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Posts from February 2012


Short-sighted bus stop placement puts pedestrians at risk

Too many bus stops are located far from the nearest crosswalk. Rather than walk long distances, many riders therefore cross dangerously in the middle of busy streets. The jurisdictions controlling the bus stops should either move them to safer intersections, or add new and better crosswalks.

Bus stop at Silver Hill Road and Randall Road with no crosswalk. Image from Google Street View.

This is a big problem throughout many parts of the region, but especially in suburban Prince George's County, and it is irresponsible to put transit users in such danger unnecessarily. A few examples from Suitland show the dangers of poor siting and design.

At Silver Hill Road and Randall Road, there is no crosswalk on Silver Hill. Pedestrians hoping to cross are out of luck.

Bus stops at Silver Hill Road and Randall Road. Image from Google Maps.

If pedestrians need to cross Silver Hill to access the Suitland Metro station, they have to walk back along a narrow sidewalk to Navy Day Drive and then cross. Even then, the crosswalk badly needs new paint. The faded lines can be particularly dangerous at night.

Crosswalk at Silver Hill Road and Navy Day Drive. Photo by the author.

This bus stop should be on the south side of Navy Day Drive. That way, pedestrians would be able to cross immediately over to the Suitland Metro station. Buses could also take advantage of red lights to pick up or drop off passengers, rather than stopping in the middle of the block.

On the other side of Silver Hill Road, the Randall Road stop comes right before a turn lane off of Silver Hill. The crosswalk across the turn lane is not signalized and pedestrians have to cross a second signalized crosswalk to reach the Suitland Metro.

At Silver Hill and Suitland Road, the bus stop on the west side is in the middle of the block far from the crosswalk and adjacent to nothing. The stop would be more useful farther back on the north side of the intersection with Suitland Road.

Bus stops at Silver Hill Road and Suitland Road. Image from Google Maps.

On the east side of the road, the situation is the opposite. The bus stop is past Suitland Road, which forces pedestrians to walk back to the crosswalk. The stop should be on the south side of the Suitland Road intersection instead.

Some bus stops on Suitland Road are even more dangerous. There is no crosswalk for the bus stop on the south side of Suitland Road and Huron Avenue. Additionally, the sidewalk abruptly ends at the bus stop, so if pedestrians want to reach the stop from the other side of Suitland, they must risk crossing the street without a crosswalk.

Bus stops at Suitland Road and Huron Ave. Image from Google Maps.

Since Suitland Road's blocks are so long, it might not make sense to move this stop to a different intersection. At the very least, a new, high-visibility crosswalk across Suitland Road would make it safer for pedestrians.

The bus stop on the other side of Suitland however, would be better just east of Huron Ave. If a crosswalk is installed there, pedestrians could easily cross Suitland Road if they were coming from either direction.

Unsafe bus stops are common in other suburban communities, too. This bus stop on Old Keene Mill Road in Fairfax County has no sidewalk and no way to cross the 6-lane stretch of Old Keene Mill.

Old Keene Mill Road in Fairfax County. Photo from Google Maps.

This bus stop on River Road in Montgomery County is along the shoulder. There is a small concrete pad on which to stand, but there is no protection for pedestrians walking to and from the stop, or for crossing River Road.

River Road in Montgomery County. Photo from Google Street View.

Much of the problem has to do with suburban street design, where pedestrian access has generally been an afterthought. Suburban blocks are longer than city blocks, and not all intersections have crosswalks or pedestrian walk signals.

But people in the suburbs do use buses and the stops should be convenient and safe, preferably at the intersection of 2 streets instead of the middle of a long block. Intersections should all have well marked crosswalks and sidewalks shouldn't abruptly end, particularly where there is poor access to another sidewalk.

Moving poorly placed bus stops or adding stops where needed, as well as adding crosswalks to some streets, would go a long way to help make suburban buses safer and more convenient to use.


Old survey maps show Georgetown around 1903

The Library of Congress has a fascinating resource called "Researching Historic Washington, DC Buildings," which includes dozens of links to databases and collections with reams of information on old DC buildings.

One collection is a digitized version of Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys for Washin­gton, DC. It's a highly detailed map of every street and building in the city in 1903.

Here are the maps for Georgetown:

Here's southeast Georgetown. Note the wooden bridge for K St. across Rock Creek, the factories and lumber yards on the water, and the fact Virginia Ave. used to go across the waterfront.

