Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Roads

The National Zoo has clarified its safety concerns. Turns out you're the problem.

The National Zoo is changing its hours because of safety concerns, but Zoo users aren't so sure that's necessary. The Zoo director clarified Friday that his concerns aren't about crime or animal safety; what he's really worried about are people jogging and running into Zoo maintenance vehicles.

Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

A November 6th email from Lyn Mento, the executive director of Friends of the National Zoo (which handles most of the Zoo's communications to members), said the shorter hours would "protect and safeguard our visitors and animals, especially when it gets dark earlier in the fall and winter."

But it's unclear what, exactly, is threatening animals' health and welfare. In fact, when it comes to actually explaining the safety concerns mentioned in the email, the the only thing Zoo director Dennis Kelly has clarified is that joggers literally run into the Zoo maintenance vehicles and that happens more when it's dark. Here's what he recently told the Washington Post:

"We've had for some time, going back years, increasing concern about safety and security," Kelly said. "We've observed many near misses for walkers and joggers, particularly in the dark. We've had joggers with headphones bumping into parked vehicles."
Rather than blaming visitors for the problem, the Zoo could let them help solve it

It seems like the Zoo is saying that its drivers shouldn't have to act safely and responsibly.

The Post article, noticeably, does not specifically focus on vehicles running into joggers and pedestrians, and seems to only mention people running into vehicles. Rather than assembling a plan for keeping people safe—posting signs that communicate safety concerns, installing more lighting, marking pathways for vehicles and people, or making vehicles more visible, for example—the Zoo director's statement positions joggers and pedestrians as the absolute cause of closing the Zoo for three extra hours everyday.

The focus on blame and consequences leaves the Zoo's visitors locked out from a key decision. The analysis that informed Kelly and his staff is not available for member or public review, and that isn't likely to change before the Zoo's hours do.

There are more ways to fix safety issues than to just close a place down

There are lots of public venues where people driving vehicles need to account for people walking around. The National Park Service maintains the National Mall and other parkland using vehicles, mostly while the parkland is in use. Amusement parks stay open long hours during the summer, while resupplying concessions, picking up trash and making repairs.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the National Zoo, operates a Safety Committee "for gathering and disseminating best practices in safety within zoos and aquariums." This committee could serve as a resource for examining the full range of options to include best practices and professional training. The National Zoo's director currently serves as an adviser to the committee, and a Fire Protection Engineer from the Zoo who serves as a member.

The Zoo could work with the committee to find ways to make its paths safer without just closing them.

The Zoo didn't give the public much notice on this change, which isn't a first

The decision appears to be sudden and based on an issue that had not previously been communicated to stakeholders in member newsletters, Congressional testimony or media interviews. Yet, the Zoo says this has been based on a longstanding problem.

Last summer, the Zoo shocked patrons and received national press coverage for closing its beloved Invertebrate Exhibit on six days' notice. Kelly explained the brief transition time as the only way to maintain "our standard of quality" in the exhibit. Negative comments and feedback dominated social media and press coverage. Here's an example from Wired magazine:

Having the nation's zoo suddenly and with little public warning close a long-standing exhibit is unprecedented. Public comments on the Museum's Facebook page are overwhelmingly shocked and negative, including some from volunteers that work at the Zoo.
By waiting until the last minute to announce changes that the public won't like, is the Zoo limiting public discussion and criticism? I have no way of actually knowing, but I'll say that it certainly seems that way.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

Bike paths are good for business, says the president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce

Some people were skeptical that Shortcake Bakery would succeed. After all, it's next to grungy strip of auto repair shops along Route 1 in Hyattsville. But David Harrington, the president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, whose wife opened the bakery, says the shop's location had an "unexpected asset": a nearby bike path.

David Harrington was the featured speaker at a economic development conference hosted by the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation last month. His personal experience with how bike trails can be advantageous for businesses was just one of the things he talked about.

"I can tell you one of the unexpected assets that we have at the bakery is that… it is near a bike path," said Harrington, referring to the Northwest Branch Trail, which is part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail system. "Cheryl and I always pray for good weather on Saturdays," he added, saying that when that happens "we may have 30 [cyclists] stop at Shortcake Bakery as they're going to Baltimore, going to College Park. It is a wonderful business asset."

Base image from Google Maps.

