Greater Greater Washington

Front and center in 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.

Photo by Beau Finley.

Fiesta Asia Street Fair. Photo by Miki J.

Columbia Heights Civic Plaza. Photo by bfwjohnson.

Adams Morgan Movie Night. Photo by Ted Eytan.

Smithsonian Metro Station. Photo by BeyondDC.

Photo by zshoup.

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

Wider lanes make city streets more dangerous

The "forgiving highway" approach to traffic engineering holds that wider is safer when it comes to street design. After decades of adherence to these standards, American cities are now criss-crossed by streets with 12-foot wide lanes. As Walkable City author Jeff Speck argued in CityLab last year, this is actually terrible for public safety and the pedestrian environment.

The rate of side impact crashes is lowest on urban streets with lanes about 10.5 feet wide—much narrower than the standard 12 feet. Graph by Dewan Karim via Streetsblog.

A new study reinforces the argument that cities need to reconsider lane widths and redesign streets accordingly. In a paper to be presented at the Canadian Institute of Traffic Engineers annual conference, author Dewan Masud Karim presents hard evidence that wider lanes increase risk on city streets.

Karim conducted a wide-ranging review of existing research as well as an examination of crash databases in two cities, taking into consideration 190 randomly selected intersections in Tokyo and 70 in Toronto.

Looking at the crash databases, Karim found that collision rates escalate as lane widths exceed about 10.5 feet.

Roads with the widest lanes—12 feet or wider—were associated with greater crash rates and higher impact speeds. Karim also found that crash rates rise as lanes become narrower than about 10 feet, though this does not take impact speeds and crash severity into account. He concluded that there is a sweet spot for lane widths on city streets, between about 10 and 10.5 feet.

In Toronto, where traffic lanes are typically wider than in Tokyo, the average crash impact speed is also 34 percent higher, Karim found, suggesting that wider lanes not only result in more crashes but in more severe crashes.

The "inevitable statistical outcome" of the "wider-is-safer approach is loss of precious life, particularly by vulnerable citizens," Karim concluded.

Yes, it's worth looking into a gondola in DC

Is building a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn feasible? There's money in DC's budget for next year to look into the answer, and there are enough practical reasons to think a gondola might work to make it worth looking into.

The study, proposed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District to determine whether building an aerial gondola from the Rosslyn Metro stop to M Street in Georgetown, would cost $35,000. When considered as part of the $13 billion budget, which the DC Council adopted this week, the project and its impact are relatively tiny.

The gondola proposal has generated biting contempt from several quarters, but the criticism is misplaced. Given the possible benefits, we should absolutely study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Where the gondola idea came from

As documented by the Post, the gondola idea is the brainchild of the Georgetown BID's CEO Joe Sternlieb. After seeing an aerial gondola in action in Portland, Oregon, Sternlieb became entranced with the idea of bringing this idea to Washington.

After taking charge at the BID, Sternlieb was quickly able to persuade all the relevant stakeholders that the idea was worth looking into. Two years ago, it took the form of a particularly eye-catching action item in the Georgetown 2028 long-term planning study, which the BID produced with significant community input. Funding the study is a significant step towards completing that action item.

The BID has raised $130,000 from donors and needs an additional $35,000 each from DC and Arlington to fund the anticipated $200,000 study. While Arlington has not officially approved its contribution, a county spokesperson stated that it was working towards it. (Full disclosure: I served on the steering committee of the Georgetown 2028 study).

Here's why some people hate the idea

From the beginning, the gondola proposal has attracted scorn from some transit advocates. The criticism essentially boils down to the following points:

  • It's too expensive, and the transit service it provides wouldn't be enough to justify the cost.
  • It's just a distraction from other less attention-grabbing transit projects, which would lose some funding to the gondola.
  • The technology itself (and thus the project too) is nothing but "gadgetbahn," or new technology being sold as an improvement over what we currently have without actually offering any improvements.
In the abstract, the first two complaints are perfectly reasonable. We have to consider the costs and benefits of any new transit project, and an analysis of the gondola would need to account for there being limited funds for transit.

The third point, however, is not entirely fair. By being able to easily traverse otherwise treacherous inclines, gondolas clearly provide transit capabilities that no other technology can. It only becomes "gadgetbahn" when it's being applied in the wrong situation.

Criticisms withstanding, the gondola is worth studying

Ultimately, each of these criticisms may be justified. But we won't know that for certain without the study.

Of course, you could apply that statement to any cockamamie plan. "How could we possibly know a jet pack share wouldn't work without studying it," skeptics might ask with muse. But there are enough reasons to believe a gondola could actually be worth it to justify a study to answer the question.

