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.

Searching for suburbia’s new business plan: Fairfax Co, VA edition

Fairfax County Ambulance. Image from Elvert Barnes.

Fairfax County Ambulance. Image from Elvert Barnes.

The front page of Sunday’s Washington Post (below the fold) featured this article on the fiscal challenges facing Fairfax County, VA. No longer the bleeding edge of the suburban frontier in Northern Virginia, Fairfax County now must deal with the rising costs of maintaining the lifestyle it marketed to residents: good schools, good parks, low taxes and low density.

Antonio Olivo writes:

A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services in what is still the nation’s second-wealthiest county, even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream.

Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. They now say that there is no fat left to trim.

Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes, draw new businesses and revitalize worn neighborhoods. Their effort mirrors the struggle of aging suburban communities nationwide, as a turn-of-the century economic boom settles into a sluggish post-recession status quo.

Few greenfield development opportunities remain; the county’s older facilities are at the end of their useful lifespans and must be replaced. Demographics are changing. Now the bill is coming due. Fairfax is coming to terms with what Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns termed the suburban growth ponzi scheme.

Olivo’s article highlights several anecdotes of the fiscal struggle:

  • Shorter hours of operation for libraries
  • Deferred maintenance for government vehicles
  • Shrinking benefits for public school employees
  • Growing backlog of park maintenance needs

The basic business model for suburban places like Fairfax relied on low costs to provide a high quality of services at low tax rates and with relatively low productivity from the land (e.g. low density development). As those once high-quality facilities need replacement, as operating costs rise, the business model previously fueled by growth on the suburban edge has no place left to go.

Some of those amenities seem wildly implausible today: eight different Fairfax high schools had planetariums built into the structures:

Fairfax built state-of-the-art planetariums at eight of its high schools decades ago, an embodiment of the county’s belief that the sky was the limit.

Now the equipment is out of date… Astronomy teacher Lee Ann Hennig has been promised a new digital projector for the planetarium at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, part of a $90 million renovation project that, among other things, is supposed to bring new labs for neuroscience and oceanography to the elite magnet school.

When part of the attraction of suburbia is getting more for your money – more square footage, a bigger yard, a bigger garage – it’s not hard to see that mentality of suburban excess creep into government spending. Installing a planetarium in each of eight (“the greatest concentration of planetaria in the United States except for Dallas, Texas”) high schools instead of funding one facility and send students on occasional field trips? It’s not only a large capital cost, but the indefinite obligation to maintain and operate those facilities.

In addition to those challenges on the cost side, Fairfax is facing revenue pressures as well. Homeowners are weary of property tax increases, and commercial property tax revenues have yet to fully recover from the Great Recession:

Cuts in federal spending — about $1.5 billion less in Fairfax than in 2010 — have emptied out office buildings, leading to a 16.5 percent vacancy rate that is the highest since the 1991 recession. Since 2013, commercial property taxes have dropped $23.2 million.

Much of that drop in commercial property value is tied to the massive shift in favor of Metro-accessible office locations and walkable places – away from suburban office parks. Fairfax is wisely focusing redevelopment of their metro-accessible places into a denser, more fiscally sustainable urban model, but this is big lift.

And demographics are changing: there’s more poverty, more diversity, and an older, grayer population. This mirrors national trends (for more, see this three part series from Amanda Kolson Hurley in Citylab; including an interview with Myron Orfield, a scholar who has long forecast the need for a change in the suburban business model).

Fairfax is left with three basic options:

  1. Urbanize: redevelop in a denser, more efficient pattern (both for tax revenues and for providing services)
  2. Raise taxes to continue providing high quality services, despite increasing costs
  3. Muddle through

The most likely path will involve bits from all three. Fairfax is lucky to have some assets to urbanize around and a stronger regional real estate market to fuel that transformation; other suburban jurisdictions around the US aren’t so lucky.

I can’t believe I’m writing a post on Personal Rapid Transit!

Morgantown WV PRT System, as seen from Google Streetview

Morgantown WV PRT System, as seen from Google Streetview

Reading through the history of the personal rapid transit (PRT) on the Verge by Adi Robertson, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with many familiar projects. Cost overruns, scope creep, politics, government red tape, all conspiring to erode the value of an otherwise promising concept.

