Greater Greater Washington

Ask GGW: What are the best urban planning and policy books?

A while back, we rounded up a list of urbanist books for kids. But what about grownups who want a bit more detail and background? We asked our contributors for their recommendations.


Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.

Abigail Zenner's favorite is Happy City, by Charles Montgomery:

Montgomery talks about how the built environment and transportation choices affect on people's happiness. It's written in a way that's accessible, and it really provides good arguments for why these things matter to people.
One book in particular gave Canaan Merchant a better foundation for processing our subject matter.
Suburban Nation, by Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was my introduction to a lot of what we cover at Greater Greater Washington. Before I read it, I knew there were things that made neighborhoods work, but I couldn't articulate them. Suburgan Nation talks about why some designs that encourage walkability are either discouraged or outright banned today, which explains why some in some places make walking easy and pleasant while some only encourage driving.
Brian McEntee's recommendation is Downtown: Its Rise and Fall,1880-1950:
It's a fairly comprehensive history of the various factors (real estate, transportation, prevailing social attitudes) that shaped development and downfall during the a seminal period in American urbanism. It's a history book, not a policy book, but it does help provide a really useful "how we got here' perspective.
Kate Ascher's The Works is Kelli Raboy's manual for understanding the basics:
It's a fun look into the what/why/how of infrastructure operations in an urban environment, specifically using the backdrop of New York City.
Matt Johnson listed four:
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a staple of planning. Written in 1961, it was one of the first attempts to criticize the planning decisions of the time, but Jacobs also predicted a great many things that wouldn't become "obvious" to mainstream planners and engineers until the 1990s.
  • Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton. This book talks about how the automobile came to dominate our cities. While cars and traffic seems like a foregone conclusion today, it certainly wasn't in the 1910s and 1920s. When the car first came on the scene, there was a battle to save urban streets.
  • The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup. A book about parking policy and how there really is no such thing as free parking. Another must-read.
  • Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. A history of the Washington Metro. It's a real page-turner. Schrag talks about the history of building a Metro, DC's fight for enfranchisement, and many other related topics. It's a fascinating biography of the region, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • Ben Ross, himself the author of Dead End, said two in particular fly under the radar:
    Jason Henderson's Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and Japonica Brown-Saracino's A Neighborhood that Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity are two books that aren't as well known as they should be, and both are particularly relevant to current issues in DC. (With A Neighborhood that Never Changes, you may want to skip the rather academic introduction and first chapter.)
    David Alpert's go-to is The Option of Urbanism, by Christopher Leinberger:
    It lays out very clearly the difference between walkable urbanism and what he calls "driveable sub-urbanism," why it's hard to switch a place from one to the other, why it's easier for people building cookie-cutter sprawl to get financing than people building urban mixed-use, and much more.
    Aimee Custis said,
    Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker "is a really terrific primer for non-planners on transit: why it's important, how it works, how it interacts with land use, why some systems succeed while others fail, and how to build a good transit system. And Walkable City, by Jeff Speck is a great 21st century complement to Jane Jacobs, which Matt recommended. Still read Jane, but if you get a little bogged down or want to understand exactly what's happening today, Jeff is a fantastic and engaging writer."
    Chris Slatt offered a book that's heavy on visuals:
    I'm partial to Victor Dover's Street Design. The text is a bit dense and heavy, but there is a ton of great knowledge in there about designing streets and the delicious creamy center is hundreds and hundreds of pictures showing actual examples of great streets all across the globe. His book is excellent for countering the inevitable "well that could never work" response that comes when redesigning for Complete Streets and shows just how far we have to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
    Tracey Johnstone's pick is useful for understanding how urbanism fits into today's politics:
    Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, by William S. Lind and the late Paul Weyrich makes a politically conservative case for investing in mass transit. The reasons the authors have for supporting transit are a lot like those of any transit advocate: that people who don't ride transit still benefit from it, and that that mass transit contributes to energy conservation and independence, which in turn help with national security.
    Melissa Lindsjo added Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, by Sonja Hirt, and Jeff Lemieux recommended Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.

