Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Legislation without Representation is Tyranny

I hate to beat a dead horse, or as Indiana Congressman Mark Souder says, "raise the tired old canard of home rule," but, that does not change the fact that after more than two centuries of being surrounded by Freedom, DC citizens still lack the right to vote in Congress. We still lack the ability to make our own laws, to choose our own path, to govern ourselves.

Representative Souder has had enough. "Shutup," he says. It's for your own good.

In today's Post, Represenative Souder, a Republican representing the 3rd District of Indiana, published a letter to the editor.

In his letter, he seems to be upset that a democratically elected body (the Washington City Council) is working to fix its gun regulations in the wake of District of Columbia vs. Heller. He claims to be standing up for the rights of Citizens of the District by calling for the US Congress (which DC Citizens have no part in electing) to override the elected DC government by writing its own legislation.

Mr. Souder, we live in a republic. And while the citizens of our nation's capital don't have full voting rights, we have every right to determine our own future. Just like the citizens of Indiana. So we can choose to re-elect the city council if we agree with them on the handgun issue, or we can elect councilmembers who will overturn it. We can also wait to see what the courts actually say. The one thing we can't do, however, is let you tread on us.

In 1963, 10 years before the city of Washington would receive a locally elected mayor and council, President John F. Kennedy travelled to an island of democracy in Eastern Europe. There, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, standing in the shadow of the Wall, he said that the proudest boast in a world of freedom is "Ich bin ein Berliner." This phrase, said Kennedy, is the boast of "all free men, wherever they may live."

Oh, how I long to say that phrase.

Berlin was an island of freedom in a sea of totalitarianism. Washington is surrounded by the lapping waves of freedom, and while they haven't built a wall to keep us in, they haven't given us the vote either.

Representative Souder wrote his letter in response to a Washington Post editorial, published last Friday, criticising his ploy to subvert the rights of Washingtonians. The well-written editorial points out that Mr. Souder would likely not stand for this sort of interference in his own district, but then this never has been about democracy. What it is about is getting the NRA's endorsement.

So while gun violence claims the lives of too many people each week in DC, Representative Souder courts votes in Indiana. While citizens of the District cry out for representation, Mr. Souder looks for ways to subvert the little power they have.

Representative, your methods are despicable. You took an oath to uphold the Constitution and the ideals for which it stands. Your parlimentary games sink to below the level of the Stamp Act and the other Intolerable Acts. At least when Britain passed the Quartering Act they weren't doing so against their own words of honor. Thinking that you know what's best for the People is the same fallacy that King George III fell victim to.

Playing politics with the voting rights of almost 600,000 Americans is unacceptable.

This proposed legislation, along with other Congressional overrides of the local government of DC smacks of the tyranny iherent in the reviled Massachusetts Government Act. This government, one made of the People, by the People, and for the People, is supposed to stand for something. It is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope in a world without freedom. But here, in the shadow of the Capitol's Dome, that light is dimmed. And legislation like Mr. Souder's proposal make it still darker here.

I agree with one thing in Mr. Souder's letter, though. "The time is now for Congress to step in to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans."

Where is our right to vote, Mr. Souder? When will you stand up for that right?

How many years can a mountain exist
before it's washed to the sea?
How many years must some people exist
before they're allowed to be free?
And how many time can a man turn his head
and pretend that he just doesn't see the answer?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many times can a man look up
before he sees the sky?
How many ears must one person have
before he can hear people cry?
And how many deaths will it take
'til he knows that too many people have died?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.

(from "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Call Me Confused (But Not Surprised)

I try to keep up to date on the transportation issues facing the United States and pass them on. Due to my background in transportation planning and public policy, I usually have a pretty good handle on the goings on in these circles.

Sometimes, though, I come across an annoucement that puzzles me.

The Bush Administration, in my opinion, has not been a friend of transit, so I'm usually suspicious when the Department of Transportation under Secretary Peters claims to be.

Take for instance, this recent post on the DOT's blog, Welcome to the Fast Lane. The Secretary is proposing a new plan for transportation. To show how progressive this legislation is, Secretary Peters is making the annoucement from Atlanta, "a city that knows what it's like to be rebuilt and reborn." Atlanta burned in 1864. Wouldn't Chicago be more appropriate (Fire, 1871) or perhaps San Francsico (Earthquake, Fire, 1906)?

Trust me, Secretary Peters. As someone who grew up outside Atlanta, I can tell you that Southerners don't need to be reminded of Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, especially by someone from the Federal Government. After all, where do you think Sherman got his paychecks?

Anyway, this announcement claims that the new plan will be good for transit. According to the website, the plan will:
  • Eliminate arbitrary federal restrictions on effective transit investments.
  • Create a mode neutral program called Metropolitan Mobility.
  • Encourage congestion pricing (to shift drivers to transit).
  • Create a Metropolitan Innovation Fund that will award funds to cities that combine congestion pricing and transit investment.
  • Make highways go through the same cost-benefit analyses as transit.
  • Streamline federal processes.
  • Expand local transit funding alternatives.

Just to review a couple of these with skepticism, I would point out that while the plan criticises transit projects for taking too long to build, it encourages using that same process for both highways and transit. Wouldn't it be better just to get rid of it? Besides, Secretary Peters and the Bush Administration have been delaying the Dulles Metro extension with every fiber of their beings--a transit project in the median of a toll highway, being funded with toll revenues from said highway, in a region building HOT lanes on the Beltway and I-95/395.

Still, let's assume that the plan really does intend to be supportive of transit. If that's the case, then what's up with this article, published in the New York Times today?

That's right straphangers, Mr. Bush wants to borrow from the Transit Account to pay for the Highway Account, which is predicted to run out of money this year.

Excuse me? On the same day as the DOT announces new transit friendly policies, the administration tries to shift transit funds into building roads. And this comes the day after the Federal Highway Administration announced that Vehicle Miles Traveled dropped for the seventh month in a row (May), which will likely lead to the first annual drop in VMT since 1980.

