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Census Finds DC and NYC Bike Commuting Has Doubled in Four Years

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

For the first and second U.S. cities to start building networks of modern protected bike lanes, the payoff seems to have arrived.

In both Washington, DC, and New York City, the rate of bike commuting has doubled since 2009, according to Census figures released Thursday.

Powered by one of the country’s most successful bike-share systems, a solid network of painted lanes, a handful of protected lanes, and the burgeoning bicycle culture that resulted from those changes, Washington’s bike commute mode share vaulted to 4.5 percent in 2013, up from 2.2 percent in 2009. Among major U.S. cities, that estimate would place DC second only to Portland, Oregon, as a bike commuting town.

“DC has been coming up strong for several years,” said Darren Flusche, policy director for the DC-based League of American Bicyclists. “It’s the nation’s capital; I keep waiting for someone to say they’re the nation’s bike capital.”

New York City, meanwhile, has a lower biking rate — just 1.2 percent, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. But that comes out to 46,000 daily bike commuters, about as many as Portland and DC combined. New York added an estimated 10,000 bike commuters in 2013 alone, its fifth straight year of growth.

Flusche credited the Michael Bloomberg administration, led by former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, for rapidly dedicating space on New York streets for painted or protected bike lanes.

“I think we’re finally seeing the benefits of those decisions made as far back as ’09, ’10, ’11,” Flusche said.

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DC and New Orleans Closing the Bike Commute Gap With Portland

Perennial cycling leaders like Portland and Minneapolis have seen progress slow, while some less well-known biking cities are making gains. Image: Bike Portland

Growth in bike commuting has slowed in Portland and Minneapolis, while some less well-known biking cities are making gains. Graph: Bike Portland

New Census numbers are out, providing fresh data on how Americans are getting to work, and Michael Andersen at BikePortland has noticed a couple of trends.

The mid-size cities best-known for biking haven’t made much progress lately, Andersen writes, while other cities have made rapid gains:

2013 Census estimates released Thursday show the big cities that led the bike spike of the 2000s — Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver and, most of all, Portland — all failing to make meaningful changes to their commuting patterns for three years or more.

Meanwhile, the same figures show a new set of cities rising fast — first among them Washington DC.

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Fixing a Blank Wall Streetscape With Storefront Retrofits

Every city has places where the buildings present a blank face to the sidewalk. A dark, recessed arcade deadening the pedestrian environment or a soulless concrete wall fronting a windswept plaza.

Consultant Brent Toderian, formerly the planning director for the city of Vancouver, pointed out a cheap and easy solution to this problem. He calls them “blank wall retrofits,” storefronts that can be inserted over blank walls to add sidewalk-facing retail. He tweeted this great example in Calgary, Alberta: 

This retrofit fits between the lobby and plaza of the brutalist Westin Calgary and the sidewalk.

“It’s a great technique for dealing with fundamentally flawed architecture that presents blank walls to streets and public places,” Toderian says. ”Unlike ‘make-up on a pig’ — e.g. murals — this fundamentally changes the street edge condition. The pig is no longer a pig. It potentially changes un-urban to urban.”

We reached out to our readers to find more success stories. Here’s what they sent us.

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How Should Streetcars and Bikes Interact?

Bike lane or streetcar track? With rubber inserts, perhaps it could be both. Photo: DDOT via ##http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/18791/bike-lanes-could-let-cyclists-avoid-h-street-streetcar-tracks/##GGW##

Bike lane or streetcar track? With rubber inserts, perhaps it could be both. Photo: DDOT via GGW

Streetcar service could finally begin this year in Washington, DC. Trial runs are already taking place. And the debate about how people on bikes will navigate the tracks is already raging.

Last week, the District Department of Transportation quietly proposed streetcar regulations that would ban bicycling within a streetcar guideway except to cross the street. Most immediately, that would prohibit bicycles on H Street NE, one of the city’s premier nightlife hotspots for young people, many of whom arrive on bikes — in part because the area has been underserved by transit until now. There are no fewer than seven Capital Bikeshare stations along the corridor.

But a bike ban on streetcar corridors could have far broader implications when DC builds out its full streetcar network, which DDOT dreams of building out the network to eight lines over 37 miles throughout the city.

DDOT clarified on its Facebook page that it was proposing to prohibit bikes “in the area of the concrete surrounding the rails (effectively the lane the streetcar is running in)… Not the entire street right-of-way.” That means, DDOT says, that cyclists can ride in the left lane — which would undoubtedly lead to conflicts with cars accustomed to seeing cyclists hugging the right edge. If DDOT is serious about that, perhaps they could paint sharrows to inform drivers that bikes have a right to be in the left lane.

Either way, a bike ban is not the best way to deal with what is, by all accounts, a thorny situation.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association acknowledges that “streetcar tracks can pose a legitimate hazard to bicyclists” but insists that “banning bikes is not an acceptable solution.”

It’s a “solution” that came up earlier this year in Tucson and in 2012 in Toronto, where a cyclist died when his wheel got stuck in the tracks of a streetcar system that doesn’t even run anymore. Lots of cities have struggled to find ways to make the interaction between bicycles and streetcars less perilous.

