Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category roads

California is using this cheeky video to encourage safe driving

One of the biggest dangers of riding a bike is drivers who pass way too close. This video uses people who clearly don't get the concept of personal space to illustrate what a safe passing distance is and is not.

In DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the law requires that drivers give cyclists three feet of space when they pass. California has that law too, which led to the Santa Rosa Street Smarts program creating this video.

In it, examples of people getting way too close to a guy as he's going through everyday life activities like sitting at the movies, riding an elevator, and, most awkwardly, relaxing in a hot tub. "You don't get this close in person," the spot says. "So don't act like this when driving. Give people on bikes room to ride."

A video like this should be required watching for everyone obtaining or renewing a drivers' license.

Montgomery's most walkable streets are also its safest

Downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville are where it's easiest to walk around in Montgomery County. They are also where drivers are least likely to kill someone on foot.

A decade of traffic fatalities in the Wheaton-Glenmont area. A red person represents a crash where the driver died. Orange is passenger, yellow is pedestrian, and purple means multiple people died. Image by Max Galka.

An extraordinary new interactive map by Metrocosm shows the location of all traffic fatalities in the United States between 2004 and 2013.

Zeroing in on Montgomery County, the map shows that pedestrian death comes in clusters that center on high-speed suburban arteries. Drivers killed eight people on foot in Aspen Hill, for example, four in downtown Kensington, and five on a 3500-foot stretch of Route 118 in Germantown Town Center.

The places where people walk the most are far safer. One pedestrian died in Bethesda's downtown, one in Rockville's, and three in Silver Spring's—and all five of these killings occurred on the fringes of the urbanized centers.

Drivers killed 4 people walking in downtown Kensington (top) and one on downtown Bethesda's more urban streets (bottom), even though Bethesda's downtown is bigger, has more people on foot, and is hardly as easy to walk in as it might be. Photos by the author.

These downtowns are hardly walking paradises—they contain many of the county's identified hotspots for frequent pedestrian crashes—but they share some characteristics that seem to prevent fatalities. Streetcorners are close together, stores front directly on the sidewalk, and speed limits are reduced.

Trends elsewhere in the region are similar. In the District, roads engineered for incoming commuters, New York Avenue in particular, are deadlier than downtown streets where far more people are on foot. Old Town Alexandria and, to a lesser degree, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor stand out as islands of safety in the Virginia suburbs.

Indeed, researchers who looked at data from the entire country found that there are fewer traffic deaths of all kinds, and especially fewer killings of pedestrians, in counties with denser population and smaller blocks.

Unfortunately, Montgomery County continues to build the kind of roads where drivers kill. County and state transportation officials have made concessions in the long-running battle over street widths and speed limits in the rebuilt White Flint, but elsewhere they continue to resist life-saving urban street designs.

The highway engineers have been especially obstinate in insisting on dangerously large street blocks. At Glenmont Metro, for example, the State Highway Administration rejected a street connection for being too close to another corner. With evidence accumulating that smaller blocks are safer, the agency will be on very shaky legal ground if it tries to issue such vetoes in the future. Under Maryland law it may only deny a builder access to a state highway "to promote safety."

The new data show a way forward to make pedestrian killings the rare events they should be. The urban places that the market now demands are not only more pleasant, but safer too. Rebuilding suburban highways as city streets saves lives.

Here are the answers to this week's mystery map post

Earlier this week, we posted a map of something in DC and asked if you could identify what it was showing. The map shows parking lots and parking garages within a quarter of a mile of Metro stops in the District. Did you get it right?

Map made by the author using data from the District government's open data portal.


Rapid buses or light rail are coming to Leesburg Pike

Imagine faster, more reliable transit zipping along its own lane without cars down Leesburg Pike between Tysons and Alexandria, connecting thousands of people to jobs, schools, shopping and entertainment. Planners in Northern Virginia are taking a serious look at how to make that happen.

Image from Envision Route 7.

