Transit Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond: There’s More to It Than Metrorail

July 6th, 2015

In part one of this series, Metro Planners led a session at StreetsCamp  Saturday June 20, 2015 to talk with transit advocates about other possibilities beyond Metrorail to increase transit use, reach, and access.

I want Metro to...

Politicians and citizens always ask for more Metrorail, but why should transit continue to chase land use decisions? Metro Planners Allison Davis and Kristin Haldeman talked to transit advocates and urbanists at StreetsCamp last Saturday to provide approaches that can help the transit we have today reach more people and be more cost-effective without requiring more Metrorail (pdf). The major take-aways for advocates and urbanists were to advocate for:

(1)    Local decision makers to monetize full life‐cycle cost of land use options;

(2)    Access projects that create comfortable (i.e. desirable) paths for pedestrians and bicyclists; and

(3)    Local jurisdictions to add transit signal priority, queue jumps, and bus lanes

Why these three specifically?

Land use should chase transit – region-wide (slides 7-16)

National Harbor, Mark Center, and Potomac Mills Mall are just a few examples of developments were built without high-frequency, high-capacity transit. The resulting question from the public and legislators is when can we Metro extend to reach these locations? But I would counter that the bigger question should be why local jurisdictions are choosing to locate these developments well away from existing station areas. While we do have crowding on some parts of the Metrorail and Metrobus system, the majority of segments are underutilized – well below 80 passengers per car on average during the morning peak. Long-term growth forecasts are doubling down on the current growth patterns, leaving much of the system underutilized in the future as well. So why isn’t the region looking at growth more comprehensively – balancing jobs and population across the region to better utilize the transportation (highways and transit) system we have? Metro’s Planning Office recently completed a study that showed significant benefits to transit, the highway system, air quality, and jurisdictions’ bottom lines. If decision makers and the general public understood the full life-cycle cost of land use options, the region might be more inclined to marry land-use and transportation decisions.

Walk and bike access to stations is cost-effective (slides 17-26)

Often when we talk about station walkability we use that nice, pat little circle generated in GIS showing a ½ mile as the crow flies from the station and say that if we’re within that half mile we can walk to a station.  But, the truth is, not all areas within that buffer are always walkable – for a variety of reasons –some big and some not so big – and because of that, not all those living and working in those ½ mile circles can actually walk to or from the station to use it.  To better reflect a station’s walkability, Metro’s Planning Office has created more realistic walksheds based on the actual pedestrian network that better reflect a rider’s ability to get to a station on foot.  By then comparing the actual shed to the ‘crow-flies radius,’ we can calculate a coverage ratio for all 91 of our stations to help us identify those in need of the most help when it comes to pedestrian connectivity.  To help us bolster the case for making these infrastructure investments, we enlisted the help of some University of Maryland researchers who ran regresssions on our ridership data to see what variables help predict rail ridership.  One of the key findings – though one might say, well of course! – was that households with good connections to the station will walk to the station and use it.  In fact, on average (across the system), Metro sees about 7 peak period walk trips to/from stations for every 10 households connected to the station area walk network. Armed with that information, we can essentially calculate the financial benefit a new connection could bring to a station based on the number of new households added to the walk network, the number of walk trips expected from that station and the average fare from the station.  This model also works for an access to jobs calculation (see slide 25).  So, what do we need from our riders? Advocates for these pedestrian (and bicycle) infrastructure projects.   They may be small in the grand scheme of transportation projects – but they can pack a big punch – and are often overlooked or overshadowed when it comes to funding and support.

Focus on moving people not vehicles (slides 27-32)

You’ve heard it before – buses are slow because they sit in the same traffic as all the other slow moving cars and this is just getting worse. That not only is frustrating to riders, it is costly to transit agencies and ultimately, affects your tax dollars since we have to keep adding buses to existing routes to provide the same frequency. Some of our routes, like the S Line (16th Street), 16 Line (Columbia Pike), and the X Line (H Street), among others, are carrying 15,000-20,000 (or more!) passengers per day. The transit shed of Metrobus is three times (!) as large as Metrorail, so why not spend our resources to make the Metrobus investments run better and faster before expanding Metrorail? We’ve blogged about ongoing studies and other proposals here, here, and here. We even have BRT in Alexandria, soon to connect to Arlington. We have conducted studies on a few corridors that showed a 10-20% improvement in run times if bus lanes and signal priority were added. Off-board fare payment can reduce dwell time as shown in New York City and other locations. While saving a bus per corridor doesn’t seem like a lot, that’s a bus that can either be used to increase frequency on another line or operational savings that can be absorbed by the jurisdictions. If decision makers focused on moving people, not vehicles, the Washington DC region might have more instances of transit signal priority, queue jump lanes, and bus lanes.

What do you think? Are these the three major things to advocate for in the short- and medium-term or is there something you think we should be focused on?

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  1. slg
    July 9th, 2015 at 11:57 | #1

    As a Virginia resident, I will always advocate for improved and better-advertised cross-Potomac bus service. When a major Metrorail crisis hits, as seems to have been happening more frequently of late, people don’t know that there are a scant handful of bus options to get into or out of downtown, and those have very limited service. The slow and overcrowded 38B and the sporadic 16X, 16Y, and 7Y are not nearly enough to go on — would a Ballston-to-Bethesda or Tysons-to-Tenleytown express bus be feasible? If it could get a few hundred people out of their cars each day, it would help reduce congestion on all fronts.

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