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Transit


Philadelphia's streetcar infrastructure: Old but interesting

Philadelphia's streetcar network is the largest and busiest in the mid-Atlantic. It has several interesting features, some of which can help inform the planning for DC's growing system.


Philadelphia's Girard Avenue trolley, with island platform. All photos by BeyondDC.

Philadelphia calls its system trolleys instead of streetcars, because it's vintage from the original trolley era. While Philadelphia did discontinue many of its original trolley routes, unlike DC they also kept many.

The Girard Avenue trolley line even uses vintage trolley vehicles, originally built in 1947. It also runs in a unique on-street arrangement, with tracks down the center of wide Girard Avenue, and stations in narrow floating medians.


The Girard Avenue trolley's floating platforms.

The Girard Avenue arrangement is totally different than DC's H Street layout, which uses a mixture of curbside and full median tracks.

Philadelphia's center-running tracks result in fewer conflicts with parked or turning cars, which speeds the trolleys down their route. It's almost-but-not-quite like a dedicated transitway.

Unfortunately, the platforms are too narrow to meet modern disability-accessible design guidelines. If DC were to use a similar arrangement, we'd need wider platforms and thus more street width.


Narrow platform on the Girard Avenue trolley line.

On narrower streets in West Philadelphia, trolleys still run in the center, with bike lanes between the tracks and a row of parked cars.


Trolley line on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The trolley subway

Five trolley routes that run on-street in West Philadelphia combine and then move into a dedicated trolley subway to speed through Center City. It's a great way to maximize the efficiency of the system through its most dense and congested section, while still taking advantage of the flexibility of on-street operations further out.


13th Street trolley subway station.

DC once had a short trolley subway too, under Dupont Circle. Today, DC's reborn streetcar plan doesn't call for any. They're hugely expensive, after all. But with the specter of Metrorail capacity constraints looming, and new DC subway lines under consideration, perhaps someday a streetcar subway could again be appropriate in DC.

What else is there?

I've never personally lived in Philadelphia, so my experience with its trolley network is fairly limited. I'm sure there are other interesting features. What did I miss?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


DMU trains are the DC region's missing transit mode

In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.


DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.

That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They're proposed in even more cities.

One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.


Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.

There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.

In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.

MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.

DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Why a flat fare is a bad idea for Metro

At last week's WMATA board meeting, new Virginia member Jim Dyke suggested that the transit agency study a flat fare. While a flat fare would certainly be simpler to understand, it's not a good policy. It would not be more equitable. Nor would it be cheap.


Photo by 35mmMonkey on Flickr.

The idea of a flat fare for Metro comes up every so often, especially compared to the current, complicated fare structure that requires looking up fares in a huge table. This idea is to create a simpler system by charging everyone the same amount to ride, as is the case in many subway systems.

For someone used to paying $4.50 each way, a flat fare like Boston's $1.70 or New York's $2.25 looks attractively cheap. But the reality is that even if Metro were to adopt a flat fare, it would not be that cheap.

Michael Perkins ran the numbers and discovered that (assuming no loss in ridership) a flat fare would need to be at least $2.90 to be revenue-neutral.

Fare's fair

That's more than any other system with a flat fare, and is significantly higher than the $1.60 off-peak and $1.95 rush hour base fares. What the flat fare really means is that people making shorter trips (often those living in the urban core) will be subsidizing those making longer trips (often those living in the suburbs). And that's simply not equitable.

If you're traveling farther, you should expect to pay more. Can you imagine if all taxis regionwide had a flat fare? Would it be fair to charge the same for a trip by taxi from Woodbridge to Rockville as for a trip from Logan Circle to 12th and K? Of course not.

Everybody else is doing it

As is often the case when subway fares are being discussed, some suggest that WMATA should move to a flat fare because most other subway systems use them. And if all subway systems and regions were the same, perhaps that argument would make some sense. But there are significant differences between our Metro and other subway systems in America.

Part of it is a technology issue. A fare structure like Metro's only works in systems with exit faregates, where a rider swipes the fare media to exit as well as to enter. Only Metro, PATCO in Philadelphia and New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area's BART, and Atlanta's MARTA have this technology today. It would not be cheap for systems like those in New York and Chicago to install new equipment to make variable fares possible.

Other systems also have momentum behind the flat fare. It's very difficult to build the will to allow such a change, even if the infrastructure allows it. A few years ago, MARTA installed new gates, new fare vending machines, and even got a new name for the fare system. Even though a distance-based fare is now technologically possible, Atlanta continues to use a flat fare, not necessarily because they've decided it's better policy, but out of momentum.

Metro is commuter rail and urban subway

Technology and history aren't all that separate Metro from many other systems. There's also the structure of the cities and the transit systems themselves. The older subways in the United States generally don't travel as far as the modern heavy rail systems. When all trips are shorter, it's not quite as inequitable to charge the same rate for everyone.

Metro is a hybrid between an urban subway and a suburban commuter rail operation. And as such it makes a good deal of sense to have a fare structure that reflects that.

It's true that all trips on the New York City Subway cost the same. But people traveling the distances that Metro travels might not use the New York Subway. For example, Port Washington is a similar distance from Penn Station as Shady Grove is from Metro Center. But a trip to Port Washington doesn't use the subway, it uses the Long Island Rail Road, and the peak fare is $10.00. The maximum you could possibly pay to go from Metro Center to Shady Grove is only $5.45.

Many people group Metro in with subways in New York and Chicago and Boston simply because they're all subways. But it's important to consider scale. The subway systems in those regions are generally compact and don't reach many places with the kind of suburban settlement patterns at the end of Metrorail lines.

In those cities, separate commuter and regional rail systems, which don't use flat fares, mainly serve suburban areas rather than the urban subway.

Let's compare some Metro lines to similar lines in other cities:

If we compare the Metro Red line in comparison with Boston's Red Line to Alewife and the MBTA Fitchburg Line, we can get a sense of scale.

Alewife is about as far from Downtown Crossing as Friendship Heights is from Metro Center. In Boston you'd pay $1.70 for that trip. Here, the fare would be just $1.60 off-peak or $2.70 during rush hour.

Bethesda is roughly the same distance from Metro Center as Waverly is from North Station. And in this case, Metro's $2.15/$3.15 fare is cheaper than MBTA's $4.25.

We can see similar trends if we compare our Orange Line to Philadelphia's Lansdale/Doylestown Line.

I chose Philadelphia and Boston because their metropolitan regions are about the same size as DC's. (Washington is the 7th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the nation, while Philadelphia is 6th and Boston 10th.)

Traveling along the Broad Street (in Philadelphia) or Route 2 (in Boston) corridors, a traveler going the distance of outside-the-Beltway stops in DC would not take the subway, but would ride commuter rail.

Our residents of places like Vienna, Rockville, Greenbelt, Franconia-Springfield, and soon Tysons Corner pay less than many would pay on commuter rail in those cities. Plus, they enjoy frequent, all-day, 7-day-a-week service. That has enormous benefits to our region, making walkable places like Rockville Town Center feasible and giving the DC region much higher transit ridership per capita than Boston or Philadelphia.

But just because Boston and Philadelphia's much smaller urban subways charge a flat fare doesn't mean it's unfair that a ride from Vienna to Metro Center costs quite a bit more than a ride from Rosslyn.

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