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

Posts by Erik Weber

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


Taxi Commission proposed own Uber-style "surge pricing"

Late yesterday afternoon, the DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) announced that taxis could charge an extra $1 per passenger when Nats playoff games are in town. Confusion and outrage ensued, and within 2 hours, Mayor Gray rejected the plan, and the commission has rescinded it.

Photo by JL08 on Flickr.

Ironically, this move has a lot in common with Uber's "surge pricing," which proposed regulations from the Taxicab Commission would forbid. It would apply from 2 hours before games start until 4 am the following morning.

The Taxi Commission posted a short notice last Thursday about the surcharge, but with few other details. It did not notify the media at the time.

The PR snafu, short notice, and poor timing sank the proposal, but had the commission handled the rollout better and avoided the firestorm, would this charge have worked?

What did the commission want to accomplish? Linton said in the news release,

We expect multiple riders to be using taxi services. The additional fare provides a fair compensation to drivers. It will also offer an incentive to deal with the increased congestion around the ballpark that could otherwise depress service, as well as assure service in other parts of the city.
At first blush, these reasons seem nonsensical and contradictory. The commission wants to encourage drivers to operate around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge to create an incentive for drivers to head to the ballpark. But then, they want drivers to not all cluster around the ballpark, so they have a surcharge for drivers to go elsewhere. Don't these just cancel each other out?

Commenters online seem to feel the same way. On the City Paper post, commenter "One City!" wrote, "I love this city so much. Whenever you think we've reached the height of absurdity, the DCTC is there to show you we still have room to grow." RedLineHero said on the Washington Post site, "What the H-E-double-hockey-stick kind of harebrained idea is that? a surcharge during the playoffs? You have GOT to be kidding me. Good on Mayor Gray for shooting that down."

Uber "surge pricing" gets more drivers on the road

This surcharge is actually a lot like popular car service Uber's "surge pricing." If demand gets high, Uber increases its fares, first to 1¼ normal, then 1½, and so on. Anyone who books a car gets a notification about the higher pricing before the car is dispatched. All of the extra money goes to the drivers.

At the recent hearing, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick defended the practice. He said that the primary reason is to increase supply. They don't want riders unable to book their cars. At busy times, by raising the price and giving drivers the money, he said, it encourages more of their drivers to get out on the road and serve customers.

By that logic, the surcharge makes some sense. Many drivers work at different times of day. A bonus for working at this likely busy time could actually encourage drivers to switch their schedules around if they can, and be available during games. Some could go to Nats Park and serve fares there, but since the surge price applies all around the city, it will also encourage drivers to serve other neighborhoods.

DCTC's explanations don't hold water

If this was the DCTC's thinking, they certainly didn't make it clear. Will Sommer at the City Paper wrote, "Taxi Cab Commission spokesman Neville Waters says the extra charge has two functions: ensuring that the city's cab drivers don't just swarm Nationals Park, and making trips more profitable for drivers who are stuck in stadium traffic." He quoted Waters saying that without the surcharge, drivers would only drive to the ballpark and nowhere else.

These reasons don't match the policy. If DCTC is worried drivers will only drive to the ballpark, why would a surcharge that applies in all neighborhoods have any effect? It doesn't make trips around the ballpark more or less appealing compared to others.

As for the second argument, compensating drivers for traffic is why the rates include both time and distance. The playoff games probably won't cause traffic jams any worse than other events in DC, and the commission doesn't authorize surcharges every time there's a motorcade. If the DCTC believes that large traffic jams cause drivers to unfairly lose money, then they should raise the per-minute idling rate instead of using surcharges.

However, if the DCTC actually just wants to get more cabs on the road, this surcharge isn't a bad way to do that. It would just help a lot for them to actually articulate the economic reasons.

Wakehead commented at the Post, "How about they have more taxis work for the Nats games? Or is the target service model 'lines and surcharges'?" A rational answer to this could be, "Actually, the surcharge does get more taxis to work the games; it's lines OR surcharges, not lines AND surcharges, and we chose surcharges over lines."

We don't know what was going on inside the Taxi Commission's heads, but they are behaving as though they have some vague and general sense of the economic levers they have at their disposal, but aren't able to actually discuss it in clear terms.

The same dynamic played out at the recent taxi hearing, when people like Kalanick seemed to be speaking one economics-based language, and Linton and members of the DC Council a different law-based language. Ultimately, they agreed with one another, but it took hours (and some taxi drivers who didn't speak in economics) to break through the language barrier.

DCTC might actually want to consider trying a surcharge at a future event, like the Inauguration, but explaining it better. Trying a surcharge could also help them gauge how much supply it adds; Uber is able to monitor their supply and demand in real time and adjust prices accordingly, but the Taxicab Commission can't do that.

If the commission does come to recognize that it's using demand-based pricing, perhaps that will also make it less hostile to practices like Uber's "surge pricing" and other innovative pricing arrangements from mobile apps and sedan services.

Update: Uber DC manager Rachel Holt wrote in with some helpful information from their surge experience:

From what Uber has seen, during big games demand during the game is usually extremely low. Most people in DC are watching the games—whether at the stadium, or in bars, or at home, etc. By mandating the additional charges during the game, itself they are just further depressing demand (probably more than the amount of the increase), thus making drivers worse off during this period.


Portland provides some urban inspiration for DC

Portland has achieved near-cult status in urbanist circles for its progressive development and transportation policies. All is not perfect in Portland, but there are lot of great things we can take away from the City of Roses.

Aerial tram over South Waterfront. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

The city has a thriving downtown, and walkable inner-ring neighborhoods. It sports an extensive transit network and unbeatable bike infrastructure. But the central city gives way quickly to suburban development and highway interchanges. And there some examples where, even a town whose name is synonymous with alternate transportation, it's hard to overcome the primacy of the auto.

