Photo by MSPdude

I don’t always agree with Tony the Economist, but he usually brings a unique and intelligent perspective. In this comment, he lays out the main points in the argument for streetcars with characteristic deftness. I don’t agree with his characterization of the SLUT as “ridiculous”, or its ridership as “poor“, but regardless this is a great read:

“The investment in streetcars, as with ETBs, is capital costs vs operating costs since the vehicles are more efficient and last longer than a diesel bus.”

Actually, it’s not. Streetcars have higher operating costs than buses per service hour. Streetcars have slightly higher capacity than articulated buses, so it is conceivable that they could have slightly lower operating costs per passenger hour than an equivalent bus, but there are currently no routes with high enough ridership to make that theoretical possibility relevant.

No, streetcars are not cheaper. The justification for streetcars lies in the fact that they generate greater benefits than equivalent bus, not in lower operating costs.

The benefits of streetcars relative to buses are higher ridership, in particular, the ability to attract a different kind of rider: the middle class choice rider, and the ability to catalyze development. These advantages do not, as you suggest, stem from the fact that streetcars are a “novelty”.

More after the jump…

Middle Class Riders

Streetcars have the following advantages:

1.) Smoother, quieter, and more comfortable.
2.) Easier to understand given the visual cue provided by the tracks and stations.
3.) A cultural perception that they are “classy”. Buses are perceived by many to be a social service for the chronically poor. This results in a cultural stigma against buses. Many potential riders do not ride buses because of this stigma. Subtle racism is also a part of the equation.

Each of these advantages could, in principle, be achieved with rubber-tired vehicles. Buses are uncomfortable primarily because of poorly maintained streets, aging vehicles and poor interior vehicle design. One need only ride one of Vancouver’s new electric trolly buses on a well maintained road to see how close a bus can be brought to the “streetcar experience”.

With respect to ease of understanding, a number of visual cues can be employed with buses including streetcar style stations, banners, electric trolley wires and, at the most extreme, painting “tracks” in the pavement.

However, even optimized electric buses are not quite as smooth, comfortable and easy to understand as streetcars. Furthermore, the level of capital investment necessary to make a bus line that comfortable is actually fairly close to the investment you would need to make to build a streetcar. So if you’re committed to making a multimillion dollar investment anyway, why not go all the way?

The cultural bias against buses can be overcome slowly as the quality of bus service increases, particularly with respect to comfort. As quality improves, more middle class riders are attracted, which creates a bit of a transit line gentrification cycle, in which the greater proportion of middle class riders makes the service more attractive to even more middle class riders. However, as I said this is a slow process. Streetcars, because they are perceived as being fundamentally different from buses, make it possible to short-circuit this process and attract middle class riders immediately, and again, if you’re willing to spend enough money to really make a bus route competitive, why not just spend a bit more and jump to the end?

Catalyzing Development

The other major advantage of streetcars is that they are catalysts for development. The primary reason for this is precisely because they attract middle class choice riders. Developers build for the middle class, not for the poor. Thus, they gravitate toward public investments that are attractive to the middle class.

While the ability to attract the middle class is the primary reason streetcars drive development, there are two other reasons: permanence and signaling.

The permanence of Streetcars reduces risk, which is attractive to developers for obvious reasons. Streetcars are more permanent than trolley buses precisely because they are expensive. The SLUT’s ridership is so poor that it would easily be on the top of the chopping block given metro’s current budget crisis, but the city is willing to continue to subsidize this ridiculous route for the same reason that people hang on to falling stocks: the irrational perception that you haven’t really wasted the money until you “give up” and sell, or in the case of the city “give up” and cut service on the streetcar line you just spent millions to build. Of course it is possible to cut streetcar service, just look at the waterfront streetcar, but it remains less likely, all else being equal.

More importantly than permanence, however, is a phenomenon that economists call “signaling”. Because a streetcar represents a major public investment in an area, it acts as a “signal” to developers and to potential tenants that the city is committed to making further investments in said area. It signals that the city has made an informed judgement that the area has tremendous potential and is thus worthy of significant investment. The city is essentially placing a $50 million bet on South Lake Union. If Warren Buffet was buying thousands of shares of a particular stock, wouldn’t you want to buy some too? You might think: “I may not know what he know, but he wouldn’t waste his money if there wasn’t something going on here. Even if I don’t understand it, I am willing to bet that he does.” The same applies to South Lake Union and the city’s investment there.

This, in essence is the “logic” of streetcars. Notice that it has nothing to do with dedicated right of way or speed. Speed certainly helps, but it is not the only reasons to build rail.

Light rail is a more potent investment than a streetcar, precisely because speed does help, but if speed were all that mattered, express buses / bus rapid transit would give you the same speed for much less money. Light rail, however, combines all the advantages of streetcars, discussed above, with the advantages of BRT (speed), creating the “ultimate” transit infrastructure investment combination, and also the ultimate expense.

Which is more important, the comfort / development advantages of rail or the speed advantage of BRT (if for some reason one were to have to choose)?

The answer depends on the length of the corridor under consideration. The importance of speed increases with distance. The difference between 20 mph and 40 mph is less than 5 minutes if your trip is less than three miles, so for these kind of distances, a streetcar in mixed traffic beats a bus with dedicated ROW, but for longer trips, speed makes a bigger difference. A streetcar to Fremont makes a lot of sense, a streetcar to Northgate does not. This is not to say that three miles is the magic cutoff; I only mean to highlight the [principle]: the relative importance of speed increases with distance.

104 Replies to “Comment of the Week: The Case for Streetcars”

  1. One need only ride one of Vancouver’s new electric trolley buses on a well maintained road to see how close a bus can be brought to the “streetcar experience”

    Been there, done that. Still feels like riding a bus.

