Community Post

The Streetcar You Desire (maybe)

The recent election was pretty momentous at the local level too, with voters approving a new expansion of Sound Transit service around the region. That will eventually bring two new transit options to the edges of the neighborhood: a light rail stop on I-90 at Rainier, and a new street car that will connect Capitol Hill with the International District. According to Sound Transit, there won’t be a lot of details on the light rail stop until a preliminary environmental impact statement that will be released before the end of the year. But the streetcar activity is already getting going.

The plan right now is for Sound Transit to hand over a pile of cash to the city of Seattle, who will take charge of designing, building, and operating the streetcar.  Project manager Ethan Melone says that, if things go as planned, preliminary engineering work could start as soon as February 2009 and the system could go into service sometime between 2012 and 2016 depending on the availability of funding.

The street car is intended to fill the gap caused when First Hill lost their light rail station due to the risk and cost of constructing a facility deep underground at Broadway & Madison.  The streetcar’s route would connect the International District light rail station with the forthcoming underground station on Capitol Hill at Broadway & Denny.  As originally conceived, the tracks would be run east on Jackson to 12th, then north on Broadway to Denny Way.

But that route isn’t necessarily fixed.  In fact, folks on First Hill are making a push to run the streetcar further west, putting it completely out of reach for us.  I’ve talked to several people in the CD who hoped that this new line would be closer to the neighborhood, seeing as we’ve so far been left out of all the cool new transit additions.  We’re also lacking any transit options to all of the fun stuff on Capitol Hill – a new streetcar closer to the neighborhood could help connect us with our buddies on Capitol Hill.

We’ll keep our ears open as this stuff gets going and let you know what’s happening.  And the city’s project manager, Ethan Melone, is available to come talk to any community group in the area.  Invite him to your next meeting if you want to have a voice on how this new system gets planned and built.  You can reach him at 206-684-8066, or at ethan (dot) melone at seattle (dot) gov.

0 thoughts on “The Streetcar You Desire (maybe)

  1. This would be a fine route from the hill to Downtown, but it stops right where the defunct Waterfront Streetcar line ended. The Waterfront car has always been considered a tourist toy instead of transportation. Without any work at all this line could assume the existing trackage and connect the neighborhood all the way to the sculpture park.
    It might also make sense to look at other route possibilities such as going up 12th through Seattle U. before jogging back to Broadway.

  2. What is it that is so great about street cars, compared to our trolly buses?

    The only argument I’ve seen towards them is that for whatever reason they attract higher ridership, even though they are even more traffic dependent than buses. (a bus can pull around a right turning car, a street car is stuck on its rails) This is simply artificial because we as a community think they are ‘cooler’. It wasn’t lost on me that ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ were used in this article to describe these new options as opposed to the apparently unfun and uncool buses.

    I guess I just don’t get it. Why are we spending money on yet another transit option, when a bus line would accomplish the same thing for far less money? Is it just because we’ve come to see trains as romantic from our European cousins? Isn’t it going to be confusing for people to have all these options? What about maintenance costs of all these disparate systems?

  3. Spoken directly from a city councilmember who is intimately involved in this effort. When I mentioned the project, the councilmember in question said, “i just want to control something wrt to transportation. I’m sick of being at the mercy of ST and Metro”.

    They want to own something and have bureaucratic control. Not that they don’t also want to solve transit issues, but….

  4. Putting aside for a moment the relative merits or each mode, a public transit route on 12th Avenue makes sense. There’s no north/south transit route in the Central Area between Broadway and 23rd Avenue. A transit route for 12th Avenue is one of the main transportation goals of the Central Area Neighborhood Plan.

    Not only is there S.U., but the King County Youth Services Center site attracts hundreds of cars a day, and the County is looking at a significant expansion. Meanwhile the County provides a large surface parking lot (with free parking for most employees) while at the same time it’s the policy of that same government to encourage and require private employers to take steps to discourage commuting by car.

    A few blocks to the east is the expanding Swedish/Sabey campus which has consistently failed to meet the City’s requirement that it reduce the number of people commuting to work in a single occupancy vehicle. Maybe some of the money they put toward parking garages could be invested in public transportation that helps all of us.

    There are an increasing number of people living on 12th, and within a few blocks of 12th, right now centered from Columbia to Pike, but the capacity for growth is obvious from the number of vacant or unused blocks on the street south of Cherry.

