On Tuesday, DC’s city council passed a tax reform package that will cut funding for future streetcar construction. These cuts come as the H Street streetcar delays continue to mount, and much of the commentary supporting the streetcar has shifted from touting its transportation benefits to its economic development role. As Stephen has explained, the benefits of streetcar over bus depend heavily on streetcars having dedicated lanes, which most of DC’s streetcars wouldn’t have.
Earlier this spring, I was in a bike accident that cemented my opposition to DC’s streetcar. Because the streetcar tracks cover the right two-thirds of H Street’s right-hand lanes, bicyclists typically ride between the two tracks. This creates a situation in which the sudden need to swerve or a brief loss of concentration puts cyclists at a risk of catching their front tire in the track, causing an over-the-handlebars accident when the front wheel comes to a sudden stop. In Toronto, streetcar tracks are a factor in nearly one-third of serious bicycle accidents. While I can say I’ll now go to great lengths to avoid riding on H Street, DC’s lack of good east-west bike routes make it unrealistic to expect all cyclists to avoid the streetcar tracks. Avoiding tracks will be much more difficult for cyclists under DDOT’s plan to eventually construct 22 miles of tracks.
Aside from creating a hazard for cyclists, this streetcar will only provide effective transportation for people visiting H Street retail destinations from the adjacent residential neighborhoods. It does not connect residential neighborhoods to job centers. While some have argued that it’s designed to serve tourists rather than District residents, the streetcar line doesn’t pass by any sightseeing, I don’t think that H Street’s retail is a common destination for tourists. Passengers using the streetcar to travel east from Union Station have to navigate a large parking garage to board the streetcar in the middle of a pedestrian-hostile overpass.
Its poorly planned route will, however, cause delays for bus riders and drivers as the streetcar comes to a stop behind cars turning right, cars that don’t park close enough to the curb, or inevitable breakdowns. The H Street corridor has the one of the city’s busiest bus routes with an average of over 15,000 riders each weekday. Unlike the streetcar, the X1, X2, and X9 buses actually connect residential neighborhood’s to job centers and they serve passengers who live farther east in Anacostia. The streetcar will reduce the effectiveness of these valuable routes by adding to delays and reducing frequency as a result.
While streetcar construction has coincided with rapid-fire gentrification on the H Street corridor, those who attribute these changes to the streetcar’s presence discount other policies and trends that happened simultaneously. In 2006, then mayor Fenty implemented the Great Streets Initiative, a grant program that provides up to $85,000 to small businesses businesses renovating space on corridors designated for the program. H Street was the first corridor designated as part of the Great Streets Initiative and the only corridor eligible for small business grants until 2013 when the program was expanded to include several additional corridors. Hstreet.org explains:
DMPED [Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] received an initial capital authorization of $16.6 million to provide development assistance, multiple property owner grants, technical assistance, loans and credit enhancements to projects like those happening on H Street. DC Council also authorized DMPED to issue up to $95 million in tax increment finance (“TIF”) notes or bonds to support retail projects within six retail priority areas along the initial GSI corridors. Up to $25 million out of the $95 million was authorized on H Street NE.
Staff at DMPED were not able to provide data on grant recipients before 2012, but for 2012 to the present, they provided data for each grant issued. Since 2012, H Street businesses have received nearly $2 million in grants for facade improvements and renovations. This is about a third of all of the grant money that the program has awarded in that time period. It’s clear that between 2006 and 2012 H Street businesses received millions of economic development spending, including a $5 million subsidy for Giant supermarket. These grants factored into dozens of entrepreneurs’ decisions to open businesses on the H Street corridor rather than another neighborhood in the city.
Furthermore, the pattern of redevelopment in the Atlas District suggests that these grants may have played a more important role than the streetcar. Typically, neighborhoods experience residential gentrification first, and the commercial gentrification bringing new shops and restaurants follows. As developers sometimes say, “retail follows rooftops.” However, the Atlas District experienced the reverse order. The bars and restaurants on H Street didn’t spring up to serve a new affluent neighborhood population or people moving to live near the streetcar line; rather a dedicated shuttle bus from Chinatown brought bar patrons from other neighborhoods in the city out to H Street for the first years that new bars were opened their doors on the corridor. In the 20002 zip code, home values held fairly steady from 2009 to 2012, indicating that demand for residential property didn’t surge until well after the commercial corridor began to gentrify. Home values in this zip code closely follow the city’s trend from 2005 to the present, whereas other zip codes, like 20009, show home price spikes that can more likely be attributed to a change in the neighborhood’s desirability, rather than the city’s general growth.
