Posts by Rob Pitingolo
|Rob Pitingolo moved to the DC area in mid-2010 and currently resides on Capitol Hill. He also writes about issues of urbanism, economics, transportation and politics at his blog, Extraordinary Observations.|
Census estimates released yesterday reveal that the population of DC's Ward 6 grew by 9% during most of the last decade. More surprisingly, Ward 1, widely expected to have grown, actually shrank by 3%.
Yesterday the Census Bureau's American Community Survey released its five-year demographic averages for every neighborhood in the nation. Though the bureau is more famous for its constitutionally-mandated decennial census, it still surveys the nation's population characteristics in the off-years.
These interim-year numbers are not the basis of Congressional or DC ward redistricting, but they provide an early hint as to where the official Census 2010 numbers are headed. The data released yesterday provide the five-year average for 2005-2009.
Sources: Census 2000 and projections based on ACS 2005-2009
five-year average with estimates for split tracts.
To calculate the ward populations, we took the ACS data by Census tract and allocated it to each ward. Some tracts are split between wards; for those, we estimated the proportion of the population in that tract which lies in each ward. This means the numbers may vary by a percentage point or two in either direction.
Most observers assumed that the areas east of the Anacostia River would continue to shrink in population or at least not keep pace with growth elsewhere, due to less development there this decade. However, their growth pretty closely kept pace with the District's overall growth of 2.9% in this time period.
It is quite possible the 2010 Census will reveal different changes, but if the pattern holds, it won't be necessary to significantly expand Ward 7 or Ward 8 west of the Anacostia River, as many expected might happen. In the 2000 census, both wards grew in size; Ward 8 added Historic Anacostia, formerly part of Ward 6, while Ward 7 expanded west of the river to Kingman Park.
While Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill, H Street, the Navy Yard/Capitol Riverfront, and the Southwest Waterfront, grew the most, it was one of the smaller wards after the last redistricting. The law allows districts to be up to 5% above or below the ideal of one-eighth of the total population. In 2000, Ward 6 was almost the full 5% under, while Ward 4 (the more northern parts of DC) was almost 5% above.
Ward 4 has grown almost exactly apace with the rest of the District, meaning our best guess would put it again just under 5% high, while Ward 6's rapid growth will likely take it near that threshold but possibly not enough to require redrawing its boundaries either.
Sources: Census 2000 and projections based on ACS 2005-2009 five-year average,
ACS 2009 one-year data, and estimates for split tracts.
Still, there will be changes to these numbers for the 2010 Census. The 5-year ACS data gives a population for DC of about 588,000, up from 572,000 in 2000, but the latest one-year estimates for 2009 estimate a population just about at 600,000, and the full Census is expected to show DC topping that. This means that the five-year data still hasn't accounted for all of DC's growth. The unanswered question is, what wards have that not-yet-counted growth?
If the remaining growth hits Ward 1 (U Street, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Mount Pleasant) at least evenly with the other wards, which is certainly possible with recent development in Columbia Heights, that ward could end up less than 5% below average, making it unnecessary to redraw ward boundaries at all and avoid a very contentious Council debate.
On the other hand, if Ward 1 does keep shrinking at the same rate it did between 2000 and the 2005-2009 average, it could need to get larger, perhaps regaining some of the territory lost to Ward 2 in the 2000 redistricting, such as the blocks south of U Street and west of 14th. Or, since Ward 2 is also below average but Ward 4 is the largest, perhaps Ward 1 would move north toward Petworth and up 14th.
The Census will be releasing their final estimates of DC's total population (and that of other states) later this month. Tract and block data will follow in early 2011 and redistricting debates should take place in the spring and summer.
You can view our data and calculations in this Google Spreadsheet.
Pedestrians across the region may soon find Metrobuses talking to them. Although WMATA will position these buses as a safety innovation, implementing system-wide talking buses would be a poor use of resources and would do little to improve safety.
Supporters of talking buses argue that audible warnings make our streets safer. But the whole scheme feels like a knee-jerk reaction by a transit agency struggling with an image that it doesn't take safety to heart.
The ultimate question with regard to safety is whether there is compelling evidence that these warnings could have prevented a past collision between a bus and a pedestrian. I've yet to see analysis that concludes that talking buses would address the cause of these incidents.
One thing is certain about talking buses: they're annoying.
