Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Security

Government


Proposal for a huge Capitol security zone gets low marks

Could a bigger security zone around the US Capitol enhance downtown and protect Congress? Most of our commenters say such an idea would instead deaden a large area for little actual security benefit.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The recently-retired head of security for the US Senate thinks there should be a big security zone, closed to motor vehicles, all the way to Union Station and east to 2nd Street. Washington Post columnist Bob McCartney recently wrote about this and said, "I support Gainer's vision, for the sake of both security and expanding green space downtown."

While some might think that an urbanist site would support more green space (and, perhaps, cheer removing space for cars), our community did not agree with McCartney. And we're not anti-car; a grid of streets is a good element of cities.

Thayer-D wrote,

The recommendation to turn the Capitol building into a multi-block secured campus is a horrible idea. Obviously some buffer and enhanced security is necessary, but the threats to all our cities are unbounded. No amount of buffer will truly keep us safe if someone is determined enough to cause havoc. Plus,the security state atmosphere that will result would be a shame.
RDHD added:
When I first read the headline I thought 'Ooh, a car free zone would be really nice.' Then I read the article and got the scary feeling that this guy would turn the city into a police state if he had his druthers. The city could quickly become nearly unlivable given the number of things that could be protected to the degree he thinks they should.
And Birdie pointed out,
The Capitol Police already prohibit large trucks from the streets immediately surrounding the Capitol. They have officers posted at key locations to divert truck traffic, along with signs announcing where trucks have to turn. Is it perfect? No. But I'd much rather put up with that system than further indulge Gainer 's love of security theater and cutting off the Capitol complex from the rest of the city.
McCartney noted that closing Constitution and Independence would be terrible for traffic. Commenter KingmanPark echoed this.
Blocking such a huge section would force crosstown traffic to the North and South, where east-west connections are already congested. Traffic would become a nightmare, and you'd also slow down crosstown buses such as the X2 and eventually the streetcar.
Could there be a silver lining for urbanism?

Others wanted to consider how, if such a proposal were to happen, it could work well, or at least better. AWalkerInTheCity said,

This is a place where we get to think radically about transportation options. Though I am often a moderate [with respect] to auto usage, I too sometimes like to engage in such radical thinking. I know many folks here hate security theater, but I can imagine some HUGE upsides to the proposal. Can we at least think how, if this were adopted for security reasons, it could be connected to bike infra in order to become a regional asset? ...

A no car zone to union station would solve the MBT to the Mall/PA Ave gap in the bike network. It would also absolutely require improved transit access to Union Station. Transit vehicles could be expempt - much as buses are (I think) allowed closer to the Pentagon than private vehicles.

But others disagree that such a change could ever be positive. Neil Flanagan wrote,
You can't turn Gainer's plan into urbanism. It's not just closing streets, it's about eliminating mixed use and enclosing what should be open spaces. There's not much left of urbanism without those.

It violates the fundamental part of walkability and vibrancy: having something to go to. No matter how "green" and carfree a space is, it's dead without a reason to be there.

The mall doesn't need to become an even larger isolated monoculture, no matter how much "park" space that returns.

The outer grounds of the Capitol are a dead zone. When was the last time you went to the Taft Carillon? Or those parks Dan Malouff pointed out?

Would it be like Pennsylvania Avenue?

Some commenters pointed to Pennsylvania Avenue as a fairly successful car-free space, though Kingman Park noted that Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House isn't open to transit vehicles, either. And Falls Church said

It took many years of debate and lobbying for the park service to redesign PA Ave in front of the WH into the nice space it is today. For a decade after PA Ave was closed, it looked like the uninviting, inhospitable areas that are closed around the Capitol. Only because the national spotlight gazes on "1600 Penn Ave" was pressure to make it into a nice space successful. I doubt the proposal for closing down additional areas around the Capitol would result in anything different than the areas that are already closed.

Also, the feds didn't pay for any additional transit that was needed to replace the lost vehicular capacity after PA Ave was shut down. Unlikely they would do it for shutting down more of the area around the Capitol.

Jasper predicted that any such plan woudn't create real pedestrian-oriented zones or green space, but rather just mean more fenced-off parking for people who work at the Capitol (like the White House has done with the E Street area, for example).

