The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


2009 wish list for transit

Since it's almost time to put on your suit/tuxedo/ballgown and party like it's 2009, I sat down and thought about the best ways to improve transit in our region in the future. This list breaks down into two categories: near term and long term.

A possible future transit system for DC and Baltimore. Map by David Alpert.

Near term

These pressing concerns are already in the advanced planning and engineering stages. They have been on the drawing board for years and decades, but still need as much advocacy as possible right now to keep them moving.

Columbia Pike (Virginia) streetcar. This corridor in South Arlington is very close to two Metro stations: Pentagon and Pentagon City. However, highways and huge parking lots cut it off from both stations. Consequently, its development has been very stunted. While WMATA has made upgrades to its 16-series buses, upgrading the infrastructure to streetcars would go a long way to helping this corridor realize its potential.

National intercity high-speed rail. It's about time, right? Let's face it: the domestic airline industry is on life support. Once oil prices resume their stratospheric climb, this industry will die as a private enterprise. We will need other ways to get people between our cities. Also, train stations are usually located in the heart of downtown, while airports tend to be located 50 miles away. Delivering people to a city's center will boost demand for amenities downtown. It will also increase demand for regional and local mass transit, since visitors will arrive in the city without cars. As we have seen with our own Union Station, vibrant intercity train stations are powerful ways to create a sense of place.

DC streetcars. There's no time like the present to get the cars rolling. While DC Councilmember Jim Graham rightly emphasized putting the first route somewhere where there are people, DC officials should select and start planning the next few routes as well.

Baltimore Red Line. Our neighbors in Baltimore have been clamoring for better mass transit ever since the Highway Lobby ripped out their streetcar system in the early 1960's. Their current system is very piecemeal and incomplete. The Baltimore Metro Subway is a single line that runs from the northwestern suburbs in the median of a freeway (thereby giving zero chance of TOD) to just north of downtown. The light rail was an early 1990's project that was built for thrift and not necessarily performance. Subsequent upgrades have improved its performance. Neither rail system connects to the other, though.

The Red Line is a proposed east to west light rail line that would run from Woodlawn through West Baltimore, Downtown, Fells Point, Canton, and end east of the city line. It would connect the existing Light Rail and the Metro Subway. It would take a big step towards restoring Baltimore's incomplete transportation system.

What would the Washington region look like if the Metro were never built? Baltimore today offers some clues. Our neighbor city to the north is a major economic and social center in the United States, just like Washington. Their 18th Century street grid is also well laid out for transit and walking. The Red Line will help Baltimore achieve its potential.

Silver Line. An opportunity to turn the nation's flagship Edge City into a series of real walkable downtowns? Connect an airport that was built in an inconvenient place with only highway access to its region's Metro? In the same project? Such a great idea! No wonder it's been four decades in the making.

Purple Line (High Investment LRT option). This project will close obvious gaps in the existing Metro system, improve regional mobility, and induce the redevelopment of some 1960's-era inner suburban edge cities into actual places. On top of that, it will finish the currently incomplete Capital Crescent Trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda. Like the Silver Line, this project has been on the drawing board for decades, and it's time to build it.

Long term

These ideas are either in the pre-preliminary planning stages or are wonderful dreams.

Issue a national moratorium on freeway building. We have plenty of freeways. We need the money we spend every year on new freeways to improve the other elements that make up our transportation system. We also need to pay to maintain the infrastructure that we already have.

Building roads was a great idea. It was one of the main engines that drove our national economy in the 20th century. However, we have long since started to experience diminishing returns; for every new road we build. we get less and less in return from it. Today, building new roads actually makes traffic worse, and has for years now. Let's ensure our existing bridges and water mains are properly maintained before we build new roads.

Infill at Potomac Yards on the Yellow and Blue Lines. This is an excellent opportunity for TOD on existing electrified rail infrastructure. The New York Avenue/Florida Avenue infill station on the Red Line has been a success.

Experiment with higher height limits outside the L'Enfant City in DC. As BeyondDC recommends, let's allow taller buildings in specific, targeted areas near Metro stations toward the edge of the District. Greater height at Tenleytown or Anacostia would no more disrupt the low-rise feel of DC's center than Rosslyn or Crystal City do today. Ryan Avent recommends an auction system to limit height increases, ensure good development and raise revenue.

Close the Center Leg (I-395) between New York Ave and Massachusetts Ave. This segment induces through traffic on New York Avenue between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Center Leg. The existing open cut could potentially be decked over and used as a right of way for a future heavy rail Blue Line at much lower cost than tunneling the same distance.

Extend the Purple Line. Long term, the Purple Line should connect to the Blue Line at either Largo Town Center or Capitol Heights. Then it should continue around to Suitland, Oxon Hill, National Harbor, and then to Alexandria. This is definitely more of a dream at present than anything near a political reality.

Separated Blue Line. The Metro system will hit capacity moving people into DC from Northern Virginia by 2030. A separated Blue Line through a new tunnel at Rosslyn, through downtown DC, and along H Street will add enormous new commuter capacity and serve important areas that the Metro system doesn't reach.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


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I couldn't have come up with a better list myself with one major criticism and two additions.

Criticism: Raising the height limit. If it's either the Capitol Building's dome or 10-12 stories, it ought to be maintained. There are still so many underdeveloped parcels throughout the city's metro stops. This would spread development opportunities to parts of the city that could use it, and would preserve one of the most unique and wonderful things about DC. Not being reduced to an ant or a wind tunnel experiment is one of the pleasures of walking around downtown DC.

Additon: It would be great to have a rail line going to Annapolis and beyond to the beaches. Maybe via ferry across the Chesapeake bay.

Addition: Water taxis throughout the Potomac. That would create huge incentives to develope our riverbanks (which are sorely underutilized) and to provide funding to do it in a sustainable way that cleans up the environment to allow for fishing and swimming.

