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Bicycling


Copenhagen uses this one trick to make room for bikeways on nearly every street

I visited Copenhagen for the first time in June. I knew it was one of the bikiest cities in the world, but it's quite astounding to see what a place looks like where 52% of commuters travel by bike.


All photos by the author.

Almost every street has a type of protected bikeway. It's essentially a lane of the street but raised up with a small curb, low enough that vehicles can mount it but high enough to discourage that. (And generally, they don't.)

These are everywhere. It's not just the main streets or a few selected bike boulevards. Virtually every street of any appreciable size had one. It was almost strange to encounter a street with any traffic that didn't. The typical medium-sized street had two car lanes (one each way), two bike lanes of the same width (one each way), and a sidewalk on each side.

As an old city, the streets are fairly narrow (and, honestly, the sidewalks were pretty narrow and are made of cobblestones; it might be a bike mecca, but the walking experience could be better). So how can there be enough room?

Here's a picture. What do you notice that's missing?

If you said "on-street parking," you're right! As compared with most US cities which have parking on nearly every city street, Copenhagen has it on many smaller streets but far from all, and doesn't have it on most mid-sized and larger streets.

Could DC be like this?

There are some obstacles to DC having as much biking as Copenhagen (once again: 52% of commuters!) For one, our weather is both hotter and colder, and DC has more hills. Copenhagen is a smaller city, with about 2 million people in its metropolitan area versus 6 million for Washington.

Still, we can do so much better. We don't have to put a bikeway on every street, and maybe won't ever have the mode share to justify that, but there already is enough mode share to warrant a network of them connecting every neighborhood and spaced a certain distance in the city's core.


Instead of always blocking bikeways with construction, they keep the bikeways open!

More bikeways would also boost the amount of cycling; with DC's weather and topography we could easily double, triple, or quadruple the 2% of commuters bicycling (after all, 11% walk and they have to contend with the same weather!)

It's crazy that it takes years to build support for a protected bikeway on even one street. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) built only 0.14 miles of protected bikeways and 4.28 miles of other bike lanes in 2015.


A few streets also do have on-street parking as well, but it's uncommon.

The MoveDC plan calls for 7.5 miles a year of bike lanes. New York built 12.4 miles of protected bikeways in 2015, and the city does have about 12 times as many people as DC proper, but that means DC is still falling short by a factor of about seven.

It's certainly true there are political obstacles to changing even a single parking space into something else, but there's a simple political solution as well: do it differently.


Copenhagen is building a new bike/ped bridge next to an existing one, because the existing one has too much bicycle traffic.

Compared to many other US cities like Orlando and Cleveland, DC is doing great on transit, on bicycling, on walking. We shouldn't forget how far we've come, either; DC had zero protected bikeways until 2009. But go around the world and it can easily become clear: we also could do so, so much better.

Government


Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, explained

DC has a small, hyperlocal form of government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Commissioners, who are elected by their neighbors, help with neighborhood problems and weigh in on how places should (or shouldn't) change, but can't actually make laws or regulations. Still, despite having little formal power, ANCs have a lot of influence over how the District does or doesn't change.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

What are Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?

Each Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) represents a region in each of DC's eight Wards. Within each ANC, commissioners are elected to two-year terms to represent Single Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2000 residents. A commission can have anywhere from two SMDs (which would mean two commissioners) to twelve. ANCs are identified by their ward and a letter.

For example, I'm a commissioner in 7D, which is Ward 7's fourth (hence the letter D) ANC. I represent Single Member District 07, which covers neighborhoods called Paradise and Parkside. Some commissions represent a single community, such as 2B, which is the Dupont Circle ANC, whereas others, like my own, represent a number of neighborhoods.

Commissioners come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like myself, are relative newcomers recruited by community leaders to serve their neighborhood while others have lived in their neighborhoods their whole lives. Even within a single ANC, commissioners can be very diverse; my own commission includes a teacher, a lawyer, government contractors, and a lifelong community advocate.

On the map below, the yellow lines represent DC's wards, the thick red lines represent the ANCs within them, and the thin red lines represent the SMDs that make up each ANC.


A map of DC's Wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Ward 7 ANCs are tinted blue, ANC 7D is green, and Single Member District 07 is highlighted in red. Map by the author. Data from DC Open Data.

ANCs weigh in on many of the decisions that the District's governing bodies make. For example, many ANCs wrote letters to the Office of Planning with comments or proposed amendments for the zoning code re-write, and most restaurants work out agreements with the ANCs on things like when they'll be open and whether they can play live music in exchange for ANC support of their liquor license applications. Commissioners can also offer resolutions and testify before the DC Council.

