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Posts about Circulator


Park Service plans to put parking meters on the National Mall and use the money for a Circulator

The long years of having no public bus, or only an expensive $27 Tourmobile, to get around the National Mall may soon come to an end. The National Park Service is now planning to fund a Circulator bus route in part through adding parking meters on the Mall.

The meters will be the multi-space kind and will go along the roads under NPS control and which allow parking. They will charge $2 an hour, likely including weekends and holidays, according to news reports.

Today, all of that parking is free. In many areas, like Constitution Avenue, workers in nearby buildings show up early and grab the spaces all day. That might be a good deal for those people, but it doesn't help anyone reach the Mall and isn't the best use of the spaces.

This has been in the works for years. For a long time, the Tourmobile was the only option to get around the Mall. NPS had a long-standing exclusive contract which prohibited any other transportation service.

That meant that when DC first launched the Circulator bus, it couldn't use the internal roads on the Mall. Nor would NPS allow any signs on the Mall pointing visitors to the buses.

In 2011, the Park Service terminated its contract with Tourmobile, and began talking with DC officials to create a Circulator route. DC wasn't ready to launch it back in 2011, but this year they are, and NPS is now getting ready to add the meters.

There is a public meeting at 6 pm on February 11 to discuss the plan.


Freddie Mac downsizing is an opportunity for Tysons

While much of Tysons Corner is slated to become a new urban center, parts of the area will remain disconnected office parks for the foreseeable future. By planning for future demand and leveraging rising property values, Fairfax County can encourage more investment in the area and provide new public amenities, like improved transit.

Freddie Mac's campus in Tysons. Photo by the author.

Last week, President Obama announced that the federal government may try to reduce its support for mortgage company Freddie Mac, headquartered in Tysons Corner. If Freddie Mac eventually downsized or consolidated its operations, they might sell their 37.8-acre campus on Jones Branch Drive, far from Tysons' core or the Silver Line.

This may not happen for years, if not decades. By then, it may not be as desirable a location, especially when the Silver Line opens and Tysons begins the transition to a more urban, walkable place. But a land sale could be an opportunity to bring one of its largest office parks in line with the larger vision.

Freddie Mac's campus contains just 800,000 square feet of Class A office space. When built in 2002, it had a very desirable location: direct access to the Dulles Toll Road and adjacent to the Westpark transit center, served by 6 Fairfax Connector routes. It's also close to the new Jones Branch Drive exit on the new 495 Express lanes.

Map of Tysons with Freddie Mac and Jones Branch Drive from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment and edited by the author.

By 2025, much of the land around the four future Tysons metro stations will be substantially developed. The street grid will still be discontinuous, and each of the station areas may act as a discreet hub, similar to Reston Town Center. But the area will have enough density to justify its own internal transit needs, perhaps even exceeding the capacity of bus service.

Meanwhile, the office parks of North Tysons, where Freddie Mac is located, may have filled in with some residential development. But it still won't have direct access to transit, nor is it covered by the design guidelines of the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, which guides the redevelopment of Tysons. Freddie Mac's property will be very valuable, but the current zoning and allowable density prevents major redevelopment from occurring.

In order to take advantage of this site's potential, two things need to happen. First, Fairfax County should rezone the property for higher density and mixed-use development to fit with the larger vision for Tysons Corner. Second, the county should start planning for high-quality transit service to North Tysons that can not only support future redevelopment, but be financed by it as well.

Street section of light rail on Jones Bridge Drive. Image from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment.

The Tysons Comprehensive Plan refers to a light rail circulator that would serve parts of Tysons Corner that are far from the Silver Line. The estimated cost of a 2.5-mile light rail line along Jones Bridge Drive between the future McLean and Spring Hill Metro stations (via a future bridge over Scotts Run) is about $60 million.

This assumes that Jones Bridge's existing right-of-way could accommodate a new rail line. Let's take a worst-case scenario and say the county would need an additional $40 million in right-of-way. For approximately 200,000 square feet of land, that comes out to a very conservative $8.8 million per acre.

With a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 3.0, Freddie Mac's 37.8 acres could easily support 5 million square feet of development. (To compare, the property's current FAR is about .5, and the maximum FAR allowed in downtown DC is 10.) If the county rezoned the property, they could also levy a special tax as was done for rezoned properties associated with the Silver Line, or to cover school and public safety improvements.

