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Posts from December 2010


Tommy Wells gets transportation chair, WMATA Board

Tommy Wells was awarded oversight over the Committee on Public Works and Transportation in the DC Council today, and also chosen as the DC voting member on the WMATA Board of Directors.

Wells campaigning with Brown. Photo by hcwoodward on Flickr.

This represents an innovative move by Kwame Brown to demonstrate that he wants progressive action as opposed to the status quo in the coming year. Tommy Wells is the Councilmember most interested in bringing modern transportation practices to DC, including complete streets that balance the needs of drivers, walkers, bikers and transit riders.

While Wells' policies are sometimes seen as very pioneering, Dr. Gridlock's comments about Gabe Klein apply equally to Wells: "There's nothing radical in the bike lanes program, or the streetcar program or the street-parking program, or the pedestrian safety program. What looked to us here like cutting-edge programs would seem like catch-up to people in other big cities."

With the DDOT unified fund dismantled, the Council will play a larger role in reviewing and setting priorities for DDOT. That means the transportation committee will have a strong hand in either pushing DDOT to continue its innovative progress or to stall it, and Wells is the best one to keep things moving.

Councilmembers Jim Graham, Mary Cheh, and Harry Thomas, Jr. will be the other members of the committee. The committee's jurisdiction will not change, except Graham will keep his oversight over alcoholic beverage licensing along with taking over Human Services from Wells.

As chair, Jim Graham did a lot of good work while also being the focus of much controversy. Created a fund for local money to go to pedestrian and bicycle improvements, and moved the Sidewalk Assurance Act through the Council. He passed performance parking legislation, and has been forceful about real enforcement of parking laws. And he personally answers nearly every constituent email that he receives.

Graham also fought hard for DC's interests on a WMATA Board where DC often feels at a disadvantage compared to the suburban interests. (Disclosure: He also appointed me to the Riders' Advisory Council.) His transportation policy staffer, Jonathon Kass, is one of the best in the Council and very progressive. I hope Wells hires Kass without delay for the new committee.

On the other hand, some of Graham's tougher negotiating tactics like using the jurisdictional veto to block even holding a public hearing on certain fare proposals garnered significant criticism from myself and others. He was often seen as favoring transit in Ward 1 over elsewhere in the city, though as the densest ward and one with a low rate of car ownership, the transit brought many benefits.

The announcement did not specify whether Michael Brown will continue as the alternate on the WMATA Board, or whether a different person will take that over. Michael Brown had the worst attendance of all Board members from January to August of this year, but he could be a fine member if he were interested in starting to participate actively.

There could be some benefit for human services advocates to have Jim Graham take over: Graham is very good at fighting for the budget for areas he oversees, and facing deep cuts, human services could use his skill in that area.

On a more disappointing note, Harry Thomas, Jr., DC's biggest cheerleader for unwalkable big box development, will take over the Committee on Economic Development. Councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry, and Jack Evans will round out the committee, which doesn't bode well to create pressure for better or more walkable development.

The full list of committee chairs:

  • Aging and Community Affairs: Marion Barry (previously Yvette Alexander)
  • Economic Development: Harry Thomas, Jr. (previously Kwame Brown)
  • Finance and Revenue: Jack Evans
  • Government Operations and the Environment: Mary Cheh
  • Health: David Catania
  • Housing and Workforce Development: Michael Brown
  • Human Services: Jim Graham (previously Tommy Wells)
  • Libraries, Parks and Recreation: Muriel Bowser (previously Harry Thomas, Jr.)
  • Public Safety and the Judiciary: Phil Mendelson
  • Public Services and Consumer Affairs: Yvette Alexander (previously Muriel Bowser)
  • Public Works and Transportation: Tommy Wells (previously Jim Graham)


Urban football stadiums in the US: The good

On Monday, several GGW contributors debated whether DC could or should accommodate a new stadium to bring the Redskins back to the District. We asked some of our colleagues in other cities if they would share thoughts on the experiences of their towns.

Photo by omarr on Flickr.

Yesterday, we heard about the problems faced in Indianapolis and St. Louis. Today we look at a few cases that show there's hope for more successful urban stadiums.

Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, a nationally recognized expert on urban issues, who lives and works in Chicago.

Chicago's Soldier Field is a bit unique among US football stadiums. It exists in the urban center, but not as part of the urban fabric. Rather, it is located in the lakefront park, just south of Roosevelt Road where the Grant Park restriction on buildings is lifted. Because of this restriction, the area actually has several buildings, including the so-called Museum Campus of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.

Soldier Field has long been cut off from the city by Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, the stadium at one point was in the median of the roadway, which split around it. The railroad now provides transit access to the stadium via the Metra Electric line, as do multiple nearby CTA rail and bus lines.

Soldier Field was actually opened in 1924 and while it was used for football games, the Bears actually did not start playing there until 1971. Prior to that they played at Wrigley Field. So whatever the merits or lack thereof of the stadium's location, it has little to do with pro football.

The stadium was extensively reconstructed to be a long term home for the Bears in 2003. As with most teams, they said they could not make enough money in the old stadium. After the typical local debate, it was decided to renovate Soldier Field. But perhaps the term obliterate is more appropriate. The new stadium retained the classical colonnades, but little else.

There is now a completely modern seating bowl that is quite nice. However, the exterior architecture is all modernist glass that presents a jarring contrast with the old stadium, leading some to brand it the "UFO that landed on Soldier Field." This was decried by preservationists but to no avail. Ultimately, the US government stripped Soldier Field of its status as a National Historic Landmark—the highest designation of historic site given by the feds—as a result of this project.

