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.
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.