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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Years Resolutions

I'm making a few resolutions for 2009 to try and make it the year of the urbanist:

-I will write my congressman, senators, governor, mayor, county executive, and other government representatives more often to promote productive transportation and development projects.
-I will use Metro more when I go into the city.
-I will continue to make waves about the lack of mass transit service at my job on Fort Meade.
-I will write more, on both Imagine, DC and GreaterGreaterWashington.
-I will do everything within my power to move somewhere more transportation friendly
-I will participate in Car-Free day.
-I will shop more at locally owned businesses.
-I will show out of town friends and relatives around DC.
-I will learn my local bus system
-I will combine and reduce car trips and make sure that my car is running as clean as it possibly can.
-I will ride mass transit in other cities when I visit them.
-I will try and plan a trip using AMTRAK instead of flying or driving.
-I will write more about Virginia and other areas I don't know very well yet.
-I will seek alternative transportation modes for my neighborhood, including pedestrian and bike facilities.
-I will attend area events via Metro, including sports, concerts, and events on the Mall.
-I will take suggestions from comments on this post!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Car Oriented

I chose to live close to my work at Fort Meade thinking I would drive less. I live close to the base on which I work, and since there's bubkes for transit options to the base, I figure it is best to shorten my commute. It will save money. I'll drive less.

But instead I drive more, since I can't go anywhere from my Laurel neighborhood without driving... not even the grocery store two blocks away, as no sane person would attempt to cross Route 1 while carrying something. And considering that I'm a single 29 year old with an active social life, I like to venture out of Laurel as often as possible. I have a part-time night job in Bethesda, volunteer with a youth program in Silver Spring, I have a ton of friends that live in places like Capitol Hill, Rosslyn, and Dupont, my familiy lives mostly in Silver Spring, and I like to attend sporting events in DC and Landover. All of those locations have one distinct advantage over Laurel: Metro stations.

The buses on Route 1 is painfully slow even during off-peak hours. It doesn't run past 8pm, which is generally when I get off work, and is less reliable on the weekends. Greenbelt and Cheverly Metro stations are where I usually hop on the Metro if I'm going into DC or Virginia, but even those are 15 minute drives in light traffic.

I won't shy away from the fact that I enjoy a good glass of scotch or two from time to time, but I have to plan carefully if I want to go meet friends in Bethesda, Old Town, or H Street for a couple of drinks. Fact is, 100% of drunk drivers are driving at the time. I wonder how many DUI's Metro has prevented over the years.

I try to combine trips as often as possible, but walking anywhere from my house is laborious. There are no sidewalks in my neighborhood. Route 1, where every road in my neighborhood empties, has few sidewalks on my stretch and even fewer crosswalks. Most retail near me is hidden behind a sea of paking lots, including the moribund Laurel Mall, where I only shop when I am absolutely desperate (although here's a great secret: the Macy's there is always fully stocked because no one shops there).

For someone who hates paperwork as much as I do, driving is a nightmare. There is insurance, an expensive necessary evil to legally drive in most of the US. If you live anywhere near a city, the price goes up significantly. MVA (which is Marylandese for DMV) registration, tags, and drivers license are relatively cheap, but minor oversights are costly. Should insurance, tags, license, or registration lapse, there are heavy penalties. Then there is the occaisional parking ticket (I have had plenty at work when parking was particularly bad and I chanced it in a reserve space) and if you're really not paying attention, speed camera ($50 for 36 mph on Minnesota Avenue at 3 a.m. last month... I'm not complaining about speed cameras, but ouch).

The real cost of my car oriented lifestyle is huge. I make a decent living on a federal salary. I'm certainly not loaded, but I make a decent wage by most standards. My car is a modest American sedan that gets 30 mpg that I purchased used on a 5 year loan. My car payment, insurance, scheduled maintenance, and gas (to and from work ONLY, assuming $2/gal) eats up over 20% of my take home salary, which includes my federal salary, my VA disability, and my night job. I don't care how much anyone makes. 20% of any living wage is ludicrous. And that 20% doesn't include emergency repairs (like a new set of tires that wasn't covered by my insurance, $600), tickets, MVA fees, or gas to get anywhere besides work. And to add insult to injury, my tax dollars are now going to bail out the automakers. I already gave them my money when I purchased my car. Rest assured that when I purchase another one, it will not be a GM, Ford, or Chrysler.

That's 20% I can't spend on improving my house. If it comes down to it, an emergency repair on my car takes precedence over one for my house, because I can't get to work without my car. The irrational prioritization I am forced to uphold for my automobile is absurd, but it is a simple fact that most Americans take in stride. Supposedly offering the freedom of mobility, many Americans are in my position, and I consider myself a slave to my car.

Why did I take this in stride most of my life? I was raised in a car-oriented suburb in Silver Spring, a quarter mile from a Beltway exit. The only thing I could walk to from my house without a very long trek involving significant distance along a six lane highway was the community swimming pool, which of course was only open three months a year. I attended high school four miles from my house at a private school with no bus service. I would take Metrobus home from school often, however the school has since relocated far away from the a Metro station and I would not have that option today.

Furthermore, as Rob at Extraordinary Observations points out, previous generations (i.e., the parents who raised us) venerate automobiles. Cars were status symbols and not necessary evils. Where our parents dreamt of moving out to the suburbs, today's young adults are flocking back to the cities. To the Cold War generation, riding transit could be compared to people today who use Walkmans instead of iPods... it spurned progress while at the same time it was a sign of weakness. He also points out that young adults enter the work force from college with enormous debt, which most of our parents did not face. Six figure debt at age 23 is not uncommon in our society, as medical costs and especially college tuition increase have greatly outpaced income increases.

After high school I attended Montgomery College in Rockville, to which I drove, and worked at a store in Cleveland Park, to which I took Metro when feasible. After college, I joined the Army. I have repeatedly stated that it is nearly impossible to get by in the US Army without an automobile, an overpowering irony for the service that prides itself on "beating feet". So when I purchased my house five years ago, I thought I was doing the responsible thing living close to work. And perhaps, to a degree, I was. But living far from transit has cost me a great deal, even if I can't take transit to work.

Don't get me wrong, I love driving. I find it cathartic to be on an open road. For liesure, I used to drive out to northwestern Montgomery County and take in the sights. I always offer to drive on road trips. I love that I can hop in the car on a whim and go just about anywhere in America I choose. But there is a distinct difference between chosing to drive and being wholly dependent on an automobile. There is a difference between driving for leisure and driving because you are forced to drive.

Currently, the extra money that goes into driving is ironically prohibiting me from improving my location by moving somewhere more transit accessible. I probably will never give up driving, but I am committed to driving less. More importantly, I will continue to remind myself and those around me how expensive it can be when you lead a car-oriented lifestyle.

Monday, December 29, 2008

More Freeways = Worse Urbanism

An ironic fact about freeways is that while they are designed to connect towns, they effectively partition them as well. A look at the south suburbs of Baltimore tell the story. The area between I-95, MD-100, and the Chesapeake Bay is criss-crossed with eight interstate-standard freeways. Interstates 95, 195, 695, 895, and 97, along with Maryland routes 10, 100, and 295.

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The area is served by MARC and the MTA Light Rail, however the stations in this area are predominantly park-and-ride. Home prices in these neighborhoods are significantly lower than in other parts of Howard and Anne Arundel Counties. And crime is not uncommon in these suburbs.

Further south, 95 and 295 cut through DC suburbs in Prince George's, but are currently only crossed by the Capital Beltway. Though this area is of similar size and similar geography, the population is much higher than northern Anne Arundel and eastern Howard counties. House prices are comparable, but they have been rising lately, particularly around the Metro stations.

I blame much of this on street connectivity. When the landscape is drawn and quartered like it has been in Baltimore's southern suburbs, it naturally has a negative effect on street connectivity. Lack of street connectivity can lead to higher incidence of traffic accidents, longer response times for emergency vehicles, and greater traffic jams.

Of course, this is a very unscientific and opinion based overview of how lots of highways can ruin an area. I'm sure there are lots of people who think Glen Burnie is a much better town than Hyattsville, so I encourage comments here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Highways Schmighways

Last night, I was the designated driver, and me and my friends wound up out in down town Bethesda past Metro's closing time. So I drove my one buddy back to Rosslyn. At his request, I took Old Georgetown Road to the Beltway, then the GW Parkway to the US50 exit to get to his place.

On a whim, I decided to take the Key Bridge to M St and then Wisconsin Avenue back towards Bethesda to see how much longer it would have been. Now mind you, this was 3 a.m., but it took 8 minutes less to shoot up Wisconsin, and that's including a stop for gas.

