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

Transit


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.

Transit


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 TransitMap.net, 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.

Bicycling


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.

Tour the White House with Google Street View

Want to tour the White House, but can't score an entry pass? Google's Street View tool includes the building's interior.

Users can navigate their way through the rooms of the White House on the web. To take the tour, go to the White House in Google Maps and drag the orange stick figure onto the building. Or just click this picture.


The White House.

We first ran this post in 2012, but since the virtual White House tour is still just as fun, we wanted to share it again!

Bicycling


College Park has its first protected bikeway. But it's only 250 feet long.

Say hello to the Rhode Island Avenue protected bikeway, the first in Prince George's County. It's only 250 feet long and it only covers 1/3 of a block, but it's a start!


College Park's short protected bikeway. Photo by Matt' Johnson.

The protected lane is part of the larger College Park Trolley Trail. For most of its length the Trolley Trail runs either off-street or as normal on-street bike lanes. But for this short segment in front of Hollywood Shopping Center, a concrete barrier makes it a legit, if short, protected bikeway.

As far as I know, it's the first protected bikeway in Prince George's County.

Welcome to the club, Prince George's!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


Check out hidden transportation gems in our region

Just about everyone knows about the Washington Metro and Beltway, but those well-known structures only scratch the surface of interesting infrastructure in our region. Here is a list of some fascinating, but oft-forgotten, pieces of Washingtonia. Each link provides additional information, including pictures:


Photo by tormol on Flickr.

The Capitol Subway: Metrorail isn't the only subway system in Washington. Under Capitol Hill three subway lines emanate like rays out from the Capitol building, carrying Congresspeople and their staff members to and from the various Congressional office buildings.

The first line, to the Russell Building, opened in 1909, with lines going to the Hart, Dirksen, and Rayburn buildings opening between 1960 and 1982. The secret subway isn't really a secret, and although it's not open to the public, visitors can catch a ride if they arrange one with their Congressperson.

The Aqueduct Bridge: Non sequitur though it may be, there was indeed once a bridge that carried boats over the Potomac.

It opened in 1843 and was called the Aqueduct Bridge. It ran from the C&O Canal in Georgetown across the river to Rosslyn, where it met a canal going from there to Alexandria. Canal boats of the day were too fragile to survive the river, so a bridge was needed.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Although the main span of the aqueduct was torn down when the Key Bridge was built in 1923, the old abutments remain on both the DC and Virginia sides. In fact, visitors to Georgetown can walk right up onto the ruins, to be greeted by some of the city's loveliest views.

The Montgomery/Loudoun ferry: Since 1817 there has been ferry service across the Potomac between Montgomery and Loudoun Counties. White's Ferry, as it is currently known, is a floating slab of concrete that runs along a cable connected to both sides of the river. It carries cars, pedestrians and bicyclists commuting between Maryland and Northern Virginia every day of the week.


Photo by chriggy1 on Flickr.

Trolley remnants: Trolleys were once the bread and butter of urban transportation. As whole towns are now built around cars, whole towns were once built around streetcars. Although it's been 49 years since the last trolley rolled down a Washington street, there remains a plenitude of vintage trolley infrastructure.

The most famous cases are the abandoned trolley subway station under Dupont Circle and the trolley tracks visible on P Street in Georgetown, but those examples aren't alone. There are least four old trolley station depots still standing, at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, on Colorado Avenue, on Calvert Street, and on Connecticut Avenue (though that last may have only served buses).


From left to right, the Connecticut Avenue terminal in Chevy Chase,
the 14th & Colorodo NW terminal, the Calvert Street terminal.

Car barns, where trolley vehicles were stored when not in use, remain standing and converted to other purposes in several neighborhoods across the city. Even the light poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge are remnants of trolleys; they're twice as tall as the lights they hold because decades ago they also strung trolley wires.Washington is a fascinating city a long and diverse history. What other little-known pieces of the city can you name?

This post originally ran in 2011, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it with you again!

Bicycling


Boston's "park & pedals" are park and rides for bikes

How do you get more commuters to bicycle into the city? Boston is trying "park & pedals," dedicated parking lots where suburban commuters can drive to the edge of the city, then bicycle the last couple of miles.


Photo by Park & Pedal.

Bicycling is often the fastest way to travel through dense cities. But most commuters from far-flung suburbs aren't willing to bike that far every day. Park & pedals split the difference, allowing suburban commuters to drive where it's easier to drive, then bike through the part of the city where it's easier to bike.

It's a fascinating idea, and an unusual twist on the last-mile problem of urban transportation.

The last mile

The hardest part about providing transportation from low-density suburban areas is the so-called "last mile." That's the gap between commuters' homes and a major highway or transit line, where there's not enough people going to the same place at the same time to provide convenient shuttles.

Park and ride lots around transit stations solve that problem by putting the onus on drivers to get to the station. That's not as efficient as having people live within walking or biking distance of the transit station, but it's better than making them drive the full distance into the city.

Transit agencies should never design their entire systems around park and ride users, but a few park and rides at strategic locations can be a good thing.

