Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Language


Economy, opposition make VDOT postpone I-95/395 HOT lanes

The Virginia DOT has decided to pause its plans to build High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes along I-95 and I-395 from the Pentagon to Spotsylvania County. VDOT hasn't recognized the folly of its widening plans, but is bowingat least temporarilyto financial and opposition pressure.

Photo by Washington State DOT.

The opposition pressure comes mostly from Arlington County, which is planning a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration for the project. Alexandria is considering joining as well.

During the Bush Administration, FHWA gave the project a Categorical Exclusion which essentially says that the project will have no significant environmental effect at all. VDOT did the same for the I-66 widening, and that project wouldn't have created full through lanes, as the HOT lane project would.

Federal law is clear that "growth inducing effects and other effects related to induced changes in the pattern of land use, population density or growth rate," also known as induced demand, is indeed an environmental effect.

Arlington is most concerned with the project's effect on neighborhoods in and around Shirlington, where VDOT proposes changes to Shirlington Circle including more lanes and traffic lights. Residents of nearby neighborhoods worry that the project will add cut-through traffic and that construction will damage historic buildings. The Alexandria Gazette Packet writes,

The Virginia Department of Transportation says that it followed the approved rules to create a document known as an "interchange justification report" that led to federal approval the categorical exclusion. But officials in Alexandria and Arlington believe that the project did not receive an adequate review because roads near the interchanges were not studied.

"Where do you stop?" asked VDOT project manager Young Ho Chang. "The theory is that if the interchange functions better with the project then all the intersections around the interchange will also function better."

Like his previous statements, Chang seems blind to any possible downside of adding car lanes. This quote reveals the deeply entrenched traffic engineer mindset that "moving cars faster" equals an intersection "functioning better."

As the West Palm Beach, Florida Neutral Language Policy explains, that's false. Adding vehicular capacity may make the intersection better for some, but also may worsen it others. For example, widening a typical suburban intersection by adding turn lanes often creates a much more dangerous intersection for pedestrians. That's why West Palm Beach banned traffic lingo like calling an intersection widening an "upgrade."

Given that this project will inevitably spur more housing growth in Spotsylvania County for people commuting to DC, generating new traffic, the intersections may become more clogged with cars even with more lanes. Finally, even by traffic engineer standards Chang's statement makes no sense. If one intersection moves more cars at higher speed, nearby intersections may become more congested. Chang's statement belies a fundamental belief that any increase in vehicular capacity is an unmitigated good. He seems genuinely baffled as to why Arlington and Alexandria might not want all this goodness he's trying to bestow on them.

The HOT lane projects are also losing popularity and political support as more residents become aware of the onerous provisions in the Beltway contract, like the requirement that Virginia pay Fluor-Transurban if more than 24% of drivers carpool. Residents along the Beltway have also been surprised at the numbers of trees cut down and the extent of the construction impacts. Most of all, VDOT's rapidly shrinking budget and a tough credit market have shattered hopes of borrowing from the future to build the freeways today, as Maryland did with the ICC.

Homer insists his staff will continue working hard to sell the plan. We haven't heard the last of HOT lanes in Virginia.


Talk about choice and freedom for parking policy, not "jacking up" and controlling

Some people believe that performance parking is about "jacking up" parking prices to "discourage people from parking" in metered spaces and "make it even tougher" to find parking. That's totally incorrect. In fact, performance parking makes it easier to find parking by ensuring that the parking spaces aren't all filled up. That's a tough point to get across, and it becomes even tougher when the person in charge of running the performance parking pilot and speaking to the press and the community couches his explanations in bad frames.

Photo by mayhem.

Last night, DDOT's Damon Harvey presented an update on the Columbia Heights performance parking zone to residents and business owners in that neighborhood. Already, the program has raised $14,293.96 for local improvements and paid back about a third of the cost of the multi-space meters. And that's without setting market rates at all. According to Harvey, the commercial streets in Columbia Heights have 95% parking occupancy, which means that most of the time, there aren't any spaces available for shoppers who'd like to park and quickly dash into a store, instead of going all the way into the DC USA garage.

