The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Virginia


WMATA is considering scrapping the Metroway BRT

Ridership on Metroway, the BRT route that runs from Braddock Road to Pentagon City, has been climbing since the service started in 2014. Yet WMATA is still considering shutting it down to save money. That'd negate years of planning and construction and sour public opinion on transit.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In 2014, WMATA introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) service called Metroway, whose MW1 line runs between Braddock Road in Alexandria and Crystal City in Arlington. As our region's only BRT, Metroway runs in its own lane parallel to Route 1; its ability to skip traffic makes it a reliable transportation option.

Metroway ridership has been growing since it first opened. WMATA's 9S bus, which it replaced, had a daily ridership of 1,091 in its final year running. But by June 2015, Metroway ridership was at about 1,400 people per day, and as ridership grew, Metroway expanded it's service to the Pentagon City Metro station.

Image from the City of Alexandria.

At the heart of the MW1 route (which remains Metroway's only line) is Potomac Yard, a former 295-acre rail yard, which used to be on EPA's list of hazardous sites but has been growing into a great example of transit-oriented development (TOD) over the past decade. As large apartment buildings in Potomac Yard have gone up, so has the number of people riding Metroway.

In 2016, Metroway saw a roughly 50% increase in ridership over the same months in 2015. In June of 2016, the average daily ridership topped 2,000 for the first time.

Metroway is quite cheap compared to other WMATA concerns

Last week, WMATA released several radical ideas to close the gap between its operating budget and allocated funds for Fiscal Year 2018.Included in a collection of ideas to save $10 million on bus service was eliminating 20 bus routes that WMATA has to subsidize because fares don't cover costs. In Metroway's case, WMATA pays $3.5 million extra per year to run the service, which is nearly three times the amount of money the 20 routes averaged together.

To put that in perspective, WMATA projects a budget gap of $275 million for FY 2018, and that number is likely to grow in the future. While we typically talk about rail in terms of decades and in magnitudes of billions of dollars, BRT offers options for smaller areas at a fraction of the cost-- a $3.5 million compared to hundreds of millions, for example-- and time.

For instance, the Silver Line was part of the original Metro planning during the 1960s, and the construction cost for Phase II alone is $3 billion. The Potomac Yard Metro Station also has roots dating back to the original Metro planning, was in various forms of development beginning in the early 90's, and will be complete in 2020 at an estimated cost of $268 million.

On the other hand, the time between the completing the conceptual design for the Metroway BRT Route and the grand opening was only 41 months at a cost of only $42 million for construction.

Beyond that, Metroway is just getting started. Why cut it off now?

Metroway has a growing ridership, as it serves an area that's growing. In fact, it has far more riders than the other 19 bus lines proposed for elimination, with the average ridership among the others being less than 500 riders per day. Only one other route, Oxon Hill-Fort Washington, has more than 1,000 riders per day.

Also, recent numbers Metro used to evaluate Metroway for its recent budget report were distorted: During SafeTrack surges 3 and 4 in July, anyone transferring from Metro was allowed to ride Metroway for free, which pushed ridership from being over 2,000 paying customers per day down to around 1,300. The next month, though, ridership was back over 2,000.

If Metroway stays around, ridership will grow and Metro will come closer and closer to breaking even on Metroway. With the next wave of development starting to kick off in the north end of Potomac Yard and Oakville Triangle, even more potential riders will have a chance to use the service..

That brings up another point: Metroway has come on board to serve the TOD of Potomac Yard. Eliminating the line would add more congestion to the Route 1 corridor, defeating the purpose of TOD. It could also drive up automobile ownership among residents who relied on the system.

Also, WMATA has already invested in the infrastructure needed to run BRT, and while it was far cheaper than a rail project, it's still a lot to simply throw away. The years of planning and construction are in place, which represent a cost 12 times greater than the annual subsidy, which should decrease as development continues. Shutting down these lanes would be another black eye for WMATA.

Finally, residents' opinion of BRT matters, as other jurisdictions begin to develop their own systems. Montgomery County is planning a 14 mile stretch along Route 29 that is part of a larger 80 mile system. Eliminating this line would sour the public opinion and possibly derail other local jurisdictions from developing their own.

As WMATA continues to face ridership declines from what it calls "poor service quality and high profile disruptions and safety incidents" that plague the rest of their system, it would be foolish to cut this growing asset.


