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

Posts by Michael Perkins

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


Metro's "pick your own price" pass will become permanent. Here are 3 ways it can continue to grow.

WMATA's SelectPass, new this year, is a good deal for almost anyone who rides Metro daily. It's been a pilot program, but soon will likely be permanent.

For some of these folks, riding Metro may have gotten a lot cheaper when SelectPass came around. Now, it's going to stay that way. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

The pass lets you select a fare level (say, $3.25), pay one fixed price for the month, and then get unlimited rides that cost that amount or less. For more expensive rides, you only pay the amount beyond your set level. Our handy calculator helps you figure out what level is the best deal for you.

According to a presentation from WMATA, Metro now sells 3,700 SelectPasses a month, compared to just 400-1,000 a month for the long-standing unlimited rail pass which did not offer various price levels.

98% of pass users rate the pass at least a 7 out of 10. Low-income riders are even more likely to use the pass, representing 18% of pass users but just 12.8% of overall Metro riders. And WMATA estimates that the pass has slightly increased revenue while increasing ridership even more—just the point of a pass like this.

Michael Perkins has been pushing the idea for this pass since 2009 after getting the idea from Seattle's ORCA; the transit in that area, as with WMATA, has a variety of fare levels that makes the simple one-price-fits all pass not work.

You can currently get the pass at a fare level of any 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, plus the $5.90 max fare. Metro plans to add fare levels from $4.00 to $5.75 as well if the (quite old) faregate computers can handle it.

Beyond this, there are a few ways Metro could work to further improve this pass:

Make it easier to get with employer benefits

Many riders get transit through their employers, either where the employer pays for some transit fare for free, or as a pre-tax deducation from the employee's paycheck. Unfortunately, it can be a pain to get a Metro SelectPass this way if the employer or payroll personnel are not helpful or knowledgeable.

Employers set up benefits through a special (not very user-friendly) WMATA website. To get a pass, the benefits administrator has to specially designate the money for a pass rather than to go on your SmarTrip card as cash.

Many employers don't know how to do this. Other commenters have said that some employers use third party companies to process these benefits, and not all of those companies support the pass yet.

One GGWash contributor, who asked not to be named, writes, "I made a request with my employer when the pass first came out. I followed up a few months after that. I still haven't heard anything."

Metro either needs to work on making it possible to get the pass even with a non-savvy payroll department, or it should make the payroll process easier so employees can help their employers set up the pass correctly.

Allow riding rail or bus without extra cost

Right now, you can add on a bus pass to your Metro Select Pass for $45 more per month, which is like buying a month's worth of bus rides for just over $1 each. It's a good deal if your normal commute includes a bus ride, but it's not a good deal if some of your trips are on rail only and some of your trips are on bus only.

We want to encourage people to use the best transit mode for their needs. If the train isn't working well, people could switch to the bus; let them. Plus, for people who commute daily by rail, it's in Metro's best interest to let them take some midday bus trips for free when the buses aren't full.

Therefore, it would be better if the Metro Select Pass worked for either mode of transit, rail or bus, as long as it's less than your selected pass value.

Encourage more bulk purchases

Right now, if you're a student at American University, you (or, more likely, your parents) pay a $260 per semester mandatory fee, and you and all other students get an unlimited transit pass. This encourages more students to ride transit, while Metro can charge only $260 a semester because most students don't ride every day.

Beyond adding more universities, Metro could explore building a program to create such passes for other groups, including condo or apartment buildings, employers, and others. When passes are purchased in bulk, the price per pass can be reduced, and everyone is encouraged to use transit.

To get approval for new buildings in many jurisdictions, developers have to prepare Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plans, where they identify strategies to help residents or workers commute by more efficient means than driving. This often includes Bikeshare memberships, car-sharing memberships, TransitScreens in lobbies, and more. Passes could be a great amenity as well.

Congrats to Metro on building a successful new pass program! We look forward to seeing where this goes in the future.


