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Posts about Streetcars

Links


National links: How do bikes work? We don't really know...

Physicists disagree on what exactly makes bikes work. Kansas City opened a streetcar line earlier this year, and it's doing really well. A number of US companies are moving parts of their businesses into downtowns but keeping other parts in less urban places. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by √Čtienne F on Flickr.

Bicycles. They're a mystery: Even though bicycles have been around over 100 years, we still aren't sure about the physics of why they work. Two competing theories, the gyroscopic and caster, are still being debated. A new research lab could solve the mystery once and for all. (Fast Company Design)

A successful streetcar: Given the poor ridership numbers for a lot of new streetcar projects around the country, it might surprise you to hear that Kansas City's new streetcar line has exceeded expectations. It's averaging over 6,600 riders a day even though it's a relatively short line, it's free to ride and goes through an up and coming district, and there are extensions on the way. (Slate)

Moving downtown... kind of: Many US corporations have long preferred suburban headquarters, but a number of CEOs are moving their offices downtown in hopes of attracting high-skill workers. At the same time, some are keeping lower wage jobs in suburbs and smaller cities, leading to questions of equity. (New York Times)

Where are all the great urban spaces?: In the last fifty years, the US has slowed down on building small streets with human scale buildings, and there's been an explosion of sprawl. If city administrators want great urban places, they need to focus on non-auto transportation and streets that put stores, schools, homes, and churches within walkable distances. (Governing Magazine)

A home to grow old in: Universal design is a way of designing places for people of all ages and abilities. Having a gradual slope instead of steps so that wheelchairs can access a room is one example of the practice. Designers don't always apply the practice to housing, especially those building in bulk, but with so many people aging, it's becoming more necessary to create dwellings that accommodate people through all stages of life. A Seattle company that makes prefabricated housing is focusing on universal design. (Fast Company Design)

Redevelopment in London: For a long time, the area around King's Cross rail station in London was a mixture of banged up and dangerous. But over the last few decades, redevelopment around the district's old rail lines and canals have formed the centerpiece of a great urban place. (Travel and Leisure)

Quote of the Week

"Hoover's zoning program, however, was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas. So it should come as no surprise that today's city planners struggle to shoehorn urban diversity into suburban zoning schemes that assume car-dominated mobility and a neat separation of uses."

Mott Smith and Mark Vallianatos in the Los Angeles Times, discussing why we need to stop zoning and planning in cities as if they were suburbs.

History


Check out hidden transportation gems in our region

Just about everyone knows about the Washington Metro and Beltway, but those well-known structures only scratch the surface of interesting infrastructure in our region. Here is a list of some fascinating, but oft-forgotten, pieces of Washingtonia. Each link provides additional information, including pictures:


Photo by tormol on Flickr.

The Capitol Subway: Metrorail isn't the only subway system in Washington. Under Capitol Hill three subway lines emanate like rays out from the Capitol building, carrying Congresspeople and their staff members to and from the various Congressional office buildings.

The first line, to the Russell Building, opened in 1909, with lines going to the Hart, Dirksen, and Rayburn buildings opening between 1960 and 1982. The secret subway isn't really a secret, and although it's not open to the public, visitors can catch a ride if they arrange one with their Congressperson.

The Aqueduct Bridge: Non sequitur though it may be, there was indeed once a bridge that carried boats over the Potomac.

It opened in 1843 and was called the Aqueduct Bridge. It ran from the C&O Canal in Georgetown across the river to Rosslyn, where it met a canal going from there to Alexandria. Canal boats of the day were too fragile to survive the river, so a bridge was needed.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Although the main span of the aqueduct was torn down when the Key Bridge was built in 1923, the old abutments remain on both the DC and Virginia sides. In fact, visitors to Georgetown can walk right up onto the ruins, to be greeted by some of the city's loveliest views.

