One of the most effective ways to reduce traffic, pollution, and housing costs is to encourage a shift to more sustainable transportation modes through reforming parking requirements. Through smarter management and reduced subsidies and requirements for parking, people can better choose if they want to drive and park, or opt for a more sustainable mode of transportation. For over fifty years, the D.C. zoning code has required almost all new construction in the city to include off-street parking even when unnecessary. The 1958 zoning code’s automobile-oriented vision of the city’s needs is no longer appropriate in today’s world of high costs for housing and car ownership, congested roads, and global warming. In contrast to the 1950s view of the future where riding transit would be replaced by driving, and car ownership would be nearly universal, we live in a different reality today. Since the 2000s, the country and D.C. have experienced a pronounced drop in the amount that people drive, after decades of increase. While low car ownership rates are associated with lower incomes, car-less by choice is also increasing among households who could afford a car. Today, 38% of D.C. households are car free. Car free living by necessity or choice offers a more affordable option for a large share of D.C. households. Our zoning regulations should recognize this.
Demand for urban living is being reshaped by the desire of the largest American generation, Millennials (born 1983-2000), who are seeking to live in more urban and less automobile dependent places. The revolution in mobile Internet-connected technologies and social networking are making transportation alternatives to not owning a personal vehicle more convenient, allowing a larger share of households to adopt for car free and car-light lifestyles with dramatically reduced rates of driving and individual car ownership. Baby boomers too are seeking more convenient, urbane places as empty nesters and retirees downsize. D.C. has benefited from these trends as our population has grown since 2000, and shot up in the last two years when we added over 30,000 new residents, more than the total added over the last decade. D.C. can accommodate more people living and working in the city, but if they all brought cars, our streets would not be able handle the added traffic.
Evidence of long term trends show declining demand for driving and car ownership, and accelerated demand for living and working in transit-rich, walkable, bikable urban neighborhoods and business districts. To ensure that D.C. successfully manages its turnaround from a shrinking to growing city, it needs to build on the strengths that are retaining and attracting residents. At the heart of D.C.’s success is its acclaimed walkability, supported by an extensive transit system. Neighborhoods with the greatest walkability and accessibility are attracting most of D.C.’s new residents. Updating the zoning code to better accommodate this demand, will help make housing more affordable, and foster the trend away from individual car ownership and its associated driving and traffic congestion.