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Streetcars are historic preservation in Georgetown

All Georgetowners want to see the historic character of Georgetown preserved. Few initiatives have the potential to impact Georgetown's historic character as profoundly as the DC Streetcar project.

A Georgetown streetcar.

Streetcars are obviously a central feature of Georgetown's historic landscape. What may be less obvious are the benefits streetcars would provide by reducing some ugly, non-historic features of Georgetown.

These benefits would come at the expense, however, of introducing overhead wires in Georgetown. Are the benefits worth the cost?

Streetcars and Georgetown's historic fabric

Streetcars ran on the streets of Georgetown from 1862 to 1962—without overhead wires. Since 1800, Wisconsin Avenue and M Street have been central to the transit systems in Washington—from the early horse-drawn cars to today's buses.

This makes sense because most Georgetown traffic, due to a variety of constraints, is forced to pass through the Wisconsin/M intersection. From the beginning, these thoroughfares have provided an essential link between present-day Upper Northwest and Maryland, on the one hand, and downtown, Capitol Hill and Southeast, on the other.

As a result, transit and streetcars are natural extensions of Georgetown's historical landscape and layout. The current Metrobus line through Georgetown, which inherited the '30' name from its streetcar predecessor, is accordingly the most traveled in the city.

Reducing ugly, non-historical blights with streetcars

Because Georgetown's layout, unlike that of L'Enfant City, does not have a grid of major parallel streets that distribute traffic, the growth in car traffic over the past 75 years has taken its toll on Georgetown's historic character. Our neighborhood has become blighted with ugly gas stations, surface parking, and growing congestion and collisions, not to mention innumerable traffic lights, signs and signposts, despite a decline in population.

Streetcars may be essential to preserving Georgetown because as the city grows, Georgetown will have to absorb a growth in population density. Without effective transit, cars will only continue to proliferate.

Some argue that increasing traffic cannot be stopped. But research shows the opposite. As the cost of driving goes up or the cost of transit goes down, people drive less. In fact, Washingtonians have driven less and registered fewer vehicles the last couple years, despite our growing population, due to the rising cost of fuel.

Streetcars have been an essential means of preserving historical landscapes and vistas while absorbing greater density in historic towns across Europe and can do the same for Georgetown and all of Washington. As studies have demonstrated, 30-40% of streetcar riders would have otherwise driven, whereas only 5% of bus riders would have otherwise driven.

Overhead wires and streetcars

Streetcars would introduce non-historic features to our streetscape, however. Today's streetcars require overhead wires, which have been banned in L'Enfant City and Georgetown since the turn of the century. While the DC Council has the authority to overturn this ban, it should do so only if the benefits outweigh the costs.

Opponents argue that the overhead wires required for most of the route of today's streetcars would tarnish Georgetown's historic vistas. The wires, in addition to obstructing views, may require additional poles and street signage to be erected.

Washington's distinctive feature of unobstructed vistas, from the Mall to its grand avenues, reflects the value of transparency in a democracy. As a result, opponents argue, overhead wires should be opposed on streets with historic vistas, such as M, Wisconsin and, possibly, K Street. The Georgetown ANC and the Citizens Associations of Georgetown have passed resolutions taking this position.

Proponents argue that such historic views have been tarnished far more by traffic, surface parking and other ugly blights created by the demand for automobiles. They contend that reducing the intrusion of the automobile is well worth a single pair of overhead wires the diameter of a pen. What is more historic to Georgetown, after all, than streetcars?

Besides, residents of equally if not more historic towns across Europe have not found overhead wires to obstruct vistas, but to preserve their neighborhoods and quality of life by restraining car traffic.

What do you think? Are the benefits of streetcars worth the costs?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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one word: yes

by IMGoph on Sep 23, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Obviously. Just remember that you'll be dealing with the same group of morons who are protesting the bike share station because of noise concerns.

by JTS on Sep 23, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

"Today's streetcars require overhead wires..."

They do?

by Bilsko on Sep 23, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

This is pretty much a non-issue for me since nobody is seriously talking about giving streetcars a dedicated lane, which sort of defeats the purpose. Trains in traffic! You can talk all you want about desirability, but the fact of the matter is that you still have a streetcar just inching along like everyone else.

by anon on Sep 23, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't it be neat if Georgetown introduced historic streetcars, like the F line in San Fran?

I love riding the F line in San Fran. But I suspect those older streetcars are louder then their modern day counterparts.

by Erik on Sep 23, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

Yes. I am sure though that the inhabitants of Georgetown will find something to complain about. They complained about the extra noise of the CaBi stations in Georgetown, so they'll come up with something.

