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Posts from September 2009


Arlington plans performance parking pilot, other progressive parking policies

Arlington is ready to put a lot of Dr. Shoup's ideas from The High Cost of Free Parking, and other progressive urban ideas, into the County's parking policy.

Photo by nahh.

At the September 26 meeting of the County Board, Arlington officially proposed major changes to its parking and curbspace policies by advertising a new Parking and Curb Space Element (PDF) for the Master Transportation Plan. There's just one more round of public comment before and official Board consideration, scheduled for November 14.

The policy sets a priority hierarchy for curb space. Safety is first: there will be no-parking zones for visibilty and fire access, and curb ramps for pedestrian safety. Other uses are public vehicles like bus service, dedicated or temporary use like taxi stands and car sharing, Short term parking, and long term parking. The relative priority of those uses differs among high, medium, and low-density corridors.

Arlington proposes to vary parking meter hours of operation and prices based on observed parking demand. The policy establishes an 85% target occupancy rate in areas of high demand, as Dr. Shoup has recommend. It extends the hours of meters or adds them where there is demand in excess of supply, and proposes a pilot project to test the effectiveness of variable pricing. This is the biggest change for Arlington and represents a significant step forward toward the parking policies recommended on Greater Greater Washington.

It would be better if the policy stated that some of the parking meter revenue would be earmarked to support improvements in the neighborhoods that have variable meter pricing, in order to get support for the policy, but it's possible to do that even if it's not in the Master Transportation Plan.

Another piece of the proposal, also recommended in Shoup's book, is to "unbundle" parking. Housing and offices will be encouraged to offer parking separately from the rent or condo fee. That allows workers or residents to choose between paying for a parking space, or letting someone else rent it. This reduces the demand for parking spaces and for trips taken by car. We strongly support giving people a choice to pay for parking rather than getting it included automatically.

For some districts like Columbia Pike, Arlington is proposing "in-lieu fees." These fees allow a developer to build less than the required amount of parking if they contribute to a public parking fund. Arlington will use this fund to partner with local private garages and ensure that private garages are available to the public. Arlington should ensure that these fees are related to the costs of building additional parking spaces, so that developers face a real choice. Very expensive spaces should not be built (because it's unlikely people will pay enough to use them), but this fee should not allow developers to pay very little to get out of such a requirement.

For off-street parking, although Arlington will continue to have "free or subsidized parking" around retail businesses, there won't be an effort to entirely satisfy that demand, shifting resources "to more efficient and beneficial public amenities". The county is going to take into account available transit, transportation demand management (TDM) strategies and other factors in reducing required parking.

The county will continue to require "by-right" buildings to include the minimum parking spaces required by the Zoning Ordinance. However, based on site conditions, the County may allow reductions below this minimum. Any developer building more than the minimum site needs may be allowed to donate excess parking to other nearby sites to count toward their requirement.

The draft element promotes on-street parking in residential neighborhoods and commercial streets as a traffic calming measure. For single-family homes, residents should be able to park "within a block" of their home, and high-rise apartments should expect guests and service vehicles to have to park "a few blocks away" at peak times.

The resident parking permit program, the first in the nation, will continue much as it exists today. One change recommends implementing a process where residents can have their zone reviewed to reduce its size and eliminate cross-commuting.

Arlington is proposing an official policy discouraging off-street surface parking. "Nowhere in the County should pedestrians have to walk through a parking in order to access a structure," it reads. Parking lots should be underground, structured, or at worst, screened behind or to the side of a building. Buildings, not parking lots, should face the arterial streets.

There's a lot in this plan to like. Arlington's policies are slowly moving away from the old-style "minimum requirements and low-priced curb parking" used in most of the US, and toward parking policies that reflect demand, the cost of supplying parking, and available alternatives. It doesn't eliminate parking minimums or time limits or attempt to push retail parking prices up to the cost of comparable off-street parking, but this is the policy that can pass politically. Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the most important policy (getting on-street pricing correct) is in the draft element.

The Arlington County Board wants to hear your comments. Comments should go to Ritch Viola at


Innovation resistance at Metro, part 3: Missing the forest for the trees

Unlike many other transit agencies, Metro has resisted encouraging third party applications that help riders, partly because they perceive technology from a top-down point of view, and from unrealistic expectations because Google is big and rich. But this obsession with control and getting revenue is causing Metro staff to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Photo by pfala.

