Greater Greater Washington

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US streetcar boom takes off in 2014

Three other American cities in addition to DC will open new streetcar lines this year, and at least 12 more cities are expected to advance construction on lines that will open later.


Streetcar undergoing on-street testing in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from the City of Tucson.

The four lines expected to open in 2014 are in DC, Tucson, Seattle, and Atlanta. Tucson's Sun Link streetcar will be the first modern rail transit to open in that city. Seattle's First Hill streetcar will run next to a cycletrack for much of its length, in an impressive multimodal layout.

Atlanta's downtown streetcar will be the first modern streetcar to open in the US that doesn't use the ubiquitous 66' long streetcar model first popularized in Portland. Instead, Atlanta will use a 79' long tram similar to the light rail cars in Norfolk.

North of the border, Toronto will shortly begin to use new 99' long trams on its expansive streetcar network, the largest in North America.

Even more cities will begin construction or continue construction on new lines that won't open until 2015 or later. They include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tempe, San Antonio, and Saint Louis.

Many other cities, including Arlington, have streetcars that aren't expected to begin construction yet, but aren't far behind.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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More and more cities are seeing the benefits of mass transit as globing warming continues and traffic congestion gets worse. Streetcars are a proven, relatively cheap way of creating a reliable mass transit option for smaller towns without existing networks or to supplement larger networks.

The next step up would be similarly popular light rail, which itself is a low-cost option to a fully grade separated, high-investment rapid transit/heavy-rail line (which is almost prohibitively expensive, besides additions to existing systems).

by King Terrapin on Jan 9, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't assume they are coming to Arlington. Strong opposition and can't win the federal grants. Even if funding is in place, political realities and litigation are sure to slow things down.

by Hondo on Jan 9, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

They didn't get a Small Starts grant because FTA's adjustment of their costs pushed them above the Small Starts limit - there is no reason to think they can't get a New Starts grant. They are likely to be in line for NVTA money because its important to not only ArlCo, but to Fairfax County.

The political reality is not clear - Howze may very well win.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 9, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

Streetcar in Detroit, eh? I'll see it when it's running (and I am from MI). That money devoted to the woeful bus system makes more sense.

by JDC on Jan 9, 2014 12:51 pm • linkreport

The county is willing to forgo federal funding anyway. They'll likely seek New Starts funding since FTA said they liked the project and reccomended a larger vehicle to move more people.

Also, even in Vishstadt wins that still means 3 out of 5 board members want the streetcar to happen.

by drumz on Jan 9, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

I know of a legal group preparing to file a lawsuit to block a streetcar system should it go through.

There is plenty reason to think they won't get New Starts funding-it has been denied once.

Likely to be in line for NVTA?

by Hondo on Jan 9, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

Anyone can file a lawsuit, doesnt mean the courts will take it seriously.

I am not aware of PikeRail ever having applied for a New Starts grant, let alone being denied one. Perhaps you are confusing the New Starts program with the Small Starts program?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 9, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

I can't really see the Arlington Streetcar getting canceled for any reason short of substantial implosion of the regional economy.

by BTA on Jan 9, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

@JDCStreetcar in Detroit, eh? I'll see it when it's running (and I am from MI). That money devoted to the woeful bus system makes more sense.

My understand was there was a lot of private money behind this and that they was trying to get a light rail line built but they are now calling it a street car.

In any event, Detroit needs the kind of property value increasing development that rail brings, rather than the continued poverty that buses are stuck with there. Also looking at Detroit, there is a lot of space for dedicated lanes for rail, which might change the dynamics a bit.

by Richard on Jan 9, 2014 1:29 pm • linkreport

I would love to see a Military Rd NW streetcar (and bike lane), providing an east-west route in the northern part of the city. It could run from Friendship Heights to Fort Totten. It would help connect those of us here, on the western edge of Rock Creek Park, in the public transportation doldrums.

by Jay on Jan 9, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

Arlington was not denied for New Starts. It'd be a very short legal process if a suit based itself on that (maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it in order to let it slide).

