Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

The Metropolitan Branch Trail could learn a thing or two from Chicago's new bike trail

Chicago's new 606 trail is already very popular for biking, running, and walking, in large part because it's full of attractive landscaping and user-friendly amenities. DC would be smart to take some ideas from the 606 for upcoming changes to the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

All photos by the author.

Chicago opened the 606 in June. Also known as the Bloomingdale Trail, it stretches 2.7 miles, behind homes and under the 'L' — Chicago's Metro — through four of the city's neighborhoods.

Sapling trees and shrubs line the 606, with benches and water fountains available at major street crossings. That might explain why, even in near 90-degree heat on a recent Sunday, there was a steady stream of cyclists, runners and pedestrians using it.

Among the trail's eye-catching features are arches over one bridge and a fake railroad truss over another.

The fake railroad truss that runs over 606.

Benches on a bridge along the 606.

One thing people who I talked to complained about is the 606's lack of shade. However, they all acknowledged that it will correct itself as the saplings grow up.

The future 606 in 2011. What a difference a few years make!

Like the MBT did for near northeast Washington, the 606 has created a new off-street transportation corridor in Chicago's cycling and trail network where none existed before. But the 606 is also much more: it's a public space with grassy knolls where residents can put down a towel and relax and shaded glades with benches to sit on.

The MBT could steal an idea or two

The NoMa Business Improvement District has some plans to improve the MBT. These include a small park just south of where it passes under New York Avenue, new gardens and neighborhood connection and safety improvements.

Using the 606 gave me a few ideas on how to make the MBT both more pleasant and inviting.

Benches on the bridge where the MBT crosses Florida Avenue NE could create a new vista of the never-ending traffic drama around the so-called Dave Thomas Circle.

Water fountains could go in at key intersections, like at R Street and the entrance to the bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station that opened in December.

Landscaping on MBT could also get better. While young trees line part of the route, there's room for more, especially to the stretch between R Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

In addition, regular maintenance of the existing landscaping—like cutting the grass—would do a lot to improve the aesthetics. And a better-looking trail would likely invite more users, which is important since one of the preliminary findings that the BID shared with the public was that people would feel safer on the MBT if more people used it overall.

The uncut grass along stretches of the MBT create a wild prairie aesthetic.

The MBT is set to get longer in the next few years, with the addition of a section that connects Brookland to Silver Spring. Taking a few cues from Chicago's 606 might make both the addition and the existing trail an even better public space for the District.

Petworth residents say changes to a dangerous traffic circle should go further

Many people in Petworth lament how dangerous it is to cross the street and get to Grant Circle, one of their neighborhood parks. DDOT has an initial plan for addressing the problem, but pedestrian advocates say the real way to make the circle safer is to make the streets narrower and add more crosswalks.

Photo of Grant Circle by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

Like a lot of circles in DC, Grant Circle has a design that's invites people to use the interior space as a park but, more recently, has made moving traffic between its several intersections a major priority.

Drivers tend to speed through Grant Circle, partly because it has two wide lanes surrounding it that encourage passing. With drivers entering from the eight different intersections around the circle, and sometimes speeding to pass each other, it can be a harrowing place for people on foot or riding bikes.

Streetview of Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Every few months, a new thread starts up on the Petworth neighborhood listservs about near misses or actual crashes around Grant Circle like one last week, when someone drove their car into the circle.

"Grant Circle is an absolute mess for pedestrians," wrote one resident recently. "When I drive, I often hesitate to stop for pedestrians because I know cars will zoom around me and make it much more dangerous for the people that are crossing. When I do stop I often go between both lanes to try to ensure the pedestrian safety which is obviously not the best thing to do."

While well-intentioned, that second solution obviously isn't a safe alternative to Grant Circle's hazards.

"The design of the circle is so wide and big that instead of helping to slow down cars, it makes them to speed up," added another. "If so many of us have already had nearly misses, some tragedy will end up happening."

Plans to calm Grant Circle's traffic have fallen short of a bigger vision

After hearing from community members and ANC commissioners, DDOT released initial plans to both add new striping to the streets around Grant Circle and to narrow their lanes. Both should calm traffic as it enters the circle.

DDOT's immediate plans to add striping to Grant Circle to narrow lanes and calm traffic as it enters the circle. Image courtesy of DDOT.

This is a step in a process that started in 2009, when DDOT completed its Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan's goals were to make it safe and comfortable to walk anywhere in the city, both through city-wide policy solutions and targeted changes to certain streets' designs.

