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

Posts from January 2009


K Street Transitway delayed seven years, again

DC has a plan on the books to reconfigure K Street, creating a dedicated, physically separated bus lane in each direction. The original "K Street Transitway" study happened in 2004, but there's been little to no progress since. DC Councilmembers including Jim Graham periodically ask about it, and the Downtown BID thinks it's a high priority, but there's still no money. Now, according to the National Capital Region Long-Range Transportation Plan updates announced on January 15th, the K Street Transitway was just delayed seven more years. Instead of money first coming in 2010, we'll have to wait until at least 2017 to begin the project.

Rendering of K Street busway, by Newlands & Company.

The preferred alternative would eliminate K Street's side access-and-parking roadways from Washington Circle to Mount Vernon Square. Instead, the project would create dedicated bus lanes in the center, separated from general traffic by medians on both sides. Bus stations and fare machines would be located in the medians. The Circulator could use this, along with Metrobuses that run on K Street. (The recent service evaluation for the D buses recommends using the Transitway). DC could add tracks under to the transit lanes for streetcars in the future.

Luckily, the other regional projects recently delayed by more than five years in the NCR Long-Term Transportation Plan are primarily freeway widening proposals. Regional bike, pedestrian, and transit plans appear largely on course, except for the many transit cuts Maryland and Virginia have recently made and WMATA faces soon. This fall's federal transportation reauthorization could change the math on funding, giving DC money to build the Transitway. Otherwise, we'll have to suffer through slow bus service on K Street for almost another decade.



DeFazio calls out Summers, introduces transit stimulus amendment

Won't Larry Summers please just go away? He already laid the groundwork for the current financial crisis and damaged Harvard's reputation. Now, he's steering President Obama and the stimulus bill away from transit and other infrastructure spending and toward tax cuts.

Larry Summers. Photo by World Economic Forum on Flickr.

According to House Transportation Chair James Oberstar (D-MN), the original stimulus proposal had $20 billion more for infrastructure, especially transit, but tax cuts crowded it out. He proposed a 60-40 split between highways and transit, but House and Obama negotiators took away more of the transit, shifting the mix to 75-25. On the Rachel Maddow show Friday, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) pointed the finger at Summers:

Almost all other economists agree that infrastructure is a better recovery plan than tax cuts. Infrastructure projects let the government guarantee their dollars get spent, not just saved, and then when you're done, the country gets to keep the new infrastructure. An overwhelming majority of Americans support infrastructure spending. But, DeFazio said, tax cuts over infrastructure was "the dictate from on high in the negotiations with Obama's advisers ... I think he's ill-advised by Larry Summers. Larry Summers hates infrastructure."

DeFazio is fighting back, at least a little bit. He's introducing an amendment to add $2 billion in operating assistance to transit, helping our transit agencies stave off painful service cuts at a time when ridership is booming. Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) will also be introducing an amendment to add $2 billion in capital investment. If they pass, those two amendments will restore only a small fraction of the $20 billion Summers & co. cut, but they're a start.

The first step for these amendments is the House Rules Committee, which decides which amendments can come to the floor. Rules will discuss these tomorrow. Please call Louise Slaughter, Chair of the Rules Committee, at 202-225-3615 and ask her to bring DeFazio's and Nadler's amendments to the floor.

Ask for a rule that allows it to pass with a majority of House members. Sometimes Rules requires a two-thirds majority for some amendments, which most likely dooms those; we want a majority.

Most of the time, House members disagree and negotiate behind the scenes. When they go public, they send a clear message that this is an important issue that they care about. Oberstar, DeFazio and Nadler are taking a stand. Let's have their backs. Call Slaughter now at 202-225-3615 and ask for Rules to bring both amendments to the floor under a simple majority rule. And tell your fellow readers how the call went in the comments.



Weekend reading II: The federal environment

Paper or plastic? How about neither? Marc Fisher delves into the familiar question. He determines that the only eco-friendly option for your shopping bags is to "do what our counterparts do in many other countries of the world—bring [your] own dang bag to the store."

Photo by Carosaurus on Flickr.

Fixing the Mall: Holding 1.8 million people drew national attention to our downtrodden National Mall. The Post says we need to do better. The National Park Service wants to keep running things, while the National Coalition to Save Our Mall thinks we need an independent commission. Richard Layman suggests a "National Heritage Area", which NPS could co-manage in a public-private partnership similar to NYC's Bryant or Central Parks and without some of their stifling restrictions.

