Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Tommy Wells


A Greater Greater birthday celebration

Over 100 friends, readers, and contributors turned out to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last night to celebrate Greater Greater Washington's 5th birthday.

All photos by the author.

Thank you to DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Councilmembers Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, and Tommy Wells, Arlington Board member Chris Zimmerman, and everyone else who made it to the celebration!

Many contributors, commenters, and readers joined us for fun conversation, drinks, and cake, including many longtime members of our community and a number of new ones, including contributors for our new Greater Greater Education site.

Councilmember Jack Evans brought a resolution declaring March 5, 2013 "Greater Greater Washington Day."

You can see more images from last night on this Flickr set. If you were at the party, did you snap a few pictures? Please take a moment to share them in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool for everyone to enjoy!


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.

Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).

Public Safety

Can we get more proportionality in criminal justice?

I was heartbroken to read that Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet freedom activist, author of RSS, and Reddit cofounder, killed himself on Friday. I'd met Aaron a few times; on April 6, 2009, he emailed me to ask about books he should read on city policy issues.

Photo by okfn on Flickr.

Aaron clearly suffered from depression, but his family, law professor Lawrence Lessig, and many others are also criticizing prosecutors in the Boston US Attorney's office who hounded Aaron with multiple felony charges after he downloaded large numbers of academic articles at MIT, but never distributed them.

Aaron, and many others, find a major injustice in the the way academic journals pay authors nothing for articles but then charge large amounts of money for online access to the journals. That doesn't justify lawbreaking, but his also wasn't a transgression that merits multiple felony counts and jail time.

In a post entitled "Prosecutor as bully," Lessig wrote:

If what the government alleged was true ... then what [Aaron] did was wrong. ... But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? ... Our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed. ...

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. ... I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White Houseand where even those brought to "justice" never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled "felons."

Our local criminal justice system also has plenty of examples of proportionality failures.

Drivers who behave recklessly and kill pedestrians and cyclists usually face little punishment unless they are drunk or flee. When a driver was caught on tape assaulting a cyclist, authorities didn't press charges. After police worked hard to investigate a driver who was allegedly on his cell phone when he hit and killed a senior crossing the street, prosecutors brought charges, but a grand jury refused to indict.

Meanwhile, our punishments for some transgressions often go far beyond what's appropriate or what is necessary to stop crime, like suspending students for taking their prescription medication without proper paperwork or a 6-year-old for making a gun shape with a hand.

Even for violent crimes, which we absolutely must vehemently combat, prison terms often far exceed what's necessary or effective. In his most recent column, David Brooks wrote:

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you'd want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren't much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.
Instead, it's more effective to fight lawbreaking by adding actual enforcement, so that more perpetrators get caught and punished. In the lingo of the field, you want to increase certainty rather than severity.

Based on this logic, our local government just passed a bill to relieve punitive burdens on drivers who speed. It made sense not to charge punitively high fees on speeders, since the primary objective must be safety rather than revenue. (Unfortunately, Phil Mendelson, who never participated in the task force that pored over research and debated options, then rewrote or deleted most of the key provisions in the bill that would increase certainty, and added new sections that will reduce safety in other ways.)

Now we've applied the certainty-over-severity analysis, or at least the less-severity half, to an area of crime that has a politically powerful constituencydriversbehind it. Will the council now do the same for other areas of our criminal justice?

Unlike speeding, injustices in the way we prosecute drug laws or the "school to prison pipeline" disproportionately affect poorer and minority communities that have less political clout. The families who suffer from over-incarceration are less likely to be the ones having lunch with a councilmember than the business leader who might complain about some speeding tickets.

Will Wells try to fix laws that over-punish some people to little end, and under-punish others who today don't face any consequences for serious transgressions? Will the rest of the council agree to such measures?

It's not possible to devise a perfectly fair criminal justice system. Some people will get away with serious malfeasance while others suffer excessively. What we can do, both nationally by recalibrating our response to journal article downloading versus financial fraud, or locally in our response to speeding versus shooting transgendered people, is push for more proportionality where possible. There's a lot of work to do.


