Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Two regional governmental bodies, that don’t receive much detailed coverage in the press, could have a big impact on the transportation options available to you, the quality of the air you breathe and our ability to meet our climate goals.

Have you heard of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB)?  Or the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA)?

The Transportation Policy Board (TPB)

The TPB is the DC area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization and it is supposed to do transportation planning for the entire DC-area – including all regionally-significant transportation projects in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs as well as DC itself. By federal law it is responsible for ensuring that those projects improve the area’s air quality.

TPB has some great “aspirational goals” that could really lead the region into a healthier, more sustainable transportation future:

  1. Bring jobs and housing closer together
  2. Expand bus rapid transit and transitways
  3. Move more people on Metrorail
  4. Increase telecommuting and other options for commuting
  5. Expand the express highway network
  6. Improve walk and bike access to transit
  7. Complete the National Capital Trail

The chair of the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Commission’s comments on the current transportation plan note that it is critical for the region to reduce per capita vehicle miles travelled (VMT) in order to achieve air quality standards and implores TPB to invest in “Metro, ride-sharing, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and other travel demand management strategies to continue to mitigate future growth in vehicle emissions.”

Unfortunately, when the rubber meets the road – in this case, when it comes time to put together its “constrained long-range plan” of all regionally-significant transportation projects, the TPB seems content to basically staple together MDOT’s, VDOT’s and DDOT’s transportation plans, without significant examination of whether any given project moves the region forward toward those “aspirational goals” or prepare us for future, cleaner air quality standards.

A good example here is Maryland’s reconstruction of the “Nice” bridge across the Potomac south of DC. Maryland’s DOT was looking to drop plans for a promised bicycle and pedestrian accommodation on the replacement bridge (which will double capacity for cars) the TPB passed an amendment to the regional plan allowing the project to move forward with no dedicated space for non-motorized traffic on this important river crossing which has no alternative for miles in any direction. Another is their acceptance of Maryland’s I-495 and I-270 Express Lane projects without any commitment that they will allow High Occupancy Vehicles to travel toll-free.

TPB will be updating their regional plan “Visualize 2045” over the course of the next two years. You can sign-up for email updates here.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA)

The NVTA gets 70% of the regional tax revenue that is dedicated to transportation (from a wholesale tax on gasoline, along with some other sources). It then doles that money back out as grants for transportation projects.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Arlington County Board is set to vote this weekend on accepting a grant to implement a performance parking pilot in Arlington’s Metrorail corridors.

Performance Parking is a proven approaching to managing parking supply to make parking more convenient. It uses technology to measure parking demand, and over time matches the price of that parking to demand, ensuring that parking is generally available where people want it, when people want it.

How Does it Work?

When trying to understand how performance parking works, it’s helpful to look at an existing example while keeping in mind that there are many ways to customize a performance parking implementation plan to fit each community. One of the most well-known and well-documented examples is SFPark in San Francisco.

The SFPark pilot installed in-pavement parking occupancy sensors across 7 parking management areas which included about 25% of the city’s on-street spaces.  Approximately every 8 weeks, the city adjusted parking rates for each block based on average parking occupancy of that block, according to the following formula:  blocks that saw 80-100% occupancy the rate was increased by $0.25, blocks where the occupancy was 60-80% the rate was left alone, blocks where occupancy was 30-60% the hourly rate was decreased by $0.25, blocks where the occupancy rate was below 30% the hourly rate was decreased by $0.50.

These pricing adjustments were made approximately every 8 weeks.  Unlike something like Uber’s Surge pricing, these are not sudden, real-time changes – they are slow, deliberate changes made over a period of months with clear, predictable signage.  Over time they find the true intersection of the parking supply and demand curves and ensure that parking is available on each block when people need it.

What does it Accomplish?

SFPark made parking easier to find.  The amount of time that blocks achieved the target parking occupancy (60 to 80%) increased by 31% in pilot areas, compared to a 6% increase in control areas. The amount of time that blocks were too full to find parking decreased 16% in pilot areas while increasing 51% in control areas.

SFPark saved people time.  In SFpark pilot areas, the amount of time most people reported that it took to find a space decreased by 43%, from about 11 ½ minutes to about 6 ½ minutes.

SFPark reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  Due to reduced time spent circling for a parking space, drivers went from generating about 7 metric tons of ghg emissions per day looking for parking prior to the pilot to about 4.9 metric tons of emissions per day after the pilot.

SFPark reduced double parking.  Double parking increases dramatically as convenient parking gets harder to find.  In SFPark pilot areas, double parking decreased by 22% compared to a 5% decrease in the control areas.

