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

Posts by Jeremy Barr

Jeremy Barr is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland. He previously worked in non-profit communications and has interned in politics on several occasions. In the last year and a half, he has lived in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Mount Vernon Square. Email him at 


As DC neighborhoods change, carry outs hold on

Carry out restaurants have been part of the fabric of Washington for decades, prized for their low prices, speed and long hours. With menus that run on for pages and pages, many break norms, serving Chinese food, fried seafood and sandwiches under one roof.

The Carry Out Deli on 14th Street NW. All photos by the author.

And although development has brought in new restaurants and businesses along the U Street corridor, on 14th Street Northwest, and in Logan Circle, carry outs are holding on. Of the those listed on the popular user review site Yelp, at least 24 carry outs are still operating in Northwest.

"We've been here since 1968. I don't plan to go anywhere," said Henrietta Smith, who owns Henry's Soul Cafe on U Street.

Named for Smith's father, Henry Smith, the restaurant is famous for its stick-to-your-bones comfort food and sweet potato pie, which was profiled by The Washington Post in 2007. "Mr. Henry can't cook, so he had to have other people cook," Smith said. Her brothers own the store's 2 other locations, at the intersection of 4th and K Streets NW and in Oxon Hill, MD.

While she said that the new restaurants are competition for her business, Smith sees the changes on U Street as a good thing. "The neighborhood is more diverse now," Smith said. "You're dealing with all walks of life." She has been able to rely on a steady flow of regulars, who come to 17th and U from all over the DC area for her smothered pork chops, fried chicken and ribs. "You don't forget where home is," she said.

One of those customers is Darren Snell, 47. Snell has been coming to Henry's for 21 years, and said that not much has changed. "The meatloaf still tastes the same today as it did back then," he said.

Smith said that gentrification has made the area more diverse, which bodes well for Henry's prospects going forward. "The regulars are still coming and the newcomers are coming too," he said. "[Henry's] isn't going anywhere."

In Logan Circle, Chong Hu, 58, has no plans to close her business, The Carry Out Deli. Like Smith, Hu said that loyal customers have helped her stay afloat for the last 27 years.

Lily Pilgrim eats breakfast at The Carry Out Deli in November 2012. Photo by the author.

Lily Pilgrim, 84, lives two blocks away from the Deli and stops by 2-3 times per week. "[It's] much better and cheaper than any other restaurant on P Street," she said.

Pilgrim is bullish on the Deli's chances of staying open. "[Hu] has the same customers over the years. They go out of their way to come here. It should be here for a long, long time," she said.

Hu sees both the pros and cons of development. As office buildings on 14th were replaced by condos in the last few years, the lunch crowd has died down dramatically, cutting into her profits. "My business is real slow," Hu said. "Now everyone goes to coffee shop."

But, on the positive side, there are "no more drunk people," Hu said. In the 1980s, "every day I called the police," she said. For her part, Pilgrim, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said that she used to avoid walking down 14th Street because it was too dangerous.

Brendon Miller, public affairs director for the city's department of small and local business development, said that new development does not automatically result in an outward flow of small businesses. "You've got small businesses that come in and you've got small businesses that depart. It's cyclical," he said.

And some small businesses, like Henry's and the Carry Out Deli, have reached "institution status," which helps them stay open in a changing landscape. "The business owners take the time to identify with the folks coming through the door, and to sort of cultivate repeat customers," he said. "It's got to attract people from the neighborhood."

The former Yum's Carry Out on 14th Street NW.

A few carry outs have left the area for various reasons. Yum's, which used to sit at the intersection of 14th and Wallach streets NW, was recently demolished to make way for an upscale apartment building. It will reopen soon in Pleasant Plains, a neighborhood east of Columbia Heights. And the Mid City Deli, which neighbors The Carry Out Deli, closed its doors in June 2012.

City health inspectors have played a role in shutting down some carry outs, at least temporarily. Before becoming a hole in the ground, Yum's was cited for two health hazards and closed for a day. And in April, the Mid City Deli was closed twice for a variety of health hazards.

