Bring on the pain train and get it over with, Metro

Metro is about to get immensely less convenient, and I am relieved by that development.

Woeful WMATA headwaysFriday’s announcement that the rail system will see miles-long sections of track and stations closed in series for rebuilding over the next year means a new level of agony for anybody trying to get around the area. At best, continuous single-tracking will reduce service to 18-minute headways; at worst, a 24-day shutdown of the Red Line across much of Northeast will upend 108,000 weekday trips.

But the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s “SafeTrack” plan has one thing the past five years of alleged rebuilding have not: a 2017 deadline. Since the 2011 launch of a $5 billion capital-improvement plan, we’ve been enduring miserably long headways and service interruptions at nights and on weekends without any sustained sense of progress.

And now that months of smoke and fire incidents (one fatal) have made “arcing insulator” part of the Metro vernacular, it seems this work didn’t fix a damn thing in some critical areas.

If this SafeTrack really can pound three years’ worth of work–things like replacing insulators and electric cables, cleaning debris, rebuilding trackbeds, and installing radio and cellular transmitters–into a single year and finally wrench Metro over years of neglect, make it so.

Silver Line track through TysonsI admit that’s easy for me to say. I work from home and my wife bikes or walks to work. For many trips into D.C. Capital Bikeshare has become an effective alternative to Metro, and Uber, Lyft and car2go can also take Metro’s place for many trips. When I do take the subway, I am adept at checking not just Metro’s own next-train estimates but the Metro Hero app’s real-time maps.

But I still have a substantial investment in Metro. Literally: We chose our house to stay within walking distance of two stops, and we could only do that because the condo I bought two blocks from an Orange Line station doubled in value from 2000 to 2004. I could give away my aging car last year because we live in an area with (supposedly!) effective rail transit that I continue to rely on for most of my trips to the District as well as such Virginia destinations as Tysons Corner and National and Dulles airports.

As such, I want to see Metro do two things before it takes a tire iron to everybody’s schedules.

One is to show the progress of this work clearly and consistently. Bragging about how many track fasteners have been replaced is useless when I have no idea how many still need replacement; I need to know just how much further along each closure advances the system. WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld has been saying the right things about transparency, so I am cautiously optimistic about this.

The other is accountability. Metro has been talking a big game about overcoming deferred maintenance for at least a decade–the quotes in the Post’s June 2005 story “Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro’s Problems” are painful to read now, as are the things Wiedefeld’s predecessor Richard Sarles said–and we need to know what went wrong and on whose watch that happened. I would like to be optimistic on this point, but I’m not there yet.

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Bikeshare is my other Metro

My mental map of D.C. has looked a lot different since I got a membership to Capital Bikeshare. Being able to jump on one of those red rental bicycles and ride the next 30 minutes at no extra cost effectively collapsed my sense of distances between neighborhoods.

SmarTrip card and CaBi keyBut it’s taken me longer to realize how “CaBi” has changed my commuting budget: It’s replaced so many Metro rides that its annual membership fee has become effectively free.

Letting bikeshare replace bus transfers was easy and obvious (going from Farragut Square to 16th and U is a million times more pleasant on a bike than on a crowded, slow S-series bus). Then I learned that CaBi not only worked well for going from my home to morning or evening work events downtown–with the bonus of getting a Key Bridge vista of the Potomac and the city–but would also spare me Metro’s peak fares and recently-iffy reliability.

(I take CaBi home from downtown much less often. The bikes weigh about 40 pounds and only have three gears, making getting up the hill from Rosslyn a tedious and sweaty exercise.)

Finally, I got into the habit of chaining together bikeshare rentals, docking a bike at one station and then taking out another from an adjacent dock. (You can also get an extra 15 minutes of time if you get “dockblocked” by a station with no open spots.) With a combined 60 minutes of free travel available, Capitol Hill events easily fall within CaBi range.

So how much has this saved me? A few days ago, I went through my trip history and added up every ride longer than a mile, figuring that would be a decent proxy for trips I would not have otherwise taken on foot. The total over the previous year: 43, with the bulk of them understandably concentrated in spring, fall and winter. Valuing each Metro trip avoided at $2–a lowball estimate for the train, high for the bus–gets me to $86 in savings.

And that, in turn, is $11 more than the $75 I paid for this year’s membership and still exceeds the $85 I’ll pay at my next renewal.

The fine art of viewing fireworks in D.C.

It’s July 4th, and if you’re in the nation’s capital you (or at least, those of you without small children in tow) have one job: Find a way to see the fireworks that doesn’t involve dealing with the hordes on or near the Mall and the transportation chaos before and after.

Fireworks from rooftopThe single best option I’ve found is either the roof of somebody’s house or the balcony of somebody’s apartment. Either way, you’ve got a maximum of personal space with food, beverages and a bathroom close by–and you’ll be with friends or at least friends of friends. And if you’re really lucky, some pyro a few doors down will be setting off fireworks from his own roof, a sight my wife and I were treated to in 2009 atop one pal’s Logan Circle row house.

Second comes the roof deck of an apartment or office. That was our go-to solution for a few years when friends of ours lived in a high-rise a few blocks away from our abode, and I’m sure people who work in buildings downtown with roof decks become a lot more popular this time of year.

But buildings aren’t the only way to see the fireworks. In 2006, we rented a canoe with two friends of ours from the late, great Jack’s Boathouse, then watched the pyrotechnics from the Potomac as we shared a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese. This required a few compromises (like having no bathroom option short of paddling over to Theodore Roosevelt Island and running into the woods, something nobody had to do) but was pretty great overall.

These days, though, having an almost five-year-old means we have to look for simpler solutions. Like our front porch, from where we can sort of see the fireworks through the trees across the street. Or even falling back to watching them on TV. And that’s okay too; the important thing about America’s birthday is to take a minute to appreciate this good country we live in.

Weekly output: Mobile World Congress, cross-country skiing, SIM cards

One of these things is not like the others.

2/25/2014: Why Some of 2014’s Most Intriguing Gadgets Will Never Reach American Stores, Yahoo Tech

My Mobile World Congress report represents a sequel to the post I wrote for the Disruptive Competition Project from last year’s MWC, except I’m now more optimistic about the market for unlocked, unsubsidized phones. Even if a lot of people in the media still can’t grasp how to compare unsubsidized and subsidized prices.

Medium cross-country skiing post2/26/2014: Ski(d) Marks, The Magazine on Medium

I’d been meaning to write something for The Magazine’s outpost on Medium–in part because I like writing for that outfit, in part because I wanted to try the editing interface I’d heard so much about without writing for free. This essay about the joys and trials of cross-country skiing in the city–something I originally thought I’d write here–turned out to be that opportunity.

3/2/2014: It’s not so SIM-ple to trim a SIM card, but here’s how, USA Today

A reader asked a while back about whether she could pop the micro-SIM from a work-issued iPhone 4S into her own iPhone 5’s nano-SIM slot. I decided to wait to answer it until MWC, so I could see how much traction the nano-SIM was getting in the market. Answer: not much.

Sulia was all about MWC this week: my impressions of Nokia’s don’t-call-it Android X phones, a recap of the debut of the privacy-optimized Blackphone, how Samsung’s new Galaxy S 5 gets a little closer to the stock Android interface, an inspection of a $25 smartphone prototype running Firefox OS, why the developers of a phone version of the Ubuntu version of Linux think carriers will like it, and an update on the cordless-charging standards battle.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the show and its surroundings.

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