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Posts from July 2009


Lost Washington: Norfolk and Washington's Northland

N&W Northland

The Northland was built by the Harlan & Hollingsworth Corp., Wilmington, Del., in 1911 for the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company. Like the Southland, she transported passengers and freight between Washington and Norfolk.

Steamer Northland Deck Plans

During the first part of World War II, she operated as a transport with the British Navy. She was assigned the name Leyden (IX-167) on May 18, 1944, and was acquired by the Navy and commissioned May 22, 1944, Lt. William S. Johnson in command.

From her commissioning until July 1945, Leyden operated as a naval auxiliary in British staging areas and French ports during the final European campaigns of World War II. Leyden was decommissioned at Falmouth, England July 23, 1945, for return to the War Shipping Administration, and was sold to the Fu Chung International Corp. November 7, 1946. She was renamed Hung Chong. She was broken up as scrap in 1955.

N&W Northland


NextBus DC iPhone app review

The key test for any new product is, "does this product perform the task that I bought it for?" If I buy a shirt, I ask if it fits right, looks good on me, and functions as clothing. The NextBus DC application, available on the iPhone app store, works. It's not quite perfect, but allows users to consistently access a good estimate of the wait time for a bus.

When you open the app, you will see six choices. The first three are self-explanatory: "Favorite Stops," "Favorite Routes," and "Nearby Stops." You can choose stops and routes to add to your Favorites while looking at the map for a route or the predictions for the wait time at a stop.

Nearby Stops uses the iPhone's built-in GPS to find bus stops within 1/16, 1/8, or 1/4 mile. This screen shows NextBus predictions for all bus lines that serve that stop. From that screen, you can press a button in the corner to display a map showing your location and the location of the bus stop. This feature is incredibly handy if you're lost or just don't know where to find the specific stop.

The second three choices on the opening screen correspond to bus systems in our region. WMATA's Metrobus, Prince George's County's The Bus, and the City of Fairfax's CUE are currently using NextBus technology. I don't ride the Prince George's or Fairfax systems, so only evaluated the WMATA area. (I live in Montgomery County and look forward to RideOn getting NextBus as well.) After tapping the WMATA MetroBus button, a list of all MetroBus routes pops up on the screen. A bar on the right makes it easy to skip to categories like "1-10," "80-97," or "S-V" rather than having to scroll through every route as you must on the NextBus mobile interface.

After finding your route, you can either select the name of the route itself, or either direction the route travels in. For example, your screen would look like:

S9 16th St. Express
North to Silver Spring Station
South to McPherson Square
Selecting "North to Silver Spring Station" or "South to McPherson Square" brings up a list of every bus stop that the S9 serves. After selecting a stop, a screen pops up that has NextBus predictions for every bus line that serves that stop.

On the other hand, if you select, "S9 16th St. Express," a scale map of the S9 appears on the screen. The map has red markers at each bus station. You can then zoom in and select one of the red markers to get to the screen that has NextBus predictions for all lines serving that stop.

Like most transit users, I know the bus routes that I regularly take, such as the Y5/7/8/9, the Q2, the 70/71/79, the S1/2/4/9, and the J2. I also am familiar with other major routes like the 30s, the X2, and the 16s. However, I don't really know bus lines in many other areas. In the past, I had to pull up WMATA's bus maps, zoom in, zoom out, and search around the PDF map to find a route and its path. It takes time to make sense of the map. The NextBus app's route map far more effective for learning this crucial information.

The app hooks into WMATA's NextBus webpage, so its predictions on bus wait times are the same as those on WMATA's website. During rush hour, the predictions were accurate within about two minutes. The largest deviations came when I could see bus down the street, but it was stuck in heavy car traffic or traffic lights. I found one anomaly when riding the Y line: I was tracking the bus I was riding from stop to stop, and it disappeared once. Thankfully, after hitting refresh, the bus reappeared at the next stop. In summary, the NextBus system works, and works even better if you refresh frequently.

The app could improve by letting the user switch from viewing predictions at a specific stop to the map for that line. Currently, you have to back up to the top to get the map. The app appears to be optimized for the new iPhone 3GS. I experienced slowdown with it on my iPhone 3G. At times it would slow down to a crawl and I'd have to just wait until it sorted itself out. The button presses were also less sensitive and responsive than in the iPhone OS itself. None of these small flaws killed the app's ability to accomplish its core task.

