Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces

Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.

The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative wayplayable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.

Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do bestplay and learn through play.


Kidical Mass brings pedal power to tots

This spring, expect to see more toddlers blazing DC's most popular trails and safe streets, cycling independently or riding along behind their parents in a trailer.

Photo by Randall Myers.

Since 2011, about 25 parents and children have been a part of Kidical Mass DC, a kid-friendly bike movement with chapters in multiple cities across the country. Megan Odett, founder of Kidical Mass DC and a mother of two who tows her children to school and daycare everyday, hopes that Kidical Mass DC can be a catalyst to further push cycling infrastructure in the city, while providing a fun and safe family activities for the cycling season.

Odett reveals how Kidical Mass is becoming the go-to source for kid-friendly cycling in the city.

What made you decide to start a Kidical Mass chapter in DC?
I'd been living in DC for a few years at that point and I noticed more and more people biking with kids, and as a parent I noticed more and more people asking questions about biking with their kids on the neighborhood listserv. But there wasn't really a central place where people could meet or talk about what equipment works best or where they can go to find equipment. So I decided that since DC's biking community was growing and becoming much more widespread, it was time for us to also get a family bicycling community going in a more formal way.

Describe the types of events and activities that Kidical Mass DC hosts.
Our main activity is doing fun family bike rides. These are typically easy bike rides of 3-5 miles in length and we ride on a combination of streets and separated cycling infrastructures like trails. Usually the rides end at some place fun like a splash park or place to get something to eat.

In addition with Kidical Mass DC, I also do one education event every year called The ABC's of Family Biking. It is a kind of expo or celebration of family biking that involves parents who bike with their kids showing off how they bike with their kids and what kind of bikes they use; bike shops getting together to demonstrate what equipment they sell for biking with kids; and some teaching activities and workshops that are run by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association and the local Safe Route to School coordinator.

What are the best kid-friendly trails, parks or roads in the city?
I am a huge fan of the Metropolitan Branch Trail that runs from Brookland down close to Union Station and I also really love the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. They're both really beautiful trails that are off the streets but offer a lot of really interesting things to look at.

What's the most difficult part of organizing rides that incorporate children?
Probably finding places to ride that are both fun to get to and easy and safe for kids to ride on, since we still don't have a whole lot of cycling infrastructure on the streets.

How do you feel about the progress that the city has made in accommodating cyclists?
The city has made a lot of progress and I'm really happy to see that DC is becoming a national leader in building cycling infrastructure.

I think that the next big steps are going to be connecting all the different pieces of cycling infrastructure together so that you can really go all the way from one place to another place on really safe roads rather than having a safe road here and having to jump over the to the next piece of really safe cycling infrastructure.

And also making sure that the cycling infrastructure that we have accommodates young riders and people riding big bikes that tow their childrenso having infrastructure that accommodates non-stereotypical cyclists is going to be a big step for DC

If more children are seen riding, will there be a push for safer streets?
I sure hope so. I think that in other cities, demonstrating that children and families are riding bikes has done a lot to make cycling seem like something that ordinary people do and in turn that helps generate more support for good cycling infrastructure and facilities.

What can people expect from Kidical Mass this year?
This year we are going to do an even bigger and better ABC's of Family Biking and they can expect to see more great rides ending at fun destinations with good food.

Kidical Mass's first ride of the year, and its ABCs of Family Biking event, will be May 3. Learn more here.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Crossposted on ElevationDC.


Car-free family trip idea: Baltimore

If you have young children and don't own a car or just don't like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities.

Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

I've taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again. It's easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it's wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It's called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you'll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East. Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we've found a fantastic hotel option. The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids' activities, and has a kiddie pool inside. A large, good breakfast is included.

It's an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you're flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn't filling up, and I've paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Here's our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley's for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you'll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children's Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley's. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children's Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk. If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro's Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella's Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy.

After a good night's sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it's a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don't head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I've wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children's museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That's why it's great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments. You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.


An alien notion: 800,000 DC residents

Over 800,000 people lived within the boundaries of the District of Columbia back in 1950. How did all of these people fit, with fewer and smaller buildings than today?

