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Posts about Downtown DC


The Circulator could go more places and be more frequent

The DC Circulator could soon go to Howard University, Southwest Waterfront, Congress Heights, and the Cathedral. But to do that, it'll need more buses. More than that, it needs more buses now to actually deliver on the service every 10 minutes that is a key hallmark of the Circulator.

Circulators in central DC. Image from DDOT. Click for full map.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) released an updated plan for the Circulator system. That plan emphasizes that the Circulator is more than just "a nicer and cheaper bus," but it means some specific things which couldn't apply to any bus route, like:

  • It connects key activity centers that have all-day transit demand (as opposed to, say, neighborhoods of mostly commuters);
  • Buses run every 10 minutes, all day (which makes sense only because of the activity centers);
  • The routes are easy to understand
  • (Also, the bus is nicer and cheaper)
But as for "every 10 minutes," the Circulator is not really achieving that now. The wait is more than 15 minutes 20.47% of the time, according to the plan. It doesn't even say how often the wait is more than 10 minutes, because the metrics have been set to consider any wait under 15 minutes "on time." (I've asked DDOT to clarify why that is and will update the post when I hear back.)

On the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, "actual headways average over 11 minutes, and up to 13 in the PM peak period." 11 is the average on Union Station-Navy Yard as well. On Potomac Avenue-Skyland, the time between buses is more than 15 minutes one-third of the time.

But enough about the piddling task of actually running the existing buses efficiently—where will they go next?

The Mall: The Circulator will go on the National Mall in 2015, in partnership with the National Park Service (and thanks to some revenue from meters on the Mall). In the first year, DDOT estimates 880,900 people will ride this line.

The Cathedral: Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) put money in the budget to extend the Circulator on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminus at Whitehaven Street to the Cathedral. On a survey, 60% of people said this was an important destination, but DDOT says, "the extension itself performs very poorly, with only 13 boardings per hour, high subsidy per passenger, and low farebox recovery ratio."

In the longer run, DDOT proposes splitting this route into two. One would go from Union Station to Georgetown alone, while another route to the Cathedral would only go as far east as McPherson Square. This would make the routes more reliable since a very long route is hard to keep on time.

U Street and Howard: The Circulator from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle would continue past the circle, up 18th Street to U Street and then in a loop on 8th, Barry, and Florida at Howard. This gives DDOT an opportunity to put a Circulator stop under 300 feet from my house (or more likely about 500), which is of course the main reason this is the best extension. But seriously, the line with the extension would serve an estimated 1,790,000 rides a year, most of which won't be me, including a lot of people who don't ride Circulator today.

Congress Heights: The Potomac Avenue-Skyland route was a political creature, started by politicians who wanted the Circulator to go east of the river for appearances' sake. While more transit is welcome everywhere, and people in wards 7 and 8 absolutely deserve great transit service even at higher cost, improving existing buses (for example, by implementing these recommendations from Ward 7 transit experts) probably would have done more per dollar to help people.

The line is very long (the longest in the system) and has low ridership (but, actually, not as low as the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which goes through a lot of areas that just don't have very high density). It duplicates a lot of WMATA Metrobus service, and most of the riders along the route take transit to commute rather than for all-day car-free activity. (The fact that the waits between buses are long can't help, either.)

The council funded an extension to Congress Heights on the southern end, which DDOT feels will help the route by offering a "much stronger southern anchor" at a current (and growing) activity center.

Southwest Waterfront: The Union Station-Navy Yard line would continue just a little bit farther along M Street to Waterfront Metro and the growing activity center there.

All planned and future Circulator corridors. Image from DDOT.

Longer-term: The plan also lists several corridors for future service some more years out. One would restore a north-south Circulator between the Convention Center and the Waterfront (at least until a streetcar maybe plies that corridor). That route was part of the original Circulator but discontinued in 2011.

Another would connect Dupont Circle to Southwest Waterfront through the National Mall. Both this and the north-south line would give Mall tourists another way to get to interesting places that aren't actually on the Mall and spend some of their dollars at taxpaying DC businesses, as well as more ways to get to and from the Mall.

Finally, DDOT wants to study a line from Columbia Heights to the Brookland Metro (via Washington Hospital Center) and then down to NoMa. The areas in the middle of this corridor, like planned development at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, aren't yet all-day activity centers, but in the future they well could be.

Besides these, DDOT officials considered a wide variety of other routes like Adams Morgan to H Street, Dupont to Petworth, Fort Totten to Friendship Heights, H Street to Congress Heights, Tenleytown to Columbia Heights, and the Abe's to Ben's route some Foggy Bottom and Dupont leaders suggested.

DDOT didn't advance these because they duplicate existing Metrobus service, the activity centers don't have enough all-day demand, or otherwise don't meet the criteria for Circulator in particular. See page 66 of the plan for a detailed explanation for why DDOT didn't pick your particular Circulator idea.

Making these routes happen will of course require money. Phase 1 (the Mall, the Cathedral, U Street/Howard, Waterfront, Congress Heights, and splitting the east-west line) will require 23 buses and $8.7 million in operating subsidy. This budget season, the DC Council chose tax cuts over investing in transit; upcoming budget seasons will tell us what priority the next mayor and members of the DC Council put on giving residents high-frequency, easy-to-understand bus service to connect key centers across the city.

