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History


Not everyone agrees on where DC's Chinatown is

While DC's Chinatown officially spans roughly two square blocks in the city's central downtown area, a number of long-time residents have different ideas of the neighborhood's boundaries. This map shows how "Chinatown" means different things to different people.


The lines on the map represent 17 different definitions of where Chinatown begins and ends, along with DC's official boundaries. Map by Molly Carpenter, Pranita Rahbhise, Katy June-Friesen, and Dr. Willow Lung-Amam.

The map is part of a larger recent project by graduate students at the University of Maryland who wanted to better understand the rapid changes to the neighborhood and what they have meant for those in the Chinese American community with long term connections to it.

The researchers conducted 16 interviews with people who have long-term connections to Chinatown, either because they live there or are involved in the neighborhood through business and cultural organizations. They also interviewed eight people they met on the street or in restaurants or coffee shops. They asked those they spoke with to draw their own map of Chinatown and identify the places that were important to them.

While some identified Chinatown as a narrow strip of shops and restaurants along H Street, others saw the neighborhood as stretching from E Street to M Street. Meanwhile, others saw Chinatown as part of the larger Gallery Place or Penn Quarter neighborhoods.

Those more familiar with the neighborhood tended to see Chinatown as a shrinking span of restaurants along H Street NW, while newcomers or visitors tended to point to the Verizon Center and Gallery Place as the defining features of the neighborhood. And while many interviewed acknowledged that Chinatown has been shrinking, others recognized that the community has also spread out to the suburbs and is not dying.

Katy June-Friesen, one of the researchers, offered her take on why the people she interviewed had such varying definitions of Chinatown:

I think the way people understand the space, the neighborhood, depends on how they use and experience it. So for some elderly residents of Wah Luck House who speak little English, the neighborhood feels like it is shrinking, because there are fewer services and shops for them, such as a Chinese-speaking doctor or Chinese grocery store. Others (of Chinese background) who have long-term connections to Chinatown but don't live there may feel the place is more symbolic of history, culture, and traditions, but the boundaries or size of the neighborhood itself don't matter as much. A restaurant worker might think of Chinatown as just the strip of Chinese restaurants on H Street, while a non-Chinese newcomer to the area might not frequent those restaurants and might think of the neighborhood as "Gallery Place" or something other than "Chinatown."
Chinatown used to be in a different place, and it has seen a lot of change

First established in the 1880s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 5th Street NW, DC's first Chinatown was displaced in the 1930s by the Federal Triangle complex. As a result, Chinese immigrants began to settle in today's location.

In this new location, the community continued to grow through the mid-1960s, establishing schools, clubs, and other community organizations. However, by the mid-1960s, the population of the community began to decline, with many residents moving to the suburbs. Despite this decline, the population of Chinatown was 3,000 in 1970.

In subsequent years, the neighborhood has been the site of a number of revitalization efforts, including the construction of the Gallery Place Metro station and a new convention center (not to be confused with the current convention center), the establishment of a downtown historic zone, which includes Chinatown, as well as the later construction of the Verizon Center.

Recent years have seen changes to the neighborhood accelerate with the continued loss of Chinese residents and businesses. Much of this has been attributed to neighborhood affordability and buyout offers for local residents and business owners as part of a broader trend of redevelopment in the city.

Today, most of Chinatown's approximately 300 Chinese-American residents live in Wah Luck House and Museum Square, two subsidized housing complexes in the neighborhood.

Despite the diverse views of what constitutes Chinatown, all those interviewed expressed concern about keeping alive what the neighborhood means to them, namely Chinese culture and traditions.

Development


DC makes some of its affordable housing serve less wealthy residents (but not the poorest)

DC requires new apartment and condo buildings to include a number of affordable housing units, in a program called Inclusionary Zoning. Wednesday night, DC's Zoning Commission voted to make Inclusionary Zoning serve the group of residents who most need the housing this program can provide.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

What is inclusionary zoning?

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) is a market-based tool for creating affordable housing that serves people of moderate incomes. Private developers still build housing as they wish, but have to rent or sell a small percentage of units to people making less money. It's had some success, but debate about the program continues.

IZ proposes to diversify our region's housing stock. In a high-demand area like ours, the market will naturally provide more expensive housing for higher-income people rather than cheaper housing. This is not a simple case of developer greed. The owner of a piece of property in a desirable, expensive area will want to sell it to whoever will give them the most money. If one group offers the land owner more money for the land (because they plan to build and sell luxury units), that group probably wins the sale over other groups looking to build moderately priced housing, or who want to use tax credits to build below-market housing.

