Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Windshield Perspective


Montgomery DOT ignores promises to the community and sabotages the White Flint plan

When the White Flint Sector Plan was adopted in 2010 after years of collaboration between residents, property owners, county officials, and civic leaders, it was hailed as a triumph of responsible, sustainable development. Now, county engineers are poised to undo years of work by pushing through a road design that does not include any of the elements the plan promised the community.

MCDOT's proposed design for Old Georgetown Road would make it even more unfriendly for pedestrians than it is today. Image from Google Maps.

Transforming White Flint into a vibrant, walkable area requires balancing new development, which brings growth and amenities, with the pressure to move through traffic around the area. It does this with a multi-modal transportation network that diffuses traffic across a new street grid, known as the Western Workaround. That will relieve traffic on Rockville Pike while providing safe and attractive ways to get around on foot, bike or transit.

Because these elements are so important to the plan's success, it prescribes specific details including the number of lanes, speed limits, and the location and character of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. For Old Georgetown Road between Executive Boulevard and Rockville Pike the plan is unequivocal: it should have four lanes (two in each direction), on-street bike lanes in both directions, sidewalks and a broad shared-use path, which forms part of a sector-wide Recreation Loop.

Planned bike lanes and walking/cycling paths in White Flint. Map from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The County Planning Board and County Council both passed this plan, with all its specifics, and the community overwhelmingly supported it. Despite all this, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) designed a road that has no bike lanes, no shared-use path, and widens the road to one that is effectively eight lanes wide, and has nearly advanced that version of the project to the 70% design stage.

This will create an Old Georgetown Road that is even less safe for bikers and pedestrians than it is today. It also leaves a gaping hole in the Recreation Loop, one of the area's signature planned amenities.

MCDOT splits hairs to excuse a dangerous design

In trying to defend their plan, MCDOT officials argue that their design technically contains only two travel lanes in each direction. The additional lanes, which extend nearly the entire length of the roadway, are "merely turning lanes."

This obfuscation may hold water for traffic engineers, but for anyone unlucky enough to bike or walk along the road, that distinction provides little comfort. Under the MCDOT proposal, a pedestrian must traverse eight lanes of traffic to get across Old Georgetown Road. For cyclists, the lack of dedicated lanes means they must take their chances staying safe among four lanes of traffic.

Comparison of the two cross-sections. Rendering from of Friends of White Flint. Click for larger version showing more of the road.

In reality, the effect of this design will be even more pernicious. By prioritizing driving over everything else, MCDOT will fulfill its own skewed vision for mobility in the county: fewer people will walk, bike or take transit, even though they want to but won't feel safe. They'll, instead, choose to drive for every single trip, adding to congestion and undermining the entire premise of the White Flint Sector Plan redevelopment.

Even more galling, MCDOT has proposed redesigning Old Georgetown Road twice: once now to maximize auto traffic, and again, sometime in the future, to incorporate the elements in the sector plan only if conditions warrant and funding is available.

Drivers struck 454 pedestrians in the county last year. 13 were killed. Just this summer, a pedestrian was killed crossing the Pike down by North Bethesda Market. I frequently receive emails from residents concerned for their safety on and along Old Georgetown Road. These are the stark consequences of MCDOT's "windshield mentality."

With this action, the county government breaks the community's trust

Safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and a Recreation Loop were key elements that helped the plan gain public support. Since the plan passed, White Flint residents have consistently voiced their support for safer bike/pedestrian accommodations.

The Western Workaround is the first of many planned transportation and infrastructure improvements in the White Flint area. If MCDOT is willing to push through a design for this project that so plainly violates the sector plan, how can the public trust the agency will implement any other pieces of the plan faithfully?

The residents and stakeholders of White Flint deserve better. Please join the Friends of White Flint and Coalition for Smarter Growth in calling on County Executive Ike Leggett to uphold the promises made to the community and hold MCDOT accountable.


WJLA shines a light on a scourge of the roadways

Last week, WJLA ran a story by Tom Roussey about drivers speeding, an illegal yet common behavior:

A cyclist waiting at a red light. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
Over several days of taking footage, ABC7's cameras captured hundreds of thousands of motorists in different parts of DC, ignoring speed limits.

DC Police say it's every bit as illegal for a motorist to do that as run a red lightbut our video shows that it happens all the time.

The motorists we observed fell into three groups: one group always obeyed the law, another always obeyed limits unless there were no cops around, and the third simply sped through the city without slowing down.

