To reduce costs, trains on the Purple Line will come every seven and half minutes rather than every six. The state will not change the alignment, nor the number or location of stations.
The Purple Line has been on the books for decades, and enjoys wide support in Maryland’s urban and suburban communities surrounding DC. It was primed to begin construction this year, but Governor Hogan has been threatening to cut it since entering office.
Our neighbors in Baltimore are not so lucky. At the same presser, Hogan announced the Baltimore Red Line will not move forward as currently conceived.
Construction progress as of Saturday, April 18, 2015.
The transit center will feature bus bays and rider amenities, covered under a great curving roof that’s sure to become a local landmark.
Fow now, the bright white frame looks more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a bus station.
Here’s what it will all look like once construction is done:
Rendering of the final station. Image from the State of Maryland.
Langley Park needs this
Langley Park, at the corner of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, is the busiest bus transfer location in the Washington region that isn’t connected to a Metro station.
Eleven bus routes stop on the side of the street at the busy crossroads, serving 12,000 daily bus riders. That’s nearly as many bus riders per day as there are Metrorail riders at Silver Spring Metro, and it’s about double the number of Metrorail riders at Takoma station.
Corralling all those bus stops into a single transit center will make transfers vastly easier, faster, and safer for bus riders.
Heavy construction began at the transit center last year, and is scheduled to be complete around December 2015.
If the Purple Line light rail is built, Takoma Langley will become one of its stations, boosting ridership even more. The light rail transitway and station would have to be added later, and would fit snuggly in the median of University Boulevard.
How a Purple Line station would fit. Rendering from the State of Maryland.
How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail
There is muchconfusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That’s because there’s no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.
San Francisco’s Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic. Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.
It’s hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.
The difference, in a nutshell
Theoretically light rail is a streetcar that, like a subway or el, goes faster in order to serve trips over a longer distance. But what does that mean in practice?
There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there’s no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it’s usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.
There are too many exceptions to that rule to rely on it completely. Sometimes (though rarely) light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.
Compare Sacramento’s mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia’s streetcar subway, for instance:
Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia. Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak via Flickr.
In fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. That’s true in Atlanta, Seattle, Tucson, even DC. Those streetcar lines don’t suddenly become “light rail” for one block just because they have a dedicated lane somewhere. It’s just not that simple.
Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar. Right: Toronto’s Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall via Flickr.
There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it’s an important data point; certainly it’s one factor that can help tell the difference. But it’s not enough.
An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.
But that’s not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:
Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC. Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon via Flickr.
Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its “light rail” mostly runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.
Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr. Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.
Vehicles and trains
If tracks on their own aren’t enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?
It’s tempting to think of streetcars as “lighter” light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that’s true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Norfolk light rail car, which is over 90 feet long.
But not all streetcars are short. Toronto’s newest streetcars are 99 feet long.
Toronto streetcar. Photo by Swire on Flickr.
In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta’s streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.
Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon via Flickr. Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.
Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC. Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson via Flickr.
And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.
San Francisco’s Muni Metro and Boston’s Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.
Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.
Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC. Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees via Flickr.
Stations offer some help, but no guarantee
Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you’re likely dealing with light rail.
For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:
Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC. Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.
But that’s only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they’re in a subway).
This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:
Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC. Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.
Stop spacing and route length
Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.
But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren’t consistent? There’s no clear place to draw the line.
Furthermore, Walker’s graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.
Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There’s no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.
To really know the difference, look at everything
There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.
No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn’t. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line’s characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.
For example, DC’s H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations. Even if DDOT builds the K Street transitway and a dedicated-lane streetcar on Georgia Avenue, the majority of the seven factors will still point to streetcar.
On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle’s Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that’s often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.
Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr. Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.
But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco’s Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston’s Green Lines, and Pittsburgh’s T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.
It’s a feature, not a bug
The fact that it’s hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.
You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC’s H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, without forcing riders to transfer.
That’s why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.
That’s not muddied. That’s smart. That’s matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line’s name.
San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below
A public art installation on San Francisco’s Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.
Image from Illuminate The Arts.
The project is called “LightRail,” and according to its sponsors it will be the world’s first “subway-responsive light sculpture.”
Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.
Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.
Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I’ve ever seen.
Does Maryland’s statewide planning make big projects harder to build?
