Washington Comes Closer to Bridging the Gap with its New Streetcar Network

» After tumultuous council session last week, first line is mostly funded and will be ready for service in 2012. Eight more corridors in the District are also planned.

Compared to the massive, multi-billion dollar investment made over thirty years in the construction of Washington’s Metrorail network, the 37-mile streetcar system that the city’s Department of Transportation is planning pretty much spare change. These more limited ambitions are a reflection of tighter times, a realization of the fact that save some unforeseen technological advance, the era of big expansions of American rapid transit networks has mostly come to an end.

Yet the decision by District DOT chair Gabe Klein to announce a framework last year for the construction of eight streetcar lines illustrates a maturing of thinking about the American city in general. By highlighting eight routes spread out along 37 miles that plug holes between Metrorail stops and that provide access to now rail-less portions of the inner-city, the city will be making it increasingly feasible to live without a car throughout Washington. And with streetcars, the District is choosing to emphasize occasional and non-work users in a way not nearly as simple as with the commuting-focused, downtown-oriented subway system.

Washington began construction on the first line last year along H Street and Benning Road in the northeast quadrant of the city, choosing to include new tracks (but not catenary) along with an overall street renovation project. But that corridor, which would ultimately extend east to the Benning Road Metrorail station across the Anacostia River and west to Union Station with services by 2012, has been subject to numerous debates in the U.S. capital city. Most importantly, a ban on overhead wire in parts of the historic core is still in effect, making the installation of traditional streetcars impossible.

One city councilperson almost managed to remove funding to install overhead catenary last week in an overnight move, though an intense citizen campaign restored $47 million in local funds over the course of the next two years. Along with the expected receipt of a federal urban circulator grant later this year, that will be enough to get streetcars running from Union Station to Benning Road — though there won’t be enough vehicles for full service initially. Meanwhile, twelve of the council’s thirteen members announced their support for a resolution that would allow overhead wires on this first corridor, though that bill won’t be up for a vote for some time.

Washington must come up with a long-term plan for streetcar vehicles that do not rely on overhead wire (some alternatives have recently been presented by vehicle manufacturers Alstom and Bombardier). Combined with the need to find an estimated $1.5 billion in financing to construct the complete eight-line network and buy an adequate number of vehicles, D.C. has a number of milestones to pass before it will benefit from a full-scale streetcar system.

But the District’s project, if implemented correctly, could play an important role in the development of this newly growing metropolis. The eight lines highlighted for construction are relatively well-planned and will hit the right spots for this city.

As the map to the left above demonstrates, the existing Metrorail system has a number of major gaps in Washington itself, and it fails to provide efficient crosstown routes. Its service to the relatively densely populated near Northeast (such as to the Trinidad neighborhood) is entirely absent, and inhabitants of areas along north Georgia Avenue and many of the sections of the city on the south side of the Anacostia have no rail connections. Meanwhile, you can’t get from one side of town to the other without going through the central business district — an especially big problem for people trying to get from Congress Heights to Deanwood, for instance.

The streetcar lines planned, as the map on the right above shows, will fill in many of those gaps, allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections currently not simple by rail. Most of the lines — with the notable exception of the southern portion of line I’ve referred to in the top map as Route 5 — would provide services to areas currently without easy rail transit access. In a place hoping to expand its population further and spur new development, these new streetcar lines seem well laid out.

None of the chosen corridors is likely dense enough to merit a new Metrorail connection, which means that the choice of streetcars is both fiscally sound and proportionate to demand.

The overall network, as shown below, provides much greater transit coverage of the region’s center city, though certain dense areas, specifically those along Wisconsin Avenue between Georgetown University and Tenleytown Metro Station, would remain unserved by rail even with the streetcar system’s full implementation. That said, the city is considering just that extension, along with a continuation of the Georgia Avenue line to Silver Spring and a connection further into Southeast D.C.

(I’ve included on the maps shown here the Columbia Pike Streetcar and Potomac Yards Transitway Rapid Bus proposed for Northern Virginia.)

