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Transit


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

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


Photo by Andrew d'Entremont on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incorrect.

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

What is true

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

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

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

What is false

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

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


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

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

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

Resilience isn't why some systems have more tracks

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

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

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

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

More tracks? How about more lines

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

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

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

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

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

Links


Worldwide links: California's crisis cause

According to California's governor, his state's housing problem isn't that it's not spending enough on affordable housing, but rather that it's way too hard to get a building permit. China is building lots of subway systems, and Jane Jacobs may not have paid enough attention to infrastructure. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Travis Wise on Flickr.

It's the permits: California Governor Jerry Brown wants to reduce how long it can take to build new housing in his state. He says there's already plenty of money going toward affordable housing, and that the real focus should be on making local permitting processes less lengthy. (Los Angeles Times)

Smaller metros get more metros: China has been on an subway building frenzy. 26 cities have systems, while 39 others have projects approved. The Chinese Government also recently changed the rules to allow cities with more than 1.5 million people to build new systems. The old minimum was 3 million. (Reuters)

Disadvantaged cities: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says that state regulations across the country are hostile toward cities. With his state's budget discussions approaching, Wolf said the state has too often left cities to fund themselves, giving residents raw deals on things like school funding and utility rates. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Missing infrastructure: Jane Jacobs has taught us a lot about how to build great places, where walking around is easy. But she may have also had a a blind spot, as she often neglected to talk about systems and infrastructure, like transit and water pipes, that stitch neighborhoods together. (Common Edge)

Transit mapping tech: A few years ago, Tiffany Chu and some friends put together a program that would allow transit planners to map out routes and immediately see the impact of those decisions based on data. Today, Remix is the toast of planners everywhere who want an easier way to get more people to ride the bus. (Curbed)

The disappearing dive: Dive bars are disappearing at a rapid pace. At the same time, it's increasingly common to see bars that claim to be dives, but are actually washed out versions of the real thing. Many blame the gentrification while others say it's just pure economics, as $2 bottles won't pay the rent. (Eater)

Transit Trends

In this episode of Transit Trends, my co-host and I sat down with Iain Macbeth of Transport for London to discuss how the information from a connected car can improve transportation systems worldwide.

Transit


An express bus line from downtown to Mount Rainier is one step closer to reality

Neighborhoods around Rhode Island Avenue NE were built to depend on transit. A new express bus, the G9, is one step closer to running along the corridor, from downtown to Mount Rainier.


If Far East Movement took the bus. Base photo by Dan Malouff.

WMATA first proposed the G9 in 2014, after studying the way transit use was changing along Rhode Island Avenue into Prince George's County. The DC Council made a huge push toward making the line a reality Tuesday night, with a unanimous first vote for a FY17 budget that includes $1.04 million for the G9.

"The proposed G9 bus line will service Rhode Island Avenue from 14th Street NW to just beyond the District's border at Eastern Ave NE, thereby filling that gap and alleviating congestion on the G8 and other bus lines that offer partial service to the Rhode Island Avenue NE corridor," said Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.

Here's a full map of the planned route:


The proposed G9 route, from WMATA. A bigger version is on page 25 of this report.

This is extremely welcome news to residents of the Rhode Island Avenue corridor, who are looking at an almost one-month shutdown of their portion of the Red Line during SafeTrack.

As of press time, neither WMATA nor McDuffie's office had responded to questions about when, exactly, residents can expect the G9 to start running. We'll update the post as soon as we hear back.

But for now, let's take a moment to celebrate this bit of good transit news—it's a welcome bit of sunshine on a rainy horizon.

Popping bottles in the ice, like a blizzard
When we drink we do it right gettin slizzard
Sippin sizzurp in my ride, like Three 6 689
Now I'm feeling so fly like a G6 G9
Like a G6 G9, Like a G6 G9
Now I'm feeling so fly like a G6 G9
Like a G6 G9, Like a G6 G9
Now I'm feeling so fly like a G6 G9

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


A new bus line would give Rhode Island Avenue the transit it was meant to have

The G9, a new bus line that would run along Rhode Island Avenue from Mount Rainier into downtown, could become a reality if the DC Council decides to fund it this week. The G9 would give residents in the corridor a much-needed way to get downtown by transit, which their neighborhoods were built around in the first place.


Right now, only the infrequent G8 (the line in red) runs along Rhode Island Avenue between the Metro stop and downtown. Images from WMATA.

Right now, the neighborhoods surrounding the nearly four miles of Rhode Island Avenue that run from Bloomingdale to Mount Rainier, Maryland are connected by only a single, weaving local bus route, the G8, which is characterized by less frequent service (especially off-peak) and an indirect route at its eastern end.

