Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Downtown DC

Roads


How downtown parking is like your smartphone

Would you rather pay $27 a month or $2.50 a month for your phone? A lower price means more dollars in your pocket, right? But what if one of those were an iPhone and the other a flip phone?


Photo by Mitch Barrie on Flickr.

We're buying smartphones in droves even though they cost 10 times as much as the flip phones of old. Clearly, there's more to these decisions than price.

We make decisions based on value, not just cost. But on a pair of transportation issues, we're hearing rhetoric that tries to obscure this issues. It's coming from groups of people more concerned with swaying public opinion than informing the public. The first one is tolls on Interstate 66 in Virginia; the second, DC's new parking pilot for the Chinatown area.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post. Also, the Post editorial board agrees with me on parking; in an editorial, the editors liken the experience of circling for downtown parking to the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. Meanwhile, Michael Hamilton argues the rates should vary even more than DDOT plans to do.

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Development


The YMCA is closing its downtown branch, and our contributors have something to say about it

The DC YMCA recently decided to close its downtown National Capital location. Many community members are unhappy with the decision to sell the 37-year old location for redevelopment.


YMCA National Capital branch. Image from Google Streetview.

In fact, we received a letter from a reader expressing frustration (edited for clarity):
I'm sending this along as a Y community member distressed about the peremptory closure of the facility as of the end of this year...I learned about the closure Friday morning from a fellow swimmer... I am shocked at the lack of any public process whatsoever in the trade of a vital community facility for what [I] understand are condos. This seems par for course for DC... that there are no community programs or resources in downtown DC (see Franklin School) and a lack of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the Y Board. The YWCA downtown (where I swam previously) was also closed in a similar fashion to make way for the corporate office building that is there now. I hope the GGW will consider covering this matter.
As a member of the National Capital Y, I can certainly sympathize with this reader. Like others, I was also upset to learn that the branch is closing from Borderstan rather than directly from the organization, no less.

But is it really fair to characterize this as selling out to greedy developers? The YMCA's board made the decision to sell its 37-year-old building as part of an effort to both expand programming beyond the gym and do more for communities that need help.

Situations like these, along with ones like the controversy over plans to redevelop privately-owned church land at 18th and Church Streets nearby, are a reminder of one constant in neighborhoods: places change. When I moved into Dupont Circle about four years ago, many of my favorite businesses and places didn't even exist there yet. Change has not lessened my neighborhood; it's made for a net gain.


The pool at the closing YMCA National Capital. Photo by Esther Dyson on Flickr.

Here is what other Greater Greater Washington contributors have to say:

Dan Malouff talks about the situation in the context of city amenities:

The Y may not be a park exactly, but as a community space it sort of functions like one. And sure, obviously it sucks to lose a "park." But there are some important differences that make this a pretty understandable move for YMCA. The Y is a private organization, with private goals. It's not like the city, or some evil developer, is forcing them to leave the neighborhood. They want to sell because they think that's the best move for them. Why's that? Because YMCA's mission—their whole reason to exist—is to bring social services to underserved communities. And as much as Dupont residents may enjoy a cheap gym, they aren't the Y's target market. Duponters have other options. By selling their 17th Street building, YMCA will make boatloads of cash, which they can spend on improving services in parts of the city where they're more needed.
Owen Chaput builds on Dan's point that the Y is free to make this decision:
The YMCA's board is selling an extremely valuable property in a prosperous neighborhood to improve its services in other (perhaps less prosperous) neighborhoods. That sounds fiscally responsible to me, and anyways it's up to the board to decide how to use its limited resources to meet the organization's mission.

Regardless, it's ultimately at the discretion of the YMCA board to interpret their mission and use their assets as they see fit. If the public doesn't like it, they can not donate to the YMCA or encourage DC government to remove any public support it offers the YMCA. Absent a contract with DC stating otherwise or evidence of some illegal activity, I don't understand why government should have a say in whether a non-profit operates services at any particular address in DC.

