Metro Rail Washington DC

What kind of TOD can occur around Dulles Metro?

» Washington’s Silver Line opened to acclaim. It is already being hailed as the pedestrian-oriented transformer for the suburban Tysons business district, but the project may not create walkable, urban neighborhoods.

After years of talk, the Washington Metro was expanded by more than 11 miles last month, finally connecting it to Tysons, a suburban, auto-oriented business district in the heart of Fairfax County, Virginia. The new Silver Line that will make the connection via the existing Orange and Blue Line trunk through downtown Washington is expected to serve 25,000 daily boardings at five new stations, providing service every six minutes at rush hours and 12 to 15 minutes off peak. A second phase of the more than $5 billion project will add another 11.5 miles and extend into Loudoun County, via Dulles Airport, in 2018.

This first phase is very significant from the perspective of expanded rapid transit service; it is the second-lengthiest single line opening in the history of the Washington Metro, and it will dramatically speed the commute of people using transit to travel to and through the western suburbs.

It is also, in theory, going to produce a revolution in the physical environment of Tysons, turning it into a new, walkable “downtown.” As Robert Puentes has said, the line “is the catalyst for the transformation of Tysons from an exclusively auto-oriented ‘edge city’ to [a] modern and vibrant live/work community.” That’s certainly the vision to which the local business partnership and Fairfax County itself have committed. The goal is to quintuple the area’s population to 100,000.

What is true is that the project is producing major new real estate projects near the four stations planned for the business district. The availability of excellent transit service will undoubtedly increase the number of people taking the train to and from work. Yet the manner in which the rail line was constructed — elevated, in the median of large roads — and the existing built environment should put into question whether Tysons will ever become the sort of “livable” downtown for which new urbanists articulate the need.

The difficulty of making Tysons look like a traditional urban environment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! With careful thinking, the neighborhood could become a model for a different kind of urbanism, one that recognizes the monumental scale of the existing roadways and the new transit system, which has added an infrastructure of significant proportions to the neighborhood (just take in the scale of the station and associated track structure pictured at the top of this article). Combined with pedestrian-focused islands pulled away from the road and transit system, Tysons could adapt to its new transit accessibility not by becoming another downtown in style but by adapting its existing suburban environment into a unique new place. If successful, it could provide a model for suburban business districts across the country.

Current plans for the district’s renovation

Like many suburban, car-dominated business districts, Tysons is reliant on few, widely interspersed arterials that are overwhelmed by traffic at peak hours and incredibly hostile to pedestrians. These are roads that are simply inconducive to the livability principles that have become the standard lexicon of the planning profession because they make small-scale retail, mixes of uses, and walking nearly impossible. Unfortunately, these arterials are also the roadways chosen for the placement of the Silver Line and its stations; Metro trains enter Tysons from the east along the eight-lane Virginia Route 123, run southwest before turning northwest along the eight-lane Virginia Route 7.*

Fairfax County planners have prioritized the radical reconstruction of the district’s road network, moving it from a neighborhood of a few arterials (on the left in the image below) to a hierarchy of streets on a much more complex grid (on the right below). This hierarchy would incorporate the major arterials (now referred to as “boulevards”) but also bring in smaller streets identified as “avenues,” “local streets,” and “service streets.”

The smaller streets would provide the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that is at the core of the idea of transforming Tysons into a “downtown.” By “downtown,” we’re clearly meant to envision a tight, walkable grid of mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor and either apartments or offices above.

Certain major projects underway in the district will include new, small streets, but it will take decades of transformations to make the neighborhood into a full grid. What we’re likely to get in the meantime, given the fact that Tysons is huge and development is hardly coordinated, are tiny areas of gridded streets, surrounded by auto-oriented parking lots and the same old arterials the area is known for.

Downtowns rely on a grid of streets that connects to the broader city’s grid of streets, creating walkable districts that allow people to live and work in places without a car. Where the gridded areas are created in Tysons, most people will continue to rely on their automobiles to get elsewhere in the area.

More problematically, the Metro entrances themselves will all be located on the “boulevards,” which sound nicer than they actually are. The state’s Department of Transportation, like many similar agencies around the country, tends to favor cars in its designs, and it will continue to run the boulevards. Certain of them have actually been widened in association with the construction of the Metro extension. It’s no wonder that the right side of the diagram above shows such as much space devoted to “boulevards” in the future (those big white voids) as the existing situation on the left.

