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

Posts from January 2011


Wheaton development a good example of urban infill

Infill development is fundamental to any region's sustainable growth and evolution. The Leesborough townhouse and condominium development in Wheaton exhibits excellent urban planning and creates a sense of place on the human scale.

Photo by the author.

In the long run, the region needs more urban-formatted infill housing in order to address its affordable housing problem.

In Montgomery County in particular, where a mere 4% of land is still available for greenfield development, and more space is devoted to roads and parking than to buildings, a growing population will have to be accommodated into existing areas. Well-designed infill can increase density without decreasing amenities and quality of life.

As a Wheaton resident, I enjoy seeing good transit-proximate walkable urban development in the area. In Leesborough, the Wheaton Metro Station is a 10-minute walk south on Georgia Avenue. The Y family of Metrobuses stops at the gate of the development, too.

In contrast to most housing developments in recent decades, the Leesborough development in Wheaton has a good sense of place with human-scaled complete streets. I was very pleasantly surprised when I took a walk through the nearly complete project.

While each townhouse has a two-car garage, it addresses car storage in an otherwise sensible, urban format. Rather than having wide streets with long driveways, the townhouses and condominiums in Leesborough address the street, which has parallel parking, while the garages around back open up to an alley, much like older row house neighborhoods in DC.

The rear placement of garages eliminates curb cuts from the primary streetscape. If you're walking from your house to the Metro on the sidewalk, you don't have to worry about getting hit by someone pulling out of their driveway.

The streets were built by the developer but will become public. If you visit a resident of the development by car, you won't have to worry about being towed like at most existing car-oriented apartment/condo buildings. It's like visiting someone in a traditional neighborhood.

The Leesborough development also boasts a small urban park. I live near this emerging community and I could walk to it and enjoy this common space. It's not gated or set back behind acres of parking.

Leesborough is not perfect, obviously. It is a single-use housing development. There is no neighborhood-serving retail like a convenience store or a dry cleaner. Like most new construction, it is also expensive. I wouldn't call it "affordable" in any way.

The affordable housing problem is not something that we can correct by waving a magic wand. It exists because there are more real estate customers who want transit accessible housing in walkable, urban-style developments than there are existing units.

Meanwhile, the collapse of resale values in many far-flung, car-dependent developments implies that there is more of this type of housing than the market demands. It took many decades to reach our current imbalance and the only way we can address it is to build more developments like Leesborough in closer, transit accessible neighborhoods.


Good environmental bills die, bad transportation bills wounded in Virginia House

The Virginia House killed bills to establish a fee for disposable bags and 3-foot bicycle passing this week. While one bad transportation bill is going strong, legislators sent the other two down a road that makes passage unlikely.

Photo by Keith Williamson on Flickr.

The House tabled one bill to ban disposable plastic bags last week, then did the same for a 5¢ fee proposal similar to DC's from Arlington's Adam Ebbin and a similar one from Charles City's Joe Morrissey to impose a 20¢ fee.

Bills to require passing cyclists with 3 feet of space, which would match one passed last year in Maryland, also died in the House this week, though one is still alive in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The House did pass the bill letting bike and motorcycle riders go through stoplights if they've waited 2 minutes or 2 light cycles, and another clarifying that injuring someone after driving through a stop or yield sign or traffic light counts as reckless driving is still alive.

Two bad transportation bills suffered some likely-fatal wounds. HB2016, to consolidate three Northern Virginia transportation agencies and which was strongly opposed by most Northern Virginia representatives in both parties, was referred to the Joint Transportation Accountability Commission where it's expected to die. That's because one problem with consolidating these agencies is that each has taken on debt for various projects under various terms, and consolidating could create substantial legal headaches.

HB1999, perhaps the worst of all, would require that transportation spending follow the anti-livability "congestion" standard. The Transportation Committee referred it to Appropriations with no endorsement, which is tantamount to disapproving and makes it unlikely Appropriations will pass it. Its companion, HB1998, is the one that did pass in committee earlier in the week. 1998 forces VDOT to create lists of projects based on auto-centric "congestion" priorities, while 1999 forces spending to follow those lists.

