For the past few years, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been working on a plan to extend the First Hill Streetcar northward. Terminus options explored were to Roy Street, Aloha Street, and Prospect Street (near Volunteer Park). Earlier in the process, the Aloha option had been eliminated. However, an extension toward Volunteer Park was always a long-shot. SDOT consistently referred to the project as the “Broadway Extension” and often indicated relative doubt of an extension beyond Roy Street.

This week, we learned for certain that the First Hill Streetcar extension had been curtailed to Roy Street. Cost and benefit were the primary cited reasons for cutting the project scope down. With the current decision, an extension beyond Roy seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. But SDOT has indicated that an extension on 10th Avenue is possible. Conceivably, with a larger streetcar program, expansion far beyond Prospect would make the investment much more palatable.

For a comparison of the previous Prospect Street terminus and the now official Roy Street terminus preferred alternative, see the street configurations below.

While the streetcar extension beyond Roy Street is indeed an unfortunate casualty, it’s not the only one. The Broadway Bikeway (cycle track) is inexorably linked to the streetcar improvements. SDOT plans to extend the cycle track just beyond the Roy Street streetcar terminus. The cycle track will terminate at the intersection of Aloha Street and 10th Avenue, which is a managed intersection.

The good news here is that the cycle track will remain a cycle track the whole length as opposed to cycle lanes on both sides of 10th Avenue. So while this may be a disappointing outcome for streetcar supporters, it could be an even better outcome for cycle track supporters in the mid-term. Cycle track supporters eventually want to push the cycle track all the way to Roanoke Street (as detailed in my previous article). The Prospect Street streetcar terminus option not only split the cycle track in two, but this design precluded the ability to later realign to a two-lane cycle track if such a project was taken up as part of the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan.

It is also important to note that the Roy Street terminus design does not specifically preclude the possibility of extending the streetcar further down 10th Avenue or a bike couplet of 10th Avenue and another parallel street at a future date, should funding and the desire to extend the line arise.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider supporting our work. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

10 COMMENTS

  1. The streetcar essentially works just like a bus. It may have slightly bigger capacity, but it won’t move any faster — in many cases, it will move slower. Have we reached capacity with the buses in that area, and if so, can’t we just add more frequency? My guess is that isn’t the issue, but the Seattle city council likes to use Portland as a model for transportation (which is silly) instead of the more successful Vancouver, B. C (which recently killed its streetcar). So I really don’t think it makes sense to extend this, or even build it in the first place.

    On the other hand, the cycle track makes sense, and extending it much further makes sense as well. It’s pretty flat for a long ways on tenth, making the route potentially very popular with bikes. I don’t think people will ride from the U-District or Montlake to Capitol Hill very often, but a cycle track to North Capitol Hill makes sense, especially with the bike share system starting up. Prospect is OK, but I think it should be extended to at least Boston.

    • I appreciate what you’re saying, but I don’t entirely agree.

      10th is the most gradual option to/from the U District and Capitol Hill. Protected lanes the whole length would be a huge boon. It also means that maintenance of the facilities would be superior. Cyclists don’t like chewed up roads, especially on hills–and 10th Ave currently is an impediment to the corridor. Many employees and students live at both ends of the corridor, so it makes sense to give them a superior commute option that is comfortable and safe. I’m certain that a ton more people would ride the route. I know many who have voiced exactly the issue I laid out as to why they rarely choose to do this. Anecdotal, sure, but it’s an obvious problem. I suspect that it will also pick up a lot of casual and pleasure riders, too.

      As to the streetcar, the streetcar system that Seattle is implementing isn’t the one that Portland is. I disagree that is like a bus. Not only does it (FHS) have superior treatments to Metro’s RapidRide, but it is much better integrated into its surrounding neighbourhoods. We need a rapid streetcar system with dedicated lanes, stop reductions, and more capacity. The 49 is horrifically unreliable, lacks priority treatment, and isn’t an ideal line for the corridor anyway. Ideally, we would run a streetcar (in the future) from NE 50th St to Beacon Hill via Havard/10th Ave E/Broadway/15th Ave S.

      Contrary to streetcar antagonists like Bruce on the STB (and other anti-streetcar meme instigators), there is a place for streetcars in the city and they can–and should–be superior to buses. You will never get the kind of investment and priority treatments through bus enhancements that you can get from streetcars, nor will you get the ridership, capacity, speed, and comfort. (Not that I don’t love my trolleybuses.) The streetcar is a very worthy investment, especially in the corridor. With the efficiencies added by the Center City Connector, it will be an even better resource to the network.

