The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.

VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.

Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Sizzling in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Adams Morgan. Photo by ctj71081.

Photo by Joe Flood.

MLK Library. Photo by washingtonydc.

Arlington County fair. Photo by Dennis Dimick.

H Street. Photo by Ted Eytan.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!


Reports of Metro track defects sat in a database without action for years. One reason: Poor training.

A Silver Line train derailed last month because rail ties had deteriorated and the tracks had moved apart. Metro track inspectors had noticed years earlier, but it was "misclassified" in WMATA's database and never got fixed. Meanwhile, inspectors weren't checking all the places they were supposed to. One big reason for all these failures: bad training.

Degraded rail ties replaced during SafeTrack Surge 6. Image from WMATA.

As we've found out since the derailment, track inspectors weren't properly inspecting interlockings in the rail system, the spots where trains cross over from one track to another. Just like the main tracks, these are supposed to be inspected twice per week.

However, WMATA's top managers don't believe that was occurring, General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld and Chief Safety Officer Pat Lavin explained at a special WMATA Board meeting on Thursday.

These track inspections, along with those automated and performed by the Track Geometry Vehicle, then go into Metro's issue tracking database, MAXIMO.

It would be bad enough if the inspections are potentially missing issues. However, the agency can't even trust the defect reports logged in MAXIMO. In a track integrity report the Federal Transit Administration released two weeks ago, Metro staff say they have only "approximately 75 percent" confidence that the data in MAXIMO is accurate, and thus useful.

To lose track of defects or to not be able to validate data in the system may have contributed to the East Falls Church derailment. The rotten rail tie defect reports were "incorrectly classified" and sat in the system for years without being properly escalated to the more serious priority that they warranted.

Metro has now awarded yet another contract to essentially rebuild its MAXIMO database with new track inspections, re-finding all the track defects that exist so that the agency has a known "good" list of issues in the system. This could be cheaper than trying to weed out the good vs the bad in the existing database.

Training is a big source of problems

Whether train operators are instructed not to set parking brakes overnight or track inspectors don't have the experience to properly identify and log defects, employee knowledge gaps are contributing to Metro's safety problems.

The FTA report said that track walkers go through an 18-week training program before being allowed to inspect the tracks, but that this training is insufficient:

The current training program is based on hiring employees from the street, without prior track knowledge and experience. The training does not provide a formal mentoring program for Track Walkers nor does it provide on-going training, specialized modules or workshops. Recertification and re-qualification appears to be limited to a one hour activity that centers largely on validating an employee's measurement skills. Additionally, there does not appear to be a training or on-going training program for supervisors who oversee the Track Walkers.
The agency is bringing in six Federal Railroad Administration-certified track inspectors for a short-term four-month contract to help give the system a fresh look by outsiders. One of Lavin's goals for this group is that they help give on-the-job training to Metro's nearly 60 track inspectors, some of whom have only been with Metro for maybe a year or two.

Not only is classroom training important, but also the practical hands-on side of it: touching the rails, inspecting fasteners and clips, and so on.

After reviewing the East Falls Church incident, Metro's staff came to the conclusion that "standards are appropriate, [but we] must focus on front line training and enforcing compliance to standards." One of the ways to start rectifying this? Have track walkers work with the experienced inspectors to pick up their habits and learn how to do the job better.

In addition, WMATA commissioned a peer review. from the the American Public Transportation Association. Based on its conclusions, a group from the University of Tennessee will be heading to Metro for two weeks in September. Metro's track inspectors will use these two weeks for additional track inspection training to help fill in knowledge gaps.

Even train operators need more training, according to reports including a recent one from the FTA. Operators aren't familiar enough with where the signals are on the tracks, the proper maintenance and troubleshooting of their trains (especially the newer 7000-series ones), and standard operating procedures of how to store trains in rail yards.