Marriott is moving its headquarters to downtown Bethesda so it can be in a denser place that's closer to transit

Marriott International, a major local employer and national hotelier, is making an "in-town" move, relocating its headquarters from North Bethesda to downtown Bethesda. That sends an important message: walkable urban places and proximity to transit, specifically Metro but also the coming Purple Line, are economically crucial.

Photo by José Carlos Cortizo Pérez on Flickr.

Marriott International announced in March of 2015 that it would not be renewing the lease on its current Fernwood Road headquarters, inside the I-270 spur at the Beltway. According to Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, it was "essential that we be accessible to Metro."

Today, Marriott International announced that it's moving to downtown Bethesda.

"It'll be great to have a more convenient option for public transportation," said a current Marriott employee who asked to remain anonymous. "Proximity to restaurants and shops is a great plus as well. Now we're next door to a mall, but it's good to have different options."

Younger workers want travel and lifestyle options, and Marriott's relocation is about competing for this workforce talent. It's worth noting that Marriott competitor Choice Hotels (think Comfort Inn) is also headquartered in Montgomery County, in an office building across the street from Rockville Metro.

Marriott International's current headquarters in a North Bethesda office park. Image from Google Maps.

Back when Marriott announced its coming move, Maryland, DC, and Virginia instantly went into battle mode over the $17 billion corporation, which the Washington Business Journal called "the hottest corporate relocation prospect currently in the market" because of its 2,000+ employees and its need for hundreds of thousands of square feet of premium office space.

With sequestration and base closures tightening the office market, developers were ready to fight for a big client. Regional elected leaders vowed to compete as well (though more voices are speaking up for regional cooperation, instead of a race to the bottom).

Marriott isn't the first company to want a move like this

In looking to relocate near Metro, the hotel giant is in step with a bigger trend. Suburban office parks all over our region are losing tenants to walkable urban places. Prior to Marriott's announcement, the company's current neighborhood office market in North Bethesda already had a vacancy rate of 19%.

The Marriott relocation will happen when the company's current lease ends in 2022. If that date sounds familiar, it's because it's the year Purple Line service is planned to begin! That powerful vibration you just felt is the synergy between economic development, land use, and transportation aligning in downtown Bethesda.

The exact site is still a mystery. The planned redevelopment of the Apex Building to make way for the Purple Line station only includes about half of the office space square footage that Marriott is looking for—and Marriott also wants to build a 200+ room hotel. We'll have to stay tuned for exactly where Marriott will go and how they'll find all that space in an already-dense urban place.

Virginia and Prince George's County probably never had a chance, given that Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson lives in Somerset—and CEO commute distance is a noted predictor of firm location. In that regard, today is not the big win for greater regional cooperation and jobs/housing balance that some hoped for.


Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

Central cities are booming all over the US as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn't confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.

Frederick photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city.

Hagerstown photo by J Brew on Flickr.

Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown's solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC.

Cumberland photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh.

Annapolis photo by Charlie Stinchcomb on Flickr.

Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.

Winchester Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia.

Charlottsville photo by Ben G on Flickr.

Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville's pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester's, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson's famous Lawn.

Staunton photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville's academic village.

Fredericksburg photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river.

York photo by Joseph on Flickr.

York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road.

Gettysburg photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked.

Not enough? Don't miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper's Ferry, and many more.

To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington) and any city close enough to DC be accessible via Metro (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

We first ran this post about two years ago, but we wanted to share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


In a week, Reston and Tysons will have Capital Bikeshare!

Capital Bikeshare is coming to Fairfax County. On October 21st, 15 stations will open in Reston and 14 will open in Tysons Corner. Between the two areas, there will be about 200 bikes.

Photo by James Schwartz on Flickr.

An announcement that these stations were coming came out last fall, and in January, Fairfax County finalized the necessary funding to move forward.

Installation has begun already with many stations installed already and waiting for bikes.

CaBi started in DC and Arlington in 2010 and has become a transportation success story across the country. The system has consistently grown since it's initial roll-out of around 50 stations in central Washington and Arlington. Fairfax joins Montgomery County and the city of Alexandria as local governments who have helped expand the system through the region.

Reston is a natural spot for bike sharing in Fairfax. The community is one of the more bike-friendly areas of the county, with an extensive network of paths. The anchor is the W&OD Trail, which by the Wiehle Metro Station and the popular (and growing) Reston Town Center.

