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No, DC is not abandoning plans for most streetcar lines

If you read the headlines in the Post and WAMU today, you might come away thinking that the DC government has decided not to try to build a streetcar line on Georgia Avenue or from Anacostia to Buzzard Point. But that would be wrong.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

What's going on?

What happened yesterday is the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced three finalists for its contract to design, build, operate, and maintain streetcar lines. Earlier this year, DDOT had planned for that contract to encompass all of the 22-mile streetcar system: an east-west line from Benning Road to Georgetown, a north-south line from Southwest to Takoma or Silver Spring, and a line from Anacostia to Southwest.

To make that possible, the mayor's office had asked the DC Council to essentially set aside all of the money for the entire system right now.

While they insisted, vehemently, that they still support the streetcar system, the Council dedided they just weren't ready to give it all of the money today. Therefore, this current bidding process can only legally encompass the lines which are in the six-year capital planthe east-west line and the part of the Anacostia line from Bolling to the foot of the 11th Street Bridge.

The news stories have, accurately, reported that the current funding only lets the system grow to about 8.2 miles. Unfortunately, some of them also gave them impression that DC has "cut" the program. It's going to happen slower, definitely, but that might not even be all bad.

It's not really a surprise the council didn't boost streetcar funding

Let's say you want to start a company and are going to venture capital investors. You put together a rough business plan and they give you some seed money to hire some people. Then a few years go by, during which time your prototype gets delayed and you don't talk to your customers. You then come back to investors asking for much more money, but your business plan still isn't more detailed despite your promises to flesh it out. Would the investors fund you?

Even with crazy money in tech sometimes, it would be pretty tough. And it's understandable that DC councilmembers balked at the mayor's funding request. They continued authorizing about $600 million at a time when the starter line on H Street has been delayed and officials have given vague or no answers to questions. The mayor was asking for a very large amount of extra money, and politically, it just didn't fly.

Since Terry Bellamy took over at the start of the Gray Administration and Carl Jackson came from Greenville, SC to run the transit programs, DDOT went mostly silent on the streetcar. There were a few required environmental study meetings, sure, but the agency basically stopped collaborating with groups like the Sierra Club or local BIDs, which it had done under Gabe Klein and Scott Kubly.

The mayor convened a task force chaired by City Administrator Allen Lew which included many business leaders. The business community was willing to talk about special taxing districts to help pay for the streetcar, but Lew ultimately decided not to even try a "value capture" system and instead just dedicated 25% of future new tax revenue to the streetcar.

At the same time, the government basically spent all of 2013 lying to the public about how the streetcar would open that year while everyoneat lower levels, anywayknew it wouldn't. Promises that DC would lay out detailed plans for things like where streetcar storage and maintenance yards would go went unfulfilled and questions about how it would work without overhead wires across the Mall and key viewsheds remain unanswered and unstudied (but studies are now beginning).

So, four years has gone by since the height of streetcar enthusiasm. In all that time, few detailed emerged, promises were repeatedly broken, and ties with allies atrophied.

The council said, give us a plan

Many councilmembers said, publicly and privately, that they still want to see the entire streetcar system built. The two leading mayoral candidates support the plan at least to a significant degree; both point to failures and mistakes along the way, which indeed happened.

But councilmembers, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, and also people in the budget office, say they just want more detailed plans. They want DDOT to do more legwork and answer more questions before they'll hand over a blank check. I don't entirely blame them.

Unfortunately, some in the Gray administration responded to the cuts by essentially saying, "okay, you didn't give us the money, so that's it for most of the lines." That's misleading. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee, told the Post that the Gray team is being "childish" and not working with others. "You don't take your marbles and go home," Cheh said.

Sure, the cuts make things harder. Sometimes transportation projects can be a chicken-and-egg situation where you can't know every single thing up front. The plans for the Metrorail system shifted between when construction started and when it ended (delaying the Green Line by years), for example. "Design-build" can be a more economical and faster way to get transportation projects built, but it also involves hiring your contractor before you have every detail laid out perfectly.

People who are more skeptical of the streetcar, like Phil Mendelson, are less tolerant of gaps in the plan which can get filled in during the design-build process; they don't trust the team to fill the gaps well. Planning everything and then building it is slower and more expensive, and it becomes even more expensive when you go back and make changes along the way.

We can't know every single detail now. DDOT and its contractor partners will learn from the mistakes of H Street as well as the (hopefully smaller) ones that come in the early stages of lines still scheduled to be built. The same thing happens with the road network, Metro, bike lanes, and any other large transportation facility.

Still, there also needs to be a role for the public in correcting the course along the way. Under Terry Bellamy, DDOT did not show a willingness to meaningfully involve others in streetcar discussions, which compounded mistakes. We do need to see how H Street works and then ask questions about how to do better on the next lines. We need to get answers, too.

Make it work now

The streetcar program will be good for DC. In some corridors, it will add capacity. It will drive higher transit ridership and connect communities. In some places, it will help kick-start economic development as well. It will have some bugs and then they will get worked out.

The most important thing is to build the full east-west line, and build it to its great potential. It's already definitely going to have dedicated lanes on K Street, which will make it avoid the worst of the traffic. It also needs lanes, signal priority, and other features around Georgetown, Mount Vernon Square, and North Capitol Street to make it a speedy and attractive mode of travel. The streetcar needs to work well both operationally and for riders.

If it does, then public support for more lines will only grow, and the council will put money behind the rest of the lines. Already, Bellamy's successor Matt Brown and Sam Zimbabwe, who is handling Jackson's former duties, are steering the streetcar back toward the right track.

The lines are not "cut." They're just going to come later. It would have been a lot better if they could be built sooner, but with all of the mistakes during the Bellamy years, we lost that chance. It's not the last chance, though.

"Subway driver" is the most unusually common job in Maryland

Live in Maryland and operate a train? You're not alone. A graphic from Business Insider, which has been going around the web for a few months, shows the job that is most out of proportion in each state.