Last week I traveled to Oregon for work and had a few hours to kill in Portland before heading back east. Here are a few great things that Portland has accomplished, and also some pitfalls the DC region should try to avoid.

Transit and bike friendly airport

Landing in PDX, you are greeted by abundant wayfinding signage, all of which clearly points out transit and bike options.

Left: Wayfinding signage points out bike and transit options.
Right: MAX information is highly visible.

The MAX light rail line dead ends at one end of the terminal, much like the MTA light rail does at BWI. The covered walk from there into the main terminal is easily half the distance most drivers would walk from the nearest, most expensive parking garage. The MAX is brightly advertised on monitors in the airport, encouraging people to take transit into the city.

PDX is also extremely bike friendly, even featuring a bike assembly area. As one of the few airports in the country to be connected by trails and bike lanes to its downtown, this is an outstanding amenity. And while fliers probably don't use it heavily since checking a full-size bike on an airplane has become almost prohibitively expensive, even travelers with folding bikes will find the work stand, tool set, and bike pump useful.

It's also a low-cost amenity that is makes commuting by bike easier for thousands of airport employees and serves as a visible reminder that biking is a valued access mode.

Top left: Ample covered bike parking on the arrivals level. Top right: The bike assembly station. Bottom: detail of bike assembly sign.

Washington National Airport is ideal for an amenity like this. DCA connects to multiple trails, making a ride to the airport convenient from downtown, the close-in Virginia suburbs and even parts of Maryland. Washington National is even closer to downtown DC and Arlington than PDX is to Portland, making biking an even more viable option.

Bike amenities everywhere

Induced demand gets a bad rap on the highways side, but Portland is using it to its advantage with bike parking. You cannot walk 20 feet without finding a bike rack, both downtown and in neighborhoods. I was struck by Portland State University and Oregon Health and Science University efforts to provide ample bike parking. Demographically, students, and to some extent faculty members, are more likely to ride bikes, so it makes perfect sense.

Hundreds of bike spaces at Portland State University. Classes clearly aren't in session for another week. Photo by the author.

Comparatively, the major universities in DC have made meager attempts to provide ample, high quality bike racks. The biggest bike parking are on Georgetown's campus consists of 4 "comb" racks which are nearly impossible to safely lock bikes on. George Washington University's campus in Foggy Bottom, is practically devoid of on-street bike racks. GW's newest mixed-use building, Square 21, provided a total of 10 racks spread around an entire block with a Whole Foods and multiple restaurants.

The MAX trains also have hanging bike racks in them for cyclists. While racks like these won't work in the shorter Metro cars, they're worth keeping in mind as the DC streetcar system gets started.

In downtown, several streets feature buffered bike lanes. Although they were one-way, they were nice and wide, allowing easy passing for cyclists traveling different speeds. In other places where bike lanes were not separated from traffic, they were painted bright green and flowed into large green bike boxes at intersections.

In the redeveloped South Waterfront neighborhood, there are significant on- and off-street bike treatments that connect to a trail into downtown. Best of all, there is a massive bike parking area and a bike station with valet and repair services.

Left: A curb-separated bike lane splits as it enters the South Waterfront. Right: The northbound bike lane turns onto the sidewalk to send cyclists across the crosswalk to the sidepath into downtown.

This is right next to the lower Portland Aerial Tram station and a Streetcar stop. The Tram connects the burgeoning research, education, and residential neighborhood with the main campus of Oregon Health & Science University, situated on a massive hill and separated from the waterfront by I-5.

The South Waterfront Aerial Tram station with a Go By Bike station.

Good on-street transit information

Tri-Met and the city of Portland have made significant investments in good, visible transit information on the streets of downtown. The city's wayfinding system signs point to the nearest streetcar and MAX stations. Major downtown stops have very clear customer information, communicating which buses stop where, and where those buses travel. Also, many of the stops have real-time arrival screens, something DC has yet to achieve outside of the Metro.

Left: A bus stop is clearly marked with visible, high quality infrastructure.
Right: Real-time bus arrival information.

Strategic single-tracking

Acquiring right-of-way and laying track is expensive. So Tri-Met and Portland chose to single-track the MAX and Streetcar in some places where right-of-way would have been politically or financially unfeasible. In downtown, the streetcar runs on one track in both directions for 2 blocks just past PSU. For a low-speed system, where headways are unlikely ever to be shorter than a few minutes, this compromise makes sense if it allows for the most effective routing, in this case right through the center of PSU's campus.

Left: Streetcar singletracking south of PSU. Image from Google Maps. Right: Single track flyover on the Portland MAX Red Line. Image from Bing Maps.

On the MAX line to the airport, the system is single tracked in two places, for almost a mile after the Gateway/NE 99th Ave stop where the Red Line parts ways with the Blue and Green lines to head north along I-205, and again upon entering airport property until just before the terminal station. The first location incorporates a tight cloverleaf flyover and several over- and underpasses around I-84 and I-205. Again, frequencies on this line are unlikely to be high enough to make it worth the massive extra cost to build this infrastructure doubly wide.

Not quite level boarding

A small ramp makes the streetcar accessible. Photo by the author.
The streetcar and MAX both use low-floor vehicles and featured raised platforms at the all the stations I visited. Yet none of these stations had totally level boarding. Instead, the trains have small ramps at some of the doors that have to be manually deployed to bridge the gap for anyone in a mobility device.

The result is that people with disabilities can only board some doors, which would maddeningly frustrating when an extra few inches of precision would have made all the doors accessible. The operational ramifications of having to deploy a ramp are minor, but not insignificant, so I'm not sure why you wouldn't just make sure the platform is entirely level with the rolling stock.

In DC, the existing streetcar platforms on H Street only have portions that are raised, so people in mobility devices will not be able to board at any doors. Hopefully, though those raised sections will at least be totally level, eliminating the need to operate and maintain ramps.

