Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Aimee Custis

Aimee Custis is the Managing Director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She's a policy wonk by training and a communicator by profession, but weekends you'll find her at home in Dupont Circle or practicing her other love, wedding photography


Monotone in the Flickr pool

Here are some of our favorite black and white perspectives, inspired by this week's new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool.

Metro. Photo by John J Young.

Convention Center. Photo by Beau Finley.

Fort Totten Metro. Photo by Mike Maguire.

Union Station. Photo by Beau Finley.

Union Market. Photo by Jill Slater.

14th & U Street NW. Photo by Mike Maguire.

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 showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region!


DC aglow in the Flickr pool

Here are some of our favorite perspectives of DC aglow at blue hour, golden hour, or after dark, inspired by this week's new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool.

View west from the Hopscotch Bridge. Photo by Kian McKellar.

Shaw Library. Photo by Ted Eytan.

USS Barry, Navy Yard. Photo by mosley.brian.

Farragut Square. Photo by ctj71081.

Urbana, Dupont Circle. Photo by Rob Cannon.

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 showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region!


Walkability's next hurdle in Van Ness: A Chick-fil-A drive-thru

Chick-fil-A has plans to put a drive-thru store on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness. But neighbors are saying the site's business plan doesn't mesh with the neighborhood's aspirations to be more walkable.

Rendering of the Chick-fil-A proposal. Except where noted, all images from DDOT public space permit application.

Chick-fil-A plans to take over the property at 4422 Connecticut Avenue NW, just north of the UDC campus and Van Ness Metro station.

Today, the space is occupied by a Burger King, which also operates a lightly-used drive-thru. The site is sandwiched between a dry cleaners and a heavily-trafficked car wash that already caters to Maryland commuters, causing traffic backups on Connecticut Avenue spilling over to nearby Albemarle Street.

Plans for the Chick-fil-A site include a new sidewalk cafe enclosed by a low retaining wall where today there is unappealing empty pavement, new landscaping and signage, and a renovation of the existing driveway.

Rendering showing the proposed sidewalk seating.

Today's existing conditions.

Neighbors are up in arms over the Chick-fil-A proposal. They see a popular driver-oriented fast food restaurant as decided step backward for the neighborhood. Van Ness has made significant progress toward being a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

In the past few years, neighbors have established Van Ness Main Streets to fight for better walkability, a suburban-style parking-in-front shopping center has redeveloped across the street from the Burger King, and UDC built a new student union that bring will bring to life dead pedestrian plaza once the landscaping is ready.

Increased traffic volume is the problem, for people and cars alike

At the heart of the concern are Chick-fil-A estimates that the drive-thru will see three times as much traffic as Burger King does today. That's more than 90 vehicles per hour during its projected busiest period, Saturdays at midday.

Most of those 90-plus vehicles will be crossing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk twice (entering and exiting the drive-thru). If Chick-fil-A can keep the line moving, that means a vehicle will be traversing the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk roughly three times per minute, roughly tripling the odds of pedestrian/motorist conflict.

If Chick-fil-A doesn't keep the line moving, it could see traffic backups similar to, or compounding, the ones that are already happening today at the car wash.

On sunny weekends, the line for Flagship Car Wash wraps around the block. (Left: The line at Connecticut Avenue; Right: The line continuing on Albemarle.) Photo from Forest Hills Connection.

In response to the expected traffic increases, Chick-fil-A presented a detailed traffic study and plan to ANC3F at its February 23 meeting. To keep traffic from backing up onto Connecticut Avenue at the busiest times, it would send out employees armed with tablet computers to take orders, collect payments and deliver food to waiting motorists.

In a perfect world, the plan might work. But new Chick-fil-A stores have caused significant traffic chaos in other communities. Bellevue, Washington, had to change traffic patterns and hire police to handle all the business that a new Chick-fil-A attracted.

And while Chick-fil-A presented this plan for dealing with auto traffic, so far, it hasn't addressed concerns about conflicts with pedestrian traffic.

