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DC can do more to help seniors age in place

The proportion of seniors across the country is rising. As people age, it can be hard for them to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. To be a vibrant, inclusive place, a neighborhood needs to cater to all types of peopleincluding older adults, who make up 11 percent of the District's population. DC is doing a lot to be a more age-friendly place, but there are still many ways the city could do more.

In particular, local policymakers and planners can focus on three areas to help DC's older adults get around more easily: pedestrian safety, public transit, and alternative transit options.

All of these, along with better mobility management options, will make it possible for seniors to have better choices and feel more comfortable in their communities as they age.

Aging in place has come up again and again in many recent urbanist discussions both local and national, from AARP and APA best practices, to the DC zoning rewrite to new bike lanes.

In a DC Zoning Commission hearing last year, Commissioner Hood asked how he or his elderly relatives would get around without a relying on a car. A new report, "Moving an Age Friendly DC," by the Coalition for Smarter Growth has the answer.

Map from the report.

Pedestrian safety

Pedestrian safety is fundamental to every person because every trip ends on foot. No matter what mode someone takes, whether they drive, bike, or take the Metro, they have to walk to their final destination.

Seniors are no exception, and in fact are an especially vulnerable group. In 2013, 4 of the 12 pedestrians killed in DC were over the age of 65. While older adults made up only about 11.4 percent of the total population in 2013, they accounted for 1/3 of the city's pedestrian fatalities.

To be safe and comfortable as pedestrians, aging adults need better lighting, walking surfaces free from tripping hazards, and often more time to cross the street. Efforts to improve lighting, maintain sidewalks, and improve pedestrian crossings are essential for seniors, and will benefit other pedestrians, too.

Ample crossing time is important for aging adults. Photo by Drew Houvener.

Providing longer crossing times at crosswalks, creating traffic calming with medians, and including bike lanes can all help aging adults and other people on foot get around.

Bike lanes can help aging seniors not only by giving them a safer place to ride but also by keeping cyclists off the sidewalk where they could come into conflict with pedestrians.

Comfortable, well-lit, and safe environments will allow older adults to continue to move around their neighborhoods, access public transportation, exercise, and even walk the dog.

Public transit

Better fixed-route public transit is also key to helping aging adults stay in their neighborhoods, because not all people can walk long distances, and many aging adults are unable or prefer not to drive as they age. Public transit needs to be accessible where older adults live, preferably within a quarter mile or less of their homes.

Accessibility can help aging adults use fixed-route transit. Photo by Mark on Flickr.

The District also can help seniors by improving bus stops with more comfortable seating and clearer signage, and other amenities. Currently, only 31 percent of Metrobus stops in DC are fully accessible according to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. If buses and stops properly accommodate seniors and people with limited mobility, people who would otherwise use MetroAccess can take regular transit.

Alternative transit options

But regardless of the quality of transit, some older adults aren't able to take the bus, and need even more assistance to get around. For them a variety of services come into play, ranging from volunteer drivers to paratransit like MetroAccess, and taxi voucher services. The District has a ways to go in providing a better system of helping people navigate these services.

Mobility management services can help by coordinating all of the options seniors have from fixed route transit options, to paratransit to ride services. Systems like a 1-call-1-click service would help explain what options are available for different kinds of trips and allow seniors to take advantage of more and different options.

Right now, many senior villages and other assisted living facilities maintain such lists of services, but centralizing access to these services would help aging adults outside of such communities. New technology and better mobility management could go a long way to help seniors stay in control of their lives.

Successful services for aging adults could empower seniors and make them feel more comfortable in getting around the District. Better lighting, sidewalks, and traffic calming will make walking easier. Better buses to serve senior communities with improved bus stops can go a long way to help people to age in their communities. Mobility management can help older adults to connect with alternative transportation to get around when walking and busing is no longer possible.

If the District keeps working to make improvements like these, they'll make it much easier for seniors to stay in their homes and neighborhoods as they age.


