Regional mobility is no pipe dream

Robert Smith, former WMATA Board chair, calls WMATA’s proposed loop line a “distracting pipe dream”. For context, Smith was appointed by former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich in 2003, then fired in 2006 after making anti-gay remarks.

Smith assails WMATA’s proposal as being in “the realm of fantasy”. In reality, it’s anything but. Every recent analysis of the Metrorail network has highlighted the immense congestion and overcrowding in the core. Far from serving only the core, the proposed loop line connects key transit hubs, enhancing mobility in and out of the core, relieving some of the pressure on the system’s most heavily-congested stations (like Gallery Place).

Yet Smith continues his assault on sensible planning:

What possible benefit of this project would inure to the people of Maryland, particularly those who dwell beyond Montgomery and Prince George’s counties? While they would be spared the capital construction cost, the state would still be zapped with an increase in operating costs into eternity for the privilege of watching more of its residents spend entertainment dollars in the District.

This is reflective of the sort of small-minded thinking that advocates like Richard Layman rail against. When politicians think only of their county or their state, they ignore the fact that we are one region made up of cities and counties from two states, plus the federal city. We succeed together, or we fail together.

Practically speaking, though, what do Marylanders get out of the loop line? For the many Marylanders who commute through the core—whether they enter by MARC, commuter bus, or the Red or Green Lines, the loop line will ease congestion and provide connectivity to destinations in DC which presently have no rail service. Sound transit planning isn’t about politics; it’s about hard data. It may be hard for the suburbs to stomach, but solving Metrorail’s problems—including the problems suburban commuters experience—means increasing core capacity.

Smith’s true colors come out with his next complaint:

Even now, many Montgomery County riders suffer the indignity of being tossed from every other homebound train at Grosvenor-Strathmore station during rush hour, thanks to Metro’s lack of enough dollars — and a supportive vote from the District — to fund the full ride out to Shady Grove.

It seems as though in Smith’s world, Metro exists for the sole purpose of shuttling suburban commuters to and from far-flung park-and-rides. Looking at WMATA’s ridership statistics, though, we can see that that’s just not true. If Smith believes so strongly that the stations between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Shady Grove need the added service, then he should call on the State of Maryland and Montgomery County to fund the service. As a reimbursable project, the other jurisdictions wouldn’t have to contribute—though their Board members would have to vote to approve the service.

Smith describes Metrorail as “[lacking] the engineering simplicity to do the basic job of getting people where they want to go”. It’s true that today’s Metrorail is clearly collapsing under the strain. But that doesn’t signify any underlying engineering failure; rather, it’s the result of years of deferred maintenance, and a failure to plan and build new capacity to accommodate shifts in the region’s population. What WMATA intends to build by 2040 should have been built years ago. Had this been done, there’d be less pressure on the oldest parts of the network, reducing the pain of the sometimes-lengthy maintenance outages necessary to keep this aging rail system running.

So, what should we build? In his article, Smith says we should “build a line that effectively paralleled the Beltway and circled the city”. The Beltway Line isn’t a new concept; it’s something people have been pushing for years. But it’s an idea born out of auto-centric thinking. The fact that people spend hours every day in the parking lot that is the Beltway doesn’t mean that’s where they’re actually trying to go. We need to focus on moving people, not cars, and that means connecting activity centers, not just following existing paths of congestion and sprawl. This is more than just a gut instinct; WMATA has tested plans for a Beltway Line, and found that “[only] the segments that crossed the American Legion Bridge (between White Flint and Dunn Loring) and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (between Branch Avenue and Eisenhower Avenue) had some promise”.

Smith closes by calling our region a “transportation basket case that needs to focus on reality”. That’s true, but without an increase in capacity it’s only going to get worse. Arguing that we shouldn’t build anything new because it’s too expensive, too unpalatable for the suburban parts of our region, or because WMATA already has operational problems will only prolong the pain.

Statement to the June 2012 WMATA RAC meeting

Earlier this evening, I delivered the following statement to the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council during the public comment period of its June 2012 meeting:

As I hope you are aware, last week the NTSB released three reports into incidents on the Metrorail system, one of which resulted in the deaths of track workers Jeff Garrard and Sung Oh. I would hope that the RAC would request a presentation from WMATA on steps taken to improve safety in the wake of these accidents. Even more importantly, though, I would hope that the RAC would ask WMATA to publicly release documents to permit independent verification and oversight of the Authority’s claims on safety.

I understand that the RAC is not accustomed to conducting investigations, but for Jeff Garrard, Sung Oh, their colleagues, and the 1.5 million individuals who use Metro ever day, I ask you to consider the vital importance of holding WMATA accountable on such a serious issue as safety.

For reference, the NTSB reports mentioned above are the following:

  • RAB1205 (derailment in Farragut North pocket track)
  • RAB1204 (rear-end collision in West Falls Church yard)
  • RAR1204 (two track workers struck and killed by hi-rail vehicle outside Rockville)

Bus riders? Yes. Invisible? No, absolutely not.

Today’s New York Times covers impending service cuts to the bus network in Los Angeles. LACMTA (Metro) is trying to rationalize its bus network, and the result is that many routes will change. Routes which operated suburb-to-suburb will be replaced by a hub-and-spoke, grid-oriented system. While this sounds good in theory, there are implementation problems which will make the transition painful for some riders. Riders view the transit system as being unreliable, and when they have to transfer (and wait for a second, or third bus), the problems are compounded:

“The hardest part is when we have to transfer — you stand there waiting, and it can feel like forever,” said Silvia Canjura, who has taken the bus to work as a nanny in Santa Monica for the last 31 years. “Will I arrive at 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning? I never really know now, but changing will make it worse.”