Here are those reasons:

  • Gondolas are, relatively speaking, cheap and quick to build. Sternlieb very much views this mostly as a stop gap measure until Metrorail can be built to Georgetown. Rather than do nothing for 20-30 years as we wait for Metro, we could have this up and running in just a few years.
  • A gondola would make for a quick ride from Georgetown to the Metro, and it'd be entertaining to boot.
  • A gondola would eliminate the need for Georgetown University to run the GUTS bus between the campus and Rosslyn. This route serves over 700,000 riders a year, and the people who use it would would form the core of the gondola's ridership. That number would likely climb, though, as many students, workers and visitors would start using the route out of convenience. Commuters to and from Georgetown would also likely add significant ridership to the line. And tourists, of course, would likely flock to it.
  • Yes, a bus-only lane from Rosslyn to Georgetown and then to Georgetown University would be cheaper and possibly as successful. But creating bus-only lanes through the heart of Rosslyn, across Key Bridge and down Canal Road is politically infeasible. DC cannot marshall the will power to construct successful bus lanes in corridors where doing so is a no-brainer. What chance is there that it could construct a successful multi-jurisdictional bus lane where the case is not as clear cut?
  • Without bus lanes and absent a new subway line, there really isn't any other technology that can as easily connect people from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the university as a gondola would. Again, this is not proposed as a replacement of Metro, just a "temporary" measure as we wait several decades for Metro to be expanded.
  • A gondola would hold the potential to become a tourist destination in and of itself.
  • Unlike other alternatives, a gondola would likely attract funding support from wider sources, like Virginia, Georgetown University, and the BID itself.
Will these arguments convince everyone? Probably not. But they are strong enough to justify a closer look at what it'd take to build a gondola.

The study now will almost certainly move forward. It's possible that the results will make it clear that a gondola isn't worth it, in which case Sternlieb and the BID would drop it and move on. But it's also possible it will show a gondola to be feasible, and at that point, we could have a fully-informed discussion to address each of the critics' points.

Roll your eyes if you must, but personally, I trust Sternlieb. As the man that was largely responsible for the creation of the successful Circulator bus system, he's earned the right to push the boundaries a bit.

A version of this post ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Prince George's is hiring a bike and pedestrian coordinator

Prince George's County leads the Washington region in pedestrian deaths, and it's behind when it comes to trails and streets that are safe and useful for people on foot and bike. To fix the problem, the county will soon hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator and develop a bikeway plan.

Photo by Cindy Shebley on Flickr.

News of the hire comes from Darrell B. Mobley, Director of the County's Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T). Mobley says his agency wants to facilitate bicycling.

More specifically, Mobley wants to make the county's bike network more usable. While Prince George's has a lot of trails and local streets that are perfect for bicycling, they aren't connected well enough for bicyclists to reach a destination without riding on more hazardous state and county roads. Mobley wants to create a bicycle network across the county using trails, bike lanes and safe streets.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and several county council members have urged DPW&T to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator since Rushern Baker first became the county executive. The county posted the job this week, specifying that it's a Planner III position that will pay between $53,000 and $97,000 per year.

The coordinator will report to Victor Weissberg, the special assistant in the director's office who has long been responsible for representing the department on bike and pedestrian matters. According to Weissberg, the coordinator will have frequent access to both Mobley and Andre Issayans, DPW&T's Deputy Director.

Developing a bikeway plan is likely to be one of the first tasks for the new hire, says Weissberg.

The county's master plan of transportation shows where bike lanes and trails should be built in the very long run, but it does not address what will actually done or when. Weissberg says that creating a bikeway plan would probably require supplemental funding.

"When the county is ready, we will find the money," says Greg Billing, director of advocacy for WABA.

Weissberg is not sure whether DPW&T will create a formal bicycle plan or something more like an internal work plan. But he promises to share drafts with the bicycle community and others as the plan is formulated.

Does the new hire signal a substantive change in county policy, or just an institutional commitment?

When Mobley was a top official at the Maryland Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration (SHA) issued a policy declaring that bicycles would be presumed to ride on all state highways where bicycles are not explicitly prohibited, and that SHA would make at least some effort to make bicyling safer. For example, roads might get signs that told drivers that bicycles may take up the full lane.

By contrast, DPW&T has stated that some roads are not part of the bicycle network, that cyclists use these roads at their own risk, and that no "use full lane" signs would go up on such roads because doing so would encourage other cyclists to ride on them.

Mobley says that he is not ready to endorse SHA's approach. He says that it is too soon to say that bicycles are part of the expected traffic mix on all county roads because he has not examined all of these roads. He wants to wait for the bike and pedestrian coordinator to come on board so that the county can adopt a position based on a reasoned analysis.

