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

Posts from October 2009


A ghost, a bicyclist, and a streetcar

The Hill is Home has been publishing some Capitol Hill ghost stories this month. In one, from 1896, a streetcar comes to a sudden halt as the gripman is sure he's run over a bicyclist. But there's nobody under the wheels. Why?

"I am haunted by a cyclist, and if you like I'll tell you why I, more than all the other gripmen, should be thus cursed," the gripman tells a reporter. He proceeds to explain the haunting, and the circumstances that led to it.

Did the ghosts of cyclists proceed to haunt Metrobuses after the demise of the streetcars? Or only in the form of ghost bikes?


Redesign launching this weekend

Greater Greater Washington may be sporadically unavailable this weekend as we switch over to the new site. Please bear with us and happy Halloween!


Then and Now: 17th and Pennsylvania, NW

Street scene near 17th Street and State, War & Navy building, Washington, D.C.Pennsylvania and 17th Street, NW

Left: Street scene of Pennsylvania Avenue looking southeast toward the intersection of 17th Street, ca. 1917. Right: The same scene (but in the rain) today.


Rein's "OMG $15 billion" Tysons costs include transportation far from Tysons

Today's Washington Post reports that Tysons transportation improvements will cost $15 billion. There's just one problem: it's false. The article, bearing the alarmist headline, "Tysons will need $15 billion—'with a B,'" begins:

What a dream. Photo by m t miller.
Remaking Tysons Corner into the second city of Washington will take a lot more than a new Metro line and a downtown of tightly clustered buildings designed for walking. It will take almost $15 billion in new roads and public transportation.
When Lisa "sprawl is a dream" Rein writes, "[it] will take a lot more than a new Metro line," do you conclude that the $15 billion represents costs on top of the Metro line? That's the way it looks to me. But actually, the $15 billion figure includes the $5.24 billion for the Silver Line. And that's not just the portion to Tysons; it's the whole segment all the way to Loudoun County, which will serve a lot more than just Tysons commuters.

That's not all. The $15 billion also covers rail to Centreville, for $2.3 billion, which wouldn't even go to Tysons. There's another $2.5 billion in there for some vague "other rail," which could be the Purple Line and could possibly go to Tysons. Or maybe not. Who knows? Who cares, when you're the Washington Post Fairfax team? In all, $10 of the $15 billion is just general Northern Virginia rail projects.

What else? There's all of the operating costs for these lines over 40 years, much of which will come from the tax revenue. Of course, Rein doesn't count any revenues. It's just all of the costs. Heck, why not toss in all of the cost of lunches that Tysons employees will probably buy, or all the paper the offices will consume? Then the figure could go to trillions! That would really make for an exciting headline.

You wouldn't know from Rein's article, but Fairfax planners break up the actual projections into 2010-2030 and 2030-2050 time frames. In the 2010-2030 phase, the street grid itself costs $742 million (that's not with a B), including right-of-way acquisition costs. However, much of the acquisition will come from developers in exchange for the density, so it's not all outlays of actual money. The Circulator will cost $389 million for capital and operating funds. And the probably-unnecessary ramps and Beltway lanes would cost an additional $369 million.

Most of the other costs are already part of the Fairfax Comprehensive Plan, independent of this Tysons plan. In total, the infrastructure that Tysons would need above and beyond the existing plan totals about $1.48 billion, including unnecessary lanes and ROW acquisition costs that developers would pay.

Even looking at the whole $15 billion for all of Northern Virginia over 40 years, that comes out to $375 million a year. For a huge jurisdiction that could essentially build a brand new medium-sized city, that's actually a steal. And for Tysons alone, the $1.5 billion over 20 years is just $75 million.

Unfortunately for Rein and her headline writer, $1.48 billion with some paid for by developers sounds so much less outrageous. So does "$75 million 'with an M'!" or even $375 million. No, $15 billion "with a B" made for better copy, even if it lumped in substantial infrastructure outside Tysons, other already-planned improvements, operating costs for 40 years, and even speculative transit that nobody has planned yet.