Just thought it was interesting.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bus Parking for the Inauguration

The Washington Post put out a map of the charter bus parking plan for Inauguration Day. 10,000 buses are expected to flood the city with tourists, and it's a good idea to have a plan to deal with them. The map states that cars parked on the designated bus parking routes will be towed after midnight on the 20th. It also indicated that no buses will be parked on residential blocks.

The plan, however, is a little vague... according to the map, the neighborhoods between P, K, 12th and 21st Streets NW appear to be fair game. Same with NoMa, Near Southeast, and all of Southwest. Are these buses just going to park on the street? Did the area residents and businesses have any chance to chime in on this? Who exactly created this plan? (The Post's graphic is sourced to D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency)

It appears that RFK's lots and perhaps the garage at Nationals Stadium will be used. This makes a lot of sense to me. But 10,000 is a lot of buses. I think if the city plans to park them on residential streets like the WaPo map suggests, the people who live and work in those neighborhoods ought to have a say.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays

I wanted to wish all my readers the happiest of holiday seasons, no matter what you are celebrating. I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank the folks who inspired me to become more active in urban planning and local politics.

I was always interested in human geography and city layouts. I started drawing towns on maps at age six, and I've been a religious Sim City player most of my life (Tradopolis in Sim City 4 got up to 9 million people!) I lacked good opportunity to study urban planning during my first crack at college, and my Army career pigeon-holed me into a completely different line of work (which I greatly enjoy, but I'd rather be doing this stuff).

So let me give a couple of unsolicited plugs here.

BeyondDC- the first site I ever staggered across that got me involved.
GreaterGreaterWashington- an excellent site that covers all things planning DC
Just Up the Pike, Silver Spring Singular, and Scenic Wheaton- who write about where I grew up
Laurel Connections- who focus on my current home
Track Twenty-Nine- has some amazing transit visualizations that inspired me to start writing
Trip Within the Beltway- Without whom there would be few discussions on this site

And I encourage readers to check out any other sites I link on Imagine, DC. They are all interesting, well written sites, some updated more often than others, some quirkier than others, but all informative and enjoyable.

So whether it be Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Yule, the Solstice, or just plain old New Years you are celebrating, I sincerely hope everyone out there has a happy one. Keep our troops overseas in mind and heart, and have a peaceful end to 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Imagine Wheaton

GGW's Cavan has written a couple of posts about Wheaton, a bustling suburb with an unfairly negative reputation in the heart of MoCo. Wheaton is near and dear to my heart, as I spent a lot of time there in high school. My old high school (since relocated to Olney to keep "transit people" from applying) was a quarter mile from the Metro station and the Wheaton CBD.

It's a gritty area with significant Central American cultural ties, lots of unique little shops, and, as Cavan will tell you, a schizofrenic approach to good urbanism. But I like the potential of Wheaton, it has something many inner suburbs don't enjoy when seeking to grow smarter: the framework of a good street grid. A few roadway connections here and there, and Wheaton could be the very model of transit oriented development. Okay, so maybe there are a few other things before that could be the case... but here's my vision of what Wheaton would look like if its streets were better connected:

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Blue lines are new street connections. Blue place marks are new traffic signals. Zoom in and see how my lines mesh with the road network.

Wheaton has a few other issues. It's one of the only places I've ever been where there is street parking with meters fronting free parking at a strip mall (Ennals Avenue between Grandview and Viers Mill). Crosswalks are often poorly marked. The three main roads through Wheaton (University Boulevard, Viers Mill Road, and Georgia Avenue) are 6 lane traffic nightmares with little street parking and no bus lanes. There are curb cuts for strip mall parking all over the place. And of course, there's a giant freakin' mall.

Though Wheaton has plenty of interesting and quirky independently owned shops, Just Up the Pike points out the failure of the Montgomery Cinema 'n' Drafthouse, blaming some of the above examples of bad urbanism. JUTP also points out a shooting that occured at the mall this week as being the fourth major crime at the mall since its renovation. Would removing the mall and replacing it with mixed use high density transit oriented development (and less surface parking) lower crime? I like to think so.

In the mean time, Wheaton is a guinea pig for inner suburb redevelopment. It slowly gets more walkable as it fights new fights and teaches the rest of the region the lessons we must learn to develop a better sense of place around the Beltway.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

High(way) Speed Rail

Beyond DC has a great post about the Department of Transportation soliciting proposals for high speed rail corridors. This is a great development, one step closer to catching up to the rest of the civilized world with a real train network.

As these corridors are planned, I really hope there is a serious effort to build the HSR lines along interstate highways. This minimizes the need for right-of-way acquisition, and it makes our interstate corridors multi-modal. I imagine in some areas it may drive up the cost of construction, but as long as we have these corridors already built and engineered for high speeds, I believe it makes the most sense to put the trains there too.

In any event, I'm very excited about the prospect of being able to hop a train to Chicago and get there in less than 20 hours. With any luck, I'll be able to do that before I retire.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Little Freeway That Couldn't

The Anacostia River could be one of the most iconic urban waterways in the US, but instead it is blockaded on both shores by freeways. DC/Interstate 295 cuts off the east bank virtually the entire length of the river in the District, and the Southeast Freeway blocks of Boathouse Row on the west bank.

One of my chief complaints about the use of land in the District of Columbia is the gross underutilization of river frontage. And something must be done to make the river more accessible. Removing the highways, however, would raise strong concerns over dumping what might otherwise be freeway through traffic onto city streets, which, as we've seen on New York Avenue between the 395 tunnel and 295, can turn a city boulevard into a traffic sewer.

Removing highways diminishes induced demand, thus reducing vehicular traffic through the area. For the most part, I don't believe this to be an excuse for the wholesale removal of all the freeways through the District. The District does not have too many highways, but rather a horribly inefficient highway system that dumps dead-end freeway traffic onto city streets. What needs to be removed are the dead end highways, and what remains should be logically and thoroughly connected to the rest of the city's highway system in a manner that minimizes the highway's physical impact on the cityscape.

Douglas Willinger of A Trip Within the Beltway would be decking over our freeways, which in theory may be the best way to diminish a highway's impact on urban landscape. The obvious downside is, of course, cost. Would it be worth it to deck over the Southeast Freeway between Barney Circle and the 11th Street Bridge? Only if the plan included extending the Southeast Freeway past Barney Circle, conducive to the original plan for freeways in the District of Columbia. That full plan, for the record, was not exactly in line with city's current movement toward smart growth (to say the least). Otherwise, we are decking over a largely useless stretch of freeway that ultimately dead ends, dumping freeway traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Another option would be one that I had suggested back over the summer, building the Barney Circle Bridge. This plan, which also called for boulevardization of part of the Anacostia Freeway, might be a good alternative, but it would be cumbersome and expensive to implement. I also foresee this plan going through but without the boulevardization of the Anacostia Freeway, which would go against the notion of making the river more accessible.

The 1.39 mile section of the Southeast Freeway east of the 11th Street Bridge (unsigned but designated Interstate 695) is six lane freeway becomes a two lane access road to RFK Stadium as it passes under Pennsylvania Avenue, and the only purpose this route currently serves is getting traffic to the Sousa Bridge. I use it regularly to get to northbound 295 when I am driving out of the city (there is currently no access from the southbound 11th Street Bridge to northbound 295). JD Land offers insight to the fate of this route. In the plan, the virtually useless ramps from the Bridge to the RFK access road will be completely removed, and that portion of freeway will be replaced by a boulevard.

What about the aforementioned problem of inefficient freeways lacking logical connectivity? Removal of this section of highway could ostensibly be completely mitigated with a couple of ramps which, in my opinion, should have been built decades ago. Ramps between the 11th Street Bridge and the northern route DC 295, along with a ramp from southbound 295 to westbound Pennsylvania Avenue would create a more functional, logical, and efficient highway network, making the undesirable section of the Southeast Freeway virtually obsolete, as it would have all the same functionality of the freeway it parallels on the east bank of the river. Below shows the three new ramps in pink, and the obsolete (ready for boulevardization) stretch of freeway in green.

View Larger Map

I don't have statistics, but I imagine that construction and upkeep for three new ramps would be more than offset by the economic development that highway removal could ostensibly bring to that stretch. The result: less through traffic on city streets like Pennsylvania Avenue and South Capitol Street, no induced traffic, and an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

And Boathouse Row on M St. SE is now accessible to the rest of the adjacent neighborhood, right? Well, no, not exactly.

There is still another bulwark: the CSX line. Certainly, it is much easier to build an at-grade crossing for these railroad tracks which parallel the highway before going underground at the 11th Street Bridge. However the physical and psychological barrier between the river and the neighborhood will remain an impact of developing this area to its full potential as premier riverfront destination.

