Greater Greater Washington

Posts from April 2013

Bikeshare is a good deal for Alexandria

Alexandria's City Council will soon decide whether to expand Capital Bikeshare in the city. Opponents claim that bikeshare is a waste of money that should be spent on other things, but ridership and revenue are exceeding expectations.

Photo by afagen on Flickr.

On May 6, the council will vote to fund an 8-station expansion, doubling the local CaBi fleet, and add CaBi operating funds to the city budget. However, some say that Alexandria is not getting a good deal. City Council members say privately that these residents have fixated on CaBi as the place to cut the budget in favor of their own causes.

The person leading this charge is Kathryn Papp, who has a history of opposing bicycles in Old Town. Papp argued last year that "adding bikes increases congestion" by slowing down cars. Now, she is presenting straw-man arguments against CaBi expansion.

"Every other city uses dedicated sponsors to cover operating costs, but not Alexandria," she states in a letter to the Alexandria Gazette-Packet on April 12, citing New York's Citibank-sponsored Citibike, which is still under construction. Papp notes that Alexandria also no longer receives federal grants to pay for bikeshare and will instead use $50,000 in development impact fees and $70,000 in revenue from real estate taxes.

In another letter to the Alexandria Times, Papp questions whether the city should pay for a service operated by Alta, a private company, in partnership with Alexandria, Arlington and DC. She claims that a financial dispute between Bixi, Alta's equipment maker, and the city of Montreal and a lawsuit from Bixi's software vendor makes Alta unfit to work with. Instead, she proposes that Alexandria use CaBi funds to reverse a proposed cut in library hours.

Conflating the problems of Bixi with Alta, the private company that operates CaBi, ignores the real question of whether it's actually working for Alexandria.

Alexandria is getting the same deal as Arlington, DC, and other cities with bikeshare systems. Like Denver's B-Cycle and Boston's Hubway, CaBi is a public-private partnership in which the city owns the equipment and contracts out operations to a for-profit company.

As with Minneapolis' Nice Ride system, CaBi lists a number of major sponsors on its website, though Nice Ride covers its operating costs with user fees and sponsored stations. Capital Bikeshare could partner with a corporate sponsor, but it's a regional system, and all of the jurisdictions involved should make that decision together.

Despite what Papp says, Capital Bikeshare also saves money. Capital costs of the proposed eight-station expansion are about that of a single DASH bus. Operating costs per ride are well under a dollar for CaBi, versus over a dollar for Metrorail and over two dollars for DASH. System-wide, CaBi moves about 8,000 people per day, almost as many as the 11,000 that DASH moves.

Papp complains that CaBi will get some financial support from local taxes, but Alexandria recently chose to dedicate 2.2¢ of its real estate tax rate to a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), including 3 designated transit corridors and supporting infrastructure for biking and walking. Given that 2 of the 4 busiest Alexandria CaBi stations serve nearby Metro stations, CaBi clearly fits in with the program's stated goals.

Besides, Alexandria can't simply move the funds to support libraries. TIP money must be spent on transportation, and since it's a new program, raiding TIP funds for libraries would only weaken it as a funding source. Just as CaBi is a transportation service that should be evaluated in the context of Alexandria's transportation program, libraries are a social service that should be evaluated in the context of Alexandria's other social services.

Capital Bikeshare has proven its worth to Alexandria, but a few detractors want to discredit this valuable service. The City Council should listen to the facts and support bikeshare funding. They will be voting on the budget next Monday; you can contact them here and voice your support.

What's the best iPhone bus tracking app?

After the "NextBus" iPhone app disappeared last year, bus riders found themselves searching for a new app to track the locations of buses. Since then, a host of new apps have appeared to fill the void. But is there such a thing as the "perfect" app for iPhone owners?

Image from the author's phone.

I tested 4 iPhone apps to see which one made it easiest to find bus information: NextBus by Cubic, DC Next Bus by Junebot, BusTrackDC by Jason Rosenbaum, and iCommute DC Lite by AppTight, the reincarnation of the previous NextBus application.

Three of these apps are available for free from the iTunes Store, while NextBus's is actually a website whose shortcut you can place on your home screen.

These apps' user interfaces fall into two categories: map-based and text-based. The map-based apps make it easier to find bus stops, and they are handy when you aren't sure where the nearest bus stop might be or the buses that pass through. However, map-based apps are more difficult to use in spots with many bus stops close together.