    1. Dunno anything about Vancouver, but riding double-decker Mercedes busses in Berlin feels remarkably different from riding a bus.

      Conversely, both Berlin and Toronto are great places to see how much riding a streetcar can feel exactly like riding a bus.

      This “Tony the Economist” fellow is surprisingly correct in all that he says. The issue is pretty complicated, basically a streetcar entails and indicates considerably more investment, resulting in fancy-pants transit, which I might well ride and enjoy. My issue is I don’t really see why my tax money should go to funding fancy-pants transit, or sweetheart developer subsidies. If they’re so great for development, why don’t developers put them in? I can see how they might expand the transit base, but they’re very limited in their scope relative to their cost. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint what would really expand the transit base is fast and reliable rapid transit, which streetcars are not.

      1. Your arguments are great, if you’re willing to make them about highways too. Because if you don’t spend *any* public money on transportation, eventually the market will choose trains.

      2. True, though I like to remind people that Vulcan owns about 30% of the private land in SLU, not all of it. There are a lot of other landowners who supported this and are seeing benefits.

      3. Which is why the developer was willing to pay for transit. To answer John’s question, the reason why most developers don’t invest in transit is because they are usually developing just one building, not an entire district, which is what it would take to make investing in transit profitable. However, I don’t think we would be very happy with a single developer redeveloping an entire neighborhood, even if they built the most awesome transit service ever.

      4. “My issue is I don’t really see why my tax money should go to funding fancy-pants transit, or sweetheart developer subsidies. If they’re so great for development, why don’t developers put them in?”

        Developers think about what’s best for the developer, or perhaps for the particular business. Cities/counties think about what’s best for all the businesses and residents in an area, and how it connects to other areas. A developer/business gets some benefit from an adjacent public plaza, but probably not enough to built it themselves. A group of businesses may collectively decide that a public plaza on their block would be beneficial to them, but it doesn’t generally get done without the government or public leading the way. And when business do decide to build “public” spaces all on their own (as in shopping malls), they explicitly make it unfriendly to hang out in, because they want people to shop, not hang out or give speeches, and they eject undesirables from the place (which they can do because it’s technically private property).

        Left to their own, developers build office parks in the “garden city” style. That may look nice and please drivers, but it makes the area less livable and adds to sprawl and fuel usage. That’s starting to change as developers see the benefits of being “plugged in” to the dense urban network spreading from downtown, and as zoning laws force them to build mixed-use developments. But on the whole, each business probably sees a transit line as less benefit than the share it would have to pay if the businesses had to build the line privately. The business may not exist in ten or twenty years, or even if it does that’s not included in its current accounting. So the future benefit to the business appears to be zero, whereas residents have a permanent interest in being able to get to all parts of the city at any time.

  2. “As quality improves, more middle class riders are attracted,[to buses]”

    This has been achieved almost immediately in places like Las Vegas, with their new BRT, and on the East Coast and Mid West, with the new private inter-city buses which are taking “middle class” riders away from trains and planes.

    “The other major advantage of streetcars is that they are catalysts for development.”

    The author does not even attempt to prove there is any truth to this claim. Has there ever been a streetcar in Bellevue? Has there been any “development” in Bellevue that was the result of streetcars?

    Virtually all the high-rise buildings in downtown Seattle were built after all the streetcar lines were ripped out.

    1. These arguments are *tired*. South Lake Union and the Pearl are both fantastic examples.

      1. South Lake Union development has nothing to do with a streetcar. That development would have taken place without the S.L.U.T. That argument is tired.

        Bellevue is “tired”? Care to explain what is “tired” about all the economic development in Bellevue? Has there ever been a streetcar line in Bellevue?

      2. SLU rezoning wouldn’t have happened without a streetcar. The benefit there was as much political as it was economic – but it’s still a benefit.

        Bellevue developed largely because of CAP – Seattle voters halted our skyscraper growth, and because developers couldn’t build here, they built in Bellevue instead. The region as a whole was demanding development, and that’s what happens if you make it hard to put in the city.

      3. Ergo, it is rezoning that leads to development — not streetcars.

        Of course the development in SLU would have happened just the same without a streetcar. You don’t think Seattle wanted that development to happen?

      4. “Seattle voters halted our skyscraper growth, and because developers couldn’t build here, they built in Bellevue instead.”

        Proving my point that development has nothing to do with streetcars. As you write, it has a lot to do with zoning. Nothing to do with streetcars, since there were no streetcars in Bellevue.

      5. “South Lake Union development has nothing to do with a streetcar.”

        I find it hard to believe that would have located a campus with 12000+ employees when the only transit on Westlake was MT 17 local, which runs every half hour. Back in 2005 (before the streetcar) I met with some researchers at the SBRI building on Westlake and they complained about the poor transit. The Metro Trip Planner told me to cross Aurora and take the 358 to get downtown.

        Maybe a different form of transit would have led to as much development, but there are a few reasons it was a streetcar. Seattle needed to be able to do something without KC Metro’s 20/40/40; Paul Allen personally wanted a streetcar; and based on Portland’s experience with the Pearl District they seem very popular. Unfortunately that last item has not turned out (SLUS gets 1300 riders per day; even before expansion the [PDF] Portland Streetcar got 5000 a day), but I hope that after Lake Union Park is finished and Amazon moves in that will change. One problem in SLU is that most of the new housing is in Cascade or up Dexter, neither of which are very convenient to the streetcar.

      6. The South Lake Union riders continue to increase and are hitting 1500 a day. Remember that this is only a 1.3 mile line while the Portland streetcar is 3.9 miles. The SLU numbers are actually quite good considering that Amazon has barely moved in, the park isn’t complete and most of the housing units have just completed. This will be a very successful line in a few years.

