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Transit


A history of streetcar planning in Northern Virginia

Yesterday we looked at the evolution of streetcar proposals in the District. Here's how Northern Virginia's two modern-day efforts unfolded.

Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Assessment from May 2012. Image from the Pike Transit Initiative.

Columbia Pike

Out of desire to revitalize one of its major corridors, Arlington County began the Columbia Pike Initiative in 2001. The project pointed out a need for better transit, and in February 2003 the county began the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative, a formal study of the possibilities.

After an April 2006 study of different transit modes, streetcars emerged as the best choice for Columbia Pike.

Arlington formally committed to a streetcar plan in March 2009, and an environmental study for the project followed. The county confirmed its plans in 2012 after a second alternatives analysis also recommended streetcar as the preferred mode. The state of Virginia committed funds in July of last year.

But by November, voter opposition to the project had grown, due in part to major holdups in the District's streetcar plan. After elections in the fall, the project went onto the shelf.

The board of supervisors from Fairfax County, a partner in the project, called the decision to end it short-sighted and disappointing.

Crystal City/Potomac Yard

Arlington and Alexandria have been working together on a transit service for the Potomac Yard development since 1999. At first, streetcars got serious consideration, but a bus rapid transit (BRT) system won out as the preferred mode for the corridor because of cost concerns.

The cities did not fully rule out streetcars on the corridor at this point, though. As construction of the BRT system neared, Arlington and Alexandria agreed to begin a study on converting the system for streetcar use in the future as the corridor developed. Arlington started its part of the study in July 2011, but Alexandria put its part off until a later date.

In December 2012, when Arlington started seeking federal funds for the project, Alexandria pulled out altogether, focusing its efforts on the Potomac Yard Metro infill station project.

Arlington halted its study of streetcar conversion in Crystal City when the Columbia Pike project got suspended. The first phase of Metroway, the BRT system for the corridor, had opened for service two months prior, in August.

Further developments around the Metroway should be complete later this year.

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Transit


Visible progress on the Crystal City transitway

Arlington may have canceled its Crystal City streetcar, but work is continuing on the dedicated transitway that would have carried it. Only buses will use this now, but the infrastructure is rising from the ground.

This is the Glebe Road station, in Potomac Yard.


Glebe Road station. Photo by Arlington.

When complete, it will look like this:


Station rendering. Image by Arlington.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


The Potomac Yard transitway is looking good

Construction on Alexandria's Route 1 transitway is coming along, in anticipation of its August 24 opening. These pictures show the station at Route 1 and Custis Avenue.


All photos by Dan Malouff.

While Alexandria's transitway is just about ready, the second phase of the same project, in Arlington, is still a grassy strip. But preliminary construction work started earlier this year, and Arlington will host an official groundbreaking on Friday, July 18, at 9 am.


Arlington's portion, next in line for construction.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Transit


BRT comes to Northern Virginia on August 24

The first bus rapid transit line in the DC region will officially begin service on August 24.

The "Metroway" route will run from Crystal City to Braddock Road, partly in mixed traffic and partly in a dedicated transitway. A later phase to open in 2015 will extend the route to Pentagon City, and shift more of it into dedicated lanes.


Route 1 Transitway under construction in Alexandria. Photo from the City of Alexandria.

Metroway is a joint project between Alexandria, Arlington, and WMATA. Alexandria and Arlington are building the transitway in two phases, and WMATA will operate the buses.

For now, only the Alexandria phase is ready. Arlington's phase just began construction and should be finished next year.

But rather than wait until 2015 to start service, WMATA will begin running buses in August, and simply run in mixed traffic through Crystal City until Arlington's phase is complete.


Metroway initial route (left) and route starting in 2015 (right). Images from WMATA.

Metroway will run every 6 minutes at peak times, dropping to every 12 minutes at midday and every 20 minutes on weekends.

Arlington will eventually convert its portion of the route to streetcar.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Bicycling


Arlington will build its first cycletrack this fall

Despite being an early leader in bicycle friendliness, Arlington has been slow to join the growing trend of building cycletracks (not counting a tiny 30-foot fragment in Rosslyn). While there are plans for cycletracks on Army Navy Drive in Pentagon City and a re-aligned Clark/Bell street in Crystal City, a new pilot project on Eads Street will likely precede both.