Photo by joseph a on Flickr.
Some might say that a stadium is inappropriate on the lakefront. The classical elegance of the old stadium fit right in gracefully, however. The same cannot be said of the new. However, the lakefront has ample open space, and there's no per se problem with using that land for a stadium. Also, the parking that normally blights stadiums in downtowns is limited to one parking garage used also by the museums, so doesn't go to waste as in so many other cities. Some urbanists might decry it, saying hulking stadiums belong in the suburbs, but Soldier Field has been an integral part of Chicago's lakefront for decades, and few would likely choose to remove it. The new modernist bowl will remain an architectural blight for years to come, however.

Randy A. Simes earned a Bachelor of Urban Planning degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2009. He is a master planner at CH2M HILL and writes about urban public policy and planning issues for the Cincinnati Business Courier and UrbanCincy.

Through its history, Cincinnati has seen a typical evolution of urban sports venues for American cities. The intersection of Findlay and Western, in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1864 through 1970 in three iterations of ballparks—League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Crosley Fielduntil the team moved with the Cincinnati Bengals football team to Riverfront Stadium.

The Bengals also spent their first two years playing at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati's campus uptown. But when the two teams moved to Riverfront Stadium, they followed a national trend of cookie cutter stadiums in urban environments meant to serve as economic development generators. The problem was that the promise never came to fruition in the cities that went after the golden egg.

Most of those same cities have rebuilt their professional sports venues, many in the urban core. But the question still remains whether the return on investment is worth the valuable land for these lightly-used behemoths.

Photo from JT K on Flickr.
In Cincinnati, the Reds host more than 81 games every year drawing tens of thousands of fans to each event. Additional events are held at the ballpark, and its related attractions, throughout the year that also create a draw. Four blocks away, Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, hosts 10 games each year in addition to the smattering of high school events and concerts held there annually.

The result is a larger football stadium with far fewer events and a ballpark with more events but smaller crowds. The winner in this case is the ballpark, and the new generation of urban ballparks appears to be as successful as the original wave of urban ballparks in the late 19th century.

The problem with urban football stadiums can be both a structural issue and a programmatic issue. In the case of Paul Brown Stadium it is more about the program. The large, tailgating-bound crowds demand available parking for their pre- and post-game festivities.

In Cincinnati, developers are currently constructing The Banks, a mixed-use urban entertainment node wedged between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium and will eventually house thousands of new residents. Before each phase of development begins, it must first have two-floors of underground parking built before it even begins to satisfy the parking demands for the new residents and workers to be housed above.

Photo by the.urbanophile on Flickr.
Once complete, The Banks may set the stage for a truly unique urban sports and entertainment area, one that would have no surface parking and force tens of thousands of sports fans, visiting the area, out onto the streets for live music, food, drink, and festivities. This may end up being Paul Brown Stadium's saving grace.
The beautiful thing about professional sports venues is that they can turn what is otherwise worthless land into something economically productive and thus improve land values in nearby areas. But most often franchise owners often want their venues to be located in prime real estate so that they can maximize their visibility. In Cincinnati that meant handing over prime waterfront property to two large concrete masses that only stay active a fraction of the year.

When other cities examine plans for an urban sports venue of their own, they should keep more in mind than the wishes of the franchise ownership and the promise of skyline shots on national television once or twice a year. Less is more. You want the venue to blend in so that it does not detract from its surroundings when it is inevitably non-active. You want the venue to be versatile so that it can serve other functions beyond that of playing baseball or football. And most importantly, get rid of the parking so that venue's support facilities do not kill what you want the venue to create—economic development.

Martin H. Duke is the Editor-in-Chief of Seattle Transit Blog. An Electrical Engineer who grew up in the DC area, Martin has lived in Seattle since 1997.

Seattle, a city of 600,000, is somewhat unique in having not one but two big-time football stadiums within its city limits. One is seldom used, but not in an urban neighborhood; the other is on the edge of downtown but is combined into a bustling event district.

Husky Stadium, home of the University of Washington Huskies, is used for only seven major events a year. However, it is bordered by a lake, the University campus, medical center, and the rest of the athletic complex. Opening in 1920, nothing around it could be remotely described as an urban neighborhood.

However, Husky Stadium also sits on a transportation chokepoint. At one end of only two bridges that provide connectivity with the prosperous eastern suburbs, in the peak dozens of buses pass by each hour on their way to campus, and one of Seattle's few light rail stations will open in its parking lot in 2016. There is a strong case that the land should be used more intensively and the Huskies should share a home with the Seahawks. Regardless, many people treasure an emotional and historical connection with Husky stadium, and the Athletic department has zero interest in such a move. They are privately raising $300 million to renovate the stadium after being rebuffed by a broke state legislature.

Photo by Erwyn van der Meer on Flickr.
Qwest Field was only opened in 2002, but lies on the site of the old Kingdome, built in 1977 upon Seattle's entry into the NFL. The densest part of the downtown core is only blocks away; in between lies the historic Pioneer Square district, dense but low-rise. Beyond Qwest is the Mariners' Safeco Field and industrial-zoned land. Qwest also lies amidst the greatest transportation hub in the Pacific Northwest: light rail, Amtrak, commuter rail, ferries, hundreds of local bus routes, and three freeways all converge there.

Because the Mariners also provide 81 home dates, and the MLS Sounders have had freakishly high attendance at Qwest (36,000 a game!), it's difficult to separate the impact of the NFL from everything else going on. Pioneer Square is a particularly active nightlife district, which meshes pretty well with the sports bar scene. There is a pretty large chunk of social services there, which tends to attract transients and drive off the more squeamish among us.

Photo by camknows on Flickr.
One promising trend is the disappearance of surface parking. When one stadium turned into two, several surface lots were replaced with two stadium garages. The last remaining major surface lot is slated to become 950 condos and apartments, doubling the number of residents in Pioneer Square to join the jobs, shops, and recreational options already there.

It would be difficult to say that Pioneer Square is thriving, but equally difficult to say that having adjacent regional attractions is hurting it. I think the key lesson is that taking away the moat of parking allows the stadium to be properly integrated into the neighborhood.


