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Counterpoint: A Streetcar Supporter’s Take

The following op-ed is written by Chris Slatt, an advocate for streetcars in Arlington County. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Rendering of a streetcar along Columbia PikeI’m Chris Slatt, a supporter of Arlington Streetcar Now — a group of local citizens committed to seeing Arlington County continue its investment in high quality transit through the installation of a modern streetcar network. There are many reasons that Streetcars are the right transportation system for Columbia Pike, and we highlight many of them on our web site, but for me it all comes down to one main reason, ridership.

What good is a transit system if few people ride it?  People, at least in US, seem to prefer rail transit even in cases where it isn’t faster or more frequent than equivalent buses. For instance:

  • When Seattle temporarily substituted buses for streetcars on its Waterfront line while the streetcar vehicles were being overhauled, ridership dropped to 1/15th of what it had been with Streetcars, despite the buses providing “equivalent service”.
  • When Memphis surveyed its transit riders it found that 83% of those who rode their streetcar system didn’t utilize any other form of public transit — it was the streetcar or nothing at all.
  • In 2003 the City of Tacoma converted an existing bus line that ran every 12 minutes to a streetcar line that runs every 10 minutes. Despite that only being a small increase in “performance,” ridership increased by 500%.
  • The Arlington County Resident Study, a survey that was completed in 2009, found that while 36% of Pike residents use the current bus system at least once a week, 59% of respondents indicated they would use a proposed streetcar at least once a week.

Some folks may note that Arlington’s own Alternatives Analysis shows only a small ridership benefit for the Streetcar Alternative. This is because it is Federal Transit Administration policy to only allow a 5% “mode factor” for rail in federal alternatives analyses — despite many examples like those above that would indicate that it should be much higher.

True Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can be great. Bogota has a great system, as does Guangzhou, China. These systems attract their ridership by emphasizing the “rapid” part of Bus Rapid Transit; they have dedicated lanes in which to travel. Such a system can’t exist on Columbia Pike, we don’t have the available right-of-way unless you take travel lanes away from existing traffic.

Instead you would have “limited” BRT, or what some would call “BRT Light” or “Faux BRT”. Essentially bigger buses, nicer stops and potentially off-board fare collection (although WMATA who operates all other regional buses in the area is apparently unwilling to offer off-board fare collection).  This “BRT light” is what was studied in the Alternatives Analysis as the “TSM 2” or “Articulated Bus” option. While calling this BRT sound great because you can associate your proposal with other successful systems around the globe, there are few if any existing limited BRT systems that attract significant ridership.

When you hear about how great BRT is, look closely at the systems being held up as examples.  Are they similar to what would be achievable on the Pike?  Or are they more like “light rail” systems operating at high speeds in their own travel lane with widely spaced stops?  At Arlington Streetcar Now we try to avoid using statistics or comparisons to light rail systems for this exact reason and we encourage others to do the same.

After decades of neglect, Columbia Pike deserves a great transit system, not just a “good enough” transit system; Columbia Pike deserves a Streetcar.

For more information, see our FAQ section at http://arlingtonstreetcarnow.org/frequently-asked-questions.aspx or declare your support at http://arlingtonstreetcarnow.org/declare-your-support.aspx

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