I pass through the Mt. Baker transit hub, using just about every mode, perhaps a dozen times a week. With all this exposure, I often think I’ve fully cataloged its faults, only to stumble upon whole new layers of design flaw. At the moment, ST doesn’t plan very many more elevated stations, but perhaps exploring these flaws will spread a few lessons.
As always, these flaws are not the result of incompetence or malice of individuals, but instead very real technical, legal, political, and/or fiscal constraints. I’ve footnoted a brief explanation of why many of these flaws exist, courtesy of ST spokesman Bruce Gray. These explanations in no way diminish the ongoing inconvenience for riders.
Minimal Intermodal Interface
The best-understood problem is the flurry of inter-agency buck-passing that allowed a new light rail station, even newer bus transit center, and old road network to interface poorly, if at all, with each other. The station is placed west of Rainier and MLK, and therefore across busy arterials from nearly everything of interest.1 The street grid does nothing to guide buses to the station location, which is partially responsible for the Transit Center and its nearby stops sitting across those busy arterials and well away from any station entrance.2 In the photo above you can’t even see the primary Southbound 7 stop for Link access, which is another 50 ft off the north edge.
What’s most frustrating is that perhaps 200m to the south is an underdeveloped location that not only is physically closer to the station, but already has a footbridge spanning all the busy streets. In particular, from the Southbound 8 stop at S. Winthrop St., it is perhaps 100 feet (across a traffic-free side street) to the station. Unfortunately, to get there on the Southbound 8, riders have already done a loop through the transit center, possibly endured a driver shift change, a traffic light, and annihilated any time savings from using the closer stop.
Poor Escalator Placement
With traffic coming from north and south, Sound Transit placed their elevators and escalators roughly in the center of the station, to service the plaza entrance that leads to nowhere.3 Here’s where a center platform design would have been very helpful. Rather than having one elevator/escalator pair per side, ST could have had two servicing the center platform, one at either end of the station. Riders coming from the Transit Center or the stops to the south would then have their walk cut roughly in half.4
What’s more, that configuration would have made life dramatically easier for the disabled. The station’s escalators and elevators are, anecdotally speaking, not very reliable. When the southbound elevator is broken, ST suggests that disabled passengers proceed to Columbia City and switch to a northbound train. With a center platform, the probability of this convoluted plan diminishes greatly.
Low Footbridge Potential
Given that the Link system is seemingly in love with empty, trip-extending mezzanines, it’s astonishing that Mt. Baker, one of the few that could actually have used one, doesn’t have it.5 A frequent theme in the Metro Sounding Board before Link’s opening was that a foot bridge from the transit center to the station was imperative. You get no points for guessing that no one was interested in paying for it.
As I pointed out above, one such bridge already exists at the south end. A rider-friendly design would have built a new bridge or extended the old one to feed directly into a mezzanine level of the station, rather than force pedestrians to go up, down, and up again. But for once ST decided to let riders on the surface go straight to the train platform.
Why Does This Matter?
Anytime someone complains about walking distance, a wiseguy decides to pontificate on the joys of walking and exercise. And yes, one reason I like to use transit is that it inevitably involves some walking — even running — that helps to keep you healthy. But anyone who’s run up as the train (or worse, bus) pulls out of the station knows that extended transfer times mean missed trips. In fact, the layout of this transit hub adds minutes to any bus-train transfer, which is often the difference on downtown trips between switching to Link or staying on the 7. That’s ultimately more expensive for Metro and damaging to ST’s politically sensitive ridership numbers.
Is There Hope?
Some of the problems here will never be corrected, but the City of Seattle may step up to remedy several of the most egregious ones. By totally reconfiguring traffic flow in this area and abandoning the new Transit Center altogether, buses can better serve the plaza from which the station is designed to accept pedestrians. As one-way streets are clearly easier to cross than two-way streets, the crossing itself would be much improved.
My source at City Hall tells me that this proposal is currently swirling around at lower levels of SDOT and DPD, not yet part of the official plan, much less funded. Perhaps the real solution will have to wait for developers — and require time.
1 “West [sic] of Rainier was a non-starter because you don’t want to have to cross over Rainier and then back to MLK. That would have required a lot more property acquisition and could have been troublesome with federal and state environmental regulations.”
2 Metro says that ST built the transit center and is responsible for the siting. Gray: “Having it on the west side presented issues for NB buses having to make a left across Rainier and severely impacted their travel times. Impacts from having it on the west side also ran into issues with the Cheasty Blvd historic corridor (section 106 of NEPA). And it also presented many issues with the UW laundry access and impacts from diesel fumes.
“More importantly, the community in conjunction w/ the City station area planning process identified the station area as a desired future ‘town center’. The community wanted to ensure development opportunities surrounding the station and have the station facilitate the establishment of a future “town center.” Basically, that area west of Rainier between Cheasty and McClellan is very ripe for big changes. Some have even talked about the UW laundry site becoming student housing (ala U-Link). Putting the bus center in there would have gummed that up.”
3 “The plaza occupies existing City R.O.W. (S. Stevens Street) and did not require additional property acquisition. Real Estate/Property Management interpretation of the federal regulations at that time indicated property could not be taken for ‘plaza’ purposes, only for track and station facility uses.”
4 “Based on the property constraints noted above, the physical track alignment criteria for exiting the tunnel portal, minimum radius of the curve, and avoiding the corner of the UW Laundry, and avoiding additional property acquisition precluded expanding the track centers to accommodate a center platform.”
5 “The alignment constraints tied to exiting the tunnel portal limited the height of the alignment at the station precluding addition of a mezzanine.”