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Posts about Congestion Pricing

Roads


Why tolling I-66 is actually a good idea

Express toll lanes are coming to I-66. Some drivers accustomed to a free ride are upset at the idea, but tolls will help the highway run more smoothly and increase access for car drivers. Most importantly, they'll improve transit.


HOT lane on I-95. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

High Occupancy Toll lanesHOT lanes, as they're called—allow single-driver cars to use HOV lanes in exchange for paying a toll. Carpools and buses drive for free, while cars with only one person (or sometimes two people) pay.

Virginia plans to convert the existing lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway to HOT lanes by 2017. The state also plans to widen I-66 outside the Beltway with new HOT lanes by 2021.

Congestion pricing keeps HOT lanes moving

The toll price on HOT lanes varies based on how many cars are on the road.

The point isn't so much to make money, but is rather to manage how many cars are using the lanes. When there's little traffic, officials want to encourage drivers to use the lanes, so the toll is low. But when traffic rises, officials want to encourage drivers to travel some other way, so the tolls rise accordingly.

In theory, officials raise the toll rate to whatever level is necessary to keep traffic moving smoothly.

HOT lanes can lead to more, better transit, but there's a big "if"

One of the biggest problems with buses is that they're often stuck in the traffic congestion from cars. HOT lanes provide a way out. Since HOT lanes are supposed to be free-flowing, and since buses can use HOT lanes, tolls create defacto busways, giving buses a way to move along the highway at speed, even if the normal un-tolled lanes are jammed.

But buses can only benefit from HOT lanes if buses are present, and if there are enough of them to be a realistic, convenient option. Unfortunately, that's a big "if."

Past Virginia HOT lane projects on I-95 and the Beltway haven't delivered the bus service planners originally promised. Officials built the HOT lanes, celebrated what they accomplished for cars, and largely forgot about buses.

But it doesn't have to happen that way. In San Diego, for example, California state law requires the I-15 HOT lanes project to use toll revenue to directly fund high frequency bus service. That's a good model, and it can work on I-66.

The plan for I-66

Both the I-66 projects, inside and outside the Beltway, have elaborate plans for more bus service. If those plans actually happen, catching a bus to western Fairfax or Prince William County might become a much more quick and convenient possibility, with frequent all-day buses instead of only a few at rush hour.


Proposed bus service improvements in the I-66/US-50/US-29 corridor. Image from Virginia.

But to ensure transit benefits actually materialize on I-66, leaders will need to lock in guaranteed transit funding as part of the deal. The days of trusting Richmond to deliver are over, after the failures on I-95 and I-495.

Part of the problem on I-95 and I-495 is that a private company helped build the toll lanes, and in exchange gets to keep toll revenue as profit. That means the private company has a vested interest in limiting transit, because everyone who takes a bus is not paying a toll.

But on I-66, at least inside the Beltway, VDOT's plan is to operate the HOT lanes itself, without using a private company. And without a private company trying to profit, officials can reinvest toll revenue straight into transit.

That's exactly what VDOT says they want to do. As long as they guarantee that promise with a binding legal contract, it's a good deal for transit. Much better than if VDOT went the traditional 20th Century route and simply widened I-66, with no thought to transit at all.

HOT lanes delay widening

To be sure, without a tolling plan, pressure to widen I-66 in Arlington would mount significantly.

Arlington has long opposed any widening, arguing that wider highways ultimately result in more drivers and more congestion. Under VDOT's current plan, widening won't be on the table until after 2025, after the bus improvements are in place.

But Fairfax County is already pressuring VDOT to widen sooner. VDOT's answer has been to try tolls and transit and see how they work, then widen later if it's still necessary.

Without the option of tolls and transit, that widening pressure would likely overwhelm decision makers.

Transit


Here's what will (hopefully) happen in DC transportation over the next two years

DC will have more sidewalks, bike lanes, bus signal priority, real-time screens, many more finished studies, and other changes two years from now, if the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) follows through on a strong new "Action Plan" released today.


Photo by AJC1 on Flickr.

The moveDC plan is a forward-thinking, ambitious, and comprehensive vision for transportation across the District over the next 30 years. But will this become reality? Will DDOT start making significant progress on the many recommendations in the plan, or will this sit on a shelf and just be something we look at 28 years from now and lament how little got done?

To put some weight behind the plan, DDOT officials have now created a document that lists projects, studies, and programs they expect the agency to complete in two years.

Some points give very specific, measurable targets. For example:

  • Add sidewalks on at least 25 blocks where they are missing today
  • Improve pedestrian safety at 20 or more intersections
  • Build 15 miles of bicycle lanes or cycletracks
  • Complete Klingle and Kenilworth Anacostia Riverwalk Trail projects
  • Get Rock Creek and Metropolitan Branch Trail projects at least to "advanced stages of design"
  • Install bus lanes on a small piece of Georgia Avenue from Florida Avenue to Barry Place and signal priority on 16th Street
  • Put real-time screens in some bus shelters citywide
  • Work with WMATA to find at least 10 key spots that delay high-ridership buses and modify the traffic signals
  • Finish a project to better time traffic signals for pedestrian, transit, and traffic flow
  • Begin the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) bridge construction.

