Washington DC’s H Street streetcar has failed in just about every way possible. The 2.2-mile line cost $200 million, which is enough to build ten to twenty miles of four-lane freeway; it opened years behind schedule; and–despite being free “for a limited time”–it carries a paltry 2,400 people per weekday, which in a sane world wouldn’t be enough to sustain a bus line, much less a more-expensive streetcar. Now, the city has decided to extend that “limited time” for four more years out of a fear that charging a fare would turn away the few riders they now have. Officials were acutely aware that Atlanta’s streetcar patronage fell by nearly 50 percent when it started charging a dollar fare.
Despite these problems, the city is still considering extending the streetcar line. One of the arguments for doing so, in fact, is that if the line is long enough, they might actually attract enough patrons to charge a fare.
But isn’t the streetcar stimulating economic development? Hardly. H Street was revitalizing itself long before the streetcar opened. No doubt streetcar advocates will pat themselves on the back because a Whole Foods is opening on the streetcar line next month. But the company signed the lease to move in back in 2013, well before the streetcar opened. Some will say this was in anticipation of the streetcar, but I suspect the company, all of whose urban stores are located next to parking garages, was more motivated by the fact that its customers would have 199 underground parking spaces available for their use. As any commercial realtor knows, parking, not transit, drives retail.
El Paso is spending $90 million building a 4.8-mile streetcar line. For that price, they could have built close to 9 miles of four-lane freeway. The streetcar will connect the University of Texas El Paso with downtown, which suggests that they don’t expect many students to go downtown. If they did, they would have provided a bus service, which would have been faster and could move more people per hour.
In the course of paying for the streetcar, the city paid $3.2 million to an email phishing scammer. Two payments intended for the construction company were “misdirected” to another account. The city discovered the scam in early October and tried to cover it up but held a press conference about it yesterday.
The Antiplanner applauds the city for admitting it fell victim to a phishing scam. Now I’m waiting for the city to admit that it fell victim to the streetcar scam. That will be harder. Washington DC, for example, is home to one of the most embarrassing streetcar failures in the country, yet it is already planning another line. El Paso is more likely to argue that the phishing scam it fell for will promote economic development than admit that the streetcar it is building is also a scam.
The latest report on Washington, DC’s new streetcar is that it goes somewhat faster than reported last week. On the opening day, a typical run took 29 minutes from one end of the two-mile line to the other. (My report last week said the route was 2.2 miles, but the extra 0.2 miles is non-revenue track to a maintenance facility.)
This photo shows one reason why the H Street streetcar is such a safety hazard: any automobile that is slightly over the white line gets crinkled. Flickr photo by Mariordo59.
The early trips were probably slowed by people wanting to get free opening day rides. During its first week, trips averaged 18 or 19 minutes and the fastest trip recorded by the Washington Post was 17 minutes 9 seconds. That’s almost 7.0 miles per hour. While that’s faster than most people can walk, several DC runners managed to beat it last Saturday.
Washington, DC opened its streetcar line last Saturday, and in a blog post elsewhere the Antiplanner compared it with a zoopraxiscope. That got the attention of another blogger. In case you missed it, I’m cross-posting my blog post here.
Washington, DC opened its long-delayed streetcar for business on Saturday. Actually, it’s a stretch to say it is open “for business,” as the city hasn’t figured out how to collect fares for it, so they won’t be charging any.
Exuberant but arithmetically challenged city officials bragged that the streetcar would traverse its 2.2-mile route at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour, taking a half hour to get from one end to the other (which is 4.4 miles per hour). If there were no traffic and it didn’t have to stop for passengers or run in to any automobiles along the way, they admitted, it would still take 22 minutes (which is 6 miles per hour).
New York is far denser than any other large American city, with an average of 27,000 people per square mile compared with 2,500 to 4,000 for most American cities. Although the city is criss-crossed by an extensive subway system, there are still some neighborhoods that are more than half a mile from a subway station.
