Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Congestion Pricing


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.


Examiner beats drums for war on non-cars

The Washington Examiner's opinion section features five separate fusillades against transit, spending on transit, and the entire idea, incomprehensible to the authors, that some people can happily live their lives primarily getting around using transit and on foot and might actually enjoy it.

One of the places a freeway might be built. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Several, by "conservative" writers and crossposted from "conservative" national publications, follow the typical pattern of such anti-transit screeds, filled with "scare quotes" and namecalling toward people who disagree as "pointy-headed" "bureaucrats," "functionaries" and more to defend government spending on modes of travel they personally prefer.

An Examiner editorial criticizes the Obama administration's meager extra spending on transit as a "war against cars" (of course). The editorial board can't stand spending on "expensive high-speed rail, unprofitable low-speed Amtrak, and other forms of government-subsidized mass transit" ... as opposed to expensive freeways, unprofitable arterials, and other forms of government-subsidized roads.

Scare-quoted words include "investing" (money on transportation projects) and "livability," which apparently is code for "using government funding to force people now living in the suburbs to move back into densely packed central cities where they would have to depend upon mass transit rather than privately owned vehicles." That's instead of the previous policy of using government funding to force people to live in places where they would have to depend on cars even to cross a street without being killed.

That's far from the most comic of the faux-free market arguments, where people actually seem able to argue with a straight face that the government spending money on one mode of transportation is totally just markets at work while spending public money on another mode is socialism.

The most extravagant argument comes from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, who actually writes this:

If the law of supply and demand were operative, we'd see a smarter approach to improving transportation in America. The supply of cars would create a demand for more roads and bridges to accommodate them, just as food lines outside a grocery store create demand for more grocery stores.
Once again, the government is not building grocery stores. It is building the roads. And Barnes may not have noticed, but in grocery stores, you pay for the food you want. Last calls road pricing a way "to force drivers to put a dollar value on their commute." Like... in the grocery stores, where there's a dollar value on the food?

Meanwhile, Barnes obviously hasn't been on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains, or any of the subway systems in dense cities where people are clamoring for more trains and better service. Why doesn't that create demand for transit programs?

Because Barnes is sure they're not useful to anyone. "The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it's convenient, which mass transit rarely is," he claims. Rarely in his experience, perhaps. Sure, driving is more convenient for many people in many cases. Transit is more convenient for other people in other cases.

Barnes argues that all the transit hasn't taken cars off the road, and that transit's mode share has declined. I have to assume he's just being disingenuous and trying to feed red meat to his base, because he must be smart enough to recognize that if you build very little transit and a lot of roads while the nation grows significantly, maybe the overall amount of cars will increase faster than the amount of transit ridership.

What's most frustrating about this argument from "conservative" commentators is that they're doing exactly what they accuse others of: coercing people to take only one mode. Barnes' argument isn't that we need both roads and transit. He only wants roads and nothing else. How does taking away choices create more freedom?

It's just like the groceries. Some people like milk. Others like orange juice. The government is subsidizing the growing of both in this country. But we aren't hearing "conservative" commentators argue that all orange subsidies have to end because adding a few new orange groves hasn't succeeded in curbing obesity all on its own.

Another Barnes assertion claims transit in Washington hasn't curbed congestion. Yet that Texas Transportation Institute report, which tautologically proves that if you build a lot more roads people spend more of their long commutes driving long distances fast instead of short distances slowly, showed that the Washington area has grown a lot since 1999 but without traffic actually getting worse.

The strange logic continues with a piece by Fred Utt of the Heritage Foundation criticizing transportation borrowing by Barack Obama and by Barbara Hollingsworth praising the same borrowing by Bob McDonnell.

Hollingsworth writes, "In order to take advantage of low construction costs, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly agreed to incur $4 billion in debt in order to expand and maintain the commonwealth's extensive highway system, which has become seriously degraded after years of neglect." But Utt decries federal transportation programs as "borrow-and-spend policies" and a "political slush fund."

What's the difference? It's simple: One has some transit, the other doesn't. Also, one executive is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Utt can't abide transit because some people belong to a union. He seems to forget that so do highway builders. Hollingsworth, meanwhile, just hates the Silver Line.

She has three main criticisms: It's expensive, there aren't a lot of people nearby, and the number of people who will take a train to the airport doesn't justify train service. Actually, there's some difference of opinion among transit advocates about the Silver Line's phase 2, from Wiehle Avenue through Dulles and into Loudoun County.

