An interesting bit of local history in the Seattle P-I.

By 1892 Seattle was crisscrossed with 48 miles of electric railway and 22 miles of cable railway, stretching from Georgetown to Ballard. According to state historian Walter Crowley, the construction of the streetcar routes segued into smart new development:

…developers platted new neighborhoods clustered around compact business districts at street railway intersections, built broad avenues such as Westlake, Madison and 15th Northwest, and opened attractive parks at Golden Gardens, Alki Beach and Guy Phinney’s former Woodland Estate to lure residents and riders.

Unfortunately, the streetcar city was not long for this world. After losing money for years the city bought the lines—under circumstances so suspicious that a grand jury authorized an investigation. The city eventually ceded authority to the state and by 1941 Seattle was without streetcars, ushering in an era of auto-dominated transportation, with a small emphasis on buses.

And in that short history are a number of explanations for our current transportation problems.

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  • It’s probably no coincidence that in the post-WWII era Seattle’s neighborhoods spread far and wide. And with ever less emphasis on density and integrating commercial centers into residential settings.

    But the most interesting feature of streetcar history may be the reminder of how mutable our transportation infrastructure is. The car is by far the dominant mode nowadays, but it wasn’t always and it may not always be so. New plans for streetcars, light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian-oriented streets, and even the now-dead monorail may signal a coming seismic shift in transportation planning. And while people may complain about a profusion of transit agencies today, we should remember that Seattle once had no fewer than 22 competing streetcar lines.

    The other interesting facet of streetcar history is how quickly they were surplused for not making a profit. That is, the trolley lines suffered the same fate of our lately departed monorail. What an odd double-standard that is: transit must pay its way, but the car should be feted with tax dollars.

    When was the last time that I-405 or the Alaska Way Viaduct made a profit?

    Oh that’s right. Never.