Part personal adventure, part act of environmental consciousness, best friends Boris Mordkovich and Anna Mostovetsky chose a challenging way to raise awareness about the benefits of bicycle commuting at a time of $4 gasoline: a 4,000-mile cross country tour.
Mordkovich, 26, and Mostovetsky, 25, would not strike the casual observer as trans-continental bicyclists. He is a director of Evelo, an electric bicycle start-up based in New York. She has a degree in environmental science and has worked on salmon restoration in her home state of Washington. He sports a stereotypical nerdy look; tall, skinny, and bespectacled. She is slight in build with wavy black hair and deep blue eyes. But Boris and Anne must both have, or soon will have, legs of iron.
"For us, it was an interesting opportunity to see a lot of the different cities in our country and understand what are the transportation challenges in each one," says Mordkovich, who has known Mostovetsky since their high school days a decade ago.
"We've done a lot of traveling internationally and we both cycled together in New Zealand," says Mostovetsky. "We went on a one-month cycling tour in the south island and it was a great experience, and we thought what better way to see the country than to cycle."
Journey across the country
The two coast-to-coast adventurers will ride electric bikes that supply additional power to make it up steep hills and mountains. The tour from New York to San Francisco is expected to take two-and-a-half months, winding and weaving its way over roads urban and rural, stopping in 15 cities where the travelers will give presentations on electric bicycles and the benefits of green commuting.
"Our average is going to wind up being about 80 miles per day, and the number of hours that takes just depends on the terrain that we will be passing through," says Mostovetsky.
WAMU interviewed the bicycling buddies after their tour stop in the greater Washington area. They had spent the better part of the morning traveling south from Baltimore, attended a gathering in Tacoma Park, and made arrangements to spend the night at their host's home in Cabin John, Md. As they travel county-to-county and state-to-state, Mordkovich and Mostovetsky are booking their lodgings online with people who rent bedrooms or couches to travelers.
"They are only strangers for the first few minutes," laughs Mordkovich.
They won't spend any nights sleeping under the stars, but their long voyage to San Francisco will be challenging nonetheless.
"The best stories are the ones where while they are happening you are thinking, why in the world did I decide to do this?" says Mordkovich, who says the trip had gone smoothly during the first week after leaving New York. "There were a couple hiccups here and there. For example, you end up on an interstate just because the GPS sends you in the wrong direction."
They attached trailers to each of their bicycles, each weighing about 70 pounds. They contain tools and spare parts, electric battery chargers, some food and a few changes of clothing.
"So this is our electrical box, and this is where we keep all our chargers and other electrical gadgets for charging batteries," says Mostovetsky as she unzips the fabric covering the trailer's top. "Every evening we look for an outlet and charge them up. And this box which came in handy today is our emergency tools, a first aid kit, some bungee cords, a zip lock bag full of spare tubes and anything else we need."
Mordkovich pulled out two large boxes of Cliff bars, a gift from his brother. Their bicycles were provided by his start-up, Evelo, and they have also received sponsors to help cover the trek's estimated cost of $10,000.
Commuting by bicycle in America
While they hope to gain much personal fulfillment from their long voyage, Mordkovich and Mostovetsky also want to make a point about the way most Americans get to work.
"There are tons of bicycles sold in Holland, Switzerland and Germany and many people use them for commuting and getting around," she says. "Half a percent of the population in the United States uses them as a means of commuting. We could do a lot better, especially in this day in age when oil is peaking and we need to find alternative energy sources."
Mordkovich says Washington D.C. has strong bicycling potential.
"From what we've seen you have a very good bicycle infrastructure," he says. "Furthermore, I think it is very interesting that starting last year you added the Capital Bikeshare."
Listen to this story here.
Follow the bicyclists on their odyssey here.
The WMATA board of directors approved the transit agency's first fare increase in two years at a board meeting heavily attended by disabled users of Metro Access transportation.
Despite the pleas of the physically and developmentally disabled, Metro's board approved a maximum fare of $7 one way for Metro Access. All fares will go up effective July 1: the average rail fare will increase by about 5 percent, ten cents for off peak and fifteen cents for peak times. Bus fares are increasing a dime to $1.60 with SmarTrip cards.
While Metro officials say the agency need the increased revenue to close a budget gap as well as pay for ongoing maintenance costs connected to the agency's six-year capital improvement plan, disabled riders rose from their seats and wheelchairs to tell board members that they simply cannot afford to pay a higher fare. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Metro Access fare may be no more than twice the equivalent fixed route SmarTrip fare based on the fastest trip.
"Please do not raise the fare on us. We have fixed incomes. We have high rent to pay," pleaded Josephine Johnson, who used Metro Access in D.C. "Also, we are disabled, handicapped, and on dialysis."
