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Transit


Is a gondola across the Potomac realistic? We're about to find out.

Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We're about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.


Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here's what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID's 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there's a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It's ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.


Portland's gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don't know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system's ability to spur economic growth and development.
The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or "fatal flaws" that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

Bicycling


This trail could run through the heart of Prince George's

Central Prince George's County is not a bicycle or pedestrian friendly area, but the county's planning department is designing a new trail that will run from Capitol Heights to Largo Town Center.


Photo by Ken Mayer on Flickr.

The trail, which could have its own bridge crossing over the Beltway, would connect the Marvin Gaye Park Trail in DC, four Metro stations, Fed Ex Field, Largo Town Center, and all of the neighborhoods, employment centers, shopping areas, and entertainment venues in between. In the future, it might extend to Anne Arundel County.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission completed a feasibility study late last year, mapping out a proposed trail alignment and estimating the cost of preliminary planning for the 8.5-mile long trail at over $630,000.

The proposed trail would start at DC's eastern corner and follow the old Chesapeake Beach Railway right of way to Central Avenue.


The Central Avenue Connector Trail would run from DC's eastern corner to Largo Town Center. Click for a larger, clearer version. Images from M-NCPPC unless otherwise noted.

It would then follow Central Avenue until the road splits away from Metro's Blue Line, at which point the trail would continue running along the Blue Line en route to Largo. This part would all be 12-foot wide multi-use trail.


This is what the trail will look like west of the Morgan Boulevard Metro.

A southern alignment from DC's eastern corner would go south to the Capital Heights Metro on the way to Old Central Avenue at Capital Heights Boulevard. It would then follow Old Central all the way to the Chesapeake Beach Railway ROW. This alignment would be a combination of bike lanes and shared streets.

Though the bulk of the land is owned by Metro, M-NCPPC or the Maryland State Highway Administration, some parts do pass over private property. Also, the trail is supposed to run over the Capital Beltway. The feasibility study shows some alternative routes if Prince George's can't acquire that property, or if it can't build a bridge over the Beltway.

In the latter case, the result is a 1.5 mile detour to Brightseat Road. It's unfortunate that a trail bridge wasn't built in 2004 in conjunction with Metro's Trotter Memorial Bridge over the Beltway.


1.5 mile Brightseat Road Detour.

Another challenge will be building the half dozen stream crossings that'd be necessary. But if these challenges can be overcome or mitigated it would greatly enhancing biking and walking in the area, and make it easier to get to Metro without a car.

Update: Just today, the Transportation Planning Board approved a $109,400 Transportation Alternatives Program grant to pay for the 30% Design for the easternmost 0.32 miles of this project between Morgan Boulevard Metro Station and Largo Town Center Metro Station. This includes he trail, pedestrian/bicycle bridge structures, and two trail crossings.

Transit


Metro's goal is 20 trains per hour at Farragut North. Here's what it actually averaged in May, June, and July.

Last year, I found that Metro was running fewer Red Line trains per hour than it had planned during rush hour. I'm counting again this year, and so far the numbers are a mixed bag.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

I counted Red Line trains running through Farragut North last year, so I went with the same location this year. I did switch to only doing in-person observations rather than relying on WMATA's next train arrival data, and to recording from 4:30-5:30 pm (last year, I recorded times in the morning).

The Red line clearly struggled in late May, with an average throughput of 14.6 trains/hour from May 23-27. This is nearly 30% below Metro's own service guideline of 20 trains/hour. On four of five days, train malfunctions and other problems affected service, though May 25th was quite bad even without any reported delays.

But since that time, service has rebounded and averaged around 17.25 trains/hour over the past two weeks. This is roughly in line with the number from last year's observation. There weren't any reported problems during this time, which surely has something to do with trains staying closer to their schedules.


A week's worth of Red Line throughput data from this month. Click to download a complete version of the data the author collected.

Do schedules need adjusting?

Despite the improvement, Metro only hit its service goal of 20 trains/hour on July 12th, with the trains headed toward Shady Grove. Headways varied significantly, with gaps ranging from two minutes to 10 minutes or more.

