TWO SHORT RANGE MAYORAL COMMISSIONS ADDRESS DC'S TRAFFIC ILLS SUPERFICIALLY
After laying out the context of these new commission reports, NARPAC looks at the Commission recommendations: and concludes they are a very mixed bag. It concludes, however, that neither commission is bellying up to the major issues of continuing urban growth, even though the handwriting is on the wall and the reports are in the files.
The need to develop a sensible economic growth metric is highlighted, as well as the need to come to grips with the American reality of vehicle ownership. NARPAC is concerned that these commissions do not recognize the full revenue potential of parking fees, the substantial revenue potential of commuters compared to residents, or the limited revenue potential of retail commerce.
The reports do not pin down the real villains of congestion and their growth rates, or consider that each private and commercial vehicle is growing in size as well. We doubt that current rights of way really saturated, but certainly agree that future pedestrian traffic requires fresh approaches, and perhaps a new dimension.
NARPAC worries that the commissions have focused on the trees but ignored the forest . While we recognize that administrative organization is an essential ingredient to success, we wonder where the cost considerations are in determining whether DC's current traffic-related costs are covered by current traffic-related revenues, and provide our own guesses based on DC's FY05 operating budget.
NARPAC believes that evolving technology can significantly help in traffic management and revenues. We feel the commissions underestimates the extent of new technologies that are now available, and appears to ignore the major impact of radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs).
NARPAC's view of reality is heavily biased by the many issues it has explored and raised piecemeal on this web site in recent years. There is an impending transportation melt-down in DC that will surely impact the future well-being of the nation's capital. We have limited objections to the near-term recommendations presented (or rubber-stamped) in these reports and, in fact, find some of them potentially very useful. But we are concerned by the failures to put these partial solutions into the context of the larger whole. The city needs to place equal or greater emphasis on starting the long-term process of addressing those economy-limiting transportation projections already quite well defined.
In December of 2004, two mayoral "commissions" reported out on two related issues which threaten to inhibit DC's future growth in prosperity and urban quality of life. The first commission was assembled from DC agencies and various residential groups and associations and initially charged with "identifying ways to mitigate parking shortages in the District and to balance competing uses for a limited supply of on-street parking". This Parking Task Force (PTF) "split itself" into three working subcommittees:
o residential parking,
After a year of work, it painted an encouraging picture of what might be accomplished within two years. NARPAC believes the impetus for this effort originated in the DC Council, stimulated by residential concerns over growing parking problems.
The second commission was formed in May of 2004, and presented its findings to the public in December. It was charged with considering the problems of congestion in the downtown; developing and analyzing a range of potential solutions; and presenting recommendations for action. This Downtown Congestion Management Task Force (DCMTF) accepted a goal of "better managing congestion and supporting economic growth", and split itself into five committees addressing motor carriers; parking; pricing; traffic operations; and (public) transit. The work of those committees produced recommendations falling under five themes in three time frames: "quick fixes"(within 6 months); short-term "system changes" (6-24 months); and long-term (2-years plus). The five themes are:
o making public transportation a more efficient and attractive option;
The DCMTF was sponsored by DC's Department of Transportation, using a small amount of left-over funding from its larger federally-supported study of trucking in DC and its implications for urban security.
Recommendations resulting from commissions like these are generally accepted without further critical review, and become leading references for future legislation and city developments, regardless of their validity. Hence NARPAC takes these officially-blessed policy-related developments seriously since they often end up generating programs with long-term implications, and because they provide significant clues as to how the city government and its trusted advisors think. We may be the only group in town to question the underlying principles; to challenge the adequacy of the so-called analyses; to look for correlation or discrepancies between various recent studies; or to search for the application of significant unfolding technologies. In each of these areas, we are looking for opportunities by which our nation's capital city, in conjunction with its supposedly nurturing metro area, could do more to present a reflection of what is best about the American promise both at home and worldwide. And to be candid, we also look to see if any of those who influence capital city development policies have heeded any of our own seven years of analyses and recommendations.
As usual, NARPAC finds some things to applaud and more things that are disappointing. The single most important item is to achieve a "dedicated regional funding source for Metro, and additional federal role in its funding". Increased emphasis on variable parking rates; on- and off- street parking demands; "curbside management"; transit signal priority equipment; rush-hour traffic cops; improved conditions for pedestrians; and eliminating free/subsidized parking around government agencies, appear to be the most encouraging additions to the litany, though there is no prioritization among them.
On the other hand, many of the recommendations are rubber stamp repeats of recommendations from prior studies (buy and use more subway cars; implement a downtown circulator system; designate motor carrier routes; establish a Motor Carrier and Tour Bus Office; and create a K- Street busway) and DDoT pet projects (more downtown bike lanes!). NARPAC has already commented on several of these: the truck and motor carrier study; the K-Street busway plan; and DC's vision of its future growth.
But the major problems that shine through in most of DC's studies, visions, and future plans are not treated in either of these studies, and NARPAC feels obliged to discuss them yet again.
bellying up to continuing urban growth
By far the most serious shortfall in the two commissions' efforts is the failure to look ahead. There is little or no suggestion that DC's looming longer-range problems need to be better defined right now if they are to be solved 10-20 years hence. Both efforts use Census 2000 data to describe current conditions for which they hope to provide some near-term remedies by 2007. Inconsistent data provides minor discrepancies in the numbers of owned (Census 2000) and registered (DMV) private vehicles and no information on the types and purposes of some 18,000 registered commercial vehicles, or whether federal and local government vehicles are included.