Do we really need to be building all of these roads, at the expense of transit?

Driving = going down.
Transit Use = going up.

So the obvious choice is to take money from transit to build roads. Brilliant.

Really, Mr. Bush needs to go back to reading books to school children in Florida and leave the policymaking to someone who knows what's going on.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Colbert Report Creates Bad Rapport

Well s**t. My hometown finally gets its 15 seconds of fame, and it gets called crappy by a kooky talk show host.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that one Stephen Colbert made reference to beautiful Canton, Georgia, located north of Atlanta in the Appalachian foothills, as "crappy." Why he picked the county seat of Cherokee County is unclear. As the AJC points out, there are Cantons in 10 other states.

Mr. Colbert's report fails to note that he's never been to Canton, Georgia. I don't think he's fit to judge my little town, despite its shortcomings.

It seems to be doing just fine where it counts. It's added 12,000 residents in the last 8 years, making it one of the fastest growing communities in the nation. I don't think people would be flocking there if they thought it was "crappy."

The only people going to the Canton in Ohio are the members of Senator McCain's entourage. It's lost 2,000 people since the 2000 Census, typical of the rust belt.

I'm tempted to sink to Mr. Colbert's level and make fun of his hometown...except that it's my adopted hometown. That's right folks, he was born right here in Washington--city that I love. It's clearly not a crappy place.

So I won't sink to that level. I will encourage Mr. Colbert, however, to take the time to visit my hometown on the Etowah. I think Mr. Colbert would find that Canton is "More than a City."

The photo at top was taken (by me) in January 2008 from the Town Square, looking southeast into the intersection of Main and Church Streets.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Passenger Seats Take The Back Seat to Standees

With record crowds plying Metro these days, it's only a matter of time before the system exceeds its available capacity. There's still room for the system to grow, but without new power substations and additional rollingstock, riders are going to be stuck with crowded trains.

Metro is not alone in this phenomenon. Rising gas prices are encouraging people to park their cars and take the train to work and social events across the country. In California, BART responded by removing several seats from some of its cars. This allows more standees per car. BART estimates that for the 6 seats removed, 12 additional passengers can be accomodated per car. For the Bay Area this is a big step. Like WMATA, BART's trains often travel long distances from the suburbs, but because of the design of the Transbay Tube and Market Street Subway, trains can only run about 10 minutes apart per line (about 2-3 minutes apart downtown).

Chicago has decided to take a more radical step. The CTA is removing all seats from some railcars in an experiment to deal with higher ridership. These cars will only operate during rush periods and will be mixed in a consist with other cars with seats. This step will allow CTA to pack on 25-50 more patrons per car. I think that CTA's proposal is a little over the top, but I also wonder if WMATA personnel are watching with interest for the results.

In these times of growing ridership but stagnant funds for transit, changes must be made. Those of us used to getting seats might just have learn to go without. And transit agencies have to change too. Just today, the Post reported that WMATA is rolling out new buses designed to attract ridership. One of the reasons for this move is to give Metrorail riders an alternative to the overcrowded subway.

Still, I think WMATA is going to have to do something about the seating situation. Some new cars are still being added, but the 6000 series cars are almost all delivered. Traction power substation limitations prevent WMATA from running longer trains. While there is still room on some lines to run trains more frequently, WMATA is essentially nearing its real capacity (although not design capacity). With more railcars and more traction power substations, WMATA could carry more people, but without those, the capacity threshold is lower.

So, if WMATA can't add cars to trains and it can't add trains, there are few options for accommoating additional riders. One of those solutions has been to ask riders to commute during off-peak times. Another potential solution would be to add a rush-hour surcharge, much to the same affect. They're also working on increased bus service to divert riders to other modes. Still, it strikes me as logical to remove a few seats from the cars. We certainly need to keep seats. Someone commuting from Shady Grove probably requires a seat, and even though I only travel downtown from Columbia Heights, I like to sit. Of course, as it is, all of the seats are already taken by the time the train picks me up.

Still, if we could accommodate a few extra persons per car, it would make life easier for many Metro riders. And while some would stop riding if they weren't guarunteed a seat, they'd leave room for 2 or 3 more riders who don't mind standing, but do mind $4 gasoline.

WMATA has been experimenting with different seating arrangements, including longitudnal seating. This would allow for more standees as well. Of course, they've been studying this for a while and haven't yet come to a decision.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 21, 2008

For Easier Access in Boarding...

My morning commute was marred by what is, at some level, a good problem to have. Too many people are riding the Metro.

As I pointed out last week, I moved to North Columbia Heights over the weekend, so my commuting patterns have changed. I'll be trying various modes and routes over the next two weeks before I settle on a routine, but this morning's commute was certainly an adventure.

After my 12 minute walk, I got to Columbia Heights Metro as a Branch Avenue train pulled in. The platform was already crowded and the train pretty much full. I managed to get aboard and find enough personal space to read the Post. This brings me to my first Metroquette Rule.

Metroquette Rule of Thumb #1:
If you're getting off at the next stop, don't be the first person on the train.
If you're from Washington and take the Metro, I'm sure you've encountered this problem. Imagine the situation, the platform is full, many people want to get on, and while the train is crowded, there's still standing room in the center of the car. As the doors open, someone rushes forward steps on and...stops. They just stand there in the doorway, and you have to shove past them before the doors close. If you want to be next to the door, don't be the first one to board.

Anyway, I continued toward Gallery Place, where I needed to change to the Glenmont-bound Red Line. At Gallery Place, there were so many people waiting to board that it was difficult to exit. As a matter of fact, the doors closed before people had finished exiting the train. No one had even started to board yet.

But the real problem wasn't that the platform was packed, it was that the doors I was nearest stopped at the bottom of the escalator. It was a localized problem. I was on an 8-car train (full platform) and this was only a problem at about 3 or 4 car doors (of 24 total doors). So...

