Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

MARC will add a bicycle car to some weekend trains

MARC plans to allow bicycles on some weekend trains on the Penn Line before the end of the year, a MARC official said last week.


Photo by Eva the Weaver on Flickr.

Bicycle advocates have long asked MARC to allow passengers to bring ordinary bicycles aboard MARC trains. MARC allows only folding bicycles on regular passenger cars.

However, MARC is now spending $359,000 to convert two single-level passenger cars to passenger/bicycle cars, Chief Mechanical Officer Erich Kolig explained to the MARC Riders Advisory Council on October 16. MARC plans to add one bicycle car to certain weekend Penn Line trains. There will be a bicycle symbol on the Penn Line schedule to denote these trains. The other bicycle car will remain in reserve.

The single-level cars have three seats on one side, and two seats on the other. In the bicycle cars, there will be 29 bicycle racks instead of seats on the three-seat side. The bicycle racks will accommodate full-length bicycles, tires ranging in diameter from 10 inches to 29.5 inches, and most fat tires. They are angled to preserve aisle space.

If the bicycle cars on the Penn Line are successful, MARC will convert two more cars and add bicycle service on Friday afternoons on the Brunswick Line, which will allow people to take their bicycles to Harpers Ferry on the train and then ride back to Washington on the C&O Canal trail.

Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Area governments take a small step on carbon emissions, but stall on real action

Greenhouse gas emissions are building in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change that is threatening our world. Our region needs to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors, but the regional Transportation Planning Board still won't commit to a specific target.


Photo by John Quigley/Spectral Q reposted with permission.

In 2008, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) published its climate change report establishing a scientifically-based regional goal to reduce carbon emissions to 80% of 2005 levels by 2050. All 21 local government members of COG reaffirmed the commitment in 2010 when they signed the compact called Region Forward.

But so far, the Transportation Planning Board (TPB), COG's most powerful committee which sets transportation funding priorities, has no plans to meet that target and is actually moving in the opposite direction. TPB staff are quick to note that per capita emissions are declining slightly, but if overall emissions continue to rise until 2050, they will worsen the climate change problem.


Carbon Dioxide emissions from transportation, 2015-2040.

Many leaders want to tackle climate change, but TPB balks

Last week the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' (COG) air quality and climate change committees met together for the first time. They focused on the wide and broadening gap between our region's accepted climate emissions reduction goals and where we are headed within the transportation sector.

The overall tone and broad participation reflected optimism and ambition about taking on this challenge. Many members spoke strongly in favor of moving urgently to tackle transportation emissions, led by Roger Berliner of Montgomery County, Jay Fisette of Arlington, Phil Mendelson of DC, and Tad Aburn of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

They and others repeatedly asked the important question: will TPB accept and plan for the regional goal of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions from transportation by 2050?

Amongst all the supportive voices, it was difficult to see exactly what was holding the group back from making a more forceful decision. Perhaps it was the way the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Maryland Department of Transportation muddied the waters by raising scenarios that were not relevant to what was being proposed.

When Jay Fisette asked point blank if there was any legal prohibition on TPB adopting a self-defined climate change goal, TPB head Kanti Srikanth answered, "no." But he also said that he was sure "there are stakeholders on TPB that would have a different view."

Mr. Srikanth, until recently the head of planning for the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT) Northern Virginia District, didn't say so, but those stakeholders most resistant to achieving climate and smart growth goals in COG's transportation plan have long been the departments of transportation of Maryland and Virginia, and some local DOTs.

In the end, a small step

Ultimately the two committees adopted a weak, but still helpful resolution urging that all COG committees adopt the existing 80% reduction target, and created a working group to "explore establishing a target for screening for the regional transportation plan."

Many of the meeting participants had hoped for a more explicit commitment, so the Coalition for Smarter Growth is pressing the TPB to make a specific commitment to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation by 80% using a strategies that link land use changes with greater investment in transit, walking and bicycling.

