Posts about Downtown DC
The question over whether or not to raise DC's height limit has come up periodically for several years, but gained new traction earlier this month when some members of Congress asked for a study about modifying the height limit legislation. With the possibility of actual change looming, more and more people are weighing in.
Most height limit opponents have so far based their position on the argument that taller buildings downtown would be more economically efficient, and that allowing some offices to be located outside downtown is costing DC a lot of money.
The latest to do so is David Schleicher at The Atlantic Cities, who opposes the height limit and poses a series of questions to supporters.
Having long advocated for raising the limit strategically, both downtown and in surrounding areas, I cannot be characterized as a height limit supporter. But I also think that the economic arguments put forth by the loudest height limit opponents, including Schleicher, are too narrow and miss important considerations.
That in mind, Schleicher's questions are worth discussing.
Supply and demand
Schleicher argues that DC's height limit is restricting the supply of available buildings, which is making it impossible to meet the demand for office space in the city. He says,
But if Height Act proponents think limits on supply do not increase prices, why not? Is it some distinction between housing and offices and other markets? If so, what is your model of how office and housing markets work?Obviously there is a connection between supply and demand. But is the height limit really limiting DC's supply?
There is currently around 100 million square feet of office space in downtown DC, which makes it the 3rd largest downtown in America after New York and Chicago. Despite no skyscrapers, downtown DC currently has a greater supply of office space than downtown San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.
More importantly, DC's supply of potential building space is not anywhere close to being maxed out under current regulations. The height limit is not currently restricting supply in the vast majority of DC. It is only restricting supply within the area roughly bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and the National Mall.
It's true that DC's historic rowhouse neighborhoods are largely off-limits to significant densification, but large sections of central DC are nonetheless available. Even with the height limit, there is room for at least double downtown's current square footage in underbuilt areas of NoMa, Southwest, and along the Anacostia and Potomac waterfronts. Without touching DC's height limit or its historic rowhouse neighborhoods, there is room for decades of additional growth within a radius of 2 miles of the Capitol.
There would be even more room available for infill if the decision were ever made to redevelop Roosevelt Island, Bolling Air Force Base, or National Airport. Doing so would surely be controversial, but should at least be discussed in an honest assessment of options.
So it is simply not true that the height limit is restricting building supply in DC overall.
It is, however, true that the supply of buildable space is being limited in that geographically small downtown area. This brings up Schleicher's next questions.
Where and how to grow
Schleicher asks a few questions:
Why do you think development should be spread out? What effect do you think limiting heights has on agglomeration, including the depth of local markets and information spillovers? Do you believe in a single optimal city form? And why do you think DC captures it? Or are height limitations somehow a particularly good fit for a national capital?Opponents of the height limit like to ask why DC's existing limit is so special. If the height limit happened to be 20 stories instead of what it is, would supporters still claim it's the perfect regulation?
Opponents need to answer the opposite question.
"Downtown DC" used to only mean a few blocks near Pennsylvania Avenue. Now it means a larger area, spanning from New Hampshire Avenue on the west to Union Station on the east. Since downtown is the only area being functionally limited by the height act, what about the current extents of downtown DC make it the perfect geography?
Downtown grew from that area around Pennsylvania Avenue to its current extents because of the height limit. Since that growth happened, buildings at 19th and Eye Streets are not generally considered to be much more poorly located than buildings at 12th and G. In the future, if the height limit is kept, downtown will again grow to encompass NoMa, Southwest, and the waterfronts, and they will not be considered any more out of the way than the West End is considered today.
If it was OK for downtown to expand to include the West End, why isn't further expansion OK too? What's so magical about today's definition of downtown, which is different from the definition a few decades ago and will surely be different again in the future?
Theoretically it would be possible to cluster all the office space in downtown DC in no more than a dozen super-tall skyscrapers covering only a couple of blocks. And some day in the future we might even be able to fit all of it in one single thousand-story building, covering only a single square block. Would that be ideal?
If maximum agglomeration were desirable, it follows that we'd want a much smaller downtown than we have today.