Payton Chung talks about non-profits who have to make often difficult decisions:
A lot of private institutions hold land for the public purpose. But like any other business, even a non-profit will sometimes need to make decisions that might sometimes upset some of their customers or neighbors.

Ten years ago, a social services center that actually was in my backyard, in a fast-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, sold its building for development. Unlike the people they served, or facilities in the many neighborhoods that didn't gentrify, that organization was able to sell its building, move services closer to the families that it served, and build an endowment for the future.

On 14th St. NW, several social service organizations have used surging real estate prices as an opportunity to further their missions. In some cases, where the clientele remains in the neighborhood, the organizations have done joint-venture deals to remain on the site while developing above—as with the Anthony Bowen YMCA or Whitman-Walker Health's Elizabeth Taylor building.

For the Central Union Mission and Martha's Table, though, 14th St. isn't a convenient location for their clientele. Both are using millions of dollars gained from selling their land to expand their services and to move to new locations that better serve their clients. Yet when these groups announced their plans to leave 14th St., there wasn't hue and cry on local blogs' message boards.

The YMCA, too, has seen its clientele leave from Scott Circle. Its membership has dropped by 70%, despite spending millions of dollars to upgrade the facilities. A decline of that magnitude would put just about anything else out of business, and it's honestly surprising that the Y held on so long there.

Plenty of other smaller things bothered me about this letter. I once owned a condominium, and resent when the term "condos" is bandied about as if places for human beings to live are somehow a bad thing.

David Alpert says this might be the right move for more people than first meets the eye:
On a slightly different tack there is a general urbanism/planning question that comes up about whether "the market" takes care of things like recreation. Certainly we don't let education be based on the market need; cities put public schools in rich and poor neighborhoods. They also put in parks and playgrounds.

The market often doesn't seem to meet the need for things like parks. We're seeing that with NoMa, where because of a mistake when the area was upzoned, there's no place set aside for a park and a strong economic disincentive for any property owner to put one in. Plans like the one for White Flint are trying to deal with some of this by tying maximum density to provision of one of a number of public services the area needs.

In the case of indoor recreation, the market isn't really providing fitness opportunities in low-income areas that well, which is why nonprofits like the YMCA are playing a needed role, but in the wealthier areas the market actually seems to be doing okay. There are a lot of private fitness facilities in new buildings in the downtown area. They cost more to use than the YMCA, for sure, but while I don't know the economic circumstances of this letter writer, financial hardship might not be the reason she uses the YMCA.

For all we know, Akridge is already thinking about putting a fitness club in some of the building they plan to build.

So, personally, while I'm super-bummed to be losing my YMCA (especially that glorious pool!), I also recognize that it might well serve the YMCA's mission to close the branch. And with YMCA Anthony Bowen a mile away, and at least four other gyms/fitness centers (to say nothing of city-owned rec facilities) as close a walk from my place as the closing Y branch, this too shall pass.

A net loss for me? Sure. A net win for the Y's mission of serving underserved populations? Yes.

What do you think about the YMCA's decision? Let us know in the comments.

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Bicycling


Here's where a protected bikeway could go on the east side of downtown

People who want to ride a bike north-south along the east side of DC's central business district and in Shaw could soon have a new protected bikeway to do it. A new study recommends four options, including 6th Street NW, 5th and 6th, or 9th.


The 15th Street protected bikeway. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been studying options for a bikeway to connect areas between Florida and Constitution Avenues. This bikeway would connect central DC neighborhoods, downtown, and the existing major east-west bikeways like the one on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This area has high levels of bicycling and many popular destinations but a distinct lack of quality bike facilities. Currently, 7th Street has the most bicycle traffic, but usage is pretty evenly spread out. 5th stands out because a large number of people ride south on 5th despite the road being one-way north.

DDOT planners studied an assortment of designs, considering every street between 4th and 9th. They first eliminated 4th and 8th because they were discontinuous streets. After a round of data gathering, where they looked at parking, parking utilization, auto and bicycle traffic, transit, potential pedestrian conflicts, cost, loading zones, events, and institutions along the route, they eliminated 7th Street because of heavy transit and pedestrian usage; they didn't want the bikeway to become an auxiliary sidewalk.


