Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Archive for December 2011

Taxi drivers loudly object to what Mayor Vince Gray and the Council propose

December 20, 2011 - 08:45 AM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Yesterday afternoon the mayor and the D.C. council announced a joint legislative effort to modernize our District's taxis and finally allow all of the more than 8,000 taxi drivers in the District to accept credit cards.

When can District residents expect these upgrades? A year's time or less, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh told a crowd in the Wilson Building yesterday. "I would expect sooner," she added. She began running down a list of new taxicab rules included in the legislation. "We will create a point system to ensure compliance with these rules," she noted. Drivers who failed to comply would be punished and potentially removed.

"How many points?" a man called from the back of the mayor's chambers.

Cheh asked him to be quiet. All heads in the room turned back to examine the person who had interrupted the press proceedings.

The white-haired man of middle age, a slender, fierce presence in a dark-blue shirt, declared that he hadn't heard any rules that would benefit him as a taxi driver. "Have you ever heard of the Fourth Amendment?" he shouted to the government officials. "I just love working at a minimum-wage job!"

Cheh requested security remove the taxi driver, which they promptly did. The councilmember shook off the incident and resumed, but the brief intrusion into her peaceful narrative of taxicab modernization provided powerful context for the discomfort that certain drivers feel for their local government and the changes to come.

Two press conferences unfolded in Mayor Vince Gray's media chambers yesterday afternoon, one from government officials and one from the taxi drivers. The mayor took the podium alongside Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells as well as Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton. Expect big changes, Gray said — taxis will be upgraded to accept credit cards, to feature GPS tracking, to include a panic button connected to the D.C. police that would serve both drivers and passengers, to help green the taxi fleets, include driver verification for passengers as well as a receipt for the trip with full route information listed, and to create a voucher for senior citizens and low-income residents. The D.C. Council plans to officially introduce the legislation today and will hold a hearing in January. All of this happens less than a week after the Taxicab Commissioners voted to raise the per-mile rate from $1.50 to $2.16.

How to fund all these changes? D.C. government wants to add a surcharge of up to 50 cents a trip to help create a "Public Vehicle for Hire Consumer Service Fund," which Linton estimated will generate $8 to $12 million. The drivers are expected pay nothing for the new tech. Funding will ostensibly come from advertisements and the surcharge. Post reporter Mike DeBonis published the legislation yesterday. "It’s not a medallion system exactly, but it’s close," DeBonis wrote about the provision for establishing a public vehicle-for-hire licensing quota. Gray denied any support for a controversial medallion system, an idea for a permit system floated in recent times that would have likely cut the number of taxi drivers in the city, during yesterday's questioning and said it would create "artificial scarcity," although one taxi driver told me he saw the new legislation as "a backdoor to medallions."

The taxi drivers were ready to speak up on their concerns. In the very front row sat Larry Frankel, a cab driver of 17 years and a voice behind the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers. When the press conference abruptly concluded, the silvery-haired man in a brown leather jacket assumed control of any local reporters and held court.

"Drivers have not been brought to the table," Frankel declared after the mayor and councilmembers left the room. He told me he asked the mayor for such a meeting 20 to 30 times. Why no dialogue?

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D.C. is deploying 750 people to handle snow in this year's winter

December 19, 2011 - 12:15 PM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Snow, as we all know, can be a commuting nightmare. Luckily D.C. seems relatively prepared, at least according to talk in the Wilson Building this morning, with hundreds ready for any disastrous fall that may happen.

Last week I relayed the plans that the District and WMATA have released so far about the winter's coming snowfalls. Today the D.C. Council's Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation met to discuss these plans. Bill Howland, director of the D.C. Department of Public Works, mentioned several numbers that should give a sense of how the District will handle snow this year.

So how is our government preparing?

About 750 people across the different government departments are prepared to deal with winter weather, Howland told Ward 3 Council Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee. These hundreds of people will take to the plows, ensure traffic cameras are working, monitor the emergency routes, and help facilitate communications, and make sure any number of transportation dimensions are smoothly running. There will be 294 pieces of equipment to deal with any snow that piles up.

Both Cheh and Howland name-dropped Snowmageddon, however, and Cheh was ready with questions about the state of the equipment and what we should expect and not expect from D.C. government as snow arrives in the coming weeks or months. Snow may be gorgeous but it can also be a freezing mess. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser lightheartedly noted that she's come to "to hate snow, actually." One problem discussed was the age of our snow vehicles.

