Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Steve Offutt

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver. 

Do you know about Metro's "Service Nearby" tool?

What to do when you've found yourself in an unfamiliar area in the Washington metropolitan area? If you're within one mile of a transit stop, whether it's Metrobus or Metrorail, you're in luck. A hidden tool on Metro's website, the "Service Nearby" tool, can be very useful for helping to plan Metro trips.


Photo by doug88888 on Flickr.

Last summer, a friend of mine moved to a new apartment in Alexandria, an area with which he was not particularly familiar, and asked me for advice on how to find a good way to commute by transit to his job in DC.

I pointed him to Metro's "Service Nearby" tool as a first step in figuring out his various options. The tool identifies all the transit stops within one mile. You can then use that information to look at schedules or use the Trip Planner to determine various ways to go where you want to go.

Since the Trip Planner does not always provide the complete list of options (and often not even the best options), using "Service Nearby" can be really helpful. You can find it under the "Rider Tools" tab as shown here:

On the next screen, enter in the location you want to find service near, as shown below:

The tool will then list all the services within a mile of that location. Some are not as useful as others; for example, the tool is redundant, listing every bus stop along the same bus line. Nonetheless, you can use this information to help figure out how to get to a variety of locations and to other means of transportation, such as Metrorail stations.

Here's an example. The complete results went on much longer than this screen shot, but as you can see, this example only shows locations within 0.12 miles:

Using public transportation often requires research and effort on the part of the rider, but with the advent of the Internet, smart phones and apps, NextBus and other tools, it's getting easier. "Service Nearby" is another valuable tool that can aid travelers using the Metro system.

Replacing street parking with bike sharing is good policy

The Arlington County Republican Party recently chose to make a stink over the fact that as many as eight metered parking spaces have been replaced with Capital Bikeshare stations.

However, this is really a non-issue. Prior to this, 100% of street parking in Arlington was for cars; now it's maybe 98-99%. That is still remarkably unbalanced.

TBD interviewed me for a story about the issue:

The contention that replacing these parking spots with bikeshare parking costs the county money and is a bad idea is wrong in so many ways.

First, the only way it costs the county money is if every single spot within blocks is completely full. That's because someone seeking street parking (like the woman in the video) will likely find another spot and pay there, although it may be less conveniently located.

Second, these spaces will get utilized much more than a car parking spot. If even 2-3 people use the bikeshare station over a two-hour period, that's likely more people than would have used the metered spot it replaced anyway.

Third, it's good for business. As this recent economic article clarifies, the use of public space for bike parking is far more cost effective than for car parking.

Fourth, it actually can make it more convenient, even for car drivers. As I point out in the video, I parked my car near a CaBi station with plenty of adjacent street parking and then took the CaBi bike the 5-6 blocks to where I needed to meet my friend.

This was quicker and easier than trying to find a spot (whether or not any had been given to bikes) near the intersection of Moore and Wilson in Rosslyn. I would have almost certainly circled the block at least once and, if I had found a spot, it would have been not that close to where I was trying to go--forcing me to walk several blocks anyway. What I did was much faster and more convenient.

Thus, having plenty of Bikeshare stations sprinkled throughout a dense area can make it more convenient for drivers, because it greatly expands the area where they can find parking and still easily access their destination.

Occasional GGW contributor and Arlington resident Erik Bootsma wrote:

As a Republican (gasp!) and an Arlington resident, and I can tell you that using the CaBi is something I would use extensively. ... I can't tell you how frustrating the GOP here can be, with their 100% dashboard mentality. Freedom of choice also means freedom from HAVING to own a car, so having options is great.

I have a car myself and like having it, but also like having the option to use transit, to have a bike and to walk. If the GOP here doesn't wake up to the reality of Arlington/Washington urban life they will remain at 20%.

