» Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn proposes to build a new transit line to West Seattle and Ballard along the street.
The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light rail is not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.
But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.
In that context, it’s worth considering Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s recent argument for a scaled-down transit project that would extend from his city’s downtown to West Seattle and Ballard, a proposal he hopes to get before voters within two years. Unlike Seattle’s Central Link rail line, which opened in 2009, this new rail program would operate in street rights-of-way adjacent to moving automobiles; it would not include the expensive tunnels and viaducts that make Central Link a “mini-metro.”
As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.
But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.
What makes Mr. McGinn’s plan — which, by the way, remains in the very early development stages — so different from those proposed by most cities is that it attempts directly to reduce significant road capacity for automobiles and replace it with space reserved for transit. Most light rail programs avoid that prospect by using existing rail rights-of-way for new lines, or by sending trains underground or above it. That’s because it’s considered treacherous to threaten to remove space now used by automobiles.
Indeed, if he goes forward with the proposal, the Mayor would be doing something that flies in the face of political expediency, since transit-friendly or not, most Seattleites continue to commute by private car. Yet Mr. McGinn claims he’s unworried about the implications of doing so; considering he won last year’s election partially by stridently opposing the construction of a $4 billion road tunnel under downtown, he probably should be taken at face value.
Mr. McGinn’s proposal is a reasonable one: by simply removing vehicle lanes and reserving space on the road for trains, you can build relatively fast light rail systems at the cost of streetcar lines. Other than over major physical barriers (the roughly 15-mile route suggested would require crossing two waterways), there’s little need to move earth or build new structures, saving tremendous amounts of money.
Unlike Central Link, which achieves very high average speeds compared to most urban rail systems, this project would feature only moderate speed improvements over existing bus services. But it would see a very large ramp-up in capacity and time savings over automobiles if intersections are properly designed. And it would encourage more people to ride transit because of clear station stops, frequent services, and comfortable trains.
All this at a much more reasonable price than would be possible if you wanted the type of full-scale, independent right-of-way featured by Link. Unlike equally cheap streetcars, these tram lines wouldn’t held up by surrounding traffic or required to have short trainsets because of limited street dimensions.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been relatively easy to implement such street-running rail in a number of European cities, and where it’s been done, it has often improved the quality of the surrounding streetscape, producing exactly the type of livable environment planners love to see around major new transit investments.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t places where transit corridors requiring full separation of rights-of-way are advisable; building New York’s Second Avenue Subway as a street-running light rail line would be a disaster, simply because it wouldn’t be able to handle anywhere near the capacity required. But in Seattle, land of moderate densities and medium-height commercial corridors, what Mayor McGinn is suggesting is exactly the right investment to make — at the right price.
Image above: Tram in Amsterdam, from Flickr user martin_vmorris (cc)