Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Congestion Pricing


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 chargewalking, biking, taking Metro, taking transit, maybe carpoolingthere 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?


CH: That's a good question.


“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-offsyou 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 roadwaythey 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 componentobviously 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.


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.


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.


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 listsa 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.


Development moratoriums make traffic headaches worse

When traffic moves too slowly in any section of Montgomery County, a local law halts new development in the area until there are more roads. This is a failed remedy, no more effective than bloodletting with leeches to cure a headache.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Prince George's, Alexandria, and many other suburbs around the country have such a law, known as a "concurrency" or "adequate public facilities" ordinance (APFO). These rules all rest on a false premise, that building new roads alleviates congestion.

New roads create more traffic, not less. Development moratoriums actually make the problem worse; they shift development to outlying areas, pushing new buildings away from centers of activity and forcing people to drive longer distances.

After 25 years, Montgomery's APFO has not delivered the traffic relief it promised. Over the years, it has been revised again and again to fix the most obvious defects. But because the underlying error is never corrected, it keeps getting more complicatedto the point that now almost no one can understand it.

The law is now up for renewal once again, and the Planning Board will hold a hearing today. A 179-page staff report proposes dropping the development moratoriums. Instead, staff recommend taxing developers to build more roads in high-traffic areas and run buses more frequently.

Band-aids don't cure the disease

Such tinkering does not fix the fundamental flaw in the concept of APFOs. It's like keeping the leeches and putting band-aids on the bite marks.

The Montgomery planners started out, the first page of their report tells us, by asking how more "needed transportation infrastructure" can be built. In the back is a long list of "needed" roads, copied out of plans drawn up years ago. That puts the cart before the horsewhat is a transportation planner's job, if not to figure out what transportation infrastructure is really needed?

That's also not the question concurrency promised to answer. The concept was sold to the public as an answer to "How do we get rid of traffic jams?" That is surely a better question than "how can we build more roads," though still not the right question to ask.

There's only one way to actually reduce congestion: price it, with a congestion charge. Cities like London and Stockholm charge a daily fee to each car that drives into the congested district during times of heavy traffic. (People who live inside the congested zone are usually exempt.) Montgomery could ensure its roads flow smoothly by assessing a fee on drivers who enter any of its 33 "policy areas" which fail the annual traffic test.

But this is not the cure for what ails Montgomery County. Congestion charges make sense in places where the fee is voluntary, because you don't need a car to get around. That's not the case in the cul-de-sac subdivisions of American suburbs, where you are stuck at home if you can't afford to drive.

Smooth flowing traffic is not the goal; mobility and livability is

Instead of asking how to get rid of traffic, we should really be asking, "How can we make it easier to get where we need to go to live our lives?" After a century of sprawl, it is clear that this question has no answer in suburbs that were designed for automobile-dependence. Only where people can accomplish their everyday needs without being forced to drive can people be free of traffic. That requires mixed land uses, closely spaced grid streets, rail transit, and roadways shared by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Today's suburbanites are trapped in a vicious circle. Development requires more roads and the roads create more sprawl. Each time around, the highways get more expensive to build and the traffic is worse. Transit requires ever larger subsidies to compete with subsidized car trips to low-density destinations. And APFOs only dig us in deeper.

There is no way out of this morass until we recognize that the old suburban model has failed. Montgomery County understood the need for a new direction when it adopted the visionary White Flint master plan two years ago. To make that plan work, planners had to junk their old APFO mindset in one section of the county. All leaders should take that lesson to heart, not just in Montgomery, but in suburbs everywhere.


Would you pay $1 for more reliable rush hour bikeshare?

If Capital Bikeshare's new Reverse Rider Rewards program doesn't end up improving bike availability, the next step might include a small fee for rush hour trips to or from the busiest stations.

Dockblocked! Photo by urbanbohemian on Flickr.

Capital Bikeshare deserves credit for listening to the suggestions of its users and beginning an incentive program that offers some hope for users frustrated with the system's rush hour redistribution woes. The contest complements the addition of another van for redistribution and an upcoming system expansion in improving the network's reliability.

But no matter how many docks are added, how many vans are shuttling bikes through rush hour traffic, or how many rewards are offered to reverse riders, there is still a significant risk that rush hour bike rebalancing problems will continue to plague the system.

It might be time for a cost structure that accounts for times of peak demand and charges a small fee for the highest-demand trips.

The solutions already being implemented to help with rush hour rebalancing have their drawbacks, and there's no guarantee they will cure the system of rush hour woes.

What's already being done

A common belief is that expanding the system will help alleviate rebalancing problems. Although system expansion should be undertaken so more bikes become more convenient to more people, a larger system will do little to change the underlying rush hour pattern that's been established.

For proof, look at cities that already have larger systems. London's bikeshare network is five times larger than Capital Bikeshare, yet some of that system's busiest stations are staffed during rush hour to keep docks constantly available. This requires lots of staff time, and as a result the system operator has cut back on staffed stations. The underlying problem, a Transport for London spokesperson told the Evening Standard, is that "the scheme was not designed for commuters."

Another solution is adding more vans and staff to redistribute the bikes. Capital Bikeshare has already added an additional van to move bikes around, but having extra staff to redistribute bikes during peak periods is both costly and inefficient.

