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.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Proposed changes to DC's transportation agency structure as another example of acting without solid planning: Part 2, what should happen to DDOT

The previous blog entry ("Proposed changes to DC's transportation agency structure as another example of acting without solid planning: Part 1, the problem") about the proposed legislation, Bill B20-0759,  Transportation Reorganization Act of 2014, to reorganize DC government's transportation functions focused on internal and external issues within the DC Department of Transportation and the government, in particular the executive and legislative branches.

DC is the only city-state in North America and has the ability to organize local government functions in a transformational fashion, because it has unitary government, with local, county, and state functions combined into one and local taxing power (full income tax revenues from residents although it lacks the ability to tax workers who don't live in the city), for a fully urbanized city.

This article focuses on how the transportation functions within DC Government should be (re)organized, but rather than split up the agency it should bulk up even more, but to do so it would need better managers and more managers and the Council and Executive Branch would have to commit to top notch appointments, comparable to Janette Sadik-Khan or Polly Trottenberg in New York City or Peter Handy of Transport for London ("London Calling," Mass Transit Magazine), or Jay Walder of Mass Transit Railway Hong Kong (ex-Transport for London, ex-NY MTA).

1.  The biggest problem is that DC's elected officials "don't know what DC wants to or should be" transportation-wise.  

31 subway stations in DC function as a network within a network.  These stations make up the bulk of what I call the DC Primary Transit Network.

At the core of the city, DC has 31 subway stations, and it should be no surprise that virtually all of the neighborhoods served by these stations are successful, and if they have the capacity, are growing either in terms of residential or commercial space, depending on the type of district, even if this wasn't the case as recently as 7 years ago.

Right now there is no consensus within DC's executive and legislative branches about the purpose and priorities of the transportation function within government.

It's not just the lack of a plan, because there is the Transportation Element of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which functions as master transportation plan in theory.

Partly it's because the city is both urban and suburban as I have discussed here, "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city" and "Understanding why Upper Northwest DC residents don't buy into the sustainability mobility paradigm."

But it's more than that.  With few exceptions, it doesn't seem as if City Council members and other stakeholders get the fact that transit, especially fixed rail transit subway service, is absolutely vital to the city's competitive advantages within the metropolitan area as a place to choose to live, locate businesses, visit, and be entertained.  For example the recently touted DC Economic Development Plan barely mentions transit and fails to acknowledge its foundational importance to the city's economy.

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the various proposals touted by City Councilmembers on transportation matters, from tax exemptions for gas stations to tolls on the 14th Street bridge, special parking privileges for funerals, the "performance parking districts" in neighborhoods, and now the proposed legislation to deconcentrate transportation responsibilities.  Most die, but unfortunately many of these bad ideas become law.

2.  DC has been able to make bad decisions on transportation because it has a robust foundation produced by the L'Enfant Plan, the concentration of federal government agencies, and the WMATA subway system to fall back on.

L'Enfant Plan, Washington, DC
L'Enfant Plan, Washington, DC (1791).

As a city, DC is second best in the nation in terms of the number of trips conducted by sustainable means--through walking, biking, and trnasit.  NYC is first.  After NYC, other cities do better than DC in terms of walking mode share and biking mode share, but in the combination of all three modes DC excels, even though DC isn't particularly dense compared to NYC.

So for all of the talk at how great Portland, Oregon is on sustainable transportation, sure they have more bikers than DC, DC does far better overall on the three modes.  The same goes with Arlington County, Virginia.  They work very hard to reduce motor vehicle traffic and have done very well.  Still, DC does better because of our urban form.

The reasons for this are (1) the grid structure of the L'Enfant plan, which was designed to optimize walking, including the then innovation of radial avenues which shorten the distance between neighborhoods compared to being only able to travel at right angles, (2) the fact the same urban form is equally robust for biking and transit, (3) neighborhoods that are somewhat dense and mixing uses, (4) the concentration of federal agencies and (5) the federal government transit benefit, which is free to employees, and subsidizes travel to work--as many as 65% of all trips to DC's Central Business District are conducted using transit.

