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Posts about Technology


DCís libraries have far fewer books and way more e-books and audio and visual resources than they used to

Our reading habits are evolving with technology. Want proof? DC's public library system's book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but it's got far more e-books and audio and visual resources.

Photo by Let Ideas Compete on Flickr.

"Curling up to a book" means something a little different than it used to. It could mean an actual physical book, but it can also mean scrolling down your smartphone or listening to a book being read through headphones. With a limited collections budget, how has the DC Public Library balanced traditional physical books with newer mediums?

This graph gives us a snapshot of how the numbers of books, e-books, and audio and visual resources have changed since 2006:

Graphs by the author.

The DC Public Library's collection has hardly been stable over the past eight years, with the number of books dropping sharply between 2009 and 2012. Collections are largely driven by a budget that fell from from $4.27 million in 2009 to $1.67 million in 2012 and then bounced back to $3.85 million in 2013.

Renovations in public libraries across DC also led the library to better catalog its resources and reassess its physical collection and cull books considered outdated or in bad shape.

A constant across the period, however, is the declining proportion of books in the overall library collection. Books went from being 94% of the system's physical collection to just 81% in 2014. The library system has far more e-books, audio, and video materials than it used to.

While books still dominate the library's collection, audio and video have been on a swift rise. Audio resources, like e-audiobooks and CDs, have grown over 50%; video, like DVDs and streaming, has doubled.

While DC Public Library's initial uptake of e-books was slow, its collection has increased tenfold since 2011. Books are the only medium which have been on the decline, falling 16%, in large part due to the removal of outdated or worn books during library renovations. This isn't to say the DCPL has stopped acquiring books, as you can see at @booksfordc, which tweets whenever new books come into the DC Public Library catalog.

DC residents seem to be fans of the library's changes, with circulation and library visits both doubling since 2006.

There was a decline in library visits from 2009 to 2013, and this makes sense given the decline of books and rise of e-resources. But new strategies and renovated neighborhood libraries means the decline is likely not permanent.

According to DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the decline in books has the side benefit of freeing up space for programs, like yoga, Memory Lab (a place where library members can digitize home movies and photos), and tech and financial literacy training. Indeed, library programs increased 75%. In other words, there are more and more options bringing people into libraries beyond just books.

The data I used for this post is available through the Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS) Public Libraries Survey. DCPL considers data from prior to 2006 to be unreliable. Also, the data I used excludes resources available through third-party providers, like Freegal, which likely means the proportion of books is even lower. You can find complete code for this on my Github page.


Use this tool to see how often Metrobuses come to a particular stop, and where they go from there

Metrobus is a great way to get around, but some people avoid it because it's not easy to remember where, exactly, buses run, or when they come to your stop. A new tool from Metro hopes to make finding that information a lot easier.

Image from WMATA.

With Metrorail, maps, charts showing the next stop, and PIDs all make it clear where train lines go, when they come, and where they stop. With the bus network, it can be hard to provide such detailed information at each stop because it's far larger and more complicated.

WMATA has made big strides by adding real-time arrival boards to some bus stations, and in 2012 the agency introduced a new bus map that makes it clearer where each line runs. But that map still has quite a bit going on, especially if you're trying to use an online version by loading it on a small screen or picking between multiple route options.

To address this issue, planners at WMATA have developed Metrobus Explorer, an online tool that gives users real-time arrival displays and a personalized spider map showing where bus lines from a given stop run to. Spider maps clear the clutter of information a typical bus map gives riders, allowing them to see only the routes and stops relevant to them.

Here, we've selected three bus stops that run along Michigan Avenue, just north of the McMillan Reservoir and south of Washington Hospital Center. When you hover your mouse over the stops in the app, you see how many buses run there per hour.

Metrobus Explorer shows you a map of all the region's Metrobus stops, marked with larger dots for locations with more frequent service. It then allows you to select one or more stops. After selecting the stop (or stops) you want information for, a second map showing the routes available from those stops and their destinations is displayed.

The tool shows us which bus lines run from these stops and where they go.

The information is available for each hour of the day, reflecting the changes in frequency throughout the day. For a route view in both directions of a bus line, you need to select the stop on both sides of the street.

