Seattle’s Orphan Road laments the news that the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar, which from 1982 to 2005 ran historic cars — mostly on single track, mostly right under the Alaskan Way Viaduct — might never be restored to service. I’m apparently part of the problem:
Jarrett at Human Transit might view this as a good thing, arguing that times are tight and scarce money should be spent on diesel buses. I view it as a shameful loss of memory and morality by the City of Seattle. If anyone wondered why I was sounding the alarm about the loss of the electric trolley buses, here is your answer. Note that ‘pro-transit’ McGinn is maintaining a studied silence on both these issues, or, in fact, all three, as he is also silent on the First Avenue streetcar line.
Jarrett references the cable cars in San Francisco as an example of a system that is so clogged with millions of tourists that it is not useful to city residents. The Waterfront Streetcar, with cruise ships bringing over 800,000 passengers a year to Seattle, might be similarly clogged and make more of a profit than it formerly did, subsidizing bus operations. And this would be a bad thing because?
I go beyond that, though- I am appalled at the sterility of a city without legacy transit. Others are appalled at the thought of a city without legacy bakeries or bookstores. When many people of differing interests who want more of life gather, a variegated and meaningful urban experience is created, and when a day off comes, we become ‘tourists’ in our own city- or, perhaps, head for another city, like San Francisco, that has kept their own urban mix interesting, if our city has become sterile.
Well, just to be clear, no I would not argue that “times are tight and scarce money should be spent on diesel buses.” What I’d say is that if a proposed transit service is going to be largely useless to people who just want to get where they’re going, perhaps it should seek a funding source and mission that’s consistent with that reality.
I remember the Waterfront Streetcar well. It was cute. But it ran mostly on a single track, and therefore could never run very frequently, which is a problem because it was supposed to serve very short trips; the whole line was only 1.6 miles long. I spent a lot of time on the waterfront in the course of downtown-related consulting projects in 2000-05. Just once in all those years, I happened to be in a place where (a) it was going where I was going and (b) I saw it coming. So on that one providential day, I rode it. But since it couldn’t be counted on, it did nothing to expand my range of mobility, my sense of where I could go, in that part of the city.
So yes, as a provider of actual mobility — getting people where they were going — it was useless. But if it had been a great tourism amenity, or if it garnered broad enthusiasm as a recreational service and as a statement of Seattle’s embrace of its own history, then sure, it would have been great.
But let’s remember where the Waterfront Streetcar ran. (If it had been scenic, I’d have pictures, but if someone else has them, send and I’ll post.) It was not right on the pedestrianised waterfront, where it might have integrated with the streetscape. It was on the opposite side of six-lane Alaskan Way, and directly under a double-decker freeway, and next to a lot of all-day parking lots. Cuteness in such a grim setting can look a little forlorn, so it’s not surprising that it failed to stir civic hearts, or tourist industry wallets, as the San Francisco cable cars and historic streetcars do.
The rallying cry of “legacy transit,” too, can cut several ways. It’s fun to be sentimental about the glory days of the streetcars, circa 1900, especially since nobody alive can remind us of what life was really like then — the prejudice, the violence, the grim prospects, the sewage flowing in the street. But it seems like every city is trying to be sentimental about that era, so why not do something else? Why focus your nostalgia on an era when you were a small and remote logging port?
When I think “legacy transit” and “Seattle” I think of the 1962 Alweg Monorail, which together with the Space Needle forms a magnificent monument to the values and hopes and delusions of the early aerospace era. That period, when space travel became imaginable, and science fiction as we know it was invented, is when Seattle, driven by Boeing and its satellites, emerged as a major city. Perhaps its harder for us to value this era because some of us were alive then, so we have all kinds of ambivalent memories about it. But 50 years from now, 1962 will be no more or less ancient than 1900 is. It will all be in the same bin of “history before we were born,” and people will care, or not, to the same degree.
Ultimately, though, if Seattle loves the Waterfront Streetcar enough to pay for it, or get its tourists to pay for it, then by all means Seattle should have it. That’s my opinion about almost any transit proposal. My job as a transit planner, though, requires me to ask, now and then, if the proposed service is going to be useful as transit. Will this thing actually be useful to people who just want to get to where they’re going? The answer can be no, and you might decide to fund it anyway, and if so that’s great. But if you’re going to call it a transit project, it seems like a fair question to ask.