Cars and Suburbia: Why I Am Pessimistic About a Green New Deal

Let me preface this with noting that, as an organizing principle, the Green New Deal (GND) is pretty good. But I’ve had doubts about the GND doing much to significantly curb U.S. CO2 emissions, and this excellent column by Gordon Chaffin does nothing to allay those concerns (boldface mine):

Beyond the Beltway, just a few miles from the last Metrorail stations — and even in pockets within that bubble — commuting by car dominates the DC region. These suburban and exurban areas feature most of the new, affordable housing in the area. Suburban communities are designed to double down on the region’s 80 percent to 90 percent car commuting status quo. To address the many policy challenges facing the Washington region’s suburbs and exurbs, multimodal transportation advocates should look to the District itself as a model that sports a healthy mix of transportation options for commuters. Whether the urban model can be replicated in DC’s suburbs with the same results, though, is another story

Here’s what census data from 2017 says about commuting in our [the D.C. metro] area: 75 percent of the region’s 3.3 million workers drive alone or carpool to work. That proportion would be significantly higher if it weren’t for the 40 percent car-commuting stat from DC proper. The only other jurisdictions below the regional average are Arlington (67 percent) and the city of Alexandria (68 percent). Excluding those three areas with the bulk of the region’s Metrorail stations, more than 80 percent of greater Washington commutes by car…

Fairfax County, Falls Church and Prince George’s County each have 79 percent rates of car commuting; Montgomery County is at 75 percent. Meanwhile, in DC’s exurban counties — which built more housing over the past 20 years than did the closer suburbs — car commutes dominate nearly all of the new developments. As a result, 85 percent of Loudoun County and 87 percent of Prince William drives to work. In Frederick and Anne Arundel counties, that figure is 89 percent. With the District one of the region’s main job centers, many of those drivers are headed here.

…On one hand, there’s reason to be optimistic: The capital city is an exemplary place for multimodal commuting and provides convenient inspiration. Yet there’s also plenty to be frustrated about: in DC’s suburbs, even the ones with Metrorail, about 75 percent of residents are car commuters. In exurban counties with access to commuter rail — namely MARC and Virginia Railway Express — and express buses like the Fairfax Connector, 80 to 90 percent of people are still driving.

While DC itself may have a great mixture of commuting habits, unfortunately it’s not building much housing, even if the construction cranes in some areas make us think otherwise. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s highly touted plan for 36,000 units by 2025 would be so phenomenal as to beg skepticism as to whether it will really come to fruition

Given the data on regional commuting patterns, I’m resigned to suggesting that government officials focus on climate change policies that don’t depend on convincing the majority of the region’s population to stop commuting by car. And given what I know of the death grip on existing on-street parking in the city and inner suburbs, I don’t foresee a grassroots effort strong enough to surmount opposition to projects that would dramatically alter older, existing neighborhoods. This is as true when talking about car-focused neighborhoods in North Arlington along Lee Highway as it is about NIMBYs in Ward 3.

While 36,000 units sounds like a lot, that wouldn’t even cover all of the District’s growth through 2025, never mind the metro area’s growth. Chaffin does proposes some good solutions within these constraints, such as mandatory solar roofing and moving to electric cars. Unfortunately, that likely won’t be enough, not by a long shot. You might not want your suburb–or your neighborhood in Upper Northwest D.C.–to look like Manhattan or even Logan Circle (AAAAIIEEEE!!!), but it would be much more environmentally friendly if it did.

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1 Response to Cars and Suburbia: Why I Am Pessimistic About a Green New Deal

  1. adameran
    Adam Eran says:

    Land use planning, or civic design, is by definition a systemic problem. The more our built environment separates and atomizes societies, the more out plutocratic masters celebrate.

    The truth is that revised FNMA underwriting criteria to fund only pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use (commerce, office, residences all within the same neighborhood), never mind mixed-income (eightplexes among the single-family homes) would revise our development patterns within five minutes of becoming policy.

    …however, like you, I have my doubts that will even be entertained.

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