He said, "This plan would, of course, immediately start with a massive list of vehicles that would be excepted to the rules. Police vehicles, politicians vehicles, security vehicles, emergency vehicles... You know, pretty much all vehicles Congress would need, except those of 'We the People' that Congress serves."

Alex B. agreed:

The existing track record for security closures becoming good public spaces is very poor. The closed streets around the capitol are hardly car-free, they are just closed to public traffic. They instead get used for staff parking. There is little to no benefit from improved bike access, since the gates are not bike friendly and the police direct bikes onto sidewalks. Transit routes are forced into costly detours around the cordons.
Is this really necessary for security?

Gainer said it's important to act because "Action after something happens is fighting the last war." But commenter Falls Church begs to differ:

Gainer is the one trying to fight the last war. The next attack isn't likely to come from some obvious source like the truck bomb that was used in the 1993 WTC bombing. It will be from some absurdly weak link that no one is thinking about. Probably something having to do with cybersecurity. If the US can control Iran's nuclear centrifuges using an embedded virus, surely a hacker terrorist could control some critical electronic component in or near the Capitol building to wreak havoc.

Gainer reminds me of the French in WWII who heavily fortified their border with Germany. Then Hitler invaded France via Belgium, totally bypassing the fortified Maginot Line.

AWalkerInTheCity wouldn't dismiss the concern so quickly:
Not sure how much Gainer is thinking in a knee jerk way, and how much is serious concern about truck bombs. Truck bombs are quite real, are a problem overseas, and prior to 9/11, they were the instrument IIUC of the biggest terrorist attack on American soil (at Oklahoma City.) Now that aircraft have their cockpits locked, trucks are likely the biggest non-cyber physical terrorist threat. I am not sure I am qualified to dismiss that because TSA makes old ladies take their shoes off or because we have too many ugly bollards.

Transit


Metro bag searches aren't always optional

If you refuse a bag search at a WMATA subway station, Metro Transit Police may follow you if you leave and even if you board a bus. That's what happened to me Tuesday morning in Shaw.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

I entered the Shaw Metro station with a bag containing my lunch and my laptop. An officer waved me aside on the north mezzanine and told me to put my bag on the table for inspection. Stunned that I was being stopped without cause, I asked the officer if he had a warrant. He said that if I refused, I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation."

I refused the search, which is mostly about theatrics than actual security. I didn't want to enable what critics have labeled "security theater", the symbolic show of force to give the appearance of protection. In fact, WMATA admits that since they don't search every bag, it's really more about perception, providing "an additional visible layer of protection." Putting on a show is not a good reason to rummage through people's personal items and I didn't want to enable that behavior and belief.

By agreeing to an "optional" WMATA search, I was afraid I would also be inadvertently consenting to a search of my laptop, which would be an abusive and unreasonable intrusion for a transit agency. I wasn't sure if the officers were properly trained to know the nuances of what was and wasn't an appropriate search. How would you even argue with an officer who believes random bag checks at one station actually deter terrorism, anyway? It's like arguing the plot in a fiction novel: the very premise is that facts only partly matter.

Remembering reports that Metro Transit Police only set up searches at one entrance, I pointed to the south mezzanine and said, "I can use that entrance," and the officer said nothing. I left the north entrance to walk to the south entrance a block away.

As I descended the escalators to the south mezzanine, I spotted more officers in the distance. Realizing that the answer would probably be the same at this entrance. I calmly turned around and left, deciding to catch the bus instead.

Little did I know that Metro Transit Police would follow me there. I boarded the 70 bus, which runs above the Green and Yellow lines on 7th Street NW and SW. Two officers got on behind me. Their vests were marked with the word "Terrorism" (perhaps, "Anti-Terrorism" or "Counter-Terrorism", I don't remember which), so clearly they were not there to investigate a fist fight, theft, or fare evasion.

One officer took a seat and another stood, mostly watching his phone. Neither of them said anything to me.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, I thought. Why would police follow me for refusing a supposedly "optional" search, even after I was told I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation"? I was on another mode, after all.

