Greater Greater Washington

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. 

The five most frustrating things about Metro's problems

For a few years after the 2009 Fort Totten Red Line crash, public confidence in Metro's safety was growing. But a smoke fatality in January, a scathing federal report, and hearings last week have put safety back into the spotlight.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

I talked about Metro's safety on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last Monday, with guest host Jen Golbeck and Greater Washington Board of Trade head Jim Dinegar. Wednesday, I talked with Mike Coneen on NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt after the first day of hearings.

During the first day, details emerged that the operator of the train in the smoky tunnel wanted to pull the train back out, but was told to wait.

A train behind it had already come into the station, and police decided to evacuate that train, which made it impossible to move it out of the way to make room for the train in the tunnel. There didn't seem to be a clear response plan for this kind of situation or someone in charge who could coordinate all of the first responders.

After the Fort Totten crash, it became clear that the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a group of safety officials from DC, Maryland, and Virginia tasked with monitoring safety, wasn't functioning well. Reforms supposedly set it up to succeed.

Apparently not, though. We discovered that the TOC wasn't able to issue many recommendations because it had to wait for higher-ups in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to agree, and then when it did, WMATA often didn't follow up.

WMATA and regional governments need to quickly address not only the specific failures of the L'Enfant incident, but also deal with the bigger picture issues. A few things stick out as frustrating for riders.

Smoke in a Metro car during the L'Enfant incident. Photo by Jonathan Rogers on Twitter.

1. Reforms around safety haven't fixed safety.

After the crash, some people argued that the WMATA Board had focused too much on service and neglected safety. Under political pressure, many long-serving board members resigned or were replaced. Instead of elected officials, who'd been more focused on what was frustrating riders, the board got a new crop of transit experts like current chairman Mort Downey and last year's chairman Tom Downs.

They brought in an old friend and old grizzled transit veteran, Rich Sarles, to be general manager. They said his experience should help get WMATA on a solid footing of safety and otherwise maintain a firm hand on the wheel. But it doesn't really look like the safety culture is so solid after all.

WMATA has other issues to deal with, too. Customer service is often pretty poor, and the agency is secretive not just with safety information but a lot more as well. It was pretty clear that Sarles was not the man to reform these aspects of the agency, but arguably getting a rock-solid safety foundation first was most important, and then Sarles' successor could tackle other needs. That's not possible now.

General Manager Richard Sarles testifies on safety in 2010. Image from WMATA.

2. Replacing the board didn't fix financial oversight, either.

WMATA also didn't follow procurement laws properly, which led the Federal Transit Administration to put WMATA in a "penalty box." WMATA now can't get its federal money until after it's spent it, creating a cash crunch.

Transit experts disagree on how much of an immediate crisis this represents—Downey and other insiders say it's just a short-term cash flow problem, while some, like DC CEO Jeffrey DeWitt, warn about WMATA being unable to repay its bonds.

Either way, however, it's maddening that this situation arose at all. As with safety, there was a whole push to get "experts" on the board of directors. Where were they?

Surprise image from Shutterstock.

3. All of these problems came as a surprise.

There were people who knew that these safety issues and financial issues created risks, but the public didn't, and neither apparently did many board members. The Inspector General was sounding the alarm on some of these problems, but IG reports tend to be opaque if they're even public.

This is just like what happened with the Fort Totten crash, where there were people aware the track circuits weren't working, but they didn't share that information widely enough. It's not okay to have a culture of hiding problems from superiors. It's not okay to hide this kind of information from policy-makers and the public, either.

Riders aren't so stupid that they can't be trusted to know about the various safety efforts underway. People know about the risks of roads and still drive. It's worse for the agency's reputation to have kept safety and financial pitfalls a secret and more disturbing when they then come to light.

4. Underfunding is a problem, but it's hard to fix now.

These management problems are infurating, but mismananagement is only half of the problem. Underfunding is the other half. WMATA didn't get enough money over decades to keep up with repairs, and now has to contend with a huge backlog.

The radios weren't working during the L'Enfant incident, which is inexcusable, but it would be a lot easier to criticize the agency for not fixing its radio systems if it hadn't been trying to fix the track circuits and a zillion other pieces, all of which work well enough day-to-day but might contribute to a safety problem at some point.

Unfortunately, it's even harder to get that funding when the news is so bad. Congress is planning to cut in half the money it promised for repairs after the 2009 crash. A lot of this might just be ideological opposition to transit from conservative members, but all of these problems, and the lack of honesty in the past, sure don't help.

A crowded train. Photo by philliefan99 on Flickr.

5. We need Metro to not only thrive, but grow.

Metro ridership has stopped growing, but it'll pick up again, and we need to be planning now to deal with the capacity crunches. Metro needs 8-car trains, but now the region won't buy enough railcars to make it possible, let alone upgrade power systems and add yard space.

Metro needs to solve the bottleneck at Rosslyn which now limits the number of Blue Line trains and will only get worse in the future.

Two years ago, we were talking about the Momentum plan to deal with Metro's needs first for 2025 and then beyond. Today, sadly, there isn't much momentum at all.

Which is sad, because Metro still is a very valuable transportation system. Our region depends on it—there isn't enough road space, or parking space, for all of the commuters otherwise. And it's actually quite a speedy way to get around, when it works and when you're going somewhere near a station.

We can't afford to let Metro stagnate or decay. Sadly, it turns out we didn't make nearly as much progress over the last six years as we thought.

You can listen to the Kojo segment here and watch the NewsTalk video below:

When dreaming of Olympics or anything else, beware of "planning down"

A team of architects and business leaders met in secret for many months to devise a big proposal for the Olympics in DC. Some parts of it have merit (and some don't), and ideas should always be welcome. But some things about the way they talk about the need to "transform" DC feel wrong.

Hand drawing city photo from Shutterstock.

