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VRE infill station launches a new idea: transit-oriented sprawl

Virginia Railway Express officials broke ground yesterday on the Potomac Shores station, an infill commuter rail station in Prince William County that will be the centerpiece of a new town center.


Potomac Shores site plan. Image from SunCal.

Potomac Shores is a gigantic development along Prince William’s Potomac riverfront, between Rippon and Quantico. It covers nearly 2,000 acres and will eventually have over 3,800 residential units.

The website boasts of “rugged beauty,” an on-site 18-hole golf course, and miles of recreational trails. There’s no doubt that Potomac Shores is sprawl.

But it’s a new kind of sprawl. At its center, a new urbanist town center complete with a new commuter rail station.

Developer SunCal is building the station. When it opens in 2017, and if the town center has enough amenities, Potomac Shores could legitimately be a lot less car-dependent than the typical outer suburban subdivision.

That’s great news, even if it’s still true that Potomac Shores won’t be as urban, diverse, or dense as DC.

New urbanism marries TOD

For decades now, new urbanist communities have used mixed-use and good design to make for better suburbs. Nobody would call Kentlands a true city, for example, but it’s a marked improvement over most of west Gaithersburg. And since we’ll never fit all the growth in the entire metropolitan region into DC, getting suburbs right is hugely important.

By building around a VRE station, Potomac Shores takes 20th Century new urbanism to the next level. It’s not just a traditional neighborhood development; it’s a transit-oriented development.

There are other transit-oriented new urbanist communities popping up around the region. But they’re mostly in closer-in places like Montgomery County or Fairfax, and nobody has ever built a new VRE station as the centerpiece of one.

Potomac Shores is an experiment. It’s obviously sprawl, but maybe it’ll prove to be a more sustainable and livable kind of sprawl. Time will tell.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

August 5th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, development, land use, master planning, transportation



MoveDC plan proposes more cycletracks, transit, and tolls. Will it actually happen?

The latest draft of DDOT’s citywide transportation plan, moveDC, calls for a massive expansion of transit and cycling facilities throughout the District, plus new tolls on car commuters. If the District adopts it, the plan will become one of America’s most progressive.


The moveDC plan summary map. All images from DDOT.

DDOT released the latest version of moveDC last Friday, launching a month long public comment period in anticipation of a DC Council hearing on June 27. Following that, the mayor will determine any changes based on the comment period, with final adoption anticipated this summer.

What’s in the plan

Amid the hundreds of specific recommendations in the plan, three major proposed initiatives stand out:

  • A vastly improved transit network, with 69 miles of streetcars, transit lanes, and improved buses, plus a new Metrorail subway downtown.
  • A massive increase in new cycling infrastructure, including the densest network of cycletracks this side of Europe.
  • Congestion pricing for cars entering downtown, and traveling on some of DC’s biggest highways.

Transit


Proposed high-capacity transit network (both streetcars and bus). Blue is mixed-traffic, red is dedicated transit lanes.

The plan proposes to finish DC’s 22-mile streetcar system, then implement a further 47-mile high-capacity transit network that could use a combination of streetcars or buses. That includes 25 miles of dedicated transit lanes, including the much requested 16th Street bus lane.

Although the proposed high capacity transit corridors closely mirror the 37-mile streetcar network originally charted in 2010, there are several new corridors. In addition to 16th Street, moveDC shows routes on Wisconsin Avenue, both North and South Capitol Streets, H and I Streets downtown, and several tweaks and extensions to other corridors.

The plan endorses WMATA’s idea for a new loop subway through downtown DC, but explicitly denies that DC can fund that project alone.

MoveDC also shows a network of new high-frequency local bus routes, including Connecticut Avenue, Military Road, Alabama Avenue, and MacArthur Boulevard.

Bicycles

MoveDC also includes a huge expansion of trails and bike lanes, especially cycletracks.


Proposed bike network. The pink lines are cycletracks.

Under the plan, DC would have a whopping 72 miles of cycletracks crisscrossing all over the city. From South Dakota Avenue to Arizona Avenue to Mississippi Avenue, everybody gets a cycletrack.

Meanwhile, moveDC shows major new off-street trails along Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, and the Anacostia Freeway, among others.

Tolls for cars

Congestion pricing is clearly on DDOT’s mind, with multiple proposals for new variable tolls in the plan.


Proposed downtown cordon charge zone.

The most aggressive proposal is to a declare a cordon charge to enter downtown in a car. This idea has worked in London and has been discussed in New York and San Francisco, but so far no American city has tried it.

Meanwhile, some of the major car routes into DC would also be converted to managed lanes. Like Maryland’s ICC or Virginia’s Beltway HOT lanes, managed lanes have variable tolls that rise or fall based on how busy a road is.