The Master Plan placed a heavy focus on L'Enfant's radial avenues, which is where the majority of today's crashes involving pedestrians happen. It plan designated "priority corridors" in each ward, which were places that saw a lot of pedestrians, had a dangerous design, and had a lot of crashes involving pedestrians as a "priority corridor."

New Hampshire Avenue, including Grant Circle, is Ward 4's priority corridor, and it was slated to get bumpouts along New Hampshire and a new design to calm traffic around the circle. These plans represent a more complete vision to calm traffic than the initial striping DDOT is proposing, though new ideas in traffic engineering could help even more.

Grant Circle's two-lane design is needlessly dangerous

Every street intersecting Grant Circle is one lane in each direction, except for New Hampshire Avenue south of Grant Circle. There, New Hampshire has two lanes in each direction until it turns into Sherman Avenue, which has one lane in each direction.

If New Hampshire has one lane in each direction north of the circle and again a few blocks south, does it really need two lanes in the first place?

The two lane design means that parents with kids, dog owners with dogs, elderly people and those with disabilities, and anyone else trying to get to the park have to contend with serious traffic, which enters the circle from eight different points, to do so. And while relatively few cars use the passing lane, those that do tend to speed and pose an extra risk to people walking.

Grant Circle today. Image from Google Maps

Let's consider some possibiltiies

All Walks DC, an organization I'm a part of, has a few thoughts for how Grant Circle could be made safer to walk and bike to and through.

When you look at Grant Circle's interior paths, you can see where the original designer intended for people to be able to cross into and through the circle (though for some reason it leaves out paths to 5th Street NW). But out of the 12 places that those interior paths intersect Grant Circle, only 5 have crosswalks today. Some streets, such as Varnum on the East, don't have any crosswalks at all, meaning that all the neighbors on that street have to walk a block south to use a marked crosswalk.

One simple fix would be to to add the crosswalks that are obviously missing.

DDOT's 2009 plans for Grant Circle include a raised brick inner lane to calm traffic. Image from DDOT.

Narrowing Grant Circle to one lane would make crossing on foot much safer. DDOT's 2009 plan includes a proposal to make the inner lane raised brick, which is a half step in this direction. But while this would discourage speeding and passing, it would likely be expensive, and there are probably better uses for that space.

For a lot less money, DDOT could bring down speeds and make Grant Circle more pedestrian and bike-friendly by allowing parking in the inner lane and building bumpouts at all the crosswalks.

Bumpout on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT could also car lanes by creating a protected bikeway, which the Move DC plan calls for, along the outside of the circle.

Finally, it's worth considering using lanes to increase park space, which has happened in New York City. Extending Grant Circle outwards would be more complicated due to coordination with the National Park Service, but would add about a half acre to the area of the park.

Calming traffic around Grant Circle is an important part of kicking off DC's Vision Zero efforts, as it would be an example of a community-supported project to make a street with known dangers safer for people walking. Several residents have already noted dangers around Grant Circle on DDOT's Vision Zero map, which you can view and add to here.

If you live nearby and would like to sign a petition for a safer Grant Circle, click here.

Ask GGW: Could biking between the C&O to the W&OD bike paths be safer?

At White's Ferry in Leesburg, it's a short distance between two of our region's most popular bike trails: the C&O Canal Towpath, which runs along the Potomac River from DC to Cumberland, Maryland, and Virginia's Washington & Old Dominion Trail. But to get from one to the other, cyclists have to ride along Route 15, which is dangerous.

Base image from Google Maps.

One of our readers wants to know if it's possible to create a safer connection.

Is there anyway to make it safer to connect the C&O to the W&OD bike paths? White's Ferry is a great place to cross but Route 15 North is treacherous, especially if you are heading south into Leesburg. I have inquired about this but have either been told "improvements have been made," or just stonewalled altogether.
The Loudoun County planning department has has looked at the issue, but it's taken a long time to arrive at a solution. Patricia Turner, the Co-Chair of BikeLoudoun, gives us some background:
In 1999 the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) presented an application to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors via the Virginia's Transportation Enhancement Program, to create a Leesburg-to-White's Ferry Bikeway. It proposed retrofitting an 8-foot wide, 1.4 mile shoulder along both sides of US Route 15.

The application for combined federal and state funding (with a percentage match from Loudoun County) was extensive and detailed, and contained scores of supporting letters from citizens and business owners. It also included 12 pages of petition signatures. But alas, the application was turned down, as I remember primarily because the actual cost was re-estimated to be much higher than originally stated.