Our most populous suburban areas hold the key

TPB's recent assessment of the region's transportation projects includes some stunning statistics that show how such an approach can make real progress on reducing emissions from transportation.

For example, the commute mode share for the "regional core" (DC, Arlington, and Alexandria) shows 70% of commute trips today are by walking, cycling, or transit. This is a direct result of mixed-use, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented community development.


Commute mode share by core, inner suburbs, and outer suburbs.

For what COG terms the "inner suburbs" (Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George's), 37% of commute trips today are something other than people driving alone. Not bad, but they also don't show much progress by 2040. For the outer suburbs, it's 21% today and 28% in 2040.

These very populous counties could do much more to shift mode shares and reduce vehicle miles traveled and emissions by accelerating what they are already planning: a combination of transit-oriented development at existing transit stations and transformation of their commercial strip corridors into mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented communities.

The outer jurisdictions would also benefit from more mixed-use centers. Finally, significant investment in dedicated lane commuter transit service would benefit both the outer and inner areas.

But we'll never move the needle on transportation emissions with our current plans. The regional transportation plan for 2014 includes a whopping 1,200 new lane miles and 25 new grade separated interchanges, compared to just 44 new miles of transit.

Many of those projects would go in the so-called "inner suburbs," and many were conceived years and even decades ago when everyone assumed people would drive more and more every year. Now that it's clear people are driving less, and walking, cycling, and riding transit more, how many of those road projects could be downsized, translated into a dedicated transit lane, or eliminated altogether?

Last week's meeting and resolution were a good start for bringing renewed attention to the actions our region must take to help fight climate change. Now, setting clear CO2 and vehicle miles traveled targets for transportation, and creating a real plan to get us there, are essential. If you think TPB should ensure our regional transportation plans will contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you can send them an email here.

Intelsat building gets a greener, but not more urban front

The former headquarters of Intelsat, a space-age building on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness Metro, will get a new entrance. The change will soften a harsh corner, but it won't fully repair this non-urban building's relationship to the street.


the new proposed entry. Bottom: the plaza today. Image from VOA via NCPC.


The existing plaza. Image from Capital City, yeah! on Flickr.

The current entrance on Connecticut Avenue is set back far from the street and up a huge flight of steps. It's not ADA compliant, and it's a pretty bleak, bricked-over expanse. The building's new owner will remove the plaza and replace it with a garden, fountains, and a more visible entrance.

How this building came to be

The building, rebranded "4000 Connecticut Avenue," is a product of DC's unique relationship with the federal government. The State Department owns the land as part of the International Center, a campus meant for embassies and governmental buildings. It leased it to Intelsat when that was still an international treaty organization.

After Intelsat went private, Congress changed the law in 2008 to legalize Intelsat's lease. That opened the door for the 601 Companies to acquire the lease and reposition the building as an office building.


The existing site plan with pedestrian improvements. The main entrance is at the right. Image from VOA via NCPC.

Opened in phases between 1984 and 1988, the building is one of the more notable modernist buildings in DC. Its architect, John Andrews, was an influential Australian architect who made his name designing dramatic brutalist buildings in Canada.

By the time Intelsat ran a competition to design its headquarters in 1979, the two energy crises had put the focus on efficiency. Architects worried that the new expectations would smother exciting design under layers of insulation. And so Andrews' building won heaps of praise for delivering the large, energy efficient buildings corporations wanted without losing any of the expressive geometry he was known for.


Sectional diagram showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.

One thing that earned Andrews particular praise is the way he repeated the same three or four elements, like the octagonal blocks, round towers, and courtyards, to create different effects. The main entrance on International Drive looks like a Battlestar Galactica set. The south entrance is a quiet corporate park. And the north entrance, at Van Ness and Connecticut, closest to the Metro and points downtown, echoes the monumental entries of neoclassical federal buildings and their brutalist successors.


Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

What didn't work, and what will get better

Unfortunately, like most grand entries of the period, the entry comes across as stark and intimidating. So it makes sense that 601 Companies wants to make it more welcoming and visible as it becomes the main entrance of the building.

The changes, designed by VOA Associates, will also improve pedestrian circulation around the building, especially the green area along Connecticut which is apparently called "Squirrel Park."


The new entryway will get rid of a large decrepit plaza. Image from VOA via NCPC.

More openness of the park areas is great. Like a suburban office park, the grassy areas around Intelsat are unwalkable or underused. These changes will make them more into an asset to the community. To me, new entry area is definitely an improvement, aesthetically, making it much more inviting. There are more places to sit, the high-end granite and marble will be nice additions, and the front door details are more humane than Andrews originally planned.

But it still feels like a more ambitious alteration would be appropriate. The accessible entrance is still separate from the main one, and the renovation does not fix the fundamental error of the building, one that goes back to when the site was the secluded campus of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

Now, the site supports an office building that is part of the city. Andrews's building has a lot of value architecturally, but its value to creating a distinctive place around a Metro station is equally important. The site deserves a bolder adaptive reuse, one that will fill in some of the unusable green space, correcting its outdated disconnection from the neighborhood, even as it preserves the existing building. A good adaptation would make the geometry of original building even more powerful.

But for now, this is okay.

Architects try to spruce up NoMA's underpasses

Projectors could shine interactive art or sign language shapes on the walls of NoMa's underpasses. Large sculptures made of LEDs could give visual interest to the ceilings and walls. Ten teams of architects envisioned ways (some dubious) to illuminate and enliven the tunnels where K, L, and M streets and Florida Avenue cross under the railroad tracks.


Image by Citelum US.

The NoMa Parks Foundation, which is affiliated with the local BID, is conducting a design competition for the underpasses. Now, these are dark and unexciting spaces; while they will still be underpasses, NoMa hope to make them more appealing ones.

If successful, they also could help knit together both sides of the railroad tracks by creating some concrete sense of place adjacent to the urban fabric on either side, instead of just a dead zone. Some of the architects seem to have devised interesting ways of doing that; others perhaps missed the mark.

K Street

K Street is one of the hardest. It has narrow sidewalks flanking four lanes of car traffic. Relatively few pedestrians cross here.

Some of the designers seem to have embraced the car-oriented nature of this underpass and don't really try to create a pleasant pedestrian space, while others think more broadly.


All photos from the NoMa BID created by the respective architect teams.

United Visual Artists proposes linear lines of light that visually extend the street grid through the underpass. It's simpleperhaps too simple.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO uses the many columns which hold up the bridge between the lanes of traffic to create a moving zoetrope effect. This seems like a terrible idea as it only works at high speed, making it clearly geared to the driver and not the pedestrian, but at the same time, would distract drivers who need to be watching the road.

Some cities including New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Kiev have put images like this in their subway tunnels (sometimes as ads). That seems like a much smarter location since riders aren't operating the train.

CINIMOD + Studio LDVC + TALL designed a series of arcs around each end of the underpass which gradually line up to form a geometric ovoid shape as you approach the underpass. This seems like it would work well at pedestrian scale and speed and give more of a sense of the underpass being something to go to instead of merely through.

L Street

In contrast to K Street, L Street has very wide sidewalks but just two lanes of traffic. This creates far more opportunities to do something with this space. This also is the underpass with the most submissions (five).

A rendering from the NoMa Public Realm Plan showed the area packed with good-looking stock photo people like a rave is going on or something. In reality, this will still basically be a sidewalk between places, but the teams tried to make it a sidewalk you want to go to.

Narduli Studio devised a clever idea: a series of cameras that take photographs of the pedestrians and cyclists walking by, then project silhouettes of them on the wall that gradually fade over time. This would create a continuity between who is here now and who was here before, populating the underpass with the people from the past. When trains rumble overhead, the light pattern will add waves to represent sound.