WMATA wants a private company to run its parking facilities. That's a risky move.

WMATA recently announced that it's looking to have a private concessionaire take over operations and maintenance of all of its parking facilities, including garages and parking meters on its property. In exchange for a big up-front payment equal to 50 years of parking fees, the concessionaire would have to operate and maintain almost 60,000 parking spaces. It'd also get to collect all the parking fees.

Right now, Metro runs its parking lots. WMATA is looking for a company to take over, though. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

For the base proposal, WMATA allows up to a 3% increase in parking rates every year, and expects the estimated payout to be based on similar hours of operation. However, as an alternate proposal, each potential operator can propose changes to rates and hours of operation, which would be subject to board approval.

This idea looks disturbingly similar to a disastrous proposal which locked the city of Chicago into giving away most of the value of their on-street parking for 75 years. In exchange for $1.2 billion up-front, mostly used to close budget gaps and now long gone, Chicago no longer has any control of how on-street parking is priced, and has to pay the concessionaire when people use the streets for festivals, for disabled placard use, and for allowing construction of parking garages.

Why WMATA might want this deal

The benefits to WMATA are fairly obvious: they get out of the business of operating parking garages and lots, similar to how they have contracted out paratransit service. WMATA gets a big up-front payment of what I'd estimate to be about 1 billion dollars depending on the discount rate, the cost of operating and maintaining the parking spaces, and how much profit the private concessionaire prices into its bid.

However, WMATA and the funding jurisdictions would lose almost $50 million in current parking revenues per year, which is approximately half of the annual estimated budget shortfall WMATA has had at the beginning of the typical budget season for the past 12 years. So in addition to the usual $100 million in budget savings, fare increases, and juridictional subsidy increases to close the typical budget gap, WMATA would have to find an additional $50 million a year to make up for the loss in parking revenue.

The deal could limit Metro's freedom to boost ridership or redevelop stations

But that's not all. Since WMATA is requesting potential concessionaires to be creative with their bids, they could potentially increase the amount of the up-front payment by offering to charge for parking during nights and weekends.

Currently, WMATA offers parking for free evenings during the week, and all weekend. This helps improve WMATA's bottom line, because the parking is not scarce, and the people parking typically ride Metrorail and pay substantial off-peak fares (increased over the past decade from about 50% of peak fares to about 75% of peak fares under the guidance of former general manager Richard Sarles).

A savvy concessionaire could offer WMATA a much larger payout by charging for evening and weekend parking. But by discouraging weekend/evening riders, it could be taking revenue away from Metrorail—revenue that WMATA may have been counting on, but which wasn't on the parking concessionaire's balance sheet. Without a solid analysis of how much fare revenue could be lost, WMATA risks further damaging the annual budget in exchange for a one-time payout.

Parking here during nights and weekends is currently free, which encourages more people to ride Metro. But a private company could change that. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It's even worse if WMATA decides in the future that parking isn't the best use of some land near a station. If office, residential, or retail would be better around a station, or if Metro needs some of the metered spaces for buses or another use, WMATA would either have to pay the concessionaire a large penalty or, depending how the contract is structured, be unable to make the change at all.

Even if a redevelopment replaces parking, would the concessionaire be able to veto designs it didn't like? Would WMATA have to pay it back for all of the revenue while the garage is being rebuilt, and what would the cost be? WMATA's request for proposals doesn't specify, but if a final contract is anything like Chicago's, this deal could significantly hamstring Metro's choices in the future.

Do we trust Metro to negotiate well?

All of this aside, for this plan to succeed, we would have to trust WMATA to correctly evaluate the future value of their parking assets so as not to get taken advantage of financially. According to an independent inspector general report, Chicago's deal could have been worth almost $900 milllion more than the city actually received. In response to a press inquiry, WMATA only stated that "outside resources" would be used to help evaluate bids.

