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Politics


Hear the candidates: Ward 6 on transportation

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 6 on the DC Council. See all of the segments here.


Images from the candidate websites.

DC's Ward 6 has a lot of transportation options, from Metro to buses to Capital Bikeshare to walking and much more, and soon will get another: a streetcar on H Street. What do the candidates for DC Council think about the streetcar and other ways to improve transit?

Both Darrel Thompson and Charles Allen said the streetcar project has been delayed too many times. "It's moving; it's not moving fast enough, some could certainly argue," said Thompson. "I remember in 2007 when the streetcar was promised to be running in 2010," said Allen. "Then it was 2011, then 2012, then promised in 2013, and now here we are in 2014." But Allen was bullish on the streetcar's promise, especially if and when it connects beyond H Street and Benning Road.

It's going to be up and running. It will be. And I think it's going to be great for H Street. What I want to do is work to make sure that H Street line isn't just a novelty, isn't just a track that runs up and down the block and is a fun ride but doesn't create the transit connection that you need. ...

I've got to keep an eye on how do we expand that line down Benning Road and into Ward 7. The streetcar works when it connects neighborhoods. So we've got to have that line that connects east and into Ward 7. We've also got to get it over the bridge and into downtown.

This is the first line and it's going to be the one that everyone is watching. But to the extent it's a novelty ride, I think we do a detriment to all the good work and the hard work that's gone into protecting and supporting our streetcar system.

Allen also spoke about the importance of a north-south connection from Southwest to downtown and Shaw and north through the rest of the city.

Darrel Thompson, meanwhile, spoke positively about the streetcar but also with some trepidation. "It's a good idea," he said, but, "We want to make sure it doesn't impede traffic flow. We've got to work out some of the kinks. We've got to make sure that some of the parking challenges that folks have are met. ... So I think it's a great idea, and we'll work out some of the kinks and make sure it works smoothly, and then we can expand to other parts of the city."

What about a dedicated lane? "It'd be great if we could open up 4 more lanes for more streetcars," Thompson said, jokingly. "We've got limited resources... and the challenge is making sure we accommodate as many people as possible as best we possibly can."

Earlier, when we talked about dedicated bus lanes and cycletracks, Thompson said he thinks DC should "look at every option out there and build it where it's feasible," but that we "also have to remember that some people still need to be able to drive and park." He does favor "maximizing the existing infrastructure we have, and if that means isolating a lane for bus traffic, that's a good thing."

Allen, meanwhile, does want to see both streetcar and bus dedicated lanes. "I don't view streetcar or bus rapid transit as mutually exclusive," he said. "On H Street, the concern that we've got is that we're running the streetcar right though traffic. ... As we plan for the streetcar moving forward, I think we would like to to look for how you have a dedicated lane, a dedicated space, for so that it is a quick & reliable mode of transportation."

In addition to lanes, Allen cited limited-stop services like the X9 on H and Benning which help people move much more quickly along a corridor.

Watch the full transportation exchanges below to get the fullest understanding of the candidates' thoughts, including on bicycling and how councilmembers should and should not respond to resident opposition to projects (such as the once-controversial Lincoln Park Capital Bikeshare station).

Events


Events roundup: Streetcars and parks and buses and zoning

This week, help plan a streetcar line along DC's north-south axis and a park in the heart of downtown. Next week, learn about rapid transit in Silver Spring and weigh in at the last zoning update meeting.


Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

Planning a new streetcar route: The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is holding a series of meetings about the north-south streetcar line. Where should "premium transit" go? Should it be a streetcar or bus? How many stops? Dedicated lanes? There are 4 public meetings:

  • Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
  • Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.

Redesigning Franklin Park: The National Park Service, DC government, and Downtown Business Improvement District have teamed up to design the future of Franklin Park. The park currently offers little usable space for area residents and workers, so the agencies devised three alternatives that add a playground, move walking paths, and add various amounts of plaza space.

The meeting is Wednesday, February 19 from 6-8 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 815 14th Street, NW. You can RSVP here.

Rapid transit in Silver Spring: Montgomery County is planning a Bus Rapid Transit system across the county, and Communities for Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are holding an open house about the plan in Silver Spring on February 26 from 6:30-8 pm. It's at the Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place. You can learn more and RSVP here.

