Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


Bookstores create public places

What do downtown Silver Spring and Portland have in common? They both know the power of a good bookstore. It's not just about literacy and education and having places for teenagers to hang out after school. It's also about making urban space a little brighter and more interesting.

Sunny Days & Starry NightsPowell's Books, Portland
Left: Borders on Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring. Right: Powell's Books in Portland.

Powells is perhaps the best bookstore you or I will ever go to. The selection is extensive (many, many floors), the staff knowledgable, and the prices reasonableas everything is in Portland, despite the city's reputation for being trendy.

At both Powell's and Borders, the big, lighted windows connect inside and outside, giving people on both sides something to look at. Both places are open late, keeping the areas around them busy in the evenings. And they each attract their own kind of street life.

You'll usually find teenagers hanging around outside the Borders in downtown Silver Spring, it being one of the few places (outside City Place Mall) that's not a restaurant and has things someone in high school can actually afford. When I visited Powell's last winter, I noticed a lot of homeless youth around the store. Again, that's because it's open late and a fairly cheap place to "earn" time inside.

It's not necessarily a bad thing for these stores to attract young people. After all, they provide an amenity for everyone else, and the presence of more people, regardless of status, makes their respective areas safer and more enjoyable. I know I'd rather spend a day poking around Powell's than visiting Borders' store at Columbia Crossing in Howard County, a typical big box:

Borders, Columbia Crossing

The Borders in downtown Silver Spring is, of course, a chain. Unlike Powell's, it isn't a unique local resource (though Powell's does have a website and delivers goods nationwide) and the money made there may not stay in the community. But I'd bet that its urban form earns it the status of Neighborhood Bookstore for more people than the Borders in Columbia Crossing. For a chain store, that kind of relationship is worth its weight in gold.

Certainly, this kind of post would earn me some hackles from folks who prefer to patronize locally-owned businesses for exactly the reasons I state above, so to appease them, I'll also mention Silver Spring Books on Bonifant Street, a real-life local bookstore just a block away from Ellsworth Drive and favored shop of local crime writer George Pelecanos, who complains that dumb kids like me and others under 25 are "programmed" to visit chain stores exclusively.

Bicycling


Bike boulevards

A new Streetfilm explains Portland's bicycle boulevards, streets where bicycles get priority and traffic generally travels at bike speeds, and advocates for some in NYC. Ben W writes, "How about doing some bicycle boulevards in DC, starting with 10th Street NW?"

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Bicycling


Portland's bicycle facilities

On my trip home last week, I saw some of Portland's newest bike improvements. Here are a few photos.

A lot of folks are familiar with "bike boxes" which protect bikers in the street.

They've also tucked a bike lane behind a streetcar stop. As someone who commutes by bike in Arlington, I'd love to see the bus stops do something like this, rather than the buses pulling over into the bike lane and forcing me to stop or dart out into traffic.

Portland has just (in the past few weeks) established a new "cycle track." It simply inverts the standard bike lane in the street to a separated bike lane between the sidewalk and the parking lane of the street.

Notice that there is a little 2 foot space there between the parking and the bike lane to allow for a door to open. This helps to deal with the big trucks that invariably block a standard bike lane. Here you can see there's still room to get by!

All of this was done in the past few weeks with just some striping changes. No new concrete or asphalt was laid here. Its great that Portland has taken a little initiative where others haven't and tried something that works in Europe just fine. Wouldn't it be great if DC and Arlington would do the same?

Originallly posted on Beatus Est.