While it's no surprise the job on the map for DC is political scientists and Texas is petroleum engineers, would you have guessed Maryland's would be "subway drivers"?


Graphic from Business Insider. Click for the full image.

It actually makes sense. In addition to Metro trains, Maryland has the Baltimore Subway, Light Rail, and MARC train. That's a lot more transit per capita than most states.

This map uses a Bureau of Labor Statistics measure called "location quotient." That's how frequent the job is in one area (say, 8.3 people per 10,000 jobs) divided by its frequency nationwide. The map shows the job with at least 1,000 workers in each state with the highest location quotient.

Transportation-related careers stand out in a few other states as well. The careers on the map for Alaska, Louisiana, Maine, and Florida all involve navigating waterways. South Carolina gets tire builders, and Washington has a lot of workers who build airplanes. Finally, Vermont has a lot of people maintaining its highways compared to other states.

A move to strengthen affordable housing runs into political obstacles

The Gray Administration has had a poor track record of building affordable housing when selling public land. Kenyan McDuffie is trying to set a higher bar, but Gray is trying to gut the bill by proposing a giant loophole that would render the bill virtually toothless. Will Muriel Bowser hold firm or let the loophole in?


Photo by Travis on Flickr.

What's this bill about?

When DC does a deal to develop public land, it's typically required that the project include affordable housing for low-income residents. Mayor Gray, however, has pushed for much less affordable housing than his predecessors Adrian Fenty or Anthony Williams did.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) wants to enshrine a threshold into law. Under his bill, 20-30% of rental housing (more near transit, less elsewhere) would have to go to people making 30-50% of Area Median Income, or about $30,000-50,000 for a family of three. If the building is condos, they could go to people making 50-80% AMI or approximately $50-78,000 for a family of three.

Sometimes that level of affordability isn't feasible. If a piece of public land isn't worth so much, maybe nobody can afford to build there if they have to provide that much affordable housing. Accordingly, McDuffie's bill allows for DC's independent CFO to evaluate the deal and determine if there needs to be a waiver.

What is the loophole?

Gray, however, is proposing cutting out the CFO. The Gray administration wants the mayor's office to decide when there needs to be a waiver instead of involving the CFO.

But this means that the mayor could essentially ignore the law at will. And if he or she does that, the whole process will be a black box to the public, just like it is today, which is one of the main things the McDuffie bill fixes.

In current land deals, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development gets a number of proposals for developing a piece of public land, then picks one without explaining why. Often that decision goes against the wishes of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or other local leaders, and while officials shouldn't have to always go with the ANC's recommendation, it's often a big mystery why they chose something else.

We don't know if one of the proposals yielded more public money than another, or if the mayor's office thinks one's amenities are better than another's. And we don't know if and when the mayor is giving up affordable housing without good cause.

Deputy Mayor Jeffrey Miller says the requirement could lead to less affordable housing, rather than more, if the land value doesn't support the required housing. But this is why the CFO (or the Council, for that matter) can grant a waiver.

Miller also says the requirement could get in the way of providing other amenities like libraries or parks. But this is in some sense the whole point: DC needs to commit to actually building affordable housing. Other amenities are important, too, but if there isn't a way for lower-income residents to live in the neighborhood, then building other amenities only boosts the value of more expensive areas without addressing inequality.

Where's Muriel Bowser?

Bowser, who looks likely to become the next mayor, supported the bill in committee, but suddenly seems open to what she calls "administrative tweaks" to the bill. Advocates fear she is going to opt for this loophole big enough to swallow the whole bill.

Certainly, if she is mayor, she might prefer to have free rein. Gray sounded like he's pushing that idea when he said, "As a mayor, obviously, I would not be ecstatic about having legislation that ties the ability of the executive to function, as a general proposition ... I realize the huge importance of being able to have flexibility to get things done."

But the whole reason councilmembers are voting for this bill is because the mayor hasn't done what they think is necessary or appropriate. Bowser would only appreciate the value of a loophole if she's interested in exploiting it at times the CFO wouldn't let her. If she did that, she'd be breaking promises to create affordable housing.

There's no good reason for her to water down the bill. It would only send a message that maybe the public can't trust her commitments on affordable housing. Since she surely means to follow through on her promises, she should keep the loophole out.

Alan Howze wants Arlington to adopt Vision Zero

Arlington County Board candidate Alan Howze released a call for Arlington to set a goal of zero pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths from vehicle-related collisions.


Image from Walk San Francisco.

These types of goals have become commonly known as "Vision Zero" after the Swedish campaign of the same name that began in 1997. They represent an important challenge to the belief that casualties from our transportation systems are inevitable and unpreventable.

In the United States, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have adopted Vision Zero policies. DC mayoral candidates David Catania and Muriel Bowser have pledged to establish a program in the District.

Howze lays out a fairly detailed four-pronged action plan:

In order to "make streets safer for all users," Howze calls for identifying neighborhood safety hotpots and to address them within 12 months. He lays out a plan for accelerating safety improvements at the "Intersection of Doom" in Rosslyn and recommends collecting detailed collision data, expanding sidewalks, increasing traffic enforcement and adjusting signal timing to minimize vehicle and pedestrian interactions in intersections.

To "complete safe routes to all Arlington schools," Howze calls for making a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan for each school, creating a coordinated County/APS plan to clear sidewalks and provide safe routes within 24 hours of inclement weather, and designing safe bike infrastructure and policies that accommodate "all bikes, especially those used to transport children". Cyclists who ride regularly with trailers or on cargo bikes know that not all bike infrastructure meets this threshold presently.

Howze wants to "expand the trail and route network" including creating "20 miles of protected bike lanes by 2020," completing bike connectivity along Route 50, working with the National Park Service to "widen the Mt Vernon Trail and separate cyclists and runners and pedestrians," and improve connectivity on the Roosevelt Bridge, Chain Bridge, and Memorial Bridge.

