Greater Greater Washington

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Events roundup: Changes are coming

I-66, Capital Bikeshare, and Prince George's zoning will all be changing in the near future. Have you weighed in? Plus, learn about dams, bikeway design, and more in this week's events.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tolls and lanes for I-66: Virginia is considering tolls for people driving alone on I-66, along with new lanes outside the Beltway. State transportation officials are holding a series of meetings this Monday to Thursday around Oakton, Centreville, Haymarket, and Fair Oaks, all from 6 to 8:30 pm.

Rewrite Prince George's zoning: Prince George's County is rewriting its zoning code for the first time in 50 years, which will have a major effect on future development. Three listening sessions, Tuesday in Riverdale, Wednesday in Fort Washington, and Thursday in Landover. All meetings are 6-8 pm.

Those damn dams: Senator Al Franken will host a screening of the movie DamNation on Tuesday, January 27, 5:30-8:30 pm at the US Capitol Visitor Center. This documentary explores how the US has changed its attitude towards dams from a source of national pride to environmental awareness. A panel discussion will follow the film. RSVP is requested.

Talk bikeshare's future: Help shape the future of Capital Bikeshare at an open house this Wednesday, January 28, 6-8 pm at the Marin Luther King Jr. Library at 901 G Street NW. Officials will discuss a possible price increase and future expansion. There will also be a trivia table and fun facts about bikeshare on display. You don't want to miss it.

The right way to make bikeways: Bill Schultheiss of Toole Design Group will speak about his experience building bike lanes in several US cities and his observations from abroad. The talk is Thursday, January 29, 6 pm at the Downtown BID, 1250 H Street NW Suite 1000. RSVP by January 28 to attend.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Bus stops around DC are getting real-time arrival displays

If you ride the bus on 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, or Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, it may already be easier to know when your bus is coming. New real-time screens have already appeared on 37 bus stops, and more are coming.


Photo by Reginald Bazile on Twitter used with permission.

The District Department of Transportation is installing these screens in bus shelters on these high-ridership bus corridors. According to Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT, they are part of an initial order of 56, and the agency hopes to have 120 by March.


One of the new signs. Photo from PoPville used with permission.

The money comes from a federal TIGER grant, part of the 2009 stimulus bill. The Washington region won a grant in 2010 to improve bus service.

Many of the projects then stalled for years, and there still isn't new signal priority, where signals adapt to help keep the buses moving, beyond the limited one that had already existed on Georgia Avenue. But it's great to see these screens, which should make riding the bus much less of a mystery.

Not everyone has a smartphone, and not everyone who does knows how to pull up the real-time info. Research shows that people even perceive the wait to be shorter when they have the information than when they don't.

Have you used any of the signs yet?

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Mercedes imagines passengers in driverless cars never interacting with the world outside

Driverless cars still aren't ready for consumers to buy, but they're getting closer. When they do, they will reduce dangers and hassles of driving but will not magically eliminate congestion. And it would be a shame if automation totally isolated the riders from the places they travel through, as one concept from Mercedes does.


Scale model of the Mercedes F015 concept car. Photo by the author.

Electric and driverless car concepts made a big splash at this month's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Two concepts from BMW and Mercedes show what is coming soon.

BMW hopes to make parking easier

BMW's foray into automation, called the i3, can't quite drive itself down a city street. But it can park. At the push of a remote, the vehicle can roll forward, without a driver.


BMW i3. Photo by the author.

That sort of innovation may not revolutionize cities as we know them, but it could have immediate practical impacts. A self-parking car could squeeze into tighter parking spots. That could make our parking lots more efficient, saving space and reducing drivers' desire to circle for a better spot.

BMW hopes to continue developing the i3 until it can fully retrieve itself from a parking lot, sans driver. But manufacturers aren't stopping there. Other features include things like adaptive cruise control, lane-departure detection, and eventually full automation.

Mercedes hopes to block out the outside world

BMW wasn't the only car company at CES. Mercedes also made news, with its completely autonomous F015 concept car.

According to Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz, the F015's futuristic design protects its driver in an exclusive "cocoon" of luxury.


Mercedes' F015 concept car. Photo by lincolnblues on Flickr.

With its F015 design, Mercedes strives to isolate passengers behind silvered slits of windows and extra-thick doors. Since the car drives itself, there's no need for anyone in it to bother themselves with views of the outside world. Instead, touch screen computer panels line the doors.

Zetsche compared the car to an exclusive condo, contrasting it with a public subway car that anybody can enter. He recalled Margaret Thatcher's infamous comment that anyone on a bus beyond age 26 "can count himself a failure."