Of course, H Street’s gentrification is far from an objective policy success. The Great Streets Initiative grants that encouraged building renovations were tailored to benefit new businesses coming to the neighborhood, rather than existing businesses that served long-time residents. But even given the questionable policy goal of gentrification, it’s unclear that the streetcar can take credit for economic development. The streetcar will make commuting more difficult for X bus riders, and if tourists want to take the streetcar, they’ll have a difficult time reaching its western terminus from Union Station. Still not carrying passengers five years after construction began, the streetcar is a very expensive bike trap.
Nope saysJune 26, 2014 at 11:34 am
You are an idiot. It’s not even worth refuting this point by point. Try following safety guidelines next time.
Daniel saysJune 26, 2014 at 2:51 pm
Sorry for your bike accident! For cyclists reading this: there are bike lanes one block north and one block south of the H Street corridor (of G & I). G has dedicated East and West lanes and considerably less car traffic.
Plan your route before you ride!
BBnet3000 saysJune 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm
While I do this myself and understand that it helps, the need to “plan your route before your ride” really illustrates the problems with cycling in the US.
Do you think Dutch people have to do this?
guest2 saysJune 27, 2014 at 9:58 am
There’s not a ton of sharing the road in the Netherlands though, since they have such a huge network of separated bike lanes. There are places in all cities where vehicles shouldn’t be in bike spaces and bikes shouldn’t be in motorized vehicle spaces. We as bicyclists are not entitled to every inch of pavement in DC, just like cars aren’t entitled to our bike lanes. There are many better options nearby with slower car traffic and faster, safer bike connections.
EDG saysJune 27, 2014 at 3:54 pm
How are modern streetcars slower than buses?
Philamazoo saysJune 27, 2014 at 5:20 pm
Streetcars can accelerate and brake and board and unload faster than a bus. But, on average, the cannot operate as fast as a bus when operating in mixed traffic. As the author points out, simply being unable to steer around obstacles like stopped delivery trucks, cars entering and leaving parallel parking spaces, cars that are double parked or parked too close to the “dynamic envelope” of the streetcar, and so forth makes them slower. Buses can simply go around obstacles.
Here in Philadelphia, there are still “legacy” streetcar routes (the current Green Line trolleys). But many other former streetcar routes are long gone, replaced by buses. Route 23 is one of the cities longest and busiest bus routes that used to be a streetcar. In South Philadelphia, 12th Street is a narrow residential street with a single through lane, cars parked on both sides. Streetcars were routinely delayed by the blockage of 12th Street. Buses can simply divert a couple blocks over when necessary, particularly during the winter months when the heating oil trucks are making their deliveries. Yet there is a vocal minority who want to bring back the 23 trolley, even though it will be slower and less convenient than the bus.
Streetcars are one of the later urban planning fads in America. Portland’s Streetcar, according to its own operator, is designed specifically to increase peoples’ walking range in the downtown area. It’s not designed to decrease car congestion. It did help spur the growth of the Pearl District. Similar Modern Streetcar projects have either been built or are in the planning and construction phases in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and of course, Washington, DC. It’s important to distinguish between what streetcars can and can’t do. They can:
-Give politicians opportunities for relatively cheap ribbon-cuttings and allow them to grandstand disingenuously about reshaping transportation and the built environment, or even about reducing congestion
-Increase the walking footprint of a city center or other walkable district. The Pearl is now part of central Portland; the Atlas District will inevitably be folded into the greater Capitol Hill/Downtown Washington mix. Same thing is going to happen in Over the Rhine Cincinnati, parts of Downtown Atlanta, and elsewhere.
-Give developers piece of mind to invest in urban lifestyle projects (mixed use apartments, condos, and shops in ‘up and coming’ neighborhoods next to downtowns) through the “permanence” of the streetcar
-reshape a region’s transportation system
-reduce traffic congestion
-be the fastest or most efficient means of transport from point a to point b
Streetcars are cheaper than region-wide rail transit systems, they look neat, and tend to run through gentrifying parts of town. Regional transportation systems that actually shape the built environment of more than one neighborhood and influence how people across the region get around are much more difficult to build. It would take a political sea change to ever build a system as comprehensive and regional in scope as the Washington Metrorail system again, at least in an American city. I doubt I’ll see another come on line in my lifetime.
vroomen saysJune 27, 2014 at 8:14 pm
So you’re griping because you were dumb enough to ride into the streetcar tracks while there are dedicated lanes a block north and south? There are actually some smart things you’ve said in the article, but you sure don’t sound real smart, or at least like you know how to ride a bike properly.
