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

Posts from February 2011


How pedestrians "interfere with traffic"

Videographer Jay Mallin was outraged when Prince William County gave a man a ticket for "interfering with traffic" after he was hit trying to cross Route 1 in Woodbridge. He created this great video of how many of our suburban areas ignore the needs of people on foot:

In that area of Woodbridge, the nearest marked crosswalk is a half mile away or more, and not visible due to a hill. Mallin goes to other areas of Bethesda and Chevy Chase where getting to a bus stop also requires crossing Wisconsin Avenue where there are no marked crosswalks in sight.

The Woodbridge area where Mallin tried to cross does have an intersection nearby without a marked crosswalk. Technically, this counts as an unmarked crosswalk, and pedestrians could legally cross here, though it's no safer than crossing anywhere else in the middle of the street.


Should DC limit sidewalk cycling in commercial areas?

At this morning's oversight hearing for the bicycle and pedestrian advisory councils, Councilmember Jack Evans chastised cyclists who speed on jogging trails, and Tommy Wells expressed interest in exploring restrictions on sidewalk cycling in commercial areas of DC.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

At the start of the meeting, Evans said that he jogs regularly, and cyclists have almost hit him 3 or 4 times. He also said he's seen cyclists run stop signs once a week, and travel too fast regularly.

Let's put aside the obvious point that Evans probably also sees drivers run stop signs more like once a day, and travel at excessive speed almost constantly, if he doesn't do so himself. Evans is mostly talking about walking and biking paths, like the Capital Crescent Trail near his house, and some people do travel very fast on bikes in ways that intimidates walkers and runners.

Wells said, "If I get a call from Jack around dusk, I know what it's going to be. It is an issue that we have to keep bicycles separated from pedestrians, especially around sidewalks. We do want people walking and jogging. ... In his own way, Jack is a representative for the jogging advisory council, and we do have work to do."

That work might include looking at whether to restrict cycling on sidewalks in some cases. Currently, DC law allows biking on sidewalks except in a central area. Sean Wieland of the Pedestrian Advisory Council testified that in areas like Georgia Avenue in Ward 4, sidewalks are often somewhat narrow and crowded with pedestrians, and cycling there can create problematic conflicts.

TheWashCycle blogger David C. pointed out that the Mayor already has the power to restrict sidewalk cycling in specific areas as desired. He doesn't think DC should ban it outright, as there are times it's the best move, such as climbing up hills when cars drive fast and there are few pedestrians.

People also start and end their rides on sidewalks, or use them for short distances when one-way streets would otherwise force a long detour. If I ride to U Street, my trip home involves a short segment on a one-way street to get to my alley. I ride on the sidewalk for that short stretch, which is by far the most efficient route.

If I ride on the sidewalk, I always make sure to defer to pedestrians. People on bikes must recognize that people on foot have the right of way, and that while the law might allow using sidewalks, anyone riding a bike on one has to be respectful and stay out of the way of people walking. If that means riding no faster than a slow walk, so be it.

Not everyone does this, however. For this reason, Wells expressed interest in considering restrictions on sidewalk cycling in commercial districts. This could make sense when the commercial district has two-way roads, so people can always bike in the street, and the road is not overcrowded. There seems to be little reason to ride on the sidewalk on Barracks Row, for instance, except between one corner and a bicycle rack on that block.

But what about 17th Street in Dupont? BeyondDC often bikes northbound on this street, which is one way north of Massachusetts Avenue. Going to 18th could represent a fairly long detour. 16th is harrowing. 15th is fairly far away.

A lot of people bike the wrong way in the 17th Street bike lane. Generally, they are able to do that without problems, since 17th is a low-traffic road and cars move slowly. That's illegal, however. Riding on the sidewalk is legal, but those sidewalks are very narrow.

It's too bad DDOT and the neighborhood didn't devise a legal and safe way to ride northbound when recently reconstructing the road. There's now a popular Capital Bikeshare station at 17th and Corcoran. If someone wants to ride there from, say, the station at 17th and L, there's no legal, direct way to do so. As we are seeing in practice, many people are not willing to detour to 16th or 18th for this type of trip.


