Posts by David Alpert
|David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle.|
Each year right around this time, Google adds some joke features to its products. Today, Google Maps just got a "Pac-Man" mode, where you can turn any street grid into a little pellet-eating, ghost-chasing game.
Depending where you pick, the game can be really hard or easy. Good luck winning a round around Dupont Circle.
The game ignores dead-end streets (since you can't escape if a ghost traps you there), so if you pick a neighborhood that's almost all cul-de-sacs, it'll say you can't play Pac-Man there. Another disadvantage of unwalkable street designs?
What are some of the best spots you can find for a fun Pac-Man game around the Washington area?
Greater Greater Washington readers came up with a great list of children's books which have urbanist themes or describe experiences of kids growing up in the city, like riding the subway or walking outside an apartment neighborhood on a snowy day. What about for music?
Sophie has really been enjoying Bubble Ride, a CD by Boston area children's singer Vanessa Trien. Besides some (great) songs about the popular topic, farm or zoo animals, there are several songs about living in the city.
"Train Dance" is about some people on the T who can't help but dance to the rhythm of the train rumbling. And "Spinning Around" relates the experience of a child who lives in a second-floor apartment in the city and goes on a "walk to the bank or to the grocery store" in the stroller.
DC's new transportation director Leif Dormsjo says the region's transit authority needs to change. This might not sound like shocking news to most riders, but it's a sentiment many top WMATA officials don't share or seem reluctant to admit if they do.
Dormsjo and Corbett Price, both appointed to the WMATA Board by Mayor Muriel Bowser, recently spent a day at WMATA learning all about the inner workings of the agency. That experience, he said, gave him a clear understanding about problems at the agency.
"WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better," he said.
Not everyone in positions of authority feels this way. Current board chairman and federal appointee Mort Downey, as well as the Gray administration's board pick Tom Downs, had strongly praised Richard Sarles' tenure and were looking for a similar transit veteran to succeed him.
Dormsjo thinks WMATA instead needs an outsider who will shake up the culture at the agency. "WMATA needs a CEO," he said.
Is Metro service good enough?
Bowser has sometimes described her idea for a new WMATA General Manager as a "turnaround specialist." At a panel discussion Monday, I said I thought the agency does need an outsider, as long as that person understands that change means doing better, not just doing less to cut costs at the expense of riders.
Here's the audio recording from the panel:
Graham Jenkins, who tweets about transit @LowHeadways, agreed that we need more service, not less. He said,
Put simply, there aren't enough trains and there aren't enough buses. Frequency is freedom. If you're in a car it's very easy to say, "I'm going to begin my trip now," and get into your car to begin that journey. Transit can only run that way when it runs frequently enough.There are certainly many people who work at Metro who don't like that level of service, but the agency doesn't have the financial resources to run more. Later, Tom Bulger, a member of the board appointed by the DC Council, seemed to say that rush hour is what mattered to the agency: "We're only as good as our last rush hour. Sorry Graham, sorry David, that's how the system operates."
The British have a term for it, "turn up and go service." It means that you can leave and ... be relatively assured that within a pretty short amount of time something will come and you'll be on your way. But ... our level of weekend service is considered adequate when even without trackwork the headways on Sundays are 15 minutes. It's commuter rail level of service.
That's also the problem with the system. The board seems to have abdicated oversight responsibility. The board needn't be passive. ... This is the same mentality that Muriel Bowser had when she was on the board and decried that, if this were my railroad, I would change certain things. ... It is her railroad, it is your railroad. You have the power to change things and to accept the status quo passively is why these problems will not go away.Has WMATA management not been honest?
Bowser indeed did not exercise vigorous oversight of WMATA while she was on the board from 2011 to 2014, but has seemingly moved decisively to appoint people who will now that she is mayor.
Procurement errors under former CFO Carol Kissal led to a scathing report from the Federal Transit Administration and punitive steps where FTA has withheld federal funds and put WMATA in a short-term cash flow crunch. Board members including Bowser and Bulger did not know the extent of this problem until it was too late.
