Cities Are Embracing Streetcars, But It's Not Always Smooth Sailing

Recent streetcar stumbles may offer lessons for cities.

Modern trolley cart

Recent streetcar stumbles may offer lessons for cities.

The new Washington, D.C. streetcar serves the city's booming H Street corridor. Image via flickr/mariordo59. The new Washington, D.C. streetcar serves the city's booming H Street corridor. Image via flickr/mariordo59.

Earlier this year, Washington, D.C.’s much-anticipated new streetcar opened with all the typical fanfare of a big civic project.

There was a marching band.

Politicians gave speeches.

And – here’s where things become a little different – there was an apology, of sorts.

The 2.2-mile stretch of rail along Washington D.C.’s booming H Street corridor had finally opened. But it came after more than a decade of delays.

“Thank you for your patience,” Mayor Muriel Bowser reportedly told the crowd.

The H Street line joins a growing list of new rail projects across the country that are part of a modern streetcar renaissance. But it’s also on another, similar growing list of projects hampered by delays and design problems that includes work in Atlanta, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Transit experts say the focus on streetcars is a positive step toward diversified transit services – but too often the projects are poorly conceived and executed.

“All these projects, what’s great about them is they’re indicative of the fact that people -- for the first time in decades -- actually see investing in transit as a valuable thing,” said Yonah Freemark, a city planner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council and founder of the popular blog The Transport Politic.

That’s a good thing, he said. But there’s still a disconnect between the people planning and funding these projects and the people hoping to use them. “They focus on objectives that are not really relevant,” Freemark said.

Elected officials who help to advance the projects often tout them with the promise of redevelopment. In Washington, D.C., for example, the first leg of the new streetcar system was put along a corridor badly damaged during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that has only started to experience new development in the last decade. In Los Angeles, business owners have pushed the downtown streetcar as a way to help revitalize the area too.

But the correlation between streetcars and development isn’t that simple. In fact, Freemark suggests that a concurrent interest in urban living has also stimulated the funding streams supporting many of these new light rail projects.

Like convention centers, sports arenas and festival marketplaces, streetcars are the latest urban planning trend, said Freemark. The difference, though, is that the streetcar renaissance comes at a time when many once-hurting urban centers are actually doing quite well.

That was the case in Portland, often credited with kicking off the streetcar boom for its success enlivening the Pearl District with a new line in 2001. “It basically gave people the impression that streetcars can play an important role in making downtown development succeed,” Freemark said.

Portland paid for its own streetcar, but soon, the idea that streetcars can spur development gained traction, and federal dollars started pouring into some of the projects.

The problem is, several project started to hit snags.

Case in point: the new D.C. project. “It’s a series of unfortunate decisions made about how to invest in that project and how to make it happen,” Freemark said. “They bought train cars that were not fully tested and not well designed. They built it in the middle of the street without thinking about how these trains would actually operate,” he added, citing poor connections between it and the regional subway system.

In Los Angeles, an ongoing effort to create a downtown streetcar line, led largely by local business owners, has faced increasing cost estimates. Despite voters passing a tax increase dedicated to the project, a funding gap persisted. Without its own dedicated lane, and with increased traffic in the area, the streetcar’s projected speed has slowed to a crawl -- roughly 3.5 miles per hour during rush hour, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile Atlanta’s streetcar, operating since 2014, also shares the road with cars and sometimes proves slower than walking. A couple months after it opened, operating costs were higher than expected and ridership numbers were lower. When the service started charging a dollar per ride at the start of the year, January’s ridership fell by 66 percent compared to the same month last year.

Houston’s light rail system had its own delays with construction problems hampering its Green Line. There, builders have racked up more than 100 days of delays on a rail overpass, according to the Houston Chronicle, compounding other hiccups.

Still, planners tout the system's ridership per mile as one of the highest in the country. Christof Spieler, a planner on the local transit agency’s board, said cities too often tend to conceive of transit as rail versus bus. He said the recent overhaul of Houston's bus routes was only possible because of the city's rail system. “The Red Line is what made this possible because it fed into downtown,” he said. “It was that high-capacity high-reliability spine.”

But usually, instead of focusing on streetcars as transit, cities tend to highlight their development potential. As a result, design and function often suffer. Washington’s streetcar, for example, runs up H Street onto Hopscotch Bridge, dropping riders off at the back of Union Station.

Instead of an immediate link to Amtrak trains or WMATA subways, riders have to walk across traffic, into the parking garage, and past idling buses before entering Union Station. The streetcar also duplicates existing, frequent bus service. And because the streetcar has been managed by the city’s department of transportation and not the regional transit authority, it won’t accept the same fare cards that riders use on the region's existing bus and subway network. “It was not really designed with transit users in mind,” Freemark said.

In many ways, these problems are predictable. Transit advocates generally believe streetcars should have their own lane and have signal priority technology that allows them to keep traffic lights green as they approach an intersection. Stops should be every quarter to half mile, Freemark said, and the train cars should be designed with high capacity in mind.

“If well designed, a streetcar line can be an affordable option on a heavily trafficked street that doesn’t merit investing in a subway or elevated line,” said Freemark, “those are orders of magnitude more expensive, and that makes a difference.”

And, he said, it’s not too late for existing systems to change.

"Just because it’s in a shared lane today doesn’t mean the lane always has to be shared."

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