[Note that the following blog authored by me, Paul Goddin, was written for and published by Mobility Lab on February 28, 2014]
High-speed rail (HSR) is gaining momentum in the United States, with many projects in various stages of planning.
California’s controversial and groundbreaking high-speed rail line, which will link San Francisco and Los Angeles, is expected to begin construction this summer. The ambitious California HSR line has prompted development of similar plans for the Midwest, New England, Texas, and Florida.
In our own backyard, an exciting modernization of Union Station has been proposed that promises to cement Washington D.C.’s competitiveness. The D.C. plan, still in its infancy, would provide a 220 mph high-speed rail connection to New York City, building on the success of the Acela Express, which only hints at the capability of true HSR.
These developments were discussed at this week’s High-Speed Rail Summit, hosted by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) in D.C. The purpose of the Summit was to advocate for and share ideas pertaining to these exciting new infrastructure projects. Mobility Lab was a participant and presenter at the event.
High-speed rail – or so-called “bullet trains” – is defined as trains capable of speeds above 200 mph (comparable, that is, to air travel). HSR runs on renewable energy, is capable of connecting and thus economically strengthening American cities, and promises to ensure our future global competitiveness. Richard Arena, president of the Association for Public Transportation and a presenter at the Summit, referred to HSR as a “paradigm shift, a game changer.”
HSR is not without its detractors, however. While the USHSR estimates that 88 percent of Americans support high-speed rail, this support seemingly evaporates once funding for these massive public-works projects is discussed.
The cost of HSR in California, for instance, has increased from $32 billion to $67 billion as the scope of the project has increased. These cost increases have spurred lawsuits, political posturing, late-night talk show jokes, and an entire cottage industry devoted to detracting from the promising transportation technology. The federal government has provided only an initial $7.5 billion dollars for the California project, and nothing at all in the last four years.
The controversy over high-speed rail in California has been compared to another public infrastructure project that received widespread opposition: the Golden Gate Bridge. The iconic bridge was opposed for a number of reasons, from budgetary to environmental, even though California’s need for the bridge was enormous and today it is considered indispensable to the economic vitality of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mobility Lab Director Tom Fairchild, a speaker at the HSR Summit, pointed out that, with respect to sticker shock over HSR, Americans might have had a similar reaction had they been fully apprised of the cost of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system build-out in the 1950s. Urban planners and smart -growth advocates point out that we are still paying for this design decision today, in the form of social costs/gentrification, sprawl, ailing suburbs, environmental degradation, and dependence on foreign oil.
As people on both sides of the political aisle bicker over the cost of HSR, America falls further behind Europe and Asia on yet another measure that will likely determine our ability to compete globally. Businesses prefer regions, cities, and indeed, countries with excellent transportation and connectivity. Residents choose where to live based on similar criteria. The opportunity cost of doing nothing – of doubling down on the automobile, essentially – isn’t being discussed, yet this cost is enormous, and very real.
Organizers of the High-Speed Rail Summit believe America needs only one success story, after which the public will get behind the technology. High-speed rail is not only aspirational, as the master-plan artist’s renderings of D.C. and San Francisco suggest, but practical.
Rail, specifically high-speed rail, is an integral component in a multimodal transportation strategy, and can be a crucial factor in determining our country’s economic competitiveness.
Map by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association
[Note that the following blog by me, Paul Goddin, was written for and published by Mobility Lab on February 3, 2014]
I have written about Activity Centers before, to less than stellar Internet traffic.
My concerns regarding how to market the regional planning initiative have been shared by my Mobility Lab colleague Paul Mackie, and we have struggled to come up with a hook or angle for these neighborhoods that will capture the imagination of the D.C. public.
The difficulty with marketing Activity Centers should in no way minimize the work of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), or that of its legion of partnering organizations, including Mobility Lab. COG has created some incredibly valuable and informative tools with its series of Region Forward plans, of which the regional Activity Centers documents are a subset.
The conundrum seems to boil down to this: how to get non-planners to care about a relatively high-level regional planning document. It’s generally not until the implementation of a plan – bike lanes installed, a building torn down, or zoning laws changed, for instance – that most people sit up and take notice.
So why, then, should you care about the revision to the D.C. region’s Activity Centers and the new planning documents that are being produced by COG?
Because the list of 141 activity centers is a valuable guide for where to move, live, and invest in the D.C. region.
Here’s the deal. Through the year 2050, the D.C. region is projected to add at least an additional 2 million residents onto its current population of 5 million. Activity Centers will absorb the majority of them.
The rationale behind this is the recognition that simply dispersing these people throughout the region would cause havoc on our infrastructure, especially transportation. The 141 Activity Centers were selected based on their ability to accommodate this enormous increase in population, and their existing interconnectedness.
The Activity Centers’ parent jurisdictions have committed to focusing their (often scarce) resources in order to make these Centers dense, walkable, vibrant, and urban. Transportation connections between them will be strengthened and improved, with better service and more options. Public improvements and amenities will be prioritized in these neighborhoods.
In short, D.C.’s Activity Centers will become the premiere living, shopping, and employment centers in the region (in fact many of them already are).
It’s like The Washingtonian’s “Best Places to Live” lists, but with an emphasis on walkability, pedestrian friendliness and smart growth principles, which are widely being adopted throughout the region. And, with all due respect to the aforementioned magazine, based more on data rather than anecdote.
The list of Activity Centers is future-based as well, including not just places that are already “hot” (such as Dupont Circle or Clarendon) but also those that one day will be. It’s a list of where to move, live, and invest, backed up by the influence of COG and the good-faith intentions of our region’s planners and officials.
Get on board now.
Do you think Activity Centers are a good means of accommodating the D.C. region’s future growth?
Gloomy rainy day in Arlington, Virginia. Wouldn’t you rather be on public transit today?
[Note that the following blog by me, Paul Goddin, was written for and published by Mobility Lab on January 13, 2014]
TransportationCamp DC ‘14, organized by Mobility Lab, Open Plans, Conveyal, Young Professionals in Transportation, the Transportation Research Board, and the George Mason University School of Public Policy, took place Saturday.
With more than 400 registered attendees (totally sold out), the third-annual conference in D.C. (it happens in other places like Atlanta and San Francisco as well) contained more information than one person could process, and innumerable lessons as well. Still, I’ve managed to enumerate 10 of them, in no particular order:
1. The importance of being an “unconference.” TransportationCamp, as a user-driven conference (or “unconference”), has a collaborative and empowering feel unlike most other typical conferences. As Paul Mackie, my friend and colleague at Mobility Lab, said, “At most conferences, you simply sit and listen to speaker after speaker. TransportationCamp offers inspiration on some aspect of your work that you are currently trying to complete. There will no doubt be tons of apps and products that will result from the networking there.”
2. TransportationCamp = technology. The event – with a Collaboration Site and whose attendees and organizers undoubtedly put stress on Twitter’s and Google Docs’ servers (tweets from the event can be seen at the Twitter hash tag #transpo) – uses technology in ways other organizations can and should emulate.
3. Collaborate, don’t compete. The vibe at the conference was one of tremendous collaboration, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Mackie concurs, stating, “One small and simple example came from the excellent marketing session. A signup sheet was passed around so that transit marketers can start a listserv to work together towards getting more people educated and excited about transportation options that don’t involve driving alone.”
4. Open up data, and transform organizations. The emphasis on collaboration and opening up datasets is built in to the DNA of the participants at TransportationCamp, who seem determined to transform the old guard of transportation agencies as well. WMATA and DOT (and many others from around the country) were represented at the Camp, boding well for the future of these organizations.
5. “It’s all about the share.” That line was used by one participant at a breakout session I attended on mobility management. The future of transportation is all about the sharing economy: for example, bike sharing, car sharing, and information sharing.
6. Our industry is underfunded. The bang-for-your-buck produced by “transportation demand management” (for example) isn’t a secret, yet I ran across many transportation professionals whose full-time jobs are unrelated to this industry, or who are only part-time employed in our field. We need to lobby harder for funding.
7. We are passionate and idealistic. The fact that many of us at the Camp were essentially unfunded underlines another important issue: we are people who believe in our industry, who are passionate about transportation and technology. And as cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
8. Marketing is essential but not well understood. The marketing session I attended, led by, among others, Alex Baca, communications coordinator of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), brought home the issue that while many of us know how important marketing is, we’re a little in the dark as to how to engage in it. Aimee Custis, communications manager of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, shared some of her valuable experience (among others: include people in photos of transportation), and the above-referenced listserv means members of that break-out group are going to share insights post-Camp as well.