    Finally, Brent Bolin asked a follow-up question:

    I am always looking for the go-to primer for elected officials (or community members) that don't understand urbanist issues. I've taken the time to read a lot of these, but when I am interacting with my fellow elected officials, I always wonder what I should be putting in their hands. Let's say that I'm not looking for Urbanism 101, but rather Urbanism 100 (for non-majors).
    Aimee Custis said Walkable City fits the bill, and Abigail Zenner followed up that Happy City "would be great for people who haven't thought about this stuff before."

    Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

    This is what sexy infrastructure looks like, says John Oliver

    Repairing infrastructure isn't as sexy as blowing it up. But this spoof from John Oliver reminds us that while it's boring, maintenance deserves urgent attention.

    Oliver, host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, may be having fun with a sad reality, but his commentary before the skit is also spot on.

    Nationwide, our roads and transit infrastructure are falling into disrepair. And even though each dollar spent on preventive maintenance saves at least $4 in future repairs, political leaders often opt instead for the showy ribbon cuttings that accompany new projects.

    Why the left is wrong about affordable housing

    Whenever we discuss housing affordability, we usually hear two major opposing beliefs. Both are well-honed, clear arguments. And both are wrong—or at least, not completely right.


    Photo by Loupiote on Flickr.

    Some say that new development only provides high-end housing which doesn't do anything to help those who really need it. Therefore, they oppose new market-rate development.

    Others say the problem is we don't have enough development. Regulations constrict supply and drive up costs. Get rid of regulations and the free market will build housing for everyone.

    While residents of DC (and most US cities) are mostly Democrats, we can say that proponents of the first view are generally farther to the left on the political spectrum, while proponents of the second are, if not conservative, farther to the right. This post will address what's wrong with the left's notion that supply and demand don't apply. A follow-up post will critique the right's free-market solution.

    In a nutshell, the first proposition essentially denies that supply and demand matter. But it's to hard to demonstrate that if there's not enough housing on the market to meet demand, higher-income people will bid up prices and out-compete lower-income people.

    DC is growing rapidly and this strong demand to live in the city encourages people to build new housing. But it's not enough. There's so much competition for a limited supply of homes that even people who could normally afford to rent or buy a home can't find one easily within their budget.

    There's clear evidence that this is happening in a recent study by the Urban Institute about affordable housing in the region. It shows that nearly half of the units that could be affordable to lower-income people are instead occupied by higher-income people:


    Graph based on data for DC from the Urban Institute.

    Basically, the people who make up the green bars in the above chart could afford to be in a higher-priced unit. If there were more new construction units, many of them would live there. That would leave more lower-priced housing left for those who don't earn as much.

    Encouraging more new housing to be built and making it easier to build can help increase competition among builders and reduce competition among renters. This helps keep prices down both in among new, higher priced units and also in older buildings.

    Recent reports suggest this is happening. The rapid increase in housing supply that has been pushing down rents in high end, newer units is also now shaving down prices across the market, even for older apartments.

    While this decrease in prices might be difficult to discern, continuing to encourage more supply will help further push down costs and make it easier for a larger segment of households to find the right place to live.

    Supply matters. The more the market can serve those who can to pay for more expensive housing, the better chance for moderate- and lower-income people to find lower-priced housing available.

    Buildings are expensive to build, and absent a government subsidy or a program like Inclusionary Zoning, new units won't be affordable to everyone. But it can be for many. Ignoring the importance of supply to keep up with demand means that we are only that much farther behind trying to address our housing needs for people at the bottom and middle of the housing market.

    Encouraging supply to meet demand is a necessary condition for addressing housing affordability. However, it's not a sufficient condition entirely on its own. Tomorrow, we'll talk about why "let the market work" isn't the whole answer either.

    These maps show when and where riders use the Silver Line

    Ridership is strong at the Silver Line's Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner stations, and over time there should be more riders at the other three stops. You can see this and other facts about Silver Line ridership
    from a new data visualization on PlanItMetro.


    Silver Line ridership visualization by WMATA.

    PlanItMetro's interactive maps and graphs show when and where Silver Line riders are going to and coming from, and allow users to look at riders' entry and destination stations along with the day of the week and the time, in quarter-hour increments.