Metrobus Explorer is a great tool for riders; something that provides accurate, easy-to-understand information should help increase bus ridership. That said, the current version of Metrobus Explorer is a bit clunky and in order to create a full working version to be incorporate into, WMATA would like hear your feedback.

WMATA is hoping to hear from users on the following:

  1. Would the tool be useful?
  2. What features are important? Would you like to be able to print your personalized spider map?
  3. What is missing? Should the route lines' thickness vary depending on headway?
  4. Should this be available on mobile? Would that be more or less useful than BusETA or other transit planning apps?
You can comment directly on the Metro planning page or leave a comment with your thoughts below.


National links: We'll pay you to avoid rush hour

BART, San Francisco's major transit system, wants to reward riders for avoiding rush hour, drivers have run into a house in Raleigh 6 times in 9 years and the owners can't sell, and an engineer in Oslo has turned kids into "secret agents" in a bid to report street hazards. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by Storm Crypt on Flickr.

Frequent rider miles: San Francisco's BART is piloting a rewards program that will give points to riders who use the system at times next to, but not during, peak periods. The program gives riders one point per mile an hour before and after the peak rush hour, with 1,000 points equaling to use toward BART passes. (Curbed SF)

Uber as transit: Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando Florida, is subsidizing Uber rides for residents in lieu of a transit system. The city manager had hoped to create a system of smaller buses that came when called until his project idea was killed last year by the USDOT. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country, and is controversial because it leaves out key segments of the riding population including the the disabled and those without bank accounts. (The Verge)

Stop driving into my house: Speeding drivers that fly around a sharp turn on a big arterial have hit a house in Raleigh 6 times in the last 9 years. The family constantly fears for its safety, but the city won't do anything about the road, where people constantly drive over the speed limit, nor will it help the family move out of the house, which is impossible to sell. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Housing takes a loss: Small dorm-sized apartments called microhousing have been regulated away in Seattle. One legislative change after another brought higher standards, larger floor plans, and higher costs. Best described as death by a thousand cuts, the fight against microhousing has added up to a loss of over 800 units per year. (Sightline Institute)

Walk to get smart: There is a great "link between mind and feet". According to science, we are able to come up with ideas and think better when we're walking because of our body chemistry. When you go on a walk, your heart pumps faster and and circulates more oxygen to all parts of your body, including your brain. (New Yorker)

Put the kids to work: An app in Oslo called Traffic Agent was created to allow children in the city to report hazards. A local traffic engineer came up with the idea when she realized that it would be tough to complete a traffic report on all city roads and wanted to get more children involved in traffic safety issues. The data and information will be used in the future when the city closes the core to vehicles. (Next City)

Quote of the Week

"We're trying to get back to that great system that we had. Get rid of the debt and get rid of the tolls and have a low-cost system that everybody can benefit from."

- Retired engineer Don Dixon on Texas' plans to look at making all of the state's toll roads free. Doing so would cost $24 billion.


Upcoming events: Happy hour with Rushern Baker, bike theft, transportation tech, and more!

Our next happy hour is coming up on Tuesday, August 23, featuring special guest Rushern Baker, the Prince George's County Executive. Also, here are some more upcoming ways for you to extend your urbanist learning and activism to the physical world.

Photo by Joe Loong on Flickr.

County Executive Baker has been a champion for smart growth and transit in a county that has been patiently waiting for both. It's also your chance to visit Mount Rainier, an awesome town on the DC/Maryland line home to the burgeoning Gateway Arts District. RSVP here.

We'll be there from 6 to 8 pm at Bird Kitchen + Cocktails, located at 3801 34th Street, Mount Rainier. Our original announcement has a list of Metro rail and bus options for getting there.

If you'd like to bike, Ned Russell and Matt Johnson are organizing a bicycle group to go to the happy hour from The Bike Rack, 716 Monroe Street NE by the Brookland Metro station. They'll depart promptly at 5:45 pm. Here's a map of the route.

This happy hour is sponsored by the Anacostia Heritage Trails Association (also known as Maryland Milestones), which promotes local history in the area.

Besides the happy hour, there are some other great events coming up:

Today, August 14: Worried about bike theft? Come discuss your concerns with safety and enforcement at the Bicycle Advisory Council meeting at 6 pm at Busboys and Poets (1025 5th St) with special guest Phil Koopman of BicycleSPACE.

