Greater Greater Washington

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Our living and transportation choices gain diversity

The early analysis of the presidential election suggests that President Obama can credit much of his victory to a changing American electorate, which is more diverse, better educated and more urban than it was 20 years ago when Bill Clinton became president.


Photo by Eric Spiegel on Flickr.

The Washington region is changing as well. It, too, is growing more diverse, and it is now majority-minority. Like the nation, it is also becoming more urban. Neighborhoods in the District, Arlington, Alexandria and Silver Spring are on the national forefront of the trend toward young people and empty-nesters choosing to live in urban communities. And spread-out commercial areas with (or soon to have) good access to transit, such as White Flint and Tysons Corner, are evolving into walkable communities.

These changes bring new types of diversity to our region: a diversity of housing choices and transportation options. We can be a region with many ways to live.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Great piece. I would add that beyond choice, it's an economic issue. When government promotes car free living, people save an estimated $5,000 dollars a year, to say nothing of the ancillary benefits to everything from environmental health to personal safety. It's a common rehtorical device to say one's persuing something at the expense of the other, but anti-transit types know that no one's coming to take their car's away, and they ought to understand that increading transit options makes driving that much more viable.

Right now, the market is speaking louder than any ideologue by raising prices in and around transit friendly neighborhoods, but government could be doing much more to make sure our region continues to grow in both an environmental and economically sustainable way.

Hopefully Obama's re-election will provoke our leaders to look beyond political ideology and make the necessary infrastructure investments that have been neglected for too long.

by Thayer-D on Nov 10, 2012 8:29 pm • linkreport

It puzzles me that people are so opposed, given what these developers have been willing to put up with. Yes, there's an economic incentive for them to build residential buildings with no or reduced parking, and that should be considered before allowing them to go on and build. But, when the community demands that the residents of that building not be allowed to get RPPs, and the response of the developer is "fine, I can sell these units to people who don't have cars or are willing to rent a garage space nearby anyway," and then they DO JUST THAT, I don't understand why the opposition continues. Not only did the current residents get what they wanted, no cars from new residents on their streets, but the market clearly has spoken. The town I went to college in had VERY STRICT street parking rules, to discourage students from parking on the street, but many buildings that had limited parking (for example, I once lived in a 5-bedroom house that had *1* parking spot). Lo and behold, since most of us still needed a car OCCASIONALLY (and didn't have fantastic services like Zipcar, Car2Go, decent cab service, etc.), we just rented a spot in one of the many strip malls in the area to store our car. Where there's a market, there's a way.

There exists a group of people for whom on-site parking or even free street parking is unimportant in their decision as to where to live. That has been proven time and again. Some buildings will continue to provide parking, since many people do demand it; but other buildings can get away with offering no parking, and other people are happy with that arrangement AND the fact that living in a building like that probably saves them a little money. Dude, trust me, I'm only going to "steal" your parking for about 20 minutes every 2-3 weeks, when I bring my big haul back from the grocery store in a Zipcar and unload it into my house before returning the car to its reserved parking spot. And, since most of my gatherings feature a good bit of drinking, most of my friends will opt for public transit, cabs, or Uber, so they don't have to think much about how much they've imbibed when getting home. You know who caused the most parking congestion and heartburn when I lived on the Hill? Commuters who parked illegally. Get parking enforcement on them (yes, I tried to get parking enforcement to help out...the results were less-than-stellar), to the point that paying to park or using transit are attractive options, and most parking problems will resolve, given the restrictions you're placing on these buildings.

by Ms. D on Nov 11, 2012 2:29 am • linkreport

Transit advocates and urbanists would be well served by less attention to anti-transit bureaucrats and more time on getting your house in order. The first step is recognizing that existing service is too crowded at rush hour and too infrequent (or nonexistent on many routes) off-peak. The second step is a recognition that transit dollars are always going to be limited and we need the most cost-effective solutions. Smart Growth is far too often used as a justification for unnecessarily expensive projects (like trolleys), while the region's transit users (especially the poor) are left with an existing system that is globally substandard in terms of reliability and frequency.

by Tom T. on Nov 11, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

@Tom T, you suggest that "we" get our house in order because existing service is too crowded, and then suggest that something like a "trolley" is too expensive. Wouldn't a streetcar or BRT be more cost effective than more subway tunnels? This juxtaposition is exactly the problem. We need more transportation options. Hence the advocacy for bike lanes, car sharing, BRT and streetcars. If we as residents have more choices, then it will free up road space for cars, who hopefully in the future, will be paying something closer to market rates for the privilege of taking up such precious resources.

by William on Nov 11, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

@Ms. D well said!

@Tom T
Transit needs to get its "house in order" (provide more service apparently) but also realize that transit dollars are limited? The latter is the reason for the former. If the public at large had bothered to pony up enough to actually keep the system in good order then we would have more reliable service today. Instead, because of the anti-spending crowd we are playing catch-up.

by MLD on Nov 12, 2012 8:32 am • linkreport

So, I kind of have this crazy theory about off-peak transit use. Hear me out (or ignore me), it's largely based on personal experience and deductive reasoning.

Personally, I live a 12-minute walk from the nearest Metro/bus hub, and a 5-minute walk from the nearest bus stop (it's only one line, so while it can get me to a couple of great places, it doesn't meet all of my transit needs). If I can take the nearby bus where I'm going, I find it a piece of cake to do so. It's a pretty frequent bus route (20 minute-ish headways). If I pull up my transit app (Nextbus on the internet or phone would work just as well) and find that the bus is 20 minutes away, it's NBD. I just hang around my house for 10 minutes, checking once or twice to make sure the original information was accurate, and then take off for the bus stop. If the bus is a few minutes early, SCORE! I didn't wait as long, and had built in a few minutes grace, so I'm already there. If it's a few minutes late, the extra wait is not the end of the world. I find myself standing at the stop waiting for this bus anywhere from 2-8 minutes. Those are all acceptable wait times. And if I know it's coming, I rarely miss it.

