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Posts about Transit


Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


Here's why it'd be wrong to shut down Metro east of the Anacostia River

Last week, WMATA reported that one way to close its budget gap could be to close 20 Metro stations outside of rush hour, including seven that serve DC communities that are east of the Anacostia River. Moving forward with this idea would make it far harder for children to get to schools and for adults to access social and political life in the District. It could be a major civil rights violation, too.

Under WMATA's new proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

DC is split up geographically into eight wards, each of which has a representative on the DC Council. The Stadium Armory, Minnesota Avenue, Deanwood, Benning Road, and Capitol Heights stations are all in Ward 7, and Congress Heights is in Ward 8; these two wards are most certainly DC's most underserved.

DC's eight wards. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

There are, of course, 13 others on the list of stations that see low ridership and that Metro could consider closing outside of rush hour, from White Flint to Tysons-- but they aren't nearly as concentrated.

A lot of students use these Metro stations to get to and from school

According to research conducted by the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, an organization committed to improving education in Ward 7, 64% of children in Kenilworth-Parkside (which the Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations serve) travel outside of their neighborhood to attend school, and many rely on Metro to get there.

Altogether, around half of Ward 7's parents send their children to schools outside of their neighborhood. The disruption also impacts students west of the Anacostia, as DC Charter School Board notes that more than 1,100 students travel to charters in Ward 7. While schools generally begin and end during rush hours, students would not necessarily be able to rely on Metro to get home from after school activities if WMATA's idea moves forward.

These Metro stations also have a big impact on access to jobs

Neighborhoods east of the river are predominantly residential, lacking large concentrations of commercial or government that make them destinations for morning commuters. This means that parents, like their children, travel outside their ward to jobs, often during off peak hours.

Due to Ward 7's geography, crosstown bus service is limited to just a handful of lines lines that are already amongst the busiest in DC. Some would lose their jobs or be forced to move if Metro stopped running outside of rush hour.

This map shows the number of jobs in different areas of the District. The bigger the orange circle, the more jobs are in the area. Clearly, people who live east of the Anacostia need to travel west to get to work. Map from OpenDataDC.

These closures would hurt future development and render existing bus service less useful

Ward 7 is primed to grow rapidly in the next few years. Ward 7 has transit-oriented developments proposed at all its Metro stops, like on Reservation 13 and at RFK, which are next to Stadium Armory, Parkside (Minnesota Ave), Kenilworth Courts Revitalization (Deanwood Metro), SOME (Benning Road Metro), and Capitol Gateway (Capitol Heights Metro).

These developments' success depends on their proximity to metrorail stations. Cutting off service would dramatically change the calculus of development in Ward 7, and communities seeing the first green shoots of growth would instantly see them snuffed out. Tens of thousands of homeowners would see their home values decline, and DC would lose millions in tax revenue.

Also, bus routes in these areas are East of the River bus routes are designed to feed into the Metro stations. A plan that would close stations without a significant upgrades to crosstown lines and within-ward service would further compound the transportation problems facing the community.

Why is ridership so low in Ward 7?

There is, of course, the fact that these stations are among the 20 Metro stations that get the lowest ridership. I'm not disputing that. But if we look at why that's the case, it's clear that closing these stations for most of the day is only going to exacerbate social and economic problems.

Ward 7 residents have borne the brunt of WMATA's service disruptions since 2009. The ward's stations are consistently among the most likely to be closed due to weekend track work. Between 2012 and 2013, Orange line stations in Ward 7 were disrupted 19 weekends. This level of disruption continued into 2015, when stations were disrupted for 17 weekends.

Graphic by Peter Dovak.

The impacts of WMATA's work strategies on ridership have been predictable. In 2008, Minnesota Avenue on the Orange line had an average weekday passenger boarding count of 3,552, but by 2015 this number had declined to 2,387 (a 32% decline). This despite the construction of hundreds of new homes in the surrounding area. Benning Road station on the Blue Line declined from 3,382 in 2008 to 2,823 in 2015, or a decline of 16%.

