Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Prince George's

Bicycling


There's bikeshare in College Park now, but it isn't Capital Bikeshare. Here's why.

College Park just debuted its own bike share system, called mBike instead of Capital Bikeshare (CaBi). Some say not going with CaBi was a mistake, but it looks like College Park made a rational decision.


One of College Park's new mBike stations. Image from the University of Maryland.

The mBike system has 14 stations and 125 bikes, including a few two-seater tricycles. The docking stations require a smartphone app to unlock a bike, and the bikes come with their own locks so you can stop and lock up somewhere other than a dock.

Separate systems can make it harder to travel between neighboring places

mBike's provider company is called Zagster, which is different from Motivate, the company that runs CaBi. Some have said that this will be a problem because the mBike network is simply much smaller than the CaBi one, which has over 300 stations.

Another concern is that separate systems in places so close to one another will make each system less useful to potential riders. If someone routinely goes from one town to another and would consider using bikeshare to do it, they don't have that opportunity.

To illustrate this point, imagine if Fairfax or Arlington decided to introduce its own fare card for its bus systems and stopped accepting Metro SmarTrip cards. Many people who primarily use Metrobus or rail would likely hold on to their cards, and the hassle of getting a new card for a specific location might discourage them from using the bus to go there, or from going there in the first place.

Separate systems can lead to artificial barriers between neighboring places. For example, in New Jersey, the cities of Jersey City and Hoboken are currently in a bitter conflict stemming from a decision to not go in together on a bike share system. Jersey City decided to join Citibike, which is the system that New York City uses, while Hoboken went with Hudson Bike Share.

It's gotten ugly, as both cities have taken steps to try and prevent users of one system from riding in the "territory" of the other—there are even laws that say Hudson Bike Share bikes can't be parked near PATH Railway stations in Jersey City.

Locally, Car2Go seems to have recently recognized the pitfalls of walling systems off from one another. It used to be that users couldn't drive the vehicles from Arlington into DC and vice-versa because of various parking rules and the fact that each government had to negotiate separately with the company. Car2Go lifted that rule last week.

College Park had logical reasons to go with its own system

There are, however, reasons to think mBike was the right move. For starters, the system's biggest purpose is to serve people needing to get around the University of Maryland—there likely wouldn't have been a lot of people riding bikeshare between College Park and stations inside DC or other areas.

It's also possible that College Park really didn't even have a choice. When the city began planning for a bikeshare system in 2013, it set out to use Alta (now Motivate), the company that runs Capital Bikeshare. But when one of Alta's main bike suppliers went into bankruptcy, production halted on all of the company's systems, including CaBi. That left College Park in a lurch.

After Alta reorganized and emerged from the supplier squeeze as Motivate, the price for new bikes and docking stations jumped. College Park put its plans to use CaBi on hold, and eventually canceled them. Instead, the city asked other bikeshare companies to enter bids, which eventually led to Zagster.

In the end, Zagster's bid turned out to be cheaper on a bike by bike basis, which allowed College Park to purchase more bikes and docking stations than it had been planning to do with CaBi. Even though mBike is a small system, there are more bikes available in the immediate College Park area than there would have been with CaBi.

Switching between mbike and CaBi could one day be pretty easy

For now, mBike has the summer to get itself established before the next school year. If the system is successful, College Park may choose to expand it around town on the Maryland campus.

Meanwhile, the rest of Prince George's County and its cities are still studying their own bikeshare options. The results of that study may still lead to the county going with CaBi in places like National Harbor or other communities along the Green Line. In places like Hyattsville, which is in between College Park and areas in DC that have CaBi, the dynamics will be a bit more complicated.

Hopefully, the outcome will be that the two systems can co-exist. Options for that might include passes that are interchangeable, docks right next to one another, or something else.

In the interim, both College Park and the governments that work with CaBi should work together to make things easier for members so no one feels like they have to choose one membership over the other. Reciprocity could be granted for members or a discount on certain types of membership. This has also been an idea floated for current CaBi members who may travel to other cities with bikeshare systems operated by Motivate.

