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Posts from September 2011


Small transport projects can be best and build a better region

To hear some people talk, the only way to "solve" traffic issues in the Washington region is to go big or go home. But smaller local projects could have a much bigger impact on making the region a better place to live, and an easier place to navigate.

Photo by neoporcupine on Flickr.

Individuals like Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton or organizations like the 2030 Group prey on the frustrations of Washington area drivers by proposing gargantuan projects like the Outer Beltway and multiple additional Potomac River crossings.

They promise that these projects from the 1950's can solve, in one fell swoop, traffic problems that have developed because of our reliance on specific forms of development and transportation in the years since World War II.

Leave aside for the moment whether, in this era of limited public funding, the money even exists for these projects. You still run into a simple problem with these "solutions"—a focus on highway capacity expansion hasn't been effective at solving our traffic problems.

Fortunately, we don't think the situation is hopeless. It just requires a different way of thinking about the problem to get at those different results.

While we're not going to go into every possibility in this particular post, we do want to focus on the idea that smaller, localized projects taken as a whole can be better than the larger, flashier projects. Smaller projects can offer more travel options, improved livability, and better regional transportation performance for a fraction of the cost of a megaproject.

Focusing on simple projects like making it easier to walk or bike to school in a given locality, adding housing close to jobs and in commercial shopping corridors, connecting local streets, or incentivizing development at an underutilized Metro station can have a ripple effect on transportation in our region.

This is not to say that there is never a time or place for major infrastructure projects. But we can sometimes can get much better dividends by instituting common sense, smart growth solutions that give people real choices on neighborhood scale and transportation options. And we can often use our existing infrastructure instead of an over-reliance on creating something new.

To help demonstrate that, we're starting an occasional series on localized projects and themes that, when looked at as a whole, could provide real options in transportation and living arrangements. This piece-by-piece approach can improve the performance of our transportation system in the Washington region at the same time it strengthens our communities.

Our first posts will focus on smart growth in the Rockville Pike corridor in Montgomery County, creating Safe Routes to School in Fairfax County, and citizen involvement in Gaithersburg.

In the coming weeks we hope to present similar pieces from different areas throughout the DC area to highlight a range of solutions that together will offer regional benefits. Do you have some ideas of your own for your particular part or sector of the metropolitan region? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Let us hear your suggestion by submitting it as a post and we may include it as part of this series.


DDOT seeks community input on R Street bike improvements

The R Street NW bike lane is an important east-west thoroughfare for cyclists in DC, stretching from Massachusetts Avenue NW to Florida Avenue NW. The only gap remaining is 6 blocks between Florida Avenue and the Metropolitan Branch Trail. DDOT hopes to fill this gap soon.

Photo by nolantreadway on Flickr.

On Saturday morning, local ANC Commissioners hosted representatives from DDOT to meet with residents of Eckington and Bloomingdale to discuss their proposal to complete the direct connection for cyclists between the MBT and Rock Creek Park.

The proposal calls for a combination of sharrows and protected bike lanes between Florida Avenue and the MBT along R Street. According to DDOT representatives, the choice of sharrows, rather than bike lanes, was one of necessity because much of R Street through Bloomingdale and Eckington carries two-way traffic rather than one-way, rendering the street too narrow to incorporate bike lanes.

R Street is one-way eastbound on the block between 2nd Street NE and 3rd Street NE. Westbound cyclists cannot legally remain on R Street, and either have to go out of their way, or bike on the sidewalk here. The proposal calls for a separated contraflow bike lane on this block. This design is similar to that of 15th Street NW, where a lane of parking provides a buffer between cyclists and traffic.

Segment of project from Eckington Place to 3rd Street, NE.

One goal of this project is to increase safety for both cyclists and drivers, especially for drivers on southbound 2nd Street NE, where the column of parked cars would obscure their ability to see oncoming cyclists.

