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

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Term limits are a terrible idea for Montgomery County

Here's a plan that is sure to improve the quality of your local hospital: Fire all the doctors and nurses with nine to 12 years of experience. Just kick them all out. Or why don't we fire every Apple software engineer who has been at the company that long? That'll surely yield better iPhones. Or fire every Post reporter with a decade under his or her belt.

No? Sound crazy? I agree. Those are terrible ideas.

For some reason, though, a lot of folks who would never suggest this do seriously entertain term limits for legislators, which Montgomery County will vote on this November as Question B. It's a bad idea, and voters should say no.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.


Ask DC's planners to address rising housing costs!

DC's Office of Planning will be updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, and wants to hear from you about what needs to change. Can you attend one of eight meetings over the next few weeks?

The "Comp Plan" is the high-level document governing the city's growth and change. It includes chapters on housing, the environment, waste infrastructure, schools, and more. The most specific parts of the plan dictate how much can be built, and where; zoning and development decisions are supposed to be based on the Comp Plan, and a recent court case gave the plan, specifically one map inside it, even more teeth.

This makes the update critical if we want to be able to keep adding enough housing to meet demand, focusing new growth near Metro stations and high-frequency buses, and encouraging walkable urbanism. OP planners need to hear from you to prioritize these needs as they consider amendments.

Every five years, the government updates the plan. This year, changes will be relatively modest, focusing on ways the assumptions or predictions in the 2006 plan have fallen out of step with reality. A group of GGWash staff and readers have been reading the plan and noticed some ways the plan has gotten out of date:

Some people will be attending these meetings to ask for even more obstacles against new people moving into neighborhoods. It's important for the planners to hear residents ask for improvements in the Comp Plan that truly fulfill its stated objective of "a growing and inclusive city."

We need the Comp Plan to ensure there is housing for people at all income levels and enough so prices don't spiral out of control (any more than they already have), and for all neighborhoods to be part of the solution rather than a competition for each neighborhood to wall itself off and push change to someone else's street.

There are eight meetings, one per ward (though OP uses "planning areas" which don't change every ten years). Each meeting will feature a presentation by planners about the Comp Plan, an open house where people can talk with planners, and then an "open mic" for feedback.

The meetings are:

  • Wednesday, October 19, 6-8:30 pm in Columbia Heights
  • Saturday, October 22, 9-11:30 am in Anacostia
  • Tuesday, October 25, 6-8:30 pm in Tenleytown
  • Thursday, October 27, 6-8:30 pm on Minnesota Avenue
  • Tuesday, November 1, 6-8:30 pm in West End/Foggy Bottom
  • Thursday, November 3, 6-8:30 pm in Southwest Waterfront
  • Monday, November 14, 6-8:30 pm in Brookland
See the specific locations and other details here. If you can't attend, you can also give your thoughts at this online survey.

Either way, sign up using the form below to get further updates from Greater Greater Washington about ways to make a difference on this Comp Plan process.


Copenhagen uses this one trick to make room for bikeways on nearly every street

I visited Copenhagen for the first time in June. I knew it was one of the bikiest cities in the world, but it's quite astounding to see what a place looks like where 52% of commuters travel by bike.

All photos by the author.

Almost every street has a type of protected bikeway. It's essentially a lane of the street but raised up with a small curb, low enough that vehicles can mount it but high enough to discourage that. (And generally, they don't.)

These are everywhere. It's not just the main streets or a few selected bike boulevards. Virtually every street of any appreciable size had one. It was almost strange to encounter a street with any traffic that didn't. The typical medium-sized street had two car lanes (one each way), two bike lanes of the same width (one each way), and a sidewalk on each side.

As an old city, the streets are fairly narrow (and, honestly, the sidewalks were pretty narrow and are made of cobblestones; it might be a bike mecca, but the walking experience could be better). So how can there be enough room?

Here's a picture. What do you notice that's missing?

