Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category roads

Montgomery won't make (some) businesses fund parking anymore

Builders in downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Wheaton are now free to build as little parking as they want, without violating zoning rules or paying extra taxes. The change eliminates a major subsidy to driving and will help these suburban centers evolve into walkable urban areas.

Photo by Staff on Flickr.

The new policy, enacted as part of the new county budget, is the result of the simpler, more modern zoning code approved a year ago. The rewrite of the zoning ordinance sharply cut the amount of off-street parking required near Metro stations, upsetting a long-established system for financing the county's public parking garages.

When the county first opened public parking lots, they were a way for stores in old downtown buildings to compete with new malls and their ample free parking. Meter rates were low and downtown buildings paid an extra "parking tax" to meet the expenses. Newer buildings with their own parking were exempt from the tax.

After Metro came to Bethesda and Silver Spring, the downtowns grew denser. But for many years the county kept the tax high to encourage the construction of as much parking as possible when new buildings went up. Unless a building met the parking requirement that the zoning code imposed on auto-oriented development far from Metro, it paid the entire tax.

The new zoning code recognized the downside of too much parking, and it lowered the parking minimums near Metro. When it went into effect last year, many buildings that previously paid the parking tax became exempt. This brought confusion at first, and then a recognition that the parking tax had lost much of its revenue-raising potential.

The new county budget solves this problem by setting the parking tax to zero, and making up the difference with other revenue. (The tax has technically not been abolished. If the county fails to pay back money borrowed to build garages, bond holders can demand its resumption.)

At work here is the interconnected nature of land use planning. Automobile-dependent development has a logic in which parking and highways create a need for more of the same. Once that cycle is broken, a new logic sets in. When things work well, as they did here, advances in livability and walkability beget more progress.

Ask GGW: How do you cross a street if you're in a bikeway that runs against car traffic?

Some of DC's bikeways run in two directions on a street while the cars can only travel in one. Reader MacKenzie wants to know the right way to turn toward a destination that's on the opposite side of the bikeway.

Looking south in the two-way bike lane at 15th and Q Streets NW. Photo by Luis Gomez from Borderstan.

On 15th Street NW, the bikeway runs in north and south, but cars only go north.

I usually ride south on 15th Street NW, and then need to turn left onto Q. There is a little left turn lane, but I'm never sure if I am supposed to wait until the light for Q Street is green, or if I can go as long as no one is coming, like a driver turning left on a road with two way traffic would. What's the proper way to do this?

For MacKenzie's scenario, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association suggests a "two-stage turn" onto Q Street from the 15th Street bikeway.

Example of a two-stage turn. Image from DDOT.

That means when there's a green light on 15th Street, continue through the intersection to the southwest corner. Then wait in extra space that is not the crosswalk or within the 15th Street bike lane, with the bike facing east on Q Street. Then proceed on Q when the light changes.

A two-point turn is also an option for those riding bikes north on 15th. But since riding north means riding with the flow of car traffic, it's also OK to merge across 15th to turn right on Q.

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!

The wheels on the bus go... not to the right

The new Circulator route on the National Mall hit a snafu this week. Three buses blocked an intersection for over half an hour by not deviating from their routes even when a traffic collision made staying the course impossible.

Buses and cars behind a collision. Photo from Jeff Sellenrick.

When two tour buses collided, they blocked cars from continuing on Madison Drive across 14th Street and toward 15th. Rather than turning and going to 15th another way, the Circulator buses waited at the intersection, blocking other vehicles from turning left or right.

When Jeffrey, a reader who told us about the situation, asked his bus driver why they didn't try to use a detour, the driver replied that making a right-hand turn to try and circle around the collision wasn't part of their route. Another driver said they were waiting for permission to make the detour.

The total delay was around 40 minutes.

Obviously, buses aren't mechanically barred from making right turns. And a number of contributors can recall times when their Metrobus drivers, whose rules come from WMATA rather than DDOT, have taken detours.

We're left, then, with this question: What's DDOT's plan for when buses arrive at an unexpected impasse?

Spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans told me that Circulator drivers sometimes take detours when there are severe accidents, and that the decision to do so or not is made by the bus operator, who works for a company that DDOT contracts. Once drivers make a decision, DDOT tries to let the public know what's going on via Twitter.

