The Case for a 12th Ave Streetcar

Last year Seattle area voters approved adding 36 new miles of track to the soon-to-be operational light rail system, a huge step towards sustainability. While a light rail station was already planned for our humble neighborhood, the new package came with a small but transformational inclusion for the hill: a new streetcar from the International District to Broadway.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of controversy over this new mobility improvement. Some suggest constructing it sooner. Some don’t want it built at all. Some want it put down Broadway. Others say 12th would be better. Well, while I may not be a transit guru the likes of STB, I would like to present a case for why a streetcar down 12th Ave would be the best use of our money by not just adding a form of transportation but helping an entire community blossom.

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First of all, why a streetcar? Why not, as Councilmember Tom Rasmussen suggested, just use the money for more metro buses instead? Admittedly it’s a non-issue because voters specifically approved this money for a streetcar not buses, but it’s worth discussing anyway. The pro-bus side likes to point out that buses tend to be cheaper and easier to implement. In addition they can be rerouted according to demand. The pro-streetcar people point to statistically higher ridership numbers for streetcars as well as the “green” power of electricity over diesel engines. Plus, a streetcar obviously looks much prettier!

The reason that I prefer a streetcar comes down to one thing: permanence. Perhaps this is from studying religion in college, but from a theoretical standpoint a streetcar can act as an axis mundi for a neighborhood. Because the streetcar is a connection between the neighborhood and the broader city, the metal tracks embedded in the street definitively identify the space where interactions will be the most intense and diverse (nearer the tracks) and where they will be more restrained and controlled (farther out). By creating this central point of reference people are able to more easily organize the neighborhood in their minds, and in turn, they feel more at ease moving about it.


Similarly, because of this permanence, a streetcar becomes something much more than just a form of transportation, it becomes an integral piece of the neighbor just like an ivy-covered brick building, or an old, weather-worn chestnut tree.  While it may not be alive in the standard sense, it does in fact take on the qualities of a living member of the community. For instance, we call a streetcar shelter a barn, instead of a garage. Similarly, the South Lake Union streetcar garnered a nickname in a matter of days. Do any metro buses have such a loving cognomen? The reassurance afforded by a streetcar’s permanent fixture allows people to establish a deeper relationship with it and soon the simlpe sight of the little trolley gliding down the street conjures up feelings of security, comfort, and warmth.

But for a streetcar to function as a tool for community enhancement it must be placed where it too can benefit from people around it. Jane Jacobs said it best: “life attracts life” and if the streetcar is to become an organic piece of the urban fabric it must be placed where it can interact with a lively street life. Broadway, south of Madison, is utterly dead. Sure there are a number of institutions that border the street (SU and a few medical centers) but none of them engage the street at all. It is like the backdoor to First Hill and the Central District with numerous parking garages and blank walls. A streetcar down Broadway would solely be a form of transportation. And if this is its function, it will fail.

On the other hand, 12th Ave, while it may not be Pike/Pine or Ballard Ave, certainly has its merits. It has a host of small, interesting spaces and there are plans for a number of Seattle University improvements as well as a few Capitol Hill Housing projects (see this post for more).  With the addition of a streetcar the surrounding community will really have a central area to gather around, enhancing the feeling of security and comfort. The area is like a flower just beginning to sprout but it needs a little more sunlight to help it grow. The streetcar could be that sunlight.


Streetcar in Geneva by Henry Volt
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15 thoughts on “The Case for a 12th Ave Streetcar

  1. The pro-streetcar arguments:
    • the “green” power of electricity over diesel engines
    • the metal tracks embedded in the street definitively identify the space where interactions will be the most intense and diverse
    • because of this permanence, a streetcar becomes something much more than just a form of transportation,

    surely also apply to our electric buses, or “trackless trolleys” as they were known when first introduced. Most trolley lines are many decades old and their routes cannot change: the permanence you desire.
    The one new route (the 70ish through Eastlake) has art elements associated with the wires and stops, making it a more obvious part of the neighborhood.

