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Posts about DC


We know where most of DC's population lives. Does Metro run through those places?

The maps below show where DC's most densely-populated pockets are, as well as where its Metro stops are. It turns out they aren't always the same places, or in other words, DC isn't building enough around transit.

Highest density census tracts comprising 50% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay. Map by John Ricco, overlay by Peter Dovak.

Back in July, John Ricco created a pair of maps showing that 50% of DC's residents live on 20% of the land, and a quarter of the population lives on just 7% of the land. Peter Dovak, another Greater Greater Washington contributor, did me the favor of overlaying John's maps onto the Metro system.

Looking at the map above, which shows where 50% of the population lives, there are some obvious areas of overlap between density and Metrorail access, including the Green/Yellow corridor through Shaw, Columbia Heights, and Petworth. The southern area of Capitol Hill also has multiple Metro stops and is relatively dense.

But what stands out are the dense places that aren't near Metro. The northern end of Capitol Hill, including the H Street corridor and Carver Langston, as well as the areas to the west around Glover Park, a few tracts to the north near Brightwood, and two larger areas east and west of the Green Line in Ward 8, near Congress Heights and Fort Stanton Park.

All of these places show that DC's growth isn't being concentrated around its transit (its transit isn't being extended to serve dense areas either, but that's harder to do).

Of course, Metro is far from the only way to get around. Residents of high density, Metro-inaccessible neighborhoods rely on buses and other modes to get where they need to go; specific to northern Capitol Hill, for example, there's also the DC Streetcar). Also, some areas next to Metro stops are low density due to zoning that restricts density or land nobody can build on, like federal land, rivers, and parks.

Still, it's useful to look at where DC's high-density neighborhoods and its high-density transit modes don't overlap, and to understand why.

25% of DC's population lives close to metro... mostly

Really, the S-shaped routing of the Green Line is the only part of Metro in DC that runs through a super dense area for multiple stops.

Looking at the map that shows 25% of the District's population, the Green/Yellow corridor helps make up the 7% of land where people live. But so does Glover Park, Carver Langston, and a tract in Anacostia Washington Heights near the Maryland border—and these places are a long way from a Metro stop.

Highest density census tracts comprising 25% of DC population, with Metrorail overlay.

There are historical reasons for why things are this way

According to Zachary Schrag in The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Metro wasn't meant to be an urban subway; it was always meant to be a regional rail system. It explicitly bypassed the relatively few people in DC's high-density areas, in favor of speeding up rides for the greater number of through-commuters. Apparently, DC had little say in that decision, which is evident in the map.

On the other hand, the citywide streetcar plan was meant to bring rail access to many more DC residents—partly because, well, it was to be built by DC's government, for DC's residents, which Metro was not.

The first version of this post said that a tract was in Anacostia, but it's actually in Washington Heights.


Picture this: You're nibbling breakfast at Union Station when a train plows through the building

At 8:38 am on January 15th, 1953, a man ran onto the Union Station concourse screaming "run for your lives!" 20 seconds later the building shook as a runaway 1,100 ton passenger train smashed through the north wall and collapsed the through the floor into the basement. Dozens of passengers were injured but, amazingly, there were no fatalities on the train or in the station.


The Federal Express 173, which ran from Boston to Washington, consisted of an electric locomotive and 16 coach and Pullman sleeper cars. The brake failure and subsequent crash were caused by a design flaw with the train's airbrake system.

The first warning signs that a crash was on the way appeared about 15 minutes outside of Washington. The engineer started decelerating from the cruising speed of 80 mph, but the train the train wouldn't go below 60 mph. The emergency braking system temporarily slowed the train down, but the declining slope of the tracks approaching Union Station all but canceled it out.

At the time, trains didn't have two-way radios, so the only warning signal the engineer could give was with the train's horn.