Both for those on the street and riders on the bus, listening to the same safety message on repeat for an extended period of time is enough to drive most people at least a little crazy. This is true whether downtown, where lines of buses could broadcast for blocks, or in residential neighborhoods, where early-morning and late-night disruptions are rarely appreciated.
Worse, talking buses bully pedestrians into accepting responsibility for an incident that might occur. After all, if someone is unfortunately struck, shouldn't they have seen it coming? It's logic designed to distract attention away from the incident itself, and prematurely assign responsibility.
Washington isn't the first city to experiment with audible warnings on its buses. I lived in Cleveland, Ohio at the time the city's RTA rolled out buses that beeped whenever a bus driver engaged the turn signal. When drivers avoided using their turn signal to circumvent the noise, the transit agency wired the audio system into the steering column and replaced the high-pitched beeping with a female voice.
Cleveland's RTA implemented audible buses after several notable incidents that involved collisions between pedestrians and left-turning buses. Much like the situation developing in Washington, Clevelanders questioned how spending money and resources on audio equipment addressed the root safety issue.
Talking buses have proven incredibly unpopular in Cleveland. A former colleague wrote me to describe the current sentiment. "It's still incredibly obnoxious. I'm embarrassed that visitors to the city have to hear it," he writes. "But like any repetitive sound it gets tuned out most of the time."
This is a serious concern. After a while, talking buses lose any effectiveness they once had. The audible warnings merely become noise pollution in the urban landscape; and we're left with annoying warnings that don't do much good. Small-scale improvements to transit and pedestrian safety is a noble goal; but talking buses are unlikely to accomplish much. Resources would be better spent elsewhere.
On Monday morning Southwest Airlines announced its intent to acquire AirTran Airways. The deal won't be approved for some time, but when it is, the new combined company will likely impact air travel in Greater Washington.
Southwest's biggest presence in the region is at Baltimore-Washington International, where the airline currently occupies 20 gates with 43 non-stop routes and 172 daily departures. Measured by number of departures, BWI is the 4th busiest in the Southwest system.
On the other side of town, since 2006 Southwest has operated what the company refers to as a "boutique operation" out of Dulles International. Today they occupy 2 gates with 2 non-stop routes and 8 daily departures.
What might Southwest service out of National look like?
AirTran currently has 2 gates in Terminal A with 4 non-stop routes and about a dozen daily departures. Even if Southwest maintained that level of service, it would only be a fraction of the business they do out of BWI. Southwest would likely select a few strategic city-pairs for service out of DCA, so many Washingtonians hoping for an inexpensive one-seat flight home to wherever they're from will probably be out of luck.
More interesting is what might happen up in Maryland. BWI is both a top market for Southwest and a secondary hub for AirTran.
While the two airlines directly compete on only about a half-dozen routes, there's legitimate fear that eliminating that competition could push fares higher. In a rare twist of events, expanded Southwest service could have the opposite effect that it historically has had. Only time will tell if Southwest's revenue management team thinks they can successfully pull off higher fares.
At the end of the day, Southwest's acquisition of AirTran might not have as big an impact on air travel in Washington as many are hoping. And while Southwest's arrival at DCA will be welcome by many travelers, it will hardly be a sizable operation.
Excitement is building around the arrival of Trader Joe's in the heart of Clarendon. Before they move in, the grocery chain wants Arlington County to guarantee reserved parking spaces. But handing over free dedicated spaces isn't the only option.
Construction at Clarendon Center. Photo by author.
Last week ARLnow confirmed the long-standing rumor that Trader Joe's is interested in occupying retail space in the brand-new Clarendon Center mixed-used development. When construction is complete, the new development will contain residential and office space, ground floor retail, and will be located literally steps away from the entrance of the Clarendon Metro.
Trader Joe's knows that their store would be a welcome addition to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and they're using parking as their bargaining chip with Arlington County. Rebecca A. Cooper reports that Trader Joe's submitted a site amendment to the County, requesting up to 72 dedicated parking on the first two floors of the Clarendon Center garage. These spaces were originally intended to be available to the paying public.
The grocery business is, understandably, more parking intensive than other types of retail. People may be inclined to walk, bike, or take Metro or a cab when visiting Clarendon's bars and restaurants, or even when shopping at one of the many stores. By its nature, grocery shopping often requires hauling around heavy bags of food.
Of course there will always be people who drive everywhere, and others who do all their grocery shopping on foot or by bike. And there are perfectly reasonable people who want to take a car with them grocery shopping because it's the easiest way to carry everything home.
