Greater Greater Washington

Posts from November 2008

Cutting transit: a 1958 solution to a 2008 problem

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has proposed budget cuts to RideOn that would reduce service. Meanwhile, Leggett doesn't plan to cut any road projects. Every little road "upgrade" (and by "upgrade" I mean widening, making cars go faster, and causing more pedestrian injuries) in the county is still going forward as planned.

For now, most of the cuts would reduce mid-day service on commuter-oriented routes. There are also some cuts to weekend routes that go between low-density, low ridership places. These proposed cuts will have a similar effect as long headways of the Metro on weekends. Because of the long headways, it takes up to 30 minutes longer to get somewhere on the Metro than it would on a weekday, when the system runs on approximately 5 minute headways midday and 2 minute headways during rush hour. The extra time discourages many car-owning, transit-loving people from using transit for discretionary weekend trips when they (theoretically) don't have to worry about traffic jams. While I don't think the effect will be as dramatic if RideOn scales back service, I am concerned about starting a negative self-perpetuating downward spiral that will make it even easier to cut RideOn in the future.

This leads to the root of the problem: the source of transportation funding. We have this gasoline tax system that punishes citizens who behave responsibly and consume less fossil fuel. It's a recipe for disaster. We're putting ourselves on a path that will just deepen the current ridiculous situation where transit agencies are forced to cut back service as more and more people are using transit.

Of course, the most ridiculous aspect to this entire story is the fact that no one even bothered to think that the money from the road widenings could ever be used for something that will move people around through a means other than private automobiles. It is frustrating to see our local government attempt to solve a 2008 problem with a 1958 solution.

Mr. Leggett's office can be reached at ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov.

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Designing sustainable communities with LEED-ND

One big shortcoming of the LEED green building code is its focus almost entirely on the building rather than the location. A building could get high marks in LEED with a green roof, cutting-edge stormwater management, effective heat insulation, electricity-saving equipment, and more, but be located in the middle of a former forest where the average employee drives 30 miles to work. Is that really saving the environment?


Conneectivity diagram for LEED Neighborhood Development.

Enter LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), a new type of LEED for new large-scale developments. LEED just opened up their draft for public comment. It's fascinating to read. They have to quantify every element, like whether a site has good linkage to the surrounding neighborhood, or too many dead-end streets within.

The draft also gives points for the bicycle network, buildings fronting onto the street, avoiding blank walls, mixed-income housing, unbundling parking, car sharing, historic preservation, and of course green building practices in the structures themselves.

LEED-ND isn't replacing the regular building LEED, but it's bringing good urban design practices into the LEED system. Next, LEED should adapt some of the concepts of LEED-ND into their code for individual buildings, giving more credit to developers who locate their office buildings near transit.

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I thought criminals took transit?

Last month, Freakonomics revisited the ridiculous argument that transit brings crime into the innocent little suburbs. More recently, Just Up the Pike followed a shooting that occurred on a Silver Spring bus recently, prompting more discussion on the possibility that mass transit increases crime.


No firearms in Arundel Mills. Photo by andycarvin on Flickr.

I had to defend transit to a Baltimore City police officer and friend of mine. His anecdotal claim: the subway in Baltimore has done absolutely nothing to positively impact the safety of the surrounding areas, and if anything has made them worse.

I argued that the crime stems more from the bad urbanism for which the Baltimore Metro is now notorious. Even bad transit can often alleviate crime, by lowering the cost of living. But perhaps the presence of transit has no impact on crime whatsoever. Perhaps the onus lies entirely on the good urbanism that ought to come with transit. Maybe the large, spread out parking lots at many transit stations really draw crime. I certainly feel much safer getting off at Gallery Place late at night than at Greenbelt.

Recently, some federal employees at Fort Meade received an email alert cautioning them to stay away from Arundel Mills Mall after dark. Think about that: stay away from the largest shopping center in Central Maryland while the holiday shopping rush looms upon us. Why? Inside Charm City points out this Baltimore Sun article about a woman and her young child being robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot.

Most disturbingly, police believe that this crime is unrelated to two other recent robberies around the giant oasis of auto-oriented commerce at MD-100 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. According to another Sun article on Thursday, there have been five robberies in the Arundel Mills parking lot in just the last month. MyFoxDC echoed the community's concern.

