Bus stop in Ballard, 2006

There’s something about modern streetcars that causes people — many of whom have sensible things to say about transit, and some of whom I know personally and respect greatly — to start spouting peculiar and contorted arguments in favor of building more of them. The last few days have brought a couple of new entries in this genre: this defense of slower-than-walking streetcars from New Urbanist writer Robert Steuteville, and this Seattle-focused post from Scott Bonjukian.

For a thorough and fair parsing of those arguments, this (sadly anonymous) letter written to Jarrett Walker makes excellent reading, but the denouement deserves to be carved onto the wall of Seattle City Hall (emphasis mine):

If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don’t particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we’ll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead “game changing” fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and “place mobility,” but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I’ve hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don’t want to alienate any friends, but I’m increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple “technograndiosity.” At the end of the day, I’d rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

Fortunately for me, upsetting the orthodoxy of my follow urbanists will not hurt my career, but I hope, for the sake of America’s younger cities, that the writer will not have to silently endure for too many more years. The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we’ve built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.

178 Replies to “Streetcars: A Momentary Lapse of Reason”

    1. We ignore critiques like this at our own peril. Reserved (not separated) right-of-way and traffic signal priority are very basic building block for streetcars, and we aren’t doing that here.

      1. We are with the central city connector. It will also fix some of the issues with the SLUT and the First Hill Streetcar. Though I agree it would have been better if both lines had been built with reserved ROW and real signal priority from the start.

      2. Reflection is a healthy thing. It gives us pause to think about how we improve what we have built, or whether or not we build something else like it.

        Because, heaven forbid, the SLUT could really use some help.

  1. I think there’s an assumption that you’ve implied but not emphasized enough: traffic separated. Replacing a bus like with a streetcar line (SLU) has strong non-transit benefits (placemaking, permanence), and some transit benefits (increased ridership, shorter dwell times, faster acceleration, etc.), but it’s a sad substitute for what could be with zero extra money: fast, frequent transit that comes with traffic separation. The only thing in the way is business-as-usual carheadedness that fights against losing lanes and parking.

    Done well (mostly meaning traffic separated), streetcars are exactly this fast, frequent, high-capacity dream that’s your end goal (minus the grade separation, which is more appropriate for longer distance routes). If you could get there using rubber tires, I’d support you. But you can’t, politically. Buses have a well-earned stigma, and there are zero systems in the US done as well as a streetcar with regard to ride quality.

    1. I disagree that you need to have a streetcar to get a lane… the SLUT and the FHS shows that’s assertion is plainly false. Rather, high-frequency service and strong ridership is what by and large makes a sound technical and *political* case for transit only lanes. If you look at just about every instance of bus only lanes in Seattle you’ll see this is the case. In fact the Center City Connector drives my point home. The 5-minute headway, not the fact that is was a streetcar, is why the streetcar will get exclusive lanes on 1st ave. A streetcar with 10-minutes headways would not get the same treatment.

      1. RapidRide, as imperfect and oversold as it is, already has more dedicated and semi-dedicated ROW than Seattle’s Streetcar network.

      2. Are you counting 3rd Ave as dedicated ROW? As far as I know A, B, F have none. Do C D or E have much?. SLU does have some near Lake Union

      3. Why can’t we get better transit lanes on the approaches to the Montlake bridge (from both sides)? Weekdays there are 13 buses/hour in each direction mid-day and probably double that in rush hours. All we have is the lane on Pacific St but it ends at the intersection with Montlake, and even that great 520 reconstruction does not include any effective solution to improve things. So frequency alone doesn’t create the will to solve bottlenecks.

      4. The A and E have bidirectional BAT lanes on SR 99. You’re right that the B has nothing. The C has something around the West Seattle Bridge; I don’t know quite what. I don’t know about the F.

      5. Carl see William C’s post. The C Line has a bus only lane over the bridge and along SR-99 into downtown which is heavily congested in the AM and give transit a big travel time advantage.

        As for Montlake, bus lanes were initially planned but are now in limbo because of neighborhood push back against a second bridge and money issues. A streetcar would see the same issue and more pointedly, isn’t even on option here so it’s a moot point.

      6. I was citing Montlake as an example where some reallocation of pavement could make some improvements – and I think better designs are possible for the 520 project even if the Montlake Bridge remains 4 lanes like today. Just to say that high frequency and a bottleneck doesn’t mean our politics fixes the infrastructure.

        Regarding route C, was the bus lane built for RR C or was it already there for the 358? And is it bus-only or HOV? Our region does have a lot of HOV, although much of it isn’t well-designed for transit, and we don’t seem to be able to take the simple step of redesignating it HOV-3 when it ceases to function at HOV-2 (see I-405…)

      7. I think Montlake is a case where a streetcar could be justified based on ridership. The 48 and 43 are very frequent through here and carry more riders than much of the rest of the bus network.

      8. To be honest, Montlake is precisely the place where investing in a streetcar doesn’t make sense. While there are a lot of buses and riders going over the Montlake Bridge (which will only increase if the highway 520 buses are truncated at UW), the vast majority are continuing through to other destinations on the Eastside and the Central District; a Montlake streetcar would be completely useless for these riders. While a streetcar would only serve residents of the Montlake neighborhood, improving bus service in the corridor by adding stuff like dedicated lanes would benefit all sorts of regional trips at a lower cost (assuming dedicated lanes for both options, which of course would be difficult to implement).

      9. Shoreline built full BAT lanes for the E, which were finished about a year before the E started. Seattle has a few small segments of mostly peak-only BAT lanes, because several Aurora businesses caterwauled that they’d go out of business if they lost their on-street parking. Most of that is about buildings south of 105th that were built in the era before parking lots, and O’Reilly Auto Parts which has since moved to some place that I think has a parking lot.

    2. Replacing a bus like with a streetcar line (SLU) has strong non-transit benefits (placemaking, permanence), and some transit benefits (increased ridership, shorter dwell times, faster acceleration, etc.),

      I’m not convinced of this at all. This works well if the line attracts ridership. If it is so slow that it doesn’t attract ridership, eventually it fades away and becomes irrelevant.

      In the very early 1980s nobody in North America had a more extensive streetcar system than Philadelphia, with over 200 miles of track. Today, a huge portion of that is gone. Most of the surviving lines have been converted to more closely resemble light rail operation, with the #15 being the last real surviving streetcar line. Today, it only operates part of its route, with service supposed to be restarted on the rest of the route at some point, but they said that about the #23 and others, which have never come back.

      So, permanence really isn’t the case with a line in the street as it can have a bus operated over it just as easily. Placemaking can’t happen if it can’t attract riders, which a slow route will not.

      1. “Placemaking can’t happen if it can’t attract riders, which a slow route will not.”

        Are there slower streetcar routes than SLU? I don’t know of any. Yet it has strong ridership and likely was a strong factor in developing Westlake.

      2. The remaining green lines in Philly are partially grade-separated, avoiding the congestion around the universities and across the river strait into center city. They only emerge from the tunnel further into west Philly. Thus, they offer a real travel advantage over other modes. On the other hand, Philly doesn’t have trolleybuses so they couldn’t run diesel buses in the tunnels. But for that the streetcars may have disappeared years ago.

      3. Yet it has strong ridership and likely was a strong factor in developing Westlake.

        No, it doesn’t, and no it wasn’t.

        For the 4th time in this thread, 2,600 one-way mostly-opportunistic boardings is a blip.

        And Paul Allen was going to mold his Allentown, in look and feel and profit potential, whether or not he had become obsessed with little toy trains.

        After the advent of the FHSC, it looks like the streetcar people expect to start actively enforcing fares (on both lines) for the first time. The SLUT ORCA pylons are already out. The fare is higher than the bus, and higher than Link.

        I can’t wait to see ridership totally tank. I sure as hell won’t be giving it extra money.

      4. BAT lanes are pretty much junk, and peak-only BAT lanes are even more ridiculous. These are not bus lanes, although I suppose they might be better than nothing.

        As for the political aspect, Philadelphia still has an active campaign to restore the #23, and the #15 got restored — try getting that level of diehard support for a bus line which has been gone for decades.

        I’m not gonna defend streetcars without exclusive lanes, though, cause they’re dumb. I’m saying that if you’re going to try for exclusive lanes, you’re gonna get more with streetcars than with buses. And keep more. DC dismantled an extensive system of bus lanes very quickly. By contrast, it took decades to dismantle streetcar systems, and many of the exclusive lanes stayed in use even after everything else was gone.

        Buses are certainly more “flexible” than streetcars, in that it’s much easier to directly replace them with private automobiles. :-P

      5. I presume you’re referring to the bus lanes that were removed because Metrorail was supposedly going to solve all transportation problems in the District completely.

        The bus lanes that expedited commuters for decades after the demise the of the disintegrating and increasingly traffic-logged mixed-lane streetcars. But which were dismantled overnight because everyone thought the newest rail project would be a panacea for all possible scenarios.