According to a Washington Post account (which I accessed via the DC Public Library), the conductor began running back through the cars shouting for passengers to "Lie down on the floor or lie down on your seat." As the out of control train buzzed the K Tower in Union Station's rail yard at 50 mph, it was obvious that a disaster was moments away.

The towerman frantically telephoned the station master "Runaway on Track 16!" and through their quick action, the platform was cleared. Luckily, unlike today's Amtrak passengers, most people waited for their trains on now-removed benches in the main hall, so the concourse area was relatively empty.

The Post quotes from one of their own employees, a young layout artist who happened to be in one of the front three cars on his morning commute from Baltimore.

"There was a tremendous rumble and the screeching of steel rubbing against steel," said 25 year old Edward K. Koch. "The end of the car was tossed upward. Sparks were flying all over the place... Smoke and cement dust billowed up and about the car and we couldn't see out the windows... For a moment there was a period of awesome silence, punctuated by the sizzle of steam and the sputtering of live wires."

To understand the damage, you need to envision how Union Station looked before it was remodeled. The stairs that today lead down to the foodcourt didn't exist yet - they were cut through the floor years later. The shops and floating platforms were later additions.

Photo by the author.

Juxtaposing the damage with today's Union Station, imagine the train plowing through the Starbucks, Amtrak-Marc ticket counter and falling through the floor around the central staircases, and coming to rest right up against the doors of the chocolate shop.

400 station laborers got to work immediately repairing the damage - the Eisenhower inauguration was just 5 days away and Union Station was expecting large crowds. The locomotive was lowered down into the basement so it could be dismantled and brought above ground. (Interesting side note: the engine was later rebuilt, saw 30 years of continued service, and is currently at the Baltimore railroad museum).

Steel supports were installed in the hole in the station floor, and according to the Post, it was bridged with "two-inch tongue-and-groove wood flooring supported by heavy timbers" within 72 hours. The temporary floor was solidified by "quick drying asphalt [that] was applied over the wood floor."

Amazingly, the station was fully reopened within three days of the crash. The temporary floor was replaced by a all-steel and concrete replacement later that summer.

Cross-posted at Architect of the Capital.


Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail might close temporarily, but that just means a big opportunity

Part of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) near the NoMa Metro stop may close for several months to make space for building construction, meaning there will be no direct route to avoid the treacherous intersection at Florida Avenue and New York Avenue. But what if there's a way to make the intersection far safer for walking and biking?

The MBT could be closed during construction of an adjacent development. Image by Aimee Custis.

The closure would be for construction of the second phase of the Washington Gateway, which is slated to be 16 stories tall with 372 residential units, 8% of which will have rents capped at affordable levels for people who quality.

"There will be a period of time when we have to pick up the asphalt and put in a better MBT," said Fred Rothmeijer, founding principal at developer MRP Realty, at an Eckington Civic Association meeting. Improvements will include repaving the trail, new landscaping and better light, he added.

The location of Washington Gateway with the section of the MBT in question. Image by MRP.

Michael Alvino, a bike program specialist at DC's Department of Transportation, tacitly confirmed the closure at the meeting, saying, "we're still trying to determine exactly what the impacts on the trail will be, certainly it's not going to be closed for an extended period of time—we're going to push for that to be open as much as possible."

Right now, the trail lets cyclists avoid a perilous intersection

This is a critical section of the MBT. The trail is the only car-free alternative to the congested "virtual circle," as DDOT puts it, intersection at Florida Avenue, New York Avenue and First Street NE.

Also called "Dave Thomas Circle" because it's home to a Wendy's, the intersection has narrow sidewalks along frequently backed up streets, primarily on Florida Avenue and First Street. It's unenjoyable for pedestrians and unsafe for cyclists in the roadway. In addition, the lights are timed to prioritize through traffic on New York Avenue, giving people on foot and bike little time to cross the six-lane wide thoroughfare.

In other words: the MBT is your safest and most practical route if you're headed to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station or the First Street NE protected bikeway.

