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

Posts from November 2011


Breakfast links: Half or double?

Photo by graciepoo on Flickr.
Transit benefit will shrink by half: The federal commuter tax benefit will be cut in half January 1 even as parking perks increase. Riders nationwide are campaigning to preserve the higher limits. (Patch, Examiner, Forbes) ... Contact your representatives!

DC taxi rate may double: Soon after Arlington raised taxi rates, the DC Taxi Commission may do the same. Per-mile charges could almost double, but all the other fees for extra passengers, luggage and more would go away. (Examiner)

Watergate Safeway, 1966-2011: The store closes this week, leaving elderly residents without accessible groceries and college students without affordable groceries. Are Whole Foods and Trader Joe's the only urban model grocery? (Post, GW Hatchet)

Mall parking 60% empty: The weekend before Black Friday, typically a busy shopping time, shopping mall parking lots were only 40% full. That's a lot of land devoted to being 60% empty or more almost all the time. (Getting from here to there, Michael P.)

Replace fringe malls with downtown growth: The economics show that fringe suburbs won't be as popular as they used to be. Regions should encourage downtown growth, connect employment with transit, and stop paving farms. (NYT) ... Perhaps they could start by just allowing downtown development. (Yglesias)

Why's it hard to shop locally?: Despite "Small Business Saturday," it's not easy to shop in neighborhood commercial areas. Why? There are many such corridors with few retail stores, while there's greater demand for restaurants in neighborhoods. (RPUS)

Mickey Mouse is out: Disney backed out of plans for a 500-room hotel and casino at National Harbor. Only 1/3 of the planned development has happened, largely due to the economy. Will the county now focus more on developing its Metro sites? (Post)

Slower speeds safer, but practical?: 15-mph speeds on residential streets save lives in when crashes happen, but are hard on automatic transmissions. How about redesigning streets with lower design speeds? (TheWashCycle)

And...: A man is dead after a weekend shooting outside Dupont's Heritage India. Should ABRA be more proactive about places with known problems? (Post, Shaw Deserves Better) ... Governor O'Malley plans an ambitious agenda including marriage equality and gas tax hikes. (Post) ... Arlington sees some parking lot rage. (ARLnow)

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The Capital Crescent Trail should stay in its Bethesda tunnel

Last week, Dan Reed argued that an on-street Crescent Trail may be better for cyclists and pedestrians. But not putting the trail in a tunnel represents a huge downgrade of bicycle infrastructure, and the MTA should find a way of fitting the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

For a year or so I commuted through that tunnel almost every day and have been an occasional user since it opened. It is an excellent cycling amenity, providing a shorter, quicker, safer and more convenient route through the heart of Bethesda.

In his post last Friday, Dan suggests that putting the trail on the street may be safer because the tunnel might attract criminals. He points out crime problems at other bicycle and pedestrian tunnels. In this case, the tunnel has been open since 1998 and crime has not been a problem. More activity makes crime even less likely. The danger of crossing Wisconsin Avenue at street level is greater than the risk of crime.

It makes no sense to eliminate an excellent grade-separated facility that already exists in order to get drivers to understand that bikes "belong" on the street. Plus, with an improved trail to Silver Spring will likely increase the number of cyclists in the Bethesda area. Cyclists in the area will use the streets to get to and from the trail. The better the trail, the more will use it, and the more street traffic there will be.

In the '90s, cyclists fought long and hard to get the tunnel opened because it was a terrific alternative to the on-street routes. It was an enormous success and trumpeted in the biking community. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail not only supported the tunnel opening, but contributed thousands of dollars of funding to help make it happen. Clearly the biking community prefers the tunnel to the on-street routes.

It seems unlikely that one would argue to eliminate the Custis Trail through Arlington or the W&OD trail through Falls Church in order to put more bikes on the streets. But Dan thinks this is a good idea in Bethesda.

Amsterdam underpass. Photo by Brent Granby on Flickr.

Creating cycling facilities like those found in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, including grade-separated facilities like the one shown here, makes it better for cyclists, and more cyclists are everywhere, creating a better atmosphere all around. Those cities did not achieve their high biking mode share by eliminating grade-separated crossings.

Boulder, CO has added 20 new grade-separated crossings in the last 20 years, and cycling has gone up, not down. And there are lots more cyclists on the streets, too, not just the trails.