But the Metro and its attendant bus hub is a whole different story. Most apps that feed of the Metro boards will only give you trains that are within 20 minutes of the station, which isn't all that useful when you're trying to figure out when to catch a train within 12 minutes +5 without refreshing your phone every 5 seconds. While I'm pretty good at guessing when a train will arrive using something like http://howsmetro.com/, which shows the location of all trains on the line, things happen. 17 minutes (my walk time plus grace) is enough time for things to change substantially. I could have an easier time crossing the ONE road I have to cross to get there, or a harder time (more likely since all of our pedestrian crossing signs have been knocked down and not replaced). The bus or train could speed up or slow down due to traffic and passenger loads. Just this last weekend, the combination of me being held up by (unusually heavy) traffic that would not let me cross the street and a slightly earlier train caused me to miss a train while trying to run into the station.

I call this the "uncertainty gap." You don't want to leave so early that you're sitting on a Metro platform or standing at a bus stop for a while (and anything over 10 minutes qualifies, in an age where we have reliable information available to us at our homes or on the go as to when transit will arrive), but you want to make sure you don't miss the transit when headways are substantial. Given my PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, those who live less than 10 minutes from transit can overcome the uncertainty gap in such a way that transit becomes an attractive option. If you time your arrival to allow a few minutes grace for trains or buses that have moved faster than the original prediction you received, you'll never wait long for transit, but that is only realistic if you live within 10 minutes of the transit. Arrival predictions are most precise and available when the transit is within 15 minutes of your stop, and a travel time to the stop under 10 minutes introduces the least chance of delays or interruptions. Even better if you're within 5 minutes.

I can come up with a whole slew of scenarios related to this theory that would lead someone to choose personal transportation over public transportation, but the generalizable take-away is that, because so many people in DC live in spread-out neighborhoods where they must travel over 10 minutes to the nearest transit, people choose not to ride transit at off-peak times because of the uncertainty gap. At peak hours, the "uncertainty gap" amounts to waiting an extra 3-6 minutes for a train on most lines, or a reasonable period of time on some bus lines (not all, by all means...some bus lines absolutely need more service), so it's not a barrier to riding. At off-peak times, it can amount to waiting an extra 20 minutes for a train, or hour for a bus, as happened to me this weekend.

While I'd like to solve this problem with more service, from both a maintenance and fiscal standpoint, that's not really feasible in Meto's time and fiscal budget. What could change, though, without the expenditure of public dollars, is the number of people who live within the 5- or 10-minute radius of frequent transit, if only we allowed our laws to easily permit this kind of development. People WANT to live near public transit. Only months after its completion, with rents that make my eyes bug out, Rhode Island Row has only 11 out of 270 apartments advertised for rent. Rents are higher and availability even more constricted near the NY Ave Metro. And neither of those hold a candle to the rents demanded for transit-friendly homes in many other areas. THESE are the people who can easily ride public transit at off-peak times, improving Metro's bottom line and filling excess capacity at low-ridership times. And as they fill that capacity, we then have an argument that Metro now has more revenue and increased off-peak ridership and can and SHOULD provide more off-peak service. That service then benefits people trapped in the uncertainty gap, who no longer have to wait 20 minutes for the next train, and will gladly tell their friends who offer them a ride to their weekend sports game that we can make it there just fine on our own, maybe you should try Metro, too! :)

Also, as an aside, while Metro is not the MOST enlightened transit agency on the topic, I do have to give them props on their "pets at all times in carriers" policy, and apparently training their staff well on this topic. I'd like to see restrained, non-disruptive pets allowed outside of a carrier off-peak (it's really hard to shove a big dog into a carrier, says the sympathetic owner of a 15-pounder who I can easily carry, but who previously lived in Boston where dogs were fine on-leash on the T off-peak and never had one single problem with them). I've had a few people try to call me out when bringing my dog on the Metro or bus, and the operators and staff have universally been knowledgable that I'm good so long as he's contained, and supportive if the other passenger throws a fit (that's only happened twice...both over allergies...which is HILARIOUS, since I have TERRIBLE allergies and, therefore, my dog is low-allergy (there's no such thing as a hypo-allergenic dog) and I informed them of that and made clear that I would stay as far away from them as possible). That's *one* thing Metro is doing well to make car-free living more accessible.

by Ms. D on Nov 12, 2012 11:40 pm • linkreport

@Ms D
Interesting observation. It probably ties into the idea that transit users pick the best mode for each trip based on speed, trip distance, walking distance to the stop, etc. Even with the uncertainty of Metro, you would probably choose it if you were going a longer distance across town? It seems like you are making a time judgment about each mode: for each choice (Metro or bus) you think about how long the trip will take, and factor in that uncertain time you may be waiting, and choose the one that will be quicker.

And yes, the solution is more frequent routes, especially frequent bus, and more development around those frequent routes.

by MLD on Nov 13, 2012 9:01 am • linkreport

I'd like to see restrained, non-disruptive pets allowed outside of a carrier off-peak

There's no way to make that judgement fairly on a case-by-case basis.

I've been attacked by huge dogs that were "just playing," and been turned into a slobbering mess by "allergy free" dogs. Pet owners are apparently terrible judges of their own pets, and I really don't think you want Metro riders arguing with each other about how "non-disruptive" their dogs are.

Also, the trains are carpeted.

by andrew on Nov 13, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

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