Photo by Jesse Means on Flickr.

The 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" inadvertently shows us how. Klaatu, a level-headed extra-terrestrial emissary, escapes captivity at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wanders down Georgia Avenue, away from not-yet-nuclear-weapon-free Takoma Park, and attempts to disappear into everyday DC.

To do so, Klaatu checks into a boarding house at 14th and Harvard in Columbia Heights. Each room houses one or two people, and as such there's scant privacy to be had: everyone overhears everything.

This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings' simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.

The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District's 224,142 occupied housing units to be "overcrowded" (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).

This crowding meant that on average, every apartment and house in DC had one more person living inside: households were 50.2% larger! In 1950, 3.2 people occupied each dwelling unit. In 2007-2011, the number of persons per household had fallen to 2.13, so the city's population still fell to 617,996. That decline would have been much steeper had the city not built 74,760 new housing units: the city's population would have plunged to 477,422, and the nation's capital would be less populous than Fresno.

Household size shrank nationwide as families changed. In 1960, married couples with children outnumbered single-person households almost three to one. In 2010, singles easily outnumbered nuclear families nationwide, and by 5.57 to one in DC.

As DC. gets reacquainted with the notion of population growth and begins to plan for a much larger population within the same boundaries, we'll have to have a realistic conversation about household sizes and housing production. A change of just 0.09 persons per household means the difference between planning for 103,860 or 140,515 additional housing units,1 or a total of 35% to 47% more units.

That amounts to 2,000-3,000 additional units per square mile of land, after subtracting the 10.5 square miles of parks and 7 square miles of water from DC's 68 square miles.

Klaatu, unfamiliar with our contentious Earth politics and "impatient with stupidity," might propose to build a platform of 5-unit-per-acre suburbia above the existing city, or require every second or third home to be subdivided, or return to 1950s household sizes and require every home to take in one boarder (not necessarily extra-terrestrials). But since Klaatu is no longer with us, we will instead have to figure out more complicated ways of infilling a built-up city.

We've obviously figured it out before; after all, DC has added an Alexandria's worth of housing units to its existing housing stock since 1950, plus plenty of offices, museums, hospitals, parking garages, and the like.

1615 M. Image from Google Maps.
A lot of that change has happened around places like 1615 M Street NW, the address where a 1954 radio version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" placed Klaatu's boarding house. Today, 1615 M is a 9-story Class A office building that brackets the historic Magruder and Sumner schools.

The area above K but below Massachusetts was a high-density mixed residential area in the 1950s, what Park & Burgess would've known as "the zone in transition," but today the height-constrained central business district has spread north to Massachusetts Avenue. Yet in fact many foreign visitors still board on that block, at the Jefferson Hotel and the University of California's Washington Center.

Unlike in the movie, there is no way that Klaatu can make DC's growth "Stand Still," and so the built fabric of many other DC neighborhoods will have to change in the near future. Thankfully, neither is there a grumpy Gort (pictured above) parked on the Ellipse, who will destroy the earth with laser-beam eyes if we don't all just get along.

A version of this article was previously posted at west north.

1 Based on this 2006 Urban Institute/Fannie Mae Foundation report by Margery Austin Turner forecasting 100,000 new residents, a target that the Sustainable DC Plan recently raised to 250,000.


Young families increasingly want urban living

More and more young adults in their 20's and early 30's are choosing to live in urban areas. Unlike their parents, however, they don't want to leave when they have kids. While families seeking the urban lifestyle may face some challenges, there are huge opportunities for places that can convince them to stick around.

Mother and daughter in Rockville Town Center. Photo by the author.

Three panelists from the real estate and education worlds discussed this issue with former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy at the ULI Real Estate Trends conference on Wednesday. AJ Jackson, partner at local builder EYA, noted that many young adults who spent their twenties in the District or Arlington are no longer moving to the suburbs when they have kids.

Revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods have made them safer and more attractive to young professionals. Meanwhile, rising congestion and farmland-consuming sprawl have removed much of the allure of suburban living. "They're not moving to the suburbs because ... the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn't exist anymore," said Jackson.

