SEATTLE—On a late August afternoon, at the corner of Westlake and 6th avenues in downtown Seattle, a police officer pulled his patrol car to the curb. He got out and approached a woman who appeared to be on drugs: she was crouched and half-hidden in the shadows of a temporary plywood walkway beneath a building under construction. He called in the incident, and an ambulance was dispatched to the scene. But a streetcar from the city's South Lake Union line got there first, pulling to a stop directly behind the patrol car, which was parked over the tracks the streetcar shares with street traffic, blocking the way.
The streetcar operator soon opened the doors of the stalled vehicle, and about two dozen passengers stepped off, with a few blocks remaining between them and Westlake Hub, the line's downtown terminus. Ten minutes later the patrol car was still on the tracks, the officer unable to see that where he'd parked in the line of duty had clogged the streetcar route. A second streetcar pulled up and stopped. Then a third. It took nearly 30 minutes for someone to alert the officer to the problem. He waved a sheepish apology and moved the car, and all three streetcars pulled forward toward the rush-hour crowd waiting at the Westlake Hub station.
Seattle's South Lake Union line represents the full extent of the city's streetcar system. It's not very long, running roughly 1.3 miles through seven stops between downtown and the South Lake Union neighborhood to the north, and like most of the latest wave of streetcar projects popping up in cities across North America, it operates in mixed traffic. That means its forward progress is limited by cars and buses and anything else on the roads. Cars turning at corners, morning traffic congestion, random double-parked cop cars—any of these routine impediments can slow a streetcar enough that sometimes it would be faster to get out and walk.
These constraints have led to often-aired criticisms of streetcars as overly expensive and nearly useless public transit projects. And indeed many haven't even been designed primarily for their transportation capabilities, but instead are built for their heralded potential to drive economic development. The problem usually traces back to the fact that the new North American streetcars, unlike many effective systems in Europe, share the street with so many other vehicles.
But now Seattle is hoping to shift the trend. The city is currently planning a new leg of its burgeoning streetcar system, called the Center City Connector, that will run in its own exclusive lane. It could be the first real test case to show whether the new North American streetcar can actually be a useful part of a city's transportation system, and not just a development tool with questionable mobility value.
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The Seattle streetcar dates back to the late 1990s. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had twice failed to convince voters to back a plan to turn large swathes his land in the warehouse-dominated South Lake Union area into a 61-acre urban park. Through his company, Vulcan Real Estate, Allen began buying up even more property in the district, with the hopes of redeveloping it into a neighborhood. Vulcan began looking around for other neighborhoods to inspire the project and quickly saw a model in Portland's redeveloped Pearl District, another former warehouse district. The success of the Pearl District was often attributed to the opening of a new streetcar line in 2001 that served the area on its way toward downtown.
Vulcan pushed Seattle to build its own streetcar, and eventually got the city council to approve a Local Improvement District among property owners near the line's path. The LID would generate about $25 million through increased property taxes, roughly half of the project's $52 million cost. State and federal money paid for most of the rest of the project, and the streetcar began operations in December 2007. The City of Seattle, the streetcar's official owner, estimates peak summer weekday ridership of about 3,000 people.
"It's a toy," says Jack Whisner, a political activist in Seattle who is also a professional transit planner. "The South Lake Union line was, I think, primarily for Vulcan to market its real estate." Vulcan itself doesn't dispute the latter claim. "It was really an economic development tool," says Lori Mason Curran, the company's real estate investment strategy director. "There was no reason to improve transportation in South Lake Union, because there weren't a lot of people working there. It was really to encourage development and to make this neighborhood a place."
The streetcar has jump-started change in the neighborhood, in Vulcan's eyes, transforming the former warehouse district into an area with sleek new condo buildings and dozens of trendy shops and restaurants. A recent city jobs report estimates that there were nearly 33,000 jobs in South Lake Union in 2013—up from fewer than 19,000 a decade earlier. (Mason Curran places the current figure closer to 37,000 jobs, citing recent growth, and says that more than $4 billion was invested in the area between 2008 and 2013.) Amazon claimed the streetcar was a major part of its decision to relocate in South Lake Union. Its headquarters are now located across the street from one of the streetcar stops. Other major tenants, like Microsoft and the healthcare cooperative Group Health, were also drawn in by the streetcar's appeal, says Mason Curran.
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Less than a year after the South Lake Union line began operations, voters approved a ballot measure to increase the region's sales tax and create a nearly $18 billion fund to build a variety of transit projects, including bus and commuter rail, an expansion of the light rail system, and a second streetcar line. That second line, the $134 million, 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar, began construction in 2012 and is expected to enter operations later this year. Like the South Lake Union line, the First Hill line will operate in mixed traffic.
To some experts, these lines reflect a troubling trend. Streetcars can improve both urban development and urban mobility, says transit consultant Jarrett Walker, but when they share the road with other traffic the mobility benefits disappear. "The problem we've had in the first generation of North American streetcars is that, with a few exceptions, they've been designed with the attitude that the transit function isn't really the point," says Walker. "Or, as they often say, 'this isn't a transit tool, it's a development tool,' which is a bizarre kind of insistence on the separation of silos, since in Europe great transit is a development tool because the transit is designed to actually function."
That's why the Center City Connector might be such a good sign for the future. If all goes as planned, the new line will run every five minutes down exclusive center lanes on First Avenue beginning in 2018, says Ethan Melone, the streetcar program manager for the City of Seattle. The 1.1-mile connector is so named because it will link the forthcoming First Hill line to the existing South Lake Union line, forming one roughly 6-mile crescent. It will run from Pioneer Square through downtown, passing through the city's most tourist-heavy neighborhood and past the iconic Pike Place Market. Its exact alignment hasn't been solidified, but it will end at the downtown terminus of the South Lake Union line, adjacent to one of the most dense transit hubs in the city.
"It's a missing piece of the transit system," says Melone, noting that until it's built, the two other streetcar lines will operate in relative isolation. "It will make the other pieces function better."
At nearly $200 million total for the other two lines, the city's streetcar investment to date has been significant. The Center City Connector is expected to cost an additional $110 million. But once all three lines are complete and connected, says Melone, they'll serve an estimated 23,000 to 30,000 average weekday riders—a figure he says is comparable to a light rail line. Part of the reason he's expecting so much from the system is that it's focused on getting people into and around the growing downtown area. He says the center city is seeing an increase in residential density, as well as rising demand for office space. Melone says the streetcar will likely play into those trends, spurring more development along its pathway.
So will the Center City Connector be another economic development tool, or will it be a useful part of the transit system? "In this case," Melone says, "it's really both."
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On July 21, the Seattle City Council approved Resolution 31526, adopting the findings of an analysis of the Center City Connector's alignment and mode choice, and endorsing efforts to seek up to $75 million in funding through the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program. The vote was 8-to-1.
Councilmember Nick Licata was the sole vote against the resolution. Over tea in a diner in his neighborhood five miles north of downtown, Licata explained that he's not against transit, or even the idea of connecting the two streetcar lines, but that a streetcar is an overly expensive way to do it. He prefers an electric trolley bus for the route through downtown, and argues that spending less on this specific segment of the transit network will help make more money available for the broader system. He feels that the Seattle Department of Transportation hasn't proven that the streetcar will improve the transportation system overall. "You have to think of transportation systems, not transportation modes," Licata says.
Whisner, the streetcar opponent, calls the entire system a "boondoggle." To him, the Center City Connector—exclusive lane notwithstanding—is an example of the way flashy transit projects distract elected officials from high costs and questionable effectiveness. "It could be that they just see the logic of connecting the two existing streetcars, but it's kind of like throwing good money after bad," says Whisner. "They're making that connection, but it's very, very costly. It's taking a lot of service hours, a lot of capital, and they could attract more riders if they used those funds elsewhere in the city."
Though Seattle and the King County Metro system are growing to meet the needs of the metropolitan area, the fact that big investments are happening in the center of the city is no accident. The city's transit master plan from April 2012 starts out with a list of six major initiatives that it aims to accomplish. One of the plan's priority strategies is to "Develop Center City Transit to Support Downtown Growth and Vitality." The Center City Connector—with what Melone hopes will be dual powers of providing transit and encouraging development—seems to fall right into the plan.
Unless the federal funding doesn't come through, or a vocal anti-streetcar movement suddenly overwhelms the zeitgeist, Seattle's third streetcar could be just four years away from rolling down First Avenue. Though Licata still opposes the streetcar approach downtown, he is at least happy that the next phase of Seattle's streetcar system will operate in its own lane, separated from traffic and all its delays.
"If you're going to do a streetcar, it's got to be exclusive lane," he says. "You’ve got to do that. Otherwise, you're totally wasting the public's money."