IT’S 9:24 AM AT THIRD and Pine downtown. The morning rush hour is winding down, but packed buses still jockey for lane and curb space. The Number 2 arrives from Queen Anne with every seat full and 19 passengers standing in the aisle. Meanwhile, three blocks away at Westlake and Olive, a more tranquil transit tableau unfolds. A sleek purple streetcar, decked with artful supergraphics, prepares to depart for the emerging biotech mecca in South Lake Union. The interior looks as unlike a gloomy Metro bus as its Euro-style exterior does: all gleam and glass, a picture window on wheels. A wide, curb-level entry makes boarding easy for wheelchairs, bicyclists, and anyone who struggles up the steps of conventional buses. A soothing-voiced loudspeaker and electronic reader boards by the doors announce each stop; digital displays at the stations say when the next two trains will arrive.

The streetcar’s few seats are so hard and cramped they make even Metro’s vinyl-covered benches seem plush. But this car’s not built for sitting. Most of its space is dedicated to standing and straphanging, reflecting the short trips that streetcars are meant to serve. That configuration lets more passengers ride—or it would, if more wanted to. Just five passengers board the car, which can hold 140. Ten minutes later a bright orange streetcar (the third car plying the route is chartreuse) arrives from Lake Union carrying nine.

Such figures don’t phase the officials and businesses who advocated the construction of what was originally called the South Lake Union Trolley. (That changed to "Streetcar" after local wags pounced on the "SLUT" acronym. "I prefer to call it the Love Train," chuckles James Kelly, a cofounder of the Seattle Streetcar Alliance.) One top booster, Mayor Greg Nickels, has proclaimed its ridership "well above expectations." Ridership did vastly exceed projections during the trolley’s December start-up, when the City waived fares and 78,000 riders tried it for free. But once the novelty faded and fares were implemented, ridership settled to about 1,000 a day—within the range planners had forecast for the first year. Nickels and allies nevertheless urge steaming ahead and building an entire streetcar network. In early February, after assembling a stack of reports on whether, how, and where to build more lines, the City Council took the penultimate step toward a citywide streetcar plan. It launched a feasibility study, to be completed May 6, of a six-line network that would connect the International and Central districts, downtown, Lower Queen Anne, Interbay, Capitol and First hills, Eastlake, Fremont, and other close-in neighborhoods. If the enthusiasm holds, it’s back to the future: Seattle will begin rebuilding the streetcar network it tore out in the 1940s to make room for automobiles.

"Dense development does not happen along bus routes. It happens along streetcar tracks."—Jan Drago, Chair, Seattle City Council Transportation Committee

Backers expect the new streetcars to serve the same purposes the old ones did: to link disconnected neighborhoods (though buses can also do that), attract new riders to transit, and spur investment along neglected corridors. "Dense development does not happen along bus routes," declares Jan Drago, the council’s transportation chair and a main streetcar booster. "It happens along streetcar tracks." Seattle’s neighborhoods originally sprouted along such routes: Guy Phinney laid tracks out to what’s now Phinney Ridge so he could sell lots there. Portland, whose new streetcar system has inspired Seattle and other cities, calls it "development-oriented transit" and says it’s helped bring higher density and $2.3 billion to the once-decrepit waterfront and Pearl District.

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Still, Seattle hasn’t chosen the most development-starved routes for its streetcars. Massive construction was already under way at South Lake Union when its streetcar was planned. Blighted Rainier Avenue, around which city officials have relaxed zoning rules to encourage infill, gets only a passing nod as a possible future streetcar extension. The City’s "Implementation Priorities" list dismissed a Rainier route as "not recommended."

Other cities have found streetcars draw new riders, especially tourists and weekend shoppers. After Memphis installed vintage streetcars resembling Seattle’s mothballed Waterfront Streetcar, it surveyed riders; nearly half said they rode "for the experience" and would otherwise travel by car. "Maybe it’s psychological," says Drago. "There’s a portion of the population that just wouldn’t ride a bus," but might board a cute, spiffy streetcar. She shrugs: "I don’t know what the reason is."
James Kelly thinks he knows: The streetcar "is more frequent, and you don’t have to worry about the overcrowding on buses." Indeed. Last September, 59 Metro bus routes met the official definition of crowding—five or more passengers standing in the aisle—at least once. Three popular routes, the 2 and 4 to Queen Anne and 36 to Beacon Hill, were crowded at least 12 times that month.
That reflects a general surge in bus riding. While Metro’s service expanded only slightly, its ridership rose 6 percent in 2006 and 7 percent in 2007, to 110 million boardings—the biggest increase in a decade. Many of the new riders that streetcar boosters hope to lure seem to be discovering the bus. Meanwhile, most of those riding the South Lake Union streetcar are already bus riders; more than 80 percent boarded with transfers or passes rather than paying cash.

"We should focus on how to improve the transportation system, not on the hardware."—Nick Licata, Member, Seattle City Council

Streetcars are pricier than buses, even after the track and other infrastructure ($50.5 million for the South Lake Union Streetcar) are paid for. It costs $180 an hour to operate the South Lake Union line. That figure will come down as more lines get built. But it’s a long way from matching Metro buses, which cost $98 an hour. Even Portland’s much-lauded streetcar costs about $135 an hour.
Pondering such comparisons, some skeptics on the council wonder if they couldn’t lure more riders and get more bang for limited transit bucks by expanding bus service. "Do we want to develop a whole new streetcar system when we’ve spent 40 years developing the bus system we have?" asks council member Tom Rasmussen. "If we had more frequent service in more neighborhoods, more people would try the bus." Especially if it ran every 15 minutes, as the streetcar does, rather than every half hour as most buses do. And if it offered the same amenities—easy entry, more light, digital reader boards—as streetcars. "Bus companies have not been challenged to improve their designs," contends Rasmussen—so let’s challenge them.

Drago argues that the key to weaning city dwellers from their cars is "choice—to provide as many viable alternative modes of transportation as we can." Yes, says Rasmussen, but "I think giving people choice can mean giving them more buses to ride."

"We really should focus on how to improve the transportation system," says Nick Licata, another streetcar skeptic on the council. "Not on the hardware." And not on trophies at the expense of transit.