The Last Mile

I live 1.1 miles from the East Falls Church metro, which can be a pleasant walk on a 75 degree day, but is pretty miserable on days like today or in the rain. One of the hardest nuts to crack for transit providers has been that last mile. Most of the way to and from my destination I can take a transit vehicle, but the last little bit to the front door I can't. Watch this video for an idea whose time has more than come.

Although this is not appropriate for my neighborhood, there are lots of places in the greater DC area where a PRT (personal rapid transit) system like this could really work. A few I can think of are: N. Bethesda/Medical Center, Tysons Corner (particularly after the rail is built, but there's no reason it can't be designed in now), Springfield, Silver Spring, National Harbor (cool if it could be extended over the river to Alexandria, too!), etc.

Imagine how it could be used to transform some of our urban and suburban areas. Well implemented it can reduce the need for parking lots, which can then be converted to better use: retail, office, parks, housing, etc. (any use is better than parking!).

More info here and here and here.

Making the Trip Work for the Traveler

Handheld_animation2The efforts of the transportation professionals working to make it easier and easier to get around this region are working, as demonstrated by this experience I had recently.

Not long ago I purchased my new "toodler" bike, for toodling around. It's an old, rehabilitated 3-speed with a basket on front that I use to run errands and make short trips. I had a doctor's appointment in Falls Church the other morning, which is about a 10-12 minute toodle on the bike. I left early to go to the post office and mail a package. While at the post office, the weather took a turn for the worse and it started to rain pretty steadily. I didn't mind riding in the very light drizzle I encountered going to the post office, but this was a lot harder. It would be a real drag to ride all the way to the Dr.'s in this rain. What to do?

My first thought was to lock up my bike and catch a bus (if one was coming); I could pick up my bike later. But when was the bus? Well, as it turns out, I had bookmarked the mobile services site on my Blackberry a month or two ago . It's a great service for your handheld device, and it's free. It tells you when the next bus is coming based on what time it is right now (it doesn't know where you are yet; you have to enter that yourself). Next bus, 6 minutes. That would get me to the Dr. right on time.

And then--BING!-- CflI remembered that all the Metrobuses have bike racks mounted on them. I could take my bike with me. If it stopped raining, then I could ride home; if not, I'd figure out something else. I was a bit anxious, because I had never used the bike racks before. It turned out to be a cinch, even without any experience. The instructions were right on the rack, and I loaded my bike in about 5 seconds. I also have a SmarTrip card, so I didn't have to worry about exact change or fumbling for money.

When I was done, it was still raining. I did the same exercise in reverse: checked the schedule on my Blackberry, caught the bus, loaded my bike, touched my SmarTrip and got most of the way home. I still had to ride a few blocks from the closest stop to my house, but that was a lot more pleasant than if I had had to ride the entire two miles in the rain.

So all the pieces fit together to make this trip work: Mobile information, bike racks on buses, SmarTrip. Thanks, everyone, for making it work.

Our Camry Hybrid: 18 Month Update

07_toyota_camry_hybrid_ag_14_544x40We purchased our 2007 Toyota Hybrid Camry in March of 2007 and I have previously written about it four times (first, second, third, fourth
postings). I want to re-emphasize what I highlighted in my most recent
post: if you live in Arlington and are shopping for a new car, there are significant tax advantages to buying a hybrid--significant enough to potentially pay for the entire incremental cost.

Back in October we paid our 2008 personal property taxes on our car. In Virginia, as you may know, we have what is called the "car tax." The car tax is a 5% tax on the value of your personal vehicle. Arlington has reduced this tax for owners of hybrid vehicles by exempting the first $20,000 of value from the tax. So for 2008 instead of paying $1068 personal property tax, we paid just $68. That's a lot of savings!

In fact, since we purchased the car, we have saved $3050 in taxes: a federal tax break of $1300 (more information on the federal tax break here), a 2007 Arlington County personal property tax reduction of $750 and this year's $1000 reduction (more on the Arlington tax break here). Wow, that was enough to pretty much pay for our entire summer vacation to Yellowstone this past year: flights, hotels, rental car, food. . . . Or thinking another way, in a couple more years, the tax breaks will have completely paid the extra amount we paid to get the hybrid instead of the regular Camry. All the gas savings are gravy. One caveat, though, the Arlington break is dependent on an annual approval process by the county, so it may go away in the future.

Want to learn more about hybrids? Here are some links:

Hybrid Cars site Hybridcarslogo

Green Hybrid

The Smartest Kids in School

Bikes_at_swanson_3I was walking past Swanson Middle School in Arlington a shortly after school started in the fall and took note of the bike racks and bikes. There were thirteen bicycles parked on the bike racks,
which could potentially hold a maximum of twenty.

I think these are the smartest kids (and teachers) in the school. In
Arlington, students who live within 1.5 miles of a Middle School are in the walking zone; outside that zone they are provided bus service. A student who lives 1-1.5 miles away will take 15-30 minutes to walk, depending on pace and distance. On a bike, though, it shouldn't take
more than 10 minutes max to ride a mile and a half--providing that much extra sleep time in the morning.

