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Roads


495 and 95 toll prices were very high on Tuesday. Here's why that happened.

The 495 Express Lanes on Virginia's side of the Beltway offer those a choice of avoiding congestion for a price, which normally ranges between $8 to $18 depending on traffic and time. For those commuting on Tuesday December 6 this went to new levels.


The Tysons Express Lanes signs. Photo by Melissa Grinnell.

495's toll lanes stretch from north of the Dulles Toll Road and run to Springfield. The cost of the lanes heading south peaked on December 6th at $31.30. For drivers going from Tysons, which houses many of Northern Virginia's office buildings, to Springfield the cost peaked at $29.55.

Where the lanes end on the south side in Springfield drivers can pick up the 95 Express Lanes, which run south about 25 miles to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The cost of the 95 Express Lane peaked yesterday at $33.80. For drivers running the full route that entered into the lanes at 5:45 pm the cost was $64.35 for the one way commute from northern Virginia to the last toll road exit in Stafford.


A screenshot of Tuesday night's toll prices. Image from Transurban.

Disgruntled commuters should understand this is not a form of price gouging. When the express lanes back up, prices rise in order to limit traffic entering the lanes. When the lanes exceed the normal pricing that we've been accustomed too often this is an indication that there was an incident in the express lanes. Last night was one of these cases, as a car crash blocked the left lane of the express lanes, driving up the cost to the higher rates.

For those commuters that find themselves in a situation like last night where the express lanes failed to live up to expectations, there is a way to get reimbursed. Transurbran, which operates the lanes, evaluates refunds on a case by case basis and can be reached through their website. On the website they point out "Toll-paying customers will not choose to pay to use express lanes if they cannot consistently depend on a faster more reliable trip."

The express lanes continue to offer an alternative for commuters that want to avoid sitting in congestion, but when commuters see the prices jump above the norms they are used to they should be aware of what potentially lies on the road ahead.

Bicycling


Baltimore just got bikeshare, and lots of its bikes are electric

A month ago, Baltimore got its first bikeshare system, Bmorebikeshare, and ridership is already high. Forty percent of the fleet is made up of electric bikes that make it easier to go up hills, and as the system expands people are likely to want more of those.


A Bmorebikeshare dock. Photo by the author.

The City of Baltimore has partnered with Bewegen Technologies to run the system, which cost $2.36 million to set up. Part of the contract includes operations by a company called Corps Logistics. With 22 stations (largely in the flat basin around the harbor) and 175 bikes, Bmorebikeshare has has generated almost 6,000 rides so far.

The system is designed for to work for both residents and visitors who need to do everything from commute to run errands to just enjoying riding around. I would add that it's also great for those who want to reach places where parking availability is tight.


Existing Bmorebikeshare stations around the city. Image from Baltimore Bike Share.

Electric bikes are a hallmark of the system

Beyond being new, Bmorebikeshare stands out because it has North America's largest fleet of bikes with an electric motor that helps you pedal (a technology known as pedal-assist-technology, or pedelec).

I tested the electric bikes on an uphill climb on the newly created Maryland Avenue protected bikeway, and it was amazing how helpful pedelec was. The extra giddy up made for a ton of fun whether on a hill or flat land.


Baltimore's Maryland Avenue protected bikeway. Photo by the author.

But since Baltimore is a little like a funnel that generally slopes toward the harbor, the boost was particularly helpful when going uphill. The electric bikes will be a prerequisite for many users who seek higher altitude destinations such as Johns Hopkins University or Druid Hill Park or eventually Hampden, Morgan State University.

This spring, the system is set to grow to 50 stations with 500 bikes. And since many of the new stations will be uphill from where stations are concentrated now, the pedelecs will be in even more demand.

Is expanding the pedelec fleet actually doable?

Liz Cornish, Executive Director of Bikemore, Baltimore's bicycling infrastructure and policy advocacy organization, said the pedal-assist bikes cost $1300 compared to $1000 for the regular bikes.

If the bikeshare expanded by another 500 bikes and they were 100% electric-assist, it would only be $150,000 more than an all regular bike purchase. This is not much money if the world of transportation expenditures.

Of course, bikes with pedelec may cost more to fix and maintain. But in a hilly city like Baltimore, splurging on the electric bikes to tilt the percentages of the fleet toward the pedelec bikes will likely make sense.

