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Columbia Pike streetcar is a bargain versus new highways

The mainstream press holds transit projects to a higher cost-effectiveness standard than highways, as recent coverage of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar demonstrates.

Artist's conception of Columbia Pike Streetcar (via

In reality, the streetcar is a relative bargain purely on the basis of direct cost per estimated user, not even including the external costs of sprawl and pollution that new and improved highways engender.

Last week, Arlington County raised the streetcar's cost estimate to between $242 million and $261 million, citing "inflation, an increase in the scope of the proposed project, additional engineering requirements, and federal requirements for higher contingency funding and escalation."

The Post, true to form, reported only the higher figure, saying the cost had "jumped." broke out the caps lock: "DEVELOPING—Pike Streetcar Cost Soars."

But focusing only on the cost increase obscures that, on a per-mile or per-user basis, the streetcar still costs much less than other projects:

  • Beltway HOT lanes: $1.4 billion for 14 miles and estimated 66,000 users per day
  • Maryland Intercounty Connector: $2.6 billion for 18 miles and estimated 30,000 users per day
These simple figures don't even include the huge cost to road users of buying, fueling, maintaining, and insuring a car. They also omit the massive air quality, public health, climate change and other costs of vehicle pollution, and the strains on open space and government services that come from the sprawling development this highway building enables.

The streetcar's mere $261 million price tag, by contrast, covers a 5-mile segment to be used by an estimated 26,000 riders per day.

Instead of further straining public resources by feeding sprawl, the Columbia Pike Streetcar is expected to help revive an existing commercial corridor, contributing positively to Arlington County's balance sheet over time as new development produces tax revenue while adding minimal costs to county services. "County officials believe that by 2040, 3,900 residences and 2.2 million square feet of commercial development, with 7,000 new jobs, will be added," reports the Post.

Yes, $261 million is a heavy lift at a time of economic uncertainty, but a generation ago, so was Metrorail. "Lots of people were vehemently against an infrastructure investment of that magnitude at that time—especially when the decision was made to move it off I-66 and put it underground, which cost that much more," Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette told me in an interview. "If any community should be able to point to a historical experience of why this kind of investment is worth it for economic impact, quality of life and community planning value, it's Arlington."

More broadly, the Columbia Pike Streetcar is part of the region's next generation of transportation, along with Maryland's Purple Line and a mix of new and revived DC lines. Streetcars are cheaper and have a smaller footprint than Metro's existing heavy rail, while enticing more riders than buses.

County officials say they're hoping to get word on a federal funding commitment to the streetcar in 2012, which would put it on pace for a 2014 groundbreaking and a 2016 opening. From there, extensions to Falls Church or Alexandria are possible.

"The community has endorsed this for years," said Fisette. "As we continue to refine this project and bring it towards the finish line, I'm confident it will be good for Columbia Pike, our economy, our quality of life, and for beginning the next generation of regional rail."

Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play. 


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It's NOT a bargain when it disrupts traffic which this will do. No reasonable benefit has ever been provided for this boondoggle...except that because it is a 'mass transit project' we are supposed to fall in line and support it. Such a waste.

by Pelham1861 on Dec 14, 2011 10:22 am • linkreport

BTW - the idea that 26,000 riders a day will use this is far fetched. Ummm, just where will they be going? What job centers or concentrated retail is on this section?

by Pelham1861 on Dec 14, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

Pelham, 15,000 people take the bus on the Pike now. Studies show streetcars attract more riders than buses and 4,000+ new residents and 7,000 jobs are on the way. Do you have a reason 26,000 is far-fetched, or do you just not like the project?

by Miles Grant on Dec 14, 2011 10:33 am • linkreport

This is really a bad article for a number of reasons. First, there's already a road. The streetcar just needs to be added. Second, you are comparing it to uber-expensive highway projects. Why not compare it to a local secondary road?

But really, the best comparison would be to increased bus service. What is the cost differential (streetcar would be much higher)? What is the impact on economic development (I would expect the streetcar to bring more development). That at least gets the conversation going in the right direction.

by Greg on Dec 14, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

From strictly a numbers standpoint, whether they are right or is pretty disingenuous to compare the Hot lanes and ICC numbers estimated in their first year of operation, and then quote "possible" numbers of riders for this streetcar in 2030, 15 years after its "proposed" opening date.

by freely on Dec 14, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

I think its normal for large capital projects to be compared. You're still comparing a new highway to a new transit project. Especially considering the difference in cost how many street cars could be put down in Northern Va. for the cost of the HOT lanes.

by Canaan on Dec 14, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

It seems most have already beat me to it, but it looks like the premise of the article is an apples to oranges comparison.

by selxic on Dec 14, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

So for $250MM, 11,000 more people might be riding this thing in 30 years compared to the people already riding the bus down the same road today? How many new people would be riding the bus in 30 years with no streetcar? 10,500?

by Me on Dec 14, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

The road is already filled with buses. How can adding more buses really work better than fewer streetcars that hold more people?

by DB on Dec 14, 2011 10:55 am • linkreport

Apple, meet Orange.

by ceefer66 on Dec 14, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

"it looks like the premise of the article is an apples to oranges comparison."