Despite the justifiable excitement about getting this streetcar network off the ground, the District has a lot of work to do before it makes it a vital and well-used portion of the region’s transit system. Metrorail has been incredibly successful relative to most other new United States transportation systems; these streetcar lines should be designed to reinforce that high transit ridership.

Current plans, however, do not provide adequate demonstration of the city’s resolve to do just that. The way that streetcar tracks have been installed along H Street and Benning Road thus far has been sub-par: streets designs will ensure that vehicles are stuck within, behind, and between traffic when they begin running in 2012. These problems could have been avoided had steps been taken to seal the streetcar corridor from surrounding automobiles, something that can be accomplished relatively cheaply. I hope that future corridors will avoid future problems of this sort.

I also want to emphasize the importance of legibility in transit network design. One of the significant upsides of Metro is the system’s clear signage; its maps make figuring out how to get from one place in the region to another quite simple. Streetcar lines should be directly incorporated into the Metro map and labeled as simply as possible. I’ve provided an example for how that might be done at the top of this post. The streetcar names (#1-10) are my invention, but something of that sort must be instituted to encourage ease of use for occasional and frequent passengers alike.

I’ve avoided here the whole question of whether streetcar technology makes a good investment; it’s a discussion with meritorious arguments on both sides. Washington has been pushing actively to improve its express bus services, and recently won a national grant to do just that. But streetcars do have two major advantages over buses that could be particularly applicable to Washington’s plans: One, they’re more politically palatable, enough to make full funding and support from governmental leaders actually conceivable, not nearly as true for a series of bus lanes; Two, they have the potential to offer higher capacity than buses at lower operations costs.

But Washington — at least as of now — has not demonstrated itself particularly interested in taking advantage of the latter asset. The streetcars the DOT has purchased are only 66 feet long — about the length of an articulated bus, far shorter than, say, the Parisian T3 vehicles, at 143 feet long. District planners may be underestimating demand for some of their routes — some could produce high ridership if planned correctly — but they may also be constrained by the fact that these trains will be sharing lanes with cars. Either way, relying on such short vehicles negates some of the benefits of this rail-based technology.

All the talk about streetcars avoids a pressing problem facing D.C.: Metrorail is reaching capacity, and there are a number of significant expansion projects both in Washington and in the near suburbs that would greatly enhance and improve the existing system. Yet with the recession pulling tightly at the purse strings of both Maryland and Virginia, the potential for regional agreement on new projects seems unlikely. This is particularly true because of those states’ respective huge commitments to the Purple Line and Silver Line projects, both of which will be under construction over the next few years.

So Washington’s government is making the right choice in choosing to invest in this cheaper mode for the time being. If regional transit demand is greater over the long-term, a multi-state solution for funding must be found — but in the meantime, this focus on locally-funded streetcars makes sense.

31 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • One thing about the LRVs DDOT has purchased: Yes they are short, however they can be coupled into trains if necessary.

    • Steve

      Actually, they cannot. The streetcars (and yes, they are correctly streetcars, not LRVs) cannot be MU’ed. This means that though they physically can be coupled together, the controls in the lead vehicle cannot control the second car. Also, the streetcars are going to be extremely slow, probably slower than the current buses. At the Streetcar showcase the engineer inside the vehicle mentioned that a governor has been installed to limit top speed to 25mph or 35mph!

      • dejv

        The streetcars (and yes, they are correctly streetcars, not LRVs) cannot be MU’ed.

        Steve, you sound like there was no progress of streetcar development since 1930’s PCC. ;) For your information, streetcars have been running in multiple-unit configuration since 1950’s, so your statement is outdated by 60 years.

        The particular DC’s cars don’t have MU capability because DDOT didn’t order it. But the retrofit isn’t anything hard, it would need:

        – add MU cables and plugs (order of magnitude cheaper than new fully automatic coupler)
        – add one control card to ELIN’s regulator
        – Ctrl C + Ctrl V from other ELIN’s control software

        together approximately for 10000 per car (avoidable if it was ordered).

        At the Streetcar showcase the engineer inside the vehicle mentioned that a governor has been installed to limit top speed to 25mph or 35mph!

        The design speed of DC’s Trios is 70 km/h (43.4 mph).