9. Infrastructure is important. Mobility Lab Contributor Kurt Raschke, one of the developers of the OneBusAway infrastructure on display at the event, explained this takeaway to me: “People are far more interested in end results than the elegance of the underlying infrastructure. Our challenge is to make infrastructure something that the average person sees as important and values, because it has a huge long-term impact on sustainability.” Rashke’s infrastructure is one that’s truly open, available as an API for free to developers.
10. Equity issues can be tackled with ingenuity. The intersection between land use and transportation and the way these affect equity and access are issues that keep coming up, but more and more are being addressed by people passionate about the issue. Capital Bikeshare of D.C., for example, is extending memberships to low-income and homeless residents of the city via a partnership with Back on My Feet.
The above is just a small subset of lessons learned at TransportationCamp DC ’14. What was an important takeaway you received from the event?
Photo by M.V. Jantzen
[Note that the following blog by me, Paul Goddin, was written for and published by Mobility Lab on January 10, 2014]
Atlanta has Livable Centers. San Francisco has Priority Development Areas. And here in D.C., we have Activity Centers.
Different terms, similar concepts: places or hubs in large metropolitan areas where future growth is designated, encouraged, and concentrated.
Activity Centers have big implications regarding efficiencies in transportation, sustainability, and livability, particularly in a post-recession environment of scarce financial resources that need to be allocated with a high degree of purpose and attention to the bottom line.
D.C.’s Activity Center initiative is a product of Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s (COG’s) Region Forward Coalition, and COG has referred to Activity Centers as “one of our region’s key competitive advantages.” Here at Mobility Lab, we believe they are so vital to our region’s future prosperity that we have been an active partner on the project, and have devoted an entire category of stories to Activity Centers on the Mobility Lab site.
COG, D.C.’s regional planning agency with 22 member jurisdictions, approved a new map of 141 Activity Centers in 2013, and Mobility Lab was one of several organizations conducting placemaking and walkability assessments of 92 of these Centers based on Urban Imprint’s State of Place index.
The first report resulting from this assessment was COG’s Strategic Investment Plan, released in April 2013 (and available for viewing here), which targeted economic development strategies for the Activity Centers.
The new Place + Opportunity report, approved this week by the COG Board, is an assessment of the placemaking characteristics of this subset of our region’s Centers, grouping them according to similar characteristics and challenges, and identifying distinct Activity Center types to inform planning and development decision making.
At the board meeting, Mary Hynes, vice-chair of the Arlington County Board, presented the Place + Opportunity report. The report (and accompanying videos), created in partnership with RCLCO, Urban Imprint, Reconnecting America, and Mobility Lab, has been a Herculean effort requiring buy-in from COG’s member jurisdictions, and the ability to accommodate places as disparate as urban center-city D.C. and small-town Manassas.
Not all of COG’s Activity Centers lie in urban areas such as D.C. and Arlington, but those that do should benefit substantially from the Activity Center plan. These nodes, in many cases well served by transit or with that potential, allow for greater density, transit-oriented development (TOD), infill construction, multi-modal transportation options, a high level of other public improvements increasing quality of life, and numerous other efficiencies.
Arlington County is of course a leader in this area, particularly when it comes to TOD and walkability (real-estate expert Christopher Leinberger has called Arlington “the gold standard” in this arena). But not all of the region’s Centers or nodes wish to become Arlington County.
Sophie Mintier, COG regional planner, addressed this issue at the event, pointing out the diversity of our region’s Activity Centers and diverse “aspirations” of each. Regardless of the differences between Centers, all have the potential of benefitting from an increased awareness of placemaking and walkability. And as Leinberger has stated, the key to addressing the public’s demand for walkable urban places (“WalkUPs”) lies in creating more of them.
Mintier explained how, to accommodate the vast differences between our region’s Activity Centers, COG’s report categorized Centers into one of six “place types,” and enumerated four “opportunity types” (resulting in 24 different and distinct strategies). These strategies range from zoning changes to facilitate TOD, public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure projects, and recommendations to preserve housing affordability.