Moderator Pat Host noted that Bowser has said top management was not "honest and forthright with the board about the financial situation of the agency," as Host described it. But Bulger feels that the board has "enough CFO experience with our current CFO Dennis [Anosike] and the current chairman of the Metro board, Mort Downey."
He did not seem very concerned with the agency's current direction. Nor did Jackie Jeter, the president of the union representing most WMATA employees. She said that she worries a "turnaround specialist" would create too much whiplash.
WMATA never gets a chance to run its plan. A couple of years ago Metro came up with a 25-year plan for what it needed to do ... but now that this has happened we abandon that and move to something else. At some point we have to stop this ADHD approach to transportation and actually come up with a program, run the program, and do what is needed.But as Metro was running its program, its culture of secrecy persisted. Besides not telling even some of their own board members about the financial situation, the message from the agency too often was "just trust us" while anyone who did later felt betrayed. Dormsjo is right that one of the most-needed changes is for WMATA to communicate better—
In the panel, Bulger said, "It's hard being on this board when you don't have partners." Many riders and advocates want to be partners, but can only do that if the agency treats them like partners instead of children. When it's even treating its own board members like children, it's clear something has to change.
Here we are, again. Someone reading the headlines about WMATA could easily think we were back in 2009.
The agency faces a budget shortfall. Service cuts are on the table. Trains and buses are breaking down. Riders are frustrated. And then, a fatal crash exposed safety failures that they knew about but didn't address.
The riding public sees WMATA as perpetually in crisis. Yes, this year's particular budget gap is largely a result of the cutbacks in federal transit benefits, but we've been here in past years and will be again. Can WMATA get out of this cycle, reach a sound financial footing, fix broken systems, and regain the public's trust?
Picking the right general manager
Everyone agrees WMATA needs fixing, but not on how to fix it. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser wants as the next General Manager a "turnaround specialist" from outside the transit industry while recent board chairman Tom Downs thinks another experienced transit executive, just like the last few GMs, is the right pick.
I worry about both possibilities. Another career transit operator for whom this is the last job before retirement would not shake up deeply entrenched problems within the agency, like an insular culture impervious to outside information, a hierarchical structure where people do not question higher-ups, and poor customer service from a few employees whose actions reflect badly on the whole but go unchecked.
But a pure cost-cutter could sacrifice service at the altar of the bottom line. Our region's residents depend on transit service. Far more people live car-free in walkable urban places than when Metro was new. It would be deeply wrong to retrench Metro as merely a suburban commuter system designed to move workers downtown at rush hours.
There are those who say Metro's problem is that it has too much service. Late night and weekend service makes track work more difficult. It would be easier to shut the whole system down to make repairs. Sometimes that is appropriate, but it must be as minimal as possible, not just expansive for convenience's sake.
I believe WMATA does need an outsider, not another member of the transit executive club who thinks the way it's always been done is just fine. But to ensure an outsider changes the right things, riders need to be involved.
The current debate over a turnaround expert versus a transit operating expert has been happening almost entirely behind the scenes. Scant information can lead officials to make bad decisions. Muriel Bowser, Terry McAuliffe, and Larry Hogan need to reach out more to riders about what they'd want from an outsider, and riders need to make their views heard.
Fix the mismanagement and the funding stream
Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency's failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife's edge where a small mistake has big consequences.
WMATA needs a reliable and dedicated funding stream to insulate against the vagaries of the political winds in Annapolis, Richmond, and Pennsylvania Avenue, but riders and local governments will need better guarantees of what will happen next.
A plan to stabilize WMATA must go beyond dollars and give riders a much clearer understanding of how long they must endure this level of weekend track work, when Metro can reach a state of good repair, and then what level of maintenance to expect beyond.
People need to know not only how WMATA will make it through the next year's budget, but also how this stretches into the long term. They need to know whether WMATA can live within its means with only inflationary fare increases while boosting rather than cutting service. And riders will expect customer service to become a higher priority.
