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Posts about Streetcars

Links


Worldwide links: France

Today, we mourn for France, which was again the target of a horrific terrorist attack.


Photo by Kristoffer Trolle on Flickr.

Tragedy in France: A man killed over 80 people and injured at least 200 more when he drove a truck through a crowds celebrating Bastille Day in France's southern city of Nice. The attack on the pedestrian-filled promenade was the third major terrorist attack in France since January 2015.

Tramways of Paris: Light rail and streetcar lines continue to go up around the country, and while some have been successful others suffer from low ridership and poor design. Across the Atlantic, however, Paris built a system of "trams" that has a ridership in excess of 900,000. The Paris tram's successful integration with the city's existing network, along with its dedicated right of way, are things we should learn from. (TransitCenter)

Catch them all: The Pokemon Go phenomenon has urban thinkers excited about a new possibility for getting people out of the house and exploring their neighborhoods. People playing the game have been roaming the streets and complaining of tired legs while going places they normally might not in order to capture Pokemon for their collections. (Curbed)

Pre-fabulous: A new method for building prefabricated housing in England has cut construction time from eight weeks to three. Using timber construction, architects build self-supporting boxes and ship them to the site. At around 100,000, these homes could be a new source of affordable housing. (Wired UK)

Exhibits, but no musuem: Stadiums and museums cost a lot of money to build and keep running. But maybe the best place for what happens in those buildings, like concerts and exhibits, is festivals. While buildings require up keep and become a liability, festivals can use public spaces and temporary structures to fill their needs. It's an idea to ponder for places that don't have much budget to waste. (Des Moines Register)

Old burbs: As the generation known as the Baby Boomers ages, the structure of the suburbs will become more challenging: as people age, driving cars and climbing stairs will become more strenuous on both physical and mental health. But there are ways for people downsizing to prepare, and it's possible for them to move into more walkable neighborhoods. (The Herald)

Brew tube: To bring down the number of beer-filled tanker trucks driving through historic Bruges, Belgium, a local brewery decided to build a two-mile beer pipeline to its bottling plant on the outskirts of town. The pipeline allowed jobs to stay in the UNESCO historic district while upholding not just architectural heritage, but also continuing the tradition of brewing beer. (Guardian Cities)

Quote of the Week

"During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability... Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn't the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement."

Ben Kabak of New York City transit blog Second Avenue Sagas on the link between transit and gentrification.

History


A streetcar used to run down Rhode Island Avenue, connecting College Park and downtown DC

Most of Washington's original "streetcar suburbs" were built within the District's boundaries. However, one important corridor of streetcar suburbs went up in Prince George's County, in the communities along Route 1 south of the Beltway.


A map of the route of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar in Prince George's County to Branchville Road. North of Branchville road, an hourly single-track shuttle service ran to Laurel until it was abandoned in 1925. Map by the author using OpenStreet Map. Click for a larger version.

A streetcar from Baltimore to Washington?

While steam railroads had linked Baltimore to Washington for half a century, the introduction of electric streetcars in Baltimore in 1885 and Washington in 1888 led to interest in the idea of an electric interurban line to link the two cities.

In 1892, the Columbia and Maryland Railway was chartered by a group of businessmen who hoped to construct an electric streetcar line from Baltimore to Washington by way of Ellicott City, Laurel, and Hyattsville. Called the Washington, Berwyn & Laurel, this line roughly paralleled the route of the B&O line (now the MARC Camden Line) between the two cities. The businessmen expected that the growth of suburbs would create a "great country city" along the route and provide enough traffic to justify the construction of a new rail line and adjacent roadway.

Although the plan as a whole never came to fruition, tracks were built along Rhode Island Avenue from 4th Street NE to a station called District Line, where there was a loop for streetcars to turn around, at 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Maryland (today, it's a bus loop). From there, the line continued to Laurel, leaving a gap of twenty miles to the Elliott City terminus of the Baltimore streetcar line it had been intended to connect to.


34th Street Terminal: the short-turn loop at 34th St in Mt. Rainier still exists, and is used by several WMATA and Prince George's County bus routes. Photo by the author.

The Route 1 suburbs and the streetcar

Service on the line to Mt. Rainier began in 1897 and, by September 1900, the line—now called the City and Suburban—provided half-hourly service from Branchville Road (just north of what is now Greenbelt Road in College Park) along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue to the Treasury Building at 15th Street NW.

Several years later, a single-tracked line was extended to Laurel and served by an hourly shuttle. Shortly afterward, the line was merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Company, one of the District's two major streetcar systems, and became known as the "Maryland Line."

Rhode Island Avenue was extended north alongside the streetcar tracks to the Hyattsville rail station, located near the current county court building. North of Hyattsville, the streetcar stayed close to the railroad as it passed through what was still the Calvert family estate. From the line's entrance into what is now College Park to its northern terminus in Laurel, it again largely followed its own private right-of-way.