Finally the plan lays out some standard "enhance community involvement" items like "improve county outreach and response processes on street safety issues," "accelerate implementation of neighborhood traffic safety solutions," and "improve opportunities for input by residents on street and safety improvements."

Howze will face incumbent John Vihstadt in the November election. Vihstadt has campaigned primarily on halting Arlington's planned streetcar system.

David Catania on Metro, economic development, streetcars, affordable housing, bike lanes, building heights, and more

We chatted with David Catania, DC councilmember at large and an independent candidate for mayor of the District of Columbia, today at noon. Here is a transcript of the discussion.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

David Alpert: Welcome to our chat. I'm here in Catania HQ with Aimee Custis, Ashley Robbins, Jonathan Neeley, and Abigail Zenner. We'll get started in just a minute.

I am going to be asking questions verbally to Mr. Catania, who will answer verbally. Aimee, Ashley, and Jonathan will be taking turns typing in his words.

That means that if there are any typos, they are our fault and not Mr. Catania's. We suggested this arrangement to ensure we can get a lot of questions and answers in (it has nothing to do with Mr. Catania's typing ability).

I want to ask as many of your questions as possible. Please tweet them with hashtag #ggwchat and I will be able to post them directly to the chat.

David Alpert: Okay, David Catania is here with us. Let's get started!

Welcome to the chat, Councilmember Catania!

David Catania: Thank you very much! I'm really excited to participate. I've been looking forward to this conversation for a long time and I'm eager to get started!

David Alpert: To get started: What makes you the best candidate for mayor of DC?

David Catania: The District of Columbia has had reversals the last twenty years. When I first joined the council, we had a pretty bad budget shortfall. We've worked very had to reverse this trajectory. I have the vision and the values to make that happen.

It's a combination of record and experience coupled with the items I helped champion in my 17 years, and in our vision statement, which you can find at cataniaplatform.com, people can see the specifics of what I'd like to do to secure our city's future.

David Alpert: What initiatives from other cities do you admire and which you would like to bring to DC?

David Catania: During this campaign I've been talking a lot about what Mayor Bloomberg has done at Roosevelt Island. Specifically, the partnership between the city and Cornell and Israel Institute of Technology. It's a very ambitious $2 billion program to double the number of engineers and people with Ph.Ds in engineering in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg understood that financial services is a sector of the economy that's shrinking in New York. Doubling the number of engineers and individuals with PhDs in engineering is critical.

In 2000, I authored the New Economy Transformation Act, which included a host of incentives to bring tech companies to the city. We've been successful under this program. There were financial incentives, and other incentives. We've brought over 200 companies to the city. These companies, in order to grow, have to have a work force that permits them to grow, and that means more engineers than we are producing here locally.

Engineers are incredible job multipliers. Every engineer produces 4.2 jobs. In our city, our two largest industries are government and legal services, and these are not growing industries, in fact they're shrinking. The next mayor has to be consumed with how we'll continue to grow our economy, and I propose an increase in new economy companies.

I'd like to see this growth located on the St. Elizabeth's campus, the same campus as Homeland Security. Successful innovation is often the function of a partnership between government, education, and private sector. I see the St. Elizabeth's campus as a focal point for opportunity in our city.

David Alpert: OK, let's talk about transit for a bit. Andrew asked: In the several years that I've been a resident of DC, late-night, off-peak, and weekend Metrorail service has slowed to a trickle, while WMATA's much-touted bus investments have had little tangible benefit for riders. What will you do to encourage Metro to provide services that are more useful to DC residents?

David Catania: Many of the issues surrounding late night service with Metro is a function of our underinvestment in maintenance in the past. The system is really under a great deal of duress because of that lack of investment, which means it's often harder for us to keep the system in service.

Some of the ideas that are proposed under the Metro Momentum plan, which include additional pocket tracks and investments, will help with reliability but over the next 25 years will cost quite a bit.

I think there's quite a lot we can do about late night service for public transit across the city. It means greater investments in dedicated bus lanes and extended hours, and it means increasing our maintenance budget for Metro through a dedicated funding service so we're not constantly putting band-aids on a system with a legacy of underinvestment.

David Alpert: You mentioned the streetcar program. Earlier this year, the DC Council diverted much of the funding for the streetcar program to tax cuts. What's your plan to fund the streetcar program, and how soon would you enact it once mayor?

David Catania: I'd like to first explain, I have a long history with the streetcars. It started with Dan Tangherlini in 2002 who was with WMATA and I was a WMATA alternate.

In 2004, the very first streetcar proposed was the Anacostia light rail program. It was budgeted, and shepherded it through not only the Council but also WMATA, and I was there ten years ago for the groundbreaking.

The complications associated with the right of way meant that line was moved to H Street. I think it's important to explain this. When it came time to purchase the first three cars, I was instrumental in identifying the first ten million dollars for the first three cars.

In 2004, Dan Tangherlini and I took a leap of faith and bought the cars before we had a system. I believe that created a momentum for the light rail system that has seen it to fruition.

The council during the six-year capital improvement plan did reduce the nine million dollar investment not by half, but significantly. I'm still dedicated to the entire North-South and East-West lines. It may take a few more years to accomplish than proposed but we have to be flexible with it.

When I'm elected mayor, I'm going to look at ways at capturing increased property values and increased assessments of light rail, so the system can be funded by the virtue of increased property taxes created by the increase in property investment.

At the end of the day, its not about whether we'll build East-West versus North-South. I plan to be a part of completing that commitment.

David Alpert: Years ago, you argued that it was important for the streetcar to start in Ward 8. But a lot of people in Ward 8, including the councilmember, don't support it. Do you still think we should build the streetcar there, and if you're mayor, how will you work with Ward 8 to build support for it?

David Catania: I don't think there was ever any accurate polling to suggest a lot of people don't support it. To the contrary, I think there's a lot of evidence people do support it. And that Ward 8 is one of the most transit-dependent communities in the city.

