Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Universities as elements of urban/downtown revitalization: the Portland State story and more

Streetcar at Portland State UniversityThe Portland Streetcar passes through the plaza in front of Portland State University's College of Urban and Public Affairs.  Image from Rethink College Park.

This article, "Nohad Toulan: The University in the City" from the PSU Institute of Metropolitan Studies magazine, Metroplex, is a particularly good read on the development of Portland State University's College of Urban and Public Affairs, the university's refocusing on an urban agenda, and the development of the college and the university as a connected and integral part of the city's center.

It's amazing to me that we don't have a stellar urban studies academic program at any of the universities based in DC.

2.  Arizona State University, which is based in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, has a growing center city campus.  See "ASU law school construction in downtown Phoenix continues" from the Arizona Republic.

3.  The University of Arizona has actively supported the development of a streetcar system in Tucson.  Brochure

4. Drexel University is increasingly involved in the revitalization of the area around its campus, which is in the vicinity of Amtrak's 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, with whom they are partnering.  See "Drexel's new president outlines plan to revitalize neighborhood" from the Philadelphia Inquirer.  They have expanded their efforts into nearby lower income neighborhoods, which were recently awarded a "Promise Neighborhood" designation by HUD ("Drexel Plays Key Role in Education Efforts," press release).

The President, John Fry, had previously done similar initiatives when he was at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.

5. Many universities have special transit pass arrangements with local transit systems. University of Utah is one such institution, where on sporting events days, flashing a ticket gets patrons a free ride on the local transit system.

6.  I mentioned that Catholic University has moved their college bookstore to the new retail district on Monroe Street NE, from within the campus.  This means that they will be sharing their bookstore with the community, which has been without a bookstore for many years.

7.  While there are a variety of complaints about funding, etc., I think that the City of Chicago's initiative to move the DePaul University basketball arena to a center city location is an interesting venture also, with the aim of increasing visibility and cross-promotion of Downtown to game attendees.

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DC Water and Sewer Authority: response and rectification of water main breaks

In the mid 1990s, I remember a water main break on the 100 block of K Street NE that took more than 8 months to get fixed, gushing huge amounts of water continuously for the entire period.  Of course, that was back when Marion Barry was mayor.

I do report water main breaks and leaks that I notice when I walk or cycle around the city.

DC Water (WASA) misting tent, Adams Morgan Day Street FestivalI have written about DC WASA, now branded as DC Water, a few times, as an example of forward and innovative operation:

- DC Water Authority good idea: free water bottle refills

- How do you "reform" a crumbling sewer line? Or raise sponsorship dollars to fund parks?

You can't wish away the need to upgrade aging utility infrastructure

Today, I had an experience that for a DC Government agency (although DC WASA is semi-independent) is unprecedented.

I reported a water leak this morning, using the online reporting form.

They just called me to confirm the receipt of the information (although I did get an automated email response with a tracking number after the original report) and to get more details about the location, before dispatching an inspector and repair team.

That's an actual response within four hours of reporting the problem, which I think is pretty remarkable.

On our neighborhood e-list we've discussed the difference between "response" and "resolving" in terms of elected and appointed government officials.  My Councilmember's office constantly responds to citizen complaints as expressed on the listserv, but in my personal experience they never resolve anything that matters to me.

I can think of two specific unresolved matters.  One dates to 2008 and the other to 2012.

I don't care so much about "expressed concern" as much as I care about results.

Since she's running for mayor, I think that these data points are relevant to decisions about who to vote for.


Could bringing premier regionally headquartered business enterprises to the Pennsylvania Avenue Corridor be key to its renewal and revitalization?

In response to the previous entry "Pennsylvania Avenue DC planning initiative" on the National Capital Planning Commission's launch of a planning initiative for Pennsylvania Avenue, what we might call a tune up of the Pennsylvania Avenue urban renewal initiative that "called it a day" in the mid-1990s, charlie offered a number of very good points, which are worth calling out into a separate entry.

The first public meeting for the study is tomorrow night.

Charlie writes:

... I think the bigger problem with Pennsylvania Avenue is all the commercial space is getting old at the same time, which means the biggest drivers of downtown office space (law firms) are bailing. And you mention, government workers don't spend enough.

In terms of your previous entry, it looks like:

1) resurrect the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation or create a new Business Improvement District

2) Sidewalks are plenty wide

3) It is pretty walkable, but needs more shade

4) Not sure what you can do about the vacancy rate. There are a lot of corporations in the area (AES, Marriott, Advisory Board, Microstrategy) that could use a prestige address but clearly there are reasons they don't want to be in DC. FBI site could be good for this too, but I think we're going to get a lot of buildings torn down in the future.

5) Parking sucks there are a result of garages closing early

6) Civic / cultural anchor --big problem as well, although you have Navy memorial, archives, Newseum, two theatres. Good suggestions on your part.

7) Traffic counts -- yes, on a bike i don't like being exposed in the middle. Also shade again. Could be a world class bike track but instead it is crap.

My response:

1.  A permanent commercial district revitalization planning and implementation organization is necessary.  WRT the first point, while PADC was a good ($, focus and a commitment to action) and bad (superblock buildings, brutalist, dull) initiative, the Federal Government and elected officials focused on "shutting it down when it was done"* not realizing that commercial district revitalization is a never ending story. So yes, a commercial district revitalization organization entity needs to be there and permanently focused on the success of the district.

2.   The corridor is overdue for refreshment.  Charlie makes a great point about the "natural aging of the 'new' building stock" and the need for it to be refreshed "at the same time" and how this contributes to the high vacancy rate, although I think the urban design on the corridor is a big issue too--the street experience is uncongenial, shade being only one issue, but a big one, as he points out.

Plaza, Waterfront Metro, Southwest DCNote that the buildings becoming obsolete because of age is a similar problem for Southwest DC (Southwest Ecodistrict Plan), Maine Avenue SW, and L'Enfant Plaza.

The Wharf district rebuilding project is just getting underway, and a couple years ago, Waterfront Mall, 4th Street (pictured at left), and most of the old crappy buildings there were reconstructed and the area has become much more vital and alive, especially because of the restoration of 4th Street SW as a through street.

It's a good example of what needs to happen along Pennsylvania Avenue.

3.  The Pennsylvania Avenue commercial vacancy rate is a big problem.  I agree with Charlie and I meant to emphasize that the FBI vacation is going to worsen this considerably, because it potentially has the ability to add significantly more commercial space to a corridor that has "too much now."

Microstrategy headquarters in Tysons Corner, Virginia.  Photo by Terry Berman.

4.  Charlie makes a brilliant point, could area premier companies be recruited to new space on the corridor, to headquarter on "America's Main Street" and function as anchors for new economic activity? 

WRT the suggestion that one way to absorb the space would be to recruit from the area's premier companies (AES, Marriott, Advisory Board, Microstrategy, etc.)  and convince a couple of them to relocate to the city as part of Pennsylvania Avenue's renewal, I think you're right about the difficulty in pulling this off given current conditions.

But by making the street and the area totally great, in part by expanding the "planning district" to include the National Mall as I suggested in the other entry, and by making recruitment of business headquarters as anchors and a key element of the program, it would be possible to pull this off, including the point I made about moving the FTC (pictured at right) to one of the buildings to be constructed and giving their current building to the National Gallery of Art.

