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Posts about Walkability

Public Spaces


Why isn't College Park a better college town?

Many major state universities have "college town" areas right near them, with walkable neighborhoods that serve the student population. Charlottesville, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Berkeley and LA's Westwood, California are a few well-known examples. College Park, by contrast, doesn't have this feel. Why is that?


Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

This isn't a new topic of conversation around the region, but after it came up in a recent comment thread, we asked our contributors to weigh in on this.

Jeff Lemieux pointed out the single most significant factor many people point to: the surrounding roads are far too car-oriented.

A sewer runs through it. University Boulevard bounds the campus to the north as a divided highway with no bike or pedestrian access and no development potential. Route 1 is getting better but is still treated more like a suburban strip arterial then a commercial street. College Park should be a paradise for walking and biking. But it has a ways to go.

Route 1 and Calvert Road near UMD. Image from Google Maps.

Dan Reed thinks location and the number of commuters contributes:

[This is] exacerbated by UMD's history as a commuter school. ... Even kids who live on campus but grow up in the area frequently go back home to visit friends or family, to work, etc.

I do think this is changing as 1) Maryland's national reputation means it draws more students from out of state and 2) more students live on campus, which means you have a bigger base to support shops and restaurants in the area, which in turn gives people more of a reason to stick around, which in turn supports more activity. I don't know if that's enough to support the kind of businesses that we associate with a "college town," like the awesome College Perk coffeehouse which closed many years ago, but it's a start.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Partap Verma also thinks College Park is improving:

College Park has always been divided into two main areas—the downtown area with restaurants and bars that's not too far from the dorms, and the overall Rt. 1 area. In recent years the downtown has seen some new development with new apartments/retails/restaurants and actually looks pretty decent. And then you have the larger Rt. 1 area that is filled with strip malls and car dealerships that are slowly going away and being replaced by much needed apartments and hotels that serve UMD.
Commenter dcer52, on the thread that started this discussion, pointed out how an often-contentious town-gown relationship has also held back the growth of a college town area:
Here is one famous example that sums it up. When the Green Line station in College Park opened in the 1990s, the University planned to run a shuttle bus from campus to the station. However, the extension of Paint Branch Parkway was not built yet so the bus would have to run through surface streets in the City of College Park. The University offered to allow any College Park resident to ride the bus for free (not just students), but the city refused to allow the shuttle buses to ride on city streets to access the Metro station.

When the College Park Metro station opened, about six blocks from the edge of the University of Maryland campus, the University was prohibited from running a shuttle bus to the station (as was Metro and PG County The Bus). So instead students, faculty, and others had to take a shuttle bus to the Greenbelt station.

When I was a student there in the 90's I tried to take an active role in city issues. I changed my voter registration to College Park only to find that for persons living on campus or in student housing neighborhoods, the assigned polling place was not College Park city hall (downtown and walking distance from everything) but some other building that required a drive (or cab ride) from campus. Some colleges actually have polling places for students on campus, College Park put theirs as far away from campus as possible. Message sent.


College Park Metro. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Gray Kimbrough summed up some of the major reasons for the problem:

UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).

A road on the UMD campus. Photo by Matt Chan on Flickr.

Payton Chung added some context and a possible quantitative metric, Floor Area Ratio (FAR):

Some universities have successfully built their own college towns—like UIC, a postwar commuter school. That UMD hasn't is probably a semi-conscious decision, both due to a commuter school mentality on behalf of the administration (and students) and a snobbish suburban mentality on behalf of the town (as dcer52 retells).

As Gray points out, the commuter school mentality results in a campus that isn't all that dense, and is isolated from walkable retail. From the middle of McKeldin Mall to the nearest off-campus restaurant is about 0.4 miles away—an eight-minute walk one way, or too far to manage a roundtrip within a 15-minute break between classes. Contrast that to 0.07 miles from the middle of the Court of North Carolina (at NC State) or 0.2 miles from the middle of Polk Place (at UNC).

Local architects Ayers Saint Gross have a cool "comparing campuses" tool with figure-ground plans and statistics on many academic and medical campuses. Overall, FAR isn't the most useful metric for something as big as an entire campus (which might include athletic fields, research farms, etc.), but UMD's campus has an overall FAR of just 0.22. By contrast, "urban" campuses like UCLA and VCU have FARs in the 0.8-0.9 range. All FARs are not created equal, but it's not for nothing that LEED awards points for FARs above 0.5/0.8. In my experience, few truly walkable places have FARs much below 1.0; there's just not enough other destinations within walking distance.


