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Express trains wouldn't be of much help to Metro riders

Despite popular belief, having more tracks isn't necessary for proper maintenance of the Metro system. It also turns out that express tracks wouldn't provide much benefit to everyday riders, and it might even do more harm than good.

Photo by Phil King on Flickr.

This may seem a bit surprising to people familiar with express trains on the New York subway, where express tracks can cut a rider's trip by a third, or even a half. But New York's stops are spaced much more closely—an average of two to three per mile throughout the system—than Metro's. This means that a local train in New York spends much more of its time in stations than a Metro train, so there's a lot more time to be saved by skipping stops.

Here's how I simulated a system with express tracks:

With Metro, each mile travelled adds about 1.2 minutes to the trip, while each intermediate station adds about 1.1 minutes. I determined this by comparing the scheduled time to the distance between stations for each of the 93 pairs of adjacent stations in the system. From this data, I was able to model the travel time between all of the system's stations.

Along with a model for trip time, analyzing the possible benefits of express tracks requires a proposed set of local-only and express stations. To demonstrate the maximum benefit that could be achieved with express tracks, I considered a system with minimal express stops.

Along with transfer stations and the ends of lines, I chose nine of Metro's other high-ridership stations for expresses: Bethesda, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Union Station, and Silver Spring on the Red Line; Foggy Bottom, Farragut West, and McPherson Square on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines; Pentagon City on the Yellow and Blue lines, and Columbia Heights on the Green and Yellow lines.

Map from WMATA, with alterations to show potential express stations by the author.

Express tracks aren't that useful if you aren't coming from the edges of the system

To determine how much time could be saved, I compared the current travel time between pairs of stations to the travel times my model predicted for express trains. Since doing this analysis for each of the 8148 possible station pairs, I analyzed the 30 station pairs with the highest AM rush hour ridership, based on October 2014 data. These station pairs represent ten percent of the total AM rush hour ridership, and include trips from the six most heavily used end-of-line stations to the downtown stations where the most AM rush hour trips terminate, particularly Farragut North and West.

If Metro were to have express trains, the maximum time savings for trips to Farragut Square would be from Shady Grove and New Carrollton. In each case, an express train would save riders eleven minutes, about one-third of their current trips. From Glenmont, Vienna, and Wiehle, the time savings would be about eight minutes—one quarter of the current trips—is saved; and from Franconia-Springfield, the savings would be six minutes—less than a fifth of the current trip.

The time savings would be much less for riders traveling from closer in: riders between the thirty station pairs I considered would save an average of four-and-a-half minutes. Riders traveling to or from less-used stations would likely save no time, since their stations would be local-only and waiting to transfer to an express would consume their time savings.

In comparison, riders on the New York subway can save much more time by taking express trains. In Manhattan, the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line has 12 local-only and six express stops in the six miles from 96th Street to Chambers Street, while the IRT Lexington Avenue Line has 14 local-only and six express stops in the seven miles from 125th Street to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.

Because of the close stop spacing, a local train on either line takes 30 minutes, for an average speed of 12 to 14 miles per hour, less than half of Metro's 30-mile-per-hour average speed. Express trains cut these trips by one-third to one-half, but they still only manage average speeds of around twenty miles per hour.

Having express tracks is one thing. Paying to run trains on them is another.

Even without express tracks, Metro's greater stop spacing allows Metro trains to maintain higher average speeds than New York subway express trains can manage in Manhattan. However, if the system had been built with express tracks throughout, it would still save riders some time, right?

Not necessarily. The usual explanation for why Metro couldn't have been built with express tracks is that doing so would have substantially increased construction costs, and significant amounts of the current system would have had to been cut to make up for this.

However, capital costs aren't the only issue: operating costs would need to be considered as well.

Maintaining current service frequency at local-only stops would mean that any express trains operated would have to be in addition to the service that operates today. During off-peak times, Metro's frequency—particularly on branches, where most local-only stops would be—is already minimal for a rapid-transit system.