First, you can’t write about PRT without acknowledging the inherent geometric flaw of the concept: it can’t scale. Jarrett Walker frequently talks about the fundamental geometry of transit, and succinctly explains the geometric flaw of PRT:

Bottom line:  When “personal rapid transit” succeeds, it succeeds by turning into a conventional fixed route transit system.  The fantasy of “personal” transit is that a vehicle will be there just for our party and take us directly to our destination, but in constrained infrastructure this only works if demand is low.  But PRT was meant to the the primary transport system in a car-free city, so demand would be high.  It was never going to work.

This is also true of the Morgantown, WV PRT system, which makes use of different operating modes. During times of high demand, it operates as a fixed route transit system between the busiest stations; during low demand periods, cars stop at every station, regardless of demand.

Mass transit might be an out of fashion descriptor, but it helps illustrate transit’s scalability. Good transit doesn’t just move large masses of people, it requires mass to succeed. ‘Personal’ transit rejects the masses; it also requires expensive infrastructure to inefficiently move people.

Robertson skirts around the geometric limitations of PRT as a concept, but never appropriately douses the concept with cold water. Any history of PRT must focus on the Morgantown, WV system. Any article about PRT will inevitably draw comparisons to current research on driverless cars. Comparing the two exposes the conceptual flaw:

Self-driving vehicles, he points out, wouldn’t have taken cars off Morgantown’s crowded roads — at least, not in the same volume. As long as they’re intermingled with human-driven cars, they can’t run with the same centralized efficiency. And once you start thinking about the obvious solution — a dedicated lane for self-driving cars — you might start running into the same problems as PRT.

Leaving aside PRT’s conceptual flaws, Robertson’s history of the concept echoes common challenges in the American history of infrastructure projects: shifting government mandates, political interference, procurement regulations, and so on. Some highlights:

Goals for transit: Robertson documents the history of federal funding for PRT, with the Urban Mass Transit Administration providing research grants to explore the concept.

The focus on new technology in transit often meant unnecessarily reinventing the wheel (see BART’s broad gauge track), but also exploring new concepts like PRT. New concepts are sexy, even attracting the direct interests of President Nixon:

His mantra, as Alden puts it, was that if “Kennedy can get a man on the Moon, I can get a man across Manhattan.”

Lack of clarity about the UMTA’s goals for the program help add to the confusion. Is the goal to provide effective transit, or to prove a new technology/concept? Crosstown transit is a practical goal, but it doesn’t require big technological innovations. Landing on the Moon is an impractical goal that wasn’t possible without new technologies – and the moonshot analogy makes it easy to conflate two different goals.

From the start, there’s tension between researching new technologies and practical, proven, cost-effective projects. Many PRT boosters in West Virginia were approaching this a big experiment; the government bureaucrats wanted a functioning system. Once the system proved more conventional than revolutionary, Robertson notes, “the age of experimentation was over.”

Politics: Robertson also shows the competing interests of the various parties involved in funding and executing the Morgantown project. West Virginia University approached PRT as an experiment, while UMTA wanted a more practical proof of concept – something that could be built elsewhere if successful. On top of these turf battles, President Nixon wanted a completed project to include in his re-election campaign materials, pressuring the team to complete things before they were ready.

Procurement and red tape: As WVU championed the PRT project, they looked for federal funds to offset the cost. Then, as now, those dollars had strings attached. UMTA required a NASA JPL redesign of the vehicles; one of the independent engineers took patents to established defense contractor Boeing in order to better compete in project bidding.

Right of way: The single most important element of the Morgantown PRT system is the elevated guideway. Complete grade separation from the traffic at street level and the interference from cars, bikes, and pedestrians not only speeds travel, but made PRT’s automated operation possible (note: this remains true, it should be far easier to automate a subway system than to create a fleet of driverless cars).

Despite the inherent geometric challenges of personal transit as a service, the system nevertheless demonstrated the value of guideways; and also the reasons why we don’t have more of them: local opposition and cost. One PRT booster:

To Kornhauser, the issue is less that the technology was inherently inadequate than that it was expensive and inconvenient. “You didn’t need that much intelligence in the vehicle to be able to do all this stuff,” he says. “The problem was that nobody really wanted to invest the money to build the exclusive guideway. That’s the short and the long of it.”

