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VRE's map keeps getting more diagrammatic

Last year, when Virginia's VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.

VRE's system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.

The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so '90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.

It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River's many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren't information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it's useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.

Image from VRE.

Cameron Booth, the internet's foremost expert on transit maps and author of, reviewed VRE's new map in December, calling it a "solid" but "unremarkable" effort.

Across the river in Maryland, the MARC commuter rail map remains completely geographic.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Reports of Metro track defects sat in a database without action for years. One reason: Poor training.

A Silver Line train derailed last month because rail ties had deteriorated and the tracks had moved apart. Metro track inspectors had noticed years earlier, but it was "misclassified" in WMATA's database and never got fixed. Meanwhile, inspectors weren't checking all the places they were supposed to. One big reason for all these failures: bad training.

Degraded rail ties replaced during SafeTrack Surge 6. Image from WMATA.

As we've found out since the derailment, track inspectors weren't properly inspecting interlockings in the rail system, the spots where trains cross over from one track to another. Just like the main tracks, these are supposed to be inspected twice per week.

However, WMATA's top managers don't believe that was occurring, General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld and Chief Safety Officer Pat Lavin explained at a special WMATA Board meeting on Thursday.

These track inspections, along with those automated and performed by the Track Geometry Vehicle, then go into Metro's issue tracking database, MAXIMO.

It would be bad enough if the inspections are potentially missing issues. However, the agency can't even trust the defect reports logged in MAXIMO. In a track integrity report the Federal Transit Administration released two weeks ago, Metro staff say they have only "approximately 75 percent" confidence that the data in MAXIMO is accurate, and thus useful.

To lose track of defects or to not be able to validate data in the system may have contributed to the East Falls Church derailment. The rotten rail tie defect reports were "incorrectly classified" and sat in the system for years without being properly escalated to the more serious priority that they warranted.

Metro has now awarded yet another contract to essentially rebuild its MAXIMO database with new track inspections, re-finding all the track defects that exist so that the agency has a known "good" list of issues in the system. This could be cheaper than trying to weed out the good vs the bad in the existing database.

Training is a big source of problems

Whether train operators are instructed not to set parking brakes overnight or track inspectors don't have the experience to properly identify and log defects, employee knowledge gaps are contributing to Metro's safety problems.

The FTA report said that track walkers go through an 18-week training program before being allowed to inspect the tracks, but that this training is insufficient:

The current training program is based on hiring employees from the street, without prior track knowledge and experience. The training does not provide a formal mentoring program for Track Walkers nor does it provide on-going training, specialized modules or workshops. Recertification and re-qualification appears to be limited to a one hour activity that centers largely on validating an employee's measurement skills. Additionally, there does not appear to be a training or on-going training program for supervisors who oversee the Track Walkers.
The agency is bringing in six Federal Railroad Administration-certified track inspectors for a short-term four-month contract to help give the system a fresh look by outsiders. One of Lavin's goals for this group is that they help give on-the-job training to Metro's nearly 60 track inspectors, some of whom have only been with Metro for maybe a year or two.

Not only is classroom training important, but also the practical hands-on side of it: touching the rails, inspecting fasteners and clips, and so on.

After reviewing the East Falls Church incident, Metro's staff came to the conclusion that "standards are appropriate, [but we] must focus on front line training and enforcing compliance to standards." One of the ways to start rectifying this? Have track walkers work with the experienced inspectors to pick up their habits and learn how to do the job better.

In addition, WMATA commissioned a peer review. from the the American Public Transportation Association. Based on its conclusions, a group from the University of Tennessee will be heading to Metro for two weeks in September. Metro's track inspectors will use these two weeks for additional track inspection training to help fill in knowledge gaps.

Even train operators need more training, according to reports including a recent one from the FTA. Operators aren't familiar enough with where the signals are on the tracks, the proper maintenance and troubleshooting of their trains (especially the newer 7000-series ones), and standard operating procedures of how to store trains in rail yards.

