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Tennessee’s BRT feud shows even modest projects face opposition

Often when a new city proposes its first rail line, opponents who don’t like spending money on transit call for BRT instead. So it’s tempting to think cities might have an easier time implementing new transit lines if they simply planned BRT from the start. Unfortunately, BRT often faces the exact same opposition.

Two projects that have faced major opposition, the Nashville BRT (left) and Cincinnati streetcar (right). Images from the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati.

Nashville is the latest city to face strong opposition to its first BRT project, called the Amp. The Tennessee state legislature recently passed a bill blocking the line.

The debate mirrors one going on a few hundred miles north, in Cincinnati. There, opponents tried to kill that city’s first streetcar line. The state government even tried to block it.

Both Nashville and Cincinnati are among America’s most car-dependent and least transit-accessible large cities. Nashville’s entire regional transit agency only carries about 31,000 passengers per day. Cincinnati’s carries about 58,000.

For comparison, Montgomery County’s Ride-On bus carries 87,000, never mind WMATA.

In places like Nashville and Cincinnati, authorities have ignored transit for so long that any attempt to take it seriously is inherently controversial, regardless of the mode.

Arguments may fixate on rails, dedicated lanes, or overhead wires, but for at least some opponents those issues seem to be simply vehicles for larger ideological opposition.

That may sometimes be true even in places with stronger transit cultures. Arlington’s streetcar and Montgomery’s BRT network are both controversial themselves. Both have plenty of detractors who say the plans are unaffordable or would get in the way of cars.

Ultimately there are many reasons a city hoping to improve transit might choose BRT or rail. The two modes are both useful, and smart cities use them both based on the specific needs of the location.

But either way, expect similar tropes from opposition. It’s inescapable.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 9th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, streetcar, transportation



Map spotlights busiest bus stops for 16th, 14th, & Georgia Avenue lines


Map from DDOT.

Every circle on this map is one bus stop. The larger the circle, the more riders get on or off at that stop.

The map shows where riders are going on WMATA’s busy 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue lines, plus a couple of smaller routes in the same part of town.

It’s a fascinating look at transit ridership patterns in DC’s densest corridor. And it correlates strongly with land use.

Georgia Avenue is a mixed-use commercial main street for its entire length. Thus, riders are relatively evenly distributed north-to-south.

16th Street, on the other hand, is lined with lower density residential neighborhoods north of Piney Branch, but is denser than Georgia Avenue south of there. It’s not surprising then that 16th Street’s riders are clustered more heavily to the south.

14th Street looks like a hybrid between the two, with big ridership peaks south of Piney Branch but also more riders further north of Columbia Heights. 14th Street also has what appears to be the biggest single cluster, Columbia Heights itself.

DDOT produced this map as part of its North-South Corridor streetcar planning. It’s easy to see why DDOT’s streetcar plans are focusing on 14th Street to the south and Georgia Avenue to the north.

Likewise, this illustrates how a 16th Street bus lane south of Piney Branch could be particularly useful.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 7th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, streetcar, transportation



Notes from Europe: Bikes + streetcars = no problem

I’m on vacation in Europe until the 24th. Each weekday until my return there will be a brief post about some feature of the city I’m visiting that day.

My destination today, Amsterdam, is simultaneously one of the world’s greatest cycling cities and one of its greatest streetcar cities. It utterly destroys the notion that bikes & trams can’t coexist well. The real enemy to both is streets designed primarily for cars.

That said, Amsterdam does a better job of separating both its bike and tram traffic from cars and from each other than any American city. That’s part of its success.


Amsterdam tram & bikes. Photo by faungg via flickr.

March 21st, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, streetcar, transportation



Now’s your chance to push for dedicated streetcar lanes

Should potential future streetcars on Georgia Avenue have dedicated lanes? DDOT is hosting a series of public meetings this month to help plan that route. The meetings will be a good opportunity to voice support for dedicating street space to transit.


The North-South Corridor, including 16th Street, 14th Street, and Georgia Avenue.
Image from DDOT.

