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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:


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.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 19th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: roads/cars, transportation



Crystal City’s Metroway BRT is open and carrying passengers

The Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway officially opened on Sunday, upgrading Metroway bus service to bona fide bus rapid transit in Arlington.


27th & Crystal station.

Metroway runs between Pentagon City and Braddock Road Metro stations. For much of its route, between Crystal City and Potomac Yard, it runs in dedicated bus lanes, making it the Washington region’s first real foray into BRT.

The Alexandria portion of the transitway opened in 2014. Arlington’s portion through Crystal City opened yesterday, Sunday, April 17.

Through Potomac Yard, the transitway runs in a totally exclusive busway—a completely separate road from the regular lanes.


27th & Crystal station.

Stations in the busway have substantial arched roofs and attractive wall panels.


South Glebe station.

Through Crystal City, bus lanes and bus stations hug the curb.


18th & Crystal station.

Since northbound buses run a block away from southbound buses, bus stations are smaller through this section. More like large bus stops.


23rd & Clark station.

Crystal City is pretty quiet on Sundays, so there weren’t many opening day riders and buses only came every 20 minutes. During the week there’ll be a lot more riders, and buses will run every 6-12 minutes depending on the time of day.

Head over to Crystal City and check it out! Or see more pictures of both the Arlington and Alexandria transitway sections via Flickr.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: BRT, events, transportation



The Purple Line will have America’s longest railcars

According to the latest plans for Maryland’s Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They’ll practically be open-gangway trains.


A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.

Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.

At 136 feet long, they’ll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail’s 134 foot cars. But Austin’s cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.

The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas’ 124 foot cars.


Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line’s cars. Photo by Matt’ Johnson on Flickr.

Longer is better

Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There’s less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.

The downside is you can’t pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It’s all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.

Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn’t meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.


An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called “open gangway,” and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.

Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan’s demands to reduce the Purple Line’s costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.

Hogan’s other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 7th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: lightrail, transportation



Both DC and Arlington open bus lanes this month

April is going to be a huge month for bus lanes. On Monday, April 11, DC will open a four block stretch on Georgia Avenue. Then on Sunday, April 17, Arlington will open the Crystal City transitway.


Crystal City transitway station. Photo by Arlington.

Georgia Avenue

Georgia Avenue’s bus lanes will run just four blocks, from Florida Avenue to Barry Place. They’ll be curbside lanes, with normal bus stops on the sidewalk.


Location of Georgia Avenue bus lanes. Image from DC and Google.

Four blocks is short, but this location is specifically one of the slowest stretches WMATA’s busy 70-series bus line passes through. Bus lanes here will speed the entire line.

Just as importantly, this will be a test project for DDOT to study, and to learn about bus lane implementation. In May, crews will add red paint to the roadway to make the bus lanes more visually obvious. By adding the red surface later, DDOT will gather data on whether the red really does dissuade car drivers from using the lanes illegally.


Red-painted curbside bus lane in New York. Photo by NACTO.

If Georgia Avenue’s four block bus lanes prove successful, they could provide a model for the citywide transit lane network envisioned in moveDC. They could also one day form the backbone of a future Georgia Avenue streetcar.

They’re short, but they’re important.

Crystal City

Get ready for bona fide BRT.

On Sunday the 17th, Arlington will open the second half of the Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway, better known as Metroway. The first half opened in 2014 in Alexandria, and was the Washington region’s first foray into BRT.

The new Crystal City transitway section will run from Crystal City Metro south to Alexandria, where it will join the existing busway. It’ll be a mix of curbside bus lanes and fully exclusive bi-directional busway.


Crystal City transitway. Image by Arlington.

The DC region once had 60 miles of bus-only lanes. With these projects finally happening, and others like 16th Street on the horizon, it’s exciting to see a reborn network begin to take shape.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

April 5th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: BRT, bus, transportation



Closing Metro lines for months could work, but only if the region provides transit alternatives

WMATA may shut down entire rail lines for months in order to catch up on maintenance more quickly (though, officials noted, no decisions have been made yet). If a shutdown does happen, Metro must thoroughly prepare, communicate, and provide riders who rely on Metro with reasonable alternatives.


Special event bus shuttles. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

A months-long shutdown may make sense

For years, WMATA has been struggling to perform maintenance at nights and on weekends. There’s so much work to do that they can’t complete it all.

Meanwhile, many riders who’ve endured year after year of worsening service are abandoning Metro, especially on the weekends when trains can be 30 minutes apart.

A months-long shutdown would theoretically put an end to that, or at least significantly reduce the need for weekend track work. It would let WMATA catch up on all its maintenance needs for a line in one fell swoop. We’d be trading a few months of pain for years of happiness.

WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld says he is indeed considering the idea. He adds, “In the last few years, we’ve been trying to do this [maintenance] in a sort of piecemeal way, and basically we’ve alienated everyone.”

He’s right. Working at night and on weekends is fine when you’re just doing preventative maintenance. But after years of increasingly terrible weekend service, it’s become clear that model won’t work with WMATA’s need for major rebuilding. With no end to the rebuilding in sight, it’s time to try something new.


This is getting old. Photo by the author.

Closing an entire line end to end may not prove necessary. You can rebuild the Virginia section of a line without closing the Maryland section, for example. And closing the core is much harder than closing outer sections. But closing long segments of a line, say four or five stations long, may well make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if a whole line needs work, maybe shutting it down completely is the way to go.

Whether or not WMATA has the equipment and work crew capacity to do such a big job is an open question. But if so, or if it can expand as needed to do so, it may not be a terrible idea.

Leaving riders without options wouldn’t be acceptable

So yes, it’s very possible that closing major segments of Metro lines for months would be the best way to get this painful decade of rebuilding behind us.

But we absolutely cannot simply shut down Metro and hope for the best. Metrorail is not an optional service for the Washington region. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on it every day, including many who don’t have access to cars. Telecommuting saved us for one day, but can’t work for months on end.

We’ve literally built our region around Metro. Without it, 166 blocks of downtown DC would have to be bulldozed and converted to parking garages.

Simply closing Metro without providing alternatives isn’t an option. Too many people wouldn’t be able to reach their jobs. It would be a calamity, economically and for thousands, personally:

We’d need bus shuttles, bus lanes, and more

If this is really going to happen, WMATA and the affected jurisdictions would have to work together to provide transit alternatives. We’d need special bus shuttles to replace the shuttered Metro line, temporary bus lanes to make longer-distance bus travel fast enough to be practical, greatly expanded transportation demand management, and more. We’d need a comprehensive transportation management plan.

Such a plan might look something like what Matt Johnson suggested in 2013, when WMATA considered closing part of the Red Line for six weeks. That shutdown hasn’t happened, but many of the same ideas would be necessary anywhere.

Luckily, these are not impossible ideas. Other cities have made long term closures work. We could too.

It wouldn’t be easy, and it would require sacrifice from everyone, including drivers who don’t use Metro. It’s impossible to stop running a transit line that carries a hundred thousand passengers without making life hard. Substitute buses absolutely would not be as good as Metrorail, not for transit riders and not for car drivers who have to share road space.

But the current situation is hard too.

WMATA will need to study this concept in detail. Then they’ll need to share their detailed findings with the public. What are the real options, what are the trade-offs, how much time and money would this save, and what will the Metro system look like when it’s over? If Metro expects the public to buy this idea, they’ll need to be forthright.

But it’s possible. WMATA could do this and it might be successful, if and only if they take the time and money to plan, prepare, and do it correctly.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

March 31st, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, transportation



All 91 Metro stations, ranked by ridership


Farragut West.

WMATA’s PlanItMetro blog has released a trove of data on Metro station use. Here’s one snippet: All 91 stations, ranked by the average number of riders who entered the faregates each weekday in February, 2016.