In practice, beyond laws about liquor licenses or zoning, government agencies consult ANCs as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, the District Department of Transportation often presents new plans to the public at ANC meetings, giving the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback. Recently, ANC 6B worked with DDOT to get a pedestrian crosswalk on 11th Street SE between I and M Streets, and ANC 2B urged DDOT to reopen a bike lane at 15th and L which is closed due to construction.

Also, developers pitching new projects often seek ANC approval before going before the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment, as ANCs get a say with these agencies (more on that below…). The result of these interactions is often a contract between a developer and the neighborhood, called a Community Benefits Agreement.

Commissions can also provide avenues for greater community involvement and input by establishing committees that focus on certain issues, like transportation or planning and zoning.

What kind of authority do ANCs have?

The type of authority that ANCs have can vary. In some cases, they have legal standing. ANCs are automatically granted "party status" before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Alcohol License Review Board for new businesses and developments in their communities. Party status gives commissions easier access to information, notifications about upcoming hearings, and the right to cross examine participants.


Bars in DC often work with ANCs on things like hours of operation in exchange for the ANC's endorsement. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

In other areas, commissions can only make recommendations that city agencies have to give "great weight" to when making decisions. Great weight requires a government agency to respond, in writing, to concerns raised by a commission. While great weight demands that agencies explain their course of action, it doesn't actually require an agency to change its course of action.

Common critiques and shortcomings of the ANC system

ANC commissioners have complained that they are not given satisfactory explanations when agencies don't follow their recommendations; some commissioners say it's not uncommon for agency contacts to flat-out ignore them. Commissions have very few legal options to compel an agency to respond to their requests.

As a result, much of a commissioner's power is informal, coming from relationships built with government agencies, DC Council members, and the mayor's office. A motivated and skilled commissioner can draw district government attention to a neighborhood and even motivate agencies to bring resources to bear to solve a problem.

However, ANCs also reflect many of the inequalities and inequities of life in DC. Some commissions benefit from well-educated, well-connected commissioners who can afford to take days off work to testify at DC Council hearings, lobby agencies for action, and develop an in-depth understanding of how policy issues impact their community. Less wealthy communities do not necessarily have the privileges of as spare time and plenty of social capital. This places less affluent communities at a disadvantage when negotiating with developers or engaging with governmental agencies.

Commissions are also somewhat under-resourced. At most, a commission can afford to hire one part-time staff member, who usually acts as an office manager and assists commissioners with logistics, and supporting commissioners as they address concerns raised by the community.

In some cases, commissions have been accused of simply holding up any possible neighborhood change. For example, commissions have often devoted considerable time internally negotiating relatively minor adjustments projects. For example a commission can delay new development projects for months if not years. Such delays can be frustrating in a city like DC with a rapidly growing population and rapidly growing rents.

But ANCs can also positively weigh in on big neighborhood or citywide controversies by being thoughtful instead of knee-jerk. For the Hine project in ANC 6B, where a former junior high school is turning into a mixed-use development, the commission put together a task force that weighed the various interests really well and advocated for improvements instead of simply saying "no." Another example of 6B actively engaging is that with the zoning update, the commission studied and made smart suggestions while being supportive overall.

At the end of the day, ANCs matter

The fact that ANCs don't have formal power, plus that they can differ so much across the District, has led to some debates about the system's value. Some say ANCs should gain legislative powers and become a house of representatives for the District. Others say the whole system should be abolished since all it does is let hyperlocal politics trump good public policy by slowing things down.

No matter what you may think about these commissions, they do have influence over whether and how our neighborhoods will change and grow. Their importance in what gets built and what kinds of businesses can operate in the area means that they have influence in the community.

District residents should pay attention to what their ANC commissioners are saying in their name. At the end of the day, ANCs are supposed to represent the community's interests but they can only do that if the community pays attention to what they are doing.

You've got a chance to vote for your ANC commissioner this fall. Want to read and evaluate your candidates? Read candidate responses to Greater Greater Washington's ANC questionnaire here and learn where your commissioners (or potential commissioners) stand on important issues.

Development


This is the best route for checking out DC's breweries

It's DC beer week, an annual event that celebrates local brewers, who add to the region's character and economy. There are ten brewers in DC plus one that's just across the border in Silver Spring. To see them all, I created what I'm calling the Washington Beer Trail.


Map by the author.

