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Metro Of The Future: Beyond Silver & Purple

Given that it's taking decades to extend Metro rail to Dulles Airport or to connect the two limbs of the Red Line, it hardly seems prudent to predict that the region's transit system might expand even more ambitiously in the coming years.

But Daniel Malouff, an urban planner for the city of Fairfax who runs an inventive blog looking at the future of the Washington region, has come up with a sprawling vision for Metro's future that includes a tight web of new light rail and streetcar lines that would finally relieve many suburbanites of the exasperated plaint, "But Metro doesn't go where I'm going."

Malouff's map of the future assumes that the cost--in dollars and political strife--of building a lot more heavy rail is probably prohibitive. Certainly the battle over rail to Dulles has proven that. So he gets more nimble, adding a few infill Metro stations, but mainly expanding through streetcars that would run on dedicated lanes along existing major thoroughfares. He reaches out to second-tier suburbs with a much-expanded set of MARC and VRE lines, though he doesn't call those commuter lines by their current names because he believes it's essential that the lines be merged, even if they are run by different states.

And he sidesteps the huge battle within the transit world over whether to build streetcars or what's called Bus Rapid Transit, which is a fancy term for plain old bus lines, sometimes with a dedicated lane. Dress it up however you like, it's still a big fat nauseating bus. Malouff embraces buses along existing routes, but sticks with light rail or streetcars for most new routes.

There are, of course, other visions for Washington's transit future. At Greater Greater Washington, David Alpert offers an extension of the existing Metro system that consists largely of local spurs that would make it much easier to feed commuter traffic from residential neighborhoods onto the main Metro lines. (Here's his map showing what Metro has in mind for eventual expansions.)

More officially, the Metropolitan Council of Governments has a number of expansions in mind, including streetcars here and there.

But the council's plan gives away its lack of vision (or, more charitably, its adherence to the very limiting factor known as "reality") in its title: The Financially-Constrained Long-Term Transportation Plan.

The blogger-dreamers think bigger. Hey, it's not our money. Well, ok, it is, but still: If you don't think big, we can't even imagine a way out of a future of sitting in traffic for four or five hours a day.

Back in the real world, it's worth pointing out that not all of the Washington area suffers from gridlock. In fact, there are still good chunks of the close-in area where density remains relatively light and traffic is much less of a daily discomfort. Basically, the area east of the District is much more lightly populated than the area to the west. And blogger Rob Goodspeed has helpfully collected a list of Metro's most underperforming stations--that is, the ones we use the least--as a guide to where the next wave of development ought to be directed.

As you might expect, a majority of the 10 least-used stations are in Prince George's County. Here's the bottom 10: Morgan Boulevard, Cheverly, Deanwood, Arlington Cemetery, Eisenhower Ave., Capitol Heights, Forest Glen, Congress Heights, Landover, Waterfront.

By comparison, nine of the top 10 most used stations are in the District, with Pentagon City being the only exception. But the next 10 most-used stations are the key to understanding how Metro, and the whole area, can and should grow. On that list, you'll find Rosslyn, Silver Spring, Crystal City, Ballston, and Bethesda, places that have embraced density and vertical growth and as a result have morphed into exciting and busy urban nodes.

Much of what Malouff and Alpert have proposed will likely never be built, but just as Metro began as a few jottings on a paper napkin, these early web versions of our future may end up being the spark we need to choose something other than inertia.


By Marc Fisher |  May 2, 2008; 8:23 AM ET
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Comments

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The capacity of the Rosslyn tunnel is a major bottleneck. If metro were to turn the blue line into a shuttle train running only Pentagon-Cemetary-Rosslyn, they could dedicate the tunnel space to the Orange line only. The forks at King St and Stadium could then be served by alternating yellow & orange lines, similar to what is done on the 4th of July.

Running a blue line shuttle train requires being able to turn the trains around at Rosslyn & Pentagon, or having a dedicated platform for them (ala the Times Square shuttle line that just runs forward & backward all day long). This probably requires some construction, but surely is simple compared to some of the other major overhauls proposed.

I'll also throw out there that only one of the 'future' maps shows a connection over the Wilson Bridge. With the water treatment plant, research lab, bolling, and now national harbor, surely there would be demand for such a connection (and the bridge designers anticipated one!).

