Greater Greater Washington

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Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Parking


Roll Call recently made a great point about the Capitol's parking problem

In a recent post about cleaning up after Snowzilla, Roll Call, a blog newspaper that covers Congress, published a graphic showing that if you combined all the parking lots on the Capitol Grounds in need of plowing, they'd cover the National Mall. That's a crazy amount of parking.


Imagine if some of Washington's best locations for parks or buildings were parking lots! You don't have to! It's like that today. Image by Roll Call's Sean McMinn and Jia You.

Acres of surface parking lots surround the Capitol and its accessory buildings, and the question of whether they should even be there has long been a sore spot for those paying attention to land use in the District.

That amount of parking is particularly disheartening when you consider that all of these lots used to be blocks of apartments and offices that were very welcoming to people. The McMillan Commission imagined monumental office buildings surrounding the Capitol. In the 1920s, Congress expanded that vision dramatically, adding the open spaces to the north and buying up the lots to the south for future office buildings.

Now, they're parking lots, or parks on top of parking lots. Here's a map of all the surface parking on the Capitol Grounds:


The Capitol Grounds and the surface parking lots. Graphic by the author, with a map from DC GIS.

Congress gets a lot more parking than the rest of the government

The branch of the government that manages the land, the Architect of the Capitol is holding onto the land for now. It likes providing ample parking spaces for legislators, staff, and employees. The AOC won't say exactly how much parking, but a 2005 master plan allotted 5,800 spaces to the House of Representatives alone. Depending on how much the Senate, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and support staff get, the number is probably far higher.


There are federal rules about how much parking there can be for federal employees. Image from NCPC.

Because Congress writes the rules, they've never been subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which sets the parking regulations. The AOC's independence and access to funding has led to a bad reputation, from architecture critics to Congress itself.

To be fair, the AOC does plan to eventually spruce up their properties. Their 2011 Master Plan aims to eliminate all surface parking lots by 2026. But that master plan is short on details for how they'd do that, and it's not clear whether they'd bring the amount of parking in line with the rest of the Federal Government's limits on parking.

Given the sheer volume of parking at the Capitol complex, along with the possibilities for how we could otherwise use the land, the matter of how to scale it back deserves more thought.

Correction: This post originally referred to Roll Call as 'a blog that covers Congress.' While the article at hand was filed on Roll Call's blog, it's more accurate to call the publication a newspaper. Also, it has been clarified to note that the 5,800 figure for parking spaces is only for people who work at the House of Representatives.

Transit


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Government


Local (and federal) governments want you to go sledding!

For the first time in recent years, government officials are actually encouraging (or at least tacitly allowing) area residents to have some winter fun on hills that were previously off limits to unsanctioned sledding.


Photo by Stephanie Clifford on Flickr.

Last year, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton slipped a rider into the federal Omnibus Budget that overturned the 140 year-old ban on sledding on the West Lawn—other activities like throwing Frisbees, to our staff editor's chagrin, remain banned.

Local officials are also trying to bring some semblance of reason to sledding in the region: Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson recently released a list of sanctioned sledding hills in all parts of the county.

Here is a list of sledding hills across the region. Some are sanctioned, others... not so much.

Government officials have long been accused of not letting "kids be kids" and letting liability concerns keep residents from sledding on a number of the area's totally great hills. It came to a head in 2015, when US Capitol Police vigorously enforced a longstanding ban on sledding on Capitol Hill, ending in an odd detente between families with small children and heavily armed officers.

Similar stories were playing out all across the region on local levels, sledders being chased away out of safety or liability concerns, or being worried about property damage (think golf courses).

It's worth noting that these concerns aren't always unfounded, as a local child was severely injured last year while sledding. But strict rules put local authorities in the difficult position of enforcing bans, when many hills were safe in most circumstances.

Sledding is great for communities

Lots of people in more spread out places joke that they only meet their neighbors during snowstorms and power outages, when everyone is outside with a common cause. Shared use recreation, particularly during a time when most residents are home, is a fantastic way to build community and promote neighborhood cohesion in general. Some neighborhoods across the area even close certain streets in snowstorms to allow children to safely sled on them.