These are the breweries on the trail, which I selected by narrowing down Kate Rabinowitz's dataset of over 70 breweries and brewpubs around DC:

  1. Capitol City Brewing Company (1100 New York Avenue NW)

  2. District Chophouse & Brewery (509 7th Street NW)

  3. Bluejacket (300 Tingey Street SE)

  4. Bardo (1200 Bladensburg Road NE)

  5. Atlas Brew Works (2052 West Virginia Avenue NE)

  6. DC Brau Brewing (3178B Bladensburg Road NE)

  7. The Public Option (1601 Rhode Island Avenue NE)

  8. Right Proper Brewing Company (920 Girard Street NE)

  9. Hellbender (5788 2nd Street NE)

  10. Three Star Brewing (6400 Chillum Place NW)

  11. Denizens Brewing Company (1115 East-West Highway)

The inspiration for the beer trail comes from Dr. Randy Olson. Dr. Olson has gained notoriety for using genetic algorithms to compute the fastest road trips across the United States and Europe. While genetic algorithms are less necessary when you're mapping out 11 locations in a relatively small place, they're quite fascinating when you're thinking about, say, a road trip that spans a whole continent.

If seeing eleven brewers in a single day is not for you, or if you'd prefer to walk or bike between locations, a truncated version of the beer trail is also possible: Start at Bardo (#4), continue on to Atlas Brew Works (#5), skip DC Brau if navigating New York Avenue on bike isn't for you, next hit the The Public Option (#7), and finish at Right Proper Brewing Company (#8).

If you're hungry by the end, grab some fantastic Neapolitan pizza at Menomale at 12th and Franklin NE before you get to Right Proper.

All of these establishments are open on Saturday, and most stay open as late as 9 or 10 pm. Hellbender and Three Star, however, close much earlier at 7 and 5 pm, respectively. Plan accordingly.

Did I miss a brewery or your favorite brewpub? Should beer gardens and notable beer bars be included next year? Let me hear about it in the comments below.

The code and data I used to create the beer trail can be found on my Github.

Transit


In San Diego, an example of how "within walking distance" does not always mean "walkable"

I like to ride the San Diego Trolley when I visit family there, but the mile walk from the station to their house is so, so awful that it always makes me think twice about riding the train. Here at home, my walk to the Metro is the same distance, and I do it happily all the time.


The walk along Jackson Drive in La Mesa isn't very inviting. Image by the author.

The 1.1-mile walk from the Grossmont Trolley station in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to my family's house takes you through a strip mall parking lot, along the six-lane major arterial Fletcher Parkway and then up the overly wide four-lane Jackson Drive before you turn into their neighborhood. It's not pleasant, as the picture above shows.


The route of my walk in La Mesa. Image by Google Maps.

As a result, my family only drives to the station when they ride the Trolley, and I—someone who likes to ride transit—think twice about making the walk when I'm there.

The crazy thing is that this is a comparable distance to what I walk a couple of times a week from the Shaw-Howard U Metro station to my house in Eckington.

What's the difference? The walk in DC is along leafy streets lined with rowhouses in the Le Droit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods. Yes, I cross three major roads—Florida Avenue, and North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue where they meet—but it is just two intersections, and I do not walk along either street for very long.


I use T Street NW when walking from the Shaw Metro station to Eckington. Image by Google Maps.

Street design and development patterns matter

Much of the residential development surrounding the Grossmont Trolley station, including where my family lives, was built during the post-war suburbanisation of the 1950s and 1960s. Miles and miles of single family ranch houses built for people that get around in a car.

Retrofitting this suburban, auto-oriented built environment for pedestrians is difficult. The basic infrastructure, including sidewalks and crosswalks, exists in La Mesa.

However, there are also a number of missed opportunities when it comes to changing the built environment to make the walk more pleasant. These include wider sidewalks, barriers between passing cars and the sidewalk that increase pedestrians' perception of safety, and streetside land use that is inviting to pedestrians, like store or home fronts, instead of strip mall parking lots and driveways.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, talked about turning major arterials into tree-lined "boulevards" as one example of a suburban retrofit in a 2010 TED talk. Transit access can be a catalyst to such retrofits, she noted.

La Mesa is trying. The 527-unit Alterra and Pravada apartment complex is immediately adjacent to the Grossmont station, built atop its parking lot.

But even the Alterra and Pravada building is not the most inviting pedestrian environment. The ground level lacks retail and is instead dominated by entrances to the parking lot.

DC, at least in its older neighborhoods, benefits from having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape already in place. However, the region faces many of the same issues at some of Metro's more suburban stations, for example in Tysons and White Flint.