Posted by: CB | May 2, 2008 9:27 AM

"Bus Rapid Transit, which is a fancy term for plain old bus lines, sometimes with a dedicated lane. Dress it up however you like, it's still a big fat nauseating bus."

I spent my highschool and college years in Philadelphia when streetcars were common. They are big fat nauseating buses - on rails. When designed properly they can disrupt auto traffic on both sides of the street at the same time. The rails are also useful for shredding tires of cars that run over them diagonally when changing lanes. In general they are a good way to encourage people to relocate their home or business to a different neighborhood.

BTW, the SEPTA system in Phila. probably has the most diverse collection of transportation options in the world including trackless trollies (buses using overhead electricity), streetcars, subways, buses, commuter rail and intercity rail. Nevertheless the best way to commute from most suburbs to center city or between suburbs is on the various highways. Mass transit is a godsend in the urban core. It simply does not work in the burbs. Never has, never will. Stop wasting time and money. Start upgrading the suburban road network.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | May 2, 2008 9:30 AM

"...the best way to commute from most suburbs to center city or between suburbs is on the various highways. Mass transit is a godsend in the urban core. It simply does not work in the burbs. Never has, never will. Stop wasting time and money. Start upgrading the suburban road network."

Well said. And you're 100% correct.

I wish the planners and elected officials in this region would finally "get it" and stop letting transit advocates force ubiquitous rail down our throats.

This region long ago bought into the "rail everywhere", "rail makes roads unnecessary" and "rail must be built at any cost" mindset that has given us the nation's worst traffic congestion. It amazes me that educated, intelligent people are advocating more of the same failed non-solution.

Just look at the traffic, for God's sake!

Posted by: ceefer66 | May 2, 2008 10:42 AM

"...the best way to commute from most suburbs to center city or between suburbs is on the various highways. Mass transit is a godsend in the urban core. It simply does not work in the burbs. Never has, never will. Stop wasting time and money. Start upgrading the suburban road network."

Well said. And you're 100% correct.

I wish the planners and elected officials in this region would finally "get it" and stop letting transit advocates force ubiquitous rail down our throats.

This region long ago bought into the "rail everywhere", "rail makes roads unnecessary" and "rail must be built at any cost" mindset that has given us the nation's worst traffic congestion. It amazes me that educated, intelligent people are advocating more of the same failed non-solution.

Just look at the traffic, for God's sake!

Posted by: ceefer66 | May 2, 2008 10:43 AM

Come on, we all know the future will involve seemingly simple extensions hijacked for time-wasting detours. Expect a Red Line extension to Germantown that involves 2 stops in the Kentlands shopping center, three stops near Lakeforest Mall and for some reason, one over by Olney.

Posted by: dgc | May 2, 2008 10:47 AM

I believe that the Red Line should be extended to Olney. I am surprised that no one has suggested that already. Also, Red Line extension to Germantown/Gaithersburg is necessary. I am not sure I agree with the building up of suburban roads. As gas prices continue to rise (I predict $5/gallon before the end of the year), consumers/workers will be forced to make decisions about work place, lifestyle, etc. These decisions will force more people to reconsider driving, and the building of suburban trains are a good alternative. We must begin to think of new solutions to traffic and pollution. The old way is not/has not worked.

Posted by: MDB | May 2, 2008 10:58 AM

Funny how Navy Yard is listed as one of the 20 least-used stations in 2007. Methinks that will no longer be true in 2008...

I live in the suburbs and I barely drive at all. I guess my way of life doesn't work!

Posted by: Lindemann | May 2, 2008 11:07 AM

There is a reason why light rail AKA street cars went out of business. Compared to a bus it is more expensive and less flexible. Busses are the most cost effective way to address transit needs in an area that alows sprawl. As long as the metropolitan area continues to expand outward, rail is a dumb idea.

Mark, you should go to a place that has BRT and see if you still think it's "just a bus". I prefer my old commute on the Pittsburgh East Busway to the Metro any day.

Posted by: Lifelong straphanger | May 2, 2008 11:58 AM

What a delightful collection of visions! While I find it disturbing that a few comments here are stressing in importance of increasing investment into transportation modalities that are clearly ineffective (expanded suburban road development) and unsustainable, it is very refreshing to see so much thought being put into smart growth by the dreamers and the urban developers. Perhaps the era of Robert Moses is finally giving way to an urban design that puts people, rather than cars at its center. Wouldn't make for a wonderful city to call home?

