Streetcars in Seattle, Or Why America Should Mind Its Transit Gaps

rider went down — Boom! — just as she turned to see if the streetcar
was getting close to her. Turning to look was her undoing, because her
wheel got caught in the big gap between rail and street, toppling her
hard. The big blue streetcar was only ten feet or so behind her, but
luckily was slowing down and did not run her over. Scary though.

Shaken but apparently not badly hurt, the rider, a young woman
in a light blouse and wearing a helmet, stood up to be greeted by the
streetcar conductor, who offered not sympathy but angry hectoring.
Didn’t she know that cyclists were not supposed to cycle in the
streetcar lane?

Standing by and watching all this while
preparing to board the streetcar in Seattle, I could only shake my head
in sadness. We have such a hard time doing mass transit right in this
country, particularly outside New York City. Seattle’s shiny new
streetcar “system” was essentially brand new, but its flaws were
already readily apparent.

Let’s start with the tracks.
Isn’t there some system possible that does not leave what looked like a
three or four inch gap between the track and the street it is imbedded
in? I’m sure loyal Streetblog readers will supply me with the make and
model of something. I remember seeing that old footage from Barcelona
that showed all those cyclists swerving this way and that in front of
the streetcar, with apparently no fear of getting caught in the track
gap. Can’t we do that today? It certainly doesn’t make sense to exclude
cyclists from a whole lane of a street, one that could actually double
as a bike lane if built correctly.

Then there are the other problems.

streetcar line itself is only a little more than a mile long. (The
website says the line is 2.6 miles, but I think they are counting both
directions.) And it’s pretty expensive — two dollars for what can be a
very short ride. I boarded for what turned out to be only half a mile
or so, in part because I’m still on a cane from my scooter accident.
Otherwise I would have walked. No sooner had I boarded and paid my two
dollars than we were there. I felt cheated. Minimal payment (or even no
fare) would be better, which of course would require better government

I feel guilty complaining about something that
obviously took a lot of effort. The streetcars themselves are quite
nice. I’m sure the organization is trying to do things well.

central problem, as an official with a California transit agency
recently told me, is that American cities and states tend to pursue
transit in a fragmented and uncoordinated fashion. Different agencies
representing different cities or states build different lines that
often connect to each other badly, if at all. Imagine if highways were
built as incoherently as rail systems. Somehow, the federal, state and
local highway agencies manage to work with each other at least enough
to have their projects connect.

Seattle has battled and
warred over its transit systems. The city often supports transit in
general but not in the particulars. Voters have approved a monorail
system several times, only to see the transit establishment and
political establishment help kill it. The city is nearing completion of
an extensive light rail system, but it is one of the most expensive in
the world. Downtown has this enormous bus tunnel — the product of one
compromise between various interests. And now there’s the tiny new
streetcar system, which, to be fair, may expand and become much more
comprehensive. You have to start somewhere. Maybe they will figure out
a way to make it more compatible with biking, which certainly should be
the friend and not the enemy.

  • Surface in street rail is very dangerous for cyclists. There is no simple solution, but the best practice is to separate rail from streets. Copenhagen is an example of a city with fantastic transportation, but no mixed traffic rail systems. The Danes just built a new light rail system that runs either above or under ground for it’s entire length. An additional advantage to that, besides safety for cyclists, is that it allows the trains to be automated, with no drivers. Personally I think it’s a mistake to put new streetcar systems into urban areas, both because of speed, they tend to very slow, and safety issues.

  • I have had two track-related falls. The last on Harrison St. in around 1989 the day before a section – freight rail of course, not for the street cars – around 17th St. was removed.

    I lived in the center of Prague for seven years. Lots of streetcar (tram) tracks there, but I never fell. Skill and luck. Definitely not for everyone (I don’t push for “vehicular cycling”). I do think that there are design differences between what they use there and in the USA… can anyone confirm?

    It seems that one of main reasons cyclists have a problem with tram tracks, which are, after all, predictable, is moving cars, which are not. Also, parked cars tend push cyclists towards tracks on shared roadways. With a small gap between parked cars and tracks, avoiding opening car doors can mean riding too close to or even inside the tracks.

    In many of the relatively tight, high-density spaces of old cities (and hopefully new ones, too) there can be plenty of space for bikes, out of the way of trams… if car parking on the sides of the mobility parts of streets are eliminated. Ah ha!

    Trams are wonderful, and speed is not everything. In many cities of Europe, elders dislike going underground to ride the metro. I live in western Berlin now and really miss trams. Don’t blame trams when it is the cars causing the problems.

  • R.Sugg

    ____The Seattle monorail extension was voted DOWN the last time it was put to a vote (Nov. 2005). I like monorails as a technology but the money issues (costs [2G$+], interest [9G$], potential budget overruns) for the extension were horrendous. I’ve lived in Seattle and like the city a lot. Also, keep in mind that the monorail boosters were hyping the benefits and the hype didn’t pass the sniff test.

    P.S. G$ = billion dollars U.S.

  • Seattle voted on the monorail 5x until real estate developers who started to see their adversaries’ properties go up in value (despite the goofiness of monorails) finally got the vote they wanted.

    Ah, greed. Seattle has always had developers who’ve shot down transit since 1995 and has the benefit of politicians who are physically opposed to anything on rails. They destroyed the real Sound Transit in 1995 and left us with the half-assed thing we have now, limping along, billions spent and few miles traveled. Trust me, I was there, I lived through the transit battles of the 90s up there and it was a motivation to leave. Seattle traffic is almost as bad as LA without the benefit of a car culture – instead it’s a provincial mentality that keeps it in the dark ages, now paying a lot more since they rejected federal funds in the 70s.

    Flame on, Seattle, flame on.



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