DDOT’s North-South Corridor will run from somewhere near the baseball stadium north to either Takoma or Silver Spring, right through the heart of Mid City DC. Planners are still working on the exact route, but the line will probably run on some combination of Georgia Avenue and 14th Street. It could also be a bus or a streetcar.

One big question is whether it will have any dedicated lanes. If you think it should, it’s important to attend one of the meetings and communicate that to DDOT.

The meetings are:

  • Tuesday, Feburary 18
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    DCRA, 1100 4th Street SW
  • Wednesday, February 19
    10:00 am – 12:00 pm
    MLK Library, 901 G Street NW
  • Wednesday, February 19
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Avenue NW
  • Thursday, Feburary 20
    3:30-8:00 pm (presentations at 4:00 and 7:00 pm)
    Emery Rec Center, 5701 Georgia Avenue NW

There are many benefits to streetcars regardless of whether they have dedicated lanes or not. But giving them lanes absolutely increases their usefulness, especially in a corridor with such high transit demand.

As part of any good corridor planning, it’s important to figure out where dedicating space makes the most sense. It’s also a good time to advocate for terminating the line at Silver Spring, where there are more potential riders than at Takoma. This is exactly the time and place for transit activists to show up.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 5th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, transportation



Europe’s real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it’s not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn’t SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.

That’s true. It’s because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don’t need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that’s what they do. That’s what US cities do too. That’s what everyone does.

That’s why DC’s east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington’s streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It’s why Salt Lake City’s “light rail” sometimes runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight corridor. And it’s why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it’s why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn’t an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It’s an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don’t use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that’s planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren’t proposed, it’s totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don’t get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there’s a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That’s a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn’t be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It’s not true and it’s not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let’s do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let’s not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it’s the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 29th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: lightrail, streetcar, transportation



Spot the difference between DC’s two streetcar models

Yesterday, the first of three new US-built streetcar vehicles arrived in DC. It joins the three Czech-built streetcars DDOT has had in possession since 2009.

Since the US-built versions were designed using the plans from the Czech version, the two streetcar models are very, very similar. But for the transitphiles out there who want to tell the difference, here’s a side by side comparison:



Czech-built version.

US-built version. Photo from DDOT.

Clearly, the fronts are a noticeably different. The Czech streetcar has a V-shaped yellow & gray stripe and 3 front-facing lights on each side. The US version has a boxy yellow & gray stripe and 4 front-facing lights per side. Also, the US version has a shell covering the mechanical fixtures on the top, while the Czech version doesn’t.

There are other minor differences to the mechanical systems, and maybe the interior layout. But the easiest way to tell the difference, by far, is the paint job on the front.

January 22nd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, transportation



Yes, there are new mixed-traffic streetcars in Europe

In an attempt to discredit the concept of streetcars, some opponents erroneously claim that other first-world countries don’t build mixed-traffic rail. So let’s set the record straight: Yes they do. Plenty.


Mixed-traffic tram in Manchester, UK, opened in 2013.
Photo by Howard Pulling on flickr, used with permission.

I’m not an expert on European transit, but it takes about 5 minutes on Google to find numerous examples of recently-built mixed-traffic European trams.

Here’s a (most likely partial) list. The dates in parentheses are either the year trams were reintroduced to the city in question, or the year the specific mixed-traffic segment pictured in the link was built.

That’s actually longer than the list of US cities currently running newly-built mixed-traffic streetcars. As of this writing, that list is exactly two cities long: Portland and Seattle. Granted, it is about to explode, but over the past decade Europe has unquestionably built more mixed-traffic streetcars than the US.

Of course, all transit functions better in dedicated lanes. It’s completely true that many mixed-traffic streetcars in the US would benefit greatly from dedicated lanes, and will only lack them for political will. It’s also completely true that Europe is better at providing transitways for their streetcars more often than the US. None of that is in dispute.

But the fact is, many European cities have indeed recently added new mixed-traffic lines, because whether streetcar opponents care to admit it or not, there are many benefits to rail transit aside from where it runs.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to the true mixed-traffic streetcars listed above, Europe also has an entire category of trams that often run in mixed-traffic that’s completely absent from the US.