We also have to trust that WMATA will appropriately spend the money it gets up front in a way that is worth giving up all the future revenue from parking we currently count on to pay WMATA's bills. Without parking revenue to help increase the cost recovery ratio of the system, it is possible that state and local governments will put pressure on fares to make sure more of the operating costs are being covered. Finally, WMATA risks losing the ability to control prices or usage of the parking lots without financial penalties.

This looks like an extremely risky potential deal. WMATA should proceed with caution.


With Metro, "on time" doesn't mean what you think it means

There's a lot of wiggle room in how WMATA reports Metro's on-time performance. We need something more accurate.

Photo by RHiNO NEAL on Flickr.

Periodically, Metro reports its on-time performance to both the public and the WMATA board. In 2014, more than 90% of Metrorail trains were "on time."

But Metro doesn't arrive at those numbers in a way that makes sense for passengers, and its practices can lead to counterproductive moves like intentionally delaying trains to cook the books.

Metro counts a train as "on time" if it arrives somewhere close to within the scheduled headway, which is the block of time that passes between trains. During rush periods, the headway plus or minus two minutes counts, and during off-peak periods, it's one-and-a-half headways.

That means that when a lead train starts to slow down, Metro can slow down the trains behind it and still count them as being on time. There is no measurement that tracks how fast a train moves through the system. Besides how often trains break down, the only thing reflected in Metro's public data is the spacing between trains.

Also, only the trains that actually stop at a station are included in Metro's on-time performance data. Metro's reporting doesn't include trains that go out of service or skip stations.

There are more honest ways to report Metrorail performance

Metro needs a performance standard that reflects what's best for customers.

One way to achieve that would be to divide the amount of times a train stopped at a given station by the number of times Metro said one would stop there. This number would show all the service Metro hadn't delivered. If Metro said 20 trains would stop at a station during rush hour and only 15 did, that's a problem we should know about.

Another idea would be to use Smartrip data to track how many people got to their destination within a reasonable time. Metro publishes typical travel times for each possible trip. Going from Ballston to Eastern Market, for example, should take about 26 minutes.

After factoring in a reasonable walking time to and from faregates, along with time for transferring trains if necessary, Metro could report the percentage of customers who got between stations in the time Metro said it would take. This would emphasize the delays that happen when customers can't get on a train, have to offload, or are on trains that travel slowly.

Metro needs to improve its customer reputation. Honest performance metrics, even if they aren't particularly flattering, would be a good place to start.


DDOT's newest performance parking program will be its best

In May, DDOT will launch its most robust performance parking experiment to date. The program, called ParkDC, will significantly change how people park in Gallery Place: the cost to park a car on some of downtown's most in-demand blocks will rise or drop according to demand.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

ParkDC's boundaries will stretch from 11th to 3rd and from E to H Streets Northwest.

Under the performance parking program, DDOT will use cameras and sensors to measure when parking spaces in the designated area are occupied and when they're empty.

Each quarter, the agency will measure that data against a target occupancy rate of 80-90% (or about one empty spot per block) and adjust how much it costs to park in a given spot accordingly. It's possible that prices will change more frequently after the first few quarters, and DDOT will assess ParkDC's overall impact sometime before the end of 2016.

A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

Charging market rate for parking will make sure there are enough empty spots for people who need them while also eliminating an oversupply. That, in turn, will cut down on the congestion that comes from people driving around looking for somewhere to park.

ParkDC is based in part on the success of SFpark, which was introduced to several busy areas in central San Francisco in 2011. An evaluation of SFpark showed that the program made streets better for everyone, with 30% fewer miles driven, 23% fewer parking tickets, 22% less double parking, and 43% less time wasted looking for parking. The average price for parking even fell by 4%. Compared to control areas, buses ran faster and retail sales grew more.

The local business improvement district supports ParkDC: in its press release, businesses touted the project's ability to make parking "easier to locate" and cut down on double parking and drivers circling for spaces.

