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Transit


How does Metro compare to rail in Amsterdam and Paris?

In June, the Washington Post compared Metrorail to various other rapid transit systems in major cities around the world and said Metro came up short. But if you compare Metro to transit systems built to serve places more similar to the DC region, it's actually quite competitive.


Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

Post reporter Max Bearak looked at data from competing metro systems from capital cities around the world, focusing on measures like number of miles covered, stations and lines, monthly trips made, and how many cars the system has. When compared to systems in much bigger cities, like Tokyo, New Delhi, and London, Metro scored near the bottom in a number of the comparisons.

But did Bearak really compare apples to apples? When you look at how Metro stacks up against similarly-designed systems, it actually does fairly well. In other words, let's say a transit system is designed to handle 5,000 riders per mile per day. If it's operating near capacity, does it make sense to say it's inferior because another is designed to carry 10,000 or 20,000 riders per mile? I would say no; the two systems are just different examples that fulfill different needs.

Washington's Metro was designed mostly as an alternative to highway commuting, decades after transit use in America peaked. Consequently, it's best to analyze Metro against systems with specs that are more like the following:

  • Short train headway in city center (6-12 minutes on each line, or approximately 2-6 minutes between trains during peak hours)
  • Average of 1+ miles between stations
  • Service routes that branch out in suburban places
  • 6,000 weekday daily riders per mile / 1.75 million annual riders per mile
  • Urban population of ~4.5 million people
  • In the neighborhood of 118 miles in length
Below are a few examples from around the world. Metro certainly has maintenance issues, but if you compare it to these other systems, you see that the system is actually doing largely what it was designed to. There is, however, plenty to learn from as well:

Amsterdam Metro

Amsterdam is a considerably smaller metropolitan area than Washington, and the Amsterdam Metro is shorter in length (~26 miles), but there are some similarities between these systems. With 66.2 million annual riders, its per-mile ridership of about 2.5 million people is not much higher than Washington's. Headways are slightly longer than Washington's, ranging from 7.5 - 15 minutes.


Photo by GVB Verbindt on Flickr.

Like Metrorail, the Amsterdam Metro is only about 40 years old, and much of its network is on the city's periphery. One big thing Amsterdam's metro has going for it is that it's only one component of its transportation network—trams, buses, and ferries are all important in the city. Perhaps the most important contrast between DC and cities that have systems similar to Metrorail, like Amsterdam, is that rail forms only one component of a successful multimodal network. DC has various other modes of mass transit, but Metro is by far what commuters use the most.

Trams in Amsterdam, on the other hand, actually have higher ridership than the city's metro. Along with buses and ferries, they offer a wide variety of options for transportation in places where rapid transit does not go. This does not even take Amsterdam's heavy bicycle use into consideration—there are actually more cyclists than car or transit users in the city.


A map of Amsterdam's metro system.

Berlin S-Bahn

Unlike most S-Bahns, which are strictly commuter rail systems, the Berlin S-Bahn has third-rail electrification, its routes extensively serve the city proper, and its stations are relatively close together—there's an average of 1.21 miles between stations. With 1.3 million daily riders and 15 routes, it outshines WMATA in a number of ways, but its per-mile ridership is similar (~6,500 daily).

In this sense, Metro shares similarities to this hybrid S-Bahn system. Like Amsterdam, Berlin also relies on other transit modes: an additional rapid transit system (U-Bahn), regional trains, an extensive tram network, and a bus fleet.


Berlin's S-Bahn. Image from S-Bahn Berlin.

San Francisco BART

The United States has several Metrorail-like systems, with BART being one of them. BART has around 1.2 million riders per mile annually, and an average of 2.3 miles between stations. Being on par with other American systems may not seem impressive if Washington's goal is to have a world class metro, but BART is an integral part of transit in the entire Bay Area.


The BART system. Image from BART.

One area where San Francisco actually edges out DC: it has more transit commuters.


Inside a new BART car. Image from BART.

Paris RER

The RER is Paris's commuter rail system, but its frequent service gives it some similar qualities to rapid transit. Comparing it to Metro is a little more difficult, as its five lines have two different operators. Some of the few available official statistics show that Line A has over 4.4 million annual riders per mile (16,800 per day) and peak headways of two minutes, making it as efficient as a rapid transit system.