Chick-fil-A's drive-thru plan depends on moving cars into and out of the drive-thru quickly. The chain's drive-thru in suburbs and exurbs rarely have to deal with pedestrians, if at all. But here, drivers will have to wait to turn into the drive-thru and wait again upon exiting for an opening not only in car traffic but in pedestrian traffic.

DDOT will weigh in on the issue

As is standard process for many projects across the District, to move forward with its plans, Chick-fil-A has applied to the DDOT public space committee for two use-of-public-space permits. One permit covers the elements making up the sidewalk cafe seating. The other permit covers the plans to close, renovate, and reopen the driveway. The committee is currently scheduled to hear the application on March 24.

Inset of driveway plan from public space permit application.

Residents have started a petition against Chick-fil-A's plans, and ANC3F has voted unanimously to oppose Chick-fil-A's application for the driveway. 3F's resolution calls on DDOT's Public Space Committee to reject Chick-fil-A's application, as "A busy drive-thru in the neighborhood now would represent a major step backward."

DDOT's design standards on minimum distances between driveways represent what may be the strongest argument for the ANC and other voices in the community to advocate against the drive-thru.

The DDOT public space committee could deny the driveway permit thanks to it not meeting the minimum distance requirement. But they could also choose to approve the permit. Ultimately in situations like this one, the committee is the final decision-making body, and has discretion to weigh whatever arguments for and against the permit however it likes.

A version of this post first ran on Forest Hills Connection.


This summer, Alexandria's King Street could become a complete street... or not

When it repaves a stretch of King Street this summer, the City of Alexandria wants make it safer for all users. But of the three design options Alexandria is considering, only one would make for a complete street.

This is the part of King Street that Alexandria will work on. Photo from Google Streetview.

Complete streets, which Alexandria has embraced since 2011, are streets designed in a way to make them safe for people of all ages and abilities, and which balance the needs of everyone using the street, whether they're traveling by car, bicycle, on foot, or via transit. When Alexandria repaves streets, the city's Complete Streets coordinator works to ensure these elements exist.

Where the changes will go

The section Alexandria is repaving this summer is from Janneys Lane to Radford Street, near TC Williams High School. That's immediately west of where in 2014, residents fought a protracted battle over adding bike lanes during another resurfacing process.

Contextual map of the project. Base map from Google Maps, with illustrations by the author.

But this time around, most neighbors living on this four-lane section of King Street seem to want changes. They consider this stretch of King Street a residential street in a residential neighborhood, and many have said in community discussions and on Twitter that they want to see slower traffic speeds, safer pedestrian crossings, and generally a more "residential" character for the street.

One resident pointed out that while it may become the major commercial corridor Rt. 7 in Fairfax, King Street is just two travel lanes in most of Alexandria (Janney's Lane eastbound to the river).

In feedback that city staff collected during preliminary public meetings and outreach last fall, residents reported that this stretch of King Street is difficult to cross, with pedestrian safety concerns near TC Williams, bus stops that are hard to get to, and unsafe conditions for cyclists, among others.

People driving need safety changes, too. Today, cars waiting to turn left along this stretch create delays for through traffic, and are in an exposed position, risking being rear-ended by fast cars in the left lane.

To address all of these concerns, the city is considering other changes, called the "King Street Complete Street Project," in addition to repaving. According to its project page, the goals of the project are to:

  • Improve the safety and convenience for all street users
  • Provide facilities for people who walk, bike, ride transit or drive cars
  • Implement City Council adopted plans and policies.
City staff has released three design options for the project, with offerings ranging from mainly car-oriented to a broadly-multimodal. Alexandria residents have an opportunity to give feedback on the options through this Sunday, February 28.

Design Option 1 only covers the basics

Option 1, while named "Complete Streets Maintenance," is basically the no-change option. According to the project sheet, there would be no major changes to the road's current 4-lane configuration, minimal pedestrian improvements, and no bike or vehicle improvements.

Cross section of Option 1. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

Basically, option 1 would bring the street up to what amount to most people's existing minimum expectations, by improving curb ramps, installing crosswalks along adjacent side streets, and bringing bus stops into ADA compliance.