Metroquette Rule of Thumb #2:
Spread out evenly along the platform.
I was once on an Orange Line train coming from Court House. I was in the front car of this 8-car train. At every stop, the train got further and further behind schedule because it was taking so long to board. Yet there were empty seats in my car. When I got off at L'Enfant, I noticed that cars 2-7 were absolutely packed. Cars 1 & 8 had empty seats. Not only will you avoid being crushed if you'd spread out along the platform, you'll also have an easier time boarding and alighting and if everyone did it, the train could move along more quickly.

I have two goals when arriving at a station. Their precedence depends on my experience with crowds. One of the goals is to walk to the place I'd like to be when I exit. That means if I'm at College Park and I need to change at Fort Totten, I walk to the last car in the train. The second rule is to get as far away from the up (or down at a subway station) escalator as possible. Luckily in the aforementioned example, this works. The up escalator at College Park puts people out about a car and a half forward (southbound) of the center of the platform. I'm always amazed at how many people just stay right there and fight for doorspace when the train arrives.

And speaking of a change at Fort Totten reminds me:

Metroquette Rule of Thumb #3:
Keep moving.
Especially at transfer stations people are in a rush. In my old commute, if I was in the last car of the Branch Avenue train and I rushed up the stairs, I could often just get aboard the Shady Grove train. So it was always infuriating when someone standing in the doorway gots off and stopped or walked up the center of the staircase (so that you can't pass on either side). Tourists are the worst. They get off the train--they take one step out of the doorway--and they freeze. Do I go left? Do I go right? Where am I? Is this the right station? Look, if you don't know where to go, find a map or ask a Metro employee, but please--please(!) don't stop in the doorway.

And in a similar vein,

Metroquette Rule of Thumb #4:
Rechts stehen, links gehen.
Stand to the Right, Walk to the Left on escalators. In Germany, when I was studying abroad there, if you stood on the left, a German would come up behind you, physically shove you to the right, mutter "rechts stehen, links gehen," and pass you. In Washington, we're a little less ambitious. Most people just glare at the wrong-side standees, but for the most part, people know to stand on the right. So if you find yourself on the left side and you don't want to walk, either step to the right or just tough it out and walk.

And just to round out the set:

Metroquette Rule of Thumb #5:
Don't have luggage or a disability? Take the escalator.
Metro asks passengers to reserve elevators for those with the "greatest need." I often take my bike on Metro and am prohibited from taking it on an escalator. If I'm in a shallow station, I can carry it up or down stairs, but often I am required to take the elevator. Of course, people in wheelchairs have priority over me, and countless times I've stepped aside to let them board an elevator. But I find it exceedingly rude when people who have no disability or luggage or anything else for that matter take the elevator. In some stations, like Dupont Circle, it can take a long time for the elevator to return from street level. If you're on foot, you can often beat wheelchair-bound people to the elevator. When you do, just keep on walking--there's an escalator straight ahead.

Anyway, I made it to work with 5 mintues to spare. My commute time is about 10 minutes longer this way, even though I live closer to work. Tomorrow I'll try changing at Fort Totten.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Moving on Up to the D-C(ide)

After a year of living in the suburbs, I'm finally moving back to the city. I'm excited. Tomorrow, I move into a nice North Columbia Heights rowhouse with two of my fellow UM Planning students.

I grew up in a rural community in North Georgia, but I spent four years living in central city Atlanta. When I moved to Metropolitan Washington, I ended up in a nice Hyattsville apartment. And while the view is certainly nice, I just wasn't cut out for suburban living.

As a person who has liberated himself from the car culture, I found it much too difficult to get around out here in "the sticks." Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating--Hyattsville isn't really the sticks, but it's not exactly cosmopolitan either. And yes, they do roll up the sidewalks here--around 9 o'clock.

So I'm happy to be moving to the District. One of the things I missed most during my year of exile was (is?) biking. When I was living in Atlanta, I biked everywhere. Over the last year, I've only managed to take the steed out for weekends on the region's trails (and an exciting 50-States bike tour).

Another exciting aspect of my new pad is the access to the park. Rock Creek Park (actually a branch thereof) is just at the end of my street. As I've pointed out before, I think this park is one of Washington's greatest assets, although there is certainly room for improvement.

*Note: Due to the move, posting may be disrupted for some time. If the cable guy shows up as scheduled, I'll have internet on Tuesday. If not, your guess is as good as mine.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Metro: Lack of Foresight or Realized Vision?

Since moving to Washington almost a year ago, I have heard many criticisms of the Metro. I will be the first to admit that many of these are warranted--in fact, I've done some of the criticising. But I'm also one of the first people to come to WMATA's defense when it comes to ill-informed or undeserved criticism.

Too Few Tracks?

One of the more common complaints, especially with the rapidly increasing ridership, is the lack of a four-track subway downtown. Just last week I had a conversation where WMATA's designers were cursed for not planning for the ridership seen today. I can't fault them, however.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and that is precisely what this criticism is. If we consider, however, the foresight it took in the early 1960s to even consider a subway, we should be applauding WMATA's designers. When all this Metro talk started, the corpses of Capital Transit's streetcars weren't even cold yet and transportation planners wanted to build a subway?

Heavy Rail systems in the United States can generally be broken into two categories: Modern and Pre-Auto Age.

Pre-Auto Age:
Modern Systems:
I make this distinction because the characteristics of these systems are very different. Cleveland's Red Line was the last gasp of the pre-war systems and would preceded almost two decades of subway (and urban) decline in the United States. However, by the 1960s planners had big ideas for how to revitalize America's metropolises. In 1972, BART opened, the first of a new type of "rapid transit." Marked by an acronym, and notably absent the "subway" moniker, BART was designed for the space age. And it came just in time for the first Oil Crisis.

BART and the systems to follow it were designed based on an entirely different premise than were the earlier subways. With the modern systems, the goal was to give suburban commuters an alternative to driving. These systems were marked with long distances between stations, higher speeds, comfortable seats, and most importantly, a sea of parking at outlying stations.