Granted, that thousand-story example is reductio ad absurdum, but the point is simply that there's nothing magical about the current definition of downtown DC, so any argument that's based on solving the problem of restricted supply within that current definition is necessarily flawed.
So the question is not "how can we fit more office space in the area currently defined as downtown?" Rather, it's "where do we want future office space?"
If we want to have more space specifically at, say, Farragut Square, then we can raise the height limit around Farragut Square without eliminating it completely for all of downtown. I'm OK with that.
But we also have to recognize that there are many benefits to spreading development around a little bit. We don't want sprawl, of course, but the region is better off for having vital mixed-use neighborhood uptowns like Bethesda and Clarendon spread near the core.
If all the office space is clustered in a small office ghetto downtown, that deprives the surrounding neighborhoods of key mixed use elements. Not only daytime office workers, but also office-reliant retail and support services that are necessary for any successful mixed-use district.
The desirability of mixed use neighborhoods is one of the most basic premises of contemporary urbanism, and it's why many people who care about good cities want to spread some office space around outside of downtown districts. Unless we're prepared to force everyone to live within walking distance of downtown, we need healthy neighborhood uptowns that are mixed-use.
Economists seem to have a difficult time grasping this point. It's probably true that it's economically more efficient to cluster offices more than we're currently doing (though surely not to that single thousand-story building extent). But the economic models being employed so far in this debate don't take into account livability or good urbanism. The benefits of spreading some office development to uptown districts aren't captured if all you're thinking about is property values at 12th and G.
And it's not just the uptowns that reap the livability benefits of the height limit. Downtown DC does too.
With the exception of New York, no large city in the US has fewer surface parking lots in its downtown than Washington.
Surface parking (red), above-ground garages (yellow) and park space (green) in 4 US cities in 2011. Left to right, top to bottom: Houston, Milwaukee, Little Rock, Washington. Images from Old Urbanist.
Because of the height limit, it is less economical here to let properties lay fallow than in any of our peer cities. This means there are no gaps in the urban fabric, which improves downtown's walkability.
But again, the near-certain likelihood that gaps in the urban fabric would develop without a height limit is not something that's captured in the economic models.
Questions for opponents
Schleicher's questions deserved discussion, but height limit opponents need to answer some questions themselves. The economists who seem to be largely driving the movement to repeal have so far focused on a narrow set of arguments, and ignored or attempted to marginalize any broader issues. That's not a recipe that will result in buy-in from anybody who doesn't already agree.
Some questions that height limit opponents more fervent than myself need to answer:
- What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?
- Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?
- Instead of repealing the height limit, would you accept modifying it to permit taller buildings only at specific and limited locations? If so, how might you go about determining those locations?
As I walked home from work last night, I saw a crowd gathered at the corner of 17th and L Streets, NW. On closer inspection, a woman was lying in the road. A bicyclist had been hit. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?
A few people were hunched over, talking to her, trying to keep her still and calm. The rest of the crowd watched, concerned but unsure of what to do. Since I'd learned about the bystander effect, which renders people immobile rather than helpful in a crowd, I'd mentally rehearsed how to deal with a crash.
I sized up the situation to see if I was needed. A man kneeling next to the victim was on the phone, so 911 had been called; she was talking and I didn't see any blood, so things probably weren't dire (though only trained medical personnel can decide for sure as some injuries aren't immediately visible).
It looked like the scene was under control, but the crowd was looking inward, away from traffic, so I jumped in to direct drivers and cyclists around the site. I also tried to flag down the police, but the 3 patrol cars that passed by ignored our waving and yelling.
The injured cyclist had been riding as far to the right as possible when she was struck. Ron Knox confirmed that she was so far to the right that she was lying with one of her legs in the storm drain.
While it's always safer to take the whole lane, which is a bicyclist's right, I can't say I blame her. The traffic on L was heavy and chaotic, with bicyclists and cars both weaving through or between lanes. The cycle track isn't complete on that block, and the incomplete portion still looks more like a hazard than a feature.
