Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Eric Fidler

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

Cities worldwide are building beautiful, landmark pedestrian and bicycle bridges. Could Georgetown be next?

A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge may one day connect Georgetown with Roosevelt Island. Some recent bridges like this in other cities have become iconic landmarks. Could DC do the same and compensate for its freqently lackluster bridge designs? Here are a few of the world's great pedestrian bridges.


London's Millennium Bridge. Photo by Dominik Morbitzer on Flickr.

Such a bridge was part of Georgetown's recent 15-year action plan and made it into DC's MoveDC citywide transportation plan last year.


Where the bridge could go. Image from the Georgetown BID.

Many cities have built new bridges as opportunities to showcase distinctive design while adding vital pedestrian links. The London Borough of Wandsworth is sponsoring a design competition right now for a new footbridge across the Thames.

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the glass-floored Sundial Bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California.


The Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Photo by David W Oliver on Flickr.


Photo by dwhartwig on Flickr.

London's Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 to bridge the Thames between the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge is tall enough to allow river navigation, but short enough not to obstruct the historically protected view corridor of the cathedral.


Photo by Duen Ee Chan on Flickr.


Photo by andre.m(eye)r.vitali on Flickr.

The Simone de Beauvoir Footbridge has been undulating across the Seine in Paris since 2006.


Photo by Tim Brown Architecture on Flickr.


Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr.

The crescent Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, tilts back to allow ships to pass.


Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr.


Photo by Martin Sotirov on Flickr.

The Henderson Waves bridge soars 120 feet over a valley in the Southern Ridges park of Singapore. The bridge deck provides shade and seating areas to view the park valley.


Photo by edwin.11 on Flickr.


Photo by Steel Wool on Flickr.

Although it spans a relatively short distance, Sarajevo's Festina Lente Bridge features a playful loop that shades a seating area midway across the bridge.


Photo by the author.

Could one of these bridges come to DC?

Such a connection would provide many advantages. Although the island is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, visitors can only access it from Virginia. Visiting the island requires a half-mile walk or bike ride from Rosslyn down the Mount Vernon Trail. There's a small parking lot on the Virginia shore, but it fills up quickly on warm weekends, and drivers can only reach it from the northbound GW Parkway.

A bridge from Georgetown would give District residents and visitors easier access to this wooded and marshy parkland, which serves as a stark contrast to the dense urbanization of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.


The view from Georgetown Waterfront Park. Image by the author.


Georgetown Waterfront Park (left) and Roosevelt Island (right) as viewed from the Key Bridge. Image by the author.

There isn't money for the bridge today. MoveDC lists the bridge as a second-tier priority, meaning it is not within DC's six-year capital plan. DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson said external factors, such as outside funding or public support, could shift the bridge's priority.

Even if funding arises, multiple federal agencies will have to act. The National Park Service controls the island and would have to agree to any changes. MoveDC classifies the bridge as a bicycle transportation project, but the National Park Service, which controls the island, prohibits cycling there. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, which are providing advice on the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement, would play a strong role in reviewing designs.

Any project will require an environmental analysis which could take years (one for a proposed boathouse on Park Service land on the Arlington shore of the Potomac is dragging on into its third year, for example). If the bridge does come to fruition, it will be years away, but it would be a major asset to help people enjoy and appreciate the Potomac River.

I can take the bus from my neighborhood to just about anywhere in DC

I'd love for more of my neighbors to consider riding the bus, so I made a spider map to show just how far we can go on all the routes that run through where we live. It turns out that on the bus, we can go from LeDroit Park to nearly every other part of DC.


Click for larger interactive version.

Washington enjoys an extensive bus network, yet buses remain the most underappreciated mode of transit. Buses may be slower than Metrorail, but their coverage of DC is unbeatable.

One reason fewer Washingtonians ride buses than trains is that it's hard to understand the complex bus system, which has criss-crossing routes that all look the same and have hard-to-remember names.

