Streetcar and buses in Toronto. Photo by Sean_Marshall on flickr.

Here’s the simplest reason to build a streetcar on Columbia Pike: Absolutely tons of people will ride it. The latest ridership projections show that by 2035 there will be more streetcar riders on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City than there are on VRE or riding buses in Richmond today.

The latest ridership projections for the streetcar are huge. By 2035, 37,100 riders per day are expected to use the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City line, which will operate as a single through route. Another 22,700 will ride buses daily, for a total of 59,800 riders in the corridor.

For comparison, VRE carries about 20,000 per day, and as of 2011 (the most recent data available), the entire Richmond metropolitan area bus system carried an average of 35,200 riders per day. That’s every bus route in the whole region put together.

Granted, comparing 2035 projections to contemporary ridership is not exactly valid. Surely by 2035 VRE and Richmond’s GRTC will be carrying more riders than they are now.

But these comparisons are useful nonetheless. They give us a sense of the scale of transit demand on Columbia Pike.

Let’s keep going. According to the American Public Transportation Association’s 4th quarter 2013 ridership report, here are more total networks that the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcar’s 37,100 daily riders in 2035 will beat or approximately match:

  • MARC commuter rail (34,100 riders per day)
  • Regional light rail systems in Baltimore (26,800), San Jose (34,300), New Orleans (20,200), Minneapolis (30,100), Charlotte (15,400), Buffalo (17,400), Pittsburgh (28,300), Houston (38,300), Seattle (33,200), Norfolk (5,000 in 2012)
  • Regional bus networks in Indianapolis (35,000), Memphis (28,700), Nashville (31,200)
  • Fairfax Connector bus system (36,300)
  • Prince William County Omni-Ride bus system (13,400)
Of course there are plenty of bigger systems out there. Here’s a sampling from the same data:
  • Subway systems such as New York (8,733,300), WMATA (855,300), Atlanta (221,200), and even Baltimore (48,500)
  • Light rail systems such as Los Angeles (200,900), Sacramento (46,400), Portland (115,300), Dallas (98,300), and Saint Louis (53,000)
  • Bus networks like Baltimore (237,600), Montgomery County Ride-On (86,600), WMATA (441,100), and Norfolk (52,800 in 2012)
Now let’s compare the ridership projections for Columbia Pike / Crystal City with other rail projects near the DC region:

Each of those projects will carry more riders than the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcars, but each of them also has a price tag in the multiple billions of dollars. Streetcars in Arlington will cost hundreds of millions, but produce great bang for the buck.

The bottom line

With 16,000 daily bus riders today, Columbia Pike is already Virginia’s busiest bus corridor. By 2035 there will be nearly 60,000 combined streetcar and bus trips on the Columbia Pike / Crystal City corridor, with 42,800 of those coming on Columbia Pike.

Streetcar detractors want you to believe it’s practical to move more people on Columbia Pike by bus alone than the entire Richmond or Norfolk regional bus networks move in sum total. They want you to believe it’s practical to move more people on Columbia Pike with buses than MARC or VRE move on commuter rail, or that Baltimore, Minneapolis, or Houston move on light rail.

That’s ridiculous. The huge transit demand on Columbia Pike easily justifies rail, and it comes at a better cost value than other rail projects around the region. To suggest otherwise ignores reality.