It's terrific that some wealthy business leaders want to help the District. A generation ago, people in the suburbs were turning their backs on DC. Even now, as Jonathan O'Connell notes in his article on the Olympic bid, too often DC, Maryland, and Virginia compete to out-subsidize large businesses just so they'll move a few miles across a border.

The Olympic bid group didn't have that attitude. Russ Ramsey, who led the effort, lives in Great Falls, Virginia, but he wanted the Olympics to revive the area around the Anacostia River. The Anacostia can certainly benefit from having more friends, and areas around it more investment.

However, there's something a little disquieting about a group of business leaders and architects formulating this plan in secret, drawing pictures of stadiums on all manner of public land and arguing it would have lasting benefits for the city without really speaking to the public about what they'd like to be left with after an Olympics.

Let's call this "planning down"

There was a lot of discussion recently about "punching down" as a concept in comedy (see: criticisms of Trevor Noah, or criticisms by Garry Trudeau). Basically, it's when comedians make fun of groups of people who are less powerful in society than themselves. This secret planning feels like something similar; let's call it, "planning down."

"Planning down" would be what happens when one group of people decide they know what's best for another area whose populace is less powerful. Many residents felt this way when they heard about the machinations for the Olympics. Those of us who did should hold on to the feeling, as residents in poorer neighborhoods feel the same far more often.

John Muller, for example, has often written about communities in Historic Anacostia, Barry Farm, and elsewhere where residents feel government officials come in for "public meetings" seemingly already having decided what they want. (The same thing often happens in more politically powerful neighborhoods, but residents have more success forcing their views into the debate.)

We need to have discussions about the futures of such communities that truly engage residents in thinking about what they want for their communities. (Some government agencies have indeed done this.) There are certainly constraints—there are specific economic criteria a neighborhood needs to support a grocery store, for instance. But I think people can understand these constraints and work with them if given the chance.

The planning profession, in fact, enshrined principles around public participation in its ethical codes after the era of urban renewal which demolished many working-class neighborhoods to build "towers in the park," like in DC's Southwest Waterfront and parts of many other US cities. (You're more likely to encounter dismissive non-listening from certain transportation engineers.)

However, public engagement isn't the same as "letting the neighborhood decide." Sometimes, deferring to neighbors means letting a more-powerful group use zoning, preservation, or other tools to exclude others. For a non-Washington example, look at Toronto's "density creep" controversy, where a group of people in million-dollar homes worried about new half-million-dollar homes hurting their property values. You could say those doing the excluding are "zoning down"; it's not planning down to criticize the practice.

Some decision-makers fear taking any action unless every community stakeholder is in agreement. That's not the way to avoid planning down. It's possible to involve people in a conversation, then move ahead with some decision recognizing that no choice, whether to act or not act, will be universally popular. The key is to listen first (and hopefully make the right choice).

Superhero businessman photo from Shutterstock.

DC doesn't need to be "saved"

O'Connell concludes his article on the Olympic bid by asking, "The question is, who will be the private-sector leader for the future of Washington?" It would be most welcome to have private-sector individuals wanting to do more for DC, or the region, or their specific communities. We just need them to lead more from behind, facilitating conversations rather than deciding unilaterally what the future should be.

Many of us in the Greater Greater Washington community are somewhat more privileged than many DC residents as well. We should keep these same lessons in mind just as much when we talk about neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or elsewhere, especially if we don't know many people in those areas.

We can't just say we know what's right for other, less privileged areas; we need to understand the circumstances and hopes of the people who live there. We can't do that entirely on a blog that's easiest to read if you work in an office with a computer, either.

We can all do more to strengthen the public dialogue around planning, to encourage planning up instead of planning down. And we should. Greater Greater Washington is going to be working on building these bridges and elevating voices from diverse communities much more in the future. Stay tuned.

DC's Olympic bid had some great ideas, and some lame ones

The team of architects and business leaders behind the recent, unsuccessful, and until-now-secret bid for an Olympics in DC revealed some of their ideas last week to Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post. The plan has a number of good ideas for DC which are worth implementing even now—and a few that really aren't.

Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

The renderings show new pedestrian bridges over the Anacostia river, including at Massachusetts Avenue. Such pedestrian bridges would reduce the river's role as a barrier and better connect neighborhoods on either side.

While the plan shows a new stadium on the site of RFK instead of housing or parkland, it does depict recreational facilities where now parking lots stand around RFK. That is a terrific idea, though the article doesn't specify what would have happened after the Olympics when the Washington football team would have supposedly started using the new stadium, which was part of the plan.

Is Dan Snyder okay with having very little surface parking around his team's stadium long-term? If so, some people who oppose a new DC football stadium today might actually support a deal to move his team back to RFK if the parking lots don't have to remain.

Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

The transit ideas in the plan have more uncertain value. The plan shows a new Oklahoma Avenue infill Metro station on the Orange Line. Metro's initial plans had a station there which would have been a 1,000-car park-and-ride, but neighbors fought the plan and the station was canceled.

It's not clear a new station now would bring much benefit, since it would spur little to no development and is very near the existing Stadium-Armory station. The Olympic plan suggests using the construction to add a third track to turn trains, which would indeed be useful.

Organizers also suggested a dedicated bus lane in place of parking on Independence Avenue to run shuttles. Dedicated bus lanes are a fantastic idea, but Independence is not a heavy bus route today, and so that would not have left much lasting benefit and probably would have only been temporary.

Another great idea from the plan is to use East Potomac Park as something other than a golf course. For expansive land right near the National Mall, golf is not the best use. (That would be a good place for an infill Metro station and some actual activity.)

Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

DC doesn't need sports to thrive

The diagrams, which are indeed stunning, show various sports facilities on virtually any piece of open land in the vicinity—a second large stadium at Poplar Point, new buildings on Anacostia Park, and more. Certainly one can see how to people who run sports programs in DC, the idea of putting more sports on all nearby open space has appeal.

