During a recent trip to Seattle, I fed my transit craving by examining the city’s fledgling South Lake Union Streetcar. There is more depth to this new streetcar system than just a crass acronym...


The South Lake Union Streetcar, with the Space Needle in the background.

Seattle built a streetcar here largely because of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who heavily invested in the South Lake Union neighborhood through his venture capital company, Vulcan Inc. Allen pushed for the line to jump-start revitalization of the area.With support from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle created a public-private partnership finance the $52 million project. Service began on December 12, 2007 after 15 months of construction.


The route, stations, and maintenance facility. View larger map.

The route

The South Lake Union streetcar is a 2.6 mile, eleven stop loop, connecting downtown to the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods. The majority of the route follows Westlake Avenue, which is a wide two-way avenue with two lanes in each direction and metered parking on each side of the street. The Westlake segments are primarily at-grade tracks in each direction along the right-hand lane of traffic.

Sidewalk bulb-outs at the stations keep metered parking between the tracks and the curb, though there are exceptions. A four-block segment of the northbound route breaks off Westlake to follow the parallel Terry Avenue. Due to Terry’s one way traffic pattern, stations appear on the left hand curb on Terry.

The Westlake and Terry Avenue tracks meet again at a dedicated ROW and station stop along the 12 acre waterfront Lake Union Park. Upon leaving the park, the route returns into mixed traffic. The line continues to its northernmost point along Fairview Avenue with a station stop in the median. When in mixed traffic, the tram travels slightly slower than cars or buses and waits at traffic lights like other vehicles.

The streetcar takes about 10 to 15 minutes to traverse the route. Fares are $1.75 for adults and $0.50 for children and seniors. A single ticket gets you unlimited travel in a two-hour travel window, rather than a single trip. The streetcar uses the honor system for payment, with the possibility that a fare inspector may ask for your ticket. One tram operates in each direction throughout the system’s operating hours (6am to 9pm Monday through Thursday,  6am to 11pm Friday and Saturday, and 10am to 7pm Sunday).

At downtown end of the route is Westlake Center, a twenty-five story office tower and four story shopping center that also adjoins the southern terminus of the Seattle Monorail. Beneath the mall is a Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, which accommodates the city’s metrobuses and eventually light rail. Within blocks of this station is Pacific Place, the Emerald city’s version of Gallery Place, and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

As the route proceeds down the Westlake Avenue corridor, it travels through the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods that are both brimming with potential for economic development. Along the way a stop at Westlake & Denny Way serves the most impressive Whole Foods Market I’ve ever stepped inside of and the city’s oldest park (Denny Park).

Economic development

The streetcar project is part of a larger transformation for the area north of Seattle’s downtown.

The Denny Triangle, bounded by Fifth Avenue, Denny Way and Olive Way, has historically been a traffic funnel and sea of surface parking lots. Development has begun to seep from downtown into this underutilized land over the last decade. In 2006 the city council approved downtown rezoning south of Denny Way (map) that increased base height limits and outlined incentives for height bonuses (up to 500 ft) for developers that meet affordable housing and LEED standards. The rezoning placed intense development pressure on the area.

A big beneficiary of the rezoning is Clise Properties, which has amassed 12 contiguous acres that represent nearly all the land bordered by Denny Way and Fifth and Westlake avenues. Clise has changed directions and is looking to sell rather than build. Imagine a project with three times the land of Mount Vernon Place and about four times the height limit! Al Clise told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

[The full potential is] a thriving world-class development on par with New York’s Rockefeller Center or London’s Canary Wharf. We’re a small, privately held company and for us to do it ourselves would be a very difficult task. I don’t think we could do it in the time frame it needs to be done.

The potential for a downtown site this large is enormous, but it will require deep pockets in a climate where capital is tough to come by. It will be interesting to watch and I hope they don’t settle for fracturing it into tiny projects.

For decades South Lake Union had been a light industrial and auto services oriented district with residences only in the Cascades section (east of Fairview). Paul Allen has worked with the city for infrastructure improvements including not only the streetcar, but a new substation, multi-space parking meters and street lighting. In return, his Vulcan Real Estate is transforming the area into a 24/7 mixed use community with office, residential and retail. Vulcan has put a special focus on making the corridor a biotechnology hub; tenants include Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Zymogenetics, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and University of Washington Medicine. In December of 2007 online retailer Amazon announced that it will consolidate its vast Seattle operations into an 11 building urban campus spanning six blocks Vulcan has broken ground on the Amazon development and one can see cranes galore along Terry Avenue.

Seattle Streetcar Thumbnails
Visit the entire Flickr photo set.

Ridership and safety

Each streetcar can fit 140 riders (29 seated), which is more than double the capacity of the articulated buses in King County’s standard fleet. Presently ridership has been exceeding the city’s estimate of 950 riders per day or just 7.5% of the 12,600 capacity per day. In fact, the streetcar surpassed the estimated ridership for the first year (347,000) three months ahead of schedule. I believe those statistics are independent of the ridership from the inaugural first month when fares were free (video).

I explored the streetcar during the mid afternoon of a lazy Thursday. Traffic was light and cyclists few and far between. According to KUOW radio, five cyclists have raised litigation against the city because of accidents related to bike tires snagging on the street car tracks. Seattle has provided a bike lane on the parallel 9th street to address the concern. Lawyer Bob Anderton claims that the city was negligent to the risk the tracks impose on cyclists and that the city should have aligned the tracks in the left hand lane, leaving the right hand lane safe for bikes.

That would force all stations on two way streets to be in the median. Ethan Malone, streetcar program manager from SDOT, says that is a possibility for future lines. What do you think about this issue? I’m sure few care about the impact to automobiles of placing the tracks in the left hand lane, but what about forcing pedestrians/riders to the median strip? Another consequence of streetcars traveling in the left hand lane along the median is that it pushes the overhead wires further out into the street, often creating a nest effect.

Conclusion

Overall, I was impressed with the streetcar. It was a reliable, clean, safe and predictable form of transportation. The passenger information system that displays the wait time for the next tram was a tremendous asset. However, with a one way distance of just 1.3 miles, it doesn’t span much pavement and at the moment is more of a people mover than great transit. It’s a first step. This line needs to be extended to the University District while Seattle plans and prioritizes the rest of the network.

Paul Sieczkowski writes about transportation, development, and making our communities more walkable. He works in Rosslyn for a targeted marketing firm and lives in the Mount Vernon Triangle where he is Editor-in-Chief of neighborhood blog The (Mount Vernon) Triangle.