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Postcard from Washington DC

A fairly quick post from the capital of the United States. Central Washington is exactly as you’d expect: a grand planned city of monuments and monumental vistas. It is a place designed to inspire awe with a scale that renders humans as insignificant. The scale of the avenues and spaces around the National Mall also makes walking very difficult, a common outcome of planned capitals. The city does have a blanket height limit which effectively limits all buildings to about eight stories. This gives it a very dense, yet horizontal form. Quite Parisian in fact. They do have a bike share scheme here and I think that cycling could be the best way to get around… if they had a bit more cycling provision and a bit less traffic. I guess tour bus and limousine is how it really happens.

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Outside of the Capitol precinct this all changes. Residential Washington is a surprisingly dense, human scaled place. The inner suburbs are all historic terraces and low rise apartments, primarily black working and middle class residents, not yet gentrified but probably heading that way. There is a lot of infill development mimicking the traditional style, most of it well executed, some not. The neighborhood I stayed in was characterized by neighbours chatting on their front porches, people walking dogs in the leafy streets, and friends meeting up at the local pizza store on the corner. A new urbanist’s old utopia still happening.

In these neighborhoods back lanes take care of the cars, parking, rubbish and service access. This leaves the fronts for porches, gardens, walking and trees. How I wish we had lane ways in residential Auckland.

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So the transit. As all ways this great city has a great bus system. Frequent regular service on all main roads. However here the idea of a bus lane is conspicuously absent, and buses do get stuck in Washington’s notorious traffic. However there is an alternative, the metro. A relatively recent construction of the same era as San Francisco’s BART and Melbourne’s City Loop, the metro is fast, capacious and efficient. Several sections are underground while others run alongside intercity rail rights of way. The thing I like best about the system is the transit centre station, which is the connecting point of several lines on two perpendicular levels. Through clever design each level acts as the concourse for the other, allowing very simple transfers and a highly efficient station to fit in a relatively compact space. If Auckland had a little more headway on North Shore rail then Aotea could have been designed like this, but I figure it’s probably a step too far in terms of future proofing.

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Finally, an excerpt from the timetable showing the metro frequencies. Trains every six minutes at peak times and every twelve minutes across the rest of the day, with reduced service late at night. Several lines double up in the inner parts of the network, giving three and six minute headways respectively. Same service on weekends and weekdays, excluding the peak frequency boost. What I like about this timetable is it shows exactly what the CRL can deliver for Auckland. Trains every five or six minutes from all stations at peak, and every ten or twelve minutes across the rest of the week, with double-quick frequencies where the lines overlap in the centre.

Quite simply, the CRL buys us a metro system as good as the capital of the richest nation on earth!

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20 comments to Postcard from Washington DC

  • Dick

    Have admired the Metro and used it myself over the years. It is worth remembering that the significant tunnel depth and cloure systems were installed for nuclear attack (viz:shelter) purposes. So Uncle Sam’s budget was involved and cost was not an issue! I am not sure that our Len has access to a defense budget!

    • JNG

      Hi Dick, there is only significant tunnel depth at a few stations – the deepest one is Forrest Glen station which isn’t even in DC but in Maryland (a very small station). The Forrest Glen station is one of the least used stations as well. Unlike in systems in several Asian cities the DC Metrotrail stations were not built to be fallout shelters. The city did build fallout shelters in the early 1960′s a couple decades before building the Metrorail system. There is no evidence that Metrorail stations were ever designed to be fallout shelters. Also, only a hand full of stations are very deep and most of those are among the smallest stations in the system with usually the fewest/smallest entrances. I think all of the deepest are located in outer suburbs in Maryland – not even in DC.

      In terms of funding – the DC Metrobus and Metrorail system did receive federal funding to construct. I think it received almost 2/3 of the capital funding from the federal government and the rest came from state/local governments. I think annual operating costs are covered by a combination of fare revenue and local/state government grants. So, in the beginning there was help at the central government level for construction. Maybe it might be similar to the central government vs Auckland City sharing capital expenditures? Anyhow, cost was an issue and having grown up in DC during the era most of the system was constructed I remember vividly the debates about how much taxes city and state residents had to provide for the construction. There was also great debate at the national level about a rail network for DC being useless and motorways should be built instead.