A map of the stations coming to Reston. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Tysons is the county's business hub (it's even got a rush hour at lunch time!), and CaBi's arrival will be another step in making the area less car-dependent and more like a bustling downtown with lots of transportation options. The hope is that CaBi can help bolster the county's pedestrian and bicycle improvements coming to the area.

A map of the stations coming to Tysons. Click for a larger version. Map from Capital Bikeshare.

Fairfax County officials plan on holding a ribbon cutting event for the system at both Reston and Tysons on October 21. They will dedicate the stations at Reston and then at Tysons a few hours later.

While these stations will be the farthest afield from the system's core, there are connections coming: Falls Church wants its first stations ready to go sometime in 2017, and the system has been steadily growing outward since its inception.

Who knows; maybe in a few years it will be possible to ride from one end of the W&OD trail to other and avoid the extra time charge by switching bikes along the length of the route.

Public Spaces

The difference between Maryland and Virginia in one photo

If you've ever flown out of National Airport, you might try to pick out the geographic landmarks you recognize: the Washington Monument, Rock Creek Park, or the Potomac River. Next time you're heading west, keep an eye on the river as it passes through Maryland and Virginia, and you'll notice one big difference between each state.

Virginia sprawl on the left, Maryland farms on the right. Photos by the author.

This is a photo I took Sunday morning when I flew to San Francisco. On the Virginia side, in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, there are all the typical signs of suburban sprawl: subdivisions, freeways, and shopping centers. On the Maryland side, in Montgomery County, there's...not very much.

That's because for over fifty years, Montgomery County has aggressively tried to protect its open space. In 1964, the county's General Plan said that growth should cluster along major highway and rail corridors leading from the District, and that the spaces in between should be preserved.

In 1980, the county made it official with the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, which covers one-third of the county will remain farmland and nature forever. (Combine that with the county's 34,000-acre park system, and nearly half of the county is open space.)

That decision has lasting effects today. Montgomery County residents benefit from an abundance of open space for recreation, enjoying nature, and of course, keeping our air and water clean.

In order to preserve this open space, we have to accommodate growth elsewhere in the county, particularly in our town centers like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville. People who try to stop development in their close-in communities may not feel they benefit from open space 30 miles away. But the urban and suburban parts of our region benefit from the Ag Reserve too.

Allowing inside-the-Beltway communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring to grow lets us preserve open space.

Maryland has an abundance of green space thanks to dense urban development

By focusing growth and investment in existing communities, we get thriving downtowns that support local businesses and local culture, and less traffic as people who live closer in can drive less or not at all. We also spend less money building public infrastructure, like roads and utility lines, to far-flung areas, while generating tax revenue to support the infrastructure we do need. (And obviously, those places can and will have open space.)

This is the path Maryland, and Montgomery County, chose over 50 years ago. So far, it's working pretty well. And you don't have to get in a plane to see it.


Whether you're traveling from Virginia or Maryland, Capital Bikeshare isn't just for short trips

People often rely on Capital Bikeshare for short, local trips. But not always; lots of times, they use the system to travel a little farther. These graphs show how often people use Capital Bikeshare to go between different groups of stations in the region and where exactly they travel to and from.

A Capital Bikeshare station in Montgomery County. Photo by author.

When Capital Bikeshare first came to our region, the vast majority of stations were in DC and a few were in Arlington. As the system has expanded, so have options for traveling between places.

I wanted to analyze bikeshare trips between counties, cities, and the District, as well as trips within different parts of the same county but still outside of DC. To do this, I divided Montgomery County and Arlington County into what I'm calling geographic clusters: Rockville, Silver Spring/Takoma Park, and Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights for Montgomery County, and North and South Arlington County, with Arlington Boulevard being the dividing line. Then I looked at CaBi trips from between September 2013 and May 2016.

This graph shows how many trips from each of those clusters ended in another one:

All graphs by the author. Click for a larger version.

As you can see, the places closest to DC are the ones from which people take the most trips between clusters; about 36% of trips in North Arlington and 35% of trips in Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights end somewhere else, while only 1% of trips in Rockville end outside of Rockville. Among all the clusters outside of DC, approximately 30% of trips go from one to another.

A closer look shows that most of the trips from one cluster to another are trips to DC, but not all. For instance, 9% of the trips that begin in South Arlington are between clusters but do not end in DC.

Click for a larger version.

This graph shows where, exactly, most bikeshare users go from various clusters:

Click for a larger version.

