Greater Greater Washington

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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 25

On Monday, we posted our twenty-fifth photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in Metro. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, all the photos were taken at L'Enfant Plaza station. But that didn't fool you. Of the 84 guesses we got on this post, 80 of you got all five correct. Great work!

Image 1: L'Enfant Plaza

The first image shows the switch indicator that is mounted on the wall of the southern mezzanine. This tells passengers (and the operator) which direction the switch is set. All of the Metro stations located just before a place where lines diverge have one of these. Everyone got this one right.

Image 2: L'Enfant Plaza

The second image shows a sign on the wall at L'Enfant Plaza. The hint here is that because the sign references the "opposite platform", it must be L'Enfant since that's the only underground station shared by the Green and Yellow lines with side platforms. 82 of you got this one right.

Image 3: L'Enfant Plaza

The third image shows the Greenbelt-bound platform at L'Enfant Plaza. The lighted circle visible at the bottom of the picture is a map of the station. There's also one on the Huntington platform, but those two are the only ones in the system. 80 of you got this one right. One person commented that it was from the 90s, but that's not the case. The map is still there, and I took the picture three weeks ago.

Image 4: L'Enfant Plaza

The fourth image shows art at L'Enfant. The vault above the Blue/Orange/Silver lines has one of these at each end. They show a dog wearing a spacesuit. You can easily see these above the fare control area at the exits to L'Enfant Plaza (9th & D) and D between 6th and 7th. 82 of you knew this one.

Image 5: L'Enfant Plaza

The final image shows what I think is one of the more interesting places on Metro: The dummy mezzanine at L'Enfant Plaza. It looks like a standard side platform mezzanine, but the difference here is that it doesn't actually connect to an exit. However, because the upper level has side platforms, the mezzanine is essential to allowing customers to transfer between northbound Green trains and southbound Yellow trains and vice versa. I believe it's possible for WMATA to add a new entrance near HUD using this mezzanine should the need ever arise. 80 of you got this one right.

Several of you made the comment that this was some sort of trick question. I can assure you it was not intended as such. Every image should stand alone, and if you can identify it, great. In this case, I actually tried to make sure the images were somewhat easy, since I was afraid people would second-guess themselves. To date, I've never featured one station more than once in the same set.

I've also been somewhat worried that people were losing interest, because the number of guesses has been steadily falling over the past few weeks. But from the strong response to this post, my conclusion is that most people only guess when they're reasonably certain.

At any rate, great work. You all apparently know L'Enfant Plaza very well. Thanks for playing!


Hey, streetcar critics: Stop making perfect the enemy of good

American streetcar projects have gotten some tough love recently. Writers who advocate for walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods are questioning whether streetcar investments really enhance mobility, and whether they're worth the money, if, as is often the case in the US, a new line has no dedicated lane or runs infrequently.

Photo by drum118 on Flickr.

While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.

That's not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like:

  1. Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.
  2. An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can affordfor now.
  3. Funding won't get redirected towards a "better" transit project.
  4. Streetcars can outperform buses, even without dedicated lanes.
  5. Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.
Read more in my latest article on CityLab.


DC will start saving a lot of money while offering better transit for persons with disabilities

Paratransit service for persons with disabilities will soon get better for riders, and cheaper for the DC government. New rules will go into effect today, which will let up to 33 wheelchair-accessible taxis offer paratransit rides instead of WMATA's MetroAccess system. The rules could save the government about $1.8 million a year.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Rising MetroAccess costs were a big part of budget gaps during the recession. But policy experts already knew the solution: use taxis for many trips made by the current dedicated vans. Taxi operators already have vehicles out there on the road, and can often provide trips for far less than the cost of the vans.

Every time a person with a disability takes a MetroAccess ride, it costs $51. The rider now pays $6; DC (if it's a trip inside the District) pays $45. But we know that taxis are able to make money charging far less for a ride, and while they would have to buy more expensive vehicles to accommodate a range of disabilities, there's still a lot of savings to be had.

The new regulations authorize two operators with central dispatching services to start offering rides to dialysis patients, according to Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton. This segment of MetroAccess rides are the first group to try out the new taxi-based system, and many of them are able to walk on their own as well. They will call up these taxi companies for their rides and pay $5, instead of $6. DC will pay $28, instead of $45.

