A House, Divided

Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.

Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.

One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:

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The price of getting there

Commuters heading to Washington DC were surprised to see tolls as high as $40 earlier this week. A congested 10-mile segment of I-66 in Northern Virginia opened to solo drivers as long as they were willing to pay a premium price. (Vehicles with two or more people are exempt from the toll.)

Toll sign on I-66 (WJLA)

The state’s highway department is legally required to set the toll at a level that will allow traffic to flow freely (55 mph). This means the tolls have to be set high to prevent the lanes from becoming overcrowded and congested. In an unusual way this high toll illustrates the high cost of roads that are under used.

I recently learned of a different approach to managing congestion called Pico y Placa (peak and plate). This rule restricted a portion of the city’s cars from driving during peak commuting hours based on the last digit of the license plate. This rule forced drivers to find an alternative method of getting around during peak hours of congestion. Enrique PeƱalosa pioneered this approach in Bogota, Colombia.

While drivers in Northern Virginia are understandably upset about the high cost of the toll road, I doubt they would be any happier with the Pico y Placa rule. Americans tend not to like restrictions on their freedom.

There are no quick fixes to auto congestion. Eventually, drivers pay for the privilege of traveling in crowded places. The city of London has charged drivers who enter the center city for nearly 15 years. Yet I’m not aware of any North American cities that have followed their lead.

The only long term solutions involve building communities that allow us to remove the auto from the equation by enabling citizens to make trips on foot, bicycle or transit.