Both reports touch on the growth issues in inconsistent and largely inadequate ways. The DCMTF report notes that 50,000 new jobs have been added downtown in the past five years and notes that new investments in residential, entertainment, and cultural attractions are increasing the numbers of people living or visiting downtown, but does not quantify future growth. The PTF takes a different slant, noting that "as a largely built environment, the transportation rights of way in DC are generally fixed, and transportation, including parking, needs to be accommodated within these fixed rights-of-way", suggesting only "efficiency" improvements can add to tolerable traffic volume. Neither report mentions the various efforts lurking in official quarters to lower traffic flow rates by eliminating freeways (Southeast and Whitehurst); to "boulevardize" major commuter routes such as South Capitol Street, Wisconsin, or New York Avenues; or to add to on-street parking in various quasi-residential neighborhoods. The future of the Whitehurst Freeway (below) and its ugly parking lot, for instance, will depend heavily on whether the last word is given to local aesthetes and environmentalists, or to long-range, multi- modal transportation expansionists:
Both reports also imply support for the notion that ownership and use of private vehicles should be discouraged, and that failing to accommodate them will become a welcome self-fulfilling prophesy. There is no statistical basis for wishing away the American love affair with their vehicles or with the services delivered to their households by vehicle. Visions of shopping, being entertained, or vacationing by public transit are simply unrealistic in the abstract, and unlikely given the current ("locked in"?) configuration of the DC metro area's public transit networks.
There is also an undercurrent that commuters are unwanted and a net drag on the city's economy and quality of life. There is no foundation for these assumptions either. Virtually every jurisdiction in this metro area, except DC, is trying to figure out how to attract more businesses and less residents: i.e., more commuters who live (and send their kids to public school) somewhere else. This is routinely noted in local daily newspaper headlines.
Neither study gives any notice whatsoever to the mayor's stated goal (no matter how ill-advised) to bring "100,000 new residents" into DC, in part to improve its long-term fiscal soundness, and in part just to make it a more fun place. Neither study gets into the basic statistic as to whether vehicle population is related to the city's population level, its number of households, the character of those households, or the number of its households that can afford to own their own cars. Projecting future vehicular population in the city cannot be estimated without such considerations.
the handwriting is on the wall and the reports are in the files
One of the least referenced report concerning DC's long-term economic future was prepared by consultants at the Parsons Transportation Group for both DDoT and DC's Office of Planning. "The Framework for Transportation Strategies" was prepared to support the development of the new "DC Vision Report" now approved by the DC Council and intended to provide the basic "input guidance" for the new DC Comprehensive Plan now in work. It provides the best available background data on transport mode capabilities and capacities, and the best available projections of anticipated regional growth patterns. It paints a clear picture of the limitations of DC's current public transit systems (drawn, presumably from WMATA's own projections that Metrorail is already approaching downtown rush hour saturation).
It also assesses the condition of DC's major arteries for commuters and trucks, and identifies major sections of 40 prominent streets and avenues, and five bridges that are already operating near or over capacity. Many of these major routes are now scheduled to be designated 24/7 heavy truck routes under a separate DC Truck Traffic Study.
What startles NARPAC, however, is the seemingly blithe acceptance of the fact that transportation capacity limits will seriously curtail DC economic growth:
"By 2030, [COG 'most likely' regional] projections indicate that DC will have 717,200 residents (one percent higher than the 1975 [ but a completely different demographic mix!]) and 848,700 jobs (50% higher than the 1975 employment). Using the rough relationship between jobs and persons entering the core, we would expect 633,200 commuters by 2030 [i.e., 75% of the jobs]."
Using these numbers, and assuming the same commuter "modal split" as their baseline scenario, the report concludes that :
"by any measure, Scenario 1 appears to be unreachable and undesirable. Increases of 36 percent in ridership during the morning commute on Metrorail are extremely unrealistic if not impossible."This scenario also projects that single-occupancy commuter's cars would increase from 184,600 to 250,300, and multi-occupancy cars from 96,200 to 130,400. The report does not note that this would also require a total increase of 100,000 more off-street parking spaces, beyond the current city total (not just downtown) of roughly 140,000. This transportation consultants' report then goes on to suggest (apparently with DDoT support) that a far better scenario would be to increase the number of workers living in DC instead. The report does not mention that if all the new jobs projected for DC between now and 2003 were generated by DC residents, DC's population would have to grow by 612,200 to a total of 1,193, 100! Does any qualified observer think this would be "reachable or desirable"?
Based on this Parsons report, DC's Department of Transportation comes up with the following ten amazing recommendations for inclusion in DC's new Vision Report, irreverently paraphrased by disgusted NARPAC analysts:
1. Hey, let's focus on maintaining and improving the attractiveness of existing
It is high time for the city's planners and economic developers to shift away from the antiquated notion that Census-generated changes in raw population numbers are a suitable measurement of shifting economic potential and purchasing power in general, or of vehicle ownership in particular. Households are a better measure of housing demand, retail demand, and vehicle ownership. In fact, the best measure of a jurisdiction's financial posture is its ratio of taxpaying households to net tax-consuming households (generally below the poverty line). The fact that DC's ratio of taxpayers to tax-consumers is at best one-fifth that of its fellow metro area jurisdictions is the core of its financial problems. The fact that DC's total households changed little between 1970 and 1990 even though its population (of kids and aged) dropped substantially, has led to the self-pitying myth that its middle class deserted the city.