    The story above states that Sound Transit views the potential Boren streetcar as a substitute for the scratched First Hill light rail service (and suggests there’s a possibility of putting the route west of Broadway). The so-called “First Hill” light rail service would have gone under First Hill. The “First Hill” light rail station would have been approximately at Madison and Broadway and was seen as a significant transportation option for the Central Area. For transit planners to develop an alternative to serve First Hill exclusively is to forget the reasonable expectations of others, including the Central Area. Before the First Hill station was eliminated Sound Transit and Metro repeatedly encouraged the expectation that the Central Area would be served by a transit route on 12th Avenue that would go between two light rail stations.

  5. Well, one minor advantage of streetcars is their all-weather use (and it becomes a major advantage in icy weather and snowstorms – major and minor). Snow- and ice-related difficulties can close hills to traffic and usually cause major bus problems (when even more people than usual need to rely on the buses). Back in the day (pre 1941), the old streetcars generally stayed in service even when the weather was bad.

  6. When comparing functionality, there’s little to be excited about with street cars. They have a few disadvantages (as you mentioned). They also have a few advantages (smoother ride, faster passenger boarding/exiting).

    However, and you alluded to this yourself, streetcars do have one big advantage that isn’t related to functionality: for whatever reason, people who would never, ever think of stepping on a bus are much more receptive to streetcars. I’m unable to explain this discrepency (but then again, I never really expect humans to behave rationally 100% of the time). When selling a product, it sometimes becomes pointless to ask ‘why’ customers prefer item X over item Y. If you have a bunch of data that suggests they prefer X instead of Y, go with X, and let someone else worry about the ‘why’ part of it.

    One other advantage is the potential transformative effect on the neighborhood of fixed transit (rail/streetcar) over busses. For whatever reason (again, I’ll refrain from explaining ‘why’), developers like building on fixed transit lines, but not on bus lines. If your looking for actual data to back up these allegations, and some other points in support of streetcars, you can read about some in this blog:

  7. Streetcars pose the greatest crash hazard to cyclists. Getting your wheel caught in the tracks flips the cyclist onto their face in the pavement.

    If we are serious about energy efficient transportation utilizing appropriately sized vehicles, we need to install a new feature in the pavement that flips large vehicles onto their sides and leaves bicyclists unaffected. (Sorry, I just had to get that out!)

    Training the Seattle Rangers to cycle in traffic exposed me to comments from them that they have seen many cyclists fall when hitting these hazardous tracks (their office is located at the (South) Lake Union Park and the site of the SLUT streetcar line). Streetcars are slower than busses, less flexible in routes and costly. They are much more of a marketing success than a transportation success. Businesses gain increased property values along a streetcar line because the streetcar absorbs the transportation funds and concentrates traffic. Streetcars are marketed to the businesses that will be positively affected while ignoring those too far from the line. As a cyclist hoping to market bicycling as transportation, I wonder how I would compete with this kind of marketing and funding. Bicycles are too flexible, go anywhere, and require no funding, just good normal streets with smooth pavement and training similar to motorists, and therefore fail to concentrate development or require costly projects.

    Rail can play a critical role in transportation, particularly high-speed trips between cities on lines separated from other traffic. Rail freight is very energy efficient and cost effective. Where rail is most troublesome is on innner city streets where they simply cannot go fast because of their extreme danger to the dense traffic of the other road users (rail vehicles cannot stop quickly or turn to avoid hazards). As a cyclist, I fail to see a serious consideration of all transportation systems and how they impact other choices. I would like to see a broader, realistic discussion of all the issues. Good choices may be passed up for the hype of selected businesses promoting their own development and the ribbon cutting ceremonies of politicians.

  8. There’s some pretty big aesthetic advantage to streetcars vs. buses. People make a lot of decisions based on that sort of factor alone. It’s not always rational, but it is pretty common.

    Here’s some of the plusses
    1. Streetcars are wider and more open, letting the disabled or people with strollers easily roll on and off without the multi-minute delay of putting down a ramp, turning tight corners, etc.
    2. They handle crush loads much better because there’s more doors and more space to stand. Standing on a crowded bus is no fun at all because it’s impossible for people to get on and off once it reaches a certain level.
    3. Streetcars have bigger, brighter windows. It’s a much more open and airy feeling
    4. The rails do provide a more even and comfortable ride vs. our often uneven pavement (i.e. the #48 along 23rd Ave)

    Probably the biggest advantage is that it is fixed. There’s a capital investment that gives it long term stability against people trying to move transit budgets around between different parts of the region. It gives occasional riders confidence that when they get on they know where they’ll end up (I’ve talked to several people who are scared of buses because they’ve gotten on the wrong ones before and ended up stranded someplace. Stupid, yes, but it happens). And it encourages pedestrian & transit-friendly development along the route.

