Seattle’s Waterfront Streetcar: Not Coming Back?

250px-Klondike-gold-rush-NHP-seattle 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.

20 Responses to Seattle’s Waterfront Streetcar: Not Coming Back?

  1. dejv June 4, 2010 at 7:16 am #

    Two notes to historic value:
    First, when something continues to run frequently enough to be “normal”, the public won’t see it as historic. This is the case of Tatra T3, ubiquitous in former eastern bloc. Despite being 30-40 years old on average, they still provide bulk of tram/LRT service, so they’re seen as “historic” only by a fraction of railfans. Many operators kept some cars in good shape for “vintage” operations, but it makes no sense to run such vehicle as “vintage” operation – the transit company has to take something older to get the feel.
    Second, most vintage vehicles I know suffer from high steps, limiting their usefulness for people with strollers or with personal mobility issues.

  2. oscar June 4, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    as always a good analysis
    do you think the wfsc makes more sense when integrated into the new waterfront plans (post highway demolition, etc)? so that the issues you brought up re: location/setting can be addressed and the “cuteness” will be more of a draw?

  3. alexjonlin June 4, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Part of the thing is that in the next few years they will be demolishing the viaduct and completely rebuilding the whole Waterfront. As part of this process they could, for not too much extra cost, include streetcar track (double-tracked) and overhead wire. I’ve heard that the biggest cost of building streetcars is ripping up the entire street under it and rebuilding it, but if they’re doing that anyways it shouldn’t be that expensive. That would enable them to run historic streetcars frequently along there. I guarantee that they would get great ridership, connecting tourists, residents, and workers to neighborhoods and attractions. People have also suggested extending it north to Seattle’s new cruise terminal, which would enable it to serve hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

  4. Ted King June 4, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    That period, when space travel became imaginable, and science fiction as we know it was invented,

    Please don’t forget the fathers of science fiction : Wells, Verne, Doyle, Burroughs et al. The time period is late nineteenth century and not the 1960s.

  5. Dan W June 4, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    Fortunately, Seattle is going ahead with modern streetcars in other areas where it will be more useful.
    Part of why the historic streetcars, the F-Line, work in San Francisco is that people actually use them as transportation and not just novelty, and they go to scenic places people want to go.

  6. Ted King June 4, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Sci.Fi. II
    There is a mother of science fiction – Mary Shelley.
    Further reading :
    P.S. H.G. Wells was something of a transit planner in a couple of his novels.

  7. Christopher Parker June 4, 2010 at 11:51 am #

    Mobility is a good goal for transit, but it is far from the only or even most important goal. For instance, the long history of streetcars and rail lines built to spur development. Transit is a community asset. It supports mobility, yes. But it also supports the economy and a host of other political and social desires (not all good).

  8. Erik G. June 4, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    If they can’t revive the 99 Benson Waterfront line, then they ought to sell the Melbourne cars to SF Muni for use on the new Embarcadero E-Line.

  9. Cascadian June 4, 2010 at 2:50 pm #

    A streetcar or even a tram/light rail line along Alaskan Way could be a good thing when the viaduct finally comes down. It’s certainly a better idea than adding car lanes and useless open space, which is the current idea (whether or not there’s a tunnel.)
    But the tourist line just didn’t make sense, even as a tourist line. As a Seattle native I never once rode it, and I’ve done most of the touristy things around here.
    The current streetcar plans include a 1st Avenue line not far from Alaskan Way. That’s a better idea for actual transit, and it will hit all the main tourist centers too. Tourists going to the Waterfront will have to walk a couple of hilly blocks from the streetcar, but that’s part of the tourist experience of the city. So it’s hard to justify a waterfront line.

  10. Jarrett at June 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    @Ted. Yes, I know that things we would now call science fiction were written before 1960. That’s why I used the term “as we know it.” Science fiction as the self-aware and marketed genre that we know today, centrally defined by the possibility of space travel, really came into being in the 1950s and surged in the 60s together with the space program.
    Have you tried reading Verne, btw? Dreadful, dreadful writer. He makes Star Wars characters look nuanced. Mary Shelley was a genius, but her Frankenstein, while based on a counterfactual premise, is allegory but not really SF. She had no interest in the future, or in the technology of monster-construction. She was writing about the ethical consequences of invention, and about the process by while people come to be defined by how others see them, all in the context of her own time. You might as well call Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” science fiction …

  11. Jarrett at June 4, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    Let me be clear that I haven’t implied that a 1st Avenue streetcar is a substitute for the Waterfront streetcar. They look close on the map but they’re not, because 1st climbs the hill.
    If you want to build a streetcar into the new vision of Alaskan Way on the waterfront, go ahead, but if you want it to be useful, it will have to be double-track. And yes, the disability issues will argue for modern cars, though San Francisco did set a precedent by using historic cars on the Embarcadero.