Design Option 2 only focuses on intersections

Option 2 only focuses on making intersections better. Like option 1, it does nothing to change today's conditions, where people walking on the sidewalk are uncomfortably close to vehicle traffic. There are no improvements for people bicycling.

Pedestrian intersection improvements in Option 2. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

Under option 2, the main change is that planners would swap one of the two westbound through travel lanes for a left turn lane for the length of the project corridor.

This would help slow traffic and make the street safer, though residents have voiced concerns that it won't slow traffic enough. This option also adds pedestrian improvements at intersections, and improves crossings at bus stops.

Cross section of Option 2. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

One issue, though, is that slower speeds in option 2 translate into longer travel times for people traveling west by car or transit: 13 seconds during AM rush hour, and 11 seconds at evening rush hour, to get through the mile-long project corridor.

Despite many residents' calls to slow traffic on this stretch of King Street, other Alexandrians have already indicated in the city's online forum that they may see this slight increase in travel times as unacceptable.

Design Option 3 makes things better for all street users

Option 3 does the best job of addressing resident's concerns about traffic moving too fast and safety for people walking along this residential stretch. It not only swaps one of the two westbound through vehicle lanes for a left turn lane (as in Option 2), it also swaps an eastbound vehicle lane for a buffered bike lane for much of the project's eastern stretch, and incorporates a shared lane west of TC Williams High School.

Cross section of main section of Option 3. Image from the City of Alexandria presentation.

In addition to the bike infrastructure, this option facilitates safer turning and smoother through traffic for people in cars at TC Williams High School with left turn lanes, and includes planted pedestrian crossing islands.

Like Option 2, Option 3's safety improvements result in slightly slower travel times in the corridor for people in vehicles (7-13 seconds during peak periods through the mile-long project corridor). But that means some Alexandrians are up in arms about it:

Some residents are opposing bike lanes and other improvements in Option 3. Image from AlexandriaVAmom on Twitter.

But Option 3 provides the most separation between vehicles and the sidewalk, and creates a dedicated space for each user of the street. That makes it the best in keeping with Alexandria's Complete Streets policy.

What happens next

Alexandria has extended the public feedback survey on the three options through February 28. Once public comment on the three design options closes, city staff will review the comments and decide on a course of action. Staff has said that as of now, all options are still on the table. Look for more community discussions, before a design eventually goes to a public hearing of Alexandria's Traffic and Parking Board for approval.


Metro will shut down Friday night. Most buses won't even run Friday.

As the region prepares for tomorrow's snowstorm, major transportation modes are already announcing they'll be fully shut down through Sunday. Metro is even stopping most of its buses as early as Friday morning.

Image by Dan Malouff.

Earlier this afternoon, WMATA announced plans to close Metrorail Friday at 11 pm through Sunday night. Metrobus will start Friday on a severe snow plan, which means very few routes run, and then close it entirely through Sunday.

Local bus system around the region have announced various closures. MARC has announced it will curtail service Friday, and suspend it at least through Saturday. As of when we published this post, VRE has not yet announced its plans.

In addition to these public transit closures, Car2Go informed its Arlington and DC members this afternoon that it will also suspend service starting at 9pm tonight, indefinitely through the storm.

All of which is to say, good luck getting around for the next few days if you don't own a car.

Is this wise, or an overreaction?

"This is not a storm that anyone should take lightly, and I would urge all residents to plan to get to a safe place before the storm arrives Friday afternoon," said WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld at this afternoon's announcement.

"The actions we are taking today are all in the interest of our customers' and employees' safety, and will help us return to service once the storm passes and the snow is cleared."

These closures will almost certainly leave a significant number of area residents with severely limited transportation options during the storm. Having the system closed will discourage unnecessary travel. But it will also make necessary travel happen on other modes, which may expose fewer people to more risk. For the subset of car-free people who work critical services such as hospitals, it will mean long and harrowing cab rides, possibly with very expensive fares.

Some workplaces will still be open Friday morning, and many residents who use the bus will have no way to get to them. Metro's press release says this "helps to ensure that customers and employees are not stranded once the storm begins," but many people don't have that choice or were already planning to use the bus and get home before the snow.

