Posts from August 2011
A controversial curfew is proposed for teens in Montgomery County. Many community members are clamoring for something to be done about unruly teens, but the debate has also focused on alternatives.
Last night, community members on both sides of County Executive's proposed youth curfew spoke out at a contentious meeting hosted by the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board in the Silver Spring Civic Building.
Though county officials outlined several changes to the bill, opposition remains strong. The changes include making it a civil, not a criminal offense to break curfew. The revised bill also has exceptions for teens attending sports or entertainment activities.
Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret, high school students and cofounders of the group Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew questioned the effectiveness of curfews. Studies of curfews nationwide, including those already in effect in the District and Prince George's County, show they haven't reduced crime. "We need to look at the facts, look at the alternatives and give the police a real tool, not a broken one," said Muskin-Pierret.
Lt. Robert Carter, deputy commander for the police department's Silver Spring District, played videos from the night of July 1, when cops in downtown Silver Spring broke up dozens of fights, one of which resulted in the stabbing of a 17-year-old girl. The footage shows a group of 38 youth between 16 and 22 years old "walking away from a fight" along Colesville Road, near the Silver Spring Metro station. A police officer drives his cruiser onto the sidewalk, attempting to corral the kids and get them to walk to the Metro, but some of the kids duck into an alley.
Many residents pointed to this incident as justification for the curfew. "I feel that there's an increase in gang violence," said Tony Hausner, chair of Safe Silver Spring, a civic group that supports the curfew. He cited the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Tai Lam three years ago, which was connected to gang members. He said that officials in Philadelphia recently extended their curfew to 9pm in certain neighborhoods after a series of violent attacks because it had already been "so successful."
"I recognize no one likes to have their freedom restricted," Hausner added. "[The curfew] helps the kids who are good kids . . . to get them out of harm's way late at night."
Ron Ricucci, police chief for the City of Takoma Park, said youth crime wasn't a problem in his community. "Most of our kids are in Silver Spring" at night, he said, "and they come back to Takoma Park eventually. Do we have a problem? No. We have control of our kids." Chief Ricucci added that the Takoma Park City Council and residents "probably are opposed" to the restrictions, but the curfew would apply to all of Montgomery County's municipalities unless they chose to opt out.
Board member Darian Unger noted a "dissonance" between law enforcement professionals, noting Chief Ricucci's ambivalence to the curfew and opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, who believe it would turn cops into "babysitters." "Sometimes, it's worthwhile to sacrifice liberty for security," Unger said. "But if there's no data from places that have curfews that this is worth taking liberty away, I don't see a need."
Brad Stewart, provost of Montgomery College and a former criminal justice professor, explained that most youth crimes are caused by a few "chronic offenders," which the curfew would help police apprehend. He pooh-poohed concerns that the curfew would infringe on the rights of youth. "There's a lot of talk about teenage civil rights. Well, the rest of us have rights too," he says. "We're fiddling while Rome is burning."
Stewart is right that the main problems coming from a few chronic offenders. I pointed out that the policy will apply to thousands of teens guilty of no crimes. I urged citizens and the county to put their minds together to find actual, effective solutions, rather than giving in to irrational groupthink.
But that statement was met with strong opposition from some in the audience, including Brad Stewart. It's hard to have a civil discussion about an issue that makes everyone emotional. It's especially difficult when the discussion is borne out of fear.
Jim Zepp, a member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation speaking on his own behalf, urged community members to step back and understand the problem before seeking a hasty solution. "People do these things for a reason," he said. "You need to find out what that reason is."
Zepp passed out a chart listing a variety of solutions other communities have used to combat late-night crime, including Nighttime Economy Management studies like this one for San Jose, which examine the social, economic and environmental factors that create safer areas.
