Greater Greater Washington

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Uber will give Boston planners useful data about where and when people ride

Planners in Boston, and eventually, regular residents will be able to analyze patterns of where and when people take Uber. The ride-hailing service has announced that it will give Boston data files listing all of the trips people have taken, with the locations anonymized to only show the ZIP code where they start and stop.


Photo by Kjetil Korslien on Flickr.

Cities already collect this kind of information from taxis, and it's available for services like Capital Bikeshare. But Uber doesn't provide it. In September, I suggested that as cities legalize such services and essentially deregulate the taxi market, they demand this kind of transparency in return.

However, Uber fought the idea. In New York, company representatives fiercely opposed efforts by the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission to collect the information. In DC, they more privately lobbied councilmembers not to require Uber to disclose this information, and enough didn't want to pick a fight with Uber that they didn't make it an issue.

Uber has had a run of bad press lately, and as it has grown, has encountered more criticism from the public. Emily Badger writes in Wonkblog that by making this concession, Uber may be hoping to win over some suspicious city officials and also set the terms of what data it will and won't share.

The data could be very valuable to planners, who will be able to understand where people are and want to go at various times of the day and week. This could help cities think about where transit service should go, where there is demand for new housing and retail, what happens during special events, and much more.

On the other hand, Uber is keeping secret much of the data that cities might need for consumer protection. While it's possible to compute the regular fare based on distance and time, which are part of the data set, it says nothing about surge prices or other special pricing.

Uber's data will also not reveal how long people have to wait for Ubers or whether in certain areas or certain times of day people can't get a car at all. This is something cities will want to know if, sometime in the future, Uber drivers are avoiding certain low-income or minority areas, for instance. Even if Uber itself doesn't do that, another ride-hailing company might. If Uber's data becomes an industry standard, regulators won't know that about the other company, either.

Finally, in Boston Uber is only giving the data to officials, not the public, but Badger says it will be subject to open records requests. If so, we can hope that Uber would start simply releasing the data file more publicly to save the step of making the request.

Uber representatives say the company will eventually start offering the data to other cities. Given all the facts, videos, maps, and graphs people have been able to generate from Capital Bikeshare data, we can look forward to learning fascinating things about how people travel once Uber provides the same for DC.

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The AP bans the term "ride-sharing" for Uber & Lyft

Companies like Uber and Lyft have often referred to their services as "ride-sharing." But that's not an accurate term. The Associated Press now agrees, and has banned the word for Uber-like services in its widely-used style guide. The better term, AP says, is "ride-hailing."


Screen capture by Daniel Guzman.

In July, I criticized the trend of calling these and other services "sharing" and called on Greater Greater Washington readers to come up with a better term.

When a number of people collectively buy something so all can use it, that may be sharing. When a company brokers transactions between people buying a good (in this case, rides) and people who can sell that good, that's not sharing.

As Charlie Warzel explained in BuzzFeed, "Though Uber has recently introduced a carpooling service, the vast majority of services that Uber and Lyft and others provide mimics a traditional taxi or driver service. You don't get in an Uber to share a ride with another paying passenger."

There are already ride systems and services that are much more properly "sharing." Virginia has long had the practice of "slugging," where drivers pick up other passengers at designated lots in order to use the carpool lanes. Other people are creating companies that help people actually share rides.

Jenny O'Brien is a community manager for Carma, a smartphone app that connects drivers and riders with similar commutes for carpooling. She says, "When I tell a potential user about Carma, as soon as I say 'app' and 'ridesharing' they say, 'Oh, like Uber!' Then I have to explain that Uber is more like a taxi. It's frustrating that the public lumps us together because of the misuse of the term 'ridesharing.'"

Many writers and publications follow the AP Stylebook. It is fortunate that AP has agreed with us and others to more accurately describe this new technology and services.

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Australia has an enormous nationwide beltway

Washington's I-495 beltway is a 64 mile long loop. London's M-25 orbital motorway is 117 miles. They seem big, but they're practically microscopic next to the greatest ring road on Earth, Australia's 9,000-mile Highway 1.


Map from the Commonwealth of Australia.

In fact, Highway 1 is the longest single highway in the world. It's 32% longer than Russia's Trans-Siberian Highway, and almost three times longer than the longest US Interstate, I-90.

The Australian government created Highway 1 in 1955, by compiling a network of existing local and regional highways under a single banner.

