Washington DC

How do I find a hotel near good transit?

Map_of_hotels_near_washington_dc_metroHere's news you can use, or at least news I can use as an absurdly frequent flyer.  

All of the standard travel shopping sites make it very hard to assess the transit options from a hotel's location.  At most they have distances and sometimes car travel times.  So I often spend too long doing research, and pay too much for a hotel close to my destination when I might easily have stayed further away more cheaply if I knew good transit was there.

This, therefore, is a really good tool.  In the case of Washington DC, it helps you see all the hotels that are close (objectively close, not hotel-marketing-close) to a subway station.  It's the work of Jeff Howard, and he's also done one for Atlanta's MARTA subway.

You can get hints of similar output from Google, very crudely, by pointing Google Maps at a city and then specifying, say, "hotels near a DC Metro station," but Google is easily confused by excessively clear requests, and to Google, "near" means car-near, not transit-near.  Someday, maybe Google will understand "hotel within 400m of a frequent transit stop," or even "hotel within 30 min frequent transit travel time from ___".  But that's clearly a way off, and Google often seems more interested in interpreting vague search requests than replying to clearly stated ones.

In any case, even a competent search engine wouldn't produce Jeff Howard's very useful feedback about hotels.  Click on a station and there's a writeup about each station area, including a map showing the hotel's exact relationship to the station, and links to the hotels themselves, including a reservation widget.  Nice work, Jeff!

 

Are streetcars-in-traffic skeptics sacrificing goodness for perfection?

That's David Alpert's frame in a piece in the Atlantic Citylab today (links added):

Jaffe, Walker, Yglesias, and Capps have no duty to support Team Transit [sic!] no matter what. They should speak their minds. And anyone who supports mass transit expansion should want it to be as close to perfect as possible.

I worry about streetcar criticism that states that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.

But streetcars also have another set of opponents: Those who simply don’t want to fund any transit at all, regardless of its specifics. They seize on any flaw to stop projects that might change their street or interfere with their driving.

So I worry about the effects of this latest trend in streetcar criticism. While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.

That’s not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like. 

I have spent my whole career helping people value what's really good-but-not-perfect in transit choices.  Our difference is that in Alpert's framing of the question, the fundamental good to be defended at all costs is the streetcar technology, while to me the fundamental good is the liberty of large numbers of human beings, and their access to both happiness and economic opportunity.

Let us take Alpert's perfect-vs-good frame and deploy it differently. Many earnest American leaders visit places like Bordeaux and Strasbourg and agree their cities should look just like that. This looks perfect to them, but they realize they'll have to start with something that's good-but-not-perfect, an imperfect good.

Well, which "good" element should we start with? In Bordeaux and Strasbourg, the streetcar (never mixed with traffic) is a result rather than a cause of a whole bunch of other things: policies that limit car access, for example, so that transit of any mode can run reliably and so that it delivers people into a rich pedestrian space. The Bordeaux and Strasbourg streetcars also began with the "imperfect good" of bus services, which were used to build robust lines with actual existing markets that would support the future rail service.

Why should the "imperfect good that we start with" be the streetcar instead of a really liberating transit system run, for now, by buses?  Why must we start with  a hunk of decontextualized technology rather than our liberty and opportunity to go where we want to go?  

Alpert goes on to make other points about why "imperfect but good" streetcars are worth supporting:

Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.

Millennialsempty nesters, and others want walkable, livable urban places. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those in the United States, which is why they’re increasingly expensive.

There are plenty of places on the edges of cities that could become more walkable, more urban, and have more of a sense of place. To do that, they need better transit, more amenities, and more residents—which generally means more density. When such a place achieves greater walkability and urbanization, the factors making it so strengthen over time. … It’s a momentum game, and even an expensive, sub-optimal transit solution—such as a less-frequent streetcar with no dedicated lane —can push the cycle in the right direction.

The sheer abundance of places that need to be made more walkable is actually the strongest argument against the streetcars-in-traffic campaign.  In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter.  Streetcars-in-traffic have helped enrich a few superdense districts, but they are far too slow, unreliable, and expensive to scale to the size of our urban mobility problem — at least not as long as they remain stuck in traffic.  (Once they get out of traffic, they are essentially light rail.)  Nor are streetcars remotely necessary for the development of walkable, urban places.  

If you want to see how a city massively expands the usefulness of transit, and thus the potential for transit-oriented lives, look to what is happening in Houston.  Massive, scalable, high-frequency bus grids that are useful for getting all over the city, and that can be created now.  

