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Public Spaces


Better management can transform downtown parks into gems

It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It's time for DC to join them.


Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city's parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York's Bryant Park, for example, it wasn't until the city turned the park's management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn't part of a municipal government, it's been able to bypass onerous procurement rules. Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park's full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don't have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC's parks getting that kind of attention to detail!


Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she'd improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.
In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown's Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza. Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District's bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks' operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.


Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.

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Roads


Cities worldwide are building beautiful, landmark pedestrian and bicycle bridges. Could Georgetown be next?

A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge may one day connect Georgetown with Roosevelt Island. Some recent bridges like this in other cities have become iconic landmarks. Could DC do the same and compensate for its freqently lackluster bridge designs? Here are a few of the world's great pedestrian bridges.


London's Millennium Bridge. Photo by Dominik Morbitzer on Flickr.

Such a bridge was part of Georgetown's recent 15-year action plan and made it into DC's MoveDC citywide transportation plan last year.


Where the bridge could go. Image from the Georgetown BID.

Many cities have built new bridges as opportunities to showcase distinctive design while adding vital pedestrian links. The London Borough of Wandsworth is sponsoring a design competition right now for a new footbridge across the Thames.

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the glass-floored Sundial Bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California.


The Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Photo by David W Oliver on Flickr.


Photo by dwhartwig on Flickr.

London's Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 to bridge the Thames between the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge is tall enough to allow river navigation, but short enough not to obstruct the historically protected view corridor of the cathedral.


Photo by Duen Ee Chan on Flickr.


Photo by andre.m(eye)r.vitali on Flickr.

The Simone de Beauvoir Footbridge has been undulating across the Seine in Paris since 2006.


Photo by Tim Brown Architecture on Flickr.


Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr.

The crescent Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, tilts back to allow ships to pass.


Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr.


Photo by Martin Sotirov on Flickr.

The Henderson Waves bridge soars 120 feet over a valley in the Southern Ridges park of Singapore. The bridge deck provides shade and seating areas to view the park valley.


Photo by edwin.11 on Flickr.


Photo by Steel Wool on Flickr.

Although it spans a relatively short distance, Sarajevo's Festina Lente Bridge features a playful loop that shades a seating area midway across the bridge.


Photo by the author.

Could one of these bridges come to DC?

Such a connection would provide many advantages. Although the island is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, visitors can only access it from Virginia. Visiting the island requires a half-mile walk or bike ride from Rosslyn down the Mount Vernon Trail. There's a small parking lot on the Virginia shore, but it fills up quickly on warm weekends, and drivers can only reach it from the northbound GW Parkway.

A bridge from Georgetown would give District residents and visitors easier access to this wooded and marshy parkland, which serves as a stark contrast to the dense urbanization of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.


The view from Georgetown Waterfront Park. Image by the author.


Georgetown Waterfront Park (left) and Roosevelt Island (right) as viewed from the Key Bridge. Image by the author.

There isn't money for the bridge today. MoveDC lists the bridge as a second-tier priority, meaning it is not within DC's six-year capital plan. DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson said external factors, such as outside funding or public support, could shift the bridge's priority.

Even if funding arises, multiple federal agencies will have to act. The National Park Service controls the island and would have to agree to any changes. MoveDC classifies the bridge as a bicycle transportation project, but the National Park Service, which controls the island, prohibits cycling there. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, which are providing advice on the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement, would play a strong role in reviewing designs.

Any project will require an environmental analysis which could take years (one for a proposed boathouse on Park Service land on the Arlington shore of the Potomac is dragging on into its third year, for example). If the bridge does come to fruition, it will be years away, but it would be a major asset to help people enjoy and appreciate the Potomac River.

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Transit


Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Architecture


Residential on top of the MLK library just doesn't work

The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.


One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.

When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.

At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.


The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.


An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Up top, more floors didn't add up

Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.

CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.

Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.

Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.

Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.

The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.

Below, a long process for what is approved

Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.


