Your Views | Time for a Northern Virginia Streetcar Network?


To the editor:

As former Members of the Alexandria City Council and transportation buffs, we have become increasingly convinced that rail transit is the primary answer to our regions congestion problems. Metro and the Virginia Railway Express should be expanded and improved, but we also need a network of streetcars in Northern Virginia.

In 1920, most of urbanized America, including Northern Virginia, was served by streetcars 14 billion annual riders traveling on 45,000 miles of streetcar track. Although a few systems survived (San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia) and hundreds of European cities kept their streetcars, most American streetcar systems died.  The Alexandria streetcar died in 1932 when its Washington terminus station was knocked down to build Federal Triangle.

In recent years, however, there has been an American streetcar renaissance.  Dozens of American cities, from Portland to Tampa, from Little Rock to D.C., have realized the enormous power of streetcars as a tool for building attractive, walkable, livable, sustainable communities.  

Done right, streetcars induce mixed-use transit-oriented development that accommodates growth while enhancing livability and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Streetcars can promote street life, define neighborhoods, reinforce retail and fit easily into built environments with little disruption to existing businesses, residents or traffic. They help create places where people want to be. 

Streetcars attract riders who wont ride a bus. Ideally, they connect with regional transit systems, like Metro, and provide a smooth and enjoyable last mile connection to homes, jobs and other destinations.  

Arlington and Fairfax are developing the 5-mile Columbia Pike streetcar line between Pentagon City and the Skyline area. Transportation planners are already discussing how this line could be extended, for example: through Crystal City and Potomac Yard; through the NOVA Alexandria campus to Mark Center and beyond; and west on Route 7 to and beyond Baileys Crossroads.

Streetcars could also serve other Northern Virginia communities, like Reston and Vienna, as freestanding circulator systems from Metro stations and catalysts for smart-growth development.  
Financing streetcars has recently gotten a lot easier because of the strong support of the Obama Administration for streetcars. Peter Rogoff, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, recently said, From Boise to New Orleans to Salt Lake City, there is a growing interest in and enthusiasm for streetcars. We want to be funding streetcars in a more robust way. We are looking to streamline and retool the policies to make it easier for us to help communities.
We are working with other citizens in our region to launch a Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition, a grass-roots organization committed to building awareness among Northern Virginia citizens and elected officials about the benefits of streetcars and support for the construction of a Northern Virginia Streetcar Network. We believe that streetcars need to be planned regionally, rather than jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction, to maximize connectivity and interoperability.

The kickoff meeting of the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition will be held on Wednesday, November 18, from 7 to 9 p.m. in Room 158 of the Bisdorf Building on the Alexandria Campus of the Northern Virginia Community College (very close to the point where Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County meet). Our speakers will include Chris Zimmerman from the Arlington County Board and Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Everyone is cordially invited to attend!  For questions and to RSVP, contact us at

Sooner or later, we hope streetcars will ring your bell!

Tim Lovain and Lois Walker