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Metro beats BART with suburban transit-oriented jobs

Planners from San Francisco's SPUR recently visited Greater Washington to find out how Metrorail compares to BART. They found that our strong transit-oriented development at suburban stations has led to greater transit use and higher farebox recovery rates.

Photo by mindgutter.

According to their article, the two cities' systems, while built at similar times with similar technology, took very different turns when communities made their land use choices.

"When BART opened in 1974, many suburban Bay Area communities "downzoned" the areas directly adjacent to the station," they write. That hasn't stopped; Pittsburg, California did the same thing when their station opened in 1996.

That's a significant factor in why BART has remained predominantly a park-and-ride system. Running the lines in medians of freeways and having a much more spread-out system didn't help either.

In Washington, on the other hand, foresighted leaders in Arlington and Montgomery County took the opposite tack, planning for higher density right around the stations. Especially in Arlington, they satisfied neighbors opposed to changing their low-density neighborhoods by promising to limit the upzoning to a quarter-mile radius around new stations. We all know the result: new walkable neighborhoods have thrived around these stations.

It's not just about condos in Clarendon, however. This approach also created significant numbers of jobs right around many suburban stations, including Rockville, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, the Pentagon-Crystal City area, and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Rosslyn-Ballston has more than doubled from 30,000 jobs to 80,000 jobs, and, SPUR writes, "this two-square-mile corridor would occupy fourteen square miles if it were built at typical suburban densities."

Those jobs give the Washington region a significantly different commuting pattern than other cities.

Over 30 percent of D.C. residents who work outside the city take transit. This compares with only 17 percent of San Francisco residents who take transit to their jobs outside of the city. In general, it is difficult to get a large share of residents to choose transit over driving for reverse commute trips. Not only is there less congestion leaving the city in the morning commute, but parking is usually cheap or free in the suburbs. So to attract reverse commuters, transit must be particularly convenient and work destinations must be directly adjacent to suburban transit. Due to the design of many Metrorail stations outside of D.C., this is the case for many reverse commuters.
That also brings a very significant benefit to Metro from collecting fares in both directions. When most riders use a system in the peak direction, the transit system has to run empty trains the other way; the more people commute to jobs at outer stations, the more use they get from that extra capacity. SPUR credits this with generating a 71% farebox recovery rate (in 2008) for Metrorail, compared to only 52% for BART (in 2007).

Why did the Washington region do things differently? Smart leadership in Arlington and Montgomery County played a role. So did a few factors that, SPUR notes, "are difficult or undesirable to replicate," such as the height limit, higher taxes, and DC's "poor reputation" in the 1970s, which drove more jobs outside the city core. However, many other cities also experienced this flight of jobs to the suburbs, and failed to concentrate them around new or existing transit.

One of the largest factors in this TOD success story is the federal government's "policy (dating to the Carter Administration) to locate federal agencies near Metrorail stations," and the federal transit benefit for employees. Those are some of the reasons, SPUR says, "federal employees represent nearly 50 percent of all peak period Metrorail riders."

The federal role in Metorail's tremendous success makes it all the more tragic that the government is now proceeding to reverse its brilliant policy by relocating defense jobs away from Metro-adjacent offices through BRAC. So too is the tragedy of Montgomery County's plan to create a "Science City" 4 miles from Shady Grove Metro instead of utilizing all the empty space and industrial parks on top of it.

And for every TOD success story in the suburbs, there's a park-and-ride station no better than BART's disappointing stations. Even in DC, there are plenty of areas that successfully prevented new housing and offices atop Metro stations, like Cleveland Park and Tenleytown, just as many residents of Berkeley have since the 1970s.

The Metro system and jurisdictions' good TOD choices across the years have created a transit network that's enormously valuable to the Washington region. It's up to residents and leaders to continue and expand the good practices of the past as the region continues to grow, instead of foolishly abandoning them for the sake of expedience.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I really like how that report noted at the end that Silver Spring predated the Metro and that the Metro had been used to revitalize what was a stagnant legacy downtown. The Metro was used as a planning tool for what was an altogether different challenge of revitalizing an historic downtown rather than retrofitting a car-dependent place.

Unsurprisingly, they didn't note the revitalization of non-Favored Quarter places as opposed to just Favored Quarter places.

I'll forgive them for calling it "Silver Springs." They're from California and don't know any better.

by Cavan on Feb 18, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

They obviously did not visit Shady Grove.

by Redline SOS on Feb 18, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

And show me an AFFORDABLE condo in Silver Spring and I'll show you a pig in space.

by Redline SOS on Feb 18, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

Redline, the lack of affordable condos there imply that more people are looking to buy there than there are vacant units. That would imply there are too few condos in vibrant walkable urban places. The only solution is to build more condos is vibrant walkable urban places and/or revitalize more existing places.

