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Pedestrians


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.


DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.


Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.


After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.

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Roads


Use this map to share your ideas for better east-west travel across DC

Is it frustrating to try to travel from Columbia Heights to Brookland on foot, bike, bus, or car? The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it easier to travel east-west in this area, and a new interactive map lets you point out problems.


Map by DDOT. map. Click for an interactive version.

This WikiMap is part of DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study, the goal of which is to improve all modes of travel between 16th Street NW and South Dakota Avenue NE. It lets users identify problems with and suggest solutions for
walking, riding a bike, driving, transit, public space, parking, and intersections, and is a user-friendly way to participate in DDOT's search for long-term solutions.

People who frequently commute by foot, bike, bus, car, or other means through the corridor have firsthand knowledge on the area's congestion, safety, and streetscape issues. They're also likely to have ideas on how these issues can be addressed to improve transportation mobility and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beyond the crowdsourced map, DDOT recently kicked off the first in a series of public meetings for the project aimed at gathering feedback.


A map of the study area.

The interactive map will be available on DDOT's website (just click the first image in this post) for several months.

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Bicycling


A church in Shaw thinks bike lanes make streets safer

Some churches in Shaw are fighting hard to block a proposed north-south protected bikeway, but not all churches think it's such a bad idea.


Hemingway Temple AME Church. Photo by Martin Moulton.

Hamingway Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, at 5th and P streets NW, has sent a letter to the District Department of Transportation suggesting "a fair balance" in its ongoing study of ways to add a protected bikeway around 5th, 6th, and/or 9th streets.

The letter says,

We realize that as our neighborhood becomes more heavily populated, its needs also become more diverse. Preserving church parking is important to our members, but we appreciate the Mayor's Vision Zero initiative and strategies that will make our streets safer and eliminate all traffic related fatalities. ... Separate protected facilities for cyclists keeps them out of the way of motor vehicles. Reducing the width of roads makes them safer for pedestrians to walk across.
(Before someone jumps on the church's seeming to claim the only benefit of bike lanes is to keep them out of drivers' way, cycling advocates have long been arguing drivers should support bike lanes for this very reason—they're actually potentially in the interests of people bicycling and people driving alike.)

The letter credits Martin Moulton, board vice president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, for engaging with the church. The nearby KIPP DC Shaw Campus, for which Moulton has worked as a consultant on community outreach, also has for some time let church members park in its parking lot on Sundays.

This demonstrates, first, that reaching out to engage constructively with churches is important; and second, that there can be creative other solutions to churches' parking needs besides forbidding bike lanes entirely. We can hope more churches will engage with area cyclists and find ways to make streets safer while still allowing parishioners to reach worship services as well.

There will be an open house meeting on the bikeway study this Saturday, February 6, from 12-4 pm at KIPP. People who want to speak should arrive at noon to sign up, and public testimony will begin at 1.

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Bicycling


Nobody cleared the Mount Vernon Trail after Snowzilla. Future storms might be different.

The National Park Service did not clear snow the Mount Vernon Trail after the blizzard, leaving it one of the most prominent uncleared trails in our region's network. Better late than never, the agency says it might clear snow off the trail in the future.


The Mount Vernon Trail south of Four Mile Run on Friday, January 29. Photo by the author.

Snowzilla temporarily brought the region to a standstill with more than two feet of snow. The storm ended Saturday night and the digging out began in earnest that Sunday. Roads gradually became clear and Metro reopened with severely limited service on Monday, January 25.

Trails gradually became usable as well. Montgomery County plowed the Capital Crescent Trail on the Sunday after the storm, and Arlington cleared the Custis Trail and the District the Metropolitan Branch Trail that Monday.

By Friday, Alexandria had cleared the Potomac Yard Trail.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) compiled a good list of which trails and bike lanes were cleared of snow and which were not after Snowzilla.

The Mount Vernon Trail was one of the trails left untouched. While not alone in this distinction, it stands out due to how important it is: it connects the District and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor to Crystal City, Ronald Reagan Washington National airport, Potomac Yard, Old Town Alexandria, and eastern Fairfax County.

Why isn't the Mount Vernon Trail cleared?

"It's not the policy to clear snow from any of the trails in the National Capital Region," says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the National Park Service's George Washington Memorial Parkway division, which includes the Mount Vernon Trail. A four-mile stretch of the Capital Crescent Trail that the park service's Chesapeake & Ohio Canal division clears of snow is the one exception to this policy, he adds.

As for why this is NPS policy, he simply says: "It just hasn't been something we've come up against in the past."

LaRocca does point to the fact that the Mount Vernon Trail has a lot of curves and hills, something that makes clearing it of snow more challenging than the Capital Crescent Trail, which is built on a former railroad bed.