        Those bus lanes, right?

        Yes, those bus lanes’ disappearance had nothing to do with the exact kind of false mode-preferential rhetoric you spew all over the internet on a daily basis…

      6. Bus lanes were removed which didn’t follow Metrorail routes. The fault here lies in the auto lobby.

        “For example, after several years of bus-only operation on the Shirley Highway, high-occupancy vehicles (HOV4+) were allowed use of the busway. This led to a reduction in demand for service and eventually to the HOV 3+ and part time general traffic use we see on the reversible lanes today. ”

        This is what always happens with bus lanes in the US. And for that matter, India. :-( London seems capable of keeping their bus lanes as bus lanes.

      7. The state here went to the expense of re-signing all our HOV lanes to be open to general traffic between 7pm-5am, which was really stupid. Either there is congestion, and the lanes should be restricted to give HOV and transit priority, or there is no congestion and the lanes aren’t needed for general purpose traffic. The auto lobby and drivers who perceive the lanes as underutilized always seek to convert the lanes back to general purpose traffic. Of course the lanes need to appear underutilized in order to function properly. They may be carrying far more people than the general purpose lane and still appear underutilized. But the pressure to repurpose bus and HOV lanes is yet one more reason why bus infrastructure investment is more risky than rail. (NB I’m not advocating bad rail infrastructure, but good rail infrastructure.)

      8. My mode-preferential statements have been proven repeatedly by citations; go do your research again if you don’t believe me. It’s easy enough.

      9. “My flat-earth statements have been proven repeatedly by links to the Flat Earth Society.”

  2. These arguments tend to assume that there exist (trolley)buses with the same form factors and layouts as buses. Actually, trams tend to be very different: They are longer, have more doors (on both sides of the vehicle), are much lower to the ground, have isolated driver compartments, with fewer seats and more standing room. If Seattle was able to buy trolleybuses that were identical to trams, but run on tyres instead of tracks, I’d be fine with those. But in all likelyhood they would be like the shitty trolleys we have today.

    I do agree that mixed-traffic trams are a horrible idea except in exceptionally quiet areas – but then why did you need a tram in the first place?

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Stuart. Which is why I’ve been a supporter of a streetcar line up Dexter. There is huge demand on this corridor, and the ergonomic benefits of a streetcar would be a huge benefit—on top of the permanence it signals that transit is a viable mode on that corridor.

      1. We’d get that same permanence with trolley wire and the existing island platforms. We all know the buses aren’t leaving Dexter because of the investments made and there’ll always be frequent service due to interlacing. Note the huge development north of Mercer on Dexter. There has been no streetcar influence, nor would a streetcar have any improvement besides newer vehicles.

      2. One advantage rail would have is higher capacity. However I’m not sure the demand in the Dexter corridor is that high yet.

    2. in 2015, the trolleybuses will be low floor. the articulated ones will have three doors and the same seat layout as the RapidRide buses.

      1. Btw, I don’ know why people think entering a Tram is easier than a modern Low Floor bus. The most common busses here in Europe have floors at 320mm (~= 1 foot), which is right in the middle of the typical range for Trams (300 to 250mm), and they very commonly use shared platforms that allow step free entrace for both of them. The only major fleet of even lower streetcars I know about are the ULF cars in Vienna that have an entrace at 200mm, which creates all kinds of problems with shared platforms.

  3. Bruce Nourish continues to be the voice of reason on this blog.

    This post is 100% right on.

    With a limited fund of money for transportation improvements, we should be looking at two things – more LINK, and more (or stable) bus service.

    Streetcars are just a distraction that takes money from the same finite funding sources.

    1. I believe there are corridors where the transit demand is high enough to justify rail over buses and streetcar/tram type lines make more sense than LInk as long as they have exclusive lanes.

  4. I think it’s always good to go back to primary sources and just look at the reasons they (fixed rail streetcars) largely faded away in the first place.

    I’d ask, “What problem do they solve?” The strongest argument seems to be that reportedly, people like riding them better, and there fore will choose them over getting in a car. The problem with that in Seattle is that we don’t actually have a problem with low ridership. We have budget shortfalls and cut backs, and congestion.

    Why can’t we wait till the ones we’ve built have run a couple of years, see the result, before rushing to spend scarce transit money to build more?

    I’d rather see us spend the money spent replicating bus lines with spendy slow streetcars on expanding our electric bus system and adding more rapid ride features to all routes.

    1. Rail has higher capacity than buses. Streetcars/trams are justified in corridors where demand exceeds what buses can reasonably provide.

      As we have already invested in the SLUT and a First Hill Streetcar, connecting them together with the Central City Connector isn’t such a bad idea, especially considering the TSP improvements the CCC project with provide to both lines and the increase in ridership.

      The Central City Connector has the kind of ridership to justify rail , any future streetcar lines should as well along with having exclusive lanes and TSP.

      1. “Rail has higher capacity than buses.”

        This is the primary rule of thumb. Rail is always, always, always for high-volume routes. Never worth it for low-volume routes. It scales up well, and scales down badly.

  5. I’m all for rationality, and much of what streetcars are good at – elevated platforms for quicker boarding, dedicated or semi-dedicated ROW, higher capacity – can be achieved with electric trolley busses less expensively and with greater flexibility .. but then you run into this problem:


    How to overcome what seems to be a fact, that given the choice of rail or bus, people choose rail.

    Ultimately what I’m most interested in is getting the most people possible using transit in urban areas. Results. If streetcars give the best results, even though by every other objective criteria are more expensive and less flexible, are streetcars still the preferable option despite their technical limitations because they are still the best at delivering the results which are the most important factor?

    .. or are there “tricks” that can be used to confer the same psychological effects that rail has onto busses and get the best of both worlds?

    1. When people are asked to choose between “rail” and “bus”, they picture “rail” as a subway or regional train, meaning separate ROW, reliable schedules, widely spaced stops and therefore reliable high speeds. When they picture “bus” they picture shared ROW in congested city traffic with overly frequent stops, unpredictable schedules, slow travel time, and constantly jerking to a stop and speeding up.

      The streetcar planners seem to have read these results and concluded “Hey, we should create a transit line with shared ROW in congested city traffic with overly frequent stops, unpredictable schedules, slow travel time, and constantly jerking to a stop and speeding up, but then we call it RAIL and everyone will ignore those problems and imagine they’re riding a subway line every day instead!”

      People favor “rail” when asked, even if the survey posits “an equivalent bus system” because they know that planners *can’t* ever guarantee a mixed-traffic bus will equal the reliability of a subway line, because planners can’t control the traffic.

      The article in that streetsblog post does a lit review where they mention some examples of cities’ residents developing more nuanced views: genuine BRT in L.A. doesn’t suffer from the mysterious “stigma” of bus systems, for instance, suggesting it’s not some kind of irrational anti-bus bias people harbor, but a perfectly rational dislike of transit with shared ROW, unreliable schedules, long headways, and over-frequent stops. Build a bus OR rail system with those defects: people hate it. Build a bus OR rail system free from those defects: people ride it.

      1. I’ve ridden the Portland streetcar system a number of times, and it is far preferable (anecdotally, of course) to the experience I’ve had on SLUT, and what I’m hoping isn’t the reality of the First Hill line (coming this fall, apparently). I’ve ridden a number of streetcar systems in Europe, mostly in Ireland and France, and have usually enjoyed a speedy ride on a comfortable(ish) vehicle, sometimes even in mixed traffic.

        I wonder if our criticism is/should be limited to the investments we’ve made here in Seattle, rather than directed at an entire mode that has proven itself worthy in other parts of the world.

      2. The South Lake Union and First Hill Streetcars are, frankly, two of the worst streetcar implementations I have seen in my life. So yeah, by all means, criticize the mess Seattle made of streetcar implementation.

        The good news is that both routes could largely be fixed with some exclusive lanes, some signal priority, and a station relocation on the First Hill Streetcar to the vicinity of 4th Avenue. (Nothing much can be done about the crazy 14th Avenue detour on the First Hill Streetcar, sadly.)

    2. There are no tricks you can use to make inferior buses as popular as superior rail.

      What you can do, is to make sure you don’t half-ass your rail. As long as you’re laying tracks, running trolley wire, and buying streetcars, for God’s sake *give it an exclusive lane and signal priority*. Whee, suddenly your streetcar is more efficient to operate than the buses.

      1. People will gladly flock to bus services, when those bus services are superior for the particular trips they are taking.

        As in Paris, where hundred upon hundreds of bus lanes, along with vehicles designed for minimum dwell times and maximum efficiency, make this well-integrated part of the transport network equally as popular as the copious Métro trains running below.

        But I guess you’ll just have to insist on your own facts, Nathanael, like the Fox News troll you’ve lately become, because Amtrak won’t take you to Pairs.

