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Stop Spacing

Chad Newton has an interesting post at STB on stop spacing, speed and ridership of various rail systems across the US. He’s making the case that more stops on LINK wouldn’t necessarily hurt ridership, and might even help.

That seems fair to me. But the graphs make me think about something else. If you look at the graph of systems sorted by stop spacing, the ones on the left (with the greatest number of stops) tend to be hybrid subway/commuter rail systems, while the ones on the right are strict urban systems, supplemented by a separate commuter rail to provide service to the suburbs (commuter rail systems are seemingly left out of this analysis). It makes sense the hybrid systems (BART, MARTA, DC Metro) are going to have a larger average distance between stops, because they go all the way out into the ‘burbs.

Now, maybe in the 21st century the old hub-and-spoke model doesn’t apply, but there’s still a qualitative difference between a system that’s geared towards commuters who use it once a day, and urban denizens who use it for errands and socializing and the like.

So the bigger question is: what kind of system is LINK? Or, rather, what kind of system does LINK want to be? Thus far, I think Sound Transit has thread the needle quite carefully (and quite well). It’s a regional agency, with a regional constituency, so of course the bias is going to be toward a hybrid system that serves commuters as well as urban metro riders. But they’ve also been very good about avoiding the freeway median stations and massive park-and-rides that characterize other hybrid systems. Thus, density can still occur around stations, and more stations can be added relatively easily (in places such as the Rainier Valley or, later, Bel-Red).

The real test will come later (ST3? ST4??), when the agency is forced to make tradeoffs between developing a true urban system and providing a commuter rail for a mostly suburban constituency.

Center Platforms

I agree with Martin that more center platforms would be better. I’m surprised they didn’t do this while they had the tunnel closed for 2 years recently. They were ripping out all the tracks anyway.

In general, it seems like it takes an awful lot of walking through cavernous underground plazas to get from the street to the platform in the downtown stations, especially considering that the downtown stations are relatively simple: one northbound and one southbound platform. We’re not talking about NY’s 42nd Street or DC’s Metro Center, where multiple lines converge and so you need to move people to the right platform.

The buses would need to switch lanes when entering, or better yet, be replaced by those newfangled buses with doors on both sides.

The Key Word Is 'Public'

Most of us have the vague sense that there was a ‘golden age of the trolley’ in which transit systems made money hauling full carloads of passengers. For some systems there were a few good years.

But most systems, most of the time, did not make much money, and it usually took little more than a fire in a carbarn to put the system in receivership.

But people wanted transportation, and quite a bit of America, at one time or another, had rails- carrying horsecars, cablecars, steamcars, and finally the streetcars and interurbans. At the bottom line this was financed and built by the public.

The cablecars were perhaps the most costly and complex form of land transportation ever devised. A central power station pulled cables ten miles long, around corners and up and down hills. It was always a big night on the system when they replaced the cable. Most of these systems were broke when the first car rolled, but the public chipped in and kept them going.

The streetcars, in their day, were the social centers. They went to cemeteries, ball parks, and picnic parks, or simply served as a cool ride on a summers evening before air conditioning. They carried caskets in special cars, wedding parties in special cars, sightseers, and even the mail on occasion. To try to grasp their importance, remember that Brooklyn at one time had a dense net of streetcars on the surface above the subways.

The coming of the automobile, of course, changed all that, and in the lifetimes of most of us the private car, with the emphasis on the word private, has served as our roll model. Whether a society as finely atomized as the gasoline injected into their pistons can re-integrate itself into a social whole remains to be seen.

It is always frustrating, in our atomized society, to reflect on the public measures needed to build transit. But the day of the ginormous subsidies to the automobile is drawing to a close, and much sooner than we think, the question will be, not how to build transit, but how to build it well.

West Side Light Rail Vote in 2010?

McGinn’s examining an even more aggressive timeline than the one he campaigned on.

Unintended Consequences

Transportation is a complex system:

A number of cold weather American states are reporting their dismay at finding out that LED traffic lights are so energy efficient that they do not produce enough excess heat to dissipate any snow that covers them.

Enough Already!

Recently, on STB, some comments about transit reminded me of my feelings about about quitting smoking- maybe tomorrow, definitely, “soon”, but not today.

