Category Archives: Transportation

Metro Positions Itself for the Big Ask

metroby James A. Bacon

Staring into a fiscal black hole, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Chairman Jack Evans is trying to nail down the authority’s 2018 spending plan by November, months earlier than usual. The move, suggests Washington Post writer Martine Powers, “is a signal that the transit agency is preparing to ask the District, Maryland and Virginia for additional money if fares are not raised or the federal government does not come forward with more funding.”

How much money? Between $75 million to $100 million per jurisdiction.

Evans issued the warning after a meeting in which the WMATA board discussed a presentation by McKinsey & Company indicating that the mass transit organization was paying significantly more for expenses than comparable transit agencies.

The McKinsey report, issued in April, is must reading for Virginia legislators pondering how to respond when WMATA approaches, tin cup in hand, begging for more money or risk seeing the collapse of the mass transit service so critical to Northern Virginia’s economy. That report clearly lays out the management challenges facing the authority and provides concrete ideas on how to address them.

WMATA’s long-term mismatch between revenues and expenses has been getting worse, not better. According to McKinsey, Farebox recovery has declined from 47% of costs in 2011 to 45% today and will continue to drop further as passengers fed up with the rail system’s poor reliability commute by other means. Rail system revenues would need to grow at 7% yearly just to maintain the current operating deficit. Personnel growth averaging 5% annually has driven most of the cost inflation. The authority has more employees who getting paid more (wages growing 4% annually) to work less (regular hours per full-time equivalent employee down 2% annually).

Poor railcar maintenance is the single-most important driver of service unreliability — 63% of all rail line delays are caused by railcar failures, the report says. There are two main reasons for cars being unavailable: parts are frequently out of stock, and repair throughput is exceptionally low. “Estimated technician wrench time ranges between 25% and 40%, below a best-in-class standard of 60%.” The reasons for the low productivity can be traced to systemic management failures such as the uneven distribution of cars between shops, turnover in mechanic staff, and technicians starting work orders without all necessary tools and parts.

The report also took note of the high cost of MetroAccess, a transportation service for people with disabilities. McKinsey estimated that WMATA could cut the $110 million program’s costs 20% by experimenting with innovative delivery models. The report also recommended extensive changes to WMATA’s capital allocation model and the structure of its pension, retirement-benefits plans and workers compensation plans.

Bacon’s bottom line: The McKinsey report provides an objective checklist of reforms that WMATA needs to make before entrusted with any more Virginia taxpayer dollars. Give management the money without conditions, and the urgency to implement the reforms disappears. Make added money contingent upon implementing reforms, and WMATA actually might wind up needing less than it thinks it does. If WMATA’s board and management are unwilling or unable to execute these of equivalent reforms, Virginia should give them no more money.

Hat tip: Tim Wise

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

Virginia’s New Road Funding Process — Less Political but Still Opaque

Project scorecard for

Project scorecard for improvements to intersection at Patterson Ave. and Parham Road.

by James A. Bacon

In a rare bipartisan achievement, Virginia is doing something that no other state in the union is doing: basing its transportation investments on an objective scoring system.

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) approved $1.7 billion to be spent on 163 projects selected through the System for the Management and Allocation of Resources for Transportation, or SMART SCALE. The process rates projects for their impact on safety, congestion reduction, accessibility, land use, economic development and the environment.

“SMART SCALE revolutionizes the way Virginia delivers transportation,” wrote Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed Sunday. “Future administrations can’t develop wish lists on a whim. Projects must be scored and vetted through the data-driven system.”

The bottom-up process starts with a consistent set of standards by which localities select projects for scoring. All nominated projects are screened and scored and funding recommendations made on the basis of the scores. The scenarios are presented to the localities and the public for a round of input. Then the CTB has the final say.

The legislation setting up the new system originated with General Assembly Republicans and was embraced by Governor Terry McAuliffe. The reform is remarkable in that the governor and powerful legislators relinquished much of their power to reward friends and punish enemies through the doling out of transportation dollars and turning it over to a process-driven system.

“No longer are we allowing politics and wish lists determine what gets built. This process is critical to moving people, jobs, and commerce, all of which is essential to building the new Virginia economy,” said McAuliffe in a press release touting the CTB vote.

