Steve Scher of KUOW-FM and I recently walked from Seattle's University District to Hooter's and jumped the SLUT. It was a nice little ride, my first. Now that the hoopla's died down, it was a chance to get a sense of how Seattle's streetcar of dreams is doing trundling along the streets of Allentown.
Some impressions. The first is that the area at the end of the line on Fairview Avenue North feels like parts of Bellevue: all density and no people. Fairview is not exactly pedestrian friendly; much of the South Lake Union neighborhood still has that yet-to-be-inhabited boomtown feel. The fact that the end of the line is right outside Hooters just adds to the impression. Plus, the area is still designed to accommodate cars. All those restaurants along the shore are separated from the street by huge parking lots. This isn't a place scaled for pedestrians.
On the SLUT, my first reaction: Where is everybody? Aimee Curl of Seattle Weekly reports that ridership is under 1,000 boardings per day. It's clear why. The SLUT doesn't go anywhere. Well, that's not quite right. It seems like a way to shuttle office workers to and from lunch or dentist appointments. On the lunch hour trip we took, however, there were only about six passengers – most having a hard time figuring out how to get the fare machine to take dollar bills.
It seems clear that the SLUT's biggest appeal, in the short term, will be tourists – an easy way to get from the Cheesecake Factory end of town to Hooterville.
The streetcar interior is comfortable, spacious, the ride pleasant. It is also a reminder of why this type of travel is agreeable, if you're not in a hurry (which tourists and office workers returning from lunch usually aren't). On Metro buses, you ride way above street level, and looking out the window you see mostly signs, awnings, etc. On the SLUT, the generous visibility through multiple windows is like looking at the frames of a film about urban streets. In fact, because of what is cropped out of the picture (mostly unremarkable buildings), the impression you get of Westlake Avenue from inside the streetcar is of a very urban place – liveliness, people, doorways, city clutter. In other words, the SLUT is a built-in sales tool for the developers who are trying to transform South Lake Union. It's as if you're traveling through Vulcan's scale model of the district.
We know, of course, that being a sales tool is the SLUT's primary purpose. The history of railroads is not so much to get people from point A to point B as to make money on the adjacent real estate. At one time, the cities of Puget Sound fell all over themselves to get rail lines. Some historians of urban planning suggest that Seattle was lucky not to become the terminus of the Northern Pacific because it never became hostage, as Tacoma did, to a single band of railroad robber barons. Ronald Boyce, professor emeritus of urban planning at Seattle Pacific University, has called it a "godsend." Seattle tried to sell its soul, but there were no takers.
So it will be interesting to see how the SLUT experiment plays out. Will it make the robber barons of South Lake Union happy? Will the farebox do well enough to keep it on track? Will the operators raise enough advertising and sponsorship money to avoid becoming a financial black hole? How will the Monorail do now that's its got street-level competition for tourist dollars? Will the SLUT change the way we see South Lake Union and downtown?
Part of the argument you hear already is that the SLUT only makes sense if we extend the system. You'll hear that argument if it fails financially (we must extend it to make it viable) and if it succeeds (it's a great model that should be adopted everywhere). It's the classic policy gambit: No outcome justifies retreat! Just like Iraq.