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A reader recently wondered why the Washington and Old Dominion Trail turns sharply at Idylwood Park next to I-66 in Falls Church instead of tunneling under the interstate and Metro. "Was this by design when they were constructing I-66?" asked Mark Scheufler.
After the W&OD railroad stopped running in 1968, VDOT bought some of the right-of-way to use for the alignment of I-66. The rest of the W&OD right-of-way was sold to VEPCO (which later became Dominion).
In 1977, the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority came to an agreement with VEPCO to purchase segments of the W&OD right-of-way as funding became available, which in turn enabled NVRPA to construct the trail. Incidentally, this was also the same year that the "Coleman Agreement" allowed for the construction of I-66 inside the Beltway.
A W&OD extension came first, as the trail was completed between Falls Church and Vienna in 1979, including the section across I-66.
It is unclear why the W&OD was routed along the edge of Idylwood Park and across Virginia Lane instead of cutting straight through. One possibility is that NVRPA and VEPCO couldn't come to an agreement on the right-of-way between I-66 and Virginia Lane. Another possibility is that VDOT objected to a trail tunnel and thus forced NVRPA to use the park and Virginia Lane.
It's more likely, though, that the decision was a cost-saving measure. At the time, NVRPA was trying to locate funding to purchase the W&OD right-of-way and build trail segments. Using the already-planned Virginia Lane overpass over I-66 would have allowed VDOT and NVRPA to save money over the cost of a separate trail tunnel.
The trail diversion happens at a pretty sharp angle and it involves a hill climb. But the existing path along the edge of Idylwood Park and Virginia Lane is only about 400 feet longer than a routing that would've stayed in the rail right-of-way. For a bicyclist averaging 10 mph, that's less than 30 seconds.
The lack of good data on walking and biking is a big problem. Advocates say current metrics yield a spotty and incomplete picture of how much, where, and why Americans walk and bike.
This counter in San Francisco gives planners reliable, up-to-date data about bike trips on Market Street. Photo from Aaron Bialick/Streetsblog SF.
The US Census only tells us about commuting—
Without a good sense of people's active transportation habits, it's hard to draw confident conclusions not only about walking and biking rates, but also about safety and other critical indicators that can guide successful policy at the local level. A new program from the Federal Highway Administration aims to help fill the gap.
US DOT announced today that FHWA will help local transportation planners gather more sophisticated data on walking and biking. The agency has selected metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in ten regions—
FHWA says the program will provide funding for equipment to measure biking and walking trips. Writing on US DOT's Fast Lane blog, FHWA Deputy Administrator Gregory Nadeau adds that "each MPO will receive technical assistance in the process of setting up the counters; uploading, downloading and analyzing the data; and—
The first counts will be available in December. Following the initial pilot, a second round of regions may be chosen to participate, Nadeau writes.
This would be an enormous improvement over what they do in Cleveland, where I live, as well as many other regions: recruit volunteers to stand at intersections with clipboards once a year and count cyclists by hand.
Crossposted from Streetsblog USA.
Many students in DC's high-poverty middle and high schools have reading skills far below their grade level, and they've become disengaged from school as a result. We can get them back on track if we're willing to invest in paid, professional tutors who will work with them intensively.
In Ward 8's three DC Public School middle schools, only about 25% of students read on grade level, and when they leave many are several grade levels below where they should be. The percentage of students reading at grade level in Ward 8's two high schools, Ballou and Anacostia, is even lower, about 17%.
I run an organization that has partnered with DCPS to provide professional, paid tutors to students at Ballou and Anacostia, and about 10% of our freshmen read at the first-grade level or lower.
Currently, struggling readers in DCPS middle and high schools get help in the form of smaller classes, reading circles, and tutoring from fellow students. But from what I've seen, these strategies aren't working.
An expanded volunteer tutor base won't solve the problem
Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a plan to recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with male students of color in DC Public Schools. While that may be a worthy effort, it won't address the difficult problem of students reading far below grade level in high school.
For one thing, Bowser is partnering with tutoring organizations that primarily serve elementary school students. Moreover, middle and high school students who are three years or more behind grade level in reading need experienced, professional tutors who can work with them at least three hours a week.
