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Gray aims high with sustainability plan; can agencies deliver?

Last week, the Gray administration unveiled its sustainability plan, which sets some very ambitious, yet very important objectives for 2032, like attracting 250,000 new residents and making 75% of trips happen by walking, biking, and transit, along with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, more access to healthy food, cleaner water, and much more.

This plan is perhaps the boldest statement yet by a mayor about the city's future. Some plans equivocate and promise everyone what they want. The sustainability plan does not. Our future is more walking, biking, and transit, and many new residents who aren't driving, says the mayor. Period.

To achieve these goals, agencies will have to push forward not just on their existing laudable initiatives, but go beyond. To shift the numbers of transit, walking, and bicycle trips, DC must do more than just build the streetcar and incrementally grow bicycle infrastructure. The administration also should set intermediate goals to push agencies to make significant progress each and every year.

Many specific actions are important steps forward

Strong policy statements like this make a big impact. When agency heads and employees look at a potential action, they'll know they should consider it through the lens of these policies. That doesn't mean people won't keep doing other things that confound the goals at times, but one group inside one agency can use these statements as ammunition to argue for policies that support the goals.

The plan also lists a number of specific actions agencies can take in a number of areas, from waste to building energy efficiency to parks and trees. The land use section includes the most significant (and controversial) parts of the zoning update, reducing parking minimums and allowing more accessory dwellings.

In the transportation section, there are a few promising new steps. Most are things DC already plans, such as streetcars, more bike lanes, and expanding performance parking.

Notably, the plan also suggests exploring a regional congestion pricing system. That's entirely speculative at this point, and the plan says that unless Maryland and Virginia agree, it'd be almost impossible to set up any sort of congestion pricing system. But just putting it in the plan is a meaningful step.

Another significant policy statement calls on DC to "Program crosswalks and traffic lights for improved safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists." That's right, it says that pedestrian and cyclist safety should take precedence over vehicle speed. It also suggests timing lights along major corridors for traffic, as groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade repeatedly ask, but notably recommends timing such lights for motor vehicles and bicycles, not just the former.

To reach goals, agencies will have to do even more

Many of these statements commit DC agencies to go beyond what they have done to date. But is it enough to achieve the even more ambitious goals, like 75% of trips by transit, walk or biking, 250,00 new residents, and cutting in half citywide unemployment, obesity, and energy use?

Transportation goals from the plan (page 12). Click for full plan (PDF).

On land use, the zoning update takes a significant step, but still an incremental one. There are many conditions that will limit accessory dwellings. Reducing parking minimums may make some housing cheaper and make some buildings feasible around the margin, but it does not add to the total amount of potential housing.

According to Planning director Harriet Tregoning, DC could add enough housing for 250,000 more residents just under existing zoning, but that assumes building up to the zoning limit across most of the city. Wholesale redevelopment of neighborhoods is not what anyone really wants.

Rather, it would be better to focus more new housing near Metro stations, streetcars, and high-frequency bus corridors. To do that, though, some administration will have to modify the Comprehensive Plan and zoning to create denser areas somewhere, or even revisit the height limit in some parts of the city.

The Office of Planning also backed away from earlier proposals to also set thresholds where a new development has to set up a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan. That now only applies to parking lots over 100,000 square feet, not large garages in many buildings which will contribute to more traffic and inhibit reaching some of the mode share goals.

Can DC reach 75% non-auto mode share?

The transportation section aims to increase public transit's share of trips ("mode share") to 50%, and walking and biking to 25%. There isn't actually data on total trips today, but the plan shows a breakdown of commute trips (which the Census asks about). There, transit had 38% share in 2010, walking 12%, and "other means" (since bicycling isn't a specific category) 4%.

Image from the plan, page 80. Click for full plan (PDF).

That means if we use commute data and count all "other" in the walking and bicycling group (since it's probably fine to also count rollerbladers and Razor scooter riders), transit has to gain 12 percentage points and walking plus biking 9.

Implementation steps include DDOT's current plans to add some more bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare stations, build out the streetcar system, plus recommendations to improve transit connections such as better service for low-income riders and later hours, set up a dedicated source of funding for transit, and make transit systems "resilient" to intense heat and storms that we'll see more often thanks to climate change.

Will this get 12% of commuters to switch to transit, though? Especially while the vast bulk of DDOT spending is still going to projects like big racetracks on South Capitol Street, which will add more car capacity to Saint Elizabeths rather than boosting transit connectivity.

If congestion pricing actually comes about, that could drive the mode shift, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Meanwhile, though, DDOT could meaningfully improve transit by building a network of dedicated bus lanes that make the bus truly an appealing alternative for residents from Glover Park to Fairfax Village to Woodridge.