When motorists ignore speed limits, it's frustrating for everyone. But it's also frustrating for many other motorists.

"In the end, people will just generalize and say there's nothing wrong with speeding, which is of course untrue," said driver Oliver Bleake.

A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson says officers do give out tickets to motorists who speed. And although she couldn't specifically say how many tickets were given for speeding, the MPD spokesperson says in 2012 officers gave out 446 tickets for bicycle-related violations.

Last year, that number dropped by more than half to 203.

Oops, actually, no, this wasn't Roussey's story. Instead, Roussey was writing about cyclists passing red lights.

Roussey wrote,

Over several days of taking footage, ABC7's cameras captured dozens of cyclists in different parts of DC, blowing through red lights.

DC Police say it's every bit as illegal for a bicyclist to do that as a carbut our video shows that it happens all the time.

The cyclists we observed fell into three groups: one group always obeyed the law, another always stopped for red lights and crossed if there were no cars coming, and the third simply sped through red lights without slowing down.

This story didn't really say anything. Yes, some cyclists break the law. That's not breaking news. Yes, it's often unsafe.

But what percentage of cyclists on the videos fell into each group? How many crashes occurred because of the lawbreaking? We don't know because Roussey decided not to include that information.

It's also common knowledge that drivers often break the rules. Speeding is very commonplace throughout the region. People also drive drunk and run red lights.

When drivers break the rules, pedestrians and cyclists can pay the price with their lives. But drivers who are sober and who stay on the scene are rarely charged. WJLA doesn't seem outraged about that.

The New York Times has been getting outraged. Soon after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a "vision zero" initiative to eliminate pedestrian deaths, the paper has run stories about how pedestrian deaths haven't dropped even as overall road deaths have; where crashes happen in the five boroughs; and harrowing personal stories from four Times staffers who were hit and injured by drivers (but survived).

Wouldn't it be great if WJLA did some analysis and reporting like that?

Instead, Roussey's story on bikes running lights does not add much to the discussion, except to demonize cyclists as scofflaws. This story just reinforces the idea of the anecdote: "I saw a cyclist run a red light the other day, so clearly, they're all law breakers." The WJLA story just gives heft to the (false) idea that all cyclists are law-breakers. It's a stereotype that even many MPD officers hold.

In a republic, good information and an open dialogue are fundamental to making good policy. The media are a key part of fostering that honest discussion, but when they resort to using stereotyping instead of reporting, they make public dialogue and decision-making harder. We should expect more from journalists than this.


Google self-driving car is polite to cyclists

Google released a video showing how its prototype self-driving car can deal with many situations on urban streets, such as construction zones bicyclists. The car politely waits for a cyclist who signals to move into the car's lane, and waits for a cyclist to pass from behind before turning.

Some people spotted the Google car driving around the streets of DC, where a bill a few years ago made it legal.

If the technology can work reliably, this certainly could make streets safer. The ever-present question is, if self-driving cars are so safe that they wait for cyclists, what happens when someone in such a car gets frustrated at the slow pace?

Will they press the "override" button and drive anyway? If that leads to a crash but the cyclist made a small mistake, would the driver still face no liability under "contributory negligence" laws, as in DC, Maryland, and Virginia (and North Carolina and Alabama)?

Or would people lobby for restrictions on cyclists who are now slowing them down quite a lot? Alternately, would people be so relaxed, just reading a book or playing mobile phone games, that they don't care?

Disclosure: I once worked for Google. I had nothing to do with the self-driving cars.


"Stay the course" or "pivot"? Gray and Evans disagree about the ill-fated Wisconsin Avenue median

In 2012, DC changed the traffic patterns on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park to make it more friendly to pedestrians, then reversed course following strong complaints from many Georgetown residents including Councilmember Jack Evans. The issue came up in my interviews with Evans and Mayor Vince Gray.

Photo by Abigail Zenner.

I asked every candidate about the way the government can spend a lot of time planning a project, build community support, and still then later run into a lot of people who say they never heard about it or want to block it. Gray brought up this project in his response. He said,

Vincent Gray. Image from the candidate website.
We've seen in some parts of the city when a lane was changed and it was done with the concurrence of the people who lived in that area, who then railed against it in the aftermath and now it's being put back like it was.
I think that you've got to stay the course. I happen to live on a street that was changed, where when people saw a change there was enormous negative reaction to it: Branch Avenue, which went from being two not sufficiently wide lanes on either side of the street, in my opinionwe saw lots of accidents thereto being one lane on either side. There were people that were up in arms. They wanted to put it back like it was. Now, people have adapted. It's taken a number of years, no question about that, but people have adapted.

