Posts from May 2009
Streetsblog, which was in many ways the inspiration for Greater Greater Washington, recently hired Elana Schor to cover federal transportation policy. The debate in Congress over the federal transportation reauthorization is starting to heat up, and the decisions there will greatly affect our region and the entire nation. We'll be carrying many of her articles here on Greater Greater Washington as well. Welcome, Elana! - David
With Congress out of town on its Memorial Day break, the nation's capital is a quiet place to be
Many urbanites remember the last congressional transportation bill as a disappointment that pushed a pro-highways approach while forcing transit projects to compete for a small slice of the federal funding pie. But that 2005 transportation clash brought us some instructive moments that escaped the mainstream media's focus at the time.
As a semi-regular feature on Streetsblog Capitol Hill, I'll be looking back at past transportation debates that have the potential to impact the upcoming re-write. For today's installment, let's look at the "complete streets" amendment that fell six votes short of passage in 2005 but had a pretty crucial sponsor: then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).
The "complete streets" amendment submitted four years ago was similar to the legislation that was recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate. It would have required state DOTs to account for bike paths and pedestrian access wherever feasible and required metropolitan planning organizations that serve populations of 200,000 or more to appoint a coordinator for bike-and-ped programs.
Obama did not speak in favor of the amendment, but the future president's early endorsement of complete streets principles provides a powerful tool to livable streets advocates working on this year's transportation bill. Few arguments are as effective in Washington as a charge of flip-flopping
What's more, if senators maintained their past positions, the Obama "complete streets" amendment would almost surely pass into law today. Since the proposal lost by six votes in 2005, 11 GOP Senate seats have flipped to the Democratic column (including party-switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania).
Of course, "complete streets" may be included from day one in the Senate's next transportation bill, especially now that the House has added similar language to its climate change legislation. But that would open the door to a GOP amendment striking "complete streets" from the bill, and to the same tired and false rhetoric that Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) used to kill the Obama amendment in 2005:
What this amendment says is: If you are planning a highway from Leftover Shoes to Podunk Junction in the middle of a state with nobody around, you would have to plan for a bike path. We have a lot of roads through our Ozark hills and farmland where the danger is inadequate two-lane highways. People are not going to ride bicycles along those highways. They need the lanes to drive their cars. Putting an additional planning burden on agencies that don't want or need bike paths is another unwarranted mandate.
Cross-posted from Streetsblog.
After serving since 2004, Delegate Al Eisenberg is retiring. Thanks to Mr. Eisenberg for representing my district these past five years in Richmond. His staff was responsive to my questions and concerns during legislative sessions, and for the most part I agreed with his votes and proposed legislation. Five Democrats are competing in a primary for his seat. No Republicans have filed to run, so this primary will determine the winner. These elections typically draw very low turnout, around 2,000-5,000 votes compared to 10,000 to 25,000 for a general election.
If you're a Virginia Democrat, please remember to go vote on June 9th. There's also a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for Governor, between Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe. The 47th District stretches from the East Falls Church Metro station, all the way down to Columbia Pike, over to Ballston and Virginia Square stations.
View Virginia House of Delegates District 47 in a larger map.
I sent questionnaires about transit to all of the delegate candidates for the 47th District. Miles Grant and Alan Howze responded. I'm still waiting to hear from Patrick Hope, Adam Parkhomenko, and Andres Tobar, the other candidates.
Both Grant and Howze are supportive of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, and both acknowledge that the local residents are apprehensive about the changes the project will bring. Grant states that the issues can be managed, while Howze more specifically states that the County Board should address some of those issues. While Grant expressed support for other transportation improvements like Lee Highway and a Beltway metro (in the very long term), Howze did not mention any additional transit lines in his response.
Both candidates stated that BRT was a valuable option, but only Grant specifically mentioned the development advantage with rail transit: "Would a business set up shop on the Pike because there's a rapid bus as opposed to a regular bus"? Howze mentioned that there was no one right answer and the mode decision would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.
