Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief 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. 

Cheh keeps oversight of transportation, but Jack Evans will sit on the WMATA Board

Mary Cheh will continue to oversee transportation in the DC Council next year, but will continue to not also represent DC on the WMATA Board; instead, Jack Evans will. Anita Bonds will chair a committee on housing, while David Grosso will take the education gavel from David Catania.


Photo by David Maddison on Flickr.

Council chairman Phil Mendelson just released his recommendations for committee assignments for the next two years.

When Kwame Brown took away Tommy Wells' transportation chairmanship in 2011, he gave the committee to Mary Cheh, but Cheh reportedly did not also want the board seat. Instead, it went to Bowser, but this created significant problems, as WMATA and DDOT then ended up in separate committees. This compounded the already poor coordination between WMATA and DDOT.

While Cheh and Bowser talked plenty, Mary Cheh was not even part of Bowser's committee overseeing WMATA while Bowser was not on Cheh's transportation committee. Evans, at least, will be a member of Cheh's committee, along with Charles Allen, Kenyan McDuffie, and either the Ward 4 or 8 member once they are elected. But WMATA oversight will still not be part of that committee; it will be in Evans' Finance and Revenue committee, which Cheh does not sit on.

Evans sat on (and chaired) the board in the past, which could make it easier for him to step into the role. And, actually, funding is one of if not the top issue for WMATA, meaning Evans could help steer new resources to the agency if he chose. Evans lives in Georgetown, which might get a Metro line if WMATA can get the money, and the line stretches through much of Ward 2.

On the other hand, his role could be bad news for bus priority, since Evans has been suspicious of any city move to dedicate road space to users other than private motor vehicles. Evans also is an opponent of the streetcar (along with Mendelson).

There also should be plenty of spirited debate on other bills before Evans' finance committee, which votes on tax breaks and tax policy. Evans generally strongly favors granting tax breaks to businesses, retailers, and developers, but a new member of his committee, Elissa Silverman, has often criticized DC for giving tax breaks out too readily.

The DC Council has an unusually small number of committees (seven) this period because there are so many new members. Current convention gives every member a committee but not in the member's first council period. Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and Elissa Silverman (at large) were just elected this November, and there will be vacant seats in both Ward 4 (where Muriel Bowser is resigning to be mayor) and Ward 8 (where Marion Barry just died) until a special election in March.

Vincent Orange will chair a Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs, Yvette Alexander will handle Health and Human Services, and Kenyan McDuffie takes over the Judiciary post. McDuffie used to be a federal prosecutor in Prince George's County and a civil rights attorney at the US Department of Justice; he has shown a lot of concern over recent trends about police and prosecutorial overreach in DC and nationally.

That committee will likely again debate the issue of contributory negligence for bicyclists, where David Grosso, the bill's sponsor, will still not be a member, while Mary Cheh, the swing vote this past year, will remain on the committee along with Jack Evans and Anita Bonds. A Ward 4 or 8 member to be elected will join them after the special election.

Bonds' housing committee includes Silverman, a strong advocate for affordable housing policies, Brianne Nadeau, who ran with affordable housing as a strong part of her platform, Vincent Orange, and Bonds herself, who has championed tax relief for elderly homeowners.

Additional information has been added to this post as the information became available. At one point, an errant paragraph about the WMATA Board, written before the news about Evans' appointment was available, was near the bottom of this story. It has been removed.

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Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future directionor committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.

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Out: "cycletrack." In: "protected bikeway."

What should we call bike infrastructure that has a physical barrier between it and general traffic? 391 people voted in our poll about whether to call this a "cycletrack," "protected bike lane," or "separated bike lane." "Protected bike lane" won a majority, but we were persuaded by a slight variant several people suggested: "Protected bikeway."


DC's newest protecetd bikeway, 6th Street NE. Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

93 people voted in the original poll, which I had to delete since it was messing up the cache on Chrome browsers. 298 voted in the replacement Google Forms poll.

Of the 391 total votes, 198 (51%) chose "protected bike lane." 134 (34%) liked "cycletrack," 29 (7%) picked "separated bike lane," and 30 (8%) voted for "other."