      7. So we all know the SLUT had sub-par ridership up until this point – but I’d really like to see the ridership results with opening it’s doors. Being a SLUT rider myself (I live in SLU and work downtown), I’ve experienced streetcars heading to and from Amazon that are standing room only.

        I also couldn’t agree more with Joshuadf… that area is only served by the 17 (unless you want to walk over to Dexter, 4+ blocks away), I highly doubt that the streetcar wasn’t an influence for the neighborhood…

      8. Transit in that area could have easily — and much less expensively — been improved using buses instead of streetcars. There is absolutely NOTHING about streetcars which made the SLU development happen. Paul Allen did not buy all that property down there to leave it undeveloped.

      9. Aside from the problem of SLU and the history, the destruction of historic buildings or amazingly awful adaptive reuse (talking about Amazon), the lack of provision for relo of the businesses, the current numbers are based on a largely yet to be populated area. I work there and I ride the SLUT — alot.

      10. Don’t forget the 70, and the 71/72/73 in the evening.

        The Portland Streetcar covers a large cross-section of downtown. The SLUT covers only a minor corner of Seattle’s downtown. It does not stop at Seattle Center, Pike/Pine, or other places where it would gain a lot more riders.

      11. The scuttlebutt I’m hearing from Amazon employees that I know, is that it’s faster to walk than wait for the SLUT. And among the bicyclists, there have been several close calls, and a few serious accidents due to the tracks on Westlake.

    2. “Has there ever been a streetcar in Bellevue? Has there been any “development” in Bellevue that was the result of streetcars?”


      This doesn’t even make sense. Of course there hasn’t been any development in Bellevue that was the result of streetcars, because they don’t have any. It was never stated that development can only occur around streetcars or as a result of streetcars.

      1. Well, if economic development is being used an argument to build streetcars, but economic development can, and does, occur without streetcars, then why build streetcars? The argument that streetcars spur economic development is meaningless, since economic development occurs just as well without streetcars as with them.

      2. OK, same argument applies then to streets arterials and most importantly freeways. I think Bellevue benefited from a certain high level of infrastructure investment in bridges and freeways.
        I wonder how much develoment is being triggered in South Lake Union with the relatively modest streetcar spending, and even Mercer Street.

      3. And without I-405 & I-90 Bellevue would still be orchards and farms, so what’s your point?

        Development follows transportation networks, be they streetcar, light rail or freeway, so your arguments are facetious and ridiculous.

      4. Streetcars can catalyze development in areas that otherwise would not have gained that much attention.

      5. Perhaps. But five will get you fifty that if everyone here swore off streetcars this evening, tomorrow you’d be whining about how BRT is a waste of money.

        Basically, you don’t like transit.

        Go somewhere else and start a “Seattle Auto Blog”.

      6. Buses cost a fraction of what streetcars cost to build, and buses cost less to operate.

        I don’t like wasting taxpayers’ money. Do you?

      7. Your claims remain false. Buses expire faster than streetcars, and over their lifetime cost more to operate. If you can fill the larger streetcars, streetcars are slam-dunk cheaper. And the streetcars fill more easily because they’re more popular.

        Is the SLU streetcar a good route which can fill a large streetcar? Oh, probably not. The First Hill streetcar definitely will be though.

      8. If you can fill the larger streetcars, streetcars are slam-dunk cheaper.

        There in lies the rub. The SLUT is only running at 10% capacity. Buses are cheaper per hour to operate and far cheaper in capital costs even if they are a “throw away” item. Until you exceed the the capacity that can be served with a bus they will always be cheaper.

        I think First Hill has a good chance of paying off. One, the hospitals provide a steady stream of business rather than just a peak commute rush (buses are much better at adapting to demand spikes over short periods during the day). Connections with Link at each end provides a steady source of riders and both Capital Hill and DT have things happening at all hours.

        I don’t put much stake in the “choice rider” theory. Once the novelty passes people only ride it if it fills a demand. We’ve seen this with SLUT and also with the Waterfront Streetcar. George Benson acknowledged that it requires an on going marketing effort to tell people about what the Waterfront line provided access to rather than rely on it being a stand alone amusement ride.

      9. That’s an interesting point about commuters, which I agree is currently the bulk of SLU Streetcar ridership. SLU will hopefully also have things happening at all hours someday. While the big news is what Vulcan is building (mostly Amazon and residential), there are a lot of small older buildings getting occupied, including restaurants that are actually open evenings and weekends! Lake Union Park and MOHAI will also be a draw. I also already see tourists use it who stay at the hotels on the lake.

      10. It’s time to put aside the argument that streetcars spur economic development. Seattle is awash in development; there has been tons built in the last twenty years without streetcars. Perhaps in a city without background development, a streetcar might bring it back to life. But Seattle is not in such drastic straits. The purpose of streetcars in Seattle or Portland is not to create development but to channel it to certain corridors, and to influence the type of development. Businesses are pretty smart that if there is a streetcar stop, they should orient their pedestrian entrance toward it, and build with the density that a streetcar connotes. That is what’s happening in SLU. It’s theoretically the same with bus stops, but look at Mt Baker station (pre-Link construction) and the VA hospital (main entrance far from bus stop) — it didn’t happen there. Maybe it would have if the bus came every five minutes instead of every 30 minutes, so there were more clients coming from transit. Then look at the older buildings on Rainier, which were designed around a former streetcar route. Pleasant shop windows right against the sidewak; an easy walk from the front door to transit; and no sea of parking lot to cross.