SFPark reduced congestion and improved transit speeds.  Due to a reduction in drivers circling for spaces and the reduction in double parking, peak period congestion decreased and transit speed increased in the pilot areas.

SFPark lowered average hourly parking meter rates.   Over the course of the SFPark pilot, the average hourly rates at meters dropped from $2.69 to $2.58.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated at 9:25 p.m.) Enforcement of traffic laws is one of the key pillars to safety on our streets. No matter how well-engineered our streets are to encourage good behavior, if people are able to blow through red lights or exceed a safe speed with their vehicle, our streets will never be safe.

Unfortunately, our current methods of doing traffic enforcement bring their own set of problems. Police forces that are already struggling with staffing levels see traffic enforcement as a low priority making enforcement rare and sporadic, and traffic stops have proven to be the #1 pretext for harassment of black people. Automating enforcement of common traffic violations like speeding, running red lights and running stop signs can both improve safety on our streets for everyone, remove potential bias and reduce unnecessary encounters between residents and armed police officers.

Problems with the Status Quo

Street safety is a major concern in Arlington. A quick look at Arlington’s Vision Zero map (submissions accepted through Friday) shows concerns all around the county, including many concerns about speeding. The old adage, “Speed Kills” is truer than many people realize. Even a small 2mph decrease in average vehicular speed can result in as much as a 34% reduction in fatal crashes.

While local data seems lacking here, nationwide the injuries and fatalities that result from this lack of enforcement fall primarily on low-income and non-white households. Low income pedestrians are 2x as likely to be killed while walking as high income pedestrians. Even adjusting for population, non-white pedestrians in Virginian are 46% more likely to be killed while walking than white pedestrians.

Advantages of Automation

Automated enforcement could provide the kind of constant feedback that is necessary to change behavior. Research on behavior change has shown that feedback must be swift, certain and fair. Our existing enforcement is far from certain, and there are legitimate questions in our community about whether our traffic laws are being enforced fairly. Currently a tiny percentage of speeders, stop sign runners and red light runners get caught. This lack of certainty in enforcement causes it to generally fail to cause behavior change. Automated enforcement could ensure that a much higher percentage of these infractions are caught and issued a fine, leading to fewer people committing these unsafe infractions. Chicago’s DOT, for instance, recently reported that 92.7% of drivers ticketed for speeding in school zones in 2019 didn’t receive a second ticket.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

(Updated on 11/11/20) On Saturday, the Arlington County Board voted 4-1 to endorse the County’s application for $25 million in grant money for VDOT’s Arlington Blvd Safety Improvements Project, covering the area from Glebe Road to Fillmore Street.

That grant money, if awarded, would not be disbursed until 2026, meaning construction is at least six years, if not seven or eight years away. VDOT’s decision to select a costly, construction-intensive capital project to solve the safety issues in this stretch means our community will be stuck with six to eight years of additional crashes, injuries and even fatalities when VDOT’s own study makes it clear that a the majority of the safety benefit of their preferred alternative could be implemented in the short-term, with temporary materials and a much lower cost.

VDOT’s preferred alternative consists of a wide median from Glebe Road to Fillmore Street, the creation of dedicated left turn lanes at Irving Street, the extension of the westbound left-turn lane at Fillmore Street and the addition of dedicated left-turn phasing (green arrows) at Irving Street to service those new dedicated turn lanes.

VDOT’s report shows that, had these improvements existed from 2014 to 2018, there would have been 16 fewer crashes with injuries or fatalities. So, the fact that we’re waiting for these improvements until 2026 or 2028 means we can expect between 24 and 32 additional, preventable crashes with injury or fatality in the meantime.

However, all of the listed design elements from their preferred alternative, except for the extension of the westbound left-turn lane at Fillmore Street can be implemented within the existing roadway simple by narrowing some lanes to 10′ (within the Arlington County standard) and by repurposing some of the existing shoulder. A narrow median could be added with jersey barriers or a similar material, the dedicated left turn lanes striped in by repurposing excess lane width and some of the existing shoulder, the dedicated signal phases could be added at Irving Street. This would gain us 87% of the safety gains of the full project, while avoiding the slow and costly widening that VDOT is calling for which will cut down trees, add 2 acres of impervious surface, and reshape this stretch of Arlington Blvd into a defacto limited access highway.

The grant application was opposed by a number of nearby neighbors concerned that it would lead to additional cut-through traffic on Irving Street and I submitted and presented a letter for Arlington’s Transportation Commission for the reasons outlined above. Unfortunately, only one member of the County Board (Takis Karantonis) found the slow pace of implementation and large cost of VDOT’s preferred alternative unacceptable and so the grant application has been endorsed, leaving little incentive for VDOT to make interim safety improvements. The result: a project that costs more money and results in more crashes, injuries and potentially even fatalities.

