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Transit


It's time we all became mode-positive

For a while now, transit advocates have been infighting about mode (streetscars versus buses, and so on) amongst themselves. Not only is a waste of our precious time, it's harmful to everything that we do.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

To borrow from another positivity movement here, we need to stop mode shaming.

No one would argue that transit doesn't already have to fight a constant uphill battle. There are never enough funds to build out the systems of our dreams and certain Republicans are trying to eliminate all transit funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

Why, then, do we feed the critics with ammunition by poo-pooing our own projects and debating the merits of streetcar over BRT over heavy rail over good, old-fashioned buses?

When transit advocates get themselves in a tizzy over pitting the superiority of one mode over another we just give the opposition arguments to use against us. They already latch on to buses as a means of throwing transit a bone, but we all know that while buses are fantastic, there are many instances in which buses aren't capable of meeting ridership needs.

When the transit community declares streetcars or light rail inadequate, we look like the kids crying wolf.

Heavy rail isn't appropriate for every project and requires significant public investment. Streetcars aren't appropriate for every project, even if they're cheaper, adorable, and trendy. Buses suffer from a public perception problem even if they're the quickest way to boost service and have cheaper initial capital costs. BRT meets buses and streetcars in the middle, but only when done right and we all know that is a big if.

Our problem isn't mode; it's ensuring that projects are well-planned, perfectly implemented, and that we educate riders and advocates on the uses and goals of each mode. Heavy rail moves a lot of people a great distance; it's not to get around town but to town.

Streetcars are the last mile circulators to get around town. They are meant to connect neighborhoods and spur development. They do not directly ease traffic congestion but enhance the existing network and by completing the trip, streetcars encourage a global transit use.

BRT is, like heavy rail, meant to move a greater number of passengers a greater distance, mimicking heavy rail at a fraction of the cost. And while it an encourage ridership growth and can be converted to rail in the future, it does not solve the last mile segment of the transit equation. Buses serve a multitude of purposes and intersect all of these functions, but they lack the perception of permanence to spur significant economic growth.

Some transit projects are bad, but all modes are good. But not gondolas. Never gondolas.

A version of this post originally appeared on MARTA Rocks.

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Politics


Tomorrow's special election candidates talk streetcar, bus lanes, and more

The DC chapter of the Sierra Club asked candidates in tomorrow's Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections about their stances on transportation issues. The Club heard back from Brandon Todd in Ward 4 and from Eugene Kinlow and LaRuby May in Ward 8.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The questionnaire, which covered bus lanes, streetcars, parking, and bike trails, was part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process. In total, the Club reached out to one candidate in Ward 4, Todd, and to three in Ward 8—of all the candidates in the mix, that's how many it deemed to be running viable campaigns.

In the Ward 4 race, Brandon Todd's campaign answered "Yes" (but didn't elaborate) to all four of the Club's questions. That means he's in favor of endorsing "parking cash-out" so that employees can choose not to drive to work, creating transit-only travel lanes on key corridors downtown, fully funding DC's 37-mile streetcar plan, and reallocating District resources to complete major off-street trails.

The Kennedy Street Development Association also polled Ward 4 candidates on transportation and smart growth. KSDA's Myles Smith noted:

No candidate supports a Streetcar on Georgia Avenue, though they do support other transit investments: all back $2 billion in funding for the Metro Forward plan. Andrews, Todd, and Toliver support 16th Street bus lanes, adding new bike lanes even at the cost of parking, while Bowser opposed.
Oddly, on the Sierra Club questionnaire, Brandon Todd endorsed the full streetcar network—including… a streetcar on Georgia.

In the Ward 8 race, Eugene Kinlow's campaign answered "Yes" to three of the Club's questions, but "No" regarding the streetcar. "I still have doubts about the benefits of this investment and believe that other transit opportunities such as small area circulators and increased access to affordable biking options may prove more worthwhile for the ward," he said.

LaRuby May's campaign answered "Yes" to the Club's questions about parking cash-out and about bicycle trails. In response to the question about the streetcar, the campaign wrote that May "supports the creation of alternative transportation methods to better address the connectivity issues faced by Ward 8 residents. Whichever method most efficiently gets the people I serve to where they need to go is the one I will support." The campaign also wrote a similar response about bus lanes.

