Washington Promotes Massive New Streetcar Project

DC Streetcar Plan Map» Lines could be completed in ten years; is it the right investment?

Like seemingly every other city in the country, Washington, DC is planning a streetcar network. Its transportation officials, however, seem uniquely positioned to actually construct their system; unlike other municipalities, Washington is installing tracks in the ground — albeit with no power source — and owns several streetcar vehicles — though they’re in storage in the Czech Republic.

Last week, Greater Greater Washington broke the big story, which is that the District plans eight streetcar lines to be built in three phases, to extend 37 miles across the city. Beyond DC followed up with news that local transportation officials expect the project’s completion in ten years or less at a total cost of $1.5 billion. It would be the most significant example of municipal entrepreneurship on behalf of such street-running light rail vehicles in almost a century.

At a first glance, the project seems well-planned — the streetcar network would complement existing Metro lines and complete connections that are tenuous today. The first routes would serve transit-deprived and primarily lower-class neighborhoods along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington; along the planned K Street Transitway downtown; from Anacostia north along 8th Street through Capitol Hill and into the developing Navy Yard/Ballpark district; and north-south along 14th Street and Georgia Avenue.

The full network, as illustrated above, would connect a number of destinations with the intention of linking Metro stations circumferentially. Anacostia’s Minnesota Avenue Orange Line stop and Anacostia Green Line stop would be linked directly along Minnesota Avenue; Woodley Park, Adams Morgan, and Union Station would find themselves closer via a new streetcar on Calvert Street, U Street, and Florida Avenue; and new Rhode Island Avenue and Columbia Road lines could ensure east-west connections in Mid City. Wealthy and white Northwest DC would get virtually no service. This plan is dramatically more ambitious than that envisioned in 2005 by the city, which proposed fewer streetcars and more bus lines.

There is no provision for new transit on Pennsylvania Avenue, which bisects the city; this despite the fact that the 30s buses that currently use the street are the city’s most popular.

From a process standpoint, the District’s decision to pursue streetcar construction in a series of phases rather than line-by-line is an unusual approach that indicates the city’s interest in developing the system as a network, rather than as a series of individual elements. Each of the three phases will undergo an impact study, and will be constructed as a unit. The 1.5-mile Anacostia line already planned for fall 2012 and the tracks being laid on H Street and Benning road already will be incorporated into the first phase.

This is an important advance that evokes memories of the development of the Washington Metro, virtually all of whose construction followed a single plan and environmental assessment developed when the project was first authorized. Because of procedural changes in the 1970s and 80s by the Federal Transit Administration, most transportation authorities have approached capital expansion from the perspective of serving one corridor at a time, rather than in the interest of planning a unified network from the start. Washington’s decision to articulate a streetcar system now, rather than suggesting, for instance, one line in Anacostia, followed by something else to be determined at a later time, is the right move.

The decision to move forward with this network plan would allow overall completion by 2019 if the District is able to assemble enough local and national money. Federal aid in the form of Small Start grants seem likely.

There are some contradictions in the District’s proposal. The Department of Transportation, according to Beyond DC, plans streetcars as a quick way to get around the city, with stations positioned every four to five blocks (a quarter mile), versus every two blocks, typical for local buses (and the Portland Streetcar, for instance). For many people, streetcars would be the city’s most convenient and fastest mode of transportation and provide service levels somewhere between that offered by express buses and the Metro.

Yet plans also call for platforms that aren’t full-length; worse, the city will not generally operate trains with more than one car, meaning it’s not expecting particularly large numbers of users. Streetcars will operate in mostly mixed traffic, with the exception of along K Street, M Street Southeast, and Rhode Island Avenue: everywhere else, the vehicles would be competing with automobile traffic. That’s not a recipe for success, but it certainly will allow the city to build more miles for less money. It’s the primary explanation for why $1.5 billion is enough to construct this large of a system.