Instead, young parents are looking at closer-in areas that offer a little more space without having to maintain a large yard or endure a long commute. EYA mostly builds rowhouses in walkable, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods; as a result, 30% of their buyers are young families with kids, Jackson said.

However, this presents many unique challenges to young parents, as the Post's Jonathan O'Connell noted last year. Many parents worry about finding homes that meet their needs, unsure if they can comfortably live in a rowhouse or apartment. The quality of services in urban neighborhoods, like trash pickup, crime prevention and schools, is another issue.

Parents considering inner-city schools often ask, "am I going to be subjecting my children to inferior teaching and an inferior academic experience?" said Sharicca Boldon, vice-chairman of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.

Boldon finds that the best way to combat these perceptions is by exposing parents to the benefits of city living. She holds non-education-related community events at schools so parents can get familiar with them before enrolling their kids. Boldon also organizes tours of rowhouses to show how families like her own can live in one comfortably.

"I find that housing configuration to be very efficient for a family. I can be on the third floor and my kids can be loud on the bottom," she said. "I think it changes family needs that I need to be in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage."

Even as they become more attractive to young families, inner-city neighborhoods can't take them for granted. McCarthy said that the District's population growth comes mainly from out-of-area migration, and that the city continues to lose more residents to Maryland and Virginia then it gains. "There aren't a lot of things that tie [young families] here if the District doesn't gain a reputation for being family-friendly," she said.

Increasingly, urban living is no longer synonymous with being in DC or Baltimore. The growth of job centers outside both cities are drawing young families to places like White Flint and Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Merrifield in Fairfax County, which offer both walkable neighborhoods and transit access alongside larger homes and higher-quality public services. In Montgomery County, young families are clustering in areas where they don't have to drive as much.

Jackson pointed out that the Mosaic District in Merrifield, where EYA is building new homes in a neighborhood with shops, schools and Metro close by, has drawn the firm's youngest homebuyers. "It's the experience and the overall atmosphere more than the specific location," he said, adding that newer suburban neighborhoods may have trouble competing with their inner-city counterparts to provide the same feel or history.

It's unclear whether this trend is limited to young parents. While there are many highly-rated elementary schools in the District and Baltimore, issues remain with many middle and high schools, which may discourage parents from sticking around. Even in good school districts, families may simply want more space and leave their rowhouses for single-family homes.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, raised three kids in Adams Morgan and says it gave her teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. She wonders what would happen to DC if more parents chose to do the same. "It'll be interesting if they stick around as their kids age," she said.

As singles, Millennials have led the ongoing revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods and encouraged the creation of urban places in the suburbs. However, it's what they do as parents that could have a lasting effect on the urban realm.


What will get more families biking?

Washington DC has made great strides over the past decade towards creating a vibrant bicycle culture. How well does this extend to families so far? How can bicycling be more appealing to families?

Families biking to school via Stanton Park

Recent research has found that children who bike or walk to school perform better. A Danish study found that exercise, including from biking or walking to school, helped kids concentrate better, while chauffured children had a poorer grasp of geography, another study found.

In spite of the benefits, there are a number of reasons why families may not choose to or be able to bike. The reason I most often hear from parents is safety (even when biking is convenient). I feel the same way. Too often, I have found myself biking with my children, following all road and safety rules, only to be overrun by a driver who sees my small children as obstacles, not a family.

Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for "safe, secure infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians" with a target to "increase biking and walking to 25% of all commuter trips."

Part of this needs to be a concerted effort to focus on making it easier for children and families to commute to school and get around in general, by bike.

The city has programs aimed at stimulating families to bike. For families with school age children, the District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) offers the Safe Routes to school program, run by Jennifer Hefferan. She works with schools to support various types of active transportation models, including biking.

At my own children's school, Jennifer has designed more efficient drop-off and pick up processes, helped us to get appropriate signage, and worked with us to develop a comprehensive longer-term safe routes plan for our school. On biking, DC's Safe Routes program coordinated with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to triple the number of bike racks for the school, as well as advise and support us on efforts like Bike to School Day and Fuel Free Fridays.

