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, June 13, 2018

Revisiting the Purple Line article series after one year: Part 1 | a couple of baby steps

CAF, a transit vehicle manufacturer based in the Basque Country, but with a US plant in Elmira, New York, has the contract to build light rail vehicles for the Purple Line.  The firm is also a partner in the company that is being created to operate the line.

Starting in March 2017, I wrote a series of articles making the point that major new transit infrastructure projects should be complemented by a coordinated improvement program across the transit network, with the aim of making the launch of the new transit project very successful while improving the rest of the system simultaneously.

-- Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 1 | simultaneously introduce improvements to other elements of the transit network
-- Part 2 |   the program (macro changes)
-- Part 3 |   influences
-- Part 4 |   Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown"
-- PL #5: Creating a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District"
- Part 1: Setting the stage
- Part 2: Program items 1- 9
- Part 3: Program items 10-18
- Part 4: Conclusion
- Map for the Silver Spring Sustainable Mobility District
- (Big Hairy) Projects Action Plan(s) as an element of Comprehensive/Master Plans
- Creating the Silver Spring/Montgomery County Arena and Recreation Center
-- Part 6 |  Creating a transportation development authority in Montgomery and Prince George's County to effectuate placemaking, retail development, and housing programs in association with the Purple Line
-- Part 7 | Using the Purple Line to rebrand Montgomery and Prince George's Counties as Design Forward

Downtown Silver Spring gateway sign lit up at nightSilver Spring as a sustainable mobility and innovative district. The set of articles on Silver Spring came about, outlining the opportunity of using the Silver Spring Maryland conurbation as a model for creating a "sustainable mobility and innovation district" using the Purple Line as a springboard, because blogreader Edward Drozd who lives in Silver Spring-Takoma Park, asked me to explain expand what I meant when I made the point (item #20) about creating "sustainable mobility corridors" around PL transit stations, using Fenton Avenue in Silver Spring as an example.

More importantly, he hoped to push the idea forward, and while I have spread these ideas to some blogs in Montgomery County, to some councilmembers, government officials and planners, it hasn't moved along at all.

But the concepts are applicable to other areas where there are going to be Purple Line stations, especially New Carrollton in Prince George's County.

Transformational Projects Action Planning approach.  It also propelled and helped me to scintillate my thinking about what I am now calling "Transformational Projects Action Planning" as an organizing structure for planning at three different scales:
  • macro ("Comprehensive Plan/Master Plan")
  • micro (specific elements such as economic development or transportation within a master plan), and 
  • individual project (e.g., how do we make this __________ [fill in blank] initiative transformational and innovative).
-- "Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning," October 2017

If it's not in the contract, concessionaires aren't not interested.  I'm really proud of the work, although it hasn't developed much traction.

Partly this is because in the "public-private partnership model," if it's not in the contract, the concessionaire isn't interested. It's not unlike the criticism of unions over "working to the rule."  This btw is the biggest problem with contracting.  It's not about iterative improvement or incorporating new developments in technology and programs as they occur after the contract was signed..

Lack of metropolitan and regional integrated transportation planning.  The other is no one in a position of authority is asking these kinds of questions.

I've argued that in part this is because we don't have a true metropolitan/regional scaled transportation planning and operation system comparable to that of the Germans, Paris or London (although I learned in my UK trip that while Transport for London has a lot of authority, there are also significant gaps, not unlike in the DC area).

And, as someone said at a meeting last night, the organization tasked with metropolitan scale transportation planning in the DC region is more of a "collator" putting into a combined list the various projects offered up by the separate jurisdictions.

But it's both the lack of a regional-metropolitan transportation planning organization with heft combined with the failure to approach planning in a transformational fashion.

-- "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," March 2017
-- "Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated regional public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland," Ralph Buehler, John Pucher & Oliver Dümmler, International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (2018)

Update on actions.  There is some movement on a couple of the recommendations.

1. Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit.  In the 20 programmatic recommendations (Part 2 |   the program (macro changes)), item #11 recommends that Montgomery County coordinate its rollout of Bus Rapid Transit with PL development. The recommendation specifically discussed service on New Hampshire Avenue.  But I failed to make a recommendation concerning Route 355 Rockville Pike/Wisconsin Avenue.

In any case, the New Hampshire BRT route is being rolled out. And the Wisconsin Avenue route is moving forward too in planning, pushed forward in part by a new limited stop bus service along the corridor ("An express bus is coming Maryland Route 355 this fall. Next stop, BRT," Washington Post).

The service is called RideOn Extra (Bus Route 101) and runs from Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg to the Medical Center Metrorail Station.

But in keeping with #10, which recommends extending certain bus services on arterials connecting DC and Maryland to create better links with the Purple Line, the Route 355 BRT service should start at  Friendship Heights to ensure a better connection with DC.  But the planning process starts the route at the Bethesda Metrorail Station.

That dovetails the recommendation within #10 of extending the DC 30s Metrobus Route on Wisconsin Avenue from its terminal at Friendship Heights Metrorail Station to the Bethesda Metrorail Station.

2. Cycletracks on Fenton Avenue and East-West Highway in Silver Spring.  The Silver Spring series ("Creating a Silver Spring Sustainable Mobility District | Program Items 1-9") proposes the creation of a core sustainable mobility district bounded by Fenton Avenue on the east (Item #1) and East-West Highway on the west (Item #2).

Part of this recommendation was creating high capacity cycletracks on those streets, rather than the "bypass" cycletrack the County has built on Second Avenue/Spring Street.

The draft Montgomery County Bicycle Master Plan proposes those cycletracks.  The County Council public hearing to approve the plan is scheduled for July 10th.

Note that I talked about this with a County planner at Bike to Work Day and he took the sustainable mobility corridor one step further, suggesting converting Fenton Avenue to a pedestrian corridor removing all motor vehicle traffic!  But that's not in the plan.

