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Posts from September 2009

Public Spaces

NPS: Recreation in our park would get in the way of traffic

Some days, it's hard to wonder how the National Park Service justifies having "park" in their name. Rock Creek Park is a large park with many amenities, but a large part of it is just a highway for cars with a narrow trail for everyone else adjacent. The Bike DC ride, a low-stress bicycle ride around DC, asked NPS for permission to use Rock Creek Parkway for two hours early on a Saturday morning. NPS turned them down very quickly, arguing in essence that all of these bicyclists enjoying the park and the roadway would get in the way of car traffic.

Photo by bankbryan.

Here's the letter. NPS's primary argument is that "We believe that a large scale organized bicycle tour such as you have proposed, would require road closures and would result in a severedisruption to vehicular and pedestrian traffic." In other words, it's more important to NPS to use their park for car traffic, even on Saturday, than to let 10,000 bicycle riders enjoy the park at a slower pace.

NPS closes streets for large events, like protests, all the time. Sometimes they even do that during rush hours. Since when is disrupting some traffic on a Saturday morning the paramount concern of the Park Service?

They also argue that it would be too difficult to provide police resources necessary to ensure the safety of riders and pedestrians. Of course, most days the roads are far more dangerous with all the car traffic, but NPS doesn't seem very concerned about having enough police resources to protect the pedestrians then. Also, Bike DC will be closing various other roads around DC, and DDOT doesn't seem to need a lot of police there nor see the impact on vehicles as too onerous.

Bike DC applied to use Rock Creek Parkway to avoid passing through western Dupont Circle. Last year, the ride blocked off several roads leaving residents, including ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein, with no way to drive out of the area. If unable to use Rock Creek, organizers will explore designating certain intersections where cars and the bicycles can cross. That may well actually require police resources.



Zimmerman and Linton on innovation

At Thursday's Metro Board meeting, issues around open access to data arose twice, once around NextBus and once around schedule data and Google Transit. Both times, Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington advocated for Metro to take an encouraging stance toward innovation, while alternate Board member Gordon Linton of Maryland suggested Metro should limit access to information until and unless they can work out legal contracts to protect potential future sources of revenue.

Zimmerman (left) and Linton (right). Image from WMATA.

This is a complex issue spanning two related but separate topics. First, should Metro do a deal with Google, a big company that might make some money from ads while riders use its service? Second, should Metro enable other, smaller developers to create applications, whether or not they make money? The issues are related and, more importantly, often get tangled up with each other. Today, I've transcribed the debates at the Metro board. In upcoming days, I'll boil down the key arguments and explain why Linton's point of view misses the forest for the trees.

First, Metro staff presented the NextBus summary we discussed last week. Zimmerman asked whether Metro can allow developers to build innovative tools using NextBus data. The exchange begins at 1:14:48 in this audio stream.

I'm told that there are bars in Portland, Oregon where they have digital displays, and you can be sitting there right up until the streetcar is coming so you can run and catch the streetcar. We heard sometime last year about something in Chicago, an application that can call your cell phone [when your bus is coming]. These were being done by outside third parties tapping into the information and making it more generally available. Can we do that here?
Staff replied that they weren't sure, but would look into the possibility. Zimmerman continued,
To the extent that we can leverage this to increase the communication out there, increase the accessibility of the system, that would increase awareness. All the people who aren't using the thing say "What's that?" and "That's cool!" and you could pick up customers that way.
Linton spoke up to point out that there might also be licensing issues. But should licensing issues prevent any progress?
While it's always good to be looking for how we can make any revenue we can to offset the cost of subsidies and fares, it would be a shame to get ourselves so tied up in what might not be a significant revenue stream that we miss the larger thing. Getting a customer on that pays a fare to fill a bus that's not full could be worth a lot more to us, potentially.

Many of of these kinds of applications aren't making a lot of money for anybody. One example that I heard of is some graduate student; basically it's a hobby. They do i for fun. Somebody sometimes money and a lot of them don't. Our fundamental biz is transportation, and to the extent that we can do that better and get more customers, that's where our emphasis ought to be.

Linton, a former FTA administrator and now private transportation consultant, didn't agree.
That is our fundamental business, but we don't have that business unless we have revenue to support it. My experience has always been that we tend to underestimate and overlook the revenue implications of this. When we were looking at the idea to have car rental services, I suggested that we explore it and what I heard was that this was a service that we provide to our users. Just by exploring it we found that there was revenue.

We always need to look and not assume that just because you provide a service that someobdy's not generating income. And since I am on the other side of this equation I know how people are out there generating income. Transit agencies I have supported for my entire career are always begging for money, but do not value their resources, and others do who are lining their pockets.

