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

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. 


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.


DDOT helps "complete" Florida Avenue

A section of Florida Avenue NW will soon better provide for all its users, including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. The street will get wider sidewalks, street trees, and bike lanes after residents and DDOT collaborated to redesign it.

Photo by the author.

This section of Florida Avenue has enjoyed significant population growth over the past decade. New condo towers went up on both sides of the street and more are on the way.

The street's wide, auto-oriented roadway may have been appropriate for the area's previous use a warehouse district. Today, however, most of the industrial uses are gone and old shops and parking lots are turning into mixed-use residential and commercial buildings.

The project area encompasses 9th Street NW from U Street to Florida Avenue, and Florida Avenue NW to just past Sherman Avenue. The project also includes the southern­most block of Sherman Avenue and the northernmost block of Vermont Avenue.

Project area. Click for an interactive map.

More crosswalks and better sidewalks

Increasing the share of trips taken by means other than an automobile is an important goal for the District and especially for the U Street area, which is already at its car-carrying capacity. Making walking safer and more enjoyable is a good way to encourage people to shift from driving to walking for more of their trips.

The agency's designs call for widening the sidewalks and installing a planting strip buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway. Separating pedestrians from high-speed traffic with a row of parked cars or a planting strip improves pedestrian comfort. Few people want to walk within 2 feet of speeding traffic.

Crossing Florida Avenue today is a daunting task. The road's width encourages speeding and provides no median refuge for pedestrians. The new design resolves this problem with a median, a few bulb-outs, a narrowed roadway, striped crosswalks, and a new traffic light.

One of the more notable changes is that DDOT intends to turn the intersection of 9th Street, V Street, and Florida Avenue into a signalized intersection. Regular concertgoers know this intersection as the location of the 9:30 Club. The intersection's current form requires concertgoers to cross a wide section of Florida Avenue while hoping that motorists will stop for them at the crosswalks. The new signal will provide more order to this process.

Intersection of Florida Avenue, V Street, and 9th Street NW.

DDOT plans to reconfigure the intersection of Florida Avenue and Vermont Avenue to slow traffic turning from southbound Florida Avenue to Vermont Avenue. Currently, the intersection is designed like a highway ramp for southbound traffic. The new design will force motorists to make a sharper right turn, which will cause them to slow down. This reduces the chance that a pedestrian will suffer severe injury or death if struck while crossing the street.

Intersection of Florida Avenue and Vermont Avenue NW.

New bike lanes, bike boxes, and sharrows

The new street will receive bike lanes in some stretches and sharrows in others. DDOT will also implement some of its new bike practices here. The agency will place bike boxes on Florida Avenue at Vermont Avenue to aid turning and merging movements. A new southbound bike lane on Vermont Avenue will connect the Florida Avenue bike lanes with the V Street lane, which stretches to the foot of Adams Morgan 10 blocks west.

The District is now starting to paint green bike lanes to help differentiate the lanes from regular street lanes. The agency will apply the same treatment to assist cyclists who wish to continue on Florida Avenue beyond Sherman Avenue.

Intersection of Florida Avenue and Sherman Avenue NW.

More trees, less impervious pavement

The proposal calls for adding 57 street trees, one of the most notable visual and environmental changes. At the first community meeting a year ago, DDOT planner Gabriela Vega noted that her agency was under a mandate to increase the District's tree canopy.

Trees reduce the urban heat island effect, raise property values, and reduce stormwater flow into the sewers. Converting some of the asphalt pavement into grassy planting strips and medians will help the soil absorb rainwater and reduce the pressure on the combined sewer system.

Reducing stormwater volume is especially important in light of recent storms that caused minor flooding in one of the condo buildings on Florida Avenue. This section of Florida Avenue drains to the Northeast Boundary Tunnel, the massive century-old combined sewer that has backed up and caused flooding several times this summer in the LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods.

In their conversations with DDOT, residents suggested adding a median with street trees and planting strips along the curbs. In response, DDOT plans to widen the sidewalks, many of which are too narrow for wheelchairs today, and add planting strips to both sides of the street. A tree-studded median will stretch from Vermont Avenue to W Street.

Proposed median and street trees along Florida Avenue from Vermont Avenue to W Street NW.

Missed opportunities

Though DDOT added nearly all of the ANC's requested improvements, the agency was unable to add two important features. First, the ANC requested striped crosswalks for the intersection of Florida Avenue and W Street to aid people crossing Florida Avenue.

