Making streetcars work
Second of a two-part series. Read the first part.
If, years from now, DC successfully builds and funds a streetcar line, it needs to make sure the line really does encourage people to ride it, people who wouldn't have ridden just another bus. If it generates additional traffic to the neighborhood, and induces more people to take transit than to drive, it will prove right those who claim streetcars are worth the investment.
How can DC make sure of this? The streetcar line needs to draw tourists in the way Metrorail trains do but buses don't, by ensuring people know about the route, can find stops, have reasonable and comfortable waits for a trolley, and a quick, predictable ride.
Knowing about the route. Everyone is familiar with the Metro map, but not the bus routes (their chaos contributes). Metro should add the routes onto the rail map, perhaps as thinner lines, the way Boston did with the Silver Line bus. (They should also do this with the Circulator buses now). Having tracks and stations does a lot to publicize the existence of the line to people actually located along its route (a big advantage of streetcars).
Finding the stops. Streetcar stops are inherently more visible than bus stops. Signs along the route can point riders to the nearest stop, like Metro has in some places (those signs could be more visible and more numerous as well).
Waiting for a trolley. Unlike too many of DC's buses, the streetcar line should run frequently, and work hard to ensure trolleys don't bunch up too much. At the stops, each stop can use digital displays to show the time until the next trolley, like in Metro stations. Having stops that are built in, rather than just bus stop signs at the side of the road, also can allow for comfortable seating and protection from the wind and rain.
Speeding the ride. The Red Line gets from Dupont Circle to Gallery Place in about 15 minutes, while the Circulator bus takes 45 minutes to get to Gallery Place from Georgetown, about the same distance away. The streetcar will always be slower than a train on its own right-of-way, but there are also many ways to speed them up. Most simply, the streetcar should stop less frequently than a bus, with several blocks or more from one stop to the next.
Second, people need to pay ahead of time rather than having to hold up the trolley while paying like on a bus. The easiest way to do this is for people to punch their tickets (or beep their SmartTrips) at machines and then randomly check trolleys for enforcement. This proof-of-payment system works well in Europe and on US systems like the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. Finally, buses spend a lot of time just missing traffic lights. The lights can be programmed to wait a little longer if a streetcar is close, significantly cutting down on delays.
In short, the streetcar needs to run like the subway, just above ground: it should include routes on the subway map, run frequently, show riders the time until the next train, let riders wait indoors with places to sit, have people pay ahead of time, and keep space between stops. On all of these, buses come up short, making buses much less usable by anyone but daily commuters. Tourists and city residents going to entertainment will use the subway, and if they take the streetcars too, they will justify their investment.
Many of these strategies could speed up DC's buses too. I'd love to see the buses operate more frequently on fewer but easier to remember routes, stop less often, and use proof-of-payment to make boarding faster. The Circulator, especially, which runs on a key tourist route to neighborhoods with no subway, should get this today.
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