Service to areas east of the Anacostia suffered further disruptions in September 2015, when a transformer exploded near Stadium Armory, and when an insulator exploded at Capitol South in May 2016. Both helped trigger Safe Track, along with a two-week suspension of Metro service to Ward 7 in late June. This work featured extensive reconstruction of the tracks near Stadium Armory, despite years of closures on this very section of track.

Closing these stations wouldn't just be harmful. It could be illegal.

Again, these seven stations aren't the only ones on the list. But the fact that they make up virtually all the Metro stations in a place where the vast majority of residents are black is enough to bring up an important legal question.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says policies should not have an outsized effect on people from a protected class, such as race or gender, where alternatives could achieve the same objectives. The Federal Transit Administration regularly asks transit agencies to do an analysis of the impact of service cuts to make sure they don't disproportionately affect low income and minority riders, and in this case, it's not unreasonable to think they would.

Just take a look at this map, which shows DC's racial makeup and density, and look again at which area is faced with taking on a large percentage of the proposed closures:

A map illustrating racial makeup and density in Washington DC. Each dot represents 25 people. Red dots represent white people, blue are black people, green are Asian, orange are Hispanic, yellow are "other." Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Metro can't close all these stations. It'd create a two-tiered transportation system in which 140,000 DC residents are cut off from heart of DC's economic, political and social life.


Is our next president going to care about transit and street safety?

What might a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency look like for transportation? Here's a roundup of what we know about their respective takes on getting around, from roads and bridges to bike lanes and sidewalks.

Hillary Clinton at a bike shop in Iowa. Photo by Hillary for America on Flickr.

Broadly speaking, both candidates say that US transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of attention and vow a massive increase in transportation spending. Hillary Clinton says she would increase funding by $275 billion over a five year period, paid for by means of a higher tax on corporations. Donald Trump says he will double that amount by tapping private investment and taking on more debt.

But opening a giant spigot of cash to fix US infrastructure is not necessarily a great idea. State transportation officials are notorious for spending most of their budgets on either new highways or on widening existing ones. Maintenance projects, which lack the visuals of ribbon cuttings beloved by politicians of all stripes, are relegated to a secondary status. As Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog notes:

Doubling federal transportation spending wouldn't solve this problem. Pumping billions of additional dollars into state DOTs without reforming the current system could actually make it worse—giving agencies license to spend lavishly on new projects that serve only to increase their massive maintenance backlogs
Unfortunately, neither candidate addresses this fundamental structural flaw. Both appear to view the main issue to be a lack of federal funding, when the real issue is how lawmakers spend the funding they get.

With Clinton, expect more road widenings

Hillary Clinton's talk in this last month unfortunately sounds like a plan that will focus on widening roads. Her website states that she "will make smart investments to improve our roads, reduce congestion, and slash the 'pothole tax' that drivers silently pay each and every day."

On the subject of transit, she plans to "lower transportation costs and unlock economic opportunity by expanding public transit options" and "encourage local governments to work with low-income communities to ensure unemployed and underemployed Americans are connected to good jobs."

Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

Clinton's website makes no mention of efforts to reengineer infrastructure for the safety of those who walk and bike. That's a key component of streets that are safe and promote more environmentally-friendly uses.

To Clinton, transit appears to be considered primarily a means for moving low-income workers around, with greater subsidies being the preferred means for boosting ridership. That attitude towards transit took hold in the 1960s and has held it back ever since.

A transportation outlook that holds roads so far above all other modes will fail, as road expansions in congested urban areas trigger induced demand that actually worsens congestion. This, in turn, triggers a vicious cycle with calls for more road expansions to relieve the new congestion. Even large departments of transportation like California's Caltrans admit this occurs. So, how did Hillary Clinton's campaign staff fail to catch this?

It may be because of who is in her inner circle. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is known to be a close friend of the Clintons, with the Washington Post describing him as being virtually part of the family. McAuliffe's transportation focus is primarily on highway expansions, with particular emphasis on HOT lanes. While he has gotten funding for rail projects, such as a light rail system in Virginia Beach, he has also claimed that HOT lanes can cure congestion. If this pro-road enthusiasm is prevalent in the Clinton camp, it is no shock that her agenda might be tilted towards roads.