Route 1 and Knox Rd. in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Dan Reed discussed the pros and cons of the FAR metric and the issue of just where the downtown area is located relative to campus:

I like Payton's discussion about FAR, which makes a good point about the walkability of a campus itself and its ability to contribute to the surrounding area. But I would note that a golf course takes up like half of the 1200+ acres UMD has, and the part of the campus closest to "downtown" College Park (aka South Campus) is fairly dense, walkable, and somewhat oriented to Route 1 and Knox Road where all of the bars are.

That said, South Campus is predominantly upperclassmen dorms and apartments, which is great for the bars, but sucks for anyone trying to grab students going to and from class. Most of the academic buildings are either in the middle of campus (far from Route 1) or on North Campus (very far from Route 1. When I was in architecture school we drove (!!!) to Route 1 for lunch because otherwise it was a 20 minute walk.

UMD's been talking about East Campus for a decade now and their plans to put retail and housing and a hotel on Route 1 are good. But this discussion makes me wonder if they should also put some academic buildings there instead of cloistering them far away from the rest of town.

College Park clearly faces some obstacles to be a better college town (including disagreement among residents about whether it should be at all). It's not the the only place where some or many of these factors apply. Our contributors also discussed other towns which are grappling with these same issues, and other universities that lack a good physical connection to their surroundings. We'll have more of this contributor discussion, moving beyond College Park, Maryland, in an upcoming article.

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Public Spaces


Change is coming to the Montgomery DOT. Will things get better for residents?

Montgomery County leaders and residents want walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, but the county's department of transportation has a reputation for putting cars over everything else. Now that two of the agency's top officials have departed, will new leadership bring the department in line with a changing county?


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

MCDOT's former director Art Holmes retired at the end of last year. Holmes had brought little vision or leadership to the department. Instead, most of the on-the-ground decisions fell to Deputy Director for Transportation Policy Edgar Gonzalez, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of designing roads for more and more cars to the exclusion of all else.

Last month, county officials announced that Gonzalez, too, was leaving the department, to become deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Gary Erenrich, who ran the county's transit programs, will fill the post on an acting basis, reporting to MCDOT's acting director, Al Roshdieh.

Gonzalez's legacy: Lanes yes, walkability no

While an accomplished planner, Gonzalez prioritized building of highways over other priorities. He relentlessly pushed to extend the Midcounty Highway (M-83) from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg over protests from both neighbors and county councilmembers. MCDOT even protested a bill from councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner that would require narrow, low-speed street designs in urban areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Despite Montgomery's vision for a walkable, urban White Flint, Gonzalez fought the plan every step of the way, pushing an extension of Montrose Parkway through the area, and resisting calls from residents to make Old Georgetown Road less of a traffic sewer.

A change in leadership is an opportunity to bring the county's transportation policy in line with its planning and economic development policies, which promote walkable neighborhoods around transit hubs.

At a time when the county's fastest growing areas are near Metro stations and driving rates have plateaued, that only makes sense. New leadership is a signal to anyone who supports sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit that MCDOT is ready to work with them.

Has MCDOT turned over a new leaf?

To be fair, the department has made some big strides in recent years. Last fall, Montgomery County got its first protected bikeway, on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, and the DOT decided to allow the narrower, slower-speed design for Old Georgetown Road than the county's plans originally called for. After a years-long fight with parents at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg, MCDOT agreed to install a crosswalk across a busy road.

New director Al Roshdieh has expressed an interest in focusing on pedestrian and bike infrastructure and wants to reexamine all of the county's policies. He wants to combat the perception (though rightly earned) that the agency is "pro-car."

But there are signs that elements of the old, highway-focused culture remains. Roshdieh insists that the county's proposed bus rapid transit line on Route 29 won't work without building highway interchanges. And though Roshdieh said there isn't room for new roads, the department recently recommended building the most environmentally-destructive route for Midcounty Highway.

Change might not come all at once, but neither are merely small changes (or just words and no changes) enough. Roshdieh is evidently angling to become permanent director, and he'll need to take bold action to fix an agency deeply out of touch with a county that's changed significantly since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, it seems a little ironic that Gonzalez, who spent much of his career pushing for transportation and land use patterns which force people to drive, now is in charge of liquor. Car dependence all but forces people to drive home from restaurants and bars where they want to drink, while people who can walk or take transit home need not worry about driving drunk. Gonzalez will now be in charge of mitigating a problem he himself exacerbated in the past.

