Where do motorcycles fit in a city? Should we promote them more, because they take up less space and use less gas? Or should we discourage them because they're noisy and dangerous?
This past July, I finally gave in and took the motorcycle safety course, bought the gear (helmet, full textile suit, gloves, boots), got my license, and bought a 1983 Honda Shadow 500. In good weather, I trade in my Orange Line commute from East Falls Church to Eastern Market for a 12-mile ride along I-66, Independence Avenue, and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.
As I've ridden the motorcycle more and more, I've thought about how this is both a good choice and a bad choice for society and our region, and wondered whether motorcycle use should be encouraged more, discouraged more, or we're doing it about right.
Motorcycles can be more space, energy-efficient
Motorcycling has its benefits. I can use the HOV lanes on I-66. My work provides motorcycle parking in otherwise unusable corners of the parking garage, so I usually save about 20 minutes compared to Metro. We're a one-car household, so it also allows me to go to meetings or events and not leave the rest of the family without a car.
I can also do this while getting about 58 miles per gallon, about as good as any hybrid car. Meanwhile, motorcycles produce fewer CO2 emissions and consume fewer materials in manufacturing. And they require much less parking than a car. I can generally find spaces to park that a car wouldn't be able to fit in, and some lots and garages have special motorcycle spaces that would otherwise be unusable.
But motorcycles have drawbacks as well. Like many motorcycles, my bike lacks a catalytic converter, meaning it can create more local pollution. They also create noise pollution, promote gasoline consumption and dependence, and pose an increased safety risk to the operator and others. At least in my case, having a motorcycle has also reduced the amount of transit I take, so Metro doesn't get that fare revenue. On the other hand, there's now an extra seat available on the Orange Line.
Society promotes motorcycles by allowing single riders to use the HOV lanes. This probably helps reduce fuel consumption and local CO2 emissions. I don't know of much that society does to actively discourage motorcycle use, other than promoting an overall sense that they're extremely dangerous.
Are there ways to encourage motorcycling?
Something our region could consider is allowing lane-splitting, similar to what they allow in California or most countries in Europe. The California Highway Patrol has guidelines for when splitting lanes is appropriate, and don't allow dangerous weaving in between cars at speed.
It would reduce the risk of a rear-end collision if I were allowed to ride at a moderate pace between lanes of stopped cars, rather than inching along in between someone's rear bumper and another's front. This may even reduce congestion, because the motorcycle wouldn't be using up a whole lane.
Another thing would be to have clearer parking regulations for motorcycles. There have been several times where I've seen a parking space that I could physically fit in without blocking traffic of any kind (vehicle or pedestrian), but I would be concerned about getting a ticket.
One example is the small triangles of pavement between on-street parking spaces and curb bumpouts. These are becoming much more common, but I often see "no parking" signs blocking off the corners. I could fit there, but I'd rather not risk a ticket. Why not just leave the no parking signs out, and ticket people if they block the travel lanes?
Motorcycles share some of the characteristics of cars. It's not an issue for motorcyclists to "keep up" with traffic. However, they share some characteristics with bicycles, like the "sorry, I didn't see you!" problem, when motorists turn or swerve into motorcycles without looking. And distracted drivers can cause a collision that would only cause a fender-bender with another car, but could be life-threatening for a cyclist or motorcyclist.
Overall, I think we've got the balance just about right. We probably don't need to promote motorcycles any more, but we could do a couple of things to reduce frustration and keep motorcycles out of the way.
Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his "Play DC" project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That's a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.
The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.
I'm truly happy for today's young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District's largesse. But I can't help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn't quite as vigilant, or as generous.
I hadn't intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.
But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn't something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.
Well, of course, I told her. That's when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.
Little help from DC
Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn't possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion's share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.
I'm not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I'm not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other's living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.
We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don't always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.
We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)
Looking back, it's amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn't rely on the District to provide certain basic services.
You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn't expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of '96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.
The Wild West
It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.
Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn't afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.
But frankly, I'm willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.
I'm not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to "encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds," and that's great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.
True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.
No doubt it's human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren't around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.
After Metro announced last week that it hopes to build a new loop line between downtown DC and Arlington, many people immediately started comparing it to the other cities that have transit loops. How would Metro's line compare to the others?
There are actually a variety of loop types. Each type tends to operate differently and have different characteristics.
