Posts from December 2008
Several newspaper bloggers released roundups of the year's biggest transportation stories (like the Post's Get There and the Transportation Examiner). One of the potentially biggest stories on neither list was the resignation of DDOT Director Emeka Moneme. A new Director could significantly swing our transportation policy for better or worse. And in the waning hours of this year, Loose Lips' Mike DeBonis discovered that we finally have a nominee: Gabe Klein.
[Klein's] biggest job in transportation is his four years on the job as regional vice president of Zipcar. That's certainly a business that's taken a progressive view of urban transportation and has more likely than not contributed to the removal of personal cars from city streets ...DeBonis also notices what could be the best part of all: Klein signed our petition calling for a visionary leader for DDOT in the mold of Janette Sadik-Khan, Harriet Tregoning, or Michelle Rhee. Klein wrote,
Since he left Zipcar, he's headed up On the Fly, the vending and mobile catering business that's helped end the street-vending monopoly held by the half-smoke crowd.
I agree, love Michelle Rhee, Harriet Tregoning, and of course Dan Tangherlini. Lets bring someone of that caliber in to take over DDOT, a hugely important position in Washington. For instance, without Dan Tangherlini's vision, carsharing would not be what it is in Washington (one of the top carsharing cities in the U.S.)Sounds like something a former Zipcar Regional VP might say.
As the months stretched on without a DDOT nominee, visionary or no, I'd started to fear we'd end up with a move-the-cars operations focused administrator uninterested in reforming DDOT's multiple-personality policies. I don't know Klein's opinions on most issues, and as DeBonis points out, he's probably a Fenty loyalist above all. His background is more business than transportation planning or engineering, though that could be just what DDOT needs to develop clear processes and improve their poor customer service.
To expats from Western Europe, one of the most visible and convenient displays of American capitalism is the array of services available every day of every week, late into the evening, and in select cases, absolutely whenever one's heart fancies (like a pair of tube socks from a Super Wal-Mart at three in the morning).
Indeed, many other western nations sharply regulate business hours on a national level. Most stores must to close by a set time, such as six or seven in the evening, with no Sunday shopping. European lawmakers justify this in two ways. First, they argue that no employee should be forced (or, perhaps, allowed) to work at "undesirable" hours. And second, they say that smaller mom-and-pop stores can't afford to stay open late or on weekends; permitting superstores to do so would put those independent haberdashers and bodegas out of business.
America generally knows no such boundaries, and so we have at our overnight disposal, variously, 10 pm treadmill runs at the gym, 2 am iPods at Apple on 5th Avenue, and 4 am Caramellos at the corner 7-Eleven.
A casual walk down a commercial street in virtually any local neighborhood will reveal numerous fast food restaurants seemingly open "late-nite" or "24-hours". But on closer inspection, in virtually every case outside of DC's French Quarter, Adams Morgan, only the drive-thrus serve late night patrons, and then only those in motorized vehicles (sorry cyclists).
For whatever reason, whether it's a desire to keep the dining rooms tidy or to protect cashiers from those would-be lawbreakers who are seemingly more dangerous on foot than in a car, late-night food seekers are forced to get behind the wheel, even if they live directly adjacent to such a restaurant.
Without going into the community merits (or lack thereof) of the availability of the 3 am Chalupa, sampling such a tantalizing offering requires residents to drive, rather than walk. That's often when they're in their least effective, and even possibly intoxicated, states, posing considerable risk to their and others' lives.
I propose we require parity in the treatment of pedestrians and drivers, where such service would not serve as an unreasonable burden on the business. I suggested such to an Arlington County Supervisor, who found the concept novel and worth an investigation.
Unfortunately, in Virginia at least, except for liquor laws, most localities may regulate operating hours only through zoning. As a result, once an establishment has opened for business, the municipality can't impose any new operating-hour regulation. The business is "grandfathered" into its use under the original zoning regulations, even if they are later amended. It might be easier in Washington or Maryland.
