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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Red Light District: The SLUT’s Virgin Journey

posted by on December 13 at 7:30 AM

Originally posted last night.

The most striking thing about public transit is the smell. When I boarded the South Lake Union Streetcar this afternoon for its inaugural day, it smelled like a new car. The windows were big. The inside was clean. I liked it.

Inside, there was transitmania—passengers jockeyed for a window view and delighted at recognizing insignificant landmarks. Sue and Lavern, wearing long purple coats, came downtown just for it. “We’re two little old ladies from the north end,” said Lavern, who only makes it downtown two or three times a year.

After the car left the Westlake Center station, though, I wondered: How long can the SLUT keep this new-car smell? And more importantly, will this 1.3-mile ride from the shopping district to the SLU office parks prove to be a tourist novelty for folks like Lavern and Sue, a commuter line, or simply an amenity for Vulcan?


School groups make me want to die.

The answer to the first question came within minutes, about a block before the second stop, when a rank fart gusted through the cabin. About a dozen passengers clamored for the doors in front of Paul Allen’s 2200 Westlake towers, but—a veteran of Metro buses—I remained committed to the trip.


Streetcars totally get stuck in traffic.

John Fox, Coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, is quick to speculate about the second question: It’s a corporate amenity. “For Paul Allen it enhances value of properties along the route,” he says. “It’s expensive tinsel and a waste of city resources.”

“Not one buck of the general fund [was used],” according to Michael Mann, Executive Manager of Infrastructure for the Mayor’s Office, who then disclaimed that the city paid $1 million out of obligation for property it owns near the tracks. The project cost $52.1 million to build, he says, and $25.7 was raised from property owners within four blocks of the line. But Mann says the remaining 26.4 million came from federal, state, and county grants. “The most important part is that it provides another transit option without getting into a car,” he says.

Fox isn’t buying it. “This is a misuse of finite resources earmarked for transit. We should have been applying for those funds for other transit needs,” he says. “It’s not acceptable in a region that needs real solutions, such buses, vanpools, carpools, and bikes to move people at far less cost.” He points out 19 bus routes already serve South Lake Union at a cost 30-40 percent less than street cars.

Mann says maintaining the streetcar will cost about $2 million a year, including a contract for King County Metro to staff the cars with drivers. Rides are currently free but increase to $1.50 for adults beginning in January.

Rush-hour traffic and sexual innuendos after the jump.


After the olfactory assault.

At 2:55 p.m., I was waiting at a stop in the middle of Fairview Avenue on the other end of the line; next to me stood a lab tech who works Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute named Peggie Bates. She wanted to get home – as soon as possible – and she hoped to catch the trolley but kept her eye out for the #70 bus, which runs every 10-to-15 minutes during rush hour.

At 3:10 the SLUT, which is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes, was still nowhere in sight. A #70 Metro bus approach, so Bates walked across the street and boarded. When the the streetcar arrived 3:20 none of the passengers got off. It was packed. Rumor had it the red car (there’s also an orange and a purple) had fallen out of commission.

Rush-hour traffic was agitating slow. Every light was red. Cars kept passing us. Riders commented that they could walk faster than we were traveling. After 21 minutes, averaging four miles-per-hour, I got off. Mann assuaged me, however, that once passengers levels decrease, the end-to-end trip will take only nine-to-eleven minutes.

But despite being slow at peak hours or on opening days, the trolley has its esthetic advantages for folks who work in the area. “I’d be more comfortable riding the streetcar than taking the bus. It’s cleaner and I know the route of the streetcar,” says Karlee Birt, a researcher at Cancer Care Alliance. “Busses make me nauseas. Just, kinda, the smell.”


One sentiment repeated again and again by riders, such as Ballard resident Joe Cole, was the need to extend it. “If the streetcar went to the University District they could kill the 70 route.”

Ken Johnsen, the streetcar’s Project Manager, said the council and mayor have considered that option. “It’s all about circulating people between jobs and housing, a making a pedestrian-friendly experience,” he says. But the design would have some physical limitations climbing Seattle’s hills: The cars can only traverse an eight-to-nine percent grade.

Oh, and about the nickname SLUT… not everyone is over the colloquial acronym. Remember the venerable Sue? She laughed the entire trip. “There are a lot of SLUTs down here on Lake Union?” she asked nobody in particular. “Is this where all the sluts are?”

RSS icon Comments


SLUT is the most appropriate name for this whoring out of our city's leadership. Squandering dollars that could have been used for monorail or light-rail are shunted to make Vulcan's properties worth more.

Posted by vooodooo84 | December 12, 2007 10:32 PM

Au contraire -- read the post -- the SLUT is free!!

You see, City officials could never have raised money from property owners for anything else but SLUT. And those grants -- that money could never have gone to anything else but SLUT.

