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Overhead wires and beautiful streets can coexist

Some streetcar opponents and some streetcar supporters are arguing against overhead wires, saying that they're ugly or that they're incompatible with lush tree canopies. Ralph Garboushian sent along some more pictures of overhead wires from around the world.

Left: A streetcar line on a historic street in San Francisco, near Fisherman's Wharf. Photo by Michael Perkins. With the iron detailing of the poles, this easily looks like it could be a street in Washington, DC.

Right: Frankfurt's Schweizerstrasse (top) and Brussels' 39/44 streetcar lines (bottom). Photos by Ralph Garboushian.

H Street, K Street, U Street, 14th Street, and most of the other streets on DDOT's streetcar plan have nowhere near this level of tree canopy. The only ones that do are 7th Street SW and 8th Street on Capitol Hill. If DC's streetcar lines can look as green as these with wires, it would be a huge improvement for most of our streets.

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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With all the ugly buildings and empty store fronts, I think some over-head wires could hardly be accused of ruining a street scape. It might even bring some visual vitality. Considering the increase in foot traffic generated by trolleys, it will probably contribute to the overall beautification of our streetscapes. People's expectations of beauty raise dramatically if they walk, versus hiding out in their car, hermetically sealed from people and their environment.

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 11:55 am • linkreport

Okay, well, I've got to fight the good fight on this. Yes, there are ways to minimize the visual impact of some overhead wires. But what kind of precedent do we set if we say we allow these wires, but not others? If DC's statute banning overhead wires is suspended for this "public amenity" - what's to prevent the District from flouting it again in the future? Sure, you can say this was to save money, but wouldn't most overhead wires (for any kind of service) be cheaper than undergrounding? If this precedent is set, next time Pepco wants to revitalize its infrastructure, you can be sure they'll be asking to string up the cables for their "public amenity."

Robust streetcar networks existed 50 years ago without overhead wires -- there's no reason we can't do that again today. Period.

by SDJ on Oct 30, 2009 12:02 pm • linkreport

I don't buy the slippery slope argument.

Burying utility lines is relatively cheap and the technology to do it has been more or less perfected. Furthermore, that infrastructure is in place. All of our houses have power lines to them already.

That's not the case with in-ground power for streetcars. DC's old system was horribly unreliable and would not meet code today. Other, new systems are also unreliable and far more expensive.

A hybrid solution of allowing wires in most areas but still preserving certain view corridors is absolutely the right way to go.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 12:15 pm • linkreport

I think that a restriction that only allows overhead wires for the use of powering transit vehicles and prohibits them from a certain radius (1/3 mile or so) from the Capitol might be the best compromise from all involved. What would they take away from most of the city?

DC needs to actually ask Congress to try to work to a conclusion. Even more reason why DC should have been a state with some of the bordering counties...

by Jason on Oct 30, 2009 12:16 pm • linkreport

what Alex said.

Congressional oversight is a pain. Let them have the Mall, give us our city.

by dano on Oct 30, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Perhaps if DC could figure out how to plant street trees downtown that didn't die or get cut down in 10 years it would be easier to hide the wires.

by ah on Oct 30, 2009 12:27 pm • linkreport

Oh NO! Overhead wires! Do you see how ugly they are? I can barely see the sky anymore. It's disgusting. By golly, the Whitehurst and SouthEast Freeways allow a better vistas than this cable of coercion.

Quite frankly, I believe it is treasonous and un-American to even suggest that we should destroy the wonderful and patriotic sights that we have our wonderful city. The thought makes my spine shiver and snif, yes, I believe I even feel a tear coming up in my eyes.

Oh, and here's another ridiculous argument: Overhead wires are good for the bird population in the city, because birds would get a lot more space to sit around.

by Jasper on Oct 30, 2009 12:32 pm • linkreport

So how about some pictures of where streetcars cross each other and where the wires end to fully show that they wont look any different other wise this is bias.

by Kk on Oct 30, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

If DC's streetcar lines can look as green as these with wires

And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a (low-carbon-footprint) bicycle. But she doesn't, and the proposed lines generally lack the sort of tree canopy depicted above, as you yourself admit, Dave.

