Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Happy New Year, it’s 2020. This is the year the combined Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar system was scheduled to open.

Streetcar opponents like Libby Garvey and Peter Rousselot said a “Modern Bus Rapid Transit System” could be implemented much more quickly than a streetcar, so let’s check-in to see how things are progressing.

What was proposed?

When the Arlington Streetcar was initially looked at, the County had to do an Alternatives Analysis (AA) (actually, they did several AAs, but that’s a long story). In the final AA, they compared the Streetcar Alternative to a “No Build” alternative and two different bus alternatives.

The “No Build” alternative was basically to see what happens if we continue with the status quo and some improvements that were already in the Capital Improvement Plan. The first bus alternative, called “TSM-1” was an “enhanced bus” service that made some minor improvements but didn’t really have a big impact. The second bus alternative called “TSM-2” made a lot of improvements and, at least on paper, was projected to provide nearly the same benefits as the Streetcar alternative for a lot less money.

This TSM-2 alternative is what many streetcar opponents championed as a “Modern BRT” system and encouraged the County to implement in place of the Arlington Streetcar. The system I am going to outline below and set forth as my expectations is mostly defined by that TSM-2 alternative, but I will add in a few additional items related to Crystal City.

The planned Arlington Streetcar system was made up of two projects: the Columbia Pike Streetcar and the Crystal City Streetcar, which, at least early on were on two different schedules and were being funded separately but would have ultimately been an integrated system. The bus system that replaces it needs to meet some of those same needs.

Arlington is calling their bus plan the Columbia Pike Premium Transit Network (PTN), not BRT. Likely this is to avoid the whole controversy about whether TSM-2 qualifies as BRT or not. From here on out I will stick to Arlington’s nomenclature.

Why is the Pike Premium Transit Network Important?

Columbia Pike is the densest residential area of Arlington outside of the Metrorail corridors. The Columbia Pike Initiative worked to plan for a re-imagined Columbia Pike that would be a walkable Main Street area rather than the car-dominated commuter arterial with surface parking lots and drive-throughs. The Columbia Pike Form-based Code and Neighborhoods Plan were designed to guide that redevelopment, and improved transit on Columbia Pike is needed to ensure that at least some of the new neighbors who come to the Pike as part of that transformation can live car-free or car-light lives, since Columbia Pike isn’t getting any wider.

Key Features

So what does the Pike Premium Transit Network need to support that transformation? It needs to be fast, convenient, dependable and high capacity. TSM-2 had a number of features each of which played an important role in one or more of those areas and together they elevate it above the existing bus service.

Travel Time Features

  • Off-Vehicle Fare Collection
  • Multi-door Boarding
  • Stop Consolidation
  • Transit Signal Priority

Convenience & Dependability Features

  1. All-Day, Everyday Operation
  2. 2-3 minute peak frequency
  3. 4 minute off-peak frequency
  4. Enhanced Transit Stations

Capacity Features

  1. High-Capacity Vehicles

Additionally, I would add the following as necessary to truly replace the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City system:

  • Dedicated Transit Lanes (in Crystal City)
  • A one-seat ride from Skyline to Crystal City

What’s to Come

In future columns, I will explain why each of these features is important to the Pike’s Premium Transit Network, look at how Arlington is doing at implementing each feature and ultimately give the County a grade on how close we have come to the originally-envisioned alternative. Stay tuned.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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