Still, the G8 is usually packed to capacity during rush hour because it's literally the only bus line to downtown from most of these neighborhoods (except Bloomingdale, which also has the notoriously late 80 bus). That's because all inbound bus routes on Rhode Island Avenue from the Maryland border terminate at the Rhode Island Avenue Metrorail station.

This service map means residents of the Rhode Island corridor going almost anywhere have to make multiple transfers or use "minor" bus routes, except for the lucky souls in Eckington and Brentwood who work on the Red Line.

After studying this corridor in 2014, WMATA proposed the G9, a limited-stop MetroExtra route, as a solution. While the G9 would only run during rush hours initially, it would be faster than the G8 because of limited stops and would supplement supply to relieve crowding. Ultimately, the G9 could be transitioned from being Metro Extra to being a full seven-day service.

Most vital for residents living east of Brentwood, the line would provide the first direct transit connection to points west and downtown in years, restoring a historic connection and energizing the blossoming Rhode Island Avenue Main Street.


The proposed G9 route.

However, non-regional routes are paid for by the corresponding jurisdiction, which means the G9 must come out of DC's budget. Now, the DC Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue is considering the G9 in the FY 2017 budget. The comment period is open until the end of this week.

Neighborhoods along Rhode Island were built for transit like the G9

The original L'Enfant Plan for DC stopped at Florida Avenue.

In the late 18 and early 1900s, many neighborhoods north of Florida Avenue, like Eckington, developed as streetcar suburbs. Just before the turn of the century, a streetcar line from Eckington to what's now Mount Rainier opened, giving way to transit-oriented development along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor.

By the 1950s, myriad streetcar lines had consolidated into DC Transit, and the 82 line ran from 5th and G Streets NW (near the modern-day Verizon Center), out Rhode Island Avenue NE, all the way past College Park.

With the collapse of the streetcar system, communities along Rhode Island lost the transit that linked them, and that made them viable in the first place.

But the riders are still there

When you build places to be transit-oriented, residents will demand transit. Even with its pitfalls, the G8 is typically packed to capacity during rush hour.

In fact, G8 demand along the Rhode Island corridor has grown at nearly double the rate of overall Metrobus ridership. The weekday average ridership on the G8 in 2011 was 3,571, but by May 2014, it was 4,221an increase of 18.2%. Overall Metrobus ridership during the same span rose 10.0% (while demand on the "major" 80 bus declined 4.3%).

The G9 would help people get to western downtown, specifically.

For Rhode Island Avenue residents who work in western parts of downtown, the G9 would create shorter, faster connections between work and home.

Currently, Metrobus options for residents who work west of 17th Street NW and north of K Street NW (i.e. West End, Golden Triangle, Dupont Circle) are limited to the infrequent G2 crosstown bus that starts in LeDroit Park, the slow and meandering 80, or taking the G8 to the end of its route at Farragut Square.

Since the G9 would connect to Rhode Island Avenue as far west as 13th and 14th Streets NW—whereas the G8 connects at 11th and 9th—office jockeys who work in the northwest portion of downtown could get off or board several blocks further west while spending less time on the bus.

You can help make the G9 happen

The G9 would make it a whole lot easier for residents along Rhode Island Avenue to travel between neighborhoods and to downtown. It'd make a big positive difference for people in Ward 5 and Mount Rainier, but also in Wards 1 and 2 as well.

If you think the G9 running on Rhode Island Avenue is a good idea, tell the DC Council your story this week. You can submit written testimony or just write an email to the members of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, who include Ward 2's Jack Evans (the chairman) and Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie, and their respective staffs, until this Friday, May 13.

You may also want to email the mayor's office (eom@dc.gov) and spread the word on social media.

Update: It turns out the Committee on Transportation and the Environment recently had oversight on funding WMATA local transit, and did not include funding for the G9 bus route in its budget recommendations. Transportation Committee member Jack Evans (who is, incidentally, chairman of the aforementioned finance committee) expressed support for the G9 during the hearing.

There's still an opportunity to fund the G9. The Chairman of the DC Council, Phil Mendelson, has authority to modify the budget. Should you want to advocate for this, email Chairman Mendelson and his staff, and cc: your councilmember (especially if you're in Ward 5 or Ward 2) and the mayor's office, to ask that funding for the G9 be included in the budget.