Two other people joined me to form a phalanx against traffic. I asked one of them how long they'd been waiting for an ambulance. About 6 minutes, he said, and it was at least another 2 until an FEMS SUV pulled up and an EMT took over.
With the FEMS vehicle blocking the right lane and an ambulance within earshot, my work was finished and I started home. I tweeted the incident with the #bikedc hashtag, which alerted advocates and traffic watchers in the press that something had happened, and wondered what lessons to take from the mess.
Tips to avoid a crash, or react to one once it happens
If you're bicycling, take the lane. If you're riding with traffic on downtown streets, ride a little bit left of the center of the lane to ensure drivers have to pass you like they would another vehicle. They might get upset, but you're safer there than in the gutter.
Drivers need to give bicyclists clearance when they don't take the lane. DC requires drivers to pass with at least 3 feet, to cut down on the odds of a side-swipe. Given how far over the crashed bicyclist was riding, it seems likely she wasn't afforded those 3 feet.
For anyone who might be a bystander, rehearse what to do in a crash. Just being mentally prepared for the situation can help keep you calm and in control. There's no need to command a situation if people are already acting, but just standing by to help as needed can be enough.
Lastly, tweet it, if you can, ideally with a picture. Mention @struckdc, a Twitter account that tracks crashes, and #bikedc if it's bicycle-related. Spreading the word lets other travelers know to avoid the area and lets advocates know to follow up. It's embarrassing to lie injured on the road with strangers standing around and tweeting, but crashes shouldn't happen to begin with. Advocates keep the narrative of those struck and injured alive, and people need to know when the street design and traffic patterns make them too dangerous.
I'd also like to know more about why the police didn't stop or respond to the crash. When the 911 call goes out for an ambulance, police ought to respond to the scene as well to take witness accounts, interview the driver, and take over the crowd while waiting for medical personnel. Police also typically stop when bystanders try to wave them down, so hopefully these particular cars were responding to another, even more urgent call, or had another reason not to stop.
Cyclists and advocates, motivated by crashes like this, have pushed for safer bike infrastructure like the L Street cycletrack. It, and its twin on M Street, can't come online soon enough.
On Thursday, residents from all across the city asked the National Park Service to do better for DC, and praised the progress NPS has made this year, at a town hall meeting from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
If you didn't get to attend, you'll have another chance to talk to park superintendents about DC parks at another event NPS is organizing on November 13.
At the town hall, Norton noted that the Park Service has very little money and the climate in Congress isn't likely to fund them any better anytime soon; if anything, there might be more cuts. That will exacerbate the huge maintenance backlog at the National Mall and many problems at smaller parks, like at Fort Dupont, where a reasident of Ward 7 said NPS hasn't fixed a deteriorating roadway for years.
But many other people brought up issues that won't require more federal money.
Danielle Pierce of Downtown DC Kids said that 6 months after NPS officials promised to help give the District jurisdiction over a small parcel so it could build a playground, and after Tommy Wells put money into the budget for such a playground, nothing has happened on the Park Service side.
The organizer of a youth sports league said that playing fields in Anacostia Park are in terrible shape. They'd be happy to fix the field themselves if they can become a partner for that park. Joe Sternlieb, the new head of the Georgetown BID, said they'd be happy to do more to remove graffiti at the C&O Canal but need NPS permission.
Rick Reinhard, Deputy Executive Director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, had a very cogent statement about the need for funding, its progress and challenges on partnerships, and its frustrations with rules that make it very difficult to program downtown parks.
In 1997, our buildings, our streets and sidewalks and our parks all were unexceptional-- a 3 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Today, our buildings are an 8 or 9, our streets and sidewalks are a 6 or 7. Our parks are still a 3. Why? Mainly lack of investment. The NPS budget does not allow the [34 National Park Service parks and reservations in the one-square-mile Downtown BID] to be designed, built, maintained or programmed any of us would choose.You can read the complete statement.
