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The Case for Streetcars

DDOT hosted the "streetcar showcase" in Washington, D.C., building public anticipation for the planned streetcar network. Photo by DDOT.

Almost 50 years ago, streetcars in Washington, D.C. stopped running and most of their tracks were removed. Now they’re back and ready for a revival, with parts of the first two lines slated to open next spring. In this post, we talk to Dan Tangherlini, the former DDOT director under Mayor Anthony Williams, who committed to building one of the first two lines, about why streetcars matter for the nation’s capital.


The streetcars were conceived in 1997, when Mayor Marion Barry’s Department of Public Works published “A Transportation Vision, Strategy, and Action Plan for the Nation’s Capital.” The plan called for circulator buses and streetcars to connect existing Metrobus and Metrorail lines and activity centers close to the city’s core.  Planners think these additional connections are important since current rail lines connect neighborhoods to the city center but not necessarily to each other; this sometimes makes travel between neighborhoods and activity centers on different transit lines difficult, despite the 106 miles of Metrorail track and 319 Metrobus routes that exist today.  Plus, as one presentation of the city’s transportation department puts it, overcrowding on Metrorail will be “unmanageable by 2013” and several Metrobus lines are already over capacity.

The first Circulator bus route began operation in 2005.  The red buses, with their large windows, 10-minute headways, and easy-to-understand routes connecting bustling neighborhoods, became increasingly popular and today there are six routes near the city’s center.  When the streetcar network is complete – sometime after 2016 – it will span 37 miles over eight lines (see map below) and will connect to the Circulator routes.  The streetcars will run on above-ground, electric-powered rails; some streetcars will share lanes with traffic while others will run in lanes for streetcars only.  Like the Circulator buses, the streetcars will have sleek red exteriors with large windows and doors at curb-height.  And they too will connect activity centers both downtown and in city neighborhoods and have headways of 10-15 minutes.

Photo via DDOT.

The new streetcar network will connect with other public transit lines. Photo by DDOT via ReadySetDC.


The streetcars will be branded similarly to the existing Circulator buses to form one integrated network. Photo by DDOT.


Metrobus lines already run on at least part of all of the proposed streetcar routes, for example, the “70s” line on Georgia Avenue, the “X” line on H Street and Benning Road, and the “A” line on Martin Luther King Avenue.  So why install streetcars, which require track installation, overhead wires, and power substations?  Why not upgrade the buses that already run on these corridors, instead, by replacing older buses with new ones, running more buses, decreasing headways, and in some cases, creating bus-only lanes?  After all, buses don’t need expensive additional infrastructure like tracks and can be easily rerouted as the city grows and development patterns change.

I posed these questions to Dan Tangherlini, the former DDOT director under Mayor Anthony Williams who committed the city to building the H Street and Benning Road streetcar line in Northeast D.C., which will be one of the first two lines to open next spring.  He has also served as the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority’s  (WMATA) general manager and was the city administrator under former Mayor Adrian Fenty.

So why streetcars?  Here’s what Tangherlini had to say:

Economic Development. Tangherlini says that one advantage streetcars have over buses is that the tracks “give a sense of permanence, and that encourages long-term investment.”  Portland, Ore., which started operating North America’s first modern streetcar system in 2001, can attest to that.  A 2008 study by the city says that since streetcar plans were unveiled in 1997, “$3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of the streetcar alignment.”  The study lists “grocery stores, restaurants, galleries, shops and banks” as amenities that have been built near the streetcar lines.

Of course, bus rapid transit (BRT) routes have also encouraged development in places like Curitiba, Brazil.  But Tangherlini says BRT is most useful when you have stops separated by large distances, like on lines that bring commuters downtown from the suburbs.  The goal of the streetcars, though, is to transport people between activity centers in the city.

Tangherlini emphasizes that economic development isn’t merely a by-product of streetcar lines but, at least in D.C., part of the point of building the streetcar.  He says when DDOT was planning the streetcar routes, it first mapped out current and future development, things like office buildings, shops and housing.  The city is intentionally using streetcars to connect established activity centers, like Union Station, with emerging ones, like H Street in Northeast, which isn’t connected to a Metrorail line but is trying to sustain new businesses and attract more visitors.  Transportation isn’t just for getting around, “it’s for making places for people to go,” says Tangherlini.

Increased Capacity. The X1, X2, and X3 Metrobus lines, which run along H Street and Benning Road NE, are 34 percent over capacity, and many other bus routes have similar crowding issues (the District of Columbia Alternatives Analysis (DCAA) has a list of overcrowded routes).  Tangherlini says adding streetcars can help alleviate overcrowding.  He estimates that a typical Circulator bus holds 50-60 people, while the streetcars will hold around 100.  More than 95 percent of Metrobuses hold between 26 and 78 people and less than 5% hold 100 passengers.

