Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Doors Opening, Candidates Please Step On

Earlier this week, I reported that Mr. McCain was calling for a suspension of the gas tax this summer. I also remarked on Senator Clinton's potential support for that policy. She has now followed through, and has also made calls for the suspension of the gas tax.

Many are saying that this will cost America $1 billion that would otherwise go to fix our decaying transportation system. It is likely that gas prices will not be significantly reduced, and this tax break will, in all likelihood, end up benefiting the oil companies.

I am glad to hear that at least one of the candidates is refusing to pander to voters on this most-important issue. Senator Barack Obama, Democratic front-runner, is calling a spade a spade. While I don't necessarily agree that pandering is the natural state of Washington, I can certainly understand where he's coming from, especially with regard to the blatant disregard for good policy that is coming from the Clinton and McCain camps.

Still, Mr. Obama's message leaves a little to be desired. He recently reiterated his support for Amtrak and for building a better high-speed rail network in this country, but he has not yet asked Americans to change modes, nor has he promised to significantly change the way we build transit in America.

In all of President Bush's States of the Union, he called for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Not once did he ask Americans to try the bus. Not once did he promise a spending package that would start a wave of new transit construction across the nation. Instead, he called for new fuels (to be delivered sometime in the future) and a switch to biofuels (also to be delivered sometime in the future).

Asking Americans to switch to transit would produce an immediate reduction in oil usage, especially if it was coupled with subsidies to reduce fares and the construction of new lines.

I encourage Senator Obama to continue his fight to reduce America's dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise). I also encourage him to think strongly about a real transit policy. No developed country in the world has so many big cities and so few subways.

With oil supplies being used at an ever-increasing rate, now is the time to change our transportation policy. The next president will preside over the reauthorization (or lack thereof) of the next transportation spending bill. As yet, none of the candidates has satisfied me with a decent transportation/energy plank. It's time for that to change.

The question is, is it a Change Mr. Obama can believe in?

Silver Line Update

This morning's wonderful news about the Tysons Corner Metro extension is still good news, but we're not out of the woods yet.

FTA is committing $158.7 million to the project and is advancing it to the final design phase. The project is not yet a sure thing, but having jumped this hurdle, it is one step closer to reality.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters reminded Governor Kaine in a letter dated today that the two main issues facing the project are WMATA's ability to keep the system in a state of good repair and the ability of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (which is building the line) to keep the project on schedule and on budget.

At the same time, Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, is blocking a bill which would greatly improve Metro's chances of keeping the system in good repair. The bill would provide $1.5 billion in federal assistance for capital costs over the next decade, and would be matched by Maryland, Virginia, and the District.

Mr. Coburn doesn't think even one penny should go to Metro. He says to use federal tax dollars to keep Metro running is to "steal opportunity from our children." I remind him that every gallon of gasoline that Washingtonians don't use because we have the Metro is one more gallon of gasoline available for the children of Oklahoma--and they don't have a subway to take.

The senator feels that Metro riders (who already pay one of the highest percentages of the cost of the system in the nation) should be the ones who shoulder the burden--all of the burden. Of course, we might not even need to have this discussion if the federal government hadn't made rail travel less feasible in this country through a systematic use of policies encouraging suburbanization. Perhaps Mr. Coburn would support drivers paying the full cost of the Interstate Highway System, but I doubt it.

Anyway, we owe a big thanks to the leadership of Virginia for moving this project forward.

Silver Line Approved!

Despite earlier doubts, good sense has prevailed at the Federal Transit Administration. It seems they will likely dedicate $900 million in funding to the $2.5 billion Metro extension to Tysons Corner.

The first phase of this project, dubbed the Silver Line, will include 5 stations, four in Tysons Corner and one just east of Reston at Whiele Avenue and the Dulles Airport Access Road.

It will share track with the Orange Line from Stadium-Armory to East Falls Church, allowing riders to travel directly from downtown to the largest job center in Northern Virginia (map).

The second phase of the project will eventually extend the project through Reston to Dulles Airport and beyond.

Congratulations Metropolitan Washington!

Hoping for Divine Intervention

When the Founding Fathers laid out this now-great nation, I doubt they had any idea what it would have become. Still, they exercised amazing foresight in designing our system of governance. Benjamin Franklin tells us that "God helps those who help themselves." This advice flies in the face of recent calls for The Divine Presence to intervene in America's energy crisis by lowering gasoline prices.

While I can certainly understand the desire for assistance that comes with these tough times, it strikes me as inappropriate to have a pray-in at a gas station. How selfish can we be when it comes to our economy? While my religious views are complicated, at best, my upbringing was Christian, and I can not imagine something as offensive as asking God to intervene on my behalf at the expense of others.

What do these prayers sound like? Perhaps, if we were honest with ourselves, they would sound something like this:

Almighty God, for You all things are possible. Please intervene economically in Your divine and limitless wisdom to lower oil prices so that we, Your children, will be able to continue in our life of abundance and environmental degradation. It was you, oh Lord, who taught us that we were to have dominion over all the Earth. Oh Lord, please grant us the low gas prices which will enable us to continue to be bad stewards of your Creation. Lord, let it be Your will that we be able to get gas for less than $1.50. Without cheap foreign oil, we may be unable continue be wasteful of the resources entrusted to us, and use oil which might otherwise go to your less fortunate children. God, it was Your divine providence that enabled us to obtain the cheap oil requisite to trace our Manifest Destiny and spread forth vinyl siding and stucco over the woodlands of North America. For without Your bountiful gifts of cheap oil and cheaper land, we would have not been free to escape the forsaken urban environment. Oh Lord, through Your generous gifts, we the unworthy, were able to abandon our brethren minorities to a life of poverty and crime. And oh Lord, in Your infinite wisdom, You set us forth and provided us Hummers when our gas mileage was high, You widened our freeways when they were congested, and You set forth Divine zoning regulation to prohibit our relapse into an efficient urban society. We beseech You, oh God, to enable us, your humble servants, to continue in our American lifestyle. It is not in our nature, oh Lord, to sacrifice and take the unholy bus or the blasphemous subway. Oh Lord, please do not allow us to sink into the sacrilege of a shorter commute and deliver us from the temptation to purchase the pagan, fuel-efficient Prius. Let Your Will be done on Earth as it is in the Pearly-Gated Community in Heaven. Amen.
We do not absolve ourselves of guilt by praying in such a manner. Nor do we remove the urgency of action by petitioning God. Benjamin Franklin would have been ashamed to hear of people who pray for God to intervene in their unsustainable lifestyle without making changes to help themselves.

