Posts in category Public Spaces
A reader recently wondered why the Washington and Old Dominion Trail turns sharply at Idylwood Park next to I-66 in Falls Church instead of tunneling under the interstate and Metro. "Was this by design when they were constructing I-66?" asked Mark Scheufler.
After the W&OD railroad stopped running in 1968, VDOT bought some of the right-of-way to use for the alignment of I-66. The rest of the W&OD right-of-way was sold to VEPCO (which later became Dominion).
In 1977, the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority came to an agreement with VEPCO to purchase segments of the W&OD right-of-way as funding became available, which in turn enabled NVRPA to construct the trail. Incidentally, this was also the same year that the "Coleman Agreement" allowed for the construction of I-66 inside the Beltway.
A W&OD extension came first, as the trail was completed between Falls Church and Vienna in 1979, including the section across I-66.
It is unclear why the W&OD was routed along the edge of Idylwood Park and across Virginia Lane instead of cutting straight through. One possibility is that NVRPA and VEPCO couldn't come to an agreement on the right-of-way between I-66 and Virginia Lane. Another possibility is that VDOT objected to a trail tunnel and thus forced NVRPA to use the park and Virginia Lane.
It's more likely, though, that the decision was a cost-saving measure. At the time, NVRPA was trying to locate funding to purchase the W&OD right-of-way and build trail segments. Using the already-planned Virginia Lane overpass over I-66 would have allowed VDOT and NVRPA to save money over the cost of a separate trail tunnel.
The trail diversion happens at a pretty sharp angle and it involves a hill climb. But the existing path along the edge of Idylwood Park and Virginia Lane is only about 400 feet longer than a routing that would've stayed in the rail right-of-way. For a bicyclist averaging 10 mph, that's less than 30 seconds.
Each spring, thousands of visitors flock to the Tidal Basin during the Cherry Blossom Festival. The crowds make it hard for bike commuters using the 14th Street Bridge path to get into the District. Temporary changes to the street and sidewalks could ease the problem.
Looking northeast along East Basin Drive. The Jefferson Memorial is to the left. All photos by the author.
When someone rides into DC from Virginia on the 14th Street Bridge, they take the sidewalk on East Basin Drive to get from the bridge exit to Maine Avenue. This is because East Basin is one-way southbound from where it splits from Ohio Drive.
The stretch from the 14th Street Bridge to Maine Avenue, a short .4 miles, is a common route into DC. Image from Google Maps.
During the festival, there are pedestrians all over the sidewalk. Tour buses, taxis and even the DC Circulator-operated Haines Point Shuttle use the East Basin Drive sidewalk for loading and unloading behind the Jefferson Memorial.
This forces cyclists coming off the bridge to either ride against traffic on the street or through throngs of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Neither is a safe option.
This is an especially big problem because the festival coincides with an upswing in temperatures and, with that, bike commuters. In all of March, an average of 873 cyclists used the 14th Street Bridge to cross the river on weekdays. But on days when temperatures rose above 50 degrees, the average number of cyclists rose with them, to 1,101.
Despite the clear conflict, the National Park Service (NPS), which controls the roads around the Tidal Basin, has no plans to accommodate bike commuters along East Basin Drive during this year's festival.
"While we have taken some measures for bicyclists attending the festival, including providing bike tours of the blossoms and extra bike parking at the Jefferson Memorial, we are not implementing any new dedicated bike lanes or restricting pedestrian access along Maine Avenue, or any other streets," says Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for NPS.
A temporary protected bike lane could work here
One way to fix the problem could be a temporary, contraflow bike lane that separated people on bike from people on foot.
The lane could start on the south side of East Basin Drive, at the entrance to the 14th Street Bridge. After only 330 feet, it could put cyclists onto the sidewalk that runs along Ohio Drive on the way to Maine Avenue. The sidewalk is big, so blocking off a portion off for bikes won't necessitate inconveniencing pedestrians.
