Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Chinatown

Pedestrians


Dragons and zodiac symbols will decorate Chinatown's streets

Six years ago, the intersection of 7th and H Streets NW, in Chinatown, became a Barnes Dance—an intersection where the traffic lights in all directions turn red at the same time so people can cross the street at any angle they want. It continues to make walking in Chinatown a bit easier, and it's about to get an unusually decorative paint job.


New designs coming to the Barnes Dance in Chinatown. Image from Charles Bergen Studios.

The name "Barnes Dance" comes from Henry Barnes, a traffic engineer who popularized the concept in the USA in the 1940s. Also called Pedestrian Scrambles, Barnes Dances can be found all over the world. There were a number of them in DC until the late 1980s, when they were replaced with normal intersections. In 2010, the Barnes Dance returned to DC, at 7th and H.

Last year, the city decided to commission an artist to paint the diagonal lines that connect the four corners of intersection to be more distinct and unique. The city picked a design by Charles Bergen Studios that features dragons and lamps that allude to the neighborhood's history of hosting parades for Chinese New Year, along with the 12 animals used as symbols for the Chinese Zodiac. They'll go in on the crosswalk in the next few weeks.

All this got me thinking: Does work that will make the diagonal crossings more visible mean that the Barnes Dance hasn't been working like it should? Is our Barnes Dance unique? Who uses DC's Barnes Dance, and might we get another in the future?

According to District Department of Transportation Pedestrian Program Coordinator George Branyan, 7th and H itself sees a lot of pedestrians. Its busiest time is in the afternoon, when the 4000 or so pedestrians who cross each hour outnumber cars two to one.

According to Branyan, a key difference between DC's Barnes Dance and others around the world is that crossing the street on foot with a green light isn't prohibited. Restricting crossing like that, which he said is common, would overcrowd the sidewalks and lead to delays for pedestrians in Chinatown.

DDOT's pedestrian count data doesn't actually suss out who is crossing diagonally versus who is crossing purely north-south or east-west. Branyan said that his own observations made him think about 10-20% of people do cross diagonally when available.

Chinatown is it for now

When I asked Branyan whether DDOT has any plans for future Barnes Dance intersections, he said his agency has looked at a few other possible locations, but that there aren't any specific plans. He said the reason was that for a Barnes Dance to work properly, conditions have to be "just right," like an intersection that doesn't have all that many cars that want to make turns and enough people on foot who want to go in different directions, for example. Otherwise, you run the risk of delaying things for everyone.


DC Barnes Dance intersection. Screenshot from Google Maps by author.

It looks like the Barnes Dance in Chinatown is working like it's supposed to, but that's it for now. If you have any good candidates for where the Washington area's next Barnes Dance should, list them in the comments!

Parking


DDOT's newest performance parking program will be its best

In May, DDOT will launch its most robust performance parking experiment to date. The program, called ParkDC, will significantly change how people park in Gallery Place: the cost to park a car on some of downtown's most in-demand blocks will rise or drop according to demand.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

ParkDC's boundaries will stretch from 11th to 3rd and from E to H Streets Northwest.

Under the performance parking program, DDOT will use cameras and sensors to measure when parking spaces in the designated area are occupied and when they're empty.

Each quarter, the agency will measure that data against a target occupancy rate of 80-90% (or about one empty spot per block) and adjust how much it costs to park in a given spot accordingly. It's possible that prices will change more frequently after the first few quarters, and DDOT will assess ParkDC's overall impact sometime before the end of 2016.


A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

Charging market rate for parking will make sure there are enough empty spots for people who need them while also eliminating an oversupply. That, in turn, will cut down on the congestion that comes from people driving around looking for somewhere to park.

ParkDC is based in part on the success of SFpark, which was introduced to several busy areas in central San Francisco in 2011. An evaluation of SFpark showed that the program made streets better for everyone, with 30% fewer miles driven, 23% fewer parking tickets, 22% less double parking, and 43% less time wasted looking for parking. The average price for parking even fell by 4%. Compared to control areas, buses ran faster and retail sales grew more.

The local business improvement district supports ParkDC: in its press release, businesses touted the project's ability to make parking "easier to locate" and cut down on double parking and drivers circling for spaces.

ParkDC will be DDOT's best parking effort to date

DDOT has tried pilots on Capitol Hill, H Street, and Columbia Heights. They were less successful than supporters hoped because DDOT did not have a cost-effective way to measure occupancy. It also didn't put forth a schedule for updating the meter rates, nor a timeframe for evaluating effectiveness.

For each of these pilot areas, DDOT only reported occupancy data publicly twice, and it hasn't changed prices in some places even when the data show they're either too crowded or empty.

ParkDC's real-time cameras and occupancy sensors, along with a pre-announced schedule, make the program smarter and more responsive.

