Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Malcolm Kenton

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DCs NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation, and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGW are his own. 

Topic of the week: Our favorite projects (from other places)

There's a lot to admire when you travel, and it's fun to observe how other cities achieve function and beauty. This week, we asked our contributors "What city planning or transit projects have caught your eye while traveling, and why?"

View from a hill overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Elina Bravve.

As might be expected, many contributors were inspired by other cities' transit systems, primarily overseas and mostly in Europe. Places with lots of active public space and bike infrastructure were popular as well. First, transit:

Jacques Arsenault was wowed by Istanbul's transit network:

I enjoyed Istanbul's streetcar system that goes up hills at least as steep as Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, changing my perception of what is (at least, technically) possible for streetcars. Most of the streetcars run on dedicated track in the middle of the road.

Neil Flanagan was impressed with the way Vienna has worked its transit infrastructure into the city:

Even the elevated portions of the U-Bahn were great. They were attractive, they fit in to the city fabric, and they were actually really quiet. These aren't the loud, dark 'Ls' in Chicago and they didn't create useless highway underpass spaces like in Tysons. Some arches have been adapted to host stores and the bridges over major streets feel like gateways. It's possible to make elevateds good for cities.
Agnes Artemel talked about Munich, another city with an impressive streetcar network:
There's a wonderful streetcar system in Munich that makes it easy to get to the entire downtown, museum areas, and a number of parks. The streetcars run in both mixed traffic and on dedicated lanes, and the cars are modern and easy to get on. There are one day and multi-day passes available, and fare collection doesn't slow down boarding because everyone is on the honor system to have previously bought a pass. I spent a half day just riding the streetcars wherever they went and taking pictures out the window or at a station.
Artemel also gave shout outs to pedestrian-only streets in many French downtowns, Paris's Berges de Seine project which activates spaces along the river banks, and easy bike rentals at European train stations.

Ned Russell touted two ongoing rail transit improvement projects, Denver's FasTracks and London's Crossrail:

I like FasTracks because the city has really coupled urban development with the massive build out of the system, especially around Union Station in downtown. I remember the area being empty in 2006, and now it's a hopping neighborhood with a lot of people going there.

I think the airport line, which is a fully electrified commuter rail connecting Union Station to Denver International Airport, could signal a change in the way a lot of Denver residents view the region's burgeoning rail system.

As for Crossrail, I love the fact that a city the size and scope of London is willing to spend about 15 billion (more than $20 billion) on a new rail system that acts as an express subway in town and a commuter rail outside town, all while not running down the median of freeways as so many of our systems do. This is what New York, DC and Boston all need: commuter rail systems that really run end-to-end across the region and not just into downtown.

Russell also likes that the Chicago Transit Authority puts secure bike parking inside of subway and 'L' stations, and wishes WMATA would do the same. "If Metro added bike parking inside, say, the massive and empty mezzanine at Mt Vernon Square, I'd be much more likely to lock my bike there and leave it," he says.

Accommodating bikes on transit means doing more than simply allowing them, noted Jonathan Krall. He cited San Francisco's BART, which has no restrictions on the time of day bikes can be carried onto trains, as an example. Steve Seelig agreed: "There's a huge gap in Metro policy with the rush hour bike ban. Seriously, I would ditch my car if I could use the system during rush hour."

Tracey Johnstone noted another positive subway innovation, this one from north of the border:

Toronto is introducing subway trains where there are no divisions between cars. Passengers who worry about crime feel safer, as do those who suffer from claustrophobia. And there are no seats lost to driving stations in every car.
"I liked the way each stop in the Seoul subway had a name and a three-digit number," David Cranor said. "The first digit told you which line you were on, and the next two which station. It eliminated the need to count how many stops you had to go, and put things in a language everyone understands." Matt Johnson noted that MARTA in Atlanta tried something similar.

Portland, Oregon's aerial tram is "a great example of a unique transit mode," said Kelli Raboy. "Yes, it's a tourist attraction, but it also seems surprisingly effective at serving the nearby university, hospitals, and residential areas. My favorite part of the tram is actually the free and well-used bicycle valet next to the station."

Portland's aerial tram. Photo by Kelli Raboy.

Our region's next new rail transit line could learn a lot from a similar line that just opened in Minnesota, said Adam Froehlig:

I look at the new Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul and see a lot of potential lessons to be learned for the Purple Line, especially with regards to the College Park campus and along University Boulevard. They include the design going through campus, what to do regarding pedestrians crossing the tracks on campus, and the streetscape.
Moving on to examples of public spaces, Mitch Wander cited a European model:
The street markets throughout Valencia, Spain provide an amazing alternate use of street space, a great place to shop, and an entertaining walking experience. Many neighborhoods have a designated day of the week on which blocks are closed to vehicular traffic. For several hours on that day, people of all ages wander around shopping, browsing and socializing.
Paris has created engaging public spaces for kids, noted Abigail Zenner:
When I visited Place de la Republique, there was a kiosk that had toys and games for kids. There were also little movable chairs. The other thing they rolled out last summer was bikeshare for children. It was limited to recreation areas but was such a cool idea.
Another country whose cities have great public gathering spots is Mexico. Elina Bravve explained:
In Mexico City, they close one of the main roads in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, to vehicle traffic on Sundays. The street fills up with bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, dance activities, dog walking groups, and lots of family-friendly activities. There are also bikeshare bikes (Eco Bici) available for rent.

Also in Mexico City, I noticed some very cool architecture in Chapultepac Park. One of the best spots was Libreria Porrua, an indoor/outdoor bookshop overlooking the park lake, where folks were renting paddle boats for the afternoon.

Finally, Guanajuato is a very pedestrian-friendly city. It's full of green plazas connected by very narrow streets, which aren't ideal for driving. Instead, there's a series of underground tunnels throughout the city that moderates traffic, diverting it from the historic center of town. I learned post-trip that these tunnels were created to stop flooding from a nearby River, then converted to roads at a later date.

Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma. Photo by Elina Bravve.

On the bike front, Portland—the city with the highest rate of bicycle commuting in the country—impressed a lot of people. "Where most cities end shared paths at intersections, dumping cyclists into crosswalks, this ramp in Portland delivers cyclists into a bike lane in advance of the intersection," wrote Jonathan Krall. "For a cyclist planning to turn left at the intersection, this is a big help. For a cyclist proceeding straight, it is much more visible to other traffic and much safer."

Ending of a bike lane with a ramp in Portland. Photo by Jonathan Krall.

Peyton Chung's shared observations on a more general planning theme:

Cities like Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, and San Francisco have vast areas of three- to five-story walk-up residential buildings, with many miles of walkable retail streets connecting them. Even in cities without a long tradition of flats, many of the livelier neighborhoods (like Ghent in Norfolk and University City in west Philadelphia) tend to be those where flats, rather than rowhouses, predominate. Now, some New Urbanist architects are talking about these housing types as the "Missing Middle" of density.

