Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Ben Ross

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 


Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ben is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."

Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.


Montgomery proposes bigger parking subsidies

While they say there's not enough money to increase bus service, Montgomery County transportation officials propose to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at oversized parking garages.

White Flint conference center. Photo from Google Earth.

In White Flint, the county wants to use $21 million in proceeds from a land sale on a new parking garage. The garage would replace the parking lot at the Bethesda North Conference Center while adding more parking spaces. Officials haven't said how many spaces the garage would create.

If the garage serves a real need, then it ought to be fiscally self-sufficient. Marriott, the operator of the conference center, currently charges $5 per hour or $15 a day for parking. At those rates, a parking space that costs $600 a year to operate could easily generate annual revenues approaching $5,000, yielding handsome profits for operators.

If big weekend or evening events at the conference center occasionally need extra parking, valet parking could use empty spaces in the Metro garage across Rockville Pike. No subsidy would be needed.

The county Department of Transportation asserts that under an agreement with the Maryland State Highway Administration, the proceeds of the land sale can only be used for this garage. But a letter from former state Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley suggests otherwise. Swaim-Staley wrote that the state's interest in parking relates to its investment in the existing conference center. As long as parking is sufficient for that building, the state could free up the land sale funds for other transit-oriented projects.

Now, a pedestrian-friendly street network in the White Flint area certainly fits that bill.

This is not the first time the county's parking division has tied its own hands through real estate contracts to promote public parking. In both Bethesda and Silver Spring, sales of parking lots were structured so that the proceeds went directly into parking garage construction without ever appearing in the county budget.

A 6-level, $80,000-per-space public parking garage under construction in Bethesda. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, the budget currently before the County Council keeps garage parking free in Silver Spring after 6 pm. Extending the payment hours until 10 pm would add substantially to Silver Spring's current $10 million per year parking revenues.

In past years, proposals to charge for evening parking conflicted with a contract between the county and Foulger-Pratt, the developer of the shopping area on Ellsworth Drive that was critical to the downtown revitalization program. That contract guaranteed free parking in two adjacent garages. Some downtown merchants worried that paid parking at the garages nearer to their stores would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But the contract with Foulger-Pratt ends May 7. The Silver Spring parking district is heavily subsidized with a perversely designed tax that encourages landowners to build more parking than their customers are willing to pay for. Free parking in county garages after 6 makes things even worse.

County leaders tell the state that Montgomery needs more school construction funding. Spending the county's own money on an unneeded garage hardly helps their case. And it's hardly fair to give away parking for free in Silver Spring while bus fares and state bus aid are used to cut real estate taxes.

Montgomery County doesn't have money to throw around, and its urban areas are growing up. As they mature, they need to be gradually weaned from dependence on subsidized parking.


Montgomery's proposed budget takes transit funding and gives it to wealthy homeowners

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett unveiled his proposed budget, and it has no good news for transit riders. Ride On will get more state aid and hike fares, but it will not run any more buses. Instead, transit revenue will be used to cut real estate taxes.

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The cost of running Ride On, as shown in the budget will go up $3.5 million, from $98 million to $101.6 million. Meanwhile, the county will receive $7 million in new revenues, double the cost increase. $5 million in new state aid will come from the gas tax increase passed last year. And fares will rise $2 million, likely a result of matching Metro's fare increase.

Where will this money go? The county's "mass transit tax," a component of the real estate tax, will drop by $5 million. Bus riders, many of whom have low incomes or are renters, will pay more while a tax cut disproportionately benefits the county's wealthiest homeowners.

When Maryland discussed a gas tax increase last year, many groups complained about "raids" on the state's transportation trust fund, including county governments, legislators, conservatives, and the highway lobby. It will be interesting to see how these groups react to this diversion of trust fund money to non-transportation purposes.

Ride On could put the new money it is getting from the state and its riders to good use. The system lacks relief buses, or vehicles on standby, stationed around the county to fill in when other buses break down.

The county counts all late buses equally when it tracks Ride On's performance, but for a rider, there's a vast difference between a replacement bus that comes late and a bus that doesn't come at all. If there's no replacement, the next bus half an hour later might be so full that you can't get on.