Progressive planning suggests that the area that must be pedestrian-oriented, more than anywhere else, should be the areas right next to the rapid transit stations. These are the areas that need road diets, because they’re the areas where people do not need to be driving. But in Tysons, those areas are handicapped by wide roads that are unlikely to be shrunk anytime soon. The hostility of those roads is clear enough to Metro planners, who have built pedestrian overpasses on both sides of most stations to ensure that riders do not have to make the mistake of actually trying to cross the “boulevard,” as shown below.

There is little chance that this kind of environment can ever be at the heart of a future “downtown,” because it simply isn’t designed for street-level walkability. What kind of message does it send that the areas closest to the stations are the most hostile to pedestrians who want to be at ground level?

Fairfax County, however, addresses this problem not by recognizing the inherent deficiencies of retaining the automobile orientation of the “boulevards,” but rather by optimistically hoping that street-level retail and pedestrians will line up along the edge of these almost-highways, as shown in the following rendering.

Suffice it to say that given the current condition of the “boulevards,” pedestrians won’t exactly be swarming to enjoy the atmosphere along these streets — particularly when there continue to be gaps in the area’s sidewalk and crosswalk networks. The big buildings are likely, since the county has zoned for significantly larger structures, particularly for areas within a quarter mile of stations, and the demand for living in areas near the region’s Metro system are strong.

But a “walkable downtown,” in the traditional sense, this will not be. Even if the sidewalks are improved over time, the large “boulevards” throughout the district will continue to be enough of an obstacle to make the transformation of this area into a place like Ballston, Virginia difficult to imagine.

Potential for an interconnected series of “island” neighborhoods

The fact that Tysons is unlikely to become a “downtown” doesn’t mean that dense development won’t occur. It just means that the type of development around stations will be different. As Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott noted last week:

“The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.”

What Kennicott is describing approximates the modernist urban idea, whose premise was that it was necessary to separate people from automobiles by either placing them on different levels or by dedicating areas for pedestrians only or automobiles only.

On the other hand, much of the premise of the more recent new urbanist and livable streets movements has been that the idea of separating people and automobiles has failed, resulting in urban environments that are unsafe, uninteresting, and generally designed without normal people in mind. Those movements have articulated the importance of mixed-use environments with tightly spaced streets designed for pedestrians but that still accommodate automobiles. This is the type of environment Fairfax County planners hope Tysons will become.

But, as Kennicott notes, the physical facts of the Silver Line’s stations through the area suggest the area’s future will be far more like the the modernist vision of a city than that of the new urbanists. Indeed, some of the major new developments planned for the area, such as Tysons Central 7, propose a series of structures connected to the Metro station pedestrian bridge but also turned inward, away from the “boulevards.” The result is something close to a pedestrian-focused “island” refuge that attempts to ignore the automobility of the surrounding area.

Note that in the following illustration of Tysons Cenral 7, pedestrian life is shown to be almost entirely concentrated around the Metro pedestrian bridge or in the interior of the scheme. On the outside of the project are curb cuts, automobile entrances, and parking.

For Tysons as a whole, this model could produce a new district made up of “island” neighborhoods disconnected from one another by the “boulevards” and the Metro stations but nonetheless quite walkable in their interiors. A more advanced version of this concept would make the interior of this type of development entirely pedestrian-only.

The general approach taught in contemporary planning suggests that the modernist movement “failed” and that replicating its elements — such as pedestrian-only spaces surrounded by car-only spaces — will not function. Yet the design of Tysons’ roadways and Metro stations mean that the primary streets of the district will continue to be principally oriented towards automobiles for decades to come; that’s half your modernist ideal there. The complement to those spaces should not be semi-automobile oriented, as the current Tysons plans envision. Rather, planners and developers should take advantage of this unique transformation to create viable, interesting and pedestrian-only areas in the interior of the “islands.” This approach would truly differentiate the district.

For suburban business districts examining the possibility of retrofitting themselves for transit or for more walkability, Tysons may well become a model. Certain areas may decide to eliminate their big roads entirely, a decision Tysons may have been wise to make many years ago. But others, like Tysons concerned about maintaining the ability of large numbers of drivers to get around, may choose that the alternative — islands of pedestrian orientation surrounded by highways — holds the most promise.