But thanks to the recent "pop-up" controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won't happen, either.

Have you noticed great planning and design in other cities? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!

Ask GGW: Where do you enjoy the outdoors?

With spring weather almost here, it's time to get out and enjoy the less concrete-filled parts of our region. We asked our contributors to tell us about their favorite outdoor spots and why they love them. We also gave bonus points for places you can get to by transit!

A fall sunset on Greenbelt Lake at Buddy Attick Park. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The answers were as wide-reaching as our contributor base itself, but the District had the highest concentration of locations. We'll start there, then get to Maryland and Virginia.

Payton Chung named some downtown and Georgetown favorites:

The urban blocks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown don't just let you snack on a cupcake next to a waterfall while dreaming of escaping it all and riding a CaBi deep into the woods. You also get a great glimpse at what urban places (and transportation) looked like before the car.

Pershing Park is perhaps the most thoughtfully designed park in downtown DC, and a great quiet escape on a hot summer day.

One of the more fantastical park experiences in the District is to run a kayak aground on Theodore Roosevelt Island or Kingman Island and pretend you're an early explorer who's discovered an uninhabited island.

Dumbarton Oaks Park was Topher Mathews' pick:

Dumbarton is a hidden corner of Rock Creek Park tucked below its more famous and rich Harvard-owned sister in Georgetown. It has woods, glades, and a meandering stream criss-crossed by stone bridges, and it's a beautiful example of landscape architecture by one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand.
Tracey Johnstone enjoys the grounds of the National Cathedral:
It's on a hill, so there's often a refreshing breeze. Some of the lawns are large enough you can play catch without endangering others. Or you can sit in the rose garden on the lower, south side of the grounds. There are secluded benches and some small lawns ringed by azaleas and other foliage. It's a great place to read or to have a picnic.
On top of Rock Creek Park and Beech Drive, both of which are largely closed to motor vehicles on weekends, Eric Fidler noted another road, Ross Drive, which parallels Beach Drive south of Military Road but runs along the ridge. It provides great views of the valley and gets very little car traffic. There are moments on Ross Drive when you can stop and not hear or see any signs of human civilization (aside from the road pavement, of course). It's surreal to think such a place exists in DC."

On warm weekends, you'll probably find Mitch Wander out on the river:

Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove is an absolute outdoors gem. You can rent rowboats and canoes to explore the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The fishing is beyond wonderful. Fletcher's Boathouse staff can sell you everything needed, including fishing gear, the required DC fishing license, and insider tips, to catch a variety of fish. Over the coming weeks, the annual shad migration from the Chesapeake Bay will a fishing experience not to be missed. The D6 bus goes to MacArthur Boulevard and then you can walk down to the Boathouse.
"Frederick Douglass National Historic Site has the greatest panorama of the city," added John Muller.

Another great view can be had from the top of the hill at Fort Reno Park, one of Claire Jaffe's favorite spots growing up. "It might be partly the nostalgia factor, but it is the highest land point in the city and has a nice view of the surrounding area. Especially in the warmer months when it's green and sunny, it's a wonderful place to sit and relax. You can also run up and down the hill... if that is what you're into."

Tina Jones gives a shout-out to the Melvin Hazen Trail:

The trail crosses Melvin Hazen Creek three times en route to the confluence with Rock Creek. At the eastern end there's a big, open green field, a covered picnic pavilion with a fireplace, bathrooms, Pierce Mill and the fish ladder, and access to more trails north and south.

From the west, you can get there from Connecticut Ave at Rodman Street, just north of the Cleveland Park metro, and by the L1, L2, and H2 buses. From the east it's accessible on foot from Mount Pleasant.

David Koch went with a classic, Meridian Hill Park:
It has a great classic design and a location that can't be beat, and it's mostly well-maintained by the National Park Service. It always brings a smile to my face to see the sheer variety of uses that it gets from locals, from picnics to Frisbee to yoga to tightrope walking, not to mention Sunday's drum circle. There's also a multitude of quiet, secluded places you can find to read a book in solitude, even on the most packed weekend afternoons. I'd say it's the closest thing DC has to Central Park, pace the Mall.
Speaking of the Mall, Canaan Merchant gave "America's front yard" his nod, saying how much he enjoys people watching there while he bikes home in the summer.

Personally, I'll add the National Arboretum, a sprawling green space off New York Ave NE accessible by bike from NoMa or Eastern Market Metro stations as well as via the B2 bus. There's also Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Arboretum, easily walkable or bikeable from Deanwood Metro, and Hains Point, a great biking spot along the Potomac.

To close off the District review, Neil Flanagan noted the solace to be found at Rock Creek Cemetery, and Dan Malouff called Dupont Circle "perfectly awesome" for its "mix of hard plazas versus landscaping, of city noise versus calm serenity, and of grand landmarks versus intimate hideaways."

Our contributors' Maryland favorites

Greenbelter Matt Johnson makes Buddy Attick Park part of his walk home from the bus when the weather is nice. It "surrounds Greenbelt Lake, and is an integral part of the green belt that surrounds and permeates the planned community. Some of the neighborhoods closest to the park have direct access to the loop trail that encircles the lake. And the town center is just steps away from the east entrance. The easy access and bucolic setting means that almost always, the park is full of families picnicking, teens playing sports, joggers exercising, and couples strolling."

Katie Gerbes loves Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, alongside the Green Line between College Park and Greenbelt. "The lake has lots of gazebos, fishing spots, and a trail going around it. It also connects to the Paint Branch Trail, so a trip to the lake can be part of a larger run or bike ride. It gets a little buggy with gnats in the summertime, but it's a great place for a leisurely walk in the spring and fall."

Jeff Lemieux also takes to the outdoors in that part of Prince George's County:

My favorite natural spaces in the DC area are USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and MNCPPC's Anacostia Tributary trail system. USDA allows bike riding on most roadways through the research farms, which affords a lovely rural experience in the midst of sprawling suburbia. The Anacostia Tributary trails provide scenic recreation and also form the spine of an extensive commuter bike network in northern Prince George's county. Both areas are easily accessible from the Green Line's College Park and Greenbelt stations.
Closing out Maryland, Little Bennett Regional Park in northern Montgomery County is great for rambles in the woods. The downside is that it's only barely transit-accessible, via RideOn route 94—I used a Zipcar to access it.

Virginia destinations

Meadowlark Park, Northern Virginia's only botanical garden, got praise from Jenifer Joy Madden:

Meadowlark Park near Tysons Corner. Photo by Jenifer Joy Madden.
There, paved trails wind through rolling formal gardens and around sparkling ponds. Wilder paths draw you into the woods and great stands of native species. Kids love the Children's Garden, where they are encouraged to smell and touch the fragrant herbs and flowers.

Only a few months ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened a beautiful paved trail that connects cyclists on the W&OD trail with Meadowlark. Also, Fairfax Connector 432 now gets within striking distance of Meadowlark, but unfortunately it only runs Monday through Friday during rush hours.