The fact that the Census estimates of DC's 1999 population was more than 10% below the Census 2000 count (despite a much smaller count of newly vacant or abandoned properties) shows the danger of extrapolating past trends on partial statistics. DC's Chief Financial Officer frets about continuing drops in Census population estimates (in the FY05 budget document), even while he can count the thousands of newly built and fully occupied housing units, and the rapidly rising value of all DC's residential and commercial properties. And more important, even while he can, if he chooses, count taxpaying DC households (and their dependents) every year. He could also try counting registered vehicles.
coming to grips with vehicle ownership
With regard to DC generated traffic problems, and their key corollary, parking problems, taxpaying households may well be the best indicator of vehicle ownership. Although the PTF used the same data base as NARPAC concerning car ownership, they failed to note the key relationship between household income and car ownership. By inference the report implies that the 90,000 households in DC that own no cars are somehow part of the green wave of the future. In fact most of them are below the poverty line and would buy a car if they could afford to. In fact, many of the (relatively) affordable single-family homes being built east of the Anacostia River include garages, or at least car ports for one vehicle. It is not totally irrelevant that almost 10,000 cars are stolen annually in DC by those whose aspirations exceed their means. But more important, there are credible analytical studies showing that car ownership by the working poor helps them find more remunerative jobs even though their higher urban car insurance rates are counterproductive. NARPAC guesses that halving DC's poverty rate would add perhaps 30,000 more to DC's 194,000 registered vehicles. It seems to NARPAC that city planners should clearly differentiate three kinds of policies regarding car ownership: those that aim to discourage car ownership; those that aim to discourage routine car use within the city; and those that aim to encourage the ownership of "urban-friendly" vehicles. That last category would include newer vehicle designs that limit noise and air pollution, and that can be efficiently parked elsewhere than on public rights of way. Many anti- car activists either openly or surreptitiously advocate limiting the growth of vehicular rights of way as a means of generating or sustaining traffic congestion levels sufficient to discourage car ownership. They might as well advocate increased air pollution as a means of curtailing smoking.
NARPAC believes that the automobile has become as much a part of American life as indoor plumbing, home ownership, television, and overeating. For almost all that can afford one, the car is an intimate part of family life, from running errands, shopping in big-box stores and malls, to visiting friends and doctors, and vacationing. Would you take your supermarket purchases home by bus or subway? The car is America's most obvious status symbol, and most households' second largest purchase. Car-related purchases generate almost 30% of all DC area retail sales!
On the other hand, cars can certainly be considered real property and candidates for assessment for tax purposes. Some states do impose real property taxes that include an identifiable yearly automobile tax, although Virginia residents have gradually forced its removal as a state revenue source. Registration fees are, of course, one step in this direction, but the "equivalent tax rate" they represent appear currently to be somewhat lower than for residential property itself.
recognizing the revenue potential of parking fees
Nonetheless, the most valuable contribution of the PTF effort may well be the endorsement of parking on public space as a service, not a right, that should be paid for on the basis of "market pricing methodologies". NARPAC would take that principle several steps further and make parking fees and fines a significant source of revenues for the city. Resident car owners pay a significant tax to the city for running their car engines (perhaps a penny a mile), but virtually nothing for regular on-street parking. By comparison, they pay about five cents per cigarette, and about $5 per drink of alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, there is currently a tax penalty for owning a home with its own garage (since it contributes to assessed value), and zoning restrictions discourage individual off-street driveways. Even worse, home owners have forced the conversion of some city street travel lanes into free parking spaces (viz., halving traffic flow on Western Avenue despite rapidly increasing traffic near the Friendship Heights metro station).
And although NARPAC cannot find a relevant reference or recommendation, the DC Council in late 2004 used the PTF report to legislate a primitive sliding scale for annual car registration fees that would penalize cars in excess of 5000 pounds curb weight, and benefit smaller cars adopting the new fuel economy technologies. Oddly enough, this is expected to increase city revenues by only a trivial amount, and applies only to car ownership (and only those registered in DC). Hence it very slightly penalizes local car ownership, but does not penalize car use in the city, either by residents or commuters. Let us hope this is the start of something much bigger, such as required city permits for monthly parking based on vehicle "urban-friendliness".
recognizing the revenue potential of commuters
The second most important indicator of revenue generating potential is the number of commuters that populate the commercially-built office space (whether or not they are government workers). The DCMTF acknowledges that some 30% of total DC revenues are generated by individuals that work here but do not live here. By any measure, commuters do not incur significant city expenditures other than those related to traffic management (see below). While there is no commuter tax as such, major DC revenues are generated by the property taxes on the commercially-owned buildings in which they work. To the extent that office space is growing in DC faster than almost anywhere else in the US, and that the per-square-foot rental values are second only to Manhattan, NY, NARPAC believes commuters can be a far larger source of net city revenues, either directly through higher parking and public transit fees, or indirectly through higher commercial property taxes.
How commuters get to and from the city may be up for grabs, but surely there are very few suburban commuter households that cannot and do not own one, two, or three cars, and that would change their lifestyle because of higher user charges. After all, the average cars-per- household in urban Alexandria and Arlington exceeds 1.5. In Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax Counties there are almost 2.0 cars per household, and in all the outer jurisdictions of this metro area, more than 2.0.
recognizing the limited revenue potential of retail commerce
One of the least credible recommendations of these Commissions is the concept of converting downtown long-term off-street parking to shorter-term parking for commercial and retail uses. In fact, the terminology used by the PTF appears to limit "commercial" uses to other than business (office) uses, a category that is somehow relegated as a subset of "commuters". In essence this task force is recommending a preference for providing parking for "spenders" over "earners". It is not clear to NARPAC that this is a realistic option. The division of floor space in the (relatively) high density downtown area is now overwhelmingly biased towards office space (particularly in a basically "government town") and no doubt always will be. The revenue productivity to DC from "commercial and retail" is probably better than from taxpaying "business" on a per square foot basis. However, there appears to be a very real upper limit on unfulfilled "retail demand" that can be attracted back to DC from neighboring suburbs, particularly if it is not as readily accessible by car -- or does not have the space to sell cars.