It was denied for Small Starts. Small Starts has a funding cap and FTA said Arlington should expand the program even though the expansion would take it out of the Small Starts funding cap.

by drumz on Jan 9, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

I count the Arlington streetcar as part of the same system as the D.C. streetcars. We have a regional transit network, regardless of where the money comes from. MTA views the Purple Line as part of the Washington area regional transit sytem and the fact that the Columbia Pike streetcar will travel the same route as WMATA buses and link up to the Metro says that Arlington County sees it the same way.

by Cavan on Jan 9, 2014 2:24 pm • linkreport

Meanwhile Baltimore cannot get it's stuff together and move forward on a streetcar first proposed 10 years ago.

by Chris on Jan 9, 2014 2:40 pm • linkreport

We do "planners" insist on returning to technology of a the past century?

It wouldn't donwplay the lawsuit. It is substantial anti-waste group with real deal litigators. I am not saying it will defeat the project. Rather, it delay the project and continue the bad PR for Arlington (i.e. superstop).

by Hondo on Jan 9, 2014 2:44 pm • linkreport

just noticed my typo

by Hondo on Jan 9, 2014 2:44 pm • linkreport

"We do "planners" insist on returning to technology of a the past century? "

You mean like autos? Its true they are an old tech, but autos have seen improvements over the years, and still have their uses.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 9, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

So the group nominally interested in saving money wants to undertake legal action with the goal of wasting money? Ok.

Anyway, pretty much every transportation technology we have today is over a century old. Planes, cars, trains, bikes, all of it.

Further, streetcars operate with success in dozens of cities around the world, many in the US. Public transportation is not some great unknown thing. We know what makes it work and can extrapolate that. This is a bizarre criticism if only for how blatantly untrue it is.

by drumz on Jan 9, 2014 2:48 pm • linkreport

Litigation can only delay a project if a judge thinks the litigants have a case and issues an injunction.

And no, we dont automatically reduce our estimate of something because someone has sued it. Lawsuits are too ubiquitous for that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 9, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

@Chris
Meanwhile Baltimore cannot get it's stuff together and move forward on a streetcar first proposed 10 years ago.

I am sure Baltimore would love to get it's first street car going, but at least right now the city seems to be focusing it's efforts on expanding the the CharmCityCirculator(which the street car will likely one day replace) and get the Red Line built.

I am sure that the city is also waiting to see how the Red Line goes and then hope they could build light rail on or under charles street which would have more benefit than a street car.

by Richard on Jan 9, 2014 2:59 pm • linkreport

Yeah the whole "streetcars are lame because they are a nineteenth century technology" meme is just plain ignorant. The Daimler went on sale in 1892 for pete's sake. GOOGLE IS HARD.

by Igor on Jan 9, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

>Why do "planners" insist on returning to technology of the past century?

What's the this century option? The invention of 2001, cars?

Just because an invention is newer, does not make it better; nor as there are innovations or changes in needs (capacity) an old invention may reclaim "best."

by John on Jan 9, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

@Hondo: Airplanes are not exactly new, either.

If it's technology of a more recent vintage you want, open a Segway store.

Also, which typo did you notice? I count at least six.

by alurin on Jan 9, 2014 3:08 pm • linkreport

+1 Igor for GOOGLE IS HARD.

by JDC on Jan 9, 2014 3:12 pm • linkreport

Jay, totally agree, northern DC desperately needs better East West connections unfortunately density and public sentiment don't really seem to be favorable yet.

by BTA on Jan 9, 2014 3:16 pm • linkreport

Also, these streetcars have as much in common with a good old PCC streetcar as a 737-800 has with a 367-80.

by Another Nick on Jan 9, 2014 3:25 pm • linkreport

Completely sincere question: What is the best answer to those who claim that the streetcar is of little additional marginal value over the bus? It seems to be that unless you have dedicated lanes (also possible with BRT), you don't achieve much in terms of speed, although you may get additional capacity.

by alpinepaq on Jan 9, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

In arlington's analysis at least they found that the increase in costs for the streetcar was overwhelmed by the expected increase in investment along the corridor. Basically people are willing to pay more to live near a streetcar.

