My sighting of the tiny Car2Go vehicle in Petworth earlier this week fired up my curiosity about all the different options out there for urban mobility. One vaunted option is the $10,000 air-powered AIRPod. MDI has tested and promoted the idea over the past half decade. Is this, as the video below proposes, going to be the future of urban transportation?
See for yourself in the fascinating clip here. I like any idea that has drivers using less space and less gasoline. Although skeptics have questioned AIRPod, the technology may well have a role to play.
Sorry, bicyclists. (Photo: Courtesy of Twitter/nikki_D)
When a D.C. resident dies, don't expect to ride in your usual bike lanes.
Such caution, at least, held true the Saturday morning and afternoon of Feb. 4 when St. Luke's Episcopal Church on 15th Street apparently directed funeral-goers to park their cars in the local bike lane. Bicyclist Nicole, known online by her Twitter handle nikki_d, immediately raised the issue on Twitter at 11:25 a.m. "Cop says have compassion because parked in bike lane for funeral," she said. "It would be too cruel to use one of three car lanes ... Apparently the church decided it is their new funeral parking lot."
She reached out to the District Department of Transportation's communications director John Lisle, who forwarded the complaint to the city's Traffic Control Center and was told the city would send a road unit out.
Another D.C. resident with the Twitter handle Suzannelise also encountered the chaos that afternoon and called it "awful."
Lo and behold! The above Car2Go vehicle was parked yesterday evening shortly after 5 p.m. on Quincy Ave near its intersection with Georgia Ave, up in Petworth.
This car is part of a new car-sharing network, stressing urban mobility and charging by the minute, poised to launch in Washington, D.C. in the coming months. The service, however, is not yet legal or operating. So why would this tiny cute car be parked here on D.C. streets? I walked around the car in awe of its presence. The license plate belonged to Texas — no surprise, given that Daimler rests its American headquarters in Austin. Perhaps the car was here for another round of press photos, as Car2Go had done for a couple days late last year to feature on its D.C. site (already live but still being tested as of a couple weeks ago).
Two weeks ago, Car2Go communications manager Katie Stafford told me that operational agreements with the D.C. government were still in progress, which prevented a formal launch. Was this still true?
The Washington, D.C. area lays claim to the third highest share of transit riders in the country, multiple headlines have proclaimed this week, after New York and San Francisco. DCist noted the numbers Tuesday morning. But although the numbers are fair enough, do they really capture transit in D.C.? According to the Washington Business Journal ranking, 399,415 commuters in D.C. used public transit to get to work out of about 2.86 million ... that's 13.93% of people in the region.
But it's important to remember why the percentage may sound so low and to take a closer look at how transit use differs throughout the region. The Business Journal analyzed the D.C. metro area, not the much smaller region of D.C. The metro area is huge and includes surrounding lands like Arlington and Alexandria. The difference between the two (D.C. metro area and the District) is dramatic when you talk transit.
In the District, about 113,600 resident commuters out of about 296,700 took public transportation, according to 2010 American Community Survey numbers ... more than 38%. The difference has District residents using transit about 25% more than what the region's overall commuters, which includes those very District residents, embrace: 38% in the Distrct versus 13.93% in the region overall. The difference is even more staggering if you simply examine the number of commuters who don't travel in a car, which combines the Metro riders, the walkers, the bicyclists, and so on. Then the number of non-drivers rises to 58.9%. By the numbers, only about four in 10 D.C. residents drive to work.
This week, Capital Bikeshare hit 1.5 million trips in what has been less than a year and a half of operation. The expanding bikeshare service also notes that it's installed 600 new bike docks since November of last year.
Perhaps we have our mild winter to thank for how much the numbers have accelerated since last year. Capital Bikeshare was founded in September of 2010, hit a half million rides at the start of summer 2011, hit a million rides on the morning of its birthday on September 20, 2011, and now hits 1.5 million a little under four and a half months later. The service heralded its 110 stations and 1,100 bikes throughout last year but its size is constantly evolving, with regular Twitter updates pointing to new docks and encouraging news. There's little question that Capital Bikeshare will tout two million rides by its second birthday — and perhaps even 2.5 or three, given the expansions taking place. I wouldn't be shocked. Capital Bikeshare will even, finally, come to the National Mall this year.
Last week we learned that Capital Bikeshare has recovered a surprisingly large share of its operating costs through its revenue. In D.C., Capital Bikeshare earned $2.5 million in revenue and cost $2.1 million in operating costs. Not included are what I imagine to be rather substantial marketing and management costs.