* The name Tysons is a shortening of the former name Tysons Corner, which is the intersection of Route 123 and Route 7.

Top image and site plan from Fairfax County (cc); walksheds from the Tysons Corner; pedestrian bridge from Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).

Atlanta Boston Urbanism Washington DC

Defining Clear Standards for Transit-Oriented Development


» A new report attempts to quantify the relative merits of development near transit. What value can this tool bring for planners?

Transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Building a new rail line may expand development; new development may expand use of a rail line. The direct connection between the two makes differentiating between cause and effect difficult to measure. Transportation planners frequently make the argument that a new investment will produce new riders, for example, but whether those riders would have come anyway is not a simple question to answer. There is no counter-factual.

Nevertheless, planners have invested decades of considerable work in the pursuit of transit-oriented development (TOD), under the presumption that clustering new housing, offices, and retail will result in rising transit use and, in turn, reduce pollution, cut down on congestion, and improve quality of life. There remains some controversy about the effectiveness of TOD investments in actually increasing transit ridership, but, at least in my mind, the success of certain areas over others has as much to do with the manner in which developments are designed as the mere fact that there is construction adjacent to a rail or bus station.

For example, the considerable success of Arlington, Virginia in attracting riders to the Washington Metro, as compared to Rosemont, Illinois’ interaction with the Chicago L, is likely due to the fact that the former prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations while the latter put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities. Getting the design of new development around transit right is often just as important as the transit itself in terms of attracting ridership.

If design matters, what has been missing has been a tool that offers empirical insight into the benefits of specific development interventions in terms of their effect on growing transit use. To fill the gap, a new tool for measuring TOD quality has recently been introduced by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). It holds potential value in terms of defining the appropriate measures for creating effective TOD, but it needs further development to be useful in aiding the creation of best-practice development designs.

The TOD Standard

ITDP’s TOD Standard replicates the BRT Standard the organization finalized this year. Like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, both are scoring systems meant to offer a quick measurement that allows projects to be compared with one another on a variety of relevant criteria.

ITDP argues that this tool allows planners, developers, and the public to assess proposed or existing projects on a wide number of measures. The report aims to identify “what constitutes urban development best practice in promoting sustainable urban transport.” In other words, the goal of the tool is to determine which development projects would do the most to positively expand public transportation usage.

From the perspective of planners who should be actively promoting urban design that increases transit use, the Standard’s recognition of “development that is pro-actively oriented toward, rather than simply adjacent to, public transport” is encouraging. If the system works, it could be an potent way to make the connection between transit and development more explicit and, if used by municipalities or developers to design projects, it could eventually result in expanded ridership.

Best practices are identified across eight design categories — walking, cycling, the transportation network, accessibility to transit, a mix of uses, density, connections to existing employment centers, and changes in parking and road use. Within those categories, 24 criteria can be analyzed individually and then combined into an overall score in which developments rate from -50 (terrible) to +100 (excellent). The tool could be used to determine how well a completed development compares to best practice, or to identify areas for potential improvement.

Vienna Town Center Plan

Testing the Standard’s Effectiveness

ITDP’s tool is designed for large-scale projects within 800 meters (one half mile) of transit stations that implement at least 20,000 square feet of new construction on an area of four or more square blocks. The tool is not meant to measure the TOD effectiveness of existing districts (which are supposed to be included in a future revision of the Standard).

To evaluate just how the tool works, I chose three large TOD projects in East-Coast cities to compare their relative advantages, and inputted project data into the Standard for comparison. The three projects I selected are the Lindbergh Town Center project in Atlanta, which is fully completed (photograph at the top of this post); the NorthPoint project in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, which is partially completed; and the Vienna MetroWest (aka Metro Town Center), outside of Washington, D.C., which is in planning (the plan is just above this section). The latter project is the now down-scaled version of the Vienna plan.* Each constitutes a major development program located immediately adjacent to a transit corridor.

The data that I inputted into into the tool produced the results seen in the following table. As the last row indicates, the MetroWest project scored most poorly, with a rating of 3 out of 100.** Lindbergh did much better, with a score of 39, and NorthPoint best, with a score of 56. It should be emphasized that neither NorthPoint nor MetroWest are completed, so upon actual construction, the final TOD scores could be significantly different.