Here's southwest Georgetown. What's notable about this map is the streams that ran through Georgetown at this point, as represented by the black lines meandering through the neighborhood.

Here's northeast Georgetown. Notice that Q St. wasn't constructed yet, and Dumbarton House hadn't been moved yet. Plus, there was a giant streetcar facility on P St. (not to mention homes in what is now Rose Park).

Here's central Georgetown. What's notable here is that, as I discovered Monday, the addresses of homes north of Volta were different. And that's because Volta Place was Q St., Q St. was R St., Dent Place west of Wisconsin was S St. (east of Wisconsin it was Irving Place), Reservoir was T St. and R St. was U St. Oh and Wisconsin was called 32nd St. and 32nd St. was called Valley St.

Finally, here's northwest Georgetown. Note that Volta Park used to be the Presbyterian Burial Grounds, and that the weird Tudor style home on 33rd between Volta and Q was the Presbyterian church.


Ideas rule the roost at the Ward 7 transportation summit

Sometimes it's the little things that need the most attention. At last Saturday's Ward 7 transportation summit, residents offered many productive ideas. One recurring theme was to pay more attention to the low-hanging fruit, small projects that could make a big impact.

Ward 7 discusses bus performance. Photo by Neha Bhatt on Twitter.

The summit, planned and organized by Ward 7 residents Veronica Davis, Neha Bhatt, Kelsi Bracmort, Gregori Stewart, and Sherrie Lawson, focused on ideas from the community to improve transportation.

Attendees left energized and hopeful that more progress is coming regarding pedestrian and bicycle safety, equitable bus service, and better streets.

One of the best-received presentations came from students participating in the mayor's Youth Leadership Institute, who brought up a number of specific, solvable problems. They recommended reintroducing driver education classes in schools, and having WMATA meet with students to help them understand how the Metro budget works.

Crime against SYEP youth: The pay days for students participating in the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) are well-known around the community, which has led to youth being targeted for robbery outside of Metro stations like Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue.

In response to this problem, the students said they would like to see an increased police presence. They also noted that police have a tendency to clump together and talk to each other rather than fully patrol the stations, so the students suggested that police spread out to cover a larger area.

Subsidized fares: SYEP paychecks will be cut by $2 per hour this summer. Therefore, the students recommended having WMATA or the District subsidize transit fares for SYEP participants. At the very least, the presenters asked for subsidized fares during the first two weeks of the program while participants wait for their first paycheck.

Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6) and Muriel Bowser (ward 4, the Council's representative on the WMATA Board) asked DDOT and WMATA about the cost of a subsidy and what its fiscal impact would be, noting that youth who go to summer school already get a similar transit subsidy.

Youth advisory council: After last year's summit, WMATA was interested in establishing a youth advisory council to discuss activity on buses. Unfortunately, there had not been follow-up from the local councilmember, Yvette Alexander, to move this forward. At this year's summit, WMATA reaffirmed their interest in a youth advisory council.

Aging in place: One resident noted that the very young and the very old have unique needs when it comes to transportation, and asked how WMATA can help residents age in place, and how it can better accommodate strollers on buses.

Deaf riders: Other participants said that Ward 7 has an increasing population of the hearing impaired and deaf, and that transit employees should be trained to both recognize deaf customers and help them use the system.

Pedestrian safety: Organizer Neha Bhatt discussed pedestrian safety concerns at Benning Road's intersections with Minnesota Avenue and East Capitol Street. She had organized a recent walking tour with Ward 3 councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the committee overseeing transportation, to look at problem intersections.

Capital Bikeshare: WABA executive director Shane Farthing raised the idea of subsidizing bike sharing for residents east of the river, and suggested changing Capital Bikeshare rules to allow younger members. Currently, one must be at least 16 years old to use Capital Bikeshare.

There was also an open house where community members could find information from DDOT, WMATA, Capital Bikeshare, and WABA, as well as discuss ideas with representatives from these groups.

The summit's two-hour timeframe turned out to be somewhat too short, so presentations and discussion were rushed at the end. The organizers are hoping to reformat for next year to avoid this issue.

Overall, residents came away with a widespread belief that working to pick the low-hanging fruit is a smart way to move forward and begin to bring positive change to Ward 7.


Which city's rail system has the best Walk Score?