Improvement won't happen overnight, but a student receiving that kind of consistent, intensive tutoring during school hours could be back on track in two years.
My organization, Resources for Inner City Children (RICH), has seen good results: almost all the low readers we have worked with who attended 80% or more of tutoring sessions made significant reading gains for the first time in years. During the four years we partnered with Anacostia High School, approximately 40% of the 90 students we targeted moved up three or more grade levels in reading.
The vast majority who didn't make significant progress were students who simply stopped coming to school regularly because it just became too hard and discouraging. That's why even intensive, professional tutoring isn't enough. We also need a well-coordinated effort by school administrators and social service workers to re-engage students who have become disaffected.
A truant, dyslexic child can't wait for a bureaucratic process that involves mailing letters, making threats, and scheduling meetings. School personnel need to visit students' homes and tell them a tutor is ready to shepherd them along a path that has become too overwhelming for them to navigate alone.
Professional tutors are expensive, but not having them is even more costly
Of course, all this will cost money. Professional tutoring can be expensive. RICH has been able to pay its tutors well below the market rate, $40 an hour, because the individuals we hire feel a sense of mission for helping low-income students. At that rate, three hours of weekly tutoring over the course of a school year adds up to about $4,000 per student.
It's also very possible that the school system would need to pay more than $40 an hour for professional tutors who meet the need.
One way to lower costs would be to tutor students in pairs or even threesomes that are compatible both socially and in terms of ability level. One model that uses a semi-professional tutor corps has found that one-to-two is an ideal tutor-to-student ratio.
But the cost of not addressing this problem is much more daunting. Consider that only 39% of the freshmen entering at Anacostia in 2010 graduated on time. That number only got up to 50% at Ballou. Nationally, over half of African-American males who drop out of high school have prison records by their early thirties.
And at each of those schools, 29% of students qualify for special education. Individuals in that category are disproportionately represented in the prison population.
Recruiting volunteer tutors to work with younger children is a well-meaning, and low-cost, effort. But if we want to solve the most intractable aspects of DC's reading crisis, we'll need to invest in luring our most disconnected older students back to school and providing them with high-quality professional tutoring once they get there.
Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.
On Tuesday, we posted our forty-seventh photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?
This week, you must have all been out looking for the first 7000 Series train instead of playing whichWMATA, because we only got 12 guesses. Two of you got all five. Great work, Peter K and Justin....!
Image 1: Spring Hill
The first image shows the view from the western entrance bridge to Spring Hill station. The mesh grating and new concrete viaduct make it clear that this is a Silver Line station. The configuration of the roadway, with the tracks in the median rather than off to one side, means that this is either Greensboro or Spring Hill. And you can narrow this down to Spring Hill because the bridge here is lower than the tracks rather than above them, which is the case at Greensboro. Nine of you got it right.
Image 2: Shady Grove
The second image shows the stair/escalator at Shady Grove; the first appearance of this station in the series. I thought this one was fairly obvious. The "next train" indicator means this is an end-of-line station. There are only two such stations with gull I roofs. And only Shady Grove has a staircase sandwiched between two escalators. Ten knew this one.
Image 3: West Hyattsville
The third image shows the south end of West Hyattsville station, viewed from the Northwest Branch Trail. The twin blockhouses that protrude into the top of the image indicate that this is a side platform station. The concrete structure in the foreground is a traction power substation (which provides electric power to the third rail). Few stations have these attached directly to the station (though many have one nearby).
The real clue here is the unique architecture of West Hyattsville (featured in week 8). But the park-like setting was also a clue. Only six of you guessed correctly.
Image 4: Federal Center SW
The fourth image was also a first-time whichWMATA station: Federal Center SW. The distinctive feature here is the green tile surrounding the opening. It accents the building, which houses the entrances to the station. The building itself takes up the entire block surrounded by 3rd Street, D Street, 4th Street, and Virginia Avenue SW. This particular photo shows the alcove housing the elevator. Four people got it right.
