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Alex Marshall

Streetcars in Seattle, Or Why America Should Mind Its Transit Gaps

4:58 PM EDT on June 9, 2009

The rider went down -- Boom! -- just as she turned to see if the streetcar was getting close to her. Turning to look was her undoing, because her wheel got caught in the big gap between rail and street, toppling her hard. The big blue streetcar was only ten feet or so behind her, but luckily was slowing down and did not run her over. Scary though.

Shaken but apparently not badly hurt, the rider, a young woman in a light blouse and wearing a helmet, stood up to be greeted by the streetcar conductor, who offered not sympathy but angry hectoring. Didn’t she know that cyclists were not supposed to cycle in the streetcar lane?

Standing by and watching all this while preparing to board the streetcar in Seattle, I could only shake my head in sadness. We have such a hard time doing mass transit right in this country, particularly outside New York City. Seattle's shiny new streetcar “system” was essentially brand new, but its flaws were already readily apparent.

Let’s start with the tracks. Isn’t there some system possible that does not leave what looked like a three or four inch gap between the track and the street it is imbedded in? I’m sure loyal Streetblog readers will supply me with the make and model of something. I remember seeing that old footage from Barcelona that showed all those cyclists swerving this way and that in front of the streetcar, with apparently no fear of getting caught in the track gap. Can’t we do that today? It certainly doesn’t make sense to exclude cyclists from a whole lane of a street, one that could actually double as a bike lane if built correctly.

Then there are the other problems.

The streetcar line itself is only a little more than a mile long. (The website says the line is 2.6 miles, but I think they are counting both directions.) And it’s pretty expensive -- two dollars for what can be a very short ride. I boarded for what turned out to be only half a mile or so, in part because I’m still on a cane from my scooter accident. Otherwise I would have walked. No sooner had I boarded and paid my two dollars than we were there. I felt cheated. Minimal payment (or even no fare) would be better, which of course would require better government funding.

I feel guilty complaining about something that obviously took a lot of effort. The streetcars themselves are quite nice. I’m sure the organization is trying to do things well.

The central problem, as an official with a California transit agency recently told me, is that American cities and states tend to pursue transit in a fragmented and uncoordinated fashion. Different agencies representing different cities or states build different lines that often connect to each other badly, if at all. Imagine if highways were built as incoherently as rail systems. Somehow, the federal, state and local highway agencies manage to work with each other at least enough to have their projects connect.

Seattle has battled and warred over its transit systems. The city often supports transit in general but not in the particulars. Voters have approved a monorail system several times, only to see the transit establishment and political establishment help kill it. The city is nearing completion of an extensive light rail system, but it is one of the most expensive in the world. Downtown has this enormous bus tunnel -- the product of one compromise between various interests. And now there’s the tiny new streetcar system, which, to be fair, may expand and become much more comprehensive. You have to start somewhere. Maybe they will figure out a way to make it more compatible with biking, which certainly should be the friend and not the enemy.

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