Greater Greater Washington

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Events roundup: Bicycle tech, bicycle art, bicycle tours

Get your helmet on; this week is all about the bicycles. Learn about new apps and technology for cycling, bundle up for an urban design bike tour, and warm up at a bike-themed art show. You can also learn about historic preservation in Georgetown and planning for large buildings.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

Biking and technology: The second Bike Hack Night is this Thursday, November 6. People will present software and hardware bike projects like a counter from New York City, dockless bikesharing, apps for crowdsourcing, an "invisible" helmet, and more. The event is at 1501 Wilson Blvd, Suite 1100, Arlington, VA from 6 to 8 pm.

After the jump: Georgetown history, a bike tour, bike art, and planning talks.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4 from 12:30 to 1:30 pm at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair.

Urban design bike tour: The Potomac Chapter American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will lead an urban design and landscape architecture themed bike tour on Saturday, November 8. The tour will stop at notable design landmarks where riders will hear from the designers themselves. It starts at 11 am at Diamond Teague Park near Navy Yard and runs until 2 pm. RSVP here.

Bike art: ArtCrank, an art show that features handmade bike-themed prints made by local DC artists, is Saturday, November 8. It's free to get in but all of the proceeds if you buy a print go to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. The show is 4-10 pm at the 1776 incubator, 1133 15th Street NW in the 12th floor penthouse.

Large buildings, large cities: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "planning large buildings in large cities." On Monday, November 10 at 5:30, James Von Klemperer, a Managing Partner at Kohn Pedersen Fox, will discuss the pros and cons of planning large buildings in cities. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Parks are smart growth: The smart growth movement has focused a lot on building transit and adding housing near transit, but it's also important to help people live near parks. Peter Harnik will talk about "Parks-Oriented Development" at the American Planning Association on Tuesday, November 11, 5:30 pm a 1030 15th Street, NW, Suite 750W. RSVP here.

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.

How George Mason University and Fairfax City can be better neighbors

While George Mason is Virginia's largest research university, nobody would mistake the City of Fairfax for a college town. But Fairfax and George Mason are working together to try and improve the downtown area, a measure that will benefit them both.


Photo from Google Maps.

Downtown Fairfax is a mere 15-minute walk from George Mason's main campus, and the area has a lot to offer students. And for Fairfax, George Mason's growth could better benefit local businesses and spur redevelopment.


Old Town Fairfax. Image from Google Maps.

Over the past three years, both Fairfax City and George Mason have gotten new leadership, and they've begun to move from an uneasy coexistence to an active collaboration. These days, both parties are working to make Fairfax's downtown work for George Mason's needs and interests, and vice versa.

Fairfax and George Mason can work together on transit, roads, and housing

One obvious place for these two entities to work together is transit. With nearly 34,000 students, most of whom attend classes at the Fairfax campus, along with thousands of faculty and administrators, the university is under constant pressure to move people efficiently and manage parking. Already, George Mason invests heavily in transit options like the Mason to Metro shuttle and Fairfax's CUE bus, which allows students to ride for free.

Fairfax City and George Mason could also really benefit from working together on housing. While new businesses and public spaces have made downtown much more interesting than it was a decade ago, foot traffic remains light. Aside from the shopping and dining plaza on North Street, which is next to a parking garage, the city is struggling to find a way to bring more people downtown. On Fairfax's end, new housing could mean more people downtown after business hours, and for George Mason, a thriving, walkable downtown could help with marketing and recruiting.


North Street. Image from Google Maps.

Finally, Fairfax and George Mason ought to collaborate on ways to improve University Drive and George Mason Boulevard, the roads that connect campus with downtown. In the 1990s, Fairfax built George Mason Boulevard to handle through traffic, and in the mid-2000s it closed University Drive to all but local traffic. Before it closed, University Drive flowed from single family homes to apartments to office buildings and then shops leading into downtown, giving it a feel that made the 15-minute walk inviting. George Mason Boulevard has no such charm.


University Drive. Image from Google Maps.


George Mason Boulevard. Image from Google Maps.

The city and Mason could look at ways to make a trip from the campus more pleasant, safe and convenient. Options include downtown shuttles, improved lighting, and pedestrian-activated push-buttons in the downtown area.

Part of the reason for the disconnect between Fairfax City and George Mason is that the university has developed new housing and amenities that make the campus livelier but also somewhat insular. Still, a more inviting corridor would very likely encourage students to venture out, and without one, the university could very well focus its energies inward and continue urban redevelopment of the campus.

Give your input

On November 6-8, Fairfax City, George Mason, and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission are partnering to hold a charrette to explore these kinds of issues. What are your ideas for strengthening the connections between downtown Fairfax and Mason? Share them in the comments here and join the conversation next week!

First flowerpots, and now, a cycletrack

Last week, people noticed flowerpots appear on 6th Street NE between Gallaudet University and Union Market. But that wasn't all. Yesterday, officials put in the next piece: a cycletrack.