Hillary Clinton does appear to be committed to reducing emissions that contribute to climate change. Reinforcing this perception is the commitment by Al Gore, perhaps the world's preeminent figure in the fight against global warming, to campaign on her behalf. However, her campaign site focuses on energy generation and lower emissions from vehicles. Neither transit nor walking and biking in urban areas are called out on her site's climate section. For Clinton, the focus is on tweaking sources to combat pollution, not shifting demand to lessen emissions.

Trump doesn't seem like a bike lane guy

Whereas Hillary Clinton's stance on sustainable transportation may leave something to be desired, Donald Trump's attitude can be downright hostile. In 2015, Trump criticized Secretary of State John Kerry for riding a bike, after a crash in which Kerry injured his leg. Trump vowed, "I swear to you I will never enter a bicycle race if I'm president."

Given the debates over bike lanes in New York City and the pedestrian-friendly changes in Times Square, you might have expected Trump to have said something on the matter. But if he has, the media hasn't picked it up.

However, his campaign manager, Stephen K. Bannon, has had very strong views on the matter of bike lanes. During his tenure at Breitbart News, Bannon ran a story on bike lanes in Chicago with the headline, "Rahm to Spend $91 Million on Bike Lanes for the 1%." Given this level of antagonism towards people who bike from such a close adviser, Donald Trump may not be a friend to cycling.

Donald Trump hosted a bike race in 1989 and 1990, but that's probably the extent of his familiarity with bicycling. Photo by Anders on Flickr.

By contrast, Trump supports improvements to passenger rail systems. The American Conservative's Center for Public Transportation explains this split from the traditionally anti-transit Republican Party as being due to Trump's long exposure to subways and commuter rail in his hometown of New York City.

Trump also admires Chinese intercity rail transportation. Time reported Trump saying during a freewheeling campaign speech, "They have trains that go 300 miles per hour…We have trains that go chug … chug … chug."

But Trump's admiration for rail transport may not reflect a desire for sustainability. Trump has consistently denied the science behind climate change, going so far as to call it a hoax by China. His motives for boosting rail are apparent in his effusive praise of large, new airports in China and Dubai.

As he has said repeatedly, "Our airports are like from a Third World country." As with airports, Trump views US rail systems as a source of embarrassment on the world stage. However, in the case of airports, he overlooked the tendency of modern airport planners to build on a gargantuan scale that makes them unusable, a trend I pointed out in 2012. Throwing cash at rail systems probably won't bring any more efficiency than it does for airports or roads.

Neither is exactly an urbanist, but could they get the right advisors?

Essentially, both candidates had questionable approaches to sustainable transportation, whether they are outdated or simply wasteful of taxpayer dollars. That is something that can be remedied if advisors are retained who are current with best practices in the field.

There is no shortage of these: Gabe Klein, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Chris Hamilton spring to mind as US experts worth consulting. Relying less on governors and website editors whose attitudes are frozen in the mid-20th century would be a sign of wise leadership, crucial for being President of the United States.

As to which candidate is more likely to change their approach, I leave that for others to speculate upon.


National links: Fair housing in Arizona

Arizona is cracking down on racial discrimination in housing, there's lots we don't know about how people get home from transit stations, and in Chicago, old pipes and telegraph lines at excavation sites may no longer be a problem. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by kmaschke on Flickr.

