Metro Rail Washington DC

Washington Celebrates Metro’s 35th Anniversary. Is it Defining the Region’s Growth?

» Census data point to uneven outcomes when it comes to orienting land use changes around transit.

For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it looked like U.S. cities were back in the subway-building business. The federal government approved billions of dollars in aid for the construction of new networks in San Francisco, Atlanta, and — most significantly — Washington. In the nation’s capital, a world-class system was constructed, radically redefining the city’s landscape and offering its residents a fundamentally new and modern way to get around.

This week, Metro celebrates the 35th anniversary of the opening of its first line, whose construction first began in late 1969. How effective has the system been in re-orienting development patterns?

In many ways, Metro has proven to be an essential element of the region’s mobility system. Ridership, depending on who is counting and how they are doing it, ranges between 700,000 and 900,000 trips a day — adding up to about 340 million trips a year, when you include bus services. That’s slightly lower than initial estimates from the 1970s, which predicted 350 million annual trips in 1990, but it still makes it the nation’s second most-used rapid transit system after New York’s. And Metro’s initial phase, about 100 miles in all, was completed twenty years late — after 2000, versus 1981 as first planned.

Thus Washington’s network is relatively new: Extensions continue to open every few years; a major new line running to and beyond Dulles Airport, in fact, is in construction.

This means that many of the changes that have been hypothesized to accompany heavy rail service, like densification, may not have yet appeared. Nonetheless, in some places, such as along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington County, Virginia, significant urban redevelopment has occurred. Similarly, in cities like Charlotte, Denver, and Minneapolis, major new construction has begun after the completion of light rail lines.

Just how widespread are these effects? Have similar changes happened everywhere where new Metro stations have opened in the Washington region?

To examine this question, I have delved into recently released Census 2010 data to consider what has changed since 2000. By considering the alterations in development patterns near stations that opened about ten years ago, we can better understand what has occurred.

On first evaluation, there is no clear connection between the opening of a new station and increased construction — at least on a ten-year timeline.

Between 1997 and 2001, nine Metro stations opened, two of which were in the heart of the city on the Green Line (Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue) and the rest of which were at the termini of the Red (Glenmont), Blue (Franconia-Springfield), and Green Lines (Congress Heights, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and Branch Avenue).

Compared to their host jurisdictions, only three of the nine stations saw higher growth in adjacent Census tracts: Columbia Heights, Franconia-Springfield, and Branch Avenue. In the areas around these stations, densification was significant, promoting the theory that transit can be an effective tool for urban regeneration and growth. These changes were particularly interesting at Columbia Heights, where an already pretty dense neighborhood only became more so thanks to rapid replacement of low-lying building stock with taller buildings. Around the other two stops, largely vacant land was replaced with new construction.

Around two other stations — Georgia Avenue and Glenmont — growth was also positive, but it was slower than in Washington and Montgomery County, respectively.

Finally, four of the studied stations saw a decrease in population in the surrounding Census tracts. Each station is on the southeastern branch of the Green Line, which runs through arguably the region’s weakest area from an economic perspective. The presence of transit did not appear to be of any help here: Though Washington and Prince George’s County saw population growth between 2000 and 2010, the specific neighborhoods around these stations did not.

Changes appear to be quite context-dependent. The population of the area around the Columbia Heights station expanded significantly, likely not only because of the presence of Metro, but also because of a growing interest in living in urban cores being experienced nationwide. On the other hand, the poor attractiveness of Prince George’s County, just east of the District of Columbia, likely reduced developer interest in building around stations there.

This analysis indicates that the presence of a transit station cannot provide alone for the kind of urban redevelopment planners often hope to produce when they allocate funds to new rail lines. This does not mean that the opening of the new Metro stations was not an important element of regional growth in Washington, but rather that that infrastructure in itself is not enough to encourage developer interest. In the case of many of these stations, land was not available, zoning was not free enough, and the neighborhoods were not attractive enough to see substantial change, at least over the past ten years.

Transit systems like the Washington Metro are very expensive to construct, so public authorities must make a greater effort to coordinate planning efforts to allow for the creation of more transit-oriented districts to take advantage of such investments.

I would like to note several important caveats: The use of Census tract data in this analysis was meant to provide a neighborhood-level glimpse into development changes. Residents (or potential residents) are likely to see Metro stations as assets, even if their homes are not in immediate proximity. Yet development changes are likely to be unusually affected by that proximity: It may be useful to reconsider these questions at the block level. It is possible, for instance, that the areas directly adjacent to the southeast Green Line stations did see growth, even when surrounding neighborhoods did not.