    Last year, Metro posted graphs showing one week of September ridership, but this dataset represent ridership from all of October 2014, including weekdays, weekends, and holidays.

    Wiehle-Reston East and Tysons Corner see far more riders than the other three, but the others could catch up as land around the stations develops.

    Wiehle-Reston East gets the most passengers overall

    Wiehle-Reston East currently handles the lion's share of passengers at new Silver Line stations, partly because it's a hub for transit riders whose bus routes take them there or who use the station's large park-and-ride garage. Wiehle-Reston East's ridership base is a lot like other stations at the end of Metro lines: the overwhelming majority of its riders are inbound commuters who enter on weekday mornings and exit on weekday evenings.

    Interestingly, Wiehle is also the largest single commuting destination on the Silver Line. On the average weekday during the morning peak, about 1,000 passengers exit at Wiehle, compared to about 5,000 entries. Even though Tysons Corner is a jobs hub, only about 900 people exit at that station during the same period. At the four stations in the Tysons area, there are about 2,100 combined exits during this period.

    The Wiehle number is impressive because more people exit at Wiehle Avenue during the morning peak than exit from any other terminal station. Wiehle's 1,046 average exits trumps the next-best terminal, Shady Grove (with 977 average exits).

    Also interestingly, Wiehle's ratio of entries to exits is the smallest of all the terminal stations (meaning it's the most tilted toward exits). At Wiehle Avenue, for every exit, there are 4.9 entries. That compares to 6.1 entries for every exit at New Carrollton, 7.3 at Greenbelt, and 7.5 at Largo.

    Some of this ridership is likely due to people connecting to buses bound for Reston, Herndon, and Dulles Airport. But there are some office buildings around the station as well.

    Ridership at Wiehle will likely change once Phase Two is complete: many passengers who currently arrive on buses, or take them to destinations like Reston Town Center or Dulles, will instead start boarding the Silver Line farther down the line.

    Tysons corners the market on work, evening trips

    Tysons Corner's ridership pattern exhibits some unusual features.

    Weekday rush-hour exits at Tysons Corner outnumber boardings at the station by three to one, which shows that like stations in downtown DC, Tysons Corner is near where a lot of people work. But unlike downtown DC, PlanItMetro has pointed out that a lot of people travel to Tysons Corner during off-peak and on holidays, probably to use surrounding shopping centers. In the evenings (after 7:00 pm), Tysons Corner is the busiest Silver Line station.

    In terms of the ratio of entries to exits, Tysons Corner is a lot like a station on the edge of downtown. At Tysons Corner, there are 1.8 exits for every entry. Next door at Greensboro, the ratio is 1.7 exits for every entry. That compares to Dupont Circle, with a ratio of 1.9 and Rosslyn with a ratio of 1.5.

    Tysons Corner and Greensboro are the only stations outside of the Beltway where exits outnumber entries during the morning peak period.

    McLean, Greensboro, and Spring Hill, the Silver Line's three other three Tysons stations, see fewer riders than Wiehle or Tysons Corner. That could be because these three have not yet been enveloped by transit-oriented development. McLean, for example, draws a lot of local residents, many of whom ride a bicycle or walk to the station.

    Even though Silver Line passengers go all across the region, most of them aren't transferring to other lines, or going to destinations in the eastern half of the metro area. Over 60% of passengers boarding at Silver Line stations on weekdays travel to stations served by the Silver Line between Wiehle and L'Enfant Plaza.

    What else do you find interesting from the data visualization?

    Breakfast links: Service oriented


    Photo by _BuBBy_ on Flickr.
    Give, take: Mayor Bowser's legislation to ban pot clubs passed unanimously yesterday. (Post) ... The council supports legislation to let breweries, like restaurants and bars, to serve alcohol in sidewalk cafés or summer gardens. But it may take awhile to become law. (City Paper)

    More data needed: Anita Bonds wants to create a public database of the city's 80,000 rent-controlled units to make it easier to find and track affordable housing. But many rent-controlled units are not actually affordable. (City Paper)

    Public busing, private schools?: Montgomery County will continue a pilot program that uses public school buses to transport private school students. County officials support the program because it reduces traffic congestion. (BethesdaNow)

