Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dan Reed

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?

Despite a big funding setback last week, Montgomery County could start building bus rapid transit after all. But to do so, it may have to do it on the cheap. That could mean making BRT less useful for transit riders.

BRT in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Montgomery County officials have been looking at building rapid transit routes for buses since 2008, and approved plans for a countywide BRT network in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett had proposed creating a transit authority that could raise taxes to pay for building it, but yanked the idea last week due to opposition from some community members.

Yesterday, he announced that the county would build one or two of its planned BRT routes in a "less costly" fashion. One way to cut costs is by taking out dedicated lanes that give buses a way out of traffic. But doing that would make BRT slower and less reliable, discouraging people from using it.

According to Leggett, the county can afford to pay for one or two BRT corridors from its construction budget, which the County Council approves each spring. There are three corridors transportation officials are looking at, down from ten in the original plan: Route 355 between Bethesda and Rockville, which would cost an estimated $422 million to build; Veirs Mill Road between Rockville and Wheaton, which would cost $285 million, and Route 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville, which would cost $200 million.

Where people use transit in Montgomery County. These areas coincide with the three potential BRT corridors being considered. Map by the author using Census data.

The three corridors serve the county's two biggest downtowns, Silver Spring and Bethesda, plus the county seat in Rockville and emerging town centers like Wheaton, White Oak and White Flint. These are places where lots of people already ride transit.

They're also congested streets that are ideal for bus lanes, the key feature of bus rapid transit, which can give riders a fast, reliable alternative to sitting in traffic. But there's limited space to make bus lanes, whether by converting existing lanes or by widening the road. And some neighbors in these areas are loudly against them.

This street might be congested. And that's why it needs bus lanes. Photo by the author.

Not only do dedicated bus lanes make the bus faster, but they reduce labor costs, since bus drivers can do more trips in less time. Like train tracks, bus lanes create the sense of permanence that can attract development to underserved areas like White Oak. Better transit also means lower commute times, which has a huge impact on access to jobs and economic mobility.

Leggett might find that not including bus lanes on all or some of these routes could save money and avoid confronting transit opponents. But there are ways to design them that require less space and reduce impacts on neighborhoods. And as long as buses are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, people will be less interested in riding them, and county residents will have a hard time seeing the benefits of investing in more transit.

Last week, I suggested that Montgomery County show people how BRT works by doing a temporary trial. It looks like county officials want to go a step further and try building something more permanent, which is great. That's why it's even more important they do it right.

What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?

Last week, Montgomery County pulled its proposal for building bus rapid transit, citing community opposition. How can the county win people over? By getting something on the ground now and doing a trial run.

How can we get streets like Colesville Road better transit sooner rather than later? Photo by the author.

After several years of discussion, the county approved a plan for a network of dedicated bus lanes in 2013 with strong support from residents, business leaders, and transit advocates. Soon after, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed creating an Independent Transit Authority that could build and operate transit in the county and raise taxes on its own to pay for it. Today, the department of transportation runs transit service, using money from the county's budget, which the County Council sets each year.

Leggett's proposal drew an unlikely coalition of opponents, from civic organizations who were against BRT in the first place to groups worried about government spending. Meanwhile, initial designs for BRT on corridors like Georgia Avenue proposed unnecessarily massive road widenings that would have removed dozens of homes and businesses, which naturally angered many residents.

Do county leaders still want BRT?

Now in his third term as county executive, Ike Leggett has alluded to transit as part of his legacy. He's said that the 100,000 jobs slated to come to places like White Flint and White Oak depend on better transit. Bus Rapid Transit lines on Route 355, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road are among the county's top transportation priorities.

But the county seems to be backing away from BRT. The Georgia Avenue line got shelved. And Leggett already pulled his ITA proposal earlier this year.

Ike Leggett says he wants to do a public outreach campaign for BRT to build support for a transit authority. But it may not be enough to convince skeptical residents. They need to see something tangible.

Metroway in Alexandria. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We could send people to Alexandria to ride the Metroway BRT line. It's already carrying 20% more riders than anticipated. It serves the new neighborhood of Potomac Yard that looks like what Montgomery County wants to create in White Flint or White Oak.

Or we could start bringing BRT in some form to Montgomery County today in trial form, so people can see how it can improve their daily lives.

A trial run?