It also fits perfectly with a certain 1980s-era view of DC, as a place desperate for any investment and with plenty of empty land. That is no longer the case. Instead, DC has people clamoring to build on nearly any spot west of the river, and it's not going to be long before the same happens east.

Olympic bid chairman Russ Ramsey talked to O'Connell about the need to rebrand DC as a place that's not just House of Cards. But inside DC's neighborhoods, the city is already rapidly shedding that image, and certainly is not hurting for people, restaurants, and other businesses eager to move in.

At RFK and Hill East, for instance, the obstacle to development is not lack of a vision; rather, there's a stadium there and federal restrictions on using the land, plus the fact that there are public services already on that land. As O'Connell notes, "The 2024 planners did not solve difficult problems such as where to put an existing methadone clinic or what to do with the DC Jail."

Answer that question and relieve restrictions on RFK, and it would not be difficult to make a new eastern gateway sprout as the organizers hope, Olympics or no.

Cyclists got tickets for riding on a short one-way half-block. There's a better way to design this street

Last month, police ticketed bicyclists riding the wrong way on M Street near the Convention Center, POPville reported. We asked our contributors and DDOT what they think is the right solution in this area.

The one-way block of M, looking west from 9th Street NW. Image from Google Maps.

This one-way block of M is essentially only a half block, between 9th Street NW and Blagden Alley, halfway to 8th. Besides this half block, M is two-way from Thomas Circle, at 14th, eastward to 5th Street NW.

The one-way block of M, looking west near Blagden Alley NW. Image from Google Maps.

DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair said a change to one-way appears on convention center plans dating to 2004. Contributors speculated that the construction of the convention center might have spurred the change as a traffic calming measure. The loading dock is on M, one block to the east.

At that time, contraflow bike lanes, which allow cycling in the opposite direction of traffic on an otherwise one-way street, weren't a regular part of DC's road design toolbox. Now, DC has several roads with such lanes, including G and I streets NE, on either side of H Street, and New Hampshire Avenue NW for a block on each side of U Street.

Here, the street is the same width east of Blagden (where it's one-way) as west. This leaves plenty of room for a contraflow lane. St. Clair added,

Safety is our number one priority at DDOT. The law rightly treats cyclists as legitimate users of the roadway, and cyclists are subject to traffic laws for everyone's safety—especially their own. Without facilities and signage designed to let bikes ride contraflow safely, we don't support wrong-way bicycling.

That said, M Street east of Thomas Circle is a potential route for improved bike lanes. DDOT is exploring options on how we might proceed. A contraflow lane, similar to what we installed on G and I Streets NE last year, might be possible without modifying vehicular conditions or parking. The results of our analysis will be shared with the public, and their input will be taken into consideration when DDOT finalizes any action plans.

Base image from Google Maps. The red oval shows the one-way half-block in question.

Meanwhile, ride on the sidewalk

Riding on the sidewalk is legal in this area, and some contributors said they do just that. Payton Chung pointed out that DC explicitly encourages this in one spot:

I know of one local precedent for signing a contraflow bike route on the sidewalk. On O Street SW, across from Nats Park, the street goes one-way westbound (away from the stadium) for one block. Eastbound cyclists are directed onto the south sidewalk.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.
In that situation, though, bicyclists are going uphill to an actuated stoplight at South Capitol Street, and are therefore going slowly past a few houses. The 900 block of M, on the other hand, is leading away from a stoplight and goes past many more houses, few of which might want relatively fast crosstown cyclists riding past their stoops.
If DC were able to follow Europe's lead, it might be possible to have a contraflow "lane" without even repainting the street. In Germany (as in the picture below), the Netherlands, and elsewhere, some low-speed, low-traffic streets (as M is here) with "do not enter" signs that don't apply to cyclists.

A Berlin sign exempting cyclists from the "Do Not Enter" restriction. "Frei" is German for free, or clear; this sign says bicycles can still enter while motor vehicles cannot. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Still, a contraflow lane might be the best approach and aligns with DC's practice in other areas. It's good to hear DDOT is considering that option.

Education in multiple languages gives kids a big boost, which means high demand for DC's programs

Seven DC public schools and six charters teach children in not just one language, but two. It's an approach that helps native and non-native English speakers, poor and affluent children alike, the latest research shows. But 13 schools are far from enough to meet the demand.

Photo by sussex.library on Flickr.

Children pick up languages very quickly. When you think about it, it's quite an amazing feat to learn one language when you know zero. Their brains can easily pick up languages in the early years, and in much of the world, children learn multiple languages.

Traditionally, US education doesn't start other languages until middle school, when the window of best opportunity has closed. A once-a-week Spanish lesson isn't enough either. But a few DC schools offer true immersion, where many lessons are in a language besides English.

Unfortunately, those programs are so successful that some boast among the longest waiting lists in the city. With few such programs concentrated in even fewer neighborhoods, it's not an option open to everyone.

What is immersion and where is it in DC?

To be an "immersion," "dual language," or "bilingual" school, at least half of the instructional time has to happen in a language other than English, even for kids who are native English speakers. This isn't the same as teaching "foreign language" or "world language" as a separate subject; instead, students might have their math or history lessons in Spanish, or Chinese, or another language depending on the school.

DC Public Schools has seven bilingual elementary schools, all in Spanish: Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park, Marie Reed in Adams Morgan, Bancroft in Mount Pleasant, Powell in Columbia Heights, Bruce-Monroe in Park View, Cleveland around U Street, and Tyler in Capitol Hill.

Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

A number of charter schools also teach in two languages: DC Bilingual in Columbia Heights, Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) in Brightwood and Brookland/Woodridge, and Mundo Verde in Truxton Circle all teach Spanish. There's also Sela, which teaches Hebrew in the Riggs Park area; Stokes, in Brookland, which teaches in French and Spanish; and Yu Ying, near Catholic University, in Mandarin Chinese.

