Greater Greater Washington

Latest data shows plenty of car-free living in DC

The Coalition for Smarter Growth crunched the latest Census numbers on car-free living in DC:

Just because many people live without a car doesn't mean we insist that everyone must live without a car. I have a car, and use it sometimes. But I like having many other options so that I rarely actually have to use it (and, if I had no car, could use Zipcar in those cases where I do need one).

Having significant percentages of people living car-free also reduces traffic for everyone who isn't car-free. Therefore, we should all look for policies that help these numbers grow.

In wealthy parts of the city where many people are living car-free as a choice, like Wards 2 and 6, we should strive to welcome more residents, to give even more people the opportunity to enjoy the wealth of transportation options that exist. In poorer areas like Wards 7 and 8, where the car-free rate comes more from inability to afford a car, we need better transportation options to help car-free residents get to work and to stores.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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While I don't think policies for a car-free living are something the government should pursue or encourage, I understand why so many find it appealing.

One very easy thing that DC could do to encourage more car-free living is to lift the silly restriction on the height of buildings. This would allow for population growth to be more dense, and with that, the city government would have to find ways of improving public transportation. It may even bring WMATA closer to profitability.

However, with these height restrictions, people are encouraged (and sometimes even forced) to live further away and depend on cars to commute in to work.

Just one of the unintended consequences of DC's zoning laws. Getting rid of rent control would help too, but that's a different argument.

by Jim on Feb 21, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

IT is car use,not car ownership.

by charlie on Feb 21, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

@Jim

Congress sets the height limit and changing it is far from easy. There's so much politics involved that it is one of only a handful of things in the Home Rule Act that the D.C. Council is explicitly barred from altering.

You are correct, however, that more people living in urban areas would help raise WMATA revenues. The biggest difference between DC and other cities with comprehensive mass transit is that large urban populations sustain usage at off-peak times. The last time I ran the numbers, NYC and Chicago, for example, maintained nearly 2/3 of their peak ridership at off hours. DC doesn't come anywhere close. Our half-commuter rail, half-subway system means that suburban park-and-ride stations get the same level of service as downtown core stations, but that convenience comes at a steep cost.

by Adam L on Feb 21, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

I didn't know that Home Rule didn't grant them that ability, thanks for the info. I'm more of the view that DC should be abolished except for the mall, White House and Congress, and the rest can go back to Maryland. I doubt that is a popularly held view among this site's viewers.

I get that people don't want skyscrapers inhibiting the view of the mall, but that doesn't mean that I need to see it from my place in Fairfax County. (I can.)

by Jim on Feb 21, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

@Jim

It's not a necessarily bad proposal, but that too has little chance of passing. The first issue is that Congress doesn't seem to want to do anything to change the status quo: Bipartisan proposals to do exactly what you suggest have gone nowhere. I think Congress either likes having their own political Petri dish or they're just entirely indifferent.

Then there are others that question whether such a proposal would be unconstitutional mostly because of the 23rd Amendment. And then there's the problem of likely strong Virginia opposition. Congress currently prohibits DC from charging a commuter tax or taxing the incomes of non-residents who work in the District. If Maryland assumed control over DC, the state could (and probably would) immediately move to tax Virginians who work in the city. But the point is largely moot since Maryland leaders have consistently indicated that they have no interest in taking the District back.

by Adam L on Feb 21, 2012 2:30 pm • linkreport

Any numbers or graphics available for other cities?

by AL on Feb 21, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

Yes, similar graphics for other major US cities with good public transit systems would be interesting.