Mixed-traffic transit and highway right-of-ways

For a medium-size city, Portland has built a significant rail transit system in a phenomenally short time. However, this system suffers from one major shortcoming: low-quality right-of-way. The majority of Portland's light rail and streetcar systems run in either mixed-traffic lanes, or in the highway medians or shoulder.

The areas dense enough to best utilize high-capacity rapid transit only get high-capacity transit. The sections of the system where trains can run relatively fast suffer peaked ridership and lower productivity resulting from low-density development and park-and-rides that surround the stations.

The streetcar waits behind stopped cars. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
The streetcar gets little or no priority along its route. As a result, it took me more than 30 minutes to go from Downtown to South Waterfront, a 2 mile trip.

The MAX gets more preferential treatment, running along a transit mall through much of downtown, but runs in highway right-of-ways in many directions on the outskirts of town, where comparatively little is within walking distance of stations.

Good or bad, Portland has led the way with many innovative urban investments. As we develop our bike and streetcar networks here in the Washington region, we should look to the west for lessons learned.

For more photos of Portland, check out photo sets by Greater Greater Washington editors and contributors Matt Johnson and Dan Malouff.


What information needs mapping in Washington?

OpenPlans, the people behind OpenTripPlanner and, are releasing a new crowdsourced mapping tool called Shareabouts. For the launch, they are asking people to suggest mapping projects in their communities. What would you recommend?

Image from OpenPlans.

We already have tools like SeeClickFix, which many DC agencies use to gather information about needed repairs around the city. But the information mapped in SeeClickFix is very diverse, and varies in quality.

With Shareabouts, we could create thematic maps that people could then reuse and mash up in apps, GIS tools, and more.

When I was searching for apartments in DC before I moved here, I created a Google Map with all of the grocery stores I could find in the central Washington region, to help narrow down the areas where I wanted to live. Then I started adding bank branches, my office, and some other important criteria. While tools like Walk Score now accomplish this pretty well if you can put in specific addresses, there may still be value to creating a crowd-sourced "livability map" that would help newcomers see at a glance areas with certain amenities.

Or, what other kinds of specific sets of geographic information would be useful to have for the Washington region, or any smaller portion of it? Maybe parking garages with covered bike racks? Bus stops that have shelters? Restaurants with outdoor seating?

What would you recommend? Leave them in the comments and we'll send the best ideas to OpenPlans before their Thursday deadline.


Can we make Bike to Work Day more diverse?

Bike to Work Day coaxes people of all stripes to make the commute on two wheels instead of four. As Bike to Work Day continues to grow, we must think about how to expand it not just in numbers, but to people in a wider range of economic circumstances and demographic groups.

They're black, white, and Asian, but all look like experienced cyclists. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr

Bike to Work Day is a great chance to get people involved in cycling and bike advocacy who aren't otherwise. Last Friday, 12,000 people officially participated in Bike to Work Day, checking in to one of 58 pit stops across the region.

However, at the pit stops I've passed through in the last 3 years, most cyclists appear affluent and ex­per­i­enced, judging by their equipment. Even most non-white participants look like they work professional jobs and have upscale gear.

How can we get a more diverse group of participants, not just by race or gender but also economically?

There is no question that Bike to Work Day is a hugely successful event, growing every year. The organizers, and WABA in particular, deserve serious thanks and congratulations for the enormous undertaking of BTWD. It's done a great deal to raise the visibility of cycling and to expand the reach of cycling to more women, younger and older age groups, and beyond the MAMIL stereotype.

While we can revel in these growing levels of success, it's important not to be complacent. It may be time to start thinking about how to reach the current and future "invisible cyclists" through this event.

We can gauge participation by the numbers of people who checked in at the 58 pit stops across the region, and estimate very roughly the socioeconomic status of participants by where the pit stops are located. Total check-ins ranged from nearly 1,000 at the 2 most central, in Rosslyn and downtown DC, all the way down to 5 people in Takoma at Langley Crossroads.

2012 Bike to Work Day pit stop attendance
(data courtesy of WABA)
VA - Arlington - Rosslyn968
DC - Downtown at Reagan Building923
MD - Bethesda - Downtown685
VA - Alexandria - Old Town580
VA - Arlington - Ballston513
VA - Arlington - Crystal City Water Park508
VA - Reston449
DC - Golden Triangle, Farragut Square448
MD - National Institutes of Health Bldg One432
DC - Adams Morgan376
VA - Sterling375
DC - National Geographic358
MD - Silver Spring - One Discovery Place325
VA - Vienna324
DC - Capitol Hill at Eastern Market324
DC - Columbia Heights294
VA - Herndon291
DC - Mt. Vernon Triangle280
DC - NoMa280
VA - Falls Church261
MD - Frederick255
VA - Leesburg234
MD - Rockville - Rockville Town Center202
VA - Alexandria - Carlyle199
MD - Naval Support Activity Bethesda196
MD - North Bethesda - White Flint Mall190
MD - Rockville - Falls Grove Transportation Ctr.170
DC - Capitol Riverfront at Yards Park164
VA - Fairfax Corner151
MD - Rock Springs Business Park137
VA - Merrifield132
MD - College Park - City Hall130
MD - Takoma Park - Downtown126
VA - Alexandria - Mark Center / BRAC 133117
MD - NIH Executive Blvd107
MD - Hyattsville - Magruder Park101
DC - Golden Triangle, Murrow Park88
VA - Tysons Corner86
VA - Springfield/Metro Park at Walker Lane79
VA - Fairfax City Downtown62
DC - Buzzard Point-U.S. Coast Guard HQ55
VA - Manassas - George Mason University55
MD - Oxon Hill54
MD - Greenbelt54
VA - Manassas - VRE Station53
VA - Burke51
MD - Takoma Park - Silgo Creek Trail44
MD - FDA White Oak43
MD - Bowie Town Center38
DC - Anacostia34
VA - Woodbridge - Chinn Center29
MD - Indian Head26
VA - Manassas - Kelly Leadership Center21
MD - Bowie Old Town19
VA - Haymarket14
VA - Rippon Landing VRE14
VA - Woodbridge - VRE12
MD - Takoma/Langley Crossroads5

Pit stop location

One way to increase diversity could be to add more pit stops in different parts of the region. Despite significant work by WABA over the last year to reach out to Wards 7 & 8, there was only one pit stop in the whole of both wards. That stop, in downtown Anacostia, saw 14 people. Ward 7 had no pit stops at all.