It’s Not A Zero-Sum Game. “With each new level of transit, the assumption is that the older ones will disappear; that’s not true,” says Tangherlini.  He says at public meetings, bus riders were wary of the streetcars because they thought bus service would disappear.  But all along the plan was to have the streetcars and buses form an integrated network, with streetcars at the network core and Circulator and Metrobus lines radiating out from there.  That’s one reason that the Circulator buses and the streetcars are both painted bright red; they form a continuous network. Buses that already run on proposed streetcar corridors will keep running, too.  And in some cases bus service on those corridors will even increase.  Metro recently announced, for example, that they added another bus route, the X9, to H Street and Benning Road.  The streetcar will simply be one more transit option along these corridors.

You Know Where It’s Going. “Rails have a good psychological effect,” says Tangherlini, “because you know where it’s going.”  And, according to a 2003 WMATA survey of non-bus riders, this is a big deal: 30 percent of the survey respondents said that “better information about the services offered” was one of the most important improvements WMATA could make to its bus service.  It’s likely that anyone who’s been on a bus that took an unexpected turn would agree.

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  • Streetcars are a nobrainer for DC. Just look at San Fran as the model for how DC can combine streetcars, buses, the rail and other foot friendly transportation options. When I went to SF as a tourist, I was elated at how easy and affordable it was to get from the Mission to Oakland to Little Japan and even bike around those big hills.

    This streetcar map makes DC more connected. Southeast and Northeast have been ignore for far too long and need more variety in public transportation options.

    The streetcars will make DC a more interesting, vibrant and economically self-sustainable city!

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  • Michael

    The capacity claims are really misleading. The streetcars purchased by DC have 30 seats, with DOT claiming a capacity of over 138 passengers. A Metrobus, on the other hand, averages 40 seats with an average capacity of about 48. With the bus, at the target peak capacity, 83% of the passengers are seated, while with the streetcar, approximately 22% of the passengers are seated, and most of the remaining streetcar passengers are standing in a very crowded central area. If two to three buses (for a capacity of 96 to 144) were run for each streetcar (capacity of 138), we would have 80 to 120 seats compared with the 30 seats on the streetcar, and we would have more frequent service.

  • Andrew

    I am curious as to where Dave Cheeney received information that residents in NW DC, specifically Ward 3, are opposed to improved transit options.

    There is a Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition (see the Facebook Page) which has been advocating for an extension of the Benning Road line (or some other alternative) up Wisconsin Avenue to connect Glover Park, Cleveland Park, Tenleytown and Friendship Heights to the system.

    There are many residents, and students at UDC etc. who would be thrilled to see the return of a Connecticut Avenue line. Chevy Chase was essentially created as a streetcar suburb, and the development patterns along Connecticut Avenue were centered around the L line. It shouldn’t seem difficult to extend the Calvert line, or better yet, simply remake the line from Dupont Circle to Chevy Chase Circle. Such a line could eventually be extended to intersect with the Purple Line in Chevy Chase Lake and even up to Kensington and/or Wheaton.

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  • davecheeney

    >>Redline “Anyone else notice the NW is completely ignored in the streetcar plan? >>Anyone have any ideas why?”

    I was part of a engineering team doing the alternatives analysis last year:

    1. Very little support in NW for new transit, especially if it were to tear up existing roads and cause delays during construction;
    2. Streetcars are seen as an economic development engine and the NW was not a redevelopment focus of the Mayor;
    3. The area is well served by Metro for the prevailing north-south commuting patterns.

    I’m sure there were other reasons, but you get the gist.


  • Eric


  • Bloomingdale

    Red Line SOS – I would say close to half of the lines are in NW. Take a closer look at the map.

  • Redline SOS

    Anyone else notice the NW is completely ignored in the streetcar plan? Anyone have any ideas why?

  • Dennis Tisdale

    The streetcar investment is a wise choice. They have more capacity and longer distence between stops makes them a good choice. Also, the busses will continue to run with the normal distance between bus stops (shorter). The main opponents of electric powered public transportation are the foreign governments that looy our governments to keep out energy policy status quo at the detriment of all Americans. We all must think of America first.

  • Harry M

    Great article. Very informative.

    I have always been enchanted by streetcars and envied other cities and time periods that have/had them. However, I also wondered about the economics and business sense in reviving them in DC.

    This article, thankfully, has put to rest any minor doubts and helped me realize that one of my (hitherto unknown) reasons to be attracted to this mode of human conveyance is the sense of direction you get from seeing the physical tracks and distinctive streetcars. I am very directionally challenged, and even after living in the city for most of my adult life, I know and understand but a few of the many bus routes. The circulators have been great, but I expect the trams to be even better.

    Thanks again for this piece. Now I am really looking forward to having streetcars in my life! And I am glad I have a different reason to articulate other than they are sexy!

  • Amy

    Ummmm, Why can’t we just add more buses instead? Some reason we can’t ask the bus drivers where the bus is going?

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