Seattle followed Portland to build the second modern streetcar system
in the U.S., featuring one downtown line, a second that's about to open and a third in the planning stages. Overall ridership grew steadily after the first line opened in 2008, the transit website Transport Politic says, but usage flattened out in 2013 and actually declined in 2014.
"The problem may have something to do with the way the streetcar runs: In the street, sharing lanes with cars," says Transport Politic Editor Yonah Freemark in a new blog post. "The results have been slow vehicles — the line's scheduled service averages less than eight miles per hour — often held back by traffic and a lack of reliability. This can produce horror stories of streetcars getting stuck for half an hour or more behind other vehicles and, combined with infrequent service, it certainly reinforces the sense that streetcars are too slow and unreliable to provide any serious transportation benefit.
"This is a problem shared by every existing and planned modern streetcar line in the country, suggesting that the streetcar designed to run in the street with cars may, over the long term, simply fail to attract riders who grow increasingly frustrated with the quality of service provided."
Sobering thoughts for those anticipating long-term success for the Cincinnati Streetcar
, which will run in street traffic along its entire route.
Seattle is now studying the idea of dedicated lanes for its third streetcar line, with the idea of providing quicker travel times. Freeman thinks that new approach could "demonstrat(e) that one of the fundamental problems with today's modern streetcar movement can, in fact, be addressed, albeit a few years late. If it shows that those dedicated lanes can reduce disruptions and speed up service, it hopefully won't be long until we see them in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Portland."
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