Better marketing, like Peter Dunn's H Street spider map, can help demystify the bus and get more riders onto it.

The map I made shows people in LeDroit Park how they'd ride to Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, the National Cathedral, and Tenleytown to the northwest, a way to get to Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown without having to worry about parking, and how to get to and from H Street's night life without having impaired driving even being a concern.

For those who frequently use Metro, knowing the area's available bus routes brings the comfort of a backup plan for unexpected service disruptions on the Green Line. When the Metro tunnel fire on January 12 shut service to our main Metro station, a lot of my neighbors could have taken a number of buses home from downtown or from connecting Metro lines, but they didn't know it.

Hidden clues reveal an old road that disappeared from DC

Milkhouse Ford Road in Northwest DC no longer exists as a major thoroughfare. But clues of its past life are still visible thanks to skewed property lines, an abandoned ford over Rock Creek, and seemingly misplaced street names around the city.


In this 1861 map by Albert Boschke, Milkhouse Ford Road appears in what is now Rock Creek Park, but the road has long since vanished.

Milkhouse Ford Road was an old country road dating to the 18th century. It connected Broad Branch Road in what is now Chevy Chase to the neighborhoods now known as Brightwood and Fort Totten. Adjacent landowners built the road, which was the only northern crossing of Rock Creek in the early days of the District. American soldiers crossed the road on their way to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812.

The earliest and most extensive layout of the road's route appears in the topographical map of the District that German-born cartographer Albert Boschke published 1861.

When neighborhoods went up in Chevy Chase, Brightwood, and Petworth, old and windy roads didn't fit into DC's street grid. Slowly over time, property developers turned stretches of the road into residential lots. You can see the road's path, along with its slow demise, on various historical maps of the city.

By overlaying the Boschke map over maps from both the 20th century and today, we can trace the path of the road with a few adjustments to account for the inevitable inaccuracies of his 19th century mapmaking.

And really, you don't even have to look at old maps to find the road. A pair of hiking boots and an observant eye will reveal the road to anyone curious to find it. Here are some of the sites and anomalies that show us the path of the long-gone road.

A block of spacious front yards


Unusually spacious yards on the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW reveal the old road's path. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

On the 3200 block of Rittenhouse Street NW, today's skewed property lines and unusually generous setbacks show that the road passed through what are now the front yards on the south side of the street.


Skewed property lines accommodated the old road's path. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

The 1919 Baist Real Estate Atlas confirms that the road, later renamed Rock Creek Ford Road, passed through what are now the front lawns of houses on this block.

An alley out of nowhere

One block east, an alley splits off to the right of Quesada Street NW. This alley is officially named Rock Creek Ford Road and traces the path of the old road.



The old road (yellow) still exists for this block. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From this point to the western edge of Rock Creek Park, today's landscape makes it hard to spot the road's path. Subsequent landowners simply disregarded the road when building new developments.

An abandoned ford crosses Rock Creek

In Rock Creek Park, the old road ran over what is now a stream valley hiking trail connecting to the Milkhouse Ford. The trail's packed dirt surface is similar to what the road's original surface would have been.


Visitors to the northern end of Rock Creek Park have undoubtedly noticed the ford north of Military Road. During the Civil War, the Union Army surrounded Washington with forts perched on the ridges of the area's rolling farmland. The Army constructed Military Road to connect these northern DC forts, but before Military Road, Milkhouse Ford was the only Rock Creek crossing in the northern part of DC. It served as a vital east-west route.

In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park but was slow to invest in the park's infrastructure until the turn of the century, when it macadamized numerous park roads and paid for the ford to be repaved with concrete. In 1926, the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks built a bridge across the creek so motorists could avoid the ford. From then until the National Park Service closed the ford to automobiles in 1996, the crossing served as an entertaining diversion for adventurous drivers.


Photo from the National Park Service.