The Montgomery/Loudoun ferry: Since 1817 there has been ferry service across the Potomac between Montgomery and Loudoun Counties. White's Ferry, as it is currently known, is a floating slab of concrete that runs along a cable connected to both sides of the river. It carries cars, pedestrians and bicyclists commuting between Maryland and Northern Virginia every day of the week.


Photo by chriggy1 on Flickr.

Trolley remnants: Trolleys were once the bread and butter of urban transportation. As whole towns are now built around cars, whole towns were once built around streetcars. Although it's been 49 years since the last trolley rolled down a Washington street, there remains a plenitude of vintage trolley infrastructure.

The most famous cases are the abandoned trolley subway station under Dupont Circle and the trolley tracks visible on P Street in Georgetown, but those examples aren't alone. There are least four old trolley station depots still standing, at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, on Colorado Avenue, on Calvert Street, and on Connecticut Avenue (though that last may have only served buses).


From left to right, the Connecticut Avenue terminal in Chevy Chase,
the 14th & Colorodo NW terminal, the Calvert Street terminal.

Car barns, where trolley vehicles were stored when not in use, remain standing and converted to other purposes in several neighborhoods across the city. Even the light poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge are remnants of trolleys; they're twice as tall as the lights they hold because decades ago they also strung trolley wires.Washington is a fascinating city a long and diverse history. What other little-known pieces of the city can you name?

This post originally ran in 2011, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it with you again!

Links


Worldwide links: France

Today, we mourn for France, which was again the target of a horrific terrorist attack.


Photo by Kristoffer Trolle on Flickr.

Tragedy in France: A man killed over 80 people and injured at least 200 more when he drove a truck through a crowds celebrating Bastille Day in France's southern city of Nice. The attack on the pedestrian-filled promenade was the third major terrorist attack in France since January 2015.

Tramways of Paris: Light rail and streetcar lines continue to go up around the country, and while some have been successful others suffer from low ridership and poor design. Across the Atlantic, however, Paris built a system of "trams" that has a ridership in excess of 900,000. The Paris tram's successful integration with the city's existing network, along with its dedicated right of way, are things we should learn from. (TransitCenter)

Catch them all: The Pokemon Go phenomenon has urban thinkers excited about a new possibility for getting people out of the house and exploring their neighborhoods. People playing the game have been roaming the streets and complaining of tired legs while going places they normally might not in order to capture Pokemon for their collections. (Curbed)

Pre-fabulous: A new method for building prefabricated housing in England has cut construction time from eight weeks to three. Using timber construction, architects build self-supporting boxes and ship them to the site. At around £100,000, these homes could be a new source of affordable housing. (Wired UK)

Exhibits, but no musuem: Stadiums and museums cost a lot of money to build and keep running. But maybe the best place for what happens in those buildings, like concerts and exhibits, is festivals. While buildings require up keep and become a liability, festivals can use public spaces and temporary structures to fill their needs. It's an idea to ponder for places that don't have much budget to waste. (Des Moines Register)

Old burbs: As the generation known as the Baby Boomers ages, the structure of the suburbs will become more challenging: as people age, driving cars and climbing stairs will become more strenuous on both physical and mental health. But there are ways for people downsizing to prepare, and it's possible for them to move into more walkable neighborhoods. (The Herald)

Brew tube: To bring down the number of beer-filled tanker trucks driving through historic Bruges, Belgium, a local brewery decided to build a two-mile beer pipeline to its bottling plant on the outskirts of town. The pipeline allowed jobs to stay in the UNESCO historic district while upholding not just architectural heritage, but also continuing the tradition of brewing beer. (Guardian Cities)

Quote of the Week

"During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability... Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn't the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement."

Ben Kabak of New York City transit blog Second Avenue Sagas on the link between transit and gentrification.

History


A streetcar used to run down Rhode Island Avenue, connecting College Park and downtown DC

Most of Washington's original "streetcar suburbs" were built within the District's boundaries. However, one important corridor of streetcar suburbs went up in Prince George's County, in the communities along Route 1 south of the Beltway.