      • Good points. As I said above, I have warmed to the idea of extending the circle track further. I think the light rail will reduce the number of people who bike their way from the UW to Capitol Hill, but it won’t reduce it entirely (nor will it change the needs of bikers in Eastlake).

        But I’m afraid you haven’t changed my mind about streetcars, especially a streetcar along this corridor. As I said, the only significant advantage to a streetcar is capacity. But we aren’t close to capacity for this line.

        Streetcars may be a bit more comfortable, but I don’t think it is worth spending our transportation money so that a very small segment of our users will be marginally more comfortable.

        The other suggested advantages to streetcars simply don’t exist. Streetcars aren’t faster. Sorry, that is just a fact. A trolley has the same acceleration and top speed. Besides, as you point out, it isn’t about the vehicles, it is about avoiding traffic. Regular buses are actually better in that regard. If an accident occurs, a bus can get out of the way — a streetcar can’t. Even a trolley has some ability to avoid a parked car (or simply avoid slow traffic). It is purely anecdotal, but I’ve seen this happen in Toronto (streetcars stopped, while buses keep moving). At best, a streetcar is just as fast as a bus running on the same line.

        You are basically listing all of the great things that you get with streetcars (such as priority traffic light treatment, dedicated lanes, etc.) but all of these can be applied to buses. There is no reason, from an engineering standpoint, why those same things can’t be added to a bus route (they have, in many cases throughout the city).

        There are basically two reasons why I think streetcars (especially this streetcar) aren’t a good idea:

        1) It gives folks the impression that we have “solved” the public transportation needs of the area. Sound Transit helped fund this streetcar because they didn’t deliver a light rail stop to First Hill. This suggests that to Sound Transit, a streetcar is almost as good as grade separated light rail. It isn’t. It isn’t as good as grade separated bus service. This isn’t the only area where Sound Transit (and others) have implied that streetcars are similar to light rail. In a lot of their maps (or the city’s maps) they show the streetcar routes, along with the light rail routes. They don’t show the bus routes (even the bus routes that are express routes — the ones that don’t interact with traffic). I think you can make a really strong case, for example, for adding (underground) light rail to South Lake Union. Maybe even add a line that goes the other direction, picking up First Hill (after all) and Seattle U and somewhere east of there. The ridership per cost of that line would be huge (way above other areas that they are considering, like West Seattle). But when I’ve suggested adding light rail to South Lake Union, more than one person has said, essentially “well, they already have rail” (meaning streetcars). Again, to the average person living or working in South Lake Union, the streetcar there is no better than a bus. But because it runs on rails, people think it is the same thing as Link — it isn’t.

        2) There are lots of things we can do for the same amount of money. I would split these into two categories:

        A) Little things. BAT lanes or other exclusive lanes, signal priority, pedestrian improvements, and yes, bike improvements. These can be spread throughout the city, and provide a lot more time savings for riders than a streetcar line could ever provide. As far as comfort goes, I have no doubt that a streetcar is very comfortable. It helps that very few people ride it, so very few people have to stand. But if you spend a little more on improving the bus service, a lot more people could sit down, which strikes me as a more significant comfort improvement.

        B) Big things. Three come to mind. First, a light rail station at 130th Ave NE. This would make a huge difference to folks in Lake City. Hopefully Sound Transit will pay for this, but I would have no issue with the city chipping in at least part of the cost (because I think it is so important). This would represent a dramatic time improvement for riders (unlike a streetcar). Second, a bridge over I-5 at Northgate. This will save people a lot of time, and allow bus routes to be truncated, thus improving bus frequency and reliability. The third is a gondola from Capitol Hill to South Lake Union. Ideally, this area would be part of a light rail system, but a gondola could be built years before Sound Transit even considers a light rail line there. A gondola is uniquely appropriate for the area — there is a major obstacle to bus, bike and pedestrian travel through that corridor (I-5). A gondola provides cheap grade separation.

        All of these “big things” are around the cost of the streetcar. There is no reason why the city can’t spend the money on any one of them and get much better value than extending the streetcar.

        • Ross,

          You should definitely come to one of our Tuesday meetings. We do a lot of nerdy talk on these topics and it’s much easier to get through the primary points than a conversation through comments.

          With that said, I am a strong proponent of streetcars and I think this is a great project. While I don’t completely disagree with some of the points you raise, I think they miss the bigger picture. As far as I can tell, the primary reason people object to streetcars is that it’s not worth the initial, up front cost because the same service can be provided with buses for less money. I think that’s wrong for the following reasons.