NPS is handcuffed to run its urban parks using the same rules they use to run Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Everglades. The same regulations that work so well to protect moose, redwoods and crocodiles work much less effectively to promote playgrounds, concerts and family picnics.
Permits are required for small, what should be spontaneous events. Sponsorship banners are so limited as to be practically prohibited. Food service is limited to the National Mall concessionaire, who finds it not profitable enough to operate a small food cart in, say, McPherson Square, when it is selling thousands of hot dogs on the Mall.
When the Downtown BID worked with the Willard Intercontinental Hotel to promote a simple art fair in Pershing Park, NPS red tape strangled it. One example: artists could sell only art that was materially connected to the theme of the park, like portraits of General Pershing.
Sidewalk cafes are next to impossible to site legally on NPS-controlled Pennsylvania Avenue. So while the number of sidewalk cafes within the BID area has grown over the past 15 years from zero to 147
— with 4,400 seats — the number of sidewalk cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue — which should be one of America's greatest, liveliest streets — is only four.
Local NPS officials understand these problems and do not want to manage this way, but rules are rules.
If NPS is not appropriated enough money, and if NPS has inflexible rules, then the only way our parks ever will be what we deserve is through forging serious, meaningful partnerships.
We offer sincere compliments to Regional Director Steve Whitesell, Mall Superintendent Bob Vogel, Deputy Superintendents Steve Lorenzetti and Karen Cucurullo and their staffs. We have moved ahead on these important issues more in the past couple of years than we have in the decade before, because these men and women understand that these parks not only must respect history and serve our nation but also must be enjoyed day-to-day and serve our residents, workers and visitors.
The Downtown BID wholeheartedly endorses Secretary Salazar's call for a new way of managing NPS' urban space inventory, which includes all of Downtown DC's green spaces. Our hope is that our most recent experiences constitute a new way for DC to work with NPS going forward, and are not exceptions to the rule.
At the meeting, NPS regional head Steve Whitesell announced that the agency was planning its own town hall as well to hear from even more residents. That event will be Tuesday, November 13, 6:30-8:30 pm at the African-American Civil War Museum, 1925 Vermont Avenue NW, right by the east entrance to the U Street Metro.
5 area park superintendents will be there to talk with residents: Bob Vogel of National Mall and Memorial Parks (the Mall plus most nearby small parks), Alex Romero of National Capital Parks-East (generally everything east of the Capitol and also east of the Anacostia), Tara Morrison from Rock Creek (which includes small parks outside the L'Enfant city in Northwest), the C&O Canal's Kevin Brandt, and Ann Bowman Smith who works with the White House to manage "President's Park," the White House itself and surrounding grounds.
This is an important opportunity to bring important issues directly to the people in charge. NPS isn't going to make parks safer to walk and bike, or enjoyable for sitting and eating, or more active for daytime and evening activities, unless people personally ask them to. The more residents ask for these things, the more we will get them. Mark your calendars!
While most Washingtonians prepared for Hurricane Sandy, DDOT crews were hard at work over the weekend installing the L Street cycle track.
The cycle track will run from New Hampshire Avenue in the west to 12th Street in the east. Workers began marking it on Thursday near New Hampshire Avenue, and have been moving east block by block. As of Sunday they reached just past 17th Street.
L Street near New Hampshire Avenue by Zach Rausnitz (left),
and near Connecticut Avenue by Dan Malouff (right).
On Sunday, DDOT's "green lane flash mob" was out, painting a high-visibility green coating where the cycle track approaches Connecticut Avenue.
When Sandy is safely past and DDOT begins to work again, share your photos with us via Twitter and on the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is organizing a town hall to talk about National Park Service-controlled parkland in the District of Columbia on October 25. I'll be participating on a panel. What issues or requests should I bring up?
Norton convened a town hall last year after a coalition of parks advocates and other activists, including myself, called attention to inflexible policies at the National Park Service interfering with Capital Bikeshare, the Circulator, farmers' markets, missing playgrounds downtown, and more.