Howze had a much stronger response to a question about how to raise more money for transit, being able to cite his experience working for Governor Warner, and passing legislation through the General Assembly. Grant is basically only able to say that he'll make the case that blocking transit funding is blocking economic growth. It may be true, but it might not be enough to convince the house GOP, which has until now blocked any new general taxes for transit.
Both candidates gave similar responses to a question about how we make sure transportation funding goes where it's most effective, essentially committing to striving to get Northern Virginia its fair share, but other than that neither candidate's answer really stood out. Grant cited the need for a "radically different set of policies", and Howze cited his experience working at a statewide level.
Both candidates oppose widening I-66, citing that increasing highway capacity will just encourage more use. They both support increasing transit capabilities as a tool for reducing highway congestion. Grant more directly mentioned affordable housing as a method of reducing congestion, mentioning that he'd prefer making it easier for a teacher to live in Arlington as opposed to commuting from Warrenton.
Both candidates were for allowing localities to require building standards similar to LEED, and for allowing localities broader powers to address their local concerns. I think both candidates pointed out difficulties with LEED but were supportive of LEED's intent. As part of his training to be an energy auditor, Howze has studied for the LEED certification.
Both candidates support an increase in the gas tax. Grant supports if the money is carefully appropriated, with a concern that the tax revenue could be sent to other parts of the state. When asked whether fixed-cost fees like licensing and titling were preferable, Grant said that he preferred mileage-based fees because they affect the occasional driver less than the daily long-haul commuter. Howze brought up a great point that any fees or taxes need to be stable so that the Commonwealth can raise bonds against them.
I'm split between the two of them. Both candidates have been responsive to questions, understand Northern Virginia's transportation issues, and understand the link between good transit and land use. It's unfortunate that you're only allowed to pick one, I'd prefer a ranked choice voting system or some system that allowed me to vote for more than one. If other candidates respond to my questions I'll try to pass that information along.
I'm not making an endorsement, other than to say that either Grant or Howze are clearly bright individuals with the experience they need for the office. As Northern Virginia Democrats, they have similar views on transportation, taxes, public finance and social issues. Mr. Howze appears to bring more directly applicable experience to the office, having worked for Virginia public officials, while Mr. Grant appears to have a better feel for the many interlinked topics when it comes to planning, land use, transportation and the environment. At this point, I'm going to vote for one of the two, I'm just not sure which.
Two American cities recently gave streets back to the people, turning space once restricted to cars into plazas. Last weekend, New York turned Broadway around Times Square into pedestrian space, and last year transformed a chaotic intersection in the Meatpacking District into a successful public square. Just two weeks ago, San Francisco put out IKEA chairs and cardboard bollards to turn some underused asphalt into a temporary piazza. I'm still in shock looking at photos of people dancing and playing catch on what was once four lanes of downtown traffic. Why not do the same here?
New York's and San Francisco's projects received praise for creating open space in the crowded city. The intersection of Sligo, Chesapeake and Chicago Avenues in East Silver Spring could similarly use public space. East Silver Spring is a former "streetcar suburb" bordering Downtown Silver Spring. Sligo is the local "Main Street," lined with apartment buildings, schools, and locally-owned businesses. This corner is a community gathering place; when school buses stop there, kids pour out into the street, stopping to chat or heading into Iva's Beer and Wine for a snack.said in 2006. "It's like our barbershop," where everyone comes to meet.
Chicago and Chesapeake are both residential streets with considerably less traffic; in fact, Chesapeake is only a block long. The three streets meet in an awkward cross shape, and both Chicago and Chesapeake intersect with Sligo Avenue, barely thirty feet apart from each other. Two intersections mean more turning movements on and off of Sligo, holding up traffic. It also means two more places where cars and pedestrians conflict with each other. Worst of all, it's a lot of asphalt that isn't being fully utilized.
