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December 12, 2012

Fads and Foibles

Dear Foible Fanciers:

Say "foible" ten times fast; I dare you not to laugh. Yes, we did skip an issue of themail on December 9. Sorry for the interruption.

Washington Times columnist Deborah Simmons adds a piece to the puzzle when she writes,, about the New Urbanism movement, the biggest national fad in city planning. New Urbanism has become a rigid ideology by which the professional planners cater to single, young, white, wealthy professionals instead of balancing the needs and desires of a variety of ages, races, and classes. The cityís government makes money off of young, single, childless, rich residents, and loses money on other groups, so the preference makes business sense, even if it doesnít benefit society as a whole.


Will the Post editorial on Monday, December 10,, "The Cloud Around Kwame Brown," and Colbert Kingís article on Saturday, December 8,, "Ron Machen Needs to Pick Up the Pace in DC Corruption Probes," light a fire under the US Attorneyís office? If they wonít, what will?


Thanks for for pointing out that on December 7, the DC Department of Transportation, DDOT, released its annual report on bicycling. The report showed that peak-hour cycling counts rose 175 percent from 2008 to 2012, Thatís how it will be summarized in the press, but the raw numbers arenít nearly as impressive as the percentage rise. The count of bicyclists was done during the peak morning and afternoon rush hours at nineteen locations, presumably chosen because they had the most bicycle traffic. The average number in 2004 was 35 per hour; the average number in 2012 was 95 an hour. The percentage increase was so high because the base number was so low. What hasnít changed is the percentage of male bicyclists; from 2005 to 2012, 77 percent of bicyclists were men. In any other field, that would considered prima facie evidence of sex discrimination, and the DC government would take steps to limit the number of male riders until more women took up bicycling, and there was equality between the sexes.

Gary Imhoff


Maintaining Control
Dorothy Brizill,

On December 4, at last weekís marathon city council legislative session, the council, after a brief discussion, removed from its agenda an emergency bill that would have substantially changed elections in the District of Columbia. Although it was tabled then, the bill with likely reappear next week on the councilís December 18 legislative agenda. The legislation, the "Board of Elections Petition Circulation Requirements Emergency Amendment Act of 2012," B19-1058, was drafted by Attorney General Irv Nathan and placed on the council agenda as an emergency measure by Council Chairman Mendelson "at the request of the Mayor." If approved, the bill will change how nominating petitions are circulated by candidates and the manner in which candidates are placed on the ballot in the District. Currently, only District residents who are registered voters can circulate the nominating petitions of candidates for elected office in the District (DC Code 1-1001.08(b)(2)). If enacted, the emergency legislation would allow non-District residents to circulate nominating petitions provided they "register as petition circulators with the Board of Elections and Ethics/Office of the Attorney General" and "consent to being subject to the subpoena power of the District of Columbia."

The background of this bill is that on July 30, 2012, the national Libertarian Party and four individuals (Gary Johnson, Bruce Majors, Darryl Bonner, and Vernon Van) filed a lawsuit against the District and the Board of Elections arguing that "the requirement imposed by DC Code 1-1001.08(b)(2) that circulators of nominating petitions in the District of Columbia must reside and be registered to vote in the District of Columbia sharply limits the number of volunteers and paid petition circulators the Libertarians may engage in the District of Columbia. . . . By limiting the number of petitioners the Libertarians may engage in the District of Columbia, DC Code 1-1001.08(b)(2) violates the Libertariansí speech, petition, voting, and associational rights, which are guaranteed to them by the First Amendment. DC Code 1-1001.08(b)(2) also violates the Libertariansí right to due process of law, which is guaranteed to them in the District of Columbia by the Fifth Amendment."

