Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar begins service on December 12, 2007.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/13/2007
  • Essay 8421

On December 12, 2007, the South Lake Union Streetcar begins service on a 1.3- mile route through Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood.  Operated by King County Metro, the South Lake Union Streetcar marks the neighborhood's first streetcar service since 1941 and the first new rail line in Seattle since the waterfront streetcar (out of service since late 2005) was put into service in 1982.


Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955), state senator Ed Murray, King County Council member Larry Phillips (b. 1956) and other dignitaries gathered in near-freezing weather at the streetcar line's Westlake Hub and addressed a festive crowd of streetcar supporters, streetcar critics, office workers, families with strollers, and other Seattleites eager to take a ride. Streetcar service was free and scheduled to remain so through the end of December 2007. 

The first car to go into service waited at the curb, its LED sign programmed with the jaunty message "HELLO SEATTLE."

City of the Future

Nickels told the crowd, "This isn't just about a 1.3-mile line; this is about how we're going to build cities in the future, and how people are going to live in proximity to work, and not rely on the internal combustion engine" (The Seattle Times, December 13, 2007).

The 1.3-mile line between the Westin Hotel downtown near Westlake Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the lake on Fairview Avenue N, advocated by billionaire developer Paul Allen, Mayor Nickels, and many others, was designed to serve the rapidly expanding number of people living in newly built housing in the immediate area, to support area businesses, and to encourage continued growth.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in the same location on July 7, 2006, with Mayor Nickels ceremonially welding the system's first rail.  The line cost $52.1 million and was funded by federal and state grants, by income from the sale of nearby city-owned land, and by a tax on nearby properties. 

Three streetcars, one painted orange, one bluish purple, and one red carry riders along the line.  The streetcars were designed and manufactured in the Czech Republic by Inekon Group and reach a cruising speed of 20 miles per hour.  Dignitaries and those who succeeded in crowding onto the initial run of each car were rewarded with a golden inaugural ride ticket.  Businesses along the streetcar's route gave out food and beverages, discount coupons, and other opening day premiums.

The streetcar line has 11 stops.  A one-way trip takes less than 15 minutes.  The line is expected to carry about 300,000 riders during its first year of operation.  The Seattle Times described the streetcar's speed as "faster than walking, slower than a bicycle" (December 13, 2007).

We Want More

Even before the first electrically powered bright orange streetcar filled with dignitaries hummed quietly away from the station, streetcar advocates began proposing extending the streetcar line to serve a larger area.  Seattle Urban League president James Kelly told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "We now want to talk about a network that connects neighborhoods to downtown" (December 8, 2007).

Seattle City Council President Nick Licata told The Seattle Times, "The trolleys that go in cannot just be toys.  They have to be dedicated rail lines to make them dependable" (December 10, 2007).

Mayor Greg Nickels told The Seattle Times, "Within 20 years, we could build a system of five, perhaps six lines" (December 10, 2007).

Some residents expressed the opinion that a modern streetcar system would have been better started elsewhere in the city.  Bus rider Mike Clauss told The Seattle Times, "We could use one in South Seattle, in Lake City, in Queen Anne.  Any of these could use the streetcar more than the South Lake Union could" (December 10, 2007).

Pioneer Presence

The first streetcar line in the South Lake Union neighborhood was built by the Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company in October 1890, six years after Seattle's first (horse-drawn) streetcars entered service and one year after the city's first electric streetcars began operating. Streetcar service on Westlake Avenue ended when Seattle replaced all its streetcars with trackless trolleys and buses in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The first non-Indian settlers to the area through which the South Lake Union streetcars travel were the David and Louisa Boren Denny and Thomas Mercer families.  During his remarks Mayor Nickels framed the new streetcar service within the historical context of the earlier line and mentioned that several of Denny descendents were present in the crowd to celebrate the return of streetcars to the neighborhood.

Ride the S.L.U ...

Supporters of the service realized early on that the official name for the venture should be South Lake Union Streetcar, not South Lake Union Trolley.  After local entrepreneurs Jerry Johnson and Don Clifton created tee-shirts imprinted with the phrase "Ride the S.L.U.T -- South Lake Union Trolley" and begin selling them at Kapow!, a neighborhood coffeehouse, the story was picked up by CNN and other national media.  Johnson and Clifton told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the tee-shirts were designed in fun and also to remind people that their neighborhood's historic name, Cascade, was rapidly being eclipsed by the broader branding of the entire South Lake Union/Cascade area as South Lake Union. "'We learned how fun it is to change the name of things,' Clifton said of the streetcar's name" (September 18, 2007).

Some 20 or 30 of the 600-person crowd gathered for the opening day ceremonies sported "Ride The S.L.U.T." tee-shirts and Johnson and Clifton carried flags printed with the same slogan.  Several guitarists entertained the crowd with a song whose lyrics exploited the acronym.

Greg Nickels told the crowd, "I don't care what you call it, as long as you ride it" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 2007).

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Officials Break Ground For Seattle's South lake Union Streetcar on July 7, 2006" (by Kit Oldham), (accessed December 13, 2007); Mike Lindblom, "To Tune of 'Love Train' Streetcar Goes On a Roll," The Seattle Times, December 13, 2007, p. B-3; "On The Past Track," Ibid., December 19, 2007; Larry Lange, "For Better Or Worse, Streetcars Are Back," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 2007, p. B-1; Kerry Murakami, "SLUT -- Streetcar's Unfortunate Acronym Seems Here To Stay," Ibid., September 18, 2007; "How Many Streetcars Do We Desire," Ibid., December 8, 2007; "Fact Sheet," Seattle Streetcar website accessed December 13, 2007 (

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You