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Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


For a day, we're getting a bunch of tiny new parks

Friday, September 16th is Park(ing) Day! Park(ing) Day is an annual, international event where people turn parking spaces into miniature parks for a day, prompting impromptu public gatherings and calling attention to our need for more open spaces.

Landscape architecture firm Oculus' 2013 Park(ing) Day installation in DC. Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Here's a list of where some of the miniature parks (aka "parklets") will pop up tomorrow:

District parklets

DC's official list of parklets is here. More than 25 locations will serve as pop-up parklets, including locations near Metro stations like NoMa, Dupont Circle, Eastern Market, Gallery Place, McPherson Square, and Shaw-Howard.

A map of where parklets will pop up in DC. Click for an interactive version.

The DC Department of Transportation is hosting a parklet and commuter spa at Farragut North, complete with a reading nook and a professional masseuse.

Several organizations promoting Anacostia River revitalization, including Waterfront Trust, Living Classrooms, Nature Conservancy, Washington Parks and People, and DC UrbanGreens will host a parklet in front of the Wilson Building.

Virginia parklets

Alexandria City will have five parklets throughout Old Town Alexandria, including City Hall and the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center of Virginia Tech.

Arlington will host five parklets, including one at Courthouse Plaza that will feature art by Kate Stewart.

A shot from Park(ing) Day 2013 in Arlington. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

Maryland parklets

Montgomery County will host pop-ups in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Takoma Park. Docs in Progress, a group that teaches documentary filmmaking, will be interviewing residents at its Silver Spring parklet.

Hyattsville will host four parklets, including an evening parklet from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Municipal Building, which will have lawn games, food, beer, and live music.

Help us crowdsource PARK(ing) Day 2016

If you know of a parklet we've missed or if you see a parklet tomorrow, let us know in the comments. Share any photos of parklets and add them to the Greater Greater Washington Flickr pool or tweet it (#parkingday) and tag us (@ggwash). We'll post photos in a roundup next week.


WMATA wants a private company to run its parking facilities. That's a risky move.

WMATA recently announced that it's looking to have a private concessionaire take over operations and maintenance of all of its parking facilities, including garages and parking meters on its property. In exchange for a big up-front payment equal to 50 years of parking fees, the concessionaire would have to operate and maintain almost 60,000 parking spaces. It'd also get to collect all the parking fees.

Right now, Metro runs its parking lots. WMATA is looking for a company to take over, though. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

For the base proposal, WMATA allows up to a 3% increase in parking rates every year, and expects the estimated payout to be based on similar hours of operation. However, as an alternate proposal, each potential operator can propose changes to rates and hours of operation, which would be subject to board approval.

This idea looks disturbingly similar to a disastrous proposal which locked the city of Chicago into giving away most of the value of their on-street parking for 75 years. In exchange for $1.2 billion up-front, mostly used to close budget gaps and now long gone, Chicago no longer has any control of how on-street parking is priced, and has to pay the concessionaire when people use the streets for festivals, for disabled placard use, and for allowing construction of parking garages.

Why WMATA might want this deal

The benefits to WMATA are fairly obvious: they get out of the business of operating parking garages and lots, similar to how they have contracted out paratransit service. WMATA gets a big up-front payment of what I'd estimate to be about 1 billion dollars depending on the discount rate, the cost of operating and maintaining the parking spaces, and how much profit the private concessionaire prices into its bid.

However, WMATA and the funding jurisdictions would lose almost $50 million in current parking revenues per year, which is approximately half of the annual estimated budget shortfall WMATA has had at the beginning of the typical budget season for the past 12 years. So in addition to the usual $100 million in budget savings, fare increases, and juridictional subsidy increases to close the typical budget gap, WMATA would have to find an additional $50 million a year to make up for the loss in parking revenue.

The deal could limit Metro's freedom to boost ridership or redevelop stations

But that's not all. Since WMATA is requesting potential concessionaires to be creative with their bids, they could potentially increase the amount of the up-front payment by offering to charge for parking during nights and weekends.

Currently, WMATA offers parking for free evenings during the week, and all weekend. This helps improve WMATA's bottom line, because the parking is not scarce, and the people parking typically ride Metrorail and pay substantial off-peak fares (increased over the past decade from about 50% of peak fares to about 75% of peak fares under the guidance of former general manager Richard Sarles).

A savvy concessionaire could offer WMATA a much larger payout by charging for evening and weekend parking. But by discouraging weekend/evening riders, it could be taking revenue away from Metrorail—revenue that WMATA may have been counting on, but which wasn't on the parking concessionaire's balance sheet. Without a solid analysis of how much fare revenue could be lost, WMATA risks further damaging the annual budget in exchange for a one-time payout.

