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Transit


The Potomac Yard transitway is looking good

Construction on Alexandria's Route 1 transitway is coming along, in anticipation of its August 24 opening. These pictures show the station at Route 1 and Custis Avenue.


All photos by Dan Malouff.

While Alexandria's transitway is just about ready, the second phase of the same project, in Arlington, is still a grassy strip. But preliminary construction work started earlier this year, and Arlington will host an official groundbreaking on Friday, July 18, at 9 am.


Arlington's portion, next in line for construction.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


BRT comes to Northern Virginia on August 24

The first bus rapid transit line in the DC region will officially begin service on August 24.

The "Metroway" route will run from Crystal City to Braddock Road, partly in mixed traffic and partly in a dedicated transitway. A later phase to open in 2015 will extend the route to Pentagon City, and shift more of it into dedicated lanes.


Route 1 Transitway under construction in Alexandria. Photo from the City of Alexandria.

Metroway is a joint project between Alexandria, Arlington, and WMATA. Alexandria and Arlington are building the transitway in two phases, and WMATA will operate the buses.

For now, only the Alexandria phase is ready. Arlington's phase just began construction and should be finished next year.

But rather than wait until 2015 to start service, WMATA will begin running buses in August, and simply run in mixed traffic through Crystal City until Arlington's phase is complete.


Metroway initial route (left) and route starting in 2015 (right). Images from WMATA.

Metroway will run every 6 minutes at peak times, dropping to every 12 minutes at midday and every 20 minutes on weekends.

Arlington will eventually convert its portion of the route to streetcar.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


Arlington will build its first cycletrack this fall

Despite being an early leader in bicycle friendliness, Arlington has been slow to join the growing trend of building cycletracks (not counting a tiny 30-foot fragment in Rosslyn). While there are plans for cycletracks on Army Navy Drive in Pentagon City and a re-aligned Clark/Bell street in Crystal City, a new pilot project on Eads Street will likely precede both.


South Eads Street today. Image from Google Maps.

Arlington needs to repave several sections of Eads, and multiple development projects are in the works along the corridor. The time is ripe to re-imagine how Eads Street can function to serve pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses, and the county is kicking off a South Eads Street Corridor Study.

Right now, Eads functions primarily to move cars, with roomy lanes that encourage speeding (some as wide as 19 feet), more lanes than necessary for the volume of traffic, few street trees, and limited bike facilities. Technically, there are bike lanes on the southern end, but the markings have faded to almost nothing.

Next Wednesday, Arlington will host a workshop to get feedback on options for various segments of Eads, which parallels Route 1 from I-395 to the border with Alexandria. The options vary quite a bit based on the shifting width of the street. They include buffered bike lanes, a street-level cycletrack, and a raised cycletrack at sidewalk level. All would provide continuous bike facilities from the Four Mile Run Trail connection in the south all the way to a connection with the future Army Navy Drive cycletrack in the north.


Options for one section of Eads Street. Image from Arlington County. Click for larger version including cross-sections.

The visioning process and corridor study will set out the long-term plan for Eads, but officials plan to build a short-term pilot project this fall between 23rd Street and 15th Street. This section of Eads is on the paving list for this year, and Arlington is going to take advantage of that to do a cheap pilot.

The roadway will be re-striped from its existing four lanes to become two lanes and a center turn lane. A two-way cycletrack of some sort will be added, pedestrian crossings upgraded, and parking lanes reconfigured.

Arlington will be gathering significant data on how people travel along this section of Eads both before the changes and after, including bicycle, pedestrian and traffic counts, as well as travel time measurements. Analysis of these metrics from the pilot program will inform the ultimate design of Eads Street as well as future cycletrack projects in the county.

South Eads Street has the potential to be a vital cycling connection in Arlington. North-South travel by bicycle in Arlington is notoriously challenging, with few good options. This project will connect the planned Army Navy Drive cycletrack to the Four Mile Run trail and, from there, the Mt Vernon Trail. Someday it may connect to the planned bike/ped bridge over Four Mile Run, taking cyclists to one of Alexandria's main cycling corridors, Commonwealth Avenue.

