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Transit


BRT on Route 7 is getting closer to actually happening

In the fall, there were two leading options for new transit along Route 7: bus rapid transit or light rail. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) recently settled on plans to move forward with BRT.


Rendering of a future BRT station. Image from Envision Route 7.

Virginia's Route 7 is a major road in Virginia that connects a number of dense communities that already use a lot of transit. The road is also one of the region's oldest, with some sections dating back to colonial times. It runs through both Bailey's Crossroads and Seven Corners, some of the densest places in Northern Virginia that don't have direct access to a Metro station. Both also have a large number of low-income families, meaning much of the population is pretty dependent on transit.

Route 7 also connects a number of places that are becoming more urban, like Tyson's Corner and Falls Church, along with growing employment centers like Alexandria's Mark Center.

Right now, Route 7 is a fairly straight shot between Alexandria and Tysons. But heavy traffic slows down current transit options, and a connection via Metro isn't nearly as direct, which eliminates the time savings the train usually provides. Better transit for Route 7 would mean quicker journeys between these major and already dense destinations.

Here's the plan for Route 7 BRT

As part of its Envision Route 7 project, an effort to bring better transit to Route 7, the NVTC studied both light rail and simply expanding current bus service. Earlier this month, though, it picked a BRT system that would run from the Spring Hill Metro Station in Tyson's Corner to the Mark Center in Alexandria.

The BRT plan would include more frequent buses and dedicated bus-only lanes. Both would speed up bus trips for people who need or want to take public transportation along Route 7, with less waiting and less time sitting in traffic.

Bus lanes wouldn't be everywhere. In some places, like downtown Falls Church, the road is comparatively narrow and hemmed in by buildings, so new lanes wouldn't fit. But bus lanes will go in some of the places where congestion is usually the worst, like at the Seven Corners interchange.

Other ideas plan to improve the bus stations themselves by making them bigger and more comfortable for people waiting for the bus. This would also include changes that would make it easier to walk to a bus stop from a nearby neighborhood. Another proposal is making sure traffic lights can favor buses via signal priority, which would cut time spent waiting at red lights.

BRT won out for a few reasons, but the biggest was cost

BRT scored well on factors like how it would affect future zoning changes and overall trip times and speed, but the main reason NVTC went with BRT is because it's much cheaper to build than any rail option.

Planners think they can put BRT on Route 7 for between $220 and $270 million. None of that money has been committed yet, so leaders in Fairfax, Falls Church, and Alexandria will have to work together and with the state and federal government to come up with it.


Some of the ratings criteria in picking a travel mode for Route 7. Image from Envision Route 7.

The initial planning considered a few different route options that would require a system to veer off of Route 7 to make some connections easier. For example, a number of people surveyed pushed hard for a connection to the East Falls Church Metro Station, which is about a mile from the road. Another reason BRT won out was that it's easier to be flexible in planning its route.

Opponents often chip away at BRT projects

BRT does face challenges and pitfalls, and those haven't gone anywhere for this project. "BRT creep," for example, is when the product on the road don't exactly match the nice renderings of buses gliding along dedicated lanes because fears of vehicle congestion meant chipping away at project features. Other examples of BRT creep include shortening dedicated lanes or eliminating them altogether, or cutting the frequency with which buses run.


Route 7 near Seven Corners, with enough right of way to fit in some bus lanes. Image from Google Maps.

Another fear is that even when dedicated lanes go in, the desire to maintain a certain number of other travel lanes could mean a roadway that's impossibly wide to cross on foot. An example of that is in Rockville, where a desire to fit BRT lanes in with cars, parking, bike lanes, and wide sidewalks led to a road that is almost hilariously wide.


A Route 7 bus stop today. Image from Envision Route 7.

Is a Northern Virginia BRT network forthcoming?

The region's first BRT system, Metroway, is already running in Northern Virginia between Alexandria and Arlington. That route links growing communities in Potomac Yard and Crystal City to various Metro stations. Alexandria is also planning for BRT along Beauregard Street as well. Further down the line, Fairfax is thinking about transit solutions along Gallows Road between Merrifield and Tyson's Corner, and it may go with BRT.

