» The city will begin studying dedicated lanes for its streetcar. Will it be the first among many to do so?
During its first four years of operation, Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar—the nation’s second modern streetcar (after Portland’s)—recorded rapidly growing ridership. Annual passenger counts on the 1.3-mile line increased from 413,000 in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012 (about 3,000 riders on a peak summer day). The figures reflected the blossoming of the South Lake Union neighborhood into an extension of the downtown business district, as well as the region’s growth as a whole (Seattle is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities) and the strong performance of transit there. The share of people taking public transportation to work in Seattle increased from 17.6 percent in 2000 to 19.3 percent in 2013—a remarkable growth spurt brought on in part by the opening of the streetcar and the Central Link light rail line.
Yet in 2013, ridership on the streetcar plateaued, barely growing at all. And last year, it declined by seven percent, below 2011 numbers, putting rider revenues below expectations, even as light rail and bus trips across the region continued to increase. What gives?
The problem may have something to do with the way the streetcar runs: In the street, sharing lanes with cars. The results have been slow vehicles—the line’s scheduled service averages less than eight miles per hour—often held back by traffic and a lack of reliability. This can produce horror stories of streetcars getting stuck for half an hour or more behind other vehicles and, combined with infrequent service, it certainly reinforces the sense that streetcars are too slow and unreliable to provide any serious transportation benefit.
This is a problem shared by every existing and planned modern streetcar line in the country,* suggesting that the streetcar designed to run in the street with cars may, over the long term, simply fail to attract riders who grow increasingly frustrated with the quality of service provided.
Seattle may offer a solution, however. CityLab‘s Nate Berg reported last year that the city is planning a new streetcar line—the 1.1-mile Center City Connector that in 2018 would run along dedicated downtown lanes as it links the South Lake Union line with another service, the 2.5-mile First Hill line, which is currently under construction. That’s great news, but even more interesting is the fact that the city is considering giving dedicated lanes to the existing South Lake Union line.
As far as I know, this would be the first time in the U.S. that a modern streetcar line has been converted to dedicated lanes, and it could significantly improve the line’s speed and reliability. Can other cities follow in its example?
As part of the contract for the Center City Connector, the Seattle Department of Transportation asked a consultant to study designated lanes for streetcars and buses as well as right-turn restrictions along Westlake Avenue, the primary right-of-way for the South Lake Union line. The lanes, which the city refers to endearingly as “Business Access and Transit” (BAT) lanes, are being analyzed to determine if they would improve reliability and service for the system. The lanes could also be used by the RapidRide C line, a bus rapid transit route that could continue north into the South Lake Union neighborhood via Westlake. The lane would have to handle up to 20 trains or BRT vehicles per hour per direction, far too many for transit service operating in a shared right-of-way.
The study, which could be completed this summer, aligns with Mayor Ed Murray and Transportation Director Scott Kubly’s Move Seattle proposal, which, if approved by voters in November, would add $900 million in transportation investment across the city to respond to its rapid growth in both population and employment.** Move Seattle specifically includes investment in seven new BRT corridors throughout the city, including a new Roosevelt to Downtown “complete street” that would include higher-capacity service along Westlake.
Dedicated lanes for the South Lake Union streetcar would undoubtedly improve the reliability of the service and could result in faster trip times. These lanes would likely encourage increased ridership over time, and relieve one of the major problems with too many American streetcar systems, demonstrating that it is possible to transform a route with disappointing features into one that can legitimately serve as useful transit.
Of course, Seattle’s experiment in providing streetcars dedicated lanes along the street right-of-way is hardly revolutionary for transit in general—though it has become standard to assume that new streetcar projects will be built without dedicated lanes. Seattle, like many cities, already has dedicated bus lanes, such as along Aurora Avenue. And back in 2010, previous Mayor Mike McGinn advocated for the use of dedicated lanes for fast streetcars connecting neighborhoods at a far lower cost than full-feature light rail.
It’s worth noting that streetcar service often fails to offer adequate reliability and speed for reasons other than dedicated lanes—and these problems are shared with many light rail and bus rapid transit lines too. Indeed, too many of the new transit lines put into service in the U.S. recently lack adequate frequencies, particularly off-peak. A wait of fifteen minutes for the next streetcar on a 1.3-mile line could last longer than a brisk walk along the entire route. Many of the streetcar systems as designed have too many stops—the short South Lake Union line has seven stops, each of which require the vehicle to slow down, dwell as passengers alight and board, and accelerate. Meanwhile, traffic signal priority—an essential feature for transit lines that run with traffic—is too often avoided, even for light rail.
Providing exclusive lanes won’t fix any of those problems, which isn’t to say that they’re not important, just that they’re one piece of an overall equation for better transit service.
Another question is whether Westlake Avenue can be reconfigured with any ease to offer space for the streetcars. Since the tracks are currently slotted in a lane between a line of parking to the right and a traffic lane to the left, how would the city be able to successfully keep cars off the tracks, even if the lane were painted another color, for example? Cities like New York that have invested in painted lanes for buses have seen those lanes frequently intruded by parked or turning cars, reducing service speed.
If the streetcar had been designed from the beginning to be adapted for dedicated lanes, it likely would be running either in the median or along the curb. In either case, cars could be easily excluded from the lane with a cheap-to-install buffer. But it’s difficult to see how such a buffer could be added given the location of the existing tracks. In this case as in virtually every transit investment, planning ahead for a time when higher-capacity or more reliable vehicles might be needed would have likely saved money in the long term.
Nonetheless, if Seattle is able to provide its South Lake Union line dedicated lanes, it will be demonstrating that one of the fundamental problems with today’s modern streetcar movement can, in fact, be addressed, albeit a few years late. If it shows that those dedicated lanes can reduce disruptions and speed up service, it hopefully won’t be long until we see them in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Portland.
* Save Salt Lake City’s S-Line, which operates in its own right-of-way.
** Move Seattle specifies a laudable goal of bringing more than 70 percent of the city’s population within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute all-day transit service. That’s something few cities are able to offer.
Image at top: From Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).