Note that in the 1990s when people argued that NationsBank should move their headquarters from Charlotte to DC when they bought various banks here, there was no compelling business reason for them to do so.

The point is that for talent and business development reasons, there is the devveloping trend of large businesses moving back to central city locations.

Revitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue in part through business headquarters recruitment is a kind of extension of the arguments I made in "Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector."

-- Washington Post list of the Largest 200 public and private companies in the DC region

There are many examples of this around the country.  Amazon in the SoDO district in Seattle is one. The movement of various Internet related companies such as Twitter from Silicon Valley to San Francisco ("Twitter Revitalizes a Seedy San Francisco Neighborhood," New York Times), especially in the South of Market District.

Arlington offers us an example with the National Science Foundation and the George Mason University Arlington campus bracketing a goodly section of Wilson Boulevard and attracting complementary organizations.  Chicago too ("Companies Say Goodbye to the 'Burbs," Wall Street Journal).

Detroit is a great example, because comparatively speaking, Pennsylvania Avenue is the Detroit of DC's Central Business District in terms of comparative weakness

Detroit had been losing out to Chicago and the suburbs for local business headquarters for decades, abetted by business consolidation (e.g., I was weirded out a couple weeks ago to see a big Comerica building in Southern California, knowing the bank grew out of the merger of Detroit Bank and Trust and Manufacturers National Bank of Detroit, although the headquarters has since shifted to Texas).

This rendering shows what a new Campus Martius/Cadillac Square area in downtown Detroit could look like, according to plans outlined by Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, today. Photo: Quicken Loans

But in 2002, Peter Karmanos moved his suburban-based Compuware Corporation to an in-city location.

(He followed Mike Illitch, who bought the Red Wings in the 1980s, Detroit Tigers in the 1990s, and began investing and rehabilitating property in Downtown. Illitch's wife separately has invested in Detroit casinos.)

This led to other business leaders making similar decisions, such as Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, who moved his firm to Detroit in 2010 ("“Dan Gilbert outlines vision for livelier downtown Detroit including Papa Joe’s, sidewalk cafes," Detroit Free Press) and while the rest of the city is not doing well, Downtown Detroit is pretty successful.

In keeping with the general theme of these pieces on Pennsylvania Avenue, Project for Public Spaces argues investment in place was the key to success in Detroit ("Detroit Leads the Way on Place-Centered Revitalization").

5.  Leveraging Downtown transit service.  One of the problems of federal agencies moving out of the core is that the value of transit proximity in Downtown DC is dissipated, which will hurt WMATA.  By recruiting some large scale businesses, the value of transit infrastructure in the core can be leveraged.

The thing about Pennsylvania Avenue is that it has not absolutely the best transit, but it's just a couple blocks from Metro Center, making it pretty well connected even if it is only served by Archives Station directly.

6.  Pulling off recruitment of high profile business headquarters to the corridor is not likely to be done by a consortium of government agencies.  I think NCPC does some pretty good planning. For example, the Southwest Ecodistrict Plan has some really good concepts.  But, reviving Pennsylvania Avenue in part by "sharing it" with businesses is not something that they are likely to push.

7.  A big problem is that the great opportunity presented by the FBI move will take upwards of 15 years to realize.  But at the same time, other developments in the area, such as the Newseum (left) moving to the corridor in 2008 and the Verizon Center on 7th Street NW as well as the significant expansion of condominiums and apartments in the area need to be better leveraged to improve the corridor more generally.

8.  Plus maybe the biggest issue of all, the Republican Congress and its unwillingness to fund federal agency construction projects in DC proper.  (They don't want to fund government stuff at all, but will fund stuff around the country.)  Improving the federal buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue will be difficult in that context.  See "Planned Homeland Security headquarters>, long delayed" from the Post.

* In discussions recently where I've put forward the idea of a bi-county authority in Montgomery and Prince George's County as a "transportation renewal district" in association with the development of the Purple Line light rail system, one of the things that's been discussed is that in the trade "urban renewal districts" are usually created with a 20-year term, but that it takes more than 20 years (at least 30) to fully realize changes and that's if most everything goes right, and that the district needs to be managed in perpetuity.

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Eminent domain and receivership to "cure" habitual nuisances

One of the people that Suzanne works with doesn't live that far from us--about one mile away, but south, much closer to Kennedy Street--which is one of the problem streets in our greater neighborhood, so the quality of life for her family is much different, because they have nuisance properties on the block (one vacant, in another the resident is engaged in prostitution, but she goes over to the vacant house, etc.), nuisance neighbors, and terrible luck--the most recent being a stolen car ran into their sidewall (they live at the end of a block of rowhouses, abutting an alley) doing significant damage to the masonry.

The stories remind me of how f*ing hard it used to be to live north of H Street NE back in the day--the burglaries, muggings, assaults (the car we rented for our honeymoon was stolen), etc. that I experienced, the crime in general, the murders and drug sales in the area, etc.  I stuck it out but my ex-wife didn't and frankly, it takes way too much energy to have to deal with it.  I don't have the energy to live in such conditions now.

It also reminds me of the critical mass of "revitalizers" being necessary to turn around problem areas.  See "Revitalization in stages."

Receivership statutes.  In talking over the latest b.s. that Suzanne's colleague is dealing with, I mentioned receivership as a needed option in DC--because it takes years and years and years to force changes with recalcitrant property owners and how I used to testify a lot recommending that the city enact receivership statutes to facilitate this ("Receivership for housing," ""Why I hate DC" or the appropriate tactical strategy to apply to nuisance properties/ disinvestment is investment, not demolition," and "Pennsylvania passes receivership law with regard to vacant/nuisance properties") comparable to the State of Ohio.

Instead, DC's property abatement laws and regulations are incredibly complicated and put too much responsibility on the city government to act, when typically government agencies aren't supple enough and have a limited number of tools to work with when it comes to individual properties.

As a kind of example, see the article in the Post ("Old home's restoration helps to restore pride in Anacostia") about how the L'Enfant Trust is rehabilitating a property in Anacostia that has been vacant for many years.  That's the kind of action I anticipate if we had the right receivership statutes and procedures in place.

The shotgun-style house at 1229 E St. SE is seen in the Capitol Hill Historic District. (Ileana Najarro/The Washington Post)

Eminent domain.  But earlier this evening we we had been talking about the shotgun house debacle in Capitol Hill ("Pre-Civil War shotgun house in the hands of D.C. preservation board," Washington Post) which has been going on for more than one decade ten years (this City Paper article is from 2002, "Dwelling in the Past: Larry Quillian wants to raze his shotgun shack") ... and I said, the city should have taken the property by eminent domain years ago.

Sure the city would have had to pay for the property, but if they would have exercised that sort of power even just a few times against particularly egregious property owners, word would get around, and negligent property owners would start cleaning up their act, knowing that a property seizure was in the realm of possibility.

(Not unlike how the DC Department of Housing and Community Development seized the Park Southern Apartments, because of financial improprieties mostly, but also poor management.  Although that was by receivership, not eminent domain. See "D.C. housing complex’s decline raises questions about management, politics" from the Washington Post.)

Note that at the National Trust for Historic Preservation national meeting in Portland, Oregon in 2005, eminent domain was suggested as an option, in one of the sessions I attended.   With regard to checks and balances on eminent domain, see "Making eminent domain fair to alL" from the Boston Globe (2005).