Clarendon is a dense urban neighborhood. Applying a parking model that works at suburban shopping centers isn't necessary. Trader Joe's needs parking spaces, but reserved spaces aren't the only option available.
Arlington County and Trader Joe's should explore a few alternatives:
Parking Validation. Assuming the Clarendon Center parking garage is to be a privately operated and utilize a "pay by the hour" system, validation would allow Trader Joe's customers to share spaces in the garage with the paying public.
Shoppers would have their parking ticket validated at the register for a free or reduced parking rate for the first 60, 90 or 120 minutes. A number of urban grocery stores the region already use this system. During peak hours, shoppers at the Clarendon Whole Foods can have their ticket validated at one of the nearby parking garages.
Meter Enforced Spaces. If the garage instead utilizes meters, spaces closest to the Trader Joe's could be configured to allow a button press for the first 30 or 60 minutes free; and a fixed rate for additional time. Spaces farther from Trader Joes but closer to the entrance of the garage could be set at a fixed rate at all times.
High Turnover Enforcement. Alternatively, meters could be used to enforce high turnover at the spaces closest to Trader Joe's. A button press would allow each vehicle to be parked 60 or so minutes while the driver shops. After 60 minutes the meter would expire and the vehicle would have to be moved. A similar system is already in place at the Harris Teeter garage on Capitol Hill.
Trader Joe's request for such a large number of dedicated parking spaces is arguably the result of a messy parking situation down the street at Whole Foods, which has 71 dedicated spaces in its lot. There are a few notable differences, however. Trader Joe's is set to occupy significantly less retail space (12,000 square feet at Trader Joe's versus over 30,000 square feet at Whole Foods) and the garage at Clarendon Center could more easily accommodate any parking overflow during peak shopping periods.
Granting reserved parking to individual retail stores often leads to an inefficient over-allocation of spaces. Trader Joe's has better options available in Clarendon, and they should use one or more of them.
The age-old wisdom in business is that when you can't move inventory, you lower your price. Developers in Arlington want tenants in vacant retail space, but the price isn't right. Before approving rule changes for ground-floor commercial space, Arlington County needs to ask some hard questions.
Vacant retail on N. Quincy Street
Over at the TBD Neighborhoods blog, Rebecca A. Cooper writes that building owners are faced with a looming question: what's better, office space or empty space? Of course, this overlooks a third option: lower-priced retail space.
It's true that some retail locations are more desirable than others. Storefronts steps away from Metro are certainly in higher demand that those halfway between two stations. It's also true that everything has a price-tag. Foot traffic may be lower at a less-than-ideal storefront location; but at the right price, business can still thrive.
While start-up retail businesses are often held back by high overhead costs, building owners in Arlington are petitioning the County to change the rules about who can lease ground-floor space. The Retail Task Force will soon meet with County officials to discuss the details. If approved, commercial space originally intended for retail could be leased as office-space or other uses.
Arlington County has gone to great lengths to encourage smart growth along the Orange Line, but building owners now suggest that the corridor may be oversaturated with retail. Even if lease prices were lower, are there any businesses left to move in? Many of us probably know someone with dreams of opening their own small business, whether a coffee shop or a craft store; but overhead costs in a place like Arlington make it a tough dream to realize.
The Retail Task Force sees value in these types of start-up businesses, but isn't confident that start-up business owners have "renaissance skills" Before Arlington County moves forward changing retail rules, they should ask building owners hard questions about why this space cannot be leased at a lower price.
Businesses owners lacking "renaissance skills" cannot be successful and may, in some situations, have difficulty leasing space. The County should research the feasibility of operating a retail incubator in which select businesses could receive management guidance and build technical skills in a supportive and reduced-cost environment. A goal of the incubator should be to help business achieve the "credit worthiness" required by financial lenders, using SBA resources where applicable.Establishing a retail incubator to help start-up business owners build the skills necessary to succeed is a noble goal. Doing it primarily so that they can qualify for lines of credit to pay for high-priced retail space is not. Given that ground-floor commercial space in Arlington has long sat vacant suggests that owners anticipate a future rise in the value of that space; or perhaps that the Small Business Administration might step in with low-cost business loans.
Before Arlington County moves forward changing retail rules, they should ask building owners hard questions about why this space cannot be leased at a lower price.
