Archive for the ‘Streetcars’ Category

This Week – Ice Hockey!

October 26, 2009

DDOT’s streetcar website has a lot of great resources.  All the things you’d expect, like open house dates, construction updates, their new plans and other documents, are there and easily accessed.

They also have a gallery of some great old photos of DC’s original streetcar network.

This image (circa 1943), from the old underground turnaround terminus for the southern end of the 14th line features a nice vintage advertisement for upcoming hockey games at Uline Arena.  Looks like Hershey and Cleveland will be in town to play the Washington Lions.   Hershey, of course, is now the AHL farm team for the Caps.

More photos:


Pennsylvania Ave, looking at the Treasury Building, circa 1925.

DDOT’s got a whole slew of historical photos in their online archive, well worth checking out.

Looking north up Connecticut Ave towards Dupont Circle, 1958.  Note the two underpass entrances – the nearest for streetcars and the other (currently extant) for cars.

Another from 1958, this is what’s now Freedom Plaza.


Feedback loops

October 25, 2009

The Tsarchitect succinctly summarizes the various discussions on McMillan Two.  As noted in my thoughts on the plan, this kind of dialogue is vital to make this a better plan.

  • JD Hammond offers a counter-proposal, drawing on Asian cities and how they interface with their rivers.
  • Dave Murphy notes the opportunity/challenge this plan presents for the BRAC process, as it involves re-use of a lot of land controlled by the Military.
  • GGW summarizes DDOT’s newest iteration of the streetcar plan, making the comment rounds now.

With regard to the McMillan Two focus area of the Anacostia, the streetcar plan raises a couple of interesting points.  The plan features a Minnesota Avenue line, which would parallel a great deal of the river while still running through established neighborhoods.  As mentioned in the GGW summary, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells suggested moving the N-S link through Capitol Hill further to the east, in order to better serve the planned Reservation 13/DC General development – a path that would also serve more of the proposed plan area, through both Reservation 13 and the RFK Stadium site. Such a line shouldn’t replace the 8th Street line, but it would be a nice compliment to it.

An interesting connection that’s not on the map is through Buzzard Point.  The plan features two lines terminating on Buzzard Point, near Fort McNair.  The obvious and interesting connection would be to extend tracks south across a new South Capitol Street Bridge, which would give you cross-river connectivity with multiple modes and via multiple routes.

Such a density of network connections is a great starting point to enable the kind of development needed to fill this plan with buildings.   It’s not quite DC’s version of the DLR, but it’s a start.


September 9, 2009

Basic Training

The Tsarchitect had a great reminder on the importance of the basics today – linking to a video from William Whyte, from a video version of his great work, the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Part 1:

The remaining sections of the video are available here: (onetwothreefourfivesix)

I hadn’t watched the video since graduate school – thanks for the reminder.  It’s well worth a viewing.

NCPC Items

A couple of items related to the National Capital Planning Commission:

JDLand had an item a while back about their largely favorable reaction to the 11th Street Bridges project – with the exception of the streetcars, of course.

However, they are not at all happy with DDOT’s decision to choose a streetcar system with overhead wires, and the document goes into detail on how this works against federal interests, as well as listing what non-overhead-wire streetcar options exist out there (none in the US so far). Their conclusions (page 22):

“Recommends that DDOT not include streetcar system components for overhead wires as part of the 11th Street Bridge project and that DDOT prepare an environmental impact statement for its proposed District wide streetcar system that examines potential impacts on the L’Enfant City and Georgetown and that includes an analysis of propulsion systems that do not require the use of overhead wires.

“Advises DDOT that the Commission does not support a streetcar system with overhead wires because it supports the unobstructed views to important landmarks along the city’s streets and avenues that are integral to the District’s unique character and result from the long-standing federal statutory prohibition against using overhead wires in Washington City (the L’Enfant City) and Georgetown.

“Encourages DDOT to pursue alternative propulsion technologies for the proposed streetcar system that do not require overhead wires in accordance with its January 24, 2008 commitment to include dual vehicle propulsion requirements in a solicitation package for the development and implementation of the broader streetcar system beyond the Anacostia and H Street/Benning Road corridors.”

