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Roads


Red light cameras work. The Washington Post runs the same old attack on them anyway.

Red light cameras work, but articles saying they don't, based on more innuendo than fact, pop up in the press regularly. The latest example is from Washington Post "Tripping" blogger Frederick Kunkle.


This is a sculpture. There's no penalty for running these red lights. Image by Daniel Guimberteau on Flickr.

DC uses cameras around the city to catch people running red lights. The machines photograph the license plates of cars that run red lights, and a few weeks later the car owner gets a ticket in the mail. The city has 48 cameras set up, and issues thousands of tickets each year.

Proponents argue that the cameras effectively combat dangerous driving, reducing collisions and making streets safer for everyone. Others, while they may broadly agree that there's a need for better red light enforcement, voice concerns that range from whether or not the cameras work properly to people's ability to fight tickets in court to the claim that DC is too dependent on revenue from camera citations.

In a column on Tripping that went up last week, Kunkle mentions that the total number of tickets from red light cameras is down in DC (another way of putting this: fewer people are speeding running red lights), and that a majority of drivers happen to support DC's red light cameras. He also notes that almost all drivers agree that running a red light is a dangerous activity that needs to be curbed. Those two facts alone might be considered good news for many who want to see a government program prove to be popular and effective.

But as he continues, Kunkle spins these facts into negatives. The total number of tickets might be down, he says, but since DC's fines are higher than in Maryland the total amount of revenue collected is higher—a clear money grab by the District. And even though there is a lot of support for the cameras, Kunkle uses the term "slim majority" to hint that red light cameras may be more controversial than they actually are.

This is creating a scandal where there isn't one

Throughout the article, Kunkle quotes speculation from John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, including the thought that the city is playing "dirty pool" by having its yellow lights turn over extra quickly.

DC has not simply shortened its yellow light times, and a look at the big picture makes it clear that there's no money grab happening here. Last year, DDOT changed the timing of hundreds of stop lights across the city, but that included every phase of the light, including pedestrian signals. That's something DDOT needs to do as it works on the incredibly complex issue of creating traffic flow that gives everyone what they want.

Still, even with the lack of evidence, Kunkle fuels the thought that nefarious traffic engineers are out there shortening yellow lights so more people run reds.

Another claim from Townsend that Kunkle leans on is the notion that most red light tickets are somehow erroneously issued for drivers "who stopped beyond on [sic] the intersection threshold line or beyond the stop line but who never crossed the intersection"—as if stopping late and possibly blocking the crosswalk at the intersection are not serious problems in and of themselves.

The fact that different jurisdictions do not always have the same fines should not be a shock. But rule number one in bad traffic camera journalism, it seems, says that you cannot talk about fines unless you openly wonder whether or not the cameras are there for safety or for revenue. Send the message that cameras are there solely for revenue, and you can help ensure that people focus on simply removing the cameras rather than think about ways to improve safety at intersections.

Kunkle is gracious enough to suggest that city's motivations could be about revenue and safety, but the "really makes you think" rhetorical device used across the column is clearly aimed at getting people ready to expect a scandal despite a lack of any evidence.

Traffic safety measures shouldn't turn into us vs. them affairs

Its disheartening to see columnists like Kunkle twist neutral or positive facts into bad things. All it does is play into the narrative about a "war on cars" that tries to shut down any proposal or idea that even loosely appears to treat driving as an equal part of the transportation landscape rather than the primary and superior way to get around.

Worse, these kinds of arguments divert attention away from improving the city's camera program for everyone, drivers included. Even red light camera proponents have ideas to improve them to help ensure they're more effective and fair. For example, our own David Alpert has argued that raising DC's camera fines is the wrong approach to traffic safety—instead, the solution is lower but more frequent citations. Casting red light cameras as evil from the get-go limits conversations about how to make them better.

Insinuations that cameras are about revenue rather than safety, or spinning neutral facts into bad news, do little to inform people about an issue that is important to just about everyone. Once a driver who is under the "threat" of a traffic ticket parks their car and has to cross the street to their final destination, they benefit from safe streets just as much as the next person. The Post should do better.

Correction: This post originally said fewer tickets means fewer people speeding. It meant to say fewer tickets means fewer people running red lights.

Fun


There's a word for that

On a recent post about short bike lanes near intersections, a discussion started up about whether we should use a technical term or simpler ones. To help you learn some transportation lingo, here are some recently-discovered, never-published verses to the Barenaked Ladies' children's song, A Word for That. Listen below first, then read along:

There's a word for that
But I can't quite recall
When cars wait at a corner and I go around them all
The word for that
Some drivers are annoyed
But others say it's safe and isn't something to avoid

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(The word you are looking for is "filtering.")

There's a word for that
It sure is aggravating
To not remember what's the term for how long I am waiting
The word for that
In sun or snow or rain
How far apart arrivals are for any bus or train

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(Do you mean "headways"?)

