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Rockville misses the forest for the trees with its plan for an 18-lane mega main street

Rockville Pike could one day become a 252-foot-wide mega boulevard with 12 car lanes, 4 bike lanes, 2 bus lanes, and over 50 feet of landscaping. But in designing a street with more than ample room for cars, bikes, and buses, planners abandon any hope the street will be walkable.


The plan for Rockville Pike. Image from Rockville.

Everybody gets a lane!

Rockville Pike is one the most important retail strip highways in the Washington region. Like most 20th Century retail roads, it’s designed for cars, and it carries a lot of them.

Rockville wants to make it a more urban main street, so planners there are drawing up a redevelopment plan. It’s a laudable goal, and it’s not easy on a high-traffic state highway like Rockville Pike.

At first glance, this plan has all the components of a good complete street design: Tree-lined sidwalks, protected bikeways, a center-running dedicated busway. Every mode gets all the street width it could possibly want.

And why not? Why go through the political headache of forcing the community to make the difficult choice between fewer car lanes versus bikes or BRT if you can fit everything in? With a mega boulevard like this, everybody gets what they want, and nobody loses. Right?

Wrong.

Walkability loses, and it’s the most important factor

At 252 feet wide, the new Rockville Pike will be practically impossible for pedestrians to cross. It will take multiple traffic light cycles and multiple minutes for anyone to cross.

Instead of a main street, Rockville will have a barrier. And that is a big problem for the rest of the plan.

Transit oriented development doesn’t work unless it’s walkable. If Rockville Pike is too wide, development on one side of the street will be effectively cut-off from development on the other side. Riders won’t be able to easily access the BRT stations. People will drive for even short trips. The concept of a community where people don’t need to drive everywhere will break down.

If you can’t walk, other multimodal options don’t work. Pedestrians are the linchpin to the whole thing.

To be sure, some level of compromise is always needed. If walkability were the only factor that mattered, all streets would be pedestrian-only. We add in car lanes, bike lanes, and transit because we have to make longer trips possible, and that’s a good thing.

But there’s a balance, and 252 feet veers so far to accommodate long distance travel that it seriously sacrifices short distance walking. In so doing, Rockville undermines the very foundation on which its redevelopment plans rest.


Make pedestrians a priority

The Pike needs to be narrower. Assuming the sidewalks, busway, and three general car lanes each direction are sacrosanct, that still leaves a lot of potential fat to trim.

Are the service roads really necessary if the plan also includes new parallel local streets? Do we really need redundant bi-direction bikeways next to both sidewalks? Could we possibly reduce the 74 feet of various landscaping, buffer, and turn lanes?

These would be difficult trade-offs, to be sure. But there are massive negative consequences to an uncrossable mega boulevard.

If Rockville wants the new Pike to work as multimodal urban place, pedestrians need to become a priority.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

March 24th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: bike, BRT, master planning, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



America’s most bonkers bikeway is in Clearwater, Florida

What do you do if you have active freight rail tracks running down the middle of a downtown street? Add bike lanes, of course!


East Avenue, Clearwater, FL.

This is East Avenue in downtown Clearwater, Florida. It’s one of America’s most unusually multimodal streets.

On the left: A normal one-way general purpose lane with normal car traffic. In the middle: Freight rail tracks. On the right: A major regional two-way bikeway, the Pinellas Trail. What could go wrong?

Actually, it’s not as dangerous as it looks. Freight traffic on those tracks is relatively light, and extremely slow-moving. The train in this photo was moving maybe five miles per hour. And unlike cars, trains don’t suddenly change lanes. There’s zero danger of a CSX right hook.

In fact, the rail tracks are effectively a buffer between the bikeway and car lane. They make a bigger buffer than normal buffered bike lanes get. In a weird way, the tracks are a sort of protection.

So it’s totally bonkers. But maybe it works.

What do you think?

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 13th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: bike, fun, transportation, urbandesign



5 amazing cities from the Star Wars universe

Part of the appeal of the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars has always been its fantastic settings, including its cities. As The Force Awakens arrives in theaters today, here are the five most fascinating cities from the six previous live-action Star Wars movies.

5. Theed


Theed. Image from Star Wars.