Cupid is ready to guide you. (Photo: flickr/muffet)
Welcome to Feb. 14, D.C. Valentine's Day. Probably half of you are ready to groan at the commercial weight and expectation assigned to today, so let's move right on to the point — transportation guides our Valentine's Day dates (literally), and the District's transportation companies and car-free advocates are here with some treats to make the day a little easier.
If you want to save money on roses, then let me direct you first to Uber. The luxury transportation company has been in the District for more than two months now, controversially and smartphone-hailable and offering $15-minimum trips. After launching a PR campaign with "love" in its name last month, Uber is already set for Valentine's Day and wants to convince you that their black classy cars are synonymous with romance.
In that spirit, expect roses and Valentine's-themed M&Ms in your D.C. Uber cars today. You can also receive $5 in Uber credit if you tweet a photo of yourself in one of the vehicles with "with your favorite Uber pickup line" along with the hashtag #UberDCLove.
Uber is even trying to stir your inner romantic on its national blog and relays three Uber-fueled love stories about engagement. Here's one:
The White House doesn't love D.C. transit riders. (Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)
Today President Barack Obama released his $3.8 trillion budget for 2013 and paid special emphasis to jobs in his speech this morning in Annandale, Virginia. But what does this large White House budget mean for transportation? Bad news for D.C. but good news for transit overall.
To help reduce spending in targeted ways, the U.S. government is reducing its annual grant to WMATA by $15 million. Why? "Difficult fiscal circumstances," the 256-page White House budget states, adding that the president's surface transportation plan would aid the country's transit programs and benefit D.C. The $15 million reduction is but a small fraction of the subsidies that feed WMATA's $1.6 billion budget — Metro's overall subsidies amount to $704 million in its fiscal 2013 budget.
Last August, Mayor Vince Gray joined the director of the District Department of Transportation and officials from the EPA to announce an initiative to green the Anacostia Metro station, which serves about 8,000 people in Southeast D.C. The project will focus on three intersections near the Metro station and seems to be an eventual victory for the neighborhood's drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. We're talking better sidewalks. We're talking more trees. In August, officials suggested a design charrette and more meetings would happen in early 2012, and D.C., these meetings have arrived right on schedule.
The D.C. government has announced that the community meeting process will begin today. The goal is, according to DDOT, "designing a public space that connects the Metro station to neighborhood assets, makes the area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, better manages local stormwater and complements upcoming economic development projects in the community." That sounds like a discussion worth having.
Come to the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church tonight for an introductory presentation and Wednesday for an open house:
Georgetown's streets are broken, D.C., and the city hopes to fix them. Last week marked the first completed block, 34th Street, of the District Department of Transportation's O and P Street Rehabilitation Project, which focuses on seven streets in Georgetown. The project is one part for beauty, with historic brick and old streetcar track being reinstalled, and part utility, addressing deep structural challenges that have developed thanks to the age of the roads and infrastructure.
Work began early last year and will continue for the next four to six months or so. People have hoped to restore these blocks as long ago as 2003, however. Here's a photo of Councilmember Jack Evans appreciating how far all this has come. Even the rain can't keep this politician away from the crumbling streets.
The D.C. government notes that heavy traffic and century-old water leaks have caused parts of the Georgetown-area roads to fail and create sinkholes. Construction workers will install new asphalt on the five blocks between O and P as well as rebuild curbs, gutters, and sidewalks. Don't expect any of the streetcar work to actually one day benefit the hyped 37-mile system the D.C. government is building though. These tracks, a remnant of the 100-mile-long system that operated from 1862 to 1962 — will be preserved just for the fond memories of Georgetowners. You'll admit they do look rather distinguished. Georgetown university's student newspaper, The Hoya, recently noticed the tracks, too, and seems glum to note the promise of new streetcars won't be reaching their doorstep.
Like all rehab and maintenance work, of course, the O and P work can be a nightmare for the area's drivers. Just look to its Twitter account for a regular barrage of parking restriction updates. Ugh. DDOT has released 30 photos of the construction work, which you can view here, and offers more information on the project at its official website here.
WMATA has finally chosen a name for the long-planned Blue/Yellow line realignment happening this summer.
"In June, we'll implement 'Rush Plus,'" Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said at the Jan. 26 board meeting, "increased train service during peak travel times on the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Green lines."
"Rush Plus." What do you think of the name, D.C.? Metro has planned this train realignment for years to accommodate shifting ridership numbers and interviewed people in December to get a sense on how to shape their communications materials for the months ahead. WMATA already has a new logo for the Rush Plus service coming in June, visible above. Metro realized early on that "Blue/Yellow line realignment" wasn't a phrase that meant much to the system's riders and knew it needed to spin another.
