The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Dan Malouff

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


If car commercials were honest, this is what they'd look like

A sporty coupe glides joyfully along a seaside highway, all by itself. It's heaven for the anonymous driver. That's the standard, ridiculous car commercial.

This video shows what car commercials would look like if they were actually honest.

We initially ran this post last year, but we wanted to share it again! It's also cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

Central cities are booming all over the US as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn't confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.

Frederick photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city.

Hagerstown photo by J Brew on Flickr.

Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown's solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC.

Cumberland photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh.

Annapolis photo by Charlie Stinchcomb on Flickr.

Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.

Winchester Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia.

Charlottsville photo by Ben G on Flickr.

Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville's pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester's, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson's famous Lawn.

Staunton photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville's academic village.

Fredericksburg photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river.

York photo by Joseph on Flickr.

York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road.

Gettysburg photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked.

Not enough? Don't miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper's Ferry, and many more.

To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington) and any city close enough to DC be accessible via Metro (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

We first ran this post about two years ago, but we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Forget the Washington Monument; DC's tallest tower is actually just north of Petworth

Most people consider the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument to be DC's tallest tower. It's certainly the city's most iconic. But it's not the tallest. That distinction belongs to the 761-foot Hughes Tower.

Hughes Tower. Photo by thebrightwoodian on Flickr.

Hughes Tower is in Brightwood, near the corner of Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street NW. It's primarily a radio transmission tower, broadcasting signals for the Metropolitan Police Department.

The tower is owned by the District of Columbia, and was built in 1989.

Although the tower vastly overshoots DC's usual height limit, transmission towers are one of several exempted categories of structures. Thus, a 761-foot tower doesn't necessarily violate federal law, though DC's zoning code imposes other limits that prevent anyone from just building such a tower. The National Capital Planning Commission also wasn't happy about this one.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

We initially ran this post in 2014, but since nothing has gone up that's taller than the Hughes Tower, we wanted to share it with you again!


Why is this MARC train parked in Denver?

If you were in Denver this weekend, you might've seen an unusual sight: A MARC commuter rail train parked behind Denver Union Station.

MARC in Denver. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

What gives?

Turns out the train was in Colorado as part of the testing for MARC's new locomotives. Officials wanted to test the new locomotives with actual MARC rolling stock, to evaluate how the locomotives performed in real-life conditions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a test track in Pueblo, CO, so off this train went.

The train was in Denver because Amtrak carries the equipment on a regularly scheduled train from Denver to Chicago (#5, the California Zephyr) and then from Chicago to DC (#29, the Capitol Limited).

Thanks to Matt Johnson and Twitter user @kencon06 for helping to solve this mystery.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces

Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.

Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The Mosaic District in Fairfax caught onto this idea a few years ago, and it could totally work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

We first ran this post in 2014, but since the idea is still great, we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Why we don't have world class BRT in the US, explained with one picture

Bus rapid transit lines in the United States badly lag the world's most high-quality systems. This photo from Buenos Aires shows why: No US city is willing to dedicate so much street space to buses.

Buenos Aires BRT. Photo by exploreadorurbano on Instagram.

Count the lanes dedicated to the busway in that picture. Including the stations, medians, and bus lanes, it totals about eight lanes worth of traffic.

It takes that kind of dedication to fulfill BRT's promise of subway-like service and capacity. You need all the components: Multiple bus lanes including passing lanes, big stations physically separated from the sidewalk, unmistakable barriers between the busway and general traffic.

Can you imagine any US city dedicating eight lanes to buses on a single street? On most streets we couldn't do it even if we wanted to. K Street is 10 lanes wide including its medians, but Georgia Avenue and H Street are generally only six. 16th Street is five lanes at the max. Even if we completely banned cars from those streets, we'd lack the width to build Buenos Aires-style BRT.

Admittedly, Buenos Aires is an extreme example. This photo is from Avenida 9 de Julio, possibly the world's widest city street. Planners there had an incredible amount of space to work with. Bogota's famous TransMilenio BRT is probably a more instructive example; it takes more than five lanes.

Five lanes is physically possible on many US city streets, including in DC. But physically possible and politically practical are vastly different standards.

We wouldn't want to anyway

Even if cities in the United States had both the physical space and political will to dedicate five-to-eight lanes to buses, there would be big trade-offs in doing so.

Streets that are too wide or have too-fast-moving traffic are hard for pedestrians to cross, and thus create barriers that can destroy a city's walkability.

Bogota's awesome five lane busways are practically highways, accounting for the several lanes of car traffic on either side. And like highways, they're very good at moving vehicles and very hostile to pedestrians.

About the only way to make such a wide busway work on a city street without creating a highway would be to dedicate the entire street to transit, and not have car lanes on either side at all. Some US cities do have transit-only streets, so that may well be possible. But it would be different than South America's model.