There are also advocacy organizations like WABA, who offer safety and skills education opportunities, including Bike Rodeos for children. KidicalMassDC promotes "safe, fun family biking in the Greater Washington area" by holding regular mass family rides and teaming up with DDOT, WABA and bicycle shops like BicycleSpace and the Daily Rider to host the ABC's of Family Biking.

Personally, I find programs like ABCs of Family Biking particularly compelling, because they bring together a comprehensive community of stakeholders invested in promoting family biking. There are opportunities to learn from each other, practice skills, and discover gear that makes sense for individual needs and lifestyles.

What seems to be lacking, however, is education (and skill-building) directed at drivers. Those who bike spend time learning how to co-exist with drivers, but until drivers learn to co-exist with cyclists, families will continue to face safety-related obstacles when considering whether or not to bike.

What obstacles do you see to getting your family or other families to bike?


How easy is it to bring babies and toddlers on Metrobus?

Buses are vital for families across the region but riding with a young child can be challenging. Families can make the ride better for both parents and kids with a little planning. And WMATA could help accommodate families with a more flexible stroller policy, by making the bus easier to board, and providing more real-time arrival information.

Photo by magalino on Flickr.

Living in the outskirts of Wheaton without a car and with a premature newborn son, I got used to the bus system very quickly. Like a lot of families in the region, our family rode the bus daily to get to the Metro for work, to buy groceries, and to visit doctors or friends.

Even after we moved back to the District and got a car, we found that local buses continued to be a convenient, cheap, and even fun way for our family to get around the greater Washington area.

Riding the bus has many advantages

If you asked our son, he'd probably say that riding the bus is the best way to get around. He is now over 2 years old and has sufficient verbal skills to express just how much he likes riding the bus, or, as he would say, "Bus. Bus! BUUUUSSSSS!"

I agree with him because the bus is a better option than driving or Metrorail for some of our regular trips. There's a Metrobus stop right at the entrance of our apartment complex that takes us close to some of our favorite destinations, avoiding both Metrorail's "last mile" challenge and the hassle of parking.

And, since I'm not driving, I'm free to enjoy my family's company on the trip. Our son likes the bus because he doesn't have to be strapped in a car seat as he does in the car, and there's more to see out the windows than on underground trains.

Photo by magalino on Flickr.

Not to say that riding the bus is entirely wonderful. We're all familiar with the horror stories from both sides of the kids-on-transit issue, including those of children who behave badly or scream for the entire trip and of seemingly oblivious parents. But there are also stories of passengers who fail to accommodate parents and children or who react with obvious disapproval when a child exhibits perfectly normal behavior.

However, it's important to remember that at least some of these horror stories can be prevented or mitigated.

Tips for riding the bus with a young child

As our son grew, we developed different strategies for bringing him on the bus with us. These tips may not work for everyone, but they certainly helped my family:

  • Newborn: When our son was a premature newborn and we were taking lots of multimodal trips (mostly buses and cabs) to visit specialists, we relied on a snap-in frame with an infant car seat that had a special insert for very small babies. Generous fellow passengers frequently helped me carry this rig (dismantled, of course) onto the bus.
  • Infant: When our son was about 3-months old, I switched to a sling or harness to carry him on the bus. This was both faster and easier than constantly collapsing and reassembling a stroller. It also kept him shielded from potentially germy strangers.
  • Toddler: Once our child was able to sit up straight and stand on his own as a toddler, I used a folding umbrella stroller for our bus rides. This has been a great tool for both local and inter-city bus trips because it collapses easily and is quite compact when folded (though it's still too long to fit under the sideways seats on Metrobuses and trains).
I hope these tips can help encourage parents living in the city with their children to consider including local buses among their transportation options.

A few policies or technologies can help as well

One of the worst bus trips I ever had with my son was a stressful crosstown trip to the hospital during his nap time. He wasn't happy that I had to wake him every 20 minutes to get him in and out of his stroller for transfers. If I could have let him sleep for the entire trip, he'd have been happier, I'd have been happier, and all of our fellow bus passengers would have been happier.

