Greater Greater Washington

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Topic of the week: 4 more years for Gray?

On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.

Photo by AFGE on Flickr.

What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:

Dan Malouff:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.

Malcolm Kenton:
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.

I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.

However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.

Erin McAuliff:
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).

We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.

Matt Malinowski:
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.

It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.

Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.

Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.


MoveDC calls for more transit, dedicated lanes

In the latest draft of DDOT's MoveDC plan, the 37-mile streetcar network originally planned in 2010 becomes a 69-mile "high capacity transit" network.

The new 69-mile network would include DC's initial 22-mile streetcar system, plus 47 more miles of either streetcar or BRT.

37-mile network from 2010, and latest MoveDC 69-mile proposal.
Maps from BeyondDC, using base maps from Google.

The 47-mile network, shown in red on the map, would include 25-miles of dedicated transit lanes, regardless of whether those lines are eventually built as bus or rail. The dedicated lanes would be on 16th Street, North Capitol Street, I-295, M Street SE & SW, and I and H Streets downtown.

Curiously, the proposed streetcar line on Rhode Island Avenue from the 2010 plan isn't carried forward into MoveDC.

The new plan shows the 14th Street streetcar shifting over to 7th Street, although the details of that line are still in flux. It could still end up on 14th.

Finally, MoveDC also notes several potential extensions to Maryland and Virginia, anywhere a proposed DDOT line approaches the District boundary. Perhaps most notably, there are potential connections across Long Bridge into Arlington, down I-295 to National Harbor, and to Silver Spring.

For Metrorail, MoveDC includes WMATA's proposal for a new loop subway line through DC, connecting Rosslyn on one end and the Yellow Line bridge on the other.

Map from BeyondDC, using base map from Google.

Overall this is a progressive and ambitious proposal, although the removal of Rhode Island Avenue raises questions. It's still a draft, so you can comment via the WeMoveDC website.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


MoveDC plan proposes 70 miles of cycletracks

DC could one day have 70 miles of protected bike lanes, if the latest proposal from DDOT becomes reality.

The proposal comes as part of the latest draft of MoveDC, DDOT's master plan. It's still only a proposal, and has not been approved by the DC Council. But what an exciting proposal it is!

Existing & proposed DC cycletracks. Maps by BeyondDC, using base maps from Google.

And that's not all, just for bikes. The proposal also includes over 60 miles of new off-street trails, and another 70 miles of new regular bike lanes.

Of course, it's easy to adopt great plans and harder to accomplish them. DDOT is still struggling to implement the M Street cycletrack, after all. But one must start with a plan, and this appears to be an extremely progressive plan.

Tomorrow I'll share the latest recommendations for transit.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


CEOs want faster commutes... for whom?

When business leaders of the Federal City Council say traffic congestion might affect their decisions to move companies out of DC, how much are they thinking about the needs of employees, and how much is it mostly about the congestion on their own personal drives to work?

Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

There's a long history of research showing that a very large element of business location decisions is what's most convenient for the CEO. Joel Garreau talks about this in the seminal urban planning book Edge City, and cites some earlier research from William Whyte:

Whyte, in his book City, has a great map showing that of thirty-eight companies that moved out of New York City in one period "to better meet the quality-of-life needs of their employees," thirty-one moved to the Edge City around Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut. ...

The average distance from the CEO's home: eight miles.

Compare that to the Federal City Council's release:

When weighing a business relocation, over one-third (36 percent) of business, professional and civic leaders say they would consider moving out of the District with 12 percent who say they would strongly consider.

Relocation decisions are based on many factors including employee commuting experience. Nearly all (98 percent) say workforce commuters who travel by car are important to their business-location decisions, with 71 percent saying they are "very" important.

That's why businesses locate on the west side of our region

Certainly traffic impacts people beyond just the head of a business, but one can't help but wonder how much the concern over congestion really stems from a personal reaction: if the business owner faces a lot of traffic, it's frustrating, and he might want to move the company somewhere closer to his house.