Image 5: Forest Glen
The final image proved hardest. Only two people got it right. It shows the Coleridge Drive/Georgia Avenue entrance to the Forest Glen station. The main entrance faces the bus loop and parking lot, but this entrance gives passengers a straight shot to the pedestrian bridges over the Beltway ramps south of the station.
The unique feature here is the metal grating above the staircase. The grating is in place because the staircase can be closed off with an odd curved grate at the top of the stairs. It prevents people from being able to climb down into the station when the gate is closed. It's unique in the system, but if you haven't used Forest Glen you'd probably be hard-pressed to recognize it.
Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.
Some observers are pinning their hopes on volunteer tutors as a low-cost way of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. But there are limits to what volunteer tutors can do.
Photo of child reading from Shutterstock.
A leading nonprofit tutoring organization deploys minimally trained volunteers to teach reading comprehension as a set of skills. The problem is that to understand what they're reading, kids need background knowledge, not just skills.
A study released last month concluded that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers, boosts students' abilities. The program is active in eight states and the District, where it provides tutoring in 16 schools. Fewer than half of DC students score proficient in reading on standardized tests.
Reading Partners, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will probably soon be expanding its efforts in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that as part of an initiative targeting male students of color, the District will recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with Reading Partners and several other tutoring nonprofits in DC Public Schools.
Reading Partners is a well-run organization staffed by dedicated individuals. But after spending a year as a Reading Partners tutor and educating myself about reading comprehension, I've concluded that its approach in that area is fundamentally mistaken. The approach assumes that reading comprehension is a skill like hitting a baseball, which you can learn by practicing certain strategies repeatedly. If you practice keeping your eye on the ball over and over, for example, you'll get better at hitting it.
Reading Partners tutors, who receive minimal training, work with students on comprehension skills like "finding the main idea" and "making inferences." At the beginning of each 45-minute session, the tutor picks up a packet containing two or three books at the child's reading level and a worksheet that focuses on the skill of the day.
The child chooses one of the books to read, and the tutor guides the child in practicing the skill. Children come to the reading center twice a week, and often miss regular class time in order to do so.
Because Reading Partners only works with students reading below grade level, a fourth-grader might be reading books on a second-grade level. Some of the books are fiction and some non-fiction, but the focus is on learning skills rather than on the books' content.
The books cover a random variety of subjects, and there's no effort to coordinate them with what children are learning in class. The theory is that once a child gets good at "finding the main idea," she'll be able to find the main idea in whatever text is put in front of her.
Reading comprehension isn't a skill
The problem is that reading comprehension is, in fact, not a skill like hitting a baseball. It's very dependent on how much you already know about the subject you're reading about. To see what it's like to read about something you're unfamiliar with, try parsing this summary of a technical scientific article.
Generally speaking, low-income children start out in school with a lot less background knowledge and vocabulary than more affluent children. That makes it harder for them to understand what they're reading.
So if we want to close the achievement gap, we need to spend time giving low-income kids as much knowledge as we possibly can. Giving them comprehension strategies rather than knowledge in elementary school means that by the time they get to high school, they'll be hopelessly behind.
Why, then, did a study conclude that Reading Partners was able to raise student achievement? It did give students a bump, but the effect was not all that dramatic. As compared to a control group that was getting other kinds of reading help, the Reading Partners group made about one-and-a-half to two months more progress. They also spent about the equivalent of an extra month working on reading, so the additional bump is even smaller than it appears.
And studies have shown that teaching kids reading strategies can boost comprehension, but only up to a point. Kids who get 50 sessions receive no more benefit than kids who get six.
Beyond that, we need to look at how the researchers measured progress. They used an assessment that, like all standardized tests, treats reading comprehension as a skill. Let's say a fourth-grader reading at a second-grade level manages to find the main idea in a third-grade-level text. That counts as progress. But when that student gets to ninth grade and is expected to, say, read a text about the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, will he be able to find the main idea? Only if he acquires a lot of background knowledge in the interim.
Having tutored both elementary and high school students in high-poverty schools, I'm skeptical that he will. I have learned never to assume background knowledge on the part of students. When I've asked the fourth- or fifth-graders I've tutored through Reading Partners to find DC on a map of the United States, they've had no idea where to begin. And the high school students I tutored in the past had huge gaps in their knowledge. Among other things, they had barely heard of the Supreme Court and didn't know the meaning of words like "admirable."