Links


National Links: The housing market

Not everyone has recovered from the US housing market's collapse, you're most likely to try a new way of getting around when you move to a new place, and traffic studies usually mean faster roads, not necessarily better planning. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Winning the housing game: The US housing market has recovered from the recession, but not everyone is on solid ground. Housing prices have increased dramatically in cities, but not so much in sprawling and rural areas. Maps in this feature show the stark differences. (Washington Post)

Moving moves us: People are most open to considering new modes of transportation right after they move into a new place, according to research out of Cardiff University. (CityLab)

Traffic studies make things worse: Virtually no development goes up without a traffic study, but are traffic studies bad for cities? When the results are plans that focus on moving the most cars quickly, pedestrians and other modes usually get the short end of the stick. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

LA, it is a changin: Los Angeles has long been known as the domain of the car. But before it was, LA had a huge transit system that connected far off parts of a large region. Writer David Ulin believes things are shifting back, and the region will be a nicer place because of it. (New York Times)

No more surging: With autonomous vehicles around the corner, Uber considering ending surge pricing. It won't happen right away, but the company expects that at some point, as its systems get smarter, surge pricing won't be needed. (Minnesota Public Radio)

Walk this way: Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted moving sidewalks would be everywhere in our cities—by 2014, he said, New York would be covered with them. But the realities of wear and tear have slowed the technology down. (Inverse)

Quote of the Week

"We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists." Economist Jed Kolko on the demographics of America today versus 1950. (Five Thirty Eight)

Transit


8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro

Paris has one of the world's great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.


Door knobs on a Paris metro train. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

1. Door knobs speed trains

In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.

All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system's theoretical maximum.

In Paris, those delays don't happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.

Here's a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:

WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there's no indication they'll be fixed any time soon.

Although the issues for a streetcar are different than a subway, this is one detail DC's streetcars share.

2. Full platform seating works

Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?

Check out Paris' Chatelet station, where that's exactly the layout:


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Most Paris stations aren't like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn't as crucial there as it is in DC. But there's been many a day I've stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.

3. Flip-up seats add capacity

The first row of seats inside Paris' train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.

This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.

4. Open gangways really do work

US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.

All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they're wonderful.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks

Paris' metro lacks express tracks just like DC's, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It's also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.

Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.


A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?

I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.

6. Els can be public art

Talk about elevated rail in the US and most people visualize either Chicago-style steel monstrosities or Tysons Corner-style concrete ones. Neither are particularly endearing images, except maybe to transitphiles and architecture buffs.

In Paris, even the el train is beautiful.


Pont Bir-Hakeim. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris' els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.

7. Wayfinding can be beautiful

"If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?" My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

8. Location-specific maps help riders navigate

Going to the airport? Rather than only a tiny icon on the main system map, how about helping riders with a dedicated airport transit map?


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?

What details like these have you noticed on other countries' transit systems, that you'd like to see imported to the US?

Roads


Montgomery's traffic tests for new developments encourage sprawl, but that could change soon

Montgomery County is expected to gain 232,000 new residents over the next 30 years. Currently, Montgomery's traffic tests measures whether development leads to people driving faster rather than whether development leads to more people driving. Reforming this practice could help discourage sprawl.


Under the current system, development like this one in Silver Spring, where it's easy to walk around, doesn't get credit for reducing how often and how far people drive. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Montgomery County is currently updating its four year "growth plan", known formally as the Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP). The SSP governs everything from school infrastructure needs to the amount of taxes developers pay for new projects.

While any number of those issues have a huge impact on guiding growth, it's hard to say any are more important than revising how Montgomery tests the way new developments impact traffic.

Here's how Montgomery currently tests traffic

The test Montgomery County uses measures just car speed at intersections. Incoming development, whether located in dense areas or not, is projected to generate X amount of car trips, and therefore create Y amount of car delay at intersections.

The test does not take into account the number of people walking, biking or busing-- it assumes that a project a block from a Metro station will produce the same amount of car traffic as a project in Clarksburg. If a project is found to create an "unreasonable" amount of traffic, developers have to pay to mitigate the impact----even in an area where many folks may not drive.

Currently, a single occupant car is valued the same as a bus carrying 80 passengers. Even though a dedicated bus lane could carry vastly more people than a lane of single occupant vehicles, that bus lane would fail current traffic tests because it hurts the speed at which single occupant vehicles can drive.

In real terms, this often means a developer paying to widen a road in order to pass a traffic test-- an outcome that's inherently contradictory to Montgomery's transit and environmental goals. We're rewarding sprawl and making infill development more difficult.

Evaluating car delay ensures we aren't looking at all the possibilities for moving the most people-- we're just looking at how to move single-occupancy vehicles the fastest. These tests prize car speed over increased mobility options, rewarding development that is far from urban centers. Why build a new grocery store in Downtown Silver Spring, which would require a traffic mitigation payment for a failing intersection, when you can build one five miles away near the highway and pass your traffic test with flying colors?

In fact, the type of traffic tests Montgomery uses has been called the "Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform". Focusing solely on automobile congestion has the strange effect of making transit improvements like bike and bus lanes look bad but road widening look good.

