Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The nature of high value ("strong") residential real estate markets.

Corner rowhouse at the southwest corner of New Hampshire and Upshur Streets NW demolished and replaced by a taller, less architecturally attractive building (4100 New Hampshire Avenue NW)
Infill "rowhouse" on Spring Street NW, Columbia Heights, DC.

DC's single family housing stock tends to be made up of comparatively small buildings, most no higher than two-stories tall.  Housing in the core of the city tends to be comprised of attached rowhouses with a mix of apartment buildings. 

Today's Washington Post has a story, "Cities turn to `missing middle` housing to keep older millennials from leaving."

In high value markets, the missing middle isn't about the type of housing, but about the price of housing.  The point the article misses is the cost of property relative to household income.

Levittown House, 1948A house in Levittown, New York, c. 1950s.

The reason you have duplexes, rowhouses, etc. is to fit more housing units on smaller plots of land. 

But in a market where demand is greater than supply, housing size does(n't) matter.

DC has plenty of "middle housing" in terms of size. 

Theoretically, small lot properties cost less, and in high priced markets, smaller properties are more affordable than larger properties.

But it's all relative.  Because of the demand for housing relative to supply, this type of middle housing is not low cost despite it being less desirable compared to the "American Dream" of a large detached house on a large lot.

For example an alley rowhouse or small rowhouses of less than 800 s.f. can still sell for close to $600,000 depending on its location.

Or the Pullman Place DC condominiums, built on the site of a former small industrial building, adds 42 units of housing, each ranging from about 600 s.f. to 1,100 s.f., at prices up to $750,000 per unit ("Pullman Place sits above train tracks behind Union Station and offers Downtown views," Washington Post).

The reason millennials are moving out of the city isn't because they are aging out and no longer wanting to live in the city, but because they want a single family house (detached or attached) and they don't have the ability to fund a $1 million mortgage.

I was just reading an article about Vancouver ("An avalanche of money: An expert on how income disparities are reshaping Canada's metropolitan areas zeroes in on Vancouver," Toronto Globe and Mail), which describes a similar situation as covered in the Post article. 

There, lower value neighborhoods now tend to be located in the suburbs, and farther from the core, by contrast to the time when center city locations were seen as undesirable, center city housing was low priced, not suburban housing.

Supergentrification vs. capital deepening.  I have written about this issue over the years, where I discussed the "supergentrification" thesis of Loretta Lees, applying it to DC, although DC is still relative compared to cities like New York and San

-- "Exogenous market forces impact DC's housing market," 2012
-- "Applying the supergentrification thesis to San Francisco, Santa Monica, and other cities experiencing hyper-demand," 2014

The second piece more succinctly makes the argument, which is that:
The highest wage earners are driving the market in the "best" neighborhoods, not average wage earners.
As DC specifically and high quality urban locations become in demand for larger numbers of people at the scale of the regional residential landscape, prices rise--because more neighborhoods are attractive to more people, and properties are purchased by those who have the most money (cf. "capitalism").

Because housing inventory is constrained, only small increases in demand are necessary to generate large increases in price.

For the most part, most land suitable for residential housing has already been developed, and at comparatively low densities. The city can't grow outward, it can only "grow" intensively.

In the TGM article, Professor David Ley calls the process of high income (a variable indicating a neighborhood in high demand) neighborhoods becoming even higher income, "capital deepening," which I think is a better term than "supergentrification."  From the article:
"Because every time redevelopment occurs you get a substantial increase in the socio economic status of occupants … [market-rate] supply is only for high-income people. So, whenever redevelopment occurs, it means higher income people are occupying the space," says Dr. Ley. "Two things are happening: there is gentrification in the inner city, but then there's what I call 'capital deepening,' which is an area that is becoming richer."
Why adding to housing inventory doesn't lead to lower prices in the short and intermediate terms.  But even if new housing is added, it doesn't "reduce prices" for three reasons.

First, it's built at current prices for land, labor, and materials, so by definition it is the most expensive housing there is.  Second, because of this, it means that only over multi-decade periods as even newer housing is added to the market, will it help to slacken price growth.

Third, in the short and intermediate terms, demand even in the face of additions to the housing supply is still greater than supply. Because demand is greater than supply, housing prices continue to increase.

Spring CleaningTenements in Manhattan tend to be five to seven stories tall.

In DC this is even more pronounced because when most of the housing in the city was constructed, the population was relatively low, so houses and apartment buildings are small, compared to the housing built in cities like New York, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston around the same time.

Mostly new construction is made up of multiunit housing _in commercial districts_, where it is much easier to build because of building regulations and the fact that by replacing commercial uses, it doesn't displace existing residents.

New houses being constructed at the old Methodist Home, Peabody Street NENew detached and attached houses being constructed at the old Methodist Home, Peabody Street NE, 2006. The building at the heart of the campus was converted to condominiums.

However, here and there institutional properties with "interstitial" qualities get converted to "no lot" single family housing (e.g., the old Methodist Home property on New Hampshire Ave. NE almost on the Maryland border, the EYA development in Brookland, Chancellors Row, from land deaccessioned by St. Paul's College, the EYA proposed project on land being deaccessioned by St. Joseph's Seminary, etc.

Interstitial properties tend to not be particularly close to high capacity transit.

$1 million is the ceiling for housing prices in many DC neighborhoods.  It seems as if housing prices in a majority of in-demand DC neighborhoods for "average sized houses" (that is, less than 2,000 s.f., with variable lot sizes--smaller in the core, larger in the Outer City) will stabilize in the range of $1 million.

(Neighborhoods like Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase, with different characteristics, have a ceiling price at an even higher scale.)

House for sale ad, Northwest Current (DC), 12/6/2017Northwest Current housing ad, 12/6/2017.

Many neighborhoods are at that price point, judging by real estate ads in the Northwest Current and the Hill Rag, the city's leading community newspapers covering the city's most in-demand neighborhoods.

Other neighborhoods are moving towards that point (e.g. the most recent sale on my block in Manor Park, for a detached house, no larger than 1/6 of an acre, completely renovated, was about $835,000, for a location not quite one mile to a Metrorail station.  Interestingly, that price was higher than for two other houses, larger, that sold on the block over the previous few months.)

At current interest rates,* the $1 million price is affordable to two-earner households with high incomes, especially with the tax benefits that flow back from federal income tax deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes.

It seems as if that million dollar price is a real ceiling, given a house I know about for sale on the 100 block of 4th Street SE in the heart of Capitol Hill.

Renovated, with a basement rental unit, within a couple blocks of the US Capitol, and on the market for less than $1.2 million. You can't find a better location in terms of proximity to Downtown, the Capitol, transit, walkscores, etc., so if the market were "unlimited" on the buying side, the price would likely be higher.