The biggest fight will come over Governor McDonnell's "borrow money for roads" transportation plan. Smart growth and environmental groups came out against the plan, but powerful business groups are pushing it.


At-large forum Thursday, plus Weaver and Mara live chats

The DC for Democracy, Greater Greater Washington, and DC Environmental Network at-large candidate forum has been rescheduled for this Thursday. Meanwhile, Bryan Weaver and Patrick Mara will join us for live chats Tuesday and Wednesday.

Patrick Mara and Bryan Weaver after a cupcake-eating contest. Photo by squidpants on Flickr.

The forum is February 3, again at 441 4th Street (One Judiciary Square), south lobby, room 1107. Doors open at 6:00 and the event will start at 6:30.

Several candidates wouldn't have been able to attend for the original date, such as Patrick Mara who understandable had to attend the State Board of Education monthly meeting. This time, all invited candidates are confirmed: Sekou Biddle
Joshua Lopez, Patrick Mara, Stanley Mayes, Vincent Orange, Alan Page, Jacque Patterson, and Bryan Weaver.

Bryan Weaver will join us tomorrow at 1 pm for a live chat, and then we'll host Mara on Wednesday, again at 1 pm. Please leave questions you'd like to ask in the comments. Are there questions from our chat with Sekou Biddle that you also want to hear answered by Weaver or Mara?


Why is Capital Bikeshare usage low east of the river?

A map of Capital Bikeshare usage patterns makes it obvious that stations east of the Anacostia River get relatively little usage. However, the map does not tell us why ridership is low.

Photo by ianseanlivingston on Flickr.

The discussion here over the map triggered some knee-jerk reactions to abandon the program East of the River. Others argued that the stations are not used much, but they are being used.

Here are some reasons why ridership is likely low east of the river:

1. Start-up costs. The $75 annual fee is an obstacle for some middle- and lower-income people. I consider myself middle-income and it was even difficult for me to convince myself to pay the annual fee. This could easily be remedied by offering a payment plan over several months.

2. Marketing. Most of the marketing of the bikeshare program has happened online via DDOT's website, Twitter, and blogs. These media reach a specific demographic group. Social media and the Internet are not going to have the same impact East of the River.

DDOT did do outreach in Ward 7 at the Feet in the Street and Deanwood Day events held this summer. However, these events draw a demographic that either already knew about Capital Bikeshare, or seniors who are unlikely to use the program.

The bike sharing stations were installed East of the River with little additional education, particularly to young people, on how the program works. While sitting at a traffic light one day, I witnessed a little boy around the age of 10 trying to dock his personal bike in an empty slot in the station because he thought it was a regular bike rack. A Ward 7 resident stated the kids sit on the bikes at Deanwood station and ride them like stationary bikes, because they do not understand they need a "key" to unlock the bike.

Just as with any marketing, the message needs to be tailored to the target demographic.

3. Topography. East of the river is not an easy area to serve with transportation. The Anacostia River provides a barrier with few crossing points. The 375-acre Fort Dupont Park in the center of Ward 7 limits access north and south.

East of the river also has many steep hills, making bicycling along some major corridors more difficult. This topography complicates station placement. For example, the Capital Bikeshare station closest to my house is ¼ of a mile. However it's ¼-mile uphill.

4. Location choice. The purpose of the Capital Bikeshare program is to provide an alternative mode of transportation. The locations east of the river are located on corridors were there is either a decent bus or rail connection east to west, or on Minnesota Ave which is a well-served bus corridor north to south.

The redundancy of service makes it less likely for one to opt to bike the route versus ride the bus. Many of the most-traveled routes in the L'Enfant City span nearby neighborhoods without direct bus service, like Dupont to U Street.

