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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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  • Ryan

    Regarding the debate over whether BRT can be “permanent enough” to stimulate development, I think it’s important to think of it as a continuum based on the amount of infrastructure investment. What I mean is that one of the main reasons that BRT is cheaper to construct per mile than LRT is because of the minimal physical infrastructure usually invested. This has long been the main reason why BRT has a very poor history stimulating infill/TOD. It’s not impossible, but the only chance BRT has at inducing infill/TOD anywhere near the scale that LRT can is to invest heavily in physical infrastructure along the BRT corridor(s). The more infrastructure, the more permanent BRT becomes, the more likely it is for BRT to induce development.

    HOWEVER, it usually doesn’t make sense to invest in that much physical infrastructure for BRT because once the capital cost for BRT approaches the cost of LRT per mile, LRT is almost always the clear choice because of its stronger/sexier image, proven ability to attract choice riders at a high rate, better comfort, less noise, less environmental impacts, proven ability to stimulate development, etc.

    In the case of Anacostia, I think streetcar is definitely the right choice because it is kind of the best of both worlds – most of the benefits of full LRT with a price tab much closer to BRT. It’s the strong image and permanence of the DC Streetcar that will really benefit the Anacostia community. From there it’s up to the city to properly plan/zone to ensure that extreme gentrification doesn’t make the streetcar too successful at changing the community (always the trickiest part).

  • Buses quiet? In what universe?
    Try riding the orange line from end to end during rush hour then talk to me about BRT being a viable alternative to the automobile. Comparing it to light-rail is laughable.

    BRT is a great alternative for corridors that dont have the capacity for rail transit but in Washington’s case as with the orange line, it makes no economic sense to run busses as frequently as every 3 minutes with capacities of only 120 passengers each (sometimes two busses consecutively) when you have union workers maning every bus receiving crazy wages. (hint: I’m not for de-unionizing Metro) How many passengers can a light rail train with 3 cars carry? and thats while maned by only ONE conductor. uuuuuum… yea..

    Buses will NEVER be as comfortable a rail car no matter how extremely advanced the suspension is. I’m a choice rider and a huge proponent for expansion of the metro system but and have stopped using the orange line because every time I use it I have to stand because buses are at capacity at least 85% of the time….. morning, noon & afternoon.

    Taking into account comfort, speed, all costs of maintenance and repair to every bus used, the cost of the busses, the cost of paying union workers to operate the buses(wages payed per passenger moved compared to rail), the risk of a human-being operating a vessel that can vier off if said operatior fails, the costs from injuries of accident from distracted or ill driver or people who may fall because of sudden or jerky braking and accelerating, the inconvenience of not knowing when the next bus is coming leading to discouraged choice riders, emissions, & the reality that busses are LOUD (diesel, CNG or fossil fuel) if you dont agree get your ears checked. I’d say in the long term the economic impact on the tax payer, rider & the environment around the BRT line (noise, traffic, blight etc) is WAY worse than rail.

    I say this as a disappointed FORMER rider of a largely glorified BRT line (orange line) and as a proponent of REAL rapid transit alternatives. I’ll say what I’ve said before. Metro’s orange line is great for short distance rides like going from points of interest (warner center, valley college, Van Nuys, north hollywood) to 2 or 3 miles out but anything more than that makes no sense to me. Let me tell you its not that I’m against buses because they are great as feeder lines to rapid transit rail lines and for small suburban cities like Simi Valley (neighboring LA Town just outside of LA county). If BRT truly worked in these cases I’d be all for it. But (ehem) it doesn’t, so Im not. BRT is a cheap fix…. its like fixing a broken window with scotch tape… It’ll hold for a little while but eventually fall apart.

    one last thing, a lot of bus drivers are extremely rude.

  • Scott Mercer

    Agree with Daniel.

    BRT is a longer distance travel mode. This shares more in common with light rail, rather than true streetcars.

    True streetcars consist of one car. Light rail consists of trains of cars.

    Shuttle buses can’t compete with BRT, even if the shuttle bus shares some BRT features, such as TVMs, boarding at “stations” and reserved lanes.

  • Daniel Jacobsson, your point is very well taken. The comparisson betwereen streetcars and rubber based circulators should be made.

    Now, the ample definition of BRT in the US (see and other countries like France (see BHLS,95- ) includes buses on shared road -like the Metrorapid in Los Angeles and the Select Service in New York. The point is to make bus services better than normal local bus through ammenities that may include reserved right of way -of course preferred. BRT may not be limited to light rail transit like services. Tranist priority, nice stations, information systems, better buses and distinctive image, are part of the package.

    And I think that to foster development you need the accompaning policies, no matter if you have a heavy rail Metro, LRT, BRT, Streetcars or a rubber tired circulator.

    Finally, I think that it is sad, and very innefective, to have a streetcar with 50 or 100 people inside stuck behind a queue of 5 cars with 5 people and moving at 8 mph. So I favor dedicated lanes. Same for a rubber tired circulator.

    Thanks a lot for your comment.

  • While I agree with your first two points, your assumption that streetcars and BRT share the same transportation niche is flawed.

    BRT is analogous to modern light rail systems–lines of 5-15 miles which stop about every 1/2 mile and travel at moderate speeds in dedicated ROW. Streetcars are analogous to local buses and shuttles–lines of 2-4 miles that stop every few blocks and travel at slower speeds in shared ROW. It is difficult to find examples of a shuttle/local bus that has helped to stimulate investment without considerable additional improvements (like those on the 16th St. Transit Mall). Moreover, one of the biggest advantages of streetcars is their minimal construction impacts and ability to fit into streetscapes that cannot be completely redesigned. Your argument that cities must evaluate each alternative to arrive at the most beneficial and cost-effective solution is correct; however, the choice is seldom BRT vs. streetcar, but local bus/shuttle vs. streetcar instead.