Among residents in attendance, the proposal for sharrows along R Street was uncontroversial. Residents noted the unobtrusive nature of the markings, a sample of which was displayed by DDOT representatives, and that the sharrows will provide another welcome impetus for motorists in the area to slow down and be mindful of bicyclists and pedestrians (speed humps are already installed on this stretch of R Street).

Photo by nolantreadway on Flickr.

Of more concern to the gathered residents was the overall traffic volume in the neighborhood, particularly the truck traffic emanating from industrial areas along the MBT and railroad tracks, as well as from the FedEx facility at Florida and New York Avenues NE.

The ANC Commissioners present spoke of past agreements with these companies to limit the use of local streets for through-traffic, and how those agreements have been forgotten or ignored over the years. They also noted the difficultly of imposing weight-restrictions on R Street because of its status as a major east-west route and collector street.

Ultimately, attendees and DDOT representatives recognized the value of sharrows is more symbolic than physical. Unlike separated bike lanes, sharrows don't provide any physical protection to cyclists, who are still vulnerable to dooring or being squeezed by traffic.

Still, the sharrows provide an important psychological benefit, letting drivers know bicyclists are present and have a right to the road, and letting cyclists know they are welcome on the street.

As the next step in their process for community input and approval, DDOT will present at an upcoming ANC meeting. The ANC may hold a vote on the issue, though such a vote is not required for DDOT to move forward.

If approved, the project itself will be relatively inexpensive. Each sharrow marking runs about $75 and costs another $75 to install. Approximately two markings in each direction will be installed per block. Barring significant opposition within the community, DDOT representatives estimated the project could be completed before Thanksgiving.


Breakfast links: How to build community

Photo by jsmjr on Flickr.
BIDs can transform neighborhoods: Former NoMA BID president Elizabeth Price discusses the role of BIDs to market neighborhoods. The BID has brought new businesses and residents and started to create a sense of community. (Post)

Eisenhower Ave still lacking vibrancy: The neighborhood around the Eisenhower Avenue metro station isn't as vibrant as planners hoped. New development plans could help because they include more than just apartments and restaurants. (Urban Turf)

Warner wants Potomac bridge: Virginia Senator Mark Warner is pushing for a new bridge across the Potomac River, saying it could help long-term economic growth. But a new bridge could just increase traffic. (Huffington Post)

Some cities banning plastic bags: DC's bag tax has raised about $2.5 million but some cities in California have banned plastic bags altogether. The tax is meant to lower bag use but could an outright ban be more successful? (Atlantic Cities)

DC stops paying federal lobbyists: The District has ended contracts with federal lobbying firms and will instead manage federal lobbying internally. One of the firms was Patton Boggs, where Jack Evans works. (Post)

Gray withdraws elections board nomination: Mayor Gray won't nominate Robert Mallett to the Board of Elections and Ethics because he doesn't meet the legal residency requirement. The withdrawal prolongs vacancy problems on the board. (DCist)

Can you hear me now?: Metro hasn't met its own deadlines to improve cell phone service in stations. The work is mostly done though and is high-priority for Metro. (Examiner)

And...: Adrian Fenty is hosting a fundraiser for Jack Evans (DCist) ... Don't give beer to DC firefighters (NBC Washington) ... Pepco wants to raise rates to pay for upgrades (WTOP).

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Mayoral flip-flop leads to flap over Bellevue library name

Residents of the Bellevue neighborhood in far Southwest and the DC Library Board of Trustees have called for the new library there to be named after the neighborhood. But Mayor Gray, who initially stood with the residents, has changed his position to name it after a former school board member.

Former Washington Highlands Library in Bellevue. Photo by author.

Mayor Gray is now supporting controversial legislation to re-name the neighborhood's new 22,000 square foot library after former School Board member William Lockridge.

"The Mayor has flipped his position," Dionne Brown, President of Bellevue Library Friends and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for SMD 8D07, says.