While some issues around both track inspections and train operations are a part of the culture deficiencies that Metro managers are trying to fix, others boil down to simply training employees so they can do their jobs successfully and safely. This is just one of the steps needed to boost morale and rebuild employees' confidence so they can make Metro's rail system once again safe and reliable.


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 90

On Tuesday, we featured the ninetieth challenge to see how well you knew the Metro system. Here are the answers. How'd you do?

This week, we got 27 guesses. Nine of you got all five. Great work, Peter K, J-Train-21, Stephen C, Solomon, AlexC, JamesDCane, dpod, Travis Maiers, and We Will Crush Peter K!

Image 1: L'Enfant Plaza

The first image features a Metro pylon directing passengers to the western entrance to L'Enfant Plaza. This entrance is inside the L'Enfant Plaza shopping concourse, and isn't the easiest to find from the street. This pylon bridges the gap between the traditional M-capped pylon on D Street and the mall entrance.

The main clues for this image are the brutalist buildings in the backgound. They're very iconic and should have been easiily recognizable as parts of the L'Enfant Plaza complex. 20 got it right.

Image 2: Grosvenor

The second image shows the pedestrian bridge over Tuckerman Lane connecting Grosvenor station to the Strathmore Arts Center. The curve of this bridge was a clue, since few pedestrian bridges in the system are curved. The two obvious choices are New Carrollton and Grosvenor, which have bridges like this.

However, the bridge at New Carrollton has a sharper curve. The colored lights here are also very distinctive, but if you haven't used the bridge at night, that might not have been helpful. 11 figured it out nonetheless.

Image 3: Braddock Road

The third image shows some new-ish signage at Braddock Road. We discussed these new platform decals in a post several months ago. This is the only station in the system with these markings.

Additional clues include the Alexandria Peak roof style (only King Street has the same canopy) and a blue marker on the train's destination sign. 14 figured it out.

Image 4: Deanwood

This picture shows the north end of the platform at Deanwood. The surroundings here should help you eliminate all the other possibilities. The catenary masts in the background mean this must be one of the Orange Line stations on the eastern end of the line. But the lack of wires eliminates Landover and New Carrollton.

The island platform eliminates Cheverly. The houses mean that this can't be Minnesota Avenue, since DC 295 is just west of the station. That leaves Deanwood. 21 worked out the logic correctly.

Image 5: Naylor Road

The final image shows a view from the platform at Naylor Road. The perspective here means this is an elevated station. The buildings in the distance, Lynhill Condominiums, were another clue.

Aerial images might have helped you narrow this down, by locating the bus loop and park-and-ride. 18 came to the correct conclusion.

Great work, everyone. Thanks for playing!

We're taking a break until the end of September. So take some time to study up and we'll see you on September 27 with week 91.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Metro badly needs culture change, everyone agrees. Can it pull it off?

Cross-overs. Guarded 8s. Gauge rods. It's hard for most Metro riders to follow all the talk about track inspection practices, the blistering number of Federal Transit Administration recommendations, and regular single-tracking over one problem or another.

While Metro has many problems with its track inspections, the real problem is deeper. Metro lacks a culture of not just safety, but of getting jobs done properly. The organization hides information from one level to another instead of working together to root out and fix problems.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

Frederick Kunkle effectively summarizes the problems with Metro's organizational culture through one recent employment action.

Seyoum Haile, a senior mechanic, had falsified preventive maintenance inspection reports on [a] fan, court documents say. When confronted with discrepancies in those inspection reports during the post-accident investigation, Haile also lied, Metro's management says. ...

[But] Haile, who had been employed with the agency for 13 years, had only been following routine procedure in a workplace where management fostered incompetence and allowed people to make stuff up as they went along. ... Haile's supervisor, Nicholas Perry, acknowledged in arbitration testimony that he gave out pre-signed inspection reports to his crew. The forms said "reviewed by a supervisor," even if that were not the case, a practice Perry testified that he has since discontinued. ...

