Flat fare falls flat

“Metro should have a flat fare.” I’ve seen this mind-boggling argument all over the place, much to my consternation. This scheme prizes mind-numbing simplicity over all else — economy, equity, efficiency, environment, everything.

Such a move would penalize DC & Arlington residents who take transit, rather than road-clogging and pollution-spewing cars, to make their trips around town — while giving a huge and highly regressive gift to some of the country’s wealthiest, sprawliest suburbs. Within DC & Arlington, Metro charges a $1.70 base fare: actually one of the cheapest for a subway in North America. Bus fares here are even lower: $1 for Circulator, $1.60 for Metrobus. You’ll pay almost twice our subway fare (C$3) just for a mile-long bus ride in poorer Toronto. The vast majority of people paying that short-distance fare are indeed actually residents, not tourists, and many of those people are transit-dependent and lower-income. The suburban commuters who would overwhelmingly benefit from a flat fare are people who can easily just drive to the grocery store or to visit grandma three miles away; that’s not an option for the transit-dependent.

Distance-based and time-based pricing recognizes that:
– it’s more expensive to provide longer trips in lower-density suburban areas.
– conversely, that trips within the core present a low marginal cost (so much so that cities like Pittsburgh, Portland, and Seattle have “fareless squares” where all downtown service is free): besides their short distance, the trains have to run through the core anyways just to distribute their suburban passengers. (If Alice is going 1-2-3 and Brenda is going 2-3-4, the marginal cost for the train to carry Charlie from 2-3 is $0, as no additional trains or drivers are needed.)
– more frequent rush hour service costs more to provide (since it requires purchasing more trains and paying more drivers).
– people are willing to pay more for longer trips at peak hours. This is especially true since many local employees, including most federal workers, have access to some kind of flex time.
– make more frequent transit trips, best customers who are traveling within the most congested areas and thus should be encouraged to ride space-efficient transit
– hundreds of thousands of suburbanites demonstrate every day that they’re willing to pay the higher fares charged to them, so cutting their fares leaves money on the table.

Therefore, if it costs more and the customers will pay more, then charge more. M arket economies use the price mechanism as the primary way in which consumers and producers match incentives, and transit is not an exception. We never question why the New Jersey Turnpike or American Airlines factors distance into pricing, so why is it bad for transit? We tacitly understand that hotels cost more during conventions, and restaurants cost more at dinner than at lunch, so why whine incessantly about how peak fares “confuse” the world’s most over-educated city?

Confused tourists do not merit a new fare system, they merit a better way of presenting the information at fare machines. Presenting a map instead of a table of fares might work: I could quickly figure out ticket prices in Japan that way, even at stations where nothing was in English. Selling 1/2/3-day passes and round-trip tickets would certainly simplify matters, and fare vending machines should have larger, more informative displays with more helpful prompts.

It’s telling that very few new subway systems use flat-rate pricing, and in fact some newer, all-electronic transit systems have even more bewildering pricing schemes: Singapore changes road tolls every five minutes, Capital Bikeshare has four price bands ($0/$1.50/$3/$6). Those transit systems that have flat-rate prices are usually older systems with antiquated, token-based fare collection systems, and as a result are hobbled by path dependence. We live in the 21st century, so let’s use the technology that we have to make things smarter and better. Stored-value smart cards like SmarTrip only increases the incentive for transit systems to have more complex, Metrorail-like fare structures. A huge percentage of fares are paid by regular commuters who either use passes or have auto-reloading cards and thus don’t have to count out the fares they’re paying — so why not optimize the fare structure with rush-hour surcharges, zones, and the like?