Last week, David Klion computed the Walk Score for all Washington Metro stops. How does Metro stack up to the other heavy rail systems in the United States? The answers may surprise you.

I analyzed the 11 heavy rail systems in the United States. Some of these cities also have light rail, commuter rail, or other transit systems, but I didn't count those. That means in Boston, I looked at stations on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines, but not Green. (Why?)

I also combined heavy rail stations from multiple operators in the same region. For example, the Philadelphia score counts both SEPTA and PATCO heavy rail stations. New York's includes PATH and the Staten Island Railway (SIRT).

And the winner is... Los Angeles?

I was surprised by the results. Los Angeles scored the highest! I certainly did not expect that. Though in hindsight, it makes a good deal of sense.

Los Angeles has only 2 heavy rail lines, the Red and Purple lines. Those lines are confined to a relatively small area in the LA Basin, with the exception of 2 stations on the Red Line in the San Fernando Valley. And while Southern California has a reputation for being sprawling, the LA Basin is actually fairly dense, especially where the Metro has been built. As a result, its score isn't dragged down by suburban park and ride stations.

In the same respect, I was surprised that BART scored better than WMATA. Large portions of the DC system serve areas that are urban or urbanizing. In contrast, BART's system is much more suburban-oriented and has very little in the way of urban circulation.

Also surprising is that New York is not an outlier. It does come in a close second to Los Angeles, but I really expected it to be off the charts compared to everyone else. The New York City Subway alone scores 90.47 without PATH and SIRT, still just below LA; SIRT averages 71.45 while PATH is higher, 92.23, but its relatively small size (13 stations) means it doesn't change the New York average even a tenth of a point.

What is not very surprising is that the sunbelt cities (except LA) score more poorly than the more urban older cities (except for Cleveland). Cleveland is at a disadvantage because of the structure of its transit system. The system only has one stop in the central business district, and that station's score isn't that impressive anyway, which harms the average.

Distribution matters

The chart above shows how Walk Scores for stations in each system are distributed. The green bars give the average score. The rectangle shows the 25th and 75th percentiles, and the lines with dots at each end show the highest and lowest Walk Scores for any station in that system.

At the high end, several cities had at least one station (sometimes several) with perfect 100-point scores. The lowest score for any station nationwide was 28 points. Two stations in the Washington region—Arlington Cemetery and Morgan Boulevard—and one station in San Francisco—North Concord/Martinez—had that score.

The distribution is important in understanding how well distributed the well-scoring stations are in the system.

In Washington, the distribution is weighted more toward good-scoring stations, but there are still a lot of poor-scoring stations, too.

Compare that to San Francisco's BART, where there are fewer poor-scoring stations. Instead, there are a large quantity of stations in the middle of the distribution.

New York and Cleveland offer contrast to each other. While most New York stations score very well, Cleveland's don't rank above medium.


The Walk Score algorithm is not perfect. It works by calculating the quantities and distances of various amenties. There are other factors which it does not measure that help to define the walkability of an area.

For example, a street grid makes an area much more walkable than a sprawling network of superblocks and culs-de-sac. The quality and proliferation of sidewalks also influences walkability. But these factors aren't currently part of Walk Score; there's no good data file for Walk Score to use that shows where there are and aren't good sidewalks, for example.

Regardless, Walk Score gives us a standard and fairly good measure to compare transit stations (and systems) to each other.

Why I didn't count light rail or other transit

I'm sure this will prove to be controversial, and that's fine. I did not include the light rail elements of systems in cities like Boston for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Peer comparison: I wanted to create an apples-to-apples comparison, as best as possible. While the Washington Metro is easily comparable to BART, it doesn't make as much sense to compare a Metro stop to a Muni LRT stop on the west side of San Francsico that is just a sign on a telephone pole.
  2. To limit the scope: This project took a good amount of time as it was. I did not want to extend that time by trying to measure too much. Besides, I (or someone) can always do a follow-up with light rail.
  3. To avoid "mode creep": If we take Boston as an example, limiting the scope of the survey to heavy rail avoids the mode creep that can exacerbate the problems listed above. If I were to consider the Green Line, I would need to consider all of it. And if I'm considering the street-running portions of the Green Line, how can I not consider the full subway portions of the Silver Line in East Boston? And then would I not have to also include the Washington Avenue portion, that is essentially arterial bus?
This analysis is limited, as any analysis would be. I chose to try to keep it from expanding too far by limiting it to one mode. It would be interesting to look at the omitted lines, and perhaps that will happen in a future analysis.