They need to be more responsive to the real desires of their constituency and realize that if I wanted to live in a sea of asphalt and parking lots, and wanted to avoid walking at all costs, I'd live in Manassas, not in Arlington ... Just because I'm in favor of living in a city, doesn't mean I'm a central planning statist bent on taking away freedom.

Arlington also removed a few parking spaces in Pentagon City to plant more trees, but the local GOP either didn't know about it or didn't object.

Improving flexibility of travel options and making parking more equitable and convenient for everyone increases access and foot traffic to local businesses, and that's something any political party ought to support.

Simplify Shirlington-Pentagon bus choices

On paper, travelers between Shirlington and the Pentagon have more than 160 buses per day in each direction to choose from. In reality, however, it's difficult to know about and take advantage of these options.


Shirlington bus station. Photo from Arlington VA.

The location of the Shirlington Transit Center bus bays and the fact that two separate operators serve the route, without a combined schedule, hinder passengers' full use of the choices available.

A little restructuring can save passengers from having to remember multiple schedules and know which bus bay to go to depending on when they arrive at the transit center.

Metrobus routes 7A/C/E/F/Y, 22A, 25A/D and ART route 87 serve the I-395 corridor, connecting downtown Shirlington to the Metrorail network. The 7A and 25A are express, taking 6-9 minutes to travel directly between these two stations. The 22A makes a few stops before getting on I-395, resulting in a travel time of about 12-14 minutes. The ART bus takes a local route that takes about 23-27 minutes, meaning that for Pentagon-bound passengers it is usually advantageous to wait for the next Metrobus than take the ART 87.

At Shirlington the 7 and 25 buses are located at Bus Bay C while the 22A is located at the farthest possible point away, bus bay A:

Because these buses travel through the transit center in opposite directions, it's not possible to locate them all at the same bay. But placing them at adjoining bays A & E or B & C would make a lot more sense. A passenger wanting to go directly to the Pentagon would not have to dash around the station to the far end to catch the other bus.

It would be difficult to arrange the bays any more rationally at Pentagon station. There, four adjoining bays, Upper 3, 4, 5, and 6, serve the Shirlington routes. Riders have to be astute to note the alternate buses arriving and knowledgeable of their various options. ART bus locations are not shown on this map, which appears to be somewhat out of date.

While WMATA posts station bus stop maps for rail stations such as the Pentagon, ART's site had a better graphic and includes the Shirlington transportation center map as well.

Because there are several routes that serve these two points, many riders probably only learn over time that they have several options. There is no combined point-to-point schedule of the 160+ buses per day that would make this information easy for passengers to have, hold and use.

Also, since NextBus treats each bus bay as a separate stop, it doesn't effectively serve these customers, who don't care what bus number they get onthey just want to get between these two points as quickly and easily as possible.

There are other cases where a rearrangement of bus stops at the Pentagon would help riders: e.g., the 29 and 17 buses both serve some of the same parts of Annandale, but are located on separate levels at the Pentagon. Similarly, the 25 and 8 buses share parts of Alexandria, but are located far apart at the Pentagon. Passengers are forced to choose one bay or the other, which may frustrate them if circumstances (like a late bus) work against them.

A programmer could probably create a simple smartphone app using NextBus data that would combine the Shirlington and Pentagon bus stops (or other highly-used point-to-point locations), which would be quite useful to these passengers.

These simple changes and enhancements would cost little or nothing, but would get more riders to their destinations quickly and easily. If transit agency planners and managers were to imagine themselves in the shoes of their customers, these kinds of improvements could be more obvious.

Renovated Safeway at Seven Corners dismisses pedestrians

The Safeway in the Willston Center near Seven Corners in Fairfax County recently underwent a major renovation. This renovation provides no access for pedestrians along the sidewalk in front of the store, forcing pedestrians to walk in the parking lot.


Photo by the author.

The new renovation is a vast improvement over the old Safeway store that was here. It's bigger, newer, cleaner and includes a Starbucks. Unfortunately, no one paid any attention to how the front of the store interacts with the parking lot and the sidewalk.