    Electric buses have other obvious advantages: they can get round obstructions in the road, and they don’t need rails, which really do impede bicycle traffic on shared streets. I’ve cycled the SLUT line back from Denny to Lake Union several times and it really is not easy or pleasant to ride on. The proposed alternative (trolleys in center lanes with street center islands for loading) will result in pedestrian-car collisions: I’ve already seen pedestrians sprinting across Eastlake against the light to catch a SLUT. It’s going to kill someone.

    Yes, I know we voted for a trolley. We also voted for a monorail……. (and Nixon really carried the country).

  2. Wow, what a nice composition on this post!

    I think Andrew raises some good points on the merits of trolley buses but streetcars do seem to be better at inducing development (assuming this is something we want). But the real obstacle to Sound Transit locating the streetcar on 12th is that ST is meant to provide regional linkages and 12th Ave, while great, is not as regionally important as the hospitals on the other side of Broadway. The city has their own streetcar funding proposal and the 12th route might fit better with that (Sorry I’m feeling too lazy to dig up the link right now).

  3. True. And ST’s decision to link two of its stations, Capitol Hill and the ID, with a streetcar is not an obvious choice from the standpoint of connectivity to the hospitals.

    The details are important. The connection of Harborview to ST light rail on 3rd Ave. via Metro route#3 and #4 is, according to the schedule, about a six minute trip. Those bus routes, during peak commute hours, have a frequency of anywhere from six to nine minutes. Is a streetcar on Broadway and Boren going to provide a better connection between Harborview and light rail?

    Another of the three hospitals west of Broadway is Virginia Mason. It’s about six blocks from Broadway and about eight blocks from a future ST light rail station downtown. Not much of an advantage.

    The third major hospital is Swedish. While its front door is on Broadway, the walking distance from there to 12th Ave. is three short blocks across the S.U. campus. Between Broadway and 12th a pedestrian is not crossing streets with vehicle traffic or traffic signals. It’s a pleasant walk. It takes about four minutes (or a little more going uphill).

    JoshMahar outlines the reasons why a streetcar, as a catalyst for economic development, makes more sense on 12th. As for connectivity to light rail, I don’t think a streetcar on Boren/Broadway would really be as much of a service to the hospitals as is sometimes assumed.

  4. i’ve also ridden a bike from denny to lake union a few times and have never had a problem; so maybe the issue is more individual.

    as far as pedestrians getting killed sprinting across the street, it’s not just the trolley they do it for. i’ve seen pedestrians darting out into traffic to catch the bus. hell, they step out into traffic when they don’t want to wait for the light. saying that the trolley will be the cause of deaths is a bit melodramatic. it’s not a greater cause than anything else in life.

    and you don’t mention the other pro-streetcar argument: getting people out of their cars and onto public transit. many people refuse to get on a bus and studies have shown that those same people WILL get on the trolley. doesn’t matter if it’s just their perception that a trolley is cleaner than a bus (i find that it usually is). what matters is that something is getting them out of their cars. so why should we expand service with a mode of transportation that isn’t going to have a real impact on getting people out of their (usually) single-person transports?

  5. Once you shell out the money to build the trackless trolleys, why not just chip in the few extra bucks for the tracks? Why skimp when you hardly save much in the end? You seem to think the trolley bus lines come on the cheap.

    How often do you see obstructions in the road? That wind storm two winters ago throwing trees in the street the last time you saw such a great obstruction? The only obstruction to the streetcar I am worried about is traffic, and your buses won’t be able to go around that, so whatevs.

    As a bicyclist the tracks do require some skill, but are not impassable. There are great examples of bike lane and trolley stop configuration that can mitigate conflicts. Don’t be so negative without even seeing the alternatives.

    The SLUT isn’t going to kill someone. People speeding to get to their destination are the most likely candidate.

    Back to the original discussion at hand. 12th is the best candidate for one reason already mentioned: Boren and Broadway are crap 4-lane arterial nobody’s land while 12th has all the functions necessary for it to be a sexy happening corridor. And I live a block off it, but I am not biased or anything.

