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Transit


National links: We'll pay you to avoid rush hour

BART, San Francisco's major transit system, wants to reward riders for avoiding rush hour, drivers have run into a house in Raleigh 6 times in 9 years and the owners can't sell, and an engineer in Oslo has turned kids into "secret agents" in a bid to report street hazards. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.


Photo by Storm Crypt on Flickr.

Frequent rider miles: San Francisco's BART is piloting a rewards program that will give points to riders who use the system at times next to, but not during, peak periods. The program gives riders one point per mile an hour before and after the peak rush hour, with 1,000 points equaling to use toward BART passes. (Curbed SF)

Uber as transit: Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando Florida, is subsidizing Uber rides for residents in lieu of a transit system. The city manager had hoped to create a system of smaller buses that came when called until his project idea was killed last year by the USDOT. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country, and is controversial because it leaves out key segments of the riding population including the the disabled and those without bank accounts. (The Verge)

Stop driving into my house: Speeding drivers that fly around a sharp turn on a big arterial have hit a house in Raleigh 6 times in the last 9 years. The family constantly fears for its safety, but the city won't do anything about the road, where people constantly drive over the speed limit, nor will it help the family move out of the house, which is impossible to sell. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Housing takes a loss: Small dorm-sized apartments called microhousing have been regulated away in Seattle. One legislative change after another brought higher standards, larger floor plans, and higher costs. Best described as death by a thousand cuts, the fight against microhousing has added up to a loss of over 800 units per year. (Sightline Institute)

Walk to get smart: There is a great "link between mind and feet". According to science, we are able to come up with ideas and think better when we're walking because of our body chemistry. When you go on a walk, your heart pumps faster and and circulates more oxygen to all parts of your body, including your brain. (New Yorker)

Put the kids to work: An app in Oslo called Traffic Agent was created to allow children in the city to report hazards. A local traffic engineer came up with the idea when she realized that it would be tough to complete a traffic report on all city roads and wanted to get more children involved in traffic safety issues. The data and information will be used in the future when the city closes the core to vehicles. (Next City)

Quote of the Week

"We're trying to get back to that great system that we had. Get rid of the debt and get rid of the tolls and have a low-cost system that everybody can benefit from."

- Retired engineer Don Dixon on Texas' plans to look at making all of the state's toll roads free. Doing so would cost $24 billion.

Transit


How does Metro compare to rail in Amsterdam and Paris?

In June, the Washington Post compared Metrorail to various other rapid transit systems in major cities around the world and said Metro came up short. But if you compare Metro to transit systems built to serve places more similar to the DC region, it's actually quite competitive.


Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

Post reporter Max Bearak looked at data from competing metro systems from capital cities around the world, focusing on measures like number of miles covered, stations and lines, monthly trips made, and how many cars the system has. When compared to systems in much bigger cities, like Tokyo, New Delhi, and London, Metro scored near the bottom in a number of the comparisons.

But did Bearak really compare apples to apples? When you look at how Metro stacks up against similarly-designed systems, it actually does fairly well. In other words, let's say a transit system is designed to handle 5,000 riders per mile per day. If it's operating near capacity, does it make sense to say it's inferior because another is designed to carry 10,000 or 20,000 riders per mile? I would say no; the two systems are just different examples that fulfill different needs.

Washington's Metro was designed mostly as an alternative to highway commuting, decades after transit use in America peaked. Consequently, it's best to analyze Metro against systems with specs that are more like the following:

  • Short train headway in city center (6-12 minutes on each line, or approximately 2-6 minutes between trains during peak hours)
  • Average of 1+ miles between stations
  • Service routes that branch out in suburban places
  • 6,000 weekday daily riders per mile / 1.75 million annual riders per mile
  • Urban population of ~4.5 million people
  • In the neighborhood of 118 miles in length
Below are a few examples from around the world. Metro certainly has maintenance issues, but if you compare it to these other systems, you see that the system is actually doing largely what it was designed to. There is, however, plenty to learn from as well:

Amsterdam Metro

Amsterdam is a considerably smaller metropolitan area than Washington, and the Amsterdam Metro is shorter in length (~26 miles), but there are some similarities between these systems. With 66.2 million annual riders, its per-mile ridership of about 2.5 million people is not much higher than Washington's. Headways are slightly longer than Washington's, ranging from 7.5 - 15 minutes.