Meanwhile, at GGW, Matt Johnson has a post up on potential freight rail bypasses of DC, triggered in part by safety concerns, and in part by the NCPC’s desire to remove the current rail rights of way though the District.

These aesthetic concerns shouldn’t be underestimated, but from my perspective, the minimal obstruction of streetcar wires isn’t worth the kind of opposition the NCPC is putting up.  Even if you take wires as a negative (which I do not think is a given), the net results are certainly a positive for DC.

Shopping Spree

Transit Miami reminds us all of a post from the Infrastructurist back in May with a nice comparative chart of transit costs by mode, with references to specific projects.

Modernism in DC

DC MUD had a great interview with architect Ali Honarkar (designer of the Lacey) with some great tidbits on DC’s style, height limits, and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Lacey has gotten attention inside DC, but also outside DC. What do you attribute that to?

Yeah, I don’t know! (laughs). We designed it to get attention, that’s what you do. We’re not going to write a hit song and apologize, you want it to be played. Actually we’re getting more national than local attention. I’m a little disappointed with the local media, and I think it may be driven by sponsors, this very conservative southern town. You would think the Washington Post, as local media, should know what’s going on around here. We’ve seen the Lacey in New York blogs, LA blogs, and architecture blogs, and I’m always amazed how they find us. But they don’t have to find you here, we’re here, they should know what’s in their back yard.

On sustainable design:

DCMud: So green is not cheap, design is not cheap, how do you combine those two goods, and still make it affordable?

Its hard, there are metropolitan cities, like NY would be the first, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, they have that. You put up a building anywhere in New York, they will still line up if its good. I think the DC culture, within the last 10 years has really changed, you see a lot more emphasis, not just on housing, but the restaurants, you see a lot more design, restaurants, bars, we’re getting there slowly but surely. We’re not very good at that, we just do it. There were so many ways to make the Lacy cheaper. But at the end of the day, the architect, the developer, have to be able to look back and be okay with it. The average life of a building is 25-30 years, we’d like to see the building there in a 100 years. Real estate is a long-term thing; we don’t do things for marketing purposes. With the whole green movement, nobody ever uses bad materials on purpose. Another way the AIA is using – you know when the record companies stopped using vinyl because it was no good – the same with the AIA, we achieved it in the Lacey, we’re doing it in a small residential project, you put a good project out there, people will follow.

On height limits and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Height restrictions and historic preservation?

It’s partly that, but, no offense to attorneys, you do any work in DC, forget the ANC and historic preservation, but every other neighbor is an attorney. Its great to have pride in where you live, but people feel like they get to claim it, we see that all the time, we always feel like we don’t want to deal with it any more, but then we get a good client, who wants to do something different, and we say, okay, lets do this again. Its not historic preservation, I think its more the people in the neighborhoods that want to stop the process.

Do you think the height limits are a good thing?

I like them; I think you are most creative when you are challenged. DC is my favorite city, and you have New York for that. London, Paris, the scale is completely different, most European cities are like that. I like the height restriction where it is, we should just be a little more creative. We have suburbs to balance stuff out.

Wires schmires.

August 23, 2009

Jarrett (keeper of Human Transit) is off gallivanting around in Europe.  His travels took him to Vienna, where he noticed that the city a) has lots of overhead wires for streetcars, trams, and the like, yet b) somehow is still a pretty place.  How can this possibly be true?  DC’s laws state otherwise!

Not only does Vienna have streetcar/tram wires, they also have all of their streetlights suspended by wires as well.  Streets with both have two layers of wires:

In case it’s not completely clear, the wires carrying the lights are a meter or two above the heavier wire for the streetcar.  In a way, having two layers of wires seems a little more obstrusive than just having a whole lot of wires at one layer — e.g. under a switch in a trolleybus system.  But it’s not a huge difference, and the point is, Vienna is definitely getting by.  People even photograph the streetscape, and then eat in a restaurant, and then go spend money in the shops, as though they don’t even notice all those horrible wires.

How can they survive under such dire conditions?

