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Posts from June 2011


Two stores pursue divergent futures for grocery shopping

Will grocery shopping in the future look the same as it does today? Two stores are pursuing very different visions of changing shopping, from a large multinational helping people buy with smartphones to a small store abolishing wasteful packaging.

International retail giant Tesco pioneered a system in Korea where they paste large, full-size posters of store shelves on the walls of subway stations. While waiting for a train, people can buy items using their smartphones.

This is a logical extension of online shopping we have today, such as Peapod, which works pretty well in DC. However, while we work to reduce wasteful disposable bag usage, services like Peapod generally deliver their items in very large numbers of plastic bags.

A new store in Austin, on the other hand, is going entirely packaging-free. People bring their own packaging, or can buy some at the store. While most stores sell produce without packaging and some offer bulk grains and nuts in bins, in.gredients will also sell items like beer and cleaning solvents in the same way.

Via Jonathan O'Connell and Consumerist.


Gentrification a matter of economics, not ethnicity

Is gentrification black and white? Or economic? Last week, at a meeting about the often ominous issue of gentrification, a panel of young black professionals rejected the common idea that gentrification means white people moving into black neighborhoods. Instead, they argued, gentrification is about economics and a product of market forces.

Photo by Hakimu Davidson.

The panel, "The Gentrification of Chocolate City: Reality vs. Perception", featured former director of DC's Department of Housing and Community Development Jalal "Jay" Greene, and GGW contributor and owner of Nspiregreen LLC, Veronica Davis.

In a brief presentation, Hakimu Davidson, of the Greater Washington Urban League's Thursday Network, defined gentrification as "a process by which middle-class people take up residence in a traditionally working-class area of a city, changing the character of the area."

Davidson listed advantages and disadvantages of gentrification. Advantages included an improved use of urban land, safer inner-city neighborhoods, higher tax revenues (to provide more funding for social safety net services such as rental assistance, energy assistance, emergency food assistance, and various other forms of assistance for the city's dependent population) and more business investment.

Among the disadvantages were a displacement of residents, a loss of community identity, and a shift of financial services (from high concentrations of social service expenditures to more recreational and cultural expenditures).

From a strictly economic definition of gentrification, statistics demonstrate that as an area's ethnic identity becomes "whiter," there is a corresponding increase in median household income thus indicating the process is gaining a foothold, according to the panel. This assertion makes logical sense, but, however factually accurate or inaccurate, operates under the dangerous and loaded axiom that people of color are poor and people not of color are wealthy.

This default position often forms the fault line and negotiating position from which conversations at community meetings deteriorate into us versus them sessions leaving people to feel more dejected than they did before attending.

Although the assembled group, almost entirely African-American with a majority female, acknowledged it is "dangerous to say that gentrification is not a race issue," the consensus held strongly that gentrification more closely correlates with economics.

"We over simplify the conversation by looking strictly at a race breakdown. We clamor to define it instead of discussing how to stop it. Each neighborhood has a different story. The issue happens at a micro level, each block by each block, instead of a macro, city-wide level," said Davis, a New Jersey native, who came to DC in the mid 1990's as a student and is a homeowner in the historically middle class neighborhood of Hillcrest in Ward 7.

"Race can't be completely dismissed from the conversation. We are only one generation removed from segregation. People born after 1975 are the first cohort that grew up in a desegregated world, for all intents and purposes, and without overt racism. So really we are first generation where everyone had access to higher education and thus we are starting with higher incomes than previous generations."

Davis cited the DC government's Homestead Program in the late 1990's as a public program that incentivized gentrification. The Homestead Program awarded foreclosed, abandoned, and dilapidated homes at nominal prices in order to move the properties off of the city docket. These homes, often purchased in the U Street and 14th Street NW corridor for less than a thousand dollars, were then fixed up for less than $100,000 and subsequently assessed at $300,000.

Would this have happened naturally? The panel agreed that it would have, but this program "moved the process along faster than what you would usually see organically."

