The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It’s contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be “of our time.”
Pike + Rose is one of the region’s most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.
But although Pike + Rose isn’t flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it’s fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.
Ornament doesn’t have to be historic-looking
In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be “of their time;” they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.
But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.
Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.
Mixed but instructive results
No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.
The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.
The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.
Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they’re awkward and kitschy.
Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:
Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren’t so bad.
It’s easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they’re bold, and it’s easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say “do that,” but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.
The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it’s going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.
I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.
The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It’s slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.
According to DDOT’s latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.
In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it’s actually not bad.
Middle of the light rail pack
Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn’t going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC’s 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.
But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.
And in those terms, DC Streetcar’s 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It’s just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn’t even go downtown yet.
Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).
On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston’s Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco’s Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,723, which is interestingly higher than Portland’s MAX light rail at 2,048).
Compared to H Street’s X2 bus
What about buses?
In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.
So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.
But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2’s 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.
Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there
Clearly the streetcar isn’t perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Futurelines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.
And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland’s streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides, so that’s hard to predict.
But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn’t doing particularly badly.
You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.
Jane Jacobs was born May 4, 1916, 100 years ago today. She left the world in 2006, but in her 89 years of life she revolutionized how we think about cities. Here is what GGWash contributors said about Jane, the patron saint of American urbanism.
Today’s Google Doodle honors Jane. Image from Google.
Even 55 years after its publication, urbanists continue to obsess over Death and Life, debating obscure passages like clerics feuding over a religious text.
Ben Ross went straight to the point, then warned of the next great problem afflicting our cities:
Jane Jacobs was a true genius who developed a new paradigm of city planning. Our best city neighborhoods now suffer from the “curse of success” that she foresaw as the consequence of a scarcity of urbanism. How to overcome that scarcity is a problem that she left to us.
Canaan Merchant summarized two big lessons Jane taught him:
Look at what is actually happening rather than relying on what is “supposed” to happen. A city’s beauty lies in its people rather than its buildings. Bring the people out and the buildings will take care of themselves.
Former contributor Abigail Zenner focused on how Jane successfully communicated ideas:
She introduced many people to the world of planning and gave us words to describe what we see every day in cities but have a hard time explaining in simple language. She was able to make a case that stirred peoples’ hearts.
Nick Finio took a contrarian position, quoting a 1998 critique of Death and Life from UC Berkeley professor Roger Montgomery:
Let’s not glorify her too much. Montgomery’s critique ends with this zinger: “Taken together, these themes do add up. Anti-government and anti-regulation beliefs, confidence in the existence of a nearly perfect competitive market, inattention to corporate power, denial of social class and race as determinative categories, taken together look mighty like the core belief system of liberatarian conservatism.”
But other contributors were quick to jump to Jacobs’ defense. They pointed out that while her views may not be a perfect guide to urban issues today, her work helped surface notions that needed to come to the fore, like defending the idea of the city against car-oriented places, and eyes on the street maintaining safety.
Jonathan Krall added:
Just because Jacobs had a healthy mistrust for government and for large projects doesn’t mean she was espousing neo-conservatism. I agree with Montgomery that Jacobs’ excellent and helpful descriptions of healthy city life and associated planning issues skip over some very challenging social and political issues. However, I disagree with his implication that Jacobs is suggesting her readers should ignore those challenges.
Payton Chung opined on Jacobs’ motivations:
Just like any “bible,” there are bound to be contrary readings. There’s a fine line between libertarianism and anarchism, and I’d argue Jacobs’ overall oeuvre points to a mistrust of all large institutions, whether corporate or governmental.
When all was said and done, it may have been Brendan Casey who summed Jane up best:
The force was strong with that one.
What do you think of Jane, and of her impact on cities?
8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro
Paris has one of the world’s great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.
Door knobs on a Paris metro train.
1. Door knobs speed trains
In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.
All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system’s theoretical maximum.
In Paris, those delays don’t happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.
Here’s a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:
WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there’s no indication they’ll be fixed any time soon.
Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?
Check out Paris’ Chatelet station, where that’s exactly the layout:
Most Paris stations aren’t like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn’t as crucial there as it is in DC. But there’s been many a day I’ve stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.
3. Flip-up seats add capacity
The first row of seats inside Paris’ train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.
Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.
This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.
4. Open gangways really do work
US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.
All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they’re wonderful.
5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks
Paris’ metro lacks express tracks just like DC’s, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It’s also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.
Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.
A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm.
I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?
I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.
And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris’ els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.
7. Wayfinding can be beautiful
“If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?” My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.
In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?
What details like these have you noticed on other countries’ transit systems, that you’d like to see imported to the US?
These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively
These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.
In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.
Here’s the DC map in greater detail:
Image by City Observatory.
You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.
Unfortunately the data clearly isn’t perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.
Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.
Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.
Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.
Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country’s dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.
Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York’s streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it’s a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.
Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.
Why widening highways doesn’t work, in one simple gif
Decade after decade, American metropolitan areas continue to widen their highways in order to reduce congestion. And decade after decade, congestion just keeps getting worse. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s because of a phenomenon called induced demand. This simple gif illustrates how it works:
Surely one more lane will finally solve our congestion problem, right? (Slightly better GIFF. Feel free to copy) pic.twitter.com/uDJwqVT3WI
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than this gif. Congestion keeps increasing not only because more people drive, but also because more people drive farther. And because the more highways we build, the less walkable and transit-accessible our cities usually become. And because the more desperate our congestion situation becomes, the more some groups attack using money for anything other than more highway widenings.
