The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Roads


Is our next president going to care about transit and street safety?

What might a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency look like for transportation? Here's a roundup of what we know about their respective takes on getting around, from roads and bridges to bike lanes and sidewalks.

Hillary Clinton at a bike shop in Iowa. Photo by Hillary for America on Flickr.

Broadly speaking, both candidates say that US transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of attention and vow a massive increase in transportation spending. Hillary Clinton says she would increase funding by $275 billion over a five year period, paid for by means of a higher tax on corporations. Donald Trump says he will double that amount by tapping private investment and taking on more debt.

But opening a giant spigot of cash to fix US infrastructure is not necessarily a great idea. State transportation officials are notorious for spending most of their budgets on either new highways or on widening existing ones. Maintenance projects, which lack the visuals of ribbon cuttings beloved by politicians of all stripes, are relegated to a secondary status. As Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog notes:

Doubling federal transportation spending wouldn't solve this problem. Pumping billions of additional dollars into state DOTs without reforming the current system could actually make it worse—giving agencies license to spend lavishly on new projects that serve only to increase their massive maintenance backlogs
Unfortunately, neither candidate addresses this fundamental structural flaw. Both appear to view the main issue to be a lack of federal funding, when the real issue is how lawmakers spend the funding they get.

With Clinton, expect more road widenings

Hillary Clinton's talk in this last month unfortunately sounds like a plan that will focus on widening roads. Her website states that she "will make smart investments to improve our roads, reduce congestion, and slash the 'pothole tax' that drivers silently pay each and every day."

On the subject of transit, she plans to "lower transportation costs and unlock economic opportunity by expanding public transit options" and "encourage local governments to work with low-income communities to ensure unemployed and underemployed Americans are connected to good jobs."

Photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

Clinton's website makes no mention of efforts to reengineer infrastructure for the safety of those who walk and bike. That's a key component of streets that are safe and promote more environmentally-friendly uses.

To Clinton, transit appears to be considered primarily a means for moving low-income workers around, with greater subsidies being the preferred means for boosting ridership. That attitude towards transit took hold in the 1960s and has held it back ever since.

A transportation outlook that holds roads so far above all other modes will fail, as road expansions in congested urban areas trigger induced demand that actually worsens congestion. This, in turn, triggers a vicious cycle with calls for more road expansions to relieve the new congestion. Even large departments of transportation like California's Caltrans admit this occurs. So, how did Hillary Clinton's campaign staff fail to catch this?

It may be because of who is in her inner circle. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is known to be a close friend of the Clintons, with the Washington Post describing him as being virtually part of the family. McAuliffe's transportation focus is primarily on highway expansions, with particular emphasis on HOT lanes. While he has gotten funding for rail projects, such as a light rail system in Virginia Beach, he has also claimed that HOT lanes can cure congestion. If this pro-road enthusiasm is prevalent in the Clinton camp, it is no shock that her agenda might be tilted towards roads.

Hillary Clinton does appear to be committed to reducing emissions that contribute to climate change. Reinforcing this perception is the commitment by Al Gore, perhaps the world's preeminent figure in the fight against global warming, to campaign on her behalf. However, her campaign site focuses on energy generation and lower emissions from vehicles. Neither transit nor walking and biking in urban areas are called out on her site's climate section. For Clinton, the focus is on tweaking sources to combat pollution, not shifting demand to lessen emissions.

Trump doesn't seem like a bike lane guy

Whereas Hillary Clinton's stance on sustainable transportation may leave something to be desired, Donald Trump's attitude can be downright hostile. In 2015, Trump criticized Secretary of State John Kerry for riding a bike, after a crash in which Kerry injured his leg. Trump vowed, "I swear to you I will never enter a bicycle race if I'm president."

Given the debates over bike lanes in New York City and the pedestrian-friendly changes in Times Square, you might have expected Trump to have said something on the matter. But if he has, the media hasn't picked it up.

However, his campaign manager, Stephen K. Bannon, has had very strong views on the matter of bike lanes. During his tenure at Breitbart News, Bannon ran a story on bike lanes in Chicago with the headline, "Rahm to Spend $91 Million on Bike Lanes for the 1%." Given this level of antagonism towards people who bike from such a close adviser, Donald Trump may not be a friend to cycling.

Donald Trump hosted a bike race in 1989 and 1990, but that's probably the extent of his familiarity with bicycling. Photo by Anders on Flickr.

By contrast, Trump supports improvements to passenger rail systems. The American Conservative's Center for Public Transportation explains this split from the traditionally anti-transit Republican Party as being due to Trump's long exposure to subways and commuter rail in his hometown of New York City.

Trump also admires Chinese intercity rail transportation. Time reported Trump saying during a freewheeling campaign speech, "They have trains that go 300 miles per hour…We have trains that go chug … chug … chug."

