Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

WMATA and budget cuts--we're not asking the right questions about LOS, LOQ, and maintaining a robust network

LOS = Level of Service. Usually in transportation planning, this refers to vehicular throughput on roads, particularly at intersections.

LOQ = Level of Quality. LOQ is a more balanced metric that intends to consider people throughput as well as other dimensions such as the quality of the place and the public realm.

Within the next week or so, I will finally produce the 2010 Transportation wish list. I didn't do it last year, because after doing the first one in 2008, I developed a more structured, integrated, and robust framework for laying it out, and I never managed to squire enough time to sit down and write it.

The structure of the wish list will be:

1. Organizing principles
2. Implementing principles
3. The elements of an ideal and comprehensive local transportation plan
4. The wish list, organized according to the elements of the ideal, comprehensive transportation plan.

Three of the organizing principles are:

1. Transit is the foundation of DC's competitive advantage as a place to locate business and invest (especially the Central Business District) and of the city's quality of life and as a place to live, leveraging the transit- and pedestrian-centric urban design and spatial pattern of much of the city, which is the physical planning legacy that Pierre L'Enfant has bequeathed to us.

2. A "transit city" is efficient, with reasonably frequent transit going to and from the places you want to go at a reasonable price, and equitable--a pervasive transit network has both breadth and specificity and means that no one should be mobility disadvantaged by not owning a car.

3. Transit 'first' planning and development paradigm in all dimensions. San Francisco's "transit first" policy is enshrined in their city charter, having been passed by referendum. Really though, we don't want a transit first policy as much as we want a land use and planning policy that puts people and optimality first, so that after walking and bicycling, transit is "third"

Another way to think about this is having a "sustainable transportation" policy. Transportation Alternatives, the New York City advocacy group, developed what they call the "sustainable transportation" pyramid in 2001. Modeled after the US Dept. of Agriculture's "food pyramid" intended to illustrate healthier eating practices, their "reverse" pyramid puts efficient and sustainable mobility at the top, and resource-intensive ("inefficient") mobility choices at the bottom. (Probably I will re-term this organizing principle away from "transit first" to "sustainable transportation first.")
Image:Transportation pyramid.jpg
This version of the pyramid comes from Detroit's Green Garage/Green Alley Design Studio.

The Principles of San Francisco's Transit First Policy
1. To ensure quality of life and economic health in San Francisco, the primary objective of the transportation system must be the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.

2. Public transit, including taxis and vanpools, is an economically and environmentally sound alternative to transportation by individual automobiles. Within San Francisco, travel by public transit, by bicycle and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.

3. Decisions regarding the use of limited public street and sidewalk space shall encourage the use of public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit, and shall strive to reduce traffic and improve public health and safety.

4. Transit priority improvements, such as designated transit lanes and streets and improved signalization, shall be made to expedite the movement of public transit vehicles (including taxis and vanpools) and to improve pedestrian safety.

5. Pedestrian areas shall be enhanced wherever possible to improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians and to encourage travel by foot.

6. Bicycling shall be promoted by encouraging safe streets for riding, convenient access to transit, bicycle lanes, and secure bicycle parking.

7. Parking policies for areas well served by public transit shall be designed to encourage travel by public transit and alternative transportation.

8. New transportation investment should be allocated to meet the demand for public transit generated by new public and private commercial and residential developments.

9. The ability of the City and County to reduce traffic congestion depends on the adequacy of regional public transportation. The City and County shall promote the use of regional mass transit and the continued development of an integrated, reliable, regional public transportation system.

10. The City and County shall encourage innovative solutions to meet public transportation needs wherever possible and where the provision of such service will not adversely affect the service provided by the Municipal Railway. (Added November 1999)

And something that undergirds this entire argument, although it can be politically incorrect to say, is how do you maintain the quality and primacy of the transit system so that it supports "choice riders"--people who have the financial means to get around by owning and driving a vehicle, but because of the transit system's efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and ubiquity, they choose the system optimal mobility choice--transit.