I stand by that view and I hope we can reengage CSX regarding the right-of-way along the Anacostia. National Harbor is essentially the downtown of Prince George's County and I'd like to be able to connect people to opportunities there.

David Catania: Absolutely. I think we're going to learn some lessons the hard way with how we're approaching light rail on H Street. I think it would have been smarter for us to have designated rights of way down the street rather than on the sides. I think that's going to create safety traffic, transportation, and delivery issues.

We're expecting 170,000 additional residents over the next 25 years. We have to find a way to efficiently and safely and economically transport individuals around the city. I'm a fan of dedicated bus service as light rail, but when I look at he capacity of light rail cars than buses, light rail has double the capacity of buses. There's a great case for efficiency in dedicated lanes for light rail and for the expansion of the system.

David Catania: This is a more than $20 billion expenditure over the next 25 years. I've been very vocal about themed to have a designated funding source for wmata. For all jurisdictions that participate, I think there's great value in certainty. For some that might mean an additional funding source. Before we talk about funding Momentum, we have to talk about our existing capital improvement plans.

I'm sure your readers appreciate that, for instance, when were purchasing the additional cars to fund a eight car service, because we don't have a dedicated funding source, Metro isn't always able to exercise options on procurements. We have to start from scratch.

That's an incredibly inefficient way to purchase cars or other materials for our system. So a dedicated funding source will rationalize our funding with respect to our existing needs. Going forward, I'd hope that dedicated source would lead to additional resources.

I for one would lead that as the mayor of the District of Columbia. Metro is the tie that binds us, and if we don't take care of it, it will lead to our undoing. I'd look at gas tax, I'd look at regional sales tax, and I'd look at capturing value from the properties that are immediately adjacent to Metro stations that bear the greatest benefit from proximity to Metro.

David Alpert: Let's move to housing and development for a bit.

David Catania: The city doesn't have a housing plan, period. And I appreciate the often narrow self interest, but as a mayor, you have to house the whole family. That means there's a focus on individuals below 30% AMIwe need to have a focus on them. We have individuals who require partial assistance, and then we have those who make very good livings but there's still a lack of affordability.

We need to look at a couple of things, one, the city owned land that's in our possession and how we make that available. We look at easing and improving the regulatory ability to get licenses issued and plans approved and that means sitting down with planners and developers about what they're facing. I think we have quite a lot of unallocated federal resources$110 million for affordable housing that went unused.

Simply put, we lack a plan, and it's one of our biggest challenges. We used to have a really robust HPAP program, a housing purchasing plan. In 2008, we spent nearly $30 million helping individuals purchase their own homes, with up to $70,000 per family in down payment and closing cost assistance.

So, NYC provides a great example on how to provide mixed income housing opportunities. They merge federal resources with local support. In New York, they take their tax-exempt bonds, which we presently don't use all of ours, and we marry them with 30-year exemptions on property tax in exchange for 20% of the units in the building being available to low-income individuals.

So it gives you the opportunity to have mixed income in what are otherwise, higher income buildings. The city's been able to produce thousands of units that aren't strictly market based.

David Alpert: You mentioned city-owned land. The council is now debating whether to require a certain amount of affordable housing in any project built on public land. What do you think about such a requirement?

David Catania: On its face, it's very compelling. But having hard and fast percentages can play mischief in advancing housing generally. For example, when we try to do mixed-income development. It's illustrated in our New Communities projects. We try to create mixed income in communities where there's no demand for middle income, so the entire project stalls because we have these artificial expectations.

In theory, I absolutely support the requirement of low and moderate incomes in housing developments. But we have to look project by project and at the end of the day the financials have to work.

One of the things I want to focus on is that we spend a lot of time talking about new construction and at the same time we're ignoring the avalanche we're facing in the world of preserving existing affordable housing. There are more than 50 buildings under affordability covenants that in the next give years will be released from those covenants.

These are buildings that were financed with federal low income housing tax credits and federal tax-exempt bonds. These buildings lose any limitations on increases in rent, we're facing an avalanche of thousands of units that will lose affordability in the next five years.

I appreciate that we should be focused on building new units but as much attention must be focused on preserving existing units. Up until now, I've seen no plan of this. Recently, I was able to intervene and help the residents of Museum Square keep their apartments, but we need a global solution to these affordability challenges.

David Alpert: AC asks: You've talked a little about existing supply, but a lot of affordable housing advocates in the city are curious to hear you on record about Inclusionary Zoning. Can you tell us where you stand on that program?

David Catania: I supported inclusionary zoning in 2006. Inclusionary zoning is a fantastic principle, but it has yet to produce any meaningful supply. In the first five, six, seven years of inclusionary zoning, fewer than 100 units were created, and I think the real number is closer to 50.

We need to understand more deeply why inclusionary zoning is not producing the supply that we were anticipating and hoping for. So often we can have really terrific ideas that fail in execution, and we need to circle back and examine why that is. Sometimes you need mid-stream corrections.

Utilize a provision in the bill that I authored in 2002, which gives the District the opportunity to purchase when Section 8s are coming out. The reality is that individuals who are in building-based Section 8 apartments are not able to purchase the units, so giving those tenants the opportunity to purchase is to give them something that isn't real. That's what lead me to the district opportunity to purchase so that we can, as a city, manage these purchases. I think it's an indispensable tool and one that's never been used in maintaining affordability.

David Catania: To be clear, in the old city, I don't favor any change to the height requirement. In the rest of the city, I think these issues should be decided by our local legislature and local mayor with input from the population.

I personally am not keen on the notion of raising the height limit in our city. I believe there's plenty of infill capacity in our city to meet needs, but you can never say never. At this point, I don't support it though.

David Alpert: Especially when the height limit restricts the amount of housing near existing transit.

David Catania: One of the things that we can do is expand the quantity of transit. Light rail provides that opportunity. I agree if we were holding steady in our current infrastructure, it does really push greater density around those locations. But if through dedicated bus lanes and an expansion of light rain, we could extend the transit capacity throughout the city, it diminishes the need for intense density around a few locations.

