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Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here’s a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009 Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city’s public realm. 5 years later, they’re still there, and people are still playing them.


Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren’t particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

March 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: parks, proposal



9 suggestions to change the height limit

Congress is considering whether or not to change DC’s height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.


Paris’ La Defense skyline. Photo by KJ Vogelius on flickr.

Much of the debate about the height limit has settled into two opposing camps, those who want taller buildings, and those opposed to any change. But it doesn’t need to be so black and white.

Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington’s unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.

That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.

1. Don’t eliminate, calibrate

Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn’t anyone’s proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it’s worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.

2. Target development where we want it

Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.

The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.

No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There’s no reason the height limit can’t be used in the same way. We can be selective.

3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown

Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.

But under current rules, developers often can’t justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.

4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places

We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that’s where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don’t empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.

Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it’s also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.

5. Be inclusive of affordable housing

Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They’re both right, but those points aren’t mutually exclusive.

New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.

But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn’t a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation’s affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn’t build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don’t build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.

In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.

6. Require good architecture

Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC’s architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.

But there’s no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.

That sounds cumbersome, but it’s standard practice in many cities, and DC already does it in some neighborhoods.

A city the size of DC wouldn’t want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there’s no good reason DC can’t do it for tall ones.

Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.

7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances

Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they’re boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.

This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It’s not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it’s that Rosslyn’s buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.

While it’s not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25′ the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.

This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it’s a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.

8. Outlaw surface parking lots

Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they’re common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.

Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.

This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what’s now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.

Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.

9. Protect the iconic monuments

Development economics are important, but they’re not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we’re not going to put skyscrapers there. DC’s skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world’s most iconic, and should of course be preserved.

But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn’t impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.

We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they’re most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 30th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign



Where is DC’s train to the beach?

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Ocean City’s boardwalk, with its tram.

If you live in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, you can hop onto a commuter rail train any summer weekend and travel to the beach. But not if you live in DC. Here we have no train, and the buses are impractical and expensive.

Let’s compare:

Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority recently launched its Cape Flyer service, from Boston South Station to Cape Cod. A round trip ticket to Hyannis is $35.

New Jersey Transit runs trains from Philadelphia 30th Street Station to Atlantic City for $20 round trip, and from New York Penn Station to the Jersey Shore for $25 round trip. New Yorkers can also take Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to Montauk for about $40 round trip.

For DC, there is no train, much less an affordable one. There are no tracks directly between DC and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The only track connection is at the very top of Chesapeake Bay, near Wilmington, DE. Amtrak does offer service to Ocean City, but you have to connect to an Amtrak bus at BWI, and it’s $120 for a round trip.

Greyhound also runs buses from DC to Ocean City, but it’s $50-$100 per round trip, depending on how far in advance you buy tickets online.

Building a new rail bridge across Chesapeake Bay is probably not practical. Even if it were, that’s surely not the top priority for limited transit funding. But why not better bus service? Ocean City is a natural transit destination; it’s compact and urban, at least near the boardwalk.

As summer rolls by and Washingtonians head out for weekend jaunts to the beach, how many of us wish we didn’t have to rent a car to get there?

July 8th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, commuterrail, intercity, proposal, question, transportation



DMU trains are the DC region’s missing transit mode

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DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don’t have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.

DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.

That’s a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don’t have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They’re proposed in even more cities.


click to enlarge
Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city’s main rail hub.

All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it’s also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.

There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland’s proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax’s Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they’re far out in the suburbs and wouldn’t have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.

In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE’s existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.

MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there’s no room for more trains no matter what they look like.

DMU isn’t Metro, and it isn’t light rail. DMU trains can’t do all the things those modes can do. It’s not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it’s ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 9th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, lightrail, proposal, transportation



Can libraries pick up the slack from closing bookstores?

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Gaithersburg’s Barnes and Noble is still open, but for how long?

Large bookstores fill an important niche in our cities. They’re some of the best places for people to hang out, kill time, and meet friends. But with Borders gone and Barnes and Noble stores rapidly disappearing, how will that niche be filled in the future?