Public Spaces

Here's where you can check out a parklet during tomorrow's Park(ing) Day

DDOT has released a list of locations where you can find a temporary parklet for tomorrow's Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day started out in San Francisco as an unapproved, guerrilla performance art project turning a parking space into a temporary park to show how much public value cities could get from the land devoted to storing even one car.

After trying to impose ridiculous requirements the first time someone tried it in DC, DDOT more recently started explicitly condoning and encouraging the idea by writing simpler guidelines and giving out permits.

BIDs in Georgetown, the Golden Triangle, and NoMa are organizing their own, as are agencies like DC Water, DPR, and OSSE, and businesses including Urbanful, Baked & Wired, Zipcar, and BicycleSPACE. There's also going to be one at the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW) run by councilmembers Tommy Wells and David Gross which got left off the map.

Parklets will be open from 9 am to 3 pm (or for a subset of that time, if the organizers don't want to run it all day—midday is often the best time to head over).

Park(ing) Day festivities won't be confined to the District. Arlington is participating too, with at least one large location in Court House. There could be others throughout the region, too.

If you stop by a parklet, snap a photo and put it in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool or send it to us at We'll feature images from parklets around the city in a roundup next week.


Put affordable housing for seniors in the new MLK Library

The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.

Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.

One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens' ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the time—afforded by their retirement—to the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to "celebrate MLK's renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC's contemporary culture and changing needs." Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District's assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city's unique real estate assets—like new floors atop the MLK Library—we can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let's make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.


Events roundup: Silver Line opens, Rapid Transit happy hour, central public spaces, and more

Years of anticipation have led up to this weekend: The Silver Line will officially open to passenger service. Don't miss a ride on the first train! On Wednesday, drink to rapid transit in Montgomery County or discuss Pennsylvania Avenue or Arlington's Courthouse Square.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

And at long last... it's here!: The first Silver Line train taking passengers on the new tracks will leave at noon on Saturday, July 26. Let's ride together! We'll be congregating at the new Wiehle-Reston East station leading up to the noon train.

We had been organizing carpools, but it's not necessary to drive there any more: Fairfax Connector is running shuttle buses all morning from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, so Metro on out to WFC and hop on a bus (or bike, or drive yourself) to get to the opening.

We'll meet at the north entrance to the station. From the Fairfax Connector bus bays, go up the escalators to the glass enclosed area of the plaza. There's a large space here, and we'll have signs to help you find us. See you Saturday!

The future of America's Main Street: Pennsylvania Avenue is a major symbol of our nation's capitol, but poor urban design and aging infrastructure inhibit activity there. The National Capital Planning Commission and other federal agencies are hosting a workshop to kick off a new study for the street. It's Wednesday, July 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500 North.

Rapid transit happy hour: Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Communities for Transit, and Friends of White Flint also on Wednesday, July 23rd at 5:30 pm at Paladar Latin Kitchen (11333 Woodglen Drive, Rockville, 20852) to hear the latest news about the MD 355 corridor and our booth at this year's Agricultural Fair. Did we also mention that Paladar has $5 Mojitos and Margaritas at happy hour? RSVP here.

A new Courthouse Square: Come and get a first look at the future of Courthouse Square. Planners will unveil three draft plans based on input from the public and a working group. See them on (once again) Wednesday, July 23rd at the 1310 N. Courthouse Road Office Building, third floor, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm (Metro: Court House).

Remember Southeast Southwest: Come out of the heat and watch the latest in the Summer in the City Film Series Thursday, July 24th, from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Southwest Library (900 Wesley Place, SW). This week's film, Southwest Remembered, follows the effects of urban renewal in Washington during the 1940s. Southwest was one of the first neighborhoods to undergo this effort, which displaced more than 23,000 residents in the process.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


A "no cellphones" express walking lane appeared on a DC sidewalk. What's the story?

A curious thing appeared on a downtown DC sidewalk this week: Dedicated lanes for pedestrians talking on cellphones, with an express lane to the side for everyone else.

Photo by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr.

The lanes aren't a half-baked experiment from DDOT. They're actually a stunt from National Geographic.

National Geographic workers added the sidewalk lanes on 18th Street NW between K and L streets, with permission from DDOT, to film people's reactions for an upcoming TV show about human behavior.

Film crews recorded pedestrians' reactions for several hours yesterday. The most common reaction seemed to be curiosity, but according to Yahoo! Tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, the new lanes did inspire many people to move to one side or the other.

This might have drawn inspiration from a "tourist lane" New York-based group Improv Everywhere painted on a Manhattan sidewalk in 2010.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


A 1912 plan would have built a network of streetcar tunnels around the White House

Tom at Ghosts of DC keeps finding fascinating old plans for downtown. This one, from 1912, proposed a network of tunnels for the streetcars, and an underground terminal at 15th Street and New York Avenue.

Streetcars would have descended into the tunnels as they approached downtown. Part of the purpose was to cut down on traffic on the surface streets; another part, not unfamiliar to any who follow DC federal-local transportation debates, was aesthetic.

