‘Streetcar’ seems to be a dirty word in Seattle. In January, I proposed my own redesign of NE 65th St to the city, which received overwhelming support from Seattle’s bike and car communities alike–the Seattle Bike Blog went so far as to declare my design better than the city’s. However, one aspect of my proposal, a streetcar, stirred vigorous debate. Some flatly opposed the concept of a streetcar. Others considered it too idealistic, proposing a cheaper bus rapid transit system instead.

More recently, Mayor Jenny Durkan halted construction of the Center City Connector streetcar extension, following outcry regarding increasing project costs. The mayor’s office now claims the streetcars placed on order for this extension may not fit the tracks, which is more likely a stunt to stir opposition to the streetcar (still under pause for cost review) than an honest concern. As The Urbanist and The Seattle Times noted, both sets of streetcars–the existing streetcars and those placed on order–have a track gauge specified at an identical 1.435 meters. And, the newly-ordered cars are a requested 2.45 meters wide, actually 0.01 meters narrower than the existing ones.

Our politicians seem to spread misinformation to sway the public against streetcars. But this anti-streetcar sentiment is not justified. In fact, Seattle was built around streetcar lines. The city’s first streetcar line was built in 1884, and by 1936 Seattle’s Municipal Street Railway operated 410 streetcars on 231 miles of track–which neatly cut the city into the neighborhoods that exist today.

Seattle’s old network of trolley, cable, and bus lines. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
Seattle’s old network of trolley, cable, and bus lines. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Buses now run along these old streetcar routes, and some routes still use the trolley wire. Roughly 64% of residents are within a 10-minute walking distance from a frequent bus line, and approximately 423,000 people ride Seattle’s buses every day, leading The Seattle Times to declare Seattle the second-most bus reliant city in the United States, just behind San Francisco.

But Seattle increasingly needs a new transportation mode to weave together its transit network–especially its new light rail spine. In peak months, Link’s daily ridership has grown to surpass 80,000–but only 15% of Seattle residents are within a 10-minute walking distance to it. While significantly fewer people are within walking distance to light rail as compared to buses, light rail ridership is growing steadily nonetheless.

This is consistent with what research tells us–people have an inherent rail bias. A study by the Berlin Institute of Technology found that 63% of subjects preferred a regional train system over an equivalent bus system, given a hypothetical choice with all other factors being equal. A second study in Switzerland found that 75% of respondents preferred trams to buses–even given identical service levels.

This rail bias bolsters the ridership of Seattle’s light rail system. But, the city lacks–and desperately needs–clear east-west connections that make the system accessible to everyone. Buses could be up to the task, but the research is in favor of rail. Streetcars are the preferred transportation mode residents need to reach light rail, for several reasons.

First, streetcars offer a more comfortable ride. While buses bounce around at the whims of Seattle’s deferred street maintenance, streetcar rails guarantee a smooth ride. All-door level boarding also makes peak-hour boarding and unloading a cinch, even for people with mobility challenges.

My vision for NE 65th St with a streetcar line and protected bike lanes. Separating streetcar tracks and bike lanes helps prevent bike crashes caused by tires getting stuck in tracks. (Graphic by author)

Second, streetcars offer greater passenger capacity than buses. In Portland, Oregon, each streetcar cabin has a maximum capacity of 92 riders–only the largest articulated buses approach that. A standard 40-foot bus typically maxes out at 50 to 60 passengers. That means fewer rail vehicles could potentially transport the same number of passengers, reducing operating costs. If a route has been planned with expansion in mind, streetcars can also be attached together if ridership demands it. Two-car streetcars may be well suited for east-west routes that would connect large neighborhoods to the city’s light rail spine–corridors like Denny Way (Route 8), N/NE 45th St (Route 44), and N/NE 65th St (Route 62) come to mind. A Columbia City to Alaska Junction streetcar is also a possibility, upgrading Route 50.

Third, streetcars attract greater ridership thanks to the aforementioned rail bias. As a result, they not only attract more transit riders, but also new transit riders. Between 2000 and 2003, bus stops within a sixth of a mile of Portland’s first streetcar line saw ridership drop by 20% when rail went online. Meanwhile, ridership on the new streetcar grew well beyond that drop, indicating the system was attracting more than just former bus riders.

Fourth, streetcars advertise themselves better. Few Seattle residents, including daily bus riders, could point at a given bus stop and identify what routes pass through it. Fewer could identify a bus route based on the route number. Streetcar rails implant their route directly onto the road–creating a system that is easier to understand for tourists and residents alike due to the tracks providing a visual reminder of the route.

Finally, streetcars are excellent investments. Portland’s streetcars cost 53% less per boarding than buses, and according to a report commissioned by Portland Streetcar Incorporated, streetcars have exacted $4.5 billion dollars of economic investment in the city. While Portland’s first streetcar line, a 4.8-mile-long loop that opened in 2001, cost $54.6 million dollars to construct, the city’s economy received a 4,112% return on its investment through new development in the area. And, the citywide market value of its corridor increased from 11% to 17% in just 15 years. That economic value is partly a reflection of already in motion trends increasing the value of Downtown Portland and Pearl District real estate, but it’s also a testament to the catalyst that the streetcar was for redevelopment and the economy.

