Image from Pike Transit Initiative.

Some Arlington residents argue that the planned Columbia Pike streetcar is too expensive, and that cheaper articulated buses would be just as good. But they would not transform Columbia Pike in the way Arlington wants.

Articulated buses are appropriate in many places, but they are not the same as streetcars. They don’t accomplish the same goals, and are not merely a less-expensive substitute.

If Arlington wanted only to provide more transit capacity for existing riders, then better buses would make sense. However, Arlington’s goal is to transform Columbia Pike from a suburban commercial strip into a dense, walkable, urban mixed-use neighborhood.

Arlington has a long history of using investments in rail to support smart growth goals. It redeveloped the Orange and Blue Line corridors after Metrorail opened, creating national models of transit-oriented development. 

Before Metro, those areas looked very much like Columbia Pike does today. Arlington wants to create the same kind of transformation on the pike, and needs a rail investment to do so.

While it is true that the proposed streetcar will not offer the same level of service as Metrorail, Arlington can’t pay for a new subway line. Meanwhile, streetcars have proven to produce similar results at a price the county can afford.

In addition to smart growth and economic development benefits, streetcars are more comfortable to ride than buses, last longer than buses, are quieter than buses, don’t spew exhaust, need less energy per passenger than buses, attract more riders than buses, and, depending on the situation, can be less expensive to operate and maintain than buses.

More buses didn’t cause change in the past

It’s true that articulated buses are even more affordable than streetcars, and that Arlington could save a lot of money by abandoning rail and simply running longer buses. However, Arlington already significantly enhanced Columbia Pike’s bus service in 2003, so that buses run every 2 to 3 minutes. That was a nice improvement for riders, but didn’t spark much, if any, redevelopment.

While there has been a limited amount of development since 2003, it likely had more to do with Columbia Pike’s development-friendly “form-based” zoning code. The code also took effect in 2003, at the same time as the bus improvements.

2003’s changes were relatively easy to make and did improve the corridor, but the pace of redevelopment over the last decade has been paltry compared to what’s expected with a streetcar. The easy changes have already been made.  Columbia Pike needs a greater incentive, or it will continue to lag behind other areas. Simply running bigger buses, as streetcar opponents want to do, isn’t enough.

Other regional examples can be instructive. DC, for instance, has more experience with articulated buses than any other jurisdiction in the area. It recognizes that streetcars and articulated buses are not equal. The 2 corridors in DC with the most articulated buses, H Street (on the X2 route) and Georgia Avenue (the 70), are some of the top priorities in DC’s streetcar plan. DC already has articulated buses, and yet they are adding streetcars to those very corridors precisely because streetcars offer advantages that buses do not.

Arlington is planning a streetcar because of these distinctions. It has been planning the line for the past decade, has been fully transparent, and enjoyed wide support.

Articulated buses are not a substitute for streetcars. Buses do not accomplish the planning goals set out by the county and approved by its voters. The arguments put forth by streetcar opponents neither address nor refute the reasons for building a streetcar on Columbia Pike, and are not convincing.

Arlington is accepting comments on the option to replace the streetcar with articulated buses until June 21. Let them know that longer buses will not cut it. To realize the smart growth vision for Columbia Pike, Arlington needs a streetcar.