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Transit


Instead of buses that drive over traffic jams, let's just not have traffic jams

A video of a bus that skirts traffic congestion by literally driving over cars has made its way around the internet this week. It's a bold idea, but it raises the question: Why simply deal with congestion when we can just get rid of it?

Chinese engineers debuted a scale model of the Transit Elevated Bus at last week's High Tech Expo in Beijing. The vehicle would carry over 1000 passengers, and effectively form a tunnel above cars, moving forward regardless of what's happening below.

Other purported perks of the "straddle bus" include that it would have its own right of way (the un-used air above the cars), and that drivers couldn't get stuck behind it—sensors would alert drivers if they drift too close to the bus, or if their vehicle is too tall to travel underneath it.

But is this really worth building? And would it really help streets function more efficiently? While it might first seem like the elevated bus would solve the problem of congestion, this idea is implicitly treating congestion as though it's here to stay, and that we might as well just try to work around all the cars on the road rather than find ways to give people other ways to travel.

Traffic jams aren't a given

The thing is, congestion isn't guaranteed; it's far more fluid than it appears, and it comes and goes depending on how we manage traffic.

This is evidenced by the growing list of cities that have started getting rid of their highways—even when some predict chaos and gridlock because there won't be as much space for cars, things work out just fine.

Locally we're seeing the same with road diets and roads that have gotten or will get bike and transit lanes.

We don't need the straddle bus to get rid of congestion. The solution already exists: Rather than building an eight-lane highway and running a futuristic moving tunnel with seats on top over it, let's just give two of those lanes to regular buses and watch congestion go down.

We already have the technology we need

It can sometimes be far too easy to forget about the tools we already have at our disposal, instead pushing for new inventions and technology to revolutionize how we travel. The hyperloop will supposedly get us across California in 30 minutes, and Personal Rapid Transit will apparently be devoid of all the pitfalls that doomed the Columbia Pike Streetcar.

But we already have what we need. We can build bus lanes and bike lanes, and do more to encourage people to drive less rather than give them options for driving more. We don't have to become the Jetsons to solve the problem.

Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 84

On Tuesday, we posted our eighty-fourth challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 29 guesses. Twenty of you got all five. Great work to the winners!


Image 1: King Street

This week, all of the stations featured are stations that are adjacent to active railroad tracks. The first picture was taken along the walkway to the Commonwealth Avenue entrance at King Street. This entrance was added long after the station opened, and it's far enough north that the platform had to be extended. But the extended platform doesn't serve trains (they still stop in the original location), so fences along the tracks keep people back from moving trains.

The presence of this fence, plus the three-track railroad bridge in the background are both clues that this is King Street. Nearly all of you (26) got this one right.


Image 2: Brookland

The second image shows ancillary rooms at the north end of the Brookland platform, viewed from the Michigan Avenue bridge. The main clue here is that the Metro tracks are straddled by a single freight track on either side, which happens only along the Red Line between Brookland and Silver Spring. That means that this could only be one of four stations.

At Fort Totten and Takoma, there's no way to get a view like this, since there are no bridges nearby. At Silver Spring, there is a bridge over the southern end of the station, however, from that bridge, the MARC platforms would be visible, as would many tall buildings, since Silver Spring is so urban.

One final clue is the cleft in the blockhouse at bottom right. That cleft is home to the base of a bridge support from the older Michigan Avenue Bridge. That bridge was still in use when Brookland station was constructed, so the ancillary rooms were built around the bridge support. However, the current Michigan Avenue bridge was constructed and opened shortly after Brookland station opened to passengers. The old base still exists, though.

Twenty-one of you knew this one.


Image 3: Rockville

The third image shows the view northward from Rockville station. Given that many Metro stations are next to railroad tracks, this one was harder to narrow down, but there were some clues. One is the new platform pavers, which are present now at most Red Line outdoor stations, but few stations on other lines.