Arlington changed their zoning laws in 1998 to prohibit new drive-thrus, except by a "special exception" at the discretion of the governing body. In the future, if any new establishment wanted to open a drive-thru, the negotiation over the necessary permission would let the County to include conditions of pedestrian parity for approval.
At the four corners of the original District of Columbia are four very distinct developments. In the south, Alexandria hugs the Potomac River as a classic example of a traditional city. On the west corner is Falls Church, a typical but up-and-coming Virginia suburb. In the north, Silver Spring sits atop the District's crown showcasing the triumphant transition from a suburb to an urban place. And then there is the east, where lie "the Heights".
The City of District Heights, the Town of Capitol Heights, the Town of Fairmount Heights, and the City of Seat Pleasant, four of Prince George's County's small municipalities, hug the eastern corner of the District. Each houses only a few thousand thousand residents, mostly in single family homes organized on traditional street grids bounded by arterial highways. The area is rich with Metro stations, served directly by Capitol Heights and Addison Road/Seat Pleasant on the Blue Line, and somewhat indirectly by nearby Cheverly on the Orange Line and Suitland on the Green Line.
Much of their origin parallels other Maryland suburbs like Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, and Mount Rainier. Though promised trolley service like the other towns, the early Heights towns never received a trolley. But with the exception of Fairmount Heights, they originally housed wealthy Washingtonians who wanted a quieter home with scenic views of the city. Capitol Heights even went so far as to promise "no colored people." Fairmount Heights, on the other hand, was incorporated specifically to provide low-cost single-family houses to black families in a town that they could govern themselves.
Economically, the area has went downhill with suburbanization. A rebuilt Central Avenue became a sewer for high speed traffic, effectively cutting traffic off from the business core. Later, the Martin Luther King Highway did the same thing to the north. Currently, much of the commercial development in the area lies outside the municipal boundaries, mostly as low-grade sprawl-style strip malls along the highways.
The area has gained an unfortunate reputation, and undeservedly so. The towns continue to be strongly family oriented with relatively low crime compared to other nearby areas. Unfortunately, some perceive the demographics of this 90% black area in a negative light. The region has received disproportionally low investment, segregated from and spurned by the rest of the region. But despite the neglect this area faced, it might just be one of the more well kept secrets in the region.
These municipalities, like many others in Prince George's County, have very well-connected traditional street layouts. There is quick access to DC, both vehicular and by transit. There's immense capacity and opportunnity to improve this area. Unfortunately, Prince George's County is also notorious for its poor use of real estate around Metro stations. In 2007, Capitol Heights was the 6th least-used station on the entire Metro system. With such a well connected road network and community oriented atmosphere, this might be one of the best candidates to improve walkability.
M-NCPPC has recognized the need for transit-oriented development in PG County, and has a vision for Capitol Heights Metro station. The University of Maryland's school of Urban Planning studied (PDF) this area in 2003. These visions could transform "the Heights" into a hallmark example for transit-oriented development in Prince George's County, and these communities would finally earn recognition as the cozy, friendly and convenient neighborhoods that they are.
Janette Sadik-Khan has had a profound impact as Commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation. The city that never sleeps has been transforming its streets into a more sustainable mold. Since her arrival, NYC DOT has added buffered bike lanes, express bus lanes, public plazas and much more. While these bold ideas are overdue for a city in which 54% of households do not own cars, the ideas are not new. European cities like Copenhagen and Paris have been shifting towards sustainable streets for some time.
Streetsblog reported how Paris has dramatically reduced car ownership this decade. Mayor Bertrand DelanoŽ, realizing congestion pricing was considered politically untenable, focused on altering behavior by transforming the streets.
In 2002, (DelanoŽ) launched Quartiers Verts ("Green Neighborhoods"), an initiative to improve pedestrian space and reduce traffic in residential areas. The administration anticipated especially strong opposition to the parking policies in the plan—
higher rates, a reduction in the amount of on-street parking, and the elimination of free parking altogether. To counteract the expected outcry, the city tied those reforms to the introduction of residential parking permits, which are now available for a nominal yearly fee.
