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

Posts from October 2010


What's That? #35

Each week I show small close-up photographs of three different well-known places and things related to the Washington, DC area.

Post your guesses in the comments. Comments will be hidden until the answers are revealed in a few days.


Scenes of Washington: Silver Spring Zombie Walk


Enjoy better URLs, list of active posts

You might notice a few minor changes on Greater Greater Washington. Last night, we switched over to a new version of the code which includes a few visible improvements and a number of others under the hood.

Active posts: Sometimes posts are generating a lot of discussion but have moved farther down the main page. Unless they are featured in the boxes at the top of the home page, you might not know they were generating such activity. There is now a "Most Active Posts" section on the right sidebar that will show the posts that have the greatest recent comment activity.

Better URLs: The URL for an individual post now contains the title of the post. All old URLs will still work and redirect to the new URLs, so no incoming links should be broken as a result. Also, authors' URLs are substantially shorter; you can access any author's page by simply going to http://greatergreaterwashington/authorusername/.

Compressed links posts: When a links post is not at the top, it will now show 3 links followed by a "Read more..." to avoid taking up too much space.

There are also many more tiny changes. I hope to have caught all of the bugs, but some might remain. If you encounter any strange behavior or broken links, please let us know.


Bike-o-Meter gives snapshot of bikesharing worldwide

A new app called Bike-o-Meter provides fascinating real-time data on bikesharing systems from around the world.

If you haven't already seen the interactive, animated map that shows station activity for Capital Bikeshare stations, be sure to check it out. Bike-o-Meter uses the same data, but presents it differently.

Each dial shows the percentage of total bikes in use at that particular moment in time.

It is not able to differentiate between bikes that are actually being ridden and those that may be in transit for relocation or taken out for servicing. However, it uses the maximum number of bikes in the system within the last 24 hours, rather than the advertised total number of bikes owned by the service, as the denominator in the calculation.

Here's a bigger screenshot showing 2.8% of Capital Bikeshare's bikes in use at 1:04 pm on Wednesday, October 27.

Barcelona's usage rate at 7:00 pm was 22%. There were more than 4500 bikes available in Barcelona at that time, meaning almost 1000 bikes in use.


Weekend video: DC and Arlington shine at Rail~Volution

Rail~Volution, America's premier conference on rail transit, just finished up its 2010 session in Portland, Oregon. Our own Matt Johnson attended this year's event and informed us of DDOT's video on new non-automobile transportation projects in the Washington area.

Bikesharing, streetcars, and the Silver Line illustrate investment that makes the Washington region a leader in transportation planning and modal diversity. DC will host next year's Rail~Volution and though the streetcars won't be ready, attendees will no doubt admire America's second most-used subway system.


Weekend links: Tall poles and walkability

Image from Beyer Blinder Belle via Washington City Paper.
Giant stone pole needs massive security?: How do you build a giant security screening facility at the Washington Monument? (Housing Complex) ... Better yet, how about not having the screening at all? It's already got a vehicle barrier.

Really tall pole for your phone?: Montgomery County planners are evaluating whether to allow AT&T and the International Monetary Fund to build a 155-foot "Frankenpine" cell tower along the Potomac. (Historian for Hire)

Non-ugly building joining 14th Street: The HPRB has approved an infill project on 14th between P and Q. The original design had Frank Gehry-like skewed angles; personally, I [David] am glad HPO was there to put the kibosh on that plan.

DC's good for more than just politics: Christopher Leinberger says that the Washington metro area is a model for redevelopment of cities into walkable communities. Similarly, Richard Florida says DC is the 5th best place in the US to trick-or-treat, citing walkability, high median incomes, and interesting destinations like Embassy Row. (TreeHugger, Daily Beast)

Walkable is desirable: A decade ago, car-dependent suburbs commanded the highest housing prices per square foot. Now the title goes to Dupont Circle and other close-in, walkable communities. (Washington Monthly, Eric Fidler)

LaHood on livability: U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood defines the term 'livability' and highlights DC and Chicago as examples of livable cities. (Grist, Eric Fidler)

Remaking the market: Pittsburgh reopened its downtown market square. The city created one unified space by closing the two streets that previously quartered the square. (PPS, Eric Fidler)

From seedy to trendy: Inspired by a story about transformed retail streets in New York, the Commercial District Advisor takes a look at what it takes to create a trendy street. (Crain's New York Business, Commercial District Advisor)

Flat roofs: DC has height limits, but Los Angeles skyscrapers are required to have flat roofs for airborne firefighters. So much for spires. (City Block, Eric Fidler)

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Natural beauty in 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.