Other needed upgrades include restoring the connection to Frederick County buses in Urbana, straightening out the tangle of bus routes around downtown Bethesda, and better weekend service. Funding is also needed for Metrobus's Priority Corridor Initiative, which would improve service on several of the county's highest-ridership routes.

The budget now goes to the County Council for approval. Hopefully, bus riders will find friends there.


In Montgomery's transportation budget, wider streets are "pedestrian improvements"

As Montgomery County asks the state to spend more on transit within the county, its proposed budget pours money into sprawl-inducing highways instead, while calling road widenings near schools and Metro stations "pedestrian improvements."

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Last week, County Executive Ike Leggett sent his proposed $1 billion transportation budget for 2015-2020 to the County Council. It adds new money to build two $100 million highway segments, Goshen Road in Gaithersburg and the 8000-foot-long Montrose Parkway East near White Flint, and lets environmental studies for the even more expensive extension of Midcounty Highway continue.

But many transit, bike, and pedestrian projects have been delayed. The proposed BRT system will get a $10 million state planning grant, but no county funds. The $80 milllion south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station, which the County Council previously funded over objections from the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), was left alone.

Bicyclists get a speedup in construction for a bike path on Needwood Road, required under the terms of a state grant. But the money comes from slowing down work to complete the far more important Metropolitan Branch Trail. Bike projects on Bethesda Avenue, Frederick Road, and Seven Locks Road are delayed too.

MCDOT learned long ago that cars-first policies had to be disguised with lip service to transit and pedestrians, and this budget continues that tradition. While new roads are the first category in the current six-year budget, the new budget lists them after transit.

At first glance, the proposed transit and pedestrian budgets seem large, but this is a mirage. The numbers are inflated with items that belong elsewhere. The county calls a $70 million dollar garage for school buses and park maintenance vehicles a mass transit facility. Road widenings around new schools, previously classified as road projects, are listed as pedestrian improvements this year. Buried in the budget for a new Metro entrance at Medical Center is the cost of a turn lane a block away at Jones Bridge Road.

Montgomery County's ped/bike budget will pay for a turn lane onto Rockville Pike at NIH. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A telling example of MCDOT's attitude is how it justifies spending money on bike lanes in downtown Bethesda. The county planning board made us do it, agency officials say. The bike lanes must be built before development can proceed beyond a certain point. There's no thought that they might serve a transportation purpose.

In recent years the County Council has shown increasing willingness to challenge MCDOT's priorities. The council funded the $80 million south Bethesda Metro entrance in 2008 and repeatedly fended off requests to reverse that decision. Two years ago, it put off construction of Goshen Road and Montrose Parkway East and budgeted for the Capital Crescent Trail instead.

But MCDOT still clings to the traffic engineering doctrines of the 1950s. The one completely new big project in the budget is yet another upcounty highway, a segment of Observation Drive whose price tag is likely to wind up north of $50 million a mile. The Bethesda Metro entrance stands as the only major county-funded transit construction project.

The time has come to reject once and for all the discredited idea that wide highways are a cure for traffic congestion. The council should zero out all spending on upcounty highways and end the pernicious practice of forcing developers to widen roads. All of the county's scarce transportation dollars are needed to correct the expensive mistakes of the past with better transit and a street network that works well for pedestrians and cyclists, not just for drivers.


As the region's core grows, Metro is forced to plan for the edges

Why isn't Metro planning more rail lines inside the Beltway? One big reason is that political pressure and federal regulations require it and other transit agencies to look only at current zoning and master plans. These predict lots of growth on the suburban fringe, not inside the core where it's actually happening.

Map of Metro expansion from WMATA.

WMATA's new plan for "core capacity" shows this dynamic at work. A new loop through downtown would connect Rosslyn and the Yellow Line bridge, and express tracks would parallel the Orange Line in Arlington.

Critics object that this only solves the problems of suburbanites who travel into the District, like the current bottleneck in the Rosslyn tunnel and the future need to get more train commuters in and out of Union Station. It does little for the District's growing population and nothing at all to support the ongoing urbanization of the inner suburbs.

