This moving picture of Little Saigon is brought to you by First Hill Streetcar
This moving picture of Little Saigon is brought to you by First Hill Streetcar. Charles Mudede

Though the new streetcar from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill is not fast, and frequently gets caught in the traffic that thickens between 12th Avenue South/South Jackson Street and Broadway/East James Way, it still has the virtue, as a riding experience, of being more aesthetically pleasing than an automobile or a bus. What it renders inaurguable in regard to urban mobility is that rail is the highest mode of public transportation. The lowest is, of course, the car.

The streetcar's large windows, combined with the gliding movement on the rails, has two pleasing consequences: one is cinematic and the other theatrical. When the train is moving on straight lines, it transforms the passing city into a kind of cinema. When on curving lines, near and distant buildings shift this way and that like set pieces on a stage at the end of an act.

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Cars need to be elevated to achieve this kind of visual drama (entering Seattle by I-5, for example), and buses are just too bumpy, too clumsy to cast any kind of spell. Rubber on a road is no match for steel on steel.

Walking is always the best way to experience what the 20th century urbanist Jane Jacobs called the "ballet of a... city sidewalk"—the first of all urban pleasures. But rail transportation is best for experiencing the background or setting of a city. Indeed, because it moves somewhere between the whole and the particular, the scape and street, it provides something of a solution to the orientation problems specified in the theory of cognitive mapping.

On I-5, the transition from the glorious image of downtown to the mundane life of the city is always so unreal. The two parts never unite. Here, there can only be cognitive rupture.