Opening DayPlace/ Station (# of Census tracts)Pop 2000Pop 2010Density 2010Change in PopChange in PopChange in Housing Units
2001 01 13Congress Heights (3)11,96411,2216,080.85-743.00-6.21%-5.35%
2001 01 13Southern Ave (3)12,82611,7306,624.12-1,096.00-8.55%-2.25%
2001 01 13Naylor Rd (6)22,77522,2625,114.41-513.00-2.25%0.31%
2001 01 13Suitland (4)17,27216,8333,788.74-439.00-2.54%-3.51%
2001 01 13Branch Ave (1)3,4254,6962,582.801,271.0037.11%83.13%
1999 09 18Georgia Ave/ Petworth (5)20,49021,35125,104.06861.004.20%6.70%
1999 09 18Columbia Heights (4)16,43417,64644,015.961,212.007.37%19.99%
1998 07 25Glenmont (6)26,86628,6784,606.171,812.006.74%1.52%
1997 06 29Franconia/ Springfield (3)11,44313,2933,772.781,850.0016.17%16.15%
Montgomery County873,374971,7771,978.1598,403.0011.27%12.33%
Prince George's County801,476863,4201,788.7661,944.007.73%8.54%
Fairfax County969,8401,081,7262,766.78111,886.0011.54%13.51%

Image above: A Washington Metro station, from Flickr user Matt Blasi Designs (cc)

Infrastructure Urbanism Washington DC

Expanding Downtown

» Debating growth limits in a downtown? Consider transportation.

Washington, D.C. is a lucky city: Its downtown has been filled up with new construction over the past few decades to such an extent that it has virtually no space for new office buildings. Some, like Matt Yglesias, have suggested that one way to resolve this problem would be to increase densities by ridding the city of its height limit, which in essence makes it impossible to build structures in the city that are over about 10 stories. Lydia Depillis, another local commenter, has argued that the municipality still has plenty of developable sites which, though they may not be directly downtown, still offer opportunities for more office space.

What would be the manifestations of these different approaches? How can we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of upzoning the center city for more office space? Is our goal to produce vital, walkable, and dense downtown districts, or simply to expand new construction there, no matter the use?

The missing ingredient in this discussion is transportation. When we discuss the demand in downtowns like Washington’s for more office space, we sometimes make an assumption that the transport network will be able to handle whatever is thrown at it. In fact, there is a direct relationship between a downtown’s growth and the transportation provided to it. In general, businesses want to locate their offices in places that are accessible and that provide the benefits of agglomeration, and this sometimes means downtown, but not always. If the trip to and from the center — by whatever mode — becomes too arduous, there are significant reasons to locate outside of it. How does this fact apply to a place like Washington?

Once a downtown — which I will define as a traditional single-use American CBD — reaches a certain size, once it provides employment for a certain number of people, it has three basic options:

  • One, it can do nothing to its transportation network, in which case the downtown has no capacity to absorb increasing growth. In these cases, residential uses become more important since the relative land values demanded for office space decrease (as it is harder for more people to enter into the downtown from elsewhere and there is more interest in walking to and from work). This is arguably what has happened to places like Chicago’s West and South Loop, where almost all recent development there has been in the form of residential towers despite the close proximity to the downtown core.
  • Two, it can expand or improve transportation through the highway network, in which case parking lots become increasingly valuable and may displace existing buildings. This was the choice cities like Houston took since 1950, sacrificing what had once been walkable neighborhoods for an automobile-dominated core.
  • Three, it can expand or improve transportation through the transit network (bus and/or rail), in which case higher densities become increasing valuable and taller buildings may replace shorter ones or parking lots. This has happened in Washington, D.C. since the construction of Metro beginning in the 1970s.

The discussion in Washington has hinged around the opposite side of the conversation, focusing on land use instead of transportation. The argument, asserted by people like Stephen Smith, suggests that the problem is that the government is exerting inappropriate control over densities by limiting heights and the result is that rents in the office core are increasing far higher than they would were there to be skyscrapers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that downtown Washington’s growth is limited, notes Ryan Avent, by the fact that outlying neighborhoods are stuck to one- or two-story buildings (and there is little push to challenge that condition), so the Paris approach, in which the entire city is made up of 6 to 10 story buildings, is not much of an alternative, either.

These arguments are compelling: mini-downtowns in the suburbs, such as along Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, can absorb some of the growth, but there is clearly strong demand for continued concentration in the center city.