          First, to suggest that the money could be used for other things is misleading. You are right that Sound Transit has positioned the first hill streetcar as a replacement to the subway and it’s not a true replacement, mostly because it’s not grade separated. But this doesn’t mean that the money could’ve been used for something else. The way money is spent is largely subject to political will. Most objections to streetcars comes from the engineering view that you mention, mostly ignoring the political reality. The background of the project is that Sound Transit was considering a first hill subway station and decided not to do it because it was too risky. But the first hill subway station had political will behind it that justified the spending. In order to maintain that they couldn’t simply use the money for some other project in the city. This is the nature of all transit funding. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum in which the best project is always picked first and the money for the first hill line simply wouldn’t be there without the investment in the Subway and consideration of a first hill subway stop.

          Second, the reality of funding streetcars is that there’s money and political will to do it which doesn’t exist for buses. Whether or not you think streetcars are short-sighted and wrong-headed, the funding reality still exists. Most of the money for the central city connector is coming from federal funds. This definitely wouldn’t be available for another bus line downtown. Additionally, it’s debatable whether this funding would’ve been granted if the SLU line & First Hill line hadn’t been built first.

          Third, I think the emphasis on upfront capital costs is short-sighted. A transit line is going to last a long time, maybe hundreds of years. There’s actually evidence that the yearly operating costs of streetcars is lower than buses. If we are talking about long-term investments and that is true, this basically nullifies the “buses are cheaper” argument.

          Fourth, there’s a reason why the Obama administration likes streetcars. It’s not just a fad. While there are a lot of flimsy (and racially tinged) arguments about people liking streetcars more, there are other more concrete advantages. For one thing, they can carry a higher capacity. This means lines like the Central City Connector make a lot of sense. Even South Lake Union and Capitol Hill will eventually get to the point of needing that capacity (if they aren’t already there).

          Most importantly though, streetcars drive development investment in a way buses don’t. People really don’t give this enough attention. Streetcars are a permanent investment in a way buses aren’t. This is really critical for any city. The obvious Seattle example is South Lake Union. The streetcar was a critical part of the decision to redevelop SLU. To put this effect in perspective, Cincinnati estimated that development accounts for 85-90% of the economic benefit provided by streetcars. Would SLU be the same with buses? Almost definitely not. Could the city have built a subway, doubtful. But both of those are counterfactuals. The reality is that we do have a streetcar and the primary objections to it are cost. Yet the overall the estimated property tax benefit through 2020 from SLU development is pinned between $185 to $123 million dollars and that’s not including revenue from things like incentive zoning and B&O taxes.

          In summary, is it possible that in a perfect world we would pick other transit options? Perhaps. But this argument compares the obvious cost of providing two services while ignoring the political reality of funding those services and the peripheral benefits of things like development. These two considerations are more important than operating and capitol costs by an order of magnitude.

          • Yeah, these types of arguments are a lot more fun over a beer 🙂 It is almost as fun as arguing about sports. It is nice because we are both rooting for the same team.

            Anyway, since it will probably be a while before I have a Tuesday night available, I’ll have to comment here.

            As I said, I have no objection to capital spending. I’m a big fan of it. I suggested several alternatives for spending (both big and small). All of which, in my opinion, would save more in ongoing maintenance costs and gain more in terms of time saved (for a transit rider). Spend a 100 million on bike lanes, bus lanes and signal priority and you will save thousands and thousands of hours for the bus drivers (and that is just the little stuff). Spend it on bridges, a transit station, or a gondola, and you can really make a difference.

            Which brings me to my second point. You talk about politics, but *we* are the politics for this city. If you were to ask anyone on the city council five years ago what their top legislative agenda is, not one of them would have mentioned raising the minimum wage. Not top ten, not top twenty; it just wasn’t on the radar. But a SeaTac petition, followed by the election of a socialist (!) and all of a sudden, it is the law. There is no reason why we can’t get the city to spend money on transit projects that provide a more cost effective way of moving people (and that includes a gondola) but we have to do it.

            But you are absolutely correct about Sound Transit and the streetcar. They made an agreement, and can’t spend the money on anything else (like a station at 130th). To do so would be a violation of the law. So, Sound Transit will build the streetcar. But that doesn’t mean the city should spend a dime on streetcars, since there are so many other worthy projects in the city (and I mentioned three big ones). Yes, the feds have a love affair with streetcars that somehow pleases (a few) mayors. You are also right that if we spent this money on something more productive (like a gondola) we would probably have no federal matching money. But at some point, we, the people in the cities, have to do the heavy lifting, and hope the federal government comes along (as they have with gay marriage, marijuana legalization, the minimum wage, etc.).