Richard Kenney of DDOT explained that the two lanes of southbound traffic make a crosswalk at W Street difficult. If a motorist in one lane stops for a pedestrian in the crosswalk, it would be too likely for a motorist in the second lane to continue moving.

Though a traffic signal at W Street could bring all traffic to a stop, DDOT's engineers worried that traffic would back up along Florida Avenue and block the intersection at Sherman Avenue.

The ANC also requested the addition of a striped crosswalk across Florida Avenue on the south side of the intersection with Sherman Avenue. The agency rejected this request, fearing that the left-turning traffic volumes from Sherman Avenue would be too high and cause drivers to block the intersection while waiting for pedestrians to cross.

Vega, DDOT's planner, was sympathetic to the ANC's desire to add every pedestrian accommodation possible, but said that the design process is a negotiation to balance numerous interests.

Even without these ANC-suggested changes, the project will widen sidewalks, add street trees, reduce the size of intersection corners, add bike lanes and bike boxes, remove curb cuts, and add a new traffic signal. It will create a street that is vastly better for residents on foot and on bikes.

Policy matters in the creation of complete streets

The ANC was instrumental in adding these complete street elements to the design. I volunteer as chair of the ANC's Transportation Committee and was happy to see residents, including a road engineer, mark up the original designs to add complete street elements I had not even considered.

The elected commissioners passed the list of requests and DDOT incorporated the vast majority of the requests into its design. The ANC did not get everything it wanted, but it got the majority.

Adding street trees and improving the quality of the walking experience are explicit District policy objectives that both Mayors Fenty and Gray have embraced. Though skeptics may dismiss these policy statements as electioneering, these official guidelines are critical in advocating improvements in new public projects. They provide political force for planners and citizens as they advocate for complete streets.


Schools and taverns can coexist

The Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board will grant a license for All Souls, the proposed restaurant to occupy the long-vacant storefront at 725 T Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood. While most liquor license applications face protests over noise and trash, several residents had objected on the grounds that children at the school across the street would be harmed by merely viewing adults consuming alcohol.

The vacant storefront where All Souls will locate. Photo by the author.

The objection seemed like a quaint, Puritanical reaction incongruent with a diverse, secular city. All Souls thus became a lightning rod for unexpected opposition in March, drawing crowds and TV news coverage to its liquor license hearing. Long before the hearing, however, the proprietor agreed to only serve alcohol inside and only serve after 5 pm.

DC law does, however, recognize that alcohol-serving establishments near schools merit at least some level of extra scrutiny. In fact the law prohibits the issuance of liquor licenses:

within 400 feet of a public, private, or parochial primary, elementary, or high school; college or university; or recreation area operated by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (DC Code 25-314(b)(1)).
The protestors, legally referred to as "protestants", thought this provision would damn the All Souls application. The same section of the DC Code, however, lists 10 exceptions to the 400-foot rule, including this important one:
The 400-foot restriction shall not apply if there exists within 400 feet a currently-functioning establishment holding a license of the same class at the time that the new application is submitted. (DC Code 25-314(b)(3))
The board found that the Mesobe market on 7th Street NW is indeed already within 400 feet of the school. The distance measurement, the board's ruling stated, "'shall be the shortest distance between the property lines of the places.' 23 DCMR 101.1 (West Supp. 2012)."

The existence of Mesobe within 400 feet of the school provides a precedent that satisfies the exception for All Souls, the board decided in its ruling.

With that argument down, the board addressed the general assertion that it is unsafe for children to view adults consuming alcohol. Here is where the board delivered its most scathing criticism of the objectors:

Finally, we reject the Protestants' unsubstantiated assertion that the mere sight of the Applicant's tavern will be detrimental to the students of Cleveland Elementary School... Indeed, if we accepted the Protestants' argument that the mere sight of adults in a tavern consuming alcohol is harmful to children, the Board would similarly have to ban children from:
  1. entering restaurants that serve alcohol to patrons;
  2. attending sporting events where alcohol may be consumed by adult fans;
  3. eating dinner with their parents if wine is served with the parents' meal;
  4. participating in religious ceremonies where wine is part of the service; and
  5. walking through neighborhoods with large concentrations of liquor-serving establishments during the daytime, such as Adams Morgan and U Street.
The board further described the objection as "unworkable, unreasonable, and not in accordance with current societal practices."

