And so begins the summer of not being able to breathe

Let's get this smog party started. Yesterday marked the first Code Red day for severe smog in Washington. It happened in only the fourth sunny day of the summer. So after weeks and weeks of rain, which prevented me from going outside to ride my bike or shoot some hoops, now it's sunny, but I can't fucking breathe when I go outside. A thick haze hangs over Washington all day, from the moment I wake up.

The problem is cars. Millions of them on the roads, every day, idling in rush hour traffic, spending more than twice as much time on the road as they should, spewing pollution into the atmosphere. When it gets hot like yesterday and today, all that stagnant pollution just hangs over the city.

The irony of our situation is: I've never seen a city/region/metropolis/whatever so commited to anti-sprawl measures. And I've never seen those measures fail so very utterly.

Almost every time someone tries to build a new housing development or shopping center, or build more roads and expand on existing roads, residents put up a huge fight, because they don't want the increased traffic congestion that comes with such developments. It's very much a not-in-my-backyard situation.

There are problems with this, though, at least locally. First, it has driven property values through the roof. Finding affordable housing is a serious problem, but even though Washington residents and city councils often oppose and restrict new housing developments, it hasn't stopped people from moving here. As a result, people who work in Washington simply choose to move further away, simply because they can afford a better home out there. And these commuters are willing to go to some extreme lengths; one couple who works in my office lives two hours away in West Virginia. That's West Virginia the state, as in "mountain mama, take me home." That is a long fucking way out, but they and a lot of other people are willing to spend that much time on the road in order to make a decent living.

We also see several measures designed to encourage people to carpool. Here in Northern Virginia, for example, Interstate 66 is the main artery into D.C. proper. It's the only expressway that leads directly west, out into the suburbs of Fairfax and Prince William Counties. However, inside the Beltway (a perimeter-type Interstate that circles Washington), this Interstate is only two lanes wide, and that's not anywhere close to providing enough capacity to service all the people who work in D.C. but live in the western suburbs.

So, to limit the number of cars on I-66 inside the Beltway and encourage carpooling, the entire Interstate is limited to "High Occupancy Vehicles" (HOV) only. Not just one or two lanes, mind you; the entire Interstate. If you're driving by yourself, you can't legally be on I-66 eastbound in the morning, or westbound in the afternoon/evening. I've never seen such a set-up before moving here. (This apparently isn't enforced too tightly, but whatever.)

Obviously, that isn't going to be convenient for a lot of people. Sometimes it's hard to set up a carpool, and sometimes you just need to be able to drive yourself places. There are two other potential D.C. invasion options. The first is George Washington Memorial Parkway, which is normally a pleasant and scenic drive along the Potomac River. The road travels northwest out of D.C. and eventually hits the Beltway a few miles north of I-66. But there's one problem: in the morning, the downtown exits for Georgetown and Arlington are closed, ostensibly because residents of these neighborhoods don't want to deal with the extra traffic. You might not even realize the exits are closed until you get there; the signs that tell you this aren't especially clear by the parkway entrances, and as you might imagine I've been surprised before by my exit being blocked off.

The other option is U.S. Route 50, Arlington Blvd., which also travels directly west from D.C., but has traffic lights every few blocks. As you can imagine, it gets pretty crowded in the morning the closer you get to D.C.; I've seen cars sitting in traffic waiting to cross the bridge into the District as late as 10 a.m. But if you're driving by yourself, this becomes the only option for getting into D.C. from the west.

These measures to curb new housing developments and single-occupant vehicle traffic might have had a shot at reducing sprawl and pollution. Unfortunately, Washington and its suburbs have provided neither affordable close-to-the-city housing nor sufficient railway alternatives.

Here in Virginia, there isn't even enough money (or support from Richmond) to widen the roads to an appropriate number of lanes. More and more people are moving further away, and when they drive into D.C. in the morning, they are forced to take ridiculous, time-wasting detours around neighborhood-imposed barricades. That is, if they're in not a carpool and sitting in stopped traffic on the two-laned I-66. All these cars are either idling or driving more miles than they should have to, both activities resulting in more smog and more Code Red days. Which, in turn, leads to less federal highway funding. Great.

So basically, this is a vicious cycle with no way out. I think more trains would help. Supposedly a Metro extension up the Dulles Toll Road and through Tyson's Corner is in the works, although the local governments are dragging their feet when it comes to funding it, and even a lot of local residents don't want to spend tax dollars on such a project (even as they choke on the smog). If such a line were in place now, I could take my car off the road and ride it from Court House to Tyson's. Honestly, I can't believe there's no train service to Dulles airport right now; you have to either drive there, take a $60+ cab, or take the slow-moving Metro coach from West Falls Church.

Who planned this city anyway? Sometimes it feels like it was organized by commitee. Oh wait, it was.

No comments:

Post a Comment