One wonders if Washington would benefit from fewer lines with increased investment in those that are built. Though right-of-ways are not available for full reservation, between intersections most of the DC streets planned for streetcar lines are wide enough to provide independent lanes for the streetcars alone. There’s no reason to mix train and automobile traffic, and if the city chooses to separate the right-of-ways, ridership will increase correspondingly.

The city wants to build a 37-mile system, but perhaps it should double its proposed price tag and extend the time frame for completion. A faster, more reliable system that takes longer to build will be more worthwhile than a street-running network thrown together at a minimal cost.

Image above: DC Streetcar Plan, from District DOT

35 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • dist

    This plan seems quite sound to me. It reminds of Bordeaux (France) streetcar which saw the simultaneous opening of three different routes and then an expansion in dfferent phases of those same lines.

    Anyway, it should be possible to segregate streetcar and road traffic later and upgrade routes to full 35 or 45m streetcar when needed. It is in my opinion a lot better to offer a comprehensive network and then expand it as the ridership grows.

  • Ben

    The route from Woodley Park through U Street to Florida Avenue would provide a very convenient way for residents west of CT Avenue to access the U Street corridor via transit rather than having to take the Red Line to Gallery Place and transferring to the Green Line. I would like to see a route running up Wisconsin Avenue from Georgetown to the Tenley metro. This area is probably dense enough to support a streetcar line and it would further encourage the redevelopment of the Cathedral area and Tenleytown.

  • Andrew S

    I can’t imagine constructing streetcars in mixed traffic. Call me crazy, but I’d rather be riding a bus in a dedicated lane (like in London) at the cost of a few gallons of paint and some enforcement cameras than a train stuck behind a car. DC’s wide streets seem the ideal candidate for taking back a bit of space from cars. If you’re not willing to do that politically, don’t ask for billions of dollars for streetcars.

    Even Toronto, which managed to hold onto it streetcars, is doing everything it can to separate them from street traffic. Why set yourself up for failure from the start?

  • Fritz

    dist, I had the pleasure of living in Bordeaux and one thing that made their tramway great was that it had unconditional right of way. I remember a few times arriving to ‘stop’ lights for the tram because traffic signals had been mistimed and within seconds the tram conductor was calling dispatch and telling them to give the tram right of way. And that’s at the few intersections there are. Most Bordeaux tracks run on grassed areas on the side or in the middle of streets or on a slightly elevated area where cars (and Emergency vehicles) can drive up if needed. The ones that run over flat asphalt (well, it’s normally stone) where cars can drive is because only residential cars are allowed since the area in the center of town (between Grand Theatre and Hotel de Ville). It’s really an amazing system and it allows emergency vehicles to get around more quickly since they jump the half-curb to zoom by traffic. Also, most of their trains are 7 cars where you can walk internally from one end to another (although line C is 5 cars). The success of the tram is that it’s the second fastest way to get around Bordeaux. Biking is faster than tram is faster than bus/car/walking.

    DC will need to 1) make trams frequent 2) make trip times faster than cars (i.e. give them green lights and ways to pass traffic) 3) do NYC subway style seating… Bordeaux gives too much space to too few seats which is really bad during rush hour. Trams have a great power that subways don’t–you can see what you pass… I often went to events in Bordeaux just because I saw them from the side of the tram and the tram was the lifeblood of the farmer’s market on the quay. As someone living in DC but not sure where I’ll ultimately end up I’ve got to say this is pretty exciting.

  • david vartanoff

    DC had “reserved ROW” for streetcars on several routes–PA Ave SE for example–and plenty of room to do more. Restoring the 30 Route up Wisconsin really is Yogi Berra country–Deja vu all over again– for me as someone who rode streetcars in DC up to the last night.. Maybe if they really hustled, we could open at least part of the Anacostia Line by late January 2012 in time for the 50th anniversary of the mistake.
    So the routes shown , no surprise, replicate many of the previous, because the streets are still important arterials. The major hurdles aside from cash are getting rid of the no wires stupidity and reclaiming the rail lanes for exclusive use. GO FOR IT!!!