The best step forward would be for Bewegen to track which bikes are being used in order to get data on user-preference. If my hunch is true—that more people in Baltimore will travel to more places by bikeshare thanks to the new pedelec bikes—it'd be great to find a way to make sure that's what's added to the system.


A shot of Baltimore landmarks you can now take bikeshare to. Photo by the author.

Bicycling


Coming soon: Bikeshare in Prince George's County

Right now, there isn't bikeshare in Prince George's County outside of a small system in College Park. But that could change, as the county recently wrapped up a study on what kind of system should come in (spoiler: it'll be Capital Bikeshare) and where its stations could go.


Capital Bikeshare in Prince George's? It could be there this time next year. All images from Prince George's county unless otherwise noted.

Following a lengthy study, Prince George's officials are recommending that the county add a bikeshare system to the ATHA region, which extends along the Anacostia River Tributaries from Colmar Manor north to Greenbelt and west to Langley Park. It is also recommended to include bikeshare in the National Harbor region, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge linking Prince George's County with Alexandria. These are the areas where there's the most demand for bikeshare (to determine this, planners look at variables like a place's population density and age, proximity to transit and existing bike facilities, and topography).

You can see projected demand for part of Prince George's on the heat map below (and the entire county if you click the map), with the lighter parts being where it's highest:

Based on the study's results, those making the recommendations for the county decided to start small, with 25 stations in the ATHA region in neighborhoods near the DC border as well as four at National Harbor. The idea is for the system to eventually grow to 67 stations, expanding outward to Greenbelt, Langley Park, and Bladensburg, among other areas. Specific station locations haven't been identified yet—that'll be up to what local groups tell the county further down the line.

This map shows how bikeshare could come to Prince George's in phases:


Going this route rather than installing all the stations at once will allow Prince George's to manage its resources, but this is just a preliminary plan. When it actually moves on bikeshare, Prince George's could choose to build more stations within the preliminary area, expand to other areas, or do something else entirely.

The decision to go with Capital Bikeshare

mBike, another bike share program, currently operates in College Park; it's currently Prince George's only bikeshare system. Although mBike is not directly compatible with the recommended Capital Bikeshare, the county envisions a blended system where mBike continues to serve local trips while CaBi would serve users traveling elsewhere.

A similar blended system exists in Columbus, Ohio, where Columbus provides a dock based bike share system called COGO while the Ohio State University, which is located in town, provides its own bike share service utilizing a bike based technology.

Ideally, the Prince George's bikeshare program would begin in the fall of 2017.

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)

Pedestrians


DC is telling us more about blocked sidewalks and car crashes, and that should mean safer streets

DC has created a map that shows where it has issued permits to block sidewalks and bike lanes for construction projects, and soon, the city will begin releasing more detailed data about where vehicle collisions have happened. Both will tell us more about where in the city pedestrians and bicyclists are at risk, which will make it easier to make those areas safer.


A closed sidewalk. Photo by Jacob Mason.

The map went up in August and is updated daily based on public space permits that DDOT issues.


Map from DDOT.

On the map, the green squares are where a utility company has a permit to block the sidewalk or bike lane, and the yellow triangles are where one has applied for a permit. The red triangles represent permits for DDOT contractors to work in the right of way, taking away parking for a temporary span of time. Orange squares mean there's a permit for a block party, purple squares are for mobile cranes, and red squares are for special events.

Jonathan Rogers, a policy analyst who reports to DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, said, "Obviously, DDOT can't be everywhere inspecting work zones, so to the extent residents are checking the public traffic control plan... we can work together make sure developers are keeping the streets and sidewalks safe."

We'll soon know more about car crashes around the District, too

DDOT will also soon begin publishing monthly reports with information about vehicle collisions, including the ward, block or intersection, the type of vehicle involved, the Police Service Area where the crash occured, the number of people killed or injured, and why it happened.

Some of this data, like the date and time of crashes and the geographic X/Y coordinates for the location, is available now in an open format, but it's much more sparse than what's on the way.

"This open data is a matter of transparency," Rogers said. "People have a right to know where traffic injuries and fatalities are occurring in their city. If residents do nothing more than discover the safety trends for their own neighborhood, that is part of good, open governance."

Rogers also points to how the data can be crunched in a variety of ways that DDOT may not have thought of.

"We want to tap into the expertise among the many data scientists out there, the civic hackers, coders, etc. and see what kind of correlations they may discover. Perhaps they can identify locations in need of urgent improvements that DDOT may not have detected."