To be sure, there are many other types of these “third places” in cities, ranging from coffee houses to public plazas, but bookstore’s particular combination of a climate controlled indoor space, with clean bathrooms, plenty of comfy seats, a pleasant cafe, and an endless supply of reading materials, has proven very popular.

Unfortunately, retail locations large enough for that kind of bookstore are expensive, and it doesn’t help Barnes and Noble’s bottom line if most of its customers are sitting around not buying anything. So as popular as big bookstores are, they’re going out of business.

With a few exceptions, local non-chain bookstores generally aren’t set up to fill this niche either, because they don’t usually have very many places where it’s comfortable to sit for long periods of time. Those easy chairs and wide open spaces in Barnes and Noble make a big difference.

Libraries could be a perfect replacement. After all, the whole point of libraries is to provide a place for people to read for free. Unlike bookstores, it doesn’t matter to libraries if customers only want to hang out.

But libraries will need to evolve to fill this role. The branch libraries in most cities have been losing to bookstores because they don’t have the right amenities. Libraries will need to be bigger, with more of the magazines and coffee table books that people enjoy flipping through in bookstores. Libraries will need cafes, and a more fun, less stodgy character overall.

Some of the new central libraries in big cities are taking on this role, but it won’t help too much to only have 1 big nice library in each metropolitan area. If libraries can do this, it will be the smaller neighborhood branches that make most of the difference. They’re the ones that will have to change the most, and that could reap the most benefit.

October 31st, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, proposal



New WMATA bus maps are great, but need some tweaks

click for full pdf map
Central DC in WMATA’s new map.

WMATA’s new bus maps are, in a word, awesome. They are so good, on so many levels. They will make navigating the bus system vastly easier, and less intimidating. But WMATA asked for comments, so I’ll make some.

What’s better

The main problem with WMATA’s old bus maps were that they were so complex that reading them was essentially impossible. WMATA has so many criss-crossing bus routes, all illustrated identically, that riders had to already be familiar with a bus route in order to use the maps. That dissuaded a lot of people from using WMATA buses, or from using them more extensively.

The main improvement of these new maps is that everything looks simpler. Individual routes are vastly easier to follow, thanks to more variety in line color, thickness, and improved spacing.

The best single new feature is that the best bus routes are highlighted with a thicker line, so it’s easier for riders to find the routes that are most convenient. This is exactly the reason why I published my own 15 minute bus map earlier this year. WMATA’s new maps are better than my version though, because they offer so much more information while still clearly highlighting the frequent network.

WMATA’s PlanItMetro blog has several further examples of how these new maps are more clear. For example, compare how the old and new maps illustrate the area around Greenbelt Metro station:


Old on the left, new on the right.

Good luck reading the version on the left.

What needs improvement

There are two big problems with the details of how these maps highlight the best routes.

The first is that some of the best bus routes in the region are hard to find on the maps. DC Circulator, Bethesda Circulator, and the King Street “trolley” shuttle all offer extremely good service, but are shown as minor routes on the map because they aren’t run by WMATA.

Failing to show non-WMATA buses in a fair way is a disservice to riders, and is counterproductive to the goal of encouraging overall transit ridership. WMATA exists in order to serve the needs of the DC region. What’s most important is a complete picture of transit services, regardless of who operates them. Self-serving parochialism should not be WMATA’s mindset.

The second problem with the way the new maps highlight good routes is that the standards for what qualifies as a highlighted route in Northern Virginia are too low. This unnecessarily clutters the Northern Virginia map, and doesn’t give riders accurate information.

Here’s part of the Northern Virginia map. There are so many thick red lines that it’s very difficult to follow them, which defeats the point of having them in the first place.


Northern Virginia, too cluttered.

Some of those “frequent” bus routes only come every 1/2 hour at off-peak times of day. Some of the others are branches that should be shown with a thin red line. Meanwhile the 9S, which is one of the most frequent routes in Virginia, doesn’t have a line at all.

Compare that Northern Virginia map with the Montgomery County version, which shows highlighted thick red routes much more clearly. The standards for a thick red line on the Montgomery County map are tight enough to keep them clear. The standards on the Virginia map are too low, resulting in a cluttered and less usable map.