The Phantom Menace may have been a disaster of a movie, but its setting at the height of the galaxy’s pre-Empire luxury showed us a strong contender for the most beautiful city in the franchise. Theed is Queen Amidala’s home, and capital of the planet Naboo.

Picturesque Naboo is the Neoclassical Europe of the Star Wars universe. Its ornate buildings and grand, monument-strewn avenues are an idealized version of the Baroque Mediterranean. There’s no visible traffic or industry, besides one spaceport at the bottom of a waterfall. Theed’s citizens appear to do nothing but shop and picnic.

It’s the Garden of Eden of the Star Wars universe. Perfect and naive, and out of place once the galaxy descends into evil and civil war.

4. Mos Eisely


Mos Eisely. Image from Star Wars.

The complete opposite of Theed, Mos Eisely is a frontier settlement on a poor and dirty planet, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. If Theed is Habsburg Vienna, Mos Eisley is Dodge City. Its famous cantina nothing so much as a wild west saloon.

There’s precious little art of culture in Mos Eisley. Its hardscrabble populous struggles to survive, and its streets are full of pack animals, cargo crates, and industrial equipment.

3. Gungan City


Gungan City. Image from Star Wars.

Return to Naboo for the secret underwater Gungan City. It’s beautiful, but like all things Gungan, it makes little sense.

With a fairly small number of orbs that appear to be mostly empty air, Gungan City is clearly more of a village than a metropolis. Maybe the Gungans prefer isolation, or maybe they’re too clumsy to live many side-by-side. Hopefully we’re never forced to sit through more Gungan scenes, and therefore never find out.

One would think that if Gungans are such great swimmers that they’re happy to build underwater cities, they’d spread their city vertically as much as sideways. Guess not.

2. Cloud City


Cloud City. Image from Star Wars.

High-concept sci-fi at its best, Cloud City is an atmosphere-mining colony on a gas giant planet with no solid surface.

Its workers harvest gases for use in Star Wars’ futuristic technologies, and its government is more corporate CEO than democratic president.

Being an expensive floating factory, Cloud City’s layout and infrastructure are necessarily vastly different from a cobbled-together frontier town like Mos Eisley. As a single, purpose-designed mega-structure, Cloud City needs nothing so messy as parking lots, and piecemeal expansions are strictly not happening.

And if you approach it without an invitation, cloud cars shoot at you. It’s the ultimate gated community.

1. Coruscant


Coruscant. Image from Star Wars.

One city that covers a whole planet. Coruscant is either the ultimate in sprawl, or the ultimate in extreme urbanization. Given what we’ve seen on-screen, it seems to be the latter.

Like Washington, the capital of the Star Wars galaxy clearly has a height limit, with a canopy of blocky same-height buildings rolling over the landscape, and monuments like the Jedi Temple (above) dominating the skyline. But unlike DC, Coruscant’s city planners allow frequent skyscrapers to pierce the blocky canopy.

Unlike other Star Wars cities, Coruscant features busy air-highways, crowded with flying transports. But there don’t seem to be enough vehicles to move around a population as dense as Coruscant’s must be. Surely the planet is a public transit paradise.


Coruscant’s galactic capitol building, with air-highways. Image from Star Wars.

What will we see next?

If the past is any guide, The Force Awakens promises even more aliens and sci-fi landscapes. When I see it, I’ll be hoping to see some fun cityscapes too. And, I admit, a few light-saber duels.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Aimee Custis contributed to this post.

December 18th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: fun, galleries, urbandesign



The secret park by the White House could be great, if people knew about it

Pershing Park is one of DC’s most unique and potentially pleasant public spaces. Unfortunately, few people have ever enjoyed it, because the park’s best elements are hidden from view behind an uninviting raised embankment.


Pershing Park as seen from Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Google.

It’s nice on the inside

I like Pershing Park, at Pennsylvania and 15th Street NW. I wish it worked better.

The inside of the park is a terraced wetland garden that, when it’s in good condition, is absolutely lovely.


The pleasant interior. Photo by pcouture on Flickr.

There are ample shady seats, a duck pond to dip your feet in, and climbable concrete terraces that make the park feel like an adult-size jungle gym.

It’s fun, and pretty, and unlike anything else in DC.

