Streetcars in Seattle & Detroit; Rapid Busses in Maryland

After a prolonged debate, Seattle’s City Council approved yesterday a $600 million streetcar network that will redefine the inner city’s approach to getting around. This will make Seattle the second city in the United States, after Portland, to develop a modern downtown streetcar system from scratch. This news comes after last year’s opening of the South Lake Union Streetcar (aka the SLUT), and its successful meeting of ridership estimates.

Seattle’s system has been funded by the recent passage of the Sound Transit ballot passage, which will provide $120 million for a line between downtown and the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but funding for other lines isn’t as obvious, though some of it may come from state money for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The replacement of the former Waterfront Trolley, which was shut down for a sculpture garden, is a priority.

The streetcar system will be an efficient way of connecting the light rail line currently under construction with destinations throughout the inner city. Here at the transport politic, however, we’re big proponents of streetcars not so much for the frankly limited improvements in mobility they provide but rather the fact that they stimulate dense development near stops, as the case of Portland’s Pearl District demonstrates. Streetcars allow for the development of transit-oriented districts far more cheaply than either light rail or heavy rail lines, and they provide downtown dwellers an easy manner to avoid driving – not so much true for busses, which often follow confusing routes and offer substandard service.

We’ll be following the development of Seattle’s system with excitement (along with that of its light rail system). The real question is whether Portland (which has its own large system (PDF) under development) or Seattle will have a bigger network in the years to come!

In Detroit, after days of speculation, the City Council has finally approved a regional mass transit plan. The network considered by the City will provide a number of lines: 1. a streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main street; 2. a commuter rail system connecting Detroit with Ann Arbor; and 3. an improved system of suburban bus lines. As we’ve discussed several times before on this blog, Detroit faces unusual circumstances in the development of a transit system. Unlike Seattle, for instance, Detroit has a quickly declining population, with fewer jobs every year as the auto industry contracts. Recent Census estimates show that the city’s population has declines from 950,000 in 2000 to 917,000 today – and that’s down from 1.85 million back in 1950.

When you visit the city, it’s obvious that it’s just a shell of its former self; the huge downtown, dense as hell, is empty and marked with a lot of vacant buildings (not to mention random vacant lots). How can a city like this, which looks like it is closer to abandonment than anything else, sponsor an effective transit network, whose primary goal in other cities is to stimulate economic development?

But to argue that the City Council shouldn’t invest because the city is loosing population is self-defeating. Doing so would mean giving up on the city, which its own elected officials just aren’t going to do. But for a new transit system to work, the city’s going to need to attract a few more jobs and start finding ways to rebuild its population.

Finally, Maryland’s Montgomery County, which forms the northwestern border with the District of Columbia, is finally recognizing that it is developing into an increasingly urban place, and its council members are considering how to ramp up transit service to meet that densifying profile. Council member Marc Elrich has recently discussed constructing a rapid bus system that would serve east-west trips in the county, which is currently served by two branches of the north-south only Metrorail Red Line. To get from Bethesda to Silver Spring, for instance, residents must either take a slow local bus or ride the Red Line all the way through downtown D.C. and back out.

Elrich’s proposal makes sense; any improvement of bus service in the provision of bus-only lanes, better stop shelters, and increasing frequency, would be good for the county’s population. But the real solution would be the full funding of the Purple Line as light rail. That system, which would connect Montgomery and Prince Georges’ County, would transport 66,000 riders a day and ensure easy cross-county transport that would avoid transferring in downtown Washington. Acting together with a newly efficient bus system, the Purple Line would provide greatly enhanced mobility for the county.

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