Urban sociology provides the nuance necessary to understand urban housing economics.  It happens just yesterday I ran into a local historian at a neighborhood craft fair and we had an extended conversation about these issues, structural racism, etc.--what a great city it is to be able to have the opportunities for such random conversations!

To understand what's going on, it's important to be conversant with urban sociology, Robert Park's The City, which lays out the foundations of US urban sociology, and Urban Fortunes, which discusses why cities are focused on real estate development and land use intensification as the primary driver of the local economy, since local government finance is dependent on property tax revenue.

* Federal tax law changes will significantly change the nature of the housing market in strong market cities.  Note that the changes likely coming to the tax code will significantly change housing pricing in hyperstrong markets like DC because of limitations on mortgage interest deductions and the elimination of deductions for state and local taxes (although apparently a $10,000 cap on deductions may end up in the final bill).

An $800,000 mortgage costs between $4,500 and $5,000/mo. in interest. When you can deduct that from your taxes, sustaining million dollar housing pricing is much easier.

Special housing market problems unique to DC: federal government downsizing.  DC's housing market also will experience a downturn, or at least a slackening of price escalation and appreciation not just because of the tax law changes, but because of the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Administration's focus on reducing the size of government.

Agencies are getting cut as it is.  Units are being dismantled.  People are losing their (high paying) jobs.

Even if Democrats take either or both the House and the Senate in 2018, this process will not be reversed until Democrats control the Executive Branch.

Granted a lot of the benefits of federal government employment are enjoyed by DC's suburbs--more than 60% of the jobs located within Washington, DC are held by people not living in DC--but DC is already being impacted, not just with older millennials as discussed in today's Post, but also with younger millennials, who don't see opportunities in working for government or in related fields ("The millennials who transformed D.C. after the recession are now leaving for cheaper cities," Post) so they have stopped moving to DC, and it was millennials that drove the city's recent increase in population.

Growing the base of middle housing: intensification.  Separately, there are three ways to intensify land use and add housing units to places that otherwise are for the most part, built out.

1.  Adding multiunit buildings by converting low dense commercial properties (and interstitial pieces of institutional properties).

2.  Making existing houses bigger and/or breaking up larger houses into multiple, smaller units.

3.  Adding English basements and carriage houses to existing properties.

By severely limiting height and "defining density down" (e.g., "D.C. court rejects Brookland project for a third and possibly final time," Washington Business Journal) residents clamoring about housing affordability are eliminating opportunities to address the problem, albeit the results aren't discernable for multiple decades.

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Saturday, December 09, 2017

Signs and marquees as public art and landmarks

I am a fan of outdoor signage as an urban design element of commercial districts and communities more generally.  Although some quarters, such as the group Scenic America, look at most forms of outdoor advertising as a desecration of the public space.

Sure, places like Times Square in New York City, Piccadilly Circus in London ("Advertisers set to fight to have their name in lights at Piccadilly Circus," London Evening Standard), or sign-marked urban arterials in many cities can be somewhat cacophonous, but they also acknowledge, even celebrate commercialism in the context of the buoyant capitalism that marks the United States as the USA.

In DC, there is some billboard signage around Gallery Place and the Capital One Arena but it pales vis a vis NYC.  The Downtown Silver Spring district in Montgomery County has developed a kind of Times Square effect, on a much smaller scale, with signage on one shopping center complemented by the neon signage of the cinemas across the street.
Ellsworth Place night time signage, Downtown Silver Spring, Ellsworth Avenue and Fenton Street
The Downtown Silver Spring night time signage is more bright than it is an artistic and aesthetic element of the streetscape.

Three recent sign type projects, although one is in Canada, are noteworthy, as they involved serious historic preservation and restoration efforts.

Two wrinkles with signs are (1) the old signs -- neon and electric -- tend to be more novel, but as other forms of advertising supplanted place-based advertising (signs and billboards), these types of signage fell out of use generally, replaced by back lit signs originally and now digital signs, and specifically, as companies went out of business; (2) defunct companies matter in terms of maintaining signage not only because they were motivated and successors are not, but because building regulations typically require the removal of the signs of defunct businesses regardless of the artistic and historic merits.

1.  The Toronto Star reports ("Sam the Record Man sign lights up Yonge Dundas Square") that the sign advertising the original location of Sam the Record Man has been restored, after being out of commission for more than 10 years.

Jaren Kern, Toronto Star.

2. The Los Angeles Times reports ("Rare vintage electric sign lights up Sunset Boulevard again after a restoration") about the restoration of the Jensen's Recreation Center moving sign, which shows a bowler throwing strikes. From the article:
Considered groundbreaking technology at the time of its installation, the sign is controlled by a series of electric motors that switch the 1,300 red, green and white light bulbs on and off to give the appearance of movement.

The sign was mostly dark for about 50 years but has just been restored by new owners Vista Investment Group. ...

Animated incandescent signs predated neon signs, which became popular in the 1920s, said Eric Evavold, former board member of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale. The Jensen’s sign is one of the largest such vintage, operable signs left in the world, he said.

“It’s incredible that this sign was just sitting there in the middle of the city for so long,” Evavold said. “This is a special jewel in our illuminated sign history.”

3. In Ann Arbor, the owners of the State Theatre building -- the top is still used for events, the bottom of the building has long been rented out as a separate retail space -- have restored the marquee ("Ann Arbor's newly restored State Theatre marquee more dazzling than ever," Ann Arbor News) as part of an upgrade to the entire property. The State Theatre is where I saw movies like "Purple Rain."

Restoration of the State Theatre marquee, Ann Arbor
The State Theatre's marquee was relit after a period of renovations in downtown Ann Arbor on Friday, December 1, 2017. The State Theatre will officially reopen on Friday, December 8. Hunter Dyke | The Ann Arbor News

For a long time the separate Michigan Theater has been a nonprofit, showing films, concerts, etc. for decades, while the State Theatre had generally owned by regional cinema chains. 

At some point, the Michigan Theater Foundation also acquired the State Theatre.  Since the buildings are located within a block of each other, this kind of joint operation (not unlike what the Playhouse Square Foundation does in Cleveland -- "PlayhouseSquare stars in its own real estate revival," Cleveland Plain Dealer) makes sense.

The Ann Arbor combination of the State Theatre with the Michigan Theater is an illustration of my point about BTMFBA ("BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building"), if you want to control the space and retain it as an element of the network of a community's civic and cultural assets, most often you're going to have to buy it yourself.

By contrast, DC's Takoma Theatre is slated to become a clinic facility for Children's Hospital, when at one point it was the most intact extant neighborhood theater property remaining in DC.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

A note on food halls

Dueling stories, positive ("Why Millennials, Landlords Love The American Food Hall," Bisnow) and negative ("The Inflated Promise of the American Food Hall," New Yorker Magazine) make it important to discern what's going on with food halls.