Bizarrely, this safety study is a result of a program called “Strategically Targeted Affordable Roadway Solutions” (STARS), a program that would appear geared toward finding quick, cheap solutions to safety problems. Instead, it appears to be yet another vehicle for VDOT to push forward large, slow, expensive roadway widenings wrapped in the veneer of a safety study.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Just in time for the start of the normal busy season in the D.C. area, MetroRail, MetroBus and ART have largely resumed normal levels of service. If you need to return to the office, transit is likely there and ready for you and the newest research is finding that riding transit can be done very safely.

MetroRail Service

MetroRail has returned to near pre-pandemic levels of service and most stations that were closed for platform reconstruction have re-opened, including East Falls Church. Dunn Loring and Vienna are set to reopen next week. Masks are required and customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible.

MetroBus Service

MetroBus service ramped back up on Aug. 23 to about 75% of normal weekday service. Weekend service is back to 85-90%. Masks are required, customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible, and boarding is through the rear doors to lessen bus driver exposure; bus fare collection is suspended.

ART Service

Most ART routes have returned to normal service with just routes 31, 61, 62 and 74 remaining out of service. Masks are required, customers are encouraged to socially distance to the extent possible, and boarding is through the rear doors to lessen bus driver exposure; bus fare collection is suspended.

Safety

The service has returned, but is it safe? Increasingly the answer appears to be “Yes”, that fear of public transit got ahead of the evidence. While we still have a lot to learn about this virus, public transit appears to not be a significant transmission vector.

France and Japan’s contact tracing efforts have found almost zero clusters linked to their public transit systems. A similar study in Austria was unable to link any of their 355 clusters to transit. Hong Kong, a dense city of 7.5 million people whose subway system was carrying nearly 13 million people per day saw and whose transit ridership dropped significantly less than other global systems has recorded only about 4,800 cases so far, or about a quarter of the number of cases seen in Prince William County here in Virginia — a county with a population of under 500,000 which is largely car-dependent. Read More

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On Friday, the County announced a new emergency ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from congregating on sidewalks in groups of more than three people or ever being less than 6′ apart from any other person.

Targeted quite plainly at young, mask-less patrons waiting in tightly-packed lines for long periods of time outside of Clarendon bars whose capacity has been limited by social-distancing requirements, the ordinance seems well-intentioned but flawed in concept.

The Ordinance

The ordinance, as released by the County states the during a state of emergency, “pedestrians shall obey signs and other signals erected on highways, streets, sidewalks, and public spaces adjacent thereto used by pedestrians prohibiting pedestrians from congregating in groups of four or more than four persons in those places and requiring pedestrians to maintain a physical separation from others of not less than six feet at all times.” I will note, however, that the verbiage about “and public spaces adjacent thereto” does not seem to exist in the language passed by the Board during the virtual board meeting.

Problems with the Ordinance

The ordinance appears to criminalize common behaviors: A plain reading of the ordinance would appear to prevent a family of four from walking down one of these signed sidewalks together without maintaining 6′ of distance between all family members, including small children.

The ordinance results in some very strange juxtapositions. Four people sitting at an outdoor dining table eating dinner, mask-less is not just legal, the County has adopted other emergency legislation to fast-track the creation of more outdoor dining space to encourage it. Those same four people, the exact same distance apart, but now standing on the sidewalk outside of a dining area are now all subject to a $100 fine. If those four now all climb into a car together, parked on the street in front of that same restaurant, they are legal again. Read More

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

“Is it BRT if it doesn’t have dedicated lanes?”  That was a hot topic of conversation in 2013 and I can’t finish out my series on Pike Premium Transit without digging back into the most controversial aspect of the Columbia Pike Streetcar debate.

If you need a refresher,  Part 1 introduced what was envisioned for the Pike Premium Transit Network. Part 2 looked at progress on features to improve bus travel time. Part 3 examined the planned convenience & dependability features.  Today, I’ll take a look at the most controversial feature that was ever discussed for Columbia Pike’s transit system.

What’s the point of dedicated transit lanes?

Dedicated lanes are a core feature of the best transit systems, no matter the mode.  Given that your bus or train needs to stop places that aren’t your personal destination, transit systems can only be time-competitive with cars if they have a way to make up some or all of that time – like by not having to sit in the traffic created by those cars.

Why weren’t they planned for the Streetcar System?