Posted by: Bloomingdale, DC | May 2, 2008 12:04 PM

I love how people complain constantly about how crowded the trains are in DC. My question, have any of you ever been on the metros in Tokyo or Shanghai? Somehow they can manage to get to and from work on trains packed like sardine cans, so I think we should be able to deal with it if we are unfortunate enough not to get a seat on the way to work.

Metro expansion is prohibitively expensive, the best bet at this point is to upgrade the current facilities to ensure fewer delays based on track wear and malfunctioning trains. Cars are fine in a West Coast city with lots of highways and less of an urban center, but DC can not absorb more cars.

Get used to packed trains, they might be uncomfortable, but they are the reality

Posted by: Metrorider | May 2, 2008 12:40 PM

If I understood correctly the recent statement by Secretary of
Transportation Mary Peters the Federal Government should never ever be involved in local land use planning - it should be left to the local authorities to decide. If that is true, why does the Federal Government
insist that simple overhead wires for clean electric streetcars not be used in D.C. while all kinds of noisy noxious polluting autos, buses, and trucks be OK for the D.C. environment? It is time for the Federal Government to allow D.C. regulate it's own local policies and priorities.

For the time being, the cost, reliability and maintenance of old or new streetcar ground power systems is not realistic, reliable or preferable. Also, on board electric power is not sufficient to do the job over long distances. For more than 100 years overhead trolley wire has worked very
well. When installed sensibly and properly, single strand lightweight almost invisible wire can be used above the streetcar track and hung from decorative lamp posts or even buildings without notice.

There are numerous examples of this used by streetcar or trams systems worldwide without destroying the attractiveness of the surroundings. Hundreds, maybe thousands of photos are available on the internet depicting streetcar wire installation which does no visual harm to the urban setting. Millions of people live in those other cities without ill effects. In this time of energy and environmental conscience the Government's laws
forbidding such wires is extreme and unthinkable preventing streetcars from
plying the streets of D.C. as they once did - but with expensive and more costly conduit.

If cities such as Prague, Paris, Brussels, Budapest, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Toronto, Vienna, San Francisco, New Orleans, Rome, Tokyo, Moscow, The Hague, Nice, Milan, Barcelona, Helsinki, Oslo, Lisbon, St. Petersburg, etc. can use overhead wires for their trams, there certainly is no reason for D.C. not to do the same. D.C. as a city is no more beautiful or historically important than other major urban areas around the world. D.C. may have more political prominence, but structurally and architecturally it is similar, and some of those other cities may even have more beauty than D.C.

Thus, I urge all who have the means to enact legislation and regulation to allow D.C. to decide for itself to use simple thin single strand overhead wires for electric streetcars in all parts of D.C. to improve local transportation, uplift the local economy and create new opportunity for its residents. And streetcars can be just as artful as any building, monument, or structure.

Posted by: geoghb | May 2, 2008 12:51 PM

Lots of complaints on light rail but after living in Boston and Amsterdam I'm a huge fan. Both systems seemed to work great and were often much faster than taking the bus.

I agree that in some places it's probably not a great idea but in parts of Georgetown and Northeast the tracks are still in the street or under the pavement and would be a good guide as far as where to rebuild. I would say an H street NE, M street NW and 8th street NE/SE would be a huge improvement for residents and businesses.


Posted by: Southeasterner | May 2, 2008 12:58 PM

I love these fantasy maps, unfortunately most of them will remain in fantasy. My question is if one is going to take the time to do a map like this why not go all out and give the city what is really needed: more trunk lines within the city center (new Potomac tunnel, new Blue Line north of existing Orange Line) and a reliable regional rail network, including an express, frequent service to BWI and Dulles.

Posted by: Michael | May 2, 2008 1:05 PM

I am not trying to be glib, but what exactly is the difference between a light and heavy rail line?

Posted by: Paul | May 2, 2008 1:41 PM

Thoughts on traffic?

1. Encourage 1 day a week telecommuting options.

2. Enhanced bus travel (not just a stick in the ground with a Metro sign on it). Let's have nice hotspots like the GMU CUE system.

3. Light rail works, but not like old systems.

4. let's rethink our habits.

Simple enough. Let's do an experiment, take all new road construction money for one year and spend on bus and light rail transit, and incentives for telecommuting. I bet the traffic problem gets better and gas goes down (especially if it is nation wide).