While some issues around both track inspections and train operations are a part of the culture deficiencies that Metro managers are trying to fix, others boil down to simply training employees so they can do their jobs successfully and safely. This is just one of the steps needed to boost morale and rebuild employees' confidence so they can make Metro's rail system once again safe and reliable.


Breakfast links: Sunday service for the streetcar

Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.
More streetcars, and Sundays too!: The DC streetcar will soon run on Sundays and come every 12 minutes instead of 15, now that all six of DC's streetcar vehicles are operational. (WAMU)

Construction contract triggers resignations: DC Department of General Services chief Christopher Weaver abruptly resigned after the city administrator asked him to fire two staffers who award contracts. The move came right after a Bowser campaign donor lost two big construction bids. (WAMU)

Families fight to stay in Brookland: Residents of Brookland Manor sued the owner to block a sale and redevelopment. The proposal would add units but do away with 4- and 5-bedroom ones, forcing larger families to relocate. (City Paper)

Metro promises better track inspection: Metro officials didn't share any new details about last month's derailment at an emergency WMATA Board meeting, but they did promise changes to the way tracks are inspected. (Post)

The forgotten national parks: The National Park Service doesn't have the money to maintain the dozens of urban national parks in DC, mostly old civil war sites and tiny triangle parks. (WAMU)

High-priced homes: 44% of area residents say the cost of housing makes it harder to reach their financial savings goals. (WTOP) ... To afford a median-priced home in the District, one study said, residents must earn $80,000 per year. (Curbed)

MoCo wrestles with Airbnb rentals: Montgomery County will consider legalizing Airbnb rentals and similar services. Currently, zoning prohibits short-term rentals without a B&B license, but that could change this fall. (Bethesda Beat)

And...: Japan will contribute $2 million to a study on a maglev line between DC and Baltimore. (WBJ) ... Emergency crews evacuated a Silver Spring apartment building just one block away from the recent gas explosion for high carbon monoxide levels. (WTOP) ... The Washington Monument is closing for nine months for elevator repairs. (Post)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 90

On Tuesday, we featured the ninetieth challenge to see how well you knew the Metro system. Here are the answers. How'd you do?

This week, we got 27 guesses. Nine of you got all five. Great work, Peter K, J-Train-21, Stephen C, Solomon, AlexC, JamesDCane, dpod, Travis Maiers, and We Will Crush Peter K!

Image 1: L'Enfant Plaza

The first image features a Metro pylon directing passengers to the western entrance to L'Enfant Plaza. This entrance is inside the L'Enfant Plaza shopping concourse, and isn't the easiest to find from the street. This pylon bridges the gap between the traditional M-capped pylon on D Street and the mall entrance.

The main clues for this image are the brutalist buildings in the backgound. They're very iconic and should have been easiily recognizable as parts of the L'Enfant Plaza complex. 20 got it right.

Image 2: Grosvenor

The second image shows the pedestrian bridge over Tuckerman Lane connecting Grosvenor station to the Strathmore Arts Center. The curve of this bridge was a clue, since few pedestrian bridges in the system are curved. The two obvious choices are New Carrollton and Grosvenor, which have bridges like this.

However, the bridge at New Carrollton has a sharper curve. The colored lights here are also very distinctive, but if you haven't used the bridge at night, that might not have been helpful. 11 figured it out nonetheless.

Image 3: Braddock Road

The third image shows some new-ish signage at Braddock Road. We discussed these new platform decals in a post several months ago. This is the only station in the system with these markings.

Additional clues include the Alexandria Peak roof style (only King Street has the same canopy) and a blue marker on the train's destination sign. 14 figured it out.

Image 4: Deanwood

This picture shows the north end of the platform at Deanwood. The surroundings here should help you eliminate all the other possibilities. The catenary masts in the background mean this must be one of the Orange Line stations on the eastern end of the line. But the lack of wires eliminates Landover and New Carrollton.