From a government policy perspective, this is a "quick win" that provides a tangible benefit at little cost.

"Sometimes it takes so long and it is so hard to get things done or change a policy, so it feels great to be able to do something like this that doesn't require years of study and analysis or figuring out where to find the budget," said Anderson. "I want to make sure everyone knows that we are working to maximize access to parks wherever and whenever we can. In some cases we can't allow access, but I want to look for ways to say yes, not for reasons to keep people out."

This weekend, enjoy those sledding hills, and make a point of getting to know your neighbors while you're out there! You'd be surprised at when that will come in handy.

Feel free to list your favorite sledding spots the comments!

Bicycling


Two Congressmen want to give bikeshare programs more federal money

Federal law doesn't define bikeshare programs as public transportation, which means they aren't eligible for the sustained funding that most transit is. If a new bill becomes a law, that would change.


Photo by Chris Reed on Flickr.

Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL), both members of the Congressional Bike Caucus, introduced the Bikeshare Transit Act last week. The law would make bikeshare eligible for funds dedicated to public transportation, clearing up confusion that both local communities and the Department of Transportation often face when it comes to keeping bikeshare programs up and running.

There are over 50 bikeshare programs in the US, with our very own Capital Bikeshare being the biggest. While many were started with federal money, funding continued operations has been a challenge. The Bikeshare Transit Act will help pay for everything from bike repairs and keeping rebalancing vans on the road to system expansions and new technology.

In addition to defining bikeshare as public transportation, the bill proposes to make bikeshare an eligible project under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which supports surface transportation efforts that work to improve air quality. Since bikes are powered by people and emit no pollution, it makes sense for bikeshare programs to receive CMAQ funding.

The American Planning Association is one of many organizations that support this bill.

"Bikeshare programs are helping communities large and small create new and needed transportation options while also improving local economies and quality of life," said APA President Carol Rhea, FAICP. "Bikeshare has become a proven tool for building stronger, more vibrant, and more resilient communities. APA and the nation's planners applaud the introduction of the bipartisan Bikeshare Transit Act. This legislation will make sure that federal policies and investments recognize what residents and cities already know: that bikeshare works."

Crossposted at American Planning Association's Policy News for Planners.

Budget


Congress gives Metro riders an early Christmas present

If you're a federal government worker, you'll soon get up to $255 a month to pay for transit under a tax bill Congress agreed on last night. Or, if your employer allows setting aside pre-tax earnings for transit, you will also be able to reserve more. This will translate into badly needed fare revenue for Metro—perhaps as much as $15 million a year.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The federal transit benefit lets employees at many organizations put pre-tax earnings aside to cover transit or parking (and sometimes also bicycling). In addition, some employers, in our region most notably the federal government, pays for employee transit up to the allowed transit benefit amount.

For the last two years, the transit benefit has been capped at $130, but $250 for parking The new law—which is expected to pass both houses and be signed within the week—will set both limits at $255, with increases to match future inflation.

Under an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, the benefit to federal employees automatically increases to match the tax-free maximum. So federal employees whose commutes cost more than $130 a month (the benefit cannot exceed your actual fare) will soon see more money on their Metro farecards.

Lowering the cost of transit for long-distance commuters will attract more riders and bring in more fare revenue. A study by Metro estimated that the system lost 6,000 daily round trips as a result of the January 2014 cut in the transit benefit from $230 to $130. If these riders return at an average fare of $5 each way (only high-fare commuters are affected), the agency would gain $15 million a year in revenues.

MARC and VRE commuter trains can also expect more riders, as can express buses from outer suburbs.

Congress made the new limit retroactive, but few riders will benefit from this provision. Employers will not be able to make payments for past months (although it is still possible to make a payment for December). However, anyone who has been getting a transit benefit of over $130 a month and paying taxes on it will be able to deduct the entire amount (up to $255 a month) for the whole year.

Details of how the new limit will be implemented vary among federal agencies. It's probably best, however, to apply quickly for the full amount of your commute expenses so that the added benefit will start as soon as possible.

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