Could it be that Rein just didn't realize this? Nope; it's pretty clear from the list showing the planners' totals. (The pages are in reverse order, with 2030-2050 first.) And here's the presentation from the Wednesday public meeting that triggered Rein's article. But Rein clearly doesn't seem to let pesky facts get in the way of a good story. To do so might reduce the backlash against plans that could destroy those dreamy acres of parking lots.


Overhead wires and beautiful streets can coexist

Some streetcar opponents and some streetcar supporters are arguing against overhead wires, saying that they're ugly or that they're incompatible with lush tree canopies. Ralph Garboushian sent along some more pictures of overhead wires from around the world.

Left: A streetcar line on a historic street in San Francisco, near Fisherman's Wharf. Photo by Michael Perkins. With the iron detailing of the poles, this easily looks like it could be a street in Washington, DC.

Right: Frankfurt's Schweizerstrasse (top) and Brussels' 39/44 streetcar lines (bottom). Photos by Ralph Garboushian.

H Street, K Street, U Street, 14th Street, and most of the other streets on DDOT's streetcar plan have nowhere near this level of tree canopy. The only ones that do are 7th Street SW and 8th Street on Capitol Hill. If DC's streetcar lines can look as green as these with wires, it would be a huge improvement for most of our streets.


Last call for comments on Arlington parking, K Street

The comment periods are about to close for two important projects: Arlington's parking and curbspace management policy and the K Street Transitway.

Photo by premasagar.

If you haven't already, please take a moment and email to provide comments or a note of support. We support the County's proposal, and offer some suggestions for improving the document:

  • In order to encourage wary businesses and residents to try out the new variable pricing policy, Arlington should devote a portion of the revenue to local transportation and streetscape improvements.
  • Arlington should encourage public acceptance of the variable pricing proposal by conducting a countywide parking occupancy survey of high-density and commercial districts and publishing the results online, along with a staff evaluation and recommendations.
  • In general, Arlington should increase or eliminate meter time limits, which are often arbitrary or counterproductive. Once prices are managing occupancy, longer-term parkers will naturally use less convenient or garage spaces, leaving the more convenient spaces for short-term parking.

Any other thoughts or suggestions? Email them to County Staff at If your comments are received by November 2, they can be considered for the staff proposal before the County Board.

Meanwhile, in DC, today is the last day to comment on the K Street options. Whether you prefer Option 2 (2-lane transitway, 3-lane side roads, no bike lane) or option 3 (transitway with passing lane, 2-lane side roads, bike lane), or have your own plan, DDOT would appreciate hearing your thoughts. Submit your comments here.


Breakfast links: Empty parking, screw peds and bikes

Photo from Streetsblog.
We told you so, New York: Back in 2004, Mayor Bloomberg turned over a city-owned market filled with small vendors to a big-box developer to build an auto-centric mall in the Bronx. Despite being near public transit, the developer, Related Companies, built giant parking lots, narrow and winding pedestrian access, and a design that turned its back on nearby neighborhoods. Now, they're surprised to find out that more people are arriving by transit than by car, and the tiny pedestrian ramps are busy while the garages sit empty. (Streetsblog NYC)

College Park-ing still a failure: A new $9.3 million, 288-space parking garage in College Park currently gets only about 20 cars at any one time, and has only earned $9,000 in its first two months. The city is now considering raising rates at other lots to entice people to this one. But Councilmembers who were certain the parking would bring people to downtown are disappointed. How about planning for an actual downtown instead of a motley low-density strip? (The Diamondback, Doug T.)

Mean parking lots: About 22% of car-pedestrian crashes occur in parking lots, says Montgomery County, and they're starting a campaign to educate drivers and pedestrians about the dangers. They also are thinking about pushing for some separated pedestrian paths in parking lots. That's a fine idea if the paths are convenient, but terrible if it means pushing the pedestrians along a circuitous route at the edge so cars can go fast without worrying about hitting people. (Post)

Just coal for pedestrians, bikers: Leesburg will remove all parking meter and garage charges for the holiday season. Michael Perkins notes that when they've done this in the past, many of the spaces just got filled up with cars parked for weeks without moving. (Post, Michael P)

Who needs to maintain bikeways? Not Montgomery: Ike Leggett's savings plan for the current year (large PDF) completely eliminates of bikeway maintenance ($100 million thousand) while cutting only 0.5% of road maintenance (another $100 million thousand).

