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Transit


This map shows how easy it is to take transit to work

We spend a lot of time praising neighborhood walkability and proximity to transit. But how valuable is the ability to walk to the grocery store if residents still need to drive a long distance to get to work?


A map of "Opportunity Score" values from Redfin for the DC area, with county boundaries added by the contributor. Scores are based on the number of jobs paying $40,000/year or more accessible by a transit commute of less than half an hour from a given point.

The real-estate company Redfin recently released an online tool called "Opportunity Score" that lets you explore the number of jobs that are accessible by transit from any address in a number of metro areas, including DC.

For any address in an area that the tool covers, the tool can calculate a numerical score between zero (least transit-accessible jobs) and one hundred (most transit accessible jobs). Alternatively, by searching for a metro area without a specific address, you can see a color-coded map of the numerical scores throughout the region, where green corresponds to the highest scores and red to the lowest.

The Transit Score map for the DC area reveals some interesting, if not entirely surprising, patterns. Thanks to Metro and good bus service, nearly everywhere within DC, Arlington, and Alexandria has good transit access to jobs.

Some places farther out are similar: several areas in Fairfax County (particularly in the vicinities of Tysons and Reston) and a large part of Montgomery County (in Silver Spring and along the Wisconsin Avenue-Rockville Pike corridor) have very good access to jobs.

In Prince George's County, however, things are quite different. The relative lack of high-paying jobs in the county and the low density around most of its Metro stations, along with more limited bus service, result in there being very few areas in the county where it is possible to commute to many jobs by transit in under thirty minutes.

Notably, the Prince George's County section of the Purple Line will connect a number of areas with low access to jobs to the employment centers in Bethesda and Silver Spring. However, this will serve only a very small portion of the county. Better bus service as well as increasing density in the more transit-accessible parts of the county are also essential to scaling back the car-dependence of commutes in Prince George's.

The tool might not be as useful for some as it is others

It is worth noting that Opportunity Score, which is based on Redfin's Walk Score tool, has a couple of notable limitations. The list of jobs only includes ones that pay over $40,000/year, so it doesn't tell you anything about the commutes to low-paying jobs (and people with those jobs are particularly likely to use transit).

It also considers some commuting options that only run at rush hour (i.e., I could take the Camden Line from my apartment in College Park, but it only runs at rush hour, so it doesn't do me much good if I have a night shift job, for example).

Most jobs that pay over $40,000 do follow the usual 9-to-5, though, so the fact that some of the transit considered is rush-hour-only will matter less to people looking for those jobs than to service workers looking for lower-paying jobs, but who will need to commute at less standard hours.

Politics


Is Tim Kaine a good pick for urbanism? Here's what our writers think.

Tim Kaine is the Democratic candidate for Vice President. Currently one of Virginia's US senators, Kaine was the state's governor from 2006-2010, and its lieutenant governor for the four years before that. We asked our contributors what Kaine has done for and against urbanism.

Kaine was a mayor, so he should understand cities

David Cranor said,

Kaine wasn't just a senator and a governor. He was the mayor or Richmond, which, while not DC, is a pretty big city. If elected, Kaine be only the second VP ever who had previously been a mayor, and he will be the first former mayor of a major American city—Calvin Coolidge was Mayor of Northhampton, Massachusetts New Hampshire which is very nice, but not urban.

No former mayor of a city as large as Richmond has ever been elected to either president or VP. Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, but it was about 33% smaller than Richmond was when Kaine was mayor. So, more than maybe anyone to ever gets this far, he knows about city leadership, municipal government and the problems of urban areas. I think DC could only benefit from a VP (or a president) with an urban sensibility.

But... Sarah Palin was a mayor too, so it's not magic.

Also, Virginia and Maryland's congressional delegation often opposes DC Statehood (or home rule really) even when politically they might not, because DC having the ability to pass a commuter tax is something they think would be harmful to their states. To Kaine's credit he supports it despite this risk to his own constituents. That's not necessarily an urban thing, but it shows support for DC.