Indentations in the land mark the ghost road

Just east of the ford and Beach Drive, an indentation in the forest marks where the road ascended the stream valley to what is now the Rock Creek Golf Course. Exploring this section requires some hiking boots, but the road's old path is discernible if you look carefully.


The golf course's creation, which lasted from 1907 to 1909, eliminated all signs of the roadway through the rest of the park. But at 16th Street, builders incorporated the road into Brightwood's street network, and it still exists today as a narrow street that cuts diagonally toward Georgia Avenue.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.


Rock Creek Ford Road branching off from Fort Stevens Drive.

The narrow road met what is now Colorado Avenue and Georgia Avenue (then called the Seventh Street Turnpike). This is just south of Fort Stevens, where Abraham Lincoln observed a battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. Missouri Avenue wasn't there yet, so the intersection was not as complicated to navigate as it is today.


The old narrow road as it met the turnpike that is now Georgia Avenue.


1861 Boschke map of DC. Milkhouse Ford Road (now Rock Creek Ford Road) enters at the top-left corner and continues just north of the M.G. Emery estate.


The old road (yellow) still passes through Brightwood. Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.

From Georgia Avenue to its end near North Capitol Street, Milkhouse Ford Road was eventually renamed Shepherd Road. With a few exceptions, it followed the path of today's Missouri Avenue.

The extant road remains as an alley between the 400 block of Longfellow Street and the 700 block of Madison Street NW.


Map by the author. GIS data from data.dc.gov.



The road ended at an intersection with Rock Creek Church Road in what is now private land. Rock Creek Church Road is a similar old road. It started in Columbia Heights, passed through Petworth, and ended near what is now Fort Totten.


The road ended in the backyard of what is now a residence. Rock Creek Church Road, pictured in the foreground originally extended through the buildings straight ahead.

DC had many old, rural roads before the city's development covered the entire District. Most still exist today as main thoroughfares, like Georgia Avenue or Bladensburg Road. The difference between these and Milkhouse Ford Road is that Georgia and Bladensburg are largely intact today.

You can explore the road's path with this interactive map.

This German city's monorail redefines river transportation

A suspended monorail in one German city proves that transportation infrastructure doesn't have to obstruct access to parks and rivers.


Photo by the author.

The Schwebebahn is a suspended monorail that runs 8.3 miles through Wuppertal, a city laid out linearly along the River Wupper in western Germany. Though the monorail may seem futuristic, the first segment opened in 1901 and the full line was finished in 1903.

The western end of the line, about 1.8 miles, is suspended over a few of the main commercial streets in the Vohwinkel neighborhood of the city. The rest of the line, about 6.5 miles, runs high above the Wupper to the center and eastern end of the city.

Some cities are tempted to deck over their rivers since these waterways provide one of the few linear paths unobstructed by private property through existing cities. Covering a river to build a highway or a railroad may eliminate the difficulty of razing neighborhoods, but doing so eliminates public access to the river.

Twenty years ago, Providence removed the world's widest bridge to daylight a river and create Waterplace Park, one of the city's main attractions. A decade ago, Seoul removed an elevated freeway above the Cheonggyecheon and created a popular riverside park.

Since Wuppertal's Schwebebahn is already suspended from a relatively thin monorail superstructure, it is one of the few transportation systems that runs over a river without limiting access to and enjoyment of the natural resource. In fact, a riverside park near the eastern terminal is popular spot for families to play in the river as Schwebebahn trains pass overhead.


Families play in the river as the train passes overhead. Photo by the author.

North-South streetcar starts to take shape

A north-south DC streetcar will almost certainly use Georgia Avenue north of Petworth, but could take one of several different paths downtown and to Buzzard Point. DDOT has narrowed down options for this streetcar, and designed potential configurations with and without dedicated lanes.


A potential streetcar stop layout. All images from DDOT unless noted.

This week, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding its second round of public meetings on plans to build a line between Buzzard Point and either Takoma or Silver Spring.