"A lot of the DDOT/DPW trucks are at the end of their useful life," said Howland when talking about replacements on the way.

Cheh agreed and alluded to a recent tour of the snow preparation vehicles and plans. How did she assess the state of certain vehicles she saw? In her matter-of-fact way, Cheh said they looked "pretty bad." She said she saw many of these vehicles are outdoors and asked if there may be any changes in the future to help lengthen the vehicles' lives. No such changes are planned, the director answered. Are we losing money due to these aging vehicles kept out outdoors. "Potentially," Howland said.

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Here are some last-minute holiday transportation gifts

December 19, 2011 - 11:03 AM
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The holidays are virtually here, I know. But a shocking amount of people wait to buy gifts until the last minute. Trust me, I've been one of them in the past. Some people even wait till the holidays pass by to give their gifts. In that spirit, I present you an impromptu list of transportation-themed gift ideas. I've culled some from the archives of On Foot, some from elsewhere. Surely you must know some friend who's obsessed with bikes or trains or cars or a good stroll, no?

Here's a few ideas, and let us know any other sweet gift ideas for the transit-obsessed. Consider these for Christmas, Hanukkah, the New Year, or any other occasion coming up. Happy holidays!

Hipster bike pants:  Levi's offers Commuter cycling pants now sold at Urban Outfitters, which I wrote about back in August. Buy these for your bicycle-obsessed friend here.

A silk WMATA-adorned tie: Take a glance through the many items of Metro's online gift shop for an experience that's both enjoyable and strange. My personal favorite may be this outlandish Metro tie, which shows the many colors of the transit map. The ad copy should assure you if you have any doubts: "This silk tie is just what you need in the office or around town." Absolutely.

The Metro map, arranged out of threads and ready for your wall: Here's a gem from the depths of Etsy. I love the simplicity of this gift as well as how D.C.-specific it is. Everyone has a little wall space to spare for an item like this.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has died ... because of 'train fatigue'

December 19, 2011 - 08:00 AM
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Testament to weary commuters. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

What exactly is "train fatigue"?

I ride trains frequently enough and am, truly enough, at times fatigued. But I never suspected the state could grow into a lethal one. Last night the world learned otherwise as North Korea announced the death of its leader, Kim Jong Il, a man full of both quirk and controversy. What claimed him?  He fell to "train fatigue" last Saturday morning. Train fatigue — a force powerful enough to claim one of the world's most notorious cults of personality. The leader was about 69 years old and has ruled the communist country, closed to much outside influence, since 1994.

During great news events such as this, the occasional tweet can rise to the moment, speaking deeper truths we all wonder and think. The death of Kim Jong Il raises this question of train fatigue, and specifically whether we Metro riders should fear the same fate. Let's hear the thought posed from native Washingtonian and blogger known as WashingTina moments after news of the leader's death broke: 

#KimJongIl died of fatigue on a train. Crap. That's how I feel every time I ride Metro. I didn't know it was fatal. #wmata
Dec 19 via Twitter for BlackBerry®FavoriteRetweetReply

Her thought was retweeted scores of times, reflecting the local resonance present at hearing of this international event.

In light of Kim Jong Il's death, expect posts to come later in the week on the subject of North Korean transportation, one way or another. I also look forward to learning more details of what "train fatigue" entails.

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Walking it back: Cyclists eye new bike lanes, a gender gap, and a scam infographic

December 17, 2011 - 11:28 AM
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(Photo: Ben Schumin)

The bicycle won this week out of the many modes of transportation covered here at On Foot. There were stories worth cheering and stories worth fearing — and all looking forward to the future. But news of all sorts emerged, including an entirely new transportation option in the District. The holidays are fast approaching, D.C., and the year's final big push of track work is happening, most significantly on the Red Line.

Enjoy the final weeks of 2011, starting with a review of the biggest transportation stories of the past week:

• Here's a map of the new proposed bike lanes for 2012 as well as a map of killer bike parking around D.C.

• Watch out, D.C. college students. The Council is considering taking away your ability to buy reciprocity tags and park in our neighborhood streets.