While most area residents who use Metro no doubt agree it should operate as much service as is possible during the storm, Metro does face constraints and deserves credit for recognizing them.

"Given the amount of snow forecast," points out contributor Matt Johnson, "Metro will need to park its trains underground to avoid having them stranded in rail yards or damaged by the snow. Historically, Metro moves as many railcars as possible from all over the system and parks them in the tunnels between Glenmont and Forest Glen. This is why service on that section is not covered in the snow plan. With the forecast of this magnitude, they may be parking railcars in other areas.

"This weekend's storm is forecast to be in the top five winter storms in recorded history for DC. 'Severe' snow plan bus routes will not be able to operate in this storm."

Not that driving will be much better.

Are these reactions extreme? How will these closures impact your weekend? Tell us in the comments.


DC's inclusionary zoning could start serving poorer households

No one policy or program will fix the District's affordable housing crunch. But later this month, one program that creates new affordable housing is poised to get a facelift to better serve low-income households.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

On January 28, the DC Zoning Commission will look at tweaking inclusionary zoning, one of the main policy tools the District uses to generate new affordable housing units.

When new condos or apartments are built in DC, inclusionary zoning requires 8-10% of them to rented or sold more affordably, and only to people making under a certain income (today, 50-80% of area median income). In return, developers can build a few extra market rate units in order to offset the difference in overall cost.

Inclusionary zoning creates these new affordable units without subsidies from the Housing Production Trust Fund or other scarce public resources. That's in contrast to most other programs, like direct investment in new housing, affordable housing preservation, or voucher programs.

DC adopted its inclusionary zoning policy in 2006 and finalized regulations in 2009. The first units arrived on the market in 2011. Now more than 1,200 permanently affordable inclusionary zoning units are on the market or in the pipeline.

Inclusionary zoning targets low, not very-low income households. That's good.

Inclusionary zoning tends to best serve below-market, but not extremely below-market households. In other words, it helps people for whom housing is too expensive, but not way too expensive.

That's because the price gap between what very-low-income households (30% AMI) can afford and market rates is simply too great for zoning tools alone to bridge. But low-income households (50-80% AMI) also need help from affordable housing programs, and inclusionary zoning helps these households without spending down scarce affordable housing subsidies.

Ideally, DC would create as much affordable housing as possible through inclusionary zoning and other off-budget policies like trading public land for affordable housing, because they do not have a direct financial cost to the city.

That would free up as much affordable housing subsidy as possible for very low and extremely low income families, who by far face the greatest housing challenges.

Except today, prices are a little too high to help these target households

Today, DC's inclusionary zoning only requires that developments in high rise zones provide affordable units to serve households earning 80% area median income (AMI).

That's a little too expensive. While the 80% AMI price is below-market in some DC neighborhoods, it is close to or above market rate in others. Moreover, 80% AMI (calculated for the region, and almost $70,000 annually for a two person household) is above DC's Median Household Income ($64,267).

Today, 8 out of 10 DC inclusionary zoning units are produced at 80% AMI. Compared to successful programs in other cities, thats's too high. An Urban Institute report noted that other with similar programs set affordability levels for rental housing between 55 and 70% AMI.

The report indicated that DC should consider following San Francisco's ownership income targeting of 70% AMI. 70% AMI is also the standard for similar inclusionary zoning in Montgomery County.

After a long wait, the DC Zoning Commission may lower the affordability requirement

In early 2015, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, Jews United for Justice, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, People's Consulting, Somerset Development, City First Homes, and PolicyLink formally petitioned the Zoning Commission for changes to the inclusionary zoning regulations.

Since the Zoning Commission relies on staff and analytical support of the Office of Planning, it has waited for OP to fulfill its request for recommendations on potential revisions. Now, almost a year later, the Zoning Commission will consider these proposed changes (Zoning Case # 04-33G) and counter-proposals from OP.

The main changes the Zoning Commission will consider are:

  • Increasing amount of affordable units in inclusionary zoning projects from 8-10% (now) to 12%
  • Similarly increasing the density bonus from 20% to 22%
  • Changing the AMI requirements to 60% AMI for rental units and 80% for ownership unit
  • Making it easier for the Mayor or DC Housing Authority to buy inclusionary zoning units to lease to low- and very-low income households.
You can read the exact proposed changes and text amendments in this Zoning Commission Notice of Public Hearing.

