Posts by Matt Johnson
|Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer.|
After Metro announced last week that it hopes to build a new loop line between downtown DC and Arlington, many people immediately started comparing it to the other cities that have transit loops. How would Metro's line compare to the others?
There are actually a variety of loop types. Each type tends to operate differently and have different characteristics.
Very few lines operate as a true circle. Glasgow is one of the exceptions. Trains operate in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. It's a more urban-type circle. Moscow's Koltsevaya line is another urban example. Berlin's Ringbahn also operates as a circle, but it's got a larger radius, and is more of a suburban-style circular line.
Other lines tend to act more as urban distributors, offering a convenient way to turn trains around and to serve larger areas of the central business district. Examples include the Chicago L Loop and loops in Sydney and Melbourne, which serve commuter trains.
Miami also has an urban circulator called Metromover. It operates in a very small circle downtown and mainly serves to distribute commuters from Metro to destinations around the CBD. Two other Metromover "loops" (not shown in the graphic) operate via the downtown loop, but are more linear in nature, continuing to the north and south of the CBD.
Next, we'll look at how a DC Metro loop might work.
Yesterday afternoon, subscribers to WMATA's MetroAlerts across the region got an alert advising them of dire service impacts that could affect their commute: a discount on tickets to a basketball tournament.
As you can imagine, many found the spam message irritating, and Twitter lit up with snarky responses. MetroAlerts is, of course, a tool meant to alert riders to disruptions in service. These alerts can be valuable in helping riders choose an alternate route or leave earlier or later to avoid delays. What riders don't expect are spam emails, which have absolutely nothing to do with alerting customers to potential problems, and are a waste of time for Metro's customers.
One of the reasons yesterday's "alerts" message generated some angst on Twitter among riders is probably that many riders, especially on the Red Line, faced some delays during the morning rush. Many riders complained that alerts were slow to come out. And then a few hours later, WMATA sent them an "alert" they didn't need.
No one who visits the MetroAlerts website would expect these spam emails. According to the webpage, MetroAlerts sends out the following information:
- Major Metrorail and Metrobus delays and service disruptions
- Metrobus schedule changes and detours
- Metrorail advisories specific to your line or frequently used stations
- Other changes or enhancements to Metro service and facilities
Why spam riders?
It's not entirely clear what Metro thinks riders get out of this spam. Clearly some MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans. Maybe they'll appreciate the discounted tickets to the BB&T Classic. But most riders don't care about the Classic in the least.
These alerts aren't targeted toward anyone, like basketball fans, for example. It's just mass advertising sent out to a large group in the hope that someone will find it helpful.
It doesn't appear Metro gets anything out of it, either. I asked spokesperson Dan Stessel whether the organizations promoted in the alert compensate Metro for the use of their email lists and alert system. He says Metro doesn't get paid for these. According to Stessel, "these are in-kind promotions for the benefit of riders; generally barter only."
Perhaps what Metro ends up getting out of this is some additional ridership. Some of those riders that got the alert that do like basketball might buy tickets (at a discount!) and then take Metro to the event.
But using untargeted alerts like this seems like a very crude way to promote ridership or create value for riders.
After all, what percentage of MetroAlerts subscribers are basketball fans? Even if it's a high number, like 25%, what percentage will actually buy tickets to this event? For the rest of the subscribers, this is an irritant. And it's more likely to make them unsubscribe from MetroAlerts.
I also asked Stessel what discussions Metro staff had about the appropriateness of using the alerts system for promoting unrelated events. He didn't answer directly, but he did point out that people have to opt in to receive the promotions.
It's fairly easy to opt out. Riders just need to log into their account and uncheck the box labeled "promotions." But it's not a matter of opting in. The "promotions" box is checked by default (along with the "alerts" and "advisories" boxes).
Anyone who registered for MetroAlerts before the addition of "advisories" and bus alerts would have registered before Metro added "promotions." Stessel said that subscribers were notified by email of the change at the time.
Alerts are for alerting, not advertising
In the world today, we have many different forms of communication for emergency alerts. Most state departments of transportation have electronic signs, especially in urban areas. They're frequently used to broadcast messages about travel times, traffic accidents, construction, and Amber Alerts. But they're not used to advertise discounted basketball tickets.
Spamming riders with promotions unrelated to Metro service reduces the value of MetroAlerts and it wastes riders' time. It also creates the perception that Metro is out of touch with what riders want. After all, if people liked spam, email services wouldn't have created spam filters.
In the future, transit riders need timely alerts that actually help riders during disruptions so they can have a smooth commute, rather than junk mail.
With the start of Rush Plus service last year, Metro riders know they can now get the Yellow Line north of Mount Vernon Square at rush hour. But many are surprised to find that they can only catch it every 20 minutes.
Metro hasn't done a whole lot to clarify the situation, and the outcome is confusion and wasted time for some riders.
The current map shows the Yellow Line as a solid line running between Huntington and Fort Totten. Dashes continue north to Greenbelt and west to Franconia-Springfield, showing "rush only service." Most have interpreted this to mean that Yellow Line trains run from Huntington to Fort Totten, except during rush hour, when they're extended to Greenbelt and Franconia.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. How could we make the map clearer?
In reality, 77% of rush hour Yellow Line trains only run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. Service north of Mount Vernon Square, and west of King Street, only runs every 20 minutes. This means someone transferring from Red or Green to Yellow at Fort Totten might incur a wait of 15 or 20 minutes longer than if they'd transferred at Gallery Place.