Starting with the third argument, Hollingsworth feeds off the common misconception many people have that this is primarily a "train to Dulles." It's really a train to Tysons and then to some park-and-rides near Dulles as well as the airport itself. Some people will use the train to go to the airport, but most riders in that section will be residents of the area using it to commute.

The Silver Line is expensive, but so are highways; it takes more local dollars because the federal government doesn't contribute as much money to such a project as to an equivalent highway. As with Barnes' claim that the little transit we've built hasn't reduced traffic enough, this argument uses circular reasoning. Because the feds don't pay much for transit, it's expensive; therefore, the feds should stop paying anything at all.

As for there not being a lot of people nearby, as Richard Layman explains, heavy rail transit creates its own population density. The Silver Line will trigger more development in the areas where it will go.

While phase 1 of the Silver Line serves Tysons, an already-dense area that's one of the largest job markets in the nation, phase 2 will primarily serve future development in western Fairfax and in Loudoun. To some, that's an argument against it, since like a rural highway, it's subsidizing far-flung development.

The fifth article, by Jonathan Last from the Weekly Standard, attempts to debunk the idea of induced demand, which he can't abide. It reads like one of those polemics from evolution deniers, full of statements that the "experts" insist something is true, but it can't possibly be.

Last cites 7 separate studies that back up induced demand, but then says it can't be true because if you ask the average person on the street, they'd tell you that of course building highways makes traffic better. Oh, and there was once one study that said perhaps it's overblown. Proof!

One group, he says, even went "spinning off into outer space" by trying to apply game theory. Because we all know that relatively new branches of mathematics never have any real application to existing problems.

Ultimately, this is all a lot of arguing over specifics. Individual studies or cost projections aren't going to change minds. The fact is that road building interests, suburban development interests, and the "conservative" mouthpieces they fund are going crazy that a long-standing, enormous funding imbalance in their favor might be shifting back, even a little bit.

These two pie charts, one from Transit Miami in 2009 and one from Streetsblog yesterday, tell it all:

Few scream more loudly than an interest group used to getting the entire pie, especially during a time when the pie is shrinking due to static gas tax revenues.


TPB's "aspiration" means HOT lanes, more pollution

Today, the Transportation Planning Board will hear a plan scenario for a major expansion of highway lanes outside the Beltway, coupled with road pricing, BRT, and some concentration of development in "activity centers."

The plan scenario tries to bring evaluates the possibility of bringing road pricing, a controversial yet valuable idea, to the Washington region. Variably-priced lanes coupled with transit alternatives make roads work more efficiently while also giving people options to get around without driving or paying the tolls.

New Bus Rapid Transit would run on the new lanes and use special dedicated ramps to access stations, making them act somewhat like rail in that vehicles would make few stops and run between them fairly quickly. It would most resemble the Metro lines that are currently on or near freeways, since these stations would be close to the freeway and therefore more like park and ride lots with potential for development rather than serving commercial corridors as underground Metro lines do.

Proposed network of Bus Rapid Transit service on priced lanes.

Unlike some early versions, it even includes options for pricing 500 miles of existing capacity in DC and on parkways instead of adding lanes. There's no room to expand the freeways in DC or the parkways, which are already far more freeway-like than they were intended. Pricing this existing capacity is a good idea that will nevertheless be very politically controversial, and the study team, including TPB staff and the Brookings Metropolitan Policy research, is taking on a tough but worthy task in advocating for that element. a related grant to TPB and Brookings Metropolitan Policy Research will evaluate the potential for public support for some kind of tolling.

Proposed network of priced lanes. Roads in black add new capacity, while roads in green and red price existing capacity.

But the plan scenario falls short in its largest component: 650 miles of new lanes on virtually every non-NPS freeway outside DC. If new lanes have to be added, it makes sense to price those lanes. But regardless, more lanes means more sprawl unless suburban and rural counties, especially Frederick, Howard, Prince George's, Loudoun and Prince William, downzone most of their land to prevent the replacement of farms and forests far from the core with more cookie-cutter houses.

Like it or not, the lack of roadway capacity is currently the brake on sprawl. In the ideal world, zoning would check sprawl instead and there would be plenty of infrastructure money. In that scenario, there wouldn't be much harm in building roads and also rails to adequate capacity for everyone. But that's not the case. Little is stopping outer counties from approving new suburban subdivisions. The difficulty of getting to jobs provides an incentive to live closer to the core, making it more likely infill development projects will get built to accommodate residents near work.

