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Transit


In defense of "political theater" for Metro

Jack Evans, DC Councilmember and chair of the WMATA Board, is making noise. He's shouting that Metro needs $25 billion to fix everything that needs fixing. On Friday, members of Congress accused him of "political theater" and "rampant parochialism." But perhaps some theater is just what Metro needs right now?


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

I talk about this issue, and more, with WAMU's Martin di Caro on this week's Metropocalypse podcast and a Facebook Live video we recorded right after the podcast taping. Check it out!

Let's leave aside the irony of two members of the United States House of Representatives decrying "political theater." Gerry Connolly, one of those leveling the attack, is not an unserious person and has done a tremendous amount for our region and for Metro. In fact, on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, he unflaggingly pushed the Silver Line through decades of studies and inaction, and he deserves a lot of credit for it happening.

Connolly was upset specifically because Corbett Price, the other WMATA board voting member from DC, made a provocative suggestion. He posited that if Virginia doesn't step up to fund Metro, perhaps DC should veto the opening of the Silver Line to Dulles and Loudoun County. Needless to say, Connolly isn't happy about this idea.

I don't want Metro to cancel the Silver Line. Price and Evans don't either.

They were saying that Metro is in a crisis, and Virginia didn't seem very eager to fix it. Evans, Price, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt, and others have suggested a regional sales tax to give Metro a reliable funding source. Mostly, that proposal was met with hemming and hawing from both Annapolis and Richmond.

In a nutshell, this is how the discussion has gone:

DC leaders: Hey, the house is on fire! We should put out the fire!
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: I don't think we should. On second thought, I'm okay with if if Montgomery and Prince George's Counties pay for the firefighting work, but I don't want to.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe: I think our house should demonstrate it can take steps to improve its structural integrity before we put the fire out.

Who's job is it to fix Metro?

The buck stops with nobody. DC, Maryland, and Virginia (a collection of Northern Virginia cities and counties, more specifically) share the governance of Metro, which means no chief executive can take decisive action to fix it, and also no chief executive is personally blamed if it fails.

Riders get angry at Metro for its failures, not at McAuliffe, Hogan, and DC mayor Muriel Bowser for not pushing for fixes.

So, Evans and Price are trying to make people pay attention by being controversial. It's not surprising that's rubbing some other leaders the wrong way, but has something else worked better?

The last two board chairs, Tom Downs and Mort Downey, were not politicians and not loud. They were transit experts who ... um, hired their friend Rich Sarles to run the place for a few years, during which time, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the system got even worse.

I can understand the impulse to keep politics out of Metro, but we had not-politics and the problem did not improve in any way. So Evans and Price tried to pressure Virginia using the Silver Line. Perhaps that was a good tactic, or perhaps not, but doing nothing was not a good tactic either.

Should the Silver Line be under negotiation?

Their argument about the Silver Line isn't totally crazy. Based on the formula that decides how much various jurisdictions pay for Metro, even though the Silver Line extension is entirely in Virginia, DC and Maryland will pay some of the cost of running it. Starting the Silver Line also, sadly, precipitated a crisis where Metro suddenly couldn't get enough railcars out on the tracks each day.

Still, it's dangerous for one jurisdiction to block new service in another. DC and Maryland do benefit from more people having access to Metro. The board might do one thing to help one jurisdiction this time, and another the next. Metro can only work if DC, Maryland, and Virginia are trying to work together, not at cross purposes. The Congressmembers accused DC's reps of acting parochially, and the board needs less parochialism, not more.

(Connolly should also tell that to Maryland's Michael Goldman, a paragon of parochialism on this board. Goldman suddenly announced that Maryland didn't want to pay its share of the 5A bus to Dulles, for instance. He also stopped Metro from funding required retirement benefits and refused to fund upgrades to power systems to allow more 8-car trains.)

Conflict between jurisdictions is inherent to Metro's structure

Metro is more like urban subway in most of the area inside the Beltway, and mostly a suburban park-and-ride commuter train outside. That could change in Tysons, eventually, and elsewhere, but there aren't a lot of people living outside the Beltway who forego owning a car because Metro makes it easy enough to get places without one.