In addition, for every 3,000 trips the new vehicles take, the operator will have to buy a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle to add to the fleet. In between serving MetroAccess riders, these taxi vehicles can give rides to residents just as other taxis can. That is what makes it worthwhile to offer this service for $33 a ride instead of $51 a ride for MetroAccess's vans.

Besides the cost advantage, this system should be far more convenient for the actual rider. MetroAccess users now have to book their trips at least a day in advance. Could you imagine not being able to leave your house or neighborhood without planning at least a day ahead? With the new system, riders will only have to reserve an hour ahead.

Linton says that WMATA was only willing to allow this system to serve at most 100,000 trips a year. He didn't go into specifics about the negotiations with WMATA, but perhaps it has something to do with limits in the WMATA's contract with the MetroAccess vendor which guarantee enough rides for that company.

If taxis could serve all of DC's 3,000 eligible MetroAccess riders, Linton estimates that the city could save $15 million a year. That's a big savings. Linton said that if DC's schools used the same system to transport students with disabilities it could save another $15-18 million a year.

Other jurisdictions, like Arlington, already use taxis for paratransit. Such a switch would also improve service for people with disabilities that make it impossible to use Metro rail or bus, and also move toward getting WMATA out of the business of providing a service which should more properly be the responsibility of the local government anyway.


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 25

It's time for the twenty-fifth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each picture?

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Wednesday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for you.


Topic of the week: What's next for WMATA after Sarles?

WMATA General Manager/CEO Richard Sarles will retire in January. Has he left WMATA better off than he left it? What should the agency look for in a successor?

We asked our contributors for their input. Also, I talked about these questions with Jennifer Donelan on Channel 8's NewsTalk Friday:

As I said on the show, I think Sarles provided a stability and a focus on safety that the agency desperately needed to regain confidence from both riders and public officials after the crash. He's put the system back on a solid footing.

Metro has to keep being safe, for sure, but also has different challenges going forward. WMATA needs public support to get the funding it needs for eight-car trains and a new Rosslyn station. It has to win support for roadway changes to improve bus service. All of these require relating to people and working with leaders outside the walls of the Jackson Graham Building.

Winning public support also will require doing more on customer service, including actually beefing up service as well as reducing problems between employees and riders. As Donelan noted in the interview, Sarles is not a highly-visible public figure, and WMATA may need someone who is more comfortable talking to the press and to the public.

Michael Perkins pointed out that many challenges face WMATA. He said tasks over the next decade include:

  • Receive the 7000 series railcars and integrate them into operation
  • Implement the [next generation] electronic fare program
  • Test and integrate [Silver Line] phase 2
  • Plan and sell the region on some sort of core infrastructure improvement
  • Continue to sell the region and riding public on the Metro rebuilding program
  • Implement signaling repairs and upgrades on lines other than the Red Line
  • Manage a substantial capacity upgrade in bus operation (possibly constructing new bus garage sites or expanding existing sites?)
  • Work with jurisdictions to deliver bus route improvements like dedicated lanes, off-vehicle fare payment, or signal priority
  • Operate the 2nd largest heavy rail transit system in the US
  • Operate one of the largest bus systems in the US
  • All while dealing with more than four funding jurisdictions in a widescreen public fishbowl.
Dan Malouff pointed out that while the system has gotten needed repairs, weekend service in particular has really suffered. How can the agency balance these?
Sarles accomplished a lot, but also had some weaknesses. On the one hand, he got Metro's rebuilding on track, and seemingly solved the safety problems that plagued WMATA during John Catoe's time as General Manager. On the other hand, Sarles often seemed more concerned with trains and tracks than with providing good transit service to riders. Thus, transit service and ridership plummeted whenever track work has been necessary, which seems like pretty much all the time except rush hour.

Hopefully Metro's next GM will continue Sarles' great progress on rebuilding and safety, while doing a better job to remember that better customer service is the whole reason rebuilding is important in the first place. WMATA needs a GM who's committed to minimizing disruptions to riders, to putting out the very best transit service practical, and to fully explaining to customers why and when less-than-stellar service is necessary.

