Colman McCarthy

A Car-Free Life on The Avenue

Washington, D.C., has more than 1,100 miles of streets and roads. A year ago, two blocks of them-less than a fourth of one mile were closed to motorized vehicles. The Oklahoma City bombing had occurred, and after consulting with the Secret Service, President Clinton reluctantly ordered Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House closed to combustion engines. Barricades went up.

So, too, did the dudgeon of motorists. Car wars began. Denied this short stretch of pavement, the detoured, inconvenienced by increases in congestion, have been blowing their verbal horns in protest.

Members of Congress, themselves pained by the excruciation of going a block or two out of their ever important ways, have been listening. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate in the House, claims that the two block close-off has a created a "dysfunctional and disfigured nation's capital. Previously, you understand, it was Paradise City.

Some senators, suddenly streetwise, are planning to petition the president to reopen the avenue. It's been reported that a local group of car lovers has asked Bob Dole to make this a leadership issue for the campaign. Chauffeured for years between his Watergate suite and the Senate, he'd understand.

Like overheated engines, emotions are running strong. The customary complaints from the jammed in traffic are heard: gridlock, lost work time. A voice of dispassion is occasionally heard, beginning with the rational suggestion that buses and Washington's more than adequate subway system are a solution. Or car pooling among commuters. Or, getting truly sensible and self-reliant, moving around by bicycles

Traffic hasn't been stopped in front of the White House, only one type of traffic has. Bicyclists, skaters and walkers are still going with the flow, a delightful flow at that, now that cars have been banished.

On the north side of this new citizens' boulevard, Lafayette Square is more inviting than ever. Minus the & of engines and horns, as well as motorcyclists, who are the foulest of noise polluters, friends can sit on park benches and actuary hear each other in conversation. Clean oxygen might even go to people's heads, letting them giddily think there is life after cars.

This enhancement of public space promise to get better. The National Park Service, after seeking ideas from architects and city planers, has proposed a $40 million plan that would connect the White House lawn with Lafayette Square. America's best-known block—1600 Pennsylvania would be transformed into its best-known city park. More fountains, benches, chess tables and bricked walkways and the elimination of curbs are among the proposed additions.

It won't be an easy sell "It's people against cars," said Roger Kennedy, director of the National Park Service. Judging by the noise from motormouths demanding that motors be allowed back in front of the White House, it must be cars at any cost.

Some of those costs were reported last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council. It found that dirty air—much of it emitted by automobiles may be causing more than 64,000 premature deaths a year nationwide. In March 1995, the Harvard School of Public Health reported similar findings. A 30 percent difference in death rates from heart and respiratory diseases was found between the most and least polluted cities.

What's more essential—unclogged hearts and lungs or clogged streets? In Washington, some critics of the two blocks of carlessness offer what they believe is a clincher argument: Driving in the congested vicinity of the White House increases commuting time by 10 to 15 minutes.

Is leaving home or work 10 to 15 minutes earlier too complex a solution.' Or perhaps this is ordained to be a no-choice, no-exceptions issue. Every lane must be a fast lane, the better to arrive somewhere sooner and have more time to fret about the frazzled pace of modern life.

Wouldn't it do the spirit good to slow down and get out of the smoky four-wheeled cages a bit and relax in a downtown park with a friend or a book?

And then really dream: This car-free park would face the White House, there to set a national example for a sane living dream? Hardly. It's happening.

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