"If you create these bike paths and … create nice connectors for bicyclists to do commerce, that is an amazing business opportunity," he continued. "Walkability and bikeability are … strong economic tools that can help create entrepreneurship, and I think we need to look at that a lot closer than we are."

The Old Greenbelt Theater hosted the conference. Here's a link to the full video:

Zig zag road stripes can get drivers to pay more attention

At 11 points in northern Virginia, the familiar straight dashed lines on the road give way to a series of zig zags. The unusual markings, the result of a project from the Virginia Department of Transportation, are meant to alert drivers to be cautious where the W&OD Trail intersects with the road—and bicyclists and pedestrians frequently cross.

Virginia DOT installed these zig zag markings to caution drivers approaching the intersection of a popular walking and biking trail. Image from VDOT.

After a year-long study of this striping treatment, Virginia DOT officials say the markings are effective and should become part of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—the playbook for American street designers.

VDOT found the zig zag markings slowed average vehicle speeds, increased motorist awareness of pedestrians and cyclists, and increased the likelihood that drivers would yield. They also noted that the effects of the design change didn't wear off once motorists became used to the it—they still slowed down a year after installation.

This photo shows another style of zig zag pavement marking tested in Virginia. Image from VDOT.

VDOT says the results indicate that zig zag markings are a more cost-effective solution for conflict points between trails and high-speed roads than the current treatments: flashing beacons placed above the road or off to the side.

The zig zag concept was imported from Europe. It is currently used in only two other locations in North America: Hawaii and Ottawa, Ontario. It was one of more than a dozen European traffic management techniques VDOT zeroed in on to test locally.

The zig zag markings reduced motorist speeds approaching the trail at Sterling Road by about 5 mph, according to VDOT. The effect remained strong over time. Graph from Streetsblog.

The W&OD trail is a popular route for both recreation and commuting in the DC metro area. Between 2002 and 2008, there were 21 collisions involving cyclists and two involving pedestrians along the trail, which intersects with major roads at 70 points along its 45-mile path in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia.

The effect of the zig zag markings was measured using speed radars over the course of a year. Feedback from motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians was also collected using online surveys. While the survey did not come from a random sample, 65 percent of drivers said they were more aware because of the markings and 48 percent said they liked them. The zig zags were also popular with cyclists; 71 percent said the markings affected driver behavior.

Said one respondent: "Drivers rarely stopped before the markings were installed. Since installation, they stop much more often."

What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?

Last week, Montgomery County pulled its proposal for building bus rapid transit, citing community opposition. How can the county win people over? By getting something on the ground now and doing a trial run.

How can we get streets like Colesville Road better transit sooner rather than later? Photo by the author.

After several years of discussion, the county approved a plan for a network of dedicated bus lanes in 2013 with strong support from residents, business leaders, and transit advocates. Soon after, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an Independent Transit Authority that could build and operate transit in the county and raise taxes on its own to pay for it. Today, the department of transportation runs transit service, using money from the county's budget, which the County Council sets each year.

Leggett's proposal drew an unlikely coalition of opponents, from civic organizations who were against BRT in the first place to groups worried about government spending. Meanwhile, initial designs for BRT on corridors like Georgia Avenue proposed unnecessarily massive road widenings that would have removed dozens of homes and businesses, which naturally angered many residents.

Do county leaders still want BRT?

Now in his third term as county executive, Ike Leggett has alluded to transit as part of his legacy. He's said that the 100,000 jobs slated to come to places like White Flint and White Oak depend on better transit. Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 355, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road are among the county's top transportation priorities.

But the county seems to be backing away from BRT. The Georgia Avenue line got shelved. And Leggett already pulled his ITA proposal earlier this year.

Ike Leggett says he wants to do a public outreach campaign for BRT to build support for a transit authority. But it may not be enough to convince skeptical residents. They need to see something tangible.

Metroway in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We could send people to Alexandria to ride the Metroway BRT line. It's already carrying 20% more riders than anticipated. It serves the new neighborhood of Potomac Yard that looks like what Montgomery County wants to create in White Flint or White Oak.

Or we could start bringing BRT in some form to Montgomery County today in trial form, so people can see how it can improve their daily lives.

A trial run?

Bus Rapid Transit consists of several different parts that make buses faster, more reliable, and more comfortable, like a train: machines where you pay before getting on; larger, covered stations; longer distances between stops; and of course, dedicated lanes.