Techno wizardry aside, Zetsche's comments and Mercedes' designs are troublingly antisocial.

Many car drivers already exhibit a "windshield perspective", where the outside of the car seems like an entirely separate, and somehow less real world. That perspective has all sorts of negative effects, from promoting road rage to encouraging snap judgments that magnify social biases.

By taking the next step and literally blocking the outside world from motorists' eyes, Mercedes will surely exaggerate the effect. The world will be out of sight, out of mind.

Will driverless cars cure congestion?

It's still an open question whether autonomous cars will improve congestion or worsen it. On the one hand, they'll eliminate much human error and potentially use road space more efficiently. On the other hand, if more people use cars more often, congestion will likely get worse.

In the meantime, taxis may offer an instructive example.

Like with autonomous cars, travelers can hail taxis whenever they want, and with taxis one need not cruise around for parking. Nonetheless, outside CES at the Las Vegas convention center there was plenty of taxi congestion.

Cabs were simultaneously numerous enough to clog the streets and insufficient to serve everyone waiting for a ride. A colleague reported standing in line for 40 minutes until he could get a ride. Even queued up in a line and ready to go, cabs simply could not move fast enough to load all passengers in a timely manner.

Queuing like at the Las Vegas taxi stand isn't a problem driverless cars will solve. They may reduce some congestion by eliminating cruising for parking or by forming platoons on the highway, but at some point, everything comes down to geometry.

Anyone who's ever tried to catch a cab at DC's Union Station during a busy time of day knows exactly what my colleague experienced.

Meanwhile, I walked around the corner from the convention center, waited five minutes, and took the bus.


A viable alternative to driverless cars. Photo by the author.

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A green wave gives cyclists a stop-free trip

One tool that planners have to calm neighborhood streets and encourage bicycling is a "green wave." Engineers set the traffic signals so they turn green just as a vehicle traveling at a certain speed arrives.


Sign on Valencia. Photo by the author.

The basic premise of the green wave is to control the average speed on a segment of road. For example, if speeding is a problem in a corridor, the signals can be set for, say, 20 miles per hour. If drivers speed, they'll only end up having to wait.

But green waves can also be set to benefit cyclists. That's the case on Valencia Street in San Francisco, where the signals are set for 13 miles per hour, a very comfortable speed for most cyclists.

I had the opportunity to ride Valencia last summer when I was in San Francisco, and it was an almost religious experience.

The street has bike lanes, which give cyclists their own space, and saves them from feeling pressure to ride faster that motorists can sometimes bring. But riding along at a comfortable 13 mph, the signals turn green just as the leading edge of the wave gets there.

This happens again and again at every intersection. I felt like the hand of God was turning the signals green for me. That's how amazing it is.

There may be streets in DC where this approach could work easily. I used to ride 11th Street from Columbia Heights into Downtown frequently. And on that street, the seemingly random nature of the signal timing meant frequent stops and starts, for both cyclists and motorists.

Of course, green waves are easier said than done. In a complex gridded city, perpendicular streets also have signal timing that needs to fit into a larger pattern. But in targeted corridors, a green wave can calm traffic and encourage cycling.

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Ask GGW: Is there any reason not to have a sidewalk?

There are parts of DC and other cities with no sidewalks. As pedestrian safety has become a higher priority in road design, DC and other cities have been adding them, though sometimes residents oppose the idea. Is there any good reason not to put one in? Do we have statistics?

Reader Phil L. asks: "Do sidewalks measurably improve pedestrian safety even in low traffic density areas, like residential neighborhoods? What would be a compelling reason to have a residential street without a sidewalk?"


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Erin McAuliff says:

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, "Pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks; streets with sidewalks on both sides have the fewest crashes." I think the reference for this is from the Federal Highway Administration.

From another angle, and with a particular focus on the aging, sidewalks may increase residents' perception of safety. Falling or tripping on poorly maintained sidewalks is a serious concern for the elderly, especially the frail, for whom one accident could be devastating. Falls are the leading cause of death from injuries for persons over the age of 65.

Ben Ross gives some historical perspective on why neighborhoods might not have them:
The original reason for not building sidewalks in suburban neighborhoods was to give the development a "high-class" non-urban image by discouraging walking. See Dead End, page 16.
Sean Emerson lives in one such area:
A reason I've heard people in my neighborhood (Woodmoor in Four Corners) use for opposing sidewalks was the preservation of the "rural" feel of the neighborhood. My neighborhood and several others nearby were once anchored by Indian Springs Country Club, so you can imagine that the clientele originally buying homes around here were doing so to escape the city and its associated "urban" infrastructure like curbs and sidewalks.

