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Posts about Fairfax


Where is Falls Church, exactly?

A couple months ago, Greater Greater Washington editor Dan Reed wrote about how Silver Spring doesn't have actual boundaries. That's not the only place in our region where that's the case: the question of where, exactly, Falls Church's borders are is also an open one.

Unlike Silver Spring, there is an official boundary in terms of the City of Falls Church (which is an independent city not part of Fairfax County):

Map of the City of Falls Church from Google Maps.

But when people say "Falls Church," they have always meant more than the current boundaries of the city (in fact, neither the East Falls Church nor West Falls Church Metro stations are in the City of Falls Church). So, let's start with a bit of history.

In 1875, Falls Church gained township status within Fairfax. In 1887, it retroceded "South Falls Church" back to Fairfax (I touched on this in a 2014 post about the naming of West Falls Church). According to the City's website, "In 1890, the Town Council of Falls Church voted to cede its other majority African American districts to Fairfax County. As a result, over one-third of the land that made up the town was retroceded to the County."

East Falls Church, which makes up the western corner of Arlington County, has its own interesting history. It was part of the Town of Falls Church (while simultaneously within a county, which changed designations as Virginia ceded its portion to, then retroceded it back from, the District of Columbia).

So, from 1875 to 1887, the Town of Falls Church included what is basically today's City, along with South Falls Church and East Falls Church. I found a map of the Town of Falls Church here and georeferenced it onto a current map:

Current City of Falls Church boundaries are in red, overlaying a map of the former "Town of Falls Church." Map by the author using data from Fairfax County GIS and Quora.

For a more modern look at what the boundaries of Falls Church could be, we can start with the most inclusive: postal addresses that use Falls Church. The peach-colored area in the map below represents the five zip codes that use Falls Church in their addresses. While it's the largest area considered, it omits East Falls Church, which has an Arlington address.

Map from Fairfax County GIS with annotations by the author.

On the other extreme, you could strictly define Falls Church as the City, whose boundaries are shown in green above. This is a tidy solution in that it is a formal boundary. But then what do you call the surrounding area?

(For those who are familiar with Falls Church but haven't looked at these boundaries in a while, you'll note the 22043 zip code sticking out. This reflects the the boundary of the City of Falls Church having changed very slightly in the last few years: the middle school and the high school for the City of Falls Church had been in Fairfax County (adjacent to the city boundary). As part of the deal where Fairfax Water bought the Falls Church City water system a few years ago, Fairfax County handed over the school property to the City.)

Could physical features define Falls Church?

In Dan Reed's post about Silver Spring, and in the comments, there was mention of physical attributes (roads, natural features) as boundaries.

With this approach, I-66 (to the north), the Beltway (to the west) and Holmes Run/Columbia Pike (to the south) would be logical boundaries for Falls Church. This is shown in yellow above. (To the east, I selected the Arlington County border which, admittedly, isn't a physical feature.)

I often hear the term "Greater Falls Church" to describe the City and surrounding areas, but I wasn't able to find any formal boundary definitions of such. I checked the circulation information of the Falls Church News Press, which says it targets "…customers in the greater Falls Church area of Northern Virginia." They deliver to the five zip codes above, but provided no additional information on their website. (Their circulation is quite sparse outside of the City.)

The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, which used to be called the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, has a map of its members that corresponds closely to the northern half of the zip code area:

But other than the formal boundaries of the City, there are no formal definitions of where "Falls Church" begins and ends. So, what do you consider the boundaries of "Falls Church" to be?


Three ideas to make it easier to bike to and from the Mosaic District in Fairfax

Merrifield is a growing part of Fairfax County with a number of bike routes. I've got three ideas for making them easier to use.

Merrifield is getting better for walking, but it's still not very easy to bike around. Photo by Dan Reed.

Merrifield is an area of Fairfax County located between the independent cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. Older residential neighborhoods, suburban strip malls, and light industry are still prevalent in the area, but newer mixed-use development has sprung up close to its Dunn Loring Metro station on the Orange Line. This includes the Mosaic District, one of the region's newest town centers outside of the urban core, similar to Reston Town Center or Kentlands in Gaithersburg.

