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Ward 1 candidates: Graham is hot on buses, not on streetcars

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.

Images from the candidate websites.

Jim Graham, the councilmember for Ward 1, has always been a staunch supporter of bus transit. But he's much less sanguine about DC's plans to build a network of streetcars.

Graham pushed to keep bus fares down when on the WMATA Board, and he proposed the Circulator route that runs from McPherson Square to U Street, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Woodley Park.

I asked Graham if we should have dedicated bus lanes. He said:

I was very much an advocate for creation of express bus on 16th street and on Georgia Avenue [the S9 and 79 buses]. Both of those happened while I was involved. It's good but there's still terrific bus bunching. ...

Metro/WMATA has always treated the buses like stepchildren. They're kind of assigned to the coal bin of Metro. And it's been a slow process pulling the bus transportation out of that second-class status and into first-class status. We're not there yet. And I think a dedicated lane—because I think rapid bus makes a lot of sense.

When we compare the cost of rapid bus to light rail, and we compare the problems of light rail to the relative ease of rapid bus, I think it's a very strong case. The notion of light rail running down Harvard or light rail running down 18th Street in Adams Morgan? It's... it's quite a profound change.

Because people forget that streetcars break down. I think nobody remembers that they break down. I rode streetcars in the '50s and '60s and they broke down. And when they broke down there was such a terrific backlog of traffic and congestion as the car had to be pulled away. That's just in the nature of things. Look at the Metro trains!

Not to mention the fact that you've got the trolleys taking up an awful lot of roadway space, and that's going to create other challenges.

"H Street is perfect" for streetcars, he said, in part because it is "very broad." But there's also a debate about whether H Street should one day have dedicated lanes (Charles Allen would like to consider it, while Darrel Thompson doesn't think it would work, for example). Graham said:

I was 12 years on the Metro Board. (I don't want to say too much about that right now.) But I became convinced that if we had really good rapid bus, people would be very happy to use it. And we wouldn't have the enormous cost of capital investment that we have related to trolleys. Trolleys in some ways are sentimental and they're kind of exciting and new. But rapid bus can deliver, and we know plenty of examples where it has delivered.
Nadeau wrote in an email, "I'm fully supportive of a streetcar for Georgia Avenue and excited about the conceptual drawings circulated last week. It's a great opportunity to strengthen a commercial corridor that has largely been forgotten by our current leadership."

As for the 16th Street bus lane, she said in the interview that not only does she think it's a good idea, as Graham does, but she is pushing to make it a reality (unlike, she says, her opponent):

One of the things I'm working on right now is the 16th Street [bus] lane. That was a proposal that came up in 2009, 2010 when Graham was chair of the transportation committee, and it still has not been studied and implemented. ... When that study was done, 30% of all traffic on 16th Street was the bus. And now, it's more than 50%.

Watch the whole discussion with Graham about transportation here, including conversations about car dependence, parking, and pedestrian and bicycle safety.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.

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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"And I think a dedicated lane—because I think rapid bus makes a lot of sense."

Did I miss the part where he actually comes out in favor of dedicated bus lanes? It looks more like he's implying he would be in favor of it to this crowd, while not actually saying it so that he cannot be pinned down with a quote as being in favor.

by Dizzy on Feb 25, 2014 12:30 pm • linkreport

It doesn't seem like either of these candidates is that big of a cheerleader for the streetcar, but it will take a strong voice as mayor to enable the kind of "profound change" to which Graham is referring. Especially given that the city's only example of a modern streetcar (on H St) has been plagued by a number of embarrassing missteps and failures of good management that haven't exactly roused widespread support for the system.

Graham is right that there are plenty of examples where BRT has delivered and that a big reason people support streetcars is that they are seen as "cooler" than buses. He seems to believe that BRT is also a more achievable goal and less likely to cause conflict.

by Scoot on Feb 25, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

In this area, the examples of successful BRTs are small or nonexistant, while there are plenty of examples of BRTs that are proposed they are whittled down into regular bus routes. I think theoretically they are great; but in-practice become watered down to the point that they are not effective. I am really hoping for that 16th street dedicated lane. I've been an advocate of it for years. But it seems easier to get people and political will behind streetcars than buses.