Speakers referenced demographic shifts in the history of the city. Georgetown had a reputation as a slum in the 1920's, and Anacostia was nearly 80% white up until the 1950's. Given this, there was a consensus that change is natural as people come and go between and within neighborhoods. Davis noted that there is an emerging group of middle class African Americans that are "not choosing to buy or if they buy they are typically choosing the big house in Prince George's County."

Further discussion focused on the influence of HUD and HOPE VI projects, of which DC has the largest presence of any American city other than Chicago. "HOPE VI helps the lower income people stay, but it is the middle income people who get displaced. They make too much to qualify for housing programs but they don't make enough to afford the cost of living in the city," the panel said. "These formulas look at the Adjusted Median Income, not the cost of living. We are moving to extremes where we have a city of very high income earners and very low income earners."

One of the problems is a pervasive "fear undertone" that has branded "bike lanes, cupcakes, and dog parks as code for white people," said Davis who pointed to a social component of "a lot of day cares but no pre-schools" in certain neighborhoods that have a heightened fear, alertness, and sensitivity to a real or perceived encroachment of change.

Misinformation was credited with spreading and perpetuating the "fear undertone" according to Greene. "DC has caps on how much your property tax can be raised. There are exemptions for seniors. Nearly half of the multi-family housing stock is rent controlled. Working in Prince George's County, I can tell you Maryland's property taxes are higher than DC."

"It is a polarizing word. One of the main causes is public policy," said Greene. "From that standpoint it is called revitalization. What we try to do is re-concentrate areas of poverty with more mixed income neighborhoods through the investment of public dollars. Hopefully you have positive outcomes but you have negative outcomes at the same time."

The panel and audience agreed that "large pockets of poverty have not worked" and with a movement towards mixed-use development "we try to manage displacement." However, Greene said mixed incoming housing is not a panacea as it is hard to finance by bringing together two sets of investors accustomed to very different systems. "One is used to generous tax credits and one is used to return on investment."

While the conversation was honest and refreshing, it ended back to where it started, as "DC is creating jobs that many residents are increasingly unqualified for there is a supply and demand problem that is not going to go away."

Public Spaces

I wish this were... an active plaza in Ballston

Could an inviting urban plaza take the place of a fallow plot by the Ballston public garage?

Photo from Google Street View.

Giving inspiration to its former name, the old Parkington Shopping Center in Ballston once held claim to being the first shopping mall in the country to be built around a multilevel garage. The complex was redeveloped into the Ballston Common Mall in 1986. At that time, Arlington County built an adjacent replacement public garage but inexplicably sited it at an angle to Glebe Road.

Rooftop ice rink. Photo from Wikipedia/Robdrur.
In 2006, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex (a twin-rink practice facility for the Washington Capitals and community skating) opened on the roof of the garage, with access from a dedicated elevator adjacent to Glebe Road.

Because of the unusual angular siting of the garage, the smartly designed glass elevator shaft opens onto an unappealing grassy triangle with mud patches where the groundcover has died. Neither an urban pocket park nor an attractively landscaped buffer, this section of the Ballston Common block lays fallow in a rapidly developing neighborhood.

Comprising approximately a quarter-acre on its triangular parcel, the lot sits on the least active front of the Ballston Common Mall complex. While other façades of the mall hold patio restaurant seating, retail entrances, and display cases, this lot is fronted only by a brick-and-concrete garage.

General site plan of the Ballston Common shopping mall. Empty "park" in green. Parking garage with rooftop ice rink in red.

Presently, this face is blessed with less pedestrian traffic than its other fronts, though that is bound to change as the redevelopment game washes anew over the surrounding blocks.

Owned variously by Arlington County and Macy's, Inc. as tax-free open space, the small bit of land is ripe for something better. But what?

Likely too small for an active grassy space, perhaps it could be hardscaped into a Belgian-blocked plaza with a series of eight or ten tall specimen trees, benches, and a kiosk offering another lunch option, as well as giving a small food business a low-rent opportunity.

Plaza proposal by author.

If you have any other ideas for this space, leave your thoughts in the comments. Do you use this space as it is now and think it could be better served simply by re-sodding the grass? Or do any changes need to wait until the other properties along Glebe Road have been redeveloped to be successful?

I Wish This Were... is a series in which Greater Greater Washington contributors imagine a better use for vacant properties and poorly-conceived public spaces in the DC area.