Very few lines operate as a true circle. Glasgow is one of the exceptions. Trains operate in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. It's a more urban-type circle. Moscow's Koltsevaya line is another urban example. Berlin's Ringbahn also operates as a circle, but it's got a larger radius, and is more of a suburban-style circular line.
Other lines tend to act more as urban distributors, offering a convenient way to turn trains around and to serve larger areas of the central business district. Examples include the Chicago L Loop and loops in Sydney and Melbourne, which serve commuter trains.
Miami also has an urban circulator called Metromover. It operates in a very small circle downtown and mainly serves to distribute commuters from Metro to destinations around the CBD. Two other Metromover "loops" (not shown in the graphic) operate via the downtown loop, but are more linear in nature, continuing to the north and south of the CBD.
Next, we'll look at how a DC Metro loop might work.
I-95 in Northern Virginia is already one of the nation's most congested corridors, and forecasts predict it will only get worse. A new study by the GMU Center for Regional Analysis lays out the difficult decisions area leaders face regarding the corridor's future land use, economy, and transportation network.
At present, the I-95 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William counties is mainly a low-density suburban area. Most residents work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria, and existing transit such as the Blue Line and VRE only serve inside-the-Beltway locations. The area's lone major employment center is Fort Belvoir, which is spread out and has limited bus service.
Traffic volume and congestion along I-95 are already very high, and major road investments are not expected to reduce congestion. Furthermore, job growth in the region has been occurring in areas like Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor, which are hard to reach from the I-95 corridor, especially by transit.
Development plans along the corridor envision a series of dense urban nodes around transit in places like Springfield, Huntington, and Woodbridge. But the success of those areas depends on carefully planned, and expensive, transportation investments both within the corridor and to other areas.
The situation is already problematic
The 21-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that connects the Capital Beltway and Quantico is one of the busiest highways in the eastern United States. The most heavily traveled segment of the corridor, located just south of Old Keene Mill Road, carries an average of 231,000 vehicles per day. This count includes about 30,000 vehicles per day in the corridor's reversible express lanes and about 14,000 tractor-trailers.
Traffic volumes along the corridor tripled between 1975 and 2000, but have flattened out since then. That's due to the expansion of transit and, more recently, the rerouting of through traffic around the "Mixing Bowl" interchange in Springfield.
Transit ridership in the corridor has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, with the average number of daily boardings on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) tripling and the number of boardings at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station increasing by 48 percent. The corridor also contains more than 15 express commuter bus routes that connect it to the Pentagon, downtown Washington, and Tysons Corner. In total, about 27,000 transit riders per day make use of these rail or bus options to travel to work each day.
Surveys by transit operators show that the majority of these riders work for the federal government and routinely commute by transit four or five days every week. These transit options are becoming increasingly congested: VRE reports that its trains operate at as much as 20 percent over capacity during peak times.
Increased traffic in the corridor has been a function of commuting patterns. Since 1990, the number of people who live in Fairfax or Prince William and work in DC, Arlington, or Alexandria has remained flat, while the number who work in other locations increased by more than 100,000 people.
Nearly all existing transit in the I-95 corridor serves employment hubs located inside the Beltway, so few options exist for these commuters. Traffic has also increased due to additional commuting activity from Stafford, Fredericksburg, and points south.
Lots of growth, little land
The areas of Fairfax and Prince William around I-95 are primarily residential: the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) reports that the corridor contained 566,000 residents and 187,000 jobs in 2010. Most corridor residents live in low-density, single-family areas, and there is little undeveloped land remaining in the area. MWCOG forecasts that the corridor will add another 126,000 residents and 85,000 jobs by 2030. Where will they go?
A look at the Comprehensive Plans for the two counties provides some clarity. Each county has designated a small number of areas located directly along I-95 and/or around transit stations for mixed-use development.
Fairfax anticipates high-intensity residential and commercial development around the Huntington and Franconia-Springfield Metro stations. Meanwhile, Prince William is planning intensive growth around the Woodbridge VRE station and a potential future VRE station at Potomac Shores, north of Quantico.
But the county also wants growth at the more auto-dependent Parkway Employment Center, north of Potomac Mills, and Neabsco Mills, south of Woodbridge along Route 1. Since VRE has no immediate plans to expand service on the Fredericksburg Line, additional growth in these areas would further strain the already-crowded system.
Investment in roads and highways isn't enough
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is in the midst of completing a slate of "megaprojects" in the corridor. Two of these are already in place: the widening of I-95 between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway, and the completion of the last segment of the Fairfax County Parkway, encompassing a network of new roads, interchanges, and trails around the Fort Belvoir North Area.