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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column are especially expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household expense for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because the region’s median income is higher than the median income in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

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Are Children Parasites on Cities’ Finances?

Photo: Bruce Chan

Photo: Bruce Chan

No sooner did Streetsblog LA roll out its new series (and hashtag) #streetsr4families than the Washington Post asked whether it really benefits cities to attract families with kids at all. After all, wrote Lydia DePillis yesterday, while single twenty-somethings freely spend their money on $12 cocktails and $50 concert tickets, parents avail themselves of taxpayer-funded services like public schools and parks. Parasites on the system.

DePillis referenced a 2001 Brookings Institution study, “Envisioning a Future Washington,” [PDF] which put a price tag on attracting different types of new residents. The researchers found that a two-parent family with two kids would cost the city $6,200 annually, mostly because they use public schools, while a childless couple generates a net gain for the city of $13,000.

As someone who takes it on faith that children truly are an indicator species of a healthy city, reading that shook me. Could it be that we parents are, after all, a drain on the cities we love?

The topic is especially salient right now, as I’ve been engrossed in the Sightline Institute’s ongoing series, “Family-Friendly Cities.” In it, author Jennifer Langston writes at length about what cities can do to attract families with children. (More on that later.) But DePillis’s words made me suddenly uncomfortable with the whole proposition. Why should cities bend over backwards for families with kids — letting valuable real estate become children’s play areas, sullying its eateries with crayons and kids’ menus, preserving three-bedroom row houses amid the rush to build studio apartments — when those families actually end up bringing the city down?

DePillis answered her own question, of course. Parents are often in their prime earning years, and they buy expensive houses. Those houses become more expensive when the schools improve — “Trulia crunched the numbers, and found that homes in districts with highly-rated schools are a third more expensive than the metro average, while those in districts with poor schools are much cheaper,” DePillis wrote. That relegates lower-income kids to the city’s worst schools — but if we’re just looking through a lens of GDP, those pricey homes add to the city’s bottom line.

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Decades in the Works, D.C.’s Silver Line Opens to Commuters

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By 10 a.m., more than 9,500 passengers had made trips that started or ended at the five new Silver Line stations today. Photo: @drgridlock/Twitter

Half a century ago, when Dulles International Airport was constructed in the farmlands of Virginia, planners were forming a blueprint for the Washington region’s new Metro system. Back then, they ruled out the idea of stretching the rail line 30 miles beyond the capital through rural counties to connect with the airport. Such a line would serve no purpose for commuters, they said, and would do nothing to help congestion.

But there wasn’t a total absence of foresight regarding the region’s potential explosion. Along with the airport came the Dulles Access Road — and through the center of it, a median reserved for future transit.

The new Silver Line, which officially opened to riders on Saturday after months of delays, runs along that exact path. Ultimately, the 23-mile extension — the largest infrastructure project in the nation – will connect not only to the airport but beyond it to Ashburn, Virginia. The $2.9 billion first phase laid 11.7 miles of new track along five new stations in Tysons Corner and Reston, expanding the Metro system’s mileage by 10 percent.

Today is the first weekday for commuters to try out the new line, which runs east from Reston through the city to Largo Town Center in Maryland. WMATA predicts ridership will be low at first, then eventually reach as many as 25,000 boardings a day. As of 10 a.m. today, more than 9,500 people had passed through the five new stations, the agency said.

It took over five decades for the Silver Line to get here. The last 20 years were particularly contentious, as the project overcame political strife, cost overruns, financing complexities, and construction delays.

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A 12-Block Shared Space Neighborhood Rises Along the Potomac

Rendering of Wharf Street SW, a shared space under construction in Washington, DC.

Rendering of Wharf Street SW, a shared space under construction in Washington, DC. (All project plans and renderings by Perkins Eastman.)

Earlier this month, Streetsblog went on a streak about “shared space” – the idea that some streets can work better when, instead of using curbs and traffic signals to separate users, pedestrians get priority using subtle but effective visual cues. We interviewed a key shared space messenger, Ben Hamilton-Baillie; we showed off built examples in Pittsburgh and Batavia, Illinois; and we discussed the potential of shared space to transform the narrow streets of New York City’s Financial District.

Many of the historic examples of shared space that remain, like Market Square in Pittsburgh, Haymarket in Boston, or South Street Seaport in New York, are within what were wholesale markets or ports, where people, goods, and vehicles always intermingled. Old wharves and quays have become distinctive destinations in many cities, from Provincetown to Seattle’s Pike Place Market — and an inspiration to others who want to create human-scaled environments today.

Washington, DC, had just such a working waterfront for centuries, but bulldozed almost all of it in the 1950s amidst federal fervor for slum clearance and urban renewal. Just a few weeks ago, developer Hoffman-Madison Waterfront broke ground on the Wharf, which will transform 27 acres of land into 12 city blocks housing 3.2 million square feet of retail, residences, hotels, offices, and facilities ranging from a concert hall to a yacht club. Many architects and landscape architects worked together within a master plan designed by Perkins Eastman.

