More train doors and wider doors will help WMATA capacity

It’s always fun to stumble across official analysis that mirrors your own – even if some of the conclusions differ.

With a hat tip to Kurt Raschke, I came across this document outlining WMATA’s challenges in providing capacity in the core of the system. Most of the white paper focuses on potential increases in rail capacity from changing WMATA’s signalling system from the current fixed-block system to a CBTC-based moving block system (they do not find a large practical boost in capacity from such a change).

The document is part of making the long-term case for additional rail tunnels through downtown. In order to justify that expense, they are addressing some of the preliminary alternatives to squeeze more capacity out of the existing system (organization before electronics before concrete). From the executive summary:

As train and station congestion worsens, a question logically posed by stakeholders and the public is” “Why can’t Metrorail add more trains to relieve the crowding?” The fundamental purpose of this White Paper is to present the root causes of Metrorail capacity constraints that limit service expansion in the core.

One thing that jumped out at me was the suggestion of procuring new rail cars with more doors and wider doors – a suggestion I’ve made before.  More doors can better handle boarding and alighting, reducing station dwell times, and thereby improving both capacity and reliability. The benefits are substantial (emphasis added):

[T]he benefits in terms of reduced dwell times for a 60 second dwell time would likely be in the range of 8-12 seconds (a 20-30% reduction in that portion of the dwell associated with passenger alighting/boarding with no effect on the base door cycle time dwell component of about 20 seconds). Assuming all cars of all trains have four doors per side, this is equivalent to a throughput gain of about 2 trains per hour.

The white paper also includes this table (which bears a striking resemblance to one I put together several years ago):

WMATA Capacity Analysis, comparison of ingress/egress for rail cars in peer systems.

WMATA Capacity Analysis, comparison of ingress/egress for rail cars in peer systems.

Despite the obvious benefits of this change, the white paper downplays the potential for increasing the system’s overall capacity. Addressing them one by one:

As shown in Table 9, relative to car length, the boarding and alighting capacity of Metrorail vehicles closely matches the capabilities of peer systems’’ vehicles. WMATA’s rolling stock matches the median of those sampled for both the number of doors per unit car length, and the total door width per unit car length, though both of these values are slightly below the mean. While procuring or modifying vehicles to increase the number and size of doors may conceivably increase the rate at which passengers could board and alight, it would be an unconventional method for increasing total passenger carrying capacity.

I wouldn’t agree with the statement that all of these railcars closely match. In the rightmost column (inches of door width per foot of car length), you’ll see that the busiest of WMATA’s peers have a door capacity 50% greater than WMATA, or more.  The difference between WMATA’s 2 in/foot and Toronto’s 3.2 in/foot is huge.

Second, the major benefit to adding more doors isn’t an increase in absolute capacity, but to improve reliability and the passenger experience. More doors means a smoother flow of passengers on and off trains. Faster station dwells, particularly at crowded transfer points, reduces the likelihood of passengers holding doors or missing a train because of a lack of time to board.

Next: the time required to make this change.

Although this rolling stock change could be implemented incrementally as each Metrorail fleet type is retired, full implementation would require over 40 years due to the life cycles of the multiple Metrorail fleets.

All the more reason to get started with a four-door design for the next rail car series! And another reason to consider the design of the 7000 series a missed opportunity.

What about lost seating?

Second, implementing a new railcar design with four doors per side would result in a net seat reduction of approximately 28 percent, requiring more customers to stand.

I’m not sure where this calculation comes from; a cab car (A-car) from WMATA’s 7000 series seats 64 with the current arrangement and 58 with a longitudinal-only seating array. Toronto’s Rocket cab cars feature a similar rail car size (75 feet long) and feature four wide doors per side; they still manage to provide 53 seats, representing a 17% decrease over the 7000 series seated capacity.

WMATA’s own actions show that seated capacity isn’t a primary consideration. WMATA has been slowly reducing the number of seats per rail car series and increasing standing room with each new version; the original 1000 series had seating for 82; the 2000 series sat 76 per car; the 5000 series seats 68, and the 6000 series seats 64.