Is there really a problem with the 15th Street bike lane?

DC Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2) claimed this morning that the 15th Street bike lane is "not working" because of the impact on drivers from the new left turn signals.

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

Evans generally emphasized that he supports bike lanes and committed to keeping the lane in place, but criticized the new, two-way version of the 15th Street lane. He said that the turn restrictions have further narrowed 15th for most drivers, and that the delays in turning make drivers miss green lights on adjacent streets.

When DDOT converted the lane to two-way, it added left turn signals at the intersections where cars can turn left from 15th across the bike lane. Formerly, cars could turn left or right off 15th anytime when they have the green light. Now, during most of the green phase, left-turning drivers have a red arrow; they can then turn at the end of the green phase just before cross traffic gets the green.

Without this, drivers would turn left and many would not look for a cyclist traveling in the bike lane in the same direction. This restriction is an important step to make the two-way lane safe, and given that people haven't been getting hit, it seems to achieve this end.

However, it also frustrates drivers. On Twitter, Tom Sherwood said that he's heard a lot of complaints about "long waits" for these lights. TwistedTidings replied, "It's also annoying when drivers make those turns far too close to crossing pedestrians. City living means annoyance."

Evans alleged that bicycle advocates are reluctant to look into problems with the lane because they don't want to open up the possibility of shrinking or eliminating the lane. People "don't want to give an inch when [they] get an inch," he said.

Is that true, or is this just an issue of drivers being furious at losing even the smallest amount of privilege? Traffic still moves fine on 15th, though it's become less of a speedway. DDOT modified the lane to reduce the number of bollards, for instance, based on resident comments that the bollards were unsightly.

Or does the lane go too far to inconvenience drivers for little bicycle benefit? DDOT had a lot of public meetings before creating the lane's first version, though they went ahead with this new iteration based on professional judgment and very little public discourse. Some bike advocates love the two-way option, while others don't like it.

Personally, I rode a bicycle and drove on the street in both iterations. Riding in the rightmost sharrow lane on 15th when the cycle track was one-way, cars repeatedly tailgated me, passed extremely close and cut back into my lane rapidly after passing me. The drivers generally seemed impatient and surprised to have to deal with a person on a bicycle in the street. With the new lane, it's very comfortable.

Driving on the road, it's more time-consuming to drive up 15th and turn left on P to get home versus going through Scott Circle. As a result, I'm less likely to take 15th when driving. This seems to be a benefit for residents, who generally would prefer drivers use the main arteries like Massachusetts Avenue and 16th Street than residential streets like 15th, P, and R.

When Evans talks about the bike lane, he seems to acknowledge that the lane is valuable on an intellectual level, but then react to specifics on a personal level from his experiences driving and not from using the lane on a bicycle. I hope Evans would try bicycling in the area a few times as well.

Still, there are indeed a lot of complaints. Are there ways to address these concerns without making the lane dangerous? Could modifications lead to a bicycle facility that is as good (or better) for cyclists, while also gaining more neighbor and driver support?


Anything but townhouses, say Ravenwood Park activists

There's an empty parcel of land near Seven Corners, adjacent to a bunch of townhouses. But neighbors so deeply oppose building any new townhouses that they'd prefer even the ugliest clear-cut subdivision.

Image from Bing Maps.

The property lies just off Route 7, next to the Ravenwood Park neighborhood. A non-historic farmhouse used to sit on the property, which was torn down in December. The property owner is requesting zoning permission to build 12 townhouses.