What I wonder is if there will be streetcars in Georgetown, if they'd follow the same route as the old tracks on O and P Sts. And mor importantly, if those blocks can get some 20th(!) century pavement.

by Jasper on Sep 23, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

Yes, but why not try the wireless versions. GTown businesses might be willing to give some $$ to assist in a pilot project.

by SJE on Sep 23, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

The issue in the "L'Enfant City" is different than in Georgetown. In the core, there are L'Enfant planned vistas - defined views to important buildings and/or landscape features - that give structure and meaning to the city's layout. The focused vista to the Capital from the diagonal Avenues or the Mall. The reciprocal vista between the Archives Building and the Portrait Gallery on 8th St, etc.

In Georgetown, there are really no designed "historic vistas." There are old - historic, I guess - views down Wisconsin Avenue and the other north-south streets to the Potomac, and there is historic character to the architecture, a significant portion of which was industrial once. But Georgetown is not Colonial Williamsburg; there has been no attempt to freeze it in time. It is way more dynamic than that, with the structures from many eras co-existing. That's the charm. Seems like streetcars and overhead wires would be welcome.

by Ron Eichner on Sep 23, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

Ha, Ken I'm laughing about you using that photo. It's not real. It's a Photoshop mashup of a modern day shot of P st. with a photo of my toy PCC, which just happens to be of the old 20 line that went through Georgetown. I'm fairly certain I got the proportions totally wrong. A real streetcar would be a lot bigger.

by TM on Sep 23, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

The streetcar tracks on O & P served only the Cabin John line. It ran out to the Union Arch Bridge parallel to (and between) the C&O Canal and MacArthur Boulevard.

Unless DC plans to revive a line to the Palisades, there's not much reason to use P or O Streets.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 23, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

+1 to Bilsko & +1 to anon

I'm not against streetcars per se, but I am skeptical of their capabilities in mixed traffic on a fixed guideway as compared to buses; unless there's adequate enforcement to keep people from stopping in the path of the vehicle.

But if blockages are common, I'd prefer a bus that can maneuver around them; and as far mixing lanes: I agree that a more exclusive right-of-way would be ideal... indeed, I'd wager pretty much any transit advocate would agree on that last one.

And then for wires... I'll commit an internet faux pas and copy/paste my comment from the breakfast links regarding the Kinkisharyo vehicle:

My opinion on the wire issue is that I'd *like* it to be wireless if feasible, but if the choice is between no transit or more transit, I'd certainly prefer the latter even if it comes with wires.

That said, my preference for wireless isn't that it shrouds vistas -- certainly, you can still spot the landmarks among them; but it does reduce the photographic quality of many photos -- often necessitating retouching of the shots to remove the wires.

I'd wager we can all at least agree that there's no shortage of people taking photos along the various roadway vistas around DC. It might sound petty & trivial, but it can be a bit of an aggravation among photographers as well as tourists pouring through family photos to come upon wires amidst an otherwise "perfect" shot.

Wiring might also be of concern for parades & other events, which is among the reasons why most signals in the District don't use mast-arms.

Again, I'm not against wires... but would certainly prefer wireless if it's feasible for the system at hand.

by Bossi on Sep 23, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

All one can say is "There you go again" -- introducing the false choice of streetcars versus wires. Clearly, Washington, DC can have streetcars without wires. As the writer noted, dual-source (i.e., overhead and underground) streetcars operated in Washington for decades. This included in Georgetown where, like the "l'Enfant City," there was no overhead infrastructure. And just today, GGW showed a Japanese company that is introducing a competitive offering in the US market, to operate on both external power and batteries.

Unfortunately, DDOT went ahead purchased a handful of Czech made trolleys that operate only on overhead power, while forgetting that this would be a problem in more historic areas. Perhaps that equipment can be used on other routes, but there are certainly options to permit streetcars in historic areas without having to build the jumble of poles and wires that that such areas have been fortunate to avoid.

by Jack on Sep 23, 2010 3:54 pm • linkreport

The 3 streetcars owned by DDOT were purchased for the Anacostia line, which happens to be entirely outside of the L'Enfant City. That line is scheduled to open in 2012.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 23, 2010 4:00 pm • linkreport

I'm trying to think of all the "blighted" gas stations in long-suffering Georgetown and can only think of 4: the Lukoil by the Four Seasons, the Exxon by the Key Bridge, and the Exxon and No-Name gas at Wisconsin & Q Street.

I'm also having a hard time envisioning all the surface parking lots; it's not like Georgetown is in any danger of becoming the new Mt Vernon Square neighborhood.

