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Tuesday 06 August 2002

Nimbyville and Development

In between searching for jobs and houses in anywhere not the Washington, DC area today, I’ve had time to squeeze in a little newspaper reading.

On the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section is a column by Marc Fisher headlined In Nimbyville, Even Schools Face Resistance. The central point of the column is about the difficulty the Jewish Primary Day School is having in finding a home in Washington.

Specifically, the JPDS is trying to buy the Rosedale estate in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. Local residents do not think much of this idea:

In vituperative traffic on the Cleveland Park e-mail list, neighbors accuse the school of having, as one woman put it, “its own sense of manifest destiny, completely rolling over the feelings, preferences and quality of life of” neighbors. [… Douglas Clark, a local resident] argues that “this snooty little island in the city is starting to have a traffic issue”

And here we get the central problem of the NIMBY in the early 21st century. Classic NIMBYism has centered around power plants, factories, airports, and other large, noisy, dirty, polluting uses. These days, NIMBY thinking applies to any kind of development or land use at all, because of traffic.

I like cars. I have several of them myself. I am not deluded, though, into thinking that cars are a good method of transportation in anything like a dense area.

Cars are an excellent means of transport in the boonies. Our house in the boonies is almost exactly a mile from the county road; even if there was a bus line or a metro station just in front of our mailbox, it’d be impossible to get around, even in nice weather. And given that things in the country are spread out — to put it mildly — a car is the only solution.

In suburbs that are new and sparse or rich and sparse, cars are still a good means of transportation, and certainly better than anything else. The houses and businesses are spread too thin to make any kind of mass transit work, but that’s okay because there’s enough room for private cars.

In denser suburbs and in the cities, though, the car starts to get in the way. In most suburbs, things are too far apart to walk between them. Sure, you can walk to your neighbor’s house, but you likely can’t walk to a mall or restaurant, even if you live across the street from the mall. To begin with, you probably would live on a very wide street with a high speed limit and few (if any) crosswalks. Should you be brave enough to sprint across the street, you’ll find that the mall is surrounded by an enormous parking lot, and that that parking lot is in turn surrounded by a fence, or a berm, or some kind of unintentional barrier to pedestrians. It’s just never considered that anyone would want to walk to the mall, and with good reason. A successful mall needs to draw far, far more customers than could possibly live within walking distance.

So you get in your car and drive to the mall, instead. You park in the enormous parking lot — which creates its own necessity, since it forms a barrier to the mall that forces you to drive and park — and go in. All your neighbors do the same thing. Eventually, the parking lot fills up, which prompts the city to require that new businesses have even larger parking lots and be located on even larger roads; a few more people who would otherwise walk to the new businesses decide to drive instead. Even larger parking lots and roads are required. Et cetera ad infinitum.

Or ad nearly infinitum, that is. Eventually, there’s no more room to widen the roads or build larger parking lots. The parking lots are full all the time, and the traffic is constantly backed up. It takes so long to get to the mall that people stop going if they have a choice.

In economic terms, at this point we’d say that the cost of driving has exceeded its value. Only the people who truly value the mall — people who really need to buy something — will bother to spend the hour in the car it’s going to cost them.

In a free transportation market, some of those people who no longer feel like driving would take the bus or the train, or just walk. But where the mass transit is bad (almost everywhere), or where you can’t walk (again, almost everywhere), a person who isn’t willing to drive is a person who isn’t willing to go.

There’s nowhere in the United States where there is a free market in modes of transportation, though. Such a market requires a very dense population, and there aren’t very many places like that in America. (To be fair, there’s not a free market for thansportation anywhere else in the world, either — just for different reasons and in different ways.)

Cleveland Park is an interesting case: most of it has been around since well before the Second World War, and it seems to have functioned fairly well all along. True, there’s no longer any streetcar service in Washington, but Cleveland Park now has several Metro stations.

Trouble is, fewer of the residents of Cleveland Park use the Metro than you’d expect. The Metro was planned and built in the 1960s and 70s, when nearly all of the commuting was into the downtown area in the morning, and out in the evening. Today, the residents of Cleveland Park are as likely to work in a suburb as they are in downtown Washington. The public transit system isn’t well-suited to anything but carrying people to or from central Washington, so everyone else drives.

I like cars. I have several of them. But I don’t confuse liking cars with thinking that they’re a good means of transportation for every last thing I do. Unfortunately, given where I live, I’ve got no choice but to drive everywhere. I would live in a place where that wasn’t true, but then I’d have to give up my cars: and the system isn’t set up for you to exist without a car. The pro-car people and the pro-transit people agree on one thing: neither one of them wants a system that includes cars when they’re the best solution, and includes something else when they aren’t.

I cannot blame these people in Cleveland Park, really: I have no doubt that their complaints about traffic are well-founded. And for their little neighborhood, it’s possible that the best solution, right now, is to not have a school in the middle of it.

The problem then isn’t Cleveland Park and the Jewish Primary Day School, though. The problem is what this implies for the rest of our cities and suburbs.

Posted by tino at 19:29 6.08.02
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All i know is any real estate in washington dc area is crazy…

Posted by: Mr. Jupiter at May 6, 2004 05:05 PM