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Posts about Pierre L'Enfant


The power of a good Metro announcer

In the grind of a daily commute, announcements on Metro tend to disappear among all of the ambient noise. But when a train operator goes the extra mile, the difference can be shocking.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

On days when I am running late, I occasionally don't board my Orange Line train at New Carrollton until 7:20 a.m. When that happens, my ears are greeted by a very unusual train operator. His voice is loud, clear, and occasionally funny. He's not actually saying funny things. It's just a bit funny to be hearing this clear and competent voice telling us what will happen next.

Do you know who I am talking about? When he pulls into a crowded downtown station, he tells the people on the platform how many doors the entire train has, as a means of coaxing people to use all the doors. He also asks you to use all the doors, and occasionally thanks the crowd of passengers when they comply.

Maybe what's funny is that he is trying to get people to behave like rational passengers through an audio system whose announcers usually seem to be unaware that they are addressing people at all. And often they aren't, because they are not speaking clearly or into the microphone.

I have no idea who this guy is, but he should be paid 10% more than the other operators. What he provides is more valuable. Whether or not you value the entertainment (perhaps he distracts people who prefer to read and never pay attention to what flight attendants say either), the trains run a little bit faster and fewer people miss their stop because his announcements are clear.

One thing I've always found a bit out of place, however, is when he announces with a perfect French accent that the next stop is "Le Font Plaza." Most train operators probably say that, but most operators don't appear to have good command of public speaking anyway.

So one day last May, when his afternoon train reached the end of the line, I walked up to him when he got out of his cab. I told him how good his announcing is. I was taken aback because in person, he spoke with much less clarity and enthusiasm than what I had been hearing over the train's audio system.

In fact, I was not really sure it was the same person, except he was clearly the man who had been driving the train. I think he mentioned he was from the state of New York and that he had taken some training on announcing.

I tried to tactfully suggest that he pronounce "L'enfant" correctly, since he is so good. He told me that I should probably take this up with the Metro office that coordinates all the train operators. That surprised me a bit, because I was expecting him to either say that he had not realized that he was pronouncing it incorrectly, or perhaps, that he does so out of habit, accidentally.

I persisted, because of course here he was in front of me. I had no intention of lobbying WMATA just to get announcers to pronounce station names correctly. I started to say, "L'enfant designed the city of Washington, so..." But he cut me off with a curt "I know who he was." And then he told me he needed to go to the operator room and rest.

It was a bit of a letdown, and I certainly felt like I must have come off as an unreasonable pest (a feeling I often have). And of course, the next time I was on his train, he announced "Le Font Plaza," again with his perfect French accent.

All that was last May. Then, last week, as I took a train home, I heard that voice saying "18 doors" as we pulled into Federal Triangle. And then, a moment later, I heard him announce, with a perfect French accent: "L'Enfant Plaza".

I have no idea what led him to start pronouncing the station name correctly, or whether he always does so. Maybe he was just tired when I met him and he thought about it. Maybe someone with better interpersonal skills than mine made the same point. I have no idea.

But the man deserves a raise.

What kind of announcements do you hear from train operators (or bus drivers) on your commute? Do any stand out?

Public Spaces

DC's odd-shaped public spaces needn't be awkward or neglected

Washington, DC's height limit, monumental core, and grand avenues make it unique among American cities. DC's plan, civic spaces, and prominent monuments befit a great national capital. L'Enfant designed his grand plan not just for the nation, but for the local community as well. Too often, however, many of the interesting local spaces created by that grand plan have been taken over by cars, fallen into neglect, or both.

Longfellow Monument. Photo by NCinDC.

Despite its grandeur, the L'Enfant plan isn't universally loved. Matt Yglesias takes issues with DC's "triangles of doom," while citing Bostonian Noah Kazis' learned love for DC's grid and avenues over Boston's colonial mishmash of streets. Yglesias notes:

I think there's definitely something charming about metro Boston's tangled web of streets. And there's clearly also something good and practical about a regular grid. But I really don't think there's any case at all for what we've done in DC in terms of super-imposing diagonal boulevards on a basically rectilinear grid.
Yglesias touches on three major aspects of city design: the "organic" pattern, the grid, and the diagonal. "Organic" networks, such as Boston, are really not organic so much as they are unplanned. This is not always the case, as there are plenty of planned cities designed to look like "organic" street networks.

DC, on the other hand, is clearly a planned city, at least within the confines of the L'Enfant Plan. Outside of the L'Enfant city, Adams Morgan exhibits plenty of "organic" patterns, but the iconic streetscape for Washington is definitely L'Enfant's radial avenues superimposed on a rectilinear grid.

Yeglesias misses one clear case for DC's avenues. We can never forget that Washington, DC is not just a city, but the capital of the United States, and the urban design of the city reflects that fact. Spiro Kostof, in his book The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, calls this kind of capital monumentality, "The Grand Manner." The Grand Manner, Kostof writes, "is not the currency of little towns." Indeed, in his chapter on the Grand Manner, an aerial photo of Washington, DC occupies the entire initial page. These are not supposed to be purely functional streets, though Daniel Burnham and other practitioners of the City Beautiful would argue they are helpful.

DC's diagonal avenues are an important element of this grand aesthetic. They provide vistas to key buildings and monuments, and though geometric in plan, they also respond to key travel patterns in the region, such as Connecticut Avenue and New York Avenue. These diagonal streets are also not unique to Washington. Chicago, Detroit, and others superimpose important diagonal streets across urban grids. In modern function, streets such as Broadway in New York predate the grids they bisect, but nevertheless function similarly today.

