Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Carfree in Seattle

UPDATE: My huge thanks to BusBoy for reporting this post to the Seattle Bus Chick. I highly recommend both blogs.

My next stop after Portland was Seattle, the center of business in the Pacific Northwest.

Now, I had always heard that Seattle had a lot going for it - Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, etc. - but I had never realized just how big it was. I found myself thinking of Chicago when I was approaching it and immediately after exiting the train; the buildings, the crowds, all quite a shock after being in laid-back, moderately sized Portland.

Now I suppose it's natural that Seattle and Portland, being the two largest cities in the Pacific Northwest, would be frequently compared. Indeed, on the way up to Portland I heard someone describe Portland as a "smaller Seattle." Immediately a woman sitting next to him, who until that moment had stayed out of the conversation, starting piping up about how Portland was much more progressive than Seattle, that they have a larger light rail system (how much do you want to bet that she's from Portland?). For people who live elsewhere (including here in New Mexico), I've heard the same comparisons.

But what I realized pretty quickly after arriving is that Portland and Seattle are nothing alike. Seattle has water everywhere; Portland has just the river. Seattle has hills, and the street form which has to conform to that or battle it. Portland doesn't. Seattle has a large port and industry (and the remnants of industry) all around, Portland has virtually none. Seattle has business - lots of business. And it has the skyscrapers and development that comes with that. Portland has little major business - the major businesses in Portland are the Oregon-based ones, not national ones. In short Seattle's natural setting, it's port, it's urban form, all this made it ideal to become the economic powerhouse of the northwestern part of the nation.

I say all this not to harp on Portland. I say this to show the danger of comparisons - those who go to other cities and come back to Albuquerque and say "Oh, why don't we have a (insert urban amenity) here? They have it, we should have it too!" are often failing to understand the differences in history, culture, urban environment, and the role those two different cities play in the world economy. It's one thing to say we should have something because it will improve this city; it will do this, this, and this. It's quite another to say we should have something because someone else has it, which essentially became Martin Chavez's go-to line when it came to defending the modern streetcar and the downtown arena, and it's become a habit for quite a few other people (skyscrapercity forum members - I'm looking at you).

Anyway, I'm done moralizing. To the actual transit...

Seattle's new star for public transit is the recently opened Central Link, a light rail line which operates in a subway through downtown before emerging south of the stadiums and running out to the airport. And to be honest, as a visitor the only real use I got out of it was to go the airport (and the neighborhoods along the way didn't seem that dense, so I can't say how many commuters it serves). But it's just one line; when other lines are built (and my understanding is that they're already under way), it will be a very valuable addition to Seattle's transit system.

But for now, the real movers and shakers of Seattle's transit system are its buses. Its insane number of buses - an incredibly complex network of routes that provide very thorough coverage of the city. And the buses are actually quite nice - fairly comfortable, pretty clean, with many running on electricity. But here's the thing I found difficult about Seattle's bus network - it's not very intuitive to people who don't know it. As I said, the network is very complex, and no route really stands above the others to tell you "Take this one!"

To make matters worse, the transit system is really a combination of several transit systems - Sound Transit operates the light rail along with some buses. King County Transit operates the Seattle buses. Other counties operates their own buses into Seattle. The state operates the ferries. I don't even know who operates the South Lake Union streetcar. And neither Sound Transit nor King County Transit offers a day pass, or a multi-day pass, which is really the saving grace of a carless tourist. What's a poor guy who knows next to nothing about the city to do? In my case, I found myself walking a lot more often, because I trusted my feet and my eyes over the sixteen bus routes at the stop which lacks a proper map of the system. That plus the fear of making a mistake and not having enough exact change to remedy it.

So I've gone over the Link and the buses, which leaves one mode of transportation missing: the streetcar.

The South Lake Union streetcar is basically a copy of Portland's streetcar, with a couple of differences. The first is that the Seattle line is much shorter than Portland's - short enough that I really didn't bother getting on because walking wouldn't be much longer. The second is that Seattle's streetcar is actually slightly faster than Portland's, because the stops are spaced a little further apart and the street the streetcar operates on is a major thoroughfare, so it needs to go a little faster to keep up with the traffic. Again, the impact on private development seemed pretty clear. South Lake Union was a booming neighborhood, albeit a little inactive at the northern end, probably due to the recession slowing development activity down.

But here's something I noticed - the picture above shows a streetcar and a delivery truck. What the picture doesn't show, from this angle, is that the truck is actually in the streetcar's way. I had heard of this happening in Portland, but this is the first time I got to observe it. The delivery truck parked just a little too far out into the street for the streetcar, and the streetcar was stuck. Fortunately, the driver of the delivery truck was still there, and was able to move his truck out of the way in under a minute, but I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if the streetcar operator got out and the driver had already gone inside and was nowhere around. How long would it take for a tow truck to show up?

In summary...it's hard to summarize Seattle. It's an awfully big city, and two days barely gave me enough time to start absorbing it. I wouldn't mind having a little more time to dig deeper into Seattle. But as any anthropologist will tell you, initial impressions are very crucial and that's what I've offered here.


Busboy said...

John: a comprehensive and cogent take on Seattle, and a very nice comparison with Portland. My experience with Seattle's bus system (limited to visiting) are yours. But King County has an excellent trip planner site which has served me well. Both these pieces have been fun to read, and I'm looking forward to your impressions of Vancouver.

Does Seattle still have its downtown monorail? I've actually used it for something besides novelty back in the day.

John said...

Oh yeah, Seattle still has the monorail from downtown to the Space Needle. But I didn't ride it (a little pricey).

I'm not sure whether to consider the monorail a legitimate piece of Seattle's transit network or purely a tourist amenity. I suppose ultimately it falls somewhere between these two.

Tim said...

You're right on about the confusion dwellers and visitors face when dealing with the transit system in Seattle. There are 7 agencies that oversee some form of transit in this town. They know it's an issue and are working to simplify things for the user.

Also, the Link light-rail is being expanded to Capitol Hill (2012, I believe) and UW (2016).

The monorail is only used for tourists as it's not part of the agency that oversees metro transit.

Tim said...

I'd also like to add that you're confusing why "those on skyscrapercity" are encouraging projects such as streetcars and arenas. It has nothing to do with other cities having them but instead with what Albuquerque could do with such investments. I think as planners it's always important to remember that your morals and interests aren't the same as others. While you may not follow sports or attend concerts, others, many others do. While you don't wince at the thought of taking the bus or riding your bike down Central, most do. Alas, there are many approaches to solving these issues...

John said...

Tim - then can you explain to me the obsession with Boise on that forum? When I visited it was all "Boises got a taller building than us OMG!!!"

Tim said...

Haha. Well, I haven't seen Boise mentioned in ages, FWIW. However, at the time the point was being made that Boise was getting a tower that was taller than any of ours while Albuquerque was merely seeing a 9-story condo building. This is significant because Boise is considerably smaller than ABQ.

Now, you and I both know there are structural and social reasons behind this. However, Boise's downtown investment says a great deal about it's location when compared with ours. Now, I've been there and I wasn't all that impressed but there is something to be said for what they've managed to do.

Anyhow, I'm glad to see that you are visiting all these wonderful places. Are you done with your program yet? Hopefully you'll stick around ABQ so we can all turn the ship!!

Busboy said...

John: I pitched your three postings on the Pacific Northwest to Bus Chick in Seattle,and she posted a link with her own comments. Thought you would find this of interest.


2 comments agree with Bus Chick and confirm your observation.