At the current assessed price per square foot, a fully built-out development on this property would have assessed value of $2.1 billion, generating $23.1 million in taxes to Fairfax County and $2.1 million in special taxes each year. The county could initiate a bond using the special tax as backing that could pay for all capital costs associated with the light rail.

Is this all pie in the sky? Of course, as is the case with all long-term planning, everything over the course of 20 or 30 years is an assumption based on reasonable estimates created from a past history. If Tysons' critics are right, it may struggle to get development activity going, and vacancy rates could be high enough to undermine the marketability of such a land transfer. If that were the case, the above scenario would not be necessary.

So far, that's not the case. Land sales in Tysons have garnered a lot of private interest, especially for large corporate campuses. If those trends continue, Freddie Mac could sell their property to a developer in the future, and the county as well as taxpayers could really benefit. It would also be a step towards creating a new type of infrastructure in Tysons, giving more options to commuters, workers, shoppers, and residents.

What the sprawl history of Tysons has taught us is that if you don't plan for the future, you are destined to end up with a disconnected mess. Instead of leaving the Freddie Mac property to deteriorate or hoping for a new corporate tenant, Fairfax County needs to plan their next steps and leverage future changes to the benefit of Tysons and the county.


What's the best iPhone bus tracking app?

After the "NextBus" iPhone app disappeared last year, bus riders found themselves searching for a new app to track the locations of buses. Since then, a host of new apps have appeared to fill the void. But is there such a thing as the "perfect" app for iPhone owners?

Image from the author's phone.

I tested 4 iPhone apps to see which one made it easiest to find bus information: NextBus by Cubic, DC Next Bus by Junebot, BusTrackDC by Jason Rosenbaum, and iCommute DC Lite by AppTight, the reincarnation of the previous NextBus application.

Three of these apps are available for free from the iTunes Store, while NextBus's is actually a website whose shortcut you can place on your home screen.

These apps' user interfaces fall into two categories: map-based and text-based. The map-based apps make it easier to find bus stops, and they are handy when you aren't sure where the nearest bus stop might be or the buses that pass through. However, map-based apps are more difficult to use in spots with many bus stops close together.

Meanwhile, more experienced bus riders who already know the location of bus stops or which bus route to take may prefer a text-based app. You can quickly filter through unnecessary information to get prediction times for a specific route.

Some apps have other regional bus systems besides Metrobus, such as Circulator, Ride On, and ART, while many don't.

Left: BusTrackDC. Right: DC Next Bus.

Map-based apps

Both map-based apps, BusTrackDC and DC Next Bus, automatically find your location on a map in relation to surrounding bus stops. They use standard map pins to represent bus stops; you can see what routes serve each pin by tapping on them.

This works well except in areas with numerous bus stops and routes in the same area, such as Silver Spring or downtown DC. The map pins are so close together it becomes frustrating to obtain information on the intended bus route, let alone the direction.

Meanwhile, on both apps I sometimes got "No Prediction" for various bus routes, but if I touched a different bus stop location farther down the street along the same bus route, I could get a timed prediction. DC Next Bus has the option to turn on Ride On data but says that it's unreliable, while neither app provides DC Circulator information.

Text-based apps

The two text-based apps, iCommute DC Lite and NextBus, are designed differently. Users of the defunct "NextBus" app, will find the interface of iCommute DC Lite very familiar, since the creators of the old NextBus app built iCommuteDC Lite.

If it's confusing that one app called NextBus went away and its developers now call the app iCommute DC Lite while there's another option called NextBus by Cubic, you're not alone. It's because there were 2 companies called NextBus which had split apart years ago. The one that ran the real-time predictions on the WMATA site (also called "NextBus") provided data to the other; the 2nd one licensed it to the people who now make iCommuteDC.

The relationship ended, the app died, and the developers rebuilt the app with a new name and a data feed direct from the first NextBus company, which around the same time was bought by Cubic, maker of the SmarTrip system and other transit technology.

iCommute DC Lite.

iCommuteDC Lite gives you two ways to view information: you can see stops nearby your current location, or pick a specific agency and then a route from that agency. This app supports many transportation agencies, including Metrobus, DC Circulator, ART, and CUE.

