The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


Weekend video: Toronto's Pedestrian Jar

Safety for bike riders and pedestrians has become a big issue in Toronto lately. One workplace there has come up with an innovative idea to help improve safety for people crossing the street.

Maybe money raised from the jar could help Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his allies on city council pay for the $375,000 study of a popular "Barnes Dance' pedestrian scramble already installed at a major intersection that handles more pedestrians than automobiles.

Thanks to Where the Sidewalk Starts and Walk Silver Spring for the link.


Breaking: Alexandria coal power plant to close next year

This morning, the City of Alexandria announced an agreement with GenOn Energy that will shut down the Potomac River Generating Station on Alexandria's waterfront by October 2012.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The closure is an air quality and environmental justice win for the region. The plant had been a significant point source of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution for the region, according to Bill Skrabak, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services for the City of Alexandria. Much of this pollution blew across the Potomac River to Ward 8 and Prince George's County.

In the longer term, the waterfront site offers redevelopment opportunities. It had not been included in the city's Waterfront Small Area Plan. On a conference call this morning, city representatives said that they will continue to view the Waterfront Plan and potential redevelopment of the power plant as "discrete, separate issues."

The American Clean Skies Foundation, an advocate for closing the plant, released a plan for redeveloping the site several weeks ago as discussions heated up about a potential closure.

Potomac River Green plan.

The closure could also help the Mount Vernon Trail. The Clean Skies plan, called Potomac River Green, includes moving the MVT out of the cage along the river and onto a greenway along Slater's Lane, a second trail on Dangerfield Island, connections along the extended street grid, and a bike station near a new water taxi pier.

The plant has become both less critical to the region's energy needs and more expensive to GenOn as a result of pollution reduction agreements with the City of Alexandria. In 2005, additional power lines were installed under the Potomac River to improve reliability for the region's electric grid. This reduced the need for the Alexandria plant. Over the past few years, the plant was used less often; there were even entire months over the past year where the generating station was not in use.

In 2008, the operators of the power station signed an agreement with the city that committed GenOn to over $32 million in pollution reduction investments. Funds for these improvements were placed in a city escrow account. The first phase included dust and particulate matter reduction, primarily focused on the coal pile. These improvements cost approximately $2 million and have already been implemented. The remainder of the funds were to be spent on emission recirculation systems that would reduce harmful content emitted from the station's smokestacks.

As GenOn worked with the city on the more expensive second phase, however, it became clear that closure was a realistic alternative. Before spending money on the improvements, GenOn and the city instead signed the closure agreement. The city will release funds in the escrow account to GenOn, which will in turn close the plant by October 2012. If unforeseen circumstances lead the closure to be delayed until or beyond January 2014, the city will receive a one-time payment of $750,000 from GenOn.

The city will provide tax relief to GenOn after the plant's closure by taxing only the value of the site's land and none of its improvements, since the plant will be inactive. This tax relief will last 5 years, starting when the plant closes, and could be renewed for another 5 year term.

There are currently approximately 120 people employed at the GenOn plant; about 40 percent of those jobs are held by Alexandria residents. Calling it an "unexpected announcement," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille pledged that the city will work with affected employees as they find new work after the plant's closure.


Crash shows need for safer crossings; is NPS listening?

A three-car crash last Thursday morning at a trail crossing on the George Washington Parkway once again highlights the need for the National Park Service to take action on critical safety improvements.

A driver stopped for a cyclist crossing the parkway at a marked crosswalk, but when an approaching pickup truck did not slow down, the cyclist hesitated. It very well could have saved her life; the nasty rear-end crash resulted in two injuries. An eyewitness captured the aftermath on video:

Image from Facebook. If you can't see the video, try logging into and/or refreshing Facebook first.

Trail users and parkway drivers can both attest to the constant danger at these crossings.

Solutions to these problems exist that would make the George Washington Memorial Parkway safer for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. But is the National Park Service interested in implementing them?

At least five unsignalized crossings are located near Memorial Bridge. Many of them cross two lanes, putting pedestrians in danger of a "double threat" when one lane of traffic has stopped but drivers in the other lane are unable to see the pedestrian in the crosswalk. Drivers hesitate to stop at all, as high speeds and heavy traffic on the parkway put them at risk of rear-end crashes like Thursday's.