“With SMART SCALE, we are promoting greater accountability, safeguarding against waste and ending the politicization that has been rampant in our transportation process for so long,” said House Speaker William J. Howell in the same press release.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, I can visit the SMART SCALE website and find a list of 287 projects along with a breakdown of their scores. There, I can see that a project about a mile from my house — $5 million to make improvements to the intersection of Patterson Avenue and Parham Road, a miserable, stinking, soul-scorching abomination of a crossroads if there ever was one — ranked 92 statewide among all projects. And I can view the scores assigned to a variety of metrics, as seen here:

scoring_weights2

That’s all well and good, but none of this is intuitive. I don’t have the faintest idea what these scores mean. Are higher scores better than lower scores? I can imagine that a major benefit of the project would be improving “travel time reliability,” as reflected in its 24.6 score. But why would “travel time delay” be so meager at 0.6? Isn’t that closely related to travel time reliability? Is the same scale being applied to each criteria? Is the scale 0 to 1, 1 to 100, or something else entirely? The explanation on how to read a scorecard doesn’t help much.

And how about the data underlying this statistics? How many car crashes and injuries occur at this intersection? How many hours of delay occur, and how is that number measured? How does one calculate the increase in access to jobs? And how does one evaluate the impact of the project on land use?

The information available to me as a member of the public doesn’t allow me to evaluate much of anything. Further, I can’t imagine being a CTB board member and finding the data any more helpful — unless they are given special training in interpreting the numbers or have VDOT staff at their beck and call to answer their questions.

While SMART SCALE undoubtedly represents an improvement over what preceded it, the state might as well be publishing its scores in hieroglyphics. Transparency is not served when the the scoring system is so indecipherable as to be unintelligible as to defeat all efforts at understanding.

Uber-ization: a Painless Path to Density

Peter Faris, CEO of Szabo Faris LLC Transportation Solutions, stands in front of one of his vehicles while holding a smart phone with an app that orders up his sedan service February 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. Faris, an independent driver who works with Uber, a technology firm which has created a mobile app which allows consumers to use their device to request a nearby taxi or limousine. Uber is among a number of apps which are being deployed in cities in the United States and worldwide. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

by James A. Bacon

Almost every square foot of Fairfax County that can be developed has been developed. If the county is to grow, there’s no place to grow but up. The county board of supervisors bowed to that inevitability yesterday, voting unanimously to change zoning rules that will allow greater density in 22 areas of the county, including Reston, Seven Corners and the Richmond Highway corridor.

Under the new rules, the maximum Floor-to-Area ratio rises from 2.0 to 5.0 (with an exception carved out for downtown McLean of 3.0), according to the Washington Post. That is a truly urban level of density, consistent with mid-rise buildings of five to ten floors. The vision of county planners is that buildings will have ground-level retail and underground parking — essentially creating what urbanist Chrisopher Leinberger calls WalkUPs, or walkable urban places.

Not surprisingly, residents of nearby single-family subdivisions are concerned about the impact of new development upon the character of their neighborhoods, and especially upon traffic congestion. Cramming more people into the same space served by the same overloaded roads seems to be a formula for worse congestion on a scale that the county cannot build its way out of. In a county designed around auto-mobility, greater density promises nothing but headaches — if nothing else changes.

But things are changing.

The first thing that’s changing is how neighborhoods are organized and constructed. Under the old suburban sprawl paradigm, houses were built in cul de sac subdivisions, which were separated from malls and shopping centers, which were separated from offices, which were separated from schools, churches and government buildings. People had to drive their cars to get anywhere. They literally had no choice.

Under the smart-growth paradigm (or whatever you describe Fairfax County planners’ vision for growth), much of the parking will go underground, which will allow buildings to be much closer, and land uses will be mixed, all of which will enable people to take care of many daily needs by walking to their destination. Instead of using their cars to take ten trips on average, the people living in these densified areas will use them to take, say, only eight or nine trips. Although this feature will offset all of the localized impact of greater density, it will offset some of it.

The second thing that will change is that greater density improves the economics of mass transit. Buses are not a realistic transportation option for low-density suburbs. Admittedly, whether they become a viable option in mid-rise suburbs is an open question. That all depends upon how efficiently municipal bus systems operate, and how much local governments can afford to spend in ongoing subsidies. I’m not a big fan of money-losing bus systems, and I wouldn’t blame Fairfax residents if they weren’t either.

But greater density also improves the economics of private transportation services. Which brings us to the third thing that’s changing: the Uber-ification of transportation. By Uber-ification I mean the ability to order a ride from Point A to Point B with a smart phone at less cost (usually) than to hail a (usually unavailable) taxi. Uber has already begun offering ride-sharing options that allow two or more passengers to share the cost of a trip. Inevitably, dynamic ride-sharing will spread to vans and buses, opening up a range of transportation options at a variety of price points. The Uber revolution will not suit everyone, but it will suit a lot of people, and the ride sharing that precipitates from the new services will take thousands of cars off Fairfax County roads.