While "protected bike lane" garnered a majority, there were two significant substantive concerns. First, not all bike infrastructure in DC is a "lane"; the two-way First Street one, for instance, is at least a pair of lanes.

Second, while the Green Lane Project notes that calling it a "bike lane" emphasizes that it's in the roadway, some people felt the name should better distinguish these from traditional lines painted on the road.

We like "protected bikeway"

Fortunately, a number of commenters suggested a slight variant: "Protected bikeway." The word "bikeway" is not that far from "bike lane" except it doesn't say anything about the number of lanes and is more distinct. It's also shorter, fewer words, and a bit faster to speak.

Saying "protected bikeway" still allows the key word "protected," which emphasizes the safety effect of this infrastructure. It still avoids the technical and "speed demon" connotations of "cycletrack."

Therefore, Greater Greater Washington is going to start calling these things "protected bikeways." This term can apply to any bicycle path which dedicates space specifically to bicycles (so not a shared sidepath or trail for walkers and cyclists) and has a physical barrier of some kind (poles, curbs, etc.) between the space and the spaces that serve other types of road users.

People are also free to use other terms on Greater Greater Washington articles, particularly "protected bike lane" if they feel comfortable with the "bike lane" aspect. For example, if a road has a single lane for bikes that is in the road but poles divide it from the rest of the road (like on L and M Streets NW), then "protected bike lane" is also equally valid and acceptable.

Thanks so much to all 391 voters and those who left the 48 commentsparticularly Eric, David R, Dan, and Michael Andersen, all of whom mentioned the "bikeway" term in their comments, and the five people who suggested a form of "bikeway" as their vote for Other in the poll.

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"Ride DC" puts real-time transit info on the screen

There's a new tool to show real-time information about Metro, Circulator, Capital Bikeshare, car sharing and more: Ride DC, which launched yesterday afternoon.


A screen around the Reeves Center at 14th and U, NW.

The design focuses on businesses that might want to put up a large screen in a store, building lobby, or other location. You pick an address and a set of transportation services, and it creates a web page at a specific address where you could point a browser displaying on a large screen.

To set one up, you go to ridedc.ddot.dc.gov, register for an account, then set up a screen. It assumes you're a business, but you should be able to just make up a business name if you want to try it out.

Right now, it doesn't work on mobile devices or (some report) iPads, but the @DDOTDC Twitter account said that an app version is coming in January.

Screens build visually upon earlier efforts

These screens share a lot in common with the screen project Eric Fidler built as part of a fellowship with Arlington County in early 2012. (Disclosure: I helped project manage that effort.)


The first screen at Java Shack in Arlington.

Designer Kerry Mitchell created the first designs, and you can see many of the same elements in this screen, like the concept of showing the full Capital Bikeshare docks in red and empty ones in gray, an element I don't remember seeing on any earlier screen.

Most previous efforts were much busier visually, and the team working with Fidler and Mitchell, which also included Matt Caywood and Kevin Webb, wanted to cut away the clutter and make a design which focused on the key information about routes and times, so that you could see what you need to know at a glance even if the screen were farther away. This new screen, fortunately, maintains much of that simplicity while also adding a map.

Make the screens open source

It's not illegal or unethical or even rude for this DDOT screen to emulate many of the designs: the project was open source, with the explicit goal of providing a foundation for others to build upon. Caywood built on it most directly by creating his own company, TransitScreen, to offer screens for locations around the nation; it's headquartered in DC's 1776 incubator and offers more customization options than the Ride DC screens (but no maps).

The best way for DDOT to also give back is to make its own code open source. Taxpayers paid for the work, after all, and there's no reason to need DDOT to keep a lot of control. DDOT is not going to have the resources to add every feature anyone could want.

Therefore, it should keep running and improving its own service to give many people a quick, turn-key way to create a screen, and at the same time, open up its code so that others could build upon it in other ways.

Even better would be if DDOT had built upon the open source code already in existence. It might have saved money, and could have made it easier for people in other cities to benefit from what DDOT has done. That's what Caywood did when he organized a hack day to get civic hackers building their own screens and adding to the code base that everyone could use.

The best way to create valuable, reusable public technology is to foster a robust open source project where multiple individuals and organizations contribute. Nobody has to pay to reinvent the wheel, and everyone's efforts benefit others.