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Transit


Breakfast Links: Narrowing, tunnelling, and bulldozing streets


Georgetown Metropolitian's rendering of a possible Georgetown Metro station, adjacent to the PNC bank branch

Suburbs going multi-modal: Fresh off the heels of Virginia's cul-de-sac ban, VDOT plans to convert two lanes of Reston's Lawyers Road into two bike lanes, plus a center turn lane. The Reston Association has also recommended reducing the speed limit from 45 to 35 miles per hour. For context, as recently as 1967, Lawyers Road was a one-lane dirt path. (Restonian, Joshua D)

Piercing Georgetown's street veil: The Georgetown Metropolitian has brainstormed various places where a hypothetical split Metro Blue Line might provide street access in Georgetown without tearing down an historic building, including in the PNC parking lot, adjacent to the Canal, or directly on Wisconsin Avenue. The quick study doesn't consider an all-elevator option akin to Forest Glen or Brooklyn's Clark Street station. (JTS)

Legal action expected: Once more, "Tysons Tunnel," a group opposing the under-construction elevated Metro Silver Line through Tysons, is threatening legal action. Backed by the Sierra Club and another unnamed "watchdog" group, Tysons Tunnel is planning to sue based on provisions of Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act, as a way to have the plans reevaluated and redrawn with a tunnel. (WBJ, JTS)

Then, fleas. Now, Caterpillars. The WMATA-owned property at Florida Avenue and 8th Street NW which presently hosts a weekend flea market, is about to be under contract. Bannecker Ventures expects to close within 60 days on the land, begin construction in summer 2011, and offer move-ins in Fall 2011, for a 120-unit apartment building with 20,000 sf of ground-level retail. This is the same property for which WMATA solicited proposals last summer, unsuccessfully. (Geoff H)

Bulldozing cities: My cousin, in town for the weekend, asked if there would ever be a way to end the traffic on DC's radial freeways. I responded, "not likely, as such relief would require bulldozing the outer suburbs" (as the existing transportation demand will otherwise continue to be there forever, and any widening will induce more exurban road construction), but this act is taking place right now in a number of American cities, including Detroit and Flint, Michigan. Hopefully the governments will limit the destruction to the outer, less sustainable, neighborhoods while preserving the core areas. (Telegraph, Steve, MarkM)

And ... Virginia Rep. Cantor continues to propose eliminating pedestrian and bicycle enhancements (VBF, Jaime) ... The Prince of Petworth asks his readers to comment on whether public housing has failed in DC (Eric H) ... In a case study of "new" urbanism, the Oregonian studies how the architecture of modern buildings in Portland near streetcar routes mimics the city's historic streetcar-adjacent architecture.

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Public Spaces


When you gotta go, where do you go?

We've all been there. You're out and about, and then suddenly, you need a restroom. When I leave home to go on a walk or run an errand, I keep a mental map of the closest available restrooms. I usually rely on restrooms in commercial businesses, largely because it is difficult to find public restrooms in the District.


Public urinal in Amsterdam. Photo by mvcorks.

Access to public restrooms is more than a matter of convenience. It is also an issue of public health and key to creating a comfortable, walkable, livable city.

The availability of public restrooms enables people to leave their cars at home and commute on foot and on mass transit. Public restrooms significantly cut down on the public urination and defecation and make our downtown streets much more inviting.

The American Restroom Association suggests that every incorporated municipal district, city, or town should provide access to restrooms for the public at all times of the day and at any time of the year. Jurisdictions that are unable to provide dedicated public facilities should allow the public access to public toilet facilities in government buildings that are continually operational, such as police, fire stations, and hospitals.

Not all public restrooms are alike. The choice of facility depends on existing infrastructure, available management options, maintenance budgets, and overall population size. Here are examples of the most common facility types:

  • Automatic Public Toilets (APT): These are self-cleaning units. The cleaning process takes about 50 seconds: the toilet bowl swivels and is disinfected. The floor of the unit is jet sprayed and the seat is dried with a big blower. Doors are times to open after 10 minutes to limit extended use.

    Many cities across the world use APTs, including Singapore, London, and Athens. Units are currently being tested in several US cities: Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, New York, San Antonio, Atlanta, San Diego, and Pittsburgh.

  • Open Space Comfort Stations: This type of facility is typically a freestanding building with separate washrooms for men and women. Traditional comfort stations are made of bricks and mortar can still be found in historic sections of Portland, New Orleans, and Cincinnati. Instead of building a freestanding restroom from scratch, several companies now offer prefabricated "brick & mortar" restrooms. They are often the least expensive public restroom solution and are designed against vandalism.


