Friday, October 09, 2009

Mr. Griffith goes to Washington

Washington DC is a city that only exists for a single purpose - to be the capital city of the United States of America. From a transit perspective this is both a good thing and a bad thing. The master plan for the city, created by Pierre Charles L'Enfant (whom the locals that I spoke to never failed to point out was French) resulted in a very orderly street grid with wide avenues. There was plenty of road capacity from what I could tell, so there was less of an enticement to leave the car at home and take transit. But, because the main employers in the city are essentially recession-proof, I don't think the city has seen the ridership drop that other cities have had (since you don't take transit to work if you don't have a job). I spent five days in Washington last week, and was able to experience most of what the district's transit system had to offer. Here are some random thoughts:

The subway in Toronto was built under the philosophy that busy surface routes should be upgraded to higher order transit. As a result, the TTC subway follows the street grid. Washington followed a different philosophy, so the network has arms shooting out in all directions from a series of downtown interchanges. Stations are spaced fairly far apart, which makes for a quicker ride but does makes stations hard to locate, especially because they don't follow the street grid. Sign directing tourists to nearby monuments also show Metro stations, but there are few monuments (and these signs) outside of the central city. The lines are mostly in bored tunnels downtown, making the stations deep and escalators being the only way to get down to the concourse in many stations. Some escalators are exposed to the elements as the station entrances are minimalist, and it made me wonder how they were able to keep them operational with all the dirt, snow, sand and debris from the outdoors. Architecturally, there are two styles for stations - all underground stations look identical and all outdoor stations look identical. I found the stations to be dark and signage to be small and hard to read at a distance, but they did have platform floor lights that would flash when a train was approaching and were cleaner than my bedroom. Multiple lines share tracks at many stations, and next-train displays helped make sure I got on the right train, but I often found it difficult to figure out which platform to wait at and to know when I had arrived at the destination. Sometimes the in-train displays showed the next stop and which doors would open, sometimes they didn't, but the trains themselves were fairly nice with forward facing cushion benches and carpet floors. Cell phone companies are also in the process of installing transmitters in the tunnels, with the Verizon network up and the others in progress. Fortunately, riders tended to respect the unwritten code of keeping quiet in the tunnels.

The bus network in Washington is fairly extensive, both in coverage and frequency. Aside from the DC operated Metrobus service, there are about a dozen other suburban systems that either connect to the Metro at the outskirts or run express into the downtown core. Effectively, one doesn't really need to use the Metro as the bus service is one of the largest and most extensive in the USA. But, one thing that I found very confusing was the number of brands operated even under the Metrobus umbrella. There are Metro Local routes (buses painted red and grey), Metro Express routes (buses painted blue and grey, premium fare), Metro Extra routes (buses painted grey and blue, regular fare express), and DC Circulator routes (buses painted red, not quite express but not quite local either for a reduced fare). While this makes it very easy to identify what bus is coming, a rainbow of buses looks less like a fleet and more like distinct systems to those who are unfamiliar with the setup - especially in a city that has multiple tour bus companies. The only route I rode was the DC Circulator, which is a network of five routes operating on the more touristy corridors. The red route connected the ritzy Georgetown shopping district with Union Station and passed by the hotel, and frequencies were every 10 minutes. The circulators used Belgian Van Hool buses like VIVA in the 30-foot and 40-foot varieties, but the 40-footer had the three door option. While the regular bus fleet had a ton of older American buses, the vast majority of the post 1995 fleet was Canadian built. There appeared to have been a significant investment in stylish BRT buses, even for ordinary local routes.

Fare systems:
The name of the game in DC for transit fares is SmarTrip, a reloadable debit-style smart card that's good for travel on both district and suburban services. The bus service runs on a flat fare system, but paper transfers are no longer issued - the SmarTrip card knows when you first boarded the bus and gives you free transfers for three hours. There is also a discount over the cash fare when using the card. The Metrorail fare system is a bit more complex and uses a fare-by-distance system. You tap your SmarTrip card to unlock the fare barrier when you enter the system and then tap again to leave. The fare is deducted based on those two points, and discounts are available for off-peak travel. A paper ticket is available and works by inserting the ticket into the fare barrier to unlock it. While SmarTrip cards will let you leave with a negative balance, travellers with paper tickets might have to top up before they can leave. SmarTrip is the only way to pay for parking at the Metrorail parking lots, and it reduces the cost of boarding the bus after a subway trip to 75-cents. SmarTrip works exactly how I hope Presto will work when it's fully implemented, but there are some downsides. Firstly, it doesn't have a travel cap so you need a paper ticket if you want to buy a day pass (but they are working on it). Secondly, it is only sold at Metro stations with parking lots - generally on the outskirts. Within the downtown core they are sold at participating CVS Pharmacy locations, but it was next to impossible to figure out which ones were participating and which ones weren't. I ended up going to Falls Church, Virginia to purchase one. Fortunately, you put the leftover balance on the paper ticket on the SmarTrip card.

I managed to get 35 km of cycling on a rented cruiser while I was in town, thanks to Big Wheel Bikes in Georgetown. Initially I headed west along the towpath of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio canal, and spotted a crane along the shoreline. For most of the length the towpath ran parallel to the Capital Crescent Trail, a paved rail-trail on the old Baltimore & Ohio ROW that I followed when it turned northeast. The trail features a very interesting railway tunnel, some massive bridges, and tunnel under downtown Bethesda, Maryland. I decided to stay on the surface, and was very happy that I did. The downtown reminded me of downtown Burlington - a mix of well-placed high-rises and historic low-rises that I have always really liked. Continuing northeast, the trail ended just on the edge of Silver Spring, Maryland, and I connected to the Rock Creek trail to head back into DC. The trails were off-road to the District Line, but became on-road when I crossed into DC and entered Rock Creek National Park. Traffic was light, but I can foresee it being a little dicey during the peak tourist season. The off-road trails eventually returned around the historic Peirce Mill, and I had a smooth, traffic-free ride into Georgetown. The whole circuit took about three hours, but the trail facilities were few and far between. A few things that I did notice about the cycling culture in DC really surprised me. First of all, it didn't seem like bike theft was a major concern. I saw a road bike with expensive 4-spoke carbon wheels locked up on the street overnight. You wouldn't dream of doing that in Toronto. Secondly, while Toronto has a fair number of utility cyclists and trendy riders - the woman in boots and a skirt on a dutch bike with flowers in the basket, for example - DC riders were almost all business. The vast majority of riders on the streets were weekend warriors and weekend warriors with panniers to carry their suits. It was interesting, to say the least.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Georgetown South Service Expansion Approved

As you may have heard, the Georgetown South Service Expansion project has received environmental assessment approval, subject to conditions that are strict but reasonable. I've made my position on this controversial project quite clear in the past so I won't repeat it, but I do believe that moving forward on this project will improve transit for much of the west end of the GTA. Love it or hate it, it will give us multiple local trains every hour, express trains serving the highest ridership stations, a doubling of VIA rail service to London via Kitchener, a much-needed rail link to the airport, and it will get some of those services moving sooner rather than later. The bottom line is that, in the opinion of this transit user and resident of the corridor, getting people out of their cars and onto trains is a good thing.

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