  • matt

    What is the point of having streetcars over buses again? Well… besides capacity, which isn’t the case here with 1 car trams. And sticking them in mixed traffic is not really helpful at all. 1.5 billion down the drain I guess. For much less just do a legit BRT. Or spend the extra money to separate the trams from traffic except in the least busy areas.

  • The blithe contention that mixed-lane running streetcar can be upgraded to reserved-guideway later on is ridiculous – most of the time shared-running lines must operate next to the curb, and reserved guideway causes more disruption there than it does running down the center for obvious reasons (right turns more frequent than left turns). Shared-lane has never really and will never really be ‘upgraded’; what ended up happening in the past is that the rails were torn up from one place and put down in another place, which is really a complete new line.

  • Andy K

    They have shared lanes in SF on Market St. running down the middle of the street. There are islands for boarding. It would not be too difficult to change these to reserved lanes.

  • jon

    andrew, thats what I was thinking too when i read this article… DC has wide boulevards which would be perfect for taking out 2 lanes for reserved RoW for streetcars so its a little odd to have them in mixed traffic. as a regular portland streetcar rider I know all about the slow speed from closely spaced stops (and all of which are guaranteed to be stopped at), mixed traffic operation and very minimal use of signal pre-emption for streetcars (only for difficult turns).

  • “What is the point of having streetcars over buses again?”


    Because buses do not attract choice riders, nor do they attract economic development. A smooth steel on steel ride is more comfortable than a bumpy ride of tires on asphalt.

    Some transit planners and advocates have been acting as if bus and streetcar are the same. They are not. For whatever reason, streetcars attract more “choice” riders.

    This is not an argument against buses, and improvements to buses to make them more like streetcars. However, as close as they try and make up bus service it is ridiculous to pretend that there is no difference between these two modalities.

    Buses do have more flexibility in routing. However it is the the long-term nature of rail tracks which attracts developments. In some places, speed is the main concern. In some places it is the flexibility to change route alignments. In other places the priority is attracting ‘choice’ riders and in others it is spurring economic development.

    There is a time and place for rapid and/or local bus and a time and place for express and local rail. However, these are not the same.

    The reasons cities across the country are rebuilding streetcar networks as opposed to just adding more buses is because people generally prefer riding a streetcar than a bus.

  • Brian

    Would the Feds actually allow a streetcar to traverse The Mall on 7th?

  • Ocean Railroader

    I’m glad the streetcars are reclaming their former terrory. What I like about them is that oil could go up to 150 bucks a barrel and the streetcar won’t have to worry about getting fuel. There are sevearl major railroad websites that talked about how the DC streetcar system was so big in the past that there is a legend that someone could ride a streetcar from down downtown Washingtion and Ride it to Gettysburg PA along with Baltomore. At the rate there has been uban growth in the DC area the streetcars could easly reach down into Fredricksburg VA and the other suburbs of Baltomore do to the fast pase of urbran growth in the area. Besides Buses are kind of boring.

    The only thing I wish that they would do would be to buy some classic 1930’s and 1950’s streetcars to have them be mixed in with the modern type of streetcars running on the new rail tracls. The classic syile streetcars could be built bran new with modern up grades but could have the shape of the old ones.

  • david vartanoff

    @ Brian see this link for a 1958 map showing the 7th St line running down to the wharves. Note also a turnaround call S W Mall. Both destinations appear on the roll sign in my collection.

  • alexjonlin

    The point of streetcars is to be inexpensive but carry a lot more riders than buses, and this is what these streetcars do. The Portland Streetcar and the SLUT in Seattle run in mixed traffic and it works out pretty well. And I have never seen a streetcar running with coupled cars; that’s a light rail thing. Streetcars even in mixed traffic and with single cars are a lot better than buses because they consistently get far more riders and attract sustainable transit-oriented development in a way that buses never do. There’s nothing wrong with this plan.