Although the video suggests a tunnel, there is a simpler, less expensive solution that NPS can implement relatively quickly: HAWK signals, which Alexandria and the District have begun installing. HAWK signals are activated by the crosswalk user and installed at locations where a traditional stop light would not meet traffic engineering standards.

Research has shown that HAWK signals are not only more effective than other traffic signals at getting motorists to safely stop at the crosswalk, they reduce traffic delay compared to traditional signalized mid-block pedestrian signals.

Since being included in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices in 2009, HAWK signals have been installed across the nation. A news report from Providence, Rhode Island, explains how a HAWK signal works at one of that city's most dangerous crossings:

At crossings on the GW Parkway, HAWK signals could be implemented in combination with vehicle stop lines that are farther from the crosswalk. This would improve visibility for all users and reduce the likelihood of a "double threat" crash, resulting in a significant safety improvement for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike.

The recent Humpback Bridge construction resulted in significant improvements for Mount Vernon Trail users, and it shows NPS understands the trail is a significant reason to use the park. It's now time NPS made these critical safety changes a priority for all users of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.


Promised pedestrian fixes now "not a priority" for DDOT

DDOT and residents worked together to prioritize and fund pedestrian safety enhancements along Connecticut Avenue. Now, the agency has stopped moving forward and says the fixes are "not a priority," according to pedestrian advocates.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last year, Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action (CAPA), organized by IONA Senior Services, worked with community volunteers and staff from Toole Design Group to develop a plan to improve pedestrian safety on the busy—and sometimes deadlyConnecticut Avenue corridor.

Since then, CAPA has been working with DDOT planners and engineers on a first round of improvements, including identifying funding for the changes.

However, CAPA organizer Marlene Berlin told CAPA volunteers and supporters in an email last night that "Everything was ready to go and was stopped in its tracks because," according to DDOT, "it is not a priority."

This project is another example of how DDOT's energy to move forward with meaningful improvements for walkers and bike riders has all but vanished in the past few months.

While the precarious future of downtown cycle tracks is the most high-profile example of the agency's lethargy, it's disappointing to see the malaise begin to infect small-scale neighborhood improvements, as well.

Funding was available for changes to increase the length of walk signals and establish leading pedestrian intervals at 12 intersections in Woodley Park, Cleveland Park, Van Ness and Chevy Chase.

CAPA is also pushing for two new pedestrian signals at Northampton Street and between Ordway and Macomb Streets.

CAPA suggests that supporters email DDOT Director Terry Bellamy and Councilmember Mary Cheh, the new chair of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Here's an email text they suggest:

I am a CAPA (Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action) supporter who supports the pedestrian audit of intersections on Connecticut Avenue. After all the work of over 80 volunteers on this audit, I want you to support this effort by directing your staff to implement CAPA's recommendations to increase traffic light timing on Connecticut Avenue which George Branyan and Wasim Raja have been working on and progress has been halted. Also, we need DDOT to install much needed pedestrian signals, one at Northampton and another between Ordway and Macomb Street on Connecticut Avenue. Please let me know when DDOT will take action.
Update: DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says: "At this point there's no indication we've halted anything. Trying to determine why they think that's the case and to put together some specific information" to explain the issue. We'll post more as we get it from John.

Update 2: Marlene Berlin writes:

As a result of the emails that everyone sent, I got word that, in fact, the traffic engineers had continued to work on increasing traffic light timing on Connecticut Avenue, but lines of communication had broken down. So on 7/21 the work orders will be submitted, and by the end of October, the project will be fully implemented.

As for the pedestrian signals, Cleveland Park with get one in Spring 2012 between Ordway and Macomb, and DDOT will do a warrant study on Northampton in August 2011. The traffic engineers need more information than what was included in the Rock Creek West Livability Study to determine what kind of signal would best be suited for this intersection. I will keep you posted.

I am still waiting on word from MPD about the status of their contract for increased photo enforcement.

Thank you for all the emails.


DDOT will remove "no peds no bikes" sign on Broad Branch

How does DDOT's Complete Streets policy affect projects? A recent bridge replacement has raised the question of whether DDOT is actually living up to its own policy. In response to criticism, they are removing a sign which prohibited bicycles and pedestrians from the temporary bridge.

Photo by Michael D.