Before DDOT starts issuing those reports, however, it has to be sure that they do it in a way that doesn't disclose personal information about victims that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) doesn't allow.

"We'll continue to publish the crash and violation data in the open data format in the meantime," said Rogers.

Transit


WMATA recommended express bus service along 14th Street NW four years ago. Is it time to make it happen?

The buses that run up and down 14th Street NW are among the most used in the region, but they move slowly and don't come often enough. WMATA suggested adding express service a few years ago, but that has yet to happen.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The 52, 53, 54 run along 14th Street, from Takoma to downtown DC. Many people use the bus to commute from neighborhoods like U Street, Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Brightwood to downtown and back. Approximately 15,000 riders use these buses on a typical weekday, and according to some measures, they're among the most used in DC.

According to data from DC's Office of Planning, a quarter of the new residents who moved into DC in the last five years reside in the area served by the 14th Street buses, and from 2011 to 2015, the number of businesses soared from 7,371 all the way to 13,992. Many of these new residents and business employees don't own cars and rely on transit and other transportation services.

But relative to how many people would use them, the 14th Street buses are slow and don't run frequently enough. They stop quite often—at every corner during some stretches. For example, if a rider gets on the 54 at Buchanan Street NW and off at I Street downtown, it takes 26 stops. By contrast, that's three times more stops than than the S9 buses, the express buses that run down 16th Street. More anecdotally, a neighbor of mine recently waited over 20 minutes for a bus during rush hour.


Image from WMATA.

Buses also get caught in snarled traffic on the stretch of 14th Street next to the mall where Target and Best Buy are. In this area, buses don't have signal priority and lots of people double park without penalty.

Slow moving busses and not enough of them are especially acute problems right now because Beach Drive is closed. Many Upper Northwest residents can't use Rock Creek Parkway as a commuting route and this has pushed many more riders onto the bus.

Also, as a result of the problems with the 14th Street buses, many who live along 14th actually go out of their way to use the buses along 16th. That just leads to packed buses and overcrowding on those lines. Improving 14th street bus service would benefit those riding the the S1, S2, S4, S9, 70 and 79 by lessening crowding on 16th and Georgia express buses which would also reduce clustering.

WMATA recommended express bus service on 14th

These issues aren't new—WMATA actually teamed with DDOT to study 14th Street buses in 2011 and 2012. One of the biggest conclusions was that the corridor needs express service. Express busses run the same route as local buses but stop at fewer stops. By skipping stops, they are able to move faster. In exchange for walking one or two extra blocks to the stop, riders can get where they are headed much more quickly.

The study included a rider survey, rider focus groups (I participated in one of those), and a series of public meetings. The study team also gathered data from interviews with Metrobus operators and subsequent interviews to discuss potential service proposals and preliminary recommendations.

The study concluded that express bus service on the 14th Street line (it called express service "limited-stop bus service") would benefit riders:

The advantages to this proposal are that this service would not only enhance route capacity, but would also improve service frequencies at bus stops served by the limited stop service (service frequency at local-only stops would not be impacted). It would also reduce travel times for passengers able to utilize the bus stops that would be served by the limited stop service. The primary disadvantage is that this proposal would likely incur additional operating costs.
WMATA also recommended lengthening the 53 Route to terminate at G street (it currently ends at McPherson Square), running more service north of Colorado Avenue NW, and extending service to the Waterfront area, as well as giving riders better information, doing more to enforce parking restrictions, using articulated buses and training bus operators specifically for the lines they drive.

The key recommendation for express service is discussed in detail beginning on page 33 of here.

According to the report, making these changes would be relatively inexpensive (about $1.25 million). The report also says they could generate more DC tax revenue in increased commerce than they'd cost to fund. These buses are needed for longtime residents and new residents alike. This would be a huge (and cheap) win for DC.

Though improving this line with more, better service was a good idea in 2012, it's an exceptionally good idea now. Express buses along 14th Street would mean more people could travel the important corridor by bus.

More specifically, it'd mean more frequent service at key stops and shorter travel times for riders, smaller headways, and better quality. This would be a huge boon to those commuting or traveling longer distances (such as to Walter Reed). If the service proved successful, even more resources could go toward it over time.

The city as a whole would benefit from an investment in better bus service along 14th Street, as it'd lead to better employment opportunities for people seeking jobs, less traffic congestion on important north-south streets, and a broadening tax base.



Pedestrians


Ask GGWash: Is there any reason not to have a sidewalk?