Release the CapStat results

During his final two weeks in office, Mayor Adrian Fenty should publicly post all CapStat Action Item Reports that weren't yet released.

CapStat Action Items propose and require specific, measurable changes to agency operations "to make District government run more efficiently, while providing a higher quality of service to its residents."

Incoming Mayor Vincent Gray, volunteers on his transition team, and the DC Council could use these reports to assess in-progress and potential agency improvements. Furthermore, residents would gain insight into how District government dollars and time were invested to improve agency efficiency and resident quality of life. Residents could then offer feedback to Mayor Gray on changing or continuing these initiatives.

The posting of CapStat reports on DC.Gov occurred continuously from January 2007 until July 2008. The Fenty administration released 48 reports in 2007 (averaging 4.0 per month) and 22 reports in 2008 through July (averaging 3.1 per month). After a gap of several months, two reports were posted in April 2009. Other than those two reports as a brief exception, CapStat Action Item Reports have been regularly withheld from the public since late July 2008.

One week after Mayor Fenty took office, he conducted his first CapStat meeting. On January 11, 2007, the day after that meeting with two agency directors, seven expected action items and deadlines were posted online.

For Fenty, CapStat represented his commitment to expand upon the operational improvements put into motion by his predecessor, Mayor Anthony Williams. The program, run by Office of the City Administrator (OCA), displays an ambitious motto on its website: "CapStat: Building a City that Works."

Michael Neibauer (then with The Examiner) contributed to the favorable initial coverage of CapStat:

The Adrian Fenty administration is employing an "unremarkable but incredibly effective" tool to drive its focus on agency accountability, City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said Tuesday: deadlines.

One by one, agency directors are leaving routine accountability sessions, dubbed "CapStat," with a series of charges, each one tagged with a specific deadline they will be expected to meet.

Niebauer saw the value of these reports. Without missing a beat, Neibauer (after moving to Washington Business Journal) quickly noticed in 2008 when the Fenty administration stopped posting CapStat reports. He reached out to OCA and was first told that staffing constraints were the bottleneck. His later follow-up led to a less-than-congenial response from OCA: file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the documents. Niebauer did just that. His FOIA request was denied with the explanation that the reports "constitute records covered under the Deliberative Process Privilege."

By ending the public review of these documents, the Fenty administration transformed a top example of government transparency into an unfortunate case of withholding government records. No resident could believe that the District (or any other government entity) is beyond the need for some improvement. By not revealing CapStat results, residents are left with the perception that no effort is made to systematically analyze available data and improve government operations.

Richard Layman brings up an excellent point in this regard, writing, "My issue with the DC Government call center (311/online) is I never see any reports on what people call about. Do they sift out stuff and identify (and address) structural problems?"

CapStat data analysis, process improvements and deadlines that are invisible to residents can only support Layman's skepticism.

CapStat has been nationally recognized as an effective program to improve government operations and promote transparency. The program has addressed some concerns with high profile government responsibilities including snow removal, power outages, agency responsiveness and cross-border public safety issues. Government leaders and residents need to see what processes have been improved, which agencies have been successful (or not) with CapStat action items and what remains to be done by the next administration.

With tight budgets continuing and a new administration preparing its priorities, Mayor Fenty should do everything possible to support the transition. Posting all CapStat reports will help.


Want a Trader Joe's? Then add more residents

Residents in many neighborhoods often say they wish their neighborhood had a Trader Joe's or other new retail options. There's only one real way to get such businesses to move in: Add more residents who can shop there.

Photo by Il Primo Uomo on Flickr.

Lydia DePillis writes about some recent zoning fights. Along Georgia Avenue, ANC 4B fought a proposal to build 400 apartments and retail at the Curtis Chevrolet site, now slated for a Wal-Mart.

The 4B resolution stated, "Our Community is homeowner-based and family oriented, we want to maintain the character and integrity of our community," and "With the addition of over 1000 more residents in a compact area the likelihood of crime and violence increases dramatically." Lydia says the neighbors wanted a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and a movie theater for the site.

Many neighborhoods talk about how they want a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, or in many cases even any grocery store. But then, at the same time, they oppose new housing in the neighborhood because of fears of traffic (or crime, which makes absolutely no sense since more people being around reduces crime).

The Trader Joe's moved in to the West End while the West End was dramatically developing. Whole blocks of formerly light industrial uses were turned into fairly high density residential buildings (high density for DC, not for most other cities). In Logan Circle, the Whole Foods moved in knowing that substantial development was planned or already underway in the immediate vicinity.

In Cleveland Park, there are constant debates about the health of the commercial strip and the overlays that limit restaurants in an effort to attract more non-food establishments. But the real reason there aren't more non-food establishments is that there aren't enough people. If the long-ago proposal had gone forward to turn the Park and Shop strip mall into some tasteful larger buildings, similar in size to others on Connecticut Avenue, instead of landmarking the thing, Cleveland Park could have more of what it wants.

It's simple. Unless your neighborhood is in the process of growing rapidly, it's unlikely to get more retailers and probably not the kind you want. Most of the time, the retail market is close to an equilibrium where the number of retailers matches the demand for retail in that area. Only when a neighborhood is gaining population is the time ripe to add more.

Once upon a time, the commercial corridors thrived without this added housing, except for two factors. First, family sizes were substantially larger, and a typical single-family house might have parents, 3-4 kids and even some relatives living there. Now, family sizes are smaller, but many neighbors also fight proposals to allow basement or garage apartments, even though those would simply restore the numbers of people that the house used to hold.

Second, people shop more online and more in suburban big box centers. That's not going to change. Bringing big box retail into DC, as these Wal-Marts do, might keep more of the tax dollars from big box shopping in DC, but won't create healthy neighborhood shopping corridors.

Neighborhoods can either stay the same size, and see local retail gradually decline as online shopping grows and DC adds big box stores. Or, they can add enough new residents to support new retail options. Most of us prefer the latter. Some people, though, want to stop new residents but also have the retail. That's completely unrealistic.