With all the ugly buildings and empty store fronts, I think some over-head wires could hardly be accused of ruining a street scape.

This sort of "it's better than what's there now" thinking is what produces such grand and glorious outcomes as the Brentwood Home Depot/Giant monstrosity. Can we please try to set the bar a bit higher?

I think some over-head wires [...] might even bring some visual vitality.

The prosecution rests.

by eck on Oct 30, 2009 12:35 pm • linkreport

"Congressional oversight is a pain. Let them have the Mall, give us our city."

by dano

They f-ed that up too!

by Kev29 on Oct 30, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

This argument isn't getting any more convincing to me. Overhead wires are unattractive. I happen to think improved transit at a better price is a reasonable tradeoff for increased ugliness, but let's not pretend the wires are invisible or attractive.

by jcm on Oct 30, 2009 1:11 pm • linkreport

overhead wires are an eyesore, but large swaths of dead grass and a reflecting pool in various stages of eutrophication are fine. No big deal to have a highway become a major above ground arterial through the mall, but a freaking WIRE?!?!?! You've been smoking crack, good sir.

by JTS on Oct 30, 2009 1:12 pm • linkreport

Nobody's saying that overhead wires are inherently attractive. I would argue, however, that they're not inherently un-attractive, either. Done right, they're mind-numbingly neutral.

The whole point of the ban on wires is to improve the visual environment. If wires can be added in such a way that they do not detract from that at all, then what's the problem?

It's not just that in-ground power costs more. It's also less reliable. There's no standard, thus any solution will require proprietary technology from a single vendor.

Let's all remember the original intent of the law, as well. The law was designed to prevent overhead wires like these from Baltimore (seen here after an ice storm):

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

overhead wires are an eyesore, but large swaths of dead grass and a reflecting pool in various stages of eutrophication are fine. No big deal to have a highway become a major above ground arterial through the mall, but a freaking WIRE?!?!?! You've been smoking crack, good sir.

Nice straw man. Who says any of those things you mentioned are fine? I would argue they're all ugly, including the overhead wires.

by jcm on Oct 30, 2009 1:29 pm • linkreport

They aren't an eyesore because you don't even notice them. Mountains are being made out of molehills. An eyesore is something like that hideous blue Marymount University building in Ballston.

by NikolasM on Oct 30, 2009 1:38 pm • linkreport

The law's the law. It's not a matter of taste.

by crin on Oct 30, 2009 1:41 pm • linkreport

@ crin: Dude, we live in DC here. The capital of legislation. We all know here that:
1) Laws will be ignored anyway
2) Laws procreate easily
3) Laws can be dropped, created and changed.
4) Unless a lot of money shows up, laws are inert.

by Jasper on Oct 30, 2009 1:45 pm • linkreport

NikolasM, is it okay if those of use who do notice them consider them an eyesore?

by jcm on Oct 30, 2009 2:01 pm • linkreport

How is that a straw man? It's a double standard. You're entitled to your opinions, of course, but I don't see a cacophony of DC planning types up in arms about the state of the mall, regardless of the overhead wire issue. It's frustrating to me, particularly because the ones at NCPC, NPS, and the architect of the capitol - those most likely to oppose overhead wires - are also the ones who haven't really done anything to improve the mall, or propose something to deal with arterial traffic. imo...

by JTS on Oct 30, 2009 2:14 pm • linkreport

I'm not a big fan of adding overhead wires to the city. It is a unique feature of Washington along with the broad avenues and low skyline. I'm not absolutely opposed to a compromise that would largely preserve these characteristics but don't underestimate the slippery slope.