Maryland Governor’s Mansion. Image from the Boston Public Library on Flickr.
Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland’s new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland’s heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?
Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies, rather than doing it at the state level. Maryland is unusual. It’s geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.
That can be a mixed blessing.
When things go well, it means Maryland directs many more resources to transit than most other states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.
Maryland’s centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won’t change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.
But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly so safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan’s election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans. And they have different priorities.
Of course, it’s completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.
But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor’s time in office to complete.
It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway. If every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.
Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore’s light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor’s pet project and another governor’s whipping post.
Maryland’s spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway.
While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.
And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland’s particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor’s office seems to make it par for the course.
When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they’re less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.
For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.
Is there a best of both worlds?
The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.
While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George’s weren’t supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.
Could we find a way to preserve access to the state’s financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.
Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.
Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn’t get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.
No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn’t have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.
Don’t mistake Maryland’s problem as a criticism of planning in general
One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, “central planning” is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.
Maryland’s reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.
Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.
Norfolk’s light rail decision: Embrace the city, or follow the highway
As Norfolk plans the next expansion of its burgeoning light rail system, a classic transit dilemma faces the community: Will the northern extension to Naval Station Norfolk run through rider-rich urban neighborhoods, or take the path of least resistance along wide suburban highways?
Potential light rail routes. Image from HRT.
Hampton Roads Transit is planning two light rail extensions. One, east to Virginia Beach, is relatively straightforward; it will follow an old rail right-of-way. The other, north to Naval Station Norfolk, is a challenge.
The northern extension will have to run on or adjacent to streets, and could follow any one of several alignments planners are currently considering.
If the light rail follows Granby Street, a tightly packed urban commercial street, or Hampton Boulevard, the main street through Old Dominion University, then it will probably capture a lot of local riders, since those are walkable transit-friendly destinations. On the other hand, adding transit lanes would be more disruptive for car drivers on narrow streets than on wider, more suburban highways, since there’s less space to go around.
Conversely, if the light rail follows the more easterly Military Highway, there will be plenty of space to accommodate trains without disrupting cars, and commuters to the navy base using park-and-rides near the end of the line will have a quick ride from their cars to the base.
But that alignment wouldn’t serve any strongly walkable neighborhoods; it would even miss downtown Norfolk. It would offer quick rides to one destination and easy construction, but the resulting line would be a glorified parking shuttle to the navy base, not the spine of a transit-oriented community.
Maybe after a few decades a Military Road alignment might induce enough transit oriented development that some of its stations could become walkable. Or maybe not. In the meantime, Norfolk’s genuinely urban neighborhoods will still need better transit.
Meanwhile, the Church Street alignment would split the difference by skirting the outer edge of downtown Norfolk, and the Chesapeake Boulevard alignment would snake along an indirect route that serves a few additional neighborhoods, but would be very slow from end to end. These options look like compromises unlikely to satisfy anybody.
Planners have already dropped the most urban alignment options, which would have gone through Norfolk’s dense Ghent neigborhood. Not only does that mean the most walkable part of Norfolk besides downtown will be without rail, but also that the western end of the existing light rail line will be a spur, forcing transfers.
Experience says pick the urban options
The fast and easy suburban options are tempting. Not only are they the path of least resistance, but computer models of traffic behavior probably predict that the more suburban routes capture the most navy base commuters.
But history shows light rail systems built like that don’t work very well. Computer models are good at predicting long distance car commutes, but bad at understanding travel in walkable areas. They naturally push planners towards park-and-ride oriented systems, when we know the most successful transit routes follow dense walkable corridors instead.
So Norfolk faces a choice: Embrace the city and build a transit line for the city, or follow a highway and build a park-and-ride shuttle.
Build protected transit lanes using cycletrack bollards
Simple plastic bollards and slight changes to lanes are enough to turn a regular bike lane into a cycletrack. Could the same trick work for bus lanes?
Bollard-protected bus lane in Washington state. Image from Zachary Ziegler on Vine.
DC’s 7th Street and 9th Street curbside bus lanes are famously dysfunctional. Cars use them at will, and pretty much always have. But it doesn’t have to be so.
The same tricks that work to protect bike lanes can also work to protect transit lanes. Plastic bollards, also known as flexposts, send a strong message to car drivers to stay out. The Virginia Department of Transportation even uses them on highways.