A win for fair housing: In Yuma, Arizona, developers can sue the city if they think reasons for blocking affordable housing projects are race-based, and the Supreme Court recently declined to hear arguments to overturn the decision that allows that. The case in question found that residents in a historically-white neighborhood were, in effect, organizing to keep Latinos from living nearby. (Arizona Daily Star)

The first last mile: Even if the trip isn't that far, lots of people have to figure out how to get between their homes and jobs to where their nearby transit network is running—this is called the first/last mile problem, and people in transportation talk about it all the time. But there's really not much research has on the subject. David King, a professor at Arizona State, says we need to know more about how much riders will tolerate fare changes, whether they're ok transferring, and how much people budget to cover the last portions of their trips. (Transportist)

Mapping Chicago's underground web: Underneath Chicago, long-forgotten wood pipes and telegraph lines make digging or tunneling an undertaking in bravery. But a 3D modeling company has created a way to map all of the underground pipes and wires so excavating a site is far less dangerous. (Chicago Magazine)

A subway in downtown Dallas: The Dallas City Council is supporting major transit projects downtown, including reorganizing the bus system and building a new subway line. This focus on the urban core means not prioritizing a suburban subway line that was competing for funds, which is a big shift for the council. (D Magazine)

A new approach in Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh hopes to add BRT and more bike lanes soon, and to better coordinate transportation projects between all of its departments, the city is opening a new Department of Mobility in Infrastructure. The hope is that the department will make it easier to make things like signal priority for buses and solar-powered autonomous vehicles happen. (Pittsburgh City Paper)

Quote of the Week

"'Suburbs feel the same everywhere you go. All the same streets. All the same trees. All the same houses. It's a way of living. I'm not saying it's bad. I enjoyed it.' ">Brooklyn, though, has character, he said—the parks, the architecture, the people, the shops. 'You walk to the stores, and you talk to the people there. He knows you, and you know him. Every place has a story behind it.'"

- Brooklyn Nets basketball player Luis Scola describes living in Brooklyn after the team moved there from New Jersey. He sold his minivan because he couldn't find parking often enough! (New York Times)


National links: Don't shame the transit riders

Uber took down some ads that shamed transit riders, Texas researchers are looking at how race, gender, and development intersect, and a new book explains that cities weren't always bastions for Democrats. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Anthony Easton on Flickr.

Uber's advertising effect: Uber and Lyft often have run ads that belittle transit riders. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently decided he'd had enough, calling Uber out for an anti-transit stance that he says promotes congestion and social stratification. Soon thereafter, an Uber executive saw to it that the ad came down. If ads like this keep running, Walker says, it signals a tacit agreement that we should starve cities of the transportation options they need and deserve. (Human Transit)

Race, gender, and the built environment: The University of Texas at Austin will launch a first-of-its-kind program to study the intersection of race, gender, city planning, and development. In this interview, Professors Anna Brand and Andrea Roberts discuss why they are keen to expand the definition of planning and preservation and how Austin is a great place to be thinking about these issues. (Metropolis Magazine)

How cities went blue: During the time of the US' founding, pretty much everyone in politics disliked cities, as they were seen as places of corruption and vice. But now, as cities are becoming more and more popular, cities have become a stronghold for Democrats. Read about the history of anti-urbanism and the move toward our current landscape in a review of Steven Conn's Americans Against the City. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

White House vs. parking: Last week's White House paper about why we need more housing and how cities can make it happen was the talk of the urbanism world. A major part was its push for less required parking, as parking drives up housing costs and stresses the transportation network. While the White House's toolkit has no teeth to enact reform, it is refreshing to see ideas like these from the top. (Wired)

Look Mom, no signals: The first Dutch-style unsignalized intersection in the United States just went in near the campus of Texas A&M University. The hope is that moving cyclists in front of car traffic at the intersections and painting the lanes green with solar luminescent paint will make vulnerable road users will be more visible, meaning drivers will be less likely to hit them. (Texas Transportation Institute)

Connecting Boston's 2 halves: Boston's commuter rail network is split in two: a north and a south half. Advocates have long been working to connect the two so the entire system functions more efficiently, but haven't had any luck. Now, there's a greater sense of urgency, as a plan to expand a key station would effectively kill hopes of a north-south rail link. Activists hope that building the connection will take precedent. (Boston Magazine)

A new ride hailing service in town

Since Uber and Lyft left Austin, new companies have filled the void. One of them is RideAustin, which is now one of the leading ride hailing providers in the city. Co-founder Andy Tryba sat down to talk about why they started the company, while Jerry, a driver for RideAustin, discussed the new city fingerprinting requirement. Check out what they had to say on Episode 7 of my show, Transit Trends:


Montgomery's new bus rapid transit system will make the county more equitable

By 2020, Montgomery County will have a working bus rapid transit system. The $67 million system should help clear up traffic congestion, but more importantly, it will promote promote social mobility, connect workers to jobs, and allow families to save hundreds on transportation.

