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Transit


These are the transit apps our contributors use, and why

Thanks to smartphone technology, we've got a lot more than maps and timetables to tell us how to get from Point A to Point B. But "if you search the app store for 'Next Bus,'" said one of our readers, "a lot comes up. What apps do GGWash readers use? What do they like and what do they hate?"


Photo by Incase on Flickr.

We asked our contributors which apps they use to get real-time transit information, and why. Here's what they had to say:

NextBus

Some prefer the simple interface of NextBus.

Canaan Merchant said: "I use NextBus. Even just going in through my browser. It works well enough for me most of the time though it gets wonky if I'm near the beginning of a route."

"I like NextBus' simple, uncluttered interface," added Malcolm Kenton.

DC Metro Transit

Others (including myself!) have stayed loyal to the tried and true DC Metro Transit app.

Dennis Jaffe said:

"I've been using DC Metro Transit for Android for almost 4 years. I find it simpler, more reliable and more feature-rich than others. Features include:
  • Real time arrival info for transit providers providing the data and schedule info for those not providing it
  • Many transit providers—WMATA, ART, Dash, Circulator, TheBus, CUE/Fairfax and Shuttle UMD
  • Metrorail Map
  • Nearest Metrorail station to your current location
  • Trip Planner for Metrorail
  • Easy-to-create widgets
  • Really excellent, highly responsive support
"DC Metro Transit has worked fairly well for me," said Payton Chung. "No mobile interface can explain something as complex as Metrobus routings, but it's about as good as I've found. Also, I sometimes also use the bus-stop listing to try and figure out whether a given a bus route will get me where I'm going."

Transit

Others love Transit, which provides an all-in-one experience.

"I primarily use Transit for its clean design and ease of use," said Brendan Casey. "I appreciate that this app functions well in most other cities I visit so I don't need to download a local app. Transit is great for seeing arrival times for your regularly used transit routes and also quickly learning where an unfamiliar route can take you."

"Someone in the Greater Greater Washington comments section recommended Transit years ago," said Joe Fox. "The best part about it for me is that I can use it in any city, and I can show someone who has never taken a city bus in their lives how easy it is by pulling up the app.

"The least known part about it is the trip planner (complete with gantt chart style comparison!) and the ability to see published vs. real time schedules without navigating menus."

"Transit is cool in that it also shows CaBi station status and nearby Car2go's, as well as how far away the nearest Uber is," added Malcolm Kenton.

Mixing and matching might be your best bet

Almost all of our contributors used more than one interface, depending on what they need most at the time. For example, Malcolm Kenton said he uses one app for routine checking of arrival times, and another for step-by-step directions. And Joe Fox said he primarily uses Transit, but when he wants to know about Metro delays, he looks to DC Metro Transit or Twitter.

Other apps our contributors mentioned include MARCTracker, RideDC, Moovit (Malcolm Kenton said it incorporates step-by-step directions with real-time tracking), Ridescout (Kevin Beekman said this app has a unique cost estimate comparison feature), and CityMapper (Brendan Casey said it's a great multi-modal trip planning tool).

Also of note, we put together a list of the best iPhone bus tracking apps back in 2013.

What apps do you use? Let us know in the comments!

Do you have a question? We'll pose it to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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Transit


When life gives you buses, make bus-trains

It's very easy to use both buses and trains in Lucerne, Switzerland thanks to a well-planned system that cleverly gets the most out of every line. They've even got "bus-trains," which combine great parts of both modes to make transit available to more people.


Bus-trains on the Schweizerhofquai, a main road in Lucerne. The trailer is unstaffed and pulled by the trolleybus in front. All photos by the author.

Bus-trains are single trolleybuses, which are buses with wires, linked together to make "trains." They're an unusual technology, but the city of Lucerne uses them along busy routes that connect to the old town and the main train station.

Lucerne's lakeside geography forces most cross-town traffic along a single crowded road, the Schweizerhofquai. To meet the demand, the local transit system runs frequent service using high-capacity vehicles, including double-articulated trolleybuses and the bus-trains in addition to the liquid-fuel buses. These bridge the gap between traditional buses and rail, and they both have more capacity and run more smoothly and quietly.

The trailers on bus-trains are detachable, so the front of the train can be a standard, single trolley when there isn't a need for as much capacity.


Double- and single-articulated trolleybuses along the Schweizerhofquai.

But, don't expect bus-trains to appear on H Street NE anytime soon: Lucerne's system is one of only two in the world and may not last much longer, as the aging vehicles are being disassembled and the parts donated to Cuba. Thankfully, a ride on the bus-train has been captured on YouTube.