      Maybe in the end the Metro system isn’t as good as it could have been – there were many compromises (dragging the system down today) because local residents preferred cheaper options.

  • Lane ways in my experience end up being full of rubbish, horrible alleys full of strays, blocked drains with foul stenches and dark and dodgy at night due to poor lighting and limited amounts of people… No to lane ways. Oh, I’ve lived in Malaysia for 11 years – perhaps not the best example, but as lane ways are not seen by most people, home owners make the front of their place all grand and lovely and let the rear turn into a disgusting rat infested swamp.

    • Glen

      Laneways may not work everywhere, but in some places they work great. Next tiem you’re in Melbourne, check out what is happening in the laneways downtown. It’s amazing.

    • exaucklanderinsydney

      You can’t compare lane ways from a third world country. Older suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne have them and they work fine

  • Glen

    The grand scale in central DC making things a little hard for people fits with my experience there. However the Metro is frequent and covers most places tourists want to go, it works well. That said, DC residents apparently have a love-hate relationship with it – the escalators are frequently broken down, which means a loooong climb out of those deep tunnels.

    BTW Nick – any thoughts about the Silver Line project and its effects on the edge cities? Did you get out to Tyson’s Corner etc? I only drove through there but it didn’t look very appealing from an urban perspective…

    • JNG

      I think only a small portion of DC is in the grand scale (the federal triangle and National Mall). Dense, mixed use residential neighbourhoods and local parks make up most of the land use. The Mall is grand as are the buildings and monuments bordering it. It’s a big green park for holding mass demonstrations/rallies and celebrations. It’s also surrounded by the Smithsonian museum buildings and two metro stations pretty much on the mall with half a dozen others within a few blocks walk. So, it’s not that bad. The mall from my experience is mostly used by tourists visiting the museums, locals playing dodgeball or volleyball and politicos working in the federal buildings. I think it’s a different experience from other planned cities like Brasilia or Canberra. The ceremonial grounds of the mall are actually used for many festivals and cultural events or even just lounging between museums/monuments.

      As for the love/hate thing – I agree. I also agree the Metro system is now going through a tough time trying to repair all the old infrastructure especially the escalators. It seems the conversation in DC is about which lanes to dedicate to busways not about if they should exist at all. Plus residents are fighting for new bus and tram lines to run through their neighbourhoods.

      Most young people I know don’t drive and many never even learned. We ride bikes, bus, train and car share with Zipcar for daytrips out of town. I used to be such a whinger when it came to the Metro. However after living in Auckland for four years and now Wellington I think the DC system is better. I don’t have a car here either but it’s much more difficult getting around and even less convenient than the DC system. I live in Aro Valley now and buses come only about every half hour and stop during the weekdays after 6:30pm (there are none on the weekends). It takes a lot of planning to get accross town or meet up with friends around the city. I ride my bike mostly but it’s very dangerous. I laugh at my DC friends who complain about the train running a few minutes late.

      The new Silver line going through Tyson’s is not pretty but it’s already increasing population density and the sprawling car parks are starting to get filled in with small streets and buildings. So, while the train is elevated and not pretty I think some amazing changes are still happening there. Plus it connects one of the areas last malls to the train system and soon one of the airports.

  • JNG

    This was a great postcard to see!!! I’m actually a DC transplant to NZ. I used to live in Auckland for 4 years before shifting to Wellington about a year ago. In terms of land area Washington DC is about half the size of Wellington City proper (not counting Hutts) in terms of sq km so it’s quite a small city. DC also has a much higher population density (significant growth has occurred in last decade and a half) than Wellington or Auckland despite being relatively low-rise even outside the Federal City.

