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Posts in category Public Spaces


Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


Here's why it'd be wrong to shut down Metro east of the Anacostia River

Last week, WMATA reported that one way to close its budget gap could be to close 20 Metro stations outside of rush hour, including seven that serve DC communities that are east of the Anacostia River. Moving forward with this idea would make it far harder for children to get to schools and for adults to access social and political life in the District. It could be a major civil rights violation, too.

Under WMATA's new proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

DC is split up geographically into eight wards, each of which has a representative on the DC Council. The Stadium Armory, Minnesota Avenue, Deanwood, Benning Road, and Capitol Heights stations are all in Ward 7, and Congress Heights is in Ward 8; these two wards are most certainly DC's most underserved.

DC's eight wards. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

There are, of course, 13 others on the list of stations that see low ridership and that Metro could consider closing outside of rush hour, from White Flint to Tysons-- but they aren't nearly as concentrated.

A lot of students use these Metro stations to get to and from school

According to research conducted by the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, an organization committed to improving education in Ward 7, 64% of children in Kenilworth-Parkside (which the Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations serve) travel outside of their neighborhood to attend school, and many rely on Metro to get there.

Altogether, around half of Ward 7's parents send their children to schools outside of their neighborhood. The disruption also impacts students west of the Anacostia, as DC Charter School Board notes that more than 1,100 students travel to charters in Ward 7. While schools generally begin and end during rush hours, students would not necessarily be able to rely on Metro to get home from after school activities if WMATA's idea moves forward.

These Metro stations also have a big impact on access to jobs

Neighborhoods east of the river are predominantly residential, lacking large concentrations of commercial or government that make them destinations for morning commuters. This means that parents, like their children, travel outside their ward to jobs, often during off peak hours.

Due to Ward 7's geography, crosstown bus service is limited to just a handful of lines lines that are already amongst the busiest in DC. Some would lose their jobs or be forced to move if Metro stopped running outside of rush hour.

This map shows the number of jobs in different areas of the District. The bigger the orange circle, the more jobs are in the area. Clearly, people who live east of the Anacostia need to travel west to get to work. Map from OpenDataDC.

These closures would hurt future development and render existing bus service less useful

Ward 7 is primed to grow rapidly in the next few years. Ward 7 has transit-oriented developments proposed at all its Metro stops, like on Reservation 13 and at RFK, which are next to Stadium Armory, Parkside (Minnesota Ave), Kenilworth Courts Revitalization (Deanwood Metro), SOME (Benning Road Metro), and Capitol Gateway (Capitol Heights Metro).

These developments' success depends on their proximity to metrorail stations. Cutting off service would dramatically change the calculus of development in Ward 7, and communities seeing the first green shoots of growth would instantly see them snuffed out. Tens of thousands of homeowners would see their home values decline, and DC would lose millions in tax revenue.

Also, bus routes in these areas are East of the River bus routes are designed to feed into the Metro stations. A plan that would close stations without a significant upgrades to crosstown lines and within-ward service would further compound the transportation problems facing the community.

Why is ridership so low in Ward 7?

There is, of course, the fact that these stations are among the 20 Metro stations that get the lowest ridership. I'm not disputing that. But if we look at why that's the case, it's clear that closing these stations for most of the day is only going to exacerbate social and economic problems.

Ward 7 residents have borne the brunt of WMATA's service disruptions since 2009. The ward's stations are consistently among the most likely to be closed due to weekend track work. Between 2012 and 2013, Orange line stations in Ward 7 were disrupted 19 weekends. This level of disruption continued into 2015, when stations were disrupted for 17 weekends.

Graphic by Peter Dovak.

The impacts of WMATA's work strategies on ridership have been predictable. In 2008, Minnesota Avenue on the Orange line had an average weekday passenger boarding count of 3,552, but by 2015 this number had declined to 2,387 (a 32% decline). This despite the construction of hundreds of new homes in the surrounding area. Benning Road station on the Blue Line declined from 3,382 in 2008 to 2,823 in 2015, or a decline of 16%.

