Public reaction to Metro’s proposed cuts proves the need to be vastly more transparent about rebuilding
Metro has a trust problem that’s impeding the agency’s ability to fix its decaying rail system. Riders and city officials don’t believe the agency’s proposed permanent cuts are necessary. To solve this one way or another, Metro must regain rider trust by precisely reporting exactly what its rebuilding needs are, and whether efforts thus far have been successful.
This series of seven tweets explains why this problem persists, and how being legitimately transparent can only help WMATA achieve its goals.
#WMATA's maintenance needs are huge & real. But public patience & trust are thin bc despite all the work, things get worse every year. 1/7
WMATA has tried to explain its maintenance plans, and has occasionally reported on progress, but there’s no single resource available to riders all the time that compiles all Metro’s needs, both SafeTrack and non-SafeTrack, and reports on progress in detail.
For example, how many feet of track must be rebuilt before Metro reaches a state of good repair? Out of that, how many feet has WMATA successfully rebuilt to date? How many feet were fixed in July?
That’s the kind of information that will help decision makers and the public understand what WMATA needs, and thus support informed decision-making.
If possible, still more detail would be even better. How many rail ties have been fixed, out of how many that need to be? How many insulators? How many escalators and elevators? That level of detail may not always be possible to report (WMATA may not know the full needs until they start doing work), but after so many years of frustration, this is the kind of information the public requires to feel comfortable with Metro’s progress. The data should be specific and be listed for each station or between stations, if possible, so passengers can know exactly where work still needs to be done
If Metro officials hope to get buy-in for extreme measures like permanently cutting late night service, it’s reasonable for the public to demand extreme explanations, and reassurance that sacrifice will result in improvements. Without more frequent and more candid communication about progress, trust in WMATA will continue to erode, political support for sacrifices will be hard to obtain, and the spiral of decaying service will likely deepen.
Last year, when Virginia’s VRE commuter rail system opened a new extension to Spotyslvania, the agency completely redesigned its map. The new version follows a trend for VRE: Every iteration gets more and more like a subway diagram, and less like a true geographic map.
VRE’s system map over time. Original images by VRE, compilation by the author.
The new map is at least the third completely different version VRE has tried since its launch in the 1990s. The original map was purely geographic, and oh-so ’90s. The second map was a hybrid with simplified geography. The newest is a pure diagram, with equally-spaced station symbols and only the barest nods to geographic context.
It generally makes a lot of sense for transit agencies, and particularly rail providers, to use diagrams instead of geographic maps. Features like the Potomac River’s many inlets, or minor curves on the rail lines, aren’t information that riders need to know, but they clutter the original map, making it hard to discern the information that does matter. On the other hand, it’s useful to know that the Fredericksburg line roughly parallels I-95 and that the Manassas line roughly parallels I-66.
Cameron Booth, the internet’s foremost expert on transit maps and author of TransitMap.net, reviewed VRE’s new map in December, calling it a “solid” but “unremarkable” effort.
College Park recreated Paris’s “bus stop of the future” on the cheap
Four years ago, Paris made headlines for its bus stop of the future, a bigger and better bus stop with amenities like bikesharing and a book-sharing library attached. Now College Park has a bus stop with some of the same amenities, but using inexpensive, off-the-shelf pieces.
College Park’s bus stop of the future.
Paris’ bus stop of the future
In 2012, Paris’s transit agency tried out a luxurious new bus stop design. In addition to the normal sign, bench, and shelter, the stop had electric bikes, bookshelves, wifi, and stylish architecture. It looked great and it made waiting for the bus more enjoyable, but it was expensive and took up a lot of space.
Paris’s concept was a neat idea, but wasn’t ultimately practical for mass production.
Paris’s bus stop of the future. Image from RATP.
But some of the ideas from Paris’s attempt make sense. Locating a bikeshare station next to a bus stop makes it convenient for more people to use both. And book-sharing can be a nice amenity, if it’s easy and inexpensive to manage.
College Park’s version
Enter College Park, where rather than design a custom building, the city simply added some of those components to an existing bus stop using their standard off-the-shelf pieces.
They started with a normal bus stop sign and shelter, then added a standard mBike bikeshare station. To help with maintenance, the city chained a bike tire pump to the station sign.
For the library, they staked to the ground a Little Free Library, a pre-fab wood box for people to take and give away free books. There’s no librarian and no library cards; it runs on the honor system, and relies on people donating as many books as they take.
A similar Little Free Library in California. Photo by Michael R Perry on Flickr.
The stop is at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Muskogee Street, in front of the Hollywood shopping center, just one block south of College Park’s first protected bikeway. The stop serves Metrobus lines 81 and 83, which are among the busier lines in Prince George’s County.
It’s no grand Parisian bus station, but that would be overkill. For a bus stop in a relatively low-density suburban area, it’s pretty darn nice.
Using tape, paper, and potted plants, Arlington built a temporary bikeway
On June 11, Arlington closed a block of bustling Wilson Boulevard for what organizers called the Active Streets Festival. There were bike-oriented games and activities, plus a collection of temporary bikeways “built” with tape, paper, and potted plants.
Pop-up protected bikeway. Photo by BikeArlington.