Gallows Road and Lee Highway, the main "local" roads, are both very wide and can be intimidating to cross or bike along, even on the sidewalk. Both roads were also widened to make room for new exits along I-495's HOT lanes, which can mean long waits to cross the road on foot.

Merrifield. Photo from Google Maps.

But the area also has some great bike infrastructure. Two very popular trails, the W&OD and the Cross County Trail (CCT), run close to or through Merrifield. There are also existing low stress and bike-friendly options, which are routes and streets that cyclists tend to use because they feel safer or calmer riding on those streets compared to others.

The issue is that riding a bike to those trails and other routes is not all that easy. Not many people know the most direct routes, some of the streets are more dangerous than they need to be, and there are places that don't connect to trails that they could easily could connect to.

Signs, road diets, and some new connections would easily stitch the area's pedestrian and bike network without the need for huge capital projects.

One easy way to make biking in Merrifield easier: signs

Merrifeld has a number of great bike routes, but unless you study a map, there's really not a way to know about them. For riding a bike to be a viable option, people need good signs, and signs that make sense for people traveling by car aren't necessarily sufficient.

The Cross County Trail, which runs north to south across Fairfax County, passes through Merrifield. The Mosaic District is less than two miles from the trail at its closest point, and from there it is only a little farther to the Dunn Loring Metro or the W&OD Trail's intersection at Gallows Road. It's far easier to get to those places from the CCT by cutting across an easy-to-miss side trail through a parking lot and then going through a few neighborhoods, but a lot of people simply don't know that.

A few signs pointing pointing people from the CCT toward the Mosaic District or the Metro (or a number of other destinations, like the hospital on Gallows Road) would instantly make biking a reliable way to travel.

Simple and direct signs can be a big help for cyclists looking for the best routes. Photo by Dan Malouff.

When SafeTrack began on the Blue and Orange Lines, a lot of new signs went up around Fairfax and Arlington telling new bike commuters where to go for the best routes around town and across the Potomac. The same should be done wherever we can to help people easily bike without having to rely on maps or trial and error to find the best routes.

Some roads could be a lot more bike-friendly

Another thing Fairfax could do with no new infrastructure is look at where existing roads could be resized to encourage more cycling in the area.

Merrilee Drive/Eskridge Road parallels Gallows Road through the area, but fewer people drive on them since the two roads do not actually leave the area. That makes them ripe for more cyclists, especially people who are "interested but concerned" when it comes to riding a bike.

Below is a shot of what Merrilee Drive looks like today. Parking is actually allowed along the street but it is never very busy, and the lack of lane markings can confuse drivers and encourage speeding.

Merrilee Drive today.

There's more than enough room for bike lanes and parking, or a turn lane. Adding these in would create a bike connection between Mosaic and Dunn Loring that's nearly arrow-straight. Paint can make a big difference in how people use a road; in this case, it could help people know that there are actually two lanes. Also, painting bike lanes themselves can really help cyclists without totally reconfiguring the road's layout.

The current road is around 40 feet wide. That's plenty of room for two driving lanes, two bike lanes, and a parking lane. The sidewalks along the curb would not even need to be touched.

What Merrilee Drive could look like. Image/design from Streetmix

New trail connections

Some new connections between Merrifield's current bike routes and its nearby trails would make biking easier as well. These would require some capital spending and other steps like acquiring permission to use certain rights of way for these connections, so they're the hardest of the options I'm putting forward.
But even then, the key word here is "connections". These are not brand new trails that go on for miles and miles. These would be localized improvements aimed at improving the existing network first.

One big connection would be a proper pedestrian bridge across I-66 at the Dunn Loring Metro. There are sidewalks across the Gallows Road bridge but there are no bike lanes until you are farther down the road. A pedestrian bridge would make it easier for people to get from the Metro to the neighborhoods north of I-66, and existing trails could be extended to link up with a new bridge.

The maroon line is a potential place for a pedestrian bridge across I-66, near one of Merrifield's low-stress bike route (the blue line). Image from Google Maps.

Another bridge might be explored for crossing Arlington Boulevard near Gallows. There, you have existing park space that is close to the road, but the road itself is hard to cross. Plus if the Arlington Boulevard Trail is completed between Washington and the City of Fairfax then a bridge would be a great addition to a third major trail in the area along with the W&OD and the Cross County Trail.