  6. The whole reason this streetcar line came about is because First Hill lost their station. That station was to have entrances at Broadway/Madison and Summit/Madison (to the west of Broadway). The main point of that station was to serve the employement base of the hospitals (Swedish, Viriginia Mason, Harborview) as well as the surrounding dense residential hood. The streetcar is intended to connect that same station area to the LRT stations at IDS and Cap Hill. If anything, the folks who complained about losing “their” station and who are being placated by this streetcar line would probably argue to build it further west (to better serve Harborview), not east. Personally I would love to see the streetcar on 12th, as I live not too far away, but I just don’t see it happening. This line is more political than anything else. Of course a bus would be just as effective as a streetcar. That’s not the point. It’s a replacement for the lost “hospital” LRT station, so it needs to be near the hospitals.

  7. I’m a huge supporter of building the streetcar on 12th, and I think it can be done if there is enough community support for it. Building the streetcar on Broadway south of Madison would be a huge mistake. Who is going to walk from First Hill to Broadway to catch a streetcar when they could just catch one of the trolley buses that already criss-cross the hill? First Hill is already well served by transit and most of the hospitals and businesses are closer to downtown then they are to Broadway. Building the streetcar on 12th would serve a community that has no existing N-S transit service and has tons of development potential. If built right, a 12th Ave. line could be a model for other streetcar lines in the city.

  8. “Of course a bus would be just as effective as a streetcar. That’s not the point.” That’s exactly the point! The city has money for a streetcar and as I’ve outlined, a streetcar can do a whole lot more than just transport people. There is no good reason why they should waste this opportunity on South Broadway.

  9. So, what do we do to get it on 12th? Any good architects or urban designers in the area who could do some illustrations and put together a presentation? Any transit planners or engineers who could do a ridership study? I think the community will need a lot of ammo to get the city to change it’s mind about the alignment.

  10. for some great visuals of what a streetcar line on 12th would be, check out the visuals posted here:

    an ad-hoc group of stakeholders has been asking for 12th to be studied. soon we hope to coordinate some open forums on this topic to bring people out and talk about where an alignment should be. so far, the “loop” idea has been getting a lot of traction. this would serve everyone well, from our perspective.

  11. I support the 12th Ave idea to the max and will work on any committees … I own a 35 year old C. Hill business located on 12th, the Seattle Gay News … any info. or meeting info appreciated …


  12. Really great points Josh. I’m finally reading this as more discussions about 12th are hitting the street and SDOT is ready to have open houses on the route planning.

    I’d like to see a couplet on 12th/Broadway studied further in detail as the benefits to the whole district would be considerable. SDOT should study increased frequency of service to help justify the 12th Ave. portion. Instead of 7.5 to 10 minute headways, increase the service to every 4 minutes or so. Then, a 12th Avenue couplet would not necessarily take away from the quality of service on Broadway. The added ridership and area of influence around 12th would help justify the added costs…maybe 12th Avenue property owners would consider a LID to supplement the cost of added trains.

    Here how it would work: Instead of waiting longer for the streetcar at any one point, you would immediately hop on a one way train coming every 4 minutes and transfer to a train going the other direction where the lines kiss. This may make more sense near the edges of the couplet than at the middle. SDOT and engineering consultants should study this financially and operationally.

    Lets also not forget the couplet separation is only three short sides of blocks…about 1000′. We are urbanites, walking a bit is not bad for you. It’s not that far to walk between these streets if you don’t want to transfer as I described above. It’s also a pretty nice walk through teh campus, not like crossing Aurora or I-5. I understand Seattle University is considering enhancing the walkability through their campus to help facilitate safer, well lit, more direct and more accessible routes to help facilitate the 12th Avenue line.

    I also understand that major utilities exist on both 12th and Broadway. Careful placement of a single track on two streets may avoid costly replacement of this infrastructure while allowing easier construction sequencing and less long term traffic impacts by the system.

    Take a look at the system planned for downtown Los Angeles. It has two couplet options with greater separations than our condition on First Hill:

    Let’s gather some more facts and then consider if a broader network that serves both streets makes sense.