Train sequencing showed similar variation. While Metro's Trip Planner shows that train destinations should alternate (i.e. Glenmont, then Silver Spring, then Glenmont, etc.), it was not uncommon to see trains to the same destination arrive one after the other.

I asked Richard Jordan a WMATA spokesman, how often Metro re-evaluates schedules and whether the Trip Planner is updated to reflect these new times. His response was that "our current service pattern allows for 20 trains per hour on the Red Line. We monitor rail service daily and make adjustments as needed. The online Trip Planner is based on the current schedule."

Unfortunately, actual service doesn't match the Trip Planner. While trains should be arriving every three minutes at Farragut North during rush hour, that clearly hasn't been the case. And trains rarely arrive in the sequence listed online. Certainly neither of these issues is a critical problem, but they are worth addressing.

Why this matters

Metro's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has said the agency needs to confront "hard truths" and be more transparent with the public. This honesty should extend to Metro's online schedules and service advisories. Obviously unexpected problems happen that cause delays, but Metro should strive to make sure service matches the online schedule, or vice versa.

Second, SafeTrack makes staying on schedule even more important. Service across all rail lines will be significantly cut at various times over the next 8 months, sometimes as much as 50% or more.

With trains set to only arrive every 10-18 minutes for multiple weeks, it's critical that they adhere to their modified schedules. Otherwise already lengthy delays around work zones could become unbearable and cause dangerous conditions on platforms and in railcars.

The good news: there are more 8-car trains

On a positive note, while I observed almost no 8-car trains last year (due to problems with the 4000 series), they are much more plentiful this year. And after a brief restriction, multiple new trains are once again traveling the Red line.

Transit


Traffic jams are up during SafeTrack

Getting from Point A to Point B by car has taken longer than usual during SafeTrack, and while people changed when they commute during some of the work surges, few changed their actual routes. Those are two of the key takeaways from an analysis of rush hour congestion during SafeTrack that came out on Monday.


Increases in travel times along roads in the Washington area during the morning and afternoon commutes during each of the four SafeTrack surges so far. All images from the TPB.

The report comes from the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, whose analysts looked at hour-by-hour data on traffic conditions both this year and last.

Now a month and a half into its 10-month plan to to perform major maintenance across the system, Metro's work has focused on four areas: there was single tracking between Ballston and East Falls Church in early June, a total shutdown between Eastern Market and both Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road later in the month and into July, and after that two shutdowns from National Airport, first to Braddock Road and then to Pentagon City.

You might not be surprised to see that freeway congestion, which the TPB measured by the percent increase in travel time, went up significantly during each surge. However, congestion increased much less outside on non-freeway arterials, which suggests that not very many people changed their routes to avoid the increased freeway traffic.

In addition, all four surges led to significant increases in travel times within downtown DC. These increases, even when Metro service in DC was not cut too significantly, are probably because more people drove to downtown offices.

While all four surges resulted in increased congestion, the increase was significantly larger for Surge 1 (single-tracking between Balston and East Falls Church) than for the other surges.


Change in freeway congestion for each surge, compared to the same dates in 2015.

The smaller increase in congestion from the later surges may have been due to the fact that the number of commuters generally goes down during the summer, as well as the fact that commuters were more aware of the later surges. However, it will be interesting to see how Surge 5, starting this week, affects congestion, since it will be a repeat of Surge 1.


A comparison of freeway congestion during Surge 1 to congestion during the same dates in 2015.

It's worth noting the difference between changes in the intensity of the peak period congestion—which simply represents more cars on the road—and changes in the time distribution of congestion, which suggests that a significant number of drivers adjusted their trips to take into account the real or perceived effect of the Metro shutdowns and single-tracking.

Surges 1 and 4 mostly resulted in increased intensity of peak period congestion, while surges 2 and 3 seem to have resulted in more changes to commuters' schedules.

What else do you notice in the image and graphs?

