Dismantling the Streetcar System: What Have We Learned?

John Hillegass, winner of 2019 Dick Wolf Prize

The Dick Wolf Memorial Lecture is an annual event sponsored by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society to showcase excellence in research and writing on urban planning and historic preservation in the District of Columbia by a student or intern. The winner presents a lecture on his or her research and receives a $1,000 prize.

The winner of the 2019 Dick Wolf Memorial Prize is John Hillegass, a student of Uwe Brandes in the Urban & Regional Planning program at Georgetown University. Hillegrass’s winning submission is on the subject of planning and the historic context behind dismantling the District’s extensive streetcar system, which converted all lines to buses, between 1956 and 1962. The goal was to ease traffic and congestion, speed up transit, improve transit reliability, reduce transit costs and thereby keep transit affordable. By those measures, the plan was a failure.

Hillegrass examines indicators of reliability (number of passengers, headways, and span of service), speed (headways and scheduled runtimes) and affordability (fare price as percentage of minimum wage). He concludes the replacement transit system today is equal to or worse than the transit system of 1946 and that today’s planners should proceed with caution. Too many times, planners have destroyed something good to make room for the future.

Location: at 12th and G NW looking towards 11th, see the S.S. Kresge store which had a location at 11th and G
Photo: John Smatlak – Purchased original slide, photographer unknown.

Today there are promises that autonomous vehicles will ease traffic congestion. Uber and Lyft will improve reliability and affordability. The hyperloop will speed transit. The lesson of the District’s streetcar system can help transportation planners avoid the next mistake. Following his lecture, a panel of special guests from the fields of Transportation and Planning will discuss the major points of his lecture:

Andrew Trueblood, the new Director of DC’s Office of Planning and a resident of Ward 6.

John DeFerrari, author of the blog Streets Of Washington. DeFerrari has recently published a book: Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. He is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League.

Shyam Kannan, METRO’s Managing Director, Planning and Transit Asset Management. On a daily basis, Kannan deals with issues of contemporary transit planning. He has worked across public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Hillegass is pursuing his Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning at Georgetown University. He studied International Studies at Boston College. He spent two years living in South America, gaining a deep respect for the importance of learning from other cultures. He moved to Washington, DC in 2014 working as an intern on Capitol Hill, then as a Member Relations Manager at the Common Application, before joining Ward 1 Councilmember Nadeau’s team as a Constituent Services Coordinator. Hillegrass’s interests include equitable development, housing, transportation, and the environment. He is currently the president of his community organization, The Friends of the Park at LeDroit.


The 2019 Dick Wolf Memorial Lecture will take place on March 29, 2019 at 7 pm, at the Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave SE. The event is free and open to the public. For more information contact CHRS at 202 543-0425 or caphrs@aol.com, or visit chrs.org/2019-dick-wolf-memorial-lecture/