Greater Greater Father-In-Law told me a story about his days consulting for health care companies. One large nonprofit hospital with a budget around a billion dollars a year decided to make some forays into establishing a for-profit arm. They created a pharmacy where patients could buy medicines and supplies. This pharmacy did pretty well, and started turning a profit. Executives spent a very large percentage of their time reviewing the performance and exploring ways to improve it.

However, the pharmacy only netted about $60,000 a year. That was less than the cost of one employee. Yet this project was eating up much more of the executives' time than monitoring the operations of the actual hospital. If they could have found a way to serve the same patients with even one fewer staff member, they would have netted as much money for the hospital as the entire pharmacy project. That doesn't mean that it was a bad project, but context is more important.

There's nothing wrong with Metro looking into the possibility of getting some money. But they want to spend $500,000 to investigate this. And we have some strong evidence that $0 is the most they'll get. Even if that's not true, there's no way it's anywhere near $500,000. If Google had offered, say, $50,000 a year for 10 years, would Metro have jumped with joy? But they could make that much just by not spending $500,000 in the first place.

The biggest danger is that once they've sunk $500,000 into this, it'll be all the more difficult to then agree to release the data gratis. Right now, the debate is about doing something that costs Metro nothing, and getting a benefit to riders. After $500,000 goes down the drain, it'll psychologically shift the debate into one about whether it's right to do something that doesn't recoup the investment, despite the benefit to riders.

At last week's Board meeting, Metro's Sarah Wilson repeated another one of staff's arguments against this project: that it might cut into the money Metro gets from ads on But Metro only gets $70,000 a year from ad revenue on the site, out of a total budget of about $1.5 billion. That's four-thousandths of a percent of the budget, and probably less than Sarah Wilson makes.

Sure, every little bit helps, but if the $70,000 in ad revenue is such a concern, why is $500,000 acceptable for a contract just to find out about the possibility of making money? There's no way that working with Google Transit is going to reduce all of that revenue. Let's say it reduces it by $10,000 a year. Just to recoup the $500,000 would take 50 years.

Zimmerman also noted that better and more accessible trip planners could bring in more riders at off-peak times. Many buses and most trains are full at rush hour, but the commuters don't need a site to tell them how to get to work. The people who would use it are tourists visiting the area, and people riding to unfamiliar locations. A lot of that is off-peak. And every rider who takes up an empty seat on a bus is pure profit for Metro.

Anyway, Metro's real business is transportation. The ad revenue is a nice sideshow, but it shouldn't trump convenience to riders. Wilson was arguing that Metro should not help riders in order to force them to use the Web site against their will, all to protect this tiny sliver of revenue. Why not charge for the trip planner entirely? Should Metro promulgate a new policy that every train will pause for 15 seconds after it reaches a station and before the door opens, in order to force riders to look at the ads on the walls? What's the difference?

Of course, the difference is that the ad revenue is a line item on the IT department's balance sheet. If Metro gets more money in bus fares from riders who use the system because of Google Transit, they get no credit. But if ad revenue goes down, even a tiny bit, that might hit their budget and deprive them of the opportunity to hire more staff. It's a common attitude in bureaucracies and large companies alike.

The IT department clearly isn't going to see the big picture. It's the General Manager's job to do so, or if he can't, the Board of Directors. One of them has to stand up and say that it's more important to help riders and try to increase ridership on services with extra capacity than to zealously guard a tiny bit of ad revenue on and obsess over a departmental P&L.

Next: Why Metro IT might be moving so slowly.


CPCA election delay brings "Unity." Will it also bring unity to Cleveland Park?

The "Unity Team," a group of candidates for Cleveland Park Citizens' Association offices nominated by the previous leaders, has won election over the "Reform Slate" of challengers.

The victorious Unity Team.

Numerous residents including Jeff Davis, organizer of the group Advocates for Wisconsin Avenue Renewal (AWARE), criticized the previous CPCA leadership for a lack of transparency. For example, CPCA did not communicate with members via email or run a listserv; when Gabe Fineman, one of the challengers, started one, CPCA leaders tried to get it shut down. Without email communication, most CPCA members never knew the topics of meetings, leading to very sparsely attended votes such as the one to oppose the Giant PUD, attended by only 32 members.

