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Bicycling


M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger

Last night, DDOT representatives held a short presentation on the latest design for the M Street cycle track. They have improved the design further since we last saw it. Meanwhile, angry opponents of the cycle track, including members of a nearby church which may lose some on-street parking, dominated the question and answer period.


Photos by the author showing DDOT materials.

During the presentation, DDOT tried to explain the reasoning for the cycle track, how it would work and how it would benefit people. Jim Sebastian, Mike Goodno and Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe showed preliminary data from the ongoing L Street study that showed that over the last 6 months since the cycle-track was installed, biking on L Street was up 41% (560 cyclists during the 8 hours of rush hour, up from 396).

Over the same period bicycle and pedestrian crashes on L Street were both down a trivial amount. Meanwhile, travel time by car had increased by only 1 minute across the length of the cycletrack in the morning and by no measurable amount in the afternoon commute (using data after construction on Connecticut Avenue was complete).

They also discussed results of the completed 15th Street cycle-track showing that biking increased and that while crashes rose too, it was not by as much as biking.

Experience with L Street helps improve M Street design

They talked about lessons they learned on L street and how that influenced design on M. For example, the cycle-track will be narrower, with parking and loading zones adjacent to it. They'll put in more flexposts. And they're using a new "Yield to Bikes" sign.

Parking and loading would change very little. To deal with what lost parking there would be, they plan to take back some unused diplomatic parking spaces and replace some missing parking meters, as well as add better signage.

The schedule is to continue evaluating L Street until August and then install the tracks before the end of the summer. That process would take 3 weeks and be done in phases.

Other design features include the cycle-track diversion onto Rhode Island Avenue that may have a concrete barrier to protect cyclists from traffic.

Left turning cyclists can stop in queue areas within intersections to make a two-light turn.

The drawings included other design changes like a raised cycle track at a bus stop where the track passes behind the stop.

Angry audience comments almost derail the meeting

Before DDOT could discuss these things, the meeting got very heated. At one point, Zimbabwe threatened to end the meeting if people continued to be disrespectful with one another.

It started with a woman who asked why DDOT was going ahead with the M Street lane if the L street study wasn't complete. M Street, she was told, is a complement to L, so any study of L is incomplete without M. Originally they were to be built simultaneously.

But she was clearly opposed to the project regardless, she said with exasperation that "L didn't work," claiming that no one ever used it (despite the presentation she just saw showing that there were several hundred users each rush hour) and that traffic was a disaster. Why were we spending money on bike lanes when libraries are closing? She called the design confusing and asked who this lane is for.

But that was just the appetizer. Many members and leaders of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were there and they were not happy about the cycle track or the way DDOT had informed them about it.

"When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes," is how the first comment started.

There were many criticisms, some of them contradictory. No one rides on M Street. Senior citizens won't be able to cross the street to get to church because cyclists never yield to pedestrians (only a problem if people actually do bike on M). Senior citizens rely on the church for transportation. Other M Street businesses are not pleased either. The bike lane on the north side will block funeral access. "What percentage of taxpayer money is going to this?"

When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. Speakers proceeded to throw the "done deal" comment, which wasn't his wording, back at him several times. But he stuck to his guns. When asked if the debate was over, he said "for this street, yes." When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.

But the biggest issues were that the church would lose its angled parking on Sundays (which took them 3 years to get) and that no one talked to them about it until the day before.

A pastor for the church talked about the church's 175 year history, 87 of those years at this location. She noted that this church is tied to the struggles of the African-American people, so to not hear about something like this until after it was a "done deal" is very disturbing and insulting. The church had been offered $1 million to move out of the city in the past, but they had made a commitment to stay. Many of their members had moved to the counties but still made an effort to come to church here. "Is DC becoming a church-unfriendly place?" she asked.

On the first issue, DDOT created several alternatives for Sundays that would still allow 30-50 parking spaces, even one with angled parking and several that allowed parking in the cycletrack (which would shift in between two lanes of car parking) and promised to work on it with the church.

On the second issue, Jim Sebastian apologized and noted that he had met with church staff at the church in 2011. At least one person accused him of lying. Sebastian said he could pull the phone and email logs if needed. He also noted that they had started this process in 2009 with public meetings, and that DDOT staff have met with ANC's, BIDs, groups and individuals. He said they tried to reach the church, a comment that brought scoffs from the church's members.

I'll add that anyone on M Street who didn't know about this has not been paying attention. While I don't expect anyone to have read the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, the addition of a cycle track on M Street has been reported in the Washington Post many times. In fact it's been mentioned in numerous news outlets on many many occasions over many years. DDOT has had meetings and press releases. It's not been kept a secret. That no one in the church had ever heard about it until this week seems incredible.

