Greater Greater Washington

Breakfast links: Ups and downs


Photo by JamesCalder on Flickr.
Raise the height in places: BeyondDC responds to the suggestion from Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent that Washington raise its height limit. The limit should be increased strategically, but not raised citywide, or removed altogether.

Metrobus ridership down, rail ridership up: July and August saw declines in Metrobus ridership and slight increases in rail ridership. Metro's CFO says the decline is caused by the bad economy and unemployment, not the fare increases. Never mind that fare increases are more difficult to afford when unemployed in a bad economy. (Examiner)

Exurban write-downs: Even when the economy recovers, many exuburban houses will never regain their lost value. Lenders need to face this fact, argues TNR. (Eric Fidler)

Where are the food deserts?: A new study conducted with The Reinvestment Fund confirms what many of us already suspected: Wards 7 and 8 are food deserts. The study incorporated not only distance to groceries but also socioeconomic factors that affect mobility and access. (TNR, charlie)

Phase I of Moynihan Station starts: Ray LaHood joined New York lawmakers to break ground on the first phase of Penn Station's expansion into the Farley Post Office across the street. (Post, Cavan) ... Chris Christie is likely to kill the ARC tunnel Friday unless a government besides New Jersey offers to cover any cost overruns. (Second Ave. Sagas)

Don't walk to school: School administrators and city officials in Laguna Beach, California acknowledge that their infrastructure endangers pedestrians, but rather than remedy it, they simply refuse to endorse or promote children walking to school. (Switchboard)

And...: Abu Dhabi owns Chicago's parking meters (Atlantic, charlie) ... You've heard of elevator music, well, Rosslyn makes escalator music (Ode Street Tribune) ... Michelle Rhee got a job offer to be state education head in New Jersey. (Post)

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

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Re: Metro Ridership

"Metro trains carried about 18.5 million passengers in August, roughly 600,000 more than during the same month last year."

August 2010 has 22 weekdays. August 2009 had 21. There's the reason for your 3% increase in ridership right there.

As for MetroBus, it's dumb of them to say "it's the economy and not the fare increases." We all know that fare increases have a negative effect on ridership. It's really a combination of both - bus ridership was down in Q1 and Q2 as well, but it was down more in July/August.

by MLD on Oct 20, 2010 9:25 am • linkreport

It is far hard to parse out, but blaming "unemployment" for WMATA's problems seems a stretch. I **might** be able to make that argument for metrobus; higher unemployment rate in DC and very high for poor people. And DC is about 40% of Metrobus.

But the really telling number is the budget is running $7 million below expectations -- and that includes both train and bus revenue.

I suspect the biggest factor is the relative stability of gasoline prices. No need to take metrorail on long, expensive trips. Combine that with Circulator $1 fares, real drop-offs in bus traffic, and not meeting growth goals in rail, you have a revenue problem.

So we are talking about 3.5 million a month below expectations; contra the fare hike was supposed to bring in about 9 million a month.

by charlie on Oct 20, 2010 9:27 am • linkreport

"But letÂ’s not needlessly erase one of the most unique and interesting things about Washington"

BeyondDC sounds like a starchitect. I imagine that is how they would describe/defend their buildings. Unique and Interesting don't equal good.

by Madison on Oct 20, 2010 9:29 am • linkreport

@ Raise the height in places: There is plenty of space in DC left to build office buildings. For that matter, there is not reason to remove the height limit. If DC wants more people living downtown (and that would be a good thing), it should change its zoning. DC could also force builders of new big buildings to make them mixed use. Office-living-retail. If neighborhoods can do that to universities (GW, AU, UMD), why can't DC do the same to builders?

@ Metrobus ridership down, rail ridership up: Makes sense. Unemployment is high under (formerly) lower-income folks. Statistically, the take the bus more than all the white collar folks who metro in from the suburbs.

@ many exuburban houses will never regain their lost value. Lenders need to face this fact: It would be nice if banks did the same, and allowed loan modifications. Even just refis would be nice. Anything would be nice. However, currently, banks seem to be rewarded for refusing to do anything for the folks that bailed them out. Thanks government regulation!

by Jasper on Oct 20, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

@Jasper Definitely. Downtown could be so much more successful if people actually lived there. We do still indeed have plenty of space to build outward. (I'm not saying "outward" to the Suburbs, but it's outright silly that DC's got huge empty parcels less than 10 blocks from Metro Center, and an empty block that's visible from space in Chinatown)

Now, granted, things would be bad if we got rows of buildings all built up to their height limits (especially if they have no setbacks). We need to work on regulation to prevent that from happening any more than it already has, even if it means modest increases to the height limit. It's still entirely possible to build "canyons" even with the current limits.

by andrew on Oct 20, 2010 9:48 am • linkreport

@Jasper; good graph of places with foreclosures:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2010/10/18/GR2010101806640.html?sid=ST2010101806160

by charlie on Oct 20, 2010 9:59 am • linkreport

The TNR link on food deserts doesn't seem to be working.

by Fritz on Oct 20, 2010 10:05 am • linkreport

@ height issue,

As I posted on Matt's site . . . One problem with raising a height limit is that it immediately raises the value (and thus sales price) of every parcel it covers. As a result, new developers *have* to build taller (and often charge the same amounts) just to get a return on their income.

