Seattle’s streetcars are an easy target to hate. They’re so damn slow and serve a narrow slice of the city. Just looking at their lumbering, mostly empty train cars can be irritating. But it’s not totally the streetcar’s fault. Private automobiles are really the ones we should be blaming.
A scene that plays out on the corner of Broadway and Pike Street every single day: Two cars are waiting for a red light as they head south on Broadway. The streetcar pulls up but cannot reach the platform, so the trolley waits. The light eventually turns green, those two cars drive south and then the trolley finally gets to the platform to load and unload its (very few) passengers. By the time the trolley is ready to head south again the light has turned back to red, meaning the streetcar must wait for a full two cycles of lights to go through this intersection.
The two cars blocking the light rail are usually occupied by only their drivers, meaning two people have blocked an entire trolley from moving efficiently. This is how we prioritize transit in this city: You are granted ownership over the city’s streets if you are driving a car—no questions asked. But you are told to wait in line if you are jockeying with the other folks on Seattle's mass transit.
Something about this scene has to change: We need to ban cars from our city’s streetcar routes.
Right now, we make our city’s two streetcars compete with vehicular traffic along most of their routes. If we ban cars from the streetcar tracks, the transit times would be reduced and ridership would increase. The city has already done this in a few different sections of the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars but we should go further and ban cars along the routes entirely.
Other cities have tried this and seen significant results. Toronto’s King Street Streetcar “wasn’t working for anyone” thanks to automobile traffic, according to the city’s mayor. So Toronto essentially banned all parking and car traffic along the route last year. Guess what happened?
A year later, ridership has increased by 11 percent (including a 34 percent increase during peak hours), the streetcars are running four to seven minutes faster during peak commute times, and there was a 440 percent increase in the number of cyclists taking advantage of the car-free route.
Toronto turned an ineffective streetcar into something useful by simply banning cars from streetcar routes. We should do the same.
Dawn Schellenberg, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), told me the city is not currently studying banning cars from the streetcar routes, although they are implementing new restrictions in limited sections of the two routes. SDOT is currently installing a streetcar-only lane on the South Lake Union streetcar’s route on Terry Avenue between Thomas and Mercer streets. The city expects this to save the streetcar one to two minutes of time each time it passes through this section. The city is also considering a streetcar-only lane on the South Lake Union route along Fairview Avenue, according to Schellenberg.
The First Hill Streetcar, which snakes its way from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill, already has streetcar-only lanes in a very short section of its route on 14th Street as it heads north towards Capitol Hill, but the trolley has to fight cars during most of its route. The streetcar experiences “significant delay[s] on Broadway, particularly in the southbound direction during the afternoon peak periods due to heavy traffic volumes,” according to a presentation given to the City Council earlier this year.
SDOT recommended removing the street’s center turn lane between Pine and Madison streets and replacing it with a lane dedicated only to transit and business access. That would save everyone time—streetcars, buses, and automobiles. It would reduce travel times for the streetcar by over 30 percent in this section of the route. The council presentation said SDOT is conducting “community outreach activities” for the project and Schellenberg said the lane is not currently being installed.
These improvements are necessary but they are still piecemeal compared to the real solution: banning cars entirely from these routes. This will become even more important if the city moves ahead with our third streetcar, the planned “City Connector” streetcar that will run through downtown and connect the two existing routes. That train would have a streetcar-only lane as it runs down 1st Avenue, but Mayor Jenny Durkan has currently put the project on hold because of possible cost overruns.
The combination of these three connected streetcar routes running on dedicated lanes would be massive. It would turn the streetcars into an effective part of our transit system instead of just another thing to be ignored. Even Danny Westneat at the Times agrees with me, calling for a total ban on cars along the trolley route in South Lake Union, and even a ban on cars in the neighborhood altogether.
Giving the streetcars their own lanes will be framed by suburbanites as a war on cars because that’s what it is. Cars and SUVs ("mini pyramids," according to my fellow Slogger, Charles Mudede) are destroying the earth, destroying our public health, and they’re in our streetcar's fucking way. And we aren’t talking about banning cars in Kirkland, these neighborhoods are in the heart of our urban city. If we can’t even fight private cars on Capitol Hill then we are truly doomed.