I was excited for my first trip on Seattle’s new foray into public transportation: Sound Transit’s light rail. With ORCA card in hand -- which debits the amount of your fare on various forms of transport including train, bus, and ferry -- and armed with a bunch of information gathered from the web, I felt ready for my journey. I first checked OneBusAway.org to get an exact GPS-provided arrival time at my stop then rode the bus from home downtown to Westlake Center, one of the end points of the current “central link” of the light rail system. (Future service is slated for the University of Washington and points north, and SeaTac Airport and points south.)
The first thing I thought when I went downstairs into the transit tunnel at Westlake Center -- where buses and trains run on the same surface, incidentally -- was that it looked very big city. Like an honest to God train station. With its signs to trains, buses, and monorail (ahem) as well as to multiple street exits and shopping, it actually reminded me of subway experiences in London, Paris, and Washington, DC. The mouth agape wanderings-around of many of the riders, though, demonstrated that at a week old, light rail is still at the novelty stage.
At all of the stations through Saturday of this week they have helpful staff people providing information and pointing folks in the right direction. One of them said to me that her most frequent question was about how to pay, not surprising given the fact that there are no turnstiles either at the station or on the trains, just ticket kiosks. Which means that we’re basically operating on the honor system, with what I understand will be regular checks by ticket enforcement staff to ensure that we are all behaving as we should.
The other thing my helpful Sound Transit guide mentioned was the public art in and around the stations, and she even had a brochure that described everything on display. After my recent amble around downtown Seattle to check out the public art there, it was terrific to see so much more happening around the region. All of the pieces are a part of the STart Public Art Program, funded by Sound Transit's 1% allocation of all project construction costs. Bravo! Read more about the project and link to all of the pieces here.
If all goes as planned, light rail trains will become a regular way for people to travel: the Stadium stop for Mariners games; the Columbia City stop for the Wednesday Farmer’s Market; and at the end of 2009, the SeaTac Airport stop for points further afield. Certainly the fact that the trains run on a dependable schedule and aren’t subject to traffic, unlike buses, makes this form of transportation particularly appealing. I have to admit that I was positively gleeful whizzing past cars inching along, and imagine that it is especially satisfying to parallel I-5 at rush hour and see all the cars nearly at a standstill as far as the eye can see.
What will have to improve, though, is the connecting public transportation. Park and ride lots, and parking in general, were intentionally eliminated from station plans in an effort to encourage riders to use other forms of public transportation to get to and from the train. Bikes, for example: As well as bicycle lockers available at several stations, the trains also have these cool racks where you bring your bike on board and hang it up by the front wheel. Buses are another obvious option, but I didn’t have much luck with my first attempt: It was easy enough for me to bus from home downtown to the Westlake Center station, but when I contemplated taking the train south for a meeting in Renton, Metro Transit’s online trip planner was stymied by my request to find a bus that would get me from the train station to my meeting location.
The Puget Sound area doesn’t have the integrated web of public transportation that makes it easy to travel around without a car, but I’m hoping that is in our future. I’ll be supporting the use of light rail as a functional way to get around town and I encourage others to do the same. This is just one step toward real big city public transportation, but as far as I can tell it's a step in the right direction.
[All photos courtesy of Lee LeFevre]