DC won TIGER grants for bus priority projects from 2009, but those still haven't yielded anything on the ground. Last year, Mary Cheh set up a fund for DDOT to pay for bus projects, but it hasn't done any. H and I street bus lanes are on the long-term regional transportation plan, but if DDOT is making any concrete progress, it's pretty covert, and most of all isn't anywhere in the plan.

DDOT also needs to step it up on bicycle infrastructure. The plan laudably calls for 200 more Capital Bikeshare stations (so far, DC has committed to 87, and 100 miles of "connected" bicycle lanes, compared to about 50 (and not all connected) today, "prioritizing" ones east of the Anacostia.

But as WABA noted in its action alert at the end of 2011 about anemic progress in bike lanes, DC had installed 4-8 lanes per year from 2006-2010, which if continued should put the District at 130-210 by 2032 rather than just 100. Gabe Klein's Action Agenda set a target of 80 miles by 2012, so only 25% more than that 20 years later seems a bit underwhelming.

MoveDC is key

Tregoning, who spearheaded the overall plan while working with individual agencies on the specific proposals, said that these sets of actions aren't supposed to be an exhaustive list of everything to do in the next 20 years. Among other reasons, they wanted to actually publish the plan, not spend endless years tinkering with the lists—a worthy impulse indeed.

On transportation, in particular, the MoveDC citywide transportation plan is the opportunity to create a more detailed list of everything DC has to do. Gray's 50%-25%-25% targets provide a perfect frame for that plan. If a proposed piece of MoveDC moves us toward the targets, it should go in; if it pushes the other way, it should come out.

The 50%-25%-25% also gives MoveDC a high bar to hit. We'll all need to ensure MoveDC is more like the sustainability plan, with clear and aggressive goals, and less like some other plans which try to give everybody what they want and end up meaning little.

Intermediate goals are also necessary

How can we avoid getting to 2032, looking back on this plan, and seeing these great targets but having only moved imperceptibly toward them? The administration could set intermediate goals and really hold agency heads' feet to the fire to reach them.

What can we do to boost transit at least 0.6 percentage points in 2013 (1/20th of the way to the 12 point growth in the plan) and walking and bicycling 0.45 (1/20th of 6 points)? What can we do to get recycling up, obesity down, more buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency, and more parks not just by 2032, but by 2014 and then 2018?

To really hit these goals or at least come close, a next step needs to be a set of intermediate targets, perhaps one for the end of Mayor Gray's current term, and for every 4-year mayoral term thereafter. We should also ask mayoral candidates, in the 2014 race and future races, if they are willing to commit to these targets, both the long-term and intermediate ones, and ask their agency heads to do the same.

At the press conference, Gray noted that this plan's 20-year horizon certainly extends beyond his administration, whether or not he runs for or wins reelection. But, he said, this is a product not just from him but from his agency employees, many of whom still may be around that long. They can reach these targets as long as this and future mayors continue to send clear messages that the objectives in the plan are not just nice words on a paper but a real vision for the future of DC.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I used to live in NW DC with my wife. I'd walk or bike down to Dupont Circle to work. My wife would Metro over to Brookland. On the weekends, we typically drove her over to the Wilson aquatic center, and we'd shop at Whole Foods. I'd walk over to Trader Joe's at work, and we might walk to the Safeway in Adams Morgan.

So from my perspective, more frequent weekend Metro service is the biggest thing DC needs to do to get to 75% of trips being non-motorized. Poor weekend Metro service was the biggest reason we didn't Metro over to the pool. There were no reasonable bus alternatives for that location, either. This would have the biggest impact.

by Weiwen on Feb 25, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

I can only hope that DDOT will interpret this to massively expand CaBi and push very hard for more metro and streetcars downtown.

by Jasper on Feb 25, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

"DC won TIGER grants for bus priority projects from 2009, but those still haven't yielded anything on the ground."

This. What's the hold up?

by Adam L on Feb 25, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

"There isn't actually data on total trips today..."

I suppose it's a bit dated, but there was a household travel survey counting all trip in 07-08, and another data collection underway right now.

by darren on Feb 25, 2013 12:22 pm • linkreport

Weiwen, I 100% agree with you about weekend metro service. ALL weekend transit service leaves much to be desired. In my neighborhood, we lose our weekend circulator service for almost 6 months a year! It's ridiculous. The result is I drive to Eastern Market most of those weekend, rather than deal with the hassle of very limited weekend metro or metrobus service. If the weather cooperates, I'll bikeshare, but in Janaury, that's never a certain thing.

by Birdie on Feb 25, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

I suspect the plains meant tone atrial balloon to see if Gray can improve his standing among he nominally reformist voters who had supported Fenty. Hie came into office with a track record as an ineffectual manager in he Kelly administration and his mayoral leadership hasn't demonstrated anything particularly different from that.

