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If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.


DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.


Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.


After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.

Roads


Use this map to share your ideas for better east-west travel across DC

Is it frustrating to try to travel from Columbia Heights to Brookland on foot, bike, bus, or car? The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it easier to travel east-west in this area, and a new interactive map lets you point out problems.


Map by DDOT. map. Click for an interactive version.

This WikiMap is part of DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study, the goal of which is to improve all modes of travel between 16th Street NW and South Dakota Avenue NE. It lets users identify problems with and suggest solutions for
walking, riding a bike, driving, transit, public space, parking, and intersections, and is a user-friendly way to participate in DDOT's search for long-term solutions.

People who frequently commute by foot, bike, bus, car, or other means through the corridor have firsthand knowledge on the area's congestion, safety, and streetscape issues. They're also likely to have ideas on how these issues can be addressed to improve transportation mobility and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beyond the crowdsourced map, DDOT recently kicked off the first in a series of public meetings for the project aimed at gathering feedback.


A map of the study area.

The interactive map will be available on DDOT's website (just click the first image in this post) for several months.

Roads


Reston wants urban street grids around future Metro stations

Fairfax County wants to make it easier to walk, bike, and drive in Reston, especially to current and planned Silver Line stations. A new street grid and three ways to cross the Dulles Toll Road are part of the plan to make that happen.


Image from Fairfax County

The county's Department of Transportation recently kicked off the Reston Network Analysis, which is focused on finalizing the grid of streets necessary to support the coming development around three new Metro stations in Reston.

Ideas for near the stations include new bike lanes, adjusted traffic signals, and re-striped roads, as well as realigned or wider roads. It's also possible that Fairfax will build new roads in these areas.


Proposed bike facilities in Reston. Image from Fairfax County.

One of the Reston-wide improvements is the Soapstone Drive Overpass , which will provide another connection across the Dulles Toll Road and a new way to get to the Wiehle-Reston East station.

There will also be a Town Center Parkway Underpass to provide an additional connection across the Dulles Toll Road to help relieve Fairfax County Parkway and Reston Parkway. It will also provide a direct connection from the transit-oriented developments to the north and south of the Reston Town Center station.

A November presentation also mentioned a South Lakes Drive Overpass. The connection would be similar to the Soapstone over pass, allowing for pedestrian, bikes, single-occupancy-vehicles and busses to cross the Dulles Toll Road without using Wiehle Avenue or Hunter Mill Road.


The Reston Transportation Study Area. Image from Fairfax County.

The study will also look at ways to improve four specific areas: Reston Parkway from Lawyers Road to Baron Cameron Avenue; Fairfax County Parkway at Spring Street; Fairfax County Parkway at Sunrise Valley Drive; and Rock Hill Bridge, which connects Loudoun County and Fairfax County over the Dulles Toll Road.

These areas are under consideration because they are important parts of Reston's transportation network and are currently over capacity or will be after the redevelopment around the Metro stations occurs. The study will also look at how to make it easier to bike and walk in these areas.

The Hunter Mill Supervisor has appointed the Reston Network Analysis Advisory Group to help staff develop and test ways to make the street grids better.

In 2015, the Fairfax Department of Transportation presented a report that summarized existing conditions by looking at traffic counts from mid-2015. Among the key findings in the report:

  1. During evening commutes, the intersection of Wiehle and Sunset Hills rates an "F" for level of service
  2. The planned grid of streets will make pedestrian access and mobility near transit stations better
  3. The report also published baseline vehicle volume levels near current and future Silver Line stations
For future trips that come from more density around the coming Metro stations, the goal is to cut vehicle trips within a quarter mile of the stations by 45%.

Members of the public can learn about and comment on the project at a meeting on Monday, February 1 from 7-9 pm at Lake Anne Elementary School, which is at 11510 North Shore Drive in Reston. You can also contact project manager Kristin Calkins at Kristin.Calkins@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Roads


How snow exacerbates the weaknesses of suburban road design

A lot of people had awful commutes Wednesday night, thanks to snow. And a lot of people had fine ones. One explanation for the difference: Suburban roads are far more susceptible to catastrophic breakdown than urban street grids.


Traffic congestion on Wednesday night. Image by Brendan Casey from Google Maps.