An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now.  …  Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.

The frame here is: "The streetcar technology is the essential good, and people's ability to access their entire city is a nice-to-have that we hope to add in the future."   

But even if you accept that frame, what's the track record of claims that modern streetcars-in-traffic, first built in compromized ways, have led to later efforts to improve them?  Perhaps you should study Portland, which has been living with this product for longer than any other US city.

The streetcar has been extended up to the limits of usefulness for such a slow-by-design service (about 3.5 miles).  But there are no serious proposals for taking cars out of its lanes for enough distance to matter, nor is there much energy behind extensions.  Why?  

In Portland, support for streetcar spending has collapsed.  A recent Bureau of Transportation poll found that only 38% of Portland residents would assign a more-than-neutral priority to further expansions of the streetcar.  The same number for more frequent bus service is 67%.   (Light rail, in exclusive lanes by definition, is at 59%)

The Portland Streetcar has taught Portland residents a lot about what's really matters as you define an "imperfect good."  Listen to what they've learned:  Frequent, useful, reliable transit — using tools that scale to the scale of the whole city —  is the "imperfect good" that matters.

should transit maps be geographical or abstract?

In some agencies, it goes without saying that transit maps should be geographically accurate.  Many agencies follow San Francisco Muni in superimposing transit lines on a detailed map of the city:

Sf frag

But research out of MIT suggests that we really need to see network structure, and that requires a degree of abstraction:

By putting alternate versions of the New York and Boston subway maps through the computer model, the researchers showed that abstract versions of the maps (as opposed to geographically accurate versions) were more likely to be easily understood in a single, passing glance. 

Here's their example:
Dish_subwaymaps

Geographical accuracy obscures network structure.  Purely geographic maps show where service is but not how it works.  

This is why a number of best practice agencies publish both kinds of maps, sometimes even presenting them side by side.  The geographic map helps you locate yourself and points of interest in the city, but you need the structure map to understand how the system works.

All this is even more urgently true for bus network maps, where complexity can be crushing to the user.  When we streamline maps to highlight key distinctions of usefulness such as frequency, we often have to compromise on geographic detail.  Obviously the best maps fuse elements of the two, but you can always find the tradeoff in action.  The new Washington DC transit maps, for example, highlight frequency (and show all operators' services together) but there's a limit to the number of points of interst you can highlight when keeping the structure clear:  

Dc slice

 

frequent network maps: the challenge of one-way pairs

One-way splits — where the two directions of travel are on different streets — are often the scourge of transit: on the map, for example, they appear to cover more area than two way service, but actually serve less.  And they certainly make transit maps confusing:

Indxmaps2

Still, they're frequently mandated by one-way traffic couplets.  Those, in turn, are usually mandated by the goal of flushing traffic through a city, though there are cases, notably Portland, where one-way couplets are perfect for creating an intimate and walkable downtown.

Transit agencies may not be able to avoid one-way couplets, but they can control how they describe them and think about them.  WMATA (and its map designer, CHK America, have made a major step in their new network map.  We covered the development of this mpa previously. Here's what it looks like today:

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.22.19

Red represents the most frequent bus lines, blue the infrequent ones, and black the DC Metro system. Other colors are used to depict services of other transit agencies. This basic, clear symbolization quickly communicates the relative importance and usefulness of each type of service.

Marc Szarkowski, who contributed his own frequent network map of Baltimore to the blog last week, asks: how do we show a single route that runs as a two-way couplet on separate streets, without introducing too much clutter or confusion? 

Marc writes:

I think they can work if presented effectively, but overall I often find them confusing, especially if I'm taking an unfamiliar route to an unfamiliar area (all the more you have to remember, particularly if you take multiple such routes). For example, whenever I ride a bus to an unfamiliar area, I tend to assume that the stop I get off at in one direction is just as good for boarding in the other direction. It's frustrating to return to the stop just to discover that you have to walk a block over (or sometimes more: see the 10 in West Baltimore!) to catch the same route in the other direction. 


Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.29.07


WMATA's map uses one line to show both branches of route, and labels either side with the couplet streets. This effectively reduces the amount of clutter on the map, but also excludes which direction the bus travels on each street. This information is less crucial in the case of the B2 shown left, where no other routes travel on the same pair of streets, but where multiple routes use the same streets, in different patters towards different destinations, combining paired one-way streets can become very confusing. Marc's map does not employ this method of simplification for the same reason: 

In Baltimore's case multiple overlapping routes were sometimes offset across a series of three or more one-way streets; i.e. Route 1 up on street A and down on B, Route 2 down on B and up on C, Route 3 up on C and down on D, and so on

Ultimately, desiging this type of a map is about balancing information density and comprehensibility. The user needs to know that line B2 runs on both 14th and 15th streets, but for a map at citywide scale, it may be more important to communicate that B2 is a frequent line serving a long, straight corridor on the eastern side of the city. The map already distorts direction and the exact shape of the streets in favor of a simpler visual effect. WMATA's map uses the same approach to one-way street pairs, downplaying accuracy in favor of ease of use.

a leading bureaucrat on the need to take more risks

Here's a very worthwhile three minutes of Washington DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning on risk-taking and failure.  Her discussion of Capital Bikeshare, which failed in its first incarnation and succeeded in its second, is an incisive challenge to the bureaucratic mind, and it's directly related to transit improvements.  

Whenever we try to improve transit systems, we often find — especially in network redesign — that a whole lot of big changes have to be made at once.  What's more, they're irreversible.  Network redesigns are so big and impactful that you can't just "try" them and undo them if they don't work.  By the time you've done them, the previous status quo is irrecoverable.

So they're big risks.  And most people — especially most groups of people working together such as Boards and committees — don't like to take risks.  The deliberation process in government often seems designed to shrink every initiative, so that all strong transformative moves shrivel into hesitant "demonstration projects," if they survive at all.

Tregoning's story here is basically that the first bikeshare system failed because it was too small, too hesitant, while the second one succeeded because it was far bigger, bolder, riskier.  Many of the government cultures I've known would have decided, based on the first round, never to try bikeshare again.  It took courage to say that maybe the lesson was that some things just can't be done as tiny demonstration projects.  You have to build the courage to actually do them, at the natural scale at which they start to work.

Transit network redesign is exactly like that.  It's hard to do in hesitant, reversible phases, because it's all so interconnected, and because a network doesn't start to work until it's all there.  

Thanks to Melanie Starkey of the esteemed Urban Land Institute for pointing me to this! 

washington dc: new network maps, with frequency!

The Washington DC transit agency WMATA has now released drafts of its new network map, which highlight the frequent network very dramatically with wide red lines:

Dcbusmidcity

Finally, it's possible to quickly see where the next bus is coming soon, rather than getting lost in a confusing tangle in which all routes look equally important.  The map is by the excellent firm CHK America.  Get the full story, with many more samples, at Greater Greater Washington, and remember, if you like these, don't take it for granted.  Transit agencies need to hear positive feedback where it's deserved.

 

washington, dc: a subway-style frequent bus map

Dan Malouff at Greater Greater Washington has sketched a schematic (not geographic) Frequent Bus Network map for the city, and separate maps for each suburban county.  See the original to enlarge and sharpen.

15min

Obviously I recommend Frequent Network maps that show all the modes that run frequently, in some legible way.  In this case that would include the subway.  Otherwise, you seem to imply that there is a huge audience of bus people who want to travel only by bus.  Of course, such a map would need to be at a much larger scale and would have required a lot more work (and tough design choices) to draw.  This bus network is obviously discontinuous because the missing links are in the rail system.

 

ever wanted to be that sexy voice on the train?

I certainly did, maybe still do.  Last week, the Washington Post's "Dr Gridlock" asked readers to call in to record their rendering of the following sentence:

“Next station L’Enfant Plaza. Transfer to the Orange and Blue lines. Doors open on the right.”

An odd choice for an audition text, since it raises all these American anxieties about Frenchness, manifested in the endless question of how frenchly to pronounce French names …

“awesome driver!”: the power of positive feedback

Now and then Twitter pops up something like this, from someone called @wmataplusside.

@wmataplusside@wmata awesome driver! Very clear & announced everything! orange line car 5053. Tell him to keep up the good work 🙂

 In a local ecosystem dominated by colorful critical voices (including @FixWMATA, @dcmetrosucks, @unsuckdcmetro, and my personal favorite moniker, @MedievalMetro), @wmataplusside's niche is to offer all good news:

‏ @wmataplusside  Cell service at Anacostia, Navy Yard, and Waterfront is real! Its really there! #wmata

WMATA, the regional transit agency of the Washington DC region, has a problem that afflicts almost all transit agencies: Negative feedback is constant, positive feedback is rare.  Transit is an incredibly visible service; when something goes wrong — whether in management or operations — there's no concealing it.  Media feed on negativity, so that's what spreads, and what returns amplified to the agency staff.

