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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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Roads


Use this map to share your ideas for better east-west travel across DC

Is it frustrating to try to travel from Columbia Heights to Brookland on foot, bike, bus, or car? The District Department of Transportation is studying ways to make it easier to travel east-west in this area, and a new interactive map lets you point out problems.


Map by DDOT. map. Click for an interactive version.

This WikiMap is part of DDOT's Crosstown Multimodal Transportation Study, the goal of which is to improve all modes of travel between 16th Street NW and South Dakota Avenue NE. It lets users identify problems with and suggest solutions for
walking, riding a bike, driving, transit, public space, parking, and intersections, and is a user-friendly way to participate in DDOT's search for long-term solutions.

People who frequently commute by foot, bike, bus, car, or other means through the corridor have firsthand knowledge on the area's congestion, safety, and streetscape issues. They're also likely to have ideas on how these issues can be addressed to improve transportation mobility and mitigate impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Beyond the crowdsourced map, DDOT recently kicked off the first in a series of public meetings for the project aimed at gathering feedback.


A map of the study area.

The interactive map will be available on DDOT's website (just click the first image in this post) for several months.

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Transit


Walking and transit score high in Virginia's transportation rankings

Scores that evaluate transportation projects in Virginia recently came out, and many of the highest belong to projects focused on walking and transit. That's because they provide the most bang for taxpayers' bucks.


West Broad Street and Oak Street in downtown Falls Church. Image from Google Maps.

In Northern Virginia, projects that focused on improving walking conditions and transit service came out on top in statewide rankings for cost-effectiveness. These included:

  • Sidewalk work in downtown Falls Church between Park Avenue and Broad Street (#2 statewide)
  • More marketing of transit and carpooling in the I-66/Silver Line corridor (#3)
  • Improving crossings at several intersections on Broad Street in downtown Falls Church, including at Oak Street (pictured above) (#8)
Passed in 2014, a state law commonly known as HB2 requires Virginia's Department of Transportation to use an objective and quantitative system to score transportation projects. The idea is to make planning more transparent, but high score doesn't guarantee funding nor does a low score preclude it.

In the most recent rankings, 287 transportation projects from across the state received two different scores, one based on the total projected benefit and one based on the benefit divided by the total funding request.

Each of the projects above would cost between $500,000 and $1 million, while most other projects would cost many times that amount. For total project benefits, the addition of High-Occupancy/Toll lanes to I-66 outside the Beltway has the highest score, but it requires a $600 million public investment.

Here's more detail about the law

Virginia law requires that "congestion relief" be the primary metric in scoring projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Scores also account for a project's environmental impacts, how it fits with local land use plans, and what it might do for economic development.

Three agencies developed the evaluation system: Virginia Department of Transportation, the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, the and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The agencies have posted a wealth of data on the HB2 website. You can search for projects in various ways, including by jurisdiction. Data points such as whether or not a project has bicycle facilities, and how it is coordinated with nearby development projects, are posted in an easily navigable format.

What do you think of the analyses? Is there a project in your area that scores higher or lower than you would have expected?

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Transit


Ask GGWash: What one book should I read about transit?

If you want to understand the battles over transit in the United States, is there one book you can read? We asked our contributors.

  
Books our contributors suggested. Images from Amazon.com.

An organizer who works for a social justice-oriented group and is planning to start working on transit issues recently asked what book she should read to get up to speed.

If she were going to deal with how we design our roads and public spaces, I'd recommend Jeff Speck's Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At a Time or Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us. Is there a comparable book about transit?

Both John Ricco and Matt Johnson suggested Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker. Johnson said, "The book is fairly concise, but explains the basic information behind transit operations in depth in language that the layperson can easily understand and digest. Personally, I think everyone who rides transit should read this book. But anyone interested in transit at a higher level than just catching the bus should absolutely, definitely, positively read this book. As soon as possible."

Ben Ross endorsed Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile by Taras Grescoe. The book's summary says, "On a journey that takes him around the world―from New York to Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe profiles public transportation here and abroad, highlighting the people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation―and better city living―for all."

Gray Kimbrough wrote, "This book isn't the only one you need to read to learn about transit (though I'm not sure such a book exists), but I recommend Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century [by Stephen Goddard] for its in-depth background of the policy processes that gave us the system we have now."