  • andrew

    It’s worth noting that construction of the Purple Line is far from certain, and that the Silver Line will add a huge strain on the downtown core during rush hour.

    The orange line operates at (or close to) capacity, and cannot be reduced, while tinkering with the Blue line would likely yield some rather odd service patterns.

    If the DC Metro area does indeed continue to grow (and all indications are that the Silver/Orange line corridors will grow the fastest), a new downtown alignment will be needed. The folks at Greater Greater Washington proposed this route a few years ago, which would bring Metrorail service to several transit-deprived neighborhoods, and relieve congestion, while also making the #1 Streetcar line largely redundant.

    Also worth mentioning is that future expansion of the Streetcar system will almost certainly include operation over exclusive rights of way (as a streetcar-BRT hybrid)

    • Kevin H.

      Andrew, this wasn’t actually GGW’s suggestion, but based on what WMATA would actually like to see by 2030. It’s too bad we won’t see this sooner, if at all.

  • Interesting map and article. I created the Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition to advocate for a streetcar route connecting the terminus of the K Street/Benning Road line up Wisconsin Avenue to the Tenley and Friendship Heights metro stations. The Red and Orange/Blue metro rail lines are some of the most crowded and a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar will provide passengers an alternative to get to destinations downtown when there are service disruptions on metro rail and will help relieve crowding and capacity issues on these lines.

    Additionally the 30s buses that service Wisconsin Avenue are both some of the most crowded and most delayed, as noted by the 2005 DC Transit Alternatives Analysis report (http://ddot.washingtondc.gov/ddot/frames.asp?doc=/ddot/lib/ddot/masstransit/dcaa/finalreport_10-28-05.pdf). According to this report, a Wisconsin Avenue route from Friendship Heights to Georgetown would have the highest ridership of the nine corridors examined.

    The 2020 campus plans for both Georgetown U. and American U., which both call for adding over 3,000 new students and, for American University, moving the law school from more suburban Spring Valley to Tenley Circle on Wisc Ave, only highlight the need for better transit options for this corridor.

    If you’d like to a streetcars that will offer improved mobility, reduced consumption of oil, and reduced auto congestion for this major corridor, I encourage you to join our group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&ref=search&gid=264242402429

  • Dan

    “These more limited ambitions are a reflection of tighter times, a realization of the fact that save some unforeseen technological advance, the era of big expansions of American rapid transit networks has mostly come to an end”.

    Subway tunneling is cheaper now than when Metro was first built in the 60’s and 70’s. The detached Blue line tunnel shown in the GreaterGreater Washington graphic (from Rosslyn to the Stadium-Armory) could be built for $10-15 billion, not chump change, but hardly that much in the scheme of things. The obstacles today are mainly political. Expansion of Metro’s core capacity will be necessary when the Silver line opens (as I believe you pointed out in a past article), streetcars or no.

    Streetcars will help cross-town connectivity and may take some pressure off the Metro subways, but long-term, WMATA, D.C., VA, and MD need to think about building more heavy -rail subways. The main advantages to streetcars will be the immediate neighborhood to neighborhood transit options and economic growth they’ll bring to the corridors where they’re implemented.

    • Robspost

      I think the last thing the district needs is more metrorail routes, the district proper is only 67 square miles and my conclusion is that the current and planned expansions will be more than adequate for the area served. The remedy you offer to releive metrorail congestion is to build more metrorail, is the same as Los Angeles saying the answer to freeway congestion is to build more freeways.

      • Dan

        With all due respect, you are simply wrong, Robspost. My conclusion is the more expansion is needed. I have worked on multiple studies that all show the same conclusion.

  • To this, I’d only add that Fairfax County has been planning an LRT line of its own up Route 7 for some years, from Bailey’s Crossroads to “Tysons Central 7” (intersecting with West Falls Church on your map), with a possible extension to King Street station in Alexandria.

  • Ben

    Light rail up Route 28 in FFX Co, from I-66 to the Silver Line and Dulles airport should be looked at. There is a decent concentration of jobs in this corridor, as well as the Air & Space museum.

    http://www.co.prince-william.va.us/docLibrary/PDF/007951.pdf

  • It should also be noted that Arlington County wants to build their portion of the Potomac Yard-Crystal City transit line as a streetcar, but they don’t have the funding for it. Alexandria is interested in a future conversion to streetcar, but they intend to build their portion as a busway first.