When the bus reached H Street, where I intended to transfer to the Red Line, I paused a moment in my seat, to see what the officers were doing. They remained on the bus. I then got up and stood in line to leave the front of the bus. As I neared the front door, I looked back and noticed that one of the officers had left the back door of the bus and was standing outside.

To test if he was following me, I then sat down in a seat at the front of the bus, and the officer re-boarded the bus through the back door. The driver closed the doors and I asked her if she could reopen it so I could leave. She pushed the door mechanism, which reopened the front and the back door and I left the bus.

As I left the bus at the front door, the officer standing at the back door, partly hanging out the bus, waved and smiled at me through the glass of the rear open door. This act was about sending me a message: if you refuse a search, you will be followed, which is itself a form of intimidation.

WMATA's stated policy allows customers to refuse the allegedly optional search. "Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection," it says.

While you may be "welcome to use another mode of transportation," bag searches aren't really optional if Metro Transit Police follow you and deliberately make it known that they're following you.

Public Spaces


Then & now: Welcome to MLK Jr. Memorial Library

"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.


Photos by the author.

Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."

The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.

"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.

How time flies.

Air


How long is the security line at Dulles?

Dulles Airport built two huge security checkpoints in 2009, but somehow it still can take a very long time to get through security, especially at busy times when a lot of international flights are soon to leave. How long does it really take? Now we have some data.


Photo by steve buttry on Flickr.

Last August, Dulles installed new systems that estimate the wait time at each checkpoint. Cameras connect to computers which try to judge the wait based on the size of the line and the rate of people clearing the checkpoint. You can view the wait times on the web or a smartphone, and screens at the airport show the estimated times so travelers can pick the shorter line.

I set up a system to automatically capture the wait times every 5 minutes, beginning September 23. It's been running for a little over 6 months now, which gives us a good set of data to analyze.

The west checkpoint is the one on the right when you're facing the terminal. It's closer to Daily Garage 2, and also the exit from customs, and is near the first stop on the shuttle buses. Here are the wait times across the average weekday:


Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

There are some peaks at busy times of day, like early morning, just before noon, and especially late afternoon (when all of the flights to Europe leave), but it's fairly consistent.

The east checkpoint, however, has far more variation:


Average wait at the east checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekdays.

Here, the wait times are very low except right around the peak times. This camera seems to report a minimum time of 2 minutes; even in the middle of the night, when the checkpoint is closed, it shows 2 minutes.

Any ideas why this one varies more? Is the volume of people checking in at United or other counters on that side more uneven than on the airlines with west side counters or passengers re-entering after clearing customs? Does TSA staffing vary more? Does the fact that shuttles drop people off first at the west side drive more, and more even, demand to that side?

What about weekends?

Those are weekdays. Are weekends different? Regional transportation always shows huge differences between weekdays and weekends, like Capital Bikeshare usage data, but airlines run pretty much the same schedule 7 days a week. And, in fact, the pattern is little different except the average wait time is slightly less on weekends:


Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.


Average wait at the west checkpoint for each 5-minute segment, weekends.

Which checkpoint is better?

Which checkpoint should you take? The best strategy is to actually look at the monitors, but most likely it will tell you to head east unless it's a peak time, when its lines get long:


Probability the east checkpoint has a longer wait for each 5-minute segment, 4 am-10 pm.
Shaded areas show times the probability exceeds 50%.

How big are the differences? If one is better, is that a strong difference? Especially with the real-time screens, you'd expect a lot of travelers to move toward the checkpoint with the shorter line, but apparently not enough do to keep the two balanced.


Differences in waits between the east checkpoint and west checkpoint per 5-minute segment.

This graph shows the size of the typical differences between the two. The center line is the median difference, and the darker area the middle 50% of times; as in the above chart, east usually has the longer lines during these peaks while west is worse at other times.

Still, there is plenty of time when the difference between the two is quite significant, assuming the equipment is accurate. If you have to fly through Dulles, a perfect symbol of how our nation once built great public works but now barely bothers to keep them up and makes new improvements on the cheap, you'll already have long drives and walks to get to your gate; you might as well minimize the wait in those interminable security lines.

Public Spaces


A closed street can be a living street

On sunny days, Lafayette Square is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.


