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Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.


Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.

Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular

The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.

For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.

But who defines the priorities and plans?

One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?

Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.

Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.

Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.

It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.

Who decides under Cheh's plan?

A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.

Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?

If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?

If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?

Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."

Here's what you said

A lot of you worried about this issue.

Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."

MLD wrote:

Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenchedDDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priorityDDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?

There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.

Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.
jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."

Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "

BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."

What could work?

A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.

Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).

Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.

This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.

Government


DDOT director and chief engineer are leaving

A source in the DC government just passed along the news that District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Terry Bellamy and Chief Engineer Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson are leaving the agency.


Bellamy and Nicholson are the two men in ties. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

We don't yet have information on exactly when they will leave, or where they are going. This is another step in what is likely to be a long string of high-profile departures. Nicholas Majett, head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs which enforces regulations, is also stepping down.

Under Bellamy's leadership, DDOT has not made progress on a lot of important initiativescycletracks, bus priority, residential parking, trails, and much more. Still, will this mean DDOT will achieve even less for the remaining nine months of Mayor Gray's term?

A lot will depend on who Gray picks to run the agency in the interim. He chose former planning director Ellen McCarthy to run the Office of Planning after Harriet Tregoning. McCarthy has had the job before, and knows the lay of the land (literally and figuratively). She did a good job under the Williams administration.

Planning will at the very least keep moving along in a positive way for the rest of 2014, and maybe McCarthy can spearhead some important initiatives that wouldn't have gotten as much attention otherwise or which are more politically palatable in a lame duck administration.

Is there a similar figure for DDOT?

Overall, having the primary on April 1 was a bad idea, and not just because of low turnout, which Gray cited in his concession speech. Despite Gray's statements that he will keep working hard to improve the District for the rest of his term, many of his political appointees are already looking for new jobs.

Government


Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.


Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.

Process

Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Transit


Fix it first, then upgrade, says new regional transportation plan

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board approved the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan two weeks ago. It advocates a "fix it first" approach that directs resources towards keeping the transportation assets we have in good shape, rather than building massive new facilities that may be costly to maintain.


Image from MWCOG.

The plan is a significant victory for smart growth advocates because it doesn't call for building any new highways. Maintaining Metro is the highest-scoring strategy overall. The plan calls for new transit facilities including both streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, potentially using new express toll lanes on existing highways.

It also recommends capacity improvements like expanding Metro capacity in downtown DC, and focusing growth around existing transportation hubs and employment centers, offering more alternatives to driving. However, it relies on elected officials in local jurisdictions to make it happen.

The plan's supposed to inform future updates to the region's Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP), a more specific list of recommended capital investments, including this year's update. The CLRP's existing baseline includes the Silver and Purple lines, the planned DC streetcar network, and Arlington's Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

But first, local governments need to invest in the transportation infrastructure we already have. "The success of all other strategies to improve transportation in our region relies on an existing system that functions properly and is safe," the plan states. That includes Metro trains that run reliably and aren't overcrowded, bus stops that are easy to get to, roads and sidewalks that are smooth, structurally sound bridges, and efficient traffic signals.

Another key aspect of the plan is its focus on the region's activity centers, places like downtown DC or Bethesda that are walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit. Simply directing more growth to these places can reduce car trips across the region. More people would have the opportunity to live or work there, while those who still chose to live elsewhere would have more options for getting to activity centers.

As MWCOG Principal Transportation Planner John Swanson put it, "We don't just focus on supply-side additions to the system, but also on managing demand."

Creating more activity centers is one of five central long-term strategies of the plan. The others are adding more capacity on the existing transit system, enhancing circulation within activity centers, encouraging BRT and other cost-effective transit services, and more express toll lanes.

At a press event January 15, Swanson emphasized that the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is part of on ongoing planning process. It "shows why land use matters and why a lot of little decisions like [building better] bus stops matter," Swanson added. "If they aren't accessible and attractive, other work is for naught."

The TPB recommends focusing on "modes that can move more people at lower cost." The plan generally avoids citing specific projects or locations of concern. Rather, it's intended as a guide for state, county, and municipal officials as they determine which transportation projects deserve a share of their limited budgets.

Whether the vision comes true or not will depend on the elected leaders of the member jurisdictions. It will also require restoring citizens' trust in their government, meaning government must demonstrate that it is taking citizen input seriously and is getting the most bang for taxpayers' buck.

