Do you want to curb traffic? Build homes near jobs and transit, says COG leader.
Bean, who lives in Arlington, is unknown to many residents of the DC area, but as the liaison between COG’s 125 employees and officials from 24 counties and cities, he played a leading role in coordinating regional planning to improve transportation, to combat traffic of climate change and more housing construction.
He spoke to the Washington Post about how the region can help its transit systems recover from the pandemic, help residents in historically underserved communities get better jobs, and build an integrated network of electric vehicle charging stations. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have said that shortly after you started at COG, Metrorail had serious safety issues such as: B. frequent track fires, which led to the large SafeTrack rehabilitation program in 2016. Where do you think Metro stands now in terms of security issues?
Bean: I am confident that in the next few months as we get into the fall we will have solved the 7000 series car problem, the Silver Line phase 2 will be opened and we will have new energy and synergies between the [Metro] board and the new managing director. All of these things are going in the right direction. We didn’t have one [before] was the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. The idea of an independent safety regulator was floating around. One day I received a letter from the Maryland and Virginia Secretary of Transportation and the DC Director of Transportation asking if we would use federal funds to set up a Safety Commission. I think this is one of my proudest achievements that COG has achieved in the last 10 years. I think we’re hearing more about safety, in part because of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. I am hopeful that there will be good working relationships between them [commission] and Metro, which will continue to improve security over the next few years. Providing special funding for Metro’s capital needs and creating the Safety Commission has put Metro in a better place. It’s not quite there yet, but Metro is in a much better place than it was five years ago.
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Q: How do you see the region’s transport network, particularly transit systems, recovering from the pandemic?
Bean: That is the question for the 2020s. This is the linchpin post-pandemic. I think this question begins with an analysis of what is the impact of this much higher rate of people working from home? The question is, will these higher rates persist? … We have around 3.2 million jobs in the region. Just over half of all these jobs are teleworkable, representing approximately 1.6 million workers in the region [who can telework] and now commute two or three days a week. For these 1.6 million workers, there is less attraction to the central core [who can move farther out]. … Metrorail ridership is coming back more slowly than many of us might have hoped, but I think we’re back to the highest rate now compared to pre-pandemic levels. Passenger numbers in local transport are increasing much faster.
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Q: Metrorail’s weekday ridership is still around 42 percent at pre-pandemic levels. How do you see that recovering, don’t you?
Bean: I think the three things Metrorail can control that will contribute to its future is the return of the 7000 [series] cars, the completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line and a strong working relationship between the GM, the Metro board and the WMATA staff. What is outside of Metro’s control is the return of commuters, which is what Metrorail is focusing on with its larger numbers, particularly the return of the federal workforce. I have no answer as to how this will turn out. … I can sympathize with the federal government because I may be talking about the linchpin post-pandemic, but there are still unknowns that I think the federal government is trying to figure out.
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Q: During your tenure, COG has focused heavily on increasing the supply of affordable housing. How does the lack of affordable housing in the region contribute to traffic congestion?
Bean: A few years ago we modeled various things that could be done to improve transportation and congestion. One of the things was to build more homes near jobs so there is more commuting within a half hour instead of a two hour commute. So if you want to improve transportation, one option is to improve the housing supply and the location of these apartments. We currently have a housing shortage. In recent years, the region has not created enough living space for the growing population due to the increase in jobs. There isn’t enough housing within a half-hour drive, whether by car or public transport, so people have to do it [live] further and further out. This only leads to longer journeys and more traffic jams.
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Q: Last year, for the first time at the regional level, the COG Board made a commitment to prioritize equity in planning and investment decisions on issues such as affordable housing, economic development and transportation. When and how did the stronger focus on equity come about?
Bean: Our unified planning framework focuses on housing, greenhouse gas emissions and transit optimization. The fourth pillar is justice in particular focus of justice. We surveyed all 1,222 census districts in the region to find concentrations of low-income communities and/or concentrations of communities of color. We focused on about 350 census tracts and developed a commitment that they need to be highlighted and prioritized. We did this analysis. I would say it was prompted by the racial reckoning of 2020 and a focus on justice came to the fore. … These census tracts occupy only 10 percent of the region’s landmass — they’re a bit more dense than the average census tract — but are home to 30 percent of the region’s population. About 1.5 million people live in these census districts. You are like an acupuncture chart for justice. We need to focus on these areas and connect them.
DC area leaders prioritize equity in transit, land use and housing decisions
Q: You’ve said before that you also need to make it easier to get to the transit stations to address justice. Can you explain the link between equity and access to public transport?
Bean: It’s really focused on optimizing land use so as many people as possible can get in transit. By 2030, there will be 225 high-capacity transit station areas. There are currently 150 and 75 will be added by 2030. I don’t think any other region in the country will make such strides in the next decade. This is also only 10 percent of the region’s landmass, but 55 percent of future job growth will reside in these hubs. … We also need a range of apartments in different price ranges.
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Q: What would you like to achieve in the region in the remaining seven months?
Bean: I want to work towards a regional approach [expanding] Charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Instead of County X having their plan and County Y maybe having their plan with another provider, it would be better if we all did it together. So many trips cross different jurisdictions. It gets complicated. … There are large procurements for this charging infrastructure, so there is potentially huge buying power if they are procured together rather than separately. This is all being accelerated by a large influx of federal funds for [electric vehicle] charging infrastructure. That’s what we can focus on over the next six, 12, or 24 months. How can we all work together?
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