The buildings around the gentle curve in the distance also may have helped you narrow this down. The one closest to the station is 401 Hungerford, home to Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services. Another clue is the adjacent railroad bridge over Park Road, which is fairly distinctive.

Twenty-one figured this one out.


Image 4: Minnesota Avenue

The fourth image shows a view westward from the platform at Minnesota Avenue. There are a few clues. The most distinctive is probably the bridge over DC 295 at center. That bridge leads to a long ramp down to the station's mezzanine, the top of which is visible as well.

A second clue is the catenary masts with missing catenary. The railroad line between Landover and L'Enfant Plaza (via the Virginia Avenue Tunnel) was electrified just like the rest of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New York. Back then, not only were passenger trains hauled by electric locomotives, so were freight trains. For that reason, electric wires ran above this freight bypass of Union Station, all the way south to Potomac Yard, where the Pennsy handed off freight trains to the Southern Railway and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P).

Conrail stopped running electric-hauled freights in the mid-1980s, so the wires are long gone. But the supporting masts survive. These wire-less masts run alongside the Orange Line between Cheverly and Minnesota Avenue. So that should have helped you narrow this down.

One more clue that may have helped narrow this down is the parked coal hopper. This stretch of track leads into CSX's Benning Yard, where many of the coal hoppers bound for the Morgantown Generating Station and the Chalk Point Generating Station are stored. Parked coal trains are a common sight on this portion of the Orange Line.

Twenty-two got the right answer (dontcha know).


Image 5: Landover

The final image was taken looking south from Landover station. From this vantage point, you can see the electrified Northeast Corridor. Since it's impossible to tell whether the catenary here is still present (due to the foliage), this could be any Orange Line station between New Carrollton and Minnesota Avenue.

With the Amtrak corridor to the right of the image, this must be a picture looking south. It can't be Cheverly, since that station has side platforms. At New Carrollton, the Amtrak/MARC station would be visible at right and there's a bridge within sight of the southern end of the platform.

Additionally, the southern ends of New Carrollton, Deanwood, and Minnesota Avenue have blockhouses with ancillary rooms (like seen in image 2 at Brookland), so the view to the south is not possible. Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood also have freight tracks on both sides of the platform, which aren't visible here.

That leaves Landover, which twenty-two of you were able to correctly deduce.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


If Metro had been more like Southwest Airlines, it'd have saved a lot of headaches

Last summer, I took my first ride on one of Metro's new 7000 series railcars. They're impressive, but had I gotten my way back in 2006, when I was WMATA's interim General Manager, that ride would have never happened.


Photo by Matt Johnson.

It's not that there's something inherently wrong with the 7000 series, at least no more than there is with any of Metro's other models. The 7000 series is sleek, clean, and efficient. I particularly appreciate eliminating the carpets and the new displays.

The problem is that the 7000 series is yet another kind of railcar that Metro needs to know how to maintain. When that's the case, as opposed to a fleet full of the same kinds of cars, it's a nightmare.

How transit agencies buy railcars

Starting with its first cars, the 1000 series, Metro has bought its fleet in batches, or series. A quick check of Wikipedia can give you the deep dive on the manufacturers, numbers, delivery dates, and the like. The agency has gone back out to market six more time since it bought those first cars, with each successive lot of cars given a new designation: 2000, 3000—you get the picture.

When I was General Manager, we were just finishing delivery of our order of 6000 series railcars. And they had bugs.

Here's the thing about modern transit vehicles: Because each series is bought in a separate procurement, usually after a substantial period of time, the cars' design evolves. Metro then asks a (shrinking) set of global manufacturers to bid for each new design, and once a company gets a contract, it must set up a factory in the United States to construct the order. This factory never gains any economies of scale or long term experience.

The fact is that the best railcar you will get out of this process is the last one delivered. And, frankly, the manufacturers generally just figure out how to build the car when the contract term ends.