As the plan's authors point out, they are required to base their plans on an official forecast of future land use prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This forecast, in practice, is prepared by cobbling together the master plans adopted by local governments, which are not anyone's best guess of the future, but mostly reflect the desires of locally dominant political forces. COG staff makes some adjustments, but they can't eliminate the biases inherent in this process.

The official forecast expects lots of growth in outer suburbs, where plans make room for decades of growth. Closer in, it predicts little change. In built-up areas, land doesn't get rezoned until its owners are thinking about building, because politicians see no advantage in angering anti-growth neighbors without pleasing a developer.

Thus COG foresees that Stafford County's population will grow 95% by 2040, and the District only 28%. In reality, the District is growing faster than Stafford.

COG recognizes this problem, and a few years ago they tried to correct it with an "aspirations" scenario that was supposed to describe a "smart growth" future. That's what WMATA planners are using in their work. But the study did not fix the underlying problem. Fearing that the mere suggestion of massive rezonings would disturb local politics, COG retained the fundamental defect of its other forecaststhe supposed smart growth scenario "maintains the existing or planned neighborhood character."

Portland offers a way to link transit and land use

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Portland, Oregon, found one 20 years ago. The state's environmental laws told regional planners to curb sprawl and reduce auto use. This, the planners knew, couldn't be done without changing the zoning to allow much more building near transit stations.

For local government, this scenario was too hot to handle. Instead, the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon obtained a federal grant and used the money to hire the same consulting firm that was working for the planning agency. In effect, another scenario was added to the study, but government officials couldn't be accused of plotting zoning changes.

The 1000 Friends report, known as LUTRAQ (for Land Use, Transportation, and Air Quality), won public acclaim and was a key to setting Portland on its current urban course. Perhaps a similar approach could give Metro a vision for the future to match the boldness of the system's first planners.


Do bright clothes stop car crashes? Not at Dunkin' Donuts

Highway officials tell pedestrians to wear bright colors so motorists will see you and won't hit you. So why do drivers still crash into brightly-colored Dunkin' Donuts stores?

A driver crashed into a Dunkin' Donuts in Golden's Bridge, New York in 2010. Photo by Golden's Bridge Fire Department.

An internet search found eight cases just this year of drivers smashing into pink and orange doughnut shops. One store in Brooklyn was hit twice, in June of last year and again in January.

One incident involved a motorist who took ill while driving and died in the collision. Otherwise, only a few people were hurt. But the outcome could easily have been worse if someone had been standing in the wrong place.

The excuses drivers make when they strike pedestrians aren't available when they hit Dunkin' Donuts. "I didn't see it" would lack credibility. "It jumped out in front of me" even more so. It should be easy to assign fault when car and store collide.

Yet police chose not to cite the drivers who caused four of these crashes. (One driver died, the driver of a stolen truck is still being sought, and two police departments did not return my calls.) Law enforcement officers seem to think that motorists are under no legal obligation to control their cars. As a Dover, New Hampshire, police lieutenant explained, a woman who hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and smashed into a doughnut store committed no violation because she was sober and not texting.

Motorists have nothing special against Dunkin'. A consultant on retail store safety estimates that Starbucks might get hit as much as once a week. His advice to merchants is to put bollards out front.

Cars colliding with buildings should not be a normal part of life. They are a signal that our highway system is seriously out of whack.

Roads will never be safe unless drivers are held accountable for their ton of deadly steel. One way to start is with fewer lectures about how pedestrians should dress. If bright colors don't protect Dunkin' Donuts, they won't save those on foot.


Maryland will pay for underused I-95 toll lanes

Maryland highway planners predicted that if the state didn't build 7 miles of toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore, the road would back up for hours every day. But when the $1.1 billion expansion opens in 2014, it won't even collect $10 million a year in tolls.

Rendering of future I-95/I-695 interchange with toll lanes from MdTA.

When former Governor Robert Ehrlich's administration decided in 2003 to add toll lanes to I-95 north of Baltimore, the traffic forecast for 2020 was 238,000 vehicles per day. Now the state predicts 186,000 daily drivers in 2020. Even that assumes growth of 1% per year, although traffic has been flat since at least 2006.