On his website Montgomery Sideways, pedestrian advocate William Smith has posted a plan he's working on with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation and East Silver Spring community to make Sligo Avenue safer for walkers. The Sligo/Chesapeake/Chicago intersection is one of the spots his Sligo Avenue Accessibility Project studies. There, he proposes curb bump-outs, wider sidewalks and a pedestrian refuge island in the middle of Sligo Avenue.
My proposal for a plaza on the currently underused portion of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago. View larger map.
If we want to make the intersection more pedestrian-friendly and take advantage of its local significance, we could make part of it into a plaza. We could close the fifty feet of Chesapeake Avenue between Sligo and Chicago to vehicles. Cars coming from Chesapeake would have to turn right at Chicago before turning onto Sligo. There would be one fewer intersection and one fewer street for pedestrians to cross.
In the new plaza, tables and chairs could provide places for people to sit, eat and mingle. Planters and bollards could be used to define the space and make it clear that cars do not belong here. The market's parking is on the street and in a lot on Chicago Avenue, so they wouldn't lose any vehicular access to the project. But they do have a new amenity - public open space, a rarity in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and homes with private yards.
The best part about this proposal is that we could try it out easily and temporarily. Like New York's and San Francisco's, it'd be an opportunity to see how well these spaces work and how they could be better. San Francisco created the 17th Street Plaza by painting the asphalt yellow; New York closed parts of Times Square with a few well-placed Jersey barriers. It's not pretty, but it's a quick and dirty way to create and "troubleshoot" a public space.
Silver Spring is, after all, the place that laid out 35,000 square feet of plastic grass four years ago and turned it into a people-watching paradise. If we could do that, it's worthwhile to look at other simple ways to improve and expand the pedestrian realm.
Then (left): Ca. 1922, the Metropolitan Club on the southwest corner of I and 17th Streets. At the time, the four story structure dwarfed the surrounding buildings.
Now (right): While little has changed with the Metropolitan Club itself, the buildings around it now dwarf the club.
The Metropolitan Club's website offers this history:
In 1863 at the height of the Civil War, the Metropolitan Club was established by six officials of the Treasury Department. Now, more than 145 years later, [the] Club includes distinguished members from all over the world. Since its founding in 1863, it has vigorously pursued its primary objectives of "literary, mutual improvement and social purposes." ...
The building, completed in 1908, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a District of Columbia historic landmark. Through the formation in 1998 of the Club's Preservation Foundation, the protection and preservation of this historic building is now more assured.
by Casey Anderson
Silver Spring has succeeded in making its business district an inviting destination. That success has attracted large crowds of unsupervised teens and young adults. At the recent Safe Silver Spring Summit at Montgomery College, participants debated how to keep Silver Spring a welcoming place while making it safe for all.
Rollin Stanley, the director of planning for Montgomery County's Planning Board, argued that when land use and transportation infrastructure decisions succeed in encouraging pedestrian traffic and "activating" the ground level of commercial buildings and MDUs, the surrounding area becomes less attractive to criminals as it becomes more attractive to people looking for places to live, work, and shop. In other words, the principles of smart growth are good for public safety as well as economic development, environmental sustainability, and other goals of planners.
In many ways, Stanley's arguments were compelling. Muggers are less likely to approach a victim on a street where heavy foot traffic makes it likely they will be observed and maybe even confronted by passersby. The same goes for thieves who steal or break into automobiles.
Not everyone, however, was convinced. Jonathan Jay, a neighborhood activist, said smart growth is not a panacea for public safety problems in the Silver Spring central business district, where neighboring residents have complained about large numbers of disorderly (and sometimes violent) teens and young adults who gather in the Fenton and Ellsworth area.
I argued that it is not enough to just attract lots of people; for Silver Spring's redevelopment to succeed over the long term, the central business district has to attract people across the spectrum of age and income. Adults often complain that they do not feel comfortable there. Many feel as though it has been taken over by large crowds of rowdy teenagers, especially during the later hours of weekend nights.