The agencies that will have a hand in the design. Chart from NCPC.

So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.

  • Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
  • If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
  • The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.

  • Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.

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Transit


Veterans Day closures: No "commutemageddon," and even some perks for those not working

Though roads closed and the Blue Line stopped running on Veterans Day, crowding and waits for commuters weren't as bad as some had feared. For people who had the day off, the closures even created an impromptu "open streets" event on car-free avenues. But many details, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists, came as a surprise.


Car-free Independence Avenue. Photo by Joe in DC on Flickr.

The Concert for Valor did attract large crowds to the National Mall, but they were nowhere near the 800,000 people that concert organizers initially predicted. Immediately beforehand, they lowered the estimate to closer to 250,000.

"Our initial indications are everything went very smoothly," said National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson Mike Litterst. NPS was responsible for managing and coordinating road closures and security for the concert with other agencies.

Streets closed at 6 am for a 7 pm event

Thirteen hours before the concert began, all of the streets closed around the mall, including long stretches of Constitution and Independence Avenues and everything from 3rd to 17th Streets as far north as Pennsylvania Avenue and as far south as Maine Avenue. Commenters on our pre-Veterans Day post about the changes asked why the closures could not have begun after the morning rush.

"In general… closure time for the streets is a decision jointly made by all of the participating public safety and law enforcement agencies for safety and security reasons," said Litterst. "It allows the secure area to be properly and diligently swept and secured prior to the concertgoers entering. It is a security plan and process that has been refined over numerous large-scale events in and around the Mall over the years, including Independence Day, inaugurations, and large-scale races, such as the Marine Corps Marathon."

Cyclists, walkers, and joggers, however, enjoyed the car-free spaces. Throughout the day, photos and videos of people enjoying a nearly empty Constitution Avenue emerged.

"That was pretty fun. Let's close down Constitution more often," said Rob Pitingolo, who shot a video of the car-free boulevard.

But actually crossing the Mall was more difficult. Anyone entering the area between Jefferson and Madison Drives, 17th Street, and the Capitol had to pass through security checks, and those only opened at 10 am.

Metro served 40% more riders than last Veterans Day

Metrorail trains carried about 523,000 passengers on Veterans Day, says spokesperson Dan Stessel. Last year, when there was no large event, roughly 375,000 people rode Metro.

Personally, I noticed slightly more people than usual on my morning and evening commutes on Metro from Shaw to Braddock Road. Despite fewer trains and no Blue Line, my experience was better than on previous "minor" holidays when scheduled track work and crowded transfer stations made the inconveniences of reduced schedules even worse.


Light crowds on the Yellow Line heading into DC at Pentagon at about 5:30 pm. Photo by the author.

"From our perspective, the day went really well," said Stessel. "Service levels were appropriate to meet ridership demand at all hours of the day, and we believe we struck an appropriate balance between the needs of regular commuters with those heading to the Concert for Valor."

Greater Greater Washington readers asked why Metro didn't keep the Blue Line open until later in the day. Metro also banned bikes all day.

"No doubt, the service changes were in place to handle crowds that, in the end, were not as large as the Park Service permit," said Stessel. "We make no apologies for this. We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."

What could be better next time?

Some of the details of the street closures and service changes got lost in the media blitz before the event. For example, NPS and the press could have more clearly communicated that Constitution and Independence Avenues would be free of cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists. Most news reports focused on the effect on drivers.

Also, NPS could work to minimize the impact on cyclists. While drivers could still use the 3rd Street (I-395) and 9th Street tunnels to cross the Mall, cyclists couldn't. They had to cross either east of 3rd or west of 17th. NPS could designate corridors, perhaps along one of the streets at the edge of the security cordon, for riders to cross the Mall. Many, myself included, would have taken advantage of these.