Previous Park Service comments on clearing snow from the Mount Vernon Trail have emphasised the multi-use aspects of the trail, such as for cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter.

Indeed, cross-country ski tracks were visible in the flat, open areas next to the trail between Four Mile Run and Old Town during a run on January 29. None were on the paved trail itself.

Cyclists use the trail in winter

Arlington County data shows 456 cyclists using the Mount Vernon Trail at its airport south counter just north of the junction with Four Mile Run on January 20, two days before Snowzilla hit. The high temperature that day was 30 degrees farenheit, according to the county.


Data from Arlington County.

The county's 14th Street Bridge counter recorded 526 cyclists the same day, with some likely heading north on the Mount Vernon Trail or exiting to Crystal City or National airport before the airport south counter.

The number of cyclists passing the airport south mark fell to zero during and immediately after Snowzilla. The number of cyclists remained low, rising to just three by the Friday after the storm, despite temperatures that ranged from 41 degrees to 51 degrees—at least 10 degrees warmer than the prior week—during the week after Snowzilla, the data shows.

The District cleared snow off the 14th Street Bridge pedestrian path on January 26.

The uncleared snow on the Mount Vernon Trail is the most likely explanation for the lack of cyclists on the trail during what was otherwise a nicer week to ride than the one before.

NPS is considering clearing snow

"We understand that we manage major commuter routes within the boundaries of the National Park, which is both a challenge and an opportunity," says LaRocca, acknowledging the year-round usage of Mount Vernon Trail by bike commuters and other users.

The NPS is in the process of engaging with stakeholders and jurisdictions on "creative ways" to manage trail operations, including snow removal, he says. This includes meeting with WABA and attending a meeting of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Arlington County would be happy to meet and share best practices on trail plowing with NPS, a spokeswoman says. Nearly five-miles of the Mount Vernon Trail traverse the Potomac riverfront in the county.

The final plan, whatever that may be, will take a "holistic" approach to managing all of the NPS trails in the National Capital Region, says LaRocca. However, he was unable to commit to a timeline for when snow may be cleared from the Mount Vernon Trail or other federally-managed trails in the region.

That plan, ideally with a snow removal policy, will be welcome news to the commuters, joggers, walkers and tourists who use the Mount Vernon Trail throughout the year.

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Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

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Transit


Montgomery County says it can't build BRT, but there's money for new roads

Earlier this month, Montgomery County leaders released plans to fund transportation over the next two years. There's $300 million for building new roads, but not enough money to keep BRT moving forward or to increase current bus service.


BRT in Crystal City. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In 2013, Montgomery County approved a plan for an 81-mile bus rapid transit network. The idea was to alleviate congestion and keep Montgomery economically competitive. The first phase of BRT along Veirs Mill Rd, MD 355, and US 29 would intersect with key master plans like those for White Flint and White Oak while also providing rapid transit along a major east-west connector (Veirs Mill).

By 2040, Montgomery will have 70% more congestion, 40% more jobs and 20% more residents. Better transit, which BRT would achieve, is a way to address this coming challenge.

But recent attempts to actually fund it have met resistance. Many supporters of the system are worried about stalled progress. Now, BRT funding from the state is set to run out, and BRT's future in Montgomery could be in doubt.

Money that could bring BRT to Montgomery is currently set aside for roads

Every two years the County Executive submits a plan for capital improvements in what's called the Capital Improvement Plan. The CIP is a budget that encompasses 6 fiscal years and is amended every two. While council staff notes road funding has been down in recent years, it acknowledges that it still dwarfs that of other jurisdictions in the region.

One road in particular stands out as particularly expensive: Montrose Parkway East. With a price tag close to $140 million, Montrose Parkway East is 20 million dollars more expensive than it was two years ago. The project is in the Pike District, an area the county wants to encourage walkability, but building the road would only invite more people to drive.

Montrose Parkway East is an even more questionable use of public funds, considering the county has transit modeshare goals. Development of White Flint is literally dependent on transit, so why are we building a $140 Million road there?

There's still hope for funding BRT in Montgomery

There are ways to move BRT forward without moving money away from road projects: Council staff has suggested implementing special taxing districts, others have suggested working through existing systems and creating a pilot corridor, while County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an independent transit authority to fund it.

But transit advocates can push legislators to stop spending money on road projects, and instead invest that money in things like BRT. It takes a vote of at five council members to approve or modify a proposed improvement plan in the CIP, and six votes to amend a previously approved capital program.

If Montgomery officials are serious about a transit oriented future, they must reallocate funds from projects like Montrose Parkway East and put them toward making BRT a reality.

Montgomery County residents can testify at a public hearing on Feb 11 and contact their lawmakers via the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

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Transit


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)

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Roads


Reston wants urban street grids around future Metro stations

Fairfax County wants to make it easier to walk, bike, and drive in Reston, especially to current and planned Silver Line stations. A new street grid and three ways to cross the Dulles Toll Road are part of the plan to make that happen.


