Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Events


Join us at the 2014 Smart Growth Social

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


Gabe Klein. Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability


The region needs to hear the call to action on climate change

400,000 peopleor 0.1% of the US populationflooded the streets of New York City for the recent People's Climate March. But if we're to make a difference, the outpouring of support for action on climate change needs to translate to action locally.


Photo by Climate Action Network.

With the evidence, and the movement for serious action on climate change, growing every day, it's the moment for those of us in the DC region working for more sustainable, inclusive cities to push for change. In order to act globally, we have to work locally.

The march was led by those hit first and worst by climate change, from Superstorm Sandy survivors to Pacific Islanders. That's because climate change is no longer a problem of the future, but one that is unraveling before us with each extreme weather event. The derecho delivered that wakeup call to the DC region, while new reports continue to highlight the vulnerabilities of our region to storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise.

In recent years, climate change has moved far beyond the domain of liberals into the center of concern for such mainstream institutions as the US military, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Washington Post editorial board. That's because many are waking to the fact that climate change is quite possibly the biggest threat to human existence that we have ever faced.


Photo by Climate Action Network... on Flickr.

And yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence, we continue to fail to muster the political will to do much of anything about it. That's where this community has a huge role to play.

We know the role that smart, compact development and sustainable transportation options can play in cutting carbon emissions; report after report has documented how our transportation and land use decisions taken together could make an enormous difference.

Today, the average household in a dense, transit-oriented household emits approximately half as much carbon as a household in low density suburban development. With transportation and buildings together making up approximately 70% of regional emissions, steering more development toward compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods is critical.


Energy Consumption by Housing Type and Location. Image from Jonathan Rose Companies LLC and the EPA.

At the same time, the general public intuitively understands that those living in a walkable, urban community typically drive less, live in and have to heat or cool less space, own less stuff, and generally use less energy in their overall lifestyle.


Photo by Dan Alcalde on Flickr.

But of course, it's always easier to agree on solutions in theory than to agree with how to implement them in practice. Urbanists see this multiplied tens and hundreds of times over again, whether it's traffic engineers insisting we need to build ever more road capacity while shrinking biking and walking amenities, like with MCDOT's plans for White Flint. Or neighbors preventing more people from living near transit where they could drive and emit less, like at Takoma station.

These battles we fight throughout the region sometimes seem small, but added up and multiplied over time, their outcomes will mean a huge difference in our region's contribution to climate change.

We also of course need to try to pull the larger political levers available to us. The Transportation Planning Board (TPB) forecasts that it will not meet the climate change goals that the region has agreed to in its transportation plans. They say transportation emissions will continue to rise till 2040, but per capita emissions will fall. Unfortunately, the climate is not concerned with how we slice and dice the numbers so long as more carbon is pouring into the atmosphere.

A recent report by ITDP is one of the few that has mustered the courage to suggest and actually model what so obviously needs to happen: stop investing in new road capacity, and make major investments in transit, walking, and cycling infrastructure. Not surprisingly, transportation emissions would dramatically fall 40% more than following a car-centric pattern, while also happening to save the world economy $100 trillion. With 1200 new lane miles for cars in the pipeline in this region, now is the time to get serious about shifting investments away from new carbon-intensive infrastructure, and towards sustainable transportation options.


"HS" refers to ITDP's "High Shift" scenario that would entail major shifts of public investment away from car-oriented infrastructure and to walking, cycling, and transit infrastructure. Image from ITDP.

It's likely that most people aren't thinking about climate change and humanity's future when debating that new sidewalk that might tear up their lawn, or that new bus lane that might slightly lengthen their commute, and it's hard to blame them. That's why in decisions large and small, it's our job to invite our fellow residents, planners, bureaucrats, and elected officials to join us in looking at the big picture.

Too often, conversations over land use and transportation issues devolve into petty and self-interested fights. It's difficult to flip a switch and change in an instant all of the car-oriented infrastructure we've built over the last 50 years.

But if we all call on our neighbors, traffic engineers, and elected officials to pick their heads up out of the weeds and join us in taking on the biggest issue of our time, one sidewalk, bike lane, and affordable transit-oriented development at a time, we just might do our part in the biggest fight of our lives.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of 350.org and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.

