Posts from April 2008
Metrorail is nearing its capacity, with heavy load in many key points throughout the system. At last week's WMATA board meeting, staff presented recommendations for capital improvements to increase capacity at the bottlenecks.
Press outlets covered the topic, but often with confusion on details. WTOP covered the Georgetown/M Street proposal but wrote that the new line would run "through the top of the District," adding, "It's not known if the new line would be a tunnel or an aerial structure." The ridiculousness of an elevated trackway up Wisconsin Avenue led to this incredulous story on DCist, generating more meta-discussion.
What is WMATA really proposing? Based on this presentation, here's a handy map of what Metro could look like in 2030 if WMATA gets its way:
Below, a detailed list of the improvements in the WMATA presentation and this map.
Silver and Purple Lines built as proposed by Virginia and Maryland.
Separate Blue Line. This new line through downtown, originally proposed in 2001, would split off from the Orange Line at Rosslyn, cross the Potomac in a new tunnel to Georgetown, then run east along M Street to Mount Vernon Square and then Union Station.
The WMATA presentation's map shows the line heading down Massachusetts Ave from Thomas Circle to Union Station, but my map shows it continuing along M Street to facilitate a better transfer at Mount Vernon Square (since the station is actually on M rather than at the square itself).
Reports are vague on what the line would do east of Union Station; the old Post map showed it going to Stadium-Armory, but it would make more sense for it to run straight down H Street and cross the river with the Orange Line, letting riders connect between the two at a new infill station between River Terrace and the soon-to-be-closed Pepco plant.
Update: I've modified the map to show the Blue Line running to a separate Rosslyn station one block west of the current one, connected by an underground walkway, to better match WMATA's best thinking on the physical reality. The previous map is here.
The "Blue Line split". Not to be confused with the M Street subway, this is a short-term proposal by WMATA to send some trains from Franconia-Springfield up the Yellow Line and then to Greenbelt. WMATA's map is horribly confusing; as I've argued before, it makes much more sense to simply call those trains Yellow Line trains.
Pedestrian walkways. Farragut North and Farragut West were originally supposed to be one station with a transfer, according to The Great Society Subway, but the National Park Service blocked that plan. A walkway would allow transfers from Red to Orange without riding an extra three stops down to Metro Center and back.
Likewise, Metro Center and Gallery Place are actually very close together, but many people ride the Red Line one stop when going to or from one of those stations. And people transferring from Yellow/Green to Orange/Blue have to use the Red Line or ride five extra stops down to L'Enfant Plaza and back.
Track connections. The presentation recommends adding connectors between lines so WMATA can route trains around problems or add extra service in high-traffic spots. They're proposing connectors between Court House and the Blue Line toward Arlington Cemetery; between the Blue Line on the other side of Arlington Cemetery and the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac; between the Red Line north of Farragut and the Orange Line at McPherson; and between the potential M Street line around Thomas Circle and the Yellow/Green at Gallery Place.
The one useful connection missing from the WMATA presentation is one between the Yellow Line bridge and Waterfront. Being able to run trains from Virginia directly to the new ballpark would give Virginians an easy Metro route to baseball games and relieve a lot of congestion at L'Enfant Plaza. Coupled with the Orange-Blue and Blue-Yellow connectors also proposed, they could even run Orange or Silver Line trains from Fairfax or Leesburg/Dulles/Tysons all the way around to the ballpark without having to pass through downtown DC.
Infill stations. Alexandria has proposed new infill stations at Potomac Yards and Eisenhower Valley. An Oklahoma Avenue station between Stadium-Armory and the Anacostia River has also been kicking around for years (in fact, it was planned for the original Metro system and then canceled). This stations aren't mentioned in the WMATA presentation.
The private parking garage at Bethesda's Air Rights Center costs $6.00 per hour. The public lot across Woodmont Avenue charges only 50 cents per hour.
Why is Bethesda undercutting its own private garages? If the Air Rights Center can charge $6 per hour even while being across the street from a much cheaper public lot, then there's clear market demand for $6 per hour parking. If Bethesda feels the need to build new parking, there's no rationale for charging any less. If a developer wants to build a private garage under a new building, fine. But we shouldn't be encouraging more driving (as opposed to transit riding) to Bethesda by further adding subsidized parking.
Yet that's just what the Montgomery County Executive wants to do. The County plans to develop the big parking lot at the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont (right across from the Barnes and Noble). That makes sense The Transportation & Environment committee asks some good questions:
Good questions, and based on this line of questioning there's hope that the County Council will cut the parking subsidy for this project. More cheap parking costs the public money while increasing traffic and pollution. Bethesda is on the Metro and the planned Purple Line. The County's public policy should focus on enhancing non-driving options of getting to Bethesda. If they charge market rates for parking and avoid building too much, that revenue can do just that, instead of wasting $88 million.