• Let's all sing the taxicab blues ... or should we? Higher cab fares are on the way but we'll be able to use credit cards by fall of next year. And if you want to pay more sooner rather than later and get higher quality service, consider checking out a newcomer to the D.C. transportation scene — use your smartphone to summon your new private driver from Uber.

• We're all suckers for a great infographic, and the nation's media and bicyclists went crazy for a recent pro-bike one ... too bad the whole thing was a ploy for a scamming link farm. Even The Huffington Post and Fast Company fell prey to the bogus scheme.

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Weekend traffic jams: 'Walk in the Park'

December 16, 2011 - 04:20 PM
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(Photo: flickr/dano)

Every good commute calls for a good playlist. Forget long waits for Metro trains, crowded jostling on the cars, walks that seem endless, and the bus stops to what feel like nowhere — this weekend, just sit back and enjoy the songs on your iPod or MP3 player. The right song kills all the travel stress, and in honor of that fact, TBD's On Foot blog offers you a weekly transit-themed track for your Metro playlist. The destination will come eventually, after all. In the meantime, just enjoy the ride and the music.

This week's traffic jam: "Walk in the Park" by Beach House (2010)

Hear more songs for your commuting playlist here.

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Picture of the day: A milestone ribbon-cutting for the 11th Street Bridge Project

December 16, 2011 - 01:16 PM
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(Photo: DDOT)

Today marked quite the ceremony for our local District government, which proudly assembled a ribbon-cutting at the 11th Street Bridge freeways. As I reported not long ago, the District will be opening the two freeways, which should greatly aid traffic in the area.

The ongoing project is $300 million in total, the largest the District Department of Transportation has ever undertaken, and I can understand why Mayor Vince Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, officials from DDOT, and others want to celebrate this milestone, despite the chilly December temperatures. The project began in 2009 and this is one of the first of the benefits promised, now delivered. The local bridge is expected to open next year. Photos have emerged of this morning's ribbon-cutting. The bridge is one of many high-profile and expensive projects that the District has engaged in these days, from its network of streetcars to streetscaping to a growing Capital Bikeshare network, all while worrying about growing Occupy costs (now upwards of $1.6 million, the mayor says) and worrying about Congressional budget crises, not to mention the ongoing concern about ethics. It must be nice to have a demonstrable achievement to offer, one that will ease D.C. transportation. Mayor Gray noted today that the project continues ahead of schedule and under budget.

Expect the inbound freeway open to traffic by Monday morning rush hour, DDOT reports, and the outbound bridge to open by next week. What a wonderful holiday transportation gift, no?

Here's an excellent photo provided by Mayor Vince Gray, which I want to highlight here given the enormity of the project:

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An Internet scammer duped America's bike-lovers with a fancy infographic

December 16, 2011 - 09:00 AM
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Linkbait. (Photo: Health Care Management Degree)

Bicyclists, I've got a fancy infographic for you. Have you seen this yet? In bold letters, the infographic title proclaims: "How Bikes Can Save Us," courtesy of ... wait, say, this can't be right. It's from the folks at ... Health Care Management Degree? Let's say that again. ...Health Care Management Degree... Jesus, that sounds awfully strange.

Yes, the splashy infographic, which trumpets the sustainability of biking, has all the appearances of a scam, and you, America's bicyclists, just fell for it.

The legitimately pretty and well-done infographic has made the rounds of several news sites and blogs in the last two weeks. People saw the visual, loved it, published and commented on it, all the while linking to and supporting what would seem to be a link farm, a spammer, a farce of a website called HealthCareManagementDegree.com, which exists to game the Internet. The bare-bones, purposeless Health Care Management Degree website was created in 2004 and registered to Mascot Media Circle LLC, based out of Austin, Texas. This shadowy entity also created OnlineBachelorDegreePrograms.com in that same year, RatedColleges.com in 2004, and Computer-Colleges.com in 2002, among what I would imagine are many other bogus web addresses likely meant to take advantage of Google's search engine selection and enjoy a little SEO payoff. Anyone still arguing for the site's legitimacy? Some publications and bloggers pulled the infographic once they realized what happened — here's the now-dead link to Bike Portland's piece. Others ran with it: The Huffington Post, Fast Company's Co.Design blog and Co.Exist blog, Midwest Sports Fan, Design Taxi, Bike Commute News, and several other blogs as well as scores of tweets. The infographic went viral and spread like wildfire. But every single media outlet should pull the link to the origin site because my bet is that they've been duped ... and Google search results will be even more scrambled in favor of bullshit scamming as a result. The creators of Health Care Management Degree wanted to take advantage of the fact that bicyclists like to feel good about their mode of transportation, and as the terrific infographic passed through the Internet, it continually linked back to the Management Degree site and elevated its status in the Google webpage rankings, making the site all the likelier to show up in searches. But go to the site and examine. There's no real content there.

