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Portland & Seattle streetcars: Rail for close-in neighborhoods

As Denver considers the possibility of streetcars on Colfax, it may be informative to learn about what other cities have accomplished.

Portland opened its first modern streetcar line in 2001, and Seattle followed in 2007. Both cities use streetcars in a decidedly different way than Denver uses light rail. Rather than shuttling commuters into downtown from far-flung suburbs, streetcar lines circulate residents of central city neighborhoods to shops, restaurants, and entertainment, plus of course jobs and homes.


Portland streetcar. All photos by BeyondDC.com

Streetcars are the central city answer to light rail. In Denver, where FasTracks lines shoot out from Union Station in every direction except into the dense urban core, that’s a sorely needed piece of the transportation puzzle.

Since Portland and Seattle streetcars are more for shorter central city trips, their interior layout is more open than suburban commuter rail. Like Denver’s 16th Street Mall shuttle, streetcars are intended to be for hop-on & hop-off type trips. Train interiors are less tightly packed than buses or light rail.


Portland streetcar interior.

Seattle’s initial streetcar line, to South Lake Union, is pretty short. But its second line will open this year, and will bring service to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Just like in Denver, Capitol Hill is Seattle’s densest inner city district.


Seattle South Lake Union streetcar line.

Since streetcars work together with bicycles to serve close-in transportation needs, Seattle’s Capitol Hill route has been designed to accommodate both. The streetcar line runs next to a fully protected cycletrack that was built simultaneously, as part of a joint project.


Seattle’s Broadway, with streetcar tracks on the left and a cycletrack on the right.

Elsewhere along that line, Seattle has installed special crossings to help cyclists navigate across streetcar tracks safely.


A “bike sneak,” directing cyclists to cross tracks at the safest angle.


At future streetcar stops the bike lane swerves behind the stop, to avoid trains.

All in all, Portland and Seattle offer great models for Colfax, Broadway, Highlands, and other central Denver neighborhoods that need better transit.

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10 Comments

  1. UrbanZen says:

    I’m beginning to think that a Colfax/14th Ave streetcar couplet might be a good alternative to just having a streetcar or BRT in mixed traffic along Colfax. You’d probably lose a lot (if not all) of the “suicide” lane and a lane of parking along colfax, but I gotta believe you could squeeze in a west bound streetcar in dedicated ROW. You’d also likely lose a lane along 14th, but if you widened the 2 remaining lanes, you’d probably move traffic almost as effective as those 3 narrow lanes that nobody can drive down the center of anyway.

    • Ryan says:

      I’d prefer to see the other direction be 17th Ave — that way the streetcar is passing by restaurants, nightlife, and businesses on it’s return route as well. 14th is such an essential East-West thoroughfare as well, even more so than Colfax, given its one-way direction.

      • UrbanZen says:

        17th absolutely has a better street/retail presence, but its two blocks from the other half of the couplet. Not super ideal. Then again, I’m not sure you could squeeze the streetcar into a dedicated lane on 14th without losing a lane of traffic and parking on both sides of the street. Now I’m beginning to think that the best interim solution is some type of branded BRT, that runs a loop route from Civic Cener, east on Colfax to York/Josephine (serving the new central rec. center/Lowenstein redevelopment), south down York/Josephine (serving Chessemen Park/Botanic Garden/Congress Park) into Cherry Creek (speaks for itself), west along Speer to Broadway, then north up Broadway to Civic Center (getting you w/in 6 blocks of the heart of the S. Broadway scene and serving the museum district).

      • Jim Nash says:

        A couple “inner-city loops” could connect Highland, Uptown, Capitol Hill, Cherry Creek/Glendale, North-South Broadway and East Colfax to Downtown. Streetcars cheaper than light rail, because they’re at-grade, mixing with traffic. But what are the politics of Streetcar lines?

  2. Chris says:

    Do this!

  3. corey says:

    I have spent alot of time in Portland over my entire life since I have family there and I went to college there. The way Portland crammed the streetcar and light rail lines through the narrow, short, congested downtown blocks actually make downtown traffic worse and contribute to a very claustrophobic feeling. I think they should have went with circulator buses instead of the streetcar loop. But, being Portland, they had to go with the trendiest, if not most functional, alternative. The Seattle streetcar line skirts the east edge of downtown and goes down major streets, so it appears to be more effective and appropriate. Denver is actually lucky to have wider streets and longer blocks and the re-introduction of streetcars here will be a more successful solution here.

  4. Mark B says:

    Wonderful post. Didn’t billionaire Paul Allen have a hand in financing that South Lake Union line so as to connect his real estate developments to downtown? And what is in those buildings? Just a little company called Amazon.

  5. Overload in CO says:

    What are the advantages the streetcar over a bus? Have there ever been any studies and/or comparisons between the two? I believe Fort Collins looked at streetcars but went with buses made to mimic streetcars for their Mason St., Corredor Project.