Either the express tracks would be unused except during rush hour, or Metro would need a sizable increase in its operating budget, simply to operate the additional trains needed, without considering the additional rail car and track maintenance required. Given Metro's current struggles to obtain enough funding to operate the system we have, a system with express tracks would probably see significantly reduced frequencies at many stations.

The upside of the fact that running expresses often leads to a decreased frequency of locals is that a line with a pair of express tracks has twice the maximum capacity of a line with only local tracks. This is one reason that express tracks are beneficial on the New York subway, which has an annual ridership per mile of revenue track about three times that of Metro, even though most of its core lines, and many of its branch lines, have express tracks.

The fact that much of the system's ridership consists of north-south traffic on Manhattan, a narrow island with a limited number of possible north-south routes makes the New York subway a near-optimal situation for using express tracks to increase capacity. The London Underground, which has a similar total ridership and ridership and ridership per track mile to New York, but which operates in a more symmetric and much less geographically constrained city, achieves a high core capacity by having many double-tracked lines crisscrossing the urban core instead of a lower number of four-tracked lines with express tracks.

If we were to have more tracks, downtown would be the place for them

One section of the Metro system where express tracks could help solve capacity issues is the shared segment of the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory. The large number of commuters from Virginia who enter DC via the Rosslyn tunnel and the frequency reductions on branches needed in order to share one track-pair between three lines lead to severe congestion in this section of the system.

Express tracks here would eliminate the capacity issues that WMATA currently hopes to solve by building a separate Blue Line tunnel under M Street downtown. They would also shorten commute times for riders traveling to downtown from New Carrollton and Largo Town Center (though not from Virginia).

A four-track line between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory—or elsewhere in the system—would also provide the benefit of providing a work-around when tracks have to be closed for maintenance or due to accidents. However, any argument for express tracks on Metro needs to depend on these benefits and increased capacity, rather than hopes of significantly faster service.


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.

WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).


National links: New transit for Detroit

Detroit is instituting a tax to pay for more transit, the world's longest rail tunnel just opened in Switzerland, and Expedia is moving to Seattle, but wants to be suburban. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Graham Davis on Flickr.

Motorbus city: Detroit is going to put a tax measure on the November ballot that would pay for an expanded transit network. The plan has been in the works for 3 years, and would include bus rapid transit lines, improved bus service, universal fare cards, and a Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail line. (MLive)

All about that Base: Wednesday marked the first run for trains traveling through the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps, now the longest rail tunnel in the world. The project took 17 years and cost $12.5 billion dollars. Project planners claim that a million trucks a year will be taken off the road as goods are shipped through the tunnel's rails. (New York Times)

Suburban campus: Expedia is leaving its offices in Bellevue, WA to move into Seattle. But unlike Amazon, which is downtown, Expedia will be in a more suburban, car-friendly campus, away from high-rise buildings. (Wall Street Journal)

Bad reputation rebrand: Dongguan, a city in southern China, has a reputation for prostitutes and crime. The state hired Hong Kong designers to re-shape the city using modular designs. The project is ambitious, yet officials know it won't fix all their problems. (Fast Company Design)

Shh, don't tell: Cities are hip and fashionable these days, but some of the people you might expect to end up with that loft on a lively street have instead opted for the suburbs. They might even be a little embarrassed about it, but should they be? No. (Philadelphia Magazine)

Red Zone: An influential New York transportation planner in the 70s and 80s, Sam Schwartz created the term "gridlock" and was an early champion of congestion pricing and car-free zones. He's happy to now enjoy some of the ideas he never got to implement, like bike lanes and public plazas. (Guardian Cities)

Quote of the Week

"The floods of 20 years ago are not as bad as the floods that are going to be 20 years from now. But [FEMA's maps] only look at historic experience." Michael Gerrard in an article on Frontline describing how many FEMA floodmaps are out of date and don't take into account the effects of Climate Change.


Metro doesn't have four tracks. That's not why maintenance is a problem.

"Yet from the start, Metro was saddled with two structural flaws. First, each line runs on just two tracks—New York City's subway generally has four—which makes it difficult to perform maintenance while still shuttling commuters."

Photo by Andrew d'Entremont on Flickr.

