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 WMATA Board of Directors has finally agreed publicly that the agency needs to reform its internal culture. This is an argument riders and advocates have been making for a long time, and it's good to see the board reach the same conclusion.
Organizational culture word cloud image from Shutter
The board decided to hire a "restructuring specialist" to help turn WMATA around, the Washington Post reported.
It's long been clear to many that internal communication at Metro is a big problem. Many middle managers and others bury potential problems rather than discussing them openly with senior managers, and top management has not really pushed to fix this culture.
The revelation that a Track Geometry Vehicle operator mistakenly deleted a warning about problems near the Smithsonian station, problems that later derailed a train, made this issue too large to ignore, even for some board members who believed, or at least claimed, that the agency is running well.
This fiasco also cracked the attitude, which ran from many board members to senior management and down, that the agency should only publicly speak about good news and not admit to issues that might be minor now but could turn into larger ones down the line.
For example, Metro knew the Silver Line would demand more railcars, but railcar maintenance hasn't been able to keep cars in service as much as forecast. Coupled with delays in the 7000 series arriving partly because of the Japan earthquake, the agency has faced a railcar crunch. But we've only found out about this problem in bits and pieces, from riders collecting data manually and oblique mentions in Metro's scorecard.
DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, who has not been shy about calling openly for reform, pushed for a change. Dormsjo said he thinks transparency is part of the solution to the organizational culture problems.
"I think we have an organization that needs to improve it's health, and sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said. "We need to continue to be more transparent and forthcoming, even if it's troubling news." He asked managers to identify more information the could release to the public on an ongoing basis.
Dormsjo has also added some sunlight of his own by being forthright about the problems he sees. On the safety office, for instance, he said, "I am very concerned that Mr. Dougherty's office is a paper tiger in this organization." The safety office was not involved in reviewing standard operating procedures, such as for the Track Geometry Vehicle. Flaws in the procedure was part of the reason the flaw escaped attention.
In the past, some board members have suggested WMATA is better off if they keep strong opinions to themselves lest they scare off a good top candidate. But keeping problems "inside the family" just makes the public trust the organization less when problems grow and become visible.
It's sad that it took a derailment to make this happen, but Dormsjo's philosophy of openness, and the arguments that the organization really needs internal cultural reform, seem finally to be winning out.
Equipment designed to detect track problems alerted Metro employees to the dangerous condition that led to a train derailing last month, but an employee deleted the information by mistake, according to a report from WMATA on the incident.
According to the report, the Track Geometry Vehicle spits out warnings as it rolls over the tracks if it detects any problems. The worst kind, like this one, are "Level Black."
However, the machine also reports "Level Black" sometimes when there's no problem at all. For example, when it goes over a switch, the track geometry there isn't the same as on straight track, and there will be innocuous warnings. Or a curve is supposed to have a little extra room. A human operator is supposed to interpret the raw data and decide where there need to be repairs.
In this case, the operator made a mistake, and deleted this "Level Black" from his report while keeping in several others which got fixed. The system still stored all of the raw data, but there was no process where anyone else would compare the operator's list of repairs against the original raw data. Therefore, his mistake meant that nobody else saw the problem, either.
The operator in question and his supervisor both resigned, according to WAMU's Martin di Caro, and other employees may face discipline.
This problem is different from, but sounds somewhat similar to, one of the problems before the 2009 Red Line crash. There, the signal system would regularly report errors, but so many that workers started ignoring them. After all, nothing had been wrong the last few thousand times that error popped up. Until, that is, something was very wrong.
There, they were ignoring real errors thinking they were normal. Here, the official protocol was to ignore some errors of this type. But it seems like a dangerous situation in any case when staff get used to ignoring errors.
Both humans and computers will look at the track data more closely
To deal with this, Metro is adding processes where a supervisor will review the report with the operator after the run and compare it to the raw data. That way, it's less likely (though still possible) for a real problem to get ignored.
Just doing that sounds risky, since if the Track Geometry Vehicle regularly spits out "Level Black" errors that both the operator and supervisor are supposed to ignore, it's very easy for them to just get used to ignoring them and gloss over a real one once in a while by mistake.