The comments came up when I suggested that it would cost only a little more to build a light-rail line to Georgetown than it would to replace the bridge to South Park. This bridge, obsolete the day it was opened in 1931, was intended to serve development on the south side of the river, and opening to allow river traffic to go upstream. Obviously, none of this ever happened, and for 78 years the bridge has served as an archetypal “bridge to nowhere”.

But we so love our cars and trucks that commenters were aghast at the idea of not replacing it. It was described as an essential link in regional transportation, which, even if you’ve never used the bridge, can be seen as obviously untrue by looking at a map. One commenter though spending $130 million (the real replacement cost) would be worth it to preserve a bus route. Another made a heart-tugging appeal on the basis of the niceness and affordability of the South Park neighborhood, as though a new bridge and improved access weren’t the most obvious and proven threats to that halcyon state of affairs. Another weighed in with the time-tested “maintain our infrastructure” meme.

And all of this is why, while the money would buy miles of light-rail line, we’ll probably get a new bridge instead, that will funnel increasing volumes of container-truck traffic through what was once a nice residential neighborhood. We’re just not ready to change. Let’s hope we get ready before it’s too late.

Restarting A Stalled Streetcar

Got to thinking last night about things that could be done to start working to restart the Waterfront Streetcar. In no particular order, I came up with-

Walk the line taking pictures of the condition of the tracks and overhead. In fact, this might be a good time to also take pictures of the businesses adjacent to the line, and make up a sort of directory of neighboring businesses. In working later with political types involved it would be handy to be able to describe the neighborhood of the line, the businesses, and potential ridership and destinations.

Finding a new location for the carbarn. This should be an interesting job! If I were doing it, I would start by looking for property about 100? x 200?, at street level. As the early restart of the line would later be interrupted by the Viaduct teardown and seawall construction, it’s possible that the interim carbarn does not need to be permanent- IOW, could be built on a vacant lot that somebody is holding for investment purposes. Naturally, that would include most of the daytime parking lots in the area.

Find where the cars are now and talk with anyone currently involved in maintaining them. From this it might be possible to work up the organizational ladder and talk with some of the people who formerly ran the line.

Allied with this would be talking with the people at Snoqualmie, and finding out who, if anybody, out there is doing historical streetcar work, if any of the people who were once involved with the Waterfront Streetcar are out there, and get the word out a little about renewed interest in Seattle in getting the line running again.

“Inventory” the City Council and try to find out what the council members think about streetcars in general and the Waterfront streetcar in particular. The most likely- and in any case an essential- part of getting the streetcar running again will be the City Council voting an appropriation of funding with instructions to SDOT and KCMetro to make it happen.

What I’ve described is a fairly complex process that can only mature with time, so it would make sense to make one pass just hitting the high points (prominent businesses, City Council members, major problems with track) and then a second filling in more detail (inventory more businesses, learn Councilmember staff assistants, photoinventory and map the entire route). If a team of people could just keep working along at this, it would keep the idea alive and visible to people in the neighborhood, on the City Council, and Seattleites who want the trolley back.

Maybe you noticed I haven’t mentioned the incoming Mayor. Taking office, McGinn and his staff will be swamped with problems. As much as they might want to help, and as earnestly as they may promise to do so, this is going to happen when the City Council appropriates money to do it. IMHO this just isn’t a problem that McGinn can be much help with at this point.

So those are a few ideas I’ve had about how to get a start and a handle on this project. Cross-posted at Save the Waterfront Streetcar blog.

A new heresy: road maintenance fees to cover costs

Down in Portland’s suburbs, the Tigard City Council decided that road maintenance fees should actually cover road maintenance costs! I suspect we’ll be seeing more articles on fights like this one: “Grocers to petition street maintenance fee.” The fees will rise from 78 cents to $2.42 per parking space. The kind-hearted big box grocers (Fred Meyer, Safeway, Costco, Thriftway) are thinking of the poor small businesses who “are just barely hanging on.” They suggest raiding gas tax money to pay for local street maintenance. Surely there’s plenty of gas tax money to go around.

A Warning to California

Learn the lessons of the Seattle Monorail.


11th Ave Streetcar

The Stranger notes the possibility of an 11th-Avenue alignment being thrown into the First Hill Streetcar mix. CHS helpfully draws a map.

Adam @ STB makes a pretty convincing case why 12th Ave is a bad idea, so I’m curious what his take is on this alignment. From my point of view, I like the fact that it runs very close to Broadway but on a street less prone to Broadway’s traffic (north of Union, anyway).