Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A major fire in Tenleytown closed part of Wisconsin Avenue last week, prompting a resident to argue on the neighborhood listserv that streetcars are inferior to buses, because buses can detour. In many ways the benefits of streetcars trump the potential for this sort of delay.

Running a streetcar on dedicated tracks can create new opportunities for economic development that buses typically do not. Installation and maintenance of a line require a significant long-term investment. Businesses are more willing to invest in neighbor­hoods the streetcar serves because it can bring a more permanent flow of patrons and residents.

Streetcars are also longer than buses and can carry more passengers. For example, the Circulator is 46 feet long and a typical articulated bus is 60 feet. The streetcar DDOT plans to use is 66 feet long and has a capacity of 170 passengers, according to United Streetcar LLC, a manufacturer of streetcars. Higher capacity can limit overcrowding, which makes the streetcar a more attractive option than a bus.

Additionally, running the streetcar on rails also makes for a smoother ride, and thus a more comfortable and attractive transit option. Buses are susceptible to potholes and poor road conditions, which can lead to bumpy rides.

The streetcar is not without disadvantages, however. It’s true that rails make the streetcar less flexible. During the fire last week, buses were able to use 42nd Street to navigate around the blockage. But even detouring a bus on a smaller residential street can be problematic. On-street parking and narrow streets make turns more difficult, increasing the likelihood of an accident. An unplanned, extensive detour can also be confusing for drivers, who could get lost.


Seattle streetcar parking sign. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

While events like last week’s fire aren’t regular occurrences, there are other incidents like parking obstructions that could hinder streetcar service. The DC streetcar will mix with traffic, so a driver who parks too far from the curb or a car that double-parks could block the streetcar line. Delivery trucks could also double-park and block travel lanes if a business lacks rear-delivery access. A bus can be more convenient in these cases because it can typically navigate around obstructions.

Drivers in the District won’t be accustomed to the streetcar at first and will have to learn the routes, size, speed and sound of the streetcar. Streetcar operators will also have to learn to drive with auto traffic. But just because drivers will have to get used to streetcars doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build them.

DDOT can launch a public education campaign to teach drivers about the streetcar. Their large size and red color will make them fairly easy to spot. The District should also be vigilant in strictly enforcing parking regulations to prevent cars from blocking travel lanes.

And what if the streetcar breaks down while in service? DDOT has said they have equipment to tow a streetcar away but hasn’t provided any data on how often that happens. This would certainly cause a delay and could be more complicated because of the rails and overhead wires.

Buses break down and slow service, too. Other buses can, however, detour around a disabled bus where a streetcar could not. While streetcar breakdowns are certainly a possibility, and new infrastructure can present unexpected problems, these types of inconveniences are not endemic to one mode only.

Smaller road obstructions like downed branches, other car accidents, and construction can cause both streetcar and bus service delays. Buses in traffic don’t always have immediate access to a detour route and detour routes won’t service any stops in the affected delay zone.

The economic development potential of the streetcar, however, makes it a significant public benefit. The H Street NE and Anacostia lines can bring more riders and new investment to neighborhoods needing both. The more permanent streetcar infrastructure creates the potential for more sustained ridership and investment.

As WMATA faces a budget deficit, the agency has considered cutting some bus service. Mayor Gray’s FY12 budget, on the other hand, provides $99 million for streetcars through 2017. Bus service can be cut easily but streetcars can bring more dedicated funding.

Streetcars are not superior to buses in every case. Buses can serve interior neighborhoods off of major commercial corridors and be more flexible in the case of road blockages. Streetcars aren’t meant to replace buses, however, but rather to supplement current service and provide new benefits.

Jamie Scott is a resident of Ward 3 in DC and a regular Metrobus commuter. He believes in good government, livable communities and quality public transit. Jamie holds a B.A. in Government from Georgetown University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown.