Urban Planning in DC – choosing among Bikes, buses, cars, taxis, pedestrians in a city that doesn’t manage of them well any more

I’m a member of a local DC list-serve, and one question that has often come up is transportation. There’s been a lot of heated argument, some of it well-informed, and I wanted to add some stuff with a Brookland (DC) orientation.
Here’s the first post I wrote about comparisons of bike transport in DC, the UK, and The Netherlands and Belgium – places I had some information about:
I seem to recall that there was some discussion a while ago on this list-serve about the pros and cons of dedicated bike lanes. I’ve tried biking from my house at 13th and Randolph to my workplaces (schools in the West End and elsewhere) and generally felt rather frightened. I got rid of my bike several years ago — it was a POS anyway. And we have too many hills in our area, and it was scary. The fact that my son’s best friend (also a Brookland resident) was killed on R.I. Ave while riding his bike to class at UMCP did not insprie me to continue. (No one else was at fault, btw) The young man is commemorated on the Monroe St bridge over the Metro and RR lines.
Visiting Amsterdam about 9 years ago was quite amazing, because it seems that everybody there rides a bike. Probably more bikes than people, let alone cars. Lovers hold hands while riding. Folks talk on cell phones while riding. Little kids and old geezers ride. Some parts of Belgium have lots of bikes, other parts (eg Brussels) do not: flat areas, lots of bikes, bike storage shelters, bike lanes. Hilly regions, no.
I just found an article from a British newspaper that folks interested in the issue might want to look at. Apparently the UK has about the same situation with bike lanes as we do here in DC: few of them, poorly planned, and a very automobile-centered transportation system. The author investigates what might be needed for a change to an Amsterdam-type biking system. Here is the link, if you care to read it:
It’s not a simple question, not at all.
Guy on Randolph.
To which, a person on the next block who writes a lot, replied (guess he can’t sleep either):

The “streetscape” on 12th reduced a two lane street to one lane. They added the “bump-outs” on the corners which constrict the street and leave no safe way for bikers and motor vehicles to pass each other safely. The right on red at Michigan is gone, so the numerous emergency  vehicles coming to Providence are blocked by cars waiting for the light. Traffic is backing up everywhere. You can hardly get out of the neighborhood by car, it is ridiculous, spending $12 million and doing more harm than good. How di repaving 18th NW only cost $6million. What is wrong with this picture,, are black steel benches that expensive?

WJLA showed a Circulator Bus running the red light at 18th and Columbia Rd. NW, but didn’t show the driver waitng through numerous changes of the light, backed up on Calvert. People are losing patience, as they should. The govt. job is to facilitate travel through the city, not make it infuriating! The government never stops meddling, the lights are miserably timed. You literally stop every few yards in the city.Idling , more time than driving,, just to get anywhere. Brake lining is asbestos, and carcinagenic particles are reeased form the redundant braking, and idling causes more pollution for nothing.

 There are signs all over the place, useless, signs cluttering the neighborhood streets. Placed too low , creating hazards, like all the Pepco and Verizon cables unshieled from the poles to the sidewalk.

 The city govt. has money to waste,, continually intruding and destructive. It will take a decade to undo the harm the govt. is doing to our city. The mess they are making with the taxi industry, the super-urbanisation and with it,  wholesale removal of mature trees. Flooding is caused by the miserable urban planning. Out of Control doesn’t really describe this govt. 

Daniel G…

And here are my latest thoughts:

When I think about it, I am left with one big question: do we know for sure whether these snafus are from mere incompetence and stupidity, or from deliberate malfeasance and ill intent, or merely from greed and callousness?