If you select stops based on your location, the app only displays a route number and not which operator the route corresponds with.

NextBus by Cubic.

Nextbus by Cubic has a simpler, more readable format, using the whole screen to display the bus routes nearest you. Once you select a route and desired direction, the app opens up a map with the real-time location of each bus along that route, something none of the other apps do.

This app also provides alerts to current problems or delays with each transit provider. It also works outside of the DC Metro area, providing bus information on the Charm City Circulator, Collegetown Shuttle, JHMI Shuttle, and the University of Maryland shuttle buses in Baltimore. However, this app only shows systems that contract with NextBus/Cubic, which means Arlington ART and Ride On don't appear.

During testing, I encountered times when the NextBus by Cubic app had predictions for some Metrobus lines, while other apps returned "No Prediction." All of the Metrobus data ultimately comes from the same transponders on the buses, so it should be identical, but since NextBus/Cubic is WMATA's vendor, if any errors creep into the WMATA API then they might affect all apps but not NextBus.

WMATA spokesperson Brian Anderson says that a March data feed included some incorrect stop ID numbers, which can affect apps that use a particular method of accessing stop IDs. Anderson was able to confirm that one specific example I sent over, for the 96 bus in Adams Morgan, was a consequence of this problem. He said WMATA staff are working to correct the data and coordinating closely with developers to help them with any problems.

NextBus by Cubic's data isn't perfect, either. At one point, for example, the Metrobus S2 and S4 routes didn't appear even while standing at an S2/S4 stop on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. The well-known problems with "ghost buses" and other common errors in the actual predictions will also affect all apps.

Which app should you use?

All four apps have their strengths and weaknesses. You may want to install more than one, and can use a text-based app when you know what bus you want and a map-based app when you don't.

Especially for experienced riders, NextBus by Cubic is hard to beat for usability. Its text-based interface is easy to read, quick to filter information for all operators, and offers more bus systems than the other apps. It also sometimes returned predictions when the others did not.

Riders who use multiple bus systems may also need more than one app. If you want to ride the DC Circulator, BusTrackDC or DC Next Bus won't help you. NextBus by Cubic has the greatest number of bus systems, but not ART and Ride On.

Have you tried these apps? Which one do you find most useful for your daily commuting needs?


Circulator will go to Mall, bus priority gets funding

The DC Circulator bus will add service to the National Mall by 2015, and Mayor Gray has added funding to the budget to improve bus service elsewhere in the city, Mayor Gray and Councilmember Mary Cheh just announced in a press release.

Photo by JLaw45 on Flickr.

The Circulator service would not be the same as the old loop around Constitution and Independence Avenues, which DC discontinued in 2011. That line ran without any cooperation from the National Park Service (NPS), which wouldn't even mention it on signs, claiming that their concession contract with the Tourmobile prohibited even telling people about other, cheaper forms of transportation.

When NPS terminated the Tourmobile contract and updated its concession agreements to be more flexible, officials began working with DC to prepare for Circulators that could offer transportation within NPS land and to and from adjacent neighborhoods.

Multiple sources have said that the District expects to get much of the operating funding for the Circulator from the National Park Service and/or Mall visitors. A Circulator on the Mall primarily benefits tourists, though with easy transportation to and from nearby neighborhoods, it could also help encourage tourists to spend some money at local shops and restaurants.

That funding might come from Circulator fares, parking meters on the Mall (where on-street spaces are now free and thus usually nearly impossible to get), or other sources. Specific details are not yet public and, based on the press release, may not be yet worked out between DC and NPS.

Circulator Phase 1 expansion. Image from the Circulator plan.

This is the diagram of proposed Circulator routes from a recent plan from DC Surface Transit, the public-private partnership that runs the Circulator. According to the press release, funds in the coming fiscal year will fund planning the actual routes, which might or might not be the same as some of these.

New fund supports bus priority around the city

In addition, Gray has added a $750,000 annual capital fund to support projects that improve bus service and reduce delays. This could presumably fund dedicated bus lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board fare payment or other projects that make buses a quicker and more appealing way to travel.

DC won a TIGER grant way back in 2010 to improve buses on several corridors, but 3 years later we've seen few if any changes. According to an email forward to me from DDOT, they are planning to use the money to optimize traffic signals downtown and install backup traffic signal power.