At a hearing last week to consider separate bills, introduced to the City Council more than six months ago, designating the library and five blocks of Valley Avenue SE after Lockridge, Francisco Fimbres, Director of the Office of Neighborhood Engagement, delivered testimony of behalf of Mayor Gray:

"[W]e are aware that the DC Public Library Board of Trustees and the Friends of the Washington Highlands Library have taken recent actions in support of re-naming the Washington Highlands Neighborhood Library as the Bellevue Library instead of the William Lockridge Library, and that the Library Board of Trustees has had a general policy to name buildings after the geographical communities in which they are located."
Fimbres noted the District's public space naming statute prohibits two spaces from having the same name. Without endorsing which public space, the street or the library, should bear Lockridge's name, Fimbres offered, "the Gray administration supports the Council moving forward with only one public space designation bill," that the community and Lockridge family can support and rally around.

Later in the day, however, Gray back-stepped from his earlier statement and supported the re-naming of the library after Lockridge in a letter to Council Chairman Kwame Brown.

In fact, a public space has already been named for Lockridge; the baseball diamond at Oxon Run Park on Wheeler Road SE and Mississippi Avenue SE. The Mayor dedicated it himself. A plaque bearing Mr. Lockridge's likeness is installed there. Given the Mayor's stated position on naming only one space, no further legislation should be considered.

"[W]e respectfully request this bill not be given further consideration on the grounds that Mr. Lockridge did not tirelessly work on libraries in his community," John Hill, President of the DC Library Board of Trustees and CEO of the Federal City Council, wrote in his public testimony. Hill and others expressed that naming one of Ward 8's 21 schools after Lockridge would be more befitting.

Disagreement had marred the process of closing the old Washington Highlands Library and deciding on a design for the new library from the early stages.

Initially, the Bellevue Civic Association proposed renaming the library after Wilhelmina Rolark, noted Civil Rights attorney and four-term Ward 8 councilmember. They deferred to the library's policy, only to have the Mayor ignore the Board's policy and recommend a less accomplished individual.

In doing so, neither the Mayor nor City Council consulted the local Friends organization, Chief Librarian, Library Board of Trustees, Council Committee on Libraries, Parks, and Recreation or other library stakeholders on advocating the library bear Lockridge's namesake.

"The Bellevue Library Friends and the library community in general have been totally marginalized and disrespected in this process," contends Brown.

On July 27 the Library Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rename Washington Highlands Library "Bellevue" to reflect the actual neighborhood where it is located. In the fall of 2009, the Bellevue Civic Association and Friends of Washington Highlands Library submitted a name change request to Ginnie Cooper, DCPL's Chief Librarian. Cooper agreed the new library represented an opportunity to make an impact on the community's identity.

With the March 2010 shooting on South Capitol Street, across the street from the library, positive branding is needed to distinguish the Ward 8 neighborhood according to residents.

In remarks Tuesday at George Washington University, Gray attempted to delineate Ward 8 neighborhoods. "And for those who may not know, and I'm not trying to be flippant, but Anacostia and Ward 8 are not synonymous, alright? Anacostia is part of Ward 8. There's Congress Heights, there's Bellevue."

Although Mayor Gray apparently recognizes and promotes Bellevue when speaking to a downtown, academic audience, he doesn't support the neighborhood's new library bearing its own name.

"Petworth is in Petworth, Cleveland Park is in Cleveland Park, Shaw is in Shaw, Deanwood is in Deanwood," says Brown. "The library in Bellevue should be in Bellevue especially given that most city residents, including those who live in the neighborhood, don't even know where Bellevue is."

While the community has played by the rules and established processes for renaming branch libraries, the Mayor and Council Chairman are abusing their power for political patronage.


Weekend video: All 50 state-named avenues

Reader Steve Goehrke biked all 50 of DC's state-named avenues. He created this video of each and the landmarks that line them.

