Fatal Flaw: Omitting Pentagon Transit Station from Streetcar Network Will Burden Future Generations

Arlington County’s Board has decided to make an “our way or the highway” offer for its planned streetcar network: if a neighboring jurisdiction doesn’t want to adopt the Board’s plan, they are on their own.  Fairfax is in (at least for now).  Alexandria, well, sorta.  Oddly, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – the region’s critical (if seriously flawed) mass transit agency – has been totally removed from the negotiation (and as a result is now forced to have to try to play catchup).

The failure to work with other governmental agencies isn’t just bad manners, it’s bad ultimately for transit users.  This refusal to cooperate with other jurisdictions is endemic of today’s stubbornly pro-streetcar board members (“the Trolley Four,”) and reveals a myopic, damn-the-consequences attitude when it comes to this project.

For future generations that will likely be forced to pick up the pieces of the flawed streetcar network that they will inherit from the Trolley Four, the omission of the Pentagon Transit Center from the plan is sure to emerge as a massive challenge.

The scale of the Pentagon as both and employment and transit hub is well described in a Virginia Department of Transportation report from 2010:

Approximately 26,000 people are employed at the Pentagon, which also houses a major multi-modal transit center on site. The transit center is located above a Metrorail station and it is estimated that about 29,000 people a day use the Pentagon Transit Center, with approximately 1,570 bus arrivals and departures each weekday on 84 different bus routes using the center’s 24 bus bays.

Stated another way, the world’s largest office building, which is “one of the busiest transit hubs in the entire region,” has among the fastest growing rail ridership in the Metrorail system and sits at the eastern terminus of Columbia Pike.  Yet Arlington’s  plans for a new transit network will run nearby – but just far enough away – to make it largely useless for transit users hoping to transfer to a bus there or get to work there.

This is a good idea?

Don’t forget this fact either: today weekday ridership on bus roues that begin and end at Pentagon buses exceed weekday ridership on Pentagon City buses*.

Several points are worth making.  Getting the Pentagon to play nice with multimodal transportation is a real challenge.  And the logistics of getting a streetcar into the Pentagon Transit Center involves some engineering challenges.

Yet it is common sense that getting an artic bus into the Pentagon Transit Center is much more likely (if still difficult) than laying the rail tracks, power lines and other improvements needed to use a streetcar to take Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax commuters into the destination that is one of the region‘s largest job and mass transit centers.

A transit improvement plan, such as the Board’s fateful trolley network, that doesn’t include the Pentagon is a poor choice.  The better plan for transit improvements along the Pike remain an artic bus fleet that can be much more easily extended to the critical job center and transit hub in south Arlington, the Pentagon.

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*The hyperlink above should keep the data honest, but feel free to verify the math: Pentagon routes ((16A,B,D,E,J,P) 5,959 + (16F) 924 = 6,883) vs. 3,859 for routes 16G,H,K. This calculation ignores ART routes and the 16L because it barely serves the Pike corridor in Arlington.

Posted in Pike Ride/Public transport, Pike Streetcar | Leave a comment

As DC Plans to Abolish Parking Minimums, Pike Zoning Code Mandates More Cars

David Alpert and Matthew Yglesias have a new Opinion piece at the Washington Post arguing that DC should go forward with a proposal to amend their zoning rules to abolish minimum parking requirements.  The proposal would not prevent developers from including parking, it would simply allow them to include parking based on their judgment, rather than the judgment of bureaucrats.  The crux of their argument:

Having the government mandate a set amount of parking diminishes our future in two ways. First, the parking facilities take up space and require workers and construction materials to build. This land and labor ultimately must be paid for by renters or buyers. Paying more for a useful amenity like a parking space is fine, but it’s perverse to be required to pay for a parking space you don’t need because a developer had to include it to get permission to build your home.

Seems sensible.  What does the “Smart Growth” oriented Columbia Pike Form Based Code do?