China Dragon Carry Out, which sits at the intersection of 11th and P Streets NW, was recently closed "for gross unsanitary conditions, operating without a license, [having] an improperly trained manager and failure to minimize insects."

Alicia Davis-Coates, 39, said that she looks for information about health inspection-related closings in the newspaper when deciding where to eat. Her carry out-of-choice is Yum's II on 14th Street. A resident of Fort Totten, Davis-Coates said that Yum's II is worth the drive.

"The food is fresher. You can actually see them make it," she said on a recent Friday night, take out bag in hand. "And they've never been shut down."


The courier business changes and endures

You've seen bike couriers before, though you might not have known it. Clad in bicycling gear in a health-conscious city where such attire is ubiquitous, they blend in, embodying the notion of 'hiding in full view.' And that's the way they want it.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

This summer, I spent two days watching, interviewing and photographing professional couriers (or messengers) in DC for a school project. I came away with an appreciation for their profession and an understanding of why, early on, I was told they don't make for the best interview subjects.

The courier business is changing. For many decades, professional couriers made a good living. Most received "guarantees" from a large courier company, a weekly stipend which ensured they'd make a decent catch. No more.

"It's not fun like it used to be," said one courier I spoke with in front of the former Border's Bookstore on L Street NW. "I'm not making the money I was making back in the '80s. I used to go up on Capitol Hill and drop like 5, 600 envelopes and make like $1000. Them days are gone; you ain't never gonna see them days again."

The fax machine. Email. Both were absolute killers to the courier business, and every person I talked to told me so. They also mentioned the anthrax scare of 2001 and the 9/11 attacks, both of which lead to beefed up security at buildings and made delivery-making more difficult. The economy has also slowed, cutting demand for deliveries and forcing some couriers out of the business.

Now, many couriers are paid per delivery, upping the amount of trips they need to make on an average day and generally making their lives a little less secure. Even couriers who have guarantees generally do not receive health insurance, putting a strain on those with families.

Still, their day-to-day hasn't changed. In the morning, couriers head downtown and wait for delivery requests to come in. Law firms are still some of their biggest clients, making K Street NW a courier hotspot. When they get the call, off they go, on a bike, on a scooter, or in a car, often with an oversized, waterproof sealable backpack in tow. The hope, I was told, is to get a delivery request on the opposite end of town, allowing for several, smaller deliveries on the way.

Throughout it all, couriers remain a tight-knit, if prickly, bunch. Between deliveries, they congregate in parks, squares, and, coincidentally, in front of both Potbelly sandwich shops on L Street. They are are bound together by a sort of underdog mentality which came through in my interviews.

"Being a courier, you don't really fit in very well to the DC atmosphere," said a 20-something courier I spoke with in Dupont Circle. "The brotherhood comes in when you know that the other person's living their life as a courier. You don't make any money, you're outside 24/7, you're busting your ass, and you're not impressing anyone. The only thing we really have is each other."

He also spoke of a stigma associated with the profession. "I was kind of ashamed of it when I first started courying. Just f**king stunk, sweat everywhere. You just reek. Going into offices all the time with everybody dressed up really nicely. Pretty women everywhere. And you're just like 'Ah, Jesus Christ, I look like shit, I smell like shit."

But this sense of camaraderie and unity is also changing. "People now... are just more so involved with making money and not so much the socializing with everybody part," said a 10-year veteran of the business I spoke with as he awaited a delivery request in front of, you guessed it, Potbelly. "There's a lot of downfalls with it. You can get in the wrong crowd and end up doing a lot of bad drugs or drinking all day. Things that don't get you to make money."

But despite the tough economy, the dirt, the grime, the stares, and the occasional car accident, couriers stick with it. After all, they say, how many people can call the outdoors their office?


Fewer "ghost buses" haunt NextBus

Most of us only see ghosts when people dress in costume on Halloween, but bus riders deal with "ghost buses" on a regular basis. These are not spirits haunting your ride to work, but Metrobuses that mysteriously disappear, or never appear, on the NextBus real-time prediction system. The system now has fewer errors, but riders still encounter problems.

