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Police vehicles may damage brand-new Union Station plaza

A project is almost complete to reconstruct the plaza in front of Union station. Unfortunately, Amtrak police continue to pull their cars up on the curb and park in the pedestrian areas.

Photo by the author.

The plaza was once a wasteland of traffic lanes and hadn't been properly maintained for years. The reconstruction project, which included Amtrak and multiple local and federal agencies, can make it an attractive and welcoming gateway to DC. The design treated all forms of traffic well—pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and bus.

Unfortunately, the police parking helped cause damage to the curbs and sidewalks before, and will do so again if this practice continues. It's highly unlikely that the sidewalks and curbs were reinforced strongly enough to withstand the pressure from mutli-ton vehicles.

It's easy to see a parallel with other examples of infrastructure in DC, like this story about Woodson High School, where we spend big bucks on nice new things, then fail to maintain them right after the construction is done.

Police presence and patrols are necessary in highly visible, active areas like a major train station. There has to be a better way and some better locations for police to leave their vehicles, though.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 


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Looks like a case for mounted patrols.

by Chris S. on Apr 29, 2013 3:22 pm • linkreport

That really is some horse sh**.

by John Muller on Apr 29, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

Geoff, if the police aren't allowed to continuously employ security theater by parking on the sidewalk then how else is the public supposed to be kept in constant fear great enough to support giant defense budgets?

by Adam L on Apr 29, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

While the overall plan is a success, the entire redo is still not as pedestrian friendly as it could have been. The police vehicles are one problem. Where that lane pictured is going and who, if anyone uses it is still confusing, especially with the police vehicles parked facing oncoming traffic. Seems like a needless afterthought. Secondly, the paths for pedestrians is not clear. Many continue to walk across 4 lanes of traffic and cut through the rosebushes instead of using clearly defined sidewalks.

by joebuck on Apr 29, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport

Can't they just park in that road space right there that is marked as no parking?

Adam L +1

by MLD on Apr 29, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

It's the same thing in front of the White House. Security vehicles have pretty much destroyed the gate areas where the retractable bollards are. If it's not that it's the unsightly portable fencing they put up. But freedom ain't free, amirite?

by aaa on Apr 29, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

Jesus, that Woodson HS link is terrible. What a city of children we are.

by oboe on Apr 29, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

A similar thing is happening at the newly renovated K St NW Streetscape (3rd to 6th), only instead of the police, anyone who wants to park on the sidewalk is given free rein. Neither MPD, DDOT, or DPW seems to care. So they ruin a nearly $10 million investment. There no signs, no bollards, and no enforcement.

by Stanc on Apr 29, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

Only bollards can keep the police in check. Say theyre to stop terrorists and you have unlimited funding for them.

by JJJJ on Apr 29, 2013 5:02 pm • linkreport

The problem with this article is that is assumes that the police will recognize any law besides themselves.

by SJE on Apr 29, 2013 5:05 pm • linkreport

The worst thing about that circle is that almost nobody will acknowledge it under their own jurisdiction.

When it snows, the sidewalks along Columbus Circle are *NEVER* shoveled. I've sent emails to Tommy Wells, DDOT, NPS, AOC, and Amtrak, and everybody responds by pointing fingers at one of the other parties.

I'd have to imagine that it's a similar story with the police cars. Nobody's going to tell Amtrak to move their police cars, because nobody actually wants ownership of the circle.

Also, take a gander at the concrete under the cab line. It's an enormous oil slick. If you want an an argument for imposing maintenance standards on the cabbies, this is it.

While the project certainly did improve a large number of things about the traffic patterns in the area, it left a number of others bafflingly untouched. Surely, they could have rolled some improvements to the Mass/North Capitol intersection into the project? Right now, that intersection profoundly to manage the heavy traffic volumes for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles traveling west on Massachusetts or turning right onto North Capitol.