I would point out, though that your example is instructive. You're talking about car sharing. When we started that we just provided the space, and we didnt get any money back. More recently, we have been able to make arrangements that do provide us some money back, but when they first walked in here to do car sharing, there was no money to be made. Nobody was making anything. It was important to get it seeded and started to a point where someondey is making money and we can share in it.

If nobody is doing it then nobody is making any money on it. It's very important to protect our long-term interests. But again, if it doesn't get started, if it doesn't happen, then there's no value created. And I think we need to find a way to get these things started. In the long term if there is a flow of revenue that's significant, we should be tapping some of it. But this won't happen if we don't help stimulate it in the first place.

It's not a matter of not starting it, it's a matter of how you structure your deal. [It's fine if] the deal allows you to get the revenue that's generated, recognizing that for startups there's no revenue. I created public-private partnerships when I was at the FTA. They create a structure for innovation but at the same time recognize that at a point of innovation when we have a spinoff and rev starts to be generated, you should therefore start sharing in the revenues at that time.
Next: The debate over Google Transit, a few hours later.


The rest of the ghost bike story

Dave Stroup of why.i.hate.dc has tracked down the gory details of the ghost bike removal.

Photo by Eric Gilliland.

In a nutshell, the request originated with Ed Grandis, who runs a Dupont Circle based group called DC MAP with significant overlap with Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets. The next week, the Mayor's Ward 2 specialist Andrew Huff asked DPW to cut the bike down within 24 hours, calling it a "mayoral request." DDOT's Jim Sebastian tried to give WABA a chance to remove the bike, getting Huff to agree to wait until Monday; however, DPW didn't get Huff's note in time and cut it anyway.

Following the outcry, Mayoral, DPW, and DDOT officials debated what to do. Some of the Mayor's people were willing to set up a permanent memorial, but DPW opposed the idea, as did other mayoral staff, and they collectively decided to refuse to give a better answer to inquiries.

From our previous discussions on this topic, I know commenters' opinions are divided on a permanent memorial, and I'm not sure if I'd endorse it either. The bigger question, as Stroup notes, is why a request from one local organization turned into an urgent priority on the part of the Mayor. Had the Mayor's office simply contacted Sebastian without such a short deadline, he would have talked to WABA, they would probably have taken the bike down, and that would have been it.

Stroup had to pay $65 in copying fees to get all of this. This is a good example of why it's important for bloggers to be considered news media and given the exemption to FOIA fees that journalists are entitled to. In this case, Stroup is digging up important information about the workings of the government that are interesting to the public, and publishing it. That's called journalism.



Breakfast links: Virginia transportation sticking points

Photo by sudama.
Escape from Van Dorn: Eight people got locked inside the Van Dorn Metro station Friday. The station manager locked up at the usual time, but there was still another train and he didn't know about it. The passengers had to wait 30 minutes for Metro police to come let them out. That shouldn't happen, but many bloggers have noted that calling the experience "a nightmare" that will leave you "scarred for a while" might be overstating the issue. (Post, Michael P)

Widener Deeds vs. more widener McDonnell: Virginia gubernatorial candidates Creigh Deeds (D) and Bob McDonnell (R) had dueled in op-eds Sunday. Since transportation is a top issue in Virginia, both addressed it. Deeds wants to get 95/395 HOT lanes going again, but put "improving Metro and mass transit" at the top of his list, and vaguely called for "improving mobility in the I-66 corridor"; McDonnell, meanwhile, called to explicitly widen I-66, also wants the HOT lanes, and made the Silver Line his only mention of transit.

Bad polling news for Fenty: A WJLA poll found that 51% of DC voters disapprove of Adrian Fenty's performance. There's a huge racial divide, with 69% of blacks disapproving but only 24% of whites. A majority think he's more focused on his career than the city. (WJLA)

Non-suck column: Robert McCartney's column this weekend profiles Unsuck DC Metro, the "gadfly" blog that keeps a close eye on Metro service and customer service issues. (Post)

A more pleasant library: The Mount Pleasant library's new addition will be a more modern structure behind the existing one. The addition, which will only be minimally visible from the street, seems to mimic the colors and angles of the original. (DC Metrocentric)

No parking at MLK: DC is closing the parking garage (scroll to 3rd page) at the MLK Library starting November 15th. This was part of the budget cuts approved earlier this year. It's not clear why the garage can't simply go to market rate pricing.

Parking better in Arlington: Arlington is considering a raft of more progressive parking policies, including charging for parking on evenings and weekends and unbundling parking in zoning. (Examiner, Michael P.)