Or at least, it was fun and pretty a few years ago. The park has fallen into disrepair lately. The pond is dry. Orange cones litter the open plaza. It’s abandoned and depressing.

Part of Pershing Park’s problems are simply neglect. Better maintenance could fix the pond and the concrete.

But there’s one big problem, and it may well be unfixable.

People can’t see it

Most people don’t know the park is there. You can’t see it from the street. From three sides, the only thing visible is a grassy embankment straight out of a suburban McDonalds parking lot. The fourth side is literally a parking lot.


Pershing Park from above. Image from Google.

Good urban parks draw pedestrians in from the surrounding sidewalk. When you’re standing outside Dupont Circle, you can see and hear interesting things happening inside the park there. The activity and people inside Dupont make you want to enter it yourself.

Pershing Park is the absolute opposite. It’s plain and boring from the sidewalk. There are interesting things there, but you can’t see them so they don’t draw you in.

Most people just ignore it; the park blends into the background and they don’t give it a second thought.

Those who do look closely see a bunker, a hostile sloping hill with few entry points. From busy Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park more closely resembles an 18th Century military stockade than an inviting civic space.

Until that problem is solved, Pershing will never be a good park, no matter how pleasant it is on the inside. Until that’s solved, Pershing will always be an afterthought.

Let’s fix it

What to do with Pershing Park is increasingly becoming a hot-button issue. One group wants to redevelop it as a national World War I memorial. Kriston Capps at CityLab takes a preservationist bent and says we should restore it.

Either way, the park is falling apart and needs work.

Would it be possible to save the pleasant interior and radically change the bunker exterior? Maybe, maybe not. The park occupies sloping terrain that any design will have to work around. Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid a retaining wall somewhere. At least not if we want to keep the terraces.

But retaining walls don’t have to be so plain or uninviting. There are better examples elsewhere in the city.

It would be a shame to lose such a unique space. If designers can find a way to restore Pershing Park’s terraces and pond while altering the park’s exterior to be more inviting, that would be an ideal solution.

But if not, tear the sucker out. A downtown park that nobody uses isn’t a useful downtown park.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

August 5th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: parks, urbandesign



Gas stations were much better looking in 1924

Most gas stations these days are pretty garish, but gas stations weren’t always so. Check out this vintage 1924 station, from Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.


Lord Baltimore Filling Station. Photo by the National Photo Company, via the Library of Congress.

This is the Lord Baltimore Filling Station, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW. It may not be truly typical of the era, but it’s hard to imagine seeing as sharp-looking a gas station today.

It’s not only the nice architecture that make this notable. It’s also the urban design. This isn’t as great for sidewalk life as a row of main street-style shops, but it’s a building that fronts on the sidewalk. It could be a lot worse.

Do you know of any unusually good-looking gas stations? What makes them interesting?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 6th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, history, roads/cars, urbandesign



A bikeable suburban highway? One Ohio town pulled it off

Wide suburban highways lined with big boxes and strip malls aren’t usually places one finds protected bikeways. But Stringtown Road in Grove City, Ohio is such a place. Check it out:


Stringtown Road.

Since a curb protects the bikeway from the road, it’s technically a sidepath, a sidewalk that’s for bikes instead of pedestrians.

And as you can see in photos from Google Street View, it’s nicer than riding in the street with fast-moving cars, but it’s still not exactly pleasant.

Huge curb cuts interrupt the bikeway, so cars don’t need to slow down much before pulling into the giant parking lots lining the road. There’s certainly a risk that careless drivers will turn without watching, and hit people on bikes.

But that’s a risk that will exist for any car-oriented highway. At least this one puts the bike lane front and center, just about as visible as it can be.

There are some sidepaths along large roads in the DC area, like Route 50 in Arlington or along Benning Road near RFK, but those aren’t commercial highways lined with shops, and their sidepaths aren’t right against the curb like Stringtown’s. This particular layout is pretty unusual.

As more and more suburban communities evolve to become more multimodal, experiments like this will help everyone around the country understand what works and what doesn’t. Grove City is near Columbus, where it’s not the only suburb experimenting with urban retrofits.

What do you think? Will this design work? Comment at Greater Greater Washington to talk about it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

March 27th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign



DC like Amsterdam? We can only hope

According to yesterday’s Express, DC is starting to look a lot like Amsterdam, and not just because of marijuana. That’s fantastic if true.