Without change, Metro will probably muddle through. It muddles through, year after year. We'll be back in a few years discussing how to close a budget gap or deal with decrepit systems. When ridership grows again we still won't have 8-car trains or a second Rosslyn station to allow more Blue Line service. Most buses will still be too infrequent and too slow, or end too early, to really offer an alternative to car ownership.
We can't afford the status quo
But the region can't afford a transit system that is just going to squeak by from one challenge to the next. Whoever the next general manager is, he or she needs to be able to right the ship.
WMATA faces management challenges that need resolutions. And the agency's program of rebuilding after decades of deferred maintenance still has years' worth of work left. Rising costs are driving an annual budget battle with no end in sight.
But WMATA's next leader will also have to deal with a deficit of public confidence. Riders are tired of constant work, frequent delays, and surly employees. And that is afflicting the political will to solve the funding situation.
I hope that the region can mobilize to do better, to make Metro again a jewel of our national capital that can be proud of. Can we do it?
The Bowser administration has put the District's streetcar plans on pause, and may even scrap the H Street "starter line" entirely. It's important to think hard about the right transit approach, but whether it's a streetcar, buses in dedicated lanes or something else, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration must keep enlarging the District's transit infrastructure with projects they can deliver in the near future.
New transit service is a must as the District and the region grow. In the District, substantial development is coming to every quadrant: Walter Reed, Skyland shopping center, McMillan Sand Filtration site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hill East, the Southwest Waterfront, H Street and NoMa and many more.
People need to travel to and from these growing areas. Inaction by the District government will mean ever-worsening traffic. The simple laws of mathematics mean that roads of fixed size cannot move more people unless more people are in higher-capacity vehicles— Read more in my latest column for the Washington Post.
Read more in my latest column for the Washington Post.
There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.
Mitch says, "My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill."
Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, "We've mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there's track work (and often, sadly, even when there's not). But we didn't want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.
"We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn't mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after."
The snowstorm begins
By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.
There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, "I overruled my son's suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.
"We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.
"At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station."
"My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes."
Another Metro delay compounds problems
David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.
"Another 'special' train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn't go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn't yet know about.
"The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.
"However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top 'Glenmont' line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.
Photo by David Alpert.
"I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.
"The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).
"An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour."
What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:
Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, "I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another." If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.
Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn't have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today's smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn't have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it's transformed mobility.
Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn't talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.
The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, "I don't understand how this system works." People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn't stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.
We're still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that's not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don't even have that.
The Purple Line may dominate recent headlines, but Montgomery County's 81-mile, 115-station Bus Rapid Transit proposal also has tremendous potential. Here's what the future network might look like.
The BRT network would create a vast web of ten major corridors stretching across the county. That may be a bit harder to wrap your head around than simple one-line proposals like the Purple Line, so we've put together this map based on Communities for Transit's diagram of the network.
The map also shows the the Corridor Cities Transitway, a BRT line which has been in planning longer than the larger countywide BRT network; the Purple Line light rail; and existing rail transit in the form of the Metro Red Line and MARC Brunswick line.
Combined together into one map, you can get a glimpse of just how great Montgomery County's transit future could be, extending the reach of the Metro with a connection at every Red Line station, including two long-desired links between the eastern and western halves of the line, connecting Wheaton to Rockville and Glenmont to White Flint.
To make this work, Montgomery County has to avoid "BRT creep" and stick by its plans to give routes dedicated lanes. There will be tremendous pressure to cut corners, and already some segments of the plan don't have dedicated lanes. On the map, those appear with a hollow line instead of a solid one.
The maps shows the lines continuing into DC. The current plans don't include the District, but officials have started talking about ways to make the lines reach Metro stations in DC or go all the way downtown. The county also cut back the line on Wisconsin Avenue to end at Bethesda following resident objections, but it could span that section again if and when the line can continue farther, such as to Georgetown.
This week's Walkblock of the Week highlighted the closed sidewalk at Connecticut and Yuma, NW. To get to the Franklin Montessori School from the Van Ness Metro, people have to walk past the school, to Albemarle Stret, and double back. Is this a big deal?
The walk from Van Ness Metro to Franklin Montessori with the sidewalk closed (left) and open (right). Images from Gmap Pedometer using Google Maps.