Transit in Lucerne is great

Whether you need to use bus, bus-train, or the heavy regional rail, the system around Lucerne is seamless, with a single zoned fare system and monitors in train stations showing real-time bus arrivals.


Real-time arrival screen for buses and ferries at Lucerne main station.

The regional rail trains have screens on board that show the final and intermediate stations but switch to show real-time arrivals when pulling into a station with train or bus connections.

Contrast the on-board real-time arrival screen on the left showing departure, destination, and location information for upcoming trains at the Lucerne main station (similar information was shown for buses when arriving at smaller stations) with what's on the new 7000-series Metro train, which only lists the available bus lines by number. Imagine how useful it would be to know whether a connecting bus is about to pull up and you should hurry out of the station, or whether it makes sense to get off the train at all (where a better connection may be available at a later station).


Lucerne regional rail (left) and Metro (right) information screens showing differing amounts of information on connecting services upon entering a station.

As a final illustration of how Lucerne makes transit easy, when visiting a nearby mountain I used a single ticket that included both a funicular ride up the mountain as well as train ticket there and a bus back. These types of combination tickets seem to be common, with the Swiss railways bundling a long distance fare with a day pass for local transit at either the origin or destination (City-ticket) or both the origin and destination (City-city-ticket), further promoting sustainable travel.


Funicular descending from Mt. Pilatus, south of Lucerne

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Transit


See every Metro train and bus on one live map

This map shows the real-time location for every WMATA bus and train in the Washington region. It's a cool way to see how much transit is out there, and where it's running right this second.


Every WMATA bus and train. Image from TRAVIC.

The map is called TRAVIC and was produced by the University of Freiburg. The Washington map was made using using open data from WMATA.

While that map only shows WMATA transit, the same website includes maps for dozens of cities all over the world. You can compare what transit is like in diverse places, from Albuquerque to Paris.


Left: Albuquerque. Right: Paris. Images from TRAVIC.

I'll be staring at this a long time.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


Bus stops around DC are getting real-time arrival displays

If you ride the bus on 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, or Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, it may already be easier to know when your bus is coming. New real-time screens have already appeared on 37 bus stops, and more are coming.


Photo by Reginald Bazile on Twitter used with permission.

The District Department of Transportation is installing these screens in bus shelters on these high-ridership bus corridors. According to Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT, they are part of an initial order of 56, and the agency hopes to have 120 by March.


One of the new signs. Photo from PoPville used with permission.

The money comes from a federal TIGER grant, part of the 2009 stimulus bill. The Washington region won a grant in 2010 to improve bus service.

Many of the projects then stalled for years, and there still isn't new signal priority, where signals adapt to help keep the buses moving, beyond the limited one that had already existed on Georgia Avenue. But it's great to see these screens, which should make riding the bus much less of a mystery.

Not everyone has a smartphone, and not everyone who does knows how to pull up the real-time info. Research shows that people even perceive the wait to be shorter when they have the information than when they don't.

Have you used any of the signs yet?

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Transit


Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

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Transit


DC lost out on $22 million by dawdling on bus priority

Back in February of 2010, it looked like projects to cut down on bus delays were imminent. Our region had received federal stimulus grants to make bus service better and reduce delays. But four years later, they still haven't gotten done.


Photo by hamster! on Flickr.

We've been frustrated at how low a priority DDOT seems to place on bus service and projects to streamline it. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who oversees transportation, and her staff are similarly "disappointed," "frustrated," and "displeased," according to the committee report on the budget.

The report takes DDOT to task for inaction on the projects. It points out that they were estimated to save $5.6 million a year, so if DDOT had actually completed the projects, it could have saved $22 million by now. (And, with a more significant project like a full bus lane on 16th Street, DC could save even more money.)

The money was part of the TIGER grant program in the federal stimulus package, aimed at getting the economy moving quickly by funding "shovel-ready" projects that could create jobs immediately. For the District, the US Department of Transportation approved funding for some queue jump lanes, real-time bus displays at busy stops, and signal priority, along 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, and along two routes from Potomac River bridges to downtown, 14th Street and 18th/19th Street.

Cheh's report points out that "In 2010, DDOT received $12.3 million in federal TIGER grant funds for bus priority improvements along six transportation corridors in the District. Four years later, little progress has been made and 79% of the funds remain unspent." The report lists these budget figures for each line:

Project NameNumberTotal AllotmentsCurrent BalanceOperating Savings
14th St. Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF088$3,717,346$2,526,732$1,000,000
16th St, NW Bus PriorityAF083$565,000$463,060$1,000,000
Georgia Avenue Bus PriorityAF084$3,685,598$3,097,680$300,000
H St./Benning Rd/ Bus PriorityAF085$154,000$153,863$400,000
TR Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF087$3,853,057$3,205,962$900,000
Wisconsin Ave. Bus PriorityAF086$345,000$276,018$2,000,000
Total$12,320,001$9,723,315$5,600,000

The idea of a bus lane on 16th Street gets particular attention from Cheh (and DDOT's inaction, particular scorn):

[T]he Committee remains displeased with the absence in the Mayor's proposed budget of identified funding to improve bus travel on 16th Street. Traffic congestion and bus ridership on 16th Street continue to increase. Although signal prioritization and increased parking enforcement may provide temporary assistance, the District must consider all possible options to remedy this issue.