Flexposts on a Dulles Toll Road bus lane (left) and the Beltway (right). Beltway photo from Google.
Generally speaking, the same complications would exist for bus lanes as exist for cycletracks. Adding bollards takes up a couple of extra feet, parking for cars has to move a lane away from the curb, and you have to find a way to accommodate cars turning at intersections. But mixing zones and other clever solutions have solved those problems for cycletracks, and could work for bus lanes too.
And flexposts aren’t the only cycletrack lesson we can apply to bus lanes. Red paint helps transit lanes the same way green paint helps bike lanes.
Green means bike, red means transit. Bus lane photo from NYDOT.
No matter how many special treatments like bollards or red paint an agency applies, median transitways will still function better than curbside transit lanes. Median transitways eliminate the right turn problem altogether (left turns are less common), and puts the transit lanes out of the way of parked cars, or cars pulling over to pick up or drop off passengers.
But median transitways take up more road space, because the medians have to be wide enough for stations. They simply can’t fit on all streets. Where that’s the case, tricks like these can help curbside transit lanes work better than the 7th Street bus lane.
MoveDC plan proposes more cycletracks, transit, and tolls. Will it actually happen?
The latest draft of DDOT’s citywide transportation plan, moveDC, calls for a massive expansion of transit and cycling facilities throughout the District, plus new tolls on car commuters. If the District adopts it, the plan will become one of America’s most progressive.
The moveDC plan summary map. All images from DDOT.
DDOT released the latest version of moveDC last Friday, launching a month long public comment period in anticipation of a DC Council hearing on June 27. Following that, the mayor will determine any changes based on the comment period, with final adoption anticipated this summer.
What’s in the plan
Amid the hundreds of specific recommendations in the plan, three major proposed initiatives stand out:
A vastly improved transit network, with 69 miles of streetcars, transit lanes, and improved buses, plus a new Metrorail subway downtown.
A massive increase in new cycling infrastructure, including the densest network of cycletracks this side of Europe.
Congestion pricing for cars entering downtown, and traveling on some of DC’s biggest highways.
Proposed high-capacity transit network (both streetcars and bus). Blue is mixed-traffic, red is dedicated transit lanes.
The plan proposes to finish DC’s 22-mile streetcar system, then implement a further 47-mile high-capacity transit network that could use a combination of streetcars or buses. That includes 25 miles of dedicated transit lanes, including the much requested 16th Street bus lane.
Although the proposed high capacity transit corridors closely mirror the 37-mile streetcar network originally charted in 2010, there are several new corridors. In addition to 16th Street, moveDC shows routes on Wisconsin Avenue, both North and South Capitol Streets, H and I Streets downtown, and several tweaks and extensions to other corridors.
MoveDC also includes a huge expansion of trails and bike lanes, especially cycletracks.
Proposed bike network. The pink lines are cycletracks.
Under the plan, DC would have a whopping 72 miles of cycletracks crisscrossing all over the city. From South Dakota Avenue to Arizona Avenue to Mississippi Avenue, everybody gets a cycletrack.
Meanwhile, moveDC shows major new off-street trails along Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, and the Anacostia Freeway, among others.
Tolls for cars
Congestion pricing is clearly on DDOT’s mind, with multiple proposals for new variable tolls in the plan.
Proposed downtown cordon charge zone.
The most aggressive proposal is to a declare a cordon charge to enter downtown in a car. This idea has worked in London and has been discussed in New York and San Francisco, but so far no American city has tried it.
Meanwhile, some of the major car routes into DC would also be converted to managed lanes. Like Maryland’s ICC or Virginia’s Beltway HOT lanes, managed lanes have variable tolls that rise or fall based on how busy a road is.
MoveDC proposes managed lanes on I-395, I-295, New York Avenue, and Canal Road.
What will the council think?
DDOT has produced a very strong plan, but is it going anywhere? The DC Council will discuss moveDC on June 27, at which time we’ll find out if the same people who pulled the rug out from under streetcar funding are interested in progressive policy-making, at least.
Even if DC does adopt this plan, whether the council will actually provide the funds necessary to build it is anybody’s guess.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the DC Council will approve or deny this plan. Authority to approve it actually rests solely with the mayor.