Arlington Cemetery. Photo by Brandon Kopp.

Stribling Orchard, Virginia. Photo by BrianMKA.

Logan Circle. Photo by fromcaliw/love.

Rockville bus stop. Photo by thisisbossi.

American Geophysical Union, 20th and Florida, NW. Photo by ok-oyot.

Some of the best and worst together in Rockville. Photo by thisisbossi.

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


For ANC in Ward 1

Ward 1 is DC's densest, and gentrifying row house neighborhoods make up the majority of the ward. Retail, parking, and transit are all key issues in its numerous commercial corridors, and local ANCs play a big role.

ANC 1B will be losing one of the city's best ANC commissioners, Brianne Nadeau, who turned a commission that faced financial irregularities into a solid neighborhood organization. Plus, she pushed hard to extend the 15th Street bike lane northward into her Meridian Hill Park district of 1B05, one of many great examples of how an ANC can be a very positive force in its community instead of either obstructing or doing nothing.

1B02 covers the east side of 14th Street above and below U. Incumbent Peter Raia has worked very hard for the neighborhood, but has been too obstructionist on business growth in the area. While Aaron Spencer seems like a good candidate, we prefer Tucker Gallagher, who lives car-free and talked about promoting a neighborhood that's lively 18 hours a day.

Incumbent Deborah Thomas has strong respect from her constituents in 1B04, centered around 14th and W. She has worked hard to represent the many residents of her district, including families, seniors, and lower income people, who are able to stay in the community despite the economic pressures toward displacement.

She is a single mother, and gives a voice to groups who are underrepresented in traditional community structures. ANC 1B and the residents of the neighborhood benefit from participation. Her opponent, William Girardo, would probably also make a fine commissioner but has few neighborhood accomplishments on his resume.

We support Brittany Kademian in her challenge to Juan Lopez for 1B07 northeast of Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. Residents and even the manager of a condo building association in the district say they were unfamiliar with Lopez. His partner also filed a challenge to Kademian's nominating petition.

Meanwhile, Kademian herself wants to raise the accessibility of the ANC in the area, tutors local students, bicycles and supports a bike lane on 14th north of U, wants improved lighting to reduce crime, is passionate about the environment, and more. Plus, she has gotten the greatest number of commenters to vouch for her in our discussion threads.

To the east, RT Akinmboni (1B08) has been a positive influence on the ANC; her opponent, Ahnna Smith, is a Teach for America alum new to the neighborhood who we hope to see get more involved in local advocacy.

We support Lauren McKenzie in the open seat in Pleasant Plains' 1B09; the other candidate, Shahrzad Rastegar, does not seem to have any email address listed or any information online.

Bill Brown, the commissioner of 1A06 east of the Columbia Heights Metro, is excellent, serving on the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council and bringing his strong passion for pedestrian issues as well as his expert grasp of other topics to his role on the staff of presumptive Council Chairman Kwame Brown.

We are very excited that contributor Kent Boese is running (unopposed) in northern Park View's 1A08. In the central Park View 1A09, Sam Moore is challenging incumbent LaKeisha Thomas. While Thomas is not ANC 1A's best most thoughtful commissioner, her experience going to school in and living in the neighborhood is valuable, and she wants what's best for the neighborhood.

Moore seems very promising and supports transit and smart growth, but we're a little nervous about the way he said he'd fight a Starbucks on Georgia Avenue when Georgia needs whatever successful coffee shops it can attract and ANC commissioners need to avoid the temptation to micromanage their commercial corridors too much. We hope Moore stays involved as well.

In Park View's southernmost district, 1A10, Howard student Jonathan Madison deserves the seat over longtime incumbent Lenwood "Lenny" Johnson. Madison has shown a tremendous amount of energy in this race by attending block parties and knocking on doors. Johnson, meanwhile, has often been divisive and is seen as something of a loose cannon. He forwards private disputes to the Columbia Heights listserv and long refused to register a firearm.

We've heard good things about both Jose Sueiro and Olivier Kamanda, vying to succeed Bryan Weaver in the central Adams Morgan district 1C03. Kamanda, a former Hillary Clinton speechwriter and journalist, has Weaver and ally Mindy Moretti's support, while some other 1C Comissioners are behind Sueiro. Sueiro has been a good problem solver in his role as head of the Association of Park Road Businesses, but made some troublesome comments about parking at a Columbia Heights performance parking meeting. Therefore, we give the edge to Kamanda.