    The biggest thing for me is that we’re unlikely to get more transit from any other source. Sound Transit is not going to build a subway through the neighborhood because we’re not really on the way to any other major regional destination. Metro is not going to give us appreciably more bus service because its run by the county and all the new bus hours are going to the suburbs.

    We have a lot more pull at the city level, and if there’s going to be a pot of money for streetcars operated by the city, why wouldn’t we want to be a part of that?

  9. Without thinking through any practical implications, I think it’d be great to have a streetcar that ran the full length of Madison. It’s an obvious arterial–which is, I am sure, why there was a street car there for most of Seattle’s history!!

    I wonder too whether a street car line could run up and down 23rd or MLK–both of which connect to Madison. Maybe the new MLK / Rainier train stop could be connected via a line that ran to Madison and MLK.

    Train lines that have at least some sections that are off-street (underground, above ground, or on dedicated paths) are way more reliable than buses–they are way more on time. In part, this is because trains have to get through their routes in a timely fashion or the whole line backs-up.

    Public transportation that is unreliable scare off people who have a choice between driving and the public transport. These are people who not only need to get to work on time, but have the means to drive everyday and pay for parking. So, unreliable public transport ends up with the passengers who have less choice / no choice–they’re more literally the people stuck riding the bus. It reinforces a negative image.

    The people who never think about riding buses do ride trains because the trains work for them–and that includes in the social sense of their seeing other people like themselves on the train. It reinforces a positive image.

    It also makes a big difference when car traffic and parking are bad, and trains work in some way to help you avoid these. In San Francisco and NYC, the trains are almost always make for easier trips than driving.

  10. Seattle transit trivia: Madison St. had a 3.6 mile cable car that traveled from Western Ave on the waterfront all the way east to the ferry docks and recreation on the lake at Madison Park (much of Madison is too steep for a normal streetcar to manage). The powerhouse with its tall smokestack was located where the Safeway is between 22nd & 23rd Ave. It opened in 1891 and ran until the rails were torn up and it was replaced by buses in 1940.

    According to Jane Powell Thomas’s Madison Park Remembered:

    The Madison Street Cable Car Company continued to serve residents around Lake Washington. From Laurelhurst, businessmen could take an 8-minute ride on the streamer Sunny Jim to Madison Park and ride the cable car downtown. In summer, the cable cards ran eery few minutes to Madison Park. In winter, the cars were fitted with removable glass panels that protected passengers from wind and rain. The cable car made these areas “attractive to members of the city’s existing elite, to fresh recruits from the East, and to senior white-collar workers who sought to escape the dense, city core.”

  11. I think (and have said for a while now) that 12th makes a heck of a lot more sense than Broadway for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of north-south transportation on the only major arterial between Broadway and 23rd.

    This line could also serve as the beginnings of a future push for an extension up Jackson to 23rd, then up 23rd to Madison.

    This should not be seen as the “First Hill” streetcar – I think Bill makes it pretty clear what the original scenarios were, and folks on First Hill already have significantly better transportation options than folks on 12th and thereabouts.

  12. Yes, Madison Street had a cable car before 1940. Its grade is too steep for streetcars without assistance. Yesler Way also had a cable car. Queen Anne had the counterbalance. Electric trolley buses can climb all those grades with ease.

    Yes, residents have asked for transit service on 12th Avenue. They did during the neighborhood planning efforts of the late 1990s. That could be considered for 2016 when the Capitol Hill LRT station opens are service may be restructured. But note that SDOT has installed a three-lane profile and all bus stops will be bus traps and service slow. Given limited service subsidy, 12th Avenue service would come at the opportunity cost of foregone frequency on other routes.

    Constructing and operating a streetcar on South Jackson Street, 12th Avenue, and Broadway will be complicated, costly, and of limited benefit. It will be complicated by interaction with the trolleybus overhead and turning radii, especially at 5th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, and at Pine Street. An SDOT consultant report on the complications is in an appendix of the streetcar report. To address the conflict with cyclists, SDOT is considering running the streetcar in the center of the arterials; would that hinder efforts for the streetcar and trolleybuses to share overhead?

    Perhaps the ST2 funds would be better spent improving the electric trolleybus network frequency and alignment. Yesler Way is congestion free. A Broadway route could serve the front doors of Swedish, Harborview, and Yesler Terrace between the Link station and 3rd Avenue. That path would be faster and more direct than South Jackson Street due to the shift in the street grid.

    Sir mixalot seems to paraphasing Councilmember Drago. What she seems to fail to recognize is that independence from ST and KCM will only come from new Seattle-based funding, not from a shift of mode. Note that the half-baked SLU Streetcar is scheduled to take KCM service subsidy in 2009.