  1. Union Station 29,371
  2. Gallery Place 25,537
  3. Farragut North 24,597
  4. Metro Center 24,330
  5. Farragut West 20,917
  6. Foggy Bottom 20,121
  7. L’Enfant Plaza 19,343
  8. Dupont Circle 18,653
  9. Pentagon 14,584
  10. McPherson Square 14,340
  11. Rosslyn 13,666
  12. Pentagon City 12,558
  13. Silver Spring 12,269
  14. Columbia Heights 11,840
  15. Shady Grove 11,732
  16. Crystal City 11,480
  17. Ballston 10,759
  18. Vienna 10,005
  19. Bethesda 9,883
  20. NoMa 9,038
  21. Judiciary Square 8,722
  22. Friendship Heights 8,503
  23. Archives 7,829
  24. Fort Totten 7,543
  25. Federal Triangle 7,381
  26. Wiehle 7,306
  27. King Street 7,238
  28. New Carrollton 7,209
  29. Smithsonian 7,149
  30. Court House 7,074
  31. Huntington 7,002
  32. Capitol South 6,957
  33. Navy Yard 6,834
  34. Franconia-Springfield 6,821
  35. Anacostia 6,799
  36. U Street-Cardozo 6,671
  37. Tenleytown 6,587
  38. Brookland 6,324
  39. Van Ness 6,158
  40. Georgia Avenue-Petworth 6,151
  41. Glenmont 5,881
  42. Woodley Park 5,861
  43. Greenbelt 5,738
  44. Rhode Island Avenue 5,727
  45. Federal Center SW 5,697
  46. Reagan National Airport 5,631
  47. Medical Center 5,591
  48. Eastern Market 5,500
  49. Branch Avenue 5,449
  50. Takoma 5,329
  51. Grosvenor 5,206
  52. Shaw 4,989
  53. Suitland 4,918
  54. Southern Avenue 4,751
  55. Braddock Road 4,543
  56. Largo Town Center 4,435
  57. Clarendon 4,423
  58. Prince George’s Plaza 4,385
  59. Rockville 4,245
  60. Mt. Vernon Square 4,243
  61. Twinbrook 4,163
  62. Dunn Loring 4,081
  63. College Park 4,068
  64. Waterfront 4,008
  65. Cleveland Park 3,961
  66. East Falls Church 3,913
  67. Virginia Square 3,898
  68. Wheaton 3,864
  69. White Flint 3,641
  70. Potomac Avenue 3,635
  71. West Hyattsville 3,402
  72. Addison Road 2,971
  73. Van Dorn Street 2,970
  74. Tysons Corner 2,857
  75. Benning Road 2,823
  76. West Falls Church 2,715
  77. Naylor Road 2,471
  78. Congress Heights 2,431
  79. Stadium-Armory 2,430
  80. Minnesota Avenue 2,387
  81. Forest Glen 2,230
  82. Capitol Heights 1,893
  83. Morgan Blvd. 1,849
  84. Landover 1,667
  85. McLean 1,562
  86. Eisenhower Avenue 1,486
  87. Deanwood 1,347
  88. Cheverly 1,153
  89. Greensboro 1,079
  90. Spring Hill 1,042
  91. Arlington Cemetery 363

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

March 30th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, transportation



Rockville misses the forest for the trees with its plan for an 18-lane mega main street

Rockville Pike could one day become a 252-foot-wide mega boulevard with 12 car lanes, 4 bike lanes, 2 bus lanes, and over 50 feet of landscaping. But in designing a street with more than ample room for cars, bikes, and buses, planners abandon any hope the street will be walkable.


The plan for Rockville Pike. Image from Rockville.

Everybody gets a lane!

Rockville Pike is one the most important retail strip highways in the Washington region. Like most 20th Century retail roads, it’s designed for cars, and it carries a lot of them.

Rockville wants to make it a more urban main street, so planners there are drawing up a redevelopment plan. It’s a laudable goal, and it’s not easy on a high-traffic state highway like Rockville Pike.

At first glance, this plan has all the components of a good complete street design: Tree-lined sidwalks, protected bikeways, a center-running dedicated busway. Every mode gets all the street width it could possibly want.

And why not? Why go through the political headache of forcing the community to make the difficult choice between fewer car lanes versus bikes or BRT if you can fit everything in? With a mega boulevard like this, everybody gets what they want, and nobody loses. Right?

Wrong.

Walkability loses, and it’s the most important factor

At 252 feet wide, the new Rockville Pike will be practically impossible for pedestrians to cross. It will take multiple traffic light cycles and multiple minutes for anyone to cross.

Instead of a main street, Rockville will have a barrier. And that is a big problem for the rest of the plan.

Transit oriented development doesn’t work unless it’s walkable. If Rockville Pike is too wide, development on one side of the street will be effectively cut-off from development on the other side. Riders won’t be able to easily access the BRT stations. People will drive for even short trips. The concept of a community where people don’t need to drive everywhere will break down.

If you can’t walk, other multimodal options don’t work. Pedestrians are the linchpin to the whole thing.

To be sure, some level of compromise is always needed. If walkability were the only factor that mattered, all streets would be pedestrian-only. We add in car lanes, bike lanes, and transit because we have to make longer trips possible, and that’s a good thing.

But there’s a balance, and 252 feet veers so far to accommodate long distance travel that it seriously sacrifices short distance walking. In so doing, Rockville undermines the very foundation on which its redevelopment plans rest.


Make pedestrians a priority

The Pike needs to be narrower. Assuming the sidewalks, busway, and three general car lanes each direction are sacrosanct, that still leaves a lot of potential fat to trim.

Are the service roads really necessary if the plan also includes new parallel local streets? Do we really need redundant bi-direction bikeways next to both sidewalks? Could we possibly reduce the 74 feet of various landscaping, buffer, and turn lanes?

These would be difficult trade-offs, to be sure. But there are massive negative consequences to an uncrossable mega boulevard.

If Rockville wants the new Pike to work as multimodal urban place, pedestrians need to become a priority.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

March 24th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: bike, BRT, master planning, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



Telecommuting saved us on Wednesday, but that won’t work every day

Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been during Wednesday’s Metro shutdown. Telecommuters were a big reason why. That’s fine for a one-time event, but it won’t work every day.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

We don’t know exactly how many people telecommuted during the Metro shutdown, but the number was surely gigantic. Anecdotal evidence suggests there could have been hundreds of thousands of normal commuters who simply didn’t travel into their offices.