The NextBus DC app for the Apple iPhone is a breath of fresh air for bus users around our region. I found it useful and a great tool to better plan my time, since I have an accurate prediction of how much time I have until the next bus arrives. While it has its minor technical and design flaws, it most certainly does the job it was designed to do. I will be keeping it on my iPhone at all times and I recommend that you do the same. If you are a regular MetroBus, TheBus, or CUE rider (and I really hope that RideOn, ART, and the Circulator get NextBus installed soon) you won't go wrong with purchasing this app from the iPhone app store. It will make your life a little bit less stressful.


Gaithersbungle, part 7: 30% mode share is totally unrealistic

The Gaithersburg West "Science City" Master Plan hangs its "Smart Growth" claims on the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed transit line from Shady Grove northward to Gaithersburg and Germantown. The plan insists that 30% of commuters will ride the line. That's highly dubious. You can design a circuitous, low-quality transit line and claim many people will ride it, but that doesn't make it so.

To satisfy the political pressure of enabling development on every parcel, the Planning Department proposes rerouting the line from an already-circuitous route (red) to an even more circuitous one (blue). This reroute took the line away from the DANAC property, whose owners originally developed it with the promise that they would have a CCT stop. The published draft of the Master Plan, however, eschews any new development on DANAC's property. After the owner complained and put pressure on the board, they added a stop back in.

Corridor Cities Transitway alignments. Left: Entire alignment before latest rerouting. Right: Proposed reroute not including DANAC station.

The Planning Department also recommended BRT over light rail, claiming it would actually draw more passengers because buses can leave the transitway to circulate through nearby neighborhoods. Rerouting the line through more of the office parks in Gaithersburg West also added riders under the Planning Department's model. Without seeing the underlying models, there's no way to know how they arrived at this result or whether it's correct, but it sounds like the model assumes that more frequent stops on a more circuitous route that passes closer to people's homes will draw more riders than a faster route that connects major, dense centers.

The plan claims that Gaithersburg West will achieve a 30% mode share between the density, transit, and Travel Demand Management (TDM) programs. According to a Fairfax County presentation on Tysons Corner, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor's mode share is 26%, Bethesda's 19%, and downtown DC's 51%. Achieving 30% in this distant, auto-dependent area with buses following a long and winding route seems highly dubious.

According to the Action Committee for Transit, planners arrived at 30% by assuming that the mode share will match White Flint. However, White Flint is right atop a Metrorail station, closer to the region's core, and very close to many more jobs. It also assumes that 24% of people will carpool, while the current actual number is approximately 5%, and carpooling has declined regionwide in recent decades. According to ACT, COG's modeling of this area predicted that 8% of people will actually take transit to work absent residential development, and there is far too little residential development to boost the number anywhere near 30%.

Nor does the plan enforce that 30%. The staging requirements do mandate that most of the development can't happen until the CCT is at least funded and under construction, but that's no guarantee anyone will use it. If the County wanted to truly enforce the 30%, they could allow the development only if mode splits are really meeting the projections, or impose impact fees on the new development if they don't.

Critics have charged that JHU isn't really serious about building a research campus at all, but that they rather want to make a lot of money on turning their farm into an office park to fund their main operations in Baltimore. We don't know for sure if that's the case. But if it is, and the 30% mode share and everything else are just a smoke screen, the County Council should put some teeth into the 30% requirement, enough that building an office park without that kind of mode share ceases to be a cash cow for JHU.

A county could develop a bus system that stops at 20 people's individual houses, drives for 30 minutes, then drops them off one by one at their jobs, and call it BRT. They could then spend billions to make a very wide expressway and lots of interchanges to speed drivers. And finally, they could write a plan that claims that one-third of the people will ride this transit system. But we would laugh. And that should be our reaction to this plan as well.