There are a few important lessons from this case. The most important is that District boards don't always cave to the flimsily argued demands of a vocal few. A common complaint, especially among the business community, is that DC's various boards, such as Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), the Old Georgetown Board, the ABC Board, etc., exercise their discretion in ways that are too often inconsistent or outright bizarre.

The most frustrating experience with these boards is encountering unsupported opinions. In cases before the HPRB, many opponents argue that a proposed building is "incompatible" with the historic district while they fail to elaborate why it is allegedly incompatible. Georgetown resident Topher Matthews explained this sentiment that I have also encountered when following historic preservation cases:

Time and time again, neighbors use the historic preservation design review process to object to the size of the project rarely out of any genuine concern for the preservation of the neighborhood's historic character but rather because they simply just don't like the project. The basis for the complaints would be no different than if the project were in a brand new development with no historic character: it blocks my view, it's too big, you'll be able to see into my garden, et cetera.
In the All Souls case, the school proximity argument failed to establish harm to students to a degree that would warrant killing off a fledgling local business. It is a non sequitur to many people that children are harmed by catching a glimpse of adults across the street sipping wine at 5 pm. Merely believing that something is true doesn't necessarily make it true. In rejecting this claim, the ABC Board rightly stood firm in the factual evidence presented to it.

The entire licensing process, which was unusually protracted in this case, certainly cost the proprietor of All Souls a hefty sum in legal fees. When the proprietor attended community meetings on his proposed license, he usually had his attorney with him to address the fine legal distinctions, especially as it applied to the somewhat complicated 400-foot rule.

In fact I pitied the man. All he wanted to do was open up his small businesses. His modest license request unleashed the histrionic vitriol of a few strident Furies who spoke as though he were defiling the sanctity of childhood itself!

The board ratified a voluntary agreement between All Souls and three neighbors uninvolved in the school-proximity protest. The text of this side agreement is not currently available, but if it is like most other voluntary agreements, it likely negotiated closing hours and restrictions on indoor music volume, not moral arguments about child psychology and societal vice.

For all the complaints about DC's regulatory bodies, the regulatory system worked rationally in this case. The board ratified the agreement with the neighbors willing to compromise. It rejected outright the protest of people who refused to believe the business should even exist.

The good news is that even the opponents who lost their case actually won. Cleveland Elementary School is a great school and will continue to be a great school long after All Souls has poured its inaugural beer. The conversion of the vacant storefront into an occupied business will deter the loitering and drug-dealing along that block of T Street and will remove a visible physical blight from the neighborhood.

The neighborhood and the school will both be better off once All Souls opens.

Cross-posted at Left for LeDroit.


A moratorium will stifle new restaurants and lower service

There is yet another movement afoot for a liquor license moratorium (and thus a restaurant moratorium) on U Street. This moratorium is a bad idea, and some other residents have created a petition to oppose it.

Photo by Jenn Larsen on Flickr.

A resident on 13th Street is behind the latest push; she proposes the moratorium for all new liquor license applications within a 1,800-foot radius of Ben's Next Door. This was a bad idea 2 years when Jim Graham suggested it, and it's bad now.

Since many restaurants depend on liquor sales, a liquor moratorium will also effectively block restaurants. A moratorium doesn't distinguish the responsible businesses, which improve the neighborhood, from the rowdy ones that cause problems for residents. It's also unfair, arbitrary, hard to administer, and won't solve the ultimate problem.

It makes no distinction between responsible businesses and rowdy businesses.

A moratorium fails to differentiate between businesses that are quiet and cause no trouble for their neighbors, like the Saloon, and those that cause raucous noise late into the night. ANCs and neighbors should protest irresponsible and disruptive businesses, but a moratorium is essentially a permanent, unconditional protest of all proposed restaurants and bars. Many new establishments are started by experienced restaurateurs whose previous businesses exist in harmony with their neighbors.

It's effectively a restaurant moratorium.

Restaurants make their money on alcohol and relatively little on food. This is why Shaw's Tavern, when dry, quickly shuttered. Prohibiting the issuance of new liquor licenses will essentially deny new restaurants the ability to earn enough to pay rent. A liquor license moratorium is a restaurant moratorium.

It will reduce customer service.