Urbanism doesn't get much worse than at Arundel Mills:

In most of these robberies, did the criminals hop on the light rail back to Baltimore city? No, they hopped into a car and then disappeared into traffic. But no one ever says "That new highway is going to bring more crime!"

Cross-posted on Imagine, DC.

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It's easy to miss things you're not looking for

From the makers of the Awareness Test video:

Tip: Steven B.

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Dinner links: making an impact

She's welcome to post on GGW: Michelle Obama told 60 Minutes the Obamas hope to "have an impact" on DC. DCist will believe it when they see it, remembering that Bill Clinton briefly visited Georgia Avenue after his election and that was about it.


Photo by Barack Obama on Flickr.

I'll take the DMV for $125, Alex: Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner-elect Phil Lepanto got two tickets for speeding on one segment of Connecticut Avenue, once by an officer and once by a speed camera. On top of that, the DMV tried to suspend his license for not replying to letters Montgomery County sent to the wrong place. (Raw Fisher)

"Scare cars" don't scare Wired: Lockeridge, Britain has placed dummies on roads where visitors frequently speed, to break through their focus on speed and raise awareness. Via Virginia ITS.

You can destroy the environment, just spend $2 million on pollution: The Environmental Defense Fund has agreed to drop its lawsuit against the ICC. In exchange, Maryland will spend a puny $2 million to retrofit a few school buses and do a few studies on pollution. Maryland gets to stay on track to will pour enormous amounts of pollution into the air. Of course, they can rest easy that they saved the environment by deleting the bicycle trail.

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CVS will start selling Smartrip cards

At this week's meeting, the Metro Board of Directors will consider a proposal to allow CVS to sell Smartrip cards at 187 area stores. CVS will sell a Smartrip card for $10 preloaded with $5 in fares, just as you can buy at many Metro stations with paid parking garages. CVS has agreed to sell Smartrip at no cost to Metro and at no additional cost to customers. CVS will display Metro-supplied register signs, and Metro will advertise on its buses and in the Metrorail system that the cards are available at CVS.


CVS in Brookland. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

This is another win-win for Metro, CVS and riders. With the upcoming elimination of paper transfers, customers will need a convenient place to get a Smartrip card to continue transferring from bus-to-bus for free.

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Metro plans to share parking with Marriott hotel

At this week's meeting, WMATA's Planning, Development and Real Estate Committee will consider a proposal to enter into an agreement with Marriott to build a 162-room hotel on the Prince George's Plaza Metro station site (see map). Originally, the site was to have a free-standing bank, which is not a very high-density use of land near a Metro station. This is much better.

To secure a loan to build the hotel, Marriott needs to show its lenders that there is "adequate" parking for guests. And lenders' formulae often demand just as much parking around transit sites as in auto-dependent areas, since lenders have limited experience with TOD. Some of the hotel's parking will go in the existing retail parking garage, but they also need some additional guest spaces. Rather than build additional parking, the hotel has proposed using 45 of Metro's 1,068 garage spaces, which are currently only 51% occupied during the peak period.

Marriott will pay to install exit gates that will allow hotel guests to leave using hotel cards, and will pay Metro 150% of the current day parking rate per guest that uses the lot. Spaces will be first-come, first-served, not reserved for guests. If the parking lot starts getting full during the peak period, Metro has the option to cancel the agreement.

The presentation also has some great maps showing the amount of proposed transit oriented development at this metro station:

I think this is win-win-win. Metro gets development on its property, more riders (the station is only 20 minutes away from downtown), and revenue from an underutilized parking garage. Marriott reduces its cost to build new parking spaces and gets to promote its hotel as being convenient to Metro and shops, potentially increasing the room rate. And the hotel customers get parking that's convenient to both Metro and their hotel.

It'll also be interesting to whether the hotel ends up using fewer of these parking spaces than expected, if many hotel patrons take Metro and don't rent cars.

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Prince George’s and the Post back light rail Purple Line

On Saturday, the first Purple Line DEIS hearing took place in New Carrolton. Every elected official in attendance spoke in favor of the light rail Purple Line. Of the first 30 speakers from the general public, 27 spoke specifically for a light rail Purple Line. Only one person spoke in favor of the Jones Bridge bus option.