DelanoŽ's next major initiative—
Espaces Civilisťs ("Civilized Spaces")— took aim at Paris's most car-friendly boulevards. The first such project, on Boulevard de Magenta, trimmed a six-lane road down to two traffic lanes and two bus lanes, with the remainder going to sidewalks and street trees. This substantial redistribution of space did not happen overnight. Launched in 2002, Espaces Civilisťs yielded its first finished boulevard in 2005. About half a dozen such transformations have been completed so far, with plans for another on the way.
The brief slideshow above, made from Google Street View screen captures, highlights Paris' wide plaza-esque medians, bus and cycle lanes, reduced curb parking, extensive cross walk striping, mixed pavers, and willingness to program public space rather than simply plant ornamental trees, grass and the occasional statue. I did not cherry pick streets in the Parisian museum or government districts for the slideshow. Nearly all intersections of Boulevards and Avenues in the city center are ripe with grandeur. In fact, Paris boldly devoted the median of Boulevard Pereire to 5 tennis courts end to end!
DC presently falls well short of Paris' comprehensive screetscapes. Perhaps it is not fair to compare our city, only recently on the rebound from the 1968 riots, to an iconic European city often described as a giant open air museum. However, when I walk downtown and see ornamental trees, modestly landscaped narrow medians or major intersections without public space, I wonder if we've set the bar too low. Will DC just settle for matching the low standard of American cities' streets, or will it take the real risks to become world class?
Georgetown's ANC and the Old Georgetown Board, the special historic preservation review body for Georgetown, recently rejected Apple's proposed design for a store on Wisconsin Avenue. The Current reported on it last week, and yesterday City Paper exposed the story to the Web, prompting more coverage in the tech press.
According to the original article, this is the third design Apple has proposed and the third neighborhood groups have rejected. This iteration featured "a glass first story with a solid stone upper facade punctuated by a large window shaped like Apple's logo," a design Steve Jobs "really loves."
The tech press echoes the obvious framing, "neighborhood naysayers nix awesome Apple architecture." But I'll say it: I'm not so sure Apple should build a glass and stone structure with an Apple-shaped cutout. Georgetown (outside the waterfront) has a very distinct character that comes from its Federal style buildings. Plenty of other stores do just fine reusing the historic structures. As one of the City Paper commenters pointed out, Apple managed to keep a historic facade on their stores in SoHo (Manhattan); Palo Alto CA; Durham, NC; Regent Street, London and elsewhere.
This building sits amid a long row of similar Federal style buildings. It's right at the end of Prospect Street, making it particularly visible:
Unless Google Maps is giving very wrong information, Apple's building is the (non historic) one with the arch. Image from Google Street View. Go to interactive display.
A permanent Apple-shaped architectural feature and all-glass first floor facade may fit Steve Jobs' megalomaniacal personality and Apple's brash corporate image, but if the Old Georgetown Board says it doesn't fit in Georgetown, they may be right. It's not as incongruous as if Apple wanted an all-glass cube like the really cool design on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but it's still a step away from the very successful way Georgetown's buildings fit together as a coherent whole. Without seeing the actual design, it's hard to pass final judgment, but the Old Georgetown Board and the ANC saw it. They didn't like it. When it comes to architecture, I'd give them the benefit of the doubt over Apple.
If Apple wants glass and metal, how about Near Southeast or NoMa or Mount Vernon Triangle or one of the other neighborhoods with new modern buildings? People will shop at a Georgetown Apple store whether the building is glass, brick, or stone.
Apple, please just design a tasteful structure that echoes classic Federal motifs and fits in well amid its neighbors. Then you can sell some iPods and iPhones and make a lot of money, and Georgetown can keep its special character. It's not that hard.
Update: Georgetown Metropolitan mocks up what the proposal might have looked like, based on the press reports. If this was indeed what they suggested, it seems clearly inappropriate.
My mother grew up living a city lifestyle in an ethnic enclave in Buffalo, NY, a daughter of immigrant parents and a little older than the baby boomers. She did not even have a drivers license until she was in her mid-20's. When my parents bought their house in Silver Spring off the Beltway, many Americans were moving to the suburbs. The American Dream was to own a house in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts and commute by car to a job in the city. Owning a car meant mobility, and mobility meant freedom. It meant choice. It meant privilege. Today, owning a car does not mean the same thing.