That means, as Metro is constituted now, there will always be some battles between DC, which wants more frequent service and service over more hours, and suburban jurisdictions where longer mid-day waits are less of an issue. There are always going to be budget fights about whether the parking fees should go up when fares do, or not. Or the maximum fare—riders going the longest distance don't pay as much per mile as others. That's either fair or not depending on your point of view.

Most of all, Metro needs all local governments to take Metro's problems very seriously. A lot of experts think it could stop being financially viable within a year if something is not done. The Silver Line should not be canceled, but maybe a bombastic politician who gets headlines (along with a capable manager who's actually fixing problems) could get this issue the attention it needs. Other methods haven't worked any better.

Links


National links: There are downsides to letting the Rust Belt shrink

An economist puts forward a strong argument on why it doesn't make sense to say that we should just let middle-of-the-country places that are struggling economically die off, Donald Trump has named a Secretary of Transportation, and Volvo just finished building the world's longest bus. Read about this, and more, from world of transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Bob Jagendorf on Flickr.

Leaving places behind doesn't pay: When it comes to places that are struggling economically, like Rust Belt cities, most economists would tell you that the solution is to let them shrink and for the people there to go somewhere else where they're more likely to thrive. Some would argue, however, that this is problematic both because it ignores the people who stay in struggling places and because there are wide-ranging benefits of keeping these places alive. (Vox)

The DOT goes back to the future: Donald Trump will nominate Elaine Chao to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She was the DOT's deputy secretary in 1990, and while working in the George W. Bush administration (as the Secretary of Labor), she praised public transit and said we don't necessarily need more highways, though she also fought raising the transit subsidy for Labor Department employees. There's reason to think she'll be pro-ridesharing services (for better or for worse) and pro-coal. (Slate, GovEx, Americans for Tax Reform, Lexington Herald Leader)

A really, really big bus: Volvo has built the world's largest bus. According to the company, the bi-articulated vehicle can carry 300 people and has a length of 98 feet. It was built in Brazil for bus rapid transit projects in the country. (Economic Times Auto)

Amazon is the new Walmart: One of every two dollars spent online goes through Amazon.com, meaning the company has an even bigger effect on the economy than we might have thought. At the local level, Amazon's expansion has meant the extraction of $613 million in subsidies for building new facilities around the country, but those haven't exactly added up to jobs for local economies, as 149,000 retail jobs have been lost in the last 11 years. (Institute for Local Self Reliance)

"Mega regions" in the US: Using data about how we commute, researchers have created new maps of US "mega regions." Mega regions have become a major topic of discussion as separate cities in close proximity to each other become more economically and physically connected. With census tracks and commute data, an algorithm was created to show how the United States has 50 of these regions. (National Geographic)

Quote of the Week

"Here's the hard message for Portland and Seattle and every other city growing like this. If the next 200,000 people come here, and we're planning for us to be a city of 850,000 people ... they're not going to be able to bring their cars and live like we did 20 years ago. In fact, most of us are going to have to drive a lot less. The streets aren't going to get any bigger. They are going to be walking, they are going to be riding their bikes, they are going to be riding the transit system."

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales on the need to put together a new zoning code that allows more people to live in the city. (My Northwest)

Public Spaces


Are public spaces really public when not everybody can use them?

All around DC there are structures designed for the public that aren't actually very pleasant or easy to use, like dog ears on ledges, third armrests through the middle of public benches, and ridges in common seating areas. These things are there for a reason, but do they actually limit people's ability to live in the environment around them?


All photos by the author.

In July, well-known radio producer Roman Mars invited authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic onto his podcast, 99% invisible. Savicic and Savic co-edited a book called Unpleasant Design, which looks at the idea that while some things are built with a purpose that might seem reasonable-- for example, third armrests on benches that keep people from sleeping on them and therefore giving more people space to sit-- accomplish a greater effect of shaping city environments and how citizens interact with them without those citizens' consent.

There are examples in cities across the world. For example, in Europe, some store owners deter teens from loitering out front by playing classical music or high-frequency sounds, or using pink lighting to make pimples on their face stand out (particularly cruel!).