Federal Transit Administration regulations require that the agency run a new bidding process to select a new manufacturer every five years. Never mind that the existing manufacturer has the most expertise in building that car they've been building for five years; if a new company comes in cheaper, the agency may have to let that one start building cars, even if that's a surefire way for bugs to come back in.

Many railcars make maintenance harder

One day during my tenure, I was showing a Washington Post reporter, Lena Sun, through a railcar maintenance facility and we met a railcar electrician. He summed up the stupidity of having so many models quite succinctly, waving his hands around his shop and saying, "See all these tools? It is because we have six different kinds of railcars on the system, and each one is just a little bit different. So I need a different set of tools, and parts, and manuals for each one of them."

This is why Southwest Airlines only flies the 737. It is part of their secret to great service, low costs, and high on-time rates. On the corporate side, it increases their bargaining power with suppliers, reduces maintenance cost, increases employee productivity, and streamlines processes.

We wanted Metro to benefit from this lesson by simply continuing to buy the 6000 series. The plan was to negotiate to buy 100 cars a year, every year from that point forward until the fleet was renewed. Then, taper the buys to 50 cars a year to continually renew the fleet.


A 6000 series car. Photo by ExactoCreation on Flickr.

We even had talks with Baltimore and Miami (the two system who use cars that most resemble Metro's) to join in the order and make the volumes attractive enough to keep the manufacturer busy, and drive down costs. We were looking forward to the possibility of jointly training and sharing staff, parts, tools and best practices.

If we had continued on this track after 2006, the system would have all new 6000 series cars by now. But the 7000 series was revived shortly after I left.

Would this have fixed Metro's problems? Not all of them, certainly. But railcar reliability is one of Metro's biggest issues right now, and this could have improved that metric. Also, it could have freed up managers' attention to focus on the track bed, signals, and power systems—the boring parts that have been given a lower priority than the shiny things (literally) like the new car.

Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 84

It's time for the eighty-fourth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


Metro doesn't have four tracks. That's not why maintenance is a problem.

"Yet from the start, Metro was saddled with two structural flaws. First, each line runs on just two tracks—New York City's subway generally has four—which makes it difficult to perform maintenance while still shuttling commuters."


Photo by Andrew d'Entremont on Flickr.

That's part of a detailed profile of Paul Wiedefeld and Metro's current struggles in TIME Magazine, the rest of which is excellent but unfortunately behind a paywall. But in the above excerpt, reporter Alex Altman repeats a very common canard about Metro, that having two tracks instead of the four of many New York subway lines is a major flaw.

This pops up in article after article about Metro, though rarely if ever sourced to a specific transportation expert. Instead, it's just something that every reporter "knows"—even though it's largely false.

Frederick Kunkle said something similar in a May 13 blog post:

Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro's past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.
False.

We heard the same from unnamed reporters at Agence France-Presse:

But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area's population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.

First, while other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks, Washington's has just two. This was done to save money.

Incorrect.

Other articles, like in the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ABC7 also mention the 4-track issue and often compare DC to New York, though they don't make the outright incorrect statements of the others.

What is true

1. Metro does have only two tracks on all its lines.

2. This was a deliberate decision, partly because more tracks would have cost more. George Mason history professor Zachary Schrag, the guy who literally wrote the book on Metro, explains that planners thought about making more tracks, but chose not to because it would have been too expensive, and given limited resources, they wanted to build more lines instead.

3. Having more tracks would make maintenance less painful. On New York's four-track lines, the subway system is able to shut down one or two tracks for a weekend and keep two-way service running, though people at some stations may not get trains or might only get them in one direction.

What is false

"Other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks" (from the AFP article). This is almost entirely false. As Matt Johnson explained back in 2009 (the first time we discussed this), there are only three US subway systems with express tracks: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

New York has a lot of express tracks, and since so many people are familiar with the New York subway, it's likely why people keep asking about the issue. Otherwise, Matt wrote, "In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont)." That's it.

There are a few places where other systems have multiple lines that converge for a transfer, like around BART's MacArthur station in Oakland, but that's just a short bit.


