photo from Caseysail, on the STB flickr pool

Tuesday I asked for streetcar questions, now I have the answers via Ethan Melone, SDOT’s project manager for the Seattle streetcar.

STB What sort of in-street configurations are being studied? In San Francisco, they run streetcars in the street like the SLU car in some places, in dedicated right-of-way in others, and in subways in some sections. I am sure a subway is out of Seattle’s price range, what sort of in-street configurations are being studied? Could any have their own right of way?

EM We are generally looking at in-street configurations, not separate rights-of-way. As noted, some cities have “hybrid” light rail systems that operate primarily in their own right of way, but on streets in some neighborhoods. It is also possible to consider a “hybrid” streetcar system, which would operate mostly in-street, but with some separate rights-of-way. We have not ruled out that possibility, but most of the corridors we are looking at would work well with in-street configurations. In-street configurations are generally less expensive and do more to connect passengers with the urban environment. We are also looking at left-lane alignments and other options to address concerns about conflicts between cycling and tracks.

STB One of the major concerns with the proposed study was that an at-grade West Seattle-Ballard line would be built in lieu of a faster light-rail system. Some of those fears would be allayed with a more rapid streetcar alignment like San Francisco’s. What is the ultimate purpose of that potential line?

EM We agree that the speed and reliability that a streetcar could offer needs to be compared against rapid bus and light rail alternatives for longer corridors such as West Seattle and Ballard. It is possible that one or both of these corridors would be best served by a “hybrid” configuration such as San Francisco’s MUNI system, or by bus rapid transit. For the Ballard corridor, we are also looking at alternative routing to take advantage of the relatively free-flowing Westlake Avenue N and Leary Way.

STB Would the streetcar lines be constructed one at a time? If so, is there any idea which line/lines are likely to be constructed first? Also, when is the earliest a new streetcar line/extension would be ready for use?

EM We envision the streetcar lines would be built in phases, although simultaneous construction of more than one line would be feasible if funding were available. One of the major objectives of the study that is now underway is to identify the “most promising” route or routes to be built first. We anticipate that the “most promising” routes would be those that have the best combination of ridership potential, economic development potential, ease of construction, and funding opportunities.

STB Do you have any updates on the Waterfront Line #99? We miss it.

EM King County Metro is continuing to work with a private developer on a joint-use project for a new maintenance facility in Pioneer Square that would allow the Waterfront line to resume service. However, there is no development agreement in place yet.

STB Why are there no cameras on the streetcars like there are on buses?

EM The streetcars are wired for CCTV and we intend to add the cameras as funding becomes available.

STB Are you working with the police to prevent parked vehicles blocking the line?

EM We have asked SPD Parking Enforcement to give special attention to parking along the streetcar line. We have experienced very few blocking incidents to date, and the handful that have occurred have mostly related to emergency vehicle response, or construction equipment.

STB Are there plans to avoid the troubles the trains have been having with cars?

EM The two incidents with cars involved illegal traffic movements by the motor vehicles–running a red light, and making a right turn from the left travel lane. They do not seem to result from cars lacking awareness of the streetcars. However, we do plan to experiment with converting some of the exterior lights on the streetcars to strobe lights to increase driver awareness.

STB What should a cyclist biking on the street (between the rails, on the nice new smooth concrete) do when a streetcar comes behind then in the same lane?

EM A cyclist “taking a lane” that is a streetcar lane should follow the same traffic rules that would normally apply to “taking the lane.” The streetcar operators are required to follow all traffic rules, as well as Metro’s Standard Operating Procedures, which include lower speed limits than the general posted limit. Cycling in the streetcar lane in front of a streetcar should not present any issues different from cycling in front of other traffic, as long as the cyclist feels comfortable with the maneuvers necessary to cross the tracks at a 90 degree angle when they leave the trackway.

STB Thanks Ethan for the answers!

19 Replies to “Streetcar Answers”

  1. 1. Why is transit around here decided by complete dumbasses?
    2. How exactly is the streetcar a good thing? It’s basically a slow bus that can’t maneuver around backups, parked cars, construction, or adverse conditions.

    Give me light rail, or give me any other major city in the country.

  2. “We agree that the speed and reliability that a streetcar could offer needs to be compared against rapid bus and light rail alternatives for longer corridors such as West Seattle and Ballard.” Hmm. But for shorter corridors, it doesn’t matter if the streetcar is slower?
    I’ll be watching this analysis with interest.

  3. Late question: (open to anyone that knows)

    Can you hop off a streetcar whenever you want? The doors do have an “open” button, but I always wait for the next stop.

    I’m worried about ever riding one in bumper-to-bumper traffic (which will occur daily among every one of the proposed routes). I’d like to at least be able to hop out and walk instead of being trapped in a box.

  4. Boo no dedicated ROW. I don’t see why they say dedicated ROW would cost more. You just take the street lane for streetcars, no extra cost there.

  5. Romulus,
    streetcars are better than buses because
    1) they get more riders (They have much better rides)
    2) spur transit-orient development

    They are not actually slower than buses, and those skoda cars can get to 55 mph.

  6. Folks … there isn’t room for a dedicated ROW in most of the cases where they want to run a streetcar line …

    the Ballard and W.Seattle routes are probably the only ones where they can due to current land-use and development.

    Most cities around the world seem to do just fine with in-street systems

  7. daimajin, it doesn’t matter how fast the streetcar can theoretically go, if they must share the street with other traffic and pedestrians. No ROW=speed must be same as other traffic–even if the streetcar could go 300 mph! Otherwise, mass slaughter will ensue.

    Streetcars on a dedicated ROW/grade separated could be great. But that doesn’t seem to be what we’d be getting.

    So–how much money is it worth to improve the aesthetics of the ride without reducing the trip time (or even increasing it!)

