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Posts about Downtown DC


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.


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.


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.


Is ped enforcement campaign "blaming the victim"?

District agencies are running a much-needed, but brief, sting operation today to enforce the laws against making U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Meanwhile, a number of readers have written in with worries that a pedestrian enforcement campaign is targeting the wrong people for the wrong behavior.

Reader @Akido37 tweeted this photograph, of a bus shelter ad the District Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Police Department have posted near Farragut Square warning pedestrians about a stepped-up enforcement campaign. He wrote, "Talk about blaming the victim."

Certainly, pedestrians can do a lot to make themselves more safe, or take more risks. Walking while texting or reading emails removes one line of defense against a driver hitting a pedestrian.

On the other hand, pedestrians can suffer even when they do nothing wrong, but a driver's attention lapses for moment. Some readers feel MPD is not doing enough about far more unsafe driver actions. Reader David Joseph wrote:

I walk this intersection twice a day and without fail drivers make illegal turns, pull into the crosswalk, or otherwise endanger pedestrians. I recently asked an MPD officer who was giving warnings to pedestrians why they werent talking to drivers who are the real danger. His answer was simply that they were given orders to talk to pedestrians and issue tickets for jay walking, and he was following those orders.
Ben Ross said in an email:
I work at that intersection, and the pedestrian signals there forbid pedestrians to make crossings that are absolutely safe. You are told not to cross the turn lane on westbound 17th between the traffic island and the Red Line entrance even when traffic in the lane you are crossing has a red light. You can only cross when the main part of K Street has a red light, which comes 32 seconds later. Obviously, no one waits to cross the turn lane when the cars are stopped in front of them.
In a similar vein, during a past enforcement campaign police stopped people crossing the one-lane side roadway of Connecticut Avenue at Q Street, where the main road passes under in an underpass. While not lawful, there are plenty of times when there are no cars approaching, or even a bus at the bus stop blocking the road entirely. It doesn't advance safety to ticket people for crossing at these times.

Everyone should follow laws. The ideal solution to these problems would be to redesign the intersection to better accommodate pedestrians' own needs and not forbid doing things that aren't really dangerous. However, we're not realistically going to change most of these intersections anytime soon.

With driver speeding, especially with the latest speed camera bill, we've made a decision to tolerate a certain amount of unlawful speeding (10 mph over the limit), and recently cut down on penalties for those who speed more. Mayor Gray also raised speed limits in a few places where many drivers, perhaps rightly at least in some cases, argued they were too low.

The District needs to focus on the most unsafe behavior. Sometimes, that's pedestrian behavior, but more often it's not. Do you think this campaign is blaming the victim? Or does it attack a real safety problem, and some people just don't want to follow the law?


Who's blocking the L Street bike lane today?

Ever since the L Street bike lane opened (and while DDOT was building it), for-hire sedans, delivery trucks, and other vehicles have consistently parked in the lane, despite signs, bollards, and new loading zones across the street or around the corner to serve buildings' loading needs.

Photos from "Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today?" on Tumblr.

Jay Corbalis created a Tumblr, Who's Blocking the L St. Bike Lane Today? to collect photographs of these scofflaws. This is a great way to raise consciousness of how often it's happening.

If you ride down the lane and encounter a blocker, take a picture of your own! You can submit them directly to be included on the site.


Landscape architects envision a greener Chinatown

How could Chinatown be a greener and more livable neighborhood? Designers from the American Society of Landscape Architects and Fuss & O'Neill created a vision for an inter-connected series of green "complete streets," with new, safer bicycle lanes, a pedestrian-friendly "festival street," and a central hub for new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA's door (and below its green roof) on I Street.

All images from ASLA.

There's no time to waste. The city's complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streetsall of them. Beginning a new green neighborhood means tackling all the alleyways running off I Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would preserve car access while absorbing water into the ground.

Along I Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green "festival street" running down 8th Street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone.

Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this "B or C street," which means it doesn't get that much car traffic, could be designed to slow down car traffic so that pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K Street.


Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian "arboretum," different materials would designate different realmsthose for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O'Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that "streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen."

Where 8th Street meets I, new open grates would feature prominently so that "people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn't rain. This will help educate people about stormwater," said ASLA President Tom Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for I Street wouldn't be "lipstick on a pig," said Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O'Neill but represent an "integrated series of events, a system."

Some 6 additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for "green gutters along the curbs" and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

On 9th Street, creating a new "two-way cycle track," a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot "physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards," said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery.

The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O'Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were "up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn't feel safe being there."


Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up 2 parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, "signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella.


According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO/Executive Vice President, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O'Neill's concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval of the many DC government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the DC planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the DC planning office, said "we've tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do." The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Dirt.


Height limit questions, answers, and more questions

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.

Arlington's Orange Line corridor. Home to tall buildings, good for the region. Photo by the author.

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?

Bird's eye view of Washington by Charles Parsons, 1880. Image via PrintCollection.

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:

  1. What about the current extents of downtown DC make you think it is the perfect geography in which to cluster office development?
  2. Do you accept that there are reasons some people like the height limit which cannot be captured in traditional cost-benefit models?
  3. 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?
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


What would you do if you came across a bike crash?

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?

Photo by velobry on Flickr.

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.

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