How the screens can be better

After all, there are plenty of little ways to continue improving this screen, as there is with the first version of any piece of software. You can't scroll or zoom the map right now; that would be useful.

When the data updates, the lines "flip" like an old-style train arrival board, which is cool, but they flip a lot; it looks like about every five seconds. That's distracting. It may make more sense to only "flip" when a number actually changes, or at least flip everything less frequently (an exception is when there are more bus lines than there's room, in which case it should flip more).

The screen creator selects whether to include services within a two, four, or six-minute walk, but often someone will want to include services that are farther away, especially something like a Metro station. It would make sense to offer larger distances, or decouple the distance for something like buses with Metro; you very well may want to only show buses six minutes away but also include a Metro station ten minutes away.

You can't show two Metro stations at once; instead, if there are two, it toggles. This is the same as what it does for buses, scrolling between all of the different lines. However, you could certainly imagine the screen owner wanting to show multiple Metro stations at once, especially if they aren't showing as many bus services at the same time.

This broad question, about how to pick among data, is one of the most complex questions we dealt with in the 2012 project. This project chose one reasonable option: basically, for each service you select, it blocks off some space and then rotates between everything inside your zone. That's a simple way to do things that will work for most people. The 2012 project and TransitScreen instead offer more customization, where you can pick which and how many bus lines, Metro stations, etc. to include.

It'll be worth watching this DDOT project closely to see what else the team adds.

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"Cycletrack"? "Protected bike lane"? What do you call them?

Those bicycle lanes with a physical barrier between the lane and other road users have been appearing around the region: 15th, L, and M streets NW and 1st Street NE in DC, Hayes Street in Arlington, and Woodglen Drive in White Flint. What should we call these?


What is this? Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Greater Greater Washington's current style has been to say "cycletrack." But Streetsblog, the Green Lane Project, and WABA all have decided in recent years to call them "protected bike lanes." In its new bike plan, Fairfax County calls them "separated bike lanes."

The contributors recently discussed the pros and cons. Here are some of the top arguments. What do you think? You can vote using the poll at the bottom of this post.

Arguments for and against "cycletrack"

"Cycletrack" is short and to the point. It's pretty easy to remember. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) calls these "cycle tracks." Since we've been using that term, continuing would make posts consistent and avoid confusing anyone with a change.

On the other hand, the term sounds like it's a place for cyclists to speed (in the same way a running track is a place to run as fast as possible). This isn't a velodrome, but a transportation facility. The Green Lane Project quotes several experts who said "cycletrack" confused some laypeople and sounded too "sporty."

Arguments for and against "protected bike lane"

The main reason these facilities are better than the standard painted bike lane is that they protect cyclists from motor vehicle traffic. Cyclists feel (and most experts believe they are) safer thanks to this protection. So this name puts front and center the feature that is its main selling point: its protection.

In choosing this, the Green Lane Project also pointed out that "protected bike lane" clearly conveys that "they're just for bikes and they're part of the roadway," and that it's easy to modify, like "curb-protected bike lane" for one that has a curb between it and the other lanes.

One disadvantage: It's a lot longer. It's three words instead of one, 19 characters instead of 10, five syllables instead of three (and the middle one very short).

Jim Titus also noted that one problem with "protected bike lane" (or "separated bike lane") is that in Maryland, there's a legal definition of a bike lane that doesn't encompass these facilities. Further, he wrote, in Maryland "cyclists are required to ride in bike lanes even if they are traveling at the speed of other vehicles." Not calling it a kind of bike lane can emphasize the difference.

However, I'm not sure that is a reason to pick a name. The legal rule for when you have to ride in a bike lane applies only to things that meet the legal definition of a bike lane. So the fact that the definition doesn't encompass these means the limitations also don't apply. Just because we call it a "protected bike lane" won't make the law any different.

Arguments for and against "separated bike lane"

"Separated bike lane" emphasizes the physical differences, that there's a separation.

However, one danger with this is that some bike lanes have a separation of distance (such as with a painted buffer zone) but no other features. NACTO calls those "buffered bike lanes." Is there enough of a clear distinction between "separated" and "buffered"?

