The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Dan Malouff

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for Arlington County, but his writing represents only his own personal views. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in Northeast DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post

Bicycling


Boston's "park & pedals" are park and rides for bikes

How do you get more commuters to bicycle into the city? Boston is trying "park & pedals," dedicated parking lots where suburban commuters can drive to the edge of the city, then bicycle the last couple of miles.


Photo by Park & Pedal.

Bicycling is often the fastest way to travel through dense cities. But most commuters from far-flung suburbs aren't willing to bike that far every day. Park & pedals split the difference, allowing suburban commuters to drive where it's easier to drive, then bike through the part of the city where it's easier to bike.

It's a fascinating idea, and an unusual twist on the last-mile problem of urban transportation.

The last mile

The hardest part about providing transportation from low-density suburban areas is the so-called "last mile." That's the gap between commuters' homes and a major highway or transit line, where there's not enough people going to the same place at the same time to provide convenient shuttles.

Park and ride lots around transit stations solve that problem by putting the onus on drivers to get to the station. That's not as efficient as having people live within walking or biking distance of the transit station, but it's better than making them drive the full distance into the city.

Transit agencies should never design their entire systems around park and ride users, but a few park and rides at strategic locations can be a good thing.

Why shouldn't the same idea work for bikes? A few parking lots near major bikeways like the Custis Trail and the Metropolitan Branch Trail might indeed prove useful. Particularly if they're located far from Metro stations, where it's not so crucial to reserve land for transit-oriented development.

Official vs unofficial

Boston has an official park & pedal network, with designated lots specifically for drive-to-bike commuters. It opened in 2015 and has been expanding this year.


Boston's park & pedal network map. Image from Park & Pedal and Google.

Naturally, an official network isn't strictly necessary for commuters to combine driving and biking. In the Washington region, people hoping to bike the last mile into the city can park at Metro stations, private lots, or even neighborhood streets.

But official parking lots do have some big advantages over doing it ad-hoc. They're easier to advertise, and they provide natural places for hubs of bike amenities. With park & pedals, planners could add wayfinding signs, maintenance kiosks, secure bike parking, lockers, even bikeshare stations and bus connections. Each one could become a Union Station-like bike station.

Worth the money?

Car parking is expensive and already abundant. With so many demands on transportation budgets and so little money generally available for bike improvements, spending money to subsidize car parking may be a questionable idea. Better to spend it on bike lanes, bikeshare stations, sidewalks, or transit.

But transportation budgets aren't all-or-nothing. There could be opportunities to partner with parks, churches, developers, and other property owners to designate park & pedals on the cheap, without the need for expensive construction.

Some of Boston's park & pedals are simply designated sections of on-street parking on public streets, and therefore a matter of policy more than construction. Nothing says DC could not do the same.

As Washington area planners do more to make bicycling easy, park & pedals may well be one more tool to add to the toolbox.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Using tape, paper, and potted plants, Arlington built a temporary bikeway

On June 11, Arlington closed a block of bustling Wilson Boulevard for what organizers called the Active Streets Festival. There were bike-oriented games and activities, plus a collection of temporary bikeways "built" with tape, paper, and potted plants.


Pop-up protected bikeway. Photo by BikeArlington.

The festival took place during the Air Force Association cycling race, when many Arlington streets were closed anyway. The Active Streets Festival gave Arlingtonians who weren't racing something bike-related to take part in.

Planners "built" a series of temporary bike lanes, all on the block of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North.

On one section, a row of potted plants formed the barrier for a protected bike lane. On another, a row of parked cars did the same. Elsewhere, washable homemade green "paint" and a thick roll of tape formed a green bike lane, a buffered bike lane, and sharrows.


Pop-up green lane and buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

By using easy-to-set-up and easy-to-take-down temporary materials, Arlington planners tangibly showed residents what Wilson Boulevard might look like if its street space were allocated differently. There's no proposal to change Wilson permanently, but the example can be instructive for future projects on other streets.


A BikeArlington worker lays down strips of tape to create the buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.

Tangible benefits aside, the whole thing was a heck of a lot of fun.


Wilson Boulevard with its pop-up bike lanes in place. Photo by BikeArlington.