But Trump's admiration for rail transport may not reflect a desire for sustainability. Trump has consistently denied the science behind climate change, going so far as to call it a hoax by China. His motives for boosting rail are apparent in his effusive praise of large, new airports in China and Dubai.

As he has said repeatedly, "Our airports are like from a Third World country." As with airports, Trump views US rail systems as a source of embarrassment on the world stage. However, in the case of airports, he overlooked the tendency of modern airport planners to build on a gargantuan scale that makes them unusable, a trend I pointed out in 2012. Throwing cash at rail systems probably won't bring any more efficiency than it does for airports or roads.

Neither is exactly an urbanist, but could they get the right advisors?

Essentially, both candidates had questionable approaches to sustainable transportation, whether they are outdated or simply wasteful of taxpayer dollars. That is something that can be remedied if advisors are retained who are current with best practices in the field.

There is no shortage of these: Gabe Klein, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Chris Hamilton spring to mind as US experts worth consulting. Relying less on governors and website editors whose attitudes are frozen in the mid-20th century would be a sign of wise leadership, crucial for being President of the United States.

As to which candidate is more likely to change their approach, I leave that for others to speculate upon.


National links: Don't shame the transit riders

Uber took down some ads that shamed transit riders, Texas researchers are looking at how race, gender, and development intersect, and a new book explains that cities weren't always bastions for Democrats. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Anthony Easton on Flickr.

Uber's advertising effect: Uber and Lyft often have run ads that belittle transit riders. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently decided he'd had enough, calling Uber out for an anti-transit stance that he says promotes congestion and social stratification. Soon thereafter, an Uber executive saw to it that the ad came down. If ads like this keep running, Walker says, it signals a tacit agreement that we should starve cities of the transportation options they need and deserve. (Human Transit)

Race, gender, and the built environment: The University of Texas at Austin will launch a first-of-its-kind program to study the intersection of race, gender, city planning, and development. In this interview, Professors Anna Brand and Andrea Roberts discuss why they are keen to expand the definition of planning and preservation and how Austin is a great place to be thinking about these issues. (Metropolis Magazine)

How cities went blue: During the time of the US' founding, pretty much everyone in politics disliked cities, as they were seen as places of corruption and vice. But now, as cities are becoming more and more popular, cities have become a stronghold for Democrats. Read about the history of anti-urbanism and the move toward our current landscape in a review of Steven Conn's Americans Against the City. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

White House vs. parking: Last week's White House paper about why we need more housing and how cities can make it happen was the talk of the urbanism world. A major part was its push for less required parking, as parking drives up housing costs and stresses the transportation network. While the White House's toolkit has no teeth to enact reform, it is refreshing to see ideas like these from the top. (Wired)

Look Mom, no signals: The first Dutch-style unsignalized intersection in the United States just went in near the campus of Texas A&M University. The hope is that moving cyclists in front of car traffic at the intersections and painting the lanes green with solar luminescent paint will make vulnerable road users will be more visible, meaning drivers will be less likely to hit them. (Texas Transportation Institute)

Connecting Boston's 2 halves: Boston's commuter rail network is split in two: a north and a south half. Advocates have long been working to connect the two so the entire system functions more efficiently, but haven't had any luck. Now, there's a greater sense of urgency, as a plan to expand a key station would effectively kill hopes of a north-south rail link. Activists hope that building the connection will take precedent. (Boston Magazine)

A new ride hailing service in town

Since Uber and Lyft left Austin, new companies have filled the void. One of them is RideAustin, which is now one of the leading ride hailing providers in the city. Co-founder Andy Tryba sat down to talk about why they started the company, while Jerry, a driver for RideAustin, discussed the new city fingerprinting requirement. Check out what they had to say on Episode 7 of my show, Transit Trends:


Does the US highway system have high cholesterol?

Similar to how veins and arteries pump blood to and from our hearts, our infrastructure moves people and materials around the country. In this video, Metrocosm's Max Galka took 24 hours' worth of highway traffic and visualized it to look like the human circulatory system.

Max made the visual using the raw data that the US Department of Transportation used for its July summary of traffic volume trends across the country (it puts one out each month). Here, you're seeing traffic volume counts for every hour of every day at about 4,000 traffic counting stations nationwide, which adds up to about 14 million datapoints in all.

Max noted the following when we emailed about his map:

For the most part, the traffic is concentrated just where you would expect, in the most populous areas: New York, LA, Chicago, Florida, Texas. But if you look at the map, you will notice that there is one spot where many of the major routes converge, which I was surprised to discover is Nashville.

I was also surprised by the pattern of traffic across the day. Rather than spiking at rush hour in the morning and again in the evening, the volume of traffic on the interstate grows steadily throughout the day, peaking at 4pm and falling off from there.