The TIGER money will also fund 120 real-time digital displays in some bus stops, "some minor bus stop improvements on 16th Street, Wisconsin Avenue, and Georgia Avenue," and "some bus stop safety features" on H Street and Benning Road, the email says. For a grant which was supposed to fund "shovel-ready" stimulus projects in the immediate term, though, it's taken quite a long time.

Finally, DDOT is working on a short bus lane on Georgia Avenue between Florida Avenue and Barry Place, a spot where buses get significantly stuck in traffic.

There is also an ongoing WMATA study looking at potential bus lanes on H and I Streets in the area north of and around the White House. This would be a more complex project, but it's important for DC to take some big steps that speed up buses significantly, in addition to small and easier steps like new signals.

Neighborhoods still benefit from performance parking

Another new fund creates a pool of money for neighborhood improvements in areas that adopt performance parking. The original performance parking law dedicated some of the extra money to neighborhood-specific projects, and around the ballpark, it has already funded new trash cans, benches, bike racks, and signs for a historic heritage trail.

Gray's budget eliminated the dedicated funding, but to make up for the loss, this new fund will let neighborhoods with performance parking still have some say in local fixes. This fund will have $589,000 for the rest of this current fiscal year and $750,000 a year in future years.


Don't forget about buses

Mayor Gray's budget puts serious money behind building the streetcar, but makes little mention of bus service. The mayor has demonstrated a clear and very welcome commitment to transit; to truly achieve his goals of boosting transit ridership, DC needs to improve its bus service as well.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

The streetcar is not for every neighborhood

Streetcars have advantages over buses. They also have costs, including financial ones: streetcars cost more than buses. Streetcars also can't deviate around double-parked delivery vans or reroute to another road because of construction.

Other cities' experiences have shown that streetcars do attract more "choice riders," people who might not otherwise take transit, and also attract people and businesses to a corridor in a way that buses don't. Because of their economic development power, we should be able to pay much of the cost out of the extra taxes from the development we get from streetcars, and/or through direct "value capture" programs that make those who benefit economically pay some of the cost.

Still, streetcars aren't going to be especially fast. They will often be slower than buses. And in many parts of DC, where economic development isn't the goal and capacity isn't the problem, building a streetcar isn't always the answer. What we can, and must, do is make buses a more appealing mode of transit.

We need a great "frequent bus network" as well

Imagine if you could walk to certain spots in any neighborhood, wait in a comfortable location with real-time screens, and know that within a short time, a vehicle would come take you along one of several high-capacity routes that lead to other adjacent neighborhoods and across the city.

Metrorail does that now. Some of the limited-stop Circulators and Metrobus Express routes do as well. We can gain a lot of mobility for residents by adding to the number of high-frequency routes, making them even more frequent, and helping residents know about the routes by publishing "frequent network" maps that cover both the Circulator and certain Metrobus routes.

These routes all would come often enough, including nights and weekends, and run late enough that people who live nearby could choose not to own cars, use the routes (or bike or walk) for most trips, and have backup options like Zipcar, car2go, Uber, and taxis when necessary.

Where should DC invest in bus?

DC can expand and improve its frequent bus network in two ways: create new frequent routes, and make existing frequent routes faster.

New routes can be Metrobus routes or Circulator as long as they run frequently, 7 days a week, and late into the evening. Last year, a panel of residents, business leaders, and officials created a Circulator plan which lays out places for several of these routes.

Proposed Circulator expansion.   Phase 1   Phase 2 Phase 3

Most immediately, the plan suggests extending the Dupont-Rosslyn Circulator to U Street. There's no good, direct transit right now between U Street and Dupont, and it also would create a direct link between U Street and Georgetown.

Beyond adding routes, DC can speed up existing routes. There are many spots where buses spend a lot of time in traffic. In places, buses are frequent enough that they could get their own lane, at least at peak times. WMATA and DDOT have been collaborating on a study of bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House.

Buses using H and I (and K), plus traffic counts. Image from WMATA.

Elsewhere, maybe a short "queue jumper" lane would help buses bypass a tough spot. Or retiming signals could help buses spend less time waiting for a turn. Or buses could get signal priority to hold yellow lights long enough for them to pass.

