Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Streetcars without dedicated lanes tend to be on the slow side. But beating this much-maligned public transportation mode on foot wasn’t as easy as it looks.
There’s a running joke in Washington, D.C., that you can literally outrun the city’s streetcar.
The 2.2-mile H St./Benning line, running along a busy commercial corridor in the city’s northeast quadrant, has evoked mixed reactions from locals since it opened in 2016. Between stories of streetcars getting stuck in traffic and behind improperly parked cars (and at one point rear-ending a Metrobus), some Washingtonians have been skeptical about the reliability and usefulness of the $200 million project.
And in a city that ranks 10th for having the most runners in the U.S., according to Strava, it only made sense that assumptions about the streetcar’s speed were put to the test with an actual race. So on a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, I joined a group of some 30 people for the third annual “Running of the Streetcar” race, organized by the local H Street Runners club.
“When the club first relaunched a few years ago, it was before the streetcar was even up and running,” said Meryl Winslow, one of the club’s organizers. “We were like, ‘We could probably run faster than it; it’s always catching on fire’.” (During a test run in 2015, a “brief flash fire” indeed ignited atop one of the cars.)
Despite all the jokes, the performance of the D.C. streetcar has been improving of late, as CityLab reported last year: It carried more than 3,000 passengers per weekday in 2017, increasing ridership by 44 percent month over month from its first year of operation. By December 2018, just two months shy of its third anniversary, it clocked in 3 million riders. D.C. officials plan to expand the line two miles east across the Anacostia River, a plan that’s still in its design phase, according to the local news site Greater Greater Washington.
Maybe it’s not fair to pick on streetcars for being slow, since they aren’t meant to be rapid transit. Most modern-era streetcar systems in the U.S. run in mixed traffic, keeping their operating speeds low. In a 2013 report from the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy ranking speeds of a handful of streetcars, buses, and light rail systems (which, unlike most streetcars, have their own dedicated lanes and reach higher speeds), Portland and Seattle’s streetcars come in dead last.
A 2015 study from the Mineta Transportation Institute found that streetcar systems from several U.S. cities typically operated at about half the pace of city buses. D.C.’s system came in around the middle of the pack, at an average of 5.7 mph. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rushed D.C. commuter choosing the streetcar over the X2 bus, which runs along the same route and often at greater frequency. (The streetcar’s advantage, however, is that it’s free, compared to a standard $2 bus fare.)
So beating the D.C. streetcar on foot certainly seems achievable. According to Google Maps, it typically takes the tram between 17 and 20 minutes to travel from the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road NE down the main H Street corridor to Union Station. At 2.2 miles, that amounts to about 6 or 7 mph, or somewhere between a 8- to 9-minute mile—no sweat for a seasoned runner. I don’t claim to run very fast, but I’m a competent jogger, and a fellow participant assured me that last year, almost everyone successfully outpaced the streetcar.
The race, however, was held on a comparatively low-traffic Sunday afternoon, not a traffic-clogged weekday, so the streetcar should be able to beat its average pace. We were counting on ride-hailing calls from Sunday brunchers to buy us extra time. Runners, of course, had our own obstacles: narrow sidewalks, construction, stoplights, and other pedestrians. (Organizers specifically instructed us not to run over people. Fine.)
To get a feel for its speed, we rode the streetcar to the start line, at its first stop at the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road. We warmed up while waiting for that same car to turn around, and as soon as the streetcar lurched forward, the pack of runners took off.
Given the opportunity, a streetcar can fly: The model used by D.C. can hit 35 mph or more, if the driver puts the hammer down. And, indeed, our mechanical foe soon snuck up on us and eventually pulled ahead, quickly building a not-insignificant gap between us and the red rumbling behemoth. Organizer Winslow had already warned us this would happen, due to the lack of traffic on Benning Road. Don’t be discouraged, she insisted, because when we get to the main corridor about halfway through the race, “that’s where we thrive.”
As the race proceeded, a handful of the most fleet runners were managing to keep up with the streetcar. Things weren’t looking as good for the group I was running alongside. We seemed to be stuck chasing the streetcar. I’ve felt this sense of helplessness before as a commuter, when I’d run after the bus only to watch it pull further away. Still, with Winslow’s remark in mind, I kept my eyes locked on the beast; I huffed, I puffed, and pumped my legs as much as I could.
By the time I approached the beginning of H Street—the halfway mark—the streetcar had become a distant red dot. “Did anyone beat it?” I asked my friend in-between labored breaths when I finally reached the finish line. A small group did manage to claim victory, including Julianne Twomi, who leads the H Street Runners club and who beat the streetcar by about a block. She said she finished at a 7:20 pace.
Conditions on this Sunday favored the streetcar: Traffic was light, and it managed to hit mostly green lights, while our section of the group got snagged by at least two red ones. “It’s a gamble. If it hits all green lights, it’s a force to be reckoned with,” Winslow said, adding that this was probably the fastest the streetcar has ever gone in their races. Perhaps that a good sign for this much-maligned mode. “It’s nice to see that it is getting faster,” she said.
One thing that the race makes clear is that it’s not born of knee-jerk contempt for the streetcar: Winslow, Twomi, and the group’s co-organizer Nicole Podesta all live in the neighborhood and regularly ride it. “It’s a convenient way to get around the neighborhood, especially if it's raining,” Twomi said. “People have skeptical thoughts about it, and they don’t know what to expect, but really its been a big asset to the neighborhood.”
In that sense, the streetcar’s victory was maybe also a win for the city—at least that’s what I’m telling myself. “Next year,” Winslow said, “I’ll park in its path so it has to stop for an extended period of time.”