Contain a requirement to add more parking spaces for new developments along the Pike.  The FBC is a document that is sure to please the car-centrics at AAA.  It’s explicit goals:  “Enable people to park…Maximize on-street parking…Increase visibility and accessibility of parking…”

Sadly, more proof that to the Arlington County Board, “Smart Growth” is mostly rhetoric.  Mandating more car-centered development is sure to lead to more traffic headaches along Columbia Pike, regardless of what transit improvements are done.  The FBC should be immediately amended to follow the sensible advice in the Post and abolish parking minimums.

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Board Members Fib About Capacity of Streetcars vs Articulated Buses

Some board members have been hitting the local press lately with claims about the capacity of various transit alternatives for Columbia Pike.  Unfortunately, the remarks show a serious disregard of fact.

In an article in February at Arlington Mercury, the author attributed the following to Ms Hynes:

BRT carries 100 passengers, she said, but the streetcar has an even higher capacity. ‘The streetcar vehicles can carry up to 150.’

Ms Hynes is either ignorant or disingenuous: Metrobus is in the process of acquiring buses for its articulated (artic) bus bus fleet that have a maximum capacity (according to the manufacturer) of 116 passengers.  The streetcar planned for Columbia Pike has an estimated capacity of 115 according to the official Engineering Report for the 2012 Alternatives Analysis.  (One has to wonder, did Ms Hynes even read this report?)  Ms Hynes is simply wrong – the capacity of the streetcar that Arlington is considering has a nearly identical capacity to a comparable artic bus.

The good news for Ms Hynes is that she isn’t the only board member with a weak grip on facts about the topic.  Over at Blue Virginia, a fawning profile of Jay Fisette contained this nugget attributed to the hoping-to-be-re-elected board member:

[W]e looked at the range of options…[and] we know that the capacity for transit along Columbia Pike to carry that number of people today, from 16,000 a day to 30,000 a day, you cannot do with buses.

This isn’t quite as demonstrably bogus as Ms Hynes, but it’s close.  As noted several times on this blog, the biased, Board-funded Pike Transit Alternatives (AA) Analysis concluded that the peak capacity advantage of a streetcar over articulated buses is…5%.

But the dishonesty in Mr Fisette’s quotation is that he is conflating estimated daily ridership with estimated daily capacity.  The AA didn’t say that artic buses can’t carry 30,000, it said it wasn’t expected to carry that many*, as the chart below reveals (TSM2 is the plan for artic buses):

Screenshot from Pike Transit Presentation, February 2010

Screenshot from Pike Transit Presentation, February 2010

Sadly, the Pike Streetcar remains a solution in search of a problem for the Trolley Four on the County Board.  Yet dishonesty and inaccuracy aren’t good starting points for a board supposedly looking to do more community outreach on this topic.

*There is no reliable objective method to estimate ridership of these alternatives. But the important thing about the Board Members’ claims is that they are making inaccurate claims about capacity – which can be (relatively) objectively estimated – not claims about ridership.

Posted in Pike Streetcar | 1 Comment

Government Policies Designed to Raise Housing Prices Are Never Progressive

One of Arlington’s great strengths is the rich layers of diversity in its people: linguistic, culinary, cultural, and perhaps most importantly, economic diversity.  From the immigrant living in rental housing on the western edge of the Pike, to the Gen Y crowd sharing houses along the Orange Line, to the large single family homes along Military Road, Arlington historically has a wide range of incomes in its residents.

Recently, though, this range of diversity is spoken of by civic activists and politicians as a two-sided coin: the deserving poor on one side, and the increasingly wealthy landed gentry on the other.  The newly wed couple of hourly workers, the single-parent federal government employee and the two-schoolteacher household that need housing that consumes a reasonably low portion of their budgets – they are not part of the conversation about affordable housing.