Federal judges need their out-of-state licenses? An emergency rulemaking in this week's DC Register "will exempt members of the Judicial Branch of the Federal government and their spouses from the requirement of surrendering out-of-state operator's permits when registering a motor vehicle." It doesn't explain why the judicial branch and their spouses, and nobody else, need an exemption from this particular rule, and why it's an emergency. Anyone know?



Weekend reading I: Maryland transportation watch

Parking min blocking new restaurant: Former Colorado Kitchen chef Gillian Clark is ready to open a restaurant, The General Store, in Silver Spring (at Forest Glen and Seminary Roads). The only problem is, county parking rules require 30 spaces, and they only have 7. Instead, they can only serve carryout customers. Dual tip from David and Becca. In other parking minimum news, Ithaca, New York is reducing theirs.

Rendering of the Capital Crescent Trail alongside the Purple Line.

O'Malley cuts 2038 budget: The State of Maryland continues cutting all transportation efforts except the Intercounty Connector. O'Malley's budget proposal adds $73 million in ICC bonds, reducing the state's contributions now and taking it out of the next generation's pockets. The Chamber of Commerce supports the "sprawl now, pay later" policy.

Leggett, Council committee support light rail for Purple Line: Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett agrees with the MoCo Planning Board, recommending the Medium Investment Light Rail option plus the wider trail staying in the Bethesda tunnel from the High Investment option. Leggett's letter enumerates the specific requests in the County's position. The County Council's Transportation Committee endorsed the option as well.

Just for cell phone drivers: Loose Parts gives a humorous take on how we might divide highways for those on cell phones and those not. Click through for the rest of the comic. Via Planetizen.



Over four times the people and no traffic

On a typical weekday, 400,000 commuters enter downtown DC. On Tuesday, 1.8 million people did. Yet there's heavy traffic every rush hour in and out of DC, just to move a small fraction of the people we moved on Tuesday.

Photo by Joe Calhoun on Flickr.

The difference? On Tuesday, people didn't come in private vehicles, with just one person in a car. They came in public and private buses, Metro trains, commuter rail, carpooled, walked and bicycled. With almost all bridges closed to traffic, we actually accommodated four and a half times the typical traffic. On the typical weekday, 40% of commuters—160,000 people—drive alone.

Even AAA admits (in a way) that commuters in single-passenger cars are holding us back. A Washington Times article yesterday pointed out that roads returned to gridlock Wednesday. "There were few traffic problems Tuesday because there was one element eliminated—vehicles," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. Those are the vehicles whose exclusion another AAA spokesman stridently criticized last week.

If our region is to grow, we need to help more people reach their jobs. One approach is to add traffic lanes and parking garages at enormous cost, both financial and in lost urban vitality. The other solution is to move people as we did on Tuesday. More people rode the trains. Each vehicle coming into the downtown core carried far more people. Over 2,000 people used WABA's bike valet. And many more people started their days within walking distance of downtown. Those houseguests raised our population density enormously, enriching our neighborhood businesses besides.

WAMU played an editorial this morning from Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The inauguration showed us how we can grow our economy without growing traffic," she said. Yet our federal and local policies keep moving us in the wrong direction.

Many of [the 160,000 daily auto] commuters could be coaxed onto trains, buses and even bicycles if we make smooth, convenient, and safe trips a priority. But we don't. Instead, we are cutting transit service while letting bicycle improvements languish.

In the afterglow of accomplishment, Metro is cutting 900 positions to cope with a looming budget deficit. Public officials acknowledge the importance of transit, but our region's governments continue to find billions of local and federal dollars to expand or build new highways. Maryland is starting construction of the nearly $3 billion Intercounty Connector highway, shortchanging other state priorities. Virginia is bent on widening the Beltway from 8 to 12 lanes. At the federal level, public transit spending is being cut back in the stimulus bill while three times as much money is funneled to roads.

Our priorities are stuck in the 1950s. As President Obama ushers in a season of change, we must focus on what will work for our economy, environment, and communities in the 21st Century. Expanded Metro capacity, better walking and bicycling conditions, and rapid bus corridors should be immediate priorities for improving transportation choices and supporting an economic recovery for our region.

Listen to Cheryl's editorial on RealAudio or Windows Media.

Bloomberg's architecture critic says we need a better approach. "The six rail tracks that tunnel into New York's Penn Station haul as many people as 45 freeway lanes. ... Road projects do little more than rearrange the traffic jams, like the 23-lane extravaganza touted for Atlanta's suburbs."