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Pennsylvania Avenue DC planning initiative

Bicyclists in the cycletrack on Pennsyvlania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, with the US Capitol in the foreground
The Washington Business Journal reports in "Pennsylvania Avenue is in a slump, but there's a plan to breathe new life into it" that the National Capital Planning Commission is initiating a planning study to improve Pennsylvania Avenue NW, as a reassessment and updating of that street's improvement program.

(A few years ago at an NCPC hearing, I spoke extemporaneously in response to the statement about Pennsylvania Avenue being "America's Main Street," stating that the urban design and placemaking experience there is horrible and that it should be addressed to make real the perception, presuming of course that a "Main Street" is supposed to be a quality experience, not a bad one.)

The first meeting will be TuesWednesday July 23rd, from 6pm to 8pm at the NCPC offices, 401 9th Street NW, Suite 500N

Pennsylvania Avenue NW was "urban renewed" via the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, an urban renewal initiative by the federal government launched by President Kennedy, in response to the evident decline of the experience of the street.

Mostly, the urban renewal program resulted in the construction of large buildings on superblocks and parks and open spaces (e.g. Pershing Park or Freedom Plaza) that don't work very well, while eradicating most of the retail--with all of the buildings on the south side of Pennsylvania being federal buildings, with zero retail, with the exception of the Old Post Office.

"Commerce is the engine of urbanism."
-- Alex Wall, in his book about Victor Gruen, entitled From Urban Shop to New City

As a result, except for the north side of Pennsylvania at 7th Street which is mostly commercial and has ground floor retail, including a Starbucks, the street is forlorn.
pennsylvania avenue, Washington DC

Before the urban renewal program, the building stock was variegated, some federal buildings, mostly on the south side of the street, while the north side of the street was comprised of a wide variety of small commercial buildings with retail on the ground floor.
Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, postcard

1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, north side
Bassin's Restaurant building, Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC

Freedom Plaza, today (Wikipedia photo)
Freedom Plaza, Washington,_DC

The site of Freedom Plaza in 1958 (DDOT photo)
Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, April 1958 (today's site of Freedom Plaza)

Automobiles and trolleys near Pennsylvania and 14th St. in Washington, D.C., circa 1933.
Automobiles and trolleys near Pennsylvania and 14th St. in Washington, D.C., circa 1933. Washington Post photo.

When I first read Death and Life of Great American Cities, I was "surprised" that Jane Jacobs was not a fan of the "City Beautiful" movement, which brought "order" to American civic centers, through the construction of large buildings, mostly employing Beaux Arts architecture--Washington's Union Station being a leading example--parks improvements, and public art, especially statues.

But over time I figured out her criticisms made sense, that City Beautiful wasn't intended to engage people and support action and energy on the street, it was designed to be awe-inspiring and at the same time, distant.

It's a struggle balancing majesty and activity.

Pennsylvania Avenue's urban renewal paradigm of large buildings and unfriendly public spaces is a derivative of the large block and building planning approach common to the City Beautiful movement (and Baron Haussmann in Paris before that).
Champs Elysees, Paris, France
Champs Elysees, Paris, France.  Image: City Pictures.

According to the WBJ article, rents and sales prices/s.f. for commercial spaces on the corridor are significantly lower compared to more central locations in the core of Downtown, the vacancy rate is almost 12%, 40% of the space is used by law firms and many are leaving (that sector is going through serious consolidation at the moment) which will double the vacancy rate.

Typically, office districts are barren of activity at night and Pennsylvania Avenue is no exception.  As businesses consolidate, many central business districts have converted office buildings to housing and hotels, adding a new dimension to those districts, by extending activity throughout the day and into the evening, when before districts were active only during the day.

F Street NW in the 1940s, when there was a lot more daily activity on Downtown streets, which at that time had few competitors elsewhere in the region.
F Street NW, Washington, DC, 1940s
In the post 9-11 world, mixing uses between federal and non-federal within the same building footprint is likely impossible because of security concerns. So to enliven the corridor, more non-federal uses need to be added.

The general problems are that:
  • the street is too wide
  • most of the first floor spaces are office space and pedestrian-unfriendly
  • there is limited housing
  • the street is even emptier at night.
Housing is an important addition to "commercial districts" because to support retail and restaurants on the ground floor you need customers.  Residents support more retail and a broader range compared to office workers.

Typically office workers support a narrow range of retail (2 s.f. per person), mostly convenience, and a similarly narrow range of quick service restaurant and take out food--think Au Bon Pain or Subway (5 s.f. per person is the average).

Plus, federal workers tend to eat out less than the typical office worker--a recent study of workers in the Southwest district found that almost 65%  of federal workers bring their lunch to work most days.
FBI Building, Wikipedia photo
FBI Building, Wikipedia photo

Recent developments on the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor

1.  The Newseum opened in 2008 at 6th and Pennsyvlania Avenue NW, and that has increased activity on the street somewhat, especially because each day they post newspaper front pages from around the US and certain other countries.  But the museum, which charges, still has difficulty competing against the free museums on the National Mall.
Newspaper pages displayed in front of the Newseum.  Flickr photo by Josh.

2.  Bike lanes were installed in the middle of the street, in 2010.  In my opinion they don't work very well and if they had been installed on each side of the street in the right lane, it would have helped to reduce the perceived width of the street.  ("D.C. opens Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes," Washington Post)

3.  The Old Post Office building is being converted into a hotel by Donald Trump.  It had been a retail-office building but the retail failed--because of the other conditions present on the corridor and described above ("A Trump Makeover for Washington's Old Post Office," New York Times).  For the hotel to be successful, there will need to be more activity centers along the street.

4.  The FBI is going to be leaving the corridor and its space will be redeveloped, presumably in a mixed use fashion, and federal agency office space is unlikely to be a part of the program ("The FBI puzzle: The agency wants to move, but the numbers for a one-to-one swap don’t necessarily add up," Washington Business Journal).  However, we won't see the end result for about 10 years.  It will take 3-5 years to build a new campus for the FBI and for them to move, and another 3-5 years to redevelop the site.

Note that when the FBI gave tours (they stopped in 1999, even before 9/11, "Citing Threats, FBI Suspends Public Tours," New York Times), the tour made the FBI Building one of the top tourist destinations in the region.  On the other hand, tourists weren't frequenting the district more generally, and the retail they supported was very limited, a McDonalds and a souvenir shop.  The lesson here that developing a multi-faceted destination is difficult, that there is a fine line between visitation and economic development and touristification.

5.  Some Congressmen have pushed the idea to give the Federal Trade Commission building to the National Gallery of Art, by relocating the FTC to another space. ("House lawmaker claims federal agencies blocked efforts to relocate FTC," Washington Business Journal).

To achieve street activation goals, this idea of expanding the NGA needs to be explored further.  It would be expensive, but maybe Congress would sign off on the FTC remaining in the corridor, perhaps as part of a renewed FBI site, but in an upper story location in a mixed use building.

Other ideas for activating Pennsylvania Avenue

1.  In order to maximize activation, I would argue that Pennsylvania Avenue should be planned in coordination with the National Mall.  So my post on visitor management and the National Mall is relevant, "Parking under the National Mall should be part of an integrated approach to visitor services and management."