Evaluating TOD Based on the ITDP TOD Standard
Note: These figures offer a “sketch” computation of each project’s TOD score; the score should be treated as a general figure, not a fully accurate measure of each project’s characteristics.
CriterionPotential PointsMetroWest, Vienna, VANorthPoint, Cambridge, MALindbergh, Atlanta, GA
Sidewalk access0-1000
Complete crosswalks0-500
Driveway interference1010
Active frontage101105
Permeable frontage2011
Cycle network0-10-3
Cycle parking at stations2200
Cycle parking in buildings2???
Cycle access in buildings1???
Intersection density2-1021
Small blocks5030
Prioritized pedestrian connectivity3111
Max walk distance to transit00-20
Avg walk distance to transit5555
Mix of uses10101010
Access to food1100
Affordable housing4022
Residential density10497
Non-residential density5000
Connections to existing urbanism10044
Distance to existing jobs5555
Off-street parking15050
On-street parking5???

Assessing the Standard’s Value

The tool was simple to use and its results make sense intuitively: Whereas the MetroWest project is poor urban design from the perspective of encouraging transit use, the other two are far more oriented toward the nearby rail stations. Hypothetically, if the projects were all proposed for the same site, the tool would allow decision makers to make a quick quantitative comparison between the designs and identify the best project for public transportation riders. This could offer a clear benefit in terms of, for example, choosing a winning team for the contract to develop a publicly owned site. Rather than rely on “subjective” comparisons of the aesthetics of site designs (a comparison that too often devolves into a question of individual architectural taste), the tool quantifies the physical.

The Standard could also play a useful role in improving the ability of developers to design their new transit-adjacent buildings most effectively by highlighting where plans fall short in comparison with best practices.

Yet, as beneficial as it could be, the Standard does not appear to have been developed with a clear research methodology to back its scoring system. Why is the active frontage criterion worth 10 points, but the amount of shade on nearby streets only worth 2? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that residential and commercial density are the overwhelming influencers of transit use, yet those criteria only account for a quarter of the score. ITDP does not appear to have conducted a real-world analysis to demonstrate whether certain elements are more beneficial in terms of attracting transit use. Rather, the tool seems to have been created using a common sense approach, which is not as good as one might hope for a “Standard” that is explicitly designed to provide an empirical scoring system for measuring TOD effectiveness.

ITDP’s TOD Standard, though, remains a draft; it will be revised over the next year based on public and expert input. It would be beneficial if those revisions attempted to incorporate evidence about the relative effectiveness of the various criteria in terms of growing transit ridership.

Even so, for those who are already familiar with the basic principles of transit-oriented development, ITDP’s scoring system will do little more than reinforce already-acquired knowledge. Every urbanist knows quite well that good TOD requires pedestrian connectivity, a mix of uses, and bike parking — those goals might as well be imprinted on the foreheads of most people trained in planning. At most, ITDP’s guidelines may highlight slight differences between individual projects, but a quick comparison of the site plans of Vienna’s MetroWest and Cambridge’s NorthPoint is enough for most even unexperienced planners to make out which one is designed for transit, and which one isn’t.

So what added value does the Standard bring? Like WalkScore, it provides an “objective” number that can be used by non-planner decision makers to help them determine which projects would best fulfill the policy objective of maximizing transit use. The Standard must be refined, however, to focus on making that number into something that’s genuinely reflective of best practices.


* I recognize that the Vienna project profiled here may not be the project that is built; the original plan for the site envisioned much higher densities just next to the station. For this comparison, though, I wanted to pick a project that I hypothesized would score poorly using the ITDP tool, and this revision fit the bill.

** Because I could not locate data on bike access to buildings or the area devoted to on-street parking, the documented scores were really out of a total possible score of 93.

Image at top: Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, from Cooper Carry Architects; below: Revised Vienna Metro Town Center Plan, from Paraclete Realty

Bus Washington DC

Major Ambitions for Improved Transit in the Inner Suburbs North of Washington

» Montgomery County officials propose a 160-mile “RTV” system that they hope will revolutionize transportation patterns in the area.

Montgomery County, Maryland is one of the core counties of one of the nation’s most appealing metropolitan regions — the nation’s capital. Yet much of the county is relatively built out — mature, one might describe it — making the construction of any significant new transportation capacity, especially in terms of roadways, very difficult, if not impossible. The Intercounty Connector that opened last year is likely to be the last major road built in the area. But the demand for movement will continue to increase.