Transit


❤ Georgia Avenue's new red-surface bus lanes

DC's first bright red bus lanes now adorn four blocks of Georgia Avenue, near Howard University. DDOT crews added the red surface earlier this month.


Georgia Avenue's new red carpet for buses. All photos by the author.

The bus lanes run along both curbs, from Florida Avenue north to Barry Place. They speed Metrobus' busy 70-series line through what was the slowest section of Georgia Avenue north of downtown.


The bright red color is a strong visual clue to car drivers to stay out of the lane. It's a stark contrast to the Gallery Place bus lane a dozen blocks south, which is so poorly marked that many car drivers legitimately don't know it's there. For these four blocks, drivers will have no excuse.

Anecdotally, the red surface seems to be working pretty well. Most car drivers seem to stay out. To find out for sure, DDOT is in the process of collecting actual data, comparing the car violation rate now to the rate from before the red surface was added.

Nitty gritty

Cyclists and taxicabs are allowed the use the lanes in addition to buses. Signs along the street spell out the exact rules.

Since the lanes are along the curb, cars can enter them to turn right. Dashed white lane markings show where cars can enter.

To avoid wear-and-tear and to make the bus lanes safer for cyclists, the "red paint" is actually a gritty surface coating. If you walk along Georgia Avenue now, you can still see some of the leftover grit along the curb.

❤ the transit red carpet

By adding these lanes and marking them clearly, DC is taking an real step towards prioritizing street space for transit. At only four blocks long they're are a humble start, but a start nonetheless.

The "red carpet" is an increasingly common part of the street design toolbox in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. It's great that DC is getting on board too.

With more transit lanes in the works for K Street, H Street, and 16th Street, this humble start will hopefully soon become a trend. A red surface would probably help them all.


Yay!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Pike + Rose is an experiment in modern ornament

The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It's contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be "of our time."


All photos by the author.

Pike + Rose is one of the region's most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.

But although Pike + Rose isn't flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it's fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.

Ornament doesn't have to be historic-looking

In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be "of their time;" they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.

But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.

Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.

Mixed but instructive results

No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.

The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.

The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.

Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they're awkward and kitschy.

Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:

Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren't so bad.

It's easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they're bold, and it's easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say "do that," but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.

The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it's going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.

I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Before going to Georgetown, the streetcar will go east to Benning Road

DC is studying ways to extend the streetcar west to Georgetown, but that's the second extension it will get. First is a project to lengthen it to Benning Road Metro, but questions remain about where tracks will go, overhead wires, and more.


All images from DDOT.

The Benning Road streetcar project is really two projects: The streetcar extension itself and an even larger project to replace the bridge that takes Benning Road over the Anacostia River and 295. There will be a public meeting on May 19th where you can learn more.

Going to Benning Metro rather than Minnesota Avenue (another possibility that DC initially studied) will serve more residential neighborhoods, draw investment to the commercial section of Benning Road, and be less duplicative of X2 bus service.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is pondering two options. One option would put streetcar tracks next to the curb. The other option is median tracks, similar to how the streetcar runs on Benning Road west of the river now.

Unfortunately, neither option includes dedicated lanes. But the streetcar will be faster than it is on H Street regardless, thanks to the absence of curbside parking gumming things up.


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with curb-running streetcar (Alternative 1).


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with median-running streetcar (Alternative 2).

Overhead wires

As they are west of Union Station, overhead wires are a point of contention. Unlike there, however, no federal or local laws prohibit wires, and many utility wires are already above ground.

The current study contemplates either using wires or not. If DDOT goes to the trouble and expense of building hybrid wireless technology for downtown DC, theoretically it might not be that much more difficult to make Benning Road wireless too.

Benning Road isn't a major viewshed; if wireless streetcars have reliability problems or are more expensive than traditional wire-based ones, then trying to go wireless may be more of an impediment than they're worth.

Also, the Benning project will happen before the extension from Union Station to Georgetown does, and is already funded in the proposed budget, according to DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. Therefore, DC may want to move forward with more proven and traditional technology in the meantime. But if it buys any new streetcars, as it will have to for this project, it ought to buy ones that can work with the wireless section.

Get involved

As plans take shape, advocates are gearing up to fight for the best alternatives. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association also is pushing for better bike accommmodations. WABA points out that the wide bridge (especially over the river, where it's 4 lanes each way) is very unfriendly to people biking, and wants a protected bikeway so people can safely and comfortably cross the river.