Two track line in Chicago. Photo by Jason Mrachina on Flickr.

Worldwide, even, four-track subways are the exception rather than the rule. A few pieces of lines in London have four tracks, but other cities do not. Paris's extensive Métro is all two-track lines. Two lines, the #8 and #9, run together in a 4-track subway for four stations, and the RER regional rail has some sections with more than two tracks, but Paris has more miles of 2-track lines than Washington, and most US and world cities are all 2-track lines.

Resilience isn't why some systems have more tracks

Lines with more tracks aren't that way for redundancy, but rather capacity: they make it possible to fit twice the trains along the same avenue. In only the densest places in the world, like New York, is that sensible, and even so, most cities don't do it.

Instead of making 4-track lines, what world cities with better transit systems than Washington enjoy is just more lines, period. You can shut down a line much more easily when there's another one nearby. Back to New York, for instance, the tunnels between Manhattan and other boroughs are 2-track, but there are many parallel ones.

If the A train is under repair, the trains could travel on the F line instead. When the L tunnel has to be shut down for Sandy-related repairs, it'll be horrible for residents of Williamsburg and Bushwick, but at least they can transfer to the G train to go around to another East River crossing.

When Chicago shut down its Red Line for months, it was able to set up bus service to get people to the parallel Green. Fewer parts of the DC Metro have alternate lines nearby.

More tracks? How about more lines

If the builders of the Washington Metro had had more money, they should have done just what Schrag said they already wanted to do: build more lines, not more tracks. More lines would make transit closer to more people but could also offer redundancy.

In the core, it would have been better to separate the Blue and Orange, or Yellow and Green, into separate, nearby subways. Metro has, at various times, suggested plans to do that. Such a layout would allow rerouting those trains onto the other line in the event of night or weekend shutdowns (and make room for more trains during rush).

While the articles above didn't talk about express service, a related complaint about Metro is that it doesn't have express trains. Actually, the truth is more that it has nothing but expresses. Schrag writes, "The wide spacing of stations in the suburbs make them the equivalent of express lines elsewhere. Rather, Metro lacks the slow, hyper-local routes like the Broadway Local in New York City, which stops every few blocks to serve the tens of thousands people in apartment buildings."

There's no doubt Metro has maintenance problems. But we can't blame them on the system having only two tracks. Other systems keep up maintenance with only two tracks. It's simply not true that building two tracks is "the original sin of Metro" or one of "two structural flaws."

Rather than bringing up the issue about two tracks over and over, news articles would do better to talk about ways Metro is falling short of all the world's 2-track train systems which operate and maintain themselves better.

Transit


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.


Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.


Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.

Links


Worldwide links: California's crisis cause

According to California's governor, his state's housing problem isn't that it's not spending enough on affordable housing, but rather that it's way too hard to get a building permit. China is building lots of subway systems, and Jane Jacobs may not have paid enough attention to infrastructure. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Travis Wise on Flickr.

It's the permits: California Governor Jerry Brown wants to reduce how long it can take to build new housing in his state. He says there's already plenty of money going toward affordable housing, and that the real focus should be on making local permitting processes less lengthy. (Los Angeles Times)

Smaller metros get more metros: China has been on an subway building frenzy. 26 cities have systems, while 39 others have projects approved. The Chinese Government also recently changed the rules to allow cities with more than 1.5 million people to build new systems. The old minimum was 3 million. (Reuters)

Disadvantaged cities: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says that state regulations across the country are hostile toward cities. With his state's budget discussions approaching, Wolf said the state has too often left cities to fund themselves, giving residents raw deals on things like school funding and utility rates. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Missing infrastructure: Jane Jacobs has taught us a lot about how to build great places, where walking around is easy. But she may have also had a a blind spot, as she often neglected to talk about systems and infrastructure, like transit and water pipes, that stitch neighborhoods together. (Common Edge)