The charts above show the number of southbound trains at Fort Totten and Mount Vernon Square. As you can see, at Fort Totten there is 1 Yellow Line train for every 3 Green Line trains in each of the 3 hours between 6am and 9am. Compare that to Mount Vernon Square, where for the 10 Green Line trains, there are 13 Yellow Line trains.
At Fort Totten, transferring passengers may have to wait up to 20 minutes for a Yellow Line train. At Mount Vernon Square, on the other hand, passengers never have to wait more than 6 minutes, and sometimes the interval between Yellows is as little as 4 minutes.
In June of last year, Metro introduced a new map to go along with new service patterns. The changes, dubbed "Rush Plus," send some Orange Line trains to Largo and some Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt during rush hour. These changes were not implemented to add service to Largo and Greenbelt, but to help balance the number of trains at Rosslyn, which has reached its maximum throughput of 26 trains per hour.
By moving 3 trains per hour from the Blue Line to the Yellow Line, Metro was able to add 3 more Orange Line trains. This will be even more important when the Silver Line opens early next year.
For the Yellow Line, there was essentially no change. During rush hours, trains from Huntington leave every 6 minutes and run only as far as Mount Vernon Square, just like before Rush Plus was implemented.
The big change was to the Blue Line. Trains still leave Franconia every 6 minutes. But instead of sending 10 trains per hour to Largo, now, only 7 go to Largo. The other 3 are now called Yellow Line trains, and they run to Greenbelt. They are the only Yellow Line trains that operate during rush hour north of Mount Vernon Square.
Metro is forced to keep this convoluted service pattern for a few reasons. The primary reason is a lack of railcars. In order to run all Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt during rush hour, they would need to purchase 60 additional railcars.
When Metro was designing the new map, they struggled with how to depict the section of the Yellow Line between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. Prior to the Rush Plus map, the Yellow Line was shown with a solid line for its entire length, despite only running to Fort Totten off-peak.
With the new Rush Plus service pattern, during off-peak times, the Yellow Line would continue to serve the segment between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. But during rush hour, those trains would only run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. However, a few new trains would run between Franconia and Greenbelt.
That means that, technically speaking, the tracks between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten would have Yellow Line service at all times. Counterintuitively, there is more Yellow Line service during middays than at rush hour.
One alternative that Metro considered for displaying the Franconia-Greenbelt "Rush Plus" service was using a new color. But for several reasons, that was a less than ideal approach. Showing the service as a branch of the Yellow Line was an elegant solution.
In the end, Metro decided to show the service as a solid line between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten, but dashed north of Fort Totten. However, this is misleading. Even more than a year after the introduction of the service, I still regularly encounter riders confused about why they have to get off their northbound Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square, and others who wonder why the wait at Fort Totten is so long.
I don't think Metro needs to use a separate color to indicate the Franconia to Greenbelt service. Using the color yellow is still the easiest way to show the route. But there are other things Metro could do to cut down on the confusion.
Dashing the line north of Mount Vernon Square would be an excellent indicator that riders should expect more limited service in the area. It would also call attention to the location of Mount Vernon Square, which is the only terminal station located in the crowded central portion of the map. A dashed line does not have to indicate "rush only" service. It could be labeled as "part-time" service.
Metro should also consider discouraging riders from transferring to the Yellow Line at Fort Totten, at least during peak hours. Right now, many train operators on the Red Line and southbound Green Line trains announce Fort Totten as a transfer point to the Yellow Line.
Though it has some of the worst crowding issues in the system, Gallery Place is a better place for riders to switch trains because the wait for a train is shorter. And because the travel time is similar between Fort Totten and Gallery Place on the Red or Green lines, doing so won't overly burden passengers.
Until Metro can buy more railcars, the Yellow Line will continue to have a complicated service pattern. But riders shouldn't have to wait 20 minutes for a train because they don't know about other options.
As part of its round of service changes for June 2014, Metro has proposed rerouting the NH1 line, which serves National Harbor, to run across the Wilson Bridge to Old Town Alexandria. The new service could help connect communities on both sides of the Potomac that aren't always easy to go between by transit.
Two routes serve National Harbor today: the Metrobus express NH1 between the Branch Avenue Metro station and National Harbor, and the Prince George's County Transit route 35 between Southern Avenue Metro and National Harbor.
Metro's proposal would instead send the NH1 to King Street station in Alexandria. The distance between National Harbor and Branch Avenue is about the same as to King Street. But King Street is located in a much more vibrant area than Branch Avenue, meaning guests and residents of National Harbor may find the altered routing of the NH1 more helpful.
Workers at National Harbor who live on the Virginia side of the Potomac will also benefit greatly from this service. Those who live in Maryland or Southeast Washington will still have access to Southern Avenue via route 35. During late evenings and weekends, when the 35 does not run, the NH1 will also serve Southern Avenue.
When bus service first began at National Harbor, the service operated from Southern Avenue. This was an important link for workers at the isolated resort. Southern Avenue station has more bus lines, and is more convenient to neighborhoods in Southeast Washington.
But in 2009, Metro rerouted the bus to Branch Avenue at the request of National Harbor. Some argued that this was so visitors wouldn't have to transfer at Southern Avenue, which is located in a less affluent area. With a more express routing over the Beltway, workers were now forced to travel farther out of the way using multiple bus lines or the more expensive Green Line to reach the NH1.
In response, Prince George's started the 35, which restored the connection to Southern Avenue and stops in the neighborhoods along the way.
