Greater Greater Washington

I'm an environmentalist but...

Last night, about 150 people showed up for a DC Council hearing on Klingle Road. The Washington Post has a carefully balanced article on the hearing, at which about 80% of the attendees and speakers opposed reopening the road (largely thanks to good organizing by WABA, the Sierra Club, and others).

Many proponents of building a new road in Klingle Valley, including Councilmembers Jim Graham and Muriel Bowser as well as several speakers, all touted their environmentalism and pro-transit credentials while arguing for an action that would harm the environment and decrease transit ridership. Here are some of the arguments they made:

I'm an environmentalist but... I need this road to get across town a few minutes faster. One speaker even said "a few minutes faster" in so many words, almost making a caricature out of his own testimony. Protecting the environment sometimes requires sacrifices. A few minutes doesn't seem too much to ask, but it is for some folks.

... but making cars go faster actually reduces pollution by reducing idling. This is a widespread myth, but it's untrue. If the number of cars is fixed, then increasing speeds does somewhat reduce emissions, but the number of cars is never fixed. A new road generates new vehicle trips, whose new emissions outweigh any savings.

I appreciate parkland but... I also like driving through a pretty park. When a park has a highway in it, it's quite pleasant to drive inthat is, until everyone else decides it's pleasant too and it fills up with traffic. Meanwhile, the highway prevents everyone else from enjoying the park in other ways.

... but we've already spent money on studies to fix the road, and there are already ramps at the freeway-like Porter Street interchange in the middle of the park. The man who testified right after me had the pithiest rebuttal, calling this "sewing a coat on a button"; it's folly to build a road just to connect to a ramp. Economists call this the sunk-cost fallacy.

... but the Council didn't follow the correct process to close the road. Jim Graham repeatedly harped on the issue of process, arguing that the Council shouldn't vote to close a road in a budget hearing, that there are processes to follow to close alleys and closing a road should require more process. Generally people fixate on process when they don't agree with the outcome, and I can't help thinking that Graham is just upset that Cheh outmaneuvered him in his committee.

I support reducing vehicle traffic but... people drive regardless of whether the road is there. Bowser, in particular, hung much of her argument on the incorrect assumption that the amount of traffic isn't related to road capacity. When this road went away 17 years ago, she argued, people started taking other routes. Some did. But some started taking transit, carpooling, living closer to work, or making fewer trips across town. Creating a new road would also create an incentive for some people to drive solo when they wouldn't today, because a new high-speed bypass would make driving more appealing.

I'm a transit advocate but... the road won't affect transit ridership. Bowser and Graham both argued that the solution to traffic is to improve transit (true, that's one solution), and reiterated their longstanding support for transit. Bowser spoke about reducing driving from the demand end, not the supply end. We must do it on both ends. Increasing supply will lower demand for transit and make it more difficult for WMATA to cover its costs, forcing cuts in service, making transit worse and pushing more people to drive.

If the Council acts to reopen the road, it is acting affirmatively to discourage public transportation. Graham and Bowser don't want to do that. They should get beyond their frustration over process or their misconceptions about traffic behavior and stop pushing for this road. But whether they do or not, with Cheh, Wells, Evans, Alexander, Barry, Brown, and Mendelson on record against this road, the environmental, recreational, and induced demand reasons for keeping it closed are likely to prevail against those who want to save five minutes.

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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