The closure could be an opportunity

What if DDOT used the potential MBT closure as an opportunity to improve the pedestrian and bike connections through the virtual circle?

The agency is already studying ways to improve the circle as part of a planned redesign of Florida Avenue NE. It proposed two possible alternatives that include direct pedestrian and bike connections through the intersection in the final report it released in 2015.

The orange lines in both options below represent new "pedestrian areas," though the report does not go into detail on exactly what kind of walking and biking facilities these would include:

One potential redesign of the virtual circle at the intersection of Florida Avenue and New York Avenue NE. Image by DDOT.

A second potential redesign of the virtual circle. Image by DDOT.

Right now, DDOT's potential redesigns of the circle face a significant stumbling block: they require the acquisition and demolition of the Wendy's restaurant at its center. DDOT has yet to set a timeline for this, or for redesigning the circle.

An interim solution to allow cyclists a safe path through the circle would be to build a protected bikeway that begins at R Street NE, heads south on Eckington Place to Florida Avenue, then continues briefly on Florida before turning south on First Street NE, crossing New York Avenue and then connecting with the existing bikeway at M Street NE.

Route of a possible protected bike lane from R Street NE to the existing facility on First Street in NoMa. Image by MapMyRun.

This solution would not require the acquisition of private property but it would likely require taking some of the traffic lanes for the roughly 150 feet the bikeway would be on Florida Avenue and the roughly 300 feet on First Street NE north of New York Avenue. There is no on-street parking in either of these stretches of roadway.

The protected bikeway could be created by reorganizing the traffic lanes and parking spaces on Eckington Place north of Florida and First Street NE south of New York Avenue.

Now is the time to speak up

MRP is in the process of modifying its planned unit development (PUD), the agreement where it commits to certain community benefits in exchange for DC Zoning Commission approval of a project, to include changes to Washington Gateway. These include converting one of the planned buildings to residential from commercial, as well as changes to a controversial "bike lobby."

The Zoning Commission has yet to set a date for a hearing but a modified PUD could include specifics for how the developer works with DDOT to mitigate the likely MBT closure during construction.

You can find out more by searching here for case number 06-14D.


The biggest and the smallest Capital Bikeshare stations

Capital Bikeshare stations range in size, from nine docks to 47 docks. Here are photos of the smallest station (a secret station!) and the five biggest.

First, the smallest station: the White House secret station. It's got nine docks, and sits behind a fence at 17th Street and State Place NW, just south of the Old Executive Office building.

Photo by the author.

The station is not open to the public and does not appear in Capital Bikeshare's data feed. It's also an anomaly for its size: 81 stations, each with 11 docks, are tied as the second-smallest stations in the system.

Now, the biggest stations, starting with a three-way tie for third place:

3rd-biggest (tie): 12th Street & Independence Avenue SW, next to the USDA buiding (39 docks)

Photo by the author.

This station sits close to the Smithsonian Metro station's south exit and is likely popular among tourists and office workers alike.

3rd-biggest (tie): Maryland & Independence Avenues SW (39 docks)

Photo by the author.

Farther east on Independence Avenue is this 39-dock station, placed in the median of Maryland Avenue SW, which is slated to become the future Eisenhower Memorial. This station is the closest one to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the third most-visited museum on the planet.

3rd-biggest (tie): Nationals Park / 1st & N Streets SE (39 docks)

Photo by the author.

It's no surprise Nationals Park is a huge trip generator. This station likely saw even higher demand than usual when WMATA decided to keep with its early closing schedule during the Nationals' playoff games.

2nd-biggest: Massachusetts Avenue & Dupont Circle NW (45 docks)

Photo by the author.

The second-biggest station sits at Massachusetts Avenue and Dupont Circle NW. The docks are split between two parallel rows. Located in a neighborhood populous with both residences and offices, it's no surprise this station is the system's second-busiest.

Biggest station: Union Station (47 docks)

Photo by the author.