Lydia also reports that the last act of the lame-duck ANC 5C, which includes Bloomingdale, was to oppose Big Bear Cafe's request to change its zoning to commercial. Since several new, more retail-friendly commissioners are joining in the new year, there's a good chance they will quickly reverse course, and even so, the Zoning Commission is unlikely to heed this last gasp stance against change.


Digital displays could attract new riders

Pedestrians, transit riders, and car and bike sharing users will soon be enjoying a veritable buffet of information about their transit options, available on digital displays across the city.

Photo by the author.

DDOT Director Gabe Klein unveiled on Monday a new multi-modal information screen, a prototype for those that the department will be placing in bus shelters and at major pedestrian activity centers throughout the District as early as this spring.

The new displays, some more than a meter wide, will combine information about Metrobus, Circulator, Metrorail, Capital Bikeshare, and Zipcar. This information is presented in a simple, visually appealing format, along with an area map and weather forecast.

More information, better choices

DC's new displays, which are being funded by a TIGER grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, are a part of a larger trend across the globe to provide easy access to transportation information for city dwellers. In DC, as in many other places, the intention is that by giving people more information, more often, and more easily, they will make better choices about their mobility.

The concept is basically an extension of "rational choice theory," which says humans make rational decisions to maximize utility, assuming they have perfect information about the available choices. "Bounded rationality theory" recognizes that people have neither the information nor the cognitive capacity to consider all of their available choices, but it acknowledges that we can increase utility by increasing the information we use to make decisions.

Public transit often suffers from several downfalls of perception—unfamiliarity being one of them. Infrequent or non-riders avoid transit because much or everything about it is unfamiliar. They don't know where the bus goes, what time it comes, how much it costs, where to transfer... the list of questions goes on and on. Most of them choose to drive, or take a taxicab, instead. These people often make a less than optimal decision, according to bounded rationality theory, simply because they lacked the information to choose the best travel option.

This unfamiliarity is what transit agencies struggle against everyday as they look for better ways to depict their route maps, timetables, wayfinding and other user information systems. But many of these ways of communicating information are internal to the system. Agencies and cities need to find ways to reach customers, both current and potential, outside the confines of the bus, the train or the station.

The DDOT displays will do just that. The first prototype has been placed in a street-level window of the Reeves Center at 14th and U. The intersection is served by 8 Metrobus routes and a Circulator, and is located one block from a Metro station. There are 4 bike sharing stations and some half-dozen car share vehicles at 5 locations, all within three blocks of the Reeves Center.

Transit riders can find local information from weather updates to route maps. Photo by Erik Weber.
Photo by the author.

Information gaps

On the display, people can see real-time information for every mode on the map: arrival times for each bus route and Metro line, bike and dock availability for each bike share station, and vehicle availability for each ZipCar location. A news ticker along the bottom streams local news and any Metro, Circulator or Metrobus service disruptions.

The software behind the displays is still a work in progress, said Director Klein and DDOT Chief Information Officer Lance Schine at the press conference. Currently the bus arrival times only display the route number and direction of each bus. That's not much help to someone who doesn't know which bus they need, or does know but isn't sure whether they should be going north or south, east or west. The next update will change that, Klein said, adding the destination of each bus.

Additionally, DDOT will be trying out different map layouts for displays that are not placed directly in bus stops, to better indicate where the closest stops for each route are located. Google will soon be improving their map imagery, Schine said, around the same time that WMATA is expected to begin feeding their route and schedule data into Google Transit, and that should offer more options for the area maps.

Klein stressed that the software is still being developed and tweaked and asked the audience at the press conference for any suggestions for the next version. Do you have any ideas for improvements, or other information that should be added to the display? DDOT will be sure to incorporate feedback from the first few pilot displays as they work toward a large scale roll-out with TIGER funds.

While DDOT's approach is extensive and highly polished, it's also rather expensive. The prototype costs around $25,000 and future displays may run as high as $20,000 a piece. This price tag is too prohibitive to deploy the screens very widely.

Fortunately, other people are tackling the information problem, as well, aiming for cheap and easy options. At Rail-Volution in October, Chris Smith of Portland Transport presented his "Transit Appliance," which combines open data, open-source software and open hardware to create a simple and cheap transit information display. For $179, businesses like restaurants, bars, hotels, and others can purchase the small device and connect it to an existing Wi-Fi connection to pull up open transit data.

Integrated solutions

The expansion of Google Transit to cities around the world and the proliferation of transit apps on smart phones have made significant inroads in increasing information availability and narrowing the familiarity gap between driving and more sustainable options. Still, most of these tools require users to have taken a very active interest in public transit prior to use.

Many of these apps also feature only one mode, requiring users to have different apps for the bus, Metro and bike sharing. Interfaces like DDOT's also recognize the importance of integration, stressing all transportation options as one large complementary system rather than competing modes.

Public information displays such as Smith's Transit Appliance or DDOT's multimodal displays help people understand the availability of transit options by making information available and ubiquitous. The more information people have around them, the more likely they are to change their behavior. While it may not change people's travel choices the first time they look at it, people may choose to leave the car at home on their next trip.

Cross-posted at TheCityFix.


Breakfast links: Count it!