One strip mall's owners block, but then restore, a pedestrian path to the neighborhood

In suburban, car-oriented neighborhoods, simple footpaths can do a lot for people who don't or can't drive. When the owner of a Rockville shopping center inadvertently closed a popular footpath to nearby apartments, residents spoke out and were able to keep it open.

The path to Federal Plaza. All photos by the author.

Federal Plaza is a car-oriented shopping center on Rockville Pike near the Twinbrook Metro station. Its owner is Rockville-based Federal Realty, which owns other strip malls nearby but also develops urban, mixed-use projects like Bethesda Row and Pike + Rose, currently being built in White Flint.

South of Federal Plaza are an apartment complex, the Apartments at Miramont, and a condo complex, the Miramont Villas, where my parents live. Until recently, residents used a short, unpaved footpath that connects the apartments to Federal Plaza and lies on both properties. Long-time residents say they have used this path since the Miramont buildings were built in the mid-1980s.

But in the middle of July, a six-foot-tall wooden fence suddenly appeared along the south side of Federal Plaza, blocking the footpath. Miramont residents now had to walk out to five-lane East Jefferson Street, along a narrow sidewalk with no buffer, and back into the Federal Plaza parking lot via the driveway entrance. The detour added about 1/5 of a mile to the trip each way.

This was a serious inconvenience for many Miramont residents. The Miramont condos are a naturally occurring retirement community, with a relatively large proportion of elderly residents and residents with disabilities, including mobility impairments. But Miramont apartment residents now also had to make the detour while pushing strollers, pulling shopping carts, or carrying groceries. The detour was even a big problem for some of the residents of an assisted living facility another block south who also used the footpath.

And the detour wasn't just inconvenient. It was also dangerous. Drivers entering the Federal Plaza driveway from East Jefferson Street cannot see pedestrians in the driveway. And pedestrians now had to walk the full length of the parking lot, in a county where roughly one-third of collisions with pedestrians occur in parking lots.

The restored footpath. View from Federal Plaza to the Miramont buildings.

After the fence went up, it took a few days to figure out who had put up the fence and why. But it soon turned out that Federal Realty had put up the fence to respond to Southern Management, the manager of the Miramont apartments. Miramont residents shook their fists at the fence, met, talked, signed a petition, and called and sent e-mails to Federal Realty to explain the problem and ask Federal Realty to solve it.

Federal Realty promptly committed to solving the problem. And two weeks ago, roughly six weeks after the fence went up, Federal Realty removed the section of fence that blocked the footpath. Miramont residents are once again able to use the footpath to get to Federal Plaza.

In addition, Federal Realty installed a curb cut from the parking lot to the footpath. They also marked a crosswalk across the driveway entrance on East Jefferson, another crosswalk along the driving lane from East Jefferson to the west side of the Federal Plaza building, and a crosswalk from the footpath to the long crosswalk, across the driving lane.

New crosswalk from the footpath at Federal Plaza.

Unfortunately, Federal Realty's willingness to keep the path open appears to be the exception among commercial property owners, not the rule. In Wheaton, the owners of Wheaton Plaza are trying to block a popular footpath, saying it will bring crime to the surrounding neighborhood.

Federal Realty's response is good news for Miramont residents and Federal Plaza customers, of course. But it's also good news for Montgomery County overall. Pike + Rose is surely not the only commercial property in the county that Federal Realty intends to redevelop from car-oriented shopping plaza to mixed-use, walkable development. Their quick and effective reaction to the small problem of the fence bodes well for their bigger plans for the future.

Public Spaces

Bury power lines under streets, not sidewalks

DC is about to launch a massive project burying 163 miles of power lines. The project will improve power reliability, but hidden issues could impact neighborhood streetscapes and tree canopies.

Photo by Timothy Hoagland, Casey Trees.

After the 2012 derecho caused widespread power outages, DC began development of a plan to improve reliability during extreme weather, called DC Power Lines Undergrounding (DC PLUG). DC PLUG will cost nearly $1 billion to underground power lines throughout the city, which will improve power reliability during extreme weather.