VDOT reports that these new facilities have slightly reduced congestion in this segment of the corridor. But these investments have not reduced congestion in adjacent areas and may have even worsened it by allowing more vehicles to enter and exit the highway.
VDOT's most ambitious project in the corridor is a $1 billion expansion of the I-95 express lanes. This project will extend the express lanes nine miles into Stafford County, add a third lane north of Prince William Parkway, and connect the express lanes with the I-495 express lanes. It will also convert the express lanes from HOV to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes from Stafford County to Edsall Road, just inside the Beltway. The express lanes will remain as HOV-3 lanes along I-395 north of Edsall Road.
The express lanes project will unquestionably add highway capacity, but will it actually reduce congestion? A serious concern is that converting the existing HOV lanes to HOT lanes will very likely reduce carpooling activity, as people driving alone will be able to pay to use the express lanes. A reduction in carpooling translates to needing more vehicles to move the same number of people, contributing to additional congestion.
VDOT's own Environmental Assessment of the I-95 express lanes concluded that, while the project would improve the overall situation, several currently failing road segments would remain at failing levels. It further concluded that, after completion, the merge areas at the northern and southern ends of the HOT lanes would still operate at failing levels.
Clearly, even this billion-dollar project will not solve the traffic woes faced by I-95 corridor commuters. Additionally, this project is primarily aimed at moving commuters through the corridor, and does not address the need to better connect the emerging urban nodes in the two counties to each other or to the surrounding region.
So what can be done?
To their credit, both Fairfax and Prince William counties have committed to focusing future development around existing infrastructure. However, successfully clustering new development in this manner will create a complex set of challenges.
Improving transit connections to far-flung employment centers can reduce traffic. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
The counties will need to provide transit that serves private-sector workers, particularly those with irregular hours and/or in dispersed locations. They will also have to improve access to existing and planned transit hubs from nearby neighborhoods and employment centers.
It's also necessary to attract the high-paying office jobs that planned suburban employment nodes will need, and to provide housing that matches up with those jobs' earning potential to allow for shorter commutes.
Once those jobs are in place, Fairfax and Prince William need to create new incentives to encourage carpooling, and to add capacity to the I-95 corridor's already strained and crowded transit systems. The counties will also have to work regionally to help address transportation problems that originate elsewhere but affect the corridor.
Continued congestion of highways, roads, and transit in the I-95 corridor threatens its prosperity. Public and private sector leaders at both local and regional levels will need to understand and address the above issues in order to achieve their bold visions for future development.
Green-painted bike lanes make cycling safer, by reminding car drivers to watch out for cyclists when driving across bike lanes. That's a great benefit, and it works, but it's not the main reason so many cyclists get so excited over a little bit of color.
The real reason cyclists love green-painted bike lanes so much is simple: They send the clearest-possible message that roads are not only for cars.
Despite a century of sharing roads, and despite the fact that people walked and biked in streets long before cars came along, there's a strong mentality among entitled drivers that roads are for cars. A 5 second google search turns up plenty of examples.
Green-painted bike lanes accomplish what a white stripe next to the parking lane cannot. They proclaim loudly and clearly that streets are not merely sewers for car traffic, but fully multimodal public spaces. They send the message that drivers are welcome to use roads just like everyone else, but must not expect to have roads completely to themselves.
These painted lanes are public relations features as much as they are safety features, at least as far as cyclists are concerned.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
But you won't hate going out in the storm for any of this week's events!
Delightful discussion on DC education: Our friends at Greater Greater Education are hosting a forum with Councilmember David Catania tonight, Monday December 9, to discuss all things pertinent to public education in DC.
Come by the Hill Center, located at 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, tonight at 6:30pm to ask a question or to listen to a good discussion. You can register here. Head over to GGE for more information about this event.
After the jump: Streetsblog hosts a happy hour, Maryland's candidates for governor talk about transportation, and see a film about how to design cities for people.
We've many places to go!: Purple Line NOW! is hosting a transportation forum with Maryland's gubernatorial candidates. All three Democratic nominees, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, Delegate Heather Mizeur, and Delegate Jolene Ivey speaking on behalf of Attorney General Doug Gansler, will attend, as well as Republican candidate Delegate Ron George.
The forum is tomorrow, Tuesday, December 10, from 7 to 9:30pm at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, located at 7995 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Reserve your seat(s) here.