Zimbabwe tried to address all the concerns. The M Street lane would have better signage. DC does not intend to be church-unfriendly. There is no "rush" to complete this, but DDOT wants to make people safe now, not later. They're willing to work with the church to resolve its issues.

He could have mentioned that in many cases funding for bike lanes can't be moved over to libraries.

When one woman talked about how important biking was for our future, someone asked her "Do you expect senior citizens to bike." "Yes," I thought, "many already do now." In fact many senior citizens in the church had prefaced their comments with "I'm a cyclist."

Another speaker, opposed to the bike lane, asked "Who wants this?" and many hands shot up followed by applause.

"We're not taking a vote here or pitting one side against another," Zimbabwe said.

A restaurant/bar owner on M Street said that the street is already girdlocked (despite DDOT data presented earlier saying otherwise) and that eliminating a traffic lane was going to be a disaster for drivers and for his business. "I did find one friend who rides a bike and he says he'll never use it," he added, while noting that gridlock causes pollution and that snow removal is a problem as well. "Every merchant on M Street is concerned and in disbelief about this."

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is to get new riders to use bikes. Many tried to point to data in NYC showing that cycle tracks are good for business. One person thanked DDOT for putting the cycle track on L and opening her eyes to all the great businesses there.

A Georgetown ANC member took the opportunity to berate DDOT for not doing something about all the unsafe cyclists disregarding traffic laws. "It's a miracle that no one has been hurt," he noted, without realizing he was contradicting his whole position.

Finally, someone asked, "can't bike lanes go in AND angled parking be kept? Why does it have to be either/or?"

Zimbabwe promised to find a way to address the parking needs of church goers.

And they do have a plan for that. Below you can see Sunday parking on the bike lane as one alternative.

Public Spaces


Then & now: Welcome to MLK Jr. Memorial Library

"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.


Photos by the author.

Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."

The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.

"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.

How time flies.

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Transit


Circulator will go to Mall, bus priority gets funding

The DC Circulator bus will add service to the National Mall by 2015, and Mayor Gray has added funding to the budget to improve bus service elsewhere in the city, Mayor Gray and Councilmember Mary Cheh just announced in a press release.


Photo by JLaw45 on Flickr.

The Circulator service would not be the same as the old loop around Constitution and Independence Avenues, which DC discontinued in 2011. That line ran without any cooperation from the National Park Service (NPS), which wouldn't even mention it on signs, claiming that their concession contract with the Tourmobile prohibited even telling people about other, cheaper forms of transportation.

When NPS terminated the Tourmobile contract and updated its concession agreements to be more flexible, officials began working with DC to prepare for Circulators that could offer transportation within NPS land and to and from adjacent neighborhoods.

Multiple sources have said that the District expects to get much of the operating funding for the Circulator from the National Park Service and/or Mall visitors. A Circulator on the Mall primarily benefits tourists, though with easy transportation to and from nearby neighborhoods, it could also help encourage tourists to spend some money at local shops and restaurants.

That funding might come from Circulator fares, parking meters on the Mall (where on-street spaces are now free and thus usually nearly impossible to get), or other sources. Specific details are not yet public and, based on the press release, may not be yet worked out between DC and NPS.


Circulator Phase 1 expansion. Image from the Circulator plan.

This is the diagram of proposed Circulator routes from a recent plan from DC Surface Transit, the public-private partnership that runs the Circulator. According to the press release, funds in the coming fiscal year will fund planning the actual routes, which might or might not be the same as some of these.

New fund supports bus priority around the city

In addition, Gray has added a $750,000 annual capital fund to support projects that improve bus service and reduce delays. This could presumably fund dedicated bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board fare payment or other projects that make buses a quicker and more appealing way to travel.

DC won a TIGER grant way back in 2010 to improve buses on several corridors, but 3 years later we've seen few if any changes. According to an email forward to me from DDOT, they are planning to use the money to optimize traffic signals downtown and install backup traffic signal power.

The TIGER money will also fund 120 real-time digital displays in some bus stops, "some minor bus stop improvements on 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Georgia Avenue," and "some bus stop safety features" on H Street and Benning Road, the email says. For a grant which was supposed to fund "shovel-ready" stimulus projects in the immediate term, though, it's taken quite a long time.

Finally, DDOT is working on a short bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place, a spot where buses get significantly stuck in traffic.

There is also an ongoing WMATA study looking at potential bus lanes on H and I Streets in the area north of and around the White House. This would be a more complex project, but it's important for DC to take some big steps that speed up buses significantly, in addition to small and easier steps like new signals.