Streetcars incentivize dense, transit-oriented development. They attract more riders and carry more people. They are quieter, and they run on clean Pacific Northwest electricity. Seattle is built for streetcars. Seattle’s bus routes are clearly effective, but streetcars are the transportation mode needed to tie together Seattle’s transit network even more effectively. Seattle needs streetcars.

NE 65th Street Needs a Heavy Dose of Vision Zero, Here’s How

5 COMMENTS

  1. If we need capacity, or speed, or other transit-related benefits that only a streetcar can deliver, then that’s great. But we don’t need to spend transit dollars in support of tourism and economic development benefits. And we also don’t need to build streetcars to serve people’s “inherent rail bias” any more than we need to serve people’s “inherent white and privileged bias.”

  2. I disagree that Seattle needs streetcars, but we certainly need more fast, reliable transit.

    First, I would call into question the applicability of the swiss/german studies on rail preference cited by the author. Not only are they 10-15 years old, but since the main reason for rail preference is a cultural bias, I do not think that the conclusions are necessarily portable between continents. Additionally, Seattle has shown that they are able to break the anti-bus stigma by making bus transit more frequent, reliable, and ubiquitous. Additionally, BRT (eg RapidRide) offers many of the benefits of streetcars, including perception, without most of the drawbacks. A study done in LA in 2009 found this to be true, and several cities are abandoning their streetcars due to their projected ridership over bus routes not playing out as expected.

    For reference:
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.360.9930&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    also, see the last section of this article:
    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/seattle-to-spend-177m-on-new-streetcar-line-amid-questions-about-unrealistic-revenue-rider-projections/

    The author of this piece also does not seem to acknowledge many of the drawbacks of streetcars: they cost a humongous amount of money to build, and 50% more to operate than a bus route. In a rapidly growing city, they also are not adaptable as new areas develop, or we want to change the traffic pattens on our streets. If they are not given a dedicated right of way (or even if they are), they are completely shut down by a small obstacle (eg car crash/bad parking) that a bus could just go around. San Francisco’s Muni suffers from this problem regularly. Then there’s the issue that the tracks are lethal to people riding bikes — there are certainly ways to mitigate this (the best being flange fillers or dedicated bike infrastructure to avoid the tracks), but Seattle seems hesitant to do them, and the minimal benefits of streetcars don’t seem worth the cost in human lives.

    so… does seattle need more transit with dedicated right-of-way and all-door boarding? absolutely! Does Seattle need at-grade streetcars? please no. Should we finish the streetcar we’ve already started? probably, especially because if we don’t we’d likely never be able to fund more BRT or light rail.

  3. Saying a City needs something does not mean it needs it everywhere. Transportation technologies are tools that should be used in the proper context. Reservoirs are not appropriate at the bottoms of hills. And streetcars are generally not appropriate in Seattle’s east west corridors.
    You are absolutely correct though in identifying the lack of reliable east-west transit corridors as being a major problem in this city. But much of that is the lack of east-west corridors, period. The north-south glacial topography has left us with a development pattern and major roadways that predominantly run on a north-south axis. The rare east-west corridors usually have uncomfortably steep segments, climb hillsides at angles, and are chronically congested – Market Street, Admiral Way, Northgate Way, Columbia Way come to mind.
    Streetcars cannot comfortably climb steep grades, and switchback routing is inefficient. The First Hill Streetcar’s 14th Ave dog leg is a perfect example of why streetcars climbing hills in an urban setting is inefficient.
    Selective trenching/tunneling and embankments could smooth out grades, but the costs for that type of work is much higher than simply pulling out traffic lanes and installing rails. When you factor in the costs of traffic disruptions, moving utilities, and traffic signals upgrades then balance those costs against the marginal improvement for a streetcar over a bus running a similar corridor, it is not worth installing the surface rail.
    But once you invest enough to make the line fully-grade separated from car traffic (be it in a tunnel, aerial, or combination) then you lose the traffic disruptions and increase reliability and speed to the point that it become much more attractive. Call the technology what you want, light rail, tram, or streetcar, the important aspect and most costly is the grade separation.
    In recognition of this, many commenters on the Seattle Transit Blog pushed hard for a Ballard-to-UW subway and a Denny-to-Capitol Hill subway (AKA Metro Route 8) to be include in the bond package for ST3 instead of the Ballard to West Seattle line. Hopefully, with the next ST bond measure these corridors will go forward.
    Until then, I’m afraid bus improvements and especial dedicated bus lanes (where the political will can be mobilized) are the most cost effective, if not sexy, solution for our east west mobility.

  4. Yes, Seattle needs more streetcars.
    Seattle doesn’t need cyclists who keep getting killed by streetcar rails.

  5. I am pleased that some young people are showing interest in our transportation system.
    See if the school can arrange for a tour of the First Hill Streetcar facility and a conversation with Calvin Lee or someone.
    Also a ride along with a driver and spend some time listening to the radio chatter and get some first hand experience.
    In my opinion after spending my life in Seattle, Metro does a good job of moving people. Especially from an Area such as Ravenna to Downtown.
    The real problem comes from transporting people into downtown from the outer suburbs. With issues such as the park and ride lots filling up by 7:00 am.

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