Merry Christmas!

by Thayer-D on Dec 29, 2008 7:28 am • linkreport

Not a bad list. But I'd like to know if you have any practical ways to get people who don't like transit and can afford cars to actually use it. In non-rush hours, the DC metro runs too infrequently through most of its routes to be of any use to people along the outer red and orange line corridors. What's the best solution to get people to actually vote for things like your freeway moritorium?

by Nathan Scott Phillips on Dec 29, 2008 8:16 am • linkreport

What's the best solution to get people to actually vote for things like your freeway moratorium?
Why vote? Once the economy recovers the price of oil will come back up and the disincentive to drive along with it.

by Steve on Dec 29, 2008 8:27 am • linkreport

I don't entirely understand why a metro line between Alexandria and South PG is not a priority. Currently this geographically short distance requires about an hour and a half of metro travel. this addition would make the rush hour madness at l'enfant much less of an issue.

Also, the freeway moratorium is more than likely only going to occur if people are given reasons to ride mass transit for both commuting and pleasure. Counting on high fuel costs or government intervention is not a reliable force. Whereas convenience of mass transit is.

by Azher on Dec 29, 2008 8:59 am • linkreport

Long term, my wish is for the creation of a federal district with zero residents. Then put the rest of DC into Maryland. I'd also like to see a metro wide government and the elimination of the little pockets of county/city governments which makes getting anything done in the Greater Greater Washington area nearly impossible.

by dcpatton on Dec 29, 2008 9:33 am • linkreport

Maryland has always been against "accepting" parts of the District back. Once it's reabsorbed, then what? It's a political/governence can of worms. Our state government will inherent a local government with all its strenghts/weaknesses that will be completely upset about having to answer to Annapolis. The District's funding structure and governence structure is very different from any Maryland county. While Baltimore would offer some parallels, it has always been set up in a way to interact with the rest of the state. How would you appropriate Delegates/State Senators? Would you put Georgetown back in Montgomery County and Brookland back in Prince George's? How would the counties survive if they suddenly had all those extra services added to their budgets? Also, how would taxing work? How about road maintenence? Schools? Police? There a lot of practical political issues that would take decades to resolve. On top of that, Maryland would still not be allowed to tax federal workers in DC from Virginia because Congress said they're not allowed to do so.

As for a Metropolitan Government... I think you're onto something there.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 9:42 am • linkreport

The sentiment that the purple line should be built because it has been on the drawing board for a long time is flawed. The slowest most costly way to move people is light rail. How many cities have to expend precious transportation resources on this wrong minded approach. This a nineteenth century technology that does not meet the transportation needs of the twentieth century. Put the Kool-Aid down and do some research.

by Patrick J Cullen on Dec 29, 2008 9:55 am • linkreport

What about the QUALITY of existing and new Metro lines? People would ride the Metro more if it were FASTER.. When will this happen? Currently, trains move at the speed of cars, but why not two to three times the speed someday? That would be a huge benefit and make the system far more useful for every type of user.

by David on Dec 29, 2008 10:00 am • linkreport

This a nineteenth century technology that does not meet the transportation needs of the twentieth century

Cars are a 19th century technology that don't meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.

And no, light rail is not in any measurable way the "slowest more costly way to move people". If has its flaws and isn't the right solution to every corridor, but anyone who honestly believes what you've said is very much drinking some kool-aid.

by BeyondDC on Dec 29, 2008 10:02 am • linkreport

Are you serious? Did you even read the DEIS that showed the travel times between modes?

As for some information about BRT as applied in other American cities, look at my previous post:

Hmm... Bethesda to Silver Spring in 9 minutes. Silver Spring to UMD in 20 minutes. College Park to New Carrolton in 20 minutes. None of the BRT options have those kind of travel times.

If LRT is wrong-minded, what is correct? Is it do nothing? Is it BRT on Jones Bridge Road? That's a good plan... making either your neighbor's lives or your children's lives worse because you're too "enlightened" to "drink the Kool-Aid."

Cities such as Salt Lake City and Charlotte and Denver that have opened Light Rail lines are clamoring for more. They exceeded their decades out ridership projections in their first year. Both Salt Lake City and Charlotte have been experiencing new Transit-Oriented Development on their single light rail lines.

The Light Rail Purple Line projected to carry 68,000 passengers per day. Those are figures were lowballed because FTA metrics are overly conservative for trains and generous for buses. Ridership could easily hit 80,000 or 100,000 per day within its first decade. Are there any BRT lines in the United States that have a ridership of 100,000? 80,000? Well, definitely not 68,000.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 10:06 am • linkreport

Regarding fawed arguments:

If the trolley is a nineteenth century technology, what century technology is the brick? This is the classic paradigm of the futurist/modernist who sees objects as imbued with symbolism versus their practicality.

What's a better way of moving people through congested city centers besides rail that Paris, London, New York, etc. haven't thought of?

by Thayer-D on Dec 29, 2008 10:07 am • linkreport

Where has light rail worked? Where has it reduced street traffic? Where has the ridership met the predictions? You make this a choice between cars and light rail. They are not competing. Light rail wont take a single car off the street. Research your opinion and do not repeat developers prose.

by Patrick J Cullen on Dec 29, 2008 10:10 am • linkreport

Patrick, I will let others correct your factual errors. But I have a question. Why do developers want light rail if it doesn't work?

by Ben Ross on Dec 29, 2008 10:14 am • linkreport

Dump the idea of building a light rail line in the Columbia Pike corridor in Arlington. Build a modified version of metrorail that was originally envisioned when the metrorail map was drawn up in the late 1960s. Instead of running the route to Linconia as originally envisioned, run the line to Annadale or downtown Fairfax. The provision exist in the south end of the Pentagon station for the route.

by Sand Box John on Dec 29, 2008 10:18 am • linkreport

It's not about the cars on the street. Mobility is about moving people, not cars.

If you only measure whether anything works by if it reduces traffic, I'm afraid that any sort of infrastructure is doomed for failure. Nothing generates traffic like new roads.

As I said in my previous comment, light rail lines in Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, and Newark, NJ have met their decades-out projections in their first year.