Parking here during nights and weekends is currently free, which encourages more people to ride Metro. But a private company could change that. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It's even worse if WMATA decides in the future that parking isn't the best use of some land near a station. If office, residential, or retail would be better around a station, or if Metro needs some of the metered spaces for buses or another use, WMATA would either have to pay the concessionaire a large penalty or, depending how the contract is structured, be unable to make the change at all.

Even if a redevelopment replaces parking, would the concessionaire be able to veto designs it didn't like? Would WMATA have to pay it back for all of the revenue while the garage is being rebuilt, and what would the cost be? WMATA's request for proposals doesn't specify, but if a final contract is anything like Chicago's, this deal could significantly hamstring Metro's choices in the future.

Do we trust Metro to negotiate well?

All of this aside, for this plan to succeed, we would have to trust WMATA to correctly evaluate the future value of their parking assets so as not to get taken advantage of financially. According to an independent inspector general report, Chicago's deal could have been worth almost $900 milllion more than the city actually received. In response to a press inquiry, WMATA only stated that "outside resources" would be used to help evaluate bids.

We also have to trust that WMATA will appropriately spend the money it gets up front in a way that is worth giving up all the future revenue from parking we currently count on to pay WMATA's bills. Without parking revenue to help increase the cost recovery ratio of the system, it is possible that state and local governments will put pressure on fares to make sure more of the operating costs are being covered. Finally, WMATA risks losing the ability to control prices or usage of the parking lots without financial penalties.

This looks like an extremely risky potential deal. WMATA should proceed with caution.


Split stanchions in rail cars? A reverse commuter parking pass? Here are two more MetroGreater finalist ideas.

Last week we announced the MetroGreater finalists. Between now and August 26th, when voting closes, we want to tell you more about each finalist idea. Today's featured finalists: Install split stanchions in (some) rail cars and create a reverse commuter parking pass.

Photos by Shanan and thisisbossi on Flickr, respectively.

Install split stanchions in some rail cars

This finalist idea proposes to increase the amount of surface area on the vertical poles, or "stanchions," in Metrorail cars, allowing more people to hold on to the pole at the same time.

Photo by Shanan on Flickr.

Here's the original submission:

Seen in many new subway train models, these poles are split into multiple handles so that more people can hold onto them at the same time, and also prevents one rude leaning passenger from obstructing the entire pole.

I believe that split stanchions would be a significant benefit for riders, especially in crowded conditions. Most older railcars have clusters of three vertical stanchions at the ends, which makes navigating through them a bit tricky and often discourages riders from evenly distributing through the car. Replacing these with one or two split stanchions would free up walking space without losing surface area for riders to hold.

Split stanchions also solves the issue of one rude rider leaning against a pole, preventing anyone else from holding on.

These poles are an increasingly common sight on new and future railcars, including Montreal and San Francisco.

Peter D. knew that the MetroGreater contest was looking for "relatively simple ideas that would have a noticeable impact for riders" and thought the idea of switching out some of the vertical handrails fit the bill. Noting that "most older railcars have clusters of three vertical stanchions at the ends, which makes navigating through them a bit tricky and often discourages riders from evenly distributing through the car," Peter thinks replacing a few of these with split stanchions "would free up walking space without losing surface area for riders to hold."

Volunteer contributor Steven Offutt wrote a post about split stanchions after noticing them in a Barcelona subway car back in 2010. He noted then that "while the top and the bottom of the stanchion are a single pole just like in DC, the center section splits into three, allowing more people to comfortably hold on in the same amount of space. This appears to be a solution that could be retrofit into existing cars by cutting out the center of an existing stanchion and welding on these midsection portions."

When the jury nominated this ideas a finalist, they recognized that to implement this idea in under six months and $100,000, Metro would have to start by doing this as a pilot in a few trains only.

What do you think? Should Metro test these out? Vote at or share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Reverse commuter parking pass

Another finalist idea offers a solution to "reverse commuters," people who live in the District, but work in suburban areas of the region. Many of them could use Metrorail to get most of the way to work, but need a car to get from the station to their jobs. A reverse commuter parking pass would allow these folks to leave their cars overnight at a Metro stop near their work during the week and even through the weekend.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The original submission provides an example:

I think there are a number of individuals who would actually use metro to reverse commute but have the issue of "the last mile". If Metro allowed this individuals to purchase a parking pass that would be valid for overnight parking they could then use the Metro rather than driving the entire way.

For instance, if I lived in DC but worked in Gaithersburg or Germantown, I could take the Metro to the Gaithersburg station pick up my car and then go to work. Because of the time these spaces would still be available for regular commuters. They could use the same permit process."