Meanwhile, more experienced bus riders who already know the location of bus stops or which bus route to take may prefer a text-based app. You can quickly filter through unnecessary information to get prediction times for a specific route.

Some apps have other regional bus systems besides Metrobus, such as Circulator, Ride On, and ART, while many don't.

Left: BusTrackDC. Right: DC Next Bus.

Map-based apps

Both map-based apps, BusTrackDC and DC Next Bus, automatically find your location on a map in relation to surrounding bus stops. They use standard map pins to represent bus stops; you can see what routes serve each pin by tapping on them.

This works well except in areas with numerous bus stops and routes in the same area, such as Silver Spring or downtown DC. The map pins are so close together it becomes frustrating to obtain information on the intended bus route, let alone the direction.

Meanwhile, on both apps I sometimes got "No Prediction" for various bus routes, but if I touched a different bus stop location farther down the street along the same bus route, I could get a timed prediction. DC Next Bus has the option to turn on Ride On data but says that it's unreliable, while neither app provides DC Circulator information.

Text-based apps

The two text-based apps, iCommute DC Lite and NextBus, are designed differently. Users of the defunct "NextBus" app, will find the interface of iCommute DC Lite very familiar, since the creators of the old NextBus app built iCommuteDC Lite.

If it's confusing that one app called NextBus went away and its developers now call the app iCommute DC Lite while there's another option called NextBus by Cubic, you're not alone. It's because there were 2 companies called NextBus which had split apart years ago. The one that ran the real-time predictions on the WMATA site (also called "NextBus") provided data to the other; the 2nd one licensed it to the people who now make iCommuteDC.

The relationship ended, the app died, and the developers rebuilt the app with a new name and a data feed direct from the first NextBus company, which around the same time was bought by Cubic, maker of the SmarTrip system and other transit technology.

iCommute DC Lite.

iCommuteDC Lite gives you two ways to view information: you can see stops nearby your current location, or pick a specific agency and then a route from that agency. This app supports many transportation agencies, including Metrobus, DC Circulator, ART, and CUE.

If you select stops based on your location, the app only displays a route number and not which operator the route corresponds with.

NextBus by Cubic.

Nextbus by Cubic has a simpler, more readable format, using the whole screen to display the bus routes nearest you. Once you select a route and desired direction, the app opens up a map with the real-time location of each bus along that route, something none of the other apps do.

This app also provides alerts to current problems or delays with each transit provider. It also works outside of the DC Metro area, providing bus information on the Charm City Circulator, Collegetown Shuttle, JHMI Shuttle, and the University of Maryland shuttle buses in Baltimore. However, this app only shows systems that contract with NextBus/Cubic, which means Arlington ART and Ride On don't appear.

During testing, I encountered times when the NextBus by Cubic app had predictions for some Metrobus lines, while other apps returned "No Prediction." All of the Metrobus data ultimately comes from the same transponders on the buses, so it should be identical, but since NextBus/Cubic is WMATA's vendor, if any errors creep into the WMATA API then they might affect all apps but not NextBus.

WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson says that a March data feed included some incorrect stop ID numbers, which can affect apps that use a particular method of accessing stop IDs. Anderson was able to confirm that one specific example I sent over, for the 96 bus in Adams Morgan, was a consequence of this problem. He said WMATA staff are working to correct the data and coordinating closely with developers to help them with any problems.

NextBus by Cubic's data isn't perfect, either. At one point, for example, the Metrobus S2 and S4 routes didn't appear even while standing at an S2/S4 stop on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The well-known problems with "ghost buses" and other common errors in the actual predictions will also affect all apps.

Which app should you use?

All four apps have their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to install more than one, and can use a text-based app when you know what bus you want and a map-based app when you don't.

Especially for experienced riders, NextBus by Cubic is hard to beat for usability. Its text-based interface is easy to read, quick to filter information for all operators, and offers more bus systems than the other apps. It also sometimes returned predictions when the others did not.

Riders who use multiple bus systems may also need more than one app. If you want to ride the DC Circulator, BusTrackDC or DC Next Bus won't help you. NextBus by Cubic has the greatest number of bus systems, but not ART and Ride On.

Have you tried these apps? Which one do you find most useful for your daily commuting needs?

Foxx has the makings of a great Transportation Secretary

President Obama yesterday nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next Secretary of Transportation. If Foxx's experience in Charlotte is any indication, he'll make a strong choice.

Charlotte streetcar construction. Photo by Reconnecting America.