In such a situation, the height increase only serves to enrich the current landowners without much impact on future lessees or investors.

Of similar vein, take a look at downtown Atlanta. For years, there was no height limit of any kind, and so every parcel in the area was so "over"valued as a result. Thus, no one could afford to buy a parcel unless he planned to build a skyscraper. Office rents weren't kept down by this -- on the contrary, they stayed high because buildings downtown (which had to be tall to bring a return given the high land values) were only built as Class A trophy structures.

This forced a gap-toothed layout with 70-storey ego buildings adjacent to parking lots.

by Joey on Oct 20, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

I like a bit of direct sunlight during the dark half of the year.

A doubling of building heights would double the shaddows--the percentage decline in the amount of street in direct sunlight would depend on direction and width of roadway (as well as time of day) but presumably it would be near 100% in some places.

The amount of blue one sees when they look up would also decline, albeit less than proportionately.

by Jim Titus on Oct 20, 2010 10:14 am • linkreport

Fritz: The TNR article has quote marks in its title and TNR's blog software left them in the URL, confusing many browsers. I've tried replacing the link with a bit.ly URL; see if it works now.

Joey: Vancouver's Larry Beasley talked about how to deal with that when he spoke here. He suggested that instead of just raising the limit, DC can get the ability to grant targeted increases in exchange for amenities. Therefore, the landowner isn't inherently entitled to the extra value, they have to do something that shares the extra value with society in order to exploit it.

by David Alpert on Oct 20, 2010 10:16 am • linkreport

Why take a dig at WMATA over bus fare increases when this website promoted them?

by Josh S on Oct 20, 2010 10:26 am • linkreport

@Joey That's an excellent point. The height limit could serve to reduce sprawl, by encouraging the District to evolve into a continuous urban fabric, rather than a patchwork of "downtowns" and suburbs.

It's very clear that Paris was on L'Enfant's mind when he designed DC. Paris is proof enough that a large urban area can exist and be successful without a huge number of tall buildings.

Like I said earlier: We can revisit this discussion once we've built on all of our empty lots, and have a low vacancy rate. I don't foresee that happening anytime soon.

by andrew on Oct 20, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

@DavidA: The TNR link works now. Thanks!

by Fritz on Oct 20, 2010 10:34 am • linkreport

Sad news: Bikeshare and Streetcar did not get the TIGER grants.

by andrew on Oct 20, 2010 10:49 am • linkreport

@JoshS; I didn't read that as a dig. I read it as a differnce in what a fare increase would do. I think reading the numbers is revealing more people are price-senstivive than GGW may have predicted - need to go back and find those budget posts.

And you have to say thank you to WMATA and the new manager for putting that information out there in the public.

Direct link:

http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/scorecard/documents/Vital_Signs_Oct._2010.pdf

For example, while July and August of 2010 was down form last year, it was even more down from two years ago:

FY2011 (2010): July 10.4, August 10.5
FY2010 (2009) JUly 11.8, August 11.2 (what was reported)
FY2009 (2008) July 12.1, August 11.7

2 million bus riders a month missing.

by charlie on Oct 20, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

@David

Yes, that's true, but Dr. Beasley also stated that D.C. should explicitly declare that no changes by made to the current height limits in the old city of Washington, which includes all of downtown. Leveraging community amenities with the right to build higher structures would only be viable, then, in areas like Columbia Heights or Anacostia; however, I doubt the willingness of developers to build Class A commercial office space in those areas.

The best hope for D.C. is development plans in the Navy Yard/Ballpark area, NoMa, and eastern portions of downtown like the 395 scar. In those areas, office vacancy rates are twice the level seen other established areas of downtown; space is not the issue. I believe much of the rise in rents is caused by artificial bubbles (such as the Feds holding on to large swaths of property). For example, imagine what will happen to all the prime office space that will be released by the Department of Homeland Security when they all move to St. Elizabeth's (by my count, DHS occupies three entire office buildings downtown, not including their massive Complex in Van Ness). In addition, what is going to happen to all the vacant office space held by the military in Crystal City when BRAC (stupidly) moves those jobs to Ft. Belvoir?

by Adam L on Oct 20, 2010 10:51 am • linkreport

@ charlie: I wasn't aiming at foreclosures - that is such a mess, I don't want to start a flamewar over it.