    1. I appreciate how this matter is addressed in the third and fourth paragraphs of the anonymous linked letter:

      It seems to me that it’s easy to romanticize slow transit if you don’t have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many “streetcar tourists” use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and ‘go slow,’ as it were.

      But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don’t have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler.

      And will there be any remaining point to tourism, if every once-unique, dynamic city insists on chasing the same checklist of sanitized and hokey and prefabricated bullshit attractions? Lately, the sole focus of tourism consultants seems to be on facilitating suburbanites (from anywhere) in visiting the concept of a city (which could be anywhere). When our dumb streetcars have dumb analogues in Columbus and Atlanta and Tucson and everywhere else, exactly whom will they impress?

      1. If the SLUT is so slow and impractical as to be slower than walking, then why are they packed often and why don’t buses that also transit SLU pick up many passengers there? There must be some value in those lines such as predictable frequent schedules, stability and comfort not found on buses.

      2. That is spot on. For all the work Seattle and King County have done to create an all-day, gridded network, I still hesitate to take transit when my trip will involve more than one destination.

      3. I have still, to this day, yet to see a non-rush-hour trip on the SLUT with more than 9 or 10 passengers on it (and sometimes fewer).

        The 40 is just as frequent, and often standing room only. Each of the 70’s Fairview stops is busy.

        And the streetcar only feels “packed” at rush hour because it takes only a couple of dozen people to “pack” it. Thing isn’t particularly big.

      4. Last weekend, downtown was positively overflowing with Seafair visitors, and the shores of Lake Union were packed with sun worshipers. The SLUT was one of the few routes that could be accessed without crossing the parade gauntlet.

        …And the thing was still totally freaking empty the two times I used it. (One of those times, I had walked from MOHAI to Denny before it caught up.)

        Where, exactly, are these mythical crowds that have supposedly taken to the SLUT like ducks to water? They certainly haven’t shown up in the 2,600 one-way-boarding statistic at which the line seems to have plateaued (cumulatively equivalent to a single lackluster, out-of-the-way subway stop in any city with fully functioning transit).

      5. FWIW, Ferris Wheels, despite being very common now, are not the same in every city because they’re a *view the city* attraction, and each city looks different from above.

      6. Ours sits at the bottom of a cliff that is higher than its axle. You can find better views from many publicly accessible 2nd-story windows.

        So nope, ours is just an off-the-shelf tourist trap.

  6. Bruce, I generally agree with you and I wouldn’t propose any new streetcars along Eastlake, Westlake, or wherever. I’d rather us make our (soon to be brand new) trolley fleet perform up to its best abilities while spending any significant capital money on either bus improvements or more Link.

    But given that we’ve built the First Hill and SLU lines, and that both have the worst-of-all-worlds design (no signal priority, mixed traffic, and low frequency), I see the Center City Connector as a project that maybe, just maybe, could salvage the other two lines into something resembling useful transit. In a best-case scenario, building exclusive ROW would force us to retrofit the SLU and First Hill tails to higher standards. In a worst case, the mixed-traffic tails will cause massive peak bunching and make a mockery and waste of 1st’s exclusive ROW.

    If this project is mostly paid for by the Feds and makes two bad streetcar lines into two average streetcar lines, is that worth it? Or is that still sunk-costs thinking?

    1. Completely agree. Might as well now. The system is too disconnected and confusing (to visitors) otherwise.

    2. “In a best-case scenario, building exclusive ROW would force us to retrofit the SLU and First Hill tails to higher standards.”

      From your words to City Hall’s ears , etc.

  7. In my view, the primary benefits of the streetcar mode are extra capacity and simplicity. Streetcars carry more people, and the CCC will be useful because we will need capacity on the surface even with light rail trains running underground a few blocks away. Remember – this line will be most useful for connecting people in Little Saigon, Chinatown, and SLU to downtown destinations.

    Simplicity matters too; for people that don’t use transit every day or aren’t familiar with Seattle buses, the CCC will be a great option. I think this means not only tourists, but other area residents visiting the central city for recreation. It will be well used, and it will take the pressure off the rest of the system.

    When streetcars are separated from traffic, they will be much quicker than walking. As for the CCC, if the headways are short enough riders on the 1st Avenue corridor will find it more convenient than going to 3rd or the DSTT. This won’t only poach riders from other modes; it will generate new ridership.

    I’m personally looking forward to the inevitable demand for reliability improvements on the SLU segment of the line.

    Sure – you could make similar reliability improvements for buses. But, we’re probably not going to get $75 million in federal money for buses. We can probably get it for the streetcar. Wise federal policy or not, it’s a good deal for the city.

    1. I got a flat tire (on my bike) in Belltown yesterday, and had to take a bus down to Pioneer Square to get to a bike shop I knew would be open. Standing at a bus stop with my bike, I wished it was clear and easy to figure out which of the many buses would get me close to my destination without having to quiz each driver (a huge hassle if you’re holding a bike that needs to go on the front). This is the kind of trip that the CCC would make way easier. I would have one best way to get from one end of downtown to the other, and I would know exactly where it went.

      I also had time to meditate on this: any bus rider know that buses slow way down through downtown. My hope is that the CCC will speed up buses through downtown by taking a bunch of those intradowntown trips off of bus routes, which would be a big help to regular riders in speed and reliability.

      This is not to comment on overall streetcar vs. bus arguments, but on the particular usefulness of the CCC in Seattle.

  8. I have very limited time, so I’m just going to bang this out quick.

    Streetcars are superior to buses simply because riders are fickle, emotional people, and the experience of riding a bus, especially a KC Metro bus, is uncomfortable and unenjoyable. A large segment of the population, upper-class professionals especially, simply refuse to ride a bus. Any bus.

    If you were to replace the SLUT with a bus tomorrow, at double the frequency, everyone would get everywhere faster, but over 50% of the ridership would evaporate overnight, as would 100% of the financial support of the local businesses.

    This I truly believe.

    1. You’re probably right about losing some riders with a bus.

      However, with Metro and other agencies having constant budget problems, and farebox recovery never planned to reach 100%, should increased ridership necessarily be a top priority right now? Each additional rider you buy by converting a bus line to a streetcar actually costs more money in the long run due to operating costs, all without getting anyone anywhere any faster than today. That is insanity! Why would we prioritize a few additional riders with irrational hatred for buses over actually improving service for the tens of thousands of people who already use transit?

      1. Are our streetcar operating costs actually higher than a similar-length bus route? I understand without a doubt that the capital costs are higher, but operating costs should, by all rights, be lower. The vehicles require less maintenance and have depreciate much slower than buses, fuel costs are negligible, the operators receive similar wages and benefits, etc. Everything about day-to-day operations should cost the same or cheaper than a bus. The one place we may be losing out, financially, is by having a completely separate O&M base just to serve 4 vehicles. That’s the least efficient part of the whole setup, and I should hope that’ll improve as the system is expanded.

        If our streetcars have a significantly higher operating cost than a comparable bus route, then we as a region have made some fundamental mistake in how we’ve set this system up.

      2. I don’t have data on operating cost for streetcars vs. buses. There are lots of variables. As you say, the operators are paid the same. Electricity might be cheaper than diesel. Plenty of other things are harder for me to quantify, such as fare enforcement officials, maintenance costs, storage costs, depreciation of vehicles (does that even count as operating cost, or is that part of the capital budget, and why do we care so much about separating these quantities?), etc.

        Regardless, my point was that since farebox recovery is less than 100%, additional riders cost the system money. One new rider can be a positive for the system’s finances, since they can just sit in the existing vehicle and pay a fare, but a thousand new riders might mean you have to add more vehicles, which imposes more costs on the agency. If one of the main “benefits” of a new streetcar is additional riders, I question whether we should necessarily view that as a clear benefit at all, given that budgets are tight and new riders are likely to actually hurt the budget.

        Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of reasons why more transit users are a good thing for the city, the environment, and all that. It’s just that the money isn’t there to support many more riders. We can’t even run the routes we have right now! So getting more riders should really be the last thing on our minds until we get the funding to support them. Instead let’s focus on making what we have more efficient. Once the folks in Olympia decide to let us tax ourselves at a level that can support transit service that everyone rides, then we should do things to increase ridership. Not before.

      3. We have the streetcars already. Attracting riders to the streetcar costs almost nothing, but adds to the fare recovery ratio. Extending the streetcar system with the CCC should increase the operating efficiency, espectially since the separate O&M bases can be consolidated. It’s a useful addition for that reason alone, but I expect the both the SLUT and FHSC will be more attractive with the extensions. They should attract more riders at the expense of a longer cycle time. Hopefully, that will add to the cost recovery.

      4. Those cost per passenger figures are the average cost per passenger. But the marginal cost will be much lower. The first passenger on a bus will have a cost of $100, but each additional passenger won’t cost that much more. A bit extra fuel and that’s it. So expanding ridership by 10% could easily bring in more revenue than the cost.