Even if it is apples to oranges, it's still apt seeing as a lot of people are basically saying "We shouldn't spend money on that crate of oranges, we should buy that warehouse of apples."

by TM on Dec 14, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

TM, the problem is there are tangerines, grapefruits and a variety of other fruits that can be invested in regardless of the season of apples. Nobody is saying tangelos won't work here.

by selxic on Dec 14, 2011 11:08 am • linkreport


With any luck, this will take some cars off of the road, meaning less traffic for you. Streetcars hold a lot more people than buses, so you need less of them to carry the same number of people. Finally, most streetcar projects in the area will implement signal priority, which will likely increase traffic throughput on the corridors where they travel, which means that being stuck behind the streetcar might actually make your commute *faster*.

Everybody wins.

$261 million is peanuts in terms of transportation money. However, $52 million per mile is definitely on the high side for a streetcar/LRT project. I suppose I can forgive some of the costs, given that this is a new system in an established area, and presumably has an extensive street reconstruction project bundled into it.

If the system does manage to attract 26,000 daily riders, the capital cost works out to $10,000 per rider, which is not terrible, especially for such a short line with potential to grow. (And, really, the cost per passenger is the most useful metric to use when discussing the merits of funding a transportation project)

I have no idea what Arlington's cost projections for operating the line are, but they may actually be able to break even on that front if the ridership estimates turn out to be correct.

For some points of comparison, in Year-2000 dollars, Calgary's LRT (widely acknowledged as being by far the most cost-effective LRT system built in recent history) has 30 miles of track, cost $25m/mile, has 250,000 daily riders, which works out to $2400 per daily passenger.

The next cheapest modern Canadian LRT system was in Edmonton,

The cheapest US LRT system is in Sacramento, is 30 miles long, has 50,000 daily riders, and cost approximately $6800 per daily passenger. They got a lot more bang for their buck in terms of track miles (under $20 million per mile), but costs per passenger are comparable to what's being estimated for Columbia Pike.

Other LRT systems that reused existing railroads (Baltimore and Camden, NJ) also cost under $20 million per mile. The average cost of LRT track in the US is about $35 million according to Wikipedia.

Other systems with a dedicated right-of-way can cost well in excess of $100 million per mile, and did not have the potential to attract as many riders. Calgary and Sacramento were also able to reduce costs by reusing existing segments of railroad track as part of their network.

Now, the Columbia Pike streetcar is not really LRT. However, the passenger volumes being projected for Columbia Pike are comparable to an on-street LRT route, and it may make more sense to brand the project as such. However, Baltimore's 30 mile LRT network only has 30,000 daily riders, while NJ Transit's 34mi River Line only has 10,000 daily users.

By that metric, although $50 million per mile does seem awfully high, $10k per passenger mile is pretty competitive if the (extraordinarily high) ridership estimates turn out to be true.

It would also be the second most heavily used on-street LRT system in the US, in terms of passengers per mile of track (the first being Boston's Green Line, which isn't even on-street for most of its length).

by andrew on Dec 14, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

26,000 riders a day.

I don't know what the fares will be, but let's go with $1.50.

(let's assume 1/4 on weekends), so 13K.

Total weekly: 143K. That comes out to basically what the entire DC Circulator system carries.

At 1.50 a fare, that should be 214,500 a week in revenue. Let's say 200K. that is a bit high -- some people will be transfers.

That comes to about $10M in revenue a year.

Costs to run this thing for a year -- unknown. Any comparable?

Arlington is getting a 3% bond rate. $261M/at that rate comes to about 2M a month in payments, or about 24M a year.

24M-10M in revenue=find $12 a year.

If the value is worth anything, you should be able to extract that extra $12M from owners along the Columbia Pike corridor.

by charlie on Dec 14, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

Er. Jumped the gun there. Meant to add that Edmonton's LRT system was the second-cheapest modern Canadian system, and cost (inflation-adjusted) $41 million per mile, and had an average cost of $9,100 per daily rider. By this metric, Arlington's project looks pretty good.

I also found some more cost-per-mile numbers for US systems in this GAO report. For a system in an established urban area with the potential to attract many riders, Arlington's proposal seems pretty reasonable.

by andrew on Dec 14, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

WRT the Beltway HOT lanes, it's probably worth noting that only a portion ($400M?) is being funded with tax dollars, with most being paid for by the Fluor/Transurban partnership.

by Arl Fan on Dec 14, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

This is a very good comparison.