The earlier systems, contrastingly, were designed with the pedestrian in mind. Stations were close together, resulting in slower speeds but with the advantage of reaching more pedestrian patrons. These systems had shorter cars, designed for tight corners in the built-up urban areas they served. Rarely did they venture into the suburbs and almost never included parking.

Of the seven early (pre-auto) systems, only three include express tracks somewhere in their systems. The most extensive set of express tracks lies in the New York City Subway. There, many of the lines are complimented with express service in the peak direction or in both directions. In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont). These three cities are the densest three cities in the United States over 1 million in population (in the order NYC, Chicago, Philly). This is not a coincidence.

Of the six modern systems, only the Washington Metro comes close to a ridership threshold where express (or 4-track) service becomes cost-effective. Look at Metro's counterparts. The systems constructed in the 1970s (BART and MARTA) both garner about 300,000 riders a day, the 1980s systems (Balto, Miami) get around 60k. The main point to be made here is that Metro was far more successful than anyone ever imagined it would be. It's the exception rather than the rule.

Why? Let's come back to that question later.

Let us return to the 1960s and 70s. Think big hair. Think disco. Imagine a Washington in turmoil. Fresh out of the freeway fights that pitted suburb against central city, the feds against the locals, neighbors against neighbors. Fresh from the smoke and rubble left after the 1968 riots. Already jobs were starting to follow residents to the suburbs. In America, cities were changing dramatically.

From this viewpoint (the 60s/70s), Metro is an alternative to driving. It is not a way to redefine the way people live. It will never be able to compete directly with the automobile on the automobile's turf. These heavy rail projects were a last-ditch efforts to save central business districts. No one expected any of these projects to rival the older systems.

Think about the position in which these planners found themselves. Considering the three-state makeup of the region, it is amazing we even have Metro. The funding problem is perhaps one of the most complex in the nation and a four-track subway would have roughly doubled the cost of the system.

Given that, had planners pressed for a four-track system, Metro would either be half the size it is today, would have taken twice as long to build, or would have been killed outright. The debate we're having with the Tysons/Dulles Silver Line right now is case-in-point. Already the project has been sliced and diced in terms of frill, and it's still in danger of not being funded. If things like redundant elevators and the familiar hexagonal tiles might be enough to kill the project, can you imagine the reaction of UMTA (now FTA) if Virginia demanded four tracks?

No. We cannot fault Metro's designers on the four-track front. Politics is the art of the possible, and thanks to their hard efforts we, unlike many cities that were considering heavy rail in the 1970s, actually built our system. And we finished it. Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Miami never achieved their full transit vision. Even here the belt-tightening Reagan years contributed to an extended construction period. Metro was supposed to be finished by 1983, but it wasn't actually complete for another 18 years. Not until the Green Line to Branch Avenue opened in 2001 did the dashed lines on the Metro map turn solid.

Too Many Frills?

And why is Metro so undeniably successful when her counterparts carry mere fractions of her ridership?

One of the factors, I think, is the system's ambiance. Which is, of course, one of the criticisms I hear a lot of these days. People have suggested saving money in all sorts of ways, including removing the carpet and second-guessing the characteristic station vaults.

Safety was considered of the utmost importance in getting people to ride. Planners were afraid that columns would provide places for criminals to hide and that claustrophobic, dark stations would make passengers feel too threatened. To counter the image that many had of subways, designers opened a breathtaking space above the platforms. They included indirect lighting to emphasize the space and to leave the vaults untouched (the station signs were added later).

The designers of Metro had a lot to think about. They also had a lot to live up to. This is, after all, Washington and the people in charge, notably the Commission for Fine Arts, were not going to stand for anything less than stellar. They demanded vaults at all the stations and called for continuity throughout the system.

And continuity they got. From the floor tiles to the lighting, there are a series of common themes running throughout the first-generation stations. Metro changed many of these with the newer stations that go beyond the Adopted Regional System: Florida Avenue, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo. Still, these stations link the region together. It doesn't matter whether in Virginia, DC, or Maryland, the stations received the same type of architectural treatments to bind the varied parts of Metropolitan Washington.

Plus, this continuity also saved money in many cases. The Connecticut/Wisconsin Avenue Subway (Red Line toward Shady Grove) is bored through solid rock. In this case, the vaults were the most economical type of construction--that's why Atlanta's Peachtree Center Station resembles the Metro.

Additionally, since everything from the light fixtures to the paint is the same throughout the system, economies of scale are easily achieved. With Metro's counterparts each station requires its own supply of spare parts. In the MARTA system, for instance, an architect only gets to design one station.

As for the trains, Metro's designers thought that they'd need to lure drivers out of their cars. In that regard, they added padded seats--and plenty of them. They installed carpet in the trains and cleaned it regularly. Graffiti was not tolerated--trains are still taken out of service to be cleaned when graffiti is spotted.

Padded seats are common among the modern systems. Only MARTA and LA's Red Line don't have cushioned seats, and MARTA used to have them, as reported yesterday. As for carpet, the 70s era systems all had it. MARTA only recently started to pull it up, and now the trains are much louder. Carpet, you see, has an acoustical dampening affect which I value on Metro's trains. They already seem louder than what I was used to in Atlanta. So even though it's a bit more expensive, I think keeping the carpet is worth it.

And let's not forget the best perk of them all--air conditioning. Atlanta stopped air conditioning their stations several years ago, but the trains and buses still keep the cool air flowing. In Washington the subway stations and trains have kept theirs. And trust me, summers in Washington are harsh enough to warrant the expense.

The seats I can do without. They are nice and cushy, but they also cost a bit to replace and often don't match the carpet on the older trains. I would even support removing some seats to give standees more room, but there has been a lot of pushback from the more exurban riders. And that's expected. Metro was designed for long trips from the suburbs. Stations like Shady Grove and Franconia are beyond the Beltway and many drivers might chose to drive if they don't have a guaranteed place to sit.

Regardless of these issues, however, Metro's designers did something right. Perhaps the design just speaks to some subconcious feeling. If designing public parks in a certain way can influence their usage, why not assume that designing a feel-good metro station would encourage riders to take transit?