The man who most notably points out the infographic farce is DL Byron, the publisher and blogger behind Bike Hugger, in his Dec. 15 Google+ post "Social and Gullible."

"So what's going on is social-sourced link farming," DL Byron writes. "By putting out a cool graphic that illustrates a popular topic, they're getting juice from bloggers blogging it and twitter users' retweets — also the comments you'd expect on their posts. How Google search results are returned is determined, in part, but how many incoming links a site has. If you're linking to it, you're getting gamed."

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How Mayor Gray and Metro plan to survive the next Snowpocalypse

December 15, 2011 - 03:26 PM
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Frozen D.C. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Winter is coming, D.C., and although we haven't experienced any true snow, we can bet some will arrive before long. Our capital is no stranger to the occasional Snowpocalypse, whether in recent years or even a half century back. My WJLA colleague John Metcalfe tells us there's a chance we'll be seeing snow as soon as this Friday.

Mayor Vince Gray released the city's snow plans, and one thing's for sure — the D.C. government does not want to get caught off guard this year. The city has created an entire web domain devoted to the chilly blight and deployed 45 plows on Dec. 7 at the rumor of a half-inch falling. I've reviewed some of the city's advice for the key reason that snow will impact D.C. transportation, whether you're a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist. Snow piles up, and no one can get anywhere. Whole commutes are ruined and delayed for hours. Planning for winter involves some special travel precautions that you'll want to start thinking about now. Drivers, you have car maintenance to worry about. And is your car stocked with the proper winter supplies like booster cables and a first aid kit? The city's cute slogan is "plan today, plow tomorrow."

I'm glad to read the District plans to clear bike and pedestrian trails like Met Branch this year. Here's some of the District's pedestrian, driver, and cyclist tips regarding speed, how to approach ice, reminders, and so on. Much of the advice is common sense, and it never hurts to glance over the list to make sure you won't find yourself caught in a transportation nightmare before Christmas. Bicyclists, you may want to consult Daniel Hoagland's 2010 two-part series on winter bike riding over at the Washington Area Bicyclist Assocation's blog to make sure you're prepared.

Metro, too, has planned for the weather, with different levels of service set to kick in depending on the level of snowfall. Don't worry about too many WMATA changes with one to two inches of snow. But once two to four inches fall, expect 15 minute waits between buses and small delays when waiting for trains. Once those flakes add up to four to eight inches, the bus delays rise to 30 minutes and Metrorail riders can expect 15 minutes of delay. It's at this level WMATA will get serious on the tracks: "Trains with snow plows and ice scrapers attached will operate between trains carrying passengers," according to the transit agency's plan states. Any storm that yields more than eight inches, watch out. At that point, WMATA's bus service drops to "limited" operations and the trains will only run underground.

And here's the list of emergency snow routes. Make sure you don't rest your vehicle there during an emergency — there's a $250 fine as well as any towing costs.

Our mayor suggests we assemble into neighborhood shoveling teams to be prepared for any potential snowstorms in the weeks and months to come. Here are the official government thoughts on how best to create one:

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Uber now offers Washington, D.C. taxi service in style

December 15, 2011 - 12:21 PM
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The District's newest taxi. (Photo: Uber)

Are you fed up with the District's traditional taxi services? For those frustrated with all the talking of rising cab fares, consider a new transportation service that's recently come to Washington, D.C. — Uber.

Uber advertises itself as "everyone's private driver" and offers a similar experience as a taxi but one without the marked car and with, allegedly, more style and convenience and notably more tech-savvy capability. You can request a car via a text message or through the company's smartphone app, and before you know it, a black car appears. What's most appealing may be their spiel on payment: the ride's cost is "automatically charged to your credit card on file, tip included." The company launched in 2009, has several millions in impressive funding, and offers services in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Paris, Boston, and now D.C. as well.

