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Heavy rail, streetcars or BRT? Transit isn't "one size fits all"

The District is building a streetcar system while also studying the potential for express bus lanes in key areas. Montgomery County is looking at building a bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Arlington and Fairfax are planning a streetcar on Columbia Pike, while a BRT line is under construction in the Crystal City-Potomac Yard area.

Photo by Ian YVR on Flickr.

It's easy to get confused about the differences between these various transit projects. Moreover, it's easy for opponents of certain projects to use this confusion to misdirect residents when comparing different types of transit projects.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey wrote in an op-ed that she opposes a streetcar on Columbia Pike and instead favors what she calls "modern bus transit." Unfortunately, nowhere did she define this term, which isn't a real name for a type of transit. Personally, I favor "Star Trek"-style transporters on Columbia Pike, which would be far faster than any car, bus or train, but those are just as nonexistent.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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No one has yet convinced me that a streetcar has any benefits over buses on Columbia Pike, which I drive at least a couple of times a week. I've come to the conclusion that it's mostly about appearances. Streetcars, even the modern ones, look better than buses, but that's no reason to go to all the trouble to put one in. They're more expensive and less flexible than buses. And, as an Arlington Co. taxpayer, I'm concerned that apparently every modern streetcar system, regardless of the promises made prior to construction, has eventually had to dip into the general fund to cover operating expenses. I don't need one more expense, as my taxes were just raised by the county.

by ksu499 on May 4, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

What would differentiate the streetcar from buses would be dedicated passage. Buses must observe the same traffic signals as cars. However, if it could be done reliably and safely, I would suggest that crosswalk signals be adjusted and lights timed so that there would be a period of time where an awaiting or approaching streetcar woud have an exclusive right of way. But this would only work if they have a dedicated lane.

While that could be achieved with an express bus lane operating under similar rules, trains do have an appeal that buses lack. They cost more, but they will attract more riders, or different riders, willing to pay more for the same route.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on May 4, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

No one has yet convinced me that a streetcar has any benefits over buses on Columbia Pike

The biggest benefit of streetcars over buses is that they lead to greater development which leads to an expansion of the tax base that pays for the investment. Furthermore, streetcars attract higher end development because streetcar riders are higher income than bus riders. That also means the new residents will be contributing more in taxes and since they are less likely to have kids, using less services in the form of schools.

While you can go back and forth on academic research about the affect of rail on development, in the real world, you need only talk to the folks actually putting their money into real estate investments and they will tell you that there's a world of difference in the attractiveness of rail oriented development vs. bus oriented development. Maybe some day developers will be sold on the idea of buses but at this time, they're not going to commit nearly as much capital to bus corridors.

by Falls Church on May 4, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

Also, streetcars have more capacity. They run smoother and maintenance costs are less over time.

In Columbia pike there isn't any way for buses to provide significantly more capacity than a streetcar can.

by drumz on May 4, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

"The biggest benefit of streetcars over buses is that they lead to greater development which leads to an expansion of the tax base that pays for the investment."

In other words, they increase property values along the route and nearby to the benefit of property owners and developers - at the expense of everyone else.

And if you can't afford to buy into new development that your taxes helped make possible, take comfort in knowing that "your commute has been made easier by all those cars taken off the roads by the streetcar".

Yeah, right.

by ceefer66 on May 4, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

Yes, making Columbia pike nicer will make it truly awful.

Also all the people ridif the streetcar will call a friend and have them drive in front ofte streetcar just to keep those traffic numbers up.

by drumz on May 4, 2013 5:17 pm • linkreport

at the expense of everyone else.

Presumably everyone else also gets to benefit from the improved and more accessible Columbia Pike. Unless you think you are somehow unconnected and unaffected by the condition and activity of Columbia Pike.

by Tyro on May 4, 2013 6:52 pm • linkreport

The Richmond Highway Corridor - does anyone know what would be best for it?
Some are saying Metro rail will never happen.

by Jay Roberts on May 5, 2013 7:03 am • linkreport

at the expense of everyone else.

No, buses operate at the expense of everyone else as they do not increase the tax base sufficiently to cover their operating subsidy and construction costs. Streetcars and rail in general pays for itself through increased property values and the addition of higher income residents who often don't have kids, saving the county money on schools.

by Falls Church on May 5, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

Ed Tennyson (one of the original designers for DC Metro 1962-63) published a TRB paper in the 1980s examining passenger preference, rail vs. bus.

He looked at several examples of streetcar to bus conversion and found that ridership dropped almost immediately by -30% to -42%. He also looked at the San Diego Trolley (he was first operations manager there) and the ridership gains from bus > rail.