The top of yesterday’s Express story.

Among the reasons the Express cites for DC’s Amsterdamization are increasing bicycle use, the appearance of streetcars, and Georgetown’s improving C&O Canal.

Amsterdam is one of the world’s great bicycling and streetcar cities. It’s a joy to travel along its extensive bikeways, and even lanes where cars are allowed are amazingly bike friendly. And Amsterdam’s huge streetcar network (with streetcars in both dedicated lanes and mixed traffic) is a case study in successful urban transit.

DC’s nascent bikeway and streetcar networks pale in comparison, but Amsterdam is a superb model for us to aspire towards.

And if it’s true that we can never hope to have as many canals (short of a disastrous global warming-induced flood), we can at least ponder what might have been had the history of Constitution Avenue turned out differently.

Even more similarities

Transportation and canals aside, Amsterdam’s overall urban design is actually incredibly similar to DC’s. We’re both predominantly rowhouse cities, with plenty of brick. Even our street grids are similar: Amsterdam has a relatively small core with twisty medieval streets, but for the most part it’s a city of straight streets and radial avenues just like DC.

These scenes from Amsterdam wouldn’t look all that out of place in Dupont Circle, U Street, or Adams Morgan, apart from how little street space goes to cars..

 
Amsterdam, but could be DC.

Admittedly, Amsterdam beats DC in a lot of ways. But it’s not Paris or Hong Kong, not so thoroughly alien. And DC is not Las Vegas. Amsterdam and DC aren’t identical, but we’re the same species of city, which means Amsterdam is better in ways that DC can practically emulate.

Plus, we’ve got Amsterdam Falafelshop.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 26th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, bike, streetcar, transportation, urbandesign



Best way to protect a bikeway? How about a bikeshare station

How’s this for a natural idea: Locate bikeshare stations between a street’s protected bikeway and car lanes.

That’s exactly the arrangement in Crystal City, where the Capital Bikeshare station at 23rd and Eads helps to form part of the bikeway’s protective barrier.


23rd and Eads. Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

DC has at least one example, on 6th Street NE next to Union Market. You can also find this arrangement in New York, Paris, and a ton of other cities.

It’s just a nifty, straightforward idea that’s too sensible not to use.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 28th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign



With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro’s Silver Line isn’t the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.

The Plaza (that’s its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.


The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo from Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn’t open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There’s no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.

Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).

Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it’s clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren’t welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It’s a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It’s not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

August 14th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: development, fun, parks, urbandesign



If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here’s what it will look like

The FBI is considering moving its headquarters from downtown Washington to either Greenbelt, Landover, or Springfield. If they pick Greenbelt, here’s what the development will look like:


Greenbelt development rendering. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

Under this plan, a new mixed-use transit-oriented development would replace the parking lot at the Greenbelt Metro station. The FBI would occupy the five buildings on the bottom of the rendering, with other offices, apartments, retail, and a hotel taking up the rest.

Greenbelt Metro station is located in the upper left side the rendering, immediately behind the building that looks like a “6” digit tipped on its side. To the right of that building, a central plaza would be the area’s main public space, and one of Prince George’s most urban spots.


Proposed view from the Greenbelt Metro station. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

The Metro’s existing entrance is immediately behind the “6” building. It would be nice if a new Metro entrance would line up directly with the plaza, though it looks more like a short walkway behind the building will connect the station to the plaza.

Since Greenbelt is an end-of-line station, the development replaces all the Metro commuter parking. But instead of surface parking lots, it would go in a new parking garage shown on the far left of the overview rendering, connected to the station with a wide, suburban-style street.

Clustering mixed-use development next to the Metro station and putting the FBI buildings and park-and-rides across the street makes a lot of sense. That layout provides a parking lot for commuters and gives the FBI the space it wants for a buffer without sacrificing the walkability of the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, FBI workers who don’t commute via Metro would use the parking garage on the far right, next to the Beltway.

Overall, this looks like a decent plan. There are a lot of less than ideal trade-offs, but given the demands of an end-line station and the FBI, it’s not terrible.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

July 31st, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: development, urbandesign



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