Demographic, Attitudinal Changes Are Missing Elements of Trolley Debate

One of the most common arguments in favor of the streetcar is that it’s the best choice to encourage residents to use transit instead of their vehicle for trips along the Pike.  The logic is that because current drivers don’t use the bus, a streetcar (as opposed to an articulated bus) would convince them to take transit.  Here’s streetcar papa Chris Zimmerman in the Washington Post over the summer:

Why would people who are not attracted to ride on a bus be willing to ride on a bigger bus?

Let’s deconstruct this argument with a hypothetical exercise.  Imagine that one morning that you and a friend stood at S. Glebe Rd. and Columbia Pike and handed each and every motorist (eastbound and westbound) a questionnaire with the following multiple-choice question:

Why did you chose to take your trip this morning in your car rather than on public transit?  It is because:

A.  Public transit would take too long to get to my destination.

B.  Public transport does not go to my destination.

C.  I like the freedom of riding in my own car.

D.  Public transport is not reliable for my destination.

E.  I am going to Pentagon City (or Skyline) and I am afraid of the bus or I find the experience of riding on a bus to be uncomfortable.

Now if you stood on that street corner all day, you’re liable to get someone who answers E.  But do you really think that’s going to be a common answer?  Chris Zimmerman seems to think it would be, but that defies common sense.

The problem with Mr. Zimmerman’s reasoning isn’t merely that it’s internally flawed; it’s that it’s asking the wrong question.  The County, largely via the Form Based Code, is on a multi-year process to add density (i.e. people) to the Columbia Pike corridor.  Focusing on getting existing residents out of their cars is the wrong plan.  Rather, the right plan is to recognize that demographic and cultural changes underway in the US and the region represent an opportunity to attract the sort of residents who are already disposed to transit.

Compare Mr. Zimmerman’s quotation with that of a Smart Growth advocate in the District, as quoted in the Washington City Paper:

There are lot of younger people around who wouldn’t have a car if you paid them. So why not take advantage of that?

The Atlantic Cities reports that the average age to get a driver’s license  is down.  So are car sales.  And total number of miles driven.  The Economist reports similar trends.  Car sharing business are growing in leaps and bounds.  Bus ridership is growing nationally and locally.

The problem with Arlington’s elected leaders is that they are Baby Boomers.  The people they know grew up in a car culture, probably belong to that same car culture, and think that buses are unpopular, uncomfortable things for poor people.  If that’s the view of your peers, it’s human nature to think that’s how other people think.  For an ordinary Boomer, it’s understandable.

But citizens should expect that their leaders – especially leaders who are self-proclaimed “Smart Growth” leaders – incorporate major changes in the attitudes of younger Americans into their decision making process.  Instead, we too often get arrogance, condescension, and hubris.

Thus, instead of engaging in an unnecessarily expensive, mostly futile quest to get drivers to give up using their cars, the right future for Columbia Pike is a transit network that is fast, frequent and reliable so it attracts and serves the people who will be moving to the Pike in the coming years, as well as existing residents.

This is Smart Growth for 2012: creating communities along Columbia Pike that have access to high-quality transit to multiple destinations in order to attract the future generations who seek such places.  The planned streetcar is the wrong choice to advance that goal as the true modern Smart Growth choice is increasing bus frequency, capacity and expanded routes that include the Pentagon and DC.

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2 Responses to Demographic, Attitudinal Changes Are Missing Elements of Trolley Debate

  1. Chris Slatt says:

    From the Board report for the Streetcar LPA vote:

    “The Arlington County Resident Study, a survey that was completed in 2009, found that while 36% of residents use the current bus system at least once a week, 64% of residents never use the bus. When asked whether they would likely use the proposed streetcar, 59% of respondents indicated they would use it at least once a week. This finding represents a dramatic shift in mode preference.”

    It sure would be convenient if people were just as willing to ride buses as they are to ride rail – we could build a whole lot more transit that way. Unfortunately it’s not true at this point – hopefully someday we’ll get there. In the meantime, ignoring reality, throwing more buses at the problem and hoping this time will be different is the approach that’s truly “out of touch.”

    I encourage you to actually spend some time talking to Chris Zimmerman before you continue impugning his character. He’s not a “self-proclaimed” smart growth leader, he’s a recognized smart growth leader [] and leads the charge in Arlington for expanded ART bus service, integrated transit and land use planning, complete streets and transportation demand management.

  2. Julie says:

    What is TOTALLY missing from the debate – state-of-the-art articulated buses!!! WHY do I have to visit the Arlington Yupette blog to see what one looks like? Why did it take months of requests before the publisher of the Arlington Mercury blog posted a photo of an articulated bus to his blog?

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