And what is that cost exactly? In D.C., the Uber fare is $7 base plus a $3.25-per-mile distance fee plus a 75-cent-per-minute time fee. It's $15 minimum and Uber does offer special rates to airports like Dulles and BWI ($80 and $115, respectively). Uber began testing in the D.C. market on November 18, and according to its blog, its first testers were especially thrilled. One wrote:

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Has Metro crime really fallen? The complicated state of WMATA security

December 15, 2011 - 10:55 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Metro Board is talking crime again today, and naturally some D.C. publications have already trumpeted the big WMATA news. "Major crime on the Metro falls in 3rd quarter," the Washington Post proclaimed.

But has it?

Yes and no. From January to September, WMATA reports that major crime, which include larceny, robbery, and aggravated assault, has fallen dramatically, more than 20% and from 1,753 in 2010 to 1,398 this year. The lesser crimes have gone up around 9%, now at 4,243. When comparing the third quarter crime data from over five years, however, it's hard to feel crime has dropped too much. In the third quarter, from July to September, there were 495 major crimes that Metro reported — and while it's lower than last year's third-quarter results, it's the second highest number of part 1 Metro crimes recorded in the last five years.

Last year saw a staggering 560 part 1 crimes in Metro's third quarter, whereas there were 339 in the third quarter of 2007, 460 in 2008, and 453 in 2009, all substantially lower numbers than in 2011. In 2011's second quarter, WMATA reported 487 major crimes, also lower than the third quarter's new numbers. Why have these crimes escalated so much, especially since the low of 2007? I wonder whether the economy may have contributed. Other third-quarter highlights: 16,850 calls for service, 446 arrests, 1,897 criminal/civil citations for fare evasion and public conduct violations, and 14 bus operator assaults.

I'll acknowledge that Metro has upped its game in terms of crime-fighting techniques, and they seem to have paid off. Bike crime dropped from 124 during this quarter last year to 100 this year. On November 15, Transit Police arrested a teenager trying to steal a bike by using a decoy bicycle, for instance, at Prince George's Plaza. WMATA has also offered bike theft prevention flyers to bicyclists coming into the Metro. That's encouraging, as is the news that Metro Transit Police made 50 on-the-spot arrests in November and have begun patrolling garages on vehicles known as gators and have begun paying vocal attention to the problem of bus operator assaults. WMATA may not update their blotter anymore but they have succeeded at communicating many elements of their crime-fighting strategy. I can't wait to see the final numbers for the year's fourth quarter, which will include the months in which these tactics were used.

What's less encouraging is that of the 172 major crimes committed in the top-10 most crime-ridden Metro stations this quarter, WMATA only made 13 arrests. In other words, more than 90% of major crimes in those 10 dangerous stations went unpunished. Here's the 10 Metro stations in the system that reported the most crime:

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Metro history: Speed downhill, expect a D.C. traffic ticket

December 14, 2011 - 05:35 PM
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Beware the radar. (Photo: flickr/horiavarlan)

Whether with speed cameras or vulture-like cops, Washington, D.C. has always been ready to punish those who would speed. Tickets mean revenue, and no police department has to be told that twice.

I present a brief piece of Metro history here from February of 1962 in an issue of Jet. The magazine featured a selection of different news items under the broad banner of "Talking About." Among these items was a bit of D.C. transportation that doesn't at all surprise me.

Here's what bothered drivers then:

How Washington, D.C. traffic department set up radar at the foot of hills out of sight in sparse residential sections of the city to trap motorists going down hill. Most of the speeding goes unheeded in predominantly Negro neighborhoods, while radar is frequently observed set up in well-to-do dominant white communities.

Sneaky, D.C. No wonder drivers speed up as they're driving downhill. I wonder how many tickets police gave out thanks to those 1960s radars. The racial dimension to how the District of Columbia enforced traffic law is also worth considering. I imagine the differing levels of enforcement impacted the safety of pedestrians at the time and created other problems, as speeding went "unheeded."

Read the February 1962 issue of Jet here and more pieces of Metro history here.

