• Yesterday’s Seattle Times had a front page article about the cost of gas making people think twice about living in the suburbs. We’ve covered this in the past.
  • Over this past weekend, the Times had another article about how americans are driving less and using public transit more. Includes a nice chart.
  • Yesterday’s PI had a story about streetcars. There are a few things I’d like to point out:
    • “The South Lake Union Streetcar reportedly costs $180 per hour to operate, compared with about $120 for a Metro bus.” This is an intentionally misleading figure. Trains of any kind generally have a higher capacity than a bus, encourage dense transit-oriented development, and are usually much more enjoyable to ride (no potholes in steel rails!). A streetcar will almost always have higher ridership when compared to a bus with the same service, and will always encourage more people to try transit. The measly $60 difference is insignificant.
    • “About 30 people boarded the purple streetcar between 12:30 and 1:30.” Anti-rail advocates are always quick to mention the SLUT’s “light” ridership, ignoring the fact that the South Lake Union area is under heavy redevelopment. The city’s 20 year grown target for the area is to add 8,000 new residential units, and we’re already 19% of the way there in just over three years! And don’t forget that Amazon.com is planning to move to the area, which will bring thousands of jobs. I also heard that on the 4th of July, every train from Westlake to SLU Park was completely packed for a good three hours.
  • The average price of gasoline is holding at $4.35 in Washington state. A $2 bus ride isn’t sounding bad at all, especially with a transfer!

31 Replies to “News Roundup”

  1. It’s disingenuous to claim that the streetcars only cost $60 more per our to operate and call it a good deal without factoring in the $50,000,000.00 per mile price tag (give or take a few tens of millions) of the initial capital costs. Also, the SLUT does not have greater capacity than a bus, particularly not more than an articulated bus. Street cars aren’t the answer – we need more buses and dedicated bus lanes, other modes of transit, dense and affordable urban housings, and grade-separated rail. Street cars are just expensive, cute distractions from real transit solutions, and ultimately a waste of money.

    1. Scott, the SLUT has significantly more capacity than an articulated bus – close to twice at crush load – and each vehicle has twice the longevity as a bus. As the Portland Streetcar has become crowded, they are buying longer streetcar coaches that carry another bus worth of capacity. We’ll likely do that when we expand as well.

      I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but a train at the same service level of a bus also gets more riders because of its permanence. Remember, property owners along the line saw it as such a benefit that they paid for half its construction cost. I think it’s likely that if they’re willing to pony up millions, they’re seeing a benefit they don’t get from the existing bus service, don’t you?

    2. Streetcars in use in the US are more or less the same thing as urban tramways in Europe. They’re built for dense urban cores as opposed to point-to-point travel through metro areas.

      This is why we have light rail to Tukwila and not streetcars and why there’s a streetcar line to SLU and not a light rail line.

      Finally, what investment incentive do people have when you put in buses? As Portland ticks closer to $3 Billion in investment around their single streetcar line, I see the clock ticking on the answer to this question. Do developers REALLY want to build around buses? And would a neighborhood be enriched by a bus darting in and out of traffic, exhaust and all?

  2. I’m commuting on the streetcar this summer for an internship, and in my experience it can get quite crowded during commute times. The 5 PM southbound streetcar, for example, always has at least 30-40 people on it by Denny Street. And as you noted, Amazon is still a giant hole in the ground.

    1. Amazon’s a hole, there are two large residential projects partway complete, and there are at least three more large office buildings permitted and starting construction soon. The streetcar will be packed to the gills before you know it.

      1. Oh, I totally forgot South Lake Union Park too. I’m already seeing people riding the streetcar to the park, even though only a small part of it is finished and looking nice. On a related note, the KUOW link that joshuadf gave below notes that the streetcar had five thousand riders on the 4th of July—that’s a lot of people!

      2. Oh yeah! I forgot about that too. The Arthur Foss is down there, a remnant of my childhood in Olympia. I pretty commonly grab lunch at the Whole Foods on weekends and then hop on the streetcar to eat it at the park.