The festival took place during the Air Force Association cycling race, when many Arlington streets were closed anyway. The Active Streets Festival gave Arlingtonians who weren’t racing something bike-related to take part in.
Planners “built” a series of temporary bike lanes, all on the block of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North.
On one section, a row of potted plants formed the barrier for a protected bike lane. On another, a row of parked cars did the same. Elsewhere, washable homemade green “paint” and a thick roll of tape formed a green bike lane, a buffered bike lane, and sharrows.
Pop-up green lane and buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.
By using easy-to-set-up and easy-to-take-down temporary materials, Arlington planners tangibly showed residents what Wilson Boulevard might look like if its street space were allocated differently. There’s no proposal to change Wilson permanently, but the example can be instructive for future projects on other streets.
A BikeArlington worker lays down strips of tape to create the buffered bike lane. Photo by BikeArlington.
Tangible benefits aside, the whole thing was a heck of a lot of fun.
Wilson Boulevard with its pop-up bike lanes in place. Photo by BikeArlington.
DC’s first bright red bus lanes now adorn four blocks of Georgia Avenue, near Howard University. DDOT crews added the red surface earlier this month.
Georgia Avenue’s new red carpet for buses.
The bus lanes run along both curbs, from Florida Avenue north to Barry Place. They speed Metrobus’ busy 70-series line through what was the slowest section of Georgia Avenue north of downtown.
The bright red color is a strong visual clue to car drivers to stay out of the lane. It’s a stark contrast to the Gallery Place bus lane a dozen blocks south, which is so poorly marked that many car drivers legitimately don’t know it’s there. For these four blocks, drivers will have no excuse.
Anecdotally, the red surface seems to be working pretty well. Most car drivers seem to stay out. To find out for sure, DDOT is in the process of collecting actual data, comparing the car violation rate now to the rate from before the red surface was added.
Cyclists and taxicabs are allowed the use the lanes in addition to buses. Signs along the street spell out the exact rules.
Since the lanes are along the curb, cars can enter them to turn right. Dashed white lane markings show where cars can enter.
To avoid wear-and-tear and to make the bus lanes safer for cyclists, the “red paint” is actually a gritty surface coating. If you walk along Georgia Avenue now, you can still see some of the leftover grit along the curb.
❤ the transit red carpet
By adding these lanes and marking them clearly, DC is taking an real step towards prioritizing street space for transit. At only four blocks long they’re are a humble start, but a start nonetheless.
The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It’s slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.
According to DDOT’s latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.
In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it’s actually not bad.
Middle of the light rail pack
Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn’t going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC’s 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.
But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.
And in those terms, DC Streetcar’s 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It’s just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn’t even go downtown yet.
Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).
On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston’s Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco’s Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,723, which is interestingly higher than Portland’s MAX light rail at 2,048).
Compared to H Street’s X2 bus
What about buses?
In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.
So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.
But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2’s 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.
Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there
Clearly the streetcar isn’t perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Futurelines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.
And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland’s streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides, so that’s hard to predict.
But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn’t doing particularly badly.
You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.
8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro
Paris has one of the world’s great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.
Door knobs on a Paris metro train.
1. Door knobs speed trains
In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.
All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system’s theoretical maximum.
In Paris, those delays don’t happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.
Here’s a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:
WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there’s no indication they’ll be fixed any time soon.
Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?
Check out Paris’ Chatelet station, where that’s exactly the layout:
Most Paris stations aren’t like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn’t as crucial there as it is in DC. But there’s been many a day I’ve stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.
3. Flip-up seats add capacity
The first row of seats inside Paris’ train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.
Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.
This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.
4. Open gangways really do work
US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.
All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they’re wonderful.
5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks
Paris’ metro lacks express tracks just like DC’s, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It’s also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.
Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.
A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm.
I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?
I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.
And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris’ els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.
7. Wayfinding can be beautiful
“If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?” My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.
In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?
What details like these have you noticed on other countries’ transit systems, that you’d like to see imported to the US?
Why widening highways doesn’t work, in one simple gif
Decade after decade, American metropolitan areas continue to widen their highways in order to reduce congestion. And decade after decade, congestion just keeps getting worse. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s because of a phenomenon called induced demand. This simple gif illustrates how it works:
Surely one more lane will finally solve our congestion problem, right? (Slightly better GIFF. Feel free to copy) pic.twitter.com/uDJwqVT3WI
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than this gif. Congestion keeps increasing not only because more people drive, but also because more people drive farther. And because the more highways we build, the less walkable and transit-accessible our cities usually become. And because the more desperate our congestion situation becomes, the more some groups attack using money for anything other than more highway widenings.
Highway congestion is a negative feedback loop. The only way to really solve it, besides economic calamity, is to break out of the loop by attacking its root causes. Rather than applying highway-widening band-aids that only work for a few years, build urban communities with multimodal infrastructure, in which it’s just as convenient (or more so!) for most residents to get around without a car than with one.
That doesn’t mean no new roads are ever needed. New communities and densifying ones need streets, after all. But it does mean we should be skeptical of plans to make highways bigger. In the long term, that money is usually better spent elsewhere.