In addition to linking National Harbor and Alexandria, the rerouted NH1 has the ability to restore a service lost in 2004. Prior to June of that year, the N11 and N13 routes linked Branch Avenue and Suitland stations to King Street. This allowed riders from southern Prince George's to easily reach jobs in Alexandria, while residents of Alexandria could reach jobs at the Suitland Federal Center without going downtown.
These routes only ran during rush hour. The N11 connected Branch Avenue to Alexandria in the morning and the N13 connected Alexandria to Suitland. The buses ran the opposite direction in the afternoon.
Without those lines, riders now have to ride all the way to L'Enfant Plaza and change. Many people making the commute probably drive the shorter distance over the Wilson Bridge instead.
The NH1 will not completely restore this convenient connection. However, it will allow riders to use transit between Southern Avenue and King Street by using the Prince George's 35 and the NH1 and transferring at the Oxon Hill Park and Ride. Riders from other routes running along Indian Head Highway, which include the D13, D14, P17, P18, P19, W15, and W19 routes, will also have that option.
Ridership on the N11 and N13 was apparently not high enough to justify the lines back in 2004. However, transit connections across the Potomac outside of downtown would shorten trips for many riders.
If the NH1 is successful in attracting riders, hopefully Metro will consider adding other routes to connect destinations across the Potomac from each other.
Metro is considering significant changes to several Metrobus routes across the region, including the express buses they run to Dulles and BWI airports. The agency may even end bus service to Dulles altogether.
The 5A express runs from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles Airport, making two stops along the way. It was originally created to get workers from DC to jobs near the airport. But with the opening of the Silver Line early next year, there may be less demand for that service.
The B30 runs from Greenbelt Metro to BWI Airport, making no intermediate stops. Metro is proposing to run the bus more frequently and to add a stop along the way at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, where the Maryland Live! casino has just opened. Before making any changes, WMATA will survey riders and take public comments on the altered routes, which could start running next year.
Dulles service could get shorter
Metrobus 5A currently runs every 30 to 40 minutes throughout the day. The trip from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles takes just under an hour. The bus starts at L'Enfant Plaza and makes stops at Rosslyn and the Herndon-Monroe Park & Ride on its way to Dulles. Though it was originally designed as a route to get workers to the airport, the 5A is fairly popular with airport travelers.
Airport travelers have a different option, the Washington Flyer, which runs non-stop between Dulles and West Falls Church. The Flyer leaves every 30 minutes, and trips to West Falls Church take about 25 minutes.
Within the next few years, Metro's new Silver Line will reach Dulles. But for now, the new line will only run as far as Wiehle Avenue, still 7 miles short of the airport, when it opens early next year.
Once the first phase of the Silver Line opens, the Washington Flyer will start running buses only as far as Wiehle Avenue, discontinuing service to West Falls Church. Additionally, once the Silver Line opens, Fairfax Connector will reroute the 981 so that it runs between Wiehle Avenue (instead of Tysons-Westpark) and Dulles. That route will continue to run via Reston Town Center and Herndon-Monroe Park & RIde, and will depart every 20 minutes.
For the moment, WMATA has not decided what to do about the 5A. They are considering several options.
One option is to discontinue all service on the 5A. With the new Silver Line and shuttle services from Fairfax Connector and Washington Flyer, the 5A won't be as important. Cutting the service will save the region money, which makes a lot of sense with the new options coming online.
Another option is to simply run the 5A between Wiehle Avenue and Dulles Airport. That duplicates the 981 and Washington Flyer services, but it would maintain the Metrobus brand as an option for getting to Dulles. A third option is to run the 5A only during times when a connection to Metrorail is not possible, like when the system is closed.
The final option is to keep the existing service. There may be some merit to this approach, since an express from Dulles Airport to Downtown Washington would likely be faster than the multiple-stop rail service. But it is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the system, where suburban buses typically feed into the rail system. The B30, for example, only runs to Greenbelt Station, not all the way downtown.
New local stops on BWI service
The Metrobus B30 runs nonstop from Greenbelt station to BWI Airport. This bus service has proven to be very popular, and some trips on the route can be very crowded. Currently, the bus runs every 40 minutes throughout the day.
Metro wants to shorten headways to 30 minutes during some periods, which should help alleviate crowding. The agency also wants to add a stop at Arundel Mills Mall, requiring a short detour from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which the B30 uses to get to the airport. In addition to the large collection of retailers, Arundel Mills is now home to one of Maryland's new casinos, Maryland Live!
There's no other Metrobus service in this area. Since the B30 gets so close, Metro hopes to tap into the demand for more service here. A stop at Arundel Mills would also provide connections to other transit providers which serve the mall, including MTA local and commuter bus service, Howard Transit, and Central Maryland Regional Transit. But the diversion would add about 10 minutes to the trip time between Greenbelt and BWI.
One other possible change is making the B30 more of a local service. Metro's proposed restructuring of the 87/88/89 line will eliminate bus service along Powder Mill Road in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Since the B30 uses this road to get to the B-W Parkway, Metro may allow it to serve stops along this corridor.
These stops are very lightly used, so it probably won't add much time to trips. However, one effect of making local stops along Powder Mill is that the B30 won't be as flexible. If there's a crash on the Parkway, today supervisors can send the bus up I-95 instead. That won't be an option if this change happens.
Are "airport fares" fair for riders?