If you said "on-street parking," you're right! As compared with most US cities which have parking on nearly every city street, Copenhagen has it on many smaller streets but far from all, and doesn't have it on most mid-sized and larger streets.

Could DC be like this?

There are some obstacles to DC having as much biking as Copenhagen (once again: 52% of commuters!) For one, our weather is both hotter and colder, and DC has more hills. Copenhagen is a smaller city, with about 2 million people in its metropolitan area versus 6 million for Washington.

Still, we can do so much better. We don't have to put a bikeway on every street, and maybe won't ever have the mode share to justify that, but there already is enough mode share to warrant a network of them connecting every neighborhood and spaced a certain distance in the city's core.

Instead of always blocking bikeways with construction, they keep the bikeways open!

More bikeways would also boost the amount of cycling; with DC's weather and topography we could easily double, triple, or quadruple the 2% of commuters bicycling (after all, 11% walk and they have to contend with the same weather!)

It's crazy that it takes years to build support for a protected bikeway on even one street. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) built only 0.14 miles of protected bikeways and 4.28 miles of other bike lanes in 2015.

A few streets also do have on-street parking as well, but it's uncommon.

The MoveDC plan calls for 7.5 miles a year of bike lanes. New York built 12.4 miles of protected bikeways in 2015, and the city does have about 12 times as many people as DC proper, but that means DC is still falling short by a factor of about seven.

It's certainly true there are political obstacles to changing even a single parking space into something else, but there's a simple political solution as well: do it differently.

Copenhagen is building a new bike/ped bridge next to an existing one, because the existing one has too much bicycle traffic.

Compared to many other US cities like Orlando and Cleveland, DC is doing great on transit, on bicycling, on walking. We shouldn't forget how far we've come, either; DC had zero protected bikeways until 2009. But go around the world and it can easily become clear: we also could do so, so much better.


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


DC will have 300 hyper-local elections this fall. Can you help us sort through the candidates?

150 candidates for Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats in DC filled out a survey about their views. You can read their responses, and we'd like to hear what you think as we decide on Greater Greater Washington's endorsements. Can you help?

Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Every two years, DC voters elect Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in nonpartisan races on the November ballot. An ANC is a neighborhood council of unpaid, elected representatives who meet monthly and weigh in with the government about important issues to the community.

ANCs are very important on housing and transportation; an ANC's opposition to new housing, retail, a bike lane, bus improvements, etc. can stymie or significantly delay valuable projects, while good ANCs give the government suggestions for positive ways to improve the neighborhood and rally resident support. Races often hinge on a small handful of votes.

Each district averages about 2,000 voters; there are 40 commissions citywide, 296 districts, and 401 candidates on the ballot (some unopposed, some districts with no candidates, and some with four candidates). In the past, we've given reviews and made endorsements for many of the races. This year, we'd like to do an even more thorough job of evaluating candidates, but need your help to sort through the hundreds of them.

We created a questionnaire with a combination of citywide questions and neighborhood-specific questions, sent it to all the candidates, and already have 150 responses. We'd like your help to evaluate the responses and give us feedback which a team of staff and volunteers will then collate into a final "scorecard."

Here's what you can do:

  1. Find your ward and ANC if you don't know them yet here.
  2. Open up the responses for your ward:
    Ward 1 ·Ward 2 ·Ward 3 ·Ward 4 ·Ward 5 ·Ward 6 ·Ward 7 ·Ward 8
  3. Read the responses for a candidate and give your feedback on this form.
  4. Repeat for as many other candidates as you want to do. Try other ANCs, other wards—all input is helpful!
(One caveat: We copied & pasted the responses from the survey into these PDFs, and some of the formatting got messed up, like if someone had “smart quotes” (such as from writing their replies in MS Word and pasting them) or other special characters, bulleted lists, etc. Please disregard any strange underlines or other formatting quirks; the idea here is for you to see their words, not their punctuation prowess. Thanks.)

This isn't a vote—we're not going to decide an endorsement by tallying up the ratings. Rather, the ratings and text together will help us understand things like whether a candidate is being honest about his or her views or trying to play both sides of an issue, help inform us about factors we might not be aware of (there are, after all, a lot of neighborhoods), and otherwise evaluate the candidates.