But how will the lines be buried? Right now, the plan doesn't specify where in the streetscape the underground lines will go. Burying the power line under sidewalks would allow DDOT and Pepco to avoid digging up streets during construction, but could hurt the health and safety of thousands of trees.

Approximately 8700 street trees are in the right-of-way along the 163 miles of power lines that DC PLUG has tapped for burial.

Instead of burying the lines under sidewalks, Casey Trees recommends burying the lines in the roadway:

Casey Trees' preferred underground placement location. Image from Casey Trees.

If DC and Pepco bury lines in the roadway, the majority of communities with trees threatened by this project won't be affected during construction. The city won't have to recover or replant thousands of trees, and will preserve the beauty of DC's historic tree-lined neighborhoods.

Above ground wires won't disappear

Don't get too excited over the prospect of a wire-free city. It would take $5 billion to fully underground every above ground wire within the city's 21 identified vulnerable areas, never mind every wire in the city - money that's not in the budget.

Locations of proposed underground lines. Image from Casey Trees.

According to DDOT and Pepco, DC PLUG will only bury the "primary" power lines of the 21 least reliable feeders. So even if your street is in an area targeted by DC PLUG, you'll still have above ground wires. That's because utility poles, secondary service lines, and other telecommunications wires will remain above ground. Streets where DDOT and Pepco propose to bury lines will see changes like this:

Before and after undergrounding of primary power lines. Images from DDOT.

Comment on Tuesday

Residents still have time to weigh in on the undergrounding project this week.
The DC Public Service Commission is holding a community hearing tomorrow night at 6:00 pm. The hearing location is the DC Public Service Commission hearing room, 1333 H St NW, 7th floor east tower.

If you're unable to attend the hearing in person, you can still submit written testimony to the Commission at 1333 H Street, NW, Suite 200, West Tower, Washington DC 20005 until September 15.

The commission will vote on the plan after a congressional review period ends in October.


DC residents may be willing to pay more for parking

A new survey from DDOT suggests many DC residents are willing to support more expensive residential street parking if it makes finding a spot near their home easier.

Photo by Populuxe on Flickr.

Many agree that DC's Resident Parking Permit (RPP) program isn't meeting the city's needs, and should be be updated. But conventional wisdom holds that most substantive changes, especially raising the price of a permit, would stall once voters got wind of them.

But maybe not.

DDOT's Curbside Parking Management study polled residents about how they feel about curbside parking.

The study asked if residents would prefer to pay more for a parking spot near their house, or drive longer searching for a different spot. 63% of residents said that they would prefer paying a little more for the ability to park closer to their home, compared to only 14% who'd rather deal with a longer walk.

This data challenges the conventional wisdom that local politicians should avoid significant changes to RPP out of fear of voter backlash. People rarely like the prospect of a price increase, and fears over parking can stall even the most minor of projects, after all.

But the data says otherwise. Residents do recognize that supply and demand affects parking just like any other good.

On the other hand, survey results are just general. We don't know how popular or unpopular any specific proposal would be. Some residents may change their mind when faced with an actual price hike. Or perhaps the minority opposing change might be so vocal that they overwhelm the majority.

Who knows.

But if this survey is accurate, there's more support for higher prices on DC parking spots than many believed. Perhaps politicians and other decision-makers should be a little more willing to tip-toe into this issue.


Streetcar "simulated service" could begin on H Street in October

The streetcars have been running on H Street for testing and training. Soon, "simulated service" will start, where the operators will drive trains up and down the street just as if they're really carrying passengers. When the line opens, possibly by the end of 2014, fares might be free.

Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

Streetcar program manager Thomas Perry from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) briefed Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C's transportation and public space committee last week about progress toward opening the long-awaited streetcar starter segment from Oklahoma Avenue to Union Station.

Streetcars will operate up to every 10 minutes from 5 am to midnight, seven days a week, without passengers during this phase, also called "pre-revenue service." Operator training along the 2.4-mile line began in August and should wrap up in the "next several weeks," Perry said.