Whether this is a long-term phenomenon, however, depends on the transportation provided into the downtown. Imagine that the height limits in Washington were lifted — or, at least, buildings twice as high could be built. In the short-term, this would surely produce the desired effects, allowing downtown to absorb more of the region’s job growth, reduce office rents, and aiding in the continued gentrification of the city as a whole.

In the longer-term, however, as the city’s downtown building stock is gradually replaced, the worker density in the center of the city would roughly double. Would this be sustainable?

If the city’s transportation network remains as it is, mostly relying on the existing Metro network and a functioning, if not great, bus system, this would cause significant problems. Here’s why: Much of the Metro system is already at capacity during peak hours. In essence, today’s transportation network is designed with a capacity roughly equivalent to what is generated under the current height limit.

Moreover, road expansion is simply not an option, not only because there is no room for new highways into downtown but also because, as already stated, a focus on roads-based transportation encourages downtowns to be transformed into automobile-based neighborhoods.

As the transit system becomes more congested, because of job expansion and a lack of transportation improvements, the cost of transportation into the core — in terms of time and money — will increase. This will reduce the appeal of locating offices downtown and encourage new construction to be residential rather than office-based. Is this desirable for Washington? Does the city want a mixed-use core or a office-based one?

The alternative is allowing an increase in zoning along with an improvement in the transportation network. This may seem obvious, but Washington has not yet committed the funds to an expansion of the Metro network or serious improvements to the bus corridors, putting in question the viability of a lifting of the height limits. The downtown’s growth must be approached by considering transportation and land use in complement with one another.

Image above: Downtown Washington, DC from Flickr user Ken Lund (cc)

Metro Rail Urbanism Washington DC

The Interdependence of Land Use and Transportation

» Northern Virginia’s growth patterns demonstrate the degree to which transit can play an essential role in spurring inner-city growth.

There is little need for data to demonstrate just how important the Washington Metrorail system has been for Arlington, Virginia’s growth over the past few decades. Visit anywhere along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor or in Crystal City — the two areas best served by Metro — and you’ll see dozens of new residential and office buildings lining the street.

But new information from Census 2010 provides empirical confirmation of the significance of land use planning around Metro stations in influencing the growth of Arlington and other places in Northern Virginia. Over the last ten years, Arlington County’s growth has been overwhelmingly concentrated along the Metro corridors, as has growth in Alexandria and some parts of Fairfax County. The densification of these areas is effectively extending the inner-city core of the Washington, D.C. region and substituting sprawling development in the exurbs with dense construction. This represents a change in trends compared to the period between 1990 and 2000.

As the map above shows, the areas of Northern Virginia that saw the greatest percentage growth between 2000 and 2010 were all clustered around Metro stations — in Arlington along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor (Orange Line) and in Crystal City (Yellow and Blue Lines); in Alexandria near Van Dorn Street Station (Blue Line) and Eisenhower Avenue (Yellow Line); and in Fairfax County near Vienna/Fairfax Station (Orange Line). As other areas of close-in Virginia have been fully developed, these station area zones have densified through the coordinated planning decisions of city officials, the availability of rail rapid transit, funds from developers, and a clear interest of a large portion of the population to inhabit the new buildings.

In the case of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the Census Blocks within closest proximity of the five Metro stations along the Orange Line absorbed more than 70% of Arlington County’s growth, increasing by 12,816 people compared to Arlington’s expansion by 18,174 people towards a total population of 207,627. These 1.47 square miles arrayed linearly — a small percentage of Arlington’s 26 square miles — now represent more than 17% of the county’s population, compared to about 12% in 2000.

What effect has this localized growth had on the face of the region in general? Let’s compare Arlington to an exurban locale that has been recently developed.

The Broadlands neighborhood, about 30 miles from Downtown Washington in Loudoun County, has been mostly built up over the past ten years, its population exploding from about 3,500 to 12,800 on a 3.22 square mile site (this includes some areas which were developed as part of another neighborhood). It is just to the northwest of the planned Route 772 station at the terminus of the now under construction Dulles Metrorail Extension (Silver Line), which will connect Arlington to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport.

As is made evident in the drawing above, the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor absorbed a new population equal to the total population now living in the Broadlands area (the scale of each community is the same). In essence, this means that the the population increase that was made possible through the densification of this area of Arlington via infill development was equivalent to the construction of a greenfield exurban development almost three times its total size. If the Corridor had seen no population increase at all over the past few years, the region would have needed to find housing for almost 13,000 more people. In all likelihood, that would have been in more places like the Broadlands.