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Public Spaces


Think you know Metro's neighborhoods? This quiz might surprise you

Yesterday, PlanItMetro posted maps showing what's within walking distance of each Metro station. Check them out (and maybe read up on what walk sheds are and how they differ across the region), then take our quiz to test what you know.


A map of the area around the Columbia Heights Metro station that's easily walkable. Images from WMATA.

1. Which of these stations has the most jobs within walking distance?

McLean
U Street
Pentagon City
Rockville

2. Which of these stations has the fewest jobs within walking distance?

Bethesda
Medical Center
Ballston
Federal Triangle

3. Which of these stations has the most jobs that are nearby, but not within walking distance?

Van Ness
Glenmont
West Falls Church
Franconia-Springfield

4. Which of these stations has the most households within walking distance?

Dupont Circle
Silver Spring
Columbia Heights
Court House

5. Which of these stations has the fewest households within walking distance?

Friendship Heights
Pentagon City
Crystal City
Georgia Avenue-Petworth

6. How many households live within walking distance of Metro?

95,322
190,631
321,240
458,273

7. Which of these stations has the lowest Walk Score?

Morgan Boulevard
Fort Totten
Arlington Cemetery
Van Dorn Street

8. Which of these areas has the smallest area within walking distance?

West Hyattsville
Southern Avenue
National Airport
Landover

Answers

1. U Street might not have many high-rise office buildings, but the medium-density neighborhood does have 9,034 jobs within walking distance. Logan Circle's density isn't just for residents: its lack of parking lots and high street connectivity mean that it also has plenty of economic opportunities nearby.

2. Federal Triangle, the very heart of the federal bureaucracy that built Metro to bring commuters into the city, has fewer jobs nearby than the three big edge cities it's grouped with. (That's partially because PlanItMetro's assessment is for non-overlapping walk sheds. This is why Federal Triangle has so few jobs: they're assigned to neighboring sheds.) Medical Center may not look like much from Wisconsin Avenue, but its 32,473 nearby jobs put it in a league with several Downtown DC stations.

3. At Franconia-Springfield, 92% of the nearby jobs aren't within walking distance. Springfield Town Center is beyond a half-mile walk, and the new FBI headquarters site even the site Virginia is promoting for the FBI is cut off from the station by a ravine. (At Branch Avenue, 96% of nearby jobs are outside the walk shed.)


Franconia-Springfield walk shed.

4. Columbia Heights just edges out Dupont Circle for this title, 10,842 to 10,636. Relatively low-rise Court House has the highest household concentration outside the District, with 8,100 within walking distance.

5. It's Friendship Heights, although all of these have between 4,071 and 4,623 households within walking distance. High rises don't always mean high residential density, especially if there are lots of offices and shops mixed in. Crystal City probably has a higher density, but its walk shed is also constrained by the George Washington Parkway.

6. 190,631. Contrary to what those ubiquitous "Steps to Metro!" real-estate listings might tell you, just 9% of the 2,091,301 households in the metro area live within a ten-minute walk of Metro.

7. Morgan Boulevard has a paltry Walk Score of 6. Even Arlington Cemetery's is somehow 15. Twenty five Metro stations are in locations with a Walk Score that's "car-dependent," and just 30 are in places deemed a "Walker's Paradise."

8. Landover. Hemmed in by a railroad and US 50 on one side and by its own parking lot and an industrial park on the other, its walk shed covers a mere 80 acres. That's not fair to the almost 1,000 households, mostly on the other side of 50, who are less than half a mile away but can't easily reach the station.


Landover walk shed.

How did you do?

0-3 correct: You're a Metro Newbie! While you're playing #WhichWMATA, step outside those stations and explore!
4-6 correct: You're a Metro Explorer! You've walked around many of Metro's stations, and always want to see more!
7-8 correct: You're a Metro Voyager! Are you sure you didn't download that 113-megabyte Atlas and take this quiz open-book?

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Public Spaces


New transit in Alexandria could be great, but not if riders can't walk to stations

Alexandria is planning a new bus rapid transit corridor that could be great for development. But the fenced-off apartment complexes and pedestrian-hostile roads surrounding it could discourage people from taking the bus.


