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Imagining a City Without Its Public Transportation

Officials from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are out in the city all the time talking about the costs of the capital region’s transit system – the money it takes to run the thing, the investments required to expand service and build new lines, and the fares needed to pay for it all.

But no one talks much about the benefits, the real benefits, not just for faster commuting times, but for the region on the whole.

WMATA officials have been thinking about this around the agency’s 35th anniversary, and as planners prepare to make the case for what should come in the next three decades. Here's the question: what does transit investment really buy the region? WMATA has come up with a clever strategy – one that appeals to the public imagination as much as the rational bean-counter – to make its argument.

"We think one of the best and possibly only ways to measure how valuable something is," says Justin Antos, "is by taking it away and looking back at what you’ve lost."

Antos, a WMATA transportation analyst, has for the last several months been managing a study [PDF] that makes the business case for transit in the D.C. area. The agency tried to isolate the actual impact of rail lines on economic development, property values and tax revenues in the immediate vicinity around each station (they conservatively estimate that Metrorail boosts the value of property within a half mile of stations by about seven to nine percent).

But they also modeled what the region would look like if its transit never existed. And this is where things get really interesting.

WMATA took the same transportation demand model that it uses to project ridership on a new line and instead ran a couple of scenarios with the region’s transit literally turned off. All of it: the regional rail, the buses and the metro system.

"It was literally just imagining Washington, and all of a sudden, you wake up tomorrow, and the transit system isn’t there," Antos says. "What would you do?"

People, it turns out, do something very interesting. They stop making long car trips because the traffic is so bad. In one hypothetical scenario, Antos took away the transit but kept the rest of the area’s road infrastructure the same. People were allowed to change their trip patterns – to chose different jobs or shopping centers – and most of them stopped crossing the region to get to those things.

"The congestion was forcing people to regress into a more local economy," Antos says. "We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter. All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region."

People weren’t crossing county lines – or even rivers – to get anywhere.

WMATA then ran a second scenario in which the transit disappeared, but the region added new roads to get people to where they travel today. Just to keep congestion at present levels, the region would have to add more than a thousand lane miles of arterials and highways, at a cost of about $6 billion. This would be the rough equivalent of adding 15 more lanes to the already massive beltway that encircles the city – or, all of these roads, many of which run through the core of downtown, where street expansion would be all but impossible:

Of course, all these drivers would also need somewhere to put their cars. Today, about 200,000 people a day ride some form of transit to the District’s downtown core. If all those people drove instead, the city would need the equivalent of 166 blocks of five-story parking garages. Wrap all of them around the White House, and it would looking something like this:

Antos admits that all of this sounds a little ridiculous. But that’s sort of the point. And some of these scenarios aren’t so far-fetched. Before Washington built the Metrorail system, the city was actually mulling plans to extend a highway right through the center of town here:

Today, where that behemoth of an interchange would have sat right on top of Mount Vernon Square, there is instead a metro line below ground, and a mixed-use grocery store and apartment complex above.

It’s easy to see how the loss of transit could ripple out even further, impacting everything from greenhouse gasses to the city’s green space to its water quality. At that point, this exercise in counterfactuals starts to get really complicated (and beyond the scope of what even Antos could wrap his head around). The point, though, is that transit produces an awful lot of benefits – parking garages deferred, congestion mitigated, jobs created – we don’t think about enough.

“Part of the study was to put in context the choices that our region faces in the future, which are that we can either continue to protect and expand our transit investment, or we can basically just keep it static, or even let it degrade,” Antos says. “You can’t just way ‘we chose not to expand.’ There’s some other alternative that you would be forced to live in. And we have to take a gander at what that alternative would be, so we can make informed decisions.”

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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