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Morph Seattle trolleys into a new Green Line

We'd save millions over those fancy streetcars the City favors, and get better service with green electric "eTrolleys."
Ride the eco-rails

Ride the eco-rails Matt Fikse

The route map beguiles, looking like a Futurama-fantasia to a city that has seen such wild dreams before: a network of transit lines running through downtown Seattle and radiating out to the neighborhoods, each route flowing with zero-emissions vehicles departing every few minutes, shuttling Seattleites day and night.

Don’t be shocked. It already exists.

The time has come for the City of Seattle to grab hold of — or perhaps take charge of operating — the Seattle electric trolley system in order to put it to its highest and best use. As things are, the electric trolley system is being run like just another bunch of bus lines by a transit agency to which the trolleys appear to be an afterthought.

The City of Seattle (if it could get control of them) or even King County Metro (if it could be troubled to rethink them) should re-imagine, re-equip, and re-launch an upgraded trolley system as a new-era city transport system. Service to neighborhoods could be revitalized and hundreds of millions of dollars saved compared to investing in a new network of expensive rail streetcars.

City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen is on the right track. In the face of Mayor Nickels and Councilmember Jan Drago’s streetcar mania — and its whopping $599 million price tag — Rasmussen is going to need more folks on board to bring his clearer vision and leadership on this issue to the fore. Better hurry before more streetcar checks get signed.

By making simple upgrades to equipment, routes, marketing, and management, Seattle’s "historic" electric trolley lines could become an important, clean, quick-to-implement neighborhood transit backbone: think of an entire fleet of jumbo Prii (minus the vat’s worth of toxic chemicals at the core of each of those hybrid battery packs) gliding through the city.

Join us now as our fancy takes flight to imagine Seattle’s new "Green Lines" — Routes A through M. (See illustration.) Such a re-launched fleet of green electric “eTrolleys” could be operating with new vigor citywide years before the streetcar ever gets to Broadway.

Consider that cities around the world report that when they replace a bus line with a rail streetcar, ridership often goes up by as much as 20 percent. However, recent estimates here indicate that a mile of streetcar is nearly five times more expensive to build than a mile of electric trolley service — $40 million v. $8 million per mile according to reports. Whatever calculus had suggested that somehow it would be seen as reasonable to spend five times more on streetcars only to carry one-fifth more riders is certainly obsolete in the current economic reality.

Instead let’s reflect on why more people tend to ride streetcars than buses on the same route. Then, let’s make our new eTrolleys more like those streetcars and capture most of the value at a fraction of the cost.

There are some good guesses out there why ridership goes up when a streetcar replaces a bus. With a streetcar people understand that they are frequent; a person can easily intuit the route (look at the rails); and they are comfortable and fun to ride. Modern systems also offer quick boarding via floor-level stops with roll-on, roll-off capability. Trains are routed and scheduled to keep things moving at a decent clip.

If we reboot Seattle’s eTrolley system we can provide nearly all those advantages and will see many more people opt on board as a result. Our current trolley fleet is modern enough, having been acquired earlier this decade. With an upgrade to the brand (paint them that bright European green) the eTrolleys could acquire some cache — the transit equivalent of a Zipcar. Build ramped stops and platforms level with the floors of the eTrolleys. Eliminate a few of the least-used stops and re-route a few lines to quicken the travel pace. Change the fare structure so you always pay when you board (up front) and exit from the rear. Go so far as to fiddle with traffic signal timing and cueing so the eTrolleys have shorter waits at the lights.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:04 a.m. Inappropriate

A thought on light rail.

Instead of meandering all over King County buying land, so the light rail advisors can sell their land, they should build a Monorail down the middle of I-5. That way the folks sitting in the daily traffic jam can watch the monorail go by and think I could be on that.

JFraker

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Electric trolley buses are limited to surface streets, and cannot operate in the downtown tunnel. Metro transit purchased a fleet of diesel Hybrid buses, so that light rail and buses could co-exist in the newly rebuilt downtown tunnel.

greg

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

You're absolutely right that "more buses" is part of the solution. A few tens of millions per year would do wonders. Maybe something in the order of 1/2 or 2/3 the size of the SPS M&O; levy.