More Discontent

Sunday's Post had more Metro criticisms. In this article, criticises WMATA's use of escalators. Originally, Metro intended for all vertical movement to be made using escalators. The courts forced them to install elevators and money eventually forced them to start putting in stairs. What's wrong with escalators though? Even when they're broken, you can still walk up them. And when they work (which is most of the time), they're the most efficient way of moving people through a station.

As for the custom rolling stock argument, BART's cars were far from proven. As Dr. Gridlock rightly points out, they only have two doors per side and in the early 1970s their motors kept doing the disco inferno. Besides, the use of broad gauge might be best for 'Frisco, but Metro's use of standard gauge actually allows for more interoperability than BART.

And let's not forget that every rapid transit system has its cars made to spec. The only modern exception is the Budd Universal Rapid Transit Car used on both the Miami and Baltimore Metros. Both of those systems were being built at the same time and because they were both small systems, the car order was easy for Budd to accomplish. Washington and Atlanta did have some overlap with construction, but not enough to go in on a car order together. MARTA's cars ended up being extremely late anyway. The East Line was ready to open in late 1978, but there weren't enough cars, so the system opening was delayed until June of 1979.

But despite complaints, people continue to ride Metro. In larger numbers than ever before, as a matter of fact. Hopefully, Washingtonians will continue to put up with Metro's design "flaws" and understand when unforseen circumstances disrupt service. What's most important however, is that we fix what we can and plan for the future. Complaining about the lack of a 4-track Red Line won't get the M Street (Blue) Subway built.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ashby to SF in No Time At All

I have to thank a commenter for this tip. Brett, you're the best. I had no idea about this footage, and all I can say is wow!

I've never seen the film "Escape from New York,"but I'll be sure to now. In a deleted scene from the start of the movie, Snake, the main character, robs a bank and escapes (or tries to) using--wait for it--MARTA!

It's not really MARTA in the film, however. Apparently the filmmakers envisioned a high-speed underground transport system linking the United States together by 1997. They were probably sorely disappointed. I know I am. Anyway, the movie debuted in 1981, and was probably filmed in late 1979/early 1980. That tracks with the scenes we see.

After he leaves the bank, when the code red is announced, he is in the Concourse A station of the Atlanta Airport People Mover. Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport opened in September of 1980, so the filming could have easily been done prior to the Airport being opened.

The West Line (including Five Points) opened in December of 1979, so MARTA could have easily been used for filming before the commencement of service there. The initial scene was shot at the Ashby Station. Note that the train fills the platform, it's a full 8 cars long. MARTA doesn't do that very often.

On board, the seats are still padded. Because of a high instance of seat slashings, MARTA uses hard plastic seats now, and has for many years. This filming took place early enough in the system's history, however, that the pads were still alive and well.

At "San Francisco," the train arrives on the wrong side of the Platform, but that is the Omni Station. It's now known as Georgia Dome/Georgia World Congress Center/CNN Center/Phillips Arena. I think it's ironic that the station with the shortest name at opening now has one of the longest of any transit station in the country.

Since the directors were going for a futuristic dystopia, it made sense to use MARTA. At the time, it was America's newest subway.

Seven-Eleven Tops Reagan Funeral

Metro is reporting that Friday, July 11 was the highest ridership day ever in the system's 32 year history. With 854,638 riders, Metro moved 4,000 more passengers than they did on the date of President Ronald Reagan's state funeral.

This year alone, Metro has set 20 of their top 25 highest ridership days.

And Washington isn't alone. The Overhead Wire is reporting that other American systems are seeing numbers not expected for years. The new kid on the block, Charlotte, is showing quite a bit of promise.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Streetcar Named Anacostia

The Post is reporting that streetcars could be operating in the District by late 2009. Soon, bids will be opened for the construction of track in Southeast DC. The cars have already been built and are awaiting rails on which to run.

If all goes according to plan, in a little over a year, Washington will join the list of cities who have invested in streetcars in the wake of Portland's successful experiment. The project is already behind schedule, however, but this news is a good sign for the eventual completion of the project.

Hopefully, the Anacostia Streetcar project will have the desired affect on the urban fabric. In Portland, the streetcar helped turn run-down neighborhoods into the trendiest parts of the city. While it's too early to predict that sort of change for one of the District's more notorious neighborhoods, the project will have a positive impact on mobility and will introduce light-rail-type
technology to the region.


Anytime you operate a system as complex as WMATA's, there will be problems. With 86 stations and 106 miles of track, the Washington Metro is America's second largest rail system. It also carries the second highest number of riders nationwide. So service disruptions are to be expected occasionally.

While WMATA does have outages more often than I'd like to see, their responses are usually pretty good. I've often heard criticism, however. It is typical for customers to be frustrated, especially when shuttle buses are overwhelmed.

Friday, Metro experienced a major disruption on its second busiest line. For several hours Friday, power problems stopped all Orange Line service between West Falls Church and Vienna. According to reports, shuttle service was put in place to transport passengers to Dunn Loring and Vienna, but it is likely that come Monday, WMATA will be once again under fire for their response.

I think it's time to reconsider that knee-jerk reaction. After all, there's only so much WMATA can do when a situation like this arises. A bus can carry significantly fewer people than even one railcar. Since WMATA can only have a few buses standing by for bus bridges and because they have to be delivered to the site of the disruption, delays are often catastrophic even before recovery can begin.

That's why riders need to have a plan ahead of time. If rail service is disrupted, it is very likely that buses will still be running their normal routes. I have seen signs on trains encouraging patrons to be "Plan-b-dextrous" and have alternates in mind. The only way for you minimize your delay is to find an alternate route which is operating normally. One cannot expect normal service to resume immediately.

WMATA usually does an excellent job disseminating information, although there is certainly room for improvement. In this case, I was on the Red Line. At Metro Center, the operator announced that Orange Line trains would be turning back at West Falls Church. Throughout the system, announcements were being made at least once a minute, and the PIDS displays were constantly scrolling the information.