A temporary protected bike lane could run along this section of East Basin Drive, roughly where the cyclist is in the photo.
While it'd be ideal to keep cyclists off the sidewalk altogether, doing so isn't feasible because East Basin narrows to one lane for a short section when it meets the bridge.
This temporary fix could lead to a longer-term solution
A temporary protected lane during the Cherry Blossom Festival could be a good way for NPS to test this much-needed improvement to Washington DC's cycling infrastructure.
DDOT is considering plans for a permanent protected bike lane that would run counter to traffic on East Basin Drive in order to serve cyclists coming off the bridge.
Temporary protected bike lanes are increasingly common. Last year, Streetsblog USA profiled nine of them in cities that included Atlanta, Lawrence, Kansas, and Oakland.
They are also easy to put in. The lanes Streetsblog looked at used a mix of traffic cones, temporary planter boxes, old tires, and chalk to separate bikes from car traffic.
Here's a video from STREETFILMS about a bike lane that went up for a week in Pittsburgh:
The city of Alexandria has opened a new park at the corner of Henry and Pendleton Streets, in the growing neighborhood near the Braddock Road Metro station.
The half-acre "interim open space," as the city calls it, includes a Capital Bikeshare dock, a small grassy area, picnic tables, a bocce ball court, and a ping pong table, among other amenities.
The new park is not going away any time soon. The "interim" in its name simply refers to Alexandria's plan to expand the space to a full acre, eventually taking over the site of the existing Wythe Street post office.
The park is a much-needed addition to a neighborhood that is seeing significant new development. New mid-rise buildings have opened both west and north of the park, as Alexandria continues to take advantage of the nearby Metro station.
Montgomery County leaders and residents want walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, but the county's department of transportation has a reputation for putting cars over everything else. Now that two of the agency's top officials have departed, will new leadership bring the department in line with a changing county?
MCDOT's former director Art Holmes retired at the end of last year. Holmes had brought little vision or leadership to the department. Instead, most of the on-the-ground decisions fell to Deputy Director for Transportation Policy Edgar Gonzalez, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of designing roads for more and more cars to the exclusion of all else.
Last month, county officials announced that Gonzalez, too, was leaving the department, to become deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Gary Erenrich, who ran the county's transit programs, will fill the post on an acting basis, reporting to MCDOT's acting director, Al Roshdieh.
Gonzalez's legacy: Lanes yes, walkability no
While an accomplished planner, Gonzalez prioritized building of highways over other priorities. He relentlessly pushed to extend the Midcounty Highway (M-83) from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg over protests from both neighbors and county councilmembers. MCDOT even protested a bill from councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner that would require narrow, low-speed street designs in urban areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda.
Despite Montgomery's vision for a walkable, urban White Flint, Gonzalez fought the plan every step of the way, pushing an extension of Montrose Parkway through the area, and resisting calls from residents to make Old Georgetown Road less of a traffic sewer.
A change in leadership is an opportunity to bring the county's transportation policy in line with its planning and economic development policies, which promote walkable neighborhoods around transit hubs.
At a time when the county's fastest growing areas are near Metro stations and driving rates have plateaued, that only makes sense. New leadership is a signal to anyone who supports sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit that MCDOT is ready to work with them.
Has MCDOT turned over a new leaf?
To be fair, the department has made some big strides in recent years. Last fall, Montgomery County got its first protected bikeway, on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, and the DOT decided to allow the narrower, slower-speed design for Old Georgetown Road than the county's plans originally called for. After a years-long fight with parents at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg, MCDOT agreed to install a crosswalk across a busy road.
New director Al Roshdieh has expressed an interest in focusing on pedestrian and bike infrastructure and wants to reexamine all of the county's policies. He wants to combat the perception (though rightly earned) that the agency is "pro-car."
