Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Roads

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.

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.

Vision Zero won't be easy

Both Muriel Bowser and David Catania say they support the idea of "Vision Zero" and the end of traffic deaths and injuries in the District of Columbia. It's an admirable position, but will either be willing to make the unpopular decisions to see it through?


Image from Transportation Alternatives via Streetsblog.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a new, slower 25 mph speed limit. Nick Paumgarten bemoaned the new limit in The New Yorker, saying it "demonize[s] speed" and suggesting that it contradicts the true, fast-paced nature that is essential to life in New York and to the livelihoods of working New Yorkers, who have to drive through the city for their jobs.

Paumgarten concluded with a quotation from a crane rigger who said, "I'd say it's time to give the city back to the cars." On the other hand, Paumgarten also acknowledged the safety issue here, saying, "Fourteen children were killed by drivers last year. You won't find a citizen who didn't wish that this number were zero."

In response, Brooklyn Spoke's Doug Gordon wrote, "Of course not. But what you will find are a lot of people who don't want to do anything that could make that wish come true."

I believe that both Bowser and Catania support safer streets. Endorsing Vision Zero is a good first step. But safer streets won't come from slogans alone. They require dedicated effort in the face of sustained opposition and an entrenched status quo.

Vision Zero will require spending political capital (in addition to real capital and public money) and could mean lowering speed limits, removing parking spaces, or reducing of travel lanes. Any of these could alienate supporters and anger allies.

Vision Zero, like all other major policy initiatives, won't just happen because we say we want it to happen. A long-term, genuine commitment to Vision Zero could require some unpopular choices. Will either be willing to make them?

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.

New bike lanes will close a big trail gap in Burke

There's a big gap between two of Fairfax County's major bike trails. Burke Road, which connects them, has missing sidewalks, narrow stretches, and sharp curves that make riding on it intimidating for cyclists. Two new projects will help remedy the issue.


A map of proposed changes. Image from Google Maps with edits by the author.

The section of Burke Road we're looking at is about two miles long, and it provides the straight and flattest connection from the Cross County Trail to the Burke VRE Trail. The Cross County Trail extends 40 miles from north to south in Fairfax, and the county recently built the Burke VRE trail to add a sizable neighborhood trail system in the Burke area.

The first phase will extend the Pohick Creek Trail across Burke Lake Road, routing cyclists and pedestrians behind a busy commercial area whose multiple entrances are a hazard. The project received funding last year but has yet to really ramp up.

The next stage will add bike lanes to a section of Burke Road between Mill Cove Road and the Rolling Road VRE station. This portion of Burke Road is wide enough that the county can add bike lanes without taking space away from drivers, and it already has sidewalks for anyone who wants to walk or run.


A wide section of Burke Road. Image from Google Maps with edits by the author.

The Board of Supervisors hasn't yet approved this part of the project, but if Fairfax's transportation bond passes this year, some of the money could fund it.

But even once these projects are complete, there will still be a section between Rolling Road and the Cross County Trail so narrow that cyclists will have to share it with pedestrians. While the county has repaired the path in the past year, it should improve this section. Alternatively, for cyclists who choose to stay on the road, Fairfax could add sharrows or an uphill bike lane.

Most of the roads that go anywhere in Burke are simply too wide and fast for anyone but the most fearless of cyclists. Incremental steps like these will help connect the growing trail network as well as help more people see bikes as a suitable transportation option in this very suburban corner of Fairfax County.

The 11th Street Bridge Park gets a brilliant design. Will it succeed?

The organizers behind the 11th Street Bridge Park have picked a design that could be the city's most brilliant piece of architecture in decades. Now comes the hard part: making this vision work in a spot surrounded by water rather than homes and businesses.


The winning proposal concentrates activity on the east side of the Anacostia River. All images from the design team.

From a field of four competitors, the jury picked a design team led by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), best known in the United States for the Seattle Public Library, and landscape architect OLIN Studios, which designed Canal Park near the Nationals ballpark and will renovate Franklin Park downtown. Together, they created a design that can do what the bridge park's organizers wanted: reconnect neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia to the river and each other.