Just to the north is a group of 33 townhouses; to the east, a church and a group of larger apartment buildings. To the south and west are single-family houses. Ellie Ashford reports that despite the other townhouses and apartments, neighbors from the single-family houses oppose any more townhouses:

Carol Turner, the co-president of the Ravenwood Park Civic Association, who led the meeting, says a higher-density development would mar the character of the neighborhood and would lead to more traffic and crime. The community members recognize that the property will be developed, but would prefer single-family houses rather than townhouses.
Supervisor Penny Gross wrote a column explaining benefits to the community from changing the zoning:
In a conventional by right subdivision, a developer submits a site plan and, after technical review, can get a building permit from the county. No development conditions may be placed on the property, no opportunity for proffers, and the community has no input into the layout, design, siding (e.g. brick vs. vinyl), buffer and landscape, etc. The developer could clear-cut the property, and back up the new homes as close as 25 feet to the neighbors' property line. That would certainly change the view out the back window!
"Proffers" are Virginia's way of capturing some of the value of increasing zoning. A developer basically makes an offer for what they would give the county and the neighborhood in exchange for building the greater amount allowed.

Clear-cutting trees? Houses close to the property line? Ugly vinyl siding and no landscaping? Apparently that's fine as long as those evil townhouses can be banished. Ashford wrote,

Several people at the meeting announced they would accept those conditions as long as they can keep townhouses out of their neighborhood.
These particular residents are upset that in a meeting, Gross didn't seem sympathetic to their argument. Some started talking about backing another candidate to run against Gross, who is up for reelection this November, and one potential challenger attended the meeting.

A commenter on the Falls Church News-Press article lamented "the depreciation creep that will befall Ravenwood... then on to Lake Barcroft" if this project is allowed to continue. Will adding 9 more families to an area, especially one with even greater density nearby, suddenly turn not only this neighborhood but the next one into desperate slums?

It's sad to see this level of passion over preventing nine families from living off the nearby main street.

Often, the debate over townhouses versus single-family houses becomes a proxy for wanting people of particular socioeconomic groups and not wanting others. Note: I am not saying that this is the case here; however, it's a factor in many such debates.

In this case, though, nicely-built brick townhouses with elegant landscaping could well draw more of what residents want than more cheaply built vinyl single-family houses.

9 more families on Route 7 could create a very small amount more traffic, but could also slightly increase the viability of improving bus service that already runs there. Or maybe the thought of people who might ride the bus also stirs up fears of "depreciation creep."


Wells' lightning-fast SUV investigation finds violations

DPW improperly purchased and leased a number of SUVs, including the ones for Council Chairman Kwame Brown, in violation of laws restricting their use, according to a preliminary report from Councilmember Tommy Wells and his staff.

Photo by Chad Horwedel on Flickr.

Wells requested information from the Department of Public Works last week. His staff must have been working late nights to analyze the data, since he already released a report (PDF) on the findings based on what DPW provided.

In 2004, when a law went into effect prohibiting SUVs or other vehicles getting less than 22 miles per gallon except for ones used in security, emergency response, or rescue, or for armored vehicles. Since then, the report shows, at least 32 vehicles were purchased or leased that violate this provision.

The report is clear when it comes to Chairman Kwame Brown's SUV:

The Chairman of the Council inappropriately requested the city provide a Lincoln Navigator SUV, and the Executive appears to have violated DC law by providing it. It is contrary to DC law to lease or purchase a sport utility vehicle (SUV) or a vehicle that achieves less than 22 miles per gallon (MPG), and the requested vehicle does not meet any of the statutory exceptions.

While it was inappropriate to request this type of vehicle, the Chairman of the Council is permitted under DC Code §50-204(a) to have an official vehicle to travel between his residence and workplace, and for use in the course of his daily work.

The law also prohibits DC workers from chauffering others around, except for the Mayor. However, the report says officials may have been routinely violating this provision, including in past administrations.

Also, DPW does not have a centralized list of vehicles and to whom each is assigned. A DC Auditor report from April 2010 recommended DPW create a "comprehensive fleet management program" to track this, but that has not yet happened.

Most Councilmembers were silent at first when revelations about these SUVs first broke. Many feared that they would put comity over accountability in this case. Wells, for his part, has moved extremely quickly to get the facts out and stand up clearly to root out this problem throughout the government.