All the way home you'll be warm: Join Streetsblog DC readers tonight, December 9, for a happy hour at the Passenger, DC's transportation-themed bar. The happy hour starts at 5:30 at 1021 7th Street NW. You can RSVP here.
As long as you love transportation so: Also tonight, DC's Transportation Plan Advisory Committee (TPAC) meets from 6 to 8pm. TPAC is comprised of DC residents who advise moveDC, the District Department of Transportation's effort to plan the city's future transportation network.
This public meeting is at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, located at 2000 14th Street NW, in the second floor public meeting room. Please bring your state-issued ID to enter the building.
The lights are turned way down low: On Thursday, the Inter-American Development Bank hosts a screening of the film "The Human Scale - Bringing Cities to Life," about Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl. Afterwards, there will be a panel discussion with Jeff Risom, partner at Gehl Architects in Copenhagen. who will talk about designing cities for people.
The screening is on December 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the bank's Enrique Iglesias Auditorium, located at 1330 New York Avenue NW. For more info, check out the event description.
Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.
The Hamilton, 14th and F NW. Photo by Tom Barnes.
Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!
Alexandria cyclists and city staff agree that King Street west of Old Town could use bike lanes. But after a public hearing November 25, the city's Traffic and Parking Board recommended not to build them in order to preserve 37 on-street parking spaces.
Bike lane proponents say it will improve safety and access to the King Street Metro station, while many nearby residents decry the loss of parking spaces that would have to be removed. Originally, city staff proposed eliminating 37 spaces, noting that only three spaces were used on average, and that all affected houses have off-street parking.
However, instead of evaluating a compromise proposal city staff presented that would only remove some 27 spaces and carefully considering public comments, board members were clearly dismissive of the plan and its supporters. James Durham, vice chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, called the hearing "a disgrace."
At the first public meeting on September 18, it was clear that almost everybody considers this street unsafe. Street parking goes unused because residents worry aggressive drivers will damage their parked cars.
After that meeting and an informal consultation with members of the traffic and parking board, city staff decided to work on a compromise proposal. Their reworked plan keeps 10 of the 37 spaces, while adding three spaces on adjacent streets.
At the November meeting, 38 people spoke in favor of the proposal, most of whom were local cyclists. Bike lane supporters included representatives of the city's Environmental Policy Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission, who both submitted letters, as well as the chairman of the Transportation Commission. A teacher at T.C. Williams High School spoke on behalf of his students, and a member of the Coalition for Smarter Growth spoke on behalf of that organization, which includes two King Street residents.
Meanwhile, 18 individuals spoke out against adding bike lanes, citing safety concerns and doubting the effectiveness of the proposal. Others mentioned the need to keep the usually empty parking available for visitors.
During the hearing, members of the traffic and parking board displayed almost no interest in the public comments, asking few questions. But in a question directed at Jerry King, chairman of the bicycle and pedestrian committee, one member characterized bike lane supporters as wanting bike lanes or nothing. In fact, no one at the hearing took such a position.
When the leader of Tandem Tuesdays spoke of her weekly bike rides that pair cyclists with sight-impaired people on tandem bicycles, the traffic and parking board showed no interest in her community-building work or her safety concerns. Rather than ask Washington Area Bicyclist Association representative Gregory Billing about his organization's 3,500 participants and supporters in Alexandria, board members rudely asked if he was a city resident.
In the end, the traffic and parking board recommended that city staff implement pedestrian improvements but no bicycling improvements, retain all parking and come back later with a proposal that has "common ground" and "meat." But board members at no time acknowledged that the proposal was already a compromise.
The reality is that Alexandria is working to add transportation capacity by improving access to transit and by developing three new transit corridors. If successful, transit will enable many residents to bypass traffic and avoid the struggle of searching for parking on King Street and elsewhere.
Mayor Bill Euille, who was recently quoted in the press regarding Capital Bikeshare, said it best: "We don't want people driving their cars and parking, we want people to be using bicycles and walking."
However, achieving this vision is no easy task. At a time when City Hall is working to improve the public process through the What's Next Alexandria initiative, we need our boards to be relevant as well as responsive to residents and the vision of the city council. Based on the traffic and parking board's performance November 25, it's clear that board members are none of those things. Can our public decision-making process function when a few of the people leading that process do not act in good faith?
A version of this post appeared in the Alexandria Times.
- More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- The reason cyclists love green bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- How does DC's proposed Metro loop compare?
- Can motorcycles fit in an urban context?
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