Minneapolis's new Greenway is celebrated as a fantastic success for cyclists and pedestrians. Cycling and pedestrian traffic has increased in Minneapolis as well.

Current estimates indicate that keeping the trail in the tunnel with the Purple Line will cost $40 million. Even at that price, the trail is worth the cost. However, the Maryland Transit Administration is undertaking detailed studies to determine whether the cost could be lower. The Montgomery Planning Board has also asked them to study alternative ways of fitting the trail into the tunnel.

The shortest on-street alternative to the Bethesda tunnel adds about 400-500 feet to the trip. (The longest adds about 1,500 feet.) The shortest on-street detour also entails a 30-foot elevation rise and fall and a major road crossing that will require a wait at a signal.

This route is likely to add at least 1 minute to any cycling trip, costing as much 10,000 hours per year cumulative for cyclists and peds (at current usage rates, before increased traffic when the trail is completed to Silver Spring). In addition, auto traffic will also be delayed by longer signal cycles to accommodate trail traffic. Some might argue that is good, but it's time lost, nonetheless.

Should Montgomery County propose closing lanes and parts of streets and eliminating parking in order to create this route, they are likely to receive pushback in the public process from drivers and businesses. Officials will likely end up scaling back the design as a compromise with opponents.

There's no guarantee that the alternative on-street route will end up with good design and execution. It could very well end up a lose-lose for cyclists and pedestrians: the tunnel option could be eliminated, and the on-street alternative could be adequate instead of excellent.

The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda is equally as busy as the the Custis Trail through Rosslyn. There are approximately 23,000 weekly users on CCT and, according to Arlington County staff, about 26,000 users on the Custis Trail.

Building an at-grade crossing at Wisconsin may end up creating as big a problem as the Custis Trail/Lee Highway crossing. That intersection is a huge headache for planners there and a significant hazard to users. Admittedly, the Bethesda on-street routes do not suffer from the same design issues as the Arlington one, and it would likely be easier to make safer.

Should the cyclists and pedestrians lose this battle, it will once again send the signal that they are are lower-priority citizens. Cyclists showed up in droves a couple of years ago to keep the tunnel open during the upcoming development by JBG and, with the help of Councilmember Berliner, were able to win that concession from the developer.

Prior to that meeting, though, the county was intending to go along with the developer's plan to close the tunnel during construction, an option that would never be considered for a similarly important automobile route. Until the cyclists spoke up, the developer's needs were put ahead of them.

This is an almost identical situation: a proposal is being made to close the trail in the tunnel to accommodate development. Fortunately, this time, it appears pedestrians and cyclists are being given more consideration. A few weeks ago, the county planning board toured the tunnel and, according to the Washington Post, the board was very supportive of finding a solution to keep the trail in the tunnel.

Dan suggests that taking the trail out of the tunnel will make this a "better experience." Given the strong support, including actual financial contributions, from the biking community for the tunnel, it seems that most cyclists feel the tunnel is the better experience.

When I was commuting from Arlington to Silver Spring, I wanted to get home, not browse shop windows. I couldn't wait to arrive at the tunnel during the dark winter nights, and it made for great shelter during summer thunderstorms.

But other times when I was actually visiting somewhere in Bethesda, I could choose to proceed directly to my destination on the streets. The existence of the tunnel does not preclude cyclists and pedestrians from accessing local businesses. In fact, a superior facility is likely to attract more people to the area, which would be good for local businesses.

Lastly, on a per-user basis, my back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the per-user cost of the Purple Line is actually higher than the per-user cost of the trail with the tunnel, and that doesn't include operating costs. With 60,000 estimated daily Purple Line in 2030 users and a cost of about $2 billion, the average cost per daily user is $33,333. The trail, on the other hand, is expected to cost about $100 million and handle about 4,000 daily users. That makes the average cost per daily user $25,000.

Keeping this excellent piece of the regional bike infrastructure is critical to the ongoing growth of cycling and continuing to improve Washington's standing as a good biking area. As Dan writes, the trail has been included in plans for the Purple Line for more than 20 years, including the tunnel portion, which shouldn't be eliminated to save a few dollars that no one will remember a decade from now.