3.  When DDOT was created.   Like many other jurisdictions, for a long time, DC's transportation functions were located within the Department of Public Works.  In the late 1990s, a new transportation unit was created within the DPW with the intention of being spun off as a separate agency.  When the split happened, it was best practice. 

However, parking enforcement remained within the Department of Public Works, the functions of the Department of Motor Vehicles--licensing of drivers, registration of motor vehicles, certification of vehicle safety, handling of residential parking permit issuance--remained within that agency, and the DC Taxicab Commission also continued as a separate agency.

Over time certain functions were brought into the agency, such as public space permitting, which had been handled by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and the management of street trees in the public space was organized within the Urban Forestry Administration.

4.  The failures in DDOT are failures in external and internal vision and management by the Legislative and Executive branches.  That's what needs to be corrected and a movement of functions to different agencies won't fix anything.  Especially if average and sub-average people are appointed as directors and the agencies are underfunded in terms of staff and planning capacity.

5.  Making a separate parking agency is a bad idea.  Making a separate transit-multimodal agency is a bad idea.  An agency devoted to parking will prioritize car storage in the public space rather than optimize the use of this space for multimodal transportation--for example prioritizing parking comes at the expense of dedicated transitways that might take away parking.  As it is now, DC policies prioritize the privileges of car owners even at the expense of other residents who may use cars but don't own them.

Despite a separate parking agency being a bad idea, there is no question that DC needs better parking planning (see "Testimony on parking policy in DC") and policy, and it needs to include public and private parking, rather than just focusing on street parking.

Integrated real time parking wayfinding signage, San Jose, CaliforniaIntegrating public and private parking into one system could involve providing wayfinding signage on parking inventory, as is done in San Jose, California.

Transit and multimodal planning cannot be divorced from street operations.

And street trees are a key element of placemaking and character qualities of neighborhoods and the city and should be subsumed within DDOT as they are today, in a repositioning towards making streets great places in multiple dimensions.  David Barth, one of the nation's pre-eminent parks planners, argues that cities should treat "streets as linear parks."

In that vein, moving street tree responsibilities to DDOE is short-sighted because it ignores how trees and planting strips are character defining elements of neighborhoods and districts within the city.

This entry, "The meta regional transit network," discusses how DC transit planning should be conceptualized.  (Note that it's a broader problem than just within DC, see "Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning.")

This entry discusses public realm framework planning as it relates to streets and transit, "Transit, stations, and placemaking."  The Smart Transportation Guidebook is also a good resource in how it distinguishes roadside and roadway characteristics and desired traffic operating speed according to land use context and whether the roads are primarily serving community-neighborhood or regional trips.

Public Realm as an Interconnected system, Slide from presentation, Leadership and the Role of Parks and Recreation in the New Economy, David BarthRight:  Interconnected public realm system diagram by David Barth, AECOM.

These entries discusses best practice bicycle planning "Ideas for making cycling irresistible in DC," "Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the "action planning" method,"  and "Are developers missing the point on eliminating parking minimums?: it's to promote sustainable transportation modes."

The Toronto Walking Strategy is one of the best  strategy documents on walking. 

This piece discusses the DC transportation planning process, "Resources for becoming a learned participant in the DC master transportation planning process."

6.  Yes, certain transportation functions need to be better consolidated and the best examples for DC are San Francisco and London.  Instead of breaking apart DDOT, instead the agency needs to be bulked up, comparable in function to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (organization chart below right) or Transport for London.

The difference between the London and San Francisco agencies compared to New York City is that except for ferries, New York City doesn't have any transit responsibilities, which are held by a state agency.  You could say that's the same for DC, but DC does offer and plans to expand some transit services, especially streetcar, separate from WMATA, the regional transit agency which provides subway and bus service.

SFMTA and TfL agencies have responsibilities for streetscapes, transit, multimodal planning and infrastructure, parking, and taxi oversight.  TfL also includes congestion charging.

And their transit systems are much much bigger than what DC will ever offer transit-wise separate from WMATA. 

