Seattle Wants to Change the Whole Conversation on Streetcars

September 23, 2014
Unlike most new lines in U.S. cities, the Center City Connector would operate in its own exclusive lane.

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.