We have to work with communities around what do these proposals mean for their lives. Make sure there's community input on how we get to the answer. And then once we do, we've got to stay the course if we believe, earnestly, these changes will make life better for folks.

People hate sitting in traffic. The answer is not to give more streets. The answer is to give other options to folks, other ways of traveling, other methods of traveling, and then you've got to swallow hard and stay with it.

Jack Evans disagrees. I asked him specifically about the Glover Park issue, and he said,

Jack Evans. Image from the candidate website.
It was a complete disaster ... Even the ANC chair, Brian Cohen who was the spearhead of it, and Jackie Blumenthal came to the position that it was a complete disaster. It wasn't just me, it was everyone who realized that narrowing Wisconsin Avenue to 1 lane going north in rush hour just wasn't working. You were backing traffic all the way past the Safeway all the way to R Street, and that wasn't working for anybody.

I think the lesson that we take from that is they try something that doesn't work, but can then pivot and maneuver rather than sticking to something that was just causing chaos. What you were doing, as you know, by having that center lane with stripes on it, people were starting to cut around, creating a very dangerous situation. I'm glad that people were starting to recognize that.

To be precise, the plan did not make Wisconsin Avenue 1 lane at rush hour; there was a part-time parking lane people could drive in during rush hour. However, it was 1 lane outside rush hour, and according to Glover Park resident and GGW contributor Abigail Zenner, times like school pick-up around 2-3 pm were worse for traffic than rush hour itself.

What if some of the details like these had worked better, I asked, but drivers still found themselves delayed by a minute or two? Evans said, "If we were talking about a minute or two. We were talking about a half hour."

At one ANC meeting last year, DDOT reported that driving times had increased by 2 minutes. But, Zenner said, "since then I have not been able to get my hands on any more data. My unscientific anecdotal experience also backed up the two minute claim. I have never experienced a half hour back-up, although I have heard a lot of people say things like that."

Evans doesn't buy it. "As you've heard me testify many times, if it was a minute or two we wouldn't be here. Don't take my word for it, take the word of the proponents of the project, Brian, Jackie and others, who came to the conclusion. 80-90% of people in the neighborhood hated it. It was a universally hated idea. "

But, I asked, any change to a roadway will engender significant opposition. How do you differentiate legitimate problems with a project from knee-jerk opposition to change? Evans said,

You have to deal with each individual situation. The 15th Street bike lanes would be an example where we got tons of complaints, but it worked and we kept it in place. We didn't respond to the complaints. It's quieted down, but we still get complaints about the bike lanes. Most people quieted down and now accept it for what it is. The important thing is you have to be able to respond and not take a rigid view.
Evans did complain about the 15th Street lane at first, also, but changed his tune. Part of that might have come from a bike ride I organized to take him around the ward to the various bike lanes (an experience he referenced in the interview). And, indeed, he has not fought the 15th Street lane, or the L and M Street lanes crosstown.


Putting pedestrians and cyclists first upsets the social order of the roads

Complete streets, or the idea that roads should be safe and effective for all users, aim to upend the social order, moving cars from first to last. Despite endless discussion of "safety" and "the law," many people seem to be upset by social, rather than legal violations of the rules.

Photo by EURIST e.V. on Flickr.

While the majority remains polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo. In the current social order, roads are for cars, slow drivers are "bad drivers," and cyclists and pedestrians are expected to get out of the way.

The social order of the road is governed not by laws, but by socially-enforced rules. For example, one might voluntarily drive below the speed limit on the Beltway. That would be perfectly legal, but would also garner honking, headlight-flashing, and rude gestures. As everyone knows, appropriate driving speeds begin at the speed limit and extend upwards, not downwards. The power of these rules is such that police rarely issue a ticket, photographic or otherwise, for driving less than 10 mph over the speed limit.

Violating social norms

All this came to mind the other day, when I was bicycling in violation of the social order. I was riding in the center of a narrow lane and a driver started honking at me. Shortly thereafter, he pulled alongside and helpfully explained that cyclists are not allowed in the street unless they can "ride at the speed limit."

This struck me as quite the head-scratcher. After all, isn't the speed limit an upper limit? Those of us with Internet access have certainly read that cyclists should not be allowed on the road unless they "obey the law." Riding at a typical bicycle speed surely complies with the law. Nevertheless I've been told, even by friends, that cyclists must ride at the speed limit.