One of the few remaining auto dealers within DC has recently moved his maintenance operations just across the city line to suburban Maryland. It is noteworthy that space is sufficiently limited even there to stimulate him to use semi-automated parking "stacks" to cut his parking space needs by 67%:
Furthermore, from a traffic standpoint, a larger influx of short-term spenders is bound to complicate traffic patterns more than a twice daily surge of relatively orderly and predictable commuters. Double-parking commercial deliveries effectively use the lower traffic flows between rush hours. In addition, although NARPAC has yet to uncover any convincing statistics, it would certainly appear that the American shopping habit has shifted irrevocably towards malls combining big-box stores and specialty items, and towards the bulk-buying of normal household consumables. We can only guess that the share of the household budget devoted to purchases that can conveniently be carried on public transportation is steadily declining. While we share the basic notion of a "living downtown", we conclude it is only in danger of dying outside of normal office hours. At least from a traffic standpoint, it would seem that the goal of keeping downtown alive refers to providing evening attractions which are more likely to be in the realm of entertainment than serious shopping. In this respect, the availability of evening parking seems to be a much smaller problem.
Neither commission report provides any meaningful exposition of the relative "congestion potential" of private vs. commercial vehicles. The PTF indicates that there are only 18,000 commercially-registered vehicles in DC, compared to almost 200,000 private cars and another 200,000 vehicles (of all sorts) entering the city during the rush hour. We do not know how many of those entering vehicles are commercially registered, nor the type and purpose of the very substantial cross-border traffic outside of rush hour. We are not informed as to the function of DC's registered commercial vehicles. We do not know how many "government" vehicles are included, or how they are registered (mail delivery trucks, for instance, do not have license plates).
Most important, however, neither commission provides any information on the rate at which vehicular traffic has been increasing over, say, the past 20 years, or what is likely to occur over the next ten to 20 years. Both commissions appear to be trying to solve a "fixed" problem (now dating back to Y2000) with no projections as to the rate of growth of that problem. Prior NARPAC analyses indicates that the number of cars in the total Washington metro area grew by almost 400,000 (i.e., 15%) between 1990 and 2000. There is certainly no reason to assume that trend has slackened, nor should we assume that none of them have added to DC's traffic woes.
But NARPAC suspects (without confirming data) that the contribution of commercial vehicles (including some 6000 taxis) in the congested traffic flow is rising faster than that of private vehicles, and that they are more prone to double-parking than your average householder or commuter. The growth in service industries is one hallmark of the American economy, and many of those jobs include pick-ups and deliveries, as well as on-site servicing of ever-more complex home and office equipment and utilities. Furthermore, given DC's high and rising land costs, it is not likely that service businesses requiring large numbers of vehicles will choose to locate their yards within DC rather than in the suburbs. While some FedEx delivery trucks are registered in DC (mail trucks have no license plates at all) , the majority of UPS trucks appear to come from out of town.
Neither commission specifically quantifies the impact of double parking, although it would seem obvious to anyone accustomed to driving around town that the biggest villains in this area are commercial (delivery, service, and taxis) and "government"(mail and buses). The near-term decision (based on the PTF results) to re-instate "traffic cops" at clogged downtown intersections is an eminently sensible solution to a well-defined problem. Reducing the number of double- parkers appears to be a much more difficult and dispersed problem. NARPAC believes it will ultimately require changing urban curb design and adding automated monitoring of curbside users and moving-lane blockers. It will also require means to levy heavy fines for even short period infractions. Currently, DC double-parking fines are only $50, and they do not change with time of day. Much higher penalties could be a significant source of DC revenues and a stronger incentive for refining delivery practices.
each vehicle is growing in size as well
Perhaps more subtly, we also do not know the rate at which individual vehicles are getting larger. In a prior incarnation, NARPAC's principal analyst had demonstrated that military vehicles were growing in size and weight by an average of 3% per year, thereby straining airlift and sealift capacity even as overall force levels stayed constant. We would not be surprised to find an equivalent "bloat factor" trend in the non-military world as well (viz., the overpowering onslaught of the full-sized family SUV (often used for commuting!), and the growing size of the average curbside delivery vehicle). Large construction support trucks will always be needed for maintaining and upgrading DC's infrastructure. But how can they be strongly encouraged not to constrict major arteries like Georgetown's M Street (NW) shown below?
are current rights of way saturated?
The facile notion that the city's rights of way are pretty well fixed should not be interpreted to mean that additional traffic cannot be handled in the future. Surely the basic street layout is not likely to change substantially. Nevertheless, there are many local areas which can be rebuilt to eliminate obvious bottlenecks. The new overpass on New York Avenue to eliminate a troublesome intersection is a case in point. The current plan to redesign the roads, highways, and interchanges around the Kennedy Center is another. The plan to add a high capacity vehicular tunnel near the South Capitol Street crossing of the Anacostia is another. The need for a new bridge across the Potomac was first recognized 30 years ago. New road and Metrorail bridges will probably be needed across Rock Creek Park if ever there is a serious attempt to "connect" Northwest and Northeast either sociologically or economically. New road and Metrorail bridges across the Potomac will also be needed unless metro area private and public traffic is allowed to cripple the national capital region.
Furthermore, the utilization of current paved streets and avenues is certainly subject to change, since a very large fraction of the total potential lane-mileage in the city is currently used for temporary or regular parking, trees, or sidewalk vendors. Major increases in off-street parking are both needed and possible. Greater flows can be achieved by shifting some streets to one-way traffic and banning commercial vehicles from others. Better traffic light timing and left turn restrictions can help during the rush hour periods. Dedicating certain streets for "through traffic" and others for local traffic can help. Curbside loading zones can be interspersed between shade tree zones. It will surely be necessary to resolve the incompatible Planning Office objectives of turning some avenues back into strolling, bucolic, boulevards with those of DDoT proposing to designate them preferred routes for heavy trucks 24/7!
But perhaps the biggest unexploited advantages of transportation rights of way will be to accept the reality that they are three dimensional, not two dimensional. There is no shortage of underground space for the addition of metrorail tunnels, avenue and pedestrian underpasses, and compact multilevel parking facilities. There is also virtually no limit on the use of overhead ("elevated"?) transport systems, though some design ingenuity will be required to make them aesthetically acceptable. NARPAC has on several occasions suggested the addition of "urban decks" over areas of depressed highways, and of using the space under raised highways for other utilitarian functions now taking up prime ground level space. We have also suggested the selective addition of overhead "pedestrian ways" as a powerful means to increase the rate of pedestrian flow, and to free-up ground-level sidewalks for conversion to either through traffic, delivery and parking, or dedicated public transit (i.e., busways, or light rail).