ParkDC will be DDOT's best parking effort to date

DDOT has tried pilots on Capitol Hill, H Street, and Columbia Heights. They were less successful than supporters hoped because DDOT did not have a cost-effective way to measure occupancy. It also didn't put forth a schedule for updating the meter rates, nor a timeframe for evaluating effectiveness.

For each of these pilot areas, DDOT only reported occupancy data publicly twice, and it hasn't changed prices in some places even when the data show they're either too crowded or empty.

ParkDC's real-time cameras and occupancy sensors, along with a pre-announced schedule, make the program smarter and more responsive.

According to Soumya Dey, DDOT's director of research and technology transfer, ParkDC will use a number of methods to gather occupancy data. A traditional "hockey puck," transaction data from the meters, historical data, cameras, and law enforcement data are all among the ways DDOT will know how many people park, and when, on each block. Dey said the hope is to use fewer embedded sensors, and to evaluate which method is most cost-effective.

Dey said that once the program is up and running, the public will be able to view spot occupancy in real time on DDOT's website or its app.


WMATA plans bus and rail fare increases, and double increases for those who transfer

WMATA staff presented to a plan to raise bus and rail fares to the agency's board yesterday. For riders taking both bus and rail, the proposed increase will hit them doubly hard.

Photo by FutUndBeidl on Flickr.

The proposed budget increases rail fares by about 3% (the rush hour base fare increases from $2.10 to $2.15) and by 15¢ on bus (from $1.60 to $1.75 for SmarTrip, which will now be the same as the cash fare).

The 50¢ transfer discount will remain the same, as it has for many years. As the rail and bus fares increase, the transfer discount is becoming a smaller part of the fare system.

The transfer started out as a paper ticket you got at a Metrorail station and showed to your bus driver to get a 90¢ discount on the bus fare. Unlike transfers from one bus to another, which allowed a free ride, the rail-to-bus transfer discount was not enough to cover the whole bus fare.

Once WMATA moved bus transfers to SmarTrip, it removed the transfer machines from stations, and you got the transfer discount automatically. The 90¢ discount from rail to bus became a 50¢ discount in both directions.

Since then, bus and rail fares have continued to increase, but the transfer discount has stayed the same. This is unlike other transit agencies, who for the most part either give a free transfer between vehicles, or set a transfer fee (the cost to ride rail after bus or bus after rail) rather than a discount off the base fare for both.

Systems with a transfer fee is periodically review and increase that fee as necessary, because the agency gets more money when this happens. For WMATA, however, it is financially beneficial to overlook increasing the transfer discount, even as both rail and bus fares have increased.

The transfer fee is an important part of the Metro fare system, which takes into account the high cost of riding both rail and bus. It encourages people to take the bus to Metro, rather than drive, congest the roads, and use up a parking space. It's an acknowledgement that we can't build the rail system everywhere, but we can build a transit system using multiple modes that can reach a lot more people at a reasonable cost.

WMATA should at the very least establish a policy that when the base rail and base bus fares both rise, the transfer discount should rise by the same amount. This will ensure the customer only sees one fare increase rather than both fare increases at the same time, and would help promote using rail and bus as an integrated system.


Live chat with Chris Zimmerman

We're talking with Chris Zimmerman today from 12-1. Zimmerman is stepping down after 17 years on the Arlington County Board to work for Smart Growth America.

Update: The chat has ended. Here is the transcript, edited only for formatting, to correct typos and punctuation, and to insert paragraph breaks.

Michael Perkins: Hi and welcome to our Greater Greater Washington live chat. We have with us today as our guest Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member for the past 18 years. Mr. Zimmerman will be retiring from the board within the next couple weeks to work for Smart Growth America. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.

Chris Zimmerman: Glad to be here (virtually speaking).

Michael Perkins: just a note to anyone joining us today, you can submit a question for the chat by typing /msg perkinsms and then your question. I'll pick some to include. Chris, let's start out with Arlington and your experience on the board. How has Arlington changed in nearly two decades?