      11. Just look at Ballard for TOD on bus routes. Very much development over the past several years along bus routes and at bus stops. This is exactly the same development which monorail promoters said the monorail would creat. Yet, the monorail was not built, and the development occurred, anyway. In fact, at the corner where a monorail station was suposed to be built (Market and 15th) there is going to be a huge mixed-use development, instead of a monorail station. This will be right on a bus route.

      12. That development was anticipating the monorail, and when the monorail was voted down, it was still considered a high-priority corridor for future rail, and RapidRide is better than nothing in the meantime. (Note: to make RapidRide as time-efficient as surface rail you’d need a dedicated bus lane on 15th, and some mitigation for the Queen Anne and Belltown slowness.)

        There have been numerous examples around North America of TOD being built near rail stations. There are also cases of TOD being built in order to encourage rail to come to it, as in (I think it’s called) Reston Town Center in Virginia, and the town center in Burien. These are called “transit-ready development”. But I doubt you’ll find many examples of multi-block TOD solely on a BRT or sub-BRT line, where there is no expectation of rail at all. Except in city downtowns, of course.

    3. Norman, you tried this ridiculous argument like three days ago. It has not aged well. If you are capable of embarrassing yourself, you are embarrassing yourself. Grade-school kids could call out the flaws in your logic.

      1. My logic is flawless. Nobody has made a single argument that buses can not do exactly the same thing as streetcars.

        How about trying to make an argument yourself?

        Try this: tell us that the development in SLU would not have happened without the S.L.U.T. Then we can all have a good laugh.

      2. If you believe your logic is flawless you are living in a bubble denying reality, and incapable of understanding the most basic logic. I don’t have to make an argument: The academic studies are numerous and the evidence is overwhelming. Do some research. Google is your friend. So is the library.

        For the umpteenth time, the fact that economic development can occur without streetcars does not prove that streetcars don’t spur economic development. And try getting this basic concept through your head: just because you have “x” amount of economic development does not mean you don’t want more economic development. You always want more economic development.

        But you keep banging your head against the same wall. It only helps the rail argument to have enemies like this.

        PS – Apparently Vulcan and all the other companies behind development in SLU thought the streetcar was important enough to development that they paid $26 million to get it. But heck, what do developers know about development, right?

      3. When you get something for half off and then Metro picks up the on going operational costs what’s not to like as a developer?

      4. “Half-off” is a wildly inaccurate description—unless I missed the part where the streetcar isn’t open to the public.

      5. If you actually believe that Vulcan would not have made exactly the same development in SLU without a streetcar, then you have exposed your intellect for all to see. I doubt anyone else would make such a patently foolish claim.

        Using your same logic: the fact that some development has occurred along streetcar lines, while exactly the same sort of develoment has also occurred along bus routes, does NOT prove that “streecars spur development.” Everyone agrees that development can occur where there are streetcars, and development can occur where there are not streetcars. So, where is your proof that streetcars spur development? There is just as ample proof that “lack of streetcars spurs development”, as in Ballard and Bellevue, downtown SEattle, Queen Anne, W. Seattle, Bell Town, et. al.

      6. Norman, you are being absurd. Yes, of course Vulcan would have built the same development if the city chose not to build the South Lake Union streetcar: the point is that it should be telling to you that Vulcan (and other businesses in the area) wanted the streetcar to the point of being willing to invest $26 million in it. They were willing to do so not because they’re generous corporate citizens, but because they know streetcars help spur development and that a streetcar would help ensure their development’s success.

        It is not incumbent on anyone here to prove to you that streetcars spur economic development anymore than people should bother proving climate change anymore. The proof is everywhere, and there’s nothing to even debate. Google “streetcars economic development.” You can spend days perusing the overwhelming and irrefutable evidence in peer-reviewed academic journals and in report after report put together by local governments either considering streetcars or analyzing the success of existing lines.

      7. Amazing. I give example after example of development without streetcars, and you even write: “of course Vulcan would have built the same development if the city chose not to build the South Lake Union streetcar”, yet you still claim that streetcars spur development, while admitting that the S.L.U.T. had nothing to do with the development in SLU. I can only laugh.

        Why should taxpayers spend one dime on streetcars, when the same development would occur without them? Streetcars are just a foolish waste of many millions of tax doolars.

      8. Wrong again, Norman. As usual, you’re conflating issues. Yes, Vulcan probably would have constructed the same buildings with or without the streetcar, but that has nothing to do with the economic success of the project. The streetcar will absolutely raise property values in the neighborhood, and will absolutely help draw both residential and commercial tenants and more dense development to the area—especially once the line is extended and connected to a robust streetcar and fixed-rail network.

    4. High-rises above 12 stories were pretty rare until right around the end of the streetcar era in EVERY city. New York and Boston and Chicago and Philadelphia which mostly (or entirely) kept their rail transit have more high-rises per capita than other American cities! Oops! Nice post hoc ergo propter hoc there, buddy, too bad it flies in the face of facts.

      What the end of the streetcar did is flatten mid-rise development (4-8 stories) – this is really, really, really obvious if you look at pictures of Belltown, what is now SLU (i.e. Denny/Cascade) and especially Lower Queen Anne from the 1930s and then from the 1970s. Hey, where did all the mid-rises go?!? Where did all these surface lots come from?!?

      This process was even more dramatic in Portland, Spokane and Tacoma.

  3. “The permanence of Streetcars reduces risk”

    Streetcars in Seattle lasted only a few decades. You can see rails in Seattle streets in several locations where the rails are paved over and have not been used for decades. How can anyone claim that streetcars are “permanent”, when there is eveidence all over Seattle that they are not?

    Does anyone remember the waterfront streetcar in Seattle? Was it “permanent”?