    More MARC trains: MARC's Camden Line will add two additional trips per day between DC and Baltimore. The MTA says the expansion is in response to increased ridership to the University of Maryland and several federal agencies. (MTA)

    Stamp of approval: Maryland's senate unanimously approved Pete Rahn as the new MDOT secretary on Monday, despite concerns around his support of the Purple and Red Line projects and his lack of experience outside of highways. (Post)

    Stairway to maintenance: One of Metro's newest escalators is already undergoing extensive repairs. The escalator, which debuted at the Dupont Circle station in 2012, has been out of service nearly every day since early December. (WAMU, Joe)

    Ticket to ride: Seattle's transit system will charge riders based on income level. Proponents say the move was necessary after the tech boom pushed lower-income residents into the suburbs. (BBC, BTA)

    And...: The cherry blossoms should hit peak bloom around April 11-14. (DCist) ... Can you think of a terrible surface parking lot? Submit it to Streetsblog's worst parking crater competition. ... Smithsonian museums have officially banned "Selfie Sticks." (WBJ)

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    How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 41

    It's time for the forty-first installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of 5 stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

    This week, all 5 photos come from reigning champion Peter K. If you're interested in submitting one or more of your own, please send them in!


    Image 1


    Image 2


    Image 3


    Image 4


    Image 5

    The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

    I'd also like to give a special thanks to Peter K for submitting photos. If you think you have what it takes, email your photos to whichwmata@ggwash.org.

    Kids living in the toughest circumstances are less likely to go to charter schools

    Students who are homeless, in foster care, or otherwise "at risk" are more likely to be in the DC Public School system than in charter schools. And the more at-risk kids a school has, the lower its standardized test scores.


    Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

    The sloping green line on this graphic shows that when a school has a lot of at-risk students, it generally has low test scores. That's no surprise.

    But the graphic also shows something that's been hard to get at through existing data: DC's traditional public schools are serving serving a disproportionate number of students who are likely to be the hardest to educate.

    In addition to students who are homeless or in foster care, the at-risk category includes those receiving welfare or food stamps, and those who have been held back a year or more in high school. A DC law that went into effect this school year set up the at-risk category and appropriated additional funds for those students.

    Data show which schools have the most at-risk students

    Guy Brandenburg, a blogger and former DCPS math teacher, used the data generated by the legislation to create the graphic above and the ones below. To his surprise, he found that only three DC charter schools have 70% or more of their students in the at-risk category. Within DCPS, on the other hand, there are 31 such schools.

    Two of the three charter schools with over 70% at-risk students—Maya Angelou and Optionsare specifically targeted to kids in that category. The third school is Friendship Blow Pierce.

    The usual yardstick for the degree of poverty in schools is the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But students in that federal program can have a family income of up to 185% of the poverty level. The at-risk measure identifies the subgroup of students who are likely to be living in the deepest poverty.

    Leaders of DC's charter sector often point out that charter schools educate a higher percentage of low-income students than DCPS. But they're talking about students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, not those in the at-risk category.

    Graphics showing school size and names

    The graphic below shows the same data as the one above, but the size of the dots corresponds to the size of the school.


    Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

    A third graphic provides the names of some of the schools.


    Graphic from Guy Brandenburg.

    Brandenburg has also posted a table with all the data that he used to create the graphics.

    Based on the data, Brandenburg predicts that DC is moving to a tripartite education system. He sees wealthier students attending DCPS schools in Ward 3 or a handful of charters that appeal to more affluent families. Those "in the middle of the wealth/family-cohesion spectrum," many of them black or Hispanic, are largely in charters. And those "at the seriously low end of the economic spectrum," most of them black, are in highly segregated DCPS schools.

    In Chicago, you can charter your own L train

    A ride on the 'L' Train in Chicago normally costs $2.25, but what if you don't want to wait or share a car with strangers, or you really want to have a party on a moving train? For a cool $1,800, an 'L' train is all yours.


    Image from the Chicago Transit Authority.