Black Friday links: Think of the small businesses

Photo by xrrr on Flickr.
Shop small businesses, avoid dangerous parking lots: Tomorrow is Small Business Saturday, an effort to get holiday shoppers to try small businesses. Meanwhile, in big store parking lots, a man ran over 7 people, killing 1, and a Wheaton man was kidnapped and forced to take cash out of an ATM. (Post, WTOP)

How to keep Latino character amid growth?: Wheaton will soon get a new Sector Plan accommodating mixed-use TOD around its Metro station, but some fear losing the traditional Latino businesses. (Post) ... That is already happening in Langley Park around the Purple Line. (WAMU)

Few constituents receive money: DC councilmembers only spent 12% of their Constituent Services Funds on constituents. Tommy Wells spent the most (32%), Mary Cheh the least (1%). (DCist, DC4D)

Walmart CBA: All for show?: A Post editorial cheers the Walmart CBA, even though it's unremarkable upon closer inspection. The proffers are already required by law, previously negotiated, or not commitments at all. (City Paper)

Gray talks streetcars, stadiums: Mayor Gray thinks extending streetcars into Maryland is a good idea. He's also still into the idea of building a Redskins training facility but skeptical about a DC United stadium because of the potential public expense. (WTOP)

Bag taxes may expand in Maryland: The Prince George's council is considering a bag tax. Unlike Montgomery, the county needs approval from the state first. They'd likely spend the revenue generally instead of dedicating it for the environment. (Examiner)

Criminal record may join race, sex, religion: Councilmember Marion Barry proposes adding ex-cons to the list of protected groups enumerated in the city's Human Rights Act. Many people who have served their time face difficulty getting hired. (Post)

Protests run up bills: Occupy protests are costing cities nationwide $13 million for police and other services, but that's nothing compared to Wall Street's toxic assets, the war, or just securing other protests like the 2004 RNC. (HuffPo, ThinkProgress)

And...: The still somewhat secret plans for the Dupont tunnels might include decking the Connecticut underpass. (Atlantic Cities) ... Should Manhattan add landfill to connect to Governors Island? (NYT) ... Governor McDonnell appointed his 2 new members of the MWAA board with jet speed. (Washington Times)

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Open thread

Give thanks for urban blessings

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

Photo by Silly Eagle Books on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Map shows the consequences of our automobile addiction

Leave it to the Brits to create an incredible tool for examining America's own crisis of traffic fatalities. Behold this somber map, made by ITO World, a UK-based transportation information firm. Each dot on the map is a traffic-related death. The entire eastern US is blanketed with them.

The purple dots represent vehicle occupants—not necessarily drivers—who were killed. It may look like a lot of purple, and it certainly is, but when you zoom in closer you see a lot of blue dots, for pedestrians, as well as an awful lot of yellow dots, for motorcyclists.

The green dots for bicyclists are fewer and farther between, but if you zoom into the cities, you'll find them. Each dot even lists the year of the crash and the victim's age and gender.

ITO World got their fatality data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It appears they've captured not just fatalities on highways but on local streets as well.

The World Health Organization reports 12.3 annual traffic deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States. Compare that with 3.85 in Japan and 4.5 in Germany. If the U.S. achieved similar rates, more than 20,000 deaths would be prevented each year.

This map is a useful way of visualizing the terrible consequences of our auto-addicted culture. Beyond that, it can be an indispensable tool for community transportation advocates to show local officials where problem spots are and how their community compares to others.


Some special needs kids still falling through DCPS cracks

DC Public Schools recently opened a second facility to serve DC parents who are concerned that their preschool-age child may have a disability or a developmental delay. However, as a judge's ruling made clear last week, ineffective managers of these facilities are allowing children with special needs to fall through the cracks.

Photo by NazarethCollege on Flickr.

This is not only tragic for these children, but extremely expensive when DCPS identifies their special needs much later.

On November 8, DCPS opened its second Early Stages center next to the Minnesota Ave Metro station. The program, which started in October 2009 with the opening of its first center at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Ward 6, is free for all DC residents, as well as families who attend private schools in DC, who suspect that their child between 3 and 5 years of age may have a disability or a developmental delay.

This isn't just a compassionate and cost-effective initiative. It's also a federal law.

The Child Find provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all states have a comprehensive system "to assure that all children who are in need of early intervention or special education services are located, identified, and referred."