Kaine has a lot of experience in housing

Joanne Pierce pointed out,

Kaine was on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Virginia from 1986-1994 and 2011-2013, starting before he got into local politics.

He helped represent HOME against Nationwide Insurance, which had labeled minority neighborhoods as undesirable and pulled its agents from those areas. He also helped represent HOME against General Services Corp, which made apartment brochures that featured more white people and lacked equal housing logos and language. Staff members testified that company management talked to them about how to deter black people from renting in their properties.

Soon after the Nationwide Insurance case he was elected to city council.

Jeff Lemieux directed us toward Vox's Matt Yglesias' write-up on Kaine, which said:
Before Tim Kaine was a senator or a governor or a lieutenant governor or a mayor, he was a lawyer. A lawyer whose very first case was a pro bono assignment representing an African-American woman who'd been turned away from an apartment. The landlord told her it had already been claimed when she stopped by and said she wanted to look at it. She was suspicious and had a colleague call back later that day, and the landlord said it was still available.

Kaine won the case and began specializing in fair-housing issues as a lawyer.

Kaine retained his interest in the subject as he entered politics, winning a $100 million jury verdict against Nationwide for discriminatory lending practices as mayor of Richmond. In the Senate, he's continued to champion fair-housing issues even though it's an issue that doesn't exactly have a ton of appeal to swing voters or well-connected lobbyists.

With Kaine as vice president in the Clinton administration, people worried about housing discrimination will always have an open lane to the president.

Kaine on transit, the environment, and more

Canaan Merchant noted that Kaine had a big impact on transit in our region:

As governor, he was largely responsible for building the Silver Line above ground in Tysons, which happened because the Feds would have walked away otherwise. So he can take a a good deal of credit for the Silver Line but it's also unfortunate that the climate was such that the line could only be done in a way that may be a hindrance to other elements in Tysons transformation.
Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, pointed us toward a Facebook post from Danny Paugher of Virginians for High Speed Rail:
Under Kaine, Virginia launched two Amtrak Regional trains, one to Lynchburg and a 2nd to Richmond which would be extended to Norfolk. Virginia has 4 of the top 6 best performing Regional routes in Amtrak's entire network thanks to his vision and leadership.
Miles Grant said he's thankful for a small change Kaine helped push through:
I'd include Kaine's strong support for Virginia's bar/restaurant smoking ban as a big public health win. I thought it would take years, then Kaine personally jumped in, helped reach a deal with Speaker Howell, and it was done in no time. He gets little credit because it's one of those progressive wins that, once it's in place, everyone loves it and assumes it was always that way.
Julie Lawson isn't so sure about Kaine's environmental record:
In the vein of climate and environmental protection, he has not been great on offshore drilling. In 2006, as governor, he vetoed a bill to end a moratorium on offshore drilling. But as senator he was quite supportive of it, including introducing legislation to expand exploration in 2013. This statement on the issue from his Senate site is written in a tone that does make me think he considers a variety of stakeholders and is open to rethinking his positions with compelling reasons.
Joanne pointed us toward CityLab's article on Kaine's urbanist contributions:
I'm interested interested to learn that Kaine preserved farmland from development. Under the rules, the money is used to buy the rights to develop on farmland for the purpose of not developing at all, preserving the land and helping the working farms. Kaine also preserved roughly 424,000 acres of land to be set aside for conservation and public recreation.

"Along the lines of what Julie said about considering a variety of stakeholders," Joanne said, "it looks like Kaine is an urbanist who also takes into consideration the benefit of land as a public resource. He seems to take a balanced approach to development."

Finally, David Edmondson pointed out that Kaine "got a thumbs-up from Jeff Speck on Twitter, which should count for something:"

Jeff Speck is referring to regulations that said residential subdivisions couldn't be composed of only culs de sac, which are often an inefficient use of public resources and which cut down on how connected areas are. Kaine supported that change. Unfortunately, the Virginia's transportation board rolled back the regulation two years after it passed.

