Greater Greater Washington

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Why long waits to cross the street might be good for humanity

We've often criticized "beg buttons," those buttons you have to push (and then wait) before being able to cross a street. But maybe civilization depends on them?

Photo by Dylan Passmore on Flickr.

Beg buttons, by their very nature, put people on foot at a lower level of priority than people driving. The drivers get a green light at set times whether they're there or not, but people walking don't.

Many force pedestrians to wait much longer than otherwise necessary, as Tony Goodman wrote about 10th Street and Maryland Avenue NE in DC:

If someone presses the button during a green light, they have to wait for the light to turn red and then green again to get a walk signal, despite the fact that the sensor will extend the green time if more cars show up during the cycle.

But now, Ben Hamilton-Baillie has uncovered some archaeological records that show that perhaps we should thank beg buttons for our very society:

So thanks for those long waits, for those traditionally-minded traffic engineers out there! Also, thanks to Ben Hamilton-Baillie for the revelations and for permission to repost this cartoon.


Five trains, 20 buses, one awesome transit nerd poster

Between rail, bus, and now the streetcar, there are quite a few ways to get around our region by transit. I made an illustration of the vehicles our extensive network uses. Can you identify all of them? The answers are after the jump!

Here's a zoomed-in and labeled look at all the vehicles I included.

I have also created similar designs for other cities including Toronto, the Bay Area, and more. You can order a print or mug with these designs here.

Public Spaces

There's a "Washington" neighborhood in Milan, Italy

Milan, Italy's second largest city, has a neighborhood named "Washington." Its main street: Via Giorgio Washington.

Washington, Milan. Map by Google.

Washington Quartieri is about a mile from the center of Milan, outside its historic Renaissance core but very much in the midst of town. It looks like this:

Via Giorgio Washington. Photo by Google.

Milan isn't the only European city to honor Washington. At least one other, Paris, has a short Washington street near Champs-Élysées.

Both Milan's Via Giorgio Washington and Paris' Rue Washington are more likely named for George Washington himself than for our fair District of Columbia. But still, it's interesting to look at a map of a European city and see "Washington" in bold letters.

What other foreign cities have streets or neighborhoods named Washington?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Local (and federal) governments want you to go sledding!

For the first time in recent years, government officials are actually encouraging (or at least tacitly allowing) area residents to have some winter fun on hills that were previously off limits to unsanctioned sledding.

Photo by Stephanie Clifford on Flickr.

Last year, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton slipped a rider into the federal Omnibus Budget that overturned the 140 year-old ban on sledding on the West Lawn—other activities like throwing Frisbees, to our staff editor's chagrin, remain banned.

Local officials are also trying to bring some semblance of reason to sledding in the region: Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson recently released a list of sanctioned sledding hills in all parts of the county.

Here is a list of sledding hills across the region. Some are sanctioned, others... not so much.

Government officials have long been accused of not letting "kids be kids" and letting liability concerns keep residents from sledding on a number of the area's totally great hills. It came to a head in 2015, when US Capitol Police vigorously enforced a longstanding ban on sledding on Capitol Hill, ending in an odd detente between families with small children and heavily armed officers.

Similar stories were playing out all across the region on local levels, sledders being chased away out of safety or liability concerns, or being worried about property damage (think golf courses).

It's worth noting that these concerns aren't always unfounded, as a local child was severely injured last year while sledding. But strict rules put local authorities in the difficult position of enforcing bans, when many hills were safe in most circumstances.

Sledding is great for communities

Lots of people in more spread out places joke that they only meet their neighbors during snowstorms and power outages, when everyone is outside with a common cause. Shared use recreation, particularly during a time when most residents are home, is a fantastic way to build community and promote neighborhood cohesion in general. Some neighborhoods across the area even close certain streets in snowstorms to allow children to safely sled on them.

From a government policy perspective, this is a "quick win" that provides a tangible benefit at little cost.

"Sometimes it takes so long and it is so hard to get things done or change a policy, so it feels great to be able to do something like this that doesn't require years of study and analysis or figuring out where to find the budget," said Anderson. "I want to make sure everyone knows that we are working to maximize access to parks wherever and whenever we can. In some cases we can't allow access, but I want to look for ways to say yes, not for reasons to keep people out."

