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Transit


Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.


The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!


The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.


The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though, as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.


The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.


Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

Transit


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.


Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficiently—where will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.


All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

Bicycling


A gap in the Met Branch Trail slowly closes

The Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs along the Red Line's eastern segment, still has a number of large gaps. The largest stretches from the Fort Totten trash transfer station to the Maryland line. DC officials recently announced they are moving ahead with preliminary engineering and design to close this gap.

WABA made an infographic showing the trail's progress:

According to WABA's post, officials from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) told the Bicycle Advisory Council that the firms RK&K and Toole Design are now working on the project. It will get the trail segment to the 30% design stage; after that, more as-yet-unscheduled work will be necessary to get the design to 100% and ultimately build the trail section.

There are also other gaps in Silver Spring and in Brookland. A bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station is under construction now, and in NoMa, DDOT is adding short cycletrack segments to get riders all the way to Union Station.

Arts


Art doesn't have to be intimidating or distant. Here are 5 great ways to see art besides in a museum.

We hear a lot about building new housing, retail, and offices, but space for artists to work is also a valuable part of neighborhoods. It's not just for the artists themselves. When artists have work spaces in our communities, it can make art more accessible to the regular person.


Lucinda Murphy discusses her art with open studio visitors. All photos from Mid City Artists.

Many artists open up their studios to the general public, either regularly or during special events, and May is a big time for these "open studios." The next few weekends are great times to look at art, meet artists, and see the kinds of spaces artists use for their creative work, with events in Dupont/Logan/U Street, Trinidad, and Mount Rainier/Hyattsville, plus regular opportunities in Brookland and Alexandria.

Open studios are also a chance to better understand art in a non-judgmental environment. Talking to local artists about their work is a great way to make art more approachable.

For many of us, art evokes images of revered masterpieces, mostly by long-dead people, chosen by unseen professional curators and placed in marble-lined grand and imposing halls of museums.

There's nothing wrong with that, for the purpose it serves—great works from the past should be on display in places that befit their significance. But there's a lot more to art. And visual art is not just paintings, but photography, sculpture, glasswork, quilts, furniture, and much more.

Some people make art as a hobby; a significant group of people, for their living. But the visual arts can often seem intimidating to those not steeped in that world.


Robert Wiener discusses his glass artwork with visitors during Mid City Artists' open studios.

I went to the open studios for the Mid City Artists, in the Dupont, Logan, and U Street area, last year, and found everyone to be very friendly and not at all haughty. They are proud of what they have created. And yes, they are potentially interested in selling something, though I never encountered any pressure.

In fact, according to Sondra Arkin, a founder of Mid City Artists (and a neighbor), many of the artists who participate feel it as a much a way to spread the word about the fact that living people make art in living spaces than purely as a commercial effort (though, still, they would be happy for some sales, too).

She writes,

Some established artists in the neighborhood ... don't find the activity of open studios fits with their practice. It is more difficult than one could imagine to disrupt your work for what amounts to a weekend party. [But] for the artist, it is a great opportunity to test the waters on new work, demonstrate techniques, and explain their passion to create visual art. It is worth the work, and ... makes the city more like the small town we envisioned.
Here are some ways to interact with art and artists this month:

Mid City Artists' open studios is May 17th and 18th, with 13 artists along and near 14th Street. Most studios are open from about 12-5. There are guided tours by experts at select times each afternoon, but it's also fun to just wander around and pop in, including to see the studio spaces for the artists in residential buildings.

Gateway Arts District, around Rhode Island Avenue in Mount Rainier and Hyattsville just over the DC line, is having open studios this Saturday, May 10, also from 12-5.

Art in the Alley in Trinidad showcases artists' work in an alley off Florida Avenue, between Montello and Trinidad Avenues (near 12th Street NE). That's also this Saturday, May 10, from 6-10 pm.

Other artist spaces with seasonal open studios include 52 O Street (whose website hasn't been updated with 2014 open studios information) (update: but which is having its open studios this weekend as well), and the Jackson Art Center in Georgetown (which had its open studios in late April).

Plus, many art spaces have open studios on a regular basis, or all the time.

Arts Walk at Monroe Street Market is a promenade in a new building by the Brookland Metro lined with artist studios. The artists each have their own open hours, and the studios coordinate to all be open on the third Thursday of each month.