Photo by GVB Verbindt on Flickr.

Like Metrorail, the Amsterdam Metro is only about 40 years old, and much of its network is on the city's periphery. One big thing Amsterdam's metro has going for it is that it's only one component of its transportation network—trams, buses, and ferries are all important in the city. Perhaps the most important contrast between DC and cities that have systems similar to Metrorail, like Amsterdam, is that rail forms only one component of a successful multimodal network. DC has various other modes of mass transit, but Metro is by far what commuters use the most.

Trams in Amsterdam, on the other hand, actually have higher ridership than the city's metro. Along with buses and ferries, they offer a wide variety of options for transportation in places where rapid transit does not go. This does not even take Amsterdam's heavy bicycle use into consideration—there are actually more cyclists than car or transit users in the city.


A map of Amsterdam's metro system.

Berlin S-Bahn

Unlike most S-Bahns, which are strictly commuter rail systems, the Berlin S-Bahn has third-rail electrification, its routes extensively serve the city proper, and its stations are relatively close together—there's an average of 1.21 miles between stations. With 1.3 million daily riders and 15 routes, it outshines WMATA in a number of ways, but its per-mile ridership is similar (~6,500 daily).

In this sense, Metro shares similarities to this hybrid S-Bahn system. Like Amsterdam, Berlin also relies on other transit modes: an additional rapid transit system (U-Bahn), regional trains, an extensive tram network, and a bus fleet.


Berlin's S-Bahn. Image from S-Bahn Berlin.

San Francisco BART

The United States has several Metrorail-like systems, with BART being one of them. BART has around 1.2 million riders per mile annually, and an average of 2.3 miles between stations. Being on par with other American systems may not seem impressive if Washington's goal is to have a world class metro, but BART is an integral part of transit in the entire Bay Area.


The BART system. Image from BART.

One area where San Francisco actually edges out DC: it has more transit commuters.


Inside a new BART car. Image from BART.

Paris RER

The RER is Paris's commuter rail system, but its frequent service gives it some similar qualities to rapid transit. Comparing it to Metro is a little more difficult, as its five lines have two different operators. Some of the few available official statistics show that Line A has over 4.4 million annual riders per mile (16,800 per day) and peak headways of two minutes, making it as efficient as a rapid transit system.


Paris' RER. Image from RATP.

One notable difference between the RER Line A and Metrorail is that the average headway in the Paris city core never drops 12.5 minutes (Metrorail's headways in the city core can be as high as 20 minutes on the weekend, or even higher during track work). The RER's reliability, on top of Paris's various other transit options, is a big reason for RER's higher ridership.

Madrid Metro

The Madrid Metro is a conventional rapid transit system, and is Metro's closest relative among the cities the Post article mentions. Madrid is somewhat larger in population and has a metro network of almost 183 miles.


Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

At 3.1 million annual riders per mile, Madrid has almost twice as many riders as Washington. Opened in 1919, the Madrid Metro is far older than DC's system, but most of the system was constructed in the last two decades. The system's MetroSur (Line 12—built in 2003) is a particularly encouraging model for Washington. This line operates exclusively in Madrid's suburbs, and boasts station locations within 600 meters of 60% of residences in a service area of a million people. Notably, however, the suburbs MetroSur serves have population densities similar to DC or Alexandria, making quality transit services to Madrid's periphery more viable.

If Washington increases the density of its Metrorail network, as well as the overall population density across the metropolitan area, reaching a figure closer to Madrid's 570 million annual riders could be an achievable goal in the coming decades.


Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

What other similar examples could Metro learn from?

Arts


San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below

A public art installation on San Francisco's Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.


Image from Illuminate The Arts.

The project is called "LightRail," and according to its sponsors it will be the world's first "subway-responsive light sculpture."

Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.

Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.

Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I've ever seen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Oakland's new airport train would be perfect at BWI

San Francisco's BART opened the new 3.2-mile Oakland Airport Connector shortly before Thanksgiving, tying a second Bay Area airport into the region's rail system. A similar project could give BWI a boost.


