Greater Greater Washington

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Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

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

Walkblock of the Week #2: Connecticut and Yuma NW

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

On Connecticut Avenue just north of the Van Ness Metro, a two block-long construction site blocks the sidewalk and stops students and teachers from taking a direct route to school.


A "means of last resort" for people on foot but not for those in cars.

The new Park Van Ness building will add apartments and retail along the east side of Connecticut Avenue. The construction spans nearly two blocks, from Wyndam Place to Yuma Street to Albemarle.

Right next door, to the north, is the Franklin Montessori School. Because of the construction, students and teachers coming from the Metro have to walk to Albemarle, cross the street, then double back to get to the school. This makes the school significantly farther from the Metro than normal.

Despite signs, some people don't expect such a major walking route to be closed, and they end up walking next to traffic. Construction is supposed to continue for another year. Meanwhile, all the car lanes, including space that doubles as parking and rush-hour travel lanes, are still open.


The red line on the map shows the closed sidewalk on Connecticut Ave NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk.

George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that the site is very complicated because of its steep slopes that move away from the road, which required the sidewalk to be closed longer than at other sites. When I asked about closing a car lane, Branyan said the agency did not consider this option feasible because Connecticut Avenue gets so much traffic (both curbside parking lanes become travel lanes during rush hours). Branyan also stressed that DDOT worked with the community and ANC representatives to modify construction closure plans, and the sidewalk is expected to reopen "later this spring."

The closure, then, falls into DDOT's "means of last resort" category, meaning the agency feels that all options for keeping the sidewalk open were impractical. Branyan also clarified that the "means of last resort" category also includes the closure at 16th and I Streets discussed last week. However, "means of last resort" means very little when DDOT uses it so liberally, especially for construction on major roadways, which often have the highest numbers of people in cars but also the highest numbers of people walking.

DDOT is far too quick to make excuses for closing sidewalks instead of finding ways to keep them open. Reversing those priorities will make DC an even better place to walk by making it clear that people walking are a priority.


People in cars move as normal, while those on foot must detour or walk in the street. Photo by the author.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The city has closed car lanes for walking around construction areas at other times. This recent construction project on 5th Street NW took one lane from cars and used it for people walking. Clearly, DDOT has the technical ability, the creativity, and the political support to keep pathways open when it's a priority.


DDOT provides good accommodation for walking here at 5th St NW, just south of K. Photo from Google Street View.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

Media reports downplay the dangers of driving while sensationalizing everything else

The media pays a lot more attention to bicycle and pedestrian fatalities than it does car deaths. If reporters went beyond sensationalism to give commuters more accurate, thorough information, people could make smarter choices about how to get around.


Photo by Dystopos on Flickr.

One transportation myth the media often fuels is that driving is unusually safe. Car crashes are actually the nation's leading cause of death for school-age children, and they're much more likely than, say, attacks by strangers. Yet while some parents get flack for letting their children walk home unsupervised, thousands drive their children around every day.

Another myth is that bicycling is unusually dangerous. 2014 was great for bicycling, but tough for bicycling in the media. One widely-reported story, based on information from the Governors Highway Safety Association, highlighted an increase in bicycle fatalities. Reporters picked up the story and editors wrote alarming headlines.

The truth is that increased bicycling leads to safer streets with lower fatality rates. This happens so reliably that researchers call it "the safety in numbers effect." While some did mention that ridership is increasing faster than fatalities, meaning that bicycling is getting safer, nearly every report ran with an alarming headline.

Sometimes, people flat-out omit the facts

Another story, based on a report by researchers at Washington State University, concerned an increased percentage of bicycle-related head injuries in cities with bikeshare (public bike rental) systems. Once again, the media took the bait. This story didn't even pass the laugh test for cycling advocates, as it's well known that bikeshare increases cycling and, again, more cycling means safer cycling.

Actually, the Washington State University study was downright misleading: The authors failed to mention that cities with bikeshare saw reductions in all types of injuries, leaving readers to do the math and to tease out the good news buried in the data. The authors—one of whom, F.P. Rivara, was also a source of the myth that cycle helmets are "85 percent effective," a debunked claim that no longer appears on US government web sites—instead focused on misleading injury percentages, coming to an alarming conclusion.

While it is hard to find fault with reporters for being misled, I do fault them for jumping on yet another bicycle danger story. As of June 2014, the DC and New York City bikeshare systems had recorded 15.75 million trips with no fatalities. This figure flies in the face of the mayhem some predicted would come along with increases in people riding bikes.

Nationally, walking and driving are far more dangerous than transit

Of the 29,000 non-motorcyclist traffic and transit fatalities in the US in 2012, about 23,000 (80%) were people riding in or driving cars, 4,700 (16%) were people walking, 700 (2%) were people cycling, and 200 (1%) were people riding transit.

