When it comes to wayfinding design and the million details that help people make their way to, through and around the city and region, we're average at best. Mostly, we rest on "workmanlike" execution instead of achieving clear functional excellence when it comes to route-finding, visitor information and the like.
Broad brush, for sure, but here's a case in point: getting from the airport to downtown Seattle on Sound Transit's multi-billion dollar train line. Put oneself in the spot of a fresh arrival to Seattle and it appears that neither Sound Transit nor the Port of Seattle have given systemic thought to how to make the experience effortless, given the disconnected, uncoordinated and poorly designed user information experience (see slideshow).
Returning home from a holiday trip by airline, we opted for taking the Sound Transit train from Sea-Tac to our stop in Mount Baker. It wasn't the first time so we knew the drill, but this time I put myself in the mind of someone who hadn't done it before — a tourist, visitor or local — who wanted to get from the airport to downtown quickly, cheaply and easily after staggering off a long flight.
It was ridiculously unclear.
First contact point: the signage leaving the airport terminal. You can find your baggage or a taxi or even a limo on these signs if you'd like, but there is zero indication that a "Train to Seattle" even exists. If you're an insider (perhaps you sit on Sound Transit's board of directors or already have an Orca card swimming in your pocket), then you'll know the insider code: "Link Light Rail" is our insidery way of saying "Train to Seattle." By the way, note the difference between a "Downtown Airporter" and "Scheduled Airporters" — if you're into airporting — because the sign insists they are in different places. Is that connected to the person who will check in your luggage for you?
Next up, leaving the skybridge to the parking garage, a friendly stick-on sign from Sound Transit. A clue! Link Light Rail goes to Seattle, indeed. How often? How much? How to decide whether to take it or something else before you leave the building? No clue. This sign does look like the Night Train — there's two different "last" times listed, both headed north, and damn, they are hours from now. When does it run during the day? How often? Did we miss that sign someplace?
Take a stab and walk down that long outdoor pathway anyway, through the parking garage. Look, a signpost up ahead ... a high-tech-looking readerboard, all amber and mission-control-y. Will it reveal more? Well, there's the time and a message... "Welcome to Sea-Tac Airport." OK. But I'm walking out of the airport, not into it, and I'm still kind of interested to know if there is a next train. And when it might be leaving. And whether I am even going toward a place that I want to be. But, that was a cool sign-thingy and I'm glad it wanted to say hello.
Persist in your path, new visitor, and you will be rewarded by a station, and some ticket machines, and some escalators to a platform — and trains! Victory is within grasp. There are two trains waiting, two tracks, and not much clue which one is leaving next. Opting for the one with more people in it seems the best bet, so pile on and peek at the map inside.
Where is Seattle? Does this thing even go downtown? The word Seattle doesn't even appear on the signs on board the trains! There appear to be canoes in a place called Tukwila and both Rainier Beach and Columbia City look to be bird refuges of some sort, according to the cutesy-to-the-point-of-random icons. Wait it out to the end of the line and perhaps you'll be closer to DOWNTOWN SEATTLE? There is a University Street — is that near the UW? Hmmm, a place called Westlake — is that by Bellevue or Lake Union?
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