The only private immersion school in DC I'm aware of is the Washington International School, which offers Spanish, French, or a small Dutch program only for native speakers. Some private preschools teach dual language and some teach only in one. CommuniKids runs a Spanish-immersion preschool in Tenleytown as well as both French and Spanish in Falls Church and Loudoun.

When my family took a tour, the CommuniKids administrators explained that most of their students speak English at home, but they teach entirely in Spanish; kids at that age pick up Spanish very quickly, and the Spanish at school balances out with English at home.

Of course, that's not a good strategy for schools serving non-English native speakers, such as immigrants. Many of DC Public Schools's bilingual schools are located in areas with a high percentage of native Spanish speakers (such as Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights) because many started as a way to help "English language learners" (which was called ESL when I was in school) better participate.

However, according to Vanessa Bertelli of the DC Language Immersion Project, a group advocating for more language immersion education in DC, the latest research shows that immersion helps all students, native and non-native English speaking alike.

Is immersion good for native English speakers?

Once, many people in the US believed that if you spoke to a child in two languages, he or she would learn language more slowly overall. In fact, 30 years ago, some educators discouraged bilingual parents from speaking a language other than English to their children from birth.

Today, psychologists believe there isn't a disadvantage, and in fact are many advantages, to speaking multiple languages at home.

Bertelli says that new research shows the same for school. According to a longitudinal study of 85,000 North Carolina public school students, in immersion programs where close to half of students speak the partner language, students consistently outperform their peers by close to two grade levels, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and home language.

Other studies of immersion programs that don't start until grades 2-5 "show evidence of a temporary lag in specific English language skills such as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word knowledge, and word discrimination," but after a year or two, these gaps disappear and there is no long-term disadvantage in English proficiency.

Some highly educated parents are able to help their children with reading and math at home, but they can't offer them instruction in another language. I've talked to parents in that position who felt that a language immersion program at their local DCPS school could keep them from leaving the system for a high-demand charter or private school, or even moving out of DC altogether.

For lower-income families, the value can be even greater. Start with the overall cognitive benefit: immersion helps close the achievement gap between children of high- and low-income families. Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg write that "Children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the greatest proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study."

Further, in an increasingly globalized economy, more and more jobs require other languages. The fastest-growing job categories in DC include health care, where bilingual workers command higher salaries, and hospitality and tourism, where the value of other languages is obvious. And knowing two languages makes it far easier to learn a third, compared to only knowing English.

Graph from the DC Immersion Project.

Unfortunately, there are currently no immersion programs east of the Anacostia River. This may originally have been because there are few native Spanish speakers east of the river, but evidence is growing that immersion is valuable even in schools with few children speaking the relevant language.

Immersion seats are in demand

DCPS is taking steps toward expanding bilingual programs, and immersion charter schools have created new options. However, space at immersion schools is not readily available. In fact, many immersion schools top the charts of the longest waitlists.

For pre-kindergarten at age three, LAMB and Mundo Verde lead the city with the longest waitlists, while three other bilingual charters are in the top 12.

Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

For age four, bilingual Oyster-Adams in Woodley Park (and non-bilingual Janney in Tenleytown), which start at age four, both top the list. Yu Ying is the fourth highest among elementary schools which are not west of Rock Creek Park.

Schools with the longest waiting lists for PK3. Bilingual schools highlighted in yellow. Orange bars are DCPS, blue bars are charters. Graph from District Measured.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the value of immersion is to look at schools which have an immersion pre-kindergarten program alongside an English-only one, such as Marie Reed, Tyler, and Cleveland. The immersion waitlists are on average 2.2 times as long as the non-immersion ones.

Graph by the author.

Personally, while we are fortunate enough to live in boundary for a school (Ross) which has the second-highest DCPS waiting list at age three, it is not an immersion program. Our daughter is one-quarter Latin American and has been learning Spanish, but not from her parents. She speaks Spanish terrifically for her age, but we fear that in an English-only school she might lose it.

Unfortunately, the long waiting lists for immersion schools, especially nearest to our house, mean immersion may not be a viable option. If DCPS and charters are able to expand immersion programs, perhaps more children can benefit at just the time when their growing brains are ready to learn this valuable skill.

The DC Language Immersion Project is organizing a panel this Thursday, June 11. Greater Greater Washington education editor Natalie Wexler will moderate the panel, which is 7-9 pm at Tyler Elementary School, 1001 G Street SE.

Rowhouse "pop-up" restrictions get much stricter at the eleventh hour

Jim, a homeowner in Columbia Heights who wants to add onto his row house, might be in trouble. New rules limiting homeowners' ability to divide a house into more than two units or build a "pop-up" on top just got even stricter as DC's Zoning Commission took its final vote.

Photo by Smithsonian Institution Libraries on Flickr.

Responding to neighborhood outcry about row houses being converted into three, four, and more units by adding onto the back or top, last year the Office of Planning (OP) proposed rules to limit houses in what's called the R-4 zone to only two units, along with some other restrictions.

The DC Zoning Commission held its public hearing and a vote. At that time, the commission voted, 3-2, to accept some of the DC Office of Planning's recommendations to further limit zoning in lower-density rowhouse zones, but not all. It left the right to make three or four units in a house, if the zoning already allowed it (only on larger-than-usual lots).

Rules change at the end of the line

Typically, the Zoning Commission then publishes its vote in the DC Register for a required 30-day comment period and takes "final action" confirming its initial vote. But instead, on Monday night, Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service, changed his vote on a key provision to only allow two units in a row house without a special exception hearing before the zoning board.

Also, the Office of Planning recommended, and the Zoning Commission supported, making the rules retroactive to July 17 of last year, when the commission "set down" the case. Anyone who has filed plans to add onto a rowhouse beyond the new limits between then and now may not be able to move forward. (Some people with plans from before February 1, 2015 can still proceed.)

OP also recommended expanding new rules that limit changes to a house's turret, or changes that might block a neighbor's chimney or solar panel, to all houses in R-4 zones, not just those with owners contemplating a pop-up or rear addition. Coming during the final comment period, this means that it will affect many more homeowners than the proposals did during the actual hearings.