Should our cities ban skateboarding? Should they ban homelessness?

In most instances, skateboarding is legal unless posted otherwise. But like many other cities, DC has incorporated "dog ears" to deter skaters from using public spaces. This is de facto prohibition, and even though it's subtle, it sends a clear message that skating is not particularly welcome.

Many people would argue that skateboarding is one of this country's longstanding forms of expressionit makes space more inviting, and it gives people a reason to come and sit and look. If you value skateboarding as a way of breathing life into a city, public design that bars people from doing it is problematic.


As you can see, this ledge restricts skating.

Beyond skateboarding, there are also designs that stop people from doing more basic, fundamental things. In fact, while DC is known for its expansive "public" spaces like the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and numerous parks and squares, some people might tell you that these places really aren't very public at all.

DC has a homeless crisis, with the homeless population having risen 30 percent in the last year. And while Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated that combating homelessness will be a staple of her tenure, those who are left out have to exist somewhere. More likely than not, the aforementioned public spaces make the most sense.

But check out these public benches and how they keep people—homeless or not&mdashl from comfortably and freely using them:


The two armrests on the end of the bench would only allow a very short person to lie down, but the third armrest through the middle makes it impossible for most.


The ridges on this one aren't conducive to lying down and it is curved.

Unpleasant design negates usable public space, which is the hallmark of a thriving city

To be fair, unpleasant design, as a whole, is well intentioned. The risk in any public space is that a few people acting out can make the space unusable to everybody.

When it comes to the dog ears on ledges, skateboarding can damage property and possibly put people in harm's way, and lying down uses up more park bench space so fewer people can sit. In those ways, unpleasant design can make public space more inviting.

But where is the line? Who decides what should be forbidden and what shouldn't? Why not tell someone that if they want to eat lunch, they need to go to a restaurant rather than sit and eat in the park? Or that if they want to read, they need to go to a library rather than sit and do it on a public bench?

Skateboarding is an art form and organic culture in its own right, and limiting skateboarders use of public space is counterintuitive to why public space exists—to bring people together and allow cultures to thrive.

And regarding the homeless, it is entirely unfair to restrict access to an individual who literally has nowhere else to go. It is especially unfair when design restricts access to the very harmless activity of lying down.

So at what point does restricting human activity take the "public" out of public space? I'd say that it's when something gets built into the environment; at that point, it becomes non-negotiable. Laws can restrict activities, but you can protest and repeal those.

We should be mindful of what we build, what effect it has, and on whom If you restrict people's ability to use public space too much, then nobody goes there at all. I would argue that if space is truly public, then people on skateboards or people without homes are as entitled to use it as anyone else.

Transit


The DC reps on the WMATA board might veto late-night closures

The WMATA Board is nearly ready to move forward with new, shorter late-night hours, and the vote to make them official is in two weeks. But there's another big potential hurdle: DC's representatives on the Board might veto the cuts.


Photo by Tara Severns on Flickr.

Update: As of 10:30 on Friday morning, it looks as though DC will in fact OK the late-night cuts lasting for two years.

On Tuesday, WMATA staff submitted its final proposal for late-night hours to the Board: end service at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Moving to this schedule would provide an additional eight hours per week for needed maintenance.

On Thursday, the Board's Customer Service Subcommittee, which is tasked with sussing out the details before the December 15th full Board vote, said the hours cuts are fine as long as the changes expire in two years, at which point new approval would be required to keep them in place. This came after a few hours of back and forth and arguing about how the cuts would impact low-income and minority riders, as well as how they would hurt businesses, employees, and the region's economy.

Most Board members (emphasis on "most") appear to be ok with either one or two-year cuts as long as there's an expiration date. Metro staff say the programs they need to get done require at least two years to get started.

There won't be any service cuts if DC vetoes them

Generally, once a subcommittee approves something, it's well on its way to Board approval. But that's not so clear here.

Since the late-night closures first became a possibility, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has been a strong opponent, insisting that Metro bring back 3 am weekend closings and return service hours to pre-SafeTrack levels.