Looking at the boundary map, it appears that one-third to one-half of the households in the Swanson District are within 1/2 mile of the Custis Trail and W&OD trails, which bring you within a block or two of the school. Kids who would have to catch the bus from 2-4 miles away and 45 minutes before school starts can save themselves as much as 30 minutes by riding over to school instead of taking the bus. By utilizing the trails, they can ride almost the whole way separated from traffic. At the end of the day they can be halfway home or to their friend's house (or wherever they go after school) before the bus is even loaded!Walk_to_school_day

I hope these and many other students participated in Bike and Walk to School Day back in October. Let's give these bike riders an A for riding every day. They're smart.

Testing the Invisible Tunnel

Tunnel_transferIf you haven't seen my previous posts about the invisible/virtual tunnel connecting the two Farragut stations, you may want to read them for background (1st post, 2nd post, 3rd post). In short, the technology exists to allow Metro riders to transfer between the two Farragut stations and treat them as though they were transferring within the system. Metro should implement this idea immediately, since there is no downside, many riders will save time, and congestion at Metro Center will be reduced.

Recently I had a meeting at American University, which provided me the perfect opportunity to try out the transfer for myself. I was traveling from Arlington, so I followed the route shown in the diagram above, getting off at Farragut West, walking up 17th Street to Farragut North and then taking the red line to Tenleytown. I made the same trip in reverse on the return.

I took a stopwatch with me to see how long it would take. For the initial trip I reached the top of the escalator at exactly the wrong time to cross I St. and had to wait the full light cycle. I waited about 25 seconds to cross K St. I was standing on the platform at Farragut North 5' 13" after the doors opened on my train at Farragut West. On the return trip I arrived on the street during the walk signal at K St. but had to wait about 20 seconds at I St. Farragut_tunnel I was on the platform 4' 10" from the time the train doors opened at Farragut North. I did not run. I walked at a normal able-bodied speed. Someone in a hurry could make this transfer faster; if one stands on the escalators, it will take longer.

So what does this mean? In both cases I then had to wait a little bit for the train, so I likely ended up on the same one as I would have had I made the usual transfer at Metro Center. However--particularly on the return trip--had I arrived on the platform just in time to catch a train, that train would almost certainly be one train earlier than what I would have caught at Metro Center.

Based on this one experience, I would guess that a person making this transfer during rush hour will catch the earlier train at least a couple of times a week and possibly as much as half the time if they hustle. During periods with longer periods between trains, one will catch the earlier train less frequently, but it will save a lot more time when it happens.

The bottom line is that the transfer works and many riders will learn how to take advantage of it if it's made available to them. If you work at Metro or know who to contact to help push this forward, please do so. If you're a rider who would avail themselves of the transfer, please contact Metro and request it. I know that Chris Zimmerman has made at least one inquiry about it; perhaps he can continue to pursue this along a faster timeframe than sometime in 2010--if ever (see most recent post). A woman named Cyndi Zieman was recently put in charge of SmarTrip cards. Perhaps she can take a leadership position and make this happen. It's a no brainer; let's build the invisible tunnel!

(cross posted on Greater Greater Washington)

The Invisible/Virtual Tunnel - Now Even More Invisible?

Farragut_tunnel_2_4If you're following my series of posts recommending immediate implementation of a "virtual tunnel" between the Farragut stations (1st post, 2nd post), you will be dismayed by this piece of news I read in the Washington Post yesterday: SmarTrip Upgrades Pushed to 2010.

As mentioned in my last post, in a conversation with a Metro employee, I was informed that the upgrades to the SmarTrip cards would include the capability to provide for many improved features, including these kinds of transfers (BTW - another potential tunnel that has been studied is between Metro Center and Gallery Place, which would also be a candidate for a virtual tunnel).

According to the Post, the software vendor, Cubic Transportation Systems, has missed deadlines and run over budgets and basically screwed this whole process up pretty badly. Dumbtrip
Evidently, Cubic has been WMATA's fare technology vendor for the entire history of the agency (and apparently has gotten fat and happy and stopped worrying about satisfying their client). Might be time to inject some competition.

Back to the point of these posts, though. Given this new delay (and who knows if deadlines will be missed again), I could probably dig the tunnel myself with a shovel and a pick before the software upgrades are completed. I'm of the understanding that the current SmarTrip cards and farecards can accommodate the minor software change to allow for the virtual tunnel to be implemented now. Why not ask Cubic to make this simple change as a small concession for their inability to deliver the other upgrades on time and on budget? I think Metro could and should request it. What do you say, Mr. Catoe? Or maybe the new SmarTrip card director, Cyndi Zieman, can take the initiative to get it done herself.

