Housing Complex

What to Expect From the Streetcar (Hint: Not Speed)

streetcar shot

This morning, as my Megabus pulled into Union Station, I saw, for the first time, a streetcar hanging out on H Street NE. It wasn't doing much, although the construction workers on the Hopscotch Bridge just beyond it certainly were. But once safety certification is complete, city officials say it'll be running within 30 days. That may not meet Mayor Vince Gray's very ambitious promise of passenger service "probably starting in January, not later than early February," but it does mean we'll be seeing streetcars in operation very soon. So what should we expect?

Not speed. As I lay out in a story published today in Next City ($1.99 payment or subscription required), faster transit isn't really what streetcars are for. The H Street line will be following largely the same path as the X2 Metrobus, and while it won't have to kneel down to pick up passengers, it also won't be able to weave around double-parked cars or right-lane traffic jams, so there's not much reason to think it'll be any quicker than the bus. The city's study of various options for extending the H Street line westward to Georgetown anticipates that a likely streetcar route would be 6 to 14 percent faster than a bus alternative—but that route would have a dedicated lane for about a third of the line, something the H Street portion won't have.

A new report out from the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy, published after I wrote my piece, shows just how slow streetcars can be, compared with other transit modes like bus rapid transit and light rail transit. Take a look at this chart:

streetcar speed

Now, this isn't to say that streetcars are inherently slower; as the ITDP study argues, it's all about execution. A streetcar running in a shared traffic lane will be slower than a bus in a dedicated lane, and vice versa.

The same phenomenon applies to development potential, which is what many advocates argue streetcars are best at. Some of the people behind Portland's streetcar—a model for its counterparts in D.C. and elsewhere—refer to it as "development-oriented transit," turning the oft-invoked "transit-oriented development" on its head. There's plenty of evidence that the streetcar has had a major impact on Portland's development: Following the start of the effort to build the city's first streetcar line, the percentage of central-business-district development occurring within a block of that line jumped from 19 percent to 55 percent.

Critics charge that a streetcar's boost to development has less to do with the streetcar itself than with changes to zoning and subsidies to encourage development in the area, and the ITDP study mostly backs up that argument. While streetcar proponents counter that a streetcar line's fixed route, symbolized by tracks in the ground, sends a signal to developers that the city's committed and the route won't change, no one really argues that development will shoot up without the zoning to support it.

So as the city continues to plan and build its billion-dollar, 22-mile priority streetcar network, the question residents should be asking isn't so much "how fast will it go?" as "what will the city do to support it?" The answer will make the difference between a bus with a different reputation and a true tool for changing the city—for better or worse.

Photo via D.C. Department of Transportation on Flickr

  • Chris hauser

    The city will HAVE to support it.

    The tail will WAG the dog, here and there, but not everywhere, and the trick is to not step in it.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Most of the difference in speed is based mostly on two factors: the type of right of way (dedicated or shared with other traffic) and the stop spacing.

    Consider Pittsburgh's East busway. Yes, it can offer an average speed of 30 mph, but it has 10 stops total in 9.1 miles. That is a very different kind of service than a train/bus stopping every 1/2 or 1/4 mile.

  • H Street

    "Critics charge that a streetcar's boost to development has less to do with the streetcar itself than with changes to zoning and subsidies to encourage development in the area, and the ITDP study mostly backs up that argument."

    Simply changing zoning and offering subsidies isn't enough to spur effective development. Most of H Street is already zoned for commercial and has been for years. Targeted improvements in street scape, transit, businesses and residential and commercial development have spurred the renaissance on H.

  • Tom M

    "Development-oriented Transit?" -- cities tend to locate these lines in areas that are not yet developed but primed for development. That was the case in Portland for example. So what weight/credit to you give to the line for development? Some maybe. But certainly it is a multiple factor equation -- not the line itself as seems to be implied in this story. Even "H-Street"'s comment above begins to untangle the knot.

  • SEis4ME

    I really never thought that it would be faster and carry more people. I never bought the "development" angle altho many of its proponents continued to color the debate in that way.

  • gmg

    In hindsight, they should have just added another Circulator line. And I say that with great affection for streetcars I have ridden elsewhere.

  • Pat

    New transit projects should be, first and foremost, about improving mobility while economic development should be a tertiary concern; a nice to have. The mixed-traffic nature of the H St. streetcar and the slow speeds it will have don't seem to provide much greater mobility for users, especially given the high costs.

  • Max

    Speed is not the issue for transit - frequency and reliability is what's actually important. If it comes more often than the X2 and more reliably (and with less crowding) then it will be an improvement for everyone along H Street.

  • ReporterAtLarge

    I fail to understand why some in DC are gung ho about streetcars. The city already has enough difficulty moving existing types of vehicles across town without adding streetcars, which will routinely get stuck behind double parked vehicles. A better investment would be to ensure DC's streets and underground infrastructure are in better shape. Remember the downtown sinkhole?

  • chris

    Yeah, I really hope DC drops the idea for further streetcars and focuses on building a world class BRT network. The whole streetcar idea seems more grounded in a vague romanticism, not practical transit realities.

    This small stretch took years to build. Realistically, even with concerted leadership it would be a generation before a 22-mile streetcar system comes on line. An entire BRT network could be up in running in a few of years.