Given the stated goal of this white paper to determine potential for long-term solutions to WMATA’s core capacity challenges, I hope they don’t discard the idea of adding more doors to the future railcar fleet. Combined with some other suggestions, there’s a great opportunity to improve both the system’s capacity and reliability.

681,170 – DC population growth continues, with more to come

The things you find when googling for 681,172 - like hex color values.

The things you find when googling for 681,172 – like hex color values.

One perk of living in the only true city-state in the US is getting new census data released as part of the state-level population estimates. Those estimates for 2016 show DC’s population continuing to grow, with the official estimate now standing at 681,170 residents – the highest mark in about 40 years.

Most of that growth came from migration, with most of the migrants arriving from other countries. The natural increase (net of births over deaths) accounted for 40% of the overall growth.

I’m a bit late in posting this news or any news (hence the New Year’s Eve post, getting one more in under the gun), in part because my wife and I have some personal news: we are getting ready to add to that ‘natural increase’ number for DC’s population in February, 2017. Look out, US Census Bureau. More babies coming to DC in the new year.

Here’s to 2017 – with less sleep for me.

DC after Trump

There’s no denying the mood swing in the District of Columbia following the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. It’s been a somber week on the streets.

It certainly goes beyond the simple fact that Trump won just 4.1% of the city’s vote, or the fact that he represents the Republican party. His specific campaign of white grievance politics, xenophobia, and know-nothingness cut against the District’s civic values.

This is bad.  But that’s no reason to overreact.

The idea that this will send the city’s economy tumbling is without evidence. Previous changes in administration haven’t impacted housing prices one way or another. Despite the role as a capital city, the reality is that so much of what happens in this city extends well beyond the reach of the federal government. President Trump might be the best opportunity those seeking to ‘re-brand’ the DC region never wanted.

For ‘culture,’ starting from the premise that DC’s culture is solely defined by the handful of people working in the West Wing is never a good start for an article about city life in Washington. Likewise, asserting that the city was a rotting shell until the Obama family arrived is laughable.

Despite what anyone says, there’s absolutely no clear indication of what a Trump administration would mean for infrastructure or urban policy. The dog caught the car; nobody knows what will happen next. We’ll have lots of battles about the federal role in shaping our cities, but those battles will take place in a different, national context.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity here. There’s room for the District to step up and take the lead. If city leaders want to soothe concerns about the impact on the city’s economy or culture, then there’s no better time than now to take the reigns.

There goes the neighborhood


There Goes the Neighborhood is a podcast series from The Nation and WNYC.

It provides a look into the public perception of rezoning East New York. The reporters and producers get the emotional response on tape in a way you can only accomplish on radio, complete with all of the vocal inflections and intonation, putting a human sound on a complex set of issues.

However, a few criticisms:

For a podcast series about gentrification, the hosts don’t ever actually define what it is. This isn’t a knock against the producers, as gentrification doesn’t have a universally agreed upon definition to point to. By keeping things nebulous, the producers are able to capture the responses and reactions from New Yorkers without putting their thumb on the scale. They range from concerns about housing costs to new restaurants that don’t feel like they’re ‘for us.’ Cultural changes, economic changes, social changes – it’s all there.

However, much of the show focuses on the city’s response to this trend – NYC’s push for inclusionary zoning. Without defining the nature of the problem (gentrification), it’s very difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the city’s response. Programs like IZ are focused on providing a specific kind of ‘proper noun’ Affordable Housing; newly constructed housing units offered at below market rates. The particular mechanism of IZ builds these units in exchange for additional development. IZ is predicated on a change to the physical environment of the city.

While the podcast talks a lot about race, class, and the challenges of a changing city, it never quite rounds the corner and asks the next question – if change is inevitable, what kind of policy response is appropriate (and is New York’s response adequate)? How should communities look to manage change?

It’s clear that the reporters are interested in telling the human story of people facing eviction, watching their neighborhoods change before their eyes. But in discussing a major change to the city’s zoning policy, the podcast series has very few interviews with the public officials involved in crafting that policy (I only recall one quote from Vicki Been referenced in the final wrap-up episode).