In mid-April, the Broad Branch Road bridge over Soapstone Creek collapsed. This received attention from council members Muriel Bowser and Mary Cheh, whose constituents were affected by the closure. In June, it was replaced with a temporary bridge. The permanent bridge is scheduled to be rebuilt and completed in mid-September 2011.

Signage installed at the temporary bridge prohibits cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge at all. Fortunately, DDOT has agreed to remove the problematic sign. However, the agency's real Complete Streets problem lies not with this project but in the business-as-usual designs of the agency's larger street reconstruction projects.

For many advocates, the prohibition on nonmotorized users at Broad Branch Road was a bad indicator. Bridges are traditionally choke points where bicycle and pedestrian access is critical. Why would DDOT install a facility it considers insufficient to handle bicycles and pedestrians, and then restrict their use entirely?

Because the temporary bridge is a structure DDOT already had available, it came with some restrictions if a temporary facility were to be installed quickly. Most notably, the bridge has a single 13-foot wide lane and no sidewalks. As a result, vehicles traveling on this bidirectional roadway must alternate in order to cross the bridge. Because of these movements and the narrow bridge width, DDOT explained in press releases that it "discourages" cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge.

The signage installed did more than discourage, however. It entirely prohibited cyclists and pedestrians. In a phone call with us, DDOT representatives explained that the sign was too restrictive and would be removed.

DDOT was under pressure to install a temporary bridge at this location. In order to do so cost-effectively, it had to use a bridge already in its possession. The agency could not responsibly encourage all cyclists and pedestrians on a substandard bridge but did not want to prohibit expert users who needed to use the facility and could do so safely. Hence, the "discourage" policy.

While this policy is not anyone's ideal, it is understandable. This policy seems to abide by the Complete Streets philosophy by allowing access but not encouraging use of a substandard temporary facility. This is only acceptable because the bridge's temporary nature, and political pressure from the adjacent council members will help ensure its final replacement by mid-September.

The Broad Branch Road bridge doesn't violate the Complete Streets policy, but is DDOT following it with its other, more permanent projects? Next, we'll take a look at street reconstruction projects, including some constructed before the policy was issued, and one identified as a "complete street" by DDOT Director Terry Bellamy in his confirmation testimony.

Many DDOT projects do take all road users into account, but not always to the extent they should. In order to be meaningful, DDOT's complete streets policy should have an impact on the agency's projects. It's not yet clear that it has.


DDOT may cancel L and M Street cycle tracks

First announced more than a year ago, DDOT's plans for crosstown protected bike lanes on L and M streets NW are now on the brink of being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

Successful 15th Street cycle track. Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

At a confirmation hearing for DDOT Director nominee Terry Bellamy on Friday, Council committee chair Tommy Wells asked about the status of the L and M Street cycle tracks, which would run between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues. Bellamy replied, "Right now, it's on hold." Wells followed up by asking, "What does that mean? You may not do it?" Bellamy replied: "We may not."

Ask Bellamy, Mayor Gray, and other officials to keep moving forward on these projects through a petition from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

The plans are currently at 65 percent design, Bellamy explained. "We're bringing back the bike team for updates," Bellamy continued. "There was some concern over the amount of parking that was going to be removed."

However, it's not clear who exactly is concerned about the parking removal, or even how much parking might be removed, as DDOT's bicycle program has not released any plans for discussion since the conceptual designs were put on display in March 2010.

Although similar plans implemented along 15th Street NW garnered little opposition, Wells noted that parking changes can be difficult. "Politically, I know it's very hard," he told Bellamy. "Whenever there's one parking space removed, I hear about it."

When parking is removed, Wells said, "we need to know the impact on our businesses." The chairman, however, urged DDOT to prioritize the needs of District residents over those of suburban commuters. "Generally it's going to be a DC resident who needs that safe bike lane," he said.

Bellamy stated that "there were also some transit issues," though it's unclear what those issues might be since a very limited number of bus routes run on L and M streets. According to WMATA's map, there is no bus service on L Street east of 19th Street, and no service on M Street east of 18th Street.

DDOT had originally planned the cycle tracks for I and L Streets, but moved them to L and M streets after criticism that the plans ignored an existing study of bus priority along I Street.

GGW proposal for downtown mobility. Purple: Cycle tracks. Blue: Existing bike lanes. Red: K Street Transitway. Orange: Bus lanes that also allow bikes, or bus lanes as well as bike lanes.