The streets in my neighborhood close to University Boulevard and Colesville Road were built in the mid-1930's with no sidewalks or curbs (these streets comprised the original development anchored by the country club). When the county installed curbs about 10 years ago, sone people complained that the curbs changed the "character" of those streets, and several think that sidewalks would make it worse. There are many 1930's era neighborhoods in and around Silver Spring which still lack curbs of any kind, much less sidewalks (Hillandale, North Hills of Sligo, and parts of Woodside come to mind).

Retaining a "country" or "rural" feel might not sound like a compelling reason to prevent the installation of sidewalks to most, but it is for some.

So does Nick Keenan:
My neighborhood, Palisades, had a protracted debate about adding sidewalks on a neighborhood street, University Terrace. Ultimately they were not put in.

Some of the arguments were expected: there are people who never walk, who don't see any utility to sidewalks. Landowners who would lose part of their front yard were predictably opposed. What surprised me was how many people expressed the viewpoint that sidewalks actually detract from a neighborhood. People even used the adjective "rural" to describe our neighborhood. I'm not sure they really knew what rural meantPalisades certainly isn't rural I think they were looking for a word that meant non-urban and that was the best they could come up with.

Like so many personal preferences, there's no right or wrong, but there's also very little room for persuasion.

Not all neighborhoods of that era lack sidewalks. David Rotenstein writes:
It's a mistake to generalize that all 20th century residential subdivisions omitted sidewalks or that the failure to install them was part of some larger, mysterious anti-pedestrian agenda. One Silver Spring subdivision (outside the Beltway) originally was developed between 1936 and 1940 and the subdividers/developers intentionally constructed sidewalks and used their existence as a marketing point in sales literature.
Coming back to the issue of statistics, Jonathan Krall writes:
The "safety in numbers" effect, often discussed in relation to cycling, also applies to pedestrians. Briefly, injuries per pedestrian fall as the number of pedestrians increase. This implies that adding sidewalks to an area would encourage walking and make that area safer.

However, it is difficult to square that result with the nationwide increases in pedestrian fatalities, happening during a decrease in driving and (I presume; I don't have data on this) an increase in walking

My hypothesis is that the shift towards transit (and presumably walking) that is so clear in data for millennials is leading to more walking in suburban environments along dangerous arterial roads. But that is just a hypothesis.

But Ben Ross challenges the premise that statistics can explain the sidewalk debates:
"Safety" is not the main issue here. It's equal treatment. Lack of sidewalk discourages walking by denying pedestrians the right of way. They must get out of way whenever a car comes by.
David Edmondson explains how just slowing cars down can improve safety:
It's likely not simply an issue of traffic volume but of traffic speed. Take, say, this random street in California. It's narrow but two-way and so traffic is very, very slow (roughly jogging speed). Despite its lack of sidewalks, it is a pedestrian-friendly streetI see unaccompanied kids on such streets all the time. Yet I would not feel comfortable walking down other sidewalk-free streets (like this one in Silver Spring) where calm traffic is not invited by the street's design.

I don't know of any studies regarding sidewalks and pedestrian safety on low-volume streets, but I don't think that's the right way to look at it anyway given all the factors that go into a street's safety. Risk is a quality positively correlated with increased volume and speed and sight-lines, each of which are themselves correlated with certain street design choices. A pedestrian is shielded from some of that risk by a sidewalk, but sometimes the risk is so low that the shielding is unnecessary.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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A driver killed Tom Palermo in Baltimore, but road designers deserve some blame, too

On the last Saturday of 2014, driver Heather Cook struck and killed cyclist Tom Palermo with her car in Baltimore. Police have filed charges against Cook, but Tom's killing highlights the need for protected bike lanes on roads that are designed for high speeds.


Roland Avenue in Baltimore, near the scene of Tom Palermo's killing. Image from Google Maps.

Roland Avenue, the site of the wreck, is a four-lane divided road with narrow, unprotected bike lanes that run alongside cars. This stretch has wide traffic lanes and few crosswalks or traffic calming features. The road's design gives cues to drivers that highway-like speeds and frequent passing are OK. While the charges against Cook allege that she was distracted and impaired, it is also clear that her speed, along with a road design that puts slower-moving bikes close to fast car traffic, were key factors in the crash.

Roland Avenue is a case study in how a road's design may affect driving attitudes

Roland Avenue shows us that a narrow, unprotected bike lane does not work on a street designed for high traffic speeds. Though Roland Avenue is shade-covered and mostly residential, the road's design tells drivers that it's more like a high-speed through road than a calm neighborhood street.

