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.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Editorial in the Examiner against the Arlington Streetcar

Rendering, streetcar service on Columbia Pike, Arlington and Fairfax Counties, Virginia
Rendering showing streetcar service on Columbia Pike, Arlington and Fairfax Counties, Virginia.

"Arlington streetcar program keeps public in the dark." From the editorial:

Arlington County officials are vocal about their plans to use $20.5 million from the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program to build the Crystal City Transitway, a Bus Rapid Transit project. But they aren't telling the public that they also plan to tear down the BRT and replace it with streetcars less than three years later. Documents obtained by The Washington Examiner confirm that this colossal, unjustified waste of tax dollars has been deliberately concealed from the public.

This is in response to a post on an email list and I haven't included the original post. Basically the article says that money is wasted because the bus transitways are going to be replaced by a streetcar in Crystal City. The email poster said he is on the Transit Advisory Committee and voted against the streetcar because of the impact on the roadway.

Here's what I wrote:

I don't see how that is true [that Arlington County didn't disclose that the transitways in Crystal City were intended in the long term for streetcars].* (* Note that this is the same thing DC is trying to do with the creation of a transitway on K Street NW--start with buses, end with streetcars.)

Columbia Pike and the transitway through Crystal City is defined as part of Arlington County's "Primary Transit Network" (map, page 7) in the Transit Element of the Master Transportation Plan. The element was approved in 2009 and this is what it says:

Implementation Actions
a. Implement the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway with high-frequency bus service on an interim basis and with streetcar service between the Pentagon City and Braddock Road Metrorail stations. (page 6)

I am certain that this is consistent with how Arlington County has dealt with the MWCOG Transportation Policy Board for regional transportation planning and the State of Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the Federal Government in terms of planning and funding this particular project.

Over the years, I've heard a number of presentations about the transitway in Potomac Yards and the streetcar as part of Arlington County's transportation planning, by Chris Zimmerman for sure but others as well I believe, and went on a tour of this infrastructure as part of the Virginia Transit Association annual meeting a few years ago (2006 or 2007?) when it was held in Crystal City and it was always communicated that the transitways were intended for the streetcar, that bus service was a placeholder for the streetcar.

As for whether or not you support the trolley, if you care about optimal mobility, I don't see how you couldn't support it. In North America, as long as parking is mostly free and gas is relatively cheap (compared to Europe), and gas taxes are minimal, people won't ride buses. I think the last 50 years of transit experience demonstrates this decisively. The experience with BRT in the US shows this clearly.

Weighted for population, BRT lines across the US don't perform demonstratably better than DC's highest ridership bus lines. I can't see how anyone who cares about transit would believe that buses make more sense than fixed rail transit solutions, especially in the Columbia Pike corridor.

On the Georgia Avenue and H Street corridors in DC, where I have studied this, about 40% of the total throughput of the corridor takes the bus. So on H Street, that means that 15,000 people move through on an average day in 280 buses (a mix of 40' and 60') while the rest of the people move through in about 24,000 motor vehicles. Multiply this out in two dimensional or three dimensional space, and it's pretty clear that the buses move far more people in less space.

According to traffic studies, Columbia Pike has ADT (average daily traffic) of 28,250 vehicles and about 15,000 transit riders (appendix, page 10) on WMATA and Arlington buslines. If we looked at the bus schedules we could determine how many total bus trips are used. Let's say for argument sake that it is about 280. So 1/3 of the total throughput on the Columbia Pike corridor rides buses, in a relatively small amount of vehiclespace.

So for transit in Arlington, which is a better (more optimal) use of space? Which type of movement should be prioritized? If more people will be served and in a better quality transit environment by prioritizing transit and fixed rail transit in the Columbia Pike corridor, how could this not be in concert with the goals and objectives of the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan?

From the Goals and Policies Summary of the ACMTP:

Goal 1 – Provide High‐Quality Transportation Services.
Goal 2 – Move More People Without More Traffic.
Goal 3 – Promote Safety.
Goal 4 – Establish Equity.
Goal 5 – Manage Effectively and Efficiently.
Goal 6 – Advance Environmental Sustainability.

Moving more people without more traffic is the justification for transit generally and upgrading the quality and capacity of transit specifically.

If you are not "sworn to uphold" the principles in the plan, you probably shouldn't be involved "as an advocate" in the transportation planning process in Arlington County.

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