Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:


Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

Fairfax is getting 22 new bike lanes in 2015

When Fairfax County repaves roads this summer as part of routine maintenance, it's going to add bike lanes and other features to some of them.

Here's the complete list of Fairfax streets that will get new bike facilities in 2015:


Image from VDOT.

Among all the roads due for repaving this summer, 22 will get bike lanes or sharrows. Some of the additions are coming as part of road diets.

Adding bike infrastructure to roads that are going to get a new coat of paint either way is a very cheap way to make Fairfax more bike-friendly. Of course, if this were the only way the county added new bike lanes, it'd take quite a while for them to show up on recently repaved roads.

The projects are spread throughout the county, but Tysons is getting some special attention as the county takes another step in its planned transformation of the area.

VDOT's website says residents will begin seeing the new paint—and lanes—in June.

Modern streetcar planning in the region, visualized

This week we looked at streetcar planning in Anacostia, H Street and Benning Road, and Northern Virginia. To help visualize this evolution, here's an illustration of how and when all of these plans have changed over the last 20 years.

Slideshow image


March, 1997: A Transportation Vision, Strategy, and Action Plan for the Nation's Capital
Proposed three streetcar routes (and one crosstown Metro line).


April, 1999: WMATA Transit Service Expansion Plan
Identified three possible streetcar lines among a multitude of future transit projects.


August, 1999: Crystal City / Potomac Yard Area Transportation Study
Proposed a streetcar for the transit corridor.


January, 2002: DC Transit Development Study (WMATA)
Identified four possible streetcar corridors and initiated the study of a starter line in Anacostia.


February, 2003: Columbia Pike Transit Initiative
Proposed streetcar service as an alternative for the corridor.


March, 2003: Crystal City / Potomac Yard Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis
Selected Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) over streetcar for the corridor.


October, 2005: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis
Proposed four streetcar lines. Construction started on Anacostia Demonstration Project.


June, 2008: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis (2008 Update)
Modified proposed streetcar network. Construction of H Street/Benning Road line begins and the Anacostia line gets realigned.


October, 2009: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis (2010 Update)
Proposed a 37-mile, 8-line streetcar network.


July, 2011: Route 1 Corridor Streetcar Conversion Project
Study of converting transit corridor to streetcar initiated.


June, 2012: 22-Mile Priority Streetcar System
Focus of DC Streetcar efforts scaled down to three lines; Anacostia line truncated.


October, 2014: 8.2-Mile Streetcar System
Focus of DC Streetcar efforts scaled down to two lines amid funding cuts.


November, 2014: Arlington Cancels Streetcar Projects
Both Columbia Pike and Crystal City / Potomac Yard streetcar efforts indefinitely suspended.


March, 2015: New Administration Commits to One Line
Mayor Bowser commits to completing the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line. Future lines remain uncertain.

10 steps to take 100,000 cars off DC's roads

Want to reduce the number of cars driving around DC each day? The fastest way to do it may be a relatively cheap and non-controversial set of marketing and incentive programs, collectively called Transportation Demand Management (TDM).


Image from Mobility Lab.

TDM isn't infrastructure. Rather, it's a set of dedicated information, encouragement, and incentives that help people use existing infrastructure more easily and efficiently.

And boy, does it work.

For only about $10 million annually, Arlington's robust TDM program converts about 42,000 car trips to alternative modes on Arlington's roads every day. If DC had a similarly robust program, it might be even more successful. 100,000 cars a day would be a totally achievable goal.

DC already has a nascent TDM program called goDCgo. Right now goDCgo is too small to make much difference, but moveDC calls for a big expansion "based upon the model of Arlington." Here are ten steps to actually get there:

1) Reach commuters through their employers

Nobody drives during rush hour because of a heartfelt love for congestion. Most people do it because that's when their employer demands they arrive at work. Thus, employers have tremendous power over transportation. Leveraging that power can produce big results.

Rather than just offering free parking, employers can offer transit passes, Capital Bikeshare memberships, or any number of other things that would help their staffs to commute some way other than driving alone.

But business owners need hand-holding to know what sort of incentives work. That's where a TDM staff team comes in. The TDM team works with businesses and property managers to set up a custom commuter benefit program for each one.

That's the single most important part of a TDM program. In Arlington that team is called Arlington Transportation Partners (ATP). DC's goDCgo employer services team should be double the size of Arlington's, instead of a fraction of it.

2) Open transportation "genius bars"

Apple's genius bars are the go-to spots for owners of Apple products who need tech support. The same model can work for transportation.

Research shows that even in the smartphone age, many people prefer to get information from live people. Arlington's five Commuter Stores are one-stop shops that provide information and sell tickets for every transportation system in the region.

Put transportation stores in high traffic places like outside Metro station entrances, and let people talk about their commutes with an expert, face to face.


Ballston Commuter Store. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

3) Teach people it's OK to bike

About 60% of the population would be willing to bicycle, if it were easier and safer to do so. So teach them to make it easy and safe!

DC is doing well building new bike infrastructure, but that's only half the answer. You also need to educate people about it and encourage them to use it, and that's largely missing from DC's TDM program. Bike Arlington staff attends major community events, offers confident city cycling classes, and uses social media to connect with people and get them on bikes more often.

4) Stop scaring people

It's legitimately important to teach people how to share the road safely, but too many safety campaigns scare people away from walking or biking by making them seem more dangerous than they really are.

Safety campaigns should focus on teaching people how to do things right, rather than chiding them for what they do wrong. Arlington's PAL campaign is a great example.