Owning a car means still means mobility, but that is no longer a privilege for many young adults. It is a necessity. As this generation ascends into the business world, we are greeted by office parks in exurbs, located off freeways with acres of surface parking in front of them. To many in this generation, the movement back into the city is most favorable. In the city we trade mobility for accessibility.
Rob Pitingolo poignantly elucidates some of the generational differences in our relationship with automobiles. Pitingolo doesn't mention gas prices even once. He points to the drastic rise in college tuitions, outpacing income growth, and the way most college graduates join the workforce with immense debt. Purchasing a car often means even more debt. Auto magazine Ward's writes,
The children of Baby Boomers do not aspire to vehicle ownership like we did. Instead of daydreaming about buying a Ford Expedition they can use for camping trips with friends and family, many Millenials may want to rent the big SUV for just the camping trip, Pipas explained. The vehicle is just another element of the experience, not the foundation for it. The next weekend they might rent a canoe.Young people in Japan, a nation whose economy depends on car manufacturing, are eschewing car ownership at even higher rates than in the US. Where unlike in previous generations, they "scoff at the sportscar-idolizing culture of the older generation [and] see cars as nothing more than a tool, much like a vacuum cleaner, not a reflection of their identity, tastes or income level."
These starkly different cultural differences certainly could explain Americans' ingrained societal desire for the status quo of highways, strip malls, office parks, and homogeneous neighborhoods. For decades, this was sold as the ultimate goal. But suburbanization and the age of mobility did one very good thing for society.
Suburbanization occurred at the same time as the Civil Rights movement. Highways, if nothing else, were public works used by all demographics. Mobility, combined with the passage of civil rights laws, integrated society somewhat. Most development and infrastructure still happened in wealthy areas, but immigrants, minorities, and the poor could at least drive (a longer distance) to the new shops, using the same rest stops and gas stations. At the same time, suburbanization increased the physical separation of different social classes with podded single use developments, often utilizing highways and freeways as very effective social barriers.
Now that this generation is moving back into the city, they different cultures and social classes are living closer together. Mixed income neighborhoods are unheard-of in suburban sprawl, but they weren't too common in the pre-WWII cities, either. Anacostia, for instance, was founded with restrictive covenants excluding anyone of African or Irish descent. Nowadays, as the new generation moves back into the cities and historically homogenous districts, Chinatowns, Little Italys, ghettos, barrios, and the like are being reborn into mixed-use, mixed-income, multi-cultural neighborhoods.
As for my mother, she lived in the suburbs just long enough to raise her children in the great suburbia. Now that she is an elderly widow living by herself, she has relocated back into the urban setting, setting up camp in a condo in downtown Silver Spring. Only unlike the Sicilian ghetto where she was raised, her new digs are located in one of the most diverse locales around.
Please welcome to our newest contributor, Joey Katzen! Joey lives in north Arlington and works near Dulles, and will be writing mainly about land use and development in Northern Virginia.
As the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro Corridor has aged and grown into its looks, it reliably attracts unsubsidized, and primarily gentrified, urban development in Arlington. Now, local leaders and developers have turned their attention to Columbia Pike (no relation to the Maryland route). Columbia Pike is a major east-west road south of US-50, with a 1970s car-dealership vintage and an even older streetcar-suburb heritage.
Arlington has spent much time and money with stakeholders to develop a long-term "complete streets" vision for Columbia Pike, including 6-minute headway bus service (now available), future light rail, and a form-based zoning code. This is a very promising direction for a main street in one of America's smallest and most urbanized counties.
However, there's another major east-west route with similar layout and streetcar-suburb vintage, that is oft overlooked: Lee Highway.
Remarkably similar to its southern cousin, Lee Highway runs through Arlington from the Key Bridge in Rosslyn to downtown Falls Church. An ancient section of US-29 from the early highway age, the wide "Old Dominion Drive" sections of the corridor were once the railbeds of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad.