The changes came after sustained lobbying from anti-pop-up activists, who got many homeowners to write into OP and the Zoning Commission during the comment period, resolutions from several Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and a letter from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Is housing supply an issue, or not?

According to reports, much of the debate centered around whether DC needs more housing to maintain affordability, or at least slow the rapid rise in housing prices.

Member Marcie Cohen argued, as she has in the past, for zoning rules that allow for more housing in the District. She said, "We're a growing city. We need to have the flexibility to enable other households to come into neighborhoods." Anthony Hood, the longtime chairman of the commission and (like Cohen) a mayoral appointee, disagreed.

Hood said,

A lot of the stuff we say up here is shuckin' and jivin'. This connection to affordable housing, I have not seen it yet. It's not a reality. I have young people that work with me now telling me that they need to move to Silver Spring, so let's be real. What are we really doing?
Vincent Orange expressed a similar sentiment, taking exception to my critique when he tried to impose a moratorium that would have gone even farther than this zoning case. He said, as he withdrew his proposal, that he didn't know of any poor people living in pop-ups.

Indeed, pop-ups and much other new construction in "hot" row house areas of DC is indeed luxury housing, because the cost of new construction is very high. The question is whether new housing will relieve pressure on other, older housing elsewhere, but this is an indirect and not vary tangible connection.

Therefore, as with most development debates, the argument here is between residents who feel very passionately that a project is having an impact on their own neighborhood, developers, and people who talk about a much more abstract supply concern.

The Office of Planning, for its part, does not often connect the two. OP planners did not discuss how this proposal would affect the overall housing supply, nor did it with changes to water down the zoning update (which, by the way, is now in its comment period).

DC needs a larger conversation about housing supply. Pop-ups, ultimately, are a very small part of that one way or the other. Piecemeal new zoning restrictions, or piecemeal new developments, won't deal with it. But in recent years there have been controversies over tall buildings downtown, significant changes to commercial corridors, pop-ups, basement and carriage house apartments, big new developments like McMillan, and most every other method for adding housing. It's gotta go somewhere.

Virginia faces a weighty choice on transportation priorities

When Virginia chooses transportation projects, should it narrowly look only at what makes cars move faster? Or should it consider how each project will transform the region, and pick the ones that do the most for residents, the economy, safety, and quality of life? A state board will soon tip the scales one way or the other.

Photo by Tammra McCauley on Flickr.

In 2013, the Virginia legislature passed a bill adding new funding for transportation. Some people wanted most (if not all) to go to widening the biggest highways and building new ones. They pushed a bill in 2014, called HB2, which would have forced money to go toward one goal above all others: reducing existing congestion on roadways.

A state board is soon going to decide how to weigh reducing congestion against other factors like economic development, making jobs more accessible, or even safety. How much of a priority goes to congestion will affect the way Northern Virginia grows in coming decades.

What's wrong with focusing on congestion reduction

While nobody likes congestion, putting all money into making cars move faster is foolish. As I wrote in 2011:

Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? ... Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

This graph shows how focusing on congestion can point in the wrong direction: Chicago drivers waste more time in traffic than Charlotte drivers, but Charlotte drivers have worse commutes. Yet a congestion-only standard says that Chicago has the worse problem.

Graphic from CEOs for Cities.

People might say they want their roads to be uncongested, but really they mean they want their travel to be easier.

Induced demand means congestion won't go away at all

Plus, even the kind of spending the road advocates want won't cut down on congestion for most people. That's because even though they have improved, traffic models still undercount the extent a newly faster road will just entice people to move somewhere that requires driving on it, adding traffic back in. That effect is called "induced demand."

Jeff Speck's excellent book Walkable City gives a terrific explanation of the induced demand problem:

Induced demand is the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon. It's as if, despite all of our advances, this one (unfortunately central) aspect of how we make our cities has been entrusted to the Flat Earth Society. ...

Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive, and obliterating any reductions in congestion. In 2004, a meta-analysis of dozens of previous studies found that "on average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent—the entire new capacity—in a few years."

The most comprehensive effort remains the one completed in 1998 by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which looked at fully 70 different metropolitan areas over 15 years. This study, which based its findings on data from the annual reports of the conservative Texas Transportation Institute, concluded as follows:

"Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn't, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay. ... The metro area with the highest estimated road building cost was Nashville, Tennessee with a price tag of $3,243 per family per year."

Nobody likes congestion, and, despite appearances, I am not arguing here for more of it. Rather, I am asking that it be better understood by those who build and rebuild our communities, so that we can stop making stupid decisions that placate angry citizens while only hurting them in the long run.

The computer models that predict congestion do not consider pedestrians, for instance, even though getting more people to walk has reduced traffic in places like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington. Theoretically, a much more sophisticated model could understand the congestion reducing effects of walkability and the congestion-increasing effects of induced demand, but today's models don't do this well enough.

What happened with HB2, and why is this an issue now?

Thanks to education and advocacy, the Virginia legislature amended HB2 to not focus solely on congestion. Instead, the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board has to devise a scoring system which balances "congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, environmental quality and land use, and transportation coordination."

In 2015, the congestion crowd, led by Fairfax and Loudoun Rep. Jim LeMunyon (R), pushed another bill to force Northern Virginia specifically to prioritize congestion reduction "to the greatest extent possible and in the most rapid and cost-effective manner."

The CTB will soon propose weights for these various factors, and that's where the fight is. VDOT Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue proposed weights (page 17) that make congestion 35% of the score, accessibility (how much a project helps people reach jobs in under 45 minutes) 25%, and 10% to the others. (Outside Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, where the law doesn't force congestion to the top, Donohue proposes 10-15% for congestion).

Road booster groups like the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (no relation to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority) don't like 35%. Even though that gets the biggest weight, they want it to get overwhelming weight—at least 60% if not 100% of the formula.