Snowstorms like Wednesday's highlight how easy it is to completely shut down suburban-style transportation systems. And conversely, how comparatively resilient are more urban systems.

Cities beat suburban areas on snow resiliency in two big ways: Multimodalism and network connectivity.

First and foremost, with transit, walking, and biking more convenient options, cities are simply much less reliant on having clear roads. Metrorail worked like a dream yesterday, and pedestrians had a lovely commute.

It simply didn't matter how bad the roads got for a significant percentage of DC's travelers, because they simply weren't on the roads while they traveled.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket

But that's not all. Even for car drivers, urban street grids are more resilient than road systems focused around large highways, because of how they're laid out.

The great thing about interconnected grids is that if one street becomes blocked, there's another perfectly good street one block over. And another one block down.

If a wrecked car or fallen tree or whatever blocks the street you're on, you just take a different street. There might be some additional turns involved; it might not be quite as direct. But for the most part 28th Street isn't all the different from 29th Street.

Contrast that with suburban-style systems where all traffic in a particular area funnels onto one big highway. If that one highway becomes impassible, everyone in the area is stuck. Or, at best, they have to drive miles out of their way to find the next big highway.

This illustration shows how that works. If the "Collector Road" gets jammed, people in the top half of the image can still move around. People on the bottom half can't.


Suburban-style roads vs urban street grid. Image from USDOT.

That's part of what happened last night. There were a lot of accidents crashes. If they happened on arterial highways with no parallel roads, which a lot of them did, that road would succumb to gridlock.

Urban places aren't immune, but they're better off

To be sure, this storm was bad for roads all over the region.

Streets in Northwest DC were just as dangerous as those elsewhere, and DC's plowing response was bad. And buses were every bit as stuck in it as cars.

But there's no doubt that people who could travel via Metro or foot had a much better time, and there's no doubt that drivers who could use parallel streets were able to bypass some of the congestion on arterials.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


In rural Maryland, a saint watches over drivers

Traffic heading north on I-95 out of DC can test even the most patient traveler. The next time you're headed to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, you might want to say a little prayer to Our Lady of the Highways, a roadside memorial in Childs, Maryland, north of Baltimore.


Photo by cranberries on Flickr.

You'll find Our Lady of the Highways on I-95 northbound in Cecil County between exits 100 and 109, near the underpass for Blue Ball Road. On a foggy night in October 1968, there was a horrific 17-car crash at this spot, which killed three people. The Oblates, a group of priests, erected the statue in 1968 (and replaced it in 1986) to commemorate the tragedy and encourage other drivers to be more careful.

Our Lady of the Highways isn't the only transportation-oriented saint. There are also patron saints for cycling, air travelers, and motorcyclists, among others.

History


Here's a map of the highways that almost ran through DC

In the late '60s, there were plans to build the Three Sisters Bridge and elevated highway system in DC. Luckily, they fell through. A recent Washingtonian piece detailing the story made us want to re-publish GGWash editor Dan Malouff's post on just how may highway-sized bullets we've dodged:


click to enlarge
Map based on 1958 Basic Freeway Plan. Click to enlarge.

This is a map of the Washington that would have been if mid-century planners, dedicated as they were to driving and the clearance of historic neighborhoods, had their way. It's a the highway network proposed for the region during initial planning of the Eisenhower Interstate System, in 1958.

Each of these canceled highways, shown in red on the map, has its own story. Some were canceled due to civic activism, others because later proposals in the 70s preempted them, and others due to good old fashioned sanity.

Because they were never built, entire neighborhoods that might have been wiped out were saved, downtown was never physically cut off from its surroundings (except to the south), and millions of dollars were reallocated to construction of the Metro. Because these highways were canceled, Washington is the beautiful, walkable, vital city that we know and love today.

Most other American cities weren't so lucky. Their highways were built, their neighborhoods demolished, and their downtowns converted to parking lots.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


Hey look, that flawed Texas A&M traffic study is back and grabbing the usual headlines

The Texas Transportation Institute today released another one of its periodic reports on traffic congestion. This one ranked the DC area first in delay per car commuter. The last report, in 2012, came under considerable criticism for its flawed methodology, and the new one doesn't seem to have changed much, though its author sounds a little more sophisticated about possible solutions.