Perhaps my background as a planner tunes my ear to things like this, but there are other small mistakes regarding the policies that shape a city’s housing stock. Zoning is the big one. In episode 4, they discuss New York’s 1916 zoning code, noting the results proved so popular, and property values increased – “and developers have been manipulating the zoning process ever since.”

I might argue with the greedy developers vs. civic minded interests framing; but the broad intent of zoning to preserve and increase property value isn’t wrong. However, they then add this: “DeBlasio’s innovation is to use zoning not just to facilitate growth, but to control it. That’s new.”

No, it is not. That is the very idea of zoning.

There are numerous references to a housing shortage and a housing crisis, but the entire series elides the overall demands for growth. They clearly document the change in the kind of people moving into the neighborhood, but don’t ever address the broader question of how to increase the housing supply in the face of growing demand. How should the city grow? If not here, then where? If the city doesn’t engage in shaping this physical growth, that won’t prevent the social fabric of the neighborhood from changing.

Despite these frustrations, these are important conversations to have. Taking action to fight gentrification will require building a political coalition; one that’s bigger than just the market urbanists or the anti-displacement activists:

There’s potential to form a political coalition around these issues; this podcast series is a great look into the kinds of issues such a coalition would need to address.

TOD at IAD: a concept for developing Saarinen Circle at Dulles International Airport

As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority continues work on Phase 2 of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport and beyond, it’s worth considering some of the transit oriented development opportunities at the airport beyond just the obvious connection for passengers at the terminal.

Airports around the world take advantage of their connectivity in developing an airport city: office space, warehouses, hotels all diversify an airport’s business income. It’s a virtuous cycle:

  • real estate connected to the airport has value;
  • rents from those spaces diversifies airport revenues and drives down their operating costs;
  • lower costs encourage more airline service which increase connectivity around the world;
  • increased connectivity adds value to the airport location.

Amsterdam Schiphol is one of the best examples, with nearly 6 million sf of commercial space on the airport grounds alone. They don’t just brand themselves as an airport city, but as the ‘Schiphol CBD,’ complete with new public spaces.

Munich Airport Center. Image from Wikipedia.

Munich Airport Center. Image from Wikipedia.

While that may be an ultimate goal, perhaps something closer to the Munich Airport Center (MAC) is a better match – particularly for any development in the Dulles parking bowl within Saarinen Circle. MAC is a pedestrian oriented retail and commercial complex connecting the airport’s two terminals and S-Bahn station, flanked by airport parking, buses, and a hotel. All of the key airport destinations feed pedestrians into the space: parking, taxi, drop-off, etc, increasing foot traffic to the retail spaces.

Schematic map of Munich Airport Center; note retail (red) and restaurants (yellow), Terminal 1 (top), Terminal 2 and the Forum (bottom), S-Bahn station (below), buses (left side) and taxis (right side).

Schematic map of Munich Airport Center; note retail (red) and restaurants (yellow), Terminal 1 (top), Terminal 2 and the Forum (bottom), S-Bahn station (below), buses (left side) and taxis (right side).

The most iconic element is the MAC Forum, a large covered outdoor plaza surrounded by shops and offices. The airport operator extensively programs the Forum with a variety of sponsored events to draw in non-airport patrons (for whom parking fees are waived) in addition to workers and travelers.

Entrance to the S-Bahn at the MAC Forum; CC image from Jeromyu on Flickr.

Entrance to the S-Bahn at the MAC Forum; CC image from Jeromyu on Flickr.

Munich Airport Forum; showing roof over the open air public space. Creative Commons image from Nir on Flickr.

Munich Airport Forum; showing roof over the open air public space. Creative Commons image from Nir on Flickr.

The key elements of the Munich Airport Center include retail, restaurants, public space, and public transit. For adjacent development, the airport offers flexible office and conference space for rent (and is working on additional office development – they do not yet have planning permission for office space on the magnitude of Schiphol) as well as a connected hotel.

MWAA is actively looking to diversify their revenues at Dulles. For development, MWAA is shopping the Western Lands on the far side of the airport, searching for interest in a second on-airport hotel, as well as other various sites on airport property that might generate some kind of revenue for the Authority. Among other development opportunities, they list ‘Saarinen Circle’ as something to watch.

