Seattle: “America’s Next Transit City” (Video)

I don’t usually run videos here, but the one below by TransitCenter and Streetfilms is a good overview of the city and its progress.

It’s been a big year for Seattle.  In November, votes passed Sound Transit 3, which expands the regionwide rail network while also funding two new lines within the city.  City voters previously passed measures to increase bus service and fun street and sidewalk improvements that are important to transit riders.

Seattle wasn’t a transit city for a long time.  The regional rapid transit system’s first line didn’t open until 2009.  (Nearby Portland had a regionwide network by then.)  Seattle’s densest inner city neighborhoods have long had good bus service to downtown, but a lot of work was needed to do a citywide network, and it wasn’t remotely ready for the massive growth in density that the already-dense city has experienced in the last decade.

The most important thing about Seattle is its municipal  transit leadership, starting with the Seattle Transit Plan of 2007 on which I was privileged to work.  Note that throughout this video, you see City of Seattle leaders talking about their transit system.  They don’t run it — it’s run by bigger regional agencies — but they’ve chosen to treat it as theirs, and that has made all the difference.

More from TransitCenter here.

7 Responses to Seattle: “America’s Next Transit City” (Video)

  1. Rob January 3, 2017 at 7:07 pm #

    Wow, I’m surprised to hear you say that Seattle was not a transit city because it didn’t have rail. Is that what you meant? We had, I think, one of the best regional commuter bus systems in the country and a better peak work trip mode share than other rail cities to our south.

  2. RossB January 3, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    Yeah, what Rob said. There have been some recent investments, but there have been some in the past as well. The bus tunnel was built way back in the 1980s, and it was a major improvement (and arguably still the biggest leap in transit for the region). It could be considered a poor man’s open BRT (at least through the tunnel). There was no fare collection in the tunnel and buses could pass each other, so that meant very good, consistent speeds through the most congested (and most popular) part of town. Over time bus service and bus infrastructure has improved, although the HOV lanes (on the freeway) are mostly HOV 2, and the city has outgrown that. As a result, congestion is very common on commuter buses, which is a problem.

    The rail system has been slowly improving. Originally approved in 1996, it has operated since 2009, but only from downtown to the airport. It wasn’t until this year that we really had a rail line that played a significant part in the transit picture. Even with the most important section (from the University of Washington to downtown) it still carries a small portion of the overall ridership. The heavy lifting is still done by buses, although that should change over the years as it gets built out.

    I do find this statement from the article to be laughable: “Seattle is demonstrating how rail and buses can work in tandem”. They must have us confused with our neighbors to the north. Arguably the biggest flaw in the design of our light rail system is that it seems to be designed without any concern for the bus system. A great example of this is that section I mentioned (from the UW to downtown). There is only one stop in between there, despite being the most urban part of Seattle. There is no stop on Madison Street, which is a major diagonal street in that part of Seattle. Madison is also where Seattle will make a major investment in bus service, building what many consider to be the region’s first complete BRT line (level boarding, 100% off board payment, center running much of the way, six minute all day headways). It should be obvious to anyone that this bus line will be popular — but the Capitol Hill station (the one between the UW and downtown) will be six blocks away. It would have been trivial to add a station at 23rd and Madison (a major transit intersection) but they didn’t. It is easy to assume that the problem is a lack of inter-agency cooperation. King County runs the buses, while Sound Transit (a regional agency involving several counties) runs the light rail line. In contrast, the original proposal for light rail in the region — called Forward Thrust — was proposed in the 1970s by King County (the same folks that run the buses). It had a stop at 23rd and Madison.

    In short, Seattle still lacks a true transit network — the routes are still largely focused on getting people to downtown — and unfortunately the light rail investment (which is substantial) isn’t really helping to the degree it should. The example I gave is just one of many where the light rail could enhance or encourage a transit grid, but failed to do so. Fortunately folks in the area are willing to spend big bucks on transit. This is great news because we are building a very inefficient system.