Thursday, August 18: Learn about the latest tech that's helping people share the road at the next Transportation Techies meetup, where individual coders and tech companies from around the region show off their work. This month's theme is "Playing with Traffic," and it's at 6 pm at the WeWork in Crystal City (2221 South Clark Street).

Next Thursday, August 24: Netwalking is an organization that gets people out in the community, walking for fitness, and learning about important issues. The next Netwalk will focus on the U Street neighborhood and will teach people about strategies for effective community engagement. It starts at 6pm; Meet at the corner of Vermont St and 10th Street, NW.

Coming to the happy hour? Let us know here:


This suburban house is big, cheap, and ripe for innovation

Suburban building types like McMansions and strip malls are often derided for being cheap and disposable. But those things also make them great place for innovating in food, music, or even technology.

A not-so-unlikely place for innovation. Photo from Google Street View.

Last year, the federal government hired a secret startup called Marketplace Lite to rebuild, the failing website where Americans could buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As they were working under a tight deadline, the team of young programmers needed a cheap place to work and, ideally, sleep.

They found it in this rented house on a cul-de-sac in Ellicott City, in Howard County, which the Atlantic wrote about last summer. The story shrugs off the vinyl-sided Colonial house as "forgettable," but you could argue it was actually tailor-made for a project like this.

Why? For starters, the house was close to the Centers for Medicaid and Medical Services, the government agency responsible for Like many big government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington area, CMMS has a big, secure suburban office campus.

The house itself lent itself to the effort too. Most newish suburban builder homes have an open floorplan with few interior walls, which makes a good space for several people to work and collaborate. Designed for large families, the house also has several bedrooms and bathrooms, meaning it could sleep several people comfortably.

A quick search on Craiglist shows that similar houses in Ellicott City rent for about $2800 a month, suggesting that it was also much cheaper than the alternative: renting a block of hotel rooms.

There's no shortage of media saying that young people are moving to urban environments. And not long ago, people seeking cheap, functional space to make websites or music or art or anything else might seek out an old warehouse, a loft, or even a rowhouse in a down-and-out inner-city neighborhood.

That's no longer really an option in the DC area, with its high prices and lack of old industrial buildings. Ironically, the things that people deride about suburban buildings (cheaply built, cookie-cutter, excessive space) also make them great, affordable incubators to do or make things.

Take Rainbow Mansion, the group home for tech workers in Silicon Valley. Or the DC area's many strip malls filled with immigrant businesses, from Falls Church to Langley Park.

Or punk houses. In many cities, but especially the DC area, the punk scene is really a suburban scene, centering on affordable, modest houses in untrendy locations where people can make loud music and be left alone. The recent book (and blog) Hardcore Architecture sought out the houses where 1980s punk and metal bands operated, and found them in split-level houses in places like Rockville and Annandale.

Old suburban houses like this one in Colesville are a draw for artists and punks. Photo by Andrew Benson on Flickr.

As urban real estate becomes more expensive and the tide of suburban sprawl moves out, the people who want to make things get pushed out too. In the 1990s, local punk institution Teen-Beat Records set up in this Ballston bungalow, but it's since been razed and replaced with a bigger, $900,000 house. Today, you'll find punks and artists in places like Colesville, a community in eastern Montgomery County known for sprawling lots and big, 1960s-era houses that have become relatively affordable as they've aged.

Of course, these places weren't intended for punk houses and Internet startups. Creative types may face major barriers, like restrictions on running a home business, or difficulty getting permits to use a building for something it wasn't designed for. (Naturally, many people just go and do it anyway.) Of course, these farther-out suburban places can be hard to reach without a car.

Most suburban counties tend to focus on attracting big businesses, like Marriott. But they may also want to look at the start-ups, immigrant businesses, musicians, and makers who have already set up there. They're already contributing to the local economy, but they also help create local culture and a sense of place.

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.


What are your ideas to make Metro greater?

Metro is your transit system. How could it be greater? Now's your chance to make suggestions for small changes that can improve your experience on rail, bus, or paratransit.

WMATA is hard at work on the big safety fixes we need to have a rail system that works safely and reliable. But while that's underway, there are many smaller things Metro can do to improve the rider experience during SafeTrack and beyond.