The Green Lane Project further noted that "the word 'separated' carried a negative connotation" in surveys, and "protected bike lane" appears 3½ times as often as "separated bike lane" in news mentions.

What do you think? Vote in the poll below, then give your reasons in the comments. Or if you have another idea, put it on the poll and also explain it in the comments. If you're okay with more than one, you can select multiple.

We're going to decide based on the strength of arguments as well as on the vote, not just blindly picking the one that wins, so please do give your reasons in the comments.

Update: I had to delete the poll because it was causing a cache problem in Chrome, where voting and then later going to our home page would redirect to the poll site. If this is happening to you, clear your Chrome cache. I'll get a new poll up soon. You can now vote on this Google Form. It won't show the tally, but I'll follow up with a post giving the results.

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Without a streetcar, what's next for Columbia Pike, technically and politically?

After a decade of planning, officials in Arlington cancelled the Columbia Pike streetcar this week. If streetcars aren't going to be the answer on there, what might realistically happen instead?


Columbia Pike. Photo by harry_nl on Flickr.

In the wake of the streetcar's cancellation, some have suggested Metrorail, BRT, or light rail. None are likely. The county will probably just end up running articulated ("accordion") buses on Columbia Pike. Voters might be surprised how long that takes, how much it costs, and how little capacity it adds.

It's also time for the anti-streetcar forces to prove that when they claimed they supported better transit, they meant it and weren't just using the issue to divide voters. That means they now have to get involved in finding a solution and making it a reality.

There's tremendous demand for good transit on Columbia Pike. It's already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia, and by 2040 there could be more transit riders on Columbia Pike alone than in the entire Richmond metropolitan area. Doing nothing isn't a viable option.

As we discussed yesterday, Metrorail is (unfortunately) not financially realistic, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has told Arlington it may not dedicate a lane to transitif even that were politically possible over drivers' inevitable objections.

So what can happen now?

How soon can Arlington beef up bus service?

Unfortunately, large transit projects take years to plan and, if they cost a significant amount, even longer to fund. The funding process is what really held up the Columbia Pike streetcar; Arlington and Fairfax leaders thought they had the money together in the past, like in 2007, when Virginia handed some taxing authority to a regional authority to build transportation. But then courts ruled the plan unconstitutional, and it took more years to get funding together again, culminating in Governor McAuliffe's pledge this year for the state to pick up a significant amount of the tab.

One plan has gone through some detailed studies: the option called "TSM-2" in the streetcar alternatives analysis. That includes running longer articulated buses on Columbia Pike along with larger bus stops, machines to pay the fare before the bus arrives ("off-vehicle fare collection"), and rebranding the buses as MetroExtra or Metroway.

But even that isn't so simple.

First, WMATA doesn't have any bus storage or maintenance yard in Virginia equipped to handle articulated buses. Arlington will have to find land and build that, just as it would have had to do for a streetcar railyard.

Second, Columbia Pike's pavement isn't strong enough to handle the wear and tear of hundreds of articulated bus trips per day. It wouldn't crumble the first week, but before long Arlington will have to reinforce and repave the street, just like it would have had to do for streetcar tracks.

Finally, a lot of planning work will have to re-done. Just how much is not yet clear. At the very least, contracts and design work that had been progressing will cease, and Arlington will have to prepare new contracts and possibly hire new contractors. At the higher end of the scale, it's possible the entire alternatives analysis process that produced the TSM-2 option will have to start anew, with a different set of constraints.

Whatever the specifics turn out to be, it's definitely not a simple matter of buying some buses and calling it a day. It's going to take years.

That likely won't last for long

The Alternatives Analysis estimated that at current growth rates, ridership will outstrip the capacity for articulated buses before long.

There are three likely scenarios here:

  • Columbia Pike will not grow as leaders and residents hope, in which case it will remain depressed relative to the rest of the county and not need more transit ridership. A streetcar might become necessary to jump-start the economy, or voters will keep letting it languish.
  • It will grow, demand will increase again, and we'll be back where we started. Maybe the county will again consider a higher-capacity streetcar, just years later and at an even higher cost.
  • The AA is totally wrong and everything will be hunky-dory with just articulated buses, as Libby Garvey and others have argued. That's worked with voters, but no transit experts have really said it holds water.
What about dedicated lanes?