Photo by Travelin' Librarian on Flickr.
The Census is in: The 2010 Census results were released yesterday. Virginia continued with double-digit growth, Maryland experienced nearly 10% growth, and DC topped 600,000 for the first time since the 1950s. Neither Virginia, nor Maryland will see any change in their Congressional delegation size. (WUSA)

Census results complicate DC vote fight: After the last Census, DC voting rights advocates partnered with Republican-heavy Utah, who was left just short of gaining another House seat, to fight for a seat for both. This year, Utah got their seat anyway thanks to continued growth and the next state in line, North Carolina, is itself a politically balanced state. (WAMU)

New federal money for K Street transitway: The Federal Transit Administration has awarded DC a $1 million planning and analysis grant to explore new streetcar technology and advance the K Street Transitway plan. (Examiner)

New UMD president gets the Purple Line: It looks like Wallace Loh's rule at the University of Maryland may be a breath of fresh air for Purple Line advocates, after years opposition under C. Dan Mote. Loh has talked with officials at Portland State University about the light rail on their campus. (Rethink College Park, Cavan)

Tax break and much more passes: The DC Council passed a 20-year, $46 million tax abatement for a planned hotel in Adams Morgan. That's one of many bills passed yesterday including ones on rent control, open meetings (though exempting Council committees), and rules limiting homeless shelters to DC residents. (TBD, Post)

BRAC parking cap cut from defense bill: Virginia Senator Congressman Jim Moran's proposed cap of 1,000 parking spaces at the new BRAC headquarters in Alexandria was cut from the Defense Reauthorization Act, leaving the onus on the Pentagon to take steps to reduce driving to the new campus. Moran says he will reintroduce the cap in 2011. (Dr. Gridlock)

WABA begins responsible cycling campaign: WABA wants area cyclists to make a New Years resolution to respect the rules of the roads and other road users, as part of a new campaign to increase responsible cycling and combat the image that all cyclists are scofflaws. (WTOP)

Passenger rail coming to Norfolk: Virginia signed a deal with Norfolk Southern that will allow passenger rail to come to Norfolk, VA. Service currently ends in Newport News. The state will use $87 million in federal money to upgrade the rail and a new connection built between CSX rail and NS rail. (Railway Age, David C)

Pick a mode in SF: A neat tool using open data in San Francisco lets people compare the time and cost of traveling from one place to another and back using that city's two car sharing systems, biking, walking, and transit. (ModePick via @joooe)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


WMATA bag searches make transit less safe, not more

This morning, the Metro Transit Police began conducting the system's first random bag checks. These inspections are couched in the language of security, but they actually make the system less safe.

Photo by on Flickr.

Passengers boarding during the morning rush at Braddock Road and College Park faced these screenings. The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock reported that one man's check took 8 minutes, and yet nothing threatening was found.

People have been objecting to these random bag checks on a variety of grounds. The ACLU says that they infringe on civil liberties. Dr. Gridlock disputed the argument that they are a "necessary evil," writing that "To be a necessary evil, a thing must be both necessary and evil," and that this policy is only the latter, not the former. Even Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton thinks they're ineffective.

The WMATA Riders Advisory Council will be holding a meeting on this policy on January 3rd, 6:30 pm at WMATA HQ, where you can voice your opinions.

Regardless of how you feel about personal liberties or the Fourth Amendment, there are several reasons you should oppose these screenings. Any one of these should be enough to give you pause.

The bag checks do nothing to secure the Metro system. If this morning is any indication of Metro's plans for screenings, they'll take place only at a few stations at any given time, probably less than 5 of Metro's 86 stations. They may even be restricted to rush hours. This morning's checks appear to have ended by 8:45, according to news reports.

Most importantly, anyone can refuse the checks and still be allowed to board a train or bus. If you don't want to be screened for whatever reason, all you have to do is tell the officer that you don't want to be screened. You won't be permitted to enter that station with your bag, but you will be permitted to enter the system elsewhere.

At a place like Vienna, that might be a challenge for a terrorist without a car. But at any of the downtown stations, or in other close-in neighborhoods, it's a short walk to another station. And Metrobuses tend to provide a link between stations, as well.

One could easily conceive of a terrorist deciding not to be screened at a station like Farragut North simply walking to Farragut West and boarding a train there.

Or to think of it another way, imagine that prior to September 11, there was no airport security. Afterwards, they put security in place at Boston Logan, Newark, and Washington Dulles only. It would still be easy for a terrorist to hijack a plane. All they'd need to do is start their journey from a different airport. Metro's permeable and brief security barriers will do nothing to stop even a moderately determined terrorist.

They're easy to avoid. Because these checks are considered outrageous by many people and because of the prevalence of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, it's easy to determine ahead of time where these checks are happening.

A terrorist could easily check Twitter (as UnsuckDCMetro pointed out this morning), as can anyone else wishing to avoid the hassle.

They draw resources from real crime prevention. The Metro Transit Police Department is an asset to this region. I respect their officers for what they do to keep Metro safe.

But they have limited resources. The MTPD has only 423 sworn officers, certainly a small force for an agency spread across 3 "states", 86 stations, and hundreds of miles of bus lines.

Metro is not increasing the size of the Police Department as a part of these random bag checks. And that means that officers that otherwise would have been riding trains and buses, circling parking lots, or walking platforms are being pulled away from those duties.

There have been some high-profile crimes on Metro lately. In August, a brawl erupted at L'Enfant Plaza that injured 4, and reportedly involved 70 people. Metro Police officers were able to respond from Gallery Place, probably because the agency stations extra cops there to deal with unruly teenagers. What would have happened, however, if those officers had been assigned to Dupont Circle to do random bag checks?

Are these checks worth it if even one old lady gets mugged because an officer who otherwise would have been on her train was scanning bags elsewhere? How many iPhone thefts is this security theater worth? How many teenage brawls?

We already know that MTPD response times are poor. Putting officers behind security checkpoints will only exacerbate that problem.

And that seems to be the case even if TSA personnel are stationed at the checkpoints, since it appears that Metro Transit officers will always be present at the bag checks, too.

The searches decrease the utility of transit. Traveling on Metro is not always easy. All too early in the evenings, train frequencies drop precipitously. Riders who have to transfer often spend more time standing around on platforms than they do riding on trains.

These bag checks mean that riders have to add more time into their schedules. While the checks can take at least 8 minutes, even a shorter one can mean missing a train. And if they're only coming every 20 minutes, that is a significant delay to a rider. If it makes them miss the train which would connect with their hourly bus, it's even worse.

