Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

New transit in Alexandria could be great, but not if riders can't walk to stations

Alexandria is planning a new bus rapid transit corridor that could be great for development. But the fenced-off apartment complexes and pedestrian-hostile roads surrounding it could discourage people from taking the bus.

Alexandria's West End today. Photo from Google Street View.

The West End Transitway is a bus rapid transit system that will run along Van Dorn and Beauregard streets, connecting the Van Dorn Metro station to both the Shirlington Transit Center and the Pentagon. The transitway will have dedicated lanes for buses, meaning it will bring effective transit to an area that needs development.

But the West End neighborhood south of Landmark, whose rough boundaries are Edsall, Pickett, Duke and I-395, contains numerous apartment complexes with fences that block pedestrian connections. Meanwhile, wide, fast roads make walking inconvenient and dangerous. Neither of these things will encourage anyone to use the bus.

The proposed West End Transitway. Map from the City of Alexandria.

For example, the Edsall Bluff complex on Edsall Road is only about 400 feet from Watergate at Landmark. But to get from one to the other, a resident would have to walk nearly a mile because they're both fenced in and there aren't any paths that connect them.

When it comes to transit, walkability is the key to success. The parts of Alexandria that have really high transit use, like Old Town, not only have density but a street grid with narrow, slow streets that makes it easy and safe to walk to Metro and bus routes. Likewise, the West End Transitway needs to be accessible on foot and by bike. If it's not, it's going to be hard to call the project a success.

Wide, fast roads make walking unsafe

Alexandria's plan for the Beauregard Street corridor, which is in the West End, proposes a new grid with streets that slow vehicle traffic and are easy for pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate. But the latest plans for the West End Transitway are full of suburban design, namely wide travel lanes that are between 12 and 14 feet wide, and a lack of on-street bikeways.

Missing are the narrow lanes that are now universally recommended in modern smart growth handbooks. In Walkable City, author Jeff Speck lauds the ten to 11 foot lanes that have become the new norm, but he says nine-foot lanes would be even better. Not only are these streets safer for walking and biking, but they're also safer for driving.

Also missing are protected bike lanes. While the draft West End Transitway plan has a "sidepath" for biking and walking, modern best practices would give it a protected bikeway and a sidewalk.

A protected bikeway would keep bikes off the sidewalk, which is safer for pedestrians. It'd also carry the bike lane through each intersection with street design (paint), signals, and signage. With a sidepath, the only safe way to bicycle through an intersection is to slow to walking speed. But people do not have the discipline to do that at every intersection, so sidewalk (and sidepath) riding is dangerous. Most cycling organizations strongly discourage it.

In another example of misplaced suburban design, plans for the intersection at Van Dorn and Pickett feature slip lanes that allow for fast right-hand turns. Transit Commission member Scott Anderson said they've now been redesigned for lower speeds, but they're still dangerous.

"A transitway should be designed to move people safely, not move cars fast," said West End Policy Advisory Group member Jake Jakubek.

Where safe paths don't exist, people make them up

I recently spent an afternoon visiting West End apartments, looking for "desire paths" between them. Desire paths are unofficial routes created by people walking where no path was provided. Often, they stand out as dirt paths in satellite photos.

While I found trampled earth along many of the perimeter fences, I found only one such path open and only one clear case of a fence that had been patched to close a desire path. It may be telling that the only open path I found passed through a fence-gap in a wooded area, hidden from those tasked with fence repair.

Google Maps includes numerous desire paths in walking and biking directions. One such path is shown between the aforementioned Edsall Bluff and Watergate at Landmark. In reality, however, there is only a fence and a stand of thick bamboo. That the path is on a map suggests that it once existed.

All desire paths, both existing and closed off, show that people like to walk and that they strongly prefer the shortest route to their destination, even if they have to climb through a gap in a fence to get there.

The West End Transitway could make it easier to get around Alexandria without a car, as well as encourage much-needed investment in the area. However, it's important to make sure that people can easily and safely get to the transitway on foot or bike. Without that, the benefits of new transit may not materialize.

