Joy ride

The new light rail line opens up new ways to see the city, and brings visibility to long-neglected and fascinating parts of Seattle.
The Columbia City neighborhood's business district in South Seattle. (Matt Grundy / Creative Commons)

The Columbia City neighborhood's business district in South Seattle. (Matt Grundy / Creative Commons) None

On the first fare-day of Sound Transit's Link Light Rail line, I took the afternoon to try out the system. It turned into an unexpected pleasure.

First stop was the Metro center at Westlake to pick up an Orca card, which can be used to pay fares on regional buses, rail, and ferries. The line at the booth was slow and most of the folks were there to ask questions, like was their Metro Pass good on the train, etc.

Apparently, Metro's employees aren't all fully trained yet about the new light rail line. One was asked by a tourist where to get the train to Sea-Tac. She was curtly told that the train didn't go to Sea-Tac yet. Period. The poor woman was about to walk away when she turned and asked, "What about Tuck-wheela?" Another Metro staffer came over and told her where to catch the train to Tukwila, but there was no information given about how to catch the shuttle to the airport. The woman did catch the train, however.

Many riders were baffled about the fare system. Sound Transit had helpers at the ticket machines, but on my rides, no ticket-checkers were in evidence. Orca card holders "tap" the card at the scanner on the station platform, then do it again when they get off. Pay the fare and the card also acts like a bus transfer, as it did for my last leg home. Staffers at the stations are there to help people figure out what to do, but I suspect there were a good number of people riding the train who had not paid and expected to see a conductor.

The ride is smooth and quiet. Everything's new, of course, and clean; so are the stations, with bright paint and spiffy art in their pre-graffiti glory. The stations are not cookie cutter. The underground stop at Beacon Hill has a kind of under-sea theme. Illuminated sculptures resembling colorful deep sea creatures or alien life forms hang from the ceiling over the platform, and plastic bubbles with colorful lights greet you near the elevators. Perhaps Captain Nemo designed it.

You take the elevator to the surface and the Beacon Hill station above ground is a brick box of the building that resembles something like an old 1930s brick fire house. At the Columbia City stop, which is at the surface level on Martin Luther King Way, you can see Craftsman-style details in the pillars. The elevated station at Mount Baker is thoroughly modernist. The variety of the stations makes some of the major stops distinctive and helps give the light rail line a kind of personality. In other words, the line itself has some character. The line is also in its Rem Koolhaas library phase, where many, perhaps most, of the customers are looky-loos.

Some stations are strictly utilitarian. As a casual passenger, there's not much to see at SoDo station, and not much reason to get off unless you work for the Postal Service, the School District, or at Starbucks HQ. But contrast the industrial starkness of SoDo with all the intriguing street-level shops and restaurants around Othello Station. Along MLK between Othello and Myrtle, the street is lined with shops and strip malls with Vietnamese restaurants, Mexican taquerias, Asian laundries, beauty salons, and groceries selling halal meats. The Seattle Times recently suggested that this area was a "blank slate," and it's true there is vacant land nearby that will be developed. But it's hardly a blank slate, it's a thriving community with a Little Saigon feel. It's more about what to build on (and not destroy) rather than what to create from scratch.

For Seattleites who rarely get down to this part of the Rainier Valley, I predict Othello will become a destination, even a place for a quick lunch for downtown workers who need a break. You can get there, have lunch, and be back downtown in less than an hour. I got off here and popped into the Huong Viet Cafe and bought a delicious pork sandwich. If I worked downtown, I might to that regularly.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Skip has his Joel Connelly "light rail isn't the devil I thought it was" moment.

Amazing what on-the-ground observations can do for provincial journalists and Lesser Seattle journalism.

Most populist/conservative/Liberaltarian light rail critics form their opinions looking through the windshields of their cars - or the rearview mirror of Interstate Era history - the Ted Van Dyk / Dori Monson / Frank Blethen method.

Who will save the Auto-addicted Dinosaurs?

