Back to the Future Streetcars and Bicycles Come to the Nation’s Capital

DC bikes © Ethan Goffman

With the development of the internal combustion engine, the nation forgot about streetcars and bicycles, says Gabe Klein, Director of Washington, D.C.’s District Department of Transportation (DDOT). The car was king. Now, to reach a sustainable future, cities are beginning to look back at these largely forgotten modes of transport, beginning with our nation’s capital. Construction has begun on two streetcar lines in D.C., and the city is in the midst of an ambitious bicycle-sharing system, the first in the nation.

The trolleys and bikes are part of an effort to get people out of cars and into—or onto—more fuel-efficient, traffic congestion-busting modes of transportation. To supplement D.C.’s excellent, if deteriorating, Metro train system, the city has in recent years instituted car sharing and a circulator bus, too. With urban living regaining popularity, and people surging into the D.C. region, these steps are likely just the beginning. “People want to live, work and play all in one place,” says Klein. “All we’re doing is responding to the needs of the public.” He also points to a trend among young people to put off driving. The new modes of transit are “priced in such a way to make it easy so that you don’t have to buy a car,” Klein says.

The D.C. City Council has already appropriated $53 million for the first streetcar line, expected to open in spring of 2012. The line will begin at Union Station and proceed down H Street to the Anacostia River, “one of the highest ridership corridors in D.C.” according to Jason Broehm, transportation chair of the D.C. Sierra Club, which has long lobbied for a streetcar revival. “Buses have struggled to keep up” with riders’ needs, he explains—streetcars have a much larger capacity. The second line is planned for the underserved neighborhoods east of the Anacostia. The three inaugural streetcars have already been shipped in from the Czech Republic. Eventually, a 37-mile system, encompassing eight lines, is planned at a cost of some $1.5 billion.

Environmentalists should be delighted with D.C.’s transformation. Because streetcars run on electricity and hold large numbers of people, they “use energy more wisely and more efficiently,” says Broehm. Klein points out that “in D.C. we buy 50% [of our energy from] renewables,” so an already efficient energy source emits that much less carbon. Alternatives to cars also help to relieve commuter congestion, which means even less wasted energy. And streetcars emit no air pollution at street level says Broehm, reducing asthma and other respiratory triggers. A more compact, livable city also means less environmentally harmful outward sprawl.

More bonuses? The new streetcar system will spur renewal of D.C.’s more neglected neighborhoods, sucking development inward. With their quaint charm, street-level performance and the permanence of their stations, streetcars are also a powerful business magnet. Broehm points out that “the amount of economic development in or near the corridor has been demonstrated in other cities,” such as Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Indeed, Klein expects private sources to pay for about half the funding of streetcars.

DC bikes © Ethan Goffman

If streetcars are lean and clean, bicycles are even more so. A bicycle will travel about 900 miles on the same amount of energy as a gallon of gas, explains D.C. Bicycle Ambassador Daniel Hoagland of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Klein also points to the health benefits of bicycling: It gets people outdoors and moving—and helps fight obesity.D.C.’s initial bike-sharing program, SmartBike, began in 2008 and had only a few stations. The revamped program, Capital Bikeshare, which Hoagland calls the “spiritual successor to SmartBikes,” was launched on September 20, 2010. By the end of October 2010, 1,100 bicycles were available in 114 stations located in D.C. and nearby Arlington, Virginia. And the new bike stations are carbon neutral, relying on solar energy. They are also “versatile and highly modular,” says Hoagland, adding that “they can be picked up and moved,” so the system can be adjusted to changing needs.The bikes themselves are rugged machines suitable for a range of skill levels. Costs range from $5/day to $75/year. Once a membership is paid for—by day or by year—bikes are available for free for one half-hour at a time (there are small fees for longer-than-half-hour trips). The bikes are thus ideal for short jaunts within the city, making it easy to connect to other transit modes. Electronic maps at stations and via iPhone keep riders in touch with bike locations.Klein wants to fight the stereotype of the daredevil bicyclist, and to encourage people who wouldn’t describe themselves as athletic to take up biking. To garner more riders and enhance safety, the city is putting up barriers on key streets to separate bikes from traffic, and covering up to six miles of bike lanes. D.C. already has 50 miles of bike lanes in total. Although a bicycle may seem vulnerable to accidents in urban settings, discouraging riders on busy streets, Broehm believes that “there is a big gap between perceived danger and actual danger,” especially for riders who follow basic safety rules. For recreation and longer commutes, the D.C. region also has some 375 miles of bike trails reaching out as far as Cumberland, Maryland, some 135 miles from the city.

While plans for streetcars and improved bicycle facilities have been under consideration for years, their implementation really took off with the appointment of Klein as director of DDOT on February 1, 2009. A former executive of Zipcar, which brought car sharing to D.C., Klein moved to the public sector to apply his expertise to a range of transit alternatives. “After quite a bit of frustration with DDOT” through the years, says Broehm, “the Sierra Club had a meeting with Gabe Klein. He really put a lot of emphasis and resources on the streetcar initiative.” Hoagland agrees, and says that with Klein bicycle advocates’ role shifted “from outside agitators to experts involved in virtually every step.”

Yet Klein’s future in D.C. is uncertain due to the ouster in the Democratic primary of the mayor by whom he was appointed. Some transit advocates worry that Vincent Gray, the new mayor, will replace Klein and fail to support transit. Klein, however, calls Gray “a thoughtful, strategic guy” and expresses “hope and faith that we’ll carry forward whether I’m here or not.”

CONTACTS: Capital Bikeshare; Washington Area Bicyclist Association.