Streetcar Planning in DC

August 13, 2009
One of Torontos Red Rockets

One of Toronto's Red Rockets

While I was out on vacation, wheels started turning on getting DC’s streetcar planning back on track (har har).  Public meetings, platitudes, and so on.  BDC offers the quick and dirty summary:

I wasn’t able to attend last night’s streetcar meeting with Gabe Klein, but based on summaries I’m not sure we learned all that much that we didn’t already know. The key points seem to be that Klein wants streetcars to be a priority and is appointing a new streetcar czar, that the Federal government is more excited about streetcars than in the past, that we’re still not sure about the overhead wire issue (but someone in Congress may address it soon), and that we’re still looking at 2012 before the first line in Anacostia opens.

However, there are still some serious questions about rather basic items (even leaving aside the power issue for now), like route alignments.  Greater Greater Washington notes:

Klein reiterated support for the streetcar alignments in the current Comprehensive Plan. The first streetcars will run from Anacostia over the 11th Street Bridge, and along H Street and Benning Road, ultimately connecting to downtown on the K Street Transitway. Phase two is 7th Street and Georgia Avenue, and Minnesota Avenue between Anacostia and the Minnesota Avenue Metro near Benning Road, connecting the two lines across River East. There are still many outstanding alignment questions, like how to connect the streetcar to Union Station, where to continue it over the 11th Street Bridge (to Eastern Market? M Street SE?), and where to place maintenance facilities and storage yards for the H/Benning line.

The Comprehensive Plan highlights these routes, complete with rather nebulous distinctions between modes – Streetcars in blue, BRT in green, and “rapid bus” in Yellow:

The first obvious question is to determine what other transportation facilities might be implemented in the near future.  I’m thinking specifically about Metro here.  I bring it up because the core of the streetcar alignments in Downtown look an awful lot like the ideas for separating Metro’s interlined portions of track.  From my earlier fantasy posts, potential new Metro trackage (comprised of a New Blue line and New Yellow line through downtown) would look a lot like the core ‘cross’ of the streetcar lines in the DC Plan:

After plenty of lengthy debates about the utility of streetcars asa means to improve mobility, it’s worth considering the chances for Metro (an unquestioned improvement in both mobility and accessibility) to come to those corridors, and potential time frames for such investments.   Streetcars and Metro can and would complement each other well along the same corridor, just as high frequency bus routes complement Metro (think the 30s bus lines and the Orange/Blue trunk line through the city, for example), but I have a hard time believing money would be available for both.

As the DC Plan indicates (and the other streetcar plans floating around reinforce), there are lots of places where streetcars could be effective in DC.  However, there are few remaining corridors suitable to heavy rail transit.  When combining that with the long term needs to eliminate interlined portions of track, this becomes a question of long term planning and vision.

Part of the value of these fantasy transit maps is the visioning they bring to the table.  My worry with the streetcar planning is that things are too compartmentalized to plan for a holistic transportation system, both within DC and the region as a whole.  Metro is set to see tremendous ridership growth over the next 20 years, and ensuring the transit system as a whole can handle the demand will be a tall task.  Streetcars will be an improvement, but core expansion of Metro shouldn’t be off the table, either.

(DC Streetcar Plan)

Streetcar vs. bus debate hinges on mobility vs. accessibility

July 15, 2009

Portland Streetcar. Photo by K_Gradinger.

Portland Streetcar. Photo by K_Gradinger.

Advocates and policymakers constantly debate the virtues of different transit modes. Should we build streetcars or BRT? Commuter rail or heavy rail? Each involves technical and cost tradeoffs, but transit advocates often don’t agree. This debate stems from a difference in how people think about transportation. Is the goal to maximize mobility, or accessibility?

Professionals’ precise definitions vary, but in general, mobility refers to the distance or area a person can cover in a period of time. Accessibility is a more qualitative measure about what you can access, not how much ground you can cover. If a given transportation system allows you to easily access your job, a grocery store, and other local retail services within 20-25 minutes of travel time, that site would have good accessibility, even if that 20-25 minute window of time doesn’t allow you to travel very far. Mobility, on the other hand, is transportation for transportation’s sake. It deals only with distances and speeds, and thus, by extension, area covered.