Gray slightly tweaks camera fines to stave off larger change

This morning, DC Mayor Vince Gray proposed some changes to the District's speed camera fines. It seems to be an attempt to stave off more significant changes in a bill from Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh, which is having a hearing on Monday.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Gray's plan would lower fines for speeding up to 10 mph from $75 to $50, though MPD is generally not writing tickets for speeding at this level (though the law lets them if they choose). Speeding from 11-20 mph over the limit would decrease from $125 to $100.

Meanwhile, Gray would raise the fine for speeding over 20 mph from $250 to $300. He also announced something DDOT previously said at the task force, which is that they are reviewing speed limits and may raise some.

The Wells-Cheh bill, by contrast, would lower fines for 0-10 and 11-20 to $50, as well as fines for other infractions like blocking the box or not fully stopping at a stop sign.

Gray said he will use some of the money to hire 100 new police officers. That's fine, though if the police officers don't focus on traffic, then it ultimately is just using camera revenue for things other than road safety.

We need to do more for traffic safety. DC is adding a few cameras which will make a big impact, but there's a lot of dangerous driving out there. A few cameras with high fines will stem a little bit of it and raise a bunch of money. I want to see us stem a lot more of it, and the only realistic way to do that is to expand the cameras significantly.

A major element of the Wells-Cheh bill is a provision that some camera revenue goes into a fund the Metropolitan Police Department can use to buy more cameras. Regardless of the level of fines, it's critical to set up a system whereby the stock of cameras can automatically grow over time.

It's also critical to ensure that the political blowback from speed cameras doesn't stop the District government from adding more. Now, it's not clear what exactly is necessary to achieve this. If Gray had 3-4 more years on his mayoralty, there might be little need to change the fines. Gray shows no interest in curtailing the plan whatsoever, regardless of fines, and in fact is resistant to lowering fines.

The DC Council might have disapproved some contracts for new cameras, but it couldn't. The next year's budget counts on a lot of revenue from cameras, which means that if councilmembers had wanted to delete the cameras, they would have had to fill a big budget hole.

What about in the future? If Gray doesn't run for reelection, as most speculate he won't, then the next mayor might have a different view. Maybe the next mayor will be so hostile to cameras that it won't matter how high or low the fines are. Or maybe he or she will keep cameras going no matter what.

From a safety point of view, fines don't need to be high as long as it's having a deterrent effect. At the press conference, Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she doesn't believe $50 fines are enough to deter, but council staff could find no studies that showed any conclusive correlation between fine size and driving behavior.

That suggest that high fines don't really improve safety. On the other hand, it also means that lowering fines probably won't do anything for safety eitherunless lowering fines changes the political dynamic and allows more cameras.

It's not clear it will. AAA's John Townsend participated in the task force, and said in the meetings that AAA would support cameras as long as they're not for revenue. But then, last week AAA still came out with a provcative study of how many dollars certain cameras brought in, and got a raft of sympathetic stories in the press.

From a purely abstract point of view, lowering fines is the right thing to do. Punishments should be high enough to deter lawbreaking, but don't need to be higher just to punish. A lot of people believe, despite academic evidence to the contrary, that cranking up punishments fights crime or unsafe driving; past a certain point, it doesn't.

From a political point of view, on the other hand, it's worth doing this right thing if it achieves a greater goal. Expanding cameras, and making streets safer, should be that goal. If the bill sets aside a fund for MPD to buy more cameras, that could significantly streamline the process.

If lowering fines blunts political blowback, that's worth a lot. However, if speeders still complain, and AAA's Townsend will continue to say anything to get attention in the press regardless of lower fines, then lower fines would just give dangerous lawbreakers a windfall for little benefit.


DC Council bill would lower traffic camera fines

Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6), Mary Cheh (ward 3), and Marion Barry (ward 8) just introduced a bill to lower traffic camera fines for low levels of speeding, blocking the box, stop signs and more.

Photo by BoyDisappearing on Flickr.