Ask GGW: Urbanist children's music?

Greater Greater Washington readers came up with a great list of children's books which have urbanist themes or describe experiences of kids growing up in the city, like riding the subway or walking outside an apartment neighborhood on a snowy day. What about for music?

Bubble Ride cover from Vanessa Trien.

Sophie has really been enjoying Bubble Ride, a CD by Boston area children's singer Vanessa Trien. Besides some (great) songs about the popular topic, farm or zoo animals, there are several songs about living in the city.

"Train Dance" is about some people on the T who can't help but dance to the rhythm of the train rumbling. And "Spinning Around" relates the experience of a child who lives in a second-floor apartment in the city and goes on a "walk to the bank or to the grocery store" in the stroller.

Do you know of other children's albums that kids in walkable urban places can relate to?


GGW's favorite outdoor spaces in one map

This week's Ask GGW told you all about our contributors' favorite outdoor spaces in the Washington region. Did we leave you wondering where exactly to find them? Here are all 35 in an interactive map!

Click for the interactive version. Base image from Google Maps.

Thanks to commenter Jack Waterman, who started working on the Google Map then passed it on to us.

If you want to make your own map, here's a tutorial. And if you want to use our map as a base for doing so, import ours into the one you start.

Enjoy the coming warmth of spring!

Live in DC, see aurora borealis

The northern lights, aurora borealis, are usually only visible near the Arctic Circle. But every once in a while, when conditions are perfect, they make an appearance as far south as DC. I caught a glimpse early Wednesday morning.

Aurora over Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday morning. Photo by Dan Malouff.

On Tuesday news spread that a heavy solar storm was hitting Earth, and producing some of the strongest aurora in years. Maybe strong enough to see from DC.

Since the sky was clear, the moon below the horizon, and conditions perfect, my wife and I booked a Zipcar to the clearest northerly view I could think of: The northern tip of Kent Island, across the Bay Bridge, in the middle of the Chesapeake.

And there was the aurora. Barely visible, but there. Dim green flashes floated low against the horizon, flowing in great fast waves from east to west. It was nothing like the huge curtains of light you see in the famous pictures (we're too far south for that), but it was unmistakable nonetheless.

How you can see them next time

Aurora are sometimes visible from DC's latitude. But they may never be visible from inside the District of Columbia, because this far south they appear very dim, and only close to the northern horizon. To see them, find an extremely dark north-facing vantage point, with a clear sight of the horizon.

If there are street lights turned on or trees blocking the horizon, you probably won't see them even if conditions are otherwise right.

Since we live in the northeast part of the city, we decided Kent Island would be ideal. It's about an hour drive east of DC, assuming no traffic—usually a safe assumption after midnight.

Route to Kent Island. Map from Google.

You will need a car to get there. And since news of likely aurora this far south typically only comes the day of the event, you won't have much time to plan ahead. But in the age of car-sharing, even a car-free urbanite can get it done.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

2015 is going to be a great year for city planning

Experts say smart planning will keep gaining ground in 2015. Hear more in two new videos from Mobility Lab.

In "Energizing People to Reimagine Our Cities," the interviewees talk about broad changes in city operations. Harriet Tregoning, who used to be DC's planning director, says residents need to support projects even when their cities "fail fast and fail often."

"People don't always talk about the fact that [Capital Bikeshare] is our second system," she says. "SmartBike was an abysmal failure, [but] we were able to replace that dinky little bikeshare system with something that was much much better and immediately successful."

Erin Barnes from the crowdsourcing site Ioby urges cities to rethink public spaces: "People get really upset if you talk about taking away parking spaces. But if you close a street to car traffic and open it up for anything else, you give people an opportunity to reimagine how you would use all that public space."

In "Energizing People About the Future of Public Transportation," Gabe Klein, previously DC's transportation director, predicts a shift in how we talk about planning. He says we'll move from a narrow focus on transit versus cars versus biking and walking toward a broader look at how transportation as a whole helps a city work.

