One of the vexing things about the discussions around improving transit service along Columbia Pike are debates over…vocabulary. Pike Spotter – whose inklings are well known to any reader of this blog – is going to try to hit this one fairly, but critically.
A recent post over at greatergreaterwashington.org suggested that the newly-formed local citizens group Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) was being deceptive about what sort of transit improvements they support for the Pike. The criticism was mostly over an image that appears on AST’s website of a bus in a dedicated lane, along with a claim that their preferred choice for the Pike is not really “BRT” (bus rapid transit). Let’s unpack this with a wee bit of history.
A Very Brief History of Rapid Transit, and Bus Rapid Transit
A decade or two after the end of WWII, transit planners set out to build contemporary transit systems in some regions in the US using the latest technology. These systems – commonly known as “rapid transit” – were eventually built in places like Cleveland, the Bay Area in California, as well as here as our own Metro. The key features of these systems were rail vehicles with dedicated rights of way, off-board fare payment, and limited stops.
Much later (possibly as a result of the anti-tax movement that erupted in the 1970s that reduced the resources available for mass transit), planners tried to replicate some of the benefits of this “rapid transit” with less expensive buses. This is the birth of “bus rapid transit,” which was designed to provide the benefits of “rapid transit” with less expensive buses.
A Very Brief History of Streetcars
Streetcars have a much longer and undoubtedly more charming history. Originally running by horse-pulled carriages on rails, and then later relying on electric systems like the pulleys in San Francisco, they served as a vital urban pre-war transport link. Eventually, as a result of a variety of changes to American tastes, real incomes, and road improvements, streetcars were eventually replaced by buses in nearly every American city.
In 2001, Portland, Oregon opened a new streetcar line – not “rapid transit” - a classic on-street rail line, the first to be built in the US in many years. Thus began the “streetcar renaissance” that Arlington’s Board majority want to join. Today, while a streetcar does carry more passengers than a traditional bus and offers a smoother ride, it’s seen in many quarters as a way to drive “revitalization,” or to convert a neighborhood into a more urban place.
Streetcars vs. BRT vs. Rapid Transit
What we discover then, is that 21st century streetcars in America have never been primarily about transportation. BRT on the other hand, is historically thought of as a lower cost, transit-first system.
Because in the US, BRT was created as a “second best” transit solution, it’s mired in compromise with respect to its transit goals. Despite what you read at GGW, there isn’t a consensus about how many compromises are allowed for a bus line to still be called BRT. However, it is true that the more BRT looks like traditional rapid transit, the better it is. And a dedicated right-of-way is undoubtedly the best way to make any bus line more like a rapid transit line.
Nevertheless, 21st century streetcars are, by definition, inferior to rapid transit: a lack of a dedicated right-of-way is a major deficiency in a transit line (and by definition, a “streetcar” rides in the street). Similarly, though, the other advantages of rapid transit (offboard fare payment, larger capacity vehicles, fewer stops) that the original BRT creators hoped to emulate may (or may not) be present in a streetcar system.
Setting aside the mind-numbing debate over nomenclature, what we’re left with is mostly people talking past each other (or in the case of GGW, “Smart Growth” bullies flailing petty accusations). But the truth is that a non-dedicated right-of-way train system has the same (significant) weakness that a non-dedicated right-of-way bus system does.
And residents who are paying attention get this. Dozens of Arlingtonians wrote in to their government as part of the Alternatives Analysis associated with the County’s application for federal funding for transit improvements on the Pike to support a non-dedicated lane articulated bus service for Columbia Pike (TSM2). One can debate whether TSM2 is BRT* but to do so is a total waste of time. Instead, the better debate to have is over whether a system of articulated buses or a system of streetcars is the better one to share the roads with cars on Columbia Pike. By any fair measure, AST is trying to engage in that debate.
The Fuchsia Metro Line Isn’t in the Cards
Streetcar backers point to the minor capacity gains of a streetcar compared to a bigger bus, but more importantly hold a near religious belief in the great power of streetcar magic to affect a neighborhood. In contrast, “better bigger bus” advocates (including this blog) argue that the money slated for the streetcar is better suited to the County’s other needs (transit and otherwise) in light of the ongoing revitalization sans trolley. They also think that the visual pollution of overhead wires, the ripped up roadway, and the marginal capacity increases aren’t worth whatever benefits accrue to a streetcar. Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, neither a streetcar nor an articulated bus will offer all the advantages of true rapid transit: a Metro line under Columbia Pike. To look at AST’s website and to think otherwise is either disingenuous or inattentive to the history of the debate.
* This blog prefers not to call the articulated bus plan described in the Alternatives Analysis “BRT” solely to avoid the sort of wordsmith arguments offered by GGW. AST may wish to consider a term other than BRT to avoid this petty but common argument.