It's true that this is not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but it's impossible to make a perfect comparison between transportation modes. The numerator of an apples-to-apples comparison of this streetcar to a highway project would need to include the cost of all the vehicles that drive on the highway, prorated over all the roads they drive on.

And if you want to put only new riders in the denominator, you need to subtract all the vehicles that would be driving on other roads if the ICC wasn't built from the ICC vehicle count.

by Ben Ross on Dec 14, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

This article furthers a totally incorrect approach to evaluating transportation investment. The benefit of transportation is not the number of people moved but rather the development it facilitates. The benefits are the estimated 3,900 residences and 2.2 million square feet of commercial development that the streetcar will facilitate. The $261M cost of the streetcar is reasonable for that quantity of development.

Furthermore, we shouldn't look at each transpo project and resulting development in isolation, they should be part of a broader strategy. For example, while there are likely many interstates in remote areas of the country that aren't ROI positive based on the commerce they induce, they are necessary to complete the network and pursue a broader strategy.

Similarly, it makes sense on our area to have two strategies.

1) An inside the beltway strategy of dense development supported by transit. This strategy would cater to people who like to live in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

2) An outside the beltway strategy of open areas filled with expansive SFHs. This strategy would cater to people who like to live in large houses with large yards and would rather drive than walk or use transit.

If you want to cross from the outside zone to the inside zone, you'll need to drive to the border, then get out of your car and hop on transit because the inside won't be car friendly. If you want to get from the inside to the outside, you'll need to transit to the border and then hop on zip car or a taxi.

by Falls Church on Dec 14, 2011 11:23 am • linkreport

Costs to run this thing for a year -- unknown.

These numbers are harder to find, since LRT and streetcar systems are often run by regional transit agencies, making it somewhat tricky to break out the Streetcar/LRT-specific costs.

I did find one figure for Calgary though: "In 2005, the C-Train cost CDN$163 per operating hour to operate. With an average of 600 boardings per hour, cost per LRT passenger is CDN$0.27, compared to $1.50 for bus passengers in Calgary."

Operating costs may actually require less subsidies than the current bus services do. Streetcar and LRT systems tend to be expensive to build, but cheap to operate. You need fewer drivers, and the electric vehicles are apparently much more reliable, last a lot longer, and require less maintenance than a diesel bus.

by andrew on Dec 14, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

The capital project that really should be compared to the streetcar is the silver line. I would think many of the objectors to this project would welcome a new metro line to Columbia Pike, so if costs per user were shown to be way less then you might win over some supporters. Especially when you consider the subsidies (tolls, etc) that will be needed to keep the fares affordable on the silver line.

Most people who aren't thrilled by the street car project, myself included, are primarily concerned about the driving experience with streetcars when Columbia Pike is already poorly maintained, does not have enough left turn lanes, and few places for buses to pull off. However, if we don't do something to get more people on transit then increased car volume over time will likely slow traffic more than a street car.

by OddNumber on Dec 14, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

Selxic: Now you're basically saying that it is a fair comparison, just that other options should also be considered. That's the complete opposite of saying this is an apples and oranges comparison.

The point is (to beat this analogy further into the ground) the money for the oranges and the money for the apples comes from the same fruit budget. When we're blowing most of that budget on a warehouse of apples, it's fair to ask how
many oranges we could buy if we we're similarly cavalier about our orange spending as we are about our apple spending.

by TM on Dec 14, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

Can't we please leave the fruit out of it? They've done nothing wrong and this is driving me bananas.

by Fruit Bowl on Dec 14, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

If the value is worth anything, you should be able to extract that extra $12M from owners along the Columbia Pike corridor.

Is the full cost of Beltway HOT lanes and the ICC covered through tolls and local gas tax? I haven't made that calculation...

That said, it's not a bad idea to finance transit through special tax districts. There's no reason why taxpayers should fund a bunch of developers getting rich.

by Falls Church on Dec 14, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

@Fruit Bowl:

Grape idea. Persimonnally, I think some posters have to accept the fact that, kumquat may, the streetcar is cumin to Columbia Pike.

(Seed what I did there?)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled thread...

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Dec 14, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

In all honesty, there probably will eventually be a Metro line that runs along Columbia Pike.

This was envisioned as a logical future extension when the system was originally planned. They even constructed stub tunnels off of the Blue/Orange lines to allow for such an extension to be constructed with minimal disruption to the existing system (just like how the foundations were laid for the silver line turnout 30 years ago when the Orange line was first built)

For now, however there's no money to make that kind of investment. The streetcar is a good interim measure to accommodate local traffic, and to foster transit-friendly development along the corridor so that we can eventually justify a Metro line out there in the future.

by andrew on Dec 14, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport

Forgive me if this was already mentioned in an earlier comment. However I wanted to respond to this quote from the early comments:

"Streetcars hold a lot more people than buses, so you need less of them to carry the same number of people. Finally, most streetcar projects in the area will implement signal priority,..."