The report also buries the price tag of this plan scenario: $51 billion. That's because even priced lanes can't come close to recouping construction costs. The plan scenario simply assumes that the revenue from lanes will cover the costs of maintaining the proposed BRT service. That's cheaper than running buses not subsidized by tolls, but still represents a huge investment of funds in roadway capacity.

Oddly, this scenario was dubbed the "Aspirations Scenario." It's disappointing if this is the best aspiration TPB staff have for the region. Michael Eichler, who worked on the report, explained that the title, "aspirations scenario," is TPB jargon for a scenario that goes beyond the standard Constrained Long-Range Plan, and doesn't necessarily represent a value judgment.

What about the aspiration, for example, to alleviate the Rosslyn bottleneck and increase overall capacity on the Metrorail system? $51 billion could do a lot for Metro capacity. The report admits that This scenario will also increase greenhouse gas emissions and overall VMT:

More road capacity and priced lanes mean that more people can drive longer and faster, which resulted in more driving and longer trips. ... The provision of priced lanes extending into the outer suburbs and beyond make longer trips more convenient, which has the potential to encourage people to live further out, far from work sites. ...

High increases of 5% or higher are produced by the full scenario for NOx and PM2.5 precursor NOx. Higher VMT and much higher speeds than the baseline cause this increase in pollution. Similarly, increases in CO2 occur for this reason. [The] inability to model speeds higher than 65 mph (which constitute 19% of total scenario VMT) largely underestimates CO2 emissions because CO2 emissions rates rise rapidly as speeds beyond 65 mph increase.

The numbers also look rosier than they might because the report is actually conflating two, fairly independent scenarios: One which would concentrate more development in "activity centers," the other which creates this network of lanes. While the BRT network does make denser activity centers somewhat more feasible, the mode share shift is slight, and TPB ought to be studying the value of just focusing development and connecting centers with buses that don't require new lanes.

Meanwhile, TPB is not pushing its A better vision for the future would be TPB's "What Would It Take?" scenario that identified the necessary steps to actually meet greenhouse gas targets. That scenario met criticism from representatives from outer suburbs who felt that they simply did not have the will to do what "it takes."

Clearly, TPB is The study's authors seem to be trying to take a realpolitik approach here and come up with something it thinks it can sell they think local jurisdictions can support. Outer jurisdictions get the lane expansions they want, but also agree to the concentration of development they know they should do but might have trouble selling. DC and to a lesser extent Arlington get to avoid huge new capacity increases and use pricing to move commuters more efficiently on existing roadways, something outer jurisdictions might otherwise oppose. And at least new lanes are priced instead of free, and that money funds some transit expansion.

Added: According to Eichler, each jurisdiction participated in choosing the components in their jurisdiction; DC preferred tolling existing capacity to new capacity, while outer jurisdictions preferred new lanes.

However, this is also preemptively abandoning most better solutions. Unfortunately, this is the common approach the Achilles heel of the TPB: because individual jurisdictions have so much control over their own elements, each jurisdiction essentially gets what they want for themselves, almost as if there weren't planning at all. Meanwhile, the overall region and environment suffers.

In fact, the base scenario calls for new capacity everywhere, and then only switches to pricing DC and NPS roads as an alternative. Why can't pricing all existing roads be the base scenario, and then add new capacity here and there only as options? Or, better yet, why can't the "What Would It Take" recommendations be the base scenario, with something closer to this one as the alternatives?

The TPB should study the development concentration, or what they call "land use sensitivity" separately, and also look at the potential for pricing existing capacity on all roadways. Maybe politically, it would get hammered into something that combines some new capacity and some not. But TPB has a scenario to actually meet greenhouse goals while still growing the region, yet it's not even seriously trying to make it feasible. That abdicates the role of making tough choices our regional planning organization ought to embrace.

Update: Michael Eichler, a former TPB planner who worked on the study, explained that this study was not a "plan" people are pushing in the way that the article assumed. Rather, it's just a "scenario" to illustrate a potential future driven by various constraints in the TPB process. Nevertheless, there are many who would like to bring this scenario about, so it's important to discuss the drawbacks of this approach and, when possible, steer the TPB's work toward scenarios that present promising possibilities.

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