"It really didn't capture the fact that there were four lines that benefited," said Dan Stessel, chief spokesperson for WMATA. He added that brainstorming for the name was "entirely internal — no ad agency required."
Metro has a long history of attention-grabbing names: Operation Cool Breeze, Metro Forward, the infamous Virtual Tunnel, Farragut Crossing, Metro Opens Doors, and so on. Now we can add "Rush Plus" to the mix. It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue but at least we have a sense of what Metro hopes to convey, right? A rider hears "Rush Plus" and they might somehow grasp that we're talking about rush hour and more service. Two words. Bam. I just wish "rush" and "plus" sounded better when you say them together. Seriously, just try saying the phrase five times fast if you don't believe me.
WMATA social media manager Brian Anderson, we know you're a fan of Sarah McLachlan but this little tune is something else. Has transit ever been so buoyant?
See the newly released video below for a glimpse of how Metrobus resurrects their vehicles with new tech, designs, and so on. The transit agency tries to rehab about 100 buses a year and focuses on the ones that have hit their mid-life slump — which for these buses happens when they're about six or seven years old.
Zipcar launched yet another LivingSocial deal yesterday — $29 for an annual membership and $30 in driving credit, a 75% savings just like the deal offered last August. I've had multiple friends perk up at the cheap car-sharing cost. How to refuse? LivingSocial launched the deal early yesterday and said it would expire in the early a.m. hours, but again as in August, LivingSocial has extended the deal for another 15 hours. Feel free to buy yours now.
But these Zipcar deals have real significance, especially given the timing. So far the new deal has created more than 1,800 new Zipsters in the D.C. region, a number growing by the hour. Last August, the company's LivingSocial deal yielded 3,745 new Zipsters.
The timing matters because Zipcar's monopoly officially ended last week with the launch of Hertz On Demand, a new car-sharing company that doesn't even have those annual fees that Zipcar so neatly discounts in its new deal. A second car-sharing competitor, Daimler Car2Go, is poised to officially launch in the near future as it finalizes operating details with the city. Zipcar far outsizes any potential competition as is, but these two deals, both launched well after the time when Zipcar knew competitors were on the way, have the potential to lock down any people who are on the fence with car-sharing and have managed to do so just before these new competitors enter the public consciousness. The car-sharing market isn't infinite. If you have a car, you're not likely to buy Zipcar, Hertz On Demand, or Car2Go services. There are close to 200,000 households in the D.C. metro area without any sort of personal automobile but there's a limit to how many of them will actually consider investing in car-sharing.
Right now, Zipcar claims well over 60,000 members in addition to the other two or three thousand they'll get with this week's deal. Will there be any left for the competition? These two deals alone will have secured more than 5,000 new Zipcar members in the last six months. I've contacted Zipcar's general manager to ask if the deal was arranged well in advance, as Zipcar claimed with the last one, or is an incentive motivated by the onset of new competition. It would make good business sense if it is.
WMATA caused Jarrett Walker to be late for our meeting.
I hopped off the Metro at the Farragut North Metro station shortly before 11 a.m. on Wednesday only to soon receive a text message: "John. Can we move back to 11:45? Disruption on Red Line @ Bethesda." I laughed at how outlandishly fitting this was. Walker is a global transit consultant responsible for a new 227-page book called Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, published in December 2011 by Island Press. This week he's traveling along the East Coast with stops in Baltimore, Silver Spring, and this morning at D.C.'s own National Building Museum to talk and promote his manifesto on efficient, reasonable transit. But before the two of us could chat, he was, like so many D.C. residents, foiled by WMATA.
An hour later, Walker and I stood at the corner of K and 17th Street splitting a Starbucks cookie. Walker is a towering presence, even when wearing a quaint winter hat, leather jacket, and sipping a beverage. He expressed frustration for how WMATA ran its communications at the station earlier that morning. Station announcements would sometimes talk over system announcements. The flashing arrival board screen mentioned a problem at Benning Road that announcers noted was already resolved. Although there may have been reasons for all these technical snafus, Walker critiqued the impression it creates for riders. It doesn't look smart.
"When you're automating communications, you're making it more and more a one-way conversation," Walker told me.
Last night in his 2012 State of the District speech, Mayor Vince Gray declared that people need public transportation: "As we work with the region's leaders to ensure Metro is an efficient and reliable means of transportation for millions, we are also committed to bringing streetcars back to D.C." He said the 37 miles of streetcar track will attract up to 7,700 jobs and raise property value by $7 billion, and generate as much as $8 billion in new development. "We will open the first line along H Street and Benning Road NE next year," the mayor said.
