Boston’s “park & pedals” are park and rides for bikes
How do you get more commuters to bicycle into the city? Boston is trying “park & pedals,” dedicated parking lots where suburban commuters can drive to the edge of the city, then bicycle the last couple of miles.
Photo by Park & Pedal.
Bicycling is often the fastest way to travel through dense cities. But most commuters from far-flung suburbs aren’t willing to bike that far every day. Park & pedals split the difference, allowing suburban commuters to drive where it’s easier to drive, then bike through the part of the city where it’s easier to bike.
It’s a fascinating idea, and an unusual twist on the last-mile problem of urban transportation.
The last mile
The hardest part about providing transportation from low-density suburban areas is the so-called “last mile.” That’s the gap between commuters’ homes and a major highway or transit line, where there’s not enough people going to the same place at the same time to provide convenient shuttles.
Park and ride lots around transit stations solve that problem by putting the onus on drivers to get to the station. That’s not as efficient as having people live within walking or biking distance of the transit station, but it’s better than making them drive the full distance into the city.
Transit agencies should never design their entire systems around park and ride users, but a few park and rides at strategic locations can be a good thing.
Boston has an official park & pedal network, with designated lots specifically for drive-to-bike commuters. It opened in 2015 and has been expanding this year.
Boston’s park & pedal network map. Image from Park & Pedal and Google.
Naturally, an official network isn’t strictly necessary for commuters to combine driving and biking. In the Washington region, people hoping to bike the last mile into the city can park at Metro stations, private lots, or even neighborhood streets.
But official parking lots do have some big advantages over doing it ad-hoc. They’re easier to advertise, and they provide natural places for hubs of bike amenities. With park & pedals, planners could add wayfinding signs, maintenance kiosks, secure bike parking, lockers, even bikeshare stations and bus connections. Each one could become a Union Station-like bike station.
Worth the money?
Car parking is expensive and already abundant. With so many demands on transportation budgets and so little money generally available for bike improvements, spending money to subsidize car parking may be a questionable idea. Better to spend it on bike lanes, bikeshare stations, sidewalks, or transit.
But transportation budgets aren’t all-or-nothing. There could be opportunities to partner with parks, churches, developers, and other property owners to designate park & pedals on the cheap, without the need for expensive construction.
Some of Boston’s park & pedals are simply designated sections of on-street parking on public streets, and therefore a matter of policy more than construction. Nothing says DC could not do the same.
As Washington area planners do more to make bicycling easy, park & pedals may well be one more tool to add to the toolbox.
Using tape, paper, and potted plants, Arlington built a temporary bikeway
On June 11, Arlington closed a block of bustling Wilson Boulevard for what organizers called the Active Streets Festival. There were bike-oriented games and activities, plus a collection of temporary bikeways “built” with tape, paper, and potted plants.
Pop-up protected bikeway. Photo by BikeArlington.
The festival took place during the Air Force Association cycling race, when many Arlington streets were closed anyway. The Active Streets Festival gave Arlingtonians who weren’t racing something bike-related to take part in.
Planners “built” a series of temporary bike lanes, all on the block of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North.
On one section, a row of potted plants formed the barrier for a protected bike lane. On another, a row of parked cars did the same. Elsewhere, washable homemade green “paint” and a thick roll of tape formed a green bike lane, a buffered bike lane, and sharrows.
Pop-up green lane and buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.
By using easy-to-set-up and easy-to-take-down temporary materials, Arlington planners tangibly showed residents what Wilson Boulevard might look like if its street space were allocated differently. There’s no proposal to change Wilson permanently, but the example can be instructive for future projects on other streets.
A BikeArlington worker lays down strips of tape to create the buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.
Tangible benefits aside, the whole thing was a heck of a lot of fun.
Wilson Boulevard with its pop-up bike lanes in place. Photo by BikeArlington.
DC’s first bright red bus lanes now adorn four blocks of Georgia Avenue, near Howard University. DDOT crews added the red surface earlier this month.
Georgia Avenue’s new red carpet for buses.
The bus lanes run along both curbs, from Florida Avenue north to Barry Place. They speed Metrobus’ busy 70-series line through what was the slowest section of Georgia Avenue north of downtown.
The bright red color is a strong visual clue to car drivers to stay out of the lane. It’s a stark contrast to the Gallery Place bus lane a dozen blocks south, which is so poorly marked that many car drivers legitimately don’t know it’s there. For these four blocks, drivers will have no excuse.
Anecdotally, the red surface seems to be working pretty well. Most car drivers seem to stay out. To find out for sure, DDOT is in the process of collecting actual data, comparing the car violation rate now to the rate from before the red surface was added.
Cyclists and taxicabs are allowed the use the lanes in addition to buses. Signs along the street spell out the exact rules.
Since the lanes are along the curb, cars can enter them to turn right. Dashed white lane markings show where cars can enter.
To avoid wear-and-tear and to make the bus lanes safer for cyclists, the “red paint” is actually a gritty surface coating. If you walk along Georgia Avenue now, you can still see some of the leftover grit along the curb.
❤ the transit red carpet
By adding these lanes and marking them clearly, DC is taking an real step towards prioritizing street space for transit. At only four blocks long they’re are a humble start, but a start nonetheless.
The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It’s contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be “of our time.”
Pike + Rose is one of the region’s most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.
But although Pike + Rose isn’t flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it’s fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.
Ornament doesn’t have to be historic-looking
In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be “of their time;” they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.
But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.
Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.
Mixed but instructive results
No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.
The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.
The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.
Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they’re awkward and kitschy.
Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:
Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren’t so bad.
It’s easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they’re bold, and it’s easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say “do that,” but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.