Fix the Taxi Commission, or abolish it?

The DC Taxicab Commission has a problem dealing with reporters, but that's far from the only problem with the Commission. Does it need reform, or should it be abolished entirely?

Photo by dominiccampbell on Flickr.

Even before the current video imbroglio, there was widespread agreement that the Taxi Commission was broken. It simply skipped many meetings. It's supposed to set taxi policy, but Mayor Fenty took power away from the board.

Now, all of their decisions must go through a mayoral appointee who often simply doesn't implement their directives. That means a board is making decisions but lacks the power to carry them out.

The commission has 3 industry members, but currently they are representatives from hospitality industries, not from drivers directly. People differ on whether the taxi drivers should be directly represented, but at the moment they're in limbo, where they're supposed to have representation but don't.

Tommy Wells was already going to be tackling the Taxi Commission problems even before the recording incident. What should the Council do?

The more I watch DC government, the more I feel that these boards and commissions don't work. They have a significant role in setting policy, but the last two mayors, at least, haven't appointed people with an eye toward specific policy directions. Instead, they appoint people they know personally or big campaign donors.

Mayor Fenty, for instance, was widely considered more friendly to development interests than anti neighbors, and the actions of his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development certainly reflected such a bias, often to an extreme. But when making appointments to the Zoning Commission, a board with enormous influence over development (arguably more than DMPED), he didn't seem to consider this at all.

This divorces policy too far from our elected officials. The Council or Mayor can set a policy direction for the city and voters can either elect or replace them because of it. But when policy is being made by people picked just for arbitrary reasons, there's no link from the people to the policy.

Many commissions take a lot of time, but don't pay members, dramatically limiting the range of people who can serve. Often that limits the field to either people with a professional interest in the issue, or retirees.

Government seems to work better when decisions are either made by the legislature, or by political appointees directly reporting to an elected executive. The elected legislators or executives might not always be very good, but at least people can throw them out of office if they're doing a sufficiently bad job.

Perhaps instead of a Taxi Commission, the agency should report to the Mayor like most other agencies. In fact, 2 current DCTC members are also DDOT employees, Scott Kubly and Ralph Burns, from the division overseeing the Circulator, streetcars and Capital Bikeshare. If the Mayor wants administration officials setting taxi policy, they could simply set it directly.

Should it be subsumed into an existing agency? The Taxicab Commission serves two roles. It sets taxi policy, such as fares and whether to limit supply with medallions. And it handles licensing and inspections for drivers.

The former function would best belong at DDOT. That agency already is setting transportation policy and can consider big picture issues like how to encourage taxis to serve areas of high demand and/or areas without good transit options. On the other hand, the latter function is closest to the current work of the DMV or DCRA.

DCTC's responsibilities could be split, with DDOT setting policy and the DMV or DCRA handling licensing. However, having other split functions has created problems in the past. Traffic and parking tickets, for instance, are written by MPD or DPW and enforced by the DMV under regulations formulated by DDOT. That's often created many problems where DDOT might set a rule but nobody enforces it, or tickets get written but nobody goes after drivers to collect the money.

If DDOT gets the job, it could create a whole large licensing role that DDOT hasn't had to handle and might turn into a distraction. On the other hand, if all of the responsibility goes to DCRA, then they might not think creatively about policy. DCRA and the DMV is structured to grant and monitor permits, and could have an inherent orienation toward not changing much.

Or, DCTC could remain its own agency but without a commission, instead having all responsibilities handled by mayoral appointees subject to laws passed by Council. Finally, the commission could stay, perhaps with added power to carry out its own decisions.

What do you think would work best?


Breakfast links: More jobs

Photo by alisongreen2200 on Flickr.
Gray unveils more economic development details: Mayor Gray unveiled more details of his economic development plan, including rebuilding Ballou High School and reassessing city development projects. Gray also said the Skyland development could bring 1,000 temporary jobs and 1,600 permanent ones. (Post, WBJ)

Electronics maker to St. E's: Computer equipment maker MVM Technologies will move its HQ to St. Elizabeth's. It will employ 2,800 DC residents in three years. (WBJ)

Demolition by divine neglect: A church in the Mount Vernon Square area revised its previous plan to demolish 3 Civil War-era row houses for a parking lot. Instead they want to demolish all but the façades in order to pave the parking lot. (DCmud)

MetroAccess riders suing over possible TB exposure: A group of MetroAccess riders is suing Metro and a contractor that runs the service for possibly exposing riders to tuberculosis. Metro has filed a motion to dismiss the case. (Examiner)

In transit-rich neighborhood, but transit not so useful: The 14th and Yous sympathize with neighbor Tom Coumaris, who commented here that Metro isn't very useful for his needs. Buses don't serve them well either; one drives and the other bikes or walks.

Get searched to hear music, see sculptures: Getting into the Sculpture Garden for the weekly jazz is now more difficult, as several entrances are closed and guards are searching bags at the others to keep people from bringing in alcohol so they have to wait in interminable lines at the concession instead. (DCist)

Keeping Md. drivers & cyclists ignorant: Cyclists in Maryland are already allowed to take the full lane in most circumstances, but state officials are refusing to put up signs that remind bicyclists and motorists of the existing law. (WABA)

Arrest made in parade shooting: MPD arrested 19 year-old Terry Jimenez in connection with Saturday's Caribbean parade shooting that left one dead. (Post, City Desk)

And...: The GAO will release its Metro governance report Thursday (@davidbschultz) ... The Atlantic is launching in September; Sommer Mathis (Washingtonian, TBD, DCist) will be editor. (Min Online) ... Bethesda Magazine complains about how hard it is to park in garages but doesn't mention driving alternatives ... A new DC park will be sponsored by Planters and peanut-shaped. (City Paper)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


DDOT may cancel L and M Street cycle tracks

First announced more than a year ago, DDOT's plans for crosstown protected bike lanes on L and M streets NW are now on the brink of being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

Successful 15th Street cycle track. Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

At a confirmation hearing for DDOT Director nominee Terry Bellamy on Friday, Council committee chair Tommy Wells asked about the status of the L and M Street cycle tracks, which would run between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues. Bellamy replied, "Right now, it's on hold." Wells followed up by asking, "What does that mean? You may not do it?" Bellamy replied: "We may not."

Ask Bellamy, Mayor Gray, and other officials to keep moving forward on these projects through a petition from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

The plans are currently at 65 percent design, Bellamy explained. "We're bringing back the bike team for updates," Bellamy continued. "There was some concern over the amount of parking that was going to be removed."

However, it's not clear who exactly is concerned about the parking removal, or even how much parking might be removed, as DDOT's bicycle program has not released any plans for discussion since the conceptual designs were put on display in March 2010.

Although similar plans implemented along 15th Street NW garnered little opposition, Wells noted that parking changes can be difficult. "Politically, I know it's very hard," he told Bellamy. "Whenever there's one parking space removed, I hear about it."

When parking is removed, Wells said, "we need to know the impact on our businesses." The chairman, however, urged DDOT to prioritize the needs of District residents over those of suburban commuters. "Generally it's going to be a DC resident who needs that safe bike lane," he said.

Bellamy stated that "there were also some transit issues," though it's unclear what those issues might be since a very limited number of bus routes run on L and M streets. According to WMATA's map, there is no bus service on L Street east of 19th Street, and no service on M Street east of 18th Street.

DDOT had originally planned the cycle tracks for I and L Streets, but moved them to L and M streets after criticism that the plans ignored an existing study of bus priority along I Street.

GGW proposal for downtown mobility. Purple: Cycle tracks. Blue: Existing bike lanes. Red: K Street Transitway. Orange: Bus lanes that also allow bikes, or bus lanes as well as bike lanes.

The majority of the project area is located within the Golden Triangle BID and the Downtown DC BID. These organizations had been connecting property owners and businesses to DDOT's bike program staff as the lanes went through the design process.

Parking removal was not a major hang-up in these discussions, which included a wide range of issues, such as loading zones and intersection treatments. Over the past six months, these discussions have slowed as progress on the cycle tracks ground to a halt.

Looking ahead, Wells asked Bellamy: "How do you weigh whether you move forward or not?" Bellamy replied that the agency will do a benefit analysis, without providing specifics on what will be weighed.

In its response to Bellamy's statements, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association laid out some questions that should be considered as part of a benefit analysis. "How many parkers per day will be inconvenienced, compared to the projected cyclists served? ... When considering the benefits, as Director Bellamy states, will health and environmental benefits be included?" the advocacy group asked.

"Previously," WABA continued, "DDOT's stated rationale [for delay] had been a need to further study the impacts of the existing cycle tracks before continuing." If Bellamy continues to wait for this report, people who want to safely bike across downtown may be waiting a long time.

At a meeting earlier this month, DDOT staff said that an interim report evaluating the 15th Street cycle track and other new facilities will be available in November 2011 and the final report will be released in April 2012. That's more than a year after DDOT converted the lane to two-way operation, and more than two years after the initial contraflow lane was installed on 15th Street. That's a long time to wait for a bike lane, but that's okay—we've been waiting since 1979.

Both Capital Bikeshare and the downtown cycle track plan were announced as the two high-profile bicycling initiatives of Bellamy's predecessor, Gabe Klein. Capital Bikeshare has given the District a significant boost in bike-friendliness. Its popularity has led the red bikes to gain momentum under the Gray administration.

But bike sharing is only half of the equation. "The expectation for bicycle infrastructure is expanding," Wells noted at the hearing. Mayor Gray has stated that he wants the District to achieve platinum status as a "Bicycle Friendly Community."

In this context, Bellamy's equivocation on this central piece of bike infrastructure is an alarming signal. It comes as a surprise to some in the city's transportation community and flies in the face of DDOT's own long-term plans, since crosstown cycle tracks were first outlined in the agency's 2005 Bicycle Master Plan.

During his tenure, Klein hired Bellamy away from Arlington County to become DDOT's Director of Operations. Bellamy clearly holds the right priorities, and at the hearing he listed expanding bicycling, walking, and transit as top goals for his tenure.

Now that Bellamy no longer has "interim" attached to his title, he may have more freedom to champion cycle tracks, though his confirmation hearing comments did not give any indication that he is energized about pursuing serious bike infrastructure as a critical part of the District's transportation system.

Is there still a champion for these innovative projects within the agency? DDOT's bike program, like many other departments, has more on its to-do list than it has staff capacity. Before Klein was director, the agency's bike staff was working on other projects. Klein pushed the bike program to make downtown cycle tracks a priority.

Now that Klein and his interest in cycle tracks have moved to Chicago, it's not clear that the agency's bicycle staff has has the interest, capacity or ability to keep this project moving forward without the director making it an agency priority. As a result, DDOT's bike staff has been focusing on smaller, more traditional bike projects.

Is there a way forward for crosstown cycle tracks? Perhaps DDOT's Complete Streets policy, which was also a topic at Bellamy's confirmation hearing, should be, as Wells said, something other than just "an aspirational goal." A critical part of complete streets is making sure that staff are able to design roads for all users, so engineers consider bikes as well as cars and have tools at their disposal to include non-automobile users in a roadway's design.

Otherwise, it falls to the bicycle program to make sure that even the most basic bike lane designs, which have been accepted by state highway officials for years, are included in the agency's road projects. Instead of fighting within the agency for a simple bike lane, an effective Complete Streets policy would allow bicycle program staff to instead focus on more challenging, high-impact projects like cycle tracks.

The bottom line is that it's simply irresponsible of DDOT to encourage people to hop on bikes while neglecting to create safe places for them to ride. Crosstown cycle tracks will serve significant numbers of cyclists each day in a downtown environment where many do not feel safe on a bike today. They are too important to let DDOT roll back the clock on its commitment.

WABA is asking bicyclists and supporters of bike infrastructure to contact DC officials and ask them to move forward on these projects. Sign their petition to Bellamy, Mayor Gray, bicycle program head Jim Sebastian, and Wells now.

Public Spaces

Public art should be rooted in the community

New town centers or urban redevelopment projects are often derided as "sterile" or "soulless." In response, developers and local governments provide public art. While many such works have little relevance to the communities they're located in, some can honor and even create a local culture or identity.

Stained glass window tribute to Jayna Murray, Bethesda Avenue.

Montgomery County's planning department often requires developers to place public art in new projects, especially in urban areas like downtown Silver Spring and downtown Bethesda.

At North Bethesda Market, a complex of apartments and shops in White Flint, developer JBG Companies hired artist Jim Sanborn to create a sculpture he called Alluvium. Located in the middle of a plaza, the bronze cylinder is embossed with quotes from John Muir and Thomas Jefferson and set in a waterfall meant to represent the Chesapeake Bay.

Though the sculpture is named for the white quartz that White Flint gets its name from, it doesn't feel like a product of its place. Alluvium's narrative about the power of nature says nothing about the history or culture of White Flint as a community, nor does it provide an opportunity to create a new history or culture in White Flint.

Sculpture, North Bethesda Market
Alluvium sculpture in North Bethesda Market. Photo by the author.

Not only does it resemble the artist's other works, but Sanborn admitted that the piece was largely inspired by the geography of Montana. If anything, Alluvium is an expression of JBG's ability to lavish money on the public spaces in its developments, which is important if they want to draw tenants to apartments renting for nearly $5,000 a month.

Other urban centers in Montgomery County use public art to commemorate tragic events. In downtown Silver Spring, friends and family of fourteen-year-old resident Tai Lam created a memorial to him after he was murdered on a Ride-On bus.

The impromptu assemblage of photos, notes and flowers sat at the base of a streetlight on Ellsworth Drive for several months before the Peterson Companies, which manages the public street on behalf of the county, laid a brick with Tai Lam's name on the sidewalk, smaller, more permanent tribute to the teenager.

Tai Lam Brick
Tai Lam brick. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, in Bethesda, yoga-wear store Lululemon Athletica turned their storefront into a tribute to employee Jayna Murray, who was murdered by a coworker three months ago. In place of the store's name, the façade bears a stained-glass window with Lululemon's logo and the word "LOVE."

Stained glass window tribute to Jayna Murray, Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Neither Tai Lam's brick or Jayna Murray's window were commissioned by the Planning Department. Both of them were relatively cheap to make and didn't involve renowned artists. You could argue that neither of them were public art, as Tai Lam's brick is part of an existing sidewalk and Jayna Murray's window was paid for by a store to be used in that store.

Yet both pieces can be seen and interacted with by everyone who passes through the streets they're located on, making it a public intervention. And as tributes to members of the Silver Spring and Bethesda communities, both pieces are already more significant to that community than a commissioned artwork.

Meaningful public art doesn't have to come out of tragedy. Those who commission, pay for and create an artwork should look at the place where the piece will be located and find some reference to draw inspiration from within that community, whether it's a significant event, person, or cultural oddity. Grand statements are nice, but they don't make a unique place. Public art that can celebrate the little things is the way to create local character.


Ignorant editorial, thoughtful analysis juxtaposed in Post

Let's say you have some opinions about what Metro should do, but you actually know almost nothing about Metro's actual policies. You might talk to your friends about it or comment on blogs, but it's unlikely the Washington Post will put your ideas on its Sunday local opinion page.

Photo by extension 504 on Flickr.

Unless, that is, you work for the Reason Foundation. The Post published an op-ed from Reason's Sam Staley, who shows he knows little about Metro by suggesting a policy that's already in place today: peak-of-the-peak fares.

Nobody must have checked with the Post's own transportation writers, like Bob "Dr. Gridlock" Thomson, who know plenty about transportation. Thomson showed his thorough comprehension of the complex issues around transportation with a very thoughtful analysis of the 2030 Group transportation priorities report.

In his op-ed, Staley writes,

Metro must set fares based on consumer demand by applying market-based pricing. Metro is leaving tens of millions of dollars on the rails simply because its fares don't capture the full higher value that riders are willing to pay at premium travel times.
Staley apparently didn't bother to look up Metro's fare structure before writing the piece. Because it already includes almost exactly what he suggests.