The only corresponding "mode share" percentages we have come from commuting: In 2012, about 90% of people in the US got to work by car or van, 3% walked, 1% cycled and 5% took transit. We unfortunately don't have concrete numbers for how people get around outside of work, but the numbers we do have suggest that walking is very dangerous (studies show that suburbs are dangerous places to walk), followed by bicycling, driving and transit.

Personally, I see a disconnect between media coverage and the numbers, with walking and driving under-emphasized. While these numbers are not representative of transit-friendly Alexandria, we are not immune to sketchy reporting. We simply do not have straight-forward information and the information that we do have lacks context.

A good first step would be for reporters to provide monthly tallies of transportation fatalities and locations (the City Paper is working on just a list, with the help of the people behind Struck in DC) instead of gravitating toward stories featuring danger, excitement, and minimal alarm to car-driving readers.

Editors are missing an opportunity by not giving us the information we need to make wise transportation choices based on how we personally balance risk and reward.

On Saturday, a version of this post ran as Jonathan's monthly column for Alexandria News.

Shovel your sidewalks!

If your home has sidewalks which aren't yet shoveled, clear them today! It's warm and will be relatively easy to clear snow, but tonight anything left will freeze and turn into solid ice. So get that pedestrian path cleared (and wide enough for multiple people to pass, people in wheelchairs and strollers, etc.) today.


Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

Along my route to and from the Metro this morning, I want to thank the Dupont East Condominium, National Women's Democratic Club, and Mathematical Association of America for getting their long corner sidewalks cleared this morning. Perennial scofflaw the Embassy of Botswana still hasn't cleared their three sidewalks on 18th, Q, and New Hampshire.

If you see sidewalks still uncleared tomorrow morning, whether private, federal, DC government, WMATA, foreign mission, or otherwise, please take pictures and send them to info@ggwash.org. We'll put the worst offenders in a Sidewalk Snow Clearing Hall of Shame like these from past years.

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DC streets will get seven new miles of bikeways in 2015

DDOT has released a list of new bikeways it will add in 2015. Although most of the additions this year will be short, they're important. This year's work will specifically focus on closing gaps in the network, in order to make existing bike lanes more useful.


Planned bike lanes in 2015. Image from DDOT.

In total there are about seven miles of new bikeways on the list, including three short protected bikeways, about four miles of striped bike lanes, and two miles of sharrows.

According to DDOT's Darren Buck, "We're hoping to address several short but valuable network connection links that are easy to overlook on a map, but people have been requesting for years."

The new protected bikeways are all in Northeast, on M Street, 4th Street, and 1st Street. Collectively they'll begin to stitch together Northeast's existing patchwork of disconnected cycletracks into a more useful and cohesive network. An unprotected contraflow lane continuing along M Street will help that effort too.


Basemap from Google.

Besides the Northeast protected bikeways, other notable additions include a normal bike lane on 12th Street NW downtown, along with several east of the Anacostia and in Capitol Hill, and short but important connections on 11th Street NW, Ontario Road NW, 2nd and 3rd Streets NE, and crossing I-695.

This project list is separate from the list of ten car lane to bike lane conversions that came out in January. The bike lanes in January's list are still in planning, and will likely happen in future years.

Here's the complete street by street list of DDOT bike lane additions for 2015.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Ask GGW: Which is the best nonprofit to donate a car to?

As more people go car-free and families cut back on how many cars they own, a reader asked us the best way to put an unwanted car to use. Our contributors suggest nonprofits that accept vehicle donations.


Photo by Kars4Kids Car Donation &... on Flickr.

Reader Rob asks:

Do you have any preference among the various charities that accept car donations? Are there any reputable ones around here that have better offers on the table than others?
Contributors recommended only a handful of locally-focused organizations. Greg Billing put in a plug for his employer, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association:
WABA receives 70% of a donated car's value. In addition to the donation being tax-deductible, WABA provides the donor with a free one-year membership and our sincere gratitude.
Jonathan Krall added that the annual Tour de Fat group ride, sponsored by New Belgium Brewing Company, offers a prize to a person willing to give up his or her car.

Canaan Merchant suggests our local NPR station:

WAMU will take your car, and I like that station enough that'd I'd probably go with them right off the bat if I were ever donating my car.

Also, WAMU's pitch specifically mentions people looking to cut down on the number of cars they own, which I see as a sign that more and more people are seeing car-free/lite living as normal.

Tina Jones opted to support another local nonprofit radio station:
Several years ago, I donated a car to WETA. They made it really easy. I just called and someone came to tow it and left some documents. Later, they sent confirmation of what it sold for at auction. I will say, though, that had I known, I would have donated it to WABA!
Yours truly adds:
One good organization that accepts car donations is the National Association of Railroad Passengers, for which I used to work and still serve on its national advisory body, the Council of Representatives. NARP advocates on the national, state and local levels for the investment necessary to modernize our passenger train network and make passenger trains an integral part of the national transportation network and a viable travel choice.

On a broader note, there are several companies out there that manage vehicle donations on behalf of many nonprofit clients. I believe it's free for a nonprofits to set up a car donation program with most of them, but the company takes a cut of the value of every car donated.