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Transit


It'll be a rough commute this Veterans Day for people who still have to work

While government workers have the day off for Veterans Day, many people don't. They will face challenges traveling around the region: Metro will temporary suspend service on the Blue Line, and road closures for the Concert for Valor will block driving and bicycling routes along and across the National Mall.


Image from WMATA.

The Concert for Valor, which begins at 7 pm, is expected to draw up to 800,000 people. Corporate sponsors are funding additional Metro trains to handle the crowds for the concert.

Metro plans to operate weekday peak frequencies with more eight-car trains than it normally offers immediately before and after the concert. However, Metro will suspend the Blue Line and replace it with some Yellow Line trains running to Franconia-Springfield. A bus bridge will connect Pentagon and Rosslyn, and a special shuttle service will serve Arlington Cemetery.

The National Park Service, which is managing access to the Mall for the concert, will close Constitution and Independence Avenues and all of the cross streets from 17th Street to 4th Street (except the 9th Street tunnel) starting at 6 am.

"Minor holidays" mean crowded trains

Metro has faced criticism for crowded trains on so-called "minor" holidays during previous years. Metro ridership declines on these holidays, which include Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veterans Day when government offices are closed but many private sector employees remain open, its own data shows. Metro frequently reduced service on these days and scheduled track work. However, that meant long waits and crowded trains and platforms.

The morning commute this Veterans Day will likely look a lot like ones past. All terminal stations will see a train only every 12 minutes, with the Yellow Line replacing the Blue Line at Franconia-Springfield. There is no scheduled track work that could disrupt this schedule.

The evening commute will benefit from the additional trains that are planned for the concert but commuters will have to share trains with the crowds bound for the Mall.

Cyclists have to take long detours

Cyclists will face the biggest issues commuting across the Mall tomorrow. There will be no opportunities to cross the Mall between 3rd Street and 23rd Street. Jefferson and Madison Drives along the Mall, both popular east-west bike routes, will also be closed.

Unlike drivers, cyclists do not have the option of taking the Third Street Tunnel (I-395) or the Southwest Freeway to bypass the closures. People can get to offices located south of Independence Avenue by taking Maine Avenue SW to either 3rd Street or 7th Street SW. However, neither is ideal as there is no contiguous east-west route through the L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Center SW neighborhoods from either street.

Crossing the 14th Street Bridge and getting to or from Virginia from downtown DC will be tough. The bridge approach from East Basin Drive and Ohio Drive SW will be open but access will only be available from 23rd Street or via a roundabout journey through Southwest that includes looping south to Maine Ave SW and returning north. Another option is to bypass the 14th Street bridge entirely and use either the Memorial Bridge or Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

All of the options for cyclists headed to places like Alexandria and Crystal City from the District are likely to add significant mileage to their journeys, especially those coming from points further north or east of the Mall.

Cyclists are already feeling the impact. 4th Street between Jefferson and Madison had been closed since at least the evening of Tuesday, November 4. Jefferson closed today between 3rd and 4th without any advance notice. This has affected my daily commute along the Mall to the 14th Street Bridge; I could not find any notification of these closures after a Google search.


3rd Street and Madison Drive on November 10. Photo by the author.

Will tomorrow bring chaos?

A lot of people will still need to get to work on Veterans Day, but the Metro frequencies, road network, and other transportation infrastructure seem to be set up with the assumption that the only people traveling are going to the concert.

Agencies could do better to plan major events on the Mall on a minor holiday. Metro should ensure that there is frequent enough rail service to keep trains uncrowded and waits reasonable, while NPS should consider the rapidly growing number of bike commuters and provide workable alternative bike routes.

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Roads


The roads don't work, and neither do the sidewalks: How Maryland has failed Wilson Bridge cyclists

Want to ride a bike from Virginia to DC via the Wilson Bridge Trail? Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. Thanks to poor planning and neglect, it's far easier said than done.


This sidewalk gap between Harborview and National Avenues is filled with loose gravel. Photos by the author.