Oakland Airport Connector trains pass near the airport. Photo by the author.

Oakland International and BWI airports share the same problem of being a couple of miles away from important transit lines, BART and the MARC train, respectively. Oakland solved the problem with a special "people mover" automated train that simply goes back and forth between the airport and the nearest BART station.

In the Washington region, a similar connector could be used to bridge the roughly two-mile gap between the BWI Marshall Airport rail station on the Amtrak and MARC line and the airport terminal. This would create a direct airport-rail connection similar to the one at Ronald Reagan Washington National airport and the Silver Line station under construction at Washington Dulles International airport, while at the same time reducing congestion on airport roads and emissions from the fleet of shuttle buses.

"A people mover is included in long-term planning efforts," says airport spokesman Jonathan Dean. "BWI Marshall airport has examined different people-mover concepts that would connect the airport terminal with our parking facilities, the BWI Rail Station, and the rental car facility."


Transfer between the BART Coliseum platform and the Oakland Airport Connector. Photo by the author.

Oakland's automated line operates every five minutes during the day with the trip to the terminal buildings at Oakland International airport from BART's Coliseum station taking nine minutes. The train trip onwards to downtown San Francisco takes about 20 minutes and to downtown Oakland about 10 minutes.

The connector replaces AirBART shuttle busses with a more frequent and faster ride, albeit also at double the cost with one-way fares increasing to $6 from $3.

As a frequent traveller to the Bay Area, the ride on the connector is much more pleasant than the shuttle bus. The airport station is a short walk from the terminal with the connection at the Coliseum station short and taking travelers directly to the BART platform.

People movers that connect airport terminals with parking lots, a transit station and rental car facilities are common at major US airports. Newark Liberty International airport and Chicago O'Hare International airport are two airports with such systems.

The question is whether the project would be cost effective for BWI. The Oakland Airport Connector cost BART and its partners $484 million after more than 30 years of studies. About 3,000 to 3,500 riders are expected to use it daily, compared to the about 2,500 to 3,000 daily riders that used the AirBART buses previously.

The free shuttle buses between the terminal and the rail station at BWI carried about 1,775 riders daily in 2013, says Dean.


Amtrak/MARC shuttle bus at BWI. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An automated connector partially funded by the airport would be an attractive and passenger friendly addition to BWI. However, BWI has no plans to build a people mover in the near term, says Dean. With numerous bus lines and the Baltimore light rail already serving the terminal at BWI in addition to the the rail station shuttle buses, a people mover is likely a project that the region can wait on.

Transit


Could Metro allow bicycles during rush hour?

Yesterday, San Francisco's BART system lifted its long-standing ban on allowing bicycles on rush-hour trains. Given bicycling's popularity in the DC area, and the Metro system's packed park and ride lots, perhaps a similar reform would work here.


Photo by San Francisco Bicycle... on Flickr.

After a lengthy trial process, BART will allow bikes on all its trains at all times, finally giving people an easy way to cross the San Francisco Bay with a bike. Like Metro, BART is overloaded through the urban core of San Francisco, and there were concerns that bikes would just make things worse.

The three trial periods were progressively more intense. BART allowed bikes on Fridays for a month, then for one full week, then for five full months. The agency wanted to measure how much disruption bicycles would cause and to gauge public support. As it turned out, the concerns were unfounded, and public support was quite high. Crowding did not get worse, and 79 percent of riders wanted to see the ban lifted entirely.

Like BART, Metro doesn't allow bikes during rush hour due to fears of crowding. But if passengers could bring bicycles on the train without inconveniencing others, there's no reason it would be a problem here.

Perhaps WMATA ought to consider a series of trials, too, to gauge how it affects our commutes. Metro is not BART, after all, and so may not be as good a fit. We won't know unless we try.

Bicycling


BART pilot will test bikes on rush hour trains

WMATA's counterpart in the San Francisco Bay Area, BART, currently restricts bikes on their trains during rush hours. But they've decided to pilot letting cyclists bring their bikes on trains during the peak period.


Video from BART.

