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Posts from February 2009


Breakfast links: Things are going very Wells

Give me a C: Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) has endorsed the C Street, Northeast neighbors' suggestion to narrow C west of RFK Stadium. Previously: we looked at C Street proposals.

Photo by infosnackhq.

Give us a PAC: Wells is also working on a bill to establish a Pedestrian Advisory Council. Senior advocate Marlene Berlin and Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner Phil Lepanto both endorsed the concept at Monday's DDOT oversight hearing; Councilmember Graham also expressed his enthusiasm for the idea.

Give us the vote: Every blog and paper has extensively covered the very important news: the bill to give DC a vote in the House has passed a key hurdle in the Senate. Last time around, the bill died in the Senate. At this point, passage (and the probable court challenge) seem very likely.

Don't give us bricks: Montgomery Councilmember Nancy Floreen introduced a resolution banning brick pavers on sidewalks. They look very nice, but are more expensive to maintain, and can be more hazardous, especially to people with disabilities. Dupont Circle went through the same debate last year, and came to the same conclusion.



Carnage this week: Crosswalk sting edition

The recent post on speeding generated a lot of interesting comments, including this:

Photo by brownpau.
I thought DC has a standing law requiring cars to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks? shouldn't pedestrian advocates start demanding that police enforce that rule to the point where it becomes common knowledge and practice?
The commenter is right. Drivers often do not stop at crosswalks without stop signs or traffic signals, a dangerous disregard of traffic law that carries a $250 fine and three points on the driver's license. If a pedestrian is struck in a crosswalk, the fine rises to $500 and six points.

George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, told me in an email that he has worked over the past four years with MPD to train more than 400 officers on right-of-way laws and enforcement techniques. A new round of trainings will take place in the next three weeks in preparation for the spring's StreetSmart education and enforcement campaign. Last year's two-week StreetSmart campaign, funded by DDOT, yielded 1,088 driver violations, of which 161 were for failure to give right-of-way to a pedestrian. View the full table of violations and take a look at training materials used for StreetSmart in 2007 (large PDF).

As almost anyone who walks in the District can tell you, however, the current level of enforcement is not enough. Drivers continue to ignore pedestrians in unsignalized crosswalks on a routine basis. Higher-profile enforcement operations are necessary to remind the driving public that stopping at crosswalks is not optional, and that a hefty fine could be the price for ignoring the law.

For example, take a look below at how Sharon White, Portland's pedestrian safety chief, works with her city's police department to enforce crosswalk laws. In addition to enforcing the law, these "crosswalk stings" have caught criminals on the run; Sharon can attest to this firsthand.

Importantly, these types of enforcement actions often gain media attention. San Francisco's crosswalk stings garnered television coverage and Boston's stings, which featured a police officer disguised as a mother pushing a baby carriage, were featured in the Boston Herald. With this media coverage, the lines between two of the five "E's" blur as enforcement becomes education for the general public. MPD and DDOT have done targeted enforcement outside of StreetSmart in the past and use crosswalk stings as an enforcement tool during the annual StreetSmart targeted enforcement periods. Perhaps it's time to use some media exposure to get the message out once again, before a tragic pedestrian death in the District grabs the attention of the press in 2009.

Following up: Adam Voiland, the DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner, understands that the real culprit behind 14 year-old Ashley Nicole Meyer's tragic death is SHA's negligent design of Ritchie Highway, which ignores bicycles and pedestrians. Cheryl Cort reminds us of "Mean Streets" (PDF), an April 2008 report by the Coalition for Smarter Growth that singles out some of the region's most dangerous roads for cyclists and pedestrians.

Below, a list of crashes in the news recently, to remind us of what we have come to accept as collateral damage on our streets:

See a crash in person or on the news? Have a traffic safety story? Send me a tip at



Encourage renting and mobility to reduce sprawl

Since the end of World War II, homeownership has been the very embodiment of the American Dream. A variety of government policies and programs have dramatically increased home ownership. But lately, some have been advocating that the government stop subsidizing home ownership, arguing that it locks people to a place, and when the economy goes sour people need the flexibility to go where the jobs are. I would say that we need to take it farther and that, in addition to allowing the unemployed to move to work, encourage the employed to move closer to work.

Photo by Dean Terry.