The island platform eliminates Cheverly. The houses mean that this can't be Minnesota Avenue, since DC 295 is just west of the station. That leaves Deanwood. 21 worked out the logic correctly.

Image 5: Naylor Road

The final image shows a view from the platform at Naylor Road. The perspective here means this is an elevated station. The buildings in the distance, Lynhill Condominiums, were another clue.

Aerial images might have helped you narrow this down, by locating the bus loop and park-and-ride. 18 came to the correct conclusion.

Great work, everyone. Thanks for playing!

We're taking a break until the end of September. So take some time to study up and we'll see you on September 27 with week 91.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Metro badly needs culture change, everyone agrees. Can it pull it off?

Cross-overs. Guarded 8s. Gauge rods. It's hard for most Metro riders to follow all the talk about track inspection practices, the blistering number of Federal Transit Administration recommendations, and regular single-tracking over one problem or another.

While Metro has many problems with its track inspections, the real problem is deeper. Metro lacks a culture of not just safety, but of getting jobs done properly. The organization hides information from one level to another instead of working together to root out and fix problems.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

Frederick Kunkle effectively summarizes the problems with Metro's organizational culture through one recent employment action.

Seyoum Haile, a senior mechanic, had falsified preventive maintenance inspection reports on [a] fan, court documents say. When confronted with discrepancies in those inspection reports during the post-accident investigation, Haile also lied, Metro's management says. ...

[But] Haile, who had been employed with the agency for 13 years, had only been following routine procedure in a workplace where management fostered incompetence and allowed people to make stuff up as they went along. ... Haile's supervisor, Nicholas Perry, acknowledged in arbitration testimony that he gave out pre-signed inspection reports to his crew. The forms said "reviewed by a supervisor," even if that were not the case, a practice Perry testified that he has since discontinued. ...

When mechanics wanted to run a test remotely, they had to contact Metro's Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). The ROCC staff sometimes put the mechanics on hold, failed to call back, or had trouble locating the correct switch for the fans in question. On one of the last inspections Haile and a co-worker conducted on the fan before the fatal Yellow Line incident, he was heard in the background on an audio recording respectfully trying to help the ROCC official locate the right switch. But the ROCC operator couldn't find it and hung up. He and his coworker went to work on another fan but did not return to the original one.

The ROCC hung up? Are you kidding me? And Perry handed out pre-signed reports and never checked them? Come on.

I worked at an organization (Google) known for its culture, around innovation, around encouraging engineers to pursue crazy ideas with 20% of their time, around launching products in "beta" (at least at that time) to see what happens. Culture didn't come automatically to it or any other Silicon Valley company. They worked hard to communicate and reinforce themes and consider it strongly in hiring.

Metro's culture, clearly, is lacking. Many employees, whether front-line or managers, don't take responsibilities seriously. If employees falsify reports, and their managers encourage them to, and other departments hang up on them without solving a problem, something is very wrong not just with a few people or a department, but a culture.

Paul Wiedefeld is trying to change this

Thursday, the WMATA Board grilled agency managers on this. David Strickland, one of the new federal board members and a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said, "There has to be a crosscurrent of responsibility among every employee at WMATA, and quite frankly, it's not there. It's not just individual accountability and punishing wrongdoing. We need to have a self-policing culture."

WMATA General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld agreed. He said, "We have years of disconnect between management and employees. I want to reinforce we're all together in this. We respect each other; we're not going to have retaliation." (Many front-line employees have said they didn't speak up for fear of retaliation from their immediate supervisors, just one of many culture problems that have come to light.)

"I think it's a major reset of how we approach our employees, to hold everyone accountable," Wiedefeld went on. "The thousands of employees I've talked to, they want that, they want to get there."

We need Metro to succeed

It's very hard to turn around large organizational culture. It's possible, and people have done it, but companies in this situation are more apt to decline and go out of business than turn around.

That's not an option for Metro. It isn't something we can abandon (earlier, silly Kunkle columns notwithstanding). With all its problems, it's still the nation's second-best subway system.