Breakfast links: Cuts have an impact

Photo by anitasarkeesian on Flickr.
911 drops calls during furlough: The DC government furlough over Presidents' Day led to 200 calls to 911 being ignored; the police union, which represents the call-takers, said it warned Mayor Gray but no action was taken. (Examiner)

High school closures a possiblity: As DC looks to close a budget gap, interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says the city may close some high schools, since small high schools require more subsidies. (WAMU) ... Valerie Strauss says our propensity to cut school spending first is pure hypocrisy. (Post)

VA pols fight WMATA cut: Northern Virginia leaders are still fighting Congress' proposed elimination of Metro's annual $150 million federal payment. The governor remains silent, though his press secretary says McDonnell believes cutting WMATA's funds "was the wrong choice." (Kingstowne Patch)

DC cuts solar energy help: The DC Council reallocated $700,000 from a program to reimburse partial costs of installing solar panels. 51 homeowners will have to forgo the money that was promised them for at least another year. (Post)

Are neighbors an obstacle to great higher ed?: Many great US universities took over parts of surrounding neighborhoods at one time or another. Are the Georgetown ANC's demands that Georgetown University shrink its enrollment the kind of thing that's holding American higher education back? (Georgetown Metropolitan, Yglesias)

WABA plans Ward 8 outreach: WABA wants to reach out more to Ward 8, running bike classes, group rides, and giving away some bikes and CaBi memberships. You can help by donating to this effort.

Why don't grocery stores have congestion pricing?: Tim Lee thinks congestion pricing advocates are misunderstanding human nature, given that private supermarkets don't provide express lanes for a fee. Ryan Avent argues it's a mistaken analogy.

Reducing zoning increases parking rules: New York downzoned an area of the Bronx to create a "neighborhood preservation area," but as a side effect, it imposed a much stricter parking minimum requirement, forcing a HUD-funded project to build less affordable housing than it previously could have. (Streetsblog)

And...: Turning the Key Bridge gas station into condos may be only the first of many such conversions. (Housing Complex) ... A police officer was struck on the Key Bridge while directing traffic around another crash. (TBD) ... How can you easily compare city blocks within a city or even from city to city? String up each block in a row. (Big Think)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Greater Greater Week in Review: February 21-26, 2011

If you can't read GGW every day, you'll still be able to catch all our posts at a glance with Greater Greater Week in Review.

Photo by NeonGods on Flickr.

Featured posts:

Taxes lowest for DC residents and car-free Virginians: Tax debates often involve arguments about how taxes compare in DC, Maryland, or Virginia. A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found DC's to be the lowest in most cases.

Virginia insiders pulling bait-and-switch for Outer Beltway: After a long battle, it looks like the Virginia General Assembly will approve the Governor McDonnell's borrow and spend transportation plan. Even before this plan has finally passed, state officials are poised to pull a bait and switch to add a controversial Outer Beltway project that wasn't on the list of projects sold to legislators.

DC needs school choice, not vouchers: The Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), known informally as the DC school voucher program, was passed by Congress to subsidize private school attendance for low-income students in DC.

Rock Creek Park trails slated for fixes: The National Park Service and DDOT hope to make Rock Creek's pedestrian and bicycle trails better by adding some connections, fixing some problem spots, and possibly widening the trail.

Most popular:

Manage Rock Creek like Central Park or Yosemite?: New Yorkers and Washingtonians are both blessed with a large protected park in the middle of town. In fact, Rock Creek Park is over twice as large as Central Park.

How will Virginia brand its streetcars?: Arlington is moving forward with streetcar plans for Columbia Pike and Route 1. How might the trains be branded once they start running?

Virginia Senate kills bad anti-livability, WMATA board bills: The Virginia Senate's finance commmittee killed three bad transportation-related bills, all of which would have transferred decision-making over transportation in Northern Virginia to Richmond and away from the region's counties and cities.

McDonnell still refusing to push Congress on Metro funding: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell repeatedly dodged questions yesterday about why he isn't lobbying his fellow Republicans to save the funds for Metro's safety repairs.

GGW discusses: The focus on Anacostia: Why do so many stories about displacement, gentrification, and other housing shifts concentrate on this neighborhood instead of the many others east of the river?