Data on transit ridership (left), pedestrian volume (center), and Capital Bikeshare usage (right) in the study area. Images from DDOT.

During this whole process, they have also been involved in a public outreach effort, meeting with institutions, businesses, churches, council staff, and other stakeholders. With data screening complete, there are four alternatives which they have made public and plan to discuss at an upcoming public meeting. After that, they will narrow the alternatives to three, which will get more intensive study and planning before choosing a preferred alternative sometime this winter.

Here are the alternatives:

5th and 6th couplet: Alternative 1 would place a one-way northbound protected bikeway on the east side of 5th Street up to New York Avenue and a painted bike lane north of that. A one-way southbound bikeway would go on the west side of 6th.

This would remove a travel lane on 6th north of New York and a parking lane south of there. On 6th south of New York Avenue, the bikeway would be adjacent to a rush hour travel/off-peak parking lane converted from what is now a southbound travel lane. While DDOT considered using angled parking on 6th, that didn't make it into the final design.

One-way on on each side of 6th: Alternative 2, would replace a travel lane in each direction on 6th Street with a one-way protected bikeway on each side. South of New York Avenue the bikeways would be adjacent to a rush hour travel/off-peak parking lane.

Bi-directional on 6th: Alternative 3 would remove a northbound travel lane north of New York Avenue and a parking lane south of New York and would convert a northbound travel lane to a rush hour travel/off-peak parking lane to make room for a bi-directional protected bikeway on the east side of 6th. This is similar to what exists on 15th Street (though the one on 15th is on the west side).

Bi-directional on 9th: Alternative 4 is like Alternative 3, but on 9th Street. A northbound travel lane north of Massachusetts Avenue and a parking lane south of Massachusetts Avenue would disappear, while a northbound travel lane would become an rush hour travel/off-peak parking lane. This would make room for a bi-directional protected bikeway on the east side of 9th. The southbound bike-bus lane would remain.

Bike planners are looking at numerous factors in deciding which to eliminate next. All the alternatives have similar expected travel times for cyclists, so that will not be a factor. But they will be considering turns across bike facilities, pedestrian intensity next to the bikeway, the amount of protection along the facility, and other safety factors.

As one example, the Verizon Center often shuts down a lane on the west side of 6th Street for loading for shows. That could be an obstacle for Alternative 2. There may be similar challenges in other spots for the other alternatives.

The planners will look at which designs affect buses the least, and how to deal with the unique parking needs of churches to accommodate their loading and unloading requirements, large event needs, funeral needs, etc.

Alternative 1 provides the least protection. DDOT has decided not to remove on-street parking in residential areas, which limits 5th street to painted bike lanes north of New York. Another consideration for 5th Street is that it has fewer stop lights, but more stop signs and some speed bumps.

In Alternative 4, 9th is one-way south of Massachusetts, so northbound cyclists would be going the opposite direction from car traffic, meaning it would suffer from the same light timing issues as 15th Street does. Timed lights on 15th mean people riding north hit more red lights than on a typical street.

DDOT has a website with all the designs which is accepting comments. The team is planning a public meeting soon, but haven't settled on details. If a final design is chosen this winter, work could begin before the end of 2016.

Which design do do you think is best?

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Development


Most of DC's new housing is in high-rises, which most people can't afford to live in

At first glance, the District's central-city housing boom might seem to be completely benign: as long as new housing is being built, does it matter where it is? But by funneling almost all new residences into central-city high-rises, the District is all but requiring that new housing be built with only the most expensive construction techniques, on the most expensive land. Potential residents need more choices.


Photos by the author.

Where housing is built influences how housing gets built. That, in turn, determines how much new housing will cost and thus, who can afford to live there. Given how the city is building high-rises, it's no wonder that the resulting housing is expensive: these buildings are expensive by their very nature, and far more expensive than what most of the District's new residents can afford.