When the Circulator turns left from Connecticut onto Calvert after leaving the Woodley Park Metro, it has to make a tough left turn, and WMATA bus planners have said this is a reason they don't send the 90s buses to Woodley Park. Could this intersection give buses a short, special phase to go right from the curb to Calvert?

We don't have a lot of studies or analyses of where the buses get most delayed. This hasn't received a lot of attention from DDOT in recent years. Mary Cheh tried to put money in the budget for DDOT to work on bus projects or have staff focusing on bus priority, but nothing has really happened yet.

It's long past time to get moving on buses. Mayor Gray has set an ambitious goal that 50% of trips take transit by 2032. Building streetcars will help DC get there, but streetcars are one piece of the transit puzzle. Buses are the other biggest piece. For many neighborhoods and many corridors, they are the right piece, as long as we work hard to make them desirable options, as they can be.


Streetcars, parks, and libraries get boost in Gray budget

Bike lanes, parks in NoMA and around the city, streetcars, libraries 7 days a week, new trash cans for free, school modernizations, and many more programs get funding under the operating and capital budgets Mayor Gray is unveiling this morning.

Photo by EnvironmentBlog on Flickr.

Streetcars: In the 6-year capital plan, streetcars get $400 million, which should fund completing the first line from Minnesota Avenue to Georgetown, engineering the Anacostia line, and studies for north-south lines such as Georgia Avenue.

The operating budget contains $6.2 million to start running the streetcar, which Gray continues to promise will roll by the end of the calendar year.

Bike infrastructure: There is a pot of $10.7 million for bike lanes and trails, which appears to be entirely new; formerly, there was no dedicated local bike money. The budget staff have promised to follow up to confirm this. Another $5.1 million will go to "bike-friendly streetscapes," which will be interesting to see in more detail.

Capital Bikeshare: The mayor is funding 10 more Capital Bikeshare stations beyond the ones that area already supposed to be going in. In December, DDOT announced 78 locations, of which it had funding for 54 and was going to install those by March. Unfortunately, it's late in installing most of those. That list also identified 24 future locations, so this budget funds 10.

Buses: The budget office's presentation did not discuss the Circulator or other bus projects. I will follow up to find out whether any Circulator expansion in that master plan have funding. Streetcars are important, but they are one of several modes we need, and for many neighborhoods, better bus service is the better way to help people get around.

Bridges: The South Capitol "racetrack" project and new Frederick Douglass Bridge gets $622.5 million, which would fully fund the project.

Taxes: The budget imposes no new taxes or fees, maintains DC's fund balance, and keeps the debt cap at 12%. The administration also wants to get rid of the tax on out-of-state bonds, which they say primarily impacts seniors and is far and away the biggest complaint they get about taxes. Gray chief of staff Chris Murphy said they "always felt it was ill-conceived."

Affordable housing: As promised, the administration is putting a one-time $100 million into affordable housing. $86.9 million goes into the Housing Production Trust Fund, ($20M in FY 2014 and the rest in FY 2013). The rest, $13.1 million, goes to other smaller initiatives that the recent Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force recommended. He is also promising to keep the 15% of the Deed Recordation and Transfer Tax, which is supposed to go to the HPTF, in there; previous budgets raided that to fund other programs.

Parks: The capital budget provides $50 million for parks (likely a few different small parks) in NoMA: $25 million to acquire land, and $25 million for development. DC made a mistake when it upzoned NoMA without any plan for parks, which is why this is going to be expensive. However, NoMA is generating a lot of tax revenue.

Other parks capital spending includes $20 million fro the Fort Dupont ice arena, $26.4 million for Barry Farm, $2M to renovate and improve athletic fields and parks, $18M for the Southeast tennis & learning center, and funding to modernize 32 play spaces in 8 wards including Fort Greble, Palisades, Macomb, and Takoma which will start in April as well as already-underway work at Noyes, Raymond, and Rosedale.

Libraries: Gray is expanding funding for DC Public Libraries so that every library can be open 7 days a week. Most will be open until 9 pm Monday to Thursday as well as afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. They also get $2 million for books and e-books.

Further, the budget provides $103 million to renovate and, as part of a public-private partnership, expand the MLK Library. There is $15.2 million to renovate the Cleveland Park library, $21.7 for the Palisades library, and $4.8 million for Woodridge's library.