This experience taught me how helpful it would be if we could bring unfolded umbrella strollers on Metrobuses. Believe me, I would have been thrilled to stand through our entire hour-and-a-half trip if it meant that my son could have had his much-needed afternoon nap. There are plenty of times when my son and I can sit in a 2-person bench like adult passengers, but it would improve Metrobus' accessibility to families if their policies made some accommodation for times when that's not feasible.

Another feature that would benefit bus-riding families is automatic kneeling. Bus drivers don't always notice that I have a child with me, or if they do, they don't always seem to realize what a big step up the bus is for a little child and a woman carrying 20 pounds of gear. It would be helpful for parents and other similarly burdened passengers to be able to count on having the bus lowered to curb level.

I'm lucky that I can use my phone to check WMATA's NextBus website to find the real-time bus information for our most commonly used stops and routes. If I didn't have that resource, however, taking the bus with a small child would be an immensely frustrating experience. While some children are perfectly happy to sit for 20 minutes or more at a bus stop surrounded by all kinds of intriguing trash and a wide-open street just begging to be played in, my son is not one of them.

Being able to check NextBus on my phone and time our arrival at the stop just in time to fold up the stroller and board the bus has been an absolute godsend. If instead I had to wait for at a bus stop with my son without knowing when the next bus was actually arriving, I would probably avoid taking the bus altogether.

WMATA has been talking about adding real-time arrival signs to more bus stops so everyone can have access to this information. The sooner they can move the program forward as quickly and comprehensively as possible, the better

Photo by magalino on Flickr.

Even with all the ups and downs of riding the bus, I've found that it can be a source of wonderful time spent with my son. We recently visited friends in Brooklyn whose son is close in age to our own. The sight of 2 little boys happily plopping themselves into seats on the bus after a full morning of adventure is one of my favorite memories of that trip.

So make your own memories and happy riding!

Cross-posted at Big Orange Bike.


Give up your seat on the bus or train to those in need

If you see person with a disability, an elderly person, or a pregnant woman on a crowded bus or train, please give up your seat!

Photo by Dan4th on Flickr.

Reader Melissa experienced the worst of human nature in a recent ride on the K Street Circulator around 10:30 one day. She was about 8 months pregnant and had a seat next to a window.

An elderly gentleman of about 80 got on the bus, and couldn't sit down. Melissa decided to give him her seat, but the other woman in the seat next to her wouldn't move over to the window. The man couldn't climb over, so he gave up and told Melissa just to sit back down.

Later, a woman on crutches got on, and Melissa again gave up her seat and moved to the back of the bus. But a stop or two later, as the bus filled up further, she saw the woman on crutches moving toward the back of the bus; it turns out some other, able-bodied person, had taken the seat!

Melissa made "a stink about a pregnant lady giving up her seat for someone on crutches," she says, and only then did people offer seats to both of them.

Folks, many people don't want to go around loudly asking others to give up seats. If you see someone who is less physically able than yourself on the bus, please volunteer the seat. If someone asks you to give up a seat or move over to accommodate someone, please cheerily agree.

In particular, the row of seats nearest the door is reserved by law for seniors and persons with disabilities when necessary. If you're in one of those, it's extra important to give up your seat.

Meanwhile, Emily (@TheFrogget) was riding the G8 bus in Bloomingdale. A mom placed her folded stroller on a shelf next to the door; Emily was sitting in the seat immediately adjacent, but there was a seat right across the aisle.

Emily says, "I got the stink eye for 30 mins and then a scolding when she got off. If the bus had been full, I would have happily given her my seat. But there was an open one 3 feet away." The woman didn't ask Emily to move, just fumed that she didn't.

It seems to me that while anyone should have been willing to give up a seat for the mom and child had there been no seats, there's no rule that the seat has to be the one they specifically want when there's another within easy eyeshot of the stroller. On the other hand, if the woman had asked nicely, I'd hope Emily would have happily moved over. Only the woman didn't ask.

What do you think? Have you had any bad (or good) etiquette experiences on buses?


Bring the kids on your next bike ride with these products

To those who think biking alone in the city may seem perilous, biking with kids in the city can seem downright reckless. But there are lots of options to bring the kids safely along with you as you bike around the city.

Photo by the author.