Others call for a number of studies to take place on topics such as:

  • Transit improvements, possibly including a bus lane, on 16th Street
  • North-south bike routes between 4th and 7th Streets NW
  • The 22-mile streetcar system (detailed environmental studies still need to be finished on many of the lines)
  • Commuter and freight rail between DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Dynamic parking pricing downtown
  • Roadway congestion pricing
  • Transit "brands" (i.e. what is the Circulator, and what is something else?)

Other prongs involve setting up programs and systems of communication, like:

  • Working with a BID to set up parklets
  • Working with MPD on more and better traffic cameras
  • Working with neighborhoods (starting with three) to plan better parking rules
  • Working with regional governments to find long-term funding for Metro and other needs
  • Setting up more dashboards and releasing more data sets publicly, like public space permits and street trees.
And finally, while actually getting things done is most critical, transportation departments can also lay the groundwork for better decisions in the future by writing manuals and training their staffs about the best practices for pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure, transit, and other elements of making a truly multimodal, complete street.

The plan includes a few elements to advance this:

  • Revise the Design and Engineering Manual to include new "tools and techniques for multimodal street design"
  • Train all DDOT staff on multimodal design using the new manual and "national best practices."
This is a great set of projects and while every group will likely find something they wish were in here or where the target were more aggressive, if DDOT can actually complete these and the other items in the action plan, DC will move meaningfully toward being safer and more accessible to people on all modes of travel.

What will the next mayor do?

Of course, a lot will depend on whether the next mayor and his or her appointee to head DDOT stick with the plan. They could ensure these projects get finished, slow some down, or abandon this altogether.

Gabe Klein's DDOT put out an action agenda in 2010 (which, admittedly, was very ambitious); Mayor Gray generally kept up the same initiatives and projects that the previous administration had begun, though many moved forward more slowly than advocates would like.

For example, WABA sounded the alarm in 2011 about the slow pace of new bicycle lanes. The 2005 Bicycle Master Plan called for new bike lanes that would have averaged about 10 miles per year. The 2010 Action Agenda called for adding 30 in just two years. But in 2011, DDOT planned 6.5 miles, designed 4.25 miles, and installed zero, WABA's Greg Billing wrote at the time.

Since then, the pace has picked up. Since Mayor Gray took office, DDOT has added or "upgraded" 19 miles, said DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. This counts new striped bike lanes or cycletracks and any places where painted lanes turned into cycletracks. This year, Zimbabwe said, they've done 9 miles.

The Action Agenda sets a goal of 15 miles over two years, for an average of 7.5 per year. That's more than the recent average, but less than this year, and less than in the 2005 or 2010 plans. Which means it's probably an okay target as long as DDOT sees it as something to actually achieve rather than a stretch goal where it's okay to come in close but well under target.

When businesses set goals, they vary on whether the goals should be "stretch goals" where you don't expect to achieve them all, conservative goals where you need to achieve almost all of them to get a good performance review, or goals so conservative that they don't mean much because people are afraid to set any target they don't hit.

Ideally, the next DDOT director will treat these goals as the middle category: tell each department that he or she expects them to actually achieve what's in this plan. Certainly some things here and there will run into unexpected obstacles, but this plan should be something everyone takes seriously and feels some pressure to achieve in the two-year timeframe.

Roads


Will DC’s streetcar weary council embrace the ambitious moveDC plan?

In this second installment of Streetsblog's interview with DDOT officials about moveDC, the conversation steered to the practicality of congestion pricing, implementation of the plan, and the elephant in the room: Whether a DC Council that just dramatically cut streetcar funding has the appetite to fund progressive transportation.


Road congestion if moveDC is implemented (left), and if not (right). Image from DDOT.

MoveDC calls for congestion pricing, 69 miles of high-capacity transit in addition to the 22 miles of streetcar already planned, a new downtown Metro loop, 72 miles of protected bike lanes, 136 miles of painted bike lanes, and 135 miles of off-street trails, all over the next 25 years.

In yesterday's interview installment, I talked to Matt Brown, DDOT's new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT's Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA, about the prospects for the most dramatic changes envisioned in the plan, the pitfalls of a focus on Complete Streets, and the reality that cars will not win every trade-off anymore.

Here we pick up where we left off.

In the plan, there are two side-by-side maps (above) of future road congestion. One with the changes laid out in the plan, and one without. They're very similar. Not identical, but very similar.

SZ: They're not identical. But you have to remember, this removes a lot of vehicular capacity in exchange for some other things. So in order to create the space to provide more options, there was a need to manage the person-carrying capacity of the roadway system. And there were two principles that went along with that.

One is that there's always a way to not pay the charge. The way we modeled it, it's roughly equivalent to a round trip Metro fare.

I thought that was interesting, to basically say you're not going to pay any more to drive than to take the Metro.