So the marginal increase in the ROI is greater than the marginal increase in the costs.

by drumz on Jan 9, 2014 4:20 pm • linkreport

alpinepaq: Here is a rundown of inherent streetcar benefits.

by BeyondDC on Jan 9, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

I think it is important to clarify the distinction between streetcar and light rail. Street cars run on existing streets without dedicated lanes (in traffic). Light rail primarily runs in dedicated lanes both on existing streets and in its own Right of Way.

While this is not a perfect distinction, its the best one in IMHO. Using it, I would argue the Purple Line is light rail (since although it runs on streets part of the time, it primarily is its own ROW and dedicated lane) and the H street corridor street car is just that, a street car.

by pjwjr on Jan 9, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

What is the best answer to those who claim that the streetcar is of little additional marginal value over the bus?

Increased development, which means more amenities and people spaced closer together. You won't have to travel as far as you used to in order to do the same things - that is a mobility increase.

by MLD on Jan 9, 2014 4:26 pm • linkreport

@BeyondDC thanks for the link. Of the arguments, the increase in development seems the most compelling, though why a streetcar would promote development where a bus wouldn't seems largely due to factors (explained in the link) like how iconic they are. As I've thought about it, seems like streetcar is also a great way to back door into getting dedicated transit lanes. Once you have the streetcar, not a hard step to reserve the lane, versus starting from the get go...

by alpinepaq on Jan 9, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

Also, these streetcars have as much in common with a good old PCC streetcar as a 737-800 has with a 367-80.

Bit of an unfair comparison as the 367-80 was a one off prototype, there was only ever one that was never actually used while the PCC streetcars were a fleet of thousands made over decades and used over 80 years.

On the other hand, modern street cars are in some ways more different from the PCC streetcars than a 737-800 is to the 367-80.

by Richard on Jan 9, 2014 5:35 pm • linkreport

pjwjr -- the best distinction between streetcar and light rail isn't dedicated ROW, it's the length of the line, size of vehicles, speed of the vehicles, general nature of the trip, and the intent of the service.

LR, at least in the US, is heavy rail light and focuses on commuter trips. The vehicles are larger.

Streetcars are shorter routes, often within districts, with more frequent stops and don't have any intent of serving long distance commuters.

In Europe, they call either streetcars or light rail "trams" and tend to use the same basic vehicle for either service (short vs. medium distance).

by Richard Layman on Jan 9, 2014 7:34 pm • linkreport

Hope Tuscon's is better than Phoenix's ugly failure. But of course it will be dedicated right-of-way since no one is stupid enough today to build rail otherwise.

DC had a huge state-of-the art streetcar system until 1960. Past Florida Ave it was mostly beautiful and efficient dedicated rights-of-way powered by electric rails. This new fiasco is so 2nd-rate compared to what we had.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 9, 2014 8:16 pm • linkreport

@Richard Re: Detroit streetcar

Like so much else in Detroit, the streetcar is a bit of a fiasco. Originally it was supposed to be a 9 mile light rail line with dedicated lanes running from the river to 8 mile. That was shot down when the feds determined their was no operating revenue and declined to support the project.

So, the usual private backers put up $100 million to create a 3 mile stub streetcar line that did attract Federal funding but which will run in mixed traffic. Hard to imagine this will do anything other than prevent the city from creating real light rail on Woodward, and it's certainly not going to improve anyone's mobility in an appreciable way. It's supposed to be layered with another "who knows if that will ever really happen" BRT system.

To be fair, they have already started utility relocation work. The streetcar part is definitely happening.

by Jack on Jan 9, 2014 10:47 pm • linkreport

@alpinepaq, I think the biggest reason streetcars attract development isn't the fact that they're iconic, but that they're (semi-)permanent. Buses can be rerouted, but after the investment is made to lay down tracks it's unlikely the streetcar is going to disappear anytime soon.

by WestEgg on Jan 9, 2014 11:18 pm • linkreport

@ Hondo -

Subways - 1863.

Electric streetcars - 1880.

Automobiles - 1886.

Airplanes - 1904.

What, may I ask, is the 21st-Century transportation alternative for which you pine?

by Frank IBC on Jan 10, 2014 12:32 am • linkreport

"We do "planners" insist on returning to technology of a the past century?"