COG’s Place + Opportunity report is an approach at working together across jurisdictional boundaries that one Board member said was akin to the long-term strategies detailed in Bruce Katz’s The Metropolitan Revolution. The report was lauded overall, and passed COG’s Board unanimously.
The next phase in the Activity Center project, upon approval and funding by the COG Board, will be assessment of the remaining as-yet-unanalyzed 49 Activity Centers.
Meanwhile, it is the hope of Mobility Lab that the Place + Opportunity report (viewable and downloadable here) will inform planning and development decisions to enhance the region in the coming years, particularly in reducing congestion, enhancing livability, and increasing our economic competitiveness.
Photo of Bethesda Row courtesy of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
Also see commentary from COG’s Ryan Hand on the new report.
Under construction on 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C.
[Note that the following blog authored by me, Paul Goddin, was written for and published by Mobility Lab on December 30, 2013]
Washington D.C.’s Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center was arguably in need of a facelift, if nothing else. The 27-year-old office building, located at the corner of 14th and U Streets NW, has been showing its age amidst the increasingly high-end residential and retail construction projects peppering 14th street.
The announcement of the D.C. government’s plan, therefore, to shutter the Reeves Center, swapping its land for a similarly sized industrial-zoned parcel where a new soccer stadium will be built in southwest D.C., was initially seen as a shrewd business decision. Timing the real-estate market is always dicey business, but it’s tough to argue with the hotness of 14th Street real-estate right now, and a lot has been made about how much the District could receive in the deal.
The municipal center’s multiple transportation options create the sought-after “location, location, location.” Metrorail is just a block away at 13th and U, Metro buses pass the corner in all directions, the Circulator bus runs north-south on 14th, and Capital Bikeshare is on site.
Plans for the land swap remain in the formative stages, but the net gain to the District seems positive overall, with a “new Reeves Center” to be constructed in Anacostia, a shiny new soccer stadium near Nationals Park, and a cash injection into the city’s coffers. Residents of the 14th and U neighborhood, however, are concerned about what they will lose with the closing of the D.C. government building: chief among them, the 14th and U Farmers Market, and much-needed office space in the neighborhood.
Akridge, the developer that will take control of the property in the swap, would be tempted to construct another luxurious residential building to maximize its profits, but City Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward One) has said that he will oppose such a use of the property. At the December 17 Reeves Center disposition meeting, Graham said no to additional “market-rate” housing, stating, “We’ve got the luxury condo/rental thing covered [in this neighborhood]” to applause from the audience.
Graham’s comment was an understatement, as the one-mile stretch of 14th Street from Thomas Circle to Florida Avenue now surpasses Columbia Heights as the densest residential neighborhood in D.C., according to District officials. Furthermore, the Washington Post has reported that gentrification is in “overdrive” on 14th Street, stating that since the end of the recession in 2009, $524 million of new residential sales have taken place on 14th Street. Rents now average $2700 per month and two-bedroom condominiums sell at over $900,000.
The members of the public who expressed their opinions at the D.C. Department of General Services (DCDGS)-led disposition meeting seemed in agreement with Graham that the neighborhood is in need of office space to replace the Reeves Center. The lack of daytime commerce in the area was referred to by one participant as an “imbalance” affecting the viability of neighborhood businesses. Try to navigate the sidewalks of 14th and U at night, or attempt to acquire a Capital Bikeshare bike on weekday mornings, and you’ll be convinced these people are correct.
Since D.C. has the lowest office vacancy rate in the U.S., and with the redevelopment of the site still several years out (and several years away from the most recent U.S. recession) it seems realistic that office space would be a viable use of the site – as well as a profitable one for Akridge.
Another public demand heard loudly at the disposition meeting was a desire for the 14th and U Farmers Market to remain on site, or at least in the general vicinity. The market currently operates on the enormous 60-foot-wide sidewalks of the Reeves Center, but market founder and director Robin Shuster has said she could make due with 25-foot sidewalks, and has requested that D.C. accommodate this requirement in any future development of the site.
Graham and the DCDGS have said the District will take into consideration the public opinions regarding the disposition and future use of the Reeves Center and its valuable parcel. The land-swap deal with Akridge and the Reeves Center redevelopment process – should the deal go through – will be a process that will take several years.
Photo by thisisbossi