Tim Papandreou from San Francisco's transportation department cites a specific example: "We have smart phones, but really dumb wallets." Mobile apps could make it easy to combine different ways of getting across town both from home and while traveling.

Emily Badger, a transportation reporter at the Post, says new types of data that tell us more about how people connect to jobs are transforming our approach to transit.

"2015," Papandreou predicts, "is going to mean more, not less."

The interviews for both videos were filmed in January at Transportation Camp, an annual "unconference" that Mobility Lab sponsors to bring together and advance new ideas in transportation.

Ask GGW: Where do you enjoy the outdoors?

With spring weather almost here, it's time to get out and enjoy the less concrete-filled parts of our region. We asked our contributors to tell us about their favorite outdoor spots and why they love them. We also gave bonus points for places you can get to by transit!

A fall sunset on Greenbelt Lake at Buddy Attick Park. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The answers were as wide-reaching as our contributor base itself, but the District had the highest concentration of locations. We'll start there, then get to Maryland and Virginia.

Payton Chung named some downtown and Georgetown favorites:

The urban blocks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown don't just let you snack on a cupcake next to a waterfall while dreaming of escaping it all and riding a CaBi deep into the woods. You also get a great glimpse at what urban places (and transportation) looked like before the car.

Pershing Park is perhaps the most thoughtfully designed park in downtown DC, and a great quiet escape on a hot summer day.

One of the more fantastical park experiences in the District is to run a kayak aground on Theodore Roosevelt Island or Kingman Island and pretend you're an early explorer who's discovered an uninhabited island.

Dumbarton Oaks Park was Topher Mathews' pick:

Dumbarton is a hidden corner of Rock Creek Park tucked below its more famous and rich Harvard-owned sister in Georgetown. It has woods, glades, and a meandering stream criss-crossed by stone bridges, and it's a beautiful example of landscape architecture by one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand.
Tracey Johnstone enjoys the grounds of the National Cathedral:
It's on a hill, so there's often a refreshing breeze. Some of the lawns are large enough you can play catch without endangering others. Or you can sit in the rose garden on the lower, south side of the grounds. There are secluded benches and some small lawns ringed by azaleas and other foliage. It's a great place to read or to have a picnic.
On top of Rock Creek Park and Beech Drive, both of which are largely closed to motor vehicles on weekends, Eric Fidler noted another road, Ross Drive, which parallels Beach Drive south of Military Road but runs along the ridge. It provides great views of the valley and gets very little car traffic. There are moments on Ross Drive when you can stop and not hear or see any signs of human civilization (aside from the road pavement, of course). It's surreal to think such a place exists in DC."

On warm weekends, you'll probably find Mitch Wander out on the river:

Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove is an absolute outdoors gem. You can rent rowboats and canoes to explore the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The fishing is beyond wonderful. Fletcher's Boathouse staff can sell you everything needed, including fishing gear, the required DC fishing license, and insider tips, to catch a variety of fish. Over the coming weeks, the annual shad migration from the Chesapeake Bay will a fishing experience not to be missed. The D6 bus goes to MacArthur Boulevard and then you can walk down to the Boathouse.
"Frederick Douglass National Historic Site has the greatest panorama of the city," added John Muller.

Another great view can be had from the top of the hill at Fort Reno Park, one of Claire Jaffe's favorite spots growing up. "It might be partly the nostalgia factor, but it is the highest land point in the city and has a nice view of the surrounding area. Especially in the warmer months when it's green and sunny, it's a wonderful place to sit and relax. You can also run up and down the hill... if that is what you're into."

Tina Jones gives a shout-out to the Melvin Hazen Trail:

The trail crosses Melvin Hazen Creek three times en route to the confluence with Rock Creek. At the eastern end there's a big, open green field, a covered picnic pavilion with a fireplace, bathrooms, Pierce Mill and the fish ladder, and access to more trails north and south.

From the west, you can get there from Connecticut Ave at Rodman Street, just north of the Cleveland Park metro, and by the L1, L2, and H2 buses. From the east it's accessible on foot from Mount Pleasant.