The toll lanes, their promoters said, would benefit even those who can't afford to pay by taking traffic off the free lanes. Tolls would be set to attract as many cars to the pay lanes as they could carry without backing up. But that policy, it turns out, would only yield $2 or $3 million a year in revenue, barely more than the cost of collecting tolls, so Maryland boosted the rates to match the per-mile charge on the Intercounty Connector.

With a rush-hour toll of $1.75, the 4 toll lanes will carry less than 7% of the total traffic on the 12-lane highway. Truck drivers will avoid them, the Maryland Transportation Authority's consultants say, "due to the minimal benefit for trucks in saving small amounts of time." Except during exceptional traffic jams, nearly the only users will be drivers affluent enough not to care much about the toll, leading some to call them "Lexus lanes."

But folks who can't afford to use the Lexus lanes will pay a hefty price for them. When construction began, the Ehrlich administration estimated the cost at $830 million. The price tag has now grown by a third, even though transportation officials eliminated some expensive flyover access ramps as a cost-saving measure after Governor Martin O'Malley took office in 2007.

The net toll revenue of around $5 million a year (after subtracting toll collection expenses) won't begin to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt the state has taken on. The bill will go to drivers on the Bay Bridge, Harbor Tunnel, and other roadways the transportation authority operates, unless it raids the tax-supported Transportation Trust Fund as it did to pay for the Intercounty Connector.

Even toll road enthusiasts admit that the I-95 toll lanes are a "disappointment," built to meet forecasts that are "now seen as an absurd basis for planning." This debacle was in fact quite foreseeable. It's a lesson highway planners should take to heart.


What do private firms really want from the Purple Line?

Maryland officials say that letting a private company build and run the Purple Line will avoid many of the inefficiencies of government. But the private sector has inefficiencies of its own.

Rendering from MTA.

By using a public-private partnership, or P3, to operate the light rail line, officials at the Maryland Department of Transportation hope for better service at lower cost. The private sector is better able to manage risk, they argue, and it saves money through greater flexibility and tighter oversight. Motivated by incentives, not a rulebook, a private operator or "concessionaire" would use its creativity to run the railroad better.

How well this will work depends on what the incentives are. The ideal concessionaire would be a 30-year-old railroad engineer who invests her life savings of $180 million. She runs the light rail line herself and keeps it impeccably maintained. She thinks about the steady income she will need when medical school tuition bills come due for her 1-year-old son.

Unfortunately, such bidders will be rare. In all likelihood, two groups of intermediaries, railroad managers and money managers, will stand between the source of money and the trains. They will face incentives of their own, which are not necessarily the same as those of riders and investors.

Money managers, in particular, tend to concern themselves with the next quarterly bonus. They earn large fees when the deal first goes through, whether or not it is a good one. During the housing bubble, Wall Street bankers issued bad loans with abandon and joked about the "toxic waste" they were passing on to clients.

What will happen if the cost of running the light rail line exceeds the budget? Managers, worrying about salary reviews and bonuses, will be tempted to maintain profitability by skimping on maintenance.

In the P3 structure, it is the job of investors and lenders to look out for the long term. But they may not do this well. We learned in the crash of 2008 that large financial institutions can do a poor job of oversight. And the Purple Line's equity investors, who expect a return of 11% per year, may not care that much about the long term. If the business pays dividends for 15 or 20 years and then goes bust, they will have already pocketed a substantial profit.

Under the contract, the state will cut the concessionaire's "availability payments" if the performance of the Purple Line does not meet targets. But these targets will be hard to set. How do you write specs in 2013 for running a state-of-the-art railroad in 2048?

The penalties for bad work, moreover, are unlikely to be all that severe. MDOT cannot replace the concessionaire until 2050. And the concessionaire's investors will put up only 7% of the construction cost. The availability payments will go mostly to repay lenders, whose main goal is to keep their money safe. They will hesitate to make loans unless the penalties are kept small and their bonds are not at risk.

In an ideal world, a privatized transit line would be run by a deep-pocketed young version of Jackson Graham, the engineer who built Metro. He might well outperform a government agency led by Pericles and George Washington.

But that is not the choice we face. Large organizations, both public and private, are made up of human beings. They are inevitably imperfect. Decisions about how to run public services must be based on things as they are, or as they realistically might be made to be.


How would Maryland pay for a privatized Purple Line?