The county is considering another way of doing things

The good news is that the Montgomery County Planning Department is considering adopting less auto-centric traffic evaluations. A possible solution might be using the Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) standard, which measures how many miles residents are actually driving-- not just speeds at arbitrary intersections.

VMT takes the total amount of vehicles being driven on a daily or annual basis and divides it by the total number of miles being driven. For example, 10,000 vehicles each travelling an average of 15 miles per day, would result in 150,000 vehicle miles travelled per day.

By attacking traffic tests from this angle, we can set goals to decrease the amount of car trips residents take. Montgomery could set a goal of reducing VMT by 10% over ten years, and evaluate how future development fits in with that vision.


Building near transit and retail can mean people won't need cars at all, but that doesn't show up with Montgomery's current testing system. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

To appreciate the difference, imagine CVS plans to build two new pharmacies in the county, one in Downtown Silver Spring and the other in Germantown. Under the current system, both projects would be projected to generate the same amount of new trips using a standard formula.

Because Silver Spring is already more densely developed, those new trips would be added to roads that are likely already failing from a car delay perspective, forcing the developer to fund costly "mitigation" efforts. In less developed Germantown, those same trips are unlikely to cause any intersections to "fail" the car delay test, so no mitigation is required.

VMT ends the incentive to build in less dense areas, many of which are far from transit. It provides a holistic look at mobility options in an area.

This is about equity for residents, too

The current test is inherently unequal, giving priority to single occupancy vehicles and completely overlooking those who are transit reliant (by choice or by necessity). This is especially important, as study after study shows transit access is a huge indicator of someone's odds of being socially mobile.

This issue is even more important when we consider that Montgomery saw the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region. Inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity.

If we want an equal county, measuring traffic in a way that encourages inclusive growth, not just destinations that can be reached exclusively by car, is certainly an important step.

Can you get involved? Yes!

You can help be a part of the change. The Montgomery County Planning department is currently producing their staff draft of the growth policy. Send the planning board emails, write them letters, make your voice heard.

Tell them: "I am a transit reliant Montgomery County resident. Every day, I am confronted with both the positives and negatives of our transit infrastructure. Far too often in planning meetings, or County Council hearings, the voices of people who actually need transit are not in the room. We need better approaches to how we grow."

If we want a county that is more walkable, and inclusive we need to make our voices are heard. The fight to change our traffic tests should be a rallying cry for environmentalists, progressives and transit advocates. This is a critical opportunity for Montgomery to fufill its reputation as a bastion of progressivism.

Transit


Lisbon is a rail transit mecca

Lisbon has just about every type of rail transit out there. Streetcars, funiculars, a metro, and commuter rail all provide a dense, interconnected transit system for the Southern Europe metropolis.


A streetcar in Lisbon. All photos by the author.

Lisbon's streetcarstrams, as they refer to them—act as both transportation for the city's residents and a popular way for visitors to see the city, with streetcar line 28 connecting many of the main sights of the city's old city.

Many of the streetcar lines share the city's narrow streets with car traffic. However, some stretches have dedicated lanes, including along Avenue 24 de Julho, next to the commuter rail tracks approaching the Cais do Sodré railway station.


A vintage streetcar in a dedicated lane alongside a commuter train in Lisbon.

Complementing the streetcar network are three funiculars and an elevator that climb some of the city's steep hills.


The Gloria funicular in Lisbon.

The Lisbon metro has four lines stretching 26.8 miles across the city and providing the backbone of the transit network.


A map of the Lisbon metro with commuter rail services in gray.

Lisbon has two commuter rail operators: state-owned Comboios de Portugal (CP) and the private Fertagus line. While more frequent and metro-like than Washington DC's commuter rail services, CP's services are not as extensive as those in most European cities with overlapping lines connecting four terminals in central Lisbon and one south of the Tagus River with five different suburbs.


CP's Lisbon commuter rail map.

Fertagus provides the only commuter rail service that crosses the Tagus River, running on the lower deck of the 25 de Abril bridge.


The 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon.

Lisbon is a good example of how a dense transit network with a variety of interconnected modes can work.

The Washington region is slowly moving towards a similarly dense and varied network, with Metro forming the backbone and other modes like the Metroway bus rapid transit line Virginia, the DC Streetcar in the District and, when it opens, the Purple Line light rail in Maryland filling in the gaps and complementing Metro. However, we have a long way to go to match Lisbon's network.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Greater Greater Washington's articles about Adelaide, Cape Town, Dallas, Hartford, Johannesburg, Oakland airport, San Diego, and San Juan.

Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

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


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transit Trends on YouTube

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

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