If you're free, come out the workshop on Wednesday evening, May 21, 7 pm at the Aurora Hills Community Center and provide your feedback. If you can't make the meeting, the county has an online survey you can take instead.

Transit


Arlington's streetcars will carry more riders than VRE or the entire Richmond bus network combined

Here's the simplest reason to build a streetcar on Columbia Pike: Absolutely tons of people will ride it. The latest ridership projections show that by 2035 there will be more streetcar riders on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City than there are on VRE or riding buses in Richmond today.


Streetcar and buses in Toronto. Photo by Sean_Marshall on flickr.

The latest ridership projections for the streetcar are huge. By 2035, 37,100 riders per day are expected to use the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City line, which will operate as a single through route. Another 22,700 will ride buses daily, for a total of 59,800 riders in the corridor.

For comparison, VRE carries about 20,000 per day, and as of 2011 (the most recent data available), the entire Richmond metropolitan area bus system carried an average of 35,200 riders per day. That's every bus route in the whole region put together.

Granted, comparing 2035 projections to contemporary ridership is not exactly valid. Surely by 2035 VRE and Richmond's GRTC will be carrying more riders than they are now.

But these comparisons are useful nonetheless. They give us a sense of the scale of transit demand on Columbia Pike.

Let's keep going. According to the American Public Transportation Association's 4th quarter 2013 ridership report, here are more total networks that the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcar's 37,100 daily riders in 2035 will beat or approximately match:

  • MARC commuter rail (34,100 riders per day)
  • Regional light rail systems in Baltimore (26,800), San Jose (34,300), New Orleans (20,200), Minneapolis (30,100), Charlotte (15,400), Buffalo (17,400), Pittsburgh (28,300), Houston (38,300), Seattle (33,200), Norfolk (5,000 in 2012)
  • Regional bus networks in Indianapolis (35,000), Memphis (28,700), Nashville (31,200)
  • Fairfax Connector bus system (36,300)
  • Prince William County Omni-Ride bus system (13,400)
Of course there are plenty of bigger systems out there. Here's a sampling from the same data:
  • Subway systems such as New York (8,733,300), WMATA (855,300), Atlanta (221,200), and even Baltimore (48,500)
  • Light rail systems such as Los Angeles (200,900), Sacramento (46,400), Portland (115,300), Dallas (98,300), and Saint Louis (53,000)
  • Bus networks like Baltimore (237,600), Montgomery County Ride-On (86,600), WMATA (441,100), and Norfolk (52,800 in 2012)
Now let's compare the ridership projections for Columbia Pike / Crystal City with other rail projects near the DC region:Each of those projects will carry more riders than the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcars, but each of them also has a price tag in the multiple billions of dollars. Streetcars in Arlington will cost hundreds of millions, but produce great bang for the buck.

The bottom line

With 16,000 daily bus riders today, Columbia Pike is already Virginia's busiest bus corridor. By 2035 there will be nearly 60,000 combined streetcar and bus trips on the Columbia Pike / Crystal City corridor, with 42,800 of those coming on Columbia Pike.

Streetcar detractors want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike by bus alone than the entire Richmond or Norfolk regional bus networks move in sum total. They want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike with buses than MARC or VRE move on commuter rail, or that Baltimore, Minneapolis, or Houston move on light rail.

That's ridiculous. The huge transit demand on Columbia Pike easily justifies rail, and it comes at a better cost value than other rail projects around the region. To suggest otherwise ignores reality.

Transit


Arlington starts work on the region's first BRT line

Alexandria is putting the finishing touches on their part of the region's first Bus Rapid Transit line, the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, and Arlington has begun work on their section. The transitway's first phase will open this summer, and it will be completely open in 2015.


Buses called "Metro Way" will serve the transitway. Image from WMATA.

This project will speed up bus service along the Route 1 corridor between Arlington and Alexandria by creating transit-only lanes. Buses will come every 6 minutes and will operate earlier in the morning and later at night. Stations will have real-time arrival screens and ticket kiosks to allow people to pay before boarding the bus, speeding up service.

Arlington has already created a limited-stop bus service, the Metrobus 9S, as a precursor to what's coming. In addition, a new Metrobus 9X route branded "Metro Way" will travel the entire busway between Braddock Road and Crystal City and continue to Pentagon City. Other buses will use the transitway as well, including the Fairfax Connector and private shuttles.