Posted by: NOVA Planner | May 2, 2008 1:54 PM

This Don or Dan guy with the blog sounds like he's had one too many Slurpees.

Posted by: livin'inDC | May 2, 2008 1:57 PM

Thanks for the pulpit, Marc. I think it's important to stress that the map I made is totally achievable. One of commenters above said if we're going to make something like this why not go all out? Part of the point of what I drew up is that all this would cost about the same as 3 or 4 new Metro extensions. The new Blue line alone (under M Street), if built, would be somewhere between $6-10 billion. You can build a *lot* of light rail for that same money. I think 100 miles of light rail is a better investment at this point than 10 miles of Metro.

One nit with your write-up, though. I think you are a little too hard on BRT. Buses will always be buses, and BRT no matter how dressed up will never be as comfortable or accomplish the same things that trains can accomplish, but that doesn't mean there's not a place for it in our transportation system. We should have hundreds of miles of it, frankly, but on the less important corridors. The important thing to remember about BRT is that it's great if viewed as "how to do buses right"; it's just not a replacement for trains.

Posted by: Dan Malouff | May 2, 2008 2:12 PM

According vision, we would extend this to all the places the upper middle class hang out. The 395 corridor, where you have a huge concentration of poor, car-less immigrants is still the same void it is now. And there are no new stations added between the existing ones.

The Metro barely reaches the neighborhoods it is intended to serve now, and utterly misses whole huge chunks of the demographic who benefit the most from it.

I guess it's OK for the poor folks to keep waiting for hours out in the cold for a rickety Metrobus to happen by. Perversely, someone out in Gaithersburg might have a faster trip downtown.

It will soon be economically unfeasible for people to commute the distances they do. The core of the metro area will be gettign denser regardless. Pour your resources into where they have the greatest long-term benefit.

Posted by: bkp | May 2, 2008 2:33 PM

Ho-kay. If we direct development close by "underperforming" Metrorail stations, we'll soon see high rise condos in Arlington Cemetery. They'll be so exclusive that people will be dying to get in.

Posted by: Sasquatch | May 2, 2008 2:55 PM

The important thing to remember about BRT is that it's great if viewed as "how to do buses right"; it's just not a replacement for trains.

Actually, of all the mass transit proposals, expanded bus service is the only one that makes any sense for the burbs. It is inexpensive compared to rail, can use existing infrastructure (buses do not need dedicated lanes)and can respond rapidly to chages in demand by shifting schedules or routes. It would help if they would teach the operaters that slow vehicles should keep right; but otherwise expanded bus along the Rt 234, 123 and Fairfax parkway corridors could be useful. BTW, any one of those three unheralded road expansions have done more to relieve congestion in NOVA than all the rail transit programs combined.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | May 2, 2008 2:56 PM

I moved from North Arlington to Fairfax a few years ago. The funny thing is that, while Metro has had consistent problems and massive delays and service cancellations, the Fairfax Connector bus system is awesome. On time every day, reaching its destination within a three-minute window. And even occasionally early!

If more buses existed - at least every fifteen minutes, preferably every ten - I'd really consider telling Metro what they can do with their Orange Line extension once and for all.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | May 2, 2008 3:00 PM

For the person who asked about the difference between "heavy rail" and "light rail": It really does have to do with size.

Heavy rail cars are much longer than light rail cars and have wider-gauge tracks, usually with a third rail for power. Light rail cars generally run off overhead wires and are smaller (though they may be "articulated" to bend in the middle around tight corners). Metrorail is a "heavy rail" system, while the MTA line that runs from Glen Burnie and BWI through Baltimore and up to Hunt Valley is light rail.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | May 2, 2008 4:37 PM

Most of the "solutions" don't address the changing nature of commuting in the area. Reston, Tysons, Gaithersburg, Greenbelt, and Alexandria/Springfield have already replaced downtown as the preferred locations for commercial development. With the BRAC beefing up the demand along 395/Rt 1, this will only get worse. NONE of the plans adequately address the faulty hub-and-spoke nature of the region's present mass transit system.

Two other quick points from my own personal commute between Leesburg and Reston.
1.) I could do the commute by bike on the W&OD in reasonable weather if my work had showers. They don't, so I can't.

2.) I would love to take the bus to work, but there are no options that go from Leesburg to Reston (again because the system hasn't adapted to non-cetralized commuting). Such an option may exist somehow, but it is exceedingly difficult to learn about.