When mechanics wanted to run a test remotely, they had to contact Metro's Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). The ROCC staff sometimes put the mechanics on hold, failed to call back, or had trouble locating the correct switch for the fans in question. On one of the last inspections Haile and a co-worker conducted on the fan before the fatal Yellow Line incident, he was heard in the background on an audio recording respectfully trying to help the ROCC official locate the right switch. But the ROCC operator couldn't find it and hung up. He and his coworker went to work on another fan but did not return to the original one.

The ROCC hung up? Are you kidding me? And Perry handed out pre-signed reports and never checked them? Come on.

I worked at an organization (Google) known for its culture, around innovation, around encouraging engineers to pursue crazy ideas with 20% of their time, around launching products in "beta" (at least at that time) to see what happens. Culture didn't come automatically to it or any other Silicon Valley company. They worked hard to communicate and reinforce themes and consider it strongly in hiring.

Metro's culture, clearly, is lacking. Many employees, whether front-line or managers, don't take responsibilities seriously. If employees falsify reports, and their managers encourage them to, and other departments hang up on them without solving a problem, something is very wrong not just with a few people or a department, but a culture.

Paul Wiedefeld is trying to change this

Thursday, the WMATA Board grilled agency managers on this. David Strickland, one of the new federal board members and a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said, "There has to be a crosscurrent of responsibility among every employee at WMATA, and quite frankly, it's not there. It's not just individual accountability and punishing wrongdoing. We need to have a self-policing culture."

WMATA General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld agreed. He said, "We have years of disconnect between management and employees. I want to reinforce we're all together in this. We respect each other; we're not going to have retaliation." (Many front-line employees have said they didn't speak up for fear of retaliation from their immediate supervisors, just one of many culture problems that have come to light.)

"I think it's a major reset of how we approach our employees, to hold everyone accountable," Wiedefeld went on. "The thousands of employees I've talked to, they want that, they want to get there."

We need Metro to succeed

It's very hard to turn around large organizational culture. It's possible, and people have done it, but companies in this situation are more apt to decline and go out of business than turn around.

That's not an option for Metro. It isn't something we can abandon (earlier, silly Kunkle columns notwithstanding). With all its problems, it's still the nation's second-best subway system.

It's made the Washington region appealing to the many people who want to live in walkable areas with transit to jobs. It's fed residential and job growth in central DC and many mini-downtowns in Maryland and Virginia. And it's made it possible for downtown DC to thrive without needing to cover all of this land in five-story parking garages:

Image from WMATA.

For those of us who think Metro is one of the best things ever to come to this region, it's heartbreaking to see these problems run so deep. They have to get fixed. They just have to. And all of us need to do whatever we can to help that happen.

There may not be much we can do. The board has hired someone, Paul Wiedefeld, to turn around the organization's culture. So far, people in the know believe he can. It's a tough job.

It will be harder if Metro also has no money

One thing we can do is ensure Metro isn't under-resourced. The more time Wiedefeld is spending out convincing local, state, and federal officials to give him the funds he needs to actually make repairs, the less time he can be fixing the management structure.

It's hard to argue that Metro needs money when so many people seem to be drawing salaries and not doing a good job, but an organization that's spending all its effort cutting expenses to the bone isn't an organization that can devote real management attention to reform. It's not a purely zero-sum game and he can and should do both, but some things really require the top manager, and there are only so many hours in a day.

Until they can, Metro is going to keep having layers upon layers of problems, just waiting to pop to the surface when the right conditions arise. Only a culture of working together to fix problems, not cover them up, will get Metro back to the pride of the region. "Culture changes can be generational, and we don't really have generational time to see that our culture changes," said Arlington's Christian Dorsey at the meeting.

I hope the union and management can truly work together to solve this. It's clear that some front-line employees should be fired, but also clear that many middle managers need to be. This won't get fixed by scapegoating anyone or union busting, but it also requires a shared commitment to change the culture, including removing the most toxic members.

Metro's still got a tough path ahead. Let's all root for it to succeed.