            Finally, I completely disagree with the idea that streetcars promote development. I’m not the only one. To quote this article [http://streets.mn/2013/08/26/do-streetcars-promote-economic-development/] “We have no evidence that streetcars, of themselves, promote economic development in the context of present-day US cities”. So, the researchers looking at the studies have no evidence, but you believe that South Lake Union was spurred on by a streetcar that has fewer riders than a typical bus. OK, but how about a few other theories for why the area got a lot more popular:

            1) Paul Allen made a huge investment in the area. If the Seattle Commons had gone through, I’m sure there would be people saying that the park (the commons) was responsible for the growth. If Allen had build another Jimi Hendrix sculpture in the area*, I’m sure people would have credited that. He wanted to build something nice for the city, and wanted to speed up the process, but he knew, and just about everyone knew, that he was going to make back his money ten times over. Why?

            2) Simple Geography. South Lake Union sits half way between the two biggest economic engines in the entire Northwest — Downtown Seattle and the UW. It sits next to a lake. This is why it, and surrounding areas are doing so well. The Cascade neighborhood gains very little (if anything) by the streetcar, but it is booming just as fast as the area next to the line. Likewise for Westlake and Uptown. Draw a box from I-5 to the water, and from Mercer to Denny. Now show someone the development that occurred (as is occurring) in that box and ask them to spot the streetcar line. I would guess it goes east/west, not north/south, but even if you said it went “downtown”, wouldn’t you guess it went through Belltown? Hasn’t Belltown boomed, despite having nothing to do with the streetcar? Likewise, hasn’t Ballard boomed?

            As you said, from a political standpoint, what is done is done. It would be silly to try and stop this now. But I think it is just as silly to talk about extending this before it is even built, especially with city money. Perhaps more importantly, we need to make sure that we leverage it properly. The bus tunnel** (now called a transit tunnel) will soon be closed to buses. We will soon have a streetcar traveling through downtown. The streetcar will be given priority traffic treatment (or it will really be a waste of money). Either it needs to run often enough to service the buses, or it should share its special lane and signal priority with buses. By “often enough” I mean every three minutes. Is there enough demand for that kind of service? I hope so. If not, then I’m fine with the streetcar sharing the same route as the buses.

            * Keep in mind, I really like Jimi Hendrix sculptures (the more the merrier).

            ** Now that was a great capital investment. It saved thousand, if not millions of hours of bus time long before they added rails. Dollar for dollar, it improved transit way more than any streetcar we will ever build.

    • For the record, I bike up from the U-district to Capitol Hill nearly every week. I would definitely appreciate a cycle track down 10th all the way to Roanoke and beyond if its possible.

      • The more I think about it, the more I think you and Stephen are right. It just makes sense to extend that circle track as far as possible. There may be a few people who take advantage of the light rail, but there will still be plenty of folks who go up that hill. It isn’t just people coming from the UW, but Eastlake as well. Plus, If I’m not mistaken, once they finish the 520 work, there will be more park space (a bigger cap) around Roanoke. It makes sense (as you say) to extend it at least that far. At that point, you might as well spend a little more and connect it to Eastlake Avenue.

  2. Does anyone know why SDOT prefers two-way cycle tracks? They are much less intuitive to everyone and are confusing on how to safely enter and exit. Keeping bikes flowing the same direction of traffic just makes more sense.

    • Hypothetically you need less street space because you only need one buffer. You also need less maintenance (one sweep to get trash) and you might only be affecting parking on one side of the street.

      Additionally, I’m not sure there’s evidence they are less safe. It makes sense that it should be less safe but I don’t know if that’s been proven.

    • Two-way cycle tracks have reduced conflicts with cars, make bikes predictable, and gives them solid separation. There are tradeoffs, but for the longer-distance rider, they’re a superior facility over the many more conflicts posed by cycle lanes. The lack of intuition is only because it’s an on-street separation, a relatively unique and new system to the region. That’s not to say that one-way cycle tracks shouldn’t be explored, but for the reasons Owen notes, that’s probably a harder sell if you want actual protection and separation from automobiles. Over time, they’ll be a natural part of the network, and totally intuitive.

Comments are closed.