"Give us some time and we'll work through these challenges," says Mobley.

Cross-posted at the WABA blog.

Breakfast links: Sadness

Photo by ehpien on Flickr.
Tragedy: A violent drive-by shooter shot and killed Charnice Milton on Wednesday when she was waiting for the bus. Milton reported on local news, ANCs, and communities east of the Anacostia River for Capital Community News. Her stories were an important source of news and information for the community. (Post)

Bridge blues: Starting today, Memorial Bridge will lose two of its travel lanes and both sidewalks for passenger travel for at least 6 months. The emergency closure comes after inspectors found significant corrosion of support beams on the bridge. (Post)

Advertising ban: The WMATA Board unanimously voted to ban political and issue-based advertisements for the rest of the year after an anti-Islam organization planned to buy ads on Metro buses depicting the prophet Muhammad. (Washingtonian)

Go on-dola: DC's budget includes $35,000 for a feasibility study of a gondola between Georgetown and Rosslyn. The Georgetown BID has raised most of the $200,000 needed for the study and Arlington may contribute as well. (Post)

New bike lanes?: As part of the I-66 expansion project, VDOT will consider extending the Custis Trail to Gainesville. (TheWashCycle) ... Montgomery County wants to complete a bicycle route around the White Flint Metro. (Bethesda Beat)

HOT and bothered: Homeowners affected by the proposed I-66 expansion expressed their frustration at the first public hearing on the project this week. VDOT hopes that building HOT lanes will encourage enough carpooling to keep traffic moving. (Post)

220 problems: The decision over whether to order an additional 220 7000-series railcars is complicated. But WMATA and local jurisdictions must decide if increasing system capacity or saving money is more important. (WAMU)

Barriers to biking: One cyclist rode along the new Southeast Boulevard on a bike, and shows how DDOT missed a good opportunity to add bike lanes to the wide, underutilized road. (dave rides a bike)

And...: Major construction has begun on the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel. (DCist) ... Police are ticketing cyclists for going the wrong way on a short one-way stretch of M Street near the Convention Center. (POPville) ... The lawsuit between the White Flint Mall and its lone tenant, Lord & Taylor, will start in late July. (WBJ)

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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 52

On Tuesday, we featured the fifty-second issue of our "whichWMATA" series. This week, all five photos were guest submissions from reader Peter K.

We got 27 guesses this week. Ten of you got all five. Great work, Sand Box John, Andy L, Eric, Aman, Mike Plumb, MZEBE, Justin...., JamesDCane, FN, and Mr. Johnson!

Image 1: Cheverly

The first image shows the underside of the entrance to Cheverly station. At Cheverly, the Orange Line is sandwiched between the CSX freight line and the Amtrak Northeast Corridor. To enter the station, passengers first have to ascend to a bridge over the CSX tracks, which is home to the fare array. The bridge is somewhat distinctive, and we featured the station entrance in week 38. Seventeen of you figured it out.

Image 2: Pentagon

The second image was clearly the easiest, as all 27 of you got it right. It shows a train on the lower level of Pentagon station. This station has a split-level arrangement, which you can tell because of the wall on the right and the sign that indicates trains in the other direction are on a different level. And since there's signage for the Yellow Line, it can't be Rosslyn, so it's obviously Pentagon.

Image 3: Greenbelt

The third image shows the mezzanine skylights at Greenbelt station. They're located between the tracks and the offramp from the Beltway and provide natural light into the interior part of the station. We actually used this same feature, though from a very different angle, in week 1. Twenty-one of you guessed correctly.

Image 4: Vienna

The fourth image shows the south bus loop at Vienna. You should have been able to narrow this down to one of about ten stations because of the Fairfax Connector bus that's visible. This must be Vienna because of the new awning visible at bottom and the townhouses under construction in the distance. The awning is similar to one at West Falls Church, but that bus loop is not adjacent to a parking garage and is in a freeway median. We featured it in week 29. Twenty-two of you got this one right.

Image 5: Dupont Circle

The final image shows one of the elevators in the north (Q Street) mezzanine at Dupont Circle. Even if you've never seen this sign, you could figure this one out from the process of elimination. The sign indicates that this is a station on the Red Line and you can see a waffle vault. That narrows this to the six stations between Union Station and Dupont Circle.

The sign also says the elevator goes only to the Glenmont platform. That means this can't be an island platform station, which eliminates Union Station and Farragut North. And the arrangement of Gallery Place and Metro Center means that the elevators to the Red Line platforms aren't set into the vault in the mezzanine like this. That leaves Judiciary Square and Dupont Circle.