Disabled Metro riders are also unhappy that their fares remain unpredictable day-to-day. For instance, fares can differ by several dollars for rides scheduled just 15 minutes apart. Metro is attempting to make it easier for disabled riders to shop for the cheapest ride through the use of text messages and the internet, but some riders say technology is of little help.
"Only eight percent of the [disabled rider] community is using the on line reservations that are available to them," said Pat Spray, who sat in his wheelchair throughout the board meeting. "Ninety-two percent of reservations are made by phone, not by internet."
"What the accessibility advisory committee is requesting is that when someone calls, they are given within a thirty minute window the cheapest rate. That doesn't, however, address the fact that the same ride next week at the same time will be a different price."
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said he and the board carefully considered all the public input from a series of hearings on the fare hike proposal, but the agency had to act.
"What the fare increase does is provide additional revenue to us to provide additional rush hour service during the peak period, to improve bus service, and to improve maintenance," said Sarles.
As he waited for his train at the Farragut North station, commuter David Super said he would pay the higher fare, no problem. "With less money service will get even worse. I think their problems show the money is needed."
Others weren't as willing to hand over more cash for their commute. "I think it is despicable because of the customer service that we get," said Gretchen Helm. "They still have no system in place of refunding peoples' money when there is an issue with these smart cards."
They come in a variety of shapes, are several inches deep, and can cost hundreds of dollars in car repair bills: potholes, the bane of every driver's commute. In an effort to eliminate some of them, the District of Columbia is launching its annual Potholepalooza.
Along one stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the Anacostia neighborhood of southeast D.C., the road looks like it used to be riddled with potholes but has been patched up with globs of asphalt. It's not a smooth ride, but resident Anthony Johnson says it's a minor improvement.
"They are getting better," Johnson says. "They have started working on it, but they have been bad for years. That's nothing new. There are still a lot of them that's not done."
Johnson says the District's Potholepalooza, which filled 5,000 potholes during a single month last year, is much needed again.
"See that truck over there? I want to keep it for a little while," he says.
Potholes are car killers. Portia Perkins says her friend hit one pothole on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast that wound up blowing a huge hole in her bank account. "It messed up her muffler, and so she had to get that fixed," says Perkins. "It cost her a couple thousand dollars."
The city is asking for help in locating potholes. Individuals can email repair requests, tweet them to @DDOTDC, call information at 311, or use the District's new smart phone app. The DDOT says it will work to repair identified potholes within 48 hours; normal response time is within 72 hours.
After hearing this report, a WAMU listener who identified herself as Karen said in an email, "I hit a pothole the morning of 4/12/2012 on 15th just north of Euclid, NW. I was going about 15-20mph and the force of the impact cracked my oil pan and knocked the alignment out. The car was towed and the repair was approximately $1,100."
Listen to this story here: http://wamu.org/news/12/04/15/dc_brings_back_potholepalooza
(Washington, D.C -- WAMU) Climbing into a taxicab in Washington, D.C. doesn't guarantee a pleasant ride. The cab may be old or dirty, the cabbie may not know his way around, and the rider better carry cash. City leaders say the current state of the taxi industry is embarrassing to a capital city visited by 20 million tourists annually.
The District's 6,500 taxicabs would undergo a major makeover under a plan awaiting the approval of the D.C. city council. A proposed 50-cent surcharge on all rides would pay for a slew of improvements: including smart meters with GPS that monitor routes and calculate fares; credit card payment machines; driver and passenger safety buttons that would call the police; and add driver ID panels and Internet screen displays in the back seats.
D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh sponsored the legislation. She also surveyed residents about D.C. cabs. The results showed residents support implementing the proposed improvements. Only 18 percent said the current state of service is good, while 42 percent said it is fair and 36 percent rated it poor. Compared to other cities, D.C. taxis were rated worse by 69 percent of survey respondents.
"I have taken the cab service here in Washington when I was working," says Gerry Horn of Port Washington, N.Y., as he waited for a ride outside Union Station. "I worked a lot down here even though I am from New York, and I was not all that excited about it."
D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton explains that all the changes would be mandatory, despite the loud complaints of some cabbies, and would be funded exclusively by the 50-cent surcharge. A 'Consumer Service Fund' would be created solely for collecting the surcharge and allocating monies to enhance the taxicab industry.
"What [the cab drivers] don't understand is... why are we regulating them? I had to inform them that as far I knew, there is no commercial operation in the District of Columbia that isn't regulated by the government," says Linton, who says he expects the D.C. Council to approve Cheh's legislation this summer. "These are people who are driving on the streets owned by the citizens of the District of Columbia."