Capital Bikeshare's biggest and busiest station resides at Union Station, a multimodal transportation hub serving 40 million visitors a year. The 47-dock station stretches along Columbus Circle NE near the east faÁade of the station and lies at the end of a contraflow bike lane that runs on F Street NE.


DCís libraries have far fewer books and way more e-books and audio and visual resources than they used to

Our reading habits are evolving with technology. Want proof? DC's public library system's book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but it's got far more e-books and audio and visual resources.

Photo by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.

"Curling up to a book" means something a little different than it used to. It could mean an actual physical book, but it can also mean scrolling down your smartphone or listening to a book being read through headphones. With a limited collections budget, how has the DC Public Library balanced traditional physical books with newer mediums?

This graph gives us a snapshot of how the numbers of books, e-books, and audio and visual resources have changed since 2006:

Graphs by the author.

The DC Public Library's collection has hardly been stable over the past eight years, with the number of books dropping sharply between 2009 and 2012. Collections are largely driven by a budget that fell from from $4.27 million in 2009 to $1.67 million in 2012 and then bounced back to $3.85 million in 2013.

Renovations in public libraries across DC also led the library to better catalog its resources and reassess its physical collection and cull books considered outdated or in bad shape.

A constant across the period, however, is the declining proportion of books in the overall library collection. Books went from being 94% of the system's physical collection to just 81% in 2014. The library system has far more e-books, audio, and video materials than it used to.

While books still dominate the library's collection, audio and video have been on a swift rise. Audio resources, like e-audiobooks and CDs, have grown over 50%; video, like DVDs and streaming, has doubled.

While DC Public Library's initial uptake of e-books was slow, its collection has increased tenfold since 2011. Books are the only medium which have been on the decline, falling 16%, in large part due to the removal of outdated or worn books during library renovations. This isn't to say the DCPL has stopped acquiring books, as you can see at @booksfordc, which tweets whenever new books come into the DC Public Library catalog.

DC residents seem to be fans of the library's changes, with circulation and library visits both doubling since 2006.

There was a decline in library visits from 2009 to 2013, and this makes sense given the decline of books and rise of e-resources. But new strategies and renovated neighborhood libraries means the decline is likely not permanent.

According to DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the decline in books has the side benefit of freeing up space for programs, like yoga, Memory Lab (a place where library members can digitize home movies and photos), and tech and financial literacy training. Indeed, library programs increased 75%. In other words, there are more and more options bringing people into libraries beyond just books.

The data I used for this post is available through the Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS) Public Libraries Survey. DCPL considers data from prior to 2006 to be unreliable. Also, the data I used excludes resources available through third-party providers, like Freegal, which likely means the proportion of books is even lower. You can find complete code for this on my Github page.


Marriott is moving its headquarters to downtown Bethesda so it can be in a denser place that's closer to transit

Marriott International, a major local employer and national hotelier, is making an "in-town" move, relocating its headquarters from North Bethesda to downtown Bethesda. That sends an important message: walkable urban places and proximity to transit, specifically Metro but also the coming Purple Line, are economically crucial.

Photo by José Carlos Cortizo Pérez on Flickr.

Marriott International announced in March of 2015 that it would not be renewing the lease on its current Fernwood Road headquarters, inside the I-270 spur at the Beltway. According to Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, it was "essential that we be accessible to Metro."

Today, Marriott International announced that it's moving to downtown Bethesda.

"It'll be great to have a more convenient option for public transportation," said a current Marriott employee who asked to remain anonymous. "Proximity to restaurants and shops is a great plus as well. Now we're next door to a mall, but it's good to have different options."

Younger workers want travel and lifestyle options, and Marriott's relocation is about competing for this workforce talent. It's worth noting that Marriott competitor Choice Hotels (think Comfort Inn) is also headquartered in Montgomery County, in an office building across the street from Rockville Metro.

Marriott International's current headquarters in a North Bethesda office park. Image from Google Maps.

