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If you've checked the news on the subject of American transportation infrastructure lately, you've probably heard that the sky is falling. It's true that Congress can't get its act together and pass a decent transportation bill, but the amount of money that's being spent isn't the problem so much as the fact that we're spending it on expanding highways instead of keeping the stuff we have in good shape.
A new report from the Congressional Budget Office adds some useful perspective on public infrastructure spending (federal, state, and local, including water infrastructure) since 1956 target. Here are four major takeaways.
Infrastructure Spending is Fairly Stable as a Share of GDP
Measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, public infrastructure spending has been fairly stable throughout the last six decades at about 2.4 percent, reports the CBO. The most recent bump came in 2009 and 2010 because of the stimulus package, when it rose to 2.7 percent. It has declined somewhat since 2011.
But costs have climbed
Beginning in 2003, the cost of raw materials like concrete and asphalt increased more rapidly than the prices of other goods, the CBO reports. So if you factor in these specific costs, inflation-adjusted public infrastructure spending has declined about 9 percent since 2003 (the dark blue line).
Highways Are the Biggest Category of Spending
Of the $416 billion spent on infrastructure by federal, state and local governments in 2014, about 40 percent was dedicated to highways. About 16 percent went to transit and about a third went to water infrastructure.
Spending on Expansion Has Been Moving in the Right Direction
While state DOTs still spend many billions of dollars on highway expansions that erode their ability to maintain existing roads, the situation seems getting better. In recent years, a greater share of public infrastructure spending has been going to maintenance instead of expansion. However, it's not clear how much this trend applies to highways, since the CBO included transit and water infrastructure in this chart as well.
Crossposted from Streetsblog.
"This train will not service Brookland." If you've ever ridden Metro during a delay, you've probably heard some variation of these words. That's because Metro is "expressing" your train, meaning it's skipping stops to recover.
We recently discussed "schedule adjustments" as a way Metro tries to mitigate delays. While schedule adjustments keep headways more even, which both guards against overcrowding and bunching as well as mitigates waits for people ahead of delayed trains, skipping stations allows the delayed train(s) to catch up.
Small windows of time can make a systemwide difference
Skipping a station can save a train about a minute. Every minute counts, both for minimizing overall delays in the system and keeping delays from creeping into the opposite direction.
In the graphic above, if the delayed train were 11 minutes behind and ran express through, say, NoMa and Brookland, it'd make up two minutes on its way to Fort Totten. It would also increase the gap from the train behind from one minute to three minutes.
This technique is also used to cut delays down during unscheduled single-tracking. We explained that use last year.
When they reach the end of a line, most trains turn and run in the opposite direction. There is generally a scheduled layover (called "recovery time") that lasts between half of the headway and the full headway.
That means a train with a scheduled layover of six minutes has that amount of time before it needs to return inbound. If it's 10 minutes late, it's going to be delayed in the other direction even if it turns around and leaves immediately when it reaches the end of the line.
What about passengers whose stations get skipped?
Of course, the cost of skipping stations is that passengers who want to board or alight at the skipped station have to wait for the next train, which can cost them a few minutes.
Most of the time, though, trains are stacked up behind the delayed train, and when that's the case the extra wait is only a minute or two. While it's inconvenient for passengers who need to get off at one of the stops their train is skipping to disembark and then take the next train, the actual delay is rarely huge.
Metro usually only skips more lightly used stations. I've been riding the northern end of the Green Line daily since 2007. When train operators are told to skip stops there, it's almost always West Hyattsville and/or College Park. They almost never skip Prince George's Plaza because so many more people use it than the other two. They don't skip Fort Totten because it's a transfer station, and Greenbelt can't be skipped because it's the terminal.
A new report showing where students at each DC charter school live could breathe new life into an old idea: changing the law to allow charters to give an admissions preference to neighborhood residents. The new data could help officials pinpoint situations where a neighborhood preference would help rather than harm low-income students.
Photo of kids going to school from Shutterstock.
In the past, some have objected that giving charters the option of a neighborhood preference would exclude disadvantaged students from high-performing schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Now the DC Public Charter School Board has mapped the geographic distribution of students at every charter campus in DC, revealing which schools attract students who live nearby and which draw them from all over.
Students at almost half the charter schools in DC have an average commute of one to two miles. But the distance students travel can vary widely from school to school.
Those at the Brightwood campus of the Center City charter network have the shortest median commute, at half a mile. (On the maps below, the red dot indicates the school and the blue dots indicate students.)
Those at Washington Latin Middle School have a median commute of 4.7 miles and come from all over DC.
Within DC's traditional public school system, the vast majority of schools are required to admit all students who live within certain geographic boundaries. As a result, over 60% of DC Public School students live within a mile of their schools.
But DC law bars charter schools from giving a preference to neighborhood residents. They must take all applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. If they have more applicants than spaces available, a random lottery determines who gets in.
If a charter were able to use a neighborhood preference, neighborhood residents would still need to enter the school lottery to apply, but they would get bumped ahead of applicants from outside the neighborhood. Those outside the neighborhood could still gain admission, especially if the school applied neighborhood preference to only a percentage of its seats.
