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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



Telecommuting saved us on Wednesday, but that won’t work every day

Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been during Wednesday’s Metro shutdown. Telecommuters were a big reason why. That’s fine for a one-time event, but it won’t work every day.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

We don’t know exactly how many people telecommuted during the Metro shutdown, but the number was surely gigantic. Anecdotal evidence suggests there could have been hundreds of thousands of normal commuters who simply didn’t travel into their offices.

Obviously when you remove tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters from the daily rush, that helps a lot with traffic.

But it’s one thing for so many people to telecommute all at once because of a freak one-time event. It would be quite another to see those levels of telecommuting over and over, work day after work day.

When it’s just one day, you can reschedule your meetings, live without your physical files, and put off working with specialized equipment. For just one day it’s easy to focus on email and other things you can do from home.

But at some point, office workers have to go in to their offices. As technology improves, the day-to-day telecommuting rate may well increase, but at least for now it’s not going to be possible for so many people to make telecommuting an everyday option.

Workers can avoid rush hour travel in large numbers for a freak event, but not everyday. If our city didn’t have Metro, the daily commute would rapidly become much worse than what happened on Wednesday.

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

March 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, roads/cars, transportation



In 1861 Maryland almost annexed Virginia

This amazing map from 1861 shows a federal government proposal to redraw the borders of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and DC. The reason: To spite Virginia for the Civil War and better-protect the capital from attack.


1861 proposal to redraw the borders of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and DC. Image by Harper’s Weekly.

The map is from an 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly, and is based on an idea from federal Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Here’s how Harper’s Weekly described the idea:

This arrangement would reduce the size of the State of Virginia at least one-half, leaving the name of Virginia to that part only which is now mainly loyal.

The disloyal section, comprising all the great cities of Virginia—Richmond, Norfolk, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, etc.—and all the sea-coast, would be annexed to Maryland, while Delaware would rise, by spreading over the whole peninsula between the Chesapeake and the ocean, to be a State of considerable magnitude.

Under this reconstruction Maryland would become one of the three great States of the Union. We need hardly direct attention to the clause in the Secretary’s report which hints that emancipation in Maryland must be the price paid for this acquisition of territory.

Alexandria and Arlington would have returned to DC, which would have remained independent of any state.

When Cameron came up with his idea, the Civil War was less than a year old. The western more rural portions of Virginia had hoped to remain in the Union, while the more urban eastern portions had voted overwhelmingly to secede. In theory, this proposal therefore would have accomplished several goals. It would have:

1. Separated off the loyalist western parts of Virginia, allowing them to be reintroduced to the Union as a northern state.

2. Punished eastern Virginia, the intellectual and economic heart of the Confederacy, by taking away its independence as a state.

3. Rewarded Maryland and Delaware for remaining in the Union.

4. Protected Washington from having a hostile territory directly across the Potomac.

It’s not as crazy as it seems

In 1861, as Cameron was making this proposal, West Virginia was already in the process of splitting off from Virginia to become its own state. How exactly to draw its borders and what to call it was a perfectly reasonable question.

The most doubtful part of this idea is the notion that new-and-bigger Maryland would be a safe northern state. Although Maryland never seceded, it was a slave state and its loyalty to the Union during the Civil War was tenuous at best.

Adding the wealthy and populous parts of Virginia to Maryland seems more likely to have drawn Maryland towards the south than vice versa. Presumably that’s why the deal would have required Maryland to free its slaves.

Of course as we all know, this proposal didn’t work out. West Virginia’s boundaries and name became official in 1863 when it was admitted to the Union as its own state, and Virginia was itself readmitted in 1870 following four brutal years of Civil War.

But it’s interesting to look back and see what could have happened, had history turned out just a little bit differently.

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

March 3rd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: government, history



This 1912 plan would have made Baltimore much bigger

In 1912 Baltimore’s city leaders hoped to annex this large chunk of Baltimore County. Had that happened, the city limits would have extended from just shy of downtown Towson to just shy of Ellicott City.


Image from the State of Maryland.

Baltimore annexed big chunks of land in three successive waves: One in 1817 that took the city as far as North Avenue, a second in 1888 up to about 40th Street, and a third in the early years of the 20th Century.

Like other US cities, Baltimore was expanding rapidly in the early 20th Century amidst a wave of streetcar-induced sprawl. Suburban areas lacked city services like sewers, parks, and police, so central cities often annexed surrounding land.

By about 1910, Baltimore was ready for another round of annexation. Exactly how much land the city should annex became a major hot-button issue of the day, with proposals ranging from no expansion to the aggressive, far-ranging one pictured above.

In 1918 a compromise plan eventually won out, settling Baltimore’s boundaries at their current extents.

