When transportation planners drool over the Emerald City’s transit successes, they shouldn’t overlook the decades of investments in this legacy asset.
In transportation circles, the word “trolley” can sometimes come with decades-old reputational baggage. Getting around on one might seem antique and quaint, best suited for tourists taking in local attractions at a leisurely pace, not daily commuters trying to get from Point A to Point B.
But that’s not the case in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city where there’s a nearly 80-year-old system of “trackless trolleys” in addition to more familiar transit modes like buses, streetcars and light rail. Instead of steel-wheeled vehicles guided by tracks set in the pavement and powered by a single overhead wire, the trolley network in Seattle uses rubber-tired buses and two poles that follow a set of overhead wires that deliver power to the vehicle.
Unlike streetcars that can’t leave their tracks, trolleybuses can travel around obstructions in the roadway—say, an Uber driver stopped to let out a passenger or an idling delivery truck—thanks to the flexible poles that are set on springs that allow such movement. In hilly cities like Seattle, electric trolleybuses are better at ascending long, steeper grades compared to diesel buses.
And because they’re electric, trolleybuses are cleaner and far quieter compared to diesel vehicles. The ride is far smoother, too, with braking technology that allows trolleybuses to return power to the overhead wires. Newer trolleybuses also have the ability to travel offwire for shorter distances on battery power.