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Arlington can't forget what made it what it is

It's a truism in politics that if you repeat a statement often enough, people will believe it, regardless of whether it's true. In Arlington, a cohort of commentators and activists has been chanting that the County Board is full of profligate spenders. Now that claim has started to have currency in county politics, even though it's grounded in little at all.


Historic photo of Rosslyn via Arlington Fire Journal.

Fifty years ago, Arlington was an aging suburb that progress had passed by on the way to greener pastures in Fairfax County. Outdated retail strips, struggling businesses and a declining population portended a bleak future. State and federal planners saw Arlington mostly as space to be traversed between home and work, and they proposed cutting up its neighborhoods for commuter roads.

County residents and leaders did not respond to this challenge by spending as little as possible in the vain hope that doing so would attract people and economic growth. Instead, they campaigned to build an expensive Metrorail subway and put it under Wilson Boulevard, with the goal of transforming it from a tired suburban strip into a new downtown. They planned walkable centers with more housing, jobs and retail, plus new streets and sidewalks.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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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.

Transit


A streetcar is more space-efficient than individual cars. And we knew it 70 years ago.

Martin Austermuhle found this 1945 advertisement from DC's Capital Transit Company, the operator of the streetcars. It makes a familiar point:

Read enough about transit and you will almost surely come across a reference to this image, or a variant, from the planners in Münster, Germany. It shows the street space occupied by 60 people in cars, on bicycles, and on a bus.


Photo by the Münster planning office.

Clearly, this isn't a new argument. But it's taken a while for it to gain traction with many state, county, and city departments of transportation. In fact, DC (and many other cities) ultimately made the very tradeoff Capital Transit was hypothetically warning about: we did replace that streetcar with all those cars, to great harm.

Transit


The DC region has over 250 miles of planned light rail, streetcar, & BRT

What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.


Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Map by the author, using Google basemap.

This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery's BRT plan, and Fairfax's transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.

Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.

To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.

The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners' eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.

For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it's no higher than 4th down on the state's priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery's expansive BRT network fits in.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There's yet to be even a feasibility study for it.

Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it's all in place. Metro's original planners didn't know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can't predict the future with 100% accuracy either.

Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.

Holes in the network

With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.

That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.

Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George's ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.

But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let's build it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


Two Virginia candidates want a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. That is pointless and possibly destructive.

Two Virginia political candidates have called for a voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is a bad idea.


Photo by wagaboodlemum on Flickr.

Alan Howze, one of the two, is running for Arlington County Board in November's special election. He just lost in a relatively low-turnout special election against John Vihstadt, who made the streetcar one of his main issues. The other is Patrick Hope, one of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring US Representative Jim Moran.

But a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar is unecessary both practially and legally. It wouldn't change the status of the project in any material way and would just add extra time and expense to a process that has already been clear and democratic.

Debate is over for the streetcar

There is not much left to discuss about the relative merits of a streetcar versus its alternatives. In July 2012, the county board chose the streetcar after a thorough analysis of alternatives. This concluded a process that began in the 1980's and started considering transit options in 2004.

After the announcement, those who insisted that bus-only options could generate the same return for less cost challenged the decision. In response, the county commissioned another study by an independent firm. The results echoed the previous analysis that the streetcar is the best option for Columbia Pike.

When the facts are this clear, a prolonged campaign on the merits of a streetcar will not reveal anything new about the project. However, there would be plenty of opportunity for misinformation to spread widely and affect voters on election day.

This tactic doesn't make sense for streetcar supporters

It's understandable for opponents of a project to seek to delay implementation. They don't want to see something built and hope that a delay will give them more time to persuade people of their arguments or add time and expense to a project that will make it look worse than it is. We have seen this in DC, where delays to the zoning update have just added more time to a process and just watered down the changes more and more.

But a referendum that would just lengthen the process and muddy the waters doesn't make sense coming from project proponents like Howze or Delegate Hope. At best, the referendum would confirm the project is popular but delay the actual project. At worst, it would give ammunition to opponents and introduce further delays as political fights continue.

A referendum would also let opponents divert the argument away from facts. By just saying, "Let the voters decide," they would deflect any heat about false facts or mistruths they have spread about other options for the corridor.

Results would be meaningless anyway

In Virginia, a referendum is required when a local government wants to sell bonds. But neither Arlington nor Fairfax county plans to fund the streetcar with bonds. An "advisory" referendum would not have any material effect on the project. Opponents could have petitioned for a binding referendum, but if they thought they had the numbers for such a petition, they would have done it long ago.

Moreover, to hold any non-bond-related referendum, the counties would need permission from the General Assembly in Richmond. That means another layer of government to wade through for a local project that won't use any significant state funds.

Northern Virginia already has enough problems getting the state to give it control over specific regional issues. It doesn't make sense to punt this issue back to Richmond for something they never had to be involved with in the first place.

Is it just politics?

Supporters, including Howze himself, already argue that even if unpopular now, the streetcar will ultimately prove popular, as Metro and Capital Bikeshare, and other county transportation decisions are today. It's good that these candidates feel confident enough in the project that they think it can stand up to a direct electoral challenge. But there's no need to do so, the project is good, and the process has been clear.

