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Why Streetcars? Evaluating the Alternatives
Photo by Stephen Rees.

Do we need to think twice about restoring D.C.'s streetcar network? Photo by Stephen Rees.

In a recent post on TheCityFix, Dan Tangherlini, the former director of the District Department of Transportation under Mayor Anthony Williams, makes the case for streetcars in Washington, D.C.  I would like to bring some additional points to the discussion.

For a city like D.C., with a huge budget shortfall and a Metro system with long overdue maintenance, great operational difficulties and a soaring deficit, the proposition of a streetcar network deserves, at least, a second look.  Paraphrasing Prof. David Hensher from the University of Sydney, this looks like “continuing the saga on blind commitment vs. choice.”

Tangherlini’s desire, as evidenced in his interview, is to have streetcars create a sense of place and permanence, induce development in areas of D.C. that are in need of economic development, as well as provide higher capacity and reduce emissions. These are common perceptions about the benefits of streetcars, and also good ideas, in general, for public transportation. But the attractive and expensive proposition of streetcars on D.C. streets needs to be evaluated against its alternatives.

Let’s review some of the assumptions:

Capacity: This is truly an issue to consider on some of D.C.’s more crowded bus routes, but how about using larger buses?  The hybrid and compressed natural gas (CNG) articulated buses that Metro currently operates on its busiest routes have a total capacity of up to 100 people. Typically, high-floor articulated buses, which can measure 60 feet long, can carry as many as 120 passengers.

Emissions: Modern buses emit extremely little local and greenhouse gas pollution. They are also extremely quiet, attractive and passenger friendly.  Moreover, their capacity is close to that of the streetcars the District purchased from the Czech Republic—all at one-third of the cost.  A World Resources Institute analysis of another high-profile Washington-area project, the Purple Line, shows that a rubber tired system would produce fewer GHG emissions than light rail.

Permanence: A bus rapid transit (BRT) system would create an equal sense of permanence as a streetcar network because of its quiet, distinct and attractive low emissions vehicles, not to mention signage,  pavement materials and markings that delineate its routing. If streetcars are so permanent, why did they disappear from the streets of D.C. and other U.S. cities?  Historically, streetcars were seen to be slower, more accident-prone and less reliable than other modes of transport; customers didn’t like them. Streetcars were also significantly more costly to buy, build and operate than their rubber tired equivalents. This caused endless financial difficulties to the private firms that had franchises to operate them, as fares were essentially fixed. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a conspiracy by General Motors or Goodyear that took them out of the U.S. market (and most other cities around the world, including my hometown, Bogotá, Colombia, in 1952.)

Economic Development Potential: As for the economic development potential of rubber-tired circulator systems, one doesn’t have to go to Curitiba, Brazil to see it.  The success of the Euclid BRT Line in Cleveland, Ohio, for example, was due to connecting two parts of the city’s central business district, not just by accommodating long suburban trips—a development that is credited to restoring the city’s former streetcar avenue to economic health. It took a good BRT project with streetcar-like station spacing, a dedicated transitway with architect-designed stations, significant “arts in transit” and landscaping expenditures, in addition to hybrid articulated specialized vehicles, at a fraction of the cost of what a streetcar or light rail line would have cost—money that Cleveland simply didn’t have (and the District doesn’t have, as well.)

It also took the same type of other supportive public policies that were key ingredients for the Portland Streetcar system, as in tax abatements, subsidized land, direct investment in public facilities and streetscapes. One can also see similar public policies at work on H Street in D.C., and Columbia Pike in Arlington, Va., far in advance of the operational launch of streetcar lines in either place.

If you look at the U.S., you can see the example of the Denver 16th Street Mall.  The catalyst for restoring health to its central business district in the late ’70s was a rubber tired, hybrid bus circulator, not the streetcar and light rail systems that came much later.

The bottom line is that if money matters, one must look at alternatives planned with a complete set of objectives in mind, then objectively and transparently evaluate them before a decision is made on an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, plus additional operating subsidies.  We just need to follow Dr. Hensher’s simple and powerful message: “distance our thinking from an obsession with technology and move to study needs as a starting point of inquiry. Do not ask if light rail is feasible, but ask who the stakeholders are and proceed to investigate how they may best be served.”

No matter what, investments in public transport—whether for bus, rail or bike—bring very large positive impacts to the community. That said, it is important to analyze the alternatives and implement the kind of system that will give the best bang for the buck.

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