Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

One of the more unusual effects of the ST3 Draft Plan coming out just 5 days after ULink opened is that ULink has had an exceptionally short period of joy, celebration, and awe. The euphoria of its opening has been largely replaced by the oxygen required to analyze and react to the next big thing. Though Sound Transit threw a great party and ridership has seemingly exceeded already high expectations, what’s struck me most as a Capitol Hill resident is the swiftly increasing ordinariness of it all. Eavesdropping on my fellow riders’ conversations, onboard discussions of the train itself have already begun fading into the background, replaced by the everyday musings and banter upon which public social conversations rely.

And you know what? That’s great for transit. We don’t judge Thomas Edison’s legacy by how many people still react with sublime pleasure upon flipping a light switch, but rather by our complete and utter ability to take for granted the gifts of electric light. Done well, transit is is a public utility that improves life for the many but excites the passions of the few (sorry, fellow nerds). Good transit readjusts our baseline expectations onward and upward. Quickly accustomed to our new spoils, we begin to complain anew – and often rightfully so – as agitation is both the currency of politics and the impetus for continuous improvement.

So I’m not ungrateful in already taking for granted that Pioneer Square is 10 minutes away, forever. Transit’s highest compliment is when the magical becomes ordinary. Far better to be instant necessity than ongoing novelty.

35 Replies to “The Normality of Great Transit”

  1. Agreed, Zach. The flip side here is the soul-crushing reality of traffic that so many commuters eventually submit to (or at least attempt to submit to). A life lesson is to never lose your capacity for indignation, even after the miserable has become routine. But similarly, we should try to never lose our capacity for awe and wonder, even after the incredible has become routine.

    When I lived in Seoul, my Korean buddies would typically suggest the bus over the subway if the time was about the same. They preferred the interaction with street life you get from the bus window; check out the shops, people on the sidewalks, what limited nature was available, etc. Fair enough. But I was flabbergasted (having grown up in Seattle) because I relished every single train ride I ever took over there for an entire year. Bus? Forgetabboutit! The subway just never got old for me, and always seemed like magic. I guess that’s what growing up transit-deprived will do to ya.

    1. Variety is good, and sometimes you want to ride at street level and see the people and buildings and sunlight even if it takes longer. Sometimes you have only a few minutes to get somewhere; sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s slow. The point is you have a choice between the two.

      1. One of the things I liked about living in Chicago was my choice for getting downtown. I lived in Lakeview and could either ride above ground on the brown line to downtown, or I could ride underground on the red line to downtown. The red line was typically a faster commute to downtown, but sometimes I opted for the somewhat lengthier commute on the brown line so that I could remain entirely above ground where I could see the skyline getting closer and closer out the window. Other times I would hop on an express bus that traveled non-stop along the lakefront from my neighborhood (Lakeview) to the Mag Mile/Michigan Ave via Lake Shore Drive (it was almost always faster than the train since it was non-stop). Variety is a good thing!

      2. Most of where I go in Chicago is along the Clark bus, but my first few trips I always took the Red Line because it’s a train and the downtown subways seemed faster and more frequent than the elevated Loop. But now I’ve started taking the bus more, such as between Fullerton and Belmot or Lawrence. I took it once downtown and I don’t think I’ll do that again because it takes a long time. One time I was at a conference in Rosemont near the airport and was visinting people and places in Lakeview (or thereabouts; I can’t keep track where the neighborhoods end and which one is where). There’s a variety of east-west buses you can take from the El, but from Rosemont all routes take the same 40 minutes total, because of how the El runs diagonal so a longer train ride leads to a shorter bus ride and vice-versa, so that was interesting.

        What I noticed about the bus routes is they run every 5-10 minutes in the daytime, 20 minutes evening, and there’s a 30-minute night owl every mile. The buses get lots of people all day and evening. They had visual and audio stop announcements at six or seven years before Metro did, if not earlier. But the buses are all pretty slow, probably due to the number of people getting on and off them at every stop, and also the general speed of the streets and traffic lights for buses.

    2. Interesting observation, Kevin. I think I know what you and your buddies are each talking about, but a couple of questions:

      1. Are you talking about the whole transit system, and the whole city street map, or just one line under one neighborhood? Or connecting same neighborhoods?

      2. How much time have you spend riding the buses with your friends?

      3. What’s surface travel like, besides slower and crowded? Are there things that are more interesting and more fun that a faster subway ride?

      As our system gets built out and people have a choice, people are sure to have preferred rides, often different different days. Also different weather, ridership, and traffic conditions. Also, most motorists use streets for some trips, and freeways for others.

