Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Streetcars elsewhere vs. streetcars in DC

I have to admit that I haven't yet read the Committee of 100 report on streetcars, Building a World-Class Streetcar System for a World-Class City: System Recommendations and Route Assessment, although I will read it.

However, at the same time, I plan to read the report from the Transit Cooperative Research Program Relationships between Streetcars and the Built Environment, although my understanding is that the C100 report isn't negative. Plus, we'll have to keep tabs on WMATA's project to promote coordination between the various fixed rail transit projects.

There are many things that frustrate me about the streetcar planning process in DC, not just from the planning side but from the citizen side:

1. Why has it taken so long? Seattle started streetcar planning at the same time DC did, and they opened their first (and only) line in 2007. Maybe this year, probably next year, we'll have an operating line in DC. (Even so, I have other problems with the conceptually constrained nature of the streetcar planning process, which I have discussed before.)

2. I am tired of all the anti-streetcar hype about how "streetcars were abandoned because they were an obsolete technology." This is wrong. Streetcars "failed" because of the confluence of a variety of economic, business, and political factors that had nothing to do with the efficiency and effectiveness of the technology. Furthermore, automobiles, while improved since they were first invented, are also 19th century technologies.

3. What people call "obsolete technology" is really the difference between personal mobility and mass transit. The key issue is that optimality is what matters most. For individuals, an automobile is likely to be the most practical mobility technology around, although it requires a network of facilities (gas stations, parking, oil production, repair facilities, roads, etc.) to support it, and the cost of all of these facilities is not fully borne by the user. Relatedly, just because an automobile may be the most practical mobility technology for an individual, it may not be so efficient as others use the technology, and whether or not the technology can "scale up" and be as equally efficient as use increases. (Think of the difference of using the Internet vs. using a road network.)
Motorists may not be happy, but the streetcar right-of-way has revitalized St. Clair Ave., Christopher Hume says.
Motorists may not be happy, but the streetcar right-of-way has revitalized St. Clair Ave., Christopher Hume says. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star File Photo.

4. The reality is that most of the opponents aren't thinking about quality of life and the impact on neighborhoods and commercial districts from the presence of better transportation. This is brought home in the piece in the Toronto Star by Christopher Hume, "Thanks to streetcar, St. Clair is better than ever."

From the article:

... the project launched years of NIMBY outrage, some of it quite nasty. Even now, the bitterness lingers.

Funny then that the street itself appears to be in better shape than it has in decades. St. Clair, between, say, Bathurst and Old Weston Rd., may not be the most beautiful stretch of the city, but it’s clearly a healthy, even bustling, thoroughfare filled with people and activity, as urban a passage as one could hope to find in a big city.

Because it passes through a number of distinct neighbourhoods, St. Clair is a street of many colours. Like most of Toronto’s most successful thoroughfares — Queen, King, College, Yonge — it is lined with an almost continuous row of simple two-, sometimes three- or four-storey structures, retail at grade, residential, office or commercial above.

This rudimentary form possesses the great virtue of flexibility; it can be reinvented endlessly to accommodate a variety of uses. These are the old buildings that house new ideas.

The enhanced streetcar line connects these various episodes and knits them into a more unified whole. As a result of the ROW, St. Clair feels less car-dominated, somehow scaled down to a more human scale.

Needless to say, drivers aren’t happy, but they never are.

5. I like Hume's point that "drivers aren't happy but they never are" because the question does come down to investing in personal mobility vs. investing in optimal mobility/mass mobility.

Focusing on the throughput of people overall, and maintaining the economic competitiveness of neighborhoods and commercial districts through transit improvements and increased connectivity are vitally important to the continuing relevance and success of the center city vis-a-vis its competitors (the suburban jurisdictions).

This question seems to be ignored by the anti-streetcar activists, as if the history of the city over the past 60 years is irrelevant to our understanding of what choices we ought to be making, both for now and the future.

As long as it's easier and faster to get around by walking, transit, or biking in the center city, it doesn't matter to people living in the city how hard it is for automobile users to drive to and from the city. Their choices about mobility don't have to be problems solved by the center city or the inner core suburbs like Arlington County.

Arlington County is like DC by comparison to its neighboring jurisdictions in Northern Virginia including the farther out counties.

Fairfax County Supervisor Patrick Herrity might not like it, as he writes in an op-ed in today's Post, "Arlington's roadblocks to traffic relief," but ultimately, not just Arlington County or DC has to be focused on optimal mobility, all the metropolitan jurisdictions need to think similarly. Otherwise the problem will remain incorrectly defined and therefore insolvable.

Despite what Herrity believes:

By delaying critical improvements to I-66, I-395 and I-95, the Arlington board isn’t just punishing Virginia motorists, it is punishing anyone who drives in our region. When traffic backs up on these major interstates, the Beltway and other roadways start to back up like dominos. People cut through residential communities to get to their destinations. Workers and goods are delayed getting to destinations. Revenue from tourism in our nation’s capital falls, as tourists can’t get to the downtown restaurants and attractions. They decide to stay home or go elsewhere.

it's not possible to build more highways to make it easier for people to live farther and farther out and still get to the core of the region quickly and easily.

You can only fit so much water into a glass after which it starts overflowing. At some point, because of constraints of cost and the availability of land you can't add significant amounts of new road capacity, especially in the inner core of the region, where for the most part, the road network is built out.

And even if you could, it would never be enough, given how new capacity increases use (the concept of "induced demand").
Springfield mixing bowl
Washington Post Photo by Richard A. Lipski Overalls of the I-95 beltway interchange, known as the Springfield Mixing Bowl. Cost $676 million.

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