Guided tire trams run on rubber tires like a bus, but have a single in-ground track to guide them, as well as overhead wires. They’re a middle ground between buses and streetcars, and are present in mixed-traffic arrangements in multiple cities in France and Italy, at least.

It’s not exactly fair to call guided tire trams streetcars, but neither is it fair to exclude them from a discussion of mixed-traffic European trams.

If a US city wants to prove it’s serious about providing a rail-like BRT experience, they might experiment with one of these. So far, none have done so.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

January 13th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, streetcar, transportation



US streetcar boom takes off in 2014

Three other American cities in addition to DC will open new streetcar lines this year, and at least 12 more cities are expected to advance construction on lines that will open later.


Streetcar undergoing on-street testing in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from the City of Tucson.

The four lines expected to open in 2014 are in DC, Tucson, Seattle, and Atlanta.

Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar will be the first modern rail transit to open in that city.

Seattle’s First Hill streetcar will run next to a cycletrack for much of its length, in an impressive multimodal layout.

Atlanta’s downtown streetcar will be the first modern streetcar to open in the US that doesn’t use the ubiquitous 66′ long streetcar model first popularized in Portland. Instead, Atlanta will use a 79′ long tram similar to the light rail cars in Norfolk.

North of the border, Toronto will shortly begin to use new 99′ long trams on its expansive streetcar network, the largest in North America.

Even more cities will begin construction or continue construction on new lines that won’t open until 2015 or later. They include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tempe, San Antonio, and Saint Louis.

Many other cities, including Arlington, have streetcars that aren’t expected to begin construction yet, but aren’t far behind.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 9th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, The New America, transportation



Watch DDOT’s beautifully animated streetcar video

In anticipation of the upcoming H Street streetcar, DDOT created this safety video that illustrates how drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians should act once the streetcar begins running.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

December 20th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, transportation



Philadelphia’s streetcar infrastructure: Old but interesting

Philadelphia’s streetcar network is the largest and busiest in the mid-Atlantic. It has several interesting features, some of which can help inform the planning for DC’s growing system.


Philadelphia’s Girard Avenue trolley, with island platform.

Philadelphia calls its system trolleys instead of streetcars, because it’s vintage from the original trolley era. While Philadelphia did discontinue many of its original trolley routes, unlike DC they also kept many.

The Girard Avenue trolley line even uses vintage trolley vehicles, originally built in 1947. It also runs in a unique on-street arrangement, with tracks down the center of wide Girard Avenue, and stations in narrow floating medians.


The Girard Avenue trolley’s floating platforms.

The Girard Avenue arrangement is totally different than DC’s H Street layout, which uses a mixture of curbside and full median tracks.

Philadelphia’s center-running tracks result in fewer conflicts with parked or turning cars, which speeds the trolleys down their route. It’s almost-but-not-quite like a dedicated transitway.

Unfortunately, the platforms are too narrow to meet modern disability-accessible design guidelines. If DC were to use a similar arrangement, we’d need wider platforms and thus more street width.


Narrow platform on the Girard Avenue trolley line.

On narrower streets in West Philadelphia, trolleys still run in the center, with bike lanes between the tracks and a row of parked cars.


West Philadelphia trolley line.

The trolley subway

Five trolley routes that run on-street in West Philadelphia combine and then move into a dedicated trolley subway to speed through Center City. It’s a great way to maximize the efficiency of the system through its most dense and congested section, while still taking advantage of the flexibility of on-street operations further out.


13th Street trolley subway station.

DC once had a short trolley subway too, under Dupont Circle. Today, DC’s reborn streetcar plan doesn’t call for any. They’re hugely expensive, after all. But with the specter of Metrorail capacity constraints looming, and new DC subway lines under consideration, perhaps someday a streetcar subway could again be appropriate in DC.

What else is there?

I’ve never personally lived in Philadelphia, so my experience with its trolley network is fairly limited. I’m sure there are other interesting features. What did I miss?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

December 17th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: galleries, streetcar, transportation, Uncategorized



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