The residential developments that became Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Riverdale, and much of College Park were built along the Maryland Line while the areas around them remained farmland. Up until World War II, the streetcar line into DC was central to the sale of homes in these new communities.

Rise of the roads

The rise of the automobile, which began in the 1920's, changed the nature of the streetcar route and the communities along it.

US Route 1 was eventually switched from its original alignment along Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road to follow Rhode Island Avenue into the District, and the stretch of Baltimore Avenue south of this junction, which had been a major commercial strip in Hyattsville and Bladensburg, gradually decayed and became home to light industrial uses.

North of the junction with Baltimore Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue was not extended consistently along the streetcar tracks, but disconnected segments of residential streets alongside the track were built and took on the same name. In the last decade, College Park and Riverdale have constructed a multi-use trail along this right-of-way, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.

The never-popular shuttle to Laurel was terminated in 1925, resulting in the construction of Rhode Island Avenue as an arterial road in the former right-of-way from Branchville Road north into Beltsville. However, service from downtown to Branchville became Capital Transit's route 82 and continued until 1958, only four years before the end of streetcar service in Washington.

Links


National links: How the highways happened

The US highway system is around partly because of a road trip Dwight Eisenhower took right after WWI, and if our leaders don't invest in our transit infrastructure, we'll have to sit back and hope for the best until they change their minds. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called "Flow," which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they'll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city's multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It's an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they've always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that's coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that's better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

"Drive-ins shifted the film industry's focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl."

- Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Links


Worldwide links: London's less stinky

The engineer behind one of London's greatest architectural achievements deserves serious props, Beijing's residents aren't into the idea of driving down congestion through charging people to drive into the city, and in Italy, a work of art suggests a way to deal with rising sea levels. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Adrian Snood on Flickr.

An engineering hero: London's Thames Embankment changed the city forever by creating a sewer system to wisk away waste after the 1858's "Great Stink." The engineer responsible, Joseph Bazelgette, should be revered for this—and our noses and health should thank him. (London Lens)

Beijing blowback: Beijing has some of the worst traffic and air quality in the world. Some have proposed congestion pricing—charging people to drive when the most people are on the road—but many drivers have pushed back hard because they see mobility-by-car as a right. (The Economist)

Lake Floating: Christo's Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo in Italy connects small islands to the mainland. It is a beautiful piece of art, but also an opportunity to test pedestrian infrastructure in a world faced with climate change and sea level rise. (Gizmodo)

Portland streetcar expansion: Portland has completed the Tilikum Crossing, a bridge for bikes and walking but not cars, and it recently finished its streetcar loop. If the streetcar is going to grow, expansion will now need to go outwards along major commercial corridors. (Portland Oregonian)

Unconventional Blockage: Barricades are made from all types of materials. Traffic cones and caution tape can create informal, protective architecture, but they can become a form of art. While we typically see these barriers as symbols of authority, we might think of them differently if we saw them in a gallery. (Places Journal)

Quote of the Day

"Columbus's win allows a city in the Midwest—which is much more car-dependent in general than the coasts—to illustrate how auto-oriented places can develop a new blueprint for moving around a city." Mobility Lab's Paul Mackie on Columbus winning the Smart Cities Challenge, a planning contest whose first place award is $50 million. (Mobility Lab)

History


A streetcar used to run from H Street to Berwyn Heights, near College Park

Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas' best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950's and 1960's. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920's heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.


A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.

Land speculation helped birth the streetcar

The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890's as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.

In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.

Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George's County library system's Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.

An extension to Berwyn Heights

After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn't electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to "Edison-Beach" battery-powered cars.

The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.


58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It's now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.

In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington's two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.

The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running

In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.

Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.

Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC's unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city's major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.

Transit


Before going to Georgetown, the streetcar will go east to Benning Road

DC is studying ways to extend the streetcar west to Georgetown, but that's the second extension it will get. First is a project to lengthen it to Benning Road Metro, but questions remain about where tracks will go, overhead wires, and more.


All images from DDOT.

The Benning Road streetcar project is really two projects: The streetcar extension itself and an even larger project to replace the bridge that takes Benning Road over the Anacostia River and 295. There will be a public meeting on May 19th where you can learn more.

Going to Benning Metro rather than Minnesota Avenue (another possibility that DC initially studied) will serve more residential neighborhoods, draw investment to the commercial section of Benning Road, and be less duplicative of X2 bus service.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is pondering two options. One option would put streetcar tracks next to the curb. The other option is median tracks, similar to how the streetcar runs on Benning Road west of the river now.

Unfortunately, neither option includes dedicated lanes. But the streetcar will be faster than it is on H Street regardless, thanks to the absence of curbside parking gumming things up.


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with curb-running streetcar (Alternative 1).


Corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road with median-running streetcar (Alternative 2).

Overhead wires

As they are west of Union Station, overhead wires are a point of contention. Unlike there, however, no federal or local laws prohibit wires, and many utility wires are already above ground.

The current study contemplates either using wires or not. If DDOT goes to the trouble and expense of building hybrid wireless technology for downtown DC, theoretically it might not be that much more difficult to make Benning Road wireless too.

