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National links: There are downsides to letting the Rust Belt shrink

An economist puts forward a strong argument on why it doesn't make sense to say that we should just let middle-of-the-country places that are struggling economically die off, Donald Trump has named a Secretary of Transportation, and Volvo just finished building the world's longest bus. Read about this, and more, from world of transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Bob Jagendorf on Flickr.

Leaving places behind doesn't pay: When it comes to places that are struggling economically, like Rust Belt cities, most economists would tell you that the solution is to let them shrink and for the people there to go somewhere else where they're more likely to thrive. Some would argue, however, that this is problematic both because it ignores the people who stay in struggling places and because there are wide-ranging benefits of keeping these places alive. (Vox)

The DOT goes back to the future: Donald Trump will nominate Elaine Chao to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She was the DOT's deputy secretary in 1990, and while working in the George W. Bush administration (as the Secretary of Labor), she praised public transit and said we don't necessarily need more highways, though she also fought raising the transit subsidy for Labor Department employees. There's reason to think she'll be pro-ridesharing services (for better or for worse) and pro-coal. (Slate, GovEx, Americans for Tax Reform, Lexington Herald Leader)

A really, really big bus: Volvo has built the world's largest bus. According to the company, the bi-articulated vehicle can carry 300 people and has a length of 98 feet. It was built in Brazil for bus rapid transit projects in the country. (Economic Times Auto)

Amazon is the new Walmart: One of every two dollars spent online goes through Amazon.com, meaning the company has an even bigger effect on the economy than we might have thought. At the local level, Amazon's expansion has meant the extraction of $613 million in subsidies for building new facilities around the country, but those haven't exactly added up to jobs for local economies, as 149,000 retail jobs have been lost in the last 11 years. (Institute for Local Self Reliance)

"Mega regions" in the US: Using data about how we commute, researchers have created new maps of US "mega regions." Mega regions have become a major topic of discussion as separate cities in close proximity to each other become more economically and physically connected. With census tracks and commute data, an algorithm was created to show how the United States has 50 of these regions. (National Geographic)

Quote of the Week

"Here's the hard message for Portland and Seattle and every other city growing like this. If the next 200,000 people come here, and we're planning for us to be a city of 850,000 people ... they're not going to be able to bring their cars and live like we did 20 years ago. In fact, most of us are going to have to drive a lot less. The streets aren't going to get any bigger. They are going to be walking, they are going to be riding their bikes, they are going to be riding the transit system."

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales on the need to put together a new zoning code that allows more people to live in the city. (My Northwest)

Transit


WMATA recommended express bus service along 14th Street NW four years ago. Is it time to make it happen?

The buses that run up and down 14th Street NW are among the most used in the region, but they move slowly and don't come often enough. WMATA suggested adding express service a few years ago, but that has yet to happen.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The 52, 53, 54 run along 14th Street, from Takoma to downtown DC. Many people use the bus to commute from neighborhoods like U Street, Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Brightwood to downtown and back. Approximately 15,000 riders use these buses on a typical weekday, and according to some measures, they're among the most used in DC.

According to data from DC's Office of Planning, a quarter of the new residents who moved into DC in the last five years reside in the area served by the 14th Street buses, and from 2011 to 2015, the number of businesses soared from 7,371 all the way to 13,992. Many of these new residents and business employees don't own cars and rely on transit and other transportation services.

But relative to how many people would use them, the 14th Street buses are slow and don't run frequently enough. They stop quite often—at every corner during some stretches. For example, if a rider gets on the 54 at Buchanan Street NW and off at I Street downtown, it takes 26 stops. By contrast, that's three times more stops than than the S9 buses, the express buses that run down 16th Street. More anecdotally, a neighbor of mine recently waited over 20 minutes for a bus during rush hour.


Image from WMATA.

Buses also get caught in snarled traffic on the stretch of 14th Street next to the mall where Target and Best Buy are. In this area, buses don't have signal priority and lots of people double park without penalty.

Slow moving busses and not enough of them are especially acute problems right now because Beach Drive is closed. Many Upper Northwest residents can't use Rock Creek Parkway as a commuting route and this has pushed many more riders onto the bus.

Also, as a result of the problems with the 14th Street buses, many who live along 14th actually go out of their way to use the buses along 16th. That just leads to packed buses and overcrowding on those lines. Improving 14th street bus service would benefit those riding the the S1, S2, S4, S9, 70 and 79 by lessening crowding on 16th and Georgia express buses which would also reduce clustering.

WMATA recommended express bus service on 14th

These issues aren't new—WMATA actually teamed with DDOT to study 14th Street buses in 2011 and 2012. One of the biggest conclusions was that the corridor needs express service. Express busses run the same route as local buses but stop at fewer stops. By skipping stops, they are able to move faster. In exchange for walking one or two extra blocks to the stop, riders can get where they are headed much more quickly.