Better walkability means more transit riders

PlanItMetro has found that a larger "walkshed"—the area around a station that is easily walkable—to a Metro station directly correlates to higher ridership. Shaw, which has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, saw an average of 5,087 Metro riders on weekdays in 2015 compared to Grossmont, which has a Walk Score of 76 out of 100, that saw an average of 5,707 Trolley riders on weekdays during its 2016 fiscal year that ended in June.

However, Grossmont is a transfer station between the Trolley's Green and Orange lines, which boosts ridership numbers. San Diego measures ridership by the number of people who get on or off a train, versus the number of entries and exits to a station as DC's Metro does.

The Metro system handled an average of 712,843 weekday riders and the Trolley system an average of 122,157 weekday riders in 2015, data from the respective transit agencies shows.

La Mesa is a reminder that simply building transit is not all that it takes to make a suburban neighborhood walkable and generate new transit ridership. A fact that is applicable in many city's around the country, including in the DC suburbs, as they build out their own light rail systems to previously auto-oriented suburbs.

Public Spaces


This square in Philadelphia is everything DC's Franklin Square could be

Many celebrate Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square as one of America's best small urban parks. I visited this summer and found it alive with activity. It's a great model for DC's similarly-sized Franklin Square, which the National Park Service is currently redesigning.


Rittenhouse Square. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Rittenhouse Square has long had a reputation as an exceptional park. Jane Jacobs lionized it, highlighting the park's wide variety of users over the course of a typical day, in her famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She said that the fact that many different types of users with different schedules passed through the park was essential to making it feel like a safe and appealing environment, unlike the other Philadelphia parks she described as "a pervert park" and "a skid row park".

I visited Rittenhouse Square in the early afternoon on a Friday in late July, and while I didn't stay long enough to see a change in the park's users, I did see quite a variety of people there, including businesspeople in suits eating lunch, people walking dogs, several people doing yoga and other exercises, a couple of buskers, teenagers socializing, and an artist painting the scene.


Rittenhouse Square.

This wide variety of users is supported, in part, by the diverse uses in the neighborhood directly abutting the park. A number of small restaurants line the streets facing the park, as do a church, a hotel, a large Barnes & Noble bookstore, a clothing store, and condominiums. The neighboring blocks include several other large churches, but also a wide variety of restaurants and stores and a number of condominiums and office buildings.

Could Franklin Square become DC's Rittenhouse?

Although DC contains plenty of parkland—much of it controlled by the National Park Service—a common complaint is that the city has a shortage of good urban parks that attract a variety of users from the local community.


Franklin Square. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Franklin Square, which consists of just under five acres between K and I Streets in downtown DC, is similar in size to Rittenhouse Square, which is seven acres a few blocks south of Market Street in downtown Philadelphia.

However, despite their similarities in size and location, the two parks couldn't be more different. They both date to the early 1800s and were both vibrant urban parks in the early 20th Century, but Franklin Park began to decay and fell into disuse as the rise of the automobile changed land use patterns in the District. Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, continued to be well-used.

Part of the reason for the difference in the parks' fate may be the differences in their neighborhoods. While Franklin Square is located in a dense downtown neighborhood, it is largely surrounded by office buildings and businesses that cater to office workers, such as restaurants that are mainly open for breakfast and lunch. This means that while it does attract office workers looking for an outdoor location to eat lunch, few others have reason to go there. A lack of nearby residences, shopping, and public buildings means that there is little to draw people to the park on weekends, or on weekdays outside of the lunch hour.


Franklin Square. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The differing state of maintenance of the two parks likely plays a role as well. Franklin Square's last major redesign was completed in 1935, when the current fountain, plaza, and pathways were installed. There was one major refurbishment in 1976 for the Bicentennial, but the park has not been well-maintained by the National Park Service, which owns and maintains the property, since.

Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, has been well-maintained. The park is owned by the City of Philadelphia, but many recent improvements, including better lighting, landscaping, restoration of the park's fountains, and the installation and stocking of dispensers for bags that dog owners can use to pick up after their animals have been projects of a non-profit called Friends of Rittenhouse Square that works with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to maintain and operate the park.

Franklin Square redesign plans

Although little can be done about the disadvantages of Franklin Square's location—-the high demand for downtown office space produces high rents and pushes out most other uses—-there is hope for improvements to the park itself.

An $18 million joint project between the National Park Service, the DC government, and the Downtown Business Improvement District to renovate the park and provide year-round programming is set to begin construction in January 2017. The planned renovations include a cafe, improvements to the fountain at the park's center, and a play area for children.

One day, Franklin Square might look like this:


Rendering of Franklin Square from the National Park Service.