Stay tuned! I tested the transfer personally and will relate my experience in my next post.
(Shout out to Greater Greater Washington for picking up on my posts)

More of the Invisible Tunnel

Farragut_tunnel_2_4I'm pleased that my recent post about creating a virtual tunnel between the Farragut stations has gotten some notice, which may actually be helping to move this idea forward. Blogs that have picked it up include:

Greater Greater Washington

Beyond DC (19 comments on this one)

Chuck Coleman's Random Thoughts blog included an electronic communication he had with Shiva Pant, sitting in for John Catoe, on a lunchtime chat. Pant indicated that the electronic transfer is in the works.

I had a personal conversation with someone at Metro, too. He told me something similar: the SmarTrip software is being significantly upgraded to allow for a lot more functionality with the cards (evidently, SmarTrip cards aren't all that smart right now). The capability to do transfers like this is being included in the software upgrade, but it's at least 9 months out before that upgrade will go into place. He said that he had heard that Chris Zimmerman had inquired internally about it. I don't know if that was because of my communication with Mr. Zimmerman or not, but I'm glad that he's engaged.

However, and this is important, just because the SmarTrip upgrade will include the capability to do this transfer, doesn't mean it will go into effect at that time! My contact said that the "business side" of the system has to be addressed, too. . .and that could take six months. It may be necessary to amend the fare tariffs to include this change, and that requires public input and other meetings, etc.--which take time.

So Metro needs to get started on that part of the process now. Exwmata
That way, the "virtual tunnel" transfer can go into effect immediately upon the upgrade. Those of you who read this blog and have any contacts at Metro, please help out by checking to make sure the institutional infrastructure is prepared, too.

I read the fare tariff, and, in my opinion, I'm not sure any changes would actually be necessary. Currently, fares are determined by distance without any specific issues associated with transfers at L'Enfant or Metro Center or elsewhere. No fare tariffs would have to change if a physical tunnel were built between the stations. So I think one could interpret the tariff as already accommodating all transfers--whether they are through a physical tunnel or electronic tunnel shouldn't make any difference.

However, knowing bureaucracies like Metro, they'll figure out a way to make it a months' long process, so anything we can do to get that started should start now.

And a final soapbox. I believe that if Mr. Catoe directed staff to put this transfer in place now, it could get done in a matter of weeks. My contact said the current software is capable. Waiting for the upgrade is a convenient excuse. But every day that goes by costs Metro riders 30-100 hours of wasted time (my best guess) not to mention the lost opportunity of reduced congestion at Metro Center.

Build the Invisible Tunnel!

Farragut_tunnel_2I can't take credit for this idea--I read it somewhere else--but it's so good that it needs to be promoted and publicized until Metro takes notice and implements it.

The idea of linking the Farragut North and Farragut West metro stations with a tunnel has been around a long time (I found a W. Post article from 1994 that mentioned it) and makes good sense. WMATA published a comprehensive study of the tunnel option, including capacity and ridership impacts, 2004. The primary impediment to building the tunnel is money. WMATA's recent Station Access & Capacity Study estimates a cost of about $25 million.

The tunnel is a great idea and probably should have been built at the time the system was built. In the meanwhile, while we wait, the technology exists to build a virtual tunnel right now. Right now!! And there is absolutely no reason WMATA shouldn't. Ridership's about to pick up again in September, so let's create the virtual tunnel right away.

What is the virtual tunnel? Simple. Metro riders who have SmarTrip cards can leave one Farragut station and enter the other station within a certain time window--say, 10 minutes--and not be charged, a free transfer (click on the image above for a map/diagram). The 2004 tunnel study estimated about 15,000 people per day would transfer using the underground tunnel (using 2003 ridership numbers). Given the greater inconvenience of going up on the street and coming back down and having to cross two intersections (300 steps from faregate to faregate. . .I counted), fewer would choose to use the virtual tunnel than a real one, but still thousands per day I would guess. That would relieve pressure at Metro Center as well as convenience the passengers who choose to take advantage.Smartrip

Here's the key point: there is no downside to implementing this idea. No downside. No studies required. No excuses to put it off. Repeat: no downside. All it takes is a little computer programming and a press release to get the word out. It adds flexibility to the system at virtually no cost. No one will be additionally inconvenienced, since passengers are more than welcome to continue to use the system as usual: if you don't want to make the transfer and walk, just keep using Metro Center as before. I have wracked my brain and cannot think of a single negative impact--all pros and no cons. If someone can think of a downside, please comment and let me know what it is.

I sent a note to Arlington Board member and WMATA Board Chair Chris Zimmerman a couple of months ago recommending he push this idea to WMATA, but I didn't hear back. I don't know the ins and outs of making things happen at Metro, but this is a no-brainer; they should just do it. And what better time than right now?

Kill the Bike Path; Save Our Environment!

No_bikesSarcasm alert on the posting title!