The reason you have two traffic signals in D.C. (one on each side of the street) is because overhead wires (where a single lamp would dangle) are prohibited. This is definitely a cost item and the same arguments about mitigating the visual intrusion can be made--there are plenty of towns and cities that are beautiful that have single signals hanging from overhead wires. The difference is the lack of overhead wires in the L'Enfant core helps to define the city as distinct from other major cities.

by kreeggo on Oct 30, 2009 2:25 pm • linkreport

>>"So how about some pictures of where streetcars cross each other and where the wires end to fully show that they wont look any different other wise this is bias."

My understanding is that with the hybrid solution points where the streetcar lines would intersect would be absent of overhead wire and the tram would use the battery. If that's the plan there would be none of the unslightly nest effect.

by Paul S on Oct 30, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

@Kev: Congress already screws up the Mall, as JTS has astutely pointed out, I am just saying that we should limit the damage if possible to the tourist magnet and leave the the actual city to its citizens. How many tourists(who are represented by Congress) visit or care about H St or Petworth or Anacostia?

@JTS: We could eliminate some of that arterial traffic with streetcars...

by dano on Oct 30, 2009 2:31 pm • linkreport

I think overhead wires are kind of quaint and give a town a sort of old-world feel.

Give the streetcars bells and you complete the picture.

by Steve on Oct 30, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

Just one addition: my pictures were meant to illustrate that overhead wires and a tree canopy can coexist. They are in response to someone who wrote that overhead wires will kill street trees and ruin street tree canopies.

by rg on Oct 30, 2009 2:58 pm • linkreport

JTS, it's a straw man because no one opposed to overhead wires says "large swaths of dead grass and a reflecting pool in various stages of eutrophication are fine". In fact, I imagine if you polled people who care whether there are overhead wires in DC, you'd find that nearly all of us are also opposed to dead grass on the mall.

by jcm on Oct 30, 2009 3:02 pm • linkreport

You might be referring to a comment I made about tree canopies. My argument was that if DC's ban on overhead wires didn't exist, and we had telephone poles down our streets, you can be sure that tree canopies would suffer. The installation of a wired streetcar itself wouldn't have a substantial effect on the tree-lined streets we have today. However, letting utilities go up overhead completely willy-nilly, would.

I simply don't want this:

Oh, and I really don't see the slippery slope argument as being that far-fetched. We are talking about the District after all...where the motto is "we'll do anything to save a dime, even if it doesn't."

by SDJ on Oct 30, 2009 3:15 pm • linkreport

Plenty of other cities have managed to both maintain substantial tree canopies and underground utility wires along main streets, all without the heavy-handed legislation that's in place here in DC.

And this isn't all about saving money. It's about reliability. Reliability, of course, translates into money, but people won't be happy with their new investment if the power source doesn't work. Folks like myself want wires because the technology is proven and the visual downside is minimal.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 3:26 pm • linkreport

We're talking past each other. The overhead wire issue, from a legal perspective, is first and foremost a problem because congress prohibits it. If they had no position, the city could have a substanitive debate on its merits.

I find this to be infuriating because mall restoration is so important, yet is DOA in terms of federal funding because of congressional whims. As I said, you're entitled to feel how you do about the wires, but the people in charge of these things, at least at a federal level, are adhering to a double standard.

by JTS on Oct 30, 2009 3:32 pm • linkreport

You are telling me that that picture on the left is an eyesore? Sorry if you need to take three steps to the left to get your picture.

by NikolasM on Oct 30, 2009 3:57 pm • linkreport

I remember San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf from before they hung those wires. They've definitely done harm to the viewsheds there ... both along the streets and out into the bay. Fortunately no one has proposed adding unsightly overhead wires to the cable cars ... Though if they had our planners out there someone would be arguing that it was 'cheaper and more efficient ... than that damn unreliable cable running under the street ... '

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 4:04 pm • linkreport

Alex B - we are indeed talking past each other.