Davis decided to run for President of CPCA, and recruited a slate of candidates who advocate for greater openness and transparency. In May, faced with an influx of new members, especically many from AWARE, CPCA President George Idelson and his executive board postponed its election to "bring the neighborhood together." They subsequently selected September 29th for the rescheduled election, and Davis's slate ran again under the Reform Slate moniker.

At the beginning of September, John Chelen announced his candidacy for President as head of a new "Unity Team." Chelen said his group of candidates represents "different philosophies and life experiences, different points of view ... to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood." Chelen echoed many of the themes from Davis's Reform Slate, including encouraging greater participation in CPCA and use of electronic media.

Chelen's Unity Team played down any affiliation with Idelson and the "old guard," but evidence slipped out to the contrary. For example, in mid-September CPCA sent two pieces of mail to all members, one from the Reform Slate and one from the Unity Team. A few days after Reform delivered their envelopes and labels, Reform candidate Fineman asked outgoing CPCA Corresponding Secretary Jean Van der Tak about the status. According to Fineman, Van der Tak said, "1,000 pieces went out—your envelopes and ours, err, those of John Chelen."

Reform supporters also alleged that Unity candidates were using the CPCA membership rolls to campaign. Earlier in the year, Fineman asked for a copy of the membership roster, arguing that DC law requires them to provide it. CPCA leaders evenutally let him peruse a printed copy under supervision, but without the ability to take any notes. However, several sources on the Reform side claim that Unity candidates went door to door to make their case to CPCA members and get out the vote, apparently using the membership lists.

The Unity team also simply played the politics better. Chelen maintained an inclusive, open-minded tone throughout the campaign. Some Reform candidates, on the other hand, often wrote frustrated messages during arguments on the Cleveland Park list. They might have been right or had legitimate gripes, but an angry tone can turn off voters, even those already leaning the candidate's way.

Unity was against this, but less clear on what they're for.
Likewise, Unity downplayed policy positions on controversial issues, such as their position on the Giant, the commercial overlay, or speed bumps. After one candidate, Ruth Caplan, replied to a message about speed bumps, fellow slate member Ann Hamilton accidentally replied to all, "Dammit! I thought we agreed (well, were correctly instructed) not to respond!" Hamilton also one of the residents appealing the Giant decision, and an election video for the Unity Team includes a picture of really a ugly 1950s grade-separated concept street with a giant X through it, but the group avoided explaining exactly where they stand on the Giant or other development projects that don't look like concrete pillboxes.

Chelen defended his group's lack of a clear position on major issues, writing,

I don't think it's a platitude to say we'll discuss both sides of the issue. We've treated all postings with respect, even those that have been downright nasty. We're ready to discuss the complex economic and cultural effects of any proposal, and openly lay out the pros and cons of the alternatives reflecting many points of view. ... I asked people to come forward who were interested and had something substantive to offer; I didn't simply ask people what their opinion was on Giant. Yes, we have one person who has been involved in the Giant debate, and we also have six people who were never involved at all. Our team provides a system of checks and balances.
Last night, all Unity Team candidates won. In the closest race, for President, Chelen bested Davis by 45 votes out of 472 cast. Chelen will now have the opportunity to prove that he was sincere in his desire to "bring the neighborhood together" not by ensuring that everyone agrees with the positions that neighborhood leaders have taken in the past, but that CPCA becomes a truly inclusive forum for discussion. Whether he was recruited by the old guard or received their assistance, he is new to CPCA, and can chart an independent course.

Chelen could start by plugging the loopholes in the bylaws that allowed the Executive Board to postpone an election. Doing it once was unconscionable; to allow the possibility of a repeat performance amounts to a tacit endorsement of the practice. He should also establish a policy giving all candidates equal access to membership lists, whether those candidates have the support of existing officers or not. Either everyone should have the list, or nobody should. Likewise, the Federation of Citizens' Associations, of which CPCA is part, should develop a policy against such practices.

Citizens' associations have been in decline for years, and this experience bolsters the case for their obsolescence. That's too bad, since it's valuable to have strong resident and neighborhood voices in policy debates. However, citizens' associations often claim to speak for all residents, and antics like CPCA's election postponement make it clear that they don't. There was another debate on the Tenleytown listserv about the Tenleytown Neighbors Association, another Federation member, which has no Web presence and no evident way for residents to join.