Don't blame the victim. Photo from MWCOG.

5) Treat marketing as equally important with infrastructure

Before anyone changes their commuting behavior, they must know alternatives exist, and must be confident those alternatives are reliable.

Marketing isn't fluff. It's the necessary grease that smooths the wheels of infrastructure. Every TDM program needs an umbrella marketing campaign that ties everything together, and gets the word out to travelers.

Arlington's Car-Free Diet combines advertising, social media, street teams, events, and retail partners in order to get the word out about transit, biking, and everything else under the sun.

6) Make the internet and open data work for you

Smartphones and the internet are revolutionizing more than how we hail taxicabs. Invest in high-tech tools that make getting information easy, and open your data so third parties can make apps for you, for free.

Arlington's Transit Tech Initiative fosters and helps produce websites like CarFreeAtoZ, a multimodal trip planner that's prettier, includes more information, and is easier to use than single-agency trip planners like WMATA's.


CarFreeAtoZ travel app. Image from Mobility Lab.

7) Do more than translate: Transcreate

We aren't a monolithic people. Different groups perceive information in different ways. To reach them effectively, you can't just translate the words of existing materials into multiple languages. Rather, materials need to be transcreated, so each audience gets the message in terms that will be most meaningful to them. ACCS has a Hispanic marketing unit that does this. So should goDCgo.

8) Follow through on good ideas with a strong ground game

Smartphones and apps are great, but lots of people still rely on paper. TDM agencies need strong distribution and logistics teams, to make sure everyone in town gets the message. Mail schedules and maps to individual homes, and use trucks to deliver "take-one" boxes directly to companies, hotels, and stores, for businesses to make available to their customers.

A dedicated logistics team lets others concentrate on what they do best.


Info kiosk with a take-one box inside an office building. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

9) Make transportation options part of the building code

Want to make buildings safe from fire? Design them with sprinklers and other safety features. Want to make it easy to drive? Incorporate a parking garage. Want to get people onto transit, bikes, and sidewalks? Embed convenient and attractive bus stops, bike infrastructure, and street entrances into your buildings.

Just like zoning specialists review new development for compliance with the zoning code, TDM specialists should review new development for transportation. Arlington's TDM for site plan unit helps review new development, writes enforceable conditions into the approvals for new buildings, and follows up each year to ensure compliance.

10) Track progress with real data

Transportation agencies revolve around data, but it has to be good data. Historically they've focused on highway traffic counts, and have been slow to recognize changes. To get highway engineers thinking about pedestrians and bicyclists, gather objective data to show them how important those other modes really are.

A TDM research program measures the impacts of multimodal services in ways that go beyond counting cars. Arlington's program has grown into a research and development think tank called Mobility Lab that generates reams of hard data, which officials use to make the case for everything from bike lanes to bus stops. If DC partnered with Arlington on Mobility Lab, the benefits would magnify.

DC's paltry TDM program is a missed opportunity

Arlington 's ACCS spends $10 million annually on its base TDM program. That money converts 42,000 daily single-occupant car trips to transit, bike, walk, and shared rides. DC can and should have a program that's even more effective.

But despite its much larger population and employment base, the District's budget for TDM is less than 20% of Arlington's. If Mayor Bowser ramped-up DC's TDM budget to be commensurate with Arlington's, it would be a totally realistic goal to get 100,000 car trips off the streets every day.

The Move DC Implementation Plan identifies nearly $2 billion in annual DC spending on capital investments in the coming years. Surely it's worth spending $15 million of that each year to make it all work better.

A history of streetcar planning in Northern Virginia

Yesterday we looked at the evolution of streetcar proposals in the District. Here's how Northern Virginia's two modern-day efforts unfolded.

Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Assessment from May 2012. Image from the Pike Transit Initiative.

Columbia Pike

Out of desire to revitalize one of its major corridors, Arlington County began the Columbia Pike Initiative in 2001. The project pointed out a need for better transit, and in February 2003 the county began the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative, a formal study of the possibilities.

After an April 2006 study of different transit modes, streetcars emerged as the best choice for Columbia Pike.

Arlington formally committed to a streetcar plan in March 2009, and an environmental study for the project followed. The county confirmed its plans in 2012 after a second alternatives analysis also recommended streetcar as the preferred mode. The state of Virginia committed funds in July of last year.

But by November, voter opposition to the project had grown, due in part to major holdups in the District's streetcar plan. After elections in the fall, the project went onto the shelf.

The board of supervisors from Fairfax County, a partner in the project, called the decision to end it short-sighted and disappointing.

Crystal City/Potomac Yard

Arlington and Alexandria have been working together on a transit service for the Potomac Yard development since 1999. At first, streetcars got serious consideration, but a bus rapid transit (BRT) system won out as the preferred mode for the corridor because of cost concerns.

The cities did not fully rule out streetcars on the corridor at this point, though. As construction of the BRT system neared, Arlington and Alexandria agreed to begin a study on converting the system for streetcar use in the future as the corridor developed. Arlington started its part of the study in July 2011, but Alexandria put its part off until a later date.

In December 2012, when Arlington started seeking federal funds for the project, Alexandria pulled out altogether, focusing its efforts on the Potomac Yard Metro infill station project.

Arlington halted its study of streetcar conversion in Crystal City when the Columbia Pike project got suspended. The first phase of Metroway, the BRT system for the corridor, had opened for service two months prior, in August.

Further developments around the Metroway should be complete later this year.

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