The fact of the matter is, that whether fossil fuels were put here by God or whether they are purely the product of natural processes, they are finite. We have chosen to use them in a manner which will exhaust them before the end of the century if we continue to use them as we do today.
If you believe that God intervenes in the world, perhaps these gas prices are His way of encouraging us to be better caretakers. Imagine what it must look like to the Creator. He gave us a pristine planet, a bountiful garden; and while He watches from the sideline, we are using all of the resources up, polluting the air and water, and continuing to live in a manner which creates massive economic and social inequity across the globe. (If you don't believe in a corporeal God, just imagine yourself as the observer.)

Prayer is a call for action. The actual etymology of the word "Amen" means 'so be it.' It means asking God for guidance before setting out on a task. It does not mean asking God to do it for you. I think Ralph Waldo Emerson hits the nail on the head when he says that
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meaningless and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will see in prayer all action.
As humans, we have an obligation to take care of this one Earth. This responsibility comes not from a deity, but from the fact that we all share a small, small world, after all. Or, to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." The people of this planet will sink or swim together, and right now, the West is in the best position to lead mankind into a sustainable future.

So, with these thoughts in mind, perhaps we should have pray-ins at gas stations. Perhaps we should say something like this:
Almighty God, to You the future is as plain as words on a page. Grant us the wisdom and strength to make the requisite changes in our lifestyles in order to glorify your Creation. It was not our intent to lay waste to Your garden, nor was it our intent to separate ourselves from Your less-fortunate children in our pursuit of happiness. Yet our addiction to cheap energy has had that affect. We now know that we cannot continue to live the same way we have been living, but the changes will not be easy. We ask for the courage to make sacrifices as your Son did for us. It was selfish of us to presume that our affluence was an excuse to escape from the byproducts of our industrialized society, of which this energy crisis is one. We ask you to provide for us a more selfless path so that we may be able to achieve a true Jubilee, a time when all your sons and daughters will break bread together in Your verdant garden. Amen

*Note: This prayer is meant to be non-denominational. I certainly do not presume to place one religion above another. There are many paths to God, including some that are not signed as such. If any religion/philosophy is glorified more than others in this post, it is Humanism, but without humanism (note, little 'h'), religion is meaningless. Breaking bread, in this instance, refers not to Holy Communion but rather to an international peace, when all may live together. The reference to the Jubilee is Biblical, but it represents, in this case, the equality of all people, as prefaced in America's Declaration of Independence.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Silence Isn't Golden

Today is the National Day of Silence.

Every year in April, we take this opportunity to reflect on the involuntary silence imposed on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals through hostile action. In many cases, these actions take the form of epithets, but sometimes the outcome is much more horrific.

As a gay man, I have known that oppressive silence and I still see it in action. The time cannot come soon enough that LGBT persons are not treated as pariahs. While it is certain that much progress has been made recently, there is still much work to be done.

Today is one day when gays and their friends, families, and allies take upon themselves a voluntary silence. This deliberately imposed silence echoes the silence caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. It is a day when we stand with our brethren, with our fellow human beings who have had their voices stripped away.

Today, let us reflect on the voices we will not be hearing. Today, let us imagine a world without the LGBT persons we know and love. If you can imagine the silence, the absence of the voices of your fellow man, you have taken a step toward breaking that silence.

Through our silence, we have an impact larger than any words we could say today.

Today we are symbolically voiceless, but in that muteness, some will find their voices. Today we speak out with a symbol of empowerment, of solidarity, of love.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's Economics, Stupid

On April 15, Senator John McCain called for a suspension of the federal gas tax this summer. Senator Hillary Clinton followed recently on Larry King by suggesting that the idea should be studied. In her message, Clinton said that we need to investigate the price highs that Americans have been seeing at the pump.

This comes in the face of record oil prices. Today's close had crude oil at $119.37 on the NYMEX. For a run down of recent factors, MSNBC has an excellent analysis. Still, I think that oil prices represent something more than a periodic disruptions in supply. Prices have been rising consistently for several years, a factor I attribute to global tensions--at least at the beginning. Now, however, with OPEC blaming the falling dollar on prices and claiming that there is no demand for additional oil (even when many of the chiefs of state in West are calling for it), I am less sure.

Right now, the United States makes up 5% of the world's population, but we use 25% of the world's oil. If everyone on the planet lived like the average American, we would need 5.33 Earths to support us all. Another way of saying that is to say that for every person who uses more than their share of the planet, someone else gets less share. At any rate, the main issue that we are facing right now is that most of the people of the world do want to live like the average American.

India and China comprise over a third of the world's population, and both are rapidly developing. As their countrymen and women start to drive more, as their distribution networks become more auto-intensive, and as their industry becomes more developed, their oil consumption will increase. China is already driving up the cost of construction projects here because of their insatiable demand for building products.

Today is Earth Day. Today we are meant to celebrate the planet that gives us life. Today we celebrate the only habitat of humankind. This year, with the green movement more popular than ever, we must consider the policy implications of a political folly like the one proposed by Senators Clinton and McCain.

All three of America's major presidential candidates have called for environmental protection. Climate scientists tell us that we must reduce greenhouse emissions immediately if we are to avert serious climate damage. Furthermore, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will mean relying less on foreign sources for our energy needs.

A suspension of the gas tax is one of the worst policy decisions that can be made for America, for the simple reason of economics. Even for those people who are totally reliant on automobiles, a reduction in the gas tax will make you worse off.

