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Worldwide links: Cheap(ish) houses

Cheaper housing is doable, but it's about way more than just construction costs, strict rules are killing Sydney's night life, and a potential light rail line from Brooklyn to Queens. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Hans Drexler on Flickr.

A house, on the cheap: Auburn architecture students have developed a house that costs $20k to build and that, by conventional standards, is very nice. But building costs are only one challenge to affordability; remaining hurdles include formidable zoning codes, trouble securing mortgages, and finding a knowledgable contractor. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Say goodnight, Sydney: Regulations that restrict alcohol servings and bar hours in some key entertainment districts are killing Sydney's night life. From 2012 to 2015, foot traffic dropped by 84%, and 42 businesses in the night life industry shut down. (Linked In Pulse)

Big Apple transit: New York City is considering a 16-mile light rail line that'd run between Queens and Brooklyn. The Mayor hopes that it will connect places on the waterfront but the idea is getting mixed reviews from residents and pundits. And those on Staten Island wonder when their time for investments will come. (New York Times)

Even on trains, voices carry: Thanks to new technology, it's now less likely that a train operator or bus driver makes an announcement on a transit system, and more likely that it comes from a pre-recorded or even non-human voice. That can mean more consistency, but matters like pronunciation have left some riders unhappy. (Guardian Cities)

Consider the flip side:Do the usual anti-transit suspects make you want to pull your hair out? Jarrett Walker, the author of Human Transit, says its worth considering the good points they make even if they're buried in bad ones. (Human Transit)

Alley cats: Hong Kong's alleyways can be cluttered, messy, smelly... and beautiful. Cleaning them up, says photographer Michael Wolf, can lead to a feeling of "sterilization" that dismisses character and charm. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Quote of the week: "Soon enough, the park could be growing trees from trash and rats would no longer have a buffet of garbage to feast on every night." - Cole Rosengren writing about a future in which vacuum tubes take our compost away. (Fusion)

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Education


Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education

DC is at the forefront of a movement to make education a more personalized experience, relying in part on technology to tailor learning to each student's needs and interests. The approach promises to ensure that advanced students are challenged and struggling ones engaged, even if they share the same classroom.


Photo from Bigstock.

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others need more help. Teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and some are lost.

While experts have long advised teachers to differentiate instruction so they can reach each student at her level, that takes a lot of training and talent. Some say it's impossible.

Now a different, more personalized approach is gaining ground across the country and in the District. While personalized learning models vary, most rely at least partly on technology to allow students to progress at their own pace, moving on when they've demonstrated mastery—sometimes of content they've chosen for themselves.

Programs that blend traditional and technology-based instruction are now in place at 17 schools within the DC Public School system on a school-wide basis. Many others use the approach in at least some of their classrooms.

And DC's CityBridge Foundation, through an initiative called Breakthrough Schools: DC, has provided funding and technical support to help 13 DC schools devise new personalized learning models. Each school can receive as much as $500,000 over the course of several years.

Evidence on the effectiveness of personalized learning has been scant, and the term embraces so many different models that it's hard to evaluate its success overall. Last year, however, two studies found that some low-income schools using personalized models had positive outcomes on test scores and other measures.

Some personalized and blended learning models could have drawbacks

Personalized and blended learning models have the potential to engage all students without separating them into different tracks, as schools used to do. But there are reasons to proceed with caution.

If kids are allowed to progress at their own pace, many may opt not to challenge themselves. If they're also allowed to choose what to learn, some may not choose wisely. And if each student is studying something different, it's hard to have a group discussion or an exchange of ideas.

And under many blended learning models, including those used at some DCPS schools, kids spend the day rotating between stations in a single classroom, spending a third of their time working at computers.

Students in those classrooms can lose valuable instructional time while making transitions. And in the many classrooms that have only one teacher, the unsupervised students working at computers don't always stay on task.

Even if they do, much of the software currently available has no connection to what students are learning from their teachers. Students may spend hours every week practicing reading comprehension skills rather than acquiring knowledge, an approach that is particularly harmful for low-income students.