Also called Route 7, Leesburg Pike is a major state road that stretches from Winchester to Alexandria in Virginia. Retail stores and job centers are growing more common along the route, particularly where it hits Tysons Corner. That's brought more congestion, which makes the stretch of Leesburg Pike between Tysons and Alexandria an ideal place for new transit.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which plans and funds transit in the area, has launched Envision Route 7, a study that will look at potential new transit options.

Northern Virginia is expected to see a lot of population and job growth between now and 2040. Route 7, with its old commercial centers, is a place that can handle the growth. Places all along the route like Tysons, Falls Church, Seven Corners, Bailey's Crossroads and the West End of Alexandria are trying to attract more companies and jobs and also make commuting easier. At the same time, they are taking significant steps to improve walking, biking and become more transit-friendly. This new proposed transit service plays a vital role to accomplish these goals.

There are a few options for transit along Route 7

NVTC has proposed three new transit service options. They are:

  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is a faster bus with rail-like features like big stations. It operates on the street, either in the center median or along the curb, and sometimes in its own lane with no cars.

  • Light Rail Transit (LRT), which, like BRT, can operate on the street, either in the center median or along the curb. Most often, LRT has its own lane with no cars. One issue with LRT is that it needs a power source, usually from an overhead electric wire. Also, LRT can carry more people than BRT, but it's correspondingly more expensive.

  • Better bus service, which planners frequently refer to as "Enhanced Bus." That would simply mean additional buses that would replace Metro's 28A and 28x currently serving Route 7

Whatever option ultimately goes in will be a more modern, frequent, and faster way of traveling along Route 7 than what's currently there. Overall, the goal is for it to take a lot less time to get from Tysons Corner to Alexandria along Route 7 than it does now.

For example, the study is looking at the new transit service having daily and weekend service every 10-minutes at peak hours and every 15-minutes during the off-peak, and operating 18 to 22 hours per day. To increase transit's efficiency, there would be kiosks to pay for trips in advance and allow boarding from all-doors, not just the front one.

The actual route new transit takes is TBD

The route the new service will travel is not completely decided yet. In fact, new bus or rail may not travel exclusively along Route 7. There are three different options for the new transit's specific route, each depending on which service (specifically BRT or LRT).

This interactive map shows different potential paths. One of the following routes will be selected:

  • Tysons to the Van Dorn Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metro station. This would work for either BRT or LRT. This route would go from Tysons Corner down Route 7, turn in the City of Falls Church on Lee Highway toward the East Falls Church Metro station, and then continue on to Van Dorn Street station.

  • Tysons to King Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metro station (BRT only); The route would essentially be the same as above, except continue on Route 7 directly to the King Street Metro station.

  • Tysons to Van Dorn Street Metro station (BRT only), staying on Route 7 until Beauregard Street before heading to the Van Dorn Metro station. This route would bypass the East Falls Church Metro Station.

One of the routes could take the transit directly through the City of Falls Church along Route 7 (it's called Broad Street there) in the direction of Seven Corners. This is a residential street. Because Broad Street has only two lanes in each direction, it would be difficult to have transit in a car-free lane. Another uncertainty would be whether this community would ask for additional stops along this segment. Currently, no stops are proposed for this segment.

On the other side of Route 7, between Janneys Lane and King Street Metro Station, the road narrows again with only one lane in each direction, again making it difficult for transit to be in a car-free lane. Similarly, the community could ask for additional stops, which would slow down the travel time of transit.

For these reasons, it would not be surprising if the new transit service route traveled down Route 7, headed toward the East Falls Church Metro Station, returned to Route 7 in Seven Corners and then turn down Beauregard Street toward the Van Dorn Metro Station

What about transit stops and stations?

The number and location of stops also depend on which new service (again BRT or LRT) and route are chosen. The possibilities are:

  • 15 transit stops if BRT or LRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and Van Dorn Street Metro station via East Falls Church Metrorail station. Possible stops include Spring Hill Metro, Gallows Rd, Route 50, Beauregard Street, Mark Center, Duke Street, etc.

  • 13 transit stops if BRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and King Street Metro via East Falls Church Metrorail station. Possible stops include Spring Hill Metro, Gallows Rd, Route 50, Park Center and Quaker Lane

  • 14 transit stops if BRT is the chosen service and the route is between Tysons Corner and Van Dorn Street Metro station (but bypasses the East Falls Church Metro). The stops would be the same as the first one but without East Falls Church.