Diane Rehm cast her MetroGreater vote. Have you? Voting closes tomorrow at midnight.

The votes are rolling in! So far more than 1,200 people have cast their votes and rated the ten MetroGreater finalists. Voting closes at 11:59 pm on Friday, August 26th. We'll announce the winner next week.

Diane Rehm. Photo by NIH Image Gallery on Flickr.

Riders like you submitted nearly 1,400 ideas for quick ways Metro can improve the rider experience. A MetroGreater jury comprised of riders, advocates, and WMATA staff selected ten as finalists.

Now, the public will choose the winning idea by voting at WMATA has committed to implement the winning idea over the next six months.

Here are the 10 MetroGreater finalists

Click on each idea below to see the original MetroGreater submission and what commenters think about this idea.

Want to know more about these ideas before you vote? Check out this series of posts, which delve a little deeper into each finalist idea.

More direct priority seating signsMore station name signs
Install split stanchions in trainsCompass rose decals at station exits
Kojo on Metro: Recorded rail announcements by local personalitiesExit Metrobus using the rear door campaign
System map decals for ceilings of rail carsFeature local artists' work in stations
Make the sign post maps more color-blind friendlyReverse commuter parking passes

WAMU gets in on the MetroGreater action

Back in July, Martin DiCaro of WAMU invited David Alpert to talk about the MetroGreater contest on the seventh episode of the podcast Metropocalypse. Martin had David back on the most recent episode of Metropocalypse to comment on Metro's recent challenges and to give an update on the 10 MetroGreater finalist ideas.

Inspired by the "Kojo on Metro" finalist idea, Martin asked his colleagues to lend their voices to a faux Metro announcement. Diane Rehm may not have actually cast her MetroGreater vote, but she did lend her voice. Listen to Diane Rehm and Korva Coleman offer some cheeky advice to Metrorail riders.

Make sure your voice is heard. Vote today!

If you haven't already voted, go to to rank the finalists today! Voting closes at 11:59pm on Friday, August 26th.

Then, stay tuned! We'll announce the winning idea next week on Greater Greater Washington and


I don't care what some people say: DC has great transportation options.

SafeTrack is pretty much Exhibit A when it comes to how frustrating the transportation options in the Washington region can sometimes be. But as my recent move to Orlando reminded me, problems like SafeTrack are somewhat of a luxury—you have to have a rail network to even have them. My message to the DC region: it's really not so bad!

X2 Bus. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

In the Orlando region, there's a fixed route bus system and new commuter rail line that provides reliable service for millions in Central Florida. And I just happen to live and work in a more transit-accessible area than I did in DC. But that is uncommon. Wait times between buses and trains are often an hour, and real-time traveler information isn't available throughout the entire system.

I recently spoke to some Greater Greater Washington contributors about my newfound appreciation for what DC does so well, asking if there's anything here that they're particularly thankful for. I really liked what Alex Baca had to say:

Metrobus arrives on time, consistently, and the frequency on the notable crosstown lines (90, X2, S buses, 50s) blows many, many other systems out of the water. I left DC for San Francisco and am now in Cleveland (car-free!). In both cities, it is a struggle to find a bus that arrives when it's scheduled. I know that the switch from NextBus has caused some consternation as far as real-time arrivals, but at least DC's buses arrive when their paper schedules say they will.

I was in New York recently and a friend warned me that "the buses aren't like DC here," so I would have to give myself a 15-minute window for my bus from Prospect Heights to Williamsburg, in case it was early or late. In Cleveland, the bus that stops outside of my apartment (a "high-frequency" line on a major route to downtown) is routinely four (four!) minutes early and only runs every 15 minutes—when I first moved here, I missed the bus several times and waited a whole headway for another, which, of course, was often late.