Older methods of personalization are worth trying too

Given those possible flaws, we shouldn't lose sight of old-fashioned, low-tech ways of personalizing learning. One would be to have students write about what they're studying, something schools don't often do these days. Struggling students could write a sentence, more advanced ones a paragraph, and others an entire essay.

And then there's the time-honored version of personalization employed by the wealthy: tutoring.

There are logistical barriers to bringing both of these methods of personalization to schools on a large scale, but they're not insurmountable. DCPS has been piloting a writing program that has had encouraging results with students of varying needs and abilities.

And while tutoring has historically been expensive, at least one school has pioneered a low-cost version that has boosted achievement dramatically.

Like tutors, computers can get students to practice skills and give them immediate feedback. But they can't provide the emotional connection that is important in stimulating learning . Nor can they teach students to write well, or possibly to develop the analytical skills that good writing requires.

Of course, the high-tech and low-tech approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Used thoughtfully, computers can free up teachers' time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups, building relationships and doing other things only humans can do.

And personalization, if balanced by whole-group activities that create dialogue and a sense of community, is a more realistic approach than assuming that all students are proceeding in lockstep just because they happen to be the same age.

So by all means, let's experiment, judiciously, with these new approaches to an old problem. But at the same time, let's try to find ways to use older pathways to personalization that are tried and true.

An expanded version of this post is available at DC Eduphile.

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Transit


Metro's inefficient info displays worsen crowding

By prioritizing elevator information rather than train arrivals on its platform displays, WMATA forces riders to make bad decisions. The result: inefficient use of sparse train capacity.


Not the best use of this technology. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Picture yourself in this scenario

Imagine you're descending into a Red Line station. You hear a train approaching and rush to the platform. The train pulls up and you see that it's full.

You glance over at the real-time train arrival display, hoping there will be another train a minute or two behind. If so, you'll wait for it rather than crowd on now. Maybe you'll have just enough time to move down the platform to a less crowded spot.

Alas, the display is cycling through elevator outages on the Orange Line in Virginia. Who knows how long until the next train arrives. You'd better crowd on now.

Prioritizing less important info results in badly informed riders

Scenarios like that play out thousands of times every day all over the Metrorail system. It happens because Metro's PIDs, the Passenger Information Displays that show how long until the next train arrives, are programmed to also cycle through each elevator outage in the entire system.

Cycling through elevator outages often takes a long time, making it difficult for riders to get the real-time train arrival information that the displays were invented to show.

In turn, badly-informed riders can't use the system efficiently, and exacerbate overcrowding. Without good information, riders push onto full trains when an empty one is a minute behind, and rush into the nearest door rather than move down the platform to a less crowded one.

Those are increasingly important problems given Metro's capacity limitations.

Wheelchair users need elevator info

WMATA displays elevator outages on the PIDs because it's crucial information for a small minority of riders: the wheelchair bound, and others who can't use escalators or stairs.

For those groups, having plenty of advanced notice about which elevators are out is absolutely necessary. Removing that information from stations would therefore be an unacceptable trade-off.

But that information doesn't have to be on the same screens as train arrival information. In fact, trying to display multiple elevator outages on the PIDs, where there's only enough room to scroll through them one by one, is a remarkably bad way to provide that information.


A better way, in Chicago. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Displaying elevator outages on the PIDs requires riders who need that information to wait and watch an entire cycle, even if a train they could take is on the platform now.

It would be far more efficient to display that info on a separate screen that can show several outages at once, like the larger more advanced screens at station manager kiosks.

Or even a low-tech dry erase board, the preferred solution for Chicago's CTA.

By trying to satisfy two entirely different sets of needs with one limited screen that runs on decades-old technology, WMATA isn't getting as much out of the PIDs as it could.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


"Car Free A to Z" compares your commute options

How long would it take to bike to work? Walk to transit? Drive to transit? Drive the whole way? Use Capital Bikeshare? What about Bikeshare to transit? A new tool lets you compare these options.