SZ: And carpools might be free. But everybody's paying [if they drive alone]. District residents have to pay. And as we look at the whole system, we're accommodating the same number of car trips in a day in 2040 as we are today, even as the District grows by 170,000 residents and a couple hundred thousand jobs.

CH: And we could have made these colors [on the map] pretty much whatever we wanted to. If we add more roads that would be tolled, like Massachusetts Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, we could get different colors in here. But it didn't seem like we needed that to keep the network moving. This seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of the size of the cordon charge.

SZ: In the region, we're starting to get experience with tolls. People ride the ICC, they take 495. They start to see what that means.


The proposed downtown congestion charge zone. Image from DDOT.

I'm curious about the technical aspect of it, if you have that worked out.

SZ: [Shakes head]

There are so many access points. A lot of it's bridges, almost half…

SZ: The Virginia side is.

…But not if someone's coming in on 10th Street. Is it all electronic license plate monitors?

SZ: We don't know. We tried to [include congestion pricing] to model the future, but we haven't tried to figure out all the details yet. I think it's more like a London system than a bridge entry. They have closed-circuit TVs to read every license plate.

But we also continue to look at managing the highway facilities and think about how that would be integrated. So it's not all or nothing.

How much were the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Office of Planning involved in this process?

SZ: We had an agency advisory committee. This doesn't mean endorsement by them, but they were engaged in the process. The Office of Planning more than anybody. District agencies, COG, VDOT and MDOT were on that advisory committee. And Colleen presented the plan to the full Transportation Planning Board in March, as we were still writing it. And this generated some comments.

I hear you chuckle as you say "some comments."

SZ: There were some concerns, and parts they were saying, "I don't think that's going to happen."

What were the parts they were most skeptical about or troubled by?

SZ: I think the congestion charge.

CH: The biggest thing about it is going back to "DC can't tax people driving into the city."

A commuter tax.

CH: Exactly. But it's really not that. The DC residents would pay the same.

MB: It's the same with freeway managed lanes.

You could say the same for parking.

SZ: I think people have.

Oh great. People really compare it to an income tax on commuters?

SZ: That's sort of the knee-jerk response anytime we discuss pricing.

But those are apples and oranges.

CH: And then where is that money going? If it's going toward Metro, which is a regional system...

SZ: From our perspective, providing a way to not pay the charge—walking, biking, taking Metro, taking transit, maybe carpooling—there are many ways to not pay the charge. Commuter, non-commuter, this is about managing the transportation system.

So everybody was consulted with, even if they didn't necessarily sign on.

SZ: It's not a regional plan. It's a plan for the District. And we looked at not only the comments that other jurisdictions had about our transportation system, but also ways that our transportation system could better connect to things that they are trying to do.

So we looked a lot at Montgomery County's BRT plans and how demand from other parts of the region to connect would feed into the District's transportation system. And a lot of our high-capacity transit corridors try to connect to Montgomery and Prince George's County, to connect with where they've talked about doing higher-capacity. A lot of our trail system and bridge connections try to connect with what Virginia's doing. So I think there's a lot of regional coordination and collaboration around ways to connect the system.

I want to ask about federal land. DC is such a special case. Is it a burden to have to deal with Congress, or to have to deal with federal roadways you can't just redesign? Does that come up a lot?

SZ: It does. It comes up in a lot of different ways, from where we're allowed to spend our resources to, you know, you can sneeze and hit a national park around here.

Yeah, every little corner pocket park is a national park in DC.

SZ: Right, so we're accustomed to the interagency collaboration. We didn't limit ourselves to just District-controlled streets in this, and we did look at some of those links that are controlled by National Park Service or Architect of the Capitol. There aren't that many, especially once you get outside of the historic city.

MB: But there's also CSX, there's Amtrak, there's WMATA. There's any number of partners we have to work with.

But I also think any number of cities across the country would want the direct relationship that DDOT has with [the] Federal Highway [Administration]. We meet with Federal Highway at least every two weeks. We work with them on our projects. We receive funds directly from them, not through a state. Sure, we have our issues, especially with the federal lands. But I think there's tremendous opportunity here.

So it seemed kind of rough that this came out a week after the really bad news about the streetcar, with this reproach from Council Chair Phil Mendelson and the council saying this was mismanaged.

MB: Let me just say: Absolutely not.

What does "absolutely not" mean?

MB: It wasn't timed. Our desire was to get this out as quickly as we can, to do it before people are gone for the summer, to finalize the plan and to document all the work that has gone into this and all those sessions we had with the community. There was no ulterior motive here.

Oh, I'm saying quite the opposite. Right after the council says, "We're not really into giving a whole lot more money into DDOT's big multi-modal plans," you come out with The Big Multi-Modal Plan. That seems to set up an antagonistic relationship with the council. How are you approaching that?

SZ: I don't think it's antagonistic.

MB: I think it's important that we communicate what our vision is. We need to be clear about where we are going.

But how will you approach a council that has just gone on record saying, "We're not interested in giving DDOT more money for grand multi-modal plans"?

MB: Well, for a specific aspect of the 22-mile streetcar system.