Alabama Avenue is an underserved corridor that has commercial areas and large pockets of medium density residential developments. The addition of stations on this corridor could provide critical connections to public transportation hubs and commercial areas.

5. Incomplete data. Two of the stations spent much of the time period the map covers out of commission. The closest station to my house is at Penn Branch, which has been out of commission since October due to Pennsylvania Avenue Great Streets construction.

6. Critical mass. I pointed out that there are only 11 stations (with 2 out of commission) for an area that's 25% of the city. Alex Block noted that more densely-packed stations are more successful, and that every peripheral area with fewer stations, no matter the ward, has lower usage.

7. Seasonal usage. I wonder if the temperatures between October and December play a role in the low usage. In general, African-Americans, which make up the large majority of the residents east of the river, are averse to colder temperatures. In Wards 7 & 8, cycling has a very low mode share for commuting. Because relatively few residents were cyclists prior to the introduction of CaBi, the chances that the uninitiated bike rider is going to start cycling in late fall or the winter are relatively low. Given the choice between riding a bike and sitting on a warm bus, many will choose a warm bus.

Will there be an increase in usage in the spring and summer? If there is a seasonal effect, DDOT could investigate the feasibility of temporary relocating stations in low usage months.

It is premature to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the program east of the river. Perhaps after Capital Bikeshare has operated for a full year DDOT can reevaluate the program. However, that evaluation cannot rely on numbers and maps alone.

Editor's note: We regret the unfortunate phrasing in bullet point number 7. The post has been revised to clarify the author's intended point.


Breakfast links: Suggestions paying off

Photo by Ms. Tina on Flickr.
Metro going express around single tracking: Apparently Metro has started strategically sending some trains on express routes (2nd letter) to avoid significant bottlenecks when single-tracking situations arise. We recommended this approach back in 2009. (Dr. Gridlock)

New building skirts parking requirements: Donatelli Development has skirted the minimum parking requirements for a new residential building in Columbia Heights by billing it as an extension of the existing Highland Park development next door. (DCmud)

Carpooling is in decline: Despite offering the most immediate remedy for increasing capacity of highways, car pools have been in steady decline since the 1970s. Despite the incentives of HOV lanes, carpooling has dropped in the DC area due to the decentralization of employers and higher telework rates. (NY Times)

VA legislator wants no more red light cameras: Virginia Delegate Scott Lingamfelter of Woodbridge has introduced a bill that would prevent any more red-light cameras from being installed after July of this year. He cites cameras not having been widely deployed as proof of their ineffectiveness. (WTOP)

Pepco continues to disappoint: When last week's storm started wreaking havoc on residents' power, Pepco didn't call for reinforcements until hours after other area utilities did to help restore service to stricken areas. Governor O'Malley wants state authorities to be able to fine utilities for poor performance. (WAMU, WTOP)

Clean snow off your car!: Virginia considered a bill that would impose a fine on drivers who don't clean the snow off the roof of their cars, but has instead asked VDOT to develop a campaign encouraging drivers to do it voluntarily. (WTOP)

Road salt turns into river salt: All that salt area DOTs put down in advance of snow or predicted snow is, not surprisingly, not good for the rivers. An environmentally safer alternative is significantly more expensive. (City Paper)

And...: Sekou Biddle affirmed his support for streetcars at a Happy Hour last week on H Street. (Streetcars 4 DC) ... Political unrest in the Middle East may soon make your daily drive a little more expensive. (WTOP) ... Portlandia has a send-up of the Oregon city's more militant bike riders. Will cyclists have a sense of humor about it? (My Damn Channel)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Greater Greater Week in Review: January 23-29, 2011

Don't worry if you can't read GGW every day, you'll still be able to catch all our posts at a glance with Greater Greater Week in Review.

Photo by Girl With Butterfly Wings on Flickr.