As for your assertion about developer prose, I think it's important to point out that someone is not automatically bought off by a developer if you disagree with them. I am in favor of good, walkable development and against more car-dependent development. I'm for or against development depending on its context and form. I don't think that's being in someone's pocket.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 10:20 am • linkreport

It doesnt't work as a means of reducing traffic or relieving congestion. Why do you think the Chevy Chase Land Company wants this line built?

by Patrick J Cullen on Dec 29, 2008 10:23 am • linkreport

You started off by saying The slowest most costly way to move people is light rail. Now you say it "doesn't work" because it doesn't move cars. Aren't those of us who don't drive people?

And please provide arguments rather than unsupported innuendo.

by Ben Ross on Dec 29, 2008 10:32 am • linkreport

The transit shares in the cities you cite are all below 3 percent. Is that the figure you would hope for when spending transportation dollars, begin with the end in mind. If the goal is to reduce traffic congestion light rail is not the answer.

by Patrick J Cullen on Dec 29, 2008 10:33 am • linkreport

It's below 3% because there's only one rail line in Salt Lake City and Charlotte! There needs to be a complete regional system for the percentage of regional transportation to approach one quarter or a half or whatever.

You're comparing apples to oranges. If a region has a single rail line and a complete highway system, which one do you think will get a greater proportion of total transportation use? Compare it to our region with its completed regional Metro or to New York with its complete regional serving subway system(s). Also, you're ignoring the fact that the Purple Line will be integrated into our Metro system with direct transfers inside the stations to the existing Red, Red, Green, and Orange Lines. The situation will be quite different than in a place with one single rail line.

The goal is not to reduce traffic congestion. The goal is to move people. It's time to move away from the outdated and always wrong paradigm that says that moving people=moving cars. Moving people is moving people.

Have you been talking to Randall O'Toole and Ed Gleaser for your arguments and figures?

Finally, what does the Chevy Chase Land Company have to do with moving people? If you're saying they would stand to benefit from the Purple Line, perhaps you're correct. Many will benefit. Many businesses will have more customers due to the increased mobility the train line will offer. Many people will benefit from not having to sit in traffic in their car or having to transfer multiple buses to get east to west inside the beltway.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 10:46 am • linkreport

It isn't simply to reduce congestion which I think is probably a dubious claim in the case of the purple line, but light rail in general is a better way of concentrating future growth. LRT is going to benefit developers in the future who will build mixed-use communities around the corridor and motivate the local governments to zone those areas for more density.

Personally, I think LRT works best in high-density areas that aren't well-served by the city's heavy rail (like in Toronto, ON along with other places) and also work well as a substitute for heavy rail depending on the corridor. I think the purple line satisfies the latter situation.

But I don't think it's going to reduce that much congestion as much as it'll provide a faster, easier method for people to go across montgomery and prince georges counties and a corridor to concentrate future growth.

The other cities like Salt Lake and Charlotte and maybe Detroit someday, those places lack the ubiquitous mass-transit options and are right in the city, a bit different situation than the purple line.

by Vik on Dec 29, 2008 10:57 am • linkreport

My wish - for leaders not to (try to) improve rail on the backs of bus riders, which is what is happening now.

by Jazzy on Dec 29, 2008 10:57 am • linkreport

'reducing congestion' is an empty canard. Transit is about providing solutions to congestion - it is about moving people. Any road capacity that's been freed up by transit will be filled by latent demand. This will happen, of course, since people seem to expect that roads are free without considering how inefficiently resources are used when the price for them is subsidized to zero.

It's not about reducing congestion, it's about dealing with it. Transit is far more efficient at doing that - particularly mostly grade-separated, high-frequency rail transit service.

by Alex B. on Dec 29, 2008 11:35 am • linkreport

It's been a long time since we've seen such dishonest, intellectually bankrupt comments here as we've seen today from this Patrick fellow.

His positions have all been soundly rejected by virtually every objective planning organization in the world years ago. That he clings to them and deludes himself into thinking his position is supported by solid evidence is embarrassing.

by BeyondDC on Dec 29, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport

Personally, I don't care how bad congestion gets. I bypass it when I take the train. Haven't been in a traffic jam in ages.

by Dan on Dec 29, 2008 12:07 pm • linkreport

A freeway moratorium being proposed from DC?!

That is the sort of stuff that makes that city's leaders a national target of ridicule!

In any event that idea and the near total acceptance of surveillance cameras and equipment (in part via proposals for gps based road pricing) shows the medievalism that people are letting dominate.

Perhaps Georgetown Law has an ego trip to create a traffic mess at their location?!

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 29, 2008 1:12 pm • linkreport

The high speed rail idea -- in constrast with the strict anti new freeway canon law -- makes a great deal of sense.

Why not fund it with the money that would be saved by ending the criminal mercantilist drug war?

by Douglas Willinger on Dec 29, 2008 1:15 pm • linkreport

These ideas have been ignored rather than debunked. Urban planners approach these ideas with one blind eye. What is your idea of beautiful, Friendship Heights. I would not like to see its twin rise up at Connecticut and Manor, would you?

by Patrick on Dec 29, 2008 1:59 pm • linkreport

They've been ignored for about the last half-decade because they were thoroughly debunked in the half-decade before.

At this point, expending energy redebunking what's already been proven to be nonsense is a waste of everybody's time. The only people who aren't convinced are people who either have an agenda or don't care.

by BeyondDC on Dec 29, 2008 2:16 pm • linkreport

One wish is "National intercity high-speed rail" It is important to have nationwide connections, not just in 11 regional corridors.

Next mongh, for example, I travel Seattle to the Inaugural -- Amtrak was full when I tried to book election week. Other trips I have made to the Washington, DC region are

Home ----------------- Destimation

Huntsville, AL ------- Washington, DC

Huntsville, AL ------- Gaithersburg, MD

Huntsville, AL ------- McLean, VA

San Francisco, CA ---- Silver Spring, MD

Europe --------------- Baltimore (also visiting

-----------------------Orlando, FL and Ithaca, NY).