Which is part of this as well, plus a million other things.

MB: But if you listen to Mendelson on his face, he's not stopping the streetcar program. He's criticized us for our implementation. But like I said, I think we have to be clear about our vision and we have to talk about things like managed lanes and congestion pricing and dedicated funding streams. We have to have that conversation.

SZ: The funding mechanism they removed was the same funding mechanism they had approved the year before. So that, to me, is more about the tensions in a growing city and the way it was paired with tax cuts made it a difficult either/or. But this [plan] still talks about how that priority streetcar network fits within a larger transportation system and what it's intended to do.

And you feel like the council is still open to having that conversation?

SZ: We have a hearing [this week] on a bill that tries to create an authority to make the streetcar happen faster, at the same time as they just took away funding for it. So I don't pretend to understand exactly what's going through their minds as they do all this.

And then in terms of funding, you said you're open to this being a menu of options, and that they might not order the whole menu. You say you have $22 billion identified for it.

SZ: That'll have to change now.

But even if you got all the funding you project might possibly come in, you still don't quite make it. So is there a sense of where that prioritization would happen? Would that happen within DDOT? Would that happen with the council saying, "We're going to fund this part but not this part?" Is it just obvious, that the downtown metro loop is going to be super-expensive, cordon pricing is going to be super-expensive, so that's going to be at the end of the list?

MB: I think you've hit on one of our challenges, and the next step. Looking at all the recommendations, figuring out what is short term, easy to implement. The more expensive items are obviously ones that require a heavier lift and more funding.

We were talking about taking the plan and turning it into an action plan. I think that's important to operationalize the elements of the plan.

Former DDOT Director Gabe Klein had these action agendas. Seems like he liked to work from that, take something like this as the vision and then...

SZ: But we didn't have this [long-range plan]. We haven't done this since 1997, and then we did it again in 2004 and it got rolled in to the comprehensive plan. And this isn't a static plan where we're going to put it on the shelf and then in 2030 we say, "This is still the plan and we're still going to do it." It's something that gets updated every five or six years.

MB: And that's not unlike the action agenda that was put together for Sustainable DC.

Yes, so how does this dovetail with that?

SZ: Pretty well actually!

Is that something you looked at to ask, "Is this meeting those carbon goals?"

SZ: Yes, and that whole process was very helpful for us. It was just as we were starting to do this that the Sustainable DC plan came out and said, "Here are our transportation goals for sustainability." And we could say, "OK, let's go with that. How do we come in and achieve that?"

We see it as providing an overarching sustainability [framework]. In many ways it's the perfect complement to this.

We've talked to a couple of other cities that are starting major planning efforts that heard about this in one way or another. Portland and Seattle are both starting major transportation plans.

And wanting to go in this sort of direction?

SZ: Well they heard about what we were doing and they were curious about it. And we gave them some advice about what to do and what not to do.

What do you not do?

SZ: I don't know. It was largely a very successful process. I don't know, what do you not do?

[Silence]

CH: That's a good question.

Roads


“Every street’s going to prioritize pedestrians,” says moveDC’s lovely fine print

Livable streets advocates all over the country are buzzing about DC's far-sighted new transportation plan, called moveDC. Yesterday, Streetsblog sat down to interview some of the people responsible for writing and implementing the plan.


The purple lines are cycletracks. MoveDC has 72 miles of them. Image from DDOT.

MoveDC is an ambitious and wide-ranging plan that calls for overhauling streets to improve walking, biking, and transit. If you want to absorb it all, here's the whole, massive document.

I spoke to Matt Brown, the District Department of Transportation's new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT's Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA.

What's your favorite part of this plan? What do you brag to other cities about and say, "DC's gonna do this and it's gonna be amazing"?

MB: I'm struck by the comprehensive nature of it all. It speaks to new investments, but it also speaks to state of good repair for what we have, and really trying to maximize the road system we have so that it accommodates all choices of travel.

I don't think it's an all-or-nothing plan. I don't think it's: "We have a vision, we need whatever dollars and without that it's going to fail." Certainly there are dollars that are needed to implement, and we can't realize the full capacity of the plan without doing that.

But I think this is a plan for the future of the District, and also for our agency. I mean, there are recommendations in here about how to prioritize sidewalk repairs better. One of the recommendations is to better prioritize how we make investments with the baseline money that we have.

So I guess it's not one policy element I'm excited about. I'm excited there's so much, and they're interrelated but they're not dependent on each other. We can make a big impact even if we can't build a downtown metro loop, or pick your favorite infrastructure investment from the plan.

SZ: Or a downtown congestion charge!

[All laugh.]

Yeah, I definitely want to talk about that. If that's your most exciting thing, we can talk about that now, or we can talk about it when we get to my most exciting thing.

CH: What I was most excited about was the level of analysis. It's not just a study that says, "Here are some good ideas; let's go and do more studies." I feel like we really have a true sense of what should be going on. And I think it'll even help us as the plan evolves, if things come out and other things go in; I don't think anything will be jarring, because of the baseline analysis we have there.

