Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Archive for May 2012

The U.S. Postal Service adds another stamp devoted to transportation

May 31, 2012 - 12:00 PM
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(Photo: U.S. Post Office)

Breaking transportation news, folks — the U.S. Post Office just added a stamp devoted to biking.

The Post Office has a long history of transportation stamps. Consider this web page, devoted entirely to "Trains on U.S. Stamps," with examples from more than a century ago. Cars also receive plenty of attention. Here's a 1999 stamp devoted to the Ford Mustang on its 35th anniversary. We've celebrated the fins and chrome of '50s cars. AAA received its own stamp more than half a century ago when the auto club celebrated its 50th birthday. Even the nonexistent hover car has received its own stamp!

And now, on June 7, our U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp simply called "Bicycling" and show generic images of cyclists out and enjoying their passion. Next up, let's hope for stamps devoted to car-sharing, taxicabs, and the D.C. Metro ... I can't find any examples of those offhand. The closest we have are last year's Go Green stamps, devoted broadly to walking, biking, and public transportation through the lens of environmental concern. But here's the Post Office's description of the new biking stamp and how they created it:

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The crosswalk is the most dangerous place for D.C. pedestrians

May 31, 2012 - 09:28 AM
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(Photo: Heather Farrell)

Where is the most dangerous place for pedestrians? The answer is a sad one — it's the crosswalk, the spot in our city specifically sanctioned for those on foot. The D.C. Council met with the city police department among many others yesterday afternoon to discuss bicycle and pedestrian safety, and amid the exchanges, the police confirmed that the crosswalk is where the greatest pedestrian risks fall in the District. Traffic fatalities have fallen in 2012 but they of course remain a concern. The danger of the crosswalk is not truly surprising given it's the spot where all our transportation players, from walkers to drivers to bicyclists to buses, intersect but it's still troubling.

"We have a problem with crosswalks and pedestrian safety," Councilmember Phil Mendelson remarked from the dais yesterday afternoon.

The District Department of Transportation outlined the city's 24 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians earlier this year.

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Will Capital Bikeshare helmet sales hurt our D.C. bike shops?

May 30, 2012 - 01:28 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 13, the District Department of Transportation announced that its Capital Bikeshare service, a public-private partnership of the District, Arlington, and Alta Bikeshare, would sell its members customized bike helmets for $16 a pop. Wise move, no? Capital Bikeshare has earned a reputation since launching in fall of 2010 of members riding bikes without wearing helmets — a safety measure many point to as critical. A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine this April suggested that more than 80% of bikeshare members in D.C. and Boston don't wear helmets. I've frequently seen the sight myself out on the District streets.

But the editor and publisher of Spokes magazine, a publication devoted to cycling, has outlined a bigger problem with these Capital Bikeshare helmet sales. He sees the new business as potentially destructure to the broader bike equipment industry.

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Drivers Incorporated makes a business of designated driving in D.C.

May 30, 2012 - 10:53 AM
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(Photo: flickr/davidsledge)

One third of traffic fatalities involve alcohol, the CDC estimates — close to 11,000 people in 2009 alone. In response to these dangers, our culture has stigmatized driving drunk. If you've been drinking, perhaps you should take a taxicab or the Metro or the bus, perhaps you should designate a sober friend to drive. Or perhaps consider a company that has quietly emerged over the last five years. The company's name is Drivers, Incorporated, and it takes an interesting approach to the drunk driving problem. They don't provide cars to drive drunk people home ... but they do promise to provide sober drivers who will, when summoned, appear as if by magic and drive the intoxicated customer home in the customer's own vehicle. The company tagline: "Driving you and your car home."

This transportation service rarely makes much of a splash in headlines or online but appears to be functioning well enough throughout the last few years. I recently overheard the company's staff members fielding at least a half dozen candidates for new drivers by phone at a D.C. coffee shop, so they're hiring at least. The drivers of Drivers, Incorporated are licensed and insured, according to the McLean, Virginia-based company, and are required to be comfortable driving just about any vehicle they need to and to get along easily with drunk clientele. They must wear dark, professional jackets. These drivers are paid an hourly wage plus tips and must pass a background check from the Cromwell Group.

