The Pros and Cons of the Four North-South Streetcar Proposals
There are now four potential routes for the north-south streetcar line, as I reported yesterday. These aren't set in stone: The locations of the stops are likely to change, and the terminus of one alternative could easily be switched to another. But for the most part, these are the four alignments the District Department of Transportation is considering as it moves to select a complement to the H Street and Anacostia lines and flesh out the planned 22-mile priority streetcar network.
Each line has its benefits and drawbacks, but some have more of one and fewer of the other. I spoke with two of the DDOT officials most closely involved in the streetcar planning—Project Manager Jamie Henson and Associate Director of Planning, Policy, and Sustainability Sam Zimbabwe—about the proposals and their perks and challenges. Bad news for advocates of a speedier streetcar with dedicated travel lanes: DDOT hasn't really considered dedicated lanes south of Florida Avenue NW, where congestion, loading, and narrow streets pose a challenge. Nor is a dedicated lane on Sherman Avenue NW an option, since there's only one lane of car traffic in each direction. But DDOT is looking into dedicated lanes on Georgia Avenue NW, which is part of all four proposals, to varying degrees.
Here's my take on the pros and cons of each of the four proposals. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
This is the most direct route, mostly a straight shot down Georgia Avenue and 7th Street NW. For commuters, entertainment-seekers, and soccer fans who live along Georgia, this alternative represents the fastest way to get them to work downtown; movies, theaters, and sports games around Gallery Place; and the planned D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point, respectively. Georgia and 7th both have a substantial retail presence for most of their length, allowing the corridor to capitalize on the retail and development that a streetcar can bring. There's enough density (and potential for density) along this route to make for a sizable ridership, as evidenced by the 70 bus lines along this route, which enjoy (or suffer) the second-highest ridership of any D.C. bus corridor. Zimbabwe notes that buses have long dwell times at 7th and H streets NW because of the high volume of passengers getting on and off—something the streetcar could ameliorate with its more efficient loading. (The streetcar has more doors and greater capacity, and doesn't have to kneel down and rise again like buses often do.)
This is the only route that runs through Chinatown on 7th Street, where congestion can be heavy. When a Wizards or Capitals game gets out at the Verizon Center, it's easy to imagine the streetcar being overwhelmed, both by passengers and by crowds in the street that prevent it from passing. (Zimbabwe, however, notes that car traffic is actually heavier north of Mount Vernon Square, where there are more curb cuts and loading challenges, and so 7th Street in Shaw might actually be the greater bottleneck.) This route also most closely traces the existing Green and Yellow lines on the Metro, so that people traveling from Shaw or Petworth to Chinatown or L'Enfant Plaza would have little incentive to take the streetcar over the faster Metro. Additionally, the route basically duplicates the 70 bus lines, so it doesn't really provide a transit option where none existed before.
This route covers the major retail hotspots—F Street downtown, 14th Street near Logan Circle, U Street, and Georgia Avenue past Howard University and Petworth—making it well-suited to what streetcars are often best for: hopping on and off in pedestrian-friendly areas. (Some streetcar advocates refer to this as "extended pedestrianism.") By cutting west to 14th Street south of U Street and moving to Georgia Avenue north of U, it creates something of an inverse Green Line, making it less duplicative than Alternative 1 while still bringing the same development potential to Georgia.
Hitting the hotspots likely means getting stuck in more traffic, and this is a less direct route than the others. DDOT anticipates that while it would take about 41 minutes to travel from end to end on the other three alternatives, this route would take 43 minutes southbound and 47 minutes northbound (and presumably much longer if there's heavy traffic). Additionally, it's hard to imagine the loop around Thomas Circle being anything short of a logistical nightmare—Henson says it's "one of the big problems," and DDOT doesn't yet have a solution. (While the previous era of streetcars ran straight through the circle, that's no longer an option.) And the V Street jog appears complicated and inefficient.
A path along 4th Street SW could boost the retail and office spaces that have cropped up there and will likely continue to do so. 11th Street is an appealing route through the downtown and Shaw area, since it's less congested than 7th or 14th but still has plenty of potential for retail and commerce. And while Sherman Avenue doesn't have enough room for dedicated streetcar lanes, Zimbabwe notes that it might still allow for speedier travel because there are fewer businesses that would have loading issues, in a part of town where alleys are less common and so curbside loading is prevalent.
Sherman Avenue doesn't make a lot of obvious sense for a streetcar route. It's mostly single-family houses and a few small apartment buildings, with very little retail space. "The idea is to serve as much density as possible," says Henson, "and Sherman doesn’t serve the same density as Georgia Avenue." Additionally, its lengthy streetscaping process was just completed last summer, with a row of trees down the center of the road—does the city really want to tear it up and do it all over again? At the southern end, as commenter Sandy pointed out on my post yesterday, "Any route that goes down Pennsylvania is unacceptable, as that will require a total shutdown of the line whenever there's a big festival–which are exactly the times the streetcar's mobility improvements will be most necessary."
Ninth Street could be a great place for a streetcar line: It's wide, it's experienced a boom in restaurants and retail, and it's currently not well-served by public transit. According to Henson, it's the best candidate for a dedicated streetcar lane south of U Street of any of the alternatives.
This route suffers from the same drawbacks as the very similar Alternative 3: Sherman and Pennsylvania avenues are problematic streetcar corridors.
Map from DDOT