Lt. Carter agreed, calling the proposed curfew "one ingredient in the cake mix." He rattled off a long list of additional crime prevention strategies, including:
- Anti-gang public service announcements
- Enhanced penalties for offenders
- More funding for gang prevention, more officers, and additional investigators in Silver Spring
- Bike cops in the downtown area
- Security cameras, and people to watch them (The Peterson Companies, which manage the downtown Silver Spring complex, already have security cameras but the footage is only recorded and can be watched later.)
- "Tweaking" the county's anti-loitering law, which was struck down for being unconstitutional
- A police substation right on Ellsworth Drive, so cops could respond more quickly to any problems
- Partnering with the management of the Majestic 20 movie theater, which draws young people
- More Silver Spring Service Corps, the so-called "red-shirts" who keep the streets clean and tidy
- Opening Ellsworth Drive to cars on weekends
- Closing Veterans Plaza late at night
Lt. Carter also admitted that the curfew would do nothing to prevent the majority of youth crimes that take place earlier in the day. Yet unlike a curfew, many of these strategies cost money, which in budget-strapped Montgomery County is difficult to come by.
After the meeting, I asked Lt. Carter if there were ever foot patrols in downtown Silver Spring. As part of former County Executive Doug Duncan's attempt to revitalize the area in the 1990's, he explains, there were as many as 28 cops on foot, scooters and bikes there.
At the time, downtown Silver Spring wasn't as busy as it is today, and most of those officers were eventually assigned to other parts of the county where they were needed more. Yet as downtown became a bigger destination, the police force "never caught up with the growth," Lt. Carter said. Today, there are just 6 cops on bikes in the central business district, along with another 2 officers in cars who patrol downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
The curfew, Lt. Carter said, is necessary because Silver Spring has a thinner police presence than he'd like. "Give me 24 more cops and I'll make Manhattan at Christmastime," he says. "You know how much that would cost? 6 million dollars."
It's clear that community members share a concern about crime in downtown Silver Spring and are anxious to find a solution. Unfortunately, County Executive Leggett has overlooked costlier but far more effective solutions in his eagerness to find a quick fix.
Had he proposed a package of tools similar to those described by Lt. Carter, it's unlikely that the community would be as divided as it is today. A curfew alone might give a few residents of Montgomery County a false sense of security, but without the means to understand why destructive behavior happens and respond appropriately, it won't actually make us safer.
And in fact, the curfew might detract from the vibrant life of Silver Spring.
Since 2008 DC Council member Jack Evans has used Constituent Services Funds to reimburse members of his staff for 29 parking tickets totaling $3,341.19. The office of the DC CFO says that's taxable income.
No other council member has used the fund for that purpose except Michael A. Brown, who paid for 2 tickets totaling $255.38 during the same time period.
The revelation raises questions about the liability of Evans' staff, and their employer, to pay taxes and fines on reimbursements not reported as income.
Evans' treatment of parking tickets as work expenses also raises additional questions about the motivations of his campaign to roll back parking meter rates and hours of enforcement. Evans is the primary advocate on the DC Council for rolling back parking restrictions.
A review of campaign finance records shows that since 2008 Evans has made 29 payments from the Constituent Services Fund totaling $3,341.19 to the DC Treasurer, at PO Box 2014. That is the address for paying parking tickets to the DC DMV by mail.
Schannette Grant is Evans' chief of staff and oversees the fund. In an interview with the Washington Post she said "Sometimes, we will go to a community event at night and park at a meter where it's only good two hours. That would be a work... expense."
The Washington Post article focused on Evans' use of the Constituent Services Fund for sports tickets, and found that practice to be perfectly legal. Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington contacted the Office of the DC CFO about the legality of Evans' use of the fund to reimburse staff for parking tickets. According to Natalie Wilson, a spokesperson for the CFO, "based on District tax law, the income received is taxable to the recipient/employee."
Greater Greater Washington attempted to contact both Grant and Evans' Director of Communications Andrew Huff via email on Tuesday, inquiring whether the reimbursements were reported as income. Unfortunately there was no reply. An additional voicemail to Evans' office left late on Wednesday also received no reply.