To be fair, detours aren't always simple matters

Bus detours require a lot of communication between passengers, drivers, and the dispatchers that monitor bus movements. A bus needs to get back to its route as quickly as possible, both so that people can get to where they need and expect to go and so people waiting down the line aren't doing so in vain.

Another issue is that buses that need to make wide turns can't use just any road. Also, for buses using the Mall, which is much different from the regular street grid, it can be particularly difficult to find an alternate route that works: "circling the block" can mean going a mile out of the way.

Circulator drivers didn't cause the initial traffic jam. But they may have made it worse than it had to be. Hopefully, fewer traffic collisions and better training and coordination for DDOT's bus drivers can help prevent a situation like this in the future.

A woman died crossing a street in Glover Park last night

The intersection of Wisconsin Avenue, Calvert Street, and 37th Street NW is dangerous. On Thursday evening a truck driver struck and killed a woman there.

The scene a few hours after the crash. Photo by the author.

There isn't much information yet on exactly what happened or why, and is too soon to jump to conclusions. Some rumors on the Glover Park listserv say that the driver was turning left and did not obey a red arrow. This has not been officially confirmed.

The intersection, looking south from Wisconsin Avenue. Image from Google Maps.

This isn't the only crash involving a pedestrian on Wisconsin Avenue this week or the only fatality on the roads in the region just on Thursday. A car driver injured a pedestrian on Wednesday at Wisconsin and Veazey Street, in Tenleytown. A Montgomery County school bus driver struck and killed a woman crossing a street on Thursday morning near Shady Grove Metro.

Wisconsin Avenue could have been different

Not long ago Wisconsin Avenue went on a diet. DDOT put in a median, added a turn lane, and slowed the traffic. In some parts of the avenue it sometimes took an extra two minutes to drive up the road.

Residents complained. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans complained. Councilmember Mary Cheh, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners at the time, and DDOT bowed to the popular outcry and reversed the change.

In the evening, Glover Park residents talked in person and on email lists about what happened. Some people quickly jumped to assumptions about what the pedestrian may have done. Some assumed she may have not been in the crosswalk and others that she may have walked against the light.

But did the street design contribute? Could the truck driver see adequately? Did he turn left or right on red? Was he driving too fast?

We don't yet know the details of what happened, so we can't say whether the road diet would have helped avoid this tragedy or not. But we do know that a move to make Wisconsin Avenue safer in the past was overturned because drivers wanted to be able to move faster through this neighborhood.

Even if the driver violated another law, like going through a red light, the point of designing streets for safety is to ensure there is more margin for error. Drivers (and pedestrians) won't obey every law at every moment. One violation on either side shouldn't lead to death, especially since it's always the pedestrian's.

In aviation, there's a maxim that any fatal plane crash is always the result of not one, often not two, but multiple things going wrong—a tired pilot AND bad weather AND an otherwise-minor equipment glitch AND a communications mix-up. Without any one of those failures, everything is fine. That's a system where safety is a higher priority. On the roads, a single mistake by a driver can kill an innocent pedestrian.

Correction: The initial version of this article quoted a WUSA9 story which interviewed a man who said the intersection was dangerous. However, this interview actually was about the other crash, at Wisconsin and Veazey. We have removed the quotation.

The Circulator will start on the National Mall on Sunday

DC's Circulator bus is going to start operating on the National Mall this Sunday, June 14th.

The Circulator and the Smithsonian Castle. Image from DDOT.

DDOT announced the Circulator's National Mall route in December along with plans to start this spring. The new National Mall route is operating with support and funding from the National Park Service, unlike the former loop that operated from 2006 through 2011. This means the buses can travel within the interior of the Mall.

The route will begin at Union Station and travel along Louisiana Avenue to loop the Mall via Madison Drive, West Basin Drive, Ohio Drive, Constitution Avenue, and Jefferson Drive. The route will operate through 8 pm in the summer and 7 pm in the winter on ten-minute headways.

There has been no public bus service on the Mall since the an earlier Circulator, which ran around the outside of the Mall, and the $27 Tourmobile shut down in 2011.

DDOT purchased a fleet of eighteen hybrid buses to meet the additional service demand. The buses feature more powerful air conditioning units, wider doors with a lower entrance for additional accessibility, and 19 USB ports for electronics charging. These new buses bring the Circulator fleet to 67 buses total.

DDOT will host a launch event for the new route on Friday at the Lincoln Memorial. The event, featuring Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, begins at 11 am.

