Winter cheer in the Flickr pool

Here are a few of the latest images submitted to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best (and sometimes the worst) of urbanism in the greater Washington DC region.

The Wharf Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

15th St near Q St NW Image by Rex Block used with permission.

Waiting for the ice to melt (reflecting pool) Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Summer house, US Capitol grounds. Image by Erik Cox Photography used with permission.

We need your photos! Have a snap that embodies the greatest (or worst) of places in the Washington DC region? Please join the Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Top image: Key Bridge. Image by Dan McQuade used with permission.

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National links: First Amazon, now Apple has a splashy HQ2 hunt

All these news stories about Amazon and Apple searching for new headquarters kind of feel like...advertising. There's a fun Babe Ruth story behind those ubiquitous light pole banners. Denver is subsidizing empty luxury apartments so the housing doesn't go to waste.

Dueling banjos: This week Amazon released a list of 20 cities that had made the cut in its search for a second headquarters. A day before the New York Times Amazon announcement, Apple announced that when its money was repatriated to the United States from foreign havens, it would look for a place to put a second campus as well. Why do I feel like searching for a new HQ is the new native advertising, and they really just want me to buy a phone or some socks? (Reuters - Apple) (New York Times - Amazon)

A history of light pole banners: Ever wonder where those banners advertising civic programs such as the zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts came from? They aren't your typical billboard and seem to be everywhere in major cities. In fact, it all started with a picture of Babe Ruth on Chicago's Miracle Mile in 1982. After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, they were everywhere. (Curbed)

High end housing: A new housing plan called Live Denver is looking to provide housing for low income families by subsidizing vacant luxury housing units. Qualifying residents will pay up to 35 percent of their incomes toward rent, while the city of Denver picks up the rest. (Fast Company)

Mobility score: A new beta program to measure mobility called MobilityScore has been released, and Christopher Yuen at HumanTransit believes it's an important step towards figuring out our actual mobility options. While older products like TransitScore only looked at access to the type of transit, MobilityScore looks at frequencies and other transport options. (Human Transit)

Warehouse land prices double: As more people in the United States come to expect goods to be delivered to their door within two days, land prices for the warehouses that make this turnaround possible have doubled between 2016 and 2017. The trend is expected to continue as more companies develop e-commerce programs. (ReCode)

Quote of the Week

"On its face, mapping galaxies has little to do with finding abandoned buildings. But deep down, Budavári says, they’re both essentially data problems, which require analyzing massive amounts of telltale signals to detect and draw patterns the human eye can’t easily see."

Issie Lapowski in Wired discussing astrophysicist Tamás Budavári attempt to suss out all of Baltimore's abandoned buildings with data.

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National links: First Amazon, now Apple has a splashy HQ2 hunt

All these news stories about Amazon and Apple searching for new headquarters kind of feel like...advertising. There's a fun Babe Ruth story behind those ubiquitous light pole banners. Denver is subsidizing empty luxury apartments so the housing doesn't go to waste.

Dueling banjos: This week Amazon released a list of 20 cities that had made the cut in its search for a second headquarters. A day before the New York Times Amazon announcement, Apple announced that when its money was repatriated to the United States from foreign havens, it would look for a place to put a second campus as well. Why do I feel like searching for a new HQ is the new native advertising, and they really just want me to buy a phone or some socks? (Reuters - Apple) (New York Times - Amazon)

A history of light pole banners: Ever wonder where those banners advertising civic programs such as the zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts came from? They aren't your typical billboard and seem to be everywhere in major cities. In fact, it all started with a picture of Babe Ruth on Chicago's Miracle Mile in 1982. After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, they were everywhere. (Curbed)

High end housing: A new housing plan called Live Denver is looking to provide housing for low income families by subsidizing vacant luxury housing units. Qualifying residents will pay up to 35 percent of their incomes toward rent, while the city of Denver picks up the rest. (Fast Company)

Mobility score: A new beta program to measure mobility called MobilityScore has been released, and Christopher Yuen at HumanTransit believes it's an important step towards figuring out our actual mobility options. While older products like TransitScore only looked at access to the type of transit, MobilityScore looks at frequencies and other transport options. (Human Transit)

Warehouse land prices double: As more people in the United States come to expect goods to be delivered to their door within two days, land prices for the warehouses that make this turnaround possible have doubled between 2016 and 2017. The trend is expected to continue as more companies develop e-commerce programs. (ReCode)

Quote of the Week

"On its face, mapping galaxies has little to do with finding abandoned buildings. But deep down, Budavári says, they’re both essentially data problems, which require analyzing massive amounts of telltale signals to detect and draw patterns the human eye can’t easily see."