Breakfast links: Taxes break

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.
Taxes for truck tacos: Food trucks would have to start paying sales taxes like everyone else under a bill going to markup on Thursday in the DC Council. Food trucks earning less than a threshold could keep paying a flat annual fee as they do today. (DCist)

Give me a break: Konterra could qualify for tax breaks intended for transit-oriented projects inside the Beltway, despite county officials' best efforts. (Examiner)

Are mobile cameras about revenue?: One Prince George's delegate wants to prohibit mobile speed cameras being moved solely to generate revenue. County officials say they are writing fewer tickets, a sign the program is actually curbing speeding rather than being primarily about money. (Examiner)

Alerts for buses: Metro is now offering an alert system for Metrobus which will send riders information about service disruptions, similar to the ones sent for Metrorail. You can sign up here. (Post)

Good plan sails through: Redevelopment of Mid-Pike Plaza in White Flint received preliminary approval from the Montgomery County Planning Board. The pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use plan, which includes reducing Old Georgetown Road from 6 lanes to 4, has received no complaints. (DCMud)

More roads still needed?: After the BRAC merger with Walter Reed, use of transit has skyrocketed at the former Bethesda Naval Hospital from 11% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. Yet officials are going ahead with expensive road widenings. (Gazette, Ben Ross)

DC cleaner than burbs: DC residents produce less air pollution than their suburban neighbors. Virginia's pollution will likely increase in the future while Maryland's will decrease thanks to their adoption of California standards for cars. (City Paper)

Photography still legal: WMATA employees sometimes harass photographers for legally taking pictures. There have been at least 3 incidents in the past 4 months despite Metro's official statements that it's legal.

And..: Arlington seeks a streetcar manager with urban planning experience. (ARLnow) ... A DC musician pens a song about waiting for the 42 bus. (Post, Mike O) ... Someone has created a set of images showing animals that appear in the lines of the London Underground map. (Animals on the Underground)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


A river of slime runs under Constitution Avenue

How is Washington, DC like this scene from Ghostbusters 2?

Like the fictionalized residents of New York City in 1989, most present-day Washingtonians are unaware that an unusual river of slime runs beneath their city. (But ours is not paranormal). Here's the story.

Constitution Avenue was once a river

Back when DC was born, water was integral to the development of commerce. Roads were unreliable, and other technologies didn't yet exist. Why else would the city's founders have placed it at the intersection of two swampy, humid, mosquito-filled waterways, the Potomac and the Eastern Branch (now called the Anacostia)?

In fact, Pierre L'Enfant's original 1792 plan for DC shows us that their city was far more watery than the one we know today. If the Washington Monument had been built then, it would have sat on the shores of the Potomac, and the Lincoln Memorial would be underwater. From the foot of Capitol Hill out to the Potomac, there ran a body of water called Tiber Creek (whose name had been changed from Goose Creek when it was decided that DC would become America's capital, because they were emulating Rome).

L'Enfant Plan. Image from Wikipedia.

DC's founders and business leaders believed that the city's economic development would be vastly enhanced if only there was a canal connecting the Anacostia River (navigable to Maryland) to the Potomac (the gateway to the west) through the city. The Washington City Canal, completed in 1815, flowed up north from the Anacostia, passed west of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and then headed due west along the Tiber River whose path is today's Constitution Ave. In other words, Constitution Avenue was once a river.

The Tiber Creek/Washington City Canal is visible to the north. Photo by

Ever wonder what that random tiny stone house is on the Mall?

In 1828, construction began on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, another dream waterway which would connect commerce up to Pittsburgh and through all areas in between. In the original plans, the C&O system was supposed to end in Georgetown, but that idea made DC leaders nervous. They imagined that the canal would help Georgetown outshine the capital, so they ransomed their $1M investment in the project and had that changed. The C&O would now end at the Washington City Canal.

Thus completed in 1833 and known as the C&O Branch Extension, DC's canal connection into the C&O began at the Rock Creek Basin and followed 27th Street down until it connected into the Washington City Canal at 17th and Constitution Avenues.

Image from the National Park Service.
Someone was going to have to collect the tolls and keep the records, so a Lockkeeper's House was built at 17th and Constitution. Owned today by the National Park Service, the Lockkeeper's House is one of the last reminders that a canal ever flowed through DC.

