Greater Greater Washington


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 25

On Monday, we posted our twenty-fifth photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in Metro. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, all the photos were taken at L'Enfant Plaza station. But that didn't fool you. Of the 84 guesses we got on this post, 80 of you got all five correct. Great work!

Image 1: L'Enfant Plaza

The first image shows the switch indicator that is mounted on the wall of the southern mezzanine. This tells passengers (and the operator) which direction the switch is set. All of the Metro stations located just before a place where lines diverge have one of these. Everyone got this one right.

Image 2: L'Enfant Plaza

The second image shows a sign on the wall at L'Enfant Plaza. The hint here is that because the sign references the "opposite platform", it must be L'Enfant since that's the only underground station shared by the Green and Yellow lines with side platforms. 82 of you got this one right.

Image 3: L'Enfant Plaza

The third image shows the Greenbelt-bound platform at L'Enfant Plaza. The lighted circle visible at the bottom of the picture is a map of the station. There's also one on the Huntington platform, but those two are the only ones in the system. 80 of you got this one right. One person commented that it was from the 90s, but that's not the case. The map is still there, and I took the picture three weeks ago.

Image 4: L'Enfant Plaza

The fourth image shows art at L'Enfant. The vault above the Blue/Orange/Silver lines has one of these at each end. They show a dog wearing a spacesuit. You can easily see these above the fare control area at the exits to L'Enfant Plaza (9th & D) and D between 6th and 7th. 82 of you knew this one.

Image 5: L'Enfant Plaza

The final image shows what I think is one of the more interesting places on Metro: The dummy mezzanine at L'Enfant Plaza. It looks like a standard side platform mezzanine, but the difference here is that it doesn't actually connect to an exit. However, because the upper level has side platforms, the mezzanine is essential to allowing customers to transfer between northbound Green trains and southbound Yellow trains and vice versa. I believe it's possible for WMATA to add a new entrance near HUD using this mezzanine should the need ever arise. 80 of you got this one right.

Several of you made the comment that this was some sort of trick question. I can assure you it was not intended as such. Every image should stand alone, and if you can identify it, great. In this case, I actually tried to make sure the images were somewhat easy, since I was afraid people would second-guess themselves. To date, I've never featured one station more than once in the same set.

I've also been somewhat worried that people were losing interest, because the number of guesses has been steadily falling over the past few weeks. But from the strong response to this post, my conclusion is that most people only guess when they're reasonably certain.

At any rate, great work. You all apparently know L'Enfant Plaza very well. Thanks for playing!


Hey, streetcar critics: Stop making perfect the enemy of good

American streetcar projects have gotten some tough love recently. Writers who advocate for walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods are questioning whether streetcar investments really enhance mobility, and whether they're worth the money, if, as is often the case in the US, a new line has no dedicated lane or runs infrequently.

Photo by drum118 on Flickr.

While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.

That's not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like:

  1. Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.
  2. An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can affordfor now.
  3. Funding won't get redirected towards a "better" transit project.
  4. Streetcars can outperform buses, even without dedicated lanes.
  5. Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.
Read more in my latest article on CityLab.


DC will start saving a lot of money while offering better transit for persons with disabilities

Paratransit service for persons with disabilities will soon get better for riders, and cheaper for the DC government. New rules will go into effect today, which will let up to 33 wheelchair-accessible taxis offer paratransit rides instead of WMATA's MetroAccess system. The rules could save the government about $1.8 million a year.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Rising MetroAccess costs were a big part of budget gaps during the recession. But policy experts already knew the solution: use taxis for many trips made by the current dedicated vans. Taxi operators already have vehicles out there on the road, and can often provide trips for far less than the cost of the vans.

Every time a person with a disability takes a MetroAccess ride, it costs $51. The rider now pays $6; DC (if it's a trip inside the District) pays $45. But we know that taxis are able to make money charging far less for a ride, and while they would have to buy more expensive vehicles to accommodate a range of disabilities, there's still a lot of savings to be had.

The new regulations authorize two operators with central dispatching services to start offering rides to dialysis patients, according to Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton. This segment of MetroAccess rides are the first group to try out the new taxi-based system, and many of them are able to walk on their own as well. They will call up these taxi companies for their rides and pay $5, instead of $6. DC will pay $28, instead of $45.

In addition, for every 3,000 trips the new vehicles take, the operator will have to buy a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle to add to the fleet. In between serving MetroAccess riders, these taxi vehicles can give rides to residents just as other taxis can. That is what makes it worthwhile to offer this service for $33 a ride instead of $51 a ride for MetroAccess's vans.

Besides the cost advantage, this system should be far more convenient for the actual rider. MetroAccess users now have to book their trips at least a day in advance. Could you imagine not being able to leave your house or neighborhood without planning at least a day ahead? With the new system, riders will only have to reserve an hour ahead.