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Montgomery County is considering eliminating portions of the planned bike trail alongside the Inter-County Connector (ICC) for "environmental reasons." Give me a break! Evidently I have been a bit asleep on this issue, as it's been debated and opined on for quite a while. Here are some links:

WABA: ICC Trail: Your Help Needed Today!Waba_logo745682

The WashCycle has a very long and detailed posting on the issue: ICC Fail and ICC Fail Part 2 and previously here: What Happened to the ICC Trail. There was also a posting back in January after some sort of meeting: MoCo Looking to Add ICC Trail Back

And here's a notification from an organization I had not heard of before: The Montgomery Bicycle Advocates: ICC Trail Alert

The Washcycle post points out the most egregious contradiction. Evidently the Environmental Impact Statement cites the bike trail as an environmental benefit of the project but now the county wants to eliminate parts of it because of its adverse environmental impact. I don't think you can have it both ways.

All the gory details can be found on the Montgomery County Planning site here including testimony from the July 10 public meeting.

It's pretty clear in my mind that a decision to not build the entire trail is very short-sighted. Although it is likely I would never or rarely use it, since it's not in my neck of the woods, on principle I adamantly support all efforts to build the entire length of the trail along the ICC.

Walking Directions from Google

Google Maps has introduced its walking directions--currently in Beta. When you select directions you are given the choice in a drop-down menu of "By car" or "Walking."

Google has taken on a gargantuan task, in my opinion. New_picture_2 The enormous number of shortcuts available to savvy walkers is virtually infinite: plazas, alleys, cut-through buildings, pathways, etc. Then there is the opposite problem--places where a map indicates a street or road, but that would be either impossible or unsafe to walk. How they will sort that all out is going to be interesting to watch.

For instance, I tested out the directions from my house to the Ballston Mall (I live just off I-66 about a mile east of the East Falls Church metro). The shortest and most pleasant way for me to get there on foot (or bike) is on the Custis trail, but Google Maps doesn't know the Custis Trail exists, so it routed me along Washington Blvd., adding about 1/2 mile to the distance., which also provides walking directions also did not indicate the trail.

I think this is a great idea, though, and I hope Google and are successful at making this service accurate and useful. Try it out for yourself.

Rule of Thumb #6 - Size Matters

Central_airWhen we bought our house in Arlington in 2000, our agent noted the outside air conditioner and commented, "I like to see these big air conditioners. They really keep the house cool." He was so very, very wrong. His comment was the equivalent of saying, "I really like these big refrigerators. They really keep your food cold." Huh? It's not the size of your refrigerator that determines how cold it is.

When it comes to central air conditioning, bigger is not better. In fact, smaller is generally better for several reasons--particularly in a humid climate like this one. EPA Energy Star has a fact sheet about this very topic.

FanHere's your simple test. On the hottest days of the year--when it's 95 degrees or above-- note whether your air conditioner cycles on and off. If it does, it's too big. An air conditioner should be sized so that it runs continuously on the hottest days of the year, essentially from 3 or 4 in the afternoon until 8 at night nonstop. (If it runs constantly all the time, even when it's only 80 and doesn't seem to cool your house, you have a different problem and need to get it looked at.)

What's the dif, you ask? A larger air conditioner sucks up more energy, costing you dollars and adding to harmful emissions. Air conditioners do their best job dehumidifying and reach peak efficiency after they have been running for about 10-15 minutes, so if yours is cycling on and off, it's not dehumidifying well and it's running at lower efficiency. People with air conditioners that are too big often lower the temperature to make up for this, exacerbating the costs of running it.

Here's an analogy. You're driving on a street with timed traffic lights. Having a too-big air conditioner is like having a muscle car and racing from one light to the next, then stopping, then racing to the next one. A right-sized air conditioner is like having a smaller car, driving along at an even 25 mph and hitting the lights all green. You get where you're going at the same time, but use less gas driving the smaller one at a steady speed.

So what do you do? Well, don't go out and replace your AC unless you were planning to anyway. But when you do, make sure you show the EPA fact sheet to your contractor and make him or her do an accurate sizing calculation. Then don't be swayed into rounding up for safety's sake. If anything, round down in size for comfort's sake. (On a side note, your ductwork is probably all wrong, too, making the situation even worse. Aargh!)

But for now, the thing to do is have your programmable thermostat raise the temperature while you are out and lower it just before you come back. Then your AC will run longer and more efficiently for at least that one cycle, saving you money and dehumidifying better.

Multi-Mode Car Free

Zipcar_bikeI'm a Zipcar member for occasional use; it's one of the options that helps our family of four get along with a single car. Unfortunately, the closest Zipcars are 1-2 miles from my house, so I can't easily walk to get one. However, I can quickly bike to get one, which was what I did yesterday, when I needed to transport my daughter to her friend's pool (my wife had our car with her at her work).

I rode my bike to Ballston, locked my bike to the pole (see photo), picked up the Zipcar, "zipped" back home to get her, took her to her friend's, returned the car, biked home, realized I'd left my phone in the car, biked back, got the phone, biked home again. Okay, the last part was a bit of a pain, but I can only blame my own brain fart for that.

I've looked around on the web and haven't readily found other examples of how Arlington coordinates the bike parking with the carsharing. Note in the photo that I've locked my bike right to the Zipcar pole. The pole incorporates a bike rack directly into it. Now that is convenient. Good job.