    Many bus routes have been operating in Seattle since the early 40’s, which is 70 years, or twice as long as the streetcars they replaced.

    Look at all the development on bus routes in Ballard the past few years. Does anyone think that developers are afraid that those bus routes are going to disappear anytime soon? And if you ever ride the #15 or #18 bus between Ballard and downtown during peak hours, you will see that a large part of the ridership of those routes are “middle class” commuters, who supposedly refuse to ride buses.

    1. You can make all the anecdotal comments you want about how “large parts” of ridership are middle class, but developers aren’t seeing property value increases from buses, and they’re not major selling points. They don’t drive development.

      It’s perceived permanence that matters. The waterfront streetcar is a poor example because it was a tourist attraction, not a commuter system.

      You’re selectively ignoring, say, the massive federal subsidization of the automobile in the first half of the century when you’re talking about how the early streetcars weren’t permanent.

      1. What do you mean buses “don’t drive development”? Another statement with zero to back it up.

        Look at all the develoment in Ballard along the bus lines. What do you claim “drove” that development?

        In Cleveland, they cleim their new BRT drove a whole lot of development. Are you saying this is not true?

  4. The author claims that streetcars have “permanence.” This is simply false.

    It is not just the waterfront streetcar that has disappeared — it is every other streetcar line that was ever built in Seattle that has disappeared, except the S.L.U.T., which is only a few years old.

    Property values in Ballard, Queen Anne, W. Seattle, etc., along bus lines, were not increasing up until the recession?

    1. Norman, do you really not understand that you’re falling into logical fallacies?

      “If A, then B” does NOT imply “if not A, then not B.”

      1. How can streetcars be “permanent”, when many streetcar lines were obviously temporary? Do you not really understand that something that lasted only a few decades was not “permanent”?

      2. The routes are permanent even if the technology changes. The streetcars started the tradition of where transit would be, and even now buses follow the same streets and turns. That’s the permanence. It tells your business that there will always be some form of transit stopping at approximately the same location. (Rail stations rarely move or close, although the later bus stops may move a few hundred feet or be consolidated.)

        Compare that to say the 16 and 358. They were rerouted when the 358 was created, and buses were permanently removed from parts of south Greenlake and Wallingford. The 30 used to run on 45th from Wallingford to Laurelhurst. Now there’s no bus that does that, and I don’t think there’s any bus on 45th between 17th and 25th, so to do that former trip you’d have to go out of the way to transfer. Similarly, the 75 hasn’t changed much since its introduction, but it could someday bypass NSCC or go the opposite direction on College Way. That would be very unlikely if it were a streetcar, because routing and stations almost never change with streetcars.

        The effect is greater in the suburbs, where more new neighborhoods are built, which changes traffic demands without regard to bus routes. Around Bellevue there are several streets where transit has gotten better or worse over the years as the bus routes change. You may buy a house in location A and intend to ride the bus to location B long term. But the bus may be redirected elsewhere and stop going anywhere near B. So then you have to move? Streetcars don’t get redirected like that. They’re also more likely than buses to be built with signal priority and dedicated right of way. Consider the Church MUNI in San Francisco. It has its own ROW for a few blocks on the side of a hill, and that speeds up the overall trip even if the rest of the route is in the street (except the Market Street subway portion).

      3. “Streetcars don’t get redirected like that.” Right. They just get totally eliminated, like every streetcar line that operated in Seattle in the early 1900’s, and like the waterfront streetcar. They just go away altogether.

      4. The Streetcars went away because the onset of the automobile love affair. HOWEVER it should be pointed out that streetcars DID help drive the suburbs of the day, along with cable cars. The access they created built the initial density of housing and apartments built in Leschi, Queen Anne, Capital Hill, Ballard, Madison Park, Madrona, West Seattle, Phinny Ridge, most every development that took place on hills, or past hills where horse teams had a difficult time can be directly linked to the installation and operation of street cars and cable cars. They DID their job.

        They were torn out when they could no longer compete with the onset of the auto, especially after the city of Seattle paid way too much for the system they inherited…

        Bellevue’s development is now at the point of creating traffic so bad, that new development is seeing faster growth to cheaper accessible land… The higher priced condos and houses have returned to within the city limits as commute times and access help drive the market. Any 12 million dollar condos in Bellevue? In my opinion, the weakness of the Megablocks of Bellevue is they are too big to become One Way, and the length of the light for left turn only and heavy traffic make it very difficult to synchronize the lights…

        As the cost of driving goes up…ease of access continues to improve as a major selling point for development. Ballard’s bus lines flow where trolleys once ran. Ballard is under priced compared to other areas, that too drives development.

      5. Street cars were replaced by buses because they were cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate and their pneumatic tires provided a superior ride. The “love affair” with the automobile didn’t really start until the mid to late ’50s. I-5 connecting Seattle to Everett didn’t open until 1965.

        Don’t think there’s any Bellevue condos for $5M; plenty in the $2M+ range though. It’s pretty hard to find a $5M house in Bellevue.

      6. Agreed, I probably should have been more specific, but the point was the profuse growth of the auto began in the 20s with Henry Ford making cars affordable. The roadways became crowded with cars by the 30s, and roadways built from the mid 30s on had to take into account the number of cars vs. tracks… Tracks came out because the new buses were better, but the hills still proved a challenge.

        I seem to recall Seattle’s Last cable car pulled was the one on Queen Anne, because of the debate over if those new fangled buses could climb the hill in the snow vs. the cable car. I seem to recall there was no snow in 1939 or 1940, so the race was ran (sponsored by the Seattle Times) at the first snow, the bus proved it COULD climb the hill, and faster than the cable car… and the cable car was pulled.