      5. Eric: you’re doing bad math. Many of the costs of a public transit system are fixed costs, not variable. This is even more true for rail systems. There are huge economies of scale.

        The cost of adding a rider to a bus which isn’t full is $0. Adding riders nearly always improves farebox recovery.

        Once you understand the economies of scale, you understand that the *incremental* value of an added passenger is almost always positive.

      6. Other implications of the economies of scale:

        (1) It’s cheaper to run one long train than several short trains. (Operator costs.)
        (2) It’s cheaper to run one train or bus route more frequently, rather than several separate routes less frequently. (Station/stop costs, peak usage issues.)

        In short, if you want an efficient system, what you want to abandon is coverage: stop serving outlying areas with infrequent routes. Those are the real money drains.

        Many transit agencies actually have *separate ridership standards* for different types of routes because using a single set of standards would immediately truncate all the rural routes and keep only the downtown routes.

  9. The streetcar fad boggles my mind. I’m actually okay with putting money into surface light rail lines, but what seems to happen here, and other cities spending money on streetcars, is that we spend almost as much as a European city would per mile. But they get a dedicated line with signal priority that is clear of all traffic and run larger vehicles on it. Plus they often get an improved streetscape in the process. So let’s stop building mixed-traffic streetcars, and put that money into European style light rail lines on routes that we know will long term be a compliment to the slow to build subway/elevated lines we want to see.

    1. I haven’t had any problems with the rails for either the SLUT or the First Hill Streetcar. But then I know how to ride my bike across rails and I run fairly wide tires on my bike.

  10. Average speed, Portland Streetcar: 5.7 miles per hour
    Daily ridership: around 6,000

    Average speed, Strasbourg Tram: 15 miles per hour
    Daily ridership: around 120,000

    The changes don’t need to be huge or vastly expensive to get into the 15 mph range. We are not talking about a new tunnel. They just need to have a positive impact.

    1. Portland’s streetcar has way too many stops; the FHSC has done a better job with the number of stops. The Portland streetcar also has a problem with the platform placement (right up next to the intersection forcing the streetcar to wait an extra light cycle or 2 before doors can be opened). And the FHSC streetcar has copied that problem in too many spots. Frequencies on both lines are less than ideal, although the Portland streetcar does seem to get good ridership, particularly on the Pearl District segment. Ridership on the other side of the river isn’t as good, but the expected construction and density boom hasn’t really appeared. I expect the FHSC will achieve a higher running speed than the Portland streetcar, but the ridership may be lower because of its less-than-ideal routing.

      1. NS line on Portland Streetcar carries 14,000/day. Its a very successful line, i feel like it works in its configuration and used it everyday when i lived in Portland. The CL, SLU FHS on the other hand seem poorly designed largely in my opinion that they run on major busy streets. NS line manages to run on streets that are much less congested and not as major streets. If mixed traffic streetcars are built they need to be on streets like those of NS, not like those of CL, SLUT, FHS.

  11. In the past I gave the waterfront streetcar a bit of a pass because it used old cars and was largely a tourist attraction, but the SLU streetcar replicates many of its problems. It’s quite slow, infrequent, and expensive for the travel distance.

    As a general transit fan I didn’t wholly believe criticism of the SLU streetcar until I actually rode it a couple times. Even if I worked in one of the buildings adjacent I can’t imagine ever actually waiting for it. Even with a free pass I’d probably walk instead most of the time.

    I do think some relatively minor changes could rescue the service. Close off its lane to traffic and give the streetcar signal priority at all the cross streets.

    1. The Waterfront streetcar appears to have had substantial stretches of exclusive right-of-way, where the SLU and First Hill streetcars don’t. To this I can only say: aaarrrggghhh!

      1. Shame that it was single-track and didn’t go anywhere, huh?

        (Oh, I forgot, usefulness is irrelevant. Rail is an end unto itself. We have always been at war with Eastasia.)

  12. Without a doubt we should be building more right of way that is exclusively for transit use if we want to continue to grow transit use. And without a doubt, most of the streetcar construction that has been done in Seattle to date is lacking in that right of way, as is almost all of our bus service. It boggles the mind that SDOT won’t fix the problem on Fairview that delays the SLU line every afternoon. Some point to Make the streetcar tracks reserved until much closer to the intersection with Valley ought to do it, without reducing auto capacity of the intersection.

    But, let’s keep the following in mind:

    The Germans have done studies where streetcar lines were replaced with buses which operated at the same frequency, on the same routing, with the same stops and on a similar timetable. The result was 50% loss in ridership. And similar growth when the substitution is made in the other direction. Some transit nerds may not like to accept that a functionally equivalent transportation service results in different ridership, and you can characterize it as an emotional and irrational response if you want, but there are people who will ride a rail vehicle who will not ride a bus. Whether it is because they think buses are low class or uncomfortable or unsure where they will go. In any event, getting more people to use transit can positively influence development and perhaps also generate more political support for transit funding.

    If the rail service does generate higher ridership, an additional advantage is that it you can get much higher capacity for an equivalent operating cost.

    The other argument to make is that often bus is proposed instead of rail because of lower capital costs – but those lower capital costs are just another excuse for no exclusive right of way. It seems to be easier to get exclusive right of way for rail projects – and as I understand the First Ave proposal that would include mostly exclusive right of way. Certainly the Seattle area has built or redesignated close to zero exclusive lanes for the 6 Rapid Ride lines.

    Having said that, the streetcar we’ve built to date is hardly worth the investment. Perhaps First Ave with reserved right of way can be an example of how to do it right.

    1. I totally get the rail bias. I’m not one of those people who won’t ride a bus – they are a necessity. But I actually look forward to riding a train. And, sometimes being able to ride a train as opposed to a bus makes a difference when I’m making plans. (I’d never been to Columbia City or Othello before light rail; now they’re both one of my favorite Seattle neighborhoods.)

    2. @Carl: Do you have a link or authors for the German studies you cite? I’m really curious to read them. This study, with respondents answering about preference between hypothetical, equivalent bus and “regional train” systems was interesting. Even when told that these hypothetical systems are identical, the most common reason the Swiss would prefer a train is reliability. In Germany, there was not much distinction on reliability, but people largely mention the density of stops as a reason to prefer buses. Interestingly, some (fewer) Germans cited the density of stops as a reason AGAINST buses. Link here: http://reconnectingamerica.org/assets/Uploads/20120409JPT15.1Scherer.pdf

      1. I’ve tried to find a link but not been able to. I read articles about the studies in German language newspaper a few years ago The study may not be translated and I don’t know if I have the right terminology or search engine to find it.

        In most German cities as well as Scandinavia city bus routes and streetcar routes have similar stop spacing, and in fact if there are overlapping segments often stop at the same stops, so stop density really doesn’t vary. Stops tend to be further apart than in USA and also tend to have a little more infrastructure investment (more visible signage, route map and time table, etc.)

        Regional trains and subways have greater stop spacing, although even then they generally wouldn’t have a shadowing bus line. They wouldn’t do something like we’ve done down MLK with Link and the 8 on the some route. They might infill one more Link station and then that would be all the service. In fact some out-of-city-center streetcar routes resemble Link through the Rainier Valley.

    3. I suspect a large part of the difference in popularity relates to motion sickness. A fairly large percentage of the population gets motion sick on buses but does NOT get motion sick on trains — including me.

      That’s a big deal.

      1. A smaller percentage of the population is going to get motion sickness on a bus than in a private automobile. Because while buses may be more easily “jarred” by road variations, they ebbing and swaying movements are proportionally far, far less.

        So given that the private automobile remains the near-universal default for trips in North America, and given that most of the continent’s vehicles are not constantly filled to the brim with vomit, I’m going to classify this as “not a real, statistically valid problem”.

        I feel genuinely sad for you that your insistence on rail-as-answer-to-all-of-life’s-problems has led you to psychosomatically invent an affliction that will wind up needlessly limiting your mobility.

  13. Take a 40 from Westlake to SLU Park and the SLUT the other direction so they’re on the same corridor. Usually, the bus flies though SLU while the streetcar bumbles along.

    1. Hmm… I don’t know about that one. I’m on the 40 right now. Literally sitting here as it bumps along. I ride both the SLUT and the 40 and if I had to choose between the two to get from Westlake Center to SLU Park I’d definitely pick the streetcar. It’snot really about mode, although I do enjoy the smoothness of the streetcar. It’s more about routing… The 40 seems to get stuck for long times behind lines of buses waiting to make left turns. I’ve been stuck on the 40 waiting for a left in Belltown for over ten minutes before. It’s infuriating. It’s not usually that bad but it’s usually bad enough that I prefer the streetcar.

    2. Like every other bus in Seattle, the 40 has its hitches on the crucial last mile into or out of downtown.

      But if the 40 habitually took the same 9-to-11 minutes from Stewart to Valley that the streetcar does, I would probably have to blow my head off.