Back when Marriott announced its coming move, Maryland, DC, and Virginia instantly went into battle mode over the $17 billion corporation, which the Washington Business Journal called "the hottest corporate relocation prospect currently in the market" because of its 2,000+ employees and its need for hundreds of thousands of square feet of premium office space.

With sequestration and base closures tightening the office market, developers were ready to fight for a big client. Regional elected leaders vowed to compete as well (though more voices are speaking up for regional cooperation, instead of a race to the bottom).

Marriott isn't the first company to want a move like this

In looking to relocate near Metro, the hotel giant is in step with a bigger trend. Suburban office parks all over our region are losing tenants to walkable urban places. Prior to Marriott's announcement, the company's current neighborhood office market in North Bethesda already had a vacancy rate of 19%.

The Marriott relocation will happen when the company's current lease ends in 2022. If that date sounds familiar, it's because it's the year Purple Line service is planned to begin! That powerful vibration you just felt is the synergy between economic development, land use, and transportation aligning in downtown Bethesda.

The exact site is still a mystery. The planned redevelopment of the Apex Building to make way for the Purple Line station only includes about half of the office space square footage that Marriott is looking for—and Marriott also wants to build a 200+ room hotel. We'll have to stay tuned for exactly where Marriott will go and how they'll find all that space in an already-dense urban place.

Virginia and Prince George's County probably never had a chance, given that Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson lives in Somerset—and CEO commute distance is a noted predictor of firm location. In that regard, today is not the big win for greater regional cooperation and jobs/housing balance that some hoped for.


Ask DC's planners to address rising housing costs!

DC's Office of Planning will be updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, and wants to hear from you about what needs to change. Can you attend one of eight meetings over the next few weeks?

The "Comp Plan" is the high-level document governing the city's growth and change. It includes chapters on housing, the environment, waste infrastructure, schools, and more. The most specific parts of the plan dictate how much can be built, and where; zoning and development decisions are supposed to be based on the Comp Plan, and a recent court case gave the plan, specifically one map inside it, even more teeth.

This makes the update critical if we want to be able to keep adding enough housing to meet demand, focusing new growth near Metro stations and high-frequency buses, and encouraging walkable urbanism. OP planners need to hear from you to prioritize these needs as they consider amendments.

Every five years, the government updates the plan. This year, changes will be relatively modest, focusing on ways the assumptions or predictions in the 2006 plan have fallen out of step with reality. A group of GGWash staff and readers have been reading the plan and noticed some ways the plan has gotten out of date:

Some people will be attending these meetings to ask for even more obstacles against new people moving into neighborhoods. It's important for the planners to hear residents ask for improvements in the Comp Plan that truly fulfill its stated objective of "a growing and inclusive city."

We need the Comp Plan to ensure there is housing for people at all income levels and enough so prices don't spiral out of control (any more than they already have), and for all neighborhoods to be part of the solution rather than a competition for each neighborhood to wall itself off and push change to someone else's street.

There are eight meetings, one per ward (though OP uses "planning areas" which don't change every ten years). Each meeting will feature a presentation by planners about the Comp Plan, an open house where people can talk with planners, and then an "open mic" for feedback.

The meetings are:

  • Wednesday, October 19, 6-8:30 pm in Columbia Heights
  • Saturday, October 22, 9-11:30 am in Anacostia
  • Tuesday, October 25, 6-8:30 pm in Tenleytown
  • Thursday, October 27, 6-8:30 pm on Minnesota Avenue
  • Tuesday, November 1, 6-8:30 pm in West End/Foggy Bottom
  • Thursday, November 3, 6-8:30 pm in Southwest Waterfront
  • Monday, November 14, 6-8:30 pm in Brookland
See the specific locations and other details here. If you can't attend, you can also give your thoughts at this online survey.

Either way, sign up using the form below to get further updates from Greater Greater Washington about ways to make a difference on this Comp Plan process.

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