But there are signs that elements of the old, highway-focused culture remains. Roshdieh insists that the county's proposed bus rapid transit line on Route 29 won't work without building highway interchanges. And though Roshdieh said there isn't room for new roads, the department recently recommended building the most environmentally-destructive route for Midcounty Highway.
Change might not come all at once, but neither are merely small changes (or just words and no changes) enough. Roshdieh is evidently angling to become permanent director, and he'll need to take bold action to fix an agency deeply out of touch with a county that's changed significantly since the 1990s.
Meanwhile, it seems a little ironic that Gonzalez, who spent much of his career pushing for transportation and land use patterns which force people to drive, now is in charge of liquor. Car dependence all but forces people to drive home from restaurants and bars where they want to drink, while people who can walk or take transit home need not worry about driving drunk. Gonzalez will now be in charge of mitigating a problem he himself exacerbated in the past.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the annual State of the District address Tuesday night. Among many other statements, one caught the eye of most reporters, people on Twitter, and others: She has definitively decided to finish the main east-west streetcar line.
DDOT director Leif Dormsjo made something of a stir when he told the DC Council that all options were on the table for the streetcar including scrapping it entirely. But it's now totally clear that this option, while perhaps truly on the table, is not on said metaphorical table any longer.
Further, the line will stretch to Georgetown in the west and "downtown Ward 7" in the east (and, presumably, to a Metro station). Such a line will be far more useful than just the "starter segment" that has been built. Plans always called for this to be just one piece of a line stretching across the District, and now that will be the policy of a third consecutive administration.
Bowser did not, however, commit to building any more streetcar lines. While DDOT's former plan was compelling, the agency has not yet demonstrated it can build a citywide network of streetcars. It may indeed be sensible to try to make one line work very well before moving too quickly to build more.
To make the line work well, it should have dedicated lanes for a considerable portion of its length. There are already plans to rebuild K Street from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle with dedicated transit lanes for a streetcar. But if the streetcar sits in traffic around Mount Vernon Square, between that square and Union Station, and along K into Georgetown, it won't be as valuable of a transportation facility as it could be.
Advocates will need to push DDOT to really study dedicated lanes and other methods of ensuring the streetcar is actually a good way to get to and from downtown instead of the novelty some critics fear.
There's a lot to admire when you travel, and it's fun to observe how other cities achieve function and beauty. This week, we asked our contributors "What city planning or transit projects have caught your eye while traveling, and why?"
As might be expected, many contributors were inspired by other cities' transit systems, primarily overseas and mostly in Europe. Places with lots of active public space and bike infrastructure were popular as well. First, transit:
Jacques Arsenault was wowed by Istanbul's transit network:
I enjoyed Istanbul's streetcar system that goes up hills at least as steep as Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, changing my perception of what is (at least, technically) possible for streetcars. Most of the streetcars run on dedicated track in the middle of the road.
Neil Flanagan was impressed with the way Vienna has worked its transit infrastructure into the city:
Even the elevated portions of the U-Bahn were great. They were attractive, they fit in to the city fabric, and they were actually really quiet. These aren't the loud, dark 'Ls' in Chicago and they didn't create useless highway underpass spaces like in Tysons. Some arches have been adapted to host stores and the bridges over major streets feel like gateways. It's possible to make elevateds good for cities.Agnes Artemel talked about Munich, another city with an impressive streetcar network:
There's a wonderful streetcar system in Munich that makes it easy to get to the entire downtown, museum areas, and a number of parks. The streetcars run in both mixed traffic and on dedicated lanes, and the cars are modern and easy to get on. There are one day and multi-day passes available, and fare collection doesn't slow down boarding because everyone is on the honor system to have previously bought a pass. I spent a half day just riding the streetcars wherever they went and taking pictures out the window or at a station.Artemel also gave shout outs to pedestrian-only streets in many French downtowns, Paris's Berges de Seine project which activates spaces along the river banks, and easy bike rentals at European train stations.