If this were solely about streetcars, I would agree with you. If a thin wire were the only method of providing power to the vehicle (which it isn't), it would be an easy sacrifice for an efficient streetcar system. But in my mind, challenging the existing statute opens the door to more than just streetcars. What's your rationale in allowing ONLY a provision for streetcars but not for other utilities?

While you're correct that some cities do have successful underground utilities without such legislation, most of those cities are in Europe, where single government-owned entities provide the telephone, cable, and power services. As an arm of the government, these entities care less about a bottom line, and more about the integration of the service in the community (not necessarily customer service, mind you). On the flip side, why should Comcast or Verizon care what people think about their overhead wires? They're more concerned about competing prices than city beautification. In fact, can you even tell one company's drooping wire from another's?

And, yes, given the existing infrastructure that supports overhead wires, there are substantial savings in the continued use of overhead wires - restringing a line with cherrypickers is more cost effective than digging up a sidewalk. In fact, if undergrounding wires is so cost-effective, why are we still using telephone poles -- even in storm-prone regions?

by SDJ on Oct 30, 2009 4:12 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure what you're getting at. I don't buy the slippery slope argument in general. I certainly don't buy it from a legal perspective. If DC can compromise with the NCPC on the interpretation of the law and the Comcast decides to challenge it, the DC Council can pass a new law that allows streetcars, but nothing else.

The other key difference between a streetcar and a utility is that the streetcar only needs to run wire where the streetcar goes (and with a hybrid solution, not even all of those places). Utilities need wires to each and every house.

As far as undergrounding utilities - it happens in many other American cities. The technology for utilities is proven. The technology for streetcars is not. Simple as that.

In short, I don't buy the visual argument. The ban was put in place facing a different challenge, as my earlier photo of Baltimore showed. I don't buy the legal slippery slope, either.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

Thanks for posting the pictures. It is important that when we talk about wires that both sides are talking about the true trade-offs and not exaggerated BS and demagoguery.

No wires are nicer than wires. But folks, if everyone does not realize yet that there are ALWAYS trade-offs for every decision we make every day of our lives then we really are nitwits. Nitwits that will live their lives seeing that nothing ever gets done.

Streetcar supporters are justifiably worried that wire opponents are going to kill off streetcar altogether. The fact is that a wire-less system is going to at the very least delay construction, impact reliability and usefulness of the system, and cost many times more to build, maybe to the point where economic feasibility of streetcars is undermined. I find the compromise that DDOT proposes is a good one. Otherwise, how much extra are we all willing to pay for a wire-less system? That is the question everyone needs to be asking.

I don't buy the slippery slope argument for one second either. No way could anyone politically support overturning the ban altogether. Nobody wants that.

by Dude on Oct 30, 2009 4:51 pm • linkreport

I don't see a slippery slope. It is easy to write legisaltion allowing wires for streetcars only. Plus, in much of the "L'Enfant City" and beyond, the wires for other utilities are already underground or in alleys. Even if they were allowed to by some slippery slope, why would Comcast, Pepco, Verizon, etc. want to ditch that existing infrastructure to build new infrastructure along the streets?

by rg on Oct 30, 2009 5:40 pm • linkreport

@Alex B. If you don't want to take my side on the slippery slope argument, then fine. But to say that underground power for streetcars is an unproven technology is a total cop out. We, and other cities, have had unwired streetcars for the early part of the 20th century. Wired street cars were "unproven" once too. I might be an idealist, but a "this is what we can choose from, case closed" attitude just shows complete resignation. Why not make DC envied by other cities? And if that delays the project for another two years, but in the end we get a polished result that becomes a destination unto itself, I'm all for it. I mean, holy sh*t, we live in the "capital of the free world" - why change existing laws and then settle for something pedestrian? (no pun intended)

And @Dude - I take offense at your comment "Streetcar supporters are justifiably worried that wire opponents are going to kill off streetcar altogether." As David rightly points out, being an opponent of wires doesn't preclude you from being a streetcar supporter. I'm overwhemlingly in favor of enhanced public transit, with streetcars as a major component. I just want it done right, and not at the unintentional sacrifice of other things that we take for granted.

by SDJ on Oct 30, 2009 7:07 pm • linkreport

"Streetcar supporters are justifiably worried that wire opponents are going to kill off streetcar altogether."