I don't know the first costs or operation costs of trolleys vs. the other various green technologies, but that sounds good to me.

The main hurdle is that trolleys can't pass each other, and they fall off the wires too often. This is a problem as any little thing, like a wheelchair, can stop a bus for a minute or two. So they can't run too often without stacking up. Unless there's a technology solution, the answer might be to alternate trolleys with other green-energy buses.

mhays

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The stacking problem only worsens with shorter intervals. Witness the #7 in the Rainer valley were service routinely runs at 10 and 15 minute intervals. A lead bus will be packed with standing passengers, a follower with have nearly 2/3 fewer, and the trail--the only one on time--will be completely empty and unable to pass. I would also point out the the system is far more prone to systemic failure due to choke points on third ave and the 5th/Jackson base route.

Ultimately though, I see an increase in support for this option as cost cutting measures become increasingly popular, and well...there aren't any viable alternatives. Green-energy buses are a non-existent. The hybrid's fuel efficiency proved worse than the Breda hybrids they replaced, and the veggie oil experiment flamed: there was clogging in the system--initially overcome by dilution--and the fact that veggie-diesel is more expensive than traditional diesel. King County suspended the project entirely as a cost cutting measure. I suspect Seattle will find favorable terms for the entire system as King County Metro's financial crisis worsens.

"Hybrid buses' fuel economy promises don't materialize:"
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/transportation/203509_metro13.html

"Metro fare increase ahead?:"
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004456319_busfuel04m.html

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Great common sense, uniquely Seattle solution. Truly more transit now!!!

On trolley connections slipping off wires, if we can send people to the moon, surely we can design no-slip-off-wire trolleys....

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an excellent idea.

As for trolley buses not being able to pass each other -- neither can streetcars. This article is about using trolley buses instead of streetcars, not instead of diesel buses. So that is a problem that both trolley buses and streetcars share.

And, when a trolley bus gets disabled, you can pull the arms down off the overhead wires, and other trolley buses can pass the disabled bus. I have seen this occur. This is NOT possible with streetcars, of course.

Trolley buses can run about a full lane over from the overhead wires, which allows these buses to pass stalled, or illegally-parked vehicles, and accidents. Streetcars can not veer an inch off their tracks, so any obstacle in their way stops streetcars completely until that obstacle is removed from the tracks. This is a big advantage for trolley buses over streetcars.

Hopefully, intelligence will prevail, and Seattle will not waste any more money on streetcars.

Lincoln

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice map, where is the rest of Seattle? Or are just the people on that map going to pay for it?
So far there are lots of plans for my money, but for me, not so much.

Mr Baker

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

This plan makes a lot of sense. It's doomed to failure.
Unless, maybe, if you paint the trolleys' tires gray so they look like light rail wheels...
dbreneman

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Baker - you have a great point that I wished I had made in the article, namely that the map is conceptual and based upon the existing 14 trolley routes. Given the changes in Seattle since these were created it would make sense to add some more, route some differently, and expand it overall to really reach all corners of the city. West Seattle, for example, has the high bridge to cross, and the southern parts of the city also would need better coverage, etc.

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Matt, I make this point every time somebody (Jan Drago) imagineers one of these trolley/streetcar plans.

Mr Baker

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

The City should get the currently inactive Benson Streetcar Line up and running FIRST.

Sadly, the city has this on hold now until the new Viaduct is up -- a horrible waste considering the investment we made in getting it up and running, and the potential to MAKE MONEY on it thanks to the new Cruise Ship Piers.

Since it originally started operation on May 29, 1982, it averaged more than 200,000 riders a year AND tied into the transit system via tracks we paid for connected to the front door of the transit tunnel.

We could extend tracks NORTH and serve the NEW CRUISE SHIP PIER which will see 800,000 guests this summer. For the next ten years, TOURISTS could help pay for the extension of the line.

Extending the tracks NORTH to Pier 90/91 through Myrtle Edwards Park, on the far EAST side of the Park would cost nothing for egress... the city owns the land!

The port might even help pick up the cost for a TEMPORARY Trolley barn on port property adjacent to Piers 90/91, perhaps even on city land, or city park land UNDER or adjacent to the Magnolia Viaduct. (the LAST car barn was ALSO a Temporary structure!)

