Back Fence

Light Rail Is Remaking Seattle. But into What?

Seattle, famously tortured by growth, may be starting to grasp connection. But there are swerves in our learning curve.

By Kathryn Robinson September 14, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Met

Seattle   link2 uwdrdb

Image: Adam Hancher

Like commuters the world over, I take the train to work. Every morning I lace up my sneakers, walk the mile from my home to the UW light rail station, tap my Orca card at the yellow machine, board the train—and eight minutes later I’m downtown. Eight minutes later.

On my first light rail commute, this brought tears to my eyes. Driving, eight minutes delivered me to the traffic jam. On the pokey 25 bus, eight minutes killed off maybe three stops. Eight minutes start to finish is a revelation.

South Seattleites have had this speed for seven years. Me, I just got it in March, when Sound Transit opened its University of Washington and Capitol Hill stations. North Seattleites will score light rail in five years, Eastsiders two years later. Next month we vote on whether to extend that speed to South Lake Union, Ballard, Seattle Center, and West Seattle—along with points farther north, south, and east.

The applause has been deafening: From last summer to this, average boardings per day nearly doubled, from 35,000 to 65,000. Sound Transit had to triple the number of train cars in rush hours to address the complaint that spokesman Bruce Gray says has been number one: Why are the trains so crowded? That, combined with complaint number two—Why do we have to wait so long for new rail lines?—add up to the kind of “disapproval” that communicates the opposite: We want on.

Clearly I’m not the only one being moved.

I have lived here my whole life, and light rail is the first civic advancement I can remember—more than the ’90s revival of downtown, more than the Seahawks’ Super Bowl win, more than Din Tai Fung opening three restaurants here—that’s felt genuinely game changing. Sure, it’s about speed. It’s also about democracy, enhancing lives across the demographic spectrum. Say, an underserved young man in Rainier Valley whose neighborhood got light rail first, allowing him to ride it daily to Seattle Central, and now to his job downtown. Or Bryant retirees who may never use it, but whose lives it will improve—by taking cars off the road, by providing an emergency alternate, by raising property values—just as if they did.

With once distant neighborhoods now just two or three stops away, as Dan Savage noted in The Stranger, light rail is shrinking a growing city. Since I can now hop on at Husky Stadium and pop up 15 minutes later for dinner in Chinatown, Chinatown has become a new edge of my neighborhood. This isn’t just good news for the designated driver—though ask him; he’s thrilled. It transforms our relationship with our city, whose far reaches now become familiar, whose liveliest districts we no longer have to rule out because of parking, whose crosstown residents begin to feel like neighbors.

This is connection: the fitting byproduct of a light rail Sound Transit has attempted to brand “Link.” (You know, like Chicago’s L or London’s Tube—though Gray mostly hears folks call it “the train.”) Seattle, famously tortured by growth, may at least be grasping connection—a startling concept for an introverted city known for its isolating social freeze and tech nerds. All these interesting people keeping to themselves now pour onto Link platforms and cram into trains, putting some “there” into our collective life and giving our motion critical mass.

Is it wrong that this finally makes Seattle feel like a real city? The urban buzz that so energizes global cities, bodies streaming down sidewalks, is finally here—on our trains. Mind you, there are swerves in our learning curve: Seattleites haven’t yet grasped the escalator etiquette of standing on the right and passing on the left (we don’t seem to get the freeway equivalent either), and rare are riders who step aside to allow wheelchairs and bicycles onto elevators first—a civic decency we need to make second nature. Sound Transit isn’t blameless, with its lack of consistency across stations (some allow you to tap your Orca card where you board; at others, that’s too late) and breathtakingly nonintuitive signage. Some Samaritan with a Sharpie was finally driven to translating the University of Washington station’s confounding elevator buttons—BR, S, M, B3, P. “Bridge,” “Street,” and “Platform” the tagger scrawled, ignoring M (mezzanine?) and B3 (Hogwarts?).

But even the improvable signage manages to increase community. As happens maybe weekly, I was helping a confused tourist—University Street? University of Washington?—when we began to chat about the music scenes in Seattle and her native Nashville. Our train pulled in, we squeezed on, still chatting, while all around us buzzed the patented alone/together vibe that reigns on mass transit the world over, a connection we don’t get on buses, staring at one another’s backs.

Or, god help us, driving solo in our vehicles. “Probably in some small way, [light rail] does help people feel like they’re part of a larger community,” muses Steve Hymon, LA Metro’s blog editor. LA is one of a number of Western cities that will vote on mass transit increases this fall—a vote that’s about so much more than a commute.

“Because when you’re alone in your car,” observes Hymon, “you’re alone in your car.”

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