During his nomination press conference, Foxx said "cities have had no better friend" than the US Department of Transportation under outgoing Secretary Ray LaHood, and that if confirmed he would hope to "uphold the standards" LaHood set. That's great news.

The fact that Foxx comes from a major central city is also a huge benefit. It means he understands urban needs, which aren't just highways.

Charlotte may not be New York, but it's made great strides in the right direction. The city's first rail line opened a few years ago, and a streetcar line is under construction now. Charlotte also gained bronze-level status as a bike friendly community in 2008, and launched bike sharing in 2012.

Foxx has been a strong advocate for urban rail, especially streetcars. He knows transportation and land use are tied at the hip, and has fought repeated attacks on Charlotte's streetcar by former Mayor and current North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

He's also worked as an attorney for bus manufacturer DesignLine.

Foxx also knows that state Departments of Transportation can sometimes be part of the problem. At the federal level, it's common for USDOT to delegate responsibilities and funding to state DOTs, under the assumption the states have a better understanding of local needs. But state DOTs aren't any more local than any huge centralized government. And since they usually focus on highways, the result is that federal dollars mostly go to highways as well.

Since Foxx fought with the state over Charlotte's streetcar, he knows that funneling everything through state DOTs means states hold the cards. He knows that can hurt cities.

Finally, Foxx hired Arlington, VA's former county manager, Ron Carlee, to run Charlotte's city government. Foxx would have heard about Arlington's reputation for progressive transportation planning during the hiring process, and presumably counted it in Carlee's favor.

Of course, no one can really predict what kind of Secretary Foxx will be. When progressive champion Ray LaHood was first tapped for the job, the blogosphere worried his history as a Republican from rural Illinois meant he'd be a status quo highway builder.

But we do know that Foxx has made a priority of building transit in his home city, and has had to fight to make it happen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Breakfast links: Opposition

Photo by afagen on Flickr.
Rs say no to Outer Beltway: 6 Virginia Republican legislators came out against Governor McDonnell's plan to build the Outer Beltway in Virginia. They say it's too costly and will worsen traffic on I-66, which is the higher priority. (Examiner)

WaWa drama: Herndon isn't the only critic of a planned WaWa at Old Ox and Oak Grove Roads. Loudoun's Department of Planning criticized the proposal in a memo, saying a stand-alone single use is not compatible with the plan for the area. (WBJ)

DC cabs: red with gray stripe: The new design for DC taxis will be red with gray stripes, says the DC Taxicab Commission; the detailed design is not yet available. It will take some years before all cabs have the uniform colors, and some taxi companies vow to fight to keep their own colors. (NBC, City Paper)

Landmark Mall forgets peds, bikes: An Alexandria Transportation Commission representative opposes the current redevelopment plans for Landmark Mall, saying it lacks safe pedestrian and bicycling access from surrounding areas. (Patch)

Less foolish primary date: DC might move its primary date (again), to June. The current April 1, 2014 date invited jokes, would force candidates to collect petitions during the holidays, and would create 8-month lame ducks. (NBC)

Who's running: Robert Bobb, City Administrator under Tony Williams, is considering a run for mayor. (Post) ... Doug Gansler, Maryland Attorney General and likely candidate for governor, criticized the recent transportation funding bill. (Post)

Harder to FOIA Virginia: The Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Virginia law which limits FOIA requests to only come from Virginia residents. Many media organizations argued to overturn the rule. (Ars Technica)

And...: Parts of 3 Smithsonian museums will close due to sequestration. (City Paper) ... A new Tumblr blog chronicles the worst Cleveland Park neighborhood complaints. (DCist) ... Walk the future M Street bike lane with WABA on Monday.

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Police vehicles may damage brand-new Union Station plaza

A project is almost complete to reconstruct the plaza in front of Union station. Unfortunately, Amtrak police continue to pull their cars up on the curb and park in the pedestrian areas.

Photo by the author.

The plaza was once a wasteland of traffic lanes and hadn't been properly maintained for years. The reconstruction project, which included Amtrak and multiple local and federal agencies, can make it an attractive and welcoming gateway to DC. The design treated all forms of traffic wellpedestrians, bicycles, cars, and bus.

Unfortunately, the police parking helped cause damage to the curbs and sidewalks before, and will do so again if this practice continues. It's highly unlikely that the sidewalks and curbs were reinforced strongly enough to withstand the pressure from mutli-ton vehicles.

It's easy to see a parallel with other examples of infrastructure in DC, like this story about Woodson High School, where we spend big bucks on nice new things, then fail to maintain them right after the construction is done.