Right now, in DC, many people who use tax credits to build lower-income housing can't win the bidding for enough land to build on. Where land is cheap, there is enough to go around for people to build units with diverse cost and meet diverse demand, though even then, without tax credits they can't sell units for less than it costs to construct them. But where land is scarce and demand is high, the market, on its own, won't provide housing for even moderate-income people.


Photo by Sharron on Flickr.

IZ tackles affordability and supply

When I walk around town talking about our region's housing shortage, many stop me and say, "What do you mean?! What about all of those luxury apartments and condos going up EVERYWHERE?" Land values explain a piece of that. Yes, we are building more housing than most other periods of DC's history, but there is a lot of pent up demand for housing at different cost levels that currently isn't being met.

Say I want to build a 5-story building with 50 units in it. To buy the land, get financing, and cover construction costs, I have to plan to rent the units at luxury prices. IZ changes two things. First, it forces me to build a number of units for people at lower incomes. That increases costs and could make my building unprofitable to construct, so IZ sweetens the deal: I can build my building higher and denser than normally allowed (about 20% larger, though it varies by zone).

When it's all said and done, my new plan after IZ is a 6-story building, and 5 of those 60 units are going to be rented at more affordable levels.

It's a compromise, yes. But is also unique in that it addresses the issue of housing supply (we just added 10 more units to the region!), as well as housing affordability (we just built 5 otherwise non-existent affordable options).

Other reasons IZ is exciting

The fact that IZ tackles our housing shortage from both a supply and affordability standpoint is one reason why advocates are for this policy tool, but there are other good things about it.

For one, if we are serious about building an inclusive city and region, this tool helps to do just that. People of different incomes can live (and afford to live!) in the same buildings and neighborhoods when IZ is applied well.

Recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life—16%, in Chyn's study—than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income living (which IZ pushes) could show a way out.

Another reason to like IZ is that it leverages the resources, knowledge and power of the private sector. There is an immense amount of money and expertise in the development field, and they are very interested in building more housing. IZ attempts to align for-profit development interests (build more) with broader community interests (build affordable), and advocates hope to harness the productive energy and capacity of the development field to meet the needs of a diverse and growing city.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

Spoiler alert: Not everyone is a fan of IZ

IZ offers both extra density (more money for property owners) and an expensive housing requirement (forced affordability constraints). Depending on the details of the program and the particular neighborhood or market conditions, the bonus could pay for the added expense, or not.

Further, IZ creates bureaucratic hurdles for the developer to go through. The process, paperwork, and the many legal and other experts required can add costs.

The early years of DC's IZ program saw problems with how the government was implementing it, including federal rules which made it impossible for buyers of IZ condo units to obtain mortgages. (DC changed the rules to deal with that obstacle.)

It's not just the developers

Developers are not alone in their criticisms of IZ. Some other affordable housing and low-income advocates are concerned about the program.

For some, it is simply a question of scale. Even in the hypothetical situation above, you can see this argument play out: we get 55 units of luxury housing, and 5 units of more affordable housing? For some that is simply not good enough, especially if there is a tool that would allow the original 50 units to be all affordable, or some significant percentage affordable.

Over that last few years since its inception in DC, IZ has created over 900 below-market price housing units, which is great. It's also true that in that same amount of time 21,000 total units have been created, and as noted earlier in my street conversations, many, many of those units are at luxury prices.


Map of IZ Production under old rules

Another concern some have about IZ is that it does not create "affordable enough" units. IZ laws mandate that a unit be affordable for people making a certain amount of money based on the Area Median Income (AMI). DC's current rules require some units at 80% of AMI and some at 50% of AMI, but the vast majority were 80%.

For a typical one-bedroom unit, an 80% AMI unit would rent for around $1,600 a month, while 60% would be around $1,100 a month. For many groups working alongside the poorest of our community (for example those making 30% or less of AMI), this does not serve the people in greatest need.

It's unlikely that IZ can create units at 30% of AMI, since those are so expensive to create and maintain compared to 50-80%. So IZ advocates mounted a campaign to create more deeply affordable units than before.

What has changed

This new change now requires all new rental units to be 60% of AMI (while condo units would be 80%). Currently, most new rental units being built were at 80%, but three-fourths of people on waiting lists for IZ units were around 60%.

Members of the Zoning Commission recognized that this was not serving the needs of many lower-income residents. During one hearing, Commissioner Michael Turnbull remarked, "[80% median family income] is basically market rate. People are saying, we can't afford that. The city is being gentrified. The people who grew up in the city are being kicked out." Commissioner Peter May agreed: "The house is on fire, and we are using a garden hose."