The study included a rider survey, rider focus groups (I participated in one of those), and a series of public meetings. The study team also gathered data from interviews with Metrobus operators and subsequent interviews to discuss potential service proposals and preliminary recommendations.

The study concluded that express bus service on the 14th Street line (it called express service "limited-stop bus service") would benefit riders:

The advantages to this proposal are that this service would not only enhance route capacity, but would also improve service frequencies at bus stops served by the limited stop service (service frequency at local-only stops would not be impacted). It would also reduce travel times for passengers able to utilize the bus stops that would be served by the limited stop service. The primary disadvantage is that this proposal would likely incur additional operating costs.
WMATA also recommended lengthening the 53 Route to terminate at G street (it currently ends at McPherson Square), running more service north of Colorado Avenue NW, and extending service to the Waterfront area, as well as giving riders better information, doing more to enforce parking restrictions, using articulated buses and training bus operators specifically for the lines they drive.

The key recommendation for express service is discussed in detail beginning on page 33 of here.

According to the report, making these changes would be relatively inexpensive (about $1.25 million). The report also says they could generate more DC tax revenue in increased commerce than they'd cost to fund. These buses are needed for longtime residents and new residents alike. This would be a huge (and cheap) win for DC.

Though improving this line with more, better service was a good idea in 2012, it's an exceptionally good idea now. Express buses along 14th Street would mean more people could travel the important corridor by bus.

More specifically, it'd mean more frequent service at key stops and shorter travel times for riders, smaller headways, and better quality. This would be a huge boon to those commuting or traveling longer distances (such as to Walter Reed). If the service proved successful, even more resources could go toward it over time.

The city as a whole would benefit from an investment in better bus service along 14th Street, as it'd lead to better employment opportunities for people seeking jobs, less traffic congestion on important north-south streets, and a broadening tax base.



Transit


This map shows where the most bus riders live and how close they are to Metro

High population densities are generally considered necessary for frequent and direct bus service. However, not all dense populations have high bus ridership. I recently created a map of the population density of people who commute to work by bus in the DC area.


This map shows the density of people in the region who reported that the longest part of their commute was by bus. The green regions around Metro stations are half-mile walksheds. The darker the red color in the census tract, the more people there take the bus.

To create the map, I used the Census's 2014 American Community Survey's data on how many people in each census block group reported that they made the longest part of their commute to work by bus. It's important to recognize some limitations to this data: in particular, it completely excludes non-working individuals who still make many or most trips by bus. Furthermore, it excludes anyone who uses a bus to get to a Metro station that's too far to walk, and then uses Metrorail for a longer trip to their job.

In addition to the ACS data, I plotted half-mile walksheds around Metrorail stations, using a GIS shapefile provided by WMATA's PlanItMetro blog back in 2014 (unfortunately, this shapefile predates the Silver Line and so doesn't have walksheds for those stations). These walksheds allow us to compare areas of high bus ridership to the areas in which residents have a reasonably short walk to a Metro station.

In some places, lots of people take the bus even though they live near Metrorail

It is interesting to note that some of the highest bus-rider densities in the area are in DC's Mid-City, the neighborhoods from Shaw to Petworth that are in the vicinity of Green and Yellow Line stations. It is likely that these area's proximity to downtown and the fact that they are served by very frequent bus routes (the 14th Street, 16th Street, and Georgia Avenue lines) makes the bus a more convenient, as well as cheaper, alternative to Metrorail.


Chart by Dan Henebery.

But more predictably, most big groups of bus riders don't live near Metrorail

Unsurprisingly, the high density of bus riders along the Silver Spring-to-downtown Metrobus lines continues north of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station, where the corridor is not served by rail. As can be seen in the above chart, the 14th Street and 16th Street lines are Metro's busiest bus lines, and the Georgia Avenue line is its fifth-busiest.

Other than in Mid-City, though, the areas of highest bus rider density tend to be in corridors that are not well served by Metrorail. Within the District, high densities of bus riders can be found along the H Street-Benning Road line—Metro's third-highest-ridership bus line—in the largest area of the original L'Enfant City without Metrorail service.

Like bus riders in the northern Georgia Avenue/14th Street corridor, many of the bus riders East of the River live in areas not well served by Metrorail. A cluster of bus-riders on Massachusetts Avenue in the vicinity of American University is also some distance from Metro stations. The lack of major bus routes in this area suggests to me that they are mostly students riding university shuttles.

Outside of the District, lower population densities, a less transit-friendly built environment, and less-frequent bus service naturally leads to lower population densities of bus riders. However, high densities of bus riders are found along the Columbia Pike corridor in southern Arlington County, which has been the site of proposed rail lines since the original laying-out of Metro.

The Langley Park area, at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard on the border between Prince George's and Montgomery Counties is also home to a large cluster of bus riders. Metro's sixth-highest-ridership bus route, the circumfrential Greenbelt-Twinbrook line, runs along University Boulevard in this area, which is also served by a number of other Metrobus and RideOn bus routes. The new Takoma-Langley Transit Center, serving these routes, is scheduled to open at the University Boulevard/New Hampshire Avenue intersection in the next several months, and the area is also slated to be home to several Purple Line stations.

