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Decades in the Works, D.C.’s Silver Line Opens to Commuters

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By 10 a.m., more than 9,500 passengers had made trips that started or ended at the five new Silver Line stations today. Photo: @drgridlock/Flickr

Half a century ago, when Dulles International Airport was constructed in the farmlands of Virginia, planners were forming a blueprint for the Washington region’s new Metro system. Back then, they ruled out the idea of stretching the rail line 30 miles beyond the capital through rural counties to connect with the airport. Such a line would serve no purpose for commuters, they said, and would do nothing to help congestion.

But there wasn’t a total absence of foresight regarding the region’s potential explosion. Along with the airport came the Dulles Access Road — and through the center of it, a median reserved for future transit.

The new Silver Line, which officially opened to riders on Saturday after months of delays, runs along that exact path. Ultimately, the 23-mile extension — the largest infrastructure project in the nation – will connect not only to the airport but beyond it to Ashburn, Virginia. The $2.9 billion first phase laid 11.7 miles of new track along five new stations in Tysons Corner and Reston, expanding the Metro system’s mileage by 10 percent.

Today is the first weekday for commuters to try out the new line, which runs east from Reston through the city to Largo Town Center in Maryland. WMATA predicts ridership will be low at first, then eventually reach as many as 25,000 boardings a day. As of 10 a.m. today, more than 9,500 people had passed through the five new stations, the agency said.

It took over five decades for the Silver Line to get here. The last 20 years were particularly contentious, as the project overcame political strife, cost overruns, financing complexities, and construction delays.

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“Every Street’s Going to Prioritize Pedestrians”: MoveDC’s Lovely Fine Print

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane the city plans to build. This is just the downtown zoom, but other maps show plans to build these lanes all over the city. Image: DDOT

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane DC plans to build: 72 miles of them, all over the city. This is just the downtown zoom. Other cities, be jealous. Image: DDOT

Livable streets advocates all over the country are buzzing about DC’s far-sighted new transportation plan, called MoveDC. So yesterday Streetsblog sat down with some of the people responsible for writing and implementing the plan. I spoke to Matt Brown, the District Department of Transportation’s new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT’s Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA.

MoveDC is an ambitious and wide-ranging plan that calls for overhauling streets to improve walking, biking, and transit. If you want to absorb it all, here’s the whole, massive document.

What’s your favorite part of this plan? What do you brag to other cities about and say, “DC’s gonna do this and it’s gonna be amazing”?

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: ##http://ddot.dc.gov/biography/matthew-brown##DDOT##

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: DDOT

MB: I’m struck by the comprehensive nature of it all. It speaks to new investments, but it also speaks to state of good repair for what we have, and really trying to maximize the road system we have so that it accommodates all choices of travel.

I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing plan. I don’t think it’s: “We have a vision, we need whatever dollars and without that it’s going to fail.” Certainly there are dollars that are needed to implement, and we can’t realize the full capacity of the plan without doing that.

But I think this is a plan for the future of the District, and also for our agency. I mean, there are recommendations in here about how to prioritize sidewalk repairs better. One of the recommendations is to better prioritize how we make investments with the baseline money that we have.

So I guess it’s not one policy element I’m excited about. I’m excited there’s so much, and they’re interrelated but they’re not dependent on each other. We can make a big impact even if we can’t build a downtown metro loop, or pick your favorite infrastructure investment from the plan.

SZ: Or a downtown congestion charge!

[All laugh.]

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Will Bill Bratton Make an Anti-Speeding PSA Like This?


A new anti-speeding PSA from DC police chief Cathy Lanier could be a good model for once and future NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton. Speeding is the leading cause of fatal crashes in New York City, and DC provides a model — starting with a video like this one.

Lanier, standing in front of a bank of screens showing busy roads, gives a stern warning to drivers. ”High-speed collisions are much more deadly than other collisions,” she says. The video shows signs with DC’s 25 mph citywide speed limit. “When you have significant speeds involved, typically there are fatalities, and multiple fatalities,” Lanier says.