Simulated service is the last planned phase of testing before the line can open to the public. Passenger service could begin before the end of the year, but officials are not making any promises. Perry says that pre-revenue service will take 30 days, after which the agency can seek safety approval to open the line to passengers.

The line might not cost anything to ride at first

DDOT officials are pondering whether or not to make the streetcar be free initially, Perry also said. While the benefits and drawbacks of free transit service have been thoroughly discussed here, the possibility would be an exciting enticement to H Street residents and visitors to try the new service when it does open.

Will special streetcar signal phases cause a safety problem?

While DDOT is dealing with the controversy over proposed rules that would ban bikes between the streetcar tracks, officials are also focused on promoting bike and pedestrian safety along the corridor.

Concerns have been raised about four intersections along the corridorH and 3rd Streets; the "Starburst" intersection whrere H Street crosses Bladensburg Rd and becomes Benning Road; Benning Road and 24th Street; and Benning Road and Oklahoma Ave.

At each of these intersections, the streetcar has its own signal cycle separate from those for cars and pedestrians. Some worry that cyclists and pedestrians will cross the street when they see that traffic has stopped for an opposing red signal, not realizing that the streetcar is going to then start moving.

Officials recommend that cyclists and pedestrians always wait for a green signal and not preemptively try to cross H Street. They have posted staff at the intersections to educate pedestrians and passing out fliers outlining the dangers with safety tips.

A striped crosswalk and pedestrian signal at the streetcar terminus atop the Hopscotch Bridge will come within the next couple of weeks, says Perry. This was another spot of concern for the committee members.

On the proposed ban to bikes within the streetcar tracks, Perry said anyone concerned should submit comments on the proposed rules by September 27.


How should streetcars and bikes interact?

Streetcar service could finally begin this year in Washington, DC. Trial runs are already taking place. And the debate about how people on bikes will navigate the tracks is already raging.

Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

Last week, the District Department of Transportation quietly proposed streetcar regulations that would ban bicycling within a streetcar guideway except to cross the street. Most immediately, that would prohibit bicycles on H Street NE, one of the city's premier nightlife hotspots for young people, many of whom arrive on bikesin part because the area has been underserved by transit until now. There are no fewer than 7 Capital Bikeshare stations along the corridor.

But a bike ban on streetcar corridors could have far broader implications when DC builds out its full streetcar network, which DDOT dreams of building out the network to eight lines over 37 miles throughout the city.

DDOT clarified on its Facebook page that it was proposing to prohibit bikes "in the area of the concrete surrounding the rails (effectively the lane the streetcar is running in) Not the entire street right-of-way." That means, DDOT says, that cyclists can ride in the left lanewhich would undoubtedly lead to conflicts with cars accustomed to seeing cyclists hugging the right edge. If DDOT is serious about that, perhaps they could paint sharrows to inform drivers that bikes have a right to be in the left lane.

Either way, a bike ban is not the best way to deal with what is, by all accounts, a thorny situation.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association acknowledges that "streetcar tracks can pose a legitimate hazard to bicyclists" but insists that "banning bikes is not an acceptable solution."

It's a "solution" that came up earlier this year in Tucson and in 2012 in Toronto, where a cyclist died when his wheel got stuck in the tracks of a streetcar system that doesn't even run anymore. Lots of cities have struggled to find ways to make the interaction between bicycles and streetcars less perilous.

As someone who has wiped out on streetcar tracks, I can attest that a solution is needed, or else H Street runs the risk of becoming a death trap for people on two wheels, sacrificing one form of sustainable transportation for the sake of another. Luckily, there are lots of options.

First of all, there's no reason for cyclists to eat pavement because of abandoned streetcar tracks. Even if it's expensive to remove the tracks, as cities usually claim, there's no reason they can't fill them in with cement.

Jonathan Maus at BikePortland, in search of a good solution for his city, found a German product called veloSTRAIL, a plastic insert for rail tracks designed to depress under a streetcar wheel but not a bike, but it's designed for a different kind of rail than what they have in Portland.

