DC can save the Olympics, if Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all help
Boston has backed out of its bid to host the 2024 Olympics, and officials are begging DC and other cities to try and host the games. But fewer and fewer cities want to. What if, instead of picking one host city, the entire country pitched in, with venues spread out in several cities coast to coast.
Don’t pick one. Pick them all. And add 10 more. Image by the USOC.
The Olympics have a big problem. Virtually no democratic cities anywhere in the world want to host them anymore. The combination of sky-high costs for new facilities, and the inconveniences put upon the populace by way of construction and tourist traffic, have made the Olympics too much for one city to bear.
But why should one city have to?
To save the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup offers a compelling alternate in which countries host instead of cities.
Brazilian host cities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Image from Wikipedia.
Different events would take place in different locations, hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. No single city would have to shoulder the burdens of more than one or two events.
With a whole country to choose from, organizers could find existing facilities for virtually every event. Much less new construction would be necessary. Many fewer one-time-use buildings would become abandoned after the games end.
And with fewer athletes and visitors in any one location, existing infrastructure and hotels could accommodate more of the influx of guests, with less disruption to residents. Hosting a single Olympic event would be more like hosting a college football bowl game, or the baseball All Star game.
In short, everything would become easier.
And although it’s true that some World Cups suffer from overspending too, certainly the problem is less acute when it’s spread over an entire nation.
This would admittedly be a drastic change to the culture of the games. It would be difficult for anyone to attend more than one event in person. Athletes would no longer live and socialize in a single Olympic Village. Something about the in-person experience of being in a city dedicated completely to the Olympics would be lost.
Without that complete dedication, it’s unlikely urban politicians would find the will to use the Olympics to upgrade infrastructure.
But that overwhelming experience is part of why so many cities don’t want to host the Olympics anymore. For residents whose lives are put on hold, it’s a bug, not a feature.
Meanwhile, the opening and closing ceremonies would still provide glimpses of that invigorating everyone’s-here feeling. It would be a trade-off, but perhaps a worthwhile one.
What role would DC play?
If Olympic officials spread the wealth/burden, what events might DC be fit to host?
A look at the possible venues for DC’s 2014 bid shows what facilities already exist, and therefore might be a good fit.
We probably wouldn’t get the opening ceremony. That needs an NFL-sized stadium, and our only options are either too old or too isolated. They’d work in a pinch, but some other US city can probably offer something more appealing.
Weightlifting could occur at Constitution Hall. The convention center could host table tennis, handball, or badminton.
The marathon could follow the path of the Marine Corps marathon. Rowers could set off from Georgetown.
And of course, the Verizon Center would be a killer spot for basketball. Or really any gym sport. How about gymnastics?
How would this change your opinion of the games? Would readers who oppose a DC Olympiad support a US games, with only one or two venues in DC?
Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
August 10th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: events, in general, proposal
Capital Bikeshare needs smaller stations, but more of them
The most successful bikeshare systems in the world have dense networks with stations every few blocks, according to bikeshare guru Jon Orcutt. That suggests that as Capital Bikeshare expands, the agency should focus on adding small infill stations rather than adding more docks to make existing stations bigger.
Bikeshare station in Montreal with only seven docks.
More stations are better
In a recent Streetsblog interview, Orcutt points out there’s a clear (and probably causal) correlation between bikeshare station density and bike usage. He cites the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy’s (ITDP) bikeshare planning guide, which bluntly states “increasing station density will yield increased market penetration.”
Simply put, systems with denser networks get more riders per bike per day.
That makes sense. Most bikeshare trips cover short distances, so the closer stations are to cyclists’ final destinations, the better. Conversely, it’s a major disincentive if riders have to walk more than a block or two to get to a station, and dockblocking is much more painful when the next closest station is many blocks away instead of right around the corner.
Since there are destinations on every block, the ideal bikeshare network would have stations on every block. That’s probably not practical even in the densest part of the city, but the best bikesharing networks seem to be those that come the closest. ITDP’s guide says to shoot for 10-16 stations per square kilometer.
And though Capital Bikeshare is one of America’s leading bikeshare systems, CaBi and nearly all its American peers lag world leaders in station density. That strongly suggests American bikeshare networks aren’t attracting as many riders as they could.
Image from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Politics matter, especially in the Washington region
With distinct clusters of stations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, Capital Bikeshare is one of the most spread out systems in the world. But while that undeniably reduces the number of riders per bike, it clearly benefits CaBi politically, and therefore financially.
We’re lucky in this region to have a strong regional consensus on the benefits of bikesharing. It’s not just something that DC and Arlington do, which the suburbs grudgingly ignore. Alexandria and Montgomery take part. Fairfax and Prince George’s soon will. It’s a regional network that benefits everyone, and everyone has a stake in its success.
