» 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.
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.