The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it’s going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.
I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.
The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It’s slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.
According to DDOT’s latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.
In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it’s actually not bad.
Middle of the light rail pack
Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn’t going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC’s 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.
But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.
And in those terms, DC Streetcar’s 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It’s just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn’t even go downtown yet.
Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).
On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston’s Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco’s Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,723, which is interestingly higher than Portland’s MAX light rail at 2,048).
Compared to H Street’s X2 bus
What about buses?
In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.
So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.
But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2’s 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.
Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there
Clearly the streetcar isn’t perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Futurelines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.
And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland’s streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides, so that’s hard to predict.
But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn’t doing particularly badly.
You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.
Jane Jacobs was born May 4, 1916, 100 years ago today. She left the world in 2006, but in her 89 years of life she revolutionized how we think about cities. Here is what GGWash contributors said about Jane, the patron saint of American urbanism.
Today’s Google Doodle honors Jane. Image from Google.
Even 55 years after its publication, urbanists continue to obsess over Death and Life, debating obscure passages like clerics feuding over a religious text.
Ben Ross went straight to the point, then warned of the next great problem afflicting our cities:
Jane Jacobs was a true genius who developed a new paradigm of city planning. Our best city neighborhoods now suffer from the “curse of success” that she foresaw as the consequence of a scarcity of urbanism. How to overcome that scarcity is a problem that she left to us.
Canaan Merchant summarized two big lessons Jane taught him:
Look at what is actually happening rather than relying on what is “supposed” to happen. A city’s beauty lies in its people rather than its buildings. Bring the people out and the buildings will take care of themselves.
Former contributor Abigail Zenner focused on how Jane successfully communicated ideas:
She introduced many people to the world of planning and gave us words to describe what we see every day in cities but have a hard time explaining in simple language. She was able to make a case that stirred peoples’ hearts.
Nick Finio took a contrarian position, quoting a 1998 critique of Death and Life from UC Berkeley professor Roger Montgomery:
Let’s not glorify her too much. Montgomery’s critique ends with this zinger: “Taken together, these themes do add up. Anti-government and anti-regulation beliefs, confidence in the existence of a nearly perfect competitive market, inattention to corporate power, denial of social class and race as determinative categories, taken together look mighty like the core belief system of liberatarian conservatism.”
But other contributors were quick to jump to Jacobs’ defense. They pointed out that while her views may not be a perfect guide to urban issues today, her work helped surface notions that needed to come to the fore, like defending the idea of the city against car-oriented places, and eyes on the street maintaining safety.
Jonathan Krall added:
Just because Jacobs had a healthy mistrust for government and for large projects doesn’t mean she was espousing neo-conservatism. I agree with Montgomery that Jacobs’ excellent and helpful descriptions of healthy city life and associated planning issues skip over some very challenging social and political issues. However, I disagree with his implication that Jacobs is suggesting her readers should ignore those challenges.
Payton Chung opined on Jacobs’ motivations:
Just like any “bible,” there are bound to be contrary readings. There’s a fine line between libertarianism and anarchism, and I’d argue Jacobs’ overall oeuvre points to a mistrust of all large institutions, whether corporate or governmental.
When all was said and done, it may have been Brendan Casey who summed Jane up best:
The force was strong with that one.
What do you think of Jane, and of her impact on cities?
8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro
Paris has one of the world’s great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.
Door knobs on a Paris metro train.
1. Door knobs speed trains
In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.
All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system’s theoretical maximum.
In Paris, those delays don’t happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.
Here’s a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:
WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there’s no indication they’ll be fixed any time soon.
Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?
Check out Paris’ Chatelet station, where that’s exactly the layout:
Most Paris stations aren’t like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn’t as crucial there as it is in DC. But there’s been many a day I’ve stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.
3. Flip-up seats add capacity
The first row of seats inside Paris’ train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.
Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.
This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.
4. Open gangways really do work
US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.
All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they’re wonderful.
5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks
Paris’ metro lacks express tracks just like DC’s, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It’s also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.
Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.
A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm.
I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?
I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.
And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris’ els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.
7. Wayfinding can be beautiful
“If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?” My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.
In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?
What details like these have you noticed on other countries’ transit systems, that you’d like to see imported to the US?
These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively
These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.
In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.
Here’s the DC map in greater detail:
Image by City Observatory.
You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.
Unfortunately the data clearly isn’t perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.
Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.
Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.
Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.
Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country’s dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.
Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York’s streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it’s a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.
Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.
Why widening highways doesn’t work, in one simple gif
Decade after decade, American metropolitan areas continue to widen their highways in order to reduce congestion. And decade after decade, congestion just keeps getting worse. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s because of a phenomenon called induced demand. This simple gif illustrates how it works:
Surely one more lane will finally solve our congestion problem, right? (Slightly better GIFF. Feel free to copy) pic.twitter.com/uDJwqVT3WI
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than this gif. Congestion keeps increasing not only because more people drive, but also because more people drive farther. And because the more highways we build, the less walkable and transit-accessible our cities usually become. And because the more desperate our congestion situation becomes, the more some groups attack using money for anything other than more highway widenings.
Highway congestion is a negative feedback loop. The only way to really solve it, besides economic calamity, is to break out of the loop by attacking its root causes. Rather than applying highway-widening band-aids that only work for a few years, build urban communities with multimodal infrastructure, in which it’s just as convenient (or more so!) for most residents to get around without a car than with one.
That doesn’t mean no new roads are ever needed. New communities and densifying ones need streets, after all. But it does mean we should be skeptical of plans to make highways bigger. In the long term, that money is usually better spent elsewhere.