      Despite Metro’s excessive schedule padding (overcompensating for bridge openings and Mercer Messes, which frequently causes 40s to arrive 7 minutes early even if they left prior timepoints late), the 40 positively sails down 9th or up Westlake.

      Did you know that the 17 used to follow the streetcar’s route exactly, all the way to Stewart? It turns out that waiting for every light on a grid-bucking street is really slow! And when you’re a lumbering choo-choo, more likely to miss those lights, it gets even slower. (Sorry, the streetcar’s mythical “acceleration” is nonexistent.)

    3. Er, the fare is $2.50, so if you have a one-zone peak pass as most commuters do, it covers it. Metro’s off-peak fare is going up to $2.50 soon, I think at the end of the year, which may be before the First Hill line opens. So the fares may be equal by the time the readers go into production unless the streetcar fare is raised too.

    4. Best I can tell, the Seattle Streetcar is intended to be pegged to Metro’s peak fare, under Metro’s current surcharge structure. Meaning it would be $2.75 by next year.

      I don’t know what would happen if Metro decided not to raise the base fare, but rather to mess with the price of expresses, or institute a cash surcharge. (Because $2.50 is too goddamned high for bottom-of-the-barrel bus service too.)

      Currently, my off-peak monthly pass will get me anywhere within the city proper at most times of the day, including on the subway. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow it to deduct a one extra red cent to crawl half a mile to my final destination on the streetcar.

      People with employer-covered passes will still take the SLUT or the FHSC, should it happen to amble along when they need it. Off-peak passholders and pay-per-riders are either going to fare dodge, or fucking walk. That price for that crap is criminal.

  14. Amongst the things that buses could theoretically get right but don’t, don’t forget proper foundation. Why do we run buses on asphalt? It’s clearly not strong enough. At least with street cars we can hope to get proper track. Even when we make proper concrete for the buses, it still does that funny drop after each slab as it ages.

    That proposed U line has some superfluous stops on Eastlake.

    Part of why I like street cars is the electric power. I support building more street car, but I also support more trolley buses for the same reason. I really dislike vehicle emissions. Large diesels tend to be the worst offenders.

    1. If you build concrete streets for buses (as some places have done), you find that it starts getting as expensive or more expensive than laying tracks for trains.

  15. Back to the Montlake mess, with the Montlake Link station opening in 2016 has anyone addressed the question of what busses will call on that station, and the daily effect that the huge southbound backup on Montlake will do for service?

    It would be worth a discussion to see if the city could work with the UW to use the roadway east of Montlake for a bus-only corridor. (A bit of a pinch at Hec Ed but it would end around there anyway) When 2016 comes around that’s the Link station I would use the most…except…how will I get to it and would I be subject to Montlake traffic?

    1. The planned interface between buses and Link at the UW Husky station leaves a lot to be desired. That, coupled with the congestion and unpredictability of bridge openings will make it hard to impossible to truncate SR-520 bus routes at UW Husky without a serious deterioration of service and travel times. In addition there isn’t much viable layover space, so there probably won’t be sufficient operating savings.

      The intention is for buses to use stops similar to what the 43, 48 and 271 use on either side of Pacific St. That means if you were to transfer from Link to a bus headed to the Eastside, you need to cross both Montlake Blvd (aerial bridge available) and then Pacific St. Not a very good scenario.

      The transfer could have been enhanced if either there were bus stops and appropriate roads built in the parking lot above the Link station (a bit of a transit center, could be where the 44 terminates, would probably increase some travel times.) Or else, instead of an aerial bridge, which requires two more level changes, there had been a corridor from the station mezzanine extending under Montlake Blvd with exits on the west side of Montlake Blvd. I assume this wasn’t done to save money, but it makes the bus transfers much more awkward. It seems like they made questionable tradeoffs or deprioritized the bus transfers at this station.

      1. I sure hope it isn’t too late to spend the money to get this right. The vast majority of riders will be going to the hospital or the campus, both of which are on other side of the stadium. In general it is stupid to serve the stadium (since there are only events there a dozen times a year) but it makes for a good station name (rather than southeast UW). The main reason the stop is there because of everything next to it (the hospital and campus). I think there should be three exits from the mezzanine, on the outer sides of the triangle (by the hospital, by the Burke Gilman and the existing exit).

    2. We’ve been waiting to hear from Metro, but it’s now only 1 1/2 years away and Metro is preoccupied with cuts through next year. So it may not have time to address Montlake and Capitol Hill before Link opens, in which case it would be just more status quo.

  16. So far, most of the criticism talks of how bad it is for ridership for these lines to be so slow.

    It is also terrible for costs due to the per hour labor costs of the driver.

  17. Several years ago when the SLU line was being designed, I had a conversation with the project manager, who agreed that the operational costs of streetcars was likely to be less than that of a bus, over the long haul.

    1. Several years ago when the Windows Phone was being designed, I had a conversation with the project manager, who agreed that the Windows Phone was likely to eat Android and iPhone’s combined market share for lunch, over the long haul.

      1. Portland rail is substantially cheaper to run than buses. I would have to do some digging on breakdowns but subsidies are coming in a lot lower for rail.

      2. And MAX, for all its many flaws, serves a significant portion of TriMet’s radial trunk travel. Thus it (appropriately) leverages the operational efficiencies inherent in its form, with the corollary perk of looking healthier on paper than buses that have to serve as feeders.


        Per-passenger operating subsidies for the Portland Streetcar, despite its tiny coverage area, are about twice the subsidies for MAX (system-wide). And they are only slightly lower than subsidies of the entire gridded “high frequency” bus network that extends across much of Portland proper.

        There is no doubt that if you isolate Portland’s best trunk bus routes — say, the Hawthorne route or anything to East Burnside — you will find significantly lower per-passenger subsidies than the streetcar. Comparing subsidies just over the area where buses zip people across the Willamette in 60 seconds (while the streetcar spends 25 minutes going the long way) would show an even more hilarious disparity.

        Even better, compare subsidies for the cross-town bus that runs on Grand and MLK (but which, unlike the streetcar running in-lane with it, actually goes places) with the subsidy for the total-ghost-town loop streetcar.

    2. There is no reason the operational costs for a streetcar line to be higher than a bus. By all rights it should be lower; they are cheaper vehicles to operate.

      If they are NOT lower, then we have screwed up fundamentally somewhere.

      1. Economies of scale: we have entire maintenance facilities, among other fixed expenses, for a handful of vehicles.

        A train will be cheaper to operate only if it is busy. Our streetcars, despite ever so much hand-waving to the contrary, are not busy.

      2. Regarding economies of scale…

        There’s no real difference between a “light rail vehicle” and a “streetcar”, despite endless bloviation in Seattle and Portland.

        Accordingly, in Denver, when they are considering “streetcar” construction, they immediately talk about using light rail vehicles identical to the ones in their light rail system, but fewer of them. One-car trains instead of three-car trains.

        Somehow, Seattle instead has ended up with a set of “streetcars” which are completely separate from Link Light Rail and can’t be maintained at the same base… which don’t even run on the same overhead wire voltage… and now, which have two SEPARATE bases for two different streetcar segments. (Neither of which is the base used for the Waterfront Streetcar.)

        Um, huh, guys, how did you manage to do that? Most places make some effort to have economies of scale, while Seattle seems to have made special effort to not have economies of scale.

    1. Thanks for posting transit news on STB! I’m all for analysis and debate. But I don’t get why STB is publishing articles against a particular MODE of transit.

      Seattle needs it all! Plus it needs smarter land use policies to make the transit investment pay off.

      Rather than dividing the community, STB could be a huge catalyst for this sort of positive change.

  18. I think it is interesting that people like the idea of streetcars because they are permanent. Well, sorry if I don’t think that is a bonus. Cities change, and their transit system should change with it, if possible. Obviously there are big, important transit investments that are essentially permanent. But hopefully they provide a lot more service than a streetcar. With a streetcar, you get marginal benefit, with little flexibility.

    The existing line is a good example of this. If you look at the street grid, you’ll notice that Westlake, south of Denny, is an usual street. It cuts right across the grid (a grid that changes every few blocks, but that is a different story). A strong case can be made for simply doing away with Westlake south of Denny. Turn each street section into a park or public walkway. Traffic would flow more smoothly, and people get a little public, inner city park space out of it. But you can’t do that, because we have already invested millions on a streetcar, a streetcar that isn’t especially fast or useful, but not cheap, either. I’m not sure if such a plan makes sense or not, but I think it is bad that we have tied our hands in that regard. I guess I’m glad that we didn’t build a streetcar on Broad Street, otherwise we would be spending millions moving it.

    1. Moving a streetcar is small potatoes compared to decommissioning a major thoroughfare and widening other roads to compensate. If Broad Street had had a streetcar, we could either move it or leave two small streetcar lanes for it.