Agns Artemel recommended Great Falls Park and Huntley Meadows Park (both in Fairfax County), along with Daingerfield Island and Marina and Winkler Preserve (in Alexandria) for nature lovers, and added she appreciates the stream and trees along Spout Run Parkway between the George Washington Parkway and Lee Highway in Arlington.

There's also the well-known Mount Vernon Trail, hugging the river through Alexandria and Arlington. And Founders Park on Alexandria's waterfront and Ben Brenman Park at Cameron Station, also in Alexandria, deserve mention as great open spaces.

Adam Froehlig, an avid hiker, goes a little farther afield, pointing out the hiking trails along the north side of the Occoquan and along Bull Run. There's Fountainhead Regional Park towards Manassas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, which isn't all that far from DC and is accessible by commuter rail, as it runs through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and served by MARC and Amtrak.

And when it comes to wildlife watching, nothing beats the beaver-tended wetlands of Fairfax's Huntley Meadows Park, accessible via Fairfax Connector routes 161 and 162, which connect it to Huntington Metro.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Ask GGW: How have planners made your daily commute better?

When it comes to getting around, it can be easy to focus on what we wish we had or what's going wrong. But what about the good stuff that's already there? We asked our contributors about the best parts of their daily commutes and the planning choices that made them happen.

Photo by Andrew Gastwirth on Flickr.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of votes went to bicycle infrastructure, particularly off-street trails. Kelly Blynn sang the praises of DC's newest bike trail, the Metropolitan Branch Trail:

I have to bike on some high speed streets (4th NE and Franklin NE) to get there, but once I'm on it, it's a dream: smooth, mostly down hill, no stop lights. There are even fresh berries to pick for breakfast in the summer months. What?! I really must be dreaming.

So did Jeff Lemieux:

The MBT was the missing link between upper NE DC and downtown. Since it opened, bike commuters no longer have to either ride in heavy traffic or cross major highway-like streets like New York Avenue. Even though it's only a short stretch between Brookland and NoMa, the MBT made my bike commute from northern Prince George's possible.
Abigail Zenner singled out other recently-added bike infrastructure in the District:
I love the L Street, M Street, and 15th Street protected bikeways! I work at the corner of 15th and L NW, and I love having the option to bike to work. I also love the new bikeshare station at that corner for the days I don't want to bike back up the hill. My bike commute takes about the same time as the bus but I can leave whenever I want to and it's a lot more fun.
David Cranor has discovered how better sidewalks also help cyclists on busy routes:
As part of the Great Streets Program, DDOT rebuilt Pennsylvania Avenue SE east of the Anacostia. That rebuild included a 10-foot-wide sidepath on the uphill side. The addition of what is basically a climbing lane on this steep busy road means that I have a relatively pleasant bike ride that's separated from the road, instead of a white-knuckled slog up a hill punctuated by honking drivers and close, aggressive passing.
Canaan Merchant who uses either his folding bike or Metrobus to get to and from Virginia Railway Express at L'Enfant Plaza, said he's grateful to have more than one mode option:
The 15th street bike lanes are a huge help for me because I know that I don't have to hustle like I would feel pressured to do elsewhere. For bad weather days, did you know you can ride Metrobus free on a VRE ticket to or from a VRE station? It's great not to pay twice on my commute.
Chris Slatt touted Arlington's interconnected bikeways:
For me it's the Shirlington Connector, the trail that runs under I-395 and connects the W&OD Trail to the Four Mile Run Trail. 395 is a major barrier for walking and bicycling, but the Shirlington Connector, the recent improvements to Joyce Street, and the planned Hoffman-Boston Connector are all part of Arlington's plan to give people options to overcome that barrier.
Jonathan Krall also talked about his easier bike commute:
The Wilson Bridge Trail reduced my bicycle commute from 12 miles to 9 miles, short enough to do almost every day and a big step towards my current state of car-freedom. A sidewalk on a bridge may seem like a no-brainer, but sidewalks continue to be excluded or dangerously underbuilt on many bridges today. The decision to build a trail on the Wilson Bridge and the decision to plow it in the winter were life-changers. A trail extension along I-295 and a "fix" for the expansion joints would make it the same for hundreds of others.
Adam Froehling, a frequent commenter, offered a note on biking in Alexandria as well as driving-related praise for the Wilson Bridge:
When I was riding my bike a lot, Alexandria's early completion of Potomac Ave through the Potomac Yard area made for a shorter, lower-traffic trip that avoided the lack of connections between the Mount Vernon Trail and the Pentagon area.

I was also thankful for the completion of the local/express lanes on the Wilson Bridge. This made for a mostly-predictable 25 minute commute between Huntington and Suitland, especially in the afternoons.

Michael Perkins mentioned road improvements:
For me, the decision to make I-66 HOV keeps a major highway from being congested during the morning rush hour. Even more significant to my situation is the Federal decision to keep motorcyclists out of dangerous stop-and-go traffic by allowing them to use HOV lanes. I've been bumped from behind on I-395 by a driver who apologized and told me he "fell asleep". That's really comforting considering what's at stake if someone runs into my back...
David Versel mentioned something that isn't a physical construction:
In my case it's not a piece of infrastructure, it's a policy: the Commonwealth Commuter Choice program. As a state employee, I get up to $130 per month towards my Metro fare, which is a terrific incentive that influences many people to use transit.
And Tracey Loh said she really appreciates a piece of technology:
My commuting life became a nightmare after I had a baby and needed to factor in daycare transportation. My saving grace is the navigation app Waze. My worst commute across the city once lasted over two hours one way. Thanks to Waze, my commute is now a very predictable 75 minutes each way.
Dan Reed noted a mundane, oft-overlooked part of a safe, inviting roadway for pedestrians:
Streetlights! On my old street, there were highway-style streetlights that barely covered the roadway, let alone the sidewalks. It was bad enough coming home from work in the winter when I could at least make things out from the headlights of passing cars. But coming home from the bar when nobody was around, it was scary even for a 6'1" guy like me, if only for the potential of running into low-hanging tree branches. Where I live now, there are urban-style streetlights that light the sidewalk, making it safe and comfortable to walk.
Finally, Dan Malouff showed love to an old stand by:
We can't have this discussion without mentioning Metrorail. Yeah, it's frustrating at times, but can you imagine our region without it? Metrorail is so ubiquitous, such a backbone for the region, that we take it for granted all the time. But it's the best post-war subway system in the US, it absolutely makes life better for millions of people every day, and its presence here was by no means a forgone conclusion.
Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Ask GGW: Which is the best nonprofit to donate a car to?

As more people go car-free and families cut back on how many cars they own, a reader asked us the best way to put an unwanted car to use. Our contributors suggest nonprofits that accept vehicle donations.

Photo by Kars4Kids on Flickr.