Police presence and patrols are necessary in highly visible, active areas like a major train station. There has to be a better way and some better locations for police to leave their vehicles, though.

DC cyclists, report potholes for this year's Potholepalooza

Over the next month, DC plans to fill thousands of potholes around the District. Can they actually do it? I need your help to find out.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

To cyclists in the District, potholes aren't just minor annoyances, they're pervasive predators. As one who bikes to work and just about everywhere else, I've long complained about our city's pockmarked roads and the dangers they present to bikers.

That's why I was excited to learn about Washington's fifth annual Potholepalooza, an aggressive District Department of Transportation (DDOT) road repair initiative that encourages residents to report potholes. Between April 22 and May 22, DDOT will endeavor to fill all reported potholes within 48 hours, 24 hours faster than usual. DDOT claims to have filled over 21,000 potholes since the inaugural Potholepalooza in 2009.

I've decided to put the program's efficacy to the test. I kicked things off last week by reporting two particularly craterous potholes: a trash-filled chasm outside of the New Executive Office Building on 17th Street NW and a perilous pit in a crosswalk on Macomb Street NW near Connecticut Avenue and the Cleveland Park Library. I was thrilled to see both holes patched within two days.

However, it takes more than just a few filled potholes to make a palooza. Over the next four weeks, I will be biking all over DC to find and report as many potholes as possible. I will track all of the requests to see if and how quickly the potholes get filled, and how well.

I'm interested in measuring the overall responsiveness of Potholepalooza, but also whether certain areas of the city or certain types of streets receive preferential treatment. My hole-goal is to report at least 500 unique DC potholes by May 22. As of today I'm up to about 50, thanks in large part to Macomb between 34th and Connecticut.

I'm only one man on two wheels, so I'm asking for your help, Greater Greater Washington readers. If you see a pothole, report it to DDOT and see if it gets filled. Post the results in the comments, including the hole's location and how quickly and how well DDOT fills it. I will include your results in my survey and post a final assessment when Potholepalooza is over. I will also post a few periodic updates in the coming weeks.

You can report a pothole to DDOT via Twitter and Facebook, by emailing, by calling 311, or by using I've been using the latter because they provide a unique tracking number and send email updates for every request. You can also track the progress of a pothole using a special pothole GIS map.

I will only be reporting legitimate holes in city streets, not smaller ruts or grooves. I will also refrain from reporting any gashes that are a direct result of ongoing road construction.

Let's fill some holes!

Election results maps show persistent geographic divide

Keith Ivey has created an interactive map of DC's April 23 special election results. The maps seem to back up the notion that there are ongoing geographic and racial divisions in our politics, though except for east of the Anacostia (which is a big "except"), Elissa Silverman's appeal was far broader, geographically, than citywide candidates in other recent elections.

Vote share for Anita Bonds (left), Elissa Silverman (center), Patrick Mara (right).

Ivey also maps which candidate won the most votes in each precinct.

Left: Plurality votes on April 23, 2013. Bonds=cyan, Silverman=red, Mara=blue, Frumin=green. Right: Plurality votes on April 26, 2011. Orange=orange, Biddle=red, Mara=blue, Weaver=green. Images by Keith Ivey.

Ivey also notes that looking at the overall amount of ink for each candidate doesn't necessarily reflect reality. The peripheral areas where Bonds was strongest, for instance, are also less densely-populated areas of the city. He says,

The map can be misleading in the same way typical U.S. presidential election maps are, since the area of a precinct is not proportional to the number of voters there. A candidate who wins in densely populated, high-turnout areas will often look worse on the map than a candidate who wins in less dense or low-turnout areas.
One observation is that you can't really detect Rock Creek Park on the Silverman map. Rock Creek forms a bright line on the other maps, but not Silverman's. On the other hand, the Anacostia River is a bright line on everyone's map.