Issie Lapowski in Wired discussing astrophysicist Tamás Budavári attempt to suss out all of Baltimore's abandoned buildings with data.

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“Move to a cheaper area” is not a solution to our housing shortage

As house prices around Washington have risen over the past few years, everyone from friends to real estate agents offer the same advice: “Have you considered a cheaper area?” However, this advice really only works for an individual person looking for a house. Applied to an entire city, county, or region, this advice doesn’t work very well.

Last week, candidates for Montgomery County executive spoke to the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, a group that represents real estate agents in the county and the District of Columbia. (Full disclosure: I am a member of GCAAR, though I didn’t attend the event.) As David Alpert wrote last week, each of the candidates were asked where they’d recommend a young couple making $100,000 per year should live in the county. Two of the candidates, Roger Berliner and David Blair, suggested that they look at Silver Spring or Wheaton.

Would our hypothetical couple actually be able to do that? $100,000 seems like a lot of money and it is, though it’s actually a little lower than the county’s median household income of $100,352 per year. But what can they actually afford here?

Does this advice work?

A couple making $100,000 per year makes about $8,333 per month in monthly income before taxes. Most lenders require that homebuyers spend no more than 36 percent of their income on debt, and will subtract any other debts from that amount to get their mortgage payment. (That percentage is higher for government-backed FHA loans.) They’re just out of school, so let’s assume they each have $351 a month in student loan debt, which is the national average.

That leaves a monthly payment of $2,250. Assuming they can produce a down payment of $20,000 (or five percent of the purchase price), they could afford a home of about $400,000. That’s just below the county’s median home value of $420,000, according to Bright MLS, the region's multiple listing service.

A map of which zip codes have more homes for sale under $400,000. Data from Bright MLS. Image by the author.

And here’s where that advice works out: as of January 17, 2018, there are 389 homes in Montgomery County priced below $400,000 and with two or more bedrooms. Seventy-five of those homes, or about one out of five, are in zip code 20906, which (depending on who you ask) is part of Silver Spring, Wheaton, or neither. The Glenmont Metro station is at the very southern edge of this zip code, so most homes here aren't close enough to walk to it.

Meanwhile, all of the other zip codes with a bunch of homes our hypothetical couple could afford are all in the Upcounty, further from jobs and other amenities. Zip code 20874 (Germantown) has 39 listings in their range, while zip code 20886 (Montgomery Village) has 35. Gaithersburg zip code 20878 has 25, while 20871 (Clarksburg) has 17.

What if our hypothetical buyers wanted to look inside the Beltway? They’d still have a few choices. Zip code 20910 (downtown Silver Spring) has eight homes under $400,000, while 20814 (downtown Bethesda) has ten homes. 20902 (Wheaton and Forest Glen) has fourteen homes under $400,000. It's worth noting that most of these homes are condos.

If I were working with one couple looking for one house, this would be great! They’d have a few choices of different neighborhoods and home styles and likely be able to find something that meets their needs. 

A graph of homes currently for sale in Montgomery County under $400,000, arranged by zip code. Data from Bright MLS. Image by the author.

That said, much of the county would be off-limits to them. Most zip codes have only a handful of homes our couple could afford, and several have just one or two. Yet those are the areas that are close to transit, jobs, and sought-after schools.

And of course, there isn’t just one couple, but thousands looking for a home in this price range. Many of them are currently renting in the county, but not everyone wants to do that forever. Their income is too high to participate in Montgomery County's subsidized housing program. When they’re ready to buy, finding the right home could be a challenge.

Telling people to just live in the less expensive area is problematic

Berliner and Blair presumably recommended Silver Spring or Wheaton because for a long time they’ve been perceived as “more affordable” than the rest of the county. While that may have been the case in the past, the secret’s out: lots of people have already sought out these places because they’re cheaper than the west side of Montgomery County and, increasingly, much of the District. 

That demand pushes prices up, and many people who live in Silver Spring or Wheaton today may be pushed out to other, “more affordable” places. I know people who have moved to towns like Hyattsville or Mount Rainier because of this, but they in turn may end up pushing other people out.

Ultimately, the solution is to provide more housing so that people at all income levels can actually have choices for where to live. The Montgomery County Planning Department anticipates that almost 200,000 people will move to the county in the coming decades, and they’ll need 83,000 new homes. Stephen Fuller, the economist from George Mason University, notes that most of those homes will need to be affordable to working- and middle-class households.