The last zoning update meeting: If you live in DC wards 1 or 2 (Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant south to the Mall, west to Georgetown and east to Logan Circle and Penn Quarter) the DC Zoning Commission wants to hear your opinion on the zoning update. This final meeting (hopefully) was rescheduled due to the snow and is now on Wednesday, February 26 at the DC Housing Finance Authority, 815 Florida Avenue, NW.

A lot of Ward 1 residents heard a one-sided pitch against the zoning update at a forum sponsored by Councilmember Jim Graham, so it's important for residents who are well-informed to attend and speak up. Sign up here to get on the list.

As always, if you have any events for future roundups, email us at events@ggwash.org!

Events


Events roundup: It's the final countdown

This week brings your last chance to testify on DC's proposed zoning update, your first to learn about parking meters on the National Mall, and your second to discuss north-south streetcar implementation.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Speak up or be left out: Hearings this week will be your last chance to speak out on the proposed changes to DC's zoning code. The final code will have important implications for parking minimums, corner stores, accessory dwelling units, and more. Residents who wish to testify in person must do so at the meeting for the ward where they live. If you have not already signed up, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's sign-up center for assistance. The times, dates, and locations for this week's meetings are below the jump.

Also after the jump: proposed redesigns for MLK Jr. Memorial Library and Franklin Park, an update on stopping M-83 in Montgomery County, and the second series of public meetings on the North-South DC Streetcar study.

Here's when the final DC zoning update meetings will be held. (The meeting for wards 5 and 6 already took place last Saturday.)

  • Wards 1 & 2: Thursday, February 13 at 6:00 pm, DC Housing Finance Authority building, 815 Florida Avenue NW.
  • Wards 3 & 4: Tuesday, February 11 at 6:00 pm, Woodrow Wilson High School Auditorium, 3950 Chesapeake Street NW.
  • Wards 7 & 8: Wednesday February 12th at 6:00 pm, Department of Employment Services, 4058 Minnesota Avenue NE.
Paid parking for a Circulator?: The National Park Service has plans to install multi-space parking meters on the National Mall, which could make more spaces available and discourage commuter parking, encourage public transit use, and fund affordable transportation options, including a Circulator. To learn more, join park staff tomorrow, Tuesday, February 11 at the NPS Capital Region Headquarters, 1100 Ohio Drive SW. The meeting begins at 6 pm in the cafeteria.

Stopping M-83: Montgomery County residents who oppose the M-83 highway can learn more about efforts to stop it this Tuesday, February 11. Join the Action Committee for Transit as they host Margaret Schoap, of the Coalition for Transit Alternatives to Mid-County Highway Extended, at 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

MLK revamp: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is slated for renovation. The architects of the renovation proposals will present their proposals this Saturday, February 15 at 10 am in the library's Great Hall, 901 G Street NW. You can also stream the presentations live on YouTube or in a Google Hangout.

Dedicated lanes for North-South streetcar?: DDOT is hosting a series of public meetings next week to discuss the planned route for a north-south streetcar line. One big question is whether the planned route will include dedicated lanes. The meetings are:

  • Tuesday, February 18 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1100 4th Street SW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 10 am-12 pm, MLK Library, 901 G Street NW.
  • Wednesday, February 19 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Banneker Recreation Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW.
  • Thursday, February 20 from 3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm), Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.
A friendlier Franklin Park: The National Park Service will present concept design alternatives for the restoration and transformation of Franklin Park next Wednesday, February 19. The concept design alternatives were developed based on desired park uses and programs prioritized from both public comments submitted to NPS and feedback received at a meeting last fall. The public meeting will be held from 6 to 8 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, 815 14th Street, NW. To learn more about the Franklin Park project, visit its website here.

Transit


Now's your chance to push for dedicated streetcar lanes

Should potential future streetcars on Georgia Avenue have dedicated lanes? DDOT is hosting a series of public meetings this month to help plan that route. The meetings will be a good opportunity to voice support for dedicating street space to transit.


The North-South Corridor, including 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue.
Image from DDOT.

DDOT's North-South Corridor will run from somewhere near the baseball stadium north to either Takoma or Silver Spring, right through the heart of Mid City DC. Planners are still working on the exact route, but the line will probably run on some combination of Georgia Avenue and 14th Street. It could also be a bus or a streetcar.