Though the first section from Rosslyn west is a near-freeway, after that, it changes to a 35- and then 30-mile-per-hour, 4-lane arterial with frequent cross streets. That section boasts an abundant mix of neighborhood-serving storefronts, some sidewalk-facing and some more suburban in form. Two significant activity nodes punctuate the corridor: Cherrydale and the surprisingly as-yet-unnamed neighborhood centered on the Lee/Glebe intersection. Both previously had stations on the W&OD railroad.
Before the real estate slowdown took its toll, Lee Highway began seeing new investment in recent years, particularly in Cherrydale. Several mixed-use condominium buildings and street-facing retail were constructed (or partially constructed). Lee/Glebe hasn't seen similar investment yet, though some of the wealthiest neighborhoods south of McLean surround it.
Unlike Columbia Pike, however, officials have thus far put little planning effort into articulating a cohesive future vision for the entirety of this inner-ring corridor. They should, as it is bound to attract developer attention as the market recovers. Cherrydale has gotten some attention with new pedestrian streetlights and improved sidewalks, but the rest of the corridor mostly languishes. Bus service, while running at decent 12Ė15 minute headways, isn't up to "rail-replacement" frequencies and makes too many stops. Notably, the McPherson Square 3Y service, which only runs in rush periods, in the peak direction, is usually packed. Sidewalks are still narrow, though there is growing pedestrian traffic.
The road would likely be able to accommodate all the current car traffic with one fewer lane in each direction. That would accommodate non-rush curb parking. But the route is a primary federal transportation corridor, under the jurisdiction of VDOT, and so ultimately very difficult to change. Plus, the corridor runs through 12— The most exciting future possibility for the corridor is the proposed roundabout at the Lee/Glebe intersection. That would create a pocket park, focal point, and attractive vista for new, walkable development at this spot.
The most exciting future possibility for the corridor is the proposed roundabout at the Lee/Glebe intersection. That would create a pocket park, focal point, and attractive vista for new, walkable development at this spot.
According to the Gazette, Maryland state planners are optimistic that private sector funding might help pay for the Corridor Cities Transitway. The Transitway is a proposed line north of Shady Grove along the 270 corridor, through some areas planned for high density commercial and residential development. A train line here would encourage human scale, energy efficient, walkable urban growth—
In the 1980s and 1990s, county officials approved development at the intersection of Briggs-Chaney Road and US-29, and also most of Olney, based on the hint of potentially, maybe, sort of, possibly, hopefully, you know, one day running a BRT line up Georgia Ave and US-29. They never did, and the "transit-oriented" development has no transit, nor is it so oriented. History could repeat itself with the Corridor Cities Transitway.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic this time around. When the county approved the Briggs-Chaney and Olney developments, Transit-Oriented Development was a new buzzword that was novel to the planners of the time. Both of those previous failures were doomed from the start, as both developments have car-dependent forms. Even if good transit someday connected to those places, they would still need a North Arlington style suburban-to-urban retrofit in order to function as true transit-oriented walkable urban places.
However, the Corridor Cities Transitway area map (PDF) shows promise. There are notable major employers such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Johns Hopkins University Gaithersburg satellite campus, and the U.S. Department of Energy, shopping destinations such as the Rio (a faux "town center"-format mall at the intersection of I-370 and I-270), and existing population centers and local retail centers like Germantown and the Kentlands section of Gaithersburg. While "downtown" Germantown would need a little retrofitting with a walkable grid, Kentlands is a New Urbanist development that is transit-ready.
Frustratingly, some officials are already pushing for Bus Rapid Transit over light rail for the Corridor Cities Transitway. I've written previously about BRT's shortcomings. The arguments for light rail on the Corridor Cities Transitway are similar to those on the Purple Line, and similar reasons: capacity, travel times, long term costs, and ability to induce TOD.