Only the last trip should require an airline, and then only for the transatlantic portion of the trip. Huntsville is not in any proposed corridor, and San Francisco connects only to other California destinations, even with a transfer.

Oregon and Washington are isolated from the rest of the US.

by Peter on Dec 29, 2008 2:33 pm • linkreport

If the goal is to reduce traffic, the only solution is to destroy road capacity. Counter-intuitive though it may sound, traffic volumes depend heavily on available road capacity. People re-evaluate their travel patterns all the time, and respond both to capacity increases (induced traffic) and decreases. That you can take cars off the road by decreasing road capacity was shown by extensive research by Phil Goodwin and Sally Cairns (and others) at University College London.

by thm on Dec 29, 2008 2:42 pm • linkreport

That's interesting.

I don't know how you do that without the people from NoVa suburbs setting fire to the city in protest.

by Jazzy on Dec 29, 2008 2:58 pm • linkreport

Damn you. I guess I needed to "trademark" this concept. I will still do my list sometime next week. And it will be different, more DC focused. And it won't include some of these ideas, not that they aren't interesting, but some just don't work. I.e., the issue isn't to close the Center leg of I-395 but to bury it, as well as the equivalent of I-95 out (under) New York Avenue.

Still, good list.

WRT the Patrick Cullen arguments, it merely demonstrates the need to use the transit network, transit shed, and mobility shed concepts for planning and argumentation purposes, which will be delineated more in my transit list. (It's some of the only stuff I've written that truly extends these frameworks and research concepts in a way that adds to the research literature.)

The other thing that his arguments do deliberately is connote "national averages" to what would happen in this region. The DC region has proven with the right urban design, strong activity centers, and reasonable jobs-housing balance, that you can build effective transit _systems_.

But the focus is on transit systems rather than a transit line or two. Unfortunately, most other regions building new transit have only built a couple lines, and it can't have the same kind of impact a transit system along the lines of the DC metropolitan subway network does.

He mentions 3% mode shift. In DC proper, 30% of work trips are on transit and 15% on bicycle or walking. That's better than most cities in the U.S. except for parts of New York City. (I don't know the regional average, but it is still high, far greater than 3%, especially if we count only the counties that possess subway service.)

So anyone who throws out national averages on transit use, when discussing the DC region, must immediately be written off, as they have proven they aren't writing about DC but about some national fantasy that is irrelevant to our conditions and issues.

by Richard Layman on Dec 29, 2008 3:42 pm • linkreport

DC as a center city should never agree to retrocession to Maryland. Right now, we enjoy the benefit of 100% of our (state) income tax revenue stream. Under your scenario, that money would go to Annapolis and be sent around the state, just as Montgomery County tax revenues end up subsidizing other parts of Maryland, and the county does not enjoy a 1:1 revenue return on its income tax monies paid to the state.

Similarly, losing control of the city's needs in the context of a rapacious and competitive set of suburbs will make revitalization even more difficult.

Think about public finance first and foremost when considering this issue.

by Richard Layman on Dec 29, 2008 3:45 pm • linkreport

No worries about DC becoming a part of MD any time soon. DC was created in the Constitution and it would take Congressional approval and a constitutional amendment to make it happen - the amendment process alone could take decades. Plus, this country has much more pressing issues to deal with. Finally, why would anyone want to destroy such a unique city. It is the only major city in the US that does not have skyscrapers and has a more European feel (although some of the boulevards and streetscapes and architecture could be improved - but I digress).

by Allan on Dec 29, 2008 4:23 pm • linkreport

Well said, Allan and Richard. I think whenever some congressman from Middle America comes up with the suggestion of retrocession (and some genius does at least once a decade), the elected officials in all levels of government in all regional jurisdictions agree that it's a bad idea for many practical reasons.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 4:51 pm • linkreport

Richard, I do have to tip my hat to you for coming up with the wish list concept before I did. I look forward to reading your list soon.

by Cavan on Dec 29, 2008 4:53 pm • linkreport

I'm not anti-rail by any means - and I think that the Purple Line should be built as LRT, but the amount of anti-BRT bias by people that are either ignorant or misquoting on purpose is very frustrating.

"Hmm... Bethesda to Silver Spring in 9 minutes. Silver Spring to UMD in 20 minutes. College Park to New Carrolton in 20 minutes. None of the BRT options have those kind of travel times."

Cavan, clearly you didn't read the DEIS, b/c the travel times for the last two are EXACTLY the same for the high-investment BRT vs LRT options, and almost the same for the medium BRT v LRT. See Chapter 6 of the DEIS, page 2.

The Light Rail Purple Line projected to carry 68,000 passengers per day. Those are figures were lowballed because FTA metrics are overly conservative for trains and generous for buses. Ridership could easily hit 80,000 or 100,000 per day within its first decade. Are there any BRT lines in the United States that have a ridership of 100,000? 80,000? Well, definitely not 68,000.

Please, please qualify this.

by A on Dec 29, 2008 6:05 pm • linkreport

The history of LRT systems beating 30-year-out ridership estimates in their first year of operation is pretty solid. I don't have any links handy, but google should bring them up pretty quickly. Off the top of my head, I recall seeing such stories recently from Denver, Charlotte, Houston and Minneapolis. And Phoenix's new light rail (just opened this week) carried 90k its first day.

Meanwhile, the LA Orange line, which is probably America's premier BRT line, is carrying less than 30k per day.

by BeyondDC on Dec 29, 2008 6:29 pm • linkreport

The history of LRT systems beating 30-year-out ridership estimates in their first year of operation is pretty solid. I don't have any links handy, but google should bring them up pretty quickly.

I'd really like to see those facts, because it simply isn't true. And I'm talking about real ridership projections in the DEIS, and planning documents - not the transit agency's own self-exceeded projections in local newspaper article.

Also, it's pretty disingenous to include the ridership numbers of a new light rail system. Several months out, once the initial euphoria (and often discounted fares).

