Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Roads

Which local news sources did good actual reporting on the bad Texas A&M traffic study?

Every two years, a research institute at Texas A&M comes out with a flawed report on traffic. Each time, other transportation analysts debunk it. But most reporters breathlessly regurgitate quotes from author Tim Lomax every time without doing any actual reporting of their own. How did our local reporters fare this year?

Interview photo from Shutterstock.

The Texas Transportation Institute's "Urban Mobility Study" takes a "searching under the streetlight" approach of looking at some data they get from INRIX and extrapolating that into shoddy conclusions. Victoria Transportation Policy Institute researcher Todd Litman, Joe Cortright of City Observatory, and locally, the Coalition for Smarter Growth have all rebutted the study's many flaws.

But Lomax knows that the press just eats up this "we're #1 in traffic" or "commuters waste 3 days per year in traffic" or whatever. When his report is about to come out, he goes on a press blitz, and hundreds of news outlets write up his non-peer-reviewed study (543, at last count via Google News).

Some of our local reporters just packaged Lomax's quotes and numbers into an unquestioning bundle of clickbait. Others took a moment to ask a few more questions or even wrote critical articles. Here's how they stacked up.

The "not fooled for a minute" crowd

  • WAMU. Martin di Caro, one of the region's best transportation reporters, focused his story around criticisms of the study, especially the Coalition for Smarter Growth's. Di Caro also actually asked study author Tim Lomax about the critiques.

    One criticism has been that the study's summary talks about delay to residents, when really it's just about car commuters. Lomax acknowledged that he doesn't have good data on transit, bicycling, or walking, but argues it's unfair to criticize the study for leaving pieces out even though Lomax spins his own data into sensational statements and suggests policy conclusions.

  • WTOP. Ari Ashe, who was around the last time this came up and apparently remembers the controversy, skipped the bandwagon (though WTOP ran the Associated Press's press-release-rewrite version) and instead wrote a good story with CSG's rebuttal and comments by Falls Church Vice Mayor Dave Snyder.

The "used some actual shoe leather" crowd

  • NBC4. While the lead-in by the anchor sensationalizes the "we're #1 in traffic!!!!!" angle, Tom Sherwood mostly uses this story as an opportunity to talk to people around the region, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, about solutions that include transit, bicycling, and more as well as roads. He also interviewed me. The CSG press release came out a little later, and the NBC4 web version of the story now includes quotes from that as well.

The "second draft is the best" crowd

  • Washingtonian 2.0. Posted just after this article initially went live, Ben Freed's take criticizes the report and also points out weak spots in what Tim Lomax told Martin di Caro. Freed's article also possibly has the best headline of the bunch: "Driving in Washington Is Bad. So Is That Study That Says How Bad It Is."

The "phoned it in" crowd

  • WUSA9: USA Today's national article was pretty terrible. And USA Today appears first on the byline for WUSA9's article. Lomax speaks, these outlets transcribe.

  • Washingtonian 1.0. The writing is clever—82 hours is enough time to watch Orange Is the New Black twice. Cute, if only it were based on valid data. Update: Washingtonian has followed up with another article, above.

  • Washington City Paper. We miss you, Aaron Wiener. The lack of a regular Housing Complex reporter covering planning and transportation is evident in the City Paper's unremarkable summary of the report.

    It's most disappointing because this is our alt-weekly that often finds an irreverent take on issues, questions conventional wisdom, and looks at the world through the city dweller's lens. I don't expect better from WUSA9, but do from these great folks who do so much excellent reporting (like the fantastic exposé on Metro's PR-spin-efforts after the January smoke death incident).

    Also, the City Paper's headline for the TTI study, "D.C. Most Congested U.S. City for Drivers, Report Finds," commits the cardinal sin of conflating DC with the whole region; as Tom Sherwood noted, the traffic analysis is about the whole region, not the District itself.

The "fool me twice" crowd

  • Washington Post. Ashley Halsey III has seen this story before. In fact, he's written it three times before, in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

    Halsey has had ample time to see the criticisms that people have leveled at the study every time it comes out. He even quoted more other people for context in 2009 and 2011, but stopped in 2013, and this year's article again simply recited Lomax's claims with no critical eye at all.

The "are there even humans here?" crowd

  • Fauquier Times. This "news source" appears in Google News, but its article on the issue is just a straight-up reprint of the AAA Mid-Atlantic press release (which, not surprisingly, argues that the solution to the traffic reported in the study is spending more money on roads).