Photo by Stevesworldofphotos on Flickr.

Ben Ball, a representative on WMATA's Riders' Advisory Council (RAC), offered an example of the "ghost bus" problem:

Every day at around 4:40 or so, I check the Metro website to see when the next N2 or N4 bus will approach Ward Circle heading eastbound to Farragut Square. There's usually an N2 in around 8 minutes, and an N4 at around 10 minutes. This week, both are displaying 24 minutes, and there is no bus displayed on the arrivals map. But that doesn't mean that there's no bus.
In fact, when I went toward the Red Line on Monday based on the fact that the next N2 wasn't supposed to come for 24 minutes, an N2 streaked right past me as I was walking up Nebraska Avenue. And then there was another one at Tenleytown—two ghost buses in a row.
When a bus disappears from the system, the most likely culprits are a lost GPS signal, a bus logging off the system, heavy traffic, a detour, or a bus breakdown, said WMATA chief spokesman Dan Stessel. A bus will disappear from the NextBus system if it stands still for more than 2 minutes or deviates too far from the assigned route.

A bus arriving without ever appearing on NextBus can happen when a driver doesn't log on, equipment fails, or the data feed breaks, Stessel added. This problem has receded to some degree. Before 2011, Stessel said, some 300 buses ran daily without active GPS signals and radios. This year, there are just 40-50 on an average weekday.

WMATA re-launched NextBus in 2009, after discontinuing service in fall 2007 due to accuracy problems. NextBus receives data from GPS locators on the buses and uses them to estimate when a bus will arrive at a given stop. Users can access bus predictions from the WMATA website or through a mobile app.

WMATA uses two metrics to measure NextBus' performance. "Predictability" is how well the system locates each bus and determines when it will reach a stop. This depends on factors Metro is responsible for, such as bus drivers logging on, working equipment and accurate schedules and stop locations. Predictability has improved over the past 2 years, Stessel said. WMATA gave itself a predictability score of 87% in April of this year, up from 85% in April 2011 and 77% in April 2010.

The second metric, "accuracy," depends largely on the NextBus software. A prediction counts as "accurate" if, when the system predicts a bus to arrive within 5 minutes, the bus actually arrives within 3 to 7 minutes. On this metric, NextBus scores above 90%.

What has WMATA done to make the predictions more realiable? Stessel explained that Metro set up an education program and uses performance center monitoring to ensure that bus drivers remember to log into the system and stay on throughout their shift.

Metro has also upgraded onboard radio and communications equipment, and has a project underway to replace existing systems with more modern technology. The newer systems will "poll" buses' GPS locations every 30 seconds or less; the older systems only "poll" every 120 seconds, meaning that buses can travel a fair distance before the NextBus system knows about it.

Still, Stessel said, there is no way to completely resolve prediction issues. "While the new technology will greatly increase reliability and data availability, factors like detours, traffic and weather" will always play a role.

In the meantime, Ball laments that there is no easy-to-use system for reporting bus outages to WMATA. Former RAC chair Dennis Jaffe noted in 2010 that the generic feedback form is complicated and hard to use. There is also no easy way to report NextBus errors from the WMATA bus prediction interface or the mobile apps.

What have your experiences been with NextBus?


WMATA's latest grades: Rush Plus needs tutoring

WMATA's latest scorecard gives the agency some good marks for on-time performance, but the roll-out of the Rush Plus program has been more disappointing, officials told the Riders' Advisory Council (RAC) Wednesday.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Launched in June, Rush Plus added more trains to the Orange and Yellow Lines during rush hour but decreased the number of Blue Line trains. The plan aimed to reduce Orange Line crowding and create more track space for the Silver Line, which will take passengers to Dulles Airport.

WMATA has not been able to transition as many Blue Line riders to the Yellow line as it hoped. Just 14% of Blue Line riders have made the switch, according to a rider survey taken at the end of July. Passengers who haven't switched cited an unwillingness to transfer at L'Enfant Plaza and a concern about wait times, said Jennifer Green, a communications officer for WMATA.