From bakfietsen to Xtracycles, Kidical Mass DC, WABA, DDOT Safe Routes to School are presenting The ABC's of Family Biking to show off and demonstrate kid-friendly bike options this Saturday, 11 am to 2 pm at the Capitol Hill Montessori School at Logan, 215 G Street NE.

Whether they are add-ons to an existing bikes, such as bike seats and trailers, or full cargo bikes, like longtails and boxbikes, a number of products can help you and your kids explore new parts of the city together and perhaps even create a new daily commuting routine.

As the organizer of Kidical Mass DC, I love to share the ins-and-outs of biking with kids. Biking around DC with my son during the past 2 years has been more fun than I ever could have imagined. It's a joy for both of us because my son loves that we can pull over on the road whenever we see anything interesting. And I get a very real thrill that unlike other parents in the area, I don't have to worry about hunting for parking when I'm dropping him off at daycare. Plus, by using the bike to run everyday errands with him in tow, I'm teaching him that bikes are a safe, useful, and normal way of getting around.

I've learned a lot about the different approaches to biking with kids and think that with the right knowledge, nearly any parent can share the delights of cycling with their own children. Below is a summary of some of the most common cycling options for parents who have kids aged from infancy to early school age, listed in order of cost.

Bike Seats ($)

If you want to try biking with your children without making a big investment in gear, aftermarket bike seats are a great first step. Easily adaptable to a variety of bike types and brands, relatively cheap, and offering the intimacy of having your child within arm's reach during the whole ride, bike seats that bolt onto either the front stem or rear rack of your bike are a great economical choice.

The most commonly-seen bike seats bike seats are Topeak's rear seat (ubiquitous in bike shops) and the iBert front-mounted seat, a neon green contraption that is outstanding for its ability to fit onto a broad range of bike types and sizes.

I have used both front and rear seats and there are pluses and minuses to both. Front seats are unbeatable for staying in contact with and monitoring the comfort of your child. Your child gets to see everything that's going on around him or her, and drivers can't miss the fact that you're child is with you.

A front seat's main disadvantage, in my view, is that they're only usable for 2 or maybe 3 years because most have a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds. Rear-mounted seats, though, will hold kids weighing up to 50 pounds. Kids riding behind cyclists are also a little more protected from the weather than kids riding on the front of the bike.

You should keep a few considerations in mind before you head out to the local bike shop. First, what kind of handlebars does your bike have? Front-mounted seats go best with upright or mountain-type handlebars. Also, some front-mounted seats only work with certain stem diameters and otherwise require adaptors to be used.

Additionally, make sure your kickstand is sturdy and well-balanced enough to handle the additional weight of a child on your bike. You might even want to look into aftermarket centerstands like this one available from Velo Orange to provide more balanced support for your bike.

One more consideration: I strongly recommend using a mixte, loop, or other step-through frame if you're going to bike with a child on the back of your bike. It makes it easier to get on and off your bike without kicking your child in the face (ask me how I know!).

With a price point of $100 to $200, child seats are the most economical way to start biking with kids if you already have an appropriate bike.

Front seats:

Rear seats:Trailers ($$)

For many years, trailers were the ultimate bike accessory for the hard-core, year-round cycling parent in the United States. They attach to nearly any kind of bike, include canopies to keep out the cold and rain, can carry a significant amount of cargo, and can accommodate a broad age range of passengers. Many trailers also convert to strollers, meaning that parents can potentially address two needs with a single tool.

Photo by ajfroggie on Flickr.
If you're on a limited budget and need to invest in a single kid-hauling accessory that will carry your child from an infant (in a car-seat, of course) to school-age, trailers are probably your best bet. There is also a strong resale economy for trailers, so it's usually easy to either find a used trailer online or sell your own trailer when you're finished with it.

The two big names in the trailer world are Burley and Chariot. Made in the U.S.A. and Canada respectively, Burley and Chariot offer trailers in a wide range of sizes and weights at prices ranging from $300 to close to $700 depending on the size and features. Thanks to its many years in the business, Burley has a fantastic customer support system that offers replacement parts even for models that haven't been made in five or more years. Chariot produces a similar fleet of trailers but focuses more on the multi-sport market: they offer conversion kits for walking, jogging, and even skiing to increase the versatility of their trailers.