Service to areas east of the Anacostia suffered further disruptions in September 2015, when a transformer exploded near Stadium Armory, and when an insulator exploded at Capitol South in May 2016. Both helped trigger Safe Track, along with a two-week suspension of Metro service to Ward 7 in late June. This work featured extensive reconstruction of the tracks near Stadium Armory, despite years of closures on this very section of track.

Closing these stations wouldn't just be harmful. It could be illegal.

Again, these seven stations aren't the only ones on the list. But the fact that they make up virtually all the Metro stations in a place where the vast majority of residents are black is enough to bring up an important legal question.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says policies should not have an outsized effect on people from a protected class, such as race or gender, where alternatives could achieve the same objectives. The Federal Transit Administration regularly asks transit agencies to do an analysis of the impact of service cuts to make sure they don't disproportionately affect low income and minority riders, and in this case, it's not unreasonable to think they would.

Just take a look at this map, which shows DC's racial makeup and density, and look again at which area is faced with taking on a large percentage of the proposed closures:

A map illustrating racial makeup and density in Washington DC. Each dot represents 25 people. Red dots represent white people, blue are black people, green are Asian, orange are Hispanic, yellow are "other." Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Metro can't close all these stations. It'd create a two-tiered transportation system in which 140,000 DC residents are cut off from heart of DC's economic, political and social life.


National links: Fair housing in Arizona

Arizona is cracking down on racial discrimination in housing, there's lots we don't know about how people get home from transit stations, and in Chicago, old pipes and telegraph lines at excavation sites may no longer be a problem. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by kmaschke on Flickr.

A win for fair housing: In Yuma, Arizona, developers can sue the city if they think reasons for blocking affordable housing projects are race-based, and the Supreme Court recently declined to hear arguments to overturn the decision that allows that. The case in question found that residents in a historically-white neighborhood were, in effect, organizing to keep Latinos from living nearby. (Arizona Daily Star)

The first last mile: Even if the trip isn't that far, lots of people have to figure out how to get between their homes and jobs to where their nearby transit network is running—this is called the first/last mile problem, and people in transportation talk about it all the time. But there's really not much research has on the subject. David King, a professor at Arizona State, says we need to know more about how much riders will tolerate fare changes, whether they're ok transferring, and how much people budget to cover the last portions of their trips. (Transportist)

Mapping Chicago's underground web: Underneath Chicago, long-forgotten wood pipes and telegraph lines make digging or tunneling an undertaking in bravery. But a 3D modeling company has created a way to map all of the underground pipes and wires so excavating a site is far less dangerous. (Chicago Magazine)

A subway in downtown Dallas: The Dallas City Council is supporting major transit projects downtown, including reorganizing the bus system and building a new subway line. This focus on the urban core means not prioritizing a suburban subway line that was competing for funds, which is a big shift for the council. (D Magazine)

A new approach in Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh hopes to add BRT and more bike lanes soon, and to better coordinate transportation projects between all of its departments, the city is opening a new Department of Mobility in Infrastructure. The hope is that the department will make it easier to make things like signal priority for buses and solar-powered autonomous vehicles happen. (Pittsburgh City Paper)

Quote of the Week

"'Suburbs feel the same everywhere you go. All the same streets. All the same trees. All the same houses. It's a way of living. I'm not saying it's bad. I enjoyed it.' ">Brooklyn, though, has character, he said—the parks, the architecture, the people, the shops. 'You walk to the stores, and you talk to the people there. He knows you, and you know him. Every place has a story behind it.'"

- Brooklyn Nets basketball player Luis Scola describes living in Brooklyn after the team moved there from New Jersey. He sold his minivan because he couldn't find parking often enough! (New York Times)


In a week, Reston and Tysons will have Capital Bikeshare!