Very few people argue that Earth's oil resources are infinite. The general consensus is that there is a finite amount of oil inside Earth's nougat center. While it is true that we don't know exactly how much oil is left on the planet, it will take millions of years of natural processes to even begin to replenish what we've used since oil was first successfully drilled at Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Therefore, I think it's safe to gloss over the intricacies of geology and just say flat out, they're not making any more of the stuff.

This will come as a shock to many, but there will be a time at which point the last drop of extractable oil will be drawn from the Earth. Therefore, every time you fill up your gas tank, you are bringing us closer to that point. Every time you decide to drive somewhere you could have walked, ridden the bus, or stayed at home, you take oil from your children (or an older version of you). Similarly, every time someone else makes a decision not to drive, they extend that moment.

Mr. McCain's idea to give Americans at least one more tryst with cheap oil is a wasteful bit of public policy which will only make the choices harder for the citizens of Planet Earth on that day (and hasten it) when oil doesn't gush out of the Arabian desert. Inflation (some say stagflation) is hurting the American economy because we transport almost everything on the tide of oil. Even I can feel the pinch, and I don't drive. But every time I walk to the grocery store, I get sticker shock.

Let's ask ourselves which is more important: getting food to grocery stores or getting to the beach (by car) this summer? Fire engines with full gas tanks or 45 mile one-way commutes on Mr. Eisenhower's freeway network? Fuel for the military or free parking at the Sprawl-Mart?

If every person in the world cut their oil consumption by half immediately, we would double the amount of time before the end of oil. Perhaps a cut by half, especially immediately, is too much to ask, but the converse is also true. If every person in the world doubled his or her consumption of oil overnight, we would halve the time to impact.

And that is precisely what cutting the gas tax would do. It might not double the amount that Americans drive, but it would increase the consumption of oil. Families that might have decided to spend the weekend at a local state park might decide to drive to Florida after all (unless they live in Florida, then they'd probably drive to California). Instead of being a responsible Senator, and suggesting that Americans use alternative methods of vacationing (such as taking Amtrak), he has proven that pandering is on his agenda.

If Senators McCain and Clinton truly feel that the United States can do without the $1 billion in transportation improvements around the country, perhaps they could find a way to keep the gas tax and spend that money on social services or buying carbon credits.

Just like free parking and free freeways has led to an overuse of those venues, cheaper gasoline will encourage drivers who could use other modes to drive. Transit agencies around the country have seen huge ridership gains since gas prices started escalating. Whether you take the subway or not, it's good for you. Every person who doesn't use gallon of gas for their commute leaves a gallon of gas for you or for the trucker delivering your supermarket's milk.

I never liked economics courses, but I did learn a few things in them. If supply is constant and demand increases, price goes up. By keeping gas prices high, we encourage those who can to switch to transit or reduce their car trips, which makes gas marginally cheaper for those who live too far from transit or who do have to drive.

In the long run, making Americans pay for the external costs of their oil addiction will reshape society by making transit accessible to more people and creating more walkable communities. If these oil prices are just a periodic upswing, this will better prepare us for the next shock. If this is the actual peak of world oil, which some are saying already, these prices will only go up.

If our presidential candidates are serious about stabilizing the economy, they will support an increase in the gas tax. This will help reduce our dependence on oil, extend the endpoint of the oil era, and ensure that we won't have any silent springs in the near future.

Candidates would also be wise to stop blaming the oil companies. Even they are starting to see the light and diversify. After all, why else would Beyond Petroleum (better known as BP) go beyond petroleum? The lesson learned by OPEC during the disco era is one not easily forgotten in the oil industry. Even in the car-dominant United States, oil consumption didn't recover for years after the 1979 crisis. It took OPEC six years to recover from the drop in demand, and I assure you, they are not eager to repeat that crash course in economics. If our economy is reliant on oil, then their economy is reliant on our reliance on oil.

As proof-positive of the trend to reduce oil consumption, the Post had an article just yesterday on how America's railroads are having a resurgence in popularity. Trains are four times more efficient as tractor-trailers. This is good for our economy and it's good for the consumer--in the longer run. In the near-term, we will face some painful decisions, however. During this time, which is hard for all of us, we need to learn to pull our fair share. And we need policymakers who will leverage the economy to wean of us of our oil fix and at the same time create green jobs.

We only have this one Earth. Let's celebrate her. And remember that every day should be Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day America!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

You Might Say I'm a Dreamer...

After devoting quite a bit of time to discussing the future of regional rail here in the Baltimore-Washington Region, I'm finally finished with my major rail transit plan. And, it appears, not a moment too soon. In Saturday's edition of the Washington Post was an article forecasting crowded trains in the future without some serious improvements.

As I noted in my post on regional rail, this plan is constrained by a sense of feasibility and political palatability. At the same time, it is clearly beyond the current resources of the region. Yet, in my opinion, it represents a possible and desired outcome which could be achieved. I chose the segments of the rail system based on today’s circumstances and tomorrow’s potential. That is to say that I limited my proposal to what could be supported today rather than what will be needed two decades from now. This plan only includes "major" rail transit investments, meaning heavy (metro) and light rail. I hope to have a plan for streetcars forthcoming.

Heavy Rail (Metro) Expansion
Silver to Dulles
The Silver Line to Whiele Avenue is Metro's most likely next step. The last hurdle before the start of construction is FTA's Full-Funding Grant Agreement. And while there have been some issues and controversies, I am hopeful that the project will move forward. It is certainly one of the most important projects in the region, although I will not rank them in any particular order in this post.

Between Rosslyn and East Falls Church, the Silver Line will be multiplexed with the Orange Line. It may be necessary in the future to create a four-track subway along this alignment, but that will very much depend on the popularity of the Silver Line. At East Falls Church, the Silver Line will split off to run in the median of the Dulles Toll Road to Tysons Corner (map). It will take a detour along Routes 123 and 7 to serve the heart of Tysons before returning to the toll road. The line continues in the median as far as Ryan Road way out in Loudoun County except for a brief stretch across airport property to serve Dulles.