  • Because buses do not attract choice riders

    Neither do legacy streetcars.

    However, as close as they try and make up bus service it is ridiculous to pretend that there is no difference between these two modalities.

    It’s less ridiculous than pretending that street-running trams have the same mobility benefits as dedicated-ROW light rail, and then giving light rail-based arguments for street-running trams.

    The reasons cities across the country are rebuilding streetcar networks as opposed to just adding more buses is because people generally prefer riding a streetcar than a bus.

    No, the reason cities are rebuilding streetcar networks, none of which goes above the low tens of thousands of riders per day, is the pizzazz factor. Streetcars are a lot more spectacular than electrifying the buses and starting from there, or giving buses dedicated ROW, or increasing frequency. Unless you actually need the extra capacity of light rail, or expect so high a ridership that the lower maintenance costs of streetcars override the extra costs of drilling the tracks, just stick to what works rather than to what you want to work.

    The Portland Streetcar and the SLUT in Seattle run in mixed traffic and it works out pretty well.

    No, it doesn’t. Those streetcars put technology over more mundane things like frequency and reliability, and don’t even have high ridership by any standards higher than Houston’s.

  • DBX

    I think DC’s assumption that one-car streetcars are realistic is very questionable. Cities around the world ranging from Toronto to Blackpool are upgrading to longer streetcars. You ought to take a look at Toronto’s legacy TWO-CAR units late at night — they’re just jammed. The new “Flexity” units can’t come soon enough.

    And in the big picture of things, DC’s transit is still desperately short of east to west capacity downtown and under the river, not to mention the severe congestion that results in Union Station being served on only one line. They need to be dusting off the M-Street subway plans now.

  • AlexB

    There are good points made in the post and in the comments, but I am inclined to believe that the quality of a network’s connectivity and reliability is more important than the quality of a network’s infrastructure, assuming the infrastructure is at least adequately functional at some reasonable speed.

    DC isn’t really big enough and these routes aren’t long enough that going 15 mph versus 25 mph is really going to significantly change ridership. In my view, if the network goes to the right places, and provides the right connections, the riders will follow.

    Yonah says the platforms will not be full length and the cars will usually only be one car. With increased ridership, this can be easily changed. Also, if ridership demands it, the streetcars can be given their own lane in the future, and signal preemption could also be added. I don’t get the idea from my two visits there that DC has the same issues NYC has relative to ubiquitous double parking.

    Finally, people seem to make a big deal out of the difference between a streetcar and a light rail vehicle. This line is still blurry to me. I am assuming that these aren’t cheesey faux historic trolleys. That would suck. I am picturing Euro-style street running vehicles, like a shorter, non-articulated version of the SF MUNI metro.

  • jim


    It’s not a cheesey faux historic trolley. There’s a picture of a model at


    It’s a single three-section articulated car. Two doors in the middle section.

  • matt

    @ Dan Wentzel

    Who are choice riders and why are they more important than regular riders?

    Is the goal to improve mobility for people or is it to spur development?

    Part of the reason that streetcars do so much better than buses is because they generally replace the busiest bus routes, although that is not always the case. Tourists may be more inclined to take a streetcar for the novelty effect, but commuters are mostly concerned with time, I am more inclined to believe that increasing the frequency and speed of the buses by separating traffic, prioritizing at signals, collecting fares at stations, and having level boarding, would do far more for ridership for equivalent money than converting too the smooth riding streetcars.

  • Fritz

    DC isn’t really big enough and these routes aren’t long enough that going 15 mph versus 25 mph is really going to significantly change ridership. In my view, if the network goes to the right places, and provides the right connections, the riders will follow.

    I often walk 5 extra blocks and then underground to take a $1.35 metro instead of a $1 bus because the bus is far slower even though at many hours its frequency is about the same (10 minutes for Circulator, I often have 7 minute waits for Metro off-peak)… and I’m only going about 25 blocks total. I know many people who will take a subway transfer over a bus.