Anyways - as for the Orange Line - yes, but that's still substantially more than most US light rail systems, and not bad for a system that cost less than a comparable light rail system to build/operate. Should it have been rail? Sure. There wasnt the money for it.

By the way, while I do disagree with some of Patrick's points (he seems to be be trolling), I would point out that light rail lines very often aren't generating new ridership - the majority of their ridership is pulling off existing bus service on the same corridor. If you look at the planning documents for the Red Line in Baltimore, this is exactly what is happening (their own projections don't even project much new ridership). A lot of times, around 10-30% of the riders are new choice riders (the rest switching over from discontinued bus lines), not 100% new.

Nor are they really generating congestion relief. Let's take Charlotte, which is generating about 20k riders a day. This is unlinked passenger trips, NOT people a day. (If you want to see the reporting methodology, please see the National Transit Database, which all agencies report to, at Once you get rid of multiple riders and roundtrips, you are probably down to 8,000 actual people a day. How many of those were new riders, and not riders from former bus routes?

Transit lines may be an economic development tool, mobility tool, and environmentally beneficial. But to say new rail lines are reducing car travel or congestion is ridiculous.

by A on Dec 29, 2008 9:37 pm • linkreport

Transit lines may be an economic development tool, mobility tool, and environmentally beneficial. But to say new rail lines are reducing car travel or congestion is ridiculous.

I should clarify that I mean 'most new rail lines'. DC's metro, for instance, does reduce auto travel, as do rail lines in older, dense cities with concentrated CBDs. Not so much in new sunbelt cities where the urban development model will never change.

by A on Dec 30, 2008 1:16 am • linkreport

I agree with your point, but I think the track record of rail stops being centers of growth, as an economic and environmental friendliness tool, is meaningful and worthwhile. If it means a more efficient way of handling growth, I'm all for it. Over time, I think it will decrease the need and urgency for roads to be expanded and repaired as frequently.

by Vik on Dec 30, 2008 8:40 am • linkreport


You're talking about of both sides of your mouth here. On the one hand, you note that ridership projections for Baltimore's red line only have existing transit users and very few new riders. Yet you're saying that new light rail lines in Minneapolis, Utah, Denver, and others (which have been open far longer than Phoenix and are not experiencing any 'newness' bias anymore) have far exceeded their long term projections already - projections made with the same methodology as seen in Baltimore.

The EIS projections are a tool of the FTA, and the FTA's calculations for cost-effectiveness are extraordinarily narrow and short-sighted. This is why these LRT lines have been blowing them out of the water. Minneapolis' Hiawatha line was projected to handle 24,000 riders in 2020. In 2007, it was averaging just under 33,000 - for a line that opened in 2004.

In short, you can't say LRT only attracts bus riders and use the ridership estimates as your evidence.

As to your final point, the note about 'reducing congestion' is a complete non-starter. It's like the Onion article where '98% of Americans favor Public Transit for Others.' Again, using the Hiawatha line as an example - more people are moving through that corridor now than were before. That's a net increase in capacity - seems like a pretty effective congestion mitigation measure to me.

The fact is that congestion will never be relieved, at least not without massive congestion pricing efforts. If congestion relief is the measure you use to evaluate the effectiveness of transit, then you're using the wrong measurements.

by Alex B. on Dec 30, 2008 9:39 am • linkreport


Congestion never being relieved:

No,I agree with you on that. Congestion will never be relieved, not without road pricing, congestion pricing, etc. It's not a measure I was using or would like to use for the success of transit, yet people used it as a measure of success in this blog conversation.

Did some people move to transit from driving - in, say Charlotte Light Rail, or the Hiwatha Light Rail line for instance? Sure. Is it worth using as a primary measure of cost effectiveness? No. With 33,000 unlinked passenger trips (UPTs) a day, you can estimate that roughly 16,500 roundtrips were taken. Remove- say, 20ish% for multiple trip making (unless you think everyone just rode to work and back), and you're down to around 12,000 UPTs. Let's assume that half of those riders (which is generous) of those riders are choice riders which would have driven (because they own a car and would have drove). So we're saying that 6,000 cars get pulled off the road every day - maybe. Should we use that as a primary measure of the $715 million project's success on a 'per car' basis?

There are many, many other measures (better ITS, for example) one could take far more cheaply for effective congestion mitigation.

Value LRT for what it's good at (rapid, traffic-free ride), and economic development - but it's not really making a dent in the millions of work trips taken a day in a place like Minneapolis or Dallas.

by A on Dec 30, 2008 10:08 am • linkreport

The only people using it as a measure of success in this conversation are the transit 'skeptics' using obtuse and misleading arguments full of innuendo and poor rhetoric.

And I still don't get why you agree that congestion relief is a poor metric to use, and then launch into a post about getting cars off the road.

by Alex B. on Dec 30, 2008 10:13 am • linkreport

>I'd really like to see those facts, because it simply isn't true. And I'm talking about real ridership projections in the DEIS, and planning documents

Well let's look at a few recent ones. If I recall correctly (and this is off the top of my head), these are three most recent major LRT projects with significant FTA funding. I'm not including Phoenix (which just opened - fair comment on your part) and Houston (which didn't use a lot of FTA funds).


FTA 2020 projection: 24,800 avg weekday boardings.

Actual 2007 count: 27,000 avg weekday boardings.


FTA 2025 projection: 17,900 avg weekday boardings.

FTA opening year projection: 9,100 avg weekday boardings.

Actual opening year count: 16,000 avg weekday boardings.

Denver TREX:

FTA 2020 projection:38,100 avg weekday boardings.

Opening year projection: 33,000 avg weekday boardings

Actual opening year count: 35,800 avg weekday boardings

So OK. Of those three, one beat its 2020 projection in the opening year, and though the other two didn't, they got close and easily beat their opening year projections. I think it is safe to say that the FTA process undercounts LRT riders.

>the Orange Line - yes, but that's still substantially more than most US light rail systems

Now *that* simply isn't true. Here is APTA ridership information for American light rail systems. There are 28 systems listed. Kenosha, Tacoma, Seattle, Galveston, Memphis and Tampa are neighborhood trolley projects and are not comparable to the sort of line we're talking about. That leaves 22 "US light rail systems".

