News & Politics

The Blogger Beat: Greater Greater Washington

This week, we talk with David Alpert about how Washington could be greater.

Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert in Dupont Circle. Photograph by Chris Leaman

“Washington is great, but what could make it greater?” That’s the question David Alpert and his team of more than a dozen contributors aim to answer on their blog, Greater Greater Washington.

Alpert, 31, started the blog just over a year ago as a way to better understand community planning. “I’ve always been interested in the forces that shape the communities we live in and what makes for good, livable neighborhoods or bad, isolating places,” he says. Alpert has plenty of personal experience to draw on: In addition to Washington, he’s lived in Boston, San Francisco, and New York.

A software developer by trade, Alpert now blogs full-time. Together with his team, he posts three to five articles a day, covering issues from urban planning to walkable neighborhoods to transit. His readers span the region, from Loudoun to Prince George’s County and all parts of DC, with the strongest contingents in walkable neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Bethesda, and Cleveland Park.

Last May, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher named Alpert “blogger of the month” after reading about Alpert’s encounter with a DC taxi driver who refused to take him to Southwest DC. Alpert whipped out his cell phone and dialed the DC Taxicab Commission, where he was eventually transferred to Leon Swain, the commission’s chair. Swain asked him to pass the phone to the driver, who was instructed by The Man himself to take Alpert to his destination and to report to his office for a talking-to. Read the full account here.

We recently caught up with Alpert to find out how he thinks Washington could be greater. Read on for his advice for cyclists, pedestrians, and the Department of Transportation.

Three reasons Washington is great:
“(1) Walkability. It has many more walkable neighborhoods than most metro areas. Places such as Arlington and Bethesda or Silver Spring, which were strip-mall wastelands decades ago, have turned into vibrant commercial areas thanks to really foresighted planning on the part of suburban leaders. Few metro areas were so intelligent in the 1970s. (2) Metro. We have one of the nation’s best public-transportation systems, probably the best for a city our size. We have the second-highest rate of people getting to work by public transit, after New York. (3) Resident engagement in local government. Perhaps because we’re a government-oriented town, people get really involved in their communities. That gives us a really active civic life, which makes for more interesting debates and better outcomes.”

Three ways it could be greater:
“(1) More transit. We need a comprehensive streetcar system going throughout Washington, like we had 75 years ago, making it easier for people in Brightwood, Hyattsville, Glover Park, Logan Circle, Fort Dupont, Lee Highway, Gaithersburg, or Oxon Hill to travel around without driving. We should improve our commuter-rail system to be a real transit service instead of just a few trains each day. (2) More affordable housing. Many people can’t live in the communities they’d like to live in. Many walkable communities in DC are too expensive, as are many suburban areas closer in such as Arlington. We need to make it possible for people who want to be in the city to afford to live in the city and for people who want to be close to the city to live close and not have excessively long commutes. (3) Departments of transportation that aren’t beholden to vehicular ‘level of service.’ Fifty years ago, transportation engineering was all about building freeways. If roads were clogged, build more freeways. We learned that this doesn’t work. The new freeways just get clogged up again as more people drive and more people move farther away from their jobs. Even today, the Maryland and Virginia departments of transportation push very hard for more big freeway projects and often muscle aside local areas that want alternatives to just extending the cycle of auto dependence. DC’s department of transportation is pretty good but still sometimes designs projects with the car in mind instead of balancing all users of the transportation network.”

Greatest DC neighborhood:
“We chose to live in Dupont Circle, but there are so many great neighborhoods in DC. Greater Greater Washington is officially neutral on this.”

Greatest non-DC neighborhood:

“I can’t take sides! Right now, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Arlington’s Rosslyn/Ballston corridor, and Old Town Alexandria are tops.”

Best and worst roads for cyclists:

“Best roads: the small local streets with bike lanes, such as Q and R in Northwest DC or Fourth and Sixth on Capitol Hill. Worst roads: anywhere in downtown DC. There’s a lot of traffic and no good bicycle facilities. It’s intimidating to ride there, which is too bad since most people’s jobs are there. Even worse roads: all the parts of the region that haven’t bothered to put in bicycle facilities at all.”