What's happening now?

The NVTC is making all this information and more available to the public. At this point, no decisions over the type of transit or the route or the stops are final. Everything is still under discussion. In fact, NVTC is holding forums this month to discuss everything about the project, including the transit service and the route. The last forum is on November 18.

But they will also have key ridership information and a better idea of the cost of the new transit service. That is a good thing. Not only should the transit service be good, reliable and robust, who will ride it and how much it costs are important factors in its success.

It'll soon be easier to find a parking space in Chinatown

It can be tough to drive in DC—there's congestion, motorcades, and "parking signs harder to decipher than CIA code—that is, if you can find an open spot." DC can't do much about motorcades, but a new pilot program will help drivers find places to park and even cut down on congestion, though recent news coverage has sown confusion.

This parking pilot will make spaces easier to find than unicorns. Photo of D Street NW from Google Maps; unicorn image from Shutterstock.

There's no free lunch, to be sure; an easy-to-find spot will cost somewhat more than a spot today. However, if you try to park on the street in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area of DC today at a busy time, you might be circling for 20 or 30 minutes. This program will make parking much more predictable and less stressful.

What's this parking pilot?

DC is running an experiment, called ParkDC, based on a successful pilot in San Francisco and similar programs elsewhere. There, as here, parking on the street is extremely difficult to find at busy times, but is far, far cheaper than in a garage.

Because of this, people end up circling for 10, 20, 30 minutes looking for the elusive cheap space, and in doing so, add considerably to traffic congestion, not to mention getting frustrated.

People who need to run a quick errand or drop something off can't park, and since garages generally gear their pricing toward all-day or all-evening parkers, it's very pricey to park for a very short time.

The solution is obvious, at least if you're an economist: Price parking according to supply and demand. Raise the price when demand is high, and drop it when it's low.

This encourages people who want to park for a long time to use a garage, while giving people who need quicker and shorter parking a chance. Reduce the circling and speed up traffic for everyone.

A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is running this as an experiment, with money from the Federal Highway Administration, to see if it's possible to accurately gauge the number of free spaces without having to install sensors in the ground (as San Francisco did), and whether changing the rates affects the availability of parking. After the pilot, DDOT could decide to continue the program or try something different instead.

I heard parking could cost $8 an hour. Is that right?

A highly-sensationalized article over the weekend in the Washington Post called this a sort of "surge pricing" for parking, like Uber's much-maligned surprise ride hailing rates, and said the rates could reach $8 an hour. Reporter Faiz Siddiqui wrote,

[Y]ou could be paying $8 an hour to park in Chinatown-Penn Quarter at peak times.

You read that right. $8. An hour.

This is only accurate in the same sense that the subscription price for the Washington Post digital edition *could* rise to $600 a year (also quadrupling its current price). It's possible, but it's very unlikely you would actually pay that.

This number is just a cap

Where did this $8 an hour figure come from? Siddiqui doesn't give a source for the number in the article, except in quoting AAA's John Townsend, who has consistently opposed market pricing for parking.

In fact, the $8 an hour is a cap in the legislation authorizing a parking pilot program. DDOT can adjust rates on its own, but only up to a maximum of $8 an hour.

The legislation which caps the rates at $8 also limits price changes to 50¢ a month or $1.50 a quarter. Right now the rates are $2 per hour. That means that the rates could, in the spring, rise to $3.50, then maybe $5, and so on. At the absolute maximum, it could hit $8 in a year.

But in San Francisco, many rates decreased. Even if a few, super-popular blocks do eventually hit $8 an hour, it's almost certain that other blocks will not. You'll be able to park a little farther from your destination to save money if you want to.

The rates will rise only where demand warrants it

DDOT will decide whether and how to change rates based on data. Recently, the spots in this zone, from E to H, 5th to 11th Streets NW, switched to "pay by space." Instead of getting a printed receipt at a kiosk to put in the dashboard, parkers enter a space number on the kiosk, or enter the same number into the Parkmobile app.