  3. Rob January 4, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Even when ST3 is done, for well over $100B when bonds are included (as they should be), we will still not have an urban transit network. We will finally have a regional connection via transfer to the new CBD that’s been created in South Lake Union, some 30 years too late to matter. Spending unimaginable amounts of money on capital without improving service does not make us a transit city. Unfortunately now that the region’s elected have won their campaign of a lifetime for rail, we now need to start confronting the transportation problems we’ve been neglecting while focused on the campaign. That includes getting around this city on transit, which is getting harder daily.

  4. Long Branch Mike January 4, 2017 at 1:12 pm #

    Seattle’s come a long way in the last 25 years, building two commuter rail lines, LRT line, BRT lines, and many other smaller improvements shown in the video. Building a cohesive transit network across a large city takes decades, and there are growing pains and lessons learnt.

    • Ed Bourque January 14, 2017 at 2:59 am #

      Indeed..patience is required

      … and maintenance does not get any easier as the transit system ages. In Boston, it’s been a chore and a half to maintain the nation’s oldest subway system.

  5. RossB January 5, 2017 at 9:27 pm #

    @Mike — Yes, I agree that it takes time. But I wouldn’t say that Seattle has learned any lessons. As a man in his 50s who grew up here and spent most of his time here, I would say we are as provincial and naive as ever. We are making textbook mistakes, and will likely pay dearly for them. We have ignored very successful and cost efficient transit systems (like our nearest neighbor’s) as well as failed systems that seem to focus more on distance than density (like DART).

    It is bad enough that we spent millions on a streetcar — very tiny streetcars that are no bigger than our buses — in a city as inappropriate for streetcars as you could possibly imagine. That is nothing like the slow, very expensive failure that is our light rail plan. To be clear, it won’t be the worst light rail line in the country. The problem is that it seeks to mimic them. There is a total disregard for density, proximity and connectivity, the key elements of every major transit success story. We have neither the all encompassing subway line of DC Metro (now there is a transit city) or the sparse, but extremely efficient SkyTrain that manages to both cover the essential areas and complement the bus service. By the time light rail gets to Ballard — by far the most important addition in the $54 billion proposal just passed — it will be close to 40 years since we first passed a light rail plan. Even after all that time, it will be extremely difficult to get from one densely populated neighborhood to the other.

    If you think I’m exaggerating, please look at a census map ( Now look at a map of the proposed railway line ( You will notice a few things right off the bat. First, density drops off dramatically at the city line. The city, as it turns out, is also growing much faster than the suburbs (that part we are doing right). This trend should continue, meaning the city will be even more dense than the suburbs in the future. The light rail line ignores all that, and stretches very, very deep into low density suburbs. Meanwhile, huge sections of the city are largely ignored. The dark (more densely populated) section to the east of downtown contains but one stop. The most populous part of the entire state — the neighborhood in downtown called Belltown — sits inconveniently away from light rail.

    Meanwhile — and this is the really bad part — the light rail lines run remarkably close to the freeway lines and major expressways, largely paralleling them, instead of intersecting them. This means that rarely do you have a situation where taking the train is actually faster than taking a bus, let alone driving. It also means that bus to train transfers will continue to be really bad, because the very slow buses will continue to be very slow.

    It didn’t have to be that way, of course. For less than the cost of the ridiculous plan that was passed you could have built a couple small rail lines in the city along with a bus tunnel that would take advantage of the freeways and expressways. (The rail lines connecting to the suburbs are already funded or built). That would have enabled something similar, if not better, then what Vancouver BC has — fast rail lines along with fast bus lines. But even if Vancouver BC never bothers to fix their missing “Missing Link”, we will be envious of their transit system for the foreseeable future.

  6. jack whisner January 10, 2017 at 11:17 am #

    Rob is correct; the JTW was higher than that of Portland even before Link. But that was probably due to higher land prices and more paid parking as much as to transit. The regional HOV network helped. The DSTT was key; it opened in fall 1990. I suspect the bus-rail interface will be much better in 2021 than it was in 2009 and 2016; the Sound Transit station designs were severely cost constrained. We will miss the First Hill station forever. The transit network has improved and provides much better crosstown service than in 1990. Each successive mayor has been better for transit flow. That effort is what Walker praises. Bill Bryant has recently shifted back to Metro from SDOT; he was key. I was amused that the footage showed several streetcars but the text did not mention them much, if at all.

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