In fact, with the exception of National Harbor and Indian Head, right on the Potomac, there were no pit stops in southern Prince George's county either, leaving the entire southeast quadrant of the region without a place to participate.

We shouldn't expect new cyclists to take on a major ride beyond a couple of miles. Even if some newcomers were feeling ambitious, many areas in the suburban counties don't offer safe biking routes in employment districts. Therefore, biking to transit has to be a key strategy to Bike to Work Day.

There were pit stops at many VRE and MARC stations to the south and north of the District, enabling commuters to potentially ride shorter distances to their local train station. Of course, MARC & VRE ridership is itself relatively homogenous.

Wards 7 and 8, as well as much of Prince George's, are not bike friendly. Anacostia River crossings are often downright dangerous on a bike. So promoting biking to work in these communities depends all the more on the first/last mile connection to transit. Yet no Metro stations on the southern Green Line or eastern Blue and Orange Lines had pit stops.

Many of these stations are located in relatively residential neighborhoods, meaning the comfort and safety barrier to biking is relatively low. Why not have pit stops at them?

Obviously it takes resources and volunteers to set up pit stops. Businesses often host stops in hopes of driving sales. Most volunteers want to host pit stops in their communities instead of traveling across the region to some other location they don't know well.

But perhaps in the future, some supporters could sponsor pit stops in neighborhoods where there may not be such natural hosts. We could also look beyond the WABA members and the cycling community for volunteers. Perhaps community action organizations could help address the challenge of volunteers?

These stops may have relatively low attendance, but I think the benefit of a few people participating in these areas would be much greater than the marginal benefit of a few more people checking in in upper Montgomery County.

Pit stop timing

Another way to increase diversity would be to schedule pit stops for more time periods. The vast majority of stops were set up for 2-3 hours between from 6 and 9 am. Only 4 pit stops were open later. 3 stuck it out until 10 am, and the Indian Head, Maryland stop on the east bank of the Potomac was open until 11.

In Columbia Heights and Falls Church, organizers set up an afternoon "Bike from Work Day" pit stop from 4-7 pm. Even with that one exception, Bike to Work Day clearly catered primarily to those people starting work by 9:30am and leaving by 6:30.

Many low-income workers work at other times, like a shift job from 5 am to 2 pm. Many may already be riding a bike to work out of necessity. And if they aren't, they may be spending significant portions of their income on more expensive modes of transportation. Being introduced to cycling could help keep more money in these workers' pockets.

Those that are riding, frequently ride any bike they can get a hold of, not the median-priced $1,000 bike you see mostly at Bike to Work Day pit stops. Of any cyclists on the road, they likely could most use a tune-up, a new light, pant leg strap, or other safety schwag typically being given away at BTWD. Lastly, they are a population group that could be much better represented in bike planning and advocacy.

Of course, the lack of pit stops in the poorest areas of the region is a challenge to getting these cyclists, whether seasoned or new, to participate. However, the map above shows that, despite the blank space east of the river and in southern Prince George's, many pit stops are already in higher-poverty areas. This is all the more reason to explore ways to diversify the pit stop hours.

Pit stops with different hours would also face challenges in recruiting volunteers. Again this is where we need to think creatively about making alliances beyond the existing cycling community.

BTWD organizers collected a lot of information about participants. It would be interesting to do some analysis on this data to see where the people who checked in at the biggest, most central pit stops were coming from. This could give us a better idea of how lopsided the participation truly is.

Bike to Work Day is a very valuable part of cycling advocacy. Reaching the invisible cyclist is no easy task. It won't be easy, but with some planning and effort, Bike to Work Day could be a major opportunity to better include these current and potential cyclists.


14th and U construction site tests temporary sidewalk policy

14th and U has some of DC's heaviest pedestrian traffic, but recently, a fence suddenly stopped people from walking along this heavily traveled corridor. Developer JBG says they want a walkway, but DDOT's policy won't allow it. What's going on?

A girl walks in the street along 14th St. Photos by the author.

JBG recently began demolishing several buildings on the southwest corner of 14th & U Streets, NW to prepare to build of a major, mixed-use project. The sidewalk on the west side of 14th Street abruptly closed, with a fence blocking it off for more than half the block.

The 14th Street corridor has endured near-constant construction for several years now. Other projects have included varying types of temporary walkways, from bare-bones plastic jersey barriers to lit, covered scaffolding. When construction activities have required closing the sidewalk altogether it generally been for only a day, if not hours, at a time. Why not here?

No sidewalk during raze

Eric Fidler posed the question to DDOT, and an inspector gave this response:

The sidewalk is closed and pedestrians are routed across the roadway in accordance with DDOT's Pedestrian Safety and Work Zone Standards. This policy provides a matrix for what methods of pedestrian access are the most appropriate based on the phase of construction. In this case the project is undergoing raze. During raze activities the sidewalk is to be closed with pedestrians routed across the street.

Raze is a short period, typically lasting a few weeks to just more than a month. After this phase the sidewalk is to be opened or a pedestrian walkway is to be provided. It is DDOT's goal to maintain the pedestrian path on both sides of a roadway and will only allow the closure when it is unsafe to maintain it or when the work requires that the sidewalk be closed (e.g. during sidewalk construction).

It's true that DDOT's guidelines recommend closing the sidewalk during the raze. But is that appropriate? A raze doesn't mean dynamiting the building so it just collapses. Workers spend most of the raze period carefully removing materials, mostly from the interior and rear of the block.