On Thursday, WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a member of the DC Council, reinforced the Mayor's stance, saying that even being open to the cuts was a huge compromise from DC. Evans warned the Board that if any new cuts were to be enacted, they would need to be limited to a year or the jurisdiction's Board reps would veto the measure.

If Evans and the DC contingent of WMATA Board members (four of the Board's 16 total members) use their jurisdictional veto power, the Board goes back to the drawing table. The existing service hour reductions that Wiedefeld put in during SafeTrack would eventually expire, and the system might end up going back to its normal service hours—but without the time WMATA staff says it needs to do much-needed preventative maintenance.

Development


If racial inequities didn't exist, DC would look like this...

Across DC, black and Hispanic residents see a lot less socio-economic success than white residents, and many argue that's because the playing field is not level when it comes to opportunities for success. The charts below show what DC would look like if minorities got a fair shake, according to a recent study.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

There are big racial disparities in DC

Generally speaking, DC's biggest pockets of black residents are in the east, Hispanic residents are in the north, and white residents are in the west. But according to DC's Urban Institute, white homeowners have more freedom to choose where to live: between 2010-2014, they could afford 67 percent of all homes sold in the District and all homes in Ward 8. Black and Hispanic homebuyers, on the other hand, could only afford 9.2 percent and 29 percent of homes sold, respectively. s

Affordable rentals are also hard to come by for minorities, who the report says spend 30 percent or more of their monthly income on rent—an amount that experts say make a houshold "rent-burdened," and that the report refers to as "cost burdened." East of the Anacostia River, black residents can afford 67 percent of the rentals, but west of Rock Creek Park, only 7 percent of the rentals are affordable.


All images from Urban Institute.

There's a reason things are this way

While the study acknowledges that in recent years, the recession hit minority groups harder than it hit whites, it's rooted in the acknowledgement that the above racial disparities are rooted in trends that have existed for much longer.

Minority groups have been traditionally barred from upward socioeconomic mobility by private actions and public policies for generations. Historically, it has been difficult for blacks to get mortgages, they were limited in who they could buy from, and they faced strict zoning restrictions. They were also prevented from getting better paying jobs, and when the federal government cut funding, poor black communities were usually affected most.

Over time, this has prevented minority communities from sharing in socioeconomic progress as a whole. This has meant a steeper barrier over time—one that the Urban Institute study calls inequitable.

Here's how those inequities play out in terms of wages, and what DC would look like without them:

With housing and childcare in the District being very expensive, many DC families struggle to earn a living wage, but minority families face steep challenges covering costs.

According the Urban Institute, "the living wage for a parent to support a two children should be $38.01/ hour, or $79,000/ year," but a majority of minority families are below that threshold, around $75,000/ year. Only 44 percent of whites are below this threshold.

"East of the Anacostia, four out of five black residents working full time earned less than this living wage," the report says, and 70% of black and Hispanic families working full time make below the living wage. However, with the many service industry jobs that minorities occupy, bridging this gap is difficult.

If DC were more equitable, poverty levels would look like this:

Despite economic growth since the 2008 recession, communities of color have not yet recovered, and are in fact worse off than before the crash. In 2014, there were a recorded 18,000 more unemployed African Americans than in 2007, with a quarter of the black population now living below the poverty line.

On average, the poverty level for black residents is at 26 percent, with Ward 8 being the worst at 30 percent; white poverty in DC, on the other hand, stands at 7.4 percent. The report also shows that white child poverty is virtually zero, while the poverty rate for black children is 38 percent and 22 percent for Hispanic children. If things were more equitable, the report says, "no child would be poor."

Here's what the employment picture would look like:

In DC, black unemployment is 5.5 times that of whites at 19.5 percent, which is above the national average of 16.1 percent. In a city where minority employment reflected white employment, "2,200 more Hispanic residents and 24,000 more black residents would be employed."

The fact that many of DC's fastest growing job sectors require some post secondary education has severe consequences for unemployment, too.

Minority communities also face steep inequities in education, which have far ranging effects on choice of housing, wages, employment, and even general health. Most whites ages 25 and u, have a high school diploma or GED and some level of college education, whereas 31 percent of Hispanics and only 17 percent of blacks don't have a high school diploma or GED.