It's .29 miles versus .21 miles. That's 39% more walk from the Metro, a significant jump. On the other hand, it's only an additional .08 miles plus crossing Connecticut.
Wow you must have a great life when you consider this to be "a significant additional inconvenience."It's 2.5 extra minutes and 1-2 major crossings
People, get a grip. So you have to cross the street. I live in the area, I do it all the time. Would I prefer not to cross the street? Sure. But do I give it a second thought afterwards? NO! How entitled do you have to feel to be outraged by having to walk an extra .08 miles? I mean come on.
At an average walking speed of 3.1 mph, it takes 1.5 extra minutes to walk that distance (longer for kids who walk slowly, of course). Let's assume an extra 1 minute wait for the light and you have added 2.5 minutes to the trip.
That may not sound like much, but twice a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year is about 17 hours a year of extra time, per person. Crossing Connecticut Avenue one or two times each way is also not nothing. Crosswalks on six-lane streets like Connecticut are common places for pedestrians to get hit, especially seniors and children, and while we all live with this risk, increasing it isn't something to do lightly.
Would drivers stand for a delay like that?
More importantly, these commenters' reactions highlight how we tend to think about inconveniencing pedestrians versus drivers. Would drivers stand for having their commute lengthened by 2.5 minutes each way?
We got to see such a case recently when DC put in (and then removed) a median on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. The traffic count data said that drivers' trips lengthened by 1-2 minutes. But drivers, including Councilmember Jack Evans, who drives on Wisconsin to and from his kids' school, screamed bloody murder.
Evans insisted that the delay was more than 1-2 minutes. But 1-2 minutes can feel like a lot when you're stuck in traffic. How do you feel if you're waiting at a light, it turns green, and you can't make it through because of traffic, or maybe someone turning that blocks the way? That's a delay of about a minute, and it can be very infuriating.
Traffic engineering standards even agree: If the average car is delayed 1 minute and 20 seconds at an intersection, vehicular Level of Service, the measure for how well traffic flows, would be a failing F. In other words, traffic engineering considers it totally unacceptable to add that level of delay.
Or if you commute by car, try this experiment: Pick a spot along the route (if you use Connecticut Avenue, it could be this area). Every time you get there, stop the car and wait 2.5 minutes. I know I wouldn't want to have to keep doing that.
Maybe closing a the sidewalk was right in this case since it's such a busy street. Maybe not. But DDOT doesn't even habitually compute how much delay a closure will cause pedestrians, while it's mandatory before closing any lanes to traffic. To at least weigh the impacts quantitatively would be a good start.
Restore the sidewalk now
One thing is for sure: This sidewalk ought not stay closed for much longer.
DDOT's George Branyan said that in initial applications for the permit, the developer's representatives promised that once the vault (the area under the sidewalk) is built, they would put a top on and create a pedestrian path. They estimated that would happen by about December 2014.
It's past that time now, and the building's structure is above the street level. Branyan said permit officials will be talking again with the construction team to find out when there can be a new sidewalk.
Crews sometimes want to keep the sidewalk closed longer than absolutely necessary because it's more convenient to be able to pull up construction trucks to the site and not worry about pedestrians. That, for sure, is not a good reason to keep a sidewalk closed, and when sidewalks do have to close, it's important for DDOT to push to reopen them as early as possible.
After a warm Sunday, many buildings and property owners were able to clear their sidewalks, as the law requires. But some did not. We asked you to submit your photos of snow clearing scofflaws or, as reader Jasper Nijdam dubbed them, "snoflaws."
He sent along this photo of the sidewalk past the Key Bridge Marriott, at the corner of Lee Highway and Ft. Myer Drive in Rosslyn. He writes,
I'd like to nominate eternal snoflaw The Marriott at Key Bridge. Their own parking lot is so well treated that I doubt snow ever reaches the ground. But they utterly refuse to do anything about their busy sidewalk.Update: Commenter charlie says that this is National Park Service land, and thus NPS is responsible for clearing it rather than Marriott. However, both agree in the comments that Marriott could do a public service and clear it anyway.