Photos by Mike Goodno of DDOT.

This is a "tactical urbanism" project by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Gallaudet University to make 6th Street NE safer for all users, including a new 2-way cycletrack and small plaza.

6th Street NE between Florida Avenue and Penn Street is extremely wide, with 70 feet of asphalt for only two parking lanes and two driving lanes. Each lane was 22 feet wide before DDOT recently re-striped the road. This is double the width of typical travel lanes.

The new layout still provides parallel parking on both sides, but also adds a two-way cycletrack on the east side while narrowing the travel lanes to 12' wide. This is similar to Option 3 for 6th Street in the ongoing Florida Avenue Safety Study, which will set plans for a future project to permanently rebuild the street.


Drawing from DDOT.

Gallaudet has been a huge supporter of this project, and worked with DDOT to have this open now that their Neal Place entrance will be open full-time. The university owns most of the real estate on both sides of 6th Street NE and they were concerned about the campus community crossing the street to access Union Market and other businesses. They also have high hopes for future growth on this street.

While most of this land is now used for maintenance or parking, Gallaudet is planning a new campus neighborhood to improve the campus experience, provide revenue and improve links to the surrounding neighborhoods and Metro. The university recently chose JBG as the development partner for this 1.3 million square foot project.

The changes on 6th Street were able happen so quickly because DDOT did not need to remove any travel lanes, parking, or other elements which require more time to approve. This has also recently become a highly-traveled pedestrian area not only because of Gallaudet and Union Market, but also because KIPP has opened a high school at the former Hamilton School on Brentwood Parkway.

The planters at the Neal Street NE campus entrance will help protect a small plaza on either side of the street. This will make it easier to cross between Gallaudet and Union Market by shortening the crossing distance and making pedestrians more visible. Gallaudet provided and will maintain flowers in the pots.


Photo by Mike Goodno.

This cycletrack will transition to the existing bike lanes on 6th Street south of Florida to K Street NE (which will eventually be rebuilt as part of the Florida Avenue NE project). For access to the southbound 4th Street NE/SE bike lane or to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, DDOT is planning new bike facilities for M Street NE.

The funding comes from DC's new Sustainable DC Innovation Challenge program. David Levy, program manager for Sustainable DC, says the program "funds innovative pilot projects that demonstrate ways to make the District more sustainable."

Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said planners are "always looking for ways to improve safety and create usable public space. We did some short-term improvements on Maryland Avenue NE at 7th Street earlier this year, so it's definitely more and more in our toolkit, but we don't have other locations identified just yet."

A project like this will have a major impact on safety for all users, and was completed very quickly through collaboration by many partners. Where else are there opportunities for tactical sustainability projects like this?

Flowerpots create a safer pedestrian crossing from Gallaudet to Union Market

Large flowerpots recently appeared on 6th Street NE along a crosswalk connecting Gallaudet University to Union Market. These aren't the work of a rogue gardener; they're a way for the city to narrow the crossing and enhance pedestrian safety.


Images by @GnarlyDorkette on Twitter reposted with permission.

Twitter user @GnarlyDorkette, a Trinidad resident and Gallaudet Deaf interpreter, posted these photos of the new flowerpot.

6th Street is only striped as a two-lane road, but it's a very wide two-lane road, with lanes formerly 22 feet wide. Drivers often used it as a four-lane road, said Sam Zimbabwe of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The road is part of the area that has long been a wholesale food market. There was a lot of truck traffic, but very little pedestrian traffic, and so it wasn't a top priority to change. But now this is a popular destination. Union Market opened two years ago and has become a bustling food destination with 34 carefully-curated vendors. Its success has drawn other businesses as well, like the Dolcezza gelato factory across the street. And a lot more Gallaudet students are walking over.

The university recently modified its gate on 6th Street to allow people with university IDs to pass through 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Zimbabwe said. All of this led DDOT to install the flowerpots to keep drivers on the two official lanes and encourage them to pass slowly.

What about Florida Avenue?

There's another wide road adjacent to Gallaudet that neighbors say could use some narrowing: Florida Avenue. The roadway there is three lanes each way but narrower elsewhere, and the traffic volume doesn't warrant six lanes. There's a study underway to look at widening the extremely narrow (and non-ADA compliant) sidewalks and adding bike lanes.

Zimbabwe said that study is about to wrap up, after which DDOT will submit proposed changes to the regional Transportation Planning Board for its Constrained Long-Range Plan. Departments of Transportation submit their projects for that plan each December, and Zimbabwe wants to get the Florida changes in this year.

The extra step is necessary, Zimbabwe said, because Florida Avenue is part of the "expanded national highway system" under the recent MAP-21 federal transportation bill, and is a major artery in the regional traffic models. DDOT expects to be able to modify the road, but has to jump through some administrative hoops first.