Dennis E. found Metro's guidance on overnight parking confusing for people who may want to use station lots for reverse commuting. So he thought, "why not clear up the issue while creating a marketing-campaign which could promote the idea of reverse commuting and making it work for those individuals who don't work near a Metro Station or bus route?"

Dennis acknowledges that some of the other finalist ideas would impact a greater number of people, but he envisions several benefits of a reverse commuter program:

  • Raise awareness of reverse commuting using Metro and increase the number of riders who reverse commute by Metro.
  • Free up on-street parking spaces in DC and eliminates the headache of trying to find a spot for reverse commuters.
  • By parking overnight, reverse commuters reduce traffic congestion and reduce wear and tear on their vehicles.
What do you think of a reverse commuter parking pass? Even if you wouldn't use it, is it a worthwhile program to invest in? Tell us with your vote at!

And, ICYMI, check out the other finalist ideas we've profiled here and here.


At the King Street Metro, parking is out and a pedestrian plaza is in

At Alexandria's King Street—Old Town Metro station, there's a whole lot of space dedicated to cars and buses and not much for people on foot. But the station's parking lot will soon become a pedestrian plaza with wider sidewalks and more parking for bikes.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Today, when you come out of the Metro at King Street, you walk into a parking lot with 30 spaces and six bus bays. Contributor Gray Kimbrough noted that that's a lot of space devoted to cars, but also that the station is tough for walking around:

The station has Old Town in its name, but it's not at all obvious how to walk out of the station in the direction of Old Town. And all of the roads around the station seem to share the problem of missing or inconveniently placed crosswalks.
Joanne Pierce added:
The parking lot is not proportional. There is not enough parking to make it worthwhile for commuters but because it's a popular drop off/pick up spot (which Metro apparently never intended to be the case) there are more moving vehicles during rush hour, creating congestion and lots of pedestrians have to avoid the cars and the buses. There are no stop signs for the cars, either.

There are two station exits but one is much more heavily used. If I recall correctly, there isn't a tourist-friendly map outside of the other exit, nor are there signs telling tourists where they should go from the other exit. This means more tourists are using the main gates and then cross the parking lot to reach King Street or cross the bus lane to get on the King Street bus trolley that shuttles riders directly to the waterfront.

I myself will add that when you're coming up King Street, it is not immediately evident how to access the station entrance. I often find going to the north entrance, which is not immediately obvious to pedestrians, is often easier.

A plan to replace the parking lot with a pedestrian plaza and to add four new bus bays to the existing six could be the first step toward the station becoming more walkable, and it gained approval last week.

The reconfigured plaza will make it easier to get to the station by walking as well as accommodate WMATA's plans to increase bus service in the area. WMATA has also said there will be more bike parking, but there aren't yet any details beyond that.

Planned layout of the new bus and pedestrian plaza in front of the King St station. Image from the city of Alexandria.

The project will cost $11.7 million, and has been planned since at least 2012.

A public hearing is planned for the fall with final approval expected by the end of the year, WMATA board documents show.

The current King St station plaza includes 30 parking spaces and six bus bays. Photo from WMATA.

More improvements are coming to the King Street station

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is also working on improved access to the King Street station. Design is more than halfway done on a new pedestrian tunnel linking Alexandria Union Station and the adjacent Metro station, a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority project update from July shows.

The planned pedestrian tunnel from Alexandria Union Station to the King St Metro station. Image from VRE.

The authority awarded VRE a $1.3 million grant for the tunnel in 2014, however, the agency has yet to identify funding for the balance of the roughly $11.3 million project.

The tunnel is currently scheduled to open by the end of 2017.


See where DC issues the most parking tickets

Whether you think we have way too much parking or believe homeowners have a God-given right to on-street parking right outside their front doors at all times, parking—and its enforcement—is an important part of how any city works. This map shows where in DC the most tickets were issued in June 2015.

Photo by Adam Froehlig.

Created by Greater Greater Washington contributor Adam Froehlig with help from a handful of others, the map shows where the 148,707 parking tickets issued in June of last year were distributed. The data comes from's Open Data portal.

You might discover some interesting patterns, but the big pieces of information probably align with what most people would expect: the most tickets were issued closer to downtown, and in the District's densely-populated, higher-income residential neighborhoods and entertainment areas.

Enforcement is most concentrated in areas like Logan Circle/14th Street and Georgetown—even more so than in downtown.

Overall, the higher amounts of tickets were issued in the District's core—downtown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle—while more spread out in residential neighborhoods like Upper Northwest and areas in the eastern part of the city, near the Maryland border.

Where in the District parking tickets are issued might tell us something about where people are driving, and—more importantly—where it's appropriately difficult to park because there's a high demand for parking.


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.

Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.

Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.

Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.

Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.

Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

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