I see two easy fixes here:
1) replace "normal" size buses with the caterpillar bus used throughout DC. You've just doubled the capacity of a single bus line. I'm not sure what the ridership capacity of a streetcar versus caterpillar bus is, but this would immediately open space on a crowded line.

2) regarding "signal priority" why can't this be done for existing bus lines at minimal cost? Does it take fixed rail for traffic engineers to justify priority signals?

by Scott on Dec 14, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

For heavy rail, you need multiple hours with tens of thousands of riders per hour. On that basis, heavy rail on Columbia Pike is unlikely, just as it doesn't make sense, probably, for the Purple Line, except for the portion between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

2. WRT operating cost/hour, I don't remember the WMATA figures, something like 4 cents/second for the bus, according to a presentation by Jim Hamre that I saw a couple years ago.

3. I disagree with a point made by FallsChurch, but maybe s/he left out a couple words. The value of transportation investment is in _both_ the number of people moved _and_ the positive economic development associated with the improvement in the transportation infrastructure.

This is the basis of urban economics and economic geography (location theory). It tends to be disconnected in U.S./ federal transportation policy and funding though.
This is the number from Portland from 2007,, $90/hour for bus, $125/hour for streetcar. A streetcar holds about 50 more people (157) than a 60 foot bus (105). The streetcar is 66 feet long.

I don't know the mix of buses on Columbia Pike, if 60 foot buses are in use there. I don't think so. A 40 foot bus has a stated capacity of 70 riders.

FWIW, as far as the simultaneous value of the right kind of transpo investment goes, the example of the NoMA subway station, its impact on neighborhood improvement and ROI was what shifted me into transportation planning as a profession.

There is no question that the various examples of WMATA stations, good and bad, the example of Arlington, the example of Prince George's County, the example of the suburban outlying stations, etc., communicate about the right way and wrong way to leverage investment in transit.

What I find interesting and frustrating about these discussions (esp. about the Purple Line but also about streetcars) is that the anti- discussions occur in an almost complete vacuum of recognition of the transit and transit and economic development experience of the Washington region in regards to the WMATA heavy rail system.

This is an area with modern experience with fixed rail transit. It works. But everyone acts as if these are sub-modes (streetcar, lightrail) from Mars, with no generalizable learning to be garnered from this region or others.

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

For operating costs, you can look in the National Transit Database and see how much LRT costs to operate (per revenue mile, or what the farebox recovery is, etcetera). It's not just at the system level, it's at the mode level .

by JA on Dec 14, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

@andrew. I doubt we will ever see underground metro on Columbia pike. Or at least in our lifetime.

by charlie on Dec 14, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

TM, in the simplest terms, since it is not an apples to apples comparison, the article is weak since oranges are a focus.

I am not against oranges, apples or tangelos.

by selxic on Dec 14, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport


For heavy rail, you need multiple hours with tens of thousands of riders per hour. On that basis, heavy rail on Columbia Pike is unlikely, just as it doesn't make sense, probably, for the Purple Line, except for the portion between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The thing to remember is that a Columbia Pike Metro line wouldn't just be along the pike. The original plans (i.e. a dotted line on the map) had the line turning southward at Bailey's Crossroads and serving Lincolnia.

If you were to build such a line today, you could serve the Pike, Bailey's Crossroads (and some already dense development there with massive potential to add density), bail out the Mark Center with transit, continue south and hit the Landmark area of Alexandria (also very dense, but auto-centric) and so on. Adding those activity centers to a Metro line would make a lot of sense, I think. I would love to see some more research on such a concept.

Also, like the idea of separating the Orange and Blue lines through DC, this would separate the Blue and Yellow lines through Crystal City/Alexandria, enabling higher frequencies on both.

by Alex B. on Dec 14, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

Alex. B -- good point(s), just as I had to think about Dave Murphy's separated yellow line concept for awhile, you reposition this point similarly.

The thing that's easy to forget is that these are multi-decade projects with many decades required to see the impact. E.g., academic research through the 1990s did not find a positive economic impact associated with the Metrorail system. It took til after 2000, especially for the areas not definitely within the Central Business District in DC, to be able to significantly reap locational advantages from transit.

So when we look at this in a pretty short range of time, e.g., 10 years isn't much, we can easily miss the bigger picture.

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

@Alex. B - could you point me to a map showing that dotted route? I've advocated something similar for some while...tie it in with an extension of the Yellow and Blue Lines and it could potentially extend coverage to Kingstowne as well.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Dec 14, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

Probably there is a map in Zach Schrag's book.