    So, in my experience growing up in a DC terrace house (row house) the alley ways are usually not as grand looking as the fronts but definitely not yucky sewerage holes either haha. Washingtonians adore their back gardens where most of the entertaining is done in the warm months. Space is such a premium that the backs of the houses are usually decked with balconies and planted up with really lush gardens. In addition, a more recent trend is to build a roof top terrace to get even more outdoor space. The alley ways are very well utilised for all sorts of functions – and are well lit at night. They have to be kept relatively clear for the trash trucks to get down. Also, many of the blocks have interior parks behind all the houses – they are getting to be really nice places these days although I think some are starting to get filled in with housing. There are also many squares and public parks peppered throughout the city (usually at least one in every neighbourhood). Most of them are very formal but still people use them to have picnics or play sports. There’s also a huge park (Rock Creek Park) designed by the same people who did Central Park in NYC. There’s a cool cycling highway that connects some of the suburban centres and runs through Rock Creek park without touching any roads in the inner city.

    As for the public transport there are extensive bus (Metrobus), subway rail (Metrorail), commuter rail (MARC and VRE), and inter-city rail (Amtrak) networks. The postcard neglected to comment on the first phase of the new Silver line (Metrorail) opening next month which broke ground in 2009 the year I moved to NZ. It will eventually provide a link to Dulles Airport (the last airport of the 3 DC airports not yet served by rail). The new line is also making several new metro stations in Tyson’s Corner (an edge city similar to Manukau in terms of distance from Aucks CBD). In addition the city is opening it’s first of many planned tram lines this year (currently being tested) which should connect a very poor part of the city to one of the large regional train station/transit hubs (Union Station DC). Besides these larger infrastructure projects the city is constructing new protected bike lanes which are opening at a rate of 3 or 4 a year in order to capitalise on the bike share system which is also adding new stations every year.

    Also, an interesting new plan from the DDOT (District Department of Transportation – similar to AT) is a new master plan which prioritises every street for cycling and pedestrians. It is also proposing congestion charging for autos in the CBD. Here’s are some commentaries on the plan:

    http://streetsblog.net/2014/06/03/dcs-bold-new-transportation-plan-envisions-a-city-of-multi-modal-streets/

    and

    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/23084/movedc-plan-proposes-more-cycletracks-transit-and-tolls-will-it-become-a-reality/

    The cool part is this plan came out of the transportation department – I’m not saying it won’t face some major challenges from the Council but imagine if AT came up with this sort of plan.

  • exaucklanderinsydney

    My local station in Sydney has better frequencies than those. 20min frequencies at night is not very impressive for a mass transit system

    • Norm

      First off I think some of those DC lines are shared so per line might be 20 minutes but you can be standing on the same platform and get access to 2 lines or so. As a result, the headways per train would be more frequent than 20 minutes. I think the same happens in Sydney where off peak frequency can be 30 minutes but seems better because lines are shared? Another thing to remember is the population of Sydney is about 7 times larger than the population of DC. There might be more people in evenings to use the trains. DC’s population is just over half a million while Sydney is just over four and a half million. Despite the population difference there is a much higher train density per person according to the numbers than in Sydney.

      • DC Metro also serves people in Maryland and Virginia, as well as DC, so definitely more than 1/2 million. Anyway DC population itself is over 630k.

      • bbc

        Huge numbers commute into the DC area via metro from the surrounding states and suburbs. Giving the population of DC is flawed much like when people used to give the population of the form Auckland City Council ward as the size of Auckland proper.

      • Metropolitan Washington has 5.8 million residents, so a fair bit bigger than Sydney.

        Yes, in most stations two lines run so the frequencies are actually double for a lot of trips. We would have the same in Auckland with the CRL too, for about half the stations.