Roads


How a road in White Flint is like a ski area

White Flint's master plan calls for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road. The Montgomery County DOT (MCDOT) is disregarding that plan and says it can only build such a road once traffic declines. That's a backward way to look at changing travel patterns.


Photo by Owen Richard on Flickr.

Would you build safe ski trails only after novice skiers showed up?

People for Bikes uses an excellent ski area metaphor to explain why creating a complete grid of safe walking and cycling infrastructure is so critical. Especially in suburban areas, bicycling and walking most places would be considered a black diamond adventure, not for the faint of heart.

Ski areas design their trails so that the vast majority of people who are not expert skiers can find a safe and easy way all the way to the bottom. No ski area would build only black diamond runs and then announce that it would be happy to create some green circles, but only once there are already a lot of novice skiers on the mountain. The novice skiers only come when there are appropriate trails for them. The same goes for walkers and cyclists.

DC has proven that changes to street designs cause shifts in travel patterns. Its transportation department has invested heavily in a network of new bike lanes and protected cycle tracks in recent years. Just last week, new census figures showed that the number of bike commuters in DC shot up from 2.2% in 2009 to 4.5% in 2013, placing DC second only to Portland.

DC didn't wait to prove that there were a lot of cyclists on a particular road before making it safe for cyclists. Instead, it made cycling more attractive, and the cyclists showed up.


Old Georgetown Road in White Flint. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Road designs drive change; they don't need to wait for change

The White Flint Sector Plan, which came out of a long planning process, extensive public input, and county council action, clearly calls for a four-lane road with bike lanes, sidewalks, and a shared-use path that's part of a Recreation Loop.

County transportation officials are instead planning road that's eight lanes if you count block-long turn lanes, with no bike lanes and no Recreation Loop path. They say state rules require a wider road in White Flint until traffic levels decline, when they could rebuild the road to match the plan.

The logic of re-building a road twice makes little sense. If this is really a state requirement, then White Flint provides the perfect opportunity to change or get an exception to whatever regulation prevents the safe street design promised to residents.

The goal of the White Flint sector plan is unmistakable. The first sentence reads, "this Sector Plan vision establishes policies for transforming an auto-oriented suburban development pattern into an urban center of residences and businesses where people walk to work, shops and transit."

More specifically, the plan aims to increase the number of residents getting around without a car from 26% to 50%. It should go without saying that the county will never reach those goals if it spends its limited dollars making it more difficult for people to walk and bike.

But MCDOT and the state are focusing first and foremost on moving cars. If land use changes and a better-connected road grid also make car traffic decline, they maybe they will redesign the roads to accommodate those pedestrians.

This is the wrong approach. The road design inherently encourages or discourages people from walking or biking. When people see a brand new, wide open road, they see it's easier to drive and are more likely to do so. When they know there's a wide, safe path all the way to Metro, they are more likely to opt to bike or walk. Conversely, when they have to cross eight lanes of hot pavement only to walk on a dirt path where the sidewalk is missing or there's just a narrow sidewalk next to high speed traffic, they make that choice only if they have to.

As White Flint community leader Ed Reich wrote, "I know that having to cross a road that wide will be a substantial deterrent to going to Pike & Rose, despite the great restaurants and shops starting to open there."

Travel patterns already are changing

While it's a mistake to wait for patterns to shift before making roads safe for non-auto users, the patterns in fact are already shifting anyway.

In the last ten years, Montgomery County added 100,000 residents while driving leveled off and started to decline.


Montgomery County's population has grown, but the amount of driving miles hasn't. Graph from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Meanwhile, as more people have begun to move into the White Flint area, Census data shows that already 34% percent of residents in the surrounding census tract are commuting by transit, carpooling, walking, or cycling, and 58% own one or zero cars.

White Flint can transform into a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented area. But to do that, it needs roads that match this vision, rather than ones that hold the vision back.

Transit


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.


Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficientlywhere will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.


All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

Government


"No way." "Absolutely not." Residents react to the Secret Service's idea to restrict more area around the White House

A dangerous man managed to jump the White House fence, run across the lawn, and even get in an unlocked door before being caught on Friday. The Secret Service, with egg on its face, has suggested a few ways to beef up security, including searching anyone even walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by JeromeG111 on Flickr.

Many bloggers and just about every Washington Post columnist weighed in on this idea. And unlike with most issues in Washington, they spoke with a unified voice: "No way."

