Posts about Emeka Moneme
We know that Metro refused to let a safety oversight board access live tracks. So why didn't anyone tell the General Manager or the Board?
Metro originally denied this request in May. After that, there was a major crash, followed by the deaths of several track workers. All along, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) was writing increasingly frustrated letters to Metro safety officer Alexa Dupigny-Samuels and getting rejected. But neither Dupigny-Samuels, her supervisor Emeka Moneme, or anyone on the TOC saw fit to tell the Board about this issue.
This morning, the Metro Board interviewed members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee and discussed the recent problems. Many Board members zeroed in on the clear communication failure here. Why, asked Jim Graham, didn't they go to the Board once they received the denial?
One of the TOC members replied that that they didn't have a relationship with the Board at the time, and now they are considering what communication process to establish, such as a quarterly report to the Board or annual meeting with the Board. That's a fairly bureaucratic answer. This could have been better: "Mr. Chairman, you're right. In the future, we will not let any process or bureaucracy get in the way of our mission to ensure safety. If we think there's a problem, we will come to you right away."
The TOC also didn't communicate the problems to their bosses, such as the Virginia Secretary of Transportation, who could have passed along issues to the Virginia representatives on the Metro Board.
Alternate board member Gordon Linton noted that Metro might have had some reasons for denying TOC's request. While they got the blame for rejecting the request, if a TOC member had died on the tracks, the Metro safety personnel would have taken the blame as well. Dupigny-Samuels also said that the refusal was meant to keep the TOC members safe, not to shut down their efforts. She said Metro was trying to work with them to find ways for them to meet their needs, such as observing from the cabs of working trains or monitoring during existing work zones.
Whether Metro was right or TOC was right, this decision clearly shouldn't have been confined to TOC, Dupigny-Smauels, and Moneme. Even John Catoe didn't hear about this until the recent firestorm, he told the Board. Someone at TOC or at Metro, or both, should have realized that this was important enough to pass up the chain.
The Board established a new policy that staff should bring to the Board any letters between themselves and TOC where Metro is denying a TOC request. But this is a broader problem. Whether on SmarTrip or safety, the prevailing culture within these organizations is to undercommunicate instead of overcommunicate. That's a recipe for disaster when, as in these cases, the far-reaching and important decision reached without communication or input turns out to be a really poor one.
Technology writers and entrepreneurs talk about "innovation" a lot. It's a tough concept, though. For many people, the products and companies we can see and touch right now are easy to grasp, while the vague potential of people building new tools we can't conceive of today is less obvious.
Professor Lawrence Lessig wrote in Newsweek about the FCC's failings. It's supposed to manage our airwaves and telecommunications systems to encourage more and easier communication. But in practice, it ends up regulating these systems to benefit the companies operating services today in ways that impede new people building new services tomorrow.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer Douglas McGray talks about San Francisco's experience releasing its schedule data for Google Transit:
Just a few days after Apple's iPhone launched, a trip planner for the San Francisco Bay Area's subway system, BART, appeared in the iTunes application store, which sells iPhone and iPod software for download. User reviews were mixed. But I was still floored. How could a local government agency move so quickly?Too bad Metro staff don't feel that way.
Turns out, it didn't. In 2007, Google engineers asked public-transit agencies across the country to submit their arrival and departure data in a simple, standard, open format
— a text file, basically, with a bunch of numbers separated by commas — so Google Maps could generate bus and subway directions. A handful of agencies, including BART, decided to go a step further and publish that raw data online. Once they did that, any programmer could grab the data and write a trip planner, for any platform.
"It's not 1995," BART's Web-site manager, Timothy Moore, explained. "A single Web site is not the endgame anymore. People are planning trips on Google, they're using their iPhones. Because we opened up our schedule, we are in those places."
A couple weeks after that first BART application appeared, a new trip planner went live. This one, called iBART, was a thing of beauty. Free, too. It was written by two former high-school buddies—Ian Leighton, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, and David Hodge, a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Forty thousand people downloaded the program in just a few weeks.
