Photo by mindgutter.

Planners from San Francisco’s SPUR recently visited Greater Washington to find out how Metrorail compares to BART. They found that our strong transit-oriented development at suburban stations has led to greater transit use and higher farebox recovery rates.

According to their article, the two cities’ systems, while built at similar times with similar technology, took very different turns when communities made their land use choices.

“When BART opened in 1974, many suburban Bay Area communities “downzoned” the areas directly adjacent to the station,” they write. That hasn’t stopped; Pittsburg, California did the same thing when their station opened in 1996.

That’s a significant factor in why BART has remained predominantly a park-and-ride system. Running the lines in medians of freeways and having a much more spread-out system didn’t help either.

In Washington, on the other hand, foresighted leaders in Arlington and Montgomery County took the opposite tack, planning for higher density right around the stations. Especially in Arlington, they satisfied neighbors opposed to changing their low-density neighborhoods by promising to limit the upzoning to a quarter-mile radius around new stations. We all know the result: new walkable neighborhoods have thrived around these stations.

It’s not just about condos in Clarendon, however. This approach also created significant numbers of jobs right around many suburban stations, including Rockville, Bethesda, Friendship Heights, Silver Spring, the Pentagon-Crystal City area, and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Rosslyn-Ballston has more than doubled from 30,000 jobs to 80,000 jobs, and, SPUR writes, “this two-square-mile corridor would occupy fourteen square miles if it were built at typical suburban densities.”

Those jobs give the Washington region a significantly different commuting pattern than other cities.

Over 30 percent of D.C. residents who work outside the city take transit. This compares with only 17 percent of San Francisco residents who take transit to their jobs outside of the city. In general, it is difficult to get a large share of residents to choose transit over driving for reverse commute trips. Not only is there less congestion leaving the city in the morning commute, but parking is usually cheap or free in the suburbs. So to attract reverse commuters, transit must be particularly convenient and work destinations must be directly adjacent to suburban transit. Due to the design of many Metrorail stations outside of D.C., this is the case for many reverse commuters.

That also brings a very significant benefit to Metro from collecting fares in both directions. When most riders use a system in the peak direction, the transit system has to run empty trains the other way; the more people commute to jobs at outer stations, the more use they get from that extra capacity. SPUR credits this with generating a 71% farebox recovery rate (in 2008) for Metrorail, compared to only 52% for BART (in 2007).

Why did the Washington region do things differently? Smart leadership in Arlington and Montgomery County played a role. So did a few factors that, SPUR notes, “are difficult or undesirable to replicate,” such as the height limit, higher taxes, and DC’s “poor reputation” in the 1970s, which drove more jobs outside the city core. However, many other cities also experienced this flight of jobs to the suburbs, and failed to concentrate them around new or existing transit.

One of the largest factors in this TOD success story is the federal government’s “policy (dating to the Carter Administration) to locate federal agencies near Metrorail stations,” and the federal transit benefit for employees. Those are some of the reasons, SPUR says, “federal employees represent nearly 50 percent of all peak period Metrorail riders.”

The federal role in Metorail’s tremendous success makes it all the more tragic that the government is now proceeding to reverse its brilliant policy by relocating defense jobs away from Metro-adjacent offices through BRAC. So too is the tragedy of Montgomery County’s plan to create a “Science City” 4 miles from Shady Grove Metro instead of utilizing all the empty space and industrial parks on top of it.

And for every TOD success story in the suburbs, there’s a park-and-ride station no better than BART’s disappointing stations. Even in DC, there are plenty of areas that successfully prevented new housing and offices atop Metro stations, like Cleveland Park and Tenleytown, just as many residents of Berkeley have since the 1970s.

The Metro system and jurisdictions’ good TOD choices across the years have created a transit network that’s enormously valuable to the Washington region. It’s up to residents and leaders to continue and expand the good practices of the past as the region continues to grow, instead of foolishly abandoning them for the sake of expedience.


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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.