The transitway is a joint effort between Arlington, Alexandria, WMATA, and the federal government. It will serve Crystal City and Potomac Yard, which are both growing rapidly. Alexandria is planning a new Metro station at Potomac Yard as well. But many of these areas are too far to walk to that station or the existing Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations, so officials are hope the transitway will make them easier to reach.

Eventually, Arlington will run streetcars in the transitway that connect with the future Columbia Pike streetcar at the Pentagon City Metro station. Meanwhile, Alexandria no longer has any streetcar plans and will use the transitway for BRT indefinitely. Alexandria may also eventually add streetcars to their portion, but Alexandria's planning is on hold while they focus on their infill Metro station.

I asked county officials why Arlington didn't put in streetcar infrastructure in the first place. The federal government provided a grant for busway construction, and although Arlington is free to upgrade to streetcar later, the original construction has to follow that busway agreement. But Arlington's Capital Improvement Plan, to be released this spring, will include an updated streetcar construction schedule.


Rendering of a future BRT station from Arlington County.

This project has largely flown under the radar, and without the controversy that has followed other transit projects in Arlington like the Columbia Pike streetcar or the "million dollar bus stop." I asked why this was, and was told that the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway enjoyed a lot of community support from residents and businesses who want better transit service.

It seems that people generally agreed that the transitway could help make Crystal City easier to get around. And since the line passes mainly through office buildings and what are currently empty fields, there weren't the same concerns about gentrification on Columbia Pike. The county should definitely look at the specific differences for why these projects were received so differently, and how to apply those lessons in the future.

Bus ridership in the DC area is growing, and in some congested corridors, buses carry half of all traffic. Regardless of mode, dedicated transitways are a great way to provide dramatic improvements to transit riders. This will be a great BRT line, and eventually a great rail line as well. Metro Way and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway are a big, but not final, step in the right direction.

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.

Transit


Crystal City-Potomac Yard BRT will be "Metro Way"

WMATA has chosen a brand for its upcoming Crystal City Potomac Yard BRT line: Metro Way, featuring a flashy new blue paint scheme.


Metro Way. Image from WMATA.

The BRT line will run south from Pentagon City through Crystal City and then into Alexandria. It will have dedicated lanes, with large rail-like stations. The line will run every 6 minutes during rush hour and every 12-15 minutes at other times.

In a few years it will be upgraded to a streetcar line. But in the meantime, it's the DC region's first bona fide BRT.

WMATA selected the Metro Way brand and livery following a survey this past March that considered several options. The blue livery, although clearly unique, reflects the blue Metro uses for its MetroExtra express buses.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Maryland, Virginia, fund these projects!

Maryland and Virginia will both enact major new transportation funding bills this year. Neither bill says exactly which projects will be funded, but here are the top 10 projects in Maryland and Virginia that most deserve to get some of the funds.


Tysons grid of streets, no. 2. Image from Fairfax County.

1. 8-car Metro trains: Metrorail is near capacity, especially in Virginia. More Metro railcars and the infrastructure they need (like power systems and yard space) would mean more 8-car trains on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

2. Tysons grid of streets: Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond put together. Converting it to a functional urban place is a huge priority.

3. Purple Line: Bethesda, Silver Spring, Langley Park, College Park, New Carrollton. That's a serious string of transit-friendly pearls. The Purple Line will be one of America's best light rail lines on the day it opens.

4. Baltimore Red Line: Baltimore has a subway line and a light rail line, but they don't work together very well as a system. The Red Line will greatly improve the reach of Baltimore's rail system.

5. Silver Line Phase 2: The Silver Line extension from Reston to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County is one of the few projects that was earmarked in Virginia's bill, to the tune of $300 million.

6. Arlington streetcars: The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars both have funding plans already, but could potentially be accelerated.

7. Route 7 transit. Leesburg Pike is the next Rosslyn-Ballston corridor waiting to happen. Virginia is just beginning to study either a light rail or BRT line along it.