The hardest part would be to wrap around the west end of the Olympic Sculpture Park Rail overpass, but could be done by squeezing rails along side BNSF and not allow the trolley to pass until the train goes by, OR we could run the Trolley rails adjacent to the sidewalk.

The line could run south to Union Station through Pioneer Square, and once we commence on the Viaduct, could terminate across from the Washington State Ferries (Imagine that, a Tie in to Transportation!), or end across the street from the city Aquarium (how quaint, one could take the trolley to major attractions, like the Market or the City Aquarium!)

Or could end at Pier 66, or if that is too close to Viaduct construction, end across from Pier 66 and the Bell Street Pedestrian Bridge up to the Market.

Best of all, THOSE Tracks are already there, and we already OWN the cars!. Imagine That! Generating revenue from the cruise ship industry, while providing a Green way to reduce traffic on 15th Avenue!

And the rest of the year, it could still serve the port’s office builidngs, and offices on lower Queen Anne year round.

Once the Viaduct is completed, we could restore the line and take it to the ID...

For all the money and time taxpayers have invested in the line, and the infrastructure, and the historic cars cars and their refurbishment, THIS line should be restored FIRST. Five years ago Amgin and the Port were willing to help cover costs, too... That memo seems to have been lost somewhere down at city hall.

Is it too much to ask to make money with the equipment and lines we ALREADY OWN?

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 3:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Great vision! Yes, if we can narrow the gap between the experience of riding the trolley bus and the streetcar, I'm all for saving money.

It needs to be frequent, comfortable, simple, logical, well marked, and easily accessible. If it could also have signal priority and dedicated lanes... well then it's a no brainer for transit nuts like me :-)

Though, I do think extending the current streetcar system is essential to maximizing the investment we have already made; the current route is just too short. However, some of these lines you have illustrated could never be realized as streetcars due to technical constraints (steep hills don't work without a counterbalance), or lack of required density (to justify such a hefty investment) and would work fantastically as conceptual extentions of the current streetcar, such as the Upper Queen Anne or Madrona routes.

Good plan. I could see it working really well if we look at it as a serious re-investment to reboot and transform the experience rather than a piecemeal re-routing of our current trolley bus system.

Cale

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 5:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Even though Metro is facing a major sales tax funding gap due to the state of the economy, creative ideas such as those outlined by Matt Fikse are being discussed at Metro. As part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement discussions over the past year, one Metro proposal was to identify some of the most productive routes of Metro's electric trolley network and convert them to bus rapid transit lines. With more direct routing, frequent service, fewer stops and more traffic priority for buses, Metro projects a greater than 50% increase in daily riders of the trolley network is possible. While this concept was not fully incorporated into the bored tunnel solution, significant elements of it to streamline downtown Seattle trolley bus operations were part of the recommendation, and Metro continues to think there's a great deal of merit to such an approach.

- Victor Obeso, Manager of Service Development, King County Metro Transit

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 5:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice article and good plan. If I'm reading the map correctly, you're missing the 12 route from Interlaken down 19th and Madison on into downtown.

George

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 6:22 p.m. Inappropriate

I still support expanding our streetcar lines and getting the Waterfront line back into service as a streetcar. The flip side of having the ability to move freely without tracks are more dewiring of the trolley poles (streetcars use pantographs which very rarely dewire plus they are generally more reliable than buses), less tolerance for ice and snow (as long as heated switches are used, trains perform very well in cold weather), inability to hook up another car to increase capacity and productivity of a single driver (thus increasing labor costs for buses), and operational issues concerning disabled riders (safety regulations require wheelchairs to be tied down on buses, rail does not).

That said, I think your proposal is a great idea in a time of budget crises. Incorporate elements of BRT like signal priority, bus lanes, improved passenger information, off-board fare collection, active management, and special branding, to improve speed and reliability. That'll reduce the occurrence of bus bunching and make service more attractive. It doesn't cost much either.

I'm surprised Metro doesn't have branding for its frequent service network like Portland or Minneapolis. Metro should put symbols on the timetables and at bus stops. This shouldn't cost much to do at all.