Columbia Heights was supposed to be the easy case. There's no shortage of parking. There's a whole garage that's almost always practically empty. It's really cheap, too, and it's right in the center of the commercial district. Managing curbside rates to ensure availability only makes it easier for short-term parkers to use the on-street spaces, without really hurting longer-term parkers at all, who have such an easy and cheap alternative.

According to the performance parking legislation, it's time to set a rate to ensure that people can find a street space if, for whatever reason, they really want it. Maybe they have an injury that makes walking even a block or two difficult, or are in a particular hurry. Today, those folks are stuck, since there aren't spaces for them at all. Performance parking is supposed to help them, and help the businesses who want them to want to drive to Columbia Heights. It's about giving people more choices, not fewer: choices between parking for a higher price on the street, or at a lower price in the garage.

But if you listen to DDOT's Damon Harvey, adding choice isn't the point, it's removing choice. He told FOX 5, "we want to make sure that folks utilize the curb space in what we consider to be the correct way." That sounds awfully Big Brotherish for a program that's actually giving more choice. Of course, Harvey isn't entirely wrong; he was trying to explain that DDOT wants to reserve on-street spaces for shorter-term use. But it sounds punitive.

At the meeting, too, Harvey's language unwittingly reinforced the negative perceptions of the parking pilot. In talking about the 95% occupancy, he said that it might be time to "jack up" the price. Harvey kept using that term, "jack up." That carries an enormously negative connotation. When your corner bakery has to make a bagel a little pricier to account for higher wheat prices, they don't put up a sign saying they're "jacking up" the bagels.

In explaining why higher prices might be appropriate, Harvey cited "the literature" which suggests an 85% occupancy rate. However, he never explained to people why the literature recommends 85%. (Answer: 85% is about the rate where there's a space on each block, so most of the time, you can park on the block you want.) 95% doesn't mean much to people. But if you say that most of the time, there are no spaces at all on that block, that makes much more sense.

Harvey even said that he thought perhaps it wasn't a good time to adjust the rates, because the Columbia Heights streetscape is interfering with businesses, and they can't take any more. He probably meant that there's already significant political controversy in Columbia Heights, and maybe it's better to wait for a calmer time. But he didn't talk about it that way. Instead, he talked about how we have to be careful not to hurt businesses. A properly implemented program won't hurt businesses, it will help them. Plus, it's already taken forever to collect data. If DDOT moves slowly and waits until all stars align to do what's clearly the right policy, the pilot will expire before DC ever actually tries performance parking.

One attendee talked about how parking is a problem for the businesses. But when asked whether the bigger problem was too-expensive parking or not-available parking, he replied that availability was the main obstacle. A rate adjustment would fix the bigger problem, availability. It would allow a driver interested in stopping to buy food at one of the ethnic takeout establishments to do so, where today they cannot.

Part of the problem is that at the ballpark, the parking policy really is about discouraging driving. DC is being very up-front: we want people to take Metro. And they are. It's working. Making it hard for baseball fans to park isn't what's lowering attendance at Nationals games. But that's not performance parking at all, it's just anti-parking. The way officials frame that program leaks over into programs like Columbia Heights.

When Michael or I talk about performance parking, we never talk about "jacking up" rates or "forcing" people into garages. We talk about making parking easier. Because that's what it is. Parking is too hard in DC. Even the lede to the Fox 5 story says it. "It's tough enough to find parking in the streets of DC." But then, they add, "This may make it even tougher." That's a common reaction, but it's wrong. Performance parking would make on-street parking change from "virtually impossible to find" to "conveniently available, for a reasonable price." However, journalists and community members aren't going to see performance parking this way unless DDOT frames it this way. And right now, with the "jack it up" and "what we consider to be the correct way" language from Harvey, that's not going to happen, and performance parking isn't going to succeed.