I've written about the phenomenon of food halls a bunch over the past few years.  Food halls are like public markets in that they are seemingly shared spaces, but (1) they aren't run by cities but by real estate companies, so they are very much for profit opeartions, and (2) they tend to sell prepared foods, not fresh foods.

With the demise of traditional retail, real estate developers looking to keep their properties leased and attractive have seized on food halls as "a product" ("How artisan food halls are transforming malls," JLL Real Views)..

In DC, Union Market is a food hall, and food halls are opening in the suburbs ("DC's 'Top Chef' supersizes it: A preview of Isabella Eatery," WTOP Radio). Events DC has suggested creating a food hall as part of its redevelopment of the RFK campus even though it is less than one mile from DC's Eastern Market and about two miles from Union Market.

A few months back I wrote an update to the "Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization" oeuvre ("Destination restaurants as a call for revisiting "Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization""), making three points:

  • Establishments serving regulars/neighborhood residents have a more positive impact on commercial district improvement. Neighborhood residents have different interests from "foodies" visiting a high profile restaurant in a neighborhood with which they are otherwise unfamiliar.  Residents visit and buy from other neighborhood-based retailers, if not on the same trip to the restaurant.
  • Food tourists are unlikely to support neighborhood retail. "Food tourists" choosing to eat a high profile restaurant are visiting the restaurant but not the place or what else is there. Even if they become regulars at the restaurant rather than one-time customers, they are still not likely to explore the district beyond the restaurant. They definitely aren't interested in extending their trip by shopping local retailers.
  • But the publicity value of destination restaurants can be leveraged.

Also see the 2016 piece, "Successful retail today often includes food, experiences, social elements, and isn't rote."

Similarly, we need to think in a more nuanced way about the value of food halls, for both patrons and the operators. 

While destination restaurants are great for neighborhood commercial districts in terms of generating publicity and buzz, they may not support other revitalization goals.  The same goes for food halls.  If tenancy doesn't work out for a vendor, they could lose tons of money even if the property owner still does well.
  • Food halls targeting daytime office workers are not likely to be a super good thing for operators, especially those seeking to sell unique products.  This gets back to the point about how office workers support a very narrow category of food service--quick service--and expensive eats.
  • Food halls developed to be more of a destination and focused on evening and weekend dayparts are likely to be successful for operators
  • Provided that the format isn't over-used and/or that the population-base is large enough to support multiple competitors
Office districts tend to not have a particularly high quality range of food service options.  Think of this in your area.  I know with the DC area, Crystal City, Rosslyn, and the Carlyle District in Northern Virginia, most federal districts across the metropolitan area (e.g., Suitland, L'Enfant Plaza), etc., are quite dull restaurant-wise.

In a time when capital reigns supreme, labor tends to not feel as if it has the leeway to be able to go out for a long lunch.  Maybe people do so every few weeks/once per month.  Otherwise, they are looking for a quick and cheap bite--which is why chains like Panera have been on the rise for awhile.  So for all the talk about "mixed use" and how office supports retail development, the reality is something different.

One of the places where I first noticed the burgeoning food hall movement is in Orange County, California, a large suburban county with 3.1 million residents in Southern California("Your guide to Orange County food halls," Los Angeles Times; "Are There Really Eight? We Check In On OC's Food Halls," OC Weekly; Orange County Could Teach LA a Few Things About Food Halls," EaterLA).

While there are many examples, the food section of the OC Mix, a redeveloped furniture complex, and the Anaheim Packing District adaptation of a former fruit packing building are the ones that stick out.

But these food halls target the shopper looking to shop and or seeking out unique experiences.  They are destinations, and they are focused on night-time and weekend business, which is the time of day when retailers and restaurants make most of their sales.

These are destinations not focused on center city office workers, although they probably get some of that sort of business given their proximity to office districts in Anaheim and Costa Mesa.

OC Mix has a number of high quality vendors, from coffee to food to cakes, complemented by interesting retail. Sadly, the Surfas restaurant supply store that was open to the public closed ("What's happening with Surfas, the great SoCal cooking shop," Los Angeles Times).

I've worked hard trying to duplicate this moist, rich chocolate cake recipe.  I've come close, but haven't been able to match it.

For example, the regional SusieCakes chain has a store there, which sells some of the best cakes I've ever tasted.  How many times have you purchased items at a market and said "that's one of the best foods I've ever tasted?"

The Packing District is like Union Market in DC, but probably 10 times better in terms of the quality of the food on offer--but by contrast, Union Market creatively uses what would otherwise be crappy parking lots and loading docks for programming and events which constantly attract new audiences.

That being said, the Packing District is plenty programmed, which makes sense given that it is run by one of the nation's most creative retailing operations ("Most Influential 2014: Shaheen Sadeghi led an independent revival in Anaheim," and "Can anti-mall and Packing House developer work his Midas touch," Orange County Register).

The vendors don't all succeed, and yes, there is little fresh food sold separate from prepared meals and items, although some vendors may have little markets as part of their offering, but likely the  average transaction is much higher in what I would call a "destination food hall" versus an "office worker/daytime food hall".

The Mike Isabella operation in one of the nation's largest malls in Tysons in Fairfax Virginia will be more like the destination food halls in Orange County and is more likely to be successful, provided it can overcome its mall location and whether or not it will generate repeat customers seeking out its offerings whether or not they come to shop--over time, even upscale "food courts" (one of the first was in Oakland County Michigan back in the mid-1970s, called Tally Hall) get tired and either get refreshed or shut down in favor of something else.

Recommendations for vendors.  In short, if as a vendor, you're looking at an office worker oriented food hall, be sure your product makes sense as a quick service item.  Focus, maybe sell the best possible corned beef sandwich, or falafel, something really good.  Otherwise, find a location where the demographics are a better fit for what you're trying to do.

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Brief revisiting of small store grocery format stories: big companies continue to say "no"

For years I have been arguing that center cities, but by extension town centers and conurbations "in the suburbs" too, can be the location of successful smaller format grocery stores.

For example, see "Urban grocery shopping" (2006) and this 2008 op-ed, "Urban Safeway misses mark," from the Washington Business Journal.

I was quite heartened that Ahold Delhaize, the parent company of the DC-area Giant chain, which in my opinion had lost its edge ("Urban retail #4: how to prevent the coming failure of the DC region's Giant Supermarket chain," 2012) but now seems to be more on the ball, not only in pricing, but in upping its game on private label, had opened two different small store formats, Everything Fresh in Philadelphia, and bfresh in Boston.

And I was about to write a "revisiting stories" piece versus the 2012 Giant piece.

Good thing I didn't because a few weeks ago, the company announced they are junking their small store effort, merging it from a separate initiative into their Stop and Shop division ("Supermarket chain said to be dropping small Bfresh stores planned for Philly ," Philadelphia Inquirer; "Stop & Shop to rebrand bfresh chain, close 1 store," Boston Globe).