This is the challenge that has motivated the county’s Transit Task Force, appointed last year by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Earlier this month, the group released its proposal for a network of 160 miles of new bus rapid transit lines crisscrossing the county. The roughly $2 billion plan would offer dedicated lanes for RTVs — rapid transit vehicles — that planners hope will offer a shiny new face for transit in the region and attract a new group of choice riders onto buses operating at headways of 3 to 7 minutes at all times of the day. On many of the corridors, the transit system would be the “most cost effective way” to absorb excess traffic congestion, by moving it from cars into buses.

Montgomery County planners have insisted on the game-changing nature of what they are proposing, nothing that the vehicles to be used “will operate more like “light rail on rubber tires” than what is more typically referred to as “bus rapid transit“” — thus the name difference. Buses will have doors on both sides and be branded entirely different from the existing system.

As can be seen in the map below, the proposed interventions would radically change the face of the county by offering improved transit service to a whole network of east-west and north-south corridors, vastly augmenting the existing Metro and MARC lines there. Along its corridors, it would be the “best hope for creating vibrant, mixed-use communities” that will be denser, more walkable neighborhoods. If well designed and actually implemented, RTV’s sheer scale and the connectivity it offers could indeed offer a compelling reason for commuters to switch out of their private automobiles. It is an audacious proposal.

I spoke to Mark Winston, Chair of the County Executive’s Transit Task Force, and Tom Street, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer for the county, to better understand the motivations behind the RTV proposal.

We’re not looking at solving 25 discrete problems,” Winston argues. “We’re looking at this on a systemwide basis.” The plan suggests that the 160 miles of RTV lines be implemented in three phases, beginning with a $1.2 billion, 84-mile investment, and Winston believes that there is adequate political support to begin construction of at least four to five lines — not just one — within the next few years. Montgomery County planners have chosen to prioritize the concept of network development with the RTV plan, arguing that the project will only work if it is developed as a unified system. In this way, they are following other regions like the Twin Cities that recognize that the old method of studying transit lines corridor by corridor (e.g. the federal New Starts process) is opposed to the manner in which people actually use public transportation, as part of a network.

Winston emphasizes that “this is not a bus system” but rather a “new animal” that is designed to “change behavior” among riders who would otherwise be driving cars to and from work. As such, he argues, “if we produce a system that’s just a network of buses, this is not going to work.”

For Winston, this means that the county cannot “do a half-ass job” and “compromise the system.” In essence, he does not accept the idea that his grand vision for a RTV system could be narrowed down to a series of gussied-up shelters with only slightly faster buses. When I asked what features of the system were most important, Winston said, “We can afford to build a first class system here. the determination will be whether or not we choose to.” For him, the mode shift he wants to promote away from cars and towards transit can only occur if the system is built as best as is possible.

Street, on the other hand, was a bit more cautious, noting:

I think what is most important are dedicated guideways, and that’s what separates the RTVs from mixed traffic. I think it’s going to be actually critical to get the riders of choice to have a system that looks and feels different, but i think that criteria number one is not running in mixed traffic and you get that express feeling during periods of congestion.”

Indeed, the proposal as currently laid out puts a major emphasis on the separated lanes, prioritizing them over other features. In terms of image, that might make sense, since dedicated lanes show where buses are going and thus illustrate a sense of solidity and long-term development that is often said to be the strength of rail, not bus, lines. But it is not clear that dedicated lanes will be enough to spur on a major shift of people towards transit. Two ideas that might be more effective in doing so — right-of-way enforcement in RTV lanes through photographing violators and peak road pricing — are dismissed by the report as “preferable but not necessarily highly desirable.”

Moreover, while the report highlights dedicated lanes for the vehicles, Winston notes that “in a community like this, one answer does not fit everything.” In the case of the RTV report, that seems to mean that there will be many cases where vehicles will actually run in mixed-traffic lanes by design because of “capacity constraints” or in a single, reversible median lane for both directions of the service. While the county claims to have big goals for its transit network, these adaptations do not appear to be for the benefit of making the transit system as effective as possible but rather for the maintenance of the claims on certain roads by car drivers.