A small federal style house built of fieldstone and measuring 30 feet wide and 18 feet deep, the Lockkeeper's House originally sat 40 feet west and 10 feet north of its current location, but was moved in the 1930′s to widen 17th Street.

According to some reports, the lockkeeper and his 13 children lived in the building. Otho Swain, a man born on a canal boat in 1901, whose father was a boatman and locktender and whose grandfather helped build the C&O, related this story:

My grandfather, he had boated coal down Constitution Avenue. There used to be a canal that crossed the Potomac there, and there's a little stone house still standing on the corner of 17th and Constitution Avenue. It was a lock house. My grandmother lived in that lock house, and that's where my grandfather met her.

The Lockkeeper's House was given to the National Park Service at the beginning of the 20th century during the construction of Potomac Park. For a time it was used as a "public comfort station", but today NPS uses it as storage.

Decline to slime

Although DC's founders believed that waterways would bring commerce, we know better today—railroads were the technology of the future. As the rail was developed, the canal system fell into disuse. (Plus, the Washington City Canal had always been a bit of a mess. The water was shallow and so could only handle boats drawing less than 3 feet of water.)

The canal system was completely abandoned by the end of the 1850′s. The C&O Canal only made it as far as Cumberland, MD before it went under. What did DC's residents do with this body of water running through its middle? Throughout the Civil War and after, they turned the Washington City Canal into an open sewer.

Drawing of the sewer in 1894 from via the Affordable Housing Institute.

Luckily, when Boss Shepard came into power in the 1870′s, he added this smelly problem to his list of public improvements. A young German immigrant engineer, Adolph Cluss, was enlisted to move the body of water underground. He apparently built a tunnel from Capitol Hill down to the Potomac that is "wide enough for a bus to drive through to put Tiber Creek underground."

A river runs under it

Filling in the canal created B Street, which was subsequently renamed Constitution Avenue. Although the massive undertaking solved public health problems, the federal government apparently did not contemplate the potential engineering dilemmas that might result from building on top of an underground creek/sewer From Wikipedia:

Many of the buildings on the north side of Constitution apparently are built on top of the creek, including the Internal Revenue Service Building, part of which is built on wooden piers sunk into the wet ground along the creek course. The low-lying topography there contributed to the flooding of the National Archives Building (Archives I in Washington, DC), IRS, and Ariel Rios buildings that forced their temporary closure beginning in late June 2006.

In fact, until the mid 1990s, that part of Washington around the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution was an open parking lot because the underground water was too difficult to deal with. During construction of the Ronald Reagan Building (1990—98), the engineers figured out how to divert the water. But that dewatering then reduced the water level underneath the IRS building which caused the wooden piers to lose stability and part of the IRS building foundation to sink.

More information is in a Northwest Current article from 1997 about reports to the National Capital Planning Commission on the flooding issues, and this photo from BMS CAT shows flooding at the National Archives.

Maybe DC doesn't have real ghosts flowing under our feet, but that doesn't mean we aren't haunted by underground things from the city's past.

Cross-posted at The Location.


DDOT streetcar missteps boost calls for new authority

DDOT has made a number of missteps on the streetcar project in the past year, and has been opaque about plans for funding future lines. This is prompting calls for a new independent authority to plan, build and/or run the streetcar.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

DDOT only has 3 cars today, and a procurement snafu means they might not have enough to run 10-minute headways. Couple that with problems nailing down the Union Station connection, tracks being deleted from the 11th Street Bridge, and more, and councilmembers are understandably nervous.

Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) proposes splitting the streetcar off from DDOT into a new authority. Creating new boards and authorities can just replace old problems with a set of new problems, but unless DDOT shows it has the project under control soon, a separate authority may be the best way to ensure the project's success.

At a roundtable last week, Director Terry Bellamy did little to reassure Cheh and Tommy Wells (ward 6) that DDOT has the project under control or that it is any closer to working out financing mechanisms for future lines.

There's no time to waste. As I argued in a previous post and my testimony, we must couple promises to build a streetcar with a promise from local neighborhoods to help support it. Once a neighborhood's planned streetcar line gets close enough to reality, there's no incentive for local commercial property owners to agree to a value capture system, or local residents to agree to selective extra density along the commercial strip.

