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Sherwood's Notebook: Is This the End of Our ‘Autopia’?

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Sherwood: Is This the End of Our ‘Autopia’?

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The Notebook has a vague memory visiting Disneyland in the late 1950s and riding the super cool Autopia freeway.

Autopia was Disney’s nod to the power and appeal of the automobile in the decade that saw the beginning of the federal interstate highway system.

The car was king at the time — and in the decades before and since.

But is the era of the urban Autopia over?

Disney’s Autopia opened in 1956 and initially did not have a center guardrail to redirect cars driven wildly by kids getting the thrill of driving.

Fast-forward to this era. Maybe the love affair with cars is ending.

Even Motor Trend magazine ran a big article last fall on “Why Young People Drive Less,” asking, “Is the automobile over?”

The article particularly suggested urban young people are “more likely to spend the money on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and $2000-plus bikes.” It said while there are car enthusiasts of any age, “Today’s young people appear to have less interest in driving and owning a car than do their mainstream, non-enthusiast older counterparts.”

The magazine quoted a study that said the sharp economic downturn dramatically dampened car buying, but it said, “These young non-drivers are weaning themselves from cars and won’t necessarily rush to buy them when the job market improves.”

Well, the job market is improving and car sales are up, but there’s no land office rush, to use another old phrase.

All of which brings us to the first major update in the city’s zoning code since the 1950s.

D.C. Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning has been traveling around town discussing the comprehensive rewrite that, among other controversial provisions, essentially eliminates requirements that developers include “mandatory” parking spaces in many new buildings.

As she told News4, Mayor Vincent Gray is forecasting up to 250,000 new District residents over the next 20 years. “How horrible the city will be to live and work if every single one of those people comes with their own vehicle,” Tregoning said.

The template for the city’s zoning regulations was created in the 1950s — the height of the car era — and she says there have been “a thousand or more changes to the code that unfortunately have made it harder to read and understand.”

The planning director points to studies that show household sizes in urban areas are smaller and individuals and families own fewer vehicles. “That being said,” she told News4, “driving is a wonderful choice for many people and — for people who want to drive — I say, ‘drive on.’ But it doesn’t make sense for us to have a set of choices in a built environment that is geared entirely to the automobile when people use a lot of different ways to get around.”

AAA, the auto lobby group, worries that the District is driving down an unrealistic path, arguing that sharply reducing or eliminating parking requirements will clog city parking spaces and, worse, force more cars into residential areas. That fear is held by some in the Tenleytown area, where one new apartment building at Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street was approved with only one space — reserved for a vehicle with a disability tag or placard.

Tregoning, who joined the Notebook Friday on the WAMU 88.5 “Politics Hour,” says the city can accommodate cars; it just can’t be car-centric. She said the city would keep parking minimums in areas near residential blocks but not downtown.

She pointed to the redevelopment of Columbia Heights at 16th and Irving streets. Initially that retail complex was to have 2,000 vehicle spaces. But the city and developers later reduced it to 1,000. Still, Tregoning told us, the space is underutilized.

“Our point is that a one-size-fits-all requirement for parking across the city doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said.

Tregoning — who rides a folding bicycle whenever she can — gets most agitated when people or groups refer to bicycles, transit and walking as “alternative transportation” as if they were subservient to vehicles.

“Calling walking, transit or biking ‘alternative’ when we do it more than half of our trips is like calling a woman an ‘alternative’ man,” she said.

Follow Tom Sherwood on Twitter at @TomSherwood

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