A list of historical trolley routes can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/viriyincy/2554634195/

About painting the curb green: I also recommend having colored pavement bus lanes (like in Europe). That would be very obvious in addition to the trolley wires.

oranviri

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 7:11 p.m. Inappropriate

George (above) - you're right! I missed the 12! Consider the map a conceptual one.

For people interested in the details of how a bus or trolley can be speeded up, here is a good film on youtube that illustrates Trans Milenio in Bogota. It's a very interesting 8 minute long video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRGoketbIZE

- Matt

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if we could get infrastructure as shown in that video in Seattle (eg. dedicated lanes, large stations, low-floor buses, off-board payment, 3-door boarding, etc.) That's where you get the travel time benefit.

Plus, when you're talking about downtown, buses have to stop at almost every red light, so it would help to have two streets dedicated to transit (say, 3rd and 4th), each going one way, so you can time the signals better. Trolleys seem to have a slower speed limit, especially as they go through the junctions at each intersection.

(I currently take trolley route 1/36 to work every day.)

dream

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Great idea and I hope it gets funding! I actually like both the trolley buses and streetcar (I usually take the SLUT to work at UW SLU, though I walked today because the weather was great). Unfortunately capital costs are only part of the picture--KC Metro's budget problems right now have to do with operating costs and low sales taxes.

joshuadf

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 8:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Joshuadf, Metro does have some challenges in terms of budget, but we also have a rather arbitrary 40-40-20 allocation rule in place that limits their ability to spend on projects in the Seattle sub-area. There is a great independent review and set of recommendations recently completed by the Municipal League that talks about this (and a bunch of other wonky Metro stuff) in detail for anyone who is interested. The report was issued Nov 2008 and can be found at this URL: http://www.munileague.org/news-events/municipal-league-releases-review-of-metro-transit

Posted Mon, Mar 2, 10:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I just spent the day riding the rails in Portland. First of all, the streetcar actually goes someplace. That may be why it has passengers and the SLUT has empty seats. MAX was pretty full at off-peak hours. It too goes where people are where urban planners predicted people would be. It is fast and immune from street traffic (except for the city core, which we we would be exempt because of our tunnel). Elsewhere it is fast, predictable, clean and used. I'm tired of the excuses for not building out a decent rail system. Don't any of you doubters do any travelling. Uh... Europe, Asia, other American cities.

Don't look to transit to solve all the problems. If you want to drive from NJ into midtown New York you will be as unhappy as any 520 commuter. It's an alternative and as gas prices rise, as they will, it will be one that people will choose to consider. If we hadn't rejected a 40 million dollar bond measure in 1968 then BART money would have been spent here instead of San Francisco. Oh we sure showed them how smart we are...

psnewman

Posted Tue, Mar 3, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I work for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation, and wanted to let readers know that our Department supports improving and expanding both the electric bus network and the South Lake Union Streetcar to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to improve transit in Seattle. The ideas in the article include many things that are needed if we are going to take full advantage of the clean, green, and quiet electric bus system:
* "Green" branding
* Faster operation
* New, modern vehicles with low floors and extra doors
* Simplified downtown routings
* Better bus stops

Electric trolley buses in Seattle generally carry more riders than diesel buses, making it easier to justify changes to allow faster operation including:
* Different (off-board?) fare payment to allow all-door boarding even outside of the ride-free area
* Priority at traffic signals
* In-lane bus stops to eliminate the need to wait for traffic to clear before departing bus stops
* Longer distances between bus stops

SDOT has been working with Metro to design improvements to the Rainier and Jackson electric bus corridors. We hope to expand this work to other areas later this year, including analysis of opportunities to electrify some diesel routes.

Bill Bryant
SDOT Transit Team supervisor

Posted Tue, Mar 3, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Bill,

Thanks for taking the time to post!

In addition to the priorities you mentioned, it seems important to think about conceptually integrating the two technologies. For example, seeing all the routes on the same map, with similar colors on the vehicles will help to greatly reduce confusion and therefore increase ridership to some of Seattle's most popular destinations. Tourists, newcomers, and folks who would rather drive than figure out a confusing, and ever-shifting bus schedule would be much more inclined to ride such a simplified system.

Also, I noticed you didn't mention increased frequency, but this is also paramount to the success of a streetcar/streetcar-like trolley bus network.