Chris Zimmerman: Well obviously the vision for Arlington as a TOD-based community has blossomed into reality; in the 90s it was still more of a plan, something hoped for. Beyond the growth of the R-B corridor, we've also extended the vision of a walkable, transit-oriented community to non-Metrorail places.

Michael Perkins: In the 90s Arlington was one of the first communities to try some smart growth principles. What was the reaction at the time?

Chris Zimmerman: That has resulted in transit service being extended county-wide (ART), sidewalk improvements, bike facilities throughout the County, etc. In the 90s we didn't have the smart growth vocabulary, so it was a little less cohesive as a shared vision. Most people supported the idea of transit, but there was less consensus on what we wanted to be as a community.

Many people were concerned about traffic in neighborhoods, for instance. That can become an anti-development movement (as happens in many places), or it can be the basis of a movement for greater walkability—pedestrian safety, safe routes to schools, good urban design, etc. We took the latter path.

Michael Perkins: Right now there's a big debate going on in Arlington about the plan to add streetcars to Columbia Pike/Pentagon City/Crystal City. At least two of the declared board candidates are opposed to streetcar. How will the streetcar plan fare after you leave the board as one of its strongest advocates?

Chris Zimmerman: There has been strong for the streetcar plan consistently since the first approval in 2006. A solid majority in both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards is committed to realizing it. They recognize that completion of the streetcar system is a vital part of our economic and fiscal future.

Michael Perkins: Some of the candidates would prefer an option like enhanced buses, which some people call BRT. How did the county evaluate streetcar against BRT and choose its preferred option?

Chris Zimmerman: The debate over streetcar in Arlington parallels that over every rail project anywhere in America, especially in recent years. Opponents use "BRT" as a tactic, usually not because they want BRT, but because they are interested in stopping a transit project.

Michael Perkins: Part of the problem with BRT is that the concept is not concrete enough to know what you're getting. In some ways the Pike Ride bus system is very close to the best BRT we could have on the pike.

Chris Zimmerman: BRT is an important component in an overall strategy for regional mobility. It is not a substitute for streetcar in an application to the kind of corridor we are working with. Most significant to the decision with Columbia Pike, however, was simply that we realized we did not have a BRT option. We could add more buses, but that isn't BRT.

As you say, folks aren't necessarily sure what BRT means. That makes it easy to make up false comparisons in which there is a "far cheaper alternative", which isn't really an alternative at all, and wouldn't bring the benefits we're seeking.

Michael Perkins: A question from Canaan: "A lot of people criticize the Columbia Pike streetcar because it won't have dedicated lanes. But Mr. Tejada pointed out that is because VDOT won't allow a lane to be taken away from cars. What made you decide the project was worth it anyway, and if VDOT changed their mind would that mean the board would likely support a new design even if it meant some sort of delay?"

And a side note, is the decision to have a dedicated lane something VDOT could revisit with the county at a later time?

Chris Zimmerman: A dedicated lane for transit is always to be desired. However, when the analysis was done it was found that there would be relatively little travel-time benefit. This is because the east-west flow on Columbia Pike is actually quite good. And of course, the distances are not great. So, a dedicated lane was found not to be essential to achieving high quality transit service.

On the other hand, the quality of the service (particularly in terms of rider experience) can be greatly enhanced with street-running rail. And, yes, at some point in the future the state can decide it wants to convert car lanes to transit lanes.

Michael Perkins: A question emailed in from Rick Rybeck: "What do you think about the use of 'value capture' to fund transit and about its ability to promote more compact and affordable development?" I know this is something the County has done under your leadership in the Crystal City area.

Chris Zimmerman: I think value capture will likely be key to significant transit improvements and TOD in the US in coming years. This is of course a large component of our plan for streetcar in Arlington. The Crystal City plan adopted in 2010 included creation of a TIF for the purpose of funding transportation improvements, most especially the streetcar. We have had that in place for several years now, and it can fund most of the cost of the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yards portion of the line.