To achieve that, we are launching MetroGreater, a crowdsourcing idea site for you to submit your ideas and comment on others. A jury will review the ideas and the public will get to vote among the finalists to pick a winner.

WMATA has committed to implementing the winning idea (as long as it meets the criteria below). And who knows—they might decide to implement more than one! The winner will also get recognition and some Metro memorabilia.

A recent small-scale improvement WMATA implemented. Photo from WMATA.

If you could make one small, quick improvement to Metro, what would it be?

Maybe your idea would help a lot of riders like the stickers that show where the train will stop or green "8"s denoting eight-car trains. Maybe you really want Metro to increase bicycle storage at your station like they did at NoMa a few years ago.

Maybe you know of some bus stops that could use some "appropriate technology" to alleviate the burden of remaining upright (a.k.a. plastic chairs to sit on). Or have ideas to improve the complaint-ridden MetroAccess paratransit service for a better rider experience.

Ideas must:

  • Improve the transit experience for all or some group of riders;
  • Be achievable by Metro on its own in 6 months or less (ideally 3);
  • Cost no more than $100,000;
  • Not cost much to continue into the future;
  • Not impair safety;
  • Not negatively impact service or interfere with other agency responsibilities; and
  • Comply with all laws and regulations.

While slides instead of escalators in your station might be fun, it's not really practical or safe in the long term. Sorry. Image from Volkswagen.

So you have a great idea, what's next?

Submit your idea at by Friday, July 15. You know how awesome your idea is, but make sure others do too. Upload photos or sketches to help others get it.

How does the rest of the contest work?

Submissions will be accepted through July 15, 2016. Then, a jury of regional experts and advocates will select 5-10 submissions that meet all necessary criteria as finalists. The public will then vote for a winner in August, and WMATA will get to work after that.

  • Submission period: Tuesday, June 21 - Friday, July 15, 2016 (at 11:59 pm)
  • Finalist selection by jury: by Friday, August 5, 2016
  • Public voting on finalists: Monday, August 8 - Friday, August 19, 2016
  • Winning idea announced: by Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Read more and submit your idea at What can you come up with?


Instead of buses that drive over traffic jams, let's just not have traffic jams

A video of a bus that skirts traffic congestion by literally driving over cars has made its way around the internet this week. It's a bold idea, but it raises the question: Why simply deal with congestion when we can just get rid of it?

Chinese engineers debuted a scale model of the Transit Elevated Bus at last week's High Tech Expo in Beijing. The vehicle would carry over 1000 passengers, and effectively form a tunnel above cars, moving forward regardless of what's happening below.

Other purported perks of the "straddle bus" include that it would have its own right of way (the un-used air above the cars), and that drivers couldn't get stuck behind it—sensors would alert drivers if they drift too close to the bus, or if their vehicle is too tall to travel underneath it.

But is this really worth building? And would it really help streets function more efficiently? While it might first seem like the elevated bus would solve the problem of congestion, this idea is implicitly treating congestion as though it's here to stay, and that we might as well just try to work around all the cars on the road rather than find ways to give people other ways to travel.

Traffic jams aren't a given

The thing is, congestion isn't guaranteed; it's far more fluid than it appears, and it comes and goes depending on how we manage traffic.

This is evidenced by the growing list of cities that have started getting rid of their highways—even when some predict chaos and gridlock because there won't be as much space for cars, things work out just fine.

Locally we're seeing the same with road diets and roads that have gotten or will get bike and transit lanes.

We don't need the straddle bus to get rid of congestion. The solution already exists: Rather than building an eight-lane highway and running a futuristic moving tunnel with seats on top over it, let's just give two of those lanes to regular buses and watch congestion go down.

We already have the technology we need

It can sometimes be far too easy to forget about the tools we already have at our disposal, instead pushing for new inventions and technology to revolutionize how we travel. The hyperloop will supposedly get us across California in 30 minutes, and Personal Rapid Transit will apparently be devoid of all the pitfalls that doomed the Columbia Pike Streetcar.

But we already have what we need. We can build bus lanes and bike lanes, and do more to encourage people to drive less rather than give them options for driving more. We don't have to become the Jetsons to solve the problem.

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