Cale

Posted Tue, Mar 3, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I really appreciate seeing commentary from both Metro and Seattle SDOT officials here but it makes me wish that the public was more often included in some of the creative processes they described in their comments. For that matter, I believe strongly that given our circumstances in Seattle, we should immediately embark on the kind of re-evaluation of our transit network as a whole that cities such as San Francisco ( http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mtep/tepover.htm ) and Vancouver (http://www.translink.bc.ca/Plans_Projects/Transit_Plan_Vanc/atp_reports.asp ) have undertaken. Both cities have completed multi-year city-wide plans that started with seriously in-depth evaluations of the existing networks from statistical and more experiential points of view that involved vast amounts of public outreach. As you can see from the links included here, huge amounts of data were compiled and shared with the community to identify needs, opportunities, and deficiencies - something hugely lacking for Seattle residents. One can only hope.....

grantap

Posted Wed, Mar 4, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Victor and Bill, I am curious...how do you get to work?

Posted Wed, Mar 4, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln, your comparing apples and oranges. Streetcars run on dedicated rights-of-way, trolleys operate as tethered diesels. I drove part-time for metro, including trolleys, while in college. The types of delays and choke-points that cause trolleys to stack are systemic, whereas the types of blocking incidents you point to for streetcars tend to be accidents, and occur far less frequently. That said, it not something I see as insurmountable, once recognized for what it is.

Posted Wed, Mar 4, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

This article on keeping Seattle's trolleybuses as a green form of transportation is right on. I totally agree that streetcars are far too expensive. They should be used to renovated dilapidated areas with no green trolleybuses. Someone mention that streetcars have a private right-of-way. I believe that person is confusing light rail with streetcars. Light rail is what Sound Transit is building. It does have a private right-of-way. It is intended to serve suburban areas, the airport and the farther out passengers in the city. Streetcars are like the South Lake Union Streetcars. That streetcar has little private right-of-way. It works fine but it is no greener and no faster than the current trolleys. One issue could be pulling out from stops. If that is to be an issue, then give the trolleybuses a curb lane like the streetcars. And yes, the trolleybus system must be expanded to appropriate areas of town. Fast buses? San Francisco is considering using trolleys as fast buses during the rush hour and all day on one line (#14 Mission). Diesels will be doing the local service during these periods. Rainier Ave. does not need a fast bus. A fast bus from W. Seattle to downtown is more appropriate in this cause because it would use the Alaskan Way viaduct. Seattle has a green system and it can be expanded with trolleys at far less the cost than streetcars.

dearmond

Posted Wed, Mar 4, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Grantap: Engaging in discussions with the public is huge for SDOT. On SDOT's Rainier project, for example, we've presented at dozens of public meetings and walked the entire corridor distributing material. I appreciate your thoughts and guarantee you that our public engagement will continue.

Gregory: I ride the bus to downtown from Ballard - routes 15, 18, and 28. Have done so for the last 10+ years. Have driven the minivan to work a few times on weekends, but normally take the bus on weekends too when I need to work.

Posted Thu, Mar 5, 10:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I am also a former Metro planner who favors this idea. I note that this notion has been presented by Metro and King County staff in a series of Alaskan Way Viaduct open houses, so it's not something Metro has been keeping to themselves. But the fact that this idea has now also arisen independently gives it more credence as an emerging opportunity.

The question about how to fund a proposal like this one, which primarily serves the center city without touching many other Seattle neighborhoods, could have a creative answer. In many of the neighborhoods not served by the trolley network, lack of sidewalks is a pressing need. If one could marry a proposal to enhance trolleybus service with one to fill in the missing sidewalk network, you could find that the two areas served would cover most of the city. These two ideas deserve each other, and could be part of a winning proposal for a citywide transportation benefit district.

Posted Sat, Mar 14, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

For a comprehensive overview of trackless trolleybuses present and past, go to the Electric Trolleybus Homepage by Richard C. DeArmond at http://www.sfu.ca/person/dearmond/morph/index.htm .

This web page links to 40 other sites worldwide that explore this technology further. There are pictures of the brand new trolleybus coaches -- regular length and articulated -- deployed by Translink in Vancouver BC.

jniles

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