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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

DC Elections and the transportation-transit agenda

WMATA Map of transit station walkability
WMATA Map of transit station walkability

What is the DC transit agenda?  This November is the city's general election, and another opportunity to be disconcerted over the relative failure of the city's elected officials to stand behind transit as the foundation of the city's competitive advantage vis-a-vis the suburbs as a reason to locate business in the city and as a reason to choose to live in the city, because you don't have to be reliant on the automobile as your primary means to get around.

(Contrast this to cities like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles.)

There was an article in the Post recently, "Where to find Metro's most walkable stations," featuring quotes by Shyam Kannan, director of planning for WMATA. From the article:
The value of living or working near a Metro station has never been so acute, with researchers finding last year that offices within one-20th of a mile (264 feet) of Metro earn a more than 30 percent premium in rents over those that are a quarter of a mile from a station.

Washington’s current building boom is largely fueled by apartments near Metro stations, with so many new units going up that Metro cars are already filled during rush hour in some neighborhoods. Additionally more than 80 percent of the office space being built in the region is within a quarter mile of a Metro station.

Metro wants to make the value of that accessibility clear to locally elected leaders as it pushes for more funding, so it is trying to encourage and assist local jurisdictions in taking advantage of their stations by making the areas around them more friendly to pedestrians. Doing so could allow those juridictions to add new households, businesses and jobs, which mean tax revenue.
WMATA polycentric rail system -- Belmont
WMATA polycentric rail system, from Cities in Full.

This merely repeats the point I've made for many years--extending arguments in Belmont's Cities in Full--that while the WMATA transit system is in fact polycentric and designed mostly for the convenience of suburban residents, at the core of the system within DC it functions "monocentrically" so that the business districts and neighborhoods served by the "system within a system" benefit extranormally from the density of transit stations and bus lines.

-- With "transit-oriented development" urban design and/or planning is destiny
-- A bifurcated regional transit policy: transit for commuters vs. transit to support compact development
-- The difficulties of creating _one_ regional transit agenda
-- Planning for intensity of land use: the question is at what scale are we planning?
-- Planning for transit lines: trip speed vs. access and station density

There are 31 subway stations at the core of the city (pictured above, note that I used to say there were 29 stations at the core, but a comment from a reader a few years ago made the point that with the intensification of Capitol Riverfront, the Navy Yard and Waterfront Stations needed to be added to this set of core stations), from Stadium-Armory on the southeast to Foggy Bottom on the Southwest and from Van Ness on the northwest and Brookland on the northeast (with some outliers like Friendship Heights).

It should be no surprise that those are the areas of the city that are the most successful in terms of attracting new residents, new businesses, new development, and are experiencing revitalizing commercial districts. For example, last Saturday's weather was crappy, but still a few thousand people came out to "Celebrate Petworth" at the street festival they sponsored on Upshur Street.

Blog reader rg commented in the recent post on the Silver Line ("The Silver Line WMATA story that WJLA-TV missed") not being used by DC as a way to bootstrap creation of the separated blue line and another Potomac River crossing and I thought his comments deserved reprinting in full in a separate entry (with slight editing):

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it boggles my mind that DC's elected officials have not made construction of a second Potomac River tunnel and crosstown subway a priority. Not using the Silver Line to leverage progress on such a project can only be viewed as a massive failure of leadership and imagination on the part of our elected officials.

But, it's not surprising.

Most of them drive everywhere for everything.

Therefore they do not realize how central Metro (what you correctly dub the 'primary transit network') has been to DC's reversed fortunes. Sure, the trend toward urban living might have led to the revitalization of some DC neighborhoods absent Metro, but Metro was the keystone that united and buttressed all the various factors that led to DC's reversal of fortune.

Their autocentrism is also why they have missed the fact that a solid majority of DC residents commute by something other than a car. They and most of the people they associate with on a daily basis are part of the car commuting minority. They do not understand how important a robust transit system is to the daily lives of a huge number of their constituents. That can be the only explanation, short of depraved indifference, why they stood by and did nothing during the years of deferred maintenance on Metro. Sure, Metro is an independent agency and 'not their table', but given the importance of Metro to DC in terms of economic competitiveness and basic, everyday quality of life, they should have been treating deferred maintenance and the resulting deterioration and reliability of the system as a major crisis worthy of major attention and funds.

I should add that their autocentrism also explains why they are so reluctant to support dedicated bus lanes on 16th Street and why they are so half-assed about other transit improvements such as streetcars. I am pretty certain that most of them have no idea what the average DC commuter who uses the S buses or the X2 bus or who transfers at Gallery Place or Metro Center goes through on a daily basis.

Compare that with the relative speed and efficiency of the massive expansion and gold plating of the 11th Street Bridges, which will mostly benefit suburban commuters.

It's really kind of a bummer. Imagine if over the past 15-20 years we had had leaders who recognized the importance of Metro and of transit in general who had been willing to lead and push hard for a second crosstown subway to improve the primary transit network and a streetcar system (running largely in dedicated lanes) to create a solid secondary transit network. We might have already started construction on on a separated Blue Line and have several streetcar lines up and running. Even if we find such leaders now, groundbreaking on a second Blue Line would not happen for at least another decade or two.


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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I'm not convinced that it is really in DC or DC resident's interest to push for a new cross river tunnel. Arlington's interest, perhaps.

A new crosstown route would be good but we've gotten far too focused on "subways means new development" rather than "subway means better transport". And much of that cross town M st is about as dense as you're going to get.

RG makes some good points, but the entire transport system is designed to privledge suburban commuters -- rail as well as road. It is just that DC residents get some of the other benefits.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It maintains the importance and centrality of the central business district vis-a-vis other major commercial districts in the region, especially Tysons and Arlington.

If done right it adds another line parallel to the blue/orange line, serving neighborhoods including Georgetown that don't have direct subway access currently.

Depending on what kind of routing DC would advocate for it could add 10 or more stations.

Of course, to build it you need to allow a height increase to generate more property tax revenues against which to sell bonds.

It adds another line that will service Union Station, which can only be built out-expanded like Amtrak wants if there is additional high capacity heavy rail transit service added to the station.

All those are clear benefits to DC residents.

I wouldn't necessarily go for this particular routing:

but it's one alternative.

At Bladensburg and Maryland Ave. NE, instead of going east although you could maybe have a Y there, with an eastern wye serving Oklahoma Ave. and maybe another station.

A northern wye could go up Bladensburg to NY Ave. and to Fort Lincoln. That'd be expensive, not necessarily the best use because of the cemetery and Arboretum limiting densification, but the Fort Lincoln/New York Ave. corridor could use some better connection.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ONE MORE THING. You could set up with 3 or 4 tracks and allow Express Service to Dulles from Downtown-Union Station. (ALthough I don't see how you could really do that without rebuilding the current Silver Line.)

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

Great comment by RG

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RG is right on target here. It is the car centric PG county oriented DC city government employees and leadership that has allowed this to happen. The Ward 9 junta. They seldom get out of their cars- they are identical to those who populate ward 3 who also are car centric . These people have held up the streetcar introduction and have , in general, caused more problems than they have solved. Same goes for the Tea Party Democrats who live in Capitol Hill and run the organizations in that area- they fight all progressive proposals and ideas. In their mindset- you should be able to have surface parking for all 4 of your cars - not have to use metro at all, keep the area as low density as possible, not let streetcars on 8th street despite its incredible streetcar history, and keep development away from metro stations.


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