One big question is whether it will have any dedicated lanes. If you think it should, it's important to attend one of the meetings and communicate that to DDOT.

The meetings are:

  • Tuesday, February 18
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    DCRA, 1100 4th Street SW
  • Wednesday, February 19
    10:00 am-12:00 pm
    MLK Library, 901 G Street NW
  • Wednesday, February 19
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW
  • Thursday, February 20
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Emery Rec Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW
There are many benefits to streetcars regardless of whether they have dedicated lanes or not. But giving them lanes absolutely increases their usefulness, especially in a corridor with such high transit demand.

As part of any good corridor planning, it's important to figure out where dedicating space makes the most sense. It's also a good time to advocate for terminating the line at Silver Spring, where there are more potential riders than at Takoma. This is exactly the time and place for transit activists to show up.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Besides Metro and a gondola, plan lays out many ways to burnish Georgetown

Georgetown used to be DC's premier shopping district, but development downtown and in other neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of a Metro station, have made it lose some of its luster. A new "Georgetown 2028" plan lays out strategies to spruce up the neighborhood's commercial areas.


All images from Georgetown 2028 plan unless otherwise noted.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) worked with community groups, residents, the university, and the city to reach consensus on proposals. That gives the plan a lot more chance of becoming reality, but it does also mean that in several key areas it just calls for more studies where there wasn't consensus.

The neighborhood stands solidly behind getting a Metro station, if it can. The plan also suggests studies for an aerial gondola to Rosslyn, an idea that initially seems kind of far-fetched, but is also intriguing. Supporters like BID Executive Director Joe Sternlieb are confident it is a more cost-effective way to move a lot of people; it'll be interesting to see a more detailed analysis when one is ready.

There's also a suggestion to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from the waterfront to Roosevelt Island, and then on to Virginia.

Most of the proposals in the plan are smaller aesthetic improvements that can polish up what's already there. If and when a streetcar comes to K Street, that street will need a lot of facelift elements to make it feel more like a gateway to the neighborhood as opposed to a back alley.

To better connect K to the main strip on M, the plan suggests studying a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the C&O Canal west of 33rd Street, and redesigning the one at 33rd, as well as improving other connections. The idea is to integrate K and M and the blocks in between as an integrated district, says Topher Mathews, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and board member of the Citizens' Association of Georgetown who participated in developing the plan.

More buildings south of M could have ground-floor retail, especially once there will be much more foot traffic along those streets between M and the streetcar on K. Where retail isn't possible, maybe there can be public art and seating:

Improve connections west, east, and south

The plan talks about ways to better connect Georgetown University to the neighborhood. One is a simpler pedestrian connection to M Street, perhaps passing through buildings like the Car Barn or new buildings like one that could replace the gas station at the foot of the Key Bridge.

In the longer term, it calls for a study about how to connect the streetcar to the university. But if the streetcar is down on K/Water Street, that probably means some kind of tunnel under the mountain. If there's a way to get the money for it, that could then bring the streetcar even across the university and up to neighborhoods to the north, but tunnels are not cheap.

On the eastern side of the neighborhood, Rock Creek Parkway and the ramps to and from the Whitehurst create a formidable barrier for anyone not in a car (and sometimes even in one) between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Suggestions in the plan include a clear and comfortable pedestrian route to and from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a better bicycle connection between the Capital Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Parkway trail. For drivers, there's a suggestion to let the off-ramp from southbound Rock Creek become a reversible ramp for northbound traffic in the afternoon peak, when Rock Creek Parkway is one-way.

And lots more

The C&O Canal is a real jewel, but limited NPS resources and restrictive rules mean people don't have many chances to enjoy it. One section of the plan talks about enlivening the canal, but at this point there aren't many details. Rather, it calls for a "multi-stakeholder" process to figure out how to better use the canal.

And how about real-time information? The Georgetown BID is working with TransitScreen, the company Matt Caywood founded to commercialize the open source screens Eric Fidler built on a fellowship for Arlington's Mobility Lab. (Disclosure: I was involved in managing the Mobility Lab project as well.)

The plan suggests piloting and then expanding screens in shop windows, as well as real-time signs or screens to give information about parking availability. (That's assuming, of course, the BID can work out something acceptable to the historic review boards.)


Concept for Georgetown transit screen from TransitScreen.