On the contrary, rushing through something 'on the cheap' is usually the best formula for failure. It's not rocket science to build and operate streetcars with an underground power source. As has been mentioned before, Washington (and many other cities) had such a system 100 years ago.

If we're that worried about having sufficient funding to do things the right way, what about having sufficient funding for the long term operating and maintenance costs of this system? The incremental cost (and time) difference between building 'on the cheap' and building with state of the art underground power technology pales compared to the maintenance and operating costs that will be required for any type of streetcar system.

If the planners of this system are so worried about this relatively small cost differential now, it gets me wondering how they plan to handle the relatively much larger operating and maintenance costs over the long run ... Or is that maybe not their problem ...

In the scheme of things, doing things the right way ... even if it takes a little bit longer and costs a little bit more, is the best way to ensure the viability of the streetcar project. One thing to keep in mind in that for the vast majority of us, the streetcars are a 'nice to have' and not a 'have to have'. And that difference for most of us means that no, we aren't willing to give up one of the signature traits of the Washington core (i.e., wireless streets), just for a 'nice to have'. Frankly, we'll just as well do without this added convenience if it comes at such a steep a price. And for the feds who'll have the final say on whether an exception can be made to the wireless law, this project isn't probably even a 'nice to have'. It's a local matter wherin their only interest will be protecting the city and its broad and open viewsheds.

You want a streetcar system, fine .. then be patient and be prepared to pay what it costs to build a first class system for a first class city. Quit pushing a cheap solution on us. It ain't gonna fly.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 7:14 pm • linkreport

The old solution (continuous vaults) is a non-starter. Like I said, there's no way they'd allow that now. Proven, but not on the table (and for good reason).

Any in-ground power supply is going to massively increase costs. You're going to have costs simply as the guinea pig for this, plus the actual increased costs themselves. DC's old vaults tripled the cost of laying track, they were a maintenance nightmare, provided all sorts of operational problems (there was no power at switches, so streetcars had to coast through them and hope momentum was enough to get back to powered track), and so on. The in-ground third rail in France has issues with precipitation. The induction-based system would incur heavy transmission losses.

My simple calculus is that any in ground power supply that's on the table in a remotely reasonable timeframe will not only increase capital costs tremendously, but operating costs as well. Conversely, the 'damage' from overhead wires is quite small. The net benefit of doing this now, with simple, unobtrusive wires, is overwhelming positive.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 7:18 pm • linkreport

It's not that wires are the cheap solution, Lance. They're the better solution. They work.

Likewise, your assertion that this is a choice between wires and broad viewsheds is a false one - as DDOT would pursue a hybrid mode where batteries would provide wireless service for stretches of track that cross those viewsheds.

Putting in wires isn't doing things on the cheap - it's doing things right. Looking back at DC's old system, any reasonable observer of operations would call it a failure. Much higher costs, more difficult operations, terrible maintenance record, etc.

by Alex B. on Oct 30, 2009 7:24 pm • linkreport

Again Alex, for those of us to who this is a 'nice to have' there really is no net benefit to getting the streetcars. They're a nice to have. They won't change the way most of us get around most of the time. They'll just be another option. And considering that there aren't plans for dedicated lanes for these streetcars, I'm not sure there is a net benefit even for those for whom this is a 'have to have'. E.g., getting stuck in traffic in a bus that can pull around stopped traffic might actually be preferable to being stuck in traffic and a vehicle that doesn't have that option.