Separately, this week, Kroger announced that they won't be expanding their Main & Vine one-off "small format" store, which is based in Gig Harbor, a Seattle suburb ("Main & Vine in Gig Harbor closing in January," Tacoma News-Tribune).

The reality is that most large chains aren't set up to think too carefully about differentiated formats.  Kroger is a great example that I wrote about recently ("Problem solvers vs. possibility thinkers (and Kroger)"). 

Kroger has gobs of best practice initiatives spread out across their various divisions, stuff new to me that I keep finding out about, such as the Kroger Signature store, which like Kroger Fresh Fare, is about providing a high grade experience, but not quite to the level of a Wegman's, Market District, or Central Market. And recently, they announced they'll be adding a restaurant to a store ("Here's your first look at Kroger's new restaurant concept, Kitchen 1883," WCPO-TV), something that chains like Hy-Vee and Wegman's have been doing for awhile.

But imo, they aren't very good at systematically capturing and harvesting this best practice and building it in as standard operating procedure and transforming their operations, even though they are good at adding nonfood items to stores (Fred Meyer, Marketplace format) or having upper scale but not super duper supermarkets.

And so it makes sense that they aren't willing to commit to the creation and maintenance of a separate urban initiative.  I guess the company's failure to not buy the Marsh's downtown store in Indianapolis earlier this year that was an example of a differentiated center city store is another confirmation of this.

The one major exception is Giant-Eagle's Market District Express.  The only significant exception to this trend seems to be Market District, Giant-Eagle's upscale store group, which has opened up some significantly smaller stores, in various Ohio area markets ("Giant Eagle Market District Express opens in Bexley," Columbus Business First).  G-E also has a somewhat upscale convenience store chain, called GetGo, that better leverages its relationship to G-E than does Kroger's convenience store divisions to its supermarket divisions.

A potential exception.  Shoprite, the banner of the Wakefern supermarket business cooperative acquired the right to market the "Fresh Grocer" banner when the company running it joined the group ("Fresh Grocer Joins Wakefern Co-op," Supermarket News). 

Fresh Grocer is a small format urban grocery store in the Philadelphia area.  But it doesn't seem to have been used in a new location outside of the Philadelphia market since the acquisition of the brand, although one member of the cooperative, in addition to the original operators, have adopted the format for some of their new stores going forward (but they aren't small).

FWIW, About 10 years ago, Fresh Grocer was considering entering the DC market.

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A quick comment on I-66 tolling

-- Transform 66 in Northern Virginia

This week, rush hour tolling has been introduced to I-66, the east-west Virginia interstate that provides access to DC. 

In advance of the launch, there has been a fair amount of communication about it, including full-page ads in the Washington Post and in other media (don't recall seeing tv ads, but then since the November 2016 election, I don't watch tv news very much), and media coverage ("Interstate 66 tolling starts Monday. Here's what you need to know," Washington Post).

I've written about this in the context of corridor management planning ("Transportation network interruptions as an opportunity: Part 2") and indirectly in terms of conceptualizing a broad plan of improvement of the Northern Virginia transit network in the context of the Silver Line extension ("Using the Silver Line as the priming event, what would a transit network improvement program look like for NoVA?").

As an occasional driver, of course I prefer to not have to pay tolls, but as a planner, I recognize why you want to charge tolls, not only to raise the monies necessary to pay for transportation infrastructure, but also to provide better "cues" to encourage more optimal choices in the context of supply, demand, and infrastructure supply constraints.

Transportation is one of those areas where consumers and elected officials especially want to believe that it has nothing to do with economics. 

The reality is that the failure to apply economic decision-making to transportation creates "market failures" a/k/a "congestion," although this is abetted by what I call transportation physics and the difference between personal mobility and mass transit--the latter uses space much more efficiently.

One 40-foot bus transports as many people as are usually carried in about 60 cars.
Amount of space required to transport the user the same number of passengers by car, bus, or bicycle

The thing about the I-66 toll program is that it contravenes the typical experience across the US in terms of having specific toll roads, especially HOT -- High Occupancy Toll -- lanes.

Other than HOT lanes, the DC metropolitan area has two toll roads in Northern Virginia (Dulles Toll Road, Dulles Greenway, and people aren't particularly enamored with them, and many users lack alternatives. (Elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia there are various bridge and tunnels that are tolled, and other tolled roads, including a stretch of I-95 towards the Maryland-Delaware border.)

Typically, HOT lanes add capacity but restrict access to those willing to pay the price to use the lanes, while still providing access to lanes that aren't tolled. The idea is that the toll is variable, designed to maintain the flow of high speed traffic. As capacity is absorbed by toll payers, the toll rises in order to discourage people from using the lanes, in order to maintain a relatively high speed.

On day one of new tolls along I-66 inside the Capital Beltway, climbed over $30. (WTOP/Dave Dildine, "I-66 afternoon tolls moderate after ‘unfair’ $40 morning high."

The I-66 tolling project hasn't added any capacity.  Heretofore, rush hour access to I-66 has been limited to vehicles with two or more occupants (with exceptions for hybrid vehicles and people traveling to Dulles Airport), and the entire freeway was treated as "High Occupancy Vehicle" lanes.

The toll project has removed the HOV restriction.  Now, previously non-qualified drivers -- single occupant vehicles -- can use the road during rush periods, if they pay.  HOV-2 users can still drive for free, and hybrid vehicles no longer have an HOV-exception.

What the tolling project does is increase demand to use the road, with no increase in lane capacity.  Normally, HOT lanes add capacity in return for restricting access to people willing to pay for it.

Looking west on Lee Highway, lines of cars split between taking I-66 vs. staying on Lee Highway What the project during rush hour Monday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post).

So yes, compared to other toll lanes in the area, tolls on I-66 are likely to be "outlandish" ("Day 3 I-66 toll hits $23. Are commuters finding alternatives?" and "I-66 express lanes debut with $34.50 toll, among the highest in the U.S.," Washington Post) because now more cars will be competing for the same amount of road space.

And as Charlie points out in a comment, it communicates a major problem with "Public Private Partnerships," in that they are contractual and the operator is typically uninterested in being flexible. 

Furthermore, concessionaires are somewhat insulated from bad press even if they get it, because they have contracts that are pretty much impregnable.

Although it can come back to haunt the elected officials who approved the contracts.

The I-66 project is even trickier because at one level, the State of Virginia wants to encourage business to locate in Virginia instead of DC, so the outlandish pricing is a "feature, not a bug" to encourage businesses to leave DC so that their employees "don't have to" drive the toll road.