"We've created competition among developers," Moore said, "to see who can serve our customers best."
Metro General Manager John Catoe and Chief Administrative Officer Emeka Moneme told the WMATA board last month that they wanted to guarantee that any trip planner was up to the highest quality standards. But as McGray explained, the first BART trip planner for the iPhone had its flaws too. iPhone users didn't blame BART; they wrote their own, better trip planners.
Besides, the wmata.com trip planner isn't going to know about the special bus routes Metro plans for the Inauguration either. Metro staff are doing their best to adapt to quickly changing conditions, so I understand if it's impractical to fix the trip planner for this day. But Metro should not argue that the trip planner is perfect and anyone else's tool unreliable.
Last September, [BART's] Moore added a feed that broadcasts imminent train arrivals in real time. He's eager to see what people will do with it. "We can't envision every beneficial use for our data," Moore told me. "We don't have the time, we don't have the resources, and frankly, we don't have the vision. I'm sure there are people out there who have better ideas than we do. That's why we've opened it up."Barack Obama seems to get this. DC's Office of the Chief Technology Officer gets this too. They've released lots of data knowing people will make all kinds of unexpected uses of it. Recently, I attended a meeting where someone suggested reaching out to houses of worship about a project in their area. Fortunately, there's a feed for that. Who knows what great tools and analyses people could devise if WMATA released feeds for station locations, schedules, bus routes, ridership numbers, and more.
Tips: Joshua S. and Michael Perkins.
At Thursday's board meeting, I spoke about Google Transit and the broader issues of communication at Metro. Chief Administrative Officer Emeka Moneme stated unequivocally that Metro agrees with the principle of making schedule data available beyond just wmata.com:
Board Chair Chris Zimmerman of Arlington: Is it your view that this is potentially a very valuable thing for this agency, to be able to conclude some kind of deal with Google?Congratulations to the 774 people (and counting) who signed the petition! You've made a big impact. Metro has agreed in principle that making this information available to all is a goal. The campaign generated some even generated some major press stories, and got the attention of at least three Maryland state legislators. One, Bill Frick of Bethesda, followed up with a letter to WMATA General Manager John Catoe:
Moneme: I'll be even broader ... it's not necessarily about working with Google, that's one of the many partners that we think we could work with. ... Making our information available for whomever out there that does manipulation of information to make or create applications, for example, for people's PDAs, having a relationship with them would be good not just for us, but for our ridership and for the region. So it's a direction we want to move in.
Zimmerman: So your goal is to be able to get information as broadly available as possible through whatever devices our [riders] are using?
M: Absolutely, whether we do it ourselves of our own volition, through our website, or with a partner that can provide that service.
As the Washington region prepares to host as many as 3 to 4 million visitors this January, it is in all of our interests to disseminate information about public transit options as quickly as possible.Still, we have to keep pushing Metro to turn this general principle into action. Moneme didn't actually endorse releasing the data to anyone without cost. By couching his statement in the language of "working with partners," he kept the door open to requirements that any such partner pay, negotiate detailed contracts, meet any technical demands, and more. Bureaucratic organizations often prefer this deal-oriented, tightly-controlled route, but that impedes real innovation, which might come from an individual without the time or resources to negotiate a complex agreement with WMATA.
Based on public statements by WMATA officials, the Authority is withholding this data principally in order to extract or protect ad revenue that it believes would inure to Google's benefit. This is myopic. WMATA is not in the online advertising business. It is in the transportation business. Inclusion in Google Transit will help WMATA perform this core function for many more individuals
— and, it bears noting, increase fare collections as a result.
I urge you to reconsider your position.
Moneme justified this control as a way to ensure accuracy:
Zimmerman: Is the kind of thing you're concerned about, that if people use these services to get information which they believe comes from the transit agency and is reliable, if there's some problem with that and they encounter difficulties on an individual basis which they then attribute to us ... Are these the kinds of things we're talking about?Innovation can be a messy thing, sometimes, and even a little bit scary. New tools make far more information available to individuals, but sometimes at the cost of accuracy. Online maps sometimes have the wrong addresses for businesses. The Web sometimes convinces a person of incorrect information. But taking away the information isn't the answer.