This Safeway is not a stand-alone store. It is in a strip that contains a dozen other establishments. It is also adjacent to and very near a large number of apartment buildings, and a significant number of users (myself included) can and do walk to this strip. So it is not a suburban, car-only type of place, even though it has a large parking lot in front.

Although many users come to the Safeway, many also come to the other establishments, and if they wish to visit any that require them to pass by the Safeway (which is in the middle), they must walk into the parking lot to pass in front of the store.

This is, in fact, a dangerous situation. Pedestrians are forced out not into a parking area, but into the moving traffic along the front of the store. The large columns are visual obstacles for both the pedestrians and the drivers. It is likely that at some point in timeprobably at night or in other lower visibility conditionssomeone will be struck.

Here are some photos:

The BB&T Bank is to the west (left) of the Safeway. To walk past the Safeway to stores on the right, one must walk out into the parking lot.

This narrow section of sidewalk is navigable without going into the parking lot, but there's not a lot of room.

The point where the trash can is located is the place where there is no sidewalk option available. All pedestrians must walk out into the parking lot in order to pass this section. Depending on where the cart storage is, pedestrians may also be forced out at the left of the photo where the leaning sign is located.

This is just past the trash can. The sidewalk is about 12 inches wide, but there is also a sign in the way.

Here's a look from the opposite angle. The sign and trash can are visible on the left side of the photo.

This photo is also taken from the east. The trash can is visible. The BB&T Bank is beyond the Safeway.

Fairfax County's zoning ordinance is hundreds and hundreds of pages. A search through the sections that deal with commercial retail properties like this shopping center resulted in virtually no mentions whatsoever of sidewalks or other pedestrian amenities.

The designers of this Safeway were therefore not required to give any consideration to pedestrians, which is obvious from the outcome. Only those who drive cars were considered in their design choices. Even those who drive here and may also want to go to the bank or to the dollar store nearby are forced to step out into the parking lot traffic in order to do so.

To his credit, when this problem was pointed out to the manager, he was surprised and concerned and expressed his opinion that this design would provide a disservice to his customers. Too bad they didn't ask him before they started.

Who's causing congestion on I-66? Hybrids or scofflaws?

An informal count of cars on I-66 in Arlington just east of Sycamore Street seems to indicate that the clean-fuel exemption may be a factor in slowing traffic down without providing significant transportation value.


Photo by afagen on Flickr.

Hybrids and other clean-fuel cars are exempted from the HOV requirement on I-66. All vehicles inside the Beltway on I-66 must be HOV-2, be a motorcycle or have a clean fuel exemption license plate.

Dr. Gridlock has suggested removing this exemption to help the HOV lanes function better. I believed instead that the problem was caused more by scofflawssingle occupancy drivers illegally on the roadthan the hybrid cars, based on times I drove on I-66 and observed the cars around me.

Recently I had a chance to test this presumption. I was crossing over I-66 on the pedestrian overpass near Madison Manor Park (map).

I tried to count how many cars were scofflaws but soon realized that it was difficult to tell if there was a child in the back seat or not. Also, many of the cars had the clean-fuel license plates

From this vantage point, the license plates could be read fairly easily, so I chose to count the plates instead. Traffic seemed to be traveling about 30-40 miles per hour, slower than free-flowing.

Plates with CF, CX, CY or CZ are exempt from the HOV requirement. (One can have a vanity plate exempted, too, but there were few of these; but how should one count the car with the plate GOVEGAN?) The following cars passed between 8:04 and 8:10 AM:
  • 333 cars: 67 with clean-car license plates; 266 without.
  • 1 motorcycle
  • 2 buses
  • 1 18-wheeler! (which are illegal on this highway)
  • 1 eastbound 6-car Metro train
Of the cars, 67 had clean-fuel license plates, approximately 20%.

