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Visible progress on the Crystal City transitway

Arlington’s Crystal City streetcar may have been canceled, but work is continuing on the dedicated transitway that would have carried it. Only buses will use this now, but the infrastructure is rising from the ground.

This is the Glebe Road station, in Potomac Yard.


Glebe Road station. Photo by Arlington.

When complete, it will look like this:


Station rendering. Image by Arlington.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, streetcar, transportation



ART keeps graduating to bigger and bigger buses

After years of using exclusively smaller buses, Arlington Transit is now operating its first full-length 40-foot vehicles.


40-foot ART bus.

When Arlington launched its first ART bus routes in 1999, it used tiny jitneys that looked more like vans than real buses. Since then, as ART has gotten more and more popular, the agency has graduated to larger and larger vehicles.

In 2007, ART added its first “heavy duty” vehicles – buses that look like buses, not vans. Those were rare at first, but are now a common sight throughout Arlington.

These new 40-footers are the next natural step up.

Three of these big new buses now ply Route 41, and you may see them on other routes too.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 25th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, transportation



Nothing to say about the Arlington streetcar

In case anyone is wondering, as an Arlington employee it’s not prudent for me to blog about the Arlington County board’s decision to cancel the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

Greater Greater Washington has excellent coverage of the issue, though.

November 21st, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: events, government, streetcar, transportation



For one day, Metro has a Pink Line

For Veteran’s Day festivities today, Metro is running an unusual service pattern, with no Blue Line. It’ll be rough for commuters, but neat for transit nerds. Why? Say hello to the Pink Line, for one day only.


“Special trains” between Arlington Cemetery and National Airport, illustrated with pink. Original image from WMATA.

Without regular Blue Line trains, Metro is running this special Pink Line to provide service to Arlington Cemetery, which otherwise wouldn’t have any trains.

The map doesn’t actually include the words “Pink Line” anywhere, and trains running this route will probably simply be labelled “Special,” without any color.

But the map shows pink, so I think we can claim it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 11th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: fun, metrorail, transportation



Does Maryland’s statewide planning make big projects harder to build


Maryland Governor’s Mansion. Image from the Boston Public Library on Flickr.

Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland’s new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland’s heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?

Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies, rather than doing it at the state level. Maryland is unusual. It’s geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.

That can be a mixed blessing.

When things go well, it means Maryland directs many more resources to transit than most other states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.

Maryland’s centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won’t change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.

But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly so safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan’s election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans. And they have different priorities.

Of course, it’s completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.

But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor’s time in office to complete.

It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway. If every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.

Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore’s light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor’s pet project and another governor’s whipping post.


Maryland’s spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway.

While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.

And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland’s particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor’s office seems to make it par for the course.

When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they’re less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.

For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.

Is there a best of both worlds?

The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.

While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George’s weren’t supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.

Could we find a way to preserve access to the state’s financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.

Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.

Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn’t get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.

No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn’t have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.

Don’t mistake Maryland’s problem as a criticism of planning in general

One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, “central planning” is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.

Maryland’s reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.

Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.

Perhaps it’s time to begin that conversation.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 7th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, lightrail, proposal, roads/cars, transportation



Ten little cities near DC with awesome urbanism

Central cities are booming all over the US, as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn’t confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.

Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.

Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city. Photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.

Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown’s solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC. Photo by J Brew on Flickr.

Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh. Photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.

Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.

Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia. Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester’s, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson’s famous Lawn. Photo by Ben G on Flickr.

Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville’s academic village. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road. Photo by Joseph on Flickr.

Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked. Photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.

Not enough? Don’t miss Ellicott City, Manassas, Leesburg, Martinsburg, Warrenton, Front Royal, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Brunswick, Harper’s Ferry, and many more.

To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington), and any city close enough to DC be accessible via WMATA (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 4th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: galleries, top10



Gas is suddenly cheap(er), and the reason is bigger than you think


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn’t the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler fall temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That’s why gas prices always fall in autumn.

But that’s not enough to explain this autumn’s decline, since gas hasn’t dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that’s also only part of the explanation.

The bigger explanation seems to be that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it’s totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that “OPEC is over.”

It’s that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven’t changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn’t changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale herf=”http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-10/u-dot-s-dot-shale-oil-boom-may-not-last-as-fracking-wells-lack-staying-power”>isn’t limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That’s a mathematical certainty. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn’t very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: There’s never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we’ve only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn’t be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn’t change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that’s necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we’ve made on those fronts, and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: economy, energy, environment, roads/cars, transportation



Keep it simple: Name Loudoun’s Metro stations “Sterling” and “Ashburn”

Loudoun County is trying to come up with names for the two Metro stations west of Dulles that will open as part of the Silver Line Phase 2. Many of the options are terrible, but there’s an easy solution, and it looks like this:

The “Route 606″ station is inside the Sterling zip code. The “Route 772″ station is inside the Ashburn zip code. Done. No more thought needed. Those names are perfect.