BRT along Route 7 could link up with all of these services in a variety of ways. Here, the flexibility of buses could be a big help, as some routes may be able to use dedicated lanes or special stations even on different routes.

This is an opportunity where the region could turn the threat of BRT creep into a positive thing. Bus service already runs along Route 7 and there is even an express service. Frequencies on both could be increased (with the express getting all day service) and advertised to potential riders.

Meanwhile other features like bigger stations and dedicated lines could come along gradually. As Seven Corners adds more housing and a street grid, Fairfax could begin painting dedicated lanes and building nicer bus stations. This could also happen towards Alexandria and Tysons as sections of Route 7 come up for redesign.

We're still quite early in the planning stages. Right now, the governments involved need to think about if they're willing to fund the project. But if they can get it done, the project could be a big hit right out the gate since many communities along Route 7 already have what it takes to make up a great transit corridor. They just need the transit to prove it.

Transit


Both DC and Arlington open bus lanes this month

April is going to be a huge month for bus lanes. On Monday, April 11, DC will open a four block stretch on Georgia Avenue. Then on Sunday, April 17, Arlington will open the Crystal City transitway.


Crystal City transitway station. Photo by Arlington.

Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue's bus lanes will run just four blocks, from Florida Avenue to Barry Place. They'll be curbside lanes, with normal bus stops on the sidewalk.


Location of Georgia Avenue bus lanes. Image from DC and Google.

Four blocks is short, but this location is specifically one of the slowest stretches WMATA's busy 70-series bus line passes through. Bus lanes here will speed the entire line.

Just as importantly, this will be a test project for DDOT to study, and to learn about bus lane implementation. In May, crews will add red paint to the roadway to make the bus lanes more visually obvious. By adding the red surface later, DDOT will gather data on whether the red really does dissuade car drivers from using the lanes illegally.


Red-painted curbside bus lane in New York. Photo by NACTO.

If Georgia Avenue's four block bus lanes prove successful, they could provide a model for the citywide transit lane network envisioned in moveDC. They could also one day form the backbone of a future Georgia Avenue streetcar.

They're short, but they're important.

Crystal City

Get ready for bona fide BRT.

On Sunday the 17th, Arlington will open the second half of the Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway, better known as Metroway. The first half opened in 2014 in Alexandria, and was the Washington region's first foray into BRT.

The new Crystal City transitway section will run from Crystal City Metro south to Alexandria, where it will join the existing busway. It'll be a mix of curbside bus lanes and fully exclusive bi-directional busway.


Crystal City transitway. Image by Arlington.

The DC region once had 60 miles of bus-only lanes. With these projects finally happening, and others like 16th Street on the horizon, it's exciting to see a reborn network begin to take shape.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Meet the O-Bahn, Australia's streetcar-bus hybrid

An unusual transit system in Australia combines the flexibility of buses with the speed and smoothness of rail. In Adelaide, South Australia, the O-Bahn, a hybrid of a bus and rail system, connects downtown to the northeastern suburbs.

O-Bahn buses drive on fixed guideway bus lanes that steer the buses for the drivers. Once the buses reach the suburbs, they fan out onto conventional streets, eliminating the need for passengers to transfer to other buses. This is the O-Bahn's primary advantage over streetcars and other rail transit.

As these express buses leave central Adelaide on conventional city streets, they cross the city's historic ring park and travel a mile with general traffic until they enter the bus-only O-Bahn. The O-Bahn is a set of concrete running pads set far enough apart to carry the buses' rubber tires. The outward-facing wheels run along the guideway's curbs and steer the bus for the bus driver.


O-Bahn bus with exterior guide wheel. Photo by the author.


O-Bahn curving through suburban Adelaide. Photo by the author.

Why not build a normal bus-only road?

The O-Bahn provides a few advantages over a conventional bus lane. The automatic steering means the bus pavement can be narrower, since there's no need to account for driver error. This is important as the buses can reach speeds of 60 mph. The O-Bahn runs through a linear park along the River Torrens and minimizing the environmental impact was a significant consideration when the state government selected the mode in the 1970s.