The Washington Post Editorial Board endorsed the light rail Purple Line on Sunday, too. The editorial summarizes the fundamental advantages of Light Rail over "Bus Rapid Transit":

The report does conclude that bus rapid transit is more cost-effective than light rail. But those numbers are based on estimates through 2030. Light rail requires a bigger capital investment initially but is sturdier and, in many cases, more cost-effective in the long run. If Metro, which has operated for more than 30 years, is any indication, the Purple Line is likely to operate far beyond 2030. Light rail also provides more flexibility in the probable event that ridership exceeds estimatesjust add more rail cars. Even critics of light rail acknowledge that the trains will be significantly faster than buses.
The editorial then opines on the important political outlook for the light rail option:
The current fiscal crisis shouldn't limit the project's ambitions nor sway the state to support an option that is less effective in the long term. If the state decides to support light rail, we're confident that local leaders who have been cautious in their support of light rail, including Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), will use their considerable influence to champion the project.
Throughout their study, the MTA Maryland had to follow stingy FTA metrics to keep Purple Line eligible for federal funding. They project 68,000 riders per day for the High Investment Light Rail option. Note that there are no BRT lines operating in the United States that carry 68,000 riders per day. I also think it's safe to say that the ridership will be greater than the projections before 2030.

The next meeting is in Chevy Chase (source of much of the Purple Line opposition) on Tuesday. Here's the complete list of hearings.

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Urban planning meets the raw material shortage

As we discussed the big highway projects in the news, like the I-66 widening in Arlington and the Intercounty Connector, I began to think about their long-term sustainability once they get built, cost overruns and all.


U.S. urban planning policy, 1946-? Photo by Bill A on Flickr.

I personally agree with the viewpoint that we shouldn't build any more roads until we properly maintain the ones we've already have. The materials used to maintain roads are getting increasingly scarce and expensive. There is currently a shortage of asphalt, on top of the already steep rise in price for this precious material this year.

Imagine the ripple effect should asphalt remain scarce and expensive. In the short term, we'll depletion of highway funds even faster than we already have this year. What will become of our source of funding for infrastructure in the wake of predicted future oil shortages? The Financial Times reports:

The [International Energy Agency] found that even after recent investment, production from the fields was declining at an annual 6.7 per cent and that this rate was accelerating. This means 45m barrels a day would have to be found and tapped in the next 22 years simply to meet an unchanged world demand. As it stands, however, the IEA expects demand to rise from 85m b/d last year to 106m b/d in 2030, making the challenge that much greater.
I think the Peak Oil theorists have a point, but I don't share James Howard Kunstler's apocalpytic predictions. With proper urban planning, we can greatly mitigate our dependence on oil. Building huge, unneeded highways are very harmful, both directly to walkable urban communities, and through the opportunity cost of not building transit. And, most frustrating of all, is we are sinking so many resources into building highways that we might not even be able to maintain in the very near future.
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Weekend reading: around and around in circles

Phew: WMATA reached a deal with the bank trying to shake it down for millions. But it's not home free yet.


NYC's new "hoop" bike rack.

Bike rage or columnist rage? WashCycle patiently explains to WTOP's Chris Core that cyclists do, indeed, belong on the road, and that maybe if cyclists seem mad at him, he's passing them too close.

Can we nominate Wells? Councilmember Tommy Wells is seeking nominations for his "2nd Annual Livable, Walkable Community Awards rewarding individuals and organizations that contributed to a livable, walkable community.

Nice rack: New York announces the winner of its bike rack design contest: a big circle. Danish designers created it. What's with those Scandinavians and their design? Tip: Ben Thielen.

Even townhouses can "tower": Wheaton residents are protesting some new townhouses, because there will be 36 instead of the zoned 18. They feel that townhouses (which the article calles "townhomes" despite your linguistic objections), are "incompatible with the neighborhood" and will "tower over" their homes.

Around the 'hoods: The Penn Quarter loses a tree. Is Columbia Heights to blame for retail woes in Mount Pleasant? And Meridian Hill Park will definitely be completed by Spring 3008.

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