Also nominated, whomever lives on the west side of 35th [in Georgetown] between Prospect and M Street. Note how the east side is nicely cleaned.
Bridges remain treacherous
While local governments have avidly plowed streets, sidewalks along bridges have not gotten the same love. These are especially problematic for pedestrians since the bridges often represent the only nearby path across a major barrier like a highway, railroad tracks, or a river.
Left: North Meade Street overpass over Route 50 in Rosslyn. Photo by LMK on Twitter. Right: H Street "Hopscotch Bridge" over railroad tracks in DC. Photo by Emily Larson on Twitter.
Twitter user LMK tweeted a picture of the bridge over Route 50 at the south end of Rosslyn, which connects Ft. Myer Heights, the eponymous military base, and the Marine Corps Memorial to Rosslyn. The already-narrow sidewalk is now a sheet of ice.
Across the Potomac, we have a similar condition on the "Hopscotch Bridge," where H Street crosses behind Union Station. Dave Uejio alerted us to this photo on Twitter by Emily Larson.
"DC government is the worst offender"
Ralph Garboushian writes an email with the apt subject line, "DC government is the worst offender." He calls out DC's Department of General Services, which is responsible for maintenance in and around District property including parks. He says,
DCDGS never clears the sidewalks around the triangle parks between 17th Street, Potomac Avenue and E Street SE and at 15th & Potomac. Both see pretty heavy pedestrian traffic—
people walking to the Metro, going to the grocery store, taking their dogs to Congressional Cemetery, etc. A neighbor and I usually tackle the one at 17th.
Photo by Ralph Garboushian.
It infuriates me to see Mayor Bowser patting herself on the back for doing such a great job clearing the snow. On Potomac Avenue SE, the main beneficiaries of her efforts are the suburban motorists who speed up and down the street with no regard for pedestrians or neighborhood residents.Many of DC's square and triangle parks (like the triangles along Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House, for instance) are not local, but federal, and it's the National Park Service (NPS) which should (and doesn't) clear their sidewalks. This one, however, is DC land and not federal, though it's next to Congressional Cemetery, which NPS controls.
By Sunday morning the street was bare pavement. Meanwhile, the sidewalks along the triangle parks were a disaster, even as most homeowners had already shoveled their sidewalks. It boggles my mind that taxpaying neighborhood residents have to pick up the city's slack to ensure we can travel safely on foot while non-taxpaying suburban motorists get gold-plated treatment.
Garboushian and his neighbors later shoveled this sidewalk themselves, which is a great public service, but they shouldn't have to. The DC government (and Arlington government, and other governments) should take responsibility for clearing sidewalks that don't abut private property. Arguably, they should just handle all sidewalks, but we can at least start with these.
Thanks to everyone who sent in images! We didn't have room for them all, and I preferred ones showing conditions Monday, after everyone had ample time to clear sidewalks on a warm day.
Correction: The original version of this article identified the property on the west side of 35th Street as the Halcyon House. That is actually on the west side of 34th Street. We apologize for the error.
Update: Here's one more, from whiteknuckled, who tweets, "Our neighbor never shovels his side-sidewalk, only the front. But digs out his driveway and piles snow on sidewalk."
If your home has sidewalks which aren't yet shoveled, clear them today! It's warm and will be relatively easy to clear snow, but tonight anything left will freeze and turn into solid ice. So get that pedestrian path cleared (and wide enough for multiple people to pass, people in wheelchairs and strollers, etc.) today.
Along my route to and from the Metro this morning, I want to thank the Dupont East Condominium, National Women's Democratic Club, and Mathematical Association of America for getting their long corner sidewalks cleared this morning. Perennial scofflaw the Embassy of Botswana still hasn't cleared their three sidewalks on 18th, Q, and New Hampshire.
If you see sidewalks still uncleared tomorrow morning, whether private, federal, DC government, WMATA, foreign mission, or otherwise, please take pictures and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll put the worst offenders in a Sidewalk Snow Clearing Hall of Shame like these from past years.
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- Backward and forward in the Flickr pool