So it’s OK to spread stations out into distinct clusters in multiple jurisdictions, or even multiple wards of the same jurisdiction. But within each cluster, a large number of small stations is better than a handful of large ones.
There’s a catch
If smaller stations are better, why does Capital Bikeshare expand existing ones so often, rather than pour those resources into new station locations?
Simple: Because that would cost more.
Bikeshare stations are prefabricated. They come in basically three components: The kiosk section with the map and credit card terminal, snap-on docks, and the bikes themselves.
Each individual bikeshare station needs all three components, including the kiosk section. But expanding an existing station only takes more docks and more bikes, no kiosk. Thus, by expanding existing stations, CaBi reduces the need to buy expensive kiosk components. They can put out slightly more bikes and more docks with fewer, bigger stations.
Peak capacity versus peak access
Maximizing the number of bikes and docks is important too. The key question is whether it’s more important for a bikeshare agency to maximize peak capacity or peak access.
Putting out the most possible docks and bikes at a smaller number of stations makes the system more useful for rush hour commuters, but less useful for other trips. On the flip side, a system with slightly fewer docks but more stations would be less convenient for commuters, but would put more of the city within reach of a station.
Different bikeshare systems might rightly prioritize different expansion models at different times. But Capital Bikeshare is one of the more commute-oriented large systems in the world. It may be time to think about maximizing infill.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
December 4th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: bike, proposal, transportation
If we build cities in space, this is what they’ll look like
These stills from the four minute film Wanderers beautifully show what human civilization might look like with colonies on Mars, in the asteroid belt, and on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.
Cities on Saturn’s moon Iapetus. All images from Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers.
Though stunning, these images are not mere fantasies. They’re based on real scientific ideas about what a spacegoing civilization would likely look like, given foreseeable future technology.
The film is by Swedish artist Erik Wernquist, who draws inspiration from hard sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, as well as his novel 2312.
The first image, above, shows a series of domed settlements on Saturn’s icy moon Iapetus. Iapetus has a giant equatorial ridge that runs around the entire moon like an actual physical equator. The views of ringed Saturn from atop Iapetus’ ridge would be among the most dazzling in the solar system.
Bird suit fliers on Titan.
This second image shows another moon of Saturn, Titan, where the human-powered transportation equivalent to bicycling would be a bird suit.
Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, has rivers and oceans of liquid methane, and an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s. Its combination of thick atmosphere and low gravity would make it possible for humans to fly using nothing but strapped-on wings.
“Terraruim” colony, from a hollowed cylindrical asteroid.
This third image shows an O’Neill cylinder colony, or what Wernquist and Robinson call a “terrarium.” It’s a cylindrical hollowed out asteroid that astronauts have filled with an atmosphere and terraformed with a habitable landscape.
That may seem like a lot of effort, but for a spacegoing civilization asteroids offer many advantages, especially for transportation purposes. Their extremely low gravity makes launches and landings much easier than any planet or moon, while they still have enough raw materials to mine and export.
Martian space elevator.
This last image shows a space elevator ferrying people and goods between orbit and a brightly lit metropolis on the surface of Mars.
Space elevators would have to be tens of thousands of miles long, but would negate the need for expensive chemical rockets, making space vastly easier and cheaper to access.
They’re exactly the sort of revolutionary transportation system that could completely change how humanity organizes itself. Prosperous port cities would be sure to form at the base of any elevators ever built, like futuristic New Yorks at the mouth of a celestial Hudson River.
Amazingly, space elevators are not that far-fetched. Scientists understand elevators’ physics well enough that they may be buildable within the next century.
Be sure to watch the four-minute film, and check out Wernquist’s gallery for more of these beautiful images.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
December 2nd, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: fun, master planning, proposal, 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
Tags: government, lightrail, proposal, roads/cars, transportation
Add a piano to make your city square sing
Here’s a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.
In 2009 Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city’s public realm. 5 years later, they’re still there, and people are still playing them.
Photo by voteprime on flickr.
Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren’t particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.
The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.
A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
March 28th, 2014 | Permalink
Tags: parks, proposal
9 suggestions to change the height limit
Congress is considering whether or not to change DC’s height limit. Here are 9 suggestions that will help the city get the most benefit out of changing (but not eliminating) its height regulations.
Paris’ La Defense skyline. Photo by KJ Vogelius on flickr.
Much of the debate about the height limit has settled into two opposing camps, those who want taller buildings, and those opposed to any change. But it doesn’t need to be so black and white.