SZ: In terms of bragging to other cities, I think this idea of complete networks is where we need to go. And this is not a criticism of Complete Streets at all, because I think the premise is the right one, that we need to accommodate multiple users of every street. But in applying that citywide, in some ways Complete Streets bogs us down. Because we don't have the right-of-way. We don't have the space to accommodate everybody.

If you are looking at making a transit improvement and the cyclists say, "Well, where am I in this street?" and if you're not accommodating them in that street, you've failed. I think we've identified complete corridors, or complete networks.

And you don't want streets a quarter of a mile wide.

SZ: Exactly. We have a great urban fabric and we don't want to lose that in the name of providing for everybody to make every choice on every street.

We weren't trying to pit modes against each other. We were trying to say, here's a connected network that addresses the fundamental vision of the transportation system. And then we were able to blend between them. So we ended up with this policy framework, which then translates into infrastructure, that says, "Every street's going to prioritize pedestrians. Every street's going to accommodate vehicles. And every street is going to do something else."

That is, everything above a local neighborhood street. But everything else is going to do something besides just carry cars and people. That might be better transit facilities; it might be better bike facilities; it might be a freight route.

Once you do that, you give yourself flexibility. So ideally, once we start planning for anything, whether it's a bike lane or a transit facility, we're not having to answer the question of, what about this other mode? Because we've tried to de-conflict them. And we can say, well, we're planning for bikes on this street and we're planning for transit on that street. And we'll still evaluate how those interact.

But there is an incredible amount of bike infrastructure. Cycletracks, especially, going from three miles to 72 miles.

SZ: We're at five now!

In that case I think I need to correct a tweet. But, that's stunning. And you're not taking away vehicle capacity?

SZ: Oh, we could. As we did our analysis, very often there would be a choice between vehicular capacity and parking capacity. And we erred in this plan on the side of vehicular capacity. And we did that partly because it gave us some absolutes: At least we're being conservative on a consistent basis. But some of these could result in a reduction in number of lanes, or trade-offs in parking, or it might be that we start with an unprotected bike lane sometimes where in the vision plan we've got a protected bike lane.

But you know, we've done a lot of the easy bike lanes. So a lot of our facilities now will take some other impact. And that's partly been the challenge in the last few years. We were able to quickly deploy a lot when there's not much impact, but as you start to make trade-offs—you know, L and M Streets downtown, there's a trade-off. And that takes more conscious decision-making.

But there is an attraction and a benefit to making protected facilities, and we felt that was something that was important to carry forward.

CH: The number of cycletracks absolutely is stunning, and it's very exciting. But compared to miles of roadway—they will never be equal, but we're just trying to balance out different modes so that people are able to make different choices.

I appreciate that. People didn't used to think about balancing out accommodation for bicycles with roadways. That's a pretty new way of thinking. So, you guys touched on so many things I wanted to get back to and now I can't remember what I wanted to ask next.

SZ: Congestion charge?

OK, let's do it. So, that's something that New York tried to do, but they couldn't get it through the state. We don't have a state government.

SZ: We have another building up there [the US Capitol] that likes to be the state.

Right. So is there a reason to think this is going to go better in DC than in New York? Is there appetite for a congestion charge outside of this building?

SZ: It will take continued engagement and planning. We did an exercise really early on in the planning process and we asked people what types of things they would like to see in the system. But you had to tell us how you would pay for it. And that give us great intelligence.

And did you tell people how much things would cost?

SZ: No, we were mostly trying to put the idea in people's heads that you can't just get everything you want without some trade-offs. So I would say the plurality of answers about how people would pay for things was to tie congestion relief downtown to funding these other items.

People were saying congestion relief should be a funding source?

SZ: Yes. We felt it's a policy approach; it's not really about the funding per se. It's not a huge amount of money, especially in the assumptions that we made.

It really resonated, and we got good feedback through our workshops about it, in theory. We felt it's an important thing to continue to consider.

It's one of those things, like raising the gas tax or any number of other things, that if you have the time and space to speak rationally to people who are thinking openly, you can explain this and it makes so much sense. But it's so quickly misconstrued in the media as just another tax, and people get riled up about it. It's a hard thing to sell.

SZ: Yes, it's been the headline of every story that's been written about the plan so far. And it's this minor component—obviously it's not a minor thing, if it happens, but it's just one thing out of many, many things that are part of the plan. But we understood that might happen.

The interview continues in part two, coming soon!

Crossposted from Streetsblog USA.

Roads


CEOs want faster commutes... for whom?

When business leaders of the Federal City Council say traffic congestion might affect their decisions to move companies out of DC, how much are they thinking about the needs of employees, and how much is it mostly about the congestion on their own personal drives to work?


Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

There's a long history of research showing that a very large element of business location decisions is what's most convenient for the CEO. Joel Garreau talks about this in the seminal urban planning book Edge City, and cites some earlier research from William Whyte:

Whyte, in his book City, has a great map showing that of thirty-eight companies that moved out of New York City in one period "to better meet the quality-of-life needs of their employees," thirty-one moved to the Edge City around Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut. ...