There are parts of DC and other cities with no sidewalks. As pedestrian safety has become a higher priority in road design, DC and other cities have been adding them, though sometimes residents oppose the idea. Is there any good reason not to put one in? Do we have statistics?

Reader Phil L. asks: "Do sidewalks measurably improve pedestrian safety even in low traffic density areas, like residential neighborhoods? What would be a compelling reason to have a residential street without a sidewalk?"


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Erin McAuliff says:

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, "Pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks; streets with sidewalks on both sides have the fewest crashes." I think the reference for this is from the Federal Highway Administration.

From another angle, and with a particular focus on the aging, sidewalks may increase residents' perception of safety. Falling or tripping on poorly maintained sidewalks is a serious concern for the elderly, especially the frail, for whom one accident could be devastating. Falls are the leading cause of death from injuries for persons over the age of 65.

Ben Ross gives some historical perspective on why neighborhoods might not have them:
The original reason for not building sidewalks in suburban neighborhoods was to give the development a "high-class" non-urban image by discouraging walking. See Dead End, page 16.
Sean Emerson lives in one such area:
A reason I've heard people in my neighborhood (Woodmoor in Four Corners) use for opposing sidewalks was the preservation of the "rural" feel of the neighborhood. My neighborhood and several others nearby were once anchored by Indian Springs Country Club, so you can imagine that the clientele originally buying homes around here were doing so to escape the city and its associated "urban" infrastructure like curbs and sidewalks.

The streets in my neighborhood close to University Boulevard and Colesville Road were built in the mid-1930's with no sidewalks or curbs (these streets comprised the original development anchored by the country club). When the county installed curbs about 10 years ago, sone people complained that the curbs changed the "character" of those streets, and several think that sidewalks would make it worse. There are many 1930's era neighborhoods in and around Silver Spring which still lack curbs of any kind, much less sidewalks (Hillandale, North Hills of Sligo, and parts of Woodside come to mind).

Retaining a "country" or "rural" feel might not sound like a compelling reason to prevent the installation of sidewalks to most, but it is for some.

So does Nick Keenan:
My neighborhood, Palisades, had a protracted debate about adding sidewalks on a neighborhood street, University Terrace. Ultimately they were not put in.

Some of the arguments were expected: there are people who never walk, who don't see any utility to sidewalks. Landowners who would lose part of their front yard were predictably opposed. What surprised me was how many people expressed the viewpoint that sidewalks actually detract from a neighborhood. People even used the adjective "rural" to describe our neighborhood. I'm not sure they really knew what rural meant—Palisades certainly isn't rural— I think they were looking for a word that meant non-urban and that was the best they could come up with.

Like so many personal preferences, there's no right or wrong, but there's also very little room for persuasion.

Not all neighborhoods of that era lack sidewalks. David Rotenstein writes:
It's a mistake to generalize that all 20th century residential subdivisions omitted sidewalks or that the failure to install them was part of some larger, mysterious anti-pedestrian agenda. One Silver Spring subdivision (outside the Beltway) originally was developed between 1936 and 1940 and the subdividers/developers intentionally constructed sidewalks and used their existence as a marketing point in sales literature.
Coming back to the issue of statistics, Jonathan Krall writes:
The "safety in numbers" effect, often discussed in relation to cycling, also applies to pedestrians. Briefly, injuries per pedestrian fall as the number of pedestrians increase. This implies that adding sidewalks to an area would encourage walking and make that area safer.

However, it is difficult to square that result with the nationwide increases in pedestrian fatalities, happening during a decrease in driving and (I presume; I don't have data on this) an increase in walking

My hypothesis is that the shift towards transit (and presumably walking) that is so clear in data for millennials is leading to more walking in suburban environments along dangerous arterial roads. But that is just a hypothesis.

But Ben Ross challenges the premise that statistics can explain the sidewalk debates:
"Safety" is not the main issue here. It's equal treatment. Lack of sidewalk discourages walking by denying pedestrians the right of way. They must get out of way whenever a car comes by.
David Edmondson explains how just slowing cars down can improve safety:
It's likely not simply an issue of traffic volume but of traffic speed. Take, say, this random street in California. It's narrow but two-way and so traffic is very, very slow (roughly jogging speed). Despite its lack of sidewalks, it is a pedestrian-friendly street—I see unaccompanied kids on such streets all the time. Yet I would not feel comfortable walking down other sidewalk-free streets (like this one in Silver Spring) where calm traffic is not invited by the street's design.