BRT in Virginia. Photo by Dan Malouff

Background on Montgomery's BRT Plans

In 2013 the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed plans for an 82 Mile bus rapid transit network, and this March, County Executive Leggett committed to having Route 29 be the first BRT route in the county.

The idea is to create a new rapid transit system that would help alleviate congestion and increase economic development. The first phase of BRT will be along MD-355, US-29 and Veirs Mill Roadd corridors that intersect with key master plans or connect important transit hubs. MD-355 will be the site of some of the largest job expansion in the county (White Flint), while Veirs Mill Road connects the Rockville and Wheaton Metro stations (which sit on opposite ends of the system). Route 29 will also see large job expansion in White Oak.

Leggett plans to have the system in operation by 2020, and his choice of Route 29 as the first BRT corridor presents Montgomery the opportunity to bring real transit options to a part of the county that has none and to help diminish the county's east-west economic divide.

A draft of what the Route 29 BRT route will look like. Image from Montgomery County.

Here's why building this system will create a more equitable Montgomery:

BRT on Route 29 will help increase social mobility

Access to transportation has emerged as the single greatest indicator of someone's odds of escaping poverty—greater than the number of two parent households or the amount of crime in a community. Further studies have found that as sprawl increases social mobility decreases. This is particularly important on Route 29, where over 12% of households have no access to a vehicle. Digging deeper we see that many folks who live on the Route 29 corridor are also those who can least afford sprawl. 50% of renters on Route 29 earn under 50% of the area median income and a total of 30% of corridor households earn under 50% of AMI.

Further compounding the need for better transit access is Montgomery's uneven recovery from the recession. The Route 29 Corridor in particular was hit hard, median income fell 12% between 2009 and 2014, compare this to 1% in the Bethesda area.

Consider this stat: in 2000, none of the county's census tracts had more than an 18% poverty rate, now there are 12 census tracts exceeding that standard. Much of this new "suburbanization of poverty" is affecting communities in the east far more than those in the west—the Route 29 BRT could help equalize odds in a part of Montgomery that has not seen major transit investments.

BRT will help offset high rent costs

Perhaps nothing illustrates the need for affordable transportation on the Route 29 corridor than the number of residents who are rent-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent. Looking at data from the US Census we see that 43% of the corridor are renters, 60% of whom are rent burdened.

When you combine housing and transportation costs you see the heavy price of living in a car dependent area. Certain census tracts in Burtonsville show that the average household is spending 71% of their income on rent+housing. That leaves little left over for groceries, healthcare, or savings. The trend continues when looking at other communities along Route 29. In White Oak we see households spending 50% of their income on rent+housing costs, this compares with averages in transit accessible Downtown Silver Spring of 30%-35%. Providing a brt system on Route 29 will allow families to spend more money on essentials like food, and housing.

BRT will bring economic benefits

According to county research by 2040 the Route 29 BRT system will save 33,489 Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per weekday and an average annual savings of 9,711,752 VMT. Once in operation BRT will help contribute to $6.5 million in statewide annual income. It is also projected that the full build-out of phase one of BRT—MD-355, Veirs Mill Rd, Route 29—would bring in $871 million in net fiscal revenue to Montgomery County by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system will connect 16 shopping centers, nine federal offices, and 61,000 jobs lifting job opportunity scores which are as low as 25. Job growth in White Oak and Silver Spring alone is also projected to grow 80% by 2040. The Route 29 BRT system can help ensure this growth is equitable.