Capital Bikeshare is coming to Fairfax County. On October 21st, 15 stations will open in Reston and 14 will open in Tysons Corner. Between the two areas, there will be about 200 bikes.

Photo by James Schwartz on Flickr.

An announcement that these stations were coming came out last fall, and in January, Fairfax County finalized the necessary funding to move forward.

Installation has begun already with many stations installed already and waiting for bikes.

CaBi started in DC and Arlington in 2010 and has become a transportation success story across the country. The system has consistently grown since it's initial roll-out of around 50 stations in central Washington and Arlington. Fairfax joins Montgomery County and the city of Alexandria as local governments who have helped expand the system through the region.

Reston is a natural spot for bike sharing in Fairfax. The community is one of the more bike-friendly areas of the county, with an extensive network of paths. The anchor is the W&OD Trail, which by the Wiehle Metro Station and the popular (and growing) Reston Town Center.

A map of the stations coming to Reston. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Tysons is the county's business hub (it's even got a rush hour at lunch time!), and CaBi's arrival will be another step in making the area less car-dependent and more like a bustling downtown with lots of transportation options. The hope is that CaBi can help bolster the county's pedestrian and bicycle improvements coming to the area.

A map of the stations coming to Tysons. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Fairfax County officials plan on holding a ribbon cutting event for the system at both Reston and Tysons on October 21. They will dedicate the stations at Reston and then at Tysons a few hours later.

While these stations will be the farthest afield from the system's core, there are connections coming: Falls Church wants its first stations ready to go sometime in 2017, and the system has been steadily growing outward since its inception.

Who knows; maybe in a few years it will be possible to ride from one end of the W&OD trail to other and avoid the extra time charge by switching bikes along the length of the route.


How turning an old train track into a trail helped transform Charlotte

In Charlotte, an emergency access path next to a light rail line doubles as a popular trail. It's a public space that has helped transform the city's identity, and a great example of how to take something old and unused and make it new.

A section of the Charlotte Rail Trail. Image courtesy of Charlotte Center City.

With a little over 800,000 residents, Charlotte is North Carolina's largest city, one of the biggest in the southeast, and the 17th-biggest in the US. But despite this large population the city ranks poorly when it comes to how easy it is to walk around in.

But Charlotte's transportation reputation is changing fast. It opened its first light rail line in 2007 and now has a streetcar as well. Another big change in Charlotte has happened without huge investments in transit technology: the Charlotte Rail Trail, an urban trail in central Charlotte that runs along the emergency access path for the light rail.

The trail, which opened in 2007, runs alongside the tracks for the Lynx Blue Line for 4.5 miles between the city's Central Business District (known as Uptown) and the formerly industrial South End neighborhood.

The Rail Trail has helped transform Charlotte

The Lynx Blue was a great addition to the neighborhood, jump-starting a lot of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the area. But the neighborhood's industrial heritage meant that parks and other public space were in short supply in a rapidly changing place. Part of the construction for the Blue Line included an emergency access path for first responders that is otherwise open to people walking or cycling in the area.

A trio of individuals, David Furman, Terry Shook, and Richard Petersheim, thought that the path could be a lot more than just a way for ambulances and fire trucks to get to the light rail. They envisioned public art, a better way to get around, and trail-side retail— a "linear commons" that would become a destination and public space valued by nearby residents and the city at large.

From there, Charlotte Center City, a business improvement district (BID) that works to promote neighborhoods like Uptown and South End, took over the organizing, working with developers, the city, and other stakeholders to make the trail happen.

Chairs along the trail encourage people to hang out and linger. Image from Charlotte Center City.

Today, the trail is both a great way to get around and a destination all to itself.

According to Erin Gillespie, who works to improve the trail with Charlotte Center City, trail usage has nearly doubled in the short time the trail has been opened. 1250 people per day were using the trail in 2014, and the number climbed over 2000 in 2015 (for reference, the number of people who biked across the 14th Street Bridge on the average weekday in May of 2015 was a little under 2,250).