Further, only half of black and Hispanic communities have some level of education beyond high school. If the education gap didn't exist, according to the study, 50,000 black and Hispanic residents would have at least a GED, and almost 98,000 black residents would have some post secondary education.

Changing all of this would raise the quality of living for everyone

A more racially fair society, the study says, would have substantial economic benefits for everyone. When people earn more they invest and spend more, which would benefit local businesses and education. In fact, they estimate that "DC's economy would have been 65 billion dollars larger in 2012", if many of these inequality gaps were closed.

However, the limit of this data analysis is in showing what, exactly, equality looks like. Citizens and policymakers need to understand how and why this inequality persists today and pursue policy agendas that would actually close these gaps.

What agendas do you think policy makers should pursue to close the racial inequality gap?

Note: Some readers have reported that when viewing this post expanded on the home page, the embedded tool doesn't work. It should work if you are viewing the post on its own page; click here to go there.

Correction: This post previously committed a word, saying "31 percent of Hispanics and only 17 percent of blacks have a high school diploma or GED" when those figures are for the percentage of each population that does not have a diploma or GED.

Transit


Metro staff recommend closing at 11:30 weekdays, 1 am on weekends

WMATA staff are recommending that after SafeTrack ends, the Metro system adopt a new service schedule that ends at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Reducing late night service will provide an additional eight hours per week for maintenance.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Moving forward with this plan will save Metro millions in operating costs, approximately $2 million of which will be spent on new late-night bus service. The WMATA Board will vote on whether to make it official at its December 15 meeting.

Late-night rail recap

We first heard about potential reductions to late-night service after SafeTrack in July. At first, there were three proposals for cutting service, but in September, a fourth emerged. Unfortunately, all left riders facing relatively low levels of service, even when considering that they came with additional bus service. Accordingly, the public reaction (including that from myself) to these proposals was to demand a different choice set, with better service options.

WMATA proactively responded to many of these comments by providing more data to make the case for increased—and daily, not reactive and intermittent—maintenance time. Agency staff are now recommending that the board adopt Proposal 3, which keeps the system open until 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays.


Image from WMATA.

Survey says...

On Monday, WMATA released an analysis of all the public input collected during October, focusing particularly on the findings of a rider survey that garnered almost 15,000 responses in 25 days. The analysis slices and dices the survey responses based on the self-reported demographics of the survey respondents, including race and income.

The staff analysis found that all of the proposed service cut alternatives would have a disproportionate burden on the low-income population that makes up 13% of Metrorail riders, confirming the rationale behind much of the outcry by riders and elected officials during the comment period.

Proposals 3 and 4 were also found to have a disproportionate impact on the minority populations that compose a whopping 45% of Metrorail riders. These impact calculations are based on existing ridership patterns, and do not take into account whether some trips may be more flexible or discretionary than others for riders—all trips are weighted equally. Public input can help illuminate these subtleties.


Image from WMATA.

The riders who participated in the survey, across demographics, expressed a strong preference for Proposal 3, which preserves service after midnight on Friday and Saturday. WMATA staff concluded that "although Proposal 3 creates a disparate impact and disproportionate burden and there appears to be a less discriminatory alternative before staff considered public input...practically speaking, no less discriminatory alternative exists because minority and low-income populations overwhelmingly prefer Proposal 3."

Clearly, public input had a substantive influence on the outcome of the staff recommendation. By creating a structured process to receive input through the survey, WMATA was able to gather real information about rider preferences that they were able to incorporate into the decision-making process in a meaningful way.

Whose input?

Is WMATA collecting and interpreting public input in an appropriate and equitable way? It is worth noting that only 30% of the survey responses were collected through in-station surveys that targeted the ridership hours that would be impacted by the service reduction.

For example, my home Metrorail station, West Hyattsville, was surveyed only once, during a Saturday morning shift that yielded the biggest Spanish-language response of any shift by a factor of 3. But out of 14,975 surveys, WMATA collected only 314 Spanish-language responses in total.