Bus Rapid Transit consists of several different parts that make buses faster, more reliable, and more comfortable, like a train: machines where you pay before getting on; larger, covered stations; longer distances between stops; and of course, dedicated lanes.

The county's vision for BRT, as in many other places, involves doing all of those things at once. It's more effective, but also more expensive. We're already implementing some of those things now, like limited-stop bus service or off-board fare machines.

The thing that has the biggest impact, but is also the most controversial, are bus lanes. And that's what people need to see in action.

A very basic bus lane on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton. It's maybe a mile long. Photo from Google Street View.

Local political consultant Adam Pagnucco has suggested that the county build a BRT line on Veirs Mill Road to prove that it works, but it would still take a few years and a lot of money.

In the meantime, we could do a trial: for a few months, simply reserve the curbside lane of a major street for buses, using paint and some police enforcement to keep drivers out. Drivers and transit riders alike could see how it would affect their travels.

The catch is we'd have to do this in a place with high transit use, like Veirs Mill Road, Route 29, and Route 355, the three BRT corridors the county's studying. These streets are congested now, but they're also where most transit riders are, and would get the most benefit from dedicated lanes.

Doing a trial would be hard and require a lot of political will. But it's ultimately easier than convincing the public to make a huge investment on something they haven't seen before. And it allows us to see what works and what doesn't work, so we can make needed tweaks early on.

Most importantly, a trial gives Montgomery County transit riders a better trip now, rather than far in the future. They can't afford to wait, and neither can we.

In rural Maryland, a saint watches over drivers

Traffic heading north on I-95 out of DC can test even the most patient traveler. The next time you're headed to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, you might want to say a little prayer to Our Lady of the Highways, a roadside memorial in Childs, Maryland, north of Baltimore.

Photo by cranberries on Flickr.

You'll find Our Lady of the Highways on I-95 northbound in Cecil County between exits 100 and 109, near the underpass for Blue Ball Road. On a foggy night in October 1968, there was a horrific 17-car crash at this spot, which killed three people. The Oblates, a group of priests, erected the statue in 1968 (and replaced it in 1986) to commemorate the tragedy and encourage other drivers to be more careful.

Our Lady of the Highways isn't the only transportation-oriented saint. There are also patron saints for cycling, air travelers, and motorcyclists, among others.

Digital billboards are a sign of Silver Spring's evolution

After twenty years, the dying City Place Mall is finally coming back to life. New video screens on the building's historic exterior are another sign of how downtown Silver Spring is evolving into an urban place.

The new screens. All photos by the author.

The new screens went up outside the five-story shopping center, located on Fenton Street between Colesville Road and Ellsworth Drive, a few weeks ago. They show a mix of ads for the mall, inspirational quotes, and "This Day in History" features.

While the rest of downtown Silver Spring is thriving, City Place has struggled since it opened in 1992. Developer Petrie Ross is renovating the mall, now called Ellsworth Place, opening it up to surrounding streets while adding new shops and restaurants.

The screens help open this mall to the street

Part of the mall was a Hecht's department store that opened in 1947. While the big, blank walls that wrap around the building are architecturally significant, they're also a barrier to the activity on the streets around it, which is why the mall failed in the first place.

These new signs are the only changes allowed to the mall's historic exterior.

But the developers can't make any major changes to the exterior, like adding windows that could let people see the stores inside. That's why Montgomery County approved the screens in 2010 along with other small changes, like two new entrances, display cases, and new signs.

The screens are a compromise between historic preservationists, who want to keep the building's exterior intact, and retailers who want shoppers to know they're in the mall. Gus Bauman, attorney for Petrie Ross, told residents in 2013 that the screens are necessary to attract retailers. (Ironically, Bauman led the fight to ban billboards 20 years ago as Planning Board chair.)

Video screens are more common

Video screens are increasingly common in the DC area. There are several at 7th & H streets in Gallery Place, which some call "DC's Times Square." There's one at the Mosaic District in Fairfax, which show some ads, but also host outdoor movie nights. You'll even see digital screens outside many public schools in the region.

The screens on the historic side of Ellsworth Place can be seen from Fenton Street Market.

What do people think about the screens? Last Saturday, I stopped by Fenton Street Market, the weekly craft market held in Veterans Plaza across from the mall. Silver Spring resident Brad Cranford, who works at the market and had been looking at the screen all day from his booth, said he didn't mind it.

"It's unobtrusive and kind of cool," he said, "but I don't know what the ultimate goal is." The guy sitting next to him adds, "If they could play soccer games on there, people would love it."