Reader Rob asks:

Do you have any preference among the various charities that accept car donations? Are there any reputable ones around here that have better offers on the table than others?
Contributors recommended only a handful of locally-focused organizations. Greg Billing put in a plug for his employer, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association:
WABA receives 70% of a donated car's value. In addition to the donation being tax-deductible, WABA provides the donor with a free one-year membership and our sincere gratitude.
Jonathan Krall added that the annual Tour de Fat group ride, sponsored by New Belgium Brewing Company, offers a prize to a person willing to give up his or her car.

Canaan Merchant suggests our local NPR station:

WAMU will take your car, and I like that station enough that'd I'd probably go with them right off the bat if I were ever donating my car.

Also, WAMU's pitch specifically mentions people looking to cut down on the number of cars they own, which I see as a sign that more and more people are seeing car-free/lite living as normal.

Tina Jones opted to support another local nonprofit radio station:
Several years ago, I donated a car to WETA. They made it really easy. I just called and someone came to tow it and left some documents. Later, they sent confirmation of what it sold for at auction. I will say, though, that had I known, I would have donated it to WABA!
Yours truly adds:
One good organization that accepts car donations is the National Association of Railroad Passengers, for which I used to work and still serve on its national advisory body, the Council of Representatives. NARP advocates on the national, state and local levels for the investment necessary to modernize our passenger train network and make passenger trains an integral part of the national transportation network and a viable travel choice.

On a broader note, there are several companies out there that manage vehicle donations on behalf of many nonprofit clients. I believe it's free for a nonprofits to set up a car donation program with most of them, but the company takes a cut of the value of every car donated.

Another local charity suggestion from Chris Slatt:
If you want to be sure your donated car actually goes toward a good, local use, you can donate to the Automotive Technology program at the Arlington County Career Center. Vehicles donated by the community are used in instruction and/or are repaired by students and auctioned online. Proceeds from these vehicle sales are used to buy the latest tools and equipment for the automotive program as well as fund field trips and events.
Jim Titus provides some background on how car donation tax credits work:
If you are thinking about donating a car, my advice is to ask whoever you're considering donating it to what they're going to do with it.

The federal income tax deduction is limited to $500 or whatever the organization gets for selling the car, whichever is greatest. The larger programs that take cars still seem to be catering to people with junkers who want a $500 deduction regardless of what the car is worth. (I am not commenting on the worthiness of these charities, just the vehicle donation programs).

A few organizations partner with trade schools, or otherwise fix old cars, and sell them. If you give to that type of organization, you can still get the generous tax deduction, and to me, it doesn't raise the same questions about scamming when someone actually gets the old car in working order. Or if your car is worth (say) $2000 and just needs a few minor repairs, at least you get the $2000 fair market value deduction because they will fix it up just a bit and sell for its true value.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Ask GGW: Is a Georgetown gondola practical?

The Georgetown Business Improvement District and neighborhood leaders have been floating the idea of a gondola linking Georgetown with Rosslyn. But many transit experts seem skeptical. Who's right?

Image from the Georgetown BID.

Georgetown BID head Joe Sternlieb says it could be an inexpensive way to build a high-capacity transit link. On the other hand, the National Park Service and other agencies would have to approve any wires over the Potomac, and jealously guard this territory against encroaching structures.

This week, we asked the contributors, why does Georgetown seem so enthusiastic but most others aren't? Is there a good transportation reason that these aren't the best choice (and why most US cities don't have them)? Or is it just that people don't believe it could ever get federal approval?

"Two words: 'Wire ban,'" retorted Matt Johnson.

"A zip line would be my preferred alternative," Tracy Loh joked.

Gray Kimbrough said, "I heard that there are wireless gondolas in development which will solve this problem," but Matt Johnson said the technology is "in its infancy." "A wireless hoverboard is much less complicated than a wireless gondola," he claimed. Steven Yates reminded us all, "Sadly, you need extra power to make hoverboards work on water."

Dan Malouff weighed the meta-questions:

Transportation people, at least the ones who aren't hopelessly close-minded, roll their eyes because the Georgetown idea specifically puts the cart before the horse, not because gondolas are inherently useless.

It's sort of like a transit fantasy map. There's been no analysis about what problem it's supposed to be solving, or about whether it's the best way to solve whatever problem that is. It could be, but nobody knows.

So my position on the gondola is "skeptical but open-minded." It could totally work, maybe even very well, but so far I just don't feel strongly enough about it (either pro or con) to become particularly vested in its outcome. I'd like to see some actual analysis on it, and maybe after that I'll feel differently.

Payton Chung laid out the reasons why one might use a gondola:
Any technology will have its proponents, and I'm prone to eye-rolling whenever someone claims that the technology is what will make or break a transit project. (They're wrong: it's the corridor.) As Malouff says, it's putting the cart before the horse.

However, having talked about gondolas with the relatively technology-agnostic Jarrett Walker, there are a few situations where a gondola makes sense:

  • Few stops
  • Challenging topography or limited ROW/footprint
  • Relatively level passenger flows through the day
I can think of worse corridors than Georgetown to Rosslyn. In particular, surface transit will require too large a footprint in a corridor that's heavily restricted by NPS, and the shopper/tourist traffic this would draw isn't sharply peaked.

However, there are better ones, like ski resorts or universities on mountaintops (e.g., OHSU [Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, which has one today] and SFU [Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, which has considered one]).

Gray Kimbrough relayed the history of New York City's Roosevelt Island Tramway:
Much of [Roosevelt Island] was redeveloped in the 1970s, and as an interim solution until the promised subway station opened, they built a tramway with one stop on the island and one in Manhattan. It opened in 1976, and ended up being so popular that when the subway station opened in 1989, they kept the tramway running.

For many people, it's a very convenient way to commute into Manhattan. It's also one of my favorite ways to view the city from a different angle, and I encourage tourists to ride it whenever they go.

Finally, Topher Matthews, who served on the steering committee that wrote the Georgetown 2028 report which recommends a gondola study, explained why the community is excited about the possibility:
I understand the eye rolling that transit people are doing in response to this proposal. It's tiresome, but I understand it.

Here's why this could be a good idea:

  • It's much cheaper than streetcar and Metro
  • It can be built incredibly fast (months not years)
  • It can be an attraction in and of itself
The best argument, though, is this: the plan is not simply to go from Rosslyn to M Street, but rather to continue to end at Georgetown University. Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road.

Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible? Arguing this way is no different than Matt Yglesias saying that to improve streetcars we just need to completely smash the car lobby.

[Joe Sternlieb] is obviously a big booster of it, but he makes it clear: all he wants to do now is a feasibility study. If it comes back as unfeasible, then that's it. He'll drop it.

It's easy to laugh it off. But, seriously, if you can't even consider it while simultaneously defending streetcar without dedicated lanes, I'm not sure how you're making a distinction between what's a fanciful waste of money and what's worth defending.

Sounds like doing a study of the gondola concept isn't such a bad idea.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Ask GGW: With another fare hike in store, why is Metro still short on cash?