In a closely related issue, many DC off-street parking garages are, in NARPAC's view, seriously under-utilized in proportion to the volume they consume. As a case in point, we would estimate that the parking volume under the Best Buy and Container Store at Tenleyton could probably be redesigned (and semi-automated?) to hold perhaps 2.5 times as many vehicles, particularly if stack-stored by size, rather than randomly consuming the existing floor space:
pedestrian traffic requires fresh approaches
The need to re-think pedestrian rights-of-way is mentioned in the DCMTF report, and NARPAC fully supports such an effort as long as it is not limited to trivial, short-term changes without considering the growing list of "new" technology systems. We would, in fact, prefer to think in terms of "personal transport systems" which range way beyond sauntering, walking, or dashing on human legs. These now run the gamut from continuously-moving sidewalks, escalators and ski-lift-type "pull-along" systems, to individual mobility platforms varying from the age-old bicycles and scooters, to their newer, powered descendants, including the latest novelty the segway. If this latest innovation catches on, it will require rethinking sidewalk space allocation, both for moving, parking, and protecting!
In addition, there is a pedestrian volume growth factor akin to the vehicle "bloat factor" mentioned earlier. Another specialized analytical area in which NARPAC has yet to delve would involve looking at the growth trends in everything from delivery dollies and baby carriages, to back-packs and trailed luggage. The ubiquitous towed "stewardess bag" roughly triples the ground space required for (and risk to) the single pedestrian. Even the growth in individual girth lowers the effective capacity of elevators and escalators!
service vehicle growth rates
In a somewhat related area, the uncontrolled growth in variety, size, and function of the rapidly expanding family of delivery and service vehicles will require some systematic attention. Both size, height, loading techniques, and power sources may deserve stronger incentives (if not controls). In addition, there may eventually be some advantages in combining some public transit systems with public delivery systems so that they can share tightly controlled curbside traffic lanes. The use of containerized delivery systems, for instance, could lead to overhead delivery systems which transfer standard containers to and from upper floors of downtown buildings, or conversely into modern versions of the old-time sidewalk elevators (which for many years permitted deliveries directly to below-street level receiving docks). Should we be thinking about a MetroCondel (Container Delivery Service) that shares bus routes and stops to deliver/retrieve standard container loads (maybe 16-20 cuft?) sketched below?
But the major limitation in these two commission efforts is that their initial charters failed to start from a broad enough base. By limiting the scope both in breadth and in depth (time frame), the outputs become "partial derivatives" with respect to near-term idiosyncratic interests. The DCMTF is little more than a rubber stamp for a dozen pet near-term efforts that have been in the planning system for years. The PTF seems to be more interested in Sunday double-parking around churches than in accommodating the additional vehicles that will presage a sound inner city financial base. The artificially narrowed context virtually guarantees "sub-optimization" in the resulting recommendations, and the very real risk of generating downstream situations for which there are no adequate 'quickie' solutions.
First, by restricting the congestion management task force work to downtown, the would-be policy-makers are ignoring the fact that the city's traffic congestion is just as bad along all of its limited access routes. Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and New York Avenues which carry most of the traffic from and to the Maryland suburbs are already labeled as unacceptably congested. Improving circulation downtown in unlikely to solve the problems of getting to or from downtown (past Georgetown, for instance). But improving ingress during the rush hours could surely make downtown congestion worse, just as improving egress could surely relieve it.
This also raises a so-far totally neglected subset of the city's traffic taxonomy: what to do about traffic in and around the "edge cities" which are sprouting at DC's borders: Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, Alexandria and Rosslyn are the most prominent. These urbanized satellites are certain to continue their rapid growth where they already offer most of the retail and entertainment amenities that "downtown" would like to host. They have the additional advantages of offering better Virginia and Maryland state and county government services, having fewer anachronistic zoning restrictions, and being populated by fewer vociferous opponents of growth. Unresolved edge city congestion can further strangle core city growth.
Second, by focusing on what can be done in 2-3 years, emphasis is removed from the systemic problems which will cripple the city in the longer term. These longer-term solutions may well require 5-10 year lead times, and very basic decisions in changing some of the basic physical characteristics of the city. In fact, most of these issues are pushed under the rug or kicked down the road without consideration even in the recently released "DC Vision" paper approved by the DC Council in November 2004. This is particularly true of major transportation infrastructure items.
Third, it is by no means obvious to the interested (but outside) observer that the various major city agency instrumentalists that harmonize DC's future are playing from the same sheet of music. The Office of Planning defers to the Department Transportation on virtually all transportation issues, but DDoT does not appear to have any consistent (or budgeted) planning capability, and neither appear to be consistent with the major efforts of the Office of Economic Development. None of the above seem to be on the same page as the mayor himself, and various Council members have their own arrangements in play. In NARPAC's view, no two of these groups would provide close to the same view of the desired or expected socio-economic demographic composition of the nation's capital city 20 years hence, or of the transportation requirements to support any one of them. Such considerations are absent from the Vision document they just approved.
Fourth, there is a disturbing tendency to encourage the 140-odd individual neighborhoods and the dozen or so different activist groups within the District to make decisions over transportation developments which impact the entire District and the neighboring jurisdictions as well. Can Tenleytown residents dictate the traffic levels on Wisconsin Avenue? Can Georgetown residents decide the future of the Whitehurst Freeway? Can fans of a new baseball stadium decide where a new South Capitol Street tunnel under the Anacostia River can or cannot be built? Can local environmentalists force automotive traffic limitations without providing more public transit?