A protected bikeway will soon come to C Street NE

New bike lanes and walkways headline DDOT's plans for a new C Street NE. The changes will go a long way in making it a complete street that's safe for everyone.

Image from DDOT.

The proposal is to cut one driving lane in each direction on C Street between 16th Street and Oklahoma Avenue and use that space to add protected bike lanes (which we also call protected bikeways.

West of 16th, where C Street becomes a one-way street, the westbound bike lane will continue on to 14th Place and the eastbound one will run along North Carolina Avenue from 14th Street.

The project also calls for new sidewalks and full time parking on each side of the street, bulb outs, and rain gardens.

Base image from Google Maps.

C Street is breaking new ground for DC

The District currently has one-way protected bike lanes with flexiposts along L and M Streets, a two-way protected bike lane with flexposts along 15th Street, and a two-way protected bike lane with curb separation along 1st Street.

But the type of bike lanes DDOT wants for C street would be a first for DC, and they'll likely make people using the street both on bikes and on foot more comfortable.

Image from DDOT.

The first distinction is that they'll be raised to the sidewalk level, which will provide another barrier to separate bikes from vehicles.

Also, a landscaped area will go between the road and the bike lane, providing a lot more protection than the traditional small two foot-wide curb or flexi posts. There will also be a landscaped area between the bike lanes and the sidewalk.

Finally, since the bikes lane are at the sidewalk level, which is above the road, there are two options: bring the bike lanes and sidewalk down to the road level at crossings, or vice versa. The design will bring the road up to the level of the bike lanes and sidewalk. That means C Street will essentially get speed bumps with crosswalks on top of them, which should cause cars to slow down as they cross or make turns where people on bikes and foot use the street.

An example of raised crossings from Boulder, Colorado. Base image from Google Maps.

A C Street with fewer car travel lanes and bulb outs at intersections will mean people who want to cross on bike or foot won't have to cover as much distance. In fact, the crossing distance will shrink from 90 feet to 44, and includes a pedestrian refuge in the median at most crossing locations.

Raised crosswalks, fewer car travel lanes, and smaller turning radii will slow vehicle speeds and provide better sight lines, helping C Street to do its part in achieving DC's Vision Zero goal.

This has worked elsewhere

Looking outside of DC, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail is a great example of a raised, two-way protected bike lane that has been extremely successful and seen high levels of use.

DDOT's planning phase should wrap up before the end of 2015. Neither funding nor a construction schedule are nailed down yet, but it's likely the project will move forward. All good work starts with a good plan, and this one is off to the right start.

Want a stress-free bike ride? In Arlington, there's a map for that.

Arlington has a new map for cyclists that ranks streets by "comfort level." It illustrates the places where even kids or senior citizens would feel safe biking, helping people to avoid busy or fast roads. It also gives policymakers a tool for making the county's bike network even better.

All images from BikeArlington.

A comfort map takes into consideration the volume and speed of car traffic, hills, and other issues to show the streets that are the easiest (or most comfortable) to bike on, regardless of whether or not they have bike lanes. It's an attempt to illustrate a more honest assessment of the in-person usability of the streets, for biking.

There are five possible rankings on Arlington's map: "easy," "medium," "difficult," "strongly discouraged," and "prohibited/major car route." BikeArlington staff created the ranking criteria based on surveys to find out what people thought was important.

Ratings of "medium" and "difficult" went to routes where only experienced cyclists would be able to confidently bike them. The county's various trails got an automatic "easy" rating.

Bike lanes alone don't guarantee comfort

Bike lanes didn't get automatic "easy" ratings because a lot of them are still difficult to ride in.

For example, while Hayes and Eads Streets in Crystal City got "easy" ratings, Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards were rated "medium." That's because the former has protected bikeways that separate bikes from moving cars while the latter has bikeways that aren't protected.

The full comfort map.

You can't get everywhere comfortably

Arlington's focus on understanding and illustrating where people riding bikes feel the most comfortable is commendable. This is a neat and useful map.

But it also highlights how much work is left to do. For all the comfortable bike routes in the county, there are also huge gaps.

Few of Arlington's major commercial main streets have comfortable bikeways for much of their length. Many are even blacked out as places where cycling is "strongly discouraged." But those are the places people want to go, and the routes that connect one part of the county to another.

Alternate routes often aren't easy to come by. Even where they do exist, they often involve lengthy detours or circuitous hopping around.