It would be interesting—and potentially important—to know if the response results or respondent demographics differed for the online vs. in-station survey groups. If so, WMATA should consider placing more weight on the survey results that most clearly represent riders that will be impacted by proposed service changes.

Transit


Metro's "pick your own price" pass will become permanent. Here are 3 ways it can continue to grow.

WMATA's SelectPass, new this year, is a good deal for almost anyone who rides Metro daily. It's been a pilot program, but soon will likely be permanent.


For some of these folks, riding Metro may have gotten a lot cheaper when SelectPass came around. Now, it's going to stay that way. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

The pass lets you select a fare level (say, $3.25), pay one fixed price for the month, and then get unlimited rides that cost that amount or less. For more expensive rides, you only pay the amount beyond your set level. Our handy calculator helps you figure out what level is the best deal for you.

According to a presentation from WMATA, Metro now sells 3,700 SelectPasses a month, compared to just 400-1,000 a month for the long-standing unlimited rail pass which did not offer various price levels.

98% of pass users rate the pass at least a 7 out of 10. Low-income riders are even more likely to use the pass, representing 18% of pass users but just 12.8% of overall Metro riders. And WMATA estimates that the pass has slightly increased revenue while increasing ridership even more—just the point of a pass like this.

Michael Perkins has been pushing the idea for this pass since 2009 after getting the idea from Seattle's ORCA; the transit in that area, as with WMATA, has a variety of fare levels that makes the simple one-price-fits all pass not work.

You can currently get the pass at a fare level of any 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, plus the $5.90 max fare. Metro plans to add fare levels from $4.00 to $5.75 as well if the (quite old) faregate computers can handle it.

Beyond this, there are a few ways Metro could work to further improve this pass:

Make it easier to get with employer benefits

Many riders get transit through their employers, either where the employer pays for some transit fare for free, or as a pre-tax deducation from the employee's paycheck. Unfortunately, it can be a pain to get a Metro SelectPass this way if the employer or payroll personnel are not helpful or knowledgeable.

Employers set up benefits through a special (not very user-friendly) WMATA website. To get a pass, the benefits administrator has to specially designate the money for a pass rather than to go on your SmarTrip card as cash.

Many employers don't know how to do this. Other commenters have said that some employers use third party companies to process these benefits, and not all of those companies support the pass yet.

One GGWash contributor, who asked not to be named, writes, "I made a request with my employer when the pass first came out. I followed up a few months after that. I still haven't heard anything."

Metro either needs to work on making it possible to get the pass even with a non-savvy payroll department, or it should make the payroll process easier so employees can help their employers set up the pass correctly.

Allow riding rail or bus without extra cost

Right now, you can add on a bus pass to your Metro Select Pass for $45 more per month, which is like buying a month's worth of bus rides for just over $1 each. It's a good deal if your normal commute includes a bus ride, but it's not a good deal if some of your trips are on rail only and some of your trips are on bus only.

We want to encourage people to use the best transit mode for their needs. If the train isn't working well, people could switch to the bus; let them. Plus, for people who commute daily by rail, it's in Metro's best interest to let them take some midday bus trips for free when the buses aren't full.

Therefore, it would be better if the Metro Select Pass worked for either mode of transit, rail or bus, as long as it's less than your selected pass value.

Encourage more bulk purchases

Right now, if you're a student at American University, you (or, more likely, your parents) pay a $260 per semester mandatory fee, and you and all other students get an unlimited transit pass. This encourages more students to ride transit, while Metro can charge only $260 a semester because most students don't ride every day.

Beyond adding more universities, Metro could explore building a program to create such passes for other groups, including condo or apartment buildings, employers, and others. When passes are purchased in bulk, the price per pass can be reduced, and everyone is encouraged to use transit.

To get approval for new buildings in many jurisdictions, developers have to prepare Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plans, where they identify strategies to help residents or workers commute by more efficient means than driving. This often includes Bikeshare memberships, car-sharing memberships, TransitScreens in lobbies, and more. Passes could be a great amenity as well.

Congrats to Metro on building a successful new pass program! We look forward to seeing where this goes in the future.

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