This is what our candidates for County Executive, County Council, and other local offices need to be talking about. As a real estate agent, I can tell you that your best bet might be the cheaper area next to the area you’d like in. However, if you’re an elected official, we need a vision for providing more homes.

Top image: Wheaton may be more affordable than other parts of Montgomery County, but it's not guaranteed to stay that way. Image by the author.

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A controversial development in Eckington moves forward with improved benefits

The Eckington Park project is moving forward, now that local officials and developer Foulger-Pratt have come to an agreement over a community benefits package. Eckington Park is a planned mixed-use development with 328 residential units located on the northern half of the empty field between the Met Branch Trail and Harry Thomas Way NE. The project is one of a number planned for the area, which also includes the 635-unit Eckington Yards development.

On January 16, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E approved a community benefits package, something sought by the DC zoning commission before it would green light the project. However, that package did not come together until resolving some controversy over optics.

Map showing Foulger-Pratt's proposed Eckington Park development and the new large NoMa park. Image by Foulger-Pratt.

There is a lot to like about the original offer: the developer agreed to donate land to smooth the Metropolitan Branch Trail's two bends that form an S-curve at R Street NE, as well as provide more than half a million dollars for improvements to NoMa's new large park. However, that package was not enough for some members of the ANC, who put off approving the community benefits agreement in December until more was done for local residents.

Dog parks versus schools and civic associations

Foulger-Pratt first presented its benefits package to the ANC at a special meeting in December 2017. That package came after negotiations with both the NoMa Parks Foundation and the Eckington Civic Association, and included nearly half an acre of land for the planned park, $515,000 for park improvements plus another $80,000 to realign the Met Branch Trail, 22 units totaling 10.3 percent of residential square footage available to families earning up to 60 percent of median family income (MFI) — 18 would be part of the District's inclusionary zoning program — and $60,000 for neighborhood programs.

The package specifically earmarked $165,000 for the dog park planned for the plot of land the developer is donating to NoMa Parks, while only providing $60,000 to local schools, civic associations, and the Harry Thomas Recreation Center. At the December meeting, commissioners Bertha Holliday (5E07), Sylvia Pinkney (5E04), and Patricia Williams (5E02) asked why dogs should get more money than schools and other neighborhood amenities.

A rendering of Eckington Park with the planned dog park at the bottom left. Image by Foulger-Pratt.

While the optics were poor, Foulger-Pratt had previously promised land and funds to NoMa Parks to help improve the nearly half acre of land between Eckington Park and the Metro Red Line tracks that will become part of the park. It was NoMa, not the developer, that decided to locate a dog park on the site after a robust design and community input process.

Nonetheless, Holliday called the entire NoMa Parks program "highly political" at the meeting. She and Pinkney proposed reducing the funds for the dog park and adding them to funds for local amenities, particularly for schools.

"I think the [NoMa Parks] foundation could find $150,000. They had no problems finding $50 million," said Holliday, referring to the money budgeted by then Mayor Vincent Gray for parks in 2013.

Support for the project despite modest changes

The amended community benefits agreement presented by Foulger-Pratt to the ANC this month was little changed from the one presented in December. Another $2,500 was committed to programs at McKinley Technical High School, and there is an additional artist live-work unit added to the affordable units, increasing the total square footage available to those earning up to 60 percent of MFI to 10.7 percent. The developer will still contribute $165,000 to improvements for the dog park and more than $500,000 to the new park under the amended agreement.

Despite this, the commissioners approved the agreement with little debate. All but one of the nine commissioners present voted in favor, including commissioners Holliday and Pinkney.

"It's been a long process, but in the end the community has negotiated a great package of amenities, including family-size affordable housing, tenant and homeowner education programs, investments in local schools and parks, and a realignment of the Metropolitan Branch Trail," ANC 5E03 commissioner Hannah Powell, whose district includes the project, tells GGWash.

FedEx opposition fizzles

FedEx's plan to oppose Eckington Park does not appear to have materialized. After submitting a letter to the DC Zoning Commission saying it planned to oppose a change in zoning for the site in July, the shipping company did not submit any further comments on the project.

The firm cited a 1988 agreement to promote light industrial development on the site, not the medium-density mixed use building proposed by Foulger-Pratt, in its letter. A spokesman for the shipper told GGWash in August that they believed the current zoning was "best suited" for the property, without providing further explanation.