Neighborhoods still benefit from performance parking

Another new fund creates a pool of money for neighborhood improvements in areas that adopt performance parking. The original performance parking law dedicated some of the extra money to neighborhood-specific projects, and around the ballpark, it has already funded new trash cans, benches, bike racks, and signs for a historic heritage trail.

Gray's budget eliminated the dedicated funding, but to make up for the loss, this new fund will let neighborhoods with performance parking still have some say in local fixes. This fund will have $589,000 for the rest of this current fiscal year and $750,000 a year in future years.

Government


Mobile GIS could help track little problems around DC

Downtown DC Business Improvement District employees use a hand-held geographic information system (GIS) to track public space problems like broken fire hydrants. Could this technology also help DC government employees, like trash collectors?


BID GIS app. Photo from ESRI.

ESRI, the company that makes the most commonly-used GIS software in the United States, has a quarterly newsletter called ArcNews. The spring issue has a story about a custom program that BID employees use to report issues with the trash cans, park benches, bus shelters, and other public assets in the BID.

The program sounds like a more sophisticated version of the SeeClickFix application that is re-skinned and rebranded as the DC311 app. The 311 app is buggy and could use work to make it more useful, but it's limited in scope and meant for the public to simply report issues, not address the process from start to finish. The application for the BID employees appears to do just that.

I've often watched DC Department of Public Works (DPW) employees in the morning picking up trash in the alley. There are two guys riding on the back of the truck and one driver. Once in the alley, the two employees who jump off the back of the truck methodically empty the supercans into the truck, while the driver slowly trundles the truck down the alley.

What if the driver had a dash-mounted tablet with a program similar to the one the BID workers have? Perhaps he could quickly note things like illegally dumped furniture, potholes, or broken supercan lids.

With a program like the one the BID has, these DPW employees could be an early-warning system for the department, hitting a button to record the location of any of these issues that DPW would have to deal with. It seems like this could be an efficient way to asses problems that the department would need to deal with anyway. The increased workload could be connected to a bonus system of sorts. Drivers that find the most legitimate problems that need to be addressed could receive a commensurate pay increase.

In addition, perhaps some of the features in this program could filter down to the DC311 app in a future update.

Roads


Drivers find out too late about road closures downtown

Here's a simple way to make drivers' lives easier that doesn't hurt any cyclists, pedestrians, transit, or anyone else: Put signs on the approaches to DC about major road closures.


Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

Especially on weekends, special events often close large swaths of streets downtown, in part because it's necessary, and in part because the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), unlike its counterparts in other cities, won't let cross traffic pass through a special event, even at traffic lights.

I've had many experiences driving home from Alexandria or National Airport, getting off at 12th Street, and encountering crippling backups in the 12th Street tunnel as every car has to turn right or left on Constitution.

It then takes a long time to crawl on Constitution past the Ellipse, because lots of other people are coming off the 14th Street bridge on 14th Street and also turning. White House-related security closures can extend westward to 18th or even beyond.

In most of these cases, there's plenty of capacity downtown. It's just that drivers don't know to take the routes that are clear. Often there are notices from DDOT and in the press about closures, but clearly many people don't know or remember to check. I often don't look through neighborhood listservs before driving to Virginia.

When 12th Street is closed at Constitution, it would help enormously if DC could just put a sign on the 14th Street bridge saying this. Drivers could know to take 14th or use the I-395 tunnel instead, depending on their destination. Or, better yet, put signs on 395 and the GW Parkway so drivers can route around to the Memorial, TR, and Key Bridges if they're going somewhere north or west of downtown.

This isn't a brand-new idea. A suggestion for real-time signs is part of the 14th Street Bridge corridor EIS, which has been in the works since 2006. There's no need to wait years to make this happen, though.

An open data feed of closures, frequently updated with closures for the day, might also be useful. People could build apps that help drivers know what roads to avoid.

Some traffic is inevitablewe're not realistically going to make downtown DC a speedy place to zip around by car at rush hour. But there's no good reason for people to spend 10 minutes in traffic at one intersection when the roads all around are empty, simply because people don't know ahead of time to take a different route.

And rather than arguing about a "war on cars," let's prioritize in opportunities to help drivers that don't involve pushing other road users aside. There are plenty that we just aren't tackling yet.

Transit


More bus service may come to 16th Street's southern half

WMATA might beef up service on the busy 16th Street (S) line with a bus starting in Columbia Heights, where existing S buses often become too full to pick up passengers. That was one of the options WMATA and DDOT bus planners discussed with riders at a meeting last Monday.


