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For Seattle, A Desire Named Streetcar

February 18, 2015

Updated March 23, 2015

Seattle is expanding its streetcar system to address transportation woes in the city's core, but critics say streetcars only make traffic worse.

In 1962, the world looked to Seattle to see the future of transportation at the World’s Fair. Rocketcars, bubbleators, sky buckets and monorails seemed to promise that we would soar above the ground. More than 50 years later, the Seattle Monorail is a tourist attraction, and Seattle is now one of America’s most congested cities, with commuters wasting more than 40 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic last year.

The Seattle Monorail at the World Fair in 1962. (Creative Commons)

To get people out of their cars, city leaders are proposing an old fashioned way of getting around—streetcars.  

Seattle has a rich streetcar history, but one must look back to the early 20th century to find it. Streetcars ruled the road for decades, and nearly all of the city’s neighborhoods were connected. But with the growing popularity of cars, Seattle unceremoniously burned its streetcars in 1940.

People pile into a streetcar in Wallingford. Historically, streetcars lines connected almost all the neighborhoods of Seattle.

Now, streetcars are making a comeback. Seattle is part of a national streetcar renaissance as more than a dozen U.S. cities are planning to add them to their infrastructures. It might annoy proud Seattleites that these cities are looking to Portland for guidance, which is possibly the nation’s poster child for streetcars.  Portland has 15 miles of streetcar tracks, so much of the city is accessible. The city even has an annual mobile music festival on their streetcars, where riders are treated to live performances from local bands. Portland’s system is credited with creating the area’s trendy Pearl District.

In comparison, Seattle has just 1.3 miles of track—all made up by the South Lake Union Streetcar line. And alas, there’s no rolling music festival here.

According to SDOT, the South Lake Union Streetcar exceeds 3,000 riders on weekdays during peak summer months. But Seattle Streetcar Manager Ethan Melone suggests that’s just the beginning.

If all goes as Melone hopes, Seattle will have three streetcar lines in the future: South Lake Union, First Hill and a City Center Connector line on First Avenue downtown. The lines would be tied together in a loop to create a streetcar system about five and a half miles long. The 2.5 mile First Hill line will begin service later this year from Capitol Hill, across First Hill and the International District to Pioneer Square. This comes after about 3 years of construction—and $134 million in taxpayer dollars.

The price tag for streetcars has long separated advocates and critics. Advocates say that the streetcar will revitalize low-income neighborhoods along the First Hill line, similar to how the South Lake Union line helped to transform the area into a thriving, trendy business hub.

Streetcar tracks run from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square. Service is scheduled to begin later this year.

Billionaire Paul Allen lobbied the city for a streetcar when his real estate company, Vulcan, began transforming South Lake Union in the early 2000s.

“Since 2004, what has been invested [in South Lake Union] is about $5.7 billion dollars,” says Vulcan’s Lori Mason Curran. She believes the streetcar is one reason that the construction crane is South Lake Union’s unofficial bird. Many of those “birds” are those of online retail giant Amazon, who says that the streetcar was a major part of its decision to relocate its headquarters to South Lake Union. Also, the city of Seattle says their zoning program will support growth of 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs in the area in the next 20 years. So why do some still think streetcar systems like the First Hill line are a bad idea?

Vulcan's Lori Mason Curran says that much of the construction in South Lake Union is due to the streetcar line.

Critics reference the line’s hefty $134 million price tag. This comes to about $40 million per mile of track. And that’s just the capital cost.  

“The money we are pouring into just the planning of streetcars is money we desperately need for sidewalks, road and bridge repairs and especially our bus service,” says streetcar critic John Fox.

John Fox believes that the money used for streetcars should be put into repairing sidewalks, roads, bridges and buses.

Fox suggests that those millions should’ve been spent on buses, noting that the King County Metro struggles to carry 400,000 bus passengers a day—compared to an estimated 3,000 riders per day for the First Hill Streetcar.  

Transit expert Jack Whisner is no fan of streetcars either. Says Whisner, “We need transit service throughout the city, not just in downtown.”  

Whisner also mentions that streetcars operate at grade: when cars sit in traffic, so do streetcars—hardly a solution for Seattle’s growing traffic problem, one might think. According to Ethan Melone, the proposed City Center Connector will be different.

Transit expert Jack Whisner points out that when cars sit in traffic, so do streetcars. The First Avenue line hopes to solve this by adding a transit-only lane.

“It will have its own lanes from the beginning,” says Melone. “It will run down the center of First Avenue in a transit-only lane. [It’s] a whole new ball game.”

The City Center Connector isn’t funded yet, but Melone insists says the city is on track to get a federal funding grant of up to $75 million.

Some say after Seattle scrapped its streetcar system in 1940, the city gave up on a good thing. That said, no city--not even Portland--has provided clear evidence that modern streetcars will fare any better. All that is certain right now is that advocates and critics alike will rail on, and traffic will jam as Seattle moves forward with a desire—named streetcar.


Due to falling ridership, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is making some big changes to the South Lake Union Streetcar Line. For about a mile, two lanes of Westlake Avenue North will be designated as streetcar-only.

The South Lake Union route has seen ridership dropped from about 2,700 each week in 2013 to about 2,500 each week in 2014. City officials hope this change will result in faster commutes and fewer solo drivers. Half of commuters in South Lake Union still drive alone, reports the Seattle Times.

According to The Transport Politic blog, these are the first modern streetcar lanes that have been changed from mixed to dedicated lanes. The Center City Connector line, still in planning, will also include streetcar-only lanes on First Avenue. The First Hill route, opening this summer, will remain mixed lanes.



Made possible in part by

Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

Alex Tran

Alexander Tran is a production intern at KCTS. Currently a senior at the University of Washington studying journalism, Alexander has also interned at KING-TV and was awarded the Northwest Asian Weekly Scholarship in 2014. He is set to commission into the United States Air Force as an officer this June.


More stories by Alex Tran

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Streetcars are far too expensive to acquire, to maintain and to operate. Stay with electric trolleybuses. Very clean for the environment.