These checks make riding transit less attractive for those who choose to take Metro. And it makes it less convenient for everyone, especially those who have no alternatives.

And that probably means that some people are going to get pushed into other modes, like driving. Lost revenue for Metro is bad, but worse is increased traffic on the Beltway, more pollution in our neighborhoods, and an increasing number of car crashes.

Metro's fare increases have already driven transit ridership down, especially for short trips, where Capital Bikeshare, walking, Metrobuses, or taxis are increasingly taking up the slack. These bag checks give riders one more reason to abandon the system.

The checks could open WMATA up to lawsuits. While similar checks undertaken by the New York City MTA were upheld by the Second Circuit in MacWade v. Kelly, that does not immunize WMATA from lawsuits.

Metro operates in the Fourth Circuit and the DC Circuit. These checks are not a part of settled case law here, and it is very likely that someone who objects to these searches will sue WMATA.

And even if those circuits uphold the searches as in MacWade, there are other grounds for lawsuits. For instance, how does Metro inform riders that they can decline the search? If they do not, does that trigger a Fourth Amendment violation?

If the Transit Police are not informing each searchee that they can decline and if the searchee does not fully understand that, it would seem to bring up circumstances similar to those adjudicated in Miranda v. Arizona.

Regardless, for no apparent security benefit, WMATA would appear to be welcoming a court challenge. And as a taxpayer and daily rider, I find that troubling.

They infringe upon privacy rights. Americans are sensitive about their privacy. As well they should be. These checks do nothing to secure our transportation network, and yet they significantly infringe upon our right to privacy.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. These searches are far from reasonable, for the variety of reasons listed here.

Random inspections are often ineffective. And even if a terrorist went to a station that was being checked, he or she might not even get selected for screening.

Truly random screening means that the vast majority of those screened are innocent commuters. And those that look or act suspicious are not necessarily screened.

Profiling like that seems to violate case law in the Second Circuit. While WMATA is not located in the Second Circuit, the only place these checks have been tested is there, and WMATA has cited that case as justification.

In New York's MacWade decision, the Second Circuit held that in order for the checks to be constitutional, they had to meet several conditions. One of those was that "police exercise no discretion in selecting whom to search, but rather employ a formula that ensures they do not arbitrarily exercise their authority" [emphasis mine].

That means that this approach checks hundreds of innocents and does not ensure that even suspicious individuals will get checked. That doesn't sound like a good approach to safety.

Of course, officers can already search someone based on probable cause, but they don't need checkpoints to do that. And using checkpoints to generate probable cause would seem to violate the spirit and letter of MacWade.

They create false perceptions in the traveling public. These searches create two false perceptions in riders, though not both in the same rider.

On the one hand, the mere fact that screenings are taking place creates an atmosphere of threat. It reminds people that they need to be suspicious and afraid. After all, a terrorist could be lurking just behind the next platform pylon.

But on the other hand, they also generate a false sense of security. Why should a rider be alert if people are screened before entering? Unfortunately, the ineffectiveness of this security measure means that transit riders are really no more secure than they were before the checks.

Treating customers with suspicion is not the way to win their patronage. As noted earlier, close to all of those being screened are going to be regular, innocent riders. Treating them like potential terrorists is insulting and inconvenient. And it's unlikely to encourage them to ride transit again.

They show poor resource planning. The planning profession is often associated with urban planning, but it's actually a much larger field. And it includes strategic and resource planning.

Planners are taught to use the Rational Planning Model to evaluate policy.

Essentially the model works like this:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Generate solutions
  3. Generate objective assessment criteria
  4. Choose the best alternative
  5. Implement chosen alternative
  6. Continuously evaluate outcomes and repeat model as necessary
It's clear that the bag check policy was not subjected to that model.

Terrorism is a real threat. And it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But looking carefully at the approach which has been taken shows that it is riddled with holes, fails to address the core issues, and generates unintended consequences which may be larger threats to the agency than the original problem.

Metro and the Transit Police Department need to cease this program of bag checks immediately. They have angered the public, inconvenienced riders, and failed to solve or even reduce the terrorism problem.

These random bag checks make riding transit less safe. And as long as Metro wastes resources this way, it will continue to exhibit its general inability to deal effectively with the real problems of the agency.

You can speak up at the Riders' Advisory Council meeting on Monday, January 3. It's at 6:30 pm in the committee room at WMATA HQ, 600 5th Street, NW, left and then right after security. Any rider can speak, and the RAC has reached out to MTPD to see if someone can make a presentation and answer questions.


Urban football stadiums in the US: The bad

Yesterday, several GGW contributors debated whether DC could accommodate a new home for the Washington Redskins inside the District.

Photo by JFeister on Flickr.

We asked some of our urbanist friends around the country to weigh in on the experience with urban arenas in their cities.

Today we'll look at two cases that depict the problems with massive stadiums dropped into the urban fabric without sufficient care. Tomorrow we'll have a few cases that show more promise.

Greg Meckstroth is an urban planner living in Indianapolis. He writes at the collaborative urbanism blog UrbanIndy, as well as his own site UrbanOut.

The Indianapolis Colts have played in an urban football stadium since the team's founding in 1984 when the Hoosier Dome (later the RCA Dome) was built in the heart of downtown. The stadium sat next to the Indianapolis Convention Center, creating a superblock in downtown Indianapolis that encouraged monotonous urban forms and destroyed vitality in the surrounding area. Yet, the RCA Dome could be considered a decent urban football stadium because the structure was built to the street right-of-way, featured large entryways off the sidewalk, and was decently integrated into the urban fabric with no surrounding parking.

In late 2008 the Dome, seen as a relic of a past era, was abandoned for the sparkling new Lucas Oil Stadium a few blocks south. Lucas Oil Stadium is a true mega-structure. The hulking arena is roughly the size of two large downtown blocks, with its surrounding landscaping, parking, and entryway features taking up an additional four to five blocks.