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Don't revolt over Metro's $200,000 report just yet, WMATA riders

December 14, 2011 - 04:00 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Metro's Office of Long Range Planning recently released a Regional Benefits of Transit study, outlining the various ways WMATA helps jumpstart the social and economic life of Washington, D.C. and pegged to the coming 35th anniversary of the transit system. You probably know the study as "Metro's study imagining there's no Metro." You also probably heard the report's price tag — $200,000, or 16 cents a rider, as the City Paper's Shani Hilton reported yesterday. She calls the report's premise "silly."

The price tag has since inspired a healthy amount of anger and dismissal from our local Metro riders, starting with Hilton's tone as she delivered the cost: "...the price tag still seems hefty. That's almost enough money to maintain four escalators!" Then came the Twitter rage. Then came the follow-up posts from such entities as D.C. Shitlist (headline: "You Won't Believe What The D.C. Metro Just Spent $200,000 On...") and Unsuck D.C. Metro ("It's like Metro is a surly, abusive husband in a spaghetti stained tank top slouching in the glow of a TV set in some dingy apartment drinking too much beer and telling his downtrodden wife how lucky she is to have him"). There was Metro-shaming as far as the eye could see.

But that reaction's a little extreme, isn't it?

I agree that $200,000 sounds high, especially if you see the report as nothing more than a "PR stunt," as anonymous blogger at Unsuck calls it. But I've followed Metro's Office of Long Range Planning, which released the report, for awhile now and enjoyed their more in-depth, thoughtful analyses of the system. You could even mistake their reports for Greater Greater Washington essays at times. So I asked Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel, who Hilton says initially defended the cost to her, for more details on just why the report cost $200,000. Let's have, I thought, a breakdown here before laying on the derision. Too often the gut reaction is to slam Metro — it's an easy target.

"Rest assured, the $200,000 bought much more than a narrative imagining a world without Metro — that was just one component," Stessel told me by e-mail.

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D.C.'s bicycling gender gap begins at the bike shop and at home

December 14, 2011 - 12:33 PM
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Bike for gender equality. (Photo: flickr/ubrayj02)

Bike shops can be intimidating. Racks of bicycles tower all around, many of the bikes glossy and decked out beyond belief, some costing in the thousands of dollars. In the bike shop, bicycles cease to be the pleasant transportation and recreation tool you know; they're broken into their component parts. They become chains and pieces of mechanical engineering in a place of jargon and gears, one that exudes the idea of men involved in serious business. Yet several women do enter to purchase bikes and bike gear. A weird thing happens when many couples come in — often, when a man and a woman come to buy the woman a sturdy, good bike, the man does all the talking with the bike shop employees.

"Often his idea of what she needs is not correct," said Katie Knight, general manager of Revolution Cycles in Georgetown, as she sat with eight women with her in front of a full and large room in a Foggy Bottom public library.

"Is there anything else where things happen this way?" asked civil engineer Fionnuala Quinn, also a director of the recent Women's Cycling Project, softly, her hands resting on the table draped in black Washington Area Bicyclist Association cloth.

"Cars," said Kate Ryan of WTOP News immediately with a knowing smile and nod.

Nine female panelists gathered at the West End library Monday night to lead the talk for WABA's first Women's Cycling Forum, which addressed a stark gender gap that divides male and female cyclists. A crowd of perhaps a hundred attentive people sat to listen to their dialogue, overwhelmingly female in composition but surprisingly diverse in terms of age, with many young cyclists present but also several with gray hair. Many of the female panelists had biked for years and worked with the industry in one way or another, and their conversation offered a healthy mix of both substance and personality. In D.C., as in most places around the U.S., two men ride for every one woman, yet in bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Germany, women represent around 50% of cyclists, as event organizer and WABA intern Jesse Cohn noted at the outset. I first wrote of this event last week, when Cohn told me she hoped the talk would be focused on solutions and explained the forum's plans. The two-hour dialogue did consider many solutions, and more importantly, identified the various ways and places that women are discouraged from biking, implicitly or explicitly.

The discussion focused on two places that hold women back from cycling — the bike shop and the traditional household setting.

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America's sharp, new turn against distracted driving

December 13, 2011 - 03:17 PM
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(Photo: flickr/oregondot)

It's no surprise to learn that the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking another move against distracted driving. Under Secretary Ray LaHood, the department has transformed the dangers of distracted driving into what one might argue is their central clarion cause. The feds want to demonize the use of cell phones in our cars, whether for texting or talking purposes. The government even features faces of people who have suffered or died due to distracted driving and run the website Distraction.gov.

