In an earlier article, I argued Seattle should expand its streetcar network and ensure high quality service with dedicated transit lanes starting in Belltown. Now I’m going to describe a few more places where extension of the planned network could yield significant benefits to neighborhoods likely to be overlooked by currently planned high capacity transit investments in Seattle. I’ll also address a few of the common objections raised of streetcar transportation.

A map of the north end of Downtown Seattle shows a streetcar line extending north through Interbay into Magnolia.
A visualization of what a three line streetcar system might look like if we expanded upon the exclusive lane use. (Map Source: Google Maps) In Blue: SLU Line, in Purple: First Hill Line, in Green: Proposed “Discovery” Line (Black: Alternate Uptown Route)

Extension to Magnolia


On the surface, Magnolia might seem like a silly choice for a streetcar line. The neighborhood currently has low transit use, is very car dependent, and has one of the lowest population densities in the city. However, there are a few good reasons we might wish to bring a streetcar here. Magnolia is a mere five miles from Downtown Seattle, which is close enough that one might expect a dense residential hub. However, due to restrictive zoning, the lack of an Urban Village designation here, and low transit access, the amount of people who can live in Magnolia comfortably is effectively constrained to fairly wealthy individuals outside a few small pockets of apartments in Magnolia Village and along Thorndyke Avenue W and Gilman Avenue W. This exclusivity forces growth to go other areas in the city, displacing more vulnerable communities in lower income areas.

A view of Elliott Bay from the Magnolia Bluffs in Discovery Park. Parkgoers are silhouettes in the late afternoon sun.
At 534 acres, Discovery Park is the crown jewel of the Seattle parks system, but, like much of Magnolia, it has poor transit access. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Rezoning for higher density and adding high capacity transit would be just the thing Magnolia would need to open up to many more people, taking pressure off of the few neighborhoods currently taking most of the density. Additionally, Magnolia hosts Discovery Park, which is the single largest park in the city limits of Seattle and something all Seattleites should have good access to whether they own a car or not. With poor transit access to the neighborhood and relatively few access points, this keeps the park hard to reach for much of the city’s population, but adding higher capacity transit and more residents near the park would reverse the situation. Streetcars could be the ideal vehicle to achieve all of these goals.

A graphic showing four lanes of traffic, two devoted to streetcar and two devotes to vehicles. A median area with space for pedestrians is also included.
A concept of what a new Magnolia Bridge might look like. Gone are the complicated overpasses and merge lanes. A simple span with on/off ramps confined to the auto lanes to the North remain. These should be signaled intersections instead of freeway style ramps. Wider bridge span allows exclusive transit lanes and a wide walking/biking path. (Credit: Streetmix)

A big part of this project would be the new Magnolia Bridge. The Magnolia Bridge has structural issues and unfortunately the city transportation department’s replacement plans are aligned with some of the worst parts of auto culture. If a new bridge were to be built to Magnolia, it ought to be part of a process to increase density and living space available on the peninsula as well as improving transit alternatives. Instead of building a four-to-six-lane car bridge, any new bridge should have dedicated transit lanes, a lane width of dedicated space for folks walking or on bicycles, and at most two lanes for “general traffic.” This represents something closer to the reality of the transportation future for Seattle. In order to achieve the climate goals the city has set while supporting continued free travel between neighborhoods, more lanes need to be dedicated to non-auto based modes like streetcars.

Magnolia was built as a streetcar suburb, but now it’s carcentric. Downtown Seattle is not far away as the looming skyline shows. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

A streetcar line could be just the carrot to win Magnolia over to urban zoning instead of the exclusionary zoning it has — which won’t be an easy fight. It would also greatly improve connections to the light rail station planned at Smith Cove with the completion of Ballard Link circa 2037.

On to Fremont

Unlike Magnolia, Fremont is already a high-density, high-transit demand neighborhood. Though there are already plans to make significant improvements to the King County Metro Route 40 that passes through Fremont, a completed Center City Connector project provides the opportunity to boost this capacity even further, which may be needed as the Metro’s Route 40 is one of the most crowded buses in the city. Between South Lake Union and Fremont, the relatively minor upgrades being proposed now for this route may not be enough to address the growing need for transit.

The well known “Waiting for the Interurban” statue in Fremont depicts riders waiting for a streetcar as real life cars pass by. (Credit: Great Beyond, Creative Commons)

Fremont is at a level of demand that could use a stop on a high capacity rail line, none of Sound Transit’s currently planned lines are going to directly serve Fremont. While Seattle Subway does have plans (that we should support) to extend a subway line up north on the Aurora Avenue N Corridor, this project is likely to be decades in the future. In the meantime, it would be worthwhile to provide higher capacity options like streetcar to neighborhoods such as Fremont that are not otherwise yet on the light rail map.