Also, people complaining about high fares should be throttled. $3.85 from Bethesda to Capitol Hill? So what? A 10-mile trip on New Jersey Transit commuter rail is $5; on MBTA commuter rail $4.75; on a NYC Transit express bus $5.50 (and with slower, less frequent service). Per AAA, driving a 10-mile trip is $7.40 even before paying for parking — or for the $5.25 in tolls that a 10-mile rush-hour commute on the Dulles Greenway, or for the wages foregone by having you drive yourself. Typical Bethesda families can spare that change; their median income of $170K would pay for 60 roundtrips every day. Atypical Bethesda families can save money by traveling off-peak, or riding buses or bikes instead. Indeed, typical Metrorail riders are considerably more affluent and educated than Americans as a whole. 80% of Metrorail riders and 59% of Metrobus riders have college degrees — compared to 27.5% nationally and 47.5% in DC (all 2007; the best-educated state is Massachusetts at a mere 37.9% college grad). And get this: over half of Metrorail riders earn six figures.

Perhaps a 10-mile trip is cheaper in Tokyo or Hong Kong or NYC, but the cost of providing transit service falls dramatically with such high densities — Hong Kong crams 10X more population density into its urban core and 80% more passengers onto every single subway car (which are of surprisingly similar dimensions).

[Themes developed in comments posted at WeLoveDC, GGW]

Take a tour, any tour

A few months ago, I started working on a few bike tour routes reaching into D.C.’s suburbs, towards points of interest in urban planning history or just boozy destinations (and, even better, places with both). I’ll try to continue updating this map, but here are the completed and under-construction routes (the latter marked with POIs, but not connected yet):

  • Wine, spirits, and beer in Alexandria & Mount Vernon
  • Route 1 in Maryland: streetcar suburbs (Brookland, Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, College Park) and Greenbelt
  • Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve to Purcellville distillery (back on W&OD)
  • National Capital Streetcar Museum via Rock Creek trails
  • Falls Church, Merrifield, old & new Reston via W&OD
  • South Arlington redevelopment sites
  • Columbia & Ellicott City
  • Rockville & Gaithersburg

I’m aiming to present a few of these as guided tours, depending on whether I can find good tour guides at the POIs. Let me know if you can help.

Campaigning on stale tax policy

I was a bit crestfallen earlier this week when Obama came out swinging in favor of extending Bush’s ill-conceived (and 13-year-old) tax policy. There’s been enough time since the last time the tax code changed; if it’s not going to get past the House anyways, why not instead suggest replacing the whole shebang with something new? This had been broadly hinted at during the debt-ceiling debacle last year.

The very words “tax reform” are music to the ears of good-government liberals like me—and Barack Obama. They bear the hope of bipartisan compromise and grand bargains in which everyone wins. Conservatives get lower rates, liberals get a fairer tax code with more revenues for social programs, and fewer giveaways to favored industries.

via Mark Schmitt in the New Republic.

Romney schedules the long-promised “bathtub drowning”

[actually, three political shorts, but bear with me]

Mitt Romney has scheduled Grover Norquist’s long-planned “drown government in the bathtub” party!

Per AEI’s Norman Ornstein, writing in TNR:

The Ryan budget says that it will reduce all discretionary spending, domestic and defense, to 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050, less than half of what it is today; but Romney has also pledged to put an ironclad 4 percent of GDP floor under defense spending alone. Taken together, then, a Romney administration would be committed to abandoning the entirety of non-military government. No air traffic control, no Coast Guard, no transportation, energy program, NIH, CDC, Customs, FBI, NASA, and so on. None.

Well, someone finally had to specify those “unspecified budget cuts” at some point in time. The answer, as Sarah Palin would say, is “Um, all of them” — well, he has specified them. The entire federal government would be shut down, and then some, an outcome which some (who might know about the matter) have deemed not very Christ-like.

I suppose once government disappears once and for all, we won’t have to fight over things like this anymore: a Republican SuperPAC TV ad attacks the Obama administration for stimulus spending that went to “traffic lights… in China.” Even putting aside the Gravitron of spin needed to generate that headline from the underlying story — that Chinese-assembled LED components were placed into energy-efficient traffic signals installed in U.S. cities — it’s absurd to find fault with a program that saves the public 80% on energy and maintenance while improving safety with brighter, longer-lasting signals.

