Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. streetcar may be a victory for the city's pedestrians

January 25, 2012 - 09:00 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Half a century after the last D.C. streetcar stopped running, the D.C. Office of Planning presents its Streetcar Land Use Study, as City Paper shared yesterday evening. I've begun glancing through the 80 or so pages of the report and my first reaction is how much the narrative places us in the imagined future in which all 37 miles of the streetcar system are up and running.

Can you imagine? After all the fits and starts that have afflicted the D.C. street, here we have a document that fully examines the implications of having the streetcars everywhere. Mayor Vince Gray had reiterated his commitment to the streetcar in December, but the focus there inevitably focuses on the short term and the practical deadlines, on the couple miles of streetcar coming to H Street purportedly in 2013. But the Office of Planning imagines the age where more than 50% of D.C. residents live within walking distance of a streetcar. More than 50%! The report says this will transform the transit potential of about 72,000 households in the District and add $5 to $7 billion to the city's property values.

I never quite realized how much such a streetcar system has the potential to kickstart pedestrian life. The government notes that "streetcar service would increase pedestrian activity within the streetcar corridors." In turn that would have the potential to trigger more business activity and make people feel safer. As it stands, D.C. ranks as the number-two city in the U.S. for bicyclists and pedestrians. The government already has initiated many efforts to improve our roads with pedestrians in minds, adding medians and bike lanes and attempting to calm traffic, like with Maryland Avenue NE. Streetcars give people places to walk to.

I also liked the report's forthright acknowledgment of how streetcars may conflict with bicyclists. From the report: "Bicyclists and transit vehicles often leap-frog each other at transit stops creating a weaving pattern that can slow transit operations and increase hazards for all roadway users. Streetcar tracks can also pose a hazard to cyclists, as bike tires can get caught in the rails." Multiple bicyclists I know have already complained of the obstacle that the unused H street tracks pose. The report's answers seems rather minimal but does attempt to address this. Why not have one-way streets with bikes on one side and streetcars on the other? Or just have the two run on parallel streets? "Coordinated lane markings" is another solution, the office tells us. Bikes and streetcars may also serve to work together in new, good ways, and the system "should provide secure bike storage and bike-share facilities at every stop." As our city's biking infrastructure expands and biking population grows, we'll need to consider the implications with more care.

Although I can imagine scenarios where all forms of transit come out winners, I do wonder how a full streetcar network would affect the ridership of Metro. A robust streetcar option may be compelling competition for those who now ride the bus and the rail. Where will WMATA be in 20 years? That's a timeline after all the current proposed improvements would have been integrated. I wonder if the escalator problem will have finally been abolished ... although that may be as pie-in-the-sky to consider as flying cars.

We definitely have much to consider as we move closer and closer to the first line's debut on H Street in 2013. Read the full report here.

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