"We want to work with any place in the Washington Metro that sells alcohol," the company declares on its website. It touts partnerships with around 100 bars and restaurants throughout the D.C. metro region and says it reaches customers through posters, cards, and other forms of outreach.

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Metro strains to talk but struggles for clarity among many channels

May 25, 2012 - 09:43 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

WMATA promised a revolution in its communications a year ago. The transit agency was in the midst of rebuilding efforts under new General Manager Richard Sarles and one of the major talking points was the creation of a "two-way conversation" with the system's riders. Sarles brought in chief spokesperson Dan Stessel from New Jersey a year ago and social media manager Brian Anderson from Pennsylvania a few months after that. The City Paper ran a cover story around that time on how the agency was positioning itself to kick open dialogue. So where are we now?

Metro communications is far richer than it frequently had been in the past and yes, more open — but the strategy also tends to be messy and not tightly coordinated in any real sense. The Riders' Advisory Council has challenged the effectiveness of this communication in a letter to WMATA, presented to the Metro Board of Directors yesterday, with suggestions that Metro create a periodic CEO Report, WMATA monthly newsletter, and Monthly Chairman's Report, as well as an outlet for riders' questions. But would these experiments really help WMATA communications? The agency's greatest sin appears to be its desire to experiment without necessarily following through. We see that most clearly in the number of different communication channels, in large part inspired by the challenge of how to convey the six-year Metro Forward campaign. Let's review.

BLOGGING

WMATA maintains three blogs on top of its regular series of press releases and media alerts. Yes, three ... and they're updated rather infrequently at best. The reasoning behind the three is fuzzy. First there's the Metro Forward blog on the WMATA website itself, which ceased posting updates in fall of last year. These posts presented a playful tone directed at the regular business of WMATA and the headlines display a marked difference from any press release: "We know single tracking slows your roll," "Metro’s Addressing an Escalating Problem," or a post about how shoes and other items get caught in Metro escalators ("Yes, they’re hungry, but they have highly specific dietary needs and shoes have no nutritional value"). What voice was this now? People following the transit agency saw a change when these posts began appearing last summer.  The last blog post here was Aug. 18, 2011 out of about a dozen total.

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A cautionary tale about jaywalking from Montgomery County

May 24, 2012 - 02:54 PM
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(Photo: flickr/takomabibelot)

21-year-old Foday Abdulai Gassama, a resident of Spring Spring, Maryland, broke a cardinal transportation rule yesterday just before 4 p.m. in Aspen Hill. He and three friends, two male and one female, attempted to cross Bel Pre Road ... but not in the crosswalk. They were strolling across the street right in the middle of it. Dangerous move, Gassama, and not befitting a proper pedestrian. Police approached the four young misguided pedestrians, which sent the Silver Spring resident running.

"Gassama was carrying a red and black backpack when he began running," the Montgomery County Police write on their blog today. "The officer chased Gassama across Georgia Avenue and into the surrounding neighborhoods before Gassama was apprehended by another officer at the intersection of Chesterfield Road and Bel Pre Road."

The bag was missing when police finally reached Gassama but they tracked it to a trash can on Manor Park Court and lo and behold, inside it was a "a loaded Jennings 9mm handgun and a magazine with additional ammunition." Yikes. Police arrested Gassama for the firearms and failing to obey an officer and he is now held on a $5,000 bond.

See, D.C. commuters? Just another sign that life will be easier for you if you just remember to follow the rules of the road. Jaywalking comes with consequences.

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Expect 16 snazzy new MetroAccess vehicles on the road next month

May 24, 2012 - 02:28 PM
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(Photo: WMATA)

Starting next month, WMATA is rolling out 16 of these new MetroAccess vans with some big promises. The new model will be the "Mobility Vehicle 1," or the MV1, each of which costs about $50,000 and manufacture by VPG in Indiana.