This weekend, enjoy those sledding hills, and make a point of getting to know your neighbors while you're out there! You'd be surprised at when that will come in handy.

Feel free to list your favorite sledding spots the comments!


How well do you know your WAMU reporters? It's whichWMArtin week 1

Which WAMU reporter named Martin is this a picture of?

#WhichWMArtin? Photo by Edward Kimmel.

From the beginning, I've loved Matt Johnson's WhichWMATA series. But when did I know it was a hit?

When WAMU transportation reporter Martin Di Caro began trolling us on Twitter.

I've always found it funny. But according to Di Caro's co-workers at WAMU, he doesn't know when to end a joke. They documented his persistence, and it has me laughing just as much:

Thanks for the laughs, Martin! You'll have to be our guest quizmaster one of these days.


NoMa has a new, transportation-themed restaurant

A new NoMa restaurant celebrates transportation, from drinks named for train travel to multimodal options for getting there.

Inside Union Social, you'll find a list of all the cities with a Union Station. All images by the author.

Union Social sits at the base of Elevation at Washington Gateway, a new mixed-use development across Florida Avenue NE from the NoMa Metro station. Elevation opened in late 2014 with 400 units on 14 floors, and Union Social opened in October.

The property abuts the Metropolitan Branch Trail and parallels the rail tracks that run toward Union Station, just one Metro stop away.

Union Social's interior design reflects its transit-oriented environment. A chalkboard names all the cities with a Union Station and a traffic light adorns the wall. A familiar M denotes the men's restroom, and it's inverted on the women's room door. Green and yellow lines snake along the restroom walls.

The drink menu honors transit, too

Union Social did extensive historical research to conceive its cocktail menu, steeped in allusions to trains and their mid-century glory days.

The Redline is a tequila sour with Fresno pink peppercorn and a red line of Angostura bitters atop meringue.

The Third Rail is a gin fizz with both literal and symbolic meaning. It refers to the electrified third rail that carries voltage and powers a train. This being DC, the cocktail also denotes the "third rail of politics" and its implied dangers. The drink gets color from blueberries and bubbles from "charged water," yesteryear's name for club soda.

A Third Rail.

The Angel's Seat is a whiskey smash with Angel's Envy bourbon, citrus and rosemary garnish. In the rail world, the angel's seat is raised observation seating in a caboose.

An Angel's Seat.

The Gandy Dancer is a champagne fizz modeled after the French 75, but made with vodka. Traditionally, a gandy dancer is an early 1900s railroad construction worker who laid tracks manually.

If you order a spirit plus soda or just a soft drink, you'll get a retro eight-ounce glass bottle. Beer comes only from the tap, like it did during the heyday of train travel in the mid 1900s.

Happy hour at Union Social brings the bygone train-centered lifestyle into modernity. A bustling, cosmopolitan vibe pervades the glassy space. Evoking the train café cars, two bars bookend the rectangular dining room. The dining room is laid out like a standard Amtrak car, with a row of tables on each side and a center passageway. On any given night, a private party might enliven the second bar down at the far end.

Union Social is a marker of NoMa's rapid expansion

In developing Union Social, owner Reese Gardner set out to recreate the historic role and atmosphere of the train station. "It was the hub where people socialized in the 1940s and '50s," said Gardner. "The best bars and food were at the train station because so many people were passing through or waiting for trains."

Today, NoMa is considered a textbook example of successful transit-oriented development. Since the NoMa Metro station opened in 2004 as DC's first infill station, NoMa has seen exponential growth, and national and international officials tour the area to study its development.

Partying in the house that transit built, Union Social patrons prove the development theories true. NoMa resident Rocio Acevedo Medlin has eyewitnessed the neighborhood's transformation and planted her flag at Union Social, visiting regularly from the day it opened.

"It's really different from anything else in NoMa," said Acevedo Medlin, who has frequented the area since 2000. "It's the kind of place you keep coming back to because it just feels good. You can be inside or out on the sidewalk and you see other people through the glass. It's not like it's walled off from the rest of the neighborhood. Everything about it is open and inviting."

NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper puts the new restaurant in context. "Union Social and all of NoMa is an amazing demonstration that a great development plan can truly have extraordinary impact," said Jasper.