And what is "preserving Georgetown"? It's hardly a struggling neighborhood, nor is it in any danger of overdevelopment b/c of the historic preservation laws.

And what's more historic to Georgetown than streetcars? Um, I dunno. Maybe something like a large black community? Horses? Docks? Industrial factories? Affordable, working class homes?

Less hyperbole would probably make for a better argument.

by Fritz on Sep 23, 2010 4:01 pm • linkreport

i would be very excited for a line running from tenleytown to foggy bottom (via wisconsin and M). But unless and until the M st/Key bridge traffic mess gets cleared up, arguing about whether trolleys should have overhead wires is silly. How about some ideas on how to limit traffic along m st? I'm guessing blowing up the Key and the Whitehurst is a non-starter, sadly...

by reader on Sep 23, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

Great piece Ken!

I do have one quibble though with on apparent contradiction in logic. I'll highlight in bold the contradictions:

Our neighborhood has become blighted with ugly gas stations, surface parking, and growing congestion and collisions, not to mention innumerable traffic lights, signs and signposts, despite a decline in population.

Streetcars may be essential to preserving Georgetown because as the city grows, Georgetown will have to absorb a growth in population density.

I.e., Georgetown's population isn't growing, it's declining. As is happening in Dupont, Logan, Shaw, Columbia Heights, etc. 'More square footage per person' is something that comes with gentrification. The more attractive an area becomes, the more affluent the persons attracted to it ... and the "more square footage per person" that gets demanded ... and 'afforded'. So, bottom line is that the eventual streetcars running through Georgetown won't be solving a 'growth in population problem', because there won't be one. The will however, serve to decongest some of the roads as you have so aptly noted. And at least in my opinion, that is where you get your greatest bang for the buck. I wish we were planning for our streetcar system to start to be built in places like Georgetown where it is most needed.

by Lance on Sep 23, 2010 4:49 pm • linkreport

@Matt "The 3 streetcars owned by DDOT were purchased for the Anacostia line, which happens to be entirely outside of the L'Enfant City. That line is scheduled to open in 2012"

So, we can put the wireless ones in G'town, and have the once with wires going to Anacostia. I'm SURE that would go down really well in Ward 8.

@Lance: re population density. I do not agree that gentrification leads to a decline in population density. A boarded up house in blighted area has 0 people. In a gentrifying neighborhood, you replace boarded up homes, low rise buildings, and businesses with higher rise homes as the increase in rent per sq ft drives a more intensive use of space. For example, the NoMA developments.

by SJE on Sep 23, 2010 5:00 pm • linkreport


Actually I think both you and Lance are right... but in certain cases. As far as Georgetown goes, I might be with Lance on this one. Population may increase if abandoned units become occupied &/or density increases, but population may decrease if multi-units are converted to single units & in areas where abandoned properties aren't too predominant. In that sense, I'd wager Georgetown falls into the latter at this current time, though I'd say you're spot-on about areas such as NoMa.

by Bossi on Sep 23, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport

yep ... NoMa is an exception ... By and large what's been occuring is that multi-family rentals that were once built as 'single family homes' are returning to that status ... or at least to condos that are larger than the apartments/rooms that were in there before. Also, the size of the average household is far fewer if for no other reason than that you're talking singles, couples, maybe couples with one child ... displacing what were ofter families with children. You'll see the proof of it in the Ward redistricting next year ... Just like we saw in redistricting following the 2000 Census. Ward 1 for example had to move eastward last time in order for the 'roughly equal' apportionments to work ...

by Lance on Sep 23, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

"The wires, in addition to obstructing views, may require additional poles and street signage to be erected."

Why street signage? "Warning -- don't climb up this 10-foot pole and touch the wire"?

by tom veil on Sep 23, 2010 5:48 pm • linkreport

Let's be serious about running streetcars in a heavily congested area of town. Come on. Wisconsin/M needs a Metro station, not something that's a throwback to my grandparents' generation. The F Line in SF is designed for tourists and for tourists only. The majority of locals only use it when the Market St. Subway has a meltdown, taking it from Castro to downtown. Although the historic trolleys look cute running along the palms on Market St. and along the Embarcadero you can't for one second consider it mass transit as the trains inch their way down Market St. stopping every block. It works as a novelty in SF because Market St. can handle the addition of streetcars (barely) and the Embarcadero has a dedicated ROW for the trains. Georgetown simply doesn't have room to spare.

by Mark on Sep 23, 2010 8:26 pm • linkreport

something that's a throwback to my grandparents' generation

You mean like automobiles and subways?