Raising the cost to raise the quality
Linton expects the taxi overhaul to take about two years. Based on the estimate of 25 million taxi passengers per year, the surcharge would place millions of dollars at his and the city council's disposal. Some cabbies simply don't trust the city to make the right decisions.
"Everybody is in our business and not taking care of their business," says Willie Coleman, who has been driving a cab for 36 years in the District. He says he opposes mandatory credit card payment machines even though a majority of passengers want them.
D.C. residents also support painting all the cabs the same color, according to Cheh's survey, but Linton says creating a uniform color scheme would not be high on his agenda.
"From my stand point as a regulator, it is not a big ticket item," Linton says. "I don't oppose it, but I am not going to expend energy when we have more important things to accomplish."
If you ask cabbies what the city can do for them, they will tell you raise fares. A fare increase is coming. As early as April 20, the per-mile charge will rise from $1.50 to $2.16. Luggage surcharges and the extra passenger surcharge of $1.50 will end.
Before they see most of the service enhancements, passengers will feel the changes in their wallets. The proposed fifty-cent surcharge and pending fare increase would increase the fare of a typical 2-mile ride in light traffic from $7 to nearly $9.
Unlike in other cities where cabbies are required to accept credit cards, under this plan, the Consumer Service Fund would cover the cost of the credit card fees, not the drivers.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend says the higher fees will be worth it when you consider the current state of the taxicab industry.
"It's almost like you have entered a time warp when you enter a cab in the District of Columbia," says Townsend. "It's almost like looking at the vehicle fleet in Cuba, dilapidated, old, and antiquated. For so long, the cab drivers have been so poorly treated they have not had the resources or the wherewithal to upgrade their cabs unless they work for a big taxi service."
Linton said over the next two years further measures will be proposed to modernize the fleet, including increasing the number of hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles.
"So when people come here for conferences, conventions, and business meetings, they find this a very convenient and rewarding method for moving around this city," he says. "That is why it is so important for this city, as the capital of the nation, to have a really world class taxi system."
No matter what city officials say, some cabbies won't believe them until they see real results. Robert Scruggs, 81, who has been driving a cab in the District since the Eisenhower administration, says he doubts the new fund won't be raided to pay for other things.
"People have a thing of putting their hands in the cookie jar, especially here," he says.
(Martin Di Caro -- Washington, DC, WAMU) You pay for electricity, your phone and Internet. You pay for most, if not all, of the services you use every day. Should highways be different? Virginia says the future answer will be no -- and drivers should be ready to pay a premium for a faster ride on congested highway corridors.
Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials are banking on drivers' willingness to pay an electronic EZ Pass toll for a faster commute on the I-495 express lanes that are set to open late this year. Tolls on the new section of the beltway will rise as traffic volume in the express lanes increases. Dynamic tolling, as this practice is called, is relatively new in the United States.
"The day of free highways is behind us," said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and a former assistant transportation secretary under George W. Bush. Frankel said governments need the revenue that tolls would provide, and charging a premium to use express lanes serves another purpose: turning highways into a commodity.
"When you think about highway space as a product, it's limited," said Frankel. "Supply is constrained. And the only way to control how that supply is going to be allocated is by pricing it."
Dynamic tolling is relatively uncommon in the U.S. compared to Europe and Australia. In the U.S. it's been a success on State Route 91 in southern California, where critics said the so-called Lexus Lanes would only be used by rich people, Frankel said.
"In fact, the experience in California is quite the opposite. The lanes are most frequently used by people with limited time," said Frankel, who said getting motorists used to paying tolls is hard because of the idea that highways should be free.
Commuter Bevin Bresnahan, who was gassing up in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, typifies that attitude. "I think everything should be free," she laughed. "We pay enough in gas, we pay enough in taxes."
The company that will operate the tolls on the I-495 express lanes says the typical toll during rush hour will be between $5-6 dollars one way, the average trip length is expected to be about four to six miles, and motorists are expected to use the new lanes a couple of times a week.
Listen to a report on this issue here.
(Washington, DC -- Martin Di Caro, WAMU) Traffic appears pretty light on the Intercounty Connector, especially now that electronic tolls are being collected, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic volumes are on target.
The completion of the eastern segment of the Intercounty Connector in late November promised to transform commuting by opening an 18-mile toll road cutting east-west across Montgomery County, Md.
Approximately 20,000 vehicles travel the ICC on average on weekdays, with the western segment seeing more volume than the eastern one by about 10,000 vehicles per day. It takes three years for volume to ramp up on a new toll road, according to an ICC spokeswoman.
Raw data show that traffic volume significantly dropped after the collection of tolls began in early December. On December 4, a Sunday, more than 44,000 vehicles drove the western segment of the ICC. The next day saw volume fall to fewer than 26,000 vehicles.
