Event Recap – District of Change: Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute

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On Monday, May 11, 2015, District of Change held an event, “Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commute” at the DC Public Library. Here’s a summary:

David Plotz, of Atlas Obscura and Slate, organized a panel of transportation and urban planning experts consisting of the Robert Thomson, who writes on Dr. Gridlock for the Washington Post; Harriet Tregoning, the former head of D.C.’s Office of Planning; and Dan Tangherlini, who has worked at the District’s City Adminstrator and interim General Manager of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. I’ll be referring to them by their initials in the transcript.

Alongside the event was a parallel race to the library from Dupont Circle where four participants raced by car, bicycle, train and bus (including Plotz’s wife, Hanna Rosin, and their daughter) to the library, announcing their arrival amidst the panel discussion.

Disclaimer: The following log strives for maximum accuracy, but should be considered a paraphrasing of the comments unless surrounded by quotation marks.

Plotz started by addressing the elephant in the room: the morning’s shutdown of the Blue/Orange/Silver line by posing the question: Does the Metro (WMATA) need to be fixed?

Harriet Tregoning: We have to start thinking about it more as a system that we can improve. I have often found myself desiring more information while I have been stuck on a train. (Tregoning apologizes for the inconvenience to anyone from today’s problems)

Robert Thomson (Dr. Gridlock): People always desire more information concerning transportation, worse than having the problem is not knowing why it’s happening.

Dan Tangherlini: The apology from WMATA is important to building trust. Fixing the Metro requires understanding that there 1,100 rail cars, 117 miles of route, 91 stations, serving 5 million riders in 15,000 square miles. We have to think of fixing the system that has existed since 1976 as something that is “continual and perpetual” rather than a new system.

What’s the single best thing that has happened to commuting in D.C.?

DT: We have more choices than ever before. Public transportation works as a network of buses, trains, bike sharing that gives people options.

MT: Bikeshare. Though with the caveat about getting “dock blocked,” when you want to park a Capital Bikeshare bicycle to a docking station but bikes fill every dock, so you have to find another station which often can have limited space as well. (Ed note: Bikeshare will be unrolling a “Morning Corral” service to address this very problem) Also, changes in land use have improved D.C.’s Walk Score.

RT: The completion of the Green Line and the extension of the Yellow Line has greatly improved accessibility for particular neighborhoods.

What’s the single worst thing that has happened to commuting in D.C.?

RT: The deterioration of the metro. Though its much better than it was in the 1990s when you would hear about failures of trains derailling, escalators breaking down, and air conditioning breaking down. It has not happened overnight.

MT: Regional disagreements about what works and doesn’t (based on people’s individual experiences). The amount of commuters who drive alone to the District has come down from 50% in 1990 to 38% today. Bikeshare’s usage is up 500% since the ’90s. But basically it’s something like “D.C. residents are from Mars and people from suburbs are from Venus.”

DT: I was one of 8 percent riding a bike in the ’90s. People mostly need to think about themselves not as one group but as people who ride metro, people who walk, people who bike, people who drive, etc.

Arrival of first racer! Metro wins with a ten minute lap!

Quick show of hands in the audience, how many of you:  ride cars? (handful), buses? (about 25%), bicycles? (about 40%), metro? (nearly unanimous), walk (unanimous–even if you forgot you have legs like I did)

MT: I agree. We need to respect all options. I really like taking the bus when I want to just read a book or not have to go into a tunnel, you should try it sometime.

Arrival of second racer! Bicycle arrives in 14 minutes! (Plotz: “That means my family is still out there.”)

Plotz asks something along the lines of… do you get a lot of anger from commuters? Is the antagonism between groups overhyped?

RT: “People don’t talk to Dr. Gridlock because they like something” but there was one person who did really like Metro who wrote me a letter once.

People like to divide themselves into categories and they rarely experience what someone else experiences. There’s a lot of drivers vs. pedestrians, bicyclists vs. pedestrians, pedestrians vs. everybody. (Dan Tangherlini pipes in “drivers vs. drivers is pretty common!” Dr. Gridlock replies, “Yeah but they tend to have more sympathy for each other” being in the same situation, though “divebombing,” where one car goes up past everyone by driving on the shoulder to get ahead can cause problems)

David gets a text message from Hanna: “She’s here but she can’t find parking, that’s what she gets!”