Now, the APTA methodology is a little different than the FTA methodology, so their numbers are a bit higher. Maybe 10% on average. So anything that's close to the Orange line could be a little higher or a little lower. We can't be exact with this.

But nevertheless, of those 22 systems, 13 are over 40k/day. That's 60% of American LRT systems that are so far above the Orange line that we can be certain they beat it, proving your claim false. A further 3 or 4 LRT lines are in the same ball park as the LA Orange line. If you remove Oceanside's DMU line and New Orlean's streetcars, there are only 3 or 4 LRT systems in the US that perform measurably worse than the Orange line, America's premier BRT. Only 3 or 4 LRT systems are not as good the best BRT line.

It's true we're comparing system numbers for LRT to a line number for BRT, but that's the comparison *you* asked for.

>Should (the LA Orange line) have been rail? Sure. There wasnt the money for it.

Whoa whoa whoa. So you agree that rail is often preferable?

I mean, y'know, you do what you can afford. I'm cool with that. If you don't have money for the system you want, you build the system you can get. Sure. Fine. But clearly there *is* money out there for rail. Do you think Minneapolis, Charlotte and Denver should have built BRT instead? Bear in mind that *all* of them have larger systems planned, so it wasn't a matter of building 1 LRT line or a whole BRT system.

> light rail lines very often aren't generating new ridership - the majority of their ridership is pulling off existing bus service on the same corridor

This is true is some cases, although your use of "majority" implies a far larger proportion than usually exist. Even then, it is certainly not the case for the Purple Line or the Corridor Cities Transitway. For the Purple line existing bus ridership is very low compared to the LRT projections, maybe 10%. In the CCT's case, there is *NO* bus service that operates even a significant portion of the planned route. There is nothing approximating an existing CCT bus corridor for more than a mile or two at a time. The CCT would utterly and absolutely transform transit service in the Gaithersburg/Germantown area.

>Transit lines may be an economic development tool, mobility tool, and environmentally beneficial. But to say new rail lines are reducing car travel or congestion is ridiculous.

1. Assuming that's true, so what? Judging a line that improves overall mobility solely on its affect on auto traffic is misguided. It assumes auto mobility is somehow more important than overall mobility, which is ridiculous. The crazy suggestion that car mobility is the only "real" mobility is how our cities got into their congested mess in the first place. The only way to fix mobility is to untie it from the "cars only" mentality.

2. I don't concede that it's true. Highway congestion in Arlington has remained flat for 30 years, despite tremendous amounts of new density. That means that on a per square foot of development basis, there is much less congestion there now than there was 30 ago. If it's true that Metro hasn't *eliminated* congestion there, it is certainly also true that it has allowed Arlington to grow without making congestion worse, whereas the other option was stagnation.

by BeyondDC on Dec 30, 2008 11:57 am • linkreport

Re: >Transit lines may be an economic development tool, mobility tool, and environmentally beneficial. But to say new rail lines are reducing car travel or congestion is ridiculous.

Again, focusing on the DC region, and DC specifically, I think it's fair to say that the subway system has significantly reduced car travel in the city, especially within the 15 square mile core, which is served by 29 subway stations.

A lot of car travel to the city has been reduced, but not all. And the subway can't impact through traffic passing through the city i.e., NY Avenue.

It's best to look at this over long periods of time. Living in DC proper for about 19.5 of the 21 years I've lived in the region, I would argue I have a longer term perspective on traffic and travel, especially within the Greater Capitol Hill area, where I lived for most of this period.

by Richard Layman on Dec 30, 2008 12:41 pm • linkreport

Sigh. I come back and i'm under attack!

Ok, let me say what i'm trying to say, for the record because I think i got pulled off on too many tangents. Apologies for the below list if there are spelling/grammar errors, I wrote this quickly.


What I was trying to do was defend BRT as a mode. I'm not anti-rail, or pro-BRT, or anything like that. What I am in favor of is building the best, most sustainable option for an urban area within the financial constraints of a metropolitan area (the last is key - many metro areas simply haven't enacted the funding mechanisms to sustainablly fund the transit systems that they would like to have.

Look, I think that rail is a preferable mode in all circumstances, if cost is not taken into account! of course, in the real world, we have financial constraints to worry about. But for many smaller, less dense urban areas, the sheer cost of LRT just doesn't make sense. I'm not saying that Phoenix or Houston shouldn't build LRT. Smaller cities, though like Eugene and Springfield, Oregon made a great choice to do the EmX for a very low cost. Larger cities - if they have the money for it and can SUPPORT it - should build rail.

But, coming back to the money issue:

I dont know if any of you work for transit agencies - i doubt many of you do - but working with them, though light rail lines may be carrying 20% of the ridership of a transit agency's entire system, they often cost FAR more than that as a percentage of an agency's budget. And then, the agency ends up stripping its bus service to keep the very expensive, premier light rail service running. You can make arguments on operating costs either way (and feel free to look in the NTD for this), but the NEW capital costs that a light rail line generates will often cause transit agencies to make sevice cutbacks across the bulk of their ridership (ie, bus routes). I don't just mean rail cars, but maintenence facilities, and hiring totally new staff for operations and repair as well. If transit agencies and metro areas are willing to support it, and willing to put the cash that it costs to really run a great system, then I say go for it. Seriously. However, BRT is a great, low-cost option that is and should be considered, especially if the choice is BRT or nothing at all.


In regards to FTA's role in that. FTA's budget has stayed pretty much the same (growing for inflation) throughout the Bush->Clinton->Bush II years. The FTA supports BRT as a mode because it's an affordable option in light of how many projects it gets.

Look, the FTA has a small budget. Off the top of my head, its 10 billion a year, about 8 billion or so of that going to formula grants. Only 1.5 billion or so of that a year is available for New Starts (ie, fixed guidway projects like new light rail lines, BRT lines, etc).