SLUT -- It's a totally free capital improvement!!
Now that's what we call creative accounting!!

Posted by unPC | December 12, 2007 10:43 PM

The overwhelming opinion seems to be that the damn thing is so slow and inefficient that people are better off walking or catching another bus. What a shock.

And no, I don't buy the line that it'll get better as passenger loads decrease. At best, no one's using a $2 million a year transit line, and at best, you've still got crowds and it still goes slow. Funny how no one, during the SLUT's construction, discussed how slow and inefficient streetcars are, and that there's a reason the damn things were phased out decades ago.

Fun fact: I never once rode the Waterfront Streetcar when it was in service. Do they ever plan to bring that thing back online? Should they even bother?

Posted by Gomez | December 12, 2007 10:43 PM

streetcars ain't slow if they're done properly.

i lived in freiburg for a while, and it's an ideal manner of efficient and user friendly tram system.

but yeah, that $50 million was spent for a 2 mile line that doesn't even connect anything significant in the city reeks of outlandish bullshit. niiiiiice.

Posted by holz | December 12, 2007 11:04 PM

The red light picture is brilliant.

I took the last SLUT south. Crossing the last two streets, Stewart & 6th took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Should have de-boarded at Virginia and walked.

I can't wait to see the ridership levels in Jan 2008 when they start charging money.

Posted by Anon | December 12, 2007 11:06 PM

P.S. It looked like the SLUT was 2-3 inches higher than the platform at the south terminus... how's a wheelchair supposed to board?

Posted by Anon | December 12, 2007 11:08 PM

So who will be the first person to get their tag scratched into the windows?

I propose a tagging flash mob. Who else is in? I'll bring the sharpies you bring the blades.

Posted by drew | December 12, 2007 11:08 PM

I took the bus a lot last year, my first year at a community college. I couldn't drive because I was discouraged from having failed my drive test repeatedly. I hated the bus. I especially hated the one-armed man who sneezed every half second and the obese woman who flirted outrageously with the bus driver.

Like everyone else, I want to want to ride the bus. I just don't want merca...

Posted by Amelia | December 12, 2007 11:19 PM

@8 i don't want scabies, but we don't live in a perfect world

Posted by vooodooo84 | December 12, 2007 11:23 PM

It's Disneyland for "working" adults, of course it's gonna stink like shit, and I still might ride the useless thing. Trains, Planes and Automobiles Unite!

Posted by Humans Lose - Score one for the Stranger | December 12, 2007 11:30 PM

Are you saying you have scabies? That sounds like a personal problem...

Posted by Amelia | December 12, 2007 11:31 PM

I talked to one of the folks from the city while riding the streetcar about the speed. He said that the streetcar was running at 12mph for the first day. It's governed for 30mph, but will likely not exceed 25mph.

So we'll have to wait a few days to see exactly what the travel speed is like - but he said that end-to-end will be around 15 minutes. Traffic is, of course, unpredictable, and makes most of this irrelevant.

Posted by Eric | December 12, 2007 11:33 PM

Doesn't it have one of those traffic-light-changing thingies? How stupid is that? What did they spend the money on?

If you have scabies, please don't come to Moe tomorrow. Unless you have Rat Scabies.

Posted by fnarf | December 12, 2007 11:36 PM

Dude. Portland. Portland has a streetcar. It goes throughout Downtown, it's free, and it doesn't seem to get bogged down in traffic at all (nor does the MAX, but that's because it has ROW.)

Why is it so damn hard for Seattle to do this?

Posted by Suntiger | December 12, 2007 11:45 PM

@fnarf: Ah yes, I also asked about this. The streetcar does preempt traffic lights (however not all - look for black sensors aimed over the tracks), it's disappointing that they moved so slowly today.

He also said that not all of the streetcars have the tracking software set up properly yet, which may explain why the times were inaccurate.

Posted by Eric | December 12, 2007 11:56 PM

new car smell=phthalates=cancer causing. Smelling that stuff is like eating your makeup.

I rode for two stops and got off because it was faster just to walk.


Posted by a-bomb | December 13, 2007 7:42 AM
But the design would have some physical limitations climbing Seattle’s hills: The cars can only traverse an eight-to-nine percent grade.

I see. So the potential for extendability - the one remaining upside I saw to the SLUT - isn't really there after all. Why the fuck did we shell out tax dollars for this piece of shit, exactly? And is there any mass transit project that we can't screw up?

Posted by tsm | December 13, 2007 8:19 AM

COMING SOON: Advertising wraps for the streetcars!

On KUOW earlier this week, Mayor McCheese did not know whether or not the windows would be wrapped for maximum view obstruction.

The idea of killing the 70 because the streetcar extends to the U District is ridiculous. The 70 runs all the way down to King St Station.