Image from Fairfax County

The county's Department of Transportation recently kicked off the Reston Network Analysis, which is focused on finalizing the grid of streets necessary to support the coming development around three new Metro stations in Reston.

Ideas for near the stations include new bike lanes, adjusted traffic signals, and re-striped roads, as well as realigned or wider roads. It's also possible that Fairfax will build new roads in these areas.


Proposed bike facilities in Reston. Image from Fairfax County.

One of the Reston-wide improvements is the Soapstone Drive Overpass , which will provide another connection across the Dulles Toll Road and a new way to get to the Wiehle-Reston East station.

There will also be a Town Center Parkway Underpass to provide an additional connection across the Dulles Toll Road to help relieve Fairfax County Parkway and Reston Parkway. It will also provide a direct connection from the transit-oriented developments to the north and south of the Reston Town Center station.

A November presentation also mentioned a South Lakes Drive Overpass. The connection would be similar to the Soapstone over pass, allowing for pedestrian, bikes, single-occupancy-vehicles and busses to cross the Dulles Toll Road without using Wiehle Avenue or Hunter Mill Road.


The Reston Transportation Study Area. Image from Fairfax County.

The study will also look at ways to improve four specific areas: Reston Parkway from Lawyers Road to Baron Cameron Avenue; Fairfax County Parkway at Spring Street; Fairfax County Parkway at Sunrise Valley Drive; and Rock Hill Bridge, which connects Loudoun County and Fairfax County over the Dulles Toll Road.

These areas are under consideration because they are important parts of Reston's transportation network and are currently over capacity or will be after the redevelopment around the Metro stations occurs. The study will also look at how to make it easier to bike and walk in these areas.

The Hunter Mill Supervisor has appointed the Reston Network Analysis Advisory Group to help staff develop and test ways to make the street grids better.

In 2015, the Fairfax Department of Transportation presented a report that summarized existing conditions by looking at traffic counts from mid-2015. Among the key findings in the report:

  1. During evening commutes, the intersection of Wiehle and Sunset Hills rates an "F" for level of service
  2. The planned grid of streets will make pedestrian access and mobility near transit stations better
  3. The report also published baseline vehicle volume levels near current and future Silver Line stations
For future trips that come from more density around the coming Metro stations, the goal is to cut vehicle trips within a quarter mile of the stations by 45%.

Members of the public can learn about and comment on the project at a meeting on Monday, February 1 from 7-9 pm at Lake Anne Elementary School, which is at 11510 North Shore Drive in Reston. You can also contact project manager Kristin Calkins at Kristin.Calkins@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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Pedestrians


Pedestrian deaths tripled in Fairfax County. Bad road design didn't help.

Eleven people on foot died in crashes in Fairfax County in 2015. That continues a rising trend since 2012, when the number was just four. What's going on?

NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss talked to some people about what's going on. A leading hypothesis in the story is that more people are walking around. That seems likely, but one element is missing: how poorly Fairfax's roads are designed for walking.

A number of people in the story talk about newcomers. One driver says, "I definitely worry about people who aren't from here," who try to cross when they don't have the light or not at a crosswalk. The subtext sure sounded like, "... people aren't familiar with the way we haven't designed roads for pedestrians in Fairfax County."

Just look at this intersection where Tuss is standing, the corner of Gallows Road and Route 29. It's about 0.6 miles from the Dunn Loring Metro station. And it's huge.


Image from Tuss' report.

That Target is part of the Mosaic District, which was designed to be walkable and transit-oriented. The interior is beautiful, but to get there from Metro requires walking along a not-very-hospitable sidewalk on 6- to 8-lane wide Gallows, and then crossing this monstrosity, 9 lanes on both Gallows and 29.

VDOT widened both roads in 2011 in a project billed to "increase safety, reduce congestion and enhance bicycle and pedestrian access," but which prioritized car throughput over other considerations. (This recent article from Joe Cortright effectively summarizes the mindset that would let VDOT think this would "increase safety.")

At least there are sidewalks, though, and you can legally walk directly along the road. That's not always true elsewhere in the county, like at Tysons Corner. Some sides of many intersections there were never designed for people to cross on foot. Only a lot of people are, now that Metro goes there.


Tysons Corner. Photo by Ken Archer.

Lucy Caldwell of Fairfax Police told Tuss, "We have situations that have occurred near Metro [stations], where people sometimes don't want to take that extra few minutes, and they cross where they shouldn't be crossing." If someone has to walk a few minutes farther to cross a road, most of all near a Metro station, you haven't designed it right.

To its credit, Fairfax officials are trying to gradually fix these spots, but there's a long way to go.

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