Yet there was opposition from the Bowser administration and the DC Building Industry Association to the proposal to lower the income targeting percentage to 60%. They put forth an alternative proposal. Under current rules, not all zones in DC have to incorporate IZ; the alternate option would add IZ to four zones (two of which, C2A and C2B, have some significant development potential, and two, SP1 and W2, that have very little) while keeping other zones as they have been.

Late Wednesday night, the Zoning Commission voted in favor of the 60% requirement. There will then be a 30-day period of public review before a second, final vote. For many of the thousands of residents who apply for the lottery to get access to these units each year, this drop will add greatly to their affordable options.

History


In 1979, was your neighborhood "sound" or "distressed"?

DC looked very different in 1979. A map of neighborhood housing conditions shows just how much. In many DC neighborhoods that are now in high demand, the housing stock was in danger 35 years ago.


Image from the DC Public Library, Special Collections. Click for larger version.

This map is from a report by the Department of Housing and Community Development in June 1979, during Marion Barry's first mayoral term, entitled "Housing Problems, Conditions & Trends in the District of Columbia."

The report sounded the alarm for "Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River." Those areas already had, or were in danger of developing, "deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership."

Here is the explanatory text and key for the map:

This map clarifies neighborhoods according to the categories shown in the legend. They are based on the following factors which are illustrated in subsequent maps: ownership patterns, yearly income of residents, real estate sales and prices, welfare assistance and the condition of housing.

Sound [Yellow]: Residents in these neighborhoods have high enough incomes to maintain their properties without public assistance. Northwest areas west of Rock Creek Park are classified as sound neighborhoods together with Capitol Hill. The only sound neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are located south of Fort Dupont Park.

Distressed [Blue]: Residents require considerable assistance because of low incomes and poor housing conditions. Many of these areas also contain a concentration of public housing in need of significant improvement. Distressed neighborhoods west of the river include Ivy City and portions of the Southwest. East of the Anacostia River, the poorest housing conditions are found in Deanwood, Burrville, Northeast Boundary, Greenway, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands and Douglass.

Stable / Declining [Green]: Neighborhoods are in stable condition, with households of moderate income and high ownership, requiring little or no public assistance; or, are beginning to show deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership. West of the River, neighborhoods in this category are south Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Transitional (early or advanced) [Red]: Neighborhoods in the early stages of transition are characterized by a surge in reinvestment and rehabilitation; whereas, neighborhoods in the most advanced stages are those experiencing extensive displacement of low and moderate income families by higher income households. Change began in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and spread east into Shaw and north along 14th Street, as well as into LeDroit Park and Eckington. The change which began in Capitol Hill spread further east into Lincoln Park, south to the Southeast, and north to the Stanton Park. No radical changes are occurring east of the River, though real estate activity is becoming significant but at a lower level of intensity.

This map further serves to highlight the different characteristics between areas east and west of the Anacostia River. West of the River and west of Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods are in basically sound and stable condition. The most concentrated real estate activity is found in and around the central city. Displacement is, therefore, the major problem west of the River; whereas the main concern east of the Anacostia River is the declining condition of the housing stock. Also, the majority of distressed and declining neighborhoods are found east of the River.

It's also interesting to look at the neighborhood names. NoMA didn't exist; it was "NE 1," adjacent to "NW 1" across North Capitol Street. What we now call U Street is "Westminster." And "Stanton Park" extended all the way across H Street. East of the River, neighborhood names such as "Good Hope," "Buena Vista," and "Douglass" have fallen out of currency.

The Green and Yellow Metrorail lines had not yet opened, the Red Line didn't go beyond Dupont Circle, and the Blue Line stopped at Stadium-Armory.

What else do you notice? How was your neighborhood categorized in 1979? Would it be categorized differently today?

This post first ran in 2014. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Transit


Is a gondola across the Potomac realistic? We're about to find out.

Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We're about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.


Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here's what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID's 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there's a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It's ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.


Portland's gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don't know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system's ability to spur economic growth and development.
The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or "fatal flaws" that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

Transit


Metro's goal is 20 trains per hour at Farragut North. Here's what it actually averaged in May, June, and July.

Last year, I found that Metro was running fewer Red Line trains per hour than it had planned during rush hour. I'm counting again this year, and so far the numbers are a mixed bag.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

I counted Red Line trains running through Farragut North last year, so I went with the same location this year. I did switch to only doing in-person observations rather than relying on WMATA's next train arrival data, and to recording from 4:30-5:30 pm (last year, I recorded times in the morning).