David Catania: I think the community has done an excellent job in putting together this 25-year plan. One of our biggest challenges, if I'm not mistaken, that it's a nearly $50 billion investment and only half the funds have been procured, so we're going to have to get creative in terms of financing.

Financing aside, I think there are a lot of exciting components. The two-year plan has some elements I'd like to move forward with immediately, from Klingle to Anacostia trails. Sidewalk safety and dedicated bus lanes are important. The continued focus on pedestrian safety is important. There are many elements in the two-year plan and the 25-year plan that are exciting.

The challenge is for us to make the investments today and begin planning today for that transition. I'm eager to get started with this execution. We're going to have 140,000 new residents over the next quarter century.

In terms of an organizing philosophy around transportation, there are issues with ethics, engineering, education, and enforcement. Each of them plays a role in building a balanced, community-centric transportation system.

David Alpert: You mentioned a few elements like buses and sidewalks but we haven't gotten to talk yet about bicycles. ChrisRHamilton asked in the last chat: Progressive mayors across the country have started to compete for businesses and the best and the brightest young folks by making their cities the most bike-friendly. While the District is making good incremental progress on becoming more bike-friendly, largely following the initiatives started under Mayor Fenty, do you envision ramping up the pace of change in installing protected bike lanes, bike parking and bikeshare so that it is more transformative or do you think the current pace of change is good enough?

David Catania: There are many core elements of moveDC that I embrace, including 200 miles of bike lanes. When I go back to the issues of education and enforcement, I think we've done a really terrible job of educating the public on what bikes contribute to our community. Obviously, there are huge environmental benefits from cycling. It also helps dramatically reduce demand for existing roadwayswe're up to 14,000 cyclists.

The third area which is rarely talked about is how cycling contributes to the economic development of our city. Many people bike out of economic necessity. But for othersthe cost of operating an average medium size sedan in our country is between $8,000 and 9,000 per year. If we can convince more of our residents to forgo that investment and instead use bicycles, they'll spend those thousands of dollars here locally in housing, retail and supporting our local economy. This may be overly simplistic but if you look at 14k cyclists forgoing that 8k a year, there's over $100 million in economic opportunity for our city when we're not buying cars and fighting wars overseas but instead investing in our communities. It's a very powerful economic development tool and we've never communicated that importance to the population.

Long story short, count me in. There are very important tools for our city. The better opportunity is to educate our city as to where they're located.

We can get really into the weeds about how some of our streets are better for bike lanes than others. Our one-way streets that are 30-feet wide provide great opportunities for one lane of traffic, one lane of bikes, and one for parked cars.

I prefer to look at things where we can have win-win instead of zero sum. The bike plan isn't taking anything away from drivers but is in fact is a traffic calming device.

David Alpert: You talked about a win-win and not zero sum, but bike planners have concluded that not everywhere is it possible to build a bike lane without taking away any parking or any travel lane. How do you balance the need to get community input with the fact that at some point, not everyone is going to be on board with everything?

David Catania: It's really a challenge to make generalized answers to hypotheticals. I've made it a practice to cast a wide net and bring people together, and it doesn't mean everyone gets exactly what they want, but that there's a give and take and sometimes you lose in some items and lose in others. I know tough decisions have to be made. But you have to make them.

David Alpert: You've talked in your platform about Vision Zero, the idea that no loss of life or serious injury is acceptable within a given area's transportation system. How, specifically, would you start taking action on Vision Zero?

David Catania: Sweden has figured out how to reduce their deaths by more than 40% by a combination of engineering and values. I commend both the mayors of San Francisco and New York for executing elements of Vision Zero. I think education is an incredibly important element.

One of the things I like about the Swedish model is the emphasis on simple things. When you open the car door, you open it by using your right hand rather than your left. It actually physically forces a person to turn and get accustomed to looking for a cyclist. That's a simple example.

Through engineering roads that are safer, establishing consistent speed limits depending on the likelihood of pedestrian use, issues of concentration at the most dangerous intersections. The use of engineering and evidence and education to lower incidents. There are ways for us to take elements and execute it right away.

So creating an infrastructure that accommodates those with an underpinning of the value of human life is something I don't think we do here, and we should. Respect for human life and understanding human frailties.

It's looking at educating our population, at re-engaging a traffic enforcement division. The enforcement in our own city is a missing component as well as the underlying respect for human life. Educating pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers is critical. And having an enforcement mechanism.

David Alpert: And that's all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us for the chat!

David Catania: I just really appreciate the five of you coming over and going through this trouble. And I appreciate people weighing in with their questions.

We're a growing, vibrant city. For that to continue, we have to pay attention to the fundamentals of not just transportation and housing, but also issues of crime, economic development education, and at the same time we have to be prepared for crises as they come whether they be Ebola or it be changing economics.

And I really appreciate everyone coming today and the opportunity to share with your readers.

David Alpert: Thank you so much to David Catania, to all of you who submitted questions on Twitter, to our super tweeter Abigail, and to our tireless and lightning-fast typists Aimee, Ashley, and Jonathan.

Please post your thoughts on Mr. Catania's statements in the comments on the post. And thank you all for joining us today!

Topic of the week: Banning cycling on sidewalks

A bill by councilmember Jim Graham to ban bicycling on sidewalks by adults when there's an available bike lane has gotten a lot of attention. We asked our contributors what they thought about the idea.


Photo by fromcaliw/love on Flickr.