It's made the Washington region appealing to the many people who want to live in walkable areas with transit to jobs. It's fed residential and job growth in central DC and many mini-downtowns in Maryland and Virginia. And it's made it possible for downtown DC to thrive without needing to cover all of this land in five-story parking garages:

Image from WMATA.

For those of us who think Metro is one of the best things ever to come to this region, it's heartbreaking to see these problems run so deep. They have to get fixed. They just have to. And all of us need to do whatever we can to help that happen.

There may not be much we can do. The board has hired someone, Paul Wiedefeld, to turn around the organization's culture. So far, people in the know believe he can. It's a tough job.

It will be harder if Metro also has no money

One thing we can do is ensure Metro isn't under-resourced. The more time Wiedefeld is spending out convincing local, state, and federal officials to give him the funds he needs to actually make repairs, the less time he can be fixing the management structure.

It's hard to argue that Metro needs money when so many people seem to be drawing salaries and not doing a good job, but an organization that's spending all its effort cutting expenses to the bone isn't an organization that can devote real management attention to reform. It's not a purely zero-sum game and he can and should do both, but some things really require the top manager, and there are only so many hours in a day.

Until they can, Metro is going to keep having layers upon layers of problems, just waiting to pop to the surface when the right conditions arise. Only a culture of working together to fix problems, not cover them up, will get Metro back to the pride of the region. "Culture changes can be generational, and we don't really have generational time to see that our culture changes," said Arlington's Christian Dorsey at the meeting.

I hope the union and management can truly work together to solve this. It's clear that some front-line employees should be fired, but also clear that many middle managers need to be. This won't get fixed by scapegoating anyone or union busting, but it also requires a shared commitment to change the culture, including removing the most toxic members.

Metro's still got a tough path ahead. Let's all root for it to succeed.


Diane Rehm cast her MetroGreater vote. Have you? Voting closes tomorrow at midnight.

The votes are rolling in! So far more than 1,200 people have cast their votes and rated the ten MetroGreater finalists. Voting closes at 11:59 pm on Friday, August 26th. We'll announce the winner next week.

Diane Rehm. Photo by NIH Image Gallery on Flickr.

Riders like you submitted nearly 1,400 ideas for quick ways Metro can improve the rider experience. A MetroGreater jury comprised of riders, advocates, and WMATA staff selected ten as finalists.

Now, the public will choose the winning idea by voting at WMATA has committed to implement the winning idea over the next six months.

Here are the 10 MetroGreater finalists

Click on each idea below to see the original MetroGreater submission and what commenters think about this idea.

Want to know more about these ideas before you vote? Check out this series of posts, which delve a little deeper into each finalist idea.

More direct priority seating signsMore station name signs
Install split stanchions in trainsCompass rose decals at station exits
Kojo on Metro: Recorded rail announcements by local personalitiesExit Metrobus using the rear door campaign
System map decals for ceilings of rail carsFeature local artists' work in stations
Make the sign post maps more color-blind friendlyReverse commuter parking passes

WAMU gets in on the MetroGreater action

Back in July, Martin DiCaro of WAMU invited David Alpert to talk about the MetroGreater contest on the seventh episode of the podcast Metropocalypse. Martin had David back on the most recent episode of Metropocalypse to comment on Metro's recent challenges and to give an update on the 10 MetroGreater finalist ideas.

Inspired by the "Kojo on Metro" finalist idea, Martin asked his colleagues to lend their voices to a faux Metro announcement. Diane Rehm may not have actually cast her MetroGreater vote, but she did lend her voice. Listen to Diane Rehm and Korva Coleman offer some cheeky advice to Metrorail riders.

Make sure your voice is heard. Vote today!

If you haven't already voted, go to to rank the finalists today! Voting closes at 11:59pm on Friday, August 26th.

