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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.