“Why the Streetcar will never work”


“Dear PoPville,

An incident yesterday (Sunday) morning perfectly summed up why the H-street Streetcar will never work. I’m coming out of Bullfrog Bagels with my son and heading back to our car on H street. I see that right around our car, idling in the right-hand lane (East-bound), is the Streetcar. Why? Because in the parking lane, just in front of our car, is a poorly-parked car with a side-view window that will be hit by the passing Streetcar. So the Streetcar has radio’d for a tow truck. But where’s a tow truck on Sunday morning? 5, 10-plus minutes later, no tow truck. And meanwhile others coming out from Bullfrog Bagels are finding they are blocked in by the Streetcar. Can’t do anything. The Streetcar blocks in some 5-6 cars. To say nothing of the fact it blocks the whole right traffic lane. Fortunately, I had just enough room to make my escape.

I have no idea how much longer everybody had to wait around. But this episode to me proves that the Streetcar has a fundamental design flaw. It’s clearly too much to ask that the average citizen park perfectly along H street all the time. And it’s clearly too much to ask that DC always have a tow truck just ready to tow, all the time. And if you can’t guarantee these two things, you have an unbearably slow bus-on-rails that temporarily blocks both the right lane and half a dozen cars. It just doesn’t work. The whole thing should be scrapped and the money earmarked for it in 2016 should be spent on a third-party deep dive audit that explains all the ways that DC messed it up, but with an eye towards how to avoid these kind of decisional mistakes in the future.”

Is it possible people will learn to park better?

76 Comment

  • Why oh why didn’t they try the first streetcar line down NH ave from MD to Ft. Totten. This road has 3 lanes in each direction pretty much the whole way with a wide median, so a dedicated lane could have been established with space in the center of the road for small platforms. That would have likely been a success.

    • Yes. This. Aren’t successful street cars always in the middle of the road to avoid precisely this completely obvious problem?

    • NH Ave is a major artery to get in and out of the city that is already pretty clogged starting at about 6:30 am – 8 am inbound and 3 pm – 7 pm outbound — not sure commuters could afford to give up a lane each way!
      Maryland has some bus rapid transit coming to the MD-DC suburbs–can’t wait!

  • A similar incident happened when I was on the X2. You know, the public transit serving H street that actually accepts passengers. This was during rush hour and H street all the way from North Capitol to 8th street NE was backed up because the police had blocked off the streetcar track even though it looked as if they weren’t doing anything. The streetcar remained idle while everyone had to creep around. Not necessarily the streetcar’s fault, but it shows that once it starts accepting passengers, it will be facing some serious issues due to obvious flaws.

  • In the end, street parking on H Street might just have to go (perhaps with allowances for business proprietors and employees). While the lack of street parking would inconvenience a not insignificant number of people, it wouldn’t impact too many, especially not most of the growing demographic along the corridor.

  • The tracks should have been in the median and separated from traffic. At this point, scrap it and install dedicated bus lanes.

    • Yeah, I like the idea of the streetcar, but without a dedicated lane like in other cities, it was doomed. Typical DC, fails on execution of what was an interesting idea.

    • This implies eliminating the parking lane is harder than eliminating a driving lane? Assuming your dedicated bus lane would take up a driving lane.

  • ” It’s clearly too much to ask that the average citizen park perfectly along H street all the time.”

    Wow. Way to race to the bottom, there. People in literally dozens (if not hundreds) of cities and towns around the world manage this every day.

    Hey PoPville – aren’t you supposed to label content from sponsors (I assume AAA or Ford wrote this post)?

  • SusanRH

    Why not remove all street parking and then widen the sidewalks on H? The streetcars will never work if you allow any parking at all

    • This is the obvious answer. Use the public space for the public. Not for the private storage of private automobiles.

      (Though I think having no standing/parking zones along the way would be a good idea to allow for taxi/uber drop off/pick up)

      • talk to the businesses on H if they like that answer. quite certain you’d get a resounding no

      • canadianexile

        Yes! There is not a significant amount of parking on H Street anyway. When (and if) the streetcar starts running people can park elsewhere and take the streetcar.

        If the parking is too precious to remove, increase the price to something approximating its value ($20/hour?) combined with much larger fines for blocking the streetcar lane and/or having an expired meter. And if Sundays are not included in the time when you have to pay for parking, change the rules so that they are.

        • H St. is competing with lots of other destination areas now. Is it worth a 45 -60 min. trip on public transportation versus 10-20 min. for other resaturant/bar/nightlife zones?

          • What origin are those numbers even based on?
            People shouldn’t be driving when they go to bars to presumably drink. So this seems moot to me. Unless you’re coming from the suburbs, Uber or Lyft would be an incremental addition to your bar tab anyway.

          • Many people go to bars for one or two beers, or a beer and a burger. You don’t have to get drunk at a bar.

          • Given the plentiful number of options, I still don’t think we should be going out of our way to cater to drivers. The streetcar can carry far more people down the road than a saturation of cars on the street can. The fact that cars are currently more convenient is a matter of policy and planning rather than some inherent superiority.

