Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

To a pedestrian, a road's a tiny space with danger just beside

Pedestrians surrender a lot of public space to cars. It's something society has accepted, but this clever illustration from Claes Tingvall of the Swedish Road Administration shows how extreme our allocation of public space has become, from the pedestrian's point of view.

DDOT director Brown stands up to opposition to mini-circles

Permanent traffic circles will go in at two intersections in American University Park despite a last-ditch effort by some residents to block them. Transportation chief Matt Brown personally got involved to keep the project going.

Photo by waltarrrrr on Flickr.

On Friday, November 14th, DDOT Traffic Systems Maintenance Manager James Cheeks asked American University, who had agreed to pay for the circles, to delay the construction until there could be another community meeting. Residents, who had already endured a number of meetings on this topic, were surprised at the sudden shift from DDOT at the eleventh hour.

But in an email Monday night, Director Matt Brown said DDOT had collected enough public input and heard enough discussion to move forward with the circles. Installation should start today.

Simply put, we believe that these mini-circles are an appropriate way to improve safety. That said, we will continue to work with American University, MPD, and you to monitor these locations after installation. DDOT will also reach out to neighbors near the southern mini-circle, where we have heard specific concerns about operations, to discuss how we've addressed those in the final design. We are committed to making these mini-circles valued elements of the community.

For these reasons, I am asking American University to proceed with construction. Once again thank you for contacting me with your comments and concerns. I know that this action will not please everyone, but I am confident that safety will be improved.

Why Cheeks asked American University to hold off or who asked for another hearing in the first place remains vague.

"The reason for the delay and how it came about is unclear," wrote Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E commissioner Sam Serebin, who represents the area. "This project has certainly not suffered from too little process (anyone who suggests as much just hasn't been paying attention) and the ANC still supports the project."

The current, temporary circles.

One possibility, though, is 3E chair Matthew Frumin, who was the target of the opponents' petition. Though he himself supports the circles, Frumin a message to Cheeks, Brown, DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe, and Councilmember Mary Cheh at 3:15 pm on Friday afternoon asking for another community meeting. Cheeks' request for a delay came just three hours later. Meanwhile, Cheh's office reiterated her support for the circles.

In multiple emails to DDOT and councilmember Mary Cheh, other 3E commissioners made it clear that Frumin had taken his action without first discussing the issue with the entire commission.

Director Brown deserves praise for standing up for this project despite efforts to delay it further. There has been enough public input; city agencies need to decide when they've heard all of the substantive arguments about a project and then be willing to move forward. AU Park residents will enjoy safer streets because Brown took action.

Veterans Day closures: No "commutemageddon," and even some perks for those not working

Though roads closed and the Blue Line stopped running on Veterans Day, crowding and waits for commuters weren't as bad as some had feared. For people who had the day off, the closures even created an impromptu "open streets" event on car-free avenues. But many details, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists, came as a surprise.

Car-free Independence Avenue. Photo by Joe in DC on Flickr.

The Concert for Valor did attract large crowds to the National Mall, but they were nowhere near the 800,000 people that concert organizers initially predicted. Immediately beforehand, they lowered the estimate to closer to 250,000.

"Our initial indications are everything went very smoothly," said National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson Mike Litterst. NPS was responsible for managing and coordinating road closures and security for the concert with other agencies.

Streets closed at 6 am for a 7 pm event

Thirteen hours before the concert began, all of the streets closed around the mall, including long stretches of Constitution and Independence Avenues and everything from 3rd to 17th Streets as far north as Pennsylvania Avenue and as far south as Maine Avenue. Commenters on our pre-Veterans Day post about the changes asked why the closures could not have begun after the morning rush.

"In general… closure time for the streets is a decision jointly made by all of the participating public safety and law enforcement agencies for safety and security reasons," said Litterst. "It allows the secure area to be properly and diligently swept and secured prior to the concertgoers entering. It is a security plan and process that has been refined over numerous large-scale events in and around the Mall over the years, including Independence Day, inaugurations, and large-scale races, such as the Marine Corps Marathon."