DDOT director Terry Bellamy and MPD Detective Joe Diliberto join Lanier in the video. ”It’s a bad decision that’s made by the operator. Many of these collisions could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the speeding,” Diliberto says. ”We’re all working toward zero deaths in DC, because every life counts.”

DC’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths sounds a lot like Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero promise. DC, which has far more extensive automated speed enforcement than NYC, is making the target look achievable. Traffic fatalities have fallen 76 percent since 2001 [PDF], to 19 last year. DC’s current traffic fatality rate is on par with New York’s, but its recent progress has been faster. Last year, when fatalities rose both in New York and nationwide, DC’s continued to drop.

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Check Out the Reaction to Bike-Share Installation Once the Novelty Is Gone

With NYC’s bike-share system in the delicate period where new stations are going in but people can’t yet use the bikes, the city’s press corps is gorging on stories about conflict. The reporters at the Post and CBS2 better enjoy it while it lasts, because once people get used to seeing bike-share in action, these stations are going to be about as newsworthy as bus shelters.

When Capital Bikeshare launched in Washington, DC, public meetings saw the same type of wrangling about station placement that’s happening in NYC today. Certain station locations aroused opposition because some people thought they were too dangerous, or inappropriate for residential blocks, or irresistible to vandals.

Now, two and a half years after the DC region’s bike-share system got off the ground, new stations are just a matter of course. In this video, via Shaun Courtney at the Georgetown Patch, a crew installs one of two stations that arrived in historic Georgetown last week. About 30 seconds in, a silver-haired gentleman walks by and says, “This is great to see. It saves me about five blocks.”

Of course, most New Yorkers might very well be reacting to bike-share in more or less the same way, but while the sight of public bike stations is still so novel and many people remain unsure of how the whole thing will work, it’s the complainers who’ve got the media megaphone.

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While PBA Obstructs Speed Cams, DC Police Union Shows Support

Although maintaining that cameras “are never going to be a replacement for officers,” a prominent police union official told Streetsblog that he strongly supports automated enforcement. “People drive in this town with impunity,” he said. “I’ll take any help we can get at this point to try and reign in some of the problems.”

Without enough officers to pull over speeding drivers, one police union leader says automated enforcement is needed. Photo: ynkefan1/Twitter

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, those words came not from Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, but from Kristopher Baumann, Chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC.

In fact, the DC police union has been a strong supporter of the entire automated enforcement program in the District, which also targets red-light running, blocking the box, failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and failure to observe stop signs.

At a DC Council hearing last November, Baumann testified against the council’s efforts to lower fines for violators caught on camera. He implored the council “not to pander to a bunch of people that can’t control themselves behind the wheel and think it’s okay to endanger others.”

Baumann had tough words for people who oppose traffic enforcement cameras. “If they don’t like the automated cameras, follow the rules. Stop endangering other people,” he said. “The idea here is not ‘gotcha’ and we’re going to charge money. It is public safety,” he added. “These cameras do work.”

Since installing speed cameras, DC has seen an 82 percent reduction in speeding that exceeds 10 mph above the limit, according to Richard Retting, the director of safety and research for Sam Schwartz Engineering. Since DC began installing speed cameras, the number of annual traffic fatalities has dropped from 72 in 2001 to 19 last year — a decline of about 74 percent. In 2011, MPD Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier received an award from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for overseeing the nation’s biggest traffic fatality rate drop. In NYC, which has 150 red light cameras but no speed cameras, traffic deaths fell 30 percent in the same period.

The DC police union supports speed cams, according to Baumann, because MPD doesn’t have enough manpower to enforce traffic laws without the automated help. “We’re not out there to enforce the laws, and when that happens, people start disregarding the laws,” Baumann told the council. “That means we have to rely on the cameras.”

When Streetsblog asked if he thought the cameras were being used as an excuse not to hire needed officers, Baumann was unequivocal. “No,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s being used as an excuse.”