Bottom line: Sarles revolutionized Metro's maintenance and safety cultures. The next GM needs to revolutionize its customer service culture.

What skills and priorities do you think WMATA's next head needs?


If Georgetown had a Metro station, it would be one of the system's busiest

Georgetown didn't get a Metro station when the original system was built, for a variety of reasons. But if it did have one, how would it perform? The short answer: Georgetown would immediately be in the system's top 10 highest stations for boardings in the morning peak.

The relationship between residents near a Metro station and ridership. Image from WMATA and edited by the author.

PlanItMetro recently posted about the relationship between ridership and the number of households within a half-mile of a Metro station. This got us at the Georgetown Business Improvement District wondering how a Georgetown Metro station would perform if the downtown loop proposed in Metro's Momentum plan were built.

Georgetown has 4,187 households within the half-mile radius from Wisconsin and M streets NW, which we will use as the theoretical point for a Metro station entrance for the purpose of this analysis . Simply plotting this number of households on PlanItMetro's trendline provides a good starting point for an estimate, suggesting approximately 2,000 boardings during the AM peak.

But this is just the start. 2,000 boardings per hour is likely a floor estimate, rather than a ceiling. First, let's look at where Georgetown residents work.

Map from the Georgetown BID.

People who live in Georgetown tend to work in a distinct corridor that stretches across from the West End to Penn Quarter. This corridor aligns almost perfectly with the existing Red, Blue, Orange, and Silver lines. If a downtown loop line were completed, residents of Georgetown would have a rapid transit option to reach these locations.

Metro's proposed loop. Image from WMATA.

If Metro access were available, we suspect that more than 2,000 Georgetown residents would use it to reach their place of employment. Just for comparison, 13.9% of Georgetown residents already take Metro to work, which includes people who ride and walk from Dupont, Foggy Bottom, and Rosslyn.

An additional 10.1% of Georgetown residents take a bus ride to work, placing overall transit use at 24%, which is below the District-wide average of just under 40%. With a Metro station in closer proximity to people's homes, we would expect transit ridership among the residential population of Georgetown to match or exceed the District-wide average.

Meanwhile, there are over 18,000 households living within one mile of Wisconsin and M. While we don't know how many of these people would take Metro to work, Georgetown's historic pattern of walkable streets and its dense street grid make it easier and more enjoyable to walk long distances, suggesting that there might also be a considerable number of potential riders in this area. These are all the ingredients for a well-used Metro station.

That's not the end of the story. Unlike some of the stations within the top 10 which are primarily employment centers, Georgetown is as much a commercial and retail destination as it is a residential neighborhood. Workers from within the business improvement district's boundaries come from all over the metropolitan region, and most of them have some degree of access to existing Metrorail stations.

Where workers in Georgetown live. Image from the Georgetown BID.

We would expect a large portion of Georgetown employees to start using Metrorail once it opened there. Likewise, Georgetown is a major destination for both locals and tourists attracted to the retail district, trails, park spaces, and cultural amenities. Between residents who work near Metro, workers who live near Metro, and tourists, students, and day-trippers who frequently come in and out of Georgetown, a Metro station here would instantly place Georgetown in the system's top destinations. That would be the case both during normal weekdays when people travel for work, and on weekends when retail and tourist travel peak.

Some of the busiest existing Metro stations, like Dupont Circle, have a high number of boardings and alightings all day because they're in areas with housing, jobs, retail, and nightlife. Georgetown's theoretical Metro station would perform very well at all hours for both boardings and alightings, making full use of Metro's capacity in both directions.

There are many other positive effects that Metro can bring, but one that could convince city leaders to develop a funding plan is the potential economic windfall. At $41/square foot, Georgetown's office lease rates are about 18% lower than the Downtown average of $50/square foot. Most commercial brokers attribute this discount to the lack of rapid transit options in Georgetown. A Metro loop connecting Georgetown to the regional rapid transit network could increase rents, boosting tax receipts to the city.

Georgetown is already a vibrant regional destination for work, shopping, and tourism, but a lack of rapid transit access prevents it from reaching its full potential. Bringing a Metro station to Georgetown isn't just good for this neighborhood. It would be a boon for the entire region.