Just as revealing is the RTV committee’s treatment of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which is a proposed BRT project that would be incorporated into the RTV system if the latter is implemented. Claiming that the expenses the state of Maryland is currently estimating for the project are too high, the Task Force suggests significantly decreasing its costs… by eliminating many grade separations over major roads that would make this project as fast for riders as possible. The changes suggested would put buses in mixed traffic for some segments and increase round trip travel times massively, from 62.1 minutes to 70.4 minutes.

The primary explanation for the need for these changes is that the project as currently designed — at $545 million for a nine-mile segment — is too expensive. And indeed, perhaps it is unreasonably high. But whereas the state expects to pay about $60 million a mile for that full-scale rapid transit line, RTV proponents are suggesting that their project would cost only about $1.8 billion in total, or a bit over $11 million a mile (not including financing, which could admittedly double the cost). While the Task Force’s recommendation that the system be built using an integrated design-build-operate contract will likely save some money, it is hard to see how the improvements it is proposing will ever work out to be as novel as the Corridor Cities Transitway as currently designed, simply because there will not be enough funds in the county’s coffers to make full investments possible.

Nonetheless, the RTV Task Force has not been shy when it comes to identifying potential funds for the project and has instead noted that district taxes on property located with a 1/2-mile of route alignments, direct county funding, and private sector contributions could all be used to pay for the project, with no federal aid. These are realistic sources of funding that could be implemented relatively easily — in combination with significant county bonding — to pay for a large percentage of the lines discussed here. But political support beyond just the study phase will be necessary to begin discussing such an increase on local taxes, especially when it becomes apparent that the cost of a system like this could expand prodigiously.

Update, 31 May: A planner from Montgomery County emails to note that my use of “planner” in the above article does not refer to the county’s planners, but rather the members of the Transit Task Force. Noted. The Planning Department will deliver a recommended master plan to the council in early 2013, with project planning only beginning after approval.

Image above: Montgomery County RTV System Full Build-Out Map, from Montgomery County

Airport Metro Rail Miami Washington DC

Does an Airport Line Have to Reach the Airport?

» For Washington Dulles Airport, raising the unthinkable on a new rail link.

Yesterday, Robert Brown, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), suggested rethinking his agency’s planned Metro rail extension out to Dulles Airport, the Washington region’s prime international gateway. Instead of the bringing this $2.8 billion rail link — frequently referred to as the Silver Line — directly to the airport, Brown noted that replacing the final 1.5-mile connection with a people mover would save $70 million thanks to a more limited right-of-way and the construction of one less Metro station.

The Silver Line is an extension of the Washington Metro’s Orange Line and will eventually reach Loudoun County. The first segment of the project, to Tyson’s Corner and Wiehle  Avenue, is planned to open for service next year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea was perceived as heresy, both by local commenters and board members. Mame Reiley, one board member, saidI just don’t think that’s what we labored for… it is not rail to Dulles.” Concerns were raised that the federal government might delay the program because the board was “starting over.” And indeed the proposal appears to have been dismissed by the authority board as unacceptable.

Counter-intuitively, however, such a change in alignment could be a reasonable money-saver and may actually improve transit service for both commuters and air travelers. And though the question is immediately relevant to the Dulles Rail extension, it is equally valid to many cities, as the issue of extending rail networks out towards airports is frequently of concern for transportation planners in major metropolitan areas.

The question of how to reach Dulles by rail has been fraught with controversy since project development began. Originally, the concept was to connect the Metro line to an underground station about 550 feet from the main terminal, but after the project’s price tag had exploded past $3 billion, an effort at cost-savings was in order. The MWAA, which runs Dulles Airport in addition to the Metro extension, eventually agreed in July April 2011 to move the stop about 600 feet further away — and to elevate it above the ground. Riders wanting to get off at Dulles will have to make the more than thousand-foot walk from the station to check-in.

Mr. Brown’s likely stillborn proposal to replace the direct rail link with a people mover reflects the fact that riders are likely to see this connection as inconvenient, especially compared to that at Reagan National Airport, where customers only have to walk about 150 feet between Metro platform and the terminal entrance.