Streetsblog's own Steven Vance found an even simpler solution years ago. He advocates for rubber flanges in streetcar tracks that are depressed by the weight of a streetcar wheel but not a bike. The only place he knows of where it's used in the U.S. is on the extremely low-traffic Cherry Avenue Bridge track in Chicago that sees no more than a few trains a month. Here's a video that gives a pretty good idea of what it's like to ride on these tracks:

WABA has talked to DDOT about the rubber idea, but it hasn't really taken hold yet. Where streetcar lines haven't been built yet, WABA demands that they be accompanied by separated bike lanes.

DDOT did build contraflow bike lanes on G and I Streets NE to divert cyclists away from H Street, but as WABA's Greg Billing notes, "all the stores and restaurants are on H Street," so at some point cyclists will leave those facilities and have to figure out a way to navigate H Street. Billing notes that riding on the sidewalk is a "very contentious issue in the community," but given the astronomical number of crashes that have already happened since the tracks went in, it might be cyclists' best option. After all, riding in the street could send cyclists to the hospital not only with their injuries, Billing said, but with a ticketand insurance might not cover their medical bills if they were breaking the law by riding in the street.

Seattle has also seen a rash of crashes due to streetcar tracks. Although a lawsuit brought by six injured cyclists was ultimately thrown out, it did result in better designs for new lines. The First Hill Streetcar will run in the center lane where there is not a dedicated bike lane, and separate bike lanes will be installed along about a mile of the route. The city also striped a new bike lane along the existing streetcar line. You can see how the city marked a safe 90-degree crossing for cyclists in this Streetfilm.

Other places are trying out far more innovative ideas. In the Netherlands, separate bike lanes are the norm, keeping bicycles out of streetcar tracks, and bike lanes are engineered to always cross the tracks at a right angle. Alta Planning + Design has compiled other best practices and recommendations for bikes and streetcar tracks, mostly focusing on separated bike lanes and center-running streetcar tracks.

Sounds like a good idea for DC's seven unbuilt streetcar lines.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog USA.


One more chance to make the zoning update better

This summer, the DC Office of Planning further softened its ever-more-timid zoning update proposal, but there's good news: some zoning commissioners don't agree with the latest retreat. However, if they're going to prevail, you have to trundle down to Judiciary Square one more time this coming Monday to speak at a hearing.

Photo by Terry McCombs on Flickr.

In July, the Office of Planning backed off on reducing parking minimums along busy bus corridors, and weakened proposals that would make it easier to rent out a carriage house on your property.

These revisions were the latest disappointments in a chain of compromises dating back to 2009, and were the final straw for many people who supported the zoning update as a serious tool in making DC more walkable and inclusive.

It's not an episode of the Twilight Zone: there really is one more hearing on the long-running zoning update show, on Monday, September 8th, and this one's really important.

Commissioners aren't sure about OP's latest retreat

OP's latest changes were part of a big package of tweaks based on input from residents and the Zoning Commission. Some amendments made a lot of sense, but on these two, OP didn't listen to the large numbers of residentsincluding many of youwho had testified in favor of key zoning update proposals during the last rounds of hearings.

But this time, some members of the Zoning Commission pushed back on the retreat. At a July meeting, Commissioners Marcie Cohen and Rob Miller both expressed skepticism about the changes. They wondered why, when DC is facing a growing shortage of accessible affordable housing, OP would back off a policy that would encourage more and cheaper housing options.

The other commissioners said they would listen to what the public had to say. Therefore, the hearing next week gives residents a chance to recommend two alternatives: OP's proposed amendment, and the previous, stronger version. Even though evening hearings are easier for some people than others, the numbers of residents who speak up for each alternative may well determine which way the commission goes.

Reduced parking mandates and fewer restrictions on accessory units are creative solutions to create more mixed-income communities (and help existing residents affordably age in place), and the "alternative text" is a big step back forward after too many steps backward.