That's why it's nice to see in the report that Metro is also working to write computer code that can know about the usual spots where not-really-errors crop up. If a specific switch or joint always gives the same error, and that error is actually not a problem at all, then rather than reporting one every time which the operator is trained to delete, maybe the system should report it differently, so that the real Level Black errors stick out more.
Metro will also remind staff that the automated machines are supposed to only supplement, not replace, the visual inspections that also happen. It's easy to stop paying such close attention if you've got a machine that can do it, but the machine can fail.
This report is welcome
We've been complaining for some time that WMATA top officials just say "we've got this" and don't share much information publicly. This report is much more forthcoming about the details of what's going on, and while that's no substitute for having avoided the problem in the first place, at least being open about the findings now is a positive step.
To continue to build trust, riders deserve to also hear more in the future about how well some of these efforts are going. Many of these findings relate to building the "safety culture" that former General Manager Rich Sarles was supposedly instituting.
The public needs some more assurances about how a safety culture is being built, as it happens. We all can hope Metro actually does build up that safety culture and make these processes succeed; given WMATA's low level of public confidence, continuing to provide more information can help people actually believe it.
Every two years, a research institute at Texas A&M comes out with a flawed report on traffic. Each time, other transportation analysts debunk it. But most reporters breathlessly regurgitate quotes from author Tim Lomax every time without doing any actual reporting of their own. How did our local reporters fare this year?
Interview photo from Shutterstock.
But Lomax knows that the press just eats up this "we're #1 in traffic" or "commuters waste 3 days per year in traffic" or whatever. When his report is about to come out, he goes on a press blitz, and hundreds of news outlets write up his non-peer-reviewed study (543, at last count via Google News).
Some of our local reporters just packaged Lomax's quotes and numbers into an unquestioning bundle of clickbait. Others took a moment to ask a few more questions or even wrote critical articles. Here's how they stacked up.
The "not fooled for a minute" crowd
- WAMU. Martin di Caro, one of the region's best transportation reporters, focused his story around criticisms of the study, especially the Coalition for Smarter Growth's. Di Caro also actually asked study author Tim Lomax about the critiques.
One criticism has been that the study's summary talks about delay to residents, when really it's just about car commuters. Lomax acknowledged that he doesn't have good data on transit, bicycling, or walking, but argues it's unfair to criticize the study for leaving pieces out even though Lomax spins his own data into sensational statements and suggests policy conclusions.
- WTOP. Ari Ashe, who was around the last time this came up and apparently remembers the controversy, skipped the bandwagon (though WTOP ran the Associated Press's press-release-rewrite version) and instead wrote a good story with CSG's rebuttal and comments by Falls Church Vice Mayor Dave Snyder.
The "used some actual shoe leather" crowd
- NBC4. While the lead-in by the anchor sensationalizes the "we're #1 in traffic!!!!!" angle, Tom Sherwood mostly uses this story as an opportunity to talk to people around the region, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, about solutions that include transit, bicycling, and more as well as roads. He also interviewed me. The CSG press release came out a little later, and the NBC4 web version of the story now includes quotes from that as well.
The "second draft is the best" crowd
- Washingtonian 2.0. Posted just after this article initially went live, Ben Freed's take criticizes the report and also points out weak spots in what Tim Lomax told Martin di Caro. Freed's article also possibly has the best headline of the bunch: "Driving in Washington Is Bad. So Is That Study That Says How Bad It Is."
The "phoned it in" crowd
- WUSA9: USA Today's national article was pretty terrible. And USA Today appears first on the byline for WUSA9's article. Lomax speaks, these outlets transcribe.
- Washingtonian 1.0. The writing is clever—
82 hours is enough time to watch Orange Is the New Black twice. Cute, if only it were based on valid data. Update: Washingtonian has followed up with another article, above.
- Washington City Paper. We miss you, Aaron Wiener. The lack of a regular Housing Complex reporter covering planning and transportation is evident in the City Paper's unremarkable summary of the report.