Michael Perkins: A question from David Alpert: "There seems to be a very loud contingent of people stridently opposed to the transit and smart growth vision that Arlington has held to for so long. Is that new, or just more visible because of social media like Twitter? Is it because now it's moving into new areas like Columbia Pike, versus building out R-B and CC-PY?"

Chris Zimmerman: I think that today there is a loud contingent of strident people opposed to all kinds of things, everywhere. The Internet is wonderful in many ways. One of the ways is the ability to create virtual communities, to connect people who would never have been in contact with each other. It is also a megaphone, that amplifies voices of a few (often a good thing).

These qualities have a profound impact on public discourse, however, and I don't think we have entirely worked out (as a society) how to process all of it. Among its impacts is the "nationalizing" of all discussion, so that trends that are running in a larger political conversation (state, national) are quickly transformed into local memes. This makes for a very robust discussion at the local level, which can be a very good thing, but it can also be distorting, giving a funhouse mirror look to policy dialogue.

Michael Perkins: Some cities around the country are just starting to look at Smart Growth/Transit oriented development. What advice do you have for these cities? What are the low-hanging fruits that are good "first steps" to take?

Chris Zimmerman: First thing is to assess what assets you already have in place. A grid of streets? A good Main Street? Legacy buildings? Etc. Your greatest returns will come from using these as anchors. Remember that the key objective in any such development pattern—whether in a major metropolis or a small village—is proximity. The value of small spaces is the key. People tend not to realize just how much can be accomplished with very little real estate.

If you're starting with nothing, get one or two good blocks done. If you've got one or two good blocks, build on to them. After that, you can talk about how much you want to invest in transit and other infrastructure. But the focus has to be on creating great places, places people want to be in, and connecting them to everyone.

Michael Perkins: You're leaving the board after nearly 20 years. How do you think working for a national organization will change how you can advocate for Smart Growth compared to being an elected official?

Chris Zimmerman: As an elected official I've had the opportunity to work very intensively on one community—my own—and have an impact on how it has developed. I'm very excited for the opportunity to help with this work on a wide variety of communities, all across the country.

Some are similar to Arlington, or to where Arlington was 20 or 30 years ago; others are very different, in size, demographics, economy, etc. But all have challenges in common, and for all there are basics that can improve the quality of life, the state of the environment, and their economic and fiscal health.

I've believed for a very long time that the issues of how we build our communities, how we create the places in which we live, work, and play—how we use the scarce resource of land— has a profound impact across a great range of issues, environmental, social, and economic. So, I think I'm very fortunate to be able to work with people who are trying to make a difference with these policies all over America.

Michael Perkins: We have about 10 minutes left in the chat. If you're listening in you can send a question in by typing /msg perkinsms and your question. I may not get to them all.

Michael Perkins: I'm going to shift to Metro. The original Metro system was built using money that was shifted from a large highway system that the region largely didn't need and didn't want. The original Metro system is now running into capacity constraints, especially on the orange line.

How are we going to be able to afford upgrades to the core capacity of the system? I see a lot of plans on what capacity upgrades we could make, but I don't see something out there that signifies the $5-10B we are likely going to need to start.

Chris Zimmerman: That's really a question of political will. The original system (actually only partly funded by shifting money from highways) represented an enormous fiscal commitment from all levels of government. In real terms, the funding needed now is far smaller relatively to our fiscal capacity. The difference now is almost entirely in attitude. We've made it hard to raise money for anything government does. But if we want to have a first-class transportation system, it is entirely within our means to do so.

Michael Perkins: In your organizational statement you mentioned that we seemed to be "gripped by a 'can't do' mentality." How do we overcome that?

Chris Zimmerman: The "we" I was referring to was the nation; so, unfortunately, this is a problem of politics. For the most part, people here in the National Capital Region have not been consumed by this malaise. Recent "controversies" however, illustrate how this mentality is being imposed on our policy dialogue. Even in places like Arlington.