Regulations can change in practical and beneficial ways, without destroying Washington’s unique layout. If Congress repeals or changes the DC Height Act, the District will be free to regulate height in much more flexible ways.
That in mind, here are some suggestions that Congress and the DC Council should consider as they move forward.
1. Don’t eliminate, calibrate
Even though eliminating all height limits completely isn’t anyone’s proposal and has never been seriously on the table, it’s worth saying up front just to be clear. There are good reasons to regulate height, but our existing laws are not necessarily the ideal set. We can make them more ideal with some fine tuning.
2. Target development where we want it
Many assume raising the height limit would result in taller buildings everywhere, or all over downtown, but that need not be the case. It would be smarter to pick specific areas where we want to encourage more development, and only increase the limit there.
The city can raise the limit only on blocks with a Metro station entrance, for example, or only within 1/8 mile of Metro stations with low existing ridership, or only near Farragut Square, or only in Anacostia. Whatever.
No doubt where to allow them would be a contentious question, but the city already has many regulations encouraging or discouraging development in certain areas. There’s no reason the height limit can’t be used in the same way. We can be selective.
3. Grant a residential bonus for downtown
Downtown DC has no trouble attracting development, but office is usually more profitable than residential, so downtown is often packed during work hours but pretty empty in the evenings. More residential would help downtown stay active on evenings and weekends, not to mention reduce the capacity stress on our transportation network by allowing more people to live close to their work.
But under current rules, developers often can’t justify using floor space under the height limit for residential when office is more lucrative. If they got a bonus for residential, allowing them to build taller only if some or all of the added height were used for apartments, that would benefit everyone.
4. More offices can go downtown, but also other places
We want a lot of office buildings downtown because that’s where our regional transportation system converges. But we also want office buildings outside downtown so residential areas don’t empty out during work hours, and to encourage a healthy economy throughout the city.
Uptown nodes like Bethesda and Clarendon are good for the region and would be good for the city, and would happen in DC if we allowed them to. So while it may be desirable to allow taller buildings in some parts of downtown sometimes, it’s also desirable to encourage office development elsewhere as an anchor for uptown commercial districts.
5. Be inclusive of affordable housing
Height limit opponents say taller buildings will make DC more affordable, because it will increase the supply of housing, thus helping to address rising demand. Supporters of keeping it say tall buildings will make DC more expensive, because new development is almost always expensive. They’re both right, but those points aren’t mutually exclusive.
New buildings are indeed almost always expensive, because it costs a lot to build a skyscraper, and developers need to turn a profit within a few years.
But new buildings eventually become old ones, and this isn’t a short-term decision. Buildings that are expensive at first often become the next generation’s affordable housing. Part of the reason DC has an affordable housing problem now is that we didn’t build enough new buildings a generation ago. If we don’t build enough new units now, the next generation will be out of luck too.
In the mean time, we can solve the short-term affordability problem with inclusive zoning; in exchange for allowing taller buildings, the city should require some of their units to be affordable. Win-win.
6. Require good architecture
Some who want to change the height limit say regulations hurt DC’s architecture, resulting in boring-looking buildings. Meanwhile, many others hate tall buildings because so many skyscrapers are ugly. Both arguments are equally bad, because the world is full of both great and ugly buildings of every height.
But there’s no denying that tall buildings stand out, and thus become landmarks whether beautiful or ugly. To ensure we get the former rather than the latter, DC (or even NCPC) could require aesthetic review & approval for the design of any building above a certain height.
That sounds cumbersome, but it’s standard practice in many cities, and DC already does it in some neighborhoods.
A city the size of DC wouldn’t want to insist on aesthetic review for every building, but there’s no good reason DC can’t do it for tall ones.
Of course the devil is in the details. To use this sort of oversight, DC would have to establish design guidelines that tell architects what the city will approve or deny. That could be contentious, and might not be the same everywhere in the city.
7. Preserve historic facades and encourage entrances
Frequent, unique-looking entrances are incredibly important for quality walkable urbanism. One problem with tall buildings is many are so wide that they’re boring to walk next to at the ground level. The minimalist facades of modern architecture compound the problem.
This is why the urbanism in Georgetown is better than Rosslyn. It’s not that Rosslyn has buildings that are too tall, it’s that Rosslyn’s buildings are too wide, and too bare at the ground level.
While it’s not practical for tall buildings to change completely every 25′ the way rowhouses in Georgetown do, their ground floors can be designed to look and function as smaller buildings, and historic buildings can be integrated into larger developments above.
This may not strictly be a height limit issue, but it’s a good way to ensure that taller buildings improve the streetscape. It can be accomplished using the design guidelines and architectural review process outlined above.