Linton says that WMATA was only willing to allow this system to serve at most 100,000 trips a year. He didn't go into specifics about the negotiations with WMATA, but perhaps it has something to do with limits in the WMATA's contract with the MetroAccess vendor which guarantee enough rides for that company.

If taxis could serve all of DC's 3,000 eligible MetroAccess riders, Linton estimates that the city could save $15 million a year. That's a big savings. Linton said that if DC's schools used the same system to transport students with disabilities it could save another $15-18 million a year.

Other jurisdictions, like Arlington, already use taxis for paratransit. Such a switch would also improve service for people with disabilities that make it impossible to use Metro rail or bus, and also move toward getting WMATA out of the business of providing a service which should more properly be the responsibility of the local government anyway.


Breakfast links: Stay safe

Photo by Tim Kelley on Flickr.
"Intersection of Doom" improves: The dangerous intersection of Lee Highway and Lynn got some safety upgrades, and more improvements are coming soon. Traffic lights and walk signals have been retimed, and county police are stepping up enforcement. (ArlNow)

Streetcar safety for students: Middle school students received a streetcar safety lesson from DDOT. The students asked some questions about the streetcar that officials were not willing to fully answer. (WAMU)

FBI for statehood: An advocate for DC statehood has filed a lawsuit to keep the FBI from leaving the city. He argues that the federal government promised that all agencies would be located in the District, in exchange for residents' voting rights. (WAMU)

DHS HQ a go: Construction is moving ahead on DHS's new headquarters at St. Elizabeth's. The GSA announced its award of a $139 million design-build contract to renovate the building that will serve as the secretary's office. (WBJ)

Public finance for MoCo campaigns: Local campaigns in Montgomery County will soon be eligible for public financing. Candidates who accept public funding will not be allowed to take contributions from PACs or corporations. (Post)

Penn Ave, AdMo are great: Adams Morgan made the American Planning Association's list of ten "Great Neighborhoods in America" for 2014 thanks in part to the 2012 streetscape project, while Pennsylvania Ave. won a spot on the ten "Great Streets."

MARTA on the upswing: How did MARTA's general manager turn the agency around after years of budget shortfalls and declining ridership? He managed to improve its public image, cut costs, and work productively with the state legislature. (Governing)

Preposterous Purple Line posturing: While Maryland's Purple Line faces opposition over the fate of some small, shrimp-like creatures, in LA, opponents of the subway say it's a bad idea because ISIS might blow up a train right under a school. (Post)

And...: Joshua Bell had a much larger audience when he returned to play to a Metro station crowd (Post) ... Economists agree that consumers will benefit if Uber and Lyft can compete with taxis equally. (Post) ... Is home rule the key to affordable housing? (CityLab)

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Join us at the 2014 Smart Growth Social

For October, the Greater Greater Washington happy hour comes to DC's Eastern Market, with a twist. We're joining up with the Coalition for Smarter Growth for their 2014 Smart Growth Social where you can enjoy drinks and pupusas and talk with Gabe Klein!

Gabe Klein. Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

The event is at Eastern Market, 225 7th St SE, from 6:30-8:30 pm on Wednesday, October 15. It does require a $25 ticket, which you can buy at the door or online. For that $25 you get unlimited local beer, wine, and pupusas from La Plaza (not so different from what you might spend on drinks and food at a regular happy hour); plus, it supports a good cause.

Many readers will recognize the Coalition for Smarter Growth's staff as regular contributors. Their small staff of six work for more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented places across the Greater Washington region.

There will also be a raffle for a copy of Cards Against Urbanity, but the biggest attraction for Greater Greater readers might be meeting Gabe Klein, DC's and Chicago's former transportation director, who'll be the event's special guest.

Eastern Market is a two-minute walk from the Eastern Market Metro station (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines) and there are two Capital Bikeshare stations nearby, at the Metro and at 7th and North Carolina. From Union Station or Navy Yard, you can also take the DC Circulator, or there's Metrobus 90, 92, and 30s routes.

Our happy hour moves to a different part of the region each month. In recent months, we've been to downtown DC, Arlington, and Silver Spring. Next month, we'll be back in Virginia. Let us know in the comments where you'd like us to go!


15th Street cycletrack gets s*** on ... literally

Bicyclists can often feel like people treat their infrastructure like crap, such as parking in the lanes on a regular basis and construction closing them without offering an alternative route. But now, people are literally moving their bowels instead of their bicycles on part of the 15th Street cycletrack:

Photo by @KG_DC on Twitter reposted with permission.

This portable toilet appeared astride the cycletrack on Vermont Avenue near H Street this morning, next to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. After Twitter user KG posted the photo, Darren Buck at DDOT sent a permit inspector to deal with it.

