Getting my kicks on I-66

The Virginia Department of Transportation started tolling Interstate 66 this week, and boy, people are pissed.

A few thoughts after two weeks of dynamic tolling:

Lots of people were cheating the old HOV rules: The shock over paying the new tolls (which wouldn’t apply for those who were driving the road in compliance with the HOV rules) shows how many people had been cheating the system.

Some drivers feel wronged by changing policies, such as the increased HOV hours and the loss of the HOV exemption for hybrid vehicles, but those folks clearly don’t account for the huge portion of cars driving the tolls up.

Faster may not be the most efficient: VDOT was boasting that the average morning rush-hour speed was 57 mph. The speed limit is just 55 mph; and the old average was something like 37 mph.

The $40 toll isn’t the cost of reducing congestion; instead, it shows the marginal cost of keeping an urban expressway flowing at rural traffic densities, enabling free-flow conditions at the speed limit. It’s a useful reminder for all drivers of just how expensive it is to ensure the kind of speeds too many of them expect.

It’s not clear at all that this is the optimal policy for VDOT to set. They haven’t released any information about changes in traffic volume. The law requires maintaining average speeds of at least 45 mph; if VDOT were to accept lower speeds in the morning without introducing congestion, they might avoid some of the more exorbitant tolls and allow for more drivers to use the road.

There’s precedent for this: Minnesota experimented with a complete shutdown of their freeway ramp meters in 2000. The end result was a determination that they could dramatically improve the system’s user experience without sacrificing the main benefits. But, it took a legislatively mandated shutdown experiment to get MnDOT to make the changes in policy.

Clear communications matter: This isn’t Virginia’s first HOT lane project, nor is it the first time tolls have spiked (though most previous events could be traced to some kind of incident – poor weather, a bad crash, etc). So what explains the backlash?

A big part of the problem appears to be a misunderstanding about the toll rates. During the approval process, lots of folks had a $17 round-trip figure in their head. That’s obviously a lot less than $40 for one-way.

Fredrick Kunkle dug into this in the Washington Post:

“The bottom line is this is very different from what we briefed people it would be,” Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun), an opponent of tolling on I-66, told my colleague Luz Lazo.

Others have been blunter in saying the McAuliffe administration misled people. The Republican Party of Virginia accused McAuliffe’s administration of ensuring that the tolls would be switched on only after the gubernatorial election to choose his successor. Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), who is also a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), urged the NVTC to pass a resolution demanding that the tolls be lowered or suspended.

The defense seems like an honest response, but it might as well be included in a reprinting of How to Lie with Statistics.

But Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration never misled anyone. He said that when transportation officials talked about a $17 average daily toll during peak hours, they meant what they said, an average — all short trips and long trips along that section of highway, and with peaks and valleys of demand.

So, that single number was averaging both the dynamic toll rates as well as the different potential routings. An average of an average. But most drives don’t take an average route, they take a specific one. And since the initial communications didn’t discuss a per-mile rate (or an estimated range of rates), it’s not hard to see why people might feel surprised.

Clear communications matter because policies like this have real promise. They depend on political support, and that will be harder and harder to find if people think they’ve been deceived. Tolling, particularly when perceived as a solution to congestion, can be a political winner. Whether the $17 expectation was intentionally misleading or not is beside the point; those expectations have to be managed or a program like this could lose support.

The challenges of adding housing in single family neighborhoods

Too often, news articles on housing prices fall into easy traps and cliché, whether in discussing gentrification or city vs. suburb tropes. But Conor Daugherty’s piece in the New York Times (The Great American Single Family Home Problem) hits all the right notes.

In it, he tells the tale of a modest redevelopment proposal to redevelop a single family home into three units on the same lot. The political opposition is fierce, leading to years of delay and legal proceedings. And this is for a parcel already zoned for additional density; this particular saga doesn’t even touch on the challenges of rezoning an area currently occupied by single-family homes.

A couple of things stand out to me:

The missing middle: The author frames the cost trade offs well. Lots of cities allow downtown and highrise development, but this requires expensive construction techniques, and thus requires pricey rents to pencil out. Smaller-scale development (low-rise apartments, duplexes, townhomes, etc) can pencil at much lower prices – the thorny issue is the politics of building in existing single-family neighborhoods.

The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

Capital-A Affordable, vs. affordable: The three units proposed for the lot wouldn’t be cheap, but (crucially) they’d be cheaper than a re-habbed SFH on the same lot – and there’d be more of them.

They are estimated to sell for around $1 million. But this is an illustration of the economist’s argument that more housing will lower prices. The cost of a rehabilitated single-family home in the area — which is what many of the neighbors preferred to see on the lot — runs to $1.4 million or more.

The “economist’s argument” might be sound, but it’s a hard sell for the neighbors.

This kind of evolutionary redevelopment would’ve been completely natural and non controversial before the advent of zoning.

It’s always worth remembering how different the Bay Area’s housing market dynamics are. Daniel Kay Hertz notes that many of the same issues are in play in weaker regional markets, though the way things play out is quite different:

Aaron Renn doesn’t think much of the Bay Area’s strategy of generating affordability through redevelopment of single-family housing:

First, it’s hard to say this is a cogent strategy; the vast majority of single family homes aren’t going to be rezoned anytime soon.

Second, Renn is correct, historically – at least since the advent of zoning. This was true for the Bay Area, too – suburban development offered a then-cheap and cost-effective way to add housing to the region’s supply. But that was decades ago (the NYT article includes maps showing the expansion of the suburbs over the recent decades), and the region has run out of room for new/expanded suburbs within a reasonable commuting distance.

Renn’s implied regional strategy isn’t going to work well in the Bay Area, either. Consider the recent articles on Bay Area super commuters. Relying on Stockton to be San Franscisco’s bedroom community has severe costs, after all.