Transit


SafeTrack returns to Ballston this week, and some work from last time still isn't finished

Between July 20th and 31st, Orange and Silver Line trains will share a single track between Ballston and East Falls Church and run less frequently. SafeTrack's first work surge was in the same place, and there are still a few loose ends to tie up.


The percent change in how many trains will run on the Silver and Orange lines during SafeTrack Surge 5. Image from WMATA.

Surge 1 work focused on the track typically used for inbound traffic (otherwise known as track "K1"). During Surge 2, Metro workers will hop over to track 2 (K2) and will do a lot of the same work. That likely means replacing rail ties, fasteners, insulators, grout pad, and power cables. In addition to this, workers will also need to finish up some deferred power maintenance that they didn't get done during Surge 1.

For all riders to the west of Ballston, this means that trains will come only every 18 minutes, 1/3 the number that typically come during a normal rush hour. They'll run more frequently east of Ballston, both because some Orange Line trains coming from New Carrollton will stop and turn around there and because the Blue Line will keep running its normal schedule from Rosslyn.

How to get around during the Surge

As with Surge 1, some westbound Orange line trains will stop at Ballston, and others will continue to Vienna. The ones that stop at Ballston will probably let people off on the regular outbound platform, turn around, reload passengers, and continue back to New Carrollton. Trains continuing to Vienna and Wiehle will enter Ballston on the "wrong" track, let people on/off there, and continue to their destination.

In other words, the shuffling that caused confused riders at Ballston's platforms will probably be back. It'll be possible for trains both heading into and away from DC to pick up and drop off passengers on either platform. So hopefully Metro again has employees in the station helping you out telling you where to pick up the train.

Metro has lots of alternative transportation info listed, including the bus shuttles around West Falls, East Falls, and Ballston, Metrobus routes with additional service, and info on traveling by bike rather than train. If you anticipate being affected by the work, check to see if there's a bus line, carpooling options, or other transport that might be a feasible alternative during the 12 days of single-tracking.

The FTA already found defects in the Surge 1 and 2 areas

The Federal Transit Administration recently released inspection data on the first two surges, showing that as of July 14th, inspectors found 109 "defects" in 27 inspections. The Surge 1 area from East Falls Church to Ballston had eight items that needed to be corrected, and there were 26 for the second SafeTrack area, near Stadium-Armory.

The term "defects" is vague, however: a defect could be anything from a burnt out lightbulb in a tunnel, to missing fasteners that could cause a derailment. The FTA defines a defect as "a documented non-conformance or deviation of WMATA's safety standards, [or] rules or procedure." So some of the issues the FTA found may be relatively small, but any noted deficiencies shows Metro still needs to work towards minding both the big and little rules when it comes to passenger and worker/employee safety.

Metro's Deputy General Manager of Operations, Andy Off, commented on the quality of the work done so far during SafeTrack, acknowledging that the agency needs to tighten up on some of the quality control being done. A new feature of SafeTrack is having quality control/assurance employees walking the tracks while work is being done, not just afterwards.

If this procedure change is more tightly integrated with the track work being done and Metro's new Chief Safety Officer continues to work on the agency's safety culture, then we should hopefully see these defect numbers diminish over the life of SafeTrack, and further on down the road.

Transit


If Metrobus asked me to redesign its info brochures, I'd make them look like this

I've lived in DC and used Metrobus here for 14 years. I'm also a designer, and I have a few ideas about how to make the bus timetable brochures clearer for people using them to understand the system.


Metrobus brochures could included a map like this to give riders a sense of where they are even if they've never heard of the specific places.

Some of the brochures' most important information, like where bus lines run and which bus stops have Metrorail stations nearby, isn't shown at all. And if you aren't familiar with the bus line numbers or street names, you won't have the context you need.


Mockup from the author based on the original Metrobus brochure.

While many people have smartphones to get their information in other ways or know what apps to download, visitors to the city often don't. And many low income travelers either don't have a smart phone nor money for data plans.

Here's my new design:

I designed a new brochure that I think would help readers know where they are even if they don't understand the geography of the District.


Redesigned Metrobus brochure by the author.