2.  Years ago I suggested that in the summer, museum hours for the Smithsonian Institution facilities and the National Gallery of Art should be extended and promoted.  They have been extended since I first wrote that ("Second Wednesdays on the National Mall?" and "Archives Redux") but not as late as I'd like.

And throughout the year, at least on one day per month, e.g., "Second Wednesdays," the Smithsonian Museums and the NGA should stay open till 9 or 10 pm.

3.  And in parallel, there should be an effort to work with the nearby cinemas (Landmark, Regal on 7th Street) during the week (not weekends) to have "dusk" matinee pricing to extend people's stay in the vicinity of Downtown.

4.  The Embassy of Canada should consider opening a cultural facility featuring the films and programming of the National Film Board of Canada ("Experimental film downtown").  A good model for comparison would be the Goethe Institut on 7th Street NW in the Gallery Place area.  The Institut is the cultural organization for Germany and they provide a wide variety of cultural programming.including films, lectures, workshops, and language training.

5.  The Smithsonian IMAX theater should be programmed to support later film showings, even midnite movies.

6.  And the National Archives should be better marketed and programmed as well.

7.  The newspaper front page program of the Newseum could be extended to the streetscape in front of the Embassy of Canada, featuring an expanded showing of newspapers from each of Canada's provinces, instead of the showing of one newspaper only (e.g., Montreal newspaper pages in French and English, Ottawa City, Quebec City, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver--has two daily newspapers, Toronto--has four daily newspapers, Halifax, London and Windsor, Ontario, Saskatoon, Victoria, etc.

GSA Resource

-- This publication, Achieving Great Federal Public Spaces, was produced by the Project for Public Spaces in association with the General Services Administration, the property management arm of the federal government.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Classic Towns suburban revitalization initiative, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

DVRPC is the "Metropolitan Planning Organization" for the Philadelphia Metropolitan area and it includes parts of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Classic Towns is a branded initiative focused on revitalization of suburban "classic" town centers, such as Media.

It's interesting that an MPO is using a branding and identity system (see "Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the action planning method" and the discussion about what I call the "action planning" approach) to coordinate and market their efforts.

Last year, they published Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts: Strategies and Best Practices, a study of successful suburban town commercial districts, where they analyzed those characteristics shared across the districts that were common to their success.  The recommendations are based on the study of 10 towns

  • The existence of a retail management entity
  • Wide sidewalks
  • High walkability
  • A low vacancy rate
  • Parking options
  • A civic or cultural anchor and
  • High traffic counts

DVRPC does a lot of great work and has a good publishing program.  They produced the Smart Transportation Guidebook, which I tout all the time (but it needs an update).

With regard to "commercial district revitalization," it doesn't matter so much whether you're dealing with a suburb or a city, because the unit of study is the commercial district.  While some factors differ between cities and suburbs, especially around transit and the mode by which people come to the district, the various reports and studies on revitalization are relevant regardless.

Urban neighborhood commercial districts are not like "Downtowns/the Central Business District" but more like smaller towns and have a lot to learn from suburban and small town revitalization efforts.

Sadly, in my experience urban "commercial district revitalization organizations" often have a chip on their shoulder with regard to what they might be able to learn from smaller places.

Note that there is a "Suburban Revitalization" section of resource links in the right sidebar.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

UK's different take on the cycling-motor vehicle divide: the mobility system favors motorists and government needs to lead

Perspective is interesting.  Most of the discussion in the US about cycling, especially by elected officials and in the media,   is shaped by the perspectives and interests of motorists.

Last year, the UK "All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group" (a caucus) produced a report calling on a variety of measures to "Get Britain Cycling."

Can you imagine an actual report such as this produced by the US Congressional Bike Caucus?  There's a caucus--160 members, but no reports..., and not enough positive movement on federal policy towards bicycling and sustainable transportation.

From the Get Britain Cycling report:

Some strong messages came from the enquiry:
  • the need for vision, ambition and strong political leadership, including a national Cycling Champion;
  • the Government needs to set out an action plan for more and safer cycling with support from the Prime Minister down;
  • We need transformation of our towns, streets and communities, and to the way we think about cycling, whether as drivers or as people who might take up cycling ourselves;
  • Our vision is for a dramatic increase in the number and diversity of people who cycle, because they see it as a safe and normal activity;
  • We suggest that the long-term ambition should be to increase cycle use from less than 2% of journeys in 2011, to 10% of all journeys in 2025, and 25% by 2050.
Bicycling cover, New YorkerIn the US, it's hard to find such recommendations in a planning document in most communities and especially from the federal government.

I suppose you could argue that the 75% sustainable transportation trips goal in the DC Sustainability Plan is that kind of stretch goal.

But there is a big disconnect when it comes to actually rebalancing road space towards sustainable transportation--not just for cyclists, but also for transit (where are dedicated transitways, which were suggested in DC's 1950 Comprehensive Land Use Plan) and walking.  And certainly the discussion still favors motorists.

Past blog entry:

- What should a US national bike strategy plan look like?

Yesterday, a report was released by the Transport Committee of the UK Parliament calling for more spending on cycling infrastructure.

From "UK taxpayer should foot cycling bill, says transport select committee: MPs call for cycling budget to be increased to £10 a head by 2020 in order to makes roads safer for cyclists across UK" in the Guardian:
Government spending on cycling should rise from £2 per person to £10 in the next six years, according to the transport select committee, which said a "cultural change" is needed to ease tensions between motorists and cyclists. 
The committee said cyclists complained of aggressive driving, poorly designed junctions and a failure to enforce speed limits, which were contributing to quarrels between road users. 
In its report examining how roads could be made safer for those on bicycles, the committee calls for all departments to work together to fund and facilitate support for cycling.
The report states there is "limited evidence of a widespread culture that is supportive of cyclists as road users", despite a call last year by the prime minister, David Cameron, for a "cycling revolution" following British successes in the Olympics, Paralympics and Tour de France.
Clearly the report and its recommendation came from the perspective of cyclists, which is completely opposite of the tenor of the discussion in the US--not that the UK is doing significantly better than the US in terms of cycling take up as both have been particularly shaped by the vehicular cycling paradigm.

The entry in the Guardian Bike Blog says the report could be better but is an important step. From "MPs' report shows even the slightly inept can get it right on cycling: Their first evidence session was an embarrassing disaster, but the Commons transport committee has ended up producing a half-decent report about getting people on bikes":
So why the interest in this fairly unexceptional report? In short, because it shows that even utter cycling ignoramuses – and their first hearing did, I’m afraid, portray some of the MPs in that light – can, fairly quickly, understand what’s needed to get people on bikes.

As we’ve argued before here it’s pretty basic stuff, and very well known. Consistent, predictable, increased spending. Proper bike infrastructure. Better awareness of cyclists among other road users. And, covering it all, some genuine political leadership on the issue. It’s the conclusion that more or less every report in recent years on the subject has come to.

The problem isn’t the knowledge, just the political commitment. The junior transport minister whose job takes in cycling, Robert Goodwill, talks a reasonable game about wanting to see more “everyday” cyclists on the roads but somehow thinks this will just happen, with no new money or planning.