So is removal of this stretch of freeway worth it? Absolutely. But better connectivity between the remaining freeways is constructed and plans to remove, deck, or realign the CSX track must be devised. Removing an urban freeway is often very good for a city, but the plan must go far beyond simply the physical removal of the roadway. In Near Southeast, simply removing the highway will not be enough for the neighborhood to achieve its full urban potential.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Wish List

Most people are fortunate to have birthdays far removed from Christmas. I am not one of those people. So here's what I REALLY want for my birthday, but I probably won't get it.

-A high investment light rail for the Purple Line.
-Extend the Green Line to Laurel, or better yet Fort Meade
-Drastically improve pedestrian facilities in PG County
-Removal of some of the parking lots at the Pentagon, Andrews, and Ft. Meade
-The Silver Line and associate redevelopment of Tysons Corner
-Mixed use development with mixed income housing on the power plant site in River Terrace
-Better street connectivity in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Southeast, Arlington, Fairfax, Gaithersburg, and a slew of other towns.
-A better economy so I can sell my house and move somewhere closer to decent transit
-A commuter car
-24 hour Metro, even if it was single tracked
-Some kind of Metro station in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Laurel, National Harbor, Fairfax, Bailey's Crossroads, Seven Corners, Andrews AFB, Fort Meade, and a bunch of other places
-UDC getting a new campus at Saint Elizabeth's West and helping make them a serious university
-Removal of all reversible lanes in the DC area
-Redskins in the playoffs
-Nationally regulated coast-to-coast high speed rail
-Separated Blue Line
-A Purple line that circumnavigates the entire city
-Federal policy creating better urbanism on US military bases throughout the world
-Jeanette Sadik-Khan for Transportation Secretary
-Better urbanism for affordable housing
-More green roofs
-Smarter/more beautiful stormwater runoff management
-The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup
-An overhaul of federal and state policies regarding urban planning geared toward smart growth
-Less pollution along the Anacostia watershed, and other watersheds
-Anything that will lower my BG&E bill!
-Sidewalks and crosswalks in my neighborhood, particularly on Route 1
-Legal allowance of ancillary units (granny flats) in all jurisdictions in the DC area
-Replace cloverleafs with SPUI's
-Relaxation of the height limit laws in parts of the District, particularly near Metro stations
-Better highway connectivity in the District, and removal of useless freeways like I-695
-MARC service to Ocean City
-Something, anything faster, cheaper, and with more coverage than Acela
-DC voting rights
-The ICC bike path, and a light rail along the highway while we're at it
-High speed rapid transit along US 29 between Silver Spring and Columbia
-Realization of the Baltimore Rail plan
-Fewer traffic deaths
-The Columbia Pike (VA) light rail
-Urban infill in PG County, Southeast, Northeast, and western Alexandria, among other areas
-Better DC Public Schools
-The Fillmore in Silver Spring
-Peace on earth, good will toward man

If anyone out there can facilitate any of that for me by Sunday, it'll be a happy birthday.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Banks, Banks, and More Banks

There was another bank robbery in sleepy little Laurel last week. I'm starting to wonder if the rash of crimes at banks around here is due to the overwhelming number drive through bank branches that have been popping up on Route 1 the past few years.

Drive through banks are bad urbanism. They take up a great deal of space, they require curb cuts in addition to parking, and they encourage car-oriented development. Are they attracting crime as well?

Last Week's robbery occurred in the shopping center just north of the mall. A shoot out occurred. This sort of thing is starting to become commonplace.

There are five branches of Chevy Chase bank on or just off Route 1 in Laurel. Five. We're talking about a two and a half mile stretch of one road. Is this entirely necessary? Do they all need to be drive-throughs? Chevy Chase, Sandy Spring, M& T, Citibank, Sun Trust, Wachovia, Wells Fargo, Citizens, Bank of America, Navy Federal, Provident, and PNC all have drive through or strip mall branches (mostly drive through) on the ONE MILE stretch of Route 1 between Contee Road and Cherry Lane. Chevy Chase has three, all of them drive-through.

You know what most of that stretch does not have? SIDEWALKS. CROSSWALKS. I live halfway between Contee and Cherry, and I have to walk a half mile in either direction to get to a crosswalk to access the shopping center accross Route 1. But they have no problems making curb cuts for new drive through bank branches by the dozens... Perhaps because much of route 1 doesn't have curbs on that stretch. Then what happens? People like me are forced to drive a half a mile to get to the Safeway 300 yards away, creating more traffic. Thus begins the cycle, because then we need more parking, more lanes, and more drive through banks, since you can't walk anywhere.

Is this the best use of streeet frontage on the main road through the city of Laurel? Much of the route between Contee and Cherry is not in the corporate limits of the city (yet). But still, this densely populated area is horribly unsafe for the people who live, work, and shop along this route, which is rapidly getting more unsafe with each drive through bank that springs up there. It is becoming a suburban bank ghetto. Don't let this happen in your town!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Help, I'm Trapped in My Neighborhood!

I'm very fortunately to have my entire family nearby for the holidays. Our family has deep roots here, and my brothers and sisters have all stayed pretty close to the DC area. But they are all spread out over suburban Maryland, and they have a diverse set of problems they face getting around.

This year, we celebrated Thanksgiving with my sister and brother-in-law at their house in the Silver Spring enclave of Spencerville, a semi-rural area just west of Burtonsville in northeast Montgomery County. My brother-in-law tries to stay involved in planning issues in his area, such as the revitalization of Burtonsville, so we have plenty to talk about at these family gatherings. But this time he struck me with a problem I'd never really considered: during rush hour, he can't get out of his neighborhood.

There are two main roads cutting east to west across the area, MD-198 and Briggs Chaney Road. They are both two-lane highways with few traffic lights and horrible congestion problems. I consider them two of the primary reasons for the justification of the ICC. Along the section between New Hampshire Avenue and Old Columbia Pike, 198 has no traffic lights, a speed limit of (I'm pretty sure) 45, and virtually no pedestrian facilities. Briggs Chaney Road has a few traffic lights, but it is not much better. When these roads experience rush hour traffic, it is virtually impossible to make a right turn on to 198 from a neighborhood street, and don't even think about a left turn.

So what do they do in the exurbs when they face problems like this? Well, my brother-in-law has been attending meetings discussing the widening of 198 between New Hampshire and Old Columbia, which he agrees will be a not-so-smart idea. The state is building a freeway through the area, why the heck should the people of Spencerville have to widen their roads? Wouldn't this option encourage people to use the "rural" roads from which the ICC is supposed to be removing traffic?

He then went on to tell me about another solution, one that I rather liked: traffic circles. These have been a success a few miles away on Fairland Road. They don't induce more traffic like a widening would, and access to and from the neighborhoods would be greatly improved. It would slow traffic down, too, which would discourage using these once-country roads as short cuts between Rockville and US 29. At the very least, a traffic signal or stop sign at a few intersections would do the trick.

I don't believe this is an isolated problem. Rapidly-suburbanizing Bowie, Upper Marlboro, and Clinton all have similar road construction to the Spencerville area. Unfortunately, Prince George's County has an affinity for wider roads at the expense of smart development. Loudon County already has plenty of traffic woes, I'm sure inability to egress a neighborhood is among them in some areas. Same with Prince William. I'll bet even parts of Fairfax have some issue with this.

The fact is, our outer suburbs already utilize a disproportionate amount of government coffers with the cost of running utilities, road construction and maintenance, school busing, postal delivery, and other services that good urbanism here is just as important as it is down town. Otherwise, we face the expensive prospect of concentric rings of highways serving more of the environmentally unfriendly spread-out suburban landscape.

I hope my brother-in-law helps win the fight against road widening, and I hope he and his neighbors are successful in pushing for a smarter way to get out of their neighborhoods during rush hour. But most of all, I hope Spencerville sets a good example for Bowie, Upper Marlboro, Dale City, Ashburn, and the rest of DC's exurbs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Casual Observation

If you're taking the freeway that runs between the Douglass and Sousa Bridges, it's the Anacostia Freeway. But if you keep driving north, people will refer to what ultimately becomes the Baltimore Washington Parkway as simply "295". In Bethesda, it's Wisconsin Avenue, then it becomes Rockville Pike, but further north nobody calls it Hungerford Drive or Frederick Road... simply "355".

