Wednesday morning I ventured to New Carrollton, the last stop on the D.C. Metro’s orange line. The Vice-President’s daily press schedule misleadingly described the speech he was to give on the stimulus spending bill as being at the station. Upon exiting I saw no visible signs of a political event. All I could see was a massive sea of parking. After asking everyone where the event was, only one person seemed to know. He gestured in a direction that a I took to be straight to my right, but several minutes of walking that way led only to the end of the parking lot. When I got back he clarified that he meant across the parking and across the highway beyond. Outside the parking lot was a wide road, and another parking lot across the street. From there I walked towards the highway overpass along the shoulder of the road, feeling increasingly unsafe as the road bent and the shoulder narrowed until I could barely go further and there was clearly nothing one could get to on foot worth seeing.
Later, I discovered that the event had been held at a nearby facility for D.C. metrobuses, and was pegged to Earth Day. Vice-President Biden was announcing that $300 million of the stimulus money would be spent on helping cities buy more efficient bus fleets. “From advanced battery cars to hybrid-electric city buses, we’re going put Recovery Act dollars to work deploying cleaner, greener vehicles in cities and towns across the nation that will cut costs, reduce pollution and create the jobs that will drive our economic recovery,” said Biden.
I’m all for that, but there’s an irony seemingly lost on the White House. The environment where they chose to have the event is completely inhospitable to pedestrians. It’s great that there are metro stations in the D.C. suburbs. But this area, not far from the District border, is a network of highways, huge buildings surrounded by parking lots and wide roads. Although I did see people arriving at the station by bus, there were enormous numbers of cars parked there. You could not walk to any sort of business.
The reason our carbon emissions are so out of proportion to our population is largely because of this disastrous mode of urban/suburban development. As I note in my new article on suburban planning, transportation accounts for 32 percent of total CO2 emissions in the U.S. — the most of any end-use sector. Americans use cars for almost 90 percent of all their trips, compared to 58 percent in the United Kingdom. This is more attributable to the proliferation of unattractive, inaccessible environments like the one I saw today than it is to the inefficiency of city automobile fleets. $300 million for cleaner buses is great as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough in curbing carbon emissions. Only a radically new approach to urban planning will have the effect we need.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.