If you are an ANC candidate and haven't finished the survey yet, or you know someone who is, or you are or know of a planned write-in candidate, it's still possible to fill out the survey (but hurry!)

Please get your feedback in by Friday, September 30. We'll then publish reviews and endorsements by mid-October. Early voting starts October 22 at One Judiciary Square, October 28 at early voting centers around the city, and Election Day is November 8.


Why can't Metro label escalators "walk left, stand right" or label where doors will stop on the platform?

Over 1,000 Metro riders submitted ideas for our recent MetroGreater contest. Two came up most often, but are sadly not possible: Signs or markings to encourage people to stand to the right on the escalators, and decals to show where the doors will stop on the platforms. Here's why they couldn't be winners.

Photo by Benjamin KRAFT on Flickr.

In New York, for instance, markings like the ones above show where the doors will stop and urge riders not to stand right in front of the doors.

The obstacle is simple: On the new 7000 Series trains, the doors are not in the same place as on the older trains. Metro plans to run 7000s on all lines and gradually replace all trains with them, but it will be a long time before any line has no older cars. Therefore, markers wouldn't be in the right spot for all trains.

Here's a comparison between the 7000 series (top) and older cars (bottom) by Sand Box John:

Image by Sand Box John. Note that the exterior design of the 7000 ended up somewhat different than in this sketch made from early plans.

It's too bad the markings aren't possible, but moving the doors closer to the center on the 7000 series does make some sense, as they could better distribute crowding between the middles and ends of the cars. It would have been even better to build them with four doors per side, but perhaps in the future. (If so, however, that will push off the day even further when these markings might be an option.)

Walk left, stand right?

Most of us stand on the right side of an escalator, if we're not walking up or down it, and walk on the left side. Thirty-three separate people submitted variations on the idea of educating people about this custom. It could be a sign, like this one that entrant Kristoffer Wright mocked up:

Image by Kristoffer Wright.

Or, what about footprints, as in this idea by London designer Yoni Alter:

Photo by Yoni Alter.

There's one straightforward problem with the footprints in DC: Many Metro escalators sometimes run up and sometimes down (though many do not). On those, at least, the footprints would make no sense with the escalator reversed. Not only would the feet be facing the wrong way, but the "walk" footprints would then be on the right side, giving people the wrong suggestions. ("You should walk backwards down the wrong side of this escalator"?)

As for signs, reversibility isn't the issue, but safety is. According to WMATA Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox, people walking on escalators "is the single biggest point of customer injury, and Metro does not want to endorse that." They know people walk on the escalator as an "informal commuter practice, but it is a safety concern and we do not want to encourage walking or running on moving conveyances."

Transit agencies around the globe have a wide range of views on whether this is a safety issue. Ryan Young, one of the people who submitted the idea, pointed out a few worldwide examples. Chicago, for instance, officially recommends "walk left, stand right":

Image from Chicago CTA.

Toronto, on the other hand, ended the practice in 2007 for safety reasons. Young also found this Polish article showing a "walk left, stand right" sign in a Warsaw department store and advocating for similar ones in the subway.

We could quibble with Metro's decision, but the fact (right or wrong) right now is that Metro's safety is under a microscope. We have people like US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx insisting that safety is the only priority and that he'd sooner shut down the Metro than have any safety problem whatever. In that climate, doing something on escalators that could be a little less safe, even if the change is slight, is probably not wise.

Personally, I still will be walking on the escalator and politely saying "excuse me" to people who stand on the left.


How can we know if DC is building enough housing?

DC could reach almost a million people in 30 years. What does that mean for the amount of housing DC needs? Or the amount you might pay to rent or buy a place to live? Current population forecasts still don't answer a few key questions that have to be answered to plan for the future.

Photo by E. Krall on Flickr.