8. Outlaw surface parking lots
Surface parking lots are the bane of walkable urbanism, but they’re common in almost every skyscraper-heavy downtown in America, because one large building can sap up years worth of demand, leaving developers of other properties waiting in limbo for reason to build.
Many developers in downtowns around the US opt to leave land nearly empty rather than fill it with short buildings, on the chance that they may strike it big with the next big once-a-generation mega skyscraper. Surface parking lots provide a convenient way to use that land in the mean time.
This is a big problem, and DC is not immune. In 2008 the developer of what’s now the shiny office building on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street wanted to use that land as a parking lot.
Outlawing surface parking lots in areas where tall buildings are permitted would go a long way towards ensuring downtown DC never looks anything like this.
9. Protect the iconic monuments
Development economics are important, but they’re not the only thing. The most valuable land in DC is probably the White House Ellipse, but we’re not going to put skyscrapers there. DC’s skyline view of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the world’s most iconic, and should of course be preserved.
But taller buildings in Farragut Square or Brookland or Anacostia wouldn’t impede that view any more than they do in Rosslyn, and La Defense did not destroy Paris.
We can, and should, allow taller buildings where they’re most appropriate, while protecting the views that define our city.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
October 30th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: architecture, government, land use, preservation, proposal, urbandesign
Where is DC’s train to the beach?
Ocean City’s boardwalk, with its tram.
If you live in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, you can hop onto a commuter rail train any summer weekend and travel to the beach. But not if you live in DC. Here we have no train, and the buses are impractical and expensive.
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority recently launched its Cape Flyer service, from Boston South Station to Cape Cod. A round trip ticket to Hyannis is $35.
New Jersey Transit runs trains from Philadelphia 30th Street Station to Atlantic City for $20 round trip, and from New York Penn Station to the Jersey Shore for $25 round trip. New Yorkers can also take Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to Montauk for about $40 round trip.
For DC, there is no train, much less an affordable one. There are no tracks directly between DC and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The only track connection is at the very top of Chesapeake Bay, near Wilmington, DE. Amtrak does offer service to Ocean City, but you have to connect to an Amtrak bus at BWI, and it’s $120 for a round trip.
Greyhound also runs buses from DC to Ocean City, but it’s $50-$100 per round trip, depending on how far in advance you buy tickets online.
Building a new rail bridge across Chesapeake Bay is probably not practical. Even if it were, that’s surely not the top priority for limited transit funding. But why not better bus service? Ocean City is a natural transit destination; it’s compact and urban, at least near the boardwalk.
As summer rolls by and Washingtonians head out for weekend jaunts to the beach, how many of us wish we didn’t have to rent a car to get there?
July 8th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: bus, commuterrail, intercity, proposal, question, transportation
DMU trains are the DC region’s missing transit mode
DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.
In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don’t have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.
DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.
That’s a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don’t have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.
DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They’re proposed in even more cities.
Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.
One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city’s main rail hub.
All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it’s also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.
There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland’s proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax’s Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they’re far out in the suburbs and wouldn’t have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.
In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE’s existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.
MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there’s no room for more trains no matter what they look like.
DMU isn’t Metro, and it isn’t light rail. DMU trains can’t do all the things those modes can do. It’s not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it’s ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
April 9th, 2013 | Permalink
Tags: commuterrail, lightrail, proposal, transportation
Can libraries pick up the slack from closing bookstores?
Gaithersburg’s Barnes and Noble is still open, but for how long?
Large bookstores fill an important niche in our cities. They’re some of the best places for people to hang out, kill time, and meet friends. But with Borders gone and Barnes and Noble stores rapidly disappearing, how will that niche be filled in the future?
To be sure, there are many other types of these “third places” in cities, ranging from coffee houses to public plazas, but bookstore’s particular combination of a climate controlled indoor space, with clean bathrooms, plenty of comfy seats, a pleasant cafe, and an endless supply of reading materials, has proven very popular.
Unfortunately, retail locations large enough for that kind of bookstore are expensive, and it doesn’t help Barnes and Noble’s bottom line if most of its customers are sitting around not buying anything. So as popular as big bookstores are, they’re going out of business.
With a few exceptions, local non-chain bookstores generally aren’t set up to fill this niche either, because they don’t usually have very many places where it’s comfortable to sit for long periods of time. Those easy chairs and wide open spaces in Barnes and Noble make a big difference.
Libraries could be a perfect replacement. After all, the whole point of libraries is to provide a place for people to read for free. Unlike bookstores, it doesn’t matter to libraries if customers only want to hang out.