Unfortunately, this is one area in which residents (and columnists) have virtually no say. Still, we can all hope that the sharp rebukes from the pen convince someone at the White House to think twice before further damaging the public realm in a desperate quest to fix what was clearly a failure inside the existing perimeter and inside the Secret Service itself.

Petula Dvorak points out that the Secret Service screwed up, by not following its own procedures which could have stopped this threat.

The big danger, as Dvorak explains, is that people whose sole job is to think about security naturally will gravitate toward the most restrictive security measures. It's up to other people with a broader view to say no.

The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation's most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the fear and paranoia that already pervade the heart of our nation.

Given their druthers, of course, the security mafia would close downtown Washington entirely. Tourists could watch a slick "Inside the White House" video clip (in HD) at Reagan National Airport and pose in front of a cardboard cutout of the White House. Same thing for the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

The Capitol and Supreme Court are two other buildings where public access has diminished greatly in recent years, as Phillip Kennicott notes:
The closure of the front doors of the Supreme Court greatly confuses the architectural experience of the building, especially the short axis between the entrance and the courtroom itselfa powerful enactment of our right to appeal unjust laws to the judiciary.

The closure of the West Terrace of the Capitol denies residents and visitors the most accessible and dramatic view of Pierre L'Enfant's basic plan of the city, its axial relation between the legal and executive branch, the monumental dramatization of the Civil War and reunification, and the passion for civil rights embodied in the Mall.

Dana Milbank explains that one likely cause of the Secret Service's mistakes was budget cuts which have left the agency understaffed to carry out its vital mission.

Milbank also criticizes White House spokespeople for saying they're leaving the decision about what to do entirely up to the Secret Service. Decisions about First Amendment rights, public space, and the image our country projects to the world should involve more stakeholders.

But the Secret Service, which proposed closing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, doesn't exist to protect constitutional rights; left to its own devices, it would install an iron dome over the White House. Few would object to discreet changes to boost security. But it's another matter to impose sweeping new restrictions because of the latest in a long line of fence-jumpers. (One earlier this month wore a Pikachu hat and carried a Pokemon doll.)
The Post editorial board agrees:
Surely there is a way to secure the safety of the first family without closing more streets and fencing off more sidewalks. It is not just the convenience of DC residents and visitors that is at stake. It is the character of American governmentstill meant, the last time we checked, to be of, by and for the people.
[T]he Secret Service always will push for the most restrictive security measures. The District has learned the consequences of this the hard way, as Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW have been closed to traffic and once-public spaces have become private parking lots.
Most writers have focused, understandably, on the broader meaning of a closure for democracy. The White House is such a symbol of that democracy and of America's openness. Still, Pennsylvania Avenue and the other roads around Lafayette Park also serve other mobility purposes despite being closed to motor vehicles.

The 15th Street cycletrack runs along Jackson Place and Pennsylvania, and Penn is a great east-west path for cycling that avoids other congested east-west roads. Checkpoints would essentially shut down these uses as well.

Aaron Wiener gives the local point of view:

District residents have a different kind of concern, one that's both more pedestrian and more fundamental: It's annoying when federal government concerns make it harder for them to walk around their town.

Downtown office workers accustomed to strolling to M.E. Swing for a cup of coffee that doesn't say "Starbucks" or "Peet's" could find themselves needing to take a lengthy detour or else face lines and bag checks en route. Same with people working west of the White House who commute on the 14th Street bus.

Do these inconveniences compare with a safety threat to the president? Of course not. But they do give Washingtonians who may already feel shut out by the government a sense that their city isn't truly theirs.

Tim Krepp, a candidate for Delegate to the US House of Representatives in November's general election, talked about both the national and local issues:
I'm not blind to the security threat. I once was my ship's Force Protection Officer in the Navy and was responsible for coordinating our physical security when in port. It's a difficult and demanding job, where success is measured by the absence of failure. I'm sympathetic to those who are responsible for security on a level several orders of magnitude greater that I had to handle.

There are however practical issues for the District at stake here. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major east-west route for commuting cyclists, and a bag check would add a significant delay between downtown and Foggy Bottom ... For tour groups, there is a limited amount of motor coach drop off/pick up space, so any bag check or further delay on to what is a simple photo-op stop would add to the already not-insignificant problem of coaches circling around downtown, waiting to pick up their group.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the incumbent delegate, also said in a statement, "It is important to keep Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and the surrounding area, including Lafayette Park, Pennsylvania Avenue, 17th Street and 15th Street, as accessible to the public as possible." She also pointed out that she opposed permanently closing Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street to traffic.