Ironically, it might be us social-engineering smart growthers who save automobiling from extinction - the same way "Socialists" FDR and Obama saved capitalism in America.

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

The Metro employee who failed to give the tourist full information on how to get to Seatac should be fired. I've gotten a better response to a transportation question in the Metro in Paris.

rorric1

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

As an Olympia guy, I'm definitely looking forward to a tourist ride, but also wondering whether the rail line will be a significant part of solving the congestion problems that make me dread even going to or through Seattle. Hope so. In Olympia, we have wonderful buses, but passenger rail is way out in the country so I rarely think about it.

Ammons

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Precisely as Mr. Berger has discovered, has discovered, one of the blessings of adequate transit --
transit that runs on rails and is powered by electricity -- is that in its surface and elevated modes it profoundly enhances visual appreciation of your surroundings.

But even subways with their fast passages through surreal juxtapositions of light and darkness are visually interesting.

Another huge advantage of rail (whether "light" or "heavy") is that after you have finished seeing the sights, you can pass the time to and from your destination by reading.

Indeed the formats of big-city newspapers -- tabloid and vertical -- are designed to facilitate easy reading even in rush-hour crowds.

Though it is only a suspicion, I wouldn't doubt that there's a statistical relationship between reading habits and available transport generally: note for example that New Yorkers, who have the best transit system in North America, are also the most devout readers in the U.S.

Note too that within the five boroughs of the City, print (in both its dead-tree and electronic forms) remains the dominant information medium despite the dismal and steadily deepening illiteracy (or perhaps more appropriately a-literacy) that elsewhere increasingly traps the U.S. popular mentality in a miasma of ignorance.

By contrast, buses actually discourage reading. Even if one is generally immune to motion sickness, the herky-jerky, bump-a-thump nature of the ride combines with the exhaust fumes and general discomfort to make near-instant nausea the all-too-frequent result of trying to read while traveling by bus.

Kudos to Mr. Berger; let us hope his pro-transit epiphany spreads throughout the region.

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

My thanks to the editor(s); too bad I made myself look somewhat less than adept by the bad self-editing that besmirches my lead, which should read as follows:

Precisely as Mr. Berger has discovered, one of the blessings of adequate transit -- transit that runs on rails and is powered by electricity -- is that in its surface and elevated modes it profoundly enhances visual appreciation of your surroundings.

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

@lorenbliss I love a new argument -- build more urban trains to save newspapers!

Sorry, you didn't write that. It's my improper extrapolation of your enthusiasm for our new train.

But I see so many folks on Seattle buses reading tiny text on little screens of cell phones, iPods, iPhones, BlackBerrys, etc that I'm thinking either buses are not all that bumpy, or the electronics industry has perfected image stabilization to overcome the bumps!

Book and newspaper reading on Seattle buses is very common also.

Rarely somebody does barf on a bus, though not usually people who are reading. Haven't seen this in my last 200 or so bus rides. Those chunking are mostly in no shape to read. But I have to add, that according to ST internal radio traffic I was listening to last Sunday as a transit devotee, somebody has already barfed on a train!

jniles

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting. In NYC (my birthplace and home before Pugetopolis became my new address in 1970 and my permanent residence in 1986), you always see people reading on the subway and on commuter trains but almost never on buses.

As for me, I've never been motion-sick in any transport mode including ships at sea in heavy weather, but trying to read on a bus or in a car will induce nausea within minutes -- something a long ago personal physician told me is the human norm.

One exception is cross-country bus, on which I have also traveled (mostly as a soldier c. 1959-1962), and on which many people myself included typically read books or magazines. But on cross-country buses you had the train-like advantage of constant motion on relatively smooth pavement.

Most riders put their reading material away as soon as the buses pulled into towns or cities and resumed the lurch-and-jounce characteristic of urban traffic.

Apropos barfers on trains, it seems to me it's the Chicago El -- which I rode many times while there on various assignments (always with a photographer's appreciation for the back-yard and open-window vignettes as well as for the broader views of the locale) -- that’s infamous for stomach-content mosaics on the late-night trains from the Loop.