The Club contacted Marion C. Barry's campaign several times but got no response.

Full text of the questionnaire's transportation-related questions:

Subsidies for Parking and Driving: Subsidized employee parking favors commuters from the suburbs who disproportionately drive to work, as compared to DC residents. Employers would retain the authority as to whether, to what degree, and to which employees they provide a parking subsidy, sometimes called parking cash out.

Q: Will you support legislation requiring DC employers that choose to subsidize employee parking to offer an equivalently-valued subsidy to non-driving commuters?

Reallocation of Road Space: The District has limited right-of-way for travel and access. A disproportionate amount of this right-of-way is taken up by lone travelers driving on unrestricted travel lanes and on-street parking, with the result being poorer air quality in the District and less attractive transportation options than if such right-of-way were to be rebalanced.

Q: Will you support DC Department of Transportation creating bus-only travel lanes on 16th, H, and I Streets NW, and placing further streetcar lines in transit-only lanes?

Streetcars: The District has planned for a 37-mile streetcar system, including lines along Georgia Avenue NW and Martin Luther King Avenue SE and Wheeler Road SE, which would put nearly half of DC's population within walking distance of rail transit. Last year, the Council cut funding levels for the streetcar, and the reduced eight-mile network that DDOT has now proposed to put out to bid, as a single construction contract, would serve neither Wards 4 nor 8.

Q: Do you support raising taxes or reallocating funding to restore full funding for the 37-mile streetcar plan?"

Bicycle Trails: The Capital Crescent, mainstream Rock Creek, Oxon Run, and Suitland Parkway bicycle trails are all in need of major repair and maintenance. The Metropolitan Branch and Anacostia Riverwalk are left at various stages of completion.

Q: Will you demand that the DC Department of Transportation allocate the resources and energy to complete the rehabilitation and construction of those trail segments and reallocate resources, even at the expense of other projects, to complete?

The author is a board member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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History


There's history to behold on some of DC's manhole covers

The District has thousands of manhole covers, and a lot of them offer a glimpse into the city's history. This one, for example, is from a 19th Century streetcar company that hasn't existed in over 100 years.


An extant manhole cover from the Anacostia & Potomac River Railroad. Photo by the author.

The "A&P RR" refers to the Anacostia and Potomac River Railroad, which was the fourth streetcar company to begin operation in DC. A&P ran from 1876 until 1912, when the Washington Railway and Electric Company bought it.

The manhole was almost surely for below-the-street electrical power access. A&P was the last company to switch from horse-cars to electric power, making the switch in 1900, so we can reasonably assume this cover to be from between 1900 and 1912.

This cover is on 11th Street SE, between Pennsylvania Avenue and Lincoln Park. I've seen three covers like it in the area, and another on Maryland Avenue NE, just east of 14th Street by the Checkers. Those are the only ones I know about. These locations are a bit surprising since the A&P didn't run on these streets, nor did any other streetcar. The A&P did run in 11th Street SE, but only south of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Know of any interesting manhole covers in the DC area? Mention them in the comments!

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Transit


Consumers say they like trains. Why don't economists care?

One of the most basic tenets of standard economics is that consumer choice dictates the market. Yet in discussions about transit, many economic analyses seem to throw consumer preference out the window, insisting that riders' preference for rail over bus doesn't matter, or is imaginary.


Photo by Joshua Daniel Franklin on Flickr.

Opponents of rail projects often argue that trains are a waste of money because buses provide the same benefits for less cost. That's incorrect on technical grounds, but it also ignores the factor of consumer preference.

The great virtue of markets, mainstream economics asserts, is that they compel producers to make what the "sovereign consumer" desires. Each individual buys what he or she wants and isn't forced to accept what someone else thinks they should want.

But as I recently discussed in more detail in Dissent magazine, transportation economists often ignore a basic premise of their own discipline, and dethrone the sovereign consumer.

Be complete and be honest

Unlike their colleagues who study ordinary markets, transportation economists don't try (as they could) to measure consumer preference and weigh the costs of meeting it. Instead, they tell commuters who yearn for trains that their preferences are mere emotion and myth.

Telling consumers they're wrong to feel the way they do is extremely unusual, and transportation economists' insistence upon doing so undermines honest economic assessment of transportation proposals. Most commuters have options, and every freedom to put their preferences to practice.