What if our city saw even a third of Tuesday's activity every day, but with none of the security barricades? Imagine how many more fares Metro would collect, and how much more frequent bus and subway service we could support. Imagine how many more neighborhood hardware stores and restaurants our communities could support, and how much safer our streets would be with more eyes.

If we could get 1.8 million people in and out of downtown DC without any traffic, we can get 500, 600, or 700,000 people in and out every day smoothly with better transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. All that's holding us back is our elected leadership and our ability to envision a better region.



Wheeler Terrace: a step in the right direction in River East

East of the Anacostia River lie beautiful neighborhoods like Deanwood, Anacostia, and Bellevue, full of historic houses and tree-lined streets. They're also DC's poorest wards. There's no shortage of land to be developed, and plans like those for Poplar Point and Benning (PDF) have slowly but surely shifted focus across the river to areas that were previously neglected by the rest of the city. To make the area more attractive, boosters have started calling the area River East.

Much of River East has seen cheap, poorly planned apartments pop up over the last half century, giving large swaths a layout closer to suburban sprawl than the walkable urbanism of its oldest neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia. But Jamilah over at River East Idealist pointed out a project that reinforces my faith in the potential for River East to prosper: Wheeler Terrace.

Image from Live Maps. View interactive.

The project, a partnership between the owners and the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC), will upgrade seven buildings at Wheeler Terrace to much "greener" while keeping them affordable. CPDC took out a special mortgage on the site, and unit owners will save money on utiilties, keeping the units affordable.

Wheeler Terrace is only about a half mile walk from Congress Heights Metro Station using the footpath over Oxon Run. It's actually twice as far to drive as to walk. The property has no parking lots, only street parking, and there is also a Metrobus stop in front of the complex. Directly across the street is Oxon Run Park, complete with hiking paths, basketball courts, and picnic areas. Enterprise Community Partners, which gave this project a $50,000 grant, is also rehabilitating two adjacent plots, Wheeler Creek and Parkside Terrace.

Though the buildings will qualify for LEED Gold certification, they are still not exactly perfect. The apartments, built in the late 1940's to house World War II veterans, use a "towers in the park" layout that doesn't engage the street. They are in a secluded corner of a residential neighborhood known for heavy crime. But when the apartments were threatened by developers who wanted to raze these 133 affordable housing units and replace them with luxury condos, the residents banded together and formed a tenants association that not only helped stave off gentrification, but also succeeded in lowering crime in the neighborhood.

This is a very promising story: affordable housing near transit gets redeveloped without pricing out any of the current residents. Other troubled parts of River East ought to embrace Wheeler Terrace as a prime example for redevelopment. You don't need to replace a community to make it a better place to live. In cases like this, the apartments' residents prove to be the most valuable asset to the city.



Bombardier announces contactless light rail power system

Bombardier, a major manufacturer of transit vehicles and systems, just announced and demonstrated a new power system for light rail vehicles, called PRIMOVE, that doesn't use overhead wires. The power system transfers energy by electromagnetic induction, making direct electrical connections unnecessary.

Bombardier FLEXITY tram, the vehicles PRIMOVE would use, in Brussels. Photo by vitalyzator on Flickr.

Electromagnetic induction works by using a varying electric current (or magnetic field) to induce a current in a nearby loop of wire. The technology is used in electric power transformers, those "shake to charge" flashlights, and most electric motors. You can read about it or experiment yourself with a loop of wire, a small light and a bar magnet. By moving the magnet within or near the loop connected to the light, you can induce electric power which lights the bulb. There's a pretty cool virtual demonstrator here.

The Wikipedia page has a lot of impressive-looking math on it, but basically, it allows for electric energy transfer without physical contact between the wires. That's important because it allows the track-side electrical equipment to be covered and out of the weather, and also completely insulated so it doesn't pose a hazard to pedestrians or cyclists. In PRIMOVE, the power-sending coil is embedded under the road surface, and a receiving coil in the train collects power.

The new power system might be an option for downtown DC. Most streetcar systems use thin, relatively unobtrusive overhead wires, but at least according to NCPC, federal law prohibits overhead wires in the original L'Enfant portion of DC.