M Street Subway/Rosslyn Redesign
Metro's biggest scheduling hurdle at the moment is Rosslyn Station. Currently trains operate through the station every 135 seconds (in each direction) which is the capacity for the station. In order to reduce congestion, I believe a new four-track station must be constructed at a nearby location. At present, the station is located under North Lynn Street. A new station could easily be constructed under Fort Meyer Drive, with a connection to the present station for use in terminating the occasional Blue Line train.

In addition to redesigning Rosslyn, a new Potomac tunnel could be constructed parallel to the Key Bridge to connect Silver Line trains to Georgetown. From there, trains would operate under M Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, which trains would use to jog south to K Street. Continuing east, trains would stop at West End (21st/K NW) and Farragut Square.

Farragut Square would see a significant redesign, and could become the key hub for the Metro system. In addition to Red Line trains currently under Connecticut Avenue and Blue/Orange Line trains under Eye Street, the Silver Line would have a double-deck station under K (with Regional Rail Subway trains on the lower level) and Columbia Pike/16th Street Light Rail trains (described later) would have a station cutting across the square from the corner of 17/Eye to 17/K .

Continuing toward Union Station, the silver line would swing from K north onto Vermont Avenue for several blocks before returning to M Street, and stopping at Thomas Circle (13th/M NW). Trains would then travel under the Washington Convention Center, with a stop at Mount Vernon Square, for transfers to the Green and Yellow Lines. Next the Silver Line would swing south under New Jersey Avenue with a station at K Street (New Jersey Avenue/NoMa). Finally making it's last street change, turning east on Massachusetts Avenue.

Silver Line passengers could change to the Red Line and Regional Rail lines at Union Station. Trains would then continue to the southeast, with stops at Capitol Hill (4th/Mass.) and Lincoln Park. At Stadium-Armory, new platforms would be constructed under Massachusetts Avenue. Most trains would terminate here, but a track connection could be constructed underground on the Anacostia side of RFK to connect trains to the Blue/Orange line before D&G Junction.

Orange Line Extension-Centreville
I propose extending the busy Orange Line west along Interstate 66 to Centreville, Virginia. A station would be included at Fair Oaks Mall and Centreville (Lee Hwy/I-66). Some Orange Line trains could terminate at West Falls Church, as is the current practice.

Blue Line Extension-Woodbridge
Trains on the Blue Line would continue south of the present terminal at Franconia-Springfield. Tracks would parallel the existing VRE Fredericksburg Line (V1) and shared stations would be located at Lorton and Woodbridge. Additionally, a Blue Line station would be included at Newington (Fairfax County Parkway).

Yellow Line Extension-Washington's Mill
From Huntington, Yellow Line trains would continue south in subway under Kings Highway to Route 1. There, a station would be constructed (Spring Hill). The line would continue south under Route 1 to Hybla Valley Station (Rt 1/Sherwood Hall Ln) and on to Washington's Mill (Rt 1/Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy).

Future provision could be made for an eventual connection via Fort Belvoir to the Blue Line at Woodbridge.

Infill Stations
New stations could be constructed along existing Metro lines in a few key places. Metro is already looking at two of these locations, Potomac Yards and Oklahoma Avenue. I include both of these in my plan. Oklahoma Avenue would be on the Blue/Orange Lines between Stadium-Armory and D&G Junction. It would become the final transfer point, and would be an above-ground station.

Potomac Yards would be a new station serving redevelopment in northern Alexandria and could become a connection to a streetcar along the former W&OD right-of-way. It would be located along the present Blue/Yellow Lines between Braddock Road and National Airport.

In addition, I propose a new Red Line station at Kansas Avenue between Fort Totten and Takoma. This station would give better access to lower income communities in Northeast DC. The industrial properties immediately adjacent to the station site would also be good candidates for redevelopment.

Light Rail
Southeast Light Rail
I propose upgrading the District's plans for an Anacostia Streetcar to plans for light rail. Starting at Minnesota Avenue Metro, the line would run south on Minnesota Avenue to F Street SE, with a stop along the way at Greenway (B St SE/Minn). At F Street SE, the line jogs over to the disused CSX rail corridor. Using the right-of-way, the line will continue parallel to the river, with stops at Randle Circle (Mass. Ave/CSX), Twining (Penn. Ave/CSX), Good Hope (Good Hope/MLK/CSX), and Anacostia Metro (Howard Rd/CSX). South of the Anacostia Metro station, the line begins following along the east side of Interstate 295. The first stop is Malcolm X Avenue. At South Capitol Street, the line begins running in-street with stops at Atlantic Street and Forest Heights (Indian Head Hwy/Livingston Rd). The light rail line turns off of Indian Head Highway (South Capitol in DC) after crossing over the Capital Beltway to parallel the Beltway toward the Potomac. A station at Harborview allows passengers to transfer to the Pink Line (discussed later), before the Southeast Light Rail turns south to follow National Harbor Boulevard into National Harbor.

Corridor Cities Transitway
In order to serve the densely developing communities along the Interstate 270 corridor in northern Montgomery County, I propose adopting the two-pronged alignment of the Corridor Cities Transitway proposed by the Action Committee for Transit currently under study by the Maryland Mass Transit Administration. North of Metropolitan Grove, my alignment follows that of the MTA. South of Metropolitan Grove, my proposal takes the light rail line through Gaithersburg and Washington Grove along the CSX right-of-way to the Shady Grove Metro. In order to reach the Kentlands, the transitway follows Redland Boulevard past King Farm, crosses I-270, curves through the business parks around Shady Grove & Key West Avenue, and then follows the Great Seneca Highway out to the Kentlands.

Purple Line
My proposal for the Purple Line is very similar to the MTA's. It will travel from New Carrollton Metro to College Park Metro following East-West Highway, Kenilworth Avenue, and River Road. From College Park Metro, the line uses Paint Branch Parkway, Campus Drive, and University Boulevard to travel west to Langley Park. From Langley Park to Silver Spring, the line is in subway under Piney Branch and Sligo Avenue. It then follows the existing Metropolitan Branch Trail to Bethesda.

