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Take a Ride on the Seattle Streetcar

Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar is a 1.3-mile line that opened in December 2007, the first leg in Seattle's commitment to new transit and light rail. It passed the half million passenger milestone in its first year, surpassing ridership projections.

The streetcar features many top-of-the-line tech amenities, including real time arrival message boards, solar-powered ticket vending machines, and human-activated doors to save energy while the train is in layover mode. If you go to the Seattle Streetcar web site, you can find out the next arrival time and actually watch the streetcars moving via GPS trackers.

As you'll see in the film, development is booming along the South Lake Union corridor. "If you build it, they will come" certainly seems to apply here.

However, the streetcar is not without a contentious history, and continues to divide Seattleites as to whether it was a worthy investment. I'll steer clear of taking sides, but one commentary I will offer: these streetcars were made in the Czech Republic. With major U.S. cities continuing to make major plans to build transit, why are there no quality, American-made transit company options to assemble our trains? The Obama administration is busy giving massive bailouts to the auto industry, yet we continue to send money overseas for much of our transit needs. Okay, end of rant.

RIDE THE SEATTLE STREETCAR

Ethan Melone: [00:03] Hello Streetfilms, welcome to Seattle and the South Lake Union line of Seattle’s new streetcar network. It opened December 2007, had half a million riders in it’s first full year of operation. We’re here at the Westlake hub of the southern end of the 1.3 mile line that connects to major bus routes, to the monorail that goes to Seattle Centre and the Space Needle. And starting July of this year, we’re just half a block away here from an entrance to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel where you can hop on buses today, but in July there’ll be a light rail system that connects to southeast Seattle and our airport, and will eventually be over 30 miles of light rail through the region. The South Lake Union line of the streetcar is a 1.3 mile system with eleven stops. We have three cars, this is the orange car, there’s a red car and a purple car. Two are in operation at any given time so that gives us 15 minute headways. We have a real time arrival system, so people always know when the next train is coming, either by looking at the digital message sign at the station or before they leave their office if they want to look on the web or on their PDA. We took our parking pay stations, these are solar powered and we’ve got them all over Seattle and when we got started up with the streetcar we said, “you know, people can pay onboard using cash, but people are really used to being able to use their debit card or their credit card”, and we said, “why not adapt these pay stations”, so put your card in, take it back out, it’s going to call the bank and in a second here, here we go. Seattle streetcar. Here’s a monthly or annual pass. So when you’re ready to board, just press the open here button. These streetcars were made in the Czech Republic. They’re also operating in Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington. They’re a combination of the best sort of modern European light rail technologies, you know, the doors are from a German company, and the propulsion system is from an Austrian company. So all those pieces and all that experience from a part of the world where they never stopped providing streetcar type transit is all brought together into these vehicles. One of the things that people always remark upon is how quiet the vehicles are. When you’re on board, and also when they pass you on the street, you really don’t notice it’s coming and, you know, people need to be alert about that, but they also really enjoy having more of a premium ride. They’re used to a sort of bumpy, noisy bus ride, so people are really taking to the streetcars. Behind us here is what’s called the 2200 Westlake Development. It includes a whole food supermarket, which is the first full service supermarket in downtown Seattle in decades. Across the street, finishing up on construction is an office condo. This is a new condominium project, The Rowling Street Lofts. It’s just getting ready to open. As we head further into South Lake Union you’re going to see a lot of cranes, a lot of construction activity and it’s all about Amazon dot com, they’ve decided to move their headquarters to this part of town.


Barbara Gray: [03:07] As for South Lake Union today, it is an entirely different neighbourhood than it was 15 years ago. It is a neighbourhood that has a real range. There’s industry that’s still there, there’s affordable housing, there’s pretty high end housing. We’re starting to get the services that support the transit oriented lifestyle there, like the grocery stores and the shops, places for people to go and walk their dog, open space. It’s a pretty exciting neighbourhood that’s really attracted the young and vibrant clientele.


Ethan Melone: [03:35] This is much an economic development tool as it is a transit investment. And the idea was to provide good local transit service and something permanent in the form of a rail investment so that people would feel comfortable making that investment in this emerging area and know that they’re going to have that constant link to the downtown.

Transcript Divas Transcription Services

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.thriceallamerican.com/ jamie

    I believe that United Streetcar in Oregon is partnering with SKODA to produce American-made streetcars...

    Also, how can you mention Seattle's streetcar w/o even mentioning it's nickname, the S.L.U.T. (and accompanying "Ride the S.L.U.T." t-shirts? :-)

  • Clarence

    Jamie,

    Thanks for that info. That's great news since the three Streetcar systems I am familiar with all are using non-domestic cars.

    And as for S.L.U.T....yes, I debated putting that in, but I had already exceeded our usual write up length with my rant. But I was sure someone in the comments would mention it. Lucky me it was #1!

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/grenavitar Fritz

    Seattle has a really interesting mix of transit options. I wonder how much more difficult it makes it since the different systems don't mix. Great film, looks interesting but 2 cars running at a time arriving every 15 minutes seems pretty limiting.

  • The Wallbash Cannonball

    I was in Seattle years ago when I saw this first being constructed. Looks good, it just needs to be ALOT longer.

  • uh huh

    Let's also point out to readers that the street car connects with the Sound Transit Link light rail at Westlake Station, providing a car-free, congestion-free connection to the neighborhood for anyone who can connect to the line between downtown and the airport. That line opens this coming July.

  • TheDude

    Siemens has a vehicle plant in Sacramento. They supplied the Denver vehicles and San Diego's.

    As mentioned, Westlake is a great transfer point between the streetcar, Link light rail, bus, and the monorail. All the options are great. The fact that there are so many different options, which forces transfer is not so great.