And even CaBi members and fans may want to pay close attention to Zagster. The bikes themselves are a little different and maybe future CaBi models could incorporate some design features like a bigger basket. Accessibilty advocates and people interested in different models of cycling may also want to pay attention to how the tricycles are used. If those models prove popular it may behoove CaBi to improve its own accessibility and even possibly introduce its own different types of bikes.

Right now only time will tell if College Park ultimately made the right decision. But what we do know suggests that the city wasn't totally crazy to not wait around for CaBi.

Education


Schools are still segregated in Maryland, and state legislators want that to change

Studies have shown that while our country is becoming more ethnically diverse, our schools have become more segregated. In fact, studies by the Civil Rights Project have found that Maryland to be among the most-segregated state in the country for black students. A bill hoping to change that just passed through the Maryland state legislature.


Photo by US Department of Education on Flickr.

Segregation is still a problem in our schools

I am an elementary school teacher in Prince George's County. In our school of over 700 students, nearly 90 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced meals. We have fewer than ten white non-Hispanic children, and most of our students speak Spanish as their first language.

It's not that we do not have white or middle class children in our neighborhood. But at present, the majority of these families are choosing private schools, charter schools, magnet programs or homeschooling. They do anything to avoid sending their kids to the predominantly low-income local public school.

Looking at Prince George's County on the whole, nine out of 10 black students attend a school where at least 90 percent of students are minorities. Nearly four out of 10 black students attend what the Civil Rights Project report called "apartheid schools," where more than 99% of the school is African American; nearly all of the 400 "apartheid schools" are in Prince George's County or Baltimore City.

As early as the 1960s, we have understood that the two greatest predictors of student academic success are the socioeconomic status of the student's family, and the socioeconomic status of the student's peers. That is to say that low-income children who attend mixed income schools will achieve at higher rates.

With a state as segregated as ours, it is no wonder that Maryland's achievement gap is also one of the greatest in the country. According to our 2013 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, the gap in average math scores between black and white fourth-graders in Maryland was the fifth-worst in the nation, and in reading the gap was the ninth-worst.

A new program called EDCo wants to confront these issues

Senator Bill Ferguson, a democrat from Baltimore City, proposed legislation to create the Maryland Education Development Collaborative (EDCo). The collaborative would make recommendations to the state Board of Education, the General Assembly, and local school systems about how to make schools more diverse in terms of socioeconomics and demographics.

The EDCo bill has now moved through the Maryland state legislature. If signed by the Governor, the new educational entity will be a big step to addressing the greatest civil rights issue and roadblock to educational equity in our state: socioeconomic segregation.

While equitable education is elusive, there's plenty of reason to think it's not impossible. The challenge is collecting, analyzing and sharing best policies and practices across schools, districts and regions.

In 1998 the Maryland Legislature founded TEDCo (Technology Development Corporation) to foster innovation and entrepreneurship communities across the state. In under two decades, the organization has created thousands of jobs and impacted hundreds of companies through granting and mentoring programs. The goal with EDCo is to bring the same level of growth and innovation to the field of education by connecting universities, research institutions, venture capitalists, and school districts. Hopefully, this would mean turning research into policy and practice.

For example, last year Governor Hogan launched the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) partnership with IBM. EDCo could assess the impact of this collaboration and work to disseminate progress.

Another way that EDCo could help is by developing a model to make magnet programs more inclusive and economically integrated. While magnet programs were designed to diversify schools by drawing students from across boundary lines, the current system in Prince George's County favors families who are actively engaged in their children's education by requiring parents to apply. That leaves the neediest children isolated in their increasingly segregated schools.

EDCo would seek to break down these barriers to comprehensive integration by supporting programs that attract a broad demographic clientele, and developing lottery systems that do not discriminate against poor, under-resourced children. Rather than relying on a competitive application or lottery, magnet programs would instead use strong marketing and weighted lotteries to build demographically diverse school populations across the state.

Teachers need an organization that considers broad policy changes

Public school systems aren't in a great position to push for change because teachers, principals, and superintendents are consumed with making sure they're educating kids every day. There's little time or energy to zoom out and think about policy.