This is not to say there aren't economic advantages to buses. Of course there are. Buses are generally cheaper, so cities can use buses to run more transit routes to more places than they could on a rail-only system. That's a genuine benefit. It matters, and it's why we'll always have dozens or hundreds of bus routes for every rail route.

So economists are correct to assert that buses can offer great value. But the fact that buses are great on their own terms does not mean consumer preference for rail can be left out of economic analysis.

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Roads


Muriel Bowser promises to finish the DC streetcar from Georgetown to Ward 7

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the annual State of the District address Tuesday night. Among many other statements, one caught the eye of most reporters, people on Twitter, and others: She has definitively decided to finish the main east-west streetcar line.


Image from Muriel Bowser.

DDOT director Leif Dormsjo made something of a stir when he told the DC Council that all options were on the table for the streetcar including scrapping it entirely. But it's now totally clear that this option, while perhaps truly on the table, is not on said metaphorical table any longer.

Further, the line will stretch to Georgetown in the west and "downtown Ward 7" in the east (and, presumably, to a Metro station). Such a line will be far more useful than just the "starter segment" that has been built. Plans always called for this to be just one piece of a line stretching across the District, and now that will be the policy of a third consecutive administration.

Bowser did not, however, commit to building any more streetcar lines. While DDOT's former plan was compelling, the agency has not yet demonstrated it can build a citywide network of streetcars. It may indeed be sensible to try to make one line work very well before moving too quickly to build more.

To make the line work well, it should have dedicated lanes for a considerable portion of its length. There are already plans to rebuild K Street from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle with dedicated transit lanes for a streetcar. But if the streetcar sits in traffic around Mount Vernon Square, between that square and Union Station, and along K into Georgetown, it won't be as valuable of a transportation facility as it could be.

Advocates will need to push DDOT to really study dedicated lanes and other methods of ensuring the streetcar is actually a good way to get to and from downtown instead of the novelty some critics fear.

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Transit


Topic of the week: Our favorite projects (from other places)

There's a lot to admire when you travel, and it's fun to observe how other cities achieve function and beauty. This week, we asked our contributors "What city planning or transit projects have caught your eye while traveling, and why?"


View from a hill overlooking Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo by Elina Bravve.

As might be expected, many contributors were inspired by other cities' transit systems, primarily overseas and mostly in Europe. Places with lots of active public space and bike infrastructure were popular as well. First, transit:

Jacques Arsenault was wowed by Istanbul's transit network:

I enjoyed Istanbul's streetcar system that goes up hills at least as steep as Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, changing my perception of what is (at least, technically) possible for streetcars. Most of the streetcars run on dedicated track in the middle of the road.

Neil Flanagan was impressed with the way Vienna has worked its transit infrastructure into the city:

Even the elevated portions of the U-Bahn were great. They were attractive, they fit in to the city fabric, and they were actually really quiet. These aren't the loud, dark 'Ls' in Chicago and they didn't create useless highway underpass spaces like in Tysons. Some arches have been adapted to host stores and the bridges over major streets feel like gateways. It's possible to make elevateds good for cities.
Agnes Artemel talked about Munich, another city with an impressive streetcar network:
There's a wonderful streetcar system in Munich that makes it easy to get to the entire downtown, museum areas, and a number of parks. The streetcars run in both mixed traffic and on dedicated lanes, and the cars are modern and easy to get on. There are one day and multi-day passes available, and fare collection doesn't slow down boarding because everyone is on the honor system to have previously bought a pass. I spent a half day just riding the streetcars wherever they went and taking pictures out the window or at a station.
Artemel also gave shout outs to pedestrian-only streets in many French downtowns, Paris's Berges de Seine project which activates spaces along the river banks, and easy bike rentals at European train stations.

Ned Russell touted two ongoing rail transit improvement projects, Denver's FasTracks and London's Crossrail:

I like FasTracks because the city has really coupled urban development with the massive build out of the system, especially around Union Station in downtown. I remember the area being empty in 2006, and now it's a hopping neighborhood with a lot of people going there.

I think the airport line, which is a fully electrified commuter rail connecting Union Station to Denver International Airport, could signal a change in the way a lot of Denver residents view the region's burgeoning rail system.

