Double-tall buses: sitting pretty

Community Transit, serving north of Seattle, has made the smart move of buying sleek double-decker commuter buses. The ride is thrilling, and the views are stunning.

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Boarding a new Community Transit double-decker.

Community Transit, serving north of Seattle, has made the smart move of buying sleek double-decker commuter buses. The ride is thrilling, and the views are stunning.

By now, most people who have spent time in rush hour within downtown Seattle or on I-5 have noticed the big new double-decker buses lumbering along. Streamlined and gloss white, they are a recent addition to the fleet of Community Transit. Over a year ago, CT bought a couple of dozen of these big behemoths. But it took a while in order to comply with newly adopted federal funding requirements of “Buy America.”

The stylish, vehicles formally called Enviro500’s are 14 feet high and 42 feet long; they seat 49 on the upper level and 28 downstairs, with more room for standees. They are built by Alexander Dennis Ltd, based in the United Kingdom. Alexander Dennis is a bus manufacturing company that has been in business for many decades, albeit under other names. We are one of only a handful of places in the U.S. with these unusual vehicles, but the company’s North American market is growing.

For a few hours each day, downtown Seattle resembles bigger cities like Hong Kong or London  where many different types of public transport jostle about, disgorging or accepting passengers. CT has given the unique buses the clever name of “Double Talls,” after one of our most popular caffeinated regional drinks.

I was determined to experience riding the Euro-styled bus, but alas they are now mainly for express routes serving locations further north. (Community Transit serves the Seattle/Shoreline/Everett corridor.) A visit to a friend who lives across the Snohomish County line finally provided the chance. It took a little doing to find the correct stops as they only pull up to a handful of locations on Second and Fourth Avenues. And they are only used on certain routes and at certain times. But with some CT website research and a little luck I found myself stepping onto Route 413.

I must confess a childlike glee in being one of the first to board and making a dash up the narrow staircase to nab the very front seat on the upper level. There I found reclining seats facing a huge wrap-around window, giving an illusion of sitting in a raised sedan chair above the fray of the bustling crowds and cars below.  What a vantage point! I’m not sure any other moving seat traveling on city streets quite matches the airy height and sweeping view. Even the cabs of semi truck trailers are not so highly elevated. Streaking down Second Avenue on such a perch was quite the visual thrill.

The route took us to a downtown street I have rarely ever been on — the one-block-long Terrace Street, next to an elegant wedge-shaped building that was shoehorned a century ago into a triangular parcel along Yesler Street.  After picking up a few more passengers there, the bus turned onto Fifth where an exclusive “contra flow” bus lane leads to the I-5 tunnel entrance under the Municipal Tower.

Normally, trees along bus routes have been trimmed to allow the unimpeded passage of buses. But the trees on Fifth have not yet been “topiaried” into overhanging canopies. So every few yards, another clump of branches and leaves would smack into the glass and scrape down the length of the bus. Other regular commuters barely noticed; this being my first time the sight of tree branches heading towards my face at high speed was a tad disconcerting.

But that was nothing once the bus dove into the express lanes. The concrete ceiling above loomed a mere few inches above my head; dark, heavy concrete rushed by at a fast clip. Just when I was thinking they surely must have followed some exacting specifications for clearance, up ahead was an even lower ceiling. For a second, I recalled the hapless bus driver who followed GPS instructions right into the low stone bridge at the Arboretum a few years ago. Yikes!

I’ve been in double-decker buses before, mainly the cousins of these that ply various cities, giving commercial tours, some without tops. But those amble along slowly, meandering along streets at a leisurely pace. By contrast, in the northbound express lanes, it felt like the driver was trying out for the annual race at Monte Carlo. But inside a hallway.

The elevated seat afforded views off the I-5 bridge over the ship canal the likes of which I had never seen. Adjoining neighborhoods and the waterway all were visible. The scenery zipped by so quickly it was not unlike the rapidly moving “rush” that is induced by the Thalys trains in Europe. There is certainly some entertainment value to well-designed modes of transportation.

One interesting thing about these “Double Tall” buses is, like the articulated buses that Metro operates, they carry a much greater occupancy with little added operating costs. But the long, bending buses so fluid on suburban routes often cause traffic bottlenecks in downtown as their rear ends can stick out into the intersection during congested periods of the day. I’ve noticed this occurring with increasing frequency on Second Ave. as buses try to cross at Columbia and get stopped by the queue ahead. In contrast, the double-deckers take up no more length than a typical coach.

Community Transit was smart enough to test rider behavior in advance of making a big commitment to purchase more. They were concerned that people would take longer boarding, given the stair case and larger capacity, thereby slowing down all traffic. But that concern was not borne out. Passengers figured it out quite quickly.

While riding the 413 a question occurred to me. Why doesn’t one of our fine, well-established companies here add a line of buses to its products? I’m not referring to Boeing, but rather the Bellevue-based PACCAR. The company puts out several brands of expertly crafted trucks in both the U.S. and Europe. It built tanks during World War II. Originally, it manufactured railroad cars in an expansive plant in Renton. Surely, its creative engineering and marketing divisions could design and fabricate state-of-the-art buses right here. That would employ U.S. citizens and help re-start the economy. Until someone like PACCAR gets with it, transit agencies throughout the country have no choice but to send purchase orders overseas — despite federal law.

For now, only a few hundred people living in Snohomish County are fortunate enough to ride these stylish vehicles. But perhaps Metro will note their advantages and we will see more locally. Their height might pose issues with routes in Seattle that are electrified. But suburban routes should be a piece of cake. Or rather, a buss on the cheek.    


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).