The price of drawing breath in Greater Washington – Greater Greater Washington

Gridlock on K St by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Last week, the American Lung Association gave the Washington region grades of “F” for ozone and “C” for particle pollution levels in its annual State of the Air report, reminding us of the grave price that any dependence on personal vehicles for mobility exacts on our health.

Outdoor air pollution kills more than 4.2 million people worldwide, and costs 3.3% of global GDP per year. In DC, as in many cities, people of color are more likely to die from this exposure, to say nothing of the impact of childhoods and lifetimes filled with sickness. A 2021 Harvard study estimated that transportation-related emissions caused nearly 100 DC residents to die early in a single year, and a staggering $1 billion dollars in health damages for the District alone. Illness is expensive, not just for individuals, and not only for medical services but in terms of indirect costs, too.

The biggest source of air pollution in cities is transportation. A failing grade draws headlines, but behind the troubling statistics is a choice: Would we ever, individually and collectively, switch most of our personal vehicle trips to transit, walking, and biking to “pay” for air that won’t kill and debilitate us?

Image by William F. Yurasko licensed under Creative Commons.

Unsafe at any price

Do we have to give up things we couldn’t substitute, such as homes, foods we enjoy, services we depend on, jobs, recreation, music, art or public space, so that we can breathe healthy air? No. We simply have to stop giving oxygen to the idea that oxygen itself is worth less than the privilege of driving.

It’s not acceptable or serious for public officials – nor candidates for office – to claim to care for the health of their residents but act to protect the privilege of driving. Not with billions of dollars in federal funding available for improving transit and reducing driving. Not with hundreds of DC residents getting sick, injured or dying from pollution-related causes and traffic violence. And not in the late stages of a pandemic that’s exacerbated by respiratory and lung conditions. If you care about health and health equity, you care about switching car trips to transit, walking, and wherever biking wherever possible, not convenient. Full stop.

Part of our difficulty in making choices that obviously benefit our health, welfare, and future is the “tragedy of the commons”: air quality is a public good that can’t be hoarded for the few in most respects, at least not within a common geographic area. When no one owns it, few will sacrifice for it. This dynamic generates localized resistance to initiatives that make it easier to bike, walk, or take the bus at some cost (whether significant or minimal) to drivers.

But expert opinion isn’t at all divided on the safety benefits of cycling facilities or transit infrastructure, and cars don’t underpin a successful urban economy (more on that below). The threats in every case are to people’s individual preferences, namely drivers’ ease of driving and parking, not the public good. Everyone pays the price of protecting drivers from inconvenience (I include myself as a car owner), whether by gifting drivers nearly-free public space or with our very breath.

Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. by Mike Maguire licensed under Creative Commons.

DDOT serves up carrots

Absent banning cars, mode shift only happens when transit, walking, and biking are attractive enough, or driving is unattractive enough, for people to choose, on their own, at their own pace, at their own convenience, to change their behaviour. DC’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) deserves credit for embarking on ambitious transit and bike infrastructure projects in recent years. These interventions will no doubt make the bus and active transportation more efficient, safer options for travelers for decades to come. That’s great news. Carrots are healthy.

But as Nick Sementelli wrote last week, the District needs to set its mode shift targets higher to make a substantial dent in vehicle-based trips, which risk its residents lives through crashes as well as air pollution. And for every step forward, complaints about a neighborhood’s particular needs for parking or driving, while understandable, must be taken with a large (notwithstanding your blood pressure) grain of salt.

A fully functional system would see the Council, the Mayor, and not just DDOT but the Department of Health too, working hand in hand to tackle these problems as the public health crisis they represent. And we’d see not only carrots to draw people toward ways to get around that are healthier for all, but also the occasional stick to disincentivize driving.

We don’t talk about congestion pricing

After committing public funding in 2019 to a study of how congestion pricing would affect the region’s traffic volumes, revenues, and air quality (managed by the DC Sustainable Transportation Coalition, which I lead through a management agreement with GGWash), the issue now seems to be the ‘Bruno’ of the Bowser administration, DDOT, and the Council: For the most part, they don’t want to talk about it.

But! We should talk about congestion pricing (or road pricing, as we say), because it’s one of the top ways to lower traffic volumes and improve air quality in cities. It entails charging drivers for the privilege of driving in a designated urban area. It’s used in cities across the world to manage demand for driving and improve air quality, traffic, and safety, and bring in revenues for transit. And it’s not all that different from a toll, reflecting the need for someone to pony up the funds it costs to pay for roads and their maintenance.

Would charging people to drive further deter people from spending time and valuable sandwich money in cities post-pandemic, thus depleting our public purse? Firstly, road pricing typically has very little impact on trips or retail expenditure, just trips in cars, which yields positive impacts on air quality; availability of public space for other uses, like bus lanes and streateries; and safety.

Furthermore, reports of the demise of the city due to COVID-19 turned out to be exaggerated. London, which has had a congestion charge for two decades, having been dealt a significant economic blow during the pandemic, posted the highest number of paid jobs ever in February 2022. Even as office vacancy rates remain high in parts of DC and other markets ( less so the walkable parts), the housing market has hardly hiccupped.

Even Time magazine touts congestion pricing as a key tool for drawing remote workers into cities:

“Too few urban areas employ congestion pricing, which charges vehicles to drive in parts of cities, despite evidence that it reduces commute times. Singapore, London, Stockholm, and Milan have successful systems. In each of these citiescongestion pricing revenue is reinvested back in transit infrastructure, reinforcing the financial sustainability of the overall system.”

People, generally, want to live where they don’t have to drive all the time. Road pricing can help us lean into that desire for quality of life by reorienting our mobility system around non-car modes. It would take at least five years to implement, and probably more given NYC’s experience, so there’s plenty of time to plan.

With another $6 billion in federal dollars for carbon and congestion reduction being waved across M Street SE at DDOT by USDOT, what’s the rationale for pretending this policy option doesn’t exist?

Bladensburg & Queens Chapel Roads NE by James Crane licensed under Creative Commons.

Strong medicine

If we value our health, a lot of trips that currently happen by car must switch to transit, biking, and walking. That’s why in our questionnaires for 2022 endorsements in DC, we asked candidates to identify trips they personally could switch from cars to another mode. Every respondent was able to articulate at least one.

There’s no shortage of special pleading on behalf of a neighborhood’s particular needs for parking – during a recent discussion about bike lanes in Capitol Hill, where I live, many of my neighbors described access to plentiful parking as an “urgent safety issue.” And folks who struggle to accept the evolution of urban life into a more sustainable version will continue to balloon the small proportion of trips that must happen by car (they certainly exist) into most trips.

But the data aren’t lying: Each of us is at higher risk, whether from a crash or air pollution, from vehicles than we are from nearly any other threat outside the home. No serious person or decision maker can act to protect car trips without acknowledging that human health is a lower priority.

Let’s consider the question from earlier in this article a second time: Would we switch the majority of our personal vehicle trips to transit, walking, and biking to “pay” for air that won’t kill and debilitate us? Who will stand up to say that we won’t?

Caitlin Rogger is deputy executive director at Greater Greater Washington. Broadly interested in structural determinants of social, economic, and political outcomes in urban settings, she worked in public health prior to joining GGWash. She lives in Capitol Hill.

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