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

Posts from February 2008


Density police not required

Urban, walkable, mixed-use areas are the future of America. They're more environmentally friendly, better for healthy people and strong communities, shorter commutes make people happier, and the market wants more of it.

Ezra Klein pulls out a key point from Alex Steffen's piece: the density needed for "walkable urbanism" isn't just apartment buildings—you can have a lot of trees and lawn and quiet at 9-12 units per acre and a FAR of 1.3. Areas around transit stops and downtown neighborhoods should be higher, but a walkable America doesn't mean outlawing the front porch and the picket fence. It's more about allowing the front porch to be next to the street, prohibited by many zoning codes.

Matthew Yglesias writes:

What's particularly astounding about this stuff, in my view, is that fixing the problem would hardly require some totalitarian density police to come around and force us to all live closer together. Instead, the main step we would need to take would simply be to allow people to build more densely if they want to. As a secondary measure, scrapping or limiting the tax code's weird and destructive subsidy of big houses would do some good.
Ezra Klein adds:
Indeed, there's nothing natural about our current settlement patterns, and no reason preserving them should be seen as a nod to expressed preference rather than, as it actually is, a status quo bias in favor of the current subsidies and their associated winners. Nobody's saying we should make suburbs illegal. But we don't have to abide by public policy that makes them look far cheaper and more economical than they are.


Greater Baltimore & Washington Transit Future version 2

This map shows what the transportation system of the Baltimore-Washington area would look like if most of the proposed improvements are built. In particular, it includes the Silver Line to Dulles; several new infill Metro stations; turning MARC and VRE into transit-like service with frequent trains that run through from Maryland to Virginia so all commuters can reach Union Station, L'Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria; and light rail lines in the District, Northern Virginia, and Maryland including the Baltimore expansions that have been proposed.

Thanks for the many comments left on version 1 of the Greater Washington Transit Future fantasy map. I've added in almost all of the lines suggested in those comments (Columbia Pike streetcar, Potomac Yards transitway, light rail to Waldorf, etc.) I've incorporated the Baltimore expansion proposal (map and report), everything suggested by MWCOG (see page 3), rail expansion on those lines that still exist (some have been reused for Baltimore Metro or as rail trails), and the MARC growth plan (trying my best to figure out where the stations would be—that document is pretty vague).

And without further adieu, I present version 2.0 of the Greater Baltimore & Washington Transit Future map (click for very very big version:

For more details and notes, please see the notes for version 1.

Update 4/23/08: I had made a couple of small tweaks as a start on a version 3 of this map, but never finished it; I've now updated this map to include those changes. Most notable is an extra branch of the Corridor Cities Transitway, the more direct route ACT is pushing for, and a light rail up Columbia Pike from Silver Spring to Columbia Town Center along the route suggested by Dan of Just Up the Pike. The older version is here.



A better 14th Street coming soon

Last week was the latest public meeting to review the proposed streetscape improvements to 14th Street, from Florida Avenue to Thomas Circle. I wasn't able to make the meeting, which conflicted with the Columbia Heights parking meeting, but I was able to get copies of the presentation. This street is becoming a major restaurant and bar corridor, and improvements that make it more welcoming and safer will help the street continue to grow. Most if not all of these changes can and should be applied to other streets around the city and the nation.

The plan substantially upgrades the street's appearance, from better tree boxes to nicer paving stones on the sidewalks. Curved benches will line up with colored lines in the pavement to create an artistic appearance, and some of the large empty sidewalk areas will get trees and bike racks. There may even be an archway built over the street at 14th and Florida to create a "gateway" to the street from the north.

In addition to making the street more attractive, there are a few key improvements, like bulb-outs (including bus bulb-outs) and even the possibility for demand-based parking pricing.

The street will get bulb-outs at most of the busy corners. A bulb-out is where the sidewalk sticks out into the corner, at the end of the row of parked cars. This increases space for pedestrians at corners (the most crowded places) and shortens the distance pedestrians must walk to cross. These are so great and simple I'm disappointed the nearby 17th Street project didn't include them.