  • Nathanael

    Off topic but related to your tweet:

    The Tory/LibDem proposal to run HS2 from Old Oak Common in London to Birmingham Airport isn’t as dumb as it looks. Consider:
    (1) These stations will have metro-frequency services downtown. (In London, multiple such services in different directions if they do it right; I’m assuming they’ll upgrade the Tube and other rail connections to the Old Oak Common area.)
    (2) HSR is going to have to take “less than high speed” routes downtown in any event.
    (3) None of London’s terminals are in great downtown locations in any event.
    (4) While connecting directly to HS1 to the Chunnel sounds desirable, in fact Britain’s customs barrier with France makes the connection annoying and obnoxious; better to build a ‘fully domestic’ line and link them if and when Britain joins Schengen.
    (5) Failure to go into the densest parts of downtowns will probably allow the use of Continental loading gauge.

    • I agree it’s not as dumb as it looks, but it’s still pretty bad. Metro frequency to downtown is not enough; downtown is the most desirable. However, it’s okay to start away from downtown and work your way toward the center.

      The example to think of is the Tohoku Shinkansen, which opened only to Omiya, and took three years to be extended south to Ueno and ten more to be extended to Tokyo Station. Omiya had a four-tracked connection to Tokyo with metro frequency on each track and Ueno a six-track connection plus a couple of subway lines, but JR East still judged it important enough to serve Tokyo directly that it regauged two of the connecting tracks for exclusive Shinkansen use. (The remaining four tracks between Ueno and Tokyo are the most overcrowded in Japan, and JR East is spending hundreds of millions on adding back the two tracks on a new el.)

      • Nathanael

        I see a pretty natural extension of the HSR route to Birmingham and one to London Paddington; I see no practical way getting “really downtown” in London (Paddington is way off on the west side), but I think that may be hopeless.

        • London doesn’t have anything like Tokyo Station or Berlin Hauptbahnof, so it doesn’t matter too much what “really downtown” is. However, it’d be best if it put its trains at a station that’s well-connected to the entire region. In practice, this means the King’s Cross-St. Pancras-Euston complex, or maybe Waterloo.

          • John W

            There isn’t one “downtown” in London – there are two: the West End (equivalent to NYC’s Midtown? with shops, theatres, media companies, etc) and the City (financial centre, equivalent to Manhattan’s Downtown).

            Euston is far enough of a walk from King’s X-St Pancras to not be part of the same complex. Euston or St Pancras/King’s X both make sense as the main London terminus, with Victoria line trains to the West End, and Northern line (and other lines from King’s X) to the City. If the HSR platforms extend south from Euston (ie below the current forecourt), then there’s the possibility of also linking it to the Circle/Hammersmith & City/Metropolitan lines at Euston Square tube station.

            Can’t see it being Waterloo, given that used to be the international HSR terminus but was dropped; also, it’s on the wrong side of the river. For the City, Liverpool Street would be the nearest, but I think it’s already near capacity as it is. Paddington can be a pain to get to (even if I wanted to splurge on the Heathrow Express, there’s not much point in bothering as by the time I get to Paddington and get on the train I might as well just go the whole way to Heathrow on the Picadilly line). It really would not make sense to have the terminus there (then again, with Crossrail, it’s all going to be much better connected).

            Back to the Old Oak Common area – I don’t think there will be any connections possible there except Crossrail and some rail services. There’s not much around there anyway, and Crossrail will be running 24tph at peak, with a capacity of 1500 per train, linking Heathrow, the West End, City and Canary Wharf. It gives a better set of destinations than any one city-centre terminal could (which is great for arrivals, but more confusing for departees).

            Actually, if you want an ideal scenario, it’d be to four-track the Crossrail route, with one set reserved for high-speed trains. You could have, say, two city-centre stops (Bond St and Liverpool St maybe – or just Farringdon for a Berlin style Hauptbahnhof, crossed by the Thameslink north-south route), and connect to the HS1 at Stratford for through-running trains to Europe. Not sure if any of these stops would make a natural terminus though.