The Park Service had recently gotten a new head of the National Capital region and new superintendents for several of the local park "units." These managers started working better with residents than their predecessors. They made considerable progress on Bikeshare, concession rules, and the Circulator.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot more to do, and Norton is having another town hall hall on October 25. I'll be speaking on a panel, along with NPS Regional Director Steve Whitesell, Rich Bradley of the Downtown BID, Danielle Pierce of Downtown DC Kids (the group pushing for that playground), and Catherine Nagel of the City Parks Alliance, a national group that supports urban parks.
What should I talk about? Since there is no other person specifically devoted to pedestrian and bicycle issues, I'd like to raise the many ways that despite being parkland, rules make walkers and bikers feel less welcome than drivers.
On the Rock Creek and George Washington parkways, signs at off-ramps tell runners and bike riders they have to yield to cars. This is bizarre, since turning cars yield to pedestrians even on major city and suburban arterial roads; the only place with this kind of rule is a freeway, and that shouldn't be the standard for our roadways in parks, even ones that carry a lot of traffic.
The approaches to the 14th Street Bridge give bike riders really no safe or comfortable route to and from downtown, for instance. There is also no good way to cross the GW Parkway on foot or on a bike around the Memorial Bridge. (This area is actually inside the District's borders, even though it is across the Potomac.)
I hope Rich Bradley will talk about the ways public-private partnerships can better activate our downtown parks. Franklin Square should be a more inviting place to eat lunch, and Farragut host evening concerts. Strict concession contracts limit things like sponsorship of an event, and the food trucks can only operate next to the park because they are on the public street which NPS doesn't control. Yet these types of activities are good for urban parks, not bad.
How about retail on Pennsylvania Avenue? Vendors? Bike parking? Capital Bikeshare stations? The grand avenue of our capital city doesn't have to be barren and boring. Food options on the Mall don't need to be awful, either.
Then there are the memorials. DC's many small triangles and other shapes are reserved for future memorials, and it's appropriate to have sites of national or world importance in the American capital, but that doesn't mean the memorials can't also be successful public spaces, as the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue is.
I'm also concerned about a trend toward more fences in triangle parks, like at 21st and I, to "remedy social paths," or in other words, stop people from walking through the park the way they want to. Better to rearrange the walkways to be in the right places.
The Park Service is doing just that on Washington Circle, showing that they are now open to making parks work better for residents and visitors, people on foot and bicycles as well as in cars. We should hope that Steve Whitesell and his superintendents stick around for a while instead of moving to other parks elsewhere in the nation, so that we can all continue to make progress.
The town hall is Thursday, October 25, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Room 412.
What would you like me to talk about at the panel?
A driver, talking on a cell phone, started to make an illegal U-turn across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes and almost hit Bill Walsh. He recorded the experience in a video:
Cyclists have been pleading for action against dangerous and illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue for some time. Justin Antos captured a recent U-turn on his camera as well, and many cyclists have reported the similar experiences using the #stoputurnsonpenn hashtag.
Councilmember Tommy Wells wants to stop the practice. His staff have obtained crash reports from DDOT for Pennsylvania Avenue and have been analyzing them for some time. Based on those reports, it appears that U-turns are by far the most common cause of bicycle-related crashes in the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes.
Here is the police narrative from one report, for a crash on October 27, 2010, where a taxi driver injured a cyclist:
DRIVER #1 STATES WHILE HEADING EAST BOUND IN THE 600 BLOCK OF PENNSYLVANIA AVE NW HE ATTEMPTED TO MAKE A U-TURN AND STRUCK VEHICLE #2 [A BICYCLE]. DRIVER #1 STATED THAT HE DID NOT SEE THE PERSON ON THE BIKE WHEN HE TURNED.Solutions: Enforcement? Bollards?
THE DRIVER OF THE BICYCLE STATED THAT ALL HE REMEMBERS WAS BEING STRUCK BY A VEHICLE AND DID NOT KNOW WHERE THE VEHICLE CAME FROM.