8. Corridor Cities Transitway: Gaithersburg has been waiting decades for a quality transit line to build around. BRT will finally connect the many New Urbanist communities there, which are internally walkable but rely on cars for long-range connections.


Corridor Cities Transitway, no. 8. Image from Maryland MTA.

9. MARC enhancements: MARC is a decent commuter rail, but it could be so much more. Some day it could be more like New York's Metro North or Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail, with hourly trains all day long, even on weekends.

10. Alexandria BRT network: This will make nearly all of Alexandria accessible via high-quality transit.

Honorable mentions: Montgomery County BRT network, Potomac Yard Metro station, Virginia Beach light rail, Southern Maryland light rail, and VRE platform extensions.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Bright hopes, some obstacles for Northern Virginia streetcars

Streetcar supporters in Northern Virginia hope to see streetcar lines traversing many of Northern Virginia's cities and counties, linking housing to employment centers within and across jurisdictions, often retracing routes operated decades ago.


A modern streetcar. Photo from Arlington County.

To get streetcars across boundaries, however, the many local governments must coordinate their plans and deal with differences in their abilities to fund projects.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition's top priority this year is supporting Arlington's plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines. It also will encourage other cities and counties to consider streetcar options.

Arlington has steadfastly supported a vision of smart growth around transit nodes and multimodal transportation options for a great many years. Thanks to this consistency, their work has paid off in positioning Arlington as a good place to live and work.

By selecting streetcar rather than some variety of enhanced bus service, Arlington is reinforcing its past planning efforts by providing investors and developers along the two corridors with the certainty that only a commitment to a fixed alignment can give.

Arlington and Fairfax counties worked together on plans for high-capacity transit along Columbia Pike for several years, and in July 2012 voted to select streetcar as the preferred option for Columbia Pike and apply for federal funding. Arlington also plans a streetcar line for Crystal City to connect with the Columbia Pike line.

The 5 mile long Columbia Pike line, as currently planned, will cross into Fairfax County, terminating at Skyline. The 2½ mile long Crystal City line, on the other hand, will terminate at Four Mile Run, the boundary between Arlington and Alexandria.


Proposed streetcar alignments in Arlington. Image from Arlington County.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has been studying transit for Route 1 and the Beauregard/Van Dorn transit corridors. NVSC wants to ensure no decisions would preclude using streetcars in those areas.

NVSC also will encourage Fairfax County to expand its streetcar lines beyond Skyline, going either toward Falls Church along Route 7, toward Northern Virginia Community College and the Mark Center east of Skyline, or along Route 1 south of Alexandria. Finally, ongoing studies in various jurisdictions could identify additional corridors suitable for streetcars.

Leaders emphasize need for transit, desire to coordinate

In November, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition hosted a public meeting where leaders from Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Falls Church discussed, in a spirited but positive manner, regional cooperation in planning high-capacity transit.

They saw Northern Virginia's future as multimodal, with mixed uses around transit stations. Then-Arlington Board Chair Mary Hynes noted that Virginia commuters to DC must cross Arlington. Without its multi-modal strategy, she said, the county would "become a parking lot."

All of the officials emphasized that the jurisdictions want work together, and have coordinated in many ways. However, due to differences in funds available for transit and each jurisdiction's priorities, it has not always been possible to think regionally in spite of best intentions.

Arlington has been more successful at raising funds for transportation capital projects than its neighbors, partially due to its more balanced ratio of commercial to residential property and its commercial add-on tax for transportation.

Paul Smedberg, a member of the Alexandria City Council, spoke of the need for a streetcar connection to the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center. Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives.

Former Falls Church City Council member Dan Maller, standing in for Vice-Mayor David Snyder, noted that he was eager to work with Fairfax on a Route 7 extension to Falls Church. Somewhat reassuringly, Alexandrians learned that they would have continuous transit options to get from their city to Arlington without transferring at Four Mile Runalthough presently these are bus options rather than streetcar options.

As local and regional plans for high-capacity transit develop, decision-makers must think long-term and regionally. Not every transit route is suitable for streetcars, but where cities and counties want environmentally-sound, reliable, clean transportation that also contributes to local economic development, they should consider streetcar lines and ensure they can interoperate across jurisdictional boundaries now and in the future.

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