One small factor contributing to the condos' prices is the snail's pace of the new Wheaton Sector Plan that would include plans for more new housing products. There is also the reality that no new housing is being built in Takoma Park or Brookland.

That's not the fault of the Metro or of revitalizing an historic downtown. We're also on the other side of a massive housing bubble. Prices, especially in under-supplied desired areas are "sticky" in that they fall far, far slower than they appreciate.

by Cavan on Feb 18, 2010 3:32 pm • linkreport

They should visit much of the PG stations as well, but thier focus was probably more generalized.

As for afordability in Silver Spring, there's a lot. It just depends on who you are willing to neighbor up with.

by Thayer-D on Feb 18, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

Actually, Silver Spring is known for its affordable apartments. The extremely high value of properties near Metro stations is evidence of the demand that exists for converting all those park-n-ride lots into housing and jobs.

Having lived in DC, I'd have a hard time moving to Berkeley. I'm proud of what the region has accomplished, but there's still room to improve (and not to slide backwards).

by Matthias on Feb 18, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

Science City will be built along a entirely new rail line, the Corridor Cities Transitway. Development there will support ridership to make the line feasible. Locating more housing near outer rail stations makes more sense than locating jobs nearby. This is the intent of the Shady Grove Sector Plan. Jobs in Science City will attract employees from the ICC, CCT and I-270 corridor, locating jobs nearer to population centers rather than places like DC, Bethesda, and Arlington. Science City is a innovative concept that will enhance American competitiveness in the global economy and will ensure high paying highly educated employment for local residents.

by Cyrus on Feb 18, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

There's a place for park-and-rides too. Shady Grove is one of the busiest stations in the Metro system because of its huge parking ramps. Those are ~6000 cars that might otherwise drive all the way into the city. It makes sense to have some park-and-rides, mostly at the tail ends of each line.

And I think it makes sense to have some parking at stations in some of the suburbs, as there are a lot of people that aren't within walking distance, or even a *short* bus ride, to a station. It can be awfully expensive to live near metro stations. You pay a significant premium for that luxury. I'm able to do that now, but I couldn't afford to live near a metro station when I first moved here. When I did need to go downtown I parked at Shady Grove. In general, parking at stations gives more people the option of taking transit for at least park of their trips.

You can strike a balance. Rockville does a good job. Twinbrook is a great example wasted potential. There's so much surface parking near that station. There's already so much stuff within about a half mile of the station that I think it would be a great area for more dense development on some of those surface lots.

by Andy R on Feb 18, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

Go look again at Arlington. Anything that is not RIGHT on Wilson or Clarendon is not doing very well these days. Lots of empty space, lots of retailers begging ANYONE to comein. But thank god, because Arlington didn't really up the infrastructure around some of these dense communities.

by rujcb on Feb 18, 2010 5:05 pm • linkreport

BART's North Berkeley station, not far from where one of my sisters lives, is an urban tragedy. It sits in the middle of a two-block-square splotch -- four complete blocks -- of surface parking lot in an otherwise relatively dense neighborhood of bungalows on small lots that supports several lively commercial streets some distance away and could easily support another at the station, rather comparable in fact to Takoma DC/Takoma Park MD. If you imagine those nice early 20th century houses surrounding a Takoma Park Metro station with a much uglier parking lot than the one that's there and equally ugly lots instead of the commercial and apartment buildings on the other sides of the station, you've pretty much got North Berkeley. I don't suppose I can really blame Pat Devaney, who pushed through the down-zoning of the site according to the obituary you linked to, for not realizing how surpassingly hideous, both aesthetically and functionally, the results would be, but I am surprised that his successors don't seem to have learned anything.

by davidj on Feb 18, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

The one thing about the down-sized zoning is it can always be reversed. Takoma Park could be so much more than it is by creating a developer friendly environment with common sense regulations, but the local attitude sees development as the enemy. Again, if architects would be more sensitive to their context, this problem might be mitigated, but the community needs to understand that developers build, including their beautiful railroad car suburb.

by Thayer-D on Feb 19, 2010 7:25 am • linkreport

@Cyrus what the hell is Science City? Why aren't they just developing further in already established areas? Like a lot of others have said on here, they should just convert a lot of those lots into high-rise mixed-use buildings.