Then, stay tuned! We'll announce the winning idea next week on Greater Greater Washington and


Clearly we need to have more happy hours in Prince George's

It's been six years since we had a happy hour in Prince George's County. Tuesday night, we came back with County Executive Rushern Baker and had such a huge turnout we couldn't fit on the sidewalk.

If you weren't in Mount Rainier Tuesday night, you missed out. All photos and videos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Since we started organizing happy hours seven years ago, we've picked bars and restaurants to visit based on one rule: it should be near a Metro station, so everyone can get there without a car.

We've had no trouble finding places in DC, Montgomery County, and Northern Virginia, where bars and restaurants cluster around Metro stations. But I've struggled to find venues in Prince George's County, which has lagged the rest of the region in building around Metro, though that's starting to change under County Executive Rushern Baker.

Rushern Baker greets the crowd.

With help from Baker's staff, who promoted the event, and GGWash contributor/Mount Rainier councilmember Tracy Loh, we found Bird Kitchen + Cocktails and agreed to bend the Metro station rule. And we got our highest turnout ever.

Photo by David Alpert.

Nearly 100 people showed up Tuesday night from across DC, Maryland, and Virginia, forming a crowd that spilled out of the tiny restaurant onto the sidewalk and into the street. Little traffic jams formed on Rhode Island Avenue as passing drivers tried to figure out what was going on.

GGWash happy hour slows traffic on Rhode Island Avenue
Happy hours as traffic calming.

You bet we'll be back to Prince George's County. Thanks to Rushern Baker for speaking, to Tracy Loh for organizing, Bird Kitchen for handling a huge crowd with grace, and to everybody who came out!


Breakfast links: WMATA Board demands answers

Photo by Lauri Rantala on Flickr.
Answers, Metro. Now.: Today is an "emergency meeting of the WMATA Board" to get to the bottom of July's derailment. Chairman Jack Evans says he wants hard answers, not just vague promises to do better. (Post)

Too many rods for safety: After the Smithsonian derailment last year, the FTA said Metro needed to stop relying on gauge rods as a long-term fix for rails that are too far apart. Metro is behind on its promise to stop the practice. (WAMU)

Workers and managers all do horribly: Metro fired a track worker for falsifying reports, but his supervisors had made that a general practice, and the rail operations center often would hang up on workers without shutting off equipment properly. Nobody looks good in this story. (Post)

Shelter opponents sue: Some upper Northwest residents have filed a lawsuit against a proposed homeless shelter on a police station parking lot. They say there wasn't enough time to weigh in on the chosen location, but Councilmember Mary Cheh says the location of public buildings isn't usually up to neighbors to decide. (WAMU)

How kids get to school: There's no bus service for middle-schoolers in Montgomery who live within 1.5 miles of their school. Is that too far for students to walk? (WJLA) ... Fairfax is getting its first HAWK, a special pedestrian traffic signal that will connect an elementary school to a nearby apartment complex. (Fairfax County)

Where we work, where we live: Only 30% of the 800,000 people who work in DC also live in DC. Low-wage workers, like janitors and cashiers, are more likely to live in the District, but that's starting to change. (District, Measured)

Anacostia going over asking: The Anacostia housing market is heating up. Prices are up 17%, total sales are up 131%, and there are signs of increased competition, like lower supply and average sales going over asking price. (UrbanTurf)

The playground thief: After investigating the disappearance of a playground firetruck near Adams Morgan, DC Police discovered the thief was actually the Department of General Services, who had removed the firetruck because it was broken. (Post)

And...: A Swedish apartment building only includes parking for bikes. (Treehugger) ... DC had another record-breaking year for tourism with 21.3 million tourists spending $7.1 billion. (DCist) ... One in ten homes on the market in DC are over $1 million. (WTOP)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


The biggest beneficiaries of housing subsidies? The wealthy.