    2. It’s simply a fact that public infrastructure investment drives up property values, be it sewer lines, roads, parks, sidewalks, and yes – streetcars.

      We can argue the merits of streetcars in a number of ways, but debating their value to property developers will not win you any arguments.

      1. Since you have not shown any proof that streetcars provide more value to property owners than bus lines, I can see why you don’t want to argue it.

      2. And yet you have not provided any proof that bus lines provide more value to property owners that streetcars. I can see why you don’t want to argue it.

      3. I never made that claim. I said buses provide as much value as streetcars at far less cost to taxpayers. Where is your proof that this is not true?

    3. I would argue that the streetcars of Seattle never disappeared.

      They just got rubber tires and a second pole for grounding.

      1. In other words, trolley buses are the same thing as streetcars, just a lot less expensive. Good point.

  5. The issue in Seattle is not streetcars vs. buses. It is streetcars vs. cars.
    How many “middle class” people in the Seattle area don’t own a car?

    Once you already own a car, the marginal cost of using it is very low unless you have to pay for parking. Except in DT Seattle, DT Bellevue, the U District, and a few other places, parking is free or inexpensive, so the marginal cost is just gas ($3 gets you ~20 miles of travel) + maintenance.

      1. Or what you really mean to say — “We need to tax behaviors that I don’t agree with”

    1. How many “middle class” people in the Seattle area don’t own a car?

      [raises hand]

      The point you make about the fixed-vs-variable costs of car ownership is why I like Zipcar so much. With Zipcar, I only pay for the car when I use it. So when I have to make a trip, I’m faced with the choice to pay $7+/hr for a Zipcar or use my FlexPass, and thus I only use Zipcar when transit is impractical for that trip.

    2. Don’t forget Insurance and maintenance and depreciation which can add upwards of $0.50/mile or more to your costs. And watch out if Seattle ever gets the idea of what Chicago did which was to sell the parking rights to a private company. So, It is exceedingly difficult to find free parking in Chicago now. Meters are enforced 7 days a week often until late in the evening. Further, for some neighborhoods, Chicago has instituted a zone sticker requirement. In others, they put up street cleaning notices every few weeks and if you don’t move your car, its a hefty fine. It’s certainly changed my behavior in that in some respects, it’s cheaper to take the bus or train some places than to drive and pay for parking. Buildings in Chicago that have off street parking charge for that. As the Density in Seattle continues to increase, you will see similar patterns develop that will incentivize people to take more transit.

      1. I can see that some day affecting urban Seattle, in other words, those areas inside Seattle city limits, but I think it will take a while suburban areas to achieve that density. So a lot of people will still get around in cars unless maybe if they work downtown and live in the suburbs.

  6. Forgive me for butting into this delightfully discordant discourse, but as an advocate for streetcars years longer than most, I should add a couple missed points in their favor that Tony missed.

    Both diesel buses and trolleybuses are designed for maximum load and freeway speeds. Trolleybus are more ideal for inner-city speeds, but their design is still imperfect for both applications. Call it a major design flaw.

    Streetcars are ‘matched’ to their line. Maybe that doesn’t seem important, but for inner-city transit, vehicle design requires the same concept applied to buses and trolleybuses and to their routes. Seattle requires trolleybuses designed specifically for hillclimb. These specific trolleybuses would also have specific routes like streetcar lines. These are design elements of my 2001 Trolleybus Reconfiguration proposal that Seattle’s supposedly knowledgeable transit advocates gave a thumbs down and the finger.

    I’m not against streetcar lines, (nor against LRT, trolleybus, monorail). I attended dozens of early Portland Streetcar committee meetings, wrote published letters to editor, and testified before City Council in their favor with this sort of logic beginning in 1995.

    I still oppose Left lane/Center station streetcar line design on 1st Ave. Extend the SLU Streetcar to 1st Ave (or 2nd Ave), 1-track westbound on Stewart and return to Westlake on Pike and 6th, and ridership will triple overnight. The Waterfront Streetcar Line can and should be reinstalled. Don’t put the carbarn next to Occidental Park, bad idea.

    1. Slight correction, Trolleys max out at about 35-40(full power pedal), which is not freeway speed by any means. There more geared for max torque on our steep hills.

      1. OK, but the trolleybus body and suspension is much the same as a diesel bus. That’s more what I meant about them built like diesel buses. Plus, I should’ve mentioned low-floor models.

  7. Some nights when the weather is good, I’ll ride the streetcar out to Lake Union on the way home, and then wait for the Route 17. Difference between the two rides always leaves me impatient for the carline to terminate in Ballard.

    Only problem is, based on the analysis above, as soon as I get on, all the middle-class people will throw me off.

    Mark Dublin

  8. I take the SELU streetcar every weekday morning for my commute to Fred Hutchinson. I used to take the local 17 from Ballard (the slow bus to China). Now I take the 18 express which is so much faster (and nearer my house), walk from First to Fifth and catch the streetcar. I get to the Hutch in about the same time, but have the pleasure of taking an express bus and rail. Now that the Amazon buildings are starting to fill, I am already noticing an increase in ridership. During the day, when there really weren’t many riders in the beginning, there is now an uptick. When all of the Amazon buildings are occupied, riding the streetcar will be like a can of sardines. I say ‘bring it on’. Now if it would only go to Ballard.

    1. I do hope the SLU line is extended to Fremont and Ballard but it’s likely to have a configuration with stops every few blocks (current spacing is about 1200 ft, similar to Metro’s consolidated routes). It would be interesting if there could be a few “express” streetcars at commute times that stop fewer places.