I can’t attest to this personally as the obligations of my work conflicted with my interest in saloons enough I was usually back in my hotel room long before Last Call.

Supposedly though -- or so I was told by a Chicago newspaper reporter c. maybe 1966 -- the term “vomit comet” that was later applied to various space-flight simulators originated from those after-hours El trains.

But that shouldn't be a problem here, where the beverage of choice is upscale coffee.

Unless of course somebody starts handing out winery-train tickets to the sorts of folks who, back before it was gentrified, you found along the Skid.

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute-- Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on your first ride. I know you are someone who's had their fair share of issues with Sound Transit building the line, so it makes your observations all the more relevant.

I too have been taken by the views from the train. For example, I had no idea there was a neighborhood along the river in south Seattle (or is that Tukwila?). And I wasn't prepared for the sudden, dramatic appearance of the downtown skyline when the train exited the Beacon Hill tunnel - a surreal backdrop to the gritty, previously unseen industrial yards of Sodo.

I know it's been a controversial project, and no doubt people will continue to argue about it. Whatever the case, I suspect folks will find it an asset to the community. It is a new fixture in the landscape, providing people a new way to see the area. New vistas, different perspectives, intersting angles of repose. Who'da thunk it?

Posted Wed, Jul 22, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

I do think lorenbliss has a point. They're not doing as well as they used to, but I think British papers, and European papers in general, are still doing better than American ones, and I've heard more than one person attribute this to the higher use of public transit.

After I started using the Internet in 1992, and after newspapers started making their way online a few years later, I quickly found myself heading online for news. One exception, though, and that was the year I spent in graduate school in London (1999-2000). Bought a paper nearly ever day there... usually the Evening Standard, and occasionally The Times. Always The Sunday Times. Why? I had to commute to UCL from my flat just north of Finchley Road tube station, and the Evening Standard especially was formatted perfectly for such a ride, either on the bus or the Underground.

So I really think, if transportation has anything to do with the issue, it's public vs. private, not rail vs. bus.

As for The Sunday Times? Just good stuff, a quality paper — and back then I felt I had the time to read the whole thing and clip out interesting stories to mail to my folks back home. Not so much anymore — I am convinced that technology, which was supposed to make it easier for us to complete our tasks so we'd have more leisure time, just makes it easier for people to demand more of us, and leisure time remains low. I'm sure people have been saying that since fire was invented, and that this isn't even really supposed to be the point of technology, but...

Anyway, as to the point of the original piece, yes, I do look forward to riding the rails, especially the elevated portions. I used to ride the Philadelphia El up to the old Bridge-Pratt station to catch the bus to visit my aunt in the Far Northeast, and saw parts of the city I never once set foot in, but felt I knew very well. I expect to be able to rediscover a lot about my hometown this way. Thanks for the piece.

Posted Thu, Jul 23, 6:06 p.m. Inappropriate

As a transit advocate and long time supporter of the light rail project, I'm glad this project is finally open and I'm glad people are so thrilled with it. This is perhaps the only light rail line that is going to the airport as part of the original plan. Granted, Sept 11th caused a 6 month delay but most lines don't even come close to their airports on the first line, not even Portland. So this line was done right in that respect. I'm sure the folks in Georgetown are kicking themselves for not allowing light rail to their neighborhood. The question has now changed from who is fighting against light rail to who is fighting FOR light rail, a welcome change.

Now that I live in New York City I won't have a chance to use light rail except when I visit Seattle. But when I visit, I'll be happy to take light rail from the airport. I also was lucky enough to be the 1st passenger on the 1st train on the 1st day of revenue service on Monday, July 20th at the Tukwilla station. Me and a friend arrived at the station at 5:00am in time for the 5:18am train that left Tukwilla for Westlake. It was a memorable experience as the moon was out and sun had not risen yet. Me and a friend explored the beautiful artworks at the station out there. All of the stations have some pretty impressive art pieces that make the stations alot more interesting. I hope they endure as time goes on.

Great article, Mossback.

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