I don't know of any studies regarding sidewalks and pedestrian safety on low-volume streets, but I don't think that's the right way to look at it anyway given all the factors that go into a street's safety. Risk is a quality positively correlated with increased volume and speed and sight-lines, each of which are themselves correlated with certain street design choices. A pedestrian is shielded from some of that risk by a sidewalk, but sometimes the risk is so low that the shielding is unnecessary.

We first ran this post about two years ago, but since the discussion is just as relevant today, we wanted to share it again!

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Pedestrians


What happens when people without cars move to places built for driving?

What happens when people without cars move to neighborhoods built for cars? In Langley Park in Prince George's County, an increasing number of people want to walk to jobs and retail—even though doing so isn't all that safe (yet).


The number of people who walk along University Boulevard in Langley Park is on the rise, but the area is still most accommodating to cars. Image from Google Maps.

Langley Park is on the county's northwestern border with Montgomery County. It used to be a farm, but after World War II it was sold to developers who built small bungalows and garden apartments for newly returned GIs and their new families.

In the early years most residents were white, but during the 1970s African American families began moving to the neighborhood. In the 1980s immigrants began trickling in as well. They hailed from diverse places—El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Vietnam to name just a few. Immigrants continue to live in Langley Park, but today Hispanics are the largest racial/ethnic group, comprising 76.6% of the area's 2010 population.

We usually think about walkability in the context of young professionals who want to walk to bars and restaurants and get to work via bike lanes or public transportation, but in Langley Park, walkability is about immigrant families who need to walk bus stops and shops for everyday errands.

Lots of people want to walk around Langley Park

Langley Park has two main thoroughfares: University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. Both are state highways with concrete median strips. Based on what I see on Google Earth, I'd estimate that cross streets in Langley Park are usually at least 2/10ths of a mile apart. The area's retail is concentrated on University Boulevard in small- and medium-sized strip malls with parking lots out front.


A Google Maps image of Langley Park. 193 is University Boulevard.

As the distance between cross streets and the abundance of parking lots on University Boulevard demonstrate, Langley Park's developers assumed the area's residents would drive to local retail establishments. There are still plenty of cars in Langley Park—traffic jams are common during rush hour—but now there are also lots and lots of pedestrians. And, there are many businesses for them to walk to.

In fact, retail in the corridor is thriving. Strip mall vacancies are rare, and most businesses target local residents instead of commuters driving through the area. There are only a few fast food chains on University Boulevard, for example, and the most visually prominent one—Pollo Campero—originated in El Salvador and tends to cater to Central Americans missing the tastes of home.

Other shops include nail salons, pharmacies, international groceries, and Salvadoran and Mexican restaurants. The area also has a variety of clothing stores, including an African fabric store, a Sari shop, and a Ropa Colombiana. Value Village also has a store in the area, and serves as a sort of second hand department store, selling clothes, toys, furniture, and small appliances.

All of this adds up to the streetscape in Langley Park being more vibrant than your typical suburban area. People aren't just going to and from their cars; they're walking, hanging out in front of stores, or sitting on retaining walls and shooting the breeze. One strip mall even has a semi-regular street preacher. Armed with a megaphone and boundless conviction, he exhorts and cajoles passersby in equal measure.


Photo by the author.

Most importantly, there are lots and lots of kids—in strollers, holding their parents' hands, and carrying a backpack on the way to or from school. Except for the built landscape, this could be in any kid-friendly area in DC—think the Palisades or Chevy Chase.

Pedestrian safety is a big concern here, and quick fixes aren't long-term solutions

That built landscape is a big deal, though. Getting from home to shop and back again isn't easy when you have to cross six lanes of traffic. And unlike the Palisades or Chevy Chase, the distance between cross streets in Langley Park is substantially longer.

As a result, pedestrians often cross between crosswalks, which can be dangerous given the volume and speed of traffic in the area. Crashes involving cars and pedestrians have been a consistent problem in the area for more than a decade. The latest pedestrian fatality happened last July when a police officer struck and killed a man as he was crossing the street in between walk signals.

To try to address this problem, the county installed new medians along University Boulevard last year, along with six foot metal fences to prevent pedestrian crossings between signals.


Photo by the author.

While these may make the street safer in the short term, they come at the cost of increasing the root problem, which is that there aren't enough crosswalks to handle all the demand. The fences prioritize making sure cars can move through the area without worrying about people on foot, making the road even more like a highway. That's actually the opposite of how you build a street to be genuinely safe and useful for pedestrians.

