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Topic of the week: Walking in unexpected places

Even the most hardened pedestrians can find themselves in areas where driving is the default way to get around. In those places, going for a walk can be a provocative act, met with stares and questions.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Still, some of us make the conscious choice to walk or bike somewhere even in places where it's not obvious to others. Our contributors share some of their funnier stories of when people didn't understand why they just didn't drive.

David Versel: I typically walk up to the Metrobus stop for my morning commute, which is about 0.5 miles from my house in Springfield. I am ALWAYS the only adult pedestrian about, but there are usually middle school kids walking to or waiting at their school bus stop. I have gotten scared looks from these kids many times who probably think I'm a pedophile cruising school bus stops.

It's just another casualty of car culture that suburban kids automatically assume that adults should always be in cars, and that those who aren't are probably sex offenders.

Dan Reed: In high school, I usually walked to my friend's house for a study group. One day we had an argument, as 15-year-olds often do, and I stormed out. As I unlocked the front door, her mother ran into the room in a frenzy.

"Where are you going!?" she asked, and I said I was walking home. (This is how far apart our houses were.)

"Don't worry, I'll give you a ride," she said. I said it was okay, but she relented, and went back to get her keys. She came back and said, "Alright, let's go." I felt terrible asking her to go through the trouble, so I said "Um, I changed my mind and I'll stay here," and returned to sulk in the basement with my friends.

David Alpert: When I was in Los Angeles once, I was staying with family friends in Brentwood and was at an event on Wilshire Boulevard just south of Brentwood. When I was ready to leave, I realized that the cross street we were right near was also one of the main cross streets near their house, so I walked the approximately 1.2 miles to their house instead of calling for a ride.

When I got there they were flabbergasted that I had walked.

Matt Johnson: I can do ya one better. And this conversation did happen. Word for word.

The first time I was ever in LA, Ryan and I stayed at a hotel one block from the Vermont/Santa Monica subway station. We got in fairly late, and we really just wanted to go to bed, but we hadn't eaten. On the one block walk from the station, we'd seen a few storefronts, but hadn't really been paying a lot of attention.

So after we got situated in our room, we went down to the front desk, and I asked the receptionist...

Me: "Can you tell me are there any restaurants nearby?"
Receptionist: "Oh, sure. Let me call you a cab."
Me: "Oh, no, no. We don't want to go anyplace far away. Just something close by."
Receptionist: "Yeah, there are lots of places. Let me call you a cab." [picks up phone]
Me: "No, please don't. We really just want someplace close. Is there any place within walking distance?"
[She looks puzzled]
Receptionist: "It's really no trouble for me to call you a cab."
Me: "We don't want a cab. We just want to know if there are any restaurants nearby. Are there any restaurants within a block or two?"
Receptionist: "Yeah. There are a few places at the corner of Vermont and Santa Monica. Are you sure you don't want me to call you a cab?"
Me: "Vermont and Santa Monica is a block away, right?"
Receptionist: "Yes."
Me: "We'll just walk. Thanks for your help."
Receptionist: "Really, it's no trouble to call a cab. Are you sure you don't want one?"

The ironic thing is that LA (the LA Basin at least) is actually very walkable. The problem is that Angelenos don't seem to know that.

I've ridden the 4/704 all the way from Union Station to the Santa Monica pier. And the density/urban form never drops below what you'd find in the Woodley Park commercial strip. That's about the same distance as going from Metro Center to Rockville. There are a few places were the walkability isn't great (Century City), but for the most part, the sidewalks are wide and complete, the street is buffered with parking, and buildings are built right to the street.

Dan Malouff: My example isn't quite so bad. It's a 0.4 mile walk from Fairfax City Hall to Fairfax Main Street. Who wants to guess how many people other than me walked to lunch, back when I worked in Fairfax?

Canaan Merchant: I used to walk to Fairfax City from GMU. It really freaked my roommates out. Thinking back, I have lots of examples of me having to explain that sometimes I preferred to walk for 20 minutes than drive 10 to get to places in Fairfax.

David Edmondson: In fairness to the drive-everywhere crowd, I definitely took the Metro from Mt. Vernon Square to Chinatown a number of times when I first moved to DC before I realized how close it actually is.


The US has only 5 true BRT systems, and none are "gold"

When new bus rapid transit lines are discussed, proponents often say they hope to make the routes gold standard, meaning so high-quality that they mimic many features of rail. That's a high bar; most BRT projects in the United States don't even qualify as true BRT, and so far not one has actually met the gold standard.

Cleveland's Health Line, America's highest-scoring BRT. Photo from EMBARQ Brasil on Flickr.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy publishes BRT standards that describe minimum characteristics necessary for a bus route to qualify as BRT. Those standards establish three levels of BRT quality: bronze, silver, and gold. They include features like off-bus fare collection, high station platforms, and bus frequency.

So far, only 5 lines in the United States have scored highly enough to qualify as true BRT, and all 5 rank at the bronze level. Not one is even silver, let alone gold.