Transit mapping tech: A few years ago, Tiffany Chu and some friends put together a program that would allow transit planners to map out routes and immediately see the impact of those decisions based on data. Today, Remix is the toast of planners everywhere who want an easier way to get more people to ride the bus. (Curbed)

The disappearing dive: Dive bars are disappearing at a rapid pace. At the same time, it's increasingly common to see bars that claim to be dives, but are actually washed out versions of the real thing. Many blame the gentrification while others say it's just pure economics, as $2 bottles won't pay the rent. (Eater)

Transit Trends

In this episode of Transit Trends, my co-host and I sat down with Iain Macbeth of Transport for London to discuss how the information from a connected car can improve transportation systems worldwide.

Transit


FiveThirtyEight said Metro catches fire 4 times per week. Fortunately, that's wrong.

On Thursday, FiveThirtyEight, a national blog popular for its analytical take on everything from Donald Trump to the NBA, published an article claiming that there were 85 fires on the Metrorail system—over four fires per week—between January 1st and last week. That claim is built on inaccurate data, and it overstates the actual risk of fire on Metro.


The graph that FiveThirtyEight @LeahLibresco used in her article.

FiveThirtyEight's data is wrong

FiveThirtyEight arrived at its count of fire incidents on Metro by tallying up the number of times @IsMetroOnFire has said there was one. The story says @IsMetroOnFire simply tweets every time either the @metrorailinfo or @metroheroalerts accounts mention smoke, fire, or fire department activity, but it looks like @IsMetroFire also tweets anytime anyone using the #wmata hashtag mentions these keywords as well.

The problem with depending on tweets from @IsMetroOnFire, or really from anywhere in the Twitterverse, is that it's very easy to miscount or classify problems incorrectly—in other words, @IsMetroOnFire sometimes says there was a fire when there wasn't, and FiveThirtyEight's story didn't account for that.

For example a tweet yesterday from @IsMetroOnFire reporting smoke/fire was technically correct: A train offloaded at a Red Line station for a brake problem that caused smoke. But there was no fire in the station, on the tracks, or in the train.

So how many rail fires were there actually?

Metro itself reports official totals of smoke and fire incidents each quarter. Through March 2016, the report was 24 fire incidents, including insulator fires and smoldering rail ties. Another 24 smoke incidents, like burning brakes and brake dust, were reported over that same period.

This is a lot lower than the approximately 75 incidents of fire that FiveThirtyEight told readers occurred through the end of March (the 85 that was reported as the total through May 16th is a bit harder to address those last 10 since Metro won't release April and May data until the end of the quarter). I monitor Metro regularly, and if I'm at all accurate, there have still not been anywhere near as many incidents of fire on Metro than what FiveThirtyEight suggests.

Also, the Metro data differentiates "smoke" and "fire," with a smoke incident being something like smoking train brakes while a fire incident could be an arcing insulator or a wooden rail tie fire. Either could lead to the fire department showing up, but only one is a fire.

Also, sometimes the fire department coming has nothing to do with smoke or fire. They might come for a sick passenger on a platform or a false fire alarm, but as long as someone tweets that they came, @IsMetroOnFire reports that there was a fire.

When your graph claiming to show Metro fires depends on tweets related to the fire department, the information it conveys is bound to be off.

Of course, we'd rather there be no fires at all

It may be pretty obvious, but fire in a transit system is bad; in no way do I want to marginalize that fact. Even the 54 incidents I'm aware of this year, which includes both trackside smoke and fire incidents, is way too high. Fire and smoke are what caused a death at L'Enfant last year, what shut down the rail system for a day, and what have caused the FTA to order new Safety Directives on WMATA. The goal, of course, should be zero incidents.

If your'e curious about how many fires another major subway system has, New York City's MTA reported an average of just over 21 "subway fires" per week from March 2015 to February 2016 (1022 in the year), and 20 per week in the year prior (963).

538 is well-known for their data-driven journalism, and rightly so. But using misleading data to justify calling Metro unsafe is is unfair at best.

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