Greater Greater Washington

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Ask GGW: Why is the street grid lopsided east of Georgia Ave NW?

The street grid east of Georgia Avenue and south of Madison Street is slightly lopsided, with horizontal streets angled slightly towards the northeast and vertical streets angled slightly towards the northwest. Reader Robb wants to know why this is the case.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Petworth 1903-1916. Photo by Ghosts of DC.

Truth be told, we're not sure.

What we do know is that the neighborhoods that this section of Georgia Avenue traverses—Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains (where Howard University is located), and LeDroit Park—are all north of Florida Avenue (formerly known as Boundary Street), which means they're outside of Pierre L'Enfant's original DC street grid.

Many of these neighborhoods were developed in the late 1800s after the Civil War.

In 1893, Congress passed a law mandating that existing streets must be changed or moved in order to conform with the city's street plan, the System of Permanent Highways. ("Highway," like "parking" is a common law term whose meaning changed in the 20th century. Here it denotes only that it's a maintained public right-of-way.)

From top to bottom, Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and LeDroit Park, all with a "lopsided" street grid east of Georgia Avenue NW. Base image from Google Maps.

Previously, Congress passed a law that said future DC subdivisions had to conform to the street, but that existing ones could stay how they were. This covered the neighborhoods along Georgia Avenue, so they kept their alignments even the System of Permanent Highways came into place.

Other neighborhoods in DC, like Brookland, Kalorama, and Columbia Heights, also deviate from the L'Enfant grid. LeDroit Park, for example, was originally a suburban neighborhood outside of the original city of Washington, and is laid out differently.

What we're still unsure of is why these particular streets were built at an unusual angle. Do any of you, our readers, know?

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

Two downtown parking spots just became a new public park

What if we used the space we currently devote to parked cars for something else? DC's first seasonal parklet, a mini park that takes the place of street parking spaces, opened on Tuesday.

The parKIT at its ribbon cutting ceremony. All photos by the author.

Called parKIT, the parklet is at 2020 K Street NW. While DC has had many temporary parklets to celebrate Park(ing) Day, the ParKIT will be semi-permanent, staying around until October.

ParKIT is a joint venture between DDOT, the District Department of the Environment, architecture firm Gensler, and the Golden Triangle BID. Its yellow triangles are a nod to the BID.

At the ribbon cutting, DDOE Director Tommy Wells commended all those involved for their willingness to consider a different use for space traditionally reserved for parking—removing parking spaces is undoubtedly the most controversial part of creating parklets. If parKIT is successful, it might become easier to create other parklets around the region.

The Golden Triangle BID will hold events at the parKIT every Tuesday from noon until 2:00 pm, with the theme of "making the city."

Virginia pressures Maryland to add Legion Bridge HOT lanes

Virginia transportation officials plan to recommend a new strategy to address travel between Maryland and Virginia: Pressure Maryland into extending Virginia's Beltway HOT lanes across the American Legion Bridge, all the way to I-270.

American Legion Bridge. Photo from Bing Maps.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue is today presenting the results of a Potomac River crossings study to Virginia's top transportation planning group, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). The study assessed conditions at existing bridges and makes recommendations for future changes.

The main recommendation: Extend the Beltway HOT lanes 6.5 miles from their existing terminus north of Tysons Corner, over the American Legion Bridge, and up to the foot of the I-270 spur in Montgomery County.

The CTB will have until September to digest the findings and either adopt or not adopt Donohue's recommendation.

No matter what the CTB adopts, the ultimate decision to build or not build anything over the Legion Bridge will rest with Maryland. Maryland owns the bridge, and most of the length of the proposed HOT lanes extension. Virginia can apply pressure and offer a partnership, but can't force the project.

Why HOT lanes?

The HOT lanes proposal is a compromise. It's not the pure transit-only plan that smart growth advocates have pushed, but it's also not the outer beltway that highway advocates wanted.

HOT lanes give highway advocates a big road project, and throw transit advocates a bone with the potential for express buses (Montgomery County's BRT plan talks about transit over the Legion Bridge). Nobody gets exactly what they want, but nobody's worst nightmares happen either.

Potential cross-Potomac bus route. Image from WMATA.

Virginia's proposal to bring HOT lanes to I-66 is moving very rapidly. If Maryland decides to play along, this could move rapidly too.

A Maryland road widening will be more costly than the transit it replaces

Maryland governor Larry Hogan wants to build roads with money saved from cancelling the Baltimore Red Line and cutting back the Purple Line. The governor says the two light rail lines cost too much. But his marquee highway project, a wider Route 404 on the Eastern Shore, looks to be far less cost-effective than either.

Route 404. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

The Route 404 widening will turn 12 miles of two-lane road between Route 50 and Denton into a four-lane divided highway. The work will cost $204 million: $160 million in new money plus $44 million budgeted earlier.