While this isn't the transit policy overview our question-asker was looking for, anyone interested in transit in the Washington region should certainly read The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro by Zachary Schrag. This is the definitive way to learn why our Metro system is the way it is. It's also just full of fascinating facts, like how WMATA's first head, Jackson Graham, tried to resist putting elevators in the stations because he could personally ride the escalators in a wheelchair.

Have you read these? Which do you think our organizer friend should read? Or what other suggestions do you have?

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Transit


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)

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Transit


Self-driving cars could change a lot about... tailgating?

Self-driving cars are on the horizon, and they're probably going to be transformative in ways that are hard to predict, and go far beyond the act of driving. For example, stadium tailgating is one cultural mainstay likely to change drastically.


Will the self-driving car make this kind of scene a thing of the past? Photo by bamoffitteventphotos on Flickr.

Tailgating is one reason there will be pressure for any new DC football stadium to have lots of surface parking. Debating that thinking is one matter, but there's also a totally different reason to consider the subject: It's an example of an everyday activity that will change drastically once self-driving cars are on the road.

Obviously, the future of tailgating isn't the most pressing urbanist issue. In fact, when it comes to the future of our cities and the importance of land-use, housing affordability, and transportation access, it's hard to think it's even on anyone's radar. But there are plenty of people who love tailgating, and it's definitely an activity someone will need to rethink after the massive shift that self-driving car technology would bring about.

That's because the plan for self-driving cars is to upend the entire transportation system. A roving fleet of robot taxis you can summon on-demand by smart phones will supplant individual car ownership, and communities will re-evaluate the need for massive parking lots.

Right now, cars double as tailgating storage space

In its current conception, cars are central to tailgating. They serve as both of a means of getting to the game (for both the spectator and his sundry equipment), the locus for tailgating activity, and a place to store equipment during the game. Each of these uses is predicated on the idea that the car will remain in a fixed location and be able to hold personal goods while fans are in the stadium.

If fans arrive by self-driving cars that then go off on other trips, where will they store their cornhole apparatus after they go into the game? Will they hire another self-driving car to bring it all home? Will someone be at the other end of the trip to unload it? It's unlikely that anyone would hire a car to drive their folding chairs in circles for the duration of the game and it certainly wouldn't be sustainable if all tailgaters decided to take this approach.

Perhaps stadiums will set up rentable storage lockers for coolers or establish a grill valet.

Parking lots, not just tailgating, may be a thing of the past

Tailgating is based around the premise of a parking lot as "pop up" recreational space. But with less need to store cars on-site, the likelihood of property owners maintaining (or municipal regulations mandating) seas of surface parking will diminish. While stadiums could establish park space in lieu of parking to continue to meet the need for tailgate space, equally likely is the development of this land into other uses. That'd mean future tailgaters will have to find somewhere else to party.

While driving to the game isn't a strict prerequisite for tailgating, it's only possible now, even for fans who arrive by other means, because parking lots are sufficiently large to allow for this secondary use. Will greedy sports owners, who seek to extract every dollar possible from the in game experience, want to set aside space for an activity from which they don't make money?

The future is coming. Let's adapt

Self-driving cars have the potential to revolutionize our roads. Their reliability will reduce traffic fatalities and the ability to hire one on as-needed basis will cut the overall number of vehicles needed as well the amount of space dedicated to store them. But as our relationship to the car changes, so will the societal activities based around parking.

Should we take this future into consideration as we start planning for future spaces? Or do we run the risk of hubris if we start planning for a technology that we have no idea about how it will actually work and when it will fully emerge? It's hard to know.

While there's nothing incompatible about grilling meats and robot cars, the fundamental changes in mobility that self-driving cars might bring could have a much greater impact on our recreational activities than we might currently think. One of those impacts could be the end of an American tradition.

But it doesn't have to be. What people love about tailgating has very little to do with the car itself; it's the social activity. There's nothing special about a parking lot per se, but in a future when they're not as omnipresent, we need to think about spaces for people to gather and what those spaces should look like.

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Transit


This new tool maps transit developments across North America

Ever wonder what transit projects are in under construction, planned, or proposed in Denver or Honolulu? Check out a captivating new Transit Explorer that maps transit development in more than 40 cities in North America.