At the same time, there aren't transit improvements, at least in the short and intermediate term, such as those suggested in the Meissner-Layman idealized transit network map--extending the Orange Line west, creating a separated Silver Line, adding a new "Pink Line"--giving people alternatives, and increasing "transportation infrastructure supply" in significant ways.

Conceptual Future integrated rail transit service network for the Washington DC National Capitol Region. Design by Paul J. Meissner.  Concept by Richard Layman and Paul Meissner.

In fact, were Virginia to extend the Orange Line west, they'd have to pay penalties to the concessionaire.

However, what I would have done, were I the concessionaire, is have had a "free" one- or two-week introductory period with the toll pricing being communicated in real-time, so people would have a much better sense for how much the tolls were going to be.

Even so, it's not going to help DC, and DC has no ability to influence the process.  By contrast, in California, most toll roads are run by the counties or Joint Powers Authorities that are cross-jurisdictional.

And the separate programs for each of the "states" -- DC, Maryland, and Virginia -- don't seem to be too well coordinated. 

Orange and Riverside Counties in California offer a significant contrast, where they jointly manage the the SR-91 toll corridor--a corridor management plan. The toll road started out as an exclusive Orange County project, but have ben extended by Riverside County for 8 miles, to better manage the road resource and add capacity ("91 Express Lanes in Orange County paved way for new toll lanes opening Monday in Riverside Orange County Register). The counties as operators coordinate management, tolling, collections, etc.

Such integration and coordination seems a foreign concept here. Cf. "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association"

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Night time as a daypart and a design product

In the commercial district revitalization framework plans I did for a couple of small towns, I was proud of the concept I outlined of planning the district in terms of "dayparts" -- think how restaurants are organized around different times of day such as breakfast, happy hour, dinner, and late night -- and to plan the retail and programming mix accordingly.

This graphic isn't particularly scintillating but was included in the Cambridge, Maryland plan and the daypart planning concept is described in more detail on p. 18.
Dayparts as a planning concept for commercial districts
By taking into consideration the time of day as a major influence on business opportunities, the mix of retail, services, attractions, special events and other programming can be planned in a manner that maximizes patronage of the commercial district throughout the day and into the evening (p. 17).

A few minutes after I had the thought about how cities ought to employ lighted street signs more frequently ("More cities should have lighted street signs"), and having recently mentioned the Bath UK Bath City Centre Lighting Strategy, in keeping with thinking for awhile about "Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community" (2014), and also recent media coverage in DC ("Does D.C. Need A 'Night Mayor' To Oversee City Nightlife?," Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU-FM/NPR) and New York City ("NYC Nightlife: City Hiring Night Mayor to Revive Scene," Fortune Magazine) about creation of Offices of Night Life, Night Mayors ("What Europe's 'Night Mayors' Can Teach New York," New York Times), not to mention my writings about usability, the design process, especially how Transport for London has "design managers" for each of its transit modes, etc., I thought:
Why not treat the Urban Night Time daypart as a "design product"?
Because the reality is that a 24-hour city is more than merely stoking nightlife, it's dealing with all of the special needs that arise at night.

From nightlife and dealing with the edges of night time commercial district activity and residential areas, to night time transit, and public safety, including but not limited to lighting.

For example, many cities and regions have well-developed and defined "night transit networks." DC does not. London, granted one of the leading cities of the world, is developing and expanding its weekend overnight service on both the Tube and now the London Overground rail network, which launches December 15th.

By contrast, weekend and night time service of the DC-area Metrorail system has seriously degraded and hasn't been made up for by the creation of a defined night time bus network.

And the rise of Uber and Lyft services especially at night and on weekends has created traffic problems that are addressable ("Uber, Lyft Get a Prime Location in D.C. Nightlife," CityLab).

Clearly, DC itself does not have a systematic strategy for dealing with night time lighting in all its dimensions, even as it is pursuing a total upgrade of the streetlight network (Project Profile: Street Light Modernization, DC Office of Public and Private Partnerships).
Downtown Silver Spring sign, lit up at night
Downtown Silver Spring sign, lit up at night (although in point 18, "Assess branding-identity and retune marketing," in this entry, I argue this sign could be much stronger visually and as part of the Silver Spring brand).

And interestingly, Silver Spring, Maryland's public space along Ellsworth Avenue combined with the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza ends up being one of the only major public spaces in the metropolitan area that is active at night. We need to harvest what can be learned from it.


Although, I made similar points, although not about night time as a product specifically, in the recent entry on World Usability Day

Also see "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method" (2012) and "What is Product Design?," Medium.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Art and inquiry and moving Confederate memorials

(Other stuff, and being sick seems to get in the way of writing.)

-- "(Public) History/Historic Preservation Tuesday: Museums and Modern Historiography," 2014
-- "Battle Scars: The Fight Over Virginia's Confederate Monuments," New Yorker Magazine
-- "Mayor Stoney: Commission to consider removal of Confederate monuments," Richmond Times-Dispatch
-- Monument Avenue Commission, Richmond
-- "Charlottesville rally: Report faults police over planning, failure to protect public," CNN

WRT the issue of Confederate monuments, something I have been thinking about for awhile but am reminded by this article, "Confederate monument in Decatur can be moved but not hidden," from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I can't help but think of how removing them for "art museums" brings up the opportunity to create a Chris Burden-like installation, comparable to the streetlights at LACMA in Los Angeles ("Chris Burden's roundabout route of bringing 'Urban Light' to L.A.," Los Angeles Times), called Urban Light.

From the AJC article:
A 30-foot Confederate monument in downtown Decatur could be relocated to another visible site or placed in historical context, but it can’t be destroyed or concealed, according to a DeKalb County legal opinion released Tuesday.

The DeKalb Board of Commissioners will now consider what to do about the monument after passing a resolution in October condemning the monument for glorifying the Confederacy.

The legal opinion by County Attorney O.V. Brantley concludes that the county government owns the monument and is prohibited by state law from removing it from public view. But the opinion says the monument could be moved to a cemetery, museum or other property.

Vintage lamps
Urban Light"
A street lamp installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) by Chris Burden. These are a collection of 202 restored cast-iron vintage street lamps that are fully operational. The lights are from the 1920's and 1930's.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Holiday Shopping, Small Business Saturday, etc.

Cover, Golden Book Publishing, 1958.

Black Friday, the biggest day for retail sales.  I saw something on the news today that I don't believe.  They said that $682 billion in sales are made on Black Friday, today, the day after Thanksgiving, and the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.

That is $2,000 for every person in the U.S.

Small Business Saturday is a promotion created by the American Independent Business Alliance and now spearheaded by American Express ("Small Business Saturday gives local retailers chance to take on Amazon" and "Downtown merchants group pushing people to shop 'small'" Baltimore Business Journal).

-- Small Business Saturday website

The idea is that independent businesses can't compete  "head-to-head" against traditional chain retailers in terms of offering the best prices on mass market goods, especially on Black Friday, but they can differentiate their businesses in terms of artisan goods, customer service, and experiences.