Some contributors, like Dan Malouff, didn't want to outright dismiss the idea of changing the laws around sidewalk cycling, depending on the details:

I'm actually OK with making some compromises on where bikes are allowed, but it has to be reasonable. It has to actually take into account the real-life needs of cyclists.
Topher Mathews agrees:
I do think it's important to develop a strong case for why exactly adults should be allowed to bike on narrow sidewalks. This is a big issue for Georgetowners (particularly senior citizens) who are baffled that it's legal in the first place. So far most of the defense of sidewalk biking has been sort of circular: it's legal so it's OK.
There may be some place for selective banning of bikes on sidewalks outside the CBD. This could turn into the camel's nose under the tent, but outright opposing any extension of the ban could engender a even wider ban.
Other contributors think it's just a bad idea. Here's Jonathan Krall:
With all the nuances and exceptions, this takes a near non-issue and makes it a mess. This almost certainly creates more problems than it solves. Education and design (such as putting bike parking on the street instead of the sidewalk) would help more than this.
Canaan Merchant worries about the effect of discouraging cycling:
Any time someone considers banning cyclists from doing something, they run the risk of having fewer cyclists overall. While a ban on sidewalk riding can seem reasonable and argued for from a "common sense" perspective, it's critical that the city keep its larger transportation goals in mind, mainly that DC wants more and more people to travel by bicycle in the future.
David Cranor notes that sidewalk cycling is already illegal if it creates a hazard, and therefore this law could only have a harmful effect:
The kind of behavior that supporters of this ban wish to make illegal is already illegal. The law says that cyclists may use the sidewalk "so long as the person does not create a hazard." So hazardous sidewalk cycling is illegal.

What this law does is make non-hazardous sidewalk cycling illegal. The only reason for this is under the pretense that enforcement would be easier. But the logic behind making non-hazardous sidewalk cycling illegal because it would be easier to enforce is somewhat lacking.

It reminds of the old vaudeville joke, where one man is looking for his wallet and another offers to help. After some time, the second asks "Where did you lose it?" and the first says, "Over there in the woods." "Well then why are we looking over here?" the second asks angrily. "Because the lighting is better." Why are we going to ticket non-hazardous cycling? Because the lighting is better.

Sidewalk cycling is not ideal, but for some cyclists and at some times it is a totally adequate option, and possibly even the best one. Rather than changing behavior by trying to make some less desired kinds of cycling less appealing we should do it by making other types more appealing.

Bans do not get cyclists off the sidewalks, but bike lanes, and to a much larger extent, cycletracks do. That's where efforts should be focused.

Steve Seelig also feels that we need better infrastructureeven better than what DDOT is building today:
I would be very willing to agree not to ride on sidewalks outside the central business district on streets where the city has decided to construct a safe, PROTECTED bike lane. Sorry, L Street and M Street do not count. I have 30-plus years of DC bike commuting under my belt, so until recently the number of times I have ridden on the sidewalk has been minimal.

Of course, this was until my 5-year-old started to ride. Sounds like he can ride on the sidewalk while I am in the bike lane, at least until he is 12. Shall I not get to ride with him on the sidewalk to teach him proper bike behavior? How about when I have him on the cargo bikeam I consigned to the completely unprotected bike lane? And do we really think that it is safe for a 13-year-old to ride a bike in an unprotected bike lane?

Plus, we have many folks who are new at this, and rightfully terrified of riding in the street because of inattentive drivers, blocked bike lanes, etc. Shall those folks be consigned to not riding at all?

Where else has this debate raged?

DC isn't the only jurisdiction in the country that has debated changing laws around bicycling on sidewalks. Some contributors referred to their experiences elsewhere. Jonathan Krall dealt with a similar issue in Alexandria:

Alexandria went through this, in reverse, last year. Last year, Alexandria changed the law to allow bicycling on sidewalks, legalizing something that timid adults and children where already doing, largely without injury to anyone. The main effect of the law was the occasional ticket issued to an incredulous citizen.

When sidewalk bicycling was legalized, there was a sizable outcry from the public, along with a morphing of the usual anti-bike "war on cars" language into a "war on pedestrians." Proponents of legalized sidewalk riding replied that the new law would change little, other than to stop the police from issuing tickets to timid cyclists who probably shouldn't be riding in the streets anyway.

A year later, the hullabaloo has died down and not much has changed. Children, their parents, timid cyclists, and cyclists riding from the street to on-sidewalk parking are all still riding on sidewalks and the anti-cycling crowd has gone back to complaining about cyclists not stopping at stop signs.

Jaime Fearer is dealing with a similar debate in San Jose, California, which has pitted pedestrian advocates against cyclists:
A cyclist did hit and kill a senior earlier this year on a campus path/sidewalk in San Jose, which certainly propelled this proposed legislation.

Having attended a number of meetings on this now, one thing is clear: pedestrians and bicyclists are being divided to fight against each other and for whatever scraps they can get, rather than being encouraged to work together. I see the politicians encourage this through legislation, and I see us (the advocates on "both sides") continue to approach this as though these sides are polar opposites. Whether we're being divided purposefully or not is up for debate, but the fact that we are divided to our detriment is not.

Fortunately for us in DC, the main pedestrian advocates here are not interested in starting a pedestrian-cyclist war and don't believe cyclists are the biggest threat to pedestrians. Tracy Hadden Loh, a co-founder of All Walks DC, had this statement:
All Walks DC is devoted to improving safety for those who walk in DC. We ask our DC Councilmembers to take an evidence-based approach to improving conditions for pedestrians. Motor vehicles kill or injure hundreds of pedestrians every year in the District. Bicycling, on the other hand, is a low-speed, sustainable transportation that serves as an alternative to car trips.

We believe most cyclists riding on sidewalks do so because they don't feel safe on the street, or even in the existing bike lanes. Where high quality bike infrastructure exists, such as on 15th St NW, L St NW, and 1st St NE, very few people ride on the sidewalk.

We believe Councilmember Graham's proposal to ban bicycles from sidewalks would mostly just discourage people from riding bicycles, which we do not support, while failing to address the underlying problem of streets that are not safe for all users.

What about Segways?