The bill will drop fines to $50 for certain offenses:

  • Speeding up to 20 mph over the limit
  • Blocking the box
  • Not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk
  • Not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign
  • Not coming to a complete stop before turning right on red
  • Turning right on red when not allowed
There are 2 things explicitly not on this list: speeding more than 20 mph over the limit, and running a red light.

At the task force meetings, participants expressed a desire to keep higher fines for these. They felt that more excessive speeding is far more reckless and not something one can chalk up to not paying close attention, or a road designed for a too-high speed, or something like that.

For red lights, the task force heard evidence that while there isn't a relationship between the size of speed fines and compliance, there is one for red lights. Many felt that running red lights is something drivers more clearly recognize is wrong. I've still heard drivers argue that running a red light is better than coming to a stop because of the risk of getting rear-ended, or dispute the timings of yellow lights, but MPD's Lisa Sutter said that she is focusing on enforcing the more egregious red light running.

DC is going to start rolling out cameras for some of these infractions which don't have cameras now, like not yielding to pedestrians. Many drivers don't understand that it's wrong to make a turn quickly across a crosswalk and block a pedestrian's path. MPD has promised a substantial public information campaign, but an appropriate level of fine will hopefully ensure that there isn't too much backlash against stopping this very dangerous behavior.

Bill proposes 30-day warning period

Under the bill, every vehicle will get one warning period. The first time the vehicle gets an automated ticket, MPD will send the owner a notice about the ticket and more information on the kinds of infractions that cameras catch. They will then get 7 days after the letter gets mailed, or 30 days after the initial violation, as a grace period.

I had suggested an approach like this in the meetings, because some people have said they got 9 speeding tickets all in a couple of weeks and then found themselves owing over $1,000 before they even found out about the first ticket. If the purpose of the program is to stop speeding, there's no point in giving someone multiple tickets at once.

On the other hand, this could significantly cut into revenue, especially since most violations are from vehicles that only violate once. Many of those might be casual visitors to the District, and one could argue both sides about whether we ought to give expensive tickets to tourists who drive recklessly.

There won't be a separate warning for speeding versus blocking the box; a driver just gets one warning, total. Shared cars and rental cars won't get new warnings for new drivers.

Half of revenue would go to safety programs

One of the most important provisions of the bill is one dedicating half of the revenue from the camera program to safety programs. Some of the revenue can go toward MPD buying new cameras. This is critical, because the best way to reduce unsafe driving is to have greater "certainty of enforcement"a higher chance of getting caught in more places. More cameras is what justifies lower fines.

It took MPD years to get budget approval to buy the upcoming set of cameras. For the program to really improve safety, that has to change, and this bill would make it easier for MPD to buy more cameras.

Money will also go toward educating drivers, possibly setting up a traffic safety unit at MPD, or projects at DDOT to redesign the roadway. The best way to cut down on speeding is to design a road that gives drivers subtle cues that a slower speed is appropriate, instead of one that encourages faster speeds.

Hearing is November 5

Councilmember Cheh already has scheduled a hearing for November 5, 11:00 am in room 412 of the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. You can sign up to testify using this form.

What do you think of the bill?


U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes pose safety risk

A driver, talking on a cell phone, started to make an illegal U-turn across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes and almost hit Bill Walsh. He recorded the experience in a video:

Cyclists have been pleading for action against dangerous and illegal U-turns on Pennsyl­vania Avenue for some time. Justin Antos captured a recent U-turn on his camera as well, and many cyclists have reported the similar experiences using the #stoputurnsonpenn hashtag.

Councilmember Tommy Wells wants to stop the practice. His staff have obtained crash reports from DDOT for Pennsylvania Avenue and have been analyzing them for some time. Based on those reports, it appears that U-turns are by far the most common cause of bicycle-related crashes in the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes.

Here is the police narrative from one report, for a crash on October 27, 2010, where a taxi driver injured a cyclist:






Solutions: Enforcement? Bollards?

