[UPDATE: Cost estimate corrected.]
STB takes a strongly pro-streetcar stance, but personally I’ve never been all that excited about them. They have a lot of the same problems as buses, are more expensive, and I’ve preferred to invest my enthusiasm in truly rapid transit.
However, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that every mode has its place, and the place for streetcars is short-haul, high-volume trips where the speed doesn’t matter that much and the capacity does. Some advance material from the Seattle Transit Master Plan advisory process has convinced me that the Seattle Streetcar Network deserves a lot more support than it’s getting. More after the jump.
The map above shows existing population and job density in Seattle. Dark green, dark brown, and dark red areas are the densest ones. The proposed network blankets the contiguous areas of the highest density, leaving only isolated islands at Lake City, West Seattle, and future Link station areas.
This chart shows expected population growth through 2030, in absolute rather than relative terms. Darkest green is biggest growth. The employment growth map is similar.
This map has dark brown lines where the urban village transit network (buses) is at 110% of capacity or greater, as of 2007.
Lastly, this chart uses the Seattle Travel Demand Model* to estimate total trips between each neighborhood on the map. The map shows the top 100 source-destination pairs of all non-work trips, any mode.
The reaction of someone dug in against streetcars is going to be to cast doubt on the data, and if you’re convinced the fix is in I’m not going to turn you in this space. Similarly, none of this is convincing if one just doesn’t want to spend money on transit or thinks buses are super-awesome. But if like me you’re been sort of lukewarm about streetcars, what stands out is that the network would serve the areas that are densest, growing fastest, and with huge short-haul flows, yet close enough together that the speed advantages of true light rail would be minor.
Moreover, a streetcar is pretty easy to brand separately from the bus. Metro may have success with RapidRide, but to date its higher quality service has been hopelessly buried in an incomprehensible mess of peak-only and low-frequency routes. Even if there’s more success in separating bus brands, that’ll be great for people who are at least sort of paying attention, but for the vast majority of people who aren’t, it’s likely that rail will always equal “frequent and easy”, while buses won’t.
Finishing the network at the top of this post has midpoint cost estimate of $545m 345m. While big, it has the virtue of not sucking all of the oxygen out of the rest of the next transportation package. Full scale light rail from West Seattle to Ballard is not coming on the city’s dime, but building this out would serve most of the neighborhoods the Mayor mentioned as a candidate. How desirable of a ride it would be for longer trips is a function of how willing you are to spend money and deny access to cars to secure its own right of way.
* I’ve been briefed on this model, but even if I could explain it adequately it’s way too complicated to get into here. From what I understand, it’s a variant on a PSRC travel demand model, partially validated against real data, and works best the less granular the predictions are. It’s not perfect but I’m more inclined to trust it than whatever anecdote you’d like to share.