A map of the north end of Downtown Seattle showing streetcar routes extending through Belltown into Queen Anne and South Lake Union toward Fremont.
Zoomed in Section of the map. Orange line here represents an extension of the purple First Hill line. This line extends to Fremont instead of heading towards Eastlake. (Source: Google Maps)

While Sound Transit has never studied light rail to the area save for the Ballard Spur line on top of the hill, Fremont has long been identified as a streetcar route, from its original roots as a streetcar suburb to the city’s 2009 streetcar plan.

Map of the Seattle Streetcar Network proposed in 2009. (Map by Oran Viriyincy)

The specifics of the Fremont route are worth discussing because there are a few potential complications. First, the segment from Harrison Street to the Fremont Bridge would mostly be constructed sharing the bus lanes proposed for the Metro Route 40 bus project. Since bicycles have a dedicated corridor for travel immediately adjacent to Westlake Avenue, there should not be a need to have special accommodation for bicycles on this portion. The complications come with the connection to Westlake Avenue N at 9th Avenue. The end of the cycletrack and its diagonal connection to the cycle lanes on 9th Avenue need special care to not interact poorly with streetcar tracks. Building tracks that support flanging or building a bicycle overpass here would be worth including in any streetcar extension plan.

Cyclists are forced to move to the sidewalk in order to cross the Fremont Bridge. With widths that barely exceed six feet at key points, the sidewalks are not equipped to handle large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians. Alex Pedersen calls this a “multimodal bridge.” (Photo by Natalie Bicknell)

The additional complicated portion of this route is the end of the route on the north end of the Fremont bridge. Though the bridge itself was built to accommodate streetcars when it was originally constructed, the neighborhood has changed a great deal since then and interaction with bicycles and cars leaving the bridge will need careful consideration to prevent dangerous conflicts.

Why streetcars?

Many American urbanists espouse the opinion that streetcars do not provide a meaningful capacity boost over buses and that any streetcar route could easily be replaced by a better bus route. This is not true. While buses are more flexible on routing and can mix more easily with other vehicles, this can also be a drawback when trying to obtain exclusive lanes in a project. Since buses do not require special lanes to run in, its easier to reduce or remove exclusive lanes in the planning phase as “unnecessary” to the project. A recent example of this is the Madison bus rapid transit (BRT) project. Additionally, though the current Seattle streetcar capacity of 140 is similar to the maximum capacity of articulated buses (94 to 120), a bus at maximum capacity is a much more unpleasant experience for riders than a maximum capacity rail vehicle. Articulated buses in particular can be difficult to remain standing in when at maximum capacity and moving in road conditions or speeds that cause significant bouncing. Also, unlike articulated buses, it would be relatively easy to obtain longer streetcar vehicles with greater capacity which may be important if bus driver shortages continue to be an issue in the future. Finally, as a small technological issue, another unfortunate lesson of the Madison BRT project is that unlike streetcars, buses can have extremely inflexible selection on form factors that limit the city’s ability to fully electrify its transit fleet in a meaningful timeframe.

A photo of a streetcar in Portland with a large amount of parked bicycles nearby.
Portland has been designing its streetcar expansion to be bike friendly. (Credit: Steven Vance, Creative Commons)

Streetcars can coexist safely with bicycles

Safety of people on bicycles is an important consideration when building street rail. There are a few more options that are worth considering to reduce interactions between the rails and the bicycle users. One option is to take lanes that are to be exclusive to rail alone and not bury them in cement but leave the tracks exposed where possible to remove the possibility of bicyclists being surprised by narrow slots in the road. Another option is to use rails that can accept flangeway filler to prevent bicycle tires from falling in where rails must cross shared street surface or be shared with buses. The First Hill Streetcar already has a section of track in Chinatown that uses this configuration. A final option worth considering is building bicycle underpasses in sections where the traffic interactions are too complicated to have safe 90 degree crossing over the rail. This is not something that is very common in Seattle at this point, but is worth considering to bring safer crossings on more complicated intersections.

Let’s keep advancing the Center City Connector

The Center City Connector (CCC) extension is on hold, but is worth building and expanding for a number of reasons. The exclusive lanes requested for this project could potentially enable a cheaper path to exclusive lane rapid transit that light rail is taking decades to deliver and BRT projects that are being compromised out of existence.

As streetcars are frequently used as development tools, we could use projects like this to redevelop low-density, park-rich neighborhoods like Magnolia, which would otherwise be unlikely to see either transit or density increased. Longer cars could provide a capacity boost that Metro buses cannot come close to meeting.

