Seattle is planning to expand the streetcar system in a project called the City Center Connector, or CCC. Like all of our streetcar projects, there are bold promises of very high ridership. Not only are the ridership claims likely to fall short (as they have before) but we would get a much higher level of service, and higher ridership, if we put the money into improving the bus system. We should follow the lead of other cities, like Providence, Rhode Island, and switch to making bus improvements.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Streetcars
Every transit mode has its advantages and disadvantages. Streetcars are no different. Unfortunately, our streetcars have all the disadvantages, but none of the advantages of other streetcars.
Jarrett Walker did an excellent job of summarizing the two advantages of streetcars:
1) They can leverage existing railways.
2) Streetcars often have a lot of capacity.
Unfortunately, neither applies in Seattle. The streetcars won’t run on existing tracks (we will instead lay new rail). Thus it will cost significantly more to enable streetcar running instead of buses.
Nor are the streetcars significantly bigger than our buses. Our articulated buses are very large, and our streetcars are very small. Even if we needed the extra capacity of a train along this route (which is doubtful) these streetcars can’t offer it. Our streetcars offer no advantages over our buses.
1) Expense. This streetcar line is expensive to build and operate. The small, 1.2 mile expansion will cost $177 million, or more than the entire budget for the Move Seattle RapidRide+ projects (which are listed as “Corridor Mobility Improvements” in the proposal). Operating this streetcar costs $242 an hour, while operating a bus costs $163 an hour.
2) Inflexible routing. It is pretty common and pretty cheap to change a bus route (several changes were made just last month). But making even a minor change to a streetcar line is extremely expensive. For the Roosevelt HCT project, they have budgeted $7 million just to move a streetcar stop a couple blocks.
Since it is expensive to change a streetcars routing, it doesn’t happen. We will continue to endure the mistakes that have lead to slow running, inconsistent headways and low overall ridership.
3) Limited routing. A bus route may run on a busway or bus lanes for its entire route, but it doesn’t have to. It is common for a bus to serve a neighborhood with regular service, then run congestion free where it matters most (downtown). You can’t do that with a streetcar. We see this with the current plans. The streetcars will travel a very short distance, and stop well before a bus would stop. In contrast, the 40 and 70 will be turned into RapidRide bus routes, and they will not only connect South Lake Union with downtown, but connect to other very popular areas.
4) They are a hazard to bicycles. Even with our very short streetcar lines, we have seen several accidents, at least one of which was fatal. We are not alone. All streetcars are a hazard, and different cities mitigate the hazard in different ways. This isn’t just a matter of education, either. Toronto has had streetcars for generations, yet they still has plenty of accidents. Researchers found that 32% of injured cyclists had crashes that directly involved tracks. According to UBC researcher Kay Teschke, a three-fold increased risk of injury was observed when cycling on routes with streetcar or train tracks.
Work can be done to make the streetcars safer but that is often expensive and difficult. You need to both isolate the bike paths and provide for 90 degree crossings. These are common in Amsterdam, but rare in North America.
5) Since they are a hazard to bicycles, a streetcar routing is often less than optimal. It is unlikely that we will be able to produce a relatively safe system, such as the one in Amsterdam. We have trouble converting a general purpose or parking lane into a transit lane so it is unrealistic to think we will also set aside a lane as a buffer for bikes as well (as in this photo). But the routing will have to deal with the fact that surface rail is a hazard to bike riders. In this article, the author points out the hazards that the proposed streetcar routing would create. This sort of criticism is valid, and will likely result in a different routing. Thus the ideal route is replaced by something worse, and only because this is a streetcar, not a bus.
6) Streetcars can’t avoid obstacles. This means that an accident, a parked car or just a bit of debris in the roadway can bring a streetcar to a complete stop. Construction is also a problem. It is common in this booming city to have one lane blocked off, and a flagger move traffic to the other lane. But a streetcar can’t do that. So either the streetcar is shut down for a while, or special work has to be done to accommodate it.
Much has been made of the fact that for part of this route, the streetcars will have their own lane. This is great, and should greatly improve average speeds along part of the route. But for much of the way, there will still be congestion, and a streetcar (unlike a bus) has a tough time avoiding it. But even for the parts of this route that include a transit lane, there are disadvantages for a streetcar. The pathway may be clear most of the time, but if someone sticks out even an inch into the transit lane, the streetcar has to wait. A bus would simply slide over to the general purpose lane, and be on its way. But a streetcar, and all its passengers, will be stuck.
The good news is that there is an alternative, and Providence has already provided it. We simply take the street improvements we would have given to the streetcar, and give it to buses. That would be a better value, whether the bus routes that take advantage of it are BRT or just regular buses. For far less money, we can provide a much better transit system.
Please contact your city council representative and let them know that you want to see the streetcar money be put into bus lanes, and other bus improvements.