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AAA Still Up to Its Old Tricks Fighting Progressive Transport Policy

A representative of the American Automobile Association was a keynote speaker at this week’s National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., the annual gathering of bicycle advocates. There the organization debuted a heartwarming new video reminding drivers to share the road with cyclists.

A spokesman for AAA says not forcing developers to build an arbitrary amount of parking is "dangerous for D.C." Image: DDOTDC Flickr

Meanwhile, also in D.C., AAA representatives are fighting a series of smart parking reforms. AAA spokesman Lon Anderson told members of the media that a proposal to allow developers to decide how much parking to build, instead of being compelled by law to build a minimum amount, is “a dangerous proposal” that “threatens the future of Washington, D.C.”

Matt Yglesias at Slate annihilates this argument:

Almost 100 percent of Washington-area residents like to sleep on a soft comfortable surface at night. But there’s no regulatory requirement that residential buildings contain mattresses. The lack of mattress mandates doesn’t mean people are forced to sleep on the floor. It means that if people want to sleep on a mattress—and they generally do—they need to go buy one. That’s why there are mattress stores. Insofar as people want to park cars—and lets make no mistake, lots of people want to park cars—they will pay for the privilege, and property developers will provide parking spaces.

What’s at issue here is whether non-parkers should be forced to offer a cross-subsidy to parkers. The case against such a subsidy seems strong. It encourages extra traffic congestion and extra pollution, as well as inducing some kind of deadweight loss in the form of stifled real estate development.

Yglesias also points out that AAA’s assertion that “roughly 70 percent of Washington-area commuters drive” is very misleading, since fewer than half of residents of D.C. proper commute by car.

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D.C. Planning Chief Urges New York City to Scrap Parking Minimums

Washington D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning offered her assistance to New York City in eliminating parking minimums. Photo: Washington City Paper

Yesterday, the Department of City Planning asked experts from around the country how to make a more sustainable zoning code. Their response? Scrap parking minimums.

The recommendation came during a major conference held yesterday by DCP and Harvard University. Top urban thinkers from around the country gathered to discuss how the zoning code can make the city more globally competitive, socially equitable, architecturally significant and environmentally sustainable (for a good recap of the conference, check out the Architect’s Newspaper live blog).

When the conversation turned to suggestions for building a sustainable city, both panelists raised the issue of parking minimums.

“Parking is one of the biggest things,” said Harriet Tregoning, the director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, as she articulated how zoning can make cities greener. “[Washington has] removed our minimums for most buildings in the downtown and near transit.”

That policy puts D.C. significantly ahead of New York City. While the Manhattan core — admittedly a more populated area than all of Washington — has parking maximums in place, most of the city is still governed by parking minimums, even areas right on top of subway stations.

DCP is considering reducing parking minimums in the “inner ring” of neighborhoods around the Manhattan core, but not eliminating them. So building space for car storage will still be mandatory even in highly walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods like Harlem, while dense, transit-rich areas just a little further removed from downtown, like Washington Heights, may not see any reforms at all.

Tregoning said that D.C. opted to eliminate parking minimums entirely in response to “hard experience.” Having cut parking requirements in half, she explained, “we still had only half the parking used.”

D.C. is also replacing parking minimums with maximums in many places. The city received significant pushback from the public and developers, Tregoning admitted, so they developed a compromise. “You can build more than the maximums, but the first floor of that building has to be level and convertible so that if we’re right and you’re wrong, it can be something useful.”

Tregoning went so far as to offer herself as a resource to New York City should it decide to pursue parking reform. “We should think of ourselves as a band of brothers,” she said. “Why don’t we emulate success?”

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What If Washington Never Built Metro?

Rail~Volution 2011 marks the first time since 2002 that this conference for all things transit and smart growth has taken place in the nation’s capital. When it comes to livability, Washington and neighboring Arlington County have some great stories to share with the rest of the country.

The Washington Metro system keeps hundreds of thousands of cars off the streets a day, and is responsible for hundreds of millions in tax revenues and household savings per year. Photo: thisisbossi/Flickr

At the heart of the region’s success is, of course, the Washington Metro, which has shaped development for more than three decades. In fact, so much of the land near Metro stations has been developed that ridership is projected to reach the design capacity of the current system within the next 20 years. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is currently mapping out how to respond.

