Back to the great First Hill Streetcar alignment debate! (For background on these alignments, see an earlier blog entry.) After we editorialized about our continuing dislike of the 12th Ave Couplet, the Slog ran an Op-Ed supporting the alignment, written by two proponents, Kate Stineback and Bill Zosel.
Ms. Stineback works for Capitol Hill Housing, an organization, “in collaboration with the communities of the Central Area and Capitol Hill,” that heads the 12th Ave Initiative. The 12th Ave Initiative’s goal is to “better the business district along 12th Avenue, between E John and E Yesler Way.” Indeed, running a streetcar along 12th would support business along that corridor, but those interests don’t necessarily reflect the interests of the rest of the city or First Hill. The Central District community would be excited to see new transit access along its border, but what we give to the Central District should not be taken from First Hill.
Mr. Zosel is writing as a representative of the 12th Avenue Stewardship Committee, a committee that is closely linked to the 12th Ave Initiative — the committee’s meeting minutes are hosted on the 12th Ave Initiative’s blog.
The work that Ms. Stineback and Mr. Zosel are doing is no doubt done for all the best reasons, and it’s a joy to see two folks so interested in the future alignment of a streetcar line in their own community. However, since both authors of the piece are linked to the 12th Ave Initiative, it makes sense that they’ll find any contrary arguments presented in front of them unconvincing. Readers should know that the authors of the Slog post probably have an interest in building on 12th Avenue, regardless of the countervailing arguments, and their conclusions may not be the same as those of someone who isn’t working specifically to redevelop 12th avenue. (None of the contributors to this blog live or commute along the corridor under dispute, nor are any of us involved in any neighborhood redevelopment initiatives.)
Contained after the jump is a “fact check” style response to the proponents’ arguments…
- Claim: “The Broadway-12th Avenue Couplet poses no threat to potential ridership.”
- Fact: Accessibility for riders would decrease under a Broadway-12th Ave Couplet, which could have an adverse effect on ridership.
We’ve shown this effect through our walk shed models (pictured below). Since there is much more demand on First Hill (we talk about jobs figures later in this piece), an increase in walking time for those First Hill commuters would be greater than the total savings by 12th Ave commuters; the median walking time would increase. Proponents provide no evidence that this increased average walking time will be “no threat” to ridership. The increase in walking time for First Hill riders is a serious concern that is echoed in public meetings by representatives of Seattle’s Department of Transportation.
- Claim: Proponents claim that the 12th Ave Couplet routing “does [not] take away service from First Hill” and is the “only alignment that maintains service to First Hill while accommodating future development and transit needs.”
- Fact: The 12th Ave Couplet halves the level of service to the First Hill business district.
Instead of that district being served with bidirectional service to both the Capitol Hill and International District light rail stations, it will be served with only a stop heading north, toward the Capitol Hill light rail station just blocks away. The First Hill business district will not have access to the International District station without a longer walk than our preferred alternative would provide.
- Claim: Only “some riders on some trips” will be affected by reduced accessibility.
- Fact: Every single round trip rider will have to take an extra hike for one direction of their trip compared to a route without a couplet along this corridor.
This four-minute detour could would turn, for instance, a seven-minute walk into a eleven-minute walk, which is about the point where people decide to stop using transit and start driving cars. This walk is even slower if you’re with children, an old grandma, a patient going to a hospital, or disabled — there’s a reason why longer walks make ridership drop off dramatically.
Proponents paint a picture of a person who works at Swedish, on Broadway, having to only walk an additional four minutes to get to the ID. Even in that rosy scenario, however, the employee would be better off having to walk no additional time with a bidirectional stop on Broadway. And since there are more potential riders on First Hill, having them walking as no extra minutes preserves rather than diminishes ridership.
More to the point, most people who work on First Hill don’t work at Swedish, or on Broadway. An employee who works farther down First Hill, where most of the jobs are, would have to walk uphill to Broadway and then walk an additional 4 minutes to get the streetcar on 12th, through a right-of-way that is part of the Seattle University campus — hardly a typical walk for pedestrians, and one many might avoid.
Proponents should not dismiss an extra four minutes “here or there,” because time is a factor in any commute. If your car gets you to work 10 minutes faster instead of just 6 minutes faster, you’re much more likely to drive. It’s these rational decisions that can cause bad alignment choices to lead to lower transit ridership.
- Claim: Proponents suggest that we’ve claimed “streetcar couplets don’t work and they aren’t that common.”
- Fact: While one-block couplets do work and are common, three-block couplets, with one block on a hill and the other in a valley, do not work and are not even remotely common.
Not all couplets are the same, and even SDOT has told us in public meetings that a two-block couplet is about the limit of what passengers will allow. The couplet being proposed is nearly twice as long as the longest separation between the two Portland Streetcar directions — the example 12th proponents use.
- Claim: Proponents say that “the majority of the Portland Streetcar line runs as a couplet,” implying that Portland’s couplet is similar to Seattle’s.
- Fact: In Portland the streetcar is separated by a maximum of 520 feet and a much lower average separation, while Broadway to 12th is around 980 feet, almost twice the distance. While Portland’s couplet is on flat ground, the 12th Ave Couplet requires one section to be built atop a steep hill.