Unlike American Interstates, Highway 1 isn't fully limited access for its entire length. Near big cities like Sydney or Melbourne it looks like an Interstate, but many sections in rural areas are simple two-lane roads, and some extremely isolated sections are even more basic.

All hail the king of ring roads.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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White Flint's holiday gift: a safe Old Georgetown Road

White Flint residents were frustrated to hear that Maryland transportation officials wanted to push a wide, eight-lane road through the new urban center they anticipated. But on Christmas Eve, they got an early holiday gift: Old Georgetown Road will get to be a boulevard after all.


Old Georgetown Road and Pike + Rose. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Montgomery County's award-winning master plan for White Flint, approved in 2010, would transform an aging commercial strip corridor into a new downtown. A new street grid, complete with bike and pedestrian infrastructure, was a central element in the plan, which specified the number of auto and bike lanes, target speeds and other details for new and redesigned roads.

But community leaders, advocates, and the business community alike were distraught to learn that state transportation officials required that Old Georgetown Road be built wider than what the master plan dictated and without bicycle and pedestrian paths. They said the road needed to handle more car traffic from a redeveloped White Flint.

So it was welcome news when County Executive Ike Leggett said in a December 24th press release that the county's department of transportation and Maryland State Highway Administration had agreed to reduce the number of lanes on Old Georgetown Road. Instead of eight lanes, the new street would have five, with two through-lanes in each direction and a shared left-turn lane at a new intersection with Hoya Street.


Comparison of the two cross-sections. Rendering from of Friends of White Flint. Click for larger version showing more of the road.

The decrease in lanes will significantly improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety by reducing crosswalk distances, and will also allow space for on-street bike lanes and an off-street shared use path between Hoya Street and Grand Park Avenue, as called for by the master plan.

In the press release, Leggett said, "I want to thank our partners at the State Highway Administration for working with MCDOT and my office in approving a forward thinking solution that helps us reach our goal of creating a more walkable and bikable community in White Flint--right from the start."

While advocates and community members are thrilled by this development, there's a feeling that this battle shouldn't need to be won street by street. Behind this success story lies the continuing tyranny of traffic models, which are notoriously wrong in their predictions but still used to prevent local jurisdictions from building the walkable places they want. Montgomery County, like most places around the country, has been witnessing a decline in driving, yet the models continue to predict otherwise.

Even in White Flint, where a rare alliance of community leaders, elected officials, advocates, and the business community has rallied for years around a vision for a walkable community, Montgomery County was on the brink of building yet another dangerous eight-lane road through their showpiece redevelopment, against their wishes, due to the state's requirements to deal with likely incorrect traffic forecasts.

Thankfully, Montgomery County's executive and councilmembers have been supportive of a new approach, and it appears that MCDOT's new acting director Al Roshdieh is on board as well.

"We must continue to transform our transportation infrastructure to be even more transit-oriented, bikable and walkable," he said in a recent interview, adding that he "plan[s] to take a hard look at all of MCDOT's policies and procedures to ensure that they are consistent with our emphasis on smart growth principles."

When people are clearly driving less and desiring to live in walkable places, it's well past time to remove the antiquated, auto-oriented barriers in place that continue to limit the creation of healthy, sustainable, inclusive places like White Flint.

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Public-private partnerships work for some infrastructure, just not all

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are an increasingly common way to fund new construction. But what are they, exactly, and in what circumstances are they appropriate?


The I-95 Express HOT lanes in Northern Virginia. Photo by Virginia Department of... on Flickr.

A PPP, also known as a concession in some cases, is broadly defined as an agreement between a public and private entity where, as Brookings puts it in a new report, the parties share in the risks and rewards of the project. They range from small scale community partnerships, for example when a private developer agrees to take on the risk of renovating a historic building in exchange for some form of reward at the end, or large billion dollar projects, like the new 95 Express lanes south of the Capital Beltway.

The Brookings report emphasises how PPPs can be beneficial for things like getting a project done quicker or with guaranteed maintenance standards for the life of the asset, but also notes that they are not always the cheapest option compared to government entities simply taking on a project themselves. These tradeoffs must be weighed ahead of any potential PPP deal with the granting jurisdiction deciding what works best in its case.

"PPPs are rarely the lowest-cost way to procure infrastructure," writes the think tank. "[But] a well-structured PPP can deliver better value for the public dollar."

