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Transit


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

There is much confusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That's because there's no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.


San Francisco's Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It's hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically light rail is a streetcar that, like a subway or el, goes faster in order to serve trips over a longer distance. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there's no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it's usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.


Image by the author.

Let's look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It's a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That's often true, and it's such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I've been guilty of using it myself. But it's wrong.

There are too many exceptions to that rule to rely on it completely. Sometimes (though rarely) light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento's mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia's streetcar subway, for instance:


Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak on Flickr.

In fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. That's true in Atlanta, Seattle, Tucson, even DC. Those streetcar lines don't suddenly become "light rail" for one block just because they have a dedicated lane somewhere. It's just not that simple.

And some streetcars have long stretches with dedicated lanes. Toronto's massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one on K Street.


Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto's Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall on Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it's an important data point; certainly it's one factor that can help tell the difference. But it's not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that's not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:


Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon on Flickr.

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its "light rail" mostly runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.


Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren't enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It's tempting to think of streetcars as "lighter" light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that's true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Norfolk light rail car, which is over 90 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto's newest streetcars are 99 feet long.


Toronto streetcar. Photo by Canadian Pacific on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta's streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.


Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon on Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.


Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco's Muni Metro and Boston's Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.


Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you're likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:


Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that's only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they're in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:


Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:


Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren't consistent? There's no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker's graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

There are certainly plenty of real-life examples of those exceptions. Before Arlington, VA cancelled its Columbia Pike streetcar, DC and Arlington were considering linking their streetcars with a bridge over the Potomac River. Had that happened, there might have been a mile-and-a-half between stops.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There's no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn't. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line's characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC's H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations. Even if DDOT builds the K Street transitway and a dedicated-lane streetcar on Georgia Avenue, the majority of the seven factors will still point to streetcar.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle's Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that's often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.


Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco's Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston's Green Lines, and Pittsburgh's T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

It's a feature, not a bug

The fact that it's hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC's H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, without forcing riders to transfer.

That's why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That's not muddied. That's smart. That's matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line's name.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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History


McPherson Square's namesake died 150 years ago today

Washington has many squares and circles named after generals in the Civil War. McPherson Square is no exception, named after General James B. McPherson, who died 150 years ago today at the Battle of Atlanta.


Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

McPherson was the second-highest ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War. At the time of his death, he commanded the Army of the Tennessee, and his death elevated General John A. Logan to command.

Logan would later lend his name to Logan Circle.

McPherson was killed in what is now the Inman Park neighborhood east of downtown Atlanta. The Battle of Atlanta, fought July 22, 1864, was largely a stalemate and led to a 6-week siege of Atlanta, which finally fell on September 2. The city was later burned by order of General William Sherman on November 14, 1864.

Interestingly, the statue of James McPherson in McPherson Square was cast in 1876 using the metal of Confederate cannons captured in Atlanta. They were melted down and recast into his statue.

A 360-degree painting and diorama of the Battle of Atlanta is on display at the Atlanta Cyclorama in Grant Park (not named after Ulysses S. Grant), and prominently includes General Logan riding to the front. He commissioned the painting to bolster his vice presidential campaign in 1884, though he died in 1886 without ever seeing the completed work.

The Battle of Atlanta was part of the Atlanta Campaign, and led to Sherman's March to the Sea, which split the Confederacy in two along a line from Chattanooga to Atlanta and on to Savannah.

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Public Spaces


Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.


The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative way—playable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.


Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do best—play and learn through play.

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Transit


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


US streetcar boom takes off in 2014

Three other American cities in addition to DC will open new streetcar lines this year, and at least 12 more cities are expected to advance construction on lines that will open later.


Streetcar undergoing on-street testing in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from the City of Tucson.

The four lines expected to open in 2014 are in DC, Tucson, Seattle, and Atlanta. Tucson's Sun Link streetcar will be the first modern rail transit to open in that city. Seattle's First Hill streetcar will run next to a cycletrack for much of its length, in an impressive multimodal layout.

Atlanta's downtown streetcar will be the first modern streetcar to open in the US that doesn't use the ubiquitous 66' long streetcar model first popularized in Portland. Instead, Atlanta will use a 79' long tram similar to the light rail cars in Norfolk.

North of the border, Toronto will shortly begin to use new 99' long trams on its expansive streetcar network, the largest in North America.

Even more cities will begin construction or continue construction on new lines that won't open until 2015 or later. They include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tempe, San Antonio, and Saint Louis.

Many other cities, including Arlington, have streetcars that aren't expected to begin construction yet, but aren't far behind.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Budget


Our bus fares aren't that cheap (if you transfer)

WMATA is considering raising bus fares, with the justification that they're lower than in other cities. But somehow every time this topic comes up, people forget that there's a big difference between our bus fares and other cities': riders transferring between bus and rail pay a lot more.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

The agency recently put out a survey which, among other things, asked riders what they thought about various options for a fare increase. For Metrobus, the survey asked about raising the bus fare from the current $1.60 to $1.75 or $1.85:

METROBUS
Passenger fares cover about 30 cents out of every dollar of the cost of providing Metrobus service. The current Metrobus fare is $1.60 for SmarTrip® and $1.80 for cash. Metrobus fares are relatively low compared to other major metropolitan areas around the country:
STANDARD BUS FARES:
San Francisco & Chicago$2.00
Philadelphia$2.25
New York City & Atlanta$2.50
That makes it look like our bus fares are relatively cheap, right? Maybe compared to those cities if you're just riding the bus. But a lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

Many buses, in fact, don't go downtown at all. They end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, the agency cut back many of the buses so they just fed the rail system. The same is going to happen around Tysons when the Silver Line opens (or even before).