"Since 2009, we have held two national distracted driving summits, banned texting and cell phone use for commercial drivers, encouraged states to adopt tough laws, and launched several campaigns to raise public awareness about the issue," Distraction.gov proclaims.

All you have to do is look at LaHood's desk to know he's serious.

And now it looks like the feds have upped the stakes. Today the National Transportation Safety Board has said it will vote that all states ban mobile devices for talking or texting, even if the devices are hands-free. The NTSB cites more than 3,000 lives lost last year due to distracted driving. The organization has messages for many agencies throughout the government, and here's the big one directed to all 50 states and the District of Columbia:

(1) Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers; (2) use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration model of high visibility enforcement to support these bans; and (3) implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and enforcement, and to warn them of the dangers associated with the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving. (H-11-XX)

We already have several restrictions on cell-phone use in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland, and if the federal government continues with these new proposed recommendations, the tide of the country may turn rather quickly. Ray LaHood has mused that he wouldn't return for a second Obama term, and this is, more and more undeniably, becoming the transportation issue that has defined and will embody his time at the helm of the Department of Transportation.

Well, that and perhaps talking cars. We'll see on that one come 2013.

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Higher taxi fares are coming but at least we'll be able to use credit cards

December 13, 2011 - 02:13 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Transportation is always getting more expensive. Gas prices? Oh, they'll go up. The Metro? People fear fare increases next year as they look at the budget. Taxis? Well ... we had the hysteria not long ago and now, sure enough, it seems prices are rising ever-so-slightly, much to the chagrin of our city's cab-riding population.

Here's the meat of the change, according to the D.C. Taxicab Commission:

The Commissioners voted unanimously to raise the per-mile rate to $2.16 from $1.50 and the wait time to $25 per hour from $15. While the initial “flag drop” rate of $3.00 remains the same, the rule also eliminates all other surcharges (except the dispatch and delivery service fees) and converts the snow emergency charge to a flat fee of $10 for trips ending in the District and $20 for trips ending in the suburbs.

Expect the changes to go into effect as soon as Feb. 3 and a 30-day comment period on the new rules to begin on Dec. 23. A second public hearing will be held on Jan. 11. The average D.C. cab ride lasts 2.5 miles, according to the commission, and "the proposed meter fare adjustment would improve drivers’ revenue while not adversely affecting the riding public." They say you'll pay slightly more for short trips while drivers are the ones suffering during long trips, for whatever that's worth. Still, no one's ever happy over the idea of fare increases.

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D.C. college students may lose access to residential parking

December 13, 2011 - 01:00 PM
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One city, a million cars. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This morning, Tim McBride leaned forward before members of the D.C. Council with a big smile on his face. He spoke into his microphone to Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who led the morning's hearing on several pedestrian and parking proposals starting at 10:30 a.m.

"We’re actually in the midst of finals, so it’s good to have a slight break," the American University junior and Delaware native, grin ready, told Cheh. He wore a bright blue tie and a suit jacket, looking entirely appropriate for the morning's hearing. Today he spoke to oppose B19-217, the Residential Parking Protection Amendment Act of 2011. "As a student, I find this act to be unfair … Mobility is practically synonymous with college. Why are students to be singled out?”

The act will extinguish the $338 reciprocal parking permit for full-time students with vehicles registered in another jurisdiction.

The D.C. student parking problem is simple and allegedly growing in recent years — where will all the students park their cars? Washington, D.C. has several universities, including George Washington U, American, and Georgetown, and the crush of thousands of students has consequences. Out-of-state, full-time students like McBride want to park in your neighborhoods, D.C., and have good reason. To do so, he currently pays just under $340 for a reciprocity tag. But if he were to pursue a parking permit on the AU campus, he would pay $988 for the academic year, prices in place as of last May. The other alternative would be to apply for a D.C. license and plates, which carries its own weight of several hundred dollars and a decidedly more permanent undertone — and would lose the driver representation in the U.S. Congress.

But why might the D.C. Council prevent students like McBride from parking on their residential streets? Residents are, it seems, not entirely thrilled.

"I get an average of 10 complaints a week," said Tom Smith, ANC comissioner for Spring Valley in 3D02 and representing the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association.