The majority of the project area is located within the Golden Triangle BID and the Downtown DC BID. These organizations had been connecting property owners and businesses to DDOT's bike program staff as the lanes went through the design process.

Parking removal was not a major hang-up in these discussions, which included a wide range of issues, such as loading zones and intersection treatments. Over the past six months, these discussions have slowed as progress on the cycle tracks ground to a halt.

Looking ahead, Wells asked Bellamy: "How do you weigh whether you move forward or not?" Bellamy replied that the agency will do a benefit analysis, without providing specifics on what will be weighed.

In its response to Bellamy's statements, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association laid out some questions that should be considered as part of a benefit analysis. "How many parkers per day will be inconvenienced, compared to the projected cyclists served? ... When considering the benefits, as Director Bellamy states, will health and environmental benefits be included?" the advocacy group asked.

"Previously," WABA continued, "DDOT's stated rationale [for delay] had been a need to further study the impacts of the existing cycle tracks before continuing." If Bellamy continues to wait for this report, people who want to safely bike across downtown may be waiting a long time.

At a meeting earlier this month, DDOT staff said that an interim report evaluating the 15th Street cycle track and other new facilities will be available in November 2011 and the final report will be released in April 2012. That's more than a year after DDOT converted the lane to two-way operation, and more than two years after the initial contraflow lane was installed on 15th Street. That's a long time to wait for a bike lane, but that's okay—we've been waiting since 1979.

Both Capital Bikeshare and the downtown cycle track plan were announced as the two high-profile bicycling initiatives of Bellamy's predecessor, Gabe Klein. Capital Bikeshare has given the District a significant boost in bike-friendliness. Its popularity has led the red bikes to gain momentum under the Gray administration.

But bike sharing is only half of the equation. "The expectation for bicycle infrastructure is expanding," Wells noted at the hearing. Mayor Gray has stated that he wants the District to achieve platinum status as a "Bicycle Friendly Community."

In this context, Bellamy's equivocation on this central piece of bike infrastructure is an alarming signal. It comes as a surprise to some in the city's transportation community and flies in the face of DDOT's own long-term plans, since crosstown cycle tracks were first outlined in the agency's 2005 Bicycle Master Plan.

During his tenure, Klein hired Bellamy away from Arlington County to become DDOT's Director of Operations. Bellamy clearly holds the right priorities, and at the hearing he listed expanding bicycling, walking, and transit as top goals for his tenure.

Now that Bellamy no longer has "interim" attached to his title, he may have more freedom to champion cycle tracks, though his confirmation hearing comments did not give any indication that he is energized about pursuing serious bike infrastructure as a critical part of the District's transportation system.

Is there still a champion for these innovative projects within the agency? DDOT's bike program, like many other departments, has more on its to-do list than it has staff capacity. Before Klein was director, the agency's bike staff was working on other projects. Klein pushed the bike program to make downtown cycle tracks a priority.

Now that Klein and his interest in cycle tracks have moved to Chicago, it's not clear that the agency's bicycle staff has has the interest, capacity or ability to keep this project moving forward without the director making it an agency priority. As a result, DDOT's bike staff has been focusing on smaller, more traditional bike projects.

Is there a way forward for crosstown cycle tracks? Perhaps DDOT's Complete Streets policy, which was also a topic at Bellamy's confirmation hearing, should be, as Wells said, something other than just "an aspirational goal." A critical part of complete streets is making sure that staff are able to design roads for all users, so engineers consider bikes as well as cars and have tools at their disposal to include non-automobile users in a roadway's design.

Otherwise, it falls to the bicycle program to make sure that even the most basic bike lane designs, which have been accepted by state highway officials for years, are included in the agency's road projects. Instead of fighting within the agency for a simple bike lane, an effective Complete Streets policy would allow bicycle program staff to instead focus on more challenging, high-impact projects like cycle tracks.

The bottom line is that it's simply irresponsible of DDOT to encourage people to hop on bikes while neglecting to create safe places for them to ride. Crosstown cycle tracks will serve significant numbers of cyclists each day in a downtown environment where many do not feel safe on a bike today. They are too important to let DDOT roll back the clock on its commitment.

WABA is asking bicyclists and supporters of bike infrastructure to contact DC officials and ask them to move forward on these projects. Sign their petition to Bellamy, Mayor Gray, bicycle program head Jim Sebastian, and Wells now.