But could things eventually change anyway? The transport committee’s report really tells us nothing new. But it does show us that 11 MPs from all three main parties have now, to an extent, got the message. Do this enough times – and God knows, we’ve had a few cycling inquiries – and you might end up with a critical mass of MPs.
Achievement of critical mass within political leadership is key.  And we're not there yet.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Something to add to my resume: Baltimore County rated 6th in the nation for its Complete Streets policies

... too many entries on bicycling, I know.  "What should a US national bike strategy look like?" is a good sum up with links to other writings.

Bicycling on York Road, Baltimore CountyAccording to a citation in a recent GGW blog entry, "Baltimore County [Maryland] has been recognized as a national leader for Complete Streets, ranking 6th among 83 communities in the US with Complete Streets programs" according to the report The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2013 from Smart Growth America.

I seem to recall seeing that now that I think about it, but I guess it didn't register.

That ranking is not 100% due to me, but it's a great deal me, more than 50%.

Because in large part it is built upon the hard core recommendations built into the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, for which I was the project manager and chief author ("Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the action planning method").

That being said:

1. The plan built on previous pro-walking and biking initiatives in Western Baltimore County, various workshops and planning iterations, the efforts of Kit Valentine and Catonsville Rails to Trails, and interactions with various government agency staff and citizens;

Bicyclist in Towson2. The Eastern County Plan which preceded the Western County Plan by a few years (about which citizens complained to me that "nothing was done with it"--this led to my reorganizing the Western Plan in ways to foster implementation and make it harder to ignore);

3.  Review of other plans (such as for the City of Los Angeles, which is where I drew the recommendations about reshaping the capital improvements planning and budgeting process with regard to sustainable transportation)

4. The change in the composition of the County Council and the County Executive in the November 2010 elections, when the eight elected leaders shifted from neutral to positive with regard to bicycle and pedestrian matters;

5. And how advocates, led by BikeMaryland, lobbied two newly elected Councilmembers, Tom Quirk (District 1) and David Marks (District 5) to put forward legislation "creating a Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee" for the County.  (The legislation is mis-titled, it's actually a set of new regulations concerning bicycle and pedestrian planning and infrastructure development, including the creation of said committee.)

Passage of the law in February 2011 came almost two years before the plan I wrote was actually approved as an amendment to the County Master Plan.

A couple things.

1.  One of the provisions of the draft that was excised was the creation of subcommittees of the County wide Advisory Committee for each of the Council Districts (there are seven).  That was to create a committee of knowledge and committed citizens focused on pushing for improvements in their communities, to push the county agencies.  I lobbied for that to be put back into the legislation and it was.

A lady walking her dog on the Catonsville #8 Trolley Trail2.  But it was optional, at the discretion of the Councilmember.  Only District 5 Councilman David Marks has followed through with this, and so it should be no surprise that District 5 is now ahead of the other districts in getting bike and pedestrian projects moved forward ("Committee seeks state grant to help create Towson 'Bike Beltway'," Baltimore Sun).

3.  Another thing I didn't anticipate when writing the recommendations was that the County Executive, who appoints the chair of the committee, could appoint a County Government employee as chair.  County Employees work for the County Executive, and this creates a conflict over independence that is ultimately unrectifiable.  If I write another bike and ped plan, likely I would include a provision to prevent such a conflict.  (Although it could excised as well...)

4.  It's an illustration of the importance of plans, because when circumstances change, you can take advantage of the changes and plans can be a great source for shaping those changes.

Drive like your children live here, Rodgers Forge, Towson, Baltimore County5.  On the other hand, a plan isn't enough.  You need organized advocates, and legislators and other stakeholders willing to take chances and lead and make changes.  Without the advocates and legislators "to close the circle" that plan would have just sat on the shelf, like the Eastern County Plan.

6.  That being said, a plan or the passage of an ordinance isn't "the end" but the beginning of implementation.

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Traffic safety and stage 4 of Moral Development Theory

Yesterday's Post has a story "As tensions rise among D.C. road users, many say police enforcement lags," which addresses perceptions of inadequate traffic safety enforcement in DC. The story headline in the actual printed paper was "Walkers, bikers, drivers agree: Rules are rules."

(For a different and more rounded take see "Bicycles and cars: can they share the road? Cities balance popularity of bicycling with need for safety" from the South Bend Tribune.

Photo from the South Bend Tribune article "Trail signs: Walk, bike nicely 'Etiquette' urged to ease conflicts among users."  

The signs were created by the Bike Michiana Coalition for use on trails in South Bend, Indiana.  (Bike trails in DC tend to lack this kind of signage.)

I don't agree with the headline at all.

In the context of street safety, pedestrians and cyclists are the most vulnerable users. But the way the highway safety regime works (see "Wrong Turn: How the fight to make America's highways safer went off course by Malcolm Gladwell from the New Yorker), drivers are expected to be negligent, to even kill people, and the system isn't intended to hold them responsible for such transgressions, but to expect and coddle such behavior.

This makes no sense, considering that motor vehicles, because of their weight and speed, are far more dangerous to vulnerable users compared to the minimal if nonexistent danger that vulnerable users pose to motor vehicles.

The mobility regime should prioritize protection for the most vulnerable user.

Pedestrians > Bicyclists > Motor Vehicles

That's how it's done in the Netherlands, although it took a few decades for this to occur, years after the country began focusing on rearticulating transportation policy around sustainable mobility.

It's not just about "rules" because the system of traffic regulation has been created to favor motor vehicle operators and to downplay the responsibility of motor vehicle operators for "accidents."

Plus, the rules are designed to cripple the efficiency of bicycling by requiring stopping at all stop signs and traffic signals even when there is no oncoming traffic.

It makes no sense to follow the rules when the rules are flawed.

The focus should be on fixing the rules and the mobility environment so that people don't break the rules in the first place.

Plus, if the broader system supported people performing the right behavior as opposed to breaking the rules, we wouldn't need to expect the police, who have extremely limited resources, to spend most of their time doing traffic safety enforcement.

Moral development theory and following the rules.  Lawrence Kohlberg was a professor at Harvard University who researched and wrote extensively about moral development theory.  He theorized three levels: pre-conventional; conventional; and post-conventional, with two stages in each level.  Conventional morality is where the majority of the population is at, while post-conventional reasoning is based on the idea of a "social contract" and connectedness with others.

The fourth stage is titled "law and order" and is focused on following the rules--regardless of whether or not the rules are broken or flawed.

People at higher levels of moral reasoning are capable of questioning rules, especially when the rules as created are flawed and/or problematic.

Traffic enforcement and criminal justice.  This is a topic deserving of more space than I want to write about at the moment.  There needs to be more enforcement with regard to reckless actions that endanger others.  That is true for all modes--pedestrians who walk out into the middle of the street when the light is green, cyclists who ride against traffic or run red lights and stop signs in the face of oncoming traffic, and drivers who speed, kill, and maim.  As well as inadequate training of police officers as "accident investigators" and their bias in favor of motor vehicle operators.

Plus, the issue of how the criminal justice system is designed to excuse negligent behavior--even if it results in death--by motor vehicle operators unless it is the result of being impaired (drunk or high).

Towards a balanced environment and set of rules concerning traffic safety.  This is reprinted from the 2011 entry "In times of change, too often, discourse is wacked: bicycle/pedestrian edition)":

... With regard to safety within the mobility network, prioritization of the city's urbanity, placemaking, and quality of life, how can the system be modified to best protect those most at risk? (and how should that be handled in a master transportation plan for DC)...