David Koch went with a classic, Meridian Hill Park:
It has a great classic design and a location that can't be beat, and it's mostly well-maintained by the National Park Service. It always brings a smile to my face to see the sheer variety of uses that it gets from locals, from picnics to Frisbee to yoga to tightrope walking, not to mention Sunday's drum circle. There's also a multitude of quiet, secluded places you can find to read a book in solitude, even on the most packed weekend afternoons. I'd say it's the closest thing DC has to Central Park, pace the Mall.
Speaking of the Mall, Canaan Merchant gave "America's front yard" his nod, saying how much he enjoys people watching there while he bikes home in the summer.

Personally, I'll add the National Arboretum, a sprawling green space off New York Ave NE accessible by bike from NoMa or Eastern Market Metro stations as well as via the B2 bus. There's also Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Arboretum, easily walkable or bikeable from Deanwood Metro, and Hains Point, a great biking spot along the Potomac.

To close off the District review, Neil Flanagan noted the solace to be found at Rock Creek Cemetery, and Dan Malouff called Dupont Circle "perfectly awesome" for its "mix of hard plazas versus landscaping, of city noise versus calm serenity, and of grand landmarks versus intimate hideaways."

Our contributors' Maryland favorites

Greenbelter Matt Johnson makes Buddy Attick Park part of his walk home from the bus when the weather is nice. It "surrounds Greenbelt Lake, and is an integral part of the green belt that surrounds and permeates the planned community. Some of the neighborhoods closest to the park have direct access to the loop trail that encircles the lake. And the town center is just steps away from the east entrance. The easy access and bucolic setting means that almost always, the park is full of families picnicking, teens playing sports, joggers exercising, and couples strolling."

Katie Gerbes loves Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, alongside the Green Line between College Park and Greenbelt. "The lake has lots of gazebos, fishing spots, and a trail going around it. It also connects to the Paint Branch Trail, so a trip to the lake can be part of a larger run or bike ride. It gets a little buggy with gnats in the summertime, but it's a great place for a leisurely walk in the spring and fall."

Jeff Lemieux also takes to the outdoors in that part of Prince George's County:

My favorite natural spaces in the DC area are USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and MNCPPC's Anacostia Tributary trail system. USDA allows bike riding on most roadways through the research farms, which affords a lovely rural experience in the midst of sprawling suburbia. The Anacostia Tributary trails provide scenic recreation and also form the spine of an extensive commuter bike network in northern Prince George's county. Both areas are easily accessible from the Green Line's College Park and Greenbelt stations.
Closing out Maryland, Little Bennett Regional Park in northern Montgomery County is great for rambles in the woods. The downside is that it's only barely transit-accessible, via RideOn route 94—I used a Zipcar to access it.

Virginia destinations

Meadowlark Park, Northern Virginia's only botanical garden, got praise from Jenifer Joy Madden:

Meadowlark Park near Tysons Corner. Photo by Jenifer Joy Madden.
There, paved trails wind through rolling formal gardens and around sparkling ponds. Wilder paths draw you into the woods and great stands of native species. Kids love the Children's Garden, where they are encouraged to smell and touch the fragrant herbs and flowers.

Only a few months ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened a beautiful paved trail that connects cyclists on the W&OD trail with Meadowlark. Also, Fairfax Connector 432 now gets within striking distance of Meadowlark, but unfortunately it only runs Monday through Friday during rush hours.

Agnès Artemel recommended Great Falls Park and Huntley Meadows Park (both in Fairfax County), along with Daingerfield Island and Marina and Winkler Preserve (in Alexandria) for nature lovers, and added she appreciates the stream and trees along Spout Run Parkway between the George Washington Parkway and Lee Highway in Arlington.

There's also the well-known Mount Vernon Trail, hugging the river through Alexandria and Arlington. And Founders Park on Alexandria's waterfront and Ben Brenman Park at Cameron Station, also in Alexandria, deserve mention as great open spaces.

