Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future directionor committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.

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San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below

A public art installation on San Francisco's Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.


Image from Illuminate The Arts.

The project is called "LightRail," and according to its sponsors it will be the world's first "subway-responsive light sculpture."

Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.

Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.

Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I've ever seen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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The Lincoln Memorial just became Capital Bikeshare's busiest station

For most its history, Capital Bikeshare's busiest individual station has been at Dupont Circle. Not anymore. As of this summer, the Lincoln Memorial station is the new king.

This animation shows trips coming and going to the Lincoln station.


Video from Mobility Lab.

Capital Bikeshare's most recent usage data is from its third quarter report, and covers the period from July 2014 through September.

During that period, the station at Massachusetts Avenue and Dupont Circle NW (historically the busiest) served 42,237 total trips. That's an average of 459 per day.

But the Lincoln Memorial station served 44,177 total trips over the same period, averaging 480 per day.

Follow the tourists

Dupont Circle is usually the busiest station because it combines a nearly perfect storm of bikeshare ridership ingredients: Lots of nearby bike lanes, a Metro station feeding transfers, high job and population density, and a busy nightlife. It's hopping at nearly all hours.

The Lincoln Memorial has virtually none of those things, but does have its own advantages. It's one of the most popular parts of the National Mall, and is a far walk from convenient transit. For tourists who don't want to drive and aren't part of a group with a tour bus, bikeshare is an obvious way to access the Lincoln.

The animation shows how tourists drive most of the station's usage. Blue lines show trips from regular members, while red lines are trips from short term users more likely to be tourists. Aside from a spike of blue around rush hour, the animation is a flood of red lines.

It probably won't last

Will the new champion hold its spot, or will the Lincoln's dynasty prove fleeting?

Tourists flock to Washington in the summer, but there are far fewer of them in the winter. When data for autumn comes out, it's extremely unlikely the Lincoln will still be the busiest station. Odds are that honor will return to Dupont.

And next summer, bikeshare will face added competition from the new DC Circulator route scheduled to run along the National Mall beginning in 2015.

So this may well be the Lincoln's only moment in the sun. It will be interesting to follow.

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DC's street trees are thriving. Here's why

Trees give us shade and beauty, so it's no wonder a lot of DC residents would want to help care for them. But while residents are still the first line of care for older trees, DDOT has a great safety net that boosts their efforts and helps new street trees thrive.


Photo by Leigh Anthony Dehaney on Flickr.

DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) inspects all of its new trees within the first year of planting, and it's quick to respond to service requests for older trees as well. Beyond that, UFA keeps notes of what its arborists find and, and it makes public its plans for resolving the issue.

UFA relies on residents' service requests to help prioritize annual street planting locations. This planting season, DDOT has a record 8,000 trees planned. Residents can watch the progress in what's almost real time as DDOT updates its tree planting and removal maps daily.

DDOT has made a greater effort to take care of young trees

One criticism of the planting program voiced in 2010 was that the District was planting trees and then hoping residents would volunteer to water and care for them through UFA or Casey Trees. If nobody stepped up during the cool fall and winter, those same trees would all too often die during the first hot summer.

Fast forward to 2014, and DDOT has really stepped up its efforts. UFA is keeping metrics on not only first year trees, but also starting to track metrics on trees in their second year of growth.

Residents and business owners are still the ones who need to water trees that are more than a year old. But DDOT now installs a watering bag on all new trees, and during the summer it also waters them twice a month throughout their first year. There have been over 62,000 "watering events" for trees planted within the past year, and trees have gulped down over one million gallons of water in the time span. There's even a nifty animated video showing the weekly watering activities from this past summer.

UFA's agreement with its contractor allows for easy tree replacement

C&D Tree Service, DDOT's contractor, charges $268 $295 for each tree it plants. For that price, C&D provides a warranty on each tree that that replaces trees that are dead, dying, or in poor condition which is the case if a tree has less than 90 percent live canopy. The only trees C&D isn't responsible for are those damaged by vandals, drivers, or thieves.

UFA conducted a warranty replacement on 125 trees over the past year after residents submitted requests via calling 311. Beyond those requests, in September UFA arborists inspect every new trees planted during the previous fall and winter, resulting in several hundred more warranty replacements.