Saarinen Circle surrounds the surface parking lot directly in front of the Eero Saarinen terminal building. The Metro station (under construction) and parking garage are currently connected to the main terminal via a tunnel beneath the parking lot.

The Saarinen Circle site has several advantages. Space is plentiful (there was plenty of complaining about the decision to move the Metro station to the opposite side of the parking lot from the terminal), but the distances aren’t overwhelming: The distance between the garage and the terminal is similar to the distance between Terminals 1 and 2 at Munich. Development in the circle has the potential to make that walk a pleasant stroll among shops and public space, rather than through the drab-but-functional existing tunnel.

Because of the iconic Saarinen Terminal and the views of it for drivers approaching via Saarinen Circle, any development within the parking bowl couldn’t be very tall. Several historic preservationists objected to the Metro aerial guideway’s potential to block views. While this may foreclose on a large structure such as the one covering Munich’s Forum (after all, the canopy over the forum is the signature architecture for Munich’s airport – Dulles already has an icon), it shouldn’t stop all development. Using the existing tunnel level as the ‘ground’ floor would offer some room for development above. MAC is similarly surrounded by roadways and airport infrastructure at different levels.

Munich Airport Center makes good use of changes in grade to connect pedestrians between the terminals at multiple levels. Relocating existing taxi, bus, and valet parking to flank a new multi-level development between the terminal building and the parking garage/Metro station. The development not only has the chance to aid the finances of IAD by generating non-aviation revenue, but also in attracting more use to the Metro station via old-fashioned transit oriented development.

There’s plenty of developable land at Dulles, but only Saarinen Circle has the key location between the Metro station and the terminal. Airports around the world provide models for better uses of the space than surface parking.

Short, clear station names vital to transit system wayfinding

WMATA map with long station names: "they're not station names, they're committee meeting minutes."

WMATA map with long station names: “they’re not station names, they’re committee meeting minutes.”

The folks at London Reconnections have a new podcast – On Our Line. The second episode features a long conversation with two experts on transit map design and understanding, Max Roberts and Peter Lloyd.

The discussion hits on several topics about the challenges in transit map design, particularly for complicated networks. They also discuss objective measures of success in design (e.g. timing users in finding their way from point A to b on a map) and the conflicts with graphic design ideas. Another challenge is the future of the paper map and the seemingly inevitable move towards electronic map displays of some kind.

A few anecdotes stood out to me:

Touch Screen Maps: These might seem to be an obvious technological solution to mapping challenges with complex networks, frequent service changes, language barriers, etc. New York installed some touch screen maps as a part of a pilot program in 2014; despite rave reviews, no one seemed to use them. The podcast conversation (at 37:50) hits on the problems: the ad-supported model means the kiosks look like ads. Perhaps more interesting is the embarrassment of a rider using the kiosk, requiring a level of interaction that physically signals to everyone else on the platform that ‘I don’t know where I’m going.’ A static, printed map allows for consumption of information in a less obvious manner.

Station Names: Asked for examples of the worst transit maps they could think of, WMATA’s marathon-length station names are an obvious choice (at 1:07:20). Short station names are important to efficient, clear, and effective wayfinding. Roberts on WMATA’s map: “some of the stations – they’re not station names, they’re committee meeting minutes.”

File that one under “it’s funny because it’s true.”

Using the map to influence routing: Roberts obliquely mentions working with WMATA (48 minutes in) on changing the map to encourage different routing, presumably a reference to adjusting the map in order to encourage Blue Line riders from Virginia to transfer and use the Yellow Line (with excess capacity) to travel into DC.

It’s one thing for the map (or trip planner) to influence your route; it’s another for that decision to be made by an algorithm completely removed from human interaction. With driverless cars, it’s still unclear how humans will react to navigating networks in that way – adjusting human behavior is challenging enough.

Making multi-level cities work: revisiting the skyway, using it in edge city redevelopment

Elevated pedestrian walkway linking Tysons Corner Center with the Metro. Future development will add more elevated pedestrian-only connections to the Metro. Photo by Alex Block.