Moneme: Absolutely. Any information that is related to riding our system, we believe impacts our brand, so we want to make sure it's accurate, that it gets people to where they need to get to in the most efficient manner, provides them with accurate information about the costs or price of our services. That's essentially the bar or standard that we want to make sure we achieve.
These arguments on both sides follow very familiar open systems vs. closed control lines. Mobile phone carriers long argued against letting developers build applications freely, as they can on conventional computers, arguing that they were "protecting the network". When the World Wide Web was in its infancy, online services like Prodigy and, later, AOL claimed that the controlled, managed environment they created was better for users. Users disagreed. Metro's reluctance to allow innovation that they don't control is similarly shortsighted.
We've made a lot of progress in just one week. From refusing to even talk about Google Transit, to arguing that riders should only use the Metro trip planner, to seeing schedule data as a revenue opportunity instead of a service to riders, WMATA officials now acknowledge that greater availability and openness is their goal. They're never going to move with Internet speed, but we can continue to push and encourage them to move faster than typical bureaucracy speed. The 774 individuals who signed the petition moved this issue forward one huge step.
DDOT Director Emeka Moneme has resigned. The Post reports that Moneme was "irked by Fenty's hands-on managing style"; my sources say there was a growing dissatisfaction with Moneme from the Fenty administration as well.
I've frequently criticized Moneme for focusing on getting projects done rather than getting the right ones done. Whether it's the streetcar, intercity bus loading, or a neighborhood streetscape redesign, DDOT reveals its internal conflict between planners who have good, progressive ideas and engineers who are still stuck in LOS-land.
But even if DDOT's output didn't always reflect it, Moneme's heart was clearly in the right place. He wanted to make the city safer for pedestrians and bicycles, and make sure our transportation network aids rather than hinders the development of walkable communities. Just look at his great comments in Eric Weiss's "war on drivers" hatchet job. And there's merit to the charge that Fenty was too "hands-on"; he would often attend community meetings and instruct Moneme to adopt a certain policy regardless of the wisdom of that approach or the research DDOT had put into making a decision.
Fenty's choice to succeed Moneme will have enormous influence over DDOT's direction. We could get an old-school traffic engineer focused on moving as many cars as fast as possible. Or we could get a visionary, progressive leader who will bring clarity to DDOT's actions. New York City stood at the same fork in the road last year when replacing their DOT Commissioner. The two finalists were Michael Horodniceanu, a
"cars-first" traditionalist and DOT insider, and Parsons Brinkerhoff VP Janette Sadik-Khan. Mayor Bloomberg chose Sadik-Khan, and now we have separated bike lanes, brand-new plazas, a boulevard-like design for Broadway, and more.
We need a similarly visionary leader for DDOT. And that wouldn't be unusual for Fenty, who plucked an innovative founder of a school reform organization to be chancellor of the DC Public Schools, and picked a national leader on Smart Growth to run the Office of Planning. So far, he has stood behind them despite controversial actions.
DDOT needs a strong leader with a clear vision as much as DCPS, OP, MPD, and other city agencies. And it needs the Mayor to stand behind that leader. Just as with NYC DOT, there are plenty of conventional, established people who could take over. General Counsel and interim Director Frank Seales Jr. is not the visionary leader we need. Fenty should find DDOT's Janette Sadik-Khan, their Michelle Rhee, their Harriet Tregoning. Who is it?
Update: sign this petition to ask Mayor Fenty to find and appoint a world-class leader as the next Director. We should impress upon the Mayor now how important his choice will be.
Update 2: Streetsblog's Aaron Naparstek pointed out that, after calling NYC DOT's Horodniceanu "cars-first", they found out he's not so bad. (Sadik-Khan was still the best choice for Commissioner.)