This plan also places bus stops on the bulb-outs. This lets buses stop right in their lane, without having to pull over and then wait to pull back into traffic. This speeds up the buses, and since one bus carries as many people as the whole lane of traffic, it moves more people more efficiently.

The transportation section suggests a variety of mechanisms to improve the parking situation beyond today's reality of more demand than supply for extremely cheap to free parking. It recommends creating a TDM (transportation demand management) entity to coordinate between businesses, institutions and residents, and recommends coordinating parking (for example, a bar could encourage patrons to use a garage that's otherwise used by offices during the day). It also suggests a high-frequency shuttle to get people to nearby garages.

But more importantly, it recommends variable pricing on 14th Street to encourage turnover, extending the meter hours to weekends and until 8 pm, and enhanced resident parking (similar to that proposed in the ballpark area and Columbia Heights) to protect residential parking. I want this around Lauriol, but 14th Street is a great place to try it. Anyone at the meeting want to post in the comments about how these parking innovations were received?

See the complete proposal (PDFs): streetscape improvements, transportation improvements, and long roll-out diagram of the entire street.

Update: Bloomingdale (for now) attended the meeting and was particularly pleased about the bike lanes and bike parking. Apparently there will be 80 bike racks installed along the length of 14th Street. I was also curious if the bulb-outs would force buses into the bike lanes; apparently DDOT has designed them to minimize these conflicts, though I'd be interested to hear more about how this exactly works.


NIMBYism strong on Upper Wisconsin

Calling it "giving up on Smart Growth," Marc Fisher laments the death of a development proposal at the Tenleytown Metro, which would have replaced a small neighborhood library with higher density mixed-use and moved the library a few blocks away.

The first time I went to Tenleytown, visiting friends who live there, we had to walk about 15 minutes to Connecticut Avenue to get any decent food. As one commenter on Fisher's article put it, "The side streets are very residential and nice, and the great benefit is that you are walking distance to city amenities. These people need to wake up and realize that they live off one of the main streets in a major city. Imagine what would happen to your property values if you lived near retail areas that people actually wanted to go to!"

The activists opposed to Smart Growth-type development in Tenleytown cite their desire to "preserve the existing zoning." Unfortunately, much of the zoning code was written in the auto era and reflects opinions of the time, like those which led to the North End of Boston being considered a "slum" and the nearby West End being torn down to build the horrendous Government Center.

For example, DC's zoning code, like that of many other cities, requires too much parking. Yet at a recent Zoning Review meeting for parking, whose purpose is to evaluate when and how much to reduce the minimum parking requirements or institute maximums, a community leader from Friendship Heights, Marilyn Simon, attended with the specific purpose of trying to require even more parking for any development.

Whether large or small, her group of NIMBY-oriented residents have power that shapes development in Upper Wisconsin. I wish the best of luck to Ward 3 Vision in their efforts to organize the many community residents who want to see this area around a Metro stop turn into a walkable community with more great restaurants and stores.

Update: Just saw Ryan Avent's take on this (he agrees with Fisher and me).


Performance parking coming to Columbia Heights

In Columbia Heights, only 25% of residents own cars. With a Metro station and numerous bus lines, bike lanes and Zipcars, it's a neighborhood conducive to car non-ownership. But if you were at the public meeting on Tuesday night to discuss proposed changes to parking policy, you might think that 75% of residents drive every day, and the other 25% work for smart growth or bicycle advocacy organizations.

When the DC USA retail complex opens, with Target and other major national chains, many people will be driving to the neighborhood. To encourage shoppers to park in the government subsidized 1,000-space garage instead of the neighborhood streets, Councilmember Graham is planning to introduce legislation that would let DDOT implement new residential parking restrictions and new types of parking demand management.

