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C200: Whither Streetcars?

2011 March 24
by A-P Hurd

< Seattle Streetcar; photo: Dan Bertolet >

I know that Metro Transit and Sounds Transit are different agencies, and frankly it doesn’t make a grain of sense for building a regional transit system.

Many people feel we should invest in streetcars because the streetcar is “nicer” than the bus. In fact, streetcars are a poor choice at a time when we are cutting bus service.

The SLUT is only “nicer” because it’s full of techies and bio-techies going to work. If you run the streetcar up Capitol Hill, or up Aurora (like the 358 bus) you will wind up with the same wonky mix of people as you do on the bus. All those extra capital investment dollars don’t buy you classier ridership. Sorry.

More importantly, people don’t make transportation choices primarily because of the savoriness of the person riding next to them. They make transportation choices because of efficiency. Streetcars add infrastructure cost, but they don’t move any faster than cars and buses.

Light rail, on the other hand, has a phenomenal upfront capital cost and carbon footprint. However, light rail has the potential to make time economics of riding public transit seriously competitive with SOV travel. And that is fundamentally transformative of how transit can work in our region.

So let’s get the light rail spine done. All the way to Bellevue. UNDER Bellevue.

Then, let’s find a reliable source of funding for our busses, and set streetcars aside until we can manage to run a truly regional bus system with comprehensive routes, short headways and dedicated lanes.


A-P Hurd is a Developer at Touchstone and a Fellow of the Runstad Center for Real Estate at the University of Washington.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Is “faster” is the only thing that matters for mobility? What about smoother ride, level boarding, real-time arrival information, or less worry that diesel prices will cripple our transit system? Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has correctly pointed out that we can get many of these advantages from proper investment in bus systems, though only through correspondingly high infrastructure costs and willingness to require dedicated transit lanes. Instead, we dedicate billions to car-centric projects and hear bitter complaints about millions for streetcars.

    Again and again King County Metro has put off zero-emission electric bus purchases in favor of cheaper loud, polluting diesels, telling us “transit dependent” city residents that it’s better than nothing. I personally would love to see investment in a high performance electric bus network that Tom Rasmussen wrote about and I hope it happens. But until then I’ll continue to be happy riding streetcars and supporting a proper network owned by Seattle, not a suburb-dominated county council.

  2. Japhet Koteen permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I definitely agree with Ms. Hurd, having two independent agencies operate two separate transit systems with two separate goals in the same town doesn’t make sense. Of course, we have 7 or 8 of them, here in Seattle, which goes well beyond nonsense to the realm of absurdity or perhaps surrealism. However, I’ll save that rant for another day; let’s focus just on the dual (and dueling) purposes of the SLUT and Metro.

    Metro is a part of King County which provides transit services throughout a wide area. One of their goals is to provide access to transit to a large number of people. I think this is a valuable goal, but ends up being more of a social service band-aid on our gaping wound of sprawling land use.

    The Seattle Streetcar (SLUT) is primarily a land value enhancement tool. The trollies are comfortable, attractive and above all, fixed in place for the next century or so. This certainty allows property owners to invest in compact, walkable, efficient developments, knowing that their tenants will have access to these transit lines.

    I personally think that the Streetcar and bus networks should be operated with the same goal: investing in long-term regional mobility, and economic growth, while creating great places for people. This is not hard, but will require more coordination than our absurd multitudes of conflicting land use planning, transportation, and transit agencies have demonstrated to date.

  3. alexjonlin permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I disagree. Streetcars almost universally get much higher ridership than bus routes that they replace, as they attract those “unsavory” people who have no choice but to take the bus, but also many choice riders. There’s no clear cut explanation for why this is, but it has held up consistently. If we want more people to ride the bus in Seattle, we need to build more streetcars for local transit, and more light rail for rapid and regional transit.

  4. Jonathan Mark permalink
    March 25, 2011

    I think a major factor with streetcars is the hazard they create for bicycles. The first Seattle Streetcar line was particularly bad because Westlake was a natural bike route (diagonal across the street grid, following a geographic saddle). Westlake now has two sets of streetcar tracks and no bike lane or other allowance, and is hazardous for bikes even trying to cross the street, because of its diagonal alignment and high car traffic, making it hard to take a line perpendicular to the streetcar track.

    Adding more streetcar routes will work against the goal of increasing the safety of bicycle transportation. I am not optimistic about Broadway where the “cycle track” will position half the bikes to pass through multiple traffic lights while moving opposite to the traffic flow on their side of the street.

  5. Adam Parast permalink
    March 25, 2011

    Way to bring out the crazies in 200 words or less. The point of the 200 word limit is to target the post to one concise point. Rather, this reads like the cliff notes version of a Times editorial.

    You go from streetcars, to declaring regional transit pointless, to agency structure, to asserting that streetcars are slow like buses, to carbon impacts of light rail, to East Link segment C, back to streetcars, and finish off with a regional transit system (buses) that everyone knows will never happen.

    Stick to one point.

  6. TLjr permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Mr. Hurd seems to have chosen to argue the impossible: that a ride on a bus chugging along a bumpy street is every bit as “nice” as a ride on a new rail system. He’s reduced to scolding those dang yuppy SLUT riders for having the good sense to patronize a quality service. (Full disclosure: I like the 358 service too. It’s fast and nice enough, albeit bumpy.)

    But the point he makes that “streetcars add infrastructure cost, but they don’t move any faster than cars and buses” is wrong. Because streetcars are light and electric, they accelerate faster, which means that they get up to speed quickly. And you can do fancier traffic signal preemption with streetcars than you can do with buses. (Yes, you get some of the acceleration advantage with trolley buses. But you still get a bumpy ride.)

    The distinction between streetcars and light rail is a fine one, and hardly a point worth arguing. Light rail is adaptable, and that’s the point of it. It can run through streets with shared traffic like as in downtown Portland, and then on to an exclusive right of way where it can go up to 70 miles per hour.. Or it in a subway like it does in downtown Seattle. It can even do all of the above on a single network, as it does in too many cities to mention.

    And, of course, it can run along the street can call itself a streetcar. And it would be hard to argue that the South Lake Union corridor isn’t a good place for it. The Downtown-Eastlake-University corridor was built along a streetcar line, and still has some of the highest transit mode shares in the region. It hardly seems fair to hate on the SLUT for bringing rail service back to the corridor.

  7. Matt the Engineer permalink
    April 1, 2011

    Each transit technology is a tool for our use. Blindly insisting that buses or rail is always best is like using a hammer to assemble both a house and a wristwatch.

    Buses are best for suburban distances with medium capacity needs, and existing freeways.

    Light rail or full metros are great for urban or suburban distances with high capacity needs.

    ETB’s are great for urban distances with medium capacity needs.

    Gondolas are great for urban distances with low to medium capacity needs and few stops.

    Streetcars are great for urban distances with medium capacity needs and frequent stops.

    Of course most of these tools can be enhanced with other tools like grade separation, signal pritority, etc. Functional cities with good mobility use all of these tools and others. Put down your hammer and start talking about transit in context.

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