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Morph Seattle trolleys into a new Green Line

Ride the eco-rails Credit: 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.

And for heaven’s sake do what Portland did years ago: put a countdown clock at the stops so that you can walk up ready to board without having to check a website or printed schedule. Just a glance (or a listen; some have spoken updates too) and you’ll know if you have time to grab coffee before the next eTrolley arrives. Make the stops, signage, and the routing all clear, visually integrated and cutting edge from a design point of view. To make the routes obvious, paint a big bright eTrolley-green stripe along the curb of every route. (A practical homage to Seattle scalawag John Doyle Bishop, who used to goad buddies into helping him paint a green stripe down Fifth Avenue, to honor St. Patrick.)

Most importantly, take a wee bit of that $599 million and increase the route frequency to every 10 or 15 minutes.

Many of these concepts are already familiar to King County Metro. They’ll be using some of them in the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines which are arriving soon. With regional BRT stars in their eyes, it’s going to be hard for Metro to offer the old city trolley lines so much as a glance.

This is one of those times that an old familiar thing (our aged electric trolley system) morphs into something completely different — and better — if you squint at it just so and try looking at it from a slightly different angle. So, let’s take the Green Line to Lake Washington for a picnic next Saturday, what do you say?

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