The project also failed to rehabilitate any of the existing spaces in the circle, or to make it a more inviting place. They replaced the old inner circle with lots of brick and grass. The fountains and statues remain stained, broken, and crumbling.

The placement of the footpaths and timing of the pedestrian traffic signals was also a bit odd. It's almost as if none of the engineers or architects observed the huge crowds of people that walk from the Metro Station to the Senate or Capitol. The traffic light at Columbus Circle & Delaware usually requires pedestrians to wait through two full cycles to cross, and only gives them about 8 seconds to do so. (Even more puzzlingly, this signal doesn't even sync up with the signals upstream and downstream from this intersection on the circle. It's broken in a very obvious way.)

by andrew on Apr 29, 2013 7:06 pm • linkreport

The alternative to police cars doesn't have to be horses - why not bicycles, motor-scooters, or motorcycles?

by Ann on Apr 29, 2013 10:38 pm • linkreport

Has anybody contacted the designers to find out if this is actually an issue? It's not too hard or uncommon to make the slab beneath those bricks thick enough to handle the weight of a vehicle. That granite curb can put up with a lot of abuse too. Perhaps this is a non-issue?

It would be good to ask the Landscape Architect & Civil Engineer about their paving details?

by Matt on Apr 29, 2013 10:48 pm • linkreport

Can we add WMATA and Fairfax Connectors to the list of parkers-in-the-way? At Franconia-Springfield Fairfax Connector loves to park right at the exit of the station, and Metro Police loves to park on the pedestrian island between the bus and car lanes. WMATA engineers tend to dump their trucks anywhere they want, but preferably right in front of a station, both in F-S and Rosslyn.

by Jasper on Apr 30, 2013 6:07 am • linkreport

@Matt: The problem is that most of the complainers here are objecting to the obstruction of pedestrian facilities and/or raising moral panic about "security theater." Whether or not there's an actual engineering problem here isn't the point.

Frankly, compared to the experience you get coming in or going out of every airport in the USA, police vans parked on the sidewalk is totally inoffensive to me - in fact, it's reassuring to have a highly visible presence that you can't ignore but that doesn't require you do anything other than, oh I don't know, walk around the van.

Wake me up when getting on my train requires even half of what the average traveler gets put through by airport security every single day. This is a complete non-issue.

by Ryan on Apr 30, 2013 8:21 am • linkreport

The police presence is necessary. They can't use motorcycles or other vehicles for the K9 units--which are the SUVs most commonly parked there. In DC, for mobile speed cameras, they have created small concrete pads for police vehicles to park on the side of the road to avoid damaging the sidewalks. Clearly, if police vehicles are chewing up the sidewalks, there's an option that would allow the highly visible police presence at the same time protecting the sidewalks.

by Todd on Apr 30, 2013 8:22 am • linkreport


You're thinking about MPD. MPD has very little presence around Union Station (to the point where traffic enforcement is essentially nonexistent around the Capitol).

Don't assume that all of DC's 100 separate police forces play by the same rules, or pay the same attention to planning.

by andrew on Apr 30, 2013 9:23 am • linkreport

You guys are completely missing the point. Cops look sweet when they are wearing awesome cargo pants and park their expensive cars half on the street, half on the curb like they're totally ready to get after some bad guys.

"I didn't even have to go to college and they gave me a gun, a new $30k vehicle every other year, and the nearly limitless authority to ruin someone's life because they look 'suspicious.' My favorite movies are Judge Dredd and Fast and Furious 3."

by Dolph Lungdren on Apr 30, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

"Wake me up when getting on my train requires even half of what the average traveler gets put through by airport security every single day. This is a complete non-issue."

Exactly. Seems like no one making any of these comments knows anything about Amtrak, or railroad, police in general.

One of which is that railroad police specifically and openly acknowledge that their methodology is based around working subtly and behind the scenes. the exact opposite of security theater. Plus there's only like 400 officers for a nationwide police force, which seems like that has to be pretty cheap!

by Another Nick on Apr 30, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

@ Another Nick:

Au contraire mon frere, I disagree. I think most people here are making comments based on decently informed opinions.