Other posts:


Expanding downtown: Infrastructure matters

Washington, DC is a lucky city. Its downtown has been filled up with new construction over the past few decades to such an extent that it has virtually no space for new office buildings.

Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Some, like Matt Yglesias, have suggested that one way to resolve this problem would be to increase densities by ridding the city of its height limit, which in essence makes it impossible to build structures in the city that are over about 10 stories.

Lydia DePillis has argued that the municipality still has plenty of developable sites which, though they may not be directly downtown, still offer opportunities for more office space.

What would be the manifestations of these different approaches? How can we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of upzoning the center city for more office space? Is our goal to produce vital, walkable, and dense downtown districts, or simply to expand new construction there, no matter the use?

The missing ingredient in this discussion is transportation. When we discuss the demand in downtowns like Washington's for more office space, we sometimes make an assumption that the transport network will be able to handle whatever is thrown at it.

In fact, there is a direct relationship between a downtown's growth and the transportation provided to it. In general, businesses want to locate their offices in places that are accessible and that provide the benefits of agglomeration, and this sometimes means downtown, but not always.

If the trip to and from the center—by whatever mode—becomes too arduous, there are significant reasons to locate outside of it. How does this fact apply to a place like Washington?

Once a downtown—which I will define as a traditional single-use American CBD—reaches a certain size, once it provides employment for a certain number of people, it has three basic options:

One, it can do nothing to its transportation network, in which case the downtown has no capacity to absorb increasing growth. In these cases, residential uses become more important since the relative land values demanded for office space decrease (as it is harder for more people to enter into the downtown from elsewhere and there is more interest in walking to and from work).

This is arguably what has happened to places like Chicago's West and South Loop, where almost all recent development there has been in the form of residential towers despite the close proximity to the downtown core.

Two, it can expand or improve transportation through the highway network, in which case parking lots become increasingly valuable and may displace existing buildings. This was the choice cities like Houston took since 1950, sacrificing what had once been walkable neighborhoods for an automobile-dominated core.

Three, it can expand or improve transportation through the transit network (bus and/or rail), in which case higher densities become increasingly valuable, and taller buildings may replace shorter ones or parking lots. This has happened in DC since the construction of Metro, beginning in the 1970s.

The discussion in Washington has hinged around the opposite side of the conversation, focusing on land use instead of transportation. The argument, asserted by people like Stephen Smith, suggests that the problem is that the government is exerting inappropriate control over densities by limiting heights and the result is that rents in the office core are increasing far higher than they would were there to be skyscrapers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that downtown Washington's growth is limited, notes Ryan Avent, by the fact that outlying neighborhoods are stuck to one- or two-story buildings (and there is little push to challenge that condition), so the Paris approach, in which the entire city is made up of 6 to 10 story buildings, is not much of an alternative, either.

These arguments are compelling: mini-downtowns in the suburbs, such as along Arlington's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, can absorb some of the growth, but there is clearly strong demand for continued concentration in the center city.

Whether this is a long-term phenomenon, however, depends on the transportation provided into the downtown. Imagine that the height limits in Washington were lifted—or, at least, buildings twice as high could be built. In the short-term, this would surely produce the desired effects, allowing downtown to absorb more of the region's job growth, reduce office rents, and aiding in the continued gentrification of the city as a whole.

In the longer-term, however, as the city's downtown building stock is gradually replaced, the worker density in the center of the city would roughly double. Would this be sustainable?

If the city's transportation network remains as it is, mostly relying on the existing Metro network and a functioning, if not great, bus system, this would cause significant problems.

Here's why: Much of the Metro system is already at capacity during peak hours. In essence, today's transportation network is designed with a capacity roughly equivalent to what is generated under the current height limit.

Moreover, road expansion is simply not an option, not only because there is no room for new highways into downtown but also because, as already stated, a focus on roads-based transportation encourages downtowns to be transformed into automobile-based neighborhoods.