      • JNG

        So, as a former resident of DC and Auckland I can say that the city population is greater than 600,000. It used to be about 400,000 in the 90′s. I think the metropolitan population often found in Wikipedia is so inaccurate. It includes Baltimore (the biggest city in Maryland about 45 minutes by train), Annapolis (the capital city of Maryland), Tyson’s Corner, Silver Spring, Rockville and other nearby cities – I think it even includes the city of Philadelphia because there is a fast train link allowing a few thousand commuters from there even – but not that many people actually are coming haha. So, the way it’s measured over in the US isn’t how it’s measured here in NZ I think. It would be like counting all the cities and towns north of Hamilton and saying it’s the metro area of Auckland (if there were actually rail links or easy ways for significant proportion of people to travel those distances). I was born in Maryland and there aren’t even 6 million people in the whole state of Maryland. So, I think the Metro Washington residents of 5.8 million residents you cite Nick R isn’t a good reference for comparing with Australasian measures. It can be considered a member of the Mid-Atlantic cluster of cities which might be more accurate but then how to compare to NZ?

        There is a huge commuting population which swells the city to about 1 million during the weekdays. Maybe this helps to put things into perspective with Sydney. Maybe even at it’s busiest DC must still feel like a small town compared with Sydney. I think not all those commuters from outside DC are taking metro though. Many will drive to commuter rail stations or into the city. I think there are 4 commuter rail lines – 2 from Maryland and 2 from Virginia. Still many live in the close-in ring suburbs that Metrorail serves or they bike. The city cannot grow it’s boundaries for sprawl like Auckland and has a stupid height limit so there is really high demand for housing and many are considering the ring suburbs (like Auckland) where there is more modern high rise affordable housing options. Some are not so nice but many are really well designed as transit oriented development and very walk-able/bike friendly.

        In the Mid-Atlantic there are many cities that are so close to one another similar to Europe (not Australasia) – so that dynamic makes a comparison very difficult because there is some interconnectedness but then again DC is really too small to fit 6 million people from other cities unless you count nearby cities which have their own jurisdiction in terms of taxes/government etc. Again the size of DC is about half the size of Wellington City proper so it’s quite tiny compared with Australian or even NZ standards in terms of area. I felt like Auckland was a big city compared to DC. In DC you can take a train and be on the other side of the city in 20 minutes or walk across everything in a couple hours. I’m not sure but I think DC could have fit inside the old Auckland City boundary.

        Subsequently, the rate paying base is quite small. There is some federal help these days but that mostly just goes to the small Federal Triangle (Old federal city) for security things. Mostly it’s ratepayers which is worse than in Auckland where at least central government helps with much more it seems. So, the infrastructure in DC is reasonable but not great.

        • It’s generally equivalent. Like how people used to say Auckland had 400,000 residents, because waitakere was a separate city, manukau a separate city, papkura a separate city. Likewise papkura is 45 minutes away by train, but it is disingenuous to say it’s not part of Auckland.

          Hamilton is totally not contiguous with Auckland, however Tyson’s corner is with Washington (note I’m not saying DC, which is indeed small and arbitrarily defined half diamond of jurisdiction which has little relevance to the overal metropolis of Washington)

          The metro system is funded partly by the federal government, partly by Maryland and partly by Virginia.

      • exaucklanderindydney

        No, only served by 1 line. Look up Edgecliff station, trains are every 10mins past midnight and 3-5mins at peak. I used to live in Parramatta and the western line has similar frequencies, about every 15mins till 1am. There are other examples too.

        • JNG

          Wow – that’s really good. Sydney’s rail system sounds way better than DC’s Metro and probably better than NYC subway off peak times too. I used to live in NYC and can remember waiting 15-20 minutes late at night on some lines. It’s also not unusual to find hundreds of people on the platforms at the Dupont Circle station at midnight in DC since the frequencies are only 15-20 minutes ( a single line). Maybe Auckland should learn from Sydney’s example.

    • JNG

      Also there’s the North-East Direct Corridor – It’s the Amtrak designation for the high frequency inter-city train service that runs between DC and Boston hitting Baltimore, Philadelpia, and New York City along the way. It would probably be bigger than Tokyo if you counted all the cities it hits. I know people who commute on the train between DC and NYC several times a month just for a meeting in either city. So, it’s a tricky thing to quantify.

      • exaucklanderinsydney

        I never said it was better than the NYC Subway (far from it), or even the Washington Metro. I was more emphasing the point that those frequencies are very average or below average by world standards for a mass transit system.

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