Building BRT along Route 29 is a chance for Montgomery to fulfill its progressive legacy

For decades Montgomery County has been a nationwide progressive leader on important policy issues, from inclusionary zoning program to environmental protection. Once again the county must be a bold progressive leader and build the Route 29 BRT system.

The burden of this past recession has fallen most heavily on the poor, and we have seen the high cost of poverty: forcing those who make the least to spend the most on simply living. During the recession, Montgomery County had the most significant increase in poverty of any jurisdiction in the DC region; from 2002-2016, poverty rose 59%.

Transportation determines who has access to what; there is no greater equalizer in creating opportunity than building transit. Increasing transit options in our suburbs is the next great civil rights battle, as inequality of mobility leads to inequality of opportunity. A BRT system will go a long way toward giving people chances to thrive in Montgomery County.


Why we don't have world class BRT in the US, explained with one picture

Bus rapid transit lines in the United States badly lag the world's most high-quality systems. This photo from Buenos Aires shows why: No US city is willing to dedicate so much street space to buses.

Buenos Aires BRT. Photo by exploreadorurbano on Instagram.

Count the lanes dedicated to the busway in that picture. Including the stations, medians, and bus lanes, it totals about eight lanes worth of traffic.

It takes that kind of dedication to fulfill BRT's promise of subway-like service and capacity. You need all the components: Multiple bus lanes including passing lanes, big stations physically separated from the sidewalk, unmistakable barriers between the busway and general traffic.

Can you imagine any US city dedicating eight lanes to buses on a single street? On most streets we couldn't do it even if we wanted to. K Street is 10 lanes wide including its medians, but Georgia Avenue and H Street are generally only six. 16th Street is five lanes at the max. Even if we completely banned cars from those streets, we'd lack the width to build Buenos Aires-style BRT.

Admittedly, Buenos Aires is an extreme example. This photo is from Avenida 9 de Julio, possibly the world's widest city street. Planners there had an incredible amount of space to work with. Bogota's famous TransMilenio BRT is probably a more instructive example; it takes more than five lanes.

Five lanes is physically possible on many US city streets, including in DC. But physically possible and politically practical are vastly different standards.

We wouldn't want to anyway

Even if cities in the United States had both the physical space and political will to dedicate five-to-eight lanes to buses, there would be big trade-offs in doing so.

Streets that are too wide or have too-fast-moving traffic are hard for pedestrians to cross, and thus create barriers that can destroy a city's walkability.

Bogota's awesome five lane busways are practically highways, accounting for the several lanes of car traffic on either side. And like highways, they're very good at moving vehicles and very hostile to pedestrians.

About the only way to make such a wide busway work on a city street without creating a highway would be to dedicate the entire street to transit, and not have car lanes on either side at all. Some US cities do have transit-only streets, so that may well be possible. But it would be different than South America's model.

Arlington's narrower Crystal City busway. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Smaller busways make sense for the US

None of this is to say that BRT in the United States is hopeless. It's absolutely possible to build a solid and useful BRT line without quite that much street width. They just won't be comparable to a subway in speed or capacity without passing lanes and gargantuan stations.

But who says they need to be?

Narrower busways like in Arlington and Ontario still offer tremendous advantages over running buses in mixed traffic. They speed up buses a lot, and are vastly more practical when retrofitting existing streets.

And while it's true that North American-style busways can never have such high capacity as South American ones, well, that's what rail is for.

It would be silly to insist one mode, any mode, must on its own accomplish all a city's needs. Smart planning matches the need to the corridor, and is flexible enough to use the right mode, and the right street design, on every corridor, given the specific issues of that location.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


There’s no place like… the Ballston Metro station

I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I'm an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It's a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.

Image by the author.

With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station's official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA's 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston's status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.

As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.

However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro's planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.

Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.

As the western end of this new "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor," Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University's "Blue Goose" building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.

The station was originally designated as "Glebe Road" in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe's intersection with Fairfax Drive.

The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn't ideal

Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.

Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.

(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)

Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.

When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.

Development from the 1980s onward

Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Plans for the "Ballston Metro Center" complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro's first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.