The map, BTW, is missing a number of Metro stations. No dots for the Farragut stations, McPherson Sq, etc. Unless leaving out the stations in the white areas is intentional? But wouldn't NY Ave-FL Ave, Congress Height stations be in or on the edge of a census tract with data?

by AlanF on Feb 21, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

The height limit is no panacea and may have other consequences such as making existing residential areas less attractive, dumping more vehicles on nearby streets in densely populated areas, etc. I was in NYC over the weekend and its remarkable how much of Manhattan, let alone the other boroughs is quite dense and yet low rise. there are limits to what putting people in large buildings can do. The conversion of large office structures to residential hasn't put a big dent in the deadness of downtown LA, for example. The White Flint area (where I work) is also quite dead except during rush hour and additional development has added nothing to that. Car-free living needs far more sophisticated urban design and far less in the way of simple solutions.

by Rich on Feb 21, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

Height limits do not de facto deter density. Paris has a height limit and it is as dense as NYC. That's because the entire city is amost uniformly buildings (rather than SFH or TWNH). We have most of our city land dedictaed to many neighborhoods of townhouses and detached houses. Upper NW particularly is actually very suburban (in fact there are many suburban areas with far more density than upper NW). This reduces density. Add more buildings and even with the height limit we will have much more density. Wheteher we want to do this is another question entirely.

by SoMuchForSubtlety on Feb 21, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

"Paris has a height limit and it is as dense as NYC."
---------

Paris also has La Defense. I'm not sure if it's in the city limits, but it's pretty close to the city center.

Paris has a fraction of NYC's land area (40.7 sq mi, compared to 304.8), so the claim that Paris is as dense as NYC even with height limits is a bit of a stretch.

Let's face it. Height limits have definitely had a detrimental effect on DC ability to grow. As long as they are allowed to exist, DC will never be more than a second 2nd-tier city, with limited new development accessible to only a privileged few.

by ceefer66 on Feb 21, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport

The less education and job skills you have, the harder it is to live without a car. This is the problem that often plagues the poor in DC. The types of jobs that are available to them, service jobs, manual labor, are often either located in the suburbs, or at off-Metro hours (or both) making a car a necessity. For some jobs, employers simply require a car or "reliable transportation" or your application goes in the trash. That is why the first thing new immigrants do when they arrive in the US is buy a car, or at least, hook up with a network of people so that hey have ready access to a car.

Think of this, one of the largest public construction projects in the country is going on right now with the Purple line. Yet all of those jobs are within 20 miles of city, but entirely out of reach if you don't have a car. That means that an entire group of DC residents can not take advantage of these jobs. Think of all of the growth in the 80s and 90's along the Dulles Corridor. All the new housing in the boom. Who got those jobs? New immigrants with cars, not DC's poorest residents.

The best "welfare" program DC could initiate would be to lease, at subsidized rates, reliable basic cars to working-age people with limited means, with the requirement that they take a basic class in automotive preventative maintenance and repair.

by dcdriver on Feb 21, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

dcdriver - I was not aware that construction had started on the purple line. I thought it was still in the planning stages. Could you provide more details/links?

by Seeing Purple on Feb 21, 2012 5:36 pm • linkreport

@Seeing Purple:
Construction on the Purple Line is not expected to begin before 2016.

by Matt Johnson on Feb 21, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport

@Seeing Purple, I think dcdriver meant the Silver Line. Mentions the Dulles corridor later in his paragraph.

Looking at the map, I think it would be more useful if it also contained the census tracts for households without cars for Arlington, Alexandria, and the tracts adjacent and close to the DC limits in Maryland. Would provide more perspective on the pattern of car ownership. We should see higher percentages of no car ownership along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

As for the height limit, outside of the DC core, it seems to me there are a lot of places that have room for denser development up to the height limit. DC still has a lot of room for denser growth with the current limit. Changing the height limit comes across as one of the 3rd rail political subjects in DC.

by AlanF on Feb 21, 2012 6:23 pm • linkreport

I found it interesting that the two 'over 67%' places (the blood red areas on the map) are probably also the most impoverished areas of DC ...

It would be interesting to determine if there's a higher correlation between carlessness and transit access or between carlessness and poverty.

by Lance on Feb 21, 2012 6:27 pm • linkreport

@ceer66 "Let's face it. Height limits have definitely had a detrimental effect on DC ability to grow. As long as they are allowed to exist, DC will never be more than a second 2nd-tier city, with limited new development accessible to only a privileged few.