Ask Congress for $4 billion: A Congressional conference committee will soon reconcile two transportation appropriations, one with $4 billion for high-speed rail in the House, and the other for $1.2 billion in the Senate. T4America and other groups are asking people to push for the higher number.

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Scenes of Washington: Churches

St. Matthew's, 3rd & M, SW

Wesley A.M.E., 14th & Q, NW

St. Matthew's, 17th & Rhode Island, NW

United Methodist, Rosslyn

Scripture Cathedral, 9th & O, NW

St. Martin's, North Capitol & T

National Shrine

New York Avenue Presbyterian



We are small, but we're not bugs

This is a recent motorcycle safety spot from the Norwegian Motorcycle Union. In light of increasing motorcycle fatalities here in the US, this is an interesting way to help drivers keep their eyes out for all road users. This ad could have used cyclists or pedestrians just as effectively, without changing its message to drivers.



Lost Washington: The Hotel Grafton

Hotel Grafton ca. 1917

The Hotel Grafton was originally built in 1894 for Herbert, Fleming & Dulaney, and was located at 1139 Connecticut Avenue, NW (northeast corner of Connecticut and Desales). In 1909, it underwent extensive improvements and additions estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $200,000.

The new section added in the 1909 construction faced Desales street with a frontage of 45 feet. The exterior was faced in gray tapestry brick and the building was trimmed with white Indiana limestone.

The addition contained an elevator, 45 sleeping rooms and 30 bathrooms, and had terrazzo floors in the corridors. There was also a kitchen installed in the basement with enameled brick walls and a red tile floor. All in all, the addition was considered fireproof.

After prohibition had been repealed at the end of 1933, the Grafton along with the New Ebbitt Hotel continued to be "Dry Hotels" (no alcohol). At this time both properties were owned and operated by George C. Clarke.

The Grafton ceased being a hotel in 1941 when it was leased to the British Supply Council in North America. In the spring of 1945 it was purchased with plans for constructing a new 12-story office building on the site.

Drawing Room, Hotel Grafton


With Safeway and library, Tenleytown takes two steps forward and one step back

This past week, Safeway revealed their plans to renovate the Safeway at 42nd and Ellicott Streets, along Wisconsin Avenue in the northern reaches of Tenleytown. What they propose (huge PDF) is a dramatic improvement over the bunker-like current building, and will enliven a dreary section of the neighborhood.

However, the project includes no residential or commercial component on top of the new stores, despite its location roughly one-half mile from both the Tenleytown-AU and Friendship Heights Metro stations. Like the TD Banknorth building across Wisconsin Avenue, these patches in the urban fabric will better the community, but without more of a plan, they are just patches.

The new Safeway will activate 42nd Street, which is separated from Wisconsin Avenue by just a small triangular park. Instead of a forbidding blank wall, Safeway plans some outdoor seating for an in-store Starbucks. Residential Ellicott Street will get a landscaped park in front of the store's substantial setback. The surface parking lot will become an enclosed one-story parking wing, and the loading dock will move to Davenport Street, adjacent to Georgetown Day School, screened from the street by a brick wall.

42nd Street view now (left) and planned (right).

Unfortunately, Safeway wanted to be expedient with the design and worked with one of the five neighborhood organizations that claims to represent the community, the Alliance for Rational Development. As their double-plus inaccurate name implies, ARD opposes most, if not all development of sites along Wisconsin and in Tenleytown. Their policies are transit-oriented-denialist, insisting that the area is optimally zoned and built up, and that any more growth will only have negative effects, primarily on the supply of parking.

42nd Street elevation.

Some of their concerns for any given project can seem legitimate when viewed without context, ignoring of the multiple benefits of well-designed areas with mixed uses. But Tenleytown's zoning only allows for densities along a very narrow band on Wisconsin Avenue, closer in form to a suburban arterial than an interconnected city neighborhood. Many other lots, just a block or two from the Metro have no opportunities for development at any scale, because they are zoned as low-density in spite of their location at a major node in the city's infrastructure network.

Because there are so few available parcels, city officials and residents on both sides end up debating the few opportunities for development even more hotly. The Tenley-Friendship Library, for example, represented an appealing opportunity to add housing to an existing project on publicly-owned land. But that small site posed other challenges, like fitting in a reasonable building without disrupting the adjacent Janney School. That proved too difficult, and city officials ultimately abandoned that effort.

Last week, the Economic Development office announced that the new library would have stronger columns in the rear third of the building, to support future construction above and behind the current building.

A small addition, mostly on top rather than beside the library, might be possible, but there's very little room to maneuver. And realistically, any building other than a modest standalone structure would seem out of place amid the other uses on that block. Eliminating one of Janney's fields is too steep a price to pay for the benefits. However, nobody would be suggesting such an expensive, controversial project if the neighborhood had zoning that was more reasonable for such a central location and neighbors that greeted development with constructive dialogue.

