Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Dennis Jaffe

Dennis Jaffe has lived in the Washington area since 1999. Elected to two terms on his hometown school board and a former head of NJ Common Cause, he champions opening up government and politics. Dennis led the effort to establish the Metro Riders' Advisory Council and served as its first chair. Now an Arlington resident, he chairs its Pedestrian Advisory Committee. His views here are his own. 

What does "Smart Growth 2.0" mean for Arlington?

In discussing the state of the county, Arlington County Board chair Mary Hynes recently called on residents to help "chart a new course" to plan for the future. Hynes says we need a "2nd generation of Smart Growth," and ArlNow called Hynes' vision Smart Growth 2.0. What do you think Arlington's priorities should be?

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Arlington officials will soon unveil a new county transportation plan, prioritizing transit improvements between Crystal City, Columbia Pike and Rosslyn. What, exactly, will be in that plan is still unclear.

In her State of the County address last Friday, Hynes said increased competition, strained resources and little remaining developable space demand that we update how we approach transportation and development.

"Those incredible ups that we had are not going to come Arlington's way again," Hynes said. "I challenge each of you to be part of the solution."

A lot of challenges are coming Arlington's way

Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan projects that our population and workforce, along with our demand for transit, will increase significantly by 2030. The plan recommends substantial investments in transit, along with mixed-use and transit-oriented development that works to make alternatives to driving, like biking and walking, more feasible.

Arlington defines Primary Transit Network as operating daily at least every 15 minutes, for at least 18 hours. Data from Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan.

Since last year's cancellation of the streetcar, officials haven't presented a concrete plan for investing in accessible, convenient transit in Arlington. Hynes said that announced that this month, county staff will launch a new transit development plan, along with a conversation that "isn't about fixing what we have, it's about how we vision forward."

Hynes says decades of decisions to fund expansion of transit and implement environmentally conscious land use policies have meant huge economic, environmental, and other quality of life benefits for Arlington. But, she warned, those benefits will not continue at the same levels. She cites Arlington's high office vacancy rate, rising school enrollment, stiff regional competition and limited remaining space for development, and the federal government's reduced local presence as challenges for the county.

A new vision can help Arlington overcome those challenges. But as we recently learned from the fallout over the streetcar, broad-based support has to be a top priority for any project. If it's not there, sustainable transportation projects won't be so sustainable.

Arlington has a lot at stake

Does Arlington need a "second generation of Smart Growth?" What should Arlington do to retain and strengthen its appeal for years to come?

In September 2014, Matt Carmichael of Livability wrote the following about Arlington:

"Together, its mix of retail, residential, government buildings, and offices help draw residents and businesses, but also help support the more traditional suburban parts of Arlington such as the cul-du-sac, single-family-home neighborhoods of Country Club Hills and Columbia Pike."

Carmichael makes a salient reference to how mixed development supports Arlington's traditional suburbs. Often, homeowners oppose plans to add more residential units and further increase density in their backyards when they're not convinced they'll benefit. This is happening now with RiverHouse, where I live.

So what will it take to sustain Arlington's impressive combination of quality-of-life rankings, like best DC suburb for young professionals? Or second best place in the country to retire? Or Livability's third best small to mid-size locality in the country to live?

In her address, Hynes also touted mega European retailer Lidl's recent decision to locate its US headquarters in Arlington, near the future Potomac Yards Metro station.

Big revenue-generating employers help fund Smart Growth initiatives. Arlington's livability rankings help lure the Lidls here. Those ratings depend on forward thinking and follow-through just like reaching the top of a hill by bike depends on non-stop peddling: Rest, and see what happens.

So now which way do we go?

Arlington is experiencing dramatic turnover among its leaders. Hynes and longtime County Board member Walter Tejada are not seeking reelection. In November, we will elect their successors. Jay Fisette, first elected in 1997, will be the only member who has served more than four years. And the Board is searching for a new County Manager.

Board members Libby Garvey and John Vishstadt, while known for what they were against, are approachable decisionmakers. Of the four candidates running in November—Democrats Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol, former Republican and now Independent Mike McMenamin and Green Audrey Clementonly one, Cristol, addresses smart growth issues on her website. (Disclosure: I supported Cristol and Dorsey in the June 9th Democratic primary.)

The coming transportation plan will aim to tackle some pieces of Hynes' second generation of Smart Growth, but there isn't reason to expect a bold vision. She previewed that it may address Blue Line shortcomings. And outline improvements for Columbia Pike, Virginia's busiest bus corridor, where the county is proposing to install 23 new transit stations. From what I've seen, the county has learned from its mistakes with the million dollar Walter Reed bus stop debacle. New, cost-effective designs I've seen feature improved signage, seating and protection from bad weather.