While most of the discussion revolved around bicyclists, the bill would also ban Segway riding on sidewalks near bike lanes. But Matt Johnson feels that rather than pushing Segways off sidewalks and onto bike lanes, we need the reverse:

I would actually like to see a ban on Segways in bike lanes. Especially when being operated as a part of a tour where they're going to stop and sit in the bike lanes while the tour guide tells them how the French burned down the White House in the War of 1820.
Nick Keenan has some historical background to the Segway issue:
You may remember when the Segway was introduced that it was supposed to revolutionize transportation forever. That didn't happen. One of the obstacles was that the existing legal framework had no place for the Segway. So the manufacturer went on a lobbying blitz to get Segways recognized as comparable to bicycles.

In 2006 then-councilmember Carol Schwartz introduced the "Motor Vehicle Definition Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Device Exemption Amendment Act of 2006." It did two things. First, Segways fit the then-existing definition of motor vehicles, so that definition was changed to exclude "electric personal assistive mobility devices" (the generic term for Segways). Second, everywhere the code mentioned the word "bicycle" it was changed to say "bicycle or an electric personal assistive mobility device" so that Segway operators would have the same rights and duties as cyclists.

For reasons that aren't clear, the person tasked with making those changes did not use an up-to-date version of the code. They used one that was at least ten years old. There had been significant changes to the code in 1996 and 2004, and they were erased. In effect, what Schwartz (or her staff) did was to accidentally undo all of the changes to the law between 1996 and 2006. Oops.

I think most of those changes have since been reinstated but for a while there confusion reigned.

David Cranor takes a different view on Segways:
I'm not bothered by Segways being treated like bicycles. What should they be treated like? Pedestrians? Cars? Some other category? It's really the answer that makes the most sense and I think we can graciously share space with them. We should put up with the occasional inconvenience of segways the same as we expect driver to tolerate the occasional inconvenience of cyclists. Besides it creates another constituency for bike facilities and an expanded argument for their need.
What do you think?

A new bill would ban cycling or Segway riding on DC sidewalks next to bike lanes

Lame duck councilmember Jim Graham wants to make it illegal to ride a bicycle or ride a Segway on the sidewalk along roads when there is a bike lane going in the same direction, except for children 12 years and under.


A sidewalk cyclist on Barracks Row (often not a great place to bike, but not covered by Graham's bill). Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Graham, who currently represents Ward 1 but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Brianne Nadeau, introduced the bill this morning. His press release says:

Graham introduced the bill after receiving many reports of bicyclists who ride on the sidewalk without sufficient regard for the safety of pedestrians, especially the elderly, mothers with young children, and others.

This problem was tragically demonstrated four years ago when while walking in an alley near the Convention Center, a 78 year-old man and his wife were knocked to the ground by a speeding "hit-and-run" bicyclist. The elderly man was killed and his wife was hospitalized.

In recent years, the District has emerged as one of the foremost cities for bicycling in the US through the building of dozens of miles of bike lanes, and through its pioneering and successful Capital Bikeshare program. Graham stated "With so many miles of bike lanes now available, I think it's time that rather than riding on sidewalks, bicyclists and others be required to use bike lanes. I think this bill will help to encourage the construction of even more bicycle lanes for the safety of all".
People riding bicycles on sidewalks at high speed can be very scary for pedestrians, and they feel legitimately threatened. It's the same as the way cyclists feel threatened on the road. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer because outside rare cycletracks, cyclists don't have their own space and are yelled at both on the road and on the sidewalk (and on multi-use trails).

Just as many drivers think they can safely pass a cyclist with less than 3 feet of space, or nose through a group of pedestrians crossing at a crosswalk, there are cyclists who think they can use their maneuverability to squeeze quickly between pedestrians without hitting them. And 99% of the time they are right, but that doesn't make the more vulnerable road user not feel intimidated.

I've been walking around and had someone on a bike ride by too fast and too close many times. I've been walking with our one-year-old in a stroller, or with my wife when she was pregnant. Just because none of them actually hit any of us doesn't make it right.

Would a ban even work?

However, a bill banning sidewalk cycling near a bike lane is probably not the answer. While people should ride in the road, there are often legitimate reasons to sometimes ride on any given sidewalk at certain times and in certain circumstances. What if the bike lane is blocked, for example? Graham's bill won't deal with many situations where sidewalk cycling is a problem while also making riding illegal at times when it's not a problem.

It's hard have a law that basically says it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk only in a way that intimidates pedestrians. And any legal restriction is only going to have an effect if police ticket, and we don't need police deciding to target cyclists here as they have been in NYC.

It could be worth discussing some measure like a speed limit that applies on sidewalks where there are pedestrians (but not empty sidewalks), or a 2-foot passing buffer distance. When we've discussed this before, commenters seemed open to somehow codifying the idea of "pedestrian pace in a pedestrian space."

Would this bill encourage building bike lanes, or add to acrimony?

The only real way to reduce bicycle-pedestrian conflicts is to make sure cyclists feel safe riding outside the sidewalk, and that's simply not the case right now. Many people say they just aren't comfortable in the road.

Walking around the city, I often see people riding on the sidewalk when there is a good bike lane or low-speed street, and I wonder why they are bothering to ride there. But instead of passing a law, let's find ways to help those people feel safe (and be safe).

Graham says in his press release that he hopes this will lead to more bike lanes being constructed. It's hard to see how a bill limiting cyclists' rights will lead to more bike lanes.

The obstacle to more bike lanes is that whenever one is proposed, people complain about losing travel lanes or losing parking. Graham has often expressed "concerns" about a transportation bill because it might take away parking spaces. That kind of rhetoric tells transportation planners that they should be very hesitant to embark on any project which impacts even a small amount of parking, or at the very least, they have to do many years of studies and outreach.

Maybe Graham is thinking that if this law exists, people worried about sidewalk cycling will turn into advocates for bike lanes. But the bigger danger is that it only further demonizes an activity that already comes under a lot of criticism, against whom some columnists in national newspapers think alluding to the possibility of violence is appropriate.

Graham said he hopes to start a conversation about what to do about this problem. It's not clear that one best starts a conversation about conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians by proposing a restriction on one of the two groups. It's only going to lead to more rancor rather than understanding.

Why this, and why now?