As the transit system becomes more congested, because of job expansion and a lack of transportation improvements, the cost of transportation into the core—in terms of time and money—will increase. This will reduce the appeal of locating offices downtown and encourage new construction to be residential rather than office-based. Is this desirable for Washington? Does the city want a mixed-use core or a office-based one?

The alternative is allowing an increase in zoning along with an improvement in the transportation network. This may seem obvious, but Washington has not yet committed the funds to an expansion of the Metro network or serious improvements to the bus corridors, putting in question the viability of a lifting of the height limits. The downtown's growth must be approached by considering transportation and land use in complement with one another.

Cross-posted on The Transport Politic.


National teachers' union being constructive on performance

Randi Weingarten, head of the national American Federation for Teachers, has endorsed evaluating teachers' performance and a system for firing ones that perform poorly, Matt Yglesias points out.

Weingarten. Photo by CAP on Flickr.

Sometimes schools unfairly try to fire a teacher who doesn't deserve it, but it's clear that there are a number of bad teachers in schools who do deserve firing. Unfortunately, up to now, most teachers' unions have steadfastly fought performance-based evaluation systems.

This strategy puts unions in opposition to the public interest, and diminishes their moral authority and public support for the good things unions can do to fight unjust managers or advocate for decent living wages for people.

Rather than stand up for the status quo, unions should be fighting to design a fairer evaluation system that's not susceptible to a single, perhaps-vindictive vice principal getting rid of someone they simply don't like, but which still allows a school to remove most or all of its bad teachers and improve its educational quality without excessive bureaucracy.

Weingarten's proposal evaluates teachers on several factors, including but not exclusively based on standardized tests. Teachers who score low would get improvement plans designed by administrators and some expert teachers. The administrators, experts, and possibly an arbitrator would then decide after a period of time whether the teacher has improved.

The Times quotes some experts from different ideological backgrounds who have specific quibbles with the details. Whether this is the right process or whether it needs tweaks, this is a huge step forward to making the debate about how to properly and fairly evaluate instead of whether to do it at all. And it's great that a major union is agreeing to come to that table.

Perhaps this is happening because they are under attack like never before. Republicans in Wisconsin tried to take away even the basic ability to organize, and New York and Newark mayors Mike Bloomberg and Cory Booker have proposed objective criteria for firing teachers. Weingarten came across as resisting even the most basic steps to improve schools in the film Waiting for Superman.

Those pressures might be working out for the best if they have made teachers' unions realize they have to be partners with the public in making schools better, not defending their worst-performing members at the expense of kids. Other public sector unions should follow suit.


Weekend links: Development starting to roll

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
Vacant building and gas station no more: The long-vacant building at the corner of 7th and H has a new owner and plans for a mixed-use development (DCmud) ... The gas station by the Key Bridge in Georgetown will become new condos after 2012. (WBJ)

Montgomery gets big projects, transit-oriented and not: A developer wants to build a "town square" on what's now a large parking lot in Wheaton; the big office-park area in North Bethesda is getting even more development that's a little more mixed-use. (Gazette via BeyondDC)

Leesburg is form-based: Leesburg has adopted a new form-based zoning code that will encourage expanding the historic downtown with a similar development form that's more walkable than what current zoning allows by right. (Leesburg Today via BeyondDC)

Arlington is the healthiest: A map compares the health of residents in each Congressional district in America. Virginia's 8th, which contains Arlington and Alexandria, is the healthiest in the nation; Maryland's 8th, encompassing western Montgomery, is almost as high. (via ArlNow, MW)

Car sharing gone from Wilson Building: The DC government has a motor pool for employees to share vehicles rather than needing their own, but it was recently banished from the Wilson Building. Signs of Mayor Gray's priorities? No, turns out it was the Council's request. Was that Kwame Brown's doing? (Loose Lips)

A better place to slug: Downtown DC's slug line pick-up spot will move around the corner to New York Avenue, while PRTC buses will use the old slugging area. (Slug-Lines)

Bill Nye, the high-speed rail guy: Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," says the United States "should be embarrassed" that it can't get its act together to build high-speed rail like virtually every other industrialized nation. (Andrew)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.
Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City