Visual clutter is okay sometimes

Not everyone's happy about them, however. From neighborhood listservs to Twitter, some neighbors say that they ruin the mall's Art Deco-style exterior, which is a historic landmark. Others point to the county's decades-old ban on billboards.

In the past, county officials said that billboards made Silver Spring look bad. Today, Silver Spring is finally thriving. Within the past year, it seems like downtown has become even more active: more people, more bars and restaurants, more nightlife. After years of begging my friends in DC to visit Silver Spring to no avail, I've had coworkers, friends, and even a few dates from DC who've asked me to show them around.

These video screens emphasize Silver Spring's vitality rather than take away from it. There's a certain beauty to the visual clutter of an urban place. We celebrate painted ads on the sides of old buildings, a sort of old-school billboard, or scrolling movie marquees. Are these really that different?

Besides, the screens at Ellsworth Place fit in just fine with its neighbors, the Fillmore music hall, the AFI Silver and Majestic movie theatres, and the Silver Spring Black Box, all of whom have marquees with lots of flashing lights and movement. They show that Silver Spring is one of the busiest, most active downtowns not just in Montgomery County, but the region. I say the more bright lights, the better.

South Park weighs in on gentrification with "SoDoSoPa"

As more people seek urban living, communities around the country are trying to meet the demand. That even goes for fictional places like South Park, which skewers gentrification this season with a new neighborhood called "SoDoSoPa":

In last week's episode, the town decides to redevelop the poor part of town into a trendy arts and restaurant district called "SoDoSoPa" in order to attract a Whole Foods. This fake ad for the community, complete with shots of sleek lofts, fancy restaurants, and bearded hipsters, could pass for lots of places in our region.

The episode also looks at how revitalization projects impact the people who already live there. South Park's mayor reassures Kenny's blue-collar family that she'll listen to their worries about the development. Instead, SoDoSoPa uses Kenny's blue-collar family as a marketing tool, advertising its proximity to "historic Kenny's house." Kenny's little sister asks her dad why they can't go outside to enjoy the cleaned-up neighborhood, and he replies that they can't afford to.

The video inspired a lengthy thread on Reddit's South Park board asking commenters to name their city's "SoDoSoPa" neighborhood. Naturally, one commenter suggested NoMa for the DC area, in addition to other redeveloping areas, including downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda Row, and Tysons Corner.

What depictions of urban issues on TV have you enjoyed recently?

Join us for happy hour in Brookland!

It's time for the next Greater Greater happy hour! Join us in two weeks for drinks, conversation, and trainspotting along the Red Line in Brookland Edgewood (which should be a little less crowded than it is today).

Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 6 from 6 to 8 pm, we'll be at the Dew Drop Inn, located at 2801 8th Street NE. Formerly home to Chocolate City Brewing Company, this bar may be best known for its rooftop deck, which overlooks the Red Line tracks. In addition, drinks are $2 off until 7:30, and there's a full food menu.

The Dew Drop Inn is located between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland-CUA Metro stations. From Rhode Island Avenue, the bar is about a half-mile up the Metropolitan Branch Trail, just past Franklin Street. From Brookland, it's six blocks south of the station along 8th Street. If you're coming by bus, the Metrobus D8, G8, and H8 all stop within two blocks, while several other routes stop at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station three blocks away at 7th and Hamlin streets NE.

Over the past year, we've held happy hours in Alexandria, Shaw, and U Street. We're always looking for new, Metro-accessible locations for future happy hours (especially in Prince George's County!). Where would you like us to go next?

The Silver Spring Transit Center is finally open

After years of delay and budget overruns, the Silver Spring Transit Center finally opened yesterday.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

The three-story complex, located next to the Silver Spring Metro station, brings together Metro, MARC commuter rail, local and intercity buses, and a kiss-and-ride. The future Purple Line will also stop there. First proposed in 1996, construction started in 2008.

The transit center was supposed to open in 2012 before officials found serious structural defects. A report found that the county, the designers, and the builders were all at fault, and WMATA refused to take over the building. The county brought in a new structural engineer to organize repairs, which began last fall. Right now, Montgomery County and WMATA are suing the builder and designer.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

But now, the transit center is up and running after a low-key opening Sunday morning. The first bus, a Metrobus 70 headed to Archives, pulled out at 4:08 am. Later in the morning, the Action Committee for Transit announced the winner of its contest to guess the transit center's opening date: Garth Burleyson of Colesville, who'd picked October 26.