The Transportation & Environment committee asks some good questions:
Virginia communities are vying to get one more daily commuter train to Washington, reports the Post. Amtrak is willing to run another train from Lynchburg to Union Station via Charlottesville, Culpeper and Manassas, or from Newport News via Williamsburg and Richmond. Unfortunately, Virginia only has money for one or the other.
Virginia needs to replace the struck-down transit fund money so they can add not only these two routes, but even more trains per day, as well as the high-speed rail to Charlotte that sneaks in at the end of the Post article.
- Objection: "In the regional context, [the bill] puts DC at a disadvantage compared to other office districts."
First, it's important to note that non-free parking is already taxed. What this bill does is simply to equalize free and non-free parking, so that we're not further encouraging free parking by making it even cheaper. It's a loophole that needs to be closed. Plenty of offices already provide paid parking, which is taxed; I haven't been hearing reports of offices fleeing because of that existing tax (or because of the burden on employees having to pay to park their cars).
In fact, DC's downtown office market is extremely strong. Coupled with the height restrictions, there's no incentive to create mixed-use residential buildings downtown because office space is so valuable. Downtown is spreading into new areas like NoMa and Near Southeast because of a lack of land. And if anything, rising gas prices are making it more appealing for businesses to locate in downtowns here and elsewhere.
With limited office space, DC doesn't need to attract offices that think free parking makes the difference between locating in DC versus a suburban office park outside the Beltway. Besides, we should lobby other jurisdictions to follow suit, especially the dense areas like Arlington, Bethesda, or Silver Spring.
- Objection: "If they said they'd use the money for transportation improvements only, then it might be palatable."
The bill directs the money to the DDOT general fund "in order to fund transportation projects that will help the District meet national ambient air quality standards." I agree that the language should be stronger. In particular, anything that increases the cost of driving (like parking taxes or a congestion charge) should be dedicated to increasing alternatives to driving. Not only is it good policy, it's a good equity move to ensure that the people who pay the tax can benefit from alternatives.
- Objection: "We already have a tax for "wear and tear on the roads and pollution." It's the gas tax."
Richard Layman responds to this one in the comments: "Disabuse yourself of the notion that roads are fully paid for by gas taxes and registration fees. Nope. About 50% of the cost of roads comes from general fund revenues."
- Objection: Unless employers pass along the cost to the workers, "it will have no impact at all on travel behavior."
There are other ways a business can pass on the incentive not to drive without actually charging employees for parking directly. Maybe one will institute a free shuttle like Google's in Silicon Valley. Maybe another will decide to give a parking cash-out to employees. (A cash-out is where the employee can receive the cost of the parking in added pay or other benefits instead of the free space.)
- Objection: $25/month might be too high in lower-rent commercial areas.
A better bill would establish the true market rate of the parking being given away, and either mandate or provide and incentive for employers to create parking cash-outs. An ideal bill would minimize unnecessary drag on business in the District, but would also ensure that employees have a true choice between driving and transit, without a subsidy to driving.
Between free parking, free bridges, and an inadequately funded Metro system, our government continues to push the driving option in many small ways. This bill is a good start in an effort to correct those hidden subsidies.
Few people argue with building in undeveloped areas like Near Southeast, with empty lots and where the few existing residents want more neighbors. But there are few of these sites. Most undeveloped land is in or next to an existing neighborhood. Where do we put housing?
Is it better to build new tall buildings near low-density neighborhoods, as has been proposed for the Armed Forces Retirement Home? Should two-story row houses grow to three, as often happens in non-historically designated neighborhoods like Bloomingdale or Petworth where the zoning allows it? Or should we fit more people in between the current housing, in alley dwellings?
In the recent discussion about inclusionary zoning, several people brought up alley dwellings. DC has a rich history of people living in alleys, but current zoning and codes don't allow them. Should we bring them back? Some people in the Low and Moderate Density zoning working group brought it up as a possible alternative to pop-ups. Some have suggested giving more local control, at the neighborhood or even block level, over certain zoning decisions. Should we let each block pick Alley dwellings have drawbacks, too. Right now, we use alleys for parking and loading. But when people live in the alleys, they can create pressure to build garages and loading areas right on the street to avoid impacting the alleys, like on the 14th and U project. Access for fire trucks can be a problem. What other issues do alley dwellings bring up? Would you prefer them to taller buildings in your neighborhood?
Alley dwellings have drawbacks, too. Right now, we use alleys for parking and loading. But when people live in the alleys, they can create pressure to build garages and loading areas right on the street to avoid impacting the alleys, like on the 14th and U project. Access for fire trucks can be a problem. What other issues do alley dwellings bring up? Would you prefer them to taller buildings in your neighborhood?
The Coalition for Smarter Growth crunched the numbers on car crashes that hit pedestrians, the percentage of crashes that are fatal to the pedestrian, and the rate compared to the total numbers of pedestrians on the road.