The county's vision for BRT, as in many other places, involves doing all of those things at once. It's more effective, but also more expensive. We're already implementing some of those things now, like limited-stop bus service or off-board fare machines.

The thing that has the biggest impact, but is also the most controversial, are bus lanes. And that's what people need to see in action.

A very basic bus lane on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. It's maybe a mile long. Photo from Google Street View.

Local political consultant Adam Pagnucco has suggested that the county build a BRT line on Veirs Mill Road to prove that it works, but it would still take a few years and a lot of money.

In the meantime, we could do a trial: for a few months, simply reserve the curbside lane of a major street for buses, using paint and some police enforcement to keep drivers out. Drivers and transit riders alike could see how it would affect their travels.

The catch is we'd have to do this in a place with high transit use, like Veirs Mill Road, Route 29, and Route 355, the three BRT corridors the county's studying. These streets are congested now, but they're also where most transit riders are, and would get the most benefit from dedicated lanes.

Doing a trial would be hard and require a lot of political will. But it's ultimately easier than convincing the public to make a huge investment on something they haven't seen before. And it allows us to see what works and what doesn't work, so we can make needed tweaks early on.

Most importantly, a trial gives Montgomery County transit riders a better trip now, rather than far in the future. They can't afford to wait, and neither can we.

DC's move to legalize a little more housing (and other zoning changes): The finish line is in sight!

If you want to rent out a basement or garage and can't today, you might be able to by the end of 2016. DC's long-running zoning update finally got, um, "preliminary final action" approval at a meeting Monday.

This might be mostly legal in less than a year. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The zoning update, in a nutshell, does two types of things. First, it will completely overhaul the District's zoning code to be more modern and, at least in theory, more understandable. Second, it makes a few targeted policy reforms, like allowing buildings near transit to have less parking if the owner doesn't think it's necessary, or letting homeowners in low-density areas rent out a basement or a garage or other space in a home to make some extra money and provide more housing.

Other changes let grocery stores possibly locate in residential areas as long as they're on corners and comply with a raft of other limitations; make it easier for theaters to operate in church basements and elsewhere in residential zones, subject to a public hearing; expand the area where certain downtown zoning applies; and a plethora of other small tweaks.

Advocates of keeping the cost of housing reasonable have been eager for the provisions to allow renting basements and garages (accessory apartments). Doing so creates the potential for more housing, and lower minimum parking requirements, which reduce the cost of building housing. Unfortunately, these efforts, which gained general Zoning Commission assent in 2009, have been waiting since, while the DC Office of Planning in the meantime pushed through other zoning changes that reduced potential new housing.

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

One reason the zoning update has been delayed so many years is because a new zoning code is certainly intricate. The Office of Planning's former staffers who ran the zoning update back in 2008 may have made a tactical mistake in coupling key policy changes together with the new code in its complexity; anyone uncomfortable with the scale of such an undertaking balked at parts of the process even if their intent was not to hasten the rise in housing prices.

For example, several neighborhoods now have "overlays" which add special zoning rules on top of the base ones for similar areas. The new code instead sets up new base zones for each area with an overlay, so property owners don't have to look in two places and reconcile conflicting rules. But to people familiar with the old code, this is initially confusing, and the new approach has some cons along with the pros.

Coupling the important policy changes with technical ones like this hooked the effort to add housing to a very slow caravan. This afforded more chances for opponents of the actual changes to lobby to water them down. Politicians nervous about adding housing could couch concerns in the language of confusion or community engagement more readily.

The changes to accessory apartments and parking minimums are valuable, if too little on their own to make much dent in DC's housing needs which have grown since 2008. Had these more modest changes passed in 2010, say, it could have moved the ball forward and given people a chance to demonstrate these changes don't cause calamity. Accessory apartments would not have brought criminals into a building or engendered elder abuse, as some of the more strident opponents claimed; buildings with less parking would not have brought carmageddon.

The zoning board says, let's go

Much of the public opposition, at this point, is not really about substance, but process; the Committee of 100 argued that the code needs a third party review (and, of course, substantially more delay). Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd asked for another month's delay. But DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which makes the final decisions on zoning, has had enough of this process after eight years.