Developed by Chicago-based urbanists and transit professionals Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance, the new transit project visualisation is an extension of the popular transit openings and construction starts post that Freemark has published on his blog The Transport Politic annually since 2009.

"We wanted to provide people an open-source, easy to use, and good-looking interface by which to explore transit in North America," says Freemark. "Transit Explorer is all about helping people understand where fixed-guideway transit is now and where it could go so that they can imagine how to improve transportation systems in their own cities and compare plans across the continent."

Transit Explorer shows the wide variety of transit projects in some stage of development in the Washington DC region, including the Silver Line phase two in Virginia, H Street streetcar line in DC and the Purple Line light rail project in Maryland.

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Transit


NoMa has a new, transportation-themed restaurant

A new NoMa restaurant celebrates transportation, from drinks named for train travel to multimodal options for getting there.


Inside Union Social, you'll find a list of all the cities with a Union Station. All images by the author.

Union Social sits at the base of Elevation at Washington Gateway, a new mixed-use development across Florida Avenue NE from the NoMa Metro station. Elevation opened in late 2014 with 400 units on 14 floors, and Union Social opened in October.

The property abuts the Metropolitan Branch Trail and parallels the rail tracks that run toward Union Station, just one Metro stop away.

Union Social's interior design reflects its transit-oriented environment. A chalkboard names all the cities with a Union Station and a traffic light adorns the wall. A familiar M denotes the men's restroom, and it's inverted on the women's room door. Green and yellow lines snake along the restroom walls.


The drink menu honors transit, too

Union Social did extensive historical research to conceive its cocktail menu, steeped in allusions to trains and their mid-century glory days.

The Redline is a tequila sour with Fresno pink peppercorn and a red line of Angostura bitters atop meringue.

The Third Rail is a gin fizz with both literal and symbolic meaning. It refers to the electrified third rail that carries voltage and powers a train. This being DC, the cocktail also denotes the "third rail of politics" and its implied dangers. The drink gets color from blueberries and bubbles from "charged water," yesteryear's name for club soda.


A Third Rail.

The Angel's Seat is a whiskey smash with Angel's Envy bourbon, citrus and rosemary garnish. In the rail world, the angel's seat is raised observation seating in a caboose.


An Angel's Seat.

The Gandy Dancer is a champagne fizz modeled after the French 75, but made with vodka. Traditionally, a gandy dancer is an early 1900s railroad construction worker who laid tracks manually.

If you order a spirit plus soda or just a soft drink, you'll get a retro eight-ounce glass bottle. Beer comes only from the tap, like it did during the heyday of train travel in the mid 1900s.

Happy hour at Union Social brings the bygone train-centered lifestyle into modernity. A bustling, cosmopolitan vibe pervades the glassy space. Evoking the train café cars, two bars bookend the rectangular dining room. The dining room is laid out like a standard Amtrak car, with a row of tables on each side and a center passageway. On any given night, a private party might enliven the second bar down at the far end.

Union Social is a marker of NoMa's rapid expansion

In developing Union Social, owner Reese Gardner set out to recreate the historic role and atmosphere of the train station. "It was the hub where people socialized in the 1940s and '50s," said Gardner. "The best bars and food were at the train station because so many people were passing through or waiting for trains."

Today, NoMa is considered a textbook example of successful transit-oriented development. Since the NoMa Metro station opened in 2004 as DC's first infill station, NoMa has seen exponential growth, and national and international officials tour the area to study its development.

Partying in the house that transit built, Union Social patrons prove the development theories true. NoMa resident Rocio Acevedo Medlin has eyewitnessed the neighborhood's transformation and planted her flag at Union Social, visiting regularly from the day it opened.

"It's really different from anything else in NoMa," said Acevedo Medlin, who has frequented the area since 2000. "It's the kind of place you keep coming back to because it just feels good. You can be inside or out on the sidewalk and you see other people through the glass. It's not like it's walled off from the rest of the neighborhood. Everything about it is open and inviting."

NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper puts the new restaurant in context. "Union Social and all of NoMa is an amazing demonstration that a great development plan can truly have extraordinary impact," said Jasper.

While NoMa's growth was methodically charted, some elements weren't in the initial blueprints. Case in point: restaurants, which weren't on the drawing board.