South Eads Street today. Image from Google Maps.

Arlington needs to repave several sections of Eads, and multiple development projects are in the works along the corridor. The time is ripe to re-imagine how Eads Street can function to serve pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses, and the county is kicking off a South Eads Street Corridor Study.

Right now, Eads functions primarily to move cars, with roomy lanes that encourage speeding (some as wide as 19 feet), more lanes than necessary for the volume of traffic, few street trees, and limited bike facilities. Technically, there are bike lanes on the southern end, but the markings have faded to almost nothing.

Next Wednesday, Arlington will host a workshop to get feedback on options for various segments of Eads, which parallels Route 1 from I-395 to the border with Alexandria. The options vary quite a bit based on the shifting width of the street. They include buffered bike lanes, a street-level cycletrack, and a raised cycletrack at sidewalk level. All would provide continuous bike facilities from the Four Mile Run Trail connection in the south all the way to a connection with the future Army Navy Drive cycletrack in the north.


Options for one section of Eads Street. Image from Arlington County. Click for larger version including cross-sections.

The visioning process and corridor study will set out the long-term plan for Eads, but officials plan to build a short-term pilot project this fall between 23rd Street and 15th Street. This section of Eads is on the paving list for this year, and Arlington is going to take advantage of that to do a cheap pilot.

The roadway will be re-striped from its existing four lanes to become two lanes and a center turn lane. A two-way cycletrack of some sort will be added, pedestrian crossings upgraded, and parking lanes reconfigured.

Arlington will be gathering significant data on how people travel along this section of Eads both before the changes and after, including bicycle, pedestrian and traffic counts, as well as travel time measurements. Analysis of these metrics from the pilot program will inform the ultimate design of Eads Street as well as future cycletrack projects in the county.

South Eads Street has the potential to be a vital cycling connection in Arlington. North-South travel by bicycle in Arlington is notoriously challenging, with few good options. This project will connect the planned Army Navy Drive cycletrack to the Four Mile Run trail and, from there, the Mt Vernon Trail. Someday it may connect to the planned bike/ped bridge over Four Mile Run, taking cyclists to one of Alexandria's main cycling corridors, Commonwealth Avenue.

If you're free, come out the workshop on Wednesday evening, May 21, 7 pm at the Aurora Hills Community Center and provide your feedback. If you can't make the meeting, the county has an online survey you can take instead.

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Transit


Arlington's streetcars will carry more riders than VRE or the entire Richmond bus network combined

Here's the simplest reason to build a streetcar on Columbia Pike: Absolutely tons of people will ride it. The latest ridership projections show that by 2035 there will be more streetcar riders on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City than there are on VRE or riding buses in Richmond today.


Streetcar and buses in Toronto. Photo by Sean_Marshall on flickr.

The latest ridership projections for the streetcar are huge. By 2035, 37,100 riders per day are expected to use the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City line, which will operate as a single through route. Another 22,700 will ride buses daily, for a total of 59,800 riders in the corridor.

For comparison, VRE carries about 20,000 per day, and as of 2011 (the most recent data available), the entire Richmond metropolitan area bus system carried an average of 35,200 riders per day. That's every bus route in the whole region put together.

Granted, comparing 2035 projections to contemporary ridership is not exactly valid. Surely by 2035 VRE and Richmond's GRTC will be carrying more riders than they are now.

But these comparisons are useful nonetheless. They give us a sense of the scale of transit demand on Columbia Pike.

Let's keep going. According to the American Public Transportation Association's 4th quarter 2013 ridership report, here are more total networks that the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcar's 37,100 daily riders in 2035 will beat or approximately match:

  • MARC commuter rail (34,100 riders per day)
  • Regional light rail systems in Baltimore (26,800), San Jose (34,300), New Orleans (20,200), Minneapolis (30,100), Charlotte (15,400), Buffalo (17,400), Pittsburgh (28,300), Houston (38,300), Seattle (33,200), Norfolk (5,000 in 2012)
  • Regional bus networks in Indianapolis (35,000), Memphis (28,700), Nashville (31,200)
  • Fairfax Connector bus system (36,300)
  • Prince William County Omni-Ride bus system (13,400)
Of course there are plenty of bigger systems out there. Here's a sampling from the same data:
  • Subway systems such as New York (8,733,300), WMATA (855,300), Atlanta (221,200), and even Baltimore (48,500)
  • Light rail systems such as Los Angeles (200,900), Sacramento (46,400), Portland (115,300), Dallas (98,300), and Saint Louis (53,000)
  • Bus networks like Baltimore (237,600), Montgomery County Ride-On (86,600), WMATA (441,100), and Norfolk (52,800 in 2012)
Now let's compare the ridership projections for Columbia Pike / Crystal City with other rail projects near the DC region:Each of those projects will carry more riders than the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcars, but each of them also has a price tag in the multiple billions of dollars. Streetcars in Arlington will cost hundreds of millions, but produce great bang for the buck.

The bottom line

With 16,000 daily bus riders today, Columbia Pike is already Virginia's busiest bus corridor. By 2035 there will be nearly 60,000 combined streetcar and bus trips on the Columbia Pike / Crystal City corridor, with 42,800 of those coming on Columbia Pike.

Streetcar detractors want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike by bus alone than the entire Richmond or Norfolk regional bus networks move in sum total. They want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike with buses than MARC or VRE move on commuter rail, or that Baltimore, Minneapolis, or Houston move on light rail.

That's ridiculous. The huge transit demand on Columbia Pike easily justifies rail, and it comes at a better cost value than other rail projects around the region. To suggest otherwise ignores reality.

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Transit


Arlington starts work on the region's first BRT line

Alexandria is putting the finishing touches on their part of the region's first Bus Rapid Transit line, the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, and Arlington has begun work on their section. The transitway's first phase will open this summer, and it will be completely open in 2015.


Buses called "Metro Way" will serve the transitway. Image from WMATA.

This project will speed up bus service along the Route 1 corridor between Arlington and Alexandria by creating transit-only lanes. Buses will come every 6 minutes and will operate earlier in the morning and later at night. Stations will have real-time arrival screens and ticket kiosks to allow people to pay before boarding the bus, speeding up service.

Arlington has already created a limited-stop bus service, the Metrobus 9S, as a precursor to what's coming. In addition, a new Metrobus 9X route branded "Metro Way" will travel the entire busway between Braddock Road and Crystal City and continue to Pentagon City. Other buses will use the transitway as well, including the Fairfax Connector and private shuttles.

The transitway is a joint effort between Arlington, Alexandria, WMATA, and the federal government. It will serve Crystal City and Potomac Yard, which are both growing rapidly. Alexandria is planning a new Metro station at Potomac Yard as well. But many of these areas are too far to walk to that station or the existing Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations, so officials are hope the transitway will make them easier to reach.

Eventually, Arlington will run streetcars in the transitway that connect with the future Columbia Pike streetcar at the Pentagon City Metro station. Meanwhile, Alexandria no longer has any streetcar plans and will use the transitway for BRT indefinitely. Alexandria may also eventually add streetcars to their portion, but Alexandria's planning is on hold while they focus on their infill Metro station.

I asked county officials why Arlington didn't put in streetcar infrastructure in the first place. The federal government provided a grant for busway construction, and although Arlington is free to upgrade to streetcar later, the original construction has to follow that busway agreement. But Arlington's Capital Improvement Plan, to be released this spring, will include an updated streetcar construction schedule.


Rendering of a future BRT station from Arlington County.

This project has largely flown under the radar, and without the controversy that has followed other transit projects in Arlington like the Columbia Pike streetcar or the "million dollar bus stop." I asked why this was, and was told that the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway enjoyed a lot of community support from residents and businesses who want better transit service.

It seems that people generally agreed that the transitway could help make Crystal City easier to get around. And since the line passes mainly through office buildings and what are currently empty fields, there weren't the same concerns about gentrification on Columbia Pike. The county should definitely look at the specific differences for why these projects were received so differently, and how to apply those lessons in the future.

Bus ridership in the DC area is growing, and in some congested corridors, buses carry half of all traffic. Regardless of mode, dedicated transitways are a great way to provide dramatic improvements to transit riders. This will be a great BRT line, and eventually a great rail line as well. Metro Way and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway are a big, but not final, step in the right direction.

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Transit


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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