Residents can weigh in on routes along Sherman Avenue or Georgia Avenue between Petworth and U Street, 4 possible routes downtown (14th, 11th, 9th, or 7th), 2 across the Mall (7th or 4th, and several options for navigating Southwest to Buzzard Point.

At the northern end of the line, DDOT planners are still deciding whether it should go to the Takoma Metro station via Butternut Street NW or all the way up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring, which has far more merit as a terminus.


Possible streetcar routes. Click for a larger map (PDF).

Streetcars could get their own lanes, but planners aren't enthusiastic

Street widths vary greatly throughout the corridor, and the streetcar study team has proposed a number of configurations. Some include dedicated lanes, which could provide a faster, more reliable ride but would involve removing curbside parking, which will be controversial.

Other options would place the streetcar in the center of the street, but have it share the lanes between streetcars and private vehicles. DDOT planner Jamie Henson said it would be possible to convert center lanes to dedicated lanes in the future.

Are dedicated lanes worth it for the speed advantage? Henson said that in many areas, including parts of Georgia Avenue, the traffic volumes are not heavy enough to provide a significant speed benefit from dedicated lanes. Aside from downtown, DDOT planners have deliberately excluded congested corridors that would make service unreliable and slow.

Right now, the study does not assign specific layouts to portions of the corridor, but offers alternatives based on how wide each street section is.


Cross-sections with dedicated streetcar lanes and with streetcars in the center of the street. Click to see all of the options.

DDOT is also contemplating ways to accommodate cyclists and streetcars in the same space. One alternative, Option E, includes a bike sidepath around streetcar stops.

Other cities, like Portland, have used a similar design.


A sidepath next to a streetcar stop in Portland. Photo by Matt Johnson.

14th Street and 13th Street through Columbia Heights are off the table


Boardings and alightings along 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue NW. Click for a larger version.

Henson said 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights is too congested to ensure reliable, high-capacity service, especially as the street narrows to one lane in each direction north of Irving Street. The agency also eliminated 13th Street, Henson said, because the streetcar cannot climb the steep hill beside Cardozo High School.

Furthermore, DDOT looked at adjacent land uses to consider the development potential of specific routes. Georgia Avenue is the only north-south corridor that has room for the higher-density, mixed-use development that transit investments spur.

Meanwhile, 16th and 14th streets north of Columbia Heights consist largely of single-family homes, with a few nodes of commercial and apartment buildings along 14th. Georgia Avenue, however, has a greater variety of uses and densities along its entire length.

This disparity between 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue is also evident in how people use the bus routes in each corridor. Throughout the length of Georgia Avenue, there are consistently high numbers of boardings and alightings on the 70/79 Metrobus, while on 14th and 16th Streets, they drop substantially north of Military Road.

Streetcars won't replace bus service

Some residents, particularly in Southwest, have voiced concern that the streetcar may reduce bus service in the neighborhood, which has already lost Circulator service and the 70 bus. Henson said that streetcar service is intended to supplement, not replace, bus service.

What do you think? DDOT wants to know

DDOT is hosting its second round of public meetings this week and next week, including one meeting this afternoon. All of the meetings are open to the public so they can comment on the proposals. Here are the remaining dates:

  • Wednesday, February 19
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW
  • Thursday, February 20
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Emery Rec Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW

New musical follows the life of a city planner

"If/Then," a new musical at the National Theatre, follows the life choices and regrets of a fictional city planner in New York. But does it also say something about the choices that cities face?


If/Then poster from The Hartman Group.

In "If/Then," urban planning as a profession plays only a supporting role to Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), a planning Ph.D. who returns to New York after a decade in Phoenix with her ex-husband. The plot bifurcates into parallel stories of Elizabeth's life as a single, career-driven city planner on a waterfront redevelopment project and an adjunct planning professor with a husband and two kids.

The problems Elizabeth face seem torn from the Breakfast Links: The city's deputy mayor is in charge of a large, politically contentious redevelopment project. Community groups and the city dispute the amount of affordable housing there should be. Housing advocates blog their frustrations.