Schwartz expanded on Jeff Speck's input by adding:

Governor Kaine and the Republican House leadership also worked together on other measures to link land use and transportation. The 2007 omnibus transportation bill not only included the connectivity requirements for subdivisions but a requirement that localities identify urban development areas, or "UDA's." Both parties recognized that spread out development imposed significant transportation costs to the state and sought to promote more compact development. Unfortunately, like subdivision street connection standards, UDA's were weakened a few years later when they were made voluntary, instead of mandatory.

Bicycling


Arlington's Fort Myer will soon be much more bike and pedestrian friendly

On August 1st, a long-closed gate at an Arlington military base will re-open for pedestrians and cyclists. The change will make it so you no longer have to take a huge detour to leave that part of the base, meaning travel by walking or riding a bike will be much more appealing.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, pictured in 2012. Image from Mobility Lab/Google Maps.

Located at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall (JBMHH) and known as Henry Gate because the road it sits on becomes Henry Place once it enters the base, the gate is where Arlington Boulevard (US-50) meets North Pershing Drive. The change comes as a result of recommendations from a study by Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation Partners.

Pershing is popular amongst both drivers and cyclists, running east-west through the quiet neighborhoods of Lyon Park, Ashton Heights, and Buckingham. Pershing is scheduled to receive bike improvements in the near future, and the stretch near the intersection with Arlington Boulevard already features bike lanes and a recently-completed mixed-use development called The Shops at Pershing.

On the other side of the fence, the barracks located just behind Henry Gate house hundreds of young soldiers, many of whom do not have easy access to cars and could really put transit, bike, and pedestrian networks to use. Nearby, there's a CaBi station, a Metrobus stop, Zipcars, and the Arlington Boulevard Trail.

However, because Henry Gate has been closed since 9/11 as part of a wave of increased security, the soldiers in these barracks have to live within yards of these amenities without being able to easily reach by any way other than driving. A base resident would have to walk 33 minutes and 1.6 miles out of their way to reach them without a car, utilizing the main gate at 2nd Street South.


Detour that pedestrians and cyclists would have to take to reach The Shops at Pershing due to Henry Gate's closure. Image from Google Maps.

However, that's all about to change thanks to Mobility Lab and Arlington Transit Transportation. After surveying 467 residents and people who work at JBMHH, ATP found that 88 percent of the commuting population drives to work alone. Once the surveyors solicited ideas from participants on how to combat this issue, the idea to reopen Henry Gate to pedestrians and cyclists caught on with base officials.

After numerous meetings between Mobility Lab/ATP and JBMHH staff, Henry Gate is finally scheduled to reopen on August 1st. The new access point will only be open to pedestrians and cyclists, giving them a convenient way to access the amenities located directly outside the gate and connecting them to the wider transit network via the Metrobus stop and bike trail.

Additionally, keeping the gate closed to cars will ensure that there won't be any new congestion along Arlington Boulevard or Pershing as a result of this decision. It's an incredibly welcome improvement for bike and pedestrian access to one of the county's most expansive military installations.


The Henry Gate pedestrian entrance, the adjacent Metrobus stop, and newly-improved Arlington Boulevard Trail. Image from Google Maps.

A few other recommendations for improving access to Fort Myer for people who don't drive came of Mobility Lab and ATP's survey. For instance, because the vast majority of work trips to JBMHH are made at the same time, the study recommended making employees more aware of carpooling and vanpooling through a service like Commuter Connections.

Also, in conjunction with the reopening of Henry Gate, the base hopes to create a "geofence"—a set pickup location across the street from the gate—where taxi, Uber, and Lyft drivers can pick up and drop off passengers without having to physically drive onto the base, which is currently seen as an inconvenient option due to heightened security measures.