It's most disappointing because this is our alt-weekly that often finds an irreverent take on issues, questions conventional wisdom, and looks at the world through the city dweller's lens. I don't expect better from WUSA9, but do from these great folks who do so much excellent reporting (like the fantastic exposé on Metro's PR-spin-efforts after the January smoke death incident).
Also, the City Paper's headline for the TTI study, "D.C. Most Congested U.S. City for Drivers, Report Finds," commits the cardinal sin of conflating DC with the whole region; as Tom Sherwood noted, the traffic analysis is about the whole region, not the District itself.
Reports says DC "area" has worst traffic in nation. So why do so many news reports say "DC" has worst? Are we a place only for bad news?—
Tom Sherwood (@tomsherwood) August 26, 2015
- Washington City Paper. We miss you, Aaron Wiener. The lack of a regular Housing Complex reporter covering planning and transportation is evident in the City Paper's unremarkable summary of the report.
The "fool me twice" crowd
- Washington Post. Ashley Halsey III has seen this story before. In fact, he's written it three times before, in 2009, 2011, and 2013.
Halsey has had ample time to see the criticisms that people have leveled at the study every time it comes out. He even quoted more other people for context in 2009 and 2011, but stopped in 2013, and this year's article again simply recited Lomax's claims with no critical eye at all.
The "are there even humans here?" crowd
- Fauquier Times. This "news source" appears in Google News, but its article on the issue is just a straight-up reprint of the AAA Mid-Atlantic press release (which, not surprisingly, argues that the solution to the traffic reported in the study is spending more money on roads).
The Texas Transportation Institute today released another one of its periodic reports on traffic congestion. This one ranked the DC area first in delay per car commuter. The last report, in 2012, came under considerable criticism for its flawed methodology, and the new one doesn't seem to have changed much, though its author sounds a little more sophisticated about possible solutions.
The report, from Texas A&M University, looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. 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 has worse roads? By TTI's methods, it's 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.
(Note: This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2011. That's because just about everything I wrote then is still relevant.)
Critics like Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute and Joe Cortright of CEOs for Cities have pointed out these problems each time TTI releases a new study with an accompanying press blitz, but TTI continues to focus on the same metrics. For example, in the 2012 report, TTI ranked Portland as worse than Nashville, with a Travel Time Index (TTI) of 1.15 for Nashville and 1.23 for Portland. However, because of greater sprawl, Nashville commuters spent an average of 268 hours that year commuting, while the average Portland commuter spent 193 hours.
Does this mean build more roads?
What does this mean for public policy and the Washington region? TTI's data is often used to justify spending money on new freeway capacity, since congestion sounds bad. Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, told the Post's Ashley Halsey III in 2012, "You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there's a need for more capacity."
"That we are congested is not news, but TTI's report does tremendous damage, because they fail to recognize the primary cause of our congestion and imply that we could simply widen roads to build our way out of the problem," said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, about the 2012 report.
Perhaps responding to the criticism Lomax received for his one-sided push for road construction, he seems to have softened his tone somewhat. This year, Lomax told Halsey, "It's going to be hard to figure out how you scale up [the Capital Beltway] to make it accommodate another million people, 20 or 25 percent more travel demand. We need to figure out how to use our existing capacity smarter."
Lomax did talk about squeezing more cars on the road through technology like car automation that can run cars closer together. But he also suggested how technology can remind drivers when transit might be a better option:
Say you're commuting in from Manassas: Your computer looks at your calendar, sees that it's a regular commute day and that the weather's going to be terrible so traffic is going to be bad, and there's already been a big crash on I-66. So, your computer goes out and finds the VRE train schedule and the bus schedule, and here's the Metrorail schedule and where it drops you off. So, at 5:45, you're shaved and showered and your computer presents you with your travel options for today.
The real solution is to reduce dependence on long commutes
Technology can help people get around more easily, but there are bigger-picture policies as well to help people not have to drive so far in the first place. To do that, we need to concentrate future growth around existing hubs with more residents, jobs, and multimodal transportation.
That's what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has been trying to push with its Region Forward plan and the related "What Would It Take?" scenario (PDF). These involve focusing development in places like Tysons Corner and the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax, around underutilized Metro stations in Prince George's, future ones in Loudoun, and MARC and VRE hubs in Maryland and Virginia.
