I recently took a trip to Seattle with my best friend from back east. I have been twice before, but for no longer than a couple of hours. This time, we spent three days, two nights in downtown and played tourist the whole time. Of course, the only thing I was there for was to check out the public transit and see how it measured up.
Being versed in the transit world, I have never really heard or seen anything special about Seattle's transit other than that awful video of the bus sliding down the hill this past winter. So my expectations were little to none. However, before the trip, we tried to plan as much as possible when we thought we might need to use the transit. This proved to be difficult over the internet since it turns out that Seattle's transit is actually comprised of a number of separate agencies. So, that right there just made the task seem a bit daunting.
Fortunately, we stayed in a really nice hotel in Downtown Seattle that was relatively close to everything we planned to do and see. Therefore, we walked the majority of the time. I forced my friend to at least ride the Link light rail just once, just to say we had done it.
Seattle has a pretty impressive transit system, despite the different modes being comprised of several agencies. Sound Transit operates the Express Buses, the two Link light rail lines, and the two Sounder commuter rail lines. In the downtown core, the Link and a good portion of the express buses travel through an underground tunnel. Seattle is well known for its historical underground, which I assume has produced this neat feature for the city. You can read more about Seattle's underground here or go on the Underground Tour if you're in town. I highly recommend the corny, but informative tour.
Anyway, the transit. We decided to ride the Link light rail on the way back from the Seattle Center to our hotel, assuming it was free in the downtown zone. We were told by the concierge at the hotel that transit inside the downtown zone was free, so you would assume light rail, like Portland's MAX, would be free inside the downtown zone. Not the case. The Link costs $1.50 for the zone we were in. Luckily, I happened to have found an Orca card on the ground earlier that day that still had a $7 remaining balance. Turns out, just the buses are free in the downtown zone. Ah well. It was light rail! In a tunnel! The touristy thing to do would be to ride it, right? So we did.
The even MORE touristy thing to do is to ride the monorail. The Seattle Monorail was built during the World Exposition in 1962. And trust me, it is very 1962-ish. It's privately operated and travels between the Seattle Center and the Westlake Center Station in downtown. Did I mention it costs $4.00 and only goes between two stops? Needless to say, we didn't ride this. We just walked below its concrete pylons and stopped at various donut shops along the way. I know, very classy.
I know this is somewhat of a scattered review of Seattle's transit. We did not take any ferries or ride any buses after all. I would enjoy spending more time there and venturing outside of the downtown core to see more of the city. However, to me, the major problem I felt was a major lack of communication. Things were simply unclear. There was confusion about where stations were, what mode of transit operated in these stations, what fare card or payment to use, etc etc. It was discouraging in some ways, at least for the acting tourists that we were. A simple but challenging suggestion might be to do a little better marketing and commucation for the system and try to make things more seamless.