Rule of Thumb #5 - Your Couch Doesn't Care

Fan2Ceiling fan tip. Ceiling fans do not cool the air. However, they do cool you. Ceiling fans work by moving air around. Humans feel more comfortable in the heat when the air is moving. You've probably noted that you can sit outside on your deck in 82-degree weather and feel terrifically comfortable, but 82 degrees inside your house is uncomfortably warm. That's because outside the air is moving, and it makes you feel cooler.

So inside your house you can feel cooler, too, by using fans to move the air. Then you can turn up the thermostat a couple of degrees and save on air conditioning. It does absolutely no good, though, to Couch_2 leave a fan on in a room where there are no people. In fact, it's counterproductive, because the fan is using electricity and providing no benefit. Your couch does not care that the fan is on, and it does not feel any cooler. It's true: I asked it.

So use your ceiling fans to keep you cooler, but turn them off when there are no people around to keep cool.

Oh, and hey! If your ceiling fan has lights, change them out for more efficient CFLs too.

Facing the Music

Ph2008062601525About a year ago I posted a link to an article written by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in which he convinced world-famous violinist, Joshua Bell, to play outside a subway stop and watch what happened. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

Well, this Sunday's Washington Post magazine had a short follow-up to that original story, which is quite intriguing--particularly if you remember the original.


Shaping the City

87I regularly read Roger Lewis's column, Shaping the City, that appears about every other week in the Washington Post. I always find it interesting.

This last week the article was titled: Lessons of Arlington's Urban Development Needn't Be Just History. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite for the whole article:

"The phenomenal metamorphosis of Arlington County's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, among the region's most dramatic real estate transformations, teaches a timely lesson: Successful urban
revitalization requires long-range planning and long-range public investment that sparks private investment."

"The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is a work in progress, although millions of square feet of buildings already have been developed, mostly since the 1980s. Its urban design is not flawless, and much of its architecture is less than exemplary. But the corridor functions well. It offers pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, on- and off-street bicycle lanes, plazas and mini-parks. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk between any two adjacent Metro nodes on the corridor -- Rosslyn, Court House, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston. People there can get along without cars."

"Why does visionary planning seem to be a thing of the past? Can America no longer afford to undertake farsighted initiatives. . ."


Rule of Thumb #4 - Ignore Advice

01_blue_bulbs_pileYou've heard the advice about compact-fluorescent (CFL) bulbs: replace your frequently used lights with these, and you'll save money, energy and reduce global warming pollutants.

Well, I'm going to tell you to stop taking this advice. Instead, replace all your lights with CFLs.

In the old days when they cost $15, the original advice was fine. Now that you can purchase them for as little as $2 or $3 apiece, that advice no longer holds. It now makes more sense to replace them all.

“But they woe-on’t last as lo-onng,” you’ll hear people whine. Let’s do the numbers.

Assume that you have a 60-watt light that you switch on five times a day for two minutes each time (ten minutes total per day). You replace it with a 15-watt CFL that costs $3. Because of frequent switching, let’s assume its lifetime is hugely reduced by 75% to 2000 hours instead of 8000.

Your annual return on investment for that bulb is 5%-15% depending on your electricity rates and, dang, it will only last you for 33 years before you have to replace it. It might not be the 50% return you’ll get from some of your other fixtures, but it’s still a no-brainer. For a couple hundred dollars you can probably change out your whole house (a little more if you buy more expensive dimmables and 3-ways; visit for a good selection of bulbs). What are you waiting for? The climate to change?

Bicycle Speed Limits - Follow Up

WabalogowabaAs a follow up to my post the other day, interested persons may want to see the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's response to Montgomery County's proposal to impose a 15 mph speed limit on a 5.5-mile section of the Capital Crescent Trail: WABA Calls for Dialog Over New Trail Speed Limits. It's definitely disturbing to learn that Montgomery County moved forward with this without engaging WABA at all in advance. It would seem natural to get input from the local cycling community first. Am I being too idealistic?

The Washington Post also printed two letters to the editor.

Also some discussion on the DC Triathlon Club blog.

Bicycle Speed Limits

C1218s15This Sunday's Washington Post reported that Montgomery County will be posting speed limit signs along the 5 1/2 mile section of the Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and the DC line. 15 mph.

I was a regular commuter along that section of trail for more than a year, and I don't think imposing speed limits is the solution to what may or may not be a problem. (I'm not the only one: DCist agrees)

Evidently there have been some anecdotal reports of conflicts with fast-moving cyclists and other users. The article only mentioned a single reported collision this year, however, and that's with 23,000 weekly users. It also cited "informal" reports of increased collisions, but I don't know what that means. Also, do we know if speed is a factor in these collisions or if there is another problem? I find it difficult to believe that Montgomery County would lower the speed limit on any street before gathering actual statistics of some kind, but seemingly they are determining that speed limits are appropriate here without any research. Better would be to put up signs with a phone number to report accidents, injuries and emergencies. That way they could start to track and determine whether or not there is actually a problem.