DC planners are starting work to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan. Among other things, the Comp Plan sets basic policies for how much new housing can be built. And a recent court case blocked new housing because a map in the Comp Plan didn't show it. That means it's very important to get the plan right.

Everyone needs to live somewhere, so a very logical first step to understanding the city's needs is forecasting how many people want to live there. That's not quite so simple, however.

Forecasting is complex

Many variables go into population forecasts. Regional data analysts disagree about many of them. Still, they've had some success. When the current Comp Plan was first written, a decade ago, it estimated the city's population in 2010 and 2015. It got the 2010 population bang on the nosealmost exactly 600,000. But for 2015, it's wasn't so accurate; the Comp Plan guessed growth would continue to 630,000, but DC actually grew much more, to about 672,000.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) puts out annual growth estimates for all of the jurisdictions in the Washington region. Here's how the Comp Plan's growth estimates track with COG's past and most recent estimates and with reality.

Actual population data from US Census and American Community Survey estimates. Projections from DC Office of Planning, DC CFO, and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The DC Chief Financial Officer also makes some forecasts. The last one tracks closely to COG's, but in 2013 the DC CFO thought growth was about to slow. It hasn't, at least not yet.

The current forecasts answer some questions, but not all

How does COG come up with its forecasts? It calls them "cooperative forecasts" because the first step is for each local jurisdiction to estimate its own growth. Then, COG planners tweak the numbers so the totals better match the overall regional jobs picture, trends about how many children people are having, and so forth.

Those individual jurisdictional estimates mostly come from looking at how much development is in the pipeline and how much room there is under current zoning. It makes some sense—someone is not going to move to DC unless they have a place to live. If 1,000 new housing units will be created and 90% of them will fill up in 2 years with an average of 1.5 people per unit (for example), that means 1,350 new residents.

That's a pretty good way to guess the population if you want to know what's most likely to happen under current policy. It helps with budgeting for the amount of trash pickup you'll need, say, or how many schools to build.

But if you use that number to set zoning policies, you'd be making a circular argument:

  • We think developers will build x housing units.
  • X housing units hold Y people.
  • Therefore, DC will grow by Y people.
  • We said DC will grow by Y people.
  • Y people fit in X units.
  • We're building X units.
  • Therefore, we're building enough units.

Photo by Tom Magliery on Flickr.

It doesn't work that way. Let's consider a hypothetical city that really doesn't want to grow much but has a booming job market. Call it Atherton.

Atherton has about 7,500 people and very little opportunity to add new housing under zoning. It's zoned for enough new development for 100 new people and that's it. If that policy continues, the new units for those 100 people will get built in the next five years, and then perhaps nothing for many years after that.

Atherton therefore estimates its population will be 7,600 in 2035. Is that right? Well, maybe. That doesn't mean that policy makes any sense if the surrounding area has demand for thousands of new jobs a year and prices in Atherton are going through the roof (as they are, because Atherton is real!)

DC isn't Atherton, and we shouldn't be—but needs more data to avoid it

DC is, of course, not trying to stop all growth, and its forecast predicts some substantial growth. But that forecast still primarily answers the question of what the population will be under current policies. It doesn't tell us a few key things we need to know:

  1. If we don't change current policies, will prices rise faster than people's incomes can keep up?
  2. If we did change policies, what would happen? Would more people move in?
  3. What policies should we pursue if we want both new residents and longtime ones to be able to live in DC, without too-fast price rises or displacement?
These are the questions that DC must explore for the Comprehensive Plan, because the Comp Plan is the ultimate font of the policies that create the pipeline that drives the population estimates.

There aren't official numbers on most of this yet, but I've talked to forecasters who are trying to figure it out. It's not easy. If more housing was getting built, some people would move to DC who otherwise would live in another county or region entirely. Some wouldn't be displaced who otherwise would be. On the other hand, some people might not like the changes and move out.

Will DC run out of room?

DC (and the whole Washington region) is highly desirable, and many people would like to live here but for high and rising housing prices. Others who have lived here for many years are finding themselves priced out through rising rents or taxes associated with swelling real estate appraisals.