That's part of a detailed profile of Paul Wiedefeld and Metro's current struggles in TIME Magazine, the rest of which is excellent but unfortunately behind a paywall. But in the above excerpt, reporter Alex Altman repeats a very common canard about Metro, that having two tracks instead of the four of many New York subway lines is a major flaw.

This pops up in article after article about Metro, though rarely if ever sourced to a specific transportation expert. Instead, it's just something that every reporter "knows"—even though it's largely false.

Frederick Kunkle said something similar in a May 13 blog post:

Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro's past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.

We heard the same from unnamed reporters at Agence France-Presse:

But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area's population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.

First, while other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks, Washington's has just two. This was done to save money.


Other articles, like in the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ABC7 also mention the 4-track issue and often compare DC to New York, though they don't make the outright incorrect statements of the others.

What is true

1. Metro does have only two tracks on all its lines.

2. This was a deliberate decision, partly because more tracks would have cost more. George Mason history professor Zachary Schrag, the guy who literally wrote the book on Metro, explains that planners thought about making more tracks, but chose not to because it would have been too expensive, and given limited resources, they wanted to build more lines instead.

3. Having more tracks would make maintenance less painful. On New York's four-track lines, the subway system is able to shut down one or two tracks for a weekend and keep two-way service running, though people at some stations may not get trains or might only get them in one direction.

What is false

"Other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks" (from the AFP article). This is almost entirely false. As Matt Johnson explained back in 2009 (the first time we discussed this), there are only three US subway systems with express tracks: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

New York has a lot of express tracks, and since so many people are familiar with the New York subway, it's likely why people keep asking about the issue. Otherwise, Matt wrote, "In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont)." That's it.

There are a few places where other systems have multiple lines that converge for a transfer, like around BART's MacArthur station in Oakland, but that's just a short bit.

Two track line in Chicago. Photo by Jason Mrachina on Flickr.

Worldwide, even, four-track subways are the exception rather than the rule. A few pieces of lines in London have four tracks, but other cities do not. Paris's extensive Métro is all two-track lines. Two lines, the #8 and #9, run together in a 4-track subway for four stations, and the RER regional rail has some sections with more than two tracks, but Paris has more miles of 2-track lines than Washington, and most US and world cities are all 2-track lines.

Resilience isn't why some systems have more tracks

Lines with more tracks aren't that way for redundancy, but rather capacity: they make it possible to fit twice the trains along the same avenue. In only the densest places in the world, like New York, is that sensible, and even so, most cities don't do it.

Instead of making 4-track lines, what world cities with better transit systems than Washington enjoy is just more lines, period. You can shut down a line much more easily when there's another one nearby. Back to New York, for instance, the tunnels between Manhattan and other boroughs are 2-track, but there are many parallel ones.

If the A train is under repair, the trains could travel on the F line instead. When the L tunnel has to be shut down for Sandy-related repairs, it'll be horrible for residents of Williamsburg and Bushwick, but at least they can transfer to the G train to go around to another East River crossing.

When Chicago shut down its Red Line for months, it was able to set up bus service to get people to the parallel Green. Fewer parts of the DC Metro have alternate lines nearby.

More tracks? How about more lines

If the builders of the Washington Metro had had more money, they should have done just what Schrag said they already wanted to do: build more lines, not more tracks. More lines would make transit closer to more people but could also offer redundancy.

In the core, it would have been better to separate the Blue and Orange, or Yellow and Green, into separate, nearby subways. Metro has, at various times, suggested plans to do that. Such a layout would allow rerouting those trains onto the other line in the event of night or weekend shutdowns (and make room for more trains during rush).

While the articles above didn't talk about express service, a related complaint about Metro is that it doesn't have express trains. Actually, the truth is more that it has nothing but expresses. Schrag writes, "The wide spacing of stations in the suburbs make them the equivalent of express lines elsewhere. Rather, Metro lacks the slow, hyper-local routes like the Broadway Local in New York City, which stops every few blocks to serve the tens of thousands people in apartment buildings."