I’d like to echo and amplify a few of those points:
(1)  the way it appears to some of us, in Brookland, during the street renovations, Pepco simply made up numbers to “prove” they couldn’t underground the wires, and then butchered the lighting and everything else, leaving the low-hanging wires and, as you constantly repeat, butchering the trees and making 12th street quite unpleasant. Even though we have in Brookland, along some of the blocks of 12th street, the exact same type of manhole cover that Pepco uses in Georgetown, where, as you all know, all of the electric lines are underground. It only seems to go for about a block or two, and I didn’t make an exact map, but I’ll try to report back on that. In other words, a part of the undergrounding work has already been done, and while I’ve only lived in Brookland for 29 years, I never even noticed that process going on, which makes me think it would be a lot less intrusive and expensive than some folks are claiming. (ie Pepco made up the sum of $5 billion to underground everything, but all the numbers I keep hearing don’t make a lot of sense. Is that just for DC, or for their portion of MD as well? Especially since they say that most of their customers already are undergrounded? The Post recently reported that Pepco estimates that, spread over 30 years (which is what I suggested), it would cost $100 per month. I disagree, it would be less than that: about $46 according to these figures. I simply took the total amount, $5 billion, which can be also written as 5 e 9 because it has nine zeroes after the five, and divided that by the number of customers, which I estimated at half a million, or 5 e 5 (or 500,000). The result is simply $10,000 or 1 e 4 (which you can do longhand or with a calculator if you prefer, but is a lot easier to divide the first two numbers and then subtract the two exponents [or the numbers of zeroes].
Then I looked up a website that would allow me to easily calculate the monthly payment without me needing to do any hard math at all. (I can do it, but it takes a while.)
Scenario 1: Find the Monthly Payment

Loan Amount (C)

Interest Rate % (R)

Number of Months (N)

Monthly Payment: $46.31
Total Payment: $16,672.16
Total Interest: $6,672.16
Detailed Payoff Schedule
Other Scenarios
* the DC government does, indeed, appear to make nearly every form of either public and personal transportation methods quite harder and slower each year. 
(2) for one thing, they put in an incredibly irritating lighting system that doesn’t make me feel safe but DOES seriously interfere with the floaters inside my eyes and with the scratches or dirt on my glasses, making it hard to see. I think the main reason is that the light goes directly into one’s eyes instead of illuminating the sidewalk and immediate vicinity, which is where we want it. Think about it: in your own house, do you have naked light bulbs all over the place? If you do, that’s too bad.
  (3) Our formerly reliable METRO system is becoming less and less so {most of you could give ME numerous examples!}, so you have no idea whether you will get to school or work or an appointment on time. And you don’t even know what the odds are. 
 (4) Buses are vehicles, too, and if it’s really slow for cars, then you know it’s also slow for buses; in my own experience, even though the vehicles (the buses themselves) are 20 times better in many ways than they used to be (for one thing, there was AC!) they nonetheless [I think] drive around DC at a much speed now than they were back in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s when I used to ride the buses a lot, before Metro rail even existed. (Memory does play funny tricks on one, I realize. But whenever I do ride a bus, I am appalled at how slow they go.
(5) the traffic signals often appear as if their main goal was to increase the number of hours spent idling in traffic, so we can breathe those lovely fumes that are so good at keeping away the bugs. (Hey, some politician’s going to say it: if you go way out in the sticks, there are lots more nasty biting bugs (ticks, mosquitoes, etc) than in the cities (roaches and bedbugs are, in fact, truly disgusting, but at least they aren’t painful, and they are INDOOR bugs rather than outdoor buts, therefore automobile pollutioni is good for you! (In fact, it was a pretty common idea in some circles 1790s — I’ve read and translated some stuff from that era —  that cities were way healthier than the countryside.)
(6) if some of the above assumptions are wrong, and the city’s real purpose is not simply to perversely make the travel of the 99% as hard and as slow as possible while some 1%er is making personal profit; 
         and if we also conclude that private cars, buses, and subways are getting slower,
         then perhaps you might argue that “they” are simply trying to encourage walking and riding bikes. In Brookland, however, 12th street is a nightmare both for bikes or cars. I used to ride quite a bit when I was a young kid and teen, and that arrangement is about the scariest I can possibly imagine. Unless you’re a young dude who imagines himself a death-defying daredevil, which is not going to appeal to the parents of young kids, or parents themselves, or older folks, or women. Yes we all take risks, but quite honestly, a bicycle up against a car is a very uneven match. You know who’s going to win; and you may already have quite a few such stories of your own where a car and a cyclist collided for whatever reason. 
          So, if you really want to encourage cycling, then you really have to have buy-ins from drivers, from city planners, and from pedestrians. As you know, neither cars, bikes, nor pedestrians do very well together on the same roads or whatever. [I was rationally apprehensive about riding in the street, because I didn’t want to collide with a car. I was also apprehensive about riding on sidewalks, because I didn’t want to collide with a pedestrian. And I didn’t enjoy getting yelled at by adults who thought I had ridden to close to them.) Here in DC, let’s face it, if you ride a bike, the only way to make any time is to break the law, repeatedly, sometimes every few seconds. And so do drivers of automobiles. And one of the reason that cars and bikes get tangled is that neither drivers or riders can quite predict what the other will do. Unlike in the Netherlands, where bikes have complete right of way when they are in the right, ie obeying their own bicycle traffic signals and staying in their own, well-marked bike lanes. 
(7) I suspect that in the Netherlands, there is a historical reason for the bike-dominant culture: during before and after WW2, the Netherlands was quite a poor country, and most people got around either by walking or on a bike or bus. And given the terrain, a one-time investment in a bike meant that you could get to your destination relatively quickly and for free. So, hundreds or thousands of bikes everywhere you look. Not these five-thousand-dollar marvels of engineering you see here in the US. The bikes are very plain and heavy, and most are single-speed or 3-speed at most, with foot brakes, too. Today, the Dutch are a relatively prosperous nation, but they seem to realize that if they all purchase automobiles, there is literally no room in the country to put all of them cars. 
(8) And one day, I don’t know when, we will run out of cheap petrocarbons. What will we do then?
(9) Here in Brookland, 50 years later, I am willing to bet that college sophomores in city planning, if given it as a class or group projects, could come up a number of several better plans do a better job of making a 12th street with clear bike lanes, clear and efficient automobile lanes, and clear and safe pedestrian sidewalks and marked, and with good properly-shaded lighting that doesn’t blind old farts like myself. Or make the environment all weird by keeping the trees and bugs and birds awake all night and who knows what that’ll mean?
Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 4:47 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Guy, I am generally a huge fan of your blog, and I totally agree with you that there’s a lot DC could do to improve its transportation (though I am envious of the Metro, I do remember the old DC transit buses ran a lot faster than they do today.) I’d like to see a congestion-pricing EZ pass toll system to make auto drivers in congested cities pay for the externality costs they impose on others during peak traffic times. That could encourage more rational use of the roads (more carpooling and public transit use) and provide funds to pay for improved bike lanes and public transit options.