But we don't have to succumb to it. We have the means to accomplish what we need to do. And my sense is that people—the majority—are ahead of leaders in being willing to move forward. So, advocacy is really important.

Michael Perkins: And with that I think we are done. Thank you very much for joining us.

Chris Zimmerman: Thank you.

Michael Perkins: Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and for listening in.


Join Chris Zimmerman for a live chat next Thursday

After 18 years in office, Chris Zimmerman will step down from the Arlington County Board in February. Next Thursday at noon, join him for a live, moderated conversation about his accomplishments in Arlington, where the county's headed, and his future role at Smart Growth America.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Zimmerman has been a defining leader in transportation and smart growth in our region, serving on the boards for VRE, WMATA, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. He's departing at a crucial moment for Arlington as it moves forward with streetcar projects along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City.

We'll conduct the chat via Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. If you're already familiar with IRC, join us at, channel #ggwdiscuss. If you don't have a client, you can use the web client by clicking here and picking a username.

During the chat, feel free to send me (perkinsms) your questions via private message like so:

/msg perkinsms <your question goes here>

What would you like to ask Chris Zimmerman? You can offer questions to ask before the discussion in the comments, or via email. Afterwards, we'll post the transcript. We'll see you next Thursday!


Can motorcycles fit in an urban context?

Where do motorcycles fit in a city? Should we promote them more, because they take up less space and use less gas? Or should we discourage them because they're noisy and dangerous?

Photo by Alex Barth on Flickr.

This past July, I finally gave in and took the motorcycle safety course, bought the gear (helmet, full textile suit, gloves, boots), got my license, and bought a 1983 Honda Shadow 500. In good weather, I trade in my Orange Line commute from East Falls Church to Eastern Market for a 12-mile ride along I-66, Independence Avenue, and the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

As I've ridden the motorcycle more and more, I've thought about how this is both a good choice and a bad choice for society and our region, and wondered whether motorcycle use should be encouraged more, discouraged more, or we're doing it about right.

Motorcycles can be more space, energy-efficient

Motorcycling has its benefits. I can use the HOV lanes on I-66. My work provides motorcycle parking in otherwise unusable corners of the parking garage, so I usually save about 20 minutes compared to Metro. We're a one-car household, so it also allows me to go to meetings or events and not leave the rest of the family without a car.

I can also do this while getting about 58 miles per gallon, about as good as any hybrid car. Meanwhile, motorcycles produce fewer CO2 emissions and consume fewer materials in manufacturing. And they require much less parking than a car. I can generally find spaces to park that a car wouldn't be able to fit in, and some lots and garages have special motorcycle spaces that would otherwise be unusable.

But motorcycles have drawbacks as well. Like many motorcycles, my bike lacks a catalytic converter, meaning it can create more local pollution. They also create noise pollution, promote gasoline consumption and dependence, and pose an increased safety risk to the operator and others. At least in my case, having a motorcycle has also reduced the amount of transit I take, so Metro doesn't get that fare revenue. On the other hand, there's now an extra seat available on the Orange Line.

Society promotes motorcycles by allowing single riders to use the HOV lanes. This probably helps reduce fuel consumption and local CO2 emissions. I don't know of much that society does to actively discourage motorcycle use, other than promoting an overall sense that they're extremely dangerous.

Are there ways to encourage motorcycling?

Something our region could consider is allowing lane-splitting, similar to what they allow in California or most countries in Europe. The California Highway Patrol has guidelines for when splitting lanes is appropriate, and don't allow dangerous weaving in between cars at speed.

It would reduce the risk of a rear-end collision if I were allowed to ride at a moderate pace between lanes of stopped cars, rather than inching along in between someone's rear bumper and another's front. This may even reduce congestion, because the motorcycle wouldn't be using up a whole lane.