The local ANC issued a list of potential development sites in response to the Library fiasco, however, the sites they selected are not enough. Metro and the commercial potential along Wisconsin are both amazing resources that a neighborhood cannot squander while also looking to become sustainable and rational.

Cross-posted at цarьchitect.


London's spider maps

Transport for London has these great bus maps that show routes traveling in all directions from major transit nodes.

Liverpool Street map from Transport for London. Click to enlarge (PDF).

These maps, known as "spider maps," are more abstract than the station-oriented bus maps Metro posts in stations and recently put online. They combine several useful features:

  • A local area walking map, showing the location of the different bus stops keyed to a table of routes;
  • A schematic route map for the bus, showing routing to other transit nodes in the area;
  • A table of routes leaving from that node, either daytime or nighttime routes.

These maps, Metro's station area maps, Los Angeles Metro's "12 Minute" maps (discussed here), and improved bus schedules are all created by CHK America, Inc.

There are some challenges with this mapping method:

  • You have to name the "dots". Could DC residents agree on what to call the many new places we'd have to represent as a dot on a map? Or would the dot names become conglomerations, like some Metro station names? Bus stops do have names today, typically the name of the cross street, so perhaps those could suffice.
  • Our bus service seems more complicated. Some routes only travel certain times or have "turn-back" service. For example, there are some Metrobus routes that operate only two or three trips a day. Is it better or worse to put them on the map?
  • Our buses are not as frequent as London's. This kind of map is most useful if the rider only has to worry about routing and not schedule. Once a rider has to worry about bus schedule and timetables, it's likely this won't be enough information. Perhaps the line widths could vary to convey frequency information.
Despite these challanges, spider maps make it very easy for someone to easily find the bus line to get from a station to any destination. Maps like these could be very valuable in the Washington region, as they are in London.


Breakfast links: Keep on the grass

Photo by Sid Burgess.
Catoe gets silent nay from Albert: The Metro board voted to renew John Catoe's contract, as expected. The surprise was one dissenting vote, from DC City Administrator Neil Albert, who made no comment about Catoe at all at the meeting before voting no. In later statements, he didn't give much explanation. (Post)

Parking rites: Michael Neibauer gets more details of Michael Brown's proposed exemption for funeral attendees from parking tickets. It doesn't let them park anywhere they want, but just to park for free at meters and use residential parking zones for more than the allowed two hours. Having some way to use residential zones is reasonable, though a better approach would be to let anyone buy a day pass, whether for a funeral or anything else, and to allow longer meter stays though still not free. Phil Mendelson, Mary Cheh, Kwame Brown, and Harry Thomas cosponsored. (Examiner)

Chicago free market acolytes create price ceiling: Chicago might have privatized their parking meters, but at the University of Chicago Business School, the pulsing heart of pure market-based economics, parking is free. Plus, there's free valet parking for corporate recruiters. (Time, Ben Ross)

Pull ya car on up: Every year, homeowners in Puyallup let people park on their lawns during the big fair. They raise up to $15,000 for the neighborhood. But the city recently told them they have to stop. (King 5, Michael P)

Where the sidewalks end: Sidewalks are often an afterthought in road engineering, especially in the more auto-centric areas. Sid Burgess assembled seven examples of bad sidewalk design, including one where a light pole sprouts right from the center of the sidewalk, and one where officials took up half the sidewalk with a jersey barrier and chain link fence in addition to the light poles.

The great park bench debate: Officials removed the benches at the triangular park at 14th and Ogden in 2007 to discourage drug dealing. But it also made the triangle an even less welcoming place for neighborhood residents. Crime didn't go down; it actually increased, though possibly because new development pushed crime over a few blocks. Local artist Sarah Tooley replaced them last year with brightly colored benches sporting sentences that came from a neighborhood survey. After neighborhood debate, officials decided to let them stay and go with the "eyes on the street" philosophy, plus increased policing. Unfortunately, plans for a fully renovated park call for stone stools placed far enough apart so nobody can pass drugs—or just talk to one another. (City Paper)

Watch out for reply-all: That pesky listserv feature where replies go, by default, to the entire list has snagged one of the candidates in the "Unity Slate," the more anti-change slate for Cleveland Park Citizens Association offices. Ruth Caplan, candidate for Corresponding Secretary, answered a question about speed bumps on the CPCA list, and Recording Secretary candidate Ann Hamilton quickly replied, "Dammit! I thought we agreed (well, were correctly instructed) not to respond!" The reply went to the whole list. Oops! (Ward3DC)

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