A diagram of the different activities on the bridge.

In the best case scenario, someone walking along the Anacostia up from Poplar Point in summer 2018 would see the riverbanks rise gently for hundreds of feet, crossing to form an X shape. At first glance, it's simple: almost like two logs falling across a stream, some kind of primitive bridge. But up close, the renderings and plans show a string of spaces that would appeal to people across the city.


A section showing how the park is laid out.

The design creates iconic spaces and helps reconnect Anacostia to the river

From a functional perspective, it's best to look at the design like it's an extension of the ground on either bank. A long bar from Capitol Hill interlocks with a loop from Anacostia, making the bridge feel like an outgrowth of the banks and not a discrete transitional space. Multiple programs fill in the in between space. Some are shady and enclosed, like the amphitheater, while others are open and dramatic, like the overlook.


An outdoor theatre would have multiple levels.

The designers also chose to place the anchor elements, like the environmental education center, the cafe, and the playground, closer to the Historic Anacostia side. One reason is to encourage more people to visit the east bank, which I-295 cuts off from the river.

Anacostia also needs those activities more, especially the play space. They will serve a basic need while also generating the traffic that makes parks feel safe. What's better is that the environmental education center has eyes on both the main deck and the secluded space below it.


A detailed section drawing. Click to enlarge.

As the section above shows, the cafe also sits between levels, so someone sitting on the upper lawn can see through the restaurant and onto the environmental center's boat launch below.


Views extend across different levels, improving visibility and making the site feel safer.

The other elements, like the dramatic overlook, the main plaza, and the amphitheater sit closer to the Navy Yard. These are iconic attractions, for tourists, local bikers passing by, and I suspect even weddings, like at New York's equally dramatic Fort Tryon Park.

Finally, the ecological design is appropriately balanced. Along the main paths are spaces that people can play on. They're visible, but not in the way are the hands-off landscapes, like wetlands, oyster banks, and swales to filter rainwater. OLIN found a way to integrate ecological urbanism into the project without compromising the people habitat. They even proposed a wooded berm to block out traffic noise from I-295.


Section drawing showing the design's ecological features.

The project reflects the sophistication of the designers, who have shown that they can stand up to criticism and push their designs as the demands of money, politics and gravity weigh down their vision.

Public input can help this bridge soar

How will the organizers and their team face down the remaining challenges? Some are design issues, as competition entries are never quite figured out, and designers often fill renderings with aspirational eye candy. I think the public can help in this case by identifying those problems constructively and allowing the design team the room to solve them.

Scott Kratz, the man behind the bridge, has done that. He deserves commendation for the long-running and effective public outreach that formed the foundation of the competition designs. Respecting residents as experts in their own lives and the designers as experts in their fields, he has arrived at something that could work well. More of that is ideal.


Trees could buffer the park from I-295.

The bigger challenge is getting people there. This bridge is in the middle of the river, with the Navy Yard at one end and a highway interchange at the other before reaching nearby neighborhoods. That means there's little of the incidental activity that helps public spaces like this to be busy and safe.

New infill development could help, like the planned Maritime Plaza along the river on the north side. So would the redevelopment of Poplar Point, if it ever happens. Even without those, adding more destination activities to the nearby riverbanks, as in the WRT/NEXT design for the bridge, might have the same effect.

If the city builds the streetcar across the river, including a stop at the bridge park, it would open easy access to the park up beyond the immediate neighbors.

But a growing appeal around the park could cause a rise in rents and influx of expensive retail, displacing the groups the bridge was meant to serve. The four or so years before the park opens could be spent developing strategies to add housing diversity without disrupting lives and preventing the poor from enjoying the benefits of good urbanism and great architecture. The bridge has been an excellent catalyst for design, perhaps it can also be a great catalyst for social policy.

In Washington, some people criticize proposed buildings or developments to kill them and preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, designers criticize something with the hope of refining it. What can we refine with the 11th Street Bridge Park? Now is the time to start talking.

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