According to Soumya Dey, DDOT's director of research and technology transfer, ParkDC will use a number of methods to gather occupancy data. A traditional "hockey puck," transaction data from the meters, historical data, cameras, and law enforcement data are all among the ways DDOT will know how many people park, and when, on each block. Dey said the hope is to use fewer embedded sensors, and to evaluate which method is most cost-effective.

Dey said that once the program is up and running, the public will be able to view spot occupancy in real time on DDOT's website or its app.

Transit


Ticket scofflaw drivers with bus-mounted cameras

How do you stop car drivers from blocking bus lanes? Put cameras on buses, of course.


SF Muni bus. Photo by BeyondDC on flickr.

Unfortunately, transit lanes are often clogged by car drivers who either don't know or don't care that cars are not allowed in them. Enforcement is difficult, because violation is often so rampant that it's not practical for the police to pull over every violating car.

DC's 7th Street bus lane through Chinatown is a prime example.

But there is a solution. San Francisco is installing cameras on all its city buses, specifically to enforce the prohibition on cars in transit lanes. Human officers will review footage from the cameras and mail tickets to the owners of any cars illegally blocking the lane.

Bus cameras in San Francisco will not be used to ticket other types of moving violations such as speeding or running red lights. For now they won't even be used to ticket car drivers that block bus stops. Current law prohibits any use other than ticketing transit lane violations.

Even that limited application will make a big difference, though. San Francisco has 17 miles of transit lanes, but without enforcement they're no better at actually moving buses through traffic than 7th Street in DC.

If this idea works it could have a huge effect on bus planning nationwide. Bus lanes could become much more effective, and therefore likely to become more widespread.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Sustainability


Landscape architects envision a greener Chinatown

How could Chinatown be a greener and more livable neighborhood? Designers from the American Society of Landscape Architects and Fuss & O'Neill created a vision for an inter-connected series of green "complete streets," with new, safer bicycle lanes, a pedestrian-friendly "festival street," and a central hub for new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA's door (and below its green roof) on I Street.


All images from ASLA.

There's no time to waste. The city's complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streets—all of them. Beginning a new green neighborhood means tackling all the alleyways running off I Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would preserve car access while absorbing water into the ground.

Along I Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green "festival street" running down 8th Street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone.

Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this "B or C street," which means it doesn't get that much car traffic, could be designed to slow down car traffic so that pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K Street.

8th2

Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian "arboretum," different materials would designate different realms—those for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O'Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that "streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen."

Where 8th Street meets I, new open grates would feature prominently so that "people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn't rain. This will help educate people about stormwater," said ASLA President Tom Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for I Street wouldn't be "lipstick on a pig," said Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O'Neill but represent an "integrated series of events, a system."

Some 6 additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for "green gutters along the curbs" and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

On 9th Street, creating a new "two-way cycle track," a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot "physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards," said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery.

The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O'Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were "up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn't feel safe being there."

greenbike

Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up 2 parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, "signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella.

parklet

According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO/Executive Vice President, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O'Neill's concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval of the many DC government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the DC planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the DC planning office, said "we've tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do." The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Dirt.

Public Spaces


Street musicians continue to bring their beat to 7th Street

Washington's 7th Street NW is often a mix of various melodies and cadences from an assortment of entertainers. This phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, even Langston Hughes took note of the sound of 7th Street.

From H Street to E Street, the corridor is often animated by a variety of street musicians. The performers give sidewalk traffic a sampling of the city's indigenous rhythms and native beats. From the repetitious slow jazz chord of a novice saxophonist to the staccato thumps and wamps of a veteran bucket drummer, their sounds enliven a lively street.


Video from dreamcity4life on YouTube.

The swing of Seventh Street has long served as the creative inspiration for scores of known and unknown artists throughout the city's history. One of the more famous to acknowledge the influence of the street's concord is the writer Langston Hughes. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, under the section on "Washington Society," Hughes writes:

"I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street - gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs—those of Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
From Southwest DC, "JR," a long-time bucket drummer occupying prime 7th Street real estate (the alcove next to the metro's Verizon Center exit), told me, "If you want to go back in history, there was people that done this before me." Being a DC street musician, he said, is "just an original thing."

Optimal times to play, according to JR, coincide with Capitals, Mystics, Wizards games, and concerts. It's best to catch the flow coming to the event then rest to conserve your energy so you can hit the crowd when they start leaving. He's pulled in as much as $400 before, but advises, "When you hustlin', it's all about patience."

To deter would-be-thieves, street musicians often bring someone with them or pay someone they know on the street to keep a watchful eye on their earnings. "Snatch and runs are part of the game," said one musician who didn't want to give his name. "But we're out here regularly. Some are old faces, some of these boys are new faces."

Everyone I spoke with repeated the known axiom that "practice makes perfect" and your sound is what sets you apart. "When we rock like we do, we get respect, because people understand what we're doing. This is a part of the city that ain't goin' nowhere."


Video from dreamcity4life on YouTube.
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