Will the new plan focus on Lee Highway or Glebe Road, listed as priority corridors in the Master Transportation Plan? Or on providing better bus service between Rosslyn and Ballston? We'll soon see.

Once the transportation plan is released, we'll have some answers—and still important questions to explore. The significant changes in Arlington's political leadership present an opportunity to engage and think fresh about the path forward. Fisette, together with Vihstadt and Garvey and the two new members, will chart Arlington's "new course." And we will, too, if we choose to take up Hynes' challenge "to be part of the solution."

Put the democratic back in DC's Democratic Party

Top DC Democrats have taken drastic measures to prevent voters from disrupting their control of the party. Ironically, as a result, they have sown the seeds for a successful voter revolt to open up the party and turn it into a powerful agent for change.

Photo by wiccked on Flickr.

The party leadership was so worried about facing voters next April, they canceled the election in which 340,000 voters get to choose who will lead the party. We should elect new leadership for that reason alone.

In the local primary of every presidential election year for decades, DC's registered Democratic voters have elected who represents them on the Democratic State Committee. Of the committee's 82 members, 48 are—or at least were—elected at either the ward level or at-large, while another 34 are appointed.

The Democratic State Committee is supposed to represent Democratic voters. It could, and should, weigh in on "national" issues like DC voting rights and legislative autonomy, and local issues including the conduct of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. Thomas is under federal investigation for allegedly stealing $300,000 in taxpayer funds intended for a youth athletic organization and spending it instead on himself.

Rank-and-file Democrats could open up the party and turn it into a courageous force that engages, listens to and represents the grassroots—and demands that our elected officials honor the highest ethical standards. It's up to us to put "democratic" in the Democratic Party and voice our clear disapproval of the current chairman's recent decision to disenfranchise DC voters.

As 2008 presidential candidate Barak Obama repeatedly declared, "sí se puede."

Or, we can decide now to not complain and to accept backroom politics-as-usual.

In August, party Chairman Anita Bonds ended a decades-long tradition of Democrats voting at their nearby polling place in the local primary for the Democratic State Committee. Instead, the party will hold a convention—in just one location—probably next November. It will likely last at least a few hours and involve complicated rules.

In deciding to eliminate the right of hundreds of thousands of Democrats to vote next April on the party's leadership, Bonds didn't even allow the current members of the State Committee to vote. And according to the Washington Post, "Committee members say they were not told of the decision until it had already been made." You can't make this stuff up.

Democratic activist John Capozzi, himself a former member of the State Committee, told the Post, "This is why we need new leadership in the [D.C.] Democratic Party...Deciding to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of D.C. Democrats is just plain wrong."

It's a sure way to drastically reduce voter participation in deciding who will lead the party. A turnout of even 1% (3,402 voters) would be exceptionally high. The leadership is unlikely to plan to accommodate even half that many attendees.

But the Democratic Party can move from insular to invigorating, if we insist it do so. What do you care about? Affordable housing? Accessible health care? Improving our education or transportation system? Do you think members of the DC Council are being influenced too much by big donors whose agendas may be seen as being at odds with your vision of what the Democratic Party should stand for?

The Democratic State Committee could be a perfect vehicle for the grassroots to engage in order to press our elected officials to pursue a policy agenda that is actually consistent with the party.

The DC Democratic Party organization today is so removed from the grassroots, there isn't even a place you could go to volunteer.

That might just be because the party's leadership has its priorities wrong. Donald Dinan, general counsel for the Democrats, wrote in an August 16th letter to the DC Board of Elections and Ethics that the party was canceling the primary vote for party representatives because of the "disruption" that an election could have on the Democrats' delegate selection process for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

Dinan confirmed by telephone on Friday their fear that if new party leaders were chosen in a "DC Spring" next April, they could decide to upend months-long planning on who gets to go to the convention. Regrettably, it sounds more like bunker mentality than an outreach strategy.

But Dinan's letter, along with Bonds' quotes in the Post, indicated that the Democratic National Committee had pressured the District's Democrats to select their party representatives in a convention rather than in a primary, as has been the custom for decades. On Friday, I called the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to request a copy of a letter that would have forced DC Democrats to disenfranchise approximately 339,000 voters. They had no idea what I was talking about. Then I called Dinan. He didn't have it either.

Democrats get to vote in primaries for who the leaders of their party in such states as New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland and many others. It would defy belief that the DNC would force only the District of Columbia to replace the primary with a convention to select party representatives.

In fact, despite his letter, Dinan told me that ditching the primary method was indeed not the central reason for the move. "Had the DC Council picked May [after delegates are selected] for the local primary, it would have been fine."

