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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?


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

In 1861 Maryland almost annexed Virginia

This amazing map from 1861 shows a federal government proposal to redraw the borders of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and DC. The reason: To spite Virginia for the Civil War and better-protect the capital from attack.

1861 proposal to redraw the borders of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and DC. Image by Harper’s Weekly.

The map is from an 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly, and is based on an idea from federal Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Here’s how Harper’s Weekly described the idea:

This arrangement would reduce the size of the State of Virginia at least one-half, leaving the name of Virginia to that part only which is now mainly loyal.

The disloyal section, comprising all the great cities of Virginia—Richmond, Norfolk, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, etc.—and all the sea-coast, would be annexed to Maryland, while Delaware would rise, by spreading over the whole peninsula between the Chesapeake and the ocean, to be a State of considerable magnitude.

Under this reconstruction Maryland would become one of the three great States of the Union. We need hardly direct attention to the clause in the Secretary’s report which hints that emancipation in Maryland must be the price paid for this acquisition of territory.

Alexandria and Arlington would have returned to DC, which would have remained independent of any state.

When Cameron came up with his idea, the Civil War was less than a year old. The western more rural portions of Virginia had hoped to remain in the Union, while the more urban eastern portions had voted overwhelmingly to secede. In theory, this proposal therefore would have accomplished several goals. It would have:

1. Separated off the loyalist western parts of Virginia, allowing them to be reintroduced to the Union as a northern state.

2. Punished eastern Virginia, the intellectual and economic heart of the Confederacy, by taking away its independence as a state.

3. Rewarded Maryland and Delaware for remaining in the Union.

4. Protected Washington from having a hostile territory directly across the Potomac.

It’s not as crazy as it seems

In 1861, as Cameron was making this proposal, West Virginia was already in the process of splitting off from Virginia to become its own state. How exactly to draw its borders and what to call it was a perfectly reasonable question.

The most doubtful part of this idea is the notion that new-and-bigger Maryland would be a safe northern state. Although Maryland never seceded, it was a slave state and its loyalty to the Union during the Civil War was tenuous at best.

Adding the wealthy and populous parts of Virginia to Maryland seems more likely to have drawn Maryland towards the south than vice versa. Presumably that’s why the deal would have required Maryland to free its slaves.

Of course as we all know, this proposal didn’t work out. West Virginia’s boundaries and name became official in 1863 when it was admitted to the Union as its own state, and Virginia was itself readmitted in 1870 following four brutal years of Civil War.

But it’s interesting to look back and see what could have happened, had history turned out just a little bit differently.

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

March 3rd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: government, history

This 1912 plan would have made Baltimore much bigger

In 1912 Baltimore’s city leaders hoped to annex this large chunk of Baltimore County. Had that happened, the city limits would have extended from just shy of downtown Towson to just shy of Ellicott City.

Image from the State of Maryland.

Baltimore annexed big chunks of land in three successive waves: One in 1817 that took the city as far as North Avenue, a second in 1888 up to about 40th Street, and a third in the early years of the 20th Century.

Like other US cities, Baltimore was expanding rapidly in the early 20th Century amidst a wave of streetcar-induced sprawl. Suburban areas lacked city services like sewers, parks, and police, so central cities often annexed surrounding land.

By about 1910, Baltimore was ready for another round of annexation. Exactly how much land the city should annex became a major hot-button issue of the day, with proposals ranging from no expansion to the aggressive, far-ranging one pictured above.

In 1918 a compromise plan eventually won out, settling Baltimore’s boundaries at their current extents.

By the time America’s post-World War II suburbanization boom happened, the national mood had shifted against central cities. A 1948 amendment to Maryland’s state constitution outlawed any further expansion of Baltimore city, and thus the borders haven’t changed since.

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

March 3rd, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: government, history, maps

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.


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

H Street streetcar will carry passengers on February 27, says Bowser

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser just announced the H Street streetcar will officially open to passengers on Saturday, February 27. Of this year. Hallelujah!

Mayor Bowser’s announcement should mean the DC fire department has certified the streetcar as safe to run and submitted its paperwork to the federal government, thus accomplishing the last step before the streetcar can open. With that done, it’s ready to carry passengers.

The opening party and first passenger-carrying run will take place at 10:00 am on Saturday, February 27, at the corner of H Street and 13th Street NE.

After that, streetcars will run between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue every 15 minutes the rest of the day. Rides will be free for everyone for the first few months.

The streetcar will close again Sunday the 28th; for now it’s only scheduled to run six days per week. But passengers will be able to pick it up again on Monday the 29th, and every day thereafter except Sundays.

Many of us will be there to enjoy the festivities, and we’ll try to all meet up to make a GGWash contingent. Join us if you can! Or ride the streetcar to our 8th birthday party on March 8. Or both!

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

February 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: events, streetcar, transportation

Metro begins scrapping its oldest railcars

Say goodbye to Metro railcar number 1013. Along with other 1973-vintage 1000-series railcars, it’s headed to the scrapyard. More aren’t far behind.

Metro railcar 1013 at a scrap yard in Baltimore. Photo by MJofLakeland1 on Flickr.

As new 7000-series railcars enter Metro service, WMATA is now beginning to retire its oldest railcars. So far the agency has scrapped four cars, with more scheduled to head out the door beginning this March.

In the past if WMATA had to permanently take a railcar out of service, they’d either keep it for parts or backup, or it would end up in any number of weird places. That happened rarely for most of WMATA’s first four decades.

That’s now changing. With the impending mass retirement of 400 decades-old 1000-and-4000-series cars, WMATA needed a process to handle getting rid of so many cars at once.

Since signing a scrapping contract late last year they now have that process, and railcars can begin to head to the scrapyard.

When that happens, workers truck the old railcar to United Iron & Metal in Southwest Baltimore, where they strip it of valuable materials.

It’s an inglorious end for these old workhorses, but I’m not too sorry to see them go; those new car replacements are nice.

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

February 18th, 2016 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, transportation



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