It is interesting to note that the White Oak/Calverton area, at the intersection of Columbia Pike and New Hampshire Avenue in eastern Montgomery County, is home to perhaps the highest density of bus riders outside the Beltway. This area is also an employment center, with the FDA's White Oak research campus on the site of the old Navy Surface Warfare Center.

Transit


Self-driving cars, payment via smart phone, and more will change transportation. Is our region ready?

Picture a DC region with autonomous vehicles, crowdsourced buses, and a single payment system for all forms of transit. These things could very well be on the horizon, but according to a group of transportation experts, they'll mean new challenges when it comes to cybersecurity, safety, and accountability.


From left to right, panel moderator Marisa Kashino, Uber's Annaliese Rosenthal, WMATA's Shyam Kanaan, and Amtrak's David Zaidan. Photo by Joanne Pierce.

Planning to deploy tomorrow's transportation technology requires advance effort even though the problems these technologies aim to solve are acute today. WMATA planner Shyam Kanaan, Uber DC General Manager Annaliese Rosenthal, and Amtrak's David Zaidain discussed tomorrow's technology and today's problems at last month's Urban Ideas Forum.

We (Joanne and Sam) attended the event and later discussed our thoughts in a chat format, and the notes are below. We've also added in subheaders for when we moved from one panel subject to another.

JP: I think given that it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about short-term challenges, the moderators did well to at least draw out interesting points. Of course, "short-term challenges" might be a misnomer since WMATA has had these kinds of challenges for years. We're focused on short-term referring to the next 2-5 years, and long-term being longer than that, it seems.

One of the first things the panel talked about was how lifestyles are changing across the region. I thought it was interesting that Shyam Kannan, the head of planning for WMATA, emphasized SelectPass, a prepaid pass which allows unlimited rides at or less than a user selected price, as a way to link trips. He talked about it in a way I hadn't necessarily thought of before, but have since observed in my own life. People want to make multiple stops without having to pay multiple times. I could go to a restaurant, a movie, pick up library books, go to some bookstores, and not have to pay for each trip since it's all built into my SelectPass.

SW: Shyam called SelectPass "Netflix for transit," with the goal of mitigating people from pay-as-you-go. Though Shyam clearly had bigger visions in mind. Eventually allowing for all modes of transit under a single payment. To use your example - we would be able to go to take Amtrak into DC, take Metro from Union Station, then Uber to a final destination with one simple payment. A cool idea, though not in our near or even long-term future.

JP: This is purely anecdotal, but I had a conversation recently about Charlotte's transit system using multiple forms of payment. If you took rail and bus, you could be paying separately and still use paper fare. Charlotte's CATS system does offer passes like SmarTrip. But you still have a proof of purchase ticket that you show.

Metro has a sea of problems. An ocean of troubles. But SmarTrip to pay for Metrobus, Metrorail, Alexandria's DASH bus, REX bus, Fairfax Connector, etc. is one nice thing about how it functions.

SW: It is, and even better that the SmarTrip cards are readable through your wallet! Shyam spoke of having all payment eventually being made via smartphone or "preferably smart watch." He got some push back from the moderators for that comment, given many who need and deserve to use the system probably don't have access to that technology. What do you see as the future of payment methods?

JP: The future of payment is going to be more mobile options, whether we like it or not. Single payment across transit systems no matter where you are in the DC area, to include Uber and others. The problem is, like the moderators said, this technology is inaccessible for some people.

So obviously, SmartTrip has to stay in some way because not everyone will want mobile payment. When WMATA finally phased out all paper fare, more than 90% of riders were already using SmarTrip. The relatively low cost of entry to get a SmarTrip card ($2) is drastically different from the cost of a smartphone and data plan. Even though lots of people have smartphones, many don't or are uncomfortable with paying with them.

As we move toward more complex and mobile payment systems, we have to be concerned about securing our data

JP: There's also a cybersecurity component that the panel didn't go into, but is going to be an increasing concern as we move more towards connecting our financial systems with mobile technology.

SW: Agreed. It's often thought of with Uber, but Metro also has plenty of data on us - our daily routine and habits. The SmarTrip swipes give them a glimpse into our travel patterns, which can be greatly useful as WMATA plans routes and scheduling.

Having to swipe twice, once for entry then again for exit, can be annoying, but is immensely valuable (I think) to helping them understand how we ride, and accommodate accordingly. With Metrobus, a noticeable difference is only swiping upon entry. Shyam spoke of the future of transit being crowdsourced buses. It seems for this to be feasible, entry and exit data would eventually be needed.