Public Spaces

Breakfast links: Standing alone

A different roadside stand. Photo by protoflux.
And then there was one: Boston's MBTA is now participating in Google Transit. That leaves WMATA as the only major transit agency not participating. Michael calculates that 9.5% of transit trips tracked by APTA are now on non-participating systems; about two-thirds of those are on WMATA. NY/NJ's PATH is the second largest laggard. (Globe)

They're called roadside stands for a reason: The State Highway Administration is shutting down a popular fruit stand that's operated on River Road in Bethesda for 10 years. They say it's a safety hazard. When can planning around roads consider them in the broader context of what we want communities to look like, instead of just how to clear out everything, including trees, for the cars? Local political payback is playing a role as well. (Post via Yglesias)

Go Saqib: Eleven Maryland state legislators from the Potomac, Rockville, and Germantown parts of Montgomery County, plus two Frederick County delegates, signed a letter supporting light rail for the Corridor Cities Transitway and two new lanes on I-270. Saqib Ali, the young (for a delegate), software engineer representative from North Potomac quickly clarified that he doesn't support the widening, and hadn't seen its brief mention in the letter before signing.

Not another passive park?: Richard Layman argues that maybe the two-district option for Poplar Point could work if the park in between contained active recreation, amusement, and education, with museums, recreation centers, libraries, theaters, or even a Ferris wheel. The federal rules might prohibit any building in the park area, however, even for recreational or civic uses. (RPUS)

A safer McLean: Even in more auto-oriented towns like McLean, bicycle and foot traffic is increasing amid insufficient facilities and safety precautions. A task force there is looking to add missing crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes in McLean's central business district. (Fairfax County Times, mooniker)

States not fixing it first: Many states have skipped repairing old and decaying bridges with their stimulus money, preferring instead to spend it on shiny new ones. Virginia is one that is fixing its bridges, however. (AP, Froggie)

The condo paradox: Following up on the U Street noise debate, Rob Pitingolo points out that many younger residents want to live in neighborhoods with bars, but generally lack enough savings or long-term job stability to buy a condo. Paradoxically, thanks to the greater developer profits on condos, new buildings right on nightlife streets like U Street are mostly condos rather than the rental apartments that many people who want to live right on U Street might be able to afford. (Extraordinary Observations)

Tweet of the day: @eschor: NY Times has THREE reporters live-blogging the #^!%$@ "beer summit". Death of journalism, meet your defining moment. ... The Post's blogger outreach publicist also sent around an email saying that Post reporters had surveyed local bartenders about which beers the participants liked.

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Farragut Square, 1886

Farragut Square ca. 1886Farragut Square ca. 1910

The basic plan of Farragut Square (left) has been stable over the years. The only real changes that have occurred have been in lighting and foliage. The image at right, from the first quarter of the 20th century, shows the style of the gas lamps that once graced the park.

Below is a list of the plants in the square in 1886.

Farragut Square flora


Adams Morgan streetscape will make pedestrians welcome

Tonight, DDOT will discuss the planned Adams Morgan streetscape project, which will reconstruct 18th Street from Florida Avenue to Columbia Road. The project would widen sidewalks, repair and replace tree boxes, streetlights, and sidewalk pavement. It would also reconfigure the roadway from two travel lanes in each direction and angled parking on one side to one travel lane each way, parallel parking on both sides, and a center median for turns. The single lane would also contain "sharrows" reminding drivers that cyclists are welcome to share the road. At each intersection, bulb-outs would narrow the pedestrian crossing distance.

18th Street around Kalorama Street before (above) and after (below) the proposed streetscape
reconstruction. North is to the left.

Original plans suggested a raised median or one made out of special materials that create more of a pedestrian refuge in the center. However, a median which can accommodate vehicles could allow trucks to stop for loading, and DDOT is leery of different materials that may pose greater maintenance costs or headaches. Therefore, the current plan calls for the utilitarian, simpler, but less attractive striped paint.

18th Street and Florida Avenue after the proposed reconstruction. North is to the top.

The plan will also improve the intersection of Florida Avenue and 18th Street, where pedestrians on the east side of 18th have to cross three separate roadways and where cars race through in many different directions. The current plan consolidates the two islands into one, larger island. Southbound traffic on 18th will have to continue farther south to turn left onto U or Florida instead of swinging through the existing slip lane. An earlier iteration would have moved the islands entirely and created an even larger pedestrian plaza at the northeast corner, but that didn't survive to the final plan.

