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Transportation

Seattle Wants to Change the Whole Conversation on Streetcars

Unlike most new lines in U.S. cities, the Center City Connector would operate in its own exclusive lane.
A South Lake Union streetcar is unveiled.

A South Lake Union streetcar is unveiled.

Photographer: Carlos Javier Sanchez/Bloomberg

On a late August afternoon, at the corner of Westlake and 6th avenues in downtown Seattle, a police officer pulled his patrol car to the curb. He got out and approached a woman who appeared to be on drugs: she was crouched and half-hidden in the shadows of a temporary plywood walkway beneath a building under construction. He called in the incident, and an ambulance was dispatched to the scene. But a streetcar from the city's South Lake Union line got there first, pulling to a stop directly behind the patrol car, which was parked over the tracks the streetcar shares with street traffic, blocking the way.

The streetcar operator soon opened the doors of the stalled vehicle, and about two dozen passengers stepped off, with a few blocks remaining between them and Westlake Hub, the line's downtown terminus. Ten minutes later the patrol car was still on the tracks, the officer unable to see that where he'd parked in the line of duty had clogged the streetcar route. A second streetcar pulled up and stopped. Then a third. It took nearly 30 minutes for someone to alert the officer to the problem. He waved a sheepish apology and moved the car, and all three streetcars pulled forward toward the rush-hour crowd waiting at the Westlake Hub station.