WMATA is hiking fares while still claiming it needs more money. How does the agency's financial status compare to that of other large US transit agencies? Have member jurisdictions' contributions to WMATA changed recently? Our contributors do their best to explain some of Metro's finances in this week's Ask GGW.

Photo by Scott on Flickr.

Reader Samuel Inman asks:

Can GGW provide any stats or comparative data on WMATA's financial status against, say, Boston's MBTA or New York's MTA?

WMATA keeps saying they need to raise fares, that they need to cut service, and that they need more money from local jurisdictions.

But where is the money going? From a rider's perspective, fares have climbed pretty steadily and are comparable to those in Boston and New York. So why does Metro still need more money?

It would also be interesting to look at historical funding structures for WMATA. Are they asking for more because their jurisdictional contributions are down?

Michael Perkins provides this breakdown:

Regarding rail, rider fares and other revenues like parking and advertising currently pay for about 80% of the operating system's costs. The remaining costs are divided up among the jurisdictions according to a funding formula (see my previous GGW article on the subject for background).

This means that if the costs of the system go up and there is no change in fare, parking, or advertising revenue, the jurisdictions have to pay for the increase out of their contributions alone. Since the contributions only pay for 20% of the cost, the increase is multiplied by 100%/20% = 5x.

For example, if the system costs $1 billion to run, $800 millon comes from fares and $200 million comes from the jurisdictions. A 5% increase in costs means that the system now costs $1050 million. Since $800 million still comes from fares, the jurisdictions now need to pay $250 million, which is 25% more than before.

Regarding bus, there are two parts of the bus system. The "regional" routes meet certain criteria but are the major routes that cross jurisdictional boundaries or travel major corridors. The regional route bus funding is divided up among jurisdictions according to a different funding formula, which depends on factors like ridership, service level, etc. The "non-regional" routes are operated at the request of a particular jurisdiction and are funded by that jurisdiction.

With Metroaccess, this paratransit service is funded by the jurisdiction that the customer resides in.

Perkins further explains WMATA's revenues and costs, and gives context for comparing the Washington region's system to those in other cities:
Fares are a very large portion of the Metro budget, especially for rail. Every year when Metro costs go up, unless there is a fare increase or ridership increase, the jurisdictions will be asked for a contribution increase. Their contribution increase is multiplied by about five if there is no more money from riders, i.e., if costs go up 3%, the jurisdiction are asked for a 15% increase in budget. This is because fares pay for about 80% of rail operating costs. There are very few jurisdictions out there that can bear such an increase every year.

Metro service off peak has been lousy lately. There is lots of track service, both single tracking and otherwise. Even when a route is not affected on a weekend, the friction of having to figure out what is affected sometimes discourages people from riding. This cuts into ridership and revenue.

The federal transit benefit was cut back recently. This has cut people's desire to spend $12 round trip from the farthest stations. Other systems like Chicago and Boston have unlimited transit passes that are below the transit benefit level, while Metro's is nearly double the limit.

Metro arbitration rules with their largest union do not allow the level of fares to be a factor in determining Metro's ability to pay. As long as Metro can get more money by raising fares, they will be directed to raise fares in order to pay for raises and benefits mandated by arbitration. I think we have reached the point where increasing fares is starting to affect ridership negatively, so they may be able to argue that raising fares to increase revenue is less possible.

In the core of WMATA's operations (rail operators, bus drivers, station managers), it is difficult to impossible to improve efficiency by substituting technology for labor. Unlike industries like offices or construction where new techniques or equipment can do a job with fewer people, there is no easy way to drive a train with less than one operator other than by replacing the entire control system at considerable expense.

People have reduced labor costs in lots of other industries&emdash; for example the self-checkouts at grocery stores, filling your own drinks at restaurants, switching from table service to fast casual restaurants, and automated copy machines instead of having lots of office administrative assistants.

Metro is suffering the same cost issue that other labor intensive industries like education and medicine are suffering. Only by increasing the efficiency in a passengers per operator sense can we keep fares under control, and the only way to do that is to increase ridership when the trains aren't packed (non-peak direction, off-peak ridership, and uncongested portions of the peak direction trains).

Comparing Metro to NYC is not really possible. The density around stations, the system design, the financial situation and the overall size of the system makes NYC not comparable to any other transit system in North America, and really only comparable to huge systems like Paris, London, Moscow or Tokyo.

Metro is best compared to Atlanta or San Francisco, except Metro has a bus system tacked on to it, and has to operate its own paratransit service, which I think in SF is handled by the jurisdictions individually. I don't know about Atlanta.

Ben Ross provides more background on the labor aspect of WMATA's cost structure (which we covered in August 2011):
The level of fares is considered by the arbitrators when they make their decision about what the fair level of pay would be. The arbitrator's job is to balance the interests of management against the interests of labor. One of the interests of management that the arbitrator considers is the need to hold down costs.

Arbitration becomes meaningless if Metro can ignore the arbitrator's order after it's given. What binding arbitration means is that it binds. Once the level of salary has been set, the political process decides how much to be paid out of the local jurisdiction contribution and how much out of fares.

It's important to point out that the binding arbitration process was set up because the area's transit workers lost the right to strike, which they previously had, when WMATA took over local bus systems (including some lines converted from streetcars only a few years earlier). Do proponents of ending binding arbitration want to give back the right to strike?

What the statute says is that so-called "public welfare"—a misleading piece of terminology since it's defined to mean the desire of local governments to hold down taxes—is to be considered by the arbitrator in addition to the factors that the arbitrator usually considers in setting a fair wage.

The final thought comes from Tracy Loh, who puts this discussion in a wider context to highlight a key disconnect in US transit policy:
Part of the issue with transit finance in the US generally is that we treat the market for mobility and the market for land as if they were separate, when in fact they are closely intertwined.

Transit agencies worldwide that succeed without subsidy do so by operating as land owners, land developers, landlords, and mobility providers. This allows wealth generated through land development to subsidize capital construction for transit, and income generated through rents to subsidize transit operations.

It also establishes potent feedback loop whereby easy access to residential and commercial development near transit stations boosts demand for both those destinations and for the transit service, thus allowing the developer/transit agency to capture value twice.

In our region, WMATA does have a Joint Development program, but this program still sends a substantial portion of the value it creates to the private sector and local jurisdictions, rather than to WMATA. Thus WMATA can only capture that value indirectly, through taxes and then through subsidies, which can only be less efficient.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Ask GGW: So you're looking for a planning job in the DC area?

Are you looking to get into the planning field in the Washington region? In this week's AskGGW, our contributors suggest three ways to make it happen: meet as many people in the field as possible and do lots of networking, look for internships or volunteer opportunities (like writing for GGW!) that let you delve into a topic of interest and gets your name out into the world, and get a master's degree.

Photo by Paul B. (Halifax) on Flickr.