This project is a very different project than the Purple Line. The Purple Line will connect existing major job and population centers in the inner suburbs. It will also greatly increase regional mobility by filling in some gaping holes in our Metro system. In this respect, it is similar to the Silver Line through Tysons Corner, while the Corridor Cities Transitway is more akin to the Silver Line west of Tysons Corner: connect some sparse dots in Favored Quarter suburbia and focus future growth on transit-oriented walkable urban hubs.
Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes the form of car-dependent suburbia, it exists, and many millions of Americans currently live there. Our battle for energy independence and against climate change will partially hinge on whether we can retrofit our middle suburbs in a more transit-oriented manner. For this to happen, we have to build more transit. The Corridor Cities Transitway, built with light rail, will be a good step in the right direction.
MoCo's trail advocate face-off: Marc Fisher profiles the arguments on both sides of the Purple Line debate from advocates who love the Capital Crescent Trail. Some want to keep transit away from the trail's vicinity, while others believe we can and should have both.
Highways aren't always faster: Dave Murphy found the direct route up Wisconsin Avenue faster than the GW Parkway-Beltway freeway route... at least at 3 am.
Adventures in transportation funding: New York members of Congress are eager to spend stimulus money on transit; many other states are not. Oregon's governor wants to expand a program to replace the gas tax with a VMT tax, which could charge more per mile in congested, transit-rich urban areas and less in rural parts of the state.
Influencing business with a carrot(mob): In San Francisco (where else), Carrotmob asked 23 liquor/convenience stores in the Mission to bid on who'd devote the most money to energy-efficiency upgrades to their store for a particular day. Then, hundreds of people used that store for their shopping that day. Imagine, asks Carrotmob's founder, if even larger groups of consumers wielded their power for good.
Harvard Street in Columbia Heights, between 14th and 15th Streets, looks like a typical DC street, with a combination of classic row house styles. Except, in the middle, a single glass building sticks out, in more ways than one.
Since Google Street View took these pictures, the construction was completed, and the modern, glass facade spans the entire front and of the building and most of one side.
Many neighborhoods are struggling with pop-ups, where zoning allows (say) three stories in a block made up of two-story houses, there's no historic protection, and the occasional homeowner (by right) puts an ugly vinyl-siding third story atop their beautiful old brick row house.
This, on the other hand, pops out in two different ways. First, it projects out closer to the street than the buildings on either side. On many streets, whole rows of houses were originally set back some distance from the property line. Outside of historic districts, though,
nothing many blocks lack building restriction lines to stop a property owner from adding on to the front of the house in these cases, even if that breaks up the consistency of the row. DC's Zoning Update process discussed this issue during the Low and Moderate Density Residential working group. The Office of Planning's currently proposed new regulations would let some neighborhoods impose building restriction lines, keeping all buildings behind one consistent line, or build-to lines, requiring all buildings to position the front edge at that line.
The design is a more complex issue. To the east (left, facing the building) is a long row of the early 20th Century townhouses with bay windows; to the east, a brick apartment building, an alley, and then a long row of the brick row houses with porches common in this area. (Is there a name for these two types?) Sandwiched between the two is now this glass tower.
Is this appropriate? I've previously written about my belief that the motley collection of architectural periods diminishes nice blocks like Burling Street in Chicago. In commercial districts and on blocks lacking a specific architectural feel, there's nothing wrong with modern, glass buildings. But this street feels less like a set of individual buildings and more like a few large multi-house buildings. A modern glass tower smack in the middle feels like replacing only one of the Treasury Building's ionic columns with a square marble pillar.
What do you think about this building? Should we allow pop-out additions closer to the street? Does the style of this building detract from the street, or add to it? Is some review appropriate to maintain architectural harmony on blocks like this? And perhaps most importantly, is there a way to get the latter protection without all the baggage and approval requirements of a full historic district?
- What if Montgomery County gave BRT a temporary test run?
- Twenty-five gorgeous but non-famous US train stations
- Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?
- Zig zag road stripes can get drivers to pay more attention
- The Northeast Corridor carries more rail passengers than anywhere else in the country. What could it look like in 2040?
- WMATA's new general manager is listening before he even takes the reins
- The National Zoo has clarified its safety concerns. Turns out you're the problem.