The governor presents his road plan as a way to speed traffic. But the travel time savings from widening Route 404 will be far more expensive than the time saved by the two rail lines.

The two-lane road only backs up on summer weekends when people drive to the beach. According to Google maps, the average traffic delay on summer Friday and Sunday afternoons varies from zero to six minutes. By a generous estimate, this adds up to 60,000 hours lost each year in traffic backups, making the construction cost $3,400 per annual hour saved.

Building the Purple Line will cost $288 per annual hour of rider benefits, and the number for the Red Line is $456. The amount of money the state is spending to save a minute of travel time on Route 404 is seven and a half times greater than the amount it refused to spend to save a minute of travel time in Baltimore. That means a Baltimore bus rider will wait an hour so that an auto passenger can get to the beach eight minutes faster.

Highway safety is another goal, but widening 404 may not help much

Eastern Shore officials offer another rationale for widening Route 404. There are many fatal crashes on the road, and they suggest that the planned widening will fix that. But it's unlikely that the death toll will go down significantly.

Using web searches and a memorial website, I found descriptions of 11 fatal crashes on Route 404 since 2010. Seven of them were on the 12-mile section of two-lane highway; four on the 12-mile stretch that is already four lanes.

Of the seven collisions on the two-lane road, only two involved vehicles crossing the center line. Three vehicles were hit from the side as they turned onto 404 from side roads. There were two rear-end collisions. On a four-lane divided highway, center-line crossing would be impossible, but turns would be more difficult. These numbers suggest that widening 404 would only modestly improve safety, if at all.

Also of note: five of the 11 crashes involved tractor-trailers. Requiring through trucks to use US 50, which has far fewer intersections without signals, might have prevented most or all of these.

Moreover, former Maryland highways chief Parker Williams has said that Route 404 isn't an especially dangerous road, which implies that highway safety money could be better spent in other places. For the cost of widening 404, the state could install some 2,000 of the flashing crosswalk lights known as hawk beacons. They would undoubtedly have saved a good number of the 630 pedestrian lives lost on Maryland highways between 2009 and 2014.

The highway projects in Governor Hogan's package have never gotten the sort of detailed assessment of costs and benefits that the Red and Purple Line projects were subject to. The numbers for Route 404 suggest that cancelling the Red Line was not at all the cost-conscious decision the governor presented it as.

There's an app for tracking places where you can park your bike

It's a common question for people considering traveling by bike: "If I ride there, am I going to have a place to park my bike when I arrive?" Thanks to Rackspotter, a new crowdsourcing tool that keeps track of bike rack locations, it's easy to find the answer.

Photo by Brian Brewer on Flickr.

Rackspotter is a free tool sponsored by BikeArlington. It allows people to use their PC, Tablet, or smartphone to identify and note bike parking locations all over the region. All you have to do is log in, use either the available map or your phone's GPS to pinpoint your location, and place a rack symbol on the map.

The site keeps track of details like the type of rack and how many parking spaces it provides. You can also upload and view photos of bike racks, along with specific comments or notes.

A screenshot of Rackspotter.

In the future, Rackspotter may include photos of existing racks (right now, you can only add photos when you create a new rack) and an option to flag racks that no longer exist or were placed erroneously.

In addition to helping with trip planning, Rackspotter could be of use for planning professionals when they're looking to find gaps in bike parking coverage and install new racks.

What other uses can you think of? Is their other information about the racks that Rackspotter should be collecting?

As commutes from Frederick get harder, the city is looking to revive its job market

The small central Maryland city of Frederick has a relatively low cost of living and a good quality of life, but it has lost a lot of industrial jobs over the last 12 years. Frederick needs two things: more jobs, and easier ways to get to other job centers.

Frederick, Maryland has effectively knitted its historic district together with new development in an attractive, compact downtown. Image from the Frederick News-Post.

Frederick is widely recognized for its successful downtown revitalization, beginning with major public projects in 1980s and 1990s. There's a thirty square-block historic district, which traces its roots to German settlers from the mid-18th century, and the entire city is a magnet even for people with stable jobs elsewhere.

Thousands of visitors come to Frederick for fine restaurants and brew houses, quirky boutiques, or just to take a stroll around the historic downtown. Photo by the author.

Despite the remarkable downtown growth, Frederick residents are overly dependent on jobs outside of the city. The kind of jobs that support a family have stagnated or declined locally, while lower paying jobs have grown.

Nearly 30,000 county residents commute to Montgomery County each day along I-270, and there isn't a clear strategy for bringing high-paying jobs back to Frederick.

Frederick needs better regional transit to connect to employment centers in Montgomery County and Washington. Map from the Maryland Department of Planning.

A student-led real estate development and urban design group recently spent several months researching Frederick. The group's takeaway? Growing Frederick's jobs base and fostering compact, walkable communities will require adapting to the changing regional economy.

East Frederick can be the key to attracting new jobs

The team, which was made up ofUniversity of Maryland students, focused on East Frederick, which takes up 2,000 acres and is known as the east side.