I left DC in 2014 but am back as often as I can be. I always, always take Metro from National or MARC from BWI, then Metro and Metrobus as needed. Often, I'm lucky to have a bike, but sometimes I don't. I don't want to undercut WMATA's problems with Metro, but even as a hot mess it's a better system than most other cities in America have to offer, and I will say that I was utterly miserable biking for both transportation and recreation in San Francisco, a city that is ostensibly one of the country's most bike-friendly. BART's role as a commuter system is even starker than Metro's. I rarely used it to get around the city in the way that I used Metro, just to get to the airport and the East Bay.

DC's transportation is comparatively incredible across the board. This is a great thing. It's also a depressing indicator of the state of transportation in the US.

In a word, Alex is right.

The Washington region has tons of options, from bikeshare to trails. Wait times between buses aren't bad when you compare them to other cities, and we've got apps that give us real time information. We've also got good wayfinding.

Capital Bikeshare in action. Photo by fromcaliw/love.

Capital Bikeshare adds to its 370 stations monthly, it seems. In just a few years, the system could have nearly 500 stations.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail. Photo by TrailVoice.

Bike commuting is easier with the region's extensive trail network, linking downtown to the suburbs. When Metro closed for a day in March, the MBT experienced a 65% increase in cyclists. That's a testament to how easy it is to bike in the area.

Wayfinding. Photo by Dylan Passmore.

Across the District, blue signs point you towards neighborhoods, Metro stations, and other points of interest. A person new or unfamiliar to an area can find their way to the Smithsonian museums or the zoo pretty easily.

Tell us your thoughts: what have you seen or experienced while traveling or living elsewhere that made you particularly thankful for the region's transportation network?


System maps on the ceilings of cars? Color blind-friendly dots on sign posts? These are the last 2 MetroGreater finalists!

You have a few more days to vote for your favorite MetroGreater finalists before voting closes at midnight on Friday, August 26th! We've told you about eight of the ten finalists over the last few weeks. Here are the last two: System map decals for ceilings of cars and color-blind friendly dots on sign posts.

Photos by Mr. T in DC and thisisbossi on Flickr, respectively.

System map decals for ceilings of cars

Many people who submitted ideas for small, quick fixes to make riding Metro better wanted to see improvements to signage. This finalist idea proposes to add more system maps to rail cars by putting them on the ceiling. Although Metro has made ceiling space available for advertising on some cars, they could make room for some maps.

Original photo by Mr.T in DC on Flickr.
Read Janet S.'s original submission:
Place decals of Metro system Maps on ceilings of the cars, preferably in between doors. This will encourage tourists to move to middle of car, away from doors, if they are able to see a system map that is not near a door.

Ceiling system maps will also be helpful to regular riders who are having to make detours during Safe Track surges.

A few commenters think this is a great idea. Daniele notes that because she is 5'3", "it can be EXTREMELY difficult to see the Metro map! By putting it on the ceiling, I would no longer have issues seeing the map!" Rick agrees that this is a good idea, but thinks that adhesive system maps might make for tempting souvenirs. He recommends that WMATA "make sure that they can't be peeled off" too easily by people wanting to take them home!

What do you think? Should system map decals for the ceilings of rail cars be the winning idea? Vote at and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Make the dots on sign posts more color-blind friendly

Many people with color blindness experience unique challenges when trying to navigate Metrorail. Difficulty or the inability to distinguish between colors means that system wayfinding tools based solely on color are confusing for some people with colorblindness. This MetroGreater finalist idea seeks to assist people with colorblindness by adding text to the rail line dots on sign posts in Metro stations.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Diana B.'s original submission explains:

On all sign posts, print the word color (ex. Blue on blue dot) so color-blind people can tell what line it is.

People who are color-blind have trouble determining which line is which, because they can't tell the color of the circles. My son-in-law has to ask people which line is which and sometimes gets no help because people just tell him to look at the posts.

Commenters agree with Diana. As someone who seems to have color blindness herself, Lori "support[s] this 100%." She shares that if she didn't already know where she was going, she would have a hard time navigating based on colors alone.

To make wayfinding easier for people who are colorblind as well as those who may not read English, Mark suggests making "giant colored dots with white colored text words" in the center in both English and French. Rick, on the other hand thinks less is more and recommends "dots with the single capital letters in them, (B) = Blue, (G) = Green, (R) = Red, etc." to reflect some of the new system maps.