And Robertson on the local opposition to erecting concrete guideways all over the city:

Even the most time-tested (and desperately needed) public transit systems have trouble securing space and laying track; New York City’s history is littered with unbuilt subway lines that were killed by local protests and a lack of money. PRT guideways had some advantages over trains, like their near-silence, but they would still require cities to build miles of concrete chutes. And unlike a subway line extension, there would be no guarantee that people would accept the new system. Or, as one former transportation commissioner told NPR when asked about personal rapid transit last year: “The last thing you want to do is put up some track all over the place and have it just there.”

Also, unlike a more traditional elevated line (something I’ve defended here previously), the ideal of PRT means offering door to door transit, which in turn requires a guideway of some kind from door to door.

Improving passenger information in WMATA’s 7000 series railcars

As more of WMATA’s new 7000 series railcars enter service, more riders get a chance to experience the new cars in regular service, under the demands of everyday use. The same is true for me – after several chances to ride the new cars in regular service, I have a few observations – particularly relating to passenger information.

I’ve written previously about the big-picture issues for WMATA’s next railcar design: maximizing the usefulness of the existing system means changing railcars to more efficiently move people through the system – and that means more doors, wider doors, open gangways, different seating arrangements, etc.

There’s also room for improving the passenger information systems. The 7000 series include lots of new features, including real-time displays and automated station announcements. Each car has two types of LED displays – a screen that can scroll any kind of text near the end of each car, easily visible from anywhere onboard, and a variable display showing the next stops the train will serve.

7000 series information displays - photo by the author.

7000 series information displays circled in red – photo by the author.

The ‘next stop’ displays above the windows (modeled after the FIND system on several NYC subway car types) contain useful information, but the actual LEDs do not read well at the angles available for most passengers in the car. Even moving closer to the sign doesn’t help much, particularly when compared to the sign at the end of the car:

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

None of the next few stops are nearly as visible from this vantage point as “Franc-Springd” at the end of the car. Reading the display more or less requires standing directly in front of it; a challenge compounded by the seating layout, placing 2×2 seating directly under the ‘next stop’ displays.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Riders must be in front of the displays to read the LEDs. Photo by the author.

By contrast, New York’s FIND displays are located above center-facing seating. This both puts the displays in a line of sight for people sitting on the opposite side of the railcar, but also takes advantage of the additional standing room in New York’s subway car design.

Completely re-arranging seating layouts or changing the location of these signs is a big change. But there are other opportunities to improve passenger information for users. In addition to the LED signs, each 7000 series car includes four video-capable monitors per car, located adjacent to the doors:

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

Currently, the screens display a strip map (updated in real time) in the top half of the screen, rudimentary information about the station services (for example, a note that you can transfer to Metrobus – but not any particular route information) in the lower left, and a rotating ad space in the lower right corner (in this photo, listing WMATA’s website).

The above photo illustrates one of the biggest problem with these displays – they do not read well at a distance. Discerning any of the information requires moving closer to the display.

Photo by the author.

Consider another example of a similar technology from a bus in New Zealand, using larger text that can be easily read at a distance; displaying the travel time (in minutes, not number of stops) to the next few stops, as well as the end of the line; and putting less important information in a smaller typeface.


Displays within railcars in Paris use a similar approach (image from Transitized) with large text (easily visible), focusing just on the next two or three stations, along with the estimated travel time to key transfer points as well as the end of the line.

Information about the current stop and next stop should be available for riders to consume instantaneously. Editing the amount of information and using large type reduces the time required for riders to process that information – to say nothing about the need to move through the car to take a closer look.

The nice thing about software is you can change it. WMATA and the District DOT recently installed real-time arrival displays at numerous bus shelters in the city. At first, the displays took too long to cycle and scroll through extraneous information. After some initial testing, the displays now show more useful information to riders at a glance – no need for scrolling or displaying the arrival times for buses scheduled to arrive in the distant future.

New software and a different approach to displaying information on these screens could make them more useful – and potentially help cover for the visibility issues with the above-the-window next stop displays.