A few years ago, Metro introduced a new "airport fare" of $6 charged to riders on the 5A and B30. Compared to the $10 fare on the Washington Flyer, the 5A's $6 fare is a steal. The 5A will take you all the way downtown, whereas your $10 fare on the Flyer still leaves you with a $4.20 (rush hour) Metro fare to get to L'Enfant Plaza.
The B30, on the other hand, has always been less of a deal. The $6 fare only gets you to Greenbelt. From there, it's still $4.00 (rush hour) just to get to Gallery Place (less the transfer discount). Riders instead choosing to take the MARC train can get to Union Station for $6, though it does require taking a free shuttle from the terminal to the train station.
If the 5A is discontinued, riders will be on the hook for about $5.75 in Metro fare (the maximum fare) in addition to the $1.10 fare for Fairfax Connector (less the 50¢ transfer discount). That's a slight increase, but is still relatively cheap, given the distance Dulles is from the core.
With the B30 changes, though, the airport fare may make less sense. Passengers boarding along Powder Mill Road in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center today pay a fare of $1.60 to board a local Metrobus. If the B30 becomes their only bus service, their one-way fare will increase by 275%.
And riders bound for Arundel Mills or Maryland Live will also be stuck paying the airport fare, even though they aren't headed for the airport. On the other hand, though, the B30 is one of Metro's more far-flung routes, so a higher fare may be justified.
Adding a B30 stop at Arundel Mills seems like a good idea. It will give riders more regional transit connections and open up a major retail and entertainment area to transit users. Eliminating the 5A also makes a lot of sense, although it will likely be very controversial. In place of the 5A, Fairfax Connector is setting up a more frequent service to get riders to Dulles, which will mean shorter waits and less crowded buses.
The changes proposed for these routes will probably be positive for most riders. Soon, it will be easier to get to Dulles and BWI, and Arundel Mills will be much more accessible to Washingtonians.
Every new bike lane, speed camera, or change in parking requirements becomes an attack in what organizations like AAA decry as a "War on Cars." But in the 1920s, there was a different war over our streets. And pedestrians lost.
At one time, citizens fought to keep their streets for people. But by the 1920s, cars were appearing in ever-greater numbers on the streets of American cities, and the war on pedestrians began. By 1929, motorists could declare victory, and pedestrians, especially children, paid the price.
In April, design-focused podcast 99% Invisible covered the war on pedestrians, from which motorists emerged victorious. Dubbed "The Modern Moloch," the episode is named after the ancient god of the Ammonites, who received children sacrifices in the name of prosperity. A 1923 editorial cartoon in the St. Louis Star depicts Moloch's altar as the grill of a car. Host Roman Mars leads listeners through the narrative.
Before the car became king, streets were for all users. Pedestrians could just stride right out into the street. Traffic on the street, horses, streetcars, and motor cars moved at very slow speeds.
With a growing mass of automobiles, drivers tried to go faster. By 1923, according to the episode, over 17,000 people were being killed by cars each year. That was up from just 12,000 in 1920, a 47% increase. The outcry was loud. People held parades to memorialize the dead, and cities began to propose laws that would make it difficult to drive.
The issue came to a head in 1923, when Cincinnati voters put an initiative on the ballot to require that every car have a governor which would limit speeds. Car manufacturers realized that if it became too difficult to drive in cities, people wouldn't buy cars and instead choose transit or other modes.
The car lobby responded by taking the approach that cars weren't dangerous, people were. Drivers can be reckless, they said, but then so can pedestrians. However, Americans weren't sold on the idea of a reckless pedestrian. The lobby began to use the word "jaywalking" as a way to coerce pedestrians to cross only at corners, mainly though peer pressure. Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking law in 1924.
In 1929, the first cloverleaf in America opened, and motorists could declare victory over pedestrians. Over the following years, cities began to require parking spaces, streets were widened by highway departments. And pedestrians got further and further marginalized in a nation that droves more and more miles every year.
Last December, an episode called "Built for Speed" brings the story forward to the present. What does the design of our streets tell us about driving?
Mars interviews author Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. He notes that no matter what speed limit signs tell drivers, the context of our roads often encourages us to drive faster. They also tell us not to walk.
The episode talks about street trees as an example of how the changing design philosophy encourages drivers to go faster and encourages pedestrians to not walk. In the early 20th century, communities planted trees between the curb and the sidewalk, giving pedestrians shade and creating a buffer between the sidewalk and car traffic.
But after World War II, traffic engineers began to rethink the design. At high speeds, a tree can be deadly in a crash. So instead, designers moved the trees to the other side of the sidewalk. This, of course, makes pedestrians the buffer. But it also makes the road feel wider, and that encourages drivers to go faster.
In 2001, 42,196 people were killed in motor vehicle collisions in the United States. That same year, a terrorist attack in September killed 2,996 on American soil. The September 11 attacks were a call to arms for Americans, and resulted in billions being spent on the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan war, now America's longest conflict, has resulted in the deaths of 14,449 allied soldiers (2,260 American troops) and 19,013 civilians, a total of 33,462 over 11 years. In the period from 2001 to present, 460,536 people have been killed in motor vehicle collisions in the United States.
The "War on Cars" may have resulted in fewer fatalities. But last year 32,367 people were still killed in car crashes.
The deaths of almost 3,000 people in terrorist attacks was enough to spur an actual war. But when more than 10 times as many people die in crashes every year, it seems that most consider it just the cost of doing business. These deaths are simply sacrifices to our modern Moloch; the people we sacrifice in the name of prosperity.
