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Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


Rent in our region is expensive. Does that mean it's unaffordable?

It's no secret that rent prices in the Washington region are very high. But when we talk about affordable places to live, we often forget that there are two components to affordability: there's how much we spend on rent, but also how much we earn in income.

Rent here might be pricey, but is it expensive? Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Typical surveys like this one by Zumper usually find that a select group of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington have the most expensive apartment prices. According to these measurements, Washington has the fourth-most expensive rent of any large city in the country.

But if rent is $1000 in two different cities, but the average income in City A is 50% higher than in City B, then residents of City A can afford housing more easily, generally speaking. A recent article by Greater Greater Washington contributor Kate Rabinowitz demonstrated how cheaper cities also often lack good-paying jobs.

Here's how various metro areas stack up

To better evaluate this relationship, I looked at households across major metropolitan areas and how much of their income they spend on rent.

Two terms that are critical to understand renting affordability are rent-burdened households (those than spend over 30% of income on rent) and severely rent-burdened households (those that spend over 50% of their income on rent). For my own analysis, I chose only to look at rent-burdened households.

I also did not include median income in this analysis, as large cities in the United States have a large amount of income inequality, so median income does not necessarily reflect the experience of low-income households.

Additionally, I chose to use Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) for data samples, rather than just large cities proper since most Americans live outside of major cities. Here are the 33 metropolitan areas with a population of above two million:

Graph by the author.

The results are very different from what we might expect. Cities typically associated with high rent, such as Washington (7th place), Seattle (10th place), Boston (12th place), and San Francisco (16th) have below-average numbers of rent-burdened households. Rent burdens in Texan cities are among the lowest, while the places where the most people use more than 30% of their income to cover rent are in California and Florida.

For reference, although many cities have significantly lower rent burdens than the US average, over half of renting US households spend above 30% of income on rent. Consequently, over 45% of renting households are rent-burdened in even the most affordable cities.

At the other end of the spectrum, over 60% of households are rent-burdened in the most unaffordable metropolitan areas, such as Miami and Riverside.

Although these measurements help better explain housing affordability, there are a few things that this analysis does not take into consideration.

  1. This analysis only looks at renting households. Some metropolitan areas may have a larger share of owned households, which are difficult to compare to renting households.
  2. The data measure the total number of rent-burdened households; they say nothing about households that are severely rent-burdened. That is to say that these measurements tell us about the breadth of the problem, not the depth.
  3. This analysis does not evaluate apartment size or household occupancy. Accordingly, residents of cities with expensive rent may make the "economic choice" to live in single apartments with a high number of occupants (roommates, multi-generational households, etc.).
  4. The Census's measure of rent-burden does describe how housing subsidies, rent control, and other mechanisms affect households' ability to afford rent. In all likelihood, liberal housing policies in cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco decrease the number of households that are rent-burdened.

Washington DC's relatively high incomes may make it more affordable in comparison to economically depressed cities. This does not mean, however, that all households in the region have equal opportunities to find affordable housing, especially those below the median income.

As income influences affordability, higher salaries should be part of the larger debate of housing affordability in the region and across the country—especially since incomes have stagnated for most workers, while the price of housing continues to rise.


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


National links: Ancient ruins that nobody visits

There are ancient ruins in the United States but people don't treat them as tourist destinations like they do ones in other countries. Also, not everyone gets to weigh in on how their city is planned, and Ford Motor Company is trying out a different transportation strategy. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by John Fowler on Flickr.

Ancient ruins ignored: The US has a number of ancient cities, including Cahokia near St. Louis and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. But we don't visit the same way we do places like, say, Machu Picchu. Part of the reason may be that ancient ruins in the US don't exactly mesh with the narrative that this land was uninhibited, waiting for Westerners to simply come and put it to use. (Pricenomics)

Not so representative: Metropolitan planning agencies are notorious for overlooking the opinions of people who live in dense urban areas, especially people of color and women. According to researchers in Austin, Texas, while 63% of their regional population is white, white board members represent 90% of the technical advisory council and 85% of the transportation policy board of region's metropolitan planning organization. Women make up 33% and 30% of these same two boards even though they make up half of the total population. (Streetsblog USA)