In no place is this more evident than the debate about the “revitalization” of the Columbia Pike corridor, in particular in statements in which the speaker advocates in favor of the streetcar.  CPRO‘s comments are representative of this way of thinking, but it is certainly not alone.  It claims that the streetcar has “the proven potential to create…real estate value.”  Read: one of the streetcar’s main purposes is to raise the price of housing.  Arlington Streetcar Now sings the same tune.

“Value” is essentially the amount of money that a given seller would accept, and that a given buyer would be willing to pay, for a specific asset.  Rising prices then, are a zero sum game: for every “winner” that has more money than they paid for their home, a seller has less money to do other things with their life (spend, save, donate).

Stated another way, government policies designed to raise the real price of houses mean that existing capital holders enjoy a windfall, while aspiring property owners must work more or spend less on the other areas of there life to afford the home.

As noted in a recent post, there is ample evidence that even the pro-streetcar board members do not believe that existing government plans are sufficient to preserve the existing stock of the 6,000+ affordable housing units on the Pike corridor.  But that’s not the point of this post; rather, point is that affordable housing should not be solely about the poor.

Progressive government policy should foster a vibrant, diverse community in which the younger generation that are not sickening wealthy have some sort of reasonable housing options as they age (beyond moving outside of Arlington).  Progressive government policy is not inter-generational wealth transfers to those that own homes from those that must sacrifice retirement savings, student debt reduction, or contributions to a worthy charity in order to have a roof over their head in a decent community with good access to jobs and transit.

It is basic economics that creating a more desirable community can increase housing values.  But that is a negative effect of urbanism that needs to be mitigated, not a strategy for a supposedly proud progressive community.

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For a more articulate piece on this topic, check out this excellent article by Josh Barro.  Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent make similar, more detailed points in their books.

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Study: Car Use Continues to Rise in Corridors That Added Light Rail

Over at the urbanist, city-oriented Atlantic Cities website, dismay prevails over the  upcoming publishing of a study that suggests that light rail does not live up to the hype of its proponents.

According to the article, the authors of the study found that “car ownership and car commute share often continue to rise in [corridors that added light rail], and that ridership growth is often the result of travelers shifting over from buses — not cars.”

For streetcar backers, the real zing is in the conclusion of the story:

[A] sound piece of advice: cities considering a light rail system should strongly consider whether improving the local bus system would be cheaper and just as effective.

Update 2/28: Washington Post’s Brad Plummer has another take on the study over at Wonkblog, focusing on congestion pricing:

Congestion pricing that’s combined with expanded transit options like light rail seems to have worked well in cities like Stockholm. But light rail on its own appears to be insufficient.


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Pike Articulated Buses Aren’t BRT for the Same Reason that a Streetcar Isn’t Metrorail

One of the vexing things about the discussions around improving transit service along Columbia Pike are debates over…vocabulary.  Pike Spotter – whose inklings are well known to any reader of this blog – is going to try to hit this one fairly, but critically.

A recent post over at greatergreaterwashington.org suggested that the newly-formed local citizens group Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) was being deceptive about what sort of transit improvements they support for the Pike.  The criticism was mostly over an image that appears on AST’s website of a bus in a dedicated lane, along with a claim that their preferred choice for the Pike is not really “BRT” (bus rapid transit).  Let’s unpack this with a wee bit of history.

A Very Brief History of Rapid Transit, and Bus Rapid Transit

A decade or two after the end of WWII, transit planners set out to build contemporary transit systems in some regions in the US using the latest technology.  These systems – commonly known as “rapid transit” – were eventually built in places like Cleveland, the Bay Area in California, as well as here as our own Metro.  The key features of these systems were rail vehicles with dedicated rights of way, off-board fare payment, and limited stops.

Much later (possibly as a result of the anti-tax movement that erupted in the 1970s that reduced the resources available for mass transit), planners tried to replicate some of the benefits of this “rapid transit” with less expensive buses.  This is the birth of “bus rapid transit,” which was designed to provide the benefits of “rapid transit” with less expensive buses.