Pink Line
I included this line in order to connect the suburbs of Montgomery with the jobs at Tysons, and to relieve traffic on the Legion Bridge. It does not seem to be realistic to extend the Purple Line to Tysons because the affluent neighborhoods along the Potomac would object and there isn't really a feasible right-of-way. A line from Silver Spring to Grosvenor via the CSX tracks and the Beltway is more likely. Theoretically, Pink Line trains could continue east along the Purple Line to New Carrollton. After all, I have them sharing tracks from Georgetown Junction to the Silver Spring Metro Station. Much of the Pink Line would be grade-separated as it follows the Beltway, significantly improving travel times. In a few places, it uses streets to connect areas, and would have its own right-of-way or lane with signal priority at intersections. These segments include Tuckerman Lane from Grosvenor Metro to the Montgomery Mall area, where the Pink Line would use Old Georgetown, Rock Spring, and Fernwood to connect to I-270 and the Beltway again. Within Tysons Corner, the Pink Line would jog along the Dulles Toll Road to International Boulevard with a transfer to the Metro Silver Line at Tysons Corner Station. Continuing south, the line follows Gallows Road to Dunn Loring Metro and rejoins the Beltway near Fairfax Hospital. From there it follows the Beltway all the way to Branch Avenue Metro, with transfers to the Metro at Van Dorn Street and Eisenhower Avenue. Trains would use the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to cross the Potomac, and passengers could change to the Southeast Light Rail at Harborview.

Route 4 Light Rail
This line would connect Prince George's County's government to the Metro system using the large median of Maryland Route 4. It would access Branch Avenue Metro by continuing toward DC along Suitland Parkway. Much of the line would be in the median of a freeway, and would therefore be grade separated. At the few at-grade intersections, signal priority would speed trains through the area.

Columbia Pike/16th Street Light Rail
This line would take light rail all the way from Fairfax Hills (Little River Turnpike/Capital Beltway) to Silver Spring. Along Columbia Pike in Northern Virginia, the light rail would have its own lane. At Fort Meyer, the line would enter subway, including a new subway station adjacent to the Pentagon Metro Station. From Pentagon, light rail trains would use a new bridge across the Potomac amidst the other 14th Street Bridges. An at-grade station would be included at East Potomac Park, near the Jefferson Memorial. After crossing the Washington Channel, the line would enter subway, using Maine Avenue to get to 17th Street SW/NW. A subway station is included at 17th/Independence and 17th/E. At Farragut Square, the line would cross the square diagonally, with transfers available to the Red, Blue, Orange, Silver, and Regional Rail lines. North of Farragut Square, the line would continue north under 17th Street to Rhode Island Avenue. At Rhode Island, the line would swing northeast to 16th Street to continue toward Silver Spring. The line would become a surface line again north of Mount Pleasant. The line would turn northeast onto Alaska Avenue, diving back into subway at 13th/Georgia just north of the Kalmia Road Station. Under Georgia, the line would cross the Metro Red Line, and merge with the Purple Line subway at Sligo Avenue to access Silver Spring.

UPDATE 5/15/08:
See Version 2.0 at

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Regional Rail Redux

Several weeks ago I started a new section of this blog, dedicated to proposing potential futures for transit here in DC, and potentially elsewhere. While this activity is largely an exercise in fantasy, it can also be used as a tool for envisioning a future with a greater emphasis on transit.

After hearing comments from readers in regards to my "Regional Rail Plan,"I have decided to make some changes. For the sake of brevity, I will try not to repeat myself. For more information on the constraints facing commuter rail at present, see my first post in this series: Make No Little Plans I. For the earlier iteration of this plan, see: Make No Little Plans II. And finally, for my initial response to commentary on these issues, see: RLS Kicking In.

I'll also take this opportunity to remind my readers of others like me who have been indulging in a similar exercise in imagining a Baltimore-Washington future full of transit:
And without further ado, here's my revised regional rail plan. Remember, this plan only deals with the commuter/regional rail element of Washington's transit future. I will be releasing the metro (heavy) rail and light rail elements soon--perhaps later this week.

New to the Plan:
I decided to reconsider the omission of a direct connection between Annapolis and Baltimore. In that regard, I added the line M7, which will operate from a shared terminal at Annapolis-Washington Street with the line M2 (Farragut Square-Annapolis). There are some difficulties, however, with getting a train between Baltimore and Annapolis these days. It was for this reason that I left this route out of the original plan. These difficulties are elaborated below as I describe alternative alignments for the M7 line.

There are three corridors which I judged to be able to be used for a train line. Each has its own problems and advantages, and based on these I have selected what I think is the most feasible alignment.

Alternative 1:
The first alignment I considered would connect Baltimore and Annapolis by running trains south on the Northeast Corridor from Penn Station (or Camden Station using the M1 connection) as far as Bowie State. Just south of the existing MARC Station, the line would follow the CSX line (Pope's Creek Secondary) which runs through Upper Marlboro and Waldorf on its way to the PEPCO generating plant at Morgantown. At Route 50, the line would merge with the proposed M2 Line running from Farragut to Annapolis.

The main advantage of this routing is that it uses existing rights-of-way for its entire trip. It follows the Northeast Corridor, the Pope's Creek Secondary, Route 50, and the abandoned interurban tracks from Annapolis Mall to Washington Street. Unfortunately this route, while perhaps the most financially and politically palatable is the least attractive to commuters. It is a trip of over 40 miles from Washington Street to Penn Station. The same distance by car is under 30 miles (via Ritchie Highway).

Alternative 2:
In order to shorten that distance, the same route could be used between Baltimore and Odenton, with the route operating along with M1 or M3 trains. From Odenton to Annapolis, the line would follow the abandoned track of the Annapolis and Elk Ridge Railroad to Annapolis Mall and on to Washington Street. While this alignment shaves more than 11 miles off of Alternative 1, it has its own drawbacks. Much of the route is directly adjacent to Generals Highway, making it undesirable from a speed and NIMBY perspective, although in this case it would be more of a front yard objection. Additionally, Annapolis Mall was built in the right-of-way, so trains would have to curve around it.