Arlington achieved substantial job and resident growth in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor without adding to traffic congestion, as has Montgomery with growth in Silver Spring and Bethesda and DC development in places like NoMA and the Capitol Riverfront area. Regional leaders should be less concerned with speeding up existing cars, which just leads to sprawl farther out, and invest more in finding ways to grow the region without adding traffic.
In fact, that's just what the DC region has done. Another, better part of TTI's 2012 analysis (which I don't see in the 2015 report) measures the amount of time savings that come from each region's transit; DC was 3rd best. That metric still doesn't account for the value of people living nearer to their jobs, however.
Washington has grown while managing congestion
Between better location and transit, page 50 of the original report (now not online) showed congestion did not increase from 1999 to 2012 even on TTI's flawed scale. That means our region had been successfully growing without adding traffic. Instead of "Washington area tied with Chicago for traffic congestion, study finds," which was the 2012 Post headline, it could have read, "Washington area's traffic hasn't gotten worse in a decade thanks to smart growth."
In his article about this year's report, Halsey reported that "traffic delays in most parts of the country have bounced back to pre-recession levels." But in Washington, the TTI report's numbers hardly budged from 2012 to 2014, according to the Excel spreadsheet you can download.
The Silver Line, which opened between the last TTI report and this one, reduced traffic by 15% at some intersections while also offering many people new choices to get to work.
These smart growth approaches work. They slow the rate of traffic worsening while letting regions grow by helping people not have to drive so much or so far. Our region simply has to follow through.
In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—
Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.
DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.
DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.
In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.
Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.
The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.
Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.
The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.
In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight
There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.
The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.
And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.
None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.
The specter of different people raises alarm
In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."
In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."
And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?
Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.
This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.
With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.
Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle— Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.
Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.
A NoMa cooperative hopes to redevelop mixed-income housing more successfully than DC's past attempts
A 1968 experiment in cooperative low-income housing near DC's NoMa neighborhood will soon be the site of a large redevelopment project. The owners plan to add new apartments and retail while preserving places to live for current residents of the community.
Sursum Corda (Latin for "lift up your hearts") lies along First Street NW between L and M streets. It was built by religious organizations using a federal Housing and Urban Development loan to provide homeownership opportunities for low-income residents. A series of townhouses surrounded a U-shaped road.
This inward focus, the designers hoped, would create a sense of community, but as urban disinvestment set in and crime rates rose amid the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the layout attracted drugs and gangs. A high-profile shooting in 2004 in the nearby Temple Courts apartments jump-started discussions about redeveloping the complex.
The current buildings contain 199 housing units; when complete, both phases of the proposed new project will have 1,142 units. There will still be 199 units set aside for lower-income residents, 143 of whom are current residents.
What's in the project
The 6.7-acre project will happen in two phases, the first on the L Street side and then a second phase to the north. The land is about 25 feet lower on the south side, and the buildings will also be shorter to match the existing church and smaller apartment buildings on that side.
The new buildings will include ground-floor retail on M Street and some small spaces that might become retail on L. The project will also renovate public park at the corner of First and L. The zoning filings do not yet specify how many bedrooms there will be in the various units.
Pierce Street to the west of this block will extend through the new project dividing the complex east-west, and a pedestrian walkway in the middle will run north-south. First Place, which is currently one leg of the U-shaped interior road, will extend all the way to L, while the other two legs of the U will disappear.
The architecture (such as we can see so far from the very rough early renderings) is modern, with a variety of angles, but otherwise adapts the fairly traditional style of U-shaped or donut-shaped apartment buildings surrounding courtyards.
Plans call for 848 parking spaces, 341 in the first phase and 507 in the second, which is probably an unnecessary amount of parking for apartments so close to downtown and the Metro. The zoning only requires 286 spaces. The proposal includes 453 bicycle parking spaces versus the required 382.
You can see all of the zoning filings by going here and searching for case 15-20.
