GEORGE routes. Image from City of Falls Church.

Falls Church will discuss the possibility of building a streetcar on Tuesday. But this same city recently canceled its bus service, GEORGE, for lack of ridership. Why would a streetcar succeed where the bus failed?

City leaders now seem ready to up the ante on transit without facing the lessons of GEORGE. It didn’t fail because Falls Church doesn’t need transit; rather, its routing didn’t efficiently serve the areas where the most likely riders live or work. Nor are city leaders willing to focus more development in those areas to build the ridership to support transit.

Falls Church ran the GEORGE bus from 2002-2010 in two long loops anchored at the East and West Falls Church Metro stations (neither of which is actually located within the boundaries of Falls Church). The winding paths looked more like scenic tour bus paths than quick transit routes.

For example, GEORGE riders rightly wondered why the trip from EFC to the State Theater — only a 15 minute walk — involved a leisurely 14-minute loop through Falls Church neighborhoods. This was GEORGE’s fatal flaw. Its routes were designed to serve political purposes.

GEORGE wasn’t primarily designed to get the most commuters to Metro as fast as possible or to deliver customers to downtown businesses. Instead, it meandered down the streets of as many Falls Church homeowners as possible to convince them their tax dollars were being well spent, whether or not those streets wanted or needed transit.

One omission is particularly revealing. During peak hours, the EFC loop didn’t go all the way to Wilson Boulevard, instead turning right on the residential road of Roosevelt Street. That forced an extra walk to the retail shops at Eden Center and the large apartment and condo buildings of The Madison and Roosevelt Towers, whose patrons and residents were GEORGE’s ideal customers.

By targeting low-density, car-reliant neighborhoods, GEORGE was also competing against Falls Church’s heavily-subsidized incentives to drive. Falls Church and its neighbors have made big investments of land and infrastructure to provide taxpayer-underwritten parking at both EFC and WFC. Why wait for and pay for the bus if there’s free or discount parking waiting at the Metro stop?

Rather than facing up to GEORGE’s issues and seeking to streamline service, city leaders pulled the plug.

"Nobody did the market research to see if it was viable,” Charles Langalis, a member of the city’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation told TBD last year. “It was recommended that the city go to work on a marketing plan, some promotional work for GEORGE, but that never materialized, either.”

Now with neighboring Arlington moving forward with plans to build a streetcar down Columbia Pike, a discussion on Tuesday will ask whether Falls Church should make a similar move:

The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Falls Church will co-sponsor a luncheon discussion Tuesday November 15 on proposals for developing trolley-car transportation in the city. The event will occur from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm at the Italian Café, 7161 Lee Highway.

Panelists will include Steven Del Giudice, chief of the Arlington County

Transportation

Transit Bureau, Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder and former Falls Church City Council Member Dan Maller. Panelists will review basic information about trolley plans as well as routing options and potential benefits to the city.


Even though they’re neighbors who even share a court system, Arlington and Falls Church couldn’t be more different when it comes to development and transportation choices. Arlington’s population has grown 36% since 1980 by focusing dense residential development around transit, and several new developments have already sprung up down Columbia Pike in advance of the streetcar.

But Falls Church’s firm opposition to development has limited its population growth to just 18% since 1980. Even near its neighboring Metro stations, single-family homes and low buildings with large surface parking lots remain the dominant features. On Broad Street downtown, apartments are rare and one-floor retail dominates. Exactly where is there enough density for a trolley?

And even if new density were to spring up tomorrow, would Falls Church’s single-family homeowners be willing to let their leaders invest tax dollars to help apartment and condo dwellers? After all, if Falls Church residents would rather sit alone in their cars, angry that traffic remains so bad but happy their tax dollars aren’t being wasted on that stupid bus anymore, how are those same people going to be convinced to back a more expensive trolley?

It’s loopy.

Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play.