Richard Florida, of The Rise of the Creative Class fame, wrote an article in the Atlantic recently on How the Crash will Reshape America. In it he writes of the changes that the Great Depression brought on America, how the country changed afterward, and the obstacles that change created:

Before the Great Depression, only a minority of Americans owned a home. But in the 1930s and '40s, government policies brought about longer-term mortgages, which lowered payments and enabled more people to buy a house. Fannie Mae was created to purchase those mortgages and lubricate the system. And of course the tax deduction on mortgage-interest payments (which had existed since 1913, when the federal income-tax system was created) privileged house purchases over other types of spending. Between 1940 and 1960, the homeownership rate rose from 44 percent to 62 percent.

Substantial incentives for home ownership distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth.

Florida is not alone in his opinions. Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has been arguing against "subsidizing sprawl"which he loves—for years. Steven Slivinski of the Cato Institute argues that we've over-invested in our homes, to the detriment of other investments.

In his Atlantic article, and again on NPR this weekend, Richard Florida sets out a course correction:

Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years.
It's possible some efforts to reduce the incentives for home ownership are in the cards, but we should do more. We should create incentives for people to put property out to rent. If we're going to have more renters, we'll probably have more landlords. Laws that allow, or even encourage, English basements and mother-in-law units will increase rental stock. Tax laws that allow "small landlords" to write off the first few thousand dollars they receive in rent, or a portion of their rental mortgage interest, would create further incentives.

Richard Florida talks about creating national rental companies that will allow you to transfer a lease to another property and facilitate your move, instead of charging you for breaking your lease and leaving you to fend for yourself in the next town. That's similar to the way people trade in a car for the new one. Our public policy should encourage that as well.

Furthermore, we need to change tax laws that don't accommodate all types of mobility. Current federal tax laws allow deducting moving expenses. But the time and distance requirements that do not allow you, as puts it, to move just "to ease your daily commute to work." But why shouldn't we subsidize a move to ease your daily commute? We subsidize your commute through tax deductions for commuting expensive. Why not subsidize easing the commute? Doesn't it also carry environmental advantages that we want to encourage? Shorter commutes strengthen families, and ease everyone else's commute too. Isn't that more of a public good than home ownership?

Currently, you can only deduct the cost of a move if you change jobs and your new job is more than 50 miles farther than your old job. You also have to work at the new job for a certain amount of time. But, there is no limit to how close to your new job you need to move. Instead, let's allow you to deduct some moving expenses as long as you're moving closer to work. I recently moved two blocks closer. That shouldn't count, so there will have to be minimums. But even if you're only moving a mile closer, that's two fewer miles of driving a day. Those kinds of changes can really add up.

Finally, we should cap how far from work you can live and still take the deduction. If you want to live far from work, that's fine, but since we're going to subsidize your commute, we won't subsidize your move. Perhaps the deduction should be full within 10 miles, but phasing out to 20. The goal is to encourage people to live near, or nearer, to work. Isn't it better to subsidize that than subsidizing transportation? Maryland has tried to encourage that somewhat with their Live Near Your Work program, but it is limited in scope and again, is tied to home ownership. We need a Live Near Your Work program that works for renters.



Revised Whitman-Walker plans cruising toward approval

After making a few revisions in response to neighbor and historic preservation concerns, the proposed residential development with ground-floor retail on 14th Street between S and Swann is solidly on track for approval. The project retains the historically contributing, former Whitman-Walker Clinic building at the corner of 14th and S, and replaces the other one-story structures on the block.

Neighborhood preservationists and HPRB disliked the original front facade, which used zig-zagging glass bays. The HPO staff report in December argued that the bays "work at odds with the historic district by emphasizing the addition's large size and horizontality; their proportion of glass to masonry and the scale of what appears as a single super-projection diminishes rather than enhances the historic building." The materials of the storefronts also clashed with the rest of the structure.

Left: Original proposal. Right: Current proposal. Click to enlarge.

In response, developer JBG Cos. and architect Shalom Baranes redesigned the facade with more verticality and more prominent masonry. The glass bays now only rise to the fifth floor, and the masonry only to the sixth, making it look smaller while still containing a full seven floors. HPRB will reexamine the proposal this Thursday, and the staff report released yesterday praises the new design and recommends approval.

JBG also tweaked the rear of the building to address some neighborhood concerns. While some neighbors oppose the project entirely, some raised legitimate issues. The project team set back part of the ground floor in the rear to give garbage trucks more space to navigate a 90-degree turn between two alleys. They also moved the garage entrance closer to S Street to make them less visible.