Adam Froehlig, an avid hiker, goes a little farther afield, pointing out the hiking trails along the north side of the Occoquan and along Bull Run. There's Fountainhead Regional Park towards Manassas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, which isn't all that far from DC and is accessible by commuter rail, as it runs through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and served by MARC and Amtrak.

And when it comes to wildlife watching, nothing beats the beaver-tended wetlands of Fairfax's Huntley Meadows Park, accessible via Fairfax Connector routes 161 and 162, which connect it to Huntington Metro.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."

Imagine a Kennedy Center that's part of downtown

The Kennedy Center is a marble island cut off from downtown by highways. What if instead, it was the heart of a new urban neighborhood linking Georgetown and the National Mall?

Watercolor perspective. All images from Aragon, Hensley, and Sponseller.

In 1997, Andrea Aragon, Jon Hensley, and Robert Sponseller created the above rendering for Capital Visions: Architects Revisit L'Enfant: New Plans for the Millennium, an exhibit at the National Building Museum whose projects considered how different values could reshape the historic Federal City in the 21st century.

Their plan contemplates a Foggy Bottom where urban fabric replaces a mish-mash of midcentury projects like I-66, the Watergate, and the State Department. The stub of I-66 and the Whitehurst Freeway are totally gone. A new Roosevelt Bridge runs directly onto Constitution Avenue, and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway runs underground from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to Constitution Avenue.

Public space diagram. The dashed line is an underground parkway. The dots are commemorative sites, like the Arts of War and Peace on the Memorial Bridge.

A restored version of the L'Enfant grid, with some additions, takes the place of what's there now. E Street, which is currently a trench, becomes a boulevard that runs to the Kennedy Center and down to the water. New buildings with new uses break up what are currently blocks and blocks of Federal offices. Beyond new activity on the street, the reclaimed blocks offer acres for new residential and commercial development.

In this vision, buildings define the outflow of Rock Creek. Washington Harbor is on the left.

In addition to the practical street grid, the designers connect three neighborhoods with major corridors, punctuated by landmarks and parks, not unlike Pierre L'Enfant did in 1791.

E Street extends to the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown is just a skip away. The plan also extends Virginia Avenue and K Street across Rock Creek, which itself pools at an artificial basin since the Whitehurst Freeway is gone. The basin joints the burbling creek, the still canal, and the powerful river.

The continuous waterfront extends Georgetown, DC's hottest neighborhood in 1997.

Along the Potomac, a boardwalk runs from Washington Harbor to the realigned Roosevelt Bridge. Buildings run right up to the edge of the waterfront. Kayakers and rowers move downstream from Thompson's Boathouse to a new wharf at the Kennedy Center.

The proposed new Kennedy Center. A glass atrium connects E Street with the river.

The designers make some rather extreme changes to the Kennedy Center itself. The venue's three main halls have to be structurally independent for acoustic reasons, so they strip off Edward Durrell Stone's critically reviled exterior and work their exteriors into the street design. They also demolish and move the Opera House so pedestrians can walk from the White House, along E Street and down steps to the Potomac.

Navy Hill fits neatly into the city. The telescope is not exactly where it's depicted.

The plan also integrates Navy Hill, which the General Services Administration is currently transforming it into State Department buildings. This was the original Naval Observatory and later housed the CIA. The designers could have left it as a semi-rural hill, but instead, the they integrated the historic buildings back into the grid and made one of the remaining telescopes into a local landmark.

It's worth mentioning that a few buildings need demolishing for the plan to work. To reconnect 22nd Street, the designers cut the State Department back to its prewar section, the "War Department Building." They also do away with better-liked 20th century projects, like the Pan American Health Organization and the Watergate complex.

A grid of normal urban blocks replaces highways and mega-developments.

What's great about speculative designs like this is that when politics and economics aren't an issue, designers are free to examine radical ideas that put our collective values up for debate. How that makes us think about pragmatic issues is important.

Should we preserve unloved buildings? How do we balance monuments and background buildings? Does recreation outweigh ecology? The project raises more questions than answers, and that's great.

Nolli map of the entire project.
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