At the end of the day, transit-dependent riders have to ride transit to get around. Choice riders do not. But the more people that shift from transit (and remember that higher income transit riders tend to ride heavy rail over bus service), the less efficient the overall mobility system operates.

Furthermore, for the most part, the efficiency of the overall mobility system in the metropolitan area isn't WMATA's responsibility or concern, even though their transit service is fundamental to achieving it.

This is a major disconnect, one that most of the elected and appointed officials in the region aren't really thinking about or addressing. And it comes to the fore now, when significant cuts in service are being considered.

So, thinking about these principles in terms of the area's metropolitan transit network (see the blog entry "The Meta-Regional Transit Network" for the idealized typology for planning metropolitan transit "systems"), WMATA, and the impending budget-service cuts (see "Metro board asked to wield knife on service this week" from the Examiner and the discussion in Greater Greater Washington in "Our region must commit to maintaining transit" and "Cuts would make Metrorail headways worse than most"), I aver that for the most part we aren't asking the right questions, and that fundamentally, no one in the region is really planning the transit system on the scale of the metropolitan region.

I see at least three very important questions that aren't being considered very directly, even though the answers are fundamental to making the right choices in how to manage and offer transit service.

1. To wit, what is the basic "level of service" or "level of quality" that the transit network should provide at a minimum? What this means is what should be the target for service frequency? What is an acceptable wait time and what isn't?

2. How robust should the transit network be? What routes should be retained to ensure "breadth" and service reach?, even if ridership numbers may be somewhat inadequate, when it comes to looking at a particular route only in the context of its ridership, but not in how it contributes to the strength and pervasiveness of transit system in the context of the entire region.

3. In a manner that assures, in good economic times and bad economic times, that basic LOS and LOQ requirements for the metropolitan transit network are met, how much should transit service cost, by trip, and how should the overall system be funded? (Should there be a rainy day fund to balance service cuts?, rather than having fares strictly set for what we need "today" rather than balancing out fare pricing over say a five year period.)

... Last night, because of track repair, immediately after rush hour, transit service on the red line subway line was three trains per hour.

People in the discussion thread on GGW aver that they would be willing to pay lower fares for worse service. But I think for the most part they miss the point. (If fares aren't generating enough operating income to pay for the current service level, then there is no justification for reducing fares beyond the current level.)

Subway service is a premium service! That is, if it is relatively frequent.

Why sell it so cheap?

Especially when the alternative for many of us is much more expensive (a taxi or car).

I am not saying massively increase fares. In other words, pretty flavorful apples sell for more than knobby tasteless apples. If we want premium transit service, rather than let the service degrade to the price level we're paying, let's recognize what it costs to provide premium service and start paying more to ensure that we get the level of service we want and demand and need--especially to maintain the economic competitiveness and quality of life in the city proper.

But the focus by some of the people on the WMATA Board, especially DC Councilmember Jim Graham, to keep fares low ends up being a massive disservice to all of us who use transit, when the policy choice favoring low fares ends up meaning significant service cuts in terms of frequency of subway service, and breadth and frequency of the complementary bus service.

As a result, we face a terrible situation. Significant service cuts--and much of the system's growth in ridership has been in off-peak hours, where the most significant cuts in service are being directed--but relatively low fares (and lower than most other cities), in a city with the third highest transit use (arguably, the top four in any case are NYC, San Francisco, DC, and Chicago) in the United States.

The reality is that most choice riders would be willing to pay more money for service, in order to not face a wait of 15-20 minutes for the next train.

For me last night, I was getting home late, having finished two (bus to Penn Station and train trip from Baltimore) of the four legs of my winter trip home from work (in more temperate weather with better light, I am more likely to bicycle from Union Station to home but in the winter I take the subway to Takoma).

Wait 20 minutes to pay a $1.35 fare? I would have gladly paid $3 (or a little more) for 10 or 12 minute headways.

Rather than focus strictly on the moment, we need to ask questions about what kind of transit system do we want and how should we pay for it.

In the meantime, continue to expect "death by 1,000 cuts".

And ask yourself if DC is, or truly wants to be, "a transit city"?

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