Featured posts:

Why don't people obey the rules when they ride a bike?: On a recent Saturday night, about 11 pm, I was biking home while the wind-chill whipped at 10 degrees. Despite the "No Turn on Red" sign at 15th and New Hampshire and Florida and W Streets, I turned. There was no traffic, I couldn't feel my face, and I just wanted to get home. Read more »

Metro ponders new tunnels and connections: Before long, the Metro system will be bursting at the seams, besides those spots where trains are already stuffed to the gills. What can we do? To figure out some solutions, Metro's planning department has been analyzing many different alternatives for fixing the capacity bottlenecks. Read more »

Thundersnow traffic illustrates east-west divide: As thundersnow passed through the DC area right at rush hour, we were able to see the nadir of bad traffic via Google Maps. The map is color-coded based on speed: green for fast, yellow for slow, red for very slow. The red-and-black striped areas are probably where car traffic has stopped entirely. Read more »

Map shows most popular Capital Bikeshare trips : Arlington's CommuterPageBlog has an awesome map showing Capital Bikeshare usage. The darker the line, the more trips are made between the two stations that line connects. Read more »

Most popular:

Why all the wailing over the Union Station railyard project?: The Committee of 100, Capitol Hill Restoration Society, and other groups which habitually oppose things in DC have been fighting the project over the Union Station railyards on the grounds that you will be able to see the building over historic Union Station. Read more »

What Metro could be in 2100, if our priorities were different: Reader thisisbossi created a fantasy Metro map with a LOT of lines: Read more »

A DC United stadium is likely to be truly urban: Last week, Erik posted that DC United is in discussions about small sites in the District for a 20-25,000 seat soccer stadium. Read more »

Virginia Republican pursuing vendetta against Arlington for not wanting to be a "giant interchange": DC isn't the only place in the area where a Republican legislative majority in a large, mostly exurban and rural geographic area is threatening serious budget blows against a small, Democratic-leaning, urban jurisdiction. Read more »

On-campus housing not the answer for Georgetown: In "GU takes student ghetto approach to housing undergrads," Ken Archer argues that Georgetown University has created a "student ghetto" by failing to guarantee undergraduates four years of on-campus housing. Read more »

Other posts:


5 top issues for Richard Sarles

The Washington Post has an op-ed from me in their Local Opinions section this morning. It lists some important issues which need Richard Sarles' attention, now that he's become WMATA's longer-term CEO instead of interim General Manager.

Photo by erin m on Flickr.
Dear Richard Sarles,

Congratulations on being appointed chief executive officer of Metro.

You've already made a lot of progress as an interim leader. You've started creating a culture of safety and fixing unsafe conditions. You've stabilized a rudderless organization. You've published concrete performance metrics and commissioned assessments of problem areas, like escalators.

Now that you're going to be staying for a while, there are some big long-term problems that need your attention.

Those issues are customer service, Metrorail capacity, bus priority corridors, a long-term funding plan, and Metro's internal culture. Read the whole piece on the Post Web site.


Tysons highlighted as global example for smart growth

An overflow crowd of well over 150 jammed a small meeting room at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board to hear a two-hour discussion the planned transformation of Tysons Corner into what, on its own, is expected to be the United States' seventh largest downtown in 2030, eclipsing Seattle and Houston.

A Tysons Corner street in 2030. Image from Fairfax County.

All the speakers focused on what sets Tysons apart from other American "edge cities." While similar auto-oriented suburban jobs centers in other parts of the country are being redeveloped in a more urban fashion, Tysons is the only one to be centered on a heavy-rail transit connection to the rest of its metropolitan region.

Tysons Corner, which in the 1950s consisted of a general store at the corner of Virginia routes 7 and 123 (then only 4-lane roads), has expanded to hosting 170,000 jobs—and 160,000 parking spaces, mostly in surface lots. It is now the economic engine of Northern Virginia, if not the entire state.

While a significant number of those who work there live close by, its design make walking and biking very unpleasant and often dangerous. Located almost exactly halfway between downtown Washington and Dulles Airport, the area around Tysons often sees the worst traffic in the metro area.