There's no doubt Metro has maintenance problems. But we can't blame them on the system having only two tracks. Other systems keep up maintenance with only two tracks. It's simply not true that building two tracks is "the original sin of Metro" or one of "two structural flaws."

Rather than bringing up the issue about two tracks over and over, news articles would do better to talk about ways Metro is falling short of all the world's 2-track train systems which operate and maintain themselves better.


These storefront maps show which parts of US cities are most lively

These maps show nearly every retail storefront in central DC compared to those in New York, Detroit, and other cities. Since retail streets are usually the most lively streets in a city, the maps offer a nice proxy illustration of urban vitality.

Storefronts in DC, New York, and Detroit. Image by City Observatory.

These maps are from City Observatory's Storefront Index report, and are part of a series of 51 such maps of the largest US metro areas.

In general, the more red dots you see in a small area, the more lively that part of town will be. More stores, after all, mean more destinations for people to visit.

Here's the DC map in greater detail:

Image by City Observatory.

You can easily see retail streets like U Street and H Street, and bigger clusters like Georgetown and Dupont Circle. On the other hand, primarily residential neighborhoods are mostly blank.

Unfortunately the data clearly isn't perfect: The retail complex in Columbia Heights seems to be missing, as are the giant gift shops in the Smithsonian museums, and some neighborhood corner stores.

Still, the maps are an instructive illustration of urban vitality in general. You can see patterns here, and those patterns are real.

Zooming out to the regional scale, downtown areas outside the District like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Alexandria become prominent.

Bethesda and Silver Spring are the clusters at the top. Alexandria is at the bottom. Image by City Observatory.

Compared to other US cities, DC looks decently lively. The country's dense, transit-oriented cities like San Franicsco and Boston fare well (New York is a crazy outlier), while economically disadvantaged cities like Detroit and sparser more suburban-style ones like Raleigh show fewer stores, indicating less urban liveliness.

Of course, retail storefronts are a simplistic way to look at this. New York's streets have a lot of stores because New York is tremendously dense, so there are lots of customers to support them. On the other hand Tysons Corner has a lot of stores because it's a big suburban mall that people drive to from miles around.

Even suburban malls offer a sort of liveliness, however. So while these maps may say little about walkability, they are a good proxy for liveliness.


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:


Worldwide links: Cheap(ish) houses

Cheaper housing is doable, but it's about way more than just construction costs, strict rules are killing Sydney's night life, and a potential light rail line from Brooklyn to Queens. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Hans Drexler on Flickr.

A house, on the cheap: Auburn architecture students have developed a house that costs $20k to build and that, by conventional standards, is very nice. But building costs are only one challenge to affordability; remaining hurdles include formidable zoning codes, trouble securing mortgages, and finding a knowledgable contractor. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Say goodnight, Sydney: Regulations that restrict alcohol servings and bar hours in some key entertainment districts are killing Sydney's night life. From 2012 to 2015, foot traffic dropped by 84%, and 42 businesses in the night life industry shut down. (Linked In Pulse)

Big Apple transit: New York City is considering a 16-mile light rail line that'd run between Queens and Brooklyn. The Mayor hopes that it will connect places on the waterfront but the idea is getting mixed reviews from residents and pundits. And those on Staten Island wonder when their time for investments will come. (New York Times)

Even on trains, voices carry: Thanks to new technology, it's now less likely that a train operator or bus driver makes an announcement on a transit system, and more likely that it comes from a pre-recorded or even non-human voice. That can mean more consistency, but matters like pronunciation have left some riders unhappy. (Guardian Cities)

Consider the flip side:Do the usual anti-transit suspects make you want to pull your hair out? Jarrett Walker, the author of Human Transit, says its worth considering the good points they make even if they're buried in bad ones. (Human Transit)

Alley cats: Hong Kong's alleyways can be cluttered, messy, smelly... and beautiful. Cleaning them up, says photographer Michael Wolf, can lead to a feeling of "sterilization" that dismisses character and charm. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Quote of the week: "Soon enough, the park could be growing trees from trash and rats would no longer have a buffet of garbage to feast on every night." - Cole Rosengren writing about a future in which vacuum tubes take our compost away. (Fusion)

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