Ride hailing is a promising industry, but questions on passenger safety and accountability are still legit

JP: New Jersey is testing crowdsourced busing, or bus on demand. Related to a single payment option, should Uber be in the same category as WMATA? Uber is a private company and its goals can't be the same as WMATA's goals, and WMATA is beholden to certain government regulations to ensure a degree of equity in its service, particularly if it wants to cut service. There have been studies and articles about whether Uber is equitable with its clientele and neighborhoods it serves, but it's not the same. Are we also trusting that Uber will stick around for the next 10 years? Is this company and this field of ride sharing mature enough to be stable?

SW: I'm not sure. Uber is a very different organization of course. Annaliese Rosenthal, General Manager of Uber in DC, was excited about UberPOOL and spoke of it often throughout the night - its ability to take multiple drivers off the road and into a single car by matching people going the same direction. But at the most, this allows for 3 to 4 people in a single vehicle, which is just not comparable to Metro. It seems Uber is needed at the moment, but maybe not part of a longer term future.

JP: Personally, Uber hasn't replaced anything for me. I still take bus and rail (or walk) more than I take Uber. Part of that is that traffic in DC can be
terrible, but also that I have to gauge risk with getting into a car with a stranger. The audience joked a bit about how the MyMTPD text message number [to contact Metro police] is too long and hard to remember, but at the same time, there's no police department for Uber. So safety and risk for passengers is going to be an ongoing discussion as Uber or any other competitors emerge on the scene.

SW: Yup, safety is very (the most) important. Annaliese brought up Uber's rating system as their immediate feedback security system, I hadn't thought of it being it. It's the backbone of their company, but maybe not capable of dealing with immediate security risks. Do you feel safe on Metro?

JP: I usually feel safe on the Metro system. I also tend to ride during busier times so there are always people around.

SW: I feel safe too, though unfortunately the crowd during rush tends to bring out the worst of people; but a little pushing here and there isn't so bad I guess. Plus the riders aren't to blame for the overcrowding.

JP: There's an aspect of control that Uber doesn't allow. With Metro, if there's some disturbance on my train I can hop off and get on another car or I can alert the operator (if the intercom works). But with Uber, I'm not about to leap out and tuck and roll my way out of a potential problem.

SW: LOL please don't. In a much more immediate way you're trusting your life with the driver, and who knows if he's gotten enough sleep, if he has road rage, etc. (Hopefully) there is less room for human error with the rail system.

JP: I think, statistically, car travel is still riskier.

Autonomous vehicles may be the future, but how do they integrate into traditional infrastructure, and will they create more problems than they solve?

SW: Do you think driverless cars can solve this safety issue?

JP: Not at the moment. The technology is untested and there are larger policy implications. For instance, if a driverless car hits my car, that's a bigger risk for me than it is for Uber. Do you think driverless cars will encroach on public transit?

SW: I don't think so, particularly after hearing Shyam's skepticism stemming from what he called the "geometry problem." Because after it drops someone off, where does it go? If it returns to a staging area, that requires a lot a space and infrastructure be built; if it hangs around downtown waiting for the next rider, that greatly increases congestion; and if it returns to the roads or highways, that's just more traffic. So ideally, for healthy urban (and suburban) living, it seems public transit is a more viable option.

However, Uber is and can be a useful and important complement. The three panelists, particularly for Metro and Uber, spoke of the importance of their relationship in serving the public. It's tempting to see Uber and Metro as competitors, but they understand they're complements.

JP: I thought that was interesting as well. WMATA might understandably think it's too big and too integrated into the city for Uber to encroach too much. But beyond that, I think the fundamental problem with driverless cars is that we are not decreasing our dependence on cars. They're still polluting whether there are drivers or passengers.

Amtrak focuses on transit-oriented development around a renovated Union Station

SW: Agreed. More surprising for me was how David Zaidain of Amtrak drew a clear distinction between his market, and that of the city-to-city buses.
Amtrak is focused on transit-oriented development and making Union Station a destination

JP: Poor Amtrak. We haven't talked about it all so far.

SW: Ha, what did you think of his vision for Union Station, having the feel of an Apple store, with employees walking around with iPads ready to help?


Union Station. The planned renovations for Union Station include removing information booths and ticketing kiosks, so employees can carry mobile devices and help passengers with check-in and ticketing. Photo by Amaury Laporte on Flickr.

JP: I haven't been in Union Station in years, so I'm not sure whether that's a better option than having more kiosks or even mobile ticketing.

SW: Years?!

JP: Yeah, I don't ride Amtrak that often. The last time was 2014, probably. One thing that David brought up was how Amtrak wanted to drive development around Union Station and around transit, and namely affordable housing. Do you think that's the right direction, given that Amtrak is sort of a niche? Metro, I see driving that. But this was in the context of Amtrak.

SW: I think Amtrak would like there to be development around Union Station. And there has been plenty, though not necessarily driven by Amtrak. David was asked at one point if he thought the ability to provide a relatively cheap and quick commute between say Baltimore and DC would aid affordable housing, allowing folks to live in Baltimore and commute into DC. He answered optimistically to that scenario, though it clearly isn't Amtrak's goal to allow for and encourage affordable housing.