Here's some quick math extrapolating to an hour and making some assumptions:

  • 2700 HOV cars with 2.2 riders = 6,000 people
  • 670 clean-fuel cars with 1.1 riders = 750 people
  • 20 buses with 40 people = 2,000 people
  • 10 Metro trains with 800 riders = 8,000 people
The clean-fuel cars represent less than 5% of the people being transported along this corridor but represent 20% of the cars. Would removing that 20% increase flow enough or more than enough to make up the difference? Would increased flow entice more HOV cars onto I-66?

More riders, less rain increase bicycling on Custis Trail

Since the fall of 2009, Arlington County has been automatically collecting data from dedicated bike and pedestrian counters. Traffic on the Custis Trail increased from 2009 to 2010, though more rain in 2009 makes it difficult to pin down the exact amount definitively.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Arlington has had two counters installed for more than a year. One is on the Custis Trail near Rosslyn. Another is located on the Four Mile Run trail near Shirlington. The county is continuing to add counters, which will allow for very rich and useful data.

The counter on the Custis Trail at the top of the Rosslyn hill near mile post 3.5 (map) has collected the most data, tracking at 15 minute intervals continuously for more than 15 months.

Bike Arlington reported on the CommuterPage blog that data from these counters will be available online and the site will include graphing tools. Allowing citizens to do their own analysis is a great attribute.

Three different analyses comparing 2009 to 2010 all show an increase in ridership at this counter. However, the magnitude of the increase ranges from 1.3% to 11.2% depending on the analysis.


Click for larger image.

This graph shows ridership for 5 weeks starting at the first of November through the first week of December. The days of the week have been aligned, so 2010 actually starts on Sunday, October 31. Total ridership over the 5-week period increased from 24,015 in 2009 to 26,714 in 2010. That's an 11.2% increase.

That's a pretty good bump for one year. However, it turns out that 2009 had a lot more rain.

The chart above shows days with rain as darker bars. 2009 had 13 days of significant rain and 3 days with tiny rain. 2010, however, had only 5 days with significant rain and another 7 with a tiny bit of rain. Whether the timing of the rain on each day was a factor for cyclists is unknown.

Let's look at two approaches to removing rain as a factor.

The above chart shows ridership for the five weeks starting in mid-October through the third week of November. For each day of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) the highest ridership for that particular day is shown. That is, the Monday with the highest ridership in 2009 and the Monday with the highest ridership in 2010 regardless of whether it was from the same week.

Five of the seven days of the week showed higher ridership in 2010 than 2009. The total for all seven high ridership days for each year are 9,826 in 2009 and 10,617 (+ 8%) in 2010.

It should be noted that the highest ridership day of all was actually Saturday, Oct 30, 2010 with over 1,600 cyclists. This number was clearly an anomaly; ridership was skewed by the Stewart/Colbert rally on the mall, so I disregarded it for the sake of this analysis.

For just the five weekdays the totals are 6,085 in 2009 and 6,590 (+ 8%) in 2010.

This analysis, which eliminates rain as a factor, shows an 8% gain in ridership but not as much as the first chart above. This comparison is probably closest to capturing the "unadulterated" increase in ridership, because it most well illustrates that there were, in fact, more riders (maximum ridership was up). However, let's look at an alternative analysis.

To eliminate rain as a factor, this approach takes the seven weeks from mid-October through the first week of December and disregards all days that had any rain in either year, matching up the days of the week. There were 20 days that were completely dry in both years, and they are shown in this chart:

This approach essentially attempts to create an apples-to-apples comparison from year to year, comparing the same days with each other and ignoring days with rain. Total ridership for these 20 comparable days were 15,970 in 2009 and 16,180 (+1.3%) in 2010.

In contrast to the other two, this last approach shows only a very small gain in ridership from 2009 to 2010. However, other factors, such as temperature for instance, may have played a role as well. As the automated counters continue to click each fifteen minutes, 24/7, we'll keep gaining a clearer and clearer perspective on use of these trails.