Another thing would be to have clearer parking regulations for motorcycles. There have been several times where I've seen a parking space that I could physically fit in without blocking traffic of any kind (vehicle or pedestrian), but I would be concerned about getting a ticket.

One example is the small triangles of pavement between on-street parking spaces and curb bumpouts. These are becoming much more common, but I often see "no parking" signs blocking off the corners. I could fit there, but I'd rather not risk a ticket. Why not just leave the no parking signs out, and ticket people if they block the travel lanes?

Motorcycles share some of the characteristics of cars. It's not an issue for motorcyclists to "keep up" with traffic. However, they share some characteristics with bicycles, like the "sorry, I didn't see you!" problem, when motorists turn or swerve into motorcycles without looking. And distracted drivers can cause a collision that would only cause a fender-bender with another car, but could be life-threatening for a cyclist or motorcyclist.

Overall, I think we've got the balance just about right. We probably don't need to promote motorcycles any more, but we could do a couple of things to reduce frustration and keep motorcycles out of the way.


Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"

WMATA thinks talking about reliable buses is boring, asking "Can't we just talk about shoes?" Instead, many riders are talking about how sexist the agency's new ad is.

Photo by Lucy Westcott via DCist.

WMATA placed the ad highlighting its Metro Forward rebuilding campaign at Metro Center. Capital News Service correspondent Lucy Westcott first noticed the ad, which then appeared on DCist. Backlash to it has been fierce, with many Twitter users and anti-sexism group UltraViolet calling the ad sexist and offensive.

A WMATA spokesperson told DCist that "The point of the ad is to get people talking about Metro's massive rebuilding effort by juxtaposing technical facts with a variety of light responses in conversation between friends."

The ad certainly has people talking, but not for the reasons Metro intended.


Arlington considers using fees to reduce parking

Arlington may consider instituting a fee for developers who provide less than the "standard" amount of parking in office buildings. The money could be used to pay for improvements in the surrounding area, particularly ones that encourage using alternatives to driving.

Photo by Tallent Show on Flickr.

At an Arlington Transportation Commission meeting last Monday, staff presented the results of the county's Commercial Parking Working Group, charged with finding a fair and transparent method for developers to compensate the community for the external costs of building less parking.

Their solution: a three-tier fee for developers that provide less than the "standard" amount of parking for an office building. The minimum parking requirement is about one space per 600 square feet for most projects, and less in Rosslyn, Crystal City, and Pentagon City. Normally, developers only have to comply with standard site plan requirements, like working with the county to provide transportation demand management (TDM) services to the building's users.

Under the proposal, a developer that wanted to provide less than the standard amount would have to pay a fee. County planners would use the guidelines to decide the amount of the contribution when the developer submits their site plan for consideration. The guideline amounts would adjust periodically according to inflation. The money would be specifically earmarked for improvements in the building's immediate area or would pay for TDM services for the building's tenants.

The first two tiers are fairly inexpensive, ranging between $7,000 and $10,000 per space, since it's relatively easy to convince a small number of people to switch from cars to other transportation modes.

As developers build less parking, it may be harder to convince committed drivers to reconsider, and the county may have to construct or otherwise provide parking instead of less expensive commuter services. At the top tier, a developer would be required to pay $40,000 per space not built, which is equivalent to the average cost of providing a parking space underground.

This is a good solution for Arlington. We have a robust system of review for major projects, and the proposal lays out in concrete terms what developers can expect if they want to reduce the amount of parking in their projects.

Although the payment amounts are lower than I would like to see, they are linked to analysis concerning the costs of convincing people not to drive to work. I would rather have seen payments linked to the cost of construction for parking spaces, which could have more closely reflected the benefit to the builder for reducing the number of required spaces.

Hopefully, Arlington embraces a similar result for residential buildings. Apartment and condominium developers similarly ask to build fewer parking spaces, but there are not concrete guidelines for what community benefits we should expect in return.

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