The maroon line is a potential place for a crossing over Arlington Boulevard. Image from Google Maps.

Finally, there could be a connection between the Cross County Trail and Highland Lane which leads to Williams Drive and Eskridge Road, both of which travels through the Mosaic District. That would be a much straighter shortcut than the existing route via Beverly Drive which twists and turns.

The maroon line is a potential connection from the Cross County Trail (in green) to Highland Lane. Image from Google Maps.

Together, these kinds of changes could have a big impact on helping knit together neighborhoods and destinations throughout Merrifield. That would help people identify with the area and discover that there are options to getting around that do not always require getting in a car.


Our endorsements for races across the Washington region

Tuesday, November 8 is Election Day, and most area jurisdictions have early voting which has already begun. Here are our endorsements for some key races on your ballot.

Photo by League of Women Voters of California LWVC on Flickr.

We recommend area voters choose:

  • Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine for President
  • David Grosso and Robert White for DC Council at large
  • Mary Lord for DC State Board of Education
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton for DC Delegate
  • DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission: Read our endorsements here
  • For DC's statehood referendum
  • LuAnn Bennett and Don Beyer for Congress in Virginia
  • John Delaney and Jamie Raskin for Congress in Maryland
  • For the Prince George's at-large council seat proposal
  • Against Montgomery County term limits
Below is our rationale for all endorsements in races other than Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. You can read our detailed reasons for our ANC endorsements by choosing your ward from this page.

President and Vice President of the United States

We know, the whole nation was waiting with bated breath to find out what Greater Greater Washington thinks about the presidential race. Your long suspense is over: after some very contentious balloting, our contributors unanimously recommended voting for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. We figured we'd start this post off with a shocker.

Seriously, whether you're Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, pro-urbanism or anti, for goodness' sake, vote for Hillary Clinton. As one contributor put it, "because it's the only choice to keep our national government from slipping into utter chaos." Clinton is, they said, "most likely to continue the Obama Administration's urban policies and really enhance his domestic policy legacy."

Anyway, you probably want to get on to the local races where our endorsement is more likely to sway you. Fair enough!

David Grosso (left) and Robert White (right). Images from the candidates' websites.

DC Council at large

Each November in even years, voters pick two at-large members of the DC Council, but the law limits the number of Democrats (or members of any other party) who can be on the ballot simultaneously. The Democratic nominee is Robert White, whom we endorsed in the June primary against Vincent Orange. Also running as a technically-not-a-Democrat is incumbent David Grosso, and both deserve your vote (if you vote in DC).

One contributor, who lives east of the Anacostia, said of White: "Robert White is appealing for a person East of the River, as he has articulated a policy for preserving affordable housing, but also pairing such efforts with economic development. Typically we get one but not the other. His proposal to increase density along major corridors also has the beneficial effect of encouraging improvements in mass transit."

As for Grosso, he has been a progressive champion on many issues and a strong fighter for better education in DC as head of its education committee for the last two years. He is one of the council's best members and we look forward to the next four years on the council with Grosso and White.

State Board of Education

Voters also choose members of the State Board of Education. Incumbent Mary Lord is running against two challengers, and we encourage voters to return her to the board. While we don't talk about the SBOE much on Greater Greater Washington (want to write about it? Get in touch) and one contributor said, "I'm pretty sure I keep forgetting this group exists until election time," the board sets important education priorities.

Our contributors said that Lord "has the experience and knowledge" to serve effectively on the board, and others noted that respected ANC commissioners and neighborhood groups are supporting her.

There are also races for council ward seats (not expected to be competitive) and some State Board of Education seats (some possibly competitive) in wards 7 and 8 (and uncontested ones in 2 and 4). We did not have enough contributor consensus to make endorsements in the contested races.

Photo by Michelle Kinsey Bruns on Flickr.

DC Statehood

DC voters will weigh in on an advisory ballot referendum about statehood. Our contributors who filled out our survey universally agreed DC deserves statehood, and even if some didn't agree with every detail of the proposed constitution or process, they felt it sends an important message for voters to ratify this by large margins.

One contributor, who didn't support the process, said, "I think there are a lot of issues with how residents will be represented in the constitution developed (ANCs stay with similar power, bigger council). If we really want statehood, we need to put forward a more serious, thoughtful constitution before taking this further, or else no one else will take it seriously."