The Federation ought to be concerned about the brand image of its member organizations. If it could ensure a basic level of democratic representation, openness about membership, communication to members, and access to information for electioneering, that could maintain some legitimacy. In the meantime, the DC government and ANCs should treat citizens' associations as no different than any other non-representative association of a handful of residents. They shouldn't get seats on ANC committees, as some do, or an automatic role in any advisory groups like the Zoning Update Task Force.

As the most publicly-derided "banana republic" citizens' association, CPCA can lead the way toward a truly inclusive model for an association, or set a clear tone in furtherance of the status quo where a few entrenched activists manipulate the puppet strings to generate the desried outcomes. I wish Chelen well in his efforts to bring about the change he promised in the campaign.


Innovation resistance at Metro, part 2: The Google bugaboo

Yesterday, I discussed the way the burdens from a "top-down" approach hinders innovation far more than any potential benefits to Metro.

Photo by the author.

That addresses the first of the two major issues, releasing data to developers. Metro did release its schedule data, but under a restrictive license, and when asked about doing the same for bus position data, Board member Gordon Linton expressed skepticism, largely out of fears that people are out there "lining their pockets." He, and Metro staff, often seem to be thinking about Google when they say this.

After all, Google has a lot of money, right? If Metro's going to do something, shouldn't they get a piece of that?

It'd be great for Metro to get some money if they could. I fully support Metro getting as much revenue as it can, from Google or any other company. (See the disclaimer about my previous relationship with Google at the bottom of this post.)

However, the important question is not how rich the company is that Metro is dealing with, but what the actual market value is of the resource being negotiated. Alstom, which manufactured the most recent railcars, is an enormous company as well. When they manufacture cars, they make a lot of profit. Is that unfair? Maybe they should be paying Metro for the right to make some cars, instead of the other way around?

Metro pays Alstom because railcars have a value determined by the market. There's also a market price for transit data: zero. As Michael has pointed out in the past, every other major U.S. transit agency, and numerous others around the country and the world, have all given the data away for free. They believed that free was a reasonable price.

Gordon Linton noted in his rebuttal to my testimony that these others haven't asked for revenue. That may be true, and IP considerations aside, it's okay for Metro to ask. They could also ask Alstom to give them rail cars for free. But in both cases, that's not going to happen. So far, there's been no deal after years of delay. Whatever Metro is asking for, they apparently aren't going to get it. And if Google paid Metro, then everyone else would start asking for money, too. Quite simply, it's clearly better for Google not to work with WMATA than to change the existing, settled market price for transit data.

It's also important to keep in mind that Google is probably not making any money off this service. Linton, Metro staff, and others seem to assume that this must have a value because a big, rich company is asking for it. That fundamentally misunderstands the way Google is structured.

Google acts much more like a startup than a big company in many ways. The typical company will only release a product if it's worth a considerable amount of money. After all, any product requires development resources, marketing time, and more. There's a roadmap, and everyone works on the top priorities on that roadmap. If you launch a product, you better be willing to invest millions to market it to make it successful, otherwise it's not worth it. Google, however, tries very hard to maintain a startup culture where people can just whip out projects because they feel like it.

In an industry like shampoo, where there are manufacturing costs and huge marketing costs, that's how businesses work. In technology, it doesn't need to be that way because it's pretty easy to make a halfway decent Web site. And Google has worked hard to maintain some of that nimbleness. If an engineer, or a group of engineers, wants to build something, like adding transit directions to Google Maps, they can go ahead and do it.

There's still a coordination cost, as a product manager has to get executive buy-in, the user interface has to be immaculate, and lawyers have to sign off if copyright could be even remotely involved, but you can launch a side product at Google with only about 10 people involved. This is why Google often gets mocked for having so many "beta" products, many of which don't go much of anywhere.

It's easier to think of Google as one extremely profitable business plus a very large number of very small, completely unprofitable technology startups that are all funded by one VC firm or philanthropic foundation. The profitable business is search and content advertising. Google makes just about all its money from the ads on search and the content ads on millions of other Web pages. Then it's got a lot of other stuff, most of which just loses money. At least when I was there, Gmail, for example, cost way more in capital costs (all the computers that store all of your email) than it made in ad revenue. It's valuable strategically, but a big money-loser. The same applied to Maps. YouTube was a ginormous money sink. And so on.

I don't know if Google is making any money off ads on Google Transit, but either way it's a rounding error. Maybe the ads make enough to cover the engineering and legal time, plus the computing resources. Probably not. They can't be making much. This product started because some engineers were disappointed that Google Maps let you find out how to drive and not how to take the train. The company is supporting this product because people like it inside and outside the company, not because it is a major strategic focus or even a minor one.