This provision emphasizes the importance of early intervening services since providing services to children before they reach kindergarten "can have a significant impart on a child's ability to learn new skills as well as reduce the need for costly interventions over time" for children with developmental delays and disabilities as well as those with learning disabilities.

While DCPS, including Early Stages for preschool-age children, and DC Charter Schools are responsible for identifying students in need of special education services between the ages of 3 and 21, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is responsible for identifying all DC residents from birth to age 3 in need of special education services.

Sadly, these obligations to the most vulnerable in the District are still not being met. Testimony in the continuing class action lawsuit, DL v. District of Columbia, demonstrates that DCPS must strengthen several elements needed to have a comprehensive Child Find system. The suit was brought about by 7 families in 2005 "who encountered barriers and delays in securing special education services for which they were eligible".

A judge overseeing the suit ruled last week that DCPS had failed to provide some parents with a timely evaluation, as determined under IDEA. Early Stages staff acknowledged that "at least four patients per day contacted Early Stages 'to report that a Child Find Coordinator had failed to return their calls regarding providing their children with an evaluation or an eligibility screening.'"

The testimony of another DCPS witness, Maxine Freund, a professor at George Washington's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, also illustrated how "leadership turnover and lengthy vacancies in key positions" hindered Early Stages' efforts in becoming a comprehensive child find system.

Poor leadership has most likely limited the development of a tracking system "to determine which children are receiving services and ensure follow-up once children are referred" as well as complete coordination among agencies in Washington, DC involved in providing services to identified children.

The opening of the second Early Stages center is certainly a step in the right direction. Before the opening of the second Early Stages center, 40 percent of the referrals in the Ward 6 Early Stages center were from children in Wards 7 and 8. This high number of referrals is consistent with the most recent census data that illustrates that 40 percent of DC children live in Wards 7 and 8.

Furthermore, children who live in poverty are more at risk for having a developmental delay. While less than 3.1 percent of children who live in Ward 3 live in poverty, over 40 percent of children who live in Ward 7 and about 50 percent of children who live in Ward 8 live in poverty. Early Stages staff believe that at least 12 percent of children in this age group have a disability or a developmental delay.

While the implementation of the Early Stages program has played a role in increasing the identification of preschool-age children with disabilities or developmental delays, DCPS must strengthen its efforts to fill the position vacancies with people who are not only experienced in Child Find, but also have strong leadership skills.

Including strong leaders in management positions and reducing turnover would increase the likelihood of Early Stages developing a culture that supports the aspects of a comprehensive Child Find system, including timely evaluations, communication with families, interagency coordination, and the development of a tracking system.

Public Spaces

Urbanism is good for everyone, especially kids

We assume that kids belong in the suburbs, where they've got yards to play in and great schools to learn in. But good, urban neighborhoods can produce good kids as well.

Photo by the author.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote in The Great, Good Place that teenagers are a litmus test for a neighborhood's "vitality":

The adolescent houseguest, I would suggest, is probably the best and quickest test of the vitality of the neighborhood; the visiting teenager in the subdivision soon acts like an animal in a cage. He or she paces, looks unhappy or uncomfortable, and by the second day is putting heavy pressure on the parents to leave. There is no place to which they can escape and join their own kind. There is nothing for them to do on their own.

What do teenagers need? The ability to get around without a driver's license, for starters. A 15-year-old who can get around town on foot, on transit, or by bike or skateboard isn't just a convenience for their parents, who don't have to shuttle them around after school. They're given the tools for their own independence and self-discovery.

So the ideal place for a teenager is probably a neighborhood with sidewalks and bike lanes, ample public transit, and one which has schools, shops, and hangouts located within close range to home. That sounds a lot like Takoma Park, Bethesda, or below-the-Beltway Silver Spring. Rockville, with its new town center and excellent bike network, isn't far behind.

Scott Doyon at the PlaceShakers blog also notes that these places give kids the valuable opportunity to make mistakes:

For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into—and solve—conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.
Of course, kids who can actually get around on their own two feet might do some unsavory things. Some of the kids who walk to downtown Bethesda, for instance, might've gone to buy drugs at the movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. But it's not like the car-bound kids in Germantown and Olney weren't doing that, and it's a lot harder to hide destructive behaviors when you're not in a two-ton vehicle.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids talking on a stoop in Kentlands. Photo by the author.