Bikeshare systems are, to the maximum extent feasible, designed to be self-balancing; users circulate the bikes throughout the system to keep it running smoothly. Redistribution by staff should be used sparingly. As Richard Layman pointed out in this site's comments, heavy reliance on redistribution vans, which get stuck in rush hour traffic just when the demand for redistribution is highest, "is a sign of failure, not success."

In addition, the Reverse Rider Rewards program is structured as a contest, not as an incentive program. As a result, if you are not in the running to win a prize, you have little incentive to participate in bike redistribution. This leaves the rewards program with a few "superusers" who will end up doing most of the work.

This is exactly what happened with the Winter Weather Warrior contest. While that contest was great for getting the press to pay attention to the fact that the system was being used year-round, only those at the top of the leaderboard had much incentive to participate.

Unlike the Winter Weather Warrior contest, which counted all trips over 5 minutes, the Reverse Rider program rewards only those trips being made during a two-hour window each day, in the opposite direction of the vast majority of trips. Even if the Reverse Rider program were restructured to encourage participation among more than just the top users, there is a small pool of people who would be willing and able to participate to begin with.

Moving a significant number of the system's bikes on a regular basis each weekday will require more than just a few superusers.

Why a rush hour fee? How would it work?

One of the drawbacks of Bikeshare's current "all you can eat" pricing scheme is that once a user purchases a membership, there is little disincentive for using Capital Bikeshare as a primary mode of daily travel to work downtown from nearby neighborhoods.

On Metrorail, the limited utilization of "all you can eat" pricing for commuters reduces the incentive for off-peak Metrorail use, because those trips come at an additional cost. Bikeshare has the opposite problem, where there is no additional cost to peak hour travel, resulting in bike shortages.

Any rush hour surcharge should be narrowly focused on three factors to have the most positive benefit on bike availability: location, time, and cost.

As part of its Reverse Rider Rewards program, Capital Bikeshare has already identified the downtown stations that could form the basis of a surcharge initiative. Because the rewards program applies only during the morning rush hour, Bikeshare has identified these as "Typically Full Stations." Because a surcharge program would apply during both morning and evening rush hours, let's call these "high demand stations."

"Typically full" stations in the Reverse Rider Rewards program are in black. Many rush hour trips to or from these stations would be subject to a small surcharge under a pricing program.

Capital Bikeshare has chosen 8-10 am for the Reverse Rider Rewards program. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the charge would only apply during those hours and the equivalent evening rush period, 4-6 pm.

If a user ends a trip at a high demand station during the morning rush hours, her account account would be charged. If she begins a trip at a high demand station during the evening rush hours, she would also be charged.

However, trips where both the origin and destination are high demand stations would not be subject to the charge. This is because moving a bicycle between high demand locations does not significantly affect the overall availability of bikes at high demand stations. The same principle applies for trips between low demand stations, which would also be exempt from any charge.

The most effective price should signal to those who use Bikeshare for everyday commuting that using their own bicycles for rush hour travel would be more cost effective. With a fee of 75 cents or $1 per trip, many users would decide against paying up to $2 each day for a round-trip ride they could take for free on their own bikes.

For most members, this low fee is not a barrier to occasional rush hour use when the need arises. Because it would remain less expensive than all other transit options, such as bus or Metrorail, this price point also does not impose an excessive cost on those for whom Bikeshare is the optimal mode.

Hurdles and drawbacks

Currently, fees from Capital Bikeshare are assessed silently. Users don't know how much they owe until they receive a statement. For a rush hour surcharge to be effective, however, it must be visible at the point of sale. For example, the District's bag fee, though small at only 5 cents, has had a significant impact on bag consumption because shoppers are asked at check-out whether they are willing to pay a fee for a bag. At the other extreme is Metro's peak-of-the-peak surcharge, where many users swipe their SmarTrip cards without having to confront the extra cost they are incurring.

For a rush hour fee to work on Capital Bikeshare, users must be made aware of the extra cost immediately before they check out a bike. There are creative ways to do this. A sticker could be attached to the top of each dock at stations where the charge is in effect, so all users are informed before they pull out a bike. Smartphone application Spotcycle could sport a banner notifying users of the charge during rush hours. On bike availability maps, high demand station icons could change to a different color when the charge is in effect to notify users before they use a bike.

If there is less rush-hour demand for bikes during colder months or inclement weather, the charge could be suspended to encourage ridership.

The rush hour fee proposal does make the system more complex, especially for casual users. However, tourists aren't likely to be affected by the morning charges because few of them will be riding bikes downtown from Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill at 8:30 am. Fees incurred during the evening rush hour might be more of an issue for visitors. Even then, $1 is not a hefty charge for infrequent users, many of whom already incur larger charges for keeping bikes longer than 30 minutes.

A major risk is that a rush hour fee might reduce total ridership numbers during peak hours. Although smaller numbers might not look good as a measure of the system's success, there is a silver lining to this cloud. By making it easier to get a bike during the busiest hours, the system becomes more more reliable. This encourages more people to buy memberships, because they will have confidence that a bike will be available when they need one.

Astute readers will know that this concept is called congestion pricing. It isn't just for bikes; it's a concept that can also be applied to congested downtown streets and overburdened on-street parking to make transportation more predictable during the busiest hours.

While there is no silver bullet to solving congestion problems during times of peak demand, a nominal fee is one tool of many that can help shift behavior and make Capital Bikeshare a more reliable, more useful service.

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