As it turns out, the speed limit is the single point of intersection between socially acceptable driving speeds and socially acceptable bicycling speeds. Cyclists who do not ride this tightrope, and that would be all of them, are in violation of at least one of these social conventions.

Despite endless discussion of "safety" and "the law" it is increasingly clear to me that many people are upset by social, rather than legal, violations of the rules. While the majority of drivers remain polite, a vocal minority is extremely attached to the status quo.

As old gives way to new, old ideas fall by the wayside. One of these is that automobile traffic is an unstoppable force. As a pedestrian, it is up to me to get out of the way or suffer the consequences. As a cyclist, there is no point in asking for bike lanes because they would simply put me in harm's way.

The complete streets concept recognizes that traffic is ruled by individual drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, each of whom is able to slow down and even stop to avoid a crash. Complete streets are updated streets, often with narrower traffic lanes that have been demonstrated to slow motorized traffic. Pedestrians come first, followed by transit, cyclists, and cars.

Barbara McCann, author of Completing our Streets, describes supporters of complete streets as "a broad coalition of bicycle riders, transportation practitioners, public health leaders, older Americans, smart growth advocates, [and] real estate agents" who "came together to insist that we begin to build streets that are safe for everyone."

Because the automobile can't deliver the promises of speed and freedom to 100% of the population, people continue to take up walking and bicycling, often in the direction of the nearest Metro station. When these non-drivers get in the way of the cars, and they do so often in urban settings, they upset the social order. Transit planners participate in these changes as well by calling for dedicated bus lanes and new buses that give their drivers the power to change traffic signals. I myself joined AARP specifically because they are a champion of complete streets.

McCann cites a 2012 nationwide poll that found that "63% of Americans would like to address traffic congestion by improving public transportation and designing communities for easier walking and bicycling." While frustrating for some, a majority of citizens support these changes. The new social order, it seems, is here to stay.

A version of this post appeared in the Alexandria Times.


Don't expect green lights all the time

You're driving along in downtown DC. You get a green light and start moving, but just as you get to the next corner the light turns red. It's frustrating! But it's no conspiracy. There could be reasons this happens, even besides trying to help pedestrians and cyclists.

Photo by apium on Flickr.

Adam Tuss's latest NBC TV news segment brings the shocking revelation that drivers don't like to stop at red lights, and that at least one person thinks it's another part of the war... I mean, the nonexistent general pattern of DC deliberately pursuing policies that make things worse for drivers.

Tuss read an email on the Tenleytown listserv, by semi-anonymous poster "Paul," alleging that DC deliberately times lights to slow down drivers. Tuss makes this the core of his story, with a response from DC transportation officials who say that this is not true, though actually, they'd really like to install a more modern signal system that makes it easier to time lights.

In the TV news tradition, Tuss also interviews a few "people on the street," and does make sure to talk to people with multiple points of view. One driver thinks DC can probably figure out a better system, though he doesn't say anything inflammatory. Another says it's important to design signals to accommodate pedestrians, adding, "cities are for people, not for cars."

At the end, Tuss and his crew take a drive on Wisconsin Avenue. We can see them leaving one intersection with a green light and getting to another one. He concludes, "Clearly, from the driver's standpoint, some signals were not timed properly."

Actually, no, and this is the most dangerous part of this report because it reinforces the notion that if you hit a red light, there is something wrong with the timing.

Quite simply, lights are not going to be green for everyone all the time. Wisconsin Avenue, for instance, is a 2-way street. Any timing that gives successive green lights to people driving one direction will mean more red lights the other way.

Parts of 16th Street do have "platooning," where lights turn green in succession. This also encourages people to drive the speed limit, since if they go faster, they'll just hit red lights each time. Some people surely think 16th's lights are terrible because they keep hitting red lights. Others, driving the opposite way, have a legitimate beef that they timing makes things worse for them.

Downtown, there are many main streets intersecting at various angles in close proximity. There's no way to time all of the streets for continuous greens in every direction. Should the timing encourage people to drive north on 16th or west on streets like R and U in the evening? Both have a lot of commuters traveling in conflicting directions.