With regard to the plaintiffs, Gary Johnson was the Libertarian Party nominee for President of the United States in 2012. Bruce Majors ran the Libertarian nominee for Delegate to the US House of Representatives against Eleanor Holmes Norton in the November general election. Both Darryl Bonner, a resident of Pennsylvania, and Vernon Van, a resident of California are "professional petition circulators" who travel around the United States being paid to gather signatures on petitions. In 2004, Darryl Bonner circulated petitions in the District for the slots/video lottery terminal initiative that the Board of Elections rejected, in a decision subsequently upheld by the DC Board of Appeals, because it found a "pervasive pattern of fraud, forgeries, and other improprieties" that necessitated the exclusion of petition sheets circulated by non-District residents.

Without any public notice or discussion, the Districtís Attorney General and mayor are seeking to secure council approval of emergency legislation that would change the Districtís elections laws that have been in place for more than twenty years. Both other elected officials who would be affected by this change (councilmembers, ANC commissioners, and school board members) and the three members of the Board of Elections were not informed of this proposed emergency legislation, which would allow out-of-state residents to play a major role in the nominating process for DC elected officials.


DCís Taxi System
Jon Gann,

DCís taxi system. And while my views might not win the votes of the Districtís cab drivers and their families, I am not afraid to post what I believe. Last Thursday, WUSA (Channel 9) featured an investigative report about cab drivers refusing to pick up African-American passengers, but accepting fares from white passengers to the same address. A preview can be watched online at To say I am disgusted is an understatement. Racism of any kind cannot be tolerated.

The business model of the current taxi system promotes complacency. Protected by a powerful commission (which until recently seemed to control the council), cabs have no reason to improve services. Often the butt of jokes across the country, DC cabs are known for their outdated, ramshackle vehicles, dubious fare collection, and erratic driving.

The change from the zone system to meters (a move I fully supported, as I saw many tourists, friends ó and myself ó overcharged by the confusing process) was supposed to improve taxis throughout the city. From my personal experience in the last six months, drivers have ignored directions to my destination, refused to transport my dog, demanded surcharges when not applicable (gas surcharge, van charge when the car is an SUV, forcing placement of shopping bags in the trunk), and countless other violations. So I am not surprised that drivers refuse to pick up customers of color.

For the past few months, I have recommended to friends and colleagues to photograph the driverís permit when entering a cab. Sadly, some drivers do not display this basic and required document ó a major violation. I urge everyone to take a picture of your driverís permit to protect yourself in case of a dispute. Send the photo to (taxi commission) as well as your councilmember. Until your voice is heard and action is taken, the Districtís taxi services will remain a relic of the past ó and continue to be.


Contradiction in Terms
Donald Lief,

A.J. Cooperís on-line statement [themail, December 5] is completely opposed to Ms. Pattersonís comment on his views. How do we reconcile them anyway?


The Planning Bogeyman
Richard Layman,

In response to Karl Jeremyís comments in the last issue of themail [December 5] about stronglady Harriet Tregoning imposing planners law on the city, I have to say that it is not until you work for government, even if for only a brief time (my experience was ten months in FY2010 in Baltimore County) that you learn that government employees working for the executive branch, even agency directors, have a limited ability to act independently of the direction set by elected officials. In short, you do what you are told, what you are allowed to do. Meaning that Harriet Tregoning and other agency directors have a lot less leeway than the typical citizen believes. And all the talk of "telling truth to power" on the West Wing is mostly fiction.

A case in point is Walmart. Clearly, the Office of Planning and the Department of Transportation were ordered to "make it happen" (at the time the mayor, the then council chair, and the then chair of the city councilís Committee on Economic Development were all in hearty favor of Walmartís entry into the city). Not to make it better. Thatís what they did, even to the point of not "telling truth to power" when handed opportunities to lay out alternative requirements that would have served the city far better than the matter-of-right projects weíre getting.