Several readers have said they believe that transit is just not worthwhile without dedicated lanes. Certainly dedicated lanes are better, but elected officials have to make a judgment about what is politically possible and what is not.

Columbia Pike used to be a state road (and still is in Fairfax). The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) turned it over to Arlington, but with the condition that the number of lanes open to cars not drop below fourand it's a four-lane road.

It's theoretically possible that a transit-friendly governor in Virginia could order VDOT to change this condition and let Arlington dedicate lanes on Columbia Pike. Or maybe in another decade or two, VDOT will come to that decision naturally.

The McAuliffe administration stuck its neck out in support of the streetcar. After Arlington hung them out to dry, will they take even more of a risk to take lanes away from cars?

And what evidence do we have that the voting bloc that would fight against losing any car lanes is smaller than the bloc who opposed spending money?

It's about politics now

All of the above is, essentially, the calculus that folks inside Arlington government are or will be working through. What should they plan for now? What contracts are necessary?

But this project didn't lose because of insufficient planning. It lost because of politics.

Arlington has long operated on the "Arlington Way," where civic leaders and other residents discuss issues calmly in advisory committees, the staff formulate recommendations, the board debates them, and ultimately passes things usually with unanimity.

This works pretty well when residents are willing to trust their elected leaders and county officials. But that system is now dead. The faction opposed to the current board members told voters that the consensus on the county board was a sign of the board not listening to people, and eroded popular trust in the county board and staff.

The county board has no committees. There's just one political party. The executive isn't independent. Everything is set up around the idea that everyone acts together. But a faction that now represents 40% of the board isn't interested in doing it that way (unless they are in charge, maybe).

If the board members just ask the transportation department to devise some options, recommend them to the board, and pick the best one, some people will still be unhappy with whatever happens. There will still be opportunities to blame Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada, and Jay Fisette for not doing it the right way, because there's no perfect way that will satisfy every person.

Transit supporters need to start thinking of this as a political fight and not a transit planning fight.

Streetcar opponents: You won. Now, get something done

Libby Garvey, John Vihstadt, and Peter Rousselot have consistently claimed they are for better mobility on Columbia Pike. They just don't want the streetcar. Well, now the streetcar is gone, so there's no apparent division.

Either they were genuine, in which case they can and will work to make transit better, or they were just using it for political advantage. The trick is to now set things up so that voters will be able to see which it is. (Update: Rousselot, at least, has stated his spending priorities and none of them is transit of any kind on Columbia Pike.)

How about putting Garvey and/or Vihstadt in charge of some sort of committee to analyze transportation on Columbia Pike and recommend solutions? And hold a vote putting the county on record that it does want to ask Virginia for a dedicated lane, and send Garvey down to Richmond to push for it. She sure had nearly boundless energy to meet with state officials to criticize the streetcar; how about doing the same for something that would help Arlington County?

If she succeeds, then that's fantastic! We get better transit. I don't think it'll happen, but I'd love to be proven wrong here. I'd love to be able to praise Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt for making things better instead of just breaking things. Then transit supporters can start seeing them as friends and support their re-election.

But if a dedicated lane can't happen, articulated buses turn out to cost almost as much as the streetcar, and they're still too crowded, then voters should blame them, not Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada who tried to do something and got shot down.

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Transit projects are stuck between people who want to spend less money and people who want to spend more

Transit projects in the Washington region are going through a tough period. The Columbia Pike streetcar is dead, the DC streetcar delayed and had its funding cut, and Maryland just elected a governor who's at best skeptical about the Purple Line. Any transit project seems to have many critics. Why all the negativity?


Photo by B Rosen on Flickr.

People who agree with the decision to cancel the project seem to fall into a few groups:

  1. People who want much better transit, like Metrorail. This will cost a lot of money.
  2. People who support buses in dedicated lanes, which VDOT has rejected on Columbia Pike, but where possible (like in DC), also would interfere with drivers.
  3. People who don't want to spend much money on transit and don't want to slow down cars either.
  4. People who were confused.