Fortunately for the residents of S and Swann Streets, this project looks much more appealing from the rear than most projects. In fact, at the BZA hearing, Commissioner Greg Jeffries praised Baranes for designing a rear elevation as interesting as the building's other sides. Too often, developers neglect the back side of buildings. Just compare this proposal's rear elevation to the back of DC USA in Columbia Heights:

Left: Rear perspective of project from S Street. Right: Rear of DC USA.

The Board of Zoning Adjustment has approved the necessary variances, and HPRB should approve the staff report this Thursday. This project will convert a mostly bland, empty, unsightly block into a vibrant part of the neighborhood. New housing on 14th Street, near Metro, many buses, and exciting shops and restaurants, will enable more people to live in a non-car-dependent part of the city and bring customers to the neighborhood's businesses.



What a difference 5 mph makes

Officer David Baker thinks it's not a big deal that most of the cars on Connecticut Avenue go 30 to 37 mph in a 30 mph zone. Here's the difference.

Via How We Drive.


Public Spaces

Breakfast links: Good news for our streets

DDOT plans contraflow lane on 15th: After numerous public meetings and much listening, DDOT has decided to implement "Alternative 5" on 15th Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire Avenues. (WashCycle) This alternative adds a standard northbound bicycle lane and a southbound contraflow lane between the parked cars and the sidewalk. Here's our analysis of this option.

Buffered bike lane in Paris. Photo by brunoboris.

Norton defending trees from the other 435: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton persuaded the Architect of the Capitol to avoid cutting down trees on 2nd Street, NE. Bloomingdale, For Now criticized the earlier decision which would remove attractive, solid vertical poles with leaves and replace them with less attractive, solid vertical poles in the name of security.

You can sound off to AOC staff about this or other topics this evening, 7 pm at St. Peter's Catholic Church, 313 2nd St SE. Metro: Capitol South.

Out of the carbon shadow: "It's time for cities to favor people, not cars," writes Wired about a recent conference on design of the future. Tip: John S.

K Street transitway back? Previously, Joey Katzen wrote that the K Street Transitway was delayed seven more years. But this Post article lists the transitway among projects that could receive stimulus money. Tip: John S. (a different John S.)



Seniors testify about vital pedestrian needs

If walking is sometimes frustrating and sometimes dangerous for most citizens, it is especially so for senior citizens. Marlene Berlin is leading a pedestrian initiative for IONA Senior Services, and she and many individual senior citizens testified today at the DC Council's DDOT oversight hearing. Berlin lives in Ward Three and walks as her "primary mode of transportation. She said,

Photo by auntjojo on Flickr.
Both Wards Three and Four have areas of the highest concentrations of seniors in the city. These areas are convenient to business hubs such as Cleveland Park, Van Ness Center, Tenleytown, Chevy Chase and Friendship Heights, meaning they are of walkable distances and connect to mass transit. ...

Now, next to automobiles, walking is the most frequently used mode of transportation by all age groups. So you would think, in a city where congestion, air pollution, obesity and diabetes are problems, we would focus on making walking as easy and safe as possible. Well, quite the contrary. There is a war out there against walkers, and when we are vital and do not have to deal with any disability, we do not have a clue what it is like. ...

The environment for the older walker in this country is hazardous. She is safer in a car than on the streets. And when you talk to older folks about what it's like for them on the streets in the district, it sounds like a war zone. Cars do not stop for pedestrians. Cars turn into pedestrians at signalized crosswalks. Cars barrel down on pedestrians in legitimate crosswalks, honking their horns for pedestrians to move out of their way.

Berlin specifically wants to see longer crossing times at many key intersections, especially on Connecticut and Wisconsin. She also criticized the lack of sidewalks in many parts of Wards Three and Four. In Barnaby Woods, for example, there is no sidewalk on many blocks connecting to the area's one bus line or at some bus stops.

Finally, Berlin and Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner Phil Lepanto both recommended creating a Pedestrian Advisory Council, similar to the existing Bicycle Advisory Council. That Council, Berlin said, would "tackle the major issues of changing the culture of driving in DC."



Performance park our Metro garages

Metro is getting closer to balancing its budget, but still even some painful service cuts. There's one place Metro is leaving big money on the table: parking garages.

Photo by inwantamonkey on Flickr.

Most of Metro's parking garages fill up every weekday, generally, WMATA says, between 7:45 am and 8:30 am. That means that some people just can't park, especially people whose jobs start later in the day.