What's not in the plan: better parking management and wider sidewalks

However, also notable is the absence of some of the more significant ways to improve Georgetown, but which are also controversial. As is often the case, it mostly comes down in some way to parking.

The sidewalks on M Street are far too narrow for the volume of pedestrians along there. Yet a lane on each side serves as parking, even though only a very small number of cars can park along M and bring only a very tiny minority of shoppers.


Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

Working groups for the plan explored widening sidewalks, but there wasn't enough consensus among people in the neighborhood to reallocate the tight space among pedestrians, rush hour driving, parking, and more. Some argued that the narrow sidewalks were even a historic feature of the neighborhood that had to be preserved as is.

The plan alludes to this dissent, with statements like, "Proposals for permanent sidewalk widening on principal corridors have raised concerns over the potential impact on Georgetown's already heavy traffic congestion. Any sidewalk widening efforts should focus on creating space where, and when, it is most needed."

Instead of recommending any widenings, the plan more vaguely suggests trying some pilot projects on weekends to temporarily widen sidewalks when traffic is low, and to put "parklets" on some side streets. Perhaps if those succeed and residents see the sky doesn't fall, they can become permanent on weekends, or even permanent at all times.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

One reason some fear losing the parking on M is that shoppers headed for M often circle nearby streets to look for free 2-hour (or, on Sundays, all-day) parking. The private lots are fairly expensive, while the streets are free. However, a few spaces on M won't really change this dynamic: the simple fact is that all of those meter spaces are almost always full, and free parking is really appealing compared to pay garages.

I personally have spent 15 minutes or more driving around the blocks near M to find a free space when none of the meters was available and my wife and I needed to do some quick shopping. The problem is that most of the garages, like many around the city, are something like $9 for the first hour and $15 for 2 hours or all day; it's one thing if you're going to stay a long time, but for a 1½ hour shopping trip it seems exorbitant.

Plus, there's always the chance of getting a free space just around the corner. When you first arrive, you might as well drive around to see if there's a space. Once you've been at it a while, it psychologically seems even more silly to give up on spending all that time and go pay the same amount you'd have paid from the start in a garage. Any minute you might find something (and, eventually, you do!)

A simple solution to this is to require drivers who aren't Georgetown residents to pay for curbside parking on residential blocks using the pay-by-phone system. The rate can be lower than the garages for short term parking but high enough to push longer-term parkers to the garages. At the very least it would generate money that could help pay for some of the elements of this plan.

DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao convened some meetings last year to talk about this possibility, which had support from advocates and some ANC commissioners, but they encountered significant opposition from a number of residents. Rao is now no longer at the agency, and many neighborhood leaders have now abandoned efforts to allow paying for parking on residential streets, according to contributor Ken Archer, who participated in the working groups. Mathews notes, however, that other parking ideas might still gain consensus.

A Metro station would be great, but it's a long way off and may never happen. In the meantime, there are ways Georgetown can better use its street space that balance the needs of all road users, but that will mean making some changes that aren't popular with everybody.

Transit


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


For Arlington County Board: Alan Howze, Peter Fallon

This Thursday and Saturday, Arlington voters who consider themselves Democrats will vote for a nominee to replace Chris Zimmerman on the county board. Greater Greater Washington recommends voting for Alan Howze, followed by Peter Fallon, in the instant runoff vote.


Alan Howze. Photo from the candidate's website.

The Arlington Democrats use a "firehouse caucus" to choose their nominees. Anyone can vote in it who is a registered voter and who is willing to sign a pledge basically saying he or she is a Democrat and will not support a candidate other than the Democratic nominee.

Voters can cast their votes on Thursday night, January 30, from 7-9 pm at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, or Saturday, February 1 from 11 am to 7 pm at Kenmore Middle School. Three candidates are vying for the nomination: Alan Howze, Peter Fallon, and Cord Thomas.

It's an instant runoff election, which means voters can rank their choices, and if their first choice gets eliminated for having the fewest votes, their vote still counts toward the second (and so on, but with only 3 candidates, there are at most 2 rounds).

Arlington has more than one policy issue, but the fact is that this race is turning largely on one: the Columbia Pike Streetcar. 4 of 5 members of the County Board strongly support the project, but there is a very active contingent of people in the county who want to stop the streetcar. They helped elect Libby Garvey in 2012, who has fiercely railed against the streetcar in office.