Among its other specific suggestions:

  • Local governments should help Metro reach its state of good repair goals outlined in Metro Forward.
  • Give Metro the resources needed to add capacity, including by adding more eight-car trains and increasing pedestrian flow capacity at constrained stations like Union Station.
  • Enhance and expand commuter rail service, primarily by addressing its two biggest constraints: limited capacity at Union Station and over the decrepit Long Bridge, the region's only crossing of the Potomac for commuter, intercity passenger, and freight trains.
  • Make major investments in relatively inexpensive pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It cites the District's success with new bike lanes and expanding Capital Bikeshare, and says adequate sidewalks and crossing signals are still lacking in much of the region.
  • Alleviate bottlenecks in the highway network by building new on- and off-ramps, extra turn lanes, and adding lanes in limited cases.
  • Grow the network of electric car charging stations to incentivize their use.
  • Make the road network safer and more efficient by such often-overlooked strategies as providing more real-time information to drivers, and by updating existing traffic laws, particularly to offer more protection to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The plan reflects and builds upon the work of the late Ron Kirby, the former MWCOG transportation planning director whose shocking murder in his home two months ago remains unsolved. The document is dedicated in his memory. Kirby chose not to pick sides in the more roads vs. more transit tug-of-war, but he was willing to say we should fix things first.

The TPB's next step is to disseminate the plan to both elected and administrative officials in all member jurisdictions and explain how it works. The plan highlights broad agreement at the regional level, and gives jurisdictions a framework for decision-making.

If it agrees, for example, that maintaining the existing system is the top priority, then its practices should reflect that. Thanks to language in a resolution the TPB adopted on January 15, the RTPP will guide DC, Maryland, and Virginia when they propose projects for inclusion in the CLRP.

"This work fits into a broader picture of what people are asking for," said Todd Turner, TPB member and Bowie city councilmember. "[Once people] see the impact of funding decisions on them, they become more supportive."

Read together with MWCOG's Region Forward plan, its Climate Change Report, and its Activity Centers map, the RTPP should guide the region to a better-managed, more transit-oriented, and more sustainable transportation future.

Government


Want more open government? Make data more open

Though many citizens understand the basic political process, it is often difficult to figure out how specific political decisions are made. Open data can make it easier to participate in local government simply by providing information.


Photo by justgrimes on Flickr.

Open data gives citizens access to information that can be used to improve government services and provide greater transparency. The underlying confusion and skepticism many people feel about government has given way to a nationwide open data movement, particularly here in DC. The variety of data tools available in the DC area demonstrates what is possible through open data.

There are a number of key websites that help local residents learn about and get engaged in their communities. But there are a few ways that local governments could further improve access to data.

Track the performance of DC agencies

At track.dc.gov, anyone can go online to track the performance of various agencies and access information about budgets, spending, news, and performance indicators. The website covers a number of agencies including the Commission on Arts & Humanities, the Board of Ethics & Government Accountability, Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department of Behavioral Health.

The site can be used as a tool for any citizen who wants to find out how the government is using public money. It serves as an additional point of financial oversight and allows each resident to become a government watchdog. Easy access to this plethora of information helps citizens to be informed of the inner workings of government.

Many agencies try to measure their performance internally. With this site, everyday people will not only gain a better understanding of where tax money is allocated, but do their own performance review by looking at how it is being spent, and where the gaps are.

See DC by the numbers

Those interested in city operational data can visit data.dc.gov to see figures for crime incidents, purchase orders, building permits, and housing code enforcement. In order to increase transparency, the city has published 493 data sets from various agencies that use city finances.


DC provided the data for this map of building permits. Image from Map Attacks.

This website has a massive amount of information and makes it easily accessible. Without online access, anyone looking for this information would have to search through government archives, but with this tool, it's right at your fingertips.

Leveraging this information in a useful way requires some research and a bit of creativity, but the possibilities are endless for involved citizens. It becomes a matter of education so the public knows this information is available to them. Many people have used this data to create interesting visualizations of trends around the city, such as this map of every building permit in DC.

Through open data tools like this one, people can search through records and recognize problem areas that are growing worse or areas that have improved. But the most important step is encouraging everyday citizens and empowering them to take control of the information available to them, and in doing so, improve their neighborhoods and the community at large.

See how the public interacts with DC agencies

Though DC has made great strides towards making information available, there is still room for improvement. Sites like data.dc.gov and track.dc.gov are both tools that use information supplied by the government. As a result, it's a very one-sided solution to the open data dilemma.


Image from grade.dc.gov.