Alexandria's West End today. Photo from Google Street View.

The West End Transitway is a bus rapid transit system that will run along Van Dorn and Beauregard streets, connecting the Van Dorn Metro station to both the Shirlington Transit Center and the Pentagon. The transitway will have dedicated lanes for buses, meaning it will bring effective transit to an area that needs development.

But the West End neighborhood south of Landmark, whose rough boundaries are Edsall, Pickett, Duke and I-395, contains numerous apartment complexes with fences that block pedestrian connections. Meanwhile, wide, fast roads make walking inconvenient and dangerous. Neither of these things will encourage anyone to use the bus.


The proposed West End Transitway. Map from the City of Alexandria.

For example, the Edsall Bluff complex on Edsall Road is only about 400 feet from Watergate at Landmark. But to get from one to the other, a resident would have to walk nearly a mile because they're both fenced in and there aren't any paths that connect them.

When it comes to transit, walkability is the key to success. The parts of Alexandria that have really high transit use, like Old Town, not only have density but a street grid with narrow, slow streets that makes it easy and safe to walk to Metro and bus routes. Likewise, the West End Transitway needs to be accessible on foot and by bike. If it's not, it's going to be hard to call the project a success.

Wide, fast roads make walking unsafe

Alexandria's plan for the Beauregard Street corridor, which is in the West End, proposes a new grid with streets that slow vehicle traffic and are easy for pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate. But the latest plans for the West End Transitway are full of suburban design, namely wide travel lanes that are between 12 and 14 feet wide, and a lack of on-street bikeways.

Missing are the narrow lanes that are now universally recommended in modern smart growth handbooks. In Walkable City, author Jeff Speck lauds the ten to 11 foot lanes that have become the new norm, but he says nine-foot lanes would be even better. Not only are these streets safer for walking and biking, but they're also safer for driving.

Also missing are protected bike lanes. While the draft West End Transitway plan has a "sidepath" for biking and walking, modern best practices would give it a protected bikeway and a sidewalk.

A protected bikeway would keep bikes off the sidewalk, which is safer for pedestrians. It'd also carry the bike lane through each intersection with street design (paint), signals, and signage. With a sidepath, the only safe way to bicycle through an intersection is to slow to walking speed. But people do not have the discipline to do that at every intersection, so sidewalk (and sidepath) riding is dangerous. Most cycling organizations strongly discourage it.

In another example of misplaced suburban design, plans for the intersection at Van Dorn and Pickett feature slip lanes that allow for fast right-hand turns. Transit Commission member Scott Anderson said they've now been redesigned for lower speeds, but they're still dangerous.

"A transitway should be designed to move people safely, not move cars fast," said West End Policy Advisory Group member Jake Jakubek.

Where safe paths don't exist, people make them up

I recently spent an afternoon visiting West End apartments, looking for "desire paths" between them. Desire paths are unofficial routes created by people walking where no path was provided. Often, they stand out as dirt paths in satellite photos.

While I found trampled earth along many of the perimeter fences, I found only one such path open and only one clear case of a fence that had been patched to close a desire path. It may be telling that the only open path I found passed through a fence-gap in a wooded area, hidden from those tasked with fence repair.

Google Maps includes numerous desire paths in walking and biking directions. One such path is shown between the aforementioned Edsall Bluff and Watergate at Landmark. In reality, however, there is only a fence and a stand of thick bamboo. That the path is on a map suggests that it once existed.

All desire paths, both existing and closed off, show that people like to walk and that they strongly prefer the shortest route to their destination, even if they have to climb through a gap in a fence to get there.

The West End Transitway could make it easier to get around Alexandria without a car, as well as encourage much-needed investment in the area. However, it's important to make sure that people can easily and safely get to the transitway on foot or bike. Without that, the benefits of new transit may not materialize.

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Parenting


Ask GGW: Urbanist children's music?

Greater Greater Washington readers came up with a great list of children's books which have urbanist themes or describe experiences of kids growing up in the city, like riding the subway or walking outside an apartment neighborhood on a snowy day. What about for music?


Bubble Ride cover from Vanessa Trien.

Sophie has really been enjoying Bubble Ride, a CD by Boston area children's singer Vanessa Trien. Besides some (great) songs about the popular topic, farm or zoo animals, there are several songs about living in the city.