The system has some drawbacks, some fairly significant:

  • The system is designed and manufactured by a sole-source vendor, potentially locking the transit agency into purchasing more expensive technology without competitive bidding. This is also a problem with the Alstom INNORAIL (PDF) in-ground power systems used in Bordeaux, France, the other major alternative to overhead wires.
  • In the future, upgrades to the track power system (to accommodate more vehicles, heavier vehicles, or even vehicles of a different brand) would be more expensive and disruptive because the power systems are installed underground.
  • Since the technology is newer, more complicated, and not extensively tested (unlike overhead wires), the tracks will likely cost more to purchase, construct, and maintain.
  • Since it's a new technology, it's possible that there could be unanticipated problems with reliability or performance compared with traditional overhead wire service. Bordeaux had many frustrating problems with INNORAIL, for example.
  • DC has already purchased some light rail vehicles that are currently sitting unused (actually, driving around without passengers to stay in working order) in the Czech Republic. We'd have to replace those vehicles to use the system.

The presentation/fact sheet (PDF) claims that this system doesn't hurt vehicle performance. The hazards to cyclists and pedestrians were what prevented me from supporting the INNORAIL system, the previous state-of-the-art wireless alternative. Because that system uses actual electical connections as opposed to induction, it's susceptible to damage or malfunction from contact with snow or rain. Malfunctions in the circuit can create dangerous energized electrical plates at street level.

From the Bombardier promotional video, it appears the same vehicle can receive power through an overhead wire, or retracting a pantograph and running on the PRIMOVE system. That would allow DC to use a hybrid system, as they did decades ago. Inside the L'Enfant City, underground electrical conduits provided power, but outside the boundary, the vehicles switched to overhead wires.

DDOT can now consider this system when designing and installing DC's streetcar system. It's currently planning a line in Anacostia, and laying the groundwork (literally) for one on Benning Road/H Street by installing tracks, but no power systems or actual service, on H and Benning during the upcoming streetscape renovation. This way, they can avoid ripping up the street again to build a streetcar line. As Richard Layman points out, though, if DC ends up using this system, they'll have to redo those tracks anyway to add the in-ground power systems.

Via Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic and MSNBC.

Update: I forgot to mention the vehicles DC already purchased among the drawbacks. Thanks to Richard Layman.



Bus Rating Typology (LEED-BRT?)

Many local leaders have proposed rapid buses of one kind or another. WMATA has the existing 79 express bus on Georgia Avenue, and has proposed rapid bus corridors. Montgomery Councilmember Marc Elrich has his own rapid bus plan. The Purple Line alternatives included bus options, as does the Corridor Cities Transitway. A northern Circulator would make limited stops. Which of these is Bus Rapid Transit and which is just a faster bus?

Mexico City's BRT. Photo by World Resources Institute on Flickr.

This confusion clouds debates over BRT. Elrich's ideas might be just what Montgomery County needs, but they won't bring Bogotá's TransMilenio to Silver Spring. If (say) Fairfax puts in a few colored stripes on the pavement and calls it a Priority Bus Corridor, we haven't really achieved Metro's vision. Sometimes BRT is the best solution for an area. But we should understand each proposal and what it will and won't accomplish.

BRT is a continuum, and we need the language to talk about it that way. Mark Gorton, publisher of Streetsblog and founder of its parent, The Open Planning Project, once suggested a rating system for rapid buses. We could evaluate each on objective factors and come up with a score. Maybe, taking a page from LEED, we'd call lines above a certain score "Silver BRT", "Gold BRT", or "Platinum BRT".

Such a rating system could help distinguish proposals. Metro could set a policy of building priority bus corridors in those areas where the jurisdictions are willing to do enough street improvements to make them (say) Gold BRT. We can compare Elrich's proposals, whether they're Platinum BRT, Silver BRT, or Lump Of Coal BRT, to comparable systems around the world.

Should we take a stab at developing this rating system? Here are some ideas for characteristics. Some are very specific, others vaguer. We need to come up with a list that's all very specific and all possible to compute, ideally facts that the local agencies for existing BRT lines already know.

Transitway design:

  • The percentage of the route that's completely grade-separated
  • The percentage that's closed to traffic but pedestrians can cross
  • The percentage that's just enforced with restrictions but traffic can enter
  • The number of signal priority signals along the route
  • The number of non-signal priority signals along the route
  • Queue jumper lanes near signals when operating in mixed traffic
  • Percentage of stations where people can pay ahead of time
  • Use of proof-of-payment versus traditional tickets
  • Percentage of stations with a fare controlled boarding area
  • Percentage of stations with a weatherproof enclosed waiting area, or just a covered area
  • Percentage of stations with digital displays showing next arrivals
  • Whether vehicles have low floors
  • The environmental footprint of the vehicles
  • Acceleration profile
  • Sitting and standing capacity per train
Service frequency:
  • The total number of operating hours per day
  • The trains per hour during the peak morning hour
  • The TPH during the midday hour with the lowest service
  • The TPH during the weekend hour with the lowest service
  • The average TPH over all operating hours
  • etc.
Surrounding area:
  • The average number of residents within 1/4 mile of each station
  • The average number of jobs within 1/4 mile of each station
  • Same for 1/2 mile, etc.
  • Numbers of restaurants, bars, shopping destinations, etc. nearby
  • The opportunity for future development within 1/4 mile of stations
Other topics:
  • Price of fares
  • Something about maintenance facilities? Turnaround areas?
What else? What do you think of these?