Businesses and residents support this plan, though many are concerned with the impact of construction. DDOT has not done a good job in recent years of managing these streetscape projects. Work has stretched far beyond the promised end date, temporary closures have impacted businesses, and the unwelcoming appearance of construction has driven people away. However, once completed, 18th Street Adams Morgan will be much more pleasant for walking or biking along.

Tonight, members of the community will decide if they're willing to accept the short-term pain, and DDOT will try to convince them that it can handle the job. The meeting is at 7 pm at the 3rd District police station, 1620 V St, NW.


Jimmie Cone: A small urban space in the far suburbs

When many Montgomery County residents want to say something is "far" but "still in Montgomery County," they invoke the name of Damascus, a town way out where Montgomery County shakes hands with Frederick, Carroll and Howard. It seems as physically and psychologically far as you can get from the glitz of Chevy Chase or the grit of Silver Spring. Comments about bus riding and "the City" from my former roommate, who grew up in Damascus, demonstrate the strong psychological divide.

Jimmie Cone in Damascus. Photo by Dan Reed.

Before I went there on an obscure errand last weekend, I knew three things about Damascus. First, there's nothing to do there. That's because, second, it's illegal to buy or possess alcohol there, and has been since the 1880. Therefore, and third, people hang out at Jimmie Cone. At the driving school I attended, the police instructors told stories about kids who died in horrible accidents going to and from this ice cream stand. Surely Jimmie Cone must be good if kids are willing to die for it.

In the business district, three roads meet at an awkward intersection. There's an elementary school and a library, a CVS and a McDonald's, and two strip malls. At the center of Damascus is Jimmie Cone, an unassuming little box with a big green canopy and a parking lot surrounded by picnic tables. What sets it apart is that, on a Friday night, it looks like the entire town showed up for ice cream. The menu is simple: two flavors of soft-serve, two flavors of frozen yogurt, and a list of toppings, including jimmies. (For those not from the handful of areas that use the term, jimmies are another word for "sprinkles.") A small ice cream is $1.66.

This place is worlds away from Rockville, where I spent a year and a half at Gifford's selling four-dollar scoops of ice cream. But both places are community institutions, gathering places made relevant when the temperature rises and the schools let out. While it doesn't scream "city" like Rockville Town Square, Jimmie Cone does contribute to the urban realm as well.

Why do people come here for ice cream and not the McDonald's across the street? It's cheap. It's close to home. But, most importantly, it's community. You may know the family who started it in 1962. Your kids, your neighbors' kids, or your friends' kids may work behind the counter. Or you expect to run into people you know. This place fosters those relationships in a community more so than any chain could because it is a product of its location. You can only experience Jimmie Cone in Damascus or their second store in Mount Airy, a few miles away.

For the younger set, Jimmie Cone is a place to see and be seen. There are two sets of picnic tables here: one next to the stand itself, under the canopy, and another next to the street. I saw the teenagers in the latter area, where they'd be in plain sight of anyone who drove by. It's the same reason kids hang out in front of the movie theatre on Seventh Street in Chinatown, a far more "urban" locale than Damascus. But were he still alive, sociologist William H. Whyte could do a whole Social Life of Small Urban Spaces-style review of Jimmie Cone.

Places like this are what I find so exciting about suburbia because they dare to challenge the status quo created by big cars and big houses. They encourage and often force us to interact with other people, and to embrace our innate social urges. It's no Dupont Circle; it's not even "the Turf" in Downtown Silver Spring. But places like it are integral to creating stronger communities.


K Street Transitway options balance buses, bikes, cars, and loading

The two build options for the K Street Transitway trade off space for cars, buses and bicycles.

One option would create a two-lane busway in the center of K Street, leaving three general-purpose lanes on each side. The other option, on the other hand, makes the transitway three lanes, where the third lane lets eastbound buses pass each other in some spots and westbound buses pass each other in other spots. That option also contains a bicycle lane along the length of K Street.

While at first glance the plans seem to provide a clear choice between more accommodation for cars versus more for buses and bikes, the difference isn't that simple. Making a true "complete street" that works for all modes is not easy.