In the Tanglewood subdivision of Silver Spring the sounds of birds and crickets on pretty suburban streets is now mixing with the constant, distant hum of traffic. But the sound is less distant for Ken Schmidt, who purchased his home on Trebleclef Lane two years ago. A new sound barrier standing about 20 feet high runs right behind his backyard.
“There is the old saying ‘not in my backyard.’ But here it is,” Schmidt says. “When we purchased the house, the state website for the ICC spoke of two plans that ran north and south of Rt. 198. This plan was not on the main page. I assumed it wasn’t an option.”
Schmidt says he might have done more thorough research, because he would not have bought his home had he known where the ICC would be built. Instead he recently spent $13,000 for new windows to block the sound of traffic from filling his home where he lives with his wife and baby boy.
“It’s 100 times better than it used to be but unless we went with even more expensive windows with more layers of glass, even that wouldn’t have solved the problem completely,” says Schmidt, who says dust kicked up by passing traffic and carried by the wind often covers his home, another reason to keep the windows closed.
Two doors down Trebleclef Lane lives Jeff Owrutsky, who bought his home in the early 1990s. Over the past 20 years he witnessed the long-running public process that ended with the construction of a highway he actively opposed.
“This has been on the books since the ‘50s so we got wind of it before we moved here. Certainly everybody said they would never build it but I guess you can say they have now,” Owrutsky says. “A lot of the problem with this road is that it cost so much money. It’s busting the bank in terms of our whole transportation budget.”
Owrutsky says he is getting used to his new environs but misses what his backyard used to be like. “It was dense, full of trees, and there’s also an auto park over there. It used to be that the trees would shield us from all the lights of the auto park.”
The ICC was designed to reduce traffic congestion on heavily congested east-west roads in Montgomery County, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic analyses will take months to complete and there are no studies available.
In interviews with WAMU.org, residents near one of those roads, Briggs Chaney Road., say it’s difficult to tell whether traffic has dwindled over the past four months.
“I don’t see a major difference since the ICC road has been open. When I go to Rockville, I take Rt. 28 and I think it is more congested,” says Alfiya Akhmed, who has lived on Briggs Chaney for seven years.
Some have noticed a positive change. “Before we were kind of congested but now there is less traffic on Briggs Chaney,” says Gladstone Botsoe, a commuter who uses the road three times per week. But commuter Rob McKellar says the traffic seems about the same, and he blamed the tolls on the ICC for keeping people on the local roads.
“With the economy the way it is I don’t think people want to pay. I wouldn’t pay to go on that road,” McKellar says.
About six miles southwest of where Briggs Chaney Road runs parallel to the ICC, a stream runs through Northwest Branch Park, where many trees have fallen or are tilting down, their roots exposed above the stream bank. Environmentalists say the ICC will exacerbate the problem of storm water run off that has already caused so much damage to the ecosystem.
“It’s hard to say whether any particular thing has caused the increased damage, but you have to figure that all those acres of concrete with run off is going to have an effect that is different than acres of forest where the water seeps in slowly,” says Anne Ambler, the president of Neighbors of Northwest Branch. She and Dave O’Leary, the chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, described to WAMU.org the cycle that may transform the forest permanently for the worse.
“When we have lots of pavement… the storm pours in really quickly and the streams will come up quickly and gouge out the sides of the streams. This water level will bounce right up and could be two or three times as deep as it is now. Where we have these sharp bends in the stream that water pounds against the sides, undercuts the banks, and trees will fall in,” O’Leary says.
As more trees tumble into the stream, roots and all, the stream grows wider, causing further erosion. As more trees fall, more sunlight breaks through the canopy, causing the growth of invasive species which now blanket the forest bottom. The invasive plants prevent the seeds of older trees from taking root, and the forest will fail to sustain itself.
“Over the next couple of decades we will see this whole area transform. A forest will become a few trees, different vegetation on the ground, the water is polluted. What was appealing in 1990 or 1995 is much less so in 2015,” O’Leary says.
The state has five ongoing storm water management projects just for the area of the Northwest Branch, but Ambler says the problem is to a considerable degree irreversible.
“Progress is not a question of putting down more concrete. The situation where we find ourselves now with climate change, progress would mean concentrating preserving our fresh water which is scarce and investing in other forms of energy,” she says.
Listen to an extended audio report on this issue here.
(Washington, DC -- Martin DiCaro, WAMU) A game of political chicken has started over the Dulles Metro Rail project. Virginia Republicans have passed legislation threatening to withdraw the state's $150 million contribution to Phase 2 of the project, and claims the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is discriminating against non-union workers. In WAMU's weekly transportation segment, Martin Di Caro explains why the political dispute could end in a doubling of fees on the Dulles Toll Road.