Most of that budget is taken up by existing FFGAs (money to existing capital projects like the 2nd Ave Subway, now the Silver Line, etc). There are many, many more projects that FTA gets than it can fund. If you're asking the agency to make a choice, would you rather have more transit projects that benefit a greater number of metro areas? (and have some of those be BRT?), or push LRT no matter what? There are 700 transit agencies or so in the US, and FTA has to make the most of limited funds.

If the equation changes under the Obama administration (ie, he actually really increases transit funding in a way that FTA , then I think the funding available will change the way we look at these things.

Success/Non-success of the Orange Line BRT:

By the way, I meant that we should compare a BRT line to a LRT line, not a system. Sorry - i was just typing fast. If you're going to do a comparison, do a bus corridor by rail corridor comparison. The Orange Line is competitive for what it is - an affordably build transit line. The Orange Line is not amazing BRT, its decent BRT - though it's the best we have in the US. If we did true quality BRT (the Latin American examples ive riden have been amazing) then this discussion would be different. You get real throughput and high ridership. There's a reason Curitiba and Bogota have done so well (and yes, i realize the crush load argument that people will make at me on this)

The Orange Line wasn't perfect -there are a lot of issues - one of them being the at-grade crossings it has to stop for. But it was done cheaply, and effectively for the cost. It wouldn't have happened as an LRT line when it did, and it is better than waiting years and years longer for an LRT system. And in the future, if need be, it can be easily converted to a LRT corridor.


Lastly, on the congestion issue - yes, the Wilson Blvd corridor has had very little congestion added in the last few decades, thanks to the Orange Line. But extrapolating that sitation to every metro area isn't fair. In most, it hasn't had a large effect.

Lastly - whew! I am not a transit skeptic, or anti-transit by any means. I don't even own a car, and i don't plan to.

Alex, as to what I was saying - rail and segreated BRT lines are great for a traffic-free and rapid ride. And for the people that are ABLE to take them, they're fantastic. But to assert that they have made an appreciable dent in congestion in an area usually isn't true.

by A on Dec 30, 2008 8:10 pm • linkreport

Disclaimer: with this particular post below, I'm not making any arguments or points or anything - just pointing out something of interest. :)

A poster above mentioned the discrepancy between the NTD (FTA's) ridership reporting and APTA's transit reporting.

Actually, APTA's counting usually undercounts the amount of unlinked passenger trips, for a number of reasons. NTD's are sometimes higher than they should be (which can be a problem with FTA is alloting scarce formula grant money to all the 700 or so agencies in the US)

Check out the following report by CUTR at the Univ. of South Florida - many of you will find it quite interesting.

Ridership accuracy and transit formula grants


Affiliation(s) du ou des auteurs / Author(s) Affiliation(s)

(1) Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, 4202 East Fowler Avenue, CUT 100, Tampa, FL 33620, ETATS-UNIS

Résumé / Abstract

The accuracy of annual unlinked passenger trips reported to the National Transit Database (NTD) at the agency level is examined by using a two-step approach. The first step compares ridership reported to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) with ridership reported to NTD. NTD ridership can be as high as 50% more than APTA ridership, and such significant positive deviation exists persistently over time across many agencies. The second step explores potential sources of these deviations by examining their components. Random errors, including both sampling errors and some of the nonsampling errors, do not help explain these one-sided deviations, nor do occasional annual adjustments, such as special-events ridership in the NTD ridership. Much of this deviation appears to be attributable to systematic nonsampling sources that result from undercounting in direct counts, from unintentional biases in procedures, or perhaps from intentional manipulation. Although mechanisms and incentives exist for these sources, there is little evidence for any one specific source. How systematic errors could affect the allocation of two formula grants to Florida transit agencies-the Urbanized Area Formula Grant Program and Florida's Transit Block Grant Program-is quantitatively examined. A strategy for reducing systematic errors is also discussed.

by A on Dec 30, 2008 8:23 pm • linkreport

A -

Your position on BRT vs LRT is mostly fair. I don't have any big problem with LA's Orange line. We should duplicate it all over the place on secondary corridors and in smaller cities. It just ain't as good as light rail and can't be considered a 1-for-1 replacement.

I don't think your characterization of trading off surface bus quality for light rail is necessarily true or fair, though. It probably happens in some cities, but it doesn't happen everywhere and certainly is not a rule of the game. Many cities (LA and Denver particularly come to mind) have coupled their rail building with equally ambitious bus expansions. And even where it does happen (it happened in DC - our buses got worse after Metro opened), in the long term the cities are probably still better off. We need Metro in DC; if it took reduced bus service for a couple of decades to get it, I think most of us would agree it was worth it.

The FTA is between a rock and hard place, but they may as well be honest with us. Much of the hostility towards the FTA isn't so much that they don't have enough money to fund everything, but that their processes imply that quality transit isn't worthwhile. People hate the FTA because the FTA says that subways are not a good use of money. That's not true at all; FTA is just too poor to afford them. If FTA's position was "we know subways are better but we don't have the budget to support them very often, so we have to focus on goals we can achieve", I don't think many people would take offense at that. It's when FTA tries to convince people that subways aren't better that people become justifiably upset. And some of their rules are downright stupid. The whole Tysons subway thing for example: the FTA killed a subway in Tysons Corner for so-called "cost efficiency" purposes, even though a subway would not have cost the FTA one cent more. They deserve all the scorn we can throw at them for that sort of ridiculousness.

Regarding your point about transit being great for people who are ABLE to take it, well, y'know, more folks would be ABLE to take transit if we focused on building a fair amount of it.

And just for the record, some of us *do* work for transit agencies.

by BeyondDC on Dec 31, 2008 10:18 am • linkreport

I think that one of the short-term goals is to extend the Red Line(Washington Metro) in where the CCT is.

by Gian on Dec 31, 2008 10:30 am • linkreport

Perhaps wider implementation of multi-space performance parking meters should also be on the wish list.

by FourthandEye on Dec 31, 2008 10:34 am • linkreport

Good point, FourthandEye. I focused on building stuff and not as much on upgrading ways we manage what we have. However, it's important to manage our precious street parking space better, too.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:00 am • linkreport

People hate the FTA because the FTA says that subways are not a good use of money. That's not true at all; FTA is just too poor to afford them.