DC's track record for redeveloping low-income housing is spotty
This project will be the latest in a string of redevelopments of public housing. The US approach to low-income housing in much of the mid-twentieth century was through large-scale "projects" that concentrated low-income residents in complexes, usually not mixed-use, often fenced in a way that cut the complex off from the general public space of the city. Local housing authorities often also did not maintain this housing very well, and with decades having passed, a lot of it is in bad shape.
Lower-density complexes like Sursum Corda now represent an opportunity, as the market could support many more units of housing in the same space. Therefore, at least in theory, one could redevelop the site to replace decaying housing with new housing. New market-rate housing could fund the project but still keep all of the low-income units and let current residents move back.
In practice, sometimes it hasn't gone so well. At Temple Courts,
a DC Housing Authority project on North Capitol between K and L streets NW, the city tore down the old apartments, displacing current residents, but then ran into mismanagement-related delays and federal obstacles that left the site a parking lot instead of the new apartments that were promised.
Many residents did eventually get new apartments in the nearby 2 M Street NE apartment building, but groundwater problems delayed 2 M's construction. Elsewhere, most residents have never been able to return, or had to move far away long enough that returning didn't make sense.
View looking south at the large parking lot which replaced Temple Courts Apartments. Sursum Corda is in the foreground.
This is far from the only case where the reality hasn't lived up to promises. Will Sursum Corda, just one block north of Temple Courts, be different?
There's reason for hope. Sursum Corda is a cooperative, not
publicly-owned housing rental housing which the city then purchased, like Temple Courts. The owners at Sursum Corda negotiated with the developer, Winn Development Company. The co-op association and Winn are co-proposers of the plan before the zoning board. We don't know all the details of the co-op's negotiations, but they should have been able to ensure a good plan for what residents will do during construction.
The co-op model seems to be a good one for situations like this. It gives owners some control over what happens. At the same time, since the association can decide to pursue redevelopment with a 2/3 majority, it also makes change possible, unlike in a condominium. At the Frontiers condos at 14th and S, any redevelopment required unanimous consent from every owner, a few of whom turned down $681,000-810,000 per house to hold out for an even bigger jackpot and ended up with no project at all.
At the other end of the spectrum, Temple Courts residents unsuccessfully fought Fenty administration plans to displace them before construction was ready to begin. Residents of Barry Farm, near the Anacostia Metro, are now worried about a similar fate as talks progress for redeveloping their community.
This is a "first stage Planned Unit Development," which means DC's Zoning Commission will review it and hold public hearings. A further second stage will get into more details on the buildings' architecture, like the materials they will use.
The site is currently zoned R-4, which is the zoning for 2- and 3-story townhouses. The cooperative is asking for it to be rezoned to C-3-C, a high-density commercial zone.
Area residents and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners will also have an opportunity to discuss what amenities the developer should provide; a PUD allows flexibility in zoning in exchange for some amenities; redeveloping the park is one of those in this proposal. Other common amenities for similar projects include Capital Bikeshare stations.
Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly stated that Temple Courts was a DC Housing Authority property. For most of its existence it was a privately-owned complex under a contract with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The District government provided funding to DCHA affiliate Temple Courts Redevelopment to purchase the complex when the owner, Bush Companies, wanted to convert it to market-rate housing. DCHA and subsidiaries then carried out the actual work of demolition and relocation.
The WMATA Board blames employees for the derailed train instead of looking at its own leadership failures
Following stunning revelations that some people at WMATA knew the tracks were out of alignment near Smithsonian Metro a month before a train derailed at the same spot, the WMATA Board released a statement of outrage. But the board only focused on blaming the people immediately responsible and not the culture and leadership that led to the situation.
Covering eyes image from Shutterstock.
The statement says,
The Board is outraged and dismayed that anyone working at Metro would have critical safety information and not act on it immediately. It is totally unacceptable that the wide gauge track problem reported yesterday by the General Manager could go unaddressed and unrepaired for four weeks. ...This statement implies that there is some problem deep within the chain of command, some bad apples or a process failure that must be rooted out and dealt with, but little more than that. That's not the case.
However, Jack Requa's transparent release of information, as well as his actions to order immediate track inspections and gather information to hold people accountable at every level, is what the Board expects and what the circumstances demand. ...