Elevated pedestrian walkway linking Tysons Corner Center with the Metro, bypassing heavily used auto thoroughfares. Future development (replacing the parking garage visible to the left) will add more elevated pedestrian-only connections to the Metro. Photo by Alex Block.

Is there a future for the skyway in American cities? Unlike retrofitting a new layer onto a well-established street grid and development pattern (as in Minneapolis), there’s an opportunity to use an extra pedestrian layer as a tool to help re-make suburban edge cities into places navigable by pedestrians.

In May, Jennifer Yoos and Vincent James published a brief history of grade separation for pedestrians in Places Journal – in other words, a history of the skyway.

There’s a common thread of unrealized grand visions. Victor Gruen’s plan for Downtown Forth Worth (1956) called for pedestrianizing the downtown, providing automobile access from a ring of parking garages accessed via skyways. The virtue of the plan was flexibility – the elements allowed for incremental implementation of the concept. Yoos and James write:

Gruen’s urban design proposals introduced something that could be described in contemporary terms as a form of tactical urbanism: a vocabulary of adaptable components, such as pedestrian bridges, plazas, and arcades, that could be deployed selectively. Construction could thus proceed incrementally, radically changing a city over time. Gruen’s plan for Fort Worth proposed to reorder the city around a central pedestrian plaza with shop­ping. Vehicles were relegated to the periphery, and elevated pedestrian bridges connected parking ramps to the walking zone at the urban core. Although it was framed within a compelling narrative that referred to everyday life in historic European cities, Gruen’s alternative was distinctly modernist.

The potential pitfalls of that approach were evident to Jane Jacobs from the start, with her prescient observation about the impact of a partial implementation:

While she broadly endorsed Gruen’s social programming, she warned that clients and others who enacted his plans would overlook that critical point, focusing instead on his strategies for traffic management. And as she predicted, Gruen’s model for incremental development proved tenuous as his proposals — or something like them — were built in cities across the country. Local governments implemented only those components that were desirable at a given time to particular political constituencies, with little regard for the whole. The concept of a vehicle-free center was often abandoned as the cities evolved. The socially-oriented urbanism that was so crucial to Gruen’s vision demanded a more integrated and comprehensive approach.

Indeed, this was my personal experience with skyway networks growing up in Minneapolis. The skyways provide climate controlled, grade separated pedestrian circulation. The provision of skyways allowed the city to use street space for vehicle movement, relegating pedestrians to inhospitable sidewalks or to second-level skyways that require navigation through a warren of privately owned and controlled spaces.

Conventional wisdom in Minneapolis holds that despite the drawbacks of the skyway system, it was a necessary move for downtowns like Minneapolis to make in order to compete against ascendant suburban shopping malls – such as Victor Gruen’s own Southdale Center. The flaw in the approach is for a naturally walkable and compact downtown to try and beat an auto-oriented shopping mall at its own game – it requires an assumption that the streets must prioritize car movement to compete with freeways.

Not that Victor Gruen would declare victory over downtown. His vision for Southdale was for a new kind of mixed use town center to surround the shopping mall – uses that never came. Another vision only partially implemented.

Yoos and James close with observations from Hong Kong, where the logic of separating pedestrians and cars ‘works’ best; combined with the required density to achieve critical mass (something often lacking in Minneapolis), challenging terrain requiring vertical pedestrian movement in any context, and a great deal of redevelopment activity to re-shape the city as a multi-layered place:

Elevated walkway systems now span the majority of the Sheung Wan, Central, Admiralty, and Wan Chai districts. The pedestrian network features a range of connector prototypes, including deck-access plazas and podiums, flyover bridges, open-air footbridges, and high-bridge networks (exterior pedestrian bridges over streets), interiorized walkways, elevated parks, and exterior escalators that scale the steep hillsides.

Yoos and James note that one factor to Hong Kong’s success with the strategy is total commitment: “Hong Kong’s lack of a significant historic conservation agenda” and the government ownership of all land results in a more complete implementation of the concept.