  3. I’m not sure why this has to be a bus-vs-streetcar thing. In Portland they share the roads just fine, and each have different merits. I especially like “simple” systems like streetcar or light rail when visiting new places as a tourist, but it is clearly easier to adjust bus service to meet demand. For example, Metro is funding BRT to Ballard right now, plus Seattle is also studying that as a possible streetcar route. This would increase capacity on the route, not wipe out BRT!

    By the way, your roundup missed Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley on KUOW Conversation this morning.

    1. I think Eric’s point is just that the density (existing and coming) in downtown/SLU does merit a streetcar. I much prefer considering it an additive service rather than replacement!

  4. Here’s a thought: the permanence of a streetcar is a double edged sword. While permanence can be good in that it attracts development, it can be a real problem if we ever want to upgrade a route to grade separated rail. I’m particularly thinking about the Ballard Line. Build BRT to ballard as a temporary solution and it is easy to reposition those dollars when we finally build a subway to Ballard, but if we sink $150 Million into a streetcar, then we’re stuck with it, no chance to upgrade to a subway. (well, anything’s possible, but it’s a much harder sell the idea of building light rail when you just spent a small fortune on a streetcar.)

    Yes, rails are better than buses, but light rail is better than streetcars, grade-separated light rail is better than at grade even if it has it’s own ROW, and heavy rail is better than grade separated light rail.

    I know some might be concerned about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have gotten to a point of desperation in Puget Sound, so much so that many people, including many of us are saying, “Just build something! Anything! I don’t care what it is.”

    I agree we should get something on the ground, but it IS possible to make significant capacity and convenience improvements WITHOUT tying our hands for the future. For the Ballard to Downtown corridor, BRT today, light rail tomorrow, is a better short-term and long-term strategy. The Eastlake route, on the other hand, makes perfect sense as a streetcar because it is a local connector that bridges the space between two light rail stations.

    One last thought on desperation: our desperation and willingness to compromise may have made sense in the past. We were fighting an uphill battle and it was wise to take whatever we could get, but look at what has changed just in the last few years: gas at $4.50 per gallon, a new national consciousness about global warming, the rise of the New Urbanism movement in architecture, rational parking policies are being considered, per mile premiums in auto insurance (which have the same effect on driving as a $2 per gallon increase in the price of gas) are on the horizon, changing demographics, changing culture, and the fact that congestion is getting worse all the time, and it starts to look like the political tide is on our side. Now is the time to capitalize on that and get it right rather than take whatever we can get.

    1. Why can’t we have streetcars AND a subway? Ballard is a walkable neighborhood, so applying a pedestrian aid to the neighborhood is a good idea. If people want to skip out on Ballard, they can hop a later subway line. There is nothing “R” about BRT in a place like Ballard. The express bus already goes as fast as it possibly can– why sink money into permanent stations like they have with BRT?

      Saying streetcars are the low man on the totem pole ignores the geography, both physical and political, of the area. Remember: a great deal of the prevailing attitudes of this city have their roots in the scandinavian ideologies, roots that are in Ballard.

      The “subway or nothing” attitude is not going to work. Seattle’s older generations had their chance– how would a new plan be any different?

      1. AJ, Tony has a point. Building a streetcar in that corridor would likely make us ineligible for a federal match when building a mainline corridor – and that’s not chump change, especially considering some of the bills we’re seeing in Congress right now. Even under the current administration, U Link is getting 750m of 1.7b from the feds under FTA’s New Starts program.

        Look at that Sound Transit long range plan – it includes downtown-Ballard. Ballard is by far the best choice for ST3 North King money.

      2. Well, there’s that– but I also look at places where rail duplicates rail service, such as with Portland’s running of their light rail line in a clear match of the Streetcar, including stops adjacent to several Streetcar stops in the process (PSU stops, Harrison, South Waterfront area, future Eastside loop). There’s also ideas being floated for an eastside bypass for the yellow line to connect with the future Orange line.

        I think the route they’re using for the streetcar is different and serves a different population, doesn’t it?