WMATA readying software for Farragut "virtual tunnel"

WMATA is moving ahead with the out-of-system transfer between Farragut North and West and is scheduled to begin internal testing by the end of January, they said in an email.

In June, WMATA expressed interest implementing the Farragut "virtual tunnel" rail-to-rail transfer. At that time, Mike Russo of WMATA responded to an email inquiry by saying, "We look forward to re-examining the Farragut transfer concept later this year."

Since it's almost the end of the year, I followed up to see what was happening. Raj Srinath, WMATA Treasurer, replied:

Preliminary analysis of the concept and technical discussion regarding the business rules of this transfer proposal have begun. Based on the preliminary analysis, certain programming and software changes have been identified as necessary to implement the "Farragut-to-Farragut virtual tunnel concept."

Programming and software changes will be completed to test the concept and identify any other potential issues by the end of January 2011. Upon the completion of these changes, staff will be able to determine an implementation plan and timeframe for the virtual tunnel, assuming no major issues have been uncovered.

I am pleased with their responsiveness and that they are moving forward with this project. If all goes well, perhaps the "tunnel" will open in the spring.

Use a market mechanism to push Pepco reliability

If Pepco were required to reimburse customers for electricity outages, it could push Pepco to improve reliability faster and more effectively than regulatory tools.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The Washington Post ran a long investigative article last Sunday about Pepco. It took Pepco to task for its lousy reliability and exposed its weak excuses (and lies?) about its reliability problems. Pepco ranks among the worst utilities in the country for number and length of outages.

The problem with utility reliability is that the costs of outages are primarily borne by the customers but externalized from the utility. The only costs utilities pay are a tiny loss of revenue, and the chewing out they get in the press.

The difference between a 1-hour outage and a 5-hour outage may cost Pepco a dollar or less in lost revenue, but it might cost a residential customer a refrigerator full of food.

After Tropical Storm Isabel came through in 2003, my nearby Baskin-Robbins had to throw out their entire inventory of ice cream, thousands of dollars worth. They were just one of thousands of businesses that suffered major financial losses due to the power outages from that storm.

According to the article, some customers are spending $9,400 to install natural gas-powered generators in their homes because they can no longer rely on Pepco to provide them with reliable power. If 10,000 customers do that, it's a total expense of $94,000,000 incurred by them to reduce the risks associated with outages. Unlike, say, cell phone service, customers cannot choose to switch to a different utility for their electric distribution service, so there is no competition to raise the bar for reliability.

Pepco is regulated by the public utility commissions in DC and Maryland. The simplest way to get Pepco to make improvements is for these commissions to internalize the costs of outages with a simple mechanism.

Pepco has announced that they have a 5-year plan to improve reliability. So give them the five years they claim they need. Then, starting in 2015, the PUCs should require them to reimburse customers for outages. For example, any residential customer would receive $2 per hour or portion of an hour that their power is out after the first 15 minutes.

If Pepco experiences an equipment failure that knocks out 2000 customers for 3 hours, they pay $12,000: $6 to each customer. If, after a big storm, they lose 100,000 customers for 10 hours, that's $2 million: $20 to each customer. Reimbursements to commercial customers would be on a different scale. (I'm just making up the amount of these reimbursements for illustrative purposes; the appropriate dollar amounts could be higher or lower.)

The utility commissions would build into Pepco's rate case the expected costs to the utility for achieving "average" reliability based on regional or national statistics, or to return to their own reliability rate from 2004. If Pepco exceeds that, then their investors would reap extra profit; if they fall short, their investors pay. This is fair, since the customers who are directly affected are the ones who get the reimbursements if Pepco falls short, while the customer base as a whole would pay a slight premium for increased reliability if they exceed the goals.

The commission could set the bar anywhere they like. One idea would be to expect them to achieve "average" by 2015 and then increase the reliability expectation by some percentage each year, incentivizing Pepco to continuously improve.