This can't be Judiciary Square because the elevators there don't stop in the mezzanine. They go straight from the street to the platform and each has a faregate on the platform. So this must be Dupont Circle. Sixteen of you did the math and got the right answer.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next Tuesday.

Thanks again to Peter K for submitting photos. If you think you have what it takes, email your photos to

DC has an awesome city flag. Here’s why that matters

DC's two-bar, three-star flag recently got some props for being distinguishable while also having a classic, simple look. A well-designed flag can serve as a rallying point for civic engagement. Our region bears some great flags, along with some that leave something to be desired.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The praise came from Roman Mars, a prominent radio host who covers design issues, in a recent TED Talk.

You don't need to look hard to spot DC's flag around town. The flag is on display in lots of storefronts, and it has been a clear symbol of city campaigns for statehood. And for how many cities would a misrepresentation of its banner be a scandal, as was the case this fall when the cover of DC's voter registration guide displayed the flag upside down?

Many might question whether a flag misprint truly compares with all the other problems facing America's cities. The point, though, is that if people are taking pride in their city's flag, it's more likely that they'll engage meaningfully with issues like transit, green space and signage.

Here's what makes a great flag

So what makes DC's flag so great?

There's a whole group of flag enthusiasts ready to explain flag design. According to flag expert Ted Kaye, there are five general ingredients for designing a great flag:

  1. Keep it simple: The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: "The flag's images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use two or three basic colors: Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No lettering or seals: Never use writing of any kind or an organization's seal.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

Some of our region's flags meet the bar. Others, not so much

Given those principles, it's easy to see why Washingtonians love their flag. (As far as the symbolism part is concerned, DCers might be interested to know that the red stars and bars are borrowed directly from George Washington's family coat of arms.)

The same ideas also explain why Marylanders love to flash their state flag, a pattern pulled from the coat of arms surrounding Cecilius Calvert, Maryland's founder. The flag is a popular pattern on local clothing, and can often be seen waving from the hands of fans at Orioles games. In fact, a 2001 survey by the National American Vexillological (i.e. flag) Association ranked Maryland's flag 4th best of all state and provincial flags on the continent. (DC ranked 8th.)

Photo by Missy Corley on Flickr.

Unfortunately flag experts can't offer the same praise for Virginia's flag, which ranked 54 out of 72 on the Vexillological Association's list. Check VA's flag against Ted Kaye's principles, and it's clear why the flag ranked so low: the complicated seal, no focused choice of colors, and the fact that the flag bypasses all symbolism by literally writing out "Virginia."

Image from Wikipedia Commons.

How do other city flags in the region fare? Chalk Annandale's and Rockville's flags in the thumbs-up category. For flags that could use some love, consider Fairfax and Bowie. And while many county flags in the region settle for complicated seals slapped onto a rectangle, the Montgomery County flag sticks out nicely.

In case you're wondering if only governments with coats of arms can claim great flags, check out Chicago's, the lead example in Mars' TED Talk. The blue bars represent the local bodies of water such as Lake Michigan, while the red stars and their points symbolize different aspects of the city's history.

Photo by WBEZ on Flickr.

And for cities whose flags miss the design principles, Mars encourages you to show your love for your city anyway and brandish its flag. Or better yet, start a movement to design a new one.

You can search for your city or county flag here.

Canceling the Purple Line would cost more than it would save

Governor Larry Hogan says Maryland can't afford the Purple Line. But as this chart shows, canceling the line would throw away billions of dollars, and save only a few million.

Graphic by Gregory Sanders.

The chart illustrates where the money to build the Purple Line comes from. Purple boxes correspond to federal funding, green boxes are the private sector, and yellow boxes are from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The blue boxes are the only money coming from the State of Maryland.

There are a total of 245.5 boxes on the chart, representing the Purple Line's total cost of $2.45 billion. Out of those 245.5 boxes, only 74 are state-funded blue. And out of those 74 blue boxes, 16 of them are in the far-right column, indicating money that's already spent. Another 22 boxes are half yellow, representing the requested county contribution. That leaves only 33 boxes, representing $333 million in remaining funding that is solely the state's responsibility.

In other words, Governor Hogan is holding Purple Line hostage over 13% of its cost.

And it may be even less than that. If Transportation Secretary Rahn's proposal to cut costs by 10% can become a reality, that would eliminate 23 of the remaining 33 blue state boxes, leaving only 10.

If that happens, Maryland's state cost to build the Purple Line could drop to as low as $100 million.

This is why cancelling a project would be a radical move. It would sacrifice billions of dollars in investment as well as spite both local opinion and the business community just to scavenge less than 23% of its total value.