Rather than Councilmembers basing the hearing on their recounting of anecdotal complaints by motor vehicle operators and/or taking out of context particular incidents involving errant and wrongful behavior by bicyclists and pedestrians, they needed to be considering the question of traffic safety more broadly and comprehensively, and in an integrated fashion.

The system is not built right/broken, and DC needs to re-create a traffic safety program for DC which prioritizes safety, especially for vulnerable users, in the context of an urban environment, where walking, transit, and bicycling is prioritized over motor vehicle movement.

A multi-part agenda for process redesign of the "street safety" regime in DC:
note: point 4 has been added and the subsequent items have been re-numbered

1. Change the laws imposing responsibility for accidents on motor vehicle operators.

This text comes from "Road Rights: Why We Need Cycling Insurance" from Bicycle Law and I have modified it slightly, with modifications in italics.

In the Netherlands, the law imposes a rebuttable presumption of liability on drivers, if a motorist is involved in a crash with a cyclist or pedestrian, the law presumes that the motorist is liable for the crash, unless the motorist can rebut that presumption with evidence to the contrary. The reason for this shift is that the Dutch recognized that the cyclist or pedestrian will virtually always be the injured party in a collision with an automobile, and by putting the onus of fault on the driver, have provided motorists with a powerful legal incentive to pay more attention to the presence of cyclists and pedestrians

Thus, it wouldn’t be legally sufficient for a Dutch driver to merely claim “I didn’t see him”—the most common excuse drivers use in the United States—in order to escape liability. Instead, the Dutch driver would have to prove that the cyclist’s/pedestrian's own negligence was the cause of the collision. And even if the Dutch driver can successfully rebut the presumption of liability, the driver’s insurance is still required to pay the cyclist’s/pedestrian's medical bills.

2. Post signage at entries to the city that makes clear that unless otherwise posted, the speed limit on city streets is 25mph.

This prevailing speed is atypical within the metropolitan area, and as a result, many nonresidents drive much faster than the posted speed limit on DC's streets.
25mph Unless Otherwise Posted speed limit street sign_Union, City of Colorado Springs, ColoradoSpeeding additional $200 fine, street sign, Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia
First sign: City of Colorado Springs, Colorado. City photo. Second sign: Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia. (My photo: not very clear, I know.)

3. Raise the fines for speeding. Note that § 46.2-878.2 of the Code of Virginia was revised in 1999 to provide for additional fines up to a maximum of $200 for exceeding the speed limit in a residence district of a county, city or town, where indicated by the appropriately placed signs.

A similar policy should be enacted in DC, but extended to what we might call "pedestrian districts"--commercial districts, and areas abutting schools, parks, libraries, and other civic assets. (School zones usually already have a higher fine for speeding infractions.)

4.  Create a 20 mph speed for residential streets.  This is in line with the "Neighborhood Slow Zone" program in New York City and how the Montgomery County, Maryland towns of Chevy Chase and Garrett Park have a posted speed limit of 20 mph on neighborhood streets.
20 mph speed limit sign on Stanford Ave. at East Ave in the Town of Chevy Chase, Maryland

5. Redesign roads to engineer speed outcomes closer to the desired speed limit.

That means that in commercial districts (e.g., in Cleveland Park, Georgetown, Chevy Chase, H Street NE, Pennsylvania Avenue SE from the Capitol to 8th Street, etc.), around schools, libraries and parks (such as around Stanton Park, Lincoln Park, Grant Circle, Sherman Circle, Washington Circle, etc.), roads should be paved in asphalt block, which provides visual, aural, and physical cues to drive at lower speeds.

6. With regard to the operation of bicycles, the Idaho Stop should be legalized, and with regard to bicyclists riding on sidewalks, the "posted" speed limit for bicycle riding on sidewalks should be 3mph (people typically walk at a speed of 3-4 miles per hour).

7. The process for receiving driver's licenses should be modified to ensure that multiple questions concerning the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers are included in all tests, and rather than an automatic renewal of driver's licenses, a refresher test on these rights and responsibilities should be added to the process to remind users of these rights and responsibilities.

8. Rather than rely on anecdote to shape Council hearings, law, and policies, the City Council should endeavor to raise its "game," for all issues, not just for transportation.

Wrt transportation policy, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has created an ongoing online survey of 600 Minnesotans who are asked to weigh in on various transportation issues. (See "Mn/DOT’s online community connects with public, seeks input" and "Online tool provides steady stream of useful information" from the MnDOT Newsline.)

This is the kind of best practice that DC should look to develop with regard to the conduct of local government more generally. Certainly, City Council hearings shouldn't be shaped by the anecdotal unstructured stream of complaints that the overly entitled are likely to drop on Councilmembers.

Many communities do this (see this book, the National Citizen Survey, and this report from Palo Alto). To my knowledge, DC does not.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More parks

1. According to the BBC story, "Yorkshire Sculpture Park wins museum of the year award." It's almost a square mile, on the grounds of a local college, and it's not quite 40 years old. The Sculpture Park is known for high profile exhibitions and for a growing permanent collection of high profile works.
Everything is connected
Flickr photo by StarttheDay of Peter Livesidge's "Everything is connected" sculpture.

2. Chicago has five parks projects underway. I've mentioned the Bloomingdale Trail, now called the 605, and plans to amp up the Chicago Riverwalk, but there is more going on, according to Curbed Chicago, "The Five Most Anticipated New Parks Chicagoans Can't Wait For."

3. There is an initiative promoting better food service options in big parks, connecting concessionaires to local food systems and agriculture entrepreneurship issues.

See the Food for the Parks initiative and report, Food for the Parks: CASE STUDIES OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD IN AMERICA’S MOST TREASURED PLACES from the Institute at the Golden Gate/Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The New York Times has a piece, "A Happy Hunter for a Must-Have Taste," about the extent to which Shake Shack, which started in NYC's Madison Square Park, goes to source locally produced foods and develop regionally-specific items.

And the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader editorializes ("Enliven River Common in summer with food vendors, boat rentals") about the need to add food and services to their Riverfront Park, to build patronship and activity.

4. In the last entry ("Short addition on garden festivals") on this topic I forgot to mention Bilbao's International Urban Garden Competition generally and a work by Diana Balmori & Associates specifically.

The Garden that Climbs the Stairs was a 2009 project, very playful that challenges how we think of landscape architectural elements within traditional infrastructure. The installations are temporary, because the city doesn't want to be in the position of having to maintain the projects long term.

Also see "Diana Balmori’s Bilbao Jardín Garden Climbs the Stairs" from Bustler.  Photos by Iwan Baan.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVISED DUE TO ERROR | The consequences of not working "within the (planning) system"

In the commentt thread to this article, an anonymous commenter and Tom Bridge, President of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association and quoted below, correct my interpretation of his statement and position, which I will concede in reading too fast, was somewhat incorrect. 

Unfortunately, due to "ripping and reading" I do sometimes make mistakes.  Fortunately, I catch most of them.  E.g., today I almost wrote an incorrect entry about CVS's acquisition of Navarro Pharmacies in South Florida, but reading the Miami Herald in addition to the initial article, I caught myself. 

Corrections below.

