On a chilly February morning 54 years after the last passengers stepped aboard a streetcar in the nation’s capital, hundreds of people lined up on a once riot-ravaged stretch of H Street on Saturday to do it again.
District resident Jonah Schiffrin, 3, had been reminding his lawyer parents about it all week. At 6:15 a.m. he could wait no longer, and padded into their bedroom to get them moving. “I call it Streetcar Day, not Saturday!” Jonah said at a packed stop at the eastern end of the line on Benning Road.
On the west end, behind Union Station, retired chemical engineer Alan Schneider, 69, was waiting to take another trip. “Spectacular!” said the Arlington resident, who used to ride them in their earlier incarnation. “Great, great, great. Everything I hoped it would be. Now let’s hope this expands to a huge system to serve the public.”
But permeating the euphoric and historic day was a troublesome bit of math for streetcar boosters. On the day the back-to-the-future transit system launched passenger service — after more than $200 million and a decade of delays and missteps — it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.
Streetcar lines are being built and considered in communities around the United States, and officials in New York City this month proposed one tying Brooklyn and Queens. Many streetcar adherents — including in Portland, Ore., considered the cradle of the modern streetcar push — argue that the transit systems are about more than transit. They are intended to make streets and places around them more vibrant by luring development and tying together communities.
But while life’s not only about getting places quickly, it is sometimes about that, and the performance of Washington’s streetcars raises questions about the viability and usefulness of the system. Writer and transportation industry consultant Malcolm Kenton, who lives in Washington’s NoMa neighborhood and was out riding with the crowds Saturday, said he’s concerned the District’s problems could end up dragging down opinions on what really is a good way to get around.
“I just hope that the poor management of the initial line won’t besmirch the mode in general,” Kenton said.
He hopes a planned expansion of the current line, to a total of about seven miles, is done with an eye to moving more quickly, including considering dedicated transit lanes or allowing streetlights to turn green when a streetcar approaches.
In a rush to get tracks in the ground quickly, the District made a series of design shortcuts. Officials imported elements of Portland’s streetcar plans and squeezed the tracks too close to parked cars along H Street, requiring operators to slow down and constantly try to anticipate drivers opening their car doors or trying to pull out from parking spaces.
Operators along stretches of Benning Road, where the streetcars run in center lanes away from parked cars, also have speed limits along some stretches that are far below the current top speed on the line, which is set at 25 miles per hour.
As the 70,000-pound red-and-gray vehicles lumbered back and forth, stuffed with often-giddy passengers, the realities of slow-speed transit were beginning to dawn on many.
Roslyn Holmes, 57, decked out in Redskins flair, including dyed-red hair, joshed along with other customers.
“We’re the Freedom Riders!” Holmes said. “Free for six months!”
Streetcar officials didn’t get a fare collection system finished in time for the launch, and they said they wanted to spur initial ridership by not charging — for a while, anyway. There is no Sunday service.
“The bus is faster — of course,” said Holmes, who works as an elderly caregiver. She also bemoaned the system’s modest length. “It’s very short. They could have used the money elsewhere, like developing more homes for the seniors and the homeless, and mental health for the youth, because they’re going crazy.”
“I can walk faster than this,” chimed in Ternechue Butler, who worked as an outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I don’t think it can go any faster because of the parking.”
Cleve Cleveland, general manager of the District’s streetcar operations contractor, said he counts on the streetcars to take about half an hour to run the two-mile route. They average speeds of about 12 to 15 miles per hour, Cleveland said. About the fastest they can make it is 22 minutes, he said, and that’s with “no traffic, no delays, no stops.”
Shortly before the first ride, following the booming strains of the Eastern High School marching band, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) reiterated her thanks to the communities and businesses along the line for their perseverance through long years of construction.
Speaking “on behalf of four mayors” and numerous other officials, Bowser said, “we are so grateful you stuck it out with us, because this is the start of something big for our transportation mobility system in the District of Columbia.” Her transportation chief, Leif Dormsjo, said “our plans are now set” to extend the line east to the Benning Road Metro station.
The system seemed to run smoothly on Saturday, though a side panel of one car scraped along the platform outside Union Station and had to be reattached. And pedestrian safety remains a real concern. A sad-looking young man in a Statue of Liberty costume turned around distractedly on a narrow median that looks like a sidewalk but is posted as a no-go zone. He was promoting Liberty Tax Service just as a streetcar rolled passed him, missing him by inches.
The District bought its first three streetcars from the Czech Republic more than a decade ago, and the city planned to launch service in 2006 in the Anacostia area. But that effort was all but abandoned.
Officials decided to jump ahead with the H Street/Benning line instead and bought three more streetcars from a Portland company. Construction costs have soared.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said moments before the streetcar made its first trip: “We’ve been waiting so long for this streetcar, it feels like magic. Is it really happening?”
Then, at 10:31 a.m., it did.
Stepan Kocourek, 25, a computer programmer from Prague, was there to see it. He heard a week ago that the system was opening with some Czech streetcars, so he made his first trip to Washington to witness the moment. He heads home Monday.
“For a small, post-communist country like the Czech Republic, it’s a huge success to run business in the states,” Kocourek said. “Also, I totally support the thought of green transportation, trolley buses, trams, zero- or low-emission transportation. For me, it’s amazing to see.”