If you're curious about these 50 avenues (actually 48 avenues, one street, and one drive), Matt Johnson created some detailed and fascinating maps showing why different state roads appear where they do.

Today, others are getting a taste of this, with WABA's annual 50 States and 13 Colonies Ride. The ride is full this year, and participants will enjoy a scenic (some say grueling) 60+ mile tour of the District.

But seeing all 50 state-named avenues doesn't mean biking them all in one day. Steve did his exploration over several days. Doing something similar would be a great way to see parts of the city you might otherwise never have visited.


Weekend links: Rules matter

Photo by afsart on Flickr.
Maryland delegate charged with felony: Maryland Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D - Prince George's) is accused of misspending thousands of campaign dollars on a wedding and on payroll at her law firm. (Post)

Walk sign means walk with caution: A DC resident takes special care crossing streets, especially after her family witnessed several driver-pedestrian collisions. (Atlantic Cities)

Bus drivers predict fare arguments: The 2-decade-old Anacostia bus discount ends this week. Some bus drivers say WMATA hasn't publicized the change sufficiently and they worry they will have to argue with angry passengers. (Examiner)

Some embassies become Americans' homes again: Though Congo bought the historic Toutorsky Mansion for its embassy, several old embassies have been converted back to mansions or to condos. (Post)

Subway gets interactive displays: New York's subway is receiving several touchscreen information displays. The 47" displays will show travel alerts and feature a trip planner. Ads will finance the machines. (Popular Science)

Build bike infrastructure and business will come: Portland is discovering that businesses along popular bike routes are catering to cyclists. Even development projects are touting their bike-friendly amenities. (NYT)

YIMBY neighborhood association still has trouble: A Seattle neighborhood rallied for a light rail station in their neighborhood and to upzone around it. Now they say a developer is pushing the envelope too far. (Seattle Times)

And...: Construction of NYC's 2nd Ave subway has advanced 29 blocks in 16 months. (WSJ) ... New York has more economic, diplomatic, political, and cultural clout than a lot of sovereign countries. (Atlantic Cities) ... Take free walking tours and biking tours this weekend and next weekend all throughout DC.

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Sunset by the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Dupont Circle. Photo by pablo.raw.

NoMa. Photo by Vileinist.

Logan Circle. Photo by fromcaliw/love.

15th Street. Photo by nevermindtheend.

Huntington. Photo by ajfroggie.

Eastern Market. Photo by jacquesofalltrades.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of Washington? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Public Spaces

Give DC residents access to Roosevelt Island with a ferry

Roosevelt Island is a DC recreational asset and it's tantalizingly close to Georgetown. But far from easy to access for most DC residents. A ferry from Georgetown could solve that problem.

Photo by Vicki's Pics on Flickr.

Last weekend, as I was taking in the newly-completed Georgetown waterfront park, my eyes (as well as many of the eyes of my fellow layabouts) were drawn to Roosevelt Island. It sits so tantalizingly close to Georgetown, yet it's a difficult place to visit.

From the waterfront park, it's over a mile walk across the Key Bridge and along a highway. This situation inspired me to ponder the idea of creating a ferry service between the Georgetown Waterfront Park and Roosevelt Island.

The distance between the park and the island is just over 100 yards. It would be possible to build a small pedestrian ferry to shuttle small groups of people back and forth from the waterfront park amphitheater to the island. All that would be needed would be a small dock at either end. The ferry could be wire-guided or simply be a small independent boat.

Illustration by the author.

Connected this way, the two parks would truly complement each other. The waterfront park is beautifully landscaped and sunny, but it doesn't provide that much in the way of footpaths. To walk a mile, you'd probably have to walk in a circle a couple times. Roosevelt Island, on the other hand, is almost nothing but paths and wild nature. With an easy connection, visitors could come to the waterfront park, have a picnic, and then make their way over to the island for a hike.

An even better (albeit much more expensive) option would be a bridge:

Illustration by the author.