Bene hat shop, 6200 block of 3rd Street NWMany stores run promotions throughout the day. 

In DC, as part of SBS, at 4:30 pm, Mayor Bowser will be visiting Bene' Millinery & Bridal Supplies at 6217 3rd Street NW in the Manor Park neighborhood of DC (it's a throwback retail block, one block, embedded within the neighborhood).

Bene' adjoins two other boutiques, Lovely Lady, which sells new clothes, and Kasia's Collection, a consignment type store.

All three of the stores do great windows but their hard work often goes unrewarded because few people walk by and look, and cars go too fast to be able to see the artistry.

Indies First 2017Indie Bound, an alliance of independent bookstores, holds its annual promotional event, Indies First, co-incident with Small Business Saturday, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Artisan retail on the rise.  Traditional retail has been on the decline for some time.  Every week there are new reports on store closings, retail firm bankruptcies, and sales declines.  While some of this has to do with the rise of online retail, another perhaps more significant element concerns how people are using their time, specifically time using digital devices ("It's Not Just Retail That's Changing. It's Us," Bloomberg).

Separately, Bloomberg reports a rise in sale for independent stores and continued difficulty on the part of traditional shopping malls ("Mom-and-Pop Shops Are Threatening the Mall This Holiday Season").  From the article:
Spending growth at mom-and-pop businesses has outpaced that of the big chains in the past two years, according to Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president at credit-card giant Mastercard Inc., which tracks purchasing patterns. When they’re not shopping online, Americans are seeking more personal connections and advice -- something they can find lacking at national retailers.

“The consumer is shopping small,” she said.

Big chain stores still account for the majority of shoppers’ purchases, according to Mastercard. But many of the most affluent consumers are now clustered in walkable neighborhoods, letting them skip the mall in favor of neighborhood hardware stores, bookshops and grocers. And they’re willing to pay the higher prices, Quinlan said.
Relatedly, there are reports of the creation of more independent bookstores, including the opening of a new bookstore, Solid State Supply, on H Street NE last weekend.

Last week, I went to the opening of the new location of Willow, an apparel and gift store, in the Navy Yard district of the Capitol Riverfront.  Willow's first store is on Upshur Street NW in the Petworth neighborhood, and it's an exception that "proves the rule" about the difficulty of success for one-off apparel retail in neighborhood shopping districts. 

The proprietors aren't going to become wealthy, or a national chain, but they have figured out how to fill a niche in providing affordable apparel, complemented by gifts, cards, housewares, and items for children in neighborhoods with certain kinds of demographics.

I had been skeptical that such a store could work in the Navy Yard, which tends to have fewer in-neighborhood residents as regular customers, but the store, by reaching out further into a retail trade area that encompasses Capitol Hill, can be successful.

Another fascinating store in the Navy Yard district is Steadfast Supply, an independent which specializes in selling items created by locally-based artists and craftspeople,  It's an interesting contrast to Willow, because of the price points.  By featuring items produced "by hand," items definitely cost more money at Steadfast Supply, which might make it more difficult for them to build a base of repeat customers.

Storefront window, Willow retail store
The Willow apparel and gift store on Upshur Street NW, Petworth, Washington, DC.

Willow, Steadfast Supply, Solid State Books and others (e.g., Upshur Street Books, the Big Bad Woof pet supply store in Takoma, etc.) are examples of the new small scale retail resurgence, which admittedly is a localized phenomenon. 

The development of this kind of retail can only happen in those areas with the right population and demographics.  But stores like Willow prove that there are more places that can support independent retail than was previously thought.

A couple of initiatives in DC.  From Mayor Muriel Bowser's weekly e-letter:
When Washingtonians share their talents and creativity with our city, we want to do all we can to support them. Last month, we celebrated the opening of Shop Made in DC, a new brick and mortar store and café stocked exclusively with DC brands and concepts. Tomorrow, I will celebrate Small Business Saturday on Minnesota Avenue, DC's newest Main Streets designee. And next week, the Council and I will host a variety of District-based entrepreneurs at the Wilson Building for a pop-up Made in DC: Holiday Bazaar.
Handwringing about the future of retail in New York CityCrain's New York Business reports ("Local pols shop for solutions to retail's crisis") on legislation proposed by various City Councilmembers to provide support to independent retailers and restaurants, which have been caught between chain businesses and ever escalating rents.

Rents have been escalating in part over non-sales related objectives, or by property values being set in a fashion that is disconnected from the revenue potential of the space.

Proposals include tax cuts for retailers and rent control.  One program provides some discounted rent in a new development for four stores.

I still believe the best option is for New York City to create a commercial retail space community development corporation comparable to the SEMAEST group in Paris.  The Vital Quartier program has by this time supported 400 independent businesses and controls more than 500,000 s.f. of retail space.

From the Guardian article "Paris's new planning strategy: bookshops in, textile wholesalers out":
Devoted to "economic development and commercial diversity" in the eastern districts of the city, Vital'Quartier works in 11 parts of the city deemed stagnant or dominated by a single commercial activity.

In those areas, the Semaest targets premises, buys them, renovates them and then advertises for tenants who will be able to pay rent at affordable rates as long as their plans for the space concur with the authorities' vision. De Nuñez, who believed there was an "urgent" need for a Spanish-language bookshop, pays around €1,700 per month for his 60 sq metres in one of the priciest parts of the city.

"Normally you would have to pay a big sum of money up front, maybe €50,000 or €60,000," he said. 
The holiday window at 1z2z3z, a store featuring items for young children.

VCU Brandcenter students decorate store windows at Richmond's Westhampton shopping district.  VCU Brandcenter is the advertising program, and this year, students working on Project Holiday decorated the storefront windows of 28 stores on Libbie, Grove and Patterson Avenues ("VCU Brandcenter students create holiday window magic at shops," Richmond Times-Dispatch). From the article:
Their efforts are part of Project Holiday, a friendly competition for the students to come up with the most wonder-inspiring window display with a budget of just $100 per window and lots of creativity. The public will get the chance to vote on the windows they think are the most creative.

The project is a collaboration between the Westhampton Merchants Association and graduate students in the Experience Design track at the VCU Brandcenter. The participating businesses provided the $100 budget per window.
That's a great way for students to get practical experience in retail merchandising and builds on the idea of artisanal retail experiences.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Revisiting stories: double deck buses as a modern solution for rebranding bus service for choice riders

As a child, I'm sure I had a Matchbox toy of the Routemaster bus.  Matchbox continues to produce copies of the current version of the bus.

For a long time, I've argued that one way to reposition and rebrand bus-based transit service would be to shift to double deck buses.

-- "Making bus service sexy and more equitable," 2012
After all, the iconic Routemaster bus in London is an image known the world over.