Many years ago, as a student intern, I did an evaluation of a 30 year master plan for a medium sized city. A lot had happened consistent with help an but none of it seemed to reflect he influence of he plan. I suspect that an ineffectual mayor's 20 year plan will meet a similar fate. Many, if not most, department heads will be gone when Gray leaves and there's no indication hat he's gotten the career staff fired up about any of this.

by Rich on Feb 25, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

Is this 75% of trips that originate in the District or 75% of trips that go through the District at any point? The former seems much more achievable than the latter, but limiting trips from the exurbs into the city seems more important than a 1.5 mile trip across town.

by EmilySquirrely on Feb 25, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

I love the plan in theory but it's pointless without clear, short-term priorities and intermediate goals. What exactly is the path to get to 75% and do we even know where we stand now? Call me a cynic but the whole thing has an air of pie in the sky.

by Alan B. on Feb 25, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

Improved transit is key! Large chunks of the city really aren't that accessible by transit on the weekends especially. A trip that takes about 15 minutes by car on the weekend can take more than an hour on transit.

I also think we need to figure out ways to deal with parking in neighborhoods where parking is becoming scarce and non-rush hour transit isn't good.

I agree that car storage is not the best use of street parking (as someone who parks on the street), but after two years of trying to be car free I couldn't do it anymore. A big part of that was being diagnosed with a neurological disorder that results in fatigue, but the inability to get anywhere spontaneously on the weekend was a factor too.

I would reasonably happily pay for off-street parking, but there is no off street parking to be had in my neighborhood. So you've got limited street parking that is being overwhelmed by growth and limited transit. Of course existing residents are stressed about parking.

Can we find ways to help make existing off-street parking available to others(at a fee) in places where the spots sit empty on nights, weekends, and holidays? Could we make it financially disadvantageous for say the Autozone on H Street to keep the parking lot empty when they aren't open? This wouldn't open up huge numbers of spots, but I do think it might ease some of the tension that results in serious resistance to change.

by Kate W. on Feb 25, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

Yeah some of this stuff is pie in the sky, especially the 75% of trips using transit. But at least there's some sort of vision.

The 2011 WABA article was essentially premature whining.

by HogWash on Feb 25, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

It is no secret within the administration that Mayor Gray has contempt for many of these initiatives as outlined. Like any politician might he understands the importance of capitulating to the people he was so badly burned with when he took away the Streetcar funding. This is also the politician who called the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes "ludicrous" in 2010. However we know he loves "plans" particularly when it doesn't mean that you have to follow through on it. Best of both worlds I would say.

by Willson Building on Feb 25, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

As it is, I will frequently drive in from MD on weekends and park my car at my girlfriend's house or at my rental house (if my tenants are away) to avoid traffic and parking hassles and use Metro to get around in the city.

But lately, given the deterioration of weekend Metro service, I feel like I'm putting up with or tolerating a bad situation as opposed to using a desirable alternative.

by ceefer66 on Feb 25, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

Like any politician might he understands the importance of capitulating to the people he was so badly burned with when he took away the Streetcar funding.

Isn't this Fenty criticism 2.0? In this case, Gray "really" is opposed to the things he's for...advocating for things largely supported by "those people" who like things such as transit improvements and other sustainable goals? Bizarro World redux?

by HogWash on Feb 25, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport

Well 20 year plans with no concrete, intermediate goals are an easy way to position yourself as being in favor of something without any singificant fear of being held accountable. I'm not convinced this is a complete charade, but I think it's safe to say he's probably keeping his feet planted on both sides of the issue while he decides which way to go. It could be an important first step or it could just end up on a shelf collecting dust.

by Alan B. on Feb 25, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

As others have noted this plan is worthless without short term performance metrics.
Let's see the plan for each agency. And no bonus points for starting with the easiest objectives.
This administration lacks vision, and pie in the sky dreams are no replacement.

by Mark on Feb 26, 2013 2:05 pm • linkreport

Well 20 year plans with no concrete, intermediate goals are an easy way to position yourself as being in favor of something without any singificant fear of being held accountable.

Let's see the plan for each agency. And no bonus points for starting with the easiest objectives.
This administration lacks vision, and pie in the sky dreams are no replacement.

Gotta love this logic. If he doesn't come up w/any plan..he has no vision. If he comes up w/'s not really a plan because this is the easy stuff.

by HogWash on Feb 26, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

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