Choosing which concept to focus on affects how land use fits into the debate. Mobility is a pure measure of distance covered, whereas accessibility is more concerned with the ‘what’ than the ‘how far.’ What’s on the land matters a great deal. Increasing mobility usually also increase accessibility: the more area you can cover in a given amount of time, the more uses you can reach. But we can also increase accessibility without actually increasing mobility. In the United States, we have a legacy of designing transportation policy on mobility alone, while ignoring accessibility.

Jarrett Walker observed,

Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before. This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today. …

Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than the bus route it replaced, this is because other improvements were made at the same time — improvements that could just as well have been made for the bus route. These improvements may have been politically packaged as part of the streetcar project, but they were logically independent, so their benefits are not really benefits of the streetcar as compared to the bus.

New streetcars that replace buses do not change mobility. In theory, a streetcar traveling in mixed traffic will have the same mobility as a bus. Jarrett and other bloggers then grapple with mobility versus accessibility and what to measure. Cap’n Transit asks, “Why do we care about mobility?

Interestingly, Jarrett uses Walk Score to count the places, meaning that his mobility takes density into account. That makes it more valuable than simply measuring how many route-miles you have available to you. There was some back-and-forth in the comments about whether streetcars could increase mobility by increasing density relative to a similar investment in buses, but I don’t think there was a solid conclusion.

Jarrett’s response acknowledges the intrinsic value of accessibility, but also notes the limitations of that concept:

The argument is that the number of places you can get to doesn’t matter so much. What matters is how far you need to go to do the things you need to do. In a denser and better designed city, your need for mobility should decline because more of your life’s needs are closer to you. That’s unquestionably true, and I suspect anyone who has chosen an urban life knows that in their bones. …

One puzzling thing about the access-not-mobility argument is that it suggests that much of what we travel for is generic and interchangeable. Many things are. I insist on living within 300m of a grocery store, dry cleaner, and several other services because I need them all the time and don’t want those trips to generate much movement. But I go to a gym that’s about 1500m away because I really like it, and don’t like the ones that are closer. And every city worth living in is packed with unique businesses and activities and venues that must draw from the whole city. A lot of us want more of that uniqueness, less interchangability, in our cities. How is that possible if citizens aren’t insisting on the freedom to go where they want?

This cuts to the core of the tension between mobility and accessibility. In one sense, increasing mobility naturally increases access simply by opening up easy travel to new areas. However, accessibility captures a more complete picture by asking what the travel is for, not just to accommodate it. Streetcar systems and other rail based transit tend to have higher ridership than similar bus systems. This is known as rail bias, the tendency of passengers to ride trains more often than projected based solely on the mobility improvements of a transit line. Might this rail bias actually represent an accessibility bias?

Metro’s history shows us some of the tension between these two concepts. The Orange line includes areas focused on accessibility between Rosslyn and Ballston, while the outer reaches of the line travel longer distances at higher speeds, prioritizing mobility. Of course, a subway presents an inherent increase in mobility over a bus or streetcar anyway, thanks to the grade separation of the subway tunnels. Still, the hybrid nature of Metro’s system shows the different conceptions of mobility and accessibility.

In Zachary Schrag’s The Great Society Subway, he concludes with a quote from a now retired WMATA official involved with the planning of Metro. Before choosing technologies, routes, and levels of transit service, you have to ask “what kind of city do you want?” One of the key arguments in favor of streetcars is their ability to attract transit oriented development in ways that buses cannot. If we accept Jarrett Walker’s assertion that streetcars do not offer a mobility improvement over buses, what about an accessibility improvement? Transportation investments can be powerful forces for attracting and shaping development, and thus improving accessibility by shaping the city.

In determining what kind of city we want, we also have to recognize that different modes of transportation offer different improvements to both mobility and accessibility. Transit system can accomplish both goals, but design choices inherently emphasize mobility over accessibility or vice versa. Every fantasy transit system makes value judgments about mobility versus accessibility. When those systems are the work of one individual, they represent the preferences of that individual’s vision for the city. How should the Washington region balance mobility and accessibility in future transit and transportation planning?

