When the DC Streetcar launched in late February, there were a few claims from media around town that it was barely faster than walking. That isn’t true, and it’s important to set the record straight.
"On the day the back-to-the-future transit system launched passenger service,” wrote Post reporter Michael Laris just after the streetcar opened, “it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.”
Media all over the region sang a similar tune about how the streetcar is slow and walking is fast:
- “The real punch line, though, is that the streetcars move so slowly along the route from nowhere to nothing that the entire distance can be walked in the time it takes to ride the rail-bus.” - The Washington Blade.
- “It says it could take 30 minutes to ride it I can walk it in 30 minutes or less,” one person said. “What a joke, an absolute joke.” - WUSA9.
- “It’s a big, in-the-way elephant,” said Valentine Jackson, a barber who works on H Street. “You can walk faster than it would take to get you from one end to the other.” - The New York Times.
- “It takes longer to travel Washington, D.C.‘s new streetcar line than it does to walk,” and “Most of these lines are about two miles long, are no faster than walking and cost $50 million or more per mile, while buying the same number of buses would cost a couple million, at most.” - Newsweek.
- “Tuss showed in December that he could walk faster than the streetcar.” - NBC.
The immediate thing to point out with that first Laris article is that of course the streetcar ran slowly on opening day‐ there were hundreds of onlookers at the celebratory kickoff, clogging the streets and the tracks. Times from that day shouldn’t be considered typical.
But beyond that, nobody walks from Union Station, where the streetcar route’s western edge is, to its eastern terminus at Benning and Oklahoma in 27 minutes! Doing so would require walking at an average of 4.5 miles per hour; the average walking speed is about three miles per hour, while the average jogging speed is about six miles per hour.
I’m an avid walker who lives less than a block from the Oklahoma Avenue station, and I’ve walked from my house, up Benning and H Streets, then to western the terminus at Union Station, probably 25 times. It usually takes about 40 minutes. Google Maps says it should take 38, which is actually a little generous— stop lights, like at Starburst Plaza (the intersection of 15th Street, Maryland Avenue, and Bladensburg Road) as well as those along H Street, often make trips take longer than mapping apps predict.
As for the streetcar’s speed, more recent articles say it’s taking an average of 18-20 minutes to get from end to end. In fact, in the inaugural “Running of the Streetcar”, many runners couldn’t outpace the Streetcar, even when starting with a small lead.
I should acknowledge that I’m writing this slightly after the fact— the articles quoted above came out when the streetcar opened in late February. But this is still important because if we don’t correct the inaccuracy, people will keep saying it.
The fact of the matter is that people have underestimated how much time it would take to walk the streetcar route, and overstated how much time it takes the streetcar itself to travel it. Really, taking the DC Streetcar is about twice as fast as walking.
In the inevitable future political battles over the Bowser administration’s promise to extend the line both east and west, the public should be aware of the facts, both good and bad.
The mismanagement leading up to the opening of the route has been well documented, which is appropriate. However, now that the streetcar is up and running, we should be aware that it is providing a functional and efficient alternative mode of transportation on one of the city’s busiest transportation corridors.