Peak of the peak pricing was a part of last year's fare increase, adding a 20¢ surcharge for trips in the busiest 1½ hour in the morning and evening. It's proven fairly unpopular, but revolved around the very ideas Staley is promoting, that people are willing to pay more at peak times (or if they're not, can ride the system earlier or later).

The specific peak-of-the-peak fare could probably use some tweaking to work better. It doesn't really quite match demand, either in terms of time or geography, but it's a close approximation. Many riders, though, would rather just remove the policy entirely, arguing that it's too confusing.

Still, the general concept is a sound one. It does make sense for Metro to capture the value it provides to riders. It's already doing that to a greater extent than almost any other system: according to statistics published in April, Metrorail is recovering 81% of its operating costs just from fares alone. Even when mixing in the lower cost recovery bus system, WMATA has one of the highest farebox recovery ratios in North America.

If it's good policy to have transit make back most of its costs from its users, what about other modes of transportation, like roads? Everything Staley says about Metro makes equal sense for driving. It's busiest at one time of day, to the point of being too crowded. Just as pricing the busiest lines at the busiest times of day has some economic logic to it, so does pricing the busiest roads at their most crowded.

Staley also suggests a "value capture" mechanism for WMATA to keep some of the tax revenue that comes from greater development around Metro stations. That would let the economic growth that transit brings help pay for transit. Again, it's a sound idea, though Staley seems not to understand the dynamics of the DC region in his explanation. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at this in more detail.

There are a lot of people in the Washington region who have very thoughtful and thoroughly informed recommendations about Metro. There are many transit advocates like the Action Committee for Transit, Coalition for Smarter Growth, MetroRiders.Org, Sierra Club Sustainable Metro DC campaign, and many more. There are the people from the Board of Trade, whose opinions I sometimes strongly disagree with but who are never just ignorant.

There's also the transportation team at the Post, led by the very knowledgeable and always thoughtful Bob Thomson and recently made stronger with the addition of Dana Hedgpeth covering Metro. Coming down at the opposite end of the ignorance-knowledge spectrum is Thomson's article today about the terrible 2030 Group report. I was very nervous about what the Post would write about this story, since 2030 employs a high-powered PR firm which promoted the study far and wide.

A few recent Post traffic articles (by other reporters) have unquestioningly bought into whatever spin comes in a press release, like Ashley Halsey III's coverage of a Governors Highway Safety Association report on traffic fatalities which blamed pedestrians or the flawed TTI report that mis-measured traffic congestion.

Thomson, on the other hand, penned a paragon of what a traffic study analysis article should be. He looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the report, and not just by quoting one person in favor and one opposed, but by actually understanding the intricacies of the issue.

Thomson notes that the study looked at "what transportation programs are most needed to ease congestion, [but] this is not how governments and commuters think." Instead, congestion relief is one priority along with "the creation of new travel options, economic development and neighborhood revitalization."

He notes how it's tough to assign credibility to a study which relies on anonymous "experts" and ends up suggesting many of the same projects the authors already were promoting, but also argues that these problems "[don't] mean the ideas are bad or unworthy of discussion."

While giving most of the article's space to explaining specifically what the study advocates, he also cautions about drawing too many conclusions from "experts":

Still, there's a problem with asking transportation professionals for solutions, and it's the same type of problem that was defined by a psychology professor named Abraham Maslow: "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

In the case of the transportation engineers, designers and planners, their main solutions are expensive transportation projects. There are many serious obstacles to those solutions, and plenty of alternative ideas coming from outside the ranks of transportation professionals.

Thomson is far less skeptical of an Outer Beltway crossing of the Potomac than I'd like him to be. He writes, "Drivers stuck on the Dulles Toll Road before the Beltway each morning have said they would love to see a new bridge farther west on the Potomac River to draw off traffic."

But this illustrates exactly the problem with this proposal: these drivers he's citing don't actually want the crossing, they just want other people off the road to ease traffic. Building a new road doesn't actually relieve traffic, as even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges. So these commuters Thomson hears from might think they'd benefit from a new crossing, but they really won't.

Every reporter should read Thomson's story as an example of how to thoughtfully analyze, rather than regurgitate, a report that comes out from a group with an agenda and a well-funded PR operation. And every editor should look at Staley's piece as a cautionary tale to beware op-eds on local issues from national organizations with an agenda, a well-funded PR operation, and little actual knowledge of local circumstances.