Chairman Anthony Hood did repeatedly express that he was "nervous" about signing off on a new zoning code. He worried about having to stand in front of Costco (which is relatively near his home) and defend the new zoning code to neighbors. He bit at the Committee of 100's independent-review idea, but the other commissioners felt the time for that was long past and the code was ready for approval.

Well, almost: The Office of Planning still has to make a few more small, mostly technical tweaks and present a final version. The commission will consider taking "final final" action (versus this week's "preliminary final" action) on January 14, but there will be no more testimony in the meantime.

Also since the last revision, OP has backed off somewhat on its plans for alley lots; there will have to be a hearing before alley lots can get housing, while previously OP was proposing allowing one dwelling unit on such a lot without a hearing.

If approved in its final form, the Office of Zoning, which administers the zoning code, will publish it in the DC Register, and then six months later, the new zoning code will apply. Anyone applying for a building permit before that date will use the old code; after (with a few exceptions), the new one.

Residential zones as of 2008. Accessory apartment rules apply to R-1 (yellow), R-2 (orange), R-3 (red), and R-4 (purple). Image by David Alpert from Office of Zoning base map.

Change may be less than a year away!

This means that if you live in one of the low-density areas of the city (generally, detached houses, or houses in pairs which share one wall—yellow and orange in the above map, or a very small set of areas with row houses that are categorized R-3 today, red in the above map) you will be able to rent out a part of your house as a separate unit, with a variety of restrictions, but without having to go through a public hearing.

If you live in one of those areas, or a moderate-density row house area like Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill (purple in the above map) and you have a garage, you will be able create a unit in that garage. However, you will still have to show up at a public hearing where neighbors will be able to oppose (or support) the idea, and will probably need a zoning lawyer to navigate that process.

A few buildings will be able to get built with less cost. A few corner groceries may appear in some residential areas. It'll be a significant, but small and long-awaited, step forward.

An abandoned DC road is becoming a trail. Watch how.

Klingle Road runs from Porter Street to Cortland Place in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, but it's been abandoned for years. The District has been working with residents to decide whether Klingle should reopen as a road or a trail, and the decision is finally in: we're getting a new trail.

The video, from Anchor Construction, shows how hard it can be to take an abandoned road and turn it into something people on bikes and foot can use. For example, a stream has completely taken over the valley Klingle Road runs through, eroding the land around it. Homeless people often live under the bridge, and part of the old road runs over a Metro line.

To fix up the road, the crew has to redirect the stream so it runs under the coming trail. The stream slowly ate away the land where the road was, making a dangerous drop-off right next to where the trail will go, so they'll need to fix that as well. Also, there are exposed gas pipes they'll need to remove.

It is fascinating to think about a stream taking over a road over 20 years. The new trail will be a great connector for the neighborhoods and Rock Creek Park.

In rural Maryland, a saint watches over drivers

Traffic heading north on I-95 out of DC can test even the most patient traveler. The next time you're headed to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, you might want to say a little prayer to Our Lady of the Highways, a roadside memorial in Childs, Maryland, north of Baltimore.

Photo by cranberries on Flickr.

You'll find Our Lady of the Highways on I-95 northbound in Cecil County between exits 100 and 109, near the underpass for Blue Ball Road. On a foggy night in October 1968, there was a horrific 17-car crash at this spot, which killed three people. The Oblates, a group of priests, erected the statue in 1968 (and replaced it in 1986) to commemorate the tragedy and encourage other drivers to be more careful.

Our Lady of the Highways isn't the only transportation-oriented saint. There are also patron saints for cycling, air travelers, and motorcyclists, among others.

How downtown parking is like your smartphone

Would you rather pay $27 a month or $2.50 a month for your phone? A lower price means more dollars in your pocket, right? But what if one of those were an iPhone and the other a flip phone?

Photo by Mitch Barrie on Flickr.

We're buying smartphones in droves even though they cost 10 times as much as the flip phones of old. Clearly, there's more to these decisions than price.

We make decisions based on value, not just cost. But on a pair of transportation issues, we're hearing rhetoric that tries to obscure this issues. It's coming from groups of people more concerned with swaying public opinion than informing the public. The first one is tolls on Interstate 66 in Virginia; the second, DC's new parking pilot for the Chinatown area.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post. Also, the Post editorial board agrees with me on parking; in an editorial, the editors liken the experience of circling for downtown parking to the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. Meanwhile, Michael Hamilton argues the rates should vary even more than DDOT plans to do.

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