It is, however, valuable to riders. Even if the trip planner were perfect, which it's not, many people are already looking up businesses on Google Maps and would find it much easier to get directions with one click. Many people are using iPhones or Android phones and want transit directions on their existing map application. Others don't know about the Metro trip planner.

Metro staff, and Linton, are so obsessed with the imagined revenue that they won't get. Meanwhile, they're missing the bigger issues that affect riders. Next, we'll put this whole issue in perspective.

Disclosure statement: I worked for Google from 2001 to 2007. I did not work on Google Maps or Transit. I am not coordinating with them on this series. I do still own some Google stock, but am selling it in fixed increments each month without regard to its performance. I don't believe that Google Transit influences the price of the stock by even a penny.


Breakfast links: Cutting back and cutting through

Photo by azza-bazoo.
Cherry blossoms without Circulation: DC might not be cutting the Wisconsin Ave Circulator, but they're still cutting the Mall loop completely for six months. Unfortunately, they forgot to check the Cherry Blossom Festival schedule: its first week overlaps with the closure. DDOT officials may look into getting the line back a week early. Now if only NPS could tell Park visitors about the line. (Examiner)

More park, less cut-through in SF: San Francisco is exploring ways to reduce traffic in the Presidio. 60% of traffic on Presidio Boulevard is cut-through, and they want drivers to take the main approach highways to the Golden Gate Bridge over cutting through the park roads themselves. Wouldn't it be nice if the Park Service ever suggested some programs like these? (Streetsblog San Francisco, Mike)

Dulles taxis unpopular: Dulles' taxis were one of the major items of dissatisfaction in a recent MWAA survey. The article doesn't specify the exact percentage that mentioned taxis or link to the survey, but 20% of people passengers generally reported unhappiness with the ground transportation and many noted taxis as a problem. Meanwhile, 95% of people were satisfied with taxis at National. One big difference between the two is the Washington Flyer monopoly, which Steve Offutt has suggested abolishing. (Examiner)

A tale of two Safeways: Safeway wasn't interested in a mixed-use structure in Tenleytown, partly or wholly because of the danger of neighbor resistance to anything over one story. But in Wheaton, they're proposing a 14-story building, with 310 apartments over a new store similar to the one in City Vista. Many are enthusiastic, but some residents worry about the height and—you guessed it—parking. (Gazette)

Parking far more subsidized: Six times as much federal money goes into the commuter parking benefit than the transit benefit. Until this year, people could also deduct about twice as much for parking as for transit. (Streetsblog Capitol Hill)

San Jose rail light but not rapid: San Jose has one of the nation's longest light rail systems, but it's really slow and only lightly ridden compared to similar systems. Officials at the local VTA are looking into ways to speed up the system, including changing some single tracks to double track, running express trains, an overpass above a congested intersection, and running spur lines all the way to downtown instead of requiring transfers. (San Jose Mercury News, Mike)

Everybody wants the TIGER: State and local governments applied for $57 billion in grants in the TIGER program, which can distribute $1.5 billion. USDOT will be picking the winners between now and February. Transit grant applications totaled about $17 billion, compared to $32 billion in highway requests. (TheWashCycle)

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Then and Now: Monroe School auditorium

Monroe School, Mrs. Pearson 1940-1950?Bruce Monroe, auditorium

The auditorium of the old Monroe School ca. 1950 (left) and today (right). The Monroe School was built ca. 1899 and located west of, and on the same property as, the current Bruce-Monroe School. Reflecting Washington's segregated history, the Monroe School was built as a White school. It was changed to a Black school in the mid-1940s and ultimately was desegregated with the rest of the city's schools.

The school was used through the spring of 1973. Starting in the fall of 1973, the Bruce and Monroe Schools were closed and children started attending the new Bruce-Monroe School. Today, that school is in the process of being razed.

Remarkably, the auditorium from the original school still remains.

The historic image is from the Smithsonian Institution's Scurlock Studio collection in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History. More images below.