If there is a problem with crowding and speeding, it is limited to nice weather weekends and evenings only. My experience is that the trail serves bike commuters and experienced runners and walkers (who rarely if ever have conflicts with the bikes, because they know how to maintain their space on the trail) for the morning hours, and there is no need for limiting
speeds. Likewise for all the colder months. In February, riding home at 7:30 in the evening, I might encounter one or two other human beings along that entire 5-mile stretch--sometimes none at all. So if speed limits are the solution, limit them to those times when the trail is heavily used, which is probably less than 10% of the time. Even when there are a lot of users, I never came close to any conflicts with others, even though I ride fast. It has a lot more to do with paying attention and anticipating what will happen up ahead than with speed.

Also, how was the 15 mph determined? In school zones you can drive a 3000 pound car 20 mph, which most drivers consider so slow they can't even get down to that speed, and it is considered the safe speed for traveling around children near a school. Why would 20 not be a reasonable speed for a 30 pound bike and its rider?533_4

So what's the big deal, slowing down a little on the trail, one might ask? For a commuter like me, the difference would be about 7 minutes additional each way (if the limit were observed): more than an hour a week. Time that adds up. My commute from Arlington to Silver Spring was already almost an hour long, and that section was the quickest part.

So I'm opposed to creating speed limits and fines before any real research or statistics have been gathered and before any information about the magnitude of the problem is determined, if there even is a problem. And there is definitely no need for a speed limit during morning commuting hours and in the colder months.

Test of Life

Nlk0302_img_8_2I've picked on Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation, here before, and here I go again. But I just couldn't resist.

Yesterday's Washington Post contained an article about the higher likelihood of teens being in auto accidents than other drivers (Teens 16% of Crash Victims, U.S. Says). It had this quote from Ms. Peters:
"In the test of life, teenage drivers are failing at twice the rate as the rest of us."

Test of life!!!??? Driving is the "Test of Life?" Not advancing one's self by getting a college education or developing a moral philosophy or helping the less fortunate or teaching a child how to read or battling global warming or bringing joy and happiness to one's family and friends? Driving! That's it? And I've been working so hard on so many other things. If only I'd known that's the test of life. Hey! I've passed!. . .Well, maybe not; I did have an accident once, but I was in my 20's not my teens. Does that count?

Now I certainly agree that reducing auto accidents and making teens safer drivers are laudable goals, and we should do everything we can to do these things, but I think this statement underscores how cars and driving permeate our culture to an absurd degree. If our transportation systems and land-use planning were designed differently, teenagers (and all of us) wouldn't need to drive as much--which would certainly be an effective way of reducing accidents. . .and maybe passing the "test of life."

(More) How Long Does It Take?

S21Another in my series on people's perceptions on how long it takes to get around by various modes (see my recent post about cycling and this one about driving and this one that worked through various scenarios for a transit trip).

My 3rd-grade daughter has a friend who catches the school bus in the morning. I was talking with her father about where their bus stop is (and other scintillating topics!). They have to cross Route 50 in Arlington at Irving Street, where there is a light. I suggested that they could cross at the pedestrian bridge a block west at Jackson Street and it might be somewhat more pleasant than walking across eight lanes (and possibly having to dodge turning cars). He said it was a good idea, but they didn't want to take another 10 minutes walking to the bus stop. Ten minutes!!! I didn't challenge him at the time, but I went home and used an Internet mapping tool to compare the distances for the two trips: their house to the bus stop via the light vs. via the pedestrian bridge (BTW Washcycle reports that this bridge will be closed this summer for rebuilding). The bridge trip is exactly 1000 feet longer than waiting for the light. Even walking with a 3rd grader, one should be able to walk at least 3 mph, in which case covering 1000 feet would take 3' 45." If they have to wait 45 seconds or more for the light, then their added time is less than 3 minutes at most.

PedesSo in their defense it is quicker to wait for the light, but it doesn't take anywhere near 10 additional minutes to take the other route. It makes me wonder how many people don't take a trip on foot because they think it will take twice as long--or more--than it actually does.

Be sure to visit WalkArlington for more information on walking around town. Here are some other people who give getting around on foot some thought:

Always the Planner
That's Fit
Sneezing Weasel Hat

Rule of Thumb #3 - The Average Car Burns More than Its Weight in Gas

The average car burns its weight in gasoline every year!

That's right. Most cars will burn about their weight in gasoline every year. Heavier vehicles generally get poorer gas mileage; lighter cars generally get better mileage, so this rule of thumb is pretty accurate for most cars. A 5000 pound vehicle will burn about 5000 pounds of gas; a 2500 pound vehicle will burn about 2500 pounds of gas.

Each pound of gasoline burned is converted to more than three pounds of the primary greenhouse gas - CO2 (for an explanation of how one pound of gas becomes three pounds of pollution, click here). So that means that each vehicle contributes about triple its weight in greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year. Wow!