Photo by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr.

Although two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to "living street."

A woonerf is a low-speed street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over drivers. In practice, cars, bikes, and people on foot mix freely. Unlike a standard woonerf, Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't regular drivers, but it has taken on many of the elements of the woonerf. Security needs can also close them at a moment's notice. Therefore, I like to call this a "security woonerf."

Since the mid-1990s, cordoned-off areas have popped up throughout the city. Yet, few of them could be called security woonerven. Could this change?

The two most prominent security woonerven in DC are on the east side of the US Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. In these areas, activity takes place mainly on foot or on a bike.

Although security vehicles operate in those areas, they're parked most of the time, so pedestrians and cyclists essentially have the run these spaces. These two locations are obviously popular with residents and visitors alike. Both are now important hubs in DC's expanding bicycle network and as important activity centers for all manner of activity: tourism, lunch breaks, leisurely strolls, running, you name it.

Following the tragedy at Oklahoma City in 1995, federal planners redesigned facilities to minimize risks to important buildings from motor vehicles. All across the city, barriers went up, starting with jersey barriers, giant planters, and police roadblocks.

Over time, these evolved into permanent hardened perimeters with bollards, sally ports, guard gates, and delta barriers. As much as possible, these elements were planned with an eye toward improving aesthetics, or at least in comparison to original concrete jersey barriers.

While the two security woonerven at the White House and the Capitol are great assets to the city, other cordoned-off areas are not.

The security professionals who planned these facilities gave little consideration to bicycle and pedestrian access. The spaces are attractive for walkers and bikers by default, because of their lack of traffic. However, it often isn't easy to travel into or through the perimeter of these areas.

Another security woonerf is in the works for E Street, south of the White House. As many commenters noted during the design competition, though, cyclists appeared to be an afterthought in most of the submitted proposals.

Often, small tweaks could really improve access into these potentially great spaces. Even Lafayette Square has access issues on the north side at the Madison Place sally-port.

The State Department closed C Street NW and segments of other roads next to their Foggy Bottom headquarters, but they have not replaced the jersey barriers and planters with bollards and other elements more hospitable to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The House and Senate office buildings have several cordoned streets around them that only admit authorized cars, but the access points are difficult to get through by bike.

Although Union Station has closed off driving access through Columbus Circle for security, the space was subsequently devoted to passenger pick-up and drop-off, making this potential security woonerf very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, work already underway on the Circle will improve upon current conditions.

Beyond these spaces, there are a number of closed campuses in DC which would greatly benefit from adopting some of the more successful security woonerven designs. Specifically, I'd love to see security woonerven at the Old Soldier's Home, the future Walter Reed development (both the DC and State Department portions), and the Washington Hospital Center.

Areas around the Pentagon, and Joint Base Bolling also have potential if security priorities are better balanced with pedestrian and bike permeability. Universities like Catholic, Georgetown, and Howard you can get through, but it's not obvious or direct. Even at the Arboretum and the Navy Yard, where trails and woonerven already exist, extended hours would vastly improve these spaces.

Regardless of why and how we established these areas, federal and local planners need to recognize their success, and understand their best elements. Then they can adopt those elements into sites that have potential, but aren't quite security woonerven yet.

Are there other places we could have a great security woonerf? Also, can you think of a better term? Whatever you you call them, if streets have to close for security, we would all benefit from making more of them living streets.

Architecture


Can federal offices change neighborhoods for the better?

Do federal office buildings make their surrounding communities better or worse? Last night, 3 local planning directors discussed how federal buildings can make local areas more lively places to work and live, but how some have had the opposite effect.


Patent and Trademark Office and plaza in Alexandria. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The Washington region is unique in the number of federal jobs concentrated in large agencies. These large offices have the power to bring new life into neighborhoods and generate new urban growth around existing transit options. But security concerns can derail their positive effects on neighborhoods.

The key to success for these projects is adaptability. "There's no formula. Each project is unique," said Faroll Hamer, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, at the panel, sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.

"The first iteration is almost always horrible," said Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director. Tregoning argued that communities need to be constantly vigilant and to push back through review and input.