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 23, 2010 8:29 pm • linkreport

Regarding population density, we need to distinguish between residents and non-residents. While GT's residential density is very low, the bulk of the traffic is due to non-residents who come for work, school, entertainment, etc...

by Smoke_Jaguar4 on Sep 23, 2010 8:31 pm • linkreport

@Mark, Let's be serious about running streetcars in a heavily congested area of town.

Actually, it's congested enought that it should be a prime candidate for closing to automobiles. I don't mean all of Georgetown's streets, but maybe Wisconsin below S or R or thereabouts ... Maybe even M Street ... That's how the Europeans have made their downtowns get better than they already were. There are alternate routes, and there's no reason why someone can't park in an underground garage at the edge of Georgetown before hopping a streetcar to get the rest of the way to their destination ... provided of course, David hasn't had his way and eliminated all the garages that are needed for this to occur. And just think, the street car ride would be unhindered ... except for maybe those 'untrained' bicyclists who don't understand the concept of 'right of way' ... not all bicyclists mind you ... just the 'bad apple' ones.

by Lance on Sep 23, 2010 8:35 pm • linkreport

To Anon: Street cars are NOT "trains". We need to stop calling them that.

To Erik: Street cars need not be loud. That's a mith. This is especially true if vintage PCC cars are used. Diesel buses are far louder than modern or vintage street cars.

To Ron Eichner: I'd rather have a thin, single trolley wire {that most people don't notice anyway} than clouds of Diesel exhaust and pollution.

To TM: Real, full size D C Transit PCC street cars once operated on those tracks with no problems.

To Bossi: Street cars operated in mixed traffic in hundreds of cities for decades. This is not new technology. It's proven technology that works very well. Stinking Diesel smoke, fumes and noise don't improve the vistas either !!

To tom veil: Multi purpose poles are and have been in use worldwide for decades. Additional poles for the trolley wires aren't necessary. Street lights and signs can be mounted from the same poles. And in many locations worldwide, eyebolts attached to buildings are used for the span wires. This elimitates the need for many poles.

To Mark: The F Line in San Francisco is heavily used by locals as a means of transportation. Who ever told you that it was for tourists only? It is indeed part of the MUNI mass transit system.

To Lance: The D C streets became congested with the removal of the swift, clean electric street cars. People would rather drive that ride in Diesel buses. Remember, street cars didn't die a natural death in D C or North America. They were killed off by big oil, bus manufacturers, tire companies, etc. In the case of D C, the transit management wanted to retain street cars. But outside forces paid off Congress to force the removal of D C Transit's well maintained street car system.

by Transit Jeff on Sep 23, 2010 9:23 pm • linkreport

@Transit Jeff And in many locations worldwide, eyebolts attached to buildings are used for the span wires.

Please ... let's can the whole idea if it ever gets to the point where we're not only going to ruin our open skies with ugly wires ... but, incredibly ... ruin our buildings with eyebolts ... It's not worth it. If it comes down to that, best we do nothing.

by Lance on Sep 23, 2010 9:27 pm • linkreport

Good God. Every time I hear this nonsense that D.C. needs some expensive, experimental streetcar design to preserve its sacred viewsheds, I want DDot to give irrationally excessive preservationists the finger and build the most obnoxious, obtrusive, overbuilt gantries and run a tangled mess of wires and a few utility lines to generate some extra revenue for the city--aesthetic ordinances be damned.

I'm thinking something like these running down H St. NE, the Anacostia Route currently on hiatus, and one day a route straight down M St. in Georgetown.

In all seriousness though, the District already owns overhead-running streetcars that are collecting dust in the Greenbelt Yard. Others could be bought relatively inexpensively as there are a myriad of cities with wire-powered streetcars that have been running them for decades. Just run the damn wires that have worked just fine in the 95% of historic cities that use streetcars--which as Jasper displayed in the Kinkisharyo thread--are as discreet as a congressman soliciting an affair through a local madam. I appreciate aesthetics, but this paranoid obsession of maintaining absolutely perfect sightlines of some split-second view that cannot be "sacrificed" in the name of progress is ridiculous, and I'm tired of seeing development in this city stagnate thanks to irrationally excessive preservationists who are too busy staring at the sky to look down and notice the gridlock and commuter hell that is the D.C. street grid.

by LK on Sep 23, 2010 10:19 pm • linkreport

I'll grant that Georgetown has less prospect of increasing density than NoMa. That said, as rents rise, it could become more of a student, single urban professional, etc place, and less families. That would increase density. There is also room to grow higher, although the pressure to do so is not yet there, and is limited by zoning and historic districts.