Ruining the vistas of this city is a negative that can't be negated for most of us by the establishment of the 'nice to have' streetcars.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 7:33 pm • linkreport

Alex, the hybrid streetcars can't even go 1 mile without the overhead wires. What I heard said was that the proposal was that they'd go wireless while crossing Pennsylvania Avenue and other major view sheds. So, who's going to decide what's a major view shed and what isn't? To each and everyone of us living in this city, the blocks closest to our homes and wherever we go on a regular basis are our 'major viewsheds'. I'm not even going to get into the extra noise and traffic stoppage you can expect everytime the streetcars have to lower their arms and go from 'wired' to 'wireless' and then vice versa. It's going to be a real circus ... The more I think about it, it's this hybrid solution which seems to be the unproven one.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 7:40 pm • linkreport


"But to say that underground power for streetcars is an unproven technology is a total cop out. We, and other cities, have had unwired streetcars for the early part of the 20th century."

We had steamships, morse code and biplanes too, but like underground streetcar wires, these technologies were long ago abandoned for being less efficient, less reliable too.

The cost difference is not inconsequential either. Bordeaux's third-rail system cost 300% what overhead wires would have cost, and that city does not have the snow and rain that we get here. Could be, what, half a Billion or a Billion dollars difference? Whose money are you proposing to spend on eliminating a few thin wires most people won't even really notice? Let's put dollar figures on your preference!

You may be pro-streetcar, but if in holding out for your proposal we delay and price streetcars right out of economic and political viability, what end would that serve?

by Dude on Oct 30, 2009 7:46 pm • linkreport


I find your car parked in the street in front of my house an eyesore. It may be a 'nice to have,' but it does not help most of us get around most of the time....

by Dude on Oct 30, 2009 7:51 pm • linkreport

@Lance -
Aside from the great number of objectionable positions you've claimed, there's the factual one - these streetcars will be designed with enough energy storage to get past *an arbitrary distance* based on whatever is required on-site. There is no hard-limit on 1 mile, streetcars would basically be custom-built or custom-retrofit for any necessary circumstance. This type of contract does not present easy set-in-stone limits, only varying levels of costs.

by Squalish on Oct 31, 2009 1:56 am • linkreport

Squalish, so you're saying that these streetcars could be custom-built such that they can go without wires within the entire City of Washington area (i.e., generally Florida Avenue to the Potomac plus Georgetown)? And it's only a matter of varying level of costs? If so, then it sounds like we definitely do have the technology to do this right and not 'on the cheap'.

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 9:47 am • linkreport

Additionally, as I heard someone mention at the meeting where DoD came to report on the project, there's the issue of all the other 'stuff' that goes along with the streetcars. For example, San Francisco ruined its Embarcadero street scape not only with putting in wires, but by using streetcars that required raised ramps (and shelter) in the street. Go to Bordeaux and you don't see these types of intrusions. The streetcars run flush with the ground and aren't surrounded by anything ... i.e., no wires, no ramps, no ugly guard ramps, nothing. It's a great example of a system 'done right'. Compare that to San Francisco where you have a system that's ruined the visual streetscape. It's a system with wires, big obtrusive ramps and shelters, and rattling old ugly trams that should've been retired decades ago (and actually, I think they were!) It's a system done on the cheap. Let's not let that be our example. We're a first class city that is only getting better.

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 9:54 am • linkreport

oops ... meant to say "DDoT"

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 10:30 am • linkreport

Now you're just throwing up Strawmen, Lance.

The Streetcars DDOT has already purchased are low-floor vehicles. That's the standard. No ramps.

by Alex B. on Oct 31, 2009 10:48 am • linkreport

Alex, I know that they are low floor, but does that mean that someone in a wheelchair will be able to access them minus any kind of ramp? (Or is there another way of satisfying ADA requirements minus a ramp?)