An entity like EDCo, on the other hand, can provide perspective, make connections, and help us evolve towards a better future, where all children of all colors and classes learn together in high quality schools that would make any parent proud.

Transit


Is The Bus "always late?" No. Not even close.

"This bus is always late." People say it so often while waiting for Prince George's County's The Bus that it's basically become a conversation starter. But I tracked my last 101 trips on The Bus, and my bus was either on time or very close to it 86% of the time. That's a lot better than what common complaints suggest.


Photo by the author.

I've been tracking each of my trips to and from work on The Bus since December of last year. For each, I noted the time I arrive at the bus stop, the time the bus left the stop, and the time I exited the bus. I compared this with the scheduled arrival times to see how much time I spent waiting, how many minutes the bus was late (or on-time), how many minutes I spent traveling on the bus, and the total travel time (the wait time + the travel time).


Graphs by the author.

Generally, transit agencies consider buses to be on time if the bus arrives at a stop between one minute before or up to five minutes after the scheduled time. For the 101 trips tracked, my bus was on time by definition 75.2% of the time (76 trips)—36 of the trips were exactly on time. On average, my bus arrived at the stop 3.4 minutes after the scheduled time.

My bus was 5-9 minutes late 9.9% of the time (10 trips). That's technically late, but the wait isn't bad. It isn't until the bus is more than 10 minutes late that using transit becomes noticeably inconvenient. Of the 101 tracked trips, there were 11 trips where the bus was later than 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, when I recall my transit trips, the longest waits are the trips I remember most easily.


Graphs by the author.

Knowing how long my commute will take is key to scheduling my day and making transit convenient. On average, I spent approximately 10.8 minutes waiting for the bus. The average time spent on the bus was approximately 29.2 minutes. Together, the average total trip time was 40.1 minutes and 80.1% of the trips were under 45 minutes, which is the amount of time I set aside to ride The Bus.

Although the length of my bus commute is less than ideal, the expected wait time and travel time is fairly consistent, and I can easily fit my bus schedule into my daily work schedule.

The Bus does not always run perfectly, but claiming that it is always late is simply not true. Based on the last 101 trips, The Bus is a generally predictable and dependable transit service. For a transit service that's outside of an urban environment and whose resources are constrained, The Bus is a solid service. Among some of its key strengths:

  • Dispatch number. All stops list a contact number you can call during business hours, and a helpful live dispatcher can find out exactly where a bus is and when it's expected to arrive. Some stops also have countdown timers, which help inform users when to expect the next bus.
  • Professional and positive bus operators. Operators for The Bus are friendly and perform their duties with a high level of care, respect, and customer service, often while responding to frustrated and discourteous riders.
I've also got some thoughts on how The Bus could get better:
  • Add The Bus to online mapping apps. The Bus is not currently on Google Maps, Apple Maps, or other transportation apps. This makes it very difficult to plan a trip on The Bus without reviewing all of the timetables. However, the County is in the process of collecting the GTFS data and it is possible that The Bus will be available on transit apps later this year.
  • Higher frequencies, especially during the peak. It's expensive for any transit service to run buses more often, and will be a definite challenge for Prince George's County. But a late bus feels especially inconvenient when the next bus isn't arriving for another half hour.
  • Early buses. These are a double-edged sword: While it's great to arrive at a stop early, leaving a stop early means passengers who arrive on time have to wait for the next bus. It's helpful when drivers wait until the scheduled time to leave.
Bus transit in non-urban areas has to serve low densities of people over long distances; making it work can be difficult. Prince George's County provides a reliable service to many areas of the county that are not easily accessible without an automobile and helps connect to the regional rail and bus services.

Development


Why Washington's transportation is a problem, in one map

Why does Metro have budget problems? Why is traffic bad? While there are many reasons, this map shows the biggest one: Our region keeps growing mostly on one side, which taxes strained transportation networks and wastes resources.


Image from PlanItMetro based on COG forecasts. Read the analysis.

