Thursday, September 9, 2010

America, Seattle, and the Streetcar

The horse car, and then the street car, lifted Americans from the mud and horse manure that formed their roads, and sheltered them from the rain and snow. As a stable consumer of power, it subsidized the building of power plants and spread of electricity, and it usually maintained the streets, often paving them, that the streetcars ran on. It made it possible to build bigger factories with larger numbers of workers from further away.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the streetcar era was over, and American bought automobiles instead. The streetcars of the day were hard-riding cramped single-truck cars for which nobody grieved. In America the day of the streetcar was done by the time the PCC car was unveiled- a car that became the favorite of the world, but was rejected by America.

Since that time, the streetcar, and our circumstances, have evolved. In the many lines of Europe we can see this flowering, but in America we're still wondering what the role of the streetcar should be in transit and urban planning.

We seem to know that, because of the low speed of streetcars, 3-5 miles seems to be a good length for a streetcar line. Development clusters readily on streetcar lines and property values increase. With this and other factors in mind, it becomes possible to imagine specific roles for the streetcar in the city of your choice.

Arguably, Seattleites should be doing a lot of such imagining. Seattle is essentially a small city, and the projected funding for high-capacity rail transit is claimed for many years into the future by Sound Transit and their Link lines and extensions. Creating viable in-city transit improvements should be high on the list for Seattleites.

I'm hoping to sketch some imaginary lines in the future, but for now, the point is that the factors that created our original lines will not be the factors that create the new lines we need, and the streetcars we build today are vastly different from the streetcars we rejected then.

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