Improving pedestrian and bike access for the soldiers that live at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is certainly a noble goal. But reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips to JBMHH (and thereby reducing congestion) will not only benefit the base's residents and workers, but also Arlington County as a whole. See Mobility Lab and ATP's full presentation on their JBMHH Transportation Survey here.

Transit


Is a gondola across the Potomac realistic? We're about to find out.

Is it a crazy idea to link Georgetown and Rosslyn by building a gondola over the Potomac? We're about to find out. A study of the idea has begun in earnest, and by the fall we should know more about whether building one is possible and how many people might use it.


Could the iconic Key Bridge get a new neighbor? Images from the Georgetown BID unless otherwise noted.

Here's what we know about the gondola thus far

The notion of an aerial gondola system linking Georgetown and Rosslyn first came to light in the Georgetown BID's 15 year action plan, which was published in 2013.

In theory, a gondola could pick up passengers right at the Rosslyn Metro (even, some have speculated, with elevators right from the Metro station) and take them to spots on M Street and on Georgetown University.

Because the topography is very steep in this area (for example, there's a big change in altitude between M Street and the university), a gondola might be able to offer more direct trips than even one on a roadway.

According to proponents, a gondola could quickly and cheaply provide transit instead of waiting for a Metro line to link Georgetown and Rosslyn, which is likely decades away from happening (if ever).

A gondola system can also accommodate a high capacity of passengers with efficient headways (more than 3,000 passengers per hour, per direction) and efficient travel time (approximately four minutes end-to-end).

Gondolas are a real transit mode in many cities

If a gondola system is to become reality in DC/Northern Virginia, one major hurdle to clear is that of public perception. The idea of a gondola system as a legitimate mode of transit is simply not one that many people take very seriously.

This is due largely in part to the fact that urban gondola systems are still a rarity here in the United States. In fact, there are only two active urban aerial systems in the country which are used for transportation purposes. Those systems are located at Roosevelt Island in New York City and Portland, OR.

That being said, there has been a significant uptick in urban gondola systems internationally since the year 2000, including three systems in Turkey, three in Africa (and a fourth currently under construction), and two in Spain

The Portland, OR aerial system specifically serves as a significant model of success. It's ridership reached ten million only seven years after opening, and it serves over 3,000 riders per day.


Portland's gondola, otherwise known as the aerial tram. Image from Gobytram.

Could a gondola work in Georgetown?

Contributor Topher Matthews, a Georgetown resident who participated in the Georgetown 2028 action plan process, says not to scoff at the idea:

Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road. Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible?

A study will answer many questions

We still don't know all that much about how much a gondola would actually help move people between Georgetown and Rosslyn, and there are many regulatory and cross-jurisdictional challenges that some view as difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. This is due in part to the fact that agencies in both DC and Virginia would need to sign off on the project, not to mention the National Park Service, which tends to be jealous about keeping overhead wires away from its parkland.

A feasibility study, which ZGF Architects is leading, will aim to find out how many people might actually use a Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola, as well as to gauge the system's ability to spur economic growth and development.
The study was funded from a combination of grants from DDOT, Arlington, the Rosslyn and Georgetown BIDs, and others. The study kicked off at a public meeting on July 7.

It will attempt to identify any major roadblocks or "fatal flaws" that would make the project a non-starter. These could include regulations or engineering requirements that are just too hard to get around.

ZGF will propose a couple of different layouts for the gondola. It will also study how the system could complement public spaces on either side of the river. From there, the firm will come up with strategies for logistics like funding and operating the system. ZGF will present its findings and recommendations this fall.

The bottom line is that the gondola is at least worth studying. If it turns out to be too costly in any respect, the idea can simply be dropped. But it might not be such a crazy idea after all.