Fortunately, signal timing and crosswalks in some places have recently been improved to give people sufficient time to cross. And the new Takoma-Langley Crossroads Transit Center, set to open in late 2016, will also be a good step since it will consolidate stops for 11 bus routes that currently carry 12,000 passengers a day. That means transfers will be much easier and safer.


The Takoma-Langley Crossroads Transit Center. Photo by the author.

Also, when the Purple Line is built, the transit center (a planned stop on the line) will further concentrate transportation options, making getting to or from public transportation easier.

Langley Park is certainly making progress when it comes to being safer for people on foot. But there's also a long way to go in order to truly retrofit the area to be safe, easy, and enjoyable to walk around.

More crosswalks would be a great start, and traffic calming to slow cars down would likely go a long way. A pedestrian bridge over University would be the dream, and planting trees and foliage would also help reduce noise and air pollution while also providing a more attractive thoroughfare.

Whatever the specifics, I hope resources go into making the area safer and easier to walk around. Langley Park deserves it.

Transit


Self-driving cars, payment via smart phone, and more will change transportation. Is our region ready?

Picture a DC region with autonomous vehicles, crowdsourced buses, and a single payment system for all forms of transit. These things could very well be on the horizon, but according to a group of transportation experts, they'll mean new challenges when it comes to cybersecurity, safety, and accountability.


From left to right, panel moderator Marisa Kashino, Uber's Annaliese Rosenthal, WMATA's Shyam Kanaan, and Amtrak's David Zaidan. Photo by Joanne Pierce.

Planning to deploy tomorrow's transportation technology requires advance effort even though the problems these technologies aim to solve are acute today. WMATA planner Shyam Kanaan, Uber DC General Manager Annaliese Rosenthal, and Amtrak's David Zaidain discussed tomorrow's technology and today's problems at last month's Urban Ideas Forum.

We (Joanne and Sam) attended the event and later discussed our thoughts in a chat format, and the notes are below. We've also added in subheaders for when we moved from one panel subject to another.

JP: I think given that it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about short-term challenges, the moderators did well to at least draw out interesting points. Of course, "short-term challenges" might be a misnomer since WMATA has had these kinds of challenges for years. We're focused on short-term referring to the next 2-5 years, and long-term being longer than that, it seems.

One of the first things the panel talked about was how lifestyles are changing across the region. I thought it was interesting that Shyam Kannan, the head of planning for WMATA, emphasized SelectPass, a prepaid pass which allows unlimited rides at or less than a user selected price, as a way to link trips. He talked about it in a way I hadn't necessarily thought of before, but have since observed in my own life. People want to make multiple stops without having to pay multiple times. I could go to a restaurant, a movie, pick up library books, go to some bookstores, and not have to pay for each trip since it's all built into my SelectPass.

SW: Shyam called SelectPass "Netflix for transit," with the goal of mitigating people from pay-as-you-go. Though Shyam clearly had bigger visions in mind. Eventually allowing for all modes of transit under a single payment. To use your example - we would be able to go to take Amtrak into DC, take Metro from Union Station, then Uber to a final destination with one simple payment. A cool idea, though not in our near or even long-term future.

JP: This is purely anecdotal, but I had a conversation recently about Charlotte's transit system using multiple forms of payment. If you took rail and bus, you could be paying separately and still use paper fare. Charlotte's CATS system does offer passes like SmarTrip. But you still have a proof of purchase ticket that you show.

Metro has a sea of problems. An ocean of troubles. But SmarTrip to pay for Metrobus, Metrorail, Alexandria's DASH bus, REX bus, Fairfax Connector, etc. is one nice thing about how it functions.

SW: It is, and even better that the SmarTrip cards are readable through your wallet! Shyam spoke of having all payment eventually being made via smartphone or "preferably smart watch." He got some push back from the moderators for that comment, given many who need and deserve to use the system probably don't have access to that technology. What do you see as the future of payment methods?

JP: The future of payment is going to be more mobile options, whether we like it or not. Single payment across transit systems no matter where you are in the DC area, to include Uber and others. The problem is, like the moderators said, this technology is inaccessible for some people.

So obviously, SmartTrip has to stay in some way because not everyone will want mobile payment. When WMATA finally phased out all paper fare, more than 90% of riders were already using SmarTrip. The relatively low cost of entry to get a SmarTrip card ($2) is drastically different from the cost of a smartphone and data plan. Even though lots of people have smartphones, many don't or are uncomfortable with paying with them.