Fairfax planners and politicians may be stuck in a mass transit mindset — the conviction that buses, trolley and rail (with a little bit of bicycling thrown in) are the only options for moving large volumes of people in a dense urban environment. I don’t know the Fairfax political scene well enough to know if that’s the case or not. But I would invite citizens to channel their fears and frustrations in a positive direction. If density is coming, call upon Fairfax officials to Uberize — create a regulatory environment that makes it easy for ride-sharing companies to do business. If competition and innovation are allowed to flourish, density need not create congestion.

Questions about Bidding War for FBI HQ

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

There’s a bidding war between Virginia and Maryland to snag a planned, 2.1 million-square-foot Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters campus. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is in for $317 million in state and local funds, according to the Washington Business Journal. Governor Terry McAuliffe is in for $120 million. In both cases most of the money would be applied to make transportation improvements near the proposed sites.

The Virginia location would be in the Springfield area, and the funds would be used to mitigate the transportation impact of relocating thousands of employees from Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia. There are many interesting angles to this story:

  • Would the $120 million McAuliffe proposes spending benefit mainly the FBI and its employees, or would the contemplated improvements benefit others in the Springfield area as well?
  • Where would the money come from, and what alternate uses are there for that money? What other projects would be deferred?
  • How would the move alter commuting patterns? Would a significant number of employees be “reverse commuting” from Washington, D.C., to Virginia? Will the relocation ease or stress Northern Virginia’s transportation problems?
  • What would be the economic benefits of bringing the FBI to Virginia? Presumably, as a federal facility, the headquarters would generate no real estate tax revenues. Would a Virginia location inspire many FBI employees to move to Virginia — and, given the lack of property tax revenue, would they represent a net gain to the state and local governments and their taxpayers?
  • Who owns the Springfield site for the new headquarters? How much would the property owner stand to benefit from this deal and resulting investment in transportation improvements?

— JAB

A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Get Transportation Right

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Take the Uber revolution of summoning rides with a smart phone. Then add driverless cars, which eliminate the expense of paying someone to drive the car. Then overlay the emerging business model of Transportation As a Service, in which people pay for rides when they need them rather than buy cars that sit idle 90% of the day, often incurring parking fees in the process. Shared self-driving cars could take up to 80% of all vehicles off the road, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study noted in a Wall Street Journal thought piece by Christopher Mims.

How would the impact of such an eventuality ripple through the rest of the economy? While acknowledging that such things are impossible to predict, Mims speculates that shared, self-driving cars will spur “suburban sprawl.”

Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car…. With the savings you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.

As for the putative preference the Millennial generation has for living in the city, writes Mims, it’s a myth. “Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities.”

I don’t agree with Mims’ conclusion, but these are ideas worth exploring. I’m most intrigued by the MIT forecast that the shared, driverless-car future will take 80% of all vehicles off the road. For purposes of argument, let’s say that shared, driverless cars take only half of all vehicles off the road. That’s still an astounding number.

My first question is this: Will the streets, roads and highways in a world of shared, driverless cars be less crowded? To answer that, we must distinguish between the number of vehicles and the number of trips taken. Unless people take fewer trips, they still will need means of conveyance. If everyone rides solo cars, the country may need fewer cars but there will not be fewer cars on the road. Only if people share rides — either in conventional cars, vans or micro-buses like the one pictured above — will there be a need for fewer cars on the road. I think it’s possible that we’ll see fewer cars on the road, but no one can make such a prediction with any confidence.

Here’s what we can predict: A shift to shared, driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve the population. To the extent that fleet operating companies maximize the asset value of their fleets by running them 24/7, most cars will be on the streets (or in maintenance garages or recharge stations) instead of sitting in parking lots and parking decks. The most confident prediction we can make is that America will need fewer parking spaces.

Shrinking acreage dedicated to parking will have a profound impact on human settlement patterns. While it will free up some land in densely settled urban areas — putting a lot of parking garages out of business — the biggest impact will be in the scattered, low-density areas we think of as suburbia. Millions of acres of parking lots across the country will become redundant and unnecessary.