Cyclists, walkers, and joggers, however, enjoyed the car-free spaces. Throughout the day, photos and videos of people enjoying a nearly empty Constitution Avenue emerged.

"That was pretty fun. Let's close down Constitution more often," said Rob Pitingolo, who shot a video of the car-free boulevard.

But actually crossing the Mall was more difficult. Anyone entering the area between Jefferson and Madison Drives, 17th Street, and the Capitol had to pass through security checks, and those only opened at 10 am.

Metro served 40% more riders than last Veterans Day

Metrorail trains carried about 523,000 passengers on Veterans Day, says spokesperson Dan Stessel. Last year, when there was no large event, roughly 375,000 people rode Metro.

Personally, I noticed slightly more people than usual on my morning and evening commutes on Metro from Shaw to Braddock Road. Despite fewer trains and no Blue Line, my experience was better than on previous "minor" holidays when scheduled track work and crowded transfer stations made the inconveniences of reduced schedules even worse.

Light crowds on the Yellow Line heading into DC at Pentagon at about 5:30 pm. Photo by the author.

"From our perspective, the day went really well," said Stessel. "Service levels were appropriate to meet ridership demand at all hours of the day, and we believe we struck an appropriate balance between the needs of regular commuters with those heading to the Concert for Valor."

Greater Greater Washington readers asked why Metro didn't keep the Blue Line open until later in the day. Metro also banned bikes all day.

"No doubt, the service changes were in place to handle crowds that, in the end, were not as large as the Park Service permit," said Stessel. "We make no apologies for this. We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."

What could be better next time?

Some of the details of the street closures and service changes got lost in the media blitz before the event. For example, NPS and the press could have more clearly communicated that Constitution and Independence Avenues would be free of cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists. Most news reports focused on the effect on drivers.

Also, NPS could work to minimize the impact on cyclists. While drivers could still use the 3rd Street (I-395) and 9th Street tunnels to cross the Mall, cyclists couldn't. They had to cross either east of 3rd or west of 17th. NPS could designate corridors, perhaps along one of the streets at the edge of the security cordon, for riders to cross the Mall. Many, myself included, would have taken advantage of these.

Street trees can't ask for more soil themselves, but new DC standards will help them get it

Trees are a special quality of DC's urban environment, but the city's tree canopy has been shrinking in recent years. A new set of design standards ensures new construction on the roads and in public space includes enough soil so that trees can thrive.

Photo by Dewita Soeharjono on Flickr.

In April 2014, the District Department of Transportation released new green infrastructure design standards for its projects. A major goal is to capture rain directly where it falls rather than dumping it into sewers or rivers, which causes flooding, spreads pollution, taxes sewer systems, and wastes an increasingly valuable resource.

The standards push for green areas to retain stormwater in heavily-paved areas like sidewalks, plazas, and streets. With them, DC joined a growing group of cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago that use "low-impact design" features to help restore ecological function to urban areas.

But the District is distinguishing itself by also requiring a minimum soil volume for street trees, which must now get 600 to 1,500 cubic feet of soil (depending on how large they can grow).

Trees play an important role in our lives

Many of us have fond memories linked to trees. Perhaps you had a favorite climbing spot as a kid or you planted one in the yard of the first house you bought. Maybe you regularly cool off in a tree's shade during a heat wave or have called the parks department when one was vandalized in your neighborhood.

People instinctively want to be around trees, which makes sense when you consider how good they are for human health. Trees make cities cleaner, more inviting, safer, and more profitable.

According to Casey Trees, a local nonprofit, DC's tree canopy currently covers 35 percent of its land, down from 50 percent in 1950. Advocates want to to turn that around and reach 40 percent by 2035. An increase of five percent may sound small, but to meet this goal the District will need to add more than 2,000 acres of tree canopyan estimated 216,000 trees.

It's not just about the number of trees. While trees are part of almost every DC street, mature urban trees are rare, meaning the city frequently loses out on the value and utility they bring to public spaces.