Large pieces of concrete swing into place just overhead.
Meanwhile, many active sites around the city long past the raze stage pose far more potential danger to pedestrians than sites razing existing structures. A few blocks north on 14th Street, a large 11-story building is being constructed with a covered walkway along part of the frontage, and an in-street, open walkway along the rest.

Recently, tower cranes have been lifting multi-ton sections of preformed concrete into place, frequently swinging directly above the pedestrians walking below. What about that poses less danger than a one-story brick facade being knocked down on the interior of a block?

When closing a block, especially where there are open businesses on either side, a large percentage of pedestrians will still ignore the signs and walk through along the fencing. By closing the sidewalk altogether under the auspices that any pedestrian accommodations would be dangerous, it creates a far more dangerous situation. Not only do people still have to walk past the construction entrance, they're doing so in traffic.

Mid-block closures also harm remaining businesses on either side because of the reduced foot traffic from those people that do cross the street. Even where an entire block is closed, businesses on the same side of the street on adjacent blocks likely see a drop in foot traffic. Having been forced to cross, people generally continue walking on the opposite side of the street if the light permits.

While the weekdays produce a lot of foot traffic, the weekends are even busier, and would benefit most from a temporary walkway. Yet, on the past few weekends (and even occasionally during the week), cars could park in the curbside lane, which is used for receiving during the week. Pedestrians still had to walk in the street.

On the weekend, cars park in the loading zone, leaving a woman and her stroller in the bike lane.

If this lane is only needed for construction activities some of the time, it should be a walkway the rest of the time, not parking spaces. If DDOT and JBG can get pedestrians out of traffic for even 30% of the week, that would be a major safety improvement.

Access creates complications

The situation at 14th & U is complicated because the strangely shaped parcel is difficult to access. The project is mostly mid-block, so it can't receive trucks and stage materials from a side street.

Alley residents are adamantly opposed to the construction company using the alley. There are several alley dwellings immediately behind the site. Many people in that ANC opposed the use of T Street for construction. As a result, the construction company can only receive trucks and materials from 14th Street. All the other projects along 14th are staging along a side street or in an adjacent alley.

JBG says they have been trying to work with DDOT to create an alternative pedestrian path. DDOT officials, however, insist that there is no safe option because the construction site entrance and staging area are on 14th Street.

A JBG spokesman said that DDOT will not let them open a pedestrian path because of this staging issue on 14th Street. JBG is still considering two alternatives, neither of which is ideal:

  • Cut down two street trees and create a path in the treebox zone. There would still be issues since they would have to allow trucks and materials to cross the pathway. Trucks will be received in the parking lane as currently planned.
  • Receive trucks in the parking lane, since there is nowhere else for them, and convert the bike lane to a pedestrian path.
While JBG's comments imply that DDOT opposes a walkway even during construction phases, DDOT's John Lisle denied that was the case. "A walkway will be provided after the razing period precisely because there is so much construction in the area," Lisle said.

Trucks turning into an alley or side street at construction sites elsewhere on 14th Street pose just as much a danger to pedestrians as those that will enter an exit the JBG site at mid-block. But DDOT hasn't closed R or Swann Streets because of the danger to people on foot.

JBG should be able to use the parking lane or sidewalk for a temporary walkway and establish a site entrance along 14th Street. They should be required to mark it very clearly, and pedestrians and construction workers should both treat it as an intersection.

Instead of being a roadblock, DDOT needs to encourage a developer that wants to accommodate all of the road users and take responsibility for everyone's safety at their site. Preserving traffic lanes and neighbors' peace and quiet is important, but so is providing safe, reasonable accommodations for pedestrians.


Too many construction sites close sidewalks without walkway

A DDOT policy requires construction sites to maintain a walkway for pedestrians. But at numerous sites around the city, this doesn't happen. Many construction sites inconvenience and endanger pedestrians, while site developers use former sidewalks as staging areas.

All photos by the author.

DDOT's Pedestrian Safety and Work Zone Standards Order from 2007 states: "Traffic control plans should replicate the existing pedestrian pathway as nearly as practical and that the pedestrian pathway should not be severed or moved for non-construction activities such as parking for vehicles or the storage of materials or equipment."

However, numerous construction sites are not following this policy, and DDOT could do more to enforce it.

Left: A woman and her kids walk in 9th St NW.
Right: People walk in the street at H & 11th Streets.

In the heart of downtown, the CityCenter site has been under construction for over a year. Construction has taken over the sidewalk around more than ¾ of the site, yet only the northern section has any temporary walkway.

On any given day, pedestrians walk along the construction fencing on 9th, 11th, and H Streets, in traffic because they don't want to deal with the hassle and delay of sometimes 4 additional crosswalks to get to their destinations.

Throughout the site excavation, the developer closed all the sidewalks. This happened despite DDOT's policy stating that an open or covered walkway should be provided on the sidewalk if possible, or otherwise in the roadway. Once frame construction begins, which happened recently, the preference then is a covered walkway in the roadway.

At the construction site of the Convention Center hotel a few blocks north, at 9th and Massachusetts NW, the sidewalks there have also been closed for months throughout multiple stages of construction.

On Bladensburg Rd, pedestrians walk in narrow a median because the sidewalk is closed.

The problem is not unique to Northwest. In Northeast, on Bladensburg Road near the "starburst" intersection, the sidewalk is closed for an entire block on the north side, where a new condo development is rising. In Southeast, in the Navy Yard area, sidewalks are closed at 4th Street by the upcoming Boilermaker Shops, and on various blocks around the last phase of EYA's Capitol Quarter townhome development.

Left: Next to the Boilermaker Shops on 4th St SE.
Right: Sidewalks closed for Capitol Quarter construction on L St SE.

In some cases, upon receiving complaints, DDOT has inspected sites like these and then ordered the developer to provide a walkway. This is good, but pedestrian accommodation should not be reactionary. It needs to be a priority in the traffic management and permitting process.