  8. Gordon, you’re right and wrong. Sure, most systems world-wide are at-grade but they are most often separated from automobile traffic for, if not their whole route, quite lengthy sections.

    Here’s a picture of streetcars in Prague, note automobile traffic is divided (albeit only by a lane marking) from streetcar traffic:

    How about Frankfurt:

    I could go on but there are few places in the world where streetcars have to share the road with automobiles for close to their entire route.

    Streetcars are pretty and all but if they aren’t on their own or at least, restricted rights of way, they sort of suck (especially for the capital investment required).

    1. San Francisco’s LRT’s are only “in-street” sharing with cars out in the Sunset and Oceanview and on the J-Church around Dolores Park. They are in-street, but in dedicated lanes on K-line along Ocean Avenue and down Junipero Serra and West Portal. They used to be on Market in mixed traffic and it was a clusterf*#(; that’s why San Francisco insisted on the Muni Metro Subway above the BART tunnel. Now they have put the F line back on the surface of Market, but it’s a real streetcar: it stops every couple of blocks and doesn’t go all that far, unless one rides it around to The Cannery.

      Ballard to CBD can not be in mixed traffic, nor does it need to be. There is plenty of room along Westlake to give the street car its own separated lanes. Leary Way is a problem though. I think it would be much better to stay on the south side of the waterway and use the old railroad right of way to about 11th West. Then rise up and swing across the waterway parallel and just east of the Ballard Bridge, drop down to Ballard Way and go up it and 24th West. This would not serve the heart of Fremont, but it’s only about 150 yards across the bridge and it would serve Seattle Pacific.

      West Seattle used to have streetcars on many of the current bus lines, but it is not dense enough to support them and way to nice as it is to densify. So any streetcar development should be focused only on Ballard-Downtown via Leary, Dexter and eastside Seattle Center. It would be nice to include Lower Queen Anne as would a 15th West alignment, but Dexter is already strongly developed, absolutely no height issues and great views. It’s a natural for streetcar development.

      It’s possible that another route could branch off across the Fremont Bridge and go up Fremont/Phinney/Greenwood and past NSCC to Northgate, basically replacing the #5. But some folks up on Greenwood probably wouldn’t like that because from 39th to Denny along Aurora, nothing beats the #5 and the Fremont Bridge gets opened a lot, potentially harming schedule reliability.

  9. CJH is right, there’s a huge subway down market that is used by the Muni Metro, long before it was used by bart. The Market street subway stretches all the way from West Portal to the Embarcadero.

    The newest Muni Metro line, the T third street, looks like Link in the Valley on MLK for most of it’s length.

    There’s also plans to build a “Central Subway” that will run from South SOMA up to Chinatown.

  10. Just to point out. Skoda cars do NOT reach 55mph on the ones sold in the US. They reach a peak of 30mph. They ARE in FACT slower than buses in every installation. The highest average speed is in Tacoma at a mighty (slow) 10mph.

    I love the Streetcars because of comfort etc, but I will NOT oversell them on things they do not do.

    They DO get stuck a LOT more than buses. However they are generally mroe reliable and handle cold MUCH better. They also do not use fuel, which is a cost decrease.

    The problem they do have is the Skoda cars are vastly overpriced. At 2.4 million for the early cars and bouncing up to about 3.1 million for some of the new ones the cost per seat is almost 1.6-2x as high as light rail, with less frequency, less service, and possibly less life span. They are hand built and the quality is not particular as high as even the streetcars that where built recently in New Orleans in the 90’s. Which mind you only cost about 900k at the time. In today’s dollars, completely renovated after Katrina, the total cost still comes in lower than these silly Skoda cars.

    As for the numbered points from daimajim.

    1) They do, in the United States, generally get more riders. This is true.

    2) They do NOT, by logic incur development themselves. In every situation where they incur development there is either A: a massive tax abatement or other subsidy to spur the development, which would happen with any subsidy or tax abatement with or without a streetcar alignment or B: all the land is either bought up or owned by a singuler person or city entity. In Portland, where this whole Skoda Streetcar mess started, that is the only way they’ve incurred these massive developments. In other lcoations, where they didn’t dump massive subsidies or abatements the regular level of development occurred, albeit more dense. If one thing can be attributed, I would include density, but definitely NOT an increase in development. That is a politically loaded, factually incorrect association.

    So please, check your facts first. :)

    Thx – feel free to read more over at my blog and search on streetcar.

    1. Incuring development can be viewed many ways. Portland’s Skoda Streetcar is extremely charming and also pretty functional. It adds the cute layer to the entire system that buses absolutely do not add. The Light Rail in Portland is all about function, as our light rail soon will be, and not about cute. In the same way the Air Tram in Portland adds an even higher level of cute. It was not at all efficient when you look at things like costs per seat and ridership per dollar, but it is absolutely amazing, beautiful and rather useful to the University it serves which had out grown it”s little hill.

      So lets keep the cute and run with the cute and add to the cute, but when it comes to major movement of people from Ballard and West Seattle to downtown. We have to go light rail. we have to be able to move 400 people every two minutes at 55 mph if needed and that can not happen using street cars. South Lake Union? cute streetcar. First hill? Cute Streetcar? Seattles Waterfront? Old Cute streetcar. Monarail cute. But when we have to move massive amounts of people the answer is light rail! (think about the people that ride now that want to get there faster, the people who will ride once Light Rail is there, and then the most important thing to think about and plan for possible huge capacity increases that will be result of the new dense housing that will pop up around the new stations)

      Paul Margolis
      Transit Operator
      Local 587

  11. Last note:

    A streetcar with ROW would be a decent investment and speed it up big time.

    However in street running is just nuts. It has aboslutely horrible ROI.

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