Trash: Residents who want to replace their trash cans are in luck: the administration wants to replace everyone's trash cans over 5 years, for free. If there is money available, they also hope to let people replace stolen or damaged cans without the fee residents have to pay today.

Flooding: Bloomingdale residents hopefully will see some relief from their flooding problems with $1.5 million in the budget to pay for recommendations from the task force studying those problems.

Police and fire: The public safety budget pays for 4,000 sworn officers, replacing police and fire vehicles, cadet training programs and maintaining domestic violence programs that are seeing federal cuts. In general, the budget officials say, they are replacing all federal from sequestration across the board, even assuming sequestration will continue throughout the year.

Raises: DC employees will get their first pay raise in 4-7 years, spanning both union and non-union employees, and DC will fully fund its pension obligations.

We'll have more analysis and further details in upcoming posts.


What's up with NextBus, part 2: A pile of APIs

Why do some apps for getting bus predictions work with some DC-area bus services, like WMATA and the Circulator, but not others, like ART and Ride On? Why couldn't the NextBus DC app just use the same data source that other apps do? Why is this all so complicated? The answer lies in APIsapplication programming interfacesand fragmentation.

USB cables are standard; real-time bus APIs need to be. Photo by osde8info on Flickr.

Previously, we talked about how the NextBus DC app went away because they were getting their data from NextBus Information Systems, which lost its relationship with NextBus Inc., the company powering the WMATA bus tracking web and phone tools known as NextBus.

The plethora of things called NextBus aside, my first question when the NextBus DC app went down was, why can't they just reconnect their app to a data source that isn't broken? If the bus locations still exist, and the bus predictions still exist, and there's nothing wrong with the app's code itself, we should look at why it's not easy for them to simply bypass the broken link in the chain.

To understand what's going on, we have to delve a little more into APIs. An API, or application programming interface, is a way for one computer program to contact another computer and get certain information directly, in a structured format, without a human having to be involved.

For example, Twitter has an API, and if you're writing a software program that accesses Twitter, you can have it talk directly to Twitter to post tweets, search tweets, and so on. I put code on the Greater Greater Washington system so that when a post goes live, it also automatically posts a tweet that the author or editor have written ahead of time, without a human having to go onto the website and click around.

Each API has a certain vocabulary. The asking computer users certain terms, and gets back data in a certain format. Other APIs have different words and different formats. If one API breaks but there's one using the same vocabulary and formats on another system, it's trivial to just have the app connect somewhere else. If the API is different, the software writer has to redo the code, maybe just a little, or maybe quite a lot.

NextBus DC app was not using the "official" API

WMATA contracts with NextBus Inc. to run the bus prediction section of and a text message and phone service, but not for an API. For other systems that contract with NextBus, it also offers an API for developers as part of its package of services. However, that is not available for WMATA Metrobus predictions.

A few years ago, WMATA embarked on a pretty ambitious project to offer all kinds of data, including bus predictions but also rail predictions, rail station locations, bus stop locations, schedules, elevator outages and more. Because they have this service, said WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel, they have asked NextBus not to offer its own, different API.

However, that NextBus API is actually what the NextBus DC app was using, because of the legacy agreements between NextBus Inc., NextBus Information Systems, and AppTight. When those expired, that API went away. AppTight could have probably redone its app to use the WMATA API, but that would not have been an easy task.

Is WMATA right not to let NextBus use its own API? There are definitely some valid reasons for this. Stessel explained that if WMATA let app developers use the NextBus API and then WMATA decided to end its contract with NextBus, all of those apps would break. Plus, there is a lot of other information in the WMATA API, so people building apps on the WMATA API would find it very easy to also show next train arrivals, for instance, while anyone using the NextBus API couldn't.

We need standardization

API formats are particularly important because there are a lot of transit agencies, across different cities and even within our region. If they use incompatible APIs, then it's difficult for app writers to support all of them, and smaller bus systems get left out.

The bigger the potential audience who might pay a buck or two for an app, the more app developers will build transit apps. If they can build one app and have it help riders in DC, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., that's a lot more incentive to build something than if it just works for one city. Small cities especially benefit here, because not as many people will want to build an app for the bus system in Charlottesville, but if the Chicago app works for Charlottesville too, great.