Tools like Google Maps already let you see how to get from one place to another by transit, walking, biking, and driving. But this new tool, called Car Free A to Z, thinks deeper and lets you explore trips that combine more than one mode.

It also puts all of your choices on one easy-to-read map, labeling each mode with a different color and style of line so you can see them all side by side.

The above map shows the trip from an area in my neighborhood to Arlington Mobility Lab's offices, where the idea for the project was born.

Car Free A to Z can also help people who live in suburban areas find options that don't use a car or don't entirely rely on the car. This example from Vienna to the Navy Yard, for instance, shows buses to two Metro lines, biking to Metro, and driving.

For each option it shows how someone could save money (on gas and parking) and/or time. As you can see, it stylizes things like the transit routes, as a transit map does, to help the user focus on the transfer points instead of the irrelevant twists and turns of the transit line.

Building Car Free A to Z

I spent a few months working in 2011-2012 with a group of coders on a Transit Tech fellowship, which came out of a discussion with Arlington County Commuter Services head Chris Hamilton.

Eric Fidler built a prototype of real-time arrival screens and Andy Chosak made a demonstration program called Transit Near Me.

Matt Caywood later turned Eric's prototype into the company TransitScreen, while Kevin Webb and his company Conveyal created Car Free A to Z out of some of the concepts from Transit Near Me, and other ideas we brainstormed, with the help of a grant from Virginia DRPT I wrote as the fellowship program was wrapping up.

The program is still in beta and still has a few rough edges. A trip plan from my in-laws to our house, for instance, suggested all of the right routings that I'd think about, but also threw in a couple of weird ones, like riding Metro one stop beyond ours and then having a longer walk back. But it's important to not expect software like this to be perfect, especially since it's not from a huge company. And you can submit any bad or strange bugs to the team so they can improve the program.

Car Free A to Z builds on open source technology including OpenTripPlanner, a routing engine that Conveyal originally created for Portland TriMet but which anyone can use in their own software. This means that not only does our region get a useful tool, but also people building future tools also can benefit, and so does the riding public.

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Transit


How two families dealt with Metro problems and other transportation options in the snow

There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.


A family (not Mitch's or David's) in the snow. Photo by Amber Wilkie on Flickr.

Mitch says, "My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill."

Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, "We've mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there's track work (and often, sadly, even when there's not). But we didn't want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.

"We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn't mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after."

The snowstorm begins

By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.

There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, "I overruled my son's suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.

"We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.

"At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station."

"My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes."

Another Metro delay compounds problems

David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.

"Another 'special' train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn't go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn't yet know about.

"The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.

"However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top 'Glenmont' line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.


Photo by David Alpert.

"I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.

"The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).

"An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour."

What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:

Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, "I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another." If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.

Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn't have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today's smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn't have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it's transformed mobility.

Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn't talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.

The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, "I don't understand how this system works." People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn't stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.

We're still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that's not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don't even have that.

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Transit


Ask GGW: Is a Georgetown gondola practical?

The Georgetown Business Improvement District and neighborhood leaders have been floating the idea of a gondola linking Georgetown with Rosslyn. But many transit experts seem skeptical. Who's right?


Image from the Georgetown BID.

Georgetown BID head Joe Sternlieb says it could be an inexpensive way to build a high-capacity transit link. On the other hand, the National Park Service and other agencies would have to approve any wires over the Potomac, and jealously guard this territory against encroaching structures.

This week, we asked the contributors, why does Georgetown seem so enthusiastic but most others aren't? Is there a good transportation reason that these aren't the best choice (and why most US cities don't have them)? Or is it just that people don't believe it could ever get federal approval?

"Two words: 'Wire ban,'" retorted Matt Johnson.

"A zip line would be my preferred alternative," Tracy Loh joked.