With the exception of one anomaly, the last half-decade has been great for DC trees

With all this care and attention, 19 out of 20 trees thrive after the first year. Prior to this past year, UFA reported tree mortality and warranty replacement within a very low range, 4.5-7.0 percent, over the past four seasons.

WardTrees plantedWarranty replacements required
138859
259160
31129191
41080151
5955166
61013141
71203200
8982171

Unfortunately, UFA's supervisory forester Earl Eustler reports, last year was rough, as tree mortality spiked to approximately 15 percent. "In my 11 years of planting street trees in DC," he said, "last year was the first in which the earth actually froze beyond a depth of a few inches near the surface."

This year, DDOT plans to alter the planting schedule if a similar situation occurs.

As residents, our watering and tree-related service requests serve a critical role in expanding our tree canopy. With our help and UFA's ongoing improvements, the District left the age of "plant and forget" in the past. Newly planted trees, when taken care of, will be part of our community for years to come.

Editor's note: We've received clarification from UFA that while $268 was the cost per tree with warranty during the first year of the contract. We're now in the fifth year and the contract cost is $295 per tree.

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Around Potomac Avenue Metro, an oval, a square, or a triangle

The intersection around Potomac Avenue Metrorail station needs to accommodate pedestrians, almost a dozen bus routes, heavy traffic, cyclists, and more. DDOT is proposing three options for redesigning this intersection and creating a usable park in the center.


The Ellipse Park design. Rendering from DDOT.

Since 2006, several proposals have emerged for modernizing the Pennsylvania and Potomac intersection, an increasingly important transit hub for Wards 6, 7 and 8. It's a particularly tricky spot because while there's a high demand for walking through the intersection, the current design does not prioritize pedestrians. In addition, the intersection is home to a Metrorail station and multiple bus stops, which necessitates designing for bus turning radii and transfers between buses and Metro.

Three designs for the intersection, and what they have in common

The three design options DDOT is considering are a Triangle Park, Rectangle Park, and Ellipse Park. Each shares the goals of prioritizing pedestrian safety and creating a usable park space in the median of Pennsylvania.

While pedestrians are supposed to cross at the intersection, the "desire line" through the median makes it clear that pedestrians are crossing mid-block, which is unsafe. Recognizing pedestrians' preferred path, all three proposals include adding a signalized intersection to allow pedestrians to cross through the median.


The existing intersection Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues. Photo from Google Maps.

Of the three designs, the Ellipse Park is the best fit for Pennsylvania and Potomac's array of needs.


The Triangle Park design. Rendering from DDOT.

The Ellipse Park is the best of the three designs

For starters, if a park is going to be inviting it needs to have enough large space to feel distinct from the road median. The Ellipse Park would create more green space than the other two options34,300 square feet, to be exact. The Triangle Park would only create 25,000 square feet of space, and by wedging grassy areas between traffic lanes, it wouldn't be much better than what's there now. And the Rectangle Park, while more unified, would create only 500 more square feet than the Triangle Park.

The Ellipse Park is the only proposal that would reduce the number of bus stops from five to four, which would cut down on pedestrians dashing from the Metro or a different bus stop to catch a bus. The Triangle design creates a situation where people transferring from 30s buses to the Metro would need to cross more roads than in the other designs, and while the Rectangle Park wouldn't have this problem, it doesn't have the Ellipse's pedestrian refuge for people walking south across Pennsylvania.

Finally, both the Ellipse and Rectangle parks would reduce the number of lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, currently at four in each direction, down to three. The Ellipse Park, however, has curb extensions, which gives the appearance of less roadway than Rectangle Park.


The Rectangle Park design. Rendering from DDOT.

Whichever design wins out certainly won't be without its challenges. The National Park Services, the agency that would be responsible for maintaining them, has a mixed record when it comes to caring for these kinds of small civic spaces, which is cause for concern when it comes to both the Ellipse and Rectangle parks' proposed tree linings that would serve as buffers between park visitors and passing automobiles.

As the area around Pennsylvania and Potomac continues to grow, new and current residents alike deserve transportation design that enhances their safety and convenience. The proposed Ellipse Park is the best way to go because it will create the most park space and make bus-to-rail travel easiest in addition to reducing car lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Events roundup: Post-holiday fun

After a short holiday break, we are jumping right back into a busy week of fun-filled events. Learn about Buzzard Point, Montgomery County rapid transit, and President Obama's transportation funding strategy. See new apps and tools using Capital Bikeshare data, and learn how smart growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand in Virginia.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The future of Buzzard Point: This section of DC has started to change with the nearby baseball stadium and will change far more if a soccer stadium comes to the area. GGW contributor David Garber is moderating a panel discussion about Buzzard Point development Tuesday, December 2, 6:30 pm at 101 M Street SW.