The planned, and now under construction, extension of the Metrorail system through Tysons provided the impetus for re-planning the area. The Master Plan that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved in 2010 is the result of five years worth of work: hundreds of meetings with close scrutiny and ample public involvement.

Its implementation will cost $1.698 billion over 20 years, not including the $4 billion invested in the Silver Line itself and the new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the Beltway and I-66.

The new Tysons, in addition to very dense evenly mixed-use development near the three Metro stations, will feature an urban circulator, which could take the form of a streetcar or a rapid bus line. An expanded network of on-road bike lanes and off-road bicycle & pedestrian paths, as well as bike parking minimums, will help increase non-auto modes' share of daily commuters from just three percent today to 36 percent in 2030.

Automobile traffic will still increase, though, so more road capacity will be needed. Parking, however, will go from a current minimum of 2.6 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space, to a maximum of 1.6 spaces per thousand square feet within a half-mile radius of each Metro station. The use of smart parking meters will provide an even further deterrent to parking problems.

The planning process generated some tension and controversy, as well as some factually erroneous statements made in the press. The McLean Citizens' Association, a federation of neighborhood groups representing Tysons' surrounding residential areas, was a cooperative partner throughout the process and endorsed the final plan.

The Association wants to see paid parking become mandatory in Tysons, and increased bus service and ride-sharing incentives in the area. Association President Robert Jackson says residents are likely to fight road expansion and private property condemnation, despite that the current state of traffic diverts cut-through drivers onto residential streets.

Ronald Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, shared a relevant story from his own life. In the late 1960s, he worked in an office building on Connecticut Avenue near Farragut Square, where he enjoyed the urban environment and being able to walk to a variety of restaurants for lunch. His company moved to a new Tysons Corner office in the early 1970s.

Tysons today (Annandale VA blog)
Kirby's commute then was easy: the Beltway's speed limit was 65 mph and there was very little traffic. Though he could see the Tysons Galleria from his office window, he had to drive there to grab lunch because walking was a harrowing experience. The building he worked in was declared functionally obsolete in 1990 and the site has since twice been redeveloped—while the building he worked in on Connecticut Avenue still stands, and its environs have hardly changed.

Kirby touted the funding structure that made the Silver Line possible: half from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the other half from Dulles Toll Road toll revenues. He hopes developers can contribute to the financing of the Tysons Metro stations as they did to building the New York Avenue station (NoMa developers proposed its construction and paid a third of its costs).

"Tysons' future is urban; deal with it," said Dr. Robert Cervero, city and regional planning professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has had extensive involvement in the redesign. He noted that placemaking (transforming Tysons into an attractive place to live) remains a large challenge, but maintained that the good thing about its vast amounts of surface parking is that they serve as "land banking," making strategic infill easier.

Inclusionary planning, offering a compelling vision, and using conceptual images to give people a street-level view of the future mini city were key to the plans' broad acceptance, Cervero said. He noted also that bringing more residents into Tysons would do more to reduce traffic in and out than just improving transit and bicycle options.

Tysons Corner is poised to become North America's only example of a former sprawling edge city becoming a fully-fledged downtown in its own right. Making it successful—a task to which developers, nearby residents and government leaders are committed—will be a key step on the way to making our fast-growing region more livable and sustainable.

Weekend video: The fun stairs are still fun

A number of people have sent in this video as a tip. We ran it a while back, but it's always fun and many of you might not have seen it:

Design can change behavior in all kinds of ways.

Here's another of my all-time favorites:


Snow falling on the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Dupont Circle. Photo by ok-oyot.

Cleveland Park. Photo by ianseanlivingston.

Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by PointandclicK2009.

Union Station. Photo by Jason OX4.

Adams Morgan. Photo by ekelly80.

Capitol. Photo by xenbu.

Mount Pleasant. Photo by ok-oyot.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

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