Transit


SafeTrack returns to Ballston this week, and some work from last time still isn't finished

Between July 20th and 31st, Orange and Silver Line trains will share a single track between Ballston and East Falls Church and run less frequently. SafeTrack's first work surge was in the same place, and there are still a few loose ends to tie up.


The percent change in how many trains will run on the Silver and Orange lines during SafeTrack Surge 5. Image from WMATA.

Surge 1 work focused on the track typically used for inbound traffic (otherwise known as track "K1"). During Surge 2, Metro workers will hop over to track 2 (K2) and will do a lot of the same work. That likely means replacing rail ties, fasteners, insulators, grout pad, and power cables. In addition to this, workers will also need to finish up some deferred power maintenance that they didn't get done during Surge 1.

For all riders to the west of Ballston, this means that trains will come only every 18 minutes, 1/3 the number that typically come during a normal rush hour. They'll run more frequently east of Ballston, both because some Orange Line trains coming from New Carrollton will stop and turn around there and because the Blue Line will keep running its normal schedule from Rosslyn.

How to get around during the Surge

As with Surge 1, some westbound Orange line trains will stop at Ballston, and others will continue to Vienna. The ones that stop at Ballston will probably let people off on the regular outbound platform, turn around, reload passengers, and continue back to New Carrollton. Trains continuing to Vienna and Wiehle will enter Ballston on the "wrong" track, let people on/off there, and continue to their destination.

In other words, the shuffling that caused confused riders at Ballston's platforms will probably be back. It'll be possible for trains both heading into and away from DC to pick up and drop off passengers on either platform. So hopefully Metro again has employees in the station helping you out telling you where to pick up the train.

Metro has lots of alternative transportation info listed, including the bus shuttles around West Falls, East Falls, and Ballston, Metrobus routes with additional service, and info on traveling by bike rather than train. If you anticipate being affected by the work, check to see if there's a bus line, carpooling options, or other transport that might be a feasible alternative during the 12 days of single-tracking.

The FTA already found defects in the Surge 1 and 2 areas

The Federal Transit Administration recently released inspection data on the first two surges, showing that as of July 14th, inspectors found 109 "defects" in 27 inspections. The Surge 1 area from East Falls Church to Ballston had eight items that needed to be corrected, and there were 26 for the second SafeTrack area, near Stadium-Armory.

The term "defects" is vague, however: a defect could be anything from a burnt out lightbulb in a tunnel, to missing fasteners that could cause a derailment. The FTA defines a defect as "a documented non-conformance or deviation of WMATA's safety standards, [or] rules or procedure." So some of the issues the FTA found may be relatively small, but any noted deficiencies shows Metro still needs to work towards minding both the big and little rules when it comes to passenger and worker/employee safety.

Metro's Deputy General Manager of Operations, Andy Off, commented on the quality of the work done so far during SafeTrack, acknowledging that the agency needs to tighten up on some of the quality control being done. A new feature of SafeTrack is having quality control/assurance employees walking the tracks while work is being done, not just afterwards.

If this procedure change is more tightly integrated with the track work being done and Metro's new Chief Safety Officer continues to work on the agency's safety culture, then we should hopefully see these defect numbers diminish over the life of SafeTrack, and further on down the road.

Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Transit


Metro ran 2 red lights in 8 days. How much danger were passengers in?

Eight trains so far in 2016 have run past red signals on the Metrorail system. On July 5th, two trains ended up facing each other (though still a fair distance apart) on the same tracks, and on July 13th a train at National Airport stopped past the end of the center platform at the station. Nobody was injured in either incident, but the trend is troubling.


Red stop signal at the Silver Spring pocket track. Image from Wikipedia.

Near-collision near Glenmont

Around 7:15 pm on the 5th, a Red Line train leaving Glenmont and traveling towards Wheaton ran a red signal, went the wrong way over a switch, and ended up facing south on the same track that a train headed north toward Glenmont was on. The incident showed how the Automatic Train Control system can help prevent crashes, but also showed how human factors can still trump technology.