In short, I think Metrobus brochures should give users a visual understanding of where they are rather than assume riders know street or neighborhood names and that they should provide further information on how they can connect with Metrorail.

Do you see any other ways to make my new brochure better? If you have ideas, post them in the comments!

Transit


Metro has too many employees and not enough riders, say its consultants

Metro has a budget deficit that's widening, and while the agency is employing more and more people, ridership is down. The consultants who started reviewing WMATA earlier this year recently presented their findings to Metro's finance committee, and suggested a couple of possible ways to start closing the gaps.


WMATA's operating deficit has grown, with costs outpacing revenue. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Metro's General Manager Paul Wiedefeld brought on McKinsey & Co early on in his tenure to review the agency's operations, and to suggest ways it could work better and save money. Thursday's presentation was a follow-up to an earlier McKinsey report, and allowed Metro's board of directors to discuss the company's findings and start mulling over what to do next.

In short, McKinsey restated that Metrorail security is ok relative to other US agencies but Metrobus security lags behind, that the agency spends more than most on rail car maintenance yet still has issues getting cars into service, and the agency is doing less with more employees.

The combination of all of these issues means ridership has gone down and is no higher now than it was in 2005, but costs have continued to increase. Given the hand it's been dealt, WMATA still has some time left to take the steps necessary to turn things around, but the window of opportunity won't be open forever.

Metro's financial problems aren't new by any stretch of the imagination. Metro's CFO presented a similar warning last year that expenses were continuing to increase while revenue stagnates. Also, federal funding for WMATA has been restricted since 2014, when the FTA performed a financial audit and found gaps in the agency's monetary controls.

The federal funding restrictions have meant it takes longer for Metro to receive funding even if it expects to ultimately get it, and that the agency has had to crack down in its finance office to make sure money is being used properly.

The FTA's report and late financial audits have made it harder for Metro to justify that it needs continuing and increased funding.


Employee headcount and expenses. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Two main factors were seen as contributing to the agency's financial woes: a rising number of full-time employees and decreasing ridership. The agency's full-time employee headcount has increased from 8,596 in fiscal year 2011 to 10,269 in FY 2015, which ended June 30th of 2015.

The report notes that 73% of these employees are in two main groups within WMATA: Metrobus, and Transit Infrastructure and Engineering Services (TIES), which is in charge of most if not all Metrorail maintenance, construction, and upkeep.

TIES and Rail Transportation (RTRA) have been growing at a rate of 7% since 2011, according to the report. Some of the increase is due to almost 500 positions filled for the opening of Phase I of the Silver Line, however that still means around 800 other employees were added as well. Wiedefeld has un-done some of this growth by recently announcing that he'll eliminate 500 positions, but some of those are vacant anyway.


Normalized for population, Metrorail carried 86% the number of riders in 2015 as it did in 2015. Image from McKinsey/WMATA.

Ridership is down

Yearly employment growth might be healthy if ridership on the system was keeping up, but that is not the case here. McKinsey's report notes that adjusted for population growth in the region, the system in 2015 carried only 86% than what it carried in 2005.

While all other systems that McKinsey looked at showed ridership growth between 2005 and 2015, Metro's growth increased up to around the financial crisis in 2008-2009 and has been decreasing ever since. Off-peak rides account for 48% of the ridership decline since 2011, continues the report.

While there may be no one thing that caused people to stop riding, there are certainly several circumstances that greatly contributed to it, including: drops in reliability; seemingly-constant weekend, weeknight, and mid-day trackwork reducing train frequency and increasing waits; fare increases; and high-profile safety/security events relating to the system.

McKinsey recommended a number of ideas for cutting costs, including moving the Metro headquarters, and selling off or contracting out the agency's parking garages.

Those ideas are great, but the real keys are increasing system reliability, decreasing rail car breakdowns and delays, and spurring growth around Metro stations to encourage continuing ridership. Paul Wiedefeld seems to understand what needs to be done to turn the tide, and has implemented the SafeTrack program and now also has a focus on fixing railcar maintenance.

Improvement won't be instant—few positive changes are—but hopefully it will show its head in the weeks, months, and years to come.

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