A Very Brief History of Streetcars

Streetcars have a much longer and undoubtedly more charming history.  Originally running by horse-pulled carriages on rails, and then later relying on electric systems like the pulleys in San Francisco, they served as a vital urban pre-war transport link.  Eventually,  as a result of a variety of changes to American tastes, real incomes, and road improvements, streetcars were eventually replaced by buses in nearly every American city.

In 2001, Portland, Oregon opened a new streetcar line – not “rapid transit” –  a classic on-street rail line, the first to be built in the US in many years.  Thus began the “streetcar renaissance” that Arlington’s Board majority want to join.  Today, while a streetcar does carry more passengers than a traditional bus and offers a smoother ride, it’s seen in many quarters as a way to drive “revitalization,” or to convert a neighborhood into a more urban place.

Streetcars vs. BRT vs. Rapid Transit

What we discover then, is that 21st century streetcars in America have never been primarily about transportation.  BRT on the other hand, is historically thought of as a lower cost, transit-first system.

Because in the US, BRT was created as a “second best” transit solution, it’s mired in compromise with respect to its transit goals.  Despite what you read at GGW, there isn’t a consensus about how many compromises are allowed for a bus line to still be called BRT.  However, it is true that the more BRT looks like traditional rapid transit, the better it is.  And a dedicated right-of-way is undoubtedly the best way to make any bus line more like a rapid transit line.

Nevertheless, 21st century streetcars are, by definition, inferior to rapid transit: a lack of a dedicated right-of-way is a major deficiency in a transit line (and by definition, a “streetcar” rides in the street).  Similarly, though, the other advantages of rapid transit (offboard fare payment, larger capacity vehicles, fewer stops) that the original BRT creators hoped to emulate may (or may not) be present in a streetcar system.

Setting aside the mind-numbing debate over nomenclature, what we’re left with is mostly people talking past each other (or in the case of GGW, “Smart Growth” bullies flailing petty accusations).  But the truth is that a non-dedicated right-of-way train system has the same (significant) weakness that a non-dedicated right-of-way bus system does.

And residents who are paying attention get this.  Dozens of Arlingtonians wrote in to their government as part of the Alternatives Analysis associated with the County’s application for federal funding for transit improvements on the Pike to support a non-dedicated lane articulated bus service for Columbia Pike (TSM2).  One can debate whether TSM2 is BRT* but to do so is a total waste of time.  Instead, the better debate to have is over whether a system of articulated buses or a system of streetcars is the better one to share the roads with cars on Columbia Pike.  By any fair measure, AST is trying to engage in that debate.

The Fuchsia Metro Line Isn’t in the Cards

Streetcar backers point to the minor capacity gains of a streetcar compared to a bigger bus, but more importantly hold a near religious belief in the great power of streetcar magic to affect a neighborhood. In contrast, “better bigger bus” advocates (including this blog) argue that the money slated for the streetcar is better suited to the County’s other needs (transit and otherwise) in light of the ongoing revitalization sans trolley.  They also think that the visual pollution of overhead wires, the ripped up roadway, and the marginal capacity increases aren’t worth whatever benefits accrue to a streetcar.  Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, neither a streetcar nor an articulated bus will offer all the advantages of true rapid transit: a Metro line under Columbia Pike.  To look at AST’s website and to think otherwise is either disingenuous or inattentive to the history of the debate.

* This blog prefers not to call the articulated bus plan described in the Alternatives Analysis “BRT” solely to avoid the sort of wordsmith arguments offered by GGW.  AST may wish to consider a term other than BRT to avoid this petty but common argument.

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An Opening Night Review of RedRocks in Penrose Square

Going to opening night at a new restaurant means understanding that the place is going to have a lot of kinks to work out.  RedRocks in Penrose Square is no exception. As such, it’s not fair for a reviewer to … Continue reading

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