It should be clear that penalties for breaking the law are never tax deductible work expenses. Parking tickets are no exceptions. Parking laws and fines, like other public laws and fines, are meant to serve the public interest. The city government should not be in the business of paying its employees to break the law.
Evans, the long time chair of the council committee that writes tax law, would surely agree with this principle. The fact that he views parking laws and fines as somehow not like other laws and fines sheds light on his failed campaign to make on-street parking cheaper or free.
By setting parking meters at market rates, parking turnover and availability are maximized such that the broadest possible number of drivers can take advantage of on-street parking. Enforcement is critical to ensure this turnover and availability actually occurs. In short, the city's parking rates are designed to maximize the efficiency of the system.
Evans does not seem to recognize these efficiencies. He seems to think of parking as an entitlement. That may explain his unique view of parking tickets as work expenses, and his attempts to deregulate and subsidize parking.
Imagine we needed to evacuate downtown DC and Arlington quickly, in the middle of the day. What would be the best way to do that?
We know what wouldn't work: telling all employees to go home at the same time. That's pretty much what happened Tuesday after the earthquake. No bridges or roads were damaged, though some traffic signals had switched to flashing red or had lost time synchronization.
The Metro ran at 15 mph, causing huge crowds and long waits for those riding. But that couldn't have much affected the numbers of cars on the road, since anyone who didn't drive into work wasn't going to drive back home.
Can our transportation network possibly move so many people at once?
Roads are a very flexible form of transportation, but are inefficient in their use of space. Each car takes up a lot of room. The New York Subway's 22 tracks carry as many people as at least 167 lanes of car tunnels would.
If people drove evenly throughout the day, the road network would work optimally, but they don't. Buses and trains work better for moving people in a shorter time period to a small number of locations, because they cost more to run but can fit more people in a smaller space.
There are ways to make the road more efficient. More people could occupy each car. That's the logic behind the HOV rules and slugging on I-395 and other roads. Thanks to slugging and high bus volume, 95/395 is one of the most efficient roadways for its size in the nation (but will actually get less efficient with HOT lanes).
Instead of pushing more carpooling, VDOT actually waived the HOV restrictions on its freeways on Tuesday. That doesn't make a lot of sense. It's like they just threw their hands up and said, "Wow, earthquake! Let's just ignore everything we do to make our roads work better!"
If we knew ahead of time that we'd have to evacuate DC in a hurry one day, but didn't know when, we might actually plan for stricter HOV restrictions than usual. Take a few main arteries and make them exclusively HOV-3 or HOV-4 for the evacuation. Ask workers and residents to find "evacuation buddies" who work in the same office or live in the same inner neighborhood. These people would share the car when evacuation time came.
Once those carpools get to suburban residential areas, people will have to get home, but depending on the type of disaster, just getting everyone out might be most critical. The drivers can give rides that one time to their passengers, or they can wait in places like libraries for family members to pick them up.
Buses could also use the HOV roads, allowing them to travel much faster back to commuter lots and make a return trip to pick up even more people.
Not surprisingly, advocates for more roads and sprawl, like the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, immediately jumped on the issue to call for new Potomac River bridges as part of their long attempts to build an Outer Beltway. Such bridges wouldn't actually alleviate existing traffic congestion, but would instead just drive more sprawl development and make the evacuation challenge that much harder.
During the earthquake, Ezra Klein cleverly tweeted, "This earthquake has clear policy implications that back up my previously held political opinions." That's certainly true for NVTA.
I actually learned something from the earthquake that doesn't back up previously-held opinions: we can't count on Metrorail for an emergency. Especially with today's safety concerns, Metro is going to err on the side of limiting its operations in unusual circumstances. That's probably the right move if it's not a matter of life and death. But it means we need to think about evacuations another way.