Most commuters are probably familiar with the 600 or so white MetroAccess vans that have transported many in the region who experience disabilities for years, a familiar sight for years now. These new manufactured MV1s should be a welcome addition. MetroAccess riders may not have succeeded in fighting fare hikes recently but at least they'll have a snazzier set of rides here, which cost in total around $800,000. These new vehicles do look sleeker than the current models, I'll admit. This sharpness is noted by many VPG customers on the MV1's Facebook page and in the celebratory video of a vlogger known as ProfessirX below. In WMATA's announcement of the MV1s, Assistant General Manager of Access Services Christian Kent calls them "a more versatile option for providing trips, while maintaining a fully accessible paratransit fleet" because they're designed exclusively for passengers with disabilities. Metro promises seating for four and wide doorways. Take a first look at the vehicles in action here:

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The new 511: How Maryland and Virginia convey traffic updates and video

May 24, 2012 - 10:00 AM
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(Photo: VDOT)

How's the traffic? Dial 511 and find out. No fuss, no confusion, no delays.

Both Maryland and Virginia offer versions of the 511 traffic information service, although Virginia's significantly ahead of the game with work beginning as early as 2002. The Federal Communications Commission established the three-digit number back in 1999, and states began deploying their own 511s with varying results in the years since. Virginia's latest 511 launched last Thursday, May 18, 2012 and promises easy tracking of road conditions via the web, a mobile application, video, and even, in a tourism-driven move, the best routes to Virginia Beach, and replaces the Commonwealth's 511 service launched in 2008.

"It's the first time we've been able to offer streaming video on our service," Scott Cowherd, program manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, told a crowd at the Smart Transportation conference in National Harbor, Maryland, this week. He points to a display showing a map of traffic incidents. "It continues to upload while you're looking at it. That is live information ... There's over 700 cameras throughout the state."

What 511 promises is a new form of service from transportation departments across the country. Maryland has sought to engineer its own dynamic service, focused especially on sharing traffic information and video among many different organizations to maximize efficiency. Maryland kicked off its 511 in the last couple years, first with a procurement package in late 2009, then a notice to proceed in September of 2010, and a formal launch in August 2011. From then through the end of March, the Maryland 511 clocked 344,406 calls, 2.6 million pageviews, and more than 3,000 registered users. The older Virginia 511 has recorded about 200,000 calls a month, 11 million calls overall, and eight million website visits since first launching 10 years ago. Both states pull traffic information from prominent resources like software company INRIX to help travelers understand road conditions.

Maryland's goal, according to Maryland State Highway Administration Deputy Director Glenn McLaughlin, is to make this traffic information "actionable" to someone trying to figure out if they'll be trapped in gridlock for hours.

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Distracted driving puts today's motorists at risk, industry officials say

May 23, 2012 - 11:20 AM
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(Photo: flickr/oregonDOT)

Ten years ago, the idea of "distracted driving" barely made a ripple in transportation circles. Five years ago, the concept was still evolving and a nascent concern in the traffic safety world. But now in 2012, in the era of the iPhone and texting and constant engagement with our mobile devices, the issue has become the focus of two panel discussions at the 22nd annual Smart Transportation Conference held at the National Harbor, Maryland this week. Thank U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, perhaps. President Obama’s transportation chief has championed the dangers for the last several years, creating several PSAs and pushing for harsh penalties throughout the states while citing statistics that distracted driving killed 5,500 people in 2009 and hurt half a million more. Local governments typically have been receptive to the message and criminalized driving and texting as well as talking in many places around the country. You see D.C.’s own traffic safety campaigns slamming texting and driving as "brainless." But what are the real solutions?

"If we seek to ban the phone," said Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing for telematics company Airbiquity at a Tuesday conference session, "the consumers will ignore us very, very quickly."

How do you change a driver’s behavior? That’s the task facing the transportation world today for the sake of everyone’s safety, whether passenger, bicyclist, or pedestrian. The challenge will call on regulators from federal and state government, auto makers, technology companies, and an emphasis on driver education. Recent history has created an unprecedented level of distraction for today’s travelers on the road but distraction is not entirely new — nor is it likely to be prevented until robots take the wheel.

