Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Where should DC build its next streetcars after the H Street and Anacostia lines under construction today? That should depend on which neighborhoods want to help make them succeed.

The streetcar, ultimately, is an economic development tool with transportation benefits, rather than strictly a mobility tool. A streetcar makes new development more desirable and increases the value of existing homes, offices and stores.

To pay for the streetcar, DC should set up mechanisms to capture this added value from the neighborhoods that benefit. Before promising a line to any corridor, policymakers should work with local businesses and residents to set up a financing plan.

In other corridors, like Wisconsin Avenue, where access isn’t the obstacle to growth, bus priority is a better transportation tool than the streetcar.

The streetcar is not about speed

The streetcar is not going to be faster than a bus. It may be slower, since the streetcar could get stuck behind other vehicles more often. Some plans even suggest that in future corridors, the streetcar run the local service and most buses switch to limited-stop.

Experiences in other cities have shown that a streetcar makes many people more willing to live, eat and shop along a corridor, though. It’s a smoother ride, and laying tracks creates a sense of permanence. Property owners consequently are more likely to build on empty lots or open businesses in vacant storefronts as a result.

But a streetcar is much more expensive to build than a bus. The Office of Planning report on streetcar land use concludes that streetcars can generate more economic benefits than they cost. But all corridors are not created equal. Some can support more economic benefits than others. The best ones are those that can accommodate a lot of redevelopment.

With declining federal revenues, DC can’t count on outside financing for the streetcar lines. With DC residents paying for the streetcar themselves, the lines should go where they’ll bring enough benefits to justify the cost.

Neighborhoods: Want a streetcar? Help pay for it.

Property owners could agree to a “value capture” system, where if their property increases in value as a result of the streetcar, some of that extra value goes back to the streetcar to pay for construction.

The Office of Planning report estimates that capturing some of the real estate benefits of the streetcar could pay for 40-60% of the cost of building one (page 68). But it also says, “The increases in real estate values and development that the streetcar could spur over a ten-year period—looking only at land within a quarter-mile of new routes—would exceed the projected cost of creating the system by 600% to 1,000%” (page 7). Therefore, even greater value capture, and picking corridors willing to agree to greater value capture, could fund even more of the system.

Projected benefits from the streetcar for retail (left), residential (center), and office (right) markets. Images from the DC Office of Planning.

Neighborhoods can also make a streetcar more or less economical. Residents around a commercial corridor could agree to targeted changes to the zoning that allow for more new residents or jobs right next to the streetcar, to bring in revenue and take advantage of the new transit service.

The chart below, from the OP report, looks at the effect on the housing market of each segment. Those in the upper right spur new development in places there is a lot of opportunity. Segments in the upper left, on the other hand, increase property values but there isn’t a lot of room in the zoning to add more housing.

In these areas, it would make more sense to ask for targeted increases right near streetcar stops if neighborhoods want a streetcar line. That will make sure the line actually generates economic value to justify the cost.

Transformation opportunities for streetcar lines. Segments in red are planned for Phase 1, yellow Phase 2, and blue Phase 3. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The segments in the lower left don’t receive much economic value from a streetcar. Many are actually the spots where the lines connect to Metro stations; the streetcar won’t change housing demand much because Metro already has. Elsewhere, the segments likely aren’t worthwhile and DC should invest in other transit instead.

The lonely 1A segment, way at the bottom left of the chart, is the segment on South Capitol Street. It is between a military base and a freeway, where absolutely nobody lives and no new development is possible. It’s hard to justify running streetcar service there, although it is a great site for a maintenance facility.

Red areas show where zoning constrains streetcar-driven development. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Our experiences with building Metro provides an analogue. Arlington planned higher-density urban villages next to each Metro station, while preserving the surrounding neighborhoods a few blocks away. That gave Arlington tremendous growth without increased traffic, putting it in a very strong fiscal position for a long time. Streetcars won’t be able to support densities as high as Metro, but the principle is the same.

In the San Francisco area, towns with BART lines built around the same time, in contrast, typically downzoned the land around the stations to prohibit walkable urbanism and ensure park-and-ride lots. They didn’t recognize the value of building new, less car-dependent neighborhoods atop the stations. Once BART had decided to put a line there, they had no leverage to encourage communities to maximize the investment.

Moving forward, DC officials should work with individual neighborhoods to consider the potential benefits of the streetcar. If a community has plenty of development potential, a streetcar might pay for itself now. Or, maybe the community can agree to a few simple steps, like allowing some extra housing, offices and retail, or setting up a value capture system that best takes advantage of the opportunity from building a streetcar.

Want a streetcar sooner? Then work out changes to help pay for one. Don’t want any change? Then maybe DC should put the streetcar elsewhere, at least for a while.

Wisconsin Avenue needs better buses, not streetcars

Some corridors could certainly benefit from better transit, but the streetcar isn’t the right mode. Take Wisconsin Avenue. The buses that ply this corridor have some of the highest ridership in DC, and could use more capacity. A streetcar could increase capacity, since vehicles are larger, but at great cost. Meanwhile, it won’t spur new development to cover that cost.

Wisconsin Giant proposal. Image from the project team.

Wisconsin Avenue has many sites ripe for development that are similar in scale to many of the existing apartment buildings, but the obstacle has never been transit access.

Few new buildings are built along Wisconsin Avenue. This isn’t because of any shortage of demand or access. Rather, new buildings aren’t going up because of some neighbors’ intense and often litigious oppo­sition.

The Wisconsin Giant, for instance, is a mere 5-story development, yet it endured decades of legal, historic, and other obstacles. Most residents nearby may support new construction, but a streetcar won’t change the dynamic.

Photo by Complete Sts. on Flickr.

Instead, Wisconsin Avenue needs bus priority treatment. Dedicated lanes, queue jumpers, signal priority, off-board payment, and more limited stop service could all give residents and workers a faster route downtown, which is really what they need. It takes a long time to get downtown on the 30s. A streetcar won’t fix that, but bus priority could.

Right now, DDOT and WMATA are studying the possibility of adding dedicated bus lanes during rush periods to H and I Streets crosstown. If successful, these will significantly speed the trip by bus for the 30s and many other lines. DC should make sure these work, and also begin studying how to best configure Wisconsin Avenue for efficient bus service, even at the cost of hampering other modes.

Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3, also now chairs the transportation committee in the DC Council. She’s expressed some disappointment that her ward is largely left out of the streetcar plan, and pushed Gabe Klein (when he was in DC) and Harriet Tregoning to study a Wisconsin Avenue line.

However, Ward 3 just isn’t a place that needs the economic development of a streetcar. Cheh would best serve DC by supporting a streetcar in the neighborhoods which need growth and pushing for other transit improvements in her neighborhoods which need mobility instead.

At his talk last week, Jarrett Walker said that many cities build streetcars just because they can’t make the bus system easier to understand. DC should distinguish between the best place for streetcars and the best place for buses.

In neighborhoods with significant economic development potential, like on H Street NE, Georgia Avenue, and many other corridors, a streetcar makes sense. Where transit isn’t the obstacle to growth, like on Wisconsin Avenue, we should also improve transit, but use the right mode for the job.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.