Why wasn’t a dedicated lane recommended for the Columbia Pike Streetcar or the Premium Bus network that is replacing it?  The first reason, is that it was seen as impossible at the time.  During the first Alternative’s Analysis, VDOT was in control of Columbia Pike and made it clear they would never approve a reduction in the number of available through travel lanes of traffic.  During the second Alternative’s Analysis, Arlington had gained control of Columbia Pike (except for the intersection with Glebe Rd and the interchanges with Route 27), but the agreement between Arlington and Virginia stipulated that Virginia would withhold maintenance funds for the entirety of Columbia Pike if it were reduced to fewer than two through travel lanes in each direction except during temporary lane closures related to construction, repair and maintenance.

What’s changed?

That agreement, however, is no longer in effect.  It was amended in 2017 and would now allow a lane in each direction to be dedicated to only transit, or transit and HOV, or some other prioritization. So now that it technically possible, should we do it?

One of the earliest transportation analyses that was done for the Pike (in 2003) actually looked at several possible configurations for transit on the Pike:

  • Curb Shared – transit operates in the curb lane and shares space with cars.
  • Median Shared – transit operates in the median lanes (moving transit stops to the median) and shares space with cars.
  • Curb Varies – transit operates in the curb lanes. It shares space with cars east of Taylor Street and new dedicated transit lanes that would be built in addition to the existing car lanes West of Taylor.
  • Median Varies – same as Curb varies, but transit in the median lanes.
  • Curb Exclusive – the existing curb lanes are dedicated to transit, all car traffic consolidated to the median lanes.
  • Median Exclusive – the existing median lanes are dedicated to transit, all car traffic consolidated to the curb lanes.

The results?

A small improvement in travel time for transit over the “no-build” scenario (which already accounts for the rest of the improvements we’ve looked at – off-vehicle fare collection, all-door boarding, etc.) and a major increase in travel time for cars.  Unfortunately, the study in question doesn’t ever calculate “person-throughput” or “per-person travel time” which are metrics that would clearly quantify the overall effect on travelers in the corridor, but with the effect on car traffic so much higher than the effect on transit and knowing transit ridership, while high on the Pike, is not more than 50% of travelers, it’s clear the overall effect is negative.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As Northern Virginia prepares to enter Phase 2 and our community businesses and organizations begin to look for ways to safely resume activities, I have noticed a distributing trend — the use of cars as required Personal Protective Equipment.

The first time it caught my eye was Arlington’s drive-through COVID testing site that opened in March, offering convenient testing for any citizen… as long as they own a car. Thankfully the County recognized the inherent injustice in this arrangement and opened a walk-up testing site, though unfortunately not until nearly two months later. Sadly, other local organizations don’t seem to have taken this lesson to heart.

My children’s elementary school, Fleet, recently had a pick-up and drop-off day where families could pick up remaining items that were left at school when the COVID closure hit, as well as drop-off library books and other items. The logistics of this event were entirely built around the idea that everyone had a personal automobile.

No directions were given about how to drop-off or pick-up without a car and parents were warned in bolded and underlined letters that they were to stay in their car at all times. This despite Fleet having a sizable walk and bike to school rate.

Finally, the Ballston BID has recently announced a Retro Drive-in Movie Night.  While less egregious than the above examples since it is purely for entertainment, it also stands out due to the demographics of Ballston. In a neighborhood where less than 40% of household drive alone to work and more than 16% are car-free, the BID has chosen to hold an event that requires a car to participate.

Likely none of the above organizations were trying to exclude anyone. Some may have been driven primarily by fear of the virus, others are certainly just suffering from what is known as “windshield perspective.” When you so often view the world from behind the wheel of a car, not only do you begin to implicitly assume that everyone owns a car, but it also colors your perceptions of people, places and events.

Research in 2013 found that not only do people who drive through less-affluent neighborhoods view them more negatively than people who walk, bike or take transit through the same neighborhoods, they even viewed the exact same event differently.

Participants in the study were shown one of four versions of a video of an ambiguous event (two boys fighting over a piece of paper). The only difference between the videos was that they were shot from either the perspective of a driver, a bus rider, a cyclist, or a pedestrian. Researchers found the participants shown the video from the driver’s perspective rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant, etc.) than those shown the other videos.

If we are to meet our climate goals, we must make our transportation sector more sustainable. While electric vehicles can help, they aren’t enough. We need to be increasing the number of trips made via less carbon-intensive, not bowing to our windshield perspective and allowing COVID to push us in the direction of more cars.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author

As part of our response to COVID-19, travel has ground to a halt. Automotive vehicles miles traveled is down around 90% in Arlington County according to Streetlight Data, while transit service has been cut drastically across the board. As Virginia starts to slowly move into its phased reopening plan, Arlington needs to prepare for the return of travel.