Streetcar opponents would like to expand their caucus to two, and are backing Cord Thomas, who formerly co-founded Envirocab and now co-owns Elevation Burger. Thomas initially kept quiet about the streetcar, but more recently came out against the project. To the extent party affiliation is important, it's also somewhat unclear if Thomas is or has been a Democrat.

Both Alan Howze and Peter Fallon say they will support the community's plans to improve transit along Columbia Pike by supplementing the existing buses with streetcars. This investment in the community dovetails with the existing Columbia Pike development plans, which include a significant contribution to affordable housing that will only be possible if high-quality transit attracts developers. Additionally, the increased density that will come as part of the plan will only be possible if the new residents are able to get where they're going without getting in their cars.

Alan Howze worked for former Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher and Governor Mark Warner. He impressed Michael Perkins when he ran (unsuccessfully) for an open seat in the House of Delegates in 2009. Howze has a strong position paper on the streetcar, where he clearly lays out the economic and environmental benefits. That helped him win the Sierra Club's endorsement.

Peter Fallon has experience working with the county government, most recently on the Planning Commission. The planning commission is one of the most challenging appointed positions in the county, and his experience with the process and history of Arlington's plans and decisions is and would be a great asset to the community.

In our poll of contributors, all of our Virginia residents who voted said that they like both Howze and Fallon, but all felt the scale tips in favor of Howze based on his public statements at events and in response to questionnaires like the one from Arlington Streetcar Now.

While it is a close call between the two, both are clearly better for Arlington than Thomas. Therefore, we encourage Arlington voters who identify as Democrats to cast their votes for Howze first and Fallon second, or for those who prefer Fallon, vote for Fallon first and Howze second, on Thursday night or Saturday.

The winner will compete against independents and candidates of other parties in the special election, whose date has not yet been set. The winner of that contest will also have to run for re-election in November.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active regular contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.

Transit


Live chat with Chris Zimmerman

We're talking with Chris Zimmerman today from 12-1. Zimmerman is stepping down after 17 years on the Arlington County Board to work for Smart Growth America.

Update: The chat has ended. Here is the transcript, edited only for formatting, to correct typos and punctuation, and to insert paragraph breaks.

Michael Perkins: Hi and welcome to our Greater Greater Washington live chat. We have with us today as our guest Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member for the past 18 years. Mr. Zimmerman will be retiring from the board within the next couple weeks to work for Smart Growth America. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.

Chris Zimmerman: Glad to be here (virtually speaking).

Michael Perkins: just a note to anyone joining us today, you can submit a question for the chat by typing /msg perkinsms and then your question. I'll pick some to include. Chris, let's start out with Arlington and your experience on the board. How has Arlington changed in nearly two decades?

Chris Zimmerman: Well obviously the vision for Arlington as a TOD-based community has blossomed into reality; in the 90s it was still more of a plan, something hoped for. Beyond the growth of the R-B corridor, we've also extended the vision of a walkable, transit-oriented community to non-Metrorail places.

Michael Perkins: In the 90s Arlington was one of the first communities to try some smart growth principles. What was the reaction at the time?

Chris Zimmerman: That has resulted in transit service being extended county-wide (ART), sidewalk improvements, bike facilities throughout the County, etc. In the 90s we didn't have the smart growth vocabulary, so it was a little less cohesive as a shared vision. Most people supported the idea of transit, but there was less consensus on what we wanted to be as a community.

Many people were concerned about traffic in neighborhoods, for instance. That can become an anti-development movement (as happens in many places), or it can be the basis of a movement for greater walkabilitypedestrian safety, safe routes to schools, good urban design, etc. We took the latter path.

Michael Perkins: Right now there's a big debate going on in Arlington about the plan to add streetcars to Columbia Pike/Pentagon City/Crystal City. At least two of the declared board candidates are opposed to streetcar. How will the streetcar plan fare after you leave the board as one of its strongest advocates?

Chris Zimmerman: There has been strong for the streetcar plan consistently since the first approval in 2006. A solid majority in both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards is committed to realizing it. They recognize that completion of the streetcar system is a vital part of our economic and fiscal future.

Michael Perkins: Some of the candidates would prefer an option like enhanced buses, which some people call BRT. How did the county evaluate streetcar against BRT and choose its preferred option?