A map of the route of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar in Prince George's County to Branchville Road. North of Branchville road, an hourly single-track shuttle service ran to Laurel until it was abandoned in 1925. Map by the author using OpenStreet Map. Click for a larger version.

A streetcar from Baltimore to Washington?

While steam railroads had linked Baltimore to Washington for half a century, the introduction of electric streetcars in Baltimore in 1885 and Washington in 1888 led to interest in the idea of an electric interurban line to link the two cities.

In 1892, the Columbia and Maryland Railway was chartered by a group of businessmen who hoped to construct an electric streetcar line from Baltimore to Washington by way of Ellicott City, Laurel, and Hyattsville. Called the Washington, Berwyn & Laurel, this line roughly paralleled the route of the B&O line (now the MARC Camden Line) between the two cities. The businessmen expected that the growth of suburbs would create a "great country city" along the route and provide enough traffic to justify the construction of a new rail line and adjacent roadway.

Although the plan as a whole never came to fruition, tracks were built along Rhode Island Avenue from 4th Street NE to a station called District Line, where there was a loop for streetcars to turn around, at 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Maryland (today, it's a bus loop). From there, the line continued to Laurel, leaving a gap of twenty miles to the Elliott City terminus of the Baltimore streetcar line it had been intended to connect to.


34th Street Terminal: the short-turn loop at 34th St in Mt. Rainier still exists, and is used by several WMATA and Prince George's County bus routes. Photo by the author.

The Route 1 suburbs and the streetcar

Service on the line to Mt. Rainier began in 1897 and, by September 1900, the line—now called the City and Suburban—provided half-hourly service from Branchville Road (just north of what is now Greenbelt Road in College Park) along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue to the Treasury Building at 15th Street NW.

Several years later, a single-tracked line was extended to Laurel and served by an hourly shuttle. Shortly afterward, the line was merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Company, one of the District's two major streetcar systems, and became known as the "Maryland Line."

Rhode Island Avenue was extended north alongside the streetcar tracks to the Hyattsville rail station, located near the current county court building. North of Hyattsville, the streetcar stayed close to the railroad as it passed through what was still the Calvert family estate. From the line's entrance into what is now College Park to its northern terminus in Laurel, it again largely followed its own private right-of-way.

The residential developments that became Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Riverdale, and much of College Park were built along the Maryland Line while the areas around them remained farmland. Up until World War II, the streetcar line into DC was central to the sale of homes in these new communities.

Rise of the roads

The rise of the automobile, which began in the 1920's, changed the nature of the streetcar route and the communities along it.

US Route 1 was eventually switched from its original alignment along Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road to follow Rhode Island Avenue into the District, and the stretch of Baltimore Avenue south of this junction, which had been a major commercial strip in Hyattsville and Bladensburg, gradually decayed and became home to light industrial uses.

North of the junction with Baltimore Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue was not extended consistently along the streetcar tracks, but disconnected segments of residential streets alongside the track were built and took on the same name. In the last decade, College Park and Riverdale have constructed a multi-use trail along this right-of-way, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.

The never-popular shuttle to Laurel was terminated in 1925, resulting in the construction of Rhode Island Avenue as an arterial road in the former right-of-way from Branchville Road north into Beltsville. However, service from downtown to Branchville became Capital Transit's route 82 and continued until 1958, only four years before the end of streetcar service in Washington.

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.

Links


Worldwide links: London's less stinky

The engineer behind one of London's greatest architectural achievements deserves serious props, Beijing's residents aren't into the idea of driving down congestion through charging people to drive into the city, and in Italy, a work of art suggests a way to deal with rising sea levels. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Adrian Snood on Flickr.