Additional connections to Fremont would could also add a significant transit boost to relive crowding on Route 40 and provide some sort of high capacity transit to a neighborhood that is currently being skipped over by most the long-term Sound Transit plans. Conflicts with bicycles can be worked around by providing proper bicycle facilities where possible. Greater care to address bicycle safety issues needs to be taken into account more than what has happened in the past. Alignment and platform adjustments could improve the functionality of running three surface running train lines through this corridor.

Though streetcars are not as fast or high capacity as light rail nor as cheap as buses, being able to use these projects to get exclusive transit lanes may prove to be a more realistic option to spread more transit use throughout the city and increase dense city living in time to make a difference for the radical climate changes we are going through.


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Charles is an avid cyclist that uses his bike as his primary mode of transportation. He grew up in the Puget Sound, but is currently overseas living in Japan. He covers a range of topics like cycling, transit, and land use. His time in Tokyo really opened his eyes to what urbanism offers people and has a strong desire to see growth happen in Seattle.

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Blair

BRT is just a bus unless you take the whole lane and give it exclusively to buses. That means infrastructure. Not paint. Bollards, jersey barriers, etc. Absent an appetite for that, Streetcars are superior because cars fear them *a bit more* than buses and stay away from them *a bit more*.

If your transit is in traffic, it’s just more traffic. BRT could work great in Seattle, but not until we take lanes away from cars and give them to buses.

eddiew

The RossB points are excellent. The Magnolia Bridge grade is too steep for streetcars. in the first third of the 20th Century, the Magnolia streetcar was on Gilman and Government and served Fort Lawton. Madison, James, and Yesler were also too steep for streetcars, so were cable cars. Queen Anne had a counter balance. Electric trolleybus can climb steep hills. Magnolia service such be restructured, but the streetcar has no place; our transit funds are too scarce. Instead of monuments, we need short headway and waits. Whatever priority Seattle can provide to a streetcar, it could provide to buses, saving the high capital cost.

J.S.

The 24 and 33 routes do this job already (both end point in discovery park). That said yes Magnolia is underserved as both of these go to the exact same place, Downtown. Technically 31 also exists (to UW) but its route on Magnolia is a joke and essentially requires you to ride 24/33 to one of the handful of stops they share with 31. Or really they force you to ride down to 15th to switch to the rapid line if you want to go anywhere other than downtown.

Fremont (other than the bridge problem) however does make sense. When I rode the SLUT I was struck by the fact that they line doesn’t head towards to Fremont. Flat road, relatively low traffic. It also doesn’t actually need to cross the bridge. The locations that people want to walk to in Fremont are all right next the bridge. They could just have a station near the bridge and then continue along Nickerson to the SPU campus. They could redesign that horrible triangle of land at W Bertona St which already serves as an over crowded bus station.

Due to the street cars being the horrible middle place between cheap busses and high capacity/grade separated light rail. The proper place for street cars is more as an upscale bus that goes to a handful of high foot traffic locations. aka tourist spots. So linking international to pioneer to pike place to space needle makes absolute sense. An extension to Freemont falls in line with that as a happening place, but its relative isolation keeps the bulk of out of towners away from it.

Now pitching street cars as a sneaky way to get more transit into high wealth neighborhoods who despise the bus but would be okay with a fancy street car? Sure that can work, though the extra logistics of rail would probably make it untenable for most locations. Honestly just increasing the bus frequency (half hour at best in Magnolia) would get more people to ride it. You can drive and park downtown in 15 to 20 so waiting 30 minutes just for a bus to show up is a gigantic negative.

sparkles

let’s build miles of streetcar rail to one of the lowest-density and suburban neighborhoods in Seattle (magnolia)?

And to the neighborhood (fremont) that will likely be one of the top priorities for the next light-rail expansion?

RossB

Oh, and your mention of exclusive streets (i. e. right-of-way) and Madison BRT is laughable. The streetcar on Broadway does not have its own lane. It encounters plenty of traffic, and can’t even move out of the way of someone turning, or doing a bad job parking. In contrast, the RapidRide G will be running in its own lane most of the way. In fact, where they will actually cross, the RapidRide G will be running in its own center lane, while the streetcar will be stuck in general traffic. You can literally see the cars in the streetcar lane right in the picture. Both directions, there are cars. In contrast, check out the slide for the BRT as it crosses Broadway. For the entire section of that slide, the bus will be in the center of the street, and not a single car or truck will be allowed. That is a lot more exclusive than any streetcar we have ever had in this city.

This is a city that has added miles of right-of-way for buses, and very few for the streetcars. Some of the right-of-way is partial, like BAT lanes that can be shared with cars (if the car takes a right turn). Some of it is exclusive (at least most of the time) like all of Third Avenue, or lanes on Second and Fourth Avenue, or the contraflow lanes on Fifth Avenue. There are plans for a lot more. They were supposed to be funded, but we essentially ran out of money. Spending money on streetcars just means that we have less to spend on transit that does the same thing just as well, if not better: buses.