Longtails ($$$)

A recent innovation, longtails are a great compromise between the speed and maneuverability of a regular two-wheeled bike and the cargo capacity of a boxbike. The original longtail is Xtracycle's Free Radical. The Free Radical is a frame extension that bolts on to an existing bike frame in the place of the rear wheel, moving the rear wheel back and adding an extended platform to the back of the bike.

Since first developing the Free Radical, Xtracycle has continued to refine its design and has spawned several variations on the original concept of bikes with extended tails. The company partnered with Surly to design an all-in-one longtail bike, the Big Dummy, that incorporates the longtail concept in a single frame and is therefore sturdier and able to handle larger loads. Recent other variations have included Xtracycle's Radish (a lighter-weight, step-through frame), the Yuba Mundo, and the Kona Ute.

Photo by the author.
Longtails are a great way to carry multiple children at the same time or to carry older kids. Even after they outgrow bike seats and trailers, kids can perch on the rear decks of these versatile bikes. With a little creativity, you can even fit three kids at a time on a longtail.

Longtails are relatively lightweight for their cargo capacity and, though even a simple FreeRadical conversion kit costs more than some trailers, are a great investment for their ability to accommodate many different combinations of cargo and kids. FreeRadicals are about $500 while other longtail styles can cost from $1,100 to $2,000.


Boxbikes ($$$$)

The true SUVs of the cycling world, cargo trikes and bakfietsen are low-maintenance, weatherproof, nearly bombproof kid-hauling machines. Both types of cargo bikes feature a dramatically extended front end with a large, sturdy front box mounted on the frame. Cargo trikes have one rear wheel and two front wheels on either side of the box while bakfietsen (the Dutch plural for "boxbike") have one rear wheel and one front wheel that sits in front of the box. Some bakfietsen sport a box large enough to comfortably accommodate even four children, or two children, a dog, and a bunch of groceries.

Photo by the author.

Equipped with weather canopies, plenty of cargo space, built-in seats with seatbelts, and sometimes even integrated lighting systems, boxbikes are the ultimate turn-key option for families who want to make a full commitment to going car-free or extremely car-light. They often feature fully enclosed shifting and braking systems for maximum weatherproofness, so keeping these bikes outside shouldn't be a problem. This is especially important for those without dedicated garage space. Many boxbikes have chain guards while some even include full chain cases for the ultimate maintenance-free drivetrain.

As you might expect, all these features come with a price. Boxbikes typically start at $2,700 and, depending on capacity and other factors, can increase in price to $4,000 or more.

Of course, that's about 10 times more than most people would ever dream of paying for a bike. But $4,000 is about one-third the cost of the very cheapest car you can purchase new. Plus the annual maintenance costs for the boxbike are practically nil. More than any other family biking tool, boxbikes are designed to serve as true car replacements, giving that price tag a different context and making them a worthwhile investment. Additionally, considering how much space car seats take up in the back seat of a sedan, a cargo trike or bakfiets could even carry more children than your typical family sedan!


Cargo trikes:If you want to explore these options further, be sure to stop by the ABC's of Family Biking this Saturday. Thanks to several helpful bike shops and a cadre of enthusiastic (evangelical, even) parent cyclists, we will be demonstrating many of the types and brands of bikes and bike equipment described above.

* available in local shops, either in-stock or by special order

Public Spaces

Park Service, Wells helping downtown get a playground

Downtown DC is in desperate need of a playground, and with the help of the National Park Service and Councilmember Tommy Wells, the District may just be able to get one.

Photo by xcode on Flickr.

Peter May from the National Park Service told residents that NPS may be able to turn over some of the vacant park space near Mount Vernon Square to the District to house a play area.

Still, it will be a long roada transfer would likely take a year, and money must be found to actually build and maintain a playground. If you are interested in participating in this effort, please come to a meeting this Wednesday.

For the past year, Downtown DC Kids has headed up efforts to create a safe outdoor play space downtown. It quickly became clear that identifying a parcel of land was our number one challenge. We raised this issue last fall at the community panel that Eleanor Holmes Norton held with the National Park Service, and I requested NPS cooperation.