Cheh has introduced a bill to create a task force to make recommendations for a permanent governance structure. In her opening statement, Cheh noted that:

The system is still without a long-term financing and governance plan. ... Continued development will require a dedicated operating outlay and significant capital investment. Though the District expects some federal financial support along the way, development of a clear plan is crucial to moving the project forward. Still, there has been only quite limited movement to resolve some of the larger outstanding issues.

The 2010 streetcar system plan noted that DDOT would immediately begin to convene a governance task force composed of private sector, public sector, industry and community leaders to propose a an appropriate governance structure for the streetcar. Now it is almost 2 years later and the task force has not been created, and we are still without a concrete plan.

Later in the hearing, Wells fretted that the streetcar might open without enough cars to run it effectively. Right now, DDOT has only 3 cars, which would only support running a streetcar every 18 minutes on the H Street line, or less if one breaks down. Plans call for a car every 10 minutes.

DDOT solicited bids to buy 2 more, which would support the 10-minute headways. Portland-based United Streetcar and Czech company Inekon both bid. DDOT chose United, but Inekon appealed, saying that it received a higher overall score, which combined price and technical merit. United was better on price, but Inekon got a better technical score.

Also, Inekon said United fell below a minimum technical threshold set out in the procurement. DDOT decided to cancel the contract. Regardless of which vendor would have been best, this now means DC has to scramble to get more cars by the planned opening in July 2013.

Bellamy said DDOT is looking into "piggybacking" on another city's purchase, but that's more difficult and potentially expensive since other cities likely have slightly different requirements. And he couldn't give much reassurance that this was going to actually happen.

People of H Street have waited patiently for a long time for the streetcar. If it opens and succeeds, then the wait will have been worthwhile, and other neighborhoods will clamor for the streetcar. But if it fails, it will get an early reputation as a boondoggle that will be very difficult to shake. Wells said,

If they start with 3 [cars] the headways are ridiculous, and often 1 car needs to be worked on. It would just be a tourist ride. ... If you start it with only 2 or 3 cars, I'm not with you. ...

If you actually open the system at half capacity, I think that's the story, and we don't need that. ... We're the nation's capital. We're rolling out the first leg of a 37-mile system. This is really a big deal. ... It's got to be done right.

If we start with 3 cars ... It will be a symbol of failure for this administration that it does not need.

Here is the video from the segment of the hearing about the number of cars:

DDOT still has time to procure the cars, if no additional obstacles pop up. This delay might force them to postpone the opening by a few months to later in 2013, but the current July timeline is already aggressive. Maybe the schedule will slip anyway, and the streetcar procurement will provide a good cover.

Creating an authority can bring significant advantages. Local business groups, like the Downtown Business Improvement District, and advocacy groups like the Sierra Club have been leading the way in building support for the streetcar. Yet many advocates say DDOT hasn't engaged with them much at all in recent months.

DDOT has been secretive about progress and especially about setbacks. When the Federal Transit Administration told DDOT it couldn't put tracks on the 11th Street Bridge without stopping the project for expensive and time-consuming new studies, DDOT kept the news secret for months until we broke the story. And how long did DDOT know that running the tracks under the Hopscotch Bridge was a no-go?

Creating a financing and governance plan is complex, and Bellamy said DDOT has been working on the problem. But all discussions have happened behind the scenes, and insiders familiar with the matter I've spoken with say they don't have much confidence in the process so far. Plus, this isn't a decision that should happen in secret. Residents and advocates are stakeholders that need to be involved as well.

Some of the current problems may come from DDOT having no streetcar head. Scott Kubly left in July, and DDOT just hired Carl Jackson a month ago.

The divison's other staff, many of whom are very talented, have to juggle many other competing priorities, like the Circulator, Capital Bikeshare, and oversight of WMATA. The Circulator and Capital Bikeshare are huge successes, and there have been few complaints about the way DDOT has handled these projects.

Cheh said this is a reason to support creating an authority. Maybe the streetcar, unlike the Circulator and CaBi, is just too large and complex to be part of another agency. She noted, "DDOT does an enormous amount, and it dos it very well. It gets a lot done, and a lot correct. But it's humongous." A separate authority would have staff and budget dedicated solely to the streetcar.

But separate authorities can also bring problems. If a project requires multiple agencies to cooperate to achieve a goal, it's a lot more complex. Staff at the agencies might not get along, or if they do, their bosses might have competing priorities or desires. If they're not all under the Mayor, there's no one person who can order everyone to get moving or resolve disputes.