He was honest about Amtrak's desire and need to operate with a business mindset, focusing on services they can get a return on - Which are the higher end, pricier and more luxuries commutes. His vision of the future was offering better wine and food on trains, not bad, just very different than the focus Metro.

JP: Yeah, and I can see how Amtrak can be a good option for the DC to Baltimore commute, though the lowest fare is $26 round trip. We know we need more housing, and more affordable housing, and building it near transit is ideal.

Metro wants to change hearts and minds about buses

JP: What do you think about Shyam and David's point about using infrastructure that already exists. Is this a good strategy?

SW: I think it's practical. Shyam made a good point about how everyone is a closet urban planner, and how fun and exciting it is to think about adding a station here and there, but how difficult it is in the end to get the funding and support. Metro talks a lot about Transit Oriented Development and would love to see the neighborhoods around their stations (notably in Prince George's County) densify.

They want us to come to them, and we want them to come to us. This is a big reason why Shyam was pushing regional bus systems as the future - So much more flexible.

JP: I like the Potomac Yard BRT and I'm happy that Fairfax County is going to invest in BRT as well. It was disappointing to see WMATA hint at dropping it to save money, or to suggest that not providing full funding would lead to BRT getting the chop, though it seems to be spared from service cuts in the FY 2018 budget. Shyam talked about how if/when we achieve maintenance and safety reliability we would be turning back from a dark period in our transit history. I think the audience found that a little surprising, the notion that we will eventually be happy with how much we've achieved once we start pulling out of Metro's dark time.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

SW: Yes, I think he was honest about the issues at hand, but encouragingly optimistic as well. Emphasizing that if we can make smart, tough decisions today, unreliable service will be in the rearview. Do you think WMATA could get more people to ride buses, as Shyam suggested should be heavily featured in the future of DC transit?

JP: Absolutely. Bus has a reputation as being inefficient or confusing to ride. It can be both, but it can all improve if WMATA invests some effort into making better signs that tell people how to navigate the system. Clarify the difference between Metrobus and Circulator (or other regional lines), put up better signs that give people more specific information about bus routes, and not just one big map. Apps can help as well. People who can give directions on which bus to take. I think more tourists can use the bus. I don't have the numbers on hand, but I think more tourists ride rail than bus. If it can spread out a little more, we could handle the congestion better.

SW: I agree; I often avoid buses just out of confusion.

JP: I didn't really enjoy riding the bus until I started riding the Alexandria City DASH bus. It's a small system, so it's not comparable to Metrobus, but the routes are very easy to understand and there are a lot of connecting points so you can transfer between routes or Metro stations easily, or at least hop off and walk the rest of the way.

SW: Given the extensiveness of Metrobus (which is a good thing!) it would be cool if WMATA could provide maps essentially filtered to your potential commutes, like in New York City. This would make the system a lot less intimidating to me because it is nice to stay above ground :)

Transit


16th Street's traffic lights are now optimized for buses

While planning for a 16th Street bus lane continues, DDOT has quietly made another important but nearly invisible improvement there: The traffic signals are now optimized for buses.


16th and U queue jump signal. Photo by the author.

33 traffic signals along 16th Street NW now have Transit Signal Priority, or TSP. TSP holds a green light a few seconds longer, or switches a red to green a few seconds sooner, if a bus is ready to pass through.

Stopping at fewer red lights speeds buses along a line. In particular, DC is using TSP on 16th Street to keep S9 buses on schedule. When one falls behind, the signal priority kicks in so that bus can catch up.

16th Street has so many buses that DDOT can't give each one priority all the time, or it would gum up every perpendicular street along the line. But keeping buses on schedule is a nice improvement for riders.

16th & U queue jumper

In addition to TSP, at 16th and U there's now a dedicated signal just for buses, called a queue jumper. It gives buses their own "go" signal a few seconds before cars get their green, allowing buses to jump ahead of a line of waiting cars. By the time cars get their green and start moving forward, the bus is in front of them rather than behind.

The bus signal looks different than a normal light, so car drivers don't mistake it for one they're supposed to follow. A horizontal bar means stop, and a vertical bar mean go. It's the same as the dedicated streetcar signal at 3rd and H, and the same as bus signals along the Crystal City Potomac Yard transitway.

Traffic lights may not be as exciting as bus lanes, but these details matter. Thanks DDOT for making this progress.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Links


Worldwide links: Is the future in Finland?

The future of urban transportation may live in Finland, Berlin is taking cars off of its most famous street, and light rail won't run from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Raimo Papper on Flickr.