One way to combat that particular problem is to close segments of streets to car traffic. When New York closed the diagonal Broadway around Times and Herald Squares, it found that traffic flowed better because the diagonal confounded signal timings on the avenues. DC could probably help everyone better traverse a place like Dupont Circle if it reduced the number of roads coming in, but that would surely spark even more "war on cars" claims even if it actually helps cars and the people inside as well as pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

There are many other reasons traffic engineers might time lights in a way that appears wrong to a driver traveling a particular direction. Contributor and engineer Andrew Bossi offered many examples, such as:

Gap Provision: Providing breaks in traffic, such as to allow nearby uncontrolled interactions to operate adequately. Without these breaks, some uncontrolled intersections may never be able to clear out, subsequently requiring some treatments such as an additional traffic signalwhich would only increase motorists' delays. Breaks in traffic improve net mobility for the greatest amount of road users.
Still, many signals in DC aren't timed with a lot of forethought. DC doesn't have a state-of-the-art system to control all of the lights centrally. Many individual decisions get made based on local neighborhood pressure, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)'s James Cheeks has told me and others. That can have its pros and cons; sometimes neighbors know well where the trouble spots are, but it also makes the overall system haphazard.

Many signal timings could be better. If DDOT changes them, however, it won't necessarily ensure that Adam Tuss always gets a green. What helps move on group of drivers could slow down another group. Also, as people say in Tuss's story, drivers aren't the only people on the roads.

In some places, DC could time signals to help buses get past a trouble spot when they cross a busy road. That might mean drivers on that main road more often get a red, but if the bus caries 20 people and 5 drivers have to wait a little longer, it's a net gain. Pedestrians need time to cross, especially wide roads like Wisconsin in places with a lot of seniors like upper Northwest.

Any fixes to signals have to take everyone's needs into account. That'll surely make someone frustrated, creating good fodder for another Adam Tuss transportation story.

Update: Doug Noble, DDOT's Chief Traffic Engineer from 2004-2007, notes in a comment:

DDOT's system is not state-of-the-art, but is at least state of the practice from the late-90's which is better than some major cities. Most traffic signals in DC are in communication with the central system software ... The issue with the signal systems in DC is that there is typically insufficient in-house resources to update signal timing on a recurrent regular basis and it has been done through an outside contract city-wide every 4-6 years. ...

That issue is not unique to DDOT, rather it is a problem nationwide, there is money available for capital projects, but less resources available to operate and maintain the existing signals system (or even the new stuff once installed).


Will driverless cars really slow for pedestrians?

Driverless cars will bring many changes to the way we see transportation. Some will be very good, some bad. But some commentators aren't convinced when I say a huge fight is brewing over how much the road system defers to pedestrians and cyclists or pushes them aside.

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr.

In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wrote:

[E]ventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour.

When that happens, it will be a golden age for pedestrians. Sure, cars won't need signals at intersections, but neither will people.

If you want to cross a road, you'll just cross. The cars will slow down and avoid you. You could cross blindfolded and be perfectly safe. You'll be able to cross freeways. You'll be able to walk diagonally across intersections. You'll be able to do anything you want, and the cars will be responsible for avoiding you. Your biggest danger will come from cyclists and other pedestrians, not cars.
It would be fantastic if this scenario came to pass, but is it realistic? It's certainly possible computers can get smart enough to handle it, but the sticking point here is the words "will slow down."

How much will they slow down? For how many pedestrians? Drum lives in Irvine, California, which has few pedestrians, so perhaps the cars can just avoid the occasional pedestrian. But in urban areas, there are a lot of pedestrians. If everyone crossed whenever they liked, the cars would slow down an awful lot.

In some places, cars would hardly ever get through. In almost any major city's downtown during a busy period, pedestrians are waiting in large numbers on street corners to cross. The only reason cars can get through is because signals govern pedestrian crossings. And when a light is green, often a car has to wait for a gap in the pedestrians or gently nose through to get past.

In Kevin Drum's future urban cores, constantly crossing pedestrians mean that car traffic will not flow at all except perhaps in the wee hours. Anyone who's been involved in a proposal to take away a lane of a road for bikes, or for a road diet, knows that drivers (or, in the future, car riders) will not stand for it.

Drivers are a powerful political force

Just look at, for example, the backlash against a bicycle lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. In a very liberal jurisdiction, a modest and overwhelmingly successful bike lane nevertheless stirred up a few wealthy and well-connected individuals, including the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to create an organization and file lawsuits to block the project using any means necessary.

Tea Partiers certain that there is a vast UN conspiracy to force them to live in high rises are opposing even extremely modest state laws creating some incentives for development in dense areas. Do we really think people will let government mandate that nobody is allowed to drive a car by hand, and that pedestrians get absolute priority?

In the DC area, some bicyclists ride on MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac, a narrow and windy road in a low-density area. That's perfectly legal, but there's a constant stream of letters to local press outlets by drivers who are sure it must be illegal to bike there since it slows them down.

