Like the heroine armed with a sledgehammer and orange jogging shorts in the epic Apple Macintosh ad “1984,” a group of 20 runners challenged the District’s new 70,000-pound transit behemoth to a foot race Saturday in the inaugural “Running of the Streetcar.”
It was man and woman vs. machine. And some of the humans won.
But it was no walk in the park.
“Toward the end, I was afraid it was going to sneak up on me,” said Jimmy Donofrio, 30, a digital director for a Democratic group. “I never looked back for it. I thought it would be too intimidating for me if it was creeping up on my back.”
Donofrio made it the two miles from the first station to the last in 14 minutes 45 seconds. The hulking red-and-gray streetcar did it in 17 minutes 9 seconds. The human, who had been a big skeptic after years of streetcar delays, was gracious in victory. “It was pretty efficient. I was impressed, actually,” he said.
After the crush of the Feb. 27 grand opening, the streetcar has upped its speed game, moving from being nearly beatable with a brisk walk on Day One to being on pace with competitive runners after a few days on the job.
While it took some streetcars more than 25 minutes to go end to end on their packed inaugural runs, they’ve since been averaging about 18 or 19 minutes per trip, according to a very rough tally based on information from dozens of trips.
Some of the smattering of commuters who tried out the line last week said they were pleasantly surprised by their easy and convenient rides on mostly empty cars.
But it’s still slow-speed transit in an impatient world, and it’s unclear whether it will carry enough people where they want to go fast enough to be a real success as a mode of transportation.
Some have praised the system for aiding the redevelopment of a once-riot-ravaged stretch of H Street NE. But years of poor planning and mismanagement have burdened the nascent system. Design shortcuts left the tracks pushed too close to parked cars along H Street, requiring operators to move at slow speeds to avoid car doors or the drivers themselves.
Though cities are all different, some have done better at implementing streetcar service.
In Tucson, a newly opened, 3.9-mile streetcar line moves significantly faster than the District’s. “For someone to travel from one end of the line to the other, it takes between 27 and 30 minutes,” according to the city’s transit chief, Jeremy Papuga.
Long before the District’s system opened to passengers a week ago, back when the project itself was inching through years of delays, the H Street Runners adopted the informal slogan #FasterThanTheStreetcar.
“Right now it feels a little redundant and probably not the optimal way to get up and down H Street,” said Adam Siple, a Justice Department trial attorney who organized Saturday’s run and lives just off the line. He tends to take Metro’s X2 bus, which covers the same two miles as the streetcar but stretches farther east and west.
Beyond the streetcars’ speed is the issue of frequency, which affects how quickly potential passengers can reach their destinations, Siple said.
Back in 2010, the plans were to have the streetcars run every 10 minutes.
But after the District bought its first three streetcars in 2004, officials stored them outside in the rain while the system was still being built, leaving them with water damage and corroded electrical components. One of them remains out of service, leaving just five active cars in the city’s fleet, which prompted officials to cut back to 15-minute frequencies.
Siple was among the runners who outpaced the streetcar Saturday, though by precisely what amount wasn’t clear. Their race was actually closer to a time trial, since Siple and the other members of the H Street Runners took off a few minutes before the streetcar did. “Even in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, they get a little bit of a lead,” Siple said as the group set out from the end of the line on Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE.
Dana Ayers was among the runners who were vanquished by the District’s $200 million-plus streetcar system. She got into running in 2002, when she worked at the White House and President George W. Bush set up a five-kilometer run for staffers.
“You know, I’m a proud ambassador of slow running,” Ayers said. “It doesn’t bother me I didn’t beat it.”