Adam Davis, vice-president of development at Foulger-Pratt, told the Eckington Civic Association in October 2017 that FedEx feared that the addition of more residents to the neighborhood could increase pressure on the firm to relocate their large distribution center in Eckington Place NE to another location.

"Their concerns are a little unfounded, that someone may kick them out of their site," he said. He added that as long as FedEx owns their building and conforms with the zoning code, there is little residents can do. Davis' comments appear to have been prescient, as FedEx has not formally opposed Eckington Park.

Foulger-Pratt, with its community benefits package finally in hand and no major opposition, plans to begin construction on Eckington Park in the spring of 2019. They hope to open in 2021.

Top image: An overview of the planned Eckington Park development adjacent to the Metropolitan Branch Trail and planned large NoMa park. Image by Foulger-Pratt.

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Breakfast links: Is transit the next realm of the #MeToo movement?

Preventing sexual harassment on public transit is complex, but starts with reporting

Sexual harassment is rampant on public transit, but is notoriously hard for operators and systems to prevent or to handle. To supplement WMATA's efforts, DC nonprofits have stepped up to help victims share their stories and report harassment.  (Carmel Delshad / WAMU)

That apartment is how many bitcoin?

Four condos in Columbia Heights are available for purchase, and the seller will accept bitcoin. This is a first for DC, but the realtor expects that more companies will accept cryptocurrencies moving forward.  (Sara Gilgore / WBJ)

Treehouse on Capitol Hill causes neighborhood stir, multiple court cases

A dispute over a treehouse that overhangs an alley by 20 inches on Capitol Hill has spurred a lawsuit in federal court and a complaint to the FBI. The treehouse, built in 2015, has already been litigated, but the owners just filed a new suit.  (Dana Hedgpath / Post)

So, if the federal government shuts down…?

If the federal government shuts down today, non-essential federal employees will not be required to go to work on Monday but the DC government (thanks to new legislation and actions) will remain open to provide services to DC residents.  (Benjamin Freed / Washingtonian)

Food deserts alone are not to blame for poor nutrition

Food deserts are disproportionately found in lower-income zip codes and are often blamed for a lack of nutritious eating habits in these areas. However, a new study finds inequality also contributes to gaps in nutritional knowledge.  (Richard Florida / CityLab)

A new art installation in NoMa displaces homeless people

In December, the DC government removed homeless residents from two underpasses in NoMa and installed barriers in preparation for two new art installations. The barriers prevent them from returning and pitching tents in these sheltered locations.  (Andrew Giambrone / City Paper)

Self driving ride hailing is coming

Not only are self-driving cars the future, but self driving ride hailing is close behind. The Detroit auto show featured changes to self driving cars with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft in mind.   (Nathan Bomey / USA Today)

Arlington County is slowly increasing office occupany

Arlington's office vacancy rate, which dramatically increased after the Great Recession through 2014, will likely decrease this year. It's still the highest in Northern Virginia and second only to Prince George's county in the region.  (Chris Teale / ARLnow)

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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 118

On Tuesday, we featured the 118th challenge to see how well you know the Metro system. Here are the answers. 

This week, we got 19 guesses. Nine got all five right. Great work, Peter K, ArlFfx, Christopher Deal, Patrick B, AlexC, Solomon, MtPDC, maxG, and Stephen C!

Image 1: Vienna

The first image shows the new staircase from the mezzanine to the platform at Vienna. This one should have been fairly easy to narrow down since it's clearly in a freeway median. Only five Metro stations are in settings like this.

You can discount Wiehle Avenue, since that station has newer architecture and a dramatically different canopy. East Falls Church is out because there, the mezzanine is below the platform. At Dunn Loring, the entrance is at one end of the platform, and has side-by-side escalators, instead of a single stair. The arrangement of the vertical circulation and the canopy is quite different at West Falls Church, so that leaves Vienna as the only possible guess. 

15 got the right answer.

Image 2: NoMa

The second image was taken at NoMa. The view here is looking down from the platform into the mezzanine. The main clue here is the leaf art motif and the newer style fencing enclosing the fare-paid area. The escalator lighting is also common to stations built in the early 2000s, however, the escalators at NoMa are currently being replaced with newer models that will have LED lighting. 

15 knew this one.

Image 3: Farragut North

The third image shows the entrance to Farragut North on the southwest corner of Connecticut and L, under the Washington Square building. This entrance is closed on weekends, but gets a lot of use on weekdays. The only real way to solve this one was to recognize the hexagonal glass pattern above the escalator. 

11 guessed correctly.

