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The War on Cars

In the Washington area, one of the nation’s worst places for traffic congestion, there’s a new war on cars. In the city itself, local officials have altered a main artery, Constitution Avenue, to make it harder to use it for driving in from the suburbs. And they’re thinking of closing off part of a major interstate tunnel that connects with a downtown thoroughfare to also discourage commuting into the city, the Washington Post reported on Sunday. The head of the city’s Transportation Department put it this way: "We want to encourage transit use, biking and walking." The AAA’s spokesman called Washington "the most anti-car city in the country" and accused it of waging a war on suburban commuters.

The city’s move comes at the same time urban planners and local governments are trying an ambitious, complicated undertaking: Converting Tysons Corner in suburban Virginia from a sprawling suburb into a more dense, walkable urban area. Tysons Corner is home to one of the busiest malls on the East Coast, and it’s a famously congested, nightmarish place. I have friends who refuse to even go there, and people who do brave the trip know it’s best to arrive before the mall opens, park in one of the outside lots as opposed to the garages, and get out of there before noon, lest you spend the rest of your afternoon circling in traffic. It gets so bad at Tysons that one Christmas Eve a woman trying to park confronted another driver and snatched his glasses from his face after he zipped in front of her and took the last space in the garage; she narrowly avoided deportation back to her native Ireland. The Post on Saturday noted that the effort in Tysons is different from Washington’s approach; Tysons has more parking than it has jobs and office space, and there’s more parking than in all of downtown Washington. So planners and developers are thinking of the simplest, most direction solution: Make it harder to park. From the Post:

Taking a new approach to parking, by building less and charging more, is a central tenet of the new urbanism that has gripped planners and developers in suburbs and cities across the country. The planners said that parking, especially free parking, encourages people to drive. Cars allow for development sprawl, highway congestion and air pollution. The parking lots coat the ground with impervious asphalt that sends dirty runoff into rivers and streams. And, the planners said, parking is often ugly and creates spaces that discourage walking or the use of a transit system.

Well, that describes Tysons perfectly. Planners and developers are pushing for an extension of Washington’s Metrorail to Tysons as part of its overhaul. If more people could walk around Tysons, the theory goes, developers could provide narrower streets, sidewalk cafes and the ability for office workers to stroll, rather than drive, to lunch. But that extension proposal is controversial because of its cost, and more than a few people think it will lead to even more congestion, destroying Tysons rather than rebuilding it. Plus the plan will take years of construction and untold amounts of money, not to mention the uncertain hope that a condo market will spring up to provide all those pedestrians. Right now, Tysons is the kind of place where you can drive for blocks without seeing anyone out walking; it’s hard to imagine how it can be transformed into a urban center. But this is the direction urban planners and developers are moving toward around the country. I’ll be following this attempt, and I’ll be updating its progress regularly.

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