There's a word for that
It's different every day
Sometimes I walk or ride a bus or go another way
The word for that
When traffic engineers
Ensure the road is safe no matter what your type of gears

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(Are you nuts, it's "multimodal.")

Roads


67 Congress members to feds: Measure the movement of people, not cars

The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they're finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions?

US DOT is developing a metric to assess how well states address congestion. This is a minefield—if the new congestion rule only measures the movement of cars, it's going to entrench 60 years of failed transportation policy. Unfortunately, the first draft of the DOT rule left a lot to be desired.

Reformers have been pushing the agency to revise the rule so it takes a broader, multi-modal view of congestion. Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America reports 19 senators and 48 US representatives have written a letter to US DOT [PDF] demanding a healthier approach.

The Congress members write:

If we focus, as this proposed rule does, on keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: states and MPOs will prioritize investments to increase average speeds for cars, at the expense of goals to provide safe, reliable, environmentally sensitive, multi-modal transportation options for all users of the transportation system, despite those goals being stated in federal statute. This singular focus on moving vehicles undermines the progress this Administration has made on multi-modal planning and investments through the TIGER program. Encouraging faster speeds on roadways undermines the safety of roads for all users, as well as the economic vitality of our communities.

The excessive congestion performance measure should be amended to assess people hours of delay and not just vehicles. This change is critical to account for the many non-single occupancy vehicle users, including transit bus riders and bicyclists and pedestrians traveling along the corridor, which provide critical congestion relief and could be undercounted or even penalized under this measure.

The letter also insists that U.S. DOT require state and regional transportation agencies to assess the impact of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

US DOT is currently accepting comments about the rule change. You can weigh in and help promote a better policy.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Development


DC's 43,766 acres: 25% "roads," 2% high-rises

The District of Columbia spans over 68 square miles. About half its land area goes to buildings, 20% is open space, and over a quarter is "road infrastructure." Among residential land, half is single family detached houses while high-rise apartments occupy less than 2% of DC's total.


Land use in DC, 2006. Graph using data from the Comprehensive Plan.

I created the above chart using data in DC's Comprehensive Plan. That plan divides land into more categories, but for simplicity, I grouped many of them.

It's important to note that "roads" includes a lot of land that's not paved roads. That's because in many neighborhoods, the official public right-of-way includes much or all of people's front yards; the actual property line is at the building or between it and the sidewalk. This "roadway" space covers yards, sidewalks, tree boxes, some grassy areas, and more. Still, it's a big percentage.

The "jobs" category combines any sort of land use relating to where people work (commercial, industrial, public facilities, federal facilities, and institutional land). The "housing" category groups together of all of the housing categories.

The chart below breaks down the housing category:


Breakdown of DC's residential land, 2006.

Out of the almost 30% of DC's land which was used for housing in 2006, nearly half of that was occupied by single family detached homes—about 5,000 acres. The other half was split between rowhouses and low-rise apartments. Only about 4% of land dedicated to housing was occupied by high-rise apartments (so about 1.6% of the total).

This data is from 2006. I would expect some things have changed in ten years, but not everything. The large amount of "permanent open space"—much of it federal parkland—is not going anywhere.

How do these land use patterns affect our growing city? What changes should we expect, or should we advocate for?

History


This video compares LA's streets of 70 years ago to today's

How does a street change in 70 years? In some ways a lot, and in others, not at all, as this video of Los Angeles from the New Yorker shows.

Beyond the increased build-out along the streets, in some places the older streets seem more welcoming to people walking; in others today's streets seem friendlier. While this video is of LA, one can imagine a similar then-and-now for DC.

Would you be willing to create something like this, but for DC? For example, you could grab a Go-Pro and follow the route of the 82 streetcar today.

What else do you notice about the video? Tell us in the comments.

Public Spaces


National links: Hockey as a harbinger

What does outlawing street hockey in Canada say about public space? Germany is building super highways for bikes, and Oakland is getting its first Department of Transportation. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Dave Kuehn on Flickr.

Game Off!!: Fewer people are playing street hockey in Canada. People playing have received tickets for doing so on neighborhood streets, and some kids say a lot of the hockey they play these days has so much supervision and structure that it's boring. Hockey is one thing, but the bigger issue is that kids feel less welcome in public spaces, like streets, than they used to. (Guardian Cities)

Bike super highways: Germany is building a series of bicycle super highways that will soon connect ten cities and is predicted to take 50,000 drivers off the road. The paths are 13 feet wide and fully separated from car traffic, even at intersections. There's a hope that this kind of infrastructure will usher in alternatives to crowded road and transit systems. (Guardian Cities)

New department in town: Oakland, California doesn't have a Department of Transportation, but it's starting one up this month. The interim director says the new agency will lead the way in answering questions about how to design transportation equitably and inclusively and how to design bike infrastructure without putting drivers on the defensive. (Next City)

Urban growth measures: We often compare cities by their population growth over time. Houston has overtaken Chicago as the third largest city in the US, but that's because counts include suburban growth and annexation, not just central city infill. Analysis by Yonah Freemark shows how central cities have changed since 1960, and that we should consider differences in how cities have grown when we talk about transportation policy. (Transport Politic)

A dense definition: The word "density" makes different people think of different things, and it's pretty unclear what it means relative to cities Are we talking about the density of buildings? People? Another quantifiable statistic? Perhaps the best kind of density is when the result is places where people want to go out and be around one another. (City Metric)

Quote of the week

"These are public streets, and navigation apps take advantage of them. Waze didn't invent cut-through traffic, it just propagates it."