Besides, only the diodes were made in China; as “teardown reports” of iDevices have shown, the cost of assembly in China is a tiny slice of the final cost of a finished electronic product in the U.S. — much less one sold with an installation and maintenance contract, as traffic lights are.

Which brings me to the closer from Dick Lugar’s concession speech:

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

I hope that as a nation we aspire to more than that. I hope we will demand judgment from our leaders. I continue to believe that Hoosiers value constructive leadership. I would not have run for office if I did not believe that.

Um, actually, I might remind Mr Lugar that the ACA cut into Medicare, which Republicans used to whip up seniors’ opposition (and Obama’s opening, $4 trillion offer on deficit reduction last April included vast additional Medicare cost cuts, before assenting to even larger cuts in debt-ceiling talks that failed when the House Republicans walked out) and that Obama has signed into law the largest trade agreements since, oh, Bill Clinton introduced NAFTA. Meanwhile, no Republican “leader” dares to speak truth to power on climate change, because they’re then quickly drummed out of the party.

Transit shorts: Sustainable DC, CaBi, Beltway as urban edge, more!

Weekday walk trip % Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Hi there! Seven (!) transportation-ish shorts; they might be a few days late, but I kind of have breaking news for #1, since these figures haven’t yet made the paper:

1. The new Sustainable DC Vision includes (unlike some other plans I’ve seen) some really great performance goals for the next 20 years, including:
– 75% of trips starting within city will be on foot, bike, or transit
– Zero waste
– 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions (3/4 of which come from buildings)
– 100% swimmable, fishable waterways
– Tripling the number of small businesses
– 25% of food supply from within 100 miles (which implies farmland conservation in the suburbs)
– 50% less obesity (already lowest rate in USA)
– 50% less unemployment
– 10X greater exports of goods & services

Several notable strategies are called out, including “citywide performance parking districts” (their term for market-rate parking meters). There’s also an interesting emphasis in the text on how local food, zero waste, etc. will keep more funds within DC.

I was walking behind Mayor Gray across the new Anacostia Riverwalk wetlands bridge that connects Hill East to the Capitol Riverfront; check back to see if those photos make it into the paper.

2. More on performance parking: ‘Even though he works for a personal rapid transport company [ULTRa], [Steve] Raney said, “If you’re doing to do one thing, do the paid parking. Don’t go and build a personal rapid transit system.” [Bill Fulton, CP-DR]

3. BicycleBug recently undertook a CaBiChallenge, similar to the Tour de [Denver] B-Cycle. Apparently, he couldn’t check into some stations due to being dock-blocked. Two ways around that:
– use two credit cards. Arrive at a full station with bike, use CC#2 to check out a bike, return bike paid for with CC#1 into newly empty dock.
– or, to just verify a station visit, you could just ride your own bike around and print off an unlock code from each station. (I guess that wouldn’t work if the printer’s down, though.)

4. The graph here comes from the MWCOG’s 2011 TPB Geographically-Focused Household Travel Survey initial report. (Logan Circle’s outlier-in-a-good-way results merited some press, e.g., in the Examiner.) If we define sprawl as “where nobody walks” and “where everybody drives alone,” it’s pretty clear that sprawl begins right outside the 257 square miles circumscribed by the 10-mile-ring Beltway. (Incidentally, the city of Chicago would fill 92% of the Beltway.)

There are exceptions that stem from good planning, though: Largo, with access to the Blue Line, had 63% more transit commuting trips than more-distant Reston, but better-planned Reston has 67% more walk trips — and 31% more total weekday walk/transit trips.

Another surprising fact hidden in the presentation: mobile-only households ranged from 12% around Largo to an astonishing 57% around Logan Circle (the very picture of a neighborhood of techy transients). I see that they’ll be doing my neighborhood later this year — hope I get selected!