Fifth, by assiduously ignoring the unbreakable bonds between the District and its surrounding jurisdictions, as well as the growing imbalances between them, it is virtually impossible to conduct proper planning, again particularly in areas involving major transportation infrastructure features. Contributing to this fundamental problem is the failure of the DC government and planners to agree on the essentiality of the suburban contribution to DC's sociologic and economic well-being. As long as "commuters" are considered a subversive liability rather than a constructive benefit, the city will continue to support inappropriate short- term developments. As long as adding residents, regardless of economic stature, is considered more valuable than expanding (taxpaying) commercial businesses, the city will continue to make self-defeating development choices.
Sixth, the chronic inability of DC's local politicos and 'hyper-activists' to come to grips with the city's dependence on its neighboring (and far more successful) jurisdictions virtually guarantees that the national capital's core city will remain a dependent and embarrassing ward of the world's leading country. These same words apply to DC's refusal to accept the reality that DC was created constitutionally to be the seat of America's federal government, not some kind of privileged residential poor house. The District of Columbia is not, and never will be, a separate self-sustaining independent jurisdiction. It is joined at the hip with its suburbs, and joined at the head with its federal masters who provide its primary raison d'etre. The city must forge a real partnership with the federal government, particularly in areas of major, highly visible, infrastructure developments. Surely the outward appearance our nation's capital city should not be constrained by the fact that it is the poorest jurisdiction within the national capital metro area.
Seventh, by refusing to focus on the regional nature of public transit systems (by virtue of the myopia evidenced above), and by refusing to accept its role as the country's, if not the world's, capital city, DC's local politicos and 'hyper-activists' are avoiding opportunities to demand the very best in developing a world-class transportation infrastructure. There seems to be virtually no one in the local government's planning or transportation offices, in the city's business improvement districts (BIDs), in the region's Council of Governments, or in the region's own Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), who believes that its world-class metrorail and metrobus systems should be expanded to meet the growing public transit demands both in volume, redundancy, modernity, and operational reliability. Where is the commission to address the startling inadequacies of Metro's own pessimistic vision of its future growth potential ?
It is certainly no surprise that neither the DCMTF or the PTF address the need to continue to expand Metro inside DC with trackage and stations, not just rail cars. But it is somewhat surprising that neither commission acknowledges that Metro's downtown 'saturation' will limit DC's future ability to accept even its proportional share of the region's growth and prosperity with the next decade (at most). And it is more than a little disingenuous to suggest that car traffic on downtown streets can be alleviated by greater use of public transit that neither exists nor is programmed.
In short, the commissions were not asked to address the fundamental nature of the region's impending transportation limitations, and they used painfully little imagination in seeking future- leaning solutions to the problems they did address. These superficial efforts should in no way delay or substitute for more substantive analyses of the national capital region's full-range transportation needs to remain a world-class global symbol.
administrative organization is an essential ingredient to success
One of the more interesting issues raised by the PTF deals with the legislative authorities to control parking and is repeated here for two reasons: a) organization and authorities are a fundamental part of accomplishing any change and are often overlooked by ad hoc task forces; but b) sub-optimizing across one sub-set of a broader problem can turn out to be counterproductive. Here are some relevant quotes:
"Parking is incorporated in several areas of the DC Official Code. The declaration of necessity for regulating parking in DC is incorporated in '50-2601. The RPP program (sic) is regulated by '50-2511 which establishes parking districts (another whole subject!) . Other areas of the DC Code related to parking include '50-2603: Power of the Mayor to acquire property, construct and maintain parking facilities, install parking meters, and '50-2605: Establishment of parking facilities. The regulation of parking is included in Title 18 of DC's Municipal Regulations.
It is interesting to note however, that this report neglects to mention that by current custom, if not mandate, parking fees are actually set by a committee of the DC Council which may be driven by totally different local political considerations, not the future development of the city. It is also pertinent that DC does not own or operate any parking facilities of its own. NARPAC thinks the city should rethink that decision.
It is also interesting to note that from this limited view of the urban milieu, there is no reference to DC's Office of Planning, or a Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. At the same time, however, based on DC's FY05 Operating Budget, there is no mention of an organized planning function of any sort within DDoT. More puzzling to NARPAC, however, is that in DC's FY05 Operating budget, there is no mention of administering parking licenses in the DMV section, no mention of a Curbside Management Division (!) within the DDoT Transportation Operations Division, and no indication of performance levels within the 460 FTE, $21.1M budget for the Parking Services Administration of the Public Works Department.
Meanwhile, the DCMTF, which was a penultimate spin-off from a federally supported trucking study, picks up on the "partial derivative with respect to trucks":
The motor carrier study recommends establishing a preferred truck and motor coach route system in DC. A further review of the proposed motor carrier route system should be undertaken by DDoT and private industry stakeholders to address, among other things: 1) the viability of the routes for the motor carriers and 2) the impact of the proposed routing system on downtown businesses, neighborhoods, and congestion.It is by no means clear to NARPAC that expanding the plethora of separate agencies, administrations, and offices will resolve the overall traffic problems of the city. A better view of the overall problem and the interactions of the various problem elements appears to be an essential precursor. NARPAC doubts that the overall traffic congestion problem can be solved without far greater analytical efforts and longer-range system planning. Preferred solutions will certainly require a sound understanding of the net costs of managing traffic, and of the technological opportunities to improve those management efforts.
where are the cost considerations?
NARPAC is always surprised to find that government agencies appear to make their recommendations without any rigorous understanding of the costs (or who would pay them), and that the decision-makers accept their proposals with little demand for analysis of those costs. One could readily argue that the benefits of getting both residents, commuters, shoppers, tourists, visitors, students, et al to and from their chosen destinations, and getting the needed services to them where they work, live, and relax are essentially priceless. From this standpoint, the costs of traffic alleviation are almost irrelevant.