An engineering hero: London's Thames Embankment changed the city forever by creating a sewer system to wisk away waste after the 1858's "Great Stink." The engineer responsible, Joseph Bazelgette, should be revered for this—and our noses and health should thank him. (London Lens)

Beijing blowback: Beijing has some of the worst traffic and air quality in the world. Some have proposed congestion pricing—charging people to drive when the most people are on the road—but many drivers have pushed back hard because they see mobility-by-car as a right. (The Economist)

Lake Floating: Christo's Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo in Italy connects small islands to the mainland. It is a beautiful piece of art, but also an opportunity to test pedestrian infrastructure in a world faced with climate change and sea level rise. (Gizmodo)

Portland streetcar expansion: Portland has completed the Tilikum Crossing, a bridge for bikes and walking but not cars, and it recently finished its streetcar loop. If the streetcar is going to grow, expansion will now need to go outwards along major commercial corridors. (Portland Oregonian)

Unconventional Blockage: Barricades are made from all types of materials. Traffic cones and caution tape can create informal, protective architecture, but they can become a form of art. While we typically see these barriers as symbols of authority, we might think of them differently if we saw them in a gallery. (Places Journal)

Quote of the Day

"Columbus's win allows a city in the Midwest—which is much more car-dependent in general than the coasts—to illustrate how auto-oriented places can develop a new blueprint for moving around a city." Mobility Lab's Paul Mackie on Columbus winning the Smart Cities Challenge, a planning contest whose first place award is $50 million. (Mobility Lab)

History


A streetcar used to run from H Street to Berwyn Heights, near College Park

Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas' best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950's and 1960's. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920's heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.


A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.

Land speculation helped birth the streetcar

The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890's as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.

In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.

Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George's County library system's Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.

An extension to Berwyn Heights

After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn't electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to "Edison-Beach" battery-powered cars.

The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.


58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It's now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.

In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington's two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.

The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running

In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.

Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.

Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC's unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city's major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.

Transit


Before going to Georgetown, the streetcar will go east to Benning Road

DC is studying ways to extend the streetcar west to Georgetown, but that's the second extension it will get. First is a project to lengthen it to Benning Road Metro, but questions remain about where tracks will go, overhead wires, and more.


All images from DDOT.

The Benning Road streetcar project is really two projects: The streetcar extension itself and an even larger project to replace the bridge that takes Benning Road over the Anacostia River and 295. There will be a public meeting on May 19th where you can learn more.

Going to Benning Metro rather than Minnesota Avenue (another possibility that DC initially studied) will serve more residential neighborhoods, draw investment to the commercial section of Benning Road, and be less duplicative of X2 bus service.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is pondering two options. One option would put streetcar tracks next to the curb. The other option is median tracks, similar to how the streetcar runs on Benning Road west of the river now.

Unfortunately, neither option includes dedicated lanes. But the streetcar will be faster than it is on H Street regardless, thanks to the absence of curbside parking gumming things up.


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with curb-running streetcar (Alternative 1).


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with median-running streetcar (Alternative 2).

Overhead wires

As they are west of Union Station, overhead wires are a point of contention. Unlike there, however, no federal or local laws prohibit wires, and many utility wires are already above ground.

The current study contemplates either using wires or not. If DDOT goes to the trouble and expense of building hybrid wireless technology for downtown DC, theoretically it might not be that much more difficult to make Benning Road wireless too.

Benning Road isn't a major viewshed; if wireless streetcars have reliability problems or are more expensive than traditional wire-based ones, then trying to go wireless may be more of an impediment than they're worth.

Also, the Benning project will happen before the extension from Union Station to Georgetown does, and is already funded in the proposed budget, according to DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. Therefore, DC may want to move forward with more proven and traditional technology in the meantime. But if it buys any new streetcars, as it will have to for this project, it ought to buy ones that can work with the wireless section.

Get involved

As plans take shape, advocates are gearing up to fight for the best alternatives. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association also is pushing for better bike accommmodations. WABA points out that the wide bridge (especially over the river, where it's 4 lanes each way) is very unfriendly to people biking, and wants a protected bikeway so people can safely and comfortably cross the river.

If you're interested in weighing in on the Benning study, attend the May 19 meeting, at 6:00 pm at 4058 Minnesota Avenue, NE or email info@benningproject.com.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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