"Train Dance" is about some people on the T who can't help but dance to the rhythm of the train rumbling. And "Spinning Around" relates the experience of a child who lives in a second-floor apartment in the city and goes on a "walk to the bank or to the grocery store" in the stroller.

Do you know of other children's albums that kids in walkable urban places can relate to?

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Sustainability


People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."

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Pedestrians


Walkblock of the Week #3: L St NW between 6th and 7th

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

Nearly an entire block of sidewalk is closed a block from Mt. Vernon Metro station, on the south side of L Street between 6th and 7th. With the sidewalk closed, the most direct walking route for many pedestrians is in the street. That's avoidable.


Pedestrians walking in the street, after DDOT gave permission to completely close the sidewalk. All photos by the author.

The sidewalk is closed because Douglas Development is constructing a building that will add offices and new retail. But construction is still in its early stages, and it may last for another year. Meanwhile, two car travel lanes are open.


The purple line shows the closed sidewalk on L Street NW. The red lines show other nearby closures. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk. The current permit expires on August 9th, 2015. But does this sidewalk really need to be closed?

George Branyan, DDOT's pedestrian program coordinator, said that when demolition is still going on at construction sites, closing nearby sidewalks is the preferred route.

"This closure should have relatively little impact on pedestrians accessing the Convention Center Metro station since it is located at 7th Street and M Street, a block north of this development," he said. "Additionally, with the entire block face being developed and no pedestrian generators on the block, fewer pedestrians are attracted to the south side of the street."

It's amazing that while DDOT's policy is for sidewalks to close only as a "means of last resort," Branyan called this particular instance "preferred." He didn't discuss whether or not anyone at DDOT ever considered alternatives to closing the sidewalk. "Means of last resort" looks like a catch-all for any sidewalk closure in the city.

While there are places in the city where keeping sidewalks open would require difficult trade-offs, this site isn't one of them. Its sidewalks are relatively wide, and its vehicle volumes low. The sidewalk here could easily and relatively inexpensively occupy the parking lane, with scaffolding protection like in other locations around the city. This is a case of a clear violation of DDOT's policy for safe accommodations.

The cost of making that happen would be a drop in the bucket considering that this is a multimillion-dollar construction project. This area could be a lot safer and more convenient for people on foot, but DDOT staff and leadership are not making that a priority, and it's not clear why.


There is plenty of space to accommodate people on foot.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The sidewalk at the site looks wide enough to accommodate walkers during construction. Within DDOT, there is the technical ability, creativity, and political will to keep sidewalks open; You can see it in action on nearby 5th Street.

Unfortunately, making excuses for closing sidewalks seems to be a higher priority than finding ways to keep sidewalks open. Doing so directly conflicts with DDOT's policy of allowing sidewalk closures only as a "means of last resort."

A priority shift toward keeping sidewalks open would make DC an even better place to walk and send a clear message that pedestrian safety is a priority here.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet them to @allwalksDC with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

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Pedestrians


Walkblock of the Week #2: Connecticut and Yuma NW

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

On Connecticut Avenue just north of the Van Ness Metro, a two block-long construction site blocks the sidewalk and stops students and teachers from taking a direct route to school.


A "means of last resort" for people on foot but not for those in cars.

The new Park Van Ness building will add apartments and retail along the east side of Connecticut Avenue. The construction spans nearly two blocks, from Wyndam Place to Yuma Street to Albemarle.

Right next door, to the north, is the Franklin Montessori School. Because of the construction, students and teachers coming from the Metro have to walk to Albemarle, cross the street, then double back to get to the school. This makes the school significantly farther from the Metro than normal.

Despite signs, some people don't expect such a major walking route to be closed, and they end up walking next to traffic. Construction is supposed to continue for another year. Meanwhile, all the car lanes, including space that doubles as parking and rush-hour travel lanes, are still open.


The red line on the map shows the closed sidewalk on Connecticut Ave NW. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk.

George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that the site is very complicated because of its steep slopes that move away from the road, which required the sidewalk to be closed longer than at other sites. When I asked about closing a car lane, Branyan said the agency did not consider this option feasible because Connecticut Avenue gets so much traffic (both curbside parking lanes become travel lanes during rush hours). Branyan also stressed that DDOT worked with the community and ANC representatives to modify construction closure plans, and the sidewalk is expected to reopen "later this spring."