Let's be honest, it's not like those 400 Amtrak warriors are the nation's elite defenders against terrorist actors. Orgs like the FBI are going to handle that and maybe they'll let the little Amtrak coppers know when something is going down (doubtful, as they probably lack the necessary clearance) or maybe they will call them if they need extra bodies to show up during a raid.

More than likely, they'll just let that Amtrak cop park his car illegally on a curb and pray to some god that his sweet ride just happens to deter any malicious actors that fall through the FBI's bureaucratic web.

by Dolph Lungdren on Apr 30, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

t's not like those 400 Amtrak warriors are the nation's elite defenders against terrorist actors.

I beg to differ, and I think that point will be made abundantly clear by next Fall's hot new CBS crime thriller "Sidewalk Justice" staring Richard Ruccolo and Laura San Giacomo as Amtrak Police officers who fight terrorism by parking on the sidewalk, harassing photographers and eating warm pretzels. "They're Amtrak cops: making sure that terror never leaves the station"

Oh it's going to be a massive hit.

by David C on Apr 30, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

I worked in the design for the reconstruction of Columbus Plaza. The brick sidewalk in that island was designed with knowledge that it'd be used by Police vehicles to park on it.

by Paco on Apr 30, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport


Thanks. Good thinking.

by Matt on Apr 30, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

Paco: Thanks for sharing. Can you definitively say that it's reinforced to bear that kind of load repetitively and over long periods of time? I'm not doubting the design you mention - I'm just curious if that was actually followed through in the construction of the project.

Also, if it was known that they would park there, I'm curious why there wasn't a specific space designed for them. Would you be interested in sharing some of the thought process there?

Thanks for chiming in!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 30, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Benjamin Ben on Apr 30, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] The police are there doing a job, and I would rather have a curb get torn up because a car was continually parked on it than have something akin to the Boston Bombing at Union Station. When you're in trouble, you'll want those officers there.

by Eric on Apr 30, 2013 5:33 pm • linkreport

Eric: If you go back and read the last paragraph, you'll see that I acknowledged the exact point you made. Given that, unsure why you have a problem with the blog post. It makes me assume (correct me if I'm wrong) that you didn't actually read it all the way through.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Apr 30, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport


The brick is resting on sand with a concrete base. That's enough to support the load.

As far as I know that was the space designated for them, that's where they park before the reconstruction.

by Paco on May 1, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

Wow realy people that looks like a K9 car to me, you want the dog to ride on a scooter? Or when there is an emergency you want the Officer and K9 to run what a mile or so to the truck to add time to get to the call that will probably include a family memeber of yours and you will complain that it took to long for them to arive. That dog is most likely a bomb dog and after the event in Boston, I dont mind them parking where ever is easiest for them to respond!

by Holt on May 1, 2013 6:13 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Walter on May 2, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

Holt: I never wrote this from the point of view that we, as a city and people, couldn't "walk and chew gum" at the same time. Unfortunately, the comments have devolved to that point. There's no reason the police cars can't park where they park, as long as we're taking care to make sure that our multi-million dollar investment in the public space is being taken care of. Otherwise, what's the point.

That's all I wrote about. Your example is a strawman, honestly. It's not something that I or anyone else here proposed.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 2, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by walter on May 5, 2013 4:33 pm • linkreport

Geoffrey, now that it has been made clear by someone who was in the design process and KNOWS, this entire blog entry is obviously a straw man.

by Scott Macleish on May 6, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

Well, Scott, you're welcome to call this whatever you like, but if you read through the comments, you'll note that we've fostered a healthy discussion (or at least something close to that) about the need for security to be planned as part of our public spaces, not a piece that gets wedged into the design after the fact.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 6, 2013 12:40 pm • linkreport

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