Ed knew several cases personally where someone rode the bus for as long as it took them to buy a car (Ed was alos involved in prosecuting GM for buying up streetcar lines in order to turn them to buses - GM, Firestone & Standard Oil-NJ knew what that would do).

BRT may have lower "first costs", but it does not last as long and attracts far fewer riders. The total life cycle costs and revenue for BRT compared to rail makes BRT a bad choice under almost all circumstances.

BTW, clicking my name will take you to the plans Ed & I have made for WMATA Phase II & III.

Best Hopes,

Alan Drake

by Alan S. Drake on May 5, 2013 9:48 am • linkreport

Regarding the Richmond Highway Corridor

There were plans, which Ed Tennyson strongly favors, to build a single track Light Rail line down Richmond Highway. (I think a second track can be built for a distance on the west side on the access roads). Engineering was done.

Ed was with the San Diego Trolley when it opened as a single track line. It can be done.

Our plans call for converting the two station Yellow Line stub into Richmond Highway Light Rail and making King Street Metro Station into a Light Rail hub.

Columbia Pike would feed into the "light blue" Light Rail line (which goes from Tyson's Corner to King Street).

by Alan S. Drake on May 5, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport


It might be useful to the discource to explain more clearly where someone who is a mode pluralist like yourself see's BRT as the best choice - it would disarm some of the discourse that makes it "my mode is best is best everywhere". While the implication from your piece is that BRT is good where A. volume justifies more than local bus, but is not so high that bus volume constraints are an issue and B. Development is a relatively secondary goal if its a goal at all C. Seperate ROW is available - it might be good to make that explicit, and explain how that applies in MoCo. I think at least some of those factors will apply in the discussion of the I66 corridor in NoVa (Vienna to Centrevill) where BRT may be a viable option. Also worth discussing is mixed transitways - seperate ROW with both rails and bus usage - which I think is the Arlco plan for Crystal City.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 5, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

Falls Church,

There a couple of assumptions in there.
1) Currently, the bus lines along Columbia Pike are some of the most crowded. Thus, the argument that people won't take buses is inapposite. What most people really mean is the "right" kind of people won't take buses. I know there is a racial undertone in that comment but let's not hide the ball in your underlying point.
2) Promoters of the Streetcar have stated that payment for costs of the streetcare with come specifically from surcharge on commercial real property. What happens when that surcharge doesn't cover the capital cost of said costs - or more likely just the interest charges on the bonds - where does that money come from. Any deficit is going to come out of the general fund. There could be any number of reasons why - lack of development, lower assessed values, business owners exiting area because of increased taxes.
3) But, more to cost. The surcharge tax by state law can at most be 12.5 cents on the hundred dollars of assessed value. The county just rolled over $200 million in GR bonds at slightly over 2%. Given the issues with specific bonds tied to dedicated revenue and likely increased costs as interest will rise in the near future - let's say the interest rate on said bonds is 4%. That means on $250 million (low ball estimate of what the entire all in cost to the county in IMHO) means just to pay the interest on the bonds requires an annual cost of $10 million from said surcharge. But, let's say the bonds need to be paid off in 25 years meaning another $10 million a year. The would amount to 2% of the entire county budget (budget was about 1 billion) dedicated to just one transportation repayment of 1 transportation project. Given the county is looking for in excess of 500 million for new schools over the next 5-6 years. The streetcar is a want right now not a need.
But, that would also mean the difference in commercial real development based on the street car v what is now built an planned would need to exceed 200 million. Not easy.

Lastly, there is no magic formula to green light triggering that says a streetcar can only do it and a bus can't.

by Burger on May 5, 2013 8:07 pm • linkreport

1. Plenty if people ride the bus, however to gEt the investment, businesses seem to prefer some sort if rail. Anyway, lots of people ride the bus which Is why the streetcar is preferred because streetcars provide a lot more capacity than any bus that could be used on the pike.

2. Capital costs is still up in the air but a lot is likely to come from both the state and the federal new starts program. You may have heard funding was denied from small starts but the caveat is that the Feds want Arligton to apply to the bigger program.

by drumz on May 5, 2013 11:18 pm • linkreport


1) I never said people won't take buses. I said that developers won't invest nearly as much in a bus corridor as a rail corridor.

2) The surcharge isn't meant to cover the entire cost of the streetcar's capital and operating cost. Part of the costs will come from increased general fund revenue that result from rail-oriented development.