What do you notice when you watch?


There’s no place like… the Ballston Metro station

I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I'm an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It's a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.

Image by the author.

With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station's official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA's 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston's status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.

As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.

However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro's planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.

Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.

As the western end of this new "Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor," Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University's "Blue Goose" building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.

The station was originally designated as "Glebe Road" in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe's intersection with Fairfax Drive.

The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn't ideal

Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.

Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.

(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)

Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.

When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.

Development from the 1980s onward

Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Plans for the "Ballston Metro Center" complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro's first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.

Ballston Metro Center entrance from the station escalator. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.

Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington's new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.

The Ballston neighborhood today. Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I'm proud to call it my home station.

Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?


Red light cameras work. The Washington Post runs the same old attack on them anyway.

Red light cameras work, but articles saying they don't, based on more innuendo than fact, pop up in the press regularly. The latest example is from Washington Post "Tripping" blogger Frederick Kunkle.

This is a sculpture. There's no penalty for running these red lights. Image by Daniel Guimberteau on Flickr.

DC uses cameras around the city to catch people running red lights. The machines photograph the license plates of cars that run red lights, and a few weeks later the car owner gets a ticket in the mail. The city has 48 cameras set up, and issues thousands of tickets each year.

Proponents argue that the cameras effectively combat dangerous driving, reducing collisions and making streets safer for everyone. Others, while they may broadly agree that there's a need for better red light enforcement, voice concerns that range from whether or not the cameras work properly to people's ability to fight tickets in court to the claim that DC is too dependent on revenue from camera citations.

In a column on Tripping that went up last week, Kunkle mentions that the total number of tickets from red light cameras is down in DC (another way of putting this: fewer people are speeding running red lights), and that a majority of drivers happen to support DC's red light cameras. He also notes that almost all drivers agree that running a red light is a dangerous activity that needs to be curbed. Those two facts alone might be considered good news for many who want to see a government program prove to be popular and effective.

But as he continues, Kunkle spins these facts into negatives. The total number of tickets might be down, he says, but since DC's fines are higher than in Maryland the total amount of revenue collected is higher—a clear money grab by the District. And even though there is a lot of support for the cameras, Kunkle uses the term "slim majority" to hint that red light cameras may be more controversial than they actually are.

This is creating a scandal where there isn't one

Throughout the article, Kunkle quotes speculation from John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, including the thought that the city is playing "dirty pool" by having its yellow lights turn over extra quickly.

DC has not simply shortened its yellow light times, and a look at the big picture makes it clear that there's no money grab happening here. Last year, DDOT changed the timing of hundreds of stop lights across the city, but that included every phase of the light, including pedestrian signals. That's something DDOT needs to do as it works on the incredibly complex issue of creating traffic flow that gives everyone what they want.

Still, even with the lack of evidence, Kunkle fuels the thought that nefarious traffic engineers are out there shortening yellow lights so more people run reds.

Another claim from Townsend that Kunkle leans on is the notion that most red light tickets are somehow erroneously issued for drivers "who stopped beyond on [sic] the intersection threshold line or beyond the stop line but who never crossed the intersection"—as if stopping late and possibly blocking the crosswalk at the intersection are not serious problems in and of themselves.

The fact that different jurisdictions do not always have the same fines should not be a shock. But rule number one in bad traffic camera journalism, it seems, says that you cannot talk about fines unless you openly wonder whether or not the cameras are there for safety or for revenue. Send the message that cameras are there solely for revenue, and you can help ensure that people focus on simply removing the cameras rather than think about ways to improve safety at intersections.

Kunkle is gracious enough to suggest that city's motivations could be about revenue and safety, but the "really makes you think" rhetorical device used across the column is clearly aimed at getting people ready to expect a scandal despite a lack of any evidence.

Traffic safety measures shouldn't turn into us vs. them affairs

Its disheartening to see columnists like Kunkle twist neutral or positive facts into bad things. All it does is play into the narrative about a "war on cars" that tries to shut down any proposal or idea that even loosely appears to treat driving as an equal part of the transportation landscape rather than the primary and superior way to get around.

Worse, these kinds of arguments divert attention away from improving the city's camera program for everyone, drivers included. Even red light camera proponents have ideas to improve them to help ensure they're more effective and fair. For example, our own David Alpert has argued that raising DC's camera fines is the wrong approach to traffic safety—instead, the solution is lower but more frequent citations. Casting red light cameras as evil from the get-go limits conversations about how to make them better.

Insinuations that cameras are about revenue rather than safety, or spinning neutral facts into bad news, do little to inform people about an issue that is important to just about everyone. Once a driver who is under the "threat" of a traffic ticket parks their car and has to cross the street to their final destination, they benefit from safe streets just as much as the next person. The Post should do better.