TfL is organized into three operating departments and three functional departments. All surface transport (roads, traffic, buses, bicycles, sidewalks-walking, and taxis) is in one unit, rail-- underground and railways--in another, and comprehensive planning is the third operating unit.  Legal, finance, and marketing-communications comprise the other three functional departments.

Note that I would even consider the traffic safety unit and motor carrier enforcement functions within a local police department as appropriate for inclusion within a bulked up transportation agency, although I don't think that's done anywhere and not in SF or London.  At the very least traffic accident investigation ought to be moved out of police departments, as they tend to have a pro-automobile bias when it comes to accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

6.  Thumbnail recommendations for reorganizing and strengthening DC's transportation functions:
  • Merge parking enforcement (ticket writing) responsibilities into DDOT
  • But adjudication responsibilities could remain within DMV or not, it doesn't really matter
  • At least right now, keep the Taxicab Commission as a separate agency
  • But task DDOT (or OP, see below) with planning responsibilities for the agency and make creation of a taxi plan a major priority
  • Create a Deputy Mayor for Transportation in charge of DDOT, with DMV and the Taxicab Commission also reporting to this position
  • Create a master transportation plan with a solid goals and policies element that prioritizes sustainable transportation, not unlike how San Francisco has a "Transit First" policy enshrined in the city charter, and comparable to Arlington's goal of "moving more people with less traffic" (extended discussion of "Transit First" in this past blog entry)
  • Either unify planning responsibilities within DDOT's planning unit including mass transit and parking responsibilities not under their purview now or merge transportation planning functions into the DC Office of Planning
  • REQUIRE MULTIMODAL INFRASTRUCTURE AND BROADER LEVEL OF QUALITY METRICS FOR OPTIMAL THROUGHPUT, rather than prioritizing motor vehicle throughput.  Consider making infrastructure employees re-apply for their jobs by demonstrating competency and commitment to executing sustainable transportation priorities.  (In the Netherlands and Denmark when they made sustainable transportation a priority, transportation department employees had to conform, not decide whether or not they would include sustainable elements on a case-by-case basis)
  • Create a Transportation Commission, with citizen members and government representatives, comparable to the Zoning Commission, with oversight over all transportation functions including planning
  • Reorganize the city's transportation operations into a series of "transportation management districts" prioritizing optimal mobility, especially sustainable transportation modes, rather than "parking" as the "performance parking districts" do today
  • Keep Urban Forestry within DDOT because the transportation master plan should prioritize streets as defining character elements within neighborhoods and the city along the lines of what I call "Signature Streets" as an element of an integrated public realm framework.
Arlington County's Transportation Vision:

... Arlington’s integration of transportation into all aspects of urban development emphasizes accessibility options and gives priority to the movement of people rather than only vehicles.

-- Arlington County Master Transportation Plan Goals and Policies Element

7.  A couple more changes to consider:
  • Moving motor carrier and traffic safety functions, including accident investigation, from the police department to the transportation agency
  • Addressing the minimal penalties typically imposed on motor vehicle operators for accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

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At 10:16 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

well really it seems as if you want OPP are DDOT merged?

1. As a driver, it is now a relief when I get over to Arlington over DC. For a thousand small reasons and better traffic flow.

2. Your point that DC can afford to be lazy based on history + WMATA is too true.

3. Where I mostly fault DDOT is they to be far more granular.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't think that OP and transpo planning should be merged necessarily, although that's how it is done in Montgomery County, Arlington County, and other places.

But transpo planning has to be comprehensive and integrated within the agency and it isn't.

And the unit hasn't been good at harvesting and baking better practices into future engagements.

And it's too hung up on doing "unique" studies, e.g., the Midtown East Livability Study came up with its own framework for the street network, which really isn't necessary.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt driving, hmm, that's a tough one. Suzanne always complains about how long it takes to get somewhere in the city, although being from Southern California, she wants more highways, although she feels great freedom from not having to own a car, which she didn't feel she could do in LA.

It really depends on time of day and how far you are going.