Future Cities Lab (top above) and Mik Young Kim both created variants on the "make something artistic out of LEDs." Future Cities designed a weaving truss while MYK shaped them into a tree that will change color. The tree idea could give some natural feel to a place that is very utilitarian.

Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO, the people who also suggested the zoetrope, suggest suspending rods overhead that will sway back and forth to make it look like it's raining. I fear making people feel like they're out in the elements in bad weather is not a good way to make an underpass a welcoming space.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber's idea is to turn a wide sidewalk into what's effectively a much narrower one by building a big wooden structure with vertical poles that make a gentle arc. It's visually interesting, but makes both the center and side sections vary in width, constraining pedestrian and bicycle flow.

M Street

All three of designs for M Street are based on LED light strips.

Lancaster + Matthew Schreiber have another of their space-eating wooden structures.

Synthesis + Architecture & Moritz Waldemeyer would suspend some long lines of webbing. This also seems to cut down significantly on the space available for walking.

Meanwhile, Mik Young Kim (which proposed the tree of light for L Street) suggests an undulating "energy field" along the ceiling and wall, with sections popping out to form benches.

This one looks interesting, so much so that their rendering shows all of the pedestrians gawking at the ceiling but getting in the way of others. Also, apparently people would take photos of models on bicycles inside the underpass.

Florida Avenue

Citelum US's proposal, called "Luminous Aether," does the most to link the underpasses to the concept of parkland (which is very scarce in NoMa and was part of the impetus for the competition). Projections on the walls would rotate between the concepts of air, water, earth, and fire, each interacting as people walk past.

The proposal by Dulio Passariello + Ray King would project six hands on each wall making the American Sign Language letters for F-L-O-R-I-D-A. A background projection would change color throughout the day as speakers play the music of Duke Ellington and the sounds of a Florida beach.

This, especially the hands, goes the furthest to relate to the actual surrounding community as Florida Avenue connects the Metro station to Gallaudet University. Unfortunately, the Gallaudet community has not been involved in the process thus far, so this might need changes to comply with guidelines about the light and color necessary for deaf persons to see each other sign in the underpass.

Which do you like?

Overall, the CINMOD light circles (K Street), Narduli persistent mural (L Street), Mik Young Kim energy field (M Street), and Passariello sign language mural (Florida Avenue) seem best. I also really like the Citelum "Luminous Aether" projections, and perhaps that could go on one of the other underpasses (like K Street, whose designs aren't the most exciting). It's also worth considering using the Mik Young Kim tree instead of the energy field for M Street if there is room.

It's a little disappointing that so many of the designs focused on LED light strips or projections. While it's perhaps natural that designs for underpasses would be about light, they also could do more to create actual places for people to go.

Update: Tony Goodman, ANC commissioner for the area, wrote in an email:

In general I think that the designs should be brighter and more cheerful, while avoiding new obstructions that block pedestrian and bicyclist flow. For L & M Streets there should be more opportunities for people to sit, linger talk and sign as M Street especially is an increasingly popular meeting place for people in the neighborhood.

This project is entirely within public space and paid for with public money, so it's essential that the community is more involved in the implementation than they have been in this RFP process so far.

What do you think?

The roads don't work, and neither do the sidewalks: How Maryland has failed Wilson Bridge cyclists

Want to ride a bike from Virginia to DC via the Wilson Bridge Trail? Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. Thanks to poor planning and neglect, it's far easier said than done.


This sidewalk gap between Harborview and National Avenues is filled with loose gravel. Photos by the author.

Biking into DC from Alexandria and Fairfax, you ride across the Wilson Bridge and onto a trail. Then, official maps show a bike route which involves a few turns to reach the DC-295 corridor.

However, to do that, cyclists either have to make an illegal left turn on the road. Taking the sidewalk is no better, because there are large gaps in the sidewalk full of gravel which are difficult to ride on.


The bike route to the Wilson Bridge. Image edited by the author from Google Maps.