      1. It will probably be express on Westlake north of Valley, with one or two stops at most. Between Fremont and Ballard it will probably be every 2-4 blocks. Streetcars are meant to replace local buses, while light rail is meant to replace express buses. The two are different markets, and cannot substitute for each other.

    2. Another anecdote (from lightning) that the people who ride streetcars are the same people who ride buses.

  9. He makes somewhat of a point; however, he concedes that there are any technological or cost reasons to use streetcars — in fact, streetcars with their inflexible pathways and lack of uphill capability compared to buses, lose in that race.

    He then falls back on “clientèle” and I know what he means. Besides being three times faster than the bus, when I take my car to the Sounder and back again, it’s like I never left the suburbs. Contrast that to walking past the Union Gospel Mission and hopping on the 150.

    That said, using slightly pricier “express” buses like the ST buses has the same effect to riff-raff filtering and at least keeping the smell setting down low.

    Quite frankly, I think you could have the same effect if you painted one bus a different color and called it the “Execubus” and charged a dollar more…for the same exact ride!

    Such is marketing.

    1. What do you do if you want to go downtown between 8:30am and 5pm, or after 5:30pm, or on weekends? Do you time your activities so you can take the Mariners special when it runs? Sounder would be a good substitute for Link and ST Express if it ran all day, but nobody has put forward a plan to do that in even 20 years. So Sounder is a nice addition when it runs, but it’s no way adequate as the only form of transit in an area.

      BTW, I do think Kent should get an ST Express route if they can’t expand the Sounder schedule or install BRT to a Link station. The 150 is seriously inadequate.

    2. Link light rail passengers look exactly like bus passengers. Would anyone like to try to describe any differences they claim between the clientel of Link trains and Metro buses?

      If streetcars and light rail trains had a “ride free zone” through the middle of downtown, just like buses do, do you actually think that the same “clientele” who ride buses in the free zone would not also ride streetcars and light rai in a ride free zone?

      I have been panhandled on Link trains recently. And have ridden Link trains that did not smell good.

      How would Sounder trains be “three times faster” than an express bus on the same route, using I-5 between the same destinations that Sounder trains serve? Sounder trains between Everett and downtown Seattle are not three times faster than express bus, are they? Is that what you are claiming?

      1. 3x faster because of dedicated ‘lane’ and signal priority. think of the possibilities if the 150 was afforded the same conditions.

  10. “Streetcars… perceived as being fundamentally different from buses, make it possible to short-circuit this process and attract middle class riders immediately…if you’re willing to spend enough money to really make a bus route competitive, why not just spend a bit more and jump to the end?”

    Sure, if your desire is that of a developer’s – to attract as well-off a clientèle as possible. For as the author points out,”streetcars…are catalysts for development. The primary reason for this is precisely because they attract middle class choice riders. Developers build for the middle class, not for the poor. Thus, they gravitate toward public investments that are attractive to the middle class.”

    And the reason we wish to publicly subsidize developers who wish to build for only the upper middle-class and wealthy, judging by condo prices in that area would be….um, what, exactly? To get rid of working class people? To make Paul Allen a happy man? Because all Amazon employees are middle class? Because we would like Seattle to resemble some faux-Bellevue model of development?

    As for signalling, what you are really saying is that public subsidies that are understood to be for the well-off “signals” private developers that the stampede is on, and it’s time to buy up existing housing and stores, tear them down and replace it with a monotony of upscale development in the hopes of making big bucks. Which is exactly what is happening.

    “It signals that the city has made an informed judgement that the area has tremendous potential and is thus worthy of significant investment. The city is essentially placing a $50 million bet on South Lake Union.” Yes, indeed, they have – on wealthy developers, who will cash in.

    As for the long-term wisdom of that, let me remind you of the neighborhood known as Belltown, which was destroyed by just such subsidies and development, and is now home to high-end boutiques and restaurants, and nothing useful, and populated by legions of drunks at night. Why all the drunks? Because only bars can make the kind of return that can pay that high a rent that establishments are charged. Belltown is a classic example of NON-mixed use development. Which I would think people would not want to replicate.

    1. As for the long-term wisdom of that, let me remind you of the neighborhood known as Belltown, which was destroyed by just such subsidies and development,

      Yes, Belltown was paradise on Earth prior to condo development. Why we would destroy such an idyllic neighborhood, no one could possibly understand.

      1. Belltown, as it exists now, is a hideous neighborhood. I got a good laugh when the Sculpture Park opened, and one of the people who designed it was giving an interview, and pointed to Belltown and called it “the tenements.”

        Is this what train enthusiasts want to see all over our city — hideously ugly neighborhhods like Belltown?

      2. Nice smarmy sarcasm. Now on to the issue. There was no claim in my post that Belltown was Paradise, or even that it needed no development. The point was that non-mixed use development, development that is based on only catering to the wealthy, is not a recipe for a healthy neighborhood. Belltown is an example of that.

      3. There was no claim in my post that Belltown was Paradise, or even that it needed no development.

        You could have said that instead of claiming that Belltown was “destroyed”.

        We have one commenter complaining that Belltown caters to the wealthy — that is, it’s so desirable that average people are priced out. We have another claiming that it’s hideous “tenements”.

        You be the judge!

      4. I live in Belltown and I am by no means rich. There are plenty of affordable apartments in Belltown, some of which are really cool and unique.