Arlington plans bike boulevards near Columbia Pike

Arlington County is working to make bicycling easier in the Columbia Pike corridor with 2 new bike boulevards along 9th and 12th Streets. But some residents say they feel ambushed by the planning effort.

County staff review the plans with residents. Photo by the author.

The plans, which cover only a portion of the Columbia Pike corridor, are the first phase of an initiative to make the area more bike friendly. The county's bike boulevard treatments along 9th Street and 12th Street will include sharrows, turn restrictions, curb extensions and medians.

Most of the proposed changes are relatively minor, with the most significant changes being proposed for turn restrictions at major roads and conversion of a short section of 9th Street from one-way to two-way operation.

Bike boulevard treatments are typically placed on calm streets parallel to a major arterial. These allow cyclists to navigate the city without mixing with faster traffic. Arlington's street grid makes it ideal for treatments like those proposed for 9th and 12th streets.

Although bike boulevards are a new concept for the District and Arlington, many of the ingredients that make up a bike boulevard have been in place throughout Arlington County for years as part of its neighborhood traffic calming improvements. Despite this, none of the county's streets had ever been planned specifically as bike boulevards.

The locations of the the bike boulevards. Image from Google Maps.

The proposed bike boulevards near Columbia Pike take advantage of existing infrastructure such as a mini-roundabouts along 9th Street at Quincy, Oakland and Lincoln streets.

New features planned include significant changes at the intersection of 9th Street and Glebe Road, which would get new high-visibility "ladder" crosswalks, a HAWK pedestrian crossing signal and a raised median that would prevent left turns from Glebe and through traffic on 9th while still allowing bicycles and pedestrians to make all turns and through movements at the intersection. The intersection of 9th Street and Glebe Road will see turn restrictions, as well.

The intersection of 9th Street and Walter Reed Drive is also slated for changes, including curb extensions and a potential HAWK signal. Where Walter Reed Drive intersects 12th Street, the existing median will be widened to provide a refuge for cyclists and pedestrians as they cross. Similar improvements are planned at 12th Street and George Mason Drive, which will also see the adjacent trail in Doctors Branch Park widened to 12 feet.

A bike boulevard treatment in Portland, Oregon similar to one proposed at
12th & Walter Reed. Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

Other changes include curb extensions at the intersections of 9th Street and Irving, Highland, Cleveland, Barton, Adams and Wayne streets. Stop sign removal is also proposed on 12th Street at Highland and Edgewood streets, to make the route more attractive for cyclists traveling at a slow, constant speed.

Given that the plans were announced more than a month in advance and meeting details were announced in local media more than a week in advance, much of the turbulence at the meeting seemed overblown. County staff admitted that no matter what they did, it would be almost impossible to make everyone happy.

One resident, who would only identify herself as Allison, opposed the entire concept of encouraging bicycle use for non-recreational trips and was very vocal that bike boulevards should not be considered in the first place. "Roads were meant for cars," she said. "It's frightening to think that a biker now thinks that they share the road." Arlington County's chief traffic engineer, Wayne Wentz, quickly set her straight on the facts.

Although there were a handful of meeting attendees seated with Allison who agreed with her that bikes are not a mode of transportation that should be encouraged, she clearly held a minority opinion at the meeting. One concern of Allison's, however, was widespread among other attendees. Despite being a resident of 12th Street, she said, she first found out about the plans from a blog post earlier that day on

Arlington County's bike and pedestrian program manager, David Goodman, noted at the meeting that the bicycle boulevard plans emerged from the county's Columbia Pike planning process, not from the citizen-initiated Neighborhood Conservation Program that results in many of the county's traffic-calming installations. As a result, the planning process may not have been one to which many residents were accustomed.

"A lot of people here are feeling ambushed," the vice president of a local civic association said. "There's been a lot of work and study, but none of it included us."

Other residents expressed the same concern about the short notice. When county staff responded that they had notified local civic associations weeks before the meeting and other meeting attendees pointed out that the plan was the result of a planning process that had been ongoing for at least five years, the civic association vice president became angry. "I don't like the insinuation that we weren't paying attention," he said.

Despite the distrust that grew out of communication gaps, some significant issues related to the plan were discussed at the meeting. The county plans to install some of the less controversial aspects of the plan, such as sharrows and signage, this summer, while continuing to work with the community on other parts of the plan. One such sticking point for residents of 9th Street was conversion of a section of their street near Ivy Street to two-way operation.