Understandably, staff with limited time end up focusing on projects they can achieve themselves, without needing a lot of buy-in from people outside the building. Likewise, if DDOT is running the streetcar, its director, the mayor, and councilmembers can make sure the project succeeds and get credit for success. If there's a separate authority, will those agencies focus their energy on other priorities which live entirely in-house?

Finally, our mayorally appointed boards don't always act in harmony with the admini­stration's priorities. For example, the Historic Preservation Review Board can single-handedly facilitate or derail many development projects, and the Zoning Commiss­ion actually sets DC's zoning policy in ways the council and mayor cannot. But even a very pro-development, anti-delay mayor like Adrian Fenty still appointed HPRB and Zoning Cmmission members more on personal relationships than on any policy alignment.

Who would be on this streetcar board? DDOT officials? Business leaders? Community members? What about people who aren't so enthusiastic about the streetcar? Will the board focus on getting the system done, or will it devolve into a forum for battles over the pace of change?

We have an authority for transit already—WMATA. It's not exactly a paragon of efficiency, and government officials in DC, Maryland, and Virginia grumble about handing over money year after year without as much power to fix problems as they have over local agencies. The streetcar authority wouldn't be an interstate compact, but could it develop some of the same problems?

We can certainly imagine an authority effectively shepherding this complex project to great success. Certainly DDOT's recent management of the project sets a low bar for an authority to surmount. But we can also envision the authority turning into another awkward structure that needs reform a few years down the road.

Can the council design the authority to capture the benefits of a separate structure but avoid many of the pitfalls? Portland seems to have done so, for example; an independent authority successfully manages its streetcars. The details of the plan will determine whether an authority in DC would lead to similar success, or not.

Cheh's bill properly proposes a public conversation about whether to create an authority, and how. It's good to explore whether an authority could better serve the goal of implementing and operating an efficient, sustainable, innovative streetcar system. If it can, DC should set one up. But it should not be a foregone conclusion.


Takoma Park progressives are for progress

Tim Male, a City Councilmember in Takoma Park, Maryland, sent us this response to Dan Reed's recent article, "Sometimes, it's okay for progressives to embrace progress."

Dan Reed wrote recently about the link between development and progressiveness in and around the area of Takoma Park, but the narrow coverage missed the real story of what is going on.

Takoma-Langley Crossroads, at the edge of Takoma Park. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Its true that City residents worked to oppose a proposed development that would have eliminated green space at the Takoma Metro in favor of townhouses with two car garages and less bicycle and bus access. Somehow that didn't sound like smart or progressive growth to us.

However, at the same time, development plans on nearby previously developed but underused sites have been moving forward near the Metro.

Elsewhere, the City of Takoma Park has been working to facilitate mixed commercial and residential space along the University and New Hampshire Avenue corridors to make more housing and affordable housing available on mass transit and future Purple line routes. These are developments that take advantage of underutilized commercial and retail space to build new capacity and energy into an area—and new housing.

In both cases, the City is supporting more density where it makes sense. In fact, if you actually watch the video about Melbourne, Australia's urban development plans that Alex Steffen refers to, they did precisely what Takoma Park has been promoting—Melbourne avoided developing on any green space or historic areas and reused vacant commercial and retail to get more housing density.

And in reference to the claims of Takoma Park pushing poor people out, we have great data from the Community Indicators Project that shows just the opposite. We have a higher proportion of low and moderate income families than the rest of Montgomery County—34 percent of our households are low income compared to 19 percent for the County and the average rent for a vacant unit in Takoma Park was more than $400/month cheaper than the County.

Part of this is because since 1980, the City has had a rent stabilization policy in place that has been an effective way to keep rents down and not without sacrifice from other residents who end up paying a higher property tax burden.

The point is, not all development is progressive and if you look a little deeper, you will see a lot more evidence that Takoma Park knows how to balance quality of life, diversity and development far better than Mr. Reed suggests.


Metro switching most buses to alternative fuel

Metro is upgrading its bus fleet to replace older diesel buses with new hybrid-electric buses. Almost two-thirds of buses use alternative fuel today. The difference in miles per gallon is not substantial, but alternative fuel buses have lower operating costs and lower emissions.

Photo by jsmjr on Flickr.