As a rider, had I been going to Vienna, I could have traveled to West Falls Church and joined in the zoo of riders waiting on too few buses or I could have used a pre-planned alternate. In this case, it would have been the 2B or 2G, both of which operate to Vienna from East Falls Church.

While I encourage WMATA to continue to improve its state of repair and communication with riders, I also encourage riders to find an alternate route today and not wait for the next emergency to appear.

Do you know your alternate route to home or work?

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Region that Governs Together...

This post is the first in a series of posts I hope to write about lessons planners could learn from Canada. My recent trip showed me North American cities that have done a better job of managing their urban fabric than is typical south of the 49th Parallel.

Lesson 1: Regional Government
I started my trip across Canada in Nova Scotia's capital city, the Halifax Regional Municipality. Formed in 1996, the HRM, as it's often called, is a consolidated government including all of Halifax's commuter shed and then some. The amalgamation in 1996 dissolved several cities, including Halifax proper, merging them into one regional government. The places, however, kept their names and identities, and are still very much alive and well.

Governing regionally allows regions to take a more comprehensive view of themselves. In most American metropolitan areas, no one elected representative can take a holistic view of the region because they are usually elected by only a small percentage of it. Some effort has been made to bring regional planning to the United States with the concept of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, but MPOs are made up of member jurisdictions and are often myopic in that regard.

Let's take for example, Atlanta. The capital of the New South has a metropolitan area consisting of 28 counties and 152 incorporated areas. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the regional body for the region, consists of only 10 of those counties and 63 of the cities.

Washington looks even worse from a regional perspective. With three state-level governments having jurisdiction in the region, there's the added difficulty of having another metropolitan area, Baltimore, so close. Baltimore has its own MPO, but many commute from Baltimore to Washington.

Portland, Oregon is the only major American city to have a truly regional government. Known as Metro, Portlanders from across the region elect members to this body. And unlike many of the regional bodies in the United States, Metro has quite a bit of policy-making power.

Only through regional control of transportation and land use policy will the United States be able to solve many of the urban problems still facing us today. Canadians have taken that approach, and it seems to show. I was impressed with all of the cities I visited there. The quality of life is high, and while their cities also had a period of decline during the second half of the 20th Century, they seemed to be far better off than their American counterparts.

Traffic doesn't stop at the city limits. Niether does air pollution, crime, or educational disparity. If we are to deal with problems on a regional scale, we have to be able to address them with policies that cross jurisdictional boundaries (or we could remove the boundaries). Regional government does not have to mean the loss of local control, but it should be the time when we define "who our neighbor is." From a planning perspective, good city limits don't necessarily make for good neighbors.

Comments? Thoughts?

The Choo-Choo 'Round

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the NCPC's plan to update the Federal Quarter. The plan calls for a redesign of the urban fabric in this part of DC, which has long been marred by institutional, fortress-like structures.

Among other things, it calls for greater connectivity. It proposes to create new pathways and remove barriers to travel between the different parts of the neighborhood, notably the separation of the Waterfront from the Mall.

Greater Greater Washington has a good introduction to the subject, and plans on doing a more detailed analysis later, and his comments are usually spot on, so make sure to stay tuned.

Since Track Twenty-Nine usually focuses on transit issues, I'll stick to those. The plan created by NCPC referred to an earlier study which looked at the barrier created by the railroad corridor running east-west across the southern edge of downtown. These tracks were originally constructed using the rights of way of Maryland and Virginia Avenues to penetrate the urban core. As such, these grand, L'Enfant avenues don't quite have the characteristics that NCPC would like them to have.

Additionally, NCPC and the Federal Government are concerned with the security risks caused by the presence of the railroad tracks mere blocks from the seat of government. These tracks, owned by CSX, are the primary corridor for freight traveling north-south through the Mid-Atlantic region. Some of this freight is hazardous in nature, and NCPC feels that there should be an alternative route.

The railroads also have reason to dislike the alignment. The single-track Virginia Avenue tunnel, located in Southeast, is a major choke point for the railroad. The high number of commuter and inter-city trains on the corridor also put additional strain on the limited capacity of the CSX corridor in the Washington area.

To respond to these concerns, the NCPC produced a report called the Railroad Realignment Feasibility Study. This study looked at several alternatives to rerouting freight traffic through or around the District. The NCPC has narrowed the search down to three alternatives. One would construct an 8-mile long tunnel from Alexandria to Landover for freight traffic. The other two alternatives would involve constructing new bridges over the Potomac (near Indian Head, MD or Dahlgren, VA), rebuilding the Pope's Creek Subdivision to Bowie, and the construction of new track to connect to the Capital Subdivision (MARC Camden Line) at Jessup.

All three of these alternatives would involve removing the railroad from 2nd and E SW to the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. The section of track from Alexandria to the First Street Tunnel would remain in place to provide access to Union Station for VRE and Amtrak (and potentially MARC) trains.

Because of the other transportation corridors in the area, I'm not sure how effective the plan would be at knitting the urban fabrick back together. The section of freight railroad to be removed under this plan is immediately adjacent to the Southeast Freeway (I-295) and Anacostia Freeway (also I-295) for most of its length. A short section of track near RFK Stadium crosses the Anacostia without a companion expressway, but doesn't really act as much of a barrier at that point anyway. Essentially, without the removal of the Southeast/Southwest Freeways, this removal will not do much to reconnect these neighborhoods.

One potential strategy involves decking over the railroad (or burying it) between 2nd Street SW and the Potomac. Part of this has already been done near L'Enfant Plaza. Decking would be difficult, however, in many places because the railroad is above grade (as can be seen in the picture at top (6th and Virginia SW)). A possible realignment would involve using the Southwest Freeway trench as the new VRE/Amtrak right-of-way, but this would eliminate the commuter connection to Metro at L'Enfant Plaza Station.

