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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:

Arts


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 Healthcare.gov, 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 Healthcare.gov. 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.

Transit


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 metrogreater.org 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 metrogreater.org. What can you come up with?

Transit


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.

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form 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.)

First name:    Last name:

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Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Links


National links: Los Angeles' transit fight

Los Angeles County is arguing over how to spend $120 billion on transit, Cuba is not alone in neglecting communities around stadiums (hint: we do it in the US all the time), and Uber's business model doesn't work for everything. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Eva Luedin on Flickr.

LA County pushback: Politicians from more suburban jurisdictions in Los Angeles County are arguing that a recently-released 40-year/$120 billion transit plan puts too much emphasis on downtown LA, and that projects in their districts should have faster timelines for completion. The county requires a super majority on sales tax votes, so the plan's opposition is a real threat. (LA Weekly)

Stadium shame: ESPN broadcasted a baseball game from Cuba, then shamed the country on Twitter for slums just outside the ballpark. People across the United States shot back with images from this country of oft-ignored poor neighborhoods near stadiums. (Boing Boing)

A business model, lost in translation: For everyone except Uber, the Uber model for on-demand delivery apps is faltering. As venture capital funding slows down, there's a greater need to make a profit on these services, causing some to wonder if the business model is viable given the true costs. (New York Times)

Taking a Texas-sized toll: In Texas, tollways were all the rage for a time. But the operator of a major toll road east of Austin recently went bankrupt, and they're showing themselves to be a risky investment because truckers are reluctant to pay fees as high as $33 to avoid downtown rush hours. (Dow Jones Business News)

Filling our congested roadways: During rush hour, millions of seats in cars around the country are unused. In fact 85% of cars on the road have one occupant. Is there a way to use new technology to put this existing capacity to use? (Mobility Lab)

Humans in architecture drawings: Before computers and photoshop, architects had to draw their own human figures for renderings. Architect Noor Makkiya argues that drawing humans made architects more aware of how they fit with designs, and collected 21 drawings of humans by famous architects, like Leon Krier and Le Corbusier. (Fast Company)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I am co-hosting a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Ride Scout. This week, we talk about High Speed Rail and San Francisco's new Transbay Terminal with German Marshall Fund fellow Eric Eidlin.

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