          • For the cost of four-tracking Crossrail, you could just build HSR from London to Birmingham. The project is by a large margin the most expensive per-km ever built outside the US.

            Having just one connecting line is not ideal. Some HSR systems do it when there’s no other choice, but that’s for through-stations, not terminals.

            Waterloo got dropped because of suburban NIMBYs, if I’m not mistaken. I believe the plan was to connect HSR to Waterloo and not St. Pancras, which is a detour, but once residents objected too much, the London terminus got changed.

  • David

    If you like to do graphics and you have free time….consider doing the following.

    I would like to see another “Transit Fantasy Map”, but this time perhaps a little more realistic in ambition. Prior maps have been a little to ambitious, making them easy to dismiss. I would make it myself but I’m no good with graphics programs. However, those maps help articulate a vision for what needs to be done next, and from the comments on these blogs and at GGW, I get the impression that the Blue line separation is more likely than I thought it was. When I first heard about it, I thought it was a wonderful but hopeless dream. All this chatter makes me think its next up after the Silver line opens.

    Anyway, I wish someone would make a mini-program consisting of two maps – one in the metro symbology style, and one of the actual geography. In addition, the map should enable the user to click on a proposed line and make it appear on the map, and give a rough estimate of the costs. Here are the things that are in the works or have been seriously proposed and are at least in the realm of possibility, with the most likely at the top.

    IN THE WORKS:

    Silver Line
    Purple Line
    Streetcars (add Wisconsin line, make symbology map more readable)

    PROPOSALS
    Separated Blue Line thru Georgetown to Union Station

    Separated Blue line down Columbia Pike (Yellow line would have to take over the Franconia Springfield Branch)

    Separated Yellow Line, either all the way thru downtown, or from Convention Center or Columbia Heights up to Silver Spring, and possible over to Rockville area along the CSX tracks.

    Gold Line from Dulles or Tysons to Old Town, perhaps across the Wilson Bridge

    Purple Line to Tysons

    Yellow Line extension to Fort Belvoir

    Green Line extension to Fort Meade/BWI

    Those expansions are at least possible in the sense that they would serve significant areas of population and have been subject of some discussion. Many fantasy maps add various concentric rings of subway lines which don’t seem possible. I’d like to see a fantasy map which includes all of those lines and tell us the rough expected cost. It’d be cool, I hope someone reads this blog and has the time to try it out.

  • AlexB

    I know that if you want to get people to ride transit you have to make a really really great bus service (branded BRT) or you have to have rails. However, it just seems a shame to build all these lines that don’t have their own lane. A 25-35 mph speed limit is not a big deal, but having to deal with lights and traffic is a MAJOR problem. The metro probably doesn’t get much faster than 30 mph where the stations are close together.

    Also, you’d think if they are building the purple line, they would want to connect at least a couple of these streetcars to it. The numbers 1, 5 & 7 routes seem like excellent candidates.

    PS: the M street subway idea always annoyed me. It’s only basic purpose is to provide for more capacity. It doesn’t connect to the red line on the west side of downtown and it doesn’t really provide service to new areas. That’s not really enough bang for your 15 billion bucks.

  • Dan

    @AlexB
    “PS: the M street subway idea always annoyed me. It’s only basic purpose is to provide for more capacity. It doesn’t connect to the red line on the west side of downtown and it doesn’t really provide service to new areas. That’s not really enough bang for your 15 billion bucks.”

    It easily could, the proposed “Longfellow” station on GGW’s map: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=790 could have a subterranean walk through connecting it to the Farragut North/Farragut West Stations (the schematic map doesn’t show distance relations well), thus making this a secondary downtown transit hub like Metro Center. NYC does this quite well with several stations in Manhattan.

    Just to be clear, I support the streetcar project and the new blue line.

  • NikolasM

    I think once the Silver line is fully operational it will be impossible to ignore separating the blue line. That will be a heck of a project.

  • DBX

    DC needed more east-west subway capacity 15 years ago. It’s mind-boggling to me that this problem isn’t front and center of the agenda.