Reader Colin Brown asked,

How can recent graduates find foot-in-the-door opportunities in this field? Are there best practices for young people looking to find that first work opportunity in the area?
Dan Malouff gives advice based on his personal experience:

The hardest part of any new career path is getting your foot in the door. You've got to know people in the industry, and you've got to have produced work somewhere that people can look at, to get a sense of what kind of work you'll do for them.
The traditional way for new people to accomplish that is via an internship, often unpaid. And yeah, that works. Do that if you can.

But anything you can do that both gets your name out there and produces planning-related work is good for your job-seeking cause. And there's no easier way to do both those things simultaneously than to blog. And there's no better way to make sure a lot of people in the DC planning field see your blogging than to get it published on GGW.

This is no mere theory. It's exactly the path that several of us on the GGW team have taken. At least three or four of us, and maybe more.

Adam Lind shares his story:
I had no background in planning before going to grad school at Virginia Tech in 2010. I went to planning school after a personal interest in sustainability started to grow at the end of my undergrad business school life in 2008. From there, I went into transportation planning as I figured that was the best way to make an impact on sustainability and improving the environment by promoting alternative transportation.

I got an internship the summer after I graduated with my masters and ended up getting a job offer in Chapel Hill, but wanted to live in a "real" city. I just kept applying and got an interview with Fairfax County for a Planning Tech II job.

I thought I was overqualified but figured it was a good career move to get into the area, and eventually an opening above me in the bike planning department opened up and now I'm doing my dream job. Sometimes it's better to just be in the right place at the right time.

Aimee Custis, who constantly screens job applications at work, suggests the following three steps:
1. Have the necessary technical credentials. That's a prerequisite. So all that stuff about "get a planning degree" and "suck it up and take an internship" are true. And a bare minimum. Until you have done these things, full stop: nothing else I have to say will get you past this step.

2. Get to know EVERYONE you possibly can in the field, and demonstrate to them how amazing you are. Most job openings I hear about come by word-of-mouth, so making sure people think of you when they hear about a job opening is key. Call and email people, tell them you're interested in a planning/transportation career, and ask if you can pick their brain over coffee.

Come prepared with a thoughtful list of questions to ask them, and be sure to have your pitch about who you are and what you're looking for polished. Ask those people to introduce or refer you to other people. Leave them with an awesome impression of you. Rinse and repeat.

3. When a job opening does come your way, apply promptly, completely, and put your best foot forward. If writing isn't your strong point, have someone help you with your cover letter and resume. For Pete's sake, CUSTOMIZE your cover letter (and preferably your resume) to the position you're applying for. If you don't have the attention to detail and thoughtfulness to do that well, what would make me as a prospective employer think you'd do your job thoughtfully?

Whether in your cover letter or in your interview, be ready with a polished, well-considered answer about what you bring to the position that makes you a better candidate than the dozens of similar candidates who are applying?

Oh, and last thing: remember those people who you got to know in step 2? Reach out to them. Tell them you're applying, and thank them for their good advice. If you can, gently drop that if they know anyone at the employer, you'd love if they'd put in a good word for you.

Associate Editor Jonathan Neeley heartily seconds Aimee's recommendation to "ask to pick their brain over coffee," adding "If someone is in a position you're in, you should ask them if you can have a conversation with them, and then you should ask them all about what they do and the path they took to get there. If someone loves their job, they'll also love to talk about it."

And Abigail Zenner adds:

I would add that it is important to follow up with your contacts. Don't just send one email, but check in again to see if the person saw it. People get a lot of email and sometimes they intend to write back but it gets lost in the shuffle. Don't read too much into that. Don't be shy and don't be afraid to contact people who are agency department heads or other "important people."

Another important piece is to try your best to figure out what it is you want to do. Do you want to be a planner? An advocate? A policy analyst? Do you want to work in communications or politics? What policy area would you like to focus on? Take the time to find yourself so you know what kinds of jobs you are looking for. That self searching will also help inform a decision about graduate school.

Payton Chung, who has also reviewed thousands of resumes, says "it's amazing how many boring candidates are out there." He has the following advice:
Your portfolio should describe and show off achievements, not tasks, in a way that's relevant to the challenges and concerns that people are hiring for. Your cover letter should be grouped around your skills, not chronology. Your interactions with potential employers should be about them and their needs, not yours; everyone loves talking about themselves. When you do get a chance to talk, personal convictions and interests always make for more fascinating (and memorable!) conversations than shop talk. Share your opinions, and be prepared to back them up.

And that brings me to another point: whenever I've hired people, I've always looked for people whose own initiatives demonstrate a genuine fascination with, and understanding of, the cities and communities they'll be serving. For someone at the entry level, that's not always paid. But it can be illustrated through volunteer or academic or travel experience. Choose interesting and timely topics for your class papers—or for posts you submit to GGW!

Especially in the DC market, you will need an MA pretty soon. In many other cities, 30% of people have college degrees; here, 30% of people have graduate degrees. Most of the local programs are available part-time, and they're a great way to get some self-directed experience in the topic.

Claire Jaffe asked a follow-up question about what to look for in a master's program, and Adam Lind responded:
From my point of view, from being a recent master's graduate and doing the job search, you're going to need a master's degree at some point, so the sooner the better. The bigger question in my opinion is to do it full time, or do it while working. If you can get a planning job and do grad school at the same time, that would be my recommendation.

If you can find an arrangement where you get a job, conditioned on taking classes, then yes, go for that too. I just know when I was looking to get in the field almost every job ad said master's degree required or highly recommended, and if you have no experience and no master's degree, you're starting way behind the rest of the field. The past few years there have been A LOT of planners looking for a few jobs. I know job ads that regularly receive 100+ candidates, many of whom are well overqualified.

Tracy Loh comments on the specific dynamics of the planning profession:
Within the planning sector, I think it's important to distinguish between agencies and nonprofits. Understand the different roles each play and think about which is a better fit for your personality and perspective.

In the DC area especially, I think many agencies have a strongly technocratic bent, where it's about skills, experience, jargon fluency, etc, and Payton's advice about being expert enough to have opinions and back them up is right on the money. I would perhaps rephrase it as "being able to express opinions without making them sound like opinions."

I want to second another thing Payton said, about volunteering. I work at a nonprofit. I see job applications from people all the time where they swear up and down in their cover letter that they love our mission and are personally committed to it... and then there is no volunteer experience on the resume. I'm not even talking about working for free, like with internships; that is a privilege that not all people have. But planning is all about being engaged with a community—when I was in grad school, I waited tables some nights and went to community meetings other nights. I learned a lot about how the development process works and I showed my seriousness about the issues. You need to engage, even if it's just when you're done making rent.

A lot of planning is really about people, even when superficially we are talking about transit, or stormwater management, or whatever. What are your people skills and how do you want to put them to work? What kinds of situations energize you, and what drains you (or would you rather avoid)? Seek out positions that are a good fit and make the case for that fit in your cover letter—show that you really understand what the role requires.

This is hard only inasmuch as many organizations (whatever the sector!) do not know what they actually need when they are hiring. You're not going to find a dream job, but you might be able to make one. Look for openings and opportunities to do so and see the cover letter and interview as your chance to make a pitch about what you would turn the job into.