This has always bugged me. It seems that the further away from good urbanism you get, the more major roads are called by their route number instead of their name. I have often thought of this strange fact to be a symptom of bad urbanism. Close in freeways and arterials have common street names by which they are referred, like the Southeast Freeway, New York Avenue, Shirley Highway, and the Beltway. But sprawl areas tend to latch on to the rural custom of referring to just the route, like 198, 28, or 97, referring to the Maryland routes. But this even happens with routes that came with the sprawl, and weren't there when the areas were rural, like I-97, MD-100, and VA-28, which on large portions aren't even given another name.

Why do I think about crazy things like this? I live off of Route 1 (which fits this pattern for the most part). Even I never say "Baltimore Avenue". I have even incorrectly referred to it as Baltimore Boulevard when trying to remember the actual street name!

I wonder if encouraging colloquial street names might have a positive impact on good urbanism? If "East-West Highway" were renamed, say, Hyatt Avenue (i.e. after the founder of Hyattsville) perhaps it would have a psychological effect on what sort of growth developers would push there. East-West Highway sounds like a great place for a Wal-Mart and an office park, whereas Hyatt Avenue sounds more like sidewalk cafes and brick walk-ups. Okay, that's pushing it a bit, but I'm just trying to think outside the box here.

Traditionally, urban streets have odonyms like "Avenue" and "Street". Should we promote these in our inner suburbs over "Highway" and "Road"? I think it has the potential to add to sense of place. Anyone have thoughts on how we ought to name our streets?

I Thought Crime Took Transit?

Last month, the ridiculous argument that transit brings crime into the innocent little suburbs was revisited in response to this article in Freakonomics. More recently, Just Up the Pike followed a shooting that occurred on a Silver Spring bus recently, prompting more discussion on the possibility that mass transit has an effect on crime.

I eventually had to defend this argument to a good friend of mine who happens to be a Baltimore City police officer. His anecdotal claim: the subway in Baltimore has done absolutely nothing to positively impact the safety of the surrounding areas, and if anything has made them worse.

I argue that it has more to do with the bad urbanism for which the Baltimore Metro is now notorious. I believe even bad transit can positively impact crime rates in many cases, if for no other reason than by potentially lowering the cost of living. But perhaps the fact of the presence of transit has no impact on crime whatsoever, perhaps the onus lies entirely on the good urbanism that ought to come with transit. Maybe large, spread out parking lots are what really draw crime. Many transit stations have those, and it's bad urbanism. I certainly feel much safer getting off at Gallery Place late at night versus Greenbelt for that reason.

Recently, some federal employees at Fort Meade received an email alert cautioning them to stay away from Arundel Mills Mall after dark. Think about that: stay away from the largest shopping center in Central Maryland while the holiday shopping rush looms upon us. Why? Inside Charm City points toward this Baltimore Sun article that tells of a woman and her young child being robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot. Most disturbing is the fact that police believe that this crime is unrelated to two other robberies that took place around the giant oasis of auto-oriented commerce near the MD-100 interchange with the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. I did some further pecking and found another Sun article published just Thursday. There have been five robberies in the Arundel Mills parking lot in just the last month. Concerns over the robberies were echoed on MyFoxDC.

Urbanism doesn't get much worse than at Arundel Mills:

View Larger Map

But in most of the robberies reported there, did the criminals hop on the light rail back to Baltimore city? No, they hopped into a car and then disappeared into traffic. But no one ever says "That new highway is going to bring more crime!"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank Your Veterans by Lobbying for Better Bases

Today is Veteran's Day, and I encourage all of you to thank your veterans for serving. We live in an area rich with military tradition, and it is important to remember the millions of men and women who have served our country either voluntarily or as conscripts. They fought wars so we wouldn't have to fight them on our own soil, and they continue to serve selflessly today. No matter what your opinions on the current wars may be, I believe we should all be thankful for the soldiers we have willing to fight them.

I'll also take this opportunity to encourage lobbying the Federal Government and the Department of Defense for more economical use of their lands. As I have mentioned in the past, some of America's most deleterious use of land happens in and around military bases. Particularly in our region, places like Andrews AFB, Bolling AFB, Fort Meade, Fort Belvoir, Quantico MCB, NAS Anacostia, and of course the Pentagon have some of the most uneconomical, pollution-causing land use policies.

As I continue my fight from the inside to improve transit, pedestrian, and environmental policies on Fort Meade, I ask anyone who works at any of the other military bases to fight for them at their locations. When bases are set up in suburban-style sprawl, a great deal of the cost associated with that is passed on to the taxpayers: utilities, fuel for civil service vehicles, land acquisition, parking lots, road widening, traffic, and pollution, to name a few. The best thing we can do for our veterans is to give them better living and training facilities, help them not need to own a car, and clean up their natural environment by demanding better planning for military bases.


In other news, I would like to let everyone know that I am now writing semi-regularly for GreaterGreaterWashington, and a couple of my recent posts have been cross-posted there. Since I'm sure I have very few readers that don't read GGW, I'm sure you already knew that. But in case you've never read GGW, I highly recommend it as a source for information, links, and analysis about urban planning and local issues for the DC metropolitan area, and I'm grateful to be a part of it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rumination: 14th Street

I am not a political voice. I am a 29 year old Irish-Sicilian-American mid-level federal employee with just an associates degree. I have no political background other than growing up just outside the DC line. But I feel compelled to share my experiences on election day.

Politically, I liked both candidates. I am sorry John McCain will never get to be the president. I wish he had been 8 years ago, he would have been a much better president through 9/11. And as a war vet who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think he would have caught bin Laden and I don't think Iraq would have turned out how it did. But as he gave his very inspirational concession speech, it reinforced to me that now is not his time.

I then watched Barack Obama's victory speech, and for the first time in my adult life, I felt inspired watching a leader of this nation speak. I knew I would have an easy time getting behind whoever won the presidency (after working for W for 7 years, it wouldn't be that difficult to do) but President-Elect Obama's words left me with a sense of pride in serving the country.

But what really inspired me, really got me excited, was the people in the streets at 14th and U.

Growing up, we suburban kids threw around "14th Street" as a metonym for prostitution in DC. From the '68 riots until about 6 years ago, I was very wary about that part of town, which was blighted, crime ridden, and worn down. And for a "white boy" growing up in the suburbs, it represented a horrible racial stereotype, one that many were too ignorant to see past. The scars of the '68 riots were more than abandoned storefronts and crime, there was a psychological scar that was handed down to me and my generation, remnants of a different time where people saw something different and met it with fear and hate.

In 2002, I visited the African American Civil War Memorial for the first time, and I fell in love with the life that the Green Line brought to that part of the city. It was the DC I always wanted to see, the town my parents described to me, not the city that was abandoned and stereotyped from behind picket fences.

Last night, seeing this neighborhood once destroyed by race riots as an area where all types of people gathered to celebrate the election of the United States' first African-American Commander-in-Chief was a beautiful thing. It was a microcosm for the progress that makes this country so special, and it showcased the diversity and vibrancy that ought to be found in the capital of such a great country. I have always been proud to claim DC as the city of my birth, but never as proud as I was last night. It was a good night for DC.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Updates (Before the Polls Open)

Voting is Patriotic (USA)
Originally uploaded by farlane
This is the third presidential election I will be enjoying my constitutionally granted right to vote, And I plan to make the most of it. I encourage everyone out there to do the same, on both the local and national levels. A couple of election day-related tidbits I wanted to put out there:

- I said gas would bottom out on election day. The Exxon at Rt. 1 and Cherry Lane is at $2.13, and it's $2.09 at the BP down the road if you get a car wash. It didn't drop below $2 around here as far as I can tell, but apparently it has in other parts of the country.

-Good news for Barack fans: In the Redskins last 17 pre-presidential election games, the incumbent party shares the same fate as the Redskins. In other words, if the Redskins win, the party in office wins. If the Redskins lose, the party in office loses. The Redskins lost to the Steelers on Monday Night Football, so your forecast is full of Hope with a chance of Change.

-If you live in DC, GreaterGreaterWashington has some helpful posts on local candidates which I find relatively objective and very informative.

-Virginia is a swing state this year, so get out and vote, Old Dominion!

-I don't generally spout off political views in this forum, but I encourage everyone to vote for candidates who will ultimately give more of a voice to the residents of the District of Columbia.

Hope everyone has a fulfilling day at the ballots. I'm hoping for a smooth democratic process and looking forward to an end to campaign ads.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Are You Ready For Some Metro

Monday Night Football, the NFL's major prime time network(-cum-basic-cable) broadcast has come to FedEx Field once again. Even more exciting than the normal hyperbole of MNF game is the fact that the 6-2 Redskins are playing the 5-2 Pittsburgh Steelers, a game that lots of people are actually going to care about for a change. Redskins Nation is buzzing.