The same logic applies to bus systems here. Some apps work with the WMATA API but don't support any of the regional bus systems. The DC Metro Transit Info app has Metrobus and also supports Circulator, Fairfax CUE and PG The Bus, all of which work with NextBus and support the NextBus API. ART and Ride On have real-time APIs, but they're not the WMATA or NextBus APIs, and the author of DC Metro Transit Info hasn't done the extra work to integrate those as well.

What needs to happen is that all transit agencies and app developers need to coalesce around one API format. WMATA should modify its systems to offer apps the option of making their requests and getting data back in this standard format. So should NextBus. So should ART and its provider, Connexionz, and Ride On, and New York MTA, and Chicago CTA, and everyone else.

It's similar to power chargers for cell phones. Once, every phone had a different plug. You had to use a special charger just for that phone, and if you got a new phone, your old chargers were junk. Now, almost everyone except for Apple use micro-USB, and all the chargers for my 2½-year-old Android phone work on my brand new one as well.

Fortunately, WMATA is open to changing its API to a standard. Stessel said,

Over the course of the next six months, we will be reviewing our API effort in full, and determining ways to improve the service. Standardizing the format is a definite consideration. However, current applications must be taken into consideration... Short answer: Yes, it is something that is being considered.
If WMATA just switched its API, all existing applications would break, just like NextBus DC did. They could simply offer 2 APIs, but for how long? It creates extra work to have to maintain multiple APIs far down the road. They could switch APIs and offer both for a transition period, perhaps a year, but no matter what some apps won't make the switch.

There's a big obstacle to all agencies moving to a standard API, however: it's not yet clear what the standard should be. If the USB of real-time bus data is out there, there isn't the consensus around it. In upcoming parts, we'll talk more about the API standards that exist today.

Plus, having a standard API is great, but it's useless if the actual bus locations are not good, and many say WMATA's data is just not up to snuff. We'll talk about that and their efforts to fix the problems with bus tracking.


Post-turkey video: That's a lot of dots

Using GTFS data, STLTransit has created videos showing all of the transit vehicles in a city over one day. Here's Washington's.

Via PlanItMetro.

The video shows one dot for each schduled Metrorail, Metrobus and Circulator vehicle. View the video in full screen (click the rectangular icon in the lower right of the video) to more clearly see the trains, which the video shows in a color corresponding to their line.



A 4th option for M Street SE/SW

M Street SE/SW is not a very good street. It's has more car lanes than it needs, and it isn't hospitable to bikes and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the options in a study by DDOT and CH2M Hill unnecessarily force a choice between bikes and transit.

Visualization of M Street in option 1.

Cyclists need a decent crosstown route, or maybe two. Transit vehicles should stay on M Street, to serve the densest part of the neighborhood and make easy connections to Metro. DDOT should study an option that provides both.

There should be enough room on the west side of South Capitol to fit in a transit lane and cycle tracks. In Near Southeast, if a cycle track can't fit with transit on M Street, there are some good parallel streets it can use.

The 3 options aren't sufficient

Several people who attended last Thursday's meeting about the study came away feeling that it unnecessarily pitted transit against bicycles. The 3 alternatives look at somewhat extreme approaches, essentially bracketing the universe of genuinely practical ideas with a few options at the very edges. That's a reasonable approach, but it lacks options that help both transit and bicycle traffic at the same time.

Instead, the study seems to have assumed that no option can affect single-passenger cars that much. In making this assumption, the study creates tradeoffs for the limited space left after reserving most of it for cars. But what about greater tradeoffs between vehicular capacity and other modes?

Option 3, keeping the road with 3 car lanes in each direction, should be a non-starter. M Street doesn't need that much car capacity, and it doesn't serve the other modes well.

Option 1 looked at adding a transit lane, which could be extremely valuable, but then modeled removing the existing bike lanes on I Street entirely in order to add vehicular capacity there. If the team wants the public to think about that one extreme, we also need to understand what would happen in the alternative that adds the transit lane but then converts I Street to a full cycle track on the other hand. Or, what about putting a cycle track on M and keeping transit in shared lanes?

The area is growing rapidly, and single-passenger cars are a spatially inefficient way to move people. There's already a freeway nearby, which should be main route for cars. M and I Streets need to serve the neighborhood, and with limited road space, do so in the way that moves more people in less space. That's transit and bicycling.