Dan Reed offers a reminder that those looking for planning jobs should brush up on skills that are useful in any sector:
Whether you're in the public or private sector, good planners generally know how to:
  • Express ideas clearly and succinctly through writing.
  • Speak to particular audiences (whether it's an agency, a community group, businesses, etc.).
  • Craft a narrative (about a community's past, present, and future).
  • Work with many different people (often across different agencies, companies, and also the general public).
  • See things for what they can be, not just what they are (have a vision!).
  • There are other more specific disciplines, like graphic design or engineering or public policy, that relate to planning and often come up in a planner's work. But I think they all go back to those general ideas.
    The final thought comes from a contributor who asked to remain anonymous:
    I'll give anecdotal evidence as to the power of contributing to GGW. I had an interview a few weeks ago for a planning position. I don't have GGW listed in my resume, but it was literally the first thing that the interviewer brought up, either because he reads GGW or because my GGW bio is the first thing that pops up if you Google me. Either way, it was definitely seen as valuable experience. I'm still waiting to hear back, but fingers crossed.
    If you do want to write for Greater Greater Washington, check out our contributor guidelines for information on what to think about and how to get started.

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

    Ask GGW: Is there any reason not to have a sidewalk?

    There are parts of DC and other cities with no sidewalks. As pedestrian safety has become a higher priority in road design, DC and other cities have been adding them, though sometimes residents oppose the idea. Is there any good reason not to put one in? Do we have statistics?

    Reader Phil L. asks: "Do sidewalks measurably improve pedestrian safety even in low traffic density areas, like residential neighborhoods? What would be a compelling reason to have a residential street without a sidewalk?"

    Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

    Erin McAuliff says:

    According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, "Pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks; streets with sidewalks on both sides have the fewest crashes." I think the reference for this is from the Federal Highway Administration.

    From another angle, and with a particular focus on the aging, sidewalks may increase residents' perception of safety. Falling or tripping on poorly maintained sidewalks is a serious concern for the elderly, especially the frail, for whom one accident could be devastating. Falls are the leading cause of death from injuries for persons over the age of 65.

    Ben Ross gives some historical perspective on why neighborhoods might not have them:
    The original reason for not building sidewalks in suburban neighborhoods was to give the development a "high-class" non-urban image by discouraging walking. See Dead End, page 16.
    Sean Emerson lives in one such area:
    A reason I've heard people in my neighborhood (Woodmoor in Four Corners) use for opposing sidewalks was the preservation of the "rural" feel of the neighborhood. My neighborhood and several others nearby were once anchored by Indian Springs Country Club, so you can imagine that the clientele originally buying homes around here were doing so to escape the city and its associated "urban" infrastructure like curbs and sidewalks.

    The streets in my neighborhood close to University Boulevard and Colesville Road were built in the mid-1930's with no sidewalks or curbs (these streets comprised the original development anchored by the country club). When the county installed curbs about 10 years ago, sone people complained that the curbs changed the "character" of those streets, and several think that sidewalks would make it worse. There are many 1930's era neighborhoods in and around Silver Spring which still lack curbs of any kind, much less sidewalks (Hillandale, North Hills of Sligo, and parts of Woodside come to mind).

    Retaining a "country" or "rural" feel might not sound like a compelling reason to prevent the installation of sidewalks to most, but it is for some.

    So does Nick Keenan:
    My neighborhood, Palisades, had a protracted debate about adding sidewalks on a neighborhood street, University Terrace. Ultimately they were not put in.

    Some of the arguments were expected: there are people who never walk, who don't see any utility to sidewalks. Landowners who would lose part of their front yard were predictably opposed. What surprised me was how many people expressed the viewpoint that sidewalks actually detract from a neighborhood. People even used the adjective "rural" to describe our neighborhood. I'm not sure they really knew what rural meant—Palisades certainly isn't rural— I think they were looking for a word that meant non-urban and that was the best they could come up with.

    Like so many personal preferences, there's no right or wrong, but there's also very little room for persuasion.

    Not all neighborhoods of that era lack sidewalks. David Rotenstein writes:
    It's a mistake to generalize that all 20th century residential subdivisions omitted sidewalks or that the failure to install them was part of some larger, mysterious anti-pedestrian agenda. One Silver Spring subdivision (outside the Beltway) originally was developed between 1936 and 1940 and the subdividers/developers intentionally constructed sidewalks and used their existence as a marketing point in sales literature.
    Coming back to the issue of statistics, Jonathan Krall writes:
    The "safety in numbers" effect, often discussed in relation to cycling, also applies to pedestrians. Briefly, injuries per pedestrian fall as the number of pedestrians increase. This implies that adding sidewalks to an area would encourage walking and make that area safer.

    However, it is difficult to square that result with the nationwide increases in pedestrian fatalities, happening during a decrease in driving and (I presume; I don't have data on this) an increase in walking

    My hypothesis is that the shift towards transit (and presumably walking) that is so clear in data for millennials is leading to more walking in suburban environments along dangerous arterial roads. But that is just a hypothesis.

    But Ben Ross challenges the premise that statistics can explain the sidewalk debates:
    "Safety" is not the main issue here. It's equal treatment. Lack of sidewalk discourages walking by denying pedestrians the right of way. They must get out of way whenever a car comes by.
    David Edmondson explains how just slowing cars down can improve safety:
    It's likely not simply an issue of traffic volume but of traffic speed. Take, say, this random street in California. It's narrow but two-way and so traffic is very, very slow (roughly jogging speed). Despite its lack of sidewalks, it is a pedestrian-friendly street—I see unaccompanied kids on such streets all the time. Yet I would not feel comfortable walking down other sidewalk-free streets (like this one in Silver Spring) where calm traffic is not invited by the street's design.

    I don't know of any studies regarding sidewalks and pedestrian safety on low-volume streets, but I don't think that's the right way to look at it anyway given all the factors that go into a street's safety. Risk is a quality positively correlated with increased volume and speed and sight-lines, each of which are themselves correlated with certain street design choices. A pedestrian is shielded from some of that risk by a sidewalk, but sometimes the risk is so low that the shielding is unnecessary.

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

    DC has too few dedicated east-west bike pathways

    While DC's bicycling network has grown, there still aren't a lot of crosstown connections. In fact, there are no protected east-west bicycle routes in the whole third of the District north of Florida Avenue. Cyclists need more of these, as well as north-south routes to form a grid of dedicated paths.

    Bike lanes around a northern section of DC. Image from Google Maps.

    Much of DC's bicycle infrastructure, like trails, dedicated bikeways, and bike lanes concentrates in the downtown core, primarily south of Florida Avenue. DDOT's official bicycle map, last updated in 2011, shows that outside of downtown, most bicycle facilities run north-south.

    Unless they are willing to ride on six-lane, shoulder-free roads with fast-moving traffic, cyclists have no way to traverse the northern part of Rock Creek Park, where only a freeway-like portion of Military Road crosses the park.