"Mobility" has a new meaning Is Helsinki, Finland the home of the future of transportation? The city is testing self-driving buses on increasingly difficult routes and is at the forefront of the "mobility as a service" movement, which essentially would make buying your mobility like buying a phone plan: you'd pay by the month (rather than by the call) for a spectrum of options. (New York Times)

Pedestrians coming soon: Berlin will be taking cars off of its most famous street, Unter Den Linden, which used to be the city's major parade route and is its current museum strip. The move away from automobiles began with the construction of a new subway segment under the street. The route once carried 30,000 cars a day but is now down to 8,000, and it's likely to be one of the first pieces of the car-free central city that leaders envision happening by 2019. (CityLab)

Stop that train: A measure to build a light rail extension in Virginia Beach failed Tuesday evening, leading the state's transportation secretary to ask local transit planners to stop working on the project. The $155 million already set aside for the project will be redistributed to projects based on the state's new transportation investment scoring system. (Virginian-Pilot)

Building more earth: Humans are constantly shifting the earth below them, both as they build and destroy. For example, after WWII, 75 million tons of rubble from bombed out buildings in Berlin was collected and taken to a dumping site that now forms a not-insignificant hill called Teufelsberg. Anthropologists are studying these man-made base levels of cities, referring to them as an earth layer called the Archaeosphere which, in Sweden's case, can mean extracting raw materials left behind. (Places Journal)

Direct route delayed: A rail tunnel linking the current Caltrain terminus to the new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco will not be complete until 2026. Lawsuits related to the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which has started to lean, are holding up money for new tunnels. The tunnels are expected to be used by Caltrain and High Speed Rail once they're finished. (SFist)

Quote of the Day

"Regionalism is a Trojan Horse term right out of the lexicon of the 1970s. So-called regionalism was never a compromise. It was always a stealth tactic, an abandonment of the city, which was considered half dead anyway by the city's own leadership. Regionalism was always a ruse to shift resources to the suburbs."

- Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze discussing whether the city's long term health is better off building more suburban transit, or focusing on the core with a new subway line. (Dallas Observer)

Budget


WMATA says bus fares are low (while trying to raise them). That's not really true.

The latest WMATA budget proposal would raise fares on Metro rail, bus, and parking, while also cutting service. It's a crushing plan for everyone. In proposing to raise bus fares, the agency claims they are lower than in other cities, but for many riders who ride both the bus and rail, our bus fares are actually among the highest.


Image from Arlington Transit.

When announcing the fare hike plan, the WMATA press release read:

For bus riders, one-way local bus fares would increase from $1.75—among the lowest nationally—to $2.00.
We've heard "Metro bus fares are low compared to other cities" before. Last time Metro raised fares, in 2012, the PR around the change said the same thing. However, that's misleading at best—at least for the many riders who ride both bus and rail.

A lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

That's not just because they are using a lot of transit. Large parts of the bus network are designed as feeders to the rail system. In fact, many buses don't go downtown at all, but end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, many existing bus lines were cut back to the nearest rail station, with the expectation that riders would take the bus only locally or to the nearest rail station rather than all the way to a distant job center.

If you do ride bus to rail or vice versa, you pay the full fare on both minus a 50¢ discount. By comparison, New York (for eaxmple) charges non-pass users $2.75 for any bus (or rail) trip, but a trip on a train and a bus (or more than one bus) still just costs $2.75, no more. You can't ever take a Metrorail and Metrobus trip for only $2.75.

How do bus fares really compare?

This table compares fares for combo trips in the eight cities with the highest transit usage. Since our rail system's fares vary based on how far you travel, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at how much you'll pay for a bus trip once you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City & agencyBus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other rail
Washington (WMATA) proposal$2.00$1.50FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Washington (WMATA) today$1.75$1.25
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA)$2.2525¢Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT)$2.753FREEFull fare
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other rail
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.504FREE$2.00 from BART
Los Angeles (LACMTA)$1.75FREEFREE from Metrolink
Boston (MBTA)$1.70FREEFull fare from commuter rail
but free for pass holders

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get an 11% fare bonus when putting $5.50 or more on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don't have passes as low as $2.48.

4 SF MUNI fares are scheduled to rise from $2.25 to $2.50 on January 1, 2017.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than on any other system in the eight cities where people ride transit the most. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount. It's definitely misleading to say the bus fare is lower in Washington than other US cities.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could make free transfers part of a fare increase package. There's precedent for that, most recently in Los Angeles. LACMTA used to charge full fare for a bus ride after a subway ride (and even switching from one bus to another), but instituted free transfers in 2014 as it raised the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

There are other good reasons to institute free transfers. Because there's no free transfer, and because the base bus fare (to compensate somewhat) is lower than elsewhere, many poorer residents ride the bus long distances on the lines which don't just end at a rail station. The trip from Southern Avenue to Foggy Bottom on the 32 local might be excruciatingly slow compared to a two-train trip, but it's cheaper. This exacerbates a class disparity between rail and bus riders.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed via email that the current fare increase proposal "does not contemplate any changes to existing transfer discounts." The region needs to work to find alternatives to fare increases that could trigger a "death spiral," but if a fare increase does happen, the agency should reexamine its transfer policies.