Incremental movement. Well, that's not much to report but it is something.

Purple Line as an economic development generator.  Relatedly, likely the Purple Line is an element that has influenced Amazon's pick of Montgomery County's White Flint district as a finalist in their search process for the creation of a second Amazon headquarters.

Amazon says they prefer to locate in an area with quality transit service and the PL will expand the transit infrastructure available within Montgomery County.

-- "Could Montgomery County be home to Amazon's new HQ2?," WJLA-TV
-- "A look at Montgomery County, Maryland's bid for Amazon's second headquarters," Washington Business Journal
-- "Exclusive: Montgomery County, emboldened by HQ2, also courting Apple," WBJ

Although for all the same reasons as in hyper strong real estate markets like DC and Boston, I think "winning" would be problematic for Montgomery County.  Plopping that HQ in an already expensive residential property market will have significant impact, leading to high velocity price appreciation in Montgomery's residential property market, pricing even middle class households out of the market.

Although the county is achieving some success with companies moving from car-centric locations to Metrorail station areas like Bethesda (Marriott) and Rockville (Choice Hotels), with a 12% vacancy rate in commercial markets, plus the recent announced loss of Discovery Channel which post-merger with Scripps Networks is consolidating the companies at locations outside of the DC region, landing Amazon (or Apple) would be seen as a major boon to the commercial property market.

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At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't CAF make the buggy 5000-series WMATA rail cars? The first blue/white interior cars? The ones they're going to scrap and replace rather than rehab because they're so bad? Doesn't sound like a good start.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Good point. But the company made a very successful subway system and tram system in Bilbao.

I think the difference is that subway cars tend to be one off deals, very specific to the particular system (although why MARTA, Miami Metrorail, and DC don't just create a common car is beyond me?).

Light rail vehicles are basically "stock." Sure there is modification, but they are built from a standardized design, one that is used across multiple systems.

So they should be ok.

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

WMATA doesn't create a common spec railcar with any other systems because no other systems share WMATA's specifications.

Other, newer systems have shared railcars - Baltimore, Miami, and LA have all used the same car design before.

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


Has it been a year already? Ha, and is your calling me out a bit of mild public shaming to spur some amount of action? Family and reorgs at work got in the way, but I really do need to take one or two of the PTO days I routinely use to at least organize thoughts into a specific idea to shop around to local policymakers. I think I started such a document at least twice but then other life got in the way.

Every time you mention your series (which really is excellent), I know I need to try doing something.

And if you're still in England I hope you're having a great time and energizing your thoughts. Other than your very rigorous approach to historic preservation (really, no solar panels?) I'm usually on board with your ideas...

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'm back... although it's only starting around now, a week later that I am not permanently sore and tired. And I still didn't see as much as I wanted.

I am not trying to shame you.

I guess I should make the point even more clearly -- that some of my best work is spurred and developed through the interactions in writing or in person that I have with readers.

That the process is a two-way street.

And that I appreciate it. People like you (and Charlie) make my work so much better.

E.g., with the Silver Spring series, what I started on after your query become so much more as I started developing it, making frequent "field visits," thinking more deeply.

Plus the Energized Public Places initiative of MC Planning, which made me realize how Fenton Street connects so many park and cultural assets. Etc.

But it grew into so much more, helped scintillate the "Transformational Projects Action Plan" approach, etc.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Alex B. -- 1. As usual, you prove to me that you know a lot more about the details of these kinds of things, whereas I am more of a "forest" person.

2. That being said, at least 10 years ago, I remember a cover story in Mass Transit Mag. featuring the San Diego Trolley system and the CEO making the point that transit is a lot more expensive in the US because every system has one off specifications, so every system needs separate cars, and they aren't made in large enough runs to be economically procured.

That's a mistake. Just think if BART, WMATA and the other systems could use the same specifications...

3. Anyway, the current issue of Mass Transit has a cover photo and brief story about the latest version of the Alstom Citadis tram light rail vehicle, the changes, etc., but how it is basically "a stock vehicle" used in many systems on multiple continents.

I seem to remember you've said something along these lines in the past, about it being difficult to develop a RR passenger car business in the US because our specifications are different from other countries, making exporting almost impossible. Plus not enough demand to make a financially viable industry.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... and Nigel from New Zealand, who keeps peppering me with items of interests and e-conversations that end up extending thinking, ideas, etc.

I wish I had more people commenting more frequently, but I certainly get tremendous value from the great participants that I am fortunate enough to have as I do.

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

off topic:

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Nigel sent me a piece about a development on 50 acres in East London. What I thought was interesting is that after significant delays, the original investors sold half the project to Macquarie (Australian-based) and Starwood (US-based) to move forward.

I think there's only so much of the market that can pay the top prices required to acquire housing constructed at the top of the market at today's prices for land, materials, and labor.

As long as enough of that market segment still exists, property values will maintain. If not, declines?

What do you think?

Plus in the US, we have the phenomenon of "working off" the increase in demand for living in the center city. Obviously, that hasn't been a uniform trend, but it's a key factor in a number of markets like DC, SF, Seattle, NYC, Boston, Salt Lake (plenty of developable land there), etc.

In the "cosmopolitan megacities" they already had that demand, but stoked by foreign nationals wanting to buy there as a way to protect capital and risk management. (In the US we get that in NYC and probably Miami, but nowhere else, not even really here.)

+ the rise in interest rates.

At 6:59 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: pricing (your theory).

I think that is also the conclusion of the 13D point. We are certainly see price declines in Vancouver/Toronto. NYC also. There are other reasons for the declines but I'd say strong possibility exists that money is moving out with the tide. See today's Argentine peso action.


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