The report, from Texas A&M University, looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city has worse roads? By TTI's methods, it's Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

(Note: This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2011. That's because just about everything I wrote then is still relevant.)

Critics like Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute and Joe Cortright of CEOs for Cities have pointed out these problems each time TTI releases a new study with an accompanying press blitz, but TTI continues to focus on the same metrics. For example, in the 2012 report, TTI ranked Portland as worse than Nashville, with a Travel Time Index (TTI) of 1.15 for Nashville and 1.23 for Portland. However, because of greater sprawl, Nashville commuters spent an average of 268 hours that year commuting, while the average Portland commuter spent 193 hours.

Does this mean build more roads?

What does this mean for public policy and the Washington region? TTI's data is often used to justify spending money on new freeway capacity, since congestion sounds bad. Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, told the Post's Ashley Halsey III in 2012, "You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there's a need for more capacity."

"That we are congested is not news, but TTI's report does tremendous damage, because they fail to recognize the primary cause of our congestion and imply that we could simply widen roads to build our way out of the problem," said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, about the 2012 report.

Perhaps responding to the criticism Lomax received for his one-sided push for road construction, he seems to have softened his tone somewhat. This year, Lomax told Halsey, "It's going to be hard to figure out how you scale up [the Capital Beltway] to make it accommodate another million people, 20 or 25 percent more travel demand. We need to figure out how to use our existing capacity smarter."

Lomax did talk about squeezing more cars on the road through technology like car automation that can run cars closer together. But he also suggested how technology can remind drivers when transit might be a better option:

Say you're commuting in from Manassas: Your computer looks at your calendar, sees that it's a regular commute day and that the weather's going to be terrible so traffic is going to be bad, and there's already been a big crash on I-66. So, your computer goes out and finds the VRE train schedule and the bus schedule, and here's the Metrorail schedule and where it drops you off. So, at 5:45, you're shaved and showered and your computer presents you with your travel options for today.

Traffic in Houston. Photo by TexasDarkHorse on Flickr.

The real solution is to reduce dependence on long commutes

Technology can help people get around more easily, but there are bigger-picture policies as well to help people not have to drive so far in the first place. To do that, we need to concentrate future growth around existing hubs with more residents, jobs, and multimodal transportation.

That's what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has been trying to push with its Region Forward plan and the related "What Would It Take?" scenario (PDF). These involve focusing development in places like Tysons Corner and the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax, around underutilized Metro stations in Prince George's, future ones in Loudoun, and MARC and VRE hubs in Maryland and Virginia.

Arlington achieved substantial job and resident growth in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor without adding to traffic congestion, as has Montgomery with growth in Silver Spring and Bethesda and DC development in places like NoMA and the Capitol Riverfront area. Regional leaders should be less concerned with speeding up existing cars, which just leads to sprawl farther out, and invest more in finding ways to grow the region without adding traffic.

In fact, that's just what the DC region has done. Another, better part of TTI's 2012 analysis (which I don't see in the 2015 report) measures the amount of time savings that come from each region's transit; DC was 3rd best. That metric still doesn't account for the value of people living nearer to their jobs, however.

Washington has grown while managing congestion

Between better location and transit, page 50 of the original report (now not online) showed congestion did not increase from 1999 to 2012 even on TTI's flawed scale. That means our region had been successfully growing without adding traffic. Instead of "Washington area tied with Chicago for traffic congestion, study finds," which was the 2012 Post headline, it could have read, "Washington area's traffic hasn't gotten worse in a decade thanks to smart growth."

In his article about this year's report, Halsey reported that "traffic delays in most parts of the country have bounced back to pre-recession levels." But in Washington, the TTI report's numbers hardly budged from 2012 to 2014, according to the Excel spreadsheet you can download.

The Silver Line, which opened between the last TTI report and this one, reduced traffic by 15% at some intersections while also offering many people new choices to get to work.

These smart growth approaches work. They slow the rate of traffic worsening while letting regions grow by helping people not have to drive so much or so far. Our region simply has to follow through.

Update: Joe Cortright has written a new critique of the latest TTI report at City Observatory, and Todd Litman picks apart the report in Planetizen.

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