  • Scott Mercer

    A "trolley" is not always a "streetcar," but a streetcar is always a trolley.

    A trolley is a trolley, because it "trolls" the overhead power line to get its power. That's why that pole that extends up from the roof of the car to the power line is called a "trolley pole."

    Therefore, a "light rail" is also a trolley, but, it is never a "streetcar," even if does run on the street for some portion of its route. A light rail will always run on a private rail right of way for at least part of its route. A streetcar runs on a street for all of its route.

    Have I alienated all the non transit nerds yet?

  • MrColombia

    How do you know who pays?? I mean who enforces? because i just see people walking in and out.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/PatrickMc Patrick McMahon

    Unfortunately the film doesn't address the bike/streetcar issues. These aren't insurmountable, but some of the decisions made when designing the South Lake Union route resulted in challenges for cyclists. At the intersection of Fairview and Valley cyclists are routed onto the sidewalk and along Terry & Westlake there aren't good parallel facilities.

    Even more challenging is that because of the frustration of cyclists, future streetcars in Seattle are going to be designed with stations in the median, which creates access & safety issues for pedestrians reaching the site.

    These issues don't mean the Seattle Streetcar isn't the start of a good system, but I hope that future Streetfilms outside of NYC will address the positive and negative aspects of their subjects and how to design with those issues in mind.

  • T. R. Hickey

    Nice movie.
    Jamie: Škoda has partnered with "United Streetcar" to assemble their cars in the US, but that's all "United Streetcar" does. Hardly the same a domestic supplier, which is pretty sad considering the US was the streetcar supplier to the world a generation ago.
    Scott Mercer: You mixed it up. A "trolley" denotes a electric vehicle using a trolley ("troller") pole for current collection, whereas the South Lake Union cars use a pantograph. A "streetcar" is more broadly defined but usually refers to an electric railcar running in the street in mixed traffic. So...South Lake Union is a streetcar but not a trolley. The Route 99 Waterfront Trolley (when it returns) is a trolley not a streetcar. The Link Light Rail is not a streetcar (runs in streets, but not in mixed traffic) or a trolley (uses a pantograph). King County Metro electric buses ARE trolleys but not streetcars.
    Patrick McMahon: Would you and the cycling community please stop whining? Yes, there are now streetcar tracks in street and you have to watch out for them. Just like there are railroad tracks (used and unused) elsewhere in the streets as well as potholes, cracks, expansion joints, seams and other hazards you have to watch out for---not to mention all the crazy motorist that are out to get you. Get over! Carping from the cyclists are inflated by streetcar critics throughout the country to drive a wedge between advocates for alternatives to the unbiquious automobile. Can't we all just get along?

  • CS in DC

    How do they make the cars accessible to the handicapped?

  • PDXSTEVE23

    Portland has streetcars made right in Oregon. Woo!

  • Chetan Chandrashekhar

    Now Seattle needs to consolidate all it's transit agencies and take the best of all of them. We have way to many.

  • Seattle

    NOW could we PLEASE invest in extending the old Benson Trolley / Streetcar line to Pier 90/91 BEFORE we tear down the viaduct.

    It would take advantage of the 10 year lease for Holland America, Princess, and Carnival to bring about a half million transits to the Pier 91 through 2020.

    The line should run through Myrtle Edwards - land the city and port already own.

    Put a stop at each end of the the Amgen Campus. Amgen is currently paying a charter bus company to run shuttles from the campus into town.

    The original design for the sculpture park HAD a Benson Trolley stop. Lets do that.

    Then run it as far south along the water as Seawall and Viaduct reconstruction allow.

    If you link as far south as Pier 66, ALL one million ship visitors, and crews, and pier workers can transit along the waterfront without adding to traffic on Elliott, Western and Alaskan Way, with TOURISTS paying the bulk of the revenue.

    Along with almost a million ship visitors, the historic “green” trolley, could also connect the 4.1 million walk on passengers of the WSF, the West Seattle Water Taxi, and until the Viaduct comes down and amputates the line, bring them to Pioneer Square and the International District to meet up with the First Hill Trolley, Sounder, and Link Light Rail.

    We already own the trolleys and the right of way (we only spent 20 years to get them) and we already own the equipment!!!

    Just the 1.2 miles through Myrtle Edwards.

    Five years back the Port and Amgen were even willing to help Pay for this
    Build a temporary barn at the NORTH end of the line… under the Magnolia Viaduct, or behind the Grain Pier on port land. (the line had a temp barn its entire previous life!).

    Once the Viaduct / Seawall project is done, we can reconnect with Pioneer Square, King St. Station…

    We could even add 3 more blocks of track south on 5th, put a stop just before Dearborn, then cross it, and head down Airport Way South to the existing METRO yard, filled with electric trackless trolleys. There may be some shared maintenance opportunities there.

    Dreaming a bit larger you could sent a spur onto the Metro property, and continue the line westbound on Edgar Martinez Way, cross 4th with the light, and have a station at Safeco Field/Ex Hall, then run up Occidental with another stop at Qwest North end. Then back to the main line…

    But right now, we continue to "miss the boat" on creating a green, efficient way to move folks along the waterfront, and maybe even make some money doing so.

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    I wonder how much more difficult it makes it since the different systems don't mix.

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    Even more challenging is that because of the frustration of cyclists,
    future streetcars in Seattle are going to be designed with stations in
    the median, which creates access & safety issues for pedestrians
    reaching the site.

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    Put a stop at each end of the the Amgen Campus. paly with ralph lauren.Amgen is currently
    paying a charter bus company to run shuttles from the campus into town.