This post was written by Kate Stineback (Community Organizer of Capitol Hill Housing) and Bill Zosel (chair of the 12th Avenue Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Committee).

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A few weeks back, the Seattle Transit Blog (STB) came out swinging against the Broadway-12th Avenue Couplet Streetcar Alignment—one of many alignments the city is currently studying for the First Hill Streetcar. Equipped with a fancy “walk shed” graphic, the STB cited four major flaws with a streetcar that runs on 12th Avenue and Broadway. We believe that these so-called “flaws” are rife with problematic assumptions and the arguments pretty weak. The couplet deserves a higher level of analysis than this.

[Eds — The Stranger has written about the potential streetcar alignments here.]

The Broadway-12th Avenue Couplet poses no threat to potential ridership, nor does it take away service from First Hill, as STB claims. In fact, this alignment between hospitals and a developing neighborhood is the only alignment that maintains service to First Hill while accommodating future development and transit needs.

The “walk shed” argument was the biggest gripe with the Broadway-12th Couplet and it goes like this: By separating the northbound and southbound legs of the streetcar on parallel streets (three blocks apart), walking times become longer for everyone who lives on one side or the other of the alignment.

This may inconvenience some riders on some trips, but it's not a fatal flaw by any means, and here is why: Say it is 2013 and the streetcar is built, you work at Swedish, and you want to go get dim-sum in the ID for lunch. On the Broadway-12th Couplet, you could walk three blocks to 12th through the security-patrolled Seattle University campus and hop on the streetcar heading south to the ID (estimated walking time to 12th Avenue is three to four minutes). STB asserts that this three-to-four minute walk constitutes “significant access issues that could dampen ridership.” This is a bold assumption for one of the fittest cities in America, especially in central neighborhoods that are the most walkable in Seattle. Moreover, you might believe, reading STB, that streetcar couplets don't work and they aren't that common. In fact, the majority of the Portland Streetcar line runs as a couplet, separated by one and two blocks at different points. It isn’t confusing or inconvenient and, when we last rode it with standing room only, it didn’t seem to be driving down ridership.

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Granted, Portland is relatively flat compared to the Seattle, but the area between both sides of the streetcar line is among the most pedestrian-friendly areas in Seattle. (The Seattle Department of Transportation has also been working with Seattle University to study the feasibility of installing some kind of assistance here, perhaps an escalator, to address incline issues.)

The STB is right in that one of the key benefits of building a streetcar along for 12th Avenue is its future development potential. However, by basing their argument against 12th simply on potential building heights, STB fails to acknowledge the power that streetcars have to specifically catalyze neighborhood-commercial development in the future; the kind of development that is supposed to be the backbone of our Seattle urban villages. 12th Avenue is currently lined by underused buildings, parking lots, and vacant lots. (A study on the Portland Streetcar found that development nearly doubled in the blocks slosest tot he streetcar line (.pdf)) In contrast, hospital and office development will inevitably continue to develop on First Hill without a streetcar.

More to the point, the First Hill hospital district is a bad location for the street car. Streets such as Boren Avenue are already largely developed with offices, medical facilities, and residential buildings that offer little in terms of vibrant pedestrianism. Without mixed-use development, now or in the future, the result would be a streetcar chugging slowly down some of the most crowded streets on First Hill—streets that are already amply served by buses. In contrast, the Broadway-12th Avenue Couplet includes a corridor that is fertile ground for the type of uses that streetcars are best suited for—residential buildings, retail storefronts, and a burgeoning business district.

More after the jump

In passing over the role of a streetcar route in catalyzing neighborhood development, critics are not just ignoring a reason to build on 12th, they are ignoring observed public policy in Seattle, recognized notably in the promotion and building of the South Lake Union Streetcar. If the point is only to provide the fastest and least expensive route of transportation to the area currently with the greatest density, the answer is most likely a bus route and not a streetcar.

STB asserts that existing demand should drive the alignment selection of the First Hill Streetcar. However, this must be balanced with future demand. As a city-shaping tool, streetcars have the unique ability to guide development in a corridor in addition to moving people.

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Also, the assertion that the Couplet does not serve the redeveloping Yesler Terrace community is a canard. The Broadway leg of the Couplet heads north, right through the heart of Yesler Terrace and the southbound leg on 12th borders the southern edge of it, basically bounding it on two sides. In fact, Yesler Terrace residents have recently stated that they would like more shopping and retail development to take place on 12th, and the streetcar is exactly the tool to make this happen. While STB argues that First Hill has more existing demand, it misses the point entirely that we are planning for future demand and development. Moreover, this existing demand already has numerous bus connections running directly downtown and directly to the hospitals, many of which will always be faster than a streetcar connection. In this context, the Broadway-12th Couplet is the most forward thinking alignment being considered.

Among the arguments by advocates for a First Hill streetcar, we always seem to come back to the loss of the First Hill light-rail Station. While a promise was certainly made years ago, there seems to be collective amnesia that the former location of this station was at the nexus of three urban villages, and not at Virginia Mason’s doorstep.

The lost Link station was to have served residents, employees, and shoppers of First Hill, Pike/Pine and the 12th Avenue urban village, not just the three big hospitals on First Hill, which is why the Broadway-12th Avenue Couplet absolutely makes the most sense from a planning and practical standpoint.