Why Streetcars?

Streetcars move more people

Normal buses carry around 60 passengers.  An articulated or BRT-style bus will carry 90 or 100 passengers.  Portland Streetcars carry 115 passengers, longer streetcar vehicles carry as many as 186 passengers.  Arlington is not far enough along in the process to have decided on an exact vehicle.  With a projected 37,000 jobs, 21,000 residents and 11,600+ housing units coming to the areas of Arlington that the Streetcar system will serve, capacity is vital.

Streetcars attract more riders

Streetcars are known for attracting more riders, including riders who have other options like driving. Even if buses could move as many people as Streetcars, they'd still need to be able to attract those riders.

  • In 2003 the City of Tacoma converted an existing bus line between the downtown Theater District and the Tacoma Dome station to Streetcar service.  Ridership increased by 500%. [source]
  • When Seattle temporarily substituted buses for the streetcars on its Waterfront line, ridership dropped to one-fifteenth of what it had been on the streetcars. [source]
  • An Ed Tennyson study that attempted to determine what, if any effect mode had on ridership while holding constant all other factors - travel time, fare, frequency of service, population and density found that rail transit (like a streetcar) is likely to attract 34 to 43 percent more ridership than equivalent bus service.
  • When Memphis surveyed its transit riders it found that 83% of those who rode their streetcar system didn't utilize any other form of public transit - it was the Streetcar or nothing at all.
  • The Arlington County Resident Study, a survey that was completed in 2009, found that while 36% of Pike residents use the current bus system at least once a week, 59% of respondents indicated they would use a proposed streetcar at least once a week.
  • Portland initially projected 2,800 daily riders when the city’s first line opened in 2001; today, the system is carrying over 10,000 riders per day. [source]

Streetcars are cheaper long-term

While streetcars require a higher initial investment than buses, that capital cost is offset by significant operational savings.  Streetcars hold more riders than buses (even articulated buses) which means you can move more people with fewer vehicles. Fewer vehicles also means wages for fewer drivers.  Many streetcar vehicles can even be hitched together allowing you to double their capacity without paying an additional driver.  In addition, streetcar vehicles last longer.  The useful life of a bus is around 10 years, while streetcars typically last 40 years or more - Philadelphia's SEPTA system is still using streetcar vehicles built in 1947.

A more comfortable ride

There are no potholes on Streetcar tracks and their electric motors accelerate much more smoothly than a bus.  This is one of the key differentiators when you're trying to get people out of their cars - they've got a choice, and making the experience pleasant is a big part of getting them to choose transit.  It's a lot easier to get people to ride transit who have no other options - they have no other options.

Streetcars are predictable

Streetcars are more predictable than buses in many ways.  First off, they don't make any unexpected movements.  That streetcar isn't going to cut you off, it isn't going to drift into your lane, it's going to go exactly where the tracks go.  Predictability is huge in improving safety on our roadways.

Second, the route is predictable.  Walk up to a bus stop and the bus doesn't come for half an hour.  Is that because it's running late or because it's been re-routed?  With the Streetcar you KNOW it'll come eventually - it CAN'T be rerouted.

Streetcars support affordable housing on the Pike

The Pike Neighborhoods Plan allows property owners to develop substantial additional density if, and only if, they commit to preserve roughly the amount of affordable housing now on the site.  Streetcars are needed to provide the high capacity, high quality transit we will need for thousands of new residents.    

Streetcars attract development

Because of it's high quality and permanence, Streetcars attract significantly more development than buses.  The Return on Investment study done for the Columbia Pike Streetcar predicts a conservative 4% to 10% increase in property values along the corridor and that the Streetcar will accelerate redevelopment by 2.5 to 3 years.  The Portland Streetcar saw $3.5 billion in investment within 2 blocks of the streetcar alignment and 55% of all Central Business District development occurred within 1 block of the streetcar according to a 2008 development report.

Streetcars are green

As the Sierra Club points out in their endorsement of the Columbia Pike Streetcar, it is the best transit option for the environment. It is the most likely to get people out of their cars and it concentrates development in Smart Growth-friendly Arlington rather than contributing to sprawl. In addition, as an electricity-powered system, its carbon footprint will drop over time as our electric grid moves toward renewable energy sources without any additional expense for the County.

Streetcars create a sense of place

The visibility and permanence of a Streetcar system contributes strongly to a sense of place. In the same way that the areas around Metro stations have come to be strongly identified with the names of those stations and have acquired some communal identity that goes along with it (Clarendon as nightlife and shopping, Ballston as Science & Tech hub, etc) Streetcars can create a similar effect building community and a neighborhood feel.