The other important piece to open data is allowing citizens to communicate feedback to government agencies and evaluate their performance. In this vein, sites like grade.dc.gov collect feedback about particular agencies from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The information is then analyzed and used to assign the agency a monthly letter grade based on how good or bad the reviews were. The results are two-fold: citizens have an avenue to report frustrating behavior, and agencies are made aware of problems.

Pushing open data even further

While the open data movement has made progress in DC, there is much more to be done. The government needs to make information more accessible and easier to sort through.

There also needs to be a greater emphasis on collaboration. The agencies must engage the people they are working for in order to figure out what changes need to be made. After that, it's up to citizens to educate themselves and use open data as a tool to hold the government more accountable.

Taxis


How should government regulate private ride sharing?

The vast majority of cars being driven around the city have empty seats. Why not let people sell some of them, make some money, and provide more transportation without more traffic? One of the obstacles is that these services often run afoul of regulations designed to protect consumers.


Image from SideCar.

A few companies are trying to make private ride sharing a reality. SideCar lets anyone sign up, undergo a background check and other reviews, and then become a "community driver" who can offer others rides through the service for a "donation."

This is part of a wave of startups providing what's called "collaborative consumption," where people have an economic arrangement to share a resource. There have been services like time share vacations and Zipcar car sharing for many years, where a company owns some resources and sells shares in them, but the newer trend is companies that try to help individual people sell unused capacity in stuff they own.

Airbnb, for example, lets you rent out your apartment when you're not there for extra cash, and makes it possible to find a much more affordable place to stay in busy cities where there aren't that many hotel rooms.

Regulations, however, often don't really account for individuals renting out their own stuff. They usually assume that anyone providing such services is a company that does so as its business, and can undergo inspections, file for permits, and so on. Plus, these regulatory processes try to ensure that the products are safe and healthy, that nobody's getting scammed, and so on.

The new-style collaborative consumption startups are solving the consumer protection problem in a bottom-up, social-media way: people rate buyers and sellers, and a strong reputation replaces a regulator's review. This is what eBay did to give people confidence in buying things from strangers instead of from stores or established catalog companies.

There are the occasional horror stories, but then, regulators miss things, too. But Airbnb is illegal in most cities, and some cities are cracking down, often at the behest of the hotel industry or neighbors who don't like strangers coming and going. Mainly the transactions happen outside the law's blessing, it's making buyers and sellers happy, not causing a lot of trouble, and eventually cities will probably adjust laws to come to terms with it.

What does this mean for ride sharing? Taxi rides are a particularly heavily-regulated area, with powerful driver lobbies that want to restrict the supply of rides. They weren't happy about Uber, and really won't be happy with ride sharing.

Plus, regulators have some legitimate fears. Cars can be really dangerous. Is it important to give people assurance they're riding in a safe one? You're under the physical control of another person. How can we be sure that person isn't going to do bad things? A woman has accused an Uber driver of raping her; police investigated, but prosecutors aren't pressing charges.

Are these roles the government should play? With Uber, many people argued that regulators ought to ensure the driver is well trained, properly licensed, and not a threat. They should ensure the car is safe and well-maintained. But don't regulate the prices, since people can choose to ride Uber or not and don't need the government to decide how much it should cost.

Now, ride sharing companies are essentially trying to take the next step. Must the drivers all have commercial licenses and commercial vehicles? Or can we let anyone sign up to give others rides? Can the companies, like SideCar, self-regulate?

Certainly it's in SideCar's, and Airbnb's, and Uber's interest to be sure everyone is safe. SideCar has extensive safety information on its site. One theory is that these companies will make sure it's safe, or else go out of business. After all, it's easy to spread a bad experience on Twitter, so even a small number of problems could earn the company a bad reputation.

The DC Taxicab Commission isn't ready to embrace this. Having just created regulations for sedan drivers that regulate much less than they are used to, they'll need more outside pressure if they're going to let ridesharing get an even lighter regulatory touch. And should they?

Government


Can government experiment?

Here's a common pattern: An agency spends a few years working on a project that could improve residents' lives. Procurement delays and construction issues take extra time. The project opens, there's controversy and people call for changes or say the project was a waste. Public employees get the message. Next time, they spend even more time designing the project.


Image by Eric Ries.

Are we on a cycle in which everything government does happens slower and slower?