Some might say that complaints about misbehavior by teens hanging around in downtown Silver Spring have been blown out of proportion. One woman suggested in a hallway conversation at the summit that tensions between adults (mostly white and more affluent) and teens (including proportionately more minorities from families with less money) largely reflect of racial and class tensions.
The debate reignited recently when an anti-violence concert sponsored by Mixed Unity, a group of local teens who organized in response to the killing of Blair High School student Tai Lam, ended with the arrests of several audience members who started a fracas during the final musical performance.
Peterson Cos., which manages the retail development along Ellsworth (but not the City Place mall), brought in a new private security team in 2008. They've given "stay-away orders" to people who repeatedly engage in disruptive behavior and other tactics. By many accounts, this has has curbed much of the worst behavior.
On the other hand, Veterans Plaza, currently under construction, will bring an ice skating rink and other amenities to the intersection but displace "The Turf," the astroturf lawn where teens had previously congregated. That will make the question of how crowds of kids fit into the future of downtown Silver Spring more pressing. When Live Nation, a major concert venue, eventually opens just two blocks away, some residents are concerned that the problems associated with unruly crowds will get worse.
Complaints about out-of-control teenagers in downtown Silver Spring may be overstated, but they are not baseless. When I visit the CBD after dark, I sometimes (not always) encounter teens who walk four or five abreast to force pedestrians they encounter off the sidewalk, gather at the intersection of Fenton and Ellsworth to settle scores with fistfights, curse and make lewd remarks to both acquaintances and strangers, or show obvious signs of intoxication.
All of this is not enough to keep me away from the area, but it makes me think twice about bringing my wife and kids. Few people in Silver Spring want to see the area become another Bethesda, but does living in a vibrant urban area mean having to tolerate behavior that would be considered unacceptable west of Rock Creek Park? I hope we do not have to choose between gentrification and an enviroment that those of us on the cusp of middle age (or beyond) try to avoid.
The answer is not to run the kids off, but to create an environment that discourages uncivil behavior by (among other things) bringing more adults into the mix.
The health of downtown Silver Spring, and other redeveloping urban and suburban business districts, depends on drawing older adults and families as well as the stereotypical urban pioneers, and this means a retail and programming mix that caters to a wider range of people. The Pyramid Atlantic art store in the Fenton and Ellsworth development is a good example of the kind of retail that can pull in adults. Restaurants alone are probably not enough.
This issue is not just important to the quality of life in Silver Spring. New Urbanism needs an answer to critics who say it is fine for people in their twenties who don't have kids, but doesn't offer an appealing or realistic opportunity for families>. Leaving aside the knotty question of how to improve urban schools, we won't succeed in remaking our urban and suburban centers without addressing this issue.
Casey Anderson is a lawyer and community activist who lives in Woodside, just outside of the Silver Spring central business district, with his wife and two children. He is a member of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board and the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, but in contributing to Greater Greater Washington he is speaking only for himself.
Montgomery County is barreling blindly down a path to create a huge new pocket of sprawl outside Gaithersburg. Dubbed "Science City," the county envisions 20 million square feet of new biotechnology research and development on 900 acres near Rockville and Gaithersburg. However, as currently proposed, "Science City" is no city. The Board recently rejected two proposals, one to increase its density to something more city-like, and the other to transfer density to a better location. Creating sprawl is familiar and easy, but harmful. Unfortunately, it's the easier and safer choice for the Planning Board.
The area lies well beyond the part of our region currently served by transit. In theory, the Corridor Cities Transitway will serve this area, but officials still haven't agreed on an alignment, let alone secured funding. This only continues the county's pattern of planning "transit-oriented development" in areas far from existing transit, with only a faint hope of actually building the transit. And even if Maryland does somehow find money to build the line, a single light rail line can't possibly effectively bring transit accessibility to 900 acres.