The alliance is asking members to email to ask to weight congestion more highly. If you live in Virginia, instead consider emailing them to support keeping the weight at 35% or, if possible, making it even less.

Virginia has a primary Tuesday. Here's the urbanist scoop on the candidates

Virginia's elections for many local offices are this year, and the primary is Tuesday, June 9. There are competitive races in the Democratic primaries for Arlington County Board, Alexandria mayor, two Fairfax supervisor seats, and the 45th legislative district.

Virginia voting image from Shutterstock.

I asked our Virginia-based contributors what they think of the candidates in these races. Who is good on smart growth, transit, walking and bicycling, and other issues we cover? Who has a strong vision and the ability to work with people to achieve it?


Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year. After John Vihstadt won a full term and the board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, Hynes and Tejada announced they would not run again, leaving two open seats.

The streetcar aside, Vihstadt, fellow member Libby Garvey, and their political backer Peter Rousselot have built their political bases by criticizing county spending on a wide range of infrastructure projects. Perhaps some initiatives were unnecessary or overly expensive, but Arlington now needs board members who can articulate a vision to make the county better instead of simply doing less.

Just as some people accused the former board of acting too often as a single bloc, there's the possibility that Garvey and Vihstadt would gain an allied third member and have a bloc of their own which would move the county in a much more conservative direction, halting investment in the county's future rather than continuing the kinds of policies which have made Arlington County a national model for sustainable growth.

There are six Democratic candidates for the two seats. Arlington Democrats will have the ability to vote for two apiece. Chris Slatt says,

Peter Fallon and Katie Cristol are both solid pro-smart-growth candidates. Peter has the experience (he's been on practically every commission you can be on), while Katie brings a new perspective, youth and energy.

Peter has a track record of supporting transit, biking, and walking. Katie doesn't have a record she can point to, but even a brief conversation with her makes it clear that she sees Arlington's commitment to smart growth as what has made it so desirable as a place to live and she's committed to doing whatever needs to be done to keep it moving forward.

James Lander isn't anti-smart-growth, but it doesn't appear to be a focus or a passion. There is nothing smart-growth-y on his issues page, for instance. Andrew Schneider is in the midst of his first term on Arlington's Transportation Commission and has largely voted in a smart growth way. He also turned in some of the most spot-on answers in a cycling issues questionnaire, but he has taken some potentially anti-transit positions such as a lengthy soliloquy about even the cheaper, redesigned Columbia Pike transit stations being too costly.

Christian Dorsey is a passionate, compelling candidate but has the support of Peter Rousselot (publicly) and Libby Garvey (privately), which is troubling for many given not just their opposition to the streetcar but also the destructive and negative way in which that opposition was presented. Bruce Wiljanen hasn't devoted enough time and effort to his campaign to have a chance at winning.

Steven Yates adds,
I actually know Katie Cristol. I was the stage manager for a production of Clybourne Park that she was in (which was a Greater Greater Washington event, in case any of you went). I can tell you she was a pleasure to work with.

She's a newcomer, so she doesn't have an extensive record on issues to point to, but she is at least saying the right things. On housing she's proposing modest increases in density through things like microunits and allowing renovations to convert single into multi-family housing.

She also supports transit-oriented development and wants to accelerate the TSM 2 alternative on Columbia Pike which includes off-vehicle fare collection and multi-door boarding, as well as greater frequency. She doesn't say the streetcar was a bad idea, just that it's in the "rearview mirror."

Peter Fallon (left) and Katie Cristol (right), two candidates for Arlington County Board. Images from the candidate websites.


William "Bill" Euille has been Alexandria's mayor for twelve years, and for the first time, faces primary competition—in fact, two competitors: councilmembers Kerry Donley and Allison Silberberg. Euille has been an alternate member of the WMATA board since 2000.

One contributor, who wasn't comfortable being named, said:

The article that accompanied the Washington Post's endorsement of Mayor Euille portrayed each candidate succinctly and brilliantly.

Allison Silberberg is a lovely person who is caring and delightful to know one on one; regrettably her votes have been anti-growth of any kind, even to the point of voting against an Alzheimer's care facility on busy Route 7 between a cemetery and a nursing home. She also has no concrete proposals on how to pay for the causes she espouses such as better schools, historic preservation, more parks and open space, etc.

Kerry Donley was mayor for a number of years, as well as being on and off the council subsequently. He is in favor of the Potomac Yard Metro and economic development projects such as the PTO and NSF, which he helped attract to Alexandria, yet he antagonizes many in the community by being dismissive of concerns.

Mayor Euille appears to strike the right balance between listening to citizen input and getting things done, and as the Post says, he was able to limit the recession's impact on the city. Many are concerned that Donley and Euille will split the pro-growth, smart growth, fiscally responsible vote and that both will lose.

Jonathan Krall takes a different view (which, perhaps, helps illustrate the potential for vote-splitting between Euille and Donley):
According to my friends in the bicycling community, they are supporting Donley, even though Euille mentions bicycling more often in the campaign. They cite his comments and votes when he served on the Transportation Commission, Euille's abandonment of the Royal Street bike boulevard project, and Silberberg's weak support on bicycling issues.
Krall wanted to emphasize that all of the views he's talking about are individual people's personal opinions and not the position of any cycling advocacy group.

Bill Euille (left) and Kerry Donley (right), two candidates for Alexandria Mayor. Images from the candidate websites.


The Mason district covers the part of Fairfax County which borders Arlington and the west side of Alexandria. It includes Fairfax's portion of Columbia Pike and the south side of Seven Corners.

That last spot has been a source of major controversy, where a county plan would transform Seven Corners' big-box stores and giant parking lots into mixed-use, walkable (though perhaps only marginally transit-oriented) urban villages.