DT: Another problem is the tradeoff: you can get plenty of parking put where no one wants to go. 14th Street used to have parking but then you couldn’t have all the businesses that are thriving there. Separate (commuting) identities seem to make things more fun, makes it feel like a contest but it’s not a zero-sum game, you need a variety of choices and understanding. “I ride a bike to work but my wife drives a car, so I’m not going to go home hating drivers when I come home.”

HT: A bike lane might take up a lane, sometimes it might not, but it can improve the flow of traffic since a road can actually fit more cars on the road with slower traffic. Its a matter of getting these things to work in tandem to make it effective and efficient. (She also apologizes for Uber surge pricing from the morning’s issues.) The 2011 earthquake may have stopped trains and added cars to the road but if you were a bicyclist, it was like a normal day if not better because you could weave past the cars. That showed a good test of how our system can adapt.

DC is ranked the 3rd worst commute in the country, with 38 minutes average commute time. Is that just a suburban problem?

RT: The big problem is you have two rivers surrounding the city, at the heart of the problem is geography. Now it’s not rare in early American history to build a city on a river junction. People don’t see transportation as a network on top of anything. Commuters think of it as a way to get from point A to point B but the difference in experiences is small, daily and varies.

So would you lobby the new Maryland Governor to approve the Purple Line?

HT: Well I can’t lobby (as a current employee at Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, she cannot “lobby”) but my husband (Geoff Anderson) does work at Smart Growth America. However, it does seem like the debate between saving money now versus long term savings should frame the question. Do we think construction will be cheaper in the future?

Hanna Rosin arrives, it took her 25 minutes by car but 10 minutes of that was finding parking.

So why is the Purple Line such a hard case?

RT: It’s really political. The people who it would benefit, to be honest, did not vote for Larry Hogan. It won’t benefit him while he’s in office because it won’t be completed. If he kills it, though, he won’t be re-elected. The same people, Democrats who didn’t show up to vote this time will be the people most affected by it not getting built. I would sell it to him as an economic development plan.

DT: Exactly, progress is about place making. This could spur new offices, people who create businesses.

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Is DC a better walking city now?
HT: Every year since Walk Score has been around we have received a 70 because we have a lot of stuff that people want to walk to. The most walkable neighborhood is Dupont Circle which gets 100.

DT: Zoning laws keeps this from improving in some neighborhoods. If you don’t allow mixed use, then some people have nowhere they want to walk to. We have really improved on some important things though: we have the highest amount of sidewalk coverage on each side of the roads, we were one of the first cities to implement ADA curb standards and we implemented the countdown clocks on crosswalks which all have improved walkability. (What’s number #1 in walkability? Boston.)

The bus rider, Plotz and Rosin’s daughter, arrives 30 minutes after the start of the race. Plotz exclaims, “Did this exercise prove anything?!”

A few more comments getting the walkability weeds… walkability ranks Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. The panel goes into a little bit of a digression into what shaped DC’s walkability:

Harriet Tregoning tells us about how the L’Enfant area is literally “sub-urban” because its where people lived outside the downtown area.

Dan Tangherlini tells us how zoning for public lanes can create some tension, cites how zoning makes it so his porch is technically designated as public land.

Dr. Gridlock tells us how some people want that land to go to different purposes whether it be for Metro or for “hot lanes” in Virginia, mentions the state’s study where I-66 would need 9 lanes in each direct to fit the level of traffic.

Are there any other projects to get excited about?

RT: People want travel without interruption, they hate breaks in momentum and want to get around in the quickest way possible.

DT: So… jetpacks?

RT: No, but it gets people real excited when they see a possibility, like the guy in the gyrocopter who flew to Capitol Hill. We need choices that make the most direct route possible.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask this… What should I think about the streetcar?
DT: An example that might help is buses with a dedicated lane, it’s a great idea but in reality, if you respect the bus lane that just tells me that you’re in from out of town. Buses have been around for 50 years and have had trouble taking off, it’s tough to make something work immediately.

HT: I think we need a wide variety of choices for the different ways we get around. Sometimes we’re walking with a purpose, downtown to work, each purpose more self-important than the next. Other times when the Cherry Blossoms are out, it’s more of a stroll. If your in Adams Morgan and you’re twenty years old, it’s a bit of a promenade. (Plotz interjects: “Or a stagger.”) But I think a streetcar could be nice to enable you to hop on and hop off, it could be good for businesses and we’re just not informed enough to think it through yet.