In the early part of the last century, both double deck streetcars and buses were common in dense cities, even in New York City.

Megabus double deck bus on H Street NE, Washington, DC, on the way to Union StationMegabus double deck bus on H Street NE, Washington, DC, on the way to Union Station.

Today, double deck buses are used widely throughout the UK, not just in London, but not so much in North America, except in tourism applications and some high ridership inter-city bus routes, such as between DC and New York City.

According to the Wikipedia page, double deck buses are deployed in many European cities outside of the UK and Ireland, and in Asia, in particular Hong Kong.

In North America, for regular transit service, Ottawa, Ontario has the largest fleet of such buses, while the GOBus system in Ontario (GO = Government of Ontario) is the largest, with service dedicated to long distance commuting routes rather than inter-city transit like in Ottawa. 

A few double deck buses are deployed in various communities in the US, such as in the Puget Sound region of Washington State and Las Vegas, where Community Transit has the largest fleet providing commuter service between Snohomish County and Seattle.

The New York City Transit Museum still has one of the Yellow Coach double deck buses in its museum fleet.

Charlie shares with us an article ("Bus Stop Classics: 1934-38 Yellow Coach Model 720/735 “Double Decker” – the Queen of Fifth Avenue," CurbsideClassics) he came across about double deck bus service on Fifth Avenue in New York City. 

This particular article discusses the bus that was used on the route for about 20 years, until the mid-1950s.

The highly used bus line on Fifth Avenue is discussed in voluminous detail in this piece from the Coachbuilt website, and has many images of earlier double deck buses that had been in service on the route.

The Coachbuilt website focuses on companies that built "coaches," not just buses but limos, taxis, etc. For example, the geographical listing for Michigan has entries for more than 150 companies.

It's an incredibly voluminous site.  The author aims to produce a book titled the Encyclopedia of American Coachbuilders.
Vintage postcard showing double deck buses on Fifth Avenue in New York CIty
Vintage postcard showing double deck buses on Fifth Avenue in New York City

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Steve Vance photo of the integrated passenger railroad network within North Rhine Westphalia state in Germany

When I was in NRW a few years ago, I never came across such a map, which is very cool. It looks like he saw it at the Dusseldorf main railroad station. I don't recall seeing such a map in Essen.

Looking at it more closely, it's a map of the intra-state railroad services, both long distance and "local," the metropolitan area suburban commuter railroad services called the S-Bahn. As he points out, the map doesn't include the intra-metropolitan area scaled transit services.

I imagine Deutsche Bahn has comparable maps for other states across Germany.

In my typology of the transit network ("Reprint (with editing): The Meta-Regional Transit Network," 2009), I'd call this a depiction of the regional transit network, at the full scale of a state.

An amazing map of the interconnected subregions of the regions of North-Rhine Westphalia

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

A sign that Pumpkin Spice is probably an overused flavor

Not exactly an "urbanism" post but reflective of paying close attention to supermarkets both as an element of cities/commercial district revitalization and how food products and supermarkets are marketed vis a vis my seating on the community advisory committee for DC's public market, Eastern Market.

A sign that Pumpkin Spice is probably an overused flavor

Maybe utilities should pay the locality for trimming trees to protect electric lines

Because the utility companies and their contractors seem to be somewhat heavy handed. It's hard to believe that "right now all of a sudden" this tree became suddenly dangerous after growing for the past 3-4 decades unhindered.

This once somewhat grand tree has been hacked by the local electric utility
This once somewhat grand tree has been hacked by the local electric utility. 3rd Street at Blair Road NW, Takoma DC.

This once somewhat grand tree has been hacked by the local electric utility

This once somewhat grand tree has been hacked by the local electric utility

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More cities should have lighted street signs...

Having missed a turn last night while biking when it was quite dark.  Of course, it turned out that the street, a major avenue, didn't have any signs posted for the New Jersey Avenue part of the road network at that particular intersection in the "Capital Riverfront" district.

Photo: Daily Herald, "New signs lighting the way on suburban streets."

Many cities/counties put lighted signs on their major arterials, but they "hang over the street" being affixed to traffic signal crossarms ("More lighted street signs coming to Chesapeake intersections," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot; "Street signs light up at dusk," Washington Post).

Denser cities don't typically place traffic signals across lanes of traffic in the same way as suburban counties.

But that doesn't mean that cities shouldn't think about having lighted street signs in major districts that experience a great deal of night time activity ("Marking roads for better safety," Public Roads Magazine).

Manhattan's 34th Street Partnership district is one place I've noticed lighted street signs on the major streets. 

The Partnership discusses the attention it pays to elements of the streetscape on a dedicated webpage.

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Revisiting stories: ground transportation at airports (DCA/Logan)

This was deleted and reposted in an earlier attempt to fix a formatting problem.

For a number of years, I have written a fair amount about ground transportation vis a vis airports, focused on transit, and using DC's National Airport as an example of best practice (a Metrorail station on the airport grounds) and not best practice (failure to accommodate car sharing, not integrating the railroad station into the ground transportation program).

I use the BWI Airport outside of Baltimore as an example of best practice in terms of integrating off-airport rail stations into the ground transportation program.

At one time, Amtrak provided shuttle services between the rail station and the airport, but a few years ago, recognizing the importance of controlling the quality of the experience and the necessity of high quality connections between modes, the Airport integrated the BWI Rail Station into their ground transportation program.

In 2016, in "A brief comment on ground transportation at National Airport vis a vis VRE rail service," I made the point (building on comments offered in a GGW article) that National Airport should do the same thing wrt the Crystal City Rail Station, which serves as a stop on the VRE rail line.

Amtrak doesn't stop there, but perhaps it could, a point I didn't make in the earlier post.

A more recent entry, "Why not a bicycle hub at National Airport?: focused on capturing worker trips but open to all," besides a discussion about carsharing access, discusses creating a true bike hub, using the model of Heathrow Airport, and given the fact that the airport is served by the Mount Vernon Trail, one of the metropolitan area's most heavily used bicycle commuting routes.

The comment thread mentioned the DCA Connection Feasibility Study being led by the Crystal City Business Improvement District. But I would argue that's not an all-encompassing study, merely looking at one element, a better pedestrian connection.

The comment thread also mentioned coverage in the Washington Post about airports losing parking revenue as more people get to airports in other ways ("The popularity of Uber, Lyft boosts airport revenue but there are tradeoffs").

The rail station "abuts" the airport, but is separated from it by the George Washington Parkway and railroad lines.

Logan Airport bus shuttle at the Airport T Station.  Wikipedia photo.

More recently, I came across some information about ground transportation services at Logan Airport in Boston, which is another example of best practice relevant to airport ground transportation planning generally and wrt National Airport specifically.