So why hold a referendum? Hope might be seeking to stand out in a crowded field and perhaps draw some votes from streetcar opponents while remaining a supporter of the streetcar.

Howze seems to be trying to have it both ways on the streetcar: continue to appeal to voters who support it, but also give opponents less reason to work against his election. Howze started out his nomination campaign equivocating on the streetcar, and only later came out as a strong supporter.

Meanwhile, Vihstadt was able to bring together blocs of voters, often who opposed a particular county project. They were more motivated to turn out, especially in a special election. Howze may have a greater advantage in November when many voters might already be at the polls and would pick a Democrat purely based on party identification, but he also seems to be trying to hedge his bets by running to the middle on issues.

Instead, Howze, already on the defensive after losing last month's special election, should find ways to attract more pro-streetcar voters in the regular election in November. That would provide far more security for the project than trying to bet on its popularity via a referendum that ultimately wouldn't matter.

Roads


Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT

Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.


Fairfax County's proposed high quality transit network. Image from Fairfax County.

DC has its streetcar and moveDC plans, Arlington and Alexandria have streetcars and BRT, and Montgomery has its expansive BRT network, plus of course the Purple Line.

Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.

County planners are also looking at several other corridors, including Route 1, Route 7 (both east and west of Tysons), I-66, Route 28, and Gallows Road/Dolly Madison Boulevard.

Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.

In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.

As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.

Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Government


Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.


Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.

Process

Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Roads


No carmageddon at McMillan, says a study

Redeveloping DC's McMillan Sand Filtration site will not choke neighbor­hoods in new traffic as long as the District follows through on transit plans, says a transportation study from the project team.


McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

The most important element: better transit

The study says that it's quite possible to avoid burdening busy roads in the surrounding neighborhoods, as long as planned improvements to transit actually happen. The report says is transit is actually necessary regardless of whether the project goes forward or the site remains fenced off.

In the short run, improving the Metrobus 80 bus line on North Capitol Street, which WMATA has already designated a "bus priority corridor," will help the most. Other bus lines also need improvements that previous studies have identified.

The report also calls for building the proposed streetcar line along Michigan Avenue from Woodley Park to Brookland Metro. If these projects get delayed, he report recommends coordinated shuttles to the Brookland Metro station.

Along with some tweaks to surrounding roads, the traffic will be no worse with the McMillan project than if nothing gets built.

The report also calls for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including completing the street grid through McMillan, multiple pedestrian access points in each building, ample bicycle storage, and space for three Capital Bikeshare stations.


Top: Transit today around McMillan. Bottom: Proposed transit. Images from the report (p. 92 and 97).

Pitfalls remain

While the study demonstrates the redevelopment can move forward without burdensome traffic impacts, it also points to potential problems that the project team will need to take care to address.

There needs to be ongoing pressure on the city and DDOT to move forward on transit. The city has moved slowly to upgrade transportation elsewhere, so project partners need to keep a close eye on progress.

Walking and bicycling conditions on and off the site also need more attention. Busy driveways on Michigan Avenue pose potential new conflict points for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the city reviews this project, it should take every chance to improve access and safety in the area. Also, while it's great to leave space for three Capital Bikeshare stations, the development should pay for at least one.

The transportation plan specifically cites a proposed DC Circulator route from Brookland to Tenleytown, which covers the same ground as the current H buses. Instead of duplicating existing service, DC and Metro could work together to improve existing H bus service. In fact, Metro recently studied the H lines and made several recommendations to make service faster and more reliable through the area.

New traffic signals will help pedestrians and bicyclists, but the added turn lanes and driveways on Michigan Avenue and First Street NW could pose additional barriers and hazards.

The report also recommends incentives to reduce driving, lower vehicle parking ratios, and encourage transit use in later phases. Instead, these efforts should start now.

With a redevelopment as large and controversial as McMillan, it's important to push for the right policy decisions. To voice your support for the right policy decisions regarding the McMillan redevelopment, head over to the Coalition for Smarter Growth to sign up to speak at an upcoming hearing.

Transit


Here are the busiest bus stops on 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue

The map shows where riders are going on Metro's busy 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue lines, plus a couple of smaller routes in the same part of town.

Every circle on this map is one bus stop. The larger the circle, the more riders get on or off at that stop.


Map from DDOT.

It's a fascinating look at transit ridership patterns in DC's densest corridor. And it correlates strongly with land use.

Georgia Avenue is a mixed-use commercial main street for its entire length. Thus, riders are relatively evenly distributed north-to-south.

16th Street, on the other hand, is lined with lower density residential neighborhoods north of Piney Branch, but is denser than Georgia Avenue south of there. It's not surprising then that 16th Street's riders are clustered more heavily to the south.

14th Street looks like a hybrid between the two, with big ridership peaks south of Piney Branch but also more riders further north of Columbia Heights. 14th Street also has what appears to be the biggest single cluster, Columbia Heights itself.

DDOT produced this map as part of its North-South Corridor streetcar planning. It's easy to see why DDOT's streetcar plans are focusing on 14th Street to the south and Georgia Avenue to the north.

Likewise, this illustrates how a 16th Street bus lane south of Piney Branch could be particularly useful.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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