Forcing drivers to travel slower would be like telling seniors that we're cutting their Medicare. The political counter-pressure is intense, so much that most transportation planners always take great pains to reassure drivers of how any change won't really slow them down. Even for the pedestrian plaza in Times Square, one of the early promises from the mayor's office was that it would actually reduce car delays.

I can go on. But anyone who writes regularly about transportation has encountered the massive sense of entitlement from drivers. When I'm driving, I hate to be delayed, too, but I squelch this natural impulse because I write about the issues and have context.

It may well come to pass that driverless cars have to travel slower and pedestrians are able to act more freely. But this will create tremendous political pressure to change the social compact over roads to get traffic moving faster once again. And in this, we will see another, more intense variant of the same fight we have today.

Once, pedestrians did walk freely, and children played in the streets. As automobile use proliferated, rising deaths led to campaigns to segregate street space. Our society could have taken one of two approaches: it could have limited drivers, and added legal liability to force drivers to be more careful, or it could get people out of the street. Many places in Europe chose some elements of the former, but America decisively chose the latter: to redefine the street's role in society to move cars faster. I'm certain that in Drum's scenario, there would be intense pressure to do the same.

Who is liable?

One element determining whether driverless cars turn into the Kevin Drum reality or another one is how we treat liability. When a driverless car kills a person, whether due to a human overriding the technology or a failure in the computer system, there will be a lawsuit.

If courts hold that the manufacturer of the car is liable, this will stifle development of the cars. The technology might ultimately be perfect, but it won't be perfect from the start. Manufacturers will ask state legislatures to limit their liability. Already, a number of commentators have called for liability caps or other legal changes which shift the burden away from the manufacturer.

If the legislatures don't agree, then manufacturers will have to move very carefully until they can make the cars virtually incapable of killing anyone. That will likely hinder development in general, and make any self-driving cars travel slower than human-operated cars. Many drivers therefore will turn off computer mode a fair amount of the time, and political pressure will build to change the liability standard. This will be an early skirmish in the battle over the cars' speed.

If states do limit liability, then we'll end up with a different situation. Buyers will want driverless cars that use algorithms like the one the University of Texas team devised that let them move faster. Sometimes those cars will travel close to pedestrians or bicyclists. Most of the time they'll still avoid killing anyone, but mishaps will happen. And like in today's legal world, prosecutors, judges and juries will be very reluctant to impose heavy punishments on someone operating a car who unintentionally kills another.

Then we'll be back to a situation like the early 1900s roads. For people's own safety, officials will start imposing restrictions on pedestrians. It'll start in places like Irvine. If laws won't stop people from walking on highways or crossing diagonally, then they'll build fences, or skybridges, or both.

Today, one argument against restricting pedestrians too much is that not everyone can drive. Seniors and people with disabilities can't operate a car, and many can't afford them. When driverless cars become commonplace, there will also be cheap taxi service, and so it'll be easier just to tell people to call up a car.

Already, many suburban areas are essentially an archipelago of human-accessible islands in a sea of almost-cars-only space. Little will stand in the way of making this other space absolutely cars-only. And why not? After all, without people, cars can use fancy algorithms to interweave with each other and zoom around far faster than they could in 2012.

Driverless cars aren't bad

A number of the responses seem to be reacting to an imaginary variant of my thesis, in which I said that self-driving cars were going to be a unmitigated bad thing. There's a natural tendency to simplify all arguments into "x is great!" or "x is terrible!"

The fact is that autonomous cars are coming whether we like it or not, and like any technological advance, will bring both terrific improvements to people's lives as well as drawbacks.

Driverless cars are sure to lead to big fights. Will they shift the balance farther toward pedestrians, as Kevin Drum believes, or away? I hope the former, but the technology won't magically solve this problem. Instead, we'll have to fight it out through the democratic process, as we do most other issues affecting the public sphere.


Montgomery DOT roadblocks thwart popular BRT plan

A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network could bring major transportation improvements to Montgomery County. But instead of pushing to advance the project as soon as possible, county transportation officials have thrown up obstacles and mired the project in unnecessary delays.

BRT on converted travel lanes in downtown Cleveland. Image from Wikimedia.

Montgomery County's roadways are filled to capacity with single-passenger vehicles. To help Montgomery residents and workers get where they need to go, the county is considering an ambitious, and popular, 150-mile BRT network.