Public Spaces


Arlington: The Rap is a hilarious spoof that lovingly pokes fun at Washington's even-more yuppie-filled western extension. The rap isn't really about Arlington, though; it's about that specific portion of Arlington lying along Metro's Orange line that over the past generation has morphed from sleepy suburb to central city destination. The rap got me thinking: That part of Arlington needs a unique name. People talk about it all the time. Why not give it a single identifier?

"Arlington," after all, refers to the whole 26 square mile county, from Chain Bridge on the north to Four Mile Run on the south, and west almost to Leesburg Pike. "North Arlington" also won't do, since it refers as much to the rolling suburbs north of Route 29 as it does to the Orange Line Corridor. "Orange Line Corridor" itself is too much of a mouthful, as are the other frequent substitutes, "Wilson Boulevard Corridor" and "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor". Even shortening to "R-B" or "R-B Corridor" leaves much to be desired.

But how about "Orangington"? It spells a little awkward, but it sounds verbally clean, fits the blankington scheme used by both Washington, Arlington and Shirlington, and the connection between the neighborhoods in question and Metro's Orange Line is so strong that it's immediately obvious what the name refers to. Normally I'd be hesitant to try and force a contrived name on unwanting locals (Penn Quarter and NoMa, anyone?), but in this case there does seem to be a need and the name does seem to be pretty organic. Indeed, I've been dropping it in casual conversation lately and although I get some "I've never heard that" comments, everyone I've spoken to has understood the reference immediately. It seems a natural moniker for an area that increasingly needs one.

So how about it, folks? Orangington from now on?

Approximate boundaries of Orangington (in orange). View larger map.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.



Before DDOT got to improve safety, a pedestrian was killed at 15th & W

Like the Starburst Interection on H Street NE, many roads come together in a similar shape where New Hampshire Ave, Florida Ave, and W Street meet 15th Street, NW. Saturday's fatality may earn it the nickname Death Star. The MPD news release explains the basics of what happened during broad daylight on Saturday morning:

Image from Google Maps.
At approximately 10:20 a.m. on Saturday, May 30, 2009, an adult female pedestrian was attempting to cross the street in or near the east crosswalk of the intersection of 15th and W Streets, NW. It was at this time when a 1999 Ford Expedition Sport Utility Vehicle traveling northbound on 15th Street, NW attempted to turn east onto the 1400 block of W Street, NW and struck the pedestrian.
Note the absence of a driver in the synopsis. Apparently the SUV was driving itself.
The victim, identified as 63-year-old Ana Marie Canales of the 2700 block of Virginia Avenue, NW, was transported to an area hospital where she was pronounced dead at 10:35 a.m. The investigation into the cause of the collision is currently ongoing by the detectives assigned to the Department's Major Crash Investigations Unit.
The release does not indicate whether the SUV driver was making an illegal right turn or was drunk, speeding, on a cell phone or otherwise distracted. It does not indicate whether the pedestrian was crossing against the signal or how long the pedestrian may have been waiting for a signal before she began crossing. It also does not say whether the driver was charged with a crime. These details may come from the police investigation. "If the pedestrian was in the crosswalk," Assistant Chief Patrick A. Burke said via email, while waiting for the investigation results, "this is obviously another grave violation, which would warrant potential charges."

This intersection is a well-known danger zone. Via email, Councilmember Jim Graham said, "This has been one of those intersections where we need serious re-engineering and design." It's been the subject of fantasy proposals to reduce speeds and improve safety. The nearby intersection of 15th & U is one of the few in the District where crossing signals give pedestrians a head start on turning vehicles, a safety feature that, depending on the exact circumstances of this crash, may have saved the life of Ana Marie Canales. Despite this, it appears that there are no current plans to improve the intersection. The study area for DDOT's reconfiguration of 15th Street begins immediately south of this location. The June 2008 report on alternatives for the reconfiguration simply states that "the District plans, in the future, to study safety improvements at [the 15th & W] intersection."