Where sidewalk space is tight, DDOT should show leadership and use road space to create temporary walkways. Pedestrians should not have to bear the sole inconvenience of the construction. Sometimes it means closing a lane of traffic to move the sidewalk (and bike lane where necessary) out from their original location.

Find somewhere else to put the haybales and stop signs.

Stronger policies and enforcement will encourage developers to use their available space to its maximum extent, instead of leaving tools and junk lying around like the picture to the right. If they are forced to get permits for walkways in the roadway, this will also encourage them to bring construction activities back within the parcel envelope as quickly as possible, to the benefit of everyone.

On the northeast corner of the CityCenter site, the developer has managed to preserve close to 100 public parking spaces. In light of this, saying that the sidewalks have to be closed because of space constraints is simply insulting.

Some may say that the inconvenience people on foot face by having to cross the street is minor, and doesn't merit burdening construction planners with stricter requirements and additional safety measures, or potentially inconveniencing drivers by closing a lane of traffic. Yet we impose all kinds of other, more onerous restrictions on developers for far more capricious reasons.

Closing a sidewalk on one side of the street inconveniences pedestrians in the same way that closing a two-way street to one entire direction of traffic would drivers. If I am walking 4 blocks along one side of the street, and the sidewalk is closed for one of them, I have to cross at least two additional times, assuming there are no mid-block alleys, and the intersections are all simple 4-way intersections. This means waiting at least two additional light cycles and walking out of my way.

Many pedestrians choose not to endure the inconvenience, and instead endanger themselves and others by walking in the street rather than crossing.

Only in the rarest of cases are motorists asked to endure months-long closures like this. Why, then do DC's pedestrians have to deal with this every day?

As DC's urban population grows and development activity picks up again, it may be time to revisit the pedestrian accommodation policy. In the meantime, DDOT needs to better use the policy it has in place to keep pedestrians safe.

Where else in the city have builders been allowed to close sidewalks? Post them in the comments.


Solar Decathlon move a loss for DC, Decathlon, and the US

Last week, the Department of Energy announced the Solar Decathlon would not be held in DC in 2013. The move is a big loss for city of Washington, the National Mall, the Decathlon itself, and even US climate policy.

Say goodbye to this view. Photo by US Dept of Energy.

The Solar Decathlon has been held in DC every time since its inception in 2002. In its first 4 iterations, it occupied a prominent place on the National Mall. Last year's event faced a rockier road in its planning stages, eventually landing in West Potomac Park.

While DOE touted a move as an opportunity to "expand the excitement excitement generated by the competition and encourage participation from new communities," it's hard to think the 2011 planning troubles didn't make the decision just a bit easier.

Last January, the Department of Energy announced the Decathlon would not take place on the Mall as it had the previous four times. Word was the Department of the Interior, home to the inimitable National Park Service, had pressured DOE because of the Decathlon's negative impact on the Mall's otherwise pristine greenery. NPS applauded the move.

Rumors later surfaced that the Decathlon would land at National Harbor, the bastion of sustainability located outside the Beltway, with dismal transit access and no incidental foot traffic.

After protests from competitors, fans and even Congress members, DOE finally settled on West Potomac Park, at least in central DC, though not terribly convenient or visible. As a result, the organizers had to provide a costly shuttle service from the closest metro stations. The permit conditions and the lack of large paths also required they lay down more tile flooring than ever before to protect the park's grass.

Whatever the cause of the westward move, it will be real detriment to Washington, DC and to the vitality of our monumental core. The National Mall, which has been called a failed public space, suffers from a lack of nearby residences and non-museum attractions.

The two weeks of the Solar Decathlon is the only time you can find dwelling units other than the White House in the region's most central, yet least populated Census tract. Since several team members have to live in their houses, the event literally doubles the population.

Most events on the mall last several hours or a day, attracting people for a very specific purpose only to cast them out again as soon as the event is over. People come for the event, not for the place.

The Solar Decathlon turned the National Mall into a destination, a true place with an interesting streetscape. While the hours to go in the houses were limited, people could admire the craftsmanship from outside any time of day. This encouraged lingering, what Jane Jacobs called one of the most important functions of a good public space.

The Decathlon's placemaking ability was apparent this year, despite its less-than-optimal location. West Potomac Park, which is typically only visited by kickballers and 10k runners, felt lively for two weeks.

It was also a great opportunity for residents and visitors of the nation's capital and fastest growing city to see the potential beauty in compact, energy-efficient living. I can attest to this.

During this year's Decathlon, I was right in the middle of the first-time home buying experience. We were feeling the temptation of the "go farther, get more" mindset that fueled the inexorable creep of suburbia. Seeing small, but beautiful and impeccably designed entries emphasized to us what you can do very little space. We came away fascinated, and firmer in our resolve to forgo space in order to find a excellent urban location.

How did the Decathlon end up in Orange County? The City of Irvine and the Orange County Great Park fought for it.

Meanwhile, it's unclear if NPS even submitted a bid. When asked, DOE said it couldn't release a list of applicants or discuss specific bids. I contacted NPS last week to see if they or an associated group had submitted a bid for the Mall. They haven't yet responded.

Of course, given the agency's joy at this year's move from the Mall, it's doubtful they made much effort to keep it here.

Where other regions have entities that fight to bring vibrant events like the Solar Decathlon in, the Washington region does not. Residents here suffer because the Park Service, as a national entity, doesn't actually represent their interests, though they are its most immediate stakeholders.

It's only fair that the Department of Energy spread the love of the Solar Decathlon around the country. But the US loses the ability to truly showcase its commitment to sustainability. Building two dozen passive houses on America's front lawn, blocks from the halls of power, sends a powerful message.

The Solar Decathlon certainly attracts visitors from afar on its own. But it also benefits immensely from being located in a place where there are hundreds of thousands of other travelers who would stop by given the easy opportunity.