So naturally, what those neighborhoods need is an ultra-low-capacity, high-cost form of urban transit: a streetcar. At least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks: last week, he proposed to spend $2.5 billion building a 16-mile streetcar line connecting Brooklyn with Queens.
The Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas today, so the next few days are likely to see new hype (some say overhype) about self-driving cars. Last month, Yahoo reported that Ford and Google would announce that they would build self-driving cars together, but Ford’s announcement yesterday about its electronics plans didn’t mention Google. Ford may still make an announcement with Google later in the show, but it is curious that Yahoo’s original story doesn’t seem to be live anymore.
A combination that has been confirmed is between General Motors and Lyft. While their goal is to create a system of shared, self-driving vehicles, the only substance in the announcement was that General Motors was “investing” $500 million in Lyft. So it isn’t clear which, if either, company will be developing the software and hardware needed to make GM cars self-driving.
A Ford-Google partnership probably makes more sense than a GM-Lyft combine. With the former, Ford offers car-making expertise while Google offers the software and the resulting products could be used for car sharing, individual ownership, trucking, and other services. The GM-Lyft partnership is limited to just sharing and neither of the partners has the software to do true autonomous cars.
Despite all those years of planning, the streetcar continues to be accident-prone, partly because the streetcar route is too close to a parking strip and partly because streetcars, unlike buses, can’t swerve around poorly parked cars. When the streetcar hit a city police car that was parked over the white line, the city suspended the streetcar driver for five days without pay, but otherwise DDOT blames the motorists for improper parking. Of course, it wasn’t the motorists who decided to run inflexible, 30-ton vehicles down a busy street just inches from a parking strip.
Washington DC’s H Street streetcar ran down a police car last week. But, as the Washington Post headline notes, it’s “still not carrying passengers.”
Still in the testing stage a year after construction was supposedly complete. Wikimedia photo by Michael J.
The District Department of Transportation began testing the streetcar about a year ago, and the result was so many accidents that the DC council seriously considered scrapping the whole thing. Instead, it asked for an expert peer review by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Since APTA has never met a rail transit project it didn’t like, the review’s conclusion was pretty much predetermined.
The response of Sacramento streetcar advocates to voter rejection of their pet project reminds me of a little boy who has a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get the expensive Christmas present he wants. Like the little boy, it apparently never occurs to the streetcar crowd that the extraordinarily high cost of their scheme was too much for taxpayers to support. Instead, they act like they are entitled to the streetcar, and anyone who doesn’t want to help pay for something they will never use is just a grinch.
Building a streetcar requires tearing up perfectly good pavement that can be used by cars, trucks, and buses and inserting tracks. The cost of one mile of streetcar line can be more than the cost of a mile of a suburban four-lane freeway, yet the streetcar will never move more than 2 or 3 percent as many passenger miles per day as that freeway.
The streetcars themselves have fewer seats than a standard, 40-foot bus, yet cost nearly ten times as much and occupy more street space and so contribute more to congestion. Analysts predicted that a proposed streetcar in Anaheim would reduce the capacity of the streets to move cars by four times as much as the number of cars it would take off the road.
Sacramento wants to build a streetcar, and since everyone knows that streetcars increase property values, the city asked property owners to agree to pay a tax to help pay for it. Under California law, two-thirds of voters must agree, but the city must have believed that everyone loves streetcars so much that they would overwhelmingly agree to pay the tax.
Not so much. In fact, they couldn’t even get half to support it. The final vote count was something like 48 percent in favor.
Not to worry. Even though a nineteenth-century technology makes no sense in a twenty-first-century city; even though the people don’t want to pay for it; even though it has so far taken ten years to plan something that was obsolete a hundred years ago and certainly can’t respond to the almost daily changes in tastes, technologies, and travel patterns we experience today; they’re going to try to find a way to build it anyway. “We’ll look for other sources of funds,” said one city councillor. “We’re really committed to keep the project on track.” In other words, committed to stupidity.