This isn't the first time bike lanes have encountered the brown stuff, but thus far it's been from animals: Horses occasionally drop manure in the cycletracks.

One common response to things like this is to suggest cyclists "just go around" the offending obstacle. But each incident forces people on bikes to ride into a space that either a driver or pedestrian thinks is "theirs," creating opportunities for anger and for dangerous crashes.

As Shane Farthing from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said at a DC council hearing yesterday,

Despite progress in infrastructure, enforcement, and other protections, the DC bicyclist still, on a daily basis, faces the conundrum of the angry motorist shouting at her to get off the street and the angry pedestrian shouting at her to get off the sidewalk.
And even when cyclists get a small space of their own, some people treat it like a toilet.


We have good data about DC's low graduation rate, but little idea how to increase it

Given current trends, 40% of DC's 9th-graders won't graduate from high school on time. A new report gives us a lot of data about what lies behind that figure. Now the question is how policy-makers can use that data to improve the situation.

Photo of high school student from Shutterstock.

The report, released last week by a public-private partnership called Raise DC, reveals that a student's characteristics in 8th grade have a lot to do with her chances of graduating on time. But some high schools do better than others at getting high-risk kids back on track. At this point, it's still not clear how they do it, or even which high schools they are.

Eighth-graders who have special education status or limited English skills are more likely to drop out of high school, according to the report. The same is true for those who are over-age, have a lot of absences, score low on standardized tests, or fail math or English. And students who have been involved with the foster care or juvenile justice systems are also at high risk.

While it's good to have all of this quantified, few will be surprised by these findings. The real question is what changes will emerge in response to them.

Raise DC, the partnership that announced the report, launched last year in an effort to bring rationality and a spirit of collaboration to DC's social service sector. The idea is that government agencies and nonprofits will work together to help improve outcomes for DC's children and youth.

The first phase of the joint effort focuses on collecting data. In addition to last week's report on graduation rates, which was done by a consulting firm under the supervision of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Raise DC put out a baseline report card over a year ago.

One of the baseline figures was the percentage of students who graduate from high school in four years: 61%. The goal is to raise that figure to 75% by 2017.

The graduation rate study tracked about 18,000 students who were first-time 9th-graders between 2006 and 2009. The students attended either DCPS schools or one of four public charter schools: Perry Street Prep, KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Cesar Chavez.

While the report ranked high schools on how well they improved students' chances of graduating on time, it didn't attach school names to the results, and DC officials wouldn't release them. But school leaders received data for their own schools, and a working session on Friday gave them a chance to begin formulating strategies to address their school's weaknesses.

Here are some questions they and other policy-makers might want to consider:

How early should we start focusing on kids who look like they're at risk of dropping out?

The report targets danger signs in 8th grade, but other school districts have begun looking for them even earlier. Montgomery County, for example, is now looking for red flags as early as first grade.

While no one wants to stigmatize young children, the sooner schools start focusing on problems with attendance, behavior, and coursework (the ABC's of early warning signs), the less difficult it will be to address them.

How can we help schools that have a lot of high-risk students?

High schools that do the most to help high-risk students graduate have very few of them, according to the report. One conclusion might be that you should spread those students around, so that no school has a high concentration of them.

But that's unlikely to happen. Of the 16 schools that did best in improving students' chances of on-time graduation, only two were neighborhood high schools. The others were selective DC Public Schools or charters, with generally low numbers of high-risk students. You can't just assign high-risk students to such schools.

In fact, it's far more likely that high-risk students will be concentrated in a few schools: the report found that 50% of the students who fall off-track right away in high school attend just seven different schools.

But there's one school, identified in the report only as "School 7," that seems to do well despite the fact that 29% of its students are high-risk. It's a traditional public school with a 59% graduation rate. That may not sound impressive, but it's 20 percentage points higher than predicted, given the school's student body. It would be nice to know what is enabling that school to achieve those results.

What can we do to reduce the number of students who switch schools?

Every time a student switches from one high school to another, the report says, his chances of graduating on time sink by 10 percentage points. And 30% of DC students switch schools at least once during their high school years.

One likely factor contributing to DC's high student mobility is a lack of affordable housing, which can cause low-income students to move frequently or even become homeless. A study released last year revealed that thousands of students exit and enter DC public schools midyear.

This is a problem not just for those students, but also for the DCPS schools that have to take them in. The disruptive effects of that kind of student churn recently led New York City to exempt two struggling high schools from the obligation to admit students mid-year.

The bottom line is that increasing DC's graduation rate, like other efforts directed at closing the achievement gap, is going to require more than just classroom reform. Schools can do a lot, but government agencies and non-profits will also need to address housing problems, mental health issues, and a host of other poverty-related ills.

In theory, Raise DC should make it easier to put in place the kinds of cross-sector strategies that are necessary. But it's still too soon to tell if that theory will translate into practice.


Breakfast links: Getting to sports

Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.
Clawed pays for Screech: American University will foot the bill for late-night Metro service if Nationals playoff games run late; the Nats themselves have continued to refuse to pay. In the 2012 postseason, LivingSocial agreed to cover it. (City Paper)

What about soccer?: A stadium for DC United at Buzzard Point could draw 46 events per year and have higher transit use than RFK, says a transportation report. There would also be 1,300 parking spaces nearby. (WBJ)

Silver lining for bike parking: Metro has added parking for 20 additional bicycles at McLean Station. The 72 existing spaces had been filling up daily, while 600 motor vehicle spaces remained unused. (PlanItMetro)

Less money from cameras: Traffic camera revenue in DC unexpectedly declined thanks to it taking longer than expected to roll out new cameras, higher speed limits, and more people obeying the law. This could create a $50-70 million hole in the budget, but a Gray spokesperson said it's "not a bad thing." (Post)

Charter school turnaround: A third of all DC charter schools have shut down, often leaving families to search for new schools. New operators, who have taken over many, keep the school community together but can bring culture shock. (Post)

Stop for the hand: Post columnist John Kelly asks pedestrians to stop crossing streets against the light or entering intersections once the red hand starts flashing to keep traffic running smoothly and to limit emissions.

Shipping container complex: The shipping container apartment building in Brookland is almost complete. The developer claims the units are ecologically friendly and is looking to develop more units in Northeast and on the Potomac waterfront. (UrbanTurf)

No bar here: A proposed bar at 18th and Swann in Dupont got turned down for a liquor license. Unlike most liquor fights, many pro-bar people came out against this particular one. (Barred in DC)

Transit strife: Jerusalem's light rail system seeks to serve all residents of Jerusalem, but has faced adversity through vandalism and a 70% decrease in ridership during this summer's war. The city has begun using drones to police the infrastructure. (CityLab)

And...: DDOT may make streetcar rides free for the first year. (City Paper) ... The McMillan projeect won approval from the Zoning Commission, but opponents will likely appeal. (WBJ) ... Richard Bradley will step down as head of the Downtwown BID. (WBJ)

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Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 25

It's time for the twenty-fifth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each picture?

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Wednesday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for you.


How to sculpt a skyline: Arlington planners rethink Rosslyn

Do skylines matter? Planners in Arlington say they do, and are re-planning Rosslyn to give it a better, more sensible one.

Possible future Rosslyn skyline. All images from Arlington County.

Rosslyn is the most prominent cluster of tall buildings in the Washington region, and with more development coming it's only going to get more substantial. To get Rosslyn right, planners must grapple with how the height and form of such tall buildings affects their surroundings.

Realize Rosslyn will be Arlington's plan to transform Rosslyn from a dense but historically car centric area to a more pedestrian friendly place. Among other things, the plan will delve into how building scale, mass, and views affect aesthetics, light, air, open space, and walkability.

Another scenario for a possible future Rosslyn.

What's at stake?

Existing policy in central Rosslyn is to taper building heights so the tallest buildings are near the center, with shorter ones on the edges. That keeps the greatest building heights closest to the Metro station, and makes for a gradual transition from quieter nearby streets.

But the existing taper policy isn't perfect. The rules aren't specific on how the taper should occur, nor do they prescribe lower densities in areas with shorter buildings.

And then there's the hill.

Rosslyn is on a steep hill, sloping up away from the Potomac. Between the hill and the taper, some buildings may not be able to simultaneously meet their permitted densities while satisfying the taper rules.

In short, two different policies are pushing development in Rosslyn in two different directions.

Meanwhile, existing policies also need to work economically. If new buildings can't go tall enough to make it worthwhile to knock down an older building on the same site, property owners may not redevelop at all.

That may stand in the way of achieving the community's goals for a more walkable, up-to-date Rosslyn. To meet those goals, county planners need to develop better rules to allow them to happen, rather than rules that work against each other and don't work economically.

That means looking strategically at where and how taller buildings might be appropriate.

And of course, it's still more complicated. Skyline planning is a balancing act. Taller buildings still need to comfortably transition to adjacent neighborhoods, and maintain views from the public observation deck atop the future CEB Tower, and minimize shadows. All in addition to the normal things planners have to get right, like sidewalk retail and walkable design.

Three scenarios, next steps

For Rosslyn, planners are developing multiple alternate scenarios looking at the effects of different building masses. There are scenarios for individual sites, and collectively across central Rosslyn.

Three potential development scenarios for the same property.

These images are a sneak peek of preliminary work, but more details will be available to the public when planners present their initial modeling work at a meeting on Tuesday, September 30.

Later this fall, the community will use the modeling work to help formulate specific recommendations for Rosslyn's form and massing.

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