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Mike DeBonis has an illuminating piece out today about the Ward 6 Council race between incumbent Tommy Wells, who has gone all in for the walkable urban agenda, and Kelvin Robinson, who wants to cast that choice as deliberate neglect of more pressing priorities, like crime.
“The question is always asked, ‘Livable and walkable’ for whom?” Robinson tells DeBonis. “That’s how it has played out.”
And, while canvassing the Capitol Park Condominiums, Robinson told a resident: “We’ve had a different kind of focus here. It’s been bag tax and bike lanes and that sort of thing.”
“That sort of thing.” Code for: Things that upper-middle-class, federal-government-working, white people like. Colbert King got some buzz recently for a similar analysis of the mayoral race: Adrian Fenty has championed dog parks and bike lanes, but what has he done for black people lately?
Wells has an unshakeable faith that streetcars, bike lanes, a cleaned-up Anacostia River, and “five-minute living”—communities that allow residents to get anything they need in a five-minute trip—are good for everyone, not just Capitol Hill rowhouse owners. But for long-time residents, it’s hard to see the potential good of these new things, and much easier to be concerned about muggings on the corner. The streetcar, for example, is a massive test of citizens’ ability to suspend their disbelief—until those cars are rolling down the tracks, people just have to trust Wells that all the money and all the disruption will pay off. It’s also fair to say that progressive projects like the streetcar will attract future residents and drive investment, meaning that much of the good accrues to people who don’t even live here yet.
“When I first ran for council, I thought a lot about why do we like where we live—Why do we like it so much, and why are people moving back to the city?” Wells told me recently.
Wells says he learned about all these forward-thinking ideas from publications like Dwell magazine, events like Railvolution and the Solar Decathlon, and traveling to Europe (not to mention the locally-focused Greater Greater Washington, which will be the subject of an upcoming Housing Complex profile!). The Councilmember himself lives near Barracks Row, which comes as close as most neighborhoods in Washington to the walkable urban ideal. For those who already believe in the gospel of walkable urbanism—as I do—it’s easy to say, “streetcars and bike lanes are good for everybody!” But DeBonis’ piece also gets at a big fissure facing the urbanist movement: Adherents have to be conscious of how they come off to those who aren’t reading Streetsblog and going to transit conferences. Outside those places, the goods are not so self-evident.
Instead of painting a picture of a rosy future, Wells might be better advised to depict the absence of excellent transit and walkable communities as a current ill that must be rectified, putting those deficiencies on the level of crime as a pressing issue. Solving problems is an easier sell than bringing in new toys. The bag tax, at almost no cost to the individual, solves the problem of a dirty and polluted river, which alleviates the harmful fact that nearby residents can’t enjoy their waterfront.
Positive visions are great and all, but sometimes going negative is what changes minds.