Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dan Malouff

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

Gas is suddenly cheap(er); the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn't the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That's why gas prices always fall in the fall.

But that's not enough to explain this autumn's decline, since gas hasn't dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that's also only part of the explanation.

The bigger piece is that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it's totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that "OPEC is over."

It's that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven't changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn't changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale isn't limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That's a mathematical certainty. But it's not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn't very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here's what it doesn't mean: There's never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we've only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn't be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody's guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn't change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that's necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we've made on those fronts and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Norfolk's light rail choice: Embrace the city, or follow the highway?

As Norfolk plans the next expansion of its burgeoning light rail system, a classic transit dilemma faces the community: Will the northern extension to Naval Station Norfolk run through rider-rich urban neighborhoods or take the path of least resistance along wide suburban highways?


Potential light rail routes. Image from HRT.

Hampton Roads Transit is planning two light rail extensions. One, east to Virginia Beach, is relatively straightforward; it will follow an old rail right-of-way. The other, north to Naval Station Norfolk, is a challenge.

The northern extension will have to run on or adjacent to streets, and could follow any one of several alignments planners are currently considering.

If the light rail follows Granby Street, a tightly packed urban commercial street, or Hampton Boulevard, the main street through Old Dominion University, then it will probably capture a lot of local riders, since those are walkable transit-friendly destinations. On the other hand, adding transit lanes would be more disruptive for car drivers on narrow streets than on wider, more suburban highways, since there's less space to go around.

Conversely, if the light rail follows the more easterly Military Highway, there will be plenty of space to accommodate trains without disrupting cars, and commuters to the navy base using park-and-rides near the end of the line will have a quick ride from their cars to the base.

But that alignment wouldn't serve any strongly walkable neighborhoods; it would even miss downtown Norfolk. It would offer quick rides to one destination and easy construction, but the resulting line would be a glorified parking shuttle to the navy base, not the spine of a transit-oriented community.

Maybe after a few decades a Military Road alignment might induce enough transit oriented development that some of its stations could become walkable. Or maybe not. In the meantime, Norfolk's genuinely urban neighborhoods will still need better transit.

Meanwhile, the Church Street alignment would split the difference by skirting the outer edge of downtown Norfolk, and the Chesapeake Boulevard alignment would snake along an indirect route that serves a few additional neighborhoods, but would be very slow from end to end. These options look like compromises unlikely to satisfy anybody.

Planners have already dropped the most urban alignment options, which would have gone through Norfolk's dense Ghent neigborhood. Not only does that mean the most walkable part of Norfolk besides downtown will be without rail, but also that the western end of the existing light rail line will be a spur, forcing transfers.

Experience says pick the urban options

The fast and easy suburban options are tempting. Not only are they the path of least resistance, but computer models of traffic behavior probably predict that the more suburban routes capture the most navy base commuters.

But history shows light rail systems built like that don't work very well. Computer models are good at predicting long distance car commutes, but bad at understanding travel in walkable areas. They naturally push planners towards park-and-ride oriented systems, when we know the most successful transit routes follow dense walkable corridors instead.

So Norfolk faces a choice: Embrace the city and build a transit line for the city, or follow a highway and build a park-and-ride shuttle.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

DCís most bike-friendly corner: 15th and L

Look at this beautiful photo. Two cycletracks meet at a street corner, bike boxes and green paint flow in every direction, and a bikeshare station sits in the background. It's almost Dutch. Almost.


15th and L, NW. Photo by the author.

This is the corner of 15th and L Streets, in downtown DC. It's the only intersection in the Washington region (so far) where protected bike lanes extend out in all four directions. It's also home to the only two-stage bike box in the region. And as of Tuesday, it's got a sparkling new bikeshare station.

Whether or not it's really DC's most bike-friendly corner is debatable. Certainly the heavy car traffic at 15th and L can make biking there uncomfortable, even with cycletracks. And while most bike movements through this intersection are easy, there's still no good way to turn right off the L Street cycletrack onto southbound 15th Street.

But no other corner in the city packs so much bike infrastructure into one spot. According to that metric at least, this corner is tops.

And it's right outside the Washington Post's headquarters.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

To rehab part of the Red Line, Metro will close it for 14 weekends

Get ready for major construction along the Metrorail Red Line. Starting in the summer of 2016, WMATA will close portions of the Red Line between Friendship Heights and Grosvenor for 14 weekends, including one stretch of at least 7 consecutive weekends.


Grosvenor Metro station. Photo by Isaac Wedin on Flickr.

The good news is that in exchange for all those closures, Metro will complete a whole cadre of major rehabilitation projects up and down the line, and begin construction on the Purple Line. Instead of the piecemeal reconstruction that's characterized Metro rebuilding elsewhere, this will be a comprehensive program that will solve several problems at once.

Metro will fix water leaks in the subway tunnel, repair the piers that hold up the elevated tracks near Grosvenor, rebuild the platform at Grosvenor, and begin construction on a new mezzanine at Bethesda station, for transfers to the Purple Line.

The most significant construction will happen at just outside Medical Center station, where Metro workers will install a large arch between the tracks and ceiling, to help waterproof the tunnel.


Medical Center arch. Image from WMATA.

The work is necessary because water leaks in the subway tunnels have been causing electrical failures. In addition to waterproofing the area around Medical Center station, workers will power wash the tunnel, fix leaks in the tunnel, install better drain pipes, and replace tunnel lights and electrical cables.