Benning Road isn't a major viewshed; if wireless streetcars have reliability problems or are more expensive than traditional wire-based ones, then trying to go wireless may be more of an impediment than they're worth.

Also, the Benning project will happen before the extension from Union Station to Georgetown does, and is already funded in the proposed budget, according to DDOT's Sam Zimbabwe. Therefore, DC may want to move forward with more proven and traditional technology in the meantime. But if it buys any new streetcars, as it will have to for this project, it ought to buy ones that can work with the wireless section.

Get involved

As plans take shape, advocates are gearing up to fight for the best alternatives. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association also is pushing for better bike accommmodations. WABA points out that the wide bridge (especially over the river, where it's 4 lanes each way) is very unfriendly to people biking, and wants a protected bikeway so people can safely and comfortably cross the river.

If you're interested in weighing in on the Benning study, attend the May 19 meeting, at 6:00 pm at 4058 Minnesota Avenue, NE or email info@benningproject.com.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


Now that it's open, 7 takeaways from the H Street streetcar

DC's H Street streetcar has been open two and a half months. With two extensions on the horizon, now is a good time to look back at what's worked and what hasn't. Here are seven takeaways from the streetcar's first season running.


Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

1. Dedicated lanes matter for reasons beyond congestion

Streetcars on H Street are too slow. Not nearly as slow as walking, but too slow nonetheless. But H Street isn't a particularly congested road compared to many in the region. Were it only for congestion, the streetcar should be faster than it is.

Parking is a big part of the problem. Streetcars are rarely seriously delayed due to actual lawbreaking double parkers, but have to slow to a crawl frequently for drivers legally pulling into or out of parking spaces.

Even when every car is parked correctly within its space and nobody seems to be coming or going, there's so little room between tracks and the parking lane that streetcar drivers have to poke along, for fear of driving into an opening door or for scraping a slightly wayward mirror. If the tracks were better separated from the parking, streetcars could move faster.

On Benning Road where the streetcar runs in the middle rather than along the outer curb, parking isn't a problem. There's still friction from turning cars, but it's not as bad.

2. Traffic signals need special attention

The biggest cause of delay on almost every streetcar trip I take is the 3rd Street traffic light. That's where the streetcar crosses over traffic to get from the curbside along H Street to a dedicated lane in the middle of Hopscotch Bridge.

Getting into that dedicated lane takes forever. The streetcar can't simply go with the green light because it's crossing over traffic. It needs a dedicated signal phase. But because of how the signals are timed, waiting for that phase can take forever.

DDOT is looking at changes to that light to help speed streetcars through. That's great. But signal priority for streetcars where they need it should be the rule, not the exception.

3. The streetcars are legitimately more comfortable than buses

The streetcars really are are comfortable, smooth, and quiet. Rumbling over broken asphalt in a crowded diesel bus is a loud, uncomfortable prospect. Not only are the streetcars noticeably smoother and quieter, but their spacious interiors rarely feel cramped, even when there are a lot of riders.

That matters. Not as much as basic operations, but it does matter. It draws riders and it helps make transit a nicer place to spend time.

4. The streetcars bunch way less than the X2

It could just be because the line is short, or maybe it's because DDOT does a fantastic job with headway scheduling. It could also be that although the streetcar is slow, it's fairly predictable.

Whatever the reason, I have yet to see streetcars bunched closely together.


Photo by Malcolm K. on Flickr.

5. Streetcar stops and bus stops would be better together

With both buses and streetcars on H Street, many riders would theoretically be happy to take whichever comes first. But streetcars and buses have different stops, usually a block apart. Depending on the location, riders sometimes have to commit to a stop before knowing which mode will arrive first.

Meanwhile, since bus stops and streetcar stops are staggered, buses and streetcars get in each others' way all the time, while one is at a stop and the other moving. Buses can go around, but obviously streetcars can't.

If they shared stops, long enough for both a bus and a streetcar to pull in at the same time, there'd be fewer delays and riders would have more freedom to choose their ride.

6. It's nice to have a stop on Hopscotch Bridge

The connection from the streetcar's Hopscotch Bridge stop to Union Station is hardly wonderful. But it is present, which is more than can be said for the X2. It makes connecting to longer distance transit easier on the streetcar.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

7. We need more trams

15 minutes headways aren't good enough, given the short length of the line, the slowness of the streetcars, and the frequency of the X2. Unfortunately, DDOT needs more railcars before they can increase the frequency, and getting those is not a quick process.

DDOT could add Sunday service, though. More riders use the streetcar on Saturdays than any other day. Meanwhile, the X2 runs least often on Sundays. There's clearly a niche for weekend streetcar.

Given the vehicle limitations, adding Sunday service might require cutting back some other day, either not running at all one weekday, or running for fewer hours on weeknights. It's probably worth it to try and see how things go.

What would you add?

Are you a regular streetcar rider? What would you add? What works, and what doesn't?

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

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