The plan's other two objectives, however, seem achievable. Since Washington niether generates or recieves much in the way of railroad freight, rerouting trains through Upper Marlboro and Waldorf will not affect business much in Washington. It will provide additional security by removing hazardous chemicals from downtown, and would eliminate several railroad bottlenecks.

Another benefit is that rerouting freight around the region would provide additional commuter rail capacity. This would be especially helpful for MARC run-through service to Northern Virgina and to VRE trains operating on the Fredericksburg Line. Unfortunately, MARC trains on the Camden and Brunswick lines would still have to compete with freight for track space. However, if the Old Main Line could be rebuilt between Point of Rocks and Baltimore, as is mentioned briefly in the report, commuter trains from Baltimore Camden and northern Montgomery Counties could run more frequently in either direction.

Hopefully, the federal government can follow through on this report's findings. While it appears to be an expensive undertaking, it also seems to be a worthwhile one. Transportation solutions are rarely easy to implement, but in the United States we can no longer afford to put off investment in our national rail system. This railroad redesign has the potential to offer a good deal of public-private partnership and is a win-win for all involved.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, July 4, 2008

"We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident..."*

*Some restrictions apply, not valid in all areas, must be 18 or older to apply.

I've written about this subject at length before, but I think it appropriate to revisit this injustice once again, especially on the anniversary of a Declaration not only of American independence, but of the rights inherent in all human beings. These principles, according to the founding fathers, transcended all time and culture and no outside entity had the right or ability to remove them.

"Give me liberty, or give me death," therefore was a statement prescient for its time. Spoken before Jefferson put quill to parchment, the statement espoused the idea that without the fundamental rights due mankind, life was not worth living.

When Patrick Henry said those words in March of 1775, it is said, he convinced Virginia to commit troops to fight in the revolution against the British. Now, over two centuries later, his words ring hollow in parts of this great nation. I doubt that he would have supported taxation without representation under the new Continental government any more than he did under the Redcoats. Yet that was precisely what was destined to happen.

From 1801 until 1846, citizens of Mr. Henry's own state, Virginia, who had been living in and around Alexandria were stripped of their right to vote. Their neighbors across the Potomac in Georgetown (formerly part of Maryland) and the new captial city never got their votes back.

While it is true that residents of the District of Columbia have been able to vote for President since the election of 1964, they still have no voting representatives or senators. The nearly 600,000 residents of Washington cannot write their senator, cannot visit their representative, cannot be given the full rights guarunteed under the United States Constitution, even though they many are natural born citizens.

And because of DC's unique administrative design, it is even more essential that Washingtonians be able to vote for congressional representation than it is for Americans living in one of the 50 states. You see, in the District of Columbia, the United States Congress has ultimate authority. They even have the power to eliminate DC's elected city council and mayor--without asking the citizens of DC if it's ok to do so. So while Ohioans and Californians certainly have a stake in the federal government, they aren't in danger of having their state legislatures revoked.

The citizens of DC live under that threat constantly. And while it is doubtful that Congress would abuse that power, it isn't unthinkable, and it has been exercised before. Currently, citizens of the District have only been able to govern themselves since 1975. It had been 104 years since the last time citizens could elect their local officials popularly, when congress removed that right in 1871.

For more information on DC Home Rule, see the Wikipedia article:

And even if Congress rarely dissolves the DC government, it frequently overrules it. Because Congress has complete jurisdiction over DC, everything from the budget to the most minor of legislation.

Dr. Zachary Schrag details one example of DC being overrulled by Congress in his book (pg. 258), Great Society Subway (which I highly recommend). In this case, one of Georgia's representatives, Bob Barr, threatened to cancel the District's appropriation to Metro because Arlington County refused to pay to change the name of National Airport Station to "Ronald Reagan National Airport Station*." Why would this man, currently the Libertarian candidate for President, find it necessary to take such a harsh stance on local control?

Even back in Georgia, he wouldn't have had the power to force the Atlanta City Council to rename their airport, but in a state far away, in a region of people who did not vote for him, he has the power to circumvent democracy. No one in our government should have that power.

*To explain the situation a little, in 1998, Congress voted to rename the airport after former President Reagan. Based on a 1987 policy, WMATA requires jurisdictions requesting a station name change to pay the $400,000 cost. In this case Arlington County declined--after all quite a few employees of the federal government live there, and Reagan was kind of mean to them. As a result, Barr encouraged Congress to withhold DC's entire budget contribution to WMATA. As a result, WMATA folded and paid the full cost themselves, to the expense of all Metro riders.

There is no excuse for the lack of representation in Congress for the citizens of the District of Columbia. It is clear from the Framers' actions, that they were against any form of tyrannical government, including in the one they were forming.

America remains the only western democracy whose capital citizens do not have the right to vote. Mr. Bush seems so intent on "exporting democracy" to Iraq that he can't see the lack of it in the city he lives in.

I sincerely hope that this is the last Independence Day when Washingtonians are made to tolerate their lack of full suffrage.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fringe Benefits

No one will argue that high gas prices aren't causing Americans grief, but that isn't to say they aren't without some good aspects. Time Magazine recently released a list of 10 Things You Can Like About $4 Gas. It's definitely worth a read.

As they point out in their opening paragraph, one reason that Amercians seemed so unrepentant when it came to driving is the lack of alternatives:

"We truthfully didn't have lots of options. Unlike Europeans, we didn't have
jobs we could bike to or convenient public transit."

But we did at one time. And we could have it now. Imagine what America would look like today if all of the monies spent on the Interstate Highway System had been instead invested in public transit. Places like Rochester wouldn't have sacrificed their subway (Light Rail) to build a freeway right-of-way, and perhaps places like Los Angeles would have had a Metro long before theirs finally opened in 1993 (currently America's newest).

The writers of the article point out that transit ridership is at a 50 year high. If we subtract 50 from 2008, we get 1958. Two years after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, and already transit use was being affected. Now, after a half-century, we are starting to put the right foot forward and if Time is correct, we might just come out of this oil crisis ahead.