Mature trees are significantly more valuable than young ones to the ecosystem. A tree with a 30-inch trunk circumference delivers 70 times the air quality benefits of a tree with a 3-inch trunk. And mature trees "intercept," or prevent from hitting the ground, far more rainwater per year than young ones. That reduces the amount of stormwater that flows into sewers and rivers, which frequently causes flooding and carries pollutants. One model found a 40-year-old hackberry tree intercepted 5,387 gallons of rainfall per year while a 5-year-old one intercepted only 133 gallonsa 40-fold difference.

Soil is key to healthy trees

The long-term success of a tree is fundamentally linked to the quantity and quality of the soil it grows in. To make a real impact the District needs to not just plant trees, but give them the space and nutrients they need to grow to maturity. , soil retains rainwater directly where it falls, which is good because diverted rainwater leads to flooding, spreads pollution, taxes sewer systems, and wastes an increasingly valuable resource.

For context, the average street tree in a typical 4' x 4' space can have as little as 75 cubic feet of soil. This is less than one tenth of what experts recommend for long-term tree health. The new policy will guarantee space for roots, and coupled with proper care and maintenence, will enable trees to grow and thrive for decades to come.

There are an increasing number of ways to put soil below streets, parking lots, and plazas to give trees soil even in dense or pedestrian-heavy areas. For example, the new American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial at Washington Avenue and 2nd and C streets SW, which my company worked on, suspends the pavement with soil cells, modular, stacking units that leave space for soil and roots for 30 trees.

Soil cells at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. Image from DeepRoot.

DC's renewed commitment to trees will pay off in the long term

These new green infrastructure standards arise from years of discussion, public comment, and pilot projects. "DDOT has attempted to change the culture of urban stormwater management by applying these standards to all capital improvement and private sector projects in the public space," said (former) DDOT Chief Engineer Ronaldo Nicholson in a press release in April about the new standards.

Residents might not notice all that much change immediately. After all, trees take years to grow and reach their potential. But our children will.

Mini-circles calm traffic in AU Park but stir opposition

For a year now, drivers and cyclists on 42nd Street NW encountered a traffic calming device that's new to DC: Small traffic circles made out of plastic pylons. Permanent versions will soon replace them. But not all neighbors are pleased.

42nd Street is a popular route through American University Park. It offers a way to reach homes, schools, and a senior center without using busy Wisconsin Avenue. But drivers speed through the area and it was not safe enough for pedestrians, a 2011 study of the area found.

The solution? Mini-circles, a traffic calming device that's common in places such as Seattle, Portland, and Palo Alto, California. These provide a more pleasurable way to slow traffic than a speed bump. They are more effective than stop signs, since drivers may ignore a sign but must slow down to navigate the circle.

Photo by Seattle Department of Transportation on Flickr.

On 42nd Street, DDOT installed two mini-roundabouts a year ago to slow cars but keep the road working as a through route. Warren Street splits a block to the west and meets 42nd in two separate curved intersections where drivers take the turns too fast and often blindly.

American University agreed to pay for the traffic calming as part of negotiations over its most recent campus plan. That will fund more permanent versions, whose construction is scheduled to start on November 19.

Some neighbors say no

When the circles first appeared, some drivers complained of being confused. Sherry Cohen, a resident, said she thought the circles were dangerous.

The data, at least in Seattle, says otherwise: A 1997 study found that crashes dropped 94 percent in areas that got mini-circles. The city found that, "In addition to reducing [crashes], traffic circles have been effective at reducing vehicle speeds but have not significantly reduced traffic volumes."

Recently, Joan Silver, who lives right at the corner of 42nd and Warren, started circulating a petition opposing the permanent circles. She wants a new study to consider instead using stop signs or speed bumps.

Silver complains that the circles "do not satisfactorily or adequately address the range of traffic-related safety issues at the specified location, and ... have generated a number of dangerous conditions in their own right and negative impacts on properties immediately surrounding them."

Matthew Frumin, who chairs the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (3E), canvassed the neighborhood after receiving the complaints. In an email to the other commissioners and some of the petitioners, Frumin said that neighbors around the northern circle strongly favored making it permanent.

