Seattle is often heralded as one of the most progressive cities in the U.S., and during a recent trip, I couldn’t help but admire the seemingly effortless urban vibrancy present not only in downtown proper, but in most neighborhoods. Urban planning and design is a relatively recent interest of mine, but it would be hard not to be – working for the Rivard Report.
Too often, I found myself saying, “Oh, cool, in San Antonio we don’t have …” or “Well, in San Antonio we have …” I don’t know my friends even noticed or just ignored me, but it’s definitely a symptom of working in hyper-local news.
Most Seattle neighborhoods have grocery stores within walking or bus distance, thriving local shops (most notably, coffee shops on every corner), fantastic restaurants, international culture, one of the largest LGBTQ Pride celebrations in the nation, and a deep appreciation and use of public transportation. Out of a dozen or so of my friends in Seattle, only one has a car.
By no means is Seattle a liberal utopia; there is of course more depth to the 163-year-old city. There’s still poverty (albeit below national average), homelessness, abuse of power, crime, abrupt gentrification, and more, but I digress. Seattle is not a “city on the rise” as San Antonio is often called. Seattle has pretty much risen.
My friends from college – I went to Central Washington University about two hours away – and those transplanted from my hometown in Grand Junction, Colo. live in various neighborhoods, including Madison Park, Central District, and, of course, Capitol Hill, Seattle’s “gayborhood.”
The Puget Sound’s maze of inlets to Lake Washington has made for gnarled geographic and neighborhood boundaries. A map of Seattle looks like a profile of a screaming woman with blue hair (I’ve never been good at directions, but this image has helped me navigate the city before). Some neighborhoods are separated by large hills and bodies of water – most bridges are notorious for being pedestrian and bike un-friendly.
San Antonio will never be Seattle – and it doesn’t want to be – but the proverbial “we” have set our sights on revitalizing our urban core and surrounding neighborhoods in a similar way. As the VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Modern Streetcar project gains both supporters and opponents, the latter calling for the project to be put on the ballot in November, I took special note of the Seattle Streetcar project – some of which is completed, and even more is under construction.
As Scott Gustafson pointed out in his piece about the Kansas City streetcar, these are two obviously different cities. This is not a prescription for San Antonio, rather a look at how another city has implemented streetcar project.
Seattle’s Transit Master Plan, a 20-year look forward at the City’s multi-modal traffic needs approved by City Council in 2012, includes an initiative for streetcars, “rapid streetcars,” and light rail to create a “center city circulation system;” Basically, to connect these somewhat disjointed neighborhoods and major commuting destinations. The South Lake Union (SLU) Streetcar line was completed in 2007, the First Hill line should be operational by the end of this year, a Broadway Street expansion completed by late 2016, and the “final” Center City Transit Connector will connect these established projects and future light rail lines.
The SLU line (also known as the S.L.U.T., if you’d like to call it a trolley like certain T-shirt makers do) is located in the now-South Lake Union neighborhood, best known for Amazon’s campus, built several years later. It’s not on the above map because until recently it was an industrial section of the city.
“There was some criticism about how it was done,” journalist Bryan Cohen, who writes for the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, said in an interview. “Lots of very big buildings, but the neighborhood itself is not inviting as a pedestrian. There’s not a good (income) mix of housing, mostly high end condos.”
The $53 million, SLU streetcar line travels 1.3 miles from South Lake Union to Westlake Center downtown. The tracks are laid within existing streets, sharing the road with buses, cars, and bicycles.
If San Antonio can learn anything from the SLU line, it would be to ensure cyclists’ safety when riding over tracks. More than a dozen trackway crashes were reported by 2008 by a local cycling group. A lawsuit against the city was recently dismissed, but the six cyclists who filed the suit brought up the point that a streetcar that runs in a median (instead of in the curb-side lane) is safer for cyclists and faster for streetcar rides.
The project also was seen as an appeasement to billionaire Paul Allen’s Vulcan, the biggest landowner along the route. A majority of funding for the SLU line came from a Local Improvement District tax on local property owners, similar to that of Kansas City’s streetcar. The cars and stations are sponsored as well. And people are actually riding it.
The First Hill line was approved by voters, as part of a large regional transit measure approved November 2008. The measure provided $132.8 million in local funding, supported by a regional sales tax.
“Seattle is doing really well — the city is pretty willing to tax itself for transportation,” Cohen said.
When I visited the city during my college days, we took the bus everywhere. I was always impressed. Buses were frequent, reliable, cheap, and meant that we didn’t need to find a designated driver. So when I heard that Seattle was going the streetcar route, I was surprised. Wasn’t a street car redundant?
The City hopes to accommodate an increased population, which means more traffic, by investing in diverse transportation options. Streetcars, psychologically, are more accessible – they typically follow a more simple, shorter route. And an electric streetcar doesn’t need gas, just electricity from Washington’s predominately hydro-powered grid.
“In terms of transit connections, we have put more emphasis on connections between the streetcar and regional light rail stations for both the South Lake Union and First Hill lines than on bus connections, but there are nevertheless numerous locations where there are easy bus to streetcar transfers as well,” Malone said.
Neighborhoods that would otherwise be off the radar for a happy hour drink or street fair become a doable ‘few stops away.’
The First Hill Streetcar … will bring that expanded state-of-mind to Capitol Hill as the new transit line adds direct connections to Chinatown/International District and Pioneer Square.
“The streetcar is intended first and foremost to make good neighborhood connections within dense center city neighborhoods, but both the First Hill and SLU lines also connect to destinations of interest to tourists, so that is a welcome use as well,” said Ethan Malone, streetcar project manager for Seattle Department of Transportation.
First Hill’s Broadway Street line could look very similar to the proposed route on San Antonio’s Broadway Street. Construction is finishing up to turn four vehicle lanes into two vehicle/streetcar lanes with a two-way separated bike lane and two lanes for parking in both directions.
“The City adopted a Complete Streets policy before the start of design on the First Hill project. Additionally, community members came up with the protected bike lane concept,” Malone said. “The City was able to incorporate this community-generated idea. The community viewed this as a way to ‘reclaim the street’ for pedestrians, as well as bicyclists.”
The proposed rendering for Broadway Street in San Antonio is slightly different, planning for the possibility of keeping four lanes of traffic and having landscaping instead of parking.
Overall, Seattleites pride themselves on having a robust public transit network. But it’s going to take more than pride to sustain a streetcar system.
“Young, rich people like taking public transportation … taking transit in Seattle is still a little bit of a statement,” Cohen said. “It’s just a matter of making (public transit) the best way to get around, not just the coolest.”
*Featured/top image: A worker adjusts electric lines for the future streetcar line in Capitol Hill, Seattle. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.