Moreover, Arlington’s growth was done in a way that includes a diversity of building types and uses and integrated rapid transit, limiting the need for individuals there to rely on private automobiles. It was a result of projects like this that gave the Washington region the third-highest transit mode share in the nation, after New York and San Francisco; more than 40% of people in the Census Blocks around the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor use public transportation to get to work. Traffic along the corridor has not increased despite the large increase in population.

In the Broadlands, the dominant building type of single-family homes and a lack of retail and service options mean that most people will need to drive to get anywhere. Even when the new Metro station is completed, most people will not walk to it because of a lack of a friendly walking environment. And congestion along area roads will undoubtedly increase substantially.

For growing cities and metropolitan areas, this comparison illustrates a stark choice: Do we want to find ways to encourage people to live in walkable, transit-accessible inner cities, saving transportation costs and reducing land consumption? Or are we willing to continue the sprawling development of the region into the exurbs, encouraging car use and wasteful land consumption?

There is no formula that can describe the tools Arlington has successfully used to encourage dense development around Metro stations over the past ten years. The existence of Metro itself is not enough to guarantee greater growth in transit-oriented development. Indeed, consider the growth patterns in Northern Virginia between 1990 and 2000 (via The Washington Post):

During that period, as is demonstrated by making a comparison to the map at the top of this article, population increased systematically throughout the region, not just along Metro corridors (though they too saw growth). What was different between the 1990-2000 decade and the 2000-2010 one?

For one, these areas of Northern Virginia — Arlington County, Alexandria, Falls Church, and close-in parts of Fairfax County — were not fully developed in 1990: There were still plenty of building plots open along freeways. That situation largely disappeared over the past ten years, so the only way to build in the close-in suburbs of Washington is now to build up, such as in Arlington.

Perhaps just as important, the financial and political climate in favor of infill development around transit was not as strong during the 1990s as it was during the 2000s. This limited developer interest in investing in new construction around Metro stations. Meanwhile, public agencies did not do enough to increase allowed construction heights and encourage a mix of uses.

Fortunately, on both counts, feelings have changed over the past ten years: There is now a clear public interest in supporting the growth of denser areas and transit has grown in popularity where it has been provided effectively.

In some regions suffering from down economies, good transit and effective planning will not be enough to encourage development such as has occurred in Northern Virginia.

But in places like the Washington region where population growth continues, the data from Census 2010 present compelling evidence for the ability of cities to make decisions about how to grow and alter the regional equation. Arlington’s decision to allow for dense development around Metro stations, developer interest, and a clear demand for the product have provided a strong case for the importance of understanding and taking advantage of the connection between transportation and land use.

Automobile Bikes Paris Washington DC

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.

When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.

Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.

But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.

I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.

Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.

Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.

On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.

For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.

What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.

For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.

Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)

Bikes Montréal Paris Washington DC

Ensuring the Efficient Workings of a Bike-Sharing System

» Washington releases preliminary information about bike-sharing station locations. Are they positioned to succeed?

After the opening earlier this year of major bike-sharing systems in Denver and Minneapolis, Washington expects to relaunch its own program this fall. Working with Arlington County, Virginia, the U.S. capital will replace the only marginally successful 100-bike, 10-station SmartBike DC network installed in 2008 by Clear Channel with a 1,100-bike, 114-station system using Montréal’s Bixi technology, also under development in London, Boston, and Melbourne. Washington’s success, along with that of the several other American cities currently pushing these public cycling systems, will determine whether similar networks will spread to large and medium-sized cities across North America.

This recent focus on bike-sharing is a response to the strong public reception to systems in European cities like Paris and Barcelona, where thousands of people hop on the publicly owned vehicles everyday. In the French capital, where more than 20,000 bikes are available in the city and in the near suburbs, bicycle mode share has doubled since 2007.

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare will initially feature one hundred stations in the District of Columbia and fourteen in Arlington’s Crystal City, but future expansion — potentially funded by the federal government, depending on the outcome of the region’s application to the TIGER program — could result in an eventual quadrupling of the system’s size. Future bike stations could be positioned in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, in addition to Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and the City of Alexandria.

This week, though, Washington revealed preliminary station locations for the first stage of the system, a few weeks after Arlington pinpointed its own. Have the cities’ transportation planners thought through how people are likely to use these bikes? Or is the District limiting the chances for the system’s success by not fully considering the needs of potential bike riders?