Photo by Jess J on Flickr.

Every bus commuter knows that during morning rush hour, the people who board a bus early in the route are the ones who get the seats. They can get some reading or work done, or fit in one final snooze before they start their days.

But to riders who board the 16th Street "S-line" buses on the the southern half of the route, it's not just a matter of getting a seat. Full buses pass them by, one after another, during the morning crunch. More and more commuters in that section have been giving up on the bus altogether and either waste money and gasoline on taxis and cars, or walk relatively long distances, making them late to work.

25 residents packed a daycare room at the Jewish Community Center on a cold and rainy night last Monday evening and shared not only their frustrations, but also their thoughtful ideas. Express and Current reporters also were there. Dozens of residents who could not attend emailed me their concerns and ideas, which I shared with WMATA officials.

For example, rider Mary M. wrote,

Just this week (Tues, Wed, and today, Thurs), it has taken me 45-50 minutes to get from 16th & V to 14th & I, and anywhere from 4 to 6 buses have passed the stop each morning because they are too crowded to accept any more passengers. (Also, on Tuesday morning, 2 buses that had hardly anyone standing passed us by in the cold). There are usually 15-20 people waiting at V St in the mornings.
At the meeting, S bus riders heard from WMATA bus planners Jim Hamre and David Erion and DDOT's Steve Strauss. All 3 have a wealth of experience with District bus service. They have worked to make improvements in the past, like the S9 express bus. Rapid population growth in central DC has created challenges for bus service to keep up, they said.

But they offered hope of addressing this problem without affecting service for those who live along the northern half of the route. On Friday, in a follow-up phone call, Hamre also told me that WMATA is working on new proposals which he can discuss with the community around the 3rd week of February.

New route could serve half of 16th, if there's a space to lay over

One possibility discussed with Hamre during the meeting is a rush hour route focused on the morning problem strip: Columbia Road to downtown DC. But one obstacle is layover spacea bus route requires a location for the bus drivers to park, pause, and get ready for an on-time departure. My ANC colleague Noah Smith proposed inquiring about space in nearby neighborhoods.

We asked whether the route could run for only the 8-9 am hour, and therefore perhaps avoid the need for the parking stop. But the availability of a layover space is a very important part of running a bus route, the planners said. Would the elusive search for bus-length parking in one of the most congested parts of town stall this idea?

After the meeting, my wife Divya, who often jogs to Rock Creek and back, suggested asking about using the existing turnaround area on Calvert Street, by the Duke Ellington Bridge, where the 90s bus lines end today. That is less than 5 blocks from Columbia Road, and then just another 5 blocks from the 16th & Columbia intersection.

Hamre was intrigued by the idea when we discussed it by phone. While it's not ideal, he said he'd look into it, among other possibilities. (None of those possibilities include reducing service to the northern half of the S route).

Other ideas that came up at the meeting include posting bus supervisors along the current S line to efficiently reorder buses en route, and consolidating certain stops that are very close together (at least during rush hour) along 16th Street.

We are looking forward to seeing WMATA's proposals later this month. As soon as the meeting is confirmed, we will share it here and elsewhere to hopefully get an even bigger turnout than the one we had last Monday. Thanks go to the Jewish Community Center for providing the space, WMATA and DDOT officials for attending, and Noah Smith, who collaborated with me to organize the event.

Parking


Ask GGW: Do you have to pay to park here?

If signs say that you can park but must pay on one section of a street, while parking is illegal until 6:30 pm on another section, do you have to pay on that second section after 6:30?

The 800 block of 17th Street, NW has these parking signs along its length, in this order (plus another one farther to the left, at the corner, which isn't relevant here).

It's clear you can't ever park to the right of the rightmost sign (that's at the corner). It's also clear that between the left and middle signs (and to the left of the left sign), you can park from 9:30-4 on weekdays, but have to pay the meter.

You can also park after 6:30 pm in that zone, but have to pay. The 2-hour time limit doesn't apply, so you can park for 3½ hours, but have to pay $7 to do it.

But what about between the middle and right signs? You can't park from 7 am to 6:30 pm, and can stand only outside rush hours. Both restrictions expire at 6:30, but the "pay to park" rule seem to only apply left of the middle sign, since the middle sign has a leftward-pointing green arrow.

Drivers probably should have to pay in both zones after 6:30, since it would be a little silly to have half the block be free in the evenings while the other half is not, but at the moment, the signs don't seem to require that.

On a recent evening, a few drivers tried parking in the apparently-free zone, and an enforcement officer ticketed the 2 cars closest to the middle sign, but not the others, which is particularly odd.

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