Testing out new transportation options in the nation’s capital

Water taxi tied up at the Wharf, Washington, D.C.

Water taxi tied up at the Wharf, Washington, D.C. Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. officials are hoping a “mobility innovation district” will help address equity concerns.

Washington, D.C. is launching a new initiative to test out emerging transportation options, like electric cargo bikes and on-demand shuttles, in the southwest corner of the city. But the project is about much more than splashy vehicle tech, according to local officials.

While the “mobility innovation district” will look at ways to make it easier for residents and visitors to get around, another key goal has to do with equity and giving people in underserved neighborhoods better options for traveling to work and other destinations.

City officials say they’ll learn what initiatives work best and try to replicate those in other parts of town, Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said at the project’s kick-off event on Thursday. 

Historically, southwest D.C. was home to thriving Black neighborhoods and businesses that were displaced by the so-called urban renewal push of the 1950s and 1960s. In more recent years, this part of the city has seen a rush of real estate development, notably in a booming waterfront zone known as The Wharf.

“This is a complicated neighborhood,” said Steve Moore, executive director of the city’s Southwest Business Improvement District. While the district is home to many businesses, restaurants, museums and the Nationals' Major League Baseball stadium, it also includes one of the largest public housing projects in the city, Moore noted. 

The aim with the mobility innovation district is to ensure that all of Southwest D.C.’s residents will be able to enjoy the area’s amenities and access jobs, Mayor Muriel Bowser said.

“That continues to be our focus,” she said. 

Earlier this year, the mayor’s office awarded the Southwest Business Improvement District a $3 million grant to support the mobility innovation district. 

Circuit, a company that provides on-demand electric shuttles to help residents and visitors with short-distance trips, will be the innovation district’s first partner, officials announced Thursday. 

The Southwest Business Improvement District worked with local leaders to identify where public transportation is falling short in the neighborhood, Moore told Route Fifty at Thursday’s Event. 

The project will start with eight Circuit shuttles, but Moore said he expects that number to rise with demand. Next steps include building out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles that are part of the initiative and adding other transportation options. Many residents have expressed interest in e-bikes, he said.

Nearly a year after Congress passed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, the mobility innovation district mirrors the U.S. Department of Transportation’s guiding principles, said Ben Levine, a senior advisor for the department.  

“We want to learn from experimentation. And we want to learn from failure in some cases. And we want to acknowledge that innovation is a constantly moving picture,” he said.

Molly Bolan is an assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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