GGW’s Smart Growth Orthodoxy

Greater Greater Washington has endorsed Melissa Bondi for Arlington County Board, based in large part on her unquestioning support for a trolley line down Columbia Pike.  The endorsement is consistent with a growing trend in the local Smart Growth intelligensia: a disturbing, one-size fits all solution to community issues for which the authors are (too often) unfamiliar.  This Smart Growth Orthodoxy is the antithesis of the true principles of Smart Growth, and its small-mindedness has much in common with the car-first planning mantras that Smart Growth was designed to supplant.

One of the central pillars of the Smart Growth Orthodoxy is unquestioning support for fixed-rail mass transit under any and every circumstance, regardless of cost, the neighborhood at issue, or the type of fixed rail.  A related pillar is a “blame the messenger” strategy to tar critics of a fixed-rail project as anti-growth, NIMBYists, and to then ignore the underlying criticism.  Offering false choices (comparing a highway to the streetcar, for example, with no mention of the articulated bus option) is another tool for those obsessed with fixed-rail transit.

Smart growth principles are earnestly endorsed by this blog (and apparently, by all of the declared candidates for County Board).  With respect to transit (which is only one element of Smart Growth) the basic principle for transit is providing a variety of transportation choices for a community.

An additional component of traditional Smart Growth — one widely ignored by the Orthodox — is that development decisions must be made in a cost-effective manner.  A recognition that communities have many needs, and limited resources, isn’t an embrace of reactionary, anti-tax zealotry: it’s responsible government.  When a transit project’s cost estimate jumps 60 percent, reconsidering the project is not anti-growth: it is good government (particularly when the cost jump may jeopardize federal funding).

All fixed rail is not created equally: a streetcar line without a dedicated lane is worse than a bus in terms of commuting times.  The “Streetcar of Dreams” argument (if you build it, they will come) is based on studies of previously underused bus corridors in smaller cities that lack an underground subway.  A car-free lifestyle on the Pike is better aided by increased local bus service (routes and frequency) to the job and commercial centers on the Metro corridors and into DC.  The narrow, broken sidewalks inches from traffic, and the unpainted crosswalks is a pressing need along the Pike, as is a safe bike route to the Pentagon (with its trail connections to DC).  Comparing development near an underground subway with direct-to-DC access (Clarendon) with a on-street, no-dedicated lane streetcar demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of the Smart Growth Elite.

One of the most unsettling thing about Pike Trolley is that it is sucking the funding and political energy out of these needed improvements.  For the “smart growth advocates” at GGW, the obsessive focus on fixed-rail transit demonstrates a search for a quick fix to neighborhoods long neglected by local government (and on the Pike, it also ignores the reality that many neighborhoods have found a way to be livable despite the neglect).  Our top-down, damn-the-torpedoes County Board needs a new member willing to dispassionately analyze the many needs and limited resources for Pike development.  What the board does not need is a member committed to Smart Growth Orthodoxy.

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2 Responses to GGW’s Smart Growth Orthodoxy

  1. allen22204 says:

    Excellent post. Thanks!

  2. Kevin says:

    I generally have had a good impression with streetcars in Barcelona and though out Europe. I found that the ones that worked best have limited access, if not exclusive rail paths. I particularly like the look of ones that planted grass between the rails but obviously have concerns about that since it makes a dangerous place look very inviting.

    On Columbia Pike there is not the ability to have a dedicated lane so, I think the articulated bus it probably a better solution since it’s implementation would be less expensive, a bus can stop faster to avoid pedestrians or cars and would essentially provide the same service.

    I recently noticed issues with the H St. NE streetcar that may interest your readers.

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