If you commute on the eastern half of the Beltway, however, your afternoon drive will probably be much slower, as FedEx Field opens the lots four hours before the 9 pm kickoff and tailgaters will likely be jamming exits 15, 16, and 17 during the evening rush, as happens for every weeknight home game at FedEx Field. But Metro is pulling their weight, just like they did for the last Monday Night game at FedEx, the 2006 season opener. The system will be staying open until 1 a.m., with additional personnel at Morgan Boulevard and Largo stations.

Considering that FedEx Field opened in 1997 but Morgan Boulevard and Largo stations did not open until 2004, Metro use during mega-events at the stadium does not make headlines like Nationals Park did when it opened atop a Green Line station this spring. People took notice that Nationals games were not choking the Metro system, even when Nationals games were getting high attendance at the beginning of the season (interest naturally waned by the middle of their dismal 59-102 season).

Of course, FedEx Field has over twice the capacity of Nationals Park. Then again, FedEx Field is suburban, fed by highways, and surrounded by acres of surface parking. Where Navy Yard station is a block from Nats Park, FedEx Field lies almost a mile from Morgan Boulevard. Even if one were to envision a future Purple Line station at FedEx Field, it wouldn't be much closer, and would likely augment rather than replace Morgan Boulevard as the primary stop for the venue. In any event, an awful lot of people would have to give up driving before Metro started to have major issues on game day, even when games impacted the weekday rush hour. For now, the Blue Line is a viable alternative to driving. I'll take walking a four fifths of a mile for free from the Metro over walking two fifths of a mile from a $30 parking space. And it never hurts to take a car off the Beltway, while you're at it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

cArmy Base: Fort Meade

Military bases dot the landscape all around the Capital region. This is a unique presence, as many cities in America are largely defined by the one or two military bases near their boundaries, cities like Fayetteville, NC; Pensacola, FL; Kileen, TX; Norfolk, VA; and even San Diego, CA. Washington, DC, however, is home to the entire Federal Government, so the fact of a few military bases is pocket change in comparison. among the more prominent is a WWI-era base halfway between DC and Baltimore called Fort George G. Meade.

Nestled at the northeast corner of the junction of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and MD-32, Fort Meade is by far the largest single job center in the state of Maryland and, after Downtown and Tysons Corner, the third largest in the metro area, and this does not account for National Business Park, a huge complex of government contractor buildings right across the B-W Parkway. Fort Meade is home to tens of thousands of military personnel from all five branches, plus retirees. It houses several major Army units, including the Defense Information School, Defense Courier Service, and the US Army Field Band. The Environmental Protection Agency has a large facility, and let's not forget about the National Security Agency, which housed over 30,000 jobs according to James Bamford's 2000 book Body of Secrets. No doubt that number has increased in recent years. Additionally, 5,700 jobs are being relocated to Fort Meade in the Base Relocation and Closure.

The continued growth of the base is of great concern, considering the institutional problems within the defense department when it comes to planning policy. The Pentagon, for example, sits atop two lines of Metro, yet it still has the largest surface parking lot in Arlington County. Fort Meade's total surface parking rivals (if not overtakes) FedEx Field's. This is particularly alarming considering the surface parking's negative effects on storm water runoff into the adjacent Patuxent Research Refuge (to the point where the NSA has an entire section devoted to it on its website). But the base's planning priority? Two 18 hole golf courses to "maintain soldiers' quality of life".

Surely with all these jobs, thousands of residents, and an explosion of growth in the near future, there must be some kind of transit node on the base, right? Not really.

The base is served by a single bus, a 24-seater that runs only twice in the morning and twice in the evening and serves only portions of the city of Laurel to the NSA's main gate. Various agencies on the base offer shuttles that run a few times a day from the Odenton and Savage MARC stations, which are two and five miles from the NSA main gate, respectively, and each three miles from the nearest regular base gate. It is literally illegal to walk any of those routes, as they are largely along MD-32, a freeway of interstate standards. Even servicemen living on base are likely to commute by car, as the base is so spread out that it is a long walk from any of the housing to any of the jobs on post, including almost all of the shopping and recreation amenities.

The first thing I did when I got stationed at Fort Meade? Buy a car. Sure, I wanted a car to go home and visit my family regularly. But I would not have been able to attend my morning physical training without a car. And this was when I lived in the battalion barracks!

So what do you care about a base 20 miles outside of DC?

Consider that a traffic nightmare reaching the base would have a major impact on transportation between Baltimore and Washington. The economic impacts of the resulting disconnect between the two cities could be drastic. Ryan Avent considered the positive impacts that a high speed rail between DC and Baltimore would provide. clogging the highways between the two cities would likely have the opposite effect.

I have often considered Fort Meade an ideal place for the Baltimore and Washington rail systems to meet. I know many detractors consider it wasteful to run the system all the way out to Fort Meade. But smaller jobs centers in Chantilly and Reston, similarly unserved by transit currently will be getting Silver Line service within a decade. And transportation implications in northwestern Fairfax County do not affect passage between two major cities. Other bases involved in the BRAC, such as Andrews AFB, Bolling AFB, Fort Belvoir, and Bethesda Naval Medical Center, have all had plenty of proposals thrown around to improve transit access to the bases (in some cases, like Bolling and Bethesda Naval, increasing existing transit efficiency). Fort Meade has not, despite the unique opportunity of potentially being able to serve the base by two major cities' transit systems. To alleviate traffic at enormous (50,000+) job centers, connector shuttles from commuter rails (i.e. a necessary modal shift) just won't do the trick. Perhaps for a Metro station, the NSA could donate some of it's 900+ acres of parking.

But today, long before ground will ever be broken on any kind of rail connections, wouldn't it at LEAST be appropriate for Fort Meade to receive some sort of express bus service from Greenbelt Metro? Perhaps more regular service from towns like Columbia, Laurel, Odenton and Annapolis? A bus system for the base itself so that a young GI doesn't have to waste his first few paychecks on a new car?

It blows my mind that 18 year old privates are not allowed to drink alcohol, but they are expected to be mature enough to finance, purchase, insure, and properly operate their own heavy machinery, which they may legally store on base free of charge. Shame on Army bases across the country, but particularly Fort Meade, which has the resources nearby to outgrow ridiculous and deleterious planning policies. For a service known for moving on foot, the Army's bases certainly don't embrace any mode of transportation beyond the car.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Home Sweet Home...

Laurel, MD 20707
Originally uploaded by rwilso_laurel
I bought my home in November 2003, at the very beginning of the housing bubble. I consider myself lucky. I had considered moving out and renting for a little while when I got out of the Army in 2005, and I wish I had. My house today is worth less than half what it was worth in when I got out of the Army. Thankfully, still slightly more than I paid for it.

I count my blessings that I wasn't one of the poor souls who got wrangled into a sub-prime mortgage. Considering that I was a naive 23 year old Army specialist when I purchased my house, I very well could have fallen for that. So I'm not on the streets, and I am not totally broke. I count my lucky stars for that.

But now I find myself in a different type of bad situation: one where I want to relocate, but I can't. Sure, it's an excellent time to buy. But even the most motivated seller would have a difficult time selling an old starter home behind the strip malls of Route 1. Tonight I realized just how stuck I really am, and I've all but abandoned my goal of moving by next summer, unless I hit the Powerball or find a much, much more lucrative career field.

I bought this house because of my job on Fort Meade (I'm a civilian now, I was in the Army then). I wasn't thinking that I would be here for a particularly long time, and I was hoping to relocate somewhere more convenient to Metro once I got established in my civilian position. Of course, with the minimal transit capacity on Fort Meade, living near Metro would do me little good, though I might be able to take MARC to work once in a while if I'm in a pinch. The 3 mile shuttle ride from the MARC station to my building is long, infrequent, and inconvenient, and doesn't mesh with my later work schedule, but there are days where anything is better than spending half an hour looking for parking in a lot comparable in size to the lot at FedEx Field for a space that is likely to be virtually inaccessible when I get out of work at 9pm and several of the access gates are long closed.

The parking situation alone leaves me bewildered at people who oppose having Metro come out to Fort Meade, where there are 50,000 jobs plus several thousand more across the B-W Parkway (mostly government contractors, not unlike parts of Tyson's Corner). This massive job center has virtually zero direct transit access (very few shuttles from Savage and Odenton MARC stations), and literally thousands of acres of Fort Meade have been converted to parking lots in order to maintain growth.