Montgomery County. The right half is good, but the left half needs work.

On the other hand, the Montgomery map has another problem. Look at Gaithersburg and Germantown, which take up the left half of that map. All the routes there are shown with the same kind of line because they’re all pretty similar, but that makes them hard to tell apart on the map. And since Gaithersburg and Germantown have twisty suburban streets rather than planned grids, the new map’s geographic distortion makes it harder rather than easier to read.

Recommendations

1. Add a middle thickness line weight and use it to highlight non-WMATA frequent routes, as well WMATA routes in the suburbs that need to be called out as “major”, but that don’t offer really frequent service. This will better illustrate the important non-WMATA routes, and improve the visual hierarchy in suburban areas, which are currently shown with either too many or too few highlighted routes. This will also better inform riders about the quality of routes.

2. Add more geographic clues in areas with a lot of homogenous routes that are difficult to distinguish, such as Gaithersburg and Germantown.

3. Add names to MARC and VRE station labels.

4. Make a single regional map available. There are good reasons to keep separate maps for DC, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Virginia, but there’s no good reason not to publish a single overall map as well.

5. A really great next step would be to make these interactive maps, instead of pdfs. I’d love to be able to see individual routes highlighted separately whenever I hover my cursor on them, and then go to the timetable with a click.

Send WMATA your own comments

To make sure WMATA planners read your thoughts, leave them in the comments section of the PlanItMetro blog.

September 27th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, maps, proposal, transportation



How to fit cars, bikes, and transit on M Street SE/SW

click to enlarge
DDOT’s options for transit lanes or cycle tracks on M Street. Why not both?

Last week DDOT released its initial study of alternatives for M Street SE/SW. The study identifies 3 options for how the street might be redesigned, including options that include dedicated transit lanes and cycle tracks. However, none of DC’s options include both transit lanes and cycle tracks.

In a joint editorial published today at Greater Greater Washington, David Alpert and I discuss why DDOT used this strategy, and how the next round of planning can and should combine aspects of the existing 3 alternatives to form new and better multimodal options.

>> Go to GGW and read the editorial.

(Link fixed.)

September 18th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, bus, development, metrorail, proposal, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation, urbandesign



Next July 4th, DC should close 13th Street

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New York’s Summer Streets program could be a model for a July 4th celebration in DC.

The National Mall is a great place to watch DC’s July 4th fireworks celebration. But it’s also such a tremendous hassle that many Washingtonians prefer to watch from more local neighborhood vantage points. A street festival on 13th, NW would instantly become the prime non-Mall celebration.

Every year thousands of Washingtonians watch the fireworks from somewhere along the Meridian Hill escarpment. Cardozo High School’s football stadium is a popular choice, as is Meridian Hill Park. But the best vantage points are from the roadways of north-south streets, where they slope up the escarpment between Florida Avenue and Euclid Street. Unfortunately for fireworks watchers, an active street is not a safe place to put down a blanket.

But surely every single north-south street is not needed for transportation purposes on the 4th. 16th Street is probably too important as a traffic artery, but what about 13th? If the city were to close it to cars for a day, it would provide a fantastic viewing spot, right in the heart of the residential city. 14th Street could also work, but the views from 13th are significantly better.

Closing 13th Street would also provide another benefit: it could easily accommodate a street festival.

Instead of spending the 4th camping out for a good spot on the National Mall, imagine spending it strolling up and down a car-free 13th Street, lined with food, shopping, and art vendors south of Florida Avenue. Then just before dark, imagine hiking north of Florida Avenue to watch the fireworks from the sloping hill.

For years many DC residents have lamented that we have nothing like New York’s Summer Streets program, which closes Park Avenue to cars on 3 Saturdays each summer, resulting in a 7-miles-long walking and biking street fair. New York’s program has been hugely popular, and a DC version surely would be as well.

Why not kill two birds with one stone? Close 13th Street between Logan Circle and Euclid Street, providing DC residents with both a mile-long summer cyclovia, and an awesome new place for thousands to watch the fireworks, hassle-and-impediment-free.

