, but the Metro’s changes only reflect some of that. The last addition made to the Metro’s rail system was in 2004.Solution: What we need is a long-term overhaul of the Metro system that makes it efficient, on-time and expands the areas/stops it covers. Take the Shanghai Metro for example. The map is huge, and it very efficiently covers almost all highly populated sections of the city. The railcar technology is also up-to-date, and its cheapness and easy usage helps millions of Chinese get around everyday. Take a look! Most of the people that take the metro take it to a central point, and then end up taking a bus or transfer to their final destination. But we wouldn’t mind this circumvention if the system was efficient and welcoming, and got us to where we need to be on time. But this is far from happening right now. In the meantime, use websites like DCRails and ShouldIMetro to make sure your trip on the Metro or on the bus is as short and as cheap as you can make it.
  4. EVERYONE drives. And maybe that’s the problem.
    Problem: Especially in the summer months, DC gets crowded with over 20,000 interns that decide to bring their car into work too. Not to mention out-of-town tourists that decide to see the city by car. It only adds to the everyday stressful commute.
    Solution: Make tourists and other seasonal visitors understand that DC was NOT designed to be car-

    Handing tourists Smart Trip cards would make things SO much easier for them and us.

    friendly. Maybe hotels and other areas can give out complementary Smart Trip cards, or encourage them to rent bikes or segues in an effort to keep the streets clear. Singapore, one of the smallest yet most car-driven countries in the world has resorted to an Area Licensing System which imposes strict taxes for all cars entering downtown during business hours. Congestion pricing in DC may also encourage a lot of the commuters to ditch their cars and opt for the bus or other mode of transportation. Singapore also has approximately a $1.75 tax on fuel, which discourages drivers from further using their car. Even though the country is small and can afford to pull this model off successfully while the USA might not, there’s still a lesson to be learnt here: disincentives to use cars can and will result in looser gridlocks and a stress-free commute for all of us.

    If you live closer to DC than Fairfax or Alexandria, consider taking your bike in to work. Or taking the bus before the gridlock and then biking over. Not only is it good for you, it’s also a wonderful relief from the car traffic clogging roads everyday. SmartBikeDC, inspired by a similar program in Barcelona and Paris, has come up with a program that lets you loan out a bike from point A to point B in DC throughout the year for just $40! Think of how much gas you’d be saving, not to mention how less you’d be polluting the skies! J

  5. We’re too loosely packed for our own good. Problem: Ever since the 1950s, we’ve been expanding AWAY from DC. First it was Fairfax and Alexandria, then on to Culpepper and Manassas, and now we’re at Spotsylvania, which is still considered to be a part of suburban Virginia. With the spread of highways and easy access with cars, we have moved further and further away from the city to independent single family homes in the middle of nowhere in suburbia. But this is making our lives worse and we don’t even realize it—the cost of transportation to get to DC and back today almost completely cancels out any incentives of moving to the suburbs in the first place. So is it really worth moving that far away if you plan on having a job in the CBD?Solution: Living close to the city is not always a bad thing. Many cities around the world have been able

    Tall buildings, free walkways, lots of things to do. Who wouldn't want to live here?

    to pull off a successful model that can be followed. For example, Shanghai has retained its density despite growing almost 800% larger in size since the 1990s. By eliminating the need to commute, you’re giving yourself free time (more sleep!), and eliminates suburban isolation, which is pretty boring. With affordable and walkable places closer to the city, there’s always something to do and time off if you so choose. Higher apartments closer to the city, with walkways and bikable areas, gardens and a vibrant community is what we really want, but fail to find 50 miles away in suburbia. Yes, it might be more expensive, which is what needs to be fixed. Cheaper homes closer to the CBD in taller and well-designed efficient buildings is one of the keys to tearing apart annoying DC traffic.

  6. Traffic stops for ANYone. Literally.
    Problem: I cannot mention how many times I’ve been frustrated at the wheel (or next to it) because some VIP’s convoy and five police cars decided to whirr by me with no consideration for the rest of the lanes they’re blocking up. Yes, a lot of foreign delegations come through DC for the embassies, museums, government buildings, etc. But the narrow lanes and no shoulder space makes it impossible to move over or give someone an entire lane to themselves, especially in rush hour traffic.
    Solution: Being a VIP doesn’t mean you can’t be five minutes early to everything like the rest of us need to be everyday. I for one, say that aside from the topmost officials (the president and two levels down), no one should be given the privilege to stop traffic in DC to get somewhere. Or let’s take up innovative solutions to this like Sao Paolo, Brazil has. Sao Paolo, much like DC, suffers deadly morning gridlock due to a booming population and a rapidly modernizing city. Their solution? Helicopters! Well, only the VIPs can afford them, but it sure beats having to wait in traffic or trying to clear two lanes for a convoy.

Ultimately, DC is a victim of its own design. Even though it was built with foresight, it wasn’t built with the

Thriving metropolis or victims of our own design? You decide.

flexibility necessary to thrive as a modern city. This is where world cities like Tokyo, Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Shanghai are thriving—they have built up, but they CAN tear things down and build it right back up. Unfortunately, DC being a federal district and the center of business for the entire government, we can’t afford to do the same here.  So the only thing we CAN do is adopt some of these solutions and try to make our commute less stressful and more eco-friendly.

OR, if you aren’t the person to fix your commute overtly by implementing the above solutions, give in to your frustrations in another manner: by complaining online! The Washington Post’s Daily Gripe allows a forum where you can post things in your neighborhood that you think need fixing (like traffic jams and such) and get more people to agree with you! Maybe you can collectively make a difference!

When we get such bikeable streets in Washington, I shall stop ranting against gridlocks.

But there are definitely lessons to be learnt from the DC and its unique set of challenges. One thing that modern architects must keep in mind is that the layout of the land is always changing. Designing a city based on stoic principles will not do the city any good in the future. In extremely dense areas like Washington DC, flexibility is always key. If you want the city to be successful, make sure generations after you can tear parts down and build it up to suit changing times. Accessible and cheap public transportation is also key to the success of any good city. The closest thing we have to such a system is the Metro, which has recently announced price increases. What we need to do is make DC more bike and walk-friendly. We could certainly use a page out of Copenhagen’s book, which is one of the world’s most bike-friendly countries. Almost 32% of workers bicycle in to work in Copenhagen because it’s fast, easy, and they aren’t afraid of getting run over by frustrated cars. So with a combination of taxing fuel, making public transport cheaper and more affordable, and reducing the need for cars, maybe, just MAYBE, we can cure DC’s severe case of gridlock.

Have an opinion? Comment below!

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