Public Spaces


NoMa's first underpass park is almost here!

Work to brighten the otherwise-drab underpass on M Street NE is underway. Crews have begun installing "Rain," the first of what will eventually be four underpass parks in NoMa.


Installation of "Rain" has begun in the underpass on M Street NE. Image by the author.

Rain is designed to make the underpass on M Street safer and brighter, as well as knit the neighborhood on either side of the throat tracks to Union Station together, lead designer Andrew Thurlow said in 2015. Thurlow is a partner at Thurlow Small Architecture, which partnered with NIO on the underpass.

The installation is made up of 4,000 LED light rods that will be hung from ceiling of the underpass in a series of vaults, and react to people moving through the space.


Rendering of Rain. Image by the NoMa BID.

Rain is just the first of four underpass parks NoMa plans for the K Street, L Street, M Street and Florida Avenue in the neighborhood. Work on "Lightweave," a series of undulating, cloud-like lights hung from the ceiling in the L Street underpass, is also expected to begin later this year.


A rendering of Rain's vaults. Image by NoMa BID.

NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) director of parks projects Stacie West says she expects Rain to be finished in November barring any delays from other construction projects.

One such delay could be WMATA's SafeTrack work that is scheduled to close the Red Line between the NoMa-Gallaudet station and the Fort Totten station from October 29 to November 22.

The NoMa BID will hold a community meeting on its park plans on October 25.

Housing


Rent in our region is expensive. Does that mean it's unaffordable?

It's no secret that rent prices in the Washington region are very high. But when we talk about affordable places to live, we often forget that there are two components to affordability: there's how much we spend on rent, but also how much we earn in income.


Rent here might be pricey, but is it expensive? Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Typical surveys like this one by Zumper usually find that a select group of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington have the most expensive apartment prices. According to these measurements, Washington has the fourth-most expensive rent of any large city in the country.

But if rent is $1000 in two different cities, but the average income in City A is 50% higher than in City B, then residents of City A can afford housing more easily, generally speaking. A recent article by Greater Greater Washington contributor Kate Rabinowitz demonstrated how cheaper cities also often lack good-paying jobs.

Here's how various metro areas stack up

To better evaluate this relationship, I looked at households across major metropolitan areas and how much of their income they spend on rent.

Two terms that are critical to understand renting affordability are rent-burdened households (those than spend over 30% of income on rent) and severely rent-burdened households (those that spend over 50% of their income on rent). For my own analysis, I chose only to look at rent-burdened households.

I also did not include median income in this analysis, as large cities in the United States have a large amount of income inequality, so median income does not necessarily reflect the experience of low-income households.

Additionally, I chose to use Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) for data samples, rather than just large cities proper since most Americans live outside of major cities. Here are the 33 metropolitan areas with a population of above two million:


Graph by the author.

The results are very different from what we might expect. Cities typically associated with high rent, such as Washington (7th place), Seattle (10th place), Boston (12th place), and San Francisco (16th) have below-average numbers of rent-burdened households. Rent burdens in Texan cities are among the lowest, while the places where the most people use more than 30% of their income to cover rent are in California and Florida.

For reference, although many cities have significantly lower rent burdens than the US average, over half of renting US households spend above 30% of income on rent. Consequently, over 45% of renting households are rent-burdened in even the most affordable cities.

At the other end of the spectrum, over 60% of households are rent-burdened in the most unaffordable metropolitan areas, such as Miami and Riverside.

Although these measurements help better explain housing affordability, there are a few things that this analysis does not take into consideration.

  1. This analysis only looks at renting households. Some metropolitan areas may have a larger share of owned households, which are difficult to compare to renting households.
  2. The data measure the total number of rent-burdened households; they say nothing about households that are severely rent-burdened. That is to say that these measurements tell us about the breadth of the problem, not the depth.
  3. This analysis does not evaluate apartment size or household occupancy. Accordingly, residents of cities with expensive rent may make the "economic choice" to live in single apartments with a high number of occupants (roommates, multi-generational households, etc.).
  4. The Census's measure of rent-burden does describe how housing subsidies, rent control, and other mechanisms affect households' ability to afford rent. In all likelihood, liberal housing policies in cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco decrease the number of households that are rent-burdened.

Washington DC's relatively high incomes may make it more affordable in comparison to economically depressed cities. This does not mean, however, that all households in the region have equal opportunities to find affordable housing, especially those below the median income.

As income influences affordability, higher salaries should be part of the larger debate of housing affordability in the region and across the country—especially since incomes have stagnated for most workers, while the price of housing continues to rise.


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