The first I ever heard of the Purple Line concept was in a City Paper cover story in maybe 1990. It had a copy of an image from early planning for the system, which showed the various additional line ideas beyond the core of the system (which we have today), including this general one.

this isn't the image I am thinking of:

but it shows the idea.

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Ser Amantio

Richard is right, the map I'm thinking of is somewhere in Schrag's book.

Here's a low-res shot of what I'm talking about:

by Alex B. on Dec 14, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

According to the needs assessment prepared in 2005, the bus system along the corridor was seeing 11,000 daily trips, on average. Given the added density since 2005 and the plans for additional density along the Pike, a doubling does not seem far-fetched.

At rush hour, the bus systems is already pushed to the limit along the Pike. The buses are frequently stacked 3-deep at peak times currently (22 buses/hr in 2005).

A standard streetcar fits up to 134 passengers, compared to 60 for a standard bus. The increase in capacity without necessarily increasing personnel costs needs to be considered as well (one operator with the same capacity as multiple bus operators). One of the alternatives that was examined was a "BRT" option - these types of buses would max out at 106 passengers.

My understanding is that streetcar maintenance in the long-term is lower, since buses are typically replaced every 7-10 years and streetcars have a much longer (30 years?) lifespan.

The addition of signal prioritization may help speed vehicle traffic, as noted by others (given the accidents I've seen and close-calls I've had, that may not be a good thing). Rail will force the issue of signal prioritization for VDOT - who, despite the MOU that transferred much of the Pike to Arlington Co, still maintains control of the key intersections and has been loathe to implement signal prioritization.

by tdr on Dec 14, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

y'all might find this useful

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 14, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

FWIW, that's the map I probably saw in the City Paper article...

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.:

Interesting - that actually mirrors what I've suggested earlier. And me not knowing that plan existed. Shows you how logical it is.

To me, the most sensible thing would be to extend the Yellow Line down to Lorton, and then knock through the dotted line as far down as somewhere at Fort Belvoir. Personally, I favor a stop at the future site of the Army Museum - that would be a good transfer point. That links up Kingstowne, Lincolnia, the Mark Center, the Landmark area, and Columbia Pike, and it would do a lot to contain the sprawl there. Handled properly, it could bundle the Orange, Silver, Blue and Yellow Lines together. And make a Metro trip to Tysons that much more attractive to people who live in my end of the county, incidentally...

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Dec 14, 2011 3:38 pm • linkreport

Streetcars are way too expensive. The cost per mile of bicycles is much cheaper.

Actually, bikes are much too expensive. We should not support CaBi. The cost per mile of walking is much cheaper.

by beatbox on Dec 14, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport


I don't see how moving people qualifies as a benefit. On the contrary, I would say that policy should be designed so that people have the least need to travel and when they do, they travel the shortest distance.

When you make moving people a benefit that drives investment decisions you get absurd outcomes like separating people maximally from the places they want to go so that you can build them the cheapest transpo. The transpo is a means to an end (economic growth) not and an end to itself.

It would be like measuring the effectiveness of a health system nased on the cost per procedure rather than the cost expended to get society to a given level of health.

by Falls Church on Dec 14, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

The point of transportation is about facilitating exchange. Your point is that all of the benefit of transportation should be considered in that light. So I see your point.

Because some of the economic benefit, intensification of land use, is over really long periods of time, it's a kind of secondary economic benefit, and that's what I thought you were referring to.

... I concede.

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church -- the whole idea behind creating walkable neighborhoods is to reduce the amount of travel that people have to do for their daily needs.

That said, in order to have walkable neighborhoods, they need to offer some type of connectivity to other potential destinations. In the absence of a viable alternative to driving, more people will be forced to have personal vehicles to ensure mobility, and once they have sunk the capital costs into car ownership, they'll have all sorts of incentives to drive (and in some cases, drive further). And if people decide they have to own a car, then the benefit of walkable neighborhoods--or local retail and services--is diminished.

So the access to a viable transportation network is key to encouraging people to build/live in walkable neighborhoods.

by Jacques on Dec 14, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport


The thing that's easy to forget is that these are multi-decade projects with many decades required to see the impact. E.g., academic research through the 1990s did not find a positive economic impact associated with the Metrorail system. It took til after 2000, especially for the areas not definitely within the Central Business District in DC, to be able to significantly reap locational advantages from transit.

So when we look at this in a pretty short range of time, e.g., 10 years isn't much, we can easily miss the bigger picture.

Indeed. The other thing, with a corridor like this, the potential for land use intensification in places like Bailey's Crossroads is huge - and also a long-term vision that will need infrastructure to support it. Both the land use and the infrastructure side require some broad, long-term thinking.

by Alex B. on Dec 14, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

And don't forget that streetcars can, if demand warrants, be configured to have quite high capacity. This tramŠkoda_05_T for example can hold 300 Passengers (three times what even the largest buses can hold). That's operational cost containment!

by egk on Dec 14, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

dont give up richard

"I don't see how moving people qualifies as a benefit."