Incidents of cyclists hurting pedestrians are vanishingly rare (while deaths involving cars are quite common). That doesn't mean it's okay to ride at a high speed on a sidewalk near pedestrians in a way that can be scary, but it's hard not to notice a little irony in the fact that Graham's press release cites a case from four years ago which wasn't even a fatality on a sidewalk or a road with a bike lane at all.

What bills has Graham introduced to deal with fatal crashes between drivers and pedestrians or bicyclists that happened since four years ago? In fact, speaking of safety for seniors and children, Graham has long fought a bill to get property owners to shovel sidewalks; icy walks create a real hazard, but not one that he seems to think is important enough to solve with a change in the law.

Anyway, it's almost the end of the session (and Graham's tenure on the council). He knows that there is probably not time to even hold a hearing if transportation chair Mary Cheh wanted to, and she likely does not want to. The bill will almost surely just die with the rest of Graham's actions this year that amount to shaking his fist at his younger, changing ward. But he can go out making a statement that of all the things that threaten seniors on the streets, like icy sidewalks or drivers not yielding in crosswalks, those damn bicyclists are the worst.

A new neighborhood rises east of the river. Is it a sign of change, or more of the same?

An entirely new neighborhood is rising just a minute's walk from the Anacostia Metro station. Nearly two dozen townhomes and apartments have sprouted at Sheridan Station, where public housing will become a mixed-income community. But will it be an economic catalyst for the community, or a new face for the area's existing struggles?


A view of Sheridan Station rising from the hillside across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Photos by the author.

When it first broke ground more than 4 years ago, Sheridan Station was supposed to have 344 units, equally split between market-rate homes for sale and rentals for low-income households. But in the fall of 2012, developer William C. Smith asked to reduce the ratio of for-sale homes to 25%, arguing that potential buyers would have trouble securing mortgages.

Today, 327 homes are planned for Sheridan Station, just 80 of which will be for sale with the rest for rent. Of the remaining 247 units, 200 will be affordable, and 100 are set aside for households on the public housing waiting list. Priority will go to residents of Sheridan Terrace, which used to occupy the site, and Barry Farm next door, which will be redeveloped in 2016.

New residents are hopeful, but anxious

James grew up in the neighborhood and lived in Sheridan Terrace, the public housing complex that predates Sheridan Station, in the 1980s. The units were falling apart. "I came home one day from work and the ceiling was on the floor," he said. Hazardous building conditions and street crime precipitated the departure of hundreds of families.


James, a resident of Sheridan Station, has been watching the quick rise of an entirely new neighborhood yards from the Anacostia Metro station. Photos by the author.

I ran into James, who is wheelchair-bound, while recently surveying Sheridan Road. When housing became available in the first phase of Sheridan Station, he was able to secure a unit due to his sister's network.

"I've been coming out here everyday just to watch," James said. "It's about time they started. They never said why it took so long to begin. They blamed the weather. People began putting pressure on them and asking questions. There's more demand for housing than there is supply. This looks like it is decent housing." He pointed out a building and said once completed he would be moving to the first floor.

Market-rate homeowners are excited about the development too. Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant, saw the signage for Sheridan Station on Suitland Parkway while commuting from Upper Marlboro. "When I decided to purchase a home, I looked at various neighborhoods but the rapid rise in prices in more 'trendy' neighborhoods priced me out," he says. Sheridan Station won him over with the proximity to Metro and the views of downtown DC.

"After moving in, I switched from driving to work to taking the Metro," he says. "The commute has been a big quality of life upgrade for me."


Townhomes line Pomeroy Road SE as part of the Sheridan Station development.

Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says he loves the "great urban neighborhood vibe and look" of the street where his new home is. "We are a microcosm of the city, young, less young, professional, artistic, black, white, Hispanic, foreign-born, single, couples, inter-racial," he says. Miller looks forward to the area becoming more walkable and getting a grocery store.

But there's been some tension between new residents and those who already lived in the area. Miller says kids have smashed his house windows three times, while neighbors have had their cars vandalized. "These incidents of vandalism can be attributed to some of the tension that existing members of the community feel towards the new development," says Tuggle.

Is this a sign of change, or more of the same?

Sheridan Station serves as a preview of future development east of the river, from the reconstruction of Barry Farm to Skyland Town Center, the 11th Street Bridge Park, and Saint Elizabeths East Campus. But in contrast to the splashy opening of Sheridan's first phase, the groundbreaking and construction of Sheridan's second and third phases have gone on quietly. At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Gray highlighted his outgoing administration's commitment to developing affordable housing, but did not mention Sheridan Station.


An elevated view of the 1st phase of Sheridan Station from Suitland Parkway.

William C. Smith's uneven promotion of for-sale units led homeowners to speculate that the development's initial goals would never happen. "I had to look for Sheridan Station; it didn't look for me," says Tuggle, noting that he'd received ads for other new developments in the area, like Arts District Hyattsville and Dakota Crossing.

He and other homeowners only found out recently there were only 20 homes for sale in the development's last phase, with the rest being rentals. "[My neighbors] had advised friends and associates that there would be a lot more opportunities to buy in the last phase," he says.

Furthermore, many public housing tenants I've spoken with express a fear that when the new buildings are filled with disparate families from various public housing developments, long-standing feuds, similar to the Hatfields and McCoys, may erupt.

Although private investment has hesitated to cross the Anacostia River, long-term residents point to developments like this, as well as the new schools and recreation centers that have been built recently, as infallible evidence of "the Plan," which seeks to make the area attractive to a new demographic who will displace them. But Sheridan Station and its inability to deliver a mixed-income neighborhood as first promised illustrates the tenuousness of the "new Ward 8," as Councilmember Marion Barry calls it.

The need for tenant and workforce housing in Ward 8 is overwhelming. Despite Sheridan Station's success in attracting affluent professionals, the continued concentration and retrenchment of disadvantaged people in this area has the potential to suppress the economy of communities east of the river for yet another generation.

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