"The original thought was not mixed use, so there was no forethought to build space for restaurants," said Jasper. "The Elevation building was the first with a restaurant. Now all upcoming residential buildings will have restaurant space."

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Transit


If we lowered transit construction costs, we could build more transit

US transit projects are way more expensive than those in similar countries. Addressing the reasons why could help us build more transit.


Building new transit in Seattle. Photo by SDOT Photos.

American transit systems are notoriously worse than those in other countries. True rapid transit exists only in a handful of cities, and even there, our systems are known for their unreliable service and decaying infrastructure. Often times we point to underfunding as reason for why this is the case—the US spends a lot of general revenue on highways, after all.

But there's another, often-overlooked reason: building new transit is extremely expensive to do in the US.

First, the problem

The chart below, created using cost figures from transportation blogger Alon Levy's compilation, illustrates just how bad the problem is. Estimating conservatively, New York City's price for one kilometer of subway or commuter rail tunnel is about five times more expensive than Tokyo's, eight times more expensive than Berlin's or Paris's, and twelve times more expensive than Barcelona's.


Graph by the author, with data from Alon Levy.

While New York City is the US's worst offender, other American cities perform dismally too. Take WMATA's Silver Line, for example. Phase 1 of the project, which is almost entirely above-ground and isn't located in a dense city center, clocked in at over $150 million per kilometer. In many developed European and Asian countries, this kind of money would be enough to build a fully underground subway line in a dense urban core.

Amtrak also seems to have serious cost problems. Its Gateway project, the sorely-needed plan to increase rail capacity under the Hudson, is estimated to cost $25 billion. And its most ambitious plan for high speed rail on the Northeast Corridor would costnearly $300 billion. On a per-kilometer basis, this is about twice as expensive as the considerably more complex magnetic levitation bullet train that Japan is building.

No one's really sure why we're so inefficient at building transit

It's clear that we have a problem with transit costs. It's less clear, however, why this is the case. Some people have offered their theories, but none stand out as being obvious:

  • Perhaps high land acquisition costs play a role, especially in New York City. This can't explain why other high rent cities like Tokyo and Paris don't share our problems, however.

  • Stringent, inefficient union work rules could be a problem. Yet we see union friendly-countries like France and Sweden building transit cheaply.

  • Consultants might face the wrong set of incentives. Public agencies overseeing the contractors might lack the design/engineering/construction expertise required to know if they're being ripped off.

  • Lawsuits probably contribute to the problem. Countries with a common law tradition—one that encourages suing for nuisances—seem to experience unusually high infrastructure costs.

  • Organizational fragmentation might incentivize building redundant infrastructure, as is the case in New York City, where two commuter railroads couldn't agree to share tracks at Grand Central—so they are building an expensive second terminal beneath the existing one.

  • It could just be plain old over-engineering. Instead of focusing on the purely functional aspects of transit that get us from point A to point B, we sometimes spend big bucks on lavish architecture or inessential station elements.

There are no self-evident answers here. Unfortunately, no one has studied this in detail—perhaps because our leaders seem unaware that we even have a problem in the first place.

Fixing the problem is critical for the future of transit in America

One major downside to having a cost problem is that it can be used as an ad-hoc justification to kill transit projects. Maryland's Purple Line is a recent example. After nearly cancelling the project altogether, Governor Larry Hogan approved a watered-down version of the light rail line, citing the project's hefty price tag.

We see a similar scenario play out across the country: a light rail line is cancelled for lower-cost bus alternatives. Then BRT creep sets in. And before you know it, we're left with hardly any transit improvements—all because the public thought the initial price tag was too expensive.

But worrying about high costs doesn't have to be inherently anti-transit. The opposite is possible: transit advocates should be concerned about high costs because lowering them would open up the possibility of building even more and higher-quality transit.

If your costs are five times higher than what they should be, that means you're potentially getting five times less transit than what's possible. If the Silver Line's costs were more in line with international standards, we'd have billions left over that could be spent on improving Metro. Maybe we could afford the capital upgrades required to run all 8-car trains, ora second Rosslyn station, or even a new tunnel through downtown.

As others have pointed out, the first step to fixing this problem is raising awareness. Talking to our leaders and asking questions about costs might be a good place to start.

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