    • I am for this, but then we should get rid of RPP on the surrounding streets and put in more meters so people can visit the stores. See how that goes over.
      DC is a nimby town full of people that consider row houses dense city living. They should have built dedicated lanes, upzoned both sides of the street to the height limit, and, widened the alleys for retail deliveries and dumpsters. I will be putting on my flashers to get fish and pies on H street for another decade.

  • Maybe the streetcar should have just taken off the wing mirror? I think bad parkers would learn their lesson pretty quickly!

  • +1000 Couldn’t agree more. By not putting the streetcar in a designated lane or even the middle lane, the District doomed this project for failure. I work on H Street and once watched a streetcar outside my window lay on his horn, trying to get a FedEx truck for well over 20 minutes. If there had been passengers on that streetcar, it would have no way to offload them if they wanted to disembark and walk to their destination. Instead the passengers would just have to sit/stand and wait until someone comes to tow the truck away. I would rather pay an extra $0.75 to take the X2 because it can move around horrible parkers, inconsiderate truck drivers, broken down vehicles, etc.

    DC needs to eat some crow, apologize for spending millions of dollars, and make some real improvements elsewhere. The streetcar buzz accomplished its goal of getting H street to redevelop – convincing someone to take what could be a 45 minute ride from the top of the H street bridge to Benning Road will be a whole other challenge.

  • I experienced a very similar situation a month or so back except the cause of the jam was a cop pulling a car over. It was a bit late, so maybe this was a DUI situation and the car could not be moved immediately, but we stood next to the car for some 20 minutes before the cop and the car he pulled over were moved. So, “pig parking” is not always the cause, but clearly design issues abound.

  • Well, for one thing I think that drivers think the streetcar isn’t running yet so they don’t need to worry about it. I don’t know how often the streetcars are doing test runs but I suspect once they’re out there constantly people will do better at staying out of the way.
    And for those drivers that don’t, I think they will if the penalty for not doing so is sufficiently high. Tickets/towing for blocking the path of the streetcar should be very expensive. And obviously, the city needs to have crews at the ready to quickly remove disabled or parked vehicles that are blocking the streetcar.

  • The streetcar should have had a dedicated lane and there shouldn’t have been parking. Luckily, we don’t have to scrap the streetcar to fix this problem: just eliminate parking and driving in the streetcar’s lane. Problem solved.

  • Rather than towing the offending cars, why not install a solid steel “mirror deflector” plate stretching from about 2-5 feet hight on the right side of street cars? Said plate would harmlessly deflect errant mirrors while allowing the car to continue at speed, much like the ice breaker ships now speeding through the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean.

  • I think the only way it functions is if the parking lane is turned into a bike lane. Not a bad solution, actually…

  • Mixed-traffic streetcars are such a terrible idea (as public transit, perhaps they have benefits as a tourist novelty). Either go all out and build a full on tram with dedicated lanes and massive disruption to car traffic or just focus on building an express bus system.

  • Just spit-balling here, but I wonder if it would help if they put some sort of raised marker to denote the parking line, rather than simply painting the line (like those square reflective bumps that sometimes separate lanes) . That way, driver’s would feel a bump if they park over the line. Although a bike lane would be nice too.

  • I can’t believe I read most of this in an effort to figure out how it was anything other than copy/pasting the OP for no reason.

  • I agree that the street car is a terrible idea, but generally a tow truck is prowling up and down H St for this very reason. I am surprised it took more than 10 mins to get a tow truck!

    • justinbc

      They’re not out as much on Sunday because most parking restrictions across the city are relaxed on Sunday. Plus you can’t tow church goers, so why bother.

  • The streetcar should be scrapped because it slows down buses that do let passengers on or at least let passengers on until this morning. This morning at 8:25, the X-1 bus was running late (as usual) and 5 people and a child were waiting for the X-1. The X-1 only runs in one direction and only runs during rush hour. We were trying to go west toward Foggy Bottom to get to work, school, appointments. It finally arrived in the 400 block of H and stopped in the middle of the block and let passengers off through the back door. The driver did not open the front door so we thought he was going to drive to the stop at the corner and let us on. He did stop at the corner, but would not let us on. He said that the bus was too full, which it clearly was not (only 10 people standing). He also said there was another one coming. This is a ridiculous excuse as the buses on the X-1 are only are scheduled to come every 25 minutes. 3 or so people had gotten off the bus in the middle of the block, so why would he not allow us to board? Also, many people catch the X-1 on H only to get off at North Cap and H. I begged him to let us on because if I had to wait for the next bus, I would be late for work. He again refused. People wait and wait for these buses and to have the driver do this for no reason is infuriating. We have places to go. Many are going to work where you are supposed to arrive on time. Something needs to be done with the X-1 in general because it is so unreliable and the number of buses dedicated solely to the route is inadequate. In the evenings, the bus runs the X-3 route and is late from the start and the bus sometimes cuts the route short and does not show. In any event, today was a new low for the X-1 and for WMATA. The driver should be punished and have some idea that people rely on the bus and that they should be let on unless there are people already hovering around the yellow line. Fraud is committed by Metro every day in the unreliable service and incidents like this. People are deprived of their time and penalized monetarily by not arriving to work on time. Fraud is committed every day when the bus routes are set up for failure even before they embark on the route. Those planning the routes, know that the buses cannot possibly make the stops they need to service the passengers in the time allotted, but continue to pretend that they can and leave people waiting or stranded every single day. This fraud goes on all over town, all day every day. Why wasn’t the money spent on the streetcar used to beef up the buses. The streecar slows down traffic and still no one is riding it. When is someone going to do something this fleecing of the taxpayer?