Alas, I'm a slave to my car, which soaks up so much of my income that I can't afford to invest the money into the house that I would like in order to sell. Not the worst problem in the world, but just another way the bad economy is hurting an average joe.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stupid Growth: The CCC

When the Arc and the Dove landed on the shores of the lower Potomac in 1634, Southern Maryland was as pristine as it had ever been. Beautiful estuaries, diverse flora and fauna,
and verdant landscapes have always highlighted the area, and they no doubt helped contribute to the success of the first European colony in Maryland.

Most recently, parts of Charles, Calvert, and Saint Mary's County have come to look more like the off-the-highway towns I came to know in the remote parts of the Midwest back in my Army days. Car culture, big boxes, and inefficient land use has taken its toll in places like Waldorf and Dunkirk, and the effects are spreading. Vital wetlands in the Potomac and Patuxent watersheds are bearing the brunt of the ecological damage.

And now a new highway is moving forward.

The Charles County Connector. Consider it the baby brother of the ICC. And thanks to the big brother, you're not likely to hear anything about it. I myself have had a difficult time finding up-to-date information on this highway, but I managed to dig up an old National Environmental Policy Act report (warning: PDF).

I first heard of this freeway through a colleague of mine who is a member of the Maryland Ornithological Society. The group is of course concerned about the outright destruction the vital wetlands of the Mattawoman Creek as well as increasing impervious surfaces that will feed polluted water into the wetlands, home to scores of species of Maryland birds. These concerns are shared directly by the Mattawoman Watershed Society, who is urging people to write the governor in opposition of the plan. In all, the four-mile, $60m highway would require the destruction of 74 acres of forest and 7.5 acres of wetland. Much of the surrounding area is slated for development upon completion of the new road.

Tim Wheeler at the Baltimore Sun's Bay and Environment blog points out that this deleterious construction would be carried out under the guise of the Maryland Smart Growth initiatives. This to me is incredibly bizarre and most frustrating. Obviously, keeping development in the northern portion of Charles County makes sense for a number of reasons. It is closer to DC, there are larger towns (Waldorf, LaPlata) that are already somewhat developed, and there are ample road and utility connections already present. But smart growth by definition would dictate that development would take place in and around those towns, not in brand new developments around them. Smart growth implies LESS use of the automobile, quite contrary to the notion of constructing a highway.

Granted I have only skimmed the NEPA report, but nowhere have I seen any plans for sidewalks, trails, or transit along the highway. Of course, If they are there, they may get canceled for "environmental impact" reasons like the ironic fate of the ICC bike trail.

For those that argue that they need the highway to alleviate traffic in the area, consider the following analogy: building highways to alleviate traffic is like scratching poison Ivy to get rid of the irritation. It will be better for a short while, but ultimately you are only spreading the problem. Perhaps before Charles County partitions and destroys its most valuable resource, denser construction and transit around Waldorf ought to be considered. That's real smart growth. And if they do, perhaps Southern Maryland will keep a bit more of its idyllic charm from getting eaten up by cul-de-sacs and parking lots. And perhaps my friend from work will be able to spot a common snipe on the Mattawoman for years to come.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Crime Rides the Train

Trail from Anacostia Metro
Originally uploaded by volcrano
I have seen a million things like this since I started reading about mass transit expansion. Ryan Avent pointed me towards this article complaining about crime rising in a shopping center once a transit connection was made in East St. Louis. Mass transit will connect ruffians to places decent people like to shop. Reminds me of the Purple Line. I've established a modest readership of decent people, so I'll subdue my urge to curse like I did back in my Army days.

I'll admit, mass transit can get groups of people to visit areas they might not otherwise visit. Silver Spring is a good example, with its Red Line and ample bus line service, clientele from Northeast DC flocks to the area regularly. Are we to view this as a bad thing?

Fact of the matter is, kids from Northeast flock to down town Silver Spring because there is nothing to do in a good sized chunk of Northeast. Fortunately, Silver Spring is a very diverse area, and only a minority take issue with "bad city people" impacting their quality of life.

This xenophobic and often racist attitude is, in my opinion, largely counter productive. First of all, transit access does not increase crime. It may relocate some of it, but the fact of the matter is that right now, roads could just as easily connect criminals with whatever hangouts much easier than trains do.

Now, what do we do if crime moves into our lovely Christian suburb? You stand up to it, and make it known that it is not tolerated in Bethesda or Silver Spring or Falls Church. Then perhaps that mentality will follow the would-be thugs back to Hillcrest Heights or Deanwood, where perhaps they will be that much less tolerant of crime in their own neighborhood. Perhaps allowing people to take advantage of these wonderful amenities will inspire them to go back to Trinidad or Chillum and demand those amenities in their neighborhood, which might give the kids there something to do, and keep them off of crime. Who knows, maybe one day you'll leave your little upper-middle class bubble in Great Falls or Olney or Potomac and visit the shops at Langley Park or a new restaurant in Benning Ridge.

The change is going on right now in Anacostia, Hyattsville, and Capitol Heights.

But if we as a society are going to quarantine "undesirable" people to the "undesirable" parts of town, we are only guaranteeing that they will remain undesirable.

Besides, who gets to decide what is "undesirable"? Perhaps it is undesirable for lower income residents in parts of the region to be required to spend a good portion of their paycheck on an automobile to get to their job. Perhaps it is undesirable for University of Maryland students to trek a mile to the Metro station because the same type of xenophobia kept the train far from the campus.

I've lived in this area my entire life. Let me assure you that as recent as 20 years ago, there were parts of Georgetown that most well intentioned suburbanites wouldn't dream of visiting. While I was in high school in the mid 1990's, Columbia Heights was considered unsafe, and there were was practically nothing to do there. As recent as five years ago, the US Army banned soldiers at Fort Meade to go to Near Southeast unless they had some kind of official business there.

Without transit, U Street probably never would have recovered from the 1968 riots. NoMa would be just a bunch of empty parking lots. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor would just be a bunch of derelict garages and warehouses. Rockville Pike would look more like Route 1 in Howard County.

So to Saint Louis, I say stand up to the crime there. Force that agenda on anyone wishing to visit the nicer parts of your town. force them to bring that back to East Saint Louis, and eventually it will be a place you might want to go visit. That's what we do here in DC.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Humble Prediction: Fill Up on Election Day

Now, I want to start by declaring that I am independent of any political party at this point in my life. Four years in the Army left me with some pretty conservative values, and going to war twice for the Bush administration left me an utter hatred for the oil trade. So I don't really fit in to either major party.

However, I have been noticing a trend, and it's not as subtle as it was in 2000 or 2004. The best day to buy gas this year will be November 4th. Mark my words. In the last six weeks, the price of gas has gone down almost $1.40/gal at the Exxon near my house. I'm guessing that by election day it will be a shade under two dollars.

Granted, I don't have anything scientific to back this up, but living in Laurel I am a slave to my automobile and I am always on the lookout for the best time to fill the tank. Take that for what it's worth.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

...Fight For Ol' DC

Talk of bringing the Redskins back inside District lines is abound lately. Cost estimates for a domed stadium are roughly in the $1 billion range. The stadium would be designed to host all the Redskins' home games with hopes of bringing the Super Bowl or the NCAA final four to Washington, DC in the future.

Let me start off by saying that I am the biggest Redskins fan around. Apart from military a few obligations, I haven't missed watching a Redskins game since the 80's. One of my goals in life is to be well-off enough to get season tickets. I have accumulated a very extensive memorabilia collection. You get the idea.

It is important to point out that the Washington Redskins have been a part of this city since 1937. The team has set NFL attendance records eight years in a row, and it is the third most valuable sports franchise in the world. The team has sold out every home game since 1967. The NFL is by far the most prominent professional sports league today, and the Redskins are the second most valuable franchise in the league.

Which was why I was a little troubled by something I read on Richard Layman's blog regarding the notion of relocating the Redskins' stadium back into the District:


(Emphasis was in the original text)
There are an endless stream of reasons that building a new Redskins stadium in the District would be a bad idea, but I must strongly object to this language when approaching this topic. Professional sports are a very, very important cultural institutions for the cities where they exist. Sports institutions are just as large a part of the culture of a city as its cuisine, art, music, and theater. Spending money on sports venues is just as important as spending money on other cultural venues like the Kennedy Center or the Corcoran Galleries.

I was for the Verizon Center. I was for Nationals Park. and I am for DC United Stadium. But as much as I love the Redskins, I cannot foresee any parcel of land where a new Redskins stadium would be a good thing for the city. For starters, this new stadium is going to be larger than FedEx Field, the Redskins current home, a 92,000-seat stadium in Landover. It will also likely be larger than the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a 100,000+ monstrosity. Even the most casual football fan knows that the Redskins and the Cowboys are constantly one-upping each other.