Fairfax County scored worst with a pedestrian danger index of 44.8, with Prince George's County hot on its heels in contention for the title of worst pedestrian environment. A PG County walker is three times as likely to die in the event of an auto-involved crash as one in DC. Meanwhile, Alexandria and Arlington topped the safety list, with the District placing a close third.
We can improve safety in several ways, Curb bulb-outs shorten the crossing distance. More narrower streets such as those found in an urban area lead to shorter crossings and slower car speeds. Red-light cameras were found to reduce pedestrian crashes by 30 percent. And reconnecting the street grid, by building neighborhoods with many connected paths instead of numerous cul-de-sacs off a busy main street, allows pedestrians to take a shorter route that avoids the heavy traffic.
The report also rates each county on steps it is taking to improve safety. Arlington has the best program, followed by Alexandria and DC. Despite being the most dangerous county for pedestrians, Fairfax is at least scoring well on some measures to fix the problem, though some of its solutions are anti-urban and ultimately futile skybridges. Meanwhile Price George's County fails in nearly every category, resorting to fencing its pedestrians in to keep them from trying to cross the enormous, high-speed highways that cover the county where even bus stops often lack stoplights or crosswalks.
VDOT and MDOT also come in for their share of criticism for failing to implement their own Complete Streets and bike and pedestrian plans. The WashCycle discusses how Virginia is driving ahead with plans to widen the Beltway, but the chance of pedestrians and bicyclists getting some space on the new bridges is an afterthought at best.
new transit vision map of potential Metro and light rail expansion for the Washington region. I've also uploaded a minor tweak to my light rail and commuter rail map. Here is a quick roundup of all the recent Washington area transit vision maps. These maps and the various lines in them span a wide range of levels of realism, from serious proposal that's close to being funded, to the more pie-in-the-sky speculation.
|Metro Expansion||Combined Multimodal|
|Commuter and Light Rail||Regional Rail|
|Metro and Light Rail||Regional Rail|
So many people are using Metro, biking or walking to Nats games that parking near the stadium is going empty, and the Nats are going to let fans pay to use it instead of just season ticket holders.
But if we're doing fine without parking, why encourage it? "Some city officials are quietly complaining that the change will encourage more people to drive instead of using Metro," reports WTOP. How about converting the lower floors of the garages near the stadium to retail use, like DC wanted to in the first place (until the Lerners bullied them into dropping the idea)?
For over 50 years, the U.S. economy has shaped itself around suburban development and car-centric life. From mortgages to insurance, companies assumed that the standard household occupied a detached single-family home and drove to work. This built-in bias meant that even as Americans, from young singles to empty nesters, started to crave walkable cities once more, the economic deck was stacked against city life, keeping the middle class largely out of the cities.
Now, the market is responding to the recent demand by creating products tailored for urban living. Pay-as-you-drive insurance and location-efficient mortgages both give people credit for the driving they don't do and shouldn't have to pay for.
Progressive Auto Insurance is being, well, progressive by offering the nation's first pay-as-you-drive policy.
Drivers who sign up for MyRate will install a small wireless device in their cars that transmits to Progressive not just how many miles they drive but also when those miles are driven and, to some extent, how they are driven: the device measures the carís speed every second, from which Progressive can derive acceleration and braking behavior. Which means that Progressive will not only be able to charge drivers for the actual miles they consume but will also better assess the true risk of each driver.According to Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner, between pollution, congestion, and damage from auto collisions create negative externalities to society of $300 million a year
People who commute by transit, foot, bike, rollerblade, scooter, or carpool save a lot of money in transportation costs (and more with PAYD insurance). Why not account for that in determining mortgage qualification? Lower expenses mean someone can reasonably afford a higher mortgage. That's the idea behind the Location-Efficient Mortgage, which are available so far in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and the SF Bay Area to home buyers who purchase homes in efficient locations.
It takes time for the economy to shift to accommodate new consumer demand, but it does. And the consumer demand is there for more walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a townhouse with a corner grocery nearby, but more people do than can find safe, affordable townhouses. As long as cities allow more to be built, insurers and mortgage lenders will adapt.
House prices are falling fastest in the areas with longest commutes, reports NPR, upsetting the traditional real estate mantra of "drive 'til you qualify" where homebuyers put up with longer and longer commutes for cheaper housing.
Buyers are now asking different questions: "What is the cost of gasoline? What is the cost of my time?" ... Buyers underestimated the costs of their long commutes. Those expenses can add up to more than the buyers saved on the home.Instead, housing prices are staying high near commuter rail stations. Maybe the new mantra is "ride the train 'til you qualify"?
Developers also miscalculated, lured by cheap land and rising home prices. Many of the projects were simply too far away from places that people need to go.
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it
- Vienna Metro town center won't have a town center
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- DDOT agrees to repave 15th Street cycle track
- Residents organize for positive change in Bluemont