The average distance from the CEO's home: eight miles.

Compare that to the Federal City Council's release:

When weighing a business relocation, over one-third (36 percent) of business, professional and civic leaders say they would consider moving out of the District with 12 percent who say they would strongly consider.

Relocation decisions are based on many factors including employee commuting experience. Nearly all (98 percent) say workforce commuters who travel by car are important to their business-location decisions, with 71 percent saying they are "very" important.

That's why businesses locate on the west side of our region

Certainly traffic impacts people beyond just the head of a business, but one can't help but wonder how much the concern over congestion really stems from a personal reaction: if the business owner faces a lot of traffic, it's frustrating, and he might want to move the company somewhere closer to his house.

This is important when what business leaders want and what their workforces need or want aren't quite the same. CEOs are much more likely to live in McLean, Great Falls, and Potomac than their lower-level workers. It's little surprise that Tysons, the Dulles corridor, Bethesda, and the I-270 corridor have won more businesses than eastern Montgomery, Richmond Highway, or Prince George's County.

When Montgomery County was planning the Great Seneca Science Corridor (also known as "Science City") near Gaithersburg, one major factor tipping the scales (besides the fact that Johns Hopkins owned a farm there) was the convenient drive biotech company owners might have. That gives the site an advantage over the White Oak Science Gateway on the east side of the county. Prince George's faces the same challenges in getting businesses to its Metro stations.

CEO convenience leads some businesses to choose suburban office parks

This split also applies to locating in walkable urban versus suburban office park locations. When organizations like the Greater Washington Board of Trade talk about what DC needs to compete, you hear a lot about what's attractive about Tysons, or Route 50 and the Beltway (where Northrop Grumman put its headquarters). There's a lot of driving infrastructure there, low taxes, and so on.

The view that the center city needs to out-suburb the suburbs drove transportation decisions for much of the 20th century. It's what led many cities to decimate their downtowns with freeways that ultimately sapped the vitality of the places themselves while drawing people and their money away except from 9 to 5.

The other view is that some businesses will be in suburban office parks no matter what, while other businesses want to be in creative places like DC, Arlington, and Bethesda. Those businesses want to attract workers who want to live in dynamic walkable urban places, who prioritize being able to take Metro (if they can't walk or bike) to the office. They also might want to be accessible for workers who can't afford cars as well.

One obstacle, though, is when the CEOs and presidents who decide where to locate their businesses have different preferences. For tech startups like LivingSocial, the leaders want the creative, urban atmosphere too, but not necessarily for a defense contractor.

Without pricing, faster driving won't really help CEOs for long

It's important to note that DC does not go around making it hard to drive into the District. Most of the road spending of recent years has gone to bridges in and out of downtown. There are large freeways in from Virginia, and major arterials whose design prioritizes car flow at rush hours.

Nevertheless, as the region has grown, so has traffic. The big question we're considering in the MoveDC citywide planning process is, should another huge chunk of future capital now go toward doing even more to bring even more cars even faster into the District?

Induced demand tells us that any effort to do this might alleviate congestion in the short term, but any new lane, or any road timed to move more cars, will soon fill up and become congested once more. The limiting factor in how much people drive is how much traffic they're willing to tolerate, not the actual roadway itself.

So the Federal City Council's recommendations won't really help the business leaders for long. As we discussed yesterday, congestion pricing would, if it could go through. That's an especially efficient solution, because the CEOs could pay for the fast commute they want while funding transit for many other workers.

The Federal City Council's survey of their members tells us something, but it's not that businesses need more driving capacity. It's that the experience driving into DC definitely matters to Federal City Council CEOs and presidents. That's nothing to ignore, of course, but important to put in its proper context.

Roads


CEOs want faster commutes and walkable places

The Federal City Council, an association of business leaders, wants DC to ease driving in and out of the city. At the same time, it wants walkable, livable neighborhoods. But what about when these two conflict?


Photo by Rob Mac on Flickr.

The group took a survey of its members, mostly business CEOs and presidents and the like. 68% say that traffic congestion is a "significant" problem facing DC businesses (though, actually, I'm surprised 32% don't think it's a problem!) and 71% say car-driving commuters are "very important" in making decisions about where to locate businesses.

99% want a more modern signal system "to ease the flow of traffic," which usually means timing signals for commuters, though 89% also want to see "active neighborhoods that provide a variety of amenities and services for all residents within a 20 minute walk."

This is, essentially, the decision planners are wrestling with in the MoveDC citywide plan: should transportation policy favor driving in and out of the city, or work to make neighborhoods more livable? The problem is that, in many situations, the two forces are in diametric opposition.

On arterial roadways through DC, like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania Avenues, immediate residents want a road with slower-moving traffic, shorter crossing distances, longer light cycles on cross streets, and maybe medians. Commuters want the exact opposite.

Which kind of places will Tysons, Bethesda, Silver Spring be?