So now we are talking about a stadium with almost DOUBLE the capacity of RFK's 57,000. RFK didn't have too much more capacity than National's Park, and Metro could handle the game day rush. I'm not so sure that this would be true if the numbers were doubled. Assuming three quarters of ticket holders (75,000) live outside the District (which I feel may be conservative, but I don't know where to get the numbers on that), that means that on game day, the population of the city swells by about one eighth. This project has absolutely no chance of getting rid of the surface parking that plagues the area, especially considering the significantly larger footprint of the stadium structure.

Football fans are going to drive because football fans are going to tailgate before and probably after the game. This is why they open up parking five hours before kickoff. When I go to a Redskins game, it usually winds up being a 10 hour ordeal. Most of the folks I know have rather elaborate tailgating set-ups. This phenomenon certainly is not unique to the Redskins. Any team, any city, any weather, there will be tailgating. And why not? At $8 a beer and $5 for a bratwurst, may as well have a party outside the stadium in the parking lot. I imagine this also has to do with the fact that venues as large as football stadiums would flood local businesses on gamedays, and therefore you don't see too many NFL stadiums surrounded by commerce like the Verizon Center. The difference between 17,000 fans and 91,000 fans is... well, do the math. Then imagine five or six times as many people cramming into RFD and Fido in Chinatown on game night.

I poked around, and I can't seem to find an inner-city NFL stadium that appears to have a positive impact on the surrounding area. Soldier Field in Chicago appeared to be among the best:

View Larger Map

Lambeau Field
in Green Bay didn't appear to have any surface parking around the stadium, but Green Bay is the smallest American city with a major pro sports team. However, if it were possible to build a stadium with that small of a relative footprint, I'm all for it. Unfortunately, the majority of NFL stadiums wind up looking more like Detroit's Ford Field, vast expanses of surface parking in the downtown. Just like FedEx Field, only FedEx Field's parking is effectively in the middle of nowhere.

This raises the question, is the payoff from the stadium worth the bad urbanism? Well, Ryan Avent doesn't think it's such a good deal to begin with. This enormous chunk of land will host 10 football games a year, eight regular season and two preseason. Best case scenario, another two if my Skins suddenly make a run at the Super Bowl. There may be a Super Bowl or two held there, plus a couple of NCAA tournament games every couple of years. Let's also throw in a major concert, like the HFStival once a year. Maybe another major event or two a year that I'm not considering. My most generous estimation gives fifteen events at this venue in one year. Nationals Park hosts 81 Nats games alone every year. As for the Phone Booth, I've seen the Capitals, Wizards, Georgetown Hoyas, multiple concerts, and a three ring circus there. every other day there is a major event at that place.

GreaterGreaterWashington argues that if all this venue will bring is civic pride, $1 billion is too too costly. This place is going to be sitting vacant for 350+ days a year, occupying riverfront property and containing surface parking that will no doubt contribute to pollution in the Anacostia River. GGW points out the National Capital Framework Plan would have a much more positive economic impact on the city. I tend to agree.

Fedex Field is only 12 years old. It is currently the largest stadium in the NFL. It has sufficient parking, it is convenient to highways, it is served by Morgan Boulevard Metro station, and it is at a location close in and relevant to the city. It may not be inside the District, but it is at least inside the Beltway. As I mentioned in the post linked above, the stadium (and the Metro station, for that matter) have not led to any fantastic economic development in Landover, why on earth would it lead to such progress in East End? RFK Stadium never did.

So here it is, coming out of the mouth of the most die-hard Redskins fan on earth: There is no place for a new stadium in the District of Columbia. Perhaps an adjacent site in Landover or elsewhere in Pringe George's County (hopefully a little more convenient to Metro), maybe something in Virginia along the Silver Line, but certainly not anywhere in DC. I'd love to see this town host a Super Bowl. But not at the expense of acres of some of the city's most valuable real estate.

PS- if you're at the game on Sunday, I will be tailgating in Green Lot F60. Look for the eccentric guy with the knit cap with the ball on top.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fairfax County In the Red

58.2 million dollars is the total. Huge cuts are being made. Huge budget cuts are being made. Plummeting home values are exacerbating the problem by severely reducing the county's tax base. It's a scary prospect. WTOP reported that the school system is making drastic cuts. NBC's 11 o'clock news said that the county is going to nix new vehicles for county fire, police, and ambulance services.

Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the United States.

Something that draws me to the study of urban planning is the way the landscape can affect every other facet of the human existence. I wonder how much more stable property values would be if Tysons Corner already had its master plan realized. I wonder how much cheaper emergency services would be if the county was organized into concise, navigable, interconnected neighborhoods. I wonder how much extra money the average Fairfax resident would have if they didn't need to own a car to make their ends meet.

I will not claim to have anything beyond a very rudimentary rudimentary understanding of economics, nor have I ever lived in Fairfax County, but hearing news like this is somewhat disconcerting, particularly when I find myself being hit by uncertain financial times. I see my state burning money on infrastructural projects that will further encourage a region of people to accept poor choices in land use as the status quo.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Help a Fledgeling Blogger + Morgan Boulevard

I always appreciate the input of all my readers, especially the ones who disagree with me. It makes this project a little more interesting, and it allows me to experiment with some new ideas that might otherwise go unsaid. So I appreciate everyone who (respectfully) shares their opinion, whether they agree with me or disagree.

I have had an interest in urban planning since before I knew what it was. I used to draw maps of neighborhoods when I was a kid as young as six. Unfortunately, I never found the field of study until after I'd already settled into another career. Now I'm trying to position myself for a career switch, so of course I am using Imagine, DC to help me figure out where my interests lie.

Unfortunately, I'm a relative newcomer to blogspot, and I'm having trouble with a few things... my captions, particularly on Flickr pictures (you know, the part where I give credit to the photographer?) keep disappearing once I post the blog. Anyone know how to fix that?


So this weekend I had my first experience with Morgan Boulevard Metro Station on the Blue Line. Normally, I'm a tailgater, but this weekend I didn't have a parking pass to the Redskins-Rams (a very frustrating loss, unfortunately) game so I decided to try Metroing it with my friend Walter. Our jumping point was Takoma, a ten minute walk from Walter's house. The ride is about a 45 minute trip with one transfer at Metro Center.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed at how few Redskins fans take the Metro, but I have a couple of guesses as to why. For starters, it is almost a mile walk down Summerfield/Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard. The sidewalks weren't exactly designed to usher tens of thousands of people down to the stadium. The road is fronted by townhouses in a remarkably car-oriented community with no visible retail, astonishingly poor use of areas sitting atop a Metro Station. For Prince George's County, however, it is not nearly as depressing as many other stations (including the stop before it, Seat Pleasant, which is completely surrounded by single family houses).

Next, it is a bit strange walking down a very suburban road through dozens of houses, particularly on the walk back when the stadium is not on the horizon. I felt like I was meandering aimlessly through some distant suburb, not walking between a 94,000 seat stadium and a high speed transit station. I can imagine how that might deter the average football fan from making the walk. Perhaps this is why few other events are held at the venue throughout the year.

At the end of the day, however, I am astonished that more people don't take Metro to the games. With parking passes STARTING at $25, plus time spent in traffic, the casual fan really ought to consider huffing it a mile from Morgan Boulevard. Unfortunately, tailgaters will always have to drive.


As a Prince George's County resident, I tend to focus my posts more on this area not only because it directly affects me, but also because I feel that it is widely overlooked on issues of urban development and sprawl prevention. This is all too common in Prince George's County... Someone gets struck by a car going at a high speed while crossing a street designed to serve cars and not pedestrians. My last post alarmed me when I saw how many roads are becoming freeways thanks to superfluous interchanges here in my home of Prince George's County. It is horrifying.

I have noted that incorporated towns in Prince George's County seem to be significantly more immune to this "freewayification". Unincorporated areas like Largo, Beltsville, and Greater Upper Marlboro seem to get the brunt of the poorly implemented car-oriented development. Certainly there are may be other factors, but perhaps an incorporated town with direct, small scale representation is less likely to be tolerant of a lack of a sense of place in the town.

Baltimore Inner Space
posted this piece (via GGW) on Owings Mills, and its egregious display of poor urbanism, highlighted by a fence and 'No Trespassing' signs that keep mall patrons from accessing the Metro station even though the two are adjacent. Owings Mills, like every other town in Baltimore and Howard counties, is unincorporated. There is no mayor or council to petition against such poor urbanism. residents of the Owings Mills area are at the mercy of developers and a larger government that oversees the entire county of three quarters of a million people. Perhaps this is why Largo looks like this and downtown Hyattsville does not, even though Largo is centrally served by Metro and Hyattsville is not. Even when Hyattsville fell into blight, its primary artery, US-1 remained a four lane road with a speed limit of 30, plentiful cross streets and traffic signals.