Breakfast links: Meet the new boss

Photo by yashmori on Flickr.
Foxx for DOT: President Obama will nominate Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the new Secretary of Transportation. In Charlotte, Foxx pushed for increased density and a streetcar line and supported bicycle programs. (BikePortland)

A gift to ethics: Virginia is one of the few states left that allow public officials to accept personal gifts of any value. But a company paying for Governor McDonnell's daughter's wedding might make the state reconsider its ethics laws. (Post)

Franklin School draws interest: The Franklin School is currently in rough shape and has significant preservation restrictions, but that hasn't stopped developer interest in the former school. (City Paper)

Will autonomy survive?: Now that DC voters have approved budget autonomy, will DC actually get it? It's unlikely to be killed during the Congressional review period, but it could get repealed later as part of other legislation or face a court challenge. (Post)

Concrete blame game: Who's to blame for the problems with the Silver Spring Transit Center? While the contractor obviously made mistakes, do Montgomery County or WMATA share some blame for lack of oversight? (Post)

Last stop for gas: The last gas stations on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda will soon close, reflecting a trend across the region and nation of stations disappearing in walkable, transit-oriented areas. (Post)

Transportation trends: More people in the area who didn't learn to ride a bike as a kid are doing so now as adults. Many credit Capital Bikeshare and seeing other cyclists as inspiring them to ride. More people are also riding the bus, pushing jurisdictions to add service and consider dedicated lanes. (Post)

Plant a tree: DC and the region has many more trees on the west side of the city than the east. But not all residents of tree-sparser neighborhoods are eager for green; some fear they would attract crime or drive gentrification. (Or both?) (Post)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Circulator will go to Mall, bus priority gets funding

The DC Circulator bus will add service to the National Mall by 2015, and Mayor Gray has added funding to the budget to improve bus service elsewhere in the city, Mayor Gray and Councilmember Mary Cheh just announced in a press release.

Photo by JLaw45 on Flickr.

The Circulator service would not be the same as the old loop around Constitution and Independence Avenues, which DC discontinued in 2011. That line ran without any cooperation from the National Park Service (NPS), which wouldn't even mention it on signs, claiming that their concession contract with the Tourmobile prohibited even telling people about other, cheaper forms of transportation.

When NPS terminated the Tourmobile contract and updated its concession agreements to be more flexible, officials began working with DC to prepare for Circulators that could offer transportation within NPS land and to and from adjacent neighborhoods.

Multiple sources have said that the District expects to get much of the operating funding for the Circulator from the National Park Service and/or Mall visitors. A Circulator on the Mall primarily benefits tourists, though with easy transportation to and from nearby neighborhoods, it could also help encourage tourists to spend some money at local shops and restaurants.

That funding might come from Circulator fares, parking meters on the Mall (where on-street spaces are now free and thus usually nearly impossible to get), or other sources. Specific details are not yet public and, based on the press release, may not be yet worked out between DC and NPS.

Circulator Phase 1 expansion. Image from the Circulator plan.

This is the diagram of proposed Circulator routes from a recent plan from DC Surface Transit, the public-private partnership that runs the Circulator. According to the press release, funds in the coming fiscal year will fund planning the actual routes, which might or might not be the same as some of these.

New fund supports bus priority around the city

In addition, Gray has added a $750,000 annual capital fund to support projects that improve bus service and reduce delays. This could presumably fund dedicated bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board fare payment or other projects that make buses a quicker and more appealing way to travel.

DC won a TIGER grant way back in 2010 to improve buses on several corridors, but 3 years later we've seen few if any changes. According to an email forward to me from DDOT, they are planning to use the money to optimize traffic signals downtown and install backup traffic signal power.

The TIGER money will also fund 120 real-time digital displays in some bus stops, "some minor bus stop improvements on 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Georgia Avenue," and "some bus stop safety features" on H Street and Benning Road, the email says. For a grant which was supposed to fund "shovel-ready" stimulus projects in the immediate term, though, it's taken quite a long time.

Finally, DDOT is working on a short bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place, a spot where buses get significantly stuck in traffic.

There is also an ongoing WMATA study looking at potential bus lanes on H and I Streets in the area north of and around the White House. This would be a more complex project, but it's important for DC to take some big steps that speed up buses significantly, in addition to small and easier steps like new signals.

Neighborhoods still benefit from performance parking

Another new fund creates a pool of money for neighborhood improvements in areas that adopt performance parking. The original performance parking law dedicated some of the extra money to neighborhood-specific projects, and around the ballpark, it has already funded new trash cans, benches, bike racks, and signs for a historic heritage trail.

Gray's budget eliminated the dedicated funding, but to make up for the loss, this new fund will let neighborhoods with performance parking still have some say in local fixes. This fund will have $589,000 for the rest of this current fiscal year and $750,000 a year in future years.

Finally spring in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Nationals Park. Photo by wolfkann.

Georgetown. Photo by Jason OX4.

V St. NW. Photo by ekelly80.

Ft. Washington, MD. Photo by The Skipping Hippy.

Barracks Row. Photo by caroline.angelo.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Support Us