What can be done? Police could more strictly enforce the no-U-turn rules, and DDOT could add more clear signs or markings. Walsh himself made this suggestion:

Most of the crash reports Wells' office provided show that police did indeed ticket drivers for U-turns after crashes, at least when it was clear from the driver's statements or witnesses that a U-turn was involved. The fact that many drivers admitted to the U-turn may tell us that drivers don't realize it's illegal or unsafe, and the right signs might help.

On the other hand, police don't seem to ticket drivers for U-turns when there's no crash, and many federal and local police cruisers often actually park right in the lanes.

Darren Buck suggested more plastic stanchions or "flexposts." There are already short sets of these at each corner to make it clear to drivers that they shouldn't use the bike lane as a turn lane, but their absence in the center seems to give drivers license to make U-turns:

Earlier plans for the bike lanes included bollards along the whole length of the blocks, but the Commission on Fine Arts, a federal panel which reviews projects on federal land an in key areas near federal property, wasn't thrilled:

The Commission approved the proposed design without colored pavement on the bicycle lanes or median, noting the importance of the avenue's design character as a prominent visual symbol of the nation. The Commission also recommended against the installation of reflective plastic stanchions, commenting that these would be intrusive and incompatible elements in this iconic streetscape.
DDOT ultimately decided to go ahead with some stanchions at the corners anyway, apparently believing this was a reasonable compromise between CFA's desire to keep objects out of Pennsylvania Avenue and safety. It may be time to revisit that decision and install stanchions mid-block.

Wells says he's asked Chief Cathy Lanier for more enforcement, as has Jack Evans, who said MPD "has promised additional enforcement for cabs and all cars."

Any physical changes, Wells points out, will probably not happen until after the Inauguration in January, when all of the traffic signals and other objects on Pennsylvania Avenue get taken out for the parade. DDOT will have to re-install the existing bollards at at that time, which would make it a perfect opportunity to put more bollards in while they already have crews out there.

Public Spaces

Parks popping up tomorrow for Park(ing) Day

Tomorrow is Park(ing) Day, where civic leaders and everyday people turn on-street parking spaces into temporary public parks to demonstrate the different ways we can use our public space. In our region, there will be parks tomorrow at the Wilson Building, Metro Center, and in Rosslyn.

Photo by The Great Photographicon on Flickr.

Along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Wilson Building (between 14th and 13½ Street), Councilmember Tommy Wells, chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation, and Planning, is organizing a park in 4 councilmember-dedicated parking spaces, including those from Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5).

The park will run from 9 am to at least 3 pm. It will include a parklet with picnic tables, couches and library books, and a few organized fitness activities. Wells and his staff plan an organized library story time at 11, a cookout from 11:30 to 1, and music and fitness activities after 1:30. Washington Parks and People is providing the park equipment.

Good permanent parks also include healthy trees, and tree advocacy group Casey Trees is organizing a temporary park at 12th and G Streets, by Metro Center, from 8 am to 6 pm. They will turn 3 parking spaces, or 660 square feet, into a park with 15 trees from their farm in Berryville, Virginia, along with shrubs, grass and sod. The park's seating will let people eat lunch and play games.

Layout of Casey Trees planned park. Image from Casey Trees.

Arlington's Artisphere is organizing a park in Rosslyn from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm in front of its arts center, at 1101 Wilson Boulevard. Design studio Apartment Zero is designing the park, and Dance Exchange will do a performance from 5-6:30.

The Artisphere event matches up with an exhibition they have going on right now, Beyond the Parking Lot, which looks at how our car infrastructure has transformed the landscape, and the long-term scars it leaves behind. The exhibit is free and runs until November 4.

All of these parks come from established organizations, but the sprit of Park(ing) Day is for everyone. In many cities, individual citizens feed the meter at a parking space and roll out their own artificial turf and a bench. In fact, that's exactly what the original Park(ing) Day was, a performance art project in San Francisco. Will we have any of those here?

If you get any good photographs of Park(ing) Day installations, whether official or guerrilla, in the Washington area, please add them to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr Pool!

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