But others, while agreeing in part, suggested a yes vote: "Its not perfect, but we goddamn deserve to be a state," one wrote. Another: "It's not perfect, but it's still worth supporting."

And: "Any vote against this will be used as a cudgel by those opposed to statehood for a generation." This referendum is not even binding on the DC Council, let alone Congress which has to act to make DC a state. So the vote really is symbolic, but for an important symbol. Please vote yes on DC Advisory Referendum B.

Delegate to Congress

Speaking of DC's non-representation in Congress, our contributors support re-electing Eleanor Holmes Norton as DC's nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives (but support changing that to a voting representative, of course).

While we haven't always agreed with all she's done, contributors said "she has years of experience working across the aisle in Congress and bringing home much needed funds for DC transportation projects; she has proven herself a partner and ally to my community;" and called her "a long-time fighter for social justice."

LuAnn Bennett on a sidewalk. Image from the candidate's website.

Congress in Maryland and Virginia

If you live outside the District and are a US voter, you can cast a ballot for a voting member of Congress. By far the most hotly contested race in our area is in Virginia's 10th district, between incumbent Barbara Comstock and challenger LuAnn Bennett. The district contains parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties as well as all of Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties, plus the cities of Manassas Park, Manassas, and Winchester.

Comstock, the Republican, is portraying herself as a moderate, but as one contributor noted, she "is much more conservative that most people realize, for example a 3% environmental vote score." But even more critically for Greater Greater Washington, she has been unhelpful on issues about WMATA and transit funding.

Further, one contributor noted, "she's shown that she is not very friendly to legislation that would protect cyclists and she also signed legislation that prioritized driving over public transit infrastructure. Knowing her record indicates to me that the 10th district should have a candidate who wants to work with others to promote smart growth, which LuAnn Bennett has made one of her campaign issues."

Just over the Potomac, Maryland's 6th district streches from Montgomery County to western Maryland. Incumbent John Delaney (D) faces Amie Hoeber (R). Our contributors are not huge fans of Delaney, noting that he "is a captive of the highway lobby" and "is determined to widen I-270." However, they said, "his opponent is even worse" and "Amie Hoeber wants to basically widen everything." We encourage voters to return Delaney to office despite his flaws.

In less competitive Congressional races, contributors also had glowing things to say about Don Beyer in VA-8, who "has made smart growth and transit part of his campaign. He's promoted clean energy and public transit, including BRT in Fairfax County."

They also recommended Jamie Raskin, who won a 3-way primary for the open seat in Maryland's 8th district. "Jamie Raskin should easily win but he has been a progressive champion in Annapolis and deserves to be recognized," one wrote. And "Jamie Raskin has been great on Purple Line for many years despite opposition." Raskin has sometimes sided with residents opposed to any new housing in their areas, like on the Takoma Metro station development, but as a member of Congress he would be even more removed from this day-to-day NIMBYism and his record on other issues is very strong.

Images from the campaigns for No On B (Montgomery County term limits) and Re-Charge At Large (Prince George's Question D).

Montgomery County term limits

Montgomery and Prince George's voters will decide whether to change some of the mechanics of their counties' systems with ballot initiatives on November 8.

In Montgomery County, the main question is whether to impose a 3-term limit on county executive and all county council seats. Our contributors who answered the survey unanimously recommend no on Question B. Here's some of what they said:

  • Term limits shift the balance of power away from democratically elected officials and into unelected entities forces like interest groups and agencies.
  • Depriving the Council of experienced members is likely to lead to a Council with a short-term outlook that aims to split the difference between nimby homeowners and real-estate developers, at the expense of county residents who need housing.
  • Honestly, I'm really frustrated with the councilmembers in place today and would like to see them change, but I'm not convinced that term limits will guarantee the change I seek.
  • Term limits remove choices from the voters, and in this case is just a trojan horse for creating several open seats for wealthier residents to buy their way onto the Council.
One particularly nasty part of the term limits proposal would count a full term against anyone who served even a single year (or a day) of a partial term. That would force out Nancy Navarro, who won a special election in 2009 and then her first full term in 2010.