This map provides a valuable tool, but it also clearly illustrates how Arlington's bike network is still a long way from complete. County officials have their work cut out for them.

Hey look, that flawed Texas A&M traffic study is back and grabbing the usual headlines

The Texas Transportation Institute today released another one of its periodic reports on traffic congestion. This one ranked the DC area first in delay per car commuter. The last report, in 2012, came under considerable criticism for its flawed methodology, and the new one doesn't seem to have changed much, though its author sounds a little more sophisticated about possible solutions.

The report, from Texas A&M University, looks at only one factor: how fast traffic moves. Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city has worse roads? By TTI's methods, it's Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

(Note: This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2011. That's because just about everything I wrote then is still relevant.)

Critics like Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute and Joe Cortright of CEOs for Cities have pointed out these problems each time TTI releases a new study with an accompanying press blitz, but TTI continues to focus on the same metrics. For example, in the 2012 report, TTI ranked Portland as worse than Nashville, with a Travel Time Index (TTI) of 1.15 for Nashville and 1.23 for Portland. However, because of greater sprawl, Nashville commuters spent an average of 268 hours that year commuting, while the average Portland commuter spent 193 hours.

Does this mean build more roads?

What does this mean for public policy and the Washington region? TTI's data is often used to justify spending money on new freeway capacity, since congestion sounds bad. Tim Lomax, a co-author of the report, told the Post's Ashley Halsey III in 2012, "You can do little things like stagger work hours, fix traffic-light timing and clear wrecks faster, but in the end, there's a need for more capacity."

"That we are congested is not news, but TTI's report does tremendous damage, because they fail to recognize the primary cause of our congestion and imply that we could simply widen roads to build our way out of the problem," said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, about the 2012 report.

Perhaps responding to the criticism Lomax received for his one-sided push for road construction, he seems to have softened his tone somewhat. This year, Lomax told Halsey, "It's going to be hard to figure out how you scale up [the Capital Beltway] to make it accommodate another million people, 20 or 25 percent more travel demand. We need to figure out how to use our existing capacity smarter."

Lomax did talk about squeezing more cars on the road through technology like car automation that can run cars closer together. But he also suggested how technology can remind drivers when transit might be a better option:

Say you're commuting in from Manassas: Your computer looks at your calendar, sees that it's a regular commute day and that the weather's going to be terrible so traffic is going to be bad, and there's already been a big crash on I-66. So, your computer goes out and finds the VRE train schedule and the bus schedule, and here's the Metrorail schedule and where it drops you off. So, at 5:45, you're shaved and showered and your computer presents you with your travel options for today.

Traffic in Houston. Photo by TexasDarkHorse on Flickr.

The real solution is to reduce dependence on long commutes

Technology can help people get around more easily, but there are bigger-picture policies as well to help people not have to drive so far in the first place. To do that, we need to concentrate future growth around existing hubs with more residents, jobs, and multimodal transportation.

That's what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) has been trying to push with its Region Forward plan and the related "What Would It Take?" scenario (PDF). These involve focusing development in places like Tysons Corner and the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax, around underutilized Metro stations in Prince George's, future ones in Loudoun, and MARC and VRE hubs in Maryland and Virginia.

Arlington achieved substantial job and resident growth in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor without adding to traffic congestion, as has Montgomery with growth in Silver Spring and Bethesda and DC development in places like NoMA and the Capitol Riverfront area. Regional leaders should be less concerned with speeding up existing cars, which just leads to sprawl farther out, and invest more in finding ways to grow the region without adding traffic.

In fact, that's just what the DC region has done. Another, better part of TTI's 2012 analysis (which I don't see in the 2015 report) measures the amount of time savings that come from each region's transit; DC was 3rd best. That metric still doesn't account for the value of people living nearer to their jobs, however.

Washington has grown while managing congestion

Between better location and transit, page 50 of the original report (now not online) showed congestion did not increase from 1999 to 2012 even on TTI's flawed scale. That means our region had been successfully growing without adding traffic. Instead of "Washington area tied with Chicago for traffic congestion, study finds," which was the 2012 Post headline, it could have read, "Washington area's traffic hasn't gotten worse in a decade thanks to smart growth."

In his article about this year's report, Halsey reported that "traffic delays in most parts of the country have bounced back to pre-recession levels." But in Washington, the TTI report's numbers hardly budged from 2012 to 2014, according to the Excel spreadsheet you can download.