'detrimental effect on DC ability to grow' .... So what do you call what is happening on H St NE? or U St NW? This city has a lot of space left in which to grow ... and that's without even counting the suburbs (both those in the District of Columbia) and in other juridictions.

They say quality matters over quantity. I once had someone describe DC this way to me when comparing it to NYC. "It's like someone took the finest of New York, the creme de la creme, and made Washington. It's got everything you'd ever want in a big city, without all the problems of a big city.'

If being '1st class' means having a city where quantity comes before quality, then I'd say I'd much rather we just remained '2nd class' ... and kept the fact that '2nd' in this case is far far better than '1st'.

by Lance on Feb 21, 2012 6:42 pm • linkreport

The Height Act is a popular whipping boy for all the District's woes, but it's simply not true that amending or eliminating the Height Act would increase population density. The only part of the city that is built out the maximum allowed under the Height Act is the CBD. Everywhere else, city zoning is more restrictive than the Height Act. So if the city wants to increase density in residential areas, it's not the Height Act that is holding it back, it's NIMBYs who are opposed to increased density in their neighborhoods.

by Christine on Feb 21, 2012 8:47 pm • linkreport

I'm both pro height act and pro retrocession.

by Doug on Feb 22, 2012 3:29 am • linkreport

Height limits have definitely had a detrimental effect on DC ability to grow. As long as they are allowed to exist, DC will never be more than a second 2nd-tier city, with limited new development accessible to only a privileged few.

I disagree. To echo Christine above, the detrimental affects on DC's ability to grow have been much more focused on the "soft limits" that exist on growth that are imposed far before the height limit is reached. There is plenty of local opposition to increased residential, commercial, and retail development that doesn't even approach the height limit, and this is what's stymieing growth in DC proper. The height limit is just a symptom of the general anti-development mindset.

by Tyro on Feb 22, 2012 8:14 am • linkreport

Would you want a whole city of 12 story boxes? Among other things, the height limit severely limits quality architecture. Take a look at downtown and then compare those buildings to downtown Philadelphia, Chicago, New York or even Houston's skyline. Abolishing the height limit would allow density "breakouts" in areas where the NIMBY's could be overcome. It would be an additional tool. Taller buildings outside of the federal core would provide tax revenue to the District, more housing choices and more retail choices by putting more people in different neighborhoods. Density in 12 story boxes far from subway lines and major bus corridors would create more traffic problems than benefits, too.

by Steve on Feb 22, 2012 9:07 am • linkreport

takeaways

1. 15% of DC residents commute by bike/ped - thats impressive.

2. four times as many by ped as by bike (and ped is key to transit) = do we not put enough attention into ped? (OTOH those bike commuters probably are doing longer commutes)

3. Very little carpooling - given the lack of HOV lanes for DC commuters, and the short trips (or reverse commutes) of DC car commuters, thats logical - carpooling probably much more important in the suburbs

4. High numbers of carfree in non-poor areas - not quite NYC, but getting there. Note, this does not show the "car lite" households - households that have fewer cars than licensed drivers (typically one car for a couple) - which is also a way to reduce car ownership and VMT.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 22, 2012 10:01 am • linkreport

Paris also has La Defense. I'm not sure if it's in the city limits, but it's pretty close to the city center. Let's face it. Height limits have definitely had a detrimental effect on DC ability to grow. As long as they are allowed to exist, DC will never be more than a second 2nd-tier city, with limited new development accessible to only a privileged few.

La Defense is primarily a business district with a population around 20,000 (4000/sq mile). The inner arrondissements, where the height of buildings rarely exceeds 12 stories have a population densities ranging from 23,000/sq mile to 105,000/sq mile (arr 1 through 11). The 11th arr has maintained roughly the same population density since the 1870s (41,000/sq mile, ten times more than La Defense).

I think we need to rethink this notion that taller buildings means a more enriching urban experience. Many of the world's most livable cities have height restrictions either by statute or convention: Paris, Vienna, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona, Mexico City, London, Madrid and so forth. Manhattanization or Vancouverization is not necessarily the answer... what works in New York might not work here.