This map shows projected growth around the region. There's a stark line between all the highest-growth areas, in the west, and lower growth to the east. The folks at PlanItMetro, who made this map, wrote:

Between 2020 and 2040, the region expects to add about 870,000 more jobs (25% increase) and 1 million more people (16% increase). As shown in the map below, much of that growth is planned where transit is already at or exceeding capacity, while many other areas that have high-quality transit continue to be underdeveloped. The result: more congestion.
These stats were part of a big new study, called ConnectGreaterWashington. Last weekend, I wrote about the broad strokes in the Washington Post. The key takeaway: Our region is not growing enough in areas, mostly on the east side of the region, where there's already ample transit (and road) infrastructure, while the growth that is happening is straining the infrastructure we have.

There's a real price tag for this.

Unbalanced growth costs money

In the ConnectGreaterWashington study, WMATA planners modeled several scenarios. With no particular change in our current path, Metro will have crush loaded trains (which are not just uncomfortable but more often delayed) on the Orange/Silver lines west of Rosslyn and the Yellow/Green lines south of L'Enfant. Meanwhile, its operations will cost local governments $350 million a year by 2040 (up from about $245 now) in subsidy.

Just making the areas around stations more walkable and bikeable and changing fares to encourage off-peak travel helped only a tiny bit on its own. Shifting predicted growth between 2020 and 2040 inside individual jurisdictions, from places far from transit to places near, helped more, but the crowding imbalance on Metro (and roads), where trains (and highways) are packed in one direction and nearly empty in the other, didn't change.

Metro could be profitable! Or, at least, closer to it

There was a scenario which fixed myriad problems: Rebalancing growth more evenly across the region from 2020 to 2040. If the region focused enough of its economic development efforts where there is underused transportation capacity, Metro could even run a surplus of $270 million a year. That's a revenue stream WMATA could bond against for fixes like a second Rosslyn station to relieve Blue Line crowding (costs about a billion), walkways between downtown transfer stations (similar), or all eight-car trains (about $1.7 billion).

Those fixes would be even more needed than they are today, as under this scenario, Metro would also need more capacity. And I wouldn't oversell the chance that Metro becomes "profitable"—it probably requires more shifting of growth than most governments, employers, or developers are willing to go for.

Besides, it's not clear that running a surplus is what a transportation system ought to plan around. We build transportation systems to move people, and they cost money. Many European cities happily spend much more on their transit systems, because they find them valuable and are willing to invest in public works projects. It's worthwhile to have transit even if its ridership isn't astronomically high.

The hole will just get deeper

However, we need to recognize that for every year the western edge of the region grows much faster than the east side, we're digging a bigger hole. New COG projections, which come from local governments' own growth plans and aspirations, estimate that Loudoun and Prince William will add 100,000 jobs each by 2045, or 75% more than they have today. Meanwhile, the forecast estimates Prince George's will just gain 19% more jobs and 10% more residents.

For every year that kind of pattern continues, we're making Metro more expensive, fiscally, than it needs to be and making the challenges of crowding on roads and rails worse. This is costing every jurisdiction and taxpayer far more than it should, including those on the west side of the region.

Or, to put it more starkly: Even Virginians and western Montgomery residents pay every day for the lack of growth in Prince George's, and it's in their interests as well as everyone else's to better balance our growth.

Transit


Maryland has named a firm to build and run the Purple Line

After more than a year of uncertainty and delay, Maryland has selected a firm to build and operate the Purple Line. With Purple Line Transit Partners in place to run the 16-mile line, the project is ready to move forward.


A rendering of the Purple Line. Image from Montgomery County.

After Marylanders elected Governor Larry Hogan in November 2014, it wasn't clear whether the long-planned light-rail line would even happen. But following a prolonged public show of support, Hogan announced that the Purple Line would get built if Montgomery and Prince George's Counties committed more funds and trains ran less frequently.

Four teams submitted bids in December, and Maryland selected Purple Line Transit Partners. Some have questioned the bidder's plan to purchase railcars from a company that made some of Metro's least reliable cars and has been plagued with delays in other cities.

Update: After a series of state and federal approvals, construction should start late this year for a planned opening date in spring 2022.

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

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