The District is changing, as people in their 20s and 30s seek to live in walkable urban neighborhoods their parents and grandparents moved away from. Yet the idea that "everyone" will choose a car-dependent lifestyle, and thus all transportation policy should cater to that lifestyle over all others, still persists.
I recently was invited to watch a panel discussion about DC streetcars at the Cosmos Club, a private social club in Dupont Circle, which included Dorn McGrath of the Committee of 100, former DC Mayor Tony Williams, his planning director Ellen McCarthy, and Downtown BID director Rich Bradley.
The discussion itself covered many of the familiar topics, such as how good the connection will be to Union Station and whether Bus Rapid Transit would work better than rail. The most telling moment happened near the end of the question and answer period, when one attendee sharply criticized the streetcar and, in fact, all projects that don't fall into the 1950s planning paradigm.
"It scares me to think of all the pathetic projects done in the name of becoming a world-class city," he said. These projects just take away from moving cars in the city, he argued, and everyone moves out to a suburban-style neighborhood as soon as they can.
Mayor Williams jumped in. "That's an old movie, man," he said. A few others murmured in agreement. The reality that only the rare person of economic means lives in the District's urban neighborhoods is long gone.
Linda Donavan Harper, head of Cultural Tourism DC, was attending the event as a guest of a member (as I was), and had earlier told everyone about the new H Street heritage trail. She also lent her voice against the sentiment from that member.
Cultural Tourism DC thinks about who their target market is, Harper said. "Who is the cultural tourist? We used to look around and say, it's you, it's me, over 55" year olds, as in fact seniors comprised most of the people in the room. But now, said Harper, it's not. One significant group is international visitors, who expect to ride transit when they visit a city. They don't expect to rent a car and drive.
Another group, more and more, is younger residents who want to make their permanent homes in walkable places. Many people I know want to stay in the neighborhoods where they live; if they leave, the most likely reason is because the quality of public education in a neighborhood they can afford is "not good enough."
As Herb Caudill said, living in urban places doesn't mean abandoning automobiles entirely, but it means having options so that one isn't entirely dependent on them or any other mode of travel. This concept, foreign a generation ago, still persists in many residents' minds.
Of course, no generation uniformly believes one thing, and this is no exception. Many empty nesters are now moving into the city. One woman at the Cosmos Club discussion talked about her experience visiting her son on H Street. Laurence Aurbach, the organizer of the panel (and the person who invited me) has been a smart growth advocate for a long time, and
helped design LEED-ND has been supporting smart growth in transportation and planning for the better part of 50 years in San Francisco, Clevleand, and Washington.
We can all can help shake this "old movie" belief by talking to people of all ages and all neighborhoods about the ways our region is changing. It will take time, but as we are seeing with the zoning update, the "old movie" can still wield great force to stop planning and transportation decisions that can move the city and region forward.
Update: The Laurence Aurbach who is involved with LEED-ND is Laurence Aurbach, Jr. (and also in attendance). Laurence Aurbach, Sr., who organized the panel, is his father, and has been a supporter of smart growth for many years in his own right.