Correction: This post originally said fewer tickets means fewer people speeding. It meant to say fewer tickets means fewer people running red lights.


There's a word for that

On a recent post about short bike lanes near intersections, a discussion started up about whether we should use a technical term or simpler ones. To help you learn some transportation lingo, here are some recently-discovered, never-published verses to the Barenaked Ladies' children's song, A Word for That. Listen below first, then read along:

There's a word for that
But I can't quite recall
When cars wait at a corner and I go around them all
The word for that
Some drivers are annoyed
But others say it's safe and isn't something to avoid

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(The word you are looking for is "filtering.")

There's a word for that
It sure is aggravating
To not remember what's the term for how long I am waiting
The word for that
In sun or snow or rain
How far apart arrivals are for any bus or train

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(Do you mean "headways"?)

There's a word for that
It's different every day
Sometimes I walk or ride a bus or go another way
The word for that
When traffic engineers
Ensure the road is safe no matter what your type of gears

There's a word for that
What does it start with?
The word for that
I'd sound so smart if I only knew
The word for that
Perhaps you do

(Are you nuts, it's "multimodal.")


67 Congress members to feds: Measure the movement of people, not cars

The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they're finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions?

US DOT is developing a metric to assess how well states address congestion. This is a minefield—if the new congestion rule only measures the movement of cars, it's going to entrench 60 years of failed transportation policy. Unfortunately, the first draft of the DOT rule left a lot to be desired.

Reformers have been pushing the agency to revise the rule so it takes a broader, multi-modal view of congestion. Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America reports 19 senators and 48 US representatives have written a letter to US DOT [PDF] demanding a healthier approach.

The Congress members write:

If we focus, as this proposed rule does, on keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: states and MPOs will prioritize investments to increase average speeds for cars, at the expense of goals to provide safe, reliable, environmentally sensitive, multi-modal transportation options for all users of the transportation system, despite those goals being stated in federal statute. This singular focus on moving vehicles undermines the progress this Administration has made on multi-modal planning and investments through the TIGER program. Encouraging faster speeds on roadways undermines the safety of roads for all users, as well as the economic vitality of our communities.

The excessive congestion performance measure should be amended to assess people hours of delay and not just vehicles. This change is critical to account for the many non-single occupancy vehicle users, including transit bus riders and bicyclists and pedestrians traveling along the corridor, which provide critical congestion relief and could be undercounted or even penalized under this measure.

The letter also insists that U.S. DOT require state and regional transportation agencies to assess the impact of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

US DOT is currently accepting comments about the rule change. You can weigh in and help promote a better policy.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.


DC's 43,766 acres: 25% "roads," 2% high-rises

The District of Columbia spans over 68 square miles. About half its land area goes to buildings, 20% is open space, and over a quarter is "road infrastructure." Among residential land, half is single family detached houses while high-rise apartments occupy less than 2% of DC's total.

Land use in DC, 2006. Graph using data from the Comprehensive Plan.

I created the above chart using data in DC's Comprehensive Plan. That plan divides land into more categories, but for simplicity, I grouped many of them.

It's important to note that "roads" includes a lot of land that's not paved roads. That's because in many neighborhoods, the official public right-of-way includes much or all of people's front yards; the actual property line is at the building or between it and the sidewalk. This "roadway" space covers yards, sidewalks, tree boxes, some grassy areas, and more. Still, it's a big percentage.

The "jobs" category combines any sort of land use relating to where people work (commercial, industrial, public facilities, federal facilities, and institutional land). The "housing" category groups together of all of the housing categories.

The chart below breaks down the housing category:

Breakdown of DC's residential land, 2006.

Out of the almost 30% of DC's land which was used for housing in 2006, nearly half of that was occupied by single family detached homes—about 5,000 acres. The other half was split between rowhouses and low-rise apartments. Only about 4% of land dedicated to housing was occupied by high-rise apartments (so about 1.6% of the total).

This data is from 2006. I would expect some things have changed in ten years, but not everything. The large amount of "permanent open space"—much of it federal parkland—is not going anywhere.

How do these land use patterns affect our growing city? What changes should we expect, or should we advocate for?


This video compares LA's streets of 70 years ago to today's

How does a street change in 70 years? In some ways a lot, and in others, not at all, as this video of Los Angeles from the New Yorker shows.

Beyond the increased build-out along the streets, in some places the older streets seem more welcoming to people walking; in others today's streets seem friendlier. While this video is of LA, one can imagine a similar then-and-now for DC.

Would you be willing to create something like this, but for DC? For example, you could grab a Go-Pro and follow the route of the 82 streetcar today.

What else do you notice about the video? Tell us in the comments.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City