Creating small triangles, nooks, and crannies within the grid is a beneficial consequence of diagonal avenues. From the national perspective, these spaces filled a need for locations for monuments. From the local perspective, L'Enfant (and later Ellicott) placed a public circle or square to serve as the focus for each section of the city. Likewise, the radial avenues connect these parts of the city to each other with both direct lines of communication and transportation.

However, Yglesias isn't convinced. He notes this kind of planning "leads to lots of very weird intersections." As an example, he cites the intersection of New York Avenue, H St, and 13th Street NW as a confusing intersection for drivers and pedestrians alike. Tellingly, Yglesias uses a Google Maps image to illustrate this.

Left: Yglesias' Google Map. Right: L'Enfant Plan detail. Note the lack of street design within the squares and public spaces. Image from NCPC.

The Google map, however, focuses on the auto circulation routes, not the public space. Neither the L'Enfant Plan nor the Ellicott Plan delineates traffic lanes or vehicular circulation. Instead, those plans focus on defining the street as a public space. Likewise, most of DC's circles and squares draw their definition not from the traffic patterns of the streets, but from the blocks that surround them.

The awkward intersections of auto traffic are a relatively recent occurrence, not a hallmark of the plan. Yglesias understands this, at least at an intuitive level, since he made a great suggestion several days later about improving traffic and pedestrian space within one of L'Enfant's many squares. These kind of discussions are not new to DC, as many squares from L'Enfant's plan do not function as squares at all. Traffic bisects them at Eastern Market and Potomac Avenue, for example, and proposed changes would open up these spaces.

Likewise, there are many triangles and small parks at the intersections of DC's radial avenues and the grid. Some house interesting public spaces, while others are substantially underutilized. Since we have them, it's up to DC to make use of these small spaces. Yglesias notes:

But worst of all they create these horrible dead spaces when the wedges between the various streets are too small to put a city block on. Every once in a while this process results in a "triangle park" that's actually nice and used for something (the part at 1st, R, and Florida has nice synergy with Big Bear Cafe and the Bloomingdale Farmer's Market) but the typical triangle park isn't really used for anything and many of them scarcely deserve to be called parks.

Green space and public space are good things, but they're really only good if the spaces are usable and used in practice by the people who live and work in the area. That requires them to be located and sized for real reasons ("this would be a good place for a park") and not just used to fill up awkward gaps in a street grid.

Indeed, many of these triangles are underutilized. However, this is a problem of programming, not of design. Kostof notes in a video of a 1991 lecture series accompanying his book that L'Enfant's plan specifically avoided those cast-off spaces Yglesias worries about. Instead, each public square was to be programmed as a focus for a neighborhood. They were not just used to fill in the gaps of the street grid, and they need not be treated as such today.

Instead, the challenge is to re-program these spaces, as exemplified by the Bloomingdale Farmers' Market. Not every space needs to be active or monumental, but there are plenty of opportunities to improve these spaces and enhance DC's public spaces.

Cross-posted at City Block.


Breakfast links: Thinking backward edition

Speeding you up isn't the county's only priority: A Bethesda driver writes the Gazette to complain about No Turn On Red signs. "We should do all we can to remove obstacles to efficient traffic flow," he argues, but the county disagrees; with growing numbers of pedestrians, many intersections lack the visibility for drivers to turn right safely.

Don Alexander Hawkins' topographic map of Washington, 1791.

Uphill both ways: Combine new technology and dusty old archives, and you can see what Washington looked like in 1791, when L'Enfant first started designing a capital city.

Get a ride (and a human interaction designer): COG recently (re)launched Commuter Connections, a resource site for commuters. The new site features a carpool-matching service to match up those driving in similar directions, and Guaranteed Ride Home, which gives carpoolers a backup option for emergencies.

The program is a great one; the site itself a little more attractive than the typical governmental Web site, but similarly hard to navigate, with enormous numbers of links all the same size and many clicks required to get to anything useful. And the exciting heart of the site, the ride-matching, requires you to fill out forms and wade through legalese just to see it. Via We Love DC.

End Republican welfare: The City Paper criticizes the set-aside for non-Democrats in the Home Rule charter, where only one of the two at-large Councilmembers each year may come from the same party. The provision was originally included to appease Congressional Republicans, but even Carol Schwartz opposes it (at least publicly).


Roll Call covers parking reform

Roll Call, one of Capitol Hill's newspapers, ventured beyond the federal realm to cover DC's parking reform proposals. The lede:

Who is really preserving L'Enfant's legacy?
Walkability, transit-oriented development and smart growth are buzz words of modern urban development. But for more than half a century, D.C. zoning rules have supported automobiles as the main method of transportation in the city.
The rest of the article is only accessible to subscribers and Hill staff. It gives a good overview of the issue and liberally quotes Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. I also spoke with the reporter, Melissa Giaimo, at length to provide her with a general understanding of the issue; she also used the statistics on car ownership and non-automobile commuting.
Supporters of the new parking plan believe that rejecting 1950s zoning rules is a return to the thinking of Washington's original city planner, Pierre L'Enfant.

The proposal, Cort said, is "with the great tradition of the L'Enfant plan—revolving around walkability and streetcars."

Opponents of parking reform often claim to be defending L'Enfant's legacy, but (the fact that we didn't really implement L'Enfant's plan aside), defense of high parking minimums is instead promoting the legacy of Robert Moses or his DC counterpart, the author of our 1958 zoning code, New York consultant Harold Lewis.
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