At the same time, neighborhood preference wouldn't guarantee admission to those who live nearby. If a school got more applications from neighborhood residents than it could accommodate, some would lose out.
Task force recommended against neighborhood preference
In 2012, the DC Council appointed a task force to study changing the law to allow a neighborhood preference for charters. At the time, some charged that those in favor of the idea were catering to white parents in gentrifying neighborhoods who wanted easier access to high-performing charters, like E.L. Haynes in Petworth.
The task force recommended against neighborhood preference, in part because its members wanted to guard against that possibility. None favored requiring charters to give a preference to neighborhood residents. And the majority feared that even allowing some charters to adopt a voluntary neighborhood preference could shut disadvantaged students out of high-performing schools.
Only one member of the task force, the Deputy Mayor for Education, thought a charter should be allowed to opt for a neighborhood preference, "provided that safeguards are put into place to ensure that doing so does not adversely impact students who live in under-served neighborhoods."
It's not clear why the rest of the task force didn't support that view, but some charter leaders have expressed fears that even a voluntary neighborhood preference could be a slippery slope leading to a loss of autonomy. At the same time, charter leaders at some schools located in low-income neighborhoods, like KIPP DC and Eagle Academy, have argued they should be able to give a preference to nearby families.
Recently there have been signs that opposition to voluntary neighborhood preference is softening. Leaders of some 30 charter schools have signed a document saying they're willing to consider the idea, as long as it's on an "absolutely voluntary basis."
Data could help protect disadvantaged students
Now, with the new data in the PCSB report, it's also possible to determine exactly which charters are drawing students from disadvantaged areas beyond their own neighborhood or ward. Officials could use that data to decide which schools should be allowed a neighborhood preference and which shouldn't.
There's no bill pending before the DC Council that would change the law on neighborhood preference. But the PCSB's executive director Scott Pearson told the Washington Post that the new report could "offer useful information" to District leaders on the issue.
When I asked a PCSB spokesperson to elaborate on that statement, she directed me to Pearson's remarks on a recent Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.
On the show, Pearson suggested that with a new mayor and new DC Council members, it might be time to take another look at neighborhood preference. "I hear from parents and I hear from many charter schools," Pearson said. "They would love a neighborhood preference. But I want to make sure as we do, that we keep in mind the least advantaged children in the city and make sure that this isn't hurting them."
Neighborhood preference would likely be limited to low-income areas
It can be frustrating for parents to live near a desirable charter school and not be able to get their child admitted. More generally, parents say the lottery system is too unpredictable and gives them only a chance, not a choice.
But a neighborhood preference along the lines envisioned by Pearson would provide predictability only for a subset of parents: those in low-income neighborhoods where there's a charter school. For schools located in gentrifying areas, a neighborhood preference could result in excluding low-income students from areas with low-performing neighborhood schools.
If the DC Council passed legislation with safeguards to ensure that kind of exclusion doesn't happen, those schools wouldn't be eligible for neighborhood preference. And it's not clear they would want the option in any event.
One example is Two Rivers, which has the longest waitlist of any school in the District, with over 1,300 names, and employs an expeditionary learning approach that appeals to many middle-class parents. The school is in NoMa but draws students from all over the District.
The school's executive director, Jessica Wodatch, says she wouldn't want a neighborhood preference because it would exclude many disadvantaged students, and the school is committed to serving a diverse population.
On the other hand, she thinks neighborhood preference would have been "a good idea" at the campus Two Rivers is opening this fall in Trinidad, which she says is surrounded by low-income residents who lack access to a high-quality school. Two Rivers has made an effort to recruit neighborhood families, but, given the number of applicants from all over, it's possible few neighborhood children will end up being admitted.
Wodatch says she would support giving the option of neighborhood preference to charters that take over shuttered DCPS buildings, as Two Rivers is doing in Trinidad. That's a position the 2012 task force endorsed as well.
But if a school like the new Two Rivers campus adopted a neighborhood preference, middle-class families might well move into the neighborhood to benefit from it. And that could have the effect of pushing out disadvantaged students, the very thing the task force wanted to avoid. So, as the task force recommended, a neighborhood preference would probably need to be time-limited to protect the interests of low-income families.
It makes sense that a low-income family that wants their child to go to a KIPP school should be able to send her to the one around the corner rather than the one several miles away. It's also important to ensure that some charter schools have diverse populations, especially when the student bodies of many traditional public schools reflect the homogeneity of their neighborhoods.
But if DC officials want to keep more affluent families in the District, they'll need to figure out a way to make high-quality school pathways more convenient and predictable for them as well.
Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.
On Tuesday, we posted our fifty-first photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?
This week, we got 19 guesses. Five of you got all five. Great work, Peter K, Patrick, MZEBE, Mr. Johnson, and Justin....!
Image 1: Tysons Corner
The first image shows the lower level entrance at Tysons Corner station. Most of you were able to immediately recognize that this was a Silver Line station based on the newness, the signage, and the design finishes. But the only station that has a "spiral" staircase like this is Tysons Corner.