High-rise buildings are built to last, with solid materials like concrete and steel plus expensive fittings like elevators and sprinklers. All of that heavy-duty construction costs a lot of money—up to twice as much as low-rise buildings, per square foot. Those fittings also cost more to maintain over the long run. And since these buildings aren't built on land that was cheap to begin with, it should be no surprise that high-rise apartments are expensive.

High-rises are too expensive to rent for anything but top dollar

How expensive are central city high-rises? The cost of just materials, labor, design, and appropriately-zoned land for a high-rise building in central DC amounts to over $400 per rentable square foot—and that's before its developer has made a single cent on her investment, much less paid interest to her investors, paid attorneys to get the site zoned correctly, paid for community improvements like transportation or affordable housing, or brought in the gimmicky amenities.

These high costs go a long way towards explaining why so little of the District's new housing is affordable to low and moderate income households. It's not necessarily because developers are greedy, but because developers can't afford to sell their products at a 50% loss.

For instance, take a theoretical two-bedroom, 1,100-square foot unit in a newly built high-rise building. The play-an-apartment-developer online game handily provided by New York City's nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council, reprogrammed with DC's considerably lower costs for land, construction, and property taxes, yields a rent of $3,993 for that two-bedroom apartment.


Under HUD's standards for affordability and household size, this theoretical unit could house a three-person household earning $159,720 a year, or 163% of the Area Median Income for three-person households in this region (which is $98,253). Alternately, to make the unit affordable to a "low-income" household that can afford rent of $1,966 a month, the developer would have to lose (or the government would have to pay) over half of the monthly rental cost.

Requiring high-rises also affects the diversity of the new housing that's built. Building fewer but larger apartments in a central-city high-rise divides the building's high costs among fewer units, pushing per-unit prices up even further relative to cheaper low-rise buildings. A typical three-bedroom unit sold in DC this year had 1,336 square feet; the CHPC's calculator indicates such a unit would be affordable only to a four-person household earning more than twice the Area Median Income.

Wages in the region aren't keeping up with rent costs

All of this would be fine if the new jobs that this region is creating were all high-paid, but they're not. A June report by Jeannette Chapman from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis forecasts that only 37% of the new households that will settle in the District from 2011 to 2023 will earn middle or high incomes (120% or more of Area Median Income). That leaves 63% of all new households, and 73% of new renter households, earning low or moderate incomes.

Most of DC's new households, then, will be priced out of most of DC's new housing. 30,000 new households of more moderate means, who can't afford fancy new high-rise apartments, will instead have to compete with existing households for existing housing, pushing prices up across the board.


High-rise apartments under construction near the Navy Yard.

The District could step in and provide tremendous subsidies to pay the high rent on high-cost high-rises, which is sort of what inclusionary zoning does on a very small scale. Or it could acknowledge that while luxury high-rises have their place, they cannot meet everyone's housing needs, and that new housing is also needed that's intrinsically more economical—built using less-costly low-rise and mid-rise techniques and on less-expensive land.

That would be possible if more housing were being built outside of the central city, which is exactly what the Comprehensive Plan calls for.

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Development


The lion's share of DC's new housing is only going in one part of the city

Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.

Capitol Riverfront cranes
New high-rises under construction in the Capitol Riverfront. Photo by the author.

Besides forecasting how much growth the city would need to accommodate, the comp plan also identified where new residents would go. The plan included estimates of how many new households would settle across its 10 planning districts (policy 215.20), the conclusion being that every part of the city would gain new households and thus need to add new units.

The allocations ranged from a 6.8% increase in households in the "Rock Creek West" area, west of the park and above Georgetown, to a 116% increase along the Anacostia waterfront.


Graphic by Peter Dovak.

One part of town is building far more than its share

The comp plan identified a then-emerging trend towards living in the central city, and assumed that a substantial share of the District's future population growth would occur in and around downtown. Its policy 304 states that "approximately 30 percent of the District of Columbia's future housing growth and 70 percent of its job growth will occur within the urban core of the city and adjacent close-in areas along the Anacostia River."

But in the decade since, DC has been too successful at steering development toward downtown.

