Greater Greater Washington

Posts about BART


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.


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 changeor 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.


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?


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 busesbut in this case, replacing trains with shuttle buses means a faster end to the work, and a quicker return to normalcy.


Metro beats BART with suburban transit-oriented jobs

Planners from San Francisco's SPUR recently visited Greater Washington to find out how Metrorail compares to BART. They found that our strong transit-oriented development at suburban stations has led to greater transit use and higher farebox recovery rates.

Photo by mindgutter.

According to their article, the two cities' systems, while built at similar times with similar technology, took very different turns when communities made their land use choices.

"When BART opened in 1974, many suburban Bay Area communities "downzoned" the areas directly adjacent to the station," they write. That hasn't stopped; Pittsburg, California did the same thing when their station opened in 1996.

That's a significant factor in why BART has remained predominantly a park-and-ride system. Running the lines in medians of freeways and having a much more spread-out system didn't help either.

In Washington, on the other hand, foresighted leaders in Arlington and Montgomery County took the opposite tack, planning for higher density right around the stations. Especially in Arlington, they satisfied neighbors opposed to changing their low-density neighborhoods by promising to limit the upzoning to a quarter-mile radius around new stations. We all know the result: new walkable neighborhoods have thrived around these stations.

It's not just about condos in Clarendon, however. This approach also created significant numbers of jobs right around many suburban stations, including Rockville, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, the Pentagon-Crystal City area, and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Rosslyn-Ballston has more than doubled from 30,000 jobs to 80,000 jobs, and, SPUR writes, "this two-square-mile corridor would occupy fourteen square miles if it were built at typical suburban densities."

Those jobs give the Washington region a significantly different commuting pattern than other cities.

Over 30 percent of D.C. residents who work outside the city take transit. This compares with only 17 percent of San Francisco residents who take transit to their jobs outside of the city. In general, it is difficult to get a large share of residents to choose transit over driving for reverse commute trips. Not only is there less congestion leaving the city in the morning commute, but parking is usually cheap or free in the suburbs. So to attract reverse commuters, transit must be particularly convenient and work destinations must be directly adjacent to suburban transit. Due to the design of many Metrorail stations outside of D.C., this is the case for many reverse commuters.
That also brings a very significant benefit to Metro from collecting fares in both directions. When most riders use a system in the peak direction, the transit system has to run empty trains the other way; the more people commute to jobs at outer stations, the more use they get from that extra capacity. SPUR credits this with generating a 71% farebox recovery rate (in 2008) for Metrorail, compared to only 52% for BART (in 2007).

Why did the Washington region do things differently? Smart leadership in Arlington and Montgomery County played a role. So did a few factors that, SPUR notes, "are difficult or undesirable to replicate," such as the height limit, higher taxes, and DC's "poor reputation" in the 1970s, which drove more jobs outside the city core. However, many other cities also experienced this flight of jobs to the suburbs, and failed to concentrate them around new or existing transit.

One of the largest factors in this TOD success story is the federal government's "policy (dating to the Carter Administration) to locate federal agencies near Metrorail stations," and the federal transit benefit for employees. Those are some of the reasons, SPUR says, "federal employees represent nearly 50 percent of all peak period Metrorail riders."

The federal role in Metorail's tremendous success makes it all the more tragic that the government is now proceeding to reverse its brilliant policy by relocating defense jobs away from Metro-adjacent offices through BRAC. So too is the tragedy of Montgomery County's plan to create a "Science City" 4 miles from Shady Grove Metro instead of utilizing all the empty space and industrial parks on top of it.

And for every TOD success story in the suburbs, there's a park-and-ride station no better than BART's disappointing stations. Even in DC, there are plenty of areas that successfully prevented new housing and offices atop Metro stations, like Cleveland Park and Tenleytown, just as many residents of Berkeley have since the 1970s.

The Metro system and jurisdictions' good TOD choices across the years have created a transit network that's enormously valuable to the Washington region. It's up to residents and leaders to continue and expand the good practices of the past as the region continues to grow, instead of foolishly abandoning them for the sake of expedience.


SmarTrip's delayed, but at least we're not San Francisco

Despite the issues with new SmartBenefits changes and delays in new features, Metro is well ahead of many other systems of comparable size in number of smart cards and integration across jurisdictions.

Photo by AgentAkit.

Metro's SmarTrip system is the oldest and largest of the major transit agencies' smart card systems. SmarTrip launched in 1999 and now has 1.8 million cards "active in the system," with 876,500 smart card transactions each day, according to data in a recent report by New York's Permanant Citizens' Advisory Committee to the MTA (PCAC). By comparison, the next largest, Chicago's CTA, has 474,000 cards and 260,000 transactions per day on their system that rolled out from 2002 to 2004. New York, the largest transit system, is still in the pilot phase. Update: New York's MetroCards do work pretty well despite not being proximity cards.

Metro also integrates a large number of agencies, 9, with plans to expand to 16. The San Francisco Bay Area's MTC system, TransLink, now links 3 but is expected to grow to 26. But if we thought Metro was slow, at least we're not the Bay Area: original plans called for all of those transit agencies to be part of TransLink by 2001, but there are still only 3: San Francisco's streetcar and bus system Muni, Golden Gate Buses and Ferries, and Alameda County's AC Transit. BART refused to join for years because of disputes over who would earn interest on the money paid in fares but not yet consumed.

Partly because of its older system, Metro still lags behind some other cities in features. Of the systems compared in the PCAC report, New York's pilot program, the Port Authority of NY and NJ's SmartLink, CTA's Chicago Card Plus, and the Bay Area's MTC system all allow automatic load, where the system charges a user's credit card as soon as the balance gets low like on E-ZPass. The BART smart card, EZ Rider, which is distinct from TransLink but is being phased out, doesn't offer autoload, nor does Metro.

On the other hand, SmarTrip does some things others can't. Only BART and Metro allow paying for parking with smart cards among the systems in the report, though some, like New York, don't offer parking as they don't serve the regional commuter role Metro and BART encompass. And according to the chart, at the moment TransLink doesn't offer any kind of employer transit benefit on the card like SmartBenefits.

By the way, the PCAC appears analogous to the Metro RAC, but the PCAC has a staff of six and is able to create research reports on important issues. Wouldn't that be nice?

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