A moratorium will limit the supply of restaurants and bars even while demand rises. This means restaurant prices will face upward pressure, seating may become scarcer, and service quality will likely fall. The population of the census tract covering the eastern side of the U Street corridor grew by 86% from 2000 to 2010 and will continue to grow as more residential buildings come online. If you think finding a table is hard now, a moratorium will make it worse.

It unfairly "picks winners."

Placing a legislative cap on new business activity unfairly privileges incumbent businesses. To intervene so severely in the market as to artificially limit consumer choice means that current license holders will enjoy an oligopoly. This increased business, however, will not result from a restaurant's merit, but will result from the fact that consumers will face limited choices. A business owner's "merit" will simply be that he had the good luck open shop just before the regulatory door slammed shut behind him.

It's arbitrary.

There are currently 107 licenses within the proposed moratorium area. There is no definitive proof that the 107 number is too high, too low, or just right. Unfortunately, moratoria disregard nuance and set arbitrary numbers as permanent limits. Furthermore, it's arbitrary to propose that the moratorium be based on a perfect circle, that the circle have a 1,800-foot radius, and that the circle be centered on Ben's Next Door.

It will not resolve the stated problem.

Matters of crime, noise, and trash, which the City Paper reports as the main motivators for the moratorium's proponent, will not be resolved by a moratorium. Restricting the issuance of alcohol licenses will not reduce crime, will not reduce noise, and will not reduce trash. It will, however, result in longer wait times for table, higher prices, and lower service.

It's difficult to administer.

Laws should be simple to understand and administer. The proposed moratorium area is a circle and circles are harder to measure on land. In fact, we discovered this problem recently when measuring the distance between a liquor store and Cleveland Elementary School. Do you measure by the edge of the property line or by the edge or the building?

Certainly we have the technology today to determine this distance, but it takes time and skill to do it accurately. The technical challenge is a hurdle for business owners and citizens alike to understand the impact of the law. A listing of city blocks would be far easier to decipher and would cause less confusion than a circle.

Reject the moratorium.

Instead of swinging a legal sledgehammer to stop all future restaurants, good and bad, we should judge each application on its own merit. Restaurateurs who have proven records of being good neighbors should by all means receive licenses and less reputable restaurateurs should be denied. Please sign the petition and oppose the moratorium.


Experimental real-time transit screens come to Arlington, DC

If you go into the Java Shack coffee shop near Court House in Arlington, or walk past the Red Palace bar on H Street in DC, you will see a new experimental project from the Mobility Lab: Digital screens showing real-time transit arrivals and Capital Bikeshare availability.

Real-time transit screen at Java Shack.

At Java Shack, customers waiting for coffee or sitting at a table can see the next Metrobus, ART, or Orange Line arrivals, and bike availability at the Capital Bikeshare station across the street. The Red Palace screen faces outward onto the sidewalk on H Street, letting passersby see their bus and CaBi options.

Stop by one of these businesses and let us know what you think! This project is still in an early stage, so the screen displays will evolve over time. Moreover, we're hoping to add screens in more businesses soon.

One of the main challenges in convincing people to switch to transit is the unpredictability of bus arrivals. If every stop featured a digital screen displaying the number of minutes until each bus arrived, more people would be willing to take the bus.

Outdoor screens, however, are expensive to install, which is why we created this indoor alternative at a fraction of the cost. For the past few months I have been working with Andy Chosak and David Alpert at the Mobility Lab in Arlington to bring this low-cost alternative to fruition.

Screenshot of the Java Shack screen.

Screenshot of the Red Palace screen.

Every 20 seconds, our web server queries each transit agency for the arrival predictions for the stops near both test sites, then relays the data to the screens. The actual unit inside the shops is just a low-cost, barebones Linux system connected to a standard computer monitor and the business's own Wi-Fi and power. We've configured the box to automatically load up the screen when it starts, so there's no need to log in or launch an app after the unit is plugged in.

We are continuing to build the system so it can be deployed quickly and cheaply throughout the region at participating shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants. Ultimately, a business will be able to sign up, type in their address, and get a screen automatically customized with the nearest bus stops, Metro station, and Capital Bikeshare station. And someone with their own computer connected to a standard computer monitor will be able to set up their own screen for free.

This project is only possible thanks to open data from our transit agencies. We can only pull bus and train predictions as well as the status of each CaBi station because the agencies behind these systems have wisely chosen to provide stop locations, route information, and real-time arrival predictions to outside software developers.

If you run a businesses are interested in finding out more about purchasing one of these screens for your location, let us know at

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City