Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The South Lake Union Streetcar, and shopping downtown

I took my family to ride the South Lake Union Trolley on the weekend before Christmas. My wife wanted to shop downtown, and we both wanted to bring the kids to see the gingerbread houses at the Sheraton. We ran some errands along the way and then drove to a parking lot in front of the Bluwater -- the trolley would add a bit of free family fun for the holidays (they started charging for the ride this month).

As we got out of the car, the trolley reached the end of the line nearby, so we all took off running after it, with me carrying my two-year-old son. The streetcar only stopped for a few seconds at the terminus, so we had to run quite a bit further than we'd anticipated, and arrived somewhat more red-cheeked than the December weather alone would've accounted for. It turns out that the north end of the line isn't actually a stop; the stop is actually several dozen yards up the line, but the streetcar doesn't move particularly fast (the driver might've seen us and waited the extra half-minute for us to catch up, too), so we were able to climb on. It started up the line as soon as we were aboard.

The first thing we noticed was the noticeable jolt the streetcar started up with. This turned out to be typical -- pretty much every time the streetcar started up, it did so with a more pronounced jerk than most buses I've ever ridden. The ride was otherwise very smooth, however. Not long after we started, my eight-year-old son turned to me and made the first of that day's out-of-the-mouths-of-babes pronouncements: he asked "how is this different from a bus?" I had to laugh, because of course the streetcar isn't really much different from a hugely expensive, too-infrequent bus (which also presents an undue hazard to bicyclists, several of whom have been injured while trying to negotiate its tracks already), though the infrequency wouldn't become fully clear until the return trip. I also noticed that the shelters at the stops are too small, especially in the rain: there isn't enough room for everyone to stand under them, even if they are nice to look at.

The ride to Westlake took about 12-13 minutes and the seats filled up to standing-room-only quickly, though it never got packed. The Westlake terminus is right under the monorail line, and the blue train passed overhead just as we disembarked, which I thought was charming. I asked the kids to count the number of different forms of transportation they saw, and they reached 10 within a couple minutes: streetcar, monorail, bus, walking, taxi, stroller, wheelchair, bicycle, a Segway(!), a horse-drawn carriage, plus several more in the toy train window at Macy's.

We stopped inside Nordstrom or Macy's or someplace, then went on to the Sheraton before making our way back to Westlake Center for lunch. We hung out at the monorail station on its third floor for several minutes in hopes of seeing a train pull in while waiting for elevator space to bring our stroller downstairs (there is far too little elevator space for that monorail!), but missed out. Returning on the streetcar required a longer wait than we expected: it didn't start up until about five minutes after we got on. My older son asked "when's it going to start?" -- another of those from-the-mouths-of-babes moments I mentioned -- while hanging from an overhead bar, as he wanted to experience that startup jerk while suspended from that bar. Eventually, it did start up, and I discovered that one of its drivers was in the car with us. It was running with all sorts of glitches, apparently, including one this trip where stops were being indicated in a confusing manner: apparently there was an operator error using the onboard software (which sounded really poor), so each stop it announced was actually one further stop down the line. I didn't find the onboard displays particularly helpful even before this issue cropped up, by the way. That driver told me that the startup jerk is normal, actually, saying that the drivers can't really feel it, even if the passengers clearly do. He also gave me the lowdown on why the onboard status board wasn't working right.

Turns out the status board (and the lack of a stop at the north terminus) fooled us, too -- we stayed on board (along with several other people) at the last stop, then once the change in direction let us know, we told the extra driver that we'd missed our stop. But the trolley didn't stop there again, as we'd neglected to hit the "stop requested" signal, so we ended up getting off at the next stop and having to walk about four times as far as we should have. We weren't in a hurry and were in adventure mode anyway, but I can see how this arrangement could be a major annoyance to some. Hopefully they get the operators trained to configure the onboard information system better, and do a better job of indicating when the streetcar has reached the north end of the line.

Bottom line, I hope the streetcar finds a larger ridership than a bus in the same alignment would: so much more was spent on it than would have been spent on buses doing the same thing (even more frequently!) that if streetcar systems are to have a future in the Puget Sound region, they'd better be able to justify that additional cost with higher ridership, and I would hate to think that so much money was just wasted on this system for nothing.