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What the 3rd Street Tunnel traffic looked like after last Friday's bus fire

May 23, 2012 - 09:17 AM
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(Photo: IAFF Local 36)

Tunnels have always scared me. Here's a vision of why in a few moments of video showing what happened to traffic in D.C.'s 3rd Street Tunnel last Friday after an empty schoolbus in the process of being towed caught fire and created massive delays throughout the middle of the day. Luckily the incident resulted in no deaths and only three injuries. What's your big transportation fear? The idea of a tunnel filled with traffic always struck me as particularly eerie and claustrophobically enclosed. The city closed the tunnel for a couple hours as they cleared the mess, with cars trapped in the meantime, according to media reports from WUSA and WTOP. I followed along with the updates at the time last week but now can't stop imagining the experience for the commuters watching this unfold, as we see in the three minutes of a YouTube clip below. Commuting, at its worst of times, comes with a sense of dread.

Take a look at the slow, confusing mess here:

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Gas prices drop in time for Memorial Day

May 22, 2012 - 08:54 AM
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(Photo: flickr/pat00139)

Although most forms of transportation will become more expensive this summer, drivers will experience a brief respite for the coming weekend holiday. Average D.C. gas prices have fallen to about $3.82 a gallon these days, which, while not perfect, is a huge improvement from last year's $4.13. D.C. residents have stared down gas prices exceeding $4 for many weeks so far in 2012. Although we're a city lucky enough to enjoy a plethora of options, from WMATA rail and bus to biking to walking to car-sharing, the car remains a reality for many in our city. Last month gas prices had crept up to $4.18 a gallon, as I noted at the time.

The price of transportation is especially relevant considering the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts about 34.8 million people will travel distances of 50+ miles around the U.S. this year, about half a million more than last year, and more than 30 million will travel by car. A survey conducted by the auto club found that nearly half the intended travelers saw gas prices as an issue influencing their plans. These shifting gas price numbers frequently become an emotional and even political touchstone for Americans, sometimes more justifiably than others.

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The lighter side of 'Click It or Ticket'

May 21, 2012 - 12:21 PM
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(Photo: NHTSA)

Drivers, are you buckling up? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun its annual two-week Click It or Ticket blitz, where the federal government parades its seat belt PSAs and police across the country seek out people not wearing their seat belts from May 21 through Memorial Day weekend.

The government agency estimates that three million tickets have been given out as part of the campaign over the last half decade. Seat belts, the agency contends, save thousands of lives. In 1977, the federal government mandated they be installed in every car by the early '80s. In the interim years, state governments responded with laws mandating that passengers buckle up, and statistics suggest they've saved more than a quarter million lives since, despite a few who persistently don't wear seat belts. One government report notes that while seat belts saved more than 12,000 lives in 2009, they could have saved 3,688 additional lives if everyone wore the safety belts. Traffic fatalities, both locally and nationally, have dropped in recent years. D.C. enacted its own mandatory seat belt law in 1997, and seat belt use rose from 58% in 1997 to about 92% in 2010. The District issues $50 tickets for not buckling up, and police warn drivers that they can stop them for that violation alone. D.C.'s ad spots have an ominous tone, as you can see from last year's here.

But the federal government decided to go funny this year in its new national Click It or Ticket ad campaign entitled "Fake-A-Rooney." Death, crashes, bloodied roads? Forget about those bleak images. Fake-A-Rooney identifies a series of goofy characters who attempt to buckle their seat belts at the last minute to avoid cops and find themselves spilling food all over themselves and looking ridiculous. The tone is silly and strange but may appeal to younger audiences less attuned to the grim. See the signature 2012 PSA here:

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WMATA gears up for revamping the Bethesda Metro station entrance

May 21, 2012 - 10:50 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WMATA hopes to kick off Metro Forward work at the Bethesda Metro station soon and is planning, wisely enough, to stagger its work stages — starting in late May, the transit agency will take four months to rehabilitate the entrance elevator at Bethesda in anticipation of replacing the 212-foot-long escalators, the second longest in the system, in 2014. Remember, this is the Maryland Metro entrance that baffled New York Times columnist Tom Friedman with its slow repairs and led him to turn WMATA into a metaphor for American mediocrity last year.

A recent Metro announcement is draped in responsible language on the replacement and rehabilitation — "prudent," the transit agency says. The elevator has gone about 28 years without rehabilitation, according to Metro, and 10 years since ADA upgrades. It will receive a new cab, motor, and control system, among others. The agency will offer free shuttle service between Medical Center and Bethesda during the rehabilitation work. The station may have to close if both the elevator and the escalators fail, despite a technician on scene: "In the event that all three units are out of service, the station will need to temporarily close for safety reasons," Metro announces ominously.

