When it comes to cars, Harriet Tregoning is a bit like a 17-year-old. She likes to give rides, but the driving part is a little dicey.
On a recent Tuesday morning, D.C.’s planning director is trying to figure out how to get from the Georgetown Four Seasons to National Harbor, where she’s scheduled to speak at a conference of real estate types. “I’m still not entirely sure where National Harbor is, relative to the District,” Tregoning says. “It’s funny what you can’t remember.”
I map out a route on my iPhone, then wedge my bike into the back seat of her yellow Mini Cooper. Tregoning, who’s usually a bike commuter, won’t hear of me leaving it behind. But things get confusing once we get on the road. As she navigates through traffic, Tregoning talks to other drivers as if they can hear her. She merges onto the Southwest Freeway hesitantly, like it’s her first time.
“I’m not a great driver, and part of that is, I’ve always had a small car, and I don’t like being next to big things. They make me nervous, so I just speed up,” Tregoning says, gunning the engine to get around a couple of very large trucks. “I kind of like the adrenaline rush that you get when biking. I also kind of like that about driving. “
She relaxes a bit as we head over the 11th Street Bridge. The running commentary continues, but the topic shifts from the surrounding traffic to the surrounding real estate. Eyeing the massive military installation on our right as we speed down I-295, the woman in charge of figuring out how the District’s current growth spurt will shape the city’s built landscape sees opportunity. “I covet Bolling Air Force Base. Don’t you?” she asks. “They have, like, suburban houses out there on the point!”
At National Harbor, Tregoning rolls past a gigantic parking garage. She’s thrilled to find a spot on the street instead, only blocks from the Gaylord National Hotel. When we return two hours later, there’s a meter maid at the dashboard. Tregoning sprints over to her. “I’m right here!” she yells. “Don’t write me a ticket!” Too late. She tosses the ticket in the back seat, exasperated. (Before I set foot in the car, Tregoning preemptively put all driving-related profanities off the record.)
You’ll forgive Tregoning for being a bit rusty. She and her husband only bought a car a couple years ago. The battery’s dead most of the time, she says; they’ve had to jump start it by rolling down the hill. It’d probably be cheaper to rent Zipcars. “It just doesn’t pencil for us to have a car,” she sighs.
From Tregoning’s perspective, though, the vague annoyance of having to deal with a vehicle she barely ever drives is a healthy feeling. And she’s responsible for that feeling: Tregoning has spent the past five years working to make D.C. a place where everything is within walking distance, and where bikes and transit will take you to anything that’s not. Tregoning’s job as the head of the Office of Planning, and her constant advocacy for the philosophy known as smart growth, has made her the embodiment of a shift in the Washingtonian lifestyle that hasn’t yet been unanimously embraced.
Five years is a long time for any political appointee. It’s especially long for one with a professional start like Tregoning, who did major national and state-level work before she was able to start implementing her ideals through city hall. Not many people with a CV the length of hers still have to bike to community meetings—only to face questions from citizens worried that her plans will leave them with nowhere to park their cars.
All the same, when the guy who hired Tregoning was defeated in an election dominated by questions about the changing nature of the city, the new mayor asked her to stay. Though her record would have ensured that plenty of other job offers came her way, she said yes. And why not? It’s easier to get things done in a place with state-like powers and only 13 legislators. “We are the fly-by-our-pants city of doom,” she says, wryly.
Now, more than anyone else in city government—and perhaps more than any planning director in the country—she’s the one shaping how D.C. looks and feels.
Even if she can’t find her way around it behind the wheel.