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 1:05 pm • linkreport

@Lance: The Embarcadero streetcar line (F Line) is supposed to look like that. They use historic/antique streetcars on purpose. It's a rolling streetcar museum and a significant tourist attraction that is also enjoyed by locals. F Line recreates what you would have experienced from 1900 into the 1950s. If I have time to spare, I use the F Line to get up and down Market Street/Embarcadero. If I'm in a hurry, I use the BART line that runs under essentially the same path.

by ksu499 on Oct 31, 2009 1:19 pm • linkreport

I don't always agree with what Lance says, but in this case he brings up some valid points. Why exactly are the streetcars so urgent? Transit-wise, streetcars don't have any practical advantage over buses.

Their value is in their mystique. For lack of a better term, streetcars are a "novelty item." Streetcars, unlike buses, make people want to ride them. (I think part of this is the inbred negativity we associate with buses while growing up - all the cool kids in high school would drive themselves and not take the lame school bus anymore). Regardless, the value of streetcars is their ability to encourage growth and bring people to a given area "hey, let's go visit/move to [location], they have that cool streetcar we can ride on." These streetcars do not serve to feed a transit-starved area, but rather attract people who maybe wouldn't have otherwise used mass transit. That's an important distinction and it reinforces the notion that it's more about the streetcar itself than the service it provides. This is what I meant by making them a destination unto themselves - as the old SanFran trolley is, as the TGV still is. After riding those rail systems, people come back and tell their friends "oh, I rode on yadda yadda" and not "Oh I went from Main street & 1st to Maple street and 10th."

If this issue were just about people-moving, then we would have settled on increased bus services a long time ago. But it's not. It's about the unique characteristics that streetcars bring to the table. If there's a design that allows many people to still pick nits, if the product is underwhelming, then I think the project will have failed.

GGW examines most issues from an academic point of view - and rightly so. But we must remember that a majority of Americans care more about a glossy sheen. I'm not advocating sacrificing all reliability or functionality for aesthetics, but if we weren't already doing that to some degree, we wouldn't have pursued streetcars to begin with.

by SDJ on Oct 31, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

"Burying utility lines is relatively cheap and the technology to do it has been more or less perfected. Furthermore, that infrastructure is in place. All of our houses have power lines to them already."

Neighborhoods in DC like Palisades and Cleveland Park would love to have underground wires like in Woodley, Spring Valley and Georgetown. Every year or so, we have to defend our tree canopy from being further butchered by Pepco. And now Pepco is installing 50' high super poles on many DC streets, cutting the tree canopy further.

We need more underground infrastructure, which will also decrease the chance of power outages in inclement weather. I don't care how much Pepco says it will cost -- as a public utility, they should go back to being a public utility and not try to be a Wall Street growth company showing higher returns every year. But if the cost if to high for Pepco alone, perhaps DC should make available some kind of low-cost funding facility so that we can see the wires buried in many neighborhoods in our city over the next 10 years.

I support street cars, but we shouldn't try to do it on the cheap. The nation's capital will be living with this choice for a long time, so let's try to do it right and build transit infrastructure with buried power sources. (Next time think about all the projects that could have been funded, if those ladies from PG who work in the Office of Finance and Revenue hadn't stolen the $50 million.)

by Green DC on Oct 31, 2009 3:08 pm • linkreport


I agree with a lot of what you're saying. Streetcars do have a bit of a novelty feeling about them, and in certain areas they may be more of a draw to visitors than they are a viable transit option to locals. However, the key difference between building streetcars and simply adding buses is the fact that, from the perspective of investors and developers looking at an area, streetcars reflect a commitment by the city to revitalize an area way more than buses do. When you are starting up a business, it's much better to be located near a metro station than a bus station. Trains will never be rerouted, cancelled or terminated, while buses can simply go away. Tracks on the ground are permanent. it's much harder to go to a bank and say "I need a loan; this location is great because it's next to this bus route." And, since streetcars are so much cheaper than a subway, installing them in areas starved for investment dollars makes sense.

by JTS on Oct 31, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

Streetcars also have significant advantages in terms of capacity, operating expenses, quality of ride, etc.