Update: According to Pedro Ribeiro, Director of Communications for the DC Mayor’s Office, the city did in fact close 13th Street this year, between Euclid Street and Florida Avenue, beginning at 8:00 pm. That’s a great first step! Now let’s extend the closure down to Logan Circle, and make it all day.

July 9th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: events, proposal



Soon to be vacant Mobil headquarters should be redeveloped

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Mobil’s huge property, marked in red. Click to enlarge.

In 1987 the Mobil gasoline corporation moved its corporate headquarters from New York to Merrifield, Virginia. It was a major coup for the DC region, and a big early step in the growth of Fairfax County as a major corporate base. In the style of the times and befitting a major corporation, they built and occupied a massive campus-style building, set back literally acres from any of the surrounding highways. The site is pictured at right.

12 years later, in 1999, Mobil merged with Exxon to form what is today the 3rd largest corporation in the world. ExxonMobil’s headquarters set up in Irving, TX, in suburban Dallas. The Merrifield office became the Downstream headquarters, directing refining, manufacturing and marketing.

And now they are vacating their 1.2 million square foot behemoth office building and consolidating their offices in Houston – the oil capital of America.

Apparently they are shopping the building to other prospective office tenants. Fairfax County says they don’t expect it to be vacant for long.

But should this building still be used? It’s a private fortress set in a huge forest, amidst an otherwise urbanizing area. It’s a dinosaur of 20th Century planning. Inefficient use of land, laid out to require everyone to drive, and surrounded by “open space” that’s impractical for anyone to use as an actual park. Bad bad bad.

On the other hand, it’s a huge piece of land at an absolutely great location. It would make a fantastic town center development. The land is too far from Dunn Loring Metro to be walkable, so it wouldn’t be a TOD, but it could easily accommodate a Reston Town Center or Shirlington-like development, which if not perfect would still be a big improvement over sprawl. And who knows, regional transportation planners are starting to discuss the possibility of light rail on Gallows Road (pdf, see page 2, item #8), so maybe in a few decades that transit connection will be there after all.

It’s unfortunate that the region will lose all the jobs associated with Mobil, but it would be even more unfortunate if this opportunity to redevelop one of the prime pieces of real estate in Fairfax County were missed.

June 8th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: economy, energy, lightrail, master planning, proposal, transportation



What’s in a transit name?

click to enlarge
Is this light rail or streetcar?

What’s the difference between a streetcar and light rail? What qualifies as BRT versus merely priority bus? One problem with contemporary transit planning is that there’s really no solidly defined answer for those questions.

Originally the term light rail was invented to describe streetcar systems that had express service characteristics. So light rail was really just rapid streetcar. But even the most express light rail systems often run slowly along on surface streets at the downtown end of their route, which muddies the waters.

Furthermore, transit agencies around the country name their lines whatever they want. For decades Philadelphia called one of its light rail lines a high speed trolley. Meanwhile, Tacoma, WA runs a short streetcar line that uses the exact same rail vehicles as Portland’s famous streetcar, but Tacoma calls it light rail.

The situation is even more muddy for buses, since terms like BRT and priority bus are relatively new. Indeed, communities buying off on the concept of BRT only to see it scaled back has become such a continuous problem that Congress is now considered adopting standards that bus lines must meet in order to be called BRT.

So this is a fairly big problem.

I do think there’s a fairly easy, practical, and common sense answer available, however. Does your line run in a dedicated transitway or not? If so, it’s rapid. If not, it’s local. Here’s a handy table describing this system, which is how I’ve personally been mentally sorting transit systems for years:

This does leave two problems unresolved.

First, how do you sort a striped transit lane? The bus lane on 7th Street in Gallery Place is obviously vastly inferior to a true busway, but surely it counts for something.

Second, what to do with transit lines that have different characteristics along different portions of their length? One of the main selling points of both LRT and BRT is that they’re very flexible, and can built to fit the needs of the community. Thus it’s pretty rare to find a line that operates in the same sort of running way for its entire length. Many use a dedicated transitway for part of their length, then mix with traffic elsewhere.

But at the very least, the above table can be useful as a way to generally describe many transit systems. So I think it’s useful.

February 28th, 2012 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, lightrail, proposal, streetcar, transportation



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