Correction: The initial version of this post omitted Los Angeles' Metrolink under the "other rail" column in the table, and omitted some free transfers for MARC and VRE. These errors have been corrected.

Transit


Metro's plan for late-night bus service isn't much of a plan

Last week, Metro released a plan for late-night bus service if late-night rail closures become permanent. Our contributors and readers took a look, and they think it'd leave a lot of people without a reliable and practical way to get around.


Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

First things first: before it moves forward with any plans to extend the late-night rail closures beyond SafeTrack, the agency needs to explain why doing so is actually necessary; right now, we don't know that it is. If it does need to happen, though, it's imperative that Metro beef up its nighttime bus service so people who depend on rail have a viable transportation option.

According to our contributors and readers, the current late-night bus proposal isn't up to snuff.

The proposed plan is confusing

Our staff editor, Jonathan Neeley, noticed a lack of detail in the plan as soon as it came out:

Does anyone know exactly what times this proposal is for? The Metro site says 'The changes are based on recent ridership data showing where Metrorail customers are traveling during the hours under consideration for closure,' but those hours aren't actually posted on the same page as the route proposals.

Proposed supplemental bus service. Click for a larger version. Map by WMATA.

Reader SM noted another big piece of missing information: "This map compiles in one place the buses that already run late at night, but it doesn't indicate whether buses will run more frequently than they do now to make up for the lack of rail service."

GGWash contributor Joanne Pierce also noted that the frequency of service is likely not as advertised:

Looking at the map, the transition between shorter wait times and longer wait times is confusing. If you're at Pentagon waiting for the 13Y to get into DC then the inbound bus is coming from a zone with 30 minute frequency and switches to less than 30 minute frequency at Pentagon.
It seems that the plan is to have buses skip several rail stations

Dan Reed noticed that "Several Metro stations would have little or no late-night connections." That's a problem because a lot of people live near Metro stations are transit users, and many of the existing bus lines, which the late-night plan is based on, are specifically designed to feed into rail stations. Without service along the entire rail corridor, the system is missing its most crucial trunk routes.

Reader Arthur noted that some of the late-night extensions seem half-hearted:

It's interesting that they'd have [less than 30 minute frequency] service to White Flint but then not continue at all to Rockville or Shady Grove. If the point is to replace Metrorail service then shouldn't the bus replacements at least provide [30 minute frequency] service along all the existing rail line paths?
"Even though I live less than a 10 minute walk to two Metrorail stations," said reader ex804, "'late-night' Metrobus service—which would require a couple transfers and 2+ hours—wouldn't get me closer than 1.5 miles from home."

A lot of trips would take a very long time and multiple transfers

"There are also some station pairings that will take a very long time to travel between under this 'plan,'" said Steven Yates. "For instance, traveling between East Falls Church and Waterfront takes about 40 minutes via Metrorail. According to Google Maps, a trip leaving East Falls Church would take nearly two hours with three transfers."

Stephen Hudson added, "If you were a service worker commuting from Dupont Circle to Rockville late night, you would have to make a minimum of two transfers. Getting between DC and Alexandria looks equally as painful. Considering that a number of late night service workers likely live in the suburbs, I think these gaps must be addressed."

Reader Johan also noticed that the plan includes some bizarre transfers: "Does this map tell you that if you want to go from downtown to New Carrollton at night, you should transfer in Silver Spring? And if you are going to Franconia, transfer in Ballston and Dunn Loring? How much time does that take?"

Here's an idea for a better approach

Ideally, Metro can find a way to do track maintenance without permanently ending late-night rail service. If that doesn't happen, our contributors and readers think bus service should be easily understandable, frequent, include logical transfers, and cover every station.

One solution, which several readers and contributors argued for, is for late-night bus service that mirrors the existing Metro lines as much as possible. Earlier this year, Gray Kimbrough described how Montreal does this, and more, for their late night bus service:

Montreal's current night network is relatively recent, the result of many incremental improvements like a slight retooling in 2011. These are the most important characteristics:
  • Service every night of the week, for all hours when the Metro is closed.
  • Even in the dead of night, buses are at most 45 minutes apart on all routes.
  • The routes are long, designed to require no transfers.
  • On an important central corridor with lots of bars and restaurants, headways are 15 minutes all night.
In Montreal, late night bus service isn't an afterthought

These routes aren't just a stopgap measure for some hours when the Metro is closed; they are designed to be an integral part of the transit system and provide meaningful, frequent service all night long. While at some hours headways lengthen to 30 or 45 minutes, the routes are designed to take people where they need to go without transfers.

Also, information about these routes is readily accessible; a map of the night bus network is freely available, and when riders look up the operating hours of Metro lines, they see very clearly that complementary night bus service operates at other hours.

What do you think of the current proposal for late-night bus service?