THE DRIVER OF THE BICYCLE WAS IN THE BIKE LANE WHEN HE WAS STRUCK, THE BIKE LANE IS A UNPROTECTED MEDIAN FOR BICYCLE TRAVEL.
WITNESS #1 A DC POLICE OFFICER WHO WAS IN A MARKED PATROL WAGON WAS BEHIND VEHICLE #1 AND STATED THAT HE SAW VEHICLE #1 MAKE A U-TURN AND STRIKE THE PERSON ON THE BICYCLE.
THE PASSENGER IN VEHICLE #1 STATED THAT SHEN [SIC] THE CAB PICKED HER UP HE WAS TALKING ON HIS CELL PHONE WHILE DRIVING AND THAT WHEN HE STRUCK THE PERSON ON THE BIKE HE MAY STILL HAVE BEEN ON HIS CELL PHONE.
What can be done? Police could more strictly enforce the no-U-turn rules, and DDOT could add more clear signs or markings. Walsh himself made this suggestion:
Most of the crash reports Wells' office provided show that police did indeed ticket drivers for U-turns after crashes, at least when it was clear from the driver's statements or witnesses that a U-turn was involved. The fact that many drivers admitted to the U-turn may tell us that drivers don't realize it's illegal or unsafe, and the right signs might help.
On the other hand, police don't seem to ticket drivers for U-turns when there's no crash, and many federal and local police cruisers often actually park right in the lanes.
Darren Buck suggested more plastic stanchions or "flexposts." There are already short sets of these at each corner to make it clear to drivers that they shouldn't use the bike lane as a turn lane, but their absence in the center seems to give drivers license to make U-turns:
Earlier plans for the bike lanes included bollards along the whole length of the blocks, but the Commission on Fine Arts, a federal panel which reviews projects on federal land an in key areas near federal property, wasn't thrilled:
The Commission approved the proposed design without colored pavement on the bicycle lanes or median, noting the importance of the avenue's design character as a prominent visual symbol of the nation. The Commission also recommended against the installation of reflective plastic stanchions, commenting that these would be intrusive and incompatible elements in this iconic streetscape.DDOT ultimately decided to go ahead with some stanchions at the corners anyway, apparently believing this was a reasonable compromise between CFA's desire to keep objects out of Pennsylvania Avenue and safety. It may be time to revisit that decision and install stanchions mid-block.
Any physical changes, Wells points out, will probably not happen until after the Inauguration in January, when all of the traffic signals and other objects on Pennsylvania Avenue get taken out for the parade. DDOT will have to re-install the existing bollards at at that time, which would make it a perfect opportunity to put more bollards in while they already have crews out there.
Tomorrow is Park(ing) Day, where civic leaders and everyday people turn on-street parking spaces into temporary public parks to demonstrate the different ways we can use our public space. In our region, there will be parks tomorrow at the Wilson Building, Metro Center, and in Rosslyn.
Along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Wilson Building (between 14th and 13½ Street), Councilmember Tommy Wells, chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation, and Planning, is organizing a park in 4 councilmember-dedicated parking spaces, including those from Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5).
The park will run from 9 am to at least 3 pm. It will include a parklet with picnic tables, couches and library books, and a few organized fitness activities. Wells and his staff plan an organized library story time at 11, a cookout from 11:30 to 1, and music and fitness activities after 1:30. Washington Parks and People is providing the park equipment.
Good permanent parks also include healthy trees, and tree advocacy group Casey Trees is organizing a temporary park at 12th and G Streets, by Metro Center, from 8 am to 6 pm. They will turn 3 parking spaces, or 660 square feet, into a park with 15 trees from their farm in Berryville, Virginia, along with shrubs, grass and sod. The park's seating will let people eat lunch and play games.
Arlington's Artisphere is organizing a park in Rosslyn from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm in front of its arts center, at 1101 Wilson Boulevard. Design studio Apartment Zero is designing the park, and Dance Exchange will do a performance from 5-6:30.