  12. Ted King June 4, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    @ Jarrett – I’ve read and re-read Verne’s books. One problem is the quality of the translation from French to English. In the 1980’s or 1990’s there was a fresh translation of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” that was more careful and faithful. The mis-speakings were akin to the King James Bible team using “witch” when they should have used “poisoner”. Also, you have to allow for different pacing and milieus (e.g. Doyle’s “The Lost World”/”The Poison Belt” omnibus which I read a few weeks ago).
    My viewpoint is based on reading an assortment of authors from both North America and Europe. Some were inventive and some (e.g. Creasy) were formulaic. One of the purposes of science fiction is to explore the impact of changes in society and/or technology. As an engineer I see “Frankenstein” as a cautionary tale about the costs of doing something just because it’s possible. You as a transit planner probably have seen a number of cases of mis-applied technology turning into an urban wound.
    De gustibus non est disputandum.

  13. Ted King June 4, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    Sidebar question : Has anybody done a stacked double-track ?
    I’ve seen pictures of split-level double-tracking in canyons and on steep slopes. But what if in a city the transit authority was forced to do keyhole surgery on an alley. And the resulting trench was only wide enough for a single track. Would they double-deck the resulting tunnel to get a vertical double-track ? Has it been done ?
    I’m used to the various full-width stacks of BART + SFMuni and New York’s spaghetti bowl is beyond description. Single-tracking, as used in Seattle and Santa Clara’s VTA, is a cheap way to poison a line’s capacity. But if a system were forced to single-track through a bottleneck would going vertical be cost effective ?

  14. EngineerScotty June 5, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    IIRC, many early English translations of Verne also tended to tone down the flagrant anti-British sentiment in his writings.

  15. Alan Robinson June 5, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Vertical track arrangement is pretty common in grade separated right of ways. I believe the NYC subway as several examples. Being from Vancouver, the Expo line Skytrain tunnel downtown is a fitting example of the cost effectiveness of stacked tunnels. The tunnel was converted from an old freight rail tunnel. To fit the existing bore, the skytrain is aligned vertically. I’m not sure if this type of alignment has ever been tried for a local stop service.

  16. dejv June 6, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    Christopher Parker –
    transit provides all those benefits you mentioned through mobility. So if you dump mobility as your prime goal, you’re dumping the other, more important goals with it.
    Two more notes to vintage vehicles:
    One, all true vintage vehicles are maintenance-intensive, because old technology was less reliable and labour was cheaper than today, so their operation in daily service makes economic sense only if additional passengers can pay the delta.
    Two, low-floor does help all people board/alight faster so it makes station dwells noticeably shorter.
    Regarding single track: I witnessed many temporary single-track segments with 5 minute effective headways, but there were no stops on single track, and those single track sections are limited to some 400-500 m.

  17. Eric L June 7, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    Jarrett, one correction, Alaskan Way is only 4 lanes wide (3 in some parts), not 6. It isn’t terribly hard to cross, and the line is pretty useful for tourists. Not for anyone else, though. It doesn’t connect to a lot of residences, and the only part it connects to a lot of jobs is at the south where it leaves the waterfront, which is also the only part where it connects to other transit.

  18. Ben June 10, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    I’ve wondered if we do go ahead and build more of a street car network, if it would be compatible with old cars. Alot of other cities run occasional vintage cars on their modern routes.

  19. Chris Stefan June 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Eric L,
    Removing the viaduct means most of the waterfront has more than enough room for 4 travel lanes, two streetcar tracks, sidewalks, and bike lanes.
    Also there are residences along Western between Pike street and Jackson. As well as another group of condos and a hotel at Lenora. There is also a cluster of office buildings near Broad such as Real Networks.
    The waterfront streetcar is one of the few decent connections to the state ferries and the Vashon and West Seattle water taxi.

  20. John@ Vancouver Washington August 26, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Living 160 miles from Seattle, and about 600 miles from San Francisco, for me the SF Cable Cars are a huge asset to their community, and I’ve ridden them many times. I’ve visited the Seattle waterfront more often, and never rode the old street car when in action but, have ridden the monorail several times.
    Further, given Washington State political and budget scene, it may take additional decades for them to wrangle over the fate and replacement of the Viaduct and the related impacts to that area.