Do you support adding text to the colored dots on sign posts? Should it be the winning MetroGreater idea? Vote and tell us your thoughts at


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 90

It's time for the ninetieth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of 5 stations in the Washington 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 submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at


Compass rose decals? More direct priority seating signs? Here are two more MetroGreater finalists.

This week is the last week to vote on your favorite MetroGreater finalists! Before voting closes at midnight Friday, we're telling you about each finalist idea. Today's featured finalists: Compass rose decals at station exits and more direct priority seating signs.

Photos by the finalists.

Compass rose decals at station exits

Have you ever been disoriented upon exiting a Metro station, unclear which way you need to go to reach your destination? This finalist idea offers a solution: install compass rose decals outside stations. A compass rose is a figure which indicates the orientation of north, south, east, and west cardinal directions. Installing compass rose decals outside stations with multiple exits could help Metrorail riders get their bearings after exiting a station.

Photo by finalist Robert B.

Here's the original submission:

Exiting at an unfamiliar metro station, but know the direction you need to head next? Use a compass rose to quickly orient yourself.

Keep sufficiently far away from station exit that tourist won't stand over and block escalator exits. In fact, if decals are 10 feet forward from exit, it could draw unfamiliar visitors forward and out of the way of escalators as they orient themselves.

Decals would be best if they gave primary prominence to the north direction, so they could be read from a distance and were not dependent on reading the letters.

Robert B. shares that "downtown [DC] stations can be especially confusing since there are often multiple exits and infrequent riders may not realize that they are exiting at a different exit than they took last time." He thinks installing compass rose decals at certain station exits would help. Commenter "thm" agrees."Start with Farragut North! I always get confused when exiting there because it's 17th street on both sides of Farragut Square, and occasionally I've wanted to walk towards 16th street but made it halfway to 18th street before I got my bearings."

Robert foresees some potential challenges with this idea, but offers proactive solutions. To avoid having passengers clog up the exits by stopping to look at the directional decals, Robert suggests placing them away from the escalators to "pull visitors forward." Also, some commenters have suggested including local landmarks or neighborhood attractions on the decals. Robert thinks that's a great idea, but, taking the long view, he notes that "one of the advantages of the compass rose is that north won't be changing direction anytime soon, while construction and destruction of roads and landmarks could leave the decals out of date."

What do you think? Which stations would benefit from compass rose decals? Vote at and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

More direct priority seating signs

Federal law requires that rail cars have signs which designate certain seats as priority for people with disabilities and seniors. These priority seating signs should also indicate that other passengers give up these seats if asked to do so.

This finalist idea proposes stronger language on Metro's priority seating signs to make sure that able bodied people relinquish their seats to those who need them more.

Photo by finalist Matt F.

The original submission explains:

While traveling in Portland and Seattle last year I noticed that the priority seatings signs used much stronger language than those on Metro. Portland MaxRail says you are "required" to give up your seat for someone who needs it.

I see a lot of people on trains and buses unwilling to get up from their seat for someone who is elderly, pregnant or could otherwise use a seat.

Metro has tried to address Matt F.'s concerns about priority seating in the past. In their 2009 "If trains were planes" video about Metrorail etiquette, the animated attendant notes that "all seats are not created equally." She notes that passengers should make the designated priority seats available to seniors and people with disabilities.

This video appears to be part of a campaign Metro rolled out in 2009 to remind riders to make priority seats available to people with disabilities and seniors. In January 2015, Metro worked with the Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), which represents the needs of elderly people and those with disabilities, to encourage people to keep priority seats open for these folks through an ad campaign.

Making priority seating available to those who need it seems to be a perennial problem on Metro. Perhaps, changing the language on the signs can help keep priority seating open for those who need it?

What do you think about this idea? Tell us with your vote at or in the comments below.

You can also check out the other finalist ideas we've profiled here, here, and here.

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