Part of the problem is that many elementary schools focus on skills rather than knowledge. While DCPS elementary schools theoretically focus on knowledge, they apparently aren't using methods that ensure kids will absorb it. And that continues to be a problem in later grades.
Kids want and need knowledge, not just skills
Aside from the fact that a skills-based approach doesn't give students what they need, it's also boring. One student I tutored, who I'll call Keisha, was so resistant to coming to Reading Partners that she would sometimes enter a state of near catatonia, not answering questions or making eye contact. Eventually, she just refused to come.
While levels of enthusiasm vary, I personally know of several kids who were clearly unhappy to be at Reading Partners. And tutoring is unlikely to work if a student isn't motivated.
Meanwhile, kids are hungry for actual knowledge. One boy I tutored wanted to know if you could get poisoned by eating a poisonous snake. Another asked his tutor if a hyena was more like a cat or a dog. These are good questions, and tutors can do their best to answer them. But giving kids that kind of information isn't the purpose of the program.
In any event, kids don't absorb and retain knowledge from hearing random facts once or twice. They need to spend several weeks on a topic, not only reading about it but also listening to their teacher talk about it in a way that may be beyond their reading level but within their ability to comprehend. They should also be writing about it.
Volunteer tutors might be useful in some areas. Math is one possibility. Tutors may also be able to help very young children learn the basic skill of reading, or decoding, as opposed to reading comprehension. Reading Partners also uses volunteers to do that kind of tutoring, and next week I plan to start working with a student who needs that sort of help.
I suspect it would also be effective to use volunteer tutors to meet with kids after school and help them understand what they're supposed to be learning in class— Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.
Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.
Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.
Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.
Yesterday afternoon, a construction accident caused the collapse of the pedestrian bridge over the Green Line and CSX/MARC tracks in Berwyn Heights. The debris blocked the line between College Park and Greenbelt, disrupting many commutes. But why were there ripples as far away as Alexandria?
Since the Green Line between College Park and Branch Avenue was unaffected, it's hard to comprehend how the bridge collapse would affect any commuters other than those going to Greenbelt. But if you consider how Metro uses its trains during peak hours, it's clear why the incident had such far-reaching consequences.
There were two major reasons that the collapse affected trips on the Green and Yellow Lines. The first is that Metro's largest rail yard is at Greenbelt. Since the collapse happened during midday, many of the trains that would have soon been heading downtown to collect commuters were trapped there.
The second issue is related to the first. With fewer trains, and because Metro decided to extend all Yellow Line trains to College Park, there simply weren't enough trains to provide the regular headway.
Trains couldn't leave Greenbelt
During rush hours, Metro runs most of the cars in its fleet. But at the end of rush hour, Metro sends many railcars back into the yard.
For example, during rush hours, Metro has about 17 trains in service on the Green Line. But after rush hour ends, the number of trains drops to about 9.
Yesterday, just before 3:00, the bridge collapsed just as Metro was about to transition from a midday to a rush hour schedule. Any trains that were north of the collapse were stuck there, including 60 railcars in the Greenbelt Yard, according to spokesperson Dan Stessel.
Those 60 railcars could have made up 10 6-car trains, which would've been assigned to both the Green and Yellow Lines. Suddenly, though, they were unavailable.
The Green Line also has a rail yard at the southern end at Branch Avenue. The Yellow and Blue lines share the Alexandria Yard, near King Street. But Metro doesn't keep enough cars in those yards to run full service.
Frequency, run time, and the number of trains are all related
Most people probably never think much about all the details that go into scheduling, but there's a basic equation that balances the frequency, run time, and the number of vehicles needed to run a given service.
As discussed above, the bridge collapse reduced the number of available trains. Obviously that will have an impact on the schedule. But the other thing that had an impact was extending the Yellow Line.
Figuring out how many trains (or buses) it takes to run a service is essentially as simple as dividing the cycle time by the desired headway.