I also think that Jim Graham's reference to streetcars breaking down can be avoided by having dedicated lanes for the streetcars instead of mixing them with traffic.

At the end of the day, I think what a lot of us are looking for is dedicated right of ways in the city for something other than cars, be it buses or street cars, I'll take it!

by dc denizen on Feb 25, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

That's "streetcars" instead of "street cars", as in trolleys :-)

by dc denizen on Feb 25, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

Well I am not a Graham fan but I don't consider this an outright fail. The Georgia Ave streetcar and 16th st bus lanes are somewhat seperate issues that deal with different goals. However the fact that Graham didnt make the bus lanes happen (few other people should have had the level of influence he would on the issue) speaks for itself.

by BTA on Feb 25, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

Please tell me more about these 'plenty of examples' where BRT has worked. I have visited many cities in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia, and I can only think of one half-decent example of BRT- the Van Nuys FlyAway, which isn't even proper BRT. On the other hand, I can think of quite a few successful streetcars- San Francisco, Seattle, Prague, Manchester, Amsterdam and Strasbourg, just off the top of my head.

by renegade09 on Feb 25, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

Because people forget that streetcars break down. I think nobody remembers that they break down. I rode streetcars in the '50s and '60s and they broke down. And when they broke down there was such a terrific backlog of traffic and congestion as the car had to be pulled away. That's just in the nature of things. Look at the Metro trains!

Here's an argument completely devoid of any thoughts about data. Buses also break down and cause plenty of traffic problems when they do. Do streetcars break down more or less than buses? Less - about half as often (twice as many miles traveled) if you compare to large urban bus systems.

by MLD on Feb 25, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

I agree with the notion that improving bus service is too often overlooked for the "cooler" options such as streetcars, but I wouldn't say they are superior, nor would I say streetcars are superior - to me they are more apples and oranges best used in the appropriate situations of each case. Graham sort of hints at this, but doesn't quite say it, as it seems he states a decent amount of objection to streetcar expansion.

And please tell me I'm not the only one who looks at Graham and hears "Get your Billion back America!"

by A. P. on Feb 25, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

@ Renegade.

I never said or even suggested that there are no examples of successful streetcars. No need to invent things out of thin air for no reason. I've been on several of the streetcars you mentioned and they are very lovely.

And I'm confused by your request of "please tell me about these plenty of examples where BRT has worked." Since it doesn't really make sense for me to simply paraphrase the innumerable studies, reports and publications that have been written on the topic, I think it would be better for you to use your resources to learn at your own convenience and pace.

I can tell you that many of the notable BRT systems are located in Latin America and the developing world -- Curitiba (Brazil), Bogota, Mexico City, Cali (Colombia), Rio de Janeiro, Gangzhou (China) and Ahmedabad (India), Tehran, Istanbul etc. Lots of great examples and innovations to learn from! Best of luck with your research!

by Scoot on Feb 25, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

Graham does bring up a good point about brakdowns that I hadn't heard before. If a streetcar breaks down, other streetcars behind it cannot continue along the same track, in contrast to buses, which can go around.

In the streetcar case, it seems like one would have to use crossovers and do single-tracking for a significant distance, which could become complicated without dedicated lanes as streetcars would be going on the other track against traffic!

by xmal on Feb 25, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

I would be curious how breakdowns are handled elsewhere? My completely uninformed guesses are that they have sufficient crossovers and many even a spare length of track certain areas that could be used or two maybe there is some kind of pusher vehicle? (I'm thinking like a tugboat for streetcars...)

by BTA on Feb 25, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

Usually you don't do single tracking - you try to push it with another vehicle or get a hauler out ASAP so you can get the broken vehicle back to the shop.

by MLD on Feb 25, 2014 1:55 pm • linkreport

Since it doesn't really make sense for me to simply paraphrase the innumerable studies, reports and publications that have been written on the topic, I think it would be better for you to use your resources to learn at your own convenience and pace.
Inane comments on blogs are to be expected, but Jim Graham has enough experience of transit matters to know full well that there are very few successful examples of BRT in the developed world. Coupled with his evasiveness on dedicated bus lanes, it seems safe to say that a vote for Graham is a vote wasted if you support strong investment in transit.

by renegade09 on Feb 25, 2014 2:24 pm • linkreport

Can streetcars be towed or moved out of the way when they break down like buses are?