Christopher Leinberger writes that "driveable sub-urbanism," the familiar suburban land pattern with big lawns and strip malls, generally has a floor-area ratio (FAR) between 0.05 and 0.3. In other words, for each acre of land, there is at most about 13,000 square feet (0.3 acres) of residential, office, retail and other building uses. Meanwhile, "walkable urbanism," with a lively street life, starts to work at 0.8 FAR, and best around 1.5 and up.
20 million square feet on 900 acres represents an FAR of 0.51, which falls in between the two ranges. Leinberger calls these areas "neverlands," and people find them depressing. The buildings are tall, taking away the pastorial countryside feel of suburban areas, but there isn't enough going on to create lively places, and everything is too far apart to walk. Le Corbusier's Radiant City was a "neverland," as are 1960s public housing projects, and most commonly, suburban office parks.
If Montgomery County wants a real "Science City," they should build an actual city. 20 million square feet is no city. The NoMA area of DC alone has 20 million square feet planned over ten years. And NoMa only spans about 240 acres, for an FAR of about 1.92. Of course, "Science City" could be a city without being as dense as NoMA; it could be half as dense, and still be a "city".
According to the Gazette, Johns Hopkins, seeking to maximize the value of their real estate investment in the area, proposed more density, up to 6.5 million square feet on their Belward Farm property (100 acres, for an FAR of about 0.8). They argued that the greater size would create a "critical mass" to attract federal agencies and increase the cost-effectiveness of the Corridor Cities Transitway. The Planning Board rejected this, however.
Jean Cryor, the member from Potomac who couldn't understand the problem with car-oriented design, argued that facts won't affect the CCT. "It's going to come or it's not going to come. It's going to be a political decision, no matter what anyone wants to say ... It's going to take the muscle that you have and everybody else has to make it happen. If [we] think it's just going to be on numbers, we're just kidding ourselves."
Of course, while a real city would be better than sprawl, if the County really wants a "Science City," they wouldn't be putting it in Gaithersburg. They'd put it on the eastern side of the county, near I-95 corridor and the Beltway. It could go near or along the Purple Line, near College Park and an existing, major university. There's also already considerable development planned along I-95, both private (like Konterra) and federal (like at Fort Meade). The eastern part of the county really needs development. There are two commuter rail lines and Amtrak, as well as Metro which state officials keep talking about extending. It's nearer to an airport. And it's nearer to the largest city in Maryland.
If planning happened more regionally, rather than having each county try to out-develop the other, Maryland would put Science City, and Johns Hopkins' development, in the large city it already has. Baltimore already contains Johns Hopkins, and could really benefit from more investment.
Neighbors opposed to the development at Belward Farm proposed an alternative, to provide transferable development rights encouraging development at Hopkins' existing Montgomery campus nearer Shady Grove (though still not particularly transit-accessible), but the Planning Board panned that idea as well.
Instead, Montgomery officials are set on building "neverland" density on open land at the edge of the region. Maybe some transit will one day reach this place, but no more than a tiny percentage of people will ever find that transit useful. CEOs who live in Potomac will enjoy a short, reverse commute ride, while blue-collar workers will have to pay lots of money to drive long distances on the toll Intercounty Connector.
The development will create huge demand for more housing in Frederick County, which has even less transit and fewer walkable places. The region's sprawl will grow while existing areas ripe for science investment lose out. All this will happen because our counties and other jurisdictions compete for development instead of planning regionally, and because the Montgomery Planning Board, so familiar with suburban-style office parks, can't envision anything else or lacks the courage to push for a better way.
Image from the Gaithersburg West draft Master Plan. Just drawing people walking in a "neverland" density development won't make it actually walkable. And the sky was already that gray; I didn't change the image at all.
As we've discussed in the past, reporters have an unusual habit of avoiding any implication that a driver of a vehicle had anything to do with that vehicle's hitting people or objects, running off the road, or any other activity. That's often not the same for bicyclists or motorcyclists.