There is a real and demonstrable rail bias amongst riders. If given options that are exactly the same in terms of headway, travel time, etc - more people will choose rail than bus. There are lots of reasons for this, but it cannot be discounted.

A tourist can come into DC's metro and understand it fairly quickly - the diagram of lines makes sense intuitively. If that same person looks at DC's bus map, they'll be miffed. The simplicity and permanence of rail lines makes them easier for riders to understand, thus people are more likely to use them.

When you add those to the very real implications for real estate investment, it's a no-brainer.

by Alex B. on Oct 31, 2009 5:51 pm • linkreport

"There is a real and demonstrable rail bias amongst riders. If given options that are exactly the same in terms of headway, travel time, etc - more people will choose rail than bus. There are lots of reasons for this, but it cannot be discounted."

But it can be exaggerated, and often is, especially by educated upper-middle class railfans who think that everyone is like them. And that's why we get DC and the area spending tons of money on rail used by the upper middle class even while cutting buses used more often by the poor.

People do prefer rail; that doesn't *always* mean that the added ridership is enough to be worth the added costs. It depends.

by John T. on Nov 1, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

@JTS and Alex B.
I understand both your points of view - and fully agree that streetcars have a beneficial impact on local communities/economies, attract investors, show commitment from city planners. These are all assets in favor of streetcars and you don't have to convince me - I'm all for them.

The thesis of my most recent comment, which you clearly agree with, is that streetcars have unique benefits above and beyond people moving.

Listen, I don't to write a diatribe, but I want DC's streetcars to impress. Just laying down track isn't enough. Take Baltimore's light rail, for instance. Unless you're a transit guru, most people don't even know they have streetcars in Baltimore. Honestly, who actually rides the streetcars when they visit Baltimore? No one. It's not for lack of the "rail commitment" and it's not like there's a black hole of rail bias in Baltimore. It's quite simply because the system, which is about the same scope as H Street or Anacostia, just plain sucks.

My perception is that some of you are pro-streetcar for the sake of being pro-streetcar. You still admit that there is an aesthetic sacrifice for having an overhead wire. For me, that is too great a sacrifice - because aesthetics are the main root of streetcars' popularity and success. Sure other cities have successful wired streetcars, but what if we end up with Baltimore's instead?

Now imagine if we had a truly unique (unwired) streetcar system - what kind of enhanced commitment (beyond just "rail") would that show to developers? How much more of a rail bias would there be if we had the spiffiest system on the east coast?

I value the same things you do, but I just don't want to settle. The burning transit need isn't there enough to merit the sacrifice. Give me something that defies convention.

by SDJ on Nov 1, 2009 6:39 pm • linkreport

Unique for what reason?

When Montreal won the Olympics, they built a very unique stadium with a really unique retractable roof. Very expensive, and it never worked.

That's an extreme example, to be sure - but they certainly didn't build that stadium 'on the cheap.'

The assumption that going with wires means doing this cheaply assumes that the effectiveness of the in-ground power systems is the same. That is not the case. All of the technologies are unproven, all have higher operating, maintenance, and capital costs. All of them are proprietary technologies that would lock DC into one vendor.

Again, I don't really think running minimal overhead wire on H Street NE is the same kind of visual infraction as having wires on PA Ave. The hybrid solution of using wires in most areas and using batteries to bridge important viewsheds and to avoid curving intersections where complex wiring would be necessary is exactly the kind of sensible compromise we need.

Also, I wouldn't compare anything proposed in this plan to Baltimore's light rail. That's a true light rail system, not a streetcar.

by Alex B. on Nov 1, 2009 7:28 pm • linkreport

No overhead wires! If hybrid tech can not be delivered without them, forget overhead wires. Let us lead by example. No overhead wires! The drawbacks on the Primove system are insignificant. Sell the cars that we already have and get a contract for future products with the single provider and move forward in the modern age.

by Bill S on Nov 26, 2009 10:50 am • linkreport

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