The notion that the Democratic National Committee forced DC Democrats to make this move is malarkey.

Enough backroom politics-as-usual. Let's do something radical. Instead of accepting less democracy, let's create more. As Ward 8 activist and DC's former Youth Mayor, Markus Batchelor, recently wrote:

The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of the people, the party of inclusion and the party seeking transparency and fairness. The DC Democratic State Committee, through this decision, has single-handedly flushed all these principles down the toilet simultaneously and I believe it is our duty to call for new leadership and a new way forward for the Democratic party in this city.
Let's not allow ourselves to do nothing and then read the newspaper next November reporting that just 200 Democrats met the day before in the corner of a high school gymnasium to elect their party leaders. Instead, let's adopt President Obama's 2012 campaign slogan—"We can't wait"—and start now, talking neighbor to neighbor to open up DC's Democratic Party with a campaign that declares, "We can't wait to clean up DC politics."

The Transit Ombudsman: Get the next bus by text message

You may have used the NextBus Web interface or the phone system at 202-637-7000, but there's another way to get NextBus arrival times: text message.

Here's what you do:

  1. Find your bus route, stop location, direction and stop number here or here and bookmark the page.
  2. Start composing a text message to 41411.
  3. In the message area, enter your request in this format:
    nbus wmata r[route#] [stop#]
    Example: nbus wmata r42 1001809
    Include spaces between each of the four pieces (nbus, wmata, the r for your route, and the stop number. Don't include the brackets or a space between the r and the route number.
  4. You'll receive a reply message like this:
    s=Clmba Rd Nw + 18th Nw
    d=Nrth->Mt Plsnt Va Adms Mrgn
    "r" means route; "s" means bus stop location; "d" means direction. "->" means to, "Va" means via. "4&6min" means buses are arriving in 4 and 6 minutes.
The results usually come back within 1 minute. Your carrier may charge you for text messages depending on your plan. NextBus provides more details on using text messaging (also known as SMS).

The reply message will read at the end, "S)ave name." This lets you save a bus stop with a name that's easy to remember. You can use the name instead of the stop # in your next request, and omit wmata, too. I saved one like this: s home

Once you have a custom name set up, a request looks just like this:

nbus home
The reply also will read at the end "Rply: 1-30) for alert." This allows you to request that a text alert be sent to you when your bus is X minutes away. You enter a number from 1 to 30.

However, I couldn't get this feature to work. Can you? I'm looking into it.

You can use different formats to submit your request:

  • Enter the stop without the route #, like this:
    nbus wmata 1001809
    If more than one route serves your stop, it'll ask which route you want.
  • Instead of a bus stop #, enter an address or intersection, using "and" or "&." In DC, don't include quadrant.
  • Enter a landmark. Some work, some don't.

Integrate WMATA customer service in departments

WMATA should integrate customer service staff within its Office of Information Technology, Bus Operations and MetroAccess, just like it did with Rail Operations in 2005.

Photo by Here's Kate.

Integrating customer service into Rail Operations has allowed those employees to gain additional knowledge and access, helping them ask better questions and obtain better answers for customers. When Rail Operations has a meeting, the customer service representatives are included. They see each other in the hallway.

In the other areas, customer service is a separate division. It's more "out of sight, out of mind." There's a barrier between operations and the customer service staff. And it serves to seriously limit the effectiveness of customer service.

Without being integrated and with less knowledge, they act more like funnels. But integrated and more knowledgeable, they're more able to be advocates.

The caseload for centralized customer service staff is insanely high. I recently used the online trip planner for a simple journey to Tenleytown. It didn't work, so I emailed customer service. Two weeks later, they responded: I had misspelled "Albemarle."

Metro might take a cue from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). The Toronto Transit Commission is examining changes SEPTA recently made to improve customer service following "rider frustration over a lack of accountability, rude staff and poor customer service."

SEPTA installed dedicated customer service kiosks in subway stations. I don't know how well this is working in Philadelphia. But it connects riders with customer service staff who are not stationed in a central office isolated from operations.

More than one WMATA employee has shared with me that their training and retraining give only superficial attention to customer service. Leadership needs to do more than say customer service is important. They have to make it important.

When will WMATA's leadership come to understand just how important customer service is? It has a huge impact on how Metro runs, on rider satisfaction and on the inclination of riders to press federal, state and local governments to increase funding of WMATA.

If customer service employees were given reverence within the agency, riders and Metro would benefit. They truly could be the engine that transforms WMATA.