If localities are intelligent enough to eliminate minimum parking requirements, retailers would have every incentive to convert acres of land into something useful — offices, townhouses, apartments, parks, whatever. So much land would be freed up from redundant parking lots that there would be no need to develop another acre of greenfield land for another generation. Localities that anticipate this opportunity by revising their comprehensive plans and zoning codes will enjoy a huge advantage over the laggards in attracting new development.

Now, back to Mims’ observation that Millennials prefer “the suburbs” by two to one over “the city.” That’s a meaningless statement. True, young families may prefer so-called “suburban” jurisdictions with quality school systems, but the operative factor is the quality of the schools, not the low-density and auto-centric design of the communities. Other research shows that Millennials also prefer walkable, bikeable communities. The preference for good schools may be stronger, but that doesn’t mean the Millennials wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in a community that offered both good schools and walkable-bikable places.

In contrast to Mims, I do not think that shared, driverless cars will spur more of the scattered, disconnected, low-density that we call “suburban sprawl.” To the contrary, I believe it will stimulate the redevelopment of low-density, auto-centric communities into walkable urban places.

Localities across Virginia will enjoy a once-in-a-century opportunity to convert parking lots into taxable development without incurring the offsetting liability of needing to upgrade the transportation infrastructure to support the denser population. But this will happen only if they stop mandating parking lot requirements and revise their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to accommodate the new possibilities.

Likewise, the Commonwealth of Virginia, which once again (and as predicted) finds itself short of dollars to fund the roads, highways and rail systems, needs to re-think the twenty-year future. The transportation infrastructure of the 21st century will be Uber-fied. Throw out all long-range traffic projections! Rather than sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into expensive new highways, light-rail rail and Bus Rapid Transit systems, we need to start thinking what kind of investments will expedite the coming of shared, driverless cars.

States and localities that work out the solution first will be winners. Those that stick to the current transportation paradigm will lose.

Let’s Prepare for the Next Uber Revolution

Graphic credit: Morgan Stanley

Graphic credit: Morgan Stanley

by James A. Bacon

Uber and Lyft, known mainly for providing taxi-like services, may find sprawling Sun-Belt cities to be the most hospitable markets for their new car-pooling services. That’s one of the conclusions arising from a new Morgan Stanley report on the proliferation of Uber- and Lyft-style services across the United States. The logic: Sun Belt cities have low-density human settlement patterns that will not support mass transit but have congested roads that could benefit from carpooling.

I can’t find the study itself on the Web, but a number of media outlets have reported on it, including this article by Myles Udland published for Business Insider and re-published in Slate. Writes Udland:

Uber and Lyft could have the biggest impact in the South. Instead of getting in your car and driving to work, or replicating the Northeast commuting experience of driving or walking to a train and heading into the city, more sprawling metros could enact large-scale, commuter-targeted versions of what is basically Uber Pool — Uber’s “carpool” option where you set a pick-up and destination and your driver is able to make pick-ups and drop-offs along the way.

In Uber own estimation, the implications of UberPool are “profound.” “On average, uberX already costs 40% less than taxi. Imagine reducing that cost by up to another 50%! In San Francisco, how about $6 to Uber from the Castro to the Financial District? Or $10 from Sunset to SOMA? At these price points, Uber really is cost-competitive with owning a car, which is a game-changer for consumers.”

But as Morgan Stanley observes (and Uber overlooks in its example) the metros most likely to benefit from UberPool and competing services are those that, unlike San Francisco, lack mass transit alternatives. Further, suggests Morgan Stanley, those cities would be well advised to invest in building networks of ride-sharing services rather than commuter rail. (I’m not certain what carpooling infrastructure would look like — perhaps dedicated locations analogous to bus stops where car-pooling cars and vans can pick up and drop off passengers without disrupting traffic flow.)

According to the Morgan Stanley metrics, as visually summarized in the map above, Virginia metros are not prime candidates for Uber-like carpooling. Yet I have long argued that Uber-like ride sharing services are exactly what our metros need. Outside the urban core served by METRO much of Northern Virginia could use UberPool. Richmond and Hampton Roads, with much weaker mass transit backbones, would be even more suitable.

There is no one-size-fits-all transportation solution for Virginia. And, while I prefer a Smart Growth vision for future development and re-development, I acknowledge that not everyone shares my refined urban sensibilities. I also acknowledge that it takes decades and billions of dollars to transform suburban sprawl into communities that can support mass transit. In the meantime, Uber-inspired carpooling may be the most cost effective way of meeting the transportation needs of millions of suburban Virginians.