County staff explained that although a bike boulevard corridor should enable two-way travel, they were hesitant to place contraflow bicycle lanes alongside parallel parking and chose two-way operation instead. Meanwhile, residents were worried that the change would create more cut-through auto traffic on their streets. Discussions after the meeting between chief traffic engineer Wayne Wentz and 9th Street residents provided promising indications that a compromise could be reached.

As the county begins to implement some parts of this project over the summer, there are still opportunities to weigh in on less definite aspects of the plan, such as 9th Street two-way operation, on the project's page on the county website.


Would you pay $1 for more reliable rush hour bikeshare?

If Capital Bikeshare's new Reverse Rider Rewards program doesn't end up improving bike availability, the next step might include a small fee for rush hour trips to or from the busiest stations.

Dockblocked! Photo by urbanbohemian on Flickr.

Capital Bikeshare deserves credit for listening to the suggestions of its users and beginning an incentive program that offers some hope for users frustrated with the system's rush hour redistribution woes. The contest complements the addition of another van for redistribution and an upcoming system expansion in improving the network's reliability.

But no matter how many docks are added, how many vans are shuttling bikes through rush hour traffic, or how many rewards are offered to reverse riders, there is still a significant risk that rush hour bike rebalancing problems will continue to plague the system.

It might be time for a cost structure that accounts for times of peak demand and charges a small fee for the highest-demand trips.

The solutions already being implemented to help with rush hour rebalancing have their drawbacks, and there's no guarantee they will cure the system of rush hour woes.

What's already being done

A common belief is that expanding the system will help alleviate rebalancing problems. Although system expansion should be undertaken so more bikes become more convenient to more people, a larger system will do little to change the underlying rush hour pattern that's been established.

For proof, look at cities that already have larger systems. London's bikeshare network is five times larger than Capital Bikeshare, yet some of that system's busiest stations are staffed during rush hour to keep docks constantly available. This requires lots of staff time, and as a result the system operator has cut back on staffed stations. The underlying problem, a Transport for London spokesperson told the Evening Standard, is that "the scheme was not designed for commuters."

Another solution is adding more vans and staff to redistribute the bikes. Capital Bikeshare has already added an additional van to move bikes around, but having extra staff to redistribute bikes during peak periods is both costly and inefficient.

Bikeshare systems are, to the maximum extent feasible, designed to be self-balancing; users circulate the bikes throughout the system to keep it running smoothly. Redistribution by staff should be used sparingly. As Richard Layman pointed out in this site's comments, heavy reliance on redistribution vans, which get stuck in rush hour traffic just when the demand for redistribution is highest, "is a sign of failure, not success."

In addition, the Reverse Rider Rewards program is structured as a contest, not as an incentive program. As a result, if you are not in the running to win a prize, you have little incentive to participate in bike redistribution. This leaves the rewards program with a few "superusers" who will end up doing most of the work.

This is exactly what happened with the Winter Weather Warrior contest. While that contest was great for getting the press to pay attention to the fact that the system was being used year-round, only those at the top of the leaderboard had much incentive to participate.

Unlike the Winter Weather Warrior contest, which counted all trips over 5 minutes, the Reverse Rider program rewards only those trips being made during a two-hour window each day, in the opposite direction of the vast majority of trips. Even if the Reverse Rider program were restructured to encourage participation among more than just the top users, there is a small pool of people who would be willing and able to participate to begin with.

Moving a significant number of the system's bikes on a regular basis each weekday will require more than just a few superusers.

Why a rush hour fee? How would it work?

One of the drawbacks of Bikeshare's current "all you can eat" pricing scheme is that once a user purchases a membership, there is little disincentive for using Capital Bikeshare as a primary mode of daily travel to work downtown from nearby neighborhoods.

On Metrorail, the limited utilization of "all you can eat" pricing for commuters reduces the incentive for off-peak Metrorail use, because those trips come at an additional cost. Bikeshare has the opposite problem, where there is no additional cost to peak hour travel, resulting in bike shortages.

Any rush hour surcharge should be narrowly focused on three factors to have the most positive benefit on bike availability: location, time, and cost.