Bruce Monroe, auditorium

Bruce Monroe Demolition

Bruce-Monroe opening 1973


Innovation resistance at Metro, part 1: The value of "bottom-up"

Yesterday, you saw the exchanges between Metro Directors Chris Zimmerman of Arlington and Gordon Linton of Maryland on open APIs and Google Transit. Linton wants to lock down all licensing issues before allowing new applications that use the bus position data (as NextBus does) or schedule data (like Google Transit), while Zimmerman advocated for "seeding" innovation and worrying about revenue later.

Photo by Mike Schmid.

To recap, there are two issues here. First, should Metro release its data generally to developers? They've released schedule data but under an unnecessarily restrictive license, and haven't released the bus position data at all. Second, should Metro try harder to work out a deal with Google to include Washington area transit directions in Google Maps, as every other large U.S. transit agency has done?

The Zimmerman-Linton exchange very clearly illustrates the dichotomy between the "open-source" philosophy and one of centralized control, or a "bottom-up" verus "top-down" attitude toward innovation. Writer and computer scientist Tim Lee discusses this issue frequently on his blog, Bottom-up. He explains, "The last couple of decades have brought us the dominance of the open Internet, the increasing success of free software," largely in Silicon Valley, "a place with extremely low barriers to entry, a culture of liberal information sharing, and a respect for the power of individual entrepreneurs." Because anyone can just make a Web site, write software for Windows, or sell a neat electronic gizmo (unless you want to connect it to a mobile phone network), we've had enormous innovation in these areas. It's precisely the absence of a gatekeeper who approves everything ahead of time that has enabled innovation to flourish.

Bottom-up thinking upset the established order when it hit the software industry in the form of open source software, and it's even more revolutionary in an agency like Metro, which tends to approach issues from a top-down point of view. Need some new railcars? Bid out a contract. Want to create an online system to track bus locations? Bid out a contract. For railcar procurement, there's nothing wrong with this strategy. But for consumer information technology, where you don't need only one type of railcar, this approach fails to stimulate innovation.

Opening up data allows both large companies and small "garage" developers to build applications. The policies of an organization affect both, but the economic forces affecting these are very different. If a larger company is going to work with Metro, they'll probably only do it if there's some money in it, which means they're willing to spend some lawyer time upfront to negotiate a good contract. Transaction costs aren't good, but they won't necessarily derail the project entirely.

A garage developer, on the other hand, is probably doing the project in his spare time, for fun. Even if there's the possibility of making some money, such as selling the app for $5 a pop in the iPhone app store, it's not going to be a major source of profit. Most likely, those fees won't even come close to compensating the author for his or her time. If he'd put the same amount of time into working for a tech company, he'd make way more. He might even have made more working at McDonald's than spending the equivalent amount of time on the application.

This is one fallacy in Gordon Linton's admonishment that someone out there might be "lining their pockets." Perhaps sometimes that's the case, but most of the time they're lining those pockets with enough to buy a nice lunch.

Because the money is a secondary consideration at best, the transaction cost is a huge deterrent. If the developer has to even spend one afternoon negotiating with Metro, it's a big burden. To Metro, it's no big deal to put weeks into carefully assembling a deal. To the developer, the thing could have been done already. Therefore, most people won't even bother. There are plenty of neat ideas out there that could make a good app. Why build the one that forces you to waste a lot of time not programming when you can just start coding on something else? Programmers want to be programming, not negotiating with bureaucracy.

That's why the best policy for Metro is to make it very painless to participate. The Boston MBTA, Chicago CTA, Portland TriMet and others have created developer resources pages to help developers get started. Agencies need to keep well-meaning lawyers who don't understand the real costs of their involvement away from this. The best way to do that is to create a standard license agreement anyone can sign on to, one that doesn't demand payment, indemnification, or any other cost present or future.

There's a large benefit to riders of having these apps, and a very small potential revenue source. Trying to grab the revenue just kills the projects (and wipes out the revenue as well). Linton worried about people making money off bus position data. But right now, as Zimmerman noted, nobody is building any apps, period, and nobody is making any money anyway. Nobody wins that way.

Next: But what about Google and their billions of dollars?


The Price of Safety

Following the June 22 crash on Metro's Red Line, numerous questions have arisen regarding safety on Metro. Most of these questions focused on the immediate cause of the crash that killed 9 and left scores injured. At this point, the National Transportation Safety Board has still not completed their investigation, so much of the information available is, at best, informed speculation.

Photo by Dsade.