If you're interested in weighing in on the Benning study, attend the May 19 meeting, at 6:00 pm at 4058 Minnesota Avenue, NE or email info@benningproject.com.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Transit


Now that it's open, 7 takeaways from the H Street streetcar

DC's H Street streetcar has been open two and a half months. With two extensions on the horizon, now is a good time to look back at what's worked and what hasn't. Here are seven takeaways from the streetcar's first season running.


Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

1. Dedicated lanes matter for reasons beyond congestion

Streetcars on H Street are too slow. Not nearly as slow as walking, but too slow nonetheless. But H Street isn't a particularly congested road compared to many in the region. Were it only for congestion, the streetcar should be faster than it is.

Parking is a big part of the problem. Streetcars are rarely seriously delayed due to actual lawbreaking double parkers, but have to slow to a crawl frequently for drivers legally pulling into or out of parking spaces.

Even when every car is parked correctly within its space and nobody seems to be coming or going, there's so little room between tracks and the parking lane that streetcar drivers have to poke along, for fear of driving into an opening door or for scraping a slightly wayward mirror. If the tracks were better separated from the parking, streetcars could move faster.

On Benning Road where the streetcar runs in the middle rather than along the outer curb, parking isn't a problem. There's still friction from turning cars, but it's not as bad.

2. Traffic signals need special attention

The biggest cause of delay on almost every streetcar trip I take is the 3rd Street traffic light. That's where the streetcar crosses over traffic to get from the curbside along H Street to a dedicated lane in the middle of Hopscotch Bridge.

Getting into that dedicated lane takes forever. The streetcar can't simply go with the green light because it's crossing over traffic. It needs a dedicated signal phase. But because of how the signals are timed, waiting for that phase can take forever.

DDOT is looking at changes to that light to help speed streetcars through. That's great. But signal priority for streetcars where they need it should be the rule, not the exception.

3. The streetcars are legitimately more comfortable than buses

The streetcars really are are comfortable, smooth, and quiet. Rumbling over broken asphalt in a crowded diesel bus is a loud, uncomfortable prospect. Not only are the streetcars noticeably smoother and quieter, but their spacious interiors rarely feel cramped, even when there are a lot of riders.

That matters. Not as much as basic operations, but it does matter. It draws riders and it helps make transit a nicer place to spend time.

4. The streetcars bunch way less than the X2

It could just be because the line is short, or maybe it's because DDOT does a fantastic job with headway scheduling. It could also be that although the streetcar is slow, it's fairly predictable.

Whatever the reason, I have yet to see streetcars bunched closely together.


Photo by Malcolm K. on Flickr.

5. Streetcar stops and bus stops would be better together

With both buses and streetcars on H Street, many riders would theoretically be happy to take whichever comes first. But streetcars and buses have different stops, usually a block apart. Depending on the location, riders sometimes have to commit to a stop before knowing which mode will arrive first.

Meanwhile, since bus stops and streetcar stops are staggered, buses and streetcars get in each others' way all the time, while one is at a stop and the other moving. Buses can go around, but obviously streetcars can't.

If they shared stops, long enough for both a bus and a streetcar to pull in at the same time, there'd be fewer delays and riders would have more freedom to choose their ride.

6. It's nice to have a stop on Hopscotch Bridge

The connection from the streetcar's Hopscotch Bridge stop to Union Station is hardly wonderful. But it is present, which is more than can be said for the X2. It makes connecting to longer distance transit easier on the streetcar.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

7. We need more trams

15 minutes headways aren't good enough, given the short length of the line, the slowness of the streetcars, and the frequency of the X2. Unfortunately, DDOT needs more railcars before they can increase the frequency, and getting those is not a quick process.

DDOT could add Sunday service, though. More riders use the streetcar on Saturdays than any other day. Meanwhile, the X2 runs least often on Sundays. There's clearly a niche for weekend streetcar.

Given the vehicle limitations, adding Sunday service might require cutting back some other day, either not running at all one weekday, or running for fewer hours on weeknights. It's probably worth it to try and see how things go.

What would you add?

Are you a regular streetcar rider? What would you add? What works, and what doesn't?

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Transit


DC Streetcar ridership is... actually not bad

The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It's slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to DDOT's latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.

