Warp speed, but not. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Assphalt: We Raced the First Hill Street Car on Foot, and Beat it by 8 Minutes

The problem may have something to do with traffic lights.

Dear Assphalt,

Many years ago, a Seattle Weekly writer raced the South Lake Union Streetcar. Riding the very slow First Hill Streetcar the other day, I remembered the story, and got to thinking that reasonably athletic person could probably beat the thing in a footrace. What say you to Man v. Streetcar, Round 2?

We say game on.

The story you refer to is “Racing the SLUT,” and was penned by the inimitable Aimee Curl waaaay back in December 2007 (choice quote: “The persistent drizzle on this very typical December Seattle morning severely hindered my SLUT sniffing skills”.)

While the entire pretense of that story seemed to be a sly dig at the streetcar (what kind of urban infrastructure can be challenged by a laced-up news reporter?), Curl actually lost her race (choice quote no. 2: “By the time I reached the station on Westlake and 7th Ave., the SLUT was smirking at the end of the line—about three blocks away. And she wasn’t the only one that was purple.”)

But while Curl’s efforts ended in defeat, News Editor Dan Person agreed to take up the challenge against the new streetcar, which runs 2.5 miles from Pioneer Square to Seattle Central College and does seem to move along at a clip that would earn it a participation medal at a cross-country meet.

Not to spoil the suspense of this modern-day John Henry tale, but it wasn’t even close. Starting in Pioneer Square a little after 12:30 last Thursday afternoon, Person beat the streetcar, following its route exactly, by more than 8 minutes. Person may have crossed a few intersections while the light was red, but not many. The streetcar never led in the race. For good measure, we then sent him down to South Lake Union to replicate Curl’s race. He beat the South Lake Union Streetcar by a little more than 2 minutes.

Yet proud as we are of Person, and the human race, for beating the machines, this isn’t a story about him being faster than some trolleys. Rather, it speaks to a major issue with Seattle’s burgeoning streetcar system: a little thing called Transit Signal Priority.

As you might surmise, TSP allows transit vehicles like buses and streetcars to change traffic lights in order to speed up their trip, not unlike a fire truck. Seattle’s streetcars have some TSP, but not much—and they used to have more.

Two years after Curl got whupped by the SLUT, the massive, $204 million overhaul of Mercer Street began, which eliminated a good amount of TSP for the streetcar. According to press accounts at the time, losing green-light priority added “several minutes” to a relatively short streetcar run.

As for the First Hill Streetcar, Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Richard Sheridan tells us that “key intersections” are fitted with priority technology. He adds that “other important intersections utilize a system of special streetcar detection loops and ‘train to wayside’ communications to automatically trigger priority. Two good examples of intersections utilizing this technology would be Howell and Broadway and also 14th and Yesler Way in the northbound direction.”

That’s all well and good, but anyone who’s ridden the thing can tell you it gets stuck at lights with the rest of us schlubs.

Many a rider is not impressed with this aspect of the First Hill Streetcar, which cost $134 million to construct. The Northwest Urbanist blog noted in January that “at a minimum … streetcars should benefit from shorter red lights and longer green lights.” Same with lots of readers at Seattle Transit Blog, if the comment threads are to be trusted.

Indeed, the slowness of the streetcar seems to be a central, early narrative to the thing. Two of Seattle Transit Blog’s “launch observations” were that “even weekend trips are slow” and “weekday peak trips are painfully slow.”

And, now, indignities of indignities, it got beat by a human.

Does it matter that a fairly healthy set of human legs can beat the thing by 8 whole minutes? Probably not. It’s just a dumb thing Seattle Weekly did, then did again. But still, we won’t be racing the Pioneer Square-to-Capitol Hill light rail anytime soon.

Assphalt brings a sophomoric sensibility to Seattle transportation news. Have a question about what a “monorail” is? Write us at assphalt@seattleweekly.com.

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