    The same goes for Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, the only direct paths from Columbia Heights to Brookland across the vast acreage of McMillan Reservoir and Sand Filtration Site, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

    "East-west mobility for bicyclists in the northern neighborhoods of DC can be a significant challenge," said Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) Advocacy Coordinator Greg Billing. "Large campuses, parks, hospitals and cemeteries limit the available east-west connections. The MoveDC plan calls for high quality bicycle facilities from neighborhoods to downtown and better connections between the neighborhoods."

    That plan recommends some form of dedicated bikeway along Irving Street, as well as for a cycletrack on Military Road.

    A route between Columbia Heights and Brookland would connect two vibrant neighborhoods and serve an area that will gain population as the McMillan site and part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property redevelop.

    Google Maps' bicycle directions from the Columbia Heights Metro to the Brookland-CUA Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

    Currently, both the DDOT map and Google Maps advise cyclists to use Irving Street between Brookland and Columbia Heights. However, between Park Place NW and the Catholic University campus, Irving Street is a busy six-lane near-freeway with no shoulder. Cyclists have to navigate among drivers merging on and off at the massive cloverleaf intersection with North Capitol Street.

    However, the right-of-way through this section seems wide enough for DDOT to add a protected cycle track or trail. One possibility is a cycle track in a protected median down the middle of Irving Street, which would avoid dangerous crossings of the off-ramps at the Irving and North Capitol cloverleaf. Another is to have a trail parallel the existing sidewalk on the south side of Irving Street.

    Google Maps street view of Irving Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW.

    Worsening traffic congestion is a major concern at the McMillan site. The area has infrequent bus service and is far from a Metro station, but improving bicycle access could provide an important alternative to driving, reducing the traffic impact of new development.

    Military Road NW across Rock Creek Park is a similar case. Tilden Street and Park Road to the south, and Wise Road, Beach Drive, and Kalmia Road to the north, are more bike-friendly ways to cross the park. But they're far out of the way for neighborhoods on either side.

    According to DDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Mike Goodno, DDOT controls the road itself and a handful of feet on either side. The National Park Service would have to okay any further widening. DDOT has not yet studied whether there is room to add a cycletrack on Military within the right-of-way it controls.

    Google Maps Street View of Military Road NW through Rock Creek Park.

    The only other connection through Rock Creek Park that is further along in the planning process is the Klingle Trail, which will connect the Rock Creek trail to Woodley Road NW. DDOT completed an Environmental Assessment in 2011.

    As activity centers outside the downtown area grow and travel patterns become less centralized, we must enable cyclists and transit users to get across town as easily as drivers. A grid-like, interconnected network of bike routes would make that possible.

    After a decade in service, where could the Circulator go next?

    As the DC Circulator celebrates its tenth anniversary, planners are weighing options for the system's continued growth. Tuesday evening, they held a public forum at Eastern Market to talk about ways to expand the Circulator and unveiled a new bus paint scheme.

    Model Circulator wearing the new "comet" paint scheme parked at Eastern Market. Photo by the author.

    Having expanded from two routes to five, the Circulator's core function remains to offer a frequent, reliable, inexpensive link between DC's activity centers and its neighborhoods. Planners are considering 7 possible new routes, which were on display at the forum.

    District Department of Transportation officials say the one with the greatest support is a connection between Dupont Circle and U Street, followed by a Dupont Circle-Foggy Bottom link. The proposed "Abe's to Ben's" Circulator between the Mall and U Street could serve both links. The input planners receive will inform the expansion priorities they will recommend this summer.

    Image by DDOT.

    I see one of Circulator's roles as to fill gaps in the Metrobus network that serve to better connect DC neighborhoods. I, too, cast my top vote for a Dupont-U Street connection, preferably starting by extending the Rosslyn-Georgetown-Dupont route up 18th Street NW and across U Street to Howard University.

    My second vote is for an extension of one of the routes currently ending at Union Station north into NoMa, perhaps one way on First Street NE and the other on North Capitol Street. Buses already create congestion near Union Station by using Massachusetts Avenue, E Street, and North Capitol Street as a turnaround. Having a Circulator turn around in NoMa instead helps to alleviate this, while providing bus connectivity to the heart of a rapidly developing area.

    It is interesting that DDOT proposes retaking the Convention Center to Southwest route from WMATA, which incorporated it into the Metrobus network in 2011 as Route 74. A DDOT representative explained that, as part of the 70s series, the 74 is considered a "regional" rather than a "local" route, and thus it is cheaper for the District to subsidize as Maryland and Virginia also contribute to it through WMATA's funding formulas.

    At the forum, DDOT also debuted a Circulator bus wearing a new exterior paint scheme. Instead of two arcs representing the route map with the names of destinations, the new design has two swooshes that a DDOT representative described as "comets."

    On display inside the bus were preliminary drawings by renowned transit vehicle designer Cesar Vergara of an interior for the next generation of Circulator buses. This would make Circulators' interiors more closely resemble those of the newest members of the Metrobus fleet, products of New Flyer.

    Preliminary rendering of a proposed interior for new Circulator fleet. Image from Vergara Studio.

    DDOT presented a map of the planned National Mall Circulator, which will connect Union Station with the Lincoln Memorial via Madison and Jefferson drives and around the Tidal Basin next spring. The agency sought input on what to include at the stops along this route, like area maps, and lists of nearby attractions, and where one or two-day passes and SmarTrip cards should be sold.

    Chart by DDOT.

    Circulator's ridership numbers have declined slightly over the past two years compared to the previous two. David Miller, a transportation planner with DDOT contractor Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, speculated on the reasons for the dip and offered these hypotheses:

    • Metrobus's service quality has improved, siphoning off former Circulator riders who once perceived Metrobus as a less attractive service.
    • DC residents, particularly young adults, are gravitating towards more flexible car and bike sharing systems, aided by better bicycling infrastructure, for short trips to see friends or go shopping for which they previously used Circulator.
    • Circulator buses are starting to get shabby. The fleet is 10-14 years old and is just now starting to undergo repainting and reupholstery.
    So far, surveys of Circulator riders have only covered demographic information, trip purpose and trip type. They have not asked riders to describe why they chose Circulator over other modes, or why they've chosen other modes over Circulator for other trips.

    Results of the last Circulator survey. Image by DDOT.

    Despite Circulator's branding as a service that connects shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations, a solid majority of riders use it to get to and from work. The average rider is a young adult with at least a college education making less than $40,000 per year. Most riders use Circulator on all days of the week, with pluralities using it daily, and take it round trip.

    DDOT will release a final update of the Transportation Development Plan Summary Report this summer, and will hold another semi-annual forum this fall. Beyond that, aside from the spring 2015 implementation of the National Mall Circulator, there is no timeline for implementing any expansions of the system. Once DDOT comes out with its recommendations based on public input, it will be up to DC citizens to convince the Mayor and Council to fund them.

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