As for Crossrail, I love the fact that a city the size and scope of London is willing to spend about £15 billion (more than $20 billion) on a new rail system that acts as an express subway in town and a commuter rail outside town, all while not running down the median of freeways as so many of our systems do. This is what New York, DC and Boston all need: commuter rail systems that really run end-to-end across the region and not just into downtown.

Russell also likes that the Chicago Transit Authority puts secure bike parking inside of subway and 'L' stations, and wishes WMATA would do the same. "If Metro added bike parking inside, say, the massive and empty mezzanine at Mt Vernon Square, I'd be much more likely to lock my bike there and leave it," he says.

Accommodating bikes on transit means doing more than simply allowing them, noted Jonathan Krall. He cited San Francisco's BART, which has no restrictions on the time of day bikes can be carried onto trains, as an example. Steve Seelig agreed: "There's a huge gap in Metro policy with the rush hour bike ban. Seriously, I would ditch my car if I could use the system during rush hour."

Tracey Johnstone noted another positive subway innovation, this one from north of the border:

Toronto is introducing subway trains where there are no divisions between cars. Passengers who worry about crime feel safer, as do those who suffer from claustrophobia. And there are no seats lost to driving stations in every car.
"I liked the way each stop in the Seoul subway had a name and a three-digit number," David Cranor said. "The first digit told you which line you were on, and the next two which station. It eliminated the need to count how many stops you had to go, and put things in a language everyone understands." Matt Johnson noted that MARTA in Atlanta tried something similar.

Portland, Oregon's aerial tram is "a great example of a unique transit mode," said Kelli Raboy. "Yes, it's a tourist attraction, but it also seems surprisingly effective at serving the nearby university, hospitals, and residential areas. My favorite part of the tram is actually the free and well-used bicycle valet next to the station."


Portland's aerial tram. Photo by Kelli Raboy.

Our region's next new rail transit line could learn a lot from a similar line that just opened in Minnesota, said Adam Froehlig:

I look at the new Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul and see a lot of potential lessons to be learned for the Purple Line, especially with regards to the College Park campus and along University Boulevard. They include the design going through campus, what to do regarding pedestrians crossing the tracks on campus, and the streetscape.
Moving on to examples of public spaces, Mitch Wander cited a European model:
The street markets throughout Valencia, Spain provide an amazing alternate use of street space, a great place to shop, and an entertaining walking experience. Many neighborhoods have a designated day of the week on which blocks are closed to vehicular traffic. For several hours on that day, people of all ages wander around shopping, browsing and socializing.
Paris has created engaging public spaces for kids, noted Abigail Zenner:
When I visited Place de la Republique, there was a kiosk that had toys and games for kids. There were also little movable chairs. The other thing they rolled out last summer was bikeshare for children. It was limited to recreation areas but was such a cool idea.
Another country whose cities have great public gathering spots is Mexico. Elina Bravve explained:
In Mexico City, they close one of the main roads in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, to vehicle traffic on Sundays. The street fills up with bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, dance activities, dog walking groups, and lots of family-friendly activities. There are also bikeshare bikes (Eco Bici) available for rent.

Also in Mexico City, I noticed some very cool architecture in Chapultepac Park. One of the best spots was Libreria Porrua, an indoor/outdoor bookshop overlooking the park lake, where folks were renting paddle boats for the afternoon.

Finally, Guanajuato is a very pedestrian-friendly city. It's full of green plazas connected by very narrow streets, which aren't ideal for driving. Instead, there's a series of underground tunnels throughout the city that moderates traffic, diverting it from the historic center of town. I learned post-trip that these tunnels were created to stop flooding from a nearby River, then converted to roads at a later date.


Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma. Photo by Elina Bravve.

On the bike front, Portland—the city with the highest rate of bicycle commuting in the country—impressed a lot of people. "Where most cities end shared paths at intersections, dumping cyclists into crosswalks, this ramp in Portland delivers cyclists into a bike lane in advance of the intersection," wrote Jonathan Krall. "For a cyclist planning to turn left at the intersection, this is a big help. For a cyclist proceeding straight, it is much more visible to other traffic and much safer."


Ending of a bike lane with a ramp in Portland. Photo by Jonathan Krall.