With direct connections to the bustling downtown, the east side has a lot of potential but is less developed: it has a sprinkling of light industrial, office and even agricultural uses. A "vision plan" for the district published by an independent group in 2010 asserted the city should view the eastside as a job center, resisting market forces that make it compelling to develop available land in the city for homes.

According to the East Frederick Rising plan, the east side should become "a regional hub for economic growth" by retaining, expanding and promoting existing businesses, while attracting "a balance of large and small employers (that) expands the jobs base for the city."While noting the traditional importance of light industry, the authors urged a focus on entrepreneurship and smaller "new economy" businesses.

Frederick won a "Great Neighborhoods" award from the American Planning Association for its "treasure trove of historic properties from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries which form one of the largest contiguous historic districts on the East Coast." Photo by the author.

Viewed regionally, the so called I-270 Technology Corridor has an outsized role sustaining good jobs in the Frederick economy. The job centers along the 35-mile corridor from Bethesda to Frederick are pillars of the entire Maryland economy, having exhibited decades of growth in the "innovation economy" of science, technology and government-sponsored research.

Frederick has traditionally been an important point on the corridor map, with 11,000 high-wage biomedical technology jobs at the Fort Detrick government research campus and another 1,800 associated with the National Cancer Institute, a branch of NIH. But there are warning signals related to job growth and gridlock of the traditional transportation system.

Other areas have focused on improving their balance of jobs to housing and identified strategies to diversify land uses within suburban employment centers, for example by bringing new housing and retail close to offices.

Meanwhile Montgomery, recognizing the negative impact of traffic and hearing the concerns major employers have expressed about attracting talented young people to the county, is "retrofitting" communities along I-270 to a new transit-oriented design. A likely result is that jobs will migrate from suburban office parks to compact, mixed-use districts, which could make single-car commuting from places like Frederick even more difficult than it is now.

Already, Frederick-area residents across the board express concerns about I-270 gridlock. The State Highway Administration's 2013 Maryland Mobility Report lists several nearby segments of I-270 among the worst highway bottlenecks statewide. After earlier studies building a case for additional lanes, the state's 2014-20 capital budget focuses on transit instead.

Frederick has dramatically increased its local bus service, but non-auto transportation for commuters to Montgomery County will need a boost from state government. Photo from the US Department of Transportation.

These are big challenges, but there's lots of reason to be optimistic

The student-led team recognized quality transportation between Frederick and the job centers to the south as vital for both employers and employees. The Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposal to interconnect numerous Rockville / Gaithersburg activity centers that are not on Metrorail, is a positive sign. If it were built, other Frederick-to-Montgomery transit ideas that are currently being studied, such as major improvements in MARC train service or allowing commuter buses to bypass traffic on the shoulder of I-270, would make sense. Also, regional commuters would have greater incentive to leave their cars behind entirely in favor of the enhanced connectivity.

On the job creation side, the team said focus should be on innovation and tapping the power of small business to grow good jobs in Frederick. This is already happening at the Frederick Innovative Technology Center (FITC). City economic development officials are taking a keen interest in coworking, where flexible, open office space and meeting rooms are made available to IT, graphic design or social media freelancers paying a modest monthly "membership" fee.

Like other places in the Washington region, Frederick can also benefit from recognizing that federal contracting jobs might not be the way of the future.

One way to jump start business in Frederick might be a telecommuting center to link Frederick workers to primary offices located in Montgomery, Washington, or Northern Virginia. Another could be building up the nascent clean energy sector in the city, which is known for photovoltaic production and for geothermal energy.

Frederick has a history of being innovative when it comes to community planning challenges. Notably, intensive planning for the "Golden Mile," an aging retail district, and the emerging Carroll Creek area on the eastern edge of downtown brought influential developers and design professionals together with local politicians.

Towns and cities throughout the region face similar challenges relating to jobs, transportation and quality of life, but Frederick has a running start to begin addressing them.

This statue salutes just how thrilling riding a bike can be

Last year, a new statue went up in the City of Fairfax that captures the essence of why people love to bike.

"The Cyclist" by Larry Morris. Photo by the author.

The statue is at the corner of University Drive and Armstrong Street, by Fairfax City Hall. Part of a public arts initiative and designed by Larry Morris, it debuted around the time of the region's annual Bike to Work Day.

The sharp angles on the bike and rider, along with the rider's scary whipping in the wind, depict the ideal bike ride as a speedy and fun. The statue itself looks like chrome, which is both often associated with fast vehicles and helps emphasize how important visibility is for safety.

A real bike next to the statue. Photo by the author.

Here on Greater Greater Washington, we often note that supporting bike transit is smart policy; riding a bike is environmentally friendly, and it can relieve traffic congestion. What we don't always mention is just how much fun riding a bike is—after all, cyclists rank among the happiest commuters. Artwork like this can help communicate that message.

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