But libraries will need to evolve to fill this role. The branch libraries in most cities have been losing to bookstores because they don’t have the right amenities. Libraries will need to be bigger, with more of the magazines and coffee table books that people enjoy flipping through in bookstores. Libraries will need cafes, and a more fun, less stodgy character overall.
Some of the new central libraries in big cities are taking on this role, but it won’t help too much to only have 1 big nice library in each metropolitan area. If libraries can do this, it will be the smaller neighborhood branches that make most of the difference. They’re the ones that will have to change the most, and that could reap the most benefit.
October 31st, 2012 | Permalink
Tags: development, proposal
New WMATA bus maps are great, but need some tweaks
Central DC in WMATA’s new map.
WMATA’s new bus maps are, in a word, awesome. They are so good, on so many levels. They will make navigating the bus system vastly easier, and less intimidating. But WMATA asked for comments, so I’ll make some.
The main problem with WMATA’s old bus maps were that they were so complex that reading them was essentially impossible. WMATA has so many criss-crossing bus routes, all illustrated identically, that riders had to already be familiar with a bus route in order to use the maps. That dissuaded a lot of people from using WMATA buses, or from using them more extensively.
The main improvement of these new maps is that everything looks simpler. Individual routes are vastly easier to follow, thanks to more variety in line color, thickness, and improved spacing.
The best single new feature is that the best bus routes are highlighted with a thicker line, so it’s easier for riders to find the routes that are most convenient. This is exactly the reason why I published my own 15 minute bus map earlier this year. WMATA’s new maps are better than my version though, because they offer so much more information while still clearly highlighting the frequent network.
WMATA’s PlanItMetro blog has several further examples of how these new maps are more clear. For example, compare how the old and new maps illustrate the area around Greenbelt Metro station:
Old on the left, new on the right.
Good luck reading the version on the left.
What needs improvement
There are two big problems with the details of how these maps highlight the best routes.
The first is that some of the best bus routes in the region are hard to find on the maps. DC Circulator, Bethesda Circulator, and the King Street “trolley” shuttle all offer extremely good service, but are shown as minor routes on the map because they aren’t run by WMATA.
Failing to show non-WMATA buses in a fair way is a disservice to riders, and is counterproductive to the goal of encouraging overall transit ridership. WMATA exists in order to serve the needs of the DC region. What’s most important is a complete picture of transit services, regardless of who operates them. Self-serving parochialism should not be WMATA’s mindset.
The second problem with the way the new maps highlight good routes is that the standards for what qualifies as a highlighted route in Northern Virginia are too low. This unnecessarily clutters the Northern Virginia map, and doesn’t give riders accurate information.
Here’s part of the Northern Virginia map. There are so many thick red lines that it’s very difficult to follow them, which defeats the point of having them in the first place.
Northern Virginia, too cluttered.
Some of those “frequent” bus routes only come every 1/2 hour at off-peak times of day. Some of the others are branches that should be shown with a thin red line. Meanwhile the 9S, which is one of the most frequent routes in Virginia, doesn’t have a line at all.
Compare that Northern Virginia map with the Montgomery County version, which shows highlighted thick red routes much more clearly. The standards for a thick red line on the Montgomery County map are tight enough to keep them clear. The standards on the Virginia map are too low, resulting in a cluttered and less usable map.
Montgomery County. The right half is good, but the left half needs work.
On the other hand, the Montgomery map has another problem. Look at Gaithersburg and Germantown, which take up the left half of that map. All the routes there are shown with the same kind of line because they’re all pretty similar, but that makes them hard to tell apart on the map. And since Gaithersburg and Germantown have twisty suburban streets rather than planned grids, the new map’s geographic distortion makes it harder rather than easier to read.
1. Add a middle thickness line weight and use it to highlight non-WMATA frequent routes, as well WMATA routes in the suburbs that need to be called out as “major”, but that don’t offer really frequent service. This will better illustrate the important non-WMATA routes, and improve the visual hierarchy in suburban areas, which are currently shown with either too many or too few highlighted routes. This will also better inform riders about the quality of routes.
2. Add more geographic clues in areas with a lot of homogenous routes that are difficult to distinguish, such as Gaithersburg and Germantown.
3. Add names to MARC and VRE station labels.
4. Make a single regional map available. There are good reasons to keep separate maps for DC, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Virginia, but there’s no good reason not to publish a single overall map as well.
5. A really great next step would be to make these interactive maps, instead of pdfs. I’d love to be able to see individual routes highlighted separately whenever I hover my cursor on them, and then go to the timetable with a click.
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September 27th, 2012 | Permalink
Tags: bus, maps, proposal, transportation