Washington, DC is the nation's capital and a huge, international tourist destination. Irvine, California, is a distant suburb of Los Angeles with 215,000 people. Not much of a showcase.

Even in West Potomac Park, with the Washington Monument peeking over the trees on one end, and the Jefferson Memorial rotunda on the other, it was still clear where you were.

Not any more. Moving the Decathlon around has some merit, but the new location is a true shame. Few think of sustainability when they think about Orange County.


Illegal or not, on-demand car service Uber is good for DC

New car service Uber launched in DC in December, but has already run afoul of the Taxi Commission. Whether they're doing anything illegal is unclear, but the service is definitely good for transportation in DC.

Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

Uber allows people to book a trip in a for-hire car, without an advance reservation, using a mobile app. It offers an alternative to current taxis, but doesn't compete directly for the vast majority of taxi rides because it costs significantly more than a cab, particularly for short trips.

To say that Uber competes with cabs is like saying McDonalds competes with Bourbon Steak because they both serve hamburgers.

The concept is a positive step for an urban DC. It offers yet another transportation option besides driving a personal car. Transit isn't for everyone all the time, and if Uber lets a transit skeptic leave the car at home or get rid of it altogether, it's a big win.

What's more, Uber can actually improve the efficiency of "black cars," the for-hire sedans which spend a large portion of the day idling. While the Uber founder says they discourage drivers from accepting Uber trips while they are on a job, it is distinctly feasible to do with their system.

I used to live in Foggy Bottom, and when major summits came to town, the neighborhood would be covered with Town Cars and Tahoes with Virginia "For Hire" license plates. With the IMF, World Bank, and numerous upscale hotels in the area, the vehicles would sit idling all over Foggy Bottom and the West End. The cars often took up parking spaces for hours, double parking at times.

Uber gives them the ability to provide some trips instead of blocking lanes of traffic and every conceivable parking space. This would be good for everyone.

Ironically, the limousine industry should be the one that is more concerned about Uber. Their business is likely to change as long is Uber is around. If someone can book a black car on-demand, pay a mileage-based rate, and then book another one for a return trip, without having to pay for time in between, why, except for the most demanding situations, would anyone bother to hire a car service?

What's more, the taxi industry actually stands to benefit from the presence of Uber. At peak times, such as New Years' Eve, there are not enough cabs to go around, period. Uber maintains their reliability by using "surge pricing" to price out many people and find those customers who are desperate, or well heeled, enough to pay for that reliability.

At high traffic times, Uber takes some people who would have otherwise tried to hail a cab, leaving fewer people to fight over the limited cab supply, and ultimately making traveling by taxi cab easier and more reliable.

Lawyers, Uber, cabbies, the Taxi Commission, and possibly DC councilmembers will debate the legality of Uber's operation in coming weeks. Residents should hope they come to a conclusion that lets the service, and others like it, keep running.


What's better: More CaBi stations or bigger ones?

Capital Bikeshare has been extremely successful, and the result is that many riders can't find a bike or an empty dock during peak times. In many areas, DDOT has prioritized making existing stations larger. Is this better than adding more, smaller stations?

Photo by Bjorn1101 on Flickr.

New stations cost significantly more than just adding docks to a station, and adding a station also requires finding a suitable site. However, new stations decrease the distance people have to travel to find a bike or station, and increase the convenience of the system as a whole. What's this worth?

There's a big cost difference between expanding versus adding stations. According to Arlington's Capital Bikeshare contract, expanding a station by 12 docks and 6 bikes costs $13,070, plus installation costs, while a new station with 11 docks and 6 bikes costs $36,209 plus installation.

Are 12 docks at a new station somewhere nearby worth about 3 times the value of adding those 12 docks to a "mega-station?" Possibly.

There are two reasons adding additional docks to a high-traffic neighborhood in the form of new stations instead of tacking them on to existing stations might be worth the extra money: increased customer convenience, and the potential to ease rebalancing needs.

Empty or full stations are inevitable at times. The more this happens, though, the more inconvenience it creates for users. If a customer comes to a full station with their bike and has to go another 5 blocks only to retrace their steps and walk another 2 blocks to their end destination, it won't be long before they give up Capital Bikeshare as a primary, reliable mode of transportation.

Of course, spreading docks among more, smaller stations rather than one mega-station doesn't make them less likely to be full. If 30 docks fill up at a single station, 3 clustered stations with 10 docks will probably fill up just as much, and cost more to build.

But having the 3 smaller stations gives members or potential members a shorter walk to the nearest station, making the system more valuable for everyone.

Higher station density and more new stations will undoubtedly attract new users and with them new revenue. At the same time, with strategic planning, closer stations can reduce the frequency and cost of rebalancing bikes throughout the day.

If there are 5 stations within a 3 block radius, a couple stations can be full or empty and as long as the other stations have bikes or docks, the system maintains its usability and convenience for people coming or going from that vicinity.

Currently, if the Dupont Circle station fills up or empties out, Alta has to dispatch someone pretty much immediately to rebalance, since the dearth of other immediately nearby stations will make it a huge inconvenience.

With tight station clusters in activity centers, Bikeshare could more easily monitor "levels of inconvenience" to prioritize rebalancing. If a primary station is full but there are some docks available at nearby stations, that poses only a mild inconvenience and can receive a lower priority for rebalancing.

If the biggest station is full and several of the surrounding stations are too, leaving docks available at only 1 or 2 stations in the area, that would be a medium inconvenience, and should be rebalanced sooner, meaning it might preempt another mild inconvenience situation. If all of the stations in a neighborhood were completely full, that would be a major inconvenience and require rebalancing as soon as possible.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
As the system continues to grow in popularity, adding more stations in activity centers is inevitable. In some of the most popular neighborhoods, it will be virtually impossible for DDOT to build single stations that are large enough that they always have a bike or empty dock available.