Infographic of the new pay-by-space system from DDOT.

This means DDOT will have much more detailed data on how many spaces are filled at what times of the day. In January and February, DDOT will evaluate the data and recommend changes to pricing. If a block is more than about 85% full during most of a block of time, the price in that area during that time period will go up; if it's less full, the price will go down.

If rates rise in a certain area during a certain time but that deters enough people from parking there that the block stays mostly empty, the rates would go back down.

This means that the only way rates could hit $8 an hour during any timeframe is if so many people want to park there so badly that they actually will pay $8 an hour.

$8 an hour might not be so high for short-term parkers

Paying $24 to park for a 3-hour dinner sounds kind of steep, but you're unlikely to ever pay it. That's because you can easily pay much less for off-street parking today. Many restaurants have valet parking which is much less, and there are a lot of garages in the area where you can park for $10-15 for three hours on a Saturday.

Garage pricing for 7-10 pm on Saturday, November 14 from BestParking.

(One standout exception to the general price range is the Verizon Center garage, at $40-60 for the evening shown in the image above; there's a Wizards-Magic game that night so people ought to be able to apparate in anyway. Seriously, though, that price shows that there are some people who want to pay really high rates, and they might be able to park right in front of the restaurant; everyone else can use the valet for half as much and still feel like first class.)

Townsend banks on a certain expectation in people's minds that parking is supposed to be really cheap. Townsend says,

For a lot of people of certain needs, it means to go out for your anniversary dinner in Chinatown, you pay a babysitter $12 an hour and now you're going to pay $8 to park in that area, because it's going to be evening hours when it's high demand. Those people will probably do it once or twice and say, "You know what? It's not worth it." So why go?

Instead of going to Disney World, instead of going to SeaWorld, you take your kids to DC. It's the nation's capital. You get gouged.

It's interesting to hear how $8 (again, which won't be the actual parking rate) is gouging compared to Disney World, which right now costs $91-105 per person to go to only one of the theme parks for one day.

If you're having an anniversary dinner in the Penn Quarter, you probably expect at least $100 for a bill including a bottle of wine. Tourists to DC seem happy to pay for tickets to the Spy Museum, which can run up to $75 for a family of four.

And if you don't want to pay for parking, this is the area of the city best served by alternatives, from Metro to countless buses, not to mention Capital Bikeshare, Uber and Lyft, Zipcar, car2go, and much more. Nobody has to drive, and those who want to won't have to pay $8 an hour unless they really, really want to.

Photo by marcovdz on Flickr.

This is not "surge pricing"

Analogies to Uber's "surge pricing" miss the mark. What generally bothers people about the Uber pricing is not that the price is higher; it's a taxi, after all, and often the price is quite low. (Some say too low for the drivers to make a living, but that's another discussion.)

Rather, what rankles many people is that the surge pricing is a surprise. You might plan to take an Uber and then suddenly find it's twice the price. (Don't forget to try Lyft.) Or Metro breaks down and Uber is surging to 8x.

DC's parking pilot will not surprise anyone. Rates will only change after robust public notification, and each time block in the day will have the same price every day until DDOT revises rates. There will be maps of the pricing online, and DDOT is working on an app as well.

Ideally, one day there could even be digital signs in the high-demand parking areas: "Want cheaper parking? Go over to _____." They could point people to cheaper blocks or to garages. Maybe the parking garage operators can even get together to help make those happen.

Both programs take advantage of principles of economics, but no, "surge pricing" is not coming to a parking meter near you.

The ability to count on more easily finding a space, however, is. That will save drivers a lot of headaches.

Many buses have built-in blind spots that make driving them dangerous

A lot of people want to make Vision Zero a reality, ending preventable deaths on our streets. An often-overlooked barrier to making that happen is blind spots on our buses that leave people using the street at risk because drivers can't see them. The good news is that fixing the problem is both easy and inexpensive.

Huge blind spots on left turns lead to far too many pedestrian deaths. All images by the author.