Keep transit on M Street

Option 2 would provide a cycle track on M, but it would move streetcars and the Circulator off it, to parallel streets south and north. That's not a good option either. M Street will be the center of the neighborhood, and is where transfers to Metro will take place. Asking every streetcar rider who wants to shop on M Street or connect to Metro to walk a quarter mile will cut down potential ridership significantly.

DDOT concluded that in this scenario, it would need to use the Circulator south of M and the streetcar to the north. But the streetcar can do the most good on the south side. The streetcar is an economic development tool. It helps bring in development and new residents and shops where mobility and perceived mobility are some of the biggest obstacles.

Portion of diagram showing where streetcar (green) and Circulator (blue) could travel in option 2. Click for full map (PDF).

The streetcar could spur sluggish growth around the ballpark and later in Buzzard Point. Along I Street there are a few parcels slated for development, but most of the road's length passes through already-built residential areas that aren't likely to change. It does make sense for the Circulator to pass by Nats Park, since many people use it to reach that destination, but way up on I Street the streetcar would be too far away to maximize its potential.

There's room for bicycles and transit

Option 1 would create a dedicated transit lane along M Street from 7th SW to the 11th Street (SE) bridge, but no cycle track. The CH2M Hill study designed this with a 67-foot cross-section. That's about the width of M Street east of South Capitol, but in Southwest the road is 80-84 feet wide.

Option 1.

West of South Capitol, it should be possible include a cycle track as well. One way to do that could look like this:

The wide section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

There would be some design challenges and tradeoffs. Should the cycle track go inside or outside the transit lanes? Putting them between the car lanes and transit lanes would require cyclists to cross over streetcar track in order to get to the sidewalk and buildings, which isn't ideal, and cyclists would feel less protected riding between lanes of cars and transit.

On the other hand, putting the cycle tracks between the transit lanes and the sidewalk would make streetcar riders walk across the cycle tracks at transit stops. That would be unusual, but not unheard of around the world. Vancouver has some bus stops like that, for example. Here, many riders would probably stand in the bike lane, at least until everyone got used to the arrangement.

East of South Capitol Street, where M Street is narrower, it is more difficult to fit in both bikes and streetcars.

One option would be to squeeze in cycle tracks by eliminating the median, narrowing the cycle tracks to half their originally-designed width, and narrowing the sidewalk to only 7.5 feet. This would be less than ideal for both pedestrians and bicyclists, but it would be a compromise that would keep everyone on M Street.

The narrow section of M Street, with both cycle track and transitway. Image by Dan Malouff.

DDOT's standards for sidewalks in commercial areas are 10 feet, and bike lanes of this type at least 5 feet. That's not unprecedented in DC; Georgetown and U Street, with very high foot traffic, have had extremely narrow sidewalks for years. That creates an unpleasant pedestrian experience, however. Narrow sidewalks on M Street also might preclude having things like street trees and sidewalk cafes, which are important as well.

Another option that avoids narrowing the sidewalk would be to build the cycle tracks in SW only, and then put them on parallel strets on the SE side. From M Street, the cycle tracks could use Half Street SW to deviate one block south to N Street and Tingey Street, where they could continue past the ballpark and Yards Park to connect to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail around the Navy Yard. When the Nats close N Street for games, they could keep it open to bicycles.

Meanwhile, DDOT could build another good bicycle facility on I Street, to the newly 2-way Virginia Avenue, atop the CSX tunnel to 11th Street and the new local bridge. I street, which isn't very high traffic, could remain as painted bike lanes, and Virginia Avenue could get 2-way cycle tracks. Riders could use either of these routes to get across the area or reach any destinations there.

A potential arrangement of transit and bicycle facilities. Red is streetcar. Blue is cycle tracks (dark blue) and bike lanes (light blue). Green is the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail (the Maine Avenue segment will be built as part of the Wharf development). Image by David Alpert on Google Maps.

DDOT and CH2M Hill will be taking feedback from the public on these 3 possibilities and creating a final report. That's not even the end of the processthey then plan to conduct an environmental review that may consider a different or larger set of options. The environmental review should indeed consider many more options than this study did, and think about more tradeoffs than just bikes versus transit.

What do you think is the best solution?

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