This is important when what business leaders want and what their workforces need or want aren't quite the same. CEOs are much more likely to live in McLean, Great Falls, and Potomac than their lower-level workers. It's little surprise that Tysons, the Dulles corridor, Bethesda, and the I-270 corridor have won more businesses than eastern Montgomery, Richmond Highway, or Prince George's County.

When Montgomery County was planning the Great Seneca Science Corridor (also known as "Science City") near Gaithersburg, one major factor tipping the scales (besides the fact that Johns Hopkins owned a farm there) was the convenient drive biotech company owners might have. That gives the site an advantage over the White Oak Science Gateway on the east side of the county. Prince George's faces the same challenges in getting businesses to its Metro stations.

CEO convenience leads some businesses to choose suburban office parks

This split also applies to locating in walkable urban versus suburban office park locations. When organizations like the Greater Washington Board of Trade talk about what DC needs to compete, you hear a lot about what's attractive about Tysons, or Route 50 and the Beltway (where Northrop Grumman put its headquarters). There's a lot of driving infrastructure there, low taxes, and so on.

The view that the center city needs to out-suburb the suburbs drove transportation decisions for much of the 20th century. It's what led many cities to decimate their downtowns with freeways that ultimately sapped the vitality of the places themselves while drawing people and their money away except from 9 to 5.

The other view is that some businesses will be in suburban office parks no matter what, while other businesses want to be in creative places like DC, Arlington, and Bethesda. Those businesses want to attract workers who want to live in dynamic walkable urban places, who prioritize being able to take Metro (if they can't walk or bike) to the office. They also might want to be accessible for workers who can't afford cars as well.

One obstacle, though, is when the CEOs and presidents who decide where to locate their businesses have different preferences. For tech startups like LivingSocial, the leaders want the creative, urban atmosphere too, but not necessarily for a defense contractor.

Without pricing, faster driving won't really help CEOs for long

It's important to note that DC does not go around making it hard to drive into the District. Most of the road spending of recent years has gone to bridges in and out of downtown. There are large freeways in from Virginia, and major arterials whose design prioritizes car flow at rush hours.

Nevertheless, as the region has grown, so has traffic. The big question we're considering in the MoveDC citywide planning process is, should another huge chunk of future capital now go toward doing even more to bring even more cars even faster into the District?

Induced demand tells us that any effort to do this might alleviate congestion in the short term, but any new lane, or any road timed to move more cars, will soon fill up and become congested once more. The limiting factor in how much people drive is how much traffic they're willing to tolerate, not the actual roadway itself.

So the Federal City Council's recommendations won't really help the business leaders for long. As we discussed yesterday, congestion pricing would, if it could go through. That's an especially efficient solution, because the CEOs could pay for the fast commute they want while funding transit for many other workers.

The Federal City Council's survey of their members tells us something, but it's not that businesses need more driving capacity. It's that the experience driving into DC definitely matters to Federal City Council CEOs and presidents. That's nothing to ignore, of course, but important to put in its proper context.


CEOs want faster commutes and walkable places

The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?

Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a "significant" problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I'm surprised 32% don't think it's a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are "very important" in making decisions about where to locate businesses.

99% want a more modern signal system "to ease the flow of traffic," which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see "active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk."

This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.

On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.

Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?

It's easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There's a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.

But there's an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide "traffic sewers" that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.

Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.

And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it's a great place.

Congestion pricing, anyone?

There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.

DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.

The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It's good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It's good for the poorer residents who don't have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.

But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don't want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.

Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It's not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.


Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?

Should the design of major roads and our big transit projects favor moving large numbers of people in and out of downtown? Or should DC focus on making streets feel more like neighborhood streets, and transportation investments that help people travel within and between neighborhoods?

Photo by Roger Wollstadt on Flickr.

This is the major tradeoff that residents considered in a series of public meetings that concluded last week for MoveDC, a project which aims to create a citywide transportation plan.

Planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented participants with 3 scenarios which keep things as they are, prioritize transportation to and from the downtown core, or focus on neighborhoods.

Scenarios set different priorities

All of the scenarios include finishing 22 miles of streetcars, the bridge megaprojects like the South Capitol Street racetrack, putting performance parking in busy commercial areas, expanding CaBi and bike trails and lanes, and more.

Stay the Course, the first scenario, sticks with these and keeps allocating resources and space to a balance of long-distance and short-distance travel.

Get To the Center focuses on the downtown areas, still the main engines of DC's economy. This option makes it easier to get to downtown by car and transit, such as by timing signals to maximize traffic flow to and from the core.

DC would invest in transit to and from Maryland and Virginia, like new Metro lines across the Potomac, or commuter rail capacity. Bike trails and cycle tracks that travel to or from downtown would get the highest priority.

Travel would not necessarily be free; this scenario includes a proposal for a congestion charge for private vehicle trips downtown to help pay for infrastructure that gets people downtown.

Connect the Neighborhoods instead focuses on helping people get around within and between neighborhoods. Most capital would go to facilities that help people cross geographic barriers like Rock Creek Park or the Anacostia River. Local streets would put walking, biking, and short-distance local traffic first, such as with medians that make it easier to cross.

New transit would also serve neighborhood needs more than commuters in and out of the city, such as the full proposed 37-mile streetcar system, or buses like the Circulator that connect "activity centers."

This scenario posits that DC needs to decentralize its jobs and retail. As the city grows, a single downtown can't serve all of the needs, and therefore this scenario assumes that more mixed-use zoning will let people work all over the city instead of all cramming the main downtown routes to jobs in the center, which is almost entirely built out.

Georgia Avenue. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In reality, any actual plan will combine elements of all of these and not go 100% in the direction of core-oriented or neighborhood-oriented transportation. Still, it's a useful discussion, as it helps us think through our priorities. Financial constraints mean we can't build every transportation project anyone has suggested. How do we prioritize investments?

Plus, roadways have finite space. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights, for instance, there have been dueling proposals to build a median, which would make the road safer to cross, or a dedicated bus lane, which would help buses get through the area. Off-peak parking on major arterials creates significant congestion at the edges of rush hour. Bike lanes, dedicated transit lanes, and parking all vie for roadway space.

Land use matters, too

It's mostly outside DDOT's purview, but any discussion of downtown versus neighbor­hoods can't be complete without thinking about land use. Transportation is about getting people to places they need to be: housing, jobs, stores, schools, and so on.

Where will DC grow? Any proposal to grow anywhere meets with some opposition. Can the city develop a consensus to grow in particular places rather than others?

The city could grow mostly in the center. That would protect neighborhood character, something resident activists often speak about. On the other hand, it would probably not mean a lot more neighborhood retail. Most of all, though, there isn't actually much room to grow in the center without changes to the height limit.

Do we want to relax the height limit downtown and create a much busier and denser central business district? That land use scenario fits well with the Get To the Center transportation scenario.

Or, does DC want to decentralize? Put more growth around Metro stations, frequent bus lines, and future streetcar lines in all neighborhoods? That would bring more jobs, residents, and retail to many neighborhoods. However, it requires making sure there's room for this growth.

If every new building meets opposition and the Historic Preservation Review Board wants to shave a floor or two off every proposal in one of the myriad historic districts, neighborhoods won't be able to grow enough to decentralize the city.

But if we do want to help each neighborhood become more self-sufficient and reduce the need to travel long distances for basic necessities like groceries or recreation, the Connect the Neighborhoods scenario makes sense.

We have to do something

By 2040, projections say DC will around 800,000 residents one-third more than today. The region as a whole will add 2 million new residents, also about a third increase.

Projected population growth (left) and job growth (right). Images from DDOT.

The roads, rails, and bike paths will all need to accommodate more people safely, without relying on more physical space, and that's one of the central challenges this plan seeks to address. How will we move ourselves around, with a third more people everywhere?