It was Councilmember Marion Barry (ward 8) who had the day's most relevant quote. "Streetcars are about connecting communities," he said, as he urged his colleagues to support the proposed 1.3-mile, $43-million Anacostia demonstration streetcar in his ward. There's only one problem: the proposed line doesn't connect communities at all.
There's no community on South Capitol Street, with the 295 freeway on one side and Bolling Air Force Base on the other, and where the first of DC's streetcar lines is slated to be built. The originally proposed line would have run along the abandoned CSX tracks all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, but failed negotiations with CSX killed that idea. Then DDOT proposed a line along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave between historic Anacostia and Congress Heights, but some residents objected to not being able to park on both sides of the street.
Ultimately, DDOT settled on an alignment down the very wide and low-density Firth Stirling Avenue, and then onto South Capitol, which has no buildings on it whatsoever, serving basically as a frontage access road paralleling the freeway alongside a military base. Firth Stirling itself is slated to become a dense, mixed-use neighborhood main street if Barry Farm is redeveloped and the cloverleaf interchange at Suitland and 295 is converted to a diamond, freeing up land. But the Barry Farm stop is a mere third of a mile from the Anacostia Metro, an easy walk (supplemented by bus service).
The real riders of this line will be federal workers at Anacostia Naval Station and Bolling Air Force Base. But the federal government is not paying a cent for what Tommy Wells (ward 6) says amounts to no more than a "shuttle train" for federal employees. And it connects no communities. In essence, Barry was asking the Council to support a streetcar project for reasons that argue against the project instead. This divergence between rhetoric and reality characterized the entire hearing, where supporters and critics seemed to be talking about entirely different projects. That's because they were.
To supporters, like DDOT Director Emeka Moneme, the reasons to build this segment have little to do with this segment itself. Instead, this project is about starting, at long last, DC's streetcar system. And we certainly should be building a comprehensive system throughout the region. East of the river, the benefits abound of providing reliable, economic-development-stimulating streetcar service past the Anacostia Metro, through Historic Anacostia, and down Minnesota Avenue all the way to Benning Road and the Minnesota Avenue Metro.
In his testimony, Moneme often answered a question about the South Capitol alignment by discussing instead the benefits of a streetcar in Anacostia generally. David Catania (at large), who decided to put the first line in Anacostia during his WMATA board tenure, spoke about building demand for Class A office space in downtown Anacostia. Unfortunately, the planned line doesn't go to downtown Anacostia.
Moneme's testimony made clear that, quite simply, DDOT is building this first segment in this location because it is the path of least resistance. Here, there is no argument about capacity on Firth Stirling (it is really two parallel roads separated by the abandoned tracks, with ample excess space), and no residents on South Capitol to complain about anything. The District owns land, currently partially used for garbage truck storage, that will serve as the new line's maintenance shop.
Yes, it's easy to build a line in the middle of nowhere. But is it a prudent use of funds? If this piece catalyzes the next one, maybe. Will it? Chairman Jim Graham argued that with CFO Gandhi's recent warning about debt for capital projects, funds are precious. Will DC be stuck with this little "shuttle train" for years and years?
Moneme thinks not. He believes that this segment will build public support for future streetcars. It will show people how smooth, quiet, and reliable a working streetcar can be, and how non-intrusive the overhead wires really appear. He's hoping this path-of-least-resistance project will make it easier to build the next segment in an area with some resistance today, such as an extension to the center of historic Anacostia.
That's possible. Or, perhaps the line will encounter some mechanical problems, suffer from low ridership (due to its failure to connect communities) and create opposition instead of support. Even if it does convert skeptics to believers, is it worth $43 million? How about a really nice video, or maybe we could just fly every resident of DC to Portland to see their streetcars firsthand.
This debate comes down to a strategic decision. The current line serves few DC residents and connects no communities, but is easy to build and passes by cheap land for a maintenance shop. Is it better to get a track in the ground as soon as possible, in the easiest possible place, to show people a working streetcar even if the immediate benefits are few? Or is $43 million too high a price? Should we wait longer to build a streetcar in an area which needs and wants one? Graham and Wells say, do it right and in the right place. Fenty and Moneme say, just build something now.