Think of a play about planning, and you can already hear a chorus of opponents chanting on key, "We weren't consulted," and "Too tall, too dense, not enough parking!" The musical score focuses on Elizabeth's personal life (or lives), so if you were looking for a catchy tune on dedicated bus lanes or a ballad to nonconforming uses, you are out of luck.

But you could read the musical itself as an allegory for a city. For instance, Elizabeth's return from Phoenix may represent America's waning love affair with sprawl. The structure of the play also provides an interesting thought experiment. Consider what Washington would look like if history had made a few different turns.

What if Germany blitzed Washington in World War II? What if the federal government never razed and redeveloped Southwest?

What if the Metro had never been built? What if more neighborhoods were bulldozed to construct all the highways planned in 1950? What if the District had followed other American cities in loosening its height limit decades ago? What if Washington had actually become racially integrated?

It's fun and sometimes scary to imagine our region in these alternative universes. As with Elizabeth's parallel lives, each choice delivers its own rewards and disappointments.

Likewise, grand city plans face trade-offs, but cities, unlike people, can live for millennia. When planners make choices that in retrospect seem unwise or unjust, subsequent generations can always reconsider, repair, and reconstruct the built environment in pursuit of a better metropolis.

"If/Then" is showing at the National Theatre until December 8. The play will open in New York in March.

DC studying streetcar to Takoma or Silver Spring

DC will start a one-year study of a north-south transit corridor from Southwest DC to Takoma or Silver Spring. While it's too early to tell what officials will decide, it's clear that Silver Spring's jobs, amenities, and other transit connections make it the most logical terminus.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

This new corridor, which could operate as BRT but more likely a streetcar, will be one of the largest transit expansions in the District. This study, which is the first step in a longer planning process, will analyze alignments and modes through the entire study corridor to produce no more than three alternatives.

Historically, streetcars ran up 11th Street, 14th Street, and 7th Street/Georgia Avenue, spurring the development of commercial nodes along the way. You can see the vestiges of those lines today at their former termini: the Trolley Turnaround Park at 11th & Monroe Street NW, the streetcar terminal at Colorado Avenue, and downtown Silver Spring, just beyond the Georgia Avenue line's end at Eastern Avenue.

According to project manager Jamie Henson, DDOT has not committed to any exact alignment, but the study will consider corridors from 16th Street NW to as far as a quarter-mile east of 7th Street or Georgia Avenue. The original 2010 plan for the 37-mile network depicted a line running from Buzzard Point through downtown on 7th Street SW/NW and F Street NW, then along 14th Street NW, U Street NW, and finally on Georgia Avenue NW to Takoma. The plan described Silver Spring as a future extension along Georgia Avenue.


Image by the author, based on a DDOT map.

Though DDOT will study BRT and a wider range of alignments, the original alignment is still a possibility. The agency just announced that its preferred alternative for the Union Station-Georgetown transit line is a streetcar on H Street NE/NW, New Jersey Avenue NW and K Street NW, mirroring the original mode and alignment in the 2010 streetcar plan.

DDOT will compare streetcars to BRT, but not entirely

This phase of the study will consider modes such as BRT and streetcars, assessing the travel time, reliability, level of service, access to jobs, and types of trips served. The study will consider the trade-offs and desirability of running the line in dedicated lanes versus mixed traffic. DDOT will also contemplate whether the new service should prioritize speed and install fewer stops, or increase the number of stops to reduce walking.

Henson said the study will consider construction and operating costs of BRT versus streetcar, but Henson dismissed the differences in real estate development each mode sparks, saying development along the north-south corridor will happen regardless of mode. The Office of Planning's 2012 Streetcar Land Use Study, however, clearly favors streetcars' development potential for the District:

Although well-designed BRT systems attract some development, their impacts are typically much less than those for rail—and the BRT systems that have generated the strongest development response operate on exclusive rights of way at all times and not in mixed traffic, as the District streetcar would. In cities without the potential to attract much development investment, implementation costs and other factors give buses a clear advantage. In the District, however, streetcar service appears very likely to attract significant real estate investment.
Weighing the costs of construction and operation without accounting for land value appreciation misses an important part of financing the eventual project. DDOT recently announced that the District government will finance the streetcar, while contracting to a private firm to design, build, operate, and maintain the system.