That, however, will depend on how good we are at adapting to a new reality, one where $4 gas looks like a bargain. It's time to move into the 21st Century, and I applaud Time for not sinking to the gloom-and-doom stories most of the Media are putting out about petrochemicals these days.

Here's the list:
  1. Globalized jobs return home
  2. Sprawl stalls
  3. Four-day workweeks
  4. Less polution
  5. More frugality
  6. Fewer traffic deaths
  7. Cheaper insurance
  8. Less traffic
  9. More cops on the beat
  10. Less obesity

Can you think of others?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Last Train Out

One thing that Washingtonians know is that it's often easier to take Metro. And for the most part, I think they're right. However, Metroing around has its limitations--especially after dark. The system is one of the first heavy rail systems in the United States to close every evening, and it is the first to start closing (unless you count CTA's Skokie Station).

Of course, WMATA is a chronically underfunded agency with many unmet needs. Still, it would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation's Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don't exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.

And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it's not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don't get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore's Metro starts to close later than WMATA.

Let's have a look at the data. I created this bar chart to illustrate the service periods of America's 13 heavy rail systems. They are shown (from top to bottom) in ascending order of first last train. So, for instance, Washington has the first last train of all the systems, when the train bound for Greenbelt leaves Branch Avenue for the last time each weekday at 11:24. The three bottom-most systems don't close at all (although service patterns are different late at night) and Chicago keeps its Red and Blue Lines open all night.

Graphic Notes:
Opening: refers to the period between the earliest scheduled departure until all stations are open in all directions of travel.
Open: refers to the period when the entire system is in revenue service.
Closing: refers to the period between the last revenue departure at a station (in any direction) and the final revenue offload of the evening.
Example: WMATA is opening from 4:54, when the first Blue Line train leaves Largo, until 6:04, when the first train to leave Franconia arrives at Largo. WMATA starts closing at 11:24P, when the last train of the evening leaves Branch Avenue and is closed at 12:40, when the last train of the evening terminates at Shady Grove.
Most people agree that it would be better if Metro stayed open later--at least to a certain point. There seems to be little incentive or need to have trains running at 3 in the morning, but 12:30 doesn't strike me as unreasonable. Of course, Fridays and Saturdays tend to see demand for those really late night trains and when WMATA suggested cancelling them last year, there was a good deal of outcry.

But what about the rest of the week? Where is the outcry then?

When I flew back from Vancouver (via Atlanta), I was subjected to weather delays. My flight pulled up to Gate 21 at National at 11:34 PM. I had just 10 minutes to get off the plane, clear the terminal, buy a farecard, and run up an escalator. I made it--with 4 minutes to spare. I don't know how. I might have broken some laws of physics to do it, but I wasn't about to sell my firstborn to pay for the cab ride to Prince George's Plaza. The fact of the matter is that 11:44 is far too early to stop inbound service on the most direct route from the Airport to Downtown.

In Atlanta, where the airport is not only a major visitor/resident destination, but also a major job center, the last train leaves at 1:00 AM sharp. Sure, it takes until 1:43 to get to Doraville, but I never had to worry about missing the last train, and while the train was never at crush, there is a lot that could be said about the benefits of mobility--and having a system that meets the needs of people other than suburban commuters is an essential aspect of a world-class transit system.

Of course there are larger issues at stake. It often seems that the only constants in Washington are humidity and a transit system with a perpetual funding crisis. (Which is funny, because I could say the same thing about Atlanta). And I certainly would not argue in favor of later service in the evening at the expense of rush hour service. And if we aren't cutting expenses somewhere, that means more outlays for operations. So what kind of money are we talking about here?

Well, the exact number isn't clear. According to WMATA, they charge venues $21,000 per hour to keep the system open late for special events (think evening Redskins games). It so happens that if a certain ridership threshhold is crossed, the venue gets their money back, and it's not uncommon for these events to keep the system open. So if we wanted the last train to leave Branch Avenue an hour and a half later at 12:54 AM, it would theoretically cost about $30,000 per day. That's $150,000 per week or about $600,000 over a month.
It's not quite that simple, though. While these are all back-of-the-napkin sorts of calculations, a permenant or long-term extension of service in the evening would likely come with a readjustment of bus services and the like, so it could wind up being slightly more expensive.

But of even greater concern to Metro is when they would do their maintenance. We all know what happens when Metro defers maintenance, and it isn't pretty. And 90 minutes less time to upgrade and repair tracks and stations is not a trivial amount of time. Still, other systems manage to do it.

The early closing time of Metro does not seem to jibe fully with the maintenance argument. While WMATA is in the same league as some of the systems in terms of downtime, it is quite different from its peers. San Francisco's BART is 4 years older, MARTA is 3 years younger, both have less than 2.5 hours to do maintenance. The more extensive systems (Metro is second in distance, behind NYC Subway and just ahead of CTA) tend to have less downtime--none actually.

The point is that if Metro really wanted to extend service, it would be possible. Systems just as lengthy and of a similar era make do with less time for repairs. In some cases, notably Chicago and New York, places where the subway doesn't sleep, the maintenance issues are far more pronounced than Metro's. Chicago has more slow zones than you can count on all your fingers and New York's system faces the same sorts of problems that all centenarians face.

The maintenance issue is a non sequitur. Even if the maintenance that needed to be done was on a crossover, trains could still operate at 20 minute headways, which is just about right for late evenings. When switch work several weeks ago disrupted Green and Yellow service at Mount Vernon Square, trains operated every 20 minutes through two interlocking segments. Besides, Metro already does maintenance at night, often well before service ceases, but after passenger volumes have fallen off.

With high gas prices strangling the economy and a resurgence of interest in urban living, it is time for Metro to make significant improvements to its service. Later service is one step that can be taken. Even adding 30 minutes of service would be a considerable achievement for this, America's finest of subways.

Let's hope that soon Metro will be Opening Doors later and leaving the light on for a broader spectrum of riders.

What are your thoughts?