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The Allure of the DC Streetcar

The older technology makes the bus look obsolete.

WASHINGTON—It’s late morning on a Saturday in March, and I’m at the corner of 3rd and H Streets NE, waiting for the streetcar. Behind me, on the ground floor of the new corner condo building, there’s a craft-beer store and a daycare center for dogs. Next to them is a big hole (formerly a vacant lot) where a 112-unit mixed-use building is about to go up. Across H Street is a new Giant supermarket, on top of which are more condos with prices in the high six figures. This is the west end of H Street’s 12-block stretch of recent—and if you’ve lived in the city for a while, it can seem like instant—gentrification. I don’t even notice the streetcar line’s slim overhead wires until I remember to look for them.

The first leg of the city’s new modern streetcar line—its six trains, 2.4 miles, and eight stops have cost over $200 million so far—runs from Union Station (where the subway stops) to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE. There’s no subway station there, just a golf course and a park. But if the city has its way, the line will soon connect to a subway station across the Anacostia River.

Most of the passengers heading east—and on the way to the terminus at Oklahoma Avenue, the two-car tram nearly fills up before emptying out again—appear to be shoppers who live on the eastern part of the route. With its level entry and open cabin, the streetcar is a lot easier to hump shopping bags around on than the bus.

The contrast between the two parts of the 2.4-mile route is stark. On the west, along H Street, it’s new condos and bistros and mostly white faces on the sidewalks. East of 15th, along Benning Road, it’s mostly black and aging buildings and low-rent garden apartments and fast-food joints and chain-discount stores. A few years ago, H Street (damaged during the riots of the late 1960s) looked like this.

On the ride back—and on the way the tram nearly fills up again—I ask Tony, a graphic artist who says he’s looking for work, how often he rides the streetcar.

“Seven days a week,” he says, before pointing out that there are no ads inside the cabin.

He wonders if the streetcar is, or might be, privatized. (It’s owned by the District but operated by a state-owned French firm, RATP Dev.)

Unlike the bus, it’s still free. It was supposed to cost a dollar a ride. But for the time being, the free teaser rate has become permanent.

Are streetcars relatively permanent? Like many American cities, DC has had streetcars before, between 1862 and 1962. A few pieces of that original system remain: tracks in two cobbled lanes in Georgetown, an abandoned station under Dupont Circle, a few power poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge. But apart from those relics and the borrowed (from the streetcars) numbers of a few bus routes, today there is little sign that the capital ever had a streetcar system. By the 1960s, cars, city buses, and suburban sprawl were killing off America’s streetcars. At the same time, under President Kennedy, a federal backlash against highways and sprawl had developed. Washington’s busy subway system (which was handed a gift in the form of the oil crises of the 1970s) was being hatched.

In the late 1990s, when a streetcar was being developed in Portland, Ore., former Mayor Marion Barry’s administration laid out a transport plan that included a streetcar. (Barry later became a critic of the streetcar.) In the 2000s the District began working on the system, importing cars from the Czech Republic and laying track. A second line through Anacostia, over the river, was constructed and then abandoned after right-of-way problems and homeowner resistance. Finally, in February 2016, after a Portland-esque seven years of delays, the line opened. By then the urban development the streetcar was supposed to help catalyze—a new theater, bars and restaurants, condos and apartments—was already largely in place. Proponents and critics continue to debate the degree to which this development, like that of other streetcar cities, had to do with the streetcar.

One year later, how is DC’s streetcar doing? At about 2,500, weekday ridership has been better than the city’s projected 1,500. Total ridership reached the half-million mark in late 2016. As U.S. streetcar systems go, DC’s ridership per mile is middle-of-the-pack. On Inauguration Day 2017 and the day after, the system saw its heaviest use so far. And the city says the streetcar hasn’t cut into local bus ridership. Of course, the rides are still free; Atlanta saw streetcar ridership fall by more than half when it began collecting fares.

Proponents say that streetcars, like other kinds of “premium transit,” add to the transit ecosystem and fuel urban development. Critics say they’re poor value for the money, beneficial mainly to the companies who design, build, and operate them. The District’s system has also been accused of bloat: according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, for example, the city spent nearly $175,000 on the streetcar website alone.

Several dozen other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City, have built modern streetcar lines, and several dozen more are actively planning them. However, just across the Potomac River, a proposed streetcar line for suburban Arlington, Va., was recently cancelled after taxpayer backlash. And DC’s current mayor, Muriel Bowser, has scaled back next-step planning and budgeting of the envisioned $1 billion-plus, 40-mile network to a cheaper 7.5-mile crosstown line.

Back on the streetcar, Tony, headed to Starbucks, says he’s enthusiastic about expansion. But he’d prefer the route go farther west, into downtown, rather than across the Anacostia. (Bowser wants to do both.) He says the buses that run the route we’re on are often overcrowded and that sometimes the people on them “don’t want you to sit next to them.” And he says that even if they start charging a dollar to ride it, he’ll still use the streetcar.

Nathaniel Koch is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.