The Silver Line, which opened between the last TTI report and this one, reduced traffic by 15% at some intersections while also offering many people new choices to get to work.

These smart growth approaches work. They slow the rate of traffic worsening while letting regions grow by helping people not have to drive so much or so far. Our region simply has to follow through.

Update: Joe Cortright has written a new critique of the latest TTI report at City Observatory, and Todd Litman picks apart the report in Planetizen.

If car commercials were honest, this is what they'd look like

A sporty coupe glides joyfully along a seaside highway, all by itself. It's heaven for the anonymous driver. That's the standard, ridiculous car commercial.

This video shows what car commercials would look like if they were actually honest.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

New road designs make Tysons more inviting for people on bike and foot

A street in Tysons just underwent some big changes, swapping driving lanes for bike lanes. The new design will make it easier to get around the area by bike and on foot.

Greensboro Drive's lane designs, before and after. Image from Fairfax County.

The stretch of Greensboro Drive from Spring Hill Road to Pinnacle Drive went on a road diet that cut its four lanes down to two. A center turn lane also went in, along with bike lanes in both directions.

The changes are the first of Fairfax's Proposed Street Design Update, which VDOT rolled out last March. Similar changes are coming to Tyco Road and Westbranch Drive.

The new Greensboro Drive. Photo by the author.

Greensboro road feeds an employment hub that's home to companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Cvent, and SAIC.

The new turn lane should lessen traffic backups since cars used to get stuck behind people waiting to turn left off of Greensboro. And the bike lanes should also make it easier to reach the new Silver Line Metro stations. Already, I've seen an increase of people walking to and from both the Greensboro and Spring Hill stations.

Greensboro Drive prior to the changes. Base image from Google Maps.

For the time being, Greensboro Drive between Pinnacle and International Drive, closer to the Tysons Galleria mall, is still four lanes wide. But it's good to see the beginnings of a thoughtful, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design emerging in Fairfax County's redevelopment of Tysons.

One of Greensboro Drive's new bike lanes. Photo by the author.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail could learn a thing or two from Chicago's new bike trail

Chicago's new 606 trail is already very popular for biking, running, and walking, in large part because it's full of attractive landscaping and user-friendly amenities. DC would be smart to take some ideas from the 606 for upcoming changes to the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

All photos by the author.

Chicago opened the 606 in June. Also known as the Bloomingdale Trail, it stretches 2.7 miles, behind homes and under the 'L' — Chicago's Metro — through four of the city's neighborhoods.

Sapling trees and shrubs line the 606, with benches and water fountains available at major street crossings. That might explain why, even in near 90-degree heat on a recent Sunday, there was a steady stream of cyclists, runners and pedestrians using it.

Among the trail's eye-catching features are arches over one bridge and a fake railroad truss over another.

The fake railroad truss that runs over 606.

Benches on a bridge along the 606.

One thing people who I talked to complained about is the 606's lack of shade. However, they all acknowledged that it will correct itself as the saplings grow up.

The future 606 in 2011. What a difference a few years make!

Like the MBT did for near northeast Washington, the 606 has created a new off-street transportation corridor in Chicago's cycling and trail network where none existed before. But the 606 is also much more: it's a public space with grassy knolls where residents can put down a towel and relax and shaded glades with benches to sit on.

The MBT could steal an idea or two

The NoMa Business Improvement District has some plans to improve the MBT. These include a small park just south of where it passes under New York Avenue, new gardens and neighborhood connection and safety improvements.

Using the 606 gave me a few ideas on how to make the MBT both more pleasant and inviting.

Benches on the bridge where the MBT crosses Florida Avenue NE could create a new vista of the never-ending traffic drama around the so-called Dave Thomas Circle.

Water fountains could go in at key intersections, like at R Street and the entrance to the bridge to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station that opened in December.

Landscaping on MBT could also get better. While young trees line part of the route, there's room for more, especially to the stretch between R Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

In addition, regular maintenance of the existing landscaping—like cutting the grass—would do a lot to improve the aesthetics. And a better-looking trail would likely invite more users, which is important since one of the preliminary findings that the BID shared with the public was that people would feel safer on the MBT if more people used it overall.

The uncut grass along stretches of the MBT create a wild prairie aesthetic.

The MBT is set to get longer in the next few years, with the addition of a section that connects Brookland to Silver Spring. Taking a few cues from Chicago's 606 might make both the addition and the existing trail an even better public space for the District.

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