Is Streetcar Rage Justified?

On Monday, the radio station WTOP reported that Washington, D.C’s. much-mocked streetcar line was considering scrapping its current fleet, which has been in operation for only two years.

To some, the headline made it sound like the system, which had debuted in 2016 and took 9 years and cost $200 million to build, was about to be permanently mothballed. And more than a few critics of the system sharpened their Twitter takes.

This was not the case. Nor were the two-year-old cars themselves heading for the scrapyard, as D.C.’s transit agency quickly pointed out. (WTOP issued a clarification on Twitter.) The less-dramatic news was that D.C. Streetcar will need to purchase new cars for its planned expansion. The cars will likely have to come from different companies than the two that supplied its initial fleet. One of those firms has ceased operations, and the other appears to be floundering, which will probably make it more difficult and more expensive for the system to maintain its cars.

But readers might be forgiven for assuming that their streetcar itself was making an early exit, as transit foes have used the system as a symbol of inefficiency and poor resource allocation since it opened. The 2.2-mile route—envisioned as the opening segment of what is planned to be a 37-mile network—runs along H Street. That is a corridor well served by buses, behind which the streetcar is frequently stuck, as it does not enjoy its own right of way. (It is, however, free to ride.)

By several other measures, however, the streetcar has become something of a secret success since its opening. WTOP’s report happened to be released the day before the system’s second birthday, clouding what otherwise would have been a day of measured celebration. “Things have largely been going very well,” said Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer for the District Department of Transportation. “We’ve seen stronger ridership than we originally projected. We’ve been able to reduce headways and make sure that we’re providing reliable service. We’ve had a very good safety record overall.”

If economic development rather than moving people around were the only metric for the streetcar’s success, it would be viewed as an unequivocal triumph. Between June of 2010 and January 2018, the median home value in the Near Northeast neighborhood, which encompasses a significant part of the line, jumped from $441,000 to $705,000, according to Zillow, an increase 10 percent greater than the District overall during that period. Massive new apartment buildings and condos have significantly boosted the density of the neighborhood in recent years. Since 2013, three buildings of 200 units or more have come online on H Street, in addition to numerous smaller projects—and more are on the way.

That infusion of residents and commercial activity helps explain how the streetcar beat its initial ridership estimates of 1,500 riders per weekday (though this estimate was made in the mid-2000s and assumed a fare-based system). For the past year or so, the system has carried more than 3,000 passengers per weekday, with levels nearing or exceeding 4,000 in the summer and fall. More promisingly, the system increased ridership by 44 percent month over month from its first year of operation.

The trend is quite different for some other new streetcar systems. In Cincinnati, for example, healthy initial ridership faded after the opening months, while Atlanta had a big ridership dip after transitioning from free to fared service.

Indeed, by modern-streetcar standards (which, admittedly, may be a low bar), the D.C. system is doing pretty good: Its ridership is in the middle of the pack nationally on a per-mile basis, despite the fact that the system doesn’t cover the core of the city. For now, the system has no plans to institute a fare, and costs continue to be covered out of the general fund. Though the streetcars are a free alternative to the buses that run along H Street, bus ridership on the corridor has remained relatively steady. And its average speed (5.7 mph) is faster than systems in Little Rock, Seattle, and Tampa.

But it stands to get better—and more useful—if it can just grow up. Ultimately, a 37-mile streetcar network remains the “guiding vision” for future expansions, according to Zimbabwe, but for now DDOT is focused on just extending its current line. An eastern extension of the current line across the Anacostia River into the District’s impoverished and geographically isolated Ward 7 is set to begin engineering work this year, with a projected opening in 2024. The timeframe for a western extension through downtown D.C. along K Street and into Georgetown is hazier. Zimbabwe believes the western extension is a competitive candidate for federal transportation grants—assuming those grants remain available in the current political climate. In one proposed alignment, the streetcar would have its own right of way along much of the extension, making it a viable alternative to the crowded Metro.

Getting this extension finished—to say nothing of the rest of the network—will not be easy. As the fleet replacement drama demonstrated, it’s not hard for the system to draw the ire of critical constituents. “The project continues to pay for its past sins,” said Martin Di Caro, a former reporter for the radio station WAMU who covered the streetcar. “There are always going to be people on the city council who will question the city’s commitment of so much money.”

As CityLab’s Laura Bliss (and many others on this site over the years) have observed, streetcars have generally not been the best transportation investment in the American cities that have re-introduced them. But there’s also a risk of prematurely killing off or hampering projects that could ultimately, in fact, pencil out, if given the time and resources to complete extensions that would boost their usefulness.

Despite their well-documented drawbacks, streetcars clearly have a powerful allure: There are four new lines expected to come online in 2018. The American streetcar revival is ongoing, whether we like it or not, so the ones working hard to do it right—with designated right of way, high-density transit-oriented development, and connections to other transportation modes and bike lanes—ought to be given every chance to succeed.