Goofing off in the transit center before it opens. Photo by the author.

Fences surrounding the transit center finally came down Saturday afternoon. When I stopped by Saturday night, curious onlookers were wandering around the empty structure, snapping funny photos and taking in the building for the first time.

Looking from the transit center into downtown Silver Spring. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The views of the Metro station and downtown Silver Spring are pretty dramatic.

Photo by the author.

The first two floors have stops for Metrobus and Ride On, and intercity buses, while a third floor has a taxi stand, bike parking, and a kiss-and-ride. Signs point to where riders can catch each bus, while digital displays give real-time arrival info.

Riders catch the Z8 on the street one last time.

For bus riders, the transit center will require some getting used to. For seven years, buses stopped along nearby streets. Stops for dozens of routes will move into the transit center.

Now that the Transit Center is done, one big question is what will happen to the space around it. Plans to build apartments, offices, and hotels next to the complex fell through last year, and the county's suing Foulger Pratt, the developer who sought to build them.

This is one of the most valuable development sites not just in Silver Spring, but the region, situated next to one of its biggest transit hubs. With the core of downtown Silver Spring three blocks away, there's a big opportunity to capture all of the people walking there from the Metro. Hopefully, this won't sit empty for long.

Check out my photos and Dan Malouff's photos from opening day.

DC's "Little Ethiopia" has moved to Silver Spring and Alexandria

Historically, the DC area's Ethiopian diaspora has centered on Adams Morgan and Shaw. But as the community has grown, it's mostly moved out of the District. Today, the region actually has two "Little Ethiopias": one in Silver Spring and one in Alexandria.

Where the region's Ethiopian population lives. Map by the author.

Ethiopians have a lot of roots in the DC area

Ethiopians first began moving to the United States in the 1970s, fleeing a military dictatorship. The DC area has the nation's largest Ethiopian community, but just how big it is up for debate.

The 2013 American Community Survey found about 40,000 people of Ethiopian ancestry in the region, while the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Center says there are 100,000 Ethiopians living in the area.

There's also a large population from Eritrea, which broke off from Ethiopia in 1991. The Census doesn't break out ancestry data for Eritreans for local areas. But in 2005, but the Population Reference Bureau estimated that about 2% of African-born blacks in the region, or about 2,300 people, came from Eritrea.

Today, Ethiopians are the largest African immigrant group in the region, making up one-fifth of the region's African diaspora. There are about 1200 Ethiopian-owned businesses in the region, according to the ECDC, as well as the Ethiopian community's own Yellow Pages. Famous Ethiopian entertainers have settled in the area, and major events serving the diaspora are held here, like this sports and live music festival that was at the University of Maryland this summer.

Two "Little Ethiopias" emerge

When the diaspora began, Ethiopians arriving in DC settled in Adams Morgan, then along 9th Street NW in Shaw, occasionally called "Little Ethiopia." Since 2000, DC's Ethiopian population has more than doubled, from 2134 to 4807 in 2013, though it's shifted north towards Petworth and Brightwood.

But like many immigrants in the region, many Ethiopians moved to Maryland and Virginia, and today most of the community lives outside the District. Montgomery County has the region's largest cluster of Ethiopians, with nearly 13,000 residents claiming Ethiopian ancestry, three times as many as in 2000. Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria have the region's second- and third-largest Ethiopian populations.

Ethiopian nightlife in Silver Spring. Photo by Reemberto Rodriguez.

Today, there are two "Little Ethiopias." One sits in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, and reaches into far northwest DC. Another is in Alexandria and extends west towards the Skyline area of Fairfax County.

Both areas are home to several thousand people of Ethiopian descent. Ethiopians make up 29% of one Census tract next to downtown Silver Spring, while one census tract in Alexandria, consisting of a large apartment complex called Southern Towers, is 40% Ethiopian.

The most Ethiopian places

The most prominent sign of the region's "Little Ethiopias" is food. Downtown Silver Spring has dozens of Ethiopian eateries, and with those numbers come specialization: there are white-tablecloth places, sports bars, an "Ethiopian Chipotle," and of course, many different coffee shops. Meanwhile, chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited an Ethiopian market in Skyline on the DC episode of his show No Reservations.