David Cranor notes that the Loudoun County Bicycle and Pedestrian Mobility Master Plan, adopted in 2003, addressed the issues of crossing into White's Ferry. The plan stated that, "Linkages to the C&O Canal, including access to White's Ferry, are in need of improvement", and that "Improvements to Route 15, just north and south of the Town [of Leesburg], are underway. On the south side of the Town, a multi-use trail on the west side of Route 15 is planned, and on the north side, to White's Ferry, wide shoulders are being paved to accommodate bicycles."

The trail on the west side of Route 15 was never built. The plan also discussed creating a better connection to Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park and then adding a Riverside trail from there to White's Ferry. This also never happened.

One of the more interesting suggestions in the plan was to add another ferry somewhere other than White's Ferry:

The Plan also proposes consideration of new bicycle and pedestrian only ferry services. Two locations have been identified for further study, the old Edward's Ferry Crossing and Algonkian Regional Park. These could be public or private operations and start as only limited seasonal and/or weekend services.
Turner also mentions that the issue is even more compelling now that it has been sixteen years since WABA brought the application for the Loudoun to White's Ferry Bikeway to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

A new solution is in the works

A group in Loudoun is currently working on completing county gaps in the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. It's headed up by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, and supported by the National Park Service, Loudoun's Department of Parks, and others.

Because of challenges stemming from both topography and land ownership, some of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail in Loudoun will veer away from the Potomac River and onto paved paths. The committee is considering an alternative route from White's Ferry to the W&OD that would cross Route 15 into subdivisions and link to downtown Leesburg.

This route would enable riders to safely reach the W&OD Trail in town without having to use Route 15.

There is considerable interest from cyclists to make a route that would circle from DC along the C&O to out to Poolesville, Maryland, cross the Potomac at White's Ferry, and connect to the W&OD for a return trip.

C&O Canal towpath winding near the Potomac River. Photo from the National Park Service.

Turner says BikeLoudoun believes such a route would increase county tourism, providing economic benefits to Leesburg and surrounding areas. Easements and funding issues will have to be addressed in order to make this a reality, however, and the plan has yet to be introduced to the county Board of Supervisors.

"This fall, we hope to get on the docket of the Transportation and Land Use Committee to present the concept," says Turner. "With their support, the plan will go before the entire Board for discussion and approval."

More and more frequently, BikeLoudoun gets frequent requests for information about a bicycle connection from White's Ferry Road to Leesburg, and Turner is hopeful that the long-awaited route will be realized in the near future.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose 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!

When crossing the Potomac, six train tracks do the work of dozens of highway lanes

Vehicles can only cross the Potomac in 11 places, and the three that are for rail carry 30% of commuters across the river. It takes 57 highway lanes to carry the rest.

Photo by Scott Ableman on Flickr.

Virginia's Department of Transportation recently looked at the current and projected volume at each crossing, then PlanItMetro analyzed the data.

Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

The six rail tracks carry nearly one third of the traffic, yet take up significantly less space.

The big takeaway, according to representatives from both VDOT and WMATA, is that any expansion of our region's bridges should account for and include more than just cars.

One of VDOT's recommendations is to continue the 495 Express Lanes from Virginia into Maryland by expanding the Legion Bridge. Should this happen, the region will be challenged to think proactively about how to integrate transit options; that goes for both what we have today and what we might have in the future. Adding a bus rapid transit route to the bridge, for example, could increase capacity by 14,000 crossings.

Graphic by PlanItMetro. Click for larger version.

Do we need to expand our bridges? Are the capacity improvements realistic, and if they are, are they worth the cost? Are there better solutions to get people across the river quickly and safely?

Correction: The original headline for this post read "Far more people cross the Potomac in trains than in cars," which is inaccurate. What we meant to say was that proportionately, more people cross in trains than in cars.

Go ahead, wade in the memorial

Wading in the World War II memorial is emphatically not allowed. Solemnity is the officially preferred emotion. But the memorial's buoyant design inherently invokes liveliness, and strict rules violate the spirit of the war against fascism.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Every summer when Washington heats up, tourists find a respite from the heat at the World War II memorial. Thousands dip their feet in, and a few inevitably wade towards the middle.

Until a National Park Service ranger chastises them for disrespecting the memorial, and makes them return to dry land. Or until local media scolds them back to shore.

The rangers and media are well-intentioned, but treating the World War II memorial with a solemnity not reflected in the design does little to inspire respect.

