64 years ago, the world’s first driverless parking garage opened in DC
On December 5, 1951, the world’s first “park-o-mat” driverless parking garage opened on K Street NW, between 14th and 15th Streets. The building doesn’t exist anymore, but this newsreel is a neat look into one of history’s previous attempts at driverless transportation.
The original park-o-mat buildling was just 25 feet by 40 feet, but at 16 floors and with two elevators, it had room for 72 cars.
As downtown DC developed and the city’s height limit began to limit land availability, property values eventually made it impractical to keep using this building as parking. Today, a a normal building full of people replaces it.
H Street’s sprawling Hechinger Mall is a sleeping giant, waiting to boom
The redevelopment boom on H Street NE hasn’t yet transformed Hechinger Mall, the big suburban-style strip mall where H Street meets Bladensburg Road and Benning Road. But someday, when it inevitably does, there’s enough land for an entire neighborhood.
By superimposing a map of the Hechinger Mall area on top of other parts of DC, one can see just how great a change is on the horizon.
Hechninger Mall and surrounds by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.
In the above image, the blue line outlines Hechinger Mall plus several surrounding properties with similar car-oriented retail. The mall and its surrounds beat as the commercial heart of multiple Northeast neighborhoods, including Trinidad, Carver-Langston, and Kingman Park.
It’s not unused land; there are plenty of stores, and they do robust business. But it’s definitely underused. Vast acres of parking sit mostly empty. Single suburban-style stores take up entireblocks. Internal streets look like highways, despite low traffic.
Someday it is going to redevelop. When that happens, it’s going to be as much a big deal as redevelopment in Columbia Heights or Union Market.
Compare the land
Let’s compare the amount of land we’re talking about.
Using a neat tool from Mapfrappe, it’s possible to superimpose that blue Hechinger Mall outline on top of other parts of DC, at the same scale.
Here’s Columbia Heights:
Columbia Heights comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.
As you can see, the blue Hechinger Mall outline is almost exactly the same size and shape of the center of Columbia Heights. You could almost pick up 14th Street and plop it down at Hechinger, and it would fit.
Now Union Market:
Union Market comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.
Again, it’s almost exactly the same size as the entire Union Market neighborhood.
Let’s keep going. NoMa next:
NoMa comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.
City Center comparison by Dan Malouff using Mapfrappe and Google.
NoMa is bigger. But Hechinger Mall is about the same size as the others. That’s the scale of redevelopment that could—that probably will—come to H Street.
And that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with the stores at Hechinger; DC needs shops like Safeway, Ross, and Dollar Tree. But DC also needs places to put more housing, and football field-sized parking lots a mile-and-a-half from the Capitol are exactly the right place.
The 66 foot long streetcars in DC and Portland are comparatively puny. But extra-long streetcars are common worldwide. Paris, Dublin, and dozens of other cities in Europe use trams around 150 feet long. Toronto runs the longest in North America, a moderate 99 foot long model.
These extra-long streetcars show more clearly how streetcars can be a middle ground between buses and heavy Metro trains. WMATA railcars are 75 feet long each—bigger than a DC streetcar, but less than half a Budapest tram.
New buses will run faster on 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue, thanks to good design
The 21 new articulated buses coming to 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue aren’t just prettier than the old buses. They’ll be a little faster, thanks to a more efficient interior layout.
One of the new buses. Photo from WMATA.
Not more buses, but better ones
These new accordion buses replace WMATA’s final remaining old-style articulated buses. When all 21 new ones are running, the last of the old buses with the boxy front will be retired.
Since the 21 new buses replace old ones that are also articulated, don’t expect to see more total articulated buses on 16th, 14th, or Georgia. There will simply be new buses instead of old ones.
But new buses have advantages: They break down less often, so the same number of buses are on the road more often. And their efficient low-floor design speeds up loading and unloading at stops.
Low-floor > high-floor
Riders boarding the old buses have to walk up steps, which creates a bottleneck and slows down service. It takes every able-bodied rider an extra half-second or so to climb bus steps, and less-able ones can take much longer. When a person in a wheelchair comes along, the delay can be significant.
A high-floor bus in Seattle. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.
On lines with very high ridership, all those seconds add up. Delays loading and unloading buses are one of the biggest sources of delay on 16th Street, and there’s no reason to think 14th or Georgia are any different.
Low-floor buses are more like trains—you step in, not up. One fluid and quick movement makes the whole process faster for everyone.
A low-floor bus in Denver. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
With these new buses, WMATA’s articulated bus fleet will now be 100% low-floor. That’s legitimately good news.
A lot’s happening in DC’s busiest bus corridor
Every day there are over 75,000 bus riders between downtown DC and Silver Spring. 50,000 of them ride the Metrobus on 16th, 14th, and Georgia alone. Combined, they make up by far the busiest bus corridor in the Washington region.
Getting all those riders through town efficiently is a big task. Buses already come every few minutes on all three streets. In recent years WMATA has added express buses to 16th and Georgia, and DC added a Circulator line to 14th.
DC Circulator may add a line to NoMa, but its circuitous routes aren’t ideal
You might someday ride a Circulator bus from NoMa to Starburst. Or maybe from NoMa to U Street, Columbia Heights, or Logan Circle. DDOT is doing a study to decide.
NoMa Circulator options. Image by DDOT.
NoMa as transit hub
NoMa is one of DC’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. With 40,000 workers, 18,000 residents, and huge new developments coming soon, it’s fast becoming an extension of downtown, and a natural hub of activity.