Roland Avenue combines wide travel lanes that "forgive" swerves and weaves with a bike lane that has no physical barriers between cars and bikes. The bike lane itself is effectively narrowed because it lies mostly in the left-hand door zone of a parking lane at the curb. There aren't many well-marked crosswalks, and the long distances between traffic lights let drivers build up speed. Despite the poor pavement quality, we wouldn't be surprised if average or at least common car speeds on that stretch were well above 40 mph, regardless of the speed limit posted.

Route 1 in College Park is an opportunity to get it right

A few months ago, we co-authored a post on how the State Highway Administration is developing Route 1 in College Park for cyclists and pedestrians, but the specific infrastructure it has in mind is still unsafe. With tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff traveling up and down the Route 1 corridor every day to go to the University of Maryland, a bike lane here will both accommodate current need and help bring down the number of cars on the road.

For the bike lane is going to be safe, though, it needs to be separated or protected from errant traffic. And unfortunately, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has put forth plans for Route 1 that have dangerous bike lanes similar to those on Roland Avenue.

There's no parking lane along Route 1 in College Park, meaning the minimum protection for bike lanes should be flexposts and six-inch parking stops like those along the 1st Street NE bikeway in DC. Alternatively, the Route 1 bike lanes could go on the sidewalk side of the curb, which you can see in the illustration below. An even more creative solution would be to design a two-way bike path in the median, similar to DC's Pennsylvania Avenue design, or on the west side of Route 1 (which has fewer driveways).


Illustration of a possible Route 1 design with bike lanes outside the curb. Drawing by the author.

So far, College Park city officials, University of Maryland officials, and local bike advocates have been unable to persuade SHA that narrow, unprotected bike lanes are an unsafe choice for Route 1. In fact, SHA has said that their internal guidelines restrict them from putting protected bike lanes behind the curb, and the agency is unwilling to use "vertical" protection measures for bike lanes, like flexposts.


The 1st Street NE protected bikeway in Washington DC uses flexposts and parking stops. Photo by the author.

Commercial and neighborhood streets should be safe and useful for everyone, not just drivers. It's time to design multi-lane roads to reduce the risk of a distracted or drunk driver weaving across the bike lane stripe and running cyclists over.

Tom Palermo might still be alive had bicycle safety been a priority when building Roland Avenue. If the SHA rebuilds Route 1 using a similarly poor design, the results could be similarly tragic.

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The NIH has more parking than agencies around it, and that makes traffic worse for everyone

The National Institutes of Health doesn't comply with a federal recommendation for how many parking spaces it should have. Correcting that would probably help alleviate congestion in Bethesda.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Whether they use Wisconsin Avenue, East-West Highway or Old Georgetown Road, a lot of cars go to and from Bethesda every day. To alleviate rush hour congestion, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has suggested parking ratios of one spot for every three employees. The idea is that the high ratio will encourage workers to take transit or carpool instead of clogging up the roads with more single-passenger vehicles.

If an agency manages its parking well, workers who most need parking (whether it's because they don't have good transit or need to make more frequent trips to and from the office) can get it, while those who can use the excellent transit in this location or share a car will have good reason to do so.

But the NIH, which is Montgomery County's biggest employer, has chosen to ignore the NCPC's suggested ratio in favor of 2:1. The 2:1 standard dates back to 1992.

The NIH recently issued the final Environmental Impact Statement for expansions it's planning for its main campus, the bulk of which are an additional 3,000 employees and 17 new buildings. For the new buildings, the NIH says it will comply with the recommended 3:1 parking ratio.

But for its existing facilities, which house its 20,000 employees, the NIH is sticking with the outdated standards.

NIH sits at a busy interchange, and it's not pulling the same weight as its neighbors

The NIH argues that it needs to keep the 2:1 ratio for the bulk of its workforce because so much of it comes from places that are both far from Bethesda and not close to transit. But the same could be said of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or the many businesses in downtown Bethesda, and all of these places abide by the NCPC's 3:1 recommendation.

In fact, when Walter Reed Army Medical Center was combining with Bethesda Naval Hospital, employees coped with a ratio of nearly four employees per parking place.

Given that the NIH sits at a major "choke point" between Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike, 355, and Wisconsin Avenue and is adjacent to downtown Bethesda, there are major traffic repercussions when it puts its own parking desires above all else. If we can expect an organization to lead the world's Ebola treatment efforts, we can also expect a parking plan that complies with the federal government's suggested ratios. The military has done it right across the street in the face of the same challenges.

Bethesda has changed in the past 20 years. By adapting, the same way its neighbors have, the NIH can do its part to serve the needs of the greater community.

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