There's a growing body of evidence that when cities don't build enough new housing to keep up with demand, that exacerbates the price rise. In DC, proposed new buildings constantly have floors and units slashed off or have strict limits on their size in the first place.

You don't have to believe that removing regulations will magically make housing suddenly affordable for all—I don't—to worry about all the people who can't live in the units that don't get built and the displacement it can cause elsewhere.

Beyond prices rising and displacement happening today, there's reason to worry it will get worse. DC does have a number of large undeveloped sites now, like Walter Reed, McMillan, St. Elizabeths, and Hill East, which can and hopefully will provide a large portion of DC's housing need for the next decade or so. But if demand to live in the city remains strong, these will fill with housing soon; what then?

An Office of Planning 2013 report warned that DC was approaching its maximum buildable limits. The city could run out of space for new housing between 2030 and 2040, the report said.

Graph from the DC Office of Planning's Height Master Plan report, 2013.

It would be helpful for OP to update this graph based on changes since then. The zoning update allowed people to rent out basements and garages ("accessory apartments") in some zones, which added some potential housing; at the same time, DC made zoning more restrictive in many row house areas and downzoned the Lanier Heights neighborhood, which might have moved the red dotted line down somewhat.

Where are the lines now? How has the city's growth tracked against the three scenarios in the above graph? Under various assumptions, how much time is left until the problem gets even worse than it is today?

DC needs an inclusive housing strategy

DC needs a Comprehensive Plan that ensures enough housing so that prices don't rise faster than they need to. Public policies must also ensure that new housing benefits a cross-section of income levels, from the very poor to the middle class and beyond, to prevent displacement and built a city welcoming to all—as Mayor Bowser likes to say, for those who have been here for five generations or five minutes.

To get the policies right requires good data. What do you see in the above analysis? Are there other data sets you think would be helpful? Are there other questions that an updated Comprehensive Plan should address?


Metro is pushing ahead to cut late-night service with three unsatisfying options

We first heard about Metro's hope to permanently cut late-night service in July. Now, Metro has released three specific scenarios to cut late night service, but it offers still few specifics on why it's necessary or what alternatives there can be.

Photo by Howard Ignatius on Flickr.

At the regular WMATA Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, Metro staff will ask for formal approval to hold public hearings to cut late-night service. This is a legally required step before Metro can make any service cuts.

In July, we heard an initial proposal to end service at midnight Monday to Saturday and 10 pm on Sundays. Following public outcry, Metro has devised two other options, which staff estimate will harm about the same number of riders.

According to the presentation for Thursday's meeting, if the board approves public hearings, public comment would be open from October 1 to 24 with a public hearing on October 17. The board could vote to cut service in December, and the new hours would take effect next July.

The presentation also says Metro will take public input on ways to extend bus service to meet some late-night riders' needs, but offers no specifics.

Metro does need more maintenance, but is this necessary?

These closings will give Metro 8 to 8½ more hours a week when the system is closed, which will allow for more track work. It's certainly true Metro needs to catch up on track work, and single-tracking constrains workers too much so they can't get as much done.

Beyond the urgent safety-related fixes, Metro could use track time to fix lighting in stations (which requires closing the stations), installing cables for cell phone access in the tunnels, and much more, said General Manager Paul Wiedefeld when a few Greater Greater Washington contributors and I spoke with him recently.

However, what this proposal does not explain is why closing the entire system at once is necessary. Why not, for instance, pick one line per weekend to close at night? Heck, if they need more track time, it might even be fine to close a line for the entire weekend.

Surely the track workers can't be on every line at once.

Wiedefeld said he worries this would be too confusing for riders. Instead of knowing the system was closed, they would have to keep track of which lines are open. Plus, already low late night ridership would be even lower without the opportunity to transfer between as many lines.

I'm still not persuaded. Metro certainly could devise clear infographics to communicate, and if it made the closures really simple, such as one line (or a set of lines that overlap) per weekend, it could work.

