King County Metro
Edmonton Trolley Coalition
I like streetcars as much as the next ride-hopping tourist or transit booster. I’ve happily ridden them in Hong Kong, Toronto, Rome, Milan, Rio, San Francisco, and New Orleans — not to mention Seattle’s late, lamented waterfront 'streetcar,' which didn’t run in the street for most of its length. And Monday marks a signal day in Seattle’s streetcar history.
At midday the city will break ground on a new First Hill streetcar line, running from Broadway and Denny to the multimodal hub at 4th and Jackson. But unlike the South Lake Union streetcar informally known as the SLUT, the First Hill line didn't start out as a one-off boost for a jumbo redevelopment project. It’s a downpayment on an entire network. Already the city hopes to extend the line to Aloha Street.
And so I was doubly glad to join the transportation wonks and mavens for a semi-debate between two transit gurus with very passionate notions of why transit does or doesn’t work and how we can make it work better. Together, Davenport, Iowa, city designer Darrin Nordahl and Portland transportation consultant Jarrett Walker offered a 3-D pair of lenses for considering the First Hill project and the network that looms beyond it. And together they nearly filled Town Hall’s lower hall and left interrogators lined up at the mikes when shut-off time arrived — an indication of how much Seattle cares about such things.
Both have books to flog, of course: My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation from Nordahl and Walker’s Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, which grew out of his Human Transit blog. Despite the similarity of their titles, Nordahl’s and Walker’s foci are very different. “Many arguments about transit are actually answering different questions,” Walker himself noted, and he and Nordahl proved it.
For Nordahl it's a question of psychology: How do we make transit as enticing, entertaining, captivating, and sexy as cars, whose makers have spent billions building beelines to our ids?
He dispenses quickly with issues of route, scale, speed, headway, and so on. The problem with transit — especially buses, the transit most Americans ride no matter how much their officials spend on light rail and streetcars — is that it’s not fun. It’s drab and dreary. From Charlotte to Chicago to Los Angeles (Nordahl’s choice of slides), the same boxy buses — white on the outside, dark and grim inside — prevail. The only difference here: King County Metro’s have more distinctive paint jobs.
People want novelty, charm, amusement, Nordahl explained — as at Disneyland or that even better real-life amusement park, San Francisco, with its cable cars and other quirky, vintage rolling stock. He didn’t mention that Seattle once had such a charm line, at a bargain price: Antique Melbourne trolleys tooled along Alaskan Way until the Sculpture Park displaced their maintenance shed and the city mothballed the cars and cut the track, spurning both a Port of Seattle proposal to extend the tracks to Interbay and make it more than a tourist shuttle, and a developer’s offer to host a new maintenance shop in Pioneer Square. He did show a skylight-roofed bus that Davenport recently deployed, the kind of obvious innovation that makes you say, “Of course.” With our cooler summers, it would work even better here.
Urban transit thus becomes less about getting there than about the experience of getting there. “Public transit is public space!” Nordahl declaimed. And it should be attractive and engaging like any other space. But planners neglect that fact, not just in transit but in every transport mode: “WalkScore doesn’t measure how pretty an area is for walking. The more there is to look at, the more people will walk. People will walk two miles in a mall, but not one block” to get to parking.
Bicyclists, especially women, want safety, the more attractively packaged the better — cycle paths separated from auto traffic by bollards or, better, planting strips. On U.S. streets, where bike routes are set off by painted stripes if at all, male pedalers outnumber female three to one. In the über-cycling cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin, which have protected paths, half the cyclists are women. Something like those ratios seems to prevail on Seattle’s exposed sharrows and protected Burke Gilman trail.
No one knows all this better than the automakers, who devise and sell cars as experiences, vehicles of emotional rather than physical transport. (BMW has gone from promising “a car designed by an engineer, not an interior decorator” to “the Ultimate Driving Machine” to “We Make Joy.”) Transit agencies, by contrast, are still trying to get us into efficient, rattling ’70s econoboxes. They need to take a page from the carmakers.
That’s just what Sound Transit and the City of Seattle (and many of their counterparts nationwide) are doing in their march to a bright new future based on century-old rail technologies. This month the city will take the next step, breaking ground on a First Hill streetcar paid for by Sound Transit (to compensate for nixing a First Hill light-rail station) and running between the Link stations at 4th and Jackson and Broadway and Denny.
Like the SLUT, the First Hill line will have the sort of coaches Nordahl urges: streamlined and colorful, with big windows, wide doors, low floors for easy entry, and molded seats so riders won’t have to share benches with creeps. Not to mention various electronic bells, whistles, and readouts. They’ll be built by the Czech firm Inekon, with many American-made components, and painted and assembled in Seattle. Planners and politicians hope they’ll induce more riders to shed whatever bad memories, fears, or squeamishness keep them from riding buses.
More about those supposedly exclusive amenities later. Streetcars and other rail lines do offer a few advantages over buses, even electric trolleybuses. They often (though not always) keep running when snow and ice shut down the roads. They’re a smoother ride, though not quieter. And like heavy SUVs and those shielded bike paths, they afford a sense of security.
Rightly or not, everyone from daytrippers to developers feels assured that the fixed rails will be there in an hour or a decade, while bus routes could shift anytime. Then again, Seattle's electric trolley lines have held on for decades, even as its streetcar tracks were torn up.
But laying that rail makes streetcars much more expensive to build, especially when trolley power lines are already in place, as on Jackson and Broadway. The city opted not to use those lines for the streetcar, because they wouldn't provide as much power to the heavy streetcars and would entail difficult turnarounds. This adds yet more to the cost.
Topography also adds to the line's cost, and to ride time. Railcars don’t climb hills that rubber tires take with ease. To avoid First Hill’s steep west and south slopes, the line must cut up Jackson Street. If it turned north at the obvious junction, at 12th Avenue, it would run into a thicket of trolley-line crossovers, long left-turn lines, and a water main. (Laying track means moving underground utilities.) So instead it will go all the way east to 14th Avenue, then north on 14th to Yesler and back west to Broadway. Fourteenth will be changed to one-way for cars to make room for the streetcars.
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