Hypreni saysJune 30, 2014 at 8:06 am
I’m currently living in a small city in Germany that only has street cars and buses for public transportation. I have also experienced the joy of being flung off my bike by street car tracks, my sympathies, it is pretty scary! Even here I can see how the inflexibility of street cars makes them ultimately inefficient, even with dedicated lanes: after the local team won a particularly important soccer game, the street cars on the most important road were held in place for several hours because of rowdy fans throwing bottles and setting off fireworks in the street. A bus could have just avoided the crowds. I always think of street cars as combining the inflexibility and cost of trains with the traffic fickleness of buses.
I also wanted to say, Emily, that your writing has really improved since you started contributing to this blog. Keep up the great work!
DC Native saysJune 30, 2014 at 9:46 am
“In the 20002 zip code,home values held fairly steady from 2009 to 2012, indicating that demand for residential property didn’t surge until well after the commercial corridor began to gentrify.” Your analysis of the 20002 zip code pricing arc relies much too heavily on H st. There are so many other factors that contributed to the 20002 zip code pricing arc including the NoMA metro stop and NoMa BID, the relocation of numerous government agencies and companies, Capitol Hill, and the Stadium. Simply put, it is much to large of and area and too many other factors happened before 2009 to be able to develop a neat and tidy analysis such as yours.
alexfrancisburchard saysJuly 2, 2014 at 3:55 am
Uh, I have to plan my route when I drive, walk, take a train, or take a bike, how is this such a big deal?
BBnet3000 saysJuly 2, 2014 at 6:53 am
Are you a stranger in a strange land? Maybe im just used to grids, but ive never had to plan a walking route before leaving my apartment/work on a walking trip. Every street has a sidewalk.
Miles Bader saysJuly 4, 2014 at 12:29 am
Indeed, walking and bicycling (and driving) tend to be far more “exploratory” (even in non-grid cities) in many cases: because the cost of an error is reasonably low, and the ease of incrementally correcting one’s route is high, it’s not really necessary to do more than vague planning in many cases, you can just take off in the right direction and refine your route along the way. If you have tight time constraints, planning ahead can help, but it’s rarely really necessary.
In a city with a good train system (high frequency, dense coverage), doing a similar thing with trains works out OK in many cases too, though the cost is higher than for walking/bicycling. I live in Tokyo and very often set off for a destination I don’t really know the way to by just taking a train I know goes in roughly the right direction and figuring out what to do along the way….
Cleveland Streetcar saysJuly 5, 2014 at 1:49 pm
never mind the massive tram/streetcar networks cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have, and their large population of people on bikes. somehow they seem to be able to coexsit.
I am confused to the point of this article.
gotohell saysJuly 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm
maybe you cyclists shouldn’t put it all on propagandistic outlets like Greater Greater Washington. i had Mayor Gray’s people telling me the Street Car was utter nonsense, but you never seemed to get enough out of snarking on him. where’s the snark on say.. oh, i dunno, Tommy Wells? white corruption is just A.O.K.
wgp2 saysJuly 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm
I’m not sure if this post was supposed to be a reasoned policy position against streetcar expansion in DC or just disguised as such for the author to complain about having to ride over streetcar tracks and highlight a lack of bike handling skills. “I fell on my bike swerving into a track. Therefore, streetcar expansion is worse than nothing.”
I think it’s the latter. If one was to complain about transit congestion in DC and how street car expansion adds to that then maybe the author should make a case for DC instituting a congestion charge. Having lived and worked in and around the DC metro area from 2001 to 2009, and having commuted by bike, I’d say streetcars & their tracks should be the least of the author’s worries. Inattentive and aggressive drivers would be the number one concern for a bicycle commuter, then pedestrians who are unaware of their surroundings.
Really this post is a loosely reasoned argument against street car development and expansion in DC. But if one of the complaints is that its development is taking too long, then perhaps an article on the planned expansion of the metro would have been time better spent.
MarketUrbanism saysJuly 11, 2014 at 6:14 pm
I’ll think you’ll find plenty of posts advocating congestion charges on this website. I’m glad Emily added this more nuanced argument, rather than our usual drumbeat dismaying how the roads are underpriced….
Fra saysJuly 28, 2014 at 5:58 am
Great article and true. In addition, the public should be aware of the electromagnetic radiation which will be generated by 750-925 volts of electricity. Think about it especially those with pacemakers and pregnant women, and small developing children.
Aaron Frank saysJuly 29, 2014 at 10:19 pm
While I appreciate the alternate perspective, the article fails to mention that this streetcar line is the first phase of the ultimate Benning Road connection that leads across the river into Anacostia. That is a major transit route that does connect a predominantly residential area to Union Station and equally important H Street and Atlas, areas underserved by DCs heavy rail.