What's also worth remembering is that these Bethesda escalators and elevators are in such poor condition not only due to their decades of age but from an acknowledged history of neglect and poor upkeep practices from the agency, as we learned from a 2010 audit.

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Bike to Work Day 2012 attracts more cyclists than last year's

May 18, 2012 - 12:35 PM
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(Photo: flickr/tvol)

About 12,700 people biked to work today for Bike to Work Day throughout the Washington metro region, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board's Commuter Connections. Commuter Connections hosts the event with the Washington Area Bicyclists Association and offers 58 pit stops around the region. Apparently this year's number is close to 2,000 bike commuters more than last year. This morning's Bike to Work Day crowds certainly seem large enough from the photos, such as this Rosslyn pit stop shot from Arlington Commuter Services chief Chris Hamilton. Meanwhile, the League of American Bicyclists has chosen today to release new numbers touting the economic benefits of biking — the U.S. saves $4.6 billion a year due to its commuters who bike rather than drive, based on annual operating costs ($308 versus $8,220) associated with the two modes. Another relevant local milestone: Capital Bikeshare reached two million trips yesterday afternoon.

Here's a view from this morning's Bike to Work Day gatherings and travel in Alexandria, Virginia, and the District:

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The lawyer who would challenge D.C.'s ignored taxicab rules

May 18, 2012 - 09:45 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

The post headline came to 30-year-old Daniel Hornal while he was in the shower: I want to clean up the DC cab industry, and I need your help. It'll be fun and maybe profitable! (details inside). Perfect, direct, visceral ... exactly what would stir the readers of social network Reddit's D.C. community. Within two days, his May 16 Reddit post received more than 140 comments and nearly 200 endorsements from network users. Many cheered the Seattle native on. Hornal graduated from Georgetown's law school a year ago, and in the months since, zeroed in on a peculiar problem with the District's taxicab industry that he has noticed since moving here a little over four years ago.

"I've been out with people who have been refused cab after cab," Hornal told me over coffee at Chinatown Coffee Company, blocks from where he lives, yesterday morning. "It's very difficult to get a cab to Northeast [D.C.] and even worse to Southeast."

Cabs will, according to Hornal and other accounts in recent years, happily accept passengers if they're going to popular, central destinations like Dupont Circle but may be less inclined to transport passengers to certain neighborhoods. Hornal takes a taxicab perhaps once a month, normally sticking to his motorcycle and bikes, but from talking to his friends, he says he always knew something was wrong. He's right. "The people of Ward 4 can't get a cab," Councilmember Muriel Bowser told D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton at a January hearing. She said they couldn't receive service by appointment or by hailing and that it was common knowledge — and a major unacceptable problem among many unacceptable problems our taxi industry of 8,000 drivers is mired in. Yesterday D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh acknowledged "underserved" areas of the District from "unreliable" taxicabs as she and fellow councilmembers discussed proposed modernization legislation, which would kick off a study on how to better serve the neighborhoods Hornal refers to.

But Hornal doesn't want to wait for any studies. He's hoping to help carve out a legal solution and advocate for the District's passengers.

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Capital Bikeshare hits two million trips

May 17, 2012 - 02:42 PM
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(Photo: flickr/SLOCountyBicyclingCoalition)

The acceleration of Capital Bikeshare's growth has perhaps begun to make these milestones irrelevant. Nevertheless, take note, D.C. — our capital's bikeshare system of more than 150 stations just hit two million trips right in the midst of Bike to Work Week.

Consider the dates: the bikeshare network opened on September 20, 2010; hit half a million rides on June 1, 2011; hit one million rides on its first birthday of September 20, 2011; then 1.5 million rides by mid-February, 2012; and now, on the afternoon of May 17, the service has clocked two million rides. Pay attention to how these milestones have sped up. A year ago, the service still hadn't hit even half a million trips and now it's hit two million. That's nearly a million and a half of these trips in a single year.