Will Ford change urban transportation?: The Ford Motor company is making urban travel part of its business model. The company has bought Chariot, a transit-like company that shuttles people from home to work in large cities, and is paying to bring 7,000 bike share bikes to San Francisco by 2017 (there are 700 now). The company says its goal is to drive down the cost of mobility for everyone. (Medium)

Is "out" the only way forward?: Cities that spread outward have produced more housing than those which have curbed the sprawl, according to a Berkeley economist. More units in sprawling areas has meant lower prices, which means cities will face a hard decision going forward: contain development while production in the core lags and prices go up, or sprawl into the outer areas of the region, a solution that brings high transportation costs and environmental damage. (Wall Street Journal)

Crosswalk, redesigned: A series of crosswalks are being redesigned in San Francisco to promote safety, taking into account the fact that drivers hit three people each day. The idea is to make pedestrians easier to spot by using multiple zebra crossings and raised curbs, but also to make the crossings more park-like. (Curbed SF)

Our transportation habits are wasteful: When writing a book on garbage, Edward Humes noticed that we waste a lot of space and resources on transportation, so he wrote a new book called Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. The fact that vehicles designed for five people ferry around one person, for example, led him to think the car is a social, economic, and health problem that needs to be solved. (New York Times)

Quote of the Day

"If you look at legal requirements on levels of nitrogen dioxide in particular, Oxford Street gets in the first week of January what it should in an entire year. That's one of the reason why there's an urgency to air quality plans."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who himself has adult onset asthma, discussing the air quality problems London faces thanks to endless streams of diesel buses. (CNN)


National links: We'll pay you to avoid rush hour

BART, San Francisco's major transit system, wants to reward riders for avoiding rush hour, drivers have run into a house in Raleigh 6 times in 9 years and the owners can't sell, and an engineer in Oslo has turned kids into "secret agents" in a bid to report street hazards. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by Storm Crypt on Flickr.

Frequent rider miles: San Francisco's BART is piloting a rewards program that will give points to riders who use the system at times next to, but not during, peak periods. The program gives riders one point per mile an hour before and after the peak rush hour, with 1,000 points equaling to use toward BART passes. (Curbed SF)

Uber as transit: Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando Florida, is subsidizing Uber rides for residents in lieu of a transit system. The city manager had hoped to create a system of smaller buses that came when called until his project idea was killed last year by the USDOT. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country, and is controversial because it leaves out key segments of the riding population including the the disabled and those without bank accounts. (The Verge)

Stop driving into my house: Speeding drivers that fly around a sharp turn on a big arterial have hit a house in Raleigh 6 times in the last 9 years. The family constantly fears for its safety, but the city won't do anything about the road, where people constantly drive over the speed limit, nor will it help the family move out of the house, which is impossible to sell. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Housing takes a loss: Small dorm-sized apartments called microhousing have been regulated away in Seattle. One legislative change after another brought higher standards, larger floor plans, and higher costs. Best described as death by a thousand cuts, the fight against microhousing has added up to a loss of over 800 units per year. (Sightline Institute)

Walk to get smart: There is a great "link between mind and feet". According to science, we are able to come up with ideas and think better when we're walking because of our body chemistry. When you go on a walk, your heart pumps faster and and circulates more oxygen to all parts of your body, including your brain. (New Yorker)

Put the kids to work: An app in Oslo called Traffic Agent was created to allow children in the city to report hazards. A local traffic engineer came up with the idea when she realized that it would be tough to complete a traffic report on all city roads and wanted to get more children involved in traffic safety issues. The data and information will be used in the future when the city closes the core to vehicles. (Next City)

Quote of the Week

"We're trying to get back to that great system that we had. Get rid of the debt and get rid of the tolls and have a low-cost system that everybody can benefit from."

- Retired engineer Don Dixon on Texas' plans to look at making all of the state's toll roads free. Doing so would cost $24 billion.


How does Metro compare to rail in Amsterdam and Paris?

In June, the Washington Post compared Metrorail to various other rapid transit systems in major cities around the world and said Metro came up short. But if you compare Metro to transit systems built to serve places more similar to the DC region, it's actually quite competitive.

Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

Post reporter Max Bearak looked at data from competing metro systems from capital cities around the world, focusing on measures like number of miles covered, stations and lines, monthly trips made, and how many cars the system has. When compared to systems in much bigger cities, like Tokyo, New Delhi, and London, Metro scored near the bottom in a number of the comparisons.

But did Bearak really compare apples to apples? When you look at how Metro stacks up against similarly-designed systems, it actually does fairly well. In other words, let's say a transit system is designed to handle 5,000 riders per mile per day. If it's operating near capacity, does it make sense to say it's inferior because another is designed to carry 10,000 or 20,000 riders per mile? I would say no; the two systems are just different examples that fulfill different needs.

Washington's Metro was designed mostly as an alternative to highway commuting, decades after transit use in America peaked. Consequently, it's best to analyze Metro against systems with specs that are more like the following:

  • Short train headway in city center (6-12 minutes on each line, or approximately 2-6 minutes between trains during peak hours)
  • Average of 1+ miles between stations
  • Service routes that branch out in suburban places
  • 6,000 weekday daily riders per mile / 1.75 million annual riders per mile
  • Urban population of ~4.5 million people
  • In the neighborhood of 118 miles in length
Below are a few examples from around the world. Metro certainly has maintenance issues, but if you compare it to these other systems, you see that the system is actually doing largely what it was designed to. There is, however, plenty to learn from as well:

Amsterdam Metro

Amsterdam is a considerably smaller metropolitan area than Washington, and the Amsterdam Metro is shorter in length (~26 miles), but there are some similarities between these systems. With 66.2 million annual riders, its per-mile ridership of about 2.5 million people is not much higher than Washington's. Headways are slightly longer than Washington's, ranging from 7.5 - 15 minutes.

Photo by GVB Verbindt on Flickr.

Like Metrorail, the Amsterdam Metro is only about 40 years old, and much of its network is on the city's periphery. One big thing Amsterdam's metro has going for it is that it's only one component of its transportation network—trams, buses, and ferries are all important in the city. Perhaps the most important contrast between DC and cities that have systems similar to Metrorail, like Amsterdam, is that rail forms only one component of a successful multimodal network. DC has various other modes of mass transit, but Metro is by far what commuters use the most.

Trams in Amsterdam, on the other hand, actually have higher ridership than the city's metro. Along with buses and ferries, they offer a wide variety of options for transportation in places where rapid transit does not go. This does not even take Amsterdam's heavy bicycle use into consideration—there are actually more cyclists than car or transit users in the city.

A map of Amsterdam's metro system.

Berlin S-Bahn

Unlike most S-Bahns, which are strictly commuter rail systems, the Berlin S-Bahn has third-rail electrification, its routes extensively serve the city proper, and its stations are relatively close together—there's an average of 1.21 miles between stations. With 1.3 million daily riders and 15 routes, it outshines WMATA in a number of ways, but its per-mile ridership is similar (~6,500 daily).

In this sense, Metro shares similarities to this hybrid S-Bahn system. Like Amsterdam, Berlin also relies on other transit modes: an additional rapid transit system (U-Bahn), regional trains, an extensive tram network, and a bus fleet.

Berlin's S-Bahn. Image from S-Bahn Berlin.

San Francisco BART

The United States has several Metrorail-like systems, with BART being one of them. BART has around 1.2 million riders per mile annually, and an average of 2.3 miles between stations. Being on par with other American systems may not seem impressive if Washington's goal is to have a world class metro, but BART is an integral part of transit in the entire Bay Area.

The BART system. Image from BART.

One area where San Francisco actually edges out DC: it has more transit commuters.

Inside a new BART car. Image from BART.

Paris RER

The RER is Paris's commuter rail system, but its frequent service gives it some similar qualities to rapid transit. Comparing it to Metro is a little more difficult, as its five lines have two different operators. Some of the few available official statistics show that Line A has over 4.4 million annual riders per mile (16,800 per day) and peak headways of two minutes, making it as efficient as a rapid transit system.

Paris' RER. Image from RATP.

One notable difference between the RER Line A and Metrorail is that the average headway in the Paris city core never drops 12.5 minutes (Metrorail's headways in the city core can be as high as 20 minutes on the weekend, or even higher during track work). The RER's reliability, on top of Paris's various other transit options, is a big reason for RER's higher ridership.