Brookings outlines four scenarios where PPPs work well: when the public sector entity has funding or debt constraints, when a project can benefit from private sector expertise, when a private company can bring value for money benefits like lower costs over the life of an asset or when the project involves assets outside the public entity's core mission.

At least three projects in the Washington region benefit from the circumstances being right for a PPP: The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) leveraged private sector expertise for two high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane projectsthe 495 Express lanes on the Beltway and the I-95 Express lanes from Alexandria to Stafford Countyand the Maryland Port Administration used the expertise and financing capabilities of Highstar Capital to expand the Seagirt container terminal in Baltimore.

A PPP helped build a new courthouse in Long Beach, California...

A key part of any PPP is deciding whether the public or private entity assumes more financial risk. Deals have to strike a balance between the risks a private investor is willing to take on and what the public is willing to give up. Brookings cites an array of arrangements that range from the private sector only being responsible for construction of a project to where it has a long-term financial interest in its success.


Diagram by Brookings.

The Long Beach Courthouse concession is an example of where a PPP was valuable to a public entity with funding constraints. California officials used a concession to replace an obsolete courthouse with one where the private sector took responsibility for both the financing and the long-term upkeep of the facility.

In the case of Long Beach, California passed as much financial risk and responsibility to the private sector as is possible under a PPP structure. In exchange, it will pay the concessionaire to keep the building running and in good repair for the life of the contract - eliminating the possibility of maintenance going unfunded as it has in the past with the state's notoriously volatile budget cycles.

...but a project in Chicago was less successful with a PPP

On the other hand, many point to the Chicago Parking Meters deal as an unsuccessful PPP. In 2008, Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners paid Chicago $1.16 billion for the right to operate and collect revenues from the city's on-street parking meters for 75 years. Once it came to light that the concession would likely generate about $11.2 billion in revenues, or $9.6 billion in profits, for the private operator there was an outcry from local groups.

Some see the widely-derided deal as putting the damper on future parking meter concessions deals in the US. However, the deal did result in some future PPPs including profit sharing agreements, for example in a long-term concession of two toll roads in Puerto Rico in 2011, that ensure that the public entity will benefit from some of the concessionaire's profits.

PPPs can work in the Washington region

Well-structured and vetted PPPs can work here. The Purple Line light rail project in Maryland is a prime candidate, where the private sector can likely build the line faster and operate it better than the Maryland Transit Authority. Four teams are ready to bid on a long-term deal for the line.

Maryland governor-elect Larry Hogan should take note. A Purple Line PPP would place Maryland at the forefront of transit project innovation in the US, joining only the Denver Eagle commuter rail project for pursuing such a deal.

DC's proposed network of streetcars is also a good PPP candidate. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has already sought bidders for a concession to build and operate the proposed system, which suits the piecemeal approach the District has taken to building the 22-mile network.

There are countless other opportunities for PPPs in the Washington region, ranging from transportation projects to entertainment facilities like the new DC United stadium at Buzzard Point. A public-private deal will not fit every project, but it will suit some.

As the Brookings study puts it, "a well-executed PPP is simply another tool for procuring or managing public infrastructure."

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Experts are optimistic about Leif Dormsjo

Muriel Bowser has nominated Leif Dormsjo to run the District Department of Transportation. Who's Leif Dormsjo, and should urbanists be excited about the pick?


Leif Dormsjo. Image from DDOT.

Several current and former transportation professionals in the Washington region said there's reason for hope. One wrote in an email, "I think it's a really good pick, and bodes well for a number of things in DC."

Dormsjo most recently served as a deputy transportation secretary at the Maryland Department of Transportation, where he worked on the procurement and public-private partnership funding for the Purple Line.

The experts, who weren't willing to speak publicly because they continue to work in or do business with governments in the region, said that management is Dormsjo's strong point. DDOT needs strong management right now, because perhaps its major weakness has been its ability to deliver on projects.

There are the oft-criticized streetcar delays, obviously, but also smaller projects like the Rhode Island Avenue pedestrian bridge, which was delayed for two years because of problems attracting bidders; a streetlight contract that got overturned twice for contracting problems; visitor parking pass innovations that have been promised for years but never delivered; and more.

One expert who was willing to be quoted anonymously said, "Leif is strongly supportive of performance measurement and contracting and was instrumental in the procurement approach taken for the Purple Line." In fact, this expert feels that Leif's departure could be a blow to the Purple Line project.