Krepp goes on to sum it up nicely:

We have to look at [these proposals] comprehensively, to take stock of what it means to be America's capital. Do we want to stand with courage and openness or do we give in to fear? If elected, I want to push to do exactly that, to bring our dozens of law enforcement agencies to the table to rethink some of the decisions we've made to "secure" the capital. But for now, on the issue of requiring bag checks or otherwise infringing on the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue, I'll just say this: no.

Absolutely not.

On this, it seems, we all agreewith the possible exception of the only people who will actually decide.

Public Spaces


Here's where you can check out a parklet during tomorrow's Park(ing) Day

DDOT has released a list of locations where you can find a temporary parklet for tomorrow's Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day started out in San Francisco as an unapproved, guerrilla performance art project turning a parking space into a temporary park to show how much public value cities could get from the land devoted to storing even one car.

After trying to impose ridiculous requirements the first time someone tried it in DC, DDOT more recently started explicitly condoning and encouraging the idea by writing simpler guidelines and giving out permits.

BIDs in Georgetown, the Golden Triangle, and NoMa are organizing their own, as are agencies like DC Water, DPR, and OSSE, and businesses including Urbanful, Baked & Wired, Zipcar, and BicycleSPACE. There's also going to be one at the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) run by councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Gross which got left off the map.

Parklets will be open from 9 am to 3 pm (or for a subset of that time, if the organizers don't want to run it all daymidday is often the best time to head over).

Park(ing) Day festivities won't be confined to the District. Arlington is participating too, with at least one large location in Court House. There could be others throughout the region, too.

If you stop by a parklet, snap a photo and put it in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool or send it to us at info@ggwash.org. We'll feature images from parklets around the city in a roundup next week.

Public Spaces


Great park, no tables... so bring your own

There are great food trucks around DC's downtown squares, but to eat in the squares you have to sit on the grass or on a bench, which makes socializing difficult. Jacob Mason saw some people at Farragut Square who have an innovative solution: they brought their own table.


Photo by Jacob Mason.

Mason, who tweets for the new pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, said that this group works in a nearby building. One of them decided to buy it after he ruined three pairs of pants from sitting on wet grass. The group collectively carries the table to the park to eat lunch.

Parks that host a lot of office lunch workers in other cities, like Bryant Park in Midtown New York, have more tables and moveable chairs. Even across the Potomac River in Arlington, tables and chairs are common.

But DC's downtown squares, which the National Park Service manages, don't have them. (Update: The Golden Triangle BID does put them in the park on Fridays.) Franklin Square could get a few under proposed redesigns (the "Edge" is the most likely design), but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, the do-it-yourself version works pretty well, if your office is organized enough. Everyone else can sit on the grass.

Transit


This German city's monorail redefines river transportation

A suspended monorail in one German city proves that transportation infrastructure doesn't have to obstruct access to parks and rivers.


Photo by the author.

The Schwebebahn is a suspended monorail that runs 8.3 miles through Wuppertal, a city laid out linearly along the River Wupper in western Germany. Though the monorail may seem futuristic, the first segment opened in 1901 and the full line was finished in 1903.

The western end of the line, about 1.8 miles, is suspended over a few of the main commercial streets in the Vohwinkel neighborhood of the city. The rest of the line, about 6.5 miles, runs high above the Wupper to the center and eastern end of the city.

Some cities are tempted to deck over their rivers since these waterways provide one of the few linear paths unobstructed by private property through existing cities. Covering a river to build a highway or a railroad may eliminate the difficulty of razing neighborhoods, but doing so eliminates public access to the river.

Twenty years ago, Providence removed the world's widest bridge to daylight a river and create Waterplace Park, one of the city's main attractions. A decade ago, Seoul removed an elevated freeway above the Cheonggyecheon and created a popular riverside park.

Since Wuppertal's Schwebebahn is already suspended from a relatively thin monorail superstructure, it is one of the few transportation systems that runs over a river without limiting access to and enjoyment of the natural resource. In fact, a riverside park near the eastern terminal is popular spot for families to play in the river as Schwebebahn trains pass overhead.


Families play in the river as the train passes overhead. Photo by the author.
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