Walking the light rail line

Some impressions on transit, development, and change in Seattle's Rainier Valley, Mossback's youthful stomping ground.
Crosscut archive image.

Light rail: 'smart' planning emphasizes putting people near transit

Some impressions on transit, development, and change in Seattle's Rainier Valley, Mossback's youthful stomping ground.

I spent some time recently prowling around the new Sound Transit light rail line in the Rainier Valley (service starts July 18) on foot and by car. I'm interested in the changes to this area. These are some of the stomping grounds of my youth and I still find the Valley one of the most fascinating parts of the city.

Larry Lange at PostGlobe has a good preview of the coming of rail (again) to the valley. One historical point worth remembering: the Valley was shaped by the original streetcar lines put in over a century ago. "Transit-oriented development" is nothing new. My old neighborhood, Mount Baker, was largely shaped by transit-oriented development, thankfully integrated with some of the Olmsted plan too. My family shopped at neighborhood grocers and attended local schools such as John Muir Elementary and Franklin High School that were the result of this development. The new light rail line will revive a tradition of rail shaping the city.

A few impressions:

The big, elevated Mount Baker station at the intersection of Martin Luther King Way and Rainier Avenue is attractive and surprisingly large, with lots of space underneath. On a hot summer day, it could make a nice shady street-level hangout assuming there are espresso stands and kiosks set up. On rainy days, it'll provide some shelter. Speaking of shelter, I've spotted homeless sleeping in the neighborhood, and that's not new. Even back in the '60s there were encampments in the woods along nearby Cheasty Blvd.

Despite crosswalks and a pedestrian overpass, the whole Valley is surprisingly pedestrian unfriendly and you can see why planners have it in their sights on re-development. There seems like a lot of room for new housing and mixed-use development along parts of Rainier and MLK here (though they'll have to work around the cluster of churches that are tucked in here), but a lot of basics are missing. The traffic volumes are high, there's evidence of crime and drug dealing nearby (e.g. in alleys), and some streets of the adjacent neighborhoods still don't have sidewalks.

The rail line runs at the surface level shortly before it meets Rainier Avenue, then elevates and parallels Rainier before turning West into the Beacon Hill tunnel near McClellan Street. I stood under the elevated tracks as a train went over and was impressed with how quiet it was. In fact, all the way along the line the trains seemed generally no louder than normal traffic. That's apparently not true everywhere: folks in Tukwila are complaining about screeching train wheels. But I couldn't hear anything like that. I happen to live within earshot of a highway and am used to the steady swooshing of urban traffic, but my sense is that noise won't be much of an issue along MLK.

I tried racing the trains along MLK to see who could make the best time. The trains did pretty well. They're still playing with the timing of the lights, and traffic volumes weren't too heavy when I was there. I was able to do the 35 mph speed limit much of the way, between stoplights. The train matched that and went faster on some stretches. I would pass it when it stopped, but it had a way of catching up. For people headed downtown, the clip seemed pretty good (granted, the train wasn't yet loading and unloading passengers). Fewer stations means it stops much less frequently than the buses running alongside on MLK.

The downside is that the rail stations are so far apart (between Othello Station and Columbia City, I clocked 1.5 miles, from Columbia City to Rainier Ave. it's 1.2 miles). In other cases, stations are a long walk from where most of the people live in the neighborhood being served (there's some concern, for example, about Columbia City station's lack of proximity to its business district).

Some people who live, say, between stations, will likely find rail not very convenient and will stick with the buses or bikes, which also make sense for shorter hops along the Valley. No extra parking at stations is being provided. So, while light rail has an appeal as a downtown shuttle, there will still be a need for taking the rubber-tire local. Hopping a bus for a short ride to the nearest station will work for some people, but many folks will not be willing to walk 3/4 of a mile or more to a station, and commuters will have to add their walking time into their commute calculations.

For all the talk about walkability and bike-friendliness, I was struck by one major thing about the corridor: how car-centric it is, and how few people are visibly walking or riding bikes. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to see many pedestrians on the streets along MLK, and few even in new, denser areas like New Holly. MLK is very car oriented: a drive-thru Starbucks, McDonalds, Safeway, car washes, auto body shops, gas stations. Next to the Rainier Ave. station: A Firestone Tire service center.

Much of the commercial and retail development has been small strip malls, which are packed with ethnic shops and eateries. In this part of town, signs are often in script that English speakers cannot read, and small mom & pop businesses are auto-dependent. Along a stretch of Rainier very close to the station, my old neighborhood bike shop is now a BBQ joint, and there is one car lot or body shop after another, and lots of chain-link fence. Add in exhaust fumes and no, it's not a pedestrian paradise.

Get off the main drag into the neighborhoods between Rainier and MLK, like Brighton Beach or Courtland, and you'll see lots of small, often run down, single family homes with multiple cars parked in the driveways, or even on lawns and parking strips. There are tricked-out vehicles and people working on cars too. And in some upscale neighborhoods like Mount Baker, which is very walkable in theory, you see few people actually using the sidewalks. (The parking strips are another matter: I found several urban farmers growing wonderful corn crops!)

I suspect that light rail will make converts of those people who find that walking saves time. But my guess is that many people living near the rail line will be largely unaffected in their habits for quite some time: cars will still be the easiest way to get around, even a necessity for many. The transit-oriented, high-density development will bring in people specifically hoping for a more rail-centric lifestyle. In other words, the corridor will eventually import many of its riders and enthusiasts. A subset of Seattleites are ready and eager to give up their cars, but many are not, or can't.

My father, who grew up in Mount Baker in the 1920s and '30s, used to tell me about taking the streetcar to school at the University of Washington or to work at his father's factory on Harbor Island. In my time, we often took the electric bus (the 10 Mount Baker) downtown. But whether by car or bus, downtown seemed a world away. One reason: it was pretty much invisible from where we lived. You could see Franklin High from Boren, but you couldn't see downtown from Franklin.

Not true now. Standing outside Fire Station #30, slated to be torn down and replaced with a much larger one, near the intersection of Mount Baker Blvd. and Rainier Ave., you can see maybe a dozen downtown office high-rises sticking up over a far greenbelt. Back when I lived in Mt. Baker, the tallest building you could see was the old Marine Hospital (now Amazon/PacMed) which sits, perched like an old hill fortress on north Beacon Hill. The view of those nearby towers is startling because my last real memory of the world from that angle dates back to the early 1970s. I had a Seattle version of what most Seattleites experienced in the 1980s when they looked across that lake and said, "Holy crap, Bellevue has skyscrapers!"

Now downtown seems more present, more visible, more connected to its once remote suburban provinces. The new light rail line will make that connection more tangible. The question is will the planners, developers and policy makers in those downtown high rises be able to track how things unfold from their heady, and often theoretical, heights? After all, light rail has been sold less as a mass transit system than as an urban re-developer, a difference-engine, a change-maker. We won't know if it "works" until it has had an impact on how we live and where. Many of the tests for success or failure are economic and sociological. The best view will be from the ground as rail reintegrates in a city it helped to shape in the first place.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.