    2. There are a lot of sound arguments to be made against streetcars. This is not one of them.

    3. So close Westlake to cars and convert it to exclusive right-of-way for the streetcar, with crossing arms at the intersections. Doesn’t seem so hard, and it would sure improve the speed of the streetcar. ;-)

      1. Thing comes four times an hour. Very few people ride it.

        Giving it its own 120-foot-wide grid-disrupting right-of-way and “crossing arms” is not an idea that suggests a passing acquaintance with reality.

  19. This post ignores the fact that not everyone thinks the same way Bruce does about Transit. Businesses (SLU LID paid for half of SLUS construction costs, 1/3rd of peak operating costs, and Amazon is now buying an extra vehicle so it can run more frequently), voters (First Hill Streetcar was part of ST2) and the Federal Government (the majority of Center City Connector will be paid for by the Feds) all prioritize streetcars over buses.

    Wail and gnash your teeth all you want, but them’s the facts. Streetcars bring outside money to transit, they don’t take it away.You’re better off trying to make sure they are useful as possible instead of howling about how theoretical buses could be just as good.

    1. Buses burn fossil fuels, street cars use electricity which in this area is 99.9% GHG free. ETB’s are expensive to implement and suffer the same deficiencies that buses do.

      I would not object to buses so much if they started converting to either battery operated of some form of fuel cell (not as efficient).

    2. Still loving how a line plateaus at 2,600 one-way boardings — many of them hop-ons by people who were already halfway there on foot — and might kinda-sorta be just busy enough to be worth running 6 tiny trams an hour for two hours per day… and suddenly boosters act like the development visionaries hit a transit home run

      Again, that’s a mediocre, fringe station on an established transit system. SLUT usage is a 4-ball walk at best.

    3. Seattle City Light is carbon neutral, but other area utilities aren’t even close (PSE and Avista both lean heavily on Natural Gas and Coal) SCL sells surplus power which likely offsets more carbon intensive power sources.

      Don’t kid yourself, your power may be green but using it means it isn’t available for PSE to purchase when my solar panels and PSE’s wind farms aren’t producing which leaves this.

      That’s not a reason to avoid converting our transportation fuels to electricity, but you need to understand that your use of “green” power likely results in coal or natural gas being used elsewhere.

      1. A Carbon Tax can’t come soon enough! PSE needs to be incentivised to retire their investment in that out of state plant.

      2. Actually, it probably doesn’t.

        Two utility companies in different states have recently determined that new utility-scale solar is cheaper than expanding coal, oil, or natural gas.

        Use renewable power and watch it expand. (Don’t use it as an excuse to be wasteful, of course.)

    1. Wow, way to compare a comically small trolley to an (even more comically) smaller bus, Beyond DC!

      Of course, the buses actually being slowed down by the DC trolley are 60-foot articulateds, nothing like the dumpy little downtown circulator buses, and no smaller than the trolleys slowing them down.

      1. Actually:
        (1) Lots of DC buses are normal 40 foot buses, not articulateds;
        (2) The DC streetcars are six feet longer than the DC 60 foot articulated buses;
        (3) DC articulated buses hold 94 people each; the DC streetcars hold 157.

        The DC streetcars are, however, six inches *narrower* than the buses.

        They’re still making a terrible mistake with mixed-traffic operation, but yes, the DC streetcars are much higher capacity thant he DC buses.

      2. (1) The bus line in question is one of the busiest in the city, and I would be shocked if it ever ran 40-footers.
        (2) These are the same streetcars as in Portland/Seattle. That extra length is just the dual cabs. Not impressed.
        (3) Again, I’ve been on these. The interior circulation is pretty good, but they’re not inherently htat spacious. 157 people would be Tokyo-level crush loading.

        Arrange the seats on DC’s 60-foot buses in the NYC style, and the comfortable capacity becomes higher than on these streetcars. Which is good, because X2 buses go places people actually need to go, while the streetcar does not

      3. Hey, Nathanael.

        As it so happens, I was on the streetcar just now. Identical to those pictured in the false-baseline DC comparison.

        I counted: the seating capacity of the thing is 29.

        Yes, 29.

        I’m as much of a fan as you are of open floor plans, to create lots of standing/passing room (no matter the mode). But the idea of 128 people standing (mostly in the middle third) on that tiny-ass toy choo-choo — that was your capacity claim — is just fucking laughable. The total space is tiny, the cab-side doors are tiny, the articulated pass-throughs are tiny. The stair wells are tiny. The thing is simply tiny.

        On the other hand, 150+ people on open-plan articulated NYC buses is actually quite common.

        Your “inherently higher capacity” train claim is simply a lie.

  20. Does the ccc actually have money to be built? Seems lime its more about doing something with free federal $ than it is about really improving transit in the city.

    In my opinion before we spend any money on any kind or rail all buses in the city should have signal priority and a payment system that do

    1. … Doesnt delay the departure of the bus. A grid based transit system would also do wonders for productivity. Its a shame that metro has not produced a transit package that would accomplish this…

    2. No. The only thing the city has done is selected the routing (called a “preferred alternative” in EIS terminology). It hasn’t come up with a financing plan yet, or said when it would be built, or how it would be prioritized compared to other transit projects. The main reason for choosing the preferred alternative now is it’s a prerequisite for applying for grants. The main impetus for a streetcar was ex mayor McGinn, who is now ex. Now it’s simply progressing forward, and it’s unclear how much the current council and mayor will prioritize it compared to other projects (Madison BRT, 23rd trolley wires, bus lanes anywhere, compensating for Metro’s cuts, etc).

      1. If they manage to get a Small Starts grant, it will move forward. The way is cleared to apply for the grant.

  21. Streetcars are beautiful landscaping. And I’m okay with that. They transform a city into something more beautiful with a new option to get around. It’s why business interests pushed for and largely funded the Portland Streetcar. It’s why business interests pushed for and help fund the SLUT. As a result, more people are living and working in downtown Portland and in SLU. Remember to think about the picture. Transit amd transportation generally is about how we use the public’s largest amount of space (our roadways) to grow as cities and as a region. I want to create a city where people live in the same neighborhood as the work, more than I want to encourage sprawl-type behaviors of people commuting in from other neighborhoods and cities. And like it or not, a regional BRT and light rail are effectively a sprawl-type vehicles. The first suburbs, both in America and in Seattle, were built with the extension of transit service. So, if you care about truly creating a great city and a vibrant downtown, I suggest investing a little more into the transportation modes that encourage great placemaking. Streetcars need to be in the mix for that.

    Also, if you’ve ever been to Denver’s 16th Street Mall, you’ll know how buses have a way of making what is otherwise an amazing public place feel second-rate.

    1. I’ll second this view. The original poster and others here are missing just how many residential units are being built in SLU, along the waterfront, ID, Yesler, First Hill and Capitol Hill. There are already 10s of thousands living along the combined CCC, SLU and First Hill streetcar lines. A recent PSBJ article summarized almost 1k new units are starting construction across a half dozen projects on the waterfront, and SLU may have the most concentrated residential building boom in the nation with likely 10k units added in next 5 years.

      Add to this the number of hotels, tourist attractions, shopping and offices along the route.

      Yes, the city is in need of rapid transit between the central core and far flung neighborhoods. But we should not ignore another piece of the overall transit solution, which is moving people about once they’re in the core. An effective streetcar circulates people within the core, and will enable people living in the core downtown neighborhoods to more effectively live without a private automobile, while also enabling outer neighborhoods residents coming in on rapid transit to comfortably have left their cars behind in their outer neighborhood garages while circulating around multiple destinations in the core.

      In short, the streetcar is a transportation solution. Just maybe not yet understood by outer neighborhood dwelling posters who cannot self identify with core city residents.

      1. Ridership stats on SLUT?

        And why are there still so many cars owned by these “10s of thousands” or residents?

      2. Hate it when Bailo gets something right. Thousands of new residents in SLU, tens of thousands of new jobs, flagship offices, countless meetings to get to, multiple event spaces, destination restaurants…

        …and only 1,300 round-trip equivalents on the streetcar on its very best days. Mostly taken by people who were already planning to walk when the trolley rumbled along.

        It’s isn’t even a blip on the modeshare seismograph.

        Get it through your heads, Habitual Causation Abusers, that the trolley did not “make this place”. SLU was the product of an infinite-pocketed developer determined to turn his properties into the new hotness. The buildings, the flagship tenants, the streetscapes, the park on the water’s edge? All these things would look exactly the same even in the absence of your “iconic” underused streetcar.

        Portland’s Pearl District would look much the same, too, given its good preexisting urban bones, plethora of reclaimable pre-modern buildings, and walkable proximity to Central Portland.

        But the speculative investment that is the Portland South Waterfront? Placeless and undersld, regardless of its streetcars and aerial trams.