Mr. Brown would reroute the Metro line away from the airport (the existing plan is shown in orange below and would be about 4 miles from Route 28 to Route 606), so that it runs directly along the Dulles Greenway (in blue, about 2.5 miles from Route 28 to Route 606). A people mover (also in blue, about 1.5 miles) would connect the Route 28 station to the front of the terminal. Though customers would have to transfer, they would now get a more direct journey, since it would be far easier to fit in front of the terminal the tracks and station for the people mover than it would have been for the Metro line (and in fact this explains why that latter possibility was never brought up).

This would save a total of $70 million, according to planner estimates, because it would replace about 1.5 miles of very expensive Metro infrastructure (readied for eight-car trains) with much lighter automatic people mover infrastructure, designed for one- or two-car trains.

We know this would save some money. How would this change affect customers?

Riders commuting in to Tyson’s Corner, Arlington, or Washington from outer suburban destinations on the end of the rail line west of Dulles would save time: At the 35 mph average speed expected for Silver Line trains,* it will take about 6.9 minutes to get from Route 28 to Route 606 using the current plan. The more direct route proposed by Mr. Brown would reduce that journey to 4.3 minutes. That’s almost half an hour in saved travel time per week per commuter.

Even better, those using the Silver Line to get to and from the airport might actually save time travelling too!** Though these customers would have to transfer between Dulles Metro and the people mover, if that connection were timed and across the platform (as is quite possible when two automated systems are linked and built at the same time), the time lost would be only two or three minutes. Meanwhile, once they actually get off at the terminal, the experience of riders taking the people mover would be much superior: Rather than walking 1,150 feet to the terminal — which would take them about 4.8 minutes on average — they would walk something more like 150 feet, which would take them only 0.6 minutes.*** See this back of the envelope comparison:

 Arrive at Rt 28 StationTimed Transfer to People MoverTime to Dulles Airport StationWalk to TerminalTotal Travel Time
Existing Proposal0 Min--2.5 Min4.8 Min (or about 3 Min by moving walkway)5.5-7.3 Min
People Mover Proposal0 Min3 Min2.5 Min0.6 Min6.1 Min

Though the use of the people mover raises questions about operating another rail system, it could be maintained with similar vehicles as those already servicing Dulles on the Aerotrain, which connects checked-in passengers to the terminals.

If these benefits are not convincing enough in themselves, it should be noted that the Washington region would not be alone if it chose to make its airport rail link stop somewhat short of the terminal itself. In Phoenix, the new light rail system was built in coordination with airport officials, who are currently constructing an automated train between the rail station and the terminals. The San Francisco Bay Area is building an airport connector to the Oakland Airport that will link a BART station some miles away to the terminals. And Miami’s new AirportLink Metro Rail project will not actually stop at the airport, but instead at a new central station (pictured at the top of this article), where transfers to a people mover will be offered.

Riders in these regions will not suffer; they may lose a few minutes transferring between trains, but if the connection is short and timed, that pain can be minimized. Avoiding the airport, paradoxically enough, could both save money and improve the situation for riders.

Update: I should say that the underground passage way from the elevated station as currently planned will include moving walkways (it already exists), so the time difference between getting from the elevated station to the terminals and getting from the people mover station to the terminals will not be as large as I suggested above. The time difference still should be in the range of two to three minutes longer, however, making the travel time about equal overall.

* 35 mph: PlanItMetro projects it will take about 22 minutes to travel the 12.8 miles between Dulles Airport and Tysons 7 Station.

** The only customers would would lose out with this change would be those traveling to and from Dulles from outer-suburban locations.

*** Assuming that people with bags travel at about 4 feet/second, a bit slower than the average walking speed of an elderly person.

Image above: Miami Central Station rendering, from Miami Intermodal Center

Finance Washington DC

Finding the Means to Keep Transit Running

» An investment of billions of dollars in a new rail line should be backed by a guarantee of minimum operations standards.

In a hearing in front of the Senate Banking Committee yesterday, Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff spelled out his agency’s priorities: Maintaining and renovating the nation’s existing public transportation networks, and providing temporary federal assistance for bus and rail operations.

Keeping transit running should be one of the nation’s top priorities, but the FTA has had to mostly stand by in recent years as region after region has experienced cuts in the services provided by local transit systems. This coming in the midst of a recession and mounting gas prices, each of which make a larger percentage of the population in need of non-automobile-based travel options. Thus the interest of Mr. Rogoff and the Obama Administration in general in providing aid to local agencies may come as a relief — if members of Congress decide to jump on board.