At a panel this morning, Nat Bottigheimer, an assistant general manager at WMATA, shared some results from an internal study the agency conducted as part of this process. The core question he investigated: “What is it you’re actually getting from a transit investment?”

The agency’s research and modeling produced some intriguing numbers demonstrating how the creation of Metro — its 86 stations and 106 miles of track — has benefited the region:

  • Since the system was created, $212 billion in real estate value has been added within a half-mile of Metro stations.
  • Land value near Metro stations generates $2.8 billion annually in property tax revenues. $195 million of that is directly attributable to transit.
  • Households in the region reap the equivalent of $705 million per year in time savings thanks to Metro.
  • Households save $305 million per year on costs related to owning and driving cars.
  • Every day Metro riders walk 33,000 miles.

On the other side of the coin, there’s everything that Metro has prevented from happening. Without Metro…

  • Commuters would have to put up with commutes that take 25 percent longer. This would effectively curtail people’s access to jobs and employers’ access to the workforce.
  • The region would see more than a million additional auto trips per day.
  • This traffic would require 1,000 additional lane miles to accommodate, the equivalent of two Capital Beltways’ worth of asphalt.
  • Four to six more traffic lanes across the Potomac would be necessary.
  • The downtown core would be eviscerated by parking. To store all the extra cars would take 200,000 parking spots, the equivalent of 170 blocks filled with five-story parking structures.
  • All that car infrastructure would cost nearly $11 billion to build, and impose huge maintenance costs every year.

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TTI: Mass Transit Saved Drivers 45.4 Million Hours Last Year

Last year, the D.C. region ran away with the dubious honor of Most Congested Metro Area. D.C. area drivers wasted 74 hours and 37 gallons of fuel sitting in traffic last year, which would have cost about $100 over the course of the year. But the gasoline cost is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report, released today by the Texas Transportation Institute, this delay cost the average D.C. driver $1,495 once you factor in lost productivity and increased trucking times. In Chicago, it’s $1,568. L.A., $1,334.

Every year, TTI puts out their Urban Mobility Report, and every year we criticize it for its autocentrism. After all, its sole measure is how fast a vehicle can speed down a given mile of roadway. Maybe your city is dense and friendly to pedestrians and bikes, so that it’s easy to glide past the automobile gridlock on your short commute to work. Or maybe transit provides an excellent and affordable alternative to traffic jams. None of that matters to TTI. If someone, somewhere, is sitting in traffic, that’s all that matters. All other measures and modes of urban mobility are ignored.

TTI doesn’t bother to figure out how much time is saved if one avoids that congestion by taking transit, but they do examine how much time transit riders save drivers by taking vehicles off the road.

How public transportation reduces delays for drivers, 2010. Source: 2011 Urban Mobility Report, via APTA.

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DC’s Public Bike Network Goes Bigger and Gets Better With Capital Bikeshare

Nearly three years ago Streetfilms took a day trip to Washington, D.C. to see their new bike-share system, Smart Bike DC, in action. We found the trial system a fun ride with great potential, but with only 120 bikes there wasn’t widespread use.

Flash forward to 2011. With more than 1,100 bicycles and 110 stations, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare is testament to the imperative to “go big or go home” when deploying bike-share programs. Currently the largest bike-share system in the United States, the District’s second stab gives users much more flexibility and options to accomplish short errands and commute to work.

In fact, the next phase of expansion has just been announced, with 18 more stations and 265 more bikes coming this fall.

The handsome red bikes are easy to ride. With one swipe of a keycard you’re off and biking. During the morning and evening commutes (and lunch hours) you’ll see the bikes in very heavy rotation.  But what left Streetfilms most impressed was how many people were riding them in full business attire in the hot and humid summers around the capital. If that isn’t a sign of success, what is?

Streetfilms would like to thank the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) for partnering with us on this project.