NIMBY, literally: Residents of Fort Washington, Maryland are fighting extension of a bike trail, the Potomac Heritage Trail, from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to Oxon Hill to Accokeek. Longstanding easements permit building the trail, but some neighbors are saying it will cut into their backyards and bring crime. Trail advocates say trails don't cause crime. (Gazette)

Massive widenings are expensive, even in Tysons: Tysons growth could require $15 billion in new infrastructure, says Lisa "sprawl is your dream" Rein. But reading further, it looks like most of that cost comes not from the local roads and buses to make an urban area, but the new Beltway lanes, widening of major arterials, and overpasses rail projects that aren't actually in Tysons at all. Here's a more detailed analysis. (Post)

Future Amtrak: Wireless, yummier, and more annoying: Amtrak's 5-year plan to improve its service includes Wi-Fi on trains and better food, both sorely needed items. They'll also add "random and unpredictable patrols" and more baggage screening. Because clearly what passengers need is more inconvenience. Everybody's doing it! (WBJ)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Transforming a suburban church into a neighborhood

Could developing large parking lots help suburban churches fund improvements? Grenfell Architecture designed this plan to help a parish create a more beautiful church using solid New Urbanist principles and traditional Virginia architecture.

The church occupies typically sprawling suburban lot, surrounded by seas of asphalt and low-rise buildings. However, while I was working at Grenfell Architecture, we tried to look at the project in a radical way. We came up with a plan to fix the disorganized sprawl of parking lots and low-rise buildings to create a new neighborhood and to truly make this church the center of a community.

The primary focus was to design a new church that better reflected the liturgical reforms of the past few years within the Catholic church. Since many parishes have only limited resources, we explored how a phased development could help turn this parish from asphalt-dominated auto-centric sprawl into to a walkable mixed-use neighborhood.

Both parishioners and priests alike have given this plan almost universally positive reviews. The pastor of this church has seen the plans and is amenable to the idea, but it does not represent any actual plans to construct this project.

1. This is the current site condition. The area is disorganized and chaotic, dominated by parking. There is little in terms of good outdoor space, and the buildings do not create any ensemble in any way.

2. The first step is to create a system of streets. This begins to organize the area into a block structure. The streets are designed for on-street parking, amazingly providing an equal number of parking spots diffused about the site.

Note too that the connections allow for this neighborhood to become a center for adjoining neighborhoods.

3. Now that there's enough parking, the large parking lot facing the street can become a row of commercial shops with apartments above. The corner would be anchored by a neighborhood-size grocery store, and other small shops such as florists, coffee shops, or service businesses could occupy the rest. The apartments above see their first residents in anywhere from 10 to 20 apartments. These apartments would be ideal for elderly or younger couples who might not be able to afford larger homes.

4. The first set of 20 townhouses are built upon empty parking lots. Alleys behind the townhouses provide access to one- or two-car garages. These are geared towards families with children who might attend the local school.

5. After selling or leasing properties, the parish would now be able to afford to build a new three-story school. The school would contain the same area for classes, but having a taller profile provides a more compact footprint.

Up to this point, the only demolition that has occurred was to remove parking lots. Already the campus has been improved tremendously.

6. Now having built a new school, the old school could come down, allowing for the construction of 28 new townhouses and another small section of commercial storefronts and apartments. The townhouses each feature the same rear-facing garages and small yards behind.

7. Now the school could complete the reconstruction with a rear wing containing a gymnasium. This would create a pleasant interior courtyard. The courtyard also allows for light to reach all classrooms of the school.

8. Having completed all of the residential components, the parish could now use the funding from the residential sales and commercial rents to help build a new church. The new church here might incorporate a small historic chapel as part of the complex of the church, sacristy and rectory for the parish. The existing rectory would be removed, but the pastor could reside in an apartment or one of the townhomes while the new rectory is being built.