      But the window-shopping part is both interesting and really important. Read an opinion long ago that streetcars were especially good for window-shopping. And I strongly agree. If we do it right, the First Avenue Connector should carry heavy loads of both tourists and locals,

      Railcars give passengers better view than on buses, precisely because while a bus usually swings between lanes, a railcar moves in a straight line. And more, running at street center, the line of sight to store-fronts is much better than from closer to curb,

      Also helps shopping that streetcars move at a pace where people have a leisurely look at window displays, and cafes, and other people. And don’t you think that, like in most of the world, Koreans enjoy close proximity to other people? We in the United States are an exception- to an extent that most of humanity finds unsettling and very uncomfortable.

      But to me, and I think I’d get Korean agreement about this, steady motion is a good thing at any speed. Another serious advantage street rail has over buses. I’m pretty sure people everywhere prefer a smooth ride to a rough one, whatever the passenger load.

      Like a person in good health, normal will soon be comfortable, which also means not boring.


  2. I can’t keep up with metro changes, but it would be interesting to see changes in ridership on routes like 43.

    1. Due to the way Metro samples ridership on a portion of its buses, it’ll take a few months to get reliable stats on ridership changes. We’ll report them as soon as we’re able.

    2. As one of the city’s greatest transit pontificators, I predict that ridership on the 43 will drop. You’re welcome.

    3. Thing that will make the 43 most interesting, Clara, is to call your County Councilman every day to make the Council put it back. Full-time, and not just rush hour.

      Maybe counter-intuitive, but good guess that surroundings of present transfer point at 23rd and Thomas, five minutes from Capitol Hill station, to a bus with a de-facto half-hour headway could take years to acquire shops and sidewalk cafes.

      With enough citizen input, translated to “loud, angry, frequent demands”, the 43 will become exactly the catalyst for development that will make the corner interesting. In addition to being able to shift rapidly into the “Bus Bridge” that 49 passengers would’ve rather used the other day.

      If you don’t know who your council-member is, just call the desk and yell ’til somebody tells you and connects you. And everybody knows who Dow Constantine is, and represents. Beautiful ride northbound down 23rd Avenue to Montlake. Really looking forward to its restoration.

      Mark Dublin

    4. I also wonder how much ridership exists between the Montlake stop on SR520 and UW Station. My wife has the option of 541/542/545, and frequently takes the 545 to avoid waiting multiple light cycles on the off-ramp. She’ll then take whatever bus happens to go by on Montlake (43, 48, 271, 540, etc.) to UW Station, and then transfer to the 31/32/44 (whichever happens to be fastest that day). That can easily save 10 minutes over staying on the 541/542, despite the transfer penalty.

    5. They gutted the 43. So it’s not a good comparison to make for a before and after of the opening of the light rail. My commute has been doubled since the 43 has been gutted and I am no longer taking metro. I think the question to ask is how many people are not taking metro due to the bus changes.

  3. One my great joys in life is driving across the ship canal bridge, looking down across S. Lake Union, with the Seattle Center and soaring high rise buildings in the background. Elliot Bay completes the vision to put a smile on my face.
    Somehow, zipping along in a concrete tube doesn’t evoke the same feelings of wonderment.
    I think we could have had both fast trips and beautiful ones too, but that ship sailed years ago.
    The monorail initiative played on those feelings to gain the traction it did, until self destructing.

    1. If I were new to Seattle I probably would take the 70 and 49 sometimes to see what’s between the stations and enjoy the view. But I’ve seen the view so many times I don’t need to see it every day. It was a lot of long waiting and work and despair to get the concrete tube that now I want to use it because I can.

      The lack of talking about Link may be because it’s the easiest part of the journey. I take Link and two buses, so waiting for transfers and the long walk to the station and keeping track of which bus is 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or 30 minutes when, and navigating the construction such as 65th & Roosevelt where the southbound transfer stop is closed because the edge of the street is dug up, has replaced the frustrations of riding or avoiding the 71/72/73X.

      I think people’s emotions are relative to the last experience rather than absolute. So they may not look appropriate on an absolute scale.

    2. But with superstructure, riders could see into neighbors’ backyards. That’s why Link will loop over to I-5 south of Angle Lake, to allow riders to see into a different set of backyards.

      (Don’t tell anyone that walls could be put up on the side of the superstructure to block those views. Shhhh.)

    3. Could’ve also been exciting, Mic, to look out the window and watch the view change from the peaks of the Olympics to whatever is presently buried in mud, or more accurately water with a little dirt in it south of Jackson Street. Probably also some old streetcars and a ship or two.