How do you draw a box around the cost of a car or rail? If you look at it as car and a rail, that’s one way of looking at the cost. On H Street, where business owners have expected some sort of transportation option, they look at it as something that could create growth. Then you have to look at the potential property tax, payroll taxes that come in and that changes the equation.

DT: The original rail proposed ran from Rhode Island Avenue to Union Station. If you looked at it that way, it didn’t seem worth it. I think one change that we need to see is the link between the Orange/Blue/Silver line to the Red Line without going through Metro Center.

RT: I want to say that I loved the streetcar since I was young. I’ve been to three ribbon cuttings, hopefully will see the fourth under this mayor if this gets to work. We need to see what it can do for us.

Biggest transit failure?

DT: The Potomac Freeway behind the Kennedy Center. The people who pushed that had a broader vision that just didn’t fit the city (including turning the C&O canal into a roadway) and so people in the District rose up against that idea.

RT: Judging from the age of the audience, they might not remember but our enthusiasm for cars. I had a professor in college for urban planning who absolutely hated grid cities, but they’re what make sense for our needs now. But people always find something to criticize, you name a project and I can name its problems. Some people criticized the Silver Line but I think it’s pivotal to improving particular neighborhoods (like Tyson’s Corner).

HT: It’s not fair but my favorite failure is the original BikeShare program, the fact that we had the nerve to try taught us a lot about what has made this version a success.

Q&A was rather short… so I’ll summarize briefly:
There was a question about how race and class intersect in these transit decisions (with an example of bike stations being removed from Ft. Totten). Transit’s relationship to gentrification seems to be how to factor the questions of housing costs and travel expenses together along with how to keep housing prices from skyrocketing when services and good places. Equity in access still needs work but has progressed.

Another questioner asked if the the general manager of WMATA ought to own a car. Harriet Tregoning answered:What if the only people who cared about schools were only people who had children? What if people who cared about hospitals were only people who were sick? I think people care about making improvements to the system regardless of whether they use it.”

IMG_5821Questions were cut a bit short by an unexpected cameo. Harriet Tregoning then pointed to Councilmember Jack Evans, seemingly leaving another meeting at the library. She says, “Why don’t you ask another WMATA board member right there?”

Evans, unknowingly walks up the crowd like a naive lamb entering a wolf’s den of critics and says “I always enjoy meeting groups of people like this…”

Plotz answers, “I don’t if you’re going to want to…”

“What’s the event?”

“It’s about the struggle to survive commuting in D.C.”

Taking the mic from Plotz, Evans filibustered in a form true to a politician, his roles as part-constituent hype-man, part-sophisticated policy-wonk, and part-amateur stand-up comedian. He apologized for the day’s problems, saying he could not express how bad he felt about it.

Evans said that WMATA’s finances are dismal, its operations underfunded. He regrets that the second largest subway system does not have its own independent system for funding with 50% funding coming from the farebox and 50% coming from Maryland and Virginia. He suggested raising regional sales taxes and institute a gas tax to pay to improve a system that’s aging.

He touted the bike program (“What’s that called again?” “Bikeshare.” “Yep, great job.” “Also those cars parked on the side of the roads… Car2Go. Those are great.”) As for the streetcar… “not so good. How are we going to spend $1.5 billion on it when we need that for the metro or buses?” He promised we could pay for improving the system without raising fares and without reducing service.

After retrieving the mic from Evans’ litany of campaign promises, one last questioner asked about how to deal with angry commuters by marketing proper etiquette (like “Stand to the Right!” on escalators) to make people aware of other people’s experiences and considerations.

Though the panel had nice things to say about people do the job of spreading information and apps help to improve choices, or that we ought to communicate our choices between agencies, the most telling moment was when Dan Tangherlini mentioned that very few people switch the kinds of transportation they take.

Then someone asked Councilmember Evans, “how do you get to work?”

Evans answers, “Oh, I drive a car.”

Also, for those of you who weren’t keeping score in the Dupont to MLK Library race:

1st: Metro (10 minutes)
2nd: Bike (15 minutes)
3rd: Car (25 minutes, 10 minutes for parking)
4th: Bus (30 minutes)

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