9. Now that the parish has a new church and chapel, the old church is demolished to complete the plan. A new set of storefront buildings would create an orderly town square. Stores, coffee shops, and both school and church functions on the green would activate the square.

Between this commercial block a parking lot would be created to serve the commercial as well as the apartments built above. Using the topography, a parking structure could also be built behind, doubling the parking.

However, since this neighborhood center would be home to almost 75 families, the community would hopefully not need so much parking. The families would be close to school, church and shopping, as well as possibly work. A local bus line could running to Metro along the main road. would encourage less auto use by residents.

Having the church as the center of the community makes it not just a place where people go on Sundays, but a visible and active part of their lives, giving residents something shared that brings them together as a real community. This principle is easily applied to followers of any faith, allowing for their own faith to be shared by their neighbors, and to provide visible witness to neighbors as well.


Many buses stop too often

Taking the bus in Washington often requires quite a lot of patience. Some buses top at every corner, seeming to take an eternity to go only a few blocks. Removing some stops could improve travel times without negatively impacting ridership.

Photo by the author.

Closely spaced stops reduce the efficiency of bus lines. Keeping the number of riders constant, a bus with fewer stops would spend similar amounts of time for passengers to boarding, but less time accelerating, decelerating, and entering or leaving traffic. It would spend less time at traffic signals having just missed the green to pick up passengers. The bus would also have to spend less time using the kneeling feature or the wheelchair ramp to accommodate the elderly or infirm.

On the other hand, reducing the number of stops would increase the distance that some riders have to walk to get to the stop. Would a few hundred feet deter bus riders? Perhaps, but the time savings from faster buses would make up for it by bringing in more riders.

And time saved is money saved. Reducing the run time of buses lets Metro run fewer vehicles to maintain the same headway. Alternatively, the same number of buses could run at a higher frequency for the same cost. There are major benefits to improving bus performance, including providing a relief valve for Metrorail.

As a former daily rider of the 50s Line along 14th Street in Northwest and Southwest DC, I am intimately familiar with the stop frequency for buses. In fact, from my stop at 14th and Shepherd, the next bus stop to the south was only about 375 feet away at Randolph Street.

In fact, for the segment of the 50s Line between the downtown split of the 52 and 54 to the Colorado Avenue Terminal, where most buses turn back, the average distance between stops is 623 feet. For reference, the length of a Metro platform is 600 feet. A railcar is 75 feet long. That means that on average, between stops, the 14th Street bus line travels, on average, barely more than the length of an 8-car train. Passengers at Gallery Place walking from the Green/Yellow level to the 9th & G Entrance walk farther within the station.

The 52, 53, and 54 have the following average distance between stops:

  • Downtown segment, 52 southbound: 837 feet
  • Downtown segment, 52 northbound: 855 feet
  • Downtown segment, 54 southbound: 808 feet
  • Downtown segment, 54 northbound: 784 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, New York Ave to Colorado Ave northbound: 633 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Colorado Ave to New York Ave southbound: 611 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Colorado Ave to Takoma Station northbound: 648 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Takoma Station to Colorado Ave southbound: 735 feet
Interestingly, that the segments with the longest distances between stops are located downtown. This is where Metrorail has the shortest distance between stops. In the residential segments north of the city, bus stops are very frequent.

Of course, it is vital that bus stops be accessible to the most people, but we have to draw a line. After all, people often walk some quite a good distance to get to quality transit. If buses got people to work or to the store more quickly, they would probably be willing to walk farther.

A policy of increasing the distance between stops to at least two or three blocks apart would be a good place to start. Especially in walkable neighborhoods. With stops 3 blocks apart, once you reached the street on which the bus ran, you'd never be more than one block from a stop.

So far, Metro's solution has been to implement limited-stop services like the S9 on Sixteenth Street and the 79 on Georgia Avenue. In the case of 16th Street, the S9 makes only 14 stops between Silver Spring and McPherson Square, with an average distance between stops of 2,678 feet. With fewer stops, the 16th Street Express is competitive with the rail system. According to Metro's trip planner, a trip from Silver Spring to McPherson Square takes about 27 minutes by rail and about 36 minutes with the S9.