Lastly, there is no magic formula to green light triggering that says a streetcar can only do it and a bus can't.

The formula isn't magic. Talk to any developer and they will tell you that they're willing to invest far more in a rail corridor than a bus corridor.

by Falls Church on May 6, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport


To quickly address your issues

1) Whatever bus ridership is today, streetcar (actually Light Rail) ridership will be at least 30% and more likely significantly higher than +30% when buses are replaced by urban rail. Real life example after real life example makes this a truism.

2) Your sxenario of people and businesses fleeing urban rail is against every example in the Greater DC area. I cannot think of a single example in the US except Cleveland, where the flow out of the city was just too great to overcome with the attrcator of urban rail.

None-the-less, all investments carry some risks with them. This appears to be about the lowest risk public investment that I have seen.

3). You assume that current bus service, and the roads that they beat up, is free. It is not. On a life cycle cost basis, Light Rail will be SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than bus service (% road repair) - and it will attract much more revenue.

One side note: Damage to roads is proportional to the 4th power of the axle weight (10x the weight = 10,000x the damage). Buses have very heavy loadings per axle, often more than 10x the axle weight of cars.

Buses carry far fewer people than Light Rail, and would require many more stoplight overrides. Not nearly as practical to do this with buses.

by Alan S. Drake on May 6, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

"regardless of the promises made prior to construction, has eventually had to dip into the general fund to cover operating expenses"

I feel for you ksu499. As a non driver, I'm pretty sick of making up the 49% of roadway costs incurred by drivers, but paid for by income, payroll, sales and property taxes.

by KillMoto on May 6, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport


After Virginia's giant step backward - and normal trends elsewhere, fuel taxes and other road user fees (mainly license tags) - road users pay less than half of the costs of roads & highways. A $101 billion subsidy in 2010 - more today !

My essay "A conservative Principle - User Pays".


by Alan S. Drake on May 6, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

Streetcars also are aesthetically much more interesting. Check out all the great historic designs they have running in San Francisco:

I hope we can get some like that for the DC area too.

by Chris S. on May 6, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

I like streetcars but not to the extent that I wouldn't consider other options. I do think rail has benefits over buses as have been mentioned in terms of development and capturing choice riders. The choice riders part is important because their alternative is likely to be a car. For whatever reason a lot of people have an aversion to the bus that doesn't seem to apply to rail. As for development, the fixedness of rail gives more confidence to businesses that it's a long term investment. Probably also the newness factor means people are more likely to consider it as an alternative rather than a continution of the status quo.

by Alan B. on May 6, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

I'd say some of the main reasons for the public preference for rail include;
1) Much more certainty about when the train/streetcar will arrive and how long it will take to reach destination
2) Much easier to understand route map and how to get to places
3) Smoother ride

by Chris S. on May 6, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport


How can you possibly say that there is more certainty of arrivals and trips when the streetcar is sharing the exact same right of way as every other car and bus on the pike? The streetcar is going to get stuck in the same traffic everyone else will and won't be any more predictable than any other form of trasnport.

Much easier to read maps and smoother ride are highly subjective, and not exactly a solid basis for which to spend 3 or 4 times the money. I can read bus schedules just fine, and I've never had an issue with the "smoothness" of a bus ride. The herkey jerky metrorail, which should be the smoothest public trasnport ride out there, is the worst, so lets leave the low grade subjective comparisons out of this because no one is going to agree to spends hundreds of millions extra on this because some people think it has a smoother ride.

by streetcar on May 6, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

Smoother ride actually has a cost impact. Less wear on the brakes, traction motors, suspension, and trucks. Metro's jerkiness is bad operators, not the equipment or mode of transit's problem.

by Another Nick on May 6, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

Plus the extra capacity (thus driving down the total number of vehicles/drivers on the road) and the fact that streetcars can last decades (see: Philly's Girard Avenue line where they use some of the same cars from the 1940's) mean lower maintenance costs over time despite a higher initial cost.

by drumz on May 6, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

"I can read bus schedules just fine, and I've never had an issue with the "smoothness" of a bus ride. "

You've never ridden the same buses I do then ;)

Look, there's some pretty abundant data that street car line, with the same speed and reliability charecteristics as a bus, gets more ridership. Maybe thats due to some novelty or snob effect - or maybe it IS due to ride quality. It seems unfair, when presented with evidence for the rail preference, that street car opponent deny there could be any reason for it (by citing the comparable speed of buses) and when its suggested, that its ride quality, dismiss that out of hand based on their personal preferences. Can it be that the majority of transit riders with a choice have different preferences than that of those street car opponents who do not mind bus ride quality?