The Red line clearly struggled in late May, with an average throughput of 14.6 trains/hour from May 23-27. This is nearly 30% below Metro's own service guideline of 20 trains/hour. On four of five days, train malfunctions and other problems affected service, though May 25th was quite bad even without any reported delays.

But since that time, service has rebounded and averaged around 17.25 trains/hour over the past two weeks. This is roughly in line with the number from last year's observation. There weren't any reported problems during this time, which surely has something to do with trains staying closer to their schedules.


A week's worth of Red Line throughput data from this month. Click to download a complete version of the data the author collected.

Do schedules need adjusting?

Despite the improvement, Metro only hit its service goal of 20 trains/hour on July 12th, with the trains headed toward Shady Grove. Headways varied significantly, with gaps ranging from two minutes to 10 minutes or more.

Train sequencing showed similar variation. While Metro's Trip Planner shows that train destinations should alternate (i.e. Glenmont, then Silver Spring, then Glenmont, etc.), it was not uncommon to see trains to the same destination arrive one after the other.

I asked Richard Jordan a WMATA spokesman, how often Metro re-evaluates schedules and whether the Trip Planner is updated to reflect these new times. His response was that "our current service pattern allows for 20 trains per hour on the Red Line. We monitor rail service daily and make adjustments as needed. The online Trip Planner is based on the current schedule."

Unfortunately, actual service doesn't match the Trip Planner. While trains should be arriving every three minutes at Farragut North during rush hour, that clearly hasn't been the case. And trains rarely arrive in the sequence listed online. Certainly neither of these issues is a critical problem, but they are worth addressing.

Why this matters

Metro's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has said the agency needs to confront "hard truths" and be more transparent with the public. This honesty should extend to Metro's online schedules and service advisories. Obviously unexpected problems happen that cause delays, but Metro should strive to make sure service matches the online schedule, or vice versa.

Second, SafeTrack makes staying on schedule even more important. Service across all rail lines will be significantly cut at various times over the next 8 months, sometimes as much as 50% or more.

With trains set to only arrive every 10-18 minutes for multiple weeks, it's critical that they adhere to their modified schedules. Otherwise already lengthy delays around work zones could become unbearable and cause dangerous conditions on platforms and in railcars.

The good news: there are more 8-car trains

On a positive note, while I observed almost no 8-car trains last year (due to problems with the 4000 series), they are much more plentiful this year. And after a brief restriction, multiple new trains are once again traveling the Red line.

Development


What's wrong with this map of DC's social services?

This map shows where DC's halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and mental health facilities are. What's wrong with this picture?


Map from DC's Office of Planning.

In 2006, DC's Office of Planning published this map of group homes in the city,grouping them into five types: halfway homes and facilities for community residence, mental health, substance abuse and youth rehab.

The easiest, clearest takeaway: most of these places are east of Rock Creek Park. The map may be 10 years old, but that's just evidence that neighborhoods in that part of the District have historically opted out of helping to solve the city's broader problems.

We actually came across the map while reviewing DC's Comp Plan. Let's hope the re-write of the plan, which which the Office of Planning will start next year, results in maps that show more people doing their part to make this a better region for everyone.

History


A streetcar used to run down Rhode Island Avenue, connecting College Park and downtown DC

Most of Washington's original "streetcar suburbs" were built within the District's boundaries. However, one important corridor of streetcar suburbs went up in Prince George's County, in the communities along Route 1 south of the Beltway.


A map of the route of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar in Prince George's County to Branchville Road. North of Branchville road, an hourly single-track shuttle service ran to Laurel until it was abandoned in 1925. Map by the author using OpenStreet Map. Click for a larger version.

A streetcar from Baltimore to Washington?

While steam railroads had linked Baltimore to Washington for half a century, the introduction of electric streetcars in Baltimore in 1885 and Washington in 1888 led to interest in the idea of an electric interurban line to link the two cities.

In 1892, the Columbia and Maryland Railway was chartered by a group of businessmen who hoped to construct an electric streetcar line from Baltimore to Washington by way of Ellicott City, Laurel, and Hyattsville. Called the Washington, Berwyn & Laurel, this line roughly paralleled the route of the B&O line (now the MARC Camden Line) between the two cities. The businessmen expected that the growth of suburbs would create a "great country city" along the route and provide enough traffic to justify the construction of a new rail line and adjacent roadway.

Although the plan as a whole never came to fruition, tracks were built along Rhode Island Avenue from 4th Street NE to a station called District Line, where there was a loop for streetcars to turn around, at 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Maryland (today, it's a bus loop). From there, the line continued to Laurel, leaving a gap of twenty miles to the Elliott City terminus of the Baltimore streetcar line it had been intended to connect to.