Ned Russell touted two ongoing rail transit improvement projects, Denver's FasTracks and London's Crossrail:
I like FasTracks because the city has really coupled urban development with the massive build out of the system, especially around Union Station in downtown. I remember the area being empty in 2006, and now it's a hopping neighborhood with a lot of people going there.Russell also likes that the Chicago Transit Authority puts secure bike parking inside of subway and 'L' stations, and wishes WMATA would do the same. "If Metro added bike parking inside, say, the massive and empty mezzanine at Mt Vernon Square, I'd be much more likely to lock my bike there and leave it," he says.
I think the airport line, which is a fully electrified commuter rail connecting Union Station to Denver International Airport, could signal a change in the way a lot of Denver residents view the region's burgeoning rail system.
As for Crossrail, I love the fact that a city the size and scope of London is willing to spend about £15 billion (more than $20 billion) on a new rail system that acts as an express subway in town and a commuter rail outside town, all while not running down the median of freeways as so many of our systems do. This is what New York, DC and Boston all need: commuter rail systems that really run end-to-end across the region and not just into downtown.
Accommodating bikes on transit means doing more than simply allowing them, noted Jonathan Krall. He cited San Francisco's BART, which has no restrictions on the time of day bikes can be carried onto trains, as an example. Steve Seelig agreed: "There's a huge gap in Metro policy with the rush hour bike ban. Seriously, I would ditch my car if I could use the system during rush hour."
Tracey Johnstone noted another positive subway innovation, this one from north of the border:
Toronto is introducing subway trains where there are no divisions between cars. Passengers who worry about crime feel safer, as do those who suffer from claustrophobia. And there are no seats lost to driving stations in every car."I liked the way each stop in the Seoul subway had a name and a three-digit number," David Cranor said. "The first digit told you which line you were on, and the next two which station. It eliminated the need to count how many stops you had to go, and put things in a language everyone understands." Matt Johnson noted that MARTA in Atlanta tried something similar.
Portland, Oregon's aerial tram is "a great example of a unique transit mode," said Kelli Raboy. "Yes, it's a tourist attraction, but it also seems surprisingly effective at serving the nearby university, hospitals, and residential areas. My favorite part of the tram is actually the free and well-used bicycle valet next to the station."
Our region's next new rail transit line could learn a lot from a similar line that just opened in Minnesota, said Adam Froehlig:
I look at the new Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul and see a lot of potential lessons to be learned for the Purple Line, especially with regards to the College Park campus and along University Boulevard. They include the design going through campus, what to do regarding pedestrians crossing the tracks on campus, and the streetscape.Moving on to examples of public spaces, Mitch Wander cited a European model:
The street markets throughout Valencia, Spain provide an amazing alternate use of street space, a great place to shop, and an entertaining walking experience. Many neighborhoods have a designated day of the week on which blocks are closed to vehicular traffic. For several hours on that day, people of all ages wander around shopping, browsing and socializing.Paris has created engaging public spaces for kids, noted Abigail Zenner:
When I visited Place de la Republique, there was a kiosk that had toys and games for kids. There were also little movable chairs. The other thing they rolled out last summer was bikeshare for children. It was limited to recreation areas but was such a cool idea.Another country whose cities have great public gathering spots is Mexico. Elina Bravve explained:
In Mexico City, they close one of the main roads in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, to vehicle traffic on Sundays. The street fills up with bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, dance activities, dog walking groups, and lots of family-friendly activities. There are also bikeshare bikes (Eco Bici) available for rent.
Also in Mexico City, I noticed some very cool architecture in Chapultepac Park. One of the best spots was Libreria Porrua, an indoor/outdoor bookshop overlooking the park lake, where folks were renting paddle boats for the afternoon.
Finally, Guanajuato is a very pedestrian-friendly city. It's full of green plazas connected by very narrow streets, which aren't ideal for driving. Instead, there's a series of underground tunnels throughout the city that moderates traffic, diverting it from the historic center of town. I learned post-trip that these tunnels were created to stop flooding from a nearby River, then converted to roads at a later date.