Here's a graph showing how Capital Bikeshare's trip numbers have soared since it debuted in late 2010:

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Inside the world of D.C. bike messengers

May 17, 2012 - 09:10 AM
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(Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)

Master's students from the Corcoran photojournalism program have created a fantastic eight-and-a-half-minute mini-documentary called "Courier Culture" that any fan of D.C.'s urban transportation should check out. For decades, the bicycle mail courier has occupied a critical role in the District by ferrying papers from one office building to another at high speeds, but the position has been threatened for years. The Post referred to the industry's "rapid decline" back in a 2009 story, citing firms' modern ability to send files electronically. The technological changes caused the number of bike messengers to drop from 400 or so in the 1990s to about 150 in 2009.

But the bike messenger is not dead yet. Shawn Blumenfeld, a local cycling racer and past courier, tells me he estimates that there are still about 100 to 150 bike messengers today in the District because many messengers he knew from a couple years ago are still at work in the industry today — although he emphasizes that this is just a guess. Here's a glimpse into the fast-paced and complicated life facing these gritty cyclists, who still understand and value the freedom of their occupation, presented by the Corcoran students of Fixed Focus Productions:

Hat tip to Prince of Petworth.

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Metro finishes its new Foggy Bottom entrance, more than 10 months later

May 16, 2012 - 12:21 PM
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(Photo: WMATA)

Yesterday afternoon WMATA finally completed the long, complicated process of creating a new and hopefully improved entrance at the Foggy Bottom Metro station. What was the final touch? A new staircase running alongside the three brand-new escalators, the first new ones in the entire system in about 15 years. The effort also included a canopy to protect the new entrance from the elements. The price tag ran at about $6 million, WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel noted last summer.

And yes, you read that right. Last summer. The Foggy Bottom project began a year ago, and its timeline is worth considering in light of all the other Metro escalator replacements bound to happen in the years to come. WMATA predicts it'll replace about 100 over the course of the next half decade. The transit agency began replacing the escalators at one of the Dupont Circle Metro entrances and predicted — to great horror — that it would take eight and a half months. So how long did the Foggy Bottom replacement take?

About 10 and a half months since the first new escalator began running.

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A tenth of America's car-sharing market lives in the D.C. region

May 16, 2012 - 10:39 AM
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(Photo: Heather Farrell)

The RAND Corporation has released a report on environment, energy, and the economy that touches on the possibilities and challenges of the car-sharing market, which has grown considerably over the last decade with the rise of Zipcar and locally the recent entry of Car2Go and Hertz On Demand. The document is full of good stats and figures. Multiple surveys, for instance, estimate that drivers who car-share rather than personally own an automobile save between $154 and $435 a month. Yet the report also reminds us that car-sharing, as common as it's begun to seem in the District, has no "proven business model," with even global giant Zipcar turning a profit for the first time last November. Car-sharing not only competes with personal ownership, of course, but also with public transportation of services like WMATA rail, bus, and the D.C. Circulator. Is car-sharing affordable enough to justify that over the Metro?

In D.C., many would say the answer is yes.

Conservative estimates about our region's Zipcar membership suggest at least 60,000 as of last year. Zipcar has aggressively marketed itself out to residents since then, with street teams at Chinatown Coffee Company and elsewhere, advertisements, and other deals. The District also acquired Car2Go and Hertz On Demand since. Our region's overall car-sharing membership is probably closer to 70,000, I'd guess, at the least, but even if we still only have 60,000 car-sharers in the region, we amount to about a tenth of the nation's car-sharing market based on the national figures RAND includes.

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Metro opens doors

May 15, 2012 - 01:25 PM
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(Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)

I wrote about WMATA's growing train door problems not long ago but never imagined hearing about an incident like this. Earlier today the transit agency acknowledged that a Metro train door opened while the railcar was moving:

Disturbing. Unsuck D.C. Metro first flagged a photo tweeted of the incident early this morning, and The Examiner reports additional details, that we're talking about a 1000-series Red Line train between Van Ness and Tenleytown from this morning.

Here's a question though. If Metro does have to pull any of its 1000-series fleet, what would that do to WMATA's Rush+ service scheduled to start on June 18? WMATA has 290 1000-series railcars, which comprise about a quarter of Metro's total fleet.

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