Needless to say, Lucas Oil Stadium is now a prominent fixture in the Indianapolis skyline, often dwarfing the neighboring buildings and harkening back to the field house structures with which Indianapolis has long had a love affair. From this standpoint, Lucas Oil is a small success, providing the urban environment a beautiful building that represents the city's sports venue value system.

In terms of accessibility, the stadium does well in some points and fails in others. From the south, the area's walkability is poor, covered in a swath of parking, but is much better from other directions, with small to medium setbacks and large sidewalks for often heavy pedestrian traffic. Numerous IndyGo bus lines run along South Street and surrounding downtown streets, allowing for easy transit access.

By 2012, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail will link Lucas Oil Stadium directly to downtown's main bike and pedestrian system, providing an important link to downtown's vibrant entertainment districts. This improvement, along with the new Georgia Street reconfiguration that will provide a pedestrian-oriented, entertainment corridor, is proof positive that Indianapolis is attempting to incorporate Lucas Oil Stadium into downtown's pedestrian experience and make the area more walkable.

Still, if the City ever wants to be truly integrate the stadium into the urban environment, they need to do more. The stadium site sits on a mega block, offering poor street and pedestrian connectivity to the surrounding street grid and neighborhood. Plus, the stadium is placed at an angle to the street grid, creating odd open spaces around the stadium.

Photo by FWnetz on Flickr.
The building's sheer size and failure to incorporate any ground floor retail or other use hampers active street life, especially unfortunate given the few times the stadium is actually used throughout the year. The result is a relative dead zone in an area of Indy that is in desperate need of good urban form to reactivate the area and connect it with the vibrant Meridian Street and Illinois Street to the north.

Looking towards the future, integrating a large, out-of-context, football stadium like Lucas Oil into an urban environment like downtown Indianapolis's southern edge will prove to be difficult. Still though, improvements can be made that can create a more vibrant, sustainable district and interesting street life. Connecting the Cultural Trail to the stadium is an important first step. From there, the street grid needs to be reinforced to the stadium's south end and transportation circulation needs to be improved, urban forms need to be constructed to the north and east edge, and urban infill needs to occur to the west.

If plans such as these are put forward and actually implemented, Lucas Oil Stadium could quickly become a poster child for successful urban football stadiums in the United States. But the stadium is still in its infancy and full plans for the area have yet to be developed, so only time will tell if such ambitions will be achieved.

St. Louis
Alex Ihnen is the Editor of Urban STL. He currently serves as chair of the advocacy group City to River and runs the blog

Each of the three St. Louis National Football League stadiums has been located in an urban setting. Sportsman's Park was truly a neighborhood stadium, sharing an incredible likeness to Chicago's Wrigley Field. A football field was shoe horned into Sportsman's for six years.

When Busch Stadium I opened in 1966 it was one of a wave of dual use stadiums of similar design, started by DC's own RFK stadium and followed by Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The stadium was home to Major League Baseball's Cardinals and the Cardinals NFL team. Built during a period unprecedented faith in urban renewal in St. Louis, the stadium was one component of a larger effort that included the final clearing of a dozen city blocks for the Gateway Mall, the building of the Gateway Arch and construction of urban Interstates through the city.

Downtown St. Louis. Image from Google Maps.
The NFL team left St. Louis in 1987 and local civic leaders went to work immediately to lure a team back to the city. Central to their strategy was the building of a domed stadium.

Completed in 1995, the Trans World Dome, now Edward Jones Dome, was built as a multi-purpose facility, following the then trend of combing convention centers with domed stadiums. It was one of the very last traditional dome stadiums built. The Dome's utility as an expanded convention center has not lived up to initial promises for revenue generated and events held. The stadium even fails to offer a view of the Mississippi River, or the iconic Arch.

While an urban football stadium on the right site may add to and take advantage of a dramatic skyline, the stadium and convention center combination in St. Louis fails to do this. The stadium has arguably been an impediment to development. The 12 city block superblock is a defining barrier separating the near north side and the central business district to the south and last remnants of historic riverfront with the rest of the city.

The nearest commercial corner at 7th and Washington is the site of a long vacant building encompassing an entire block and failed indoor urban mall. Both structures are currently undergoing development, two of the last to do so along the historic Washington Avenue corridor, and 15 years after the completion of the Dome. However with the surface parking lots, vacant land, and empty historic buildings surrounding the site, it's a tough argument to say that things could have been worse.

At the time it was designed, the Dome was criticized by Eugene Mackey, a former president of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, . St. Louis Post-Dispatch architecture critic E.F. Porter stated that such a structure at the edge of a struggling CBD would have a "pervasive and irreversible impact on the complexion of the city." He described the project as a "great protective battlement…sealing off the CBD from the neighborhoods to the north." Mackey summed it up: 'It makes north St. Louis the loading dock for downtown."

Photo by Kevin.Ward on Flickr.
Development north of the Dome has been non-existent during the past 15 years. Plans have come and gone, gleaming renderings of Daniel Libeskind towers displayed. Development prospects haven't been helped by the broken street grid I-70 has wreaked on the north side. Porter even predicted trouble when a new Mississippi River Bridge would eventually route I-70 over the river from Illinois and land north of the Dome at Cass Avenue. The bridge is under construction now and will land at Cass Avenue, but the ramps carry traffic west of the superblock.

The negative impact is more than a few vacant lots and blocks of housing, the Convention Center and Dome present a life-subduing façade, especially to the west and north. Would the Dome have been better situated on the east (or even west) riverbank with an open roof view of the St. Louis skyline? Perhaps a suburban stadium, nearer the region's population center, approximately 12 miles west of downtown would have worked.

Although served by the light rail MetroLink line and Metro bus, such service can only accommodate a fraction of 66,965 fans who can fill the stadium. Transit works better for baseball, basketball and hockey crowds of 12-40,000.