What if, in a given time and place, locational patterns are fixed? Moving people faster and more cheaply - "user benefits" - saves them time and money. How is that NOT a benefit?

Can locational change impact complicate that? Of course. Which is why "mobility" cannot be the only issue. But location is not always as responsive to transport infrastructure as some here believe. And when it is, sometimes with a cost. That is why we need to facilitate mobility ONE element.

The idea that making movement easier is not a benefit at ALL, because people MAY move in response, is like considering an improvement to hospital effectiveness not a benefit, because people will, in response, eat more, or smoke more, or use their leisure differently.

We can travel least by all working close to home. That makes labor markets smaller, and reduces economies of scale in labor markets needing specialized labor. Thats a big issue - Krugman won his Nobel for work on that (not for his macro work)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 14, 2011 4:52 pm • linkreport


well, the point FallsChurch is making, which is a basic point within transportation economics, is that transportation specifically is a dependent variable, not an independent variable. It is the means to an end.

Efficiency in exchange, which is what you are discussing, is a subtly different point.

Probably the best "lay" book on the subject is David Engwicht's _Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns from Traffic_. He laid down the basic concepts that came to be called transportation demand management, where he makes the exact point that you do, about tighter connections between home and places for exchange (exchange is not just commerce) reducing the need to travel and the efficiency of it.

Cities were created to minimize the need to travel.

Engwicht's TDM stuff got bastardized into traffic calming too, but his points were deeper, along the lines you suggest.

by Richard Layman on Dec 14, 2011 5:11 pm • linkreport

Generally speaking, articulated buses have reliability and longevity problems.

A WMATA articulated bus holds approximately 1.4 times as many passengers as a normal bus. Metro's desired/expected lifespan of a "normal" bus is about 15 years if a mid-life overhaul is performed after 7.5 years, although approximately 8% of the current bus fleet has been in service for longer than 15 years, due to budgetary restrictions.

However, the agency's experience has shown that it is not feasible and/or cost-effective to keep articulated buses in service for longer than 12 years, even with extensive maintenance. Similarly, they've observed that the articulated buses are more prone to mechanical failures and breakdowns. [Source]

In that report, Metro also observed that articulated buses have a longer dwell time at stops, making them less suitable for use on roads with heavy traffic.

It's also worth noting that WMATA have had good luck with their fleet of bendy buses compared to what most other cities have experienced; NYC and London's experiments with those buses were disastrous. London's articulated buses had a tendency to catch fire and explode, and were involved in far more accidents than standard-length buses.

Simply put, articulated buses are a nice interim measure to increase capacity on a bus route. However, they are not necessarily a cost-effective measure or applicable in all situations.

Any route with enough traffic to necessitate articulated buses is likely a good candidate for streetcar conversion.

by andrew on Dec 14, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

Any plans for a north to south connection between the r-b corridor and columbia pike?

by WM on Dec 14, 2011 7:02 pm • linkreport

My only concern with this project is that it is limited. It would be great to see it connect to the Orange Line. This area also desperately needs frequent, express north-south service.

by Kevin Diffily on Dec 14, 2011 9:53 pm • linkreport

I would imagine a factor in the increased cost is start-up infrastructure that will be needed (storage & maintenance facilities, power transformer station, etc.) for only 5 miles of track.
If there was a way to get the Arlington Streetcar across the Potomac to L'Enfant Plaza, these facilities could be shared with the DC streetcar network. But despite the Pentagon being 1 metro stop from L'Enfant, I would guess this would be difficult to do.

by stevek_fairfax on Dec 14, 2011 10:16 pm • linkreport

"Cities were created to minimize the need to travel."

cities were created to minimize the need for travel, for a GIVEN level of exchange.

Pre cities there was not more travel - there was LESS exchange. Think self sufficient (almost) medieval manors.

Railroad cities enabled more exchange, over long distances. Urban streetcars made it easier to travel distances, enabling the same or larger labor markets, while widening residential choices.

Recall the original motivation for the NYC subway system - it was locational - but to DECONGEST the lower east side and similar.