    Women's restroom at MLK Library. Photo by Lynda Laughlin.
  • Restrooms in Public Buildings: No doubt a number of us rely on bathrooms in publicly owned buildings such as libraries, museums, etc. I have more than once used the bathrooms at MLK library or the American Portrait Museum National Portrait Gallery largely because the access to other restrooms in the Chinatown area is largely limited to restaurants. However, access is generally limited and other public buildings such as court houses, police and fire stations typically restrict public access for security reasons.

    As an experiment, Portland, Oregon opened city hall to the public for 24 hours. The experiment produced mixed results. Many residents appreciated the increased access, but objected to the increased security costs relative to the low volume of users.


    Porta-potties. Photo by ghbrett.
  • Portable Sanitation Units (PSUs): Using a porta-potty, porta-john, or a porta-loo is not what must of us would consider a satisfactory bathroom experience. Their main appeal is that they are low cost because they do not need to be connected to a sewer system and they are easy to install and move around at a moments notice. Many Washingtonians became more familiar with porta-potties back in January when 5,000 were placed along Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall for the Presidential Inauguration.

    However, porta-potties do not necessarily have to be restricted to large public events (or construction sites). PSUs are ideal for cyclists, walkers and joggers in park areas. It is rare to find PSUs in retail areas because of their unattractiveness and well, smell. In the Netherlands, in retail areas, four-urinal portable units are often used to meet restroom needs. My guess is that DC is not ready for such a public display of personal needs. Still, it's better than using the alley.

What's available in DC? What's possible?


Restroom on the National Mall. Photo by Lynda Laughlin.
In the District, public restroom options are limited. If you are at the National Mall, your best chance of finding a restroom is to pop into one of the many museums. There are free standing restroom facilities located on the west end of the National Mall maintained by the National Park Service.

Public restrooms are also available in a number of public parks across the District. However, safety and cleanliness are often a concern as well as the lack of access at certain hours and times of the year. The redeveloped public park at 14th and Girard, NW will include two freestanding restrooms, adding to the list of options besides in the area.

While I have yet to actually see one, there are about 78 restrooms in the Metro rail system. According the American Restroom Association, access to restrooms in Metro rail stations has been an ongoing battle. Citing security concerns, Metro has often kept restrooms in stations closed to customers. It wasn't until recently that Metro put up signs notifying customers that restrooms are available, but only upon request.


Photo by Lynda Laughlin.
Another source of restrooms in the District is retail stores. The bathrooms at the Target in Columbia Heights are easy to access and usually clean. However, businesses typically restrict their restrooms to paying customers. In areas with heavy pedestrian traffic like Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle or Gallery Place, if restaurants and other businesses welcome one person to use their restroom they will most likely soon be welcoming everyone, creating a steady parade of people walking through to use the facilities and most likely creating an unpleasant atmosphere for customers.

Advocating for Public Restrooms

Planners should pay more attention to ways public restrooms can enhance urban livability. However planning for restrooms in public areas in most American cities has not received that attention that it deserves. PHLUSH, an advocacy group for public restrooms in Portland, Oregon has led the charge for public restrooms, increasing access to restrooms in downtown Portland as well as honoring local toilet innovators.

Advocating for more public restrooms can be tricky. People are often too embarrassed to report difficulties finding a restroom, even though it is a common problem for all of us. The increased availability of public restrooms would benefit property owners, retailers, social service providers, health officials, tourism boards, mass transit authorities, pedestrian and cycling advocates and downtown workers and residents, it's just a matter of getting all them all to realize that public toilets are in their own best interest.

As residents of the District, it is time that we reflect on our shared need for comfort and dignity and think of practical ways to improve access to and availability of public restrooms.

Bicycling


Video animates the "Idaho stop"

Oregon is considering a bill to allow the "Idaho stop", where bicyclists can proceed through stop signs without stopping completely as long as they slow down and make sure the intersection is totally clear. DC should implement a similar bill.

Via BikePortland and WashCycle.

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