        MLK below the Morrison Bridge? There are a few hidden gems down there… the same hidden gems that existed before the streetcar arrived via a 3-mile tour of public storage facilities and ’70s convention-hotel parking lots. It sure ain’t the Pearl.

        And don’t get me started on whatever the hell this is.

        Streetcars do not “make places”.

      3. I agree with d. p. The idea that a streetcar made South Lake Union popular is laughable. There are plenty of places in Seattle that have boomed without streetcars. Did streetcars make Ballard or Fremont popular? What about other areas east and west of the streetcar (e. g. Cascade) ? How did a streetcar, which provides no transportation benefit whatsoever to those areas, cause them to be so popular.

        If you look at a map, it should be pretty obvious why the South Lake Union area is booming It is flat, it extends from downtown in the direction of the UW, and it is next to a very pretty lake. Add a little cash (from Paul Allen) and it is obvious why it became so popular. Maybe Paul Allen and his buddies (and he probably has some very highly paid buddies) figured this out years ago, which is why none of this is a shock to them. They knew this area would be successful, whether they built a park — sorry, streetcar — or not.

      4. Applaud D.P. for his excellent deflection using a classic anti-transit of any mode argument: “causation.”

        The placemaking point is not about whether philosophically population density leads to transit or transit should lead population density. Chickens lay eggs, and eggs grow into chickens too.

        Arguing against investing in infrastructure because the density already exists without it applies equally to any transit mode. Seattle exists already, ergo no need to pour a single foot more of roadway, lay another rail, buy another bus, or hire another driver.

        The placemaking point is about creating neighborhood character, not about inciting development. The development is already there.

        The placemaking point is that streetcars have characteristics suited to cultivating a particular high density city center neighborhood character, which other modes seem to fail at. In particular, consider the “bus mall” like 3rd Ave. The only street character businesses that appear (to this observer) to thrive facing onto 3rd Ave are drug stores, cigarette stores, McDonalds and convenience stores. Others like sidewalk cafes, restaurants, boutiques that thrive with foot traffic seem to have fled 3rd Ave. (Possible exception being Gelatiamo, which is favorably placed on a corner of a block not near any bus stop.) As a pedestrian, 3rd Ave is particularly unpleasant to walk along, with throngs of people bunching on sidewalks around bus stops, and clouds of cigarette (or other types) of smoke of smoking bus loiterers to wade through. When walking N/S in downtown I switch to a parallel Ave whenever possible.

        Portland’s bus mall of the 80s-90s on 4th/5th avenue was similar. Loud, diesel spewing buses just are not desirable to be around for pedestrians, such that they move to parallel streets and the pedestrian-character businesses move away with them. More recently, these streets were switched from bus mall to light rail, which is place making friendly such that pedestrian character business is returning.

        In short, this anti-transit causation argument misconstrues the placemaking point.

      5. @Steve: Your argument here is against buses, not for streetcars. It would be wine and roses if we could replace all the loud diesel buses on 3rd Ave with quiet electric streetcars. But we can’t even replace the much smaller number of loud diesel buses on the SLU and First Hill routes. As the streetcars routes are designed we’ll need all the bus routes we had before, because the streetcars currently planned are merely expensive circulators that don’t take over the necessary, popular corridors those bus routes serve. This is even true for the CCC.

        The situation on the bus mall in Portland is a little different — they’re running regional light rail at-grade, not just circulators. Since they’re serving their necessary, popular transit corridors with the trains they don’t have to send so many buses through.

      6. A couple of things about rail bias: yes, it is real, but is the only way to deal with it to give in? Never mind the privileged who can avoid buses through their bias.
        And secondly, even if the connector links the SLUT and the First Hill Inter Station Trolly (FHIST), only those who live along it will get to indulge their rail bias. The heaviest downtown use is between downtown and other neighborhoods. So will the biased drive to the line?

        And will separated right of way in the middle third of a trip make that much difference if I start on the SLUT and end on the FHIST?

      7. How sad for Steve, that he’s never in his life witnessed a pleasant and vibrant urban “place” not festooned with cutesy streetcars and streetcar tracks.

        Well, many of us have. Hundreds of times. In cities all over the world.

        Thus the original post’s main contention: that attempting to “make places” with streetcars as the sole catalyst is a harebrained fad, silly and temporary and destined to fail anywhere that a multitude of other requisite ingredients are not in place. Just like the hundreds of depressing “pedestrian malls” and manufactured “entertainment districts” that came and went in the ’70s and ’80s.

      8. Many cities in Europe have vibrant pedestrian-only zones in their city centers. They are a pleasant place. It requires people to leave their cars (and transit) behind and walk and shop and linger. They are generally pleasant.

      9. Many but not all of those cities have streetcars. The streetcars are generally the only vehicles permitted in the pedestrian zones other than during early morning delivery hours.

      10. (Oh, and those innumerable pleasant yet streetcar-free urban places across the world? Generally, they are filled with people who are both drawn to their pleasantness and able to visit that pleasantness electively and with ease… on quick-moving, freedom-enabling transit!)

      11. We’ve been around this particular topical block before.

        The short version: there are a whole bunch of absolute, non-negotiable requisites for a successful pedestrian-only zone, and slow-moving on-street symbolic transit isn’t one of them.

        If your street widths aren’t positively tiny in proportion to the average crowd that populates them, and if the area in question wasn’t already so popular as to be bursting at the seams before you enacted full pedestrianization, then your scheme will fall flat on its face and you’ll be left with a ghost town.

      12. (Even shorter version: Pedestrianization follows success; success does not follow pedestrianization. And virtually no successful examples are of the artificial, guy-with-an-easel-trying-to “placemake” variety.)

      13. Seattle is a success. Between the 2010 census and 2013, Seattle grew an estimated 7.2 % (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/53/5363000.html) and if anything the growth is accelerating, particularly in the central city neighborhoods.

        Time then for pedestrianization. Just as well make it pleasant.

        We can’t immediately replace the bus mall experience, but we are affluent enough to incrementally move towards a world class city where pleasant transit is not just the “lipstick on a pig” variety.

        I’d submit that every successful pedestrianization is the result of a thousand guy-with-an-easel projects that incrementally added design elements resulting in the pleasant pedestrian experience. So, yeah, I agree with DP that you don’t get there as a single design exercise. But on the other hand, completely disagree that it happens without design.

      14. Um…

        You’re still not getting it.

        Seattle has one single street busy enough (in proportion to its width) to be a successful pedestrian zone.

        It is called “Pike Place.”

        Sometimes, it closes to traffic already. The rest of the time, traffic moves at about 2mph.

        We have no other streets with the proportional critical mass for pedestrianization.

      15. …And we emphatically do not have such places along the streetcar route, where, despite the best “efforts” of professional urban planners, the spaces look about this full 97% of the time.

      16. Steve’s point here is actually very important. Buses suck, particularly diesel buses, and as a result, screw places up.

        Seattle’s managed to completely mess up its streetcar deployment by *not replacing buses*. How did Seattle mess this up? I don’t know. It is theoretically possible to fix this by extending the two streetcar lines north to replace the #70 and the #49. But Seattle hasn’t even managed to replace the bus line which is duplicated by Link…

        Everywhere else I can think of used rail to replace and eliminate bus lines, or to serve streets without bus lines. Even the original Portland Streetcar route is carefully completely perpendicular to bus lines. (The new “loop” route is not, unfortunately.)

    2. The SLUT was always a starter line, the minimum needed to get “a modern streetcar” on the ground in hope it would be expanded. I would also say that that the minimum standard it adhered to was especially low. In any case, it could be upgraded to 10-minute frequency, better signal priority, fewer stations, and a more bike-friendly track layout, and then it would have more riders.

      1. Signal priority and fixing the Fairview congestion are probably enough to let the current operating hours provide 10 minute frequency during the periods when three streetcars run.

    3. It’s the classic “correlation implies causation” fallacy. All the buildings in South Lake Union are not going up so that everyone gets the thrill of riding the streetcar on their way to work. Nor are the buildings going up so that everybody can wave to the streetcar from their cars on their way to work. The land is booming for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with the streetcar.

      The only reason why Amazon is chipping in to subsidize the operating costs is that they need to so something to make it easier for employees to get around and, given that the tracks and trains are there anyway (the money to build them is a sunk cost), the marginal cost to run one more train is no more expensive than vastly enlarging their shuttle fleet to carry them that way.

      I don’t by the argument that streetcars are needed for placemaking. If we’re interested in transportation infrastructure that serves a placemaking role, I can think of lots better examples, including the Burke Gilman Trail and the proposed Westlake cycle track. If we want to be encouraging compact development and people living close to work, we should be focusing on walking and biking facilities for under-one-mile trips, not streetcars that take longer to wait for than walking the entire way.

  22. The only thing good about streetcars is that they move. The bad thing about them is that they need traffic’s permission to do so. Maybe if they put something in the streetcars that would switch the traffic lights, then it would make sense to build them.