If we want to devise this system, we have to first identify a good list of facts to collect. Then, we need to collect them for a good number of existing BRT systems. We then can design a formula to circulate for feedback.

If the formula works right, it could even apply to light rail. Perhaps it could help compare light rail and BRT alternatives for projects like the Purple Line or Corridor Cities Transitway. But that would also open up a huge can of worms, inviting criticism from bus and rail boosters who might think the formula tilts toward the other mode. Better to start with an apples-to-apples bus rating system, then an oranges-to-oranges light rail and streetcar rating system. Once both have some credibility, it might be possible to align the scores so a Platinum Bus is always better than a Gold Rail which beats a Silver Bus.


Public Spaces

This hall isn't your hall

Union Station, built as a grand gateway to Washington DC, is today more of a beautiful big hall with a bland train station stuck on the back. A mall operator runs the station with an eye more toward shopping than transit. And inauguration planners saw it first as a great place for a ball, with its transportation role an afterthought. That's why Union Station was possibly the inauguration's greatest fiasco.

Photo by selected pixels on Flickr.

A Huffington Post article analyzes the debacle. Reporter Matthew Harwood quotes a Greater Greater Friend's parents who were stuck outside the station for hours, missing their VRE train home, while the Secret Service closed the station and food court hours before the Eastern States Ball.

Why would the Secret Service, the lead agency securing the Inauguration, allow an inaugural ball in one of the District's most critical transportation hubs during an day anticipated to bring record crowds flooding into the District? ...

In the end, average rail travelers using Union Station got the same treatment they always do when their interests cross those of our nation's elite: They were told to be patient and calm and to wait in line.

"And for what," asked the New York businessman, "so someone could have champagne tonight?"

If you were lucky enough to get into the Eastern States Inaugural Ball, according to the Boston Herald, you could see a few Kennedys, Congressman Barney Frank, and the Senator John Kerry's brother and sister, before the Obamas made their entrance.

Enthusiasts and critics of Obama are right: maybe this is the new Camelot.

Union Station is our city's grand entrance hall. It's not a private ballroom for Congressional leaders that we use with their forbearance until they kick us out when they need the room.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a great advocate for Union Station. She should take a close look at how the decision was made to take away our space for this ball. The station's policies should allow rentals only when the public isn't likely to need the space. As for future inaugurations, they can pick someplace else.



Metro set up autoresponder for all email from GGW

Yesterday, I sent my congratulatory inauguration post to various WMATA officials and to the official WMATA board alias, Within a few seconds, I got a reply:

Photo by theogeo on Flickr.
From: Rider.Concerns
Subject: In Response to your Inquiry Regarding Google Transit

Thank you for your recent email to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro), requesting that Metro partner with Google in providing transit information about our system.

[... Comments similar to Metro's earlier statement ... ]

Thank you again for expressing your interest in this potential partnership with Google.


Emeka Moneme
Chief Administrative Officer
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Of course, my email had nothing to do with Google Transit. It seems that they've set up an autoresponder for all email coming from Starting on January 7th, each time someone signed the petition, WMATA automatically sent this identical letter within seconds.

As I pointed out in my testimony to the Board of Directors, "Metro is a public agency, and the public deserves some way to have a dialogue with you. Yet even emails to the Board of Directors email address don't actually go to the Board." Staff reply to the emails, and as far as I can tell board members don't even get a document summarizing the emails that come in.

The joke's partly on them, though: they misconfigured the autoresponder. Instead of emailing the person who sent in the comment (who is on the From: line), it sends it to the "envelope sender", the address originating the message. That's an administrative email account on GGW's Web server, which reaches me. As a result, every time someone's signed the petition since January 7th, Metro sent me an email instead of sending it to the signer directly. That means that in an effort to save energy, nobody actually got Metro's response.

Anyway, WMATA, how about turning off that autoresponder now?

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City