WMATA’s Parking Concession

WMATA is facing a budget gap – not just for this year, but a systemic and growing fiscal deficit.

Last year. the agency tested the waters for a long-term concession contract for parking services.  In this concept, an outside partner would manage WMATA’s parking for a 50 year period, in exchange for either an up-front lump sum payment or recurring annual payments.

Despite the cancellation of the solicitation, the concept is worth digging into. I’ll have more on the concession concept (and other parking ideas) in a future post. First, some thoughts about park-and-rides generally:

In general, transit park and rides lose money.

The Transportation Research Board estimated the cost recovery of park and ride facilities for various transit agencies. Streetsblog’s summary shows most agencies lose money operating these facilities, and none come close to recovering the costs of building the facilities in the first place. TRB estimates that WMATA is among the best transit agencies in recovering costs, but still doesn’t break even. WMATA brings in about $45 million in annual parking revenue, enough to cover only 66% of the estimated parking costs for the agency.

Because the TRB did not have access to actual operating cost data, their cost recovery estimate is based on a series of assumptions about amortized capital costs (including construction) and ongoing operating costs. The author of Let’s Go LA did a similar exercise for park and ride economics, setting up a scenario to show  a revenue-positive park and ride requires a) charging parking fees, and b) filling the parking lot/garage every day with paid parkers (and fare-paying riders):

As one might expect, free parking loses money for the agency. Since the service cost is greater than the fare, the cost of building the parking is entirely a loss. If the agency can charge a modest amount for parking, in this example $3, the surface lot turns into a little bit of a money-maker. $298k/year is not a huge amount of money, but it’s something, and this option actually performs better financially than the single-family housing or townhouse options.

Due to high capital costs, a parking garage can be either a big winner or a big loser. If the agency can charge $5 for garage parking, the result is a loss of over $8m/year, but if it can charge $10, the result is almost $4m/year in profit, by far the best option. Note, however, that this is dependent on the ability to consistently fill a nearly 1100-space parking garage at $10/day. There are some locations where this will pencil out, towards the edges of the city and some commuter rail stops. (People might pay $10 to park downtown, but then they won’t even bother to ride transit, which is sort of self-defeating from a transportation and land use policy perspective.)

It’s worth noting that transit agencies have competing and conflicting priorities here. Often, the goals aren’t explicitly stated. If the goal is to maximize ridership, free parking could make sense. For a budget-constrained transit agency like WMATA, however, maximizing overall revenue means a different approach.

Parking isn’t the only option:

The main point of Let’s Go LA’s hypothetical is to tackle the opportunity cost of parking – what about the potential for other investments, such as housing? What potential does real estate development have for improving ridership and improving the transit operator’s bottom line? Let’s Go LA concludes (emphasis added):

[P]lease note that this is a very rudimentary analysis and does not account for benefits and impacts to other policy goals. For example, a 5445-space parking garage might be a winner for the agency, but if it’s not located close to a freeway, it may cause a lot of neighborhood congestion. Building housing creates the opportunity for more people to live in the city, while building parking only creates the opportunity to live somewhere else and drive. And of course, parking lots and garages create border vacuums and dead zones in the city fabric, which is undesirable.

Bottom line: park and ride lots may make sense in suburban and exurban areas if parking fees are enough to cover the cost of lot construction and help subsidize transit operations. Otherwise, build more housing.

While the specifics may vary depending on the variables, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion. One potential catch: the market must support building more housing at that particular location. Here, specific agency policies might discourage the redevelopment of surface parking lots. Requiring that any redevelopment replace the existing parking is

TRB’s survey of transit agencies found several (including WMATA) with a policy to replace all parking spaces lost to development on a 1-1 basis. While this may still be the official policy on the books, WMATA has been flexible recently and explicitly embraced the idea of additional real estate development at stations increasing overall revenue for the system.

For a large joint development project at the New Carrollton station, WMATA will waive their 1-1 replacement requirement, thanks to a large number of persistently vacant spaces. The staff report on the project contains analysis of the parking usage at the station. Of the 5,025 parking spaces, 18% are consistently vacant, and another 16% are used by non-transit users paying a higher daily rate.

WMATA’s parking payment uses the same SmarTrip card, and thus can tell if the same card was used for a transit trip at the station. Transit riders at New Carrollton pay $5.10 per day to park; non-riders pay $8.85 per day. It’s worth noting that even this scenario doesn’t hit the assumptions in Let’s Go LA’s garage scenario of a 100% full garage with riders paying $10/day to park.

WMATA’s current park-and-ride role: 

Across the system, approximately 26% of WMATA’s trips are park-and-rides. WMATA periodically conducts an extensive survey of riders. Thanks to the parking payment system, they can ground-proof the survey results to parking payment. This data is from the 2012 survey:

WMATA 2012 Ridership Survey; mode of station access for AM peak trips.

WMATA 2012 Ridership Survey; mode of station access for AM peak trips. Click to download a PDF.

That’s a significant part of Metro’s ridership. Overall, 75% of WMATA’s parking spaces are used on a daily basis.

Stations at the end of the line tend to be busier than parking garages at the penultimate station (indeed, one of the arguments for the New Carrollton joint development project is the plentiful parking available at Landover station). The end-of-line stations also tend to serve people driving from longer distances, while mid-line parking facilities tend to serve the local neighborhoods. Most terminal stations include large parking facilities.

The TRB paper includes a literature review of park-and-ride elasticity for price. Since so few transit agencies charge for parking, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions, but it does seem that many parkers are sensitive to price changes. A system-wide change in parking pricing might further reduce parking use at inner stations, making them more attractive for eventual redevelopment.

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

enyplannyc

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.

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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.