But aside from its crucial Red Line Metrorail station, NoMa is a transit afterthought. While most Metro stations double as bus hubs, no public bus lines have stops directly at NoMa Metro.
WMATA’s important 90s series Metrobuses pass nearby on Florida Avenue, and the X3, 80, P6, and D4 all skirt the edges.
But that’s nothing like the bus service in downtown, or other downtown-adjacent neighborhoods. It’s too paltry to do much to help residents of nearby neighborhoods like Trinidad or Truxton Circle reach NoMa.
If NoMa is to become the great nerve center of Northeast DC, it’s simply going to need better transit connections to the rest of Northeast.
Enter DC Circulator
With bus service every 10 minutes all day, DC Circulator certainly qualifies as a good bus. Making NoMa the focus of a new Circulator line will absolutely be a great addition.
As always, the devil is in the details.
DDOT planners are considering 5 potential routes, going in wildly different directions.
Some options eschew Northeast and connect only to Northwest destinations like Columbia Heights, U Street, or Logan Circle. Other options have a leg extending east on Florida Avenue as far as Starburst and Benning Road.
Further connections to Northeast, like extending the line up Bladensburg Road, aren’t on the table.
Theoretically DDOT need not select only one option. They could pick and choose the best aspects from multiple options, and stitch them together for a final hybrid.
Proposed routes are too complex
One serious concern with all five routes is that they’re too complex.
The most successful bus lines are usually simple, direct, and consistent. Straight lines are easier for riders to understand and remember, and reach destinations faster than squiggly circuitous routes like these NoMa proposals.
This graphic comparing the most and least successful bus lines in Vancouver nicely illustrates the issue:
Image from Vancouver TransLink.
Buses in DC absolutely follow the same pattern. The highest-ridership lines in the city are virtually all straight and direct, like on 16th Street and Georgia Avenue. Meanwhile, complex, circuitous routes like the W2 don’t get many riders, despite connecting multiple destinations with a lot of potential riders.
The problem is M Street
Theoretically M Street NE is the natural spot for an east-west bus through NoMa. It offers a straight shot through the underpass below the railroad tracks. The southern entrance to NoMa Metro spills out onto it, and M’s corner with First Street NE is the center of the neighborhood.
M Street NE. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.
Unfortunately, running a bus on M Street is difficult. Although it’s two-way through the heart of NoMa, it switches to one-way on both the east and west sides. Unless DDOT reconfigures M Street to be two-way (a prospect that might wipe out the nice protected bike lane), there is simply no east-west line through NoMa that’s both straight and provides a direct Metrorail connection.
Complexity is, unfortunately, probably mandatory.
But still, some of DDOT’s alternatives minimize complexity, while others are needlessly circuitous. That New Jersey Avenue option is bonkers. Four blocks is too far to separate one-way pairs.
Tell DDOT what you think
DDOT will be hosting a series of public meetings this month to discuss this proposal. You can weigh in at sessions on November 10, 12, 15, 17, or 19.
This map shows the real-time location for every WMATA bus and train in the Washington region. It’s a cool way to see how much transit is out there, and where it’s running right this second.
Every WMATA bus and train. Image from TRAVIC.
The map is called TRAVIC and was produced by the University of Freiburg. The Washington map was made using using open data from WMATA.
Although the Washington map shows only WMATA transit, the same website includes maps for dozens of cities all over the world. You can compare what transit is like in diverse places, from Albuquerque to Paris.
Left: Albuquerque. Right: Paris. Images from TRAVIC.
High-rise mobile homes could revolutionize apartment living
Mass-produced mobile homes are one of rural America’s most important forms of housing. One company wants to try the same concept with urban apartments. It’s a batty idea that may not work, but if it does, it could help to solve America’s urban affordability crisis.
The idea works like this: Rather than custom-designing every individual building, what if apartment buildings were mere frames, and apartments were mobile boxes that simply slipped into docks, the way cars park in a parking garage?
When people who live in mobile apartments move from one city to another, they could take their entire apartment with them. Slide out of your frame in Denver and slide into one in San Francisco, and keep on living without the disruption of emptying your home to a shell.
Perhaps most importantly, the company pushing this idea says they’d be drastically cheaper than a studio apartment.
The company, Kasita, is building a prototype in Austin next year, where they say they’ll rent units for around $600 a month. That’s half the cost of a downtown Austin studio.
Obviously, there are trade-offs to this idea. At 200 square feet, these would be small apartments. Suitable for a single person, crowded for a couple, and hard to work with for a family.
Kasita’s version comes comes with high-tech bells and whistles like customizable wall panels, including speakers, shelves, a bike rack, even a fish tank and fireplace. But surely, if this concept takes off, competing companies would begin to offer more bare-bones versions.
Bells and whistles. Rendering from Kasita.
Kasita’s claim of $600 per month remains theoretical, and who knows how much it would actually cost to move one.
And aesthetically, a lot of people will think they’re ugly. Like shipping container apartments, mobile apartments will necessarily have an industrial look. A city full of these might quickly begin to feel oppressive.
The Japanese example
This is actually not a new idea. Japan has been home to some experiments in capsule architecture, most notably the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower. But Nakagin proved impractical and unpopular, and has slipped into disrepair. Fair from proving the concept works, it actually shows how failure is more likely than success.
These are real trade-offs, impossible to ignore. But given America’s growing affordability crisis, maybe they’re trade-offs that are worth experimenting with, sometimes, in some places, for some people.