This would allow a steady flow of visitors to move between the island and the park. Just imagine the beautiful vista that would be created by a sweeping bridge like London's Millennium Bridge going from the base of Wisconsin Ave. over to the island.

Roosevelt Island is in the District of Columbia, yet DC residents have to travel through Virginia via or along a highway to get to this fantastic and wild resource. The new waterfront park is a perfect new gateway to the island. Now it's time to build the threshold.

Crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.


Just talking about Metro to Woodbridge is worthwhile

On Monday, a meeting hosted by Congressman Gerry Connolly will talk about the potential to extend Metro to Woodbridge. The hurdles are large, especially funding, and on the pure transportation merits another mode might be better. However, it's still a good idea for the Congressman and residents of Prince William to talk about Metro.

Photo by wfyurasko on Flickr.

Why talk about an idea which might never happen and might not even be the best of the options? There are many good reasons:

  • Talking about Metro gets people excited, and can stimulate the real important conversation about all transit modes.
  • It takes a long time to build big transportation facilities, and by the time this happens, Metro might be the best option after all.
  • There is political value as well as mobility value in bringing some forms of transit to all communities, not just the densest ones.
  • Transportation "megaprojects" tend to suck up all the transportation funding, and transit megaprojects should be among the options when funding comes available.

Metro is a starting point for the broad discussion around transit.

The meeting revolves around a bill Connolly introduced to study running Metro specifically in the area. But as he explained, his goal is "not to prejudge Metro" as the right or wrong mode, but rather to get a conversation going about transit in the area. That is sorely needed.

Earlier this week, we discussed the merits of many transportation options, from light rail to improved VRE to extending the Blue or Yellow Lines (or both). All of these have their pros and cons and any discussion of transit options for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William should consider them all and more.

But the simple reality is that if Connolly had called a meeting entitled "Discussion of multimodal travel alternatives in the I-95 corridor," almost nobody would show up. But announce a meeting on "Metro to Woodbridge!" and it gets major coverage in the press.

We have to think very long-term.

Prince William County needs to start thinking about transit. If they fill the county with entirely car-dependent development, they'll end up regretting it in 30 years, but it'll be too late to cost-effectively provide any alternatives. Designing more walkable and transit-oriented communities in a few spots and focusing most of the growth there can help the county grow without making traffic worse for all its existing residents.

But these things take a long time. Connolly pointed out that rail in the Dulles corridor was first discussed in a federal document in 1962. 47 years later, Virginia signed the first funding agreement to build it. The question is not just what's best for southern Fairfax and eastern Prince William today, but what's best in 2058 as well.

And for all we know, 47 years from now there will be automated tunnel-building machines which can not only dig tunnels, like today's TBMs, but handle utility relocation and everything else to make building a long tunnel far cheaper than it is today. Or maybe not, but we can't know today.

Transit planning is also politics.

Some argued in the comments on Tuesday's article that we should focus on transit in the core. That is where the capacity crunch is greatest. On the other hand, transit in outer areas will bring transit accessibility to the greatest number of people who lack it today. Not only is that good public policy, but it builds public support for transit generally.

When there's no transit in a community, nobody uses it, nobody builds with it in mind, and so few people can imagine how transit could be a part of their transportation mix. If a big transit project is coming to the area, people have something to look forward to and advocate around.

Also, designing transit for all communities is an important way to bridge the "culture war" gap between the urban and suburban lifestyle. When transit is an element of many communities from the densest urban ones to the lowest-density suburbs (perhaps with different modes, like commuter rail or express buses), it helps prevent or reduce the political dynamic where the more numerous suburban legislators want to cut transit entirely since they have no constituents who use it.

Bad road projects shouldn't be the only megaprojects to choose from.

Finally, our system of government and media has a bias toward transportation megaprojects over many smaller ones. A huge project gets headlines and attention. Leaders, from local to federal, like to be associated with big public works. Big projects make people feel that something significant is getting done.