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 6, 2013 4:29 pm • linkreport


And you are assuming that all of Arlington's streetcar drivers are going to be the worlds best and smoothest drivers? Considering they would have to deal with the "stop and go" of the traffic, I think not.


So now, all things apparently being equal, the reason to build the streetcar is perceived rider preference for ride quality, a highly subjective, unacademic metric unstudied, and unverified anywhere? Is that what we've come to because the "certainity of arrivals", ease of reading the maps", and development arguments levied above didn't go anywhere?

Hey, I would "prefer" my public transit ride be in leather seats with on-demand tv's in every seat, but my ridiculous preference doesn't make for the foundation of a logical, useful or smart method of public transit.

Ok, so the streetcar won't be any faster, and in most scenarios will actually be slower than a bus option because it is stuck in the lane its it. It will cost many times more to install, many time more to operate and maintain.

Unless you can set aside ROW for it, this proposal has failure written all over it.

by streetcar on May 6, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

"So now, all things apparently being equal, the reason to build the streetcar is perceived rider preference for ride quality,"

no the reasons to build the streetcar are 1 documented rider mode preference for rail 2. Higher capacity 3. Economic development impacts

Ride quality is merely one POSSIBLE explanation for the rider mode preference. the ride quality is not the goal of point 1, though, the higher ridership numbers. Thats important both because many of the benefits of the street car are going to be directly proportional to ridership, and at least some aspects of the impact on development will be proportional to ridership.

And again, cost differences that leave aside the maintenance and replacement cost for articulated buses are not useful.

Its very tiresome when an explanation of the ridership preference for rail in terms of any given "factor X" is twisted into "Oh, we are spending this money in order to give riders factor X".

BTW, as for other amenities - there are, Im quite sure, express bus lines that have seats much more comfortable than standard bus seats, and with WiFi. If that gets ridership that makes the service viable, I see nothing wrong with that. Lecturing would be riders about the ridiculous qualities of their preferences does not seem like a way to build ridership.

There is also no particular evidence that street cars are slower than buses in mixed traffic. That may have to do with the constraints on real world bus operations in the kinds of conditions that prevail in places like Col Pike.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 6, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

Saying the streetcar will fail because it won't have a dedicated lane is basically an argument for no-build, even with good intentions. And since the county was required to study a no-build option we can compare it to the preferred option. Surprise! The streetcar will provide a lot of capacity while no-build will basically see service degrade as the population increases.

by drumz on May 6, 2013 5:57 pm • linkreport

Also, stop wondering about cars blocking the track. Besides the obvious solutions of aggressive towing/ticketing we can gain best practices from the literally dozens of cities across the world who have streetcars. We're not talking about untested technology here.

by drumz on May 6, 2013 6:00 pm • linkreport

An overlooked point - Life cycle (as opposed to first cost) - Urban rail is cheaper on a busy route.

Per FTA, buses last 12 years, rail cars last 30 (and often longer). So that low first cost for BRT depreciates quickly away.

Maintenance on electric motors, steel wheels & regenerative braking (motors turn into generators) is *FAR* lower than on buses with diesel engines, rubber tires and disc pads. And that is just some of the areas where maintenance is lower. Rail usually gets far less vandalism as well.

Fuel costs are dramatically lower. Steel rolling on steel has 1/5th the rolling resistance of rubber on concrete or asphalt. Electric motors are @ 90% efficient - diesels are 20% or so. And electricity is a cheap & clean fuel.

Buses tear up roads (see busway in Los Angeles that needed a rebuild in 1 year). One bus can do more damage than 10,000 cars. Roads are expensive to repair.

Rails last a LONG time, especially with lighter cars. AFAIK, WMATA is replacing fasteners for the rail but not the rails themselves yet (true ?). 50 years should be a minimum for the trackwork on Columbia Pike.

Light Rail (for whatever reason - I think "class" is a major factor personally) attracts more riders - 30+% again and again and again. That is more revenue.

The passenger/driver ratio is much higher with rail, reducing a major cost.

That is why WMATA buses get almost all the subsidies. WMATA Metro gets about the same subsidy as the para-transit subsidy.

PS: Our proposed plans will almost triple urbna rail pax-miles and more than double passenger count - while REDUCING the operating subsidy. Replacing buses with rail creates MAJOR savings (see especially Silver Line East and the Olive Line).

by Alan S. Drake on May 7, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

Street cars, being on a rail, do not throw their passengers around like popcorn the way buses do.

by Capt. Hilts on May 7, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

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