COVID-19 is likely to impact our transportation choices for months, if not years to come.  What do we want our transportation system to look like post-COVID?

Transit’s core efficiency of moving lots of people efficiently is predicated on those people being pretty close together, a situation that many people will be loathe to enter in the foreseeable future. Even if they wanted to, Metro’s current reopening plan doesn’t see full service resume until the Spring of 2021.

With around one-fourth of Arlington residents relying on transit for their commute and about one-fourth of those who work in Arlington but live elsewhere doing the same, where are those people going to turn when they return to work?

If we maintain the status quo, the most likely answer is their own private automobile. If you thought D.C.-area traffic was bad before, you won’t want to see how that future looks. If you dislike trying to walk or bike safely while maintaining proper social-distancing now, imagine what it will be like when traffic levels surpass previous norms.

Purchasing a car, or a second car, generally ends up being the equivalent of pre-paying for a bunch of single-occupancy vehicle commutes. Once people have that car, they tend to discount that sunk cost when making a decision about the most cost-efficient means to future travel. Helping people continue to not own a car is much easier than getting someone to give up a car in the first place.

What if, instead, we used this time of low-traffic and social-distancing to reclaim our streets for people instead of cars? For healthy-living instead of spewing CO2? People are looking for more space to walk and bike NOW. In the coming months they will be looking for a new way to get to work.

Now is the time to pause some of our expensive transit investments, like Metro station second entrances, and divert some of those resources into a quick-build, all-ages, low-stress bike network that can help with socially-distant exercise as well as give people another mobility option when more frequent travel returns.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Back in January, I kicked off this series looking at the Pike Premium Transit Network.

2020 is the year that the Columbia Pike Streetcar was supposed to start running; since many folks claimed that a “Modern BRT” system could be implemented more quickly than a Streetcar, I’m examining how far we’ve come in that implementation compared to what was envisioned.

If you need a refresher, Part 1 introduces what was envisioned for the Pike Premium Transit Network. Part 2 looked at progress on features to improve bus travel time.  Today, we will look at convenience & dependability features.

Hours of Operation

Our BRT system was supposed to be there, and reliable, at all hours to support a car-free lifestyle.  5:30-1 a.m. on weekdays, 6:30-1 a.m. on Saturdays, 6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. on Sundays according to the FTA Alternatives Analysis.  This is the kind of “all-day, every day” operations that people can count on for their primary means of transportation.

For some parts of the Pike, we are achieving or even exceeding this.  Where all of the Pentagon City Pike Buses overlap (approximately Carlin Springs Road to Pentagon City) there is service from 6 a.m. until 2:30 a.m. on Weekdays & Saturdays, as well as Sundays 6 a.m.-11:30 p.m. thanks primarily to the early & late night service of the 16E.  Service to Skyline, however, falls far short of this service achieving something more like 6 a.m.-10 p.m. on weekdays, 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. on Weekends.

Grade: B

Peak Frequency

To be transit that “just works” for people, our BRT system needs to come frequently enough that you can just show up without having to consult a schedule and plan your trip around said schedule.  This is especially important during peak commuting times, with the BRT alternative to the streetcar planning a bus every two to three minutes.

Once again, the County is pretty close on the core of the Pike, but falling down a bit if you are coming from Skyline, if you are trying to get to a specific metro station, or if you are heading west from a particular MetroRail Station.  For those traveling east on the core of the Pike and who don’t care whether they’re going to Pentagon or Pentagon City, a bus comes approximately every 3 minutes and 20 seconds, but this falls if you you’re westbound or need to get to one of those two MetroRail stations and not the other.

Grade: B-

Off-Peak Frequency

To really enable car-free living, our BRT system needs to be convenient and reliable for non-commute trips as well.  The majority of trips that people make take place off-peak.  The BRT alternative envisioned a bus every six minutes off-peak and, to be honest, we aren’t every hitting that and we’re only close if you’re starting on the core of the Pike (not from Skyline), heading east and don’t care which Metro station you’re going to.  In those cases, while mid-day headways are just over six minutes, trying to catch a bus between 10-11 p.m. on a weekday you’re looking at a bus every 12 minutes, Saturdays are generally around every 7.5 minutes and Sundays every 8.5 minutes.  If you’re heading west from Pentagon or Pentagon City you’re only getting half of those buses so you can double those numbers (so every 24 minutes weekdays from 10-11 p.m.).  Same if you’re heading east but specifically trying to get to Pentagon or Pentagon City.

Grade: C

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