The first time I was allowed to go anywhere by myself was at age 8, when my family lived in Georgian Towers in downtown Silver Spring. I was only taking the elevator from our apartment to the lobby, but I was so excited I screamed the whole way down. Pretty soon, I could walk to my friends' apartments, across the street to Woodside Park, around the corner to 7-Eleven, and so on. This ended a few years later when we moved to Calverton, where there's very little within walking distance. But I still knew that I had the power to do things on my own.

My 12-year-old brother, meanwhile, has spent his entire life in Calverton. When he's not at school, he's at home playing video games, but I've noticed he doesn't have a close group of friends because they don't live nearby. Last year, I took him to walk with my former boss, Councilmember Leventhal in a parade in Kentlands, one of Montgomery County's few truly walkable neighborhoods.

"Isn't this great, Tyler?" I asked as I took him around Kentlands' Main Street, where we could see kids ducking into shops and hanging out in a little green. "Kids your age who live in this neighborhood can walk to school, to friends' houses, and to the movies! Wouldn't you like that?"

Tyler looked at me like I'd said the sky was green. "Why would I want to walk?" he replied. "Mom and Dad can just drive me there."

This Kid Will End Up On The Hood Of My Car (edited)
Outside Blair High School on University Boulevard. Kids who have to walk in a place like this likely can't wait to drive. Photo by the author.

As a result, I tend to see most of the issues I write about, from better bike trails and infill development to skateparks and curfews, from the perspective of kids like my brother. I don't just think that good urbanism can make better communities. I think it makes better kids: confident, independent, and more aware of the world around them.

We talk about how urban neighborhoods are drawing young adults and senior citizens alike. But they have a lot to offer kids and teenagers, as well. That's the great part about good urbanism: it can work for everyone, regardless of age or situation.


Breakfast links: CaBi to the Mall and the store

Photo by The Great Photographicon on Flickr.
The Mall may get 5 CaBi stations: NPS proposes CaBi stations for the Smithsonian Metro and near the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and FDR/MLK memorials. (WABA) ... DC's Bicycle Advisory Committee mapped the spots, but worries about the lack of stations east of 12th Street.

Walmart may add stations too: Walmart has signed a community benefits agreement with DC. It includes a Transportation Demand Management provision possibly to include Capital Bikeshare stations, bus shelters, or electric car charging. (WBJ)

But is it enforceable?: The Walmart CBA, however, is also entirely unenforceable, being "subject and contingent upon business conditions." It includes provisions for job training and minority hiring but no wage or benefit requirements above the current legal minimums. Also, Walmart will not sell guns or ammunition. (Post)

Montgomery curfew dead for now: The proposed youth curfew doesn't have the votes to pass the county council. (Examiner) ... Council members are still debating the issue in light of Saturday's shoplifting mob. (HuffPo)

Franklin Shelter? Not so fast: Occupy protestors' demands that the District revert the Franklin School to a homeless shelter may be an unsafe idea. The building's extreme levels of lead and asbestos make it unsafe for human use. (City Paper)

Food stamps up, not down: An Examiner article last week said the number of DC households on food stamps dropped last year, but DCFPI says they're using less accurate data, and USDA shows the number up 17%.

Arlington eyes office building: The county wants to buy an office building in Courthouse for county offices and a homeless shelter. The move would permit Arlington to redevelop the Court Square West building into a more vibrant project. (Post)

Ehrlich blames everyone else: Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich blames his 2010 election loss on high turnout among the state's black voters. He says he was unfairly associated with Tea Partiers and racists. (Post)

And...: A Virginia delegate wants to block Silver Line funding over issues that other state leaders already resolved. (Examiner) ... DC offers drivers few specialty tags; Virginia offers 180. (DCist) ... The DMV is doing its part to combat HIV infection rates. (Post) ... Metro map designer Lance Wyman will now tackle Union Station. (City Paper)

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Travel-time maps show how time and distance relate

Several fascinating Web tools have started to turn around the traditional map, using distance on the map to show places that take longer to reach, in a style known as "travel time maps." A site called TIMEMAPS does this with the Netherlands:

TIMEMAPS lets you distort a map of the country based on how long it takes to reach any point from a starting location. It also animates how that map changes over the course of the day.