Biking into DC from Alexandria and Fairfax, you ride across the Wilson Bridge and onto a trail. Then, official maps show a bike route which involves a few turns to reach the DC-295 corridor.

However, to do that, cyclists either have to make an illegal left turn on the road. Taking the sidewalk is no better, because there are large gaps in the sidewalk full of gravel which are difficult to ride on.


The bike route to the Wilson Bridge. Image edited by the author from Google Maps.

How the connection is supposed to work

You can see the bike route in the above map. It first continues parallel to Harborview Avenue (A) and ends at Oxon Hill Road. From there, you should be able to turn left onto Oxon Hill (B), left onto Bald Eagle Road (C), and then hit an access road (E) that leads to the Oxon Hill Farm Bike Trail (F) toward DC Water, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the US Naval Research Lab, and a handful of neighborhoods.

But here's the problem: Northbound cyclists on Oxon Hill Road can't legally turn left onto Bald Eagle Road (C). To get to Bald Eagle, they must either make an illegal left turn, continue up Oxon Hill and detour via Indian Head Highway (a major road), or ride north in the southbound Oxon Hill Road bike lane.

The other option is to ride on the sidewalk that runs along the west side of Oxon Hill Road. But even if we set aside that we're talking about having no choice but to bike on the sidewalk—which shouldn't ever be the case—there are two unfinished driveways on Oxon Hill that cross the sidewalk route, each leaving a vertical drop of about four inches.

Roots of the problem

These problems aren't random. They're the result of decisions made by the National Park Service and, more recently, the Maryland State Highway Authority.

In 2010, NPS blocked an effort to create a direct bicycle and pedestrian route along I-295 between the bridge and DC Water's home on Overlook Avenue. Such a trail would eliminate this entire problem altogether, and its absence undermines the Wilson Bridge Trail's value.

As for the Maryland SHA, there is no left turn option from Oxon Hill Road onto Bald Eagle because of a 2013 SHA project to open Oxon Hill Farm Road, which created a shortcut to allow freeway traffic from the westbound Beltway to bypass Indian Head Highway en route to southbound Oxon Hill Road.

Deciding to do this meant not building Oxon Hill Farm Road to connect Forest Heights, Sachem Drive, and surrounding neighborhoods. And another Oxon Hill sidewalk gap, this one between National and Bald Eagle, has been left for so long that dirt and vegetation are beginning to stabilize the gravel.

Both issues show the SHA's underlying culture of neglect for neglect for cyclists and pedestrians.

One Fairfax cyclist, Paul Bernhardt, has found his own solution to the problem: Rather than commuting to work along Oxon Hill Road, he simply rides along the I-295 shoulder. Bernhardt's willingness to take such a dangerous route to avoid the mess around Oxon Hill Road pretty much says it all.

"I'm not going to ride two extra miles up and down a big hill just because they were too stupid to build the trail. I'm riding where the trail should have been in the first place."

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Transit


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.


Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficiently—where will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.


All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

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Public Spaces


Great park, no tables... so bring your own

There are great food trucks around DC's downtown squares, but to eat in the squares you have to sit on the grass or on a bench, which makes socializing difficult. Jacob Mason saw some people at Farragut Square who have an innovative solution: they brought their own table.


Photo by Jacob Mason.

Mason, who tweets for the new pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, said that this group works in a nearby building. One of them decided to buy it after he ruined three pairs of pants from sitting on wet grass. The group collectively carries the table to the park to eat lunch.

Parks that host a lot of office lunch workers in other cities, like Bryant Park in Midtown New York, have more tables and moveable chairs. Even across the Potomac River in Arlington, tables and chairs are common.

But DC's downtown squares, which the National Park Service manages, don't have them. (Update: The Golden Triangle BID does put them in the park on Fridays.) Franklin Square could get a few under proposed redesigns (the "Edge" is the most likely design), but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, the do-it-yourself version works pretty well, if your office is organized enough. Everyone else can sit on the grass.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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