A CAR FREE LIFE ON THE AVENUE
Washington Post, June 6, 1996
Colman McCarthy Washington Post Columnist
Washington, D.C., has more than 1,100 miles of streets and
roads. A year ago, two Mocks 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 m 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 m congestion, have been blowing their verbal horns in
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 closure 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 plaints 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 bicycle.
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 din of engines and
horns, as well as motorcyclists, who are the foulest of noise
polluters, friends can sit on park benches and actually 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 promises to get better. The
National Park Service, after seeking ideas from architects and
city planners, has proposed a $40 million plan that would connect
the White House lawn with Lafayette Square. America's best-known
block--1600) Pennsytvania Avenue--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
It won't be an easy sell. "It's people against cars," said Roger
Kennedy, director d 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
carelessness 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 law. 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
smokey 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 sane livlng.
A dream, Hardly. it's happening.
Reopen Pennsylvania Avenue | Peace Park
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