    2. “And the reason we wish to publicly subsidize developers who wish to build for only the upper middle-class and wealthy, judging by condo prices in that area would be….um, what, exactly? To get rid of working class people? ”

      You switched from middle-class streetcar riders (a humble accountant, librarian, or machinist) to upper-middle class condo dwellers (a Microsoft engineer or corporate executive). The purpose of “attracting middle-class riders” is to get a greater percentage of the population onto transit, and to provide walkable neighborhoods so people don’t have to drive for the necessities of life. An unfortunate corollary is that these condos are usually too expensive for middle-class people, especially families. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole paradigm out the window. You just have to focus on the specific problem of affordability. The alternative to dense neighborhoods is… more sprawl and auto dependence and energy use because things aren’t within walking distance and a trunk-level transit stop is nowhere to be found.

      Re affordability, I don’t believe the bunk that you can’t build condos or townhouses for less than $200K without government subsidies. People are building their own houses for $40K. So it’s impossible to build a shared-dwelling unit for less than four times the cost of a house? The specific problems are (1) developers chasing the luxury market, (2) zoning laws such as minimum parking requirements, and (3) lenders unwilling to be creative about what kinds of buildings they’ll finance.

      Regarding #1, it’s like how food manufacturers 1 cent of extra corn syrup to make something twice as sweet (increasing sales), or 10 cents of extra grain to make it bigger (so they can raise the price). There must be some developers willing to build without granite countertops and $1500 chef’s ovens. Re #2, the fact that driveways overwhelm Seattle townhouse blocks is widely known. And I hear that the cost of a concrete parking garage adds significantly to the price of a condo. So these are two issues that can be addressed. (Keeping the concrete garage but selling the parking separately from the condo may be one way.) Re #3, that requires a unified commitment from local governments and residents and developers to put pressure on lenders to finance the kind of buildings people want.

      1. Also, we’re so used to the price of housing rising faster than inflation that I don’t think it’s sunk in that it’s not going to anymore. So the Belltown condos may look seriously out of reach now, but in ten years they might not look so outrageous compared to wages.

    3. Just to correct a misconception about South Lake Union, there are many working class people living here. The average income is lower in SLU than in Lynnwood, for example. We have a high percentage of units dedicated to low income (LIHI, HRG, CHH, Section 8, city subsidized units, etc.) as well as supportive housing (cancer patient housing, formerly homeless, addiction recovery). There are condo towers as well, though they’re technically in Denny Triangle. The Vulcan marketing focuses on the condos, but that’s not the reality of living here.

      In fact, there are *more* options for all income levels than before the development. For the most part the new buildings have replaced parking lots and small warehouse buildings.

  11. I live right in front of where the streetcar passes everyday, and let me tell you, it is WAY different than a diesel bus passing by your house every 10 minutes. It is quiet, almost pleasant to hear, and the faint ring of the trolley bell actually seems to reinforce that I’m living in a pleasant neighborhood. You can break public infrastructure spending down to numbers and statistics, but many experiences which make a city great (and thrive) for living in are exactly that, a great EXPERIENCE, people seem to want to deny this part of the equation but it truly an important and relevant one. Human beings are much more than just a piece of the urban system, they are the reason the urban system exists, and that system should be designed to elevate and inspire those that live within it.

  12. I just visited Seattle and I am a big transit supporter. This article talks about the low ridership, I would like to comment on why I think ridership is low. We were at a hotel on the streetcar line. I was dismayed that the fare was so high and that there was little information at the stations about fares, transfers or passes. $2.25 for one two hour ticket seems crazy to me for a system that at present is only a small district circulator. We had 11 people in our party and if we could have bought an all day pass for $2.00 like in Portland we would have ridden the streetcar all day for two days and if we knew that we could or how to get transfers to the monorail we would have done that as well. If it tranferred to the light rail even better. Instead we mostly walked everywhere. The stations are not great. In a city that has rain most of the year the sheltered areas are too small and don’t even have a rail to lean on. And the fare boxes are not under cover but out in the rain. Also what should be level boarding is actually an inch or two off (which is a big deal if you are disabled.) I also observed that many of the new developments are unfinished or not full yet, so ridership to and from them should pick up in the near future. The streetcar should be a good addition to the transit system in general, but it has a few notable deficiencies in the station design and has a fare system that is expensive and is not very well integrated with other transit. Ridership would be better if these flaws were corrected.

    1. Thanks visitor! By the way the paper streetcar tickets you get are valid on any King County Metro bus, but unfortunately not on SoundTransit express buses or light rail. On the other hand, the ORCA card is “accepted” on the streetcar but there are no actual ORCA readers so you don’t end up paying anything if you have an ORCA. I assume/hope this will be fixed once the vending machines are developed for the First Hill Streetcar.

      The monorail is run by a private company and does not accept any transfers.

    2. Well you certainly nailed one universal gripe on the head—the lack of a universal Orca-style day pass for visitors.

    3. “the sheltered areas are too small and don’t even have a rail to lean on”

      This is to prevent street people from lying down on the benches or sitting on them all day. When you get outside the downtown area, there are benches.

      We feel the same way you do about the mishmash of fares and lack of day passes. We’re trying to get the transit agencies to do something about it. Metro and Sound Transit have finally this year started moving their fares and zone structures toward each other, so that’s a step in the right direction.

      We’re also pushing for an ORCA visitors’ card like other cities have, which would cost less than the $5 fee for a regular card. I don’t understand why Link even has single-ride tickets in the first place: that’s the most expensive way to travel. The latest word from ORCA, as reported on this blog, is that they intended to roll out a visitor’s card along with ORCA but were dissatisfied with the card’s quality, so they sent it back for improvements. I keep an extra ORCA card for visiting friends to use. That’s the best we can do in the meantime.

  13. Yes I figured out after the fact about the trasnfers and how they worked or not. I always try it first with the info at the stations to test how intuitively it works. That way I can take ideas back to improve the system in my hometown. All in all a great visit to Seattle and I will postulate that in the long run the streetcar will be well integrated.

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