To consider these questions, it’s worth comparing the proposed system with the existing and well-used systems in Montréal and Paris. One place to start is an evaluation of station densities. In a bike share system, a station is where people pick up and deposit bikes; it typically includes ten to twenty “docks,” each holding one bicycle. The system works by allowing customers to choose a bike at one station and deposit it somewhere else. The density is a reflection of how far a person has to walk to get to or between stations.

In the chart below, I’ve taken one mile-square samples of central city neighborhoods and peripheral neighborhoods and plotted station locations on them; the former are the densest station areas in each respective bike system (downtown D.C., downtown Montréal, central Paris) and the latter are those that are least well served by stations (Anacostia in D.C., southeast of Parc Maisonneuve in Montréal, and Montreuil east of Paris). I obviously haven’t included areas outside the reach of the bike share networks.

The charts demonstrate the fundamental difference between Washington’s proposed system and those in Montréal and Paris. In the center-cities, the French-speaking cities have roughly three times the densities of bike stations as the District proposes; in areas far from downtown, the difference is even more pronounced. Indeed, the minimum density of stations anywhere in the Paris or Montréal bike-sharing zones is higher than the maximum density promoted for Washington.

This could potentially cause significant problems for the users of the new U.S. capital system.

There are two main reasons for this: One, light station density makes short neighborhood commutes via public bicycle more difficult, reducing the chance to attract occasional riders; Two, insufficient density can cause logistical problems in situations where stations either run out of bicycles or, inversely, run out of dock spaces — not infrequent issues, at least considering my own experience using the Parisian system extensively.

Washington has clearly attempted to spread out its initial investment, giving at least a few stations to every part of the city. This, however, would result in a limited concentration of bikes in the relatively large areas east of the Anacostia River (just 11 stations) and west of Rock Creek Park (9 stations). Each of these sections has a lower population density than the rest of the city.

This contrasts significantly with the approach in Paris and Montréal, where the bike-sharing zone ends abruptly; there isn’t much of a station density fall-off below the 15 stations per square mile mark. Even in areas with low densities, such as in the examples shown on the chart above, stations are clustered along corridors, ensuring that virtually every station is within 200 meters (656 feet) of the next. This allows people to walk easily between stations if they encounter some problem.

Closeness of stations is essential to making bike-sharing work. Washington has designed its system as if people can pre-plan specific commutes from one station to another, but that’s not always a realistic option. For one, unless stations are very well marked from the surrounding streets, it is not always easy for bike riders to find even a predetermined destination station unless they’re very familiar with the neighborhood. This could complicate matters, since in modern bike-sharing, customers face increasing financial penalties the longer they delay returning their vehicles. The more stations, the easier it is to find one; it’s okay to end up parking somewhere different than originally planned as long as the station is relatively close to where you want to go.

Meanwhile, the lack of adjacency between stations could become extremely difficult when stations are either empty or full. For commuters hoping to ride a bike in a neighborhood with few stations, an empty station means they must either choose a different way of getting around or walk a long distance to the next station. On the other hand, a full station at the end of a trip could mean having to park at an area that is completely out of the way.

Though there are municipal employees using trucks to move bikes from full stations to empty ones, they frequently cannot keep up with the movement of traffic during the day, leaving people in the lurch when there aren’t nearby stations to choose from. These are technical problems that will limit the appeal of using bike share for a large percentage of people in the under-served areas — which is specifically why Montréal and Paris have chosen not to have any neighborhoods with just a few stations.

The foreign example suggests that you either have to put a lot of stations in a community, or not serve it at all. It’s the low station density middle ground that causes problems.

All that said, there are several reasons to remain optimistic about the implementation of bike-sharing in Washington. For one, even if station density isn’t as high as it ought to be, people are still likely to use the bikes at a rate that expands their overall mode share in the city. Second, there is a significant chance that the municipality will be able to find sufficient funds to expand the project to increase station density in areas that are initially under-served; in terms of transportation capital investments, bike share is pretty much as cheap as you can get. But there’s always the problematic possibility that expansion could mean only extending the system further out with low station densities, not increasing densities within the already served areas.

Yet Washington will have an example of what denser station areas look like right on its home turf. Arlington County’s fourteen stations are all within the tight confines of the adjacent Crystal City and Pentagon City districts; each station is within just two or three blocks of the next. This will provide a working example for how the bikes can serve as efficient neighborhood transportation devices, getting people between relatively close destinations more quickly than is possible with walking.

Related: If you understand French, here’s a funny satire video that proposes a new way of thinking about bike share as a political tool in the Paris mayoral race. Image at top: Montréal Bixi bike share stands, from Flickr user newton64 (cc)