Since the water leaks are an immediate problem that will take several weekends to fix, WMATA will take advantage of the station closures to do other work as well.

The agency will rehabilitate the elevated tracks near Grosvenor, where the metal bolts holding up the aerial structure have begun to degrade. Although the structure is not in any immediate danger of falling down, it could become a threat if Metro doesn't fix the situation now.

At Grosvenor station itself, workers will replace the crumbling original platform tiles with the newer Takoma-style tiles the agency has been using in recent years.

Finally, Metro will begin construction on its portion of the Purple Line, at the Metro stations that will double as Purple Line transfer points. At Bethesda, workers will begin to install a second entrance and mezzanine. At Silver Spring, the agency will begin to plan a similar connection, although construction won't begin yet during this period.


Bethesda second mezzanine. Image from WMATA.

There's no doubt all this construction will be painful for riders, but it's better than the alternate. At one point, Metro management was considering completely closing this part of the Red Line 24x7 for at least five weeks. By closing only the weekends, at least the line will remain useful for commuters.

Correction: The initial version of this post implied that a new arch would go inside Medical Center station. It is actually in the tunnel just outside the station.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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.

Computers will start driving Red Line trains again

Starting in early October, Metro will turn control of six non-peak Red Line trains over to computers. If all goes well, every Red Line train should be under computer control by March 2015.


Photo by Jesse Alexander on Flickr.

This marks the first return to automatic train operation on Metro's original system since WMATA switched all trains to manual control following the 2009 train crash.

Since then, WMATA has fixed the faulty electric systems responsible for the crash, but only on the Red Line. Fixing the rest of the system will take another three years.

When it works, automatic train operation runs Metrorail more efficiently and smoothly as compared to manual control. That means fewer delays, faster trips, higher passenger capacity, and more comfortable rides.

This is great news to riders who have suffered from motion sickness on manually-driven trains. And it's an important step forward in Metro's long, painful rebuilding process.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Two maps that explain what DC might look like as a state

On Monday, Congress considered DC statehood. But what would DC actually look like if it became a state?


Maps by Geoffrey Hatchard for Neighbors United for Statehood.

The most likely path to statehood for the District would shrink the federal city to a tiny section surrounding the National Mall and other federal properties. That section would remain not part of any state. The rest of the city would then become the 51st state, possibly called New Columbia.

Here's a zoom-in to what would become the remaining federal city.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Richmond will have BRT by 2018

Bus rapid transit will come to Richmond in 2018. The long-planned Broad Street BRT project won a federal TIGER grant this week to cover half its cost, allowing the project to move forward into final design and construction.


Rendering of Broad Street BRT. Image from the Greater Richmond Transit Company.

Broad Street is Richmond's most successful transit corridor, and main bus spine. It runs through or near most of Richmond's densest urban neighborhoods and most important central city hubs. It's the natural place for rapid transit.

The BRT project will run from the Willow Lawn shopping center in suburban Henrico County, through Virginia Commonwealth University and downtown Richmond, all the way to Rocketts Landing on the city's east side.

It will use a mix of dedicated curbside bus lanes and a median busway through the busiest sections of the central city, with mixed-traffic operation on either end.


Map of Broad Street BRT. Original image from the GRTC.

Projections say the BRT line will carry about 3,300 riders per day. That's low compared to the standards of a transit rich metropolis like DC, but it's huge for a place like Richmond, where there are only about 35,000 total daily bus riders in the entire region.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

DC Circulator is such a great brand it's expanded to Ohio

Earlier this year Columbus, Ohio launched CBUS, the Columbus Circulator. It's a special overlay bus route running along the main street through the city's densest, most urban neighborhoods. It comes every 10 minutes, has a low (actually free) fare, and limited stops. Sound familiar?

Oh, and here's a photo:


Photo by Darius Pinkston on Flickr.

Look familiar? That sweeping line, the destinations labeled on the side, "CIRCULATOR" in a modern sans-serif font right in the middle. It looks nothing like Columbus' standard bus livery, but it is all very reminiscent of the DC Circulator.

In fact, Ohio transit advocates had the DC Circulator in mind during planning for CBUS.

Columbus isn't alone, either. "Circulator" is spreading as an increasingly common brand choice for short-distance, high-frequency buses in mixed-use areas, especially near DC. There's a Bethesda Circulator, a Tysons Circulator, and a Baltimore Circulator.

Just how far will this brand spread?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

The biggest bikeshare station in each US city

Throughout 2014, DC and New York have jockeyed back and forth over which city's bikeshare system has the most stations in the United States. But who has the biggest stations?


New Yorkís 67-dock station. Photo from Google.

DC currently leads in the number of stations race, 335 to 324. But the number of stations only tells part of the story. New York's stations are vastly bigger than DC's, and by far the largest in the US.

New York's biggest station, which is outside of Penn Station, has a whopping 67 docks. It's almost 50% larger than the next city's largest station.

Here's the number of docks at the biggest station in America's main big-city bikeshare systems:

RankCityLargest stationDocks at largest station
1New YorkPenn Station67
2BostonSouth Station46
3WashingtonDupont Circle45
4ChicagoMichigan/Washington43
5MinneapolisCoffman Union and Lake/Knox32
6Miami Beach46th/Collins31
7tDenverREI27
7tSan FranciscoMarket/10th and 2nd/Townsend27

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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