Unfortunately, while publicly embracing this idea, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is unwilling to do what must be done to make it succeed. Asked to find a few places where buses could be moved faster right now, MCDOT refused, saying that it had to do a study first, and then didn't start the study. MCDOT officials also insisted that planners weigh BRT against a preposterous assumption that every single car on the road is a 4-person carpool.

BRT could move far more people more quickly using the existing roadway space. The simple fact is that a bus-only lane can carry far more people than a general traffic lane, as long as bus service on that lane is fairly frequent. In the built-up business and residential districts along the county's busiest bus corridors, the only way to make room for BRT is to convert existing travel lanes into bus-only lanes.

Elsewhere, BRT will stop along major 6-lane arterials, at intersections which often have multiple turn lanes. There too, it's best to put the busway on existing lanes. Widening these roadways to add new lanes could defeat the intent of the transit plan to create walkable spaces, since 10-lane suburban highways are rarely welcoming to people on foot.

Converting lanes will not be easy. Traffic planners will need to use some trial and error to find the best configuration. If there is to be any hope of meeting the ambitious schedule that BRT proponents have laid out, the county needs to start quickly.

The learning process can start now. Montgomery can benefit now by designating a few short sections of bus lane right away. Even if full BRT is not running yet, there are many existing buses, often running at high frequency. WMATA's Priority Corridor Network Plan has already identified some good locations.

The County Council recognizes this need. Last April, then-Council President Valerie Ervin and all three Transportation and Environment Committee members (Roger Berliner, Hans Riemer, and Nancy Floreen) asked for immediate action to give buses higher priority at intersections. They also requested"separately," they emphasizeda longer-range study of passenger throughput on the roads.

Unfortunately, MCDOT, which trumpets its support for BRT sometime in the future, expressed no interest in doing anything now. In an August reply, MCDOT Director Art Holmes said that nothing could be done to speed up buses until the passenger throughput study was complete. Nine months after the County Council letter, that study still has yet to begin.

While MCDOT stonewalled, the county Planning Board began its own work on the BRT plan. Staffer Larry Cole looked at the throughput issue and found that converting a car lane to BRT adds almost as much passenger capacity as building expensive new lanes.

MCDOT planning chief Edgar Gonzalez then emailed Cole insisting that he redo the calculation with the assumption that each car carries 4 people. Cole found, of course, that roads would carry a lot more people if each car had a driver and three passengers.

Four people per private car is clearly an absurd assumption. If the county could impose an HOV-4 rule on all its highways, there would be no need for BRT nor any other road project because traffic congestion would disappear instantly.

This is not an isolated incident. Gonzalez has a long and disappointing track record on transit matters. He tried to pass off a highway interchange as a pedestrian underpass. His consultants claimed that it will take 7 years to design a new Metro entrance in Bethesda. His department asserted that adding bus lanes and bike lanes would make Rockville Pike less friendly to pedestrians than it is now.

These current and past actions from MCDOT officials make it hard to avoid the conclusion that MCDOT is interested in moving cars, not people. While DC and Arlington have taken significant steps to treat pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more equally, MCDOT zealously hews to a cars-only mindset for its roads.

It's long past time for the department to change its approach to issues and follow the examples of sound transportation planning set by its counterparts in the District and Arlington.


Atlantic Cities launches with neat maps, Huffington Post DC with "war on cars" debate

Two new news sites launched today, both edited by DCist alumni: Atlantic Cities and Huffington Post DC. Both have a number of interesting urbanism-related articles, though one a blog post in Huffington's launch set sadly rehashes tired arguments about the "war on cars."

Photo by slambo_42 on Flickr.

Atlantic Cities, run by Sommer Mathis, aims to cover the growing interest in cities and urban planning nationwide. Bruce Katz and Richard Florida talk about why we should care about cities; interesting map and chart articles look at playgrounds among various cities and how to define their borders.

Over at the Huffington Post edited by Michael Grass, there are a number of local news articles on the usual topics like Metro, restaurants, politics, and the Salahis. Blog posts include ones from David Catania on youth violence, Avis Jones DeWeever on DC voting rights, and Adam Clampitt on local veterans' issues.

A few posts talk about transportation: Jody Melto reviews taking the Chinatown bus, Seth Thomas Pietras the proliferation of old bikes. And Chuck Thies, an insightful commentator on District corruption issues on WPFW and the Georgetown Dish, decides to use his inaugural post to complain about the push for safer and better bicycle facilities as a "war on automobiles."