1. People who want Metrorail instead

Group #1 points out that Metrorail is great transit. So it is. It's also massively, massively expensive. The United States was willing to spend that kind of money in the 1950s and '60s, when our economy was growing rapidly, tax rates were really high, we wanted to compete with the Soviets, and the public supported public investment.

Now, a few big subway projects are still possible, but the federal government does so much less. That means that states, counties, and cities have to put up a lot of money, and elected officials who support it are always vulnerable to challenges from people appealing to those who don't benefit from the project.

On Columbia Pike, we'd be talking billions of dollars. On top of that, the line wouldn't be possible without a separate Blue or Yellow Line in downtown DCthe trains need somewhere to go and there isn't room now.


Bus lane in Santa Monica, not possible on Columbia Pike. Photo by Complete Streets on Flickr.

2. People who want buses in dedicated lanes.

This group says you can build much better transit than mixed-traffic streetcars or slow buses by dedicating a lane to buses or light rail. And that's true! It just takes one little thing: taking space away from drivers. And we know drivers are totally fine with losing lanes as long as a thoughtful study supported it, right?

Critics of streetcars, including the Post editorial board this weekend, have linked over and over to a recent article by Matt Yglesias on Vox headlined, "Meet the worst transit project in America. This was probably the transit story with the most clickbait of a headline, and it's worked.

But it's worth looking at another headline in there, a section header near the bottom, which reads, "To improve transit, smash the car lobby." That's rightMatt Yglesias thinks that all you have to do to make progress on transit is "smash" one of the most powerful constituencies in the nation. Not only is there tremendous campaign funding that flows from road-building and car-selling industries, but it's quite simply a cause that the vast majority of Americans identify with.

3. People who don't support spending on transit

Many people who just don't really care much about better transit. They might be okay with it in the abstract, but don't want to spend much on it. A lot of people don't want tax money to go to infrastructure they won't use, especially in less politically-powerful South Arlington, as this satirical comment highlights.

Buses are somewhat inoffensive because they don't get in the way of drivers or cost that much (relatively); they can even be decent transit, but break down in corridors where ridership grows really large, like Columbia Pike, DC's 16th Street, and others.

In some parts of the country, politicians outright oppose transit. Around here, it's popular enough that leaders don't say they do. But any transit project does have to deal with voters who don't want to spend the money, and it's worse when it also gets flack from transit supporters on all sides who argue their particular transit alternative is better.

4. People who were confused

Peter Rousselot, the political operative behind the anti-streetcar campaign, and the two board members in his coalition, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, insist they support good-quality bus transit. But they really want the money to go elsewhere. Instead of outright opposing transit, they have won over many voters by spreading misinformation.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, the group Rousselot helped found, continues to claim that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an alternative to the streetcar. Yet the nation's foremost authority on BRT, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), defines BRT as:

A high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities ... through the provision of dedicated lanes, with busways and iconic stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Busway requirements for BRT. Image from ITDP.

ITDP's scoring system requires at least 3 km (about 2 miles) of dedicated lanes to even begin to qualify as BRT, and even then a line has to earn points in other categories. Yet AST's page of BRT videos highlights the Snohomish County, WA "Swift" system which has 7 miles of dedicated lanesnot the entire route, to be sure, but a significant portion.

A video entitled "Does Bus Rapid Transit need a dedicated lane?" does not, at any point, answer that question. Instead, it just gives some advantages of regular, standard buses. ITDP's older 2012 standard didn't absolutely require dedicated lanes, but those were worth a lot of points; to get something to qualify as "BRT" without them would mean gold-plating every other aspect of the line, like the "million dollar super-stops" which AST roundly criticized as also too expensive.

The misinformation worked. Many residents now have said they look forward to Arlington speeding up the Crystal City streetcar (which is dead, too), or building Metro (without understanding the cost), or planning of the shiny Bus Rapid Transit systems AST has been talking about (which are, once again, not possible).

As Brian McEntee put it:

This is the dilemma that leaders face. They'd love to build Metro, but don't have the money. They'd love to dedicate a lane, but can't "smash the car lobby" as easily as Yglesias would like. And if they propose a streetcar which is less expensive but slower than Metro and doesn't take a lane, someone will shout "boondoggle" and call to kill the project without a viable alternative to actually improve transportation or reduce car trips.

