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Jaffe: D.C. squeezing cars out -- with or without drivers

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

Hours before his city council committee met Tuesday to hear testimony on the Autonomous Vehicle Act of 2012, Councilman Jack Evans said it "sounds a little like 'The Jetsons' " and added that his colleague Mary Cheh's legislation to permit driverless cars is "very far off in the future."

Not so in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown lived up to his moniker "Governor Moonbeam" by signing legislation last month to allow robotic cars to operate on state roads. Florida and Nevada have already passed such laws.

As futuristic as robotic cars might seem, there's something almost quaint about four-wheeled, internal-combustion vehicles plying the streets of the nation's capital. Lane by lane, politicians, city planners and transportation officials are squeezing cars out of downtown.

This will become abundantly clear to drivers who depend on L Street to maneuver east from Georgetown to the heart of the city on 12th Street. Starting this week, the city will begin a three-week project to repave the one-way thoroughfare. When work is done, bicyclists will have a separate lane on the north side of the street. The bike lane, separated by plastic posts, will consume the parking spaces.

This is good for bikers and parking lot owners but not so for those of us who need to park on L Street. Drivers will lose a lane during rush hour.

I am of two minds on the L Street project, which could become a battleground between cyclists and drivers.

As a cyclist, I am overjoyed. When the city creates a matching bike lane on M Street, perhaps in early 2013, I will be able to commute from home to work in dedicated bike lanes. But as a driver, I question whether it's fair to autos. I see it creating miles of traffic if cops allow double parking, and I fear accidents if cyclists and drivers don't respect one another. Bikers always lose.

"You can't assume people are going to be reasonable, rational or responsible," says AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. "I'm not saying it's a war on motorists, but it fails to recognize that the vast majority of people still rely on cars."

D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning says more and more D.C. residents are going carless. From 2006 to 2011, 40,000 people moved into the city, which created 60,000 jobs, "but we saw the same rate of car ownership. We are shrinking in terms of cars in D.C."

Tregoning -- a true believer in biking, walking and public transportation -- says D.C. weathered the recession in part because many new residents are attracted to the city so they can be carless, pay off student loans, work and throw cash into the economy.

"It's not even remotely radical to strike a balance between transportation choices," she says.

With the reconstruction of L Street, the balance is tipping toward two wheels. It will take us into experimental territory, where driverless cars might fit right in.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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