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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!