The future wasn't soon enough for Ana Marie Canales.

Update: It appears DDOT was already studying this intersection, though they hadn't yet been able to make any changes. They've released details of their draft plan.



Press reports avoid human agency for cars but not motorcycles

As we've discussed in the past, reporters have an unusual habit of avoiding any implication that a driver of a vehicle had anything to do with that vehicle's hitting people or objects, running off the road, or any other activity. That's often not the same for bicyclists or motorcyclists.

Photo by 7mary3.

Tom Vanderbilt wrote about a UK study which asked people to describe a scene. When a car appeared in the picture, people generally referred to it as an object, even when the driver was visible. Meanwhile, most participants noted the human bicyclist, even when they could only see the bicycle in the picture.

A Richmond Times-Dispatch road fatality roundup carries the sad news that an Arlington cyclist died in a crash earlier this month. It also provides some entertaining examples of reporter contortions:

  • "Johnny O. Bond, 80, of Mayodan, N.C., was a passenger in a car that was leaving a business when it was struck by another car on U.S. 220."
  • "Janet E. Reichley, 60, of Triangle ... was driving east on Fuller Heights Road when the vehicle crossed onto Perry Street and hit a tree." She is the subject of the sentence as long as the vehicle was driving, but as soon as it hit a tree, it linguistically acted of its own accord.
  • "Heidi Hrdlicka, 33, of Arlington County was killed May 12 after a car hit a bicycle she was on at North Cleveland Street and Lee Highway in Arlington."
  • Kimberly M. Dulaney, 24, and 3-year-old Samantha B. Dulaney, both of Floyd County, were killed Sunday after a car they were in tried to avoid a goose and spun out and hit a tree." Cars can try to avoid geese, now?
Meanwhile, in two crashes involving motorcyclists, the sentences do place the operator as the subject:
  • "Franklin T. Garrett III of Annandale died Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital after he lost control of a southbound motorcycle that day in a curve on South Washington Street and fell and slid into a stopped car near Tinners Hill Street, authorities said."
  • "Chase A. Smith, 20, of Chesapeake was killed May 2 after he wrecked a motorcycle and was thrown more than 100 feet into the woods off Taylor Road in Chesapeake."
If you're on a motorcycle and hit something, you could "lose control," "slide into a stopped car," and "wreck" the motorcycle, but if you're driving, your car is the one to leave a business, avoid a goose, cross the street, and hit a tree.

On the other hand, in this WTOP story says that a man lost control of his SUV and crashed into an electrical pole near Dupont Circle yesterday.

Dehumanizing language isn't the only issue with crash coverage. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Vanderbilt talks about how crash reporting often excludes context, like how drivers or road designers could have prevented the crashes. To the Times-Dispatch's and Virginia police's credit, at least, the crash items above did mention whether the drivers were wearing seat belts and the motorcyclists helmets.

And, of course, however these crashes get reported, it's tragic that these people died on the streets of DC and Virginia.


Public Spaces

Will Columbia Heights inevitably subdivide?

Last week, Columbia Heights residents and the ANC objected to proposed banners that seemed to be rebranding a segment of 14th Street, from Irving to Shepherd, as "Tivoli North." Many argued that Columbia Heights is just beginning to develop a citywide reputation as a desirable place to go, and didn't like the impression that businesses were shying away from the name. That's all true, but I suspect Columbia Heights will eventually become more than one neighborhood whether local leaders like it or not.

One neighborhood, indivisible?

Many maps show "Shaw" encompassing a wide swath from 16th and U to Georgia and Florida down to 14th and M and New Jersey and M. Today, most people call the northern portion of that area the "U Street" neighborhood and the southwestern portion "Logan Circle." Likewise, Sherman and Euclid is very far from 14th and Randolph. They're not in the same ward, and are each as close or closer to other Metro stations than the Columbia Heights station.