An example of a federal building with negative impact is the FBI Building in downtown Washington. When asked if they thought it was "the worst building in DC," a significant portion of the audience raised their hands. Foreboding and removed from the street, this building serves as an example of what not to do.

On the other hand, the sheer number of workers a new federal office brings into an area can activate the neighborhood. This activity can spur more growth and create new urban fabric where there previously was none. They can give birth to entirely new neighborhoods, or revive ones long since written off.

Qualities of many federal facilities pose problems

Federal office buildings are inherently single-use. Office workers do little for neighborhoods after business hours. This can be especially damaging when agencies cluster, creating large single-use neighborhoods. By spreading offices throughout the region, federal projects can invigorate many different neighborhoods instead of negatively affecting just a handful.

Federal buildings farther from transit often use shuttle buses. These could also provide a desirable transit option for neighborhood residents, but security rules often bar them from riding. This has been part of the conversation around the Department of Homeland Security's new offices at the former St. Elizabeth's hospital site between Anacostia and Congress Heights.

Individual buildings can do a lot to help or hurt their neighborhood. The parking garage for the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria is lined with townhouses on two sides, but other sides are just screened and set back from the street with landscaping, creating a dead streetscape. Many projects fall into this same pattern, with a mix of successful and unsuccessful components.


The GSA plans street-level retail in its building thanks to an innovative approach to security. Image from NCPC.

Security drives many design decisions and harms communities

The General Services Administration (GSA) is working to reverse damage to the streetscape from its massive headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The building is currently entirely disconnected from the street, but GSA plans to bring retail back to the building's street frontage.

To do this, they had to get creative with a factor that hampers the design of many federal projects, security. Security drives a lot of design decisions for federal projects.


USDOT. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
For example, the US Department of Transportation's building in the District's Navy Yard neighborhood takes up two entire city blocks, but has only one retail space along its entire façade, a Starbucks. It brings many workers to the area, but does little for the street.

In urban conditions, security hurts the streetscape by restricting building access from the street and for­bidding retail from lining the outside of buildings. In more suburban conditions it creates large campuses, cut off from what little grid there is and keeping workers from being able to activate the area around them. These large campuses also restrict the ability for planners to attempt to reconnect neighborhoods.

By adapting, many agencies are tackling these issues. The GSA's headquarters was formerly a Level 5 security building. In its renovation, they created a graduated security system, where not all areas of the buildings require the maximum security. As a result, almost all the security bollards around the building could be removed, a marked improvement to pedestrian conditions.

The lower level of security makes street level retail a possibility, and the GSA is looking into opening the building's cafeteria to the public, allowing the agency to share this amenity with their neighborhood.

Sustainability goes beyond LEED

Federal buildings built today have more environmentally-friendly design features. This demonstrates leadership and forward thinking from GSA and the agencies, but Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning for Montgomery County, was careful to remind the audience that the greenest building is the one that already exists, and urged federal designers not get too caught up in LEED.

A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards. There are many different factors to take into account to judge a building's true impact on the environment.

Many federal buildings, like many private buildings, are building more parking spots than they need to. Federal agencies are often surprised by how many workers will choose to commute in ways besides driving. At the Mark Center in Alexandria, offices for the Department of Defense were expected to produce massive gridlock. Instead, 50% of workers utilize transit to get to the site.

Little touches can do a lot


PTO. Photo by Janellie on Flickr.
With creative designs, federal buildings can often make the most out of restrictions out of their control. The PTO's work in Alexandria requires constant delivery of packages between offices, so the hallways were placed facing the street. This allowed workers to make deliveries by daylight and activate the streetscape. The building could not have retail, but the PTO activated the street in a unique way.

Small-scale gestures have very positive effects on the areas around government offices. The PTO provides Wi-Fi in a small park adjacent to the offices and installed glass columns that light at night. Despite larger urban design failings, small gestures like these can make a big difference in neighborhoods.

Federal projects have their own strengths and weaknesses, but each gains from the collective knowledge of the projects that have come before. Agencies are generally moving towards better designed buildings, closer to transit, that give workers more flexibility. We will surely witness missteps along the way, but the trajectory for these buildings and the positive change they can bring to the areas is promising.

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