But why should riders have to wait for a new service before trip times improve? Why not reduce the number of stops overall? Perhaps the "local" stop buses needn't have 2,600 feet between stops, but 1,000 certainly sounds like a better number.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices suggests that the average person walks 4 feet per second. Other studies show that the elderly make around 3 feet each second when on foot. Increasing the average stop spacing on the 50s line from 623 feet to 1000 feet would increase the average distance between stops by 377 feet, which could be covered by someone walking at 3 feet per second in a little over two minutes.

Limited stop buses are certainly a positve aspect to our transit system. And I hope that WMATA is able to implement more of them. However, reducing travel times on all routes should be a priority.

In fact, WMATA is currently working on a set of bus stop optimization criteria. One of the factors is bus stop spacing. According to a report given to the Riders Advisory Council earlier this month, Metro reports that other transit systems, like Seattle's King County Metro, have found a good balance between access and efficiency at 4-5 stops per mile, which is a little over 1000 feet apart. Right now, WMATA has 63 bus routes with stop spacing exceeding 5 stops per mile.

WMATA's proposed bus stop standards would help create uniformity and ensure safe, accessible stop design across the region. It would serve as a guide for jurisdictions in the region when considering bus stops.


Metro indecision previously delayed SmarTrip three years

Recent revelations that Metro has again delayed SmarTrip upgrades by one year have sparked tough questions from many directions. The news took members of the Metro Board by surprise, and they are asking questions, including whether Metro really has to delay this upgrade. RAC Chair Diana Zinkl is pushing hard to get a presentation on SmarTrip and the delays at next week's RAC meeting. I've also emailed questions to Metro.

Photo by WTL photos.

We deserve to know why the promised upgrades were delayed another year, and whether it's a contractor, Cubic, or Metro that was unable to handle both the IRS SmartBenefits change and these other upgrades at the same time. Metro should explain when they knew this delay would happen, and if they knew a while ago, why we are just finding out now, given that these IRS upgrades have been in the works for months.

Michael Perkins sent me this report from the Metro Inspector General in February 2008. According to the report, the SmarTrip system was delayed while Metro spent three years trying to decide whether to upgrade the SmarTrip system or continue making custom modifications to an out-of-date one.

In July 2003, Metro awarded a contract to Cubic to upgrade the SmarTrip system. But two moths later, Cubic told WMATA that they wanted to stop supporting the OS/2-based existing systems and upgrade SmarTrip to the next generation system, NextFare4. Metro ultimately decided to go with the newer system, but had to spend time evaluating and analyzing this new technology and making sure it would meet Metro's needs.

That's fine, but that process took three whole years, and a new contract wasn't signed until August 2006. In the meantime, Cubic had to stop working on the contract. As a result of the delay, Metro had to pay $1.4 million in "delay claims" to another contractor, ERG, which was setting up a Regional Customer Service Center. According to the report, "Cubic representatives informed [the IG] that they believed their proposal to use NextFare4 distracted WMATA's project team."

The original contract scheduled the SmarTrip upgrades to be delivered in October 2004, plus a few months for Metro to test the upgrades and Cubic to fix any problems. As of the February 2008 report, the schedule called for delivery in October 2008. That later got bumped to October 2009, and last week, to late 2010.

The IG report talks about best practices in procurement to make sure contracts account for delays, specify milestones, and include penalties for contractors who go past the specified time (or change their systems midstream and saddle Metro with a tough choice). And it sounds like Cubic made things difficult by suggesting a pricey change right after Metro had spent months negotiating a contract. But three years to evaluate a system and negotiate a new one seems excessive.

From the riders' point of view, there's a simple issue here: these changes were supposed to be ready at the start of 2005. Now it looks like they'll come in nearly six years behind schedule. That's not acceptable, especially without communication to the public about what's going on, why, and when this will finally get done.

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