Green said that Rush Plus has seen some success. There has been a slight decrease in crowding on the Orange Line and passenger loads declined on the Yellow Line, but are still unbalanced on the Blue Line. In the morning, Blue Line trains are carrying between 86 and 98 passengers per car, and in the evening they are carrying between 96 and 120 passengers.

WMATA even offered riders an incentive to try out the yellow line with a complimentary $5 travel pass. Approximately 140 people participated in WMATA's "Hello Yellow" campaign.

Rush Plus has received largely negative reviews from riders, and RAC members passed on the message to WMATA.

"All my neighbors and friends hate it," said Barbara Hermanson, a representative from Alexandria. "People are upset now with the level of Blue Line service, and they're going to be even more upset when it decreases further with the Silver Line service," said Ben Ball, a DC representative.

In response to riders' complaints about longer wait times on the Blue Line, Green announced that WMATA is adding an 8-car Blue Line train during rush hour. Beyond that, she said that the system is "maxed out" in its capacity to send more trains through Rosslyn (the limit is 26 trains per hour). "There isn't any extra space," Green said. "It's all being used."

RAC members hear updates on labor negotiations, on-time performance

Despite a natural focus on Rush Plus during the RAC meeting on Wednesday, attendees did discuss more than just the early returns on Rush Plus.

Earlier in the meeting, Denise Mitchell, a senior labor relations officer at WMATA, announced that contract negotiations are ongoing with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, the largest of the 5 unions to which WMATA employees belong. Contracts have concluded for 3 of the other unions, Mitchell said.

Overall, things are going well at WMATA—at least according to WMATA. Its Metro Scorecard feature shows that both Metrorail and MetroAccess are exceeding the "on-time performance" ratings set for it, and Metrobus falls just below it, as of June 2012.

Data on customer satisfaction is a bit out of date. The figure stood at 79% for both Metrorail and Metrobus in June 2011, but the agency is scheduled to update these figures this fall, according to their website. WMATA will be conducting additional surveys this fall.

One point of concern: between April and June of this year, the customer injury rate, measuring injuries to any customer caused by some aspect of Metro's operation that require immediate medical attention away from the scene of the injury, increased for the first time in 5 consecutive quarters.

Visiting students compare RAC to its equivalent back home

Over 30 people were in the audience for Wednesday's RAC meeting. That is higher than normal, owing largely to a contingent of visiting urban and regional planning students from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Michael Lin, one of the students, highlighted a difference between the meeting and a similar one back home. "It seems less argumentative," Lin said about the meeting, even though it began with Chris Barnes, a member of the public who criticizes the RAC each month, calling the council a "failure" and asking for the chairwoman to resign. "Even though there are arguments, there's more respect and integrity to the process," he said.

Sarah Smith, another student who survived the 2-hour meeting, called it "interesting" but wondered why attendance is normally sparse. "If there are so many issues, why aren't people here?"


Changes may come to DC's scooter laws

It may have taken two arrests of a 64-year-old Georgetown woman, but there is hope on the horizon for those who want changes in the District's scooter regulations.

Photo by waitscm on Flickr.

DC law classifies all motor scooters as motorcycles, meaning that scooter owners must hold motorcycle licenses, wear a helmet, register their scooter, show proof of insurance, and pass a motorcycle skills test. Violating the law could land you in jail, as it did for Ann Goodman, though Goodman also appears to have deliberately flouted the law.

Many scooter owners want rules specifically for scooters, distinct from motorcycles. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the DC Council committee with oversight of motor vehicles, is sympathetic. "It shouldn't be a matter of police officers measuring the wheelbase or something like that," Cheh told NBC4 after learning of the arrests. "We should have clear categories."

Cheh said she "hopes to introduce a bill before the end of the year that puts scooters and motorcycles in different, easy-to-understand categories," according to the article.

"Hope" is an ambiguous word, so I reached out to Cheh's senior policy advisor William Handsfield to get more clarity on when we might see a piece of legislation.