Experienced transit staff learn to "control" for the negativity.  I often tell client agencies that if the feedback on a service proposal is only 75% negative, as opposed to, say, 95%, then that's actually pretty positive.  Negatively-impacted customers respond in much greater numbers, and usually much more belligerently, than positively-impacted customers, so it's unfair to count comments as though they were votes.  The same is generally true of operations; commendations of good work from customers are rare, because few bother to comment in that situation. while lacerating feedback from angry customers is routine.

This is why folks like @wmataplusside are doing someting important.  When not offering his/her own positive feedback, @wmataplusside is harvesting good news from all over the local Twitterverse, and retweeting it, amplified.  If you want one feed of all the good news about WMATA (and I'm sure the agency does), this is it:

‏ @dcmetrosucks:  I have to say that #wmata has stepped it up this past month and a half…haven't had any significant delays on the OR during peak hours.

‏ @jamdizzle  So pressed with @wmata! Didn't really believe they'd put the money the bus ate on my SmarTrip and certainly not within a few hours!

@jeditrainee:  Love the new bus bays at Seven Corners. Going through there used to be a nightmare. #wmata

@HS1979: On a shuttle. Watched WMATA employee explain to driver how 2 help one confused young passenger. "Take care of her, ok?" IMMD 

@mindymoretti:  $13 cab ride vs. $1.50 bus ride. Snarly cab driver vs. uber friendly bus driver. Well played @wmata well played.

‏ @csimpson82:  My orange line train driver would have an AMAZING career in radio! Excellent job today with the stations!

@zebrafinch:  Cheers, kudos to DC Metro staff Ms. Taylor (Woodley/Zoo) & Gregory (White Flint) for ALWAYS BEING HELPFUL & on task! TY! @wmata #WMATA

@zebrafinch:  New and cheery lighting at formerly dark Metro station. Good! #WMATA http://twitpic.com/9e1yv5

@chrispulaski:  With all my negative #wmata tweets, I have to say that more often than not, the metro workers I encounter are wonderful people.

They don't have to be specific complimnents.  Expressions of sheer passion are also passed on:

‏@Adam_Ulbricht:  Have I confessed my love for the #DCMetro lately? Ya, it's amazing

@Wmataplusside also supports by being useful, extending the agency's eyes:

@wmataplusside: @wmata there are hornets building a nest inside of bus bay H at Naylor Road

The user @wmataplusside took a while to track down, but here's his or her self-description.

Unrelated with WMATA, just a Marylander who grew up with the Green Line. Not really much about me. A suburbanite, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland. Ride Monday through Friday and weekends when I need to go into the city. Been riding all my life, and it's really not as sorry a state of affairs as others make it out to be.

It moves people back and forth without serious incidents being commonplace. Sure, incidents may occur from time to time, but it's not nearly as bad as the Beltway. If riding Metro sounded like listening to a bad traffic report, I could understand relentlessly hating on it.

Started the feed because I couldn't understand why so many were dedicated to being negative about it, and none positive. Goal was an outlet for compliments and comments as a means of hopefully encouraging more positive behavior by wmata employees. Answer rider questions and tweet about my experiences on rails and bus, pass along information about delays when I'm in them. Just want to provide a contrast to all of the pessimism, and another side to the #wmata conversation.

Or as he put it in a tweet:

@wmataplusside: I may look like the eternal optimist, but I'm more normal than it seems. And after reading twitter daily, more lucky than most.

If nobody is aggregating positive feedback for your city's transit system, maybe you should start!  Positive feedback can guide an agency at least as well as the negative can.  Probably better.

a great summary of my talk at apta, washington dc

6850202555_e278ff2178_oIn Greater Greater Washington (GGW), Jenifer Joy Madden and Malcolm Kenton have written an excellent summary of my talk at APTA in Washington DC last week, which GGW also partly sponsored. It also includes this photo, which makes me look a bit like a preacher.   (Click to enlarge, if you must.)

If you missed my talk(s), please read the article but also the comment thread, in which some people accuse me of "anti-rail bias" and others say everything I would say in response to that.  This is gratifying to say the least.  It's fun to be applauded, but it's far more fun to be understood.