Obama's transportation strategy: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, wil discuss the Obama administration's transportation funding strategy at a talk on Tuesday, December 2. It's at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm.

Capital Bikeshare technology: Coders around the region have continued to build useful and fun apps and visualizations using Capital Bikeshare data. The third CaBi hack night is coming up on Thursday, December 4. People will show off their creations at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory, 641 S Street NW starting at 6 pm.

Montgomery County rapid transit: If buses are more your flavor, then spend your Thursday night learning about the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line for Montgomery County. The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit will host an informational open house at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 7:30-8:30 pm, where you can get up to speed on the proposal for 10 major BRT routes to connect several communities in the County.

Greener smart growth: Interested in saving the environment while supporting smart growth? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the MVCCA Environment and Recreation Committee to consider how smart growth can help support restoring the watershed around Route 1 in Fairfax County. Ecologist Danielle Wynne with Fairfax County will discuss the current restoration plans for the watershed and how we can balance growth and the future health of the environment. The event is on December 3 at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, from 7:15 to 8:30 pm.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Congress gives itself more free parking than its own rules allow

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.


How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo by JMT.

Here's the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it's shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That's a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It's hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we're talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don't like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

To figure out the market value of those spots, it would help to be able to check the rates at adjacent private lots. The problem is: There are no adjacent private lots.

According to SpotHero, there are no available monthly parking spots within a mile of the Capitol. The closest oneabout a 20 minute walk to either the House side or the Senate sidecosts $270.


SpotHero shows how far a Senate employee would have to walkand how much she'd have to payfor a monthly parking spot near the Capitol. Image by SpotHero.

There are some cheaper options a little farther away, but the cost of parking more than a mile from the destination is almost inconsequential. Given the extreme scarcity of parking near the Capitol, which employs and attracts tens of thousands of people daily, you can bet that on-site parking is worth significantly more than faraway options. Moreover, if so many employees didn't get free parking on the Capitol grounds, how would that affect demand, and therefore parking rates, at surrounding lots?

According to the law, if an employee is provided with free parking in excess of the allowable limit, the difference should be reported as taxable income, and the employer would have to pay all the normal employment taxes (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, etc.) on that portion.

IRS staff affirm that the value of any fringe benefit is based on the market. Congress can't just say the parking is worth $250 and call it a day. They have to acknowledge that the benefit they are providing to staff and members is worth the market price. In the case of a reserved parking space directly on the Capitol grounds, it is likely worth much more than the $270 per month established by the adjacent market for parking.


Streets, lots, and garages reserved for US Capitol personnel parking. Image by Streetsblog.

With this understanding, every staffer and member of Congress receiving free parking is not paying tax on at least $240 in annual compensationand that is a minimum estimate. Having seen staffers' pay stubs, I can verify that they are not paying the full value of the parking provided. The failure to report and tax this additional income easily costs the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The scandalous part is that this is a rule that Congress directly controls. If lawmakers wanted to have an even higher limit for free parking, they could debate it and pass an increase. But rather than address the issue, members of Congress simply break their own law.


The Ellipse, just south of the White House, is dedicated to free parking for federal employees. Image by SpotHero.

And it's not just Congress, of course. Most likely, many other federal, state, local, and private entities are guilty of non-compliance with the $250 limit on free, untaxed parking. In DC alone, there are huge swaths of land, like the Ellipse south of the White House, which serve only as free parking for federal employees. To my knowledge, no one is keeping track of the value of those spaces, or if employees with this benefit should be reporting additional income when it exceeds the limit.

If Congress would keep its own house in order in terms of reporting its taxable parking benefits, it could spark a larger conversation around whether this is a reasonable benefit to have in the first place. So long as the gravy train keeps rolling, and everyone both expects and receives free parking on Capitol Hill, we're missing an opportunity for meaningful reform of a tax subsidy that undermines the effectiveness of our national transportation policy.

This post originally appeared on Streetsblog

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