Therefore, to really compare fares, we have to look at the fares for a rail and bus trip. Since our rail system has variable fares, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at the rail-to-bus fare, assuming you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City &
Agency
Bus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other railRail+bus pass?Inter-agency rail+bus pass?
Washington (WMATA)$1.60$1.10Full fare from MARC/VRENoYes
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2YesNo
Los Angeles
(LACMTA)
$1.5035¢/$1.503No other railYesNo
Chicago
(CTA)
$2.0025¢Full fare from MetraYesYes
New York (NYCT)$2.504FREEFull fareYesNo
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other railYesN/A
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.00FREE$1.75 from BARTYesYes
Boston
(MBTA)
$1.50FREEFull fare from commuter railYesNo Yes5

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Los Angeles offers no transfer discount even between multiple LA Metro rapid bus lines, but a rider on a Metro rail or bus line can transfer to a local municipal bus operated by one of the county's cities for 35¢.

4 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get a 5% fare bonus when putting more than $5 on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don't have passes closer to $2.38.

5 The MBTA runs both commuter rail and Boston subway, so there aren't enough agencies to have an inter-agency pass as in other cities on this table. However, the commuter rail passes do offer free "T" subway and bus rides, so Boston does have a pass analogous to those that give a "Yes" for the other cities.

If you look at the 2nd column here, among these cities listed in the WMATA survey, taking the bus after a rail trip costs more here than in any of those cities. Three, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta all have a flat fare for a trip throughout the city, no matter whether it's on one train, one bus, or a combination (though in San Francisco, that's just MUNI light rail, not BART).

We're not necessarily the worst. If you ignore SF Muni's light rail for a moment, the San Francisco Bay Area has a regional rapid transit system (BART) that's very similar to the Metro, and both its base bus fare and transfers between BART and buses are more expensive. Los Angeles has no transfer discount at all between LA Metro bus lines, but its base bus fare (and rail fare, for its limited rail system) is much lower, so many riders are paying less there.

Don't forget passes

In addition, all of the listed cities have combined passes that offer rail and bus trips for a discount. Large numbers of commuters in these cities don't pay every time they ride the bus or train; instead, they subscribe to a weekly or monthly pass and get their transit free. WMATA has a bus pass that a lot of people use, but nothing for rail and bus users. WMATA has, in fact, has been very stingy about passes overall.

Many cities have inter-agency passes, such as Chicago, where you can get a pass for Metra commuter rail and also the L or bus in the city. MARC and VRE also offer passes for their tickets as well as Metro rail or bus; in fact, you pay less to add unlimited Metrorail and Metrobus to a monthly MARC or VRE ticket ($108) than to get an unlimited Metrorail "short trip" pass for 28 days ($140) which offers free rides up to $3.50 but no bus rides.

WMATA could certainly move to a system like other cities' where most people subscribe to transit rather than paying each time. It has a lot of advantages, like blunting the fare loss when there's a big storm, a federal government shutdown, or just the holidays. But every time the issue comes up, finance staff say they're nervous about the relatively unknowable financial impact of the change. (They also say that they need to wait for the next generation of fare systems).

That's in large part because discussions about changing fares only arise around a fare hike. If costs have risen a certain amount, then the agency needs to raise a certain amount more money, not revamp the fare system. But we never have the discussion during the off years, either.

Should bus fares go up?

Maybe bus fares need to change (or maybe not), but this survey is pushing the idea through remarkably misleading statistics. If the proposal is to raise the bus fare but at the same time make transfers cheaper, that is certainly an option. To compare the base WMATA bus fare to the one in other cities without any mention of the transfers or passes, however, does not give riders a fair picture.

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Development


Four lessons Prince George's County can learn from Atlanta

Prince George's County has stubbornly stuck with sprawl, preferring development outside the Beltway and away from transit. Could it learn a new way to grow from Atlanta, which is swiftly metamorphosing from "Sprawlanta" to new urban paradise?


Photo by beardenb on Flickr.

A recent study from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger finds that most of metropolitan Atlanta's growth now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. Close-in walkable neighborhoods, especially those near rail stations, are now home to 60% of Atlanta's office, retail, apartment, and institutional development.

But how did Atlanta get there, and how could Prince George's do the same? By creating plans and sticking to them, coordinating people and resources, making the case for smart growth to developers, and embracing the possibilities.

Talk is cheap, actions matter

In Atlanta, city officials are fully committed to carrying out a bold vision for transit-oriented development. It centers around the Atlanta Beltline, a comprehensive revitalization effort that will turn a 22-mile historic and virtually abandoned railroad corridor surrounding the city into a network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit. In addition, the city has partnered with MARTA, the regional transit agency, to redevelop more of the areas around existing transit stations and also to augment regional rail transit with local streetcar and bus routes.