To pay for the Purple Line, Maryland wants to use a form of "public-private partnership," or P3. Accomplishing this will require some complex accounting.

Rendering from MTA.

This form of financing is more expensive than bonds issued by the state, but it may allow the state to borrow money that doesn't count against its debt limit and free up funds for other transportation projects. Under a P3, a private operator would get those funds from equity investors and lenders.

Maryland has committed $900 million towards the $2.2 billion Purple Line, including $680 million from this year's gas tax increase. The federal government may contribute an estimated $900 million, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties will contribute as well. This leaves the state somewhere between $200 and $400 million short.

The state's debt limit applies to all debt that will be repaid from tax revenue. But the Purple Line will run at a loss, and thus tax funds must ultimately pay for construction. So the Maryland Department of Transportation devised a complex financing structure to get out from under the limit.

Flow of money during operation of Purple Line.

Fares from riders on the Purple Line will go not to the private company that builds and operates it, but into a special state fund. Meanwhile, the Transportation Trust Fund will pay the operator for the cost of running and maintaining the light rail line.

The operator will get a second payment, a so-called "availability payment," from the fare fund. Its amount will depend on how well the light rail line performs. This money will go to repay the lenders and investors who put up money for construction.

It's not clear whether this arrangement will pass muster, and MDOT has yet to work out all the details. On September 12, the agency requested guidance from the state's Capital Debt Affordability Committee on "parameters for structuring the availability payments to avoid classification as tax-supported debt that would impact the State's debt affordability analysis."

One issue is whether it's proper to separate operating costs from fare revenue. There can't be fare revenue without the state's ongoing expenditure of tax money to run the Purple Line.

Tax money supports the Metro much as it will support the Purple Line, but Metro does its accounting differently. WMATA subtracts revenues from operating costs and calls the difference its "operating subsidy." State and federal aid derived from taxes pays for new construction. If the P3 did its accounting like WMATA, MDOT would pay its construction debt with tax money.

A second question involves 'equity' investors. About $180 million of the Purple Line's construction costs is supposed to come from this source. These investors will get compensation from a share of the availability payments, plus operating profits and minus losses.

What will happen if the operations of the Purple Line are not up to snuff, and MDOT cuts its availability payments to the operator? The investors are likely to be large institutions whose managers get bonuses based on each quarter's returns. They might well push for a cutback on maintenance to generate operating profits in the short term.

That would surely be bad for riders. And would it not divert tax money meant for rail maintenance into repayment of construction debt?

Whether or not it avoids the debt limit, P3 financing will be more expensive than direct state borrowing. A private entity set up to run the light rail line will not have Maryland's AAA credit rating. The Maryland Department of Transportation also asserts that a P3 would manage the rail line better, resulting in lower construction and operation costs, but it does not promise any net savings. Indirect borrowing for the Purple Line is only wise if the other transportation projects it pays for are worth the money.


How to fix a broken bikeshare key

Can you fix a bikeshare key that suddenly won't fit into the slot? You can, but as I found, the repair is only temporary. If you use this trick, be sure to also call Capital Bikeshare and get a replacement key.

CaBi key with circuit extracted. Photo by the author.

The problem came up on the day CaBi opened in Montgomery County. I was eager to use the new docks, and I had an errand that bikeshare could save 15 minutes on compared to walking. On my way home from work, I got off the Metro in Bethesda and walked to the dock. But my key wouldn't go in the slot.

I called Capital Bikeshare and a representative helpfully explained that old keys tend to get thicker and stop fitting in the slot. They promised to send another in a week or 10 days. They also offered a refund if I used a credit card; I declined, thinking it would be less trouble to walk to my destination.

From the beginning, I was puzzled. Plastic does age, but it gets stiff rather than expanding. After a few days, I looked more closely at my key. It was made of two layers of plastic that had begun to separate at the end with the arrowhead. When I began to pull them apart, a plastic sheet with an electronic circuit fell out.

One layer of red plastic had a slot for the circuit. I put the circuit into the slot, making sure to correctly position the raised circular dimple that's on the back of the square circuit in one corner. Once I got the circuit into the right place, presto: with the key squeezed between thumb and finger, it went into the slot. And I was off on bikeshare again.

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