Instead of 30% of DC's housing growth, the "Central Washington" and adjacent "Lower Anacostia Waterfront/Near Southwest" planning districts are seeing the lion's share of both new housing and new jobs. According to counts provided by economic development officials and local business improvement districts, two-thirds of the building permits issued for new housing in the entire District have been for this central area.

The waterfront planning area, which includes the Capitol Riverfront (Navy Yard) and Southwest Waterfront, along with Poplar Point on the east side of the Anacostia River, was assigned the highest housing-growth target in the comp plan. It would receive 9,400 additional households by 2025, or 1/6 of the entire city's housing growth—a goal it's on track to substantially exceed. As of 2016, the waterfront area will have already met 73% of its 2005-2025 housing goal, compared to 46% for the entire District.

The Capitol Riverfront area alone accounted for nearly half of the new housing permitted in DC last year. There, 4,874 units were built or under construction as of last year, and another 1,249 units broke ground in just the first few months of 2015. Another 1,407 units will be under construction in Southwest Waterfront at the end of this year, and nearly 2,000 additional units have already been planned.


DC's two central planning districts. Image by the author.

Many thousands more units will be built before 2025; a total of 11,978 units have been proposed so far just in Capitol Riverfront. Plans have yet to emerge for large sites like Greenleaf Gardens, Buzzard Point, and Poplar Point.

Meanwhile, the Central Washington planning area—which encompasses the swath from the Capitol to the Kennedy Center, between Massachusetts Avenue and I-395—has almost met its 8,400-unit goal. Just two of its neighborhoods, Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa, have added 7,300 units in the past decade. Together with 674 units at CityCenterDC, that means the area has built 95% of its projected new units, in half the time.

As with the waterfront, there's more to come: redevelopments at Northwest One like Sursum Corda, residential conversions of existing office buildings, the Southwest EcoDistrict and nearby sites like the Portals, and a few more infill parcels

Central city housing growth has a lot of advantages, as the comp plan points out: "Absorbing the demand for higher density units within these areas is an effective way to meet housing demands, create mixed-use areas, and conserve single-family residential neighborhoods throughout the city."

Yet this one strategy was always meant to be one way to meet housing demands, not the only strategy. The District's other policies to "conserve single-family residential neighborhoods" are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections.

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Bicycling


Lousiana Avenue could get a protected bikeway

What's next for protected bikeways in DC? A few sections are in the works, including a connection from NoMA to Pennsylvania Avenue, a north-south bikeway downtown, and several other small connections as well as the next piece of the Metropolitan Branch Trail.


Area around Louisiana Avenue from the DC Bicycle Map.

At a recent meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Council, representatives of the District Department of Transportation announced that DDOT is working with the Architect of the Capitol and the ANC to extend the soon-to-be-completed protected bikeway on First Street NE from Union Station to the bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue NW via Louisiana Avenue NE/NW.

The First Street NE extension to Union Station is almost done. Resurfacing will begin soon (if it's not already underway). After that, DDOT will install concrete blocks similar to those farther north.

When done, First Street will become a one-way street with a two-way protected bikeway where today motor vehicles are allowed to drive two directions for part of the road's length. The bikeway on this block will be two feet wider (10 feet) than on the sections farther north, as DDOT now views 10 feet as the minimum for such facilities. There will be a loading zone on the opposite side of the street.

DDOT has been meeting with the Architect of the Capitol, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, and Councilmember Charles Allen's staff to discuss extending the bikeway further south, along Louisiana Avenue, where it would connect to Pennsylvania Avenue via either First or Third streets.

Discussions are preliminary and no alternatives have been defined yet, but the response has been mostly positive. One potential roadblock is that the design will likely require removing parking along Louisiana. Parking is under the purview of the Senate's Sergeant at Arms, not the AOC, and they are concerned about the loss of parking. But if all goes well, work could begin next year.


Senate parking on Louisiana Avenue. Image from Google Maps.