While NoMa's growth was methodically charted, some elements weren't in the initial blueprints. Case in point: restaurants, which weren't on the drawing board.

"The original thought was not mixed use, so there was no forethought to build space for restaurants," said Jasper. "The Elevation building was the first with a restaurant. Now all upcoming residential buildings will have restaurant space."

Public Spaces

It's Christmastime in the city!

Lots of great Christmas traditions, like taking a stroll and checking out the lights, are best celebrated in cities. Here are some of my favorites:

Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

Model trains: Toy trains have been associated with Christmas for a long time, and no one can resist a great Christmas village with it's very own train. One reason may just be that they make great gifts, but model trains have long been a part of Christmas decorations and elaborate store displays. Union Station always has an excellent train.

Caroling: The tradition of going singing Christmas songs started in Victorian England as a way to bring cheer to neighbors. Caroling works best when the group can walk easily from house to house, similar to the trick-or treat test.

Lights: Christmas light displays are pretty epic these days. There are not only homes to check out, but also professional light displays. Both can really brighten short, dark days.

Zoo Lights is a big favorite, but there are also new displays like Georgetown's Glow, an art installation. My favorite lights are the ones atop the Australian Embassy: Surfing Santa is a real DC tradition.

Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

Christmas Trees: In the District we have the ultimate tree, the White House Christmas Tree. One of our contributors, Canaan Merchant, noted to me that "it's unique to DC when you go to see the tree but you have to wind your way through a protest in front of the north lawn!"

Strolling: Old Town Alexandria has it's Scottish Walk to pay homage to its Scottish founders. Outside of DC, my favorite stroll may be Troy, NY's Victorian Stroll, which celebrates the small city's history.

Jewish Christmas: Why do Jewish people eat Chinese food on Christmas? It's not because it's the only option. It's a tradition because because many American Jews can trace their ancestry to New York City circa 1920, and in those days all New Yorkers ate Chinese Food. It probably also helped that Jews in particular settled near Chinese immigrants in New York.

Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions in DC or other places?

If you need anything more to get into the holiday mood, just press play on Bing Crosby's "Silver Bells."

Need a last-minute urbanist gift? Here are some ideas.

Looking for last minute holiday gift ideas? We've got you covered! Here's what our contributors suggested when I asked for items related to transportation, cities, urbanism, and our region itself.

For the home

Vintage DC Streetcar poster: A poster photo of a DC streetcar from the 1890s shows what public transit looked like over a hundred year ago. It's available in several sizes.

Cherry Blossom Creative: Local designer Cherry Blossom Creative has a large collection of bright wall art portraying DC neighborhoods. The entire collection is currently available at the Downtown Holiday Market near the Verizon Center.

A map from Cherry Blossom Creative.

Subway system poster: This 29 x 23 inch poster let's you compare 140 subway systems from around the world side by side in one scale.

DC rowhouse screenprint: These screenprints of DC's historic architectures are available at Analog, a store in Brookland run by Dan Malouff's wife Melissa Esposito.


CaBi Gift Certificate: Capital Bikeshare offers gift cards for their annual, 30 day, three-day and 24-hour passes, and they're easy to buy at the absolute last minute.

Metrobus accordion bus: WMATA sells a 15-inch model of its new accordion buses. The DC Metro store also has other gift ideas like mugs, umbrellas and plates for all your transit gift needs.

WMATA's accordion bus model.

Metro station t-shirts: If you have a favorite DC metro station, has t-shirt of all DC metro stations.The site also has apparel and trinkets from other transportation systems around the world.

The city essentials

DC 4D City Puzzle: One of the many gift offerings from the National Building Museum, this puzzle let's you create a full 3D historic city scape of the District as it developed through the years.

Wheaton Plaza shirts: Made by our own Dan Reed, these t-shirts are available on his blog.

DC Street grid jewelry: This necklace and earrings highlight DC's famous street grid.

A picnic set: A picnic set is a great way to enjoy our region's green space. The only downside with this gift is that for most, picnic weather may be a few months away.


Start-Up City: Authored by Gabe Klein, the book is full of thoughts on how to create meaningful change in a city, do it fast, and have fun doing it.