Proponents of the proposed changes to inclusionary zoning are organizing supporters to attend the Zoning Commission hearing and speak in favor of the changes. The hearing is January 28 at 6:30pm, at 441 4th St NW, Suite 220-south.


Ask GGWash: Why do Metro signs now show trains that are farther away?

It used to be that Metro's "next train" arrival signs only displayed trains that were coming within the next 20 minutes. Now, the signs list trains up to 40 minutes away. Reader Tom F. wrote in to ask why.

Arrival screens at Union Station. Photo by the author.

"On the weekend," Tom wrote, "You might see trains spaced at 5 minutes, 35 minutes, and 40 minutes on the PIDS. Is this a quiet admission by WMATA that while weekend service is awful, people still have the right to know that the next train won't be arriving for 38 minutes?"

Resident GGWash WMATA expert Stephen Repetski said that Tom is basically right:

"WMATA recently updated the software for reasons including weekend single-tracking whose headways were longer than that PIDS could show and would thus be blank when there really were trains coming (eventually). They now go out to 40 minutes, up from 20."

According to a recent WMATA Board of Directors document, WMATA undertook the update for customer service reasons:

"We undertook this improvement after hearing from riders that it is helpful for late-night and weekend travelers who may experience longer waits because of service changes around rebuilding. We continue to develop solutions to more difficult challenges such as predicting trains in a single tracking area, or when a train is departing an end-of-line station, but hope this enhancement provides more detail when choosing to travel Metrorail."

Stephen added that Brian Anderson, WMATA's social media manager, told him the following:

"In regards to PIDS, the software that is behind PIDS is actually incredibly complex, taking data from thousands of sources and distilling it into the predictions you see on the platforms across 91 stations. Any change in code has implications that must be carefully considered to ensure that the system continues to work reliably.

"In building the case for an extended look at predictions on PIDS, some of us on the Digital team took note of negative rider feedback upon encountering blank PIDS, not because the PIDS were malfunctioning, but because the headway was winder than the 20-minute threshold. We took this feedback to the group responsible for PIDS with a suggestion that we try a 40-minute threshold instead. That kicked off the process of internal meetings to get everyone on-board with the idea, begin development, and a few months of testing to make sure that we weren't causing unforeseen effects."

Have you noticed this software update? What do you think of it? Tell us in the comments!


5 amazing cities from the Star Wars universe

Part of the appeal of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars has always been its fantastic settings, including its cities. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters this week, here are the five most fascinating cities from the six previous live-action Star Wars movies.

5. Theed

Theed. Image from Star Wars.

The Phantom Menace may have been a disaster of a movie, but its setting at the height of the galaxy's pre-Empire luxury showed us a strong contender for the most beautiful city in the franchise. Theed is Queen Amidala's home, and capital of the planet Naboo.

Picturesque Naboo is the Neoclassical Europe of the Star Wars universe. Its ornate buildings and grand, monument-strewn avenues are an idealized version of the Baroque Mediterranean. There's no visible traffic or industry, besides one spaceport at the bottom of a waterfall. Theed's citizens appear to do nothing but shop and picnic.

It's the Garden of Eden of the Star Wars universe. Perfect and naive, and out of place once the galaxy descends into evil and civil war.

4. Mos Eisely

Mos Eisely. Image from Star Wars.

The complete opposite of Theed, Mos Eisely is a frontier settlement on a poor and dirty planet, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. If Theed is Habsburg Vienna, Mos Eisley is Dodge City. Its famous cantina nothing so much as a wild west saloon.

There's precious little art of culture in Mos Eisley. Its hardscrabble populous struggles to survive, and its streets are full of pack animals, cargo crates, and industrial equipment.

3. Gungan City

Gungan City. Image from Star Wars.

Return to Naboo for the secret underwater Gungan City. It's beautiful, but like all things Gungan, it makes little sense.

With a fairly small number of orbs that appear to be mostly empty air, Gungan City is clearly more of a village than a metropolis. Maybe the Gungans prefer isolation, or maybe they're too clumsy to live many side-by-side. Hopefully we're never forced to sit through more Gungan scenes, and therefore never find out.

One would think that if Gungans are such great swimmers that they're happy to build underwater cities, they'd spread their city vertically as much as sideways. Guess not.

2. Cloud City

Cloud City. Image from Star Wars.

High-concept sci-fi at its best, Cloud City is an atmosphere-mining colony on a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

Its workers harvest gases for use in Star Wars' futuristic technologies, and its government is more corporate CEO than democratic president.

Being an expensive floating factory, Cloud City's layout and infrastructure are necessarily vastly different from a cobbled-together frontier town like Mos Eisley. As a single, purpose-designed mega-structure, Cloud City needs nothing so messy as parking lots, and piecemeal expansions are strictly not happening.

And if you approach it without an invitation, cloud cars shoot at you. It's the ultimate gated community.

1. Coruscant

Coruscant. Image from Star Wars.

One city that covers a whole planet. Coruscant is either the ultimate in sprawl, or the ultimate in extreme urbanization. Given what we've seen on-screen, it seems to be the latter.

Like Washington, the capital of the Star Wars galaxy clearly has a height limit, with a canopy of blocky same-height buildings rolling over the landscape, and monuments like the Jedi Temple (above) dominating the skyline. But unlike DC, Coruscant's city planners allow frequent skyscrapers to pierce the blocky canopy.

Unlike other Star Wars cities, Coruscant features busy air-highways, crowded with flying transports. But there don't seem to be enough vehicles to move around a population as dense as Coruscant's must be. Surely the planet is a public transit paradise.

Coruscant's galactic capitol building, with air-highways. Image from Star Wars.

What will we see next?

If the past is any guide, The Force Awakens promises even more aliens and sci-fi landscapes. When I see it, I'll be hoping to see some fun cityscapes too. And, I admit, a few light-saber duels.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


That weird-looking Metro car is probably full of money

Ride Metro long enough and you'll see plenty of non-passenger carrying vehicles on the rails, from The Pickle, to maintenance vehicles, to... The Money Train! Reader Sarah writes in with a question about what, exactly, that is.

A WMATA money train. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Sarah writes,

"I was waiting for a Silver, Orange, or Blue train at Federal Center SW around noon yesterday, and a no passenger train went through. The first car was very bizarre looking and I'm almost certain was #8003. What is this mystery car?"
Our Metro-expert-in-chief, Matt Johnson, had the answer.

Cars 8000, 8001, 8002, and 8003 (formerly 1010, 1011, 1044, and 1045) are the "money train" cars.

WMATA collects coins and bills from the ticket vending machines (TVMs) around the system using railcars modified for that purpose. Throughout the day, Metro employees escorted by MTPD officers use special carts to empty fare revenue from the TVMs and store the carts in rooms in the station until time to put them aboard the Money Train. The Money Train makes two sweeps through the system each weekday.

There are two pairs of Money Train cars. It is not clear to me whether they use both each day or whether they rotate them. Regardless, two Money Train cars are paired with two regular cars and run through the system as a 4-car train. The Money Train cars are used for the carts. The other cars are just backup power and to make sure the train doesn't get caught in any third rail gaps longer than 150 feet.

The Money Train cars are specially modified in a few ways. First, they have extra tinted windows, making it nearly impossible to see inside. All seats have been removed to make way for the carts. The floors are also reinforced to hold the weight of the carts. They also apparently have shotgun racks for MTPD officers to defend the train as necessary. On the exterior of the train, the cars still have plastic mylar rollsigns (as opposed to flipdot (1000 & 4000) or LED (2/3000, 5000, 6000, 7000) signs on revenue cars).

These four cars will be the last 1000 cars running in the system for regular service, though without passengers. Metro's plans call for replacing the Money Train cars with specially-built cars as part of the 8000-series order, which will likely be executed in the early 2020s. That order will replace the Money Train cars, the 2/3000 cars, and may be used to expand the fleet size beyond 50% 8-car operation.