A north-south bikeway through downtown

The East End Bikeway would be a mile-long north-south bikeway on the east side of downtown. Studies are continuing for this project. DDOT planners have collected data on traffic volume, parking, transit use, land use etc. They have also been reaching out to stakeholders, especially churches, to address concerns early.

They'd like to have a public meeting on it soon, perhaps September, and present alternatives. There will be choices about designs and about which street(s) to use.


Area around downtown from the DC Bicycle Map.

4th and 8th have been ruled out, but they may get bike lanes. On other streets, the options are a one-way protected bikeway on each side of the street; a bi-directional bikeway on one side; or a pair of one-way bikeways on adjacent streets such as 5th and 6th.

They hope to have the 30% design completed by the end of the year, with installation to start next spring.

What else?

DDOT has only installed about two miles of bike lanes so far this year. Bike planners have been busy filling small gaps. Those are nearly as much work as longer lanes, but with less mileage. Still, DDOT planners think they're critical pieces which will pay off.

They've installed a couple of small bike lane sections on 2nd and 3rd streets NE near Rhode Island Avenue; bike lanes and sharrows on 49th street NE; a pair of one-way bike lanes on Galveston and Forrester Streets SE; and one-block sections on 4th and 6th NE near Stanton Park. They plan to do the same thing on 11th and 13th near Lincoln Park too.

19th Street NE/SE on Capitol Hill got a bike lane and sharrows. This project was originally going to be a complete rebuild of the street, but became restriping only.


Area around the northern Met Branch Trail from the DC Bicycle Map.

Design and community outreach is underway on the north section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail. DDOT planners are meeting with community groups, taking soil borings near the trash transfer station and the Metro tunnel, and working on the 30% design, which they hope to complete this year. The stickier sections are where the trail crosses Riggs Road and the area near the Brookland Metro entrance. They hope to start construction in 2017.

Finally, DDOT and DPW are creating a snow clearing plan for bridges for next winter. Last year no one was responsible for the 14th Street Bridge so it wasn't cleared. They are trying to prioritize bridge sidewalks for clearing and then DPW and DDOT are dividing up responsibilities, so that every bridge will eventually get service.

A version of this post was originally posted on TheWashCycle.

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Bicycling


Commutes become hazardous when people don't respect bike routes

Two short videos show how difficult people in cars can make it for those on bikes to use the bike lanes on New York Avenue NW and L Street NW.

Video by Peter Krupa. Thanks to Rob Pitingolo for bringing to my attention.

The first video is a great example of how bicycle infrastructure needs to be protected if it's really going to be effective.

While paint does help make drivers aware that they aren't the only ones using the road, it doesn't accomplish much if those drivers don't respect the space designated for vulnerable users like people on bikes.

Here, hostility indicates irreverence

Video by DCMuppetDrivers.

A more peaceful move for this "peace officer" would have been to park the vehicle he was guarding in a designated parking space. From there, he could have escorted whoever he was protecting a few extra feet to and from the front door of the building they were visiting.

For bike infrastructure to work, cities have to take it seriously

If DC (and any other city) is going to make cycling a truly viable form of transportation, they need to realize that induced demand works for all modes of transportation.

In other words, build a smooth, wide highway, and drivers will change their route to use it. Conversely, paint a dinky bike lane in a bunch of parked cars' door zones and fail to build loading zones for deliveries, and cyclists will be forced to weave around traffic in the other travel lanes.

To make a place safe for cyclists, enforce rules against using it as loading zone and make sure it's not somewhere the connected and privileged can use without regard for everyone's safety.

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Bicycling


CaBi cures downtown dockblocking with new bike corrals

One of the biggest problems limiting growth of Capital Bikeshare in DC has been that downtown docks fill up early in the morning rush hour. That won't be a problem after Thursday, when two new bikeshare corrals open, offering unlimited bikeshare parking.


Bike corral at the 2013 Obama inauguration. Photo by jantos on Flickr.

The two parking corrals will be at 13th and New York Avenue near Metro Center, and at 21st and I near Foggy Bottom. Once the regular bike docks fill up, a Capital Bikeshare staffer will be on hand to accept bikes and log out riders.