Madrid Metro

The Madrid Metro is a conventional rapid transit system, and is Metro's closest relative among the cities the Post article mentions. Madrid is somewhat larger in population and has a metro network of almost 183 miles.

Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

At 3.1 million annual riders per mile, Madrid has almost twice as many riders as Washington. Opened in 1919, the Madrid Metro is far older than DC's system, but most of the system was constructed in the last two decades. The system's MetroSur (Line 12—built in 2003) is a particularly encouraging model for Washington. This line operates exclusively in Madrid's suburbs, and boasts station locations within 600 meters of 60% of residences in a service area of a million people. Notably, however, the suburbs MetroSur serves have population densities similar to DC or Alexandria, making quality transit services to Madrid's periphery more viable.

If Washington increases the density of its Metrorail network, as well as the overall population density across the metropolitan area, reaching a figure closer to Madrid's 570 million annual riders could be an achievable goal in the coming decades.

Madrid's Metro. Image from Metro de Madrid.

What other similar examples could Metro learn from?


Washington ranks #2 in walkable urbanism; Maryland and Virginia outshine other cities' suburbs

The Washington region is second in the nation in having housing and jobs in walkable places, a new report says. A real stand-out for our region, compared to other similar cities, are the walkable places even outside the center city like Silver Spring and Reston.

The report, by Christopher Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez from the George Washington University School of Business, ranks the US's 30 largest metropolitan areas based on their "WalkUPs," or "walkable urban places."

A WalkUP is, in the report's methodology, a place with at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail, and a walk score of 70 or better.

We're #2

The Washington region ranks second on this measure, after New York. The other top metros are about what you'd guess: Boston, Chicago, the SF Bay Area, and Seattle. The worst in the nation: Las Vegas, Tampa, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando.

In Washington, 33% of office, retail, and multi-family residential space is in one of our 44 WalkUPs. In San Antonio, Phoenix, and Orlando, it's 3%; San Antonio has only 2 WalkUPs.

Fortunately, even in the lowest-ranked metros, that share is increasing, as new development is at least somewhat more likely to be in WalkUPs than old (in Las Vegas, 11% more likely; in Washington, 2.79 times; in Detroit, over 5 times as likely).

We have lots of walkable urbanism outside the center city

This region also shines on the share of walkable development in jurisdictions outside the (or a) traditional center city. In the Washington region, half of the walkable urbanism is not inside DC, but in places like Silver Spring, Reston, and Old Town Alexandria.

WalkUPs in Greater Washington, from a 2012 Leinberger report.

Not only are there some quite urban places outside DC (and suburban ones inside), but many of those weren't historically urban. Historic cities outside the region's center city like Newark (or Old Town Alexandria) have long been walkable, but Arlington and Silver Spring weren't. Very suburban land uses dominated not so long ago, and governments in these areas deliberately transformed them in a walkable direction.

In some other metro areas, that's not the case. The report notes that "the 388 local jurisdictions in the Chicago metro that control land use have many times stifled urbanization of the suburbs." Portland, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Philadelphia all get mention in the report for high levels of "NIMBYism" in towns outside the center city.

That's not to say Washington's non-downtown job centers are perfect. Places like Tysons Corner have a long way to go before they really feel oriented around the pedestrian, and will likely never equal a historic center city in that way. But the governments of all counties around DC are really trying.

Even if they may move slowly, Fairfax County has a policy of making Tysons more walkable (and it did just get Metro). The same goes for Montgomery and Prince George's, and even a lot of folks in Loudoun, Howard, and so forth. Walkable urbanism isn't a fringe idea around here. Meanwhile, many of the SF Bay Area's towns downzoned the areas around BART stations to block new development when rail arrived, and a lot of those towns' attitudes haven't changed.

So, let's give a round of applause to Maryland and Virginia leaders, both in the 1970s (when Metro was being planned) and today, for at least being way better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

(Las Vegas is an outlier because it has very little walkable urbanism in the city, but the Strip is outside and counts as "suburbs" in this analysis.)

Walkable urbanism is also good for equity

The report also looks at how WalkUPs affect equity. In all of the metro areas, being in a walkable place commands higher rent (191% higher in New York, 66% higher in Washington, and only 4% higher in Baltimore, last on this list).