According to ITDP, the best performing BRT systems in the world are Bogota, Colombia and Guangzhou, China, which score 93/100 and 89/100, respectively. They are the gold standard.

By comparison, the United States' highest-scoring BRT route is Cleveland's Health Line, which hits bronze with a score of 63. The other 4 bronze BRT lines in there US are in Eugene, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas.

Boston's famous Silver Line, which even runs in a subway for a short stretch, scores a meager 37. That's not enough to qualify as true BRT at all, even a low level.

It isn't that gold standard BRT is impossible in the United States. Certainly it's possible. But it isn't built here because nobody really wants to build it.

The same community leaders who choose BRT over rail, because BRT is cheaper, then make the same choice when faced with other potential cost-cutting measures. They eliminate the most expensive features, until the gold standard that was promised isn't actually what's delivered.

That sort of feature cutting is called BRT creep, and so far it's happened to some extent on every major BRT project in American history.

None of this should suggest that BRT is worthless. Sometimes BRT creep can even be beneficial, if it makes an otherwise infeasible project possible. Bronze level BRT is still rapid transit, after all, and even bus priority routes that don't fully qualify as actual BRT are often a huge improvement over regular busing.

WMATA's MetroExtra service, for example, isn't usually called BRT even by low American standards, but it's still a great service. It was something Metro could do quickly and cheaply to help riders, and it works.

But beware the politician who argues for gold standard BRT over rail. Odds are they won't deliver.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


LA's Orange Line shows the way for Montgomery BRT

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy isn't so sure about many of the proposed Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit lines, because of the county's spread-out, suburban character. But I took a trip on Los Angeles' first BRT line, which shows how BRT could indeed transform suburban commute patterns.

Boarding an Orange Line bus at Reseda. All photos by the author.

Built in 2005 and extended earlier this summer, the Orange Line runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It's a suburban area with over 1.7 million people, known for wide boulevards, tract houses and shopping malls that gave rise to the infamous "Valley Girl."

Like Montgomery County, it has not one but several "downtowns." And like the Valley, Montgomery County has become more diverse, with more younger, immigrant or low-income residents who depend on transit, but also a growing interest in alternatives to driving among more well-heeled residents.

Why does the Orange Line work? It goes where people want to go, it's frequent, and it connects to the subway, major bus routes, and commuter rail. But more importantly, it gives riders a fast, pleasant experience that rivals driving in a place known for its car culture.

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood
Passengers board a bus at North Hollywood Station.

The Orange Line includes many of the same features as Montgomery's BRT proposal, giving it the feel of a train. For instance, the stations are more substantial than normal bus shelters, with ticket machines, maps and benches, and signs saying when the next bus is coming. They have distinctive canopies that provide shade while giving the line a unique visual identity.

The buses are long and sleek, with big windows that make the inside feel bright and airy. They're actually the same buses the Los Angeles Metro uses elsewhere, though with a different paint scheme. Passengers pay by tapping a smart card at the station, and when the bus arrives, they can get on or off using any door, as they would on a train. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for buses to arrive when I rode the Orange Line around 2pm, though they were still packed.

What makes the Orange Line really effective, however, is that buses have their own special lanes for the entire 18-mile route, the result of using a former rail line and a wide boulevard. There are also special sensors that turn stoplights green when buses approach so they don't have to stop. This allows buses to reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, cutting commutes across the Valley nearly in half and making it as fast, if not faster, than driving. The busway is lushly landscaped, while a popular bike and foot path runs alongside it. The result is a commute that's not only convenient, but very pleasant.

Bike Path + Transitway, Between Woodman + Valley College Stations
A bike path next to the Orange Line busway.

As a result, ridership has almost doubled from 16,000 people each weekday in 2005 to 31,000 today. That's the same number of riders planners anticipate will use certain BRT lines in Montgomery. By comparison, the busiest conventional bus routes in both the Valley and Montgomery County carry just 10,000 riders per weekday.

One rider told me, completely unprompted, how much he liked the Orange Line. "Thank God for Metro," he said. "I'm glad they have all these buses and trains now. Back in the day, we didn't have none of this and you had to have a car."

Unfortunately, Montgomery County's BRT plan wouldn't always give buses their own lanes, even in congested areas like downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Buses would be stuck in traffic with everyone else, making it a lousy alternative to the car.

Busway on Chandler Boulevard, Laurel Canyon Station
Orange Line buses run in their own lanes on busy Chandler Boulevard.

That said, at $25 million per mile, the Orange Line cost nearly twice as much to build as Montgomery's BRT is expected to, and we can't afford to make that kind of investment in places where it's not warranted. Some areas in the 160-mile system envisioned by the county's Transit Task Force might be better suited for smaller improvements, like the Metro Rapid buses in Los Angeles that inspired MetroExtra service here.

However, in areas where transit use is already high, we should go all out to encourage more of it. The Orange Line didn't require taking away lanes from cars, but we will have to in Montgomery County to get the same quality of service. It won't be easy, but it can and should be done.