    When you rent a train, you can pack 35 friends into each car, and you're welcome to bring food, drinks, and even your own DJ along. Chicago Transit Authority allows rentals anytime outside of rush hour and for a minimum of three hours.

    The service often anchors historic tours, and one couple is hosting their wedding on the 'L' because it's where they first met. Not a bad choice given how great the view is from some of the 'L' lines.

    Could Metro do this?

    The 'L' isn't the only rail line that lets you charter a train car. Amtrak will let you charter a train car, or even connect one you already own to one of their services. And luxury trains, which people ride more for the experience than for practical transportation, exist around the world.

    Metro couldn't exactly do the exact same thing as Chicago. For one, WMATA has strict rules against eating and drinking on trains and in stations, and who knows if they'd lift them. Also, rides through downtown wouldn't be nearly as scenic since in DC, it'd be underground.

    Still, if Metro ever wanted to make it happen, I've got a suggestion for where to host Greater Greater Washington's eighth birthday party!

    Breakfast links: Here we go again


    Photo by Andy on Flickr.
    Job opening: All the candidates for the top job at Metro dropped out of the running after a reporter learned where they currently work. But WMATA board members say this may be a chance to look more broadly for someone less like Sarles. (Post)

    Put the leash on: Silver Spring's free-range parents have been found responsible for "unsubstantiated" child neglect by Montgomery County Child Protective Services. They plan to appeal, and don't know what will happen if their children get reported for being unsupervised again. (Post, Thad)

    Slow down: Mayor Bowser will announce more details about "Vision Zero" in the next few weeks. Walking and cycling advocates emphasize better road design, eliminating right turn on red, and better enforcement. (WAMU)

    Don't tear down this school: Advocates want to save the historic Wilson School building in Rosslyn. But Arlington County plans to tear it down and replace it with a much larger school building. (Post)

    Purple protest: Purple Line supporters planned to protest a "nonpartisan debate" on the transit line. The state transportation secretary was scheduled to speak at the event but later pulled out. (BethesdaNow)

    MoCo BRT moving: Montgomery County kicked off public engagement for its Bus Rapid Transit System. The county is working with advisory committees to help plan the system, hoping to avoid more opposition. (BethesdaNow)

    Too high?: Could more tall buildings in College Park impact its historic small airport? Some pilots want to see height limits, and officials are concerned about safety. (Post)

    Pop-up price drops: The Ava, the towering pop-up building on V Street NW, is still struggling to sell. The ground-floor unit has sold, but the other two units haven't, and the price of one has dropped by 20%. (City Paper)

    And...: Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski plans to retire after 30 years. Who will succeed her? (Post) ... Seattle's Sound Transit is trying to address inequality with fares based on income. (NYTimes) ... Transit systems on the East Coast face huge problems this winter, due to weather and lack of investment. (Salon)

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    Events roundup: One more week to party time

    Our birthday bash is coming up one week from Wednesday. We hope to see you there! Also, weigh in on VRE fare hikes, the GW Parkway, Wilson Boulevard, and Columbia


    Photo by Omer Wazir on Flickr.

    GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is now seven years old! Celebrate wtih us on Wednesday, March 11, 6:30-8:30 pm at Lost and Found, 1240 9th Street NW. There will be cake, merriment, and a cash bar. See you there!

    GW Parkway: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle between Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches on Tuesday, March 3, 5-8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

    VRE fare hike: The Virginia Railway Express plans to raise its fares. The final two public forums are this week. The first is Tuesday, March 3, 7-8 pm at 14700 Potomac Mills Road in Woodbridge. The second is on Thursday, March 5, 7-8 pm at Fredericksburg City Hall, 715 Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg.

    Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's transportation funding initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

    Wilson Boulevard changes: Arlington is going ahead with bike lanes and a road diet on Wilson Boulevard in the Bluemont area. There's a meeting on the changes this Thursday, March 5, from 7 to 8:30 pm at 855 North Edison Street.

    Future of Columbia Pike: The streetcar is canceled, so what's next? Elected officials and community leades will discuss the future of Columbia Pike at a panel this Friday, March 6, from 6 to 8 pm. It's at the Salsa Room, 2619 Columbia Pike.

    Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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