K is a major regional street, serving as a major east-west corridor and connecting to the Whitehurst Freeway and Key Bridge on the west. Huge numbers of buses use the street, from the Circulator to local Metrobuses to commuter buses from Loudoun County and Maryland MTA.

Currently, the road has four main center lanes used by through traffic and many buses. Medians separate the center lanes from side access roads mainly used for parking, loading, and some turns. The access roads disappear around Farragut, McPherson, and Franklin Squares, which extend partway into the K Street right-of-way. Unlike European boulevards, the side roads spend most of their time unused or blocked by non-moving vehicles. It doesn't create a welcoming retail environment and doesn't maximize the potential of this important corridor.

The 1600 block of K Street under the two-lane transitway option.

The transitway project proposes to move the medians inward, creating a narrower center space for buses only (possibly including taxis at night) and making the now-wider outer sections the general travel lanes for cars. One option makes the transitway two lanes, one in each direction, with a three-lane road on each side for other purposes. In this option, trucks and taxis would be able to stop in the rightmost lane to load and unload, and it may allow off-peak parking. Bicycles would also use the rightmost lane or share other travel lanes. When parks pinch the right-of-way, the general travel lanes would narrow to two in each direction.

The 1600 block of K Street under the transitway with passing lane option.

The second option removes one general-purpose lane in each direction, leaving only two. Instead, the transitway widens to three lanes outside of the areas adjacent to the parks. At many bus stops, the third lane allows buses to pass each other. Sometimes the eastbound bus lane widens to two while westbound remains one, and sometimes vice versa. In addition, a bicycle lane runs the entire length of the street adjacent to the sidewalk. Since there are only two general-purpose lanes, trucks and taxis would not be allowed to stop there. To allow some loading, this plan would cut loading zones into the adjacent sidewalk in a few places.

A major difference between the two options is commuter buses. Commuter buses stop less often but for longer periods of time. In the two-lane transitway option, therefore, they would not use the transitway but would rather stop in the curb lane of the general-purpose lanes. The transitway with passing lanes would accommodate commuter buses as well, where Circulators and Metrobuses could stop behind the commuter buses but then go around to continue on their way.

Therefore, while the initial reaction is to assume the transitway with passing lanes is better for buses, bus speeds would be very similar between the two options. The two-lane transitway would allow buses to run all the way from 9th to 21st, with stops, in about 12 minutes on average, while the passing lane option shaves that to about 11 minutes, mostly by reducing dwell times. Meanwhile, the current configuration requires as much as 17 minutes for buses to traverse the same distance.

At WABA's urging, many cyclists attended the meeting to evaluate the impact of the alternatives on cyclists. Reactions were mixed. On the one hand, a bike lane all along K Street gives cyclists a facility that's not present today and isn't present in the two-lane transitway option. However, would trucks and taxis simply park in the bike lane on a regular basis, forcing cyclists to leave and making it more harrowing? Some agreed with my suggestion yesterday to focus instead on high-quality separated, buffered bicycle lanes ("cycle tracks") on parallel one-way streets, while others felt that it was important to make K Street truly multimodal. They also pointed out that even with parallel bicycle facilities, some cyclists will be traveling to and from destinations on K Street.

There may be ways to better separate the bike lane. One person suggested raising it up to sidewalk level, placing the gutter and curb between the roadway and the bicycle lane and essentially making the bicycle lane a specially painted extension of the sidewalk. Many European towns do this with their bicycle lanes. The bicycle lane could also occupy a middle height, or have a mountable curb separating it from the roadway. However, other cyclists worried that such treatment would make it difficult for cyclists to pass slower cyclists, dog walkers, or others that might intrude on the lane, as they couldn't easily jump over to the car lane if necessary.

This project is part of the region's application for the competitive TIGER stimulus grants. Without that money, it's unlikely DC or the region can find funds to build it. Since the deadline for the grant applications is September 15th, project officials are moving extremely fast with the Environmental Assessment, planning to submit it to FHWA in mid-August. They won't be picking one of the two options for the application; final design decisions would happen if and when USDOT funds the project, and the design may blend elements of both.