The neighborhoods to the east and west, like Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Park View, and Pleasant Plains, are all smaller. Columbia Heights spans a much larger area than "Dupont Circle," which by some measures reaches the southwest corner of 14th and U due to the ANC boundaries. As the blocks in the area develop even more citywide appeal, people will naturally want to explain to their friends where they live, and "Columbia Heights" may simply not be specific enough.

Sure, Chevy Chase DC is even larger in area, but it's also relatively sparsely populated compared to Columbia Heights, has fewer stores, and is much more auto-dependent. When in a car, distances feel smaller, and Chevy Chase can feel like one neighborhood because the typical resident can cross it in five minutes. The typical person in Columbia Heights is on foot, and it takes a lot longer to get from Clifton to Shepherd. Also, there's less inside the boundaries of Chevy Chase to fit into one mental box than in Columbia Heights.

In general, fancier neighborhoods seem to have more names for areas than less affluent ones. The Benning-Minnesota crossroads is often termed "Downtown Ward 7," while only one resident of Georgetown ever calls the area "Ward 2." (Though people do talk about "Ward 3.") Some of this stems from realtors trying to shed the poorer connotations of areas. That's probably why we have "Kalorama Triangle" and "Lanier Heights." Still, there's also a natural desire to better identify one's area.

A friend lived for a short while on Spring Road, and was never sure what to call the area. Is it Petworth? (That's mostly east of Georgia). Sixteenth Street Heights? (The large, fancy houses on 16th are a world away from the row houses near 14th, and separated by a parkway). Does Columbia Heights extend up to Taylor Street, as some tax databases claim? What about people at 15th and Chapin? Is that "Meridian Hill"? "BUCo" (Between U and Columbia Heights)? Or just southern Columbia Heights?

Evenutally, some names are going to stick for the northern and southern portions of this neighborhood. It could be as simple as "Northern Columbia Heights" or (to follow San Francisco's model) "Upper Columbia Heights". Or, they could earn their own monikers. But as more people move to the area and even more people start to have friends in the area, nonresidents' collective mental picture of the area will become more nuanced. People will start to recognize the difference between the part between the area near Howard, the area near DC USA, and the area near Arkansas Avenue. And they'll naturally want language to describe those areas.



Two cases where reporters, police don't dismiss crashes

This morning's Washington Post car crash story, the latest in a sadly regular chain, avoids the "man killed from striking fast-moving bullet" fallacy, the excessive passive voice, and the misleading use of the word "accident" that mar much traffic crash reporting. The story still doesn't assign any criminal responsibility, since that's the police's job. But neither does the reporter, Matt Zapatosky, contort his words as though vehicles magically behaved of their own accord. The lede:

Crash in California (not the one in the article). Photo by Bisayan lady.
A man slammed his sport-utility vehicle into a wall on the Capital Beltway early yesterday, killing a teenage passenger and injuring himself and four others, police said. The man ... was driving on the inner loop near Route 1 in Prince George's County when he lost control of his vehicle and struck the center median, police said.
Zapatosky also calls the incident a "crash", not an "accident". The latter term presupposes that nobody is at fault, while the former is neutral, encompassing all incidents, whether police charges ought to file charges or not. In this case, according to the article, Prince George's County police are investigating that possibility.

Police did file charges in California, against a woman who smashed into a line of cars while texting, killing another driver. The driver, Deborah Matis-Engle, "used her cell phone to conduct three separate bill-paying transactions in the final four minutes and was in the middle of one of those transactions" when she passed through a construction zone at 66 mph, hitting a stationary vehicle and killing the driver, Petra Monika Winn.

Judge Cara Beatty, despite hearing from friends of Matis-Engle that she was a gentle, caring and loving person, made it clear that she was not the same person as a motorist. "She drove without any concept that people might be in her path," she said.
Matis-Engle even kept texting while driving after the crash. Beatty sentenced her to six years in jail for vehicular manslaughter. Many liken driving while texting to driving drunk, as studies have shown drivers to act in a similarly impaired way, dubbed "intexticated".