RossB

I don’t want to be rude, because I know it takes some effort to write something like this. But this is completely backwards. It is obvious you love streetcars, and are looking for a place to put them. That’s not how it should work.

You should be looking at a flat corridor with full buses running frequently, all day long. You should suggest that the corridor be converted to a subway, or an elevated rail system; but in the meantime, we can improve the capacity problem by serving those people less often, with a streetcar. Does that sound like any corridor in Seattle? Of course not.

It is really fairly simple, as Jarrett Walker explained quite some time ago. There are two advantages to streetcars:

1) Bigger capacity.
2) They can run on an existing rail line.

From a transportation standpoint, that’s it*. But this begs the question — when do you actually need all that extra capacity? The simple answer is: When the buses are running every three minutes or so. That’s it. Otherwise, you just run the buses more often, which actually benefits the rider.

In other words, would you rather have a bus running every fifteen minutes, or a streetcar running every half hour? It isn’t close. The bus is much better. Yet you are essentially proposing that we run a streetcar half as often, because they can carry twice as many people. That doesn’t even count the extra money that would be diverted from running the buses (or the light rail) towards building this pet project.

Every mode, from microtransit to high speed rail has its purpose. One is only better than the other under particular circumstances. We simply don’t have any place in Seattle where a streetcar makes sense.

* There are some who claim that streetcars revitalize an area, but that is debatable. Clearly, Seattle doesn’t need revitalizing.

RDPence

We’re still waiting for that article comparing streetcar costs (construction and operation) to those of a comparable Rapid Ride bus route. Particularly for the route to Magnolia.

asdf2

Once built, I would expect the hourly operation cost of a bus and a streetcar to be about the same. They both involve paying a driver to operate a similarly sized vehicle, and both the bus and streetcar drivers belong to the same union.

The big difference is in the construction cost, and it isn’t close. With a bus, the changes to the street itself is just red paint. With a streetcar, you have to completely dig up the street and rebuild it to install the tracks. Then, there’s the place where you store, clean, and work on the vehicles overnight. Buses can drive out-of-service to existing bases out in the suburbs. Streetcars, on the other hand, can only go where the tracks go. This means buying up expensive urban land to host a streetcar barn, since whatever downtown-adjacent land costs, it’s still cheaper than building the miles and miles of track it would take to get to somewhere where land is cheaper. In terms of vehicles, buses are probably cheaper than similarly sized streetcars because they are produced in larger quantities and are more likely to have economies of scale.

Another cost of streetcar lines not even mentioned anywhere else is the accidents caused by bicycle tires getting caught in the streetcar tracks. Every year, the mere presence of streetcar tracks in South Lake Union causes people to go to the hospital. With both Terry and Westlake taken up by tracks, it is nearly impossible to avoid without either a mile or sidewalk riding or a long detour.

If there exists any situation where streetcars make sense, it would be when you have a legacy rail line already there, avoiding the cost of track construction. Even then, if the legacy rail line is single track, you’d be severely constrained in how often such a streetcar could run, and a line that could only operate every 20-30 minutes is not much value; most likely, it would be better for mobility overall to just rip out the tracks altogether and put in a bike trail. For transit, just paint red bus lanes on the regular streets.

Stephen Fesler

Even if one is to buy the argument here, we know that paint alone isn’t sufficient. It must be coupled with hard, physical separation and technology to get transit vehicles through intersections and attain compliance. Paint alone routinely fails miserably. Accomplishing this in any meaningful way is apparently highly controversial, which is why it’s rare around here. Even if we could dump all the paint we want, it means little without going much, much further to back it up.

Stephen Fesler

In all fairness, that’s not terribly illuminating. There wouldn’t be a comparable RapidRide bus route since they’re nearly the same as regular local buses, just with higher frequency and a handful of bells and whistles. If actual BRT existed around here, that would be a different matter, but alas.

That this is what’s proposed for the RapidRide I Line is a huge indictment of the RapidRide brand if it’s actually supposed to be BRT. Metro should just call it “Metro+” if it’s really just a catch-all for more frequent local service, streamlined boarding, and somewhat more welcoming stops when BRT is a distinctly different animal.

Last edited 2 months ago by safesler
jas

Seattle needs bigger street cars, and signal priority along the entire line at a minimum for anything to make sense. Also, I’d rather see Fremont on a Link line. When (if?) they build Ballard to UW the line should dip south to hit Fremont before curving to the north.

Oh.. and Magnolia? hahaha.. no really. Given the terrain I’d say a gondola to Link stations at Interbay or Smith Cove would be more likely, but even a gondola in this neighborhood would have a snowball’s chance, so…