What is next? We'll look at that in an upcoming post.

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DC will force property owners to shovel sidewalks, with higher fines for bigger and commercial buildings

Property owners might actually face enforceable fines for not shoveling their snow in the winter one year from now. Councilmember Mary Cheh was able to win over some nervous colleagues and won passage of a bill after amending it to give small residential property owners lighter fines and exempt seniors and people with disabilities.


Photo by David Alpert.

The DC Council gave its first-reading final approval to the bill today. The law already requires property owners to shovel snow within eight hours of the end of a snowfall, but the District was not able to enforce that since it had to prosecute anyone who didn't do that. The bill authorizes a regular fine for property owners who don't clear snow.

Some councilmembers worried that forcing seniors to shovel would put a difficult burden on them, and that fines could disproportionately hurt poor homeowners who can't easily afford to pay. I'd previously argued that it made sense to focus efforts on the real bad actors, like the large condo buildings on corners or full-block parking lots.

The new version of the bill, with Cheh's modifications, sets up stricter rules for "commercial" property owners than "residential" ones. "Commercial" owners would face a fine of $125 for the first offense, $250 for the second, and $500 after that. "Residential" owners can get at most a $25 fine, whether for the first or tenth infraction.

Also, "residential" property owners have to get a warning first, and then can only be ticketed if the sidewalk is still not clear 24 hours later. In almost all cases, this means that "residential" property owners won't get any tickets, though the warning would likely spur action, so the bill still could have a positive effect. "Residential" property owners who are 65 or or older or have disabilities also are exempt.

Fortunately, this doesn't let the 50-unit condo building off the hook. There's an important reason "residential" and "commercial" terms were in quotation marks above: Under DC laws, a building with more than three dwelling units is technically a "commercial" building even though people reside in it. A 4-unit condo, for instance, doesn't get city trash pickup, but instead contracts with a private hauling company. That's because DPW residential trash collection only applies to "residential" buildings.

Cheh's staff confirmed that the same definitions should apply here.

Of course, this doesn't do anything about sidewalks next to land controlled by the National Park Service, embassies, or some other big offenders. For its part, the DC government has been better in recent years about clearing bridges and sidewalks next to schools and city parks, but can still do better as well.

Muriel Bower, Marion Barry, and Jim Graham voted against the bill. Anita Bonds and Yvette Alexander also expressed concerns about the impact on seniors, but got on board after an amendment by David Catania to make it easier for them to get the exemption. Nobody will get a fine until October of 2015, and in the meantime, Bowser's administration will have to write rules implementing the law.

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BREAKING: Arlington cancels the Columbia Pike streetcar

Following John Vihstadt's strong win in last week's election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.


Photo by brittgow on Flickr.

The Post quotes County Board chairman Jay Fisette saying,

We believed that a streetcar system would provide the economic stimulation and the placemaking that would keep Arlington competitive for years to come. But we cannot ignore the political realities.

On November 4, Arlingtonians went to the polls. They rejected the candidate who supported streetcar. ... We were caught flatfooted. We did not effectively make the case [for the line].

It's not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It's also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Update 1: Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we "reported" this in April 2013 as an April Fool's joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation, leader Peter Rousselot, and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also "too expensive."

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It's important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

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Can you help us revamp our servers and software?

You may have noticed that Greater Greater Washington has been sporadically inaccessible over the last week or so. Unfortunately, our server and dated code running the site are starting to fall over. It's probably time (or past time) to switch over to a new platform.


Photo by purdman1 on Flickr.

To do that, we will need help from our readers with experience in this area. Right now, the site runs on code I wrote myself many years ago, on a pair of Unix servers whose mysql and other software is getting pretty out of date. We've been talking for some time about just switching to a modern blog platform on a more full-service host, though that's not the only option.

Do you have expertise with installing, maintaining, and/or theming WordPress or other blog platforms, with Unix and/or mysql system administration, or other technical aspects of keeping a blog running? If you can help out either by just participating in some conference calls to talk through the issues or, even better, roll up your sleeves to help get some of it done, please email info@ggwash.org.

Thanks!

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