Chris Zimmerman: The debate over streetcar in Arlington parallels that over every rail project anywhere in America, especially in recent years. Opponents use "BRT" as a tactic, usually not because they want BRT, but because they are interested in stopping a transit project.

Michael Perkins: Part of the problem with BRT is that the concept is not concrete enough to know what you're getting. In some ways the Pike Ride bus system is very close to the best BRT we could have on the pike.

Chris Zimmerman: BRT is an important component in an overall strategy for regional mobility. It is not a substitute for streetcar in an application to the kind of corridor we are working with. Most significant to the decision with Columbia Pike, however, was simply that we realized we did not have a BRT option. We could add more buses, but that isn't BRT.

As you say, folks aren't necessarily sure what BRT means. That makes it easy to make up false comparisons in which there is a "far cheaper alternative", which isn't really an alternative at all, and wouldn't bring the benefits we're seeking.

Michael Perkins: A question from Canaan: "A lot of people criticize the Columbia Pike streetcar because it won't have dedicated lanes. But Mr. Tejada pointed out that is because VDOT won't allow a lane to be taken away from cars. What made you decide the project was worth it anyway, and if VDOT changed their mind would that mean the board would likely support a new design even if it meant some sort of delay?"

And a side note, is the decision to have a dedicated lane something VDOT could revisit with the county at a later time?

Chris Zimmerman: A dedicated lane for transit is always to be desired. However, when the analysis was done it was found that there would be relatively little travel-time benefit. This is because the east-west flow on Columbia Pike is actually quite good. And of course, the distances are not great. So, a dedicated lane was found not to be essential to achieving high quality transit service.

On the other hand, the quality of the service (particularly in terms of rider experience) can be greatly enhanced with street-running rail. And, yes, at some point in the future the state can decide it wants to convert car lanes to transit lanes.

Michael Perkins: A question emailed in from Rick Rybeck: "What do you think about the use of 'value capture' to fund transit and about its ability to promote more compact and affordable development?" I know this is something the County has done under your leadership in the Crystal City area.

Chris Zimmerman: I think value capture will likely be key to significant transit improvements and TOD in the US in coming years. This is of course a large component of our plan for streetcar in Arlington. The Crystal City plan adopted in 2010 included creation of a TIF for the purpose of funding transportation improvements, most especially the streetcar. We have had that in place for several years now, and it can fund most of the cost of the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yards portion of the line.

Michael Perkins: A question from David Alpert: "There seems to be a very loud contingent of people stridently opposed to the transit and smart growth vision that Arlington has held to for so long. Is that new, or just more visible because of social media like Twitter? Is it because now it's moving into new areas like Columbia Pike, versus building out R-B and CC-PY?"

Chris Zimmerman: I think that today there is a loud contingent of strident people opposed to all kinds of things, everywhere. The Internet is wonderful in many ways. One of the ways is the ability to create virtual communities, to connect people who would never have been in contact with each other. It is also a megaphone, that amplifies voices of a few (often a good thing).

These qualities have a profound impact on public discourse, however, and I don't think we have entirely worked out (as a society) how to process all of it. Among its impacts is the "nationalizing" of all discussion, so that trends that are running in a larger political conversation (state, national) are quickly transformed into local memes. This makes for a very robust discussion at the local level, which can be a very good thing, but it can also be distorting, giving a funhouse mirror look to policy dialogue.

Michael Perkins: Some cities around the country are just starting to look at Smart Growth/Transit oriented development. What advice do you have for these cities? What are the low-hanging fruits that are good "first steps" to take?

Chris Zimmerman: First thing is to assess what assets you already have in place. A grid of streets? A good Main Street? Legacy buildings? Etc. Your greatest returns will come from using these as anchors. Remember that the key objective in any such development patternwhether in a major metropolis or a small villageis proximity. The value of small spaces is the key. People tend not to realize just how much can be accomplished with very little real estate.

If you're starting with nothing, get one or two good blocks done. If you've got one or two good blocks, build on to them. After that, you can talk about how much you want to invest in transit and other infrastructure. But the focus has to be on creating great places, places people want to be in, and connecting them to everyone.

Michael Perkins: You're leaving the board after nearly 20 years. How do you think working for a national organization will change how you can advocate for Smart Growth compared to being an elected official?