34th Street Terminal: the short-turn loop at 34th St in Mt. Rainier still exists, and is used by several WMATA and Prince George's County bus routes. Photo by the author.

The Route 1 suburbs and the streetcar

Service on the line to Mt. Rainier began in 1897 and, by September 1900, the line—now called the City and Suburban—provided half-hourly service from Branchville Road (just north of what is now Greenbelt Road in College Park) along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue to the Treasury Building at 15th Street NW.

Several years later, a single-tracked line was extended to Laurel and served by an hourly shuttle. Shortly afterward, the line was merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Company, one of the District's two major streetcar systems, and became known as the "Maryland Line."

Rhode Island Avenue was extended north alongside the streetcar tracks to the Hyattsville rail station, located near the current county court building. North of Hyattsville, the streetcar stayed close to the railroad as it passed through what was still the Calvert family estate. From the line's entrance into what is now College Park to its northern terminus in Laurel, it again largely followed its own private right-of-way.

The residential developments that became Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Riverdale, and much of College Park were built along the Maryland Line while the areas around them remained farmland. Up until World War II, the streetcar line into DC was central to the sale of homes in these new communities.

Rise of the roads

The rise of the automobile, which began in the 1920's, changed the nature of the streetcar route and the communities along it.

US Route 1 was eventually switched from its original alignment along Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road to follow Rhode Island Avenue into the District, and the stretch of Baltimore Avenue south of this junction, which had been a major commercial strip in Hyattsville and Bladensburg, gradually decayed and became home to light industrial uses.

North of the junction with Baltimore Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue was not extended consistently along the streetcar tracks, but disconnected segments of residential streets alongside the track were built and took on the same name. In the last decade, College Park and Riverdale have constructed a multi-use trail along this right-of-way, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.

The never-popular shuttle to Laurel was terminated in 1925, resulting in the construction of Rhode Island Avenue as an arterial road in the former right-of-way from Branchville Road north into Beltsville. However, service from downtown to Branchville became Capital Transit's route 82 and continued until 1958, only four years before the end of streetcar service in Washington.

Bicycling


A unanimous vote to end DC's unjust insurance law for people walking and biking

On Tuesday, the DC Council unanimously approved a bill to end the extremely unjust "contributory negligence" rule which frequently forbids people who are hit when walking or biking from collecting medical costs from a driver's insurance.


Photo by Manfred Caruso on Flickr.

The bill still has to pass a second reading in the fall, but the fact that it sailed through without debate bodes very well. Two weeks ago, the council delayed action because Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5) wanted to introduce an amendment, but McDuffie ultimately decided not to. Mayor Muriel Bowser also praised the bill.

The council showed strong leadership to making the road fair to everyone and ensuring that people injured due to another's actions have a fair chance to get medical bills paid. The action came despite fierce lobbying from the insurance industry and AAA.

This is also thanks to many of you, who sent over 1,300 emails to councilmembers using our action tool. Many others contacted elected officials from action alerts from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association or others. Your emails made a difference—Councilmember Elissa Silverman (at large) mentioned getting "over a thousand" emails in a recent constituent newsletter. She was already a strong supporter, but other less confident ones got many emails too.

I emailed all 13 councilmembers for comments about the vote, and several replied in time.

Councilmember Charles Allen (ward 6), one of the bill's co-introducers, said, "Like many others, my family is a one-car household. Some days we bike, some days we drive, some days we Metro, and some days we simply walk. Like you, I want a city where I'm treated fairly no matter how I choose to—or need to—get around.

Silverman added, "I was excited to vote in favor of a bill that will make our insurance system more just for our most vulnerable road users. I thank Councilmember [Kenyan] McDuffie [Ward 5] and Councilmember [Mary] Cheh [Ward 3] for their leadership efforts on this common sense measure."

"I believe our contributory negligence standard most hurts our poor and low-income residents who cannot afford large medical bills or lost time at work following serious accidents," Silverman said. "For this reason, I'm particularly glad to see the Council move towards a more equitable approach that works in the interest of all District residents."

Brianne Nadeau, councilmember from Ward 1, wrote, "Ultimately, Tuesday's vote is about making the District safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. We must also continue expanding our network of bike lanes, protected when possible, so residents have safer transportation options."

Finally, David Grosso (at-large) said, "In 2014, I introduced [the predecessor of this bill] after learning that 483 cyclists had been injured in 2013 alone. ... After years of advocating for change, I am glad we're finally modernizing the District's approach. Fairness, equity and safety are the guiding principles behind this legislation and with the Council's unanimous vote and the Mayor's signal of approval, it seems we are one step closer to fully realizing these goals."

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