Beyond DC writes about Prince William County's future plans to upgrade transit and create more walkable town centers. Beyond DC is skeptical of the plan's ability to succeed, but applauds the idea of improving one of the most populous counties in Virginia. There are only four incorporated areas in Prince William; Occoquan, Quantico, Dumfries, and Haymarket (Manassas and Manassas Park are both independent cities but are completely encompassed by Prince William County). I would be interested to see the success of this plan in those areas versus unincorporated areas like Dale City and Gainesville.

Not to say unincorporated towns can't thrive with good urbanism. Silver Spring and Bethesda are prime examples of unincorporated areas that have exercised a very intelligent master plan. Both those areas are among the most popular walkable areas outside the District. Of course, those two areas are atop Metro stations and they are both adjacent to the DC line situated on prominent corridors into the city. Wheaton, while not enjoying the same level renaissance, might be a good example of an unincorporated exception. It too has a Red Line station (home to the western hemisphere's longest escalator), and has been improving steadily for about the last twenty years. I ought to know, I went to high school there.

If the Tysons Corner plan gets off the ground, that will be another unincorporated area that enjoys smart redevelopment. Of course, the sector plan for the area seems to treat the area like an incorporated town (strict boundaries and districts, guidelines and regulations specific to the area, a council to govern the plan, etc). Obviously the existing density and planned metro stations have a great deal to do with this overhaul as well.

My Prince George's County seems to have a clear dichotomy between smartly designed incorporated towns working to improve their walkability and livability and unincorporated areas that are draped with high speed roads, poor pedestrian facilities, big box stores, and a depressing lack of a sense of place. Even my neighborhood, technically outside the corporate limits of the City of Laurel, lacks the sidewalks and curbs present in the neighborhoods to the east, north, and west. Does that mean it would be smarter to incorporate more towns? Beltsville, Chillum, Langley Park, Lanham, Clinton, Suitland, Largo, Oxon Hill, and Camp Springs, should we look into incorporating them?

The mayor of (incorporated) Kensington commented on my MARC post informing me that Kensington too will be making improvements to the downtown. Does a government directly serving a smaller group of people help an area create, grow, and preserve their sense of place? Perhaps the incorporation provides more organization for the residents to vocalize their desire to improve the state of their surroundings. Whatever it is, it will likely ensure that my next house will be in an incorporated town.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ambitious Transit Advocacy

I really liked a point Ryan Avent made this week:

The point that highways are built speculatively all the time while transit is not is a very good one, and one which never fails to get my goat. But I think it’s worth emphasizing that speculative transit isn’t really about building lines into the wilderness. It’s about building lines into places people already live in order to take better advantage of valuable land there.

For instance, if we imagine a sunbelt boomtown, it’s easy to see an exurban ring road being built to accommodate “future development.” At the same time, a rail transit system through the downtown area would be nixed in a heartbeat because that area lacked an appropriate density for transit. But transportation linkages shape development whether they’re road or rail. When you fail to use the same speculative criteria for one mode that you do for another, you are making a judgment about what kind of development is appropriate. For decades, government has essentially said that in the overwhelming majority of cases, auto-oriented development is appropriate and nothing else. Considering the effects of that decision, it must be one of the most momentous government interventions of all time.

This is an excellent point, and one that ought to be further explored within the DC metropolitan region. We can build roads to support future development, but rails? Forget it. Furthering this point, Richard Layman had a good post on the sort of fundamental paradigm shifts we will to need to undergo in order to take the economic and environmental burden out of transit provision.

But if we could build rails anticipating future developments, I believe areas such as incorporated, close-in, traditionally-built suburban towns ought to be among the to speculate transit expansions. Incorporated towns because the local government may have a shorter route to approving smarter development around transit, close in so that they are relevant to the heart of the transit system, and traditionally-built neighborhoods because the open connectivity is conducive to residents reaching the transit station. Places like Hyattsville, Takoma Park, Kensington, Falls Church, and Forest Heights ought to be considered for such speculation.

I have been toying around in Google Earth trying to imagine a transit system for the DC area that would make it easy to live anywhere in the region without a car, much like Manhattan. It is probably not a very feasible system, with 14 lines and 550+ miles of heavy and light rail track, plus the fact that my quasi-scientific formulas for designing my system have no way of predicting ridership or optimal routes. But I'm kind of curious as to why the DC metropolitan area and other cities aren't advocating for such a system that takes cars off the roads.

The extremely ambitious highway plan of half a century ago makes such a system of passenger trains seem rather small. Freeway revolts nixed much of the more detrimental inner city freeways, however much of the freeway infrastructure in our region has come to fruition. Remember, freeways don't necessarily have to be interstates (much like Metro doesn't necessarily have to be heavy rail, it can be light rail)

Below, I've listed the limited access divided freeways of our region (DC, plus Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax and northeastern Prince William County and Alexandria City) Lengths approximate:

Mostly or completely pure freeway:
I-95 Maryland (College Park to Howard County) 8 miles
MD/DC-295, Balt-Wash Parkway (Anacostia to Fort Meade) 21 miles
I-495, Capital Beltway (loop around the city) 66 miles
I-270 (Bethesda to Frederick) 33 miles
I-95/395, Shirley Highway (Dale City to Downtown) 26 miles
I-295, Anacostia/Southeast Freeway (Oxon Hill to Downtown) 8 miles
Suitland Parkway (Anacostia to Andrews AFB) 10 miles
US-50, John Hanson Highway (Cheverly to Annapolis) 25 miles
US-50, Arlington Boulevard (Merrifield to The Mall) 11 miles
I-66 Custis Memorial Freeway (Gainesville to The Mall) 32 miles
Clara Barton Parkway (Georgetown to Potomac, MD) 10 miles
I-370/MD-200, Intercounty Connector (Gaithersburg to Laurel, under construction) 18 miles
George Washington Memorial Parkway (Alexandria to Great Falls) 15 miles
Dulles Toll Road/Greenway (Arlington to Loudon County) 16 miles
Key Br/Whitehurst Fwy/Potomac River Fwy (Rosslyn to The Mall) 2 miles
US-29, Columbia Pike (Silver Spring to Howard County) 11 miles
MD-4 Pennsylvania Avenue (Suitland to Anne Arundel County) 11 miles
MD-5 Branch Avenue (Suitland to Brandywine) 12 miles
VA-28 Sully Road (Manassas to Dulles International Airport) 21 miles
Montrose Parkway (Rockville) 4 Miles
Rock Creek Parkway (Woodley Park to The Mall) 3 miles

Rapidly becoming pure freeways:
US-301, Blue Star Memorial Highway (Bowie to Waldorf) 26 miles
MD-210, Indian Head Highway (Forest Heights to Accokeek) 11 miles
VA-7100, Fairfax County Parkway (Herndon to Springfield) 35 miles
VA-3000, Prince William Parkway (Woodbridge to Manassas) 16 miles

451 miles of freeway in Washington DC and adjacent counties. Sure makes the downtown sections that didn't get built seem like small apples. This doesn't include "mini freeways" embedded into the traffic system. It does not include the express tunnels on North Capitol, South Capitol, Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, or K Street. Nor do they include spur freeways like the Cabin John Parkway, 270 spur, Spout Run Parkway, or the E Street Expressway. Nor does it include roads that become freeways for short stretches, like Central Avenue in Largo, Military Road west of 14th Street, North Capitol Street north of the Hospitals, or Franconia Road in Springfield. Nor does it include interchanges at non-freeways, like Tyson's Corner, Glenmont, University Boulevard at Route 1, or Kingle Road. Nor does it take into account express lanes, HOV lanes, or exit ramps. I figure all of this combined ought to add up to at least 100 miles.

I'm curious about the percentage of area residents that live within walking distance to fixed transit versus the percentage of area residents that live within walking distance to a freeway or an interchange. I'd be willing to bet that the latter is the larger number. If highways can have their 550 miles of coverage, why not rails?

Perhaps highway advocates threw a bunch of ideas at the wall to see what stuck. Perhaps it was the relentless lobbying. But whatever it is, it is the highway lobby had more ambition than our current transit advocacy currently exudes. If we can emulate one thing from the freeway lobby of the mid-20th Century, it is the ambitious fortitude with which they lobbied for what ultimately became the largest public works project in world history.

I'm not going to settle for a transit system that doesn't allow most of the metropolitan area to survive without an automobile. I'm going to keep pushing for my 550 miles of fixed rail.