We shouldn't armchair quarterback Wiedefeld's difficult job, but cutting late night service permanently will force a lot of people to give up on Metro and end the aspiration for it to offer a comprehensive alternative to driving. Many late night workers and entertainment patrons, especially those who live far from their jobs and destinations, will be stuck, as Tracy Loh explained this morning.

Riders should have more information before public comment and hearings

Maybe a one-line-at-a-time closure is worse for other reasons, but the board should ask about this and other options that don't give up on service entirely for parts of the day. They should ask for this before the proposal goes to public hearings.

The presentation also suggests adding late-night bus service, but has no specifics. I hope the planners are hard at work on devising the best ways to serve the most people without Metrorail. But it seems that riders will have to comment on the rail proposals without seeing what alternatives exist.

How about lengthening the temporary SafeTrack closure to give time to really figure out these alternatives before, not after, committing to permanently cut service? Because permanent is a big deal. Riders deserve to have all the details and a fully baked plan first.


DC has almost no white residents without college degrees. (It's a different story for black residents.)

One of FiveThirtyEight's great interactive features looks at voters in different groups (college educated whites, Hispanics, etc.) and their effect on the Electoral College. One part graphs each group and its prevalence in various states. This graph really stuck out for how unusual DC is:

Image from FiveThirtyEight.

The X axis here is how much people vote Democratic versus Republican. It's no shocker that people in DC, regardless of race or education level, overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. That's not especially relevant to this discussion. But the Y axis is how prevalent each group is in the electorate; this graph is saying that non-college-educated whites make up only 2% of DC's electorate.

Now, when you graph DC against the 50 states, it often looks like an outlier since it's far more urban than any state. Even so, that percentage of non-college-educated white voters is remarkably small. 2%???

Is that typical of other center cities? In a word, not at all. Here's the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents over 251 who lack a college degree for select center cities (since New York City is big, I included both all of New York and just Manhattan2):

Graphs by the author with data from the Census' 2012 5-year American Community Survey.

For DC, that's 11%. That's super low. Low is good—but it's not low for all groups.

There's a huge chasm between white and black when it comes to education

DC's high level of education among its white residents does not translate to African-Americans. Here is the proportions of whites and blacks without a college education in the same center cities:

These numbers are heart-breakingly high in all the cities. African-Americans, especially in center cities, lack educational opportunities at a tragic rate, perpetuating cycles of generational poverty that America has trapped them in for the nation's entire history (cf. slavery, Jim Crow, racial covenants, redlining, etc.)

To be sure, as in other center cities, DC has a significant black middle and professional class who have access to good jobs. But while most cities have some blacks with opportunity and (more) blacks without, and whites with and (fewer) without, in DC, that fourth category is basically absent.

No major center city does much better on black education levels. San Jose is a little lower, but not much, and its population is only 3.07% black. Does the racial makeup of a city seem to correlate with education levels? Not really:

What about in our region?

This effect isn't the same outside center cities. Here are the same graphs for major jurisdictions in our region2:

Again, DC has the widest gap between black and white, but Arlington isn't far behind (while being far whiter). Howard and Loudoun have the lowest percentage of black residents without bachelor's degrees; Loudoun is only 7% black, but Howard is a somewhat more respectable 17%.

Still, as the scatter plot here shows (and which won't be much surprise to many of you), there are really only three counties in the region with large black populations, and they're geographically adjacent.

The two besides DC—Prince George's and Charles—have little difference in the educational attainment level between blacks and whites (and same for the least diverse county in this list, Frederick). In DC, there's a great gulf.

If you want to play with the data, you can download the Census tables for white, black, and total population for the selected cities; and white, black, and total population for regional jurisdictions.

What do you notice?

1 The Census uses the population over 25 for this, presumably because many people under 25 don't yet have college degrees only due to their age.
2 Aka New York County, NY.
3 Sorry, small independent cities of Northern Virginia; in this analysis, you're not different enough from your adjacent counties to warrant inclusion.


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.

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