What about "Acts of God?" I would propose that there are no "Acts of God." It's up to the utility to prepare for big storms and other large-scale disruptions. This is, in fact, the business they are in. Hopefully the risk of enormous payments would get them to start looking more seriously at undergrounding, redundancy, smart grid and other risk abatement strategies.

Also, they could purchase re-insurance for major losses. That would be good, because the re-insurer would likely be tougher on Pepco than the PUCs, since they would be scrutinizing Pepco's actions to make sure they reduce their own risks.

This customer rebate mechanism is very simple and easy to understand. The financial incentives are exactly aligned with the desired outcomes. The utility is rewarded for exceeding its goals and penalized for falling short. It even incentivizes them to go beyond the minimum and look for creative and cost-effective solutions.

For the last five years, Pepco has gotten fat and happy while allowing its reliability to go to pot. Sure, they've had a couple of uncomfortable press conferences, but no real penalties. A mechanism like this would keep them from letting it happen again.

Fairfax Parkway interchange shortchanges peds and bikes

Plans to convert 2 at-grade intersections on the Fairfax County Parkway to freeway-like interchanges fall short for cyclists and pedestrians.


Rendering from VDOT.

The planned interchange will appear where Fair Lakes Parkway and Monument Drive meet the parkway. It will turn these intersections into a mess of bridges and ramps.

The plans include widening the Parkway for about 3 miles, eliminating more traffic lights on the Parkway mainline, and making trail connections for bikes and pedestrians. The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock seems quite enamored with the project.

VDOT claims that "shared-use paths and sidewalks will enhance pedestrian access at the interchange and to the Rocky Run Stream Valley Park trail system." If turning this roadway into a freeway improves pedestrian access, conditions must be abysmal now.

Although the project includes pedestrian and bike accommodations, this will be a dauntingly scary place to be either a cyclist or pedestrian. In the
artist's rendering of the project, it is virtually impossible to make out any pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure.

The artist's rendering nicely details traffic flows, lanes and other automobile-related details. One can make out some sidewalks, but it's not at all clear how they are supposed to connect or how one could safely use them.

The buildings in the corners of the rendering are going to be even more separated than they are now. Although one could ostensibly walk from one to the other, it seems that the Fairfax County planners have not given much thought to actually making that a feasible option.

It appears that pedestrians wanting to cross to the other side of the freeway will be required to cross several exit and entry ramps. And they'll also have to walk under a 6-lane wide bridge next to eight lanes of traffica rather unpleasant experience.

It's clear that VDOT wants to make the Fairfax County Parkway more of a limited-access highway. They want to move more cars at higher speeds and greater capacity than before, and pedestrians and cyclists remain an afterthought.

However, it's large projects like these that provide an opportunity to think more creatively about accommodating all modes. Alternative transportation is growing in popularity as is the importance of sustainability, and it is important to be creating easier and safer ways of crossing barriersnot creating new ones.

Bike-o-Meter gives snapshot of bikesharing worldwide

A new app called Bike-o-Meter provides fascinating real-time data on bikesharing systems from around the world.

If you haven't already seen the interactive, animated map that shows station activity for Capital Bikeshare stations, be sure to check it out. Bike-o-Meter uses the same data, but presents it differently.

Each dial shows the percentage of total bikes in use at that particular moment in time.

It is not able to differentiate between bikes that are actually being ridden and those that may be in transit for relocation or taken out for servicing. However, it uses the maximum number of bikes in the system within the last 24 hours, rather than the advertised total number of bikes owned by the service, as the denominator in the calculation.

Here's a bigger screenshot showing 2.8% of Capital Bikeshare's bikes in use at 1:04 pm on Wednesday, October 27.

Barcelona's usage rate at 7:00 pm was 22%. There were more than 4500 bikes available in Barcelona at that time, meaning almost 1000 bikes in use.

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