Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Car-free DC?

On Tuesday, the NYT blog posed the question of a "Car Free America". Witold Rybczynski, a professor at Penn, made the claim that only 5 cities in the US would be livable car-free:

"There are only six American downtown districts that are dense enough to support mass transit, which you need if you’re going to be carless: New York City (Midtown and Downtown), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. That’s it. The breaking-point for density and mass transit feasibility seems to be about 50 persons per acre, which means families living in flats and apartments, rather than single-family houses, even row houses. Not necessarily high-rise apartments, but at least walk-ups."

After reading that I wondered, what about DC?

Washington, DC, for one, is significantly smaller than the other cities mentioned. It is only 68 square miles, about half the size of Philly and about a third of Chicago and San Fran.

Moreover, the DC metro station, in my opinion, is very effective and surprisingly clean. Granted, it does not stop as frequently as the subway does in New York or Philadelphia, but the city, in my opinion, does not need metro stops on every block. I think that the positioning of metro stations and the orientation around them adds some character.

If one factors in metrobus as well, the realm of car-free DC expands much farther because most places in the District can be reached by, at the very most, a metro ride, a bus ride, and then a short walk. Even still, you might even be able to walk the majority of the way there. From Georgetown alone, you can walk out to Maryland if you want to put in the time.

Likewise, it is rather ironic that DC is not listed in the example of these cities when the photo on the blog page is of Clarendon, VA. The Wilson Boulevard corridor of Arlington is a perfect example of smart growth. In other words, it is designed for readily available metro access and readily available stores and restaurants. The block pictured above has a Barnes & Noble, an Apple store, a Pottery Barn, a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, and a number of retail locations all around each other with convenience stores, cafes, and restaurants within two blocks. Juxtapose that with a number of condo complexes, and you have a car-free area, if you ask me. (For other needs, you can even just walk one mile and hit the Ballston Commons Mall, next to another supermarket as well--Harris Teeter.)

Moreover, although the professor mentioned above makes the assertion that a city would need a population density of at least 50 persons per acre, I would question DC's exclusion from this. DC has a relatively large park system (especially Rock Creek) and the National Mall, both of which are obviously residence-free. I wonder what the population density of the built-up part of the city would be.

Maybe I am biased about car-free DC because I love to walk so much. But what do you all think?


  1. i think you like to walk way too much. the reason i'm skeptical about a car-free dc is because i just don't think it will work. a main reason people use public transportation is to get to work and (i'm thinking of corporate dc in this case) i don't think that the metro is convenient enough - and metrobuses are way too slow.
    i might be biased since i work in manhattan but if i needed to go pick up something for a client, i could hop on the subway, get where i need to be in a reasonable amount of time, and get back. there are too many places in dc that don't have convenient access to metro stops for people who need to get places fast.
    (and then for places in more "rural" dc it's even worse...)

  2. I will agree that the subway system in New York does have many more frequent stops and is better connected. However, I think the potential for DC to be car-free (or close to it) exists. Since not everyone is as willing to walk as I am, it would just need some more investment from WMATA, but I think it could be doable.

    Philadelphia, listed, is not possible car-free, in my opinion. If you are considering only the downtown area, then yes, but if you expand it to any other part of the city (i.e. the NE), then I think SEPTA is not prevalent enough.

  3. i mean, the potential is there for any urban city. but i mean, if i'm working in georgetown, there's no way i won't have a car... it's just too time consuming to walk all the way to rosslyn or to foggy bottom. there's just no way that wmata is going to invest in putting metro stops in places that are inconvenient / where the neighborhood doesn't want

    i'm not really familiar with the actual layout of any of the cities named above except new york... which i do think, with it's superior (in my opinion) infrastructure, can go car-free IF it wanted to. that's the main thing. i don't ever see new york going car-free, though the ability is there

  4. The G2 and the 30 buses are pretty useful, but then again, I am not a big fan of buses, and I would probably guess that the type of person who lives in Georgetown is not planning to hop the bus to work every day.

    Although, when I go to NYC, my family is only ever in the theater district in Manhattan, I would agree that the infrastructure of New York is more car-free-friendly.

  5. Well, I read the original blog post in the NYT, and it doesn't seem like any city can be 100% car free. I mean, how do stores get deliveries? What about service companies that need to access homes and businesses in the area? Unless you're going to do away with a lot we take for granted, like even basic variety at a supermarket for instance, then there's no way a city or area could be completely car free.

    I think that it's a human trait to strive for utopia when usually the far better solution is a beneficial middle-ground. What I mean is, car free is a cool idea, but there's no need to go that far in the name of environmentalism when we have plenty of ways to reduce car use or increase car efficiency without shunning them altogether.

  6. The one thing with being car-free is that it does work more so with a downtown area than a city itself, and I believe that this is one thing mentioned. Moreover, you will still need police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and your other basic infrastructural vehicles. However, it's fun to muse about it.