Meanwhile, Catania says build it now and, in fact, this is the right place too. Of all the opinions at the hearing, Catania's is the least plausible. He was the only one to firmly defend a line to Bolling, arguing that a streetcar will generate office demand in Anacostia among defense contractors doing business at those military bases. He also wants the line to continue to National Harbor to access the jobs there. As Wells pointed out, National Harbor is not designed for transit and competes with DC for business; a line (and my transit vision map contains one), but building such a line first, with DC money, is not the right priority.
Catania is stuck in a commuter-only mindset, like the one in force when Metro was designed. Streetcars aren't a way to more quickly shuttle workers to their jobs; buses do that more cheaply over short distances. Streetcars work best to open up run-down areas to development, creating new, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, like Portland's Pearl district (or the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro in Arlington). H Street, Minnesota Avenue, or the AFRH/Hospital Center/McMillan Sand Filtration area may be such places. An access highway to a military base, far from any people, with no parcels available for development along most of the route, is not.
But the engineering is done, the cars are waiting in the Czech Republic, and the administration is ready to go. Is it best simply to get this one built and then push for the next segment? Or are we wasting our money? Whatever will create the complete planned system, or better yet the original full system, I support. The approximately $1 billion price tag may come in large part from incremental tax revenues from development it spurs. The $400 million earmarked for the 11th Street bridges looks inviting; Graham called it a "Christmas goose," suggesting the Council might find it appealing to reallocate that money to streetcars. Most likely, to kick off the investment requires federal investment from a better FTA, which we can hope to get from a President Obama.
Pictures from along the route:
Post reporter Eric Weiss went trolling for suburban elected officials to condemn DC's pedestrian-friendly transportation improvements, creating an article that casts DC's efforts to improve pedestrian conditions as hostile moves against suburban commuters. It's a classic newsitorial, sporting this opening line: "The District is escalating what some suburban commuters are calling its war against workers who drive into the city."
Weiss bases his findings on a number of pro-pedestrian proposals being considered, some more seriously than others: cutting I-395 back to Mass. Ave., replacing the reversible lane on 16th Street in Columbia Heights with a median, increasing fines for failing to yield to pedestrians, and the Clean Air Compliance Fee. They've already removed the rush-hour one-way operation on Constitution Avenue in Capitol Hill.
The suburban drivers Weiss's editorializing masquerading as news continues: She placed blame for the problem, in part, on the federal government, which offers many of its employees free parking in the city.
Auto commuters have long suspected that the city's speed and red-light cameras, along with its famously aggressive ticketing policies, have more to do with filling city coffers than with safety. The city's new parking meters, for example, can be programmed to charge escalating rates.That's quite a non sequitur. Parking meters have nothing to do with safety, expensive or not. Despite Weiss's slant, performance parking is not about soaking drivers to "fill the city's coffers"; it's about ensuring people who wish to use curb space pay a market price to use a scarce resource instead of just making spaces impossible to find. Which is exactly what DDOT Director Emeka Moneme says, as a matter of fact:
Moneme said the city will continueMoneme, Councilmember Tommy Wells, and MWCOG Transportation Director Ronald Kirby all sound eminently sensible in their defense of complete streets policies over the blind promotion of high-speed traffic that all suburban drivers crave in Weiss's world. But the gold star on this article goes to the one suburbanite who made it into the article despite her refusal to roundly condemn the District:
"You'd like me to lambaste the District, but we're all in the same boat," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). "I am sympathetic to some of these initiatives. But the challenge is finding the right balance. Not everyone can ride Metro or walk to work."
Floreen makes an excellent point. Free parking does indeed cause problems; policies that mitigate its negative effects are restoring balance, not part of a "war against workers."
Weiss's editorializing masquerading as news continues:
She placed blame for the problem, in part, on the federal government, which offers many of its employees free parking in the city.
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