However, in the cities with more walkable urbanism, moderate-income residents living in walkable areas spend less on transportation and live nearer to more jobs, even if they may spend more on housing.

The report says:

This research has reached the counter-intuitive conclusion that metro areas with the highest walkable urban rankings have the highest social equity performance, as measured by moderate-income household spending on housing and transportation and access to employment. Of the top 10 metro regions ranked by social equity, eight also ranked in the the top 10 for current walkable urbanism The most walkable urban metros also have the most social equity.
Washington rated second in equity, again after New York. Washingtonians making 80% of the area median income spend just 17% of their income on transportation have access to an average of 56,897 jobs. In Tampa, meanwhile, such people spend 30% of their incomes on transportation and are near just 19,205 jobs.

Even housing in WalkUPs isn't as expensive here as in many metros, controlling for income, according to the report: Moderate-income households living in WalkUPs spend 36% of their income on housing, on par with Houston and St. Louis. In Tampa, that's 44%, and hits 52% in Miami. (It's 47% in New York and LA and 42% in the San Francisco Bay Area).


DC Streetcar ridership is... actually not bad

The DC Streetcar is drawing a decent number of riders, so far. Compared to other US light rail and streetcar systems, it ranks near the middle in terms of riders per mile of track. It's slightly above average, neither horrible nor spectacular.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

According to DDOT's latest streetcar ridership report, the H Street line carried an average of 2,285 passengers each weekday in April. It carries more on Saturdays, but weekday ridership is the standard measuring stick nationwide.

In raw terms, 2,285 riders per day is pretty low. But for a line that only carries passengers for 1.9 miles, it's actually not bad.

Middle of the light rail pack

Obviously, the 1.9 mile DC Streetcar isn't going to carry nearly as many passengers as, say, the 90-mile-long Dallas light rail system. And if you rank all US light rail and streetcar systems by total ridership, DC's 2,285 passengers per day is indeed near the bottom, at 31st out of 37. Dallas is 7th with about 105,000.

But to get a sense of how successful these lines are at attracting riders, we need to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis. To do that, divide the total daily ridership by the number of miles, to get ridership per mile.

And in those terms, DC Streetcar's 1,203 riders per mile is a respectable 18th out of 37. It's just barely in the upper half nationally. And it doesn't even go downtown yet.

Dallas is actually lower at 1,164 riders per mile. Other regional light rail systems that are lower than DC Streetcar include Baltimore (691 riders/mile), Norfolk (784), Sacramento (1,056), Saint Louis (1,035), Pittsburgh (850), and Cleveland (467).

On the other hand, DC is far below the number one system on the list: Boston's Green line light rail, which carries a whopping 7,126 riders per mile. Other systems near the top include San Francisco's Muni Metro (4,370 riders/mile), Minneapolis (3,275), New Jersey's Hudson-Bergen light rail (2,852), and the Portland streetcar (2,075, which is interestingly higher than Portland's MAX light rail at 2,048).

Compared to H Street's X2 bus

What about buses?

In terms of raw riders, the X2 bus on H Street is the 3rd busiest bus line in the WMATA system, with 17,400 riders per day as of 2015. The X2 is almost exactly 5 miles long, pegging it at 3,480 riders/mile.

So the streetcar is attracting about one third as many riders as the X2 was before the streetcar started, mile for mile.

But the X2 is a tall order to match. If it were light rail or a streetcar, the X2's 3,480 riders/mile would make it the third best system in America, after only Boston and San Francisco. That's one of the reasons a bigger and nicer vehicle makes sense there in the first place.

Plenty of room for improvement, but riders are there

Clearly the streetcar isn't perfect. Getting it open was a saga, and its lack of dedicated lanes or traffic signal priority continue to hurt. Future lines absolutely need to be better, and can be better.

And who knows what will happen if DDOT ever starts charging a fare. Atlanta streetcar ridership plummeted when it went from free to $1, but Portland's streetcar ridership remains high despite adding fares after 11 years of free rides. So that's hard to predict.

But in terms of attracting riders, DC Streetcar isn't doing particularly badly.

You can help make sure the next extensions are indeed better by attending upcoming planning meetings, May 17 for the Georgetown extension, and May 19 for Benning Road.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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