As part of its Reverse Rider Rewards program, Capital Bikeshare has already identified the downtown stations that could form the basis of a surcharge initiative. Because the rewards program applies only during the morning rush hour, Bikeshare has identified these as "Typically Full Stations." Because a surcharge program would apply during both morning and evening rush hours, let's call these "high demand stations."

"Typically full" stations in the Reverse Rider Rewards program are in black. Many rush hour trips to or from these stations would be subject to a small surcharge under a pricing program.

Capital Bikeshare has chosen 8-10 am for the Reverse Rider Rewards program. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the charge would only apply during those hours and the equivalent evening rush period, 4-6 pm.

If a user ends a trip at a high demand station during the morning rush hours, her account account would be charged. If she begins a trip at a high demand station during the evening rush hours, she would also be charged.

However, trips where both the origin and destination are high demand stations would not be subject to the charge. This is because moving a bicycle between high demand locations does not significantly affect the overall availability of bikes at high demand stations. The same principle applies for trips between low demand stations, which would also be exempt from any charge.

The most effective price should signal to those who use Bikeshare for everyday commuting that using their own bicycles for rush hour travel would be more cost effective. With a fee of 75 cents or $1 per trip, many users would decide against paying up to $2 each day for a round-trip ride they could take for free on their own bikes.

For most members, this low fee is not a barrier to occasional rush hour use when the need arises. Because it would remain less expensive than all other transit options, such as bus or Metrorail, this price point also does not impose an excessive cost on those for whom Bikeshare is the optimal mode.

Hurdles and drawbacks

Currently, fees from Capital Bikeshare are assessed silently. Users don't know how much they owe until they receive a statement. For a rush hour surcharge to be effective, however, it must be visible at the point of sale. For example, the District's bag fee, though small at only 5 cents, has had a significant impact on bag consumption because shoppers are asked at check-out whether they are willing to pay a fee for a bag. At the other extreme is Metro's peak-of-the-peak surcharge, where many users swipe their SmarTrip cards without having to confront the extra cost they are incurring.

For a rush hour fee to work on Capital Bikeshare, users must be made aware of the extra cost immediately before they check out a bike. There are creative ways to do this. A sticker could be attached to the top of each dock at stations where the charge is in effect, so all users are informed before they pull out a bike. Smartphone application Spotcycle could sport a banner notifying users of the charge during rush hours. On bike availability maps, high demand station icons could change to a different color when the charge is in effect to notify users before they use a bike.

If there is less rush-hour demand for bikes during colder months or inclement weather, the charge could be suspended to encourage ridership.

The rush hour fee proposal does make the system more complex, especially for casual users. However, tourists aren't likely to be affected by the morning charges because few of them will be riding bikes downtown from Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill at 8:30 am. Fees incurred during the evening rush hour might be more of an issue for visitors. Even then, $1 is not a hefty charge for infrequent users, many of whom already incur larger charges for keeping bikes longer than 30 minutes.

A major risk is that a rush hour fee might reduce total ridership numbers during peak hours. Although smaller numbers might not look good as a measure of the system's success, there is a silver lining to this cloud. By making it easier to get a bike during the busiest hours, the system becomes more more reliable. This encourages more people to buy memberships, because they will have confidence that a bike will be available when they need one.

Astute readers will know that this concept is called congestion pricing. It isn't just for bikes; it's a concept that can also be applied to congested downtown streets and overburdened on-street parking to make transportation more predictable during the busiest hours.

While there is no silver bullet to solving congestion problems during times of peak demand, a nominal fee is one tool of many that can help shift behavior and make Capital Bikeshare a more reliable, more useful service.


Pedestrians still ignored at Silver Spring intersection

Back in February, we showed you a Silver Spring sidewalk closure that violated SHA's own policies.

Pedestrians still must navigate a circuitous detour. Photo by the author.

Three months later, the intersection remains virtually unchanged, and pedestrians are still forced to choose between backtracking nearly 1,000 feet or dashing across a busy highway.

In an email last week to both officials and state and county transportation staff, Evan Glass of the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association explained that "the neighborhood's patience eroded months ago."

For more than two years, in fact, Silver Spring residents have navigated unnecessary sidewalk detours due to residential construction at the intersection of East-West Highway, Newell Street and Blair Mill Road.

There have been small changes to the corner, but it remains closed. In late March, operating pedestrian crossing signals were removed and new signals were installed, but these remain inoperable.