Between NoMa, Union Market, H Street, and more, the number of shops, restaurants, and other destinations around Gallaudet University has exploded in recent years. This makes it even more important to ensure the streets are safe to cross on foot for everyone of all ages, walking speeds, and hearing abilities.

Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

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.

Gas is suddenly cheap(er); the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn't the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That's why gas prices always fall in the fall.

But that's not enough to explain this autumn's decline, since gas hasn't dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that's also only part of the explanation.

The bigger piece is that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it's totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that "OPEC is over."

It's that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven't changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn't changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale isn't limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That's a mathematical certainty. But it's not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn't very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here's what it doesn't mean: There's never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we've only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn't be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody's guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn't change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that's necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we've made on those fronts and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Making room for transit can make better streets for everyone

Many proposed transit projects in our region, from streetcars to bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, involve vehicles running in the street. Giving transit a place on our busy streets can be a hard sell, especially when it means displacing cars. But a recent trip to Minneapolis shows how it can create better places for everyone, including drivers.


The new Green Line runs through the University of Minnesota. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

Minneapolis finds a compromise on the Green Line

While presenting at Rail~Volution last month in Minneapolis, I had a chance to ride the Green Line, a new light-rail between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The 11-mile line bears a striking similarity to the proposed Purple Line here in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Like the Purple Line, the Green Line faced resistance from a Republican governor and concerns about gentrification and neighborhood disruption from nearby large immigrant communities.

But it's how the Green Line interacts with the University of Minnesota, and how community leaders came together to make it a success, that might be the biggest lesson for our area. Like the Purple Line, which would pass through the University of Maryland, the Green Line travels on Washington Avenue, the main street at the University of Minnesota.


Washington Avenue before and after. Photos from Google Street View.

The University of Minnesota, also known as the U, opposed banning cars from Washington Avenue, a busy commuter route into downtown Minneapolis, and turning it into a transit mall. Scientists in the over 80 labs along the street worried that vibrations from light rail trains would disturb their research.

Officials preferred a more circuitous route that went north of the campus, which would inconvenience fewer drivers but also reduce transit access to campus. The U sued to block the project, but after negotiating with the regional Metropolitan Council, officials eventually came to an agreement. The council would pay to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference, while the U would move some labs away from the line.

A busy road becomes a place

Since then, the U has worked to make the Green Line as successful as possible. It distributed over 6,700 special passes to students, faculty, and staff that allow them to ride between the three on-campus stations for free, and rerouted campus buses to divert more traffic away from Washington Avenue.


A plaza runs down the middle of Washington Avenue, with light rail and bus/bike lanes on the sides. Photo by the author.

The U's cooperation with the Metropolitan Council meant that the Green Line could transform Washington Avenue from a traffic sewer to a gathering place. Today, the street feels like a natural extension of the campus. Trains run down the middle of the street, and there are shared bus and bike lanes on either side. The sidewalks are wider, and the crosswalks have special paving materials to make them more visible.

There's also more green space than there was before. Since the Green Line stations are in the center of the street, there's a space between the tracks. It would have been easy to just make it a grassy median, or find a way to squeeze in a car lane. Instead, it's a plaza with tables, chairs, and lush landscaping.


Bikes, buses, and transit share the reconfigured Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota. Photo by the author.

A significant amount of development is happening around the Green Line as a result. Over 2,500 apartments have been built around the U's three Green Line stations, with another 2,000 in the pipeline. New shops and restaurants have opened along the tracks to cater to the influx of students.

When I visited, Washington Avenue was bustling with students walking to class, cyclists headed downtown, and light rail trains gliding down the street. It was a nice place to be, but it was still a transportation corridor. In fact, the transition was so seamless that it wasn't until I flew home and I looked at a map that I even realized cars were banned from part of the street.

Better streets make better transit

The development around the Green Line, coupled with the dramatically improved walking and bicycling environment, supports and reinforces the use of transit, making the Green Line more successful. Even before the line opened, 20% of faculty and staff and 40% of students used transit. But since the Green Line opened, it already has over 40,000 riders each day, higher than the projected ridership in 2030. The three University of Minnesota stations are the line's busiest.


Passengers wait for a train on Washington Avenue. Photo by Michael Hicks on Flickr.

And diverting drivers away from campus hasn't created the traffic congestion that some people feared. In 2011, there was an average of 18,800 cars on Washington Avenue through campus each day. According to the state's traffic counts, some of those cars have shifted over to nearby University Avenue, which had an increase over 8,000 cars since then.

But on other nearby streets, traffic increased by a very small amount, or even decreased. It's likely because some drivers chose to take the Green Line instead, opening up street space for others.

The Green Line required leaders to accept that, in order for transit to be successful on Washington Avenue, it had to be seen as a place for people, not just for cars. This is standard operating procedure in other countries, where transit usually gets top priority, but here it requires some persuasion. Hopefully, the success of projects like the Green Line can be a guide for leaders in the DC area as they try to build transit that not only moves people, but creates stronger places.

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 John 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.

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