On the other hand, in the real world of generating tax revenues and balancing them against service costs, it is certainly informative, even if somewhat arbitrary, to see whether the costs of embracing traffic are offset by the direct income from traffic management operations. As is NARPAC's custom, we have taken a preliminary shot at identifying the various budget elements of expenditure and revenues directly associated with vehicular traffic. It is surely not the last word to be written on this subject, but perhaps it will encourage others with greater resources to do more credible analysis and put the net costs of traffic management in perspective.
The chart below provides a tally of the identifiable elements in the FY05 DC Operating Budget on both sides of the ledger. It is surprising to NARPAC how much revenue is raised from vehicle ownership and traffic control (violations, taxes, etc), and how little it costs to absorb them. The table below indicates that taxes, fees, fines, etc. associated with the ownership and operation of vehicles in DC are expected to bring in revenues of about $242 million in FY05. This compares to some $142M in associated costs if one allocates all the costs of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) all the costs of DC's Department of Transportation (DDoT, which includes all local road upkeep), and the Parking Services Division of DC's Department of Public Works (DPW). It also includes NARPAC's estimate of MPD manpower allocations that roughly 15% of DC police forces are devoted to traffic and other commuter-related costs, mainly in the downtown area. From this admittedly superficial estimate, it would appear that vehicular traffic generates roughly $100M more per year in revenues than it costs to accommodate
It could be argued that the net costs to DC of operating its Metro System is also an important part of the traffic equation. In fact. the total (and very unreasonable) share of Metro's FY05 operating deficiency subsidy to be paid by DC is budgeted at $164.2M. This consists of four components:
o $86.8M subsidy for Metrobus
One could rationalize that DC's current vehicle-associated net revenues could pay $100M of those public transit costs. In NARPAC's view, there are also substantial opportunities to increase those revenues if needed by a) adjusting parking fees to reflect each vehicle's burden on the city (by size, fuel efficiency, registration, etc.) as proposed in NARPAC's suggested automated (robotic) off-street parking systems; b) increasing fees and fines for curbside and double parking; and c)establishing fees for heavy truck traffic. These are more fully discussed in the following section on evolving technological opportunities.
NARPAC has not tried previously to define the "ideal" urban traffic-control system, and is not likely to get it completely right first shot out of the barrel. But clearly it should consist of many of the following elements:
o real-time counters of the numbers of vehicles entering and leaving DC 24/7 using current traffic counting systems with centralized data read-out; by which to establish continuous flow- rates in each direction. According to earlier NARPAC summary of commuter traffic (dated), some 25 major entry/exit portals are involved ;
o additional real-time traffic counters at major in-town intersections, bridges, and traffic circles with overhead TV traffic monitors to diagnose problems indicated by those counters. This might involve four more monitoring points per major route (i.e., 100 more);
o ability to discern all "potential traffic-inhibiting vehicles (PTIVs)" by type, registration, and ownership in near-real time;
o a portable ability to locate, identify, and document every vehicle actually inhibiting traffic (TIVs) in near real-time accurately enough to permit ticketing as currently done by fixed red light and speeding cameras;
o the ability to count all available/occupied off-street parking spaces;
o ability to identify all vehicles by type, size, fuel consumption, and state registration at close range at all critical on- or off-street parking sites (to permit variable fees);
o ability to adjust all key traffic signals for duration and synchronization, and alternating lane direction from central locations and certain designated vehicles (such as police cars and Metro buses);
o ability to track current locations of all DC government and public transit vehicles;
o better loading/unloading systems for delivery trucks to save curbside (and double-parking) time and space;
o the use of fully- and semi-automated parking systems to substantially increase the parking density of new off-street parking structures (perhaps fourfold), and existing parking structures (perhaps twofold);
o redesigned "smart curbs" that assure only eligible vehicles can park in specifically designated places and that provide real-time reports on which spaces are filled and by what vehicle types;
o incentives to use in-town delivery systems more compatible with curbside capabilities (perhaps involving subsidized 'intermodal' transhipment sites and vehicles);
o sales tax surcharges that reflect the traffic impact of various products being delivered (beer vs flowers);
the needed technologies are now all available
o real-time transfer of pictures is now routine by computer or telephone;
o real-time reporting of highly accurate GPS coordinates is available in cars, phones, etc.;
o automatic photo recognition of license plates on moving cars already in use (too slow);
o automatic data retrieval of vehicle registration data available to police authorities;
o all kinds of power-assist lifts/dollies/barrows are available for better materiel handing;
o large pre-cast concrete shapes can be used to implant new curbside shapes;
o new in-roadway security barriers can be used to permit curbside access only to certain vehicles;
o fully and partially-automated parking systems are already in use, particularly abroad;
o Radio-frequency ID systems (RFIDS) are already in widespread use for identifying packages (essentially electronic bar codes) and vehicles (the very effective "EZ-Pass" system); and
o virtually any modern computer can handle the data flow imagined for a complete traffic control system.