Essentially, all transit buses in the United States are built as cheaply as possible, with mirrors and pillars that create blind spots that are over a foot wide. That's too large for even the best-trained driver to reliably overcome, meaning people who share the street with buses are at risk. Since 2000, well over 500 people in the US have died because of this problem.

When policymakers invest in safe streets and pedestrian crossings, as well as dedicated lanes for transit and bikes, everyone benefits. Safety efforts like well engineered Vision Zero and safe street programs are no-brainers.

I work in the transit industry, where those of us who support effective Vision Zero campaigns talk about the path to safety being the classic checklist of the "three E's:" it starts with engineering, which is followed by education, and only last comes enforcement.

In the case of these blind spots, policymakers have failed at the highest level: engineering. If we want to end fatalities, safe street engineering must not end at the curb.

On modern buses used in New York and DC, for example, the typical pillar and mirror, which are as wide as a legal pad at arm's length, are directly in line with pedestrians in left turns. Over a dozen pedestrians can disappear behind a blind spot so large:

A stunning safety failure; only the driver's arm is visible.

To compensate for the hazard, bus operators are taught to "bob and weave" or "rock and roll" in their seat. This means swaying nearly 20 inches, attempting to see around the widest pillar and mirror. Imagine doing that several times in every turn. Tragically, a moving operator and moving pedestrian can still remain unable to see each other. Additionally, poor cab design (like the huge steering wheel) confines all but tall operators, in some cases leaving them unable to lean more than a few inches.

Also, while safe bus mirrors are used in a few systems, most North American designs widen the blind spot and directly block the driver's view of people walking in the street.

We can fix this problem, and for cheap

Larry Hanley, the president of the largest transit union in North America, has said these safety and engineering failures transform buses into "mobile manslaughter machines."

One solution is to simply mount mirrors lower so that drivers can still see people walking in the street while also being able to monitor surrounding traffic. King County Metro in Seattle has already adopted the ATU-recommended design, a move that has saved numerous lives.

Similarly, structural changes are easy and inexpensive. In the case of the bus above, the engineer who designed it told the ATU that eliminating the blind spot between the windshield and side glass would cost less than $300: the fiberglass would just need trimming and the window seals would need to be out of critical sight lines.

The result? A smaller blind spot than in your car!

Current European designs incorporate the structural changes recommended

Change is not convenient, but in this case it is not difficult. Designs from 60 years ago were significantly safer, lacking these blind spots.

A 1960's bus from GM lacking blind spots.

Changing buses means changing laws and culture

Unfortunately, North American manufacturers have chosen, at least for the moment, to stick with the status quo, a decision that saves pennies for themselves and transit procurement departments but costs lives.

Currently, neither the bus designers nor agency decision makers are being held legally responsible. Instead, that burden falls on drivers facing charges including manslaughter, while having no say in continuing purchases of unsafe vehicles, when excellent designs, as seen here, are ignored.

In DC, ATU Local 689 and ATU International have presented detailed findings about these local hazards and these low-cost solutions to WMATA and DDOT, both of which plan to procure more buses in the near future. Neither agency has committed to blind spot elimination in their procurement process.

As the truth of this unacceptable hazard and bloodshed it leads to become more broadly known, liability will eventually drive change. Public pressure from informed transit advocates can make repeating these mistakes uncomfortable for those selecting future fleets.

It is our hope that as riders, advocates, and workers awaken to the benefits of Vision Zero, they will demand that Mayor Bowser and the WMATA Board make these simple fixes. The welcome attention being paid to rail safety needs to also go toward Metrobus and DC Circulator service to help all of us move closer to zero fatalities on our streets and in our transit system.

The safety of bus riders, operators and people using the street should not rely on driver gymnastics or luck, and it need not continue to.

A stretch of Wisconsin Avenue will test whether narrow lanes work on major roads

For the first time, there are lane markings on the narrow section of Wisconsin Avenue NW that runs from Q Street to R. They make for a nice opportunity to study how narrow lanes work on major roadways in the District.

New lane markings along a section of Wisconsin Avenue NW. Photo by the author.