We also need to think about when evacuations are necessary. Often they're not. One of the best things the federal government can do is not to send everyone home at the exact same time. Instead, the response from OPM seems to be to pull the "everyone go home" handle at any sign of trouble. We know that this causes gridlock.
DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said at a press briefing, "You can never build your way out of an event. I know there was a lot of talk about building more bridges across to Virginia, buidling more bridges into Maryland, but you never know where the event is going to occur," the WBJ reported.
Transportation Planning Board coordinator Ron Kirby told the Post, "Not only can [sending everyone home at once] not be done, we should not try it. ... If you give [people] very good timely information, they are going to make their own decisions in ways, in general, that are going to be better for them and better for the system as a whole."
Kirby also faults Metro for not communicating more; he might not have been on Twitter, because they actually did an excellent job of communicating there. They also sent multiple press releases out over their press list throughout the afternoon and evening. If you were at a train station or on a bus, was communication good or bad there?
The best way of all to get home after a major event like an earthquake? Walk or bike, if you can.
The First Baptist Church of Washington proposes to build a 9-story, 228-unit apartment building on the site of its surface parking lot at the corner of 17th and O Streets, NW. Some nearby residents object to the plans due to concerns over noise, parking, and the specter of the project becoming a student dormitory.
The site is one of the last remaining surface parking lots in the Dupont neighborhood. Building apartments would improve neighborhood walkability, increase the city's scarce rental inventory, and provide needed revenue for the church to continue its charitable activities.
The main hurdles for the project before development can proceed are endorsement by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B), approval by the Historic Preservation Review Board, and acquisition of a zoning variance needed for a portion of the lot.
The property is currently split between two zones. The portion of the lot facing 17th Street, NW is zoned to allow 90-foot buildings. The remainder of the lot is zoned for
65- 70-foot buildings. The project will need a zoning variance in order to build to the 90-foot limit allowed for buildings on 17th Street. Even with that variance, the proposal only calls for half the density permitted by zoning.
Most of the surrounding buildings are around 90 feet tall, so this proposal fits nicely with the established neighborhood scale. The building design by architecture firm Eric Colbert and Associates has already been approved by the Dupont Circle Conservancy and garnered positive reactions from members of the ANC. Commissioner Mike Silverstein commented that the project's design fits nicely with the modern architecture of other nearby buildings.
Although it does not appear to be their main concern, project opponents have seized upon the height variance issue in order to stop the project as proposed.
Some residents who attended this month's ANC meeting were vocal in their opposition to the scope of the project. Fliers were distributed to meeting attendees that warned of noise, trash, and parking issues. Opponents' main concern seems to be that this development could become a "dorm" for undergraduate students and young people.
While it is true that the proposed building will consist of one-bedroom and efficiency units, 8% of which will be set aside as affordable housing, there is little chance the building will become a dorm. Property management company Keener-Squire reports that of the over 1,100 similar units they manage in the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, only about 2% are occupied by undergraduate students.
Johns Hopkins University does maintain a campus in an adjacent building, but it houses graduate programs attended primarily by part-time students who are unlikely to be living in the area specifically for school.
As for parking concerns, the new apartments will be located in one of the most walkable and transit-accessible areas of the city, mere blocks away from retail and the Metro. It is likely that few residents of the building will actually own a car. Regardless, the church will construct 93 underground parking spaces, 36 to replace those lost from the current lot plus 57 additional new spaces to comply with zoning requirements.
The most controversial issue may be a proposed rooftop common area. Residents are concerned about the noise a rooftop common might generate. This is a reasonable concern, but similar amenities have become a fairly common element of DC residential buildings, and there seems to be no particular reason why this specific rooftop deck should be disallowed.
Even so, both the developer and architect have said that they are willing to make changes to the rooftop area in order to abate as much noise as possible. The current design is partially enclosed, so perhaps there is opportunity to enclose more.
