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…

Building Height and Density in Center City Philadelphia

With a hat tip to this tweet from John Ricco, linking to this compendium of tall buildings in Center City Philadelphia from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. The document provides a brief profile of each building, showing building height, site size, gross floor area, floor area ratio, year of completion, and floor count.

Example of information from the Philadelphia FAR catalog. Screenshot from the document.

Example of information from the Philadelphia FAR catalog. Screenshot from the document.

Pulling the data into a spreadsheet allows for some quick charts to show the relationship between building height and density.

Height v density

It’s generally true that taller buildings are more dense, but not universally so. Buildings with the same density come in different shapes. Both the Liberty Place complex and the 230 South Broad St have an FAR of ~19.5; but Liberty Place includes a 960′ and 783′ tall towers. 230 South Broad St is just 250′ tall, but the building’s floorplates occupy 100% of the site.

By comparison, the densest zoning in DC is for 12 FAR (the C-5 zone), located in one of the few exception areas for DC’s height limit (allowing 160′ tall buildings along some blocks of Pennsylvania Ave NW). Quite a few blocks are zoned for up to 10 FAR, but nothing in DC can be built to an FAR of 15, 20 or 25, as in Philadelphia.

Considering DC’s effective downtown height limit of 110′ to 130′ combined with a maximum FAR of 10, it’s not hard to understand why DC has so many boxy buildings forced to occupy entire parcels. Likewise, DC’s height limit is indeed a hard limit on office density. Beyond 10 FAR, any additional density requires more height than the law currently allows.

In New York, the Empire State Building has a FAR of about 28. At less than half the height, the Equitable Building (inspiration for New York’s 1916 zoning code) has a FAR of 30.

Note: almost all of these very dense buildings are offices.

Back in Philadelphia, a more obvious example: the obvious relationship between building height and floor count (taller buildings have more floors).

Height v floors

Looking at building height by decade, you can see the clear trend of taller buildings emerging following the end of Philadelphia’s ‘gentleman’s agreement’ on building height – that no building should be taller than the Statue of William Penn atop the City Hall clocktower. This agreement left plenty of room for tall buildings; at 548 feet tall, City Hall was the tallest building in the world between 1901-1908. The agreement was breached by the construction of 1 Liberty Place in 1987.

Height by decade

This particular data set doesn’t include any buildings shorter than the City Hall tower; it’s not a complete record of all construction in Center City, just high rise buildings (the document was published in 2010). You can clearly see the approximate 500′ limit prior to 1987.

If you put all of these characteristics into one chart, you get something like this:

height GFA FAR year

The size of the circles indicate the gross floor area of the project.

Mid-life crisis: BART, WMATA, and America’s modern subway systems

America’s few modern subway systems are facing a mid-life crisis. In the past month, WMATA had to shutter the entire system for emergency inspections of the power supply system, while BART had to shut down one branch of the system due to a mysterious power surge problem disabling trains. Both systems are no longer the ‘new’ transit systems in the US, they find themselves in mid-life crises. Aging infrastructure requires repair, existing governance and funding systems haven’t had to deal with the costs of maintaining these systems as they age.

Route miles of modern US subway systems, by year of segment opening. From Christof Spieler via Twitter.

With that context, I came across this tweet from Christof Spieler, showing the length of “modern” grade-separated subway lines opened for service in the United States from 1965 to today. A few observations:

BART, the snake digesting the mouse: Until seeing the data presented this way, I never appreciated how much of the BART system (navy blue on the chart) was built in quick succession in the early 1970s. The system didn’t add any route miles until the first phases of the San Mateo-SFO Airport extension came online starting in 1995. Contrast that to the history of WMATA (gray bars on the chart) regularly opening smaller system segments over a span of 20 years. MARTA also expanded by adding segments over the course of two decades.

The implication for maintenance is that BART is kinda like a snake digesting a meal – the bulge of maintenance needs/life cycle costs now coming due. WMATA has a similar length of track to maintain, but won’t have to deal with such a large portion of the system reaching mid-life at the same time.

End of Federal (Capital) Role: It’s hard to overlook the long-term trend as well – cities aren’t opening new third-rail, fully grade-separated transit systems anymore. There are only seven of these systems, most of which received substantial capital funding from the predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration, the Urban Mass Transit Administration; and there have only been a handful of expansions of these systems (absent federal funding) since 2004. Of those recent expansions, two are airport connectors (Miami and Oakland – and the other is WMATA’s first phase of the Silver Line, eventually destined to reach Dulles International Airport).

Limited federal funding, rising costs, and limited flexibility of fully grade-separated systems meant that capital spending shifted away from subways and towards light rail systems.  Even high capacity transit projects (such as Seattle’s light rail system) with substantial grade separation have opted for the flexibility of a light rail platform. Subway system expansion in the US is limited to regions locked into that technology.

End of Federal (Governing) Role:A diminished federal role doesn’t just impact capital spending. Writing about WMATA’s governance and maintenance struggles, Ryan Cooper makes the case for DC Statehood to help clarify WMATA’s convoluted regional governance. And while I share the desire for DC home rule and full federal representation, I’m not sure DC statehood alone would resolve WMATA’s governance issues.

Cooper correctly identifies several of WMATA’s key governance shortcomings: a lack of clear lines of authority and accountability and a short-term fiscal focus. He suggests that WMATA should address these issues by reconstituting itself under a fully empowered DC state, with the transit system “ideally under the primary responsibility of the D.C. mayor.”

However, statehood for DC won’t change the broad funding share (DC pays about 1/3 of WMATA’s subsidy) or the location of tracks and stations (the District is home to just 40 of the system’s 91 stations). Statehood for DC won’t assert authority over either Maryland or Virginia, nor would it redraw state lines (no matter how much it might make sense to do so).

WMATA’s original planning assumed a stronger federal role – both for federal transportation spending to direct and supersede state-level planning (with UMTA’s ambitions to fund and build subway systems in American cities), as well as for a stronger role for the feds acting as the local government for the national capital region. WMATA began as the federally chartered National Capital Transportation Agency, in the same era when the Federal Aviation Administration directly built and operated airports in the DC region.

The federal government is uniquely positioned to address some of these issues of both funding and governance, as it did in the Great Society. Since then, we’ve muddled through.