This is unfortunate, since a larger number of smaller transportation improvements can make more of a difference for less money. As I noted in the Post, Capital Bikeshare (which was itself a big deal) could be built 18 times over for the price of the massive Gainesville interchange rebuild alone. Individual bike lanes, sidewalks, roundabouts, street reconnections, bus lanes, bus service enhancements, and more each cost little but add up to a lot of value.

The 2030 Group/Bob Chase/Rich Parsons survey of unnamed transportation experts fell (or deliberately leapt) into this trap, asking transportation engineers what their short list of 10 big projects would be to address regional mobility. Naturally, those engineers picked 10 very large projects even if 100 or 1,000 small ones would do more.

But if transit advocates simply stop thinking big, the result won't be more sensible projects, but just more big, sprawl-inducing, induced demand-creating road projects. There are always more pie-in-the-sky big freeways. The state DOTs have been studying some of them for decades, like the Tri-County Parkway in Virginia or the I-270 widening in Maryland. If they're turned down, like the Mid-County Highway extension, the DOT brings it back a decade later.

These projects float around for a long time with absolutely no money to build them. Then, at some point the economic outlook improves or a governor wants to borrow significant money from a few generations hence, and presto, the projects get funded.

Therefore, it's important to start studying and planning some big transit projects and get those plans closer to "shovel-ready." Maybe the conversation will settle on a more modest solution. Maybe the travel demand and federal funding climate will change and big projects will again become fiscally feasible. Maybe technology will make building subway tunnels cheaper. Or maybe just having the conversation will itself lead to a better vision for the future of this area.

The meeting is Monday, September 26, 6:30 pm at Harbour View, 13200 Marina Way, in Woodbridge.


Breakfast links: Capital Bikeshare delivers

Photo by The Great Photographicon on Flickr.
CaBi to expand further: At last night's Capital Bikeshare birthday party, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy announced that DC will add 50 more stations beyond the 32 already planned, along with 500 more bikes early next year.

CaBi employee recovers a stolen bike: Bystanders in Woodley Park chased after a bike thief. A CaBi employee was able to recover the victim's bike. (PoP)

CaBi blew SmartBike away: Why did SmartBike never match CaBi's success? It lacked day passes, enough locations, good marketing, and the bikes looked goofy. It serves as a case study of what not to do. (TBD)

Chinatown Metro is really is crowded: Growth downtown has made ridership at Gallery Place skyrocket, but the narrow platforms and T-shaped layout make it tricky for riders. WMATA is studying possible solutions, including filling in a "moat," cutting into vault corners, or even a new elevated walkway. (PlanItMetro, Examiner)

Steps forward and back for transparency: Mayor Gray reversed the fire chief's decision to censor tweets. (Post) ... 9 councilmembers booted reporters from an internal ethics chat. Closed-door sessions are permitted in some circumstances. (DCist)

What if Arlington never left DC?: The 100-square-mile District would boast 1 million residents, 12 wards, 1 Walmart, and still no members of Congress. (City Paper) ... This assumes the rest of local history wouldn't change.

No such thing as a free highway: With gas tax and toll revenues falling, Maryland is raising tolls to compensate. Virginia wants to add tolls to I-95 south of Richmond to fund repairs. (Post) ... Will this increase public awareness that highways are expensive?

Pedestrianize Penn Ave on Sundays?: Yesterday's Car-Free Day festivities inspired columnist Harry Jaffe to advocate making Penn. Avenue a bicyclist-pedestrian street on Sundays. It's symbolic, but would other streets be livelier venues? (Examiner)

And...: Fall began this morning at 5:04 am. (Post) ... The earthquake and tropical storm caused over $100 million in damage in Virginia. (Washington Times) ... All Metro riders (who register their cards) can now refill SmarTrips online. (Post)

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