The Committee recommends that DDOT work with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to conduct a comprehensive study regarding the potential implementation of a bus lane on 16th Street and other possible service improvements, such as off-bus fare collection.

In their responses to oversight questions, DDOT officials explained what hadn't been done yet, without really explaining why it has taken so long. For the signal priority, it has taken local governments many years to agree with WMATA on what technology should go on the buses and the signals. DDOT is transferring the real-time screens over to WMATA.

Bus lanes on a few blocks of Georgia Avenue have gotten through design and are starting procurement "late this spring"; the construction will happen over a year after the contract is awarded (which can sometimes take a while), but will definitely happen before fall 2016, the final deadline for spending the money.

Besides spending millions more than necessary on bus operations and forcing riders to spend more time traveling, DDOT could be hurting its chances to get future federal grants by taking so long.

When the first TIGER grants came out, there were rules letting USDOT reallocate money from jurisdictions that didn't spend and create jobs quickly to those that did. Then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein talked about being ready to snap up some of that money. Instead, the agency he once headed has become one of the laggards.

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Events


Events roundup: Spring has sprung

This week, celebrate spring by helping clean up the Anacostia River and learning about trees in urban environments. You can also talk about bicycling in Montgomery County, bus technology, and safer streets in DC.


Photo by The City Project on Flickr.

Clean up the Anacostia: On Saturday, April 5, the Anacostia Watershed Society is organizing clean-up events in DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Organizers will talk to volunteers about the river and its watershed, and then volunteers will help remove trash from neighborhoods, streams, and the river.

The cleanup activities run from 9 am to noon at 20 sites Volunteers of all ages are welcome. You can register here. At noon, join other volunteers at RFK Stadium for free food, drink, music, and speakers for a post-cleanup celebration.

Montgomery County bicycle summit: Discuss the future of biking in Montgomery County at a bicycle summit on Saturday, April 5. The summit includes a family bike ride, presentations from local bike groups and the Montgomery County DOT, and a panel discussion. It will be at the Jane Lawton Recreation Center (4301 Willow Lane) in Chevy Chase from 9:15 am to noon.

Bus hack night: On Thursday, April 3, find out if data visualizations can make buses sexy (hint: ART and WMATA think so). Speakers from WMATA, ART, and Conveyal, a consulting group, will talk about ways to use data from bus GPS devices to improve service. ART and WMATA have provided data to discuss at this event.

The discussion will run from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Mobility Lab, 1501 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1100, Arlington. You can RSVP here.

Florida Ave transit study: DDOT is holding a public meeting on Wednesday, April 2 to discuss the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study. This study is evaluating traffic safety, streetscape enhancements, and operational improvements for the section of Florida Ave NE from New York Ave to H Street and Benning Road and surrounding roads.

Tony Goodman has written about the options DDOT will present at the meeting, which will take place at the Two Rivers Public Charter Middle School (1234 4th Street NE) from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

Learn about urban arboreta: Nate Heavers, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech, and Ray Mims, of the US Botanic Garden and Sustainable Sites Initiative, will give a presentation on the history of planting trees in public spaces in DC and Alexandria.

After the talk there will be a Q&A session and a reception. This free event takes place on Tuesday, April 1 from 7:00 to 9:30 pm at 1021 Prince Street in Alexandria. You can RSVP by emailing udseminar@vt.edu.

Who hears opinions on public projects?: Many of you share your thoughts on public projects on social media, but that doesn't mean agencies making decisions see it. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agencies handle official versus unofficial feedback and resident input that comes in using newer technology.

NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The event is Wednesday, April 9, 7:00-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.

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Transit


What's the best iPhone bus tracking app?

After the "NextBus" iPhone app disappeared last year, bus riders found themselves searching for a new app to track the locations of buses. Since then, a host of new apps have appeared to fill the void. But is there such a thing as the "perfect" app for iPhone owners?


Image from the author's phone.

I tested 4 iPhone apps to see which one made it easiest to find bus information: NextBus by Cubic, DC Next Bus by Junebot, BusTrackDC by Jason Rosenbaum, and iCommute DC Lite by AppTight, the reincarnation of the previous NextBus application.