And whenever a government tries to make our streets safer, especially for vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists, the auto lobby says drivers are victims of a "War on Cars."
Cities around the nation are working on projects to reclaim public spaces in our cities for people. Programs like New York City's Public Plaza projects and other traffic calming initiatives are making streets safer for everyone.
That's not a war on cars, that's a war on death and injury. Pedestrians and cyclists can indeed coexist with motorists. But not when they're marginalized and subjected to missing sidewalks, speeding drivers, and other hostile conditions.
Our communities can be prosperous without offering up our most vulnerable road users as sacrifices. But it requires a rethinking of what our roads are built for. So long as "speed" is the answer, pedestrians and cyclists will pay the price. So will many unfortunate motorists.
WMATA is considering closing the Red Line's western branch for 6 weeks to repair significant leaking. If it happens, riders will absolutely need good alternatives for getting around. One solution may be enhanced bus service between different parts of the Red Line.
The section of the Red Line between Friendship Heights and Medical Center opened in 1984 and runs under Wisconsin Avenue. Portions of the subway tunnel are leaking, harming equipment like switch components, track circuits, and rails. The water damage means Metro must replace them more frequently, creating more disruptions for riders.
Metro has tried for years to address the leaks, but they require a more durable fix that can't be done in a long weekend. As a result, Metro is thinking about a long-term closure and is doing engineering studies to see what work is needed. According to spokesperson Dan Stessel, it's too early to know how long the closure would last, which stations would close, or if it's even necessary. Stessel says any closure would be over a year away.
Repairs could impact thousands of riders
While Metro has yet to decide on the exact scope of the project, they have announced that the leaking is the worst at Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations. Bethesda station, currently slated for a major renovation, sits in between. A long term closure would likely mean a gap in the Red Line between Tenleytown and Grosvenor.
According to WMATA's May 2012 ridership data, on weekdays over 97,000 riders travel through the area that would be closed by this work. Around 34,000 people travel through the area during each of the afternoon and evening peaks. A closure like this would negatively impact most of these commuters. It would likely increase traffic congestion in the corridor as well, affecting other residents and businesses.
However, there may be no other option. We'll know more when Metro has completed its engineering studies. But other systems have dealt with long-term closures. Right now, the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line is closed south of downtown for a major rebuilding.
Bus lanes and enhanced service could give riders options
The idea of a long-term closure is still in its early phase. Metro has not announced for sure that there will be a closure, which stations the agency would close, or how they would approach shuttle service.
However, here are some ways Metro could mitigate a closure between Tenleytown and Grosvenor.
Temporary bus lanes could minimize delays for shuttle riders. A shuttle bus ride on Wisconsin Avenue from Grosvenor to Tenleytown would be significantly slower than the Red Line subway. Repurposing one lane of Wisconsin Avenue for buses could speed riders through the gap. It could also demonstrate the effectiveness of bus lanes, which the county is considering for its BRT network.
Beltway shoulder lanes for buses could quickly shuttle riders to the eastern branch of the Red Line. The two Montgomery branches of the Red Line are actually fairly close to each other. It may be faster for riders headed toward downtown Washington to go over to Forest Glen, on the Glenmont side of the Red Line.
However, the Beltway can get very congested during peak hours. One way to make this connection more reliable could be rebuilding the shoulders on the Beltway so buses could use them.
Enhanced bus service on Veirs Mill Road and East-West Highway would help connect riders to the other side of the Red Line. Metro will need an exclusive bus bridge to get riders around the gap in the Red Line, but it is also important to provide other options for riders.
The Q Line runs between Rockville and Wheaton on Veirs Mill Road. It is already one of the busiest bus lines in Maryland, and a Red Line closure might increase ridership. Introducing a limited-stop service would create a faster link between Rockville and Wheaton. It might even be possible for a new limited-stop service in this corridor to continue beyond the Red Line closure, as a lasting positive impact.
The J4 line is a limited-stop service between Bethesda, Silver Spring, and College Park. It currently runs only during rush hour. During the closure, Metro could run buses more frequently and throughout the day, giving riders bound for Bethesda an additional alternative to the Red Line. Many other routes connect the western and eastern arms of the Red Line, and they could benefit from increased or modified service as well.
Transit signal priority and queue jumping lanes on Wisconsin or other streets handling additional bus riders would be another way to make shuttles more effective. Signal priority extends green lights for buses or delays the light from changing to red long enough for the bus to get through. Queue jumping lanes allow the bus to skip to the front of the line at red lights.
Increased MARC service would be a very difficult option. CSX Railroad owns the tracks, and so far has been very resistant to additional commuter trains. If Metro persuaded them to allow a temporary service increase, riders could have a quick way to get from Rockville to downtown.
Even without additional trains, it may be possible for MARC to run longer trains. New coaches are currently being built, and that could free up some equipment if it arrives in time.
Station improvements, especially at Grosvenor could be helpful. The mezzanine at Grosvenor has an opening intended for a future staircase or escalator to the platform. With a shuttle operation starting there, it would be helpful to increase the capacity of the station by adding a staircase (even a temporary one) at that location.
The mezzanine at Tenleytown is similarly hamstrung, with just one set of escalators connecting to the platform. Metro should also look at adding a set of stairs on the south side of the mezzanine kiosk to increase capacity.