In Mount Pleasant, a number of commissioners are not running for reelection. Phil Lepanto, an excellent commissioner who is very supportive of non-automobile options, is sadly not running again, but supports Ben West as a write-in in his district, 1D01. China Terrell, a staffer for Tommy Wells, also will be a promising addition to the commission, replacing outgoing Commissioner Dave Bosserman in 1D05.

Laura Phelan is the only name on the ballot in 1D02, a small district at the northeast corner of the neighborhood. Phelan is well-liked and will make a good commissioner to replace Oliver Tunda, who is also not running again. Phelan faces a write-in from Adam Hoey of Mount Pleasant Main Street, but we think Hoey can best serve the neighborhood by continuing in that role.

In 1D06, along the neighborhood's southeastern edge, John Craig is running as a write-in against incumbent Angelia Scott, who rarely attends meetings and is not often reachable. She served briefly as chair but gave up because it was too much of a time commitment. Craig, who wants to reform the ANC's transparency and work better with business, would do better.

Gregg Edwards (1D04) is an extremely smart person who has a number of very clever ideas to address neighborhood problems. However, sometimes he lets the value of his particular idea interfere with the pragmatic need to build consensus and community. He and fellow Commissioner Jack McKay promoted a great "pedestrian encounter zone" plan for Mount Pleasant Street, but which in practice mostly served to threaten progress on other street improvements for which Mount Pleasant Main Street had already secured grant money.

Edwards also stands up strongly for the proper role of the ANC, which by law deserves "great weight" from city agencies. That is usually interpreted to mean that, at the very least, agencies must respond in writing to points made by the ANC, though often they do not. Edwards is right about the proper role, but his zeal to push this process often again interferes with moving issues forward in the neighborhood, and has often led to tension when other groups take the initiative.

Phil Grenier, who has worked with Mount Pleasant Main Street, would be more pragmatic and we support him. It's too bad this race has gotten framed as businesses versus residents and especially lower income residents, since a thriving business corridor in Mount Pleasant would benefit all residents.


At McMillan site, compromise could be beautiful

While the discussion surrounding the future of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has been polarized, there is actually plenty for everyone to agree on. A compromise is sure to emerge since few are happy with the site as it sits: unused and inaccessible.

Matt Bell (left) and Dennis Byrd listen to Bloomingdale residents outside Big Bear Cafe. Photo by the author.

Unfortunately it took neighbors flatly rejecting the original proposal before planners went back to the drawing board. But the development team Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) has hired landscape architects Warren Byrd and Matt Bell to engage the community in a collaborative design process. This should result in a vision of a place that the neighborhood, the city, and perhaps even the nation, can be proud of.

Of course, there are a handful of people on either extreme. On one end of the spectrum is turning the entire parcel into a park; on the other is the construction of tall, densely packed buildings. But most of the people I spoke to, and who Byrd and Bell have heard from, fall somewhere in between.

Byrd and Bell hosted a series of "design salons," at which their only goal was simply to listen to whoever came to share their ideas. They will formally present the findings from all of the salons to the community on Saturday, November 6th, at St. Martin's Church at North Capitol and T Sts. NW. I attended the last salon of the series, held this past Monday evening at the Big Bear Cafe.

There is broad consensus that a significant chunk of the 25-acre rectangular parcel should be open greenspace. Many felt that a green corridor that welcomes pedestrians and cyclists should be the center of the new "village," recreating the sense of contiguous green that was part of the McMillan Commission's original vision. Most also feel that a mix of housing and retail is also desirable, but simultaneously don't want to see something imposed upon the neighborhood that is out of keeping with the architecture and scale of its surroundings.

August 2010 satellite image of the site (Google Maps).
Bell and Byrd have heard a plethora of creative ideas, from having all the restaurants in the development use food grown on-site, to all sorts of uses for the cylindrical sand bins that sit there as remnants of the water purification plant. Many brought up the idea of daylighting a now-underground creek that flows across the site's southeastern corner and making it a focal point of the new neighborhood.

Using a chunk of the site for solar power generation is another possibility. It is also likely that the project will make use of sustainably-sourced building materials and energy and water-saving design techniques.