Posted by DOUG. | December 13, 2007 8:25 AM

The Portland street car is an 8 mile loop that connects several neighborhoods and goes through downtown.

It connects to light rail and an aerial tram that goes another mile across a freeway and to a relatively inaccessible hilltop area.
The aerial tram was $50 million, like SLUT.

But being out of traffic and providing a trip that is faster than alternatives, it gets some 4000 trips a day ("A total of 125,158 people rode the Portland Aerial Tram in February," at $2 per ride;, compared to 1000 trips a day for the slow SLUT which can be stuck in traffic.

In Seattle, why not look at an aerial tram up to Capitol Hill or West Seattle? And yes, we may want to extend the streetcar through downtown. But we didn't need a $50 million gift to Paul Allen to "prove" that streetcars are viable in general.

What we need is better planning.

Posted by Cleve | December 13, 2007 8:39 AM

I'm really seeing this as a total waste of money. I have absolutely zero trips that can be replaced with this, and I don't know anyone who does. Basically, all it's going to do for me is provide an obstruction when I'm on Denny.

Posted by Gitai | December 13, 2007 9:39 AM

This is really minor, but the place you mentioned in the original post doesn't exist. There's no "Westlake Center station" -- however, there is Pacific Place Station (which is at Westlake Hub).

Perhaps the naming of the stations deserves its own post. I'm guessing Pacific Place bought the naming rights to that station? I've talked to some people who are confused as they think that the SLUS stops right outside of Pacific Place mall.

Posted by stinkbug | December 13, 2007 10:29 AM

the waterfront streetcar won't be back until they build a new trolley barn for it - planned for a mixed-use development on the empty lot east of crackcidental park.

fall 09 at the earliest, i'd wager.

Posted by max solomon | December 13, 2007 10:38 AM

The Portland Streetcar is not free except when it is in Fareless Square. The City of Portland is looking at eliminating this Fareless Square.

The Portland Streetcar also operates with traffic and traffic lights and also has to wait for Portland MAX light-rail trains. It's Weekday ridership for the 8 mile loop is nearly 10,000 riders during Summer 2007, not 4,000 unless your thinking Sunday but it is still closer to 5,000 daily riders.

The issue with the Red Seattle Streetcar was nothing serious, they simply just didn't need the third Streetcar. The power across Fairview Avenue is not activated yet and requires a tow across Fairview because the batteries onboard the Streetcar are not strong enough to pull it up the hill. I watched this practice happen several times during testing. The Streetcars are able to go down the hill with no issues on batteries.

You also can not compare the Portland Aerial Tram to the Portland Streetcar or Seattle Streetcar. The Tram is operated on a cable guide way to the Oregon Health and Science University/Hospital from South Waterfront completely out of traffic and uninterrupted and travels at 22mph and for it's short existence, it already has topped well over 1 million passengers and it's been in operations since January 27th, 2007

We can bitch, moan, and complain that this is a toy for Paul Allen but we all need to open our eyes and realize thsi $50 million "toy" will head to the University of Washington and Fremont and sooner than you all may realize. This is a trial route, nothing more should be looked into this.

The Waterfront Streetcar should be back in 2009 once the construction starts on Greg Smith's building which will house the Streetcars. The Notice to Construct signs have been up for a while now.

Posted by Brian Bundridge | December 13, 2007 10:38 AM

If everyone would just walk the 1.3 miles then maybe they wouldn't be insulting us with their FAT.

Posted by chi type | December 13, 2007 11:48 AM

People need to calm the hell down about how slow it is (as well as other criticisms).

At least, for now.

It was the very first day of operation. Let the operators figure shit out before we all run to the bus stop screaming and crying.

Posted by louley | December 13, 2007 12:00 PM

@25 my criticism isn't that its slow or gives you cancer, its that the city's leadership wasted dollars on this little toy, when those same dollars could have been allocated to a city-wide mass transit system, instead of wasting it on an at-grade extra expensive bus.

Posted by vooodooo84 | December 13, 2007 12:45 PM

of course the returning tram was full: there is no reason for anyone to get out down there!

Posted by duke of delridge | December 13, 2007 2:30 PM

You can learn more about the new trolley barn inside the 200 Occidental building - which will serve the waterfront streetcar line - here:

Posted by John | December 13, 2007 3:05 PM

The real question is can we look forward to more of these Public/Private Investment Management Partnerships?

Posted by NapoleonXIV | December 13, 2007 3:27 PM

I almost hit the damn SLUT last night coming down 7th. She ran a red light.

Posted by bobcat | December 13, 2007 4:47 PM

Great! Another vehicle that takes you a mile and a half to practically nowhere.

Posted by cigar | December 13, 2007 7:21 PM

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