Just this week, Washington’s Metro announced that its $66 million budget deficit expected for next year would have to be covered by some sort of service cuts. Top on its list is a proposal to decrease weekend train frequencies from every 12 minutes to every 18 on Saturdays and from every 15 minutes to every 20. Riders are being asked to complete a survey to express their opinions. With Rogoff’s aid, the District could potentially avoid such cutbacks in the future — though Washington, one of the nation’s only regions mostly unaffected by the recession, may not qualify as “economically distressed,” which is a criteria the FTA wants to use to determine which agencies would be able to take advantage of operations grants.

Similarly useful would be the FTA’s State of Good Repair grants, which the agency wants to expand significantly and which would make it more feasible for cities like Chicago to keep their older rail lines in constant use. Both this and the transit operations aid initiative would require the Congress to approve at least some form of the President’s proposed 2012 budget, a prospect that may be dimming in the face of disagreement about how to pay for increases in federal spending on transportation.

Yet the problems suffered by Washington’s transit system due to its inability to cover operations costs without reducing frequencies say a lot about that region’s commitment to transit and imply that regional authorities are willing to sacrifice good service in the name of making budgets line up. The mere fact that Metro, a system that cost billions of dollars to construct, would ever offer services at headways of more than every 15 or even 10 minutes at any time, is disturbing.

As it moves forward with the funding of new transportation projects across the country through the New Starts process, the FTA works to ensure that the regions to which it is providing financing have the resources to guarantee that initial investments in capital are backed by transit operations reserves. Indeed, one of the primary criteria the federal government uses for establishing whether an agency should invest in a new project is the stability of that agency’s service funding. Theoretically, if a transit provider cannot show that it will be able to commit to the funds to operate its vehicles, it will not receive construction funds.

But as has been demonstrated by the Washington example, those assurances can only go so far — especially when tax revenues decline substantially because of recessions. Thus the rationale behind advocating using federal funds to cover those operations costs, despite a recent history of the Department of Transportation only spending on capital initiatives. (I have argued that it may be more economically rational for the central government to invest primarily in operations and cities to spend on capital, the inverse of what occurs today.)

Yet as the FTA considers these future changes in what it agrees to fund, shifting more national dollars to transit operations, it must also establish standards that define what minimum standards need to look like. There is a significant difference between offering bus service to a neighborhood twice a day and providing subway trains every ten minutes at least. For an increasing share of the population to agree to use transit, they must be assured that buses and trains will arrive frequently, at least on primary lines. Washington’s initiative to cut service — a proposal that would significantly limit any perceived time advantages of taking Metro — runs against those forces.

Of course the reduction in Metro offerings is not the choice of local transit officials: It is a political compromise aimed to avoid criticism from residents over increases in fares and it is the result of a lack of political will to expand revenue from tax sources. Yet the loss in utility experienced by everyone in expanding waiting times for trains is dramatic; an increase in fares that protects — or even expands — service would probably be more beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, even its poorest, who need transit more than anyone else and who shouldn’t be left behind by inconvenient service standards. Ineffective, infrequent service turns off current and potential riders.

If the FTA ever moves forward with this idea, it must take steps to push transit agencies to commit to financing frequent service on all of their major lines in exchange for covering short-term revenue gaps.

As a side note, Washington Metro’s position is a structural one that is difficult to work around. The system was built to handle huge crowds at rush hours, but its weekend traffic is too low to justify too-frequent operations because of the length of trains (at least four cars) and the cost of paying drivers. How can transit agencies make an acceptable trade-off between building a system that offers great rush-hour capacity to a huge percentage of the workforce and guarantees convenient access to the people who need to use the network at off-peak times?

For rail systems, one solution is automation: By removing the need to have a driver, the cost of train operation can be reduced substantially — mostly to the price of providing traction power to trainsets. If Washington Metro’s services were provided as such, trains at off-peak hours could be reduced to two-car sets and provide double the frequency for a lower cost than currently provided by its person-driven four car trains. In the short term, converting existing systems to such standards may be unrealistic, but such an investment should be incorporated into agency long-term plans because they reduce operations costs and make more possible the maintenance of all-day, all-week frequent service.

Image above: Miami’s Tri-Rail commuter rail system, from Flickr user Bob B. Brown (cc)