The Torpedo Factory, at the waterfront end of King Street in Alexandria, is a sort of permanent open studio, where participating artists have work space in a building where anyone can stop by when they are there.

And the occasional Artomatic event brings together local artists to all show off their work, at least when its organizers can find a temporarily vacant office building and a willing landlord.


Brian Petro discusses his work with open studio visitors. Photo by Colin Winterbottom.

Bicycling


DC has too few dedicated east-west bike pathways

While DC's bicycling network has grown, there still aren't a lot of crosstown connections. In fact, there are no protected east-west bicycle routes in the whole third of the District north of Florida Avenue. Cyclists need more of these, as well as north-south routes to form a grid of dedicated paths.


Bike lanes around a northern section of DC. Image from Google Maps.

Much of DC's bicycle infrastructure, like trails, dedicated bikeways, and bike lanes concentrates in the downtown core, primarily south of Florida Avenue. DDOT's official bicycle map, last updated in 2011, shows that outside of downtown, most bicycle facilities run north-south.

Unless they are willing to ride on six-lane, shoulder-free roads with fast-moving traffic, cyclists have no way to traverse the northern part of Rock Creek Park, where only a freeway-like portion of Military Road crosses the park.

The same goes for Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, the only direct paths from Columbia Heights to Brookland across the vast acreage of McMillan Reservoir and Sand Filtration Site, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

"East-west mobility for bicyclists in the northern neighborhoods of DC can be a significant challenge," said Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) Advocacy Coordinator Greg Billing. "Large campuses, parks, hospitals and cemeteries limit the available east-west connections. The MoveDC plan calls for high quality bicycle facilities from neighborhoods to downtown and better connections between the neighborhoods."

That plan recommends some form of dedicated bikeway along Irving Street, as well as for a cycletrack on Military Road.

A route between Columbia Heights and Brookland would connect two vibrant neighborhoods and serve an area that will gain population as the McMillan site and part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property redevelop.


Google Maps' bicycle directions from the Columbia Heights Metro to the Brookland-CUA Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

Currently, both the DDOT map and Google Maps advise cyclists to use Irving Street between Brookland and Columbia Heights. However, between Park Place NW and the Catholic University campus, Irving Street is a busy six-lane near-freeway with no shoulder. Cyclists have to navigate among drivers merging on and off at the massive cloverleaf intersection with North Capitol Street.

However, the right-of-way through this section seems wide enough for DDOT to add a protected cycle track or trail. One possibility is a cycle track in a protected median down the middle of Irving Street, which would avoid dangerous crossings of the off-ramps at the Irving and North Capitol cloverleaf. Another is to have a trail parallel the existing sidewalk on the south side of Irving Street.


Google Maps street view of Irving Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW.

Worsening traffic congestion is a major concern at the McMillan site. The area has infrequent bus service and is far from a Metro station, but improving bicycle access could provide an important alternative to driving, reducing the traffic impact of new development.

Military Road NW across Rock Creek Park is a similar case. Tilden Street and Park Road to the south, and Wise Road, Beach Drive, and Kalmia Road to the north, are more bike-friendly ways to cross the park. But they're far out of the way for neighborhoods on either side.

According to DDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Mike Goodno, DDOT controls the road itself and a handful of feet on either side. The National Park Service would have to okay any further widening. DDOT has not yet studied whether there is room to add a cycletrack on Military within the right-of-way it controls.


Google Maps Street View of Military Road NW through Rock Creek Park.

The only other connection through Rock Creek Park that is further along in the planning process is the Klingle Trail, which will connect the Rock Creek trail to Woodley Road NW. DDOT completed an Environmental Assessment in 2011.

As activity centers outside the downtown area grow and travel patterns become less centralized, we must enable cyclists and transit users to get across town as easily as drivers. A grid-like, interconnected network of bike routes would make that possible.

Roads


No carmageddon at McMillan, says a study

Redeveloping DC's McMillan Sand Filtration site will not choke neighbor­hoods in new traffic as long as the District follows through on transit plans, says a transportation study from the project team.


McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

The most important element: better transit

The study says that it's quite possible to avoid burdening busy roads in the surrounding neighborhoods, as long as planned improvements to transit actually happen. The report says is transit is actually necessary regardless of whether the project goes forward or the site remains fenced off.

In the short run, improving the Metrobus 80 bus line on North Capitol Street, which WMATA has already designated a "bus priority corridor," will help the most. Other bus lines also need improvements that previous studies have identified.

