Riding the Sun Link streetcar feels a lot like riding a city bus.
You’re up a bit higher, and the air conditioner blasts a lot colder. But the ride, with its occasional jerks and jolts like at the wide left from Congress onto South Grenada Avenue, feels very bus-like.
Early last week, VIPs and media, many of them toting huge cameras, jammed into two streetcars for a joy ride around the 3.9-mile stretch. The seats filled up fast and many had to stand, holding onto handrails for balance.
It wasn’t truly representative of what it will be like as an everyday passenger; we didn’t experience the stops and starts at streetcar loading zones. But we did get to see what it was like when the streetcar has to stop for a car parked in the path, as one did in front of Starbucks on University Boulevard just before 10 a.m. Or the impatience of drivers caught behind the big blue rig smack in the middle of East Congress Street with no way to get around it in rush hour. It’s going to take a while before drivers fall into the streetcar rhythms.
I’m sure there will be plenty of riders who will come to rely on the streetcar to get them from one end of the route to the other for work or play. But I suspect most riders will hop aboard for the convenience of not having to pay for parking or to find a spot downtown, especially on busy weekends. Surely the idea of the streetcar as party bus will come to fruition once the University of Arizona is back in full swing in late August.
But riding the streetcar gives you a chance to look around and see how its promise is being fulfilled in the dozens of new restaurants and shops along the route that are bringing life back to the economy. Just before 10 a.m. July 21, Time Market on University was filling up with people sipping their mid-morning coffee while tapping away on smart phones or laptops. As the streetcar turned onto North Fourth Avenue, a Labrador retriever on a leash sat panting while his owner sipped coffee at a sidewalk table in front of Epic Café.
When we dipped into the dark tunnel at the Fourth Avenue underpass separating the downtown entertainment district from North Fourth Avenue it almost felt like we were on a big-city subway. There’s another tunnel in the University district that’s a bit longer and reminded me of taking the subway out of Manhattan into the Bronx.
As we made our way down East Congress Street, workers at Proper Meats, the shop opening this fall next to its sister restaurant Proper, stopped what they were doing and stared in disbelief. There were many similar expressions from pedestrians all along Congress. After years of anticipation and weeks of watching empty streetcars cruise the line, they seemed a bit stunned to see the vehicle full of passengers waving to the cars below.