In the United States, a comparison to Hong Kong has limited applicability. However, I don’t think that means the future for multi-layered cities is dead. Path dependence means places like Minneapolis won’t be tearing out their skyways anytime soon, but the future for the concept is probably in urbanizing edge cities like Tysons Corner.

The plans for Tysons involve a massive redevelopment of an auto-oriented edge city into a transit-oriented and walkable one. Both increased density and successful transit require good pedestrian access. Tysons already has islands of walkable places inside the malls and the plan calls for incrementally creating a new grid of streets as redevelopment proceeds.

tysonsstreetsexisting  tysonsstreetsfuture

Connecting those places to the transit system requires either taming massive suburban quasi-highways, or moving pedestrians over/under them in another way.

Pedestrian plaza linking Tysons Corner Center to Metro. Note the access roadways for apartments, offices, and hotel below the pedestrian level. Photo by the Alex Block.

Pedestrian plaza linking Tysons Corner Center to Metro. Note the access roadways for apartments, offices, and hotel below the pedestrian level. Photo by the Alex Block.

Pedestrian Plaza at Tysons Corner Center, programmed for Christmas activities. Photo by Alex Block.

Pedestrian Plaza at Tysons Corner Center, programmed for Christmas activities. Photo by Alex Block.

The first phase of redevelopment at Tysons Corner Center is adding a pedestrian layer above the traffic, directly linking the Mall’s second level to the mezzanine of the rail station. A new hotel faces onto the pedestrian plaza, with loading and valet parking located one level below. The natural topography allows for a person to walk from the Metro station to the plaza (via a pedestrian bridge) to the mall on a single level, with auto movement below.

For the Mall, the additional development adds new uses (office, residential, hotel), stepping towards fulfillment of Gruen’s vision of a mixed use town center. Restaurants and bars dominate the new retail offerings, fronting onto the plaza as an attempt to create a sense of place as well as a functional pedestrian connection.

The sturm und drang over putting the Metro underground in Tysons missed the challenge of mixing pedestrians with suburban arterial roads. The elevated rail structure isn’t the obstacle to creating a walkable place – the cars are. And skyways might help provide a working alternative.

The good and bad of Denver’s new airport transit line

Denver RTD A-Line map.

Denver RTD A-Line map.

Next time you fly into Denver, you’ll be able to hop on a train from the airport to downtown. There’s a lot to celebrate about this new transit line, and much to criticize. There’s plenty of effusive praise for Denver’s transit ambitions without much critical pushback in the popular press.

A few thoughts on the good and bad of the line and RTD’s rapidly expanding system, starting with the not-so-good.

  • This line is part of Denver’s large FasTracks system expansion. While ambitious in scope, many of the routing decisions are odd network choices. There’s a lot of reverse branching, use of freeway rights of way, and other opportunistic decisions to ease construction, but which may be regretted later.
  • FasTracks centers on Denver Union Station. DUS is a remarkable urban redevelopment project, but a huge missed opportunity in terms of transit operational design.
    • Union Station is now a stub-end terminal for regional rail trains, limiting the station’s capacity and preventing future intercity or regional rail use of the station.
    • Light rail trains stop 1,000 feet away from the regional trail platforms. The distance is creatively connected with an underground bus concourse, but the transfer environment is less than ideal – particularly given the almost-blank slate to work with.
    • Real estate development projects advanced before any understanding of the transit right of way needs, and have now forever closed those avenues for expansion. The real estate framework for expanding Denver’s downtown matured before the framework for transit expansion.
  • Rail service to Denver’s airport is important, but commentators often place too much emphasis on serving airports instead of overall improvements to the transit network. This is less true for Denver, given the systematic transit expansion as a part of FasTracks (and the network benefits therein).


Critiques aside, there’s a lot to praise with the airport line.