The Board looks forward to learning how the chain of command broke down and where the responsibility lies. This is an unforgivable breach of safety that needs to be dealt with firmly and swiftly.
The problems at Metro are endemic and far-reaching. They don't stop at any one person at the agency. WMATA's deficiencies stem from its management structure, organizational culture, funding woes, deferred maintenance, and its own Board of Directors, which squabbled for months in a way that stopped the agency from hiring a new general manager.
Yes, not acting on information that tracks were dangerously out of alignment for four weeks is an egregious failure of the "safety culture" the agency seems to think it has. And that particular instance might fall on the shoulders of one or two people.
But the larger set of lapses, from poorly installed insulation on electric cables, to not hiring and training workers in the rail control center, to nonfunctioning radios and track gauge problems, proves that the problems are more widespread than that. These aren't personal failings. They're institutional failures.
Even if the agency identifies a few employees who were negligent and fires them, it doesn't solve the underlying problem: WMATA is reactionary, not proactive.
Yes, this incident was a derailment that should have been prevented. But what other safety lapses are lurking under the surface just waiting to erupt?
If this were the only safety lapse at WMATA in a decade, maybe we wouldn't worry. But this is just the latest (and probably not the last) event in a chain stretching back beyond the fatal 2009 crash at Fort Totten.
Where does the responsibility lie? It lies squarely at the feet of those who've sat on the board for years now, many of whom came in after the Fort Totten crash to turn things around, who hired Rich Sarles, and who've left the agency arguably even worse off than they found it.
But rather than step up to that responsibility, the board's statement did not even include an apology and shows no understanding that they haven't done their jobs or that the agency needs deeper change.
Rebuilding WMATA isn't just about welding rail and replacing ties. It's also about fixing the problems with the institutional culture. That's a far harder task.
The region needs a board that will fight for change at WMATA. Not just because we need a functioning transit system. But because lives literally depend on it.
WMATA has many hard-working and dedicated staff members. Many of them want the agency to do better. But they can't do it without leadership from the top. The board has a role to play in fixing the agency. Sadly, this message instead conveys that the board doesn't recognize the problem and isn't ready to take responsibility.
Metro detected track problems but did nothing until a train derailed. This has become a sadly familiar pattern.
That Metro train that derailed near Smithsonian Station last week? WMATA employees detected the track problems that caused it... a month ago. And Metro didn't fix it. This is outrageous. Even more outrageous is the way such surprises keep cropping up yet top brass insist everything is fine.
Covering ears image from Shutterstock.
Interim general manager Jack Requa revealed at a press conference that the Track Geometry Vehicle detected a problem with the tracks on July 9, but nothing was done.
Requa said, "I don't want to mince words, but this was totally unacceptable. ... We found this and should have addressed it earlier. It's Metro's responsibility totally."
This has happened before. Many times.
The problem is indeed Metro's responsibility. More than that, riders and area leaders also need to know why this same scenario keeps happening. Over and over, something goes wrong with Metro that causes enormous headaches for riders or even death, and then it turns out Metro officials had ample warning. Yet all the while, those leaders were insisting Metro was "on the right track."
- In the 2009 Fort Totten crash, the signal system was sending alerts about losing the connection with a train, but doing it so often that officials ignored the constant alerts.
- Before the Federal Transit Administration started withholding funding from Metro, the Inspector General was warning about accounting irregularities.
- For the January smoke incident, WMATA and DC firefighters were aware that radios weren't working properly in the tunnels and they couldn't communicate properly in the event of an emergency.
- And now, this news about the derailment.
Councilmember Roger Berliner, who was chairing the hearing, asked Requa to address the big gulf between his testimony suggesting things are improving and all of the criticism. Requa declined to admit any problems in his agency, and just continued to cite gradual progress.
That progress is welcome, for sure, but something is undoubtedly wrong in an organization where warnings of problems go either unheeded or unaddressed. It's good for Requa to admit this was "Metro's responsibility, totally"; what's he going to do to stop this chain of surprises?
How did this happen, and how can it stop happening over and over?
Is there an internal communication problem where reports of problems just don't go up the chain? Could Metro have fixed these problems if its leaders had just been more aware? If so, Requa needs to tell the public why this is so endemic in the organization and what he'll do to fix it.