Why shouldn't the same idea work for bikes? A few parking lots near major bikeways like the Custis Trail and the Metropolitan Branch Trail might indeed prove useful. Particularly if they're located far from Metro stations, where it's not so crucial to reserve land for transit-oriented development.

Official vs unofficial

Boston has an official park & pedal network, with designated lots specifically for drive-to-bike commuters. It opened in 2015 and has been expanding this year.


Boston's park & pedal network map. Image from Park & Pedal and Google.

Naturally, an official network isn't strictly necessary for commuters to combine driving and biking. In the Washington region, people hoping to bike the last mile into the city can park at Metro stations, private lots, or even neighborhood streets.

But official parking lots do have some big advantages over doing it ad-hoc. They're easier to advertise, and they provide natural places for hubs of bike amenities. With park & pedals, planners could add wayfinding signs, maintenance kiosks, secure bike parking, lockers, even bikeshare stations and bus connections. Each one could become a Union Station-like bike station.

Worth the money?

Car parking is expensive and already abundant. With so many demands on transportation budgets and so little money generally available for bike improvements, spending money to subsidize car parking may be a questionable idea. Better to spend it on bike lanes, bikeshare stations, sidewalks, or transit.

But transportation budgets aren't all-or-nothing. There could be opportunities to partner with parks, churches, developers, and other property owners to designate park & pedals on the cheap, without the need for expensive construction.

Some of Boston's park & pedals are simply designated sections of on-street parking on public streets, and therefore a matter of policy more than construction. Nothing says DC could not do the same.

As Washington area planners do more to make bicycling easy, park & pedals may well be one more tool to add to the toolbox.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Using tape, paper, and potted plants, Arlington built a temporary bikeway

On June 11, Arlington closed a block of bustling Wilson Boulevard for what organizers called the Active Streets Festival. There were bike-oriented games and activities, plus a collection of temporary bikeways "built" with tape, paper, and potted plants.


Pop-up protected bikeway. Photo by BikeArlington.

The festival took place during the Air Force Association cycling race, when many Arlington streets were closed anyway. The Active Streets Festival gave Arlingtonians who weren't racing something bike-related to take part in.

Planners "built" a series of temporary bike lanes, all on the block of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North.

On one section, a row of potted plants formed the barrier for a protected bike lane. On another, a row of parked cars did the same. Elsewhere, washable homemade green "paint" and a thick roll of tape formed a green bike lane, a buffered bike lane, and sharrows.


Pop-up green lane and buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

By using easy-to-set-up and easy-to-take-down temporary materials, Arlington planners tangibly showed residents what Wilson Boulevard might look like if its street space were allocated differently. There's no proposal to change Wilson permanently, but the example can be instructive for future projects on other streets.


A BikeArlington worker lays down strips of tape to create the buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

Tangible benefits aside, the whole thing was a heck of a lot of fun.


Wilson Boulevard with its pop-up bike lanes in place. Photo by BikeArlington.

Transit


❤ Georgia Avenue's new red-surface bus lanes

DC's first bright red bus lanes now adorn four blocks of Georgia Avenue, near Howard University. DDOT crews added the red surface earlier this month.


Georgia Avenue's new red carpet for buses. All photos by the author.

The bus lanes run along both curbs, from Florida Avenue north to Barry Place. They speed Metrobus' busy 70-series line through what was the slowest section of Georgia Avenue north of downtown.


The bright red color is a strong visual clue to car drivers to stay out of the lane. It's a stark contrast to the Gallery Place bus lane a dozen blocks south, which is so poorly marked that many car drivers legitimately don't know it's there. For these four blocks, drivers will have no excuse.

Anecdotally, the red surface seems to be working pretty well. Most car drivers seem to stay out. To find out for sure, DDOT is in the process of collecting actual data, comparing the car violation rate now to the rate from before the red surface was added.

Nitty gritty

Cyclists and taxicabs are allowed the use the lanes in addition to buses. Signs along the street spell out the exact rules.

Since the lanes are along the curb, cars can enter them to turn right. Dashed white lane markings show where cars can enter.

To avoid wear-and-tear and to make the bus lanes safer for cyclists, the "red paint" is actually a gritty surface coating. If you walk along Georgia Avenue now, you can still see some of the leftover grit along the curb.

❤ the transit red carpet

By adding these lanes and marking them clearly, DC is taking an real step towards prioritizing street space for transit. At only four blocks long they're are a humble start, but a start nonetheless.

The "red carpet" is an increasingly common part of the street design toolbox in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. It's great that DC is getting on board too.

With more transit lanes in the works for K Street, H Street, and 16th Street, this humble start will hopefully soon become a trend. A red surface would probably help them all.


Yay!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Pike + Rose is an experiment in modern ornament

The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It's contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be "of our time."


All photos by the author.

Pike + Rose is one of the region's most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.

But although Pike + Rose isn't flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it's fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.

Ornament doesn't have to be historic-looking

In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be "of their time;" they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.

But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.

Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.

Mixed but instructive results

No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.

The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.

The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.

Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they're awkward and kitschy.

Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:

Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren't so bad.

It's easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they're bold, and it's easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say "do that," but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.

The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it's going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.

I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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