Peyton Chung's shared observations on a more general planning theme:

Cities like Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal, and San Francisco have vast areas of three- to five-story walk-up residential buildings, with many miles of walkable retail streets connecting them. Even in cities without a long tradition of flats, many of the livelier neighborhoods (like Ghent in Norfolk and University City in west Philadelphia) tend to be those where flats, rather than rowhouses, predominate. Now, some New Urbanist architects are talking about these housing types as the "Missing Middle" of density.

But thanks to the recent "pop-up" controversy, there will probably never be any in DC. Columbia Pike was intended to have mostly four- to six-story buildings, but without a streetcar that won't happen, either.

Have you noticed great planning and design in other cities? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!

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Transit


Review says H Street Streetcar will be able to open

An outside review of the H Street Streetcar found no fatal flaws in the project that would prevent it from opening.


Photo by the author.

The American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) peer review of the streetcar on "whether there's a pathway to passenger service" is in, and the answer is yes, the streetcar can open.

In its letter to DDOT, APTA recommends a list of additional training and new procedures for the streetcar, but none appear to be major problems. The list includes more training for maintenance staff, reviewing operations and maintenance procedures, and augmenting DDOT staff with more experienced personnel.

DDOT is now analyzing the results and establishing a schedule to complete the recommendations. There is still no opening date for streetcar passenger service, but it appears likely that question is now one of "when" rather than "if."

Here is APTA's full letter to DDOT.

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Government


The public has a right to know what's going on with the streetcar

Earlier this month, DDOT's director suggested that the streetcar might have too many problems to ever start revenue service. But even after months of delays and several missed opening dates, the public still doesn't know what the actual problems are. We deserve to know.


Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

At a DC Council hearing on March 7th, DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, who started in January, said he's waiting on an external review to decide "whether there's a pathway to passenger service" for the streetcar. That's as far as he went, declining to share specifics about what, exactly, might be so catastrophic as to warrant canceling the H Street line altogether.

The biggest problem with the streetcar is how little we know about it

We do know that there are some unresolved Federal Transit Administration safety recommendations, but they all appear to be easy fixes. We also know that DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (DC FEMS), which is the state safety oversight agency in charge of approving the streetcar's safety program, has concerns, as they still have not approved passenger service. But nobody at DC FEMS has shared their concerns with the public, either.

The issues could be easy to fix, like a need to add more signs or pavement markings. Or they could be more serious. The public has no way of knowing, and nobody at DDOT or DC FEMS is talking. That's unacceptable.

After so many broken promises from Mayor Gray, it makes sense that Dormsjo has resolved not to make rosy promises or predict opening dates. In that vein, taking a couple of months to figure out what's wrong is reasonable. But canceling a massive program for seemingly no reason, and amidst such deafening silence, is an entirely different matter, and one that would not be justifiable.

Other major projects in the region set a precedent for transparency

When the Silver Line was delayed, we knew why. There was a well-circulated list of 33 unfinished items, regular conference calls between WMATA and journalists, and several public hearings on the matter. Similarly, the public knows what the problems are with the long-delayed Silver Spring Transit Center.

Why is the Bowser administration refusing to talk about what's causing the streetcar's delay?

If DDOT continues to keep the public out of the loop and the streetcar does open, how can we have any confidence that never-named problems got the attention they deserved? And if DDOT stays quiet and the line doesn't open, how can we trust this administration to competently follow through on any of its other promises?

Muriel Bowser ran on a campaign of community engagement and support for the H Street line. She pledged to "push for the most open and transparent administration possible." It's time for Bowser and her administration to turn that promise into a reality.

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Transit


Better transit can't wait

The Bowser administration has put the District's streetcar plans on pause, and may even scrap the H Street "starter line" entirely. It's important to think hard about the right transit approach, but whether it's a streetcar, buses in dedicated lanes or something else, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration must keep enlarging the District's transit infrastructure with projects they can deliver in the near future.


Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.

New transit service is a must as the District and the region grow. In the District, substantial development is coming to every quadrant: Walter Reed, Skyland shopping center, McMillan Sand Filtration site and Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hill East, the Southwest Waterfront, H Street and NoMa and many more.

People need to travel to and from these growing areas. Inaction by the District government will mean ever-worsening traffic. The simple laws of mathematics mean that roads of fixed size cannot move more people unless more people are in higher-capacity vehicles—such as buses and trains.

Read more in my latest column for the Washington Post.

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