DC Thriving During Recession
NYT urban planning professor Mitchell Moss has taken to the pixels of something called New Geography to point out what most of us already knew: Washington, DC thrives during bad times for the rest of the country. His historical discussion of the District’s evolution from swampy backwater to major city is interesting.
But this, I think, goes too far:
Washington has always been a one industry town: that’s why it has an intrinsically self-absorbed monotonic culture. Everyone there depends on government for their livelihood. It is fundamentally not a city of competitive industries, but a giant taxpayer-funded office park, surrounded by museums and memorials.
That’s pretty much what I thought, too, before moving to the area seven years ago. There’s no doubt that DC only exists because it’s the seat of national power and that lobbyists, lawyers, contractors, and others are employed in lucrative jobs serving or seeking to influence government.
But the vast number of people here, as in most major cities, are employed in the service economy. I’m not sure why dry cleaners, car salesmen, restaurant managers, pet groomers, golf pros, auto mechanics, gardeners, HVAC technicians, barbers, or whathaveyou who work in a metroplex where government is the chief employer are any different than those in towns where banking, manufacturing, or some other line of work is central.
Now, it is true that those of us who work in the general public policy nexus are more absorbed by national and international politics than the average Joe. There’s a veritable army of think tankers, journalists, and activist types who derive little or no money directly from government but who are nonetheless deeply engaged in wonkish activity. And wonks tend to hang out with other wonks and talk about wonkish things. I don’t know that this amounts to being “self-absorbed” but it’s somewhat monotonic.
This one, though, is bizarre:
There is one unambiguous measure that signals the growth of business activity within a city. Until recently, taxi fares in the nation’s capital were based on zones. These made it very inexpensive for members of Congress to go to and from the Capital. Today, every DC taxi has a meter and the old-fashioned zone-based system has been abolished. Both the municipal government and taxi drivers understand that there are more dollars to be made from those seeking to influence government than those who actually make the laws.
Apparently, Moss doesn’t read the Washington Post and has never ridden a DC cab. The taxi companies fought metering hammer and tong, going so far as to engage in strikes over the policy change. The zone system was hated by tourists and other infrequent users because two trips of identical distance could have wildly different charges. Locals would have the cabbie stop a couple blocks away from their final destination to avoid going into another zone; others had no clue.
Photo by Flickr user Kevin H under Creative Commons license.