You or I may not think living in a post modern 10 story apt building in columbia heights or clarendon is congested. To many americans, probably the majority, it is (note the poll showing more demand for walkable still showed like 1/3 who wanted nothting to do with high density, and another 1/3 who were only interested if it was particularly economically appealing - I suspect including folks who would gladly take a 4BR townhouse walking distance to a rail line, but possibly not much less). They want a metropolitan transportation system that will make it possible for them to live in SFHs on 1/4, or at least, in relatively cheap TH's or SHFs on smaller lots. If you tell them that autos and highways are not the way to do that, they will (many of them eagerly) embrace transit to get that. If you tell them transit is NOT the way to get that - they will not accept that they should forego that way of life - they will return to complete highway dependence - and if that is only possible with polycentric development, they will embrace that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 15, 2011 9:12 am • linkreport

1. The proposed streetcar will replace TWO of the thirteen or so bus routes that currently service the Pike. For those who take the bus now to Pentagon and direct to DC, it is almost surely to worsen their commute. 2. The transit problem here is that they can't add any more buses for about 4 hours per day. That is, the capacity problem is a limited problem that is being "solved" by an expensive infrastructure project. 3. Here are some transit-oriented alternatives that the County can consider over the trolley:

by PikeSpotter on Dec 15, 2011 9:27 am • linkreport

@PikeSpotter Why do you feel that the streetcar will worsen the commute?

by Kevin Diffily on Dec 15, 2011 10:04 am • linkreport

AWalker -- the issue isn't to appeal to every American, but to provide the best experience for the people who want to consume the urban experience.

As Robt. Lutz said about the PT Cruiser. "It's ugly and only 1-2% of the market likes it. But 1-2% of the market is huge."

I of course agree with your point about creating and maintaining a metropolitan transit planning regime and system and how to do it, e.g., this presentation:

But we don't plan that way, except for roads. Hence a disjointed transit system.

And mostly, while I do work in the suburbs and write about the suburbs from a regional transpo perspective, I don't deal with suburban transit planning issues (except in how they educate or interest me), I focus on the center city, which is plenty to keep me busy, especially since our planning regimes are a lot weaker than I wish.

by Richard Layman on Dec 15, 2011 10:31 am • linkreport

I spent a good amount of time working with others the obtain light rail in Sacramento California.
The city decided to have a special bond sale for the residents and when that finally passed we had the funds to go ahead with the project. Light rail has invigorated downtowm Sacramento and the city and county are working on building extentions to major destinations in the county. So take a look at a success and imagine that we could have a big success revitalizing lots of run down areas in Virginia!

by Anne Haynes on Dec 15, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

If "15,000 people take the bus on the Pike now," then double the number of buses. While I don't have the umbers in front of me, I'm fairly confident that it's cheaper. With a capacity of 30,000 there would also be room for growth. Oh, right, I forgot the "buses are for poor people" attitude, which is a big reason "streetcars attract more riders than buses."

As long as the streetcar proponents, especially those who live more than a mile from Columbia Pike, promise to support it by making two round trips during the week, the streetcar will probably be a success.

by 5555624 on Dec 15, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

Streetcars are a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. Stop the madness now.

by Shirlington on Dec 15, 2011 6:53 pm • linkreport

@Shirlington Thanks for pointing out that we should really be pushing for a full blown subway under the Pike.

by Kevin Diffily on Dec 15, 2011 7:00 pm • linkreport

Streetcars are a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. Stop the madness now.

So are horseless carriages.

by EthanS on Dec 16, 2011 5:43 am • linkreport

@555 -- but with more and better bus service, people with choices aren't likely to ride buses (a problem by the way with all the focus on BRT), while they are willing to ride fixed rail transit service.

Not to mention the impact of fixed rail transit investment in spurring economic development, resident attraction, repositioning of the economic competitiveness of areas vis-a-vis other locations within the metropolitan area, etc.

2. wrt the horseless carriage point, I think that all the time when people raise the 19th vs. 21st century issue. A car is all gussied up compared to the late 1890s, or earliest part of the last century, but it functions the same way.

The issue isn't the age of the technology but what it does.

The basic question comes down to mass vs. personal transit. There is no question that cars are more comfortable and often more convenient for a trip, not taking into account the cost of providing the trip (buying and servicing a car, having places to park on both ends, road network, etc.).

It's when you take into account the cost that tradeoffs have to be made. Both personally and societally.

Irrespective of the cost, there just isn't enough space to move everybody from place to place in boxes carrying 1-3 people, taking up a couple hundred feet of space, compared to the number of people that can be moved in slightly bigger boxes (40 or 60 foot buses, 60-75 foot long fixed rail transit cars)--50 to 150 people in each of those slightly bigger boxes vs. 2-8 people in 3 individual car boxes each taking up about 200 s.f.

by Richard Layman on Dec 16, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

@Layman -- So you agree, the people who "are willing to ride fixed rail transit service" and not buses -- even if there "are more buses and the service is better" -- think the buses are for some sort of lower class?

The fact of the matter is that you could double the bus service, and thus the capacity, for less than the cost of the streetcar. Maybe the buses won't be as shiny. What else is different? Are the streetcars going to travel the five miles significantly faster than buses? Is someone going to assure riders they will never have to stand?