The District has not decided whether it will finance the full streetcar network through TIFs, general tax revenue, or special bond programs, but one thing is clear: bonds will have to be paid off through some stream of tax revenue, either a special account or the general fund. It's essential to compare the new tax revenue each mode generates, but this will likely wait for a later phase.

Extending the corridor to Silver Spring is in DC's interest

While keeping the north-south streetcar entirely in DC would be politically easier, there are many compelling reasons why terminating it at the Silver Spring Metro station would benefit the District and the region as a whole.

One of the main lessons our region learned from constructing the Metro is that all parts of the region thrive when everyone cooperates on transportation planning. The streetcars provide a valuable opportunity to further knit together the region's many vibrant walkable urban places both socially and economically.

When connected with urban-oriented transit infrastructure, urban places make each other more desirable because people in one location enjoy the benefits of all the other urban places. Even though it's on the other side of Eastern Avenue, District residents will more easily enjoy all that Silver Spring has to offer with more robust transit access via the north-south streetcar.

Silver Spring is a regional jobs center with 40,000 jobs and more to come. DC's northernmost neighborhoods would have an easy, quick reverse commute just across Eastern Avenue to a major regional jobs center. And unlike the Takoma Metro Station, Silver Spring is a major transit hub connecting not just the Red Line, but also MARC, the future Purple Line, and numerous bus lines to places throughout DC and Maryland.

It's also a regional shopping and entertainment hub, home to the Fillmore music hall, the American Film Institute Silver Theater, a public outdoor ice rink as well as free concerts at Veterans' Plaza, a farmers' market, and some regionally notable bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, the 70/79 Metrobus, which serves the 7th Street/Georgia Avenue corridor between Southwest DC and Silver Spring today, is one of the most popular bus lines in the system.

Even though Silver Spring is just outside DDOT's jurisdiction, it would obviously win out over Takoma if transit projects followed economic, not jurisdictional, boundaries. Furthermore, two Montgomery County Councilmembers have asked DC Mayor Vincent Gray to consider Silver Spring as a terminal.

Share your views with DDOT next week

The District is hosting four meetings to kick off the study next week. In this first round, the agency is interested in learning your views on the eventual plan's features. Do you prefer faster travel times to frequent stops? Do you think the new line should run in its own dedicated lane at all or only in certain places? What impacts on street parking would you consider unacceptable? Do you prefer Takoma or Silver Spring as a northern terminus?

  • Buzzard Point to Downtown: Monday, November 4 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 600 M Street SW.
  • Downtown to Petworth: Tuesday, November 5 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
  • Businesses (entire study area): Wednesday, November 6 from 2pm to 4pm, Reeves Center, 2000 14th Street NW.
  • Petworth to Silver Spring: Thursday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30pm, Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
All project studies involve trade-offs of some sort and the agency is interested in hearing what the public's priorities are. Everyone is welcome to attend any meeting, regardless of residence. For more information, visit the study website.

GGW on the road: Chicago's "Unicorn bike"

How can you generate publicity for a new bikesharing system? Chicago's newly launched fleet of pale blue bikeshares includes one "unicorn bike": a bright red bike, dubbed #Divvyred, that Chicagoans are chasing all around the Windy City.


Photo by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Chicago's bikesharing system, Divvy, launched this summer with a fleet of pale blue bikes. Except one. As a clever marketing tool, one of the Divvy's 3,000 bikes is painted bright red. Chicagoans who spot the bike can post photos of it on Twitter using the hashtag #DivvyRed to be eligible for daily prize drawings. In addition, the 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, 200th, and 300th riders get free memberships.