I still maintain that gentrification does not necessitate an increase in sq ft per person: as prices rise, you would expect the opposite. Although an extreme example, I am amazed at what counts for living "space" in Manhattan.

by SJE on Sep 23, 2010 10:36 pm • linkreport

Lance: I'm not sure Georgetown's population is declining. I believe the number of families has been increasing over the past ten years or so as more couples decide to stay here after kids are born. I suspect the household size will increase with this next census.

Moreover, the amount of housing stock has also increased a decent amount over the past decade. There have been at least a half a dozen new apartment buildings built or planned over the past 5 years or so: the Ritz Carlton apartments, the Water Street apartments, Wormley Row, the Sheridan Garage, the Hurt Home, and the Georgetown Post Office to name those just off the top of my head. All those combined probably account for 200-250 new units. That would be about a 5% increase in the number of households since 2000. And that's not even counting the increase in the number of students at GU, who would be big users of a streetcar.

Georgetown doesn't have the density-increase potential of, say, a NoMa or Columbia Heights, but it's hardly static.

by TM on Sep 23, 2010 11:31 pm • linkreport

"The F Line in SF is designed for tourists and for tourists only."

Not really. SF's homeless love to use it, with most of them skipping the fare by getting on through the rear door!

by Jerry on Sep 24, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

Enough already. Put the streetcars in and stop complaining about the wires. It's thw worst arguement ever about vistas. Please go to Budapest, Vienna, Prague these are the Imperial Cities of Central Europe and the Street cars do nothign to distract from beauty of those cities. so all you hippy historical freaks shut up and do something right for a change and help save the planet. Furthermore, all you Georgetown folks who want to stop it, please move to MD or VA where you can be in the burbs, this is the Captiol City of the USA and good transport is needed.

by DC Commish on Sep 24, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

@DC Commish so all you hippy historical freaks shut up and do something right for a change and help save the planet. Furthermore, all you Georgetown folks who want to stop it, please move to MD or VA where you can be in the burbs,

LOL ... gotta luv it when a non-conformist freak who wants to change what is working just fine in DC starts shouting names and telling others to leave. Go crawl back in your hole please.

by Lance on Sep 24, 2010 1:29 pm • linkreport

Every few months I shoot a new set of digital photos documenting construction progress on the Anacostia and H St NE streetcar lines. See my blog posting at the URL displayed here.

Regarding wireless streetcars, D.C. used to run on an underground conduit system. You can still see the slot-rail conduits between the rails in Georgetown. A "plow" attached to the streetcar ran in the slot collecting power off an energized cable under the street surface. However, according to the late Leroy O. King Jr. in his "100 Years of Capital Traction / The Story of Streetcars in the Nation's Capital" (1972), the system was "very complex and expensive to construct . . . [and because of this] was confined to old downtown while suburban lines used overhead trolley [wires]." Ice, snow, heavy rain made the conduits a handful to maintain.

Today, the "wireless" alternative is not a conduit system--too expensive and problematic--but a streetcar that can briefly run on its own power. An article in The Washington Post (April 18, 2010) said one solution would be a hybrid car with battery- or "supercapacitor" power supplies for running in historically-sensitive areas. Near as I can tell, DDOT is still wrestling with this issue as they look toward expanding beyond the two demonstration lines currently under construction.

by John Fuller on Sep 24, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

"non-conformist freak"

I believe you meant to say "rational individual."

by LK on Sep 24, 2010 2:04 pm • linkreport

Overhead wires are fine as long as they're temporary. If they're going to be temporary, then the cost of putting them up and taking them down should be considered as well. But M Street is already clogged. Reducing traffic should take priority over aesthetic concerns. Georgetown's views may be historic, but they're not monumental.

by Anonymous on Sep 24, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

I'm from New Orleans so I have always lived with street cars. The lines there are mostly on their own dedicated space (with a few exceptions between Lee Circle and Canal for the St. Charles line, not as familar with the Canal line) and we don't complain about overhead wires. Granted, NOLA never lost its cars so there was no sense of getting used to wires all over again like DC is discussing.

NOLA got rid of some of some buses on Canal for a street car line because tourists wanting to go to central park and the museum would never have gotten on a bus but would get on a street car. People coming from places without them love to ride them when they go to places with them.

by ET on Sep 24, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

The system is used all over Europe, not once in 29 years living there have I heard anybody oppose the overhead wires. And even if the streetcars have to drive along with the traffic, they will still pack way more passengers in one streetcar's space, than let's say the 20 cars that would run instead.

by Sven on Feb 22, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

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