Repurposing travel lanes on Wisconsin and constructing shoulder bus lanes on the Beltway is an attractive option, but it would not be easy. The same can be said for signal priority. On these roads, the Maryland State Highway Administration has the final say. It may be difficult to convince them of the necessity. Additionally, it's likely that commuters in the corridor will push back against taking road space away from cars.
The size of Metro's bus fleet may limit the agency's ability to improve bus service. Right now, most buses are already deployed for peak hour service. With enough notice, it might be possible for WMATA to borrow buses from other agencies, but it's not as simple as merely saying "go." The agency would probably need some lead time in order to prepare for a long-term shuttle operation on weekdays.
Closing the Red Line is a drastic step for Metro and could be very disruptive for all commuters, not just transit riders. But this is also an opportunity for Metro, MARC, SHA and Montgomery County to experiment with different ways to improve transit service. If all parties involved are willing to think big, this closure might be an opportunity to create a template for future improvements.
In a few months, Metro's new Silver Line will open, and will mean major changes to commuters in Fairfax County. Reader Nick G. wants to know how long trips on the Silver Line will take.
Right now, commuters to and from Reston and Herndon often rely on a set of commuter buses that run express down the Dulles Toll Road to West Falls Church station. After the Silver Line opens, most of these buses will feed riders into the Silver Line instead of running all the way to meet the Orange Line at I-66.
But the Silver Line takes the scenic route through Tysons Corner instead of staying on the freeway. The 4 stops in Tysons will serve many of the offices and shopping centers in the business district, but they will also add time for riders merely passing through. How much? It looks like just a few minutes.
One of Nick's questions is whether his trip from DC to Reston will get longer with the Silver Line. That will probably depend a lot on each individual commute, since people have different starting and ending points.
To get a sense of Nick's commute, I looked at a commute from Metro Center to Reston Town Center using the Orange Line and the 505 Fairfax Connector bus. It takes 21 minutes to get from Metro Center to West Falls Church. Once on the 505, it takes 15 minutes to get to the Sunset Hills Park and Ride, near the Wiehle Avenue station. That's a trip time of 36 minutes.
On the Silver Line, the ride from Metro Center to Wiehle Avenue is 40 minutes. That's a little bit longer. If Fairfax reallocates some of those buses no longer used for commuter service, transit riders might save time by having shorter transfer times at Wiehle Avenue or at the Tysons stations. Fairfax County DOT has posted their bus operating plans that will go into effect once the Silver Line opens.
The above graphic should help you figure out how your commute will compare.
The numbers in orange under each station's name give the travel time to East Falls Church. Rosslyn, Metro Center, and L'Enfant Plaza are also shown. To get the travel time from Tysons Corner to Rosslyn, you'll have to add the numbers. In that example, it will take 10 minutes to get from Tysons Corner to East Falls Church and another 12 minutes to get to Rosslyn (that's 22 minutes).
If your station isn't included, you can use Metro's trip planner to find the travel time between it and East Falls Church.
The blue numbers on the left side of the graphic show the travel time between each station. It will take 9 minutes for the train to travel between Wiehle Avenue and Spring Hill, for example.
Metro hasn't yet released a schedule for the line. So we can't get too detailed about how long a trip will last, or how long transfers will be. But the travel time data in the graphic should give you a sense of how long your ride on the Silver Line will take.
Edit: Note, these data are courtesy of Nick Perfili at Fairfax County DOT.
On Monday, entrepreneur Elon Musk announced
plans to build a design for a super-fast tube train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. He believes his plan will obviate the need for the California High-Speed Rail. Unfortunately, his math doesn't add up.
The "Hyperloop" would be a pair of tubes stretching from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Pods within these tubes would travel at up to 760 mph, making the trip between California's largest metro areas in 35 minutes. Musk says he became motivated to invent this technology because he grew disenchanted with the California High-Speed Rail project's expense ($53 billion in 2013 dollars) and sloth (it will travel at an average of 168 mph).
Musk claims the Hyperloop system could be built for just $6 billion, 10% of the cost of HSR. Some are wondering if this is a serious proposal or a ploy intended to derail the California High-Speed Rail project. Evidence seems to point to the latter. After all, the guy proposing this revolution in transit owns a car company.
The Hyperloop concept has gotten a lot of press over the past few days. It seems to have inspired the masses like an idea out of Popular Mechanics. And it may very well be possible to build a system much like this one. Perhaps one day in my lifetime, people will be taking Hyperloops all over the nation.
Let's set aside for the moment any discussion of the technical feasibility of this project. The Hyperloop may very well be something that we have the skills and know-how to build. It may even be desirable in some corridors. But the technological concept is only part of what Musk has proposed.
Musk suggests that for less than 10% of the cost of building the long-planned high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, we can invent and build an entirely new technology. But the Hyperloop doesn't actually make it to downtown LA or downtown San Francisco. It also has a maximum passenger capacity of just 10% of the HSR line. And it bypasses all of the intermediate population centers in central California that HSR will serve.
If it sounds too good to be true, you should probably double-check the math. And the math surrounding the Hyperloop definitely has problems.
According to Musk, pods would depart LA and San Francisco every 30 seconds during peak periods. Each pod can carry 28 passengers. That means that under the maximum throughput, the Hyperloop is capable of carrying 3,360 passengers each hour in each direction.
For context, a freeway lane can carry 2,000 cars per hour. A subway running at 3 minute headways (like the WMATA Red Line) can carry 36,000 passengers per hour. The California High Speed Rail, which this project is supposed to replace, will have a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour.