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.


July 8, 2009

Wonder Woman wants streetcarsAwesome.

Unintended Consequences. Discovering Urbanism (cross posted on GGW) notes how well-intentioned regulations on reducing stormwater runoff can have some seriously counter-productive consequences.

Sometimes genuinely smart and well-intentioned people err by focusing intently on the piece of the puzzle they have been commissioned to solve, thereby missing the larger system within which their problem is embedded. It’s the classic widen-the-freeway-to-reduce-congestion scenario. It may solve the technical problem at hand, but it exacerbates the Real Problem.

It’s Gold, Jerry!  Gold! The Transport Politic notes an interesting conversation about upgrading part of the current Metra Electric line to better integrate with the CTA’s rail facilities.  This line would then be dubbed the “Gold Line,” a not-so-subtle nod to future events in the area,  given the line’s proximity to a number of the planned Olympic facilities for Chicago’s 2016 bid.  Regardless of Olympic facilities, this seems like a great idea – quite frankly, something that should have been done a long time ago.

The Gold Line plan would attempt to solve some of those problems by converting parts of the Metra Electric line, which runs from Millenium Station downtown south along the waterfront, to CTA operation at a cost of $160 million. This would require new faregates, 26 more train cars, and several track and station upgrades. The project would also include the creation of a new station at 35th Street in Bronzeville. While the service would continue to be operated by Metra, customers would ride the trains as if they were CTA-owned, and they would be able to transfer without extra cost to CTA buses and rapid transit.

Most importantly for people living along the lakefront, trains would now run at maximum 10-minute frequencies from 6 am to midnight, ensuring that the system is reliable at most hours. Trains on the Electric Line currently run once an hour during off-peak times, making it hardly an option for people who need to get around the city during the day. The same service options are offered on most of the Metra network.

Those familiar with the Metra Electric line know that it’s already got a more rapid-transit like structure through the south side, with stations spaced much closer together.  This is the perfect case to show what integration of the rider experience across modes could do.  My one question is why limit it to just a portion of the Metra Electric line?  Why not pursue this kind of upgrade to the entirety of the line?

STEEM Powered Streetcars? Alstom has yet another entry into the catenary-free streetcar operations.  Such technology would be great for DC, given DC’s ban on overhead wires.  Still, it’s not easy to be an early adopter of these kinds of things.

If implemented, Alstom’s new STEEM system*, on the other hand, will require less catenary wire and no underground construction; it simply requires the upgrading of existing tram vehicles. Trains will be equipped with large batteries connected to their motors that will be charged each time the vehicle brakes, much like the way a Toyota Prius hybrid refills its battery. In addition, the trams will be able to benefit from charging during 20-second station dwell times, where trains will benefit from a catenary; theoretically, the system wouldn’t require the use of the catenary between stations.

There’s also one big sticking point:

Alstom’s technology is not yet advanced yet to work on fast-moving American light rail systems, which typically have station stops up to a mile apart, likely too far for its battery capacity to handle. Whether the system can handle the incredible wastefulness of air conditioning — something not present in Paris — is a different question. But it could be particularly useful for streetcar networks, such as the one planned in Washington, D.C., where a congressional ban on overhead wires is still in effect — something that could likely be circumvented if the wires were only present at stations. In cities like Portland where light rail stations downtown are just blocks apart, the technology could mean the ability to get rid of overhead wires in central sections of the network.

Yeah, such a system better be able to handle A/C.  I like to keep my transit usage and sauna visits separate.

Parking Shmarking. Richard Layman was in attendance at a recent meeting on keeping 7th St SE near the newly-reopened Eastern Market closed during the weekends.  This is a great idea, only opposed by a few merchants who overvalue the parking spaces in the area – and don’t have a great understanding of the value of a space versus the turnover of that space.   Those parking spaces don’t do your business any good if someone’s car is just sitting in it all day.  That’s not going to get you more customers.

For Sale.  CHEAP. If you can find it.

Political FAIL. The answer is staring us in the face.

BeyondDC  is considering a new career editing articles for clarity and accuracy.