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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blaming the mode: faulting DC's streetcar because of massive failures by DC Government in planning and execution

Today's cover of the Express (published by the Washington Post) does not bode well for the streetcar.  Interestingly, the owner of the paper is Jeff Bezos and in Seattle, Amazon has paid for a new streetcar and towards running cost of the system, to provide more service to their headquarters in the SoDo District.

For various reasons, I have to be circumspect about the various anti-streetcar trial balloons previously launched by Mayor Bowser ("Bowser Administration Considering Killing D.C. Streetcar," WAMU-FM) and Councilmember Cheh, chair of the DC Council committee that oversees transportation (DC Council member: Streetcar 'possibly not going to happen'," Washington Business Journal), and then reinforced by testimony at Friday's confirmation hearing for new DC Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo ("Transportation chief asks if troubled District streetcar system can be saved," Washington Post) reaming the H Street streetcar project and the city's plans for streetcar system in general.

Although I suppose I can't help but not be circumspect.

From the article about the confirmation hearing:
Dormsjo says streetcar backers have lacked “orderly thinking” about a program that was pieced together under three previous mayors without the needed discipline, data or strategy. Now, he says, he’s wrestling with basic questions so he can come up with his best advice for his boss and other city leaders. Among them: Can the city provide safe and reliable service on the 2.2-mile line that has been built on H Street and Benning Road NE? If yes, and the system opens, should it be expanded? If it is to grow, where should it go next? 
With lives, vast sums and the government’s — and his — credibility at stake, it’s a fraught moment.
While these are seemingly points no different from those that myself ("Government officials (and advocates) typically don't plan for opposition: streetcar edition") and others have raised, the tone in which they were offered was not "analytical," objective and focused on "lessons learned" but to the contrary were much more negative with an implication that a "no go" decision has already been made.

But summarizing Director Dormsjo's points as:

  • disordered thinking about streetcars as a legitimate mode of transportation for DC
  • no utility from the provision of streetcar service
  • bad design of the system (which is arguable, as most of the satisficing was political)

it's appalling to me that DC Government, specifically the previous Mayor ("H Street Trolley Won't Get Direct Connection to Union Station," Washington City Paper, 2011), City Council, and the DC Department of Transportation ("D.C. officials radically scale back streetcar plans," Post), is not taking full responsibility for its multiple, repeat, and continuing failures to plan, design, engineer, implement and execute the project.

And for the record, I can easily lay out the justification for streetcar as a mode ("The argument that streetcars are "good enough" but "imperfect transit" is flawed").  It's disappointing to me that DC's elected and appointed officials find it difficult to do so.

It's not the fault of the streetcar as a mode of transportation that DC Government can't get its act together.

Other cities seem to manage streetcar development just fine.  In 2014, Tucson, Salt Lake, and Atlanta all managed to launch streetcar service, starting much later than DC's initial efforts, which started being planned in 2003.

South Lake UnionStreetcar service in SoDo, Seattle, in front of the Whole Foods Supermarket.  Flickr photo by Andy Tucker.  A Whole Foods Supermarket is coming to H Street NE in DC, attracted by proximity to streetcar service.

I joke that DC and Seattle started streetcar planning in 2003 and Seattle's first leg of streetcar opened in 2007!

Dallas will be launching its Oak Cliff streetcar in late Spring ("Downtown-to-Oak Cliff streetcars could roll by April," Dallas Morning News), and construction started in 2012.

Dallas, which has had a heritage line in operation for more than 20 years, gets it, even if DC does not.

From "Once-skeptical Dallas city manager has a desire for streetcars":
Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez used to dismiss streetcars as unnecessary, exorbitantly priced “toys” — little more than San Francisco touristy shtick. 
But after immersing himself in streetcar policy and practice, Gonzalez has done an about-face. He’s now preaching the streetcar gospel as fervently as anyone and pushing an $800 million plan for a downtown trolley network. 
With an existing line being expanded and another line scheduled to open next year, Gonzalez views streetcars as an inevitable key to the city’s future.  “This might be crazy,” he said. “But in my mind, it can’t fail.” 
The city manager, typically measured in public, gushes about how streetcars shape development. He needs no prodding to dive into a funding plan that includes federal dollars, transportation-specific tax-increment financing zones and private investment. 
And perhaps most significantly, given the region’s devotion to cars and highways, he doesn’t shy away from promoting a transportation mentality that focuses on alternative ways to move people about the city. 
Big highway projects are “all fine and good,” he said. But “none of them … are going to remove one car off the grid.” That’s because “when you build up capacity, you actually encourage the development that produces more cars,” he said. 
“Do you do that, or do you spend money in a way that actually serves people — without needing the car as a focus?” Gonzalez said.
Dallas, like most cities, looks at the opening of a modern streetcar line as the first phase of an ongoing and expanding effort ("Dallas-Oak Cliff streetcar seen as small piece of big plan," DMN).

Unlike many of the discussions in DC and Arlington, Dallas successfully distinguishes between inter-city or metropolitan-scale transit and neighborhood and intra-district transit.  From the article:
“The conversation came up that LRT will take care of regional transportation. But what about in and around downtown?” Manoy said.  That’s when the idea of electric streetcars started to gain momentum. 
We won't even mention the ongoing expansion of the streetcar network in Portland and Seattle (Seattle's expansion hold ups are because of failures by the streetcar manufacturer, not the city's ability to lay tracks and build the system) and San Francisco.

And Cincinnati and Kansas City will open their respective first phase of streetcar service in 2016.

It reminds me of my old "blaming the building" argument in the historic preservation realm.  From a past blog entry:
I write from time to time about what I call "the language of revitalization." The real issue is disinvestment. What people call "blight" is a result of disinvestment. Rather than blame the place (I call this "blaming the building"), focus on disinvestment and explain the process. 
Buildings or neighborhoods called dilapidated, run-down, blight/ed, eyesores, nuisances, decrepit, (etc.) are victims (and survivors) of disinvestment.The solution is not demolition, but investment rather than disinvestment. And maintenance and/or rehabilitation is the proper response to neglect or demolition-by-neglect
Too often people are lulled into believing that demolition, especially of historic buildings, is a solution to "blight" when merely it creates a different form of blight, one that is harder and usually more expensive to correct (building a new building).
It's not like because of car accidents or the use of cars as an element of committing crimes that we close off and shut down the road network and stop manufacturing cars.

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At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

interestingly- the H street streetcar has become a sort of negative rallying call/cry of some rather outspoken black folks who see the streetcar as a sort of harbinger of white takeover and racism. This is really sad- because the streetcar will improve the lives of black folks and the poor. It is seen as some sort of handover to "hipster bar hoppers on H street" to the detriment of longstanding residents. South of H street- the historic people quietly shut down a possible 8th street line w/o any comment or backlash at all- just behind the scenes manipulations. They are sneaky bastards, those old folks in the CHRS & the CMTE 100.

At 5:21 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DK about the race thing and streetcars, that could be an element of the discourse, like the complaint about bike lanes being for whiteys.

When I was writing this entry I was thinking about the constant fights over the Cincinnati streetcar, what happened in Arlington County, and even the fight in Charlotte to repeal the dedicated sales tax for transit on the verge of the light rail system first opening.

These are a different issue from the fights against sales and other tax initiatives to support transit.

I'm gonna have to look into this further.


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