That means that Musk's proposal can carry only 20-25% of the passengers of the California High-Speed Rail under ideal circumstances. But are those ideal circumstances reasonable? Probably not.
The Hyperloop pods will travel at up to 760 miles per hour, just under the speed of sound, with pods traveling about 30 seconds apart in the tube. They will have a maximum deceleration of 0.5 gs, which is equivalent to 10.9 mph per second. At that rate of braking, it will take a pod 68.4 seconds to come to a full stop.
That's a pretty significant issue because safe vehicle operation means never getting closer to the vehicle ahead than the distance it will take you to stop. If pod A were to experience a catastrophic air-skid failure, crash into the tube wall, and disintegrate, pod B, 30 seconds back, would not be able to stop short of the wreckage. In fact, pod C would also likely hit the wreckage of pods A and B.
That means that the minimum separation between pods is probably closer to 80 seconds or more. Not a big deal. It still means 45 departures per hour. But that's only 1,260 passengers per hour in capacity. That's 10% of what the California High-Speed Rail can carry.
With a capacity of 1,260 passengers per tube, that means that the Hyperloop would need 10 tubes in each direction (not 1) to move the same number of passengers as the proposed high-speed line. And that would push the cost up by 10, which is actually more than the cost of the HSR.
The maximum throughput of a transit line equals the throughput of the segment with the least capacity. Simply put, if we have a 2-track railway that has a long single-track segment, the whole line is limited by that section.
The Hyperloop will have chokepoints, too. Because the tubes will be kept at a near-vacuum, each station will have an airlock that trains pass through. Every time a pod arrives, it has to decelerate and stop. Then the airlock will have to close, pressurize, and open again. Then the pod has to clear the airlock. Then the airlock can close, depressurize, and then reopen.
All of that has to happen in less than 30 seconds (if Musk is to be believed) or 80 seconds if vehicles are kept a safe distance apart.
Meanwhile, Musk says that each station can have 3 pods on the platform at once. If pods arrive every 30 seconds, then passengers and baggage have to get off within 60 seconds. One arthritic passenger or a guy who goes back for the iPhone he left behind, and pods start backing up in the tube.
So clearly, Musk needs to rethink headways. The 30-second headway isn't feasible, meaning that his capacity will be significantly lower than he claims.
Maybe he can resolve that by using larger pods. But of course, a larger pod will weigh more. And that will probably mean using stronger steel for the tubes, which means that the cost will go up.
Apples to oranges
The California High-Speed Rail will whisk passengers from Los Angeles Union Station to the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 48 minutes. That's too slow for Musk, and he says the Hyperloop can get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes.
But the Hyperloop won't start in Los Angeles, and it won't end in San Francisco. Instead, it's proposed to start in Sylmar, 38 minutes north of Los Angeles Union Station aboard the Metrolink commuter train. That means it takes longer to get to the Hyperloop from downtown LA than it would take to go to San Francisco.
It's unclear where the Hyperloop would end. Some maps show the line crossing the San Francisco Bay either on or adjacent to the Bay Bridge. But his cost projections don't mention the expense of crossing the bay. Other maps show a terminal south of Oakland. So either his Bay Area station will be in the East Bay, requiring a transfer to BART to reach San Francisco, or he's lowballing the cost of the project. The 11-year long effort to rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge has cost $6.3 billion, so another crossing won't be cheap.
Of course, there's nothing technically infeasible about extending the Hyperloop into downtown LA or San Francisco. But it would significantly increase the costs of the project. The California High-Speed Rail's sections in the San Joaquin Valley are also extremely cheap. If the HSR started in Sylmar and ended in Oakland, it would be significantly cheaper, too. While the cost of getting all the way downtown is already factored into the HSR project, it's not part of the Hyperloop proposal.
Musk's proposal won't actually get riders to the downtowns of Los Angeles or San Francisco. It can only carry around 10% of the capacity of the California High-Speed Rail. Additionally, it will bypass other population centers, like Bakersfield, Fresno, and San Jose.
Building a truly workable Hyperloop, if it's feasible at all, will be significantly more expensive than Musk claims. It might even be more expensive than the California HSR project. And Musk's proposal leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
How did he come to his construction cost estimate in the first place? Musk argues that the Hyperloop is cheaper than HSR because it's elevated, saving on the cost of building at grade and reducing local opposition. But bridges are far more expensive than building tracks at grade. And just because the footprint is limited to a big pylon every 100 feet doesn't mean that the environmental impact analysis process will be any easier or that the public will be any more receptive.
Other issues, like seismic stability, are simply glossed over. He claims that by elevating the Hyperloop tracks, they will be more stable than ground-running HSR. Clearly he's unfamiliar with the Cypress Street Viaduct. That's one reason that the California High-Speed Rail Authority insists on crossing all faults at grade.
Musk also claims that his giant steel tube will be okay with the only expansion joints at the Los Angeles and San Francisco ends. They'll just be really big. That's a significant engineering issue that cannot simply be ignored, at least not if Musk is in any way serious about this proposal.
Realistically, the Hyperloop is just hype. The concept might be technically feasible. But Mr. Musk's proposal will cost a lot more and do a lot less than he claims it will. And clearly, it won't replace the high-speed rail project he hates so much. But it might just sell some Teslas.
Earlier this week, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced plans to build and operate the Purple Line using a public-private partnership, also known as a P3. What does that mean for riders and taxpayers?