Breakfast links: Teeming with Teeters

Image from Rust|Orling Architects.
Teeter to North Old Town: Alexandria approved a development for a Harris Teeter and 175 residences in northern Old Town. Some oppose the project because of traffic, but most trips should come from within 1 mile. (How about a CaBi station there for easy trips to Braddock Road?) (AlexandriaNews)

Yards getting retail: Another Harris Teeter will be a tenant at the Yards development in Near Southeast, along with a bunch of different restaurants. (WBJ)

Crossroads at a crossroads?: The Purple Line will bring changes to Takoma-Langley Crossroads, and some fear that change. George Leventhal says look at Glenmont, where little has changed; but Glenmont is not exactly a model to emulate. (Examiner, RPUS)

One way to get a road project done: The road to a small town in Colombia is in very bad shape, so women in the town are withholding sex until it gets fixed. (Jezebel)

Policies impact pregnant, breastfeeding first responders: The police union is concerned that MPD is forcing breastfeeding officers to work the street. Some officers want the option to work desk jobs while breastfeeding. (Examiner) And recent fire department changes have limited part-time duty options for pregnant firefighters. (Post)

12 arrested for voting rights: 400 attended a rally for voting rights Saturday and 12 got arrested including Markus Batchelor, pregnant Reverend Amanda Poppei and Tracy Loh, who testified at the bike hearing. Will getting arrested have an impact? (DCist)

What a creative name: In 2007, there was a contest to name a footbridge in the Southwest Waterfront. The winner: "Southwest Waterfront Footbridge." (Jake Sticka)

2 competing reauthorizations coming: As the federal transportation trust fund gets farther into the red, two separate transportation reauthorization bills will come out soon: one from 4 senators in both parties, and the other from the House. (Streetsblog)

And...: An engine defect means 351 new hybrid buses need repair. (Examiner) ... Once, the Old Post Office was a new post office. (DC Metrocentric) ... Want to be on the Alexandria Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee? (JTDP)

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Weekend links: Closed to the public

Photo by Steve Crane on Flickr.
Anything ANC 5A says is meaningless: ANC 5A has been regularly violating rules for open meetings by taking many votes in secret meetings. DC agencies may start disregarding the ANC's positions. (Brookland Heartbeat)

Taxi Commission not talking: DC will not pursue charges against the journalists arrested at the Taxi Commission. Mark Segraves tried to go ask them about the incident, and instead of talking to him, they locked the door and turned out the lights. (WTOP)

Park Police also harassing pedicabs: A pedicab operator says the Park Police assaulted her and refused her request to be searched by a female officer. They charged her with "assaulting a police officer" instead. (Transportation Nation)

WMATA needs more officers?: DC and WMATA police chiefs testified that WMATA needs more cops to combat ordinary crimes; too bad the feds give grants to combat highly unlikely terrorism threats instead. Sarles also said the system needs its $150 million annual money for repairs. (Post)

New York gets marriage equality: More than a year and a half after DC did it, the New York state legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. The law takes effect in 30 days. (NYT)

NY creating transit "lockbox": The state legislature moved to secure NYC's subway and commuter rail trust fund from being raided by the state. The state has diverted $260 million from MTA to other purposes over the past 2 years alone. (Streetsblog)

Culture trumps economics: Polling shows that the unique social, cultural, and artistic features are the most powerful forces that make residents attached to their neighborhoods. In fact these are more powerful than economic factors. (MetroTrends)

Don't believe everything you read: A Toronto street study claimed there was no room for bike lanes and wider sidewalks on a road, and that only 2% of the traffic was bikes. A resident proved both wrong, the first with a tape measure, the second with a team of volunteer traffic counters. (Mez Dispenser, azhers)

And...: Bolivia's leftist president wants to legalize stolen cars because, "We all have a right to have a car." (MercoPress, Garrett B.) ... A NYC-based group is trying to design a pool that would float in the river and automatically purify river water to fill the pool. (Kickstarter) ... China is cloning an Austrian village. (Providence Journal)

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