On the bike front, Portland— Peyton Chung's shared observations on a more general planning theme: But thanks to the recent "pop-up" controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won't happen, either.
Cities like Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, and San Francisco have vast areas of three- to five-story walk-up residential buildings, with many miles of walkable retail streets connecting them. Even in cities without a long tradition of flats, many of the livelier neighborhoods (like Ghent in Norfolk and University City in west Philadelphia) tend to be those where flats, rather than rowhouses, predominate. Now, some New Urbanist architects are talking about these housing types as the "Missing Middle" of density.
Have you noticed great planning and design in other cities? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!
Peyton Chung's shared observations on a more general planning theme:
But thanks to the recent "pop-up" controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won't happen, either.
Owning a small business can be tough, but going car-free doesn't have to make it any harder. My wife and I have lived in DC without a car for four years and we're making our small business work, even with places to go and products to deliver.
We run CHIQS, a local artisan food business that produces baked chickpea snacks. You might have seen our product at Glen's Garden Market, Localteria, or on the Nicely App.
Admittedly, choosing transportation options that are convenient, affordable, and sustainable for our small business requires a little more thought than doing it in our day-to-day lives outside of business, but it's still very possible.
We chose a kitchen we can access car-free
Food businesses are legally required to operate out of a commercial kitchen. When we started CHIQS last year, we were committed to staying car-free, so our first challenge was finding a kitchen accessible without a car.
After reviewing our options, we chose Union Kitchen, a culinary incubator in NoMa. Union Kitchen has great resources to help us produce our product and services to help us grow our business, which is important.
But equally important for us was that it's near the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a Metro station, and a Capital Bikeshare station, making it easy for us to commute back and forth from our home in Logan Circle.
Union Kitchen's emphasis on building community and supporting its members was the deciding factor for us, but the accessibility of the kitchen was essential. If we were starting our search today, we'd have more options to choose from, as food incubators have opened up in transit- and bike-friendly Edgewood and Adams Morgan.
Our first challenge: farmer's markets
When we initially began the food business, we sold freshly-made, gluten-free flatbread sandwiches at the Columbia Heights and CityCenter Farmer's Markets. We had to transport multiple stoves, tables, a tent, and a cooler to and from the markets each week.
While we would normally get to Columbia Heights and CityCenter using our own bikes, Bikeshare, MetroBus, Car2Go, or walking, needing to transport all of that of heavy equipment definitely shrunk our car-free options. The best solution we found was UberXL, which could fit both of us and our equipment. Many drivers even offered to assist us with unloading.
Wholesale orders and grocery stores
Today, for wholesale orders close to the kitchen, we deliver by foot, bicycle, or Metro. For larger orders, we use Union Kitchen's distribution program. As part of the program, Union Kitchen owns one truck and distributes products for 40 different businesses to 35 different stores all directly from the kitchen, which is certainly a big help.
Focusing distribution on local groceries stores helps, too. Stores like Glen's Garden Market and Each Peach, among others, put a strong emphasis on stocking local products, which helps businesses like ours do more sales in a smaller geographical footprint. Operating a business car-free has forced us to focus on stores within a smaller area, but we have made it work in further-flung locations. For example, we took the T2 bus to the Market at River Falls in Potomac, Maryland to do a sampling of our product there.
Car-free makes good (business) sense for us
When we started our business, we were concerned that we would have to sacrifice our values of sustainability and car-free lifestyle to build an economically viable business. Instead, by selecting a transit- and bike-accessible commercial kitchen space and taking advantage of a system that makes it easy to share a distribution truck, we can operate our business in line with our personal values.
In doing so, we also avoided some of the large capital expenditures of traditional food businesses. That's allowed us to spend our resources on developing new products, working with a designer on branding and packaging, and sampling and marketing our product to new customers. In turn, our business has been more successful with fewer costs.