Ballston Metro Center entrance from the station escalator. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.

Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington's new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.

The Ballston neighborhood today. Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I'm proud to call it my home station.

Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?


So you've got a friend in town and they're really into trains. Here's where to take them.

Last year, we published lists of toys you could give to a young train buff and places you could take them to visit. But what about the railfans who are all grown up? Where are the best places to take adult friends to hang out, do some train spotting, and learn some rail history?

The Dew Drop Inn. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Restaurants and bars are a good start

Payton Chung suggests a few places in DC to check out. The Dew Drop Inn, located in the Edgewood neighborhood near Brookland, is named for a number of "Dew Drop Inns" across America. Housed in a rustic stone industrial building that was used as a workspace for stonemasons and metal workers, you can get a great view of the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations when you're hanging out on the porch.

Along the H Street corridor, there's Maketto, a communal marketplace that's made up of two buildings with a courtyard, roof deck, and a catwalk that connects the spaces together. The catwalk has retail, a Cambodian/Taiwanese restaurant, and a café and bakery on the second floor where you can get a great view of the DC Streetcar.

In Maryland, Julie Lawson says to check out Lotus Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant located in Downtown Silver Spring at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Sligo Avenue that overlooks the CSX, MARC, and WMATA tracks as they cross over Georgia Avenue. She says her son "loves to watch the trains there so I would assume grownup railfans might enjoy it for dinner too."

The view from Lotus Cafe. Image from Google Maps.

A short walk from Lotus Cafe, there's Denizens Brewing Company, located on East-West Highway on the opposite side of Georgia Avenue near the rail overpass. Dan Reed mentions that the place as an appropriately-named beer called "Trainspotting".

Walk around and explore

If you live near a rail line and feel like doing a little bit of exploring, a simple walk around is always a best bet.

Jonathan Neeley says there's plenty to see in his neighborhood, Brookland:

I like going on walks, and a lot of my friends do too, so I'd probably go with something simple like being sure to walk over the Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street bridges by my house, where you can watch trains come and go from far away. I'd probably also take them on a ride on the Red Line between Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring just to see the graffiti.

Looking south from the Taylor Street bridge. Photo by Jonathan Neeley

The Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society has a list of "railfan hotspots" located within two hours of the beltway that have a lot of rail activity and history.

One of these hotspots is Long Bridge Park in Arlington, which has an extensive railroad history and a name that's a reference to the railroad bridge connecting Washington with Northern Virginia. Chris Slatt mentions that the esplanade is a "top notch spot for viewing CSX freight trains, Amtrak trains, and VRE trains."

The esplanade at Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Chris Slatt.

Another hotspot, this one suggested by Canaan Merchant, is Burke Lake Park in Fairfax County. The park has an attraction that young railfans, and even some grown ups, can enjoy. The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine is a new version of the original one-third scale replica that makes the rounds on its own narrow gauge 1.75 mile track.

The Miniature Central Pacific Huntington Steam Engine at Burke Lake Park. Photo by Fairfax County Department of Parks.

David Cranor adds "there are several rail trails in the area, but the W&OD really does the best job of celebrating that. There are old train cars set up along it and lots of historical information/markers about the railroad too." Payton also mentions that "a ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail is also a good option; it even parallels the Acela tracks for a bit."

Our region also has quite a few museums and other attractions around that are good bets for taking train aficionados or folks who just want to learn more.

Canaan points us to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in its namesake location in Fairfax County. This museum has displays, activities, and events that help preserve local history and promote railroading—even "a couple of cars you can go inside." The station itself played a critical role in the American Civil War as an important supply and medical evacuation site where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, assisted in relief and evacuation efforts during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The National Museum of American History in DC and the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville in Montgomery County are also great options for railfans who want to learn more history.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture will have an exhibit dedicated to transportation and race, exploring how Jim Crow laws affected streetcar and railroad travel, as well as the history of Pullman porters and railroaders behind the scenes.

Are there any other places in the area you know of that would be good spots to take a railfan? Let us know in the comments.

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