Because of my mentor, in the early part of the last decade I got involved in some issues in Brookland, working with people she was working with, and for most of 2007, serving as the program manager of the Brookland Main Street (which ceased operating later in 2008).

I thought Brookland was interesting because it appeared to me to be one of the few places in DC where there was "racial mixing," where whites and African-Americans interacted, ate at the same restaurants, and worked together in community organizations and projects.

Where that might be the case, working there, I came to understand that there is a lot of behavior there that is not conducive to "progress," however you define the word.

The neighborhood narrative is that they are successful in opposing any change, because residents were key to successful opposition to freeways and later to an ill-advised proposal to build townhouses on the Brookland Metro Station grounds.

But I think they learned the wrong lesson, that opposition is the best course, always, and not that they needed to be discerning.

Plus those successes "taught them" to be not just strident, but jerks.

New streetlights on 12th Street NE, Brookland, Washington, DCOne example was the Brookland Streetscape Study, which was an opportunity to get the city to commit to undergrounding the power lines on 12th Street even in the face of opposition by the local utility Pepco.

Instead of focusing on achieving that, which would have been difficult but was achievable, they spent their time being obstreperous and lambasting the city agency staff and consultants on just about everything.

The result was that undergrounding wasn't part of the final plan, and then some residents sued the city about it, after most of the street was reconstructed.  Of course, the lawsuit failed.

Since the road likely won't get reconstructed for another 50+ years, it'll be a long time before change here becomes possible.

Although citizen agitation has been successful in retaining the block of WMATA land between Newton and Otis as open space, which was not the recommendation in the Brookland Small Area Plan, even though myself and others recommended it (past blog entry, "Rare example of community activism getting a positive change from the government: Brookland Green").  Although this is one instance when the community was 100% right.

Yesterday I was riding up 12th Street NE and noticed a 7-11 is being built in place of an old gas station.

FWIW, that was the spot I thought Catholic University could put their book store, although with the start of this academic year, the store is now a part of the Monroe Street Market development on Monroe Street immediately adjacent to the campus ("Catholic University bookstore to move to Monroe Street Market project").

The Small Area Plan recommended systematic zoning changes for the 12th Street commercial district, to help it retain its relevance in the face of more intense development by the Metro Station--three projects are in process and more, along the railroad tracks will come.

But the "involved" residents fought that recommendation, stating that they'd rather deal with proposed changes as they come up.

So instead of getting a decent building, they are getting a 7-11.  I laughed when I saw the site yesterday.

In my testimony on the plan, I said that piecemeal zoning improvements for 12th Street doomed it to irrelevance.

While it's great to be proved right, it's sad to see the negative results from when people's flawed efforts get results in ways that damage rather than improve their communities.

Or I was an advocate for creating a historic district in Brookland, although that got all "fouled up," for reasons I won't go into.

I laughed again, chagrined, when one of the opponents of creating a historic district wanted me to make a presentation on what the community could do in the face of the proposal to demolish the Colonel Brooks Restaurant and adjacent housing in favor of a larger multiunit apartment building.  I declined to participate.

You live in the bed you make.  Historic preservation designation is the best tool for neighborhoods wanting more tools to manage--not prevent--change.

I was not surprised to read more recently about how some of the "better" development proposals for the Brookland Metro Station appear to be opposed.

For example, a Brookland civic leader, who obviously is against any and all development, was quoted in the Washington Business Journal, "MRP, A&R, Four Points, Donatelli among  Brookland Metro bidders," as being against one of the proposals, which calls for constructing a mixed use building at the Metro, a building that would have apartments and a Harris-Teeter Supermarket. From the article:
Tom Bridge, president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, said all of the proposals looked good, artistically. But he was particularly impressed with the A&R/Urban Atlantic bid for condos in a four-story building, as opposed to apartments in five or six stories, as the others offered. He also suggested that a supermarket on congested Michigan Avenue would be a tough sell to the community.
Why wouldn't people want a supermarket in the heart of their community, one they could walk to?

They do, at least most people do.
My only answer is that this person doesn't want any development in the community at all wants to minimize change as much as possible.  And in that context (1) a smaller building is "better" than a bigger one in that context and (2) owners are better than renters, even though owner occupied housing predominates.

In the comment thread Mr. Bridge states his preference for the four-story condo project is because of likely difficulties in making deliveries to the supermarket via Michigan Avenue via a constrained and problematically placed loading dock.  I think those issues can be addressed in a way that minimizes problems.  It's a lot less constrained that the Giant Supermarket on Park Road, which is still problematic.  And deliveries via Michigan Avenue ensure that the impact on neighborhood (as opposed to through) traffic will be minimal.

Development will happen.  That's the nature of property ownership and strong markets.

Putting your head in the sand only makes it impossible for you to better shape what occurs so that more of your needs and interests are served.

In the case of Brookland, its primary center of commercial activity will shift to Monroe Street and the Brookland Metro.  That works on many levels, and gives the neighborhood a new and more coherent center, but at the expense of property owners and businesses on the existing 12th Street commercial district.
Some of my learnings from Brookland:

1.  You are only as strong as your weakest link--deficient leaders and board members do not a successful organization make.

2.  You can't be a community development corporation and not engage the community in your agenda setting and operations.

3. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are if the community is disengaged or actively oppositional.

4.  Neighborhoods in DC aren't just "flawed up" because of disinvestment, part of the problem comes from legacy leadership and whether or not leaders are committed to excellence, best practice, and a willingness to work with others.

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The plight of pedestrians

Flickr photo by Liz Patek.  "Twenty is Plenty For Us," is an advocacy initiative in the UK promoting lower speed limits to promote pedestrian safety.

For all the same kinds of reasons that transportation policy "disrespects" cyclists vis-a-vis motor vehicles because of a failure to have differentiated transportation policies and practices that are appropriate for sustainable transportation/cities and towns versus the policies we have which almost uniformly favor motor vehicles, pedestrians are dis-served by transportation policy also.

A good example of this is an ad by the Greater Washington Board of Trade which promotes traffic signal coordination across the jurisdictions, rather than expansion of transit--and transit, especially heavy rail transit, provides communities especially places like DC and Arlington County, clear competitive advantages over those places where automobile traffic dominates.  The ad is a good symbol of the BOT's priorities...

Traffic regulations and metropolitan transportation policy favor motor vehicles, even in cities, where walking is often the predominate mode.

See "After six injuries in three days, police and bike advocates urge safety on Arundel roads" and "Engineering environments for pedestrian safety"  from the Baltimore Sun, "Changing Skyline: Pedestrian safety is becoming a focus" from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and "Maryland to lower speed limit, expand speed cameras on troubled stretch of Route 1" from the Washington Post.

I write about this a lot, but since pedestrians still get killed, it's worth repeating.

1.  Cars are engineered to go very fast.

2.  Roads are designed, regardless of context, to allow cars to be driven at high speeds.

3.  In places where pedestrians dominate, even when posted speeds are reduced, cars are still capable of being driven at high speeds and road engineering allows this.

4.  So pedestrians die.

It's a form of what I call "designing conflict in," where the conditions are created through planning, design, and engineering to create problems instead of solve them.