Obviously when you remove tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters from the daily rush, that helps a lot with traffic.

But it’s one thing for so many people to telecommute all at once because of a freak one-time event. It would be quite another to see those levels of telecommuting over and over, work day after work day.

When it’s just one day, you can reschedule your meetings, live without your physical files, and put off working with specialized equipment. For just one day it’s easy to focus on email and other things you can do from home.

But at some point, office workers have to go in to their offices. As technology improves, the day-to-day telecommuting rate may well increase, but at least for now it’s not going to be possible for so many people to make telecommuting an everyday option.

Workers can avoid rush hour travel in large numbers for a freak event, but not everyday. If our city didn’t have Metro, the daily commute would rapidly become much worse than what happened on Wednesday.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

March 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, roads/cars, transportation



DC Streetcar’s exuberant opening day, in photos and video

DC Streetcar is open and carrying passengers, following a festive opening day on Saturday. Enjoy this photo tour reliving the fun.

Continue reading at Greater Greater Washington

February 29th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: events, galleries, streetcar, transportation



Here’s why the DC region has so many bus systems

There are more than 20 separate bus agencies in the Washington area. Why not run them all as part of WMATA? Some run outside WMATA’s geography, but the bigger reason is money: It costs less to run a local bus than a WMATA bus, translating to better service for less money on local lines.

With a few exceptions, essentially every county-level local government in the Washington region runs its own bus system, on top of WMATA’s Metrobus. DC has Circulator, Montgomery County has Ride-On, Alexandria has DASH, etc ad nauseam. There are more than 20 in the region, not even including myriad private commuter buses, destination-specific shuttles, and app-based startups.

Our region is a smorgasbord of overlaying transit networks, with little in common except, thankfully, the Smartrip card.

Why?

Three reasons, but mostly it’s all about money

Some of the non-WMATA bus systems can’t be part of Metro simply because buses go to places that aren’t part of the WMATA geography. Since Prince William County is outside WMATA’s service area, Prince William County needs its own system. Thus, OmniRide is born. Hypothetically WMATA could expand its boundaries, but at some point 20 or 40 or 60 miles out from DC, that stops making sense.

Another reason for the transit hodgepodge is control. Locals obviously have more direct control over local systems. That’s an incentive to manage buses close to home.

But the biggest reason is money. Specifically, operating costs.

To calculate how much it costs to operate a bus line, transit agencies use a formula called “cost per revenue hour.” That means, simply, how much it costs to keep a bus in service and carrying passengers for one hour. It includes the cost of the driver’s salary, fuel for the bus, and other back-end administrative costs.

Here are the costs per hour for some of the DC-region’s bus systems, according to VDOT:

  • WMATA Metrobus: $142/hour
  • Fairfax County Connector: $104/hour
  • OmniRide: $133/hour
  • Arlington County ART: $72/hour

Not only is WMATA the highest, it’s much higher than other local buses like Fairfax Connector and ART. OmniRide is nearly as high because long-distance commuter buses are generally more expensive to operate than local lines, but even it’s less than Metrobus.

This means the local systems can either run the same quality service as WMATA for less cost, or they can run more buses more often for the same cost.

At the extreme end of the scale, Arlington can run 2 ART buses for every 1 Metrobus, and spend the same amount of money.

In those terms, it’s no wonder counties are increasingly pumping more money into local buses. Where the difference is extreme, like in Arlington, officials are channeling the vast majority growth into local buses instead of WMATA ones, and even converting Metrobus lines to local lines.

Why is Metrobus so expensive to run?

Partly, Metrobus is expensive because longer bus lines are more expensive to run than shorter ones, so locals can siphon off the short intra-jurisdiction lines for themselves and leave the longer multi-jurisdiction ones to WMATA.

Another reason is labor. WMATA has a strong union, which drives up wages. The local systems have unions too, but they’re smaller and balkanized, and thus have less leverage.

Finally, a major part of the difference is simply accounting. WMATA’s operating figures include back-end administrative costs like the WMATA police force, plus capital costs like new Metro bus yards, whereas local services don’t count those costs as part of transit operating.

Montgomery County has a police department of course, and bus planners, and its own bus yards, but they’re funded separately and thus not included in Ride-On’s operating costs.

So part of the difference is real and part is imaginary. It doesn’t actually cost twice as much to run a Metrobus as an ART bus. But for local transit officials trying to put out the best service they can under constant budget constraints, all the differences matter.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 22nd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: bus, government, transportation



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