Or is Metro coping with such an enormous list of things being broken, where it's simply not possible to fix them all? For each one failure that turns into a crisis, are there ten that don't, and is Metro just triaging? If so, Requa needs to admit how precarious the situation is and say what he needs to get out of that hole.
Or is Metro's bureaucracy so ossified that problems don't get solved? Or are there a lot of incompetent people in the way? Or something else? If so, Requa might have to reveal problems at other levels of his own organization, but the public deserves to know this and hear some reason to believe it's changing.
We've been hearing for years now that Metro has things under control, is fixing everything that's broken, and will get back to a "state of good repair" in a few years, and then it'll all be okay. That's just not consistent with the reality riders are seeing, where disaster strikes and every time it turns out someone ignored warning signs.
What is Requa going to do to stop the surprises?
The WMATA Board also must address this. Its members choose the general manager (and are trying to hire a permanent one now). They set policies. Often, they quietly tell staff not to present certain options or information to the public.
They need to insist that Metro executives fess up to what's going on and state a plan to fix it. So should the chief executives of DC, Maryland, and Virginia who appoint many board members, and the elected officials in Virginia and DC who sit directly on the board.
The building is on fire and those in charge keep telling us it's just a hot day. Who will step up with explanations and a plan, not just about this one crisis, or the last one, or the one before, but one that's about what's systemtically wrong with an organization where this keeps happening?
Traffic is very, very bad right now, especially across the Potomac, NBC reporter Adam Tuss pointed out on Twitter. The Metro service disruption from a train derailing this morning surely contributed.
The frequency of service disruptions on Metro is extremely frustrating, and it's fairly clear that maintenance is still far behind where it needs to be. Tuss points out how this problem affects not just Metro commuters, but drivers as well.
Transit often faces a political problem where many voters who won't personally use transit just don't care about it and don't support funding maintenance or expansion. Most people drive sometimes, so broadly they support fixing roads and often adding new ones even if they personally won't use that road every day. But it's not the same for transit.
It should be. Metro makes it possible for everyone to get to and from their jobs. So do bridges, and buses, and bicycle facilities, and sidewalks. Completely shut down any one mode of transportation and everyone will suffer.
The Washington Post is reporting that problems on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines could stretch into the evening commute.
DC's 15th Street NW protected bikeway will soon extend a few blocks north, past a dangerous intersection. The area will also become safer for pedestrians. But one thing is missing: a few crosswalks.
View on 15th Street near V Street looking toward the intersection with W Street and Florida and New Hampshire avenues. Image from Google Maps.
The current 15th Street bikeway lets cyclists ride in both directions from Pennsylvania Avenue to V Street, but north of there, 15th Street is one-way northbound. Someone wanting to get from the bike lane on W down to the bikeway has to ride a block in the wrong direction, use the sidewalk, or take busy 16th or U Streets.
The intersection where 15th crosses W Street, Florida Avenue, and New Hampshire Avenue is also a bad one for walking. A pedestrian was killed there in 2009. DC officials put in temporary barriers to extend the curbs, and promised a more permanent redesign. This is it.
The final plans will extend the two-way protected bike lane from V St. NW to W St NW and will be separated from traffic by granite curbs. The bike lane will also incorporate curbed pedestrian refuge islands between the bike lane and travel lanes to provide a safe place to wait for people walking.That's not the only improvement for pedestrians. Today, as drivers head north on 15th, the road divides gently into two, one continuing up the hill on 15th and the other going to W and Florida. That, coupled with 15th being a wide, one-way road with timed lights, encourages speeding in this portion to beat the lights at Florida.
The branch to Florida will go away and become a new pocket park. There will be a number of the planted areas that also retain stormwater, which have been popping up around DC. To turn right onto W or Florida from 15th, drivers will instead make a more standard right turn onto Florida, and then can turn right again to W.
Last year, planners hoped to extend the lane all the way up the hill past Meridian Hill Park to Euclid Street. That portion will have to wait a little longer, but this was a necessary first step.
What about the crosswalks?