The memorial doesn't have a solemn design

Truthfully, the World War II memorial doesn't function well as a somber space. Its lively fast-moving fountains and bright, sun-filled plaza bring it to life.

Kirk Savage puts it well in his book, Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape:

The World War II Memorial is decidedly not a psychological space, not a space for reflection and reckoning. The roar of the fountains, and the inscriptions trumpet their messages of determination and rectitude...This is a space not for internal reckoning but for acclimation, pure and simple.
The central fountain doesn't inspire quiet reflection. It's an active, bustling space, full of people enjoying their day every bit as much as they contemplate America's role in World War II.

By intent or happenstance, the design inspires people to move about, to fill what would otherwise be stark emptiness with their activity.

Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Years ago when I was in the Navy, my captain had a saying: "Every sign is a failure of leadership." For example, if you need a sign saying "no smoking," it's because you didn't properly train your sailors not to smoke in that space.

That axiom doesn't always hold outside the closed ecosystem of a ship, but I think it pertains here. If we need a sign saying "no wading," it's because the design has failed to discourage wading.

If you need several such signs, and rangers need to constantly enforce it, I'd say that far from discouraging wading, the memorial's design implicitly encourages it.

Contrast the WWII memorial with the one for Vietnam

Contrast it with the Vietnam Veterans memorial, where most visitors are naturally somber, and the effect of design becomes clear.

I'm a tour guide. When visiting the memorials with my student groups, I take a moment to warn them about appropriate behavior. But at the Vietnam memorial, my efforts are generally superfluous.

The memorial's very design imposes it's own mores. Few of my students know more than the most cursory details of the Vietnam War, but when they descend into the memorial, with its merciless rise of row after row of names, it makes an impression on even the most jaded eighth grader.

The space inspires a natural quiet reflection.

The World War II Memorial very much does not. Rather, it celebrates life. And that is OK.

Enforced solemnity violates the spirit of the war

To me, the natural enthusiasm and activity imbued within the World War II memorial evokes the spirit of relief and jubilation of the end of the war.

A hard fought war, to defeat what may have been the most concentrated evil political system ever to be seen on this planet, ended with tremendous sacrifice and loss, but with victory.

It is right that we honor the sacrifices of the World War II generation with the somber Freedom Wall, and its 4048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans killed in the war. But just as that wall is only part of the memorial, so should that emotion be only part of our interaction with it.

No one scolded the people celebrating VJ Day in Times Square at the end of the war. We need not scold tourists today. There's room for unbridled enthusiasm, for joy, for relief at the end of deep pain, just as there is a place for solemnity.

I can't claim to speak for the myriad of reasons why millions of individual Americans fought this war. After all, I don't appreciate others characterizing my military service to suit their own ends. But ultimately World War II was about freedom, so let's celebrate that, in all the chaotic and uncontrollable ways it might manifest itself.

Which DC Councilmembers support fully protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway?

To stop drivers from making dangerous U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway, DC has installed physical barriers—except on two blocks right where DC councilmembers park. Are councilmembers the obstacle? We asked them if they support completing the barriers.

A U-turning driver strikes a cyclist. Image from David Garber on Twitter.

From the moment the bikeway opened on Pennsylvania Avenue, there were problems with drivers parking in the lanes and making U-turns mid-block. U-turns are very dangerous, as drivers often do not see cyclists riding in the lanes.

It took three years and a mayoral order to even confirm that these U-turns were actually illegal. During this time, many cyclists were struck by drivers, and 12 of Capital Bikeshare's first 14 crashes happened on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Wheel stops on Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

After almost two years of experiments with tools like "zebras," the District Department of Transportation started lining the lanes with rubber curb stops. At Bike to Work Day in May, officials announced plans to install them all the way from 3rd Street NW to 13th Street NW.

But curiously, that announcement omitted the two westernmost blocks, from 13th Street NW to 15th Street NW. DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair said in an earlier statement to Greater Greater Washington, "In the immediate future, DDOT will not be installing the park-its between 13th and 15th streets, NW, on Pennsylvania Avenue. The agency still needs to analyze those blocks along with several mitigating factors that it must take into consideration."

Are politicians one "mitigating factor"? Along that stretch is the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the executive and legislative offices of the District of Columbia government. Councilmembers park in front of the Wilson Building, and many make U-turns to either get to the parking space or leave.

I reached out to all 13 members of the DC Council for comment. Here's the scorecard.