Alternative 3:
I think this alternative is the most promising, and it is the one I included in my map. Alternative 3 would follow the disused right-of-way of the defunct Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad. Much of the line's right-of-way is preserved. The route of Alternative 3 is parallel to Ritchie Highway for most of its length. Freight operated on the line until the 1980s, although now the much of the path has been turned into the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail.

From the terminal at Annapolis Washington Street, it will cross the Severn River south of the existing Route 50 overcrossing, after passing adjacent to the Naval Academy's stadium. The bridge used by the interurban to cross the Severn is no longer present, and a replacement will need to be constructed. The main obstacle, however, to Alternative 3 is the Baltimore Light Rail. The B&A right of way was used to construct the line from Downtown to Glen Burnie. It is possible, although would likely be extremely difficult, to squeeze a third track into the LRT cross-section between Glen Burnie and Linthicum. North of Linthicum, the right of way is slightly wider, and could accommodate commuter rail more easily. The easiest alternative to the Glen Burnie section would bypass the town alongside Route 100 and would skirt BWI along Aviation Boulevard.

Regardless of the exact alternative above, I think a direct Baltimore-Annapolis connection is needed. I have chosen, for my plan, to fit the M7 into the LRT alignment at Glen Burnie. It is the most direct route and has the added benefit of serving the center of Glen Burnie.

Extension of the M4 (Camden Route)
Based on comments made on my previous plan, I have decided to defer to the Baltimorians among us and add service to Charles Village as per MTA's plan. The M1, however, will continue to go to Penn Station. Some Camden trains will use the Howard Street Tunnel to continue to Charles Village, Clifton Park, and Martin State Airport.

And, I want to thank Batman for pointing out that the Howard Street Tunnel is currently single tracked to allow higher freight cars to pass through. My proposal would require two tracks. Since passenger equipment is shorter than freight equipment, there should be no clearance issues.

Technically speaking, there would be no issues with also operating M6 (Baltimore-Frederick) and M7 (Baltimore-Annapolis) to either Penn or Martin State Airport Stations, but I have chosen to terminate them at Camden Station on my maps to eliminate clutter and to preserve space in the tunnel for M1 trains.

New WMATA [L] Logos
I have also included on the map white 'L's in brown boxes. These logos denote the light rail connections provided in my forthcoming Metro/LRT plan.

Oh, and I also added a new "Track Twenty-Nine" logo to the map.

I'd love to hear your comments. My last plan has been this site's most popular post. Let's keep the dialog going.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Walking Between the Lines

While much of this blog's writing is devoted to transit, I try to focus on other forms of alternative transportation from time to time, and walking is one strongly correlated to transit use. Earlier this year after being struck by a car while crossing the street in suburban Washington, I penned a post on pedestrian safety. I encourage you to read it as an introduction to the statistics of pedestrian accidents and street design. Today, however, I want to focus more on pedestrian behavior and corresponding planning and policy decisions.

A recent post at the WashCycle reported on a pedestrian and bicycle sting in the U Street neighborhood in the District. Enforcement is a good thing, although I would question the end result of this sting operation. A more productive approach, it seems, would be to inquire as to why pedestrian and bicycle violations are a problem. What role does street design play? What role does urban design play?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that only 23% of fatal pedestrian crashes occur at intersections--the vast majority occur at mid-block locations. These data suggest that the higher fatality rates occur because drivers are traveling at higher speeds and do not expect to stop.

In a somewhat difficult lesson in public relations, the City of Atlanta Police Department got egg on its face after an officer tackled a renown British historian for jaywalking across a downtown street. No less than 5 police officers were present for the arrest, which made headlines in the UK as well as in Atlanta. After 8 hours in jail, the charges were dropped. The case in and of itself is not important for this discussion, the context is, however. The historian was crossing mid-block between two hotels sharing a conference. Urban design clearly played a role in this because both hotels have their entrances in the middle of the block. In order for people to travel between the buildings, they must walk 200 feet to the nearest intersection, cross Courtland, and walk 200 feet back up the street. The shortest distance is bisected by five lanes of one-way traffic on a freeway-fed urban arterial.

This particular situation could be improved by designing buildings to have entrances on corners or to include pedestrian bridges. Additionally, studies show that converting one-way streets to two-way streets has the effect of slowing traffic and reducing pedestrian crashes. And while Atlanta clearly has a long way to go to become pedestrian friendly, the strict enforcement applied to the Briton reveals the bias reported by Richard Retting, New York City DOT's Chief of Safety in a 1987 publication.

Retting mentions the need to exchange blame (which he claims is often placed on the victim) for pedestrian crashes with design of pedestrian facilities based on human factors. Human Factors Analysis investigates accidents where human error is at fault so as to better design safety systems. Retting reports on one safety initiative on Queens Boulevard which reduced pedestrian deaths by 44% and severe injuries by 77%.

In a 2003 article in the American Journal of Public Health Retting and Ferguson, report on different measures used to reduce pedestrian crashes (Retting, R.A.; Ferguson, S.A.; and McCartt, A.T. 2003. A review of evidence-based traffic engineering measures to reduce pedestrian-motor vehicle crashes. American Journal of Public Health Vol. 93 Issue 9). Their analysis reveals some interesting strategies to address the issue.

The importance of traffic calming as a method of reducing pedestrian crashes is also stated in the report. The findings show that crosswalks alone do not cause drivers to stop for pedestrians when they are in an unsignalized area. In fact, installation of crosswalks without other forms of traffic calming (such as refuge islands or flashing lights) can actually increase crash rates in some cases.

The aforementioned report divides the process of making places safer for pedestrians into three categories. The first is to reduce vehicle speeds. The second method separates pedestrians from automotive traffic. Finally, the last approach calls for increasing the visibility of pedestrians.