Amid all this good news for people walking, there is one conspicuously missing piece, which you can see in this image Greg Billing tweeted from the community meeting. There are four legal crosswalks (which I've marked with red lines) without crosswalk markings.
If you're walking along the east side of 15th Street, you will have to detour all the way to the northeast corner of Florida and W (blue line in the diagram) instead of using the small triangular island. Now, it's true that this is what you would have to do today, but pedestrian-unfriendly design now is not a good reason to continue it.
According to DC law, all four sides of any intersection are legal crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. That means it would be legal for someone to cross at the "missing" crosswalks. Traffic engineers sometimes push to leave out crosswalks because having people crossing the street would interfere with "traffic flow" more than they feel is appropriate, but people can still cross the street anyway.
DC now has a Vision Zero policy, which means it's a priority to try to eliminate any traffic fatalities. It's safer to slow down the traffic flow and let people cross instead of inviting a crossing without an actual crosswalk. And while it's legal to cross, people in wheelchairs, pushing strollers, and others can't take advantage of the legal crossing since there are no curb ramps at these missing crosswalks.
Billing asked about this at the meeting, and as he reported on Twitter, the team said "something about traffic movement, etc. But, the @DDOTDC project manager quickly realized that it should be possible."
DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair provided this statement:
DDOT believes the redesign of this complex intersection cluster achieves a very good overall balance between pedestrian, bicyclist, and vehicular traffic, safety and operations. The design of this intersection has been thoroughly vetted by the ANC and the community.
There are currently four unmarked crosswalks in the new design that are not accommodated with ramps, markings and pedestrians signal heads:
However, unmarked crosswalk A, on the north side of New Hampshire Avenue, is so close to the crosswalk running east-west on the south side of W Street that it is effectively repetitive of what already exists. To include unmarked crosswalk B, on the east side of 15th Street across Florida Avenue, would create hazards for pedestrians because the through and heavy right-turning vehicle traffic from northbound 15th Street move at the same time. Timing it to allow a protected crossing phase here for pedestrians would impact the signal timing of the whole intersection, resulting in delays for both vehicles and pedestrians.This is "all too common" around DC
The utility of unmarked crosswalks at C and D is not substantial given that the distance to get to the east or west side of the intersection to proceed southbound on New Hampshire or 15th is relatively short. Furthermore, if C and D crosswalks were marked and signalized, pedestrians would still have to cross east or west from the island to continue southbound.
The project is currently scheduled to start construction on Aug. 24.
The triangle where New Hampshire Avenue meets 20th and O streets, just south of Dupont Circle, is also missing sidewalks to cross 20th along the north side of O, and to cross New Hampshire on either side of O.
This area was recently redone as part of a major reconstruction of New Hampshire Avenue which turned it two-way and added bike lanes— The same issue arose near Fort Totten, when DDOT removed slip lanes at a pedestrian-hostile intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue. Initial plans left out a crosswalk so there could be more turn lanes; following community outcry, then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein had the agency reconsider.
Pedestrian Advisory Council co-chair Tony Goodman said in an email, This sort of situation is all too common in DC where an avenue meets a street. Those angled intersections often force pedestrians to deviate from their straight-line travel and hunt out what is essentially a permanent detour. Mass Ave in particular is horrible for that, all across its length.
That's actually been a major focus of PAC discussions this year. From a pedestrian safety standpoint, there is no reason to not stripe a crosswalk on all four sides. It rarely makes sense for traffic operations either. It's a massive inconvenience and also can be quite dangerous to make extra crossings, especially for those with difficulties with mobility or vision.
What other areas do you know about that have missing crosswalks?
The same issue arose near Fort Totten, when DDOT removed slip lanes at a pedestrian-hostile intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue. Initial plans left out a crosswalk so there could be more turn lanes; following community outcry, then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein had the agency reconsider.
Pedestrian Advisory Council co-chair Tony Goodman said in an email,
This sort of situation is all too common in DC where an avenue meets a street. Those angled intersections often force pedestrians to deviate from their straight-line travel and hunt out what is essentially a permanent detour. Mass Ave in particular is horrible for that, all across its length.
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- Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 66