Top from left to right: Vincent Orange, Elissa Silverman, David Grosso, LaRuby May, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, Anita Bonds, Charles Allen. Bottom from left to right: Yvette Alexander, Jack Evans, Chairman Phil Mendelson, Kenyan McDuffie, Mary Cheh.
Green circles denote members who stated they support barriers, question marks show members who did not reply, and X's show those who made negative statements. Image by Greater Greater Washington from base image by the DC Council.

I got supportive comments from at-large councilmembers Anita Bonds, David Grosso, and Elissa Silverman, and ward members Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Brandon Todd (Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and LaRuby May (Ward 8).

I got no response from Chairman Phil Mendelson or at-large member Vincent Orange.

Ward 7 representative Yvette Alexander's office did not reply to my request for comment, but I had the opportunity to speak with her during a recent rally in support of adding barriers to the rest of the bikeway.

At first she equated cycling with lawbreaking, complaining that bicycles need to get off sidewalks and follow the same laws that apply to drivers. I explained that better bike lanes means more people will use them and follow the laws, a statement which she found funny for some reason. She then complained that the demonstrators were blocking the U-turn she wanted to make that day.

Update: Yvette Alexander says on Twitter that yes, she does in fact support barriers for the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway. She has not yet responded to GGW's request for clarification that she supports barriers specifically between 13th and 15th Streets.
Below are the full comments from each councilmember's office who responded.

Anita Bonds (At Large): "Councilmember Bonds supports the completion throughout PA Avenue. Additionally, she prefers the usage of 'sticks' as she calls them to create a visible barrier on as many bike lanes possible throughout the city."

David Grosso (At Large): "As you know, Councilmember Grosso joined the protest a few weeks ago on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania regarding protected bike lanes on that block and the 1400 block. The Councilmember is very supportive of increasing DC's bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including moving forward as quickly as possible on planning that has already been done. Grosso [has met] with DDOT director Dormsjo to discuss these issues more in-depth. And he has been biking to work on a regular basis, which gives him a firsthand look at the issues facing bicyclists in DC."

Elissa Silverman (At Large): "I support extending the existing wheel stops through 15th Street. They are in place to protect both cyclists and car drivers. I biked to work on Pennsylvania Avenue this morning, and I was behind a mom commuting with her toddler in a seat on the front handlebars. As we encourage people to get out of their cars and use alternate transportation—walking, biking, subway, bus, even Segway—we need to keep everyone safe. Installing the wheels stops between 13th and 15th will do that. And, by the way, I also drive that route—and when I park in front of the Wilson Building I make a left turn at the light and drive around it to get back on Pennsylvania. It does take an extra minute or two—and I've been late to a meeting to do it!—but it is worth the time."

Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1): "Councilmember Nadeau is a strong supporter of building more protected bike lanes throughout the District, including along this section of Pennsylvania Ave where it's especially important to prevent illegal U turns. She is currently working with WABA on a letter to DDOT requesting the prioritization of several protected bike lane projects in Ward 1, and also secured a commitment from the Director of the DMV to provide drivers with information about bike lanes. Recently, she also joined Bike Ambassadors in Columbia Heights and participated in Bike to Work Day."

Jack Evans (Ward 2): "Councilmember Evans supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th."

Mary Cheh (Ward 3): "The Councilmember feels that as long as safety equipment isn't affected, the curbs should be added now."

Brandon Todd (Ward 4): "Councilmember Todd fully supports improving bicycle safety along Pennsylvania Avenue, including adding curbs wherever necessary along the bike path. He would like to see those safety improvements implemented as quickly as possible, especially in those areas where bicyclists are particularly vulnerable and currently unprotected."

Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5): "Councilmember McDuffie is in support of installing curbs between 15th and 13th streets on Pennsylvania Ave."

Charles Allen (Ward 6): "The Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack is an important east-west connective link in the District's bicycle infrastructure. Protecting these bike lanes with parking curbs, while not a perfect solution to dangerous illegal U-turns, is an important means of improving safety for cyclists. Leaving two blocks unprotected is, frankly, baffling and unacceptable. A physical barrier to deter illegal U-turns is needed the full length of the corridor."

LaRuby May (Ward 8): "Councilmember May absolutely supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th and is a strong supporter of more protected bike lanes in Ward 8 and across the District."

We will update this post if other councilmembers respond with comments.

Update: Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), LaRuby May (Ward 8), and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) followed up soon after this article was published to state their support for protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes. The graphic and post have been updated to reflect their positions.

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