Highway congestion is a negative feedback loop. The only way to really solve it, besides economic calamity, is to break out of the loop by attacking its root causes. Rather than applying highway-widening band-aids that only work for a few years, build urban communities with multimodal infrastructure, in which it’s just as convenient (or more so!) for most residents to get around without a car than with one.
That doesn’t mean no new roads are ever needed. New communities and densifying ones need streets, after all. But it does mean we should be skeptical of plans to make highways bigger. In the long term, that money is usually better spent elsewhere.
Metroway runs between Pentagon City and Braddock Road Metro stations. For much of its route, between Crystal City and Potomac Yard, it runs in dedicated bus lanes, making it the Washington region’s first real foray into BRT.
Through Potomac Yard, the transitway runs in a totally exclusive busway—a completely separate road from the regular lanes.
27th & Crystal station.
Stations in the busway have substantial arched roofs and attractive wall panels.
South Glebe station.
Through Crystal City, bus lanes and bus stations hug the curb.
18th & Crystal station.
Since northbound buses run a block away from southbound buses, bus stations are smaller through this section. More like large bus stops.
23rd & Clark station.
Crystal City is pretty quiet on Sundays, so there weren’t many opening day riders and buses only came every 20 minutes. During the week there’ll be a lot more riders, and buses will run every 6-12 minutes depending on the time of day.
Head over to Crystal City and check it out! Or see more pictures of both the Arlington and Alexandria transitway sections via Flickr.
90 new rowhouses at a Michigan Park seminary could help address the housing shortage
The St. Joseph’s Seminary in Northeast DCs’s Michigan Park neighborhood has a large eight-acre property, but the seminary only uses two acres. Rather than let the rest sit empty, they plan to add 90 new rowhouses on four acres, and turn the rest into a park.
The historic seminary building, as seen from 13th Street NE. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.
The Josephites, as the seminarians call themselves, have been working with developer EYA to build on the site. EYA’s proposal is called 12th and Allison. It focuses on the northern part of the site, preserving the southern part and its historic seminary building.
Location of St. Joseph’s Seminary. Image from EYA.
The Josephites would retain ownership of the southern part of the property, which includes both the building itself as well as a little over two acres of open space.
To the north, EYA would extend Webster Street through the block, connecting to 12th Street (Webster currently ends when it hits 13th, on the east side of the property). Surrounding the new Webster Street would be 90 rowhouses, most of them north of the new street.
Triplexes everywhere versus rowhouses and a park
Today the seminary grounds look sort of like a park. But they’re not. The seminary is private property, and if the Josephites sell part or all of it, that part can be developed according to however it’s zoned.
Almost all of Michigan Park is zoned R-2, which allows “semi-detached” housing like duplexes and triplexes. Many of the blocks surrounding the seminary are lined with the latter.
But developers rarely build triplexes these days. They require so many setbacks that it doesn’t pencil out to add in any communal open spaces like parks. But the setbacks are rarely large enough to be very good private yards. For new construction in the city, regular rowhouses are more popular with both sellers and buyers.
Thus, EYA hopes to rezone the property to R-5A, the same as Providence Hospital across the street. R-5A zoning would allow for normal rowhouses, which in turn could be clustered together, allowing for better community open spaces.
But rezoning requires city action, and that opens the door to controversy.
At a community meeting in October of last year, a number of residents made it clear that they were opposed to development of any kind. At least twice throughout the winter, opponents spread these flyers throughout the neighborhood, forewarning against the evils of building:
Opponent flyer. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.
Michigan Park is a cozy, moderate-density neighborhood. It’s fair for residents to wonder about the impact of a new development, and hope to influence it. But hyperbole like that isn’t helpful and isn’t true. Saying this project would “irrevocably damage our community” is a stretch.
90 new units on two big blocks won’t turn the place on its head. That’s only a little denser in total than the surrounding blocks of duplexes and triplexes.
By clustering the development mostly north of Webster Street and preserving more open space south of it, the northern block will be noticeably denser than triplexes, but in return the historic seminary building and much of the open space on the south will be permanently preserved, designated historic, and off-limits to future development.
That’s a good trade. Right now, if the Josephites wanted, they could sell their entire property and develop 100% of it as duplexes and triplexes by-right, whether anybody objected or not. Rather, in exchange for rezoning to allow rowhouses, the seminary and considerable open space will be saved.
In April, EYA will present its latest plans at local ANC meetings. They’ve reduced the density of the proposal from 180 houses to 90, and promised to design the buildings in a high-quality, contextual way.
After that, they’ll submit for zoning approval, and apply to the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the seminary building as a landmark. Expect hearings on it this fall.
The Purple Line will have America’s longest railcars
According to the latest plans for Maryland’s Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They’ll practically be open-gangway trains.
A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.
Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.
At 136 feet long, they’ll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail’s 134 foot cars. But Austin’s cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.
The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas’ 124 foot cars.
Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line’s cars. Photo by Matt’ Johnson on Flickr.
Longer is better
Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There’s less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.
The downside is you can’t pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It’s all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.
Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn’t meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.
An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called “open gangway,” and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.
Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan’s demands to reduce the Purple Line’s costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.
Hogan’s other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.