  • Frequent, all-day, electrified main-line rail service – much of it built in a greenfield right of way.
    • For all of the benefits of main-line rail as a means to offer rapid transit service, it’s great to see a project execute on those benefits
    • Electrification offers great promise for frequent transit – taking advantage of performance benefits from using electric multiple unit trains with quick acceleration, instead of diesel-powered peak-only ‘commuter’ trains.
    • Development of new regional rail transit lines along greenfield right-of-way opens up all kinds of planning possibilities for other regions.
  • The project demonstrates the benefits of risk-sharing public-private partnership deals. With the contractor responsible for long-term operating costs, their design efforts focused on the most efficient way to meet the parameters of the contract (all-day, frequent rapid transit service). For those reasons, the team embraced the electric commuter rail concept, opting for:
    • Mainline rail vehicles to better handle interactions with adjacent freight rail corridors and meet regulatory requirements
    • International standard electrification (25kV AC) to reduce the costs of substations while still providing the necessary performance
    • off-the-shelf procurement of a proven design (Silverliner V vehicles) to avoid development costs.


Aerostates, Geopolitics and the interpretation of regulations

Last Sunday’s Washington Post featured an article covering the ongoing saga between the Big Three US-based network airlines (American, Delta, and United) and the Middle East Three (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) airlines over the rules for air travel and the role for government in regulating it, as well as funding it. The intersection of air travel, the shape of the global economy, and the challenge of defining the role of governments in a globalized economy.

Mark Gerchick summarizes the stakes:

This fight is not just about legacy companies trying to hold market share against entrepreneurial upstarts — a dynamic in aviation since the likes of People Express fought to wrest a slice of transatlantic travel from British Airways three decades ago. Today’s Persian Gulf challenge is more fundamental, a new business model that relies on three tectonic shifts in global aviation: a gulf-ward lurch in the world economy’s center of gravity; a dramatic loosening of trade restrictions on where, when and how the world’s airlines can fly; and the emergence of the “aerostate,” where world-class aviation is a critical economic engine deeply integrated with the state itself.

Global Governance and Aerostates:

Connectivity to the rest of the global economy is incredibly valuable; longer-range aircraft offer global reach.

While the shift of the global economic center of gravity is notable, the most interesting developments in this row concern geopolitics and global governance. Since last writing about this a year ago, there hasn’t been much regulatory action. The stakes are largely the same as laid out a year ago.

However, a few things have changed. While the US DOT hasn’t taken any action, both Delta and United cancelled their Dubai services. The service pattern is now entirely asymmetric – the ME3 serve thirteen destinations in the US, while American carriers serve none in Qatar or the UAE.

Dubai emerged as the archtype of the aerostate – where the lines between the airline business and government policy have blurred, even disappeared.

Ironically, the stated reason for United dropping their service between Washington Dulles and Dubai was the loss of the contract to carry US government employees and contractors, as required by the Fly America act. The winning bidder for the US government contract? Emirates, thanks to a JetBlue codeshare ensuring Fly America compliance.

Impacts of Regulatory Interpretation:

This case is an interesting example of the wide latitude for interpretation of broadly similar legislation. The intent of Fly America (and other rules like Buy America) is to keep US government spending with US-based businesses.

That winning contract will save those government employees a lot of money. The GSA’s interpretation of the Fly America rules is good for the government as a consumer – but at the cost of taking business away from a US-based airline in favor of a foreign one with an almost entirely domestic codeshare partner. In FY15, United Airlines’ contract with the GSA for IAD-DXB cost $979 per coach seat, and $7,114 per business class seat. Emirates/JetBlue won the FY16 contract with prices of $699 and $6,600, respectively. That’s a 28% savings for the government on the coach ticket.

Similar rules such as Buy America for transit projects include interpretation focused on ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent with US businesses. Unlike the Dulles-Dubai contract, where an American company offered the same product, many key transit projects rely on rolling stock that isn’t manufactured in the United States. Compliance therefore requires ‘final assembly’ at US factories, despite the bulk of the manufacturing taking place overseas.

This additional expense certainly creates some additional business, but does so at great expense – both by increasing the cost of rolling stock, but also by reducing the number of firms able to successfully win the contract and comply with the rules. It also makes the purchase of ‘off-the-shelf’ trainsets from foreign manufacturers effectively impossible. It also makes each railcar purchase a one-off design, complete with all of the associated development costs to de-bug and test a new design.

It’s worth considering how such similar laws can result in such divergent outcomes.