Another local charity suggestion from Chris Slatt:
If you want to be sure your donated car actually goes toward a good, local use, you can donate to the Automotive Technology program at the Arlington County Career Center. Vehicles donated by the community are used in instruction and/or are repaired by students and auctioned online. Proceeds from these vehicle sales are used to buy the latest tools and equipment for the automotive program as well as fund field trips and events.
Jim Titus provides some background on how car donation tax credits work:
If you are thinking about donating a car, my advice is to ask whoever you're considering donating it to what they're going to do with it.

The federal income tax deduction is limited to $500 or whatever the organization gets for selling the car, whichever is greatest. The larger programs that take cars still seem to be catering to people with junkers who want a $500 deduction regardless of what the car is worth. (I am not commenting on the worthiness of these charities, just the vehicle donation programs).

A few organizations partner with trade schools, or otherwise fix old cars, and sell them. If you give to that type of organization, you can still get the generous tax deduction, and to me, it doesn't raise the same questions about scamming when someone actually gets the old car in working order. Or if your car is worth (say) $2000 and just needs a few minor repairs, at least you get the $2000 fair market value deduction because they will fix it up just a bit and sell for its true value.

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!

Even more development may come to North Capitol Street. Will transportation be ready?

A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?


The Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington. Image from AFRH.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers' Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.

The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.


Possible layout of future buildings, from the 2008 master plan.

The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.

What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?

This isn't the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home's land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what's now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center.

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National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.

That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers' Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.

Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It's the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.

In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.



The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the "parkway/memorial," the "circle," the "four corners."

It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.

On the other hand, if there's at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH's property and the intersection.

While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University's land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.

How can people get here?

Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.

The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan


Possible future roads. Image from the 2008 master plan.

These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.

If that doesn't happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

DC doesn't have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what's being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.

Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it's time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.

A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.

Will governments be ready?

This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:

We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. ... We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. ... With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that "the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment," but added, "While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study."

GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is "starting the consultant selection process," so it's still in the early stages as well.

Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program.​ The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we'll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today's cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.

Freeway-style signs send drivers the wrong message

Signs above intersections can help drivers find their way. But large, freeway-style signs encourage drivers to think of neighborhood roads like stretches of highway rather than looking for pedestrians and local businesses. They also mar historic streetscapes.


A sign over the westbound lanes of University Boulevard in the heart of Four Corners' commercial district. All photos by the author.

Silver Spring's Four Corners area provides an example. When the Maryland State Highway Administration widened the intersection to help with traffic flow in the mid-90s, it added new turn lanes on both Colesville Road and University Boulevard so that drivers turning wouldn't block those continuing straight. Adding more lanes was also supposed to make getting to the Beltway easier.

Unfortunately, these signs make Four Corners look more like a truck stop on a rural interstate than the unique and historic community that it actually is. Four Corners doesn't need these signs, and actually, they're harmful to our community. Here are a few reasons why:

1. They diminish pedestrian safety

The intersection's design combines with the interstate-style signs to send a message to drivers that they are on a high-speed expressway. Drivers will be less inclined to look out for people walking or biking as they would on a slower speed street through a commercial district.

People driving off the Beltway and traveling through Four Corners see the same types of signs (and lane widths) as they did on the highway they just left. Though they should slow down and watch for people on foot and bikes, they're cued to drive fast; unsurprisingly, they often drive through the intersection at 50 or 55 miles per hour.

Four Corners is home to both dozens of local businesses that a lot of people walk to and one of the largest high schools in Maryland, and pedestrian safety there should be a top priority.


Signs denoting the crosswalks are dwarfed by signs that look like they belong on the Beltway, not on a community street with pedestrians, schools, and businesses.

2. They distract from local businesses

Nearly all of Four Corners' community shops sit on its main streets, University Boulevard and Colesville Road. When people speed down the road, they're less likely to see local businesses. It's pretty hard to take in your surroundings if you're driving 50 miles per hour or more down a road that feels more like an interstate than a commercial street.


An oversized sign looms over the shops on the northwest corner of the intersection.

Thankfully, Four Corners' local businesses thrive on support from nearby residents, so they aren't losing out too much. But that just brings us back to the problem I wrote mentioned first: Four Corners' poor road design and the visual cues that indicate it's an area only for cars make for an unpleasant walk, which deters foot traffic.

3. They're far bigger than they need to be

These signs could easily be made smaller and replaced with ones that are more community sensitive in terms of scale. Instead of being placed on large freestanding gantries, the signs could be installed on existing traffic signal poles, like this one in Balitmore.


Image from Google Maps. Click through for an interactive version.

Of course, we don't need to get rid of signs altogether. But we can definitely replace them with ones that aren't so big.

Four Corners isn't the only place where this is an issue. Residents around New York Avenue in DC have asked to get rid of such signs. Removing signs like these would take an important step toward making roads feel more human in scale and make an area look and feel like the vibrant, diverse community that it actually is.

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