Logan Airport provides shuttle services to the nearby Airport T Station, which unlike the National Airport Metrorail Station, is not on the grounds of Logan Airport.

Beyond that, there is also a "Water Transportation Terminal" serving Logan Airport for ferry and water taxi services, and shuttle service is provided to that location too.

Given that the DC area has been trying to develop water transportation services for a long time ("At ferry summit, a vision emerges for a commuter system along the Potomac River," Washington Post) and the recent expansion of such services concomitant with the opening of the Wharf development on DC's Southwest waterfront ("The Wharf's new water taxi embarks on a maiden voyage," WTOP), National Airport's location alongside the Potomac River, and the presence of an NPS parking lot next to the airport abutting the river (often used by taxi drivers), it would be possible to create a similar service there, were NPS to be amenable.

In addition, called Logan Express, certain express bus services to Logan Airport are run by the airport authority from suburban locations.  Closer in, the Back Bay Express also provides special services to the airport.

A form of "Logan Express" is run by Maryland MTA serving BWI Airport via the Inter County Connector, staging from the rail station, not the airport directly. 

While National Airport may not "need" that kind of dedicated express service, because the rail station could provide this kind of opportunity at least in the I-95 corridor, likely Dulles Airport could use such a complementary program ("Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing," Washington Post, 2014), even with the addition of Silver Line Metrorail service in the next couple years.

Probably, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and the State of Virginia should do a transportation planning exercise for both airports, not limited to Metrorail and traditional public transit services, to think about such services, including better connections from Maryland, although the State of Maryland may not be too willing "to help" given that Dulles and BWI Airports compete.

While not practical for National Airport and Crystal City, separately the idea has been floated to add a moving sidewalk connection from the closest Logan terminal to the Airport T stop ("Potential moving walkway at Logan Airport could land in record books," Boston Globe).  The distance is about one-half mile.

I definitely think such a connection between the Midway Airport L Station and the actual airport terminal would make a lot of sense in Chicago.

Back Bay Logan Express
Back Bay Logan Express.  Flickr photo by SoCal Metro.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

King Street streetcar, Toronto (and Seattle's urban mobility planning)

At the Washington Post Transformers presentation earlier this week on Smart Cities, one of the presenters was Jeff Tumlin, a principal at the forward thinking transportation consultancy Nelson-Nygaard. 

Jeff is a great speaker, although what sounded "transformational" to many people who came up to him afterwards was to me, merely stuff I've been hearing for the last 13-15 years, including from Jeff.

Jeff Tumlin is author of Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Vibrant, Healthy, and Resilient Communities, published by Wiley.

He made a couple of very important points, one of which will be covered in another piece. 

In discussing the general fall off in transit usage over the past year, which is partly in response to continued low gas prices, but also the impact of ride hailing services on transit use ("Why selling your car to take Uber or Lyft is a problem for cities," CNN), he discussed Seattle as a counter-example.

Technically, Seattle's local bus transit is provided by the county, through the King County Metro transit agency, and the agency has one of the largest bus fleets in the US, especially for a city of its size, including a network of electric trolleybuses. 

An electric bus, SeattleAmong its initiatives, the transit agency has a robust set of metrics for setting service levels, has been implementing a rapid bus network, and is working to simplify its fare system ("Metro to charge a simplified, $2.75 flat fare for bus rides next year," Seattle Times). 

The city used to have a downtown free fare zone, but it was dropped as a result of the 2008 recession's impact on transit agency budgets.

SDOT works very closely with the agency, and separately, the City of Seattle is one of the nation's leaders in innovative transportation planning.

To deal with the city's rapid growth ("Can Seattle handle its own growth," The Atlantic) in the digital economy era, Seattle has prioritized transit movement on the city's street network, making bus transit faster.  As Jeff pointed out, this has had real impact, so that Seattle is one of the only major cities in the US where transit ridership is increasing ("How Seattle Got More People to Ride the Bus," CityLab).

Mobility throughput: counting people instead of carsWhile I just mentioned the King Street streetcar prioritization test that launched earlier this week in Toronto, that touches on the thing that Jeff mentioned that seemed revelatory to people in the audience, to focus on moving "people" not cars, or overall throughput, which is what they are doing in Seattle.

In terms of its capture of total trips, King Street streetcar is an outlier, where 75% of the mobility throughput (65,000 people) on the corridor is by streetcar and 25% cars (20,000 vehicle trips), with such a high percentage of the throughput being captured by transit.

I know that on many of DC's primary bus routes, transit as a proportion of the throughput isn't quite as high, but is still above 40%, which is very good.

King St. has changed to more pedestrian and TTC friendly with cars only allowed to go a single block along the street before having to turn off. (RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR). The TTC announces the King Street streetcar prioritization project on vehicle livery for the streetcar line.

Shawn Micaleff, a columnist for the Toronto Star, has a piece on the King Street initiative, "King St. pilot project does what big cities around the world are doing," writing:
One of my earliest memories of feeling frustrated in Toronto was riding a streetcar. The streetcars themselves were fine: elegant street ships sailing the city’s rail network like an electric nervous system.

What was confounding was that one lone car turning left, often just carrying one driver, could hold up an entire streetcar filled with dozens of people, sometimes up to 130 or over 200 people, depending on if it was a short or long streetcar. Other times there were just too many cars on the road to allow quick passage of a mass transit vehicle.

Something seemed out of whack. How could this be? Was there no political courage in this new city of mine to give vehicles carrying many people a quicker passage? My newcomer’s naïveté was soon corrected.
I think this is one of the most important surface transportation initiatives right now in North America ("A transit miracle on King St. shows how it can work," Star), because despite the headline of the Micaleff column, the fact of the matter is that most cities are not prioritizing transit in this way, because the electorate continues to be car-centric, so that elected officials don't have the cover to be able to pursue transit prioritization on city streets.

One of the people interviewed after the change said that lunchtime trips on the King Street streetcar are now three times faster.

Market Street in San Francisco is another street where streetcars should be prioritized in the same way as in Toronto (discussed within this blog entry, "It's been a drawn out process, but DC is in the process of creating transitways on 16th Street NW"). 
Market Street, San Francisco, vintage postcard, showing four tracks for streetcars
Note that at one point, Market Street had four streetcar tracks. At some point, two were removed. Note too that the desire to create a subway system, which eventually culminated in MUNI Metro, was to remove streetcars from surface streets in favor of cars.

And a special L Line replacement bus service in Manhattan ought to have a similar treatment ("RPA/Transit Riders Alliance proposal to respond to the L Subway shutdown includes a dedicated transitway on 14th Street in Manhattan").

One of Micaleff's examples is the rebalancing of streetspace between pedestrians and cars in Manhattan, but that rebalancing hasn't been extended to transit-prioritized streets in the same was as King Street, even though NYC has been developing an extensive network of transit priority lanes.

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