As the Washington Post's Antonio Olivio reports, current Supervisor Penelope "Penny" Gross supports the transformation, but some neighbors do not, warning it could turn Seven Corners into San Francisco or downtown Washington. That has drawn her two opponents, Jessica Swanson in the Democratic primary and Mollie Loeffler in the November general.

Both say they oppose greater density in the Seven Corners area. The Washington Post endorsed Gross for reelection.

In the Mount Vernon District along the Potomac, four candidates want to succeed retiring delegate Gerald Hyland. This district includes one side of much of Route 1, where Hyland and Lee District supervisor Jeff McKay have taken different positions on the corridor's future. Will Route 1/Richmond Highway remain a traffic sewer flanked with strip malls that divides communities? Can it be a chain of real places with real transit?

The next supervisor could have a significant impact, but our contributors did not have input on this race. If you do, please post it in the comments.

District 45

Delegate Rob Krupicka is retiring, and five candidates are vying to represent the district which includes Alexandria, some of Arlington, and a bit of Fairfax. As Patricia Sullivan explained in the Washington Post, there aren't a lot of clear policy differences between the candidates.

Our contributors felt similarly. One said, "All five candidates are good people, and it's hard to differentiate them on issues. All have built their campaigns primarily on education and women's issues; none have particularly addressed smart growth, planning, or transportation." Jonathan Krall added,

I attended two 45th district debates and took notes on the number of times various candidates mentioned biking, walking, transit, smart growth, etc. In fact, these issues were not discussed a great deal. Transit was only discussed by Craig Fifer, Julie Jakopic and Clarence Tong, who each mentioned it twice.

Tong was the only candidate that mentioned biking, noting that he hears from friends that the National Park Service should plow snow from the Mt Vernon Trail in the winter. Larry Altenburg, Mark Levine, and Tong lost points with me by suggesting that traffic congestion should be addressed rather than made irrelevant by adding transit.

What do you think?

If you have followed any of these races and identified actions or statements from the candidates that relate to urbanist issues, share them with our Virginia readers in the comments. And if you live in Virginia, please vote Tuesday! (Especially if you are a Democrat, because the competitive races are only in the Democratic primary.)

Maryland's governor thinks the Purple Line is too expensive, but wants to build a $10 billion maglev. Huh?

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan campaigned on cutting costs. Since taking office, however, he's expressed interest in throwing big money at numerous transportation programs—just not the transit lines that actually work and which businesses and residents want. His latest big spending idea: A $10 billion maglev between DC and Baltimore.

Shanghai's maglev. Photo by Rob Faulkner on Flickr.

Hogan is in Japan right now on a trade mission, and according to WAMU's Martin di Caro, has agreed to work with Japan and seek federal funds for a study of what it'd take to build a maglev line here at home.

The Federal Railroad Administration has $27.8 million available for a maglev study, but Maryland is the only state in the nation that's interested in seeking the money. Japan is offering $5 billion in loans to help make the line happen, but that money would still have to be paid back.

The maglev line could run over 300 miles per hour and, di Caro reports, possibly go from DC to Baltimore in 15 minutes (though time estimates for transportation facilities often are rosier, before the gritty details come in).

However, to run that fast, the tracks would have to be very straight. There's no place to put very straight tracks right through the mostly-suburban area in between; instead, maglev supporters expect the line to be mostly in a tunnel. According to contributor and maglev supporter Peter Dovak, Japan's maglev (which is different from its well-known "Shinkansen" high-speed trains) will run in a tunnel for 85% of its length.

That makes it very expensive.

If money is no object, hey, knock yourself out

We shouldn't necessarily sneer at spending big bucks on transit. It's not like the United States doesn't spend far more money on all kinds of things—liberals might point to military hardware, while conservatives might point to aid to the poor.

But it's hard to make the case that maglev is a better investment than the raft of projects already in the pipeline.

The obvious big ones are the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line, which Hogan has said are "too expensive." His administration has dismissed studies that purport to show big economic benefits from building the Purple Line, instead focusing entirely on the cost.

But you can't focus on the cost of the Purple Line and not the cost of a maglev. This graph shows the amount Maryland, counties, and the private sector would all have to pay to build the Purple Line, not counting federal money already pledged and money already spent. On the right is the expected maglev cost.

In a press release, the Action Committee for Transit noted that Governor Hogan has still not been willing to tour the Purple Line route with local leaders. Meanwhile, he want to Japan, rode their maglev, and said, "seeing is believing."

There are other, clear priorities

Besides the Purple and Red Lines, there are plenty of ways to spend less money that have immediate, clear benefit. Di Caro points to additional 7000 series railcars that could expand Metro trains to eight cars and add capacity.

There's also the MARC train, which has grown ridership by 3.5% per year over the last 15 years even though service remains infrequent. MARC could be so much more—an all-day, two-way, frequent railroad that connects Baltimore, DC, Frederick, Aberdeen, BWI, and many places in between, and even goes to Crystal City and Alexandria to get Marylanders to federal jobs there.

Maryland has a long-term plan to grow MARC with more tracks (so trains don't get stuck behind freight trains), more trains, more service, more parking, new stations, and much more. It's worth funding that.

Build this first, Hogan. Image by Peter Dovak and David Alpert.

Between DC and New York, Amtrak needs to put in computerized train control (to avoid more crashes like the recent one), repair its infrastructure, and speed up trains. In Maryland, the B&P tunnels in Baltimore need to be replaced, and so do the bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder Rivers. The catenary wires need replacement and upgrades.

Amtrak trains are full and expensive, but remain a much more dependable way to travel between Northeast Corridor cities than cars or intercity buses, all of which get stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike (recent widening didn't include any bus or HOV lanes, for instance).

Amtrak could speed up its Acela trains from 135 to 160 mph with catenary and signal upgrades, saving a lot of time.

Think big, but not only big

Even with all this, if Governor Hogan were eager to invest in these projects and also wanted to study maglev, fine. Let's think about exciting future possibilities. Daniel Burnham did so famously say, "make no little plans." He meant, make big plans. He didn't mean, make big plans and then refuse to fund all of the other little plans too.