As we move toward more complex and mobile payment systems, we have to be concerned about securing our data

JP: There's also a cybersecurity component that the panel didn't go into, but is going to be an increasing concern as we move more towards connecting our financial systems with mobile technology.

SW: Agreed. It's often thought of with Uber, but Metro also has plenty of data on us - our daily routine and habits. The SmarTrip swipes give them a glimpse into our travel patterns, which can be greatly useful as WMATA plans routes and scheduling.

Having to swipe twice, once for entry then again for exit, can be annoying, but is immensely valuable (I think) to helping them understand how we ride, and accommodate accordingly. With Metrobus, a noticeable difference is only swiping upon entry. Shyam spoke of the future of transit being crowdsourced buses. It seems for this to be feasible, entry and exit data would eventually be needed.

Ride hailing is a promising industry, but questions on passenger safety and accountability are still legit

JP: New Jersey is testing crowdsourced busing, or bus on demand. Related to a single payment option, should Uber be in the same category as WMATA? Uber is a private company and its goals can't be the same as WMATA's goals, and WMATA is beholden to certain government regulations to ensure a degree of equity in its service, particularly if it wants to cut service. There have been studies and articles about whether Uber is equitable with its clientele and neighborhoods it serves, but it's not the same. Are we also trusting that Uber will stick around for the next 10 years? Is this company and this field of ride sharing mature enough to be stable?

SW: I'm not sure. Uber is a very different organization of course. Annaliese Rosenthal, General Manager of Uber in DC, was excited about UberPOOL and spoke of it often throughout the night - its ability to take multiple drivers off the road and into a single car by matching people going the same direction. But at the most, this allows for 3 to 4 people in a single vehicle, which is just not comparable to Metro. It seems Uber is needed at the moment, but maybe not part of a longer term future.

JP: Personally, Uber hasn't replaced anything for me. I still take bus and rail (or walk) more than I take Uber. Part of that is that traffic in DC can be
terrible, but also that I have to gauge risk with getting into a car with a stranger. The audience joked a bit about how the MyMTPD text message number [to contact Metro police] is too long and hard to remember, but at the same time, there's no police department for Uber. So safety and risk for passengers is going to be an ongoing discussion as Uber or any other competitors emerge on the scene.

SW: Yup, safety is very (the most) important. Annaliese brought up Uber's rating system as their immediate feedback security system, I hadn't thought of it being it. It's the backbone of their company, but maybe not capable of dealing with immediate security risks. Do you feel safe on Metro?

JP: I usually feel safe on the Metro system. I also tend to ride during busier times so there are always people around.

SW: I feel safe too, though unfortunately the crowd during rush tends to bring out the worst of people; but a little pushing here and there isn't so bad I guess. Plus the riders aren't to blame for the overcrowding.

JP: There's an aspect of control that Uber doesn't allow. With Metro, if there's some disturbance on my train I can hop off and get on another car or I can alert the operator (if the intercom works). But with Uber, I'm not about to leap out and tuck and roll my way out of a potential problem.

SW: LOL please don't. In a much more immediate way you're trusting your life with the driver, and who knows if he's gotten enough sleep, if he has road rage, etc. (Hopefully) there is less room for human error with the rail system.

JP: I think, statistically, car travel is still riskier.

Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but how do they integrate into traditional infrastructure, and will they create more problems than they solve?

SW: Do you think driverless cars can solve this safety issue?

JP: Not at the moment. The technology is untested and there are larger policy implications. For instance, if a driverless car hits my car, that's a bigger risk for me than it is for Uber. Do you think driverless cars will encroach on public transit?

SW: I don't think so, particularly after hearing Shyam's skepticism stemming from what he called the "geometry problem." Because after it drops someone off, where does it go? If it returns to a staging area, that requires a lot a space and infrastructure be built; if it hangs around downtown waiting for the next rider, that greatly increases congestion; and if it returns to the roads or highways, that's just more traffic. So ideally, for healthy urban (and suburban) living, it seems public transit is a more viable option.

However, Uber is and can be a useful and important complement. The three panelists, particularly for Metro and Uber, spoke of the importance of their relationship in serving the public. It's tempting to see Uber and Metro as competitors, but they understand they're complements.

JP: I thought that was interesting as well. WMATA might understandably think it's too big and too integrated into the city for Uber to encroach too much. But beyond that, I think the fundamental problem with driverless cars is that we are not decreasing our dependence on cars. They're still polluting whether there are drivers or passengers.