DC lags behind some other cities in alternative fuel use for buses. LA uses 100% alternative fuel buses and New York has more alternative fuel buses, but they comprise a smaller proportion of the total fleet. DC has more alternative fuel buses than San Francisco's MUNI, but MUNI also operates electric buses and DC does not.

Metro does not plan to switch to entirely alternative fuels, according to Brian Anderson, Metro's Social Media Manager. Metro will continue to operate clean diesel fuel buses, which Anderson said must meet stricter EPA emissions standards.

Hybrid buses average around 4 MPG, while diesel buses average 3.5 MPG and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses average 3 MPG. The Metrobus fleet includes 1,530 buses of 15 different models of varying capacity and fuel type. (See a slideshow of the different bus models below.)

The newest buses come in two different models, the 2009 New Flyer and the 2011 New Flyer Xcelsior. These buses have slightly less capacity than the diesel ones but there are 412 of these buses, comprising about one-fourth of the total fleet.

In addition to the hybrid electric buses, Metro operates 460 CNG buses. Because they require special fuel, they can only be stored at Metro's bus garages at Bladensburg and at Four Mile Run in Arlington. Some of the CNG bus models have luggage racks and service Metro's airport routes to Dulles and BWI.

Metro also operates three longer articulated bus models and one short model. Two of the articulated models are versions of the New Flyer hybrid bus and the third is an older diesel model. Articulated buses must use the Northern bus garage near the former Walter Reed site, the Montgomery bus garage in Rockville, or the Bladensburg garage in northeast DC to accommodate the extra length.

The articulated buses run on high capacity routes like the S1, 70 and X2. The short bus is an older diesel model and runs on lower ridership routes like the D2 and M4.

The oldest buses in Metro's fleet are 15 year-old diesel models. The average lifespan of these buses is 15 years, so many of the oldest ones are ready for replacement. This 15-year lifespan is longer than the Federal Transit Administration's 12-year minimum retirement age for heavy duty buses but the Metro board uses extended specifications (see bottom of page 25) to procure longer lasting buses.

Metro rehabilitates all buses around their mid-life point and performs about 100 bus rehabs per year. Rehabs don't extend the lifespan, but Anderson said mechanics examine almost every part of the bus to prevent breakdowns. This process costs about $110,000 per bus.

Metro has 104 of the 2011 New Flyer Xcelsior hybrid buses and has added about 102 New Flyer hybrid buses per year between 2008 and 2010. There are more than 300 of the oldest diesel models in the fleet but Anderson said Metro doesn't expect to replace all the diesel buses until 2017, which means some buses could be 20 years old at retirement.

Buses that old would be not that unusual. Metro still had 19-year old bus models in the fleet in June 2009, but those buses are no longer in service. As Metro continues to face budget constraints, it's not surprising that some buses will remain in service beyond their target life.

Here are photos of each of Metro's bus types. All photos from WMATA.

Slideshow image


Breakfast links and video: Much to scrutinize

Photo by afagen on Flickr.
DC shorted millions in fees: Housing officials have not effectively collected housing assistance fees from apartment-to-condo conversions, costing the city an estimated $30.6 million. (WBJ)

Alarms raised at youth program: Staff at the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp had raised concerns about suspicious earmarks that turned out to be fronts for Harry Thomas, Jr. to steal from DC. (Washington Times)

Lotto contract's strange dealings: DC's lottery contract was not properly awarded, according to the inspector general's office, and some on the DC Council want a deeper investigation into how it was awarded. (Washington Times)

A two-term Virginia?: Virginia is the only state in the union to place a one-term limit on its governors, and Governor McDonnell thinks this is too few. (National Journal)

Travel model incorporates science: Researchers found that the population of a city has far more influence on the number of intercity trips than distance. They've made that part of a new travel model that is far more accurate than previous models. (Physorg)

Smart growth gets its day: Randal O'Toole and Todd Litman debated the merits of transit and smart growth. Litman, who argued for smart growth, came away from the experience with some advice for fending off critics like O'Toole. (Planetizen)

Raleigh steps backward: Raleigh residents posted some guerrilla wayfinding signs that garnered great acclaim, but were technically illegal, so otherwise supportive officials had to take them down. The city council will consider how to restore them. (Atlantic Cities)

Reauthorization on video: Jay Mallin has created a video about the transportation reauthorization fight, and the clear message from House Republicans: Don't walk, bike or ride transit, just get a car.

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