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 25, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport


I think it's quite tough to say what is and isn't a wasted vote at this point because most of these candidates are big on "vision" but rather thin on actual proposals. To get better answers, whomever is doing the asking must seek better questions.

Right now it seems clear that a streetcar is not exactly a platform of Graham's transportation agenda, but anything can change in the next few years, or even months. Just take as an example Gray's complete reversal on the issue.

As for BRT, there are a lot of examples of successful BRT in the developed world. Even so, 85% of the world's population lives in developing countries -- where much of the new demand for new mass transit is occurring right now. But then again I'm not really here to defend BRT. I'm far more interested in what our mayoral candidates have to say about it, if anything!

by Scoot on Feb 25, 2014 3:13 pm • linkreport

The full Jim Graham interview is worth a look. Just go past the part about the bus lane and the streetcars, and then you have to keep the video going by clicking on the [x] portion.

At one point he talks about how they got rid of the traffic enforcement division of the MPD, about how maybe they should look at devoting an entire street(s) to bicycling, and about how people used to view bike couriers back before the popularity of biking exploded.

He's not my candidate but it was interesting to hear him talk about those things, especially the idea of devoting some streets to bicycling, as opposed to mixing traffic on every street.

by dc denizen on Feb 25, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

I believe someone wrote something (I don't have a link handy, sorry) on WHY BRT was particularly favored in developing countries. I think it had to do in part with lower labor costs making the cost of road maintenance (a decidated asphalt lane means all the cost of maintaining that lane is on transit - and buses do a fair amount of damage to pavement, IIUC) lower there - while the costs of rail (including construction) are more equipment and other capital costs.

Thats relevant, when considering the relative costs of rail and BRT in a city like DC. You can't assume the economics of Curritiba necessarily applies here.

That does not mean there won't be some corridors where BRT is the best choice.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 25, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the info on the rest of the interview dc.

I really like Graham's idea to make some streets entirely for bicycles (and I assume pedestrians). At some point we have to actually start acting on what we preach and curtail cars. I volunteer my own S Street for the first.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 25, 2014 3:27 pm • linkreport


It was an article in the Atlantic. It posited that BRT can bring many of the advantages of a rail system without the higher capital investment that those countries may have difficulty achieving.

Of course this has always been a reason for proposing improved bus transit as an alternative to streetcars/trolleys, not just in developing countries but in richer countries as well -- as evidenced by Graham's own rationale: "I became convinced that if we had really good rapid bus, ... we wouldn't have the enormous cost of capital investment that we have related to trolleys."

by Scoot on Feb 25, 2014 3:47 pm • linkreport

@ Dizzy

Hey, Dizzy, how much do the streetcar rail installments cost per mile?

by @ShawingtonTimes on Feb 25, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

no, I found that google hit. The article I am thinking of was more along the lines I posted - that BRT is particularly cost benefit positive compared to rail in low wage countries, but that that did NOT apply the same way in higher wage countries.

this article about BRT

elicited the following comment, which may be what I recalled:
"One of the reasons that BRT works well in Latin America, may also have to do with lower operating costs of buses versus rail. In Latin America they can achieve rail-quality BRT at a much lower cost (construction, vehicles, and operations) than rail. On the economic comparison, in the US, a full life cycle calculation of BRT v Rail for any given corridor may favor rail because of the replacement costs of buses versus rail vehicles (rail vehicles are more expensive but last twice as long, and can add capacity more easily). Also running more buses to match the frequency and capacity of rail incurs more driver hours. In the US driver wages and benefits are probably a much higher proportion of the operating costs than in Latin America. In addition most of the planning and engineering for rail-quality BRT is going to be just as costly. In the US adding all the costs, BRT may still be cheaper, but not the complete blow-out implied by the graph above. Which leads to the situation described above where opponent will strip out all the “bells and whistles”."