Tom Vanderbilt writes,

These sentences convey an important truth; that most people involved in negligent driving of this sort aren't "bad people" or homicidal maniacs, and to demonize them in that regard is counter-productive, as it may reinforce the notion among the rest of us that it's the "other person" we all need to be concerned with, that our own driving is "above average," etc. What does need to demonized, rather than blithely accepted and tacitly encouraged, is the culture of multi-tasking while driving. ...

A last point to make is that had the driver been intoxicated, the sentence would surely be higher still. As the science comes in on distracted driving, is the distinction between alcohol and texting going to hold?

This crash and the death of a teenager is a tragedy. So was the death in California. But criminal or not, drivers' behavior can significantly increase or decrease the chance of such tragedies occurring. When reporters properly place the driver rather than the vehicle as the subject of their sentences, and police file charges when drivers act in negligently dangerous ways, we might make a dent in the carnage on the streets.


Excessive passive voice, linguistic detachment observed in Culpeper road fatality

No news story ever began saying, "A person was killed yesterday when he collided with a bullet moving at high speed in the opposite direction." Yet that's exactly how news stories about traffic "accidents" often begin, like this Post story:

Guard rail collides with bottom of car after passenger cabin crushed from impact? Photo by Fetchy.
Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said.

Police said a Chevy Tahoe sport-utility vehicle was driving on the wrong side of a two-lane stretch of Route 3 when it struck the Toyota Corolla about 2:50 a.m.

I didn't know cars could drive themselves, except maybe those in the DARPA Urban Challenge. And it doesn't appear one of those robotic cars was responsible for yesterday's crash in Culpeper. Yet the Post story words itself as though the car drove itself. Of course, a human was driving the car. Neither did the story write itself. We should say, Post reporter Martin Weil wrote, "The driver of the Tahoe was identified as a 29-year-old man." (Identified by whom?)

Just based on the facts in the Post article, we can say, "A 29 year old man was driving his Chevy Tahoe SUV on the wrong side of Route 3 early yesterday when he struck and killed four people in a Toyota Corolla." Why can't the printing press at the Washington Post say that?

Many fields use too much passive voice. MRI reports, for example, read like this: "Mild Straightening of the cervical lordosis is demonstrated. Mild mucosal thickening is incidentally noted at the floor of the sphenoid sinuses." The straightening didn't observe itself. The doctor observed it. Why not just say that on the report?

After doctors, journalists writing about car crashes seem to overuse passive voice the most. Though we only seem to do this for cars, not for bicycles. In the excellent book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt (and not any inanimate object) writes,

In a study, [Ian Walker of the University of Bath in England] had subjects look at various photographs of traffic and describe what was going on. When subjects saw a photograph with a car, they were more likely to refer to the photo's subject as a thing. When subjects looked at a picture that showed a pedestrian or a cyclist, they were more likely to use language that described a person. It somehow seems natural to say "the bicyclist yielded to the car," while it sounds strange to say "the driver hit the bicycle." In one photograph Walker showed, a woman was visible in a car, while a man on a bike waited behind. Although the woman could be clearly seen in the car, she was never referred to as a person, while the cyclist almost always was. Even when she was visible she wans rendered invisible by the car.
Vanderbilt goes on to explain how this psychological bias creates real safety consequences. When we see a cyclist, we tend to look at his or her face. That triggers complex cognitive processing, like trying to identify the person or discern his or her emotions. Those automatic brain functions are great when you see a person across a room or in a dark alley and need to figure out if you know him or her or whether he or she is a threat, but in traffic, it can distract important brain cycles away from the task of not hitting the bicyclist.

Finally, our habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars tends to create assumptions that their actions are not actually someone's responsibility. A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper. It's extremely unlikely his car magically malfunctioned. And even if it did, we don't engage in the same linguistic contortions to say, for example, that a police officer's bullet impacted a suspected robber, who had himself been holding a gun which fired into someone else earlier in the day. That would be silly. So is this.

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