Chris Zimmerman: As an elected official I've had the opportunity to work very intensively on one communitymy ownand have an impact on how it has developed. I'm very excited for the opportunity to help with this work on a wide variety of communities, all across the country.

Some are similar to Arlington, or to where Arlington was 20 or 30 years ago; others are very different, in size, demographics, economy, etc. But all have challenges in common, and for all there are basics that can improve the quality of life, the state of the environment, and their economic and fiscal health.

I've believed for a very long time that the issues of how we build our communities, how we create the places in which we live, work, and playhow we use the scarce resource of land has a profound impact across a great range of issues, environmental, social, and economic. So, I think I'm very fortunate to be able to work with people who are trying to make a difference with these policies all over America.

Michael Perkins: We have about 10 minutes left in the chat. If you're listening in you can send a question in by typing /msg perkinsms and your question. I may not get to them all.

Michael Perkins: I'm going to shift to Metro. The original Metro system was built using money that was shifted from a large highway system that the region largely didn't need and didn't want. The original Metro system is now running into capacity constraints, especially on the orange line.

How are we going to be able to afford upgrades to the core capacity of the system? I see a lot of plans on what capacity upgrades we could make, but I don't see something out there that signifies the $5-10B we are likely going to need to start.

Chris Zimmerman: That's really a question of political will. The original system (actually only partly funded by shifting money from highways) represented an enormous fiscal commitment from all levels of government. In real terms, the funding needed now is far smaller relatively to our fiscal capacity. The difference now is almost entirely in attitude. We've made it hard to raise money for anything government does. But if we want to have a first-class transportation system, it is entirely within our means to do so.

Michael Perkins: In your organizational statement you mentioned that we seemed to be "gripped by a 'can't do' mentality." How do we overcome that?

Chris Zimmerman: The "we" I was referring to was the nation; so, unfortunately, this is a problem of politics. For the most part, people here in the National Capital Region have not been consumed by this malaise. Recent "controversies" however, illustrate how this mentality is being imposed on our policy dialogue. Even in places like Arlington.

But we don't have to succumb to it. We have the means to accomplish what we need to do. And my sense is that peoplethe majorityare ahead of leaders in being willing to move forward. So, advocacy is really important.

Michael Perkins: And with that I think we are done. Thank you very much for joining us.

Chris Zimmerman: Thank you.

Michael Perkins: Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and for listening in.

Transit


Yes, there are new mixed-traffic streetcars in Europe

In an attempt to discredit the concept of streetcars, some opponents erroneously claim that other first-world countries don't build mixed-traffic rail. So let's set the record straight: Yes they do. Plenty.


Mixed-traffic tram in Manchester, UK, opened in 2013.
Photo by Howard Pulling on flickr, used with permission.

I'm not an expert on European transit, but it takes about 5 minutes on Google to find numerous examples of recently-built mixed-traffic European trams.

Here's a (most likely partial) list. The dates in parentheses are either the year trams were reintroduced to the city in question, or the year the specific mixed-traffic segment pictured in the link was built.

That's actually longer than the list of US cities currently running newly-built mixed-traffic streetcars. As of this writing, that list is exactly two cities long: Portland and Seattle. Granted, it is about to explode, but over the past decade Europe has unquestionably built more mixed-traffic streetcars than the US.

Of course, all transit functions better in dedicated lanes. It's completely true that many mixed-traffic streetcars in the US would benefit greatly from dedicated lanes, and will only lack them for political will. It's also completely true that Europe is better at providing transitways for their streetcars more often than the US. None of that is in dispute.

But the fact is, many European cities have indeed recently added new mixed-traffic lines, because whether streetcar opponents care to admit it or not, there are many benefits to rail transit aside from where it runs.

But wait, there's more

In addition to the true mixed-traffic streetcars listed above, Europe also has an entire category of trams that often run in mixed-traffic that's completely absent from the US.

Guided tire trams run on rubber tires like a bus, but have a single in-ground track to guide them, as well as overhead wires. They're a middle ground between buses and streetcars, and are present in mixed-traffic arrangements in multiple cities in France and Italy, at least.

It's not exactly fair to call guided tire trams streetcars, but neither is it fair to exclude them from a discussion of mixed-traffic European trams.

If a US city wants to prove it's serious about providing a rail-like BRT experience, they might experiment with one of these. So far, none have done so.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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