Several of you guessed McLean and Spring Hill because they have mezzanines below the tracks, and the arrangement here clearly directs passengers up to trains. But while Tysons Corner's mezzanine is above the tracks, there is an entrance underneath, which is a unique arrangement in the system. Riders entering here go up two levels (with an escalator landing (featured in week 20) to the mezzanine and then back down to trains.
Update: The number of correct answers was inadvertently deleted during editing. Thirteen people guessed correctly on this clue.
Image 2: Dunn Loring
This picture shows the platform at Dunn Loring. The main clue here is the bridge in the distance. It's a ramp that carries traffic from the northbound HOT lanes on I-495 to the westbound HOV lane on I-66. It passes over the Orange Line just east of the platform. Because of the ramp, the wall on the left is much taller than the wall on the right side. It also slopes down along with the ramp.
Even without the added height for the ramp, the walls at Dunn Loring and East Falls Church are much higher than the platform walls at other stations, mainly to block out the noise from traffic along I-66. Fifteen of you got this one correct.
Image 3: Rhode Island Avenue
The third image shows the bridge from the north side of Rhode Island Avenue to the eponymous station. The bridge crosses the street on a slope, and is directly underneath the platform. The rounded fencing gives it a distinctive shape. The circular ramp where the bridge lands on the north side was featured in week 44. Fourteen of you figured this one out.
Image 4: Anacostia
For the fourth image, you needed to reflect on things to find the answer. There were two main clues. First, since this is clearly a subway station (given the lighting), it has to be Anacostia, because that's the only underground station that has straight walls next to the tracks. The rest of the underground stations have vaulted walls.
But the primary clue is the ceiling, which is reflected at top left and top center. Anacostia has a unique ceiling with small semicircular mini-vaults running perpendicular to the tracks. It's one of the unique stations in the system, and we featured it in week 7, week 8, and week 21. Fourteen of you reflected correctly.
Image 5: Shady Grove
The final image shows the eastern entrance to Shady Grove. The watercourse here, Crabbs Branch, runs through a small greensward between the north parking garage and the east bus loop, and it seems to come straight out of the eastern entrance. It's not the only waterway near a Metro entrance, but it's probably the most obvious one. If you didn't recognize it, it's also clearly visible on aerial images.
At far left, you can just see a stairwell for the north garage. Only five of you (the same five that got all five) figured this one out. Better luck next time!
Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.
Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.
Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.
His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.
Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.
That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.
For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.
People traveling by both bike and automobile have to share the road, but it's not always clear how they should do that. Some streets have marked, dedicated bike lanes or protected bikeways and others have shared-lane markings, or "sharrows".
Reader Mike Forster wants to know what bike sharrows are supposed to do and if they are effective:
Do sharrows actually do anything? As a regular cyclist, I don't see how they're an improvement, but I'm curious if I'm missing something about their effectiveness. Can someone explain the thinking behind sharrows? Are there studies showing to back that thinking up?
Bike sharrows are road markings used to say that the space is for both bicycles and automobiles. The markings reinforce the legitimacy of bicycle traffic on the street as well as tell bicyclists where in the road they should ride. Sharrows can also be set up to point riders in the right direction along a particular route.
Chris Slatt points toward a great resource on sharrows from the National Association of City Transportation Officials that gives a thorough breakdown of the benefits and typical applications.
Sharrows tell everyone that the road they're on is a bike route. They don't require additional street space and they cut down on sidewalk riding and bicycling in the wrong direction.
Sharrows increase the distance between cyclists and parked cars, keeping cyclists out of the "door zone." Generally, they don't work as well on streets that have a speed limit of 35 mph or higher.
Matt Johnson adds that sharrows sometimes serve the purpose of guiding cyclists across hazards like streetcar tracks or explicitly denoting bike routes.
Sharrows guiding cyclists across the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks on Westlake Avenue in Seattle. Photo by Matt Johnson.
Sharrows marking "The Wiggle," a bike route in San Francisco which avoids steep streets by weaving through the street grid. Photo by Matt Johnson.
Dan Reed wrote a post last year about the types of roads sharrows work well on.
David Cranor noted research that says sharrows work: there's an FHWA study showing that they give people on bikes more space both from parked cars and passing drivers, and another another showing that on roads with sharrows, the ratio of of severe injuries to total injuries was lower than on one with no markings.
Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing email@example.com. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!
Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.
Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.
On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"
Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.
This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:
Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—Burn.
what's another million and a half, anyway— to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.
To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.
Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.
And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.
Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."
Other biting critiques in the memo include:
- A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
- That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
- A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
- A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
- Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
- A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
- Hogan stalls on the Purple Line, calls it too expensive
- Ask GGW: What's the point of bike sharrows?
- "Expressing" trains helps Metro recover from delays
- CaBi's phone app could enlist riders to rebalance bikes
- Federal review pushes the Kennedy Center's new buildings to dry land
- US infrastructure spending, in four charts
- The guy who invented the mall hated cars
by Alex B. on Breakfast links: Planning ahead
by Omar on Breakfast links: Planning ahead
by Chuck Coleman on US infrastructure spending, in four charts
by tondo on US infrastructure spending, in four charts