There’s no reason, in today’s world, with today’s technology, for a bus rider to say that they ‘never really know’ when the bus will come. Metro uses NextBus, which they’ve re-branded ‘Nextrip’, for their buses—even the embattled Route 305 documented by the Times. Of course, not every rider will have a cell phone they can use to get information from Nextrip, but that’s the value of bus shelter displays.

Knowing when the next bus will come doesn’t help if it’s severely late, and schedule adherence is an entirely different problem. But poor schedule adherence can be fixed; with an AVL system in place, bus dispatchers can see where problems are developing, and correct them, before a route is badly disrupted. It’s a matter of the agency bringing the necessary resources to bear to fix the problem, whether it’s monitoring drivers more closely, or adjusting routes and schedules to respond to traffic conditions.

As the Times continues, though, schedule adherence isn’t Metro’s only problem:

Under the new system, the 3,000 passengers who board the 305 each day, paying $1.50 for each trip, will instead have to take a series of buses or trains that could take twice as long and cost three times as much. (Unlike other cities, the patchwork system in Los Angeles does not allow free transfers.)

It turns out that the situation in Los Angeles is not like it is here in DC; WMATA discontinued paper transfers two years ago, in favor of electronic transfers on SmarTrip. In Los Angeles, it does not matter how you pay your fare: whether you pay with cash or stored value on a TAP card, there are no transfers. When your trip goes from one bus to two, you end up having to pay double. This can be fixed, and easily: start giving out transfers.

The problems which the riders interviewed by the Times describe are not insurmountable; they can—and should—be fixed. Moving to a hub-and-spoke network improves overall connectivity, and, from a planning perspective, is a good move. As Jarret Walker describes in his informative analysis of the issue, “cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don’t make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they’re going”. It may look like the services which are left after these cuts will be worse for riders, but there are ways to mitigate that, like an improved fare policy which includes transfers, and better schedule adherence (plus timed transfers to minimize waiting).

It is good that the New York Times has highlighted the issues facing these bus riders, and the problems that the upcoming service changes will create for them, but they’ve done so in a backhanded way which denigrates those riders, calling them “an almost invisible commuter class — the millions of people, most of them poor, who depend on the sprawling bus system”. The Times also fails to recognize the benefits of a hub-and-spoke network to all transit users in Los Angeles, as Jarrett Walker discusses.

Characterizing the bus system (and, by extension, public transportation) as being the exclusive domain of ‘an invisible commuter class’ of the mostly poor creates untoward associations in readers’ minds: public transportation is for the poor, public transportation is slow and unreliable, public transportation is not an alternative to the car. These associations run directly counter to the notion of “public transportation as the path to an environmentally friendly future”, and in the end they are harmful to all of us. The New York Times could have highlighted the problems that Metro’s service changes will create for some riders without reinforcing the notion of “invisible class of bus commuters”, and they should have done so; they could have more clearly highlighted the benefits of good service planning (and hub-and-spoke networks) to all riders, and should have done so.

How do we show the value of HSR?

Today I attended Better Transportation By Design, a forum put on at the National Building Museum by the Van Alen Institute. At the event, the Van Alen Institute revealed the winners of their Life at the Speed of Rail design competition. I found many of the winning entries interesting, but one in particular stood out to me: The Effect of High-Speed Rail on Six Lives, which proposes an ad campaign designed to highlight the benefits of high-speed rail.

In high-speed rail, as in mass transit, there is a tendency to assume that these services are used by someone else. The key to effective advocacy is to humanize these services, as The Effect of High-Speed Rail does, presenting high-speed rail in terms of the people who benefit from it—people who might be neighbors, friends, family, or co-workers. Suddenly the someone else is someone real, with a name and a face. Suddenly the investment in high-speed rail seems less like a white elephant and more like a valuable and necessary investment in our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

One of the things that drew me to The Effect of High-Speed Rail was the production values—the entry looks like something I would expect to see today in print or online as part of an HSR advocacy campaign. A little copyediting, and it would be ready to go, now (and we’re going to need to start seriously advocating for HSR sooner or later). The fanciful structures envisioned by some of the other entries are neat to look at, but before we can even start to talk about what we will build, we must convince people that high-speed rail is something we must do, and The Effect of High-Speed Rail does that perfectly.

It’s still time for Carroll County to get on the bus

Carroll County’s newly-elected, all-Republican Board of Commissioners has been taking strong positions on a number of issues—one of which, the Baltimore Sun reports, is mass transit for the county:

“We don’t want subways or metro buses,” said Richard Rothschild, one of the new commissioners. “They are conduits for crime. That’s not politically correct, but it is factually substantiated.”

In rural communities—the kinds of places where people “mow [their] grass with tractors”—it’s entirely true that local bus service is logistically difficult, and often infeasible, because of the low density. Light rail, too, is unlikely to ever work in these places. But that doesn’t mean that transit and rural communities don’t mix. On the contrary, public transit can do a lot in rural communities to make commutes faster, easier and more environmentally friendly, while reducing road congestion.

The issue of transit in Carroll County is not at all a new one; in 2007 the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser reported on bus bays at the Owings Mills Metro station which had “gone unused for 20 years”. These bus bays were originally intended for commuter bus routes serving destinations including Carroll County, which never came to fruition. As the Sun reported then, many Carroll County residents already commute to Baltimore, along roads which Dresser described as “a minor league version of Los Angeles”. Carroll County was—and is—growing, and Dresser’s prescription was commuter bus service, like MTA Maryland already operates to many destinations. It was, he said, “[t]ime for Carroll to get on the bus”. Four years later—and twenty-four years after those bus bays were built—it is still time for Carroll County to get on the bus, so to speak.
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