Surveys of nearby residents say many of them use and rely on the trail in their day to day lives. The trail is busiest in the evenings, when commuters and residents use it to enjoy and explore their city.

Dining along the trail at the Lynx's Bland Station. Image from Charlotte City Center

Along the trail, there's public art and nearby retail. There are also events that get people to stop jogging and to start lingering.

Buildings that would normally avoid putting any entrances close to a rail line are instead building entrances to entice trail based customers. Public art and furniture line the entire length of the trail inviting people to sit and admire the scenery and even participate with special events along the trail. New connections between the street and the trail make it easier for people to get to the trail, which allows more people to enjoy what many have discovered for themselves.

This restaurant faces the tracks and trail rather than the street. Image from Google Maps.

That identity may not always mesh with people's idea of a walking and biking trail. There is not a lot of tree cover, but that's hard to avoid, as much of the South End was developed as an industrial and warehouse district. Because Charlotte Center City has worked with landowners to provide easements for trail access, the trail has actually been able to create more open space than was there before.

Meanwhile, Charlotte does have a separate Greenway program aimed at improving the park spaces and trail network within Charlotte. The Rail Trail will be a part of that overall network but keep its own identity as a place with a lot of activity.

Still, there are challenges to improving the trail from what it is today (here, you can check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's report on common hurdles for projects like this all over the country). Finding the space necessary to develop the Rail Trail in the face of intense real estate pressure has been a constant challenge. Despite its popularity and use, the trail does not have any dedicated funding and is largely improved with small grants.

And while working with developers has yielded great results it has also led to piecemeal improvements. Gaps in the trail do persist, especially when it comes to getting to the trail itself. Local streets and the trail are not always at the same elevation and paths between the two can be inadequate.

Trails like Charlotte's help spur positive growth

Our region is certainly no stranger to trails that run along right of ways from other forms of transportation. The Metropolitan Branch Trail and Custis Trail run right along railroads and highways. One big feature of the Purple Line in Maryland will be its running alongside the Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

We should keep Charlotte's Rail Trail and the excitement it has created in mind when we hear opposition to the Purple Line that says a train next to a trail will keep people from enjoying the area. I asked Gillespie if there had been any local opposition to developing the trail the way it has been, and she struggled to think of concerted efforts to put a stop to things.

She added that the smooth process might be because a lot of the work to build up the trail was done before South End really got comfortable in its identity as a residential neighborhood. There was never a chance for people to hold onto their vision of the neighborhood the way Chevy Chase has with the Purple Line.

The need for space and to negotiate with developers is also reminiscent of NoMa and its struggles to find park space for one of Washington's most rapidly growing neighborhoods. In Charlotte, the Center City BID has been able to help a lot by coordinating and managing all of the stakeholders that have in interest in the city's redevelopment. NoMa is working to do that as well but the big pay off has yet to arrive.

Charlotte is by no means done with redefining itself as one of America's urban places. A rail trail extension is slated to open next year and the Blue Line is getting its own extension as well. Gillespie said she's excited about these improvements because it will mean more people will get to experience the Rail Trail and help cement the path's reputation as one of Charlottean's favorite spots.

If you have recently visited Charlotte and traveled along rail trail tell us what you think in the comments.

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.


WMATA is up against a budget deficit. Today, it floated ideas for some very big, very difficult changes.

WMATA is again estimating that its operating costs will far outpace revenues. To close the gap, the agency is considering closing several stations during off-peak hours, decreasing how often trains run, and cutting some bus routes.

Under WMATA's new proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

The official budget proposal for FY2018 won't come out until November, but a draft of a presentation that WMATA staff will give to the Board of Directors on Thursday gives some insight into big changes the agency is considering in order to close an estimated $275 million budget gap.

One option would eliminate service to 20 low-ridership stations during off-peak hours (midday, evening, and weekends). Many of these stations are located east of the Anacostia River, but White Flint and Tysons are also on the list.