Paris' RER. Image from RATP.

One notable difference between the RER Line A and Metrorail is that the average headway in the Paris city core never drops 12.5 minutes (Metrorail's headways in the city core can be as high as 20 minutes on the weekend, or even higher during track work). The RER's reliability, on top of Paris's various other transit options, is a big reason for RER's higher ridership.

Madrid Metro

The Madrid Metro is a conventional rapid transit system, and is Metro's closest relative among the cities the Post article mentions. Madrid is somewhat larger in population and has a metro network of almost 183 miles.


Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

At 3.1 million annual riders per mile, Madrid has almost twice as many riders as Washington. Opened in 1919, the Madrid Metro is far older than DC's system, but most of the system was constructed in the last two decades. The system's MetroSur (Line 12—built in 2003) is a particularly encouraging model for Washington. This line operates exclusively in Madrid's suburbs, and boasts station locations within 600 meters of 60% of residences in a service area of a million people. Notably, however, the suburbs MetroSur serves have population densities similar to DC or Alexandria, making quality transit services to Madrid's periphery more viable.

If Washington increases the density of its Metrorail network, as well as the overall population density across the metropolitan area, reaching a figure closer to Madrid's 570 million annual riders could be an achievable goal in the coming decades.


Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

What other similar examples could Metro learn from?

Development


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).

Transit


DC Streetcar ridership is... actually not bad

The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It's slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to DDOT's latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.

In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it's actually not bad.

Middle of the light rail pack

Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn't going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC's 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.

But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.

And in those terms, DC Streetcar's 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It's just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn't even go downtown yet.

Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).

On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston's Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco's Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey's Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,075, which is interestingly higher than Portland's MAX light rail at 2,048).

Compared to H Street's X2 bus

What about buses?

In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.

So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.

But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2's 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That's one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.

Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there

Clearly the streetcar isn't perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Future lines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.

And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland's streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides. So that's hard to predict.

But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn't doing particularly badly.

You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

There is much confusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That's because there's no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.


San Francisco's Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It's hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically light rail is a streetcar that, like a subway or el, goes faster in order to serve trips over a longer distance. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there's no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it's usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.


Image by the author.

Let's look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It's a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That's often true, and it's such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I've been guilty of using it myself. But it's wrong.

There are too many exceptions to that rule to rely on it completely. Sometimes (though rarely) light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento's mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia's streetcar subway, for instance:


Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak on Flickr.

In fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. That's true in Atlanta, Seattle, Tucson, even DC. Those streetcar lines don't suddenly become "light rail" for one block just because they have a dedicated lane somewhere. It's just not that simple.

And some streetcars have long stretches with dedicated lanes. Toronto's massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one on K Street.


Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto's Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall on Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it's an important data point; certainly it's one factor that can help tell the difference. But it's not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that's not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:


Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon on Flickr.

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its "light rail" mostly runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.


Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren't enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It's tempting to think of streetcars as "lighter" light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that's true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Norfolk light rail car, which is over 90 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto's newest streetcars are 99 feet long.


Toronto streetcar. Photo by Canadian Pacific on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta's streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.


Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon on Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.


Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco's Muni Metro and Boston's Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.


Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you're likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:


Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that's only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they're in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:


Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:


Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren't consistent? There's no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker's graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

There are certainly plenty of real-life examples of those exceptions. Before Arlington, VA cancelled its Columbia Pike streetcar, DC and Arlington were considering linking their streetcars with a bridge over the Potomac River. Had that happened, there might have been a mile-and-a-half between stops.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There's no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn't. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line's characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC's H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations. Even if DDOT builds the K Street transitway and a dedicated-lane streetcar on Georgia Avenue, the majority of the seven factors will still point to streetcar.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle's Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that's often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.


Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco's Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston's Green Lines, and Pittsburgh's T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

It's a feature, not a bug

The fact that it's hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC's H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, without forcing riders to transfer.

That's why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That's not muddied. That's smart. That's matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line's name.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Arts


San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below

A public art installation on San Francisco's Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.


Image from Illuminate The Arts.

The project is called "LightRail," and according to its sponsors it will be the world's first "subway-responsive light sculpture."

Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.

Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.

Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I've ever seen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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