For D.C. Residents, Streetcar Return Will Pose Practical Challenges

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If you stand on a corner in the H Street NE commercial district your ears will ring with a cacophony of city activity: cars and buses revving engines and honking horns, deliverymen unloading box trucks outside storefronts, the clatter and chatter of pedestrians and shoppers.

It would seem your ears would have no room for anything else.

To this urban mix will be added the electric whir of streetcars shifting from curb to median along 2.5 miles of tracks on H Street and Benning Road in Northeast D.C. It is the first section of a planned 22-mile priority streetcar network. The initial line is expected to open this year; the larger system will take years to complete.

A Change for All Parties on H Street

Before a single passenger can board a D.C. streetcar again, the system must pass all safety testing, an ongoing process that already has taken months. Once the streetcars start moving people, the District Department of Transportation will face the challenge of operating them safely and on time in a dense commercial corridor.

Problem-free operation will depend on both streetcar operators’ and regular motorists’ ability to share the road, and merchants’ willingness to find new places for their delivery trucks to park. The days of double parking outside a business will end because no one will be allowed to stop on top of the streetcar tracks on H Street NE.

“I think it is dumb,” said resident Shulander Banks. “We don’t need it. We have buses and cars so we don’t really need it.”

“Well, I’d have to see it running first to see how it ties up traffic because it may either run too slowly or stand still too long,” added Debra Padgett, another doubter.

While some may not see how the streetcars will function along with cars, cyclists, delivery trucks, Metro’s X2 buses, and throngs of pedestrians, no one will be able to miss the changes to the traffic mix.

The streetcar system is designed to accelerate the economic transformation of the neighborhood by efficiently moving large numbers of commuters and shoppers amid mixed-use development, even if the streetcars may rarely have a chance to literally accelerate down H Street as they have on the traffic-free Anacostia test track.

“The main thing about streetcar is it’s really about mobility more so than speed of transit. That’s being able to ensure connections between neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Thomas Perry, who is running the implementation of the streetcar program at DDOT.

DDOT is planning to run five streetcars at ten-minute headways — the amount of time a passenger would wait between streetcars — in the initial corridor. That may seem an unrealistic initial goal considering the streetcars may not travel more than a few miles an hour.

Streetcars, which usually share the road with other modes of transportation, were among the slowest transit systems in a study of 28 bus and rail lines across the globe by the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy.

The Portland streetcar traveled 9.9 kilometers/hour — 6.1 miles per hour — according to the ITDP study, and news media reports have pegged the speed at about eight miles per hour. An Oregon reporter, Joseph Rose, did an experiment in which he walked faster than Portland streetcar.

D.C. is modeling its streetcar system after Portland’s for both performance and economic development. Rick Gustafson, who headed Portland’s program through its first 12 years of existence before retiring this year, also worked as a consultant for D.C.’s streetcar plans.

Slow speeds have a benefit, said Gustafson, 67, in an interview with WAMU 88.5 while he was attending a streetcar conference in Washington.

“The reason the streetcar is quite safe and has far fewer injuries is because it doesn't move very fast,” said Gustafson, who said H Street/Benning Road shares a similar design to Portland’s initial four-mile NS Streetcar Line.

“Actually mixing traffic with the [streetcar] is safer than separating the traffic from the vehicle. When you separate traffic you then have to create the ways for traffic to get across the tracks. And that adds to the driver confusion," he said.

From 2011-2013, streetcar lines averaged 2.3 collisions with motor vehicles per million revenue miles, according to data compiled by the Federal Transit Administration. During the same three year period, light rail systems averaged 1.7 collisions per million revenue miles.

In pedestrian collisions (0.8 to 1.5), total collisions (3.3 to 3.5), fatalities (0.1 to 0.7) and injuries (10.4 to 17.6), streetcars were safer than light rail. Bus systems were safer than both streetcars and light rail in every aforementioned category, according to the FTA.

What can people expect on H Street? It will not be a demolition derby, said DDOT’s Thomas Perry.

“We are being as meticulous as we can bringing the cars on, as well as the outreach, letting people know about streetcars,” Perry said. “We have several videos and other messages that we have planned regarding safety and how to react to streetcar in the corridor.”

Speed is not the Goal

If Portland’s experience is an omen, the streetcars’ popularity may work against its speed while contributing to its safety.

“The number one issue is the number of riders. When you have a lot of riders you go slower because you are doing a lot of loading. That is our number one reason for being slow,” said Gustafson. “The second reason is effective traffic management. We made signal changes and other things to deal with our efficiency and it took three years to refine all of that stuff.”

The most common safety concern is cars turning into streetcars or striking them from behind at intersections.

“We actually experienced an unusual increase in car crashes in 2013. I don’t have an explanation for that. We would see 10 to 15 crashes a year. Driver confusion has been the primary issue,” Gustafson said. “But we have had an uptick of accidents in ’13. We had a total of 48 crashes.” DDOT’s Perry is not worried about how District drivers will adapt.

“We don’t anticipate having those problems. We anticipate our operators are going to be trained properly. We are going to have the proper striping throughout the corridor. We think the driving public is fairly sophisticated enough to know how to interact with streetcar,” he said.

In Portland, Gustafson said the streetcar program ran into another unexpected problem: Delivery trucks forgot they could no longer double park outside businesses because of the tracks.

“The delivery trucks were a big issue. We thought the individual car parking would be a problem and the commercial trucks would be more professional. We did move some of the loading zones, and we put the loading zones on the other side of the street,” he said.

The District will not be able to shift loading zones to either side of H Street because the streetcar tracks occupy both sides. DDOT is crafting a plan with merchants to use side streets or parking lots to unload deliveries.

DDOT also faced an additional challenge after the streetcar tracks were installed along H Street in 2011: Cyclists would ride into them, leading to accidents. In mid-2012, the city installed signs warning cyclists of the tracks, and bike lanes have been added to nearby roads to offer two-wheeled commuters an alternative route.

While preparations continue for passenger service , DDOT is moving ahead with what program chief Thomas Perry calls ‘operational phase’ testing. “It will basically be the car out here moving through the various tests without escorts,” he said. The District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is being trained to certify the streetcar based on safety criteria established by the Federal Transit Administration.

“This is our maiden voyage. But we do have to comply with federal standards, whether we build ten miles of track or 100 miles of track."

(This is the second part in a four-part series. The first story — It Might Be Desired, But In D.C. It's A Streetcar Named... Delay — can be found here. )