This slightly narrower guideway will come in handy as the state government extends the O-Bahn through a proposed tunnel under the historic ring park that encircles the central city. A narrower tunnel requires less disruption to the parkland above.

Much like rail, the fixed guideway's construction provides for a smoother ride, but this is only a marginal advantage over an ordinary concrete road.

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

Transit


DC recommends a rush-hour bus lane for 16th Street

It won't appear immediately, but DC took a big step toward speeding up buses on 16th Street by recommending a rush-hour bus lane and a package of other ways to make bus service better.


Photo by truthaboutit on Flickr.

16th Street is DC's busiest bus line, carrying over half of rush hour trips on the street. Advocates have been pushing for bus lanes there since at least 2010, and DDOT's moveDC plan supports the idea.

A detailed study considered over 30 strategies to speed up bus service in the corridor, including combining some bus stops, letting people pay before boarding, and building either full-time or rush-hour lanes.

According to information DDOT's Megan Kanagy presented at a meeting Tuesday night, DDOT is going with the rush-hour option. From 7-10 am, the curb lane heading south would be for buses only; from 4:30-7:30, it would be the northbound curb lane. The bus lane would extend from Spring Road down to Lafayette Park.


Typical lane configuration in Columbia Heights in the AM peak (left) and PM peak (right). Images from DDOT.

DDOT would further analyze making 16th Street south of U Street, which right now is 4 wide lanes, into 5 narrow lanes so there could be a reversible lane. This would mean a reversible lane during rush hour for this whole stretch (the median north of Piney Branch wouldn't go anywhere).

Why not two-way, full-time lanes? One of the study's options created bus lanes in both directions from 7 am to 10 pm. However, the analysis showed that the effect on traffic was just too great, seriously jamming up 16th Street and likely spilling a lot of traffic onto adjacent streets.

Why not midday? Early presentations in this study showed that 16th Street buses also bunch up during the middle of the day as well as rush hours, and the bus is not faster outside rush either. The rush-hour lanes could continue into the day, but that would require forbidding parking during that time.

At previous community meetings, residents expressed a lot of opposition to that idea, which would mean 500 fewer parking spaces all along 16th Street during the middle of the day. While a bus lane would help transit riders, there aren't as many riders then, and DDOT appears to have decided this trade-off isn't worth the fight.

More than just lanes: Besides the rush-hour lanes, the study recommends converting the S1 bus into a limited-stop bus like the S9, and working on technology to let people pay before getting on the bus and (since they've paid) be able to use the back door as well as the front to get on.

Nine bus stops would be combined, where there are multiple bus stops in very close proximity, and some bus stops would get longer shelters to accommodate more people.

According to a handout from the meeting, this lane would speed up each trip along 16th Street by 2 and a half minutes, and the full package of changes would speed up service by 4-7 minutes (7 being for the S1 becoming limited-stop). A few minutes is quite a lot, especially across the 20,000 people a day who use the S buses.

In addition, the study team anticipates the changes will reduce bunching and make the bus trips much more reliable, letting riders count on a more consistent wait time and travel time.

More details will be coming in a meeting on January 21 from 3:30-8:00 pm at the Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q. People will be able to stop by at any time to peruse posters showing the options and talk to planners, and they will give a presentation about the study at 4 and 7 pm.

Transit


Four blocks of Georgia Avenue will get red-painted bus lanes

By Spring 2016, a four block stretch of Georgia Avenue near Howard University will feature DC's first red-painted bus lanes.


Location of bus lanes. Image from DDOT.

At a community meeting last night, officials from DDOT announced they will reconfigure Georgia Avenue between Barry Place and Florida Avenue, converting two car lanes to curbside bus lanes, adding a center left turn lane, and improving the sidewalks, bus stops, street lighting, and traffic signals. Construction will begin in mid July of this year, and should wrap up by next spring.


Image from DDOT.