"While they do not think the circles are the only possible solution, they believe even the temporary northern circle has improved traffic conditions considerably," he wrote, "and that in the next phase when the circle takes its new shape and the crosswalk is added, conditions will improve further. If there is not a unanimous consensus around that, there is a very strong and decisive one in favor of the circle." Residents around the southern circle had more mixed views.

Comments on the petition say that the circles confuse some drivers (who even may go around the wrong way) or cause backups. Others complain that the pylons are ugly.

The permanent circles should address the aesthetic complaints. They will have landscaping that will create an attractive focal point for the residential neighborhood.

And fewer drivers will be "confused" as they get used to the circles. In other cities, drivers have not found them confusing or have adjusted. Perhaps a sign could help; some circles have them, though signs are also less attractive.

Trying new designs that have worked elsewhere should be the norm for our neighborhood streets. Hopefully DDOT will continue to experiment with ways to slow traffic down and make streets safer and more pleasant for everyone.

It'll be a rough commute this Veterans Day for people who still have to work

While government workers have the day off for Veterans Day, many people don't. They will face challenges traveling around the region: Metro will temporary suspend service on the Blue Line, and road closures for the Concert for Valor will block driving and bicycling routes along and across the National Mall.

Image from WMATA.

The Concert for Valor, which begins at 7 pm, is expected to draw up to 800,000 people. Corporate sponsors are funding additional Metro trains to handle the crowds for the concert.

Metro plans to operate weekday peak frequencies with more eight-car trains than it normally offers immediately before and after the concert. However, Metro will suspend the Blue Line and replace it with some Yellow Line trains running to Franconia-Springfield. A bus bridge will connect Pentagon and Rosslyn, and a special shuttle service will serve Arlington Cemetery.

The National Park Service, which is managing access to the Mall for the concert, will close Constitution and Independence Avenues and all of the cross streets from 17th Street to 4th Street (except the 9th Street tunnel) starting at 6 am.

"Minor holidays" mean crowded trains

Metro has faced criticism for crowded trains on so-called "minor" holidays during previous years. Metro ridership declines on these holidays, which include Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veterans Day when government offices are closed but many private sector employees remain open, its own data shows. Metro frequently reduced service on these days and scheduled track work. However, that meant long waits and crowded trains and platforms.

The morning commute this Veterans Day will likely look a lot like ones past. All terminal stations will see a train only every 12 minutes, with the Yellow Line replacing the Blue Line at Franconia-Springfield. There is no scheduled track work that could disrupt this schedule.

The evening commute will benefit from the additional trains that are planned for the concert but commuters will have to share trains with the crowds bound for the Mall.

Cyclists have to take long detours

Cyclists will face the biggest issues commuting across the Mall tomorrow. There will be no opportunities to cross the Mall between 3rd Street and 23rd Street. Jefferson and Madison Drives along the Mall, both popular east-west bike routes, will also be closed.

Unlike drivers, cyclists do not have the option of taking the Third Street Tunnel (I-395) or the Southwest Freeway to bypass the closures. People can get to offices located south of Independence Avenue by taking Maine Avenue SW to either 3rd Street or 7th Street SW. However, neither is ideal as there is no contiguous east-west route through the L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Center SW neighborhoods from either street.

Crossing the 14th Street Bridge and getting to or from Virginia from downtown DC will be tough. The bridge approach from East Basin Drive and Ohio Drive SW will be open but access will only be available from 23rd Street or via a roundabout journey through Southwest that includes looping south to Maine Ave SW and returning north. Another option is to bypass the 14th Street bridge entirely and use either the Memorial Bridge or Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

All of the options for cyclists headed to places like Alexandria and Crystal City from the District are likely to add significant mileage to their journeys, especially those coming from points further north or east of the Mall.

Cyclists are already feeling the impact. 4th Street between Jefferson and Madison had been closed since at least the evening of Tuesday, November 4. Jefferson closed today between 3rd and 4th without any advance notice. This has affected my daily commute along the Mall to the 14th Street Bridge; I could not find any notification of these closures after a Google search.