Arlington's narrower Crystal City busway. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Smaller busways make sense for the US

None of this is to say that BRT in the United States is hopeless. It's absolutely possible to build a solid and useful BRT line without quite that much street width. They just won't be comparable to a subway in speed or capacity without passing lanes and gargantuan stations.

But who says they need to be?

Narrower busways like in Arlington and Ontario still offer tremendous advantages over running buses in mixed traffic. They speed up buses a lot, and are vastly more practical when retrofitting existing streets.

And while it's true that North American-style busways can never have such high capacity as South American ones, well, that's what rail is for.

It would be silly to insist one mode, any mode, must on its own accomplish all a city's needs. Smart planning matches the need to the corridor, and is flexible enough to use the right mode, and the right street design, on every corridor, given the specific issues of that location.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


National Harbor's colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called PortAmerica, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

Port America. All images from Johnson/Burgee.

By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.

The original plan for PortAmerica dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical, mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor's waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now an outlet mall will soon have a casino.

The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region's current tallest office building, Rosslyn's 384-foot 1812 North Moore (though that won't be the case for long).

We first ran this post back in 2013, but since the facts haven't changed, we thought we'd share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Public reaction to Metro's proposed cuts proves the need to be vastly more transparent about rebuilding

Metro has a trust problem that's impeding the agency's ability to fix its decaying rail system. Riders and city officials don't believe the agency's proposed permanent cuts are necessary. To solve this one way or another, Metro must regain rider trust by precisely reporting exactly what its rebuilding needs are, and whether efforts thus far have been successful.

To gain public trust, Metro needs to be much more specific about the kinds of track work it needs to do, and why. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

This series of seven tweets explains why this problem persists, and how being legitimately transparent can only help WMATA achieve its goals.

WMATA has tried to explain its maintenance plans, and has occasionally reported on progress, but there's no single resource available to riders all the time that compiles all Metro's needs, both SafeTrack and non-SafeTrack, and reports on progress in detail.

For example, how many feet of track must be rebuilt before Metro reaches a state of good repair? Out of that, how many feet has WMATA successfully rebuilt to date? How many feet were fixed in July?

That's the kind of information that will help decision makers and the public understand what WMATA needs, and thus support informed decision-making.

If possible, still more detail would be even better. How many rail ties have been fixed, out of how many that need to be? How many insulators? How many escalators and elevators? That level of detail may not always be possible to report (WMATA may not know the full needs until they start doing work), but after so many years of frustration, this is the kind of information the public requires to feel comfortable with Metro's progress. The data should be specific and be listed for each station or between stations, if possible, so passengers can know exactly where work still needs to be done

In Chicago, 'L' riders can see a detailed map of slow zones in the system, and New York's MTA runs video explainers about system problems. These are good examples worth emulating, but WMATA must go further.

If Metro officials hope to get buy-in for extreme measures like permanently cutting late night service, it's reasonable for the public to demand extreme explanations, and reassurance that sacrifice will result in improvements. Without more frequent and more candid communication about progress, trust in WMATA will continue to erode, political support for sacrifices will be hard to obtain, and the spiral of decaying service will likely deepen.


VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.

VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.

Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


College Park recreated Paris's "bus stop of the future" on the cheap

Four years ago, Paris made headlines for its bus stop of the future, a bigger and better bus stop with amenities like bikesharing and a book-sharing library attached. Now College Park has a bus stop with some of the same amenities, but using inexpensive, off-the-shelf pieces.

College Park's bus stop of the future. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Paris' bus stop of the future

In 2012, Paris's transit agency tried out a luxurious new bus stop design. In addition to the normal sign, bench, and shelter, the stop had electric bikes, bookshelves, wifi, and stylish architecture. It looked great and it made waiting for the bus more enjoyable, but it was expensive and took up a lot of space.

Paris' concept was a neat idea, but wasn't ultimately practical for mass production.

Paris's bus stop of the future. Image from RATP.

But some of the ideas from Paris's attempt make sense. Locating a bikeshare station next to a bus stop makes it convenient for more people to use both. And book-sharing can be a nice amenity, if it's easy and inexpensive to manage.

College Park's version

Enter College Park, where rather than design a custom building, the city simply added some of those components to an existing bus stop using their standard off-the-shelf pieces.

They started with a normal bus stop sign and shelter, then added a standard mBike bikeshare station. To help with maintenance, the city chained a bike tire pump to the station sign.

For the library, they staked to the ground a Little Free Library, a pre-fab wood box for people to take and give away free books. There's no librarian and no library cards; it runs on the honor system, and relies on people donating as many books as they take.

A similar Little Free Library in California. Photo by Michael R Perry on Flickr.

The stop is at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Muskogee Street, in front of the Hollywood shopping center, just one block south of College Park's first protected bikeway. The stop serves Metrobus lines 81 and 83, which are among the busier lines in Prince George's County.

It's no grand Parisian bus station, but that would be overkill. For a bus stop in a relatively low-density suburban area, it's pretty darn nice.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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