A new organization is fighting the Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington by showing a picture of a Bus Rapid Transit system that couldn’t possibly go on Columbia Pike. In response, another new group has formed to support the streetcar plan.

Looks great. Not possible in Arlington. Image from AST.

The pro-streetcar group, Arlington Streetcar Now, wants to see the proposed streetcar become a reality on Columbia Pike between Pentagon City and Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax County (and potentially beyond),  as well as a future streetcar from Pentagon City to Crystal City and then Potomac Yard in Alexandria.

It counters another new group, Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, which launched in January. Its supporters say they want Arlington to study a “modern Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system” along the Pike. But that group’s platform is deeply misleading.

Prominently plastered across its home page is a concept sketch of such a “modern BRT” system from Eugene, Oregon, which runs in a dedicated lane. But transit on Columbia Pike won’t get a dedicated lane. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) won’t allow it. That’s a travesty, but Arlington has been trying to make the best of the situation with the streetcar design.

You can build a very high-quality bus transit system, with a dedicated paved transitway, enclosed and sheltered stations, off-board fare payment, real-time information, and more. You can also build a cheap bus line that’s scarcely better than a classic bus.

A number of true BRT advocates really want to see “gold standard” bus-based transit lines, like those that have been very successful in Latin America. But in the United States, this often gets drowned out by people who just want to see cheaper projects, even if they’re less effective. We see campaigns with pictures of fancy, gold standard BRT paired with cost estimates more in line with not-really-BRT. It’s snake oil.

AST claims a “BRT” system would be far cheaper than a streetcar, but they are using estimates for alternatives in earlier studies that aren’t really BRT at all. Building something like the Eugene transitway would cost far more, perhaps more even than the streetcar.

Stop using “BRT” to talk about not-really-BRT

Streetcar isn’t always the right mode. Nor is rail in general. In many of the corridors where Montgomery County is considering BRT, assuming the county executive goes along with planners’ recommendations to repurpose existing lanes for BRT, this can be the right form of transit. It’s probably even right for the Corridor Cities Transitway.

But in Arlington, since a dedicated lane is not even on the table, it’s disingenuous from the start to use the term “BRT.” The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), the leading group of genuine BRT supporters, calls dedicated lanes a “vital” part of any BRT system in a BRT rating system they devised. Like LEED, ITDP’s system gives points for different elements; systems with a certain number of points are “gold,” then “silver” and “bronze.”

ITDP’s system tries to help define what really is “BRT” and what is just an overhyped regular bus line, and to differentiate higher-quality BRT lines from ones that have made more compromises. The US has not yet built a single gold-standard BRT system, or even silver, and most projects dubbed “BRT” aren’t at all.

Rendering from Pike Transit Initiative.

Arlington has already studied not-really-BRT and chose streetcar

On its website, AST doesn’t claim any particular cost savings or push any specific plan, but just asks for “a study.” The problem is, Arlington has done 2 studies already. Both looked at bus alternatives.

A 2005 study considered what it called a “BRT” option, with frequent, new buses, special stations, some off-board payment, but ultimately just a bus running in mixed traffic.

I went through the ITDP rating system and tried to match each category to the description in that study. Assuming the most optimistic choice each time, this would yield a score of about 61, or just barely enough to rate as Bronze BRT. Compromise on even the tiniest element, like only some off-board payment or lower off-peak frequency, and that proposal wouldn’t qualify as BRT at all.

The 2012 Alternatives Analysis considered an articulated bus option. Streetcar supporters Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada told the Arlington Mercury the capacity of articulated buses is just not high enough compared to streetcar.

Arlington Streetcar Now also cites studies showing that many riders will take a streetcar over a bus. They say Tacoma saw a bus line’s ridership jump 500% when it transformed it into a streetcar. 59% of residents along Columbia Pike said they would use a streetcar, while only 36% use the bus today.

It might be that those respondents think the streetcar will be faster than in reality, but other cities’ experiences have been that ridership on new streetcar lines outstrips predictions while bus ridership does not.

Argue facts, not fiction

There are surely valid arguments for a bus project over a streetcar, just as no transportation choice is ever unequivocal, but there are many arguments for the streetcar over buses as well. What isn’t on the table, however, is “modern BRT.” Should Arlington not build the streetcar because it could just use a Star Trek transporter instead?

There’s nothing wrong with a group advocating for a different transportation choice, though we might disagree; it’s disingenuous, though, to promote an impossible and expensive nice-looking option and assert it’s cheaper. Can the case against the streetcar really be strong, if opponents need to dangle a completely unrealistic hypothetical in front of residents?

Arlingtonians who want to see the streetcar built can declare their support and get on the email list for Arlington Streetcar Now.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.