Image 4: Pentagon City

This picture shows a closed entrance at Pentagon City. The sign above the doors here notes the hours this entrance is open, though I've personally never seen the entrance open. These doors are located directly opposite the fare array and are accompanied by four portholes that follow the path of these stairs. These clues should have helped you get to the correct answer. 

15 thought this was Pentagon City. 

Image 5: Court House

The final image shows a view of the mezzanine at Court House. This one should have been child's play to answer. The easiest way is to note that this is an underground station served only by the Orange and Silver Lines. That narrows it down to just four stations. However the three westernmost underground stations in Arlington — Clarendon, Virginia Square, and Ballston — all have side platforms instead of a center platform.

18 came to the correct conclusion.

Great work, everyone. Thanks for playing! We'll be back soon with challenge #119.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

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Here’s how we can improve bus service east of the Anacostia River

The physical and human geography in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are different than the rest of DC, which creates challenges for running a good bus network there. Making it better will require a more careful approach than a boilerplate public transit redesign.

The neighborhoods east of the Anacostia have some of the longest commute times in DC — at or above 35 minutes on average (compared with 29 minutes District-wide), and over 45 minutes for those who use public transportation. There is some Metrorail access, as the Green Line serves Anacostia and Congress Heights, and the Blue and Orange Lines serve neighborhoods north of Fort Circle Park. In between, however, residents must rely on bus transportation, which tends to be slower and, despite their lower fares, more costly to run.

The good news is that it is possible to improve public transportation east of the river by integrating buses and Metrorail better. While such integration would have positive citywide effects, it may also require a greater investment of public funds.

The area has unique geographic difficulties

The New York-based think tank TransitCenter recommends “straight and direct” routes, without deviations, and bus network consultant Jarrett Walker considers the grid to be the most useful bus layout. However, the physical geography of DC’s east-of-the-river neighborhoods do not easily support such bus routes.

Straight bus routes intersecting at right angles require the street network to be a grid. While much of the District does have a cohesive grid, allowing for straight corridors such as 14th and 16th Streets Northwest or H Street North, the neighborhoods east of the river do not. There are very few north-south and east-west streets in these neighborhoods, and those only form small, local grids, such as in Fairlawn and Northeast Boundary, rather than large-scale grids of arterial routes that could host buses. Minnesota Avenue runs diagonally from Anacostia northeast to Deanwood, and could form a basis for a network of intersecting routes — but deviations and turns on local streets are unavoidable.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

Ultimately, the lack of a large-scale street grid east of the Anacostia River comes from the hilly terrain. Hills make the street grid more difficult, but also make it harder for passengers to walk to the bus stop. This forces transit agencies to have more closely spaced routes, which reduces the frequency each route could have on a fixed budget, and more closely spaced stops, which reduces average speed. Pruning weaker bus routes is less feasible in such an environment: elsewhere, WMATA could require passengers to walk a quarter mile further to a more frequent bus, but in Southeast DC, such a walk might involve going up and down a steep hill.

Consolidating routes would be easier if Metrorail were laid out at the intersections with the busiest arterial streets. Unfortunately, it is not. The most important street parallel to the river, Minnesota Avenue, connects the Green Line with the Orange Line, but misses the Blue Line. Major streets that cross the river inconsistently meet Metrorail stations west of the river: from Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, carrying South Capitol Street, to Benning Road Bridge, the only bridge that easily connects to Metrorail west of the river is the Sousa Bridge carrying Pennsylvania Avenue.

The impact of poverty

While some of the difficulties of designing a good transit system east of the river are purely about physical geography, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this area contains some of the poorest neighborhoods in the District. The three zip codes east of the river — 20019, 20020, 20032 — have median household incomes of $34,952, $33,196, and $33,832, respectively; the median income for the District as a whole is $72,935.

The poverty of these neighborhoods impacts planning in at least two distinct ways.

The first is that a current bus route or Metro station may see substantial usage even if service is poor, if there are no alternatives. In higher-income neighborhoods, transit agencies can use simple data analysis to learn which routes offer the best service, because those are likely to be the busiest; middle-income riders will most likely not use low-quality routes, but instead take taxis, use ride-hailing services like Uber, or buy cars. But in low-income communities, such analysis would reveal very little, forcing WMATA to understand quality of service using theoretical insight into best practices, combined with outreach within the community.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

The second implication is that if there are separate systems with separate fares, low-income workers will ride the cheaper system. Metrobus charges a flat $2 per trip whereas Metrorail charges more, for example $2.60 peak and $2.25 off-peak between Anacostia and Farragut. Moreover, passengers who transfer between Metrobus and Metrorail must pay two fares, so a combined trip from Southeast DC to Farragut costs $4.10 peak and $3.75 off-peak.

When Metrorail first extended the Green Line to Anacostia, the plan was to reroute the buses to serve the new station. This led to community protests over the higher fares charged to passengers transferring between the buses and the trains. Today, it is best to reroute buses to connect to Metrorail, a faster service with lower provision costs; however, workers east of the river will keep riding the buses alone if that option is cheaper, and would be disproportionately impacted by any proposal involving a large fare increase.

Is fare integration the answer?

In DC, buses and Metro are on separate fare schedules: buses are cheaper, and there are no free transfers. This makes it difficult to have east-of-the-river buses feed Metrorail stations, as is common in cities with subway networks as strong as Washington’s, because people have an incentive to take the bus for the full length of their trip.

However, the best industry practice for running an effective transit network is fare integration. This means that a trip on public transit between two points should cost the same, regardless of whether it involves a one-seat bus ride, a connection between two buses, or a connection between a bus and Metrorail. Continental European cities almost universally have such a fare regime, even when it involves multiple different agencies. Many American cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles do as well, although they don’t incorporate their commuter rail networks. In those cities, planners can more easily reconfigure bus service to connect to the urban rail network; Seattle did, and as a result, its transit use and bus ridership have kept growing, even as its light rail (which opened in 2009) cannibalized some of its bus traffic.

Therefore, the best approach would be to bring Metrorail and bus fares in alignment. This could potentially raise costs for bus-only riders compared with what they are currently paying, but would make it easier for riders to take the fastest or more convenient option. It would also reduce operating costs: Metrorail is cheaper to operate than buses, and yet the fare system incentivizes taking the bus.

The most important thing to do is to make transfers free. At a minimum, WMATA should change the fare schedule on buses and trains so that passengers who transfer only pay the Metrorail fare, which is only moderately higher than the bus fare. But it would be better if the fares were exactly equal, as they are in so many other cities.

Fare alignment and equity

Fare integration is critical for the success of the public transit network, not just east of the river but in the entire region. But raising bus fares to match peak rail fares, potentially going up to $3 or even more between Anacostia and northern neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, would just make transportation less affordable to low-income Washingtonians, who are far more likely to be black or Hispanic. A small fare increase may be conscionable, if it brings sufficient improvements in service and ridership in low-income areas, but not a large one.

This implies that within parts of the District, Metrorail fares need to decrease. The decrease does not need to be large; going to $2.25 flat fare within a central zone, including Anacostia and Minnesota Avenue, would have limited negative impact on revenue. It might even decrease operating subsidy, if low-income users transition out of high-cost buses and onto lower-cost trains. The highest-ridership bus route in the region, the 70 series, is closely parallel to the Green and Yellow Lines, and if passengers switched to Metrorail then it would free up resources to be spent on buses elsewhere in the District.

Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

The impact of fare integration would thus be felt in the entire District and even in some inner suburbs, and not just east of the river. Fare integration would facilitate rearranging some key bus routes to feed Metrorail. The cost is that it would involve changing the fare system in the inner parts of the region, from today’s granular distance-based fare to a zoned system, in which the fare within the District is flat. In the suburbs, the distance-based system need not change, as there are relatively few local buses that could provide two different fare systems. Fare integration would certainly enhance equity, and might also increase efficiency to the point of saving money.

Ultimately, however, serving poor communities effectively requires spending public money. Improvements in public transit serving low-income communities may not always “pay for themselves” in terms of system costs, even when employing best industry practices; a more equitable system may therefore require spending a substantial ongoing investment of public funds in increased operating subsidies.

Rearranging the network

If WMATA implements fare integration between Metrorail and buses, then it can reconfigure the bus network east of the river to feed the trains better. With no north-south or east-west grid streets, it would need to rely instead on routes parallel to and perpendicular to the river. The most important is Minnesota Avenue; potentially WMATA should consider opening an infill station on the Blue Line, similar in scope to NoMa-Gallaudet U on the Red Line, in order to make it easier to transfer from Minnesota Avenue buses to the trains.

Additional important corridors include Pennsylvania Avenue, with the only bridge over the Anacostia whose landing west of the river connects easily to Metrorail (at Potomac Avenue on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines); and Alabama Avenue, parallel to Minnesota Avenue, connecting Congress Heights with Benning Road along the route of the W4 bus today.

Today, because the fare system encourages low-income riders to take buses all the way from their homes to downtown DC, many buses east of the river divert to Pennsylvania Avenue. The only bus that goes along the entirety of Minnesota Avenue, the V2, comes every half hour off-peak. Instead, WMATA could be running a bus down Minnesota and rely on connections to Metrorail and to high-frequency buses on Pennsylvania Avenue. With less branching, fewer meanders, and less need to run buses across the river, there would be room for much higher frequency on each trunk. Minnesota Avenue could get a bus every ten minutes off-peak, maybe even every eight minutes.

Despite physical challenges, the area isn't doomed to bad transit

Public transit east of the Anacostia River has unique challenges: difficult physical geography, Metrorail stations that are not placed for optimal bus connections, and very low incomes among riders. But it is possible to overcome these challenges; the area is not doomed to circuitous bus routes.

The central piece to improving the area’s public transportation is fare integration between buses and trains, through very small increases in bus fares and free transfers. With fare integration, passengers are likely to switch from buses to Metrorail, which has lower cost of service provision, which would allow pruning some bus branches. This has the potential to stimulate sufficient additional ridership that despite the decrease in fare collection, the overall public subsidy required may yet go down.

However, it is not guaranteed that a moderate fare change would be a net money-saver. Good public service for low-income residents is steeped with subsidies, everywhere: for health care, education, roads, housing, and transit. Adopting best industry practices may require an increase in public spending, but this investment would be worth it given the positive impact on connectivity to the rest of the city.

This article is part of the DC Policy Center's ongoing research to generate data and analyses on the District of Columbia's economy and demography.

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Washington gets a hat trick on Amazon’s HQ2 short list

Amazon has just revealed the top 20 city candidates for its second headquarters, and three of them are in the Washington region: DC, Northern Virginia, and Montgomery County. The only other metro area to get more than one location on the list is New York City and Newark. Toronto is the only non-US city on the list; the original 238 applicants included candidates from Mexico, the US, and Canada. 

For the uninitiated, Amazon wants to construct a second corporate campus, which the release clarified will be a "full equal" to the existing one in Seattle. It will occupy up to 8 million square feet and include $5 billion in investment, with the potential to support as many as 50,000 “high-paying” jobs — though Amazon hasn't defined what they mean by "high paying." Major metro areas across the US and beyond have been vying for the new headquarters.

The places that have made the first cut will move to the next step of the submission process, which includes working directly with the candidates to obtain more information. Amazon says they're planning to make a final decision by the end of the year. Here are the 20 places that made the first cut:

  • Atlanta, GA
  • Austin, TX
  • Boston, MA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Columbus, OH
  • Dallas, TX
  • Denver, CO
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Miami, FL
  • Montgomery County, MD
  • Nashville, TN
  • Newark, NJ
  • New York City, NY
  • Northern Virginia, VA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Raleigh, NC
  • Toronto, ON
  • Washington, DC

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a press release this morning, “As Washington, DC continues to grow and we continue our focus on creating pathways to the middle class for more Washingtonians, it would be a win for our residents and the region to bring 50,000 high-paying jobs to our city. Making this list reaffirms what we already knew going into the bid process – Washington, DC is no longer a one-company government town, we are a leader in innovation and tech, brimming with top talent and endless opportunity.”

Here's what our contributors have to say about it: 

David Meni says,

Whether this speaks to the region's assets in transportation/education/labor force, Bezos' slight bias for the region, or the fact that our area gave the most in secret corporate subsidies remains to be seen. It's probably some combination of the three. 

My cynical take is that they separated DC, Maryland, and Virginia because we're one of the only metro areas with so many competing jurisdictions to play off each other. It super-charges the race to the bottom. Also, their picks in the region won't be helping the East/West imbalance. I don't disagree that it would be an economic boon, the question is *for whom* and *at what cost.* 

Abby Lynch says,

That just confirms my impression that this is just a list of major metro areas that are also interesting places to live. I suppose it's a smart business and PR move on Amazon's part to trigger this kind of competition, but I would assume that many of these were on a short list already.

Taking an economic perspective, Rahul Sinha notes,

Economic clustering is real, so I do think HQ2 would be a boon for the region, including within DC if it were in Wards 5/7/8, which lack much in the way of tradable labor employment base.

There are real feedback loops to hitting critical mass in a given type of employment, and the DC area isn’t really there yet when it comes to a particular level of tech talent. We have some dynamism in that sector, but the tech community here is still too focused on federal clients.