Posted by: Leesburger | May 2, 2008 5:59 PM

Greenbelt Gal, FYI, almost all light rail tracks in the this country are the same gauge as "heavy" rail and the nation's freight rail. In fact the Baltimore light rail tracks still host an occasional CSX freight train at night. The best definition is that heavy rail has a completely isolated, grade-separated right-of-way while light rail does not. There are no track-level walkways across the Washington Metro track, and certainly no vehicular crossings. That is why they can use a 3rd rail for power instead of overhead wires. A little known fact is that WMATA track gauge is narrower by 1/4" than standard guage, to reduce swaying. But normal freight rolling stock can run on METRO tracks, and METRO trains could run on standard freight tracks, although federal regulations prohibit the latter because their brake systems are not compatible with freight and Amtrak.

Posted by: D in Laurel | May 3, 2008 12:49 PM

The metric I'd like to see is: the number of residences built because of a new station/the number of people IN those residences who use cars for their daily commute vs the number of afore-mentioned new residents who use METRO.
I kinda think the planners are out ahead of the population, which isn't so surprising but which might impact the local appeal of new station with existing residents (voters).
Just wondering in Dupont.

Posted by: hmmm. | May 3, 2008 11:18 PM

Why should governments waste their limited funds on highways and other roads? With gas surely soon to be at $5+ a gallon, the current roads will soon be empty and the suburbs a dying wasteland. Rail is simply the most efficient and in the long run cost effective way of moving people around. The cheap gas age that fueled the suburban sprawl of the last 50 years is clearly showing kinks in its armor as the standard and preferred way of life.

Posted by: NM | May 5, 2008 10:15 AM

"There are no track-level walkways across the Washington Metro track, and certainly no vehicular crossings. " -- Actually, pay attention as the Red Line passes through the rail yard north of NY Ave. The WMATA facility has a few at-grade crossings in the yard.

Posted by: Chris Combs | May 5, 2008 3:34 PM

"Actually, of all the mass transit proposals, expanded bus service is the only one that makes any sense for the burbs."

Uh, WoodbridgeVA, I too live in Prince William and have taken PRTC many times. It does what it can reasonably well, but when U.S. 1 is crowded (as so often happens), it throws the entire system out of whack and all the lines (not just Route 1 and Dumfries, but Woodbridge and Dale City) have colossal delays because transfers from the transit center are thus pushed back. (Love the map that shows light rail going to North Dumfries and Triangle, then meeting the regional rail station in Quantico.)

The county desperately needs more comprehensive, more efficient mass transit, and buses aren't it. Sorry if that goes against your suburban lifestyle, but Prince William is changing, becoming more urban, whether you like it or not. You may have to head down to Stafford to escape.

Posted by: Vincent | May 5, 2008 6:49 PM

Fisher is right -- there's plenty of road capacity in PG county.

I live in PG county, 4.5 miles from Capitol Hill, and it's been MONTHS since I've been stuck in traffic.

Everyone once in a while, I turn on WTOP and laugh at all the poor, miserable souls who are wasting their lives away in their cars while I maintain a 40MPH pace from work to home.

Why build new roads, when it's so easy to escape the traffic problems by moving across town?

Posted by: stuckman | May 5, 2008 8:35 PM

We have already stopped building highways within the DC decades ago, and we could definitely start doing so again in far better ways as proposed in the blog A Trip Within the Beltway.

On street light rail is a waste of money- instead get us clean new tech buses, bus stop structures to protect users from the elements, and to feature maps that tell people where to go, and paint markings on the roads to inform people where the bus routes go!

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | May 6, 2008 9:34 PM

We have already stopped building highways within the DC decades ago, and we could definitely start doing so again in far better ways as proposed in the blog A Trip Within the Beltway.

On street light rail is a waste of money- instead get us clean new tech buses, bus stop structures to protect users from the elements, and to feature maps that tell people where to go, and paint markings on the roads to inform people where the bus routes go!

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | May 6, 2008 9:36 PM

We have already stopped building highways within the DC decades ago, and we could definitely start doing so again in far better ways as proposed in the blog A Trip Within the Beltway.

On street light rail is a waste of money- instead get us clean new tech buses, bus stop structures to protect users from the elements, and to feature maps that tell people where to go, and paint markings on the roads to inform people where the bus routes go!

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | May 6, 2008 9:38 PM

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