      More or less like Bertha’s route except vertical, and adding a lot more drowned people for archeologists to find after the next Ice Age.

      But from may own experience around the project, since they had no experience whatever with any elevated thing except freeways, many people thought “monorail” meant “elevated”. Which really takes discussion where it belongs: what would your route have been?


      1. I always favored re-purposing two of the reversible lanes to use the I-5 lower deck until dropping down to Campus Pkwy. Those type savings and trade-offs would have allowed many more routes to be built, including a CapHill, W.Seattle and Ballard spur in the same time frame we are talking about spine destiny, and all within a King County voting district.
        Ding, Ding,
        Next stop, Pain Field.

  4. Smooth ride quality is also something that rail riders enjoy but can take for granted.

    1. Have you ridden the First Hill Streetcar? The clunkiness was meant to satisfy people’s nostalgia for all the other streetcars, most of which have eventually gotten shut down. The lack of level platforms was meant to follow the industry standard of mediocrity. The 12-minute all-day headway is a throwback feature.

      1. I ride the FHSC every day as part of my commute (either up to Capitol Hill or down to ID/Chinatown Station to take link, whichever direction comes first).

        Given that I take the 70/7 into work and transfer to the 49 coming home, the ride quality is many worlds of difference.

      2. You’d have to put square wheels on the FHSC to get a ride as bad as the one which begins my bus commute to work along Madison Street.

      3. Could be nostalgia for the old days in Chicago, s.a.m., though a freezing cold ride in a car packed with wet wool coats really spoiled the historic “Peter Witt” streetcar experience wasn’t very nostalgic.

        I agree that FHS ride quality should be a lot better, no matter how much somebody needs to be either sued or fired to get that fixed. Though see no problem at all with low-floor cars serving curb level platforms. Older streetcars needed an ice axe and pitons to board.

        Reserved lanes and signal pre-empt both possible and mandatory. Remember, this line was supposed to compensate for loss of the Swedish Hospital LINK station, so should at least stay moving.

        But route and neighborhood will be the line’s biggest attractions. Combined with First Avenue Connector, Waterfront Streetcar, which will get easier to put back when Connector is built, and LINK, a lot of passengers will ride it just for enjoyment.

        Though you’ve got a valid gripe that there’ll be so little to criticize you’ll start yelling at your own mirror. Auto-immune disorders work exactly the same way.


  5. Off topic but something I’ve been wondering: Can someone tell me why Jay Inslee was invited to cheer along at the U-Link opening when Olympia refuses to support Link expansion?

    1. My guess is because our classified supersonic High-Value-POW-Extraction Tunnel Boring Machine has a slow order due to unexploded artillery shells under Joint Base Lewis McChord.

      The Governor is at this minute digging a special escape tunnel with the garden trowel which was the only tool current legislature had the money for.

      Movie rights for this one should help budget a lot. And gotta admit, doesn’t the Governor sort of look like a movie star?


      1. Yes, it was quite interesting reading him say “This is a smart investment in the future of Seattle” without a hint of irony.

  6. What I want to know is why ST refuses to advance the time-table on the Federal Way expansion, even though we voted, approved and paid for it WELL IN ADVANCE of the Bellevue expansion? Heck, we did all that before Bellevue stopped complaining about not wanting Link!

    1. Thank you, William, for voting to rid Federal Way of the mayor who claimed Federal Way had gotten “nothing” from Sound Transit. I see that Federal Way Transit Center Station is the first station not promised in ST2 that is scheduled to open as part of ST3. (ST2 only went to Redondo Heights, er, now Star Lake Park & Ride.) Thank you Mayor Ferrell, for your civil get-things-done efforts.

    2. If you had paid for it it would be done in 2023. But the recession lowered the tax revenues, enough to defer everything south of 200th. So in other words, you didn’t pay for it. Later the recovery brought in enough revenue to restart 240th, but not enough for 272nd which was the ST2 terminus. ST’s agreement with Federal Way as mitigation for deferring the tail was to advance the planning through 320th so that it would be shovel-ready in case funding appeared (this was during the federal stimulus debates so it was a possibility).

  7. The reason why people have adjusted to it so easily is because it is not really that much of an anomaly. A lot of people have traveled and compared to the rest of the worlds public transportation system ours sucks even with the light rail. In Spain, during the day, the most I waited for the metro was 5 minutes and that was considered a long wait and this was in 1996.

    In this city, I can still commute everywhere faster by bike or within the same time from where I live and if I go home past 12,then I don’t even have the option to take a bus home.

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