Itís why I always laugh when various neighborhood activists condition their support of mayoral candidates on firing various agency directors, usually planning and sometimes transportation. Because at the end of the day, agency directors do what they are told. Itís the elected officials who have, or donít have, vision, or who are able, or not, to represent citizensí interests vis-a-vis the various real estate and business interests that hold the most sway over the economic and political agenda of the city. Anyway, I would argue that the problem in the city is that we donít do enough planning and donít plan very comprehensively, belief in the planning strongpeople notwithstanding. [Finished online at]

We do a better job with "land use planning," (My joke is that DC doesnít have an office of "planning" but an "office of land use") but the cityís land use planning framework doesnít include planning systematically at least four levels (city, district/sector, neighborhood, functional [agency]). People who call Small Area Plans neighborhood plans fail to notice that the plans arenít systematic and comprehensively focused on addressing all aspects of a neighborhood and its quality of life, but are really management plans for development build-out opportunities. One of the most significant problems in planning has to do with the fact that planners are tasked with achieving both broad citywide goals as well as neighborhood goals. For the most part, citizens involved in planning initiatives only take responsibility for achieving either or both neighborhood goals and more idiosyncratic personal concerns. Because most planning processes donít identify and address these concurrent agendas, most end up being acrimonious and lack consensus.

Arguments by neighborhoods against slight intensity increases at subway stations is a perfect example of this. The city planners want to maximize economic return from transit investments, add population, add income, property, and sales tax revenues for the city, and to use these slight intensity increases to support a wide range of neighborhood improvements, while residents mostly see what I would think of as "surgical" and "nuanced" changes as an incursion of Bethesda or Manhattan into their neighborhoods, even when the projects are nowhere near anything like that.

These problems are abetted by the fact that other agencies donít for the most part have comprehensive plans. DDOT doesnít have a master transportation plan comparable to that of other major cities. DPR doesnít have a parks and recreation master plan. (In Maryland, all counties are required to produce a parks and open space master plan and to keep it updated.) We donít really have a schools master plan for DCPS and for DCPS and Charter Schools. We donít have a real public health/health and wellness plan. We donít have a planning commission. We donít have a public process for capital improvements planning and budgeting. Et cetera.

These deficits in the planning regime are abetted by the city council, which legislates on all kinds of matters without, for the most part, comprehensive analysis, consideration, plans to work from, and substantive studies and reports on the matters before them. The first thing the council should be doing is demanding that all agencies have plans, and that the planning processes should be great, rather than rote and average. (Some of the cityís plans are good, or at least read well, others are pretty average, and certainly arenít at the level of regional or national best practice.)

Probably the council doesnít want robust plans, because if we had them that would shape and narrow significantly the range of involvement that council currently has on such matters, because we fail to have a robust planning framework for most government functions. For example, transportation matters that the council handles really should be addressed first by a comprehensive transportation plan (or at the very least, an independent, objective report). Without such a plan, most of the initiatives are not much more than nibbling at various edges, and a cobbling. There is very little that is comprehensive, integrated, or transformational in any of them. And they donít add up to an integrated whole, just a grab bag of laws. Similarly, I could write the full content of multiple issues of themail to discuss how totally unequivocally awful is the "planning process" for K-12 education and the DC Public Schools and the dereliction of the Executive and Legislative Branches who are making this happen, abetting it, and failing to make the system better, rather than destroying it. But there are many other examples.

The kind of ground-up citizen-initiated improvement that Karl Jeremy waxes nostalgic about isnít something I have much experience with, having lived in the city for twenty-five years, and having been hyper-involved in various planning iterations for at least half that time. Mostly, citizens act as if DC is so unique and special that we have no need for learning from other places, comparing our place to others, and trying to do better than we already do.

I joke that because DC is the national capital, most citizens and elected officials happily define whatever we do ó whether it is great or mediocre ó as world class, and we are for the most part self-satisfied with what we do and how we do it. Whatever that is, it isnít, nor is the city world class, despite all the advantages possessed by DC and the trends that favor urban living and urban exchange.

As a citizen, resident, and planner, I am almost to the point of catatonia in trying to figure out how to "make it better." I still write, I still testify, but mostly I end up working on similar issues in other communities to bring about best practice, innovation, and transformation there, rather than continue to beat my head against the wall here. Sisyphus lives here but works elsewhere.


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