It's been a long road

The pace of the zoning update process has been frustrating to many supporters. They worry that increased public participation (a good thing) is being misused by opponents as an excuse to delay the process indefinitelyor at least until the reform has been weakened enough to be ineffective.

But we really are nearing (if not already in) the homestretch of this process. And, after a series of compromises, there are finally signs that members of the Zoning Commission understand that we have an opportunity to create the framework for a more walkable and inclusive future DC in the face of our growing affordable housing crisis.

Please sign up to testify Monday evening. The hearing begins at 6:00 PM at One Judiciary Square / 441 4th Street NW, by the Judiciary Square Metro station. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a streamlined sign-up tool to help you register to speak on Monday night.

While the process can seem daunting to those unaccustomed to sitting through long municipal meetings (which is probably a large majority of everyone reading this), it's not that hard. Just write a short statement that will take no more than three minutes to speak out loud (slowly).

Say you support the "alternative language" that matches the September version of zoning update on parking around bus corridors and accessory apartments in carriage houses. Talk about where in the city you live and why these proposals matter to you. In fact, here's a step-by-step guide to how to testify.

Then print out at least one copy to hand in (if you can) and bring it with you to the hearing. Wait until your name is called, come to the table, and when it's your turn, say your piece.

If you've already testified before at one or many of the previous rounds of meetings and hearings, we know you're probably sick of the zoning update by now. Still, this is a really important moment to make yourself heard. This hearing is covering a set of edits rather than the entire zoning update, and commissioners are not just going through the motions: they really want to hear whether residents prefer OP's latest retreat or the last, somewhat more progressive proposal.


Could traffic changes produce a new village square?

Where Kennedy Street meets Missouri Avenue in Northwest DC, there's a dangerous tangle of turn lanes, cross traffic, and leftover plots of useless land. DDOT plans to remake the intersection to be safer for car traffic, but with a few simple tweaks the plan could produce something even better: A village square.

Kennedy Street at Missouri Avenue, where DDOT is considering closing a turn lane.
Image from Bing.

Kennedy Street NW is one of DC's forgotten main streets. It's the biggest east-west commercial street between Columbia Heights and Silver Spring, though its sparse collection of shops is a far cry from the hustle of Georgia Avenue.

One of the problems on Kennedy Street is its intersection with Missouri Avenue, where the existing road design prioritizes cars over pedestrians, and divides what otherwise might be the walkable heart of Kennedy Street's business district.

Except the intersection isn't safe for cars either. Dozens of collisions in recent years have resulted from drivers travelling southeast on Missouri Avenue cutting across oncoming traffic to turn left onto eastbound Kennedy Street.

DDOT's long-delayed plan to fix this problem would close the eastbound lane of Kennedy Street between Missouri Avenue and 2nd Street. Drivers hoping to go east on Kennedy would instead turn left off Missouri onto 2nd Street, then immediately right onto Kennedy.

This change may reduce car collisions by preventing drivers from turning across traffic. But it does nothing to help pedestrians, on a street where they desperately need help.

Close one more lane to get a village square

DDOT's plan to improve safety at the intersection leaves the westbound lane of Kennedy Street as-is. But what if that lane were closed as well?

There aren't as many traffic safety problems on the westbound lane. Closing it would eliminate direct car access to the struggling businesses in row houses along that block. It would also eliminate a bit of on-street parking.

But removing both lanes would create a sizable triangle of public land, which then could become the central public square Kennedy Street currently lacks. The square could become the heart of the Kennedy Street community, hosting gatherings, markets, and events.

If that happened, might the increase in pedestrian traffic make up for the decrease in car traffic?

Community activists push for change

The Kennedy Street Business and Development Association launched in January in part to push the city to fully fund and implement the 2008 revitalization plan for Kennedy Street.

In that plan, the Office of Planning recommended improving this intersection and the rest of Kennedy's streetscape, to help revive its pedestrian and commercial life.

DDOT's plan to improve car safety is a good start, but to make Kennedy a fully healthy and vital main street it's going to take more than tweaks to the traffic flow. We need a more pedestrian-friendly street, and hopefully a village square.

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