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 02, 2013

Should transit on Inauguration Day be free?

Many transit authorities--San Francisco, Minneapolis, Madison, Reno, Long Beach, Edmonton, Milwaukee (paid for by Miller Beer, which was based in that city for decades), Calgary to mention a few--provide free transit during the night and into the wee hours of New Year's Eve, the idea being that it's better that people ride transit than drive drunk.

(This is separate from "Sober Ride" initiatives, such as in the DC region, where on New Year's Eve, inebriated patrons can get free taxi rides--up to $30.)

Seeing this piece in the Post, "Tour bus operators fret that passengers may have a hike to presidential inauguration," about procedures for charter bus management during the Inauguration, thinking about witnessing charter bus drop off for other "special events" at outlying stations such as in Greenbelt, and thinking about yesterday, makes me wonder if as part of special event management:

Perhaps transit service on the WMATA system should be free the day of the Inauguration Parade?, in this case Monday January 21st, 2013.

This would speed throughput, increase safety (in 2009 crowds exceeded the capacity of some stations and to move people through station managers just opened the gates and let people in for free--see "Mall east of 14th St. reaches capacity," this piece lists hour by hour rider counts for the subway up to 11am, from WTOP, the after action report from MWCOG, and comments in this Post article "Metro Ridership Tops 1 Million, Shattering Record"), and minimize confusion.  (Also see "Metro approves expanded Inauguration Day  service, fees" from the Post.)

People who don't know how to use transit, descending on a transit system with relatively large but still somewhat inflexible capacity, can bring the system to a standstill.

Not to mention that the system isn't really designed to move through hundreds of thousands of people in a relatively short time window--mechanical chokepoints make operations pretty slow.

So don't charge individuals (and charge the Inauguration Committee for the estimated revenue) in order to reduce the crush on the system by not having to use those trip-slowing mechanical components.

Farecard machines, Union Station
Transit Throughput Delays 

1.  Buying farecards.   Last Inauguration, we left town to be away from the madness--and frankly, the madness didn't really get up to the upper reaches of the eastern side of the Northwest Quadrant of DC--and in the Priory Inn in Pittsburgh, we were talking to some people on their way to DC for the Inauguration.

I said the biggest thing they should do is have the guy's daughter (who lived somewhere in Northern Virginia) buy them loaded transit passes, because
the biggest delay in getting on is dealing with people buying transit tickets, and being flummoxed trying to figure out how to use the fare machine(s).

I don't know what the throughput is per hour for the fare machines, but it can't be much better than 1.5 people/minute.

That's with (uncrumpled) cash.  It's even slower when using credit cards.

I joke that the blue machines--where you are supposed to indicate how much money you want on a card--which are more difficult to use, draw the inexperienced like moths to light...

Protestors at Greenbelt station
Left: Greenbelt Station on the day of a protest, full of people being dropped off by tour buses, and being shepherded to Downtown DC via the Metro (2005).

2.  Getting through faregates.  The gates open and close for each patron.  The throughput per gate is just a few people per minute.

3.  Congested station entryways (foyers).  Station foyers in many stations are comparatively small, and the combination of lines at the farecard machines and getting through the faregates can overcrowd the stations very quickly.

4.  Paying when entering a bus.  Similarly, delays on buses mount with long lines, and each person having to pay upon entry, either with cash or with a Smart Card.  Since most Inauguration attendees aren't likely to have SmartCards--even though there are now SmartCard vending machines in each station--paying transit fares in cash on the bus will significantly slow movement of the bus--and it costs at least 6 cents/second to operate.

Mobility planning for special events in the National Capital (demonstrations and other events on the National Mall)

Note that special event mobility planning for events held on the National Mall is in need of a reboot.

See "A broken record on transportation demand management planning, this time with regard to special events."  But in that blog entry, from 2010, I didn't suggest free transit as a way to cope.

Right: crowd waiting for buses (because of a subway system breakdown).

Mostly, WMATA doesn't seem to be "read" into special events, but planning gaps aren't just with transit, but also biking.

There are some special event transportation planning resources out there, but even they may be insufficiently creative.  (Note that I am probably being influenced by how SF MUNI didn't charge for transit on their 100th anniversary.  See "Free Muni for…everyone…for a day" from the San Francisco Chronicle.).

-- Special Event Transportation Service Planning and Operations Strategies for Transit
-- for the road network, National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis 309: Transportation Planning and Management for Special Events
-- Managing Travel for Planned Special Events (FHWA training course)
-- National Special Security Events: Transportation Planning for Planned Special Events

The mess on the National Mall after the Inauguration of Barack ObamaLeft: JANUARY 20, 2009: Spectators sit in trash and debris along the National Mall after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama became the first African-American to be sworn in as president in the history of the United States. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

The latter report specifically discusses Presidential Inaugurations, and with the Inauguration of President Obama in 2009, for the first time the Federal Government made some funds available to local jurisdictions for costs, including transit-related, incurred as a result of supporting the event. From the report:

For example, Congress allocated funding to state and local agencies in Virginia following the 56th Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama, for security (police, fire), transportation (transit buses), and other services (environmental services, parks and cultural resources, and human services). In the event that Congress appropriates funds to reimburse agencies for their NSSE costs, detailed documentation of that cost data will be necessary. The January 20, 2009, inauguration of President Barack Obama used NSSE funding of $15 million for “emergency planning and security costs.”

Additionally, for the same inauguration, then President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency for the District of Columbia, which authorized the federal government to reimburse the District for emergency preparedness activities and expenditures that exceeded $15 million.

BUT, the report does not suggest as an option, providing free transit as a way to speed throughput and manage crowds.

MWCOG after action report

Although the report did mention that some stations closed the entryways due to platform overcrowding, the report didn't significantly review WMATA experiences as reported in the media and comments on articles in social media.  The report doesn't state that at some stations operators opened the faregates to reduce overcrowding as the lines bunched up, and it didn't identify systematically various chokepoints and bottlenecks within transit system processes including those listed above.

And while the report didn't comment on general throughput issues with regard to WMATA inside stations and buses, it does suggest not charging for parking at transit stations, as a way to increase station throughput and to reduce traffic congestion waiting to get through the entry gates.  (On special event days, it would be useful to have signage providing real-time data on parking space availability.)


Don't charge for transit on the day of the Presidential Inauguration, let there be free transit for the day.

Still charge for parking at transit stations, as free parking would just fill up fast anyway and more quickly (witness what happened at stations near the Redskins Stadium before WMATA started charging for weekend parking at those stations).  But plan to manage the road congestion and somehow provide some real-time information about parking availability at those stations.

(Ideally, WMATA could have real-time parking availability information systems, but the reality is that except for a couple times each year, there isn't financial justification for providing this kind of system.)

It will still be crazy and congested to the point of dangerousness, but just as sometimes parking structures open the gates to prevent carbon monoxide induced deaths from overly long queues, it might make sense for local transit authorities to consider something similar.

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