A streetcar in the mire: Washington, DC’s pointless streetcar service finally opens


“LATE and over budget, streetcars are finally rumbling to life in Washington, DC. The long-awaited service, which has cost at least $135m to build, spans 2.4 miles along H Street in the city’s north-east. But it is not taking passengers yet.”

This newspaper printed those words in August 2014, but it really could have done so at just about any point this decade. The streetcar was originally supposed to launch in 2009, in an impoverished part of the capital’s south-east quadrant. Those plans fizzled, and were replaced by a promise to bring the trolley to H Street in 2012. Then 2013 passed. So did 2014. As late as December 30th of that year, Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration wouldn’t say for sure whether the streetcar would be operational by the year’s end (it wasn’t). Mr Gray was ousted in an election in which he wasn’t helped by the project’s continued embarrassments. His successor, Muriel Bowser, failed to learn from his mistakes and promised a streetcar service by the end of 2015. That deadline came and went, too.

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Now it is 2016, and at long last the streetcar will begin carrying passengers. It is not quite Berlin’s disastrously fated airport, which was scheduled to open in 2010 but will be lucky to see its first flyers by the end of this decade. But it is close. At least few in the German capital doubt that a new airport will be useful. The same can’t be said of the streetcar. It will run westward in a straight line from an economically depressed and largely residential stretch of Benning Road until it terminates atop a bridge, across the street from the parking garage attached to Union Station. Even for those few Washingtonians for whom that route is useful, it is made less so by the fact that it is already covered exactly by the X2 bus. Indeed, the X2 holds two distinct advantages. First, it can move around double-parked cars or other obstructions, while the streetcar must patiently wait for them to correct themselves. Second, it actually continues on to somewhere useful—namely, over the bridge and downtown to DC.

The catastrophic execution of the streetcar project has somewhat obscured the fact that even if everything had gone smoothly, the planning itself is rotten. Streetcars are a wonderful addition to transit networks in cities across Europe—including Berlin—because they are sensibly laid out, usually with dedicated lanes. While they may not move quite as quickly as subways, they function essentially in the same way, not having to contend with cars and getting priority signalling. And of course they are much cheaper to build than an underground line. But Washington’s planners seem to have been so fixated on the low price tag that they have not asked themselves the central question that should guide any transit plan: will it actually be useful in moving people? In DC, for the time being, the answer seems to be no. (There are separate questions that have less definitive answers, such as whether the streetcar plans have helped spur development, and whether people who think the bus is dirty or dangerous might be more amenable to taking the streetcar, despite its drawbacks.)

That won’t change anytime soon. The only other streetcar line that is firmly in the city’s plans is an extension of the current one through downtown to Georgetown. That would finally provide geographically beneficial connections, and a portion of it might even get a dedicated lane. But the bad news is that the city is projecting that it will be completed in 2022. Which, given the track record on the inaugural line, likely means around the time that today’s preschoolers are learning to drive.

Two hundred miles to the north, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has observed the low-speed car crash that is happening in DC and decided he wants one, too. This month, Mr de Blasio announced plans for a 16-mile line connecting Brooklyn and Queens. The estimated cost is $2.5 billion, which may be optimistic given that it might require building two new bridges. And what portion of the route will have the all-important dedicated right-of-way? Mere details to be sorted out later.

The sad thing about the current streetcar folly is that this technology was once vital to American cities. The Dodgers baseball team are so called because residents of their native Brooklyn spent so much time dodging trolleys, which transported a huge number of New Yorkers to work. (Then the trolley went defunct, and the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles where the only thing people have to sidestep is freeway traffic.) In Washington, streetcars ran for 100 years, from 1862 to 1962, when the advent of mass car ownership and the flight to the suburbs rendered it more of a nuisance than a benefit. These days, resurgent population growth and an emphasis on transit-oriented development mean the streetcar could once again be a boon to the city—if only it were designed well.

The good news in all of this mess is that when it starts transporting passengers on Saturday, the streetcar will offer free rides. That’s because the city hasn’t yet decided how much to charge, or even how to collect the fares. Again, mere details to be sorted out later.