The county council has put Question C on the ballot to change this so that a partial term only counts if it's two years or more, the same as the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution for Presidental term limits. While we hope voters reject term limits entirely, voters should vote yes on Question C to make the law fairer if it does pass.

Prince George's at large

In Montgomery, DC, and other jurisdictions, there are at-large councilmembers alongside ward members. This means everyone still has one person representing his or her area, but also some people who take the larger view. This system works well, and Prince George's could adopt some of it with an initiative to add two at-large members to its currently nine-member council.

Our contributors suggest approving this idea with a vote of yes on Question D. One said, "I live in a city now without any at-large representation. It's awful. You need some politicians who can focus on the governance of the municipality as a whole, instead of just parochial issues in their own district." Another felt at-large seats are "essential to end the pattern of individual councilmember vetoes over building in their districts, which empowers NIMBYs and promotes corruption."

One controversial element of this proposal would let members who are term limited as ward members then move up to at-large. Tracy Loh and Matt Johnson discussed this, and other facets of the proposal, in an earlier post.

We hope voters approve Question D and make the Prince George's council more effective.


Why is there no Metro line on Columbia Pike?

Along the Metro tracks just south of Pentagon station, there are two dead-end tunnels that branch off in the direction of Columbia Pike. They were built so Metro could expand westward in the future, so why has the line never received serious consideration?

These Metro corridors got heavy consideration in the 1960s. Graphic by the author.

Columbia Pike, which runs southwest from the Pentagon to Annandale, passes through several residential and commercial areas, including Bailey's Crossroads at the intersection with Leesburg Pike. When Metro was in its initial planning stages in the 1960s, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the National Capital Transportation Agency studied routes on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and Columbia Pike was among the routes the agencies considered.

The NVTC envisioned a Columbia Pike Metro line running to Americana Fairfax at the Beltway via Little River Turnpike, which is where Columbia Pike ends in Annandale. The NCTA considered a route along Columbia Pike that was as an alternative to what would become the Orange Line. It ran from the Pentagon to the Barcroft neighborhood, where it turned north at Four Mile Run until it joined I-66 and continued west.

Ultimately, a number of factors led to this corridor being dropped from consideration, the largest being its price tag. To avoid tunneling and to minimize cost, Metro planners prioritized using existing rights-of-way, such as highway medians and railroads, for its potential routes.

This, combined with the desire to ensure Metro connectivity to north Arlington and Springfield, led to the Virginia getting Metro corridors along I-66 and the RF&P railroad (what would become the Orange and Blue lines, respectively).

Metro tunnels outside of the Pentagon. Graphic by the author.

The Columbia Pike line would have needed to be entirely in a tunnel all the way to Annandale, and its projected ridership was simply not sufficient to justify such a high cost. The cost also resulted in pressure from Maryland to prevent Virginia from having three lines, worried that the Columbia Pike line would reduce money available for the rest of the system.

There were some outspoken proponents of a Columbia Pike line, most notably the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Frederick Babson. Babson had campaigned on getting the Columbia Pike line built, and as such was very vocal at planning meetings.

In 1967, largely to placate Babson, WMATA did some informal studies on the Columbia Pike line as an alternative to the north Arlington line. These studies did not change the Board's decision, and to this day remain the last studies done on a Columbia Pike Metro line.

Likely as a consolation, the Columbia Pike line remained on WMATA's planning maps as part of several aspirational dotted lines for "future extensions." The corridor described by the NVTC appears on this 1967 proposed network with a modification to serve Lincolnia, but by the time the official Adopted Regional System was determined, the line was truncated there.

The Columbia Pike line on the 1968 Adopted Regional System. Image from DDOT.

In 1968, WMATA Board director Jay Ricks noted that the Columbia Pike line was ruled out with the understanding that it would have top priority for any future extensions, and that the line would be reinstated if the state of Virginia made more money available.

The Silver Line opened in 2014, so this obviously didn't happen. A Columbia Pike line has not seen any serious consideration since 1967. The Columbia Pike Transit Initiative did not include rapid transit as a possible alternative, and though WMATA has recently studied many theoretical routes as part of its long-term vision, a line along Columbia Pike is not one of them.

Is a Columbia Pike line possible in the future?