What is not simply speculation, however, is the history of Metro's safety challenges and their efforts to address them. In the more than ninety days that have passed since the June 22 crash, much has come to light regarding Metro's past and present safety record. Some instances have been well-publicized, such as Metro's action and lack of action on NTSB recommendations. Other examples have received less attention, such as safety concerns following a series of derailments in 2003-2004. In some cases, problems have persisted for much of Metro's 33-year history.

Some of these problems stem from Metro's chronically underfunded state. Others do not. Metro has to carefully balance safety against other priorities. Sometimes they have been successful, sometimes not. Some of these issues are ingrained in the organization's culture.

The goal of this series, The Price of Safety, is shine a light on Metro's safety record and attempt to identify ways that Metro can improve safety given limited resources. By identifying current and historical shortcomings, it is possible to lay out a roadmap for reform. This is not a series about the June 22 crash, but rather a bigger picture look at Metro's self-proclaimed "culture of safety." This is also not an attempt to blame Metro for circumstances beyond their control, but to identify positive steps to address the issues that they can control and avoid future problems where possible.

Metro is at a crossroads, suffering budgetary problems and the consequences of the organization's worst rail disaster. There is never an easy or convenient time for an organization to undertake significant and ground shaking changes. For Metro, however, many needed changes are ripe or even overdue.

The following is a brief sketch of where this series will go, and what will be covered. I will break the sections up as logically as possible, with the goal of a new post each week. I will try to present as much objective information as possible in order to draw a reasonable and honest summary of the current state of safety.

Previous incidents

  • Struck workers: Fatal incidents involving track workers
  • Derailments: From the 1982 fatal derailment to present
  • Collisions: The 1996, 2004 and 2009 crashes
  • Near-misses: Focusing on the 2005 incident outside Foggy Bottom, but looking at others, including the 2009 near-miss at Potomac Avenue
Metro's safety priorities and response to crises
  • Communication with NTSB and the Tri-State Oversight Committee
  • Safety management structure and institutional memory. Is there a true "culture of safety" within Metro?
Looking ahead, the potential for reform
  • The next steps: Immediate changes
  • Bigger picture: 'Creative destruction' to Metro's organizational chart
  • Financial and political considerations versus passenger safety: A life or death struggle
I hope you'll join me in taking a critical look at a vital part of our region's infrastructure.


Breakfast links: Bumps in the road

Photo by Mr. T in DC.
Keep on Circulating: DDOT announced late yesterday evening that the Circulator will remain on Wisconsin Avenue. That portion was planned for removal for budget reasons, but resident and business outcry swayed officials. Mayor Fenty will announce the non-change this morning. There is no word yet about where the money will come from or any other details. (Georgetown Metropolitan)

Bumps cause conflict in Chevy Chase: The number of speed humps has risen from around 100 to 808 in recent years, and many have triggered neighborhood wars. The fiercest fighting was in Chevy Chase, DC, where drivers started honking to protest the impedance on their perogative to speed. Also, many allege that speed humps on one street simply divert traffic to neighboring streets, pitting block against block. (Post, merarch)

National Harbor II: Prince George's has approved Westphalia Town Center, yet another in a string of "walkable" and "mixed-use" yet very distant developments not served by transit. A business leader even called it "another National Harbor." (Post, Cavan)

No houses without massive road construction: One reason Prince George's County keeps building huge, distant developments is that it's so hard to build anything closer in. For example, Berwyn Heights rejected a plan for 151 townhouses because they want the developer to widen a bunch of roads (and build a sidewalk) before doing so. (Gazette)

MWAA, the Major Widening Aspirations Association?: The regional TPB and its member jurisdictions may have applied for a TIGER stimulus grant, but that hasn't stopped the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from applying for a competing one, mostly for road widenings in Loudoun and interchanges in Fairfax, along with some money for the Silver Line. (WBJ)

Md. cameras will come slowly: On October 1, Maryland jurisdictions can start operating speed cameras (in addition to Montgomery, which already could). However, only Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Frederick City are ready or close to ready to implement them. The program includes many restrictions, including a cap on fines, limiting locations to only spots near schools, restrictions on hours (why is speeding okay at night and on weekends?), and more. (WTOP, Froggie)

Failing not bailing the housing market: The federal government is pouring more and more money into mortgages. Unlike the banking bailout, however, all this federal money isn't sparking any recovery in the real estate market. With the vast majority of FHA loans going to fund car-dependent sprawl, does this mean that real estate in distant car-dependent places no longer has enough value to sell even when heavily subsidized? (Slate, Cavan)

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Zimmerman and Linton debate Google

A few hours after debating the value of innovation regarding NextBus, Arlington's Chris Zimmerman and Maryland's Gordon Linton continued their debate over technology at the full Board meeting. In the interim, the Metro Board renewed John Catoe's contract with a small raise. I addressed the Board during the public comment period about Google Transit, presenting the arguments in this handout.