The incident train, train 121, was at Glenmont facing south toward downtown, and was waiting at a red signal to go the "wrong" direction on the outbound track to cross over and continue back to Wheaton. Train 125, which had departed Wheaton towards Glenmont, also on the outbound track, was set to approach the station and cross over from the outbound track to the inbound track, and berth on the inbound platform at Glenmont.

The operator of train 121 left Glenmont, bypassing a red signal, and without permission. Since the switches outside Glenmont were set for the incoming train 125 to cross over, the outgoing train (121) trailed one of the switches in the interlocking, meaning that the train went over the switch in the opposite direction that it was set. This can cause damage to the switch and sometimes requires repair, like what happened in February when an Orange line train ran a red signal and trailed a switch outside the Smithsonian station. I requested damage information from Metro regarding the Glenmont incident, but never received a reply.

When train 121 ran the red signal, it entered an Automatic Train Control (ATC) block which it didn't have permission to be in; this triggered an alarm at the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC), calling their attention to the train. The ATC system is designed to ensure that a safe distance is maintained between all trains at all times and because of this, it would have dropped speed commands (like a speed limit on the highway) to 00 (zero) for the block or blocks in front of train 121. Giving any train near train 121 zero speed commands would cause them to stop and help prevent, or at least minimize, chances of a collision.

So if the ATC system was giving trains in the area 00 speed commands—including train 121—why was it still able to move? The train was operating in manual mode (Mode 2), meaning that the train operator controlled the speed of the train with their hand on the Master Controller, sort of similar to a combined gas and brake pedal. The train was not in Automatic Train Operation (ATO) mode, in which the train would automatically speed up and slow down as necessary (in fact, no train currently is operating in ATO).

Since the train was in manual mode, it was allowed to travel at up to but not exceed 15 miles per hour, even after passing a red signal. When passing the signal the train's Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system would cause it to come to a complete stop, but the operator would be able to continue moving it at up to the 15 mph limit.

Being able to operate at up to 15 mph past a red signal isn't the typical operating procedure, but does happen from time to time on the rail system. This mode of operations, which essentially means that the ATC system is being ignored, is used when trains are given "absolute blocks." That's when the ROCC, like an old-school train dispatcher, manually gives trains permission to pass through a stretch of track at up to that 15 mph limit. This also means that only one train is allowed through that stretch at any given time, for safety.

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld fired the operator of train 121 that ran the red due to the "blatant disregard for safety" and the risk they created for their coworkers.

Red signal violation at National Airport

The incident on July 13th occurred at the National Airport station, which is the north-most station of the "cut-off" portion of the Blue and Yellow lines during SafeTrack's Surge 4. All Blue and Yellow trains to and from Franconia and Huntington, respectively, berth at the station, unload and reload passengers, and leave on out. According to Metro, the Yellow Line train involved in the incident entered the center track of the station at a slow speed, and ended up about half a train car beyond the end of the platform, past a red signal.

The National Airport station includes one of the system's few "pocket tracks," a third track between the two main tracks in which a train can be re-routed or stored. On either end of the pocket track is a switch which can be aligned to send the train to either of the two main tracks. A train in the pocket track could turn out to either track leading to Huntington/Franconia on one end, or to either track leading to New Carrollton/Largo. The tracks give Metro a lot of flexibility, as they can be used during single-tracking to store trains or equipment, or to help turn trains around.

Since there are switches at either end of the pocket track leading to the two main tracks, there are also signals to tell train operators what they can do, which Matt' Johnson detailed after the Fort Totten crash. At a solid white lunar signal, the train operator can proceed straight through the switch down the track. At a flashing white lunar, the switch is set to cross the train over to another track. And at a red signal, the train operator cannot pass the signal (in this case, cannot pass through the switch) unless given permission by the ROCC.