Three of these apps are available for free from the iTunes Store, while NextBus's is actually a website whose shortcut you can place on your home screen.

These apps' user interfaces fall into two categories: map-based and text-based. The map-based apps make it easier to find bus stops, and they are handy when you aren't sure where the nearest bus stop might be or the buses that pass through. However, map-based apps are more difficult to use in spots with many bus stops close together.

Meanwhile, more experienced bus riders who already know the location of bus stops or which bus route to take may prefer a text-based app. You can quickly filter through unnecessary information to get prediction times for a specific route.

Some apps have other regional bus systems besides Metrobus, such as Circulator, Ride On, and ART, while many don't.


Left: BusTrackDC. Right: DC Next Bus.

Map-based apps

Both map-based apps, BusTrackDC and DC Next Bus, automatically find your location on a map in relation to surrounding bus stops. They use standard map pins to represent bus stops; you can see what routes serve each pin by tapping on them.

This works well except in areas with numerous bus stops and routes in the same area, such as Silver Spring or downtown DC. The map pins are so close together it becomes frustrating to obtain information on the intended bus route, let alone the direction.

Meanwhile, on both apps I sometimes got "No Prediction" for various bus routes, but if I touched a different bus stop location farther down the street along the same bus route, I could get a timed prediction. DC Next Bus has the option to turn on Ride On data but says that it's unreliable, while neither app provides DC Circulator information.

Text-based apps

The two text-based apps, iCommute DC Lite and NextBus, are designed differently. Users of the defunct "NextBus" app, will find the interface of iCommute DC Lite very familiar, since the creators of the old NextBus app built iCommuteDC Lite.

If it's confusing that one app called NextBus went away and its developers now call the app iCommute DC Lite while there's another option called NextBus by Cubic, you're not alone. It's because there were 2 companies called NextBus which had split apart years ago. The one that ran the real-time predictions on the WMATA site (also called "NextBus") provided data to the other; the 2nd one licensed it to the people who now make iCommuteDC.

The relationship ended, the app died, and the developers rebuilt the app with a new name and a data feed direct from the first NextBus company, which around the same time was bought by Cubic, maker of the SmarTrip system and other transit technology.


iCommute DC Lite.

iCommuteDC Lite gives you two ways to view information: you can see stops nearby your current location, or pick a specific agency and then a route from that agency. This app supports many transportation agencies, including Metrobus, DC Circulator, ART, and CUE.

If you select stops based on your location, the app only displays a route number and not which operator the route corresponds with.


NextBus by Cubic.

Nextbus by Cubic has a simpler, more readable format, using the whole screen to display the bus routes nearest you. Once you select a route and desired direction, the app opens up a map with the real-time location of each bus along that route, something none of the other apps do.

This app also provides alerts to current problems or delays with each transit provider. It also works outside of the DC Metro area, providing bus information on the Charm City Circulator, Collegetown Shuttle, JHMI Shuttle, and the University of Maryland shuttle buses in Baltimore. However, this app only shows systems that contract with NextBus/Cubic, which means Arlington ART and Ride On don't appear.

During testing, I encountered times when the NextBus by Cubic app had predictions for some Metrobus lines, while other apps returned "No Prediction." All of the Metrobus data ultimately comes from the same transponders on the buses, so it should be identical, but since NextBus/Cubic is WMATA's vendor, if any errors creep into the WMATA API then they might affect all apps but not NextBus.

WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson says that a March data feed included some incorrect stop ID numbers, which can affect apps that use a particular method of accessing stop IDs. Anderson was able to confirm that one specific example I sent over, for the 96 bus in Adams Morgan, was a consequence of this problem. He said WMATA staff are working to correct the data and coordinating closely with developers to help them with any problems.

NextBus by Cubic's data isn't perfect, either. At one point, for example, the Metrobus S2 and S4 routes didn't appear even while standing at an S2/S4 stop on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The well-known problems with "ghost buses" and other common errors in the actual predictions will also affect all apps.

Which app should you use?

All four apps have their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to install more than one, and can use a text-based app when you know what bus you want and a map-based app when you don't.

Especially for experienced riders, NextBus by Cubic is hard to beat for usability. Its text-based interface is easy to read, quick to filter information for all operators, and offers more bus systems than the other apps. It also sometimes returned predictions when the others did not.

Riders who use multiple bus systems may also need more than one app. If you want to ride the DC Circulator, BusTrackDC or DC Next Bus won't help you. NextBus by Cubic has the greatest number of bus systems, but not ART and Ride On.

Have you tried these apps? Which one do you find most useful for your daily commuting needs?

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Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

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