It's very easy for traffic to back up.

I remember once taking more than one hour to get from Friendship Heights to Medical Center in Bethesda on a Friday afternoon, but it took 15 minutes to get from Bethesda to Georgetown after midnight during the week (not on weekends, that stretch, and Adams Morgan, is a bear).

Then again, many times during the day, even during rush hours, I can run red lights on major arterials because of limited traffic.

1. Major entryways in and out of the city, especially to downtown, are usually really really bad.

2. Certain streets downtown are really really bad (like I St. because of the closure of PA Ave.).

3. Small changes in street configuration like eliminating a stretch of parking at Georgia Ave. as it comes to U Street would significantly improve throughput.

4. But the city for decades hasn't tried to make driving super easy. Before my time there was a director of the traffic bureau who put "no right turn" signs up everywhere for that very reason.

5. I think more about tunnels for interdicting commuter traffic, because of the deleterious effect on neighborhoods or the visual environment. E.g., NY Avenue (I-95 continued), North Capital-Blair Road ought to have tunnels for through traffic and commuter traffic respectively.

It would cost tons of money.

6. At the same time, thinking about extending a yellow line out New Hampshire from Fort Totten would interdict a lot of traffic. So would busways on 16th Street.

7. And expanding subway service within the city--e.g., the sep. blue/silver line east of the orange-blue line to Union Station, and the idea of additional subway service up Georgia Ave., etc.

There are many such "fixes," most not cheap, that could help this.

But it needs an expansion of building heights in order to be able to pay for it, through increased property values and taxes.

At 2:33 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

"But the city for decades hasn't tried to make driving super easy."

Yes. But I am not sure that neglect is an actual policy vs. an accident.

The loading dock directly on 14th for the new trader j oes is an example -- going to be problem for years. The Georgia/U st intersection. I'm sure we can come up with 20x that number in a few minutes.

And that goes to my granular point. I think any road agency is looking at some pretty outdated views on traffic and counts and backups. On a staewide level you may not have a choice -- on the city/state level you do.

I'd add the lack of parking garages open on nights/weekends as part of this.

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

One of my complaints during the "Parking Think Tank" initiative is that it 100% addressed on-street parking and nothing else.

I keep saying we need an integrated parking planning process and integrated info.

And as long as on-street parking is underpriced, we have this performance parking stuff that privileges immediate neighbors, it's not that economic for off-street parking (which face it, is mostly managed as an amenity for building tenants) to be actively marketed, especially outside of regular building hours.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Plus, lots of little things at intersections. Sure you can say f* the car, but traffic backups that aren't really necessary have negative impact on residential quality of life too.

e.g. at Riggs/Blair/Rock Creek Church, the north part of the intersection is 2 lanes, the south part is 3 lanes. If a car going south attempts to turn left, it's mostly blocked by the two north bound lanes, one exclusively for right turning traffic. The intersection timing is set at 27 seconds--but it used to be 15 seconds.

(A not dissimilar problem exists at 2nd and K Streets NE, but there is onely one lane in each direction.)

I appreciate very much that I am on a bike...

There are probably dozens of such problems.

I pointed out the lack of a lay by at the then new Kaiser Permanente on 2nd St. NE a few yeas ago when it first opened that would back up traffic when medical vehicles let out passengers. It took more than a year for DDOT to re-stripe the area. Now I don't remember how long it was exactly.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But it needs an expansion of building heights in order to be able to pay for it, through increased property values and taxes."

As you know, I am not convinced that this is the case. Plus I would need to know specifics of your assertion to make a rational judgement.

Saw "The Human Scale" -- -- during the Environmental Film Fest, and in Christchurch, Gehl's firm concluded that the optimal height is six stories. Higher than that, you have to expand the foundational heft to hold more stories.


"For 40 years, Danish architect Jan Gehl has studied human behavior in cities, starting with what he calls 'Life Between Buildings.' Gehl has documented how modern cities repel human interaction and argues that we can build cities in a way that takes human needs for inclusion and intimacy into account."

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