Hogan wants to build roads. But the road system grew, and still grows, by incremental new projects that add capacity or missing links in the network. Hogan would be laughed out of the room if he proposed cutting all road maintenance and canceling every small, local road expansion, and instead pouring all of the state's money into a new car tunnel from Cumberland to Annapolis which has no exits in between.

(That's more like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's Route 460, a truck highway that would have paralleled a non-congested existing highway. Virginia canceled the project amid widespread ridicule and ended up wasting $256 million, getting nothing.)

If Hogan announces he wants to build the Purple and Red Lines, invest in the MARC plan and Maryland's share of Amtrak upgrades, and buy more railcars for WMATA, I don't really have a problem with also looking at maglev. But if he cancels one of the light rail lines which already have federal money, big business support, widespread resident support, and private companies ready and waiting to bid; if his administration pleads poverty on funding new railcars for WMATA... then he has absolutely no business talking up a totally-new $10 billion project.

WMATA needs Superman (or -woman) for its CEO

It's been almost five months since WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles left, and board members still don't agree on what kind of person to hire. One reason this is hard: WMATA needs someone with amazing prowess in at least eleven separate skill sets, all at once.

Photo by Alex Drennan on Flickr.

The agency faces both short-term crises and long-term challenges. It needs someone to steer the place through the rocks of the next year while also dealing with bigger issues that aren't going away. The General Manager/CEO has difficult tasks in not one, not two, but all of these areas.

Run a transit system. The buses and trains have to keep moving. The CEO needs to be able to keep that operation going and deal with obstacles that come up. He or she needs to understand transit well enough, or be able to hire someone who does, in order to detect when something's not right and subordinates aren't speaking up.

Fix a financial morass. The agency's auditors have not signed off on a financial report. Moody's just downgraded WMATA's bonds. The District CFO, Jeff DeWitt, keeps warning about imminent default. The CEO needs to get this sorted out, pronto.

Placate federal regulators. The Federal Transit Administration put WMATA in a "penalty box" last year because of financial irregularities. That means WMATA can't get its federal money until after it spends it and files for reimbursement. Officials thought at first that they'd get this problem sorted out in a few months; it's now been about a year, causing a cash flow crisis that's pushing WMATA to the brink of running out of money.

The new CEO will have to lick the boots... I mean, work constructively with regulators who think that it's better to have no transit at all than one comma out of place on mountains of paperwork... I mean, who are trying to ensure compliance with federal laws.

Guarantee safety. Safety must be paramount. We all thought Richard Sarles, no matter what else he was or wasn't good at, was bringing a strong safety culture to WMATA. Then there was the smoke fatality at L'Enfant Plaza. Maybe he was making the agency safer and this was a fluke, but it did reveal that the agency was quite unprepared to deal with an emergency.

The new CEO must fix this, and more than that, proactively identify hazards rather than only fixing whatever the NTSB identifies from the last fatality.

Build support from Congress. The CEO can't simply stay within the walls of WMATA's Jackson Graham Building. He or she will have to trudge up Capitol Hill and help win over lawmakers to stave off cuts in the federal government's share of repair costs. Republican appropriators are trying to cut the federal contribution in half, to $75 million.

That's not to mention cuts in the federal transit benefit which undercut ridership. The CEO should help lobby to get the transit benefit back up to parity with the parking benefit.

Unite regional governments. WMATA has to go hat in hand to DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia counties every year for the money it needs. But the three rarely agree on what to do. The CEO has to build strong relationships with officials in all of the jurisdictions to build agreement on WMATA's funding.

Manage a fractious board. Beyond tensions between the jurisdictions themselves, the board is not unified today. Some members don't get along personally. They don't have the same objectives. Many are new. It's structured like a corporate board but acts more like a legislature. The CEO and top staff have to spend a lot of time working with the board, and without consensus, things can't move forward.

Improve customer service. Getting money is far from the only challenge. WMATA has a terrible reputation with many riders. Contact WMATA with an issue and you get a curt reply, or ignored. Riders have too many bad experiences with poor communication in the system, like broken loudspeakers or train operators who mumble, rude station managers or bus drivers, and more.

WMATA has always competed with driving, especially for longer-distance commuters, and now also competes more than ever with Uber, bikeshare, Bridj, and all kinds of other transportation options. The CEO needs to make WMATA an organization people want to support, and ask their elected officials to support, instead of a necessary evil.

Reform an insular organizational culture. Communication problems go beyond communicating with riders. According to reports, people don't communicate with their superiors either. The organization seemingly misled its own board about the extent of the FTA financial dangers. And there's a pervasive attitude of never telling the public or the press anything unless you have to. This runs deep, but the CEO needs to change it.

Work well with labor. The CEO needs the skill to deal with a unionized workforce. He or she must build a good relationship with the union but also stick up for the organization's interests, whether it's keeping cost growth under control or ensuring that work rules give WMATA enough flexibility to adapt to changing needs.

Plan for the long term. WMATA might be in crisis now, but meanwhile, there are long-term needs that can't be ignored. The Rosslyn bottleneck is not going away; the Blue Line is not frequent enough. Many buses come too infrequently and are too slow. Planners have ideas to fix these, but the CEO will need to help make them happen both internally and by working with governments in the region.

All this, and he or she will only make $350,000 or so. Is there someone out there who will take a job for that salary, without a unified or supportive board, who is simultaneously a transit manager, a financial guru, a lobbyst, a diplomat, a corporate executive, an organizational reformer, and a big thinker? Know anyone?

Board chairman Mort Downey said he hopes the board will reach consensus on qualifications in June, then get an executive search firm to look for candidates. Virginia transportation secretary Aubrey Layne wrote that "only a new, bold, dynamic leader will be able to right the ship and regain the trust of the public. Unfortunately those tasks become more difficult with each passing day." That's absolutely right.

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