Dan Malouff wants to know,

Northern Virginia submitted multiple bids. Which one is this? The lack of a jurisdiction in the name suggests maybe it's the joint Fairfax-Loudoun bid for Dulles, but it's not clear.

Alex Baca says,

I find the Amazon conversation pretty snoozy, to be honest! Amazon will go to where it can benefit the most, whether that's in labor costs, land costs, or...whatever costs. (Though one quirk I'd entertain is Bezos doubling-down on the Washington region and selecting DC or Montgomery County so that he can be close to the Post — CEOs love to locate their headquarters for their convenience.)

From there, Amazon will choose to do whatever it chooses to do with regard to community benefits and engagement — so in my dreams, local politicians and organizations are ready with demands, though they definitely won't be.

Tracy Loh adds,

I’m disappointed that Baltimore didn’t make it. I would have expected a stronger case there than other Rust Belt cities, but it’s tough to say without seeing the bids or hearing more feedback from Amazon. I still think it’s a mistake to see this request for proposals as a typical corporate relocation driven by a quest for subsidies.

My sense is that this is a real estate investment for Amazon and they are looking for a smart co-investor, not short term freebies. A smart growth developer like Amazon could be a major plus for our region’s built environment, if our jurisdictions are smart about sponsoring placemaking instead of writing blank checks.

Dan Reed points out: 

I’m with Abby and Tracy — after Discovery announced they were leaving Silver Spring, there was a lot of handwringing about how Montgomery County is a bad place to do business because of bureaucracy or high taxes, but their people made it explicitly clear: They were moving because of their own issues, but also because New York is a nice place to be.

Likewise, Amazon’s short list is really a list of nice places to live, not a list of low-cost or low-regulation places.

What do you think of the Amazon news?

Top image: The 20 cities that have made the first cut. Image by Amazon.

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Baltimore’s suburb-to-suburb express buses aren’t attracting many riders. Why not?

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is eliminating three suburb-to-suburb express bus routes around Baltimore due to low ridership. The routes were introduced in 2016 to give people commuting to suburban job centers a transit option that avoided downtown congestion.

It’s a good idea in theory, so why aren’t these routes working?

MTA’s Express BusLink routes (Google map). Routes to be eliminated are Express BusLink 102 (purple) between Sheppard Pratt Hospital and White Marsh, Express BusLink 106 (orange) between Sheppard Pratt Hospital and Owings Mills, and Express BusLink 107 (red) between Old Court and BWI Airport.

First, it’s important to note these routes are useful to some riders but MTA, like all transit agencies, has to balance the competing objectives of ridership and coverage. Since low ridership is the reason for the cancellations, I decided to look into possible explanations for that low ridership.

The routes’ destinations might not be popular enough to support dedicated express service

All the other Express BusLink routes go to downtown Baltimore, generally stopping only to pick up more passengers headed there. This makes sense. Downtown is a popular enough destination that buses going only there attract riders.

The 102, 106, and 107 routes, of course, don’t go downtown. While they serve secondary hubs like Towson and BWI Airport, those places simply might not have the critical mass of jobs and activity to support their own dedicated express service, especially when most of them are already served by the regular transit network.

The route areas are auto-oriented

Transit tends to thrive in dense, urban areas where it offers a more convenient alternative to driving. Baltimore’s downtown express routes work because they let people opt out of sitting in traffic, looking for parking, and (for some) paying tolls. Generally, the suburban destinations on the 102, 106, and 107 routes don’t present the same disincentives to driving. In fact, most of them were built for cars and are hard to navigate without one.

It’s hard for transit to compete with driving in places like White Marsh, where Express BusLink 102 ends. Map by Google.

Suburban Baltimore’s auto-oriented land use patterns also force the routes themselves to deviate and backtrack in order to serve destinations. This makes trips longer and less attractive to riders.

Express BusLink 107 serves UMBC and CCBC Catonsville, but goes way out of its way to do so. Map by Google.

The routes don’t fulfill their grid potential

Transit expert Jarrett Walker makes a compelling argument for high-frequency, gridded transit networks (as opposed to radial, downtown-oriented ones) that allow direct trips “from anywhere to anywhere” within the system. At first glance, these routes appear to form the outer orbit of a radial grid. (For the full effect, turn on the other transit layers here.)

However, because they run only during weekday peaks, they’re of little use for connecting to the larger network. (One way MTA could unlock more grid benefits might be directing resources from these canceled routes toward higher frequencies on some of its orbital LocalLink routes.)

What else do you notice about these routes? How might they be improved if MTA decides to bring them back in the future?

Top image: View from a MegaBus. Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

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