It's easier to think about this in places that are on the tipping point between walkable urban place and suburban office park, like Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, or Tysons Corner as Fairfax County envisions it. There's a strong consensus behind these being places where you can live and/or work; arrive by car, transit, bike, or foot; and while there, walk to enjoyable restaurants and shops, buy groceries, and so on.

But there's an obstacle to Silver Spring being even more of a walkable place where people both live and work: Colesville and Georgia. Both are very wide "traffic sewers" that take a long time to cross on foot, creating a barrier. Wisconsin and Old Georgetown do this, though a little less fiercely, in Bethesda.

Routes 123 and 7 will form massive barriers at Tysons, especially since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is widening the already-huge Route 7 even more, and the signal timings will force people to cross in two separate phases. All of this is because their priority is to move cars most efficiently.

And traffic is bad in these places even today. As they grow, officials can focus on walkability and livability and not worry so much about worsening traffic, or they can keep commuters happy and sacrifice the goal of creating the next Dupont Circle or Columbia Heights or Clarendon. Traffic in Columbia Heights can be really frustrating, and it's a great place.

Congestion pricing, anyone?

There is, indeed, a solution to this conflict of congestion vs. walkability: congestion pricing. Keeping the roadways free of choking traffic only requires wider and wider roadways if you hold constant the assumption that everyone can use that road, anytime they want, completely free.

DC could charge each driver heading into downtown, and dedicate that revenue to expanding bus and rail options that give people an alternative to driving. Traffic could be lighter for people who do need to drive, and people who have an option not to drive will find their choices more appealing.

The biggest obstacle to this has always been that people perceive it as unfair. It's good for the business leaders who could easily pay the tolls, and even good for people like contractors for whom time is money. It's good for the poorer residents who don't have cars anyway, and who struggle with sub-par bus options.

But there are a lot of people in between who drive, don't want to pay any more for it, and would rather just deal with congestion (or lobby for wider roads or mythical magic timed signals). In the District, not only would the DC Council have to get past the politics, but Congress would likely interfere unless Maryland and Virginia representatives were supportive.

Barring that, DC, and Silver Spring, and Bethesda, and Tysons, and every other walkable or potentially walkable place will have to wrestle with whether to put placemaking first or high-speed driving. It's not a surprise that the CEOs of the Federal City Council want both, but until and unless they can help make congestion pricing happen, the survey still does not really help prioritize between the two.

Sustainability


Gray aims high with sustainability plan; can agencies deliver?

Last week, the Gray administration unveiled its sustainability plan, which sets some very ambitious, yet very important objectives for 2032, like attracting 250,000 new residents and making 75% of trips happen by walking, biking, and transit, along with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, more access to healthy food, cleaner water, and much more.

This plan is perhaps the boldest statement yet by a mayor about the city's future. Some plans equivocate and promise everyone what they want. The sustainability plan does not. Our future is more walking, biking, and transit, and many new residents who aren't driving, says the mayor. Period.

To achieve these goals, agencies will have to push forward not just on their existing laudable initiatives, but go beyond. To shift the numbers of transit, walking, and bicycle trips, DC must do more than just build the streetcar and incrementally grow bicycle infrastructure. The administration also should set intermediate goals to push agencies to make significant progress each and every year.

Many specific actions are important steps forward

Strong policy statements like this make a big impact. When agency heads and employees look at a potential action, they'll know they should consider it through the lens of these policies. That doesn't mean people won't keep doing other things that confound the goals at times, but one group inside one agency can use these statements as ammunition to argue for policies that support the goals.

The plan also lists a number of specific actions agencies can take in a number of areas, from waste to building energy efficiency to parks and trees. The land use section includes the most significant (and controversial) parts of the zoning update, reducing parking minimums and allowing more accessory dwellings.

In the transportation section, there are a few promising new steps. Most are things DC already plans, such as streetcars, more bike lanes, and expanding performance parking.

Notably, the plan also suggests exploring a regional congestion pricing system. That's entirely speculative at this point, and the plan says that unless Maryland and Virginia agree, it'd be almost impossible to set up any sort of congestion pricing system. But just putting it in the plan is a meaningful step.

Another significant policy statement calls on DC to "Program crosswalks and traffic lights for improved safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists." That's right, it says that pedestrian and cyclist safety should take precedence over vehicle speed. It also suggests timing lights along major corridors for traffic, as groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade repeatedly ask, but notably recommends timing such lights for motor vehicles and bicycles, not just the former.

To reach goals, agencies will have to do even more

Many of these statements commit DC agencies to go beyond what they have done to date. But is it enough to achieve the even more ambitious goals, like 75% of trips by transit, walk or biking, 250,00 new residents, and cutting in half citywide unemployment, obesity, and energy use?


Transportation goals from the plan (page 12). Click for full plan (PDF).

On land use, the zoning update takes a significant step, but still an incremental one. There are many conditions that will limit accessory dwellings. Reducing parking minimums may make some housing cheaper and make some buildings feasible around the margin, but it does not add to the total amount of potential housing.