      3. Portland gets money from the state of Oregon for MAX, which gives them another large funding source that we do not have. They don’t rely heavily on FTA grants (that I’m aware of, I could be wrong) so they aren’t as limited by FTA rules.

        I don’t think Sound Transit has identified a HCT route for Ballard, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t duplicate streetcar… there’s not more than one way through Interbay. :)

      4. Um, the streetcar route does not go through interbay. Look at the map! It would go from Ballard to Fremont down Westlake and connect to the SLUT, so it would not duplicate a BRT line. People don’t seem to understand that the streetcar is not designed to be a fast way to get from Ballard to downtown or U District to downtown. It is supposed to be an efficient, comfortable neighborhood connector. That streetcar line will get massive ridership from people just wanting to go to Fremont or Ballard for the day, or people who aren’t in a hurry to get back from work.

      5. I am dumb and I apologize. I haven’t looked at the map, and I made a bad assumption about a streetcar route. West Lake Union does make a hell of a lot more sense, especially with future ST planning.

        I do understand – and I think most people do – that a streetcar is slower. The FTA considers it rail nonetheless, so I would want to know for sure that this wouldn’t affect New Starts.

    2. No overlapping service?
      Market street in San Francisco: Streetcar at grade, Muni light rail subway below grade, BART heavy rail subway below that. And there are a ton of buses along the street too! That’s what I call transit options.

  5. Toronto has had electric streetcars since 1892. In the 1950’s, while cities fell to the propaganda that buses were the future of transit, Toronto started replacing their very busy streetcar routes with subways. At the same time however, they kept streetcars on the busy routes.
    Toronto are going to replace their current 248 30-year old fleet with new, larger 204 single-ended LRV’s that can carry 260 each in a crush. On top of that, there is an environment assessment for new suburban rapid transit lines that will need an additional 364 double-ended LRV’s.
    Ridership prefers streetcars, but the single occupant automobiles of course don’t. If you want more ridership, go with streetcars, not buses.

    1. I didn’t know about Toronto – that’s fantastic! That’s the kind of improvement we can make to Link in the future as well – 120 meter platform lengths give us incredible leeway.

  6. Also note: the article notes low ridership on July 3 at lunch. Perhaps this is due to it being lunchtime before a 3 day weekend?

    1. Everybody was gone from my office on the 3rd as well. The high tech offices that the streetcar serves are high income folks who will fly out for a weekend trip when they have a chance – more limited by vacation days than money – so I’m not surprised.

  7. Why would the streetcar cost 50% more to operate than a bus? It still has only one driver, and I would presume that running on electricity is cheaper than diesel. So what accounts for that difference?

    1. If they’re including maintenance, that would account for the difference – the overhead wires’ “operating” costs might include their maintenance.

      1. (Confusingly, I’m a different Steve from the above)

        Shouldn’t the overhead wires’ cost be part of maintaining buses, too (at least for trolley buses, anyway)?

        I assumed the difference in cost had to do with some economy of scale on diesel buses that doesn’t apply to streetcars (since there are currently only 3 streetcars to maintain in contrast to literally hundreds of buses)

  8. I took the SLUT for the first time with my out of town guest to the Wooden Boat Festival, it was great.

    I would not have made that trip on a bus. Keep the streetcars coming!

  9. I honestly think it’s time to rename this site to the Rail Cheerleading Blog. Or perhaps Rail Fetish Blog.

    1. What you don’t seem to understand is that rail is awesome! I hope that clears things up.

      1. I wonder if people who argue for buses over rail ever ride the bus and realize how much buses suck. Everyone I have ever talked to that have ridden a bus and ridden…anything on a track, say “buses suck!”. They have their purpose…but many people avoid them if given the chance, whether that be walking, biking, driving, crawling, or a sweet ride on a streetcar, light rail, or heavy rail.

  10. In addition to the 150 person capacity, the SLU streetcars were designed for use in multiple units. Therefore, 2 streetcars can be coupled together for double the capacity with one operator.

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