The plan said the tunnels' effect would be "relieving the congestion of traffic in that part of the city and adding greatly to the appearance and comfort of one of the most important sections of town, in the neighborhood of the Treasury, White House, and Judiciary square."

This was projected to cost $5 million; Tom notes that equals about $120 million today, though it's dangerous to simply adjust such costs for inflation. According to Measuring Worth, a $5 million project in 1912 equals $88 million (if you use the GDP deflator), $521-747 million (if you use wage growth, or $2.2 billion (if you look at the share of GDP).

But the biggest obstacle was the streetcar companies. The Washington Railway and Electric Company and the Capital Traction Company each had their own streetcar systems. Who would control the tunnels? Leaders proposed consolidating the companies (an approach which had been floated before), and then the single surviving company could operate the tunnels.

Senator Joseph Johnston (D-AL) introduced a bill in 1918 to do just this, but the idea moved no further. Tom writes,

Some letters to The Washington Times from Washingtonians mentioned that putting lines underground would be ill-advised because Washington is a tourist town, and people often ride the streetcars for the enjoyment of the views.
In DC, such arguments often do come down to the views. But depending on the century, that could mean keeping views free of streetcars, or preserving the views from the streetcars.


Maybe this can stop U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue

Past efforts to stop dangerous and illegal U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes have not had much success, but DC officials are ready to try a new approach with a product, known as a "Park-It," that usually serves as a wheel stop in parking spaces. Will this do the trick?

Rendering of Park-Its on Pennsylvania Avenue. Image from DDOT.

Last fall, crews from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed a product called a Zebra, from the Spanish company Zicla, along one block of Pennsylvania Avenue as a test. They studied the number of illegal U-turns before and after the Zebras went in.

While this study was not particularly scientific, there were fewer U-turns within the test block. However, U-turns in the surrounding blocks increased. This suggests drivers just waited to make their illegal turns after passing the barriers, but it did prove that these types of barriers are relatively effective in cutting down on U-turns.

Park-Its will make more of a barrier than the Zebras

Park-Its are 6 feet long and slightly lower than the Zebras. According to a letter from DDOT to the US Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), one Park-It will go in each of the spaces between stripes along the buffer area on both sides of the bike lanes, with a maximum of 8 feet in between. On the sections where there is no crosshatched, painted buffer, such as between 13th and 14th Streets, the Park-Its will go even closer together.

The Park-It will use the same black and white color palette which CFA asked for with the Zebras. These Park-Its are already also in place along the edge of the new 1st Street NE cycletrack.

The First Street cycletrack. Photo from WABA.

This will be a drastic improvement from the Zebras, which were spaced much farther apart than the manufacturer recommends. This happened partly because the contractor striped the buffers differently from what was in the original plans, and the bike planners were unknowingly using inaccurate plans to design the Zebra test.

Zebras installed on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

Unlike with the Zebras, this is not a pilot program. Park-Its will go along the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to Constitution Avenue. They will not go on the last half block to 3rd Street, because there is parking in the center lane.

Why DDOT is dropping the Zebras

DDOT officials chose not to expand the Zebras for a couple of reasons. First, people reported that drivers found it easy to drive over the Zebras. Second, the test raised concerns about the long-term maintenance and durability of the Zebras. The winter was not kind to the Zebras, with multiple scarred and broken Zebras scattered across the block from impacts with vehicles and snowplows.

A Park-It costs only about half as much as a Zebra, so replacement and maintenance will be more cost-effective. There are also multiple suppliers. The recycled rubber used in Park-Its has some "give" and should resist impacts better than the hard plastic material of the Zebra. Lastly, in order for the Zebras to be effective, there would need to be many more of them.

DDOT crews will install the Park-Its this summer. Afterward, the bike planners will monitor the area to count illegal U-turns and keep an eye on the Park-Its' durability.

Photo by League of American Bicyclists on Flickr.

New traffic signals will come one day

The DDOT letter to the CFA also says they will install bicycle signals on the current traffic lights. Right now, signs point to green arrows on the signals, and tell cyclists to go when those arrows are green. Bicycle-specific signal heads would make it possible to independently let bicycles and vehicles go through an intersection.

DDOT may allow drivers to turn left at more intersections where they currently can't, and/or let cyclists ride through the intersection at a time when drivers cannot. This could reduce drivers' desire to make illegal U-turns in the middle of the block.

DDOT officials have given no timeframe for the signal changes. However, they wanted to give CFA a complete overview of all planned changes at one time.

CFA's agenda for this Thursday lists this project on the "consent calendar," meaning that CFA staff don't think it even needs to be discussed at the hearing and the board can potentially approve it along with other consent items without any debate.

Will this increase safety along Pennsylvania Avenue corridor? Hopefully. If this doesn't work, perhaps nothing will. Since Pennsylvania Avenue hosts an inaugural parade every four years, it's not possible to build anything more permanent in the street. But this barrier is the strongest step DDOT has taken thus far to curb U-turns, and cyclists are sure to welcome it.


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.

Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"—a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.

Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.


How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.

A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.

Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.

Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.

John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

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