Transit


The service cuts Metro is floating are draconian, harmful, and could further damage Metro's reputation

Closing 20 Metro stations except during rush hour? Cut bus service around the region? Raise fares? WMATA is facing a budget crisis, and some of the solutions on the table look grim. Even these ideas don't get serious consideration, our contributors say putting them on the table is a door we should leave closed.


Metro should be very careful about what it says is on the chopping block. Photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr.

On Thursday, WMATA's staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff will warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.

The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.


Under one possible proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.

The first thing to remember is that this isn't an official proposal; it's a cry for help. It's WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn't come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.

"These sorts of things are usually setting the doom an gloom in hopes that the jurisdictions up their contribution or become more amenable to higher fares," said Steven Yates.

WMATA has certainly done that before, like in 2011 and in 2015. Payton Chung also pointed out that Chicago's CTA spent much of the mid-2000s preparing and releasing two budgets per year: "a 'doomsday' budget that assumed no emergency funding, and included savage service cuts, and a business-as-usual budget that could be implemented if additional operating subsidy were granted."


Do you know the story of the Metro who cried wolf? Photo by sid on Flickr.

But even if this is just a play in the game to get more funding, it's a move that has real consequences in and of itself.

"I don't know how well that plays anymore given the very short leash that Metro is on," said Travis Maiers. "I get the sense patience has run thin and everyone is tired of Metro crying wolf and/or begging for more money, coupled that the system never seems to visibly improve. "

Justin Lini, an ANC Commissioner in DC's Kenilworth neighborhood, where the Metro stop would be one of the ones affected, said that even floating this idea sends a message to an entire portion of the region that's already disadvantaged:

I'm a big supporter of Metro—I chose a job, bought a house and basically planned my life around the system. I've worked with their staff on issues big and small. I publicly laud them when they do something right, even small victories.

But then WMATA publishes a document that says "We'll just have to stop providing service to the black folks east of the Anacostia." How am I supposed to support them when they're using all of east of the river as a bargaining chip? At best this is a tone deaf distraction, but I can guarantee you most people east of the river aren't going to see it that way.

Travis continued:
No one wants to stand up and vouch for Metro, and frankly, it's very difficult to do that even if you want to. In many ways Metro is its own worst enemy, with the subpar service it provides, the constant breakdowns, and its poor accountability and maintenance record. And I feel this kind of proposal only makes it more difficult in persuading people to contribute more money.

Either way, what a lousy situation we are in. WMATA acknowledges that poor service is hurting ridership, so what does it propose? Make service even worse and charge more for it! Even if it's bluster, it's a sad state of affairs.

Mike Grinnell was particularly concerned about Metroway BRT:
Potomac Yard's Metroway route is an important investment in the region's first BRT line. Alexandria and Arlington have over $40 million and years of planning and construction invested in the project. It seems very short-sighted to cut the program only two years after it came on line as the large apartment buildings start to fill with potential riders. Service cuts will only sour the region's opinion of this affordable option.

That said, it does receive by far the largest subsidy listed on slide 36. It should make for an interesting discussion.

Canaan Merchant agreed with Mike, and pointed toward what giving these possibilities serious consideration would say about our outlook on public infrastructure:
That and the Silver Line are two sad examples of the way we've gotten about transit projects in this country. If they are not an instant success then they're deemed failures. It's not like we built either to just stick around for a year or two and then take out if they "didn't work".

It's not how we planned those projects and it never was a goal to treat them like that and now we have one group saying its better to abandon it now despite all the other plans that has gone into all of this work.

And it unfortunately provides one answer to the question of "what should we build first, transit or density?" because apparently if we build the transit first we might just end up threatening to take it away faster than you can get a building permit for an apartment building nearby.

"Considering how many mixed-use developments will be coming online in Tysons, Reston, and in Loudoun over the next 5+ years," said Kristy Cartier, "Not giving the Silver Line a chance is extremely short-sighted."

Do you agree? Is WMATA crying wolf, and if it is, are the townspeople going to come save it or leave it alone because of all those other times?

Transit


If late-night Metrorail service doesn't come back, bus service might look like this

Metro still wants to end late-night rail service to do more maintenance. Here's the late-night bus service that could take its place.


Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

When SafeTrack started, Metro moved from closing at 3 am on weekends to closing at midnight every day so there would be enough time for repairs. In late July, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said that Metro needed to permanently end its late-night service to give Metro more track time to do maintenance and repairs, a move that would give Metro the most limited hours of any large rail transit system in the US.

In the months since, several groups, including elected officials from DC, Arlington, and Maryland, and local business leaders, have spoken out against the planned cuts. Others have demanded that Metro should, at the very least, provide a late-night bus alternative.

Metro finally released that bus plan last week. Here's what it looks like:


Proposed supplemental Metrobus service. Click for a larger version. Map by WMATA.

The plan compiles existing late-night bus routes into one map, and in some cases, extends routes to service more areas. For instance, the L2, which typically runs between Farragut North and Friendship Heights, continues on to White Flint.

What other changes do you notice?

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