Let's look at a field where things aren't slowing but speeding up: software. The people making websites and apps are innovating at a frenetic pace. In recent years, a new management philosophy called "lean startups" has taken hold. One of the basic principles, according to guru Eric Ries, is to build something quickly, measure how well it works and improve it. The faster through the "build-measure-learn" cycle, the better.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Government


Scrap the food truck regulations

DC food trucks have grown in number and quality over the last several years, and are now a lunchtime staple in the District's business corridors. But new regulations would directly undermine food trucks, giving DC workers fewer options and lower-quality food.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

Food trucks have been in a state of legal limbo since they first started selling lunches in 2009. Current regulations were meant for other mobile businesses, such as hot dog stands and ice cream trucks. They are not designed for modern food truck practices.

While food trucks register with the District, are inspected for safety and cleanliness, and pay the same 10% tax on sales that restaurants do, many other issues have yet to be settled. For example, food trucks regularly receive expensive parking tickets because they often need to stay at a given location for more than 2 hours.

The currently-proposed regulations are their fourth revision. Rather than focusing public safety, they micromanage when and where individual food trucks can operate. But food trucks have been successful in large part because they quickly respond to consumer needs by changing menus and locations.

Most of downtown would be permanently off-limits under the new regulations, aside from a handful allowed to operate in designated "mobile roadway vending locations."


Locations where food trucks would be allowed or prohibited downtown.
Image from the DC Food Truck Association.

The regulations themselves do not create a single MRV location. Instead, they allow DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to propose locations and the number of food trucks that can operate in each one, subject to review by the District Department of Transportation.

The regulations also allow the director of either agency, on his or her own, "the discretion to propose, modify, or remove a designated MRV location at any time." This does not protect consumers from any actual harm. Given how popular food trucks are, it's not clear which, if any, public interest is being addressed by the regulations.

Helder Gil, DCRA's legislative affairs specialist, has stated that the regulations are an attempt to "find something that works for everyone." This is a misguided goal. Many restaurateurs would prefer a downtown free from competitors, but it makes as much sense to give restaurants input on where food trucks can operate as it does to give food trucks control over prices restaurants can charge.

In heeding the concerns of restaurants, DCRA has strayed from the traditionally-accepted role of crafting regulations to preserve public health by attempting to control competition between businesses.

It's also clear that restaurants and food trucks can coexist. While food trucks have the advantages of mobility, low overhead, and convenience, restaurants have the advantages of seating, climate control, and larger kitchens. When restaurants and food trucks compete for customers by playing to their strengths, consumers win. When businesses thrive by regulating competitors out existence, consumers lose.

DCRA should completely scrap the latest proposed regulations. Instead, simpler regulations should bring food trucks into a legal status without giving local officials power to stifle competition. DCRA should issue a mobile vending license for any truck that meets the already-existing standards for cleanliness and safety.

These licenses should permit trucks to park in any available spot in a commercial zone, allowing them to operate near their customers. The cost of the license, in the range of a few hundred dollars per month, would bring in more revenue than trucks currently pay by feeding parking meters.

By keeping food truck regulations simple and rule-based, we can ensure that restaurants and food trucks compete on an even playing field. By removing discretion from the regulations, we can ensure that consumers, not competitors or officials, are in control.

If you would like to share your input on the proposed food truck regulations, send your thoughts to DCVendingRegs@dc.gov by 5 pm on Monday, April 8th.

Press


DC Examiner closing local section; will you miss it?

In what might be her last big scoop as an Examiner reporter, Kytja Weir announced on Twitter that the paper is closing its local section. Losing their hardworking team of reporters will be a big blow to the depth of local coverage, but I won't miss the times its clear anti-bicycle, anti-transit, pro-AAA editorial viewpoint warped ostensibly-objective news stories.


Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

The Examiner had far more detailed local coverage than other media outlets. They reliably informed people about many small yet important developments at WMATA, area schools, city budgets, road projects and more. There have often been many stories in the Examiner that other media outlets simply didn't cover.

At the same time, the Examiner is flagrantly anti-bicycling and anti-transit even though their reporters usually aren't. Its stories were often the worst stenography of AAA talking points (though the Washington Post is not exemplary in this area, either). Moreover, their focus on finding waste in government sometimes finds real waste, but often nitpicks really unimportant budget items to death.

The Examiner's strength was cranking out a lot of articles on many subjects. Since the start of 2012, we have included Examiner articles 284 times in Breakfast Links, second only to 531 Washington Post mentions (third is City Paper, fourth DCist). Our policy is to link to the article that has the best and/or most complete original reporting on a subject, so the high number of mentions means a lot.

Examiner doggedly pushed war on non-cars

However, on bicycling and transit, the editors repeatedly took reasonable articles, placed inflammatory headlines atop them, and splashed them on the front page.