Mayor Gray is right to laud D.C.'s plans for a new streetcar network as well as Capital Bikeshare and other public transportation options in the District. They're significant, and more than that, reflect broader changes in the way Americans live today — and these transportation shifts and focus on rich, smart-growth cities also influences how people view livability, walkability, and the ideal American home. Let's turn to some of those numbers for perspective. The National Association of Realtors released a major set of survey results last March that suggest people in the U.S. don't like living the way we once used to. What we've got is a 98-page report breaking down the survey results of more than 2,000 U.S. adults. As D.C. struggles to come to terms with streetcars and car-sharing and affordable housing, I found myself looking at what that mysterious "average American" thinks about housing, commutes, and the qualities comprising the good life. Consider:
When selecting a community, nearly half of the public (47%) would prefer to live in a city (19%) or a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops, and businesses (28%). Another four in ten (40%) would prefer a rural area (22%) or a small town (18%). Only one in ten (12%) say they would prefer a suburban neighborhood with houses only.
Or consider this affirmation that sidewalks matter, perhaps more than any livability amenity:
In another set of questions, the public places a greater priority on having sidewalks and places to take walks (77%, important) than on being within walking distance of specific places in a community, such as stores and restaurants (66%)
But then there's that American love for single-family homes. That's a killer sentiment, and it determines how Americans assess their commutes:
Mamo will still rule the pump. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. Council's gas station bill officially died in a 6-to-6 vote after more than an hour of tense debating. Long live gas station mogul Joe Mamo and his Capitol Petroleum Group enterprise.
Two dozen independent gas station operators had gathered at the Council session to support Bill 19-299, the Retail Service Station Amendment Act of 2011. They sat quietly, once briefly clapping, as their representatives bickered and crushed their hopes of limiting Mamo's control. Independent gas stations have actively pushed for this bill, sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh and floating since mid-2011, since fall. The proposed law would prohibit distributors of gasoline from also operating stations and would have, in most of its incarnations, affected a businessman named Joe Mamo who controls about two-thirds of the District's gas stations. Cheh, AAA Mid-Atlantic, and these independent stations contend that such a monopoly drives up gas prices. They want to divorce his role as a distributor from that of operator but the issue has become mired in questions of race and minority entrepreneurship, of lobbying dollars and price-fixing power concentration. This week, Councilmember Cheh even softened the bill's impact by making its rules prospective; any jobber already engaged in what Cheh called the "dual role" of distributing gas and operating stations, which includes Mamo, would have continued to be able to do so. Jobbers simply couldn't acquire new stations. But Cheh's last-minute amendment wasn't even to save her long-floundering legislation.
The Council has split into factions rather dramatically when it came to the jobber bill. On the one hand, there's Councilmembers Cheh, Tommy Wells, David Catania, and Phil Mendelson, who argue that Mamo constitutes a monopoly and find support in independent gas stations and AAA Mid-Atlantic. Hours before the Council voted on Bill 19-299, AAA Mid-Atlantic released a statement condemning the District's "exorbitant gas prices" and supporting the bill. Gas prices average $3.48 a gallon nationwide, AAA said, but are 21 cents higher in the District. On the other side we have Vincent Orange and Marion Barry loudly questioning whether the bill would really lower gas prices and suggesting it would punish individuals like Mamo. They have found support in national figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Post editorial board, which Cheh blasted as a potential "shill for Mr. Mamo" recently in the Post's own pages.
Mendelson went as far as calling Orange a "booster" for one businessman and "an embarrassment to the Council" without explicitly naming him.
"Let's be clear," Orange replied several minutes later, "if you're referring to me, I am an advocate for the people of the District of Columbia, and I've never embarrassed this Council ... You don't have to apologize. I just think it's out of character for even you."
Yesterday Randall Myers of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council shared a document about how pedestrians and bicyclists have used the eight-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail over the last two years. Since July of 2010, Met Branch has kept track of how many people pass along the trail on an hourly basis through an automated trail counter, which gives us some fun data to consider.
You can see the smoothness and beauty of the Met Branch in this clip here:
The Met Branch experiences peak popularity during the weekdays around rush hour, the data shows, and accommodated more than 11,500 people on average every month in 2011 and more than 125,000 annual users. More than 400 people use the trail every day, on average.