The plan finally implements a concept DDOT planners originally conceived in 2010, as part of a federal grant for a series of bus improvements around the region 2007, as part of the Great Streets Initiative. Until recently, the last anyone had heard of this project was a public meeting back in 2012. But with the federal money due to expire in 2016, it's now do or die for DDOT.

Ride the red carpet

Although it's a short four blocks, this will become DC's most significant bus lane yet. It will feature a bright red surface, providing the same kind of high-visibility as DC's now common green bike lanes.


San Francisco red carpet. Photo from Matt' Johnson.

According to DDOT officials, the red carpet will be the last thing construction crews install. They'll let the bus lane operate for a month or so without it, to form a baseline that planners can look back against later, helping inform the agency about the effectiveness of the red paint.

Bikes and taxis will be allowed to use the bus lanes, and cars will be permitted to enter for up to 40 feet at a time, strictly to make right turns.

Buses already carry about half of all trips on Georgia Avenue. With bus lanes in place, that number could grow even higher.

If only the project were longer than four blocks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


DC's Olympic bid had some great ideas, and some lame ones

The team of architects and business leaders behind the recent, unsuccessful, and until-now-secret bid for an Olympics in DC revealed some of their ideas last week to Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post. The plan has a number of good ideas for DC which are worth implementing even now—and a few that really aren't.


Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

The renderings show new pedestrian bridges over the Anacostia river, including at Massachusetts Avenue. Such pedestrian bridges would reduce the river's role as a barrier and better connect neighborhoods on either side.

While the plan shows a new stadium on the site of RFK instead of housing or parkland, it does depict recreational facilities where now parking lots stand around RFK. That is a terrific idea, though the article doesn't specify what would have happened after the Olympics when the Washington football team would have supposedly started using the new stadium, which was part of the plan.

Is Dan Snyder okay with having very little surface parking around his team's stadium long-term? If so, some people who oppose a new DC football stadium today might actually support a deal to move his team back to RFK if the parking lots don't have to remain.


Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

The transit ideas in the plan have more uncertain value. The plan shows a new Oklahoma Avenue infill Metro station on the Orange Line. Metro's initial plans had a station there which would have been a 1,000-car park-and-ride, but neighbors fought the plan and the station was canceled.

It's not clear a new station now would bring much benefit, since it would spur little to no development and is very near the existing Stadium-Armory station. The Olympic plan suggests using the construction to add a third track to turn trains, which would indeed be useful.

Organizers also suggested a dedicated bus lane in place of parking on Independence Avenue to run shuttles. Dedicated bus lanes are a fantastic idea, but Independence is not a heavy bus route today, and so that would not have left much lasting benefit and probably would have only been temporary.

Another great idea from the plan is to use East Potomac Park as something other than a golf course. For expansive land right near the National Mall, golf is not the best use. (That would be a good place for an infill Metro station and some actual activity.)


Rendering by Gensler via the Washington Post.

DC doesn't need sports to thrive

The diagrams, which are indeed stunning, show various sports facilities on virtually any piece of open land in the vicinity—a second large stadium at Poplar Point, new buildings on Anacostia Park, and more. Certainly one can see how to people who run sports programs in DC, the idea of putting more sports on all nearby open space has appeal.

It also fits perfectly with a certain 1980s-era view of DC, as a place desperate for any investment and with plenty of empty land. That is no longer the case. Instead, DC has people clamoring to build on nearly any spot west of the river, and it's not going to be long before the same happens east.

Olympic bid chairman Russ Ramsey talked to O'Connell about the need to rebrand DC as a place that's not just House of Cards. But inside DC's neighborhoods, the city is already rapidly shedding that image, and certainly is not hurting for people, restaurants, and other businesses eager to move in.

At RFK and Hill East, for instance, the obstacle to development is not lack of a vision; rather, there's a stadium there and federal restrictions on using the land, plus the fact that there are public services already on that land. As O'Connell notes, "The 2024 planners did not solve difficult problems such as where to put an existing methadone clinic or what to do with the DC Jail."

Answer that question and relieve restrictions on RFK, and it would not be difficult to make a new eastern gateway sprout as the organizers hope, Olympics or no.

Transit


Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?


Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

Politics


Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.
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