Montgomery County's annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

These communities are also gathering and economic hubs not only for Ethiopians, but the wider African diaspora living in the DC area. Silver Spring is home to I/O Spaces, a coworking space geared to the African community. Montgomery County, which hosts an annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring, is also the first jurisdiction in the nation to name September African Heritage Month.

Will "Little Ethiopia" continue to move farther out?

Why did Little Ethiopia, like so many other immigrant enclaves in the DC area, leave the District? Gentrification and displacement may be one cause. Though it's also likely that people moved to Maryland and Virginia for cheaper housing, better schools, or to be close to friends and family.

It'll be interesting to see if the region's Ethiopian population continue to move further out. There are already large concentrations of Ethiopians extending far from both Little Ethiopias: the one in Silver Spring stretches north towards Burtonsville, while the one in Alexandria continues south along I-95 towards Lorton.

This map takes another look at "urban" vs "suburban"

Last month, I used housing density to map the real boundaries between "urban" and "suburban" in the DC area. But what if you took other factors into consideration? This map looks a little different, but still shows that there's more "city" in the region than what's inside the DC line.

How economist Jed Kolko would classify "urban" and "suburban" parts of the region. Map by the author with Kolko's data.

My maps are based on research from Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, who mapped several other metropolitan areas around the country. He reached out to me with his own data for the DC area, which is available on his website. While I only looked at housing density as a measure of urbanism, Kolko included several other factors, including the density of jobs and businesses, how many people go to work without a car, and the presence of multi-family housing.

Compare Kolko's map to my map below. One big difference is that his analysis only goes to the zip code level, while I used Census tracts. That makes my map is a little finer-grained, focusing on neighborhoods as opposed to larger areas. And while he agrees that there are "urban" places well outside the District, Kolko's analysis finds fewer of them, particularly in Northern Virginia.

My earlier map, looking solely at housing density.

Kolko classifies all of the District, Arlington, and Alexandria as "urban," even areas that are pretty spread-out and arguably suburban in character, like the Palisades in northwest DC. Like me, he also includes several older communities in Maryland that originally developed around streetcar lines and as a result look very similar to urban neighborhoods in DC, like Hyattsville, Silver Spring, and Bethesda.

My map also identified many newer communities that are gaining more urban characteristics, like White Flint in Maryland or Tysons Corner in Virginia. Kolko includes several of those places in Maryland, but not a single one in Virginia. In fact, he doesn't consider anything in Fairfax County "urban."

I wasn't the only blogger to look at housing density as a measure for urbanism. NextSTL, a St. Louis-area blog, made a similar map and found that "urbanism" can be found on both sides of the city line there too.

Image from NextSTL.

What do you see in these maps? What factors do you consider make a place "urban" or "suburban"?

The Silver Spring Transit Center will open soon. Here's how everything fits together.

After years of delay and construction problems, the Silver Spring Transit Center will finally open next month, bringing together local and intercity buses, MARC commuter rail, and the Red and future Purple lines. To get travelers ready, Metro put together this diagram showing how it will work.

Image from WMATA. Click for full version.

Silver Spring is one of the region's biggest transit hubs, bringing together dozens of bus and train lines and serving 60,000 passengers each day. It'll become an even bigger destination when the Purple Line opens in 2021. First envisioned nearly twenty years ago (and several years behind schedule), the transit center (named for former senator Paul Sarbanes) provides a single place where all of those services meet.

The transit center will have three stories, each with its own entrance from the street. On the ground floor, with an entrance on Colesville Road, you'll be able to find Metrobus routes serving Maryland, some of Montgomery County's Ride On routes, MetroAccess, and a shuttle to the Food and Drug Administration's campus in White Oak. This is where the Red Line entrance will be, as well as some bike racks.

On the second floor, with an entrance on Ramsey Avenue, you'll find Metrobus routes serving the District, additional Ride On routes, and the University of Maryland shuttle, as well as intercity buses like Greyhound and Peter Pan. This floor connects to the MARC train platform and has an escalator down to the Metro entrance.

The third floor, entered from Bonifant Street, will have taxis and a kiss-and-ride. The transit center also has a TRIPS commuter store where you can get transit schedules and buy tickets. All three floors connect to a portion of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which will eventually connect Silver Spring to Union Station.

Strangely enough, you won't be able to get MTA commuter buses at the transit center. They'll continue to stop a half-block away at Colesville Road and East-West Highway.

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