It's no surprise that some officials, like County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, are skeptical of Montgomery's BRT plan. "This is suburbia," she told the Washington Examiner. "To assume that everyone is going to switch to a nice, snazzy looking bus is not particularly realistic."

And she's right: no one's going to ride the bus, especially if we don't make it worthwhile. The Orange Line shows us that in the right places, you can get suburban riders on the bus if you give them a fast, frequent, and pleasant experience. We'd do well to follow their example.

Check out this slideshow of the Orange Line.


Which city's rail system has the best Walk Score?

Last week, David Klion computed the Walk Score for all Washington Metro stops. How does Metro stack up to the other heavy rail systems in the United States? The answers may surprise you.

I analyzed the 11 heavy rail systems in the United States. Some of these cities also have light rail, commuter rail, or other transit systems, but I didn't count those. That means in Boston, I looked at stations on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines, but not Green. (Why?)

I also combined heavy rail stations from multiple operators in the same region. For example, the Philadelphia score counts both SEPTA and PATCO heavy rail stations. New York's includes PATH and the Staten Island Railway (SIRT).

And the winner is... Los Angeles?

I was surprised by the results. Los Angeles scored the highest! I certainly did not expect that. Though in hindsight, it makes a good deal of sense.

Los Angeles has only 2 heavy rail lines, the Red and Purple lines. Those lines are confined to a relatively small area in the LA Basin, with the exception of 2 stations on the Red Line in the San Fernando Valley. And while Southern California has a reputation for being sprawling, the LA Basin is actually fairly dense, especially where the Metro has been built. As a result, its score isn't dragged down by suburban park and ride stations.

In the same respect, I was surprised that BART scored better than WMATA. Large portions of the DC system serve areas that are urban or urbanizing. In contrast, BART's system is much more suburban-oriented and has very little in the way of urban circulation.

Also surprising is that New York is not an outlier. It does come in a close second to Los Angeles, but I really expected it to be off the charts compared to everyone else. The New York City Subway alone scores 90.47 without PATH and SIRT, still just below LA; SIRT averages 71.45 while PATH is higher, 92.23, but its relatively small size (13 stations) means it doesn't change the New York average even a tenth of a point.

What is not very surprising is that the sunbelt cities (except LA) score more poorly than the more urban older cities (except for Cleveland). Cleveland is at a disadvantage because of the structure of its transit system. The system only has one stop in the central business district, and that station's score isn't that impressive anyway, which harms the average.

Distribution matters

The chart above shows how Walk Scores for stations in each system are distributed. The green bars give the average score. The rectangle shows the 25th and 75th percentiles, and the lines with dots at each end show the highest and lowest Walk Scores for any station in that system.

At the high end, several cities had at least one station (sometimes several) with perfect 100-point scores. The lowest score for any station nationwide was 28 points. Two stations in the Washington regionArlington Cemetery and Morgan Boulevardand one station in San FranciscoNorth Concord/Martinezhad that score.

The distribution is important in understanding how well distributed the well-scoring stations are in the system.

In Washington, the distribution is weighted more toward good-scoring stations, but there are still a lot of poor-scoring stations, too.

Compare that to San Francisco's BART, where there are fewer poor-scoring stations. Instead, there are a large quantity of stations in the middle of the distribution.

New York and Cleveland offer contrast to each other. While most New York stations score very well, Cleveland's don't rank above medium.


The Walk Score algorithm is not perfect. It works by calculating the quantities and distances of various amenties. There are other factors which it does not measure that help to define the walkability of an area.

For example, a street grid makes an area much more walkable than a sprawling network of superblocks and culs-de-sac. The quality and proliferation of sidewalks also influences walkability. But these factors aren't currently part of Walk Score; there's no good data file for Walk Score to use that shows where there are and aren't good sidewalks, for example.

Regardless, Walk Score gives us a standard and fairly good measure to compare transit stations (and systems) to each other.

Why I didn't count light rail or other transit

I'm sure this will prove to be controversial, and that's fine. I did not include the light rail elements of systems in cities like Boston for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Peer comparison: I wanted to create an apples-to-apples comparison, as best as possible. While the Washington Metro is easily comparable to BART, it doesn't make as much sense to compare a Metro stop to a Muni LRT stop on the west side of San Francsico that is just a sign on a telephone pole.
  2. To limit the scope: This project took a good amount of time as it was. I did not want to extend that time by trying to measure too much. Besides, I (or someone) can always do a follow-up with light rail.
  3. To avoid "mode creep": If we take Boston as an example, limiting the scope of the survey to heavy rail avoids the mode creep that can exacerbate the problems listed above. If I were to consider the Green Line, I would need to consider all of it. And if I'm considering the street-running portions of the Green Line, how can I not consider the full subway portions of the Silver Line in East Boston? And then would I not have to also include the Washington Avenue portion, that is essentially arterial bus?
This analysis is limited, as any analysis would be. I chose to try to keep it from expanding too far by limiting it to one mode. It would be interesting to look at the omitted lines, and perhaps that will happen in a future analysis.
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