According to WMATA, all parking garages fill up except for Landover, Minnesota Avenue, Prince George's Plaza, College Park, Wheaton, White Flint, and Twinbrook. 35 stations have parking, meaning 28 are filling up every weekday.

Metro should price the parking to meet the demand. If we're concerned about equity, jurisdictions could give some discounts to low-income residents. But cutting bus service is even more inequitable, since some people don't have cars.

Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham asked Metro staff how much money we could raise from charging for parking on weekends. Unless weekend garages fill up, however, that change could actually discourage Metro ridership at times when Metro has plenty of capacity. Instead, he should also ask how much Metro could raise by charging a market price for scarce parking during the week. If that can forestall some bus and rail service cuts for residents of the surrounding areas, it's the right choice.



Fairfax residents: ask your reps to stand by their vote against I-66

The Fairfax Board of Supervisors is meeting this afternoon. This is a good opportunity for them to reconsider Chairman Sharon Bulova's hasty proclamation over the weekend that she would order Fairfax reps Catherine Hudgins and Linda Smyth to support a destructive and expensive I-66 widening.

Photo by Fairfax County Public Library on Flickr.

The Board of Supervisors shouldn't make policy based on articles in the Washington Post. If you live in Fairfax County, please contact Bulova and your representative and ask them to stick by their earlier decision. Tell them that the Washington Post doesn't speak for you, and that if Virginia's leaders don't hang together to make VDOT keep its promises to Arlington, then the next community they ignore might be Fairfax.

Besides, the TPB vote just requires VDOT to look at other alternatives as they promised. Many observers say that if they were really serious, VDOT could finish that in just one year, not the three that VDOT claims it will take. Maybe that analysis will conclude that the lanes are the right choice. But VDOT should look at all options instead of simply assuming that new lanes are the only solution to every problem.

If you don't know your rep, see this map or enter your address here. Every Fairfax County resident can contact Bulova, as she represents the entire County.

Phone calls get more attention than emails, but both are helpful. Please urge county leaders to put the brakes on this rush to judgment today.


I-66 widening vote increases ire in Eric Weiss's head

Whenever a local government makes a decision, some people are inevitably disappointed or even upset. When the disappointed people are drivers, Post reporter Eric Weiss is there to defend them with an article about how drivers and non-drivers are at "war" or "inflamed."

Photo by .Uvitra. on Flickr.

We have the one where pedestrian improvements in DC are a "war on drivers." Then there's the one where closing Potomac bridges for the Inauguration (to private cars, not pedestrians, bikes, or buses) told Virginians to "drop dead."

Now, Weiss wrote in Friday's Post, COG's vote to block I-66 widening "inflamed tensions between transit-friendly inner jurisdictions and auto-dependent outer counties." The headline writers got into the act too, titling the story, "Vote to Forgo I-66 Expansion Imperils Federal Funds, Increases Ire."

These incendiary ledes make for entertaining stories, but armies aren't going to be facing off on either side of the Beltway anytime soon. People in all parts of the region want something better than the endlessly sprawling public policy of the past. According to the article, Fairfax County's representatives, Supervisors Catherine Hudgins and Lynda Smyth, voted for Zimmerman's amendment to block the widening.

They made the right vote. By adding capacity in spots but not throughout, these lanes will only move the bottlenecks from one place to another. If they do smooth anyone's commute, new drivers will quickly fill the space, further worsening our region's air quality and sprawl. And with Silver Line construction starting soon, we're already improving mobility from Arlington to Tysons in a much better way.

More importantly, VDOT has relentlessly been working to ram this project through without public discussion or considering alternatives. They told commenter Geof Gee that they didn't even know the effect on traffic speed or safety. They promised to consider alternatives, like transit and Transportation Demand Management, but ignored that promise in their zeal to just lay pavement. Getting blocked on this project sends a message that our region no longer wants "build more lanes" to be the knee-jerk response to every transportation problem.

Unfortunately, according to Weiss, Fairfax leaders, led by new County Chair Sharon Bulova, pressured Hudgins and Smyth to change their votes on the project. They should hold firm.

The Commonwealth of Virginia promised Arlington they would limit I-66 to four lanes when they built it. Before breaking that promise, they should at least give more than lip service to other possibilities, especially since this spot widening just won't work. Fairfax leaders and COG members throughout the region should uphold the recent vote and open their minds to better options than making Virginia look like LA.

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