In addition, "no parking" signs were placed along the approaches to the corner in front of 1200 East-West Highway. Despite the no parking zones, barriers for a temporary sidewalk to protect pedestrians were not installed. Finally, the sidewalk is in the process of being built, but it's unclear how quickly that will be completed.

The corner remains fenced off. Photo by the author.
One of SHA's District 3 engineers responded to the email from Evan Glass. The reply seems to push blame for the delay to Pepco.

"Our SHA inspectors are coordinating on a weekly, if not daily, basis with the developer, his contractor and the utility companies to facilitate the completion of the work at this intersection," the response explained. "Once the signal work is complete and Pepco finalizes its work to power the new signal controllers, the contractor will be able to complete the sidewalk and pedestrian ramps and have them open to pedestrian traffic again."

Regardless of the cause of this months-long delay to open a sidewalk, the issue remains: during construction, there should have been a temporary provision for pedestrians. SHA's own policies state that "completely closing a sidewalk for construction and rerouting pedestrians to the other side of the street should only be done as a last resort."

This "last resort" has been standard operating procedure at this and other intersections for too long. Pedestrians continue to cross at this corner. The latest delays only extend the dangerous conditions that should not have been created in the first place.

The treatment of pedestrians at this intersection has been unacceptable. Pedestrians don't just disappear when construction happens, especially in an urban, transit-accessible area like Downtown Silver Spring. It's disappointing that SHA has allowed projects to all but ignore pedestrians during years of construction. The latest delay is just adding insult to injury.


New AAA campaign grinds gears of regionís motorists

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

A new campaign by the region's leading automobile advocacy group has created controversy in the local motoring enthusiast community.

The damage done to this vehicle by the pedestrian at left reminds us of the risks motorists face every day. Photo by jasper de boer on Flickr.

Seeing a need to mollify critics who say that motorists disregard the law and endanger other road users, the American Automobile Association's Mid-Atlantic chapter has encouraged its members to sign the Resolution to Drive Responsibly.

Signatories agree not to engage in rude and dangerous behavior while on the road, including speeding, failing to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, talking on mobile phones, blocking the box, and parking in bike lanes. The resolution states, "I resolve to obey the laws. I resolve not to disregard, injure or kill other road users."

AAA Mid-Atlantic's John Townsend explained that the program aims to turn around the negative opinion that many in our region have of motorists. "The goal," he said, "is to show that motorists are responsible people who behave courteously and try to avoid endangering others."

These good intentions have created a storm among Washington-area motoring enthusiasts, as online message boards for "motorheads," as some call themselves, lit up. Writing on one local forum, "IWillNotBeMufflered" wrote, "Everyone knows there is a war on drivers out there. My baby is in danger of being scratched every time I take her down the street." User "Fast&Furious" added: "That pedestrian is a real threat to me. I do what I've gotta do to make sure my vehicle is protected."

Even other automobile advocacy groups are calling AAA Mid-Atlantic's tactics into question. Veronica Moss of the Automobile Users Trade Association said that AAA may have ceded too much ground in its advocacy efforts. "I see what they're trying to do," she said, "but the reality is that drivers are a small minority under siege on our streets. We are little lambs, and those nonmotorized road users are real wolves out to get us. We shouldn't just offer ourselves up to them like that. They could do real damage to us."

This blog disagrees with Ms. Moss's absolutist perspective. Despite its flaws, AAA's Resolution to Drive Responsibly embodies values we should all have, whether walking, biking or driving.

However, the motorists have a point. More must be done to make travel by automobile safe and convenient, including construction of dedicated lanes for cars, encouragement initiatives like "drive to work day," and reform of mobility education for high schoolers to include information about the rights and responsibilities of motorists. Pioneering cities such as Los Angeles and Houston have led the way in these initiatives. Washington should follow their lead.

Our region can do more. We encourage the "bicycular motoring" movement, which teaches motorists to operate their vehicles in a manner consistent with a world dominated by active transportation when there is no dedicated motoring infrastructure available. Even the radical "freeway" concept, which has been described as being like a Capital Crescent Trail for automobile use only, should be considered in our region's transportation plans.

Even as motorists make strides in making our region safer for high-speed automobile traffic, they must remember that they are still operating in an environment designed for nonmotorized users and must obey the rules. Being courteous is the least they could do to help their cause.

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