The animation begins at 1:23. Note how regions not accessible in the middle of the night become accessible as the animation gets toward the morning. Meanwhile, the map steadily shrinks, as transit options become more frequent into the daytime.

If someone did the same for a US city, it might be interesting to do the same for driving times, and see how space actually grows during rush periods, as more people traveling and more congestion makes places effectively farther away.

A similar site we've discussed before, the Travel Time Tube Map, similarly distorts the iconic London Underground diagram to reflect the actual time to reach each station from a chosen starting point.


DC needs better data to fight unemployment

Mayor Gray has made employment for DC residents a top priority. But without good data, policies are little more than a stab in the dark.

Photo by wouter_kersbergen on Flickr.

It's quite surprising how little data DC collects on unemployment. What obstacles do the unemployed face in getting jobs? If the obstacle is a skills mismatch, are there training providers available that teach those skills?

Do those trainers have a track record of results? If it's lack of jobs, have past development incentives created jobs as promised for DC residents?

We don't know the answers to these questions because the District government isn't collecting or reporting the data to answer them. When the data exists in some database, it's often not organized or delivered to policymakers. At other times, the data doesn't exist at all, but agencies could collect it cheaply.

Who are the unemployed?

Tackling crisis-level unemployment is one of Mayor Gray's top priorities. Yet the DC government appears to have no profile of the unemployed in DC and their barriers to employment.

Even the number of unemployed by ward that DC provides each month is deeply flawed. Each month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics samples DC residents and reports unemployment for DC. The DC Office of Labor Market Research then allocates that number to each ward based on out-of-date ratios from the last census. Ben Orr of Brookings has shown that the resulting numbers of jobless by ward are sometimes wildly inaccurate.

The government also has no data on the reasons why the jobless don't have a job. This lack of data creates a vacuum that is then filled with assumptions and stereotypes about the obstacles faced by jobless residents.

Advocates for cutting off Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits after 5 years, as the corresponding federal program does, say that dependency on TANF is the cause of unemployment. Those who support tax incentives for developers say that lack of jobs is to blame. Smart growth advocates point to lack of affordable transit access to most jobs. Training providers say that the problem is a mismatch between workers' skills and available jobs.

Who is right? What policies should we invest in to address unemployment? We don't know because we lack basic data about the unemployed.

Investment in a survey of unemployed DC residents by a research company on an annual basis would cost a fraction of what these policies cost, and would help ensure we are actually targeting the true causes of unemployment.

Who are the training providers and are they effective?

The District has no data on the effectiveness of training providers across the city. In fact, the director of one training provider recently told me that the Department of Employment Services (DOES) actually has no comprehensive list of training providers at all.

The training providers, known as Workforce Development Organizations, provide a range of services from soft skills training and hard skills training to case management of jobless clients. What percentage of their clients get a job? More importantly, what percentage of their clients are still employed a year or two later? No one knows.

The DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) should require such reporting by recipients of government funding. This data could presumably be verified using payroll tax data.

Of course, no one knows the extent to which we should even invest in job training because we have no definitive profile of the obstacles to employment faced by jobless residents.

What development projects have received incentives, and have they been worth it?

The CFO's office does not track economic impact of development projects that receive incentives. In fact, there appears to be no comprehensive list in existence of companies that have received tax incentives for development projects over the past 5-10 years.

The District has provided billions of dollars in tax abatements and TIF financing to developers over the past decade. The rationale of proponents is that these investments bring a return to the District in the form of corporate property taxes, sales taxes and jobs for DC residents. If proponents of what some call corporate welfare are so sure that these returns are real, then why not track and report them to bolster their case?

All this data should exist in the Office of Tax and Revenue's (OTR) integrated tax system. OTR says that sales taxes cannot be tracked by address when retailers have multiple DC locations. However, recipients of incentives could simply be required to report such data by address as a condition of receiving incentives.

Hotels under construction currently in the District are receiving over $500 million of tax incentives in total. While some are questioning whether we will really see that money in higher tax revenues, the reality is we will never know.

It's difficult to solve problems when you don't know their causes or whether previous attempted solutions worked. When such information is lacking, then dogma and stereotyping supplants reasonable, data-driven policy discussions.

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