Let's shovel bus stops Sunday

Give a hand. Save a hip. Bus stops all over the region are not safely accessible because of snow mountains, slush and ice. Taxpayer-funded Metro can't shovel out 12,000 bus stops. Let's make George Washington proud and go shovel.

Photo by WMATA.

On Wednesday, Neil's post recruited folks to shovel out inaccessible sidewalks in Tenleytown. Let's expand the program to other neighborhoods.

People are doing all sorts of ballerina and gymnastic moves while approaching buses. It's dangerous for them, and heck it slows down traffic, too.

We'll meet up tomorrow, outside Metrorail stations or at other set locations, at 3 pm sharp, armed with shovels. From there, we'll find bus stops in need and make them accessible.

Will you join in to melt our problems away?

If you're willing to commit to coming to a station, put the location in a comment. You can also pick another spot with high bus traffic that's not a Metrorail station. We'll send out a followup with the locations that got picked, to encourage more readers to join you.

After you pick a spot, send out an email to your neighborhood listserv to reach more of your neighbors.

I'm volunteering for Columbia Heights. I'll be at the entrance on the west side of 14th at 3. David will be at the Dupont Circle north entrance on Q Street. Who's in for those? And which locations will you organize?

Update: We have four locations so far. See the update post for details.

The Transit Ombudsman: Reform the form

Readers of The Transit Ombudsman want Metro to provide easier, more effective ways for us to report issues that need attention. Better service equals happier riders. And happier riders will more readily push federal, state and local governments to increase their funding of Metro.

Metro's comment form and its 20 "Incident type" options.

Reader Adam F proposed that riders be able to contact Customer Service from the mobile site. The Transit Ombudsman presented this to Metro's Information Technology (IT) staff. They see it has merit, and are adding this capability.

Erik W asked for an easy way to report trip planner issues, like these. Seattle's Metro Transit, Portland's TriMet and Twin Cities' Metro Transit all offer simple forms dedicated only to trip planner feedback.

But Metro requires you to fill out a detailed online form to report a website issue. It's more like a questionnaire. Finding the option for a website issue is like looking for bread in the grocery during the recent blizzard.

I raised the issue with Metro's IT staff. They agreed the layout needs improvement. They're tweaking the form. It'll be a bit easier to find where website issues are listed.

That's good, but there's a larger issue here.

For each of four areas—"Type," "Category," "Topic" and "Incident Type"—you must make one selection from a list of options. "Topic" has 11 choices. "Incident Type" has 20. In total, you go through 43 subcategories.

The intent is to track what we comment on. But this is just crazy. Choices for "Type" include Comment, Complaint, Question, Request and Suggestion. "Topic" includes Escalator, Elevator, Grounds and Facility. "Incident type" includes Dirty, Maintenance, Safety, Security, Non-service related issue and Other. Commendation appears twice.

Tracking the topics we comment on has value. But Metro should focus less on dissecting market research for 43 subtopics, and more on addressing what we're commenting about.'s questionnaire asks me less than Metro's does!

Have you had specific issues with the trip planner that you didn't report because Metro doesn't provide an email address or a simple form dedicated only to the trip planner?

I still encourage you to make your voice heard by using Metro's online customer comment form. Here's one idea: ask them to simplify it. You can decide yourself whether that's a Comment, Complaint, Question, Request or Suggestion. Frankly, I don't know.

Limited Metrobus and Circulator service resume

WMATA has restored service on 47 Metrobus routes:

  • In DC: the 32, 42, 60/64, 82, 96, A2/4/6/8, B2, E4, G8, H4, H6, P6, M6, S4, U2, U8, and X2;
  • In Maryland: the 83, A12, C8, P12, Q2/4, T2, T18, and Y8;
  • In Virginia: the 1B, 1C, 2C, 3A, 4A, 9A, 9S, 10B, 16A/B/D/E/J, 23A, 28A, 28T, and 38B.
Many of those lines are running modified routes along snow emergency routes and/or cutting routes short, so check the list and any updates on the news page before riding.

Photo by scott*eric.

Limited Circulator service also resumed on the Union Station-Georgetown and Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square routes around 10 am today.

Has bus service on other systems elsewhere in the region begun to resume?

DDOT has also said that the Circulator may stop running this evening if the roads freeze up again. WMATA has not said anything similar yet, but that doesn't mean they won't take the same action.

The Transit Ombudsman: Watch the language

A few weeks ago, The Transit Ombudsman put the spotlight on Metro's online trip planner. Readers identified many good issues and provided excellent suggestions on the trip planner and other topics. WMATA staff followed up with us promptly and is working to correct many of the issues.

The goal of the Transit Ombudsman is to identify issues that bother riders and then contact Metro to seek solutions. The focus is on issues that are good bets to produce successful results.

