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Better Cities: Washington DC - Part 2

The final segment from our journey to Washington D.C. looks towards the future of the capital; how the city might grow and how mobility will have to transform to keep up. We spoke to Dr. Daniel Rathbone, former Chief of Transportation Planning for Fairfax County, founding editor of the Urban Transportation Monitor, and current adjunct professor of Urban Planning. We sat down at the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies in the heart of Downtown Washington D.C.

From your insider perspective, how has D.C. changed over the years?

I actually first saw D.C. when I came to the US to study, in about 1974. My wife and I had come to visit and we saw Union Station boarded up, with homeless people laying all around it. If you look at that same corner now it’s a beautiful building, which they completely redid about 20 years ago to be a functional station and transit hub, but also full of nice restaurants and things to see. To see that kind of change is incredible, and not only there, but the area right around this campus downtown- it feels vibrant, it feels safe, there are a lot of people on the streets... that’s all quite new, meaning it happened in the last 20 years or so. The city did a great job in that regard, to make it a livable city, easy to walk through, and so on.

When you look at these transformations, do you see a correlation between mobility and the livelihood of the city?

I totally believe that’s the case, in other words, I believe that there’s a direct link between access to mobility and productivity, and even state of mind. This is actually a convenient question for me, because at the moment, I’m working on some improvements to our planning process and one key suggestion is that we be more focused on how mobility can boost the economy in an area. So not just looking at congestion and how we might decrease it, but asking, “Where can we leverage planning to improve the economy on a micro-scale?”. Better transport connectivity and accessibility can improve access to jobs, increase customer foot traffic, and reduce the barriers to trade and competition.


I believe that there’s a direct link between access to mobility and productivity, and even state of mind.


I totally believe that’s the case, in other words, I believe that there’s a direct link between access to mobility and productivity, and even state of mind. This is actually a convenient question for me, because at the moment, I’m working on some improvements to our planning process and one key suggestion is that we be more focused on how mobility can boost the economy in an area. So not just looking at congestion and how we might decrease it, but asking, “Where can we leverage planning to improve the economy on a micro-scale?”. Better transport connectivity and accessibility can improve access to jobs, increase customer foot traffic, and reduce the barriers to trade and competition.

How does the Metro in D.C. compare to rail systems in other major cities around the world?

I would say, right now, it’s a little on the low side. It’s always been regarded as a really good system, and it still is, but it just needs its maintenance to be done. I think it’s well constructed and many of the stations are relatively accessible even in the outskirts of D.C. and beyond.

There is one thing about the Metro, it’s a decision that was made way back, and it’s cost the city billions and billions of dollars over the years; when a train goes along, there’s no possibility for skipping stops or passing trains. If a train comes to a station at full capacity- why stop? It’s full! Some will want to get off, but at peak hours you can set a single central destination and get there in half the time. With the way the system is set up, there’s no potential for express trains or flexibility, which is quite unfortunate.

With that being said, it still is an effective system and with some adjustments it can be even better.

What are your thoughts on Uber, Lyft, and more recently, the introduction of shareable bikes and scooters to D.C.?

They definitely all have a role to play- I’d say they’re already playing a role, but I think they have the potential to be even more important.

If you look at downtown specifically, and compare the speeds of travel (which I recently had my students do), you’ll see that walking is typically 2-3 miles per hour, meaning it takes about 25 minutes to go a mile. Buses average around 5 miles per hour, cars are about 10 mph, and bikes and scooters travel at approximately the same speed as cars, meaning that personal vehicles of any variety can travel a city-center mile in about 10 minutes.

So if you have bikes and scooters to get around, whether renting or owning personally, that seems to be a very viable option compared to owning a car or waiting for buses.

Believe it or not, about 30% of D.C. residents do not have a car, which - for the US - is pretty high. And less than 50% commute to work by car, so that’s a market that is already there for these alternate modes of transport. It’s also not just commuting, but small trips out for lunch or to run an errand during the work day when walking will take too long, driving and parking is not worth the hassle, and public transit may not be efficient enough or might require a decent walk to or from the stations regardless. That’s where a bike, scooter, or skateboard can thrive.

Buses average around 5 miles per hour, cars are about 10 mph, and bikes and scooters travel at approximately the same speed as cars, meaning that personal vehicles of any variety can travel a city-center mile in about 10 minutes.

They definitely all have a role to play- I’d say they’re already playing a role, but I think they have the potential to be even more important.

If you look at downtown specifically, and compare the speeds of travel (which I recently had my students do), you’ll see that walking is typically 2-3 miles per hour, meaning it takes about 25 minutes to go a mile. Buses average around 5 miles per hour, cars are about 10 mph, and bikes and scooters travel at approximately the same speed as cars, meaning that personal vehicles of any variety can travel a city-center mile in about 10 minutes.

So if you have bikes and scooters to get around, whether renting or owning personally, that seems to be a very viable option compared to owning a car or waiting for buses.

Believe it or not, about 30% of D.C. residents do not have a car, which - for the US - is pretty high. And less than 50% commute to work by car, so that’s a market that is already there for these alternate modes of transport. It’s also not just commuting, but small trips out for lunch or to run an errand during the work day when walking will take too long, driving and parking is not worth the hassle, and public transit may not be efficient enough or might require a decent walk to or from the stations regardless. That’s where a bike, scooter, or skateboard can thrive.

What’s your dream project for improving mobility in D.C.?

Being in transportation planning, safety is always the most important thing. If I were to think practically, which means being considerate of budget constraints and bureaucracy, something I think would be excellent is if every vehicle could have communication with other vehicles. Cars, trucks, bikes, scooters, all in communication.

That’s starting to happen, and it’s still probably 10 years away, but imagine you’re travelling along and you want to turn right across a bike lane, and can’t see the bicycle coming up in your blind spot there have been many fatalities in that exact situation- if the driver can be warned of that, that can be something that really saves lives. It doesn’t cost much and there’s really no red tape from the city, so I’m quite excited for that to become a reality.

Another really important issue is the demand for curb space. Delivery companies want loading and unloading space, Uber and Lyft want space for picking up and dropping off, residents and business owners want parking. If the city is able to leverage that demand effectively, the revenue can be used to increase parking enforcement, implement more bike lanes, and essentially self-finance projects to improve mobility in the city across a great variety of methods.

When you leave D.C., what do you miss most?

Just the other day John Kerry gave a talk, Madeleine Albright gave a talk, these things are happening all the time. Head to the Kennedy Center for an orchestra performance, look anywhere for a vast variety of food and restaurants… it’s incredible. The nature of a capital city and the kind of residents that that attracts makes it a genuinely inspiring place to live. The people are uniquely ambitious and so much is happening, and even though I live in the suburbs now, we still constantly travel into the city to get that energy that can’t be found just anywhere.

Head to the Kennedy Center for an orchestra performance, look anywhere for a vast variety of food and restaurants… it’s incredible. The nature of a capital city and the kind of residents that that attracts makes it a genuinely inspiring place to live.