Plus, a central part of our message is that not only is our product a healthy snack, but that we produce and distribute it in a way that is healthy for the environment and the surrounding community. All of our employees are DC residents who walk or take public transportation to work, hired through the District's Project Empowerment Program. Being car-free ourselves feeds into that philosophy even more.
In the future
Going car-free has worked thus far, but we do face new challenges as we grow in volume and expand our reach. We will have to make tough decisions about whether or not to expand into new markets in different regions of the country, or to develop more products to sell in the Washington, DC area. We will also likely outgrow Union Kitchen someday soon, and may need to find an even bigger facility accessible without a car. But we're committed and optimistic that we'll be able to keep things up car-free!
Yesterday, PlanItMetro posted maps showing what's within walking distance of each Metro station. Check them out (and maybe read up on what walk sheds are and how they differ across the region), then take our quiz to test what you know.
A map of the area around the Columbia Heights Metro station that's easily walkable. Images from WMATA.
1. Which of these stations has the most jobs within walking distance?
2. Which of these stations has the fewest jobs within walking distance?
3. Which of these stations has the most jobs that are nearby, but not within walking distance?
4. Which of these stations has the most households within walking distance?
5. Which of these stations has the fewest households within walking distance?
6. How many households live within walking distance of Metro?
7. Which of these stations has the lowest Walk Score?
8. Which of these areas has the smallest area within walking distance?
1. U Street might not have many high-rise office buildings, but the medium-density neighborhood does have 9,034 jobs within walking distance. Logan Circle's density isn't just for residents: its lack of parking lots and high street connectivity mean that it also has plenty of economic opportunities nearby.
2. Federal Triangle, the very heart of the federal bureaucracy that built Metro to bring commuters into the city, has fewer jobs nearby than the three big edge cities it's grouped with. (That's partially because PlanItMetro's assessment is for non-overlapping walk sheds. This is why Federal Triangle has so few jobs: they're assigned to neighboring sheds.) Medical Center may not look like much from Wisconsin Avenue, but its 32,473 nearby jobs put it in a league with several Downtown DC stations.
3. At Franconia-Springfield, 92% of the nearby jobs aren't within walking distance. Springfield Town Center is beyond a half-mile walk, and
the new FBI headquarters site even the site Virginia is promoting for the FBI is cut off from the station by a ravine. (At Branch Avenue, 96% of nearby jobs are outside the walk shed.)
4. Columbia Heights just edges out Dupont Circle for this title, 10,842 to 10,636. Relatively low-rise Court House has the highest household concentration outside the District, with 8,100 within walking distance.
5. It's Friendship Heights, although all of these have between 4,071 and 4,623 households within walking distance. High rises don't always mean high residential density, especially if there are lots of offices and shops mixed in. Crystal City probably has a higher density, but its walk shed is also constrained by the George Washington Parkway.
6. 190,631. Contrary to what those ubiquitous "Steps to Metro!" real-estate listings might tell you, just 9% of the 2,091,301 households in the metro area live within a ten-minute walk of Metro.
7. Morgan Boulevard has a paltry Walk Score of 6. Even Arlington Cemetery's is somehow 15. Twenty five Metro stations are in locations with a Walk Score that's "car-dependent," and just 30 are in places deemed a "Walker's Paradise."
8. Landover. Hemmed in by a railroad and US 50 on one side and by its own parking lot and an industrial park on the other, its walk shed covers a mere 80 acres. That's not fair to the almost 1,000 households, mostly on the other side of 50, who are less than half a mile away but can't easily reach the station.
How did you do?
0-3 correct: You're a Metro Newbie! While you're playing #WhichWMATA, step outside those stations and explore!
4-6 correct: You're a Metro Explorer! You've walked around many of Metro's stations, and always want to see more!
7-8 correct: You're a Metro Voyager! Are you sure you didn't download that 113-megabyte Atlas and take this quiz open-book?
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