According to Planning director Harriet Tregoning, DC could add enough housing for 250,000 more residents just under existing zoning, but that assumes building up to the zoning limit across most of the city. Wholesale redevelopment of neighborhoods is not what anyone really wants.

Rather, it would be better to focus more new housing near Metro stations, streetcars, and high-frequency bus corridors. To do that, though, some administration will have to modify the Comprehensive Plan and zoning to create denser areas somewhere, or even revisit the height limit in some parts of the city.

The Office of Planning also backed away from earlier proposals to also set thresholds where a new development has to set up a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan. That now only applies to parking lots over 100,000 square feet, not large garages in many buildings which will contribute to more traffic and inhibit reaching some of the mode share goals.

Can DC reach 75% non-auto mode share?

The transportation section aims to increase public transit's share of trips ("mode share") to 50%, and walking and biking to 25%. There isn't actually data on total trips today, but the plan shows a breakdown of commute trips (which the Census asks about). There, transit had 38% share in 2010, walking 12%, and "other means" (since bicycling isn't a specific category) 4%.


Image from the plan, page 80. Click for full plan (PDF).

That means if we use commute data and count all "other" in the walking and bicycling group (since it's probably fine to also count rollerbladers and Razor scooter riders), transit has to gain 12 percentage points and walking plus biking 9.

Implementation steps include DDOT's current plans to add some more bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare stations, build out the streetcar system, plus recommendations to improve transit connections such as better service for low-income riders and later hours, set up a dedicated source of funding for transit, and make transit systems "resilient" to intense heat and storms that we'll see more often thanks to climate change.

Will this get 12% of commuters to switch to transit, though? Especially while the vast bulk of DDOT spending is still going to projects like big racetracks on South Capitol Street, which will add more car capacity to Saint Elizabeths rather than boosting transit connectivity.

If congestion pricing actually comes about, that could drive the mode shift, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Meanwhile, though, DDOT could meaningfully improve transit by building a network of dedicated bus lanes that make the bus truly an appealing alternative for residents from Glover Park to Fairfax Village to Woodridge.

DC won TIGER grants for bus priority projects from 2009, but those still haven't yielded anything on the ground. Last year, Mary Cheh set up a fund for DDOT to pay for bus projects, but it hasn't done any. H and I street bus lanes are on the long-term regional transportation plan, but if DDOT is making any concrete progress, it's pretty covert, and most of all isn't anywhere in the plan.

DDOT also needs to step it up on bicycle infrastructure. The plan laudably calls for 200 more Capital Bikeshare stations (so far, DC has committed to 87, and 100 miles of "connected" bicycle lanes, compared to about 50 (and not all connected) today, "prioritizing" ones east of the Anacostia.

But as WABA noted in its action alert at the end of 2011 about anemic progress in bike lanes, DC had installed 4-8 lanes per year from 2006-2010, which if continued should put the District at 130-210 by 2032 rather than just 100. Gabe Klein's Action Agenda set a target of 80 miles by 2012, so only 25% more than that 20 years later seems a bit underwhelming.

MoveDC is key

Tregoning, who spearheaded the overall plan while working with individual agencies on the specific proposals, said that these sets of actions aren't supposed to be an exhaustive list of everything to do in the next 20 years. Among other reasons, they wanted to actually publish the plan, not spend endless years tinkering with the lists—a worthy impulse indeed.

On transportation, in particular, the MoveDC citywide transportation plan is the opportunity to create a more detailed list of everything DC has to do. Gray's 50%-25%-25% targets provide a perfect frame for that plan. If a proposed piece of MoveDC moves us toward the targets, it should go in; if it pushes the other way, it should come out.

The 50%-25%-25% also gives MoveDC a high bar to hit. We'll all need to ensure MoveDC is more like the sustainability plan, with clear and aggressive goals, and less like some other plans which try to give everybody what they want and end up meaning little.

Intermediate goals are also necessary

How can we avoid getting to 2032, looking back on this plan, and seeing these great targets but having only moved imperceptibly toward them? The administration could set intermediate goals and really hold agency heads' feet to the fire to reach them.

What can we do to boost transit at least 0.6 percentage points in 2013 (1/20th of the way to the 12 point growth in the plan) and walking and bicycling 0.45 (1/20th of 6 points)? What can we do to get recycling up, obesity down, more buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency, and more parks not just by 2032, but by 2014 and then 2018?

To really hit these goals or at least come close, a next step needs to be a set of intermediate targets, perhaps one for the end of Mayor Gray's current term, and for every 4-year mayoral term thereafter. We should also ask mayoral candidates, in the 2014 race and future races, if they are willing to commit to these targets, both the long-term and intermediate ones, and ask their agency heads to do the same.

At the press conference, Gray noted that this plan's 20-year horizon certainly extends beyond his administration, whether or not he runs for or wins reelection. But, he said, this is a product not just from him but from his agency employees, many of whom still may be around that long. They can reach these targets as long as this and future mayors continue to send clear messages that the objectives in the plan are not just nice words on a paper but a real vision for the future of DC.

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