Over half of pedestrian fatalities occur at night. One study showed a 59% drop in nighttime crashes after the installation of better lighting at crosswalks (daytime crashes remained the same). Installation of sidewalks also has a major effect on safety, especially in residential neighborhoods, where areas without sidewalks had pedestrian crash rates 2 times higher. Additionally, moving bus stops to the far side of intersections significantly reduced accidents stemming from pedestrians crossing in front of the bus.

Their study also showed that automated pedestrian detection systems reduced jaywalking by 52 to 88%. And while automated pedestrian detection is certainly an improvement over push-button activation (pedestrian actuation), it's not as good as an automatic walk signal. The main function of the pedestrian actuation button is to extend the green cycle to allow pedestrians more time to cross. Unfortunately, in most situations, unless the button is pushed several seconds before the light cycles, pedestrians only see "don't walk."Even if a walker arrives the second the light changes, he or she has to wait for an entire cycle of the light or risk crossing without warning of when the light is about to change to yellow (by a flashing "don't walk"). Since there are only a given number of seconds in the day however, traffic engineers make many traffic signals more efficient by only changing them when cross-traffic or pedestrians are present. In high pedestrian volume areas, however, it makes sense to have an automatic walk every time. After all, imagine if cars had to contend with red lights that were always red (in all directions for 2 minutes before a green light appeared. Push-buttons are often inconvenient, inaccessible (especially to bicyclists and the handicapped), or out of the way.*

*Note: I am not proposing the removal of 'hot-response' buttons at pedestrian crossings. These buttons, when pushed, immediately or quickly change the traffic signal to yellow, then red, giving pedestrians the right of way.

Above, a pedestrian actuated push button
at East-West Highway and Belcrest Road

To investigate the impact of pedestrian actuation on traffic timing, I measured a signal near my 'home' Metro station. One would think that a red light near a metro station (actually in this case the entrance for buses, cars, and pedestrians) would have an automatic walk, but it does not. While my survey is not scientific, I think it represents a good example of how signal timing plays a role in pedestrian safety. The intersection I measured is located in Prince George's County, at East-West Highway and the Metro Entrance. Without the use of the pedestrian actuation button, traffic leaving the Metro station had a green light for about 20 seconds, although that was longer if cars were still behind the stop bar after 20 seconds. With the push button, the green cycle was extended by 5 seconds, and pedestrians were given an advance walk** signal of 5 seconds, effectively lengthening the red time for East-West Highway by only 10 seconds. Since the presence of additional automobiles lengthened the green more than 10 seconds while I was there, it seems unreasonable not to have an automatic walk signal (and a minimum green of 30 seconds) every time, at least at this location.

**An advance walk signal (or Leading Pedestrian Interval, LPI) occurs when the walk signal precedes the green light, during which time all vehicle signals are red. Retting reported on a study showing a 95% reduction in pedestrian crashes at intersections after implementation of the LPI.

Another instance of light timing which I have observed also seemed to increase pedestrian safety. While I am unaware of any studies about this, the City of Atlanta moved the protected and protected-permissive left turn phases of several east-west streets onto northbound one-way streets to the end of the light cycle (lagging left). In this case, it meant that queuing pedestrians didn't inadvertently walk into the path of cars with a green arrow. Instead, by the time cars got a green left-turn arrow, most pedestrians had already cleared the area, and those approaching the intersection were more likely to wait. I don't know if Atlanta's motive was pedestrian safety, but from a pure observational standpoint, it seems to have had that effect.

Studies show that pedestrians are far more likely to be struck by turning vehicles, especially left-turning vehicles. One strategy which I have yet to see implemented, but that I think might have an impact on pedestrian behavior is a protected/permissive left warning. Essentially, a sign above the walk/don't walk signal that is illuminated when cars have a green turning arrow that conflicts with the pedestrian movement in question. This would let pedestrians know that they need to wait. Additionally, push-buttons could serve to illuminate a sign for automobiles when pedestrians are present. Today's automated pedestrian detection technology already allows for the automated extension of a green light for slow pedestrians. That system could be used to warn drivers as well.

Another proven strategy is the refuge island. This allows pedestrians a place to wait while crossing multi-lane streets. Retting's study reported that pedestrian crash rates on streets with medians were half that of streets without medians. In addition to giving pedestrians a place to wait, they also shorten the perceived distance of the crossing, and especially when coupled with curb extensions (bulbouts), reduce traffic speeds. Compare the pictures below from a pedestrian standpoint.

Crossing Route 1 at Hartwick in
downtown College Park, the median
stops shy of protecting pedestrians,
especially from u-turns

Crossing Belcrest at East-West
in Hyattsville, pedestrians can
stop halfway across the street

With gas prices and transit ridership increasing at unheard of rates, it seems pertinent for planners and policy makers to improve the urban/suburban environment to encourage alternative modes of transport. One such mode is walking. Annually in the United States, 6000 pedestrians are killed in car crashes, and design plays a large role. While I have just touched on a few key issues, it is clear that more needs to be done. For far too long, pedestrians have not been considered in the design of our transportation infrastructure and community design. It is high time for that deficiency to end.

I was happy to hear earlier this year that a bill was introduced into the US Senate to "ensure that all users of the transportation system...are able to travel safely and conveniently on streets and highways." Senate Bill 2686 (FAQ) was introduced March 3, 2008 by Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa. Thank you Senator.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Spring Springs In

Well, I think it's safe to say that Spring has sprung. Over the last week, we've had a few days where temps made it up into the 60s, and that's a good sign. Even though it was cold today, things are warming up.

Saturday was beautiful. The Weather Service had predicted a 100% chance of rain, but it never materialized. The sun was out in force, and so were the tourists on the Mall.

I organized a trip down to the Cherry Blossom Festival for the UM Student Planning Association, and was rewarded for the effort by the gorgeous foliage. The crowds were terrible around the Tidal Basin, but after venturing down toward Hains Point the throngs disappeared. The fireworks were not as impressive as I expected, but I enjoyed the day. I might go back if I have time during the week. It's hard to take pictures when there are (literally) hundreds of people in your frame.