The full Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission has delayed a final vote on this proposal until after a special meeting of the Zoning, Preservation, and Development Committee to discuss the project. That meeting will take place at 7 pm on Tuesday, September 6, at the Hotel Dupont.
Correction: The article originally said the zoning provides for 65-foot buildings. However, while this is true for the basic zoning, the Inclusionary Zoning law increases the maximum height to 70 feet.
Recent news that Zipcar is losing some of its coveted on-street spaces in DC has sparked discussion about how new competition might impact the region's car-sharing network. Economic theory suggests that the impact on prices and service might not be as large as some hope.
Zipcar currently enjoys monopoly status in DC. Since acquiring Flexcar in 2007, Zipcar has been the only car sharing game in town. Consumers tend to think poorly of businesses that operate as monopolies, even if such firms can take advantage of efficiencies and pass the benefits down to customers. The prospect of three new competitors is welcome news to those who believe competition will benefit all concerned.
The car sharing market will soon morph into an oligopoly: an industry dominated by a handful of businesses and has high barriers to entry. In the case of car sharing, the high capital costs of vehicles and technological infrastructure make it very difficult for all but a few firms to enter the market.
Oligopolies share an important characteristic with monopolies: firms price goods and services not based simply on supply and demand, but in the way that maximizes their revenue, while taking into consideration how their competitors behave. Oligopoly industries are notorious difficult to understand, and game theory scholars have stepped into help explain why these firms behave the way they do.
In a perfectly competitive market, competition among firms brings down prices. In an oligopoly, this is also true to an extent. Consider the case of a well-known oligopoly: airlines. The air travel industry is dominated by a small number of firms and barriers to entry are extremely high. Even so, "fare wars" occasionally drive prices down and yield great deals for consumers.
Car sharing is unlike air travel in one key way: customers are screened for safe driving records, and must be a member of a given company to use its cars. In the case of Zipcar, a potential customer must submit an application that shows that they have a driver's license and have committed no serious infractions behind the wheel. If a potential customer lacks either of these, he or she is ineligible for the service.
Imagine if airlines operated similarly: Before booking a trip, you would have to buy a membership with the airline. You'd only be able to buy fares from those companies where you held a membership. Airlines would still compete for business on price, but in different ways. "Fare wars" would be a much less likely occurance.
In that sense, the market for car-sharing is more like the cell phone industry. Consumers are allowed to sign up with as many wireless carriers as they please; but most pick just one and stick with it. Rates are a major selling point, as are features like service coverage and available phones.
Even with monopoly status in many cities, and the perception of success, Zipcar is not a profitable company. In it's ten-year history, the firm has never turned a profit. Until recently, the District indirectly subsidized the company by offering choice parking spaces at below-market rates.
Arguably, Zipcar was able to pass those savings on to their customers. And with monopoly status, it became a one-stop shop for anyone looking to have access to a shared car. If, instead, the region's 800-some shared cars had been split among four companies, a customer holding a membership with only one service would have access to only a fraction of the total number of cars.
Still, competition will likely mean more total shared cars in the region, which is good from an urbanist perspective. It should benefit the consumer by forcing the industry, including Zipcar, to offer attractive rates and quality service. Just don't expect it to drive down rates significantly or drastically alter the market in the immediate future.
Like many colleges with large football programs, the University of Iowa faces major congestion problems on football game days, when tens of thousands of fans converge on its stadium. But Iowa has come up with an innovative solution to the traffic.
A railroad runs directly behind the football stadium, which got university administrators thinking. Working with Iowa Northern Railway, the University proposed running a train from satellite parking areas to the football stadium on game days.
Iowa Northern thought it was a great idea, and the Hawkeye Express was born.
In the beginning, they leased equipment from Colorado's Ski Train. For the third season, they purchased a former Amtrak locomtove and 6 bi-level former commuter cars from Chicago's Metra, now painted in Hawkeye black and gold. The train, while owned by Iowa Northern, operates over tracks owned by Iowa Interstate Railroad (whose chairman, Henry Posner III, is a prominent passenger train advocate).