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 25, 2014 4:02 pm • linkreport

while this site has an agenda

it makes the following point: However, while Transmilenio is indeed an impressive bus transit facility ..., what its promoters soft- pedal is the fact that, to achieve its vaunted passenger-moving capacity, the facility consists of no less than four (4) busway lanes dedicated to transit in the median of urban arterial roadways. Allocating that much surface roadway space exclusively to transit was undoubtedly helped by the extraordinary powers available to Colombia's comparatively authoritarian government. Furthermore, making it feasible to operate such a system with a labor-intensive armada of buses is surely helped by a strong ridership drawn from a heavily transit-dependent, low-income population – and dirt-poor Third World wage levels for the transit workforce probably don't hurt, either.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 25, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Dear "GGW-ville":
ARE ANY OF YOU FREE THIS Monday, March 3 @ Noon?

I'm on the Dupont ANC and I've been organizing witnesses to ask DDOT about bus lanes on 16th Street – at the agency's oversight hearing on Monday. You can also submit written testimony.

Please email me at:

Here's my testimony before the WMATA Oversight Hearing last week:
The Post's coverage of that hearing:

Metrobus looking at how to improve service in busy corridors
By Robert Thomson, Updated: February 20 at 11:35 am

The Wednesday hearing held by D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser pivoted from a discussion of Metro’s policy on criminal background checks into a review of transit service. These are some of the highlights from that part of the hearing regarding Metrobus service.

16th Street buses. Kishan Putta, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Dupont Circle area, renewed his call for the District to experiment with dedicated bus lanes on a portion of 16th Street NW. The Metrobus S Line connects Silver Spring with downtown D.C. and is among the most popular in the Metrobus system. But as with many popular routes, riders complain that there are big gaps between buses, which then arrive in bunches, and that the buses are sometimes crowded to the point that they can’t take any more riders.

Metrobus managers, working with the communities along the route and with the District Department of Transportation, have made several improvements to the route, including the establishment of the S9 limited-stop service on the entire route and the short loop service providing extra buses between downtown D.C. and Columbia Road NW.

Still, the S Line shows up frequently in Metrobus service alerts, as in this one Thursday morning: “Due to traffic congestion at 16th & Columbia Rd NW, buses are experiencing up to 20 minute delays in both directions.”

Metro Assistant General Manager Jack Requa said the transit authority puts 42 buses on the route between 8 and 9 a.m. each weekday. “There really isn’t much more room to put more buses on the street,” he said.

The best ways now to add capacity are to operate bigger buses and to give buses priority over other vehicles when traveling on 16th Street. Buses can be given priority by adjusting traffic lights in their favor and by setting aside a lane for their use. Putta, the only member of the public to testify at Bowser’s hearing, would like to see an experiment with a dedicated lane on a stretch of 16th Street south of Arkansas Avenue NW.

Signal priority for buses. The D.C. region has received federal grants for work on establishing bus priority corridors, but progress has been slow. Metro is working with transportation officials in Virginia to set up a pilot program along Route 7, a heavily traveled commuter route. By the summer of 2015, Metro officials hope to have a signal priority program in operation at 25 intersections along Route 7. The traffic signal system will give a priority to buses at those intersections, which should make it easier for them to stay on schedule.

P.S. - I've been talking to DDOT/WMATA and Council about this signal priority project. DC received millions in federal grants in 2009... I want to push for the District to implement this... Let me know if you'd like to help work on this. Email me at:

by Kishan Putta on Feb 25, 2014 7:21 pm • linkreport

Graham has point. In the area that I'm interested in, Ward 1, from what I've seen of the streetcar plans, the proposed crosstown streetcar route through Adams Morgan/Woodley is 30 years out, so for now it's irrelevant. Buses matter.