Aarian Marshall in Wired Magazine discussing the neighborhood animosity towards the Waze App.

Links


National links: How the highways happened

The US highway system is around partly because of a road trip Dwight Eisenhower took right after WWI, and if our leaders don't invest in our transit infrastructure, we'll have to sit back and hope for the best until they change their minds. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called "Flow," which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they'll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city's multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It's an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they've always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that's coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that's better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

"Drive-ins shifted the film industry's focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl."

- Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Bicycling


DC's harmful traffic law needs to go, one way or another

If a driver hits you while you're walking or biking in DC, the law makes it almost impossible to collect from the driver's insurance. A bill to fix that is suddenly in jeopardy just hours before a scheduled vote. Please ask the DC Council to move it forward.

As of now, DC's "contributory negligence" law says that if a person on foot or bike who is involved in a crash is even one percent at fault for what happened, they can't collect any damages. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015, which is scheduled for a vote today, would let people collect damages as long as they were less than 50% at fault.

Today, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie plans to introduce an amendment that would change exactly how much a person could collect, using a "comparative negligence" standard that basically means that a person's claim to damages would be proportional to their fault in the crash. It looks as though Councilmember Mary Cheh would oppose the bill if it includes McDuffie's amendment.

Efforts to end contributory negligence, which really does have harmful effects, have been going on for years. There are credible arguments for both McDuffie's and Cheh's positions on how to word the new law, but we need to pass one or the other.

With or without the amendment, the proposed bill will improve the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized road users on DC's streets. That is very much needed, especially as the number of people who use our streets for something other than driving continues to swell.

Update: Councilmember McDuffie moved for the Council to vote on the bill on July 12, and his motion passed.

This morning, 75 people sent 450 letters to Councilmembers urging them to do away with contributory negligence, one way or another. Thank you for your efforts, and look for more from Greater Greater Washington on how pass the bill as the vote nears.

Links


National links: Oklahoma City, here we come

If you want to enjoy a good job and an affordable place to live, you might want to head to Oklahoma, Nebraska, or Iowa. San Jose is apparently the weirdest city in the US, and the people who usually build the freeways in Texas are supporting the idea of tearing one down in Dallas. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Matthew Rutledge on Flickr.

Not many housing options: Even when people are willing to make tradeoffs to live in places where housing prices are sky high, it's hard to find quality of life, a good jobs, housing that's affordable all in one place. So hard, in fact, that only three cities in the United States have all 3: Oklahoma City, Omaha, and Des Moines. That's according to a study from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. (Gizmodo)

Weird city science: Cities are full of people and activities that many would label "weird." But which one is actually most different from the county's norm? Based on factors ranging from how many foreign-born workers there are to how many people don't own a car, cotton economist Lyman Stone says it's San Jose, and that Oklahoma City is the least weird. (Washington Post)

Tear down this freeway: Texas' department of transportation, unsurprisingly, loves to build freeways. But in a recent report on what to do with an obsolete downtown Dallas freeway spur, the agency opened up the possibility of thinking less like a typical highway department and more like urban designers, with an option to tear down the freeway and let the city reclaim the land. (Dallas Morning News)

The end of big infrastructure: While there are a few possibilities for national-scale projects we'd benefit from, this author argues that the era of building big infrastructure is over. There just isn't much we could invest in that could bring the return of our railroad or interstate system, meaning smaller, local projects and maintenance should be our priorities. (Transportist)

Ride hailing real talk: Right now, ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are giving cities a binary set of options: do what we want, or we'll leave. That isn't productive, and the conversation needs to change if there is to be a solution that serves both city residents and companies that want to innovate. Luckily, there are examples of good partnerships. (Sidewalk Labs)

Seattle's big slice: In the Puget Sound region, where Seattle is, there are five "taxing areas" within three counties. The Sound Transit projects that each receives are reflective of how much each pays in taxes, and the organization's leader (a former FTA administrator) says it'd be best to have everyone pay for a new tunnel in downtown Seattle because the entire network will benefit from it. (Seattle Times)

Quote of the Week

"It's possible San Francisco may have unwittingly demonstrated what I'm calling the Indiana Jones Theory of Housing Regulation. The idea is that when cities increase the burden on new development, whether through inclusionary zoning, expiring tax breaks, or new building codes, they create a deadline boom, as builders rush to get approval before the new laws can take effect. Like Indiana Jones, builders try to get through before the door closes." - Slate's Henry Grabar, explaining his Indiana Jones theory of housing regulation.

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