The train takes 8 minutes to get from the parking areas in Coralville to the stadium and costs fans $10. It has operated for seven seasons of Iowa football.
No other university uses special trains just for football games. But it's certainly not the only university where fans can ride a train to the game. The University of Pennsylvania's stadium is just steps from the SEPTA Regional Rail station at University City. Georgia Tech's Grant Field is just a few blocks from the MARTA subway. And these aren't the only examples.
In the past, many university stadiums were served by special trains from near and far. For many at the University of Iowa, this service hearkens back to the days when Rock Island trains brought fans from as far away as Chicago.
For most, it's just a way to avoid parking problems and congestion. And, as the film shows, it's also a fun way to go.
It was a close one, but we survived yesterday's earthquake. Some remember last year's quake, but did you know that their recorded history in DC goes back as far as John Quincy Adams in 1828?
According to the US Geological Survey, no earthquake has been centered within the District, although Washington has felt ground vibrations from quakes in other regions of North America before. According to researchers at Virginia Tech, there were 160 earthquakes in Virginia from 1977 to 1994, only 16 percent of which could be felt.
Earthquakes in seismic regions such as the St. Lawrence River Valley, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and South Carolina have been felt before in the city. The earliest shock that may have affected some sections of Washington occurred on April 24, 1758. Its probable center was near Annapolis, Maryland, and it was felt into Pennsylvania.
A sequence of great earthquakes occurred in the Mississippi Embayment in 1811 and 1812. They were noticed by people over an area of 2 million square miles, including DC. According to old records, city residents were "badly frightened."
According to USGS, several eastern states and DC felt a March 1828 earthquake. Although no damage occurred, it was reported to be "violent" in DC and Baltimore. John Quincy Adams, the 6th President, penned the following account in his diary just after he felt the shock at the White House:
March 9, 1828. There was this evening the shock of an earthquake, the first which I ever distinctly noticed at the moment when it happened. I was writing in this book, when the table began to shake under my hand and the floor under my feet. The window shutters rattled as if shaken by the wind, and there was a momentary sensation as of the heaving of a ship on the waves. It continued about two minutes, then ceased. It was about eleven at night. I immediately left writing, and went to my bedchamber, where my wife was in bed, much alarmed.People along the Atlantic Coast from DC to South Carolina felt a moderate shock in August 1861, probably centered in Virginia or North Carolina. Throughout most of the area, it was strong enough to awaken people, and to rattle doors and windows. Residents reported two shocks at five second intervals.
A quake in September 1884 near Columbus, Ohio, was distinctly felt by city workmen on top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, 500 feet above ground. Virginia's strongest quake to date, more popularly known as the Giles County (Virginia) earthquake, DC in May 1897. Near its epicenter near Pearisburg, the quake cracked old brick houses, threw bricks from chimney tops, and opened slight ground fissures.
A moderate April 1918 tremor in the Luray, Virginia, area reportedly broke windows in DC. Earth sounds could be heard over a very large area. The quake also broke windows and badly cracked plaster in the Shenandoah Valley.
A magnitude 7 earthquake in Canada's St. Lawrence River region shook a 2 million square mile area in February 1925. The shock waves were reportedly felt in DC. Another Canadian earthquake, a 6.2 tremor in November 1935, caused minor damage in New York and was felt as south as Washington.
Much of this information comes from the Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 2, Number 4, July-August 1971. Thanks to the H-DC list for the suggestions.
- Bad Metro reliability is driving riders away. WMATA has a few ideas to get them back.
- 9 things people always say at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats
- Montgomery will go ahead with BRT, but at what cost?
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- New York's subway has a great idea for Metro
- Tour the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers with Google Street View
- The National Zoo has clarified its safety concerns. Turns out you're the problem.