It's almost the first of the month, and that means rent's due. That rent or mortgage check is the single biggest expense in most Americans' budgets, so it's no wonder that Congress directs a ton of federal dollars to housing. But what should be surprising—and infuriating—is that a lot of this support goes to housing the wealthy, while very little goes to those who need help landing a stable home.

Photo by Peter on Flickr.

These policies aren't accidents—they're bad choices that we should simply stop making.

We're in the middle of an affordable housing crisis

The United States is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Nearly 1 in 3 households with a mortgage devotes more than 30 percent of their income to their home. The situation is even worse for renters—more than half of the United States' 38 million rental households are shouldering a cost burden.

Some of this crisis is fallout from the Great Recession, which brought homeownership rates to historic lows. African-American and Latino households were hit particularly hard, because of predatory lending practices that targeted racially segregated communities .

Congress spends a lot on housing, mostly through tax programs

Given these crises in housing affordability and homeownership, congressional strategies to support housing deserve special scrutiny.

Congress supports housing in two main ways: rental assistance programs and homeownership tax programs. In 2015, the price tag for federal rental assistance programs—which includes Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing, Homeless Assistance Grants, and other programs—was $51 billion. In contrast, two of the largest homeownership tax programs—the Mortgage Interest Deduction and the Property Tax Deduction—cost $90 billion in 2015. That's nearly double the amount spent on public benefit housing programs.

The biggest beneficiary of the billions spent on homeownership tax programs? The wealthy.

There's nothing wrong with providing support through the tax code—benefits are benefits, whether you get them from your local HUD office or on your tax return. The important question is: who benefits? Rental assistance programs are designed to help those who will benefit most—primarily individuals and families with less income and less stable housing. But this isn't how Congress designed homeownership tax programs. All told, households making over $100,000 a year received nearly 90 percent of the $90 billion spent on the two tax programs discussed above. Households making less than $50,000 got a little more than 1 percent of those benefits.

It gets uglier. There are nearly eight million low-income homeowners that struggle to pay for housing from month to month. On average, low-income households get about eight cents per month from these two homeownership tax programs. Eight cents. There are also about four million middle-income households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The average monthly benefit from these tax programs for middle-income earners? Twelve bucks. Don't spend it all in one place.

In contrast, the top 0.1 percent of earners—folks with an average annual income of more than $9 million—get an average of $1,236 per month (nearly $15,000 per year) from just these two homeownership tax programs. That federal benefit is much more than the typical cost of rent in most American cities, and it's going to wealthy households who really don't need help keeping a roof over their heads.

Why these tax programs are so upside down

So why are these tax programs so out of whack? It's no accident—it's how the programs are designed. Most low-income families don't even qualify because they don't itemize deductions. Even among those that do qualify, every dollar they deduct is worth less than a dollar that a high-income earner deducts. As nonsensical as it sounds, the value of homeownership tax support goes up as your income goes up. In addition, higher-income households get bigger deductions when they buy bigger houses (or bigger yachts, which qualify for the same tax benefits).

If we ran the Food Stamp (SNAP) program the same way we run our housing tax programs, low-income parents buying a simple, nutritious meal for their kids would get somewhere around zero dollars in federal support. Millionaires charging their MasterCard with a $5,000 FleurBurger with seared foie gras, truffle sauce, and bottle of 1995 Château Petrus would get a few thousand dollars in federal benefits.

Clearly, this would be a crazy way to run a social program—but this really is how we structure billions in support for wealthy homeowners through the tax code. Even worse, study after study shows that the Mortgage Interest Deduction doesn't even succeed in boosting homeownership.

How we can get away from this upside-down system

It's not hard to think up a better way to spend $90 billion. We could redirect this spending to help lower-income Americans save for a down payment, or use some of these funds to create a first-time homebuyer credit, or create a simple refundable credit for all homeowners. Or all of the above. That's the focus of the Turn it Right-Side Up campaign, which zeroes in on reforming unfair tax programs like these homeownership credits.

A version of this post first ran at Talk Poverty.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City