    And the picture jim shows is good… but still not long enough. I imagine DC will have the demand to fill more than that, often. Although, making sure you have signal preemption, right of way is more important than the car.

  • Andy K

    Choice riders are those that take transit by choice – they would normally drive, but instead chose to take transit.

  • “Who are choice riders and why are they more important than regular riders?
    Is the goal to improve mobility for people or is it to spur development?”


    Nobody said “choice” riders are more important that “regular” riders. In fact, “choice” riders can become “regular” riders.

    It depends on what the goal of the transit improvement is. Is it to give people an alternative to driving an automobile? Is it to spur economic development? Is it to give more mobility to people who are transit dependent? And if it is all three, which is the higher priority? That’s a political choice.

    As I said, there is a time and place for everything, whether it is commuter rail, Heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, commuter bus, rapid bus, local bus, etc.

    Each rider prioritizes quality or speed/frequency depending on their own choices. The quality of the ride will matter more to some people and the frequency/speed of the ride will matter more for others. Even without rail, some people will squeeze their way onto a crowded bus because it is quicker or immediately available and some will wait for the next bus or take a longer bus route hoping for a seat and a more comfortable ride.


    “I am more inclined to believe that increasing the frequency and speed of the buses by separating traffic, prioritizing at signals, collecting fares at stations, and having level boarding, would do far more for ridership for equivalent money than converting too the smooth riding streetcars.”


    Well, separating traffic, prioritizing signals, collecting fares at stations and level boarding will increase ridership no matter what the modality. You’ll get no argument from me that we need more of these types of improvements with or without streetcars.

    However, all things being equal, I believe that more choice riders would rather ride on the rails than a bus. These two modalities are not the same and many people do not see them as equally pleasant (or unpleasant) and there is just no getting around that.

    The choice to prioritize mobility for existing riders over a higher quality ride and/or spurring economic development is a political one, or vice versa, is neither good nor bad.

    Economic Development, by the way, is not a dirty concept, especially if it can be done in a green way.

  • Ocean Railroader

    If they build the new streetcar system they could set up a system where they buy ten ultra modern streetcars for the commuters and Bussiness people but also buy two classic streetcars like the ones that use to run in the old streetcar system for the tourests and the rail fans. They also might want to think about extending the street car system to cross the Potamic River into northen Virginia do to them wanting them to build a streetcar system by the Pentagon and in Fairfax county. In downtown Richmond they are starting to get ride for a Bus BRT system along Broad Street which used to be a old streetcar line at one time they are planning to give it’s own lanes and they plan to once the bus system is built they want to replace it with light rail or streetcar. Maybe they are trying to get cars and people used to driving with streetcars before they start moving and closing lanes.

  • However, all things being equal, I believe that more choice riders would rather ride on the rails than a bus. These two modalities are not the same and many people do not see them as equally pleasant (or unpleasant) and there is just no getting around that.

    If you compare slow buses to slightly less slow streetcars, rail bias increases streetcar ridership by about 20%. Electric buses are about halfway between diesel buses and streetcars. However, those numbers have never been tested for more advanced service, with signal priority, off-board fare collection, and dedicated lanes.

    Electric buses have the advantage that they eliminate the economic justice issues of diesel buses such as endemic asthma near bus depots. So for the same amount of money, it should work better to electrify the major bus lines and depots rather than construct streetcars from scratch. The Portland model of segregating services by technology has failed to improve transportation for people who don’t live near streetcars; on the contrary, bus riders there complain about being treated as second-class transit users, and bus ridership has kept dwindling since the light rail lines opened.

  • Well, this comment thread looks familiar. If anyone really wants to read more pages of these arguments, check out the category “Streetcars/Trams” at HumanTransit.org.

    But this jumped out at me from Yonah’s piece:

    Streetcars will operate in mostly mixed traffic … That’s not a recipe for success, but it certainly will allow the city to build more miles for less money.