Rules for bringing bikes on BART are more nuanced than WMATA's rules, which ban bikes outright during rush hours.

On BART, for example, the printed schedules specifically show which trains do not allow bikes. Essentially, during rush hour (roughly 7-8:30 am and 4:30-6:30pm), bikes are not allowed on inbound trains. Additionally, during peak periods, bikes are not allowed to enter or exit the stations in downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco (except cyclists can board morning trains bound for the East Bay at Embarcadero and can ride to Embarcadero from the East Bay in the afternoon).

BART requires that cyclists not board crowded trains and give priority to seniors and the disabled. That will continue to be the case under the pilot project.

The pilot will allow cyclists to ride all trains, at all times, during Fridays in August. Depending on what happens, the rules might change—or they might not.

Could the approach work in Washington? Our trains do get crowded, as do stations. But a cyclist going from Brookland to Silver Spring in the morning, would likely be on a very empty train. Could allowing bikes on outbound trains that don't pass through the core work?

The best way to find out might be through a pilot program. I'm glad to see BART is trying to get some experiential data.

Transit


Comic teaches new customers how to ride transit

San Francisco's BART has created a great new comic book to help new riders learn to navigate the system. Could it work here?

For new riders, any transit system can seem daunting at first. This effort might make it easier for people to figure out how to try transit, and perhaps help make them regular riders.

The BART system is very similar to Metro, right down to the graduated fare system. In many respects this comic could easily be used here, just by changing some names. And based on the number of (tourist) riders I see at Greenbelt each morning trying to go in an out gate, some people could clearly use a little extra instruction.

It's good to see a transit agency trying new ways of communicating with riders. What do you think Metro could do to make it easier for new riders?

Transit


More weekend closures, less single-tracking for Metrorail

To save time and money, Metro is revising the way they do some track work. Instead of single-tracking through work zones, Metro will now close whole line segments more often.


Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

When BART was being designed, a 1971 article in the IEEE Transactions on Industry and General Applications described its system for avoiding shutdowns by single-tracking:

The BART system will provide service at 90-s intervals during peak demand periods, extending to as long as 15-min intervals during the low-demand early morning hours. At no time will service be discontinued; by the use of carefully placed crossovers and the control of trains in a reverse running mode, maintenance work on the roadbed can be performed without serious disruption of the service.

But in 1971 BART had yet to open, and the Metrorail system had only broken ground two years earlier. Operating experience in the years since has shown that while single-tracking may preserve service, it does so at the expense of lengthened headways and disruptions along the entire length of the line.

Today, taking this experience into account, WMATA has announced a new approach to weekend track work on the Metrorail system, in which entire sections of lines will be closed and replaced with buses.

Single-tracking doesn't just disrupt riders in the work area itself; it slows down the entire line, and affects riders throughout the Metrorail system.

WMATA's new approach to track work will preserve service on the open portions of lines, and avoid the follow-on effects which usually occur when trains are single-tracking.

Closing lines to speed repairs is, by itself, nothing new. In 2006, London Underground elected to close the Waterloo & City Line in its entirety for five months, in order to avoid a projected 70 weekend closures necessary to complete the major overhaul of the line.

Because of the complete closure, weekday riders who would have been spared disruption under a program of weekend closures instead had to take alternate routes. But because the complete closure was more efficient, the work was done (and the disruption ended) in 5 months, rather than in more than a year for weekend closures alone.

New York City's MTA has also been examining partial line closures as an alternative to frequent evening and weekend disruption. No decision has been made yet, but MTA Chairman Jay Walder seems to think it's a strategy that's proven itself in London, and which may prove viable in New York as well.

So, how well will this strategy work for Metrorail? At the extremities of lines, complete closures will probably be superior to single-tracking. Work will go faster with no trains running through the work areas, and the unaffected parts of the line won't have to contend with the bottleneck caused by single-tracking. In the core of the network, though, where ridership levels are high even on weekends, shuttle buses may end up swamped with passengers, leading to delays for riders traveling through the closed areas.

In the end, riders will face disruption whether trains are single-tracking or replaced with shuttle buses—but in this case, replacing trains with shuttle buses means a faster end to the work, and a quicker return to normalcy.

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