Breakfast links: No money but mo' problems

Photo by NoHoDamon.
Two externality-busting revenue sources survive: The DC budget gap-closing consensus looks to include a gas tax hike to match Maryland's and market-rate parking for city employees (but not Council employees or Councilmembers). Higher fees for extra RPP stickers beyond the first doesn't appear to have made it into the final proposal. That's too bad; that would make parking easier for many residents, while also raising twice as much as needed to restore the Access to Justice program that helps the poor get legal help when they need it. (Washington City Paper)

Safety net still to be saved: Advocates for DC's neediest residents are still working to save the safety net. It's not too late to sign the petition at; groups will also be rallying at the Wilson Building today at noon. (DCFPI)

Nightmare in two years: The military's plans to move 20,000 jobs from the Pentagon/Crystal City area to Fort Belvoir are getting closer, and Jim Moran is warning about the likely "traffic nightmare" due to the lack of public transportation around Belvoir. (WTOP, Froggie)

$0 for roads, 0 for ideas: Virginia's bankrupt transportation budget means no money for roads in 2010 for any NoVA counties. Creigh Deeds promises to change this but has no plan; McDonnell wants to move money from schools (probably a bad idea) and toll some interstates (a good idea, but probably impossible given federal law). The reporters don't mention transit at all. (Post, Cavan)

Dutch road pricing coming: The Netherlands is moving toward a comprehensive national system of road pricing, setting standards for in-vehicle units that record location and time of vehicle travel. This will replace the existing car taxes that finance roads. (Ertico, Ken Archer)

Stupid, indeed: Ryan Avent calls the I-270 widening "one of the stupidest projects I've seen in a while," arguing that it not only induces traffic, but also induces land use that will affect traffic down the line. (The Bellows, Dave Murphy)

Sidewalks on Kojo: Today's Kojo Nnamdi show will cover the sidewalk debate in some of DC's currently least walkable and most pedestrian-unsafe neighborhoods. Councilmember Mary Cheh will also participate. Will most of the calls come from sidewalk opponents?

Park easier: Lifehacker picks up on, which shows garage parking rates in cities including Washington, DC. Their commenters wasted no time in whining about the cost of DC parking. Tools like this help reduce circling and better utilization of the existing off-street parking. (Lifehacker, Ward 1 Guy)

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Lost Washington: Analostan

Map of Analostan Island from Map of the City of Washington by Robert King Plate No. 1
Mason House sketch
As the detail at right from the 1818 Map of the City of Washington by Robert King shows, Roosevelt Island wasn't always uninhabited, or even known as by its present name.

When the island was purchased in the early eighteenth-century by the father of George Mason of Gunston Hall, it was know as Analostan Island. The name Analostan refers to the seventeenth-century Necostin Indian tribe that once inhabited the area.

The land was not developed until the island and some 2,000 additional acres in Virginia were inherited by General John Mason. General Mason became one of the most prominent businessmen of Georgetown. He was a founder of the Bank of Columbia on M Street in 1793.

He developed Analostan, also known as Mason's Island, into a self-contained estate, producing its own food. Much like today, one way onto the island was via a causeway from Virginia. Unlike today, there was also a ferry from the Georgetown shore that stopped at the island.

The house was built ca. 1796, though never completed. The likely answer is that the house's fortunes were tied to those of General Mason, who was forced to move from the island when the Bank of Columbia collapsed in 1833.

The house was primarily Federal in overall design, but possessed several important neoclassical elements that made it advanced for its time in Washington. These elements included the porch, the stuccoed facade, and the arched windows set into blind recesses.

The property suffered several indignities after Mason's departure. During the 1850s and 1860s the mansion was open to public use and was an army camp during the Civil War -- after which it was unsuitable as a residence. It also served as home of the Columbian Athletic Club and the Analostan Boat Club after 1867.

In 1869 a serious fire destroyed the interior. Another fire in 1906 caused the roof to collapse. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association acquired the island in 1931 and donated it to the federal government as the future site of a city park. The Civilian Conservation Corps had cleared much of the island and pulled down the remaining walls of the home by 1935. More photos below.

Mason House ca. 1880s

Mason House ruins ca. 1905
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