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, December 22, 2015

DC and streetcars #3: More discussion (from almost 2 years ago)

This is from the 1/2014 entry discussion thread.

Charlie writes:

And in DC, the arguments for extending the streetcar down on K seem a bit weaker on a transit side. I think officials are ignoring a key reason why the Circulator is so popular on the K st route -- it is much cheaper than the metro for getting cross town. No question that the metro should be a better experience, but I see a lot of lower income people riding the streetcar all the way from farragut to union station.

And the plans for redoing K st don't include the non-streetcar buses and commuter buses which severely jam up traffic (and will continue to do so) during rush hours.

Honestly the best place for a streetcar in DC would be the crosstown route, or Georgia Ave. I do think Georgia Ave has the possibility of exploding in next 10 years.

My responses:

One of the problems in recent discussions about "streetcars" and "trams" and "light rail" is that a lot of the discussion lately has been muddled.

There is a difference of opinion on how to define the difference between streetcars and LR. Jarrett Walker says the difference is really based on distance between stops.

I argue that streetcars are a form of "intra-city" more like "intra-district" transit with frequent stops that is designed to provide access more than it is speed. It's definitely not about commuting, unless it happens that the district is an employment center anyway.

-- Making the case for intra-city> (vs. inter-city) transit planning

The same distance on the previous map, but in terms of thinking about the streets and destinations along the route.

3. I think people get "confused" because LR can "act" like a streetcar in a city's core. This is how it works in Portland, theoretically in Baltimore, and in other places.

and even though the mixed traffic operation sucks, in the core, it's functioning as a streetcar. However, it generally operates with signal priority, which speeds it up a bit.

In New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen light rail line is 17 miles long and the River Line connecting Trenton to Camden is 24 miles long.  

4. But for me LR is about the size of the vehicle, speed of the system, and general intent of the service.

As you know, in most places where it is deployed it is for longer distance trips, in places where heavy rail doesn't make financial sense (not enough riders to justify the cost).

5. In the case of the proposed services in Arlington County and DC, some should be LR, not streetcar. That's been one of my biggest criticisms of the DC planning effort for at least 5 years.

6. As you know in our comment back and forth with the last entry, you made the point that the ArCo services aren't designed to be well integrated into the transit network.

I don't know the particulars of that area well enough to say. But it is that discussion that made me react so vehemently to the Next City piece.

If you say "it's for economic development, the transit effectiveness elements don't really matter" you're likely to f* it up.

Because if it doesn't work on a need basis, it's not going to do much for "economic development" unless people want it for the "entertainment value."

There isn't that much demand for transit for entertainment value. You could build an incline railway instead.

While it is true that San Francisco's F Line comprised of heritage streetcars is heavily used by tourists, it does get people to and from places they want to go.  It's not merely a fun ride, unlike the SF Cable Car routes, although residents do use the cable cars for transportation.

7. The reason DC has pushed a streetcar in Anacostia is for ec. dev. and access reasons. It's out of a sense of social equity.

But I argue that you want to lead from strength and the f*edupedness of the community (an issue in Takoma too wrt streetcar) caused significant delays that weren't worth it.

This diagram shows earlier proposals for streetcar service in DC.  The east-to-west line from Minnesota Avenue Metrorail station on the east to Georgetown on the west is shown as the line in the middle.

The streetcar from Benning Road to Georgetown makes sense because you have to think of it as 4-5 intra-district [sections linked into one streetcar line]--Downtown to Georgetown, inside Downtown, Downtown to Union Station, H Street to Union Station, Benning Road/Minnesota Avenue to H St.

But I can't imagine the city is thinking of it that way.

It is the 15th St. NE to Minnesota Ave. section that has the most economic potential--rebuilding Hechinger Mall, the northern parking lots of RFK, Pepco site, etc. And then the long term benefits beyond Minnesota ave. in terms of repositioning [that part of the city as an attractive place to live].