The Artisphere event matches up with an exhibition they have going on right now, Beyond the Parking Lot, which looks at how our car infrastructure has transformed the landscape, and the long-term scars it leaves behind. The exhibit is free and runs until November 4.
All of these parks come from established organizations, but the sprit of Park(ing) Day is for everyone. In many cities, individual citizens feed the meter at a parking space and roll out their own artificial turf and a bench. In fact, that's exactly what the original Park(ing) Day was, a performance art project in San Francisco. Will we have any of those here?
If you get any good photographs of Park(ing) Day installations, whether official or guerrilla, in the Washington area, please add them to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr Pool!
The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.
In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people's library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city's quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.
With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building's immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.
Library has little recourse against problem patrons
"There was some man outside of the children's section talking loudly about killing children," an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. "There he is," she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.
While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.
A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, "There is literally nothing we can do. Don't get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don't bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that's it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be."
Other cities have social workers to help the homeless
DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there's a large homeless concentration.
The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has "turned the page" on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.
Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be "on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people's behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly."
Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.
Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week "vocational rehabilitation" program for the library's homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers' first job experience.Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library's homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.
Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library's Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.
While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.
40% of the people traveling in vehicles along H and I Streets near the White House are on only 2% of the vehicles: local and commuter buses. That makes this a perfect spot to build bus lanes, which will both save money and improve service at the same time.
For years now, Metro has been talking about "bus priority." It's now taken an important step to study how to actually make this a reality on H and I.
The District alone spends $190 million per year on bus service, 3½ the amount it spends on Metrorail and 2 times the whole DDOT budget. While much press scrutiny goes into WMATA's administrative budget items like executive travel, there are enormous opportunities to save far more taxpayer money, and provide a better service to riders, by streamlining bus service.
Bus lanes, queue jumpers and other road features would help the buses avoid getting stuck in traffic. A bus stuck in traffic not only delays riders but costs a lot of money in driver time and forces Metro to buy more buses. Metro believes that the top priority spot to try a bus lane is on H and I streets around the White House, where traffic congestion is high and there are many, many buses.
Unfortunately, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy has not made bus priority much of a priority thus far, though DDOT did agree to work with WMATA on a study. That study took a while to fund, then got stuck in WMATA procurement for even more months. But it's finally underway and generating some results. The study is looking at H Street from 17th Street to New York Avenue, and I Street from 13th to 19th.
PlanItMetro posted some findings that underscore the need for bus lanes. 50 different bus services use H and I, including Metrobuses, Circulator (where the 14th Street line turns around at McPherson), Loudoun County commuter buses, and PRTC (Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Manassas, Manassas Park, and Fredericksburg) commuter buses. They transport 40% of the people using only 2% of the vehicles, but the buses get stuck in traffic and even are only able to travel half as fast as the other vehicles, not counting the time they spend at stops.
If buses got their own lane during rush hours, the road could move even more people than it does now. The curb lanes on H and I are already devoted to parking off-peak and are travel lanes during peak, so a simple approach would be to make one of those part-time lanes remain parking off-peak but serve only buses in the peak.
There are some operational challenges to ponder. For example, what do drivers turning across the lane do? Do they merge into the lane before an intersection? If so, and if they then have to wait for pedestrians before turning, will that back up the bus lane? New York does it this way on its new(ish) 1st and 2nd Avenue bus lanes, and they have been working well.
DC actually already has some bus lanes, on 7th and 9th Streets, which don't work well at all. One reason is that there aren't that many buses on those streets, and so the lanes stay mostly empty of buses most of the time. Also, partly since there are not so many buses, people drive in the lanes all the time, and DC doesn't do anything about it.
Drivers will do the same on H and I lanes unless there is enforcement. New York has cameras, and DC probably needs to do the same. The cameras could simply look at 2 spots, one before and one after an intersection, and give a ticket to a car that appears in both spots, proving that it was in the lane but didn't turn.
As with other camera tickets, the fine probably does not need to be very high to work. It just needs to be high enough to make it more worthwhile to wait in the regular lanes. Or, perhaps the fine could even be lower, and serve as a kind of toll; you can use the bus lane, if you want to pay a few dollars.
