As National Landing’s premier bike advice columnist, Gear Prudence sometimes feels compelled to opine on transportation matters beyond those queries put forth by anonymous acronymized cyclists. This is one of those times.
Amazon, the Seattle-based online retailer, has chosen to set up shop in Arlington County in the neighborhoods to this point known as Pentagon City, Crystal City, and Potomac Yard. It will then set about gradually and inexorably creating 25,000 jobs for people who do the kinds of things Amazon needs them to do (computer stuff, mine cardboard, marvel at Mrs. Maisel, whatever). What should be good regional news (jobs! upgrading a weird underground mall!) has been tempered by concerns about the public subsidies spent to lure the company, and the negative side-effects of adding a giant new employer.
One of those negative effects is the potential for a dramatic increase in the region’s already terrible car traffic. Smugger bicyclists may be tempted to bask in the schadenfreude, but GP takes no pleasure in others’ misery. Miserable drivers, after all, make life more miserable for everyone else on the road.
GP does, however, take pleasure in offering sage and pointed advice, and in this case it seems pretty obvious what Arlington, Amazon, and JBG Smith (Amazon’s future landlord) absolutely need to do: Take the dramatic but wholly necessary step of banning cars and closing all the parking lots throughout National Landing.
OK, so they’re not going to do that. Route 1 is a major thoroughfare, and there’s 395, the GW Parkway, 110, and the 14th Street Bridge. Too many roads that connect to too many other places (including National Airport) that make this plan almost laughably infeasible. Maybe you can’t ban cars everywhere. But the powers-that-be should give the streets fully over to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit in as many places as possible before the first Amazon employee ever shows up to their first day of work.
Eliminating the idea, starting now, that it will even be an option to drive to work will help accomplish so much. Aside from the obvious benefits of making National Landing a quieter, cleaner, greener, safer and overall much more pleasant and interesting place to be, turning NaLa car-free will force the region’s hand on improving transit capacity and frequency, building more and better bicyclist and pedestrian infrastructure, and finally getting serious about increasing the amount and variety of transit-accessible housing.
These much-needed improvements would benefit everyone, not just Amazon employees. Plus, Amazon won’t mind. One of the company’s search criteria was direct access to mass transit, and the RFP states quite matter of factly: “Amazon will develop HQ2 with a dedication toward sustainability.”
Not only will the company get to live its stated goals, but it will also avoid the negative press and muttered curses resulting from even more congestion on local roads. It’s a win-win! The second adjective in the very first sentence JBG Smith uses to introduce National Landing is “walkable,” so why not go all the way and fully embrace it? The 2013 Crystal City Sector Plan, Arlington’s vision for the area, likewise emphasizes overhauling the street grid to emphasize transit, bicyclist, and pedestrian movement. It notes that “it is essential that over time walk trips represent a greater proportion of all trips made.” 100% is the greatest proportion imaginable!
Crossing your fingers, adding some new Metro entrances, and hoping that enough of the 25,000 new workers make housing and transportation choices that won’t further doom the rest of the region’s commuters is, by comparison, a foolish and unnecessary gamble. We’ve seen how hard it is to claw back space from drivers retroactively. Eliminating a couple of parking spots for a bike lane is like trying to wrest a baby bear cub from its grizzly mother. Incrementalism is slow, unappealing, and too often favors the entrenched status quo.
Using the momentous HQ2 announcement to change the paradigm entirely—that everywhere in National Landing (yes, I’m going to keep calling it that. Unironically.) should be car-free with only a few exceptions—all at once and before Amazon even gets here is the most prudent way forward. Since Amazon will be adding employees gradually, we have time to fully ramp up the solutions.
This isn’t sending an astronaut to Mars—we don’t need to invent anything new. We already have the technology (Trains! Buses! Slightly taller buildings!) But absent a firm, definitive, ambitious, and perhaps totally bonkers statement of intent, we won’t follow through. As Jeff Bezos once said, according to some inspirational quote website, “The common question that gets asked in business is, why? That’s a good question, but an equally valid question is why not?” Ban cars. Do it right now. Why not? —GP