Anyway, it is clear that Washington's Cherry Trees, are truly a national landmark.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Celluloid Reality

Today's Metro Section prominently displayed an article on filming movies on the Metro. The story was interesting to me not merely because of the transit angle; but rather because of one of my pet peeves with the movie industry and because I felt that the article left out the public relations opportunity for Metro and transit offered by film.

According to the article, in order to allow Hollywood to film in Metro's awesome cathedrals as opposed to their own subway, they have to follow rules. The same rules as Metro riders, as a matter of fact. After all, why should Ben Affleck get a free pass?

The article points out an example of actors portrayed as eating and drinking as a recent example of breaking the rules (for filming). Actually, even though it means that perhaps fewer movies are made here, I like this rule. It adds a bit of reality to cinematography. It's important to maintain some sense that actors are acting in the real world, otherwise what's the point?

Image is also important. The New York Subway is an excellent example. Many think of that city's subway as a graffiti-covered, crime-ridden hive of scum and villainy, or some such nonsense. In reality, the subway is safe and almost graffiti free. Yet movies filmed there portray it as a place where gangs team up on poor, innocent vigilantes like Charles Bronson who just want to reduce their carbon footprint.

WMATA seems to understand that Hollywood actually does have an impact on behavior. In the past, portrayals of actors and actresses smoking cigarettes led to more Americans doing the same thing. If WMATA wants the image of the Metro to be the clean, efficient one that most Washingtonians see everyday,* then they have an obligation to make sure that Hollywood films that image.

Of course, I think that Metro might go a little over the top. After all, Nicole Kidman escaping into a subway tunnel (actually filmed on the Baltimore Metro) is a little different than someone eating a Boston Creme at Metro Center (after all, Boston Cremes should be eaten at Government Center). After all, when Hollywood is representing a truly extraordinary event (like aliens taking over the world), it is clear that it's not a normal thing that happens on the Metro. Her attempts to fare evade (at Cleveland Park), however, were filmed along with a rebuke from a transit cop.

All in all, though, I think filming on transit is good for the transit industry. Look at The Fugitive, for example. It seems like half the movie was filmed on the L, including the climactic scene where Janitor, in his cunning role as a transit cop, is shot by the bad guy. And it was logical to film the movie on the L. You're a fugitive on the run, no major funds to speak of, and you need to get around Chicago. What's more realistic than taking one of the cheapest rides there is to get where you're going?

And I understand Hollywood's need to compromise. Chicago is one of the main characters in The Fugitive, and the L is an iconic and well-known part of Chicago, more so than even our Metro. What would have happened to the film's sense of realism if Harrison Ford was seen tooling around on BART? You wouldn't expect to see the Golden Gate Bridge from Lake Shore Drive either.

But it's not always possible to film where directors want to. That's why the conclusion of The Jackal was filmed in Montreal. Metro objected to the film's violence and wouldn't let them film here. Still it would be nice to have some accuracy. Even though the Montreal Metro looks nothing at all like the Washington Metro, I could forgive the filmmakers if they had just checked their facts.

The makers of The Jackal did a lot to dress up Montreal's subway to make it look like DC's system, including proper station names and the characteristic name pylons. And even though you can't fake a monumental vaulted train room like those characteristic of the Metro, you can use geography to your advantage.

In the final scene, Bruce Willis' character (the Jackal) runs into a Metro Station after trying to assassinate the First Lady. To escape the authorities, he runs down the tunnel to the next station, where he has a shootout with the other, less-bad bad guy. Since the assassination attempt and shootout took place in fictional locations, it doesn't matter which station pair was used. If, instead, the assassination attempt had taken place at, say, the Smithsonian Castle, it would have needed to be Smithsonian Metro that Mr. Willis escaped to. But that was not the case. Therefore, the filmmakers could have picked any two station names they wanted. The names are irrelevant to the plot. There were 83 names to choose from**. So they chose two of them. Columbia Heights, and it's neighbor Metro Center. Except that Columbia Heights isn't next to Metro Center. They aren't even on the same line!

Not only do I have to deal with that gross inaccuracy, the station name plaques used for Columbia Heights listed it as a Blue Line station (it's actually on the Green Line). And the name pylons on the platform included the 'M'*** at the top, found only at entries outside of Metro stations.

If Hollywood could have picked any two names in the system, why not neighboring ones? It can't be a budget reason, if they wanted to save on characters, there are shorter station names that Columbia Heights. And they certainly didn't use surplus pylons from Metro because Metro's pylons wouldn't have had a blue stripe, they would have had a green dot. And it doesn't seem logical to assume that they picked Columbia Heights' name because it was under construction at the time, because Metro Center has been open since 1976 and Georgia Avenue/Petworth would have been a more logical choice had that been the case because it was under construction at the same time and actually does neighbor Columbia Heights.

But enough of my soapbox.

For movies filmed in Washington, it makes sense to use the Metro. And whether it's Nicolas Cage's sidekick from National Treasure or 'Congressman' Affleck, it makes sense for the Metro to be a place shown in celluloid. After all, it is the second busiest rail system in the nation (after only New York). Washington would be a different place without the Metro, and anyone who lives here has probably encountered it at least once. And that's why it is important for Metro to be portrayed as a normal part of life in Washington. It is a part of normal life in Washington.

And as long as a movie is portraying 'normal' life, the rules should apply. I do think, however, that Metro should allow more leniency for shots that take place outside of the realm of normality. Still, I can live with those limitations, as long as transit still gets to be a player on the silver screen.


*I know Metro has its problems, but it's still one of the best systems in the country, and anyone who says otherwise, needs to live in Atlanta for a year, so shut it! I mean no offense to MARTA, but if you think Metro has breakdown issues.... I've come to the conclusion that no matter how good a city's transit system is, people complain about it.

**The Jackal was released in 1997, when there were only 75 stations open, including Franconia-Springfield, which opened that year. However, all of the stations appeared on maps as future stations and were named already, except for those stations not in the original system, New York Avenue, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center.

***For those of you not from DC, I have provided photos to clarify the pylons. See below.

Outside, with the 'M'

Inside, without the M, no stripe either