How the connection is supposed to work

You can see the bike route in the above map. It first continues parallel to Harborview Avenue (A) and ends at Oxon Hill Road. From there, you should be able to turn left onto Oxon Hill (B), left onto Bald Eagle Road (C), and then hit an access road (E) that leads to the Oxon Hill Farm Bike Trail (F) toward DC Water, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the US Naval Research Lab, and a handful of neighborhoods.

But here's the problem: Northbound cyclists on Oxon Hill Road can't legally turn left onto Bald Eagle Road (C). To get to Bald Eagle, they must either make an illegal left turn, continue up Oxon Hill and detour via Indian Head Highway (a major road), or ride north in the southbound Oxon Hill Road bike lane.

The other option is to ride on the sidewalk that runs along the west side of Oxon Hill Road. But even if we set aside that we're talking about having no choice but to bike on the sidewalkwhich shouldn't ever be the casethere are two unfinished driveways on Oxon Hill that cross the sidewalk route, each leaving a vertical drop of about four inches.

Roots of the problem

These problems aren't random. They're the result of decisions made by the National Park Service and, more recently, the Maryland State Highway Authority.

In 2010, NPS blocked an effort to create a direct bicycle and pedestrian route along I-295 between the bridge and DC Water's home on Overlook Avenue. Such a trail would eliminate this entire problem altogether, and its absence undermines the Wilson Bridge Trail's value.

As for the Maryland SHA, there is no left turn option from Oxon Hill Road onto Bald Eagle because of a 2013 SHA project to open Oxon Hill Farm Road, which created a shortcut to allow freeway traffic from the westbound Beltway to bypass Indian Head Highway en route to southbound Oxon Hill Road.

Deciding to do this meant not building Oxon Hill Farm Road to connect Forest Heights, Sachem Drive, and surrounding neighborhoods. And another Oxon Hill sidewalk gap, this one between National and Bald Eagle, has been left for so long that dirt and vegetation are beginning to stabilize the gravel.

Both issues show the SHA's underlying culture of neglect for neglect for cyclists and pedestrians.

One Fairfax cyclist, Paul Bernhardt, has found his own solution to the problem: Rather than commuting to work along Oxon Hill Road, he simply rides along the I-295 shoulder. Bernhardt's willingness to take such a dangerous route to avoid the mess around Oxon Hill Road pretty much says it all.

"I'm not going to ride two extra miles up and down a big hill just because they were too stupid to build the trail. I'm riding where the trail should have been in the first place."

What parts of the Washington region do you think are Great Places?

The American Planning Association just named Adams Morgan and Pennsylvania Avenue to its list of "Great Places in America." If you were choosing their list, what places would you pick? They would like to know.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

A variety of factors makes a place great. The best places are visually stimulating, are vibrant gathering places, and accommodate many different people doing different things. They are economic stimuli for communities and encourage personal contact. They also reflect of the culture of their communities.

Pennsylvania Avenue made this year's list of Great Streets for its "mix of civic spaces, public buildings, monuments, parks, local government, residences, hotels, theaters, and museums," and its role hosting "historic events such as presidential inaugurations, state funerals, and protests, marches, and celebrations."


Photo by Khaz on Flickr.

Adams Morgan is on the list of Great Neighborhoods for its "colorful storefronts and iconic rowhouses, ... community murals, ... international shops, restaurants, annual festivals, weekly farmers markets, and nightlife." Also, its 2012 streetscape project "improved the streets for pedestrians and added bicycle lanes, Capital Bikeshare stations, and bike racks" along with the Circulator and Metro.

APA's annual lists of ten Great Streets, ten Great Neighborhoods, and ten Great Public Spaces always generate discussion and controversy. So this year, the association is doing something a little different by asking you to suggest your own great places.

What places would you nominate? Please tell us in the comments and we will share the list with APA. You can also tweet or Instagram your nomination using the tag #MyGreatPlace.

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