When I moved to Arlington two months ago, walkability was one of the area's biggest draws. Maybe I've taken for granted that every place I've ever lived has had plenty of sidewalks, but I was definitely taken by surprised when I discovered my new neighborhood was missing more than a few pedestrian facilities.
To put this in more context: I live within a half-mile radius of the Ballston Metro station. From my home you can easily see high-rise buildings and cranes being used to build more of them. Most amenities are easily withing walking distance; but in the sense that there are good pedestrian facilities connecting the neighborhood, something is lacking.
In some places, there are no sidewalks on either side of the street. In other places, there are sidewalks on one side, but not on the other. In a few instances, a sidewalk exist in front of a single house, but not in front of the houses on either side of it. Interestingly enough, every morning as I make my way to work, I see plenty of pedestrians on their way to Metro, walking in the middle of the street, in the places where there simply aren't any sidewalks to accommodate them.
I'm told that in many of these cases, Arlington County owns the right-of-way where missing sidewalks would be installed; but opposition from homeowners makes progress slow, painful and difficult.
Why would anyone oppose something as simple as a sidewalk in front of their home? A few of the the top concerns among homeowners include liability, maintenance issues, snow clearing and "perceived" loss of their yard. While these issues look like legitimate concerns on paper, I can't help but think about the same issue from the perspective of a home buyer.
A new home buyer faces these same concerns. Purchasing a home with a sidewalk out front entails many of the same risks as having the local government install one where currently none exists. Yet new home buyers, particularly in urban areas, typically view sidewalks as assets, not liabilities.
In a lot of ways the situation reminds me of opposition to new transit development. Before the infrastructure is built, there are laundry lists of reasons it would be bad for residents in the neighborhood. In many cases, the same neighborhoods become some of the most desirable places to live once it's all said and done.
Yesterday, Washingtonian Capital Comment blog calculated whether it is cheaper to drive into DC from the suburbs instead of riding Metro after the fare hike went into effect.
Rodger Nayak found driving to be cheaper "every time, ... particularly if you take your car to the subway station and pay to park in a Metro garage or lot.
However, as many commenters almost immediately noticed, his analysis was flawed for several reasons. First, he calculated round-trip Metro cost, but only one-way driving. If you double the number of miles, driving already becomes more expensive in several of the examples.
More importantly, Nayak only calculated the cost of gas and parking, but the marginal cost of driving a mile includes more than that, like depreciation and wear and tear which forces more frequent maintenance and replacing the car sooner. There are also fixed costs, like insurance, but even if we assume that a specific rider already has a car and insurance (which should vary more by miles driven but doesn't), there is plenty missing.
To their credit, Washingtonian retracted the piece. We've gone ahead and redone their calculations for the four examples Nayak picked:
|Origin station||Vienna||Frc./Spg.||Shady Gr.||New Carr.|
|Metro before fare hike (Nayak)||$13.20||$13.30||$13.95||$11.25|
|Metro after fare hike (Nayak)||$14.40||$14.50||$14.75||$12.15|
|Metro with "peak of the peak"||$14.80||$14.90||$15.15||$12.55|
|One-way mileage (Nayak)||16||14.2||22.3||10|
|Nayak driving cost||$11.92||$11.92||$13.01||$11.35|
|Nayak 2-way driving cost||$13.84||$13.84||$16.02||$12.70|
|Using IRS rate for total ownership cost||$26.00||$24.20||$32.30||$20.00|
All trips involve commutes from the listed station to Metro Center. All assume a commuter who parks at the station (it's cheaper to take the bus to the station or live near a walkable station).
Nayak doesn't factor in the proposed "peak of the peak" 20¢ Metro fare. The third row above assumes a rider commutes both ways during the peak 1½ hours, adding an additional 40¢ to Metro. If it's possible to commute before or after, that wouldn't apply.
Below Nayak's original numbers are the numbers using his per-mile calculations but doubling them for round trip, for an apples to apples comparison with Metro. The next line replaces his per-mile gas-only calculations with the IRS's per-mile value.
The IRS already calculates an average cost of driving for tax purposes. Taxpayers can deduct 50¢ per mile for trips taken for business purposes. This is a nationwide average, combining average gas mileage (some are higher and some lower, while the heavier traffic here probably makes it lower), average gas prices (ours are a bit below the national average), average car costs and maintenance costs, and more. However, it provides a useful benchmark.
