A desire named streetcar

A futuristic trolleybus from the German firm VISEON Bus. Credit: 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.

This circuitous route may be a boon for Capitol Hill dwellers craving a bowl of soup at Pho Bac. But for most other passengers it will be a time-wasting, mystifying inconvenience. For many it will be slower than walking. The entire course from Jackson to Broadway — 2.4 miles as the streetcar meanders, rather less walking, driving, or pedaling — will take 19 minutes.

Ethan Melone, the city’s streetcar program manager, notes that the 14th Avenue loop will take no longer than 12th Avenue would, because of the left-turn waits at 12th. But it will take considerably longer than an even shorter, more direct trolleybus route that might have been (save that nobody in a position to do anything about it took it seriously).

Because rubber-wheeled trolleys can climb steeper hills than steel-wheeled streetcars, one could have gone straight from the Pioneer Square light rail station up Yesler Way to Ninth Avenue, to Madison, and then to Broadway. This would cut out 13 blocks, reducing the route to 1.6 miles. It would take passengers to Harborview Hospital and the city-county government complex and through the soon-to-be-redeveloped Yesler Terrace, from a departure point much closer to other downtown employment centers.

A Metro transit planner named Jack Whisner, acting on his own, banged the drum for this option, trying, in vain, to get some attention. But it wasn’t among the alternatives Sound Transit considered — even nominally.

The Nickels and McGinn administrations and some City Council members — especially Jan Drago, the streetcars’ biggest booster — were bound and determined to lay track. Others capitulated to Sound Transit’s rail fixation, rather than contesting its dictate that only rail qualifies as fundable “regional” transit; trolleybuses are merely “local.”

The distinction is arbitrary; given the same routing, stop spacing, and signaling, the two technologies can provide nearly identical service, unless you need the greater capacity achievable with multi-car trains. That’s not an issue on First Hill. “In the urban context,” Jarrett Walker, the other transit guru, told the Town Hall audience, “there is almost nothing any other vehicle can do that a bus can’t do.”

“That’s an opinion. I don’t agree,” says city streetcar manager Melone. “There’s really differences structurally and mechanically between trolleybuses and vehicles operating on a [rail] bogey.” Lower loading levels, for one, so wheelchairs can roll right in from the curb. Walker however points to Heidelberg, Germany, which deploys streetcars and trolleybuses that are, to all intents, identical, depending on which technology suits a route better.

All this is a prime example of what Walker (and anyone else who has followed Seattle’s transit-planning follies) sees as a fixation on pet technologies at the expense of service: Planners, politicians, and, especially, journalists “focus always on vehicles and technologies,” and neglect the tasks those technologies are supposed to perform. “We don’t ask, ‘What is the task? What will achieve it?’ We say, ‘What a cool vehicle! Where do we put it?’”

Cool factor is fine. Fun is fine. But they’re not the essential point, Walker argued. The point is freedom, which Walker defined as “abundant access without personal vehicles over distances too far to walk.” He downplayed the importance of speed, but I think a modicum of it is necessary for access to mean anything. More important, however, is frequency — being able to catch a bus, tram, or train when you want, not when the schedule says you can — every 20 or 30 minutes on most Seattle routes.

One proof of that: New York, where millions endure the grim but frequent and relatively fast subway. Nevertheless, sighed Walker, “we assume people care more about vehicles than about getting where they’re going.”

That’s just what those clever carmakers want us to care about. Likewise mayors and other legacy builders, who savor the glamour of building things more than the drudgery of making them work. They pump up the attractions of spiffy new streetcars — and dump on the buses. “The ‘American Streetcar Movement’ is about building small starter lines and denigrating the buses. When you try to sell people on how wonderful the new streetcar is, you’re telling them the bus isn’t good enough.”

This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Governments don’t just slight the buses when they get the streetcar spirit. They starve them, eliminating or degrading service as the regional transit-funding pot tilts toward rail. This makes the trains and trams look better by comparison.

Seattle gave up 12,000 hours of bus service each year to get the Lake Union Streetcar. It traded the Route 194 express bus, which took 30 minutes to get to Sea-Tac and stopped at the end of the terminal, for the Link train, which runs more frequently but takes 37 minutes and stops on the windy far side of the parking garage. Metro and Sound Transit have both cut bus service despite near-record ridership and peak-hour buses so full passengers get turned away. But Sound Transit has maintained high service levels on its showpiece Link rail.

Walker notes that the comparisons between streetcars and buses are also unfair. Transit agencies buy sleek, pricey European streetcar design and technology, but when they go bus shopping, they usually buy American and cheap — General Motors.

The comparisons get even more invidious when they involve the trolleybuses, the oldest workhorses in Metro’s fleet. Its newer diesel buses have some of the features — low entry floors, wide doors — that make the streetcars comfortable. But the trolleys date back as far as the early 1970s. Comparing them to 2012 Euro-trams is like asking, “What would you rather drive, a rattly Ford Granada or a new Audi?” By contrast, check out the futuristic trolleybuses the German firm VISEON Bus is building for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (right).

In a couple years that comparison will be more fair. Metro is preparing to replace its trolleys, starting in 2014. (It has to; it can no longer find their electrical components, nor people who know how to work on them.) The new trolleys will likely be Euro-built or designed, perhaps by Inekon or its Czech rival Skoda. They’ll have low entries and wide doors — and, a Metro spokesperson notes, WiFi.

By then we’ll have already built this streetcar line, and perhaps started on more.

German firm VISEON Bus is building for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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