BRAC, but for WMATA station names

What’s in a name? Recently, a WMATA Board committee voted to add destinations to the Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian stations. The two will soon be “Foggy Bottom-GWU-Kennedy Center” and “Smithsonian-National Mall” stations, respectively. Matt Johnson at Greater Greater Washington has a good read on why these name additions are a bad idea and will add to rider confusion. But leaving aside the merits of WMATA’s station name policy, the inability to follow that policy is a case-study in importance of decision-making architecture.

The changes contradict WMATA policy, last considered in 2011 when there was universal agreement about problem: station names were often too long, multiple names for a single station was confusing, and the required changes in signage (updating every single map in the system) were substantial and usually understated. Yet, the Board can’t resist adding destinations to station names.

There will always be a constituency for adding a destination to a station. It speaks to the great power of a transit station to define a neighborhood. These name change requests are coming up now, in advance of the opening of Phase 2 of the Silver Line (which will require re-printing every map in the system, changing lots of signage, etc). So long as the ultimate decision about station names sits with the WMATA Board, individual Board members will always be subject to lobbying from name-based interests.

WMATA’s official policy acknowledges the problems with station name sprawl – there’s agreement about the issue, but an inability to follow through. The name policy reinforces two basic ideas, that station names should be distinct, unique, and brief:

  • Distinctive names that evoke imagery; using geographical features or centers of activity where possible
  • 19 characters maximum; preference for no more than two words.

The very idea of adding to a station name (so that station now has two names) violates both principles – the name is no longer singular, and it’s longer than necessary.

This suggests a problem in the structure of the decision-making. Changing the decision-making process could better align the outcomes with policy. The simplest solution is to simply remove the Board from the equation and let staff make all decisions. However, if that isn’t acceptable, there is another model to consider – one similar to the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

BRAC is a solution to a similar type of problem. Towards the end of the Cold War, there was universal agreement about the need to downsize the military and close and/or realign redundant, outdated, or unnecessary facilities. However, because of the importance of each facility locally, members of Congress would lobby hard on the DoD to keep those bases open. Any action to close bases through Congress would be subject to all sorts of legislative logrolling. The interests of individual members proved unable to meet the overall goal.

The procedural solution of the BRAC Commission was simple: form a commission to develop a list of bases to be closed, based on objective criteria all parties agree on in advance. That list of recommended closures must then be either approved or disapproved by Congress with no alterations or substitutions. Congress was willing to delegate this authority to a commission as a means of solving their own collective action problem.

One political science review of the process notes three key elements that make this delegation of power successful: agreement about the goals, agreement about the steps required to meet the goals, and a narrowly defined scope.

Imagine a BRAC-like process for WMATA station names. Agreement about WMATA’s unwieldy names, agreement on the policy to apply, and a narrow charge to an independent committee to propose changes are all in place. If I were a member of that committee, I might propose a list looking like this:

wmata station names 1-2

wmata station names 1-3

This proposal changes the names of 28 stations. The list includes stations planned (Potomac Yard) or under construction (Phase 2 of the Silver Line); it also assumes the addition of the National Mall and Kennedy Center under the ‘current’ station names.

Highlights from the proposal:

  • Dramatic reduction in the number of stations in direct violation of the character limit – from 20 to 3.
  • Sorry, local universities: you’re off the list of names. Unless a university builds a station on campus (and ‘Foggy Bottom’ is more distinctive than ‘GWU’ – sorry, Colonials), it’s hard to justify appending all of these acronyms.
  • Despite an effort to remove hyphenated names, some remain. Navy Yard-Ballpark has legit wayfinding benefits; Stadium-Armory loses the ‘stadium,’ noting that a handful of confused baseball fans still travel to the wrong station even though the Nationals haven’t played at RFK Stadium since 2007.
  • Those pesky airports: with Metro coming to IAD, it’s worthwhile to spell out ‘International’ in contrast to DCA. The proposal distills down to MWAA’s own shorthand: Reagan National and Dulles International.
  • None of the changes are re-branding efforts – all of the ‘new’ names are either part of the existing names, edited for brevity and clarity.

Imagine this proposal put forth to the WMATA Board for an up or down vote…