The Fastest Way There

StopwatchcompactThe other day my wife drove over to Washington Hospital Center for a routine medical test while I was at home in Arlington. She called after her test to let me know that some medication she had received made her uncomfortable driving home and would I mind coming to pick her up (plaudits for her sense of responsibility: not taking a chance driving while not feeling right). She had the car, though. She suggested I take a cab (I could have Metroed there, too), but I countered that by the time I waited for the cab I could probably bike there. . .and it was a nice day out, to boot. I estimated it would take about 45 minutes to ride; if I waited 15 minutes for a 25-minute cab ride, that would be 40 minutes--a wash in terms of time; big savings on the cab fare.

So I biked over. It was a bit shorter than my estimate: 38 minutes. She was amazed that I had arrived so quickly when I called from outside the hospital to ask where to come get her. She told me later that it had taken her about that long to drive over herself.

Travel in urban areas by bicycle is often the fastest and most efficient way to travel. This has been my experience for years as a bike commuter. It's always faster than transit. And often faster than cars--especially during rush hour. Here are some links supporting this point:

- Average speed of a car in London is just 7mph, says CitroenManonbikemediumcartoon

- Travelling by bicycle is faster than you think
- Proof that biking is the fastest way to get around town (Scroll down to page 4)
- Crosstown traffic in New York City was 5.2 mph in 2000 (you can almost walk this fast!)
- This European Commission study indicates trips of 5 km or less are fastest by bicycle.

We have a foldable bike rack that we keep in the trunk of the car, which I can mount in a minute or two. I got my wife, we put the bike on the car, and I drove her home. We hit a bit of traffic on N. Capitol Street which bogged us down. So guess how long it took us to drive home (and not even rush hour yet)? That's right - 38 minutes!

Our New Hybrid: Update #2

Toyota_camryhybrid_4doorsedan_2009_It's now been about 13 months since we purchased our 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid. I've had 3 previous posts about it (Our New Hybrid, Update 1, Update 2). It's almost up to 10,000 miles and we have had no mechanical or reliability issues whatsoever (which is what one would expect from any new car).

Economics analysis coming up soon, but I want to make one point loud and clear: IF YOU LIVE IN ARLINGTON AND ARE BUYING A NEW CAR, YOU SHOULD BUY A HYBRID! Why? Because of the tax advantages. I just did my taxes, and it's very likely that the incremental cost we paid for our hybrid will be completely paid for in tax savings over less than the life of the car. That makes the hybrid upgrade free and the gas savings are pure gravy on top of that.

Here's how it worked for our car:

We bought it last March, which qualified it for a $1,300 federal tax credit (we actually hurried to get it before April 1, 2007, because the credit went down to $650). Our Arlington property tax bill was reduced by $750 (first $20,000 is tax free--in our case for 9 months). Total tax savings year 1 - $2050.060207_taxes_vmed_11awidec

Although it's hard to do a perfect apples to apples comparison, I think we paid about $4,000-$5,000 extra for the hybrid--let's say $4,500. Making some reasonable assumptions about future values of our car and a 2007 regular Camry, we will save about $3,000 in Arlington property taxes over 7 years (click here for information about the Arlington tax break). Add in the $1,300 federal tax break for a total of about $4,300 savings, and the hybrid upgrade was free.

Please note that the federal tax breaks are different for different cars and are phasing out on Toyotas and Hondas. has the details.

How about gas savings? Our experience has been that our mileage is a bit lower than the EPA estimate. We've been getting about 32 MPG. Assuming our driving in the regular Camry would also be a bit lower than average mpg, I'll assume 24 mpg. Last year we drove about 9000 miles.


So our annual savings will be $300-$400 or more if gas prices continue to rise beyond $4 per gallon in the future.

Friends we have spoken with are mostly unaware of the Arlington tax break for hybrids, so clearly the information needs to get out there better. The bottom line is that if you live in Arlington and are shopping for a new car, the hybrid option is much more affordable considering the tax advantages than just looking at the price tags would indicate. Even if you don't live in Arlington, some hybrids are still eligible for a $2,600 federal tax credit, which should be taken into account while you are shopping.

Rule of Thumb #2 - 1 Mile=1Pound

2006onepoundgoldproof768322 One mile = One pound!
Each mile you drive your car contributes about one pound of CO2 into the atmosphere. Drive six miles to work, that's six pounds. Drive 10,000 miles a year, that's 10,000 pounds--five tons!

Here's how it works:
Burning a gallon of gasoline emits about 19.4 pounds of CO2 out of your car's tailpipe. In addition, Oil_pumping_jacks exploration, drilling and extraction emit greenhouse gases; giant oil tankers transport the gas, burn fuel and emit CO2; refineries use energy to change crude oil to gasoline and emit additional greenhouse gas emissions; trucks or pipelines transport the fuel to your local gas station, adding more emissions to the equation.

Add together the tailpipe emissions with the emissions needed to get the fuel Vlcc_oil_tankerfrom the ground into your car and the total is about 25 pounds per gallon. So if your car gets 25 miles per gallon, your CO2 emissions are just about exactly 1 pound per mile. If you have a highly fuel efficient car that gets 50 mpg, then your emissions are about 1/2 pound per mile. If your car gets less than 25 mpg, then your emissions are greater than 1 pound per mile.