People have mortgage needs and banks are refusing to even talk about what people want. ARMS are expiring and people want to talk to the bank about a fixed rate. Banks says NO. People want to move and keep their mortage, but swap the equity (for equal value). Banks say NO. Don't even want to talk. Not even offering a 25% rate. Nothing zippo.

By refusing to even talk to customers, they are forcing people to rethink their options, and some will conclude that foreclosure is the only option. It is very odd.

@ Michelle Rhee got a job offer to be state education head in New Jersey: Good for her. DC: Where people get fired for doing their job.

by Jasper on Oct 20, 2010 10:54 am • linkreport

@charlie

Not trying to say you're wrong in saying bus ridership is trending downwards, but July and August 2008 were some of the highest ridership months in recent history - it was when gas prices were at record levels.

by MLD on Oct 20, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

@andrew: Paris didn't have any tall buildings in 1791, save for the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides. And DC didn't have the height restriction until 1910.

In other words, Paris didn't have its tall buildings when L'Enfant planned Washington, and he didn't incorporate that idea into the city.

by Tim on Oct 20, 2010 11:00 am • linkreport

@Jasper; yes, exactly. Banks have stopped serving their economic function and make all their money from fees. Who can imagine?

@MLD; true. But I suspect gas prices has more to do with rail revenue, not ridership. Again, $4 gas makes long (and expensive) metrorail rides sensible, but bus rides (concentrated in DC and PG county) are shorter and less gas sensitive.

by charlie on Oct 20, 2010 11:06 am • linkreport

MLD; true. But I suspect gas prices has more to do with rail revenue, not ridership. Again, $4 gas makes long (and expensive) metrorail rides sensible, but bus rides (concentrated in DC and PG county) are shorter and less gas sensitive.

Actually, my take on the fare issue was that rail riders are much more likely to have their fares subsidized (much higher percentage are federal employees and are not vulnerable to unemployment and are elastic to fare increases). Captive riders that pay for their rides were much more likely to get their jobs cut and were likely to travel less.

by AA on Oct 20, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

@ andrew: Paris is proof enough that a large urban area can exist and be successful without a huge number of tall buildings.

The population density of Paris is 10 times that of DC. Parisians live small. *Very small* (a friend of mine had 16m^2=170 sq ft). It is unlikely that Americans of any kind are willing to live that small. Parisians live so small that they basically only sleep at home, and live in bars and restaurants. The same is true in London and Dublin.

In English, the word 'pub' comes from public house, truly the living room of people who's house was too small to live in. In French, the cafe is where you have coffee for breakfast and lunch.

by Jasper on Oct 20, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

@ charlie: Banks have stopped serving their economic function and make all their money from fees. Who can imagine?

The government who is encouraging them by picking up all the refis through Fannie and Freddy. It's incredible. To mingle into the foreclosure business, I think that the people will not allow another bail out of the banks when judges will start nullifying mortgages that were foreclosed fraudulently. There is plenty of jurisprudence, and banks will have nowhere to go.

by Jasper on Oct 20, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

@charlie

But I suspect gas prices has more to do with rail revenue, not ridership. Again, $4 gas makes long (and expensive) metrorail rides sensible, but bus rides (concentrated in DC and PG county) are shorter and less gas sensitive.

I assume you mean "not [bus] ridership" here. Actually, in Q3 2008 rail ridership increased 5% over the same period in 2007. Bus ridership increased 5.7%. Increasing gas prices drove ridership up on all modes, for different reasons. Perhaps bus has a different threshold than just driving price > bus ride price - convenience, trip time, etc?

by MLD on Oct 20, 2010 12:14 pm • linkreport

@MLD; actually, no, you caught me. Wasn't looking too carefully at the rail numbers. Quite right that bus and rail are different, although I suspect that has to do with the nature of the customers than the factors you identify (convenience, timing, etc).

I think the bigger picture is how poor the estimates are; take a number and draw a straight line up. Not surprising, but very little understanding of their customers and what price increases may or may do.

by charlie on Oct 20, 2010 1:14 pm • linkreport

whoever raised, and/or advocated for raising, bus fares should be forced to ride the bus.

i'm sure that some of the lost bus ridership started riding bikes, but doubt it would have been statistically significant. yet. in the future, if/when DC ever becomes bikable by normal people -- watch out -- you raise the bus fare, you'll see a big spike in bike ridership.

by Peter Smith on Oct 20, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport

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