After the meeting, Peter May, Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning with the National Capital Region of NPS, approached us with his business card offering to join us on a walking tour to look at the property. We had already been talking with Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the DC Council's commitee overseeing parks, and organized a group tour to see how NPS and the District could work together to build the much-needed playground.

The early December walking tour was an amazing show of cooperation on all fronts. Besides downtown playground advocates, May, and Wells, we had Bob Vogel, Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Steve Lorenzetti, Deputy Director of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Daniel Connor, Deputy Director, DC Council Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning; and, members of the Washington Interfaith Network.

As a group, we spent over two hours walking around the neighborhood identifying potential sites for playgrounds and figuring out how to work together to make them happen. Almost all of the sites visited will require participation by both DC and federal officials, and in this meeting, we saw that such cooperation is possible.

Our walking tour included the four small pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library; Milian Park, on the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 5th Street; Franklin Square, between 13th, 14th, I and K; and Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th.

Mt. Vernon Square pocket parks are best immediate opportunity

NPS officials felt that the 4 pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library ought to have already been transferred to the District along with Mt. Vernon Square. Peter May said that the NPS would be willing to turn the land over to the DC government to accommodate play areas in those currently-empty spaces.

Mount Vernon Square and its associated pocket parks. Image from Google Maps.

The small parks have a lot of potential for varied use and would be a great way to enliven the overall space. They could become an attraction and leave the open lawn of Carnegie Library as a place to gather for picnics or other activities.

To make that happen, Mayor Gray needs to send NPS a letter requesting the land. Tommy Wells promised to ask the mayor for such a document. This will start the process of creating what will, with any luck, become a world-class play space near the Convention Center.

Why downtown needs a playground

Right now, there are absolutely no playgrounds in the downtown DC area. Since the area is only newly residential, there was little need for playgrounds years ago. As more and more children move in to the neighborhood, they need space to play where parents needn't fear they will run into the streets.

The problem affects more than just downtown DC residents. School children from the surrounding areas lack sufficient play space, too. It is ironic that the closest public elementary school to the White House, Thomson Elementary, has absolutely no outside space to play.

First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign has, as one of its primary goals, to get kids outside and active. Yet, these kids have absolutely no opportunity to do so. Moreover, the children in this school are at high risk of suffering from obesity, as over 75% of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. It is unacceptable that these children get absolutely no opportunity to play outside.

To appreciate the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk around the downtown area in the mid-morning on any weekday. You are sure to see some of the hundreds of toddlers and preschoolers being walked around on ropes by daycare supervisors. Much of the time, those children are not headed for any particular location, because there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, the caregivers are simply walking them around the block, strung together for safety, day in and day out.

Regulations require that the children spend this time outside, but neither the District nor the federal government (which controls most of the open space in the area) is providing a place for them to go to play. Those kids who are lucky enough to be in government daycare do have access to playgrounds, but those are fenced in and closed to the public. As a result, many children spend much of their childhoods holding onto a rope instead of learning to run and jump.

Until our parks catch up with the rest of the world-class development taking place in our capital's downtown, we will never have a truly healthy neighborhood. It will benefit all of us to reprogram our park spaces to be useful and beneficial to all.

Although the need is clear, it has proved difficult to meet because many different entities control the park space in downtown DC. Much of the property is federal land. Some is District land, some is private land, some is federal land leased to the District, and some is federal land turned over to the District which in turn leases it to private entities.

As a result, Congressional oversight, historical considerations, and the need to reserve space for future memorials all complicate considering any change to downtown green space. In short, it will take a lot of cooperation among numerous entities in order to bring play space to the neighborhood.

We are very thankful to everyone for the time and effort that they have already put into this project and that which will be necessary to fully realize our goals. Every child needs access to a playground, and we are very happy that NPS and the District government are willing to work together to meet this need.

If you are interested in helping us move forward on any of these initiatives or have other ideas for play spaces in downtown, please join us for our meeting Wednesday, March 14th, 6 pm at Calvary Baptist Church.

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