I think you mean rail, not a subway in particular. Heavy rail/light rail might cost more to build than BRT, but burrowing either is incredibly expensive!

Look, discussions on these issues are not just about LRT vs. BRT. They're also about the long-term financial impact on maintenance and upkeep. The Silver Line (to Dulles) will provide fantastic mobility to an area that had none. It's also going to wreck the budget of a struggling transit agency that doesn't even have enough budget for station and rail car maintenance, let alone the capital for an order of new rail cars, buses (for the inevitable feeder bus service), new labor costs from new hires, and other things. As it stands, the already bad headways on the rest of the system are going to increase, as WMATA will be sending trains out 10-30 miles out to Dulles and pulling them away from the interior urban stations.

But please understand me. This is NOT an argument against transit - i just want to say that agencies should build what they can - within the financial constraints that they know they can operate under. That's all I'm saying. It's easy as a transit geek to focus more on the urban planning and the vehicle mode rather than the whole big picture.

Many cities (LA and Denver particularly come to mind) have coupled their rail building with equally ambitious bus expansions..

I would hope so for LA - they carry over 1.2 million riders a day on the bus system alone. But I'm talking about cities that strip their bus service so they can launch a prestige rail line instead. That does happen.

by A on Dec 31, 2008 12:43 pm • linkreport

> i just want to say that agencies should build what they can - within the financial constraints that they know they can operate under.

Fair enough, but I'm not sure you're considering the opportunities to agencies that come with growth of the system. The main reason transit in this country struggles as it does is because it isn't the primary means of mobility for enough people, so it isn't a high funding priority. In the long term, transit will only get its fair due of government infrastructure money if transit expands to become an in-demand service. That can only happen if transit is provided in adequately high supply that choice riders use it.

In Washington, had we not invested in our rail system we might have avoided some of the current maintenance headaches, but our city would be far worse off for it. Luckily, those who came before us recognized the opportunity to the region, built the system, and trusted us to find a way to keep it working. We’d have been *more* lucky if they’d spent extra money on a third track.

I understand your concerns, but they sound to me like the concerns of people who argue against spending money on scientific research when there are starving children in Africa. We need to solve the maintenance problem just like we need to feed children in Africa, but we need long term investment targeting real system improvement too, because there will always be immediate problems to fix.

by BeyondDC on Dec 31, 2008 1:32 pm • linkreport

I agree, BDC - and for that very reason, it's important to not think of capital expenditures and operational costs in the same light. Building a rail line is a long term investment. Maintaining and improving bus service is also very important, but it does not have that long term payback or impact.

The biggest problem with BRT is that it's often an operational improvement masquerading as a long term investment.

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2008 1:38 pm • linkreport

Montgomery County's Ride On system is a consequence of the building of Metrorail. The system was begun a feeder to the Silver Spring Metro, and it has expanded substantially each time new rail stations opened. Resources have been provided to the system to fund rail feeder service, and the routes that do not primarily feed the rail routes have developed as offshoots of the rail feeders.

by Ben Ross on Dec 31, 2008 1:43 pm • linkreport


by Squalish on Dec 31, 2008 1:54 pm • linkreport

The worst mistake to the local Washington DC surface transit system was made when Congress forced the abandonment of the entire very well-maintained, modern streetcar network to be converted to bus operation. The last trolley ran January 27, 1962.

by Joe Saitta on Dec 31, 2008 11:47 pm • linkreport

So I've read up a little on the LA Orange line BRT that a few of you have been discussing. It seems LA was painted into a corner to use BRT over rail because of some laws passed in the early 90s that applied to the former Southern Pacific Railroad Burbank Branch right-of-way. Laws were passed requiring rail to be deep bore subways for certain sections. Yet another law was soon thereafter passed disallowing any sales tax revenue to be used on subways anywhere in the county. Really there was no other option than busways. Complicating things they used $44mil from the Passenger Rail act which will have to be repaid if they don't convert the line to rail by 2015.

I've scanned over the route using Google Maps and Streetview. Most of it uses the rail right of way but the portion immediately west of the North Hollywood terminus uses Chandler Boulevard. Wow that is an amazingly wide road. In the median there are two bus only lanes buffered on each side by landscaping that is wider than a lane. On both sides of the median are two lanes of traffic, a bike lane and curb parking. All in all I'd estimate the width of the boulevard to be the equivalent of 10 lanes. Wow!

View Larger Map

by Paul S on Jan 1, 2009 9:34 am • linkreport

How about a rail station in GROWING Shirlington??!! Having the nearby W&OD rail right-of-way converted to a heavy (or light) rail line instead of a bike trail (mostly used on weekends) would have been a much better idea!

by Shirlington on Jan 5, 2009 4:16 pm • linkreport

I would like to see someone put together a map that mirrors the separate Blue Line, but swap it out with the Silver Line to Largo instead?
The reality is the Orange and Silver lines will continue to outpace the ridership of the Blue. Why not split the O/S services up to provide some congestion relief at the peak load point leaving Rosslyn VA?
I don't like the potential additional merges, but I think that it is worth discussing.
It certainly would give the high ridership orange and silver corridors two options in DC without the need for a transfer at Rosslyn. The current separate Blue under M Street would force Blue line riders to switch at Rossyln for the current O/B route, but either way some portion of Blue riders will have to transfer at Rosslyn -- so why not reduce the need for tranfer from the heavier O/S routes?
Remember, no matter what route goes through the M Street corridor - it will be a half service. If a switch is placed south of Rosslyn - then the M Street corridor can run a full 24/26 per hour, but without that switch back track south of Rosslyn it will only be 12/13 trains per hour (5 minute headway).

by bob previdi on Nov 6, 2009 1:15 pm • linkreport

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