Great Society Subway: This book may not explain why your Metro train is late, but it does provide a rich history of the DC subway system, it's iconic architecture, and its emergence as one of the busiest in the US.

Transit Maps of the World: This book captures rapid-transit systems from around the world with historical and present day maps.

Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington DC: Want to explore all the nature that the city has to offer? Grab a copy of this book and explore the wildlife and parks of the city.


5 amazing cities from the Star Wars universe

Part of the appeal of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars has always been its fantastic settings, including its cities. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters this week, here are the five most fascinating cities from the six previous live-action Star Wars movies.

5. Theed

Theed. Image from Star Wars.

The Phantom Menace may have been a disaster of a movie, but its setting at the height of the galaxy's pre-Empire luxury showed us a strong contender for the most beautiful city in the franchise. Theed is Queen Amidala's home, and capital of the planet Naboo.

Picturesque Naboo is the Neoclassical Europe of the Star Wars universe. Its ornate buildings and grand, monument-strewn avenues are an idealized version of the Baroque Mediterranean. There's no visible traffic or industry, besides one spaceport at the bottom of a waterfall. Theed's citizens appear to do nothing but shop and picnic.

It's the Garden of Eden of the Star Wars universe. Perfect and naive, and out of place once the galaxy descends into evil and civil war.

4. Mos Eisely

Mos Eisely. Image from Star Wars.

The complete opposite of Theed, Mos Eisely is a frontier settlement on a poor and dirty planet, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. If Theed is Habsburg Vienna, Mos Eisley is Dodge City. Its famous cantina nothing so much as a wild west saloon.

There's precious little art of culture in Mos Eisley. Its hardscrabble populous struggles to survive, and its streets are full of pack animals, cargo crates, and industrial equipment.

3. Gungan City

Gungan City. Image from Star Wars.

Return to Naboo for the secret underwater Gungan City. It's beautiful, but like all things Gungan, it makes little sense.

With a fairly small number of orbs that appear to be mostly empty air, Gungan City is clearly more of a village than a metropolis. Maybe the Gungans prefer isolation, or maybe they're too clumsy to live many side-by-side. Hopefully we're never forced to sit through more Gungan scenes, and therefore never find out.

One would think that if Gungans are such great swimmers that they're happy to build underwater cities, they'd spread their city vertically as much as sideways. Guess not.

2. Cloud City

Cloud City. Image from Star Wars.

High-concept sci-fi at its best, Cloud City is an atmosphere-mining colony on a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

Its workers harvest gases for use in Star Wars' futuristic technologies, and its government is more corporate CEO than democratic president.

Being an expensive floating factory, Cloud City's layout and infrastructure are necessarily vastly different from a cobbled-together frontier town like Mos Eisley. As a single, purpose-designed mega-structure, Cloud City needs nothing so messy as parking lots, and piecemeal expansions are strictly not happening.

And if you approach it without an invitation, cloud cars shoot at you. It's the ultimate gated community.

1. Coruscant

Coruscant. Image from Star Wars.

One city that covers a whole planet. Coruscant is either the ultimate in sprawl, or the ultimate in extreme urbanization. Given what we've seen on-screen, it seems to be the latter.

Like Washington, the capital of the Star Wars galaxy clearly has a height limit, with a canopy of blocky same-height buildings rolling over the landscape, and monuments like the Jedi Temple (above) dominating the skyline. But unlike DC, Coruscant's city planners allow frequent skyscrapers to pierce the blocky canopy.

Unlike other Star Wars cities, Coruscant features busy air-highways, crowded with flying transports. But there don't seem to be enough vehicles to move around a population as dense as Coruscant's must be. Surely the planet is a public transit paradise.

Coruscant's galactic capitol building, with air-highways. Image from Star Wars.

What will we see next?

If the past is any guide, The Force Awakens promises even more aliens and sci-fi landscapes. When I see it, I'll be hoping to see some fun cityscapes too. And, I admit, a few light-saber duels.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


This transit nerd music video is the best thing ever

Yes, yes there is a music video about transit nerdery. And it's fantastic.

The video comes from the band TSUB Analysis, an "Americana/Bluegrass/Indie" group made up of transit professionals from Denver.

And yes, VelociRFTA is my personal favorite too.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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