The hard truth is that there is PLENTY of land in this city sitting undeveloped. You can start converting by old warehouses, condemned buildings, and empty lots in Wards 5, 7 and 8 into mixed use spaces instead of focusing on getting rid of Dupont rowhouses.

And I think it bears mentioning that by almost all accounts, DC is a first tier city, a prominent global center for commerce, politics and culture. We manage to pack a lot into a pretty small space.

by Scoot on Feb 22, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

Paris has ridiculously high densities with short buildings because people live in tiny spaces. Like studios at 200 SF, one-bedrooms under 500SF (that's for a couple), 2BRs under 1000SF.

Really at this point I think you are going to be hard pressed to convince any Americans outside of New York City to live in spaces that small.

Some census tracts in DC approach and exceed these densities. They are all tracts that consist of apartment buildings that have maxed out heights.

http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/map - check out the population density map.

Dupont Circle also has a high population density - you do this by putting a big apartment building on every corner and rowhouses in between.

by MLD on Feb 22, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport

A few questions on the DC worker travel modes: are the travel modes mutually exclusive? seems to be since they all add up to 100%. Then how was the question constructed, maybe "what is your primary mode of transportation to work"? If so the chart underestimates public transportation since it forces to choose only one method (I use both bike, bus and walk to go to work) and forgets about not-work transportation (taxi, bus, metro on weekend nights or to city attractions, bike on Sundays...). My point is that a better view may be to ask about what modes of transportation are used daily AND rank them in order of frequency of use or similar. Also is taxicab included in "public transportation"?

by RE on Feb 22, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

Paris also has La Defense. I'm not sure if it's in the city limits, but it's pretty close to the city center.

A good local analogy is Rosslyn. Close by, good transit access, not quite in the city itself, very small residential population. We already have our own La Defense, and it hasn't solved any of the problems that the opponents of the Height Act said it would.

Downdown's monotonous uniformity has more to do with bad zoning and a lack of historic preservation than it does with the Height Act itself.

I suppose I'd be okay with granting some exceptions to the height act (ie. a 15-story building is OK downtown as long as there's an adjacent parcel no taller than 8-stories, etc). However, I find it almost impossible to argue that skyscrapers (especially the kind that we design today) would improve the architectural character of Downtown DC.

by andrew on Feb 22, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

As far as this map and survey go, I'd really like to see the sample sizes they used, and some information assuring me that the data is from a representative sample.

There are a lot of residential tracts (including my own) that have no data.

How do you have data for Judiciary Square the Navy Yard, and Buzzard Point, but none for Near Northeast, Dupont Circle, or any other portion of Southwest? This flies directly in the face of all logic.

by andrew on Feb 22, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

http://www.census.gov/acs/www/methodology/sample_size_and_data_quality/

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 22, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

the data shown seems to match what one would intuitively expect for the tracts that have data = ergo I presume there was some problem (data clean up, whatever) with the data for the other tracts and so the data was witheld - not that the sample size was so small that no one was picked up.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 22, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

@Steve

"Would you want a whole city of 12 story boxes? Among other things, the height limit severely limits quality architecture.

Funny, Paris is similarly limited and I've never heard that brought up as an example of where the height limit limits quality construction.

Take a look at downtown and then compare those buildings to downtown Philadelphia, Chicago, New York or even Houston's skyline.

First off, 'skyline' is one thing. The view from below is quite another ... as is the quality of living. Someone mentioned priviledge earlier. I'd say that the creme de la creme in NYC who can afford the multi-million dollar penthouse condos and 'get a view' AND sunlight are indeed priviledged ... and few in number. In DC, thanks to our Height Act, we ALL get some of that sunshine and are thus ALL priviledged.