That's why this is not about economics at all. It's all about image.

by 5555624 on Dec 16, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

"And mostly, while I do work in the suburbs and write about the suburbs from a regional transpo perspective, I don't deal with suburban transit planning issues (except in how they educate or interest me), I focus on the center city, which is plenty to keep me busy, especially since our planning regimes are a lot weaker than I wish."

thats great, sounds like you have an interesting career, and I enjoy your comments here. I was responding to Falls Church, who claimed, I think, that mobility per se should NEVER be a consideration in transportation planning, apart from the reshaping of development patterns. I am in full support of most of the ends and means of urbanism, but I think discounting mobility for the majority of americans as part of broad transportation policy, is an extreme position, and both non optimal in itself, and politically non feasible.

Much of the discussion here is of DC policy. That can ignore the needs and desires of those outside the TOD niche (maybe). I am concerned with national policy, and with the policies of states like Virginia. Major headway toward more urbanist friendly policies has been made at both levels in recent years - but that will ONLY continue if its conducted in a way that shows support for the wishes of folks outside the niche.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Dec 16, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

"That's why this is not about economics at all. It's all about image."

Im not sure how a factor that impacts demand is not about economics. Do you think economics only addresses tangibles?

BTW, Im not sure that ride quality is the same on a bus or on LRT. Its been a while since ive been on an LRT or streetcar, though.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Dec 16, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport

@555 -- it's not about image, it's about use. As long as automobiles are incredibly subsidized, transit doesn't operate ("compete") on an even playing field.

Irrespective of cost, transit does have to compete on the quality of the experience/ride. I don't see how that is an issue of image. It's a fact, based on a key component of how people evaluate their choice/make their decision. Plus, people give up their personal space such as what they have in an automobile, in return for greater convenience.

"personal space" - riding with others - mixing with your "inferiors" (see the conservative criticisms of transit, this is not my own opinion) is why many people don't choose transit, along with the massive subsidies they receive. If they weren't subsidized, likely they'd make different choices.

That being said, people with the choice and financial capacity to drive will do so if transit as a good is significantly inferior, while people without the economic means (dependent riders) will use the transit service because they have no other choice.

One advantage of streetcar service is that it upgrades the quality of service for dependent riders, which is a good thing from an equity standpoint, while improving the quality of the service provided to the point where choice riders choose transit over driving.

For a variety of reasons (read the Goals section of the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan), it's a good thing for people to choose the more space and economically efficient transit option over automobile-based trips.

So transit has to compete with automobiles in terms of efficiency and cost and _comfort_ to be used.

Unless congestion charges, tolling by the mile, charging for all parking, regardless of location, gas taxes are raised significantly along the lines of the levels in Europe, and other interventions are made into the mobilityspace, people with choices won't be driven to make fully efficient and utilitarian choices.

So why are streetcars a bad thing in that sense?

Anyway, streetcars were a superior method pre-buses too. Once systems were converted to buses from streetcars, transit ridership dropped precipitously. (E.g., see the various comments of Ed Tennyson in various venues.)

by Richard Layman on Dec 16, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

Portland, OR's streetcars don't disrupt traffic...and they articulate perfectly with the city's light rail system. Very inexpensive, very well accepted and integrated into the city's fabric.

by Byron James on Dec 20, 2011 9:32 pm • linkreport

$261 million is only the current estimate of the capital costs to construct the railbed and buy the initial tranche of streetcar vehicles. The final capital cost will be much higher.

Moreover, the capital cost does not include the eternal operating subsidies that will be required from all taxpayers in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, notwithstanding that the streetcar will directly benefit only a small fraction of the counties' populations. Even if you live along Columbia Pike, if you work somewhere that is not Metro-accessible, or if your travel time by streetcar and Metro would be double the time to travel by car, you are unlikely to use the streetcar for more than the occasional excursion.

Ever since the 1960s, when most suburban families began to own 2 cars, convenience has outweighed commitment to bus and rail transportation, and mass transit has ever since been taken over by the government and operated at taxpayer expense.

by Chip Watkins on Dec 28, 2011 10:49 pm • linkreport

I wish I had taken economics in college. If I had, I would understand why it's cheaper to spend more than $260 million to carry 26,000 people a day. (I say "more than" because I don't believe the costs will drop.) The current number of buses carry 15,000 people a day. I would think that doubling the number of buses would be cheaper, but I guess it's not. (Buses must be really expensive, too, since they could use the existing infrastructure and would not require the "straightening of Columbia Pike -- so it's the streetcars and infrastructure costs vs. buses.)

As for my "image" comment? (A) The county can brag about a streetcar, it won't brag about buses. (B) There are nimrods who won't ride a bus because they don't wish to ride with their "inferiors."

by 5555624 on Dec 29, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

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