If the plan presented is what's enacted, the residential side streets will keep regular Residential Parking Permit (RPP) rules on one half of the street, and get "enhanced RPP" on the other side. The current rules allow anyone to park for two hours, and only residents of Ward 1 with stickers can park for longer during daytime hours. Under the new proposal, on the Enhanced RPP side of the street only residents will be able to park at all, with no grace period. Hours would also be extended later into the evening, until about 10 pm, so people couldn't come around dinnertime and avoid parking restrictions. (In blocks where the RPP ends at 8:30, a common end time for RPP in DC, people can show up at 6:30 and use their two hour grace period for the remaining time, effectively parking as long as they want.)

Some blocks on the main, high-density commercial part of 14th Street will be "performance parking" zones, with meters. DDOT wants these areas to serve people who need to run into a dry cleaner or coffee shop and for whom the hassle of driving into the garage is a deterrent. They want to use Shoup-style pricing, setting a price high enough to ensure a maximum of 85% occupancy, meaning about one space is available per block at any time. They are also proposing "transitional zones" on side streets closest to the commercial center, which would use performance-priced meters, but Ward 1 residents would be exempted.

Finally, they want to add some more no parking zones right in front of commercial buildings, to lengthen bus stops (making it easier for buses to get in and out), adding some taxi stands, and giving some older buildings loading zones.

After DDOT gave their presentation, citizens had the chance to speak. Some people criticized Graham and DDOT for waiting until the last minute to work on this issue, even though DC USA has been in the works for years. Many people asked if their blocks, just outside the study area, could be included in the plan. DDOT wants to keep the plan small, but in the long run it's a good idea to expand these parking restrictions. Especially with so many cheap garage spaces, having any place people can park for free (as one side of all streets will be) will only lead some people to cruise around to avoid paying a couple dollars.

I don't think all of these zones need to be so complex, actually. I think DDOT should simply replace all parking within a few blocks with one of two types. On commercial streets, they should use "performance parking", with meters priced to encourage the Shoup target of 85% occupancy. On residential streets, the "transitional" zone is appropriate, with meters to manage the occupancy and exemption for local residents. And "local residents" should mean people who actually live right nearby, not the entire ward.

More widespread "transitional performance parking" would solve several problems. Many residents complained about how hard it is to find parking, especially in the early evening. Some people complained that they had to park three blocks away, felt unsafe walking home from there, and wanted to be able to park in front of their houses. One woman ranted for ten minutes about how even her mother wouldn't even visit her "because no place to park". But it surely is hard to park in Columbia Heights, and performance pricing would make it easier. If every block were priced so that visitors paid the amount needed to ensure 85% occupancy or less, and local residents could park for free, most blocks would have spaces available and many residents really would be able to park in front of their houses.

The only case this wouldn't solve, of course, is if there were enough residential demand that just residents' cars took up all the spaces. Speakers at the Columbia Heights meeting generally expressed that Maryland and Virginia drivers were the problem, though one person complained about her neighbors who had five cars, some of which were trucks, all parked on the street. (DC once considered a cap on residential stickers per household, but it did not pass.) This problem would get even worse if Ward 1 received visitor parking passes, like those being piloted in Ward 4 and considered for Ward 3. Unfortunately, Councilmember Graham stated at the meeting his intention to expand the program to Ward 1—somewhat baffling, actually, that he'd suggest letting more cars park for free given that he'd just heard 10-20 people complaining that there were already too many cars parking for free on their streets.

But performance pricing would solve this problem, too: on streets that have lots of space during the day, the 85% occupancy rule would automatically set the daytime meter price at zero, meaning nannies or home health care workers could park there for free and not require a special guest pass. For busier streets, they could choose to pay a smallish price (during the day it surely would be small) or park a few blocks farther where the price was lower or free.

Unfortunately, since few people at these community meetings know much about parking policy, the discussion almost always revolves around how to give more free parking while also ensuring parking availability. With those economically conflicting goals, we end up with a patchwork of complex parking rules and externalities, like the mother who can't park at all. DDOT is on the right track with their performance parking program, but rather than creating a variety of intermediate zones, they should utilize the performance meters everywhere possible and expand the zone quickly.