Gray Kimbrough said, "I heard that there are wireless gondolas in development which will solve this problem," but Matt Johnson said the technology is "in its infancy." "A wireless hoverboard is much less complicated than a wireless gondola," he claimed. Steven Yates reminded us all, "Sadly, you need extra power to make hoverboards work on water."

Dan Malouff weighed the meta-questions:

Transportation people, at least the ones who aren't hopelessly close-minded, roll their eyes because the Georgetown idea specifically puts the cart before the horse, not because gondolas are inherently useless.

It's sort of like a transit fantasy map. There's been no analysis about what problem it's supposed to be solving, or about whether it's the best way to solve whatever problem that is. It could be, but nobody knows.

So my position on the gondola is "skeptical but open-minded." It could totally work, maybe even very well, but so far I just don't feel strongly enough about it (either pro or con) to become particularly vested in its outcome. I'd like to see some actual analysis on it, and maybe after that I'll feel differently.

Payton Chung laid out the reasons why one might use a gondola:
Any technology will have its proponents, and I'm prone to eye-rolling whenever someone claims that the technology is what will make or break a transit project. (They're wrong: it's the corridor.) As Malouff says, it's putting the cart before the horse.

However, having talked about gondolas with the relatively technology-agnostic Jarrett Walker, there are a few situations where a gondola makes sense:

  • Few stops
  • Challenging topography or limited ROW/footprint
  • Relatively level passenger flows through the day
I can think of worse corridors than Georgetown to Rosslyn. In particular, surface transit will require too large a footprint in a corridor that's heavily restricted by NPS, and the shopper/tourist traffic this would draw isn't sharply peaked.

However, there are better ones, like ski resorts or universities on mountaintops (e.g., OHSU [Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, which has one today] and SFU [Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, which has considered one]).

Gray Kimbrough relayed the history of New York City's Roosevelt Island Tramway:
Much of [Roosevelt Island] was redeveloped in the 1970s, and as an interim solution until the promised subway station opened, they built a tramway with one stop on the island and one in Manhattan. It opened in 1976, and ended up being so popular that when the subway station opened in 1989, they kept the tramway running.

For many people, it's a very convenient way to commute into Manhattan. It's also one of my favorite ways to view the city from a different angle, and I encourage tourists to ride it whenever they go.

Finally, Topher Matthews, who served on the steering committee that wrote the Georgetown 2028 report which recommends a gondola study, explained why the community is excited about the possibility:
I understand the eye rolling that transit people are doing in response to this proposal. It's tiresome, but I understand it.

Here's why this could be a good idea:

  • It's much cheaper than streetcar and Metro
  • It can be built incredibly fast (months not years)
  • It can be an attraction in and of itself
The best argument, though, is this: the plan is not simply to go from Rosslyn to M Street, but rather to continue to end at Georgetown University. Currently the GU GUTS bus carries 700,000 people from Rosslyn to campus every year. That's just a starting point to what the gondola would expect in terms of ridership. I have no doubt the ridership from GU alone would increase substantially with a gondola. And that's before even considering a single tourist, resident or worker wanting to use it to get to M Street faster.

Lots of the eye rolling comes from supposedly more level headed pro-transit people thinking that a cheaper more effective solution can be found with less exotic technology. But with the exception of Metro (which the plan admits will make the gondola no longer necessary), all the ways to improve the Rosslyn to Georgetown/GU connection go over Key Bridge and through Canal Road.

Do you really think transit only lanes on these routes is remotely politically feasible? Arguing this way is no different than Matt Yglesias saying that to improve streetcars we just need to completely smash the car lobby.

[Joe Sternlieb] is obviously a big booster of it, but he makes it clear: all he wants to do now is a feasibility study. If it comes back as unfeasible, then that's it. He'll drop it.

It's easy to laugh it off. But, seriously, if you can't even consider it while simultaneously defending streetcar without dedicated lanes, I'm not sure how you're making a distinction between what's a fanciful waste of money and what's worth defending.

Sounds like doing a study of the gondola concept isn't such a bad idea.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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