The report also calls for building the proposed streetcar line along Michigan Avenue from Woodley Park to Brookland Metro. If these projects get delayed, he report recommends coordinated shuttles to the Brookland Metro station.

Along with some tweaks to surrounding roads, the traffic will be no worse with the McMillan project than if nothing gets built.

The report also calls for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including completing the street grid through McMillan, multiple pedestrian access points in each building, ample bicycle storage, and space for three Capital Bikeshare stations.


Top: Transit today around McMillan. Bottom: Proposed transit. Images from the report (p. 92 and 97).

Pitfalls remain

While the study demonstrates the redevelopment can move forward without burdensome traffic impacts, it also points to potential problems that the project team will need to take care to address.

There needs to be ongoing pressure on the city and DDOT to move forward on transit. The city has moved slowly to upgrade transportation elsewhere, so project partners need to keep a close eye on progress.

Walking and bicycling conditions on and off the site also need more attention. Busy driveways on Michigan Avenue pose potential new conflict points for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the city reviews this project, it should take every chance to improve access and safety in the area. Also, while it's great to leave space for three Capital Bikeshare stations, the development should pay for at least one.

The transportation plan specifically cites a proposed DC Circulator route from Brookland to Tenleytown, which covers the same ground as the current H buses. Instead of duplicating existing service, DC and Metro could work together to improve existing H bus service. In fact, Metro recently studied the H lines and made several recommendations to make service faster and more reliable through the area.

New traffic signals will help pedestrians and bicyclists, but the added turn lanes and driveways on Michigan Avenue and First Street NW could pose additional barriers and hazards.

The report also recommends incentives to reduce driving, lower vehicle parking ratios, and encourage transit use in later phases. Instead, these efforts should start now.

With a redevelopment as large and controversial as McMillan, it's important to push for the right policy decisions. To voice your support for the right policy decisions regarding the McMillan redevelopment, head over to the Coalition for Smarter Growth to sign up to speak at an upcoming hearing.

Transit


Brookland neighbors ask Metro for development with a side of green

As new investment rejuvenates Brookland, WMATA is seeking a developer to build at the Brookland Metro station. But neighbors and local nonprofit Casey Trees want to ensure that future development leaves room for green space as well.


The proposed development with amendments as envisioned by neighbors, including a preserved Brookland Green (in red). All images from Brookland Bridge.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) plans to seek a developer to build a mixed-use joint development on the property surrounding the Metro station, including the bus bays, a kiss-and-ride lot and a vacant lot along Michigan Avenue NE. Also slated for development is what residents call the Brookland Green, an approximately .75 acre green space adjacent to the Metro station entrance that boasts 20 mature trees.

Neighbors are asking WMATA to amend their joint development solicitation to preserve the Brookland Green. They have the support of Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Casey Trees, a nonprofit organization based in Brookland best known for planting trees. They feel that it is not only possible, but also more desirable to redevelop the Brookland Metro station while preserving this park space as a core asset for the growing number of DC residents that call Brookland home.


The "Brookland Green."

Building around Metro stations like Brookland, typically referred to as a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is more sustainable than traditional development because it puts people near public transportation, reducing their dependence on automobiles. While the presence of transit and density are two components of TOD, truly sustainable communities also provide access to green space and trees.

Preserving the Brookland Green fits with Mayor Gray's Vision for a Sustainable DC, which recognizes the benefits of trees. The plan sets goals to provide parks or natural space within a ten-minute walk of all residents, as well as to increase tree canopy coverage to 40% across the District.

Research indicates that the green spaces we experience everyday have a greater influence on our health and wellbeing than those that we visit occasionally. Our major national parks, such as the National Arboretum, the National Mall and Rock Creek Park, are wonderful places to visit. But the Brookland Green's proximity to the Metro provides a greater number of people with the daily access to nature and can improve the surrounding urban environment, by decreasing stormwater runoff, filtering our air and cooling the city.

Furthermore, the presence of trees near business districts can enhance sales: several studies have shown that people are willing to visit more frequently and travel farther to business districts with trees, and they are also willing to pay an average of 12% more for goods and services in these areas.

The Brookland Metro station is fortunate to have an existing amenity that provides both of these elements of green space and a lush tree canopy to its residents. So why should we not preserve that within the new development?

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