27,350 vehicles per weekday use the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue that's south of Massachusetts Avenue. It has between four and six lanes during peak traffic, plus rush hour parking restrictions. Wisconsin also serves as an emergency evacuation and snow emergency route.

North of M Street in Georgetown, two marked lanes in each direction allow non-peak parking along the outside lanes. During rush hour, the outside lanes become the second driving lane each way. However, the roadway physically narrows by several feet after the Exxon at P until the library at R Street. North of that Wisconsin widens again and provides two, and in some places three, lanes in each direction during peak hours until it reaches the Maryland line.

Base image from Google Maps.

Until recently, the roadway along the narrow stretch, which is about a quarter of a mile, had no lane markings other than the center line. That made things unclear for drivers: were there one or two lanes in each direction? Some drove in the middle of the available space and others attempted to share the entire width for two lanes on each side.

The "new" lanes are atypical, but DDOT says they've been that way for a while

New lane markings went onto the strip in early October. A simple set of white painted stripes clarifies that on each side of the double yellow lines, the 16.5 feet provides two lanes of peak hour traffic in each direction. In non-peak hours, it's one lane of traffic and a parking lane in each direction.

DDOT usually follows a standard width of 10-12 feet of paved surface width for each driving lane. Along the stretch of Wisconsin between P and R Streets, there is only 33 feet of paved width, excluding the one foot brick gutter along each side. That's seven feet shy of the 40' DDOT often reserves for a roadway with four lanes of peak traffic, during rush hour parking restrictions.

DDOT doesn't usually make changes without considering engineering standards, traffic studies and (usually) community input. DDOT Director of Communications Terry Owens says adding these markings wasn't a "change," but rather a "clear denotation of lane configurations."

"With no markings, it may be unclear to drivers during peak periods that there are, in fact, two lanes of travel in each direction," he adds. But motorists who previously concluded there was only a single lane probably view this as a change. One day there were no markings and the next day there were. Visually, the roadway doesn't resemble most District arterial roadways.

This is a chance to see narrower lanes at work

These newly clarified narrow lanes average approximately 8.25 feet wide, including the lane markings themselves. There's also a one-foot brick gutter next to each outer lane.

Jeff Speck, a leading urbanist author and planner, has made the well-accepted case that narrow lanes make driving safer:

This logic—that higher design speeds make for safer streets—coupled with the typical city engineer's desire for unimpeded traffic—has caused many American cities to rebuild their streets with lanes that are 12, 13, and sometimes even 14 feet wide. Now, cars are only six feet wide—a Ford Excursion is 6'-6''—and most Main Streets were historically made of 10-foot lanes. That dimension persists on many of the best, such as ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. Yet, many cities I visit have their fair share of 13-footers, and that is where much of the speeding occurs.
By clearly marking the lanes on Wisconsin, DDOT has created a quarter mile where we can see how skinnier, presumably safer lanes work on a major corridor. Four clearly defined and narrow lanes—much narrower than the 10-12 feet DDOT typically goes with—is probably quite appropriate for an urban street with a 25 mph speed limit.

In other words, this simple, low-cost change could go a long way toward making it safer to walk or bike along this corridor, which is adjacent to Georgetown Neighborhood Library and within blocks of Jelleff Recreation Center, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Hardy Middle School.

Some bus drivers appear to straddle both lanes due to vehicle width. Photo by the author.

This width may not be perfect for every vehicle or situation. The roadway math becomes a bit tighter for an ambulance on its way to Georgetown Hospital, as ambulances are typically eight feed wide. Same for 30 route Metrobuses or Circulator buses, which are eight and a half feet wide. My anecdotal observations during rush hour indicate that bus and ambulance drivers often decide to use the middle of both lanes. Most drivers will find that their cars and similarly sized vehicles will fit in these lanes with room to spare.

After nearly a month, the change hasn't attracted any noticeable discussion or coverage. We are taking the theory to reality just like Jeff Speck envisioned in his criticism of the fat lanes traffic engineers tend to favor. It might not be clear why DDOT made it clear that this stretch of Wisconsin has two narrow lanes in each direction, but it's fantastic that it happened nonetheless.

What if more of DC's streets got narrower?

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