In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it's actually not bad.

Middle of the light rail pack

Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn't going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC's 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.

But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.

And in those terms, DC Streetcar's 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It's just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn't even go downtown yet.

Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).

On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston's Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco's Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey's Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,075, which is interestingly higher than Portland's MAX light rail at 2,048).

Compared to H Street's X2 bus

What about buses?

In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.

So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.

But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2's 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That's one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.

Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there

Clearly the streetcar isn't perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Future lines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.

And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland's streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides. So that's hard to predict.

But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn't doing particularly badly.

You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Metro's shutdown plan deserves our support. Now local governments must step up.

It's sad that Metro has gotten so decrepit that months-long shutdowns and single-tracking are necessary. But they are. And kudos to Metro for admitting this and coming up with a detailed plan to fix it.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Honestly, we'd feared the shutdowns would be far worse. This plan seems to concentrate them into as narrow a place as necessary while getting work done where needed (as far as we can tell, anyway).

It's going to be painful for riders, but we'll need to manage, because it's clear that the previous maintenance scheme, of shutdowns just over nights and weekends and bouts of single-tracking, hasn't been working.

As Maryland delegate Marc Korman said on today's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt, Metro leaders have to make sure the maintenance that gets done, gets done right. The connectors in the Orange/Blue/Silver tunnel through DC, which caught fire earlier this year and forced the day-long total shutdown, had just been supposedly inspected and repaired. Riders are not going to tolerate having their lines shut down and then learning the maintenance wasn't actually done correctly.

Also, the tracks aren't the only problem for Wiedefeld to tackle. Rail cars have been down for maintenance much more often than they should be, forcing Metro to run lower levels of service than promised. These shutdowns won't fix that. But managers may need to focus intensely on one problem at a time, at least until Wiedefeld can replace some of the poorly performing managers and employees, as he's promised to do.

Hopefully, though, the shutdowns will get Metro back to a place where, at the very least, we can be confident in its safety. That's important.


Virginia has a few bus lanes. It needs many more. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Jurisdictions have to help

These shutdowns will affect huge numbers of people. According to Metro's presentation, the closure from NoMa to Fort Totten will affect 108,000 people; East Falls Church to Ballston, 73,000; Eastern Market to Minnesota/Benning, 61,000; and on and on. That is, let's be clear, a lot of people.

If they all drive, it will mean massive gridlock. Many will telework or shift their hours and such, but unlike with the one-day shutdown where a lot of people could stay home for a day, that can't work for weeks or months on end.

Buses can replace some service, but if those buses are just stuck in major gridlock, then there won't be enough buses and little incentive for anyone to take them. There will need to be temporary bus-only or HOV-3/4 lanes.

Many more people will be trying to walk and bike, and many jurisdictions can do much better to make sure people feel safe and are safe on these other modes.

It would have been nice for jurisdictions to have started planning bus lanes and other measures long ago, but the shutdown plan is here now and there's no luxury of time. Some areas have 6-9 months to prepare, while others (like Alexandria and southern Fairfax, or northern Prince George's) will be hit soon.

We can't wait for the typical interminable studies. Just as the region made extraordinary changes for the inauguration, this also calls for unusual measures. Local DOTs should make aggressive plans for temporary bus lanes and then try them out, making changes over time to ensure they work.


Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

We want to hear more about the late night

If ending service at midnight is really necessary, then maybe it's necessary, but we'd like to hear more. Does it have to be system-wide? And if it's going to be permanent, as Metro is considering, then we really want a more thorough analysis of the pros and cons.

Paul Wiedefeld has said that Metro will not open early or late for any special events over the next year. There's some sense to that, but some of these special events, like the Marine Corps Marathon, draw huge crowds with little alternate way for many people to get there. We're worried about what the impact will be.

Fretting about the effects of shutting down Metro in the past has led to Metro needing bigger shutdowns now, and so if it's needed, it's needed. But we think the case has to be made in more detail first.

We'll have more on contributor reactions to the late night issue in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, we're planning to organize residents to push for measures like bus lanes. If you agree or just want to find out more, sign up below.

Keep me informed

Let me know when there are chances to push for bus lanes and other ways to ensure that Metro riders can still get where they need to go during Metro's upcoming maintenance "surges."