Installing what Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein calls a "unicorn bike" is an inexpensive and fun way to generate publicity for this new city service. Photos of the elusive #Divvyred are slowly appearing on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The random node-to-node transfer path of bikesharing ensures the bike will eventually make its way all around the city, appearing at Wrigley Field one day and in Bronzeville the next.

If Capital Bikeshare added its own unicorn, what might it look like? As we've learned, bright red is a striking color. Few colors, except maybe gold, can outshine red in conspicuousness and mystique. Popular stories prize elusive golden items, from the golden ticket to the golden fleece, so why not add #theGoldenCaBi to the list?


Image by the author.

Metro bag searches aren't always optional

If you refuse a bag search at a WMATA subway station, Metro Transit Police may follow you if you leave and even if you board a bus. That's what happened to me Tuesday morning in Shaw.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

I entered the Shaw Metro station with a bag containing my lunch and my laptop. An officer waved me aside on the north mezzanine and told me to put my bag on the table for inspection. Stunned that I was being stopped without cause, I asked the officer if he had a warrant. He said that if I refused, I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation."

I refused the search, which is mostly about theatrics than actual security. I didn't want to enable what critics have labeled "security theater", the symbolic show of force to give the appearance of protection. In fact, WMATA admits that since they don't search every bag, it's really more about perception, providing "an additional visible layer of protection." Putting on a show is not a good reason to rummage through people's personal items and I didn't want to enable that behavior and belief.

By agreeing to an "optional" WMATA search, I was afraid I would also be inadvertently consenting to a search of my laptop, which would be an abusive and unreasonable intrusion for a transit agency. I wasn't sure if the officers were properly trained to know the nuances of what was and wasn't an appropriate search. How would you even argue with an officer who believes random bag checks at one station actually deter terrorism, anyway? It's like arguing the plot in a fiction novel: the very premise is that facts only partly matter.

Remembering reports that Metro Transit Police only set up searches at one entrance, I pointed to the south mezzanine and said, "I can use that entrance," and the officer said nothing. I left the north entrance to walk to the south entrance a block away.

As I descended the escalators to the south mezzanine, I spotted more officers in the distance. Realizing that the answer would probably be the same at this entrance. I calmly turned around and left, deciding to catch the bus instead.

Little did I know that Metro Transit Police would follow me there. I boarded the 70 bus, which runs above the Green and Yellow lines on 7th Street NW and SW. Two officers got on behind me. Their vests were marked with the word "Terrorism" (perhaps, "Anti-Terrorism" or "Counter-Terrorism", I don't remember which), so clearly they were not there to investigate a fist fight, theft, or fare evasion.

One officer took a seat and another stood, mostly watching his phone. Neither of them said anything to me.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, I thought. Why would police follow me for refusing a supposedly "optional" search, even after I was told I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation"? I was on another mode, after all.

When the bus reached H Street, where I intended to transfer to the Red Line, I paused a moment in my seat, to see what the officers were doing. They remained on the bus. I then got up and stood in line to leave the front of the bus. As I neared the front door, I looked back and noticed that one of the officers had left the back door of the bus and was standing outside.

To test if he was following me, I then sat down in a seat at the front of the bus, and the officer re-boarded the bus through the back door. The driver closed the doors and I asked her if she could reopen it so I could leave. She pushed the door mechanism, which reopened the front and the back door and I left the bus.

As I left the bus at the front door, the officer standing at the back door, partly hanging out the bus, waved and smiled at me through the glass of the rear open door. This act was about sending me a message: if you refuse a search, you will be followed, which is itself a form of intimidation.

WMATA's stated policy allows customers to refuse the allegedly optional search. "Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection," it says.

While you may be "welcome to use another mode of transportation," bag searches aren't really optional if Metro Transit Police follow you and deliberately make it known that they're following you.