  • cph

    Where will the yards/maintenance facilities for all these streetcar lines be located? (At least if the streetcar network was contiguous, which this is not, we could optimize the number and location of the yards.

    And I agree, getting a second grade-separated east-west Metro line (perhaps by routing the Silver north from Rosslyn to Georgetown, then eastward to at least Union Station) is a must, if only to reduce pressure on the Blue and Orange Lines…..those downtown transfer stations are madhouses at rush hour!

  • Canaan

    Not to be nitpicky but I think you have an extra fifth station on the orange line on the 1/2 mile radius map. The East Falls church station isn’t that close to the ballston-rosslyn string of 4.

  • Great maps! I have one comment regarding the overall map. The Metro/streetcar transfer stations are a little light, making them hard to distinguish at first glance from other Metrorail stations. Darkening these circles a bit should do the trick.

  • Philip G. Craig

    Yonah Freeman’s article discussing the issues related to restoring streetcars to Washington is very informative and for the most part on target. He made an excellent point when he wrote “The streetcars the DOT has purchased are only 66 feet long — about the length of an articulated bus, far shorter than, say, the Parisian T3 vehicles, at 143 feet long.” At a minimum, DDOT would have been wiser had it purchased streetcars that were at least 90 feet long, with a capacity 50% greater than an articulated bus.

    His reference to “overhead catenary,” however, gives me pause about whether this type of traction power distribution is really for the type of appplication planned in Washington revived streetcar system. Catenary is what one finds between Boston, New York and Washington on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor railroad line. It’s complex and heavy infrastructure would be obtrusive and inappropriate for installation along city streets in densely populated urban areas. Hopefully, the District DOT intends to use simple trolley wire, the same technology employed outside the “No Wire Zone” by Washington’s first generation streetcar system. Trolley wire, when supported by span wires connected to cylindrical tapered poles integrated with street lights (or similar techniques that respect the needs of the communities served)is part of what is required to minimize any adverse environmental impacts of bringing streetcars back to the nation’s capital. Know the difference between overhead catenary and trolley wire, insist on the latter, and use correct terminology when describing what is being proposed.

  • Dudley Horscroft

    Disparaging comments re streetcar speeds are not realistic. A major constraint is stop spacing. PCC cars with an acceleration of 1.56 m/s2 took about 100 yds to reach 25 mph, 167 yds to reach 30 mph and 400 yds to reach 35 mph. Double these to take account of braking distances, and you will see that 25 mph is a reasonable top speed for short block spacings with a stop at every intersection. If you are to reach 35 mph, your stops need to be nearly half mile apart! OK for outer suburban runs such as Purple Line, perhaps, but not in the middle of the Washington CBD. Incidentally, modern streetcars/lrvs more normally have a lower maximum acceleration of 1.3 m/s2.
    The other major constraint is traffic signals. For best results all stops must be far side stops with streetcar priority on approach, so that so far as possible, all signal go green for the streetcar as it approaches (this can ensure that left turning traffic is cleared before the car reaches the intersection). Streetcar priority will assist traffic on the main routes – no problems – and then they will not be held up by other traffic or hold it up. Good result for all.
    Yes, the three cars already owned are far too small but they were purchased as part of a demonstration project. New cars for the Benning-H Street line and its westward extension will undoubtedly be far larger, in the region of 120 – 150 ft long, and provide an excellent service for this route. And, for the record, note that the entire line from Union Station east is outside the “no-wires” zone, so simple trolley wire could easily be installed now with no problems. I suspect the reference to “overhead catenary” may be a misnaming of the type of overhead to be used.

    • Yes, I should have been clearer: streetcars wouldn’t be getting intercity rail-type catenary, they’d be getting much less intrusive trolley wire. I’ll try to be more specific about that in the future.

  • Amber Reed

    It seems wrong to lump the Purple Line in with Metrorail; it would fit much better in the “Streetcar” category. It will be street-running for most of its route and use overhead wires. “Tram” or “light rail” might be a good compromise, but Metrorail-like expectations will leave many disappointed when it’s actually up and running.

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