The flows of both traffic and history move in sometimes mysterious ways. At the turn of the 21st century, cities, such as D.C., clamored to integrate the amazing new technology of automobiles. As most urban areas now choke on rapid motorization and population growth rates, the ever-present cycles of history are apparently asserting themselves in the movement of livable cities. As mayors, urban planners, and people create new transport and design strategies for their cities, they revive common elements from livable cities past such as pedestrian spaces common to the eras before the invention of automobiles. How well cities fare in implementing simple solutions, although, appears to be based on how well they can overcome nay-sayers and the status quo. In other words, cities choke amidst skyrocketing traffic volumes not for lack of reasonable solutions, but rather because of the ever-present fear of change.
H.G. Wells once commented that “human history becomes a race between education and catastrophe.” Sadly, in most cities, transport and mobility have taken turns for the latter. Here at EMBARQ in Washington D.C., we face the dragon of a dangerous, congested cityscape even when we clearly see a wiser road to take. Georgetown, an iconic part of the city, is one of the best examples of transport catastrophe, as pedestrians are confined to narrow sidewalks stuffed in between four lanes of grid-locked traffic of belching SUVs, buses, trucks, and cars. Georgetown has clearly fallen victim to the ghost of a paradigm’s past where cars reign unchallenged. Shoppers struggle through crowded sidewalks, cyclists dart between gridlocked traffic, and buses (meant to entice commuters for their efficiency) are also bogged down in the congestion. The entire atmosphere is so unpleasant that one wonders why someone would even visit such a place. For those attached to the chic scene of “who’s who” D.C., the line up of cozy cafes and restaurants, and shopping, Georgetown is the place to be. For others in the District, the effort hardly seems worthwhile. But would Georgetown ever be able to realize it’s full potential as a hot hangout nestled in one of the Eastern Seaboard’s most scenic historical neighborhoods? And why hasn’t it claimed its place as the picture of how cities can revive their beautiful remnants of bygone eras?
Georgetown is just one example (a hyperbolic example) of Washington D.C.’s famous failed attempts at ideal urban planning and design. While the city began with a lovely grid connected through grand boulevards and diagonals, the implementation of its vision has fallen short in so many periods of the city’s history that it is grounds for local humor. As cities such as D.C. embraced the car, sidewalks were often narrowed thanks to planning policies of the time. Now, Washington is just one city in a worldwide movement to re-adopt “cities for people.” But how well is D.C. faring in comparison with cities that fought hard for their pedestrian zones? And importantly, how did other cities overcome resistance for pedestrian zones?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post tomorrow.