The demonstrated trail use is encouraging after the concern over crime last summer. Last fall, the Met Branch seemed to have shaken off the bad memories, although late last month, the D.C. police reported what appeared to be "a robbery involving three suspects. A shot was fired at the victim, and he was grazed but thankfully not seriously injured. It happened at 3rd and T Sts. about 6:15 [p.m.]" Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, decried a lack of commitment to the trail in multiple ways this week at Greater Greater Washington: "Now its future is threatened at both ends: in the north from the Montgomery County Executive's short-sighted budget decisions, in the south by the District's laissez-faire protection of trail users."
With 11,000 people a month traveling the Met Branch last year, it's clearly an investment worth protecting. See Randall Myers' trail data here:
Color me impressed. Arlington County's Capital Bikeshare manager Paul DeMaio is reporting some solid numbers about the amount of revenue versus the operating costs in the fledgling bikeshare system that's rolled through our city in the last year and a half. Here's the verdict according to DeMaio:
Capital Bikeshare (Arlington): A ratio of 81% in 2011
Capital Bikeshare (D.C.): A ratio of 120% in 2011
Not too shabby at all. The numbers are slightly less stellar when you consider that the Arlington marketing and management costs of $142,000 aren't included. Add in those costs and you'll see just a 53% cost recovery and a far greater distance from breaking even for Arlington's service. But even 53% seems like a strong amount of recovery so early in the system, especially compared to much of the world's transit.
For context, look at WMATA's proposed 2013 budget, in which revenue will only cover about 55% of WMATA's overall cost. Looking just at the Metrobus numbers, it's even more stark as the ratio is below 30%. WMATA manages to operate thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, as with most major transit.
During last week's D.C. Council taxi hearing, Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton shared one revealing and troubling statistic in his opening statements — the D.C. Taxicab Commission receives about 130 complaints a month, "the vast majority" of them from women.
"Women do not feel safe late at night," Linton told the D.C. Council. "This will not be tolerated."
Complaints against our city's taxicab drivers are everywhere. At the hearing itself, Councilmember Muriel Bowser raised the issue of why residents of Ward 4 can't receive taxicabs. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who heads the transportation committee, called the service's perception "mediocre and unreliable." In her taxicab survey of more than 4,000 D.C. area residents, 76% rated our taxi service as "poor or fair" and 69% see the service as worse than other American cities and insist drivers need better training. Look to the community for specific complaints. Some people feel vilified and mischarged. Some feel discriminated against. At 2:30 a.m. in mid-January, a woman named Shikha took her concerns to the New Hill East community listserv.
"I am so sick and tired of D.C. taxi drivers putting a damper on an otherwise lovely night out in the city," Shikha wrote. "Although tonight I was lucky that I actually found a cab, my taxi driver just told me he was doing me a favor by taking me from Cleveland Park to my place on 18th & A SE ... But we as residents, especially in this area, seem to be helpless. Is there anything that can be done or is being done to keep these crooks, er, I mean cabs in check?"
How to solve the problem of electric-car infrastructure and the "range anxiety" that results from charging stations being located too far apart? Just charge the cars through the highways themselves. One group of Stanford researchers has proposed that very answer, which involves the wireless manipulation of magnetic fields. The team published their studies in Applied Physics Letters back in November of last year and conclude that our technology is capable of transferring energy as high as the very efficient rate of 97%.
"Eventually we would like to charge the electrical vehicle on the highway when it's running," said researcher Xiaofang Yu in Stanford's video on the research.
But what cool, fascinating studies, no? Scientists have talked energy transfers like this for decades but rarely has the idea been properly treated and executed. What Stanford has produced is a far cry from the infrastructure itself, but this research is a promising sign, especially with new car-sharing services that incorporate electric cars and new charging stations coming to the District.
Starting March 1, the D.C. government will begin enforcing their nearly 400 red top meters that were installed throughout last month. D.C. has 17,000 metered spaces overall, which in the past year have become more modern than ever with their ability accept credit cards and phone payments and now with several hundred reserved for, as DDOT announces, "persons with disabilities who properly display a valid placard or license plate to park." Drivers with disabilities will still have to pay for the parking: "Meter parking patrons with a valid disability plate or placard will be able to park for twice the time on these meters as long as they pay the established meter rate for that block face." These 400 new meters will be located in the Central Business District of D.C. as well as in Federal corridors of SW.
Consider February a warning month. D.C. will post traffic officers near the meters and issue warnings ... but no formal tickets will be issued until March. In a September 2011 presentation, DDOT noted the initiative was happening in part due to people who faked disabilities to park for free. The new system will purportedly result in "improved accessibility," the city says.
Keep your eyes open for these meters, drivers. Learn more at DDOT's page on the new red top meters.