A P3 is a partnership between a government agency (in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration) and a private firm (called a "concessionaire") to build and operate an infrastructure project. Many P3s are toll roads, like the new Beltway HOT lanes in Northern Virginia. But transit P3 projects are fairly new to the United States. Currently, the only example in the nation is in Denver, which is using one to build almost 70 miles of rail projects.
The details of the public-private partnership won't be hammered out for some time, so there's still a lot we don't know about what this method of construction and operation will look like. But a recently-published "presolicitation report" from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) tells what they have in mind.
What is a P3?
Essentially, the idea is to leverage private capital and the efficiency of private firms to reduce the public cost of building and operating a project. It also helps the agency by making costs more predictable and assigning risk to the private contractor. MDOT currently estimates that they could save about 20% of the cost of constructing and operating the Purple Line for 30 years by entering into a P3.
While they aren't common in the United States, our neighbors in Canada use them a lot. One notable example is Vancouver's new Canada Line, opened in 2010, though it's not without its criticism.
Where do the savings come from?
In P3s, the cost savings come primarily from two factors: private firms may be more efficient, and risk may be more properly assigned and managed.
One way projects end up wasting money is through "interface problems." For example, a crew comes out to string catenary wire, but they discover that the catenary supports haven't been installed yet. That risk is still there with a P3, but since the contractor has assumed the risk, it's their problem, not the public's.
Meanwhile, the contractor, which is likely to be a major firm, may be able to leverage their other investments to get a good deal on steel. Or they might have a subcontractor who builds railcars, which saves them from having to do a separate procurement.
How will this P3 work?
In a few months, MTA will ask qualified contractors to submit bids to operate the Purple Line. These bids will be very detailed, and MTA will use a "best value" method to pick the contractor, not necessarily picking the cheapest bid.
Each prospective concessionaire will include their estimate for what they can build the Purple Line for, plus what they think it will cost them to operate and maintain the line for 30 years. MTA estimates that the selected contractor will also put in between $400 to $900 million. The agency will put in additional money, as will the federal government, through the New Starts program.
MTA will pay the contractor an annual "availability payment," which equals the contractor's contributions plus the operating costs the contractor estimated in their bid, divided by 35 (5 years of construction, plus 30 years of maintenance). During construction, the contractor will have to take out a performance bond that MTA keeps in case they can't complete the project. If they go out of business after construction is complete, MTA would have to rebid the contract.
Will the concessionaire hike fares or cut service to make a quick buck?
MTA, not the concessionaire, will set the fares, service hours, and train frequency.
The concessionaire wouldn't make money from this, anyway. Like all transit lines in the United States, the Purple Line will not earn enough fare revenue to be profitable. If the contractor can provide their services for less than what was budgeted, they'll keep the difference as (additional) profit. But if they go over budget, they'll lose money.
How will Maryland hold the operator accountable?
MTA will write very detailed requirements in the contract setting performance standards for on-time performance and cleanliness. If the operator can't meet these standards, the MTA could pay them less. That gives the operator a financial incentive to provide good service.
What will the concessionaire be responsible for?
The concessionaire's responsibilities can differ from one P3 to another, but the private firm selected for the Purple Line will be responsible for completing design, building the project, acquiring railcars, and then operating the line for 30 years.
Will the private firm own the line?
No, the state of Maryland will own the Purple Line. After 30 years, the firm operating the line will be responsible for giving it back to the state in a certain pre-specified condition. At that point, the MTA could decide to operate the line on its own or rebid the project to a different firm or even the same firm.
Why is the Purple Line a good choice for a P3?
The Maryland Transit Administration's operations, including local buses, light rail, and subway, are primarily focused in Baltimore, 30 miles from the Purple Line. Because it's so far away, the MTA would likely need a new management and operations structure just for that one line, meaning it would basically stand alone. That makes it a good candidate for a P3, as opposed to the Baltimore Red Line, which interacts with several other MTA services and is much closer to home.
According to the MTA's Henry Kay, the Purple Line's risk profile is well suited to the private sector. In many cases, there will be tight quarters and traffic management plans. There's lots of risk that those conditions will delay the project or make it more expensive. One overarching contractor can better manage that risk than a public agency with multiple contractors. And if the contractor can't manage the risk well, it's their money, not the state's.
There are other risks, like unpredictable weather or even subway tunneling, which are difficult to manage. Contractors may be reluctant to assume the risks of building the Baltimore Red Line, with its long downtown subway. That makes it a less likely candidate for a P3.
Why consider a P3 for transit at all?
Using a P3 for the Purple Line will allow the MTA to spend a little less up front for the project, allowing Maryland to make better use of its gas tax revenues for projects around the state.
According to the MTA's
Assistant General Manager Executive Director for Transit Development and Delivery Henry Kay, the P3 will be more predictable for MTA. For example, once MTA grants the contract, they'll know exactly how much it will cost to run the line every year for 30 years. If energy costs go up or labor costs go up, the contractor is on the hook. But the state will always pay the same price, unless the contractor fails to meet their performance targets (in which case, Maryland would pay less). That could help keep fares and tax rates in check.
Of course, there are risks in a P3. The contractor could go bankrupt, or they could fail to deliver what they promised. MTA's goal is to provide good transit service, and they need to find a reliable partner who they can hold to the same high standard. Over the next several months, the MTA will release a Request for Proposals and companies will respond, allowing us to get a better understanding of how this P3 might work.
Since public-private partnerships for transit are generally untested in the US, communities and transit agencies across the country will watch the Purple Line to see how well they work. Hopefully, it will set the bar high.
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