DCist even started mocking the way the front page editors juxtaposed angry anti-city headlines on the top with large pictures that illustrated other articles below. Most recently, they matched up Pope Benedict with driving being "hell."

The Examiner delivers paper copies for free to suburban households periodically (I believe once a week), and at least the last "war on cars" front-pager, by Eric Newcomer, was on the distribution day. It's hard not to see this as propaganda designed to enrage suburbanites against the city (and maybe drive up subscription numbers).

Certainly an article whose headline proclaims "D.C. waging war against drivers" is not seriously attempting to educate anyone. Newcomer's piece wasn't quite as bad as the headline, but he did clearly set out only to identify costs to drivers, a one-sided approach. Further, someone Newcomer called about the story told me that Newcomer had approached him specifically for comments for a story on the "war on cars"; the assignment was slanted from the start.

If AAA had a point of view, you could usually count on an Examiner article which quoted AAA heavily, then maybe added a token quote or two from the police or the mayor's representatives. Alan Blinder's article today is a classic case: it leads with a dollar figure they got from AAA DC officials, then has some quotes from AAA spokesman John Townsend, followed by a couple quotes from the mayor's representatives, and then closes with AAA talking points again.

Examiner reporters almost never spoke to pedestrian or bicycle safety advocates for these stories. Every story about cameras got the frame, city officials versus drivers. The people who get killed on the roads don't exist. Unfortunately, Ashley Halsey III's articles in the Washington Post are the same way; cameras are just "lucrative" and not "life-saving."

Ledes emphasized "what you pay" over "what you get"

Moreover, Examiner articles frequently confronted any budgetary issue by leading with what it would cost taxpayers rather than the benefits. For example, a Maryland House committee yesterday approved a proposal to increase sales taxes on gas. This will have two effects: people will pay more for gas, and Maryland will get more transportation infrastructure that it needs.

This morning's article on the proposal, by Andy Brownfield, leads off with the costs and makes no mention of benefits. Yet Brownfield made the time to quote conservative opponents, a form of balance that we rarely see on AAA stenography articles.

This form of journalistic bias, which frames any government proposal in terms of harm to taxpayers much more strongly than benefits to residents, was common at the Examiner and reflected its editorial views.

I wish I could say the Washington Post's article on this subject, this time by John Wagner, was betterbut it's not.

Spent $10 too much on pencils? Front page story!

The more money any organization spends, public or private, the more often some piece of that spending won't quite stand up to close scrutiny. With government, we need to have the press playing a watchdog role. The Examiner did more of this than anyone.

With the pressure to come up with stories on spending, however, this often went too far. The paper would relentlessly FOIA budget documents from everyone (except state DOTs, whose road projects they didn't look at too closely) and write a headline about almost any kind of spending.

Sometimes that spending is really inappropriate, and it's the press's duty to call attention to it. Sometimes, the numbers just sound high when you drop a dollar figure on the front page without context, but actually make sense. Or sometimes, the spending might be inappropriate, but it's really a tiny issue, and maybe the cost of adding more accounting controls is even higher.

This focus on waste also obscures another serious problem with government: not getting things done. Take Ken Archer's recent exposé about the DC Department of Employment Services and the One-Stop job centers. Their process puts up so many obstacles to getting training, such as proving residency, which are so arduous that many job seekers end up dropping out and not getting any training.

I couldn't help but wonder: if DOES fixed the process to make sure that more people got training, inevitably here and there some person might get training who isn't eligible. If the Examiner found out, even if that's a negligible number of people, it'd be front-page news about how the program is wasteful.

The biggest problems with DDOT projects is not waste, but procurement delays. It's just so hard to get anything done. We have exhaustive processes to ensure not a single dollar gets spent without review, bidding, and on and on. In practice, that means that staff spend so much time trying to move their projects through the financial process that they have too little time for actual design, community engagement, and more.

The main burden for all of these flaws should fall on editors rather than the reporters. Some reporters were better than others, but editors write the headlines and choose what to put on the front page, not the reporters. Editors assign subjects and push the reporters to write more or less on certain topics.

We can hope that the good reporters there find new jobs. In fact, they deserve to get better jobs working for editors who are actually trying to run a journalistic enterprise. I've long wished that reporters like them could work for a better paper; now, hopefully, is the chance.

Update: The original version of this article said that AAA sent the dollar figures to Alan Blinder for his story, but the story says they came from DC officials. Many articles in the preceding week did get their numbers directly from AAA, like Ashley Halsey's, and AAA has been sending around press releases with these or similar figures, but this particular story did not specifically get the numbers from AAA.

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