I'd kill for more high-rise buildings near Metro stations. It'd bring the overall cost of living near the Metro down as there'd be enough apartments to meet the demand.

by Martin on Feb 19, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

@martin....they are already doing that, twinbrook, whiteflint, shady grove, bethesda and silver spring are all adding density, try using this crazy search engine called google

by Dan on Feb 19, 2010 12:09 pm • linkreport

I lived in DC for years before moving to SF in 2000. Although far from perfect in its design, Metro is far better than what we have in the Bay Area. BART is more like a glorified commuter rail. Its claim was to offer the opposite experience of a typical NY or Chicago transit experience (e.g., carpeted floors, plush seats for everyone to enjoy so no one would be standing). Outside the downtown SF/Oakland cores, stations are far apart, do not integrate well with local transit and encourage people to drive to the stations rather than walk. 4 East Bay lines merge in a 2-track tunnel under the bay to whisk people from these environs to the SF job centers around Market St. Sort of like the hub and spoke system of Metro, but far less effective. In SF alone, density east of Van Ness is on the scale of NYC, but this area is mostly untouched by adequate transit. At least Metro connects neighborhoods and revitalizes burned out corridors (Rosslyn-Ballston). BART does not.

by sf4fun66 on Feb 19, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

@ davidj:

I think Berkeley, after the work they did and the money they put up to put their three stations underground (Ashby, Downtown Berkeley, and North Berkeley) has done an awful job of taking advantage of those subway stations to foster new TOD. Only the downtown station has really had any success, and that's largely because of UC-Berkeley.. They have a much better situation that all of the stations on the Fremont, Pittsburg, and Dublin lines because their stations aren't elevated next to rail corridors or in the medians of freeways. BART as a system is full of wasted potential.

by Reza on Feb 19, 2010 1:59 pm • linkreport

@ Reza:

I agree. The N. Berkeley Station doesn't front any commercial strip (University Ave. or San Pablo Ave.) and looks like an asteroid plopped right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It's location was chosen because of the former rail ROW it follows aboveground on the way to El Cerrito. As for the El Cerrito Plaza Station...what a wasted opportunity. A few years ago the aging strip mall was demolished and replaced with a bigger strip mall void of height, void of density and void of residential units. Got more chain stores, tho.

by sf4fun66 on Feb 19, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport


I forgot to mention the Millbrae extension. I'm pretty impressed with what they have done at San Bruno to rehabilitate the Tanforan shopping center and give BART riders a shopping destination ouside of downtown SF. Too bad the Millbrae extension as whole has flopped hard.

by Reza on Feb 20, 2010 12:00 am • linkreport

As someone who spent three years as a Bay Area reverse commuter, I can say unequivocally that the system is a joke. It was built to shuttle white suburban car commuters and stifle real urban vibrancy (and shared prosperity), and did exactly what was was supposed to do. The Millbrae extension, 30 years later, did the exact same thing. Those interested in the success of HSR in CA should note that the same guy is in charge of that project.

Oh, and Reza - there is a fence between target and San Bruno BART. I think you need to walk at least a quarter mile to actually walk into a store.

by Greg on Feb 20, 2010 7:56 pm • linkreport


I was shopping with my partner at Tanforan a few months ago and spent 30 minutes looking for signage to the BART station that supposedly adjoins the mall. Nothing. I contacted management who said "we work very hard with BART." Obviously, not hard enough.

The Millbrae extension is a total joke. South SF station lies in the middle of nowhere next to Costco, instead of revitalizing the aging downtown area. San Bruno, the same, plus the fact that is nearly a mile from the San Bruno Caltrain station. The Millbrae/SFO wye was another failure. First, it was designed so that northbound Caltrain commuters would have a seamless transfer to BART to take them into the city. Unfortunately, transfers are not timed. In addition to the extra wait, riders have to shell out more money to ride BART for a longer ride than Caltrain itself. Second, BART has stopped the Millbrae-SFO shuttle train. Now, the only direct service from Millbrae to the airport is after 7pm on weekdays and on weekends. The airport people mover should have been extended to Millbrae and the airport station scrapped.

by sf4fun66 on Feb 21, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

The SPUR people would do well to read _Cities in Full_ although with one exception, Belmont didn't figure out that at the core of the WMATA system, it functions monocentrically. Otherwise, BART and WMATA have the same general problems of polycentricity, but the depth of federal employment center, plus Arlington's decision, plus the way MoCo leveraged Bethesda and Silver Spring and the Metro were all fortunate decisions, even though it has taken decades to see the results of the decisions.

Compare Fort Totten or Rhode Island stations to what's happening at Columbia Heights and you see that there can be significant differences in positive effects if you make the wrong decisions.

by Richard Layman on Feb 21, 2010 7:46 pm • linkreport

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