  • andy

    Love the GGW crowd, but they were wrong on this one. Should’ve been bus rapid transit.

    Best they can do now is ban parking on that side of the street, run the dang streetcar, and put up with the howls.

    • you’d have to ban it on both sides of the street. it’s the same issue on the north side. Seriously narrow lane for legally parking. just terrible design

    • Such a shame, because then you get big sidewalks, two lanes of street car, and two lanes of car travel. Done If they had any foresight, you could have scrapped parking, widened sidewalks, have dedicated streetcar lanes and at the least three lanes of car traffic.

    • +1… even if you find a way to fix the H Street streetcar by banning parking or something, the damage here is largely irreparable. The incompetent execution of the streetcar has chilled similar projects region- (if not nation-)wide. Opponents of transit can — perfectly fairly — point to the hubris and wild over-promising from this streetcar as a giant risk to pursuing similar projects.

      • “Opponents of transit can — perfectly fairly — point to the hubris and wild over-promising from this streetcar as a giant risk to pursuing similar projects.”
        I wonder if this is a feature of the street car, rather than a mistake? It appears to me that certain parties sabotaged the street car feasibility as soon as it was approved. The entire program is a giveaway to real estate interests (increased property values!), banks (over-leveraged loans!), and infrastructure contractors (political donors!). Mission accomplished, DC.

  • Seriously, this is an easy fix.

    Remove free street parking and let the market determine if parking private garages are attractive. But really, DDOT should have had a dedicated ROW on either side of the street, the other side would contain street parking, expensive street parking. Streight down the middle of H street would have worked as well. Stringent enforcement of RPP on parallel and side streets. It’s not that complicated.

  • Maybe a crazy idea, but would painting the road space that is in between the parking space and the clearance area of the streetcar red help solve some of these poor parking jobs? It’d be similar to the green of the bike lanes which has been very helpful in my experience in keeping cars and bikes where they won’t conflict on the L St cycletrack. Plus it’d have the added benefit of making those parking on H street feel even more fancy-schmancy; like they are walking on the red carpet!

    • The problem is that there is all of 3 inches between the edge of the parking lane and the streetcar path–there is no room for error parallel parking on H street, and that’s much of the problem. At this point it can’t be fixed, so either get rid of the streetcar or get rid of the (small amount of poorly-used) parking. I vote for the latter.

  • Those involved in making public transportation proposals and decisions should be obligated to go to European countries where they have given much thought to such issues. The US is about 30 or more years behind the rest of the modern world.

  • I can’t believe people want to eliminate public parking on a public street–deleting the ability to drive and park cars in a commercial zone. All for the purpose of a implementing a modernized archaic transit service that provides no new access to an area that was already highly serviced by buses–just because they think a trolly is cool.

    • Believe it. This isn’t the suburbs, and cars are a terrible thing to cater to.

    • Follow the $$$, Caleb. The street car was all about raising property values and getting developers interested in the H Street strip. It forced a bunch of negligent landlords to get off their butts and either develop or sell to the highest bidder. My guess is that they will eventually eliminate parking on H Street, as it will improve property values and walkability.

      • Ashy Oldlady

        Parking on H isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a bustling commercial strip that would have to be far better served by public transit before anyone would even consider such a thing.

      • I hope that they do eliminate parking, then we can party in the street!

    • If you had ever taken the X2 you would see the very urgent need more public transportation. X2 is standing room only morning, noon AND night. The streetcar can hold more people. It makes sense for H Street, it’s just too bad that it was poorly designed. and implemented.

  • Historically streetcars operated in the middle of the street where they would not encounter any vehicle blocking their travel. Only planners in DC think that the city is of European design with pedestrian plazas.

  • I hail from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Streetcars (trams) everywhere. However, they use the middle part of the streets only where cars are not inconvenienced. Also, more and more streets are closed to cars altogether. Only public transportation is allowed. It’s not an easy transformation but sometimes it is that type of “out of the box” thinking that solves this type of money-wasting and moves us to a more liveable city.

  • Ban parking on H street.

  • Unfortunately DC Elected Officials are NOT forward thinkers or problem solvers … They are overpaid puppets….

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