Another option would eliminate service for bus routes with the highest operating costs per rider. One of the routes listed is Metro's new bus rapid transit service, Metroway, which runs largely in dedicated bus lanes with bigger, better bus stops.

Some other options on the table include cutting more employees, increasing bus and rail fares, increasing peak-period rail headways from every six minutes to every eight, making weekend service less frequent, and asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to contribute more funding.

These are bleak choices, but absent an infusion of funding, WMATA has to balance its budget somehow. What do you think it should do?


Forget the Washington Monument; DC's tallest tower is actually just north of Petworth

Most people consider the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument to be DC's tallest tower. It's certainly the city's most iconic. But it's not the tallest. That distinction belongs to the 761-foot Hughes Tower.

Hughes Tower. Photo by thebrightwoodian on Flickr.

Hughes Tower is in Brightwood, near the corner of Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street NW. It's primarily a radio transmission tower, broadcasting signals for the Metropolitan Police Department.

The tower is owned by the District of Columbia, and was built in 1989.

Although the tower vastly overshoots DC's usual height limit, transmission towers are one of several exempted categories of structures. Thus, a 761-foot tower doesn't necessarily violate federal law, though DC's zoning code imposes other limits that prevent anyone from just building such a tower. The National Capital Planning Commission also wasn't happy about this one.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

We initially ran this post in 2014, but since nothing has gone up that's taller than the Hughes Tower, we wanted to share it with you again!

Public Spaces

Thanks to World War II, we love to bike here

Hains Point, which sits at the southern end of DC's East Potomac Park, has long been one of the District's prime destinations for serene river views—especially for cyclists who want a flat, lightly-trafficked, gently curving course for serious exercise. Yet even though it was built in 1917, it only became a popular place to bike after World War II (and car rationing) started.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Take Ohio Drive well past the tidal basin and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and you'll hit East Potomac Park, with groves of cherry trees lining the fringes of its 36-hole golf course, and eventually Hains Point, where a group of picnic tables command a view far down the Potomac River. The roads that encircle the island are popular with DC-area road cyclists, who gather in groups to ride in clockwise laps.

What many might not know is that its track-like drive first gained popularity as a cycling destination during the "Rosie the Riveter" days of World War Two, when the Park Service sought to encourage cycling instead of driving as a way to see the park.

Hains Point, as seen looking south from central DC. Photo by Valerie on Flickr.

According to the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey description of East Potomac Park:

The most popular means of access by far, however, was by automobile. As the number of automobiles in the District increased, the park attracted more and more visitors seeking the cool breezes at Hains Point in the midst of Washington's hot summers. To accommodate the increasing number of motorists, the OPB&G built a shelter with restrooms at the southern tip of the park in 1922.

When the United States entered World War II, NPS closed the tea house at Hains Point since its use as a recreational automotive destination was inconsistent with the national effort to conserve tires and gas... A bicycle-rental facility in the park thrived on the business from the new crowd of wartime workers.

Regional population had increased with the war and subsequently, traffic congestion worsened. The stables closed in 1950 when the mixture of automobiles and equestrians were seen as a safety hazard. Likewise the demand for bicycles decreased and the rental shop closed in 1955.

Although the bike rental shop might be long-gone, East Potomac Park does have a Capital Bikeshare station.

Meanwhile, another historic way of getting to Hains Point is about to make a comeback.

For a brief period between 1919 and 1921, the park was accessible not only by automobile, but also by ferry. A boat called the Bartholdi ferried passengers between the government wharf in Southwest and the tip of West Potomac Park, named Hains Point in 1917.
The Wharf's developers promise that they will re-launch a ferry across the Washington Channel after the development opens next year, docking at a newly built pier behind the fish market. The bike shop that's proposed nearby could prove convenient for flat-tire-stricken cyclists, and visitors to the park's golf course, mini-golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool, picnic areas, and cherry groves could enjoy different dining options besides the golf course's snack bar.
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