  23. For 20 years the voters have asked for, and funded, Regional-Rapid-Transit that would take them from the far reaches of King County and Seattle into the jobs and entertainment centers. That’s why they voted both for the monorail and light rail so long ago…they thought they would be whizzing around like Vancouverites by 2014.

    Billions later, they end up with endless tunnels, slow moving rail-buses, and still no quick way to get around except for Sounder’s single line.

    1. Much of that is due to endless obstruction from lawsuits and other tactics employed by NIMBYs.

  24. Maybe we should stop building transit projects that cater to downtown tourists, and start building projects that actually cater to the residents of this city?

  25. I love the range of opinions here. At one extreme there’s dreamy wishes for spendy underground rail tunnels. And at the other, we get a scolding for the suggestion that street rail should be ignored, because there’s still so much that can be done for the buses.

    By all means, improve bus and street rail by any means necessary. Get whatever signal priority, supportive zoning, and diamond- painted ROW it takes. But the suggestion that street rails are an unaffordable luxury for a corridor like Broadway is a reach.

    And the anonymous commenter suggesting 10 bus lines beat one trolley is an unfortunate mistaking of operating costs with capital. We all know that buses go anywhere you send them — Metro is a fine example of that. And yes, you can build a transit corridor without rails. (Curitiba! Ottawa!)

    But rails won’t hurt. And if it’s easier to build the rails first, then build the rails. Build them now, if funds are available. Build pieces where they’ll be useful and connect them later. It’s hard to imagine that the ultimate Seattle tram network wouldn’t need rails on Broadway or Westlake.

    1. Ultimately, Seattle needs a transit network that will move.

      The rails on Broadway couldn’t possibly have been better designed to disallow that, and to render the problems they create unfixable.

      Ergo, literally any defense of them is “a reach”.

      1. LA is now studying conversion of the Orange Line BRT to rail. Would have been cheaper and less disruptive to build it that way in the first place.

  26. Please note that ridership on all transit modes has increased in SLU: routes 8, 26, 28, 40, and 70, as well as the SLU Line. The SLU Line was used in the Vulcan marketing. The causation between the line and development is unknown. The zoning changes and actions by the two billionaires was important for sure. We cannot know the outcome of the path not taken: using the SLU streetcar service subsidy on Route 70, that already connects with both the University District and downtown Seattle.

    Please also note that, as was stated in the original post, the choice is not one bus line v. one streetcar line, it is ten improved bus lines v. one streetcar line. SDOT is spending about $40m per mile in capital alone. The CCC line will require significant new service subsidy in an area of the city where service is already abundant.

  27. Streetcars with dedicated lanes is the way to go. Its cheaper, less disruptive construction, its like conventional light rail on the cheap. The hard part was getting Broadway on a road diet, they should have built dedicated streetcar/bus lanes down the center and then had an auto lane in each direction with sharrows with a parallel bike boulevard/greenway on an adjacent street.

    1. But if they had their own lanes, people might have been quicker to notice that the dumb things run just 4 times per hour, and go literally nowhere in a direct or useful manner.

      Even exclusivity can’t improve a line that makes so little sense in other ways.

      1. The SLU line, the First Street line, and the Jackson St. line all follow perfectly sensible routes and go somewhere. Despite the misplaced stops. They even do so just as fast as sluggish local buses in congested traffic.

        The Broadway line also follows a perfectly sensible route and goes somewhere. Despite, again, the misplaced stops.

        The connection between the Broadway line and the Jackson St. line is, of course, a complete joke.

    2. It’s easy to type “parallel bike boulevard/greenway” but the devil’s in the details. South of Union the streets west of Broadway don’t parallel Broadway and the streets east of it don’t go through until 12th, which is a long way downhill.

      North of there where the street network is more grid-like, a parallel route would only have to cross a bunch of minor arterials that would need the NW 58th/24th treatment — that’s plausible. There’s probably room on Broadway for center platforms and the necessary loading zones for all the businesses, though it would be tight and the swerving around to accommodate them would slow things down below ideal light rail speeds. With all the stuff on Broadway even without bike lanes you’d need turn boxes for lefts. I don’t know how you’d accommodate car left turns off of Broadway, unless you just don’t, but if the nearby parallel streets are part of the standard “three-right-to-make-a-left” route that undermines their use as a bike route.

  28. Bruce,

    I haven’t read all the comments, so someone else may have made the point, but bus priority in central cities is dramatically different from that of center-running streetcars. Unless buses have right and left hand doors — which a very few do — their dedicated lanes are almost always adjacent to the curbs, which means that they’re really “BAT” lanes with all their right-turn ills,

    Such lanes simply do not work in pedestrian rich environments, which central cities we can hope are. There are always delays for right turning vehicles waiting for the parallel cross-walk to clear before the vehicle can make its move. Even when right turns are forbidden to private vehicles buses turning right have the same difficulties and block the lane for those continuing straight ahead.

    I completely agree that mixed traffic streetcars are more vulnerable to auto and truck traffic than are buses. But center-running reservations vigorously enforced can provide visible and efficient transit operations. Cities throughout the world have proven it.

    1. A couple months ago, when I rode buses in Vancouver, the bus drivers were very good about moving over into the next lane to go straight when a car in front of them is busy waiting for pedestrians to make a right turn – even if the bus had to immediately get over to the right again to serve a bus stop. In Seattle, bus drivers tend to be more passive and just stay in their lane unless there’s a major obstruction.

      1. Holy spit, seriously.

        I am so very, very tired of getting places even later, of missing connections and being stuck for 15-30 more minutes, because of this idiocy.

        Any 44 eastbound driver who doesn’t know by now to get in the 2nd lane at 15th Ave NW should be fired on the spot.

        Low-hanging fruit, Metro. Low-hanging fruit.

  29. There is a widespread mania across the US about building streetcars. It is a cheap way for a metro area to say “we’ve got rail” without really having a useful system. It is a much bigger trend than in just Portland and Seattle.

    It does appear to have merely localized benefits as opposed to benefitting a larger city. To that end, if a neighborhood or business district wants a streetcar, they should pony up at least a significant part of the money to build it! As other posters have noted here, it often doesn’t improve transit speeds and doesn’t seem to be strategically used to address ridership overcrowding because parallel buses are so full Let’s look at she public benefit of streetcars like we look at the public benefits of streetscaping and not let them be funded solely out of city coffers!

    1. And Link to Ballard uniquely benefits Ballard residents while doing little for Ranier Valley, West Seattle or Eastside residents.

      That’s an excellent anti-transit argument that leads inevitably to no infrastructure funding outside of 100% toll-funding of roads, and complete 100% rider-fee funded transit.

      1. It is the streetcar’s total lack of a tangible mobility gain that makes your comparison a false equivalence.

        Your comparison would be false even if you referenced a park-&-ride rail station Federal Way with essentially no hope of bi-directional demand, and therefore only of mobility benefit to those in its immediate Federal Way vicinity. Because as lousy as that investment is, at least it offers mobility to someone. The streetcar improves mobility for no one.

        Of course, a holistic multi-modal urbanity-connecting transportation network (of which Ballard rail is just one strand) is beneficial to everyone who lives in or moves through the urban nucleus of the region. So your comparison of that to a project of only aesthetic value and zero mobility value, to only one tiny area is doubly false.

      2. I would also note that the biggest cost to a transit system are driver salaries and benefits. When a streetcar is slow and carrying a small number of people, it requires a lot more drivers to have 15 minute service because it takes so long for one driver to make a round trip. With well-used light rail, there is a lot less need for subsidies because the driver can carry more people in the longer train, and the driver can make a round trip much faster when in mixed-flow traffic so there is lots more productivity.

      3. Oops. I meant “out of mixed flow traffic” rather than “in mixed flow traffic”..

      4. I always here that the biggest cost of transit in general is driver salaries, but at the same, I also hear that each vehicle-hour costs around $125-$150. Given that there is no way bus drivers could possibly be getting paid anywhere close to $125/hour (I think actual driver salary is more like $25/hour), something doesn’t add up.

      5. I think this goes something like this with some $5 rounding, asdf.

        Driver salary = $25
        Driver benefits + reserve drivers + occasional overtime pay bump = $20 (these are union jobs and extra replacement drivers can get paid as well)
        Supervisory costs + benefits = $20
        Subtotal of salary cost per total hour = $65
        Deadhead and break time on $60 = $10
        Subtotal of salary cost per revenue hour in service = $75
        Direct driver salaries+benefits+supervisors+deadhead-breaks are usually about 60% of total costs of service (the other 30% for vehicles, mechanics and maintenance and 10% administration like HR staff and planners and the executive staff)
        $75/.6 = $125 fully allocated cost per revenue service hour

        Now, I’m not sure what the actual Metro allocation is, but that’s my general understanding of how the $25 salary gets to a $125 cost. I’m sure a transit budget expert would do a more accurate explaining this..

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