Is the 1,000 space garage in Columbia Heights a good investment?

The DC USA project in Columbia Heights will open this spring, bringing a Target and many other national chains to DC (many for their first store in DC) in 600,000 square feet of retail along with 1,300 new apartments. It will also bring traffic. There are two main ways to deal with this: provide more parking spaces, and/or use parking management techniques to encourage as many people to take Metro or the bus as possible. Certainly some people will need to drive to Target if they are buying a desk, but perhaps not if they are buying a pair of jeans.

DC has chosen to mostly go with the former strategy with a bit of the latter. The DC government spent $42 million to build a 1,000 space garage. Parkers will pay $1 per hour for the first 4 hours, with a much higher price after that to discourage people from parking there to take the Metro to work. In other words, each space cost $42,000 to build. Is that worth it? Let's do the math.

Stanford's cost per space for maintenance was $33 per month according to Jason Schrieber of Nelson\Nygaard. DC's would probably be greater due to the urban nature of the garage and the greater turnover, but let's assume it's $33/mo, which is $396/year. Continuing to use Scheieber's Stanford numbers, assume a 40-year lifespan on the garage before substantial capital repairs are needed, which means the $42,000 initial cost comes out to $1,050 per year. Finally, DC probably issued bonds to pay for this garage, so they are paying interest. The latest info I could find online suggests that DC bonds most recently have a 4.75% coupon, so borrowing $42,000 will cost DC $1,995 per year in interest. All together, each parking space is costing the taxpayers of DC $3,441 per year, or $3.4 million per year all together.

This garage is worthwhile from a pure economic standpoint if it brings in $3,441 per year per space in revenue. Let's assume that on the weekends (about 100 days in the year), the garage is 100% full for 10 hours per day. That's $1,000 per year in revenue. That means that on each weekday, each space would need to be occupied for 9.21 hours. I doubt it; the garage might be half full for most of the day, maybe more in the evenings. So let's say that each space only pulls in 5 hours of revenue per day. Then each space would earn $2325 per year, for a loss of $1116. In other words, the DC government is subsidizing this garage to the tune of about $11 million per year.

DC will get tax revenue, of course. According to the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights, the project was estimated to bring in $12 million per year in tax revenue. That would pay for the garage, but it's not the only cost—there will be more street cleaning needed, more transit service, and so on. Of course, there will also be more jobs, and perhaps an improvement in the standard of living for people, as well as an increase in property values (though that creates an affordable housing problem). I'm also not sure if the $12 million figure includes these longer-term economic growth factors.

But this is all getting to be pretty intricate and unless you are an economist or an economic development consultant your eyes may be glazing over. Back to parking: whether you argue it's good or bad, we are subsidizing parking in this development. Councilmember Graham claimed that the stores would not have located here without the garage. If true, perhaps the subsidy is helpful. Perhaps the garage will be very full most of the time and rates will go up, bringing in more parking revenue.

Or, perhaps the existence of this huge garage will draw people to drive who would not have needed to drive, who could have carried their shopping home on the Metro, in which case we are just encouraging driving at the expense of transit, reducing demand and making it harder to add transit service in the future. Without a lot more complex analysis, it's hard to answer this question for sure.


Greater Washington Transit Future: a multimodal fantasy map

Update: Version 2 is now available.

Dan at BeyondDC was one of several people to comment that Metrorail is not the most cost-effective way to provide transit. In fact, it's pretty darn cost-ineffective. So while it's fun to dream about Metro lines everywhere, what's a more achievable transit vision?

There are two areas officials want to improve transit, on opposite ends of the regional-local spectrum. On the one side, Maryland wants to evolve MARC from an occasional and slow commuter railroad into "a mass transit service more like Metro". This would involve beefing up frequencies, expanding the system, and through-routing trains past Union Station to L'Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria, and potentially on to the VRE lines on the other end. Transfers should be publicized on the map and announced by Metro announcers, riders should be able to use SmartTrip, and the system should be branded (something like the "Maryland-Virginia Express").