A safety feature that Metro has installed at almost all pocket tracks is a derail, a device that can intentionally cause a train's wheels to come off of the track, in order to keep it from entering another track. In February 2010, one of these derails kept a Red Line train from exiting the pocket track near Farragut North when it had a red signal. At National Airport, the derail device sits at the north end of the pocket track on the right rail, just before the switch that the signal on the north end governs.

In this photo, the derail is shown in yellow on the left side of the right rail, near the rectangular box (a switch control box) on the right side of the rail:

When engaged, a train's wheel will roll up the derail, and off the side of the track, disabling the train. However at National Airport, since a red signal would have been displayed for all three tracks and no trains were being allowed north into the SafeTrack area, the derailer was not engaged. While this meant the train didn't need to be re-railed, it also means that if the train were to have continued onto one of the two mainline tracks and another train were to run a red signal on that main track (very remote odds that both of these happen at the same time, I know), a collision could have happened.

Just like a car shouldn't enter an intersection at a red signal and a plane shouldn't enter a runway without permission, a train shouldn't run a red signal without permission. There's been research into why operators continue to run the signals, and the Federal Transit Administration is collecting data from rail systems across the US to better understand how common the occurrence is, but the number of times it happens should never be higher than zero.

Development


This building is very tall and very vacant

Our region's tallest building is in Rosslyn, and it has been vacant since the day it opened in 2013. That's because construction started during a time of economic prosperity but wrapped up during a downturn.


Image by Ron Cogswell on Flickr, with an editor's note.

The building at 1812 North Moore Street is 390 feet tallfor comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet.

You'd think that being right next to the Rosslyn Metro stop (which is also a bus hub) would make this 35-story building an ideal spot for all kinds of commercial tenants.

The problem is that from the time Monday Property and Goldman Sachs teamed up to develop the building in 2010, they never found a an organization to take on most of the lease, otherwise known as an "anchor tenant." It's ideal for commercial buildings to have anchor tenants before groundbreaking to guarantee a financial return on the building, and to help bring in other tenants.

The developers proceeded to build without an anchor tenant because at the time, our region's economy looked like it had successfully weathered the "great recession" thanks to stimulus funding and the reliability of government jobs. Monday and Goldman Sachs figured that even if a tenant wasn't lined up yet, they were sure to find one.

But the same year that 1812 North Moore got started, the region's job market started declining, which led to several large companies (Northup-Grumman, for example) and government agencies leaving Arlington. That included the federal government moving thousands of military jobs from Crystal City to the Mark Center, and eliminating others during sequestration. That created a glut in Arlington's office market that's taking a long time to fill.

Rosslyn's office vacancy rate tripled from 10 to more than 31 percent between 2011 and 2014, and 16 government defence agencies left Arlington County between 2005 and 2015. In 2015, the vacancy rate in Arlington was close to 21 percent, which was a historic high (DC never went above 12 percent).

What's keeping this building vacant? Here are a few reasons

Although the vast majority of office tenants these days want to be near Metro stations, downtown DC and Tysons Corner are competing much more strongly than they used to, making it harder for places like Rosslyn or Crystal City to fill office space. Downtown DC no longer suffers from negative image it had in the 1980s or 90s, and thanks to the Silver Line, Tysons Corner is in the game like never before.

(On a related note, buildings in Tysons will soon take the "tallest building in the region" crown.)

Also, eschewing the basic concept of supply and demand, the building's owners have not reduced their asking price for tenant leases, at least not as of late 2015

A final reason could be that though the economy has regained much of its steam from the 2008 downturn, the new economy is a lot different from the old one. More people are self-employed or work non-office jobs than before, and thanks to teleworking and increasingly paperless office environments, even large office-using employers fill less office space per worker than they used to. The farther you get from the DC core, the less demand there is for office space per capita in 2016 as there was just a few years ago.

Short of finding a tenant that wants to move in, 1812 North Moore will likely either need to cut its leasing price or sell to another investor.

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