New, greener, safer, better design coming for 15th and W

15th and W Streets and New Hampshire and Florida Avenues, NW all come together in a large, barren expanse of asphalt that Stephen Miller nicknamed the Death Star after a driver killed a pedestrian there in 2009. But DDOT is on the side of the rebels and is striking back with a redesign.


15th, W, Florida and New Hampshire today. Images from DDOT.

None of the roads at this intersection are very wide or carry much traffic. However, traffic engineers in years past made the block between V and W function like a set of freeway offramps. The lanes merge to a narrower 15th Street and a gradual slip lane onto Florida that encouraged drivers to make the turn at high speed. Chevrons mark off a large tract of pavement between the two.

After the 2009 fatality, DDOT quickly moved to install temporary curbs and posts to slow traffic at the corners. On Wednesday, they presented preliminary options for a permanent solution to a committee of the local ANC.

Both options would limit traffic in the block of 15th from V to W only 2 lanes, moving back the 3-lane to 2-lane merge point to the block between U and V. At W Street, one lane would continue up the hill on 15th, while the other would let drivers turn right onto either Florida Avenue or W, in more of a traditional intersection.

The 2 options only differ in the location of the newly-created green space. One option puts it mostly on the east side of the street, while the other divides new green space between the east and west sides.


Click on an image to enlarge.

These options have safety trade-offs. Keeping the roadway on the left (left-hand image) makes the lane shift on 15th more gradual and makes speeding easier, but it also allows for a larger triangular pedestrian island in the middle of the intersection. Shifting the roadway to the right (right-hand image) forces drivers on 15th to slow down more as they approach the hill, but leaves a smaller pedestrian island.

Both proposals add numerous bulb-outs at the crosswalks just as the agency has included on H Street NE and other places around town. In these places, the curb juts out toward the travel lane and reduces the distance pedestrians must spend vulnerable in the roadway while crossing the street.

The design also extends the 15th Street cycle track into this area. Right now, the 2-way track ends at V Street. Riders heading northbound have to cut across traffic to a bike lane on the east side of the street (or just share the lane), while riders southbound can't legally use 15th in this area (though many do anyway).

The part of 15th going up Meridian Hill now has two bike lanes, both northbound, one on each side of the street. DDOT's original hopes for the 2-way 15th Street cycle track included having it stretch to Euclid, the northern edge of the park. DDOT bicycle program head Jim Sebastian says that when DDOT rebuilds the "Death Star" intersection, they will also complete a continuous 2-way bicycle facility from U to Euclid.

DDOT could just build the cycle track in this intersection along the edge of the roadway, separated with poles, as with the rest of the cycle track today. Other options, though, elevate it up to sidewalk level like many European cities do. The tree boxes would still separate the track from the sidewalk, but then one of a few different curb treatments would divide it from the roadway.

At the meeting, DDOT planner Gabriela Vega said the agency was still weighing the pros and cons of the last three designs' barriers between the cycle track and the parking lane. The barriers in the last three designs all include permeable pavers that allow the ground to absorb more stormwater.

Renderings show treeboxes between the sidewalks and streets including rain gardens to trap stormwater and "flow-through planters," where water that lands in one treebox can gradually flow to the next as it runs downhill, feeding more than one tree.

If those treatments make the trees extremely verdant, the intersection could ultimately look something like this:

Even while the trees are growing, it'd be a huge improvement over today:


Image from Google Street View.

Many years ago, DDOT had considered an unsignalized roundabout for the intersection. In 2008 we published a proposal of what that might look like. Back then, the agency responded that they had dropped the idea of a roundabout.

When asked at Wednesday's meeting why a roundabout was not under consideration, Vega said DDOT's traffic models showed that a roundabout could not accommodate the traffic volumes of both 15th Street and W Street.

The designs DDOT presented are preliminary concepts. The agency will update the ANC again in a few months with refinements. DDOT is still seeking input, especially on the cycle track separation options and the roadway alignment options mentioned above.

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