Though some residents along Columbia Pike were opposed to a Metro line because they didn't want the level of development and growth that occurred in north Arlington, such development has occurred regardless. There is much more residential density along Columbia Pike than there used to be, and job centers like the Mark Center have popped up along the corridor. The Skyline Center at Bailey's Crossroads was even built largely in anticipation of a Metro line.

Would this increase in potential ridership be enough to justify constructing the line today?

Bailey's Crossroads skyline. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Unfortunately, the cost of an underground Metro line remains a substantial hurdle. The proposed tunneled segments of the Silver Line in Tysons and Dulles Airport were rejected due to their high cost. Given that Arlington County had difficulty justifying the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar line, proposing an entirely tunneled Metro line may be a near-impossible task.

However, the most significant barrier to a Columbia Pike Metro line is capacity. How this line would integrate into the Metro system was never seriously considered. Simply building off of the stub tunnels at Pentagon would create the same capacity issue that planners are working to solve at Rosslyn, where there's a huge bottleneck, and like most proposed Metro extensions, a new downtown core line would need to come before any regional expansion because all possible routes the line could take after Pentagon are at capacity.

Metro's current capacity constraints. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

Metro's current long-term vision for future service downtown includes a loop line via Georgetown and Union Station with a supplementary station at Rosslyn and the Pentagon. The addition of the second Pentagon station could allow for a Columbia Pike line to exist, integrating into the downtown loop. I've created a hypothetical example of how this might work below, utilizing the alignment from 1967.

How a Columbia Pike line could integrate into the future Metro system. Graphic by the author.

The growth of the Columbia Pike corridor has made it a desirable line for many residents in the area, but its high cost and operational difficulties mean that we won't see such a line for many years, at least until Metro's downtown core capacity issues are resolved first.


In a week, Reston and Tysons will have Capital Bikeshare!

Capital Bikeshare is coming to Fairfax County. On October 21st, 15 stations will open in Reston and 14 will open in Tysons Corner. Between the two areas, there will be about 200 bikes.

Photo by James Schwartz on Flickr.

An announcement that these stations were coming came out last fall, and in January, Fairfax County finalized the necessary funding to move forward.

Installation has begun already with many stations installed already and waiting for bikes.

CaBi started in DC and Arlington in 2010 and has become a transportation success story across the country. The system has consistently grown since it's initial roll-out of around 50 stations in central Washington and Arlington. Fairfax joins Montgomery County and the city of Alexandria as local governments who have helped expand the system through the region.

Reston is a natural spot for bike sharing in Fairfax. The community is one of the more bike-friendly areas of the county, with an extensive network of paths. The anchor is the W&OD Trail, which by the Wiehle Metro Station and the popular (and growing) Reston Town Center.

A map of the stations coming to Reston. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Tysons is the county's business hub (it's even got a rush hour at lunch time!), and CaBi's arrival will be another step in making the area less car-dependent and more like a bustling downtown with lots of transportation options. The hope is that CaBi can help bolster the county's pedestrian and bicycle improvements coming to the area.

A map of the stations coming to Tysons. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Fairfax County officials plan on holding a ribbon cutting event for the system at both Reston and Tysons on October 21. They will dedicate the stations at Reston and then at Tysons a few hours later.

While these stations will be the farthest afield from the system's core, there are connections coming: Falls Church wants its first stations ready to go sometime in 2017, and the system has been steadily growing outward since its inception.

Who knows; maybe in a few years it will be possible to ride from one end of the W&OD trail to other and avoid the extra time charge by switching bikes along the length of the route.

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.

Public Spaces

Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.

Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The Mosaic District in Fairfax caught onto this idea a few years ago, and it could totally work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

We first ran this post in 2014, but since the idea is still great, we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


There’s no place like… the Ballston Metro station

I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I'm an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It's a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.

Image by the author.

With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station's official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA's 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston's status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.

As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.

However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro's planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.

Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.

As the western end of this new "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor," Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University's "Blue Goose" building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.

The station was originally designated as "Glebe Road" in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe's intersection with Fairfax Drive.

The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn't ideal

Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.

Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.

(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)

Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.

When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.

Development from the 1980s onward

Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Plans for the "Ballston Metro Center" complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro's first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.

Ballston Metro Center entrance from the station escalator. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.

Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington's new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.

The Ballston neighborhood today. Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I'm proud to call it my home station.

Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?

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