On the other end, DC wants to connect more neighborhoods with streetcars, and is starting work in a few places. DC started out with an ambitious streetcar plan (here's a map and a presentation from DDOT. This was scaled back in the comprehensive plan (item #7), but what if DC built all the streetcars they've proposed?

We'd get a map something like this. Click for big version and see below or click "read more" for detailed notes.

What's in this map

Light rail, streetcar, BRT, and/or monorail lines. This includes the existing Baltimore Light Rail, the proposed Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway north of Shady Grove (or one version of it, anyway), all the DC Streetcars, and monorail or something to Fort Belvoir.

The Maryland-Virginia Express (my name). All MARC and VRE lines have increased service equivalent to that of Metro, riders can easily transfer and use SmarTrip, and all trains run through from Union Station to Alexandria.

Infill stations in Alexandria and at the Jefferson. As discussed in the first fantasy map.

What's not in this map

The Silver Line. I just couldn't fit this in since the track from Foggy Bottom to Stadium-Armory would have gotten very thick with lines.

An extended Green Line. Most of the areas on the proposed extended Green Line are already served by MARC, making it unnecessary if MARC becomes the MVX.

MARC/VRE rail expansion. MARC wants to extend its lines and Dan of BeyondDC suggests making a complete regional system. There wasn't space on the map to fit it all in.

Baltimore Light Rail expansion. Baltimore is studying expanding its light rail; I just didn't have time to put everything in.

Columbia. It'd be nice to have transit in Columbia. But what? There could be a light rail loop connecting to the Jessup station. Or, there is a track that branches off south of Jessup that dead ends in a former industrial area in southeast Columbia; that could be extended in a tunnel under Broken Land Parkway to Columbia Town Center, and MVX could have a branch running there with a stop near the current rail terminus for a park-and-ride. Or maybe a combination.

I'm going to take a little break from maps because other, immediate policy issues are being neglected with all this transit expansion fantasizing. However, please give your comments and I will make tweaks and/or more maps soon!


Even more fantastic WMATA fantasy map

Based on suggestions from Richard Layman and others, I've added to the fantasy map to create an even fantasy-er map (as before, click for big version):

There's fantasy, and then there's even more fantasy. In the world of today, a lot of these lines are probably more cost-effectively served by light rail, streetcars, BRT, or something else. They're slower, but if branded well, they could be actually achievable versus the billions required to build this system. However, who knows? Maybe one day soon we will have automated construction robots that can build Metro tunnels for a fraction of the price.

Detailed notes below (or click "read more" to see them) on what's new in this map versus the other one, again in approximate order of realism:

Arlington Cemetery. I had just forgotten this in the last map by mistake. It's now restored in the other map too.

Pedestrian walkway from Metro Center to Gallery Place. This was actually seriously proposed by WMATA. Metro Center and Gallery Place are really quite close, but a lot of people ride the Red Line one stop to transfer between Green/Yellow and Blue/Orange, or when going to or from games at the arena currently called the Verizon Center. A walkway would facilitate transfers and encourage people to walk the one stop instead of riding the Red Line.

Infill stations at Poplar Point and Oklahoma Ave. Poplar Point would serve the upcoming development and possible soccer stadium even better than the Anacostia station, and the Oklahoma Avenue station, which would be in what is now the north parking lot at RFK Stadium, would serve a potential high-density mixed-use development there along the Anacostia waterfront.