    Surely you mean: it will allow the city to build more miles without the political costs of reducting private vehicle capacity.

    Paint is cheap.

  • The rail bias question has always been polluted by the fact that the streetcar service being compared to bus service was NEVER exactly the same except for the vehicle – there were always other differences (Portland has some reserved guideway, for instance).

    The SLUT is a disaster in Seattle – has come to a crashing halt many times due to running in a shared lane. And, Alon, Houston’s ridership figures blow them out of the water – not even close, and a much larger chunk of Houston’s light rail riders are ‘new’, i.e., not just bus riders put on a new vehicle.

  • AlexB

    @jim, that streetcar looks like the real deal. I was confused because someone brought up vintage streetcars for some reason. I’d love to have that in my neighborhood and would definitely choose it over a bus.

    @Fritz, you choose the Metro over the bus when they are both going to the place you need to go. This makes total sense and won’t change. It seems to me that people will use this streetcar system to go places the Metro doesn’t go or will use the streetcar to transfer to/from the Metro. In that sense, I think the routes of the system are more important than the speed.

  • jim

    Here’s a picture of a real one. The DC streetcars are being manufactured in the Czech Republic. The first two have been completed, but not shipped to DC since the rails to run them on haven’t yet been laid (project management at its finest), so they’re still in the Czech Republic and are periodically being exercised.


  • Nathanael

    Did they ever repeal the DC law which prohibited overhead wires west of the Anacostia River?

    Anyway, agreed with everyone:

    Diesel buses attract fewer riders than electric streetcars due to rider preference (up to 20% more)

    — but a bus with full bus lane enforcement is better than a streetcar in a shared lane, because reliable not-delayed-by-traffic service attracts more riders than delayed-by-traffic service, and from what I’ve read that difference can be *more than* 20%.

    Probably providing exclusive streetcar lanes everywhere is the way to go in DC, with its superwide boulevards. Failure to provide exclusive lanes is just political laziness, as Jarrett points out.

    And they will need longer-than-one-car trains.

  • Ocean Railroader

    In Richmond VA they are planning to clear a some major streets lanes by starting up Bus only lanes down the centers of several major streets in Richmond. They also talked about how that if ridership keeps going up on the lanes that do become bus only they will then turn them into streetcar and light rail only lanes. Washingtion should try to do something with streetcar only lanes consdering a streetcar could carry two to three more times more people then a regular bus.

  • Matt Fisher

    I think the streetcar going to Takoma should go to Silver Spring. Logically, this is more appropriate. Why aren’t they doing this?

    And 14th Street and 7th Street should both have streetcars.

  • They need to have a local streetcar system in Leesburg Virginia and they need to consder linking up the purple line light rail into the streetcar system along with the new light rail line along Interstate 270. Those two light rail lines should be linked into the streetcar system.

  • It is remarkable and so impressive that DC is returning to the streetcars. I’ll visit and ride them until I’m content. I just wish Richmond would follow your thinking. I live there and the busses are smelly.

  • I rode some of the original dc streetcar system in the 1960s.We should have kept some of our original aystem.Now we are building new lines again.Its nice to see them return to dc again.Most all streets had car lines.Electric streetcars do not pollute the air like buses do.

  • Haywood Jablowme

    Reading these comments about how great this would be from seven years ago is making me laugh to the point of tears. This thing is a boondoggle like no other. Seven years later what do we have?

    1) A grossly incompetent and corrupt city government that STILL hasn’t opened a single mile of track; they’ve been ‘testing’ it for over a year now

    2) A SLOW-ASS train; there was recently a TV news reporter who, walking at only a mild pace was LAPPING the damned thing on live TV

    3) Yet ANOTHER thing to dodge in the road that will only slow down vehicular and pedestrian traffic. This thing SUCKS.

    4) And look what all this time, effort, and most importantly, money will garner:


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