That's why I recommend the "radical" step of re-engineering pavements in cities and towns, especially in commercial districts and around civic assets such as schools, parks, and libraries and other places where pedestrians predominate, so that road materials better match land context conditions for walking. Streets adjacent to college campuses, like the section of Route 1 in College Park, Maryland, adjacent to the University of Maryland, is another obvious place where pavement materials need to be chosen in a manner that is congruent with the land use context there.

The Smart Transportation Guidebook is has a good discussion about this broad issue, although it doesn't make the conceptual jump to include pavement types within a toolbox of choices.

And a good example of how to do this by expanding the use of asphalt block or other types of pavers, such as how Monument Avenue in Richmond is paved.  The pavement provides visual, aural, and physical cues that motor vehicle operators should drive slower and they do.

I didn't realize that in the 1960s the intent was to asphalt over the pavement on Monument Avenue, but a neighborhood activist, Helen Marie Taylor, "faced down" the paving machines, and this motivated a group of Richmonders to support her, and the plans to pave over the street were dashed ("To Preserve and Protect," Style Weekly).

Another strategy is to reduce the legal operating speeds for motor vehicles in cities generally and in neighborhoods specifically.  I was thinking about this a few months ago when I paused to walk across the street on my block, to wait for a car to go by.

I realized that I was deferring to the motor vehicle, even though my street is 100% residential, when the motor vehicles should be deferring to the pedestrian.  Just as bicyclists should be deferring to pedestrians, riding more slowly on sidewalks than the speed at which pedestrians can walk.

Graz, Austria pioneered systematic reduction in motor vehicle speed limits in the early 1990s, changing all their speed limits to either 30 kph or 50 kph (50 kph is approximately 31 mph).  More recently, New York City has create "Neighborhood Slow Zones" for residential streets, where the posted speed limit is 20 mph.

The standard speed limit on NYC streets is 30 mph.  In DC it is 25 mph while in the old days on residential streets it was 15 mph.  Under the Gray Administration, speed limits have been increased, in favor of motor vehicles, on many residentially-serving arterials.

Monument Avenue, Richmond
Belgian Blocks, Monument Avenue, Richmond

7th Street SE in front of Eastern Market, Washington, DC
7th Street SE at Eastern Market

South Carolina Avenue SE, Washington, DC
Asphalt block road pavement, South Carolina Avenue SE

High Street (in brick), Cambridge, Maryland
High Street, Cambridge, Maryland is paved with brick

Neighborhood Slow Zone signage, Bronx, New York City.  (Image from Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, District 8)

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Even more about bicyclists, bicycling as a challenge to motor vehicle primacy

(This piece is in response to a letter to the editor in yesterday's Washington Post.)

Last week, in the discussion about the barrage of articles in the Washington Post about cycling, cyclists as terrorists, as riders on sidewalks, and non-demons, I made ("Urban-suburban divide and cycling") a number of points. The main ones are:

transportation hierarchySustainable transportation hierarchy.  Image source: Transportation Alternatives.  (This is sometimes called the Green Transportation Hierarchy.)

1. For efficiency and to best promote exchange*, urban transportation policy should prioritize sustainable modes, that is walking, biking, and transit.

This is in contrast to suburban transportation policy, which prioritizes motor vehicle movement, and has dominated US transportation since the 1940s,

2.  Promotion of cycling as a preferred mode should prioritize the ability of cyclists to accomplish trips of up to 5 miles as efficiently and quickly as possible to be competitive with motor vehicle trips.

For reasons of physics and the transfer of energy ("Why bicyclists hate stop signs," Access Magazine), it is disadvantageous for cyclists to stop at every stop sign and red light, which otherwise cripples the ability of a cyclist to "compete" time-wise with a car trip over "short distances."

3.  Traffic laws prioritize motor vehicle movement in virtually all situations, with one exception.

The exception is most commonly referred to as the "Idaho Stop," because this type of bicycle traffic movement--that when there is no oncoming traffic or significant breaks in traffic, cyclists should be able to run through stop signs and traffic signals--is legal in the State of Idaho.

4. In my opinion (but frankly, most of the time by the time I write something here or elsewhere, it's pretty clear that I'm right) most opposition to bicycling and cyclists as expressed by motor vehicle operators is not a reaction to cyclist behavior but to their perception that cyclists are usurping the priority and privilege of motor vehicle movement within the perceived "hierarchy" of transportation modes and the "rightful place" of motor vehicles at the top of the hierarchy.

5.  But opposition to cycling is mostly couched in terms referring to the "reckless behavior" of cyclists running stop signs and red lights.

While there is no question that some cyclists do engage in reckless action--running stop signs and red lights when there is oncoming traffic and riding on sidewalks at speeds that can endanger pedestrians--reckless action is a different question than "following the law," something advocated in a Sunday Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak ("Hey, infuriated D.C. bikers and drivers, can’t we all just get along?") and by Linda O'Brien in a letter in yesterday's Post.

Linda O'Brien makes me realize that "I am living in my own private Idaho" and I am fine with it. She writes:
The July 11 Style article “In D.C.’s bike wars, here come the spokespeople,” peddling civility by and toward bikers downtown, revealed the reason cyclists should be aggressively ticketed by D.C. police when they break the rules: in the one brief capsule of time described in the article, five cyclists sped through a red light. An ambulance, fire engine or police car could have been speeding into the intersection, and the cyclists would have caused a tragedy, among many possibilities. If rude and rule-breaking cyclists start receiving fines for their behavior, maybe they would reconsider their importance over the importance of every other individual on the streets. If that doesn’t work, the bike lanes need to be considered a failed experiment.
Her letter makes a bunch of under-founded statements and jumps to a conclusion which is illogical. She comments that cyclists ran a red light, that it could have been catastrophic if there had been emergency vehicles coming--but there weren't and the article doesn't discuss if there was any oncoming traffic, and then she makes the claim that bike lanes are likely a failed experiment, based on a set of information that has nothing to do with the efficacy of bike lanes.

Not to mention she re-llustrates the point I made in the earlier piece, that most of the time, suburban residents don't have standing  (the right combination of knowledge and experience) for making recommendations on how center cities should manage transportation policy.

The traffic laws written for motor vehicle traffic don't work in terms of optimizing sustainable mobility in urban settings and should be changed.

So long as they aren't, I won't be apologetic for "practicing" the Idaho Stop and I won't stop advocating for it.

* With regard to exchange, this is from a review from Green Electronic Journal of David Engwicht's Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns: Better Living Through Less Traffic:
Engwicht begins by examining the reasons he believes cities exist -- to maximize opportunities for exchange by concentrating people, goods, and facilities within a limited area. Transport should enhance exchange opportunities, but Engwicht finds that it sometimes does the opposite. Consider what often happens as traffic volume increases. First, new roads are built, or existing roads expanded, to accommodate the heavier use. Next, more space is designated for parking and housing the growing number of cars. As more space is taken by cars, opportunities for exchange, whether in the form of the corner store, the local playground or park, or someone's backyard, are soon affected. Stores move to the suburbs, children are transported to sports facilities to play, and people restrict their socializing to a smaller area of their neighborhood. Finally, with the distance growing between exchange opportunities, public transport becomes less feasible and, as a result, many people, particularly the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, are denied access to these opportunities.
And today's Post has another article ("Cyclists explain why they sometimes ride on the sidewalk in downtown D.C.") on the topic, a followup by John Kelly to his article from last week about reckless cycling on sidewalks.  But that's grist for the next piece.

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