"We've been thinking about it a lot, but I don't think there are any clear cut answers," Handsfield wrote in an email. "We'll be doing more on this topic soon, as the status quo is unsatisfactory."

Parking is biggest issue

While the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is "responsible for classifying vehicles and determining registration requirements," the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) sets parking rules based on those classifications, said Monica Hernandez, a communications specialist for DDOT, in an email.

In addition to evaluating the policies in place, DDOT is developing a program to create on-street scooter spaces, Hernandez wrote.

Handsfield mentioned that, while at DDOT, he headed a program which installed on-street bike racks around the city. "In the two years since we installed those racks, we've noticed that scooter owners often lock up there as well, which I think most would agree is preferential to scooters on the sidewalk," he wrote.

A quick search turned up articles about on-street racks being installed in numerous cities around the country, including New York and Seattle. In DC, it's illegal for scooters to park in bicycle racks.

In the comments on my earlier post, David C wrote,

We discussed the issue of scooters/bikes at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting. ... For parking we decided that we really didn't care if they parked at bike racks. We just need a lot more bike racks. But we don't think they should be riding in the bike lane.
The lack of parking options, as well as some confusing information, is the biggest issue with the current scooter laws, said Wellesley Scott, president of Modern Classics, a motorcycle and scooter store in Brentwood, and an authority on all things scooter.

"The problem is that... they're written by people who don't ride," Scott said. "Scooter theft in the city is a huge issue."

He proposed a sidewalk parking permit as a way to address the issue of scooter owners needing to secure their scooter while also providing a source of revenue for the city.

Scott doesn't support a wide-scale change to the laws on the books, and says that riders have to bear some blame, especially in Goodman's case. "People choose to read the laws now the way they want them to read," said Scott, an attorney. "I hear about customers getting arrested all the time."

He said that some prospective owners are deterred by the complexity and strictness of the laws, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "What's important to me is to have people who are licensed and insured on the road," Scott said.


Are scooters bikes or motorcycles?

District law accommodates bicycles and automobiles together on urban streets, but scooters sit in a gray area. Some are classified as motorcycles and others motorized bicycles, which enjoy greater flexibility. To encourage this alternate mode of transportation, regulations should treat scooters more like bicycles than motorcycles.

Photo by the author.

In February, I purchased what I thought was a scooter. And then I thought it was a motorcycle. And then, a scooter. Now, I can say with certainty that my Vespa LX 50 is classified in the District of Columbia as a motorcycle.

According to a guide from the DC government, a scooter is a motorcycle if it has any of 5 characteristics: wheels under 16 inches in diameter, an engine greater than 50 cc, the ability to travel in excess of 35 mph on level ground, more than 1½ brake horsepower, or a manual transmission. If a scooter has none of those, it's a motorized bicycle.

So why does this matter? Motorized bicycle owners are not required to pass a motorcycle skills test or wear a helmet and can ride in bike lanes. Most importantly, motorized bicycles can park in a bicycle rack or on a street curb "so as not to impede pedestrian traffic," while motorcycles must park in the street.

These parking restrictions cause problems for scooter owners because scooters are easily movable and they must be locked to something (a post or sign) or else they can easily be stolen, unlike a motorcycle. Because there is nothing to lock a scooter to when parked on the street, most scooter owners park on sidewalks, in violation of DC law. They frequently get tickets for doing so.

Because of the complexity of the rules, some scooter owners are unaware that they actually drive a "motorcycle" and cannot park on a sidewalk. Believing themselves to be unfairly ticketed, they resort to tactics like this owner, who posted the DC chart on a sign reading "PLEASE DON'T TICKET":

Photo by the author.

Scooter theft is a real concern. While there are no publicly available statistics about its incidence in DC (an inquiry to both the DC DMV and MPD went unanswered), seemingly every owner I've met has either had a scooter stolen in the past or knows someone who has.

It's time for city officials to understand the consequences of these regulations and to grant scooter owners the right to secure their property, or at least not write a ticket them for doing so.

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