"I think his personality plus his political background will make him demanding of his engineers to give good, performance-based reasons for things," he added. "He will want to have people on board who will be able to work with that kind of expectation."

Dormsjo's challenge: Delivering on the District's existing vision

Fortunately, Dormsjo doesn't have to devise a vision on his own. DDOT has a strong vision, the MoveDC long-term plan and the two-year action plan. These efforts took more than a year combining feedback from residents and community groups from across the city to set a direction for DC's transportation.

If Mayor Bowser and Dormsjo are willing to build on that success, they can immediately start getting things done to improve life for residents in the District and the region. That would mean using the action plan as an initial blueprint; retaining the officials, like Sam Zimbabwe and other top planners, who devised it; and devoting energy to fixing structural problems at DDOT that get in the way of achieving these goals.

DC's vision includes improvements to services that WMATA operates, meaning Dormsjo will have to strengthen the ability of DDOT and WMATA to work together instead of at cross-purposes. Securing funding for MoveDC and WMATA capital needs will be a big challenge, particularly with oversight of WMATA and the rest of transportation being in separate DC Council committees under Jack Evans and Mary Cheh, respectively.

While it's built a good vision, DDOT has struggled to follow through on projects. To change this, Dormsjo will need to focus on a few key areas:

Communicating: Communication has been a weak point at DDOT in recent years. This is much more than just having a spokesperson or putting out fact sheets; to improve transportation, you need buy-in from stakeholders, and that means sharing information and building relationships with community groups, business groups, advocacy organizations, blogs, and more.

It also means communicating proactively with councilmembers and council staff, which DDOT did either poorly or not at all for most of the last administration.

When the DC Council cut streetcar funding, for instance, few or none of the stakeholders who had cheered for the program under Gabe Klein were then prepared to defend it. A big reason: DDOT had spent years ignoring all of those stakeholders, giving councilmembers vague and unsatisfying answers, and making decisions which many disagreed with. If you go it alone, you'll be alone, and you won't succeed.

Listening: Residents deserve to have a say in transportation projects that affect them, and they often have something valuable to contribute. At the same time, it's not possible to get every single person to agree. An agency has to set up a process to communicate its ideas and really listen to input, consider that closely, and then take action.

It's too common for the people running a project to either just go through the motions and not actually listen, or for them to do whatever the last person to talk to them suggested. A good process would set a defined period of time for input, which will depend on the type of project, and after that, have an understanding on all sides that it's time to make a call and move forward.

Removing the bottlenecks: DDOT has some people who've put themselves in a position where they have to say yes before something can move forward. The director needs to ensure that everyone who needs to be involved in a project can be, to make it better, but also so that they can't just shut it down or delay it indefinitely. Bottleneck people need to be in roles where they can add value, and if they can't do that, should be removed.

Hiring, trusting, and protecting good people: The director can't be a bottleneck either. DDOT needs good people who can understand their roles and act within them independently. And if something they do arouses controversy, a good director will protect them. If they made a mistake, correct it, but support the person.

Staying true to the vision: You can manage to performance standards, but a lot depends on which standards you choose. Is it how many people you move? How fast? Safety? Cost? This matters because transportation decisions often trade off among these. The 1960s traffic engineering paradigm was all about standards, just narrow ones that ignored important goals around making it safe and comfortable to walk, bike, and take transit.

Sometimes DDOT is so focused on getting a project done that officials lose sight of why they are doing the project. A great example is the Southeast Boulevard, where DDOT circularly set about planning an isolated four-lane boulevard to replace a four-lane freeway. It took the Office of Planning getting involved to really think about the best use of the land.

Or the streetcar, for that matter; we had a streetcar plan, and often, that seemed to mean DDOT was intent on building a streetcar just because. There were, and are, reasons to build a streetcar instead of another mode, but the people running the effort didn't seem to know what those were. And they were often more interested in getting rails down in the street most expediently instead of examining if, for instance, we need a dedicated lane to make it worthwhile to ride.

There's always a tradeoff between getting it done and doing it right. A good director will ensure that there's a balance. That means buying into and believing in the overall vision, to best know when it's okay to compromise on something and when that will damage the whole effort too much.

Can and will Leif Dormsjo do these? Those that know him say we can move into the coming year with strong hopes.

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