Amtrak focuses on transit-oriented development around a renovated Union Station

SW: Agreed. More surprising for me was how David Zaidain of Amtrak drew a clear distinction between his market, and that of the city-to-city buses.
Amtrak is focused on transit-oriented development and making Union Station a destination

JP: Poor Amtrak. We haven't talked about it all so far.

SW: Ha, what did you think of his vision for Union Station, having the feel of an Apple store, with employees walking around with iPads ready to help?


Union Station. The planned renovations for Union Station include removing information booths and ticketing kiosks, so employees can carry mobile devices and help passengers with check-in and ticketing. Photo by Amaury Laporte on Flickr.

JP: I haven't been in Union Station in years, so I'm not sure whether that's a better option than having more kiosks or even mobile ticketing.

SW: Years?!

JP: Yeah, I don't ride Amtrak that often. The last time was 2014, probably. One thing that David brought up was how Amtrak wanted to drive development around Union Station and around transit, and namely affordable housing. Do you think that's the right direction, given that Amtrak is sort of a niche? Metro, I see driving that. But this was in the context of Amtrak.

SW: I think Amtrak would like there to be development around Union Station. And there has been plenty, though not necessarily driven by Amtrak. David was asked at one point if he thought the ability to provide a relatively cheap and quick commute between say Baltimore and DC would aid affordable housing, allowing folks to live in Baltimore and commute into DC. He answered optimistically to that scenario, though it clearly isn't Amtrak's goal to allow for and encourage affordable housing.

He was honest about Amtrak's desire and need to operate with a business mindset, focusing on services they can get a return on - Which are the higher end, pricier and more luxuries commutes. His vision of the future was offering better wine and food on trains, not bad, just very different than the focus Metro.

JP: Yeah, and I can see how Amtrak can be a good option for the DC to Baltimore commute, though the lowest fare is $26 round trip. We know we need more housing, and more affordable housing, and building it near transit is ideal.

Metro wants to change hearts and minds about buses

JP: What do you think about Shyam and David's point about using infrastructure that already exists. Is this a good strategy?

SW: I think it's practical. Shyam made a good point about how everyone is a closet urban planner, and how fun and exciting it is to think about adding a station here and there, but how difficult it is in the end to get the funding and support. Metro talks a lot about Transit Oriented Development and would love to see the neighborhoods around their stations (notably in Prince George's County) densify.

They want us to come to them, and we want them to come to us. This is a big reason why Shyam was pushing regional bus systems as the future - So much more flexible.

JP: I like the Potomac Yard BRT and I'm happy that Fairfax County is going to invest in BRT as well. It was disappointing to see WMATA hint at dropping it to save money, or to suggest that not providing full funding would lead to BRT getting the chop, though it seems to be spared from service cuts in the FY 2018 budget. Shyam talked about how if/when we achieve maintenance and safety reliability we would be turning back from a dark period in our transit history. I think the audience found that a little surprising, the notion that we will eventually be happy with how much we've achieved once we start pulling out of Metro's dark time.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

SW: Yes, I think he was honest about the issues at hand, but encouragingly optimistic as well. Emphasizing that if we can make smart, tough decisions today, unreliable service will be in the rearview. Do you think WMATA could get more people to ride buses, as Shyam suggested should be heavily featured in the future of DC transit?

JP: Absolutely. Bus has a reputation as being inefficient or confusing to ride. It can be both, but it can all improve if WMATA invests some effort into making better signs that tell people how to navigate the system. Clarify the difference between Metrobus and Circulator (or other regional lines), put up better signs that give people more specific information about bus routes, and not just one big map. Apps can help as well. People who can give directions on which bus to take. I think more tourists can use the bus. I don't have the numbers on hand, but I think more tourists ride rail than bus. If it can spread out a little more, we could handle the congestion better.

SW: I agree; I often avoid buses just out of confusion.

JP: I didn't really enjoy riding the bus until I started riding the Alexandria City DASH bus. It's a small system, so it's not comparable to Metrobus, but the routes are very easy to understand and there are a lot of connecting points so you can transfer between routes or Metro stations easily, or at least hop off and walk the rest of the way.

SW: Given the extensiveness of Metrobus (which is a good thing!) it would be cool if WMATA could provide maps essentially filtered to your potential commutes, like in New York City. This would make the system a lot less intimidating to me because it is nice to stay above ground :)

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