Streetcars or Scooterville

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I was due at a bookstore event a good mile and a quarter away from the library where I had holed up to do a bit of writing. I could have used the walk, but given the circumstances – muggy Washington summer weather, business attire, and the fact that I had never ridden one – I decided to track down a dockless scooter. Seven companies operate fleets in D.C., but I wasn’t in the mood for yet another app.

A Jump scooter awaited me several blocks away, according to the Uber app already on my phone, so I put my nose to the screen and headed out in the direction of my quarry. Four-minutes’ walk later, I had reached the scooter — only to find it inaccessible behind the locked gate of a parking lot. I resolved to try again.

Jump scooters are accessible through the Uber app. (Photo: Uber)

The next target was another four-minute walk, and took me away from my final destination, but now I felt the thrill of the hunt. As I rounded a corner, I caught some hipster scooting away aboard my machine. (Yes, the app would have let me reserve it, but that felt like reserving a table at McDonalds.) I checked again, but Scooterville offered no other sensible options.

I should note that I had started from the Northwest One Branch of the D.C. Public Library. Northwest One is not the kind of neighborhood that Jump or any of the other transportation network companies operating in the District would choose to sprinkle with scooters in the wee hours. Historically, it has been one of the most violent-crime-ridden areas in a city that was itself once called the “murder capital” of America.

In 2004, a contract killer gunned down a 14-year-old girl, a witness to another murder the day before. That assassination, there is no other word for it, shocked the city into action. The revitalization program was carefully calibrated to improve things without setting off the kind of gentrification that would have pushed residents out.

Fifteen years later, the open air drug market is gone and the neighborhood has more services. The charming little library offers preschool story time, computer classes, and a ladies night book club. But the public housing projects built during the previous – and now discredited – wave of urban renewal in the 1960s still dominate. The library sits among empty streets and a concentration of unemployment.

If I wanted a scooter, I would have to walk my way out of Northwest One.

I sweat – a lot. So, after half a mile of walking, I was delighted to find an air-conditioned DC Streetcar waiting as I crested the H Street bridge.

DC Streetcar in action. (Photo: DC Streetcar)

The DC Streetcar – that’s its official name – runs just north of Northwest One. It too was born 15 years ago in the same spirit of renewal. It provides transit, of course, but also intends to “Encourage economic development and affordable housing options” along its routes. Really it should be called the neo-DC Streetcar.

Beginning in the 1830s, American cities experienced a mobility revolution made possible by cutting-edge technology: the steel streetcar track laid flush with the roadway. Until then, the only public transit option was to buy an expensive ticket that let you squeeze onto a horse-drawn omnibus for a slow and jostling ride. But embedded rails gave a glass-smooth ride and allowed the horse to draw a larger car faster. It was like gliding on ice, one rider declared. Ticket prices fell with the greater load-carrying capacity and the distances journeyed grew.

The application of electricity supercharged the streetcar and further transformed the nation’s capital – as it did most major cities – beginning in the 1880s. Not only did these high-tech conveyances serve existing corridors, they opened up new areas of land for development. Electric streetcars could climb DC’s hills with ease. The Chevy Chase Land Company, to cite one example, bought farmland some five or six miles distant from the city center, built high-end houses on spec, and constructed a trolley line to serve them. The company could afford to operate the streetcar line at a loss; the real money was in real-estate speculation. That streetcar is long gone but Chevy Chase remains an exclusive DC suburb.

As a redevelopment project, the DC Streetcar has succeeded somewhat in encouraging developers to put in fancy apartments, restaurants, and markets along its route. The permanence of the rails reassures investors in the way that changeable bus routes never can. Also, unlike buses, streetcars are an urban amenity in the way of wrought iron lampposts and brick sidewalks. There is something nostalgic and delightful about watching a streetcar glide by.

A view of Washington, DC’s streetcars from 1893. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley, ding, ding, ding went the bell,” sang Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Who doesn’t love a streetcar?

But actually riding the DC Streetcar is more of a novelty than a transportation solution. The Neo’s trains run only every 12 minutes and only along a 2.2-mile route. They lack a dedicated line and so struggle to make headway as automobiles dart across and occupy their path.

The District’s original plan for 37 miles of streetcar tracks appears to be on hold. Today’s mobility revolution belongs to scooters. They provide flexible, individualized, on-demand mobility. Riders can dominate the sidewalk or slither through traffic on congested streets.

They may be fun and convenient to ride, but to everyone else e-scooters are, let’s face it, obnoxious. I’ve watched riders bully their way through pedestrians, seen scooters tossed to the curb ignominiously, and read about the spike in emergency room visits caused by spills.

The joy of scootering on a sidewalk may not be shared by pedestrians. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine an electric scooter in a Judy Garland love song. More to the point, the very flexibility of today’s “micromobility” machines means that they follow rather than encourage development. The scooters don’t serve the Northwest One single mother who lives in subsidized housing and wants to take her babies to the library for story time. They reinforce existing patterns rather than creating new ones. They serve to make great neighborhoods better while leaving struggling neighborhoods to fend for themselves.

None of this is to say that, had that first or second scooter I tracked down been available, I wouldn’t have Jumped (ugh) at the chance to climb aboard. I could have covered the distance faster, more amusingly, and more flexibly than I did on the streetcar. Despite the tortuously slow streetcar pace, I managed to ride past my stop and into a neighborhood still very much in need of renewal.

For better or worse, the neo-mobility revolution has passed the neo-streetcar by. Welcome to Scooterville.

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