The District is the 7th most walkable city, according to Walk Score, yet also has the most pedestrian fatalities per capita among major cities, and 46% of respondents in a 2009 DDOT survey complained that unsafe street crossings made it difficult from them to walk to places they want to go.

DDOT is committed to expanding transit, bicycling, and walking options. Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for 75% of trips to use these modes, which fit in more people per lane mile. At the same time, some people will continue to need to drive. Performance parking, car sharing, and possibly a future driverless car can reduce parking pressures as the number of people grows.

How should the District focus its transportation to meet the needs of the future? How should it balance getting people in and out of the core versus connecting neighborhoods? What do you think?


DC tries for a citywide transportation plan. Will it be good?

Today, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) took the cover off a new initiative called Move DC, a year-long process to build a comprehensive transportation plan. They have a big event planned for February 9, a rudimentary online poll, and promise more to come.

The District has many smaller transportation plans, like the Bicycle Master Plan, Pedestrian Master Plan, a plan for the Anacostia waterfront, individual neighborhood Livability Studies, and more, but they don't all fit together.

That means that when planners or engineers are looking at changing one roadway or intersection, there often aren't clear objectives about how to make tradeoffs.

Downtown, for instance, at one point bicycle planners were thinking about cycle tracks on I Street and bus planners wanted bus lanes there. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights there are dueling ideas for a median, to enhance pedestrian safety, or a bus lane, to speed transit. The 14th Street plaza, meanwhile, grew the public space but slowed down cars and buses.

Should Connecticut Avenue get a median? Wisconsin Avenue get bus and/or bike lanes? Is it possible to do all of these without creating too much traffic? If streetcars go on some corridors, will there be parallel cycle tracks so cyclists don't get caught in the rails? And should M Street SE/SW be for cars, transit, bicycles, or pedestrians if it's not possible to give all modes what they want?

Will this plan have an impact?

Many plans end up as long documents with a lot of general policy statements, some of which are vague and some of which conflict. The Office of Planning is basing the zoning update on the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, but for every policy statement it cites in support of its recommendations, opponents cite other policy statements that they say counsel against change. Many plans don't really turn into much more than long documents on a shelf that quickly become out of date.

Other times, plans have a major impact. They might not dictate specific projects, but a good plan can give officials inside an agency ammunition to convince others. A transportation plan that sets clear objectives could cut through much of the arguing over one mode versus another. It could guide engineers toward what kinds of transportation facilities the District wants.

However, setting most any objective also means some other, competing objective loses out, especially in transportation where many decisions involve allocating limited road space. A plan could define which corridors are bus lane corridors versus bike lane corridors versus candidates for road diets or medians, but right now they're all car corridors, and any change to the contrary inconveniences some drivers.

Is it worthwhile to participate?

Therefore, residents who support improving transit, walking, and bicycling will have to speak up. We'll have to participate at the February 9 meeting and at future events in person and online. DDOT will have to balance competing imperatives to involve residents as much as possible, but not to just wear everyone down with endless events. The zoning update, which has dragged on for almost 5 years and still has the most important hearings yet to come, has forced advocates to show up to meeting after meeting where the real final decisions still aren't being made.

There are a lot of residents who can't attend many meetings, which is why it's good to see DDOT plans online engagement. In some other processes, despite social media participation, decision-makers ultimately end up weighing the volume of comments at public meetings, or behind-the-scenes meetings with influential groups, more strongly.

The good news is that the people I've spoken with involved in the project, from DDOT planning head Sam Zimbabwe to GGW contributor Veronica Davis who is part of the public engagement team, seem to really want public input and come with a good set of overall values about the importance of sustainable modes of travel.

This effort has good promise to truly move the District forward. It's also possible many of us will spend countless hours contributing to something with little effect. If we don't participate, it's also very possible DC will end up with a plan that entrenches bad policies of the past. I hope many of you will advocate for better transportation choices throughout the process.

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