Why are we reviving organic farm to table food?

by Thayer-D on Jan 10, 2014 6:21 am • linkreport

"Last century's technology" is an argument people whip out only when they can't actually find anything substantive to say.

by MLD on Jan 10, 2014 8:31 am • linkreport

Subways - 1863.

Electric streetcars - 1880.

Automobiles - 1886.

Airplanes - 1904.

What, may I ask, is the 21st-Century transportation alternative for which you pine?

can we use this next time someone brings up ferries on the Potomac. Boats are prehistory technology!

by Richard on Jan 10, 2014 9:31 am • linkreport

@Richard: The Segway. Remember when that was supposed to revolutionize everything? Even though it's a $5000 version of the same function as a bicycle.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 10, 2014 9:39 am • linkreport

The segway revolutionized (well sorta) urban crowd control, and city guided tours. Thats actually a lot more than most of us achieve in one lifetime, eh? If it had been marketed that way, instead of being hyped, we wouldn't laugh at it. Niche improvements are important too.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 10, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

I'm still hoping in we can retroactively implement dedicated lanes for at least some streetcars. Seems like it's half and half right now for most plans but maybe with enough support we can get to 100% eventually. I understand the fear of losing parking but in most places it can be accomodated on side streets and downtown there just isnt that much need for on street parking with the density of structured parking. Outside Wards 1 and 2 there should be sufficient on street parking even without structured parking in most places that a few dedicated lanes wouldnt be a problem.

by BTA on Jan 10, 2014 10:14 am • linkreport

I find the word "streetcars" too muddy. We should be pushing for rail only if it has its own right-of-way. If it is in the same traffic with cars, trucks, and buses, we shouldn't bother and instead push for BRT-lite. Let's fight the right battles for transit globally.

by Rob on Jan 10, 2014 11:30 am • linkreport

Well, in arlington again the option for transit only lanes isn't on the table. It'd require a huge concession from VDOT that the county has no expectation to be given. It looked at BRT options and found that a streetcar was still the better vehicle. I don't know what's right globally but the best local option seems to be streetcars.

by drumz on Jan 10, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

I'll add that "Technology Timetable" to my GGW CheatSheet, right after my "List of Rapid Transit Systems That Use More Than Two Tracks". :D

by Frank IBC on Jan 10, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

Alpinepaq-
In a lot of ways, the advantages of streetcar over bus are perception trumping reality. There is definitely a capacity advantage, which helps reduce the inevitable stacking issues of busy routes. Other than that, it's mostly that streetcars have a much better image than buses. The real answer is that buses can almost match streetcars, but only by investing in higher quality transit features. Most of the benefit of streetcar isn't from the vehicle itself, but because streetcar projects usually add improved roadway/station features.

The other important thing is to look at the long term financials of buses. Transit buses need to be replaced far more frequently than streetcars, and the articulated buses needed to rival streetcars have only a few years of lifespan. A quality bus also needs a quality roadway, but where streetcars have to account for track maintenance, road maintenance comes from a different budget, and is rarely counted in the cost comparison. A transit agency could probably use 6 streetcars in place of 10 buses, saving other labor costs.

by RailPhilly on Jan 10, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

@drumz

FTFY: best "politically possible with a backwards VDOT" option.

by LowHeadways on Jan 10, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

@Frank IBC

I hope you also have a "List of Rapid Transit Systems that Run 24 Hours." And break it down by number of tracks. ;-)

by LowHeadways on Jan 10, 2014 3:43 pm • linkreport

That might be a better way to phrase it. Amazing though how people ignore that fact even when explcitly stated and think the county somehow forgot to consider taking a lane.

by drumz on Jan 10, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

@Frank IBC

Can you post that "List of Rapid Transit Systems That Use More Than Two Tracks" here? I know New York (of course), Chicago, and Philly off the top of my head. Are there others?

by Michael Whelan on Jan 10, 2014 10:02 pm • linkreport

So for everybody saying Streetcars will bring development please explain the following

Why is it most of the stations on the Green line have just recently had development when much of the line has been open since 1991 ?

Now also explain that for every other station that is not new that doesn't have much development around it and how do streetcars differ ?