And I think Graham is asking a fair question, be it an indirect one: Will a focus on streetcars hurt efforts to improve and add bus lines?

I'm not convinced that a streetcar will bring much improvement, if any. It may be negative if the streetcar becomes an excuse to subtract or shift bus services.

The Circulator provides a crucial link from Woodley to Columbia Heights/14th toward downtown. It's a very good service, and just don't see how a streetcar can do better.

I realize there is a longlist of arguments for streetcars, and some neighborhoods need them more than others. But in day-to-day life, the bus system is what a lot of people rely on to get anywhere so making that better will have the biggest impact. Buses need to be priority, and I think Graham has that point correctly.

by kob on Feb 25, 2014 8:23 pm • linkreport

While new buses, stops, and lots of riders are making buses look like they are on a major upswing, this region is still not using buses to their full effect. Commuter buses could probably be tripled in the region. Natural gas powered buses on city routes could be hybrids reducing fuel costs, carbon emissions, and noise. Better coordination of bus routes and bus systems, ultra clean buses, more good no-nonsense bus stops with shelters, new routes, more frequent buses on some routes, and reliable bus arrival apps would help immeasurably. Streetcars are hardly the answer for most routes.

by AndrewJ on Feb 26, 2014 7:32 am • linkreport


Not sure what you're really getting at here - it almost seems like you're replying to a different article.

"Commuter buses could probably be tripled in the region."

Probably, but that's neither here nor there. Not sure what that has to do with bus capacity on 16th street.

"Natural gas powered buses on city routes could be hybrids reducing fuel costs, carbon emissions, and noise."

There are already CNG buses running city routes - lots of them, in fact - and they're much noisier than the new diesel-electric hybrids.

"Better coordination of bus routes and bus systems, ultra clean buses, more good no-nonsense bus stops with shelters, new routes, more frequent buses on some routes, and reliable bus arrival apps would help immeasurably."

These are all nice suggestions to make bus riding a more pleasant experience. However, none of these, save more frequent buses, will increase capacity, which is the issue here.

"Streetcars are hardly the answer for most routes."

No, but they certainly could be here, given the high ridership and the capacity constraints of buses.

by JDS32 on Feb 26, 2014 10:10 am • linkreport

Streetcars do not breakdown. Everyone knows that.

by mtp on Feb 26, 2014 12:02 pm • linkreport


I disagree with your assertion that streetcars are not the answer, but I do agree there could be more/better bus-only lanes.

I think that is a piece we are forgetting. How many MD commuter buses currently take 16th street? How many more would take it if 16th was a more consistent trip for buses. I reverse commute on 16th, and I see a ton of commuter buses.

by Kyle-w on Feb 26, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

All of this said, I would love to see something regarding the competitiveness of this race. I am a big Nadeau fan, and despite living in W4, would be happy to donate some cash, if I knew she had a chance.

by Kyle-w on Feb 26, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

Kyle: From what I hear it is very close.

by David Alpert on Feb 26, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport


Fair enough. I kicked in $35. Here is hoping it is as close as you say!

by Kyle-w on Feb 26, 2014 4:11 pm • linkreport

The problem on 16th st in particular is not demand outside of DC except in that in becomes autmobile traffic. Those people however have most a plethora of options from commuter buses to metro to bus and choose not to take them either because they dont fit their commute, don't like them, or need their vehicle for other reasons. For 16th st it's mainly an issue of moving people more effectively on transit below Military Rd which is too far into the city for commuter style buses beyond the existing express S9 which is nice.

I keep meaning to help canvas for Brianne. One of these Saturdays I'll manage to leave the house by 10.

by BTA on Feb 26, 2014 4:40 pm • linkreport

There are certainly streetcars in various European cities -- what are the economics there and how do they compare to ours?

by dr2chase on Mar 3, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

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