Brown Line north of Union Station. To avoid conflicts with the Red Line, this now runs along North Capitol street, serving the neighborhoods in between the current Green/Yellow and Red lines like Eckington and Bloomingdale, and then stopping at the hospital complex and the Armed Forces Retirement Home, part of which is planned for mixed-use redevelopment. After connecting with the Red Line (though not sharing track) at Fort Totten, this line turns west along Missouri Ave/Military Rd with stops at Kansas Ave and Brightwood. After crossing Rock Creek, it turns southeast on Nebraska Avenue and stops at the Politics and Prose area at Connecticut, intersects the Red Line at Tenleytown, continues to AU, then turns southeast on New Mexico Ave to Glover Park, finally going south on Wisconsin Ave to Georgetown.


Grocery stores disappearing in NYC

One of the great things about living in NYC the ease of buying groceries. What is widely considered NYC's best grocery store was about five blocks from me, and yet I didn't usually go there because it was crowded and there was another supermarket only three blocks from me, not to mention a little grocery one avenue over. Or at least, this a great thing about living on the Upper West Side. In SoHo, Stefanie was not quite so close to a grocery store. And according to the Washington Post, grocery stores in the outer boroughs are disappearing.

While these areas are losing supermarkets, they still have numerous bodegas, small stores which sell basic staples but usually not fresh produce, impeding good nutrition especially in poorer neighborhoods. Washington DC has worked hard to encourage supermarkets in the city more recently, but I miss the little corner grocery stores. I have to walk farther to pick up some milk or a tomato, and it's a longish walk to carry a bunch of bags, meaning I do more of my shopping in a big occasional trip to Trader Joe's in the West End or Giant in Cleveland Park, to which I drive.

On last week's Kojo Nnamdi show about public spaces, a caller brought up how buying groceries in bulk creates a less vibrant street life than when people pick up a few things on the way home as they do more often in New York or Europe. We're always going to need the supermarkets and it's great DC is focusing public policy on encouraging them, but I'd really like to have a corner store.



I may have been too hard on Richard Rothblum

I mocked Cleveland Park ANC commissioner Richard Rothblum who made free parking one of his top New Year's wishes. Over on the Cleveland Park list, the parking discussion has taken a sensible turn, as all the people who want more free parking for themselves and more restrictions for everyone else have given way to some basic economic sense, including from Richard Rothblum.

One author wrote: (I'm still leaving them anonymous out of respect for creating a safe space on the list, with the exception of elected officials whose comments should be public)

Despite reading the the numerous and interesting comments on the parking proposal, I still miss any discussion of basic economics, supply and demand. There is virtually unlimited demand for parking here and no practical way to increase supply. In a commercial situation this would lead to major price increases until supply and demand met. In this situation, with permits not legally sold, other abuses are almost certain. The hope that parking enforcement or self-regulation would deal with this problem strikes me as chimeric. Parking officials would have to examine car dashboards and would have no way of detecting forgeries/copies. ... None of the proposed compromises, e.g. limited area passes, avoids these problems.

I do not question the real difficulties which exist for some residents who do not have their own parking facilities and yet seek home assistance. However, they, like everyone else, knew of the parking situation when they moved here. The remedy for a few would be a major nuisance for most Cleveland Park residents, and I hope it is quickly shelved.

To which Richard Rothblum replied:
[P.L.]'s comment about lack of economic considerations in the RPP proposals is correct. Ultimately, people will have to pay a market price for parking places or suffer shortages. The visitor parking proposal will alleviate the problem of underutilization of daytime parking in certain neighborhoods, but will only exacerbate shortages in other areas.
If there really is excess street parking in an area at a certain time, it's appropriate to let people park for free. After all, Shoup says we should price parking at the appropriate level to ensure at least 15% availability (about the right amount to keep one space on most blocks, so people don't have to cruise for parking). If the availability is 15% or more when the price is zero, then zero is the right price.

Advocates of parking demand management are sometimes accused of "wanting to take away everyone's parking". This is almost the opposite of the truth: Shoupistas, as they are sometimes affectionately known, actually want to make parking easier, by ensuring that there are spaces available for those who need them, but without spending millions on huge new garages. Since parking demand is elastic, all we have to do is use basic economics—pricing—to equalize the demand with the supply.

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