3rd Street and Madison Drive on November 10. Photo by the author.

Will tomorrow bring chaos?

A lot of people will still need to get to work on Veterans Day, but the Metro frequencies, road network, and other transportation infrastructure seem to be set up with the assumption that the only people traveling are going to the concert.

Agencies could do better to plan major events on the Mall on a minor holiday. Metro should ensure that there is frequent enough rail service to keep trains uncrowded and waits reasonable, while NPS should consider the rapidly growing number of bike commuters and provide workable alternative bike routes.

Montgomery County's BRT challenge: Getting it right

Montgomery County is starting to plan the specific details for the 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit project county leaders approved last year. Its success will depend heavily upon whether the current wide, fast roads stay that way and just get bus lanes added on, or whether they become pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevards that welcome transit riders and respond to community needs.

A transit corridor street design by the National Association of Transportation Officials with 10' lanes, pedestrian refuges, and cycletracks.

Last summer, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) released initial designs for BRT on Georgia Avenue North. The plan called for too many lanes that, at 12 to 14 feet, were far too wide, and unnecessarily large buffer zones that altogether would have required the use of eminent domain.

According to Jeff Speck, a smart growth expert, the wide lanes would be "disastrous for safety" because research shows they encourage speeding.

Yet most of the corridors Montgomery plans to use for BRT are fast, six-lane roads. Sidewalks squeeze against the side. Intersections bulge out with multiple turn lanes and corners with high-speed, sweeping right turns.

In other words, Montgomery County is planning to install BRT on roads that cyclists and pedestrians alike avoid for safety reasons, a measure that will limit access to key intersections and strengthen barriers between communities and destinations.

The Maryland State Highway Administration's proposed cross section for Alternative 5 for BRT on Georgia Avenue features 12' and 14' lanes.

It's important to get the design details right from the start

Putting BRT on these roads without making other fundamental changes to the road's design would not only discourage walking and bicycling, but also keep transit ridership down. By planning an environment that's welcoming of pedestrians and bicycles, Montgomery County can transform key arterials into attractive, safe, multi-modal boulevards that better serve all users.

High speed right turns, and sidewalks up against high speed traffic make Rockville Pike an unpleasant place to walk. Image from Google Maps.

Planning for pedestrians and cycles isn't just a nice thing to do; it's also good business because it increases access to commerce. Chuck Marohn, an engineer who writes Strong Towns, would likely call most of Montgomery's BRT corridors "stroads," or street/road hybrids that "[move] cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment." Many strip retail centers and malls along our high speed stroads are struggling while businesses are thriving in walkable downtowns and new, mixed-use centers.

Other communities around the country have wisely invested in making BRT corridors more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. Oakland, for example, is planning what has been called "California's longest complete street" for International Boulevard, its BRT corridor. Oakland's 17-mile BRT system, scheduled to open in 2016, will have wider sidewalks, bulbouts, streetlights, and bicycle lanes (some of them protected) along the entire length.

UC Berkeley student recommendations for improved pedestrian and bicycle accommodations on the International Boulevard BRT corridor.

How community members can get involved

Representative community input will also be critical to designing a successful system, as residents are the ones who know where safety hazards and trouble spots exist.

The SHA and Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) have formalized a way for community members to give feedback on the first four of Montgomery's ten planned BRT routes (Viers Mill Road from Rockville to Wheaton, Georgia Avenue North from Olney to Wheaton, MD 355 from Clarksburg to Bethesda, and US 29 from Burtonsville to Silver Spring). Each site will have a Bus Rapid Transit Corridor Advisory Committee that, starting in December, will meet every other month to address where stations should go, where bike and pedestrian routes are needed, and how the street should be designed.

The committees are an important chance for residents, businesses, and other stakeholders to achieve consensus and help get the details right. If a diverse and representative range of community members answers the call for applications, Montgomery County can not only dramatically improv its transit service, but also turn some auto-oriented corridors into walkable, bikeable places.

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