When WMATA restores automatic train operation, here's what it will mean for riders

Jerky Metro rides are on the way out (on the Red Line, anyway). The bad news is that trains will keep stopping at the end of the platform. Automatic door opening is also not returning for now.

Photo by the author.

As we discussed on Monday, after five years of manual operation, Automatic Train Operation (ATO) will return to the Red Line as soon as March 2015. I spoke to WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel to get some details about the shift.

Both 6-car and 8-car trains will be able operate in automatic mode thanks to upgrades that will stop trains more precisely. Prior to the Fort Totten crash in 2009, this upgrade was still underway, and Metro operated all 8-car trains in manual mode.

One thing that won't change, however, is that 6-car trains will continue to stop at the 8-car marker at the head of the platform. Many riders had hoped the return to automatic operation would mean the end of that practice, since it exacerbates crowding at many stations, especially at Union Station and Gallery Place.

Why do trains pull to the end of the platform?

The policy of requiring trains to pull all the way to the head of the platform instead of stopping in the center stems from a spate of events in 2008 and 2009 where the operators of 8-car trains forgot they were operating 8-car trains and stopped at the 6-car marker. This meant that the last car was still in the tunnel.

After this happened a few times, Metro only required operators to pull all the way forward on days when large numbers of 8-car trains were in operation (like for the Cherry Blossom Festival). After the system went to 100% manual operation in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, the practice became standard.

Most trains could have eight cars soon, anyway, making this moot

I asked Dan Stessel why Metro would continue the practice once ATO was turned back on. He says that for one, the other five lines will continue to operate under manual control, and some operators move between lines. Additionally, from time to time trains will be operated under manual control, so the agency wants to keep the practice standard.

Metro hopes to exercise its option for additional 7000-series railcars soon (assuming the contributing jurisdictions pony up the funding). If Metro succeeds at getting more railcars, by the time ATO returns to the rest of the system in 2017, Stessel says, Metro may be close to operating 100% 8-car trains anyway.

Why the computer can't open the doors

This is basically still necessary because Metro doesn't have a failsafe to keep forgetful operators from opening their doors when some cars are still off the platform. Without one, the agency doesn't feel safe trusting operators to know where to stop their trains.

There used to be a system that prevented operators from opening doors in the wrong place: they didn't usually open the doors at all. As recently as early 2008, Metro train doors opened immediately and automatically when a train was properly berthed in the station. But power upgrades created electromagnetic interference that disrupted this system, making doors occasionally open on the wrong side, so Metro had to turn it off.

To open the doors manually, the operator sometimes had to walk across the cab, adding some delay, but not that much. Unfortunately, some operators still occasionally opened the doors manually on the wrong side, leading Metro to require them to wait an extra five seconds and adding even more delay.

Return to ATO isn't fixing everything, but it's a good step

Without the auto-door feature and operators still stopping trains at the end of the platform, automatic train operation will be less of a victory than some had hoped for.

Still, the return to ATO will mean smoother rides for customers, less wear and tear on the railcars, and less energy consumption. It's also more efficient and generally quicker, which means that riders may see faster and more reliable trips in some cases.

The fact that Metro feels confident bringing back automatic trains on the Red Line is good for one very important reason beyond the customer experience, though: safety.

The underlying cause of the Fort Totten crash was a failure of the track circuit system that keeps trains spaced apart. Metro built a backup system to check for wrong-side failures like the one at Fort Totten, which reduced the probability of another crash. But all the track circuits and modules needed to be replaced to ensure that the crash circumstances couldn't recur.

That has now happened on the Red Line, and is about halfway complete on the rest of the system. It's a major step forward for the safety of riders on the system.


Metro's Richard Sarles announces retirement

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles announced at today's board meeting that he will retire, effective January, 2015.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The move comes as a surprise, since in 2013 Sarles agreed to a contract extension that would have kept him on the job until 2016. But not too much of a surprise: He's 70 years old and has always said he didn't intend to stay at WMATA long.

Sarles took charge of WMATA in 2010 and oversaw a significant rebuilding and safety-related overhaul of the transit system.

WMATA board chairman Tom Downs says the agency will conduct a nationwide search for Sarles' replacement.

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