    From a transit point, a BRT network can provide service that is just as fast(or faster)/ frequent/ easy to use as streetcars. Streetcar networks have lots of real world problems. If one breakdown, the entire network is clogged. A BRT can just drive around it.

    A BRT network is dramatically cheaper to build per mile. For the same amount of money, DC could build a dramatically larger network of BRT lines than it could streetcar lines. Public transit becomes more useful as the network grows.

    The criticisms of BRT are usually that:
    1) they are poorly done/done on the cheap. This is argument to ensure the BRT is done right, not to drop the idea. Do everything else as you would with a streetcare (dedicated stops with next-Bus timers, clear routes with infrequent stops, signal priority, dedicated lanes where possible, advance payment, etc).
    2) people won't ride a BRT/it won't spur development-
    These arguments are usually based on small number of examples from auto-centric cities with no recent tradition of middle class residents using public transit. DC isn't one of those cities. The middle (and upper) class in DC would ride a BRT.

    As to the development argument, these are usually extrapolated from small studies that use lots of guess work. If these networks are built with 1) permanent stops/stations, 2) a clearly readable map, and a 3) distinct identity from the city bus there is no reason why these networks wouldn’t spur development. Ultimately, most people are functional. A place is either transit accessible or it's not.

  • Corky

    The streetcars will most certainly stall traffic on H Street. Just this morning, one of the long articulated buses was disabled, with part of it sticking out into the railway lane. Auto traffic was slowed considerably getting past this bus. If a streetcar had been stuck behind it, traffic would have been much worse. This will happen again. The people who showed up in DC a few years ago and demanded a streetcar clearly have never lived in cities that actually have them. They DESTROY cars in accidents, are slow, get stuck behind immobilized vehicles and block traffic when they do. Ask the people in Philly what they think about them!

  • DCShadyBoots

    I really feel sorry for H Street businesses and residents. This boutique streetcar is more for show than efficiency. That delivery trucks will no longer be able to park on H Street to service stores is naturally going to push that traffic onto residential streets that are already struggling for parking. As well, traffic will back up because someone will inevitably double park or park too far into the street. Streetcars cannot maneuver around them. You are going to have movement of people, bicycles, cars, buses and now a streetcar. This was a very bad idea when Dan Tangherlini envisioned it and it is a bad idea today.

  • SEis4ME

    Just as in all other cities, I'm sure we will all figure out how to deal w/them and the horror stories likely won't be realized.

    But it's fair to point out that the idea itself was borne of a small segment of residents desire to create their own urban utopia.

  • JC


    Even Philly has been tranisitioning the streetcar system to "trackless trolleys" that have the ability to run for a short while on diesel to avoid obstacles and for the most part take advantage of quieter operation via the overhead electric grid.

    This project costs too much per passenger-mile served to build and operate. Streetcars were popular when they were built because they pre-dated buses and car traffic was limited or non-existent.

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  • Mark

    Unless the LRVs/streetcars have dedicated ROW with signal priority you can pretty much accept that the system will crawl. I live in San Francisco and our MUNI system is pathetic, especially above ground where the trains share the streets with other traffic and parking. First, the stops are too close (every 2 or 3 short blocks) which means the trains have to constantly stop and start, a process that is much slower than a bus. Second, there are no signal priorities which means an L-Taraval train can sit at 19th Ave/Taraval for eternity waiting for the light to change (not to mention a last-minute person trying to get on board holding it up through another light cycle). Third, the silly romance theory does hold some merit. However, practicality and efficiency are thrown out the door. The historic F-line trolley system here is built solely for the tourists to shuttle them from Fisherman's Wharf to the Castro via the waterfront and downtown. They run on no particular schedule and there are daily problems with timing of the streetcars. There can be 5 in a row and then a 60 minute wait. Commuters can hardly rely on this mode.

    Having lived in many cities with heavy and light rail systems, including DC, I cannot believe in 2014 that planners are pushing for streetcars as a means of mass transit. What makes an effective mass transit system great is that it gets you from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible (and as a feasible and desirable alternative to driving in most cases). The proposed DC network is a complete folly and will not solve any problems. If anything, it will create more operational issues on district streets. If Arlington had its head on straight it would push for expanding Metro under CP, rather than a sluggish streetcar system. The turnout is already built at the Pentagon station. Or, for less cost put in a decent BRT system or, as JC points out, an articulate trolleybus system. SF has an amazing trolleybus network.

  • Dave

    I have always knew the Streetcar will not work well on H Street -- yes it will works okay on Benning Road.

    I blame on past mayors and Director of DDOT.

    The Streetcars on H Street will be good for a short trip. It will be be benefit if I want to take from H & 11th Street NE to Georgetown (where the streetcars will go one of these days).

    They should have push for subway on H Street with Streetcars on top -- this will allow people to transfer between subway and Streetcars.

    Another thing - I'm shocked there's no plan for transfer on Benning Road to Metro Subway (I know the station is not there but we can build one). Since DDOT is not adding parking lots for commuters; this streetcars will not be practical.

    Am looking forward to new city administration next year to make corrections (it's pretty much too late to cancel current streetcars plan on H Street). If Danny was in charge of DDOT; he may not be in favor of current streetcar plans.

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