8. That being said I agree with you that building the Crosstown Line first would have been the easiest way to build support overall, and that long term, a line on Georgia Ave. (although I'd prefer it to be light rail) will also have great ec. value--PROVIDED, and this is very controversial, and I would be pissed myself were I affected by it, that it is accompanied by an upzoning process comparable to what Arlington did for the Wilson Blvd. corridor.

Oh, but then such an upzoning would support the idea of a separated yellow line up Georgia Ave. and partway into Montgomery County (with a branch for MoCo from Fort Totten out New Hampshire Blvd.).

There are other examples of "tram" services in the US--what we define as light rail--like in Baltimore, Buffalo, arguably the River Line in New Jersey (Greater Camden)--that in and of themselves haven't been enough to spur substantive economic revitalization of those communities.

In doing more reading about Bilbao, there is a great article based on a master's thesis, which makes the point that if the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is going to be touted as the quintessential example of arts-based revitalization, then it is very important to understand what happened in all its particulars, that the example can't be generalized without deep practical and theoretical understanding of what happened.

That is equally true of "streetcars" and "economic development" and the Portland (and Seattle) experiences.

In both cases, the streetcar was an element of a broader revitalization program. If the streetcar hadn't been built, in both cases, revitalization still would have been quite successful.

In the case of Portland, it wouldn't have been as successful, but it would still have succeeded.

In the case of Seattle, it wouldn't have made much difference at all. They could have done a circulator bus. Or nothing. But the streetcar created an incredible sense of branding for SoDo.

Here's what the conclusion of the cited journal article about Bilbao says:

"... even though it appeared within the framework of an international tendency that is producing similar examples, the Guggenheim Bilbao was a specific creation that resulted from special historical, social and political circumstances and should only seen as such. Its uncritical replication could only produce indifferent clones, which would not only be deprived of any originality but would also perpetuate the misuse of art and of the museums that host it."

I like the phrase "uncritical replication."

That tendency of "uncritical replication" costs us a lot of money and time in revitalization and produces a lot of failure or at least significantly substandard results

What bugs me about the rest of the blogosphere on this issue (except sometimes in comments) is how uncritical they are in touting and explaining surface rail transit, pushing for it, etc.

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At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the articles! I think what's left out of a lot of the streetcar and surface transit discussions, and which Jarrett Walker hammered on in the context Atlanta's streetcar, is whether intra-city transit is competitive with walking.

The Detroit people mover goes in a loop that's 0.7 miles in diameter. That's 15 minutes walking; so unless it comes around every 10 minutes, it doesn't seem like it will be useful to people without disabilities or luggage.

Do you have the latest frequency numbers for the H Street streetcar? Will it be worth waiting to ride between Union Station and the Starburst?

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Not sure. It all depends on where you are between the time the trip starts and how long you have to wait.

I will walk miles (e.g., I walked once from Nat. Airport to Cap. Hill because Metro was closed and I didn't want to wait for a cab). Most people won't.

It's pretty far from the west to the east, more than one mile.

Of course, the articulation between Union Station and the streetcar is not very good and won't be for years.

In any case, most people aren't big walkers. With the proviso that I think in the core of DC people are walkers. But probably less so the nightlife crowd.

The problem with the streetcar is the truncation. First, it doesn't connect well with Union Station. Second, a lot of its value ec. development and equity wise would be east of Hechinger Mall, and in stoking development of the northern parking lots at RFK. This is the topic of the next piece.

But then extending it south to Benning Road station would help that part of W7.

Anyway it's about 1.5 miles from one end of H Street to the other. That's a 30 minute walk.

Transit is much faster. But again, there isn't a good connection between Union Station and the streetcar which will hurt the utility.

For me, I'd still take the X2 from Gallery Place as the bus is right there. The time to move on the bus from Gallery Place to H St. NE is probably about the same amount of time as walking from the Metrorail platform in Union Station to H St. NE.


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