For example, during the midday period, the Yellow Line runs from Huntington to Fort Totten. It takes a train 36 minutes to get from Huntington to Fort Totten, and 36 minutes to get back. If we assume a recovery/layover time of three minutes on either end, that gives us a cycle time of 84 minutes. That's how long it takes one train to run the route and be ready to go again.
Now, during this period, the Yellow Line runs every 12 minutes. That's the headway.
If we divide the cycle time (84 minutes) by the desired headway (12 minutes), we discover that we'd need seven trains.
If we change one of those variables, either of the other two (or both) variables must change as well. For example, if we want to double the frequency so we have a train every six minutes, we'd need 14 trains, double what we needed before.
Metro does this exact thing during peak hours. They double the frequency of the Yellow Line. But they also change a different variable: cycle time.
That's because during peak hours, the Yellow Line (not counting rush plus) only runs from Huntington to Mount Vernon Square. The cycle time is shorter (56 minutes), which means it only requires 10 trains to operate (instead of the 14 needed to run to Fort Totten).
Of course, the primary reason that WMATA doesn't run to Fort Totten during rush hour is because there's no pocket track there, and trains come too frequently (every 3 minutes) to have Yellow trains turn back on the mainline.
So what about yesterday?
What happened yesterday was a combination of changes to all three variables.
Because several trains were trapped north of the bridge, the number of available trains was lower than usual.
To help alleviate delay to customers headed for Greenbelt, and probably to deal with frequency issues north of Mount Vernon Square, Metro extended many or all (that's not entirely clear) Yellow Line trains to College Park. That lengthened the cycle time to about 96 minutes.
If Metro only had seven trains, a longer a cycle time of 96 minutes, would mean the headway on the line would become 13.7 minutes (instead of the usual six).
Now, Metro probably had one or two trains in Alexandria that they were able to put into service, which would shorten that headway a bit. I even saw a report on twitter that the #newtrain was switched over to the Yellow Line during the evening rush hour.
Dan Stessel indicated that other than an initial delay while the damage was being assessed, the Green and Yellow Lines ran close to on time. However I did see many tweets bemoaning extra long waits.
In addition to the changes to rail service, Metro put 20 buses into service to run the bus bridge between College Park and Greenbelt.
Hopefully this helps explain a bit about how the length of a train's round trip, along with how many trains (or buses) there are, affect how frequently they run. These examples are specific to what happened yesterday in Berwyn Heights, but the variables apply to the entire system.
For example, bus lanes and transit signal priority are ways planners try to shorten the cycle time, which allows more frequency with the same number of vehicles.
Wolf Trap is one of the region's premier entertainment venues, and you can take transit to most of its major events. Thanks to the Silver Line, the exact route might change.
Right now, the Fairfax Connector provides bus transportation from the West Falls Church Metro station along along route 480 for events at Wolf Trap's main stage, the Filene Center. The West Falls station is a little over seven miles from Wolf Trap, about a 12-minute drive without traffic.
With the Silver Line up and running, it may make sense to run that connection from the the Spring Hill Metro station. Spring Hill is less than 2.5 miles from Wolf Trap, and the drive can take under five minutes.
Running the Wolf Trap Express from Spring Hill instead of West Falls would require half the number of buses for about the same level of service. That'd save the Fairfax Connector money, and it'd also mean passengers would spend less time on the bus.
Fairfax is open to the change, but it's not in a hurry
In a chat with Dr. Gridlock last year, Fairfax Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny said that a Silver Line connection to Wolf Trap could be an option this year. But the season of events starts in a little over a month, and so far there is no word of a change.
That could be because there's reason to consider keeping service as it is. First, passengers traveling from east of East Falls Church (which is home to the vast majority of the system) would likely not see much of a difference in total travel time. While the current routing means a longer time on the bus, it's almost all on highways, meaning it's about as fast as Metro.
Also, Spring Hill doesn't have the bus facilities or parking that West Falls Church does. Finally, a change like this would require new signs and a public education campaign.
It's unclear whether the benefits of changing the Wolf Trap Express to run from Spring Hill rather than West Falls Church would outweigh the costs. But if they did, it'd be smart to make the change before the start of this year's concert season.
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