Nayak's calculations assume a $10 daily parking rate at Metro Center, which is about the lowest it goes and requires "early bird" arrivals. Most downtown garages run about $14-20 even with "early bird," so it would be reasonable to add another $5 (or more) to the driving costs above, which we've done in the last row.
All told, the commute cost using the IRS rate and a more average parking rate downtown comes out to about twice the cost of Metro even riding at the most expensive times and parking at a Metro lot.
The mistakes in the original reflect a miscalculation that many commuters are making on a daily basis. There's a huge temptation to assume that the cost of driving is equal to the price of gasoline and it's far too easy to forget the costs of depreciation, maintenance, taxes, fees and financing.
There are essentially two ways to understand the costs of commuting: in dollars and in time. When we think about driving as a cost in dollars, we shouldn't think of miles per gallon, we should think of the total cost per mile. Besides the IRS's 50¢ average, AAA's 2010 Driving Costs report finds the average cost of driving between 36.6¢ and 92.6¢ per mile, depending on the size of the vehicle and number of miles driven per year.
And then there's time. It's tempting to assign a dollar value to time, and say that an hour is worth some fraction of a person's pre-tax income, but that's not really fair. Time is only as valuable as what you use it for.
Just because commuting by car gets a person someplace in 45 minutes where Metro would take an hour is not necessarily a better deal.There's a cost associated with stress that different commuters place on different people.
There's one last important consideration: What if Metro really were slightly more expensive than driving? Does it make sense for everyone to make the switch? No.
While Metro fare is fixed (at least until the next hike) the cost of driving is not. More people driving means more cars on the road and worse congestion on already at-capacity freeways. This would make commutes even longer, burning more fuel and wasting more time. A surge in demand for downtown parking would drive those prices up. So even if driving were a slightly cheaper option today as the original, incorrect analysis concluded, there's no guarantee that it would hold if commuters made the switch.
Best of all would be to avoid having to commute from the most distant stations in the Metro system to downtown DC. No matter what the numbers, when it comes to commutes, there's one thing we know with confidence: shorter commutes, regardless of the mode, will almost always be faster, less expensive, and less stressful than long commutes.
Rob Pitingolo. When we heard he was moving to Arlington, we jumped at the chance to have him start contributing to Greater Greater Washington. Welcome, Rob!
Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its intent to beef up protections for airline customers. One of the ways it plans to accomplish this is by requiring airlines to disclose checked bag and other fees during the booking process.
USDOT certainly has good intentions, but it leaves an important question unanswered: Why do airlines charge extra money to check bags? Why don't they just roll it into the cost of the fare?
From an economics perspective, the airline industry is quite interesting. Many of its customers are obsessed with getting the lowest prices on airfare, to the point where an entire secondary industry has arisen to allow people to nickel and dime and squeeze every penny out of their fare when they travel. Some people will book flights with highly inconvenient transfers to save a few bucks. Other people will drive to a nearby city for a less expensive flight.
Airlines know people behave like this. They know that flyers are logging onto "fare compare" websites, sorting the fares from least to most expensive, and then booking whichever comes out on top of the list. Being a transportation nerd, I often ask my friends which airline they took on a particular trip. Frequently, the answer is, "I don't remember. Whichever airline was cheapest."
Thus, airlines have no incentive to include services in the base fare, if it means not being able to display a lower fare on the web. And it's a race-to-the-bottom, as airlines try to artificially undercut the competition by removing services that were once included in the fare.
In theory, there should be a lot more brand loyalty in the airline industry than there seems to be. Flying is a pretty intimate experience for many people. It can make or break a trip. It can make for a great weekend away or it can ruin a vacation. I've written before about the reason why many companies like airlines have poor customer service. It's a rational response to the knowledge that enough customers will return for some other reason, like a good price. That's not to say airlines haven't tried to retain loyal customers. There are frequent flyer programs, there are branded credit cards, there are special perks for people who fly a lot. Some customers respond to these incentives. Many do not.
By requiring airlines to disclose all of their fees up-front, USDOT is essentially doing what airline customers were unable to do on their own: appropriately compare the cost of flying when all costs have been figured in. At the end of the day though, this is a good thing for travelers.
- Cyclists are special and do have their own rules
- M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- O'Malley announces first projects using new gas tax money
- ICC losing bus service in classic bait and switch
- Can Loudoun grow while protecting its rural areas?
- Silver Spring mall could get massive facelift, new name