The bike corrals will be open every weekday morning this summer, beginning Thursday, May 14, and ending in September. If the service proves popular, CaBi may extend it into autumn.

Corrals will only be open during the morning rush hour, and only at those two locations.

Bigger redistribution truck

The corrals aren't the only Capital Bikeshare improvement coming this week. The agency has also acquired a larger redistribution van, allowing them to move bikes from full stations to empty ones more quickly.

There's no word yet on just how big the new bigger redistribution van is, but check out what Montreal uses:


Montreal redistribution truck. Photo by the author.

Hooray for more reliable bikeshare!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Pedestrians


Walkblock of the week #1: 16th and I

In a booming city, construction is part of life. But when construction closes sidewalks it makes walking more difficult and dangerous. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a policy requiring that construction closures keep a safe path open for pedestrians and cyclists, but that often doesn't happen in reality.


Is this a "safe and convenient accomodation"? All photos by the author.

This new series, in collaboration with pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, will examine one sidewalk closure each week. I'll look at why the sidewalk is closed and how it fits with the city's policies on paper.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

Location #1: The former Third Church at 16th and I

Our first location is on the west side of 16th Street NW, north of I Street. This is the site that formerly held the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a Brutalist building that stirred up a major historic preservation fight when the church asked to demolish it. The building is gone, and a new building will rise in its place.

Meanwhile, the sidewalk is closed in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the White House, in an area with many people walking on the street.


The red line on the left shows the closed sidewalk on 16th St NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

I checked the online permits, and it appears that the construction company got the permits and signage from DDOT necessary to close the sidewalk.

Even though DDOT granted permission, this might not comply with the agency's own policies. The policy on closures, which dates to 2007 and was updated in 2014 to include bicycles, requires construction sites to maintain "a safe and convenient route for pedestrians... that is equal to the accommodation that was provided... before the blockage of the sidewalk." Despite this policy, we continue to find sidewalks closed throughout the city, making walking inconvenient, putting people on foot in serious danger, and eroding the city's image as a world-class multimodal city.

At the 16th Street site, I have routinely seen people walking in the roadway, adjacent to moving traffic. George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that sidewalk was closed because the building was being demolished. According to Branyan,

The developer expressed the need to keep the sidewalk and parking lane closed on 16th Street for unloading and deliveries. At the time, we did not see placing pedestrians in the roadway a viable option, and we considered it safest to direct pedestrians to the opposite sidewalk.
While we agree that pedestrian safety is paramount, the prevalence of pedestrians walking in the street shows that the sidewalk closure is neither safe, convenient, or even well-respected. It clearly fails to meet DDOT's own policy to maintain safe and convenient access.

Both lanes of car traffic on 16th Street, however, remain open as usual; the burden of construction falls exclusively on those on foot and not at all on those in cars.


People in cars move as normal, while those on foot take a detour.

What does the future hold?

After the building's construction is complete, the church and developer plan to rebuild the sidewalk, expand the tree boxes, and plant a double row of trees where now there is just a single row. This was part of the project's zoning approval.

For this streetscape work, the sidewalk will again close, but this time there will be a barricade to let pedestrians walk in the lane next to the curb. According to Branyan, "With such heavy pedestrian traffic in this location, it was appropriate to maintain pedestrian access."

This solution provides a reasonable accommodation that is both safe and convenient. One just wonders why this wasn't part of the current construction phase as well. DDOT's policy is good; its leaders just need to take it seriously all the time and be consistent in enforcing it.


A New York sidewalk scaffold. Some DC construction projects also build these, but many don't. Photo by Matt Green on Flickr.

Where the policy works: New York

DC is a great place to walk, but sidewalk closures make walking less safe and send a clear message to people walking that they are not a priority in DC. New York City, on the other hand, has made a clear and visible policy to keep sidewalks open during all stages of construction, including demolition. That sends an explicit message that walking is a top priority there.

Let's learn from another world class city, and make DC an even better place to walk.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
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Supporter—$20
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