I'd link to it, except the Huffington Post uses detailed analytics to determine how long to leave posts on its home page, and this one needs to roll off as quickly as possible.
Here's the link. The vast bulk is a long recitation of every car Thies has owned and the location of every places he's lived or worked. But Thies comes to the conclusion that he can't drive because of the location of his son's new school, and therefore, any public policy that's not about automobility is the "war on cars":

There are powerful, multiplying forces aligned who seek to make driving as difficult as possible. They oppose spending money to build roads and want to occupy your parking space with a bike rack.

Don't get me wrong; I love public transportation, bicycling and walking. ... A month ago my son started school across town. ... So, last week we rejoined the community of car owners.

Now we are back in the crosshairs of those who prosecute the war on automobiles. I have already heard it several times: "You don't need a car," "You could do that with a bike," and so on. ...

People are moving here and businesses are hiring. ... Not all of those employers will be walking distance from a Metro. Every new home will not be built on a block with a bus stop. People with jobs will buy cars and drive them to places to spend money. That is reality.

I love walking, bikes and riding our much-maligned Metro. I do not like sitting unnecessarily in traffic. If the war on automobiles succeeds we will all be caught in a jam and the long-term prosperity of our region will be at risk.

The problem isn't with a public policy that increases transportation options, but rather with these people who hassled Thies for driving. It's fine for Thies to drive if that's easiest for him. I drive sometimes. I have friends who drive to work.

Some of them have to be able to dart into the office late at night if there's a sudden international crisis, and I can totally understand that buses just don't run enough from their house to their office at that time of day. Or they have to stop at a daycare which is inconveniently located to transit.

I just bought some antique doorknobs for my house at The Brass Knob in Adams Morgan. They're replacing black plastic handles which I hated. Some people love the plastic, probably including the former owner that put them on. That doesn't mean that I am engaging in a war on modern fixtures, even though personally I think they're awful. I have friends with super-modern aesthetic senses, who put things in their homes I would never consider for a moment, and we can still be friends.

By the way, I drove to the Brass Knob. It's not very far, but I had to carry a heavy bag of metal objects including the mortise, to make sure I got the right size, and I was fine paying the $2.32 to park for an hour with ParkMobile. I bike a lot. I take Metro and buses. And sometimes I drive. I don't feel bad about my transportation choices, but neither do I say that a project which helps people on one mode I use sometimes is a war on another mode.

This "war" rhetoric is really tiring. It assumes that anything which helps improves non-automotive mobility hurts drivers and vice versa. That's the opposite of the truth. In DC, wherever Thies is driving from Mount Pleasant, there's never going to be a new or wider road. If he's frustrated by traffic, the best thing we can do for him is make it easier for some people, those who don't have to take a kid to a non-transit-accessible school or carry doorknobs or go stop wars from beginning late at night, not to compete with him for road space.

If anyone can feel under attack, it's cyclists. Tom Coburn is currently tying Congress in knots to try to cut any dedicated bike and pedestrian funding, which if approved would surely lead most states to zero out entirely any spending on bike lanes and sidewalks.

At a more micro level, some drivers actively assault cyclists, or talk about how much they wish they could. There's the guy on Rhode Island Avenue who deliberately knocked a cyclist over with his pickup truck, while the cyclist was riding completely legally, or the guy who deliberately struck A Girl On Her Bike not knowing she was a police officer, or the Ballston Patch writer who bragged about her cravings to smack into those pesky bikers with her car.

Most drivers aren't that guy on Rhode Island Avenue, nor the Patch writer, nor Tom Coburn. Most people driving just want to get to work or wherever they are going, just like most people biking or walking or riding the bus do. At least the people driving aren't as likely to get seriously injured if they're hit.

Maybe that's why a few of them, like Chuck Thies, can say with a straight face that they feel there's a war against them. If anything shows an insane sense of entitlement, it's his statement that some people "want to occupy your parking space with a bike rack." Why is it "your" parking space? DDOT has never forcibly installed a bike rack in the parking pad behind anyone's row house. If it's on the street, it's my parking space too.

Thies wasn't just talking about bikes; he's also talking about opposition to the Outer Beltway and most other freeways conceived in the 1950s. There are plenty of arguments against that as well, but most of all, none of it would help Thies' own personal driving concerns, which is what his whole article focuses on (after the many stories about the many cars he bought and sold, for how much and to whom).

Among everything Thies talks about, the one thing that would help him more quickly drive his son to school and then get to work is replacing a few of those parking spaces with bike racks, even if he never personally locks a bicycle to one.

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