As Cheryl Cort discusses in her review of M-NCPPC's Where and How We Grow policy paper, Prince George's County lacks a unified vision and growth policy. While county officials talk a great deal in the abstract about the need to focus on TOD and Metro station development, their actions reveal that they have very little understanding of or concern for what it would take to do so.

M-NCPPC staff is in the process of revising the county's General Plan, the official road map that is supposed to guide the county's growth and development through 2035. However, it remains to be seen whether the County Executive and County Council will actually commit themselves to carrying that vision forward, instead of just paying lip service to it.

Proper coordination of personnel and resources is essential

In Atlanta, the planning, building, and housing offices are organized within one department, Planning and Community Development, with a single commissioner. The commissioner's office provides leadership, policy direction, and centralized staff support for all three offices. A single quasi-independent development authority, Invest Atlanta, promotes the revitalization and growth of the city and serves as the city's economic development agency.


The staff of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Photo from the agency's website.

Invest Atlanta created a separate entity to implement the Atlanta Beltline vision called Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Atlanta's mayor and appointees from the city council, city school board, and Invest Atlanta serve on its board. These organizations and offices coordinate extensively with the public.

In Prince George's County, it's unclear who is responsible for developing and carrying out any TOD priorities. The planning, redevelopment, housing, and economic development functions are scattered across various independent agencies, including M-NCPPC, Economic Development Authority, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Authority, and the Revenue Authority, each of which has a separate board of directors.

Two different division heads within the county executive's office interact with these agencies. None of the agencies have any meaningful engagement with the public, except for M-NCPPC, the bi-county planning agency established by state law.

Encourage the development community to embrace smart growth

In Atlanta, city officials appear to have leveraged their good working relationships with the development and real estate communities such that they have become willing partners in the city's smart growth transformation. Take a look at Mariwyn Evans' fascinating account of how the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors (ACBR) worked to educate its fellow members and community leaders about the benefits of transit-oriented development, and also to promote smart growth as one of its top legislative priorities.


Plans for TOD at a MARTA station. Image from the City of Atlanta.

ACBR even helped create an extensive redevelopment action plan for the Edgewood-Candler Park MARTA Station, which is located in an older, formerly distressed neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Both before and after the plan's creation, ACBR worked with city, MARTA officials, and community groups to ensure that the plan would become a reality.

MARTA, in turn, worked with a developer to acquire and develop the Edgewood-Candler Park station in a public-private partnership. Once the new development is finally built, ACBR's members will again play an integral role by brokering the various leasing deals.

Unfortunately, Prince George's County has a long and tortured history of corruption that discourages many good and honest developers from doing business in the county. Additionally, the county's development review process is overly-politicized as a result of the council's discretionary "call-up" procedure, which allows the council to delay or demand changes to projects previously approved by M-NCPPC.

These hindrances make it cost-prohibitive and otherwise undesirable for reputable developers and real estate professionals to bring quality transit-oriented projects to the county. Instead, developers pursue the easiest, cheapest option: greenfield sprawl development.

Embrace the possibilities!

The biggest lesson that Prince George's County should learn from Atlanta is that it is possible within a relatively short amount of time to effect fundamental change in the county's growth and land use policy. And that can change the way ordinary citizens, political leaders, developers, and real estate professionals alike see the future of their communities.

Prince George's County's political leaders can decide that they are going to embrace and follow a true smart growth strategy. They can decide to reorganize the various agencies and departments in a way that maximizes accountability and unity of vision and purpose.

County leaders can decide to stop funding, focusing on, and advocating for suburban sprawl projects. They can decide to invest heavily in the revitalization of the county's established, economically distressed inner-Beltway communities, so that they can become more attractive to prospective residents and economically viable to prospective developers and retailers. That includes improving the county's public schools as well.


Revitalization areas along Metro's Blue Line in Prince George's County. Image from M-NCPPC.

Prince George's can take meaningful steps to cultivate positive relationships with the development and real estate communities. This includes de-politicizing and eliminating any appearances of impropriety, unfair dealing, and corruption in the development review process.

In the current climate, it's hard to imagine the Prince George's County Association of Realtors or the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association taking an active role in facilitating TOD in the county. Indeed, as demonstrated just a few days ago, these organizations frequently are among the fiercest advocates of maintaining the suburban sprawl status quo. Yet, the example of ACBR in Atlanta illustrates that such a collaborative, pro-smart growth approach is possible.

Like Atlanta, Prince George's County has all the building blocks necessary to develop thriving, transit-oriented, and sustainable walkable urban places that could rival any other jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region. The only thing the county has to fear is itself.

Will Prince George's County's leaders be bold enough to embrace a new way, or will they continue with business as usual? Will the county's citizens demand accountability from their leaders, or will they continue to elect and reelect individuals who are committed to replicating yesterday's vision of the county as a sprawling bedroom community?

The answers to these questions will determine the county's fate for the next generation.

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

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