First name:    Last name:

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Where you live:    ZIP code:

Public Spaces


Today would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday

Jane Jacobs was born May 4, 1916, 100 years ago today. She left the world in 2006, but in her 89 years of life she revolutionized how we think about cities. Here is what GGWash contributors said about Jane, the patron saint of American urbanism.


Today's Google Doodle honors Jane. Image from Google.

Jane's most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is required reading for anyone interested in the form of cities. It's helped generations of Americans understand what makes places like Georgetown so pleasant, and places like Boston's City Hall so repulsive.

Even 55 years after its publication, urbanists continue to obsess over Death and Life, debating obscure passages like clerics feuding over a religious text.

Ben Ross went straight to the point, then warned of the next great problem afflicting our cities:

Jane Jacobs was a true genius who developed a new paradigm of city planning. Our best city neighborhoods now suffer from the "curse of success" that she foresaw as the consequence of a scarcity of urbanism. How to overcome that scarcity is a problem that she left to us.
Canaan Merchant summarized two big lessons Jane taught him:
Look at what is actually happening rather than relying on what is "supposed" to happen. A city's beauty lies in its people rather than its buildings. Bring the people out and the buildings will take care of themselves.
Former contributor Abigail Zenner focused on how Jane successfully communicated ideas:
She introduced many people to the world of planning and gave us words to describe what we see every day in cities but have a hard time explaining in simple language. She was able to make a case that stirred peoples' hearts.
Nick Finio took a contrarian position, quoting a 1998 critique of Death and Life from UC Berkeley professor Roger Montgomery:
Let's not glorify her too much. Montgomery's critique ends with this zinger: "Taken together, these themes do add up. Anti-government and anti-regulation beliefs, confidence in the existence of a nearly perfect competitive market, inattention to corporate power, denial of social class and race as determinative categories, taken together look mighty like the core belief system of liberatarian conservatism."
But other contributors were quick to jump to Jacobs' defense. They pointed out that while her views may not be a perfect guide to urban issues today, her work helped surface notions that needed to come to the fore, like defending the idea of the city against car-oriented places, and eyes on the street maintaining safety.

Jonathan Krall added:

Just because Jacobs had a healthy mistrust for government and for large projects doesn't mean she was espousing neo-conservatism. I agree with Montgomery that Jacobs' excellent and helpful descriptions of healthy city life and associated planning issues skip over some very challenging social and political issues. However, I disagree with his implication that Jacobs is suggesting her readers should ignore those challenges.
Payton Chung opined on Jacobs' motivations:
Just like any "bible," there are bound to be contrary readings. There's a fine line between libertarianism and anarchism, and I'd argue Jacobs' overall oeuvre points to a mistrust of all large institutions, whether corporate or governmental.
When all was said and done, it may have been Brendan Casey who summed Jane up best:
The force was strong with that one.
What do you think of Jane, and of her impact on cities?

Transit


8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro

Paris has one of the world's great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.


Door knobs on a Paris metro train. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

1. Door knobs speed trains

In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.

All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system's theoretical maximum.

In Paris, those delays don't happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.

Here's a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:

WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there's no indication they'll be fixed any time soon.

Although the issues for a streetcar are different than a subway, this is one detail DC's streetcars share.

2. Full platform seating works

Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?

Check out Paris' Chatelet station, where that's exactly the layout:


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Most Paris stations aren't like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn't as crucial there as it is in DC. But there's been many a day I've stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.

3. Flip-up seats add capacity

The first row of seats inside Paris' train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.

This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.

4. Open gangways really do work

US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.

All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they're wonderful.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks

Paris' metro lacks express tracks just like DC's, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It's also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.

Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.


A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?

I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.

6. Els can be public art

Talk about elevated rail in the US and most people visualize either Chicago-style steel monstrosities or Tysons Corner-style concrete ones. Neither are particularly endearing images, except maybe to transitphiles and architecture buffs.

In Paris, even the el train is beautiful.


Pont Bir-Hakeim. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris' els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.

7. Wayfinding can be beautiful

"If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?" My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

8. Location-specific maps help riders navigate

Going to the airport? Rather than only a tiny icon on the main system map, how about helping riders with a dedicated airport transit map?


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?

What details like these have you noticed on other countries' transit systems, that you'd like to see imported to the US?

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