Worst intersection for pedestrians and how to fix it:

“In DC, Connecticut and Nebraska avenues, Northwest. So many people keep getting hit. We need to design intersections for people, not cars, by extending the curbs and lengthening crossing times. However, any intersection in DC pales in comparison to some of our suburban ones. In Prince George’s County, there are long highways that have bus stops along the edge of the road but no crossings for pedestrians to easily get to and from those buses. DC is a pedestrian mecca compared to some areas such as those where the engineers never designed for pedestrians to be there at all.”

Worst bottleneck in the Washington area:

“The National Park Service (see below), which makes it really hard to improve public spaces in DC.”

How would you fix Washington’s traffic-congestion problem?

“Dedicate a lane of traffic on key routes to express buses and, in the future, light rail and streetcars. A bus coming every five to ten minutes carries more people than an entire lane of traffic. If we dedicate some of our road capacity to moving these higher-capacity vehicles in and out more quickly, we can move a lot more people in the same amount of road space. Plus, when they get to their jobs, they don’t have to find a place to park.”

Local leader you most wish you could fire:

“VDOT head Pierce Homer. Governor Kaine has committed to smart growth and sustainable approaches to transportation, but VDOT’s actions fall far short. It’s constantly pushing for more big freeway projects way out at the edge of our region. It’s been trying to ram projects through the system, such as widening Interstate 66, high-occupancy toll—or HOT— lanes on 395, or widening Interstate 81, even though residents aren’t eager for them and they’re bad policies for our region. VDOT still sees highway expansion as the answer to every problem, even though today we have better ways to spend our transportation dollars.”

Best and worst architecture:

“Best: the townhouse neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, Old Town Alexandria, Shaw, Bloomingdale, and Petworth. Worst: the mass of windswept concrete boxes around L’Enfant Plaza.”

Purple Line or Silver Line?

National Harbor: yea or nay?

“Nay. Prince George’s County is focusing its efforts on building huge cities way at the edge of the region where there’s no transit. Meanwhile, there are some great places closer in that could use a little love, and they’ve really underutilized the land around many of their Metro stations.”

Bike lanes or reversible lanes?

“Bike lanes, hands down. Reversible lanes are the traffic arrangement on Connecticut Avenue in DC, Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in Silver Spring, and a few other places. It’s when one or more lanes in the middle of the road go in one direction during morning rush and in the opposite direction in the evening rush. However, they are dangerous for cars and pedestrians. They’re confusing to drivers, who sometimes drive the wrong way in the lanes or turn from the wrong lane, leading to crashes. And pedestrians have to cross a very wide road (six lanes on Georgia Avenue, for example) with nowhere to stop in the middle. That’s especially problematic for older residents, but dangerous for everyone. Drivers go faster because the road is wider, and have to focus on the confusing road layout, instead of looking out for people and bicycles. I think it’s telling that few places employ reversible lanes.”

Finish this sentence: “The best thing Barack Obama could do for Washington is . . .”

“. . . continue moving it toward self-government. We’ve come a long way in 50 years, but federal agencies still control many aspects of local life that make no sense. For example, DC’s small local parks, such as Dupont Circle, are controlled by the National Park Service. NPS is more focused on big parks such as Yosemite than dealing with a neighborhood circle. Turn over all the parks to DC except the Mall and East and West Potomac Parks. Let DC appoint the judges who decide local cases and prosecute them, like any other city in the US does. And DC residents should have some voting representation in both the House and Senate.”

Where you would you live if not in Washington:
“Probably Boston. It’s another great city with a lot of walkable places and good transit. My fiancée would say it’s too cold, though. That’s another reason Washington is great—the weather.”

Favorite local blog, besides your own:
“For a blog that focuses just on local issues, BeyondDC. For one that’s broader, Matthew Yglesias’s blog for Think Progress.”

Next week in the Blogger Beat, we get gussied up with pageant queen Kate Michael of K Street Kate. The former Miss District of Columbia tells us about her pageant days, fashion, and Washington socialites. Stay tuned!

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