And as for Houston being a place to look up to ... Well, I'll leave it at that. It's the same argument as when I hear Portland given as a place Washington should be emulating ... Funny ... at best.

by Lance on Feb 22, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

Can urbanist that does not like an opposing view maybe once an awhile come up with a better rationale then blaming NIMBYs? Some people happen to like the neighborhood they bought their house in and just happen to like keeping it that way. So quit messing with my hood.

by georgie on Feb 22, 2012 7:04 pm • linkreport

@georgie

In this entire long thread, I don't see the word "NIMBY " anywhere but your post.

Is there some bot out there that automatically goes to GGW and posts defenses against accusations of NIMBYISM?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 22, 2012 8:34 pm • linkreport

changing the height limit may or may not be a good idea. However there are clearly many other ways to support the option of being car free in the district. Continued support for ped initiatives, continued densification at metro stations, finding ways to fund and build light rail, incremental improvements to bus service would all help.

BTW, I don't suppose anyone has done a similar slide for the inner suburban jurisdictions? Arlington prides itself on being a place where going car free is feasible.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 22, 2012 8:38 pm • linkreport

AWalker, responding to georgie, writes:

In this entire long thread, I don't see the word "NIMBY " anywhere but your post.

Christine blamed NIMBYs for holding back increases in density in a comment above. Steve echoed her assertion a couple of comments later.

by Bertie on Feb 22, 2012 10:10 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity
Try using the search function in your browser next time. The term NIMBY actually appeared twice prior to his post.

"...it's not the Height Act that is holding it back, it's NIMBYs who are opposed to increased density in their neighborhoods."
-Christine

"Abolishing the height limit would allow density "breakouts" in areas where the NIMBY's could be overcome."
-Steve

@George
I'm not really seeing the difference between the phrases 'not in my back yard' and 'quit messing with my hood'. You may actually be one of those NIMBYs that everyone is complaining about. You bought your home not the whole neighborhood. You don't get to control stuff that doesn't belong to you, that's just not how this country works. As long as no one is messing with your life, liberty, or ability to pursue happiness than it's not your business to tell other people what do to do with their property that they bought with their money.

by Doug on Feb 22, 2012 11:03 pm • linkreport

You don't get to control stuff that doesn't belong to you, that's just not how this country works. As long as no one is messing with your life, liberty, or ability to pursue happiness than it's not your business to tell other people what do to do with their property that they bought with their money.

But it is messing with his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If someone builds a boiler factory or a pig farm next to my house that would most definitely interfere with my happiness. That's why we have zoning laws and other kinds of law and public policy that limit the kinds of things people can do with their property.

by Bertie on Feb 23, 2012 1:09 am • linkreport

well, I missed a couple of NIMBY references.

Interestingly, rather than back each other up, they take opposite positions on the height question.

I still think there are interesting things to say about the data on car freedom in DC, other than dicussing the height limit and attacking and defending NIMBY's.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 23, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

The best "welfare" program DC could initiate would be to lease, at subsidized rates, reliable basic cars to working-age people with limited means, with the requirement that they take a basic class in automotive preventative maintenance and repair.

Not to beat the drum, but the best welfare program DC could initiate would be to a) increase housing voucher subsidies and make sure they can be redeemed outside of DC; b) build as much market-rate housing as can be built, as fast as possible.

The biggest problem with the DC employment market is that the ratio of very poor people to middle-class and wealthy people in DC is completely skewed. More middle-class people means more entry-level jobs. More housing mobility among the poor means they can move to where the jobs are.

Obviously there's a huge political incentive (both in DC government, suburban government, and at the national level) in keeping poor people segregated and concentrated in the city.

by oboe on Feb 24, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

To speak to the car thing directly, I came across a pretty salient--and simple--point the other day that I hadn't seen elsewhere. DC has 600,000 residents in 2012. All projections are that we'll see unprecedented growth over the next decade or more. Any increase in population will almost certainly be made up of new middle-class residents.

A DC with 700,000 residents and the current number of private automobiles is one I'd like to live in. A DC with 700,000 and 70-80,000 additional private automobiles will be an unlivable mess.

by oboe on Feb 24, 2012 9:54 am • linkreport

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