The closure, then, falls into DDOT's "means of last resort" category, meaning the agency feels that all options for keeping the sidewalk open were impractical. Branyan also clarified that the "means of last resort" category also includes the closure at 16th and I Streets discussed last week. However, "means of last resort" means very little when DDOT uses it so liberally, especially for construction on major roadways, which often have the highest numbers of people in cars but also the highest numbers of people walking.

DDOT is far too quick to make excuses for closing sidewalks instead of finding ways to keep them open. Reversing those priorities will make DC an even better place to walk by making it clear that people walking are a priority.


People in cars move as normal, while those on foot must detour or walk in the street. Photo by the author.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The city has closed car lanes for walking around construction areas at other times. This recent construction project on 5th Street NW took one lane from cars and used it for people walking. Clearly, DDOT has the technical ability, the creativity, and the political support to keep pathways open when it's a priority.


DDOT provides good accommodation for walking here at 5th St NW, just south of K. Photo from Google Street View.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

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Public Spaces


Meet the "eruv," a creative way to mesh ancient religion with today's urban and suburban spaces

We discuss all kinds of transportation challenges here at Greater Greater Washington. But observant Jews face a unique barrier: on the Sabbath and other holy days, they can't drive cars or ride the bus. Symbolic structures called "eruvim" are examples of how a community adapts to the surrounding built environment.


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Jewish law prohibits doing "work" during a total of 1,500 hours each year. That includes driving and also carrying many objects outside one's home. However, an eruv (plural "eruvim") creates a symbolic private space, inside which it's religiously permissible to do things like carry house keys and books, push strollers, and walk with canes.

To qualify as an eruv, there needs to be an unbroken boundary surrounding an area, but it can be as thin as a piece of string. They're typically cobbled together along existing buildings, fences, and telephone and power lines.

Eruvim around the Washington region

There are nearly a dozen public eruvim in greater Washington, and many more private ones enclose lots with single- and multi-family residences. Much of DC is inside two eruvim, and eruvim wrap around approximately 40 square miles in Montgomery County. There's also an eruv enclosing the University of Maryland's College Park campus.


2012 eruv boundary map from WAMU. Click for an interactive version.

As cities and populations have changed, so have eruvim

Urban eruvim originated in Medieval Europe; Walled cities formed the perfect enclosure, but as cities burst their seams and sprawled into the countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, the physical boundaries came down.

Observant Jews searched for solutions to keep the Sabbath during changing times. In the 1860s, German rabbis cleverly used telegraph poles and wires, a new kind of communication infrastructure, to creat eruvim boundaries.


String connects a telephone pole to a Beltway sound wall to form part of the Woodside eruv in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

The first American eruv appeared in St. Louis in the 1890s. Others, in New York City, followed in the next decade. Rabbis used a segment of the Third Avenue El to create the western boundary of the Lower East Side's first eruv; seawalls along the East River bordered it on the east, and poles and wires formed its northern and southern borders.


The Third Avenue El tracks formed the western boundary for Manhattan's first eruv. Postcard photo by the author.

Eruvim later came to Queens and Brooklyn in New York, but they were limited to large cities until the Cold War. By the mid-1970s, though, as Orthodox Jews moved into ranches, ramblers, and split-level homes in inner-ring suburbs and outlying residential subdivisions, they had exploded into less dense areas. There are now more than 200 public eruvim in the United States and Canada.

Orthodox Jews have also adapted the built environment to their religion

With synagogues and housing going up in areas that are less dense, with fewer sidewalks, more freeways, and the shopping malls that are signatures of sprawl, today's observant Jews face new obstacles in building eruvim.


Desire line inside a suburban Atlanta, Ga., eruv. Photo by the author.

From Montgomery County's Kemp Mill to Atlanta's Toco Hill, where neighbors call observant Jews "the walkers," Jewish families make their way to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturdays. They use sidewalks where they exist, and they hug road shoulders where they don't. Both cases are a reminder of the need for sidewalks and a focus on pedestrian safety.


Walking to synagogue in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

In fact, planners in Atlanta have used pictures of "desire lines," worn into the grass alongside roads where there are no sidewalks to recommend more connectivity in their communities; in some cases, they attribute those lines to Orthodox Jews walking on the Sabbath.

As planners continue to retrofit Washington's suburbs, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to look up at the wires overhead and ponder some of the ways historically urban people have adapted to suburban sprawl. Sometimes the solutions are as simple as some string and imagination.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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