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The tonal quirks and misfires of Zipcar advertising

December 12, 2011 - 03:11 PM
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The nirvana we've all waited for. (Photo: Zipcar)

Speak, Zipcar — but choose your voice carefully.

The world's biggest car-sharing company is a lion in the transportation world and in large part due to killer branding strategies. Zipcar doesn't want to merely be a car-sharing service; it wants to be a lifestyle. The company wants to tweet with personality, to hold low-car diet challenges across the country, to be your friendly neighborhood pal. Zipcar doesn't want a member, you see. It wants a Zipster. The company claims more than 60,000 of the converts in D.C.

What results from Zipcar's smart, strategic desires is a distinct advertising tone, colloquial and informal, which has worked well in the past but lately has seemed particularly zany ... and not always quite so successfully. Cool humor can sometimes translate as psychotic or offensive. Tone is all about nuance.

The latest misfire has offended certain lesbians and gay people, as Zipcar features a large advertisement stating "Some of our best cars are gay" alongside a yellow MINI Cooper. As WUSA observed, this ad is featured at 14th and Corcoran in D.C. and has provoked a variety of reactions. Is it offensive? The phrase hearkens back, I take it, to the popular phrase from 10 years ago — "Some of my best friends are gay" — and alludes to the more feminine qualities of a smaller car. My personal reaction is that the advertisement is not so much offensive as it is poorly executed and confusing to many people. The intended meaning of the ad isn't immediately clear and it comes off as more puzzling than hilarious. The introduction of a sexual orientation also raises the question of offense in a serious way, and I can understand why any gay person would be uncomfortable with this big Zipcar ad.

WUSA surveyed people on 14th Street to illustrate the confusion:

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Seat belts have saved more than a quarter million lives

December 12, 2011 - 11:45 AM
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Life-saver. (Photo: flickr/goodgerster)

Our streets are dangerous places, but recent news suggests that, on a national scale, they're becoming less dangerous all the time. I wrote about these traffic-fatality trends last week here, pointing out the unfortunate statistic that more people have died on the road in the District this year than last so far. 32,885 lives were lost in traffic in 2010 throughout the country.

In the course of researching traffic fatalities, I  found federal analysis of traffic fatalities released earlier this fall that broke down the 2009 traffic fatalities by a number of factors, from the causes of fatal crashes to the ages of drivers killed to variations in blood alcohol level of people involved in fatal crashes and the makes of the vehicle. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System General Estimates System report makes for fascinating reading and I recommend it to anyone curious about our transportation deaths. From that report I identified the 13 biggest factors that caused car crashes — the first, it turns out, is speeding, and the second is drunk driving.

One of the most fascinating sections — and one generally more optimistic than bleak — was the last: "Lives Saved, 1975-2009."

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D.C. reveals a map of the new bike lanes proposed for 2012

December 12, 2011 - 08:00 AM
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More lanes are coming. (Photo: flickr/dylanpassmore)

Washington, D.C., are you ready for your next wave of bike lanes? Several improvements to bike infrastructure are on the way to our capital.

This past week, the District Department of Transportation met with the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council on biking infrastructure in Washington, D.C. and DDOT staff offered a map of potential bike lanes and improvements for 2012. The map contains three colors: blue lines refer to new proposed infrastructure; red refers to improvements in biking infrastructure DDOT planned to add in 2011 but never, uh, quite got to; and green lines signify those spots where existing bike infrastructure has begun to deteriorate and where the lanes may need a good splash of paint.

Here's the DDOT map of proposed bike lanes for 2012. What do you think?
View 2012 Proposed Bike Lanes in a larger map

As the council notes, it's possible to see these new proposed bike lanes on top of the current bike-lane infrastructure by viewing a larger version of the map and clicking on "traffic" in the upper right and hitting the bicycling option.

Included among the improvements are blue lines along 1.4 miles of L Street NW and 1.3 miles of M Street NW, two noted east-west roads that may provide critically important passage for various bicyclists through the city. The idea of cycletracks on L and M has undergone some contentious dialogue in the past. In June of 2011, DDOT transportation planner Jim Sebastian said, "We are waiting on the completion of our studies of the existing cycletracks on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, and the analysis of the L & M Street corridors, before making a determination on proceeding with the concepts for cycletracks." Nearly half a year later now, these blue lines suggest that DDOT will be officially moving forward with biking infrastructure on L and M in the new year.

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