A Streetcar Named Desire–or Desecration?
Streetcars are a hot topic in Washington, DC, these days. The DC government has begun laying track for a planned 37-mile streetcar network through the city, to supplement the existing Metro bus and rail system, with a focus on under-served neighborhoods. The plan has ignited the age-old preservation-versus-progress debate, but it has also pitted preservationists against preservationists. Although the issue may not deal with architecture and building directly, it has much to do with how we view and treat our historic downtowns.
Like any mass transit modality, streetcars are environmentally friendly, reducing congestion and fuel consumption. Streetcars are also historic, evoking images and memories of an earlier time. In fact, streetcars wound through downtown Washington for a hundred years, beginning during the Civil War, until they were replaced by cars and buses in the latter part of the 20th century.
Despite their historic significance to the capital city, some preservationists (including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the National Capital Planning Commission) have opposed the plan because the cars would be powered by overhead electrical wires. The wiring, these preservationists say, would detract from the city’s monumental aesthetic, marring the clean vistas of the city’s grand boulevards. Instead, the city should be pursuing wireless technology that relies on underground batteries and power generators.
City planners, however, counter that most of the areas that would be served by the streetcars would be in neighborhoods far from the monumental core. And wireless streetcar technology, they argue, is not yet universally reliable enough to be implemented city-wide. That said, depending on where it’s running, they have stated their willingness to experiment with a hybrid streetcar that relies on both wires and batteries.
In the meantime, the city hopes that the streetcar lines would spur reinvestment in downtrodden — and historic — parts of the city, invigorating moribund commercial corridors. This last idea has some preservationists — myself among them — applauding the plan. Economic development means less crime, fewer wasted and boarded-up buildings and a greater likelihood that people will live and work downtown rather than out in the sprawling suburbs. Existing streetcar cities like Portland, Seattle and Tampa have all boasted about the economic development their above-ground transit systems have spawned.
In Arlington, VA, where I live, I am also excited about a proposed streetcar line that would run the length of an historic east-west corridor called Columbia Pike that is not currently served by the D.C. Metro system. Already, this corridor has seen the exact kind of revitalization that DC officials are hoping for in the capital city, and it’s easy to imagine that the implementation of streetcars will spur even more.
For now, it’s a waiting game. Just this month, the District’s forward-thinking Transportation Director Gabe Klein announced his resignation, after Mayor-elect Vincent Gray made it clear that Klein would not be keeping his post. I am not alone in my eagerness to see how the streetcar program goes forward under the new administration. I just hope the traffic doesn’t get too bad in the meantime.