Streetsblog talked with Matthew Steenhoek of Hoffman Madison Waterfront about how the Wharf’s public spaces have been designed to accommodate pedestrians first and vehicles (from semi trucks to the occasional police helicopter) when necessary. Below is an edited transcript.

What are the various kinds of streets and alleys that visitors will find at the Wharf?

Maine Avenue [on the land side of the site] has a pretty traditional street section with four lanes: vehicular traffic, turn lanes, parallel parking, and street trees. There will be a grade-separated, bidirectional cycle track on Maine’s south side, outside of the existing street trees but separated from the sidewalk by a second row of trees. We’re using permeable asphalt for the cycle track because it goes over the critical root zone for those big old street trees. On Maine, you have a channelized design: traffic moves faster, there’s a lot of through bicycle traffic connecting to the [Potomac and Anacostia riverfront] trails, so the through traffic happens there. We’ll leave the median lanes utility-free and streetcar-ready, so if the District decides to build a line through there they can do so at a much lower cost.

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Will DC’s Streetcar-Weary Council Embrace the Ambitious MoveDC Plan?

How much does the moveDC plan relieve congestion? Not much, actually. Image: DDOT

How much does the moveDC plan relieve congestion? Not much, actually. The map on the left assumes moveDC is implemented; the map on the right is the baseline. Image: DDOT

Yesterday, we ran the first part of my conversation with some of the architects of moveDC, the new long-range plan from the District Department of Transportation. MoveDC calls for the implementation of congestion pricing, 69 miles of high-capacity transit in addition to the 22 miles of streetcar already planned, a new downtown Metro loop, 72 miles of protected bike lanes, 136 miles of painted bike lanes, and 135 miles of off-street trails over the next 25 years.

In yesterday’s installment, I talked to Matt Brown, DDOT’s new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT’s Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA, about the prospects for the most dramatic changes envisioned in the plan, the pitfalls of a focus on Complete Streets, and the reality that cars will not win every tradeoff anymore.

Here we pick up where we left off.

In the plan, there are two side-by-side maps (above) of future road congestion: with the changes laid out in the plan and without. And they’re very similar. Not identical, but very similar.

SZ: They’re not identical. But you have to remember, this removes a lot of vehicular capacity in exchange for some other things. So in order to create the space to provide more options, there was a need to manage the person-carrying capacity of the roadway system. And there were two principles that went along with that.

One is that there’s always a way to not pay the charge. The way we modeled it, it’s roughly equivalent to a round trip metro fare.

I thought that was interesting, to basically say you’re not going to pay any more to drive than to take the metro.

SZ: And carpools might be free. But everybody’s paying. District residents have to pay. And as we look at the whole system, we’re accommodating the same number of car trips in a day in 2040 as we are today, even as the District grows by 170,000 residents and a couple hundred thousand jobs.

CH: And we could have made these colors [on the map] pretty much whatever we wanted to. If we add more roads that would be tolled, like Massachusetts Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, we could get different colors in here. But it didn’t seem like we needed that to keep the network moving. This seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of the size of the cordon charge.

SZ: In the region, we’re starting to get experience with tolls. People ride the ICC [which is tolled and free-flowing]; they take 495 [which is free and congested]. They start to see what that means.

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“Every Street’s Going to Prioritize Pedestrians”: MoveDC’s Lovely Fine Print

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane the city plans to build. This is just the downtown zoom, but other maps show plans to build these lanes all over the city. Image: DDOT

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane DC plans to build: 72 miles of them, all over the city. This is just the downtown zoom. Other cities, be jealous. Image: DDOT

Livable streets advocates all over the country are buzzing about DC’s far-sighted new transportation plan, called moveDC. So yesterday Streetsblog sat down with some of the people responsible for writing and implementing the plan. I spoke to Matt Brown, the District Department of Transportation’s new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT’s Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA.

MoveDC is an ambitious and wide-ranging plan that calls for overhauling streets to improve walking, biking, and transit. If you want to absorb it all, here’s the whole, massive document.

What’s your favorite part of this plan? What do you brag to other cities about and say, “DC’s gonna do this and it’s gonna be amazing”?

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: ##http://ddot.dc.gov/biography/matthew-brown##DDOT##

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: DDOT

MB: I’m struck by the comprehensive nature of it all. It speaks to new investments, but it also speaks to state of good repair for what we have, and really trying to maximize the road system we have so that it accommodates all choices of travel.

I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing plan. I don’t think it’s: “We have a vision, we need whatever dollars and without that it’s going to fail.” Certainly there are dollars that are needed to implement, and we can’t realize the full capacity of the plan without doing that.

But I think this is a plan for the future of the District, and also for our agency. I mean, there are recommendations in here about how to prioritize sidewalk repairs better. One of the recommendations is to better prioritize how we make investments with the baseline money that we have.

So I guess it’s not one policy element I’m excited about. I’m excited there’s so much, and they’re interrelated but they’re not dependent on each other. We can make a big impact even if we can’t build a downtown metro loop, or pick your favorite infrastructure investment from the plan.

SZ: Or a downtown congestion charge!

[All laugh.]

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