It's difficult to measure whether the extra costs of new stations outweigh their benefits. What's more, beyond the cost of the station capital, each new site has to be planned, measured for size and sunlight, vetted with the community, and permitted. This process also has costs.

Eventually, though, DDOT will run into space constraints for these stations anyway, making it impossible to expand any further. While there is significant extra cost to adding new stations versus simply expanding those already in place, in the long run, the system would reap benefits. The ultimate question is whether we should prioritize expansion efforts on increasing density or increasing coverage.

Open thread

Give thanks for urban blessings

At Greater Greater Washington, we spill a lot of ink about things that aren't working in the Washington region and how they could be better. But there are also a lot of things in our region to be thankful for.

Photo by Silly Eagle Books on Flickr.

The primary reason we spend so much time making suggestions is because we want to hold our region to the highest standards. We're fortunate to have leaders and policymakers who are willing to do the same.

What are you thankful for in Washington? Share yours in the comments. Here's what our contributors said:

Michael Perkins: I'm thankful for walkable neighborhoods that give you something to do in DC besides commute there for work and then leave right away; and that we didn't build every highway we had planned in Arlington.

Caroline Armijo: I'm thankful for the fountain in the Kogod Courtyard at Gallery Place. I am thankful for story time and the children's division at MLK Library.

And I'm thankful that my two-year-old daughter knows several presidents because of the Nationals' presidents race.

Rob Pitingolo: I'm thankful for having a local government that gets stuff done. As much as we often complain about this, anyone who has lived in a less progressive city can appreciate that it feels literally impossible at times to accomplish even the simplest urbanist goals.

Adam Lewis: I'm thankful for the Metro operators, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other public servants who are spending time away from their families on Thanksgiving so that we can get safely home to ours.

Adam Froehlig: I'm thankful for a great group of folks to chat with; and for bike paths, bike lanes, and cycletracks.

Mitch Wander: I'm thankful that we have so many sports fields; that many our communities continue to enhance walkability and livability for our senior citizens.

For the Circulator; and that it's so easy to fix potholes, signs and burnt out streetlights through and

Anne-Marie Bairstow: I'm grateful for the Metrobus that goes to Deal Middle School so that my daughter can get herself to school. I'm grateful that my daughter and her friends can walk to each other's houses and to get frozen yogurt.

I'm grateful to be able to walk my younger kids to school every day and to see neighbors on the way.

I'm grateful for the Stoddert soccer league and northwest little league and all the parents who volunteer to coach and support.

Geoff Hatchard: I'm thankful for the fact that, even when things are screwed up, it's possible to change them for the better, because we have a great collection of people in this city who want it to be greater!

Malcolm Kenton: I'm thankful for Metrorail and Metrobus (despite their shortcomings) and Capital Bikeshare, and MARC, VRE and Amtrak (all of which need increased service).

Thankful to be able to live car-free in DC and not miss out on much; for a thriving local economy of small, locally-owned businesses and old and new neighborhood establishments.

And for our region's copious amounts of green space, compared to other urban areas, especially Rock Creek Park, the Mall, the National Arboretum and Anacostia River watershed parks, the network of bike- and transit-accessible suburban greenways, and Bloomingdale's own Crispus Attucks Park.

Jamie Scott: I too am thankful that I can live car free in the District without being stuck or limited in where I can go.

I'm thankful for a bus system that is safe, reliable and well used. Despite some problems, Metrobus is a system superior to many cities.

I'm thankful for a dedication to safe biking, walking, and transit overall from our city government.

Jaime Fearer: I'm thankful for the diversity and passion of our community advocates, including those who fight to save our social safety net, and groups like CNHED, who work to ensure that people of all income levels are able to afford to live in this great city.

Celine Tobal: I'm thankful for being able to walk to the grocery store, to a movie theater, and to restaurants. I'm thankful for great museums that are free.

I'm also thankful for living in a city where I hear people speaking a language other than English every day.

Topher Mathews: I'm thankful that due to the efforts of Harriet, Gabe, and others in the government as well as people like David and others outside the government, the whole public discussion is fought on much friendlier grounds for urbanists. We don't win everything we want, but the truths urbanists hold to be self-evident are gaining more public awareness if not acceptance.

Eric Hallstrom: I'm thankful for the great diversity of neighborhoods and people that make up Greater Washington.

I'm thankful to live in a place (Arlington County) that is committed to many of the urbanist principles shared by members of the GGW community, including walkable communities, a variety of transportation options, mixed use development, and increased density.

Jacques Arsenault: I am thankful for Capital Bikeshare and DC's bike lanes, which turned me in to a bike commuter this year (now with my own bike, mostly). And I'm thankful for Metrobis and Circulator which give me other options when I don't quite feel like riding in the rain.

I'm also thankful for advocates of all stripes, who work to make this a better, stronger community.

Miles Grant: I'm thankful that DC not only has lots of great places to live, work and play, but transit that allows me to get from one to the other in ways that are low-polluting and road rage-free.

Photo by Kevin Beekman on Picasa.
Kevin Beekman: I'm thankful that all of the holiday essentials fit in the "trunk" of my bike for the ride home along a fabulous trail under a congested I-395.

Veronica Davis: I'm thankful for the investment in new libraries around the city, especially the Anacostia, Dorothy Irene Height, Francis A Gregory branches close to my house.

I'm thankful for DDOT's commitment to the Capital Bikeshare Program east of the river. And I'm thankful for the H.I.V.E. (Home of Innovators Visionaries) for providing a low cost incubator space for small businesses in Ward 8.

Erik Weber: I'm thankful for reusable shopping bags and a grocery store within walking distance and for Meridian Hill Park, a lively multi-purpose, multifaceted green space.

I'm also thankful for wide sidewalks when you don't feel like riding your bike up the hill.

Lastly, I'm thankful for a community of people who care passionately about the past, present and future of our great city. Happy Thanksgiving!

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