This video describes New York's lanes. They also have protected bike lanes on the same street, but those are far wider than ours; here, the bike lanes will go on L and M, and cyclists can also use the closed Pennsylvania Avenue.
The PlanItMetro post also suggests that Metro will look at another, stranger but possibly (or possibly not) more effective option: a contraflow lane. Instead of putting a bus lane on the right side of the street, it could be on the left and buses would travel in the opposite direction of traffic. Then, left turning cars would cross the lane but not need to merge. On the other hand, if someone accidentally drove into or double parked in the lane, it would really block the buses, which can't just drive out into another lane to go around an obstruction.
London has many contraflow bus lanes:
According to Metro planning director Tom Harrington, they have now begun studying alternatives for how to design the lanes, and expect to finish 1 or 2 conceptual designs for the most promising options by December. The onus will then shift to the District government to actually build a bus lane, since it controls the roads, signs, parking, enforcement cameras, and so on.
Hopefully riders, stuck in traffic, will not have to wait even more years to see the fruit of this important project, which we've already talked about for years. It could be the biggest win for both transit costs and quality of service in a long time.
Walking is an extremely important mode of travel in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, many of the city's sidewalks are unreasonably narrow, too small for more than one or two people to walk along. This forces pedestrians to wait for a chance to pass, or to step into the street. The situation is dangerous, insulting, and above all unnecessary.
Sidewalks don't get the respect they deserve. We bicker over the needs of bikers and drivers, but everyone uses sidewalks. Overly narrow walkways throughout the city discourage walking, and tell pedestrians that they aren't being considered.
Narrow sidewalks have real impacts on travel behavior and ease of access. People are less likely to travel on foot when they have to weave around other people, and those in wheelchairs or other devices must cross the street to get past bottlenecks.
There are many causes for these sidewalk traffic jams.
One major cause is simply poor street design that doesn't consider pedestrians' needs. There are countless examples of this throughout the city. In one instance, the sidewalk on the northwest corner of 16th Street and L Street downtown is about the size of a dining room table, which frequently jams up the busy intersection. Another trouble spot is the sidewalk right outside the Cleveland Park Metro, where frequent floods limit the space even further. Another is the sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue near Brandywine Avenue, where a parking ramp and electrical pole narrow the usable sidewalk to less than 3 feet wide.
Construction is also frequently a problem. When construction crews in need of working space are faced with the choice of temporarily removing one car lane from a street versus removing the sidewalk, the sidewalk is almost always the loser. For example, DC Water will soon remove the sidewalk for a stretch along M Street, SE, in order to maintain a full complement of 4 through lanes for cars.
Other times construction crews will leave a sidewalk open, but narrow an already tight space. That's what is happening now in Columbia Heights, just a block over from the busy DC USA retail complex. Construction tarps have pushed up against a bus shelter, leaving less than 2 feet for pedestrians.
Then there's neglect. The sidewalk along M Street between South Capitol Street and Half Street, SE, is a prime example. As noted by a GGW contributor: "It's super narrow and uneven, studded with signs, and bordered by vacant lots, which are fenced off. I wish the District would use eminent domain to take 6 feet of the vacant lots and widen the sidewalks. It's especially bad before and after Nats games."
To DC's credit, the city has embarked on fairly ambitious sidewalk expansion projects in several places around the city. There's the seemingly never-ending project along 18th Street in Adams Morgan, as well as recent or ongoing work on 17th Street NW, U Street NW, and H Street NE. These are good projects, but they are just a start. We're far from where we need to be.
While it's true that street space is limited and trade-offs are always necessary, sidewalks have been the loser too often, for too long. Recent improvements are good, but as the DC Water example shows, sidewalks are still often treated poorly.
These problems don't happen by accident, but rather through choices that devalue the pedestrian experience. That needs to change.
What sidewalks do you think are too small? Share your experiences and pictures in the comments.
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