    On the other hand, I think your calculations of the monthly amortized costs of burying powerlines are are seriously off.

    Living in Upstate NY with above-ground-powerlines, I can certainly sympathize with the desire to bury them. (We regularly have extended outages due to winter ice storms.)

    However, your calculation of $46 per month relies critically on the assumption that Pepco could borrow $5 billion at 3.75% for 30 years. But there is no way that the bond markets would loan that much money to Pepco at that rate. Pepco’s market cap (the value of their equity) is less than $5 billion. (http://ycharts.com/companies/POM/key_stats)

    Pepco already has about $5 billion in outstanding long-term debt, and there’s no way that bond markets are going to allow Pepco to double their debt load without demanding a huge risk premium. It would make the company’s leverage load and riskiness too great, especially with a 30-year payback horizon. (Who knows what alternative technologies and regulatory regimes power companies will face within less than 30 years.)

    The alternative to debt finance is equity finance, i.e., issuing new stock by selling additional stock and/or using retained earnings. Since their balance sheet shows a grand total of $74 million cash, they’d have to sell new stock. As a regulated utility, Pepco faces regulatory constraints on its equity rate of return, and the regulatory rate of return on equity is currently set at close to 10%, and in order to attract $5 billion in additional equity financing, the allowed RoR would probably have to be higher than that.

    Also, according to the WaPo, it would cost $5.8 billion just to bury the lines in DC. The Maryland customers would be an additional $4 billion.


    • Thanks for the additional information from two folks who obviously know a lot more about this than i do.


  2. As a city and regional planner, and professor of same (retired…whew!!), I examined your cyphering and found it logical, but in need of some further explanation. While I can’t speak for your community, I do know that there are usually bonds connected to the redevelopment or new development of your infrastructure, precisely power and lighting. What has been left out of the equation is the issue of banks and bonds, bids and corporate “take.” I dare call it skimming. What you’ll find is the same or another contractor will come in and complete the job as they wish. That adds additional dollars to your arithmetic. There ‘s a lot more stuff. Suffice it to say, nothing is easy, nor what is proposed to governmental agency and public is ever cost efficient. I would say more here, but I, too, am dealing with floaters. I’m confident, with a bit of discovery, you’ll find that cost overruns and plan mediation will move forward to at least double your bill.

    As to the greening of America, bikes whizzing by on nice bike lanes, etc. Our development style is still “scrape the earth” and maximize profit at the expense of the commons and not for the good of the weal. Transit oriented development is one big fairy tale still being discovered and rediscovered in planning schools across the width and breadth of the American landscape. Sorry, if it doesn’t fill pockets with a lot of cash, it just isn’t done very well, or often.


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