Have a question? We regularly pose reader questions to the Greater Greater Washington contributors, and post appropriate parts of the discussion. Send us you questions by email to We can't answer every question, but we're most likely to answer fact-based informational questions like the one in this post!


If urbanists practice empathy, bike lanes on 6th Street could bridge communities

A church on 6th Street NW opposes plans to build a bike lane there. As a bike advocate, it's easy to be frustrated with that. But really, this is a chance to make region better by putting ourselves in each other's shoes.

New bike lanes on 14th St NW. Photo by the author.

There are a lot of people who want new bike lanes along 6th Street NW, but also a lot who don't. Members of the United House of Prayer, a church with a rich history in DC, are among the most vocal opponents.

If your urbanist-nerd social media stream is anything like mine, you woke up this morning to a flurry of news and commentary about last night's DDOT public hearing on the matter. And reading through some of the arguments against the bike lanes, I got mad and exasperated. Did you?

But wait. Urbanism and smart growth should be about building stronger communities, yes usually through the built environment. But building better communities for everyone. Our movement, our community, whatever you want to call it, doesn't always do a very good job at this. We can do better. We talk a lot about wanting to do better.

So let's stop for a minute.

Those of us who consider ourselves urbanists should look past how and what the churches are saying for a few minutes and think about why the churches saying it the way they are. I am trying, as much as I can, to put myself in those church members' shoes, and to give their motives the benefit of the doubt. And you know what happens when I do that?

I can start to see a very different perspective from my own. I can see how a decades-long history of those in power ignoring my race and culture's needs and voices starts to wear thin, and I can see how this would just seem like the latest in a never-ending stream of decisions that don't take what I want and need into consideration. That don't address what I see as priorities.

If seeing it through that lens seems unfathomable for you, I encourage you to keep privilege in mind. Ask yourself if you might be having a hard time sympathizing because, to you, this is just an instance of one particular group wanting special privileges. But what if it is YOUR OWN group NEVER EVER feeling respected for your wants and needs.

When I try to put myself in UHOP's shoes, I can begin to see some of the fear, and frustration with a changing city and changing times that's causing them to act that way. If they know they won't be listed to because of their skin color, maybe something else we value in this country—freedom of religion—WILL be listened to.

So as we try to build bridges with communities that don't look and sound like us, my plea today to those of you who look like me is to imagine yourself in church members' shoes (and try not to doubt the genuineness of their motives) today.

Have a little compassion for neighbors with a long history of being downtrodden, hurt, and afraid. And then ask yourself, how can we talk about this, and find a solution, that isn't us-vs-them. Even if down the road, others say it is. We can do better.

It sounds from WABA's Freedom of Information Act request that the need for bike lanes here really is a safety issue. I hope we build the lanes. But even more, I hope the urbanist community stops thinking of the people at last night's meeting as "them". "They" are our neighbors. Part of our community.

We should really make an effort (and not just a show of one without any real personal effort and soul-searching) to at least understand where these members of our greater community are coming from. And that's not to shortchange any of the public outreach DDOT has worked to do so far.

If urbanists and smart growth advocates want traction, we should welcome as many people as possible; not shut people out before they've ever had a chance to interact. Let's try to act and speak from a place of compassion, not one of frustration and anger. Let's be open to others' perspectives, motivations, and histories.

For just a moment today, let's set aside the arguments against the bike lanes, and talk of religion and taxes and everything else. Let's try to understand the underlying why of our neighbors (whether they live in the District, or in Maryland, or wherever) making these arguments. Whether or not arguments against the bike lanes are factually correct, or whether we agree with those arguments, let's understand the emotional and historical reasons people opposing the bike lanes feel compelled to speak up.

This isn't our first and won't be our last opportunity, but it is hard. We need to start a real conversation that results in compromises that actually make sense. It's tough to have a fight when there's so much tension on both sides. But I think it's on us to figure out how to make it happen.

I hope we'll give it a try. It's being a good neighbor to our fellow human beings, and it's a good thing to do. Race, and inequality, and history, and understanding are all vital to the future we all want.

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