Suzanne Peck, WMATA's Assistant General Manager for Information Technology, contacted me to pledge the IT team's responsiveness. David and I met with Peck and her deputy, Vic Grimes. We feel that both were very responsive and we are hopeful of seeing results that will raise rider satisfaction.

Your comments generally centered around four main areas: Items that were unclear or confusing on the site, the need to make it easier to report problems, accuracy issues around the trip planner, and trouble with NextBus.

Today's column focuses on the first of those. has many helpful tools for riders, but in some cases the names of tools or instructions aren't clear enough. Here are a few examples you identified:

Find a station: The rail map page includes a "Find a station" feature. As BryanDC wrote, it sounds like a way to find a specific station by name.

It isn't. Type in "U Street," for instance, and the tool, based on Google Maps, suggests addresses around the world starting with one in South Africa. You're supposed to type in a specific address and find the closest rail stations with their distances.

The IT team will change this to "Find station near address." Does that help?

Service nearby: On, the Rider Tools menu lists Service nearby.

What I hear most is people don't know what "Service nearby" is and they don't use it. If you haven't used it, is "Service nearby" clear?

As with Find a Station, you can type in a specific address or landmark. But here, the site lists both bus stops and train stations within one mile, plus the exact distances.

Have you ever used this? If you have, how useful has it been?

We asked the IT team to change "Service nearby" on the main page tools list to "Service near address." They explained there isn't enough space and that "Service nearby" is based on Google maps' "Search nearby." However, on Google maps, that feature shows up only after you've typed in a location and you see a map, making it clear what it's for.

Positive instructions: Jane suggested that the trip planner prominently tell people what to enter in addition to what not to enter. The trip planner's address boxes say, "Do not enter city, state or zip," but that doesn't say what to enter.

Farther down, on the trip planner's longer form, it says, "Note: Enter address, intersection or landmark. Do not include city, state, zip code or any commas." But this is not particularly visible, nor is it part of the shorter form on the home page.

IT staff agreed this has merit. They will give greater emphasis to the instructions for what to enter. What do you think of the wording that's already there?

Which other tools on do you think need to be described more clearly?

IT staff at Metro are demonstrating responsiveness to the issues readers of The Transit Ombudsman are raising. And they requested that I ask you to be as specific as possible in your comments. They're reading what you're writing.

Upcoming posts will look at your comments on reporting problems, trip planner accuracy, and NextBus.

The Transit Ombudsman: What's bothering you?

I'm not a doctor, or a therapist.

Low-hanging fruit. Photo by stuartajc.

I'm just an activist, inspired by what our collective energy can achieve to help us get around the Greater Washington area efficiently and safely.

Today, I introduce The Transit Ombudsman: A series of posts on issues that bother riders, where I will contact Metro to seek solutions. I will focus only on issues that are good bets to produce successful results. I want your suggestions for what to work on.

In November, David wrote about Metro's underwhelming response to a customer's complaint over rock-throwing near at a rail station. After the post ran, top Metro staff took action to produce the kind of results that riders have a right to expect every day.

Many of us who strongly support transit genuinely want Metro to be more responsive to riders' needs and more accountable, too. It would make getting around easier. And by making transit a more attractive option, we will reduce traffic congestion, stress and pollution.

The higher the level of public confidence in Metro, the easier it will be to secure the funds needed to improve transit service. Metro really needs to recognize this dynamic.

There are many improvements needed at Metro. Many are complex or costly, or both. But they're not what the Transit Ombudsman will primarily focus on. Instead, I will focus on "low-hanging fruit," which WMATA Board member Chris Zimmerman and his aide Samantha Sissman know something about. They successfully pushed for installing handles below the top horizontal bars in rail cars to give short riders something to grab onto other than another rider's hair. (Note: I am 5'6½".)

Our first Transit Ombudsman topic will be Metro's online trip planner. To give Metro staff credit, it sure has improved a lot. But perfect, it's not.

Tell me and our readers—including at Metro—what's bothering you about the trip planner, and what changes you'd like to see. A few years ago, I secured one small improvement: I persuaded Metro to scrap its maximum distance of 0.5 miles to a bus stop or rail station for which the trip planner would provide any results. It now offers options ranging from 0.2 miles to 1 mile.

Do you think adding a special link for riders to report problems with the trip planner would be a good way to improve it?

The goal of The Transit Ombudsman is to identify low-cost issues that are easier for us to get action on so we can strengthen Metro—and our faith in the power of our own voice, too. After you weigh in with your comments, I'll follow up with Metro toward honoring its commitment to be the best ride in the nation. And I'll report back to you on Metro's response.

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