Tom Vanderbilt wrote about a UK study which asked people to describe a scene. When a car appeared in the picture, people generally referred to it as an object, even when the driver was visible. Meanwhile, most participants noted the human bicyclist, even when they could only see the bicycle in the picture.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch road fatality roundup carries the sad news that an Arlington cyclist died in a crash earlier this month. It also provides some entertaining examples of reporter contortions:
- "Johnny O. Bond, 80, of Mayodan, N.C., was a passenger in a car that was leaving a business when it was struck by another car on U.S. 220."
- "Janet E. Reichley, 60, of Triangle ... was driving east on Fuller Heights Road when the vehicle crossed onto Perry Street and hit a tree." She is the subject of the sentence as long as the vehicle was driving, but as soon as it hit a tree, it linguistically acted of its own accord.
- "Heidi Hrdlicka, 33, of Arlington County was killed May 12 after a car hit a bicycle she was on at North Cleveland Street and Lee Highway in Arlington."
- Kimberly M. Dulaney, 24, and 3-year-old Samantha B. Dulaney, both of Floyd County, were killed Sunday after a car they were in tried to avoid a goose and spun out and hit a tree." Cars can try to avoid geese, now?
Meanwhile, in two crashes involving motorcyclists, the sentences do place the operator as the subject:
- "Franklin T. Garrett III of Annandale died Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital after he lost control of a southbound motorcycle that day in a curve on South Washington Street and fell and slid into a stopped car near Tinners Hill Street, authorities said."
- "Chase A. Smith, 20, of Chesapeake was killed May 2 after he wrecked a motorcycle and was thrown more than 100 feet into the woods off Taylor Road in Chesapeake."
If you're on a motorcycle and hit something, you could "lose control," "slide into a stopped car," and "wreck" the motorcycle, but if you're driving, your car is the one to leave a business, avoid a goose, cross the street, and hit a tree.
On the other hand, in this WTOP story says that a man lost control of his SUV and crashed into an electrical pole near Dupont Circle yesterday.
Dehumanizing language isn't the only issue with crash coverage. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Vanderbilt talks about how crash reporting often excludes context, like how drivers or road designers could have prevented the crashes. To the Times-Dispatch's and Virginia police's credit, at least, the crash items above did mention whether the drivers were wearing seat belts and the motorcyclists helmets.
And, of course, however these crashes get reported, it's tragic that these people died on the streets of DC and Virginia.
Originally built as a three-and-one-half-story Federal residence in 1828 for the prominent Maryland attorney, Thomas Swann, and later occupied by the noted Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster, the home was remodeled and enlarged when banker William Wilson Corcoran purchased the home.
Corcoran amassed his fortune by financing the Mexican War for the U.S. government through the sale of millions of dollars of government bonds. To create a suitable home, he choose James Renwick Jr. to rebuilt the structure in 1849. Renwick immediately set about to enlarge the house into a Renaissance-inspired mansion marking the introduction of the Italianate style into Washington on a large scale. Renwick's attention to detail included varying designs of classical window frames, cornices, and floral swags in brownstone.
Being a Southern sympathizer, Corcoran left Washington for Europe when the Civil War erupted. To safeguard his home, he rented it to the French Legation which gave it diplomatic immunity.
Upon Corcoran's death in 1888, the house was left to the banker's grandson, William Corcoran Eustis, who rented it to a succession of prominent senators and government official.
Ultimately, the Corcoran House was razed in 1922 to make way for the massive neoclassical U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building which still occupies the site today.
Ralph took this picture of Benning Road, where streetcar rails are ready to go into the ground. The streetscape reconstruction will install rails, but no streetcar service will run there until DC resolves the question of what power source to use and designs areas for the streetcars to turn around as well as identifying and constructing a maintenance facility. Currently, federal law prohibits overhead wires, and alternative systems are expensive, unreliable, and/or untested.
- Cyclists are special and do have their own rules
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Metro policy for refunds after delays falls short, riders say
- M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
- O'Malley announces first projects using new gas tax money
- ICC losing bus service in classic bait and switch