Names like “Loudoun Dulles North” and “Loudoun Gateway West” are not descriptive and they won’t engender any sense of place. Metro station names need to be as short and obvious as possible. “Sterling” and “Ashburn” meet that test, while the other options don’t. The KISS principle absolutely applies.

The only real criticism of Sterling or Ashburn seems to be that the center of Sterling is a little further north than this station. So what? Reston Town Center is a little further north of what will become Reston Town Center station. Vienna station isn’t actually in the Town of Vienna. And Branch Avenue station is actually on Old Soper Road. It doesn’t matter because these names are supposed to be general. They’re supposed to roll off the tongue and be easy for riders to remember.

This doesn’t need to be so hard.

October 23rd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: metrorail, transportation



Norfolk’s light rail decision: Embrace the city, or follow the highway

As Norfolk plans the next expansion of its burgeoning light rail system, a classic transit dilemma faces the community: Will the northern extension to Naval Station Norfolk run through rider-rich urban neighborhoods, or take the path of least resistance along wide suburban highways?


Potential light rail routes. Image from HRT.

Hampton Roads Transit is planning two light rail extensions. One, east to Virginia Beach, is relatively straightforward; it will follow an old rail right-of-way. The other, north to Naval Station Norfolk, is a challenge.

The northern extension will have to run on or adjacent to streets, and could follow any one of several alignments planners are currently considering.

If the light rail follows Granby Street, a tightly packed urban commercial street, or Hampton Boulevard, the main street through Old Dominion University, then it will probably capture a lot of local riders, since those are walkable transit-friendly destinations. On the other hand, adding transit lanes would be more disruptive for car drivers on narrow streets than on wider, more suburban highways, since there’s less space to go around.

Conversely, if the light rail follows the more easterly Military Highway, there will be plenty of space to accommodate trains without disrupting cars, and commuters to the navy base using park-and-rides near the end of the line will have a quick ride from their cars to the base.

But that alignment wouldn’t serve any strongly walkable neighborhoods; it would even miss downtown Norfolk. It would offer quick rides to one destination and easy construction, but the resulting line would be a glorified parking shuttle to the navy base, not the spine of a transit-oriented community.

Maybe after a few decades a Military Road alignment might induce enough transit oriented development that some of its stations could become walkable. Or maybe not. In the meantime, Norfolk’s genuinely urban neighborhoods will still need better transit.

Meanwhile, the Church Street alignment would split the difference by skirting the outer edge of downtown Norfolk, and the Chesapeake Boulevard alignment would snake along an indirect route that serves a few additional neighborhoods, but would be very slow from end to end. These options look like compromises unlikely to satisfy anybody.

Planners have already dropped the most urban alignment options, which would have gone through Norfolk’s dense Ghent neigborhood. Not only does that mean the most walkable part of Norfolk besides downtown will be without rail, but also that the western end of the existing light rail line will be a spur, forcing transfers.

Experience says pick the urban options

The fast and easy suburban options are tempting. Not only are they the path of least resistance, but computer models of traffic behavior probably predict that the more suburban routes capture the most navy base commuters.

But history shows light rail systems built like that don’t work very well. Computer models are good at predicting long distance car commutes, but bad at understanding travel in walkable areas. They naturally push planners towards park-and-ride oriented systems, when we know the most successful transit routes follow dense walkable corridors instead.

So Norfolk faces a choice: Embrace the city and build a transit line for the city, or follow a highway and build a park-and-ride shuttle.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 21st, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, lightrail, transportation



DC’s most bike-friendly corner: 15th and L

Look at this beautiful photo. Two cycletracks meet at a street corner, bike boxes and green paint flow in every direction, and a bikeshare station sits in the background. It’s almost Dutch. Almost.


15th and L, NW.

This is the corner of 15th and L Streets, downtown. It’s the only intersection in the DC region (so far) where protected bike lanes extend out in all four directions. It’s also home to the only two-stage bike box in the region. And as of Tuesday, it’s got a sparkling new bikeshare station.

Whether or not it’s really DC’s most bike-friendly corner is debatable. Certainly the heavy car traffic at 15th and L can make biking there uncomfortable, even with cycletracks. And while most bike movements through this intersection are easy, there’s still no good way to turn right off the L Street cycletrack onto southbound 15th Street.

But no other corner in the city packs so much bike infrastructure into one spot. According to that metric at least, this corner is tops.

And it’s right outside the Washington Post’s headquarters.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 9th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, transportation



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