Zimmerman (left) and Linton (right). Image from WMATA.

This post summarizes the discussion; tomorrow, I'll present my take. The audio of the exchange begins at 42:15 in this stream.

I told the Board how we'd discovered that neither New York, Chicago, or any other transit agency whose contract we obtained is getting money from Google in exchange for providing transit data. Therefore, it's virtually impossible for Metro to do so. As a result, spending $500,000 on a contract to find out how much they can get is simply throwing $500,000 down the drain. Gordon Linton, the alternate director from Montgomery County and former FTA head, responded first to my comments.

I clearly understand your position, and I also underst the source of your information. But I will say to you very candidly that I have had discussions with some of the same agencies htat you suggested had no revenues, and part of it is that they never considered the opportunity for revenues. So it is not that revenues do not exist.

Yes, we at Metro are looking at intellectual property. Our riders and the jurisdictions and taxpayers have to pay for these services. It is our responsibility to look at every opportunity for revenues in every item that we do. Because another transit agency has chosen not to do that, including New York, Los Angeles and others, and I've talked to the marketing reps from those agencies, and they've never explored it, that does not suggest that we should not.

Our staff has been directed by the board to do exactly what they've done with intellectual property, because we need to make sure that we're receiving revenues for all the assets that Metro has, and we need to consider that on behalf of all our riders.

Chris Zimmerman first explored the issue of indemnification. In a nutshell, New York and Chicago have negotiated contracts where they don't indemnify Google for anything. Staff have claimed that's a sticking point, but since these other agencies have gotten past that, Zimmerman suggested that Metro try to get the same.

Sarah Wilson, the Metro staff member working on this issue, replied to Zimmerman's question about indemnification by bringing up an unrelated argument:

We did an anlysis of the ten major transit properties, and we are the only ones who solicit advertising on our own website. What that means is that to the extent that we are driving traffic to our website that is helpful towards revenues that we derive.
Zimmerman interrupted Wilson to ask her to focus on the question he asked, about indemnification. Wilson then told the Board that Metro hasn't tried to negotiate away the indemnification since we found out that other transit agencies have removed the clause.

Zimmerman continued:

A far as the revenue side goes I certainly agree that we should explore, and I think we have a duty to explore, any possibility for revenue. And I agree with Mr. Linton that transit agencies dont always do that and we should. And I support your efforts to find out the value of any intellectual property that we have including those provided by the internet.

On the other hand, I don't see any reaason for us not take advantage of opportunities right now, today, to provide more information to customers that doesn't cost us anything, as long as we protect the long term value. In other words, we don't have to say that, now and forever, we're going to do something for free. Mr. Linton, in an earlier meeting, cited our example of car sharing, and I think it is instructive. He correctly pointed out that we are now getting some rev back from that contract, as we should because someone is making money off it. And that was right. But we just started out by saying, let's just get car sharing started, and the people coming in weren't making a lot of money on it, and we didn't expect to make any money on it. And after a few years we were able to do that.

Right now it seems to me there's an opportunity to provide benfit to customers, both those who live here and those who come from around the country, to be able to sue our system more effectively in a way that it looks like doesn't cost anything. If there's a way to do that and, again, hold out the possibility in the future... This is a very dynamic environment. The Internet changes all the time. You dont want to bind yourself well into the future. But
why not do something now.

I've got a trip coming up to another city. I'm going to Boston for a conference, and I ... was able to have it tell me how to use transit in the city of Boston to get from the airport to the location of the conference. The kind of thing everybody here's probably done on the Web when you're driving somewhere. It seems to me that it's a very tangible benefit we could have and I don't see anything that I've heard told that says we can't do that without causing some kind of long-term damage. I don't see what the loss to us is, assuming we can clear up this indemnification issue, what significant cost there would be to us of allowing that to happen in Washington, DC and its surroundings just like right now it is in New York, Chicago, Boston, and most of the major cities in the country.

Next: Who's right? Both, and neither, but mostly Zimmerman is spot on.
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