Cyclists got tickets for riding on a short one-way half-block. There's a better way to design this street

Last month, police ticketed bicyclists riding the wrong way on M Street near the Convention Center, POPville reported. We asked our contributors and DDOT what they think is the right solution in this area.

The one-way block of M, looking west from 9th Street NW. Image from Google Maps.

This one-way block of M is essentially only a half block, between 9th Street NW and Blagden Alley, halfway to 8th. Besides this half block, M is two-way from Thomas Circle, at 14th, eastward to 5th Street NW.

The one-way block of M, looking west near Blagden Alley NW. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair said a change to one-way appears on convention center plans dating to 2004. Contributors speculated that the construction of the convention center might have spurred the change as a traffic calming measure. The loading dock is on M, one block to the east.

At that time, contraflow bike lanes, which allow cycling in the opposite direction of traffic on an otherwise one-way street, weren't a regular part of DC's road design toolbox. Now, DC has several roads with such lanes, including G and I streets NE, on either side of H Street, and New Hampshire Avenue NW for a block on each side of U Street.

Here, the street is the same width east of Blagden (where it's one-way) as west. This leaves plenty of room for a contraflow lane. St. Clair added,

Safety is our number one priority at DDOT. The law rightly treats cyclists as legitimate users of the roadway, and cyclists are subject to traffic laws for everyone's safety—especially their own. Without facilities and signage designed to let bikes ride contraflow safely, we don't support wrong-way bicycling.

That said, M Street east of Thomas Circle is a potential route for improved bike lanes. DDOT is exploring options on how we might proceed. A contraflow lane, similar to what we installed on G and I Streets NE last year, might be possible without modifying vehicular conditions or parking. The results of our analysis will be shared with the public, and their input will be taken into consideration when DDOT finalizes any action plans.

Base image from Google Maps. The red oval shows the one-way half-block in question.

Meanwhile, ride on the sidewalk

Riding on the sidewalk is legal in this area, and some contributors said they do just that. Payton Chung pointed out that DC explicitly encourages this in one spot:

I know of one local precedent for signing a contraflow bike route on the sidewalk. On O Street SW, across from Nats Park, the street goes one-way westbound (away from the stadium) for one block. Eastbound cyclists are directed onto the south sidewalk.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.
In that situation, though, bicyclists are going uphill to an actuated stoplight at South Capitol Street, and are therefore going slowly past a few houses. The 900 block of M, on the other hand, is leading away from a stoplight and goes past many more houses, few of which might want relatively fast crosstown cyclists riding past their stoops.
If DC were able to follow Europe's lead, it might be possible to have a contraflow "lane" without even repainting the street. In Germany (as in the picture below), the Netherlands, and elsewhere, some low-speed, low-traffic streets (as M is here) with "do not enter" signs that don't apply to cyclists.

A Berlin sign exempting cyclists from the "Do Not Enter" restriction. "Frei" is German for free, or clear; this sign says bicycles can still enter while motor vehicles cannot. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Still, a contraflow lane might be the best approach and aligns with DC's practice in other areas. It's good to hear DDOT is considering that option.

Commutes become hazardous when people don't respect bike routes

Two short videos show how difficult people in cars can make it for those on bikes to use the bike lanes on New York Avenue NW and L Street NW.

Video by Peter Krupa. Thanks to Rob Pitingolo for bringing to my attention.

The first video is a great example of how bicycle infrastructure needs to be protected if it's really going to be effective.

While paint does help make drivers aware that they aren't the only ones using the road, it doesn't accomplish much if those drivers don't respect the space designated for vulnerable users like people on bikes.

Here, hostility indicates irreverence

Video by DCMuppetDrivers.

A more peaceful move for this "peace officer" would have been to park the vehicle he was guarding in a designated parking space. From there, he could have escorted whoever he was protecting a few extra feet to and from the front door of the building they were visiting.

For bike infrastructure to work, cities have to take it seriously

If DC (and any other city) is going to make cycling a truly viable form of transportation, they need to realize that induced demand works for all modes of transportation.

In other words, build a smooth, wide highway, and drivers will change their route to use it. Conversely, paint a dinky bike lane in a bunch of parked cars' door zones and fail to build loading zones for deliveries, and cyclists will be forced to weave around traffic in the other travel lanes.

To make a place safe for cyclists, enforce rules against using it as loading zone and make sure it's not somewhere the connected and privileged can use without regard for everyone's safety.

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