Further examination of South Arlington shows that approximately 71% of the trips there are local, 20% end in DC, 4.5% end in Alexandria, and 4.5% end in North Arlington. Also notice that nearly 8% of trips starting in Alexandria and 4% of trips in North Arlington end in South Arlington. As an area that is adjacent to clusters that use bicycle share, South Arlington sees more bikeshare activity.

Similar to the dense bikeshare system in DC, bikeshare outside of DC serves mostly local trips. But that doesn't mean bikeshare doesn't have a regional value, as nearly a third of trips system-wide are between clusters. As bikeshare continues to expand in the region, municipalities, especially those near other places with bikeshare, like Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, or Langley Park, would see an increase in ridership if bikeshare users could access the regional system.

This data only shows individual trips and doesn't show the length of time of trips or whether the user has a causal or annual membership. Exploring this information, as well as specific bikeshare travel patterns in more suburban areas, would tell us more about how bikeshare fits in both the local and regional transportation system.


Did you know that Ballston used to be the last stop on the Orange Line?

Only two stations with side platforms, rather than a single island platform in between the tracks, have ever served as the end station of a Metro line: Dupont Circle and Ballston. Here's how we think it worked at Ballston.

Ballston, a side-platformed (former) terminus. Photo by OR_MarLo on Flickr.

Between Ballston station's opening in 1979 and the extension to Vienna in 1986, it was the terminus of the Orange Line. Because, like most other stations in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, Ballston was designed with side platforms in order to minimize disruption to the streetscape above during the cut-and-cover construction, this presented a fairly unique challenge for managing passenger flow.

The only other side-platformed terminus in WMATA history was Dupont Circle, which operated as the western terminus of the Red Line for almost five years, from it's opening in January 1977 until the extension to Van Ness in December 1981. That station had to be built with side platforms because the Red Line's tracks were constructed in a single large-bore tube between Farragut North and Woodley Park, making it difficult to fit an island platform between them at Dupont.

Ballston's platform and track layout. Graphic by the author.

As Metro expert Matt Johnson explained in a very detailed 2014 post on the logic behind Metrorail platform layouts, island platform stations function much better as terminals than side platform stations. When a terminal has an island platform and a track crossover on the inbound side, trains can stop on either track, discharge and board their passengers, and then leave on the "correct" track to head back to the city.

At a terminal where trains service both side platforms, however, a train would have to berth at one platform, move beyond the station to switch tracks, and then turn around to service the opposite platform - a very time-consuming and inefficient method. It's possible for a side platform station to avoid this problem by only utilizing one platform for both alighting and departing, but this severely limits the capacity of the terminus.

Building island platforms at terminals also makes sense from a passenger flow standpoint. At a side platform terminal station where inbound trains might depart from either track, passengers will congregate on the "tuning fork" mezzanine to wait for a train to arrive rather than waiting down on the platform, as we saw occur at Ballston during the first Safetrack surge back in June.

When a terminal station has an island platform, the passengers feel safe waiting on the platform because they know that they can board a train no matter which track it arrives on.

"Tuning fork" mezzanine at Ballston. Photo by the author.

Although building a terminal without an island platform is not ideal, Ballston seemed to function well as a side platform terminal for over six years. Matt Johnson believes that this was accomplished by only using one platform at Ballston—a method that would have limited Ballston's capacity as a terminus (as mentioned above), but which would have been tenable because Metro would have been running far fewer trains during its early years of operation.

Under this method of operation, what is now Ballston's outbound or "westbound" (Vienna/Wiehle-bound) track and its corresponding platform would not be used in regular service. Instead, a train approaching Ballston from Virginia Square would cross over to the "inbound" track at the switch just east of the station, before berthing on the inbound (now the New Carrollton/Largo Town Center-bound) platform. Passengers would board and alight the train on this platform while the operator changed cabs, then the train would leave the station in the direction of downtown, leaving the platform open for the next train to service.

Conjectural terminal operations at Ballston, with the outbound track in red. Graphic by the author.

Today, the only vestige of Ballston's time as a terminus is the "terminal supervisor's booth," located underneath the mezzanine on the inbound platform. The booth is made of inexpensive and easy-to-assemble materials, because Ballston was only planned to function as a terminus for a short time, although it still appears to be staffed. Permanent booths made of concrete are typically constructed at stations that are planned to function as terminals for an extended amount of time, such as this booth at the end of the platform at Silver Spring station.

Terminal supervisor's booth at Ballston. Photo by the author.
Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City