VMP is still faced with the substantial task of allaying neighbors' concerns about what the new facilities will bring to the area, primarily car traffic. Many development supporters insist that the project include improved transit service. While a planned Michigan Avenue streetcar line would connect the site with the Red Line at Brookland, the construction is likely to be finished well before streetcar service begins operation.

In the meantime, VMP could sponsor shuttle service to the Metro (a la the H Street Shuttle to Gallery Place and Minnesota Avenue Metros), and could offer incentives for bicycling, including bike valet service and a Capital Bikeshare station or two. WMATA should also consider increasing the frequency of the 80 and H-series Metrobuses that serve the area. Of course, some additional parking will also be necessary, hopefully in the form of underground decks on the outer edges of the site.

I left the design salon with a high degree of confidence that something great will become of the long-dormant McMillan site. This process shows that an organized neighborhood that is willing to cooperate with developers and the city government can exert a positive influence on the shape of new development. The community's involvement will almost surely be reflected in a place designed to complement and augment both its natural and human-made surroundings.

"It's a site of potential national prominence that deserves a world-class development: something people are drawn to and inspired by," said northern Bloomingdale resident and salon attendee Todd Crosby. "It can have retail and residential, but it should be a place for building community pride and city identity."

Let us seek such a transformation of this unique property, incorporating the historic structures, resurrected creek, and future streetcar station into a model for durable design that effectively blends the public and the private and harmonizes buildings with the landscape.


Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

Imagine if Metro had to pay a fine for every safety standard violation. What if Metro officials and operators lost licenses to work in transit if they repeatedly violated safety standards?

Photo by atomicfamily on Flickr.

These ideas could become reality if the FTA gains the ability to regulate public transit agencies. And while many Washingtonians regard this as a no-brainer, there are serious concerns that few are considering in the post-Red Line Crash fear-mongering.

The standard argument in favor of FTA regulation is that regional safety oversight bodies are simply too unprepared and ill-equipped to assure safety on America's transit systems.

These bodies, like the Tri-State Oversight Committee which provides safety oversight of Metro, have little to no staff and no enforcement powers. The DOT oversees safety on Amtrak, so why not subway and light-rail systems too?

While this standard argument is compelling, there has been little engagement with the counterargument to federal oversight of urban transit. Consider the following concerns.

Urban rail is very safe: Subways and light rail are already very safe, safer by far than other modes of transportation that are regulated by the DOT including air travel. One wonders then if improving on an already very low fatality rate should be a priority for federal dollars given the other more dangerous modes regulated by the DOT.

The TOC can be improved easily without federal intervention: The criticism leveled against the TOC is not directed at their competence, but at their lack of enforcement powers and funding. So, instead of building a new federal agency, why not give the TOC enforcement powers and increased funding?

TOC audit was actually better than the FTA audit of Metro: While it received little press attention, the TOC audit released earlier this month was more detailed and actionable than either the NTSB or FTA audits concerning the systemic safety hazards at Metro.

Federal urban rail regulation may be unconstitutional: Federal regulation of urban transit systems may ultimately be overturned by the courts. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution limits federal regulation to interstate commerce, and most urban transit systems don't cross state lines like Metro does.

NTSB previously opposed FTA oversight of urban rail: Every urban transit system is very different, despite appearances to the contrary. Unlike other transit modes regulated by DOT which share a common network, urban transit systems develop independently according to unique needs and constraints. The NTSB argued in the 90s that this was reason enough to support the regional system of safety oversight in place today.

For these reasons, I would strongly oppose FTA regulation of Metro and other urban transit agencies if not for one prominent benefit that would result from FTA regulation:

FTA can balance NTSB: While the NTSB serves a valuable role in transportation safety, they are an exclusively reactive organization by statute. Unfortunately, the political pressure to implement any and all NTSB recommendations is overwhelming. This undermines attempts to create a proactive safety organization.

The USDOT, which requires transportation providers to take a more proactive approach to safety, balances the NTSB in the transport modes that it regulates. This balance will never be provided by the TOC or other regional safety oversight bodies.

I am honestly on the fence on this critical issue. While the answer to this issue seems obvious to many, I suspect that the damning of all things Metro since the Red Line Crash is undermining the healthy debate that this issue deserves.

The Obama administration supports a bill that would give the FTA this power, but Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has put a hold on the bill in the Senate for many of the reasons listed here, as well as the lack of offsetting spending cuts or taxes in the legislation.

What do you think? Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

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