More detail

This graphic breakdown comes from two primary sources: the Federal Transit Administration's November 2014 Profile and the Maryland Transit Administration's (MTA) Capital Program Summary.

The leftmost column shows the upfront costs to the state and counties. This is money that could theoretically go to other state or county transportation projects.

The second column covers the non-transferable TIFIA loan that a private-sector partner is undertaking with federal assistance. Maryland doesn't get the benefit of this money unless it goes toward the Purple Line.

The last column shows other money Governor Hogan would be walking away from if he cancels the line. That includes a $900 million grant from the federal government, $81 million from the private partner, and $184.7 million already spent in planning and design. It doesn't include the billions in new economic activity that the line would spur. None of this money is transferable to other Maryland project.

In addition, the sunk costs include $26.6 that the federal government has already spent on the Purple Line. The state may be liable for that if Hogan cancels the line.

Coast Guard employees are using the Anacostia Metro station in a weird way

Metro recently released data showing where Metrorail riders go from each station, and as one of our commenters noted, the most-frequented destination for people traveling from Anacostia is... Anacostia. That's because Coast Guard employees and contractors use the Anacostia Metro as a pedestrian tunnel.

Entrance and exit through the same station by volume in October 2014. Image by the author.

As commenter Andy pointed out, when a passenger enters at Anacostia during midday, afternoon peak, and evenings on weekdays, they're most likely to exit from the same station. Not only that, but as the chart above shows, entering and exiting at the same station is more common at Anacostia than at any other station in the system. Why?

At St. Elizabeths, where the Coast Guard's headquarters moved in 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission's parking policy allows one parking space for every four employees. That means the Coast Guard is limited to only 931 parking spaces for its 4000 federal employees and numerous additional contractor employees.

Unlike at NIH, the St. Elizabeths campus is over a mile walk from the closest Metro, there are no nearby parking lots, and street parking is limited.

The A4 bus, which leaves from the Anacostia Metro bus bay, runs directly to the campus. So many people who work at St. Elizabeths park in the 800-space garage at the Anacostia Metro, tap into the system at the garage entrance so they can walk through the station, and tap out at the exit closer to the bus bay. From there, they take the A4 to work.

The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

It's not hard to understand why commuters might opt to use the Metro station as a pedestrian walkway. While the walk down Howard Road from the parking garage to the bus bay is less than a quarter of a mile, it requires commuters to walk an empty stretch of road, under I-295 and across a highway on and off ramp.

The walking path from the Metro garage to the bus bay. Image from Google Maps.

The accidental pedestrian tunnel won't be around for much longer. In the 2014 Coast Guard Transportation Act, Congress overrode the NCPC. Between now and 2017, the Coast Guard will be required to allocate an additional 1,000 parking spaces at St. Elizabeths.

Breakfast links: Budget breakthroughs

Photo by Paul Falardeau on Flickr.
Stamp of approval: The DC Council unanimously approved Mayor Bowser's $13 million billion budget. The largest success of the approved budget is the substantial amount of funding for homelessness and affordable housing programs. (WAMU)

Almost free: The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the case against the Budget Autonomy Act. The act separates DC's budget review from the federal appropriations process. (Roll Call)

Safety first: Infrastructure, emergency response, and organizational culture, is on the agenda for the NTSB's June meeting about the Metro smoke incident. The board will also look at federal safety oversight of the transit agency. (Post)

Outside consult: Metro is considering hiring a private consultant to review the entirety of the agency's finances and management. The Board hopes such a study would guide the path to fixing Metro's financial and managerial problems. (Post)

How to pay: Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker has backed off of his plan to raise property taxes by 15%. Instead, he is now seeking $65 million in additional funding to improve schools. (Post)

People for parks: Deanwood's residents spent years transforming Watts Branch Park, a drug haven, into Marvin Gaye Park, a community hub with a farm, and playgrounds. They modeled their efforts on the lessons from Malcolm X Park. (City Paper)

Unfairly fired: A local union representing Metro and Streetcar workers has filed a complaint against DC Streetcar, arguing that workers were fired for unionizing. The union is also fighting for a transparent timeline for the streetcar's opening. (DCist)

Floating: Planners have long been aware of the leapfrog-esque problem facing cyclists when buses make stops in bike lanes. Floating bus stops, which redirect bike traffic around the bus, have proved to be a successful solution across the globe. (CityLab)

Walk this way: Distracted walking killed injured 11,000 people between 2000 and 2011 acccording to the National Safety Council. Half of the cases happened at home. Though most were under age 40, 20 percent of the people injured were over age 71. (Post)

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