Most people associate cable cars with San Francisco. However, it was only 125 years ago that they were a popular form of transit in Seattle. In 1884, a horse-drawn trolley between Occidental Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle marked the beginning of public transit in the city. Because of the similarities to San Francisco’s topography, it made sense to convert Seattle’s transportation system to cable cars as well.

From 1902 to 1912, the cable car system was at its peak, and the routes were extended to most of Seattle’s popular locations. The cable car system began to decline in 1922, when a State Supreme Court ruling caused the eventual bankruptcy of the system. Subsequently, by 1940, all of the cable car routes were converted to bus routes.

cable car construction

Today, streetcars are making a comeback in Seattle. In 2007, the city completed its first contemporary streetcar project: the South Lake Union Streetcar. Now, the city is building another line, called the First Hill Streetcar. The new streetcar lines will provide connections to the Sound Transit Link light rail, an important step towards creating a comprehensive, regional transit network for the city.

cable car map

Seattle’s new First Hill Streetcar, which will be operational in early 2014, reflects historic cable car routes. The historic Lake Washington and Yesler Way Cable Car lines connected Downtown’s Pioneer Square to the Central District to Leschi Park, which physically linked people from Elliot Bay to Lake Washington. Similarly, the new streetcar will connect the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, First Hill, Central District/Yesler Terrace, and Pioneer Square.

Historically, urban morphology patterns are linked to streetcar or cable car lines. With stops at short intervals, the streetcar created walkable, continuous corridors. Early residential and commercial establishments were within a 5 – 10 minute walk from a stop. Urban designers today hope that the revival of the streetcar will spur similar development patterns.