MoveDC proposes managed lanes on I-395, I-295, New York Avenue, and Canal Road.

What will the council think?

DDOT has produced a very strong plan, but is it going anywhere? The DC Council will discuss moveDC on June 27, at which time we’ll find out if the same people who pulled the rug out from under streetcar funding are interested in progressive policy-making, at least.

Even if DC does adopt this plan, whether the council will actually provide the funds necessary to build it is anybody’s guess.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the DC Council will approve or deny this plan. Authority to approve it actually rests solely with the mayor.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 2nd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, BRT, bus, government, lightrail, master planning, metrorail, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation



The DC region has over 250 miles of planned light rail, streetcar, & BRT

What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.


Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Basemap from Google.

This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery’s BRT plan, and Fairfax’s transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.

Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.

To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.

The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners’ eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.

For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it’s no higher than 4th down on the state’s priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery’s expansive BRT network fits in.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There’s yet to be even a feasibility study for it.

Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it’s all in place. Metro’s original planners didn’t know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy either.

Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.

Holes in the network

With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.

That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.

Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George’s ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.

But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let’s build it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

May 6th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, lightrail, maps, master planning, streetcar, transportation



Fairfax’s answer to neighbors’ transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT

Not to be outdone by its neighbors’ aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.


Fairfax County’s proposed high quality transit network. Image from Fairfax.

DC has its streetcar and moveDC plans, Arlington and Alexandria have streetcars and BRT, and Montgomery has its expansive BRT network, plus of course the Purple Line.

Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network.

Fairfax’s top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey’s Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that’s not the end of their plans.

County planners are also looking at several other corridors, including Route 1, Route 7 (both east and west of Tysons), I-66, Route 28, and Gallows Road/Dolly Madison Boulevard.

Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.

In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.

As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.

Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners’ inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 22nd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, land use, lightrail, master planning, metrorail, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation



Construction progress at Gaithersburg’s two new town centers

Gaithersburg’s collection of walkable new urbanist neighborhoods is growing, with impressive construction progress at both the Crown development and Watkins Mill Town Center.


Ellington Boulevard in Downtown Crown, seen from the north.

Both neighborhoods are planned around future stations of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which will someday connect a whole string of walkable neighborhoods in upper Montgomery County to Shady Grove Metro station. But with rapid transit service still years away, construction is working from the outside in, focusing first on sections farther from planned transit stations.

Crown

At the Crown development, construction progress is focused on Phase 1, the western half. A mixed-use town center surrounds the corner of Ellington Boulevard and Crown Park Avenue, with blocks of rowhouse neighborhoods to the side.


Ellington Boulevard, seen from the south.


Crown Park Avenue, perpendicular to Ellington Boulevard.

It’s clear that serious work and expense went into the architectural details.


Downtown Crown.


Downtown Crown.

To the east, the rowhouse neighborhoods are taking shape as well.


Rowhouses on Hendrix Avenue.

Decoverly Drive marks the boundary of Phase 1, as well as the future route of the transitway. Crown’s original plans show an even larger town center surrounding the BRT station along Decoverly. But following actual construction, it appears density has been reduced around the station, and rowhouses line the Phase 1 edge instead.

One wonders if Phase 2 will make Crown a truly transit-oriented place, or if transit will merely run through it.


Decoverly Drive.

Watkins Mill Town Center

A few miles to the northwest, adjacent to the Metropolitan Grove MARC station, Watkins Mill Town Center is taking shape.


Watkins Mill Town Center.

At Watkins Mill, the rowhouses and lower density portions are nearing completion, but the downtown section has yet to begin construction. As a result, a huge field separates the MARC station (and future BRT stop) from the constructed portions of the development.


Urban Avenue, not quite urban yet.

Someday, the Corridor Cities Transitway could make Gaithersburg a second Arlington, a string of walkable communities knit together by transit. Whether that actually happens or not will depend the State of Maryland getting the transitway built, and the City of Gaithersburg insisting on truly transit-oriented places.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

February 24th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, BRT, development, master planning, transportation



MoveDC calls for more transit, dedicated lanes

In the latest draft of DDOT’s MoveDC plan, the 37-mile streetcar network originally planned in 2010 becomes a 69-mile “high capacity transit” network.

The new 69-mile network would include DC’s initial 22-mile streetcar system, plus 47 more miles of either streetcar or BRT.

37-mile network from 2010, and latest MoveDC 69-mile proposal. Base maps from Google.

The 47-mile network, shown in red on the map, would include 25-miles of dedicated transit lanes, regardless of whether those lines are eventually built as bus or rail. The dedicated lanes would be on 16th Street, North Capitol Street, I-295, M Street SE & SW, and I and H Streets downtown.