5. More on escaping the Beltway: it turns out that just outside the Beltway is Cherry Hill Park, a bona fide campground (the sort of land use you don’t see in an urban area) — which you can take a city bus to! (Via Em Hall’s Metro Ventures, via a segment on WAMU Metro Connection)

6. I love public stairs. Chalk it up to too many years stalking broad, flat Chicago streets.

7. Last week, Streetsblog mentioned a curious list compiled by Patrick Kennedy from Walkable DFW that contrasted U.S. cities with many and few highway lane miles. It was just a simple illustration — the many-lane-miles cities aren’t what come to mind as thriving, lively cities, unlike the few-lane-miles cities — and there are a lot of factors that enter into the equation. (I noticed that the lists are dominated by certain states, like Texas, Florida, and California, which might be over- or under-investing in highways.)

Still, though, it reminded me of this cute paper (again, not really an analytical work) by Patrick Condon, contrasting how the urban health of Vancouver to St. Louis really has nothing to do with the presence — or absence — of highways.

Shorts: Austin + Madison, McLean, the South

1. No, it’s not another post about trendy baby names of the Aughts… Bike Snob NYC visits two cities that have also recently hosted the Congress for the New Urbanism, and once again I feel validated:


If you enjoy shirtless motorcycling, being drunk in revealing clothing, or just plain shouting “Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo!” like a Fred who’s just hit 46mph, then Austin is your kind of town. If, on the other hand, you prefer more refined pleasures such as quiet cocktails, polite conversation, and maintaining your dignity, you might be more at home elsewhere.


As it turns out, Madison is more than just “bike friendly,” and it’s actually so affectionate towards cyclists that it sometimes gropes you in a way that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable… I daresay that Minneapolis and Madison may be even more rideable than “The Artisanal ‘P’.” In particular, riding in Madison was like riding a cotton candy bicycle while being tickled with buttercups…

2. Speaking of fabled places, I would never have guessed that this line by Bobbi Bowman would have been filed from the Beltway’s Republican redoubt:

That battle was basically a clash of visions of downtown McLean. The vision of JBG and its partner, a townhouse developer, was townhouses, a garage on Elm Street with the first floor of restaurants and retail space, a tot lot, and improved storm-water management. The Planning Committee, McLean’s citizen-planners, envisioned apartments, higher density and no garage. [emphasis mine]

3. One of the strange-at-first-glance statistics in a recent Pew report on intermarriage is that the South, which led the opposition to mixed marriages, has a higher incidence of intermarriage than the Midwest or Northeast, although lower than the West. That ranking appears to be an artifact of two factors:
– exposure appears to lower rates of out-marriage in the Midwest; more homogenous states just don’t give their residents much opportunity to out-marry
– Florida and Texas are part of the Census Bureau’s definition of the South, and both share with the West a Hispanic heritage — which, by long-standing Census definition, is already a mix.

The basin isn’t always so placid

Blossomania! Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

Sure, living by the water has its highlights — like being able to walk out your front door to views like these — but I can’t help but worry about the impact of sea level rise on my neighborhood. Luckily, I suppose, I live a few meters above sea level; Washington’s park-lined waterfront allows a substantial buffer against the encroaching high tides.

The EPA’s Rising Sea site offers state-by-state reports on adaptation plans for sea level rise. For the District, the reports indicate that there is a high likelihood of further shore protection for already armored shorelines, like the ones nearest me. A hybrid approach may be taken for currently natural shorelines, like those along the Anacostia River.

Ultimately, the answer may be akin to the tidal gates that have kept the Tidal Basin relatively clean for over a century: a tidal barrier akin to the Thames Barrier, the IHNC under construction outside New Orleans, or one contemplated for New York Harbor. I found a 1963 Army Corps publication on hurricane preparedness (pp. 16-17 of this PDF) that modeled the 15-foot storm surge protection that could be afforded by a mechanical tidal barrier. Their proposed location for the barrier was between Marshall Hall, Maryland and Mason Neck, Virginia. Incidentally, the Marshall and Washington families used to run a little ferry across the river there — but protecting the city named after Mr. Washington might ultimately trump his lifelong dream of improving the Potomac’s navigability.

[2017 update: a Bisnow article mentions proposals for storm surge barriers in Boston, Houston, and New York harbors.]