the particular advantages of "RFIDS"
Among these new technologies, the advent of radio frequency identification systems presents the greatest opportunities for "managing" and regulating vehicular traffic, and generating revenues as well. RFIDs present an important advantage over the ubiquitous and still-expanding bar code systems, because they can be "read" at a significant distance and very rapidly without any human involvement. Their predecessors have been used for years by retail stores (like those below) who have long been worried about shoplifting:"
Pointed in the general direction of a given object, the 'readers' ask "who goes there?", and they get an unambiguous digital electronic answer from the 'tag' suitable for transmission and computer processing. They are already in growing use to fully automate highway toll-taking, and are rapidly moving into the shipping and inventory management of a broad variety of parts, end items, and packages across the commercial spectrum. In their simplest form, fixed 'readers' sense unprocessed items leaving retail stores (like the new Best Buy at the Tenleytown Metro station) in panels near the exit doors:
Drivers accustomed to long trips on Interstates such as the New Jersey Turnpike and New York Throughway have learned that the "EZ-Pass" system can save them as much as a half-hour on a five-hour trip by avoiding the need to stop at toll booths and exchange money. The 'second generation' systems now permit no reductions in cruising speed at all, as overhead "readers" much like overhead traffic signs, determine the car's registration, and central computers bill the owner's debit account, and refill that account from the owner's bank account whenever it runs dry. NARPAC has never seen or heard of a user that was confronted by a malfunctioning system. A typical windshield "transponder" (small white box) is shown below:
Almost certainly, RFIDs will also end up imbedded in passports, drivers' licenses, and probably credit cards, as both the transponder chips in the "tags" (in each item being monitored) and the "readers" get smaller and cheaper. The new "SmartCards" used on Metro are early versions of the same technology, and they in turn grew from the small tags used in retail stores to prevent shoplifting. The chips will soon be "printed" for a fraction of a cent, and the readers can be smaller than a pound of butter and broadcast their information for miles to central read-out locations. Embedded in license plates and/or permit stickers this system could:
o provide metering that would charge trucks or other congestive vehicles by the hour while they are within the city limits, and require that they enter and exit by certain approved portals;
o provide ID systems for restricted curbside loading points both to permit access and to levy fees and/or fines;
o provide means for a broad variety of authorized vehicles (such as bus drivers) to instantly record, say, double-parking violations (probably requiring a photo and GPS read-out as well); and
o distinguish off-street parkers by home address, vehicle characteristics, etc. for variable parking rates to provide incentives to use public transit or at least "urban-friendly" vehicles.
The chart below presents NARPAC's very crude estimate that within 5 to 10 years, DC's revenues from traffic-related fees and fines could generate another $250M for city coffers:
Fears of "Big Brother" suits appear unwarranted: the information provided by the RFIDs would be no different than that provided on the license plate or permit registration forms and already available to authorized "readers". Bar codes on their sides have automatically kept track of the location of all US railroad freight cars anywhere in the US for 40 years. All packages and palletized materials entering the nationwide Wal-Mart retail distribution system now have identifying RFIDs. So do most items entering the US military supply system. Optical license plate readers are the heart of DC's current campaigns against speeding and red light running. And as many TV 'whodunit' watchers know, EZ-Pass data are used regularly in court to prove the villain's movements relative to the crime.
There are certain conditions when it is proper to adopt recommendations that cover only fragmented parts, only short-term aspects, and only relatively independent components of a larger, more complex and fundamental problem. Such conditions require that the total scope and depth of such a problem be well understood, all major aspects and interrelationships be defined, and all the essential jurisdictional participants have reached general agreement on what constitutes a satisfactory long-range outcome. But it must be obvious to those participants that a satisfactory 20-year system-wide solution cannot be reached by separately addressing only a few of, say, ten closely related aspects, and by only considering steps that can be taken in the following two years. A successful 20-year solution involving major infrastructure developments cannot be achieved by kicking 10 different cans down 10 different streets two years at a time. To be fair, these two new commission reports deal only with near-term issues concerning parking in DC, and downtown surface traffic congestion. Within those narrow and shallow confines, they provide some useful recommendations, some of them quite new and valuable:
o they support increased public transit for both internal circulation and commuter service, and urge the creation of a permanent funding source (and more federal support) for regional transit;
o they recommend that parking rates can and should be raised; that parking enforcement (i.e., levying fines) can/should be substantially increased; that more off-street parking should be encouraged; that on-street parking freebies should be eliminated; that parking near metro stations needs special treatment; that new technologies may come into play; and that the business improvement districts (BIDs) should become involved in resolving parking issues.
o they recommend that better control of delivery services must be developed, particularly during rush hours; that "curbside management" (viz., loading zones) needs greater focus (what NARPAC has dubbed "smart curbs"); and that better control of trucks and tour buses is needed;
and they recommend that "intersection management" (i.e., traffic cops at key choke points) are needed (already implemented!); and that conditions should be improved for pedestrians (!).
NARPAC can readily endorse these near-term steps, and visualize ways they could be further expanded, eventually if not now. NARPAC's basic concern with these two efforts is that they address only the next two to three years, and only some of the more superficial problems. There is nothing in these near-term efforts which indicates that there are for more serious transportation problems already on the horizon. Those long-term problems will require far more extensive solutions with perhaps ten to twenty year lead-times. By totally ignoring in these two efforts the other (big) noses already under the tent, the risks are elevated that those bigger problems will not be recognized and addressed in time, and that a variety of urban development projects currently getting underway will be counter-productive to longer range needs.
There is nothing in these two commissions' recommendations that even hints at what lies on the horizon, or that DC's planners have any systematic analysis or plans to cope with the consequences of being the core city of one of the nation's fastest growing and most prominent metro areas.
DDoT's own longer term projections show that current transportation limitations will curtail DC's future growth and economic strength, and oblige the nation's capital city to become an ever-smaller, poorer, and more isolated part of its metro region. Transportation planners seem to have accepted this as not only inevitable but desirable!
Transportation planning within DC seems to infer that would be better off with 612,000 new residents than 163,000 more commuters; that DC should therefore focus on some new local "signature transportation system" made up of bikes, trolleys, and water taxis rather than continuing development of the region's world-class Metro system; and that DC can successfully build up a stronger taxpaying residential base without accepting increased car ownership as a consequence.
There are false implications that DC's locally-funded traffic costs outweigh the current or potential revenues from providing, managing, and regulating the internal movement of people and goods; that DC's DDoT is really pressing the latest technologies to manage its transportation services; and that it's appropriate for local DC neighborhoods or environmental enthusiasts to define the capacity of major urban and regional arteries, even those primarily supported by federal funds.
NARPAC believes very strongly that the planners of the nation's capital city are moving towards adopting a strategy of self-strangulation without considering whether federal, national, regional, or even local opinion supports such an inevitability.
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This page was updated on Jan 5, 2005
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