Ultimately, urban stadiums can work and we're left to wonder if the Convention Center and Dome have inflicted and maintained blight in the St. Louis CBD or whether it's successfully served as a bulwark against decay in a city where these problems are clearly bigger than a football stadium.


Happy hour, bike ride tonight

If you're still in town, stop by tonight for Greater Greater Washington's holiday happy hour. And if you're free earlier, join the celebratory bike ride with Gabe Klein and DDOT and WABA staff beforehand.

Photo by Ken_Mayer on Flickr.

The happy hour is at Marvin, 2007 14th Street NW. It doesn't have a big sign, just a smaller one on the door, but don't let that fool you. We'll be upstairs starting at 6:30 or 7.

And before that, the bike ride will leave at 5:30 pm from the Reeves Center. There are CaBis available for those who need them, and DDOT will collect winter clothes for Martha's Table. Make sure to wear some of your own warm clothes for the ride as well, of course!

We'll be riding down U to 17th Street, past the businesses on 17th and along the new bike lane, then over to 15th and that cycle track to the Pennsylvania Avenue one which now extends all the way to 15th. We'll get to the Downtown Holiday Market around 5:45 or 6, where you're free to join the group. We'll carol, shop, and drink cider, then head back up via 14th Street starting around 6:15.

Hope to see you at the happy hour and/or on the ride!

Public Spaces

Rather than close Ellsworth Drive, narrow Georgia Avenue

The best and most vibrant public space in downtown Silver Spring is Ellsworth Drive, a street already designed more for pedestrians than for cars. Its success has led to some calls to close it entirely to traffic. But instead, a better approach would be to create other, new public spaces by narrowing Georgia Avenue.

Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Even if you don't like the chain stores that line it, it's hard to ignore that Ellsworth Drive has become the place where our community gathers to celebrate, to remember, and even to protest.

So it's not surprising that many people, including Sligo from Silver Spring, Singular, have called for it to be closed to cars altogether, not just on weekends:

"I'm not sure what the original rationale was for keeping this street open on weekdays, but I think that the last seven years have shown us that there's a lot more demand for public space in downtown Silver Spring than there is for a single block of road."
Many of the people I spoke to at last May's charrette talked about the need for public space in Silver Spring. Though pedestrian malls in the United States have often failed, there are quite a few examples of successful ones, like Main Street in Charlottesville, Pearl Street Mall in Boulder and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

Nonetheless, turning Ellsworth Drive into a permanent pedestrian mall may not be the answer, and there are two reasons why.

First off, successful pedestrian malls have pedestrians at all times. Stores need people passing by to get customers, and if there aren't enough people walking by, they'll close. Ellsworth may be crowded on a weekend evening but not the rest of the week. Are the sidewalks busy on a Tuesday morning? Or a Saturday night after 10pm?

Ellsworth Drive does have shops and restaurants and movie theaters, but not enough to keep it busy at all times. Though thousands of new apartments have been built in downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, there are still very few people living within a quarter-mile of Ellsworth Drive, meaning that the only people on the sidewalks are those who came intentionally.

Adidas, 3rd Street
Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica has a wide variety of stores and other activities taking place at all times.

Main Street in Charlottesville has a number of bars, including the one where Dave Matthews got his start. Like Boulder, Charlottesville also has a major university nearby, drawing tens of thousands of carless college students who have to walk everywhere.

On Third Street, you can buy anything from today's newspaper to a coffeepot to a skateboard. You can also have dinner and a drink afterwards. Above are apartments, offices, hotels and a hostel, and a few blocks away are Santa Monica's famous beaches. Together, all of these amenities create places where the sidewalks are busy at all times, which justifies closing a street to cars.

Second, we shouldn't be asking why the sidewalks on Ellsworth are so crowded, but rather why sidewalks everywhere else in Silver Spring are so empty. Ellsworth Drive currently works well for cars and pedestrians. But most others in the downtown area, from big ones like Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road to little ones like Thayer Avenue or Fenton Street, have been designed to move cars, resulting in some pretty uninviting places to walk.

The biggest reason why businesses along Georgia Avenue or Colesville Road may continue to struggle despite the ongoing revitalization is probably because nobody wants to walk there. Tight sidewalks and speeding cars are enough to encourage walkers to find safe places, like Ellsworth Drive, and stay put as long as they can.

Georgia Avenue is as wide as the Beltway!
The space given over to cars on Georgia Avenue is as wide as the through lanes on the Beltway.

How can we create more public space in downtown Silver Spring? Make the streets narrower. At its intersection with Silver Spring Avenue, Georgia Avenue is nearly 110 feet wide from curb to curb. That's as wide as the through lanes on the Beltway.

Let's say you made the lanes on Georgia 10 feet wide, narrow enough to get cars going 30 miles an hour. Keeping the current setup, with six lanes for through traffic and two for parking, you could make the road 80 feet wide, freeing up thirty feet of pavement for other uses, like wider sidewalks, a landscaped median, or space for cafe tables.

You could do this exercise with any street in the business district, giving space back to the pedestrian without changing traffic patterns. But if we were really ambitious, we would change traffic patterns, giving over street space to bikes or transit vehicles, such as the DC streetcar, which may one day continue up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring. These changes could allow our streets to move more people than a lane of cars ever could while making them much nicer spaces to be in.

Georgia Avenue Just Before Sunset
Georgia Avenue's a nice place to drive through, but a pretty miserable place to walk.

The Good Life (Darrel Rippeteau)
What Georgia Avenue could be like. Drawing by architect Darrel Rippeteau.

The argument for making Ellsworth Drive a pedestrian mall is pretty similar to the one for building a bridge across Wayne Avenue to the new Silver Spring Library: drivers speed through downtown Silver Spring, so let's keep pedestrians far away where they can be safe. But doesn't this condone speeding?

We should make all of Silver Spring safe and fun for walking, even if it means drivers have to slow down. In doing so, we'll help local businesses, improve traffic, and return public space to the people.

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