We when we said this distance and grade was “unprecedented,” we were correct. Most Portland blocks are smaller than most Seattle blocks, and proponents didn’t inform readers of that fact.
- Claim: Proponents say that SDOT has “been working with Seattle University to study the feasibility of installing some kind of assistance here, perhaps an escalator, to address incline issues.”
- Fact: No money has been programmed to build any expensive outdoor escalators or moving sidewalks, but it is nice to see proponents acknowledge the “incline issues” that their alignment presents.
- Claim: “By basing their argument against 12th simply on potential building heights, STB fails to acknowledge the power that streetcars have to specifically catalyze neighborhood-commercial development in the future.”
- Fact: If 12th Ave is as easily accessible from Broadway as proponents claim, then a streetcar line on Broadway should spur development there as well.
As we have argued before, “the development potential along a Broadway or Boren alignment is an order of magnitude higher than along 12th Ave.” In First Hill, “most lots can be built (or redeveloped) as high as 240-300 feet (compared to between 40 and 60 along 12th),” Publicola reports.
- Claim: “STB asserts that existing demand should drive the alignment selection of the First Hill Streetcar.” The Broadway or Boren alignments would serve the largest amount of commercial and residential, with 12th Ave coming in last.
- Fact: We advocate balancing current demand, future demand, and city-shaping elements when considering how to build rail.
Proponents seek to exclusively focus on the city-shaping elements and don’t admit that providing half-accessible streetcar service is unlikely to create the density or the demand they are after. And again, if Broadway as easily accessible from 12th as proponents claim, then future 12th Avenue development will have no problem accessing the streetcar.
- Claim: “While STB argues that First Hill has more existing demand, it misses the point entirely that we are planning for future demand and development.”
- Fact: Policy should balance existing and future demands. Existing demand is high, because the 35,000 jobs located in First Hill make it the largest employment center outside of Downtown.
Proponents focus only on future demand, which could result in less demand overall than balancing the two concerns, especially because they haven’t demonstrated higher future demand for their alignment.
- Claim: “Moreover, this existing demand already has numerous bus connections running directly downtown and directly to the hospitals, many of which will always be faster than a streetcar connection.”
- Fact: These bus routes do not duplicate the proposed streetcar alignments. The streetcar connects Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the International District — not Downtown.
The benefits of a streetcar are not just speed, but also frequency, capacity, and easy-of-use. And again, if First Hill is as accessible from 12th as proponents claim, then this same bus service is available to residents on 12th meaning they may not need a streetcar either.
- Claim: Proponents claim that though the streetcar is designed to replace the missing First Hill light rail station, that station was at “the nexus of three urban villages, and not at Virginia Mason’s doorstep” implying that the 12th Ave Couplet performs the same job.
- Fact: The bidirectional First Hill light rail station was expected to be just west of Broadway & Madison, no further from nor closer to 12th than the proposed Two-Way Broadway streetcar alignment.
That light rail stop on Broadway would’ve been bidirectional, serving both the Capitol Hill and International District stations without 980 feet of extra walking for riders. The 12th Ave Couplet does not provide bidirectional service on Broadway; it doesn’t replace the level of service from the deleted First Hill Link station. And t only reason we have funding for this streetcar is to replace that station. The Two-Way Broadway alignment does a better job of providing the level of service that First Hill expects from a Link station.
Two-Way Broadway also provides a stop near 11th and & Madison, providing a connection to Seattle University’s 12th Ave edge and popular destinations like Cafe Presse. This stop provides service to the 12th Ave urban village that is even closer than the original First Hill Link station.
- Claim: “The lost Link station was to have served residents, employees, and shoppers of First Hill, Pike/Pine and the 12th Avenue urban village, not just the three big hospitals on First Hill.”
- Fact: The Two-Way Broadway alignment provides a bidirectional stop that is more similar to the the lost Link station than the 12th Ave Couplet.
We agree that a bidirectional Link stop on Broadway provides service to 12th Avenue, and note that a bidirectional streetcar stop does too. We see little reason to degrade the quality and accessibility of service for everyone else by moving half of the streetcar to 12th Ave.
As ECB at Publicola points out, this isn’t about serving just the hospitals: First Hill “is the densest neighborhood in the state, with nearly 25,000 residents per square mile (compared to around 10,000 in Capitol Hill and about 2,700 in Seattle as a whole). Yes, there are hospitals on First Hill, but there are also lots and lots and lots of residents. Most of those residents (75 percent) get to work by some means other than driving, and only 50 percent even own a car — prime real estate, in other words, for new transit.”
We think Ms. Stineback and Mr. Zosel are doing excellent work for their 12th Ave Initiative, but don’t think that initiative’s interests would result in the best transit line for Seattle or First Hill. Though 12th Avenue could certainly use additional transit service — like re-routed trolley buses — it would be a disservice to the rest of the city to build another streetcar that would likely be perceived as a poor performer. That would make our work as transit advocates harder in the future. We don’t want our next transit battle to be an uphill climb, just like no one wants their commute to have an uphill climb.