Curiously, the proposed streetcar line on Rhode Island Avenue from the 2010 plan isn’t carried forward into MoveDC.

The new plan shows the 14th Street streetcar shifting over to 7th Street, although the details of that line are still in flux. It could still end up on 14th.

Finally, MoveDC also notes several potential extensions to Maryland and Virginia, anywhere a proposed DDOT line approaches the District boundary. Perhaps most notably, there are potential connections across Long Bridge into Arlington, down I-295 to National Harbor, and to Silver Spring.

For Metrorail, MoveDC includes WMATA’s proposal for a new loop subway line through DC, connecting Rosslyn on one end and the Yellow Line bridge on the other.


Map from BeyondDC, using base map from Google.

Overall this is a progressive and ambitious proposal, although the removal of Rhode Island Avenue raises questions. It’s still a draft, so you can comment via the WeMoveDC website.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 22nd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, master planning, streetcar, transportation



MoveDC plan proposes 70 miles of cycletracks

DC could one day have 70 miles of protected bike lanes, if the latest proposal from DDOT becomes reality.

The proposal comes as part of the latest draft of MoveDC, DDOT’s master plan. It’s still only a proposal, and has not been approved by the DC Council. But what an exciting proposal it is!

Existing & proposed DC cycletracks. Base map from Google.

And that’s not all, just for bikes. The proposal also includes over 60 miles of new off-street trails, and another 70 miles of new regular bike lanes.

Of course, it’s easy to adopt great plans and harder to accomplish them. DDOT is still struggling to implement the M Street cycletrack, after all. But one must start with a plan, and this appears to be an extremely progressive plan.

Tomorrow I’ll share the latest recommendations for transit.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 21st, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, master planning, transportation



NCPC will likely recommend tweaking DC height limit

click to enlarge
Downtown DC.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) study considering whether or not to raise DC’s height limit is unlikely to recommend major skyline-altering changes. But it will suggest tweaking the rules to add more flexibility, and leaves open the possibility of taller buildings outside downtown.

In his report to NCPC, executive director Marcel Acosta will recommend against raising the height limit significantly downtown, but will suggest changing the rules regarding rooftop penthouses.

The rules currently allow unoccupied mechanical-only penthouses to breach the height limit by a few feet in certain situations. Acosta will propose allowing active human use of those spaces.

Acosta will also recommend that NCPC further consider raising the height limit for areas outside downtown, where the impact on the monumental core would be negligible. That might allow places like Anacostia or Tenleytown to develop along more similar lines to Arlington and Bethesda.

The NCPC will vote on an official recommendation in November, after hearing Acosta’s report and gathering public feedback. Following that, Congress will have the power to either pass a bill making changes, or retain the status quo.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 11th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: master planning, urbandesign



Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below Bethesda’s Apex Building. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the Apex Building and redevelop the entire site.


Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda the Purple Line will run on land from a former railroad line. Years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn’t originally built to hold a station. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.


Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There’s not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so the trail is planned to be moved to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it’s already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key Purple Line / Red Line transfer point.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building.

Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win.

As long as this doesn’t delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let’s do it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 10th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, lightrail, master planning, transportation, urbandesign



Baltimore’s suburban downtowns emerge as more urban

click to enlarge
Towson Row. Image from Baltimore County.

Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Arlington are some of the best suburban downtowns in America. Baltimore’s suburbs, by comparison, have lagged behind. But with large infill projects coming to Towson and Columbia, Baltimore’s most walkable suburbs may soon catch up with DC’s.

In Towson, 1500 new residential units have opened in the past 4 years, with the largest redevelopment, Towson Row, announced just last week. The change has been enough that the Maryland Transportation Administration is now considering a Towson circulator bus network.

Columbia has further to go. Towson at least has a traditional grid of streets around which to build. Columbia, by comparison, was planned in the mid-20th Century around a mall. All Towson really needs is more buildings; Columbia must be reworked from the ground up.


click to enlargeDowntown Columbia master plan. Image from Howard County.

But they are getting there, slowly. In 2010 Howard County adopted a master plan to make downtown Columbia more urban. And now, actual projects are in the works.

Developers are moving forward with a 9-story infill project after plans for a 22-story one on the same property fell through. The shorter project is actually denser. It will have 160 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail, and 130,000 square feet of office space, compared to 160 apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail, and no office space in the 22-story version. The 22-story tower was proposed nearly 10 years ago, and was a more suburban design.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future both Towson and Columbia will continue to lack an important piece of the urban puzzle: regional transit. DC’s suburban downtowns have the advantage of Metro, but Baltimore’s Metro is smaller, and serves neither Towson nor Columbia. Long range plans call for an eventual light rail connection to both places, but that’s decades away.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 25th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, development, lightrail, master planning, transportation



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