Here's a table that shows CO2 emissions per 1000 miles of driving based on the miles-per-gallon efficiency of your car:


So every trip matters: a quick 1/2 mile to the coffee shop and 1/2 mile back = 1 pound of emissions Coffee_cup_burlap_and_bean (a 16 oz. coffee is about a pound. . .go figure!). Each time you choose another way to go: walk, bike, skateboard, transit, make your coffee at home instead--you are saving real pounds of CO2. Now with this rule of thumb you know how many.

Another Solution to Reducing Auto Accidents

Nice_hair790453Norman Y. Mineta, former Secretary of Transportation, had an op-ed published in today's Washington Post in which he pointed out the sobering fact that more than 3,000 people will die in auto accidents worldwide today. Today!

In the United States, traffic fatalities have been very steady at between 40,000 and about 43,000 annually for well more than a decade (stats here). Rates of fatalities (per driver, per mile, etc.) have slowly declined, since there are more drivers driving more miles.

Mr. Mineta focuses primarily on safer cars, safer roads and safer behavior as solutions. I would like to suggest that reducing driving would likely be far more effective. Imagine: a 10% reduction in driving would save over 4000 lives per year (and more than 80,000 injuries!). I don't know what the economic value of those avoided deaths and injuries are, but if that money were able to be invested into more and better transit, smarter development and all the other things that reduce the need to drive, I'm sure it would be a positive return.

Blue Line Reroute and Communication

MetroThere have been several articles recently about rerouting some blue line trains so that they will run between Franconia/Springfield and Greenbelt, using the bridge over the Potomac rather than the Rosslyn tunnel. I'll have to defer to Metro regarding how this improves capacity (I suspect it does), but my key point is that these cannot be called "blue line" trains. In fact, from what I can tell, these trains would spend more time on green line tracks than blue anyway. As I have ranted about in a previous post, how we identify our buses and trains can either make things easier or harder on riders. I agree with this Dr. Gridlock letter writer that when this new route is introduced it needs to have its own identifying color. Calling it a "Blue Line B" or something will only serve to confuse riders.

How Long Does It Take? Really?

2_wall_clock1Have you ever noticed how people "adjust" how long it takes them to travel? When you ask people about their commutes, they will either undershoot to rationalize their particular choice or overshoot to make a horror story.

To whit: my wife recently changed her workplace to Silver Spring 3 days/week. We live in Arlington a 17-minute walk from East Falls Church metro. She drives to work, primarily because the walk-metro-shuttle-to-her-work trip would take almost an hour and a half each way. I encourage her to Metro, but she's justifiably resistant.

Recently our neighbor was over for tea and inquired about her new work. My wife said, ". . and it only takes 25-35 minutes to get there." After choking briefly on my tea,Tea_cup_small_2 I challenged her on this.
Tuesday mornings at 7:30 my daughter has her piano lesson, and my wife has left it to me to get her there (without a car, because she has it). "Why is it then that you have to leave by 7:15 on Tuesdays to get to work by 8:00? You could drop [daughter] off at 7:25 and still make it to work in 25-35 minutes, right?" I asked.
Suddenly her story changed to 40-45 minutes. . .just to be safe.

Not to pick on my wife, but I hear this all the time. My experience is that drivers time themselves from the clock in their car, so they only count the time from when they pull away until they park. People who ride the bus or bike or metrorail count from when they leave home until they either enter their workplace or get to their desks.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Just an observation.

Rule of Thumb #1 - How Much Coal

We hear some big numbers: millions of tons, thousands of pounds, etc. Sometimes it's nice to have some rules of thumb to help us get a handle on the environmental impact of our actions. Here's a simple one:
A typical incandescent light bulb will burn its wattage in pounds of coal over its lifetime.

(Accompanying pollution rule of thumb: 1 pound of coal = 1.25 pounds of CO2)


- a single 40-watt bulb will burn 40 pounds of coal and produce 50 pounds of greenhouse gases
- a single 60-watt bulb will burn 60 pounds of coal and produce 75 pounds of greenhouse gases
- a single 75-watt bulb will burn 75 pounds of coal and produce about 94 pounds of greenhouse gases
- a single 100-watt bulb will burn 100 pounds of coal and produce 125 pounds of greenhouse gasesPile_2
Imagine the next time you buy a 4-pack of 60-watt bulbs that you also had to schlep home the 240 pounds of coal that will be burned to keep those lights on!

So, as John Morrill has encouraged us previously on this blog, reducing that impact is pretty simple and pretty inexpensive (it's actually better than free--since savings are much larger than costs). Upgrade your lighting from 150-year old incandescent technology to 20th century CFLs.

(The fine print - Rule of thumb assumes your electricity is coming from coal-powered plants. In reality, somewhat more than 1/2 of all electricity is generated by burning coal, and it's different depending on where you live, what time of day and year it is, etc. The point of this rule of thumb is to show the immense amount of fossil fuels required to power our lives.)