With the development that people on here state the Blue and Orange Line stations east of Stadium Armory should have been developed in the 1980's and most are not today what gives ?

by kk on Jan 10, 2014 11:29 pm • linkreport

kk: Because there's more to getting development than rail. You also have to have the right planning and zoning. If you don't, you'll never get much development no matter how much expensive infrastructure you throw somewhere.

But the reverse it also true. You won't get development with *only* good planning and zoning if you don't provide the right infrastructure also. This is why, for example, Frederick Avenue in Gaithersburg hasn't redeveloped very much, despite having a pretty good, urban-friendly zoning code for like 15 years now.

So streetcars and Metro are *part* of the development puzzle, but not the *only* part. Metro stations that haven't yet redeveloped are missing other parts.

by BeyondDC on Jan 11, 2014 1:15 am • linkreport

Only the inner part of the Green Line - U Street through Anacostia - opened in 1991. With the exception of Anacostia, those stations aren't lacking in development.

The northern end of the Green Line opened in 1999, and the southern end in 2001. Columbia Heights

Although Columbia Heights is doing quite well since the Metro opened in 1999, several of the stations on the outer ends of the line haven't developed much because they are (ironically_ poorly located for optimum "transit-oriented" development as they were designed primarily for parking and transfers from buses.

by Frank IBC on Jan 11, 2014 7:51 am • linkreport

@ LowHeadways - good suggestion. I'll make a list of "Rapid transit Systems that operate 24 hours a day" and add it, along with the "(Non)-history of the 'Metro Station in Georgetown'".

@ Michael Whelan -

Here is the list of rapid transit systems with lines having 3 or more tracks:

-New York
-Philadelphia: Broad Street line (7 miles)
-Chicago: Part of Purple line (9 miles)
-Hong Kong: Part of West line (2.5 miles).
-London: Some parts of Metropolitan line; concurrent sections of Jubilee/Metropolitan lines and District/Picadilly lines

by Frank IBC on Jan 11, 2014 3:02 pm • linkreport

@ Frank IBC

Actually that's wrong; the northern end of the Green line opened in 1993 between Ft Totten & Greenbelt with the following new stations West Hyattsville, PG Plaza, College Park & Greenbelt. Two separate Green lines were run for a few years until Columbia Heights & Georgia Ave were opened.

In 1999 Columbia Heights & Georgia Ave opened and in 2001 Congress Heights, Southern Ave, Naylor Rd, Suiltand & Branch Ave.

Some of the outer stations were placed in good spots and did terrible Benning Road, Minnesota Ave, Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Deanwood those areas already had lots of people living in them when those stations were built but no development came around them for more than 20 years after they were built.

The ones located poorly are the ones that are built beside railroad right of ways or in highways with not a single house within 2 or 3 miles of them.

by kk on Jan 12, 2014 1:59 am • linkreport

@ Kk -

Oops, I forgot about the gap in the Green Line during those years. Thanks.

West of the river, the most poorly located station is probably Fort Totten. The location was originally planned to be an interchange between two freeways.

by Frank IBC on Jan 12, 2014 8:16 am • linkreport

@ LowHeadways:

For rapid transit systems that run 24 hours a day, this is all I've been able to find:

-New York
-Chicago (Red and Blue Lines only)
-Munich
-Berlin (weekends only)

Of the systems with multiple-track lines, London's and Hong Kong's shut down overnight, and so does Chicago's Purple Line.

So that leaves New York's subway as the only system in both categories.

by Frank IBC on Jan 12, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

Other 24-hour rail transit systems:

PATCO from Philadelphia (Lindenwold High Speed Line)

New York area (besides NYC subway):
PATH
Staten Island Railroad
Long Island Railroad
Newark Airport AirTrain (although its rail NJT connection isn't 24/7)
JFK AirTrain

Coming in 2015:
London Underground (5 lines; weekends only at first, but eventually 24/7)

by Tom Durkin on Jan 13, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

@Frank IBC, Tom Durkin:

Don't forget about the Copenhagen Metro, which runs 24 hour service despite being only two tracks! (albeit with driverless trains).

by LowHeadways on Jan 13, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Wish Louisville, KY would get some form of rail transit!

by Kyle on Jan 21, 2014 8:54 am • linkreport

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