Column: D.C. beats the suburbs, but it can still expand zoning and transit access

American Airlines doesn’t fly intergalactic, but my flight to Atlanta and my ultimate destination in the city’s sprawling suburbs to visit my family this Fall Break offered an alien alternative to city life in the District. I went from an orderly grid of numbers, letters and states to sleepy subdivisions with winding culs-de-sacs, manicured lawns and cookie-cutter houses. But as much as I enjoyed seeing my family and catching up with old friends, I couldn’t walk, roll, scoot or bike to get around in Georgia – I was thrust back into car-dependent suburbia. The fact that I needed a car to do anything in the suburbs, from driving to the polls to visiting my optometrist, was’t an accident.

I’m used to not needing a car here in D.C. – I have grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, barbershops, restaurants, dry cleaners, houses of worship, parks and museums just a few steps away from me. Maybe that means I’ve been ensnared by the dreaded Foggy Bottom bubble, but I’d look at it another way – Foggy Bottom, and much of downtown D.C., is essentially a “15-Minute City,” areas where a compact mixture of homes, businesses, offices and institutions mean you can meet your day-to-day needs in a short walk or bike ride. I’m willing to bet that you take some version of this home-work-food-home trip nearly every day, a potential that only such a variety of spots within the same vicinity can unlock. You still don’t really need to own a car as your primary means of transportation for longer trips in cities like D.C. – about 35 percent of residents already live car free. Hop on a bikeshare or scooter, call a rideshare or taxi or take the Metro.

Granted, these options, especially public transportation, aren’t always efficient. But this plethora of choices to get to where you need to go stands in stark contrast to more car-dependent areas both across the country and even parts of D.C. Unlike mixed-use zoning, which results in vibrant city blocks like those along I Street, “Euclidean” or “exclusionary” zoning separates different property uses from each other. While no one wants a factory in their backyard, increasing the distance between where people live, work, shop, play, eat and relax starts to tear up a unified urban fabric into smaller, disconnected parts.

The outskirts of Atlanta that I call home are practically the peak of suburban sprawl, with a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods, strip malls and shopping centers tied together with highways and roads. And between poorly-maintained sidewalks that can suddenly stop and start, bike lanes that amount to little more than a coat of paint and unreliable or non-existent public transportation, the private automobile is functionally the only means of getting around.

While D.C. itself doesn’t necessarily have full-blown suburban sprawl, pull up some satellite imagery, or better yet, go for a walk around town, and you’ll see that it has its own contiguous pockets of zoning across the city from Chevy Chase to Congress Heights. In wealthy and predominantly white Ward 3, neighborhoods like the Palisades consist of nearly entirely detached homes. If you don’t have amenities near you nor other means of transportation to find them elsewhere, you’re going to have to drive.

I don’t believe that every suburban neighborhood has the makings of this country’s next metropolis, but it strikes me as deeply unfair that the very design of the places where millions of people live burdens them with a perpetually depreciating asset. Simply owning, insuring, maintaining and refueling their car costs Americans thousands of dollars a year.

There’s no doubt a large contingent of people feel that owning a car is, as the saying goes, American as apple pie. But that cliché skirts the question – what “freedom” do cars really give us? Is it waiting in a traffic jam? Having to drive everywhere? Getting killed by the driver? I don’t think so – the automobile may be a great invention, but it’s an invention the same way dynamite is. They’re both technologically impressive and deeply destructive. Whether from the perspective of climate change or record-high traffic deaths, we have to find an alternative to these vehicles.

Cracking car dependency by giving people other means of transportation and moving the places they want to go closer to them is easier said than done, but we can do it. Plans to create “transit-oriented development” within D.C. proper and across the DMV would construct new homes, businesses and office space next to public transportation like Metro.

But the greater challenge is in updating zoning codes that have left us with unwalkable, car-dependent neighborhoods, which requires the long-term vision to go toe-to-toe with community activists and residents to create a better D.C. for the future. “Upzoning” areas to allow for denser residential construction, especially in wealthier and whiter Wards 2 and 3, and activating entirety residential areas with pockets of more mixed-use development would go a long way to making a city that’s more equitable for everyone.

Great cities come from connecting people to the goods and services they need and the transportation that can get them there. After a brief stay in suburban sprawl, I’m confident that cities like D.C. have the suburbs beat, but there’s still work to be done to help the District reach its full potential.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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