By the time America’s post-World War II suburbanization boom happened, the national mood had shifted against central cities. A 1948 amendment to Maryland’s state constitution outlawed any further expansion of Baltimore city, and thus the borders haven’t changed since.

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

March 3rd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: government, history, maps



DC Streetcar’s exuberant opening day, in photos and video

DC Streetcar is open and carrying passengers, following a festive opening day on Saturday. Enjoy this photo tour reliving the fun.

Continue reading at Greater Greater Washington

February 29th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: events, galleries, streetcar, transportation



Here’s why the DC region has so many bus systems

There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA’s geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.

With a few exceptions, essentially every county-level local government in the Washington region runs its own bus system, on top of WMATA’s Metrobus. DC has Circulator, Montgomery County has Ride-On, Alexandria has DASH, etc ad nauseam. There are more than 20 in the region, not even including myriad private commuter buses, destination-specific shuttles, and app-based startups.

Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.

Why?

Three reasons, but mostly it’s all about money

Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can’t be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren’t part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA’s service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.

Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That’s an incentive to manage buses close to home.

But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.

To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called “cost per revenue hour.” That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver’s salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.

Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region’s bus systems, according to VDOT:

  • WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
  • Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
  • OmniRide: $133/hour
  • Arlington County ART: $72/hour

Not only is WMATA the highest, it’s much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it’s less than Metrobus.

This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.

At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.

In those terms, it’s no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.

Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?

Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.

Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they’re smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.

Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA’s operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don’t count those costs as part of transit operating.

Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they’re funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On’s operating costs.

So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn’t actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.

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

February 22nd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: bus, government, transportation



H Street streetcar will carry passengers on February 27, says Bowser

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser just announced the H Street streetcar will officially open to passengers on Saturday, February 27. Of this year. Hallelujah!

Mayor Bowser’s announcement should mean the DC fire department has certified the streetcar as safe to run and submitted its paperwork to the federal government, thus accomplishing the last step before the streetcar can open. With that done, it’s ready to carry passengers.

The opening party and first passenger-carrying run will take place at 10:00 am on Saturday, February 27, at the corner of H Street and 13th Street NE.

After that, streetcars will run between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue every 15 minutes the rest of the day. Rides will be free for everyone for the first few months.

The streetcar will close again Sunday the 28th; for now it’s only scheduled to run six days per week. But passengers will be able to pick it up again on Monday the 29th, and every day thereafter except Sundays.

Many of us will be there to enjoy the festivities, and we’ll try to all meet up to make a GGWash contingent. Join us if you can! Or ride the streetcar to our 8th birthday party on March 8. Or both!

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

February 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: events, streetcar, transportation



Metro begins scrapping its oldest railcars

Say goodbye to Metro railcar number 1013. Along with other 1973-vintage 1000-series railcars, it’s headed to the scrapyard. More aren’t far behind.


Metro railcar 1013 at a scrap yard in Baltimore. Photo by MJofLakeland1 on Flickr.

As new 7000-series railcars enter Metro service, WMATA is now beginning to retire its oldest railcars. So far the agency has scrapped four cars, with more scheduled to head out the door beginning this March.

In the past if WMATA had to permanently take a railcar out of service, they’d either keep it for parts or backup, or it would end up in any number of weird places. That happened rarely for most of WMATA’s first four decades.

That’s now changing. With the impending mass retirement of 400 decades-old 1000-and-4000-series cars, WMATA needed a process to handle getting rid of so many cars at once.

Since signing a scrapping contract late last year they now have that process, and railcars can begin to head to the scrapyard.

When that happens, workers truck the old railcar to United Iron & Metal in Southwest Baltimore, where they strip it of valuable materials.

It’s an inglorious end for these old workhorses, but I’m not too sorry to see them go; those new car replacements are nice.

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

February 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, transportation



DC once had its own Arc de Triomphe

Paris’s Arc de Triomphe is world famous, but did you know DC once had its own version?


Photo from the DC Public Library.

The Washington, DC Victory Arch sat on Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of New York Avenue and 15th Street NW.

It was a temporary structure built to commemorate the end of World